Rocks Off was saddened to hear this morning that bluegrass great Earl Scruggs passed away Wednesday in a Nashville hospital at age 88. It's safe to say that the North Carolina native, best known for his fruitful partnership with guitarist Lester Flatt, was the most famous banjo player in the world.
Outside the country-music/bluegrass community -- which revered Scruggs as a god -- he was probably most famous for 90 seconds on the soundtrack of the 1967 Arthur Penn film Bonnie and Clyde: "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." Originally recorded in 1949, it almost cracked the Top 50 of the Billboard Hot 100 on its re-release as a single (no mean feat for a bluegrass song), and is enshrined in the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry.
Not to discount Flatt's contribution, but Scruggs wrote the song, and it's his picking that became its hallmark. Rocks Off would be willing to bet that when most people think of someone playing the banjo, they hear "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" in their heads. Or maybe "Dueling Banjos," but nobody remembers that guy's name.
That's kind of the point. Earl Scruggs is now synonymous with the banjo the same way Jimi Hendrix is the guitar or Jerry Lee Lewis is the piano. Maybe not on quite the same scale, but we are talking about the banjo here. To honor Scruggs' memory, Rocks Off challenged ourselves to come up with other musicians who also became icons on other unusual instruments.
Tito Puente, timbales: Drummers leading their own bands isn't all that unusual, even these days, but Tito Puente tapped out spicy salsa rhythms for 50 years, and his abundant charisma made him the face of Afro-Cuban music around the world for many of them. Also a gifted composer and arranger, Puente became a national hero in Puerto Rico and appeared on The Cosby Show and The Simpsons.
Benny Goodman, clarinet: Even in a room full of oboes, bassoons and tubas, it's hard to imagine an instrument uncooler than the clarinet. But when a time when saxophones were dominating big-band music (and the rest of jazz), Benny Goodman became a star, scoring 14 Top 10 hits in the year 1938 alone. Admirably, he headed up one of the only racially integrated groups of the time, although his domineering manner didn't win him many friends among his musicians.
Clifton Chenier, accordion: OK, maybe people in the Northeast might throw out Frankie Yankovic's name, and Rocks Off is not trying to disparage polka at all. (Far from it.) But considering the father of Chenier spent so many years living and working in Houston, it's hard for us to picture anyone else fingering the ol' squeezebox. Today, like Tito Puente, his son C.J. carries on his dad's legacy.
Ron Burgundy, jazz flute: Just because he's a fictional character doesn't mean it's not true.
So to quote the Dixie Chicks, goodbye Earl.
Note: Rocks Off has nothing against woodwinds, we swear.
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