David Bruce 250 Music Anecdotes — Big Breaks, Birthdays

Big Breaks

• British pop musician Billy Bragg contributed to his big break. His regular job was working at a 24-hour gas station when he heard radio deejay John Peel say on the air that he wanted a mushroom biryani so badly that he would do anything for it. Within 30 minutes Mr. Bragg appeared at the radio station with a mushroom biryani. What was the “anything” that Mr. Peel ended up doing for the mushroom biryani? He played on the air Mr. Bragg’s “The Milkman of Human Kindness.” These days, the music industry is changing because people are downloading music instead of buying CDs. Mr. Bragg is hopeful that this era of change will work out OK for the musicians. He points out, “You only need to find 5,000 people willing to pay you £10 a year to make you give up your day job.”

• A big break early in Barbra Streisand’s career came in the theater when at age 19 she auditioned for and won the supporting role of Miss Marmelstein, who sings one three-minute song in the musical I Can Get It for You Wholesale. At the end of her first audition — which went well — for the part, Ms. Streisand pleaded, “Will somebody call me, please! Even if I don’t get the part, just call!” Elliott Gould, the lead actor in the play, did call her, told her who he was, said, ‘You were brilliant!’ — and hung up. Of course, Ms. Streisand’s song in the musical became a show-stopper. (By the way, Mr. Gould became Ms. Streisand’s first husband.)

• Conductor James Conlon was ready for his big break when it came. He was studying conducting at Julliard, and a famous conductor — Thomas Schippers — was supposed to conduct La Bohèmethere, but Mr. Schippers became ill and cancelled. Mr. Conlon rehearsed the orchestra while the school looked for another conductor. At the time, Maria Callas was giving master classes, and the president of Julliard asked Ms. Callas her opinion of Mr. Conlon. Mr. Conlon says, “Callas listened to me rehearse for about 15 minutes, walked out and told him, ‘There’s your man; he’s got a great future.’” And Mr. Conlon conducted the first of many successes.


• Two abilities led to Corey Glover becoming the singer of funk-metal band Living Colour: the ability to sing “Happy Birthday” and the ability to show up for a gig. Mr. Glover attended a friend’s birthday party, which Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid also attended. Requested to sing “Happy Birthday,” Mr. Glover obliged, and Mr. Reid told him, “We [Mr. Reid and his sister] like the way you sing.” A couple of months later, he called Mr. Glover and said, “I’m looking for a singer for my band.” One other singer was also in the running, but a few more months after Mr. Glover’s audition, he got another call from Mr. Reid, who told him, “Our singer can’t make the gig. Can you come down and do it?” Mr. Glover responded, “Sure. No problem. Whatever. Do I get paid for the gig? I do? All right, cool. I’ll go.” That’s the way Mr. Glover became the band’s singer and started performing in interesting places and winning Grammy Awards for songs such as “Cult of Personality” and “Glamour Boys.” He says about his first gig with Living Colour, “So it was actually my first time performing at CBGB’s, which was a big enough deal for me anyway. It looks like a hole in the wall, it smells like a hole in the wall, it isa hole in the wall, but it’s amazing. Well, it’s not there anymore, but it wasamazing. So that was my first gig, and I’ve been in the band ever since. The guy never came back.”

• The music and image of heavy-metal band Black Sabbath included references to black magic, but the band did not take it seriously. Once, lead singer Ozzy Osbourne found some Satanists conducting a black-magic ritual outside his hotel room. He responded by first blowing out their candles and then singing “Happy Birthday.”


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