When Elton John is your DJ...

  • Sanjoy Narayan
  • Updated: Jul 16, 2016 20:27 IST

I don’t know if you have but I hadn’t heard Syreeta Wright till last week. And I probably wouldn’t have if I hadn’t chosen to listen to a programme on an Internet radio channel that I have now decided I shall not miss – more on that in a bit.

Wright, a soul and R&B singer, sang and recorded with greats such as Billy Preston and Stevie Wonder. The latter is someone that we are all so familiar with that I won’t elaborate on besides mentioning that Wright who died in 2004 was briefly married to him. About Preston, however, I will.

Also watch: Billy Preston & Syreeta Wright - With You I’m Born Again

Anyone remember The Concert for Bangladesh? The two same-day benefit gigs in New York City’s Madison Square Garden in 1971 that were organised by ex-Beatle George Harrison and sitar maestro Ravi Shankar? If you do and if you’ve heard the album (original vinyl triple or the re-mastered two-disc reissue) or watched the film (if you haven’t you must!) will surely remember Harrison and Preston doing a rousing gospel song, That’s the Way God Planned It. When I heard that Wright had collaborated with Preston, I pulled out my copy of The Concert for Bangladesh and spun a few tracks that filled me with pleasant nostalgia.

But I digress. This isn’t about Preston; nor is it about the famous gig that Harrison and Shankar organised. It’s about a playlist.

(From left to right) Syreeta Wright, a soul and R&B singer, sang with greats like Billy Preston and Stevie Wonder; Eli “Paperboy” Reed, a rock-and-roll and R&B singer does adrenalin-charged shows. (Getty Images)

The song I heard Syreeta (she often recorded under her first name) sing was I Can’t Give Back the Love I Feel for You, a number that was originally written for Diana Ross when she was part of the Supremes. Syreeta’s version was recorded in 1968. It is striking and upbeat and made me wonder why I hadn’t heard her before. Then I read that she was very nearly invited to join the famous Supremes when Ross left that group but it never happened because some band members vetoed it.

Just before I heard Syreeta, I heard a more modern band with a very contemporary sound, Unknown Mortal Orchestra. They’re a band that has a seemingly incredible provenance – they hail from both, New Zealand and the US, and serve up understated but highly accessible psychedelic rock. The song I heard was called First World Problem, a sort of love song (“You’ve got to understand/that I could be your man or a first world problem”). Fun. Give them a try.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra are a band with an incredible provenance. (NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

On the same playlist that I heard Syreeta and Unknown Mortal Orch, I also heard Eli “Paperboy” Reed, a young American rock-and-roll and R&B singer, whose live shows are always adrenalin-charged and who has already released five full-length albums since 2005. On the radio programme I heard a studio version of Hold Out and later YouTubed him to check out the live version of that song and several others. He’s a sensation.

Eli “Paperboy” Reed (sorry, but I like his name so much that I want to repeat it) is originally from Massachusetts – his preppy suit, pompadour and clean-cut appearance belie his immersion in southern tradition, and his vocals howl under the robust influence of legions of blues and soul singers of the deep south. A musician to discover, follow and savour.

On that same playlist, I heard Jimi Hendrix’s Hey Joe (nostalgia once again); preceded by folk-rocker Ray LaMontagne’s Ourobouros and followed by Let’s Groove, a funky upbeat song by Earth, Wind & Fire – remember them?

One of the longest lasting African-American bands whose huge body of work and scores of musicians who’ve been part of its ensemble, Earth, Wind & Fire are difficult to categorise – their music spans multiple genres – from funk to groove to disco to rock and roll and R&B. They are also considered one of America’s most successful bands and although their line-up has changed several times, they’re still going strong.

That same playlist, which had 12 carefully curated songs (including all of the above and more) ended with a band I’d never heard of – Kenton Slash Demon, a Danish electro-House duo whose track, Peace, was introduced by the DJ and curator as being a sort of danceable dessert to conclude his programme, something that he almost invariably ends his episodes with.

Juke box: An indefatigable discoverer of new music, Elton John’s Rocket Hour episodes are a mix of old and new musical gems.

And who’s the DJ I’m referring to? None other than Elton John. Sir Elton, to be precise. On Apple Music’s Beats1 radio channel, that famous musician does a weekly episode titled Elton John’s Rocket Hour. An indefatigable discoverer of new music, his Rocket Hour episodes always have new bands and musicians, often introduced with rare nuggets of information or a personal touch. But they also delve into the past to unearth classic gems that you may have heard long back and nearly forgotten; or better still, never heard before. A mix of the old and the new. I heard the 51st episode of his show last week. And, as I write this, I’m waiting eagerly for the next.

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From HT Brunch, July 17, 2016

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