Tom Jones is 81. An Elvis-like sex symbol in 60s Britain, and thus, easily lampooned. But Tom has one of the greatest singing voices ever. It's a force of nature. And he is a great interpreter of song. People who write songs dream of such a performer, someone who has the wisdom and talent to find and convey the very heart of their creations.
Listen to my thoughts on Tom Jones, and hear some of the great & lesser known songs in his extensive repertoire.
.My favourite thing about music is the way it's constantly changing. I find a style, a performer, I like and then it's a journey. I go with them wherever they might take me.
If you want to track the way music changes, pick a date, see what's playing, and then go forward, or back, about ten years. A decade is long enough to pick changes in styles, fads, and technology - all are big drivers of musical evolution.
So that's what I'm doing. I'm starting 80 years ago, in 1941. Big bands were playing war-time swing - singers were mostly one part of the act, rather than the stars.
The world was at war in 1941. Music was an important morale boost. Glen Miller, Memphis Minnie, The Inkspots,
Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller - were the big stars of 1941.
Listen to the music of 1941 here
1971 was a great year for music. The rise of the singer-songwriter, the shift from singles to albums. There was so much good music released that year, and one of the best of 1971, of any year, was Blue - by Joni Mitchell.
A poet, visual artist, musical prodigy. Joni came from Saskatoon, the Paris of the Canadian prairies, to be at the epicentre of late 60s culture, in California's Laurel Canyon. Joni rose on the folk music boom that, by 1971, contained, perhaps stifled her prodigious talents.
Joni left domestic bliss for a fabled world journey and a late night flight. She hung out with James Taylor, writing songs as if her life depended on it Then, in a Hollywood recording studio, Joni brought them to life, in what remains one of the greatest ever musical acts of creation.
Blue is a miraculous record, full of the joyful sounds of a young woman accepting the challenges and burdens of her talents, honouring them, and going wherever they would take her.
Listen to my radio story on Joni Mitchell's Blue.
Carole King co-wrote the soundtrack of the early 1960s, but none of us knew her name. With then husband, Gerry Goffin, Carole wrote dozens of hit records for The Shirelles, The Crystals, Beatles, Monkees, Aretha Franklin and many more.
Carole was a gifted musician too shy to perform her own songs. Other acts turned them into hits. But around 1970, in the Laurel Canyon area of Los Angeles, James Taylor persuaded and cajoled her into performing. She was a hit on the LA live scene, and her second album, Tapestry, took off like a rocket.
It sold 10 million copies on first release, and many millions more since. Four Grammy awards, a long list of achievements and honours. It was the first big album success of the then new singer-songwriter era. Tapestry, and its creator, deserved all these honours, and more.
Writing pop and rock tunes is a strange craft, marrying urgent love haikus to riffs and melodies, surfing teenage emotions as they grow into adult ambitions and deep, yearning dreams. The best songsmiths make it look easy. Carole King is one of the greats - and Tapestry is a deep well of love, joy, and musical adventure.
Listen to my tribute to Tapestry
Great guitar riffs are in rock music's DNA. They're right at the heart of what makes a song memorable, and what makes it a hit.
Young guitar players spend weeks and months figuring out some of rock's great riffs. They are meant to be memorable - but sometimes, it seems certain you've heard those riffs before. In some cases, you have.
Listen to some famous guitar riffs that seem to have been borrowed from earlier tunes.
Two giants of music left us this year. Malcolm Cecil invented TONTO - the analogue synthesiser that drove Stevie Wonder's early 70s string of hit albums. Malcolm's creation brought all the early synths together, creating incredible new sounds and possibilities.
And we remember Rupert Neve - the father of the modern recording studio. Rupert brought the best of new and emerging technologies to solve the challenges that emerged in the early rock and pop era. The Neve mixing console at Sound City studios in Los Angeles is responsible for more than 100 gold or platinum albums, including Fleetwood Mac's self-titled 1975 breakthrough.
Listen to the story of Malcolm and Rupert.
I was playing Blowing In The Wind on the recorder in primary school. My pimpled teenage self ranted for Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. I slammed out "Things Have Changed" in the jungles of Papua New Guinea after an ill-judged romance. I always knew about A Simple Twist of Fate. I danced with the Jokerman, and now It's Not Dark Yet (but it's getting there).
More than any other artist, Bob Dylan has inhabited my soundtrack, haunted my soul, demanded my attention, disappointed and inspired me. This omnipresent, unknowable, wise-cracking minstrel is my muse, the sprite who showed me the words they don't teach you in English literature class. Dylan is a musical giant, a creature of the American spirit, his Chaplinesque whimsy leavening the excesses of his flag-waving countrymen. He has the turn of phrase, the imagination, the chutzpah for which I'd happily trade several vital organs.
And now, here he is, 80 years old. Visibly frail when last I saw him live, in Sydney a couple of years back, delivering his new and venerable songs in a voice older, and younger, than the man in whom it lives. Rolling thunder, and something more.
The man who put poetry into pop has lived to be 80. Of this, I am happy. Listen to my Bob Dylan birthday tribute.
The recorded music era began in the late 1800s, making it possible for musicians to become widely known. Radio spread their fame further, and the modern media notion of celebrity was born. These men and women lived large, but so many of them died young. A strangely significant number of them died at the age of 27.
Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain and more. It can't be anything more than a coincidence, but a curious mythology has developed around the so-called 27 club.
Listen to my ABC Radio story on the 27 club.
The Rolling Stones were on a roll. Their ninth album, Sticky Fingers, was another high point on a golden run of albums from Beggars Banquet (1968), Let It Bleed (1969), to Exile on Main Street (1972). Even now, all these years later, a Stones live show still draws heavily on songs from this period.
As Sticky Fingers was being unloaded at record stores 50 years ago, the Rolling Stones were loading up and moving to France, seeking refuge from Britain's punitive tax regime, in which Mick, Keith and the lads were paying up to 95 per cent of their earnings to the Government. As a result, they were flat broke, at the height of their success.
Mick Taylor replaces founder member Brian Jones on sessions at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and at Jagger's home in Hampshire. The result is glorious, an album of songs full of Stones influences and swagger, with some truly magical playing. Watch them listen to the playback of Wild Horses - a clip showing the mood of the times, and their sense of wonder at what they had made.
Listen to my ABC Radio piece
Rock music mythology is brimming with faith and excess, spirit and flesh, vision and madness. The most compelling acts seem to live large at the earthier end of these spectra, yet can still reach in to the stars and draw down the gift of music.
We have lost one of the best, Jim Steinman, songwriter, studio producer, and very occasionally, a lead singer. Jim wrote all the songs for Bat Out Of Hell, the record that made Meat Loaf a global star. Jim wrote for and produced many other artists, but Meat Loaf was his big claim to fame.
Jim had a rock and roll soul, but he drew on everything from Broadway musicals to Mozart to percolate his unique rock brew. He wrote epic songs, and he was one of the most visionary record producers – up there with Phil Spector, without the murderous impulses. And he was no slouch as a singer. Check out his 1981 solo record, Bad For Good.
Listen to my tribute to Jim Steinman
Richard is a writer, podcaster, radio and TV broadcaster, an editor, and a lover of music. He tells the stories of how great songs are made, and of the people who make them.