The 1968 Exhibit: Billboard, December 28, 1968: Artist of the Year

billboard-dec68The music that people bought:  Billboard magazine at the end of 1968 Billboard is the perfect porthole through which to view the recorded music scene of the 1960s.  It is the magazine of the business of recording music, and thus most of the time they stayed focused on the business: the sales, the buzz, the bookings.  This, in short, is an industry rag--this is THE industry rag; like Variety for Broadway and theater, or Publisher's Weekly for the book industry, critical discernment and historical distance are just not what they do.    There are no lengthy, reflective articles in Billboard, and no in-house critics.   "Reviews" are less than a paragraph and are always positive.   There is only this refreshing, single-minded focus on What People Are Buying. "Lasting values" Once a year, Billboard departed for a moment from this focus, with their "Artist of the Year" designation.  It's worth quoting the whole statement:  "Each year the editors of Billboard honor an artist who in their opinion has made the most significant contribution to popular music during the year.  The decision is not based solely on chart performances or record sales.  It also takes into account much more lasting values."    Lasting values: portentous words from a magazine focused on immediate sales and airplay. Jimi Hendrix: Artist of the Year So it is with great interest, 1968-watchers,  that we turn our attention today to Billboard's year-end issue, and its choice of the JHE as Artist of the Year:  "1968 was the year of underground,the year of progressive rock, the year of blues rock, the year of Jimi Hendrix and the Jimi Hendrix Experience.  While Hendrix's group first hit the U.S. in late 1967, it was 1968 before they became one of the most sought after acts in the business."  This (unsigned) column continues: "Hendrix, 23, is a dynamic stage personality, and an exceptional blues singer and guitarist," and his tour showed "he was second to none in appeal and excitement." "The black Elvis?" Clearly, one does not turn to Billboard for incisive critical writing.  This one-page citation for Artist of the Year is virtually the only editorial content in the magazine.  But 1968 did belong to Hendrix.  His first U.S. tour in 1967 included the legendary performance at the Monterey Pop Festival-- but also included a tour as an opening act for the Monkees, the fabricated teeny-pop TV band (about whom we'll have more to say in future posts.)  By 1968, the mainstream media was also riding the wave.  TIME wrote about the JHE on April 5th: "Their music . . . is a whirlpool where currents of Negro blues and psychedelic rock meet, and it churns with all but overwhelming power from their nine amplifiers and 18 speakers."  Michael Lydon wrote a piece headlined "The Black Elvis?" for the New York Times on Feb. 25, 1968, and here, at least, we get some critical idea of the JHE power, although the notion that Hendrix could have been thought of as  "the black Elvis" seems oddly off-base.  But Lydon writes that that was already the way Hendrix was seen in England, noting, however that: "In America, James Brown is, but only for Negroes; could Hendrix become that for American whites? The title, rich in potential imagery, is a mantle waiting to be bestowed."  He writes about the Hendrix performance style, in language that probably barely made it past Times censors: "He played flicking his gleaming white Gibson between his legs and propelling it out of his groin with a nimble grind of his hips.  Bending his head over the strings, he plucked with his teeth as if eating them, occasionally pulling away to take deep breaths.  Falling back and lying almost prone, he pumped the guitar neck as it stood high on his belly." But who sold more records? Strictly in terms of sales, the Jimi Hendrix Experience was nowhere near the top of the heap in 1968.  Known for their albums (four were hot-sellers in 1968) and their explosive live performances, the JHE was not even among the Top 100 Singles Artists for the year-- a list that included the Troggs (84), Big Brother and the Holding Company (99), Vanilla Fudge (67), Elvis Presley (56), Bobby Vinton (46), the Cowsills (20th), and Archie Bell and the Drells ("from Houston, Texas," number 11).  Number One was Aretha Franklin, who had eight singles in the charts that year.  (Why was Aretha passed over for "artist of the year"?  The sales of her albums and singles, in both the overall categories and the R&B category, were astounding.)  Jimi wasn't even on the list for "Top Male Artists," a list topped by James Brown, Otis Redding, and Bobby Goldsboro (1, 2, and 3).  The only "best-seller" list that Jimi Hendrix appeared on, in fact, was "Top Album Artists," where they were 10th, right behind the Beatles (7th), the Doors (8th), and the Monkees (9th).  Who was at the top of that list, in 1968, that "revolutionary" year?  Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, followed hard by comedian Bill Cosby, folkies Simon & Garfunkel, and country-crossover artist Glen Campbell. 1968 had an amazing "soundtrack."    Any memories of performances or "transformational" moments?  Did you actually SEE the legendary Hendrix, or do we all just THINK we saw him perform?