Musician’s get asked all the time, “Who are your influences?” It’s a good question, sometimes without a clear answer. Influence is often hazy and indirect. We don’t necessarily try to sound like someone else or incorporate their style into our music. Big D pointed out to me that Steve Perry, the singer from Journey, sounds a lot like Sam Cooke. Once he said it, I could hear it. Apparently the band even used that as a marketing tool. Does Steve do it on purpose? Probably not, but I bet he had a lot of Sam’s albums as a kid.
I remember the first time I heard “Something to Talk About” by Bonnie Raitt. I was in my bedroom watching Entertainment Tonight on my 13” TV. They played a teaser, a stay-tuned moment, a short clip of her new video before commercial break. I was glued. I stopped whatever I was doing, and waited . . . and waited . . . and waited. Those sorry cusses didn’t play more of that video until the end credits started rolling; and when they did, I knew it was the coolest damn song I had ever heard, by the coolest damn red-headed singer I had ever seen. It felt like my entire musical life, every note of every song to which I had ever connected, led me there, to that song.
Did I buy the album Luck of the Draw (in tape form)? Of course. Did I memorize every vocal lick to every song on that tape? Yes. Did I perform “Something to Talk About” for show choir and the Big G Jamboree? Uh huh. (The proof is in the above photo.) Do those experiences color my vocal style? Probably. Am I aware of it when it’s happening? Not really.
Slide guitar player Derek Trucks (another great musician I learned of through Big D) says that a musician should be careful of the music that fills his or her shelves. He believes that, like it or not, what we listen to will shoehorn its way into our music. I’ll admit I’m not as conscientious a musician as he. My taste in music has always been diverse, and I listen to some of it for deep, spiritual reasons, and some of it for the shallow, but satisfying feelings it brings.
This reminds me of the first time I heard “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses. My best friend and I were headed to her house after school. Her mom was driving, and I was in the backseat. As we approached the alley leading to their driveway, the song began. We were probably all thinking the same thing, I’d change the station, but we’re almost there. After we pulled up to their garage, my friend’s mom got out of the car. We stayed. We were kind of immobile. When the song was finished, we just sat there with our mouths open, not knowing what to think. One of us broke the silence with, “What the heck was that?”
“That was so weird” I said.
“I’ll bet that in one week from now, it’s your favorite song” my friend says.
I was repulsed by the thought. “No way!”
Was my friend right? Yes. Did I memorize every line and inflection of that song down to my “na na na na na na na na na na na na knees, knees!” Of course. Can a trace of that music be found in my own? Not in my opinion.
The best judge of a musician’s influences is probably anyone but the musician themselves. How often do you hear a song and think, “That sounds just like . . . .” But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe all successful musicians are just glorified thieves. But I’d like to believe that Steve didn’t try to steal Sam Cooke’s voice anymore than I tried to steal Sandra Bullock’s smile.
**Lower photo by my friend Melissa. See her info. on the About page.