So brave, and so bold
Can we talk about collaboration? Specifically, the great duets and recorded pairings that yield an unexpected result? It may be a crossover (country with R&B, a mash-up punk anthem vs. a hip-hop track), but, more often, it’s about human connections. What made Hall & Oates the powerhouse they were, or Simon & Garfunkel? What makes the talents of Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton seize our hearts with “Islands in the Stream”? When major stars make a duet together, like “Ebony & Ivory,” “The Girl Is Mine,” or Taylor Swift’s recent collaboration with The Civil Wars, “Safe & Sound,” people listen. But I think truly great duets are a mix of personality, songwriting and good luck.
Donny Hathaway & Roberta Flack
A classic example of two incredible voices, they created a series of lovely singles in the 1970s until Hathaway’s untimely death in ’79. These Howard University classmates had an incredible intuition for ballads, with songs like “Where Is the Love?” and “The Closer I Get to You” reaching the deepest parts of our souls. Their cover of “You’ve Got a Friend” will make you smile. It’s more than slick marketing or talent — it’s the sound of friendship, empathy and balance.
Run-D.M.C. & Aerosmith
When the anarchic, hilarious video and faux-documentary for “Walk This Way” hit the airwaves in 1986, I was hooked. I just couldn’t get enough. I didn’t realize that Run-D.M.C. was one of the most trailblazing artists in early hip-hop. Even though the serpentine Aerosmith had already had a huge hit with the song in 1975, the Run-D.M.C. version reached a massive audience. It also helped Aerosmith breathe new life into their careers.
The video is still wildly entertaining. “Accidentally” forced to rehearse next to each other, the bands negotiate their flimsy practice space walls (to hell with ’em!), resulting in a hulk-tastic Steven Tyler busting a hole in one … just in time to belt out his verses. Joe Perry savagely chimes in with the epic guitar line. Run-D.M.C. returns the favor by joining them on stage (which mysteriously appears, as does the audience) to triumphantly finish the song. Many great rock/rap collaborations would follow, but “Walk This Way” was first.
It’s important to note that the legendary Rick Rubin produced this song. It would take a huge amount of space to list his accomplishments; Rubin is one of the most sought-after producers in the world. His early work with LL Cool J, Public Enemy and Slayer showed an unusual breadth of style, and his work with Tom Petty, Red Hot Chili Peppers, even Adele, have all yielded great albums. This also brings us to one of the most intuitive and satisfying team-ups in music history … the American Recordings.
Johnny Cash, Rick Rubin & Will Oldham
Johnny Cash joined forces with Rubin in hopes of moving away from current trends in pop-country music. Largely recorded with a single guitar in Rubin’s living room, the LP was a huge success and Grammy winner. They would continue this healthy collaboration for seven albums, featuring dozens of cover versions of their favorite artists. On the third outing, American III: Solitary Man, they worked with Louisville’s Will Oldham (aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy) on a cover of his song “I See a Darkness.” Whenever luck/planning makes songs like these come to life, we can see the weird workings of the musical universe. In 2006, Oldham, working with Chicago’s excellent Tortoise, released a great album of covers called The Brave and the Bold, which includes songs by Elton John, Devo, and Lungfish.
Pluramon & Julee Cruise
Pluramon, the ongoing digital “band” curated by Marcus Schmickler, harnesses tons of creative potential and the free-flow of ideas. Working with experimenters like Jaki Liebezeit from Can and Matmos, Pluramon makes music that sounds almost like a band. Recently, Pluramon has released two albums with Julee Cruise (best known for her work on the “Twin Peaks” soundtracks). It was a pleasant discovery to find “The Monstrous Surplus,” a blitzed-out blast of beautiful noise and saturated guitars. Highly recommended.
Feel free to email your favorite team-ups. I’d love to hear them … and to share them in a future column.
Jason Noble is a Louisville musician who has performed with the bands Shipping News and Rachel’s, among others.