The notion of a Top 40 list started in 1951 with radio. It blossomed with Casey Kasem’s “American Top 40” program in 1970 and carries on decades later with host Ryan Seacrest. I started as a staff music critic for the Star Tribune’s previous incarnation on Sept. 1, 1975.
In the 40 years since, this critic has seen more than 7,000 concerts, conducted 5,000-plus interviews and listened to countless records. So on this day it seems fitting to offer my own Top 40 — well, four lists of 10, each covering a different aspect of all the music I’ve experienced.
Many big names have called, but only Miles Davis hung up on me when asked about “young jazz cats” — so there wasn’t enough there to qualify as a memorable interview. As for the best live acts I’ve seen, my beloved Rolling Stones didn’t make the cut because they’ve been too inconsistent. Of course, ask me next week and a critic might change his faves. For now, take a trip through four decades of music with me.
10 Greatest Live Performers
1. Bruce Springsteen. Passionate and purposeful, he performs every show like it will be his last. Always gives 200 percent — and has for 40 years and counting.
2. Prince. The most complete rock star ever, he can be beyond dazzling onstage when he wants to be.
3. U2. The Irish quartet combines the passion and purposefulness of Springsteen with an unwavering commitment to innovation in staging and visuals. They reinvent video and lighting greatness with every tour.
4. Tom Waits. He’s a storyteller who seems like a character in his tales. He’s a vaudevillian with cheap jokes and impeccable timing. He’s an actor who understands gestures big and small, with an innate sense of rhythm and drama and a hipster’s knowledge of music. He weaves it all together in a most beguiling way.
5. Al Green. The sexy soul singer-turned-right reverend walks the line between Saturday night and Sunday morning, always working himself into a frenzied state of ecstasy that is romantic or spiritual — or probably both.
6. James Brown. The Godfather of Soul’s sense of showmanship (good gawd, what moves), craft (his bands were well-drilled) and relentless funk (neither he nor the fans could stop dancing) thrilled audiences and influenced Prince, Michael Jackson and others.
7. Green Day. No one brings the urgency the way these hyperkinetic pop-punkers do. They deliver exhilarating, exhausting and provocative concerts.
8. Bette Midler. The Divine Miss M sells schmaltz, shtick and silliness — and songs, in various styles from Broadway and boogie woogie to big ballads and parodies. Her concerts cover the full emotional spectrum. You laugh, you cry, you think, you smile, you dance, you laugh harder, you go home happy.
9. Kanye West. Not only is his musical presentation visionary and stylish, but he performs with riveting intensity. More breathtaking than Michael Jackson.
10. Pink. You’re not only awed because the acrobatic singer is the biggest daredevil and most accomplished athlete in pop music but because she is also a powerful, heartfelt vocalist who seems so real, so vulnerable, so much a champion for underdogs.
10 Most Memorable Interviews
1. Paul McCartney, 1976. Backstage after a Wings show in St. Paul, I was distracted by him passing me a joint and by the gripping excitement of an overtime NBA Finals game on the dressing room TV as we talked about the Beatles. Oh, I didn’t inhale.
2. Bob Dylan, 1986. I finagled a backstage pass at his show in Berkeley, Calif., and hung out with him for two days. He told me to put away my tape recorder. Then the next day he wanted to make sure I had my tape recorder so I could listen to an advance tape of his new album.
3. Alice Cooper, 1979. He took me for $35 in poker on his private plane and felt guilty about it. So he gave me a two-hour interview and then insisted I perform with him that night in Evansville, Ind. — dressed as a cardinal for one song, “Inmates (We’re All Crazy),” along with his road crew in various costumes. Alice was so impressed he asked me to reprise my role in the Twin Cities.
4. Willie Nelson, 1979. He smoked a joint while watching pro wrestling on TV, then we went for a jog. And that night in Washington, D.C., two of President Jimmy Carter’s key advisers — chief of staff Hamilton Jordan and press secretary Jody Powell — rode on Willie’s bus with us to the concert. The White House heavyweights got hammered and made dubious comments about Russian emissaries attending the concert — and Willie just smiled.
5. Prince, 2013. His publicist e-mailed at 3 p.m. and asked if I could be in Denver for that night’s concerts. I arrived between Prince’s two shows, but he was too busy to talk — until 4 a.m. We chatted till 6:20 a.m. and I rushed back to my hotel and wrote down everything I could remember. (He doesn’t allow notebooks or tape recorders.) The room service guy accused me of being a neat freak for making my bed. Um, I never slept — and had a morning flight to catch.
6. Bette Midler, 1983. Her publicist told me I had five minutes to convince her backstage in Chicago to do an interview with me. I extended greetings from a Star Tribune colleague who had gone to high school with her in Hawaii. She burst into an impression of my colleague and said I’d get the interview — three days later in Cleveland.
7. Al Green, 1979. When I arrived at his Memphis studio complex, they said he was at his church. After I met him at his church, I followed his speeding Cadillac through the streets to the studio and then he ignored me for 40 minutes while I sat in his presence. After I asked a question he liked, he declared that the Lord had sent the right person to him. He warmed up and turned on his charm.
8. Tony Bennett, 2006. Dressed in a suit and tie the morning after a concert, he was warm, gracious and generous in conversation at his Minneapolis hotel. Later that evening, he invited me to his soundcheck at Target Center (I rode in his limo), where he introduced me to his friends: “Do you know Miss Lang? Mr. Costello? Miss Krall?”
9. Taylor Swift, 2008. We’d hit it off on several phone interviews, so when I walked on her bus at the We Fest in Detroit Lakes, I extended my hand, but she gave me a big hug. At the end of the interview, she offered a handshake, not a hug. Apparently, she was surprised by all the questions about politics and the upcoming presidential election. But when she called me a few weeks later, she greeted me not with hello but with: “Guess what I did yesterday? I voted by absentee ballot.”
10. Jesse Johnson, 1985. When the former guitarist with the Time released his first solo album on A&M Records, he rented a limo to drive us around Minneapolis while we did the interview. He always wanted to feel like a star in his own town.
10 unforgettable Minnesota characters
1. Steve McClellan. For nearly three decades, this cranky, cantankerous curmudgeon ran First Avenue, making it into an internationally known nightclub. He wasn’t easy to get along with, but you couldn’t argue with his dedication and taste.
2. Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. Jam speaks in voluminous paragraphs, Lewis in preacher-like one-liners. With only a handshake, they split their business proceeds 50/50 no matter which of them writes the song. The producers, who have 16 No. 1 pop hits to their names, may have moved to L.A., but they’ve remained Minneapolitans at heart.
3. Curtiss A. Onstage, he commands your attention whether playing his own music, his annual John Lennon marathon or his Hank Williams tribute. He not only has an encyclopedic knowledge of those aforementioned stars, but he knows music and pop-culture trivia and can talk entertainingly for hours, frequently delivering a priceless zinger.
4. Leigh Kamman. He was the calming, sonorous, all-knowing voice of jazz on Twin Cities radio for six decades. I learned so much from him and fell asleep to his all-night program for years. He died in 2014 at age 92.
5. Dick Shapiro. Has there ever been another Twin Cities promoter who was so over-the-top theatrical and outrageous? He should have been onstage. “I have everything necessary to be a star — the ego, the temperament, the expensive tastes,” he once said, “except I have no talent.” He died in 1996 at age 50.
6. Peter Jesperson. Whether running Oarfolkjokeopus record shop, operating Twin/Tone Records or managing the Replacements, he was the most enthusiastic champion of good music and good songs I’ve known. His taste was spot on. He’s doing the same at New West Records in Los Angeles.
7. Dessa. A rapper, poet, educator and media darling, this multidimensional supernova has become the face of Twin Cities hip-hop.
8. Jeanne Arland Peterson. For this singing piano player, no gig was too big (Paul Whiteman at Met Stadium or the Women Who Cook in Russia) or too small (playing organ at a Twins game or piano in a nursing home). As a widowed mother, she became the Twin Cities’ first lady of jazz, raising five children who became professional musicians. She died in 2013 at 91.
9. Hardcore Dave. Walking around with his plastic bags filled with music essentials, this superfan attended show after show — always by hard-rock/heavy metal bands — for years and years. You’d see this quirky looking guy in a ball cap at every gig. Hardcore, indeed. He retired in 2005.
10. LeeAnn Weimar. As a publicist, artist-relations rep and promoter at the Electric Fetus, First Avenue, We Fest and Hennepin theaters (Orpheum, State, Pantages), she was delightfully difficult (it was a put-on M.O. that was often hilarious) and devoted to the music and the people who created it. Music and musicians never had a better friend. Now retired.
10 essential Minnesota albums
1. Bob Dylan, “Blood on the Tracks” (1975). Written at his Minnesota farm with half the songs rerecorded in Minneapolis after the original New York sessions, this may be the Minnesota icon’s “most Minnesota” album. It’s certainly one of the best breakup albums ever recorded and arguably among his three best.
2. The Suburbs, “In Combo” (1980). Their quirky, jerky, danceable modern rock was ahead of its time. Much of the vintage ’Burbs music on this LP, such as “Cows,” still sounded fresh and current in the ’90s and ’00s.
3. The Time, “What Time Is It?” (1982). The second album by Prince’s protégés defines what people regard as the Minneapolis Sound — that synth-funk with a groove. Think “The Walk” and “777-9311.”
4. Prince, “Purple Rain” (1984). No other album quite says Minneapolis like the one that put us on the international music map. For this Oscar- and Grammy-winning movie soundtrack, Prince abandoned the Minneapolis Sound for a broader, more experimental palette of rock, pop and soul.
5. The Replacements, “Let It Be” (1984). An inspired and inspiring balance between carefree punk-rock and well-crafted songs penned by Paul Westerberg. You can’t go wrong with 1985’s “Tim,” either. The ’Mats were the missing link between the Who and Pearl Jam.
6. Hüsker Dü, “Zen Arcade” (1984). This post-punk trio got alluringly experimental, embracing pop, acoustic, psychedelia and even melody on this breakthrough album. Very influential in underground circles.
7. The Jayhawks, “Tomorrow the Green Grass” (1995). With their harmonies and twang-rock sound, the band with co-frontmen Gary Louris and Mark Olson laid down the blueprint for Americana music and spoke to Minnesota’s country-loving heritage. Contains the classic single “Blue.”
8. Koerner, Ray & Glover, “One Foot in the Groove” (1996). Having made their most important albums in the 1960s, they were Minnesota’s most authentic white bluesmen. They paved the way for the blues and R&B sounds that defined the Twin Cities with the likes of Willie Murphy, Lamont Cranston and Jonny Lang.
9. Atmosphere, “When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That [expletive] Gold” (2008). Hip-hop has been a prominent force on the Minnesota scene for the past two decades, with many impressive contributors including Brother Ali, Doomtree, P.O.S., Allan Kingdom and Lizzo. But nothing says Minneapolis hip-hop more than the long-lived Atmosphere. Rapper Slug may not be the most political MC in town, but he’s a storyteller who fills his compelling tales with detail and characters — and here with more musical range and nuance.
10. Peter Ostroushko, “The Mando Chronicles” (2012). In this Land of 10,000 Pickers, we’ve had some great ones, including Tim Sparks, Dean Magraw and Hall of Famer Leo Kottke, whose best albums pre-date my time at the Star Tribune. So let’s give a shout out to Ostroushko, the mandolinist/fiddler who was a regular on “A Prairie Home Companion” and remains a versatile world-class player who covers everything from folk and bluegrass to world and classical on this epic album.