A Considered Look at Every Inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Part 4

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a place that I find, as an institution, vexing. The actual, physical hall of fame – the pyramidal building on the lake in Cleveland – is pretty cool, but it is spoken and thought of often as an intangible – as a sort of arbitrating body on the worthiness of the body of rock musicians. My thought, for many years upon surveying lists 1 and the like was to think that they have about a fifty percent success rate for getting it anything like right.

But what if it doesn’t? Previously I listened to and considered each of the best-selling albums of all time, and learned that they were considerably more of a mixed bag than I had thought 2. So what if the inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are the same sort of deal?

And so it’s time to dive in and take a look at what the nominees and their enshrinement actually are.

Click the links for Part 1,Part 2, and Part 3 of this series.

Class of 1990

Hank Ballard

WHO HE IS: He’s a real early rock and roll dude from Detroit. He wrote “The Twist.”

WHY HE’S HERE: The class of 1990 is not one of the R&RHOF’s more explicable classes. I guess they felt they had to get every early rock and roll guy in there? I have no idea, honestly.

AND…?: I suppose there’s nothing wrong with his music, as such. “The Twist” is a pretty good song, although his isn’t even if the version that got super-famous 3, and that’s about it, except for his early stake on the claim of “first.”

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Not really..

Bobby Darin

WHO HE IS: If your memory works like mine, he’s the guy that sang the song from Sesame Street with the elephant. If your memory does not work this way, please be assured that watching this baby elephant get a bath is basically the best way to enjoy Bobby Darin’s music, which aged poorly.

WHY HE’S HERE: Well, he was super-famous, and also people that like him love him, even to this day 4. It’s also hard for me not to think that, because his success is tied to Ahmet Ertegun (he was one of Atlantic’s first huge successes), it improved his chances in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

AND…?: There’s not really much else to say. He was a good singer, made a bunch of hits, people liked them. If they sound a bit like museum pieces now, then that’s probably not any fault of his. “Mack the Knife” is still pretty great. This is probably also the place to mention that his original songwriting partner was Don Kirshner, of Rock Concert fame.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure, why not?

The Four Seasons

WHO THEY ARE: This is another vocal group built around a constant (Frankie Valli) 5 and whatever hired-guns are available to sing. They were popular for a long time.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: Well, they exist historically as a way to say that the Beach Boys were not the only American band to be famous during the British Invasion, which is technically correct. And they are very much like a zero-ideas version of the Beach Boys 6.

AND…?: Sometimes the fact that a band was popular is not ascribable to their ability, but rather to their circumstance. It happens a lot, and it’s something that the R&RHOF folks would do better to keep in mind while they’re casting around for people to throw into the mix. I do happen to say this the year that Bon Jovi got inducted. Isn’t that an odd coincidence? 7

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: No.

Four Tops

WHO THEY ARE: The men who brought Holland-Dozier-Holland songs to life in all their velvety, buttery glory.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: Leaving aside my usual grumblings about R&B not actually being rock and roll (which you can see in all sorts of places previously), since by 1990 we have firmly established that the nominating body doesn’t care, they’re here because they were the primary mouthpieces for Holland-Dozier-Holland (see below) during the songwriting team’s time on Motown. During this period they were the greatest act on Motown records, and if they failed to reach those heights in subsequent years, well, so did almost everyone else, so there’s no crime there. If that’s not enough, they also sang backup on other vocal groups’ Motown singles 8.

AND…?: They were versatile, capable, looked great onstage, and each of them could sing the lights out of a place. “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” is a triumph of not only R&B, but human songwriting and performance 9. “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch” and “Baby I Need Your Loving” are nearly as good. They were phenomenal, genuinely.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: with the genre problem caveat established, yes, they deserve to be there.

The Kinks

WHO THEY ARE: One of the last two British Invasion bands (see below for the other) to be inducted.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: They were great, and effectively bridged early-sixties garage rock with late-sixties psychedelia, and covered an enormous amount of ground in between. They may also have been the first band to say “fuck” on a record 10, which is its own kind of rock and roll legacy separate from much of the other stuff.

AND…?: Oh, The Kinks were great. They were at times tremendoulsy great, and they wrote some songs that are beyond incredible. There are some interesting parallels with The Who, one of which being that The Kinks’ albums were almost never as useful or cohesive as their singles, with a couple of exceptions, but they were as great as you’d want when they were great, and that’s enough for me.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Most assuredly

The Platters

WHO THEY ARE: One of the first successful black vocal groups, and another early-fifties crossover-type act.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: I would imagine some combination of an inclusive spirit and a dogged determination to get every fucking fifties vocal group ever to exist into the goddamn building.

AND…?: They’re fine. They’re really nothing special. I would feel better about this if their music were more noteworthy, but honestly. They’re just….not that big a deal.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Probably not, in all honesty.

Simon & Garfunkel

WHO THEY ARE: I mean, it’s right there in the name of the act, right? Paul & Art! Art & Paul!

WHY THEY’RE HERE: They had a tonne of hits, they continued to be a massive sellout touring presence long after their initial breakup, and people love them to the point of head-crushing obsession.

AND…?: I have come, late in my life, to quite like Simon & Garfunkel’s music. That doesn’t have much bearing on their actual quality, but it is a thing. They were good for rock-tinged folk musicians. I don’t know that I could mount a convincing argument that they were rock and roll on any musical basis, but their music had a rock and roll inflection, certainly, and they worked in a rock band’s mien, so I guess it’s close enough. At least they’re better-suited for this than The Platters.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes

The Who

WHO THEY ARE: The other of the last two remaining major British invasion bands (see above)

WHY THEY’RE HERE: They had hits for a long time, they made a bunch of stylistic changes to keep themselves vital, and they were generally the sort of thing you look for in rock stars. More importantly to the evolution of rock and roll, they pioneered a kind of “brutalist maximalism” in their sound, paving the way for increasingly heavier and more aggressive bands. Most hard rock-derived forms of rock music start, more-or-less, with The Who.

AND…?: Despite a crippling inconsistency that would run through their entire career, the high points of The Who’s output are ridiculously high. Like, nigh-untouchable high. They only managed to put their talent to work in the service of an actually-good record every once in a while, but they managed it over a very long period of time, and the best work, stripped to its essence, is everything you could want in a rock band.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes

Charlie Christian

WHO HE IS: A guy who helped move jazz from the swing era into the bop era, and a really impressive guitar player.

WHY HE’S HERE: He was one of the first people 11 to play the guitar as a lead instrument, rather than as another part of the rhythm section. 

AND…?: I think that the “early influences” section of the HOF takes something of too long a view, and I think it comes up every time. Charlie Christian, as a guitar player, has something more of a claim than most of these jazz guys, but he still made music decades before anyone was considering rock and roll, and is actually more accurately described as an influence to the early influences. But of course that isn’t how we do things here, and I suppose there isn’t an argument against him other than the general restructuring stuff.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes

Louis Armstrong

WHO HE IS: The gravelly-voiced trumpeter of “What a Wonderful World” fame.

WHY HE’S HERE: While his music has fuck-all to do with even the earliest forms of rock and roll, and I suppose the argument can be made that Louis Armstrong, as one of America’s first musical celebrities, helped create a kind of template for the “rock star,” which is something.

AND…?: The celebrity angle is pretty much the only argument that can exist, as nothing about his music or the way he plays would have made any real contribution to rock and roll in any meaningful sense. He was famous, though.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: I suppose.

Ma Rainey

WHO SHE IS: Louis Armstrongs sometimes-partner, and a surprisingly (for the time) frequently-recorded blues vocalist.

WHY SHE’S HERE: The Armstrong association? The aforementioned inclusionist spirit? Who knows, honestly.

AND…?: Much like with Louis Armstrong, the problem isn’t that her music is bad or whatever, it’s that it genuinely has nothing to do with rock and roll. It’s too early to have even been an influence on rock and roll. It was, like Armstrong or Christian, an influence to the influences. It’s silly.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Not really

Gerry Goffin & Carole King

WHO THEY ARE: In addition to them writing some of the most irritating songs known to man (“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” “The Loco-Motion”, etc.), they also wrote the horrorshow that is “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)”

WHY THEY’RE HERE: Because there was a period in the nineties when Brill Building songwriters were revered, and Carole King has been a part of the record-selling industry’s hype machine for a long time, and this all comes together here.

AND…?: My own personal tastes aside, these songs (and the Brill Building approach in general) have nothing to do with rock and roll, and I see no reason for their inclusion.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Nope.

Holland-Dozier-Holland

WHO THEY ARE: The songwriters mentioned above in the entry for the Four Tops.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: Because they’re great and wrote great songs.

AND…?: Great great great great great.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes

Class of 1991

LaVern Baker

WHO SHE IS: A fifties R&B singer. You might know “Tweedle Dee,” but most of her actual hits aren’t particularly well known these days.

WHY SHE’S HERE: See, because I’m going to keep beating this horse until it is completely disintegrated, I think that she would be a good inclusion as an early influence: she was popular in the run-up to rock and roll, and delivered her music in a style that had an effect on the way that rock and roll performers played. Perfect early influence material. Instead we end up talking about people who performed twenty years before she did.

AND…?: Pretty good music with a direct effect on rock and roll music. Seems like a pretty good candidate, even if I may never be used to the stupid distinctions they make up there.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure

The Byrds

WHO THEY ARE: The harmonizing folk-rockers most well-known for covering Bob Dylan.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: Because in addition to pioneering folk rock, they are also widely credited with inventing country-rock 12. They had a relentless approach to their own sound, and they also helped pioneer the acrimonious “I will never talk to that guy again” breakup, as well as the odds-defying Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Reunion.

AND…?: Personally, I love the Byrds, but even with that aside, they did all that stuff above plus launched the rock institution that is David Crosby (a double inductee), so I’d say their place is pretty assured.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes

John Lee Hooker

WHO HE IS: The old guy who sings the song in the street before the Ray Charles song in Blues Brothers.

WHY HE’S HERE: He was a hugely influential, completely original performer. His effect on rock and roll (and much subsequent popular music) was to make the rhetorical point that it can always be stripped down further. Fewer instruments, fewer chords, fewer notes in each chord, fewer words. He constructed music out of as little as possible, and then tried to make it even less, forever winnowing down to get to whatever was only essential, and leaving everything else out.

AND…?: Hearing John Lee Hooker play the blues makes a bunch of other blues musicians sound silly. Nearly every blues musician, in fact. In his stripped-down, just-the-facts approach, he got closer than anyone could to figuring out how to express purely what the blues are out there trying to express. It’s not rock and roll 13, but at this point that’s the only quibble there is.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes

The Impressions

WHO THEY ARE: A fifties R&B group that is notable primarily for including Curtis Mayfield.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: They did have their own hits, and Curtis Mayfield was later inducted on his own (in 1999), so honestly I have no idea.

AND…?: I guess it was important to get every single fifties R&B vocal group in there, for whatever reason.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Not really.

Wilson Pickett

WHO HE IS: He’s the guy that wrote and performed “Land of 1,000 Dances” and “Mustang Sally,” among other things. He’s among those that bridge the gap between R&B and Rock and Roll.

WHY HE’S HERE: Well, in addition to the “who he is” bit, he was an aggresive, intense singer whose vocal delivery had a huge impact on the way R&B and Rock and Roll were both sung. But primarily it’s going to be “he wrote a whole bunch of songs that everyone knows” at the top of the list.

AND….?: They’re great songs, he was a great singer. No complaints here.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes

Jimmy Reed

WHO HE IS: A Chicago blues guy of some distinction.

WHY HE’S HERE: I guess because every blues guitar player from Chicago must be included? I dunno, man. Jimmy Reed was a pretty good player, and Elvis sure did like him, but I don’t really think there’s much more to his case than that.

AND…?: That’s pretty much the long and short of it. There are people that really like Jimmy Reed, and obviously there are enough of them to get him in, but I definitely don’t think they have a good reason.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Not really.

Ike & Tina Turner

WHO THEY ARE: Another bridge from R&B to early rock and roll. Even if you don’t any of their songs (which are largely great), you probably are familiar with the nature of the marriage (which was largely hellish and terrible, entirely because of Ike).

WHY THEY’RE HERE: If you believe Nick Tosches, Ike Turner (DBA Jackie Brenston) wrote the first rock and roll song, but did the bulk of his memorable work with his then-wife. It was great work that did a lot to popularize a particularly wild strain of R&B that would lead directly to rock and roll.

AND…?: Well, their music is fantastic, even if Ike Turner is one of the most problematic figures 14 currently in the R&RHOF. I suppose the separation is appropriate, and maybe even necessary, but man was he a dirtbag.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yep

Howlin’ Wolf

WHO HE IS: A Chicago blues guy who is infinitely more worthy of induction than Jimmy Reed.

WHY HE’S HERE: He’s here on the strength of his incredible voice. He is genuinely one of the most intense singers ever to walk the Earth, and a lot of rock singers strove to be him. Very few of them ever really succeeded.

AND…?: He was great. Great singer, made great records. There’s a genuine actual early influence here in the early influences category!

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes

Dave Bartholomew

WHO HE IS: a long-running musician who managed to record as both a dixieland jazz player and a jump blues player, which is some impressive range.

WHY HE’S HERE: He’s inducted as a non-performer, so I presume it’s for his skills as a songwriter and bandleader, which is fair.

AND…?: He was a better songwriter (you probably know the Fats Domino songs he wrote) than player, that’s for sure.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Sure, why not?

Ralph Bass

WHO HE IS: A talent scout who worked with Savoy, King and Chess before eventually finishing out at MCA.

WHY HE’S HERE: In addition to having something of a production career, he was instrumental in helping “race records” break the color barrier.

AND…?: I think that’s enough, frankly.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: Yes


  1.  also the centerpiece of the museum itself, for those that have never been there, is a very long video encapsulating each inducted class, with clips of performances by most of them and things like that, and is generally a pretty cool thing to behold. 
  2.  although they did, as you can read here and going back from there, skew toward “pretty bad” 
  3.  That’s Chubby Checker’s, which is also much better 
  4.  he may be in the running for “longest-running rabid cult of fans” 
  5.  although his 50/50 partner in the group is erstwhile member Bob Gaudio, who no longer tours with them. 
  6.  which, if you see previously in this series, you can take to mean that they are pretty awful, given that it’s not like I’ve got a tonne of great things to say about the Beach Boys, either. They were better than The Four Seasons at a walk, though. 
  7.  No, no it is not. 
  8.  that’s them on The Supremes’ “Run Run Run”.  
  9.  and, trivially, their lead singer, Levi Stubbs, inspired the actual greatest song ever written, Billy Bragg’s “Levi Stubbs’ Tears”. The apostrophe is, of course, wrong, but that’s how it’s punctuated on the album and also it really is the greatest song ever written. That’s not hyperbole or for ironic effect. Seriously. Go listen to it.   
  10.  The “OH NOOOOO” overdub that is part of the vocal track is an attempt to hear what is, quite clearly, Dave Davies telling Ray Davies to “fuck off.” This is also pretty indicative of their highly-entertaining relationship. 
  11.  he is sometimes cited as being the first, but firsts are hard to prove. 
  12.  Once again, “first”s are tricky, and they most certainly didn’t invent it, but Sweetheart of the Rodeo – which doubles as their best album – is still a high watermark for the genre. 
  13.  add another one to the pile of “these people should be the early influencers, not prewar jazz musicians” 
  14.  His behavior was pretty heinous, so the fact that he’s only one of the most problematic figures says something about the state of problematic figures enshrined in the hall of fame. 

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