Arizona's 50 Most Influential Musicians
Stevie Nicks performs with Fleetwood Mac in 2013 at the former US Airways Center (now Talking Stick Resort Arena).
Pore through the annals of the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, and you'll see more than a few musicians who are connected with Arizona in one way or another.
Besides high-profile names like Stevie Nicks, Linda Ronstadt, and Alice Cooper (naturally), there are illustrious artists like Duane Eddy, Nils Lofgren, Sam Moore, and Jason Newsted (who was inducted along with the rest of Metallica in 2009). And while each of these superstars had an impact on music both here in our fair state and around the world, there are numerous influential guitarists, drummers, singers, and other performers with ties to Arizona that will sadly never score such an achievement.
That includes the likes of über-producer Bob Hoag, the Meat Puppets, the late Doug Hopkins, or punk rocker Frank Discussion. And believe us, each has made a significant contribution to music either locally or nationally. Ditto for such non-rockers as jazz drummer Lewis Nash, turntablism guru Z-Trip, and country king Dierks Bentley.
We wanted to recognize such individuals for their significance and influence over the decades, and have created a rundown of some of the more important pioneers, vanguards, tastemakers and trendsetters. It includes those who have roots here or spent a significant amount of time in Arizona, both personally and professionally, as well as those that got their start musically within our borders.
And this ain't just based on our opinions, as we consulted with a number of folks who know a thing or three, such as Arizona music historian John Dixon (aka DJ Johnny D), venerated vinyl guru and Eastside Records owner Michael Pawlicki, longtime Valley concert promoter Danny Zelisko, and Stinkweeds Record Exchange owner Kimber Lanning.
Here is a look at the artists and acts, including each individual musician, with ties to Arizona that we believe have been the most influential over the last several decades.
Zach Sciacca, aka Z-Trip.
Hold it. Before you start in with the same old argument about how this Arizona expat is a DJ, and thus, not a true musician, consider the following: The Technics record decks that Z-Trip, born Zach Sciacca, wields and works into performances are essentially musical instruments, and the scratches, chirps, and flares getting laid down are his notes. Plus, he's got an encyclopedic arsenal of music at his disposal, and was widely recognized in the early aughts as a pioneer and vanguard of the then-nascent music genre of mash-ups.
Just like an ace songwriter or composer, he crafts mixes and sets with structure, pacing, and energy that ultimately lead listeners on an epic journey. And, really, any significant innovations in music over the last century have involved taking established styles, rearranging and reworking various elements, and creating something new. You know, sort of like one of Z-Trip's mixes.
Bob Hoag performs during the Phoenix Rock Lottery in 2015.
For most of the past two decades, dapper local drummer Bob Hoag has played a significant role in local music, to say the least. As a musician, he's performed in a string of memorable acts — such as Pollen, The Go Reflex, The Love Me Nots, and most recently Samuel L Cool J — while also working as a sought-after engineer, producer, and sound guru who has mentored, advised, and recorded a vast array of Phoenix and Tucson bands at his studio in Mesa. "Bob has been critically important, not only as a songwriter but behind the scenes as a recording engineer," says Stinkweeds Records owner Kimber Lanning. "He's just a whiz in the studio, and helped shape a lot things coming out of Arizona."
Hans Olson performs at the annual Blues Blast in 2014.
In the decades since Hans Olson first moved to the Valley in the late 1960s, he’s served as a venue proprietor, session musician, songwriter, label owner, event promoter, and founder of the Arizona Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame. The renowned bluesman is also a living legend and one helluva performer who toted his harmonica and slide guitar around the world countless times and played alongside such icons as the late Muddy Waters and B.B. King.
Back in the '70s, Olson opened for the likes of The Allman Brothers Band and Boz Skaggs, toured with Dave Mason, headlined at the Whiskey A Go-Go in LA, and reportedly raised a lot of hell with former drinking buddy Tom Waits. In the mid '80s, he also ran iconic Tempe venue The Sun Club and helped such bands as Gin Blossoms and Dead Hot Workshop get their start. They aren’t the only notable locals that Olson has helped influence over the years, as artists like The Sugar Thieves and other modern-day musicians cited him as a mentor of sorts.
Punk rock provocateur Frank Discussion.
Years before infamous punk rock offender G.G. Allin took his first dump onstage, local freakazoid Frank Discussion was unleashing shock and awe upon audiences here in Phoenix as the notorious lead singer of The Feederz. During the Valley's Mohawked heyday of the early '80s, the caustic and confrontational punk provacateur was one of the highlights of the band — known for its tracks "Jesus Entering From the Rear" and "Avon Lady," among others — and the scene entire with his oft-offensive antics.
While the notion of the caustic and controversial activities at punk shows was by no means a new idea, even on the local level (Killer Pussy's shenanigans are the stuff of legend), Discussion was a bit more extreme than the rest. As former New Times staff writer Bob Mehr wrote in 2000, the vocalist's act "included appearing onstage in a see-through shower curtain" among his various stunts, as well as a brutal practice of smashing rats with a hammer, which would likely raise a lot of hackles these days. And while it's been decades since either Discussion, or The Feederz for that matter, have performed, he's still affecting the local scene today. Artists like Father's Day and Ray Reeves are reportedly fans, as is folk-punker Andy Warpigs. "I'd never nail rats to the floor though; that's a no-no in my book," he says. "Other than that, the guy fucking rules."
Arizona blues guru Bob Corritore.
Bob Corritore arrived in Phoenix in 1981, figuring he'd be here only for a year at most. More than 35 years after the fact, the Chicago-born harmonica player is still around, and local blues connoisseurs are grateful he decided to stay put. Since the mid '80s, he's served as Phoenix's reigning blues guru, broadcasting choice cuts from his ample album collection and sharing an infectious fervor for the American-born art form every Sunday during his weekly KJZZ 91.5 FM program, Those Lowdown Blues. Meanwhile, Corritore has also devoted the past 18 years to making his CenPho joint, the Rhythm Room, the pre-eminent spot for blues and roots music.
It's become a hallowed ground of sorts, having featured gigs by such giants as Pinetop Perkins, Leon Redbone, and Jimmy Rogers. A number of renowned artists have also recorded live at the Rhythm Room, including the Fabulous Thunderbirds' Kim Wilson and the late Robert Lockwood (stepson of the famed Robert Johnson). Corritore has also provided a home for Arizona's blues and R&B practitioners — ranging from Windy City-style trio The Rocket 88s to Texas transplant Big Pete Pearson.
Another celebrated and influential forefather of the Tempe music scene is Bruce Connole, whose list of projects since the late '70s are as lengthy as they are varied: Stints in punk and New Wave were later followed by the vocalist/guitarist taking up permanent residence in the bosom of Americana. The one constant through each, Dixon explains, is Connole's musicianship and songwriting chops.
"Between Billy Clone and the Same, The Jetzons, The Strand, The Pink Flamingos, The Busted Hearts, and Suicide Kings, Bruce's work has been pretty amazing," he says. "He's one of those guys who's so prolific, they just write great songs, and at the end of the day you go, 'Why aren't they more famous?'" That's changing as we speak, as Connole's catalog has been re-released through Phoenix-based Fervor Records and is finding its way into movies, TV, and video games.
At one time (read: 20 years ago), local drumming wunderkind Lewis Nash had instant name recognition in major cities across America with thriving jazz scenes. And in his hometown? Not so much. There was little evidence in Phoenix of the famed percussionist's exploits with the likes of Branford Marsalis, Art Farmer, or the late Dizzy Gillespie. Fast-forward to today, and the 57-year-old musician's name is up in lights, literally, as the namesake of downtown jazz joint The Nash. And you could cover the walls inside with a tally of all the legends and luminaries that Nash has accompanied or collaborated with during his 32-year career, from his esteemed mentor Max Roach to such jazz giants as Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins, and McCoy Tyner. He's appeared on upwards of 500 records with no signs of slowing down. They'd better start building an extra room at the Nash.
Back in 1992, nightclub sound systems in both the U.S. and U.K. were filled with the poppy house music beats and dulcet tones of CeCe Peniston’s smash hit, “Finally.” The high-energy track, which rocketed up Billboard’s Hot 100 and was a staple of dance floors everywhere, was recorded in the Valley by the longtime Phoenix resident (and onetime Miss Black Arizona) to international fame and stardom. Both the single and her debut album of the same name, which featured more modest hits like “We Got a Love Thang” and “Crazy Love,” sold like gangbusters and eventually went gold.
And while Peniston never matched the success of “Finally” with any of her releases in the ensuing years, she’s notched such achievements as performing for both President Bill Clinton and Pope John Paul II, and has become a local singing icon and a regular at gay pride festivals around the world.
The late, great Chico Chism.
Chico Chism was most definitely the man. Just ask any blues fans who know a thing or two about the genre’s history (and can rattle off a list of legends that the late drummer performed with in his day) or any of the locals who discovered his talents, lively personality, and charm after he moved to Phoenix. Chism started banging the skins at 14, and didn’t stop for more than five decades, playing with many notable names in blues biz, including the late Howlin’ Wolf in the '70s, as well as such cats as Choker Campbell, Lowell Fulson, Big Joe Turner, Little Junior Parker, Sunnyland Slim, Otis Rush, and both The Fabulous Thunderbirds and Stevie Ray Vaughn. After Valley blues guru Bob Corritore brought him to town in 1986, Chism lit up the Rhythm Room alongside such greats as R.L. Burnside, Bo Diddley, Pinetop Perkins, and Louisiana Red. And he did it with style and aplomb. And how could you not like a cat who once declared, "I’m the house rocker and the show stopper, the woman’s pet and the man’s threat. I’m Chico, the Boogie Man."
Courtesy of Paradigm Talent Agency
In 2009, underground rapper Murs ditched his hometown of LA for Arizona, and hasn't looked back. The onetime member of Living Legends is living large in Tucson, where there's less rent, less crime, less drama, and more chances to scope out comics without getting hassled. He also met his wife here. Murs is staying just as busy as in El Lay, however, having produced a hip-hop/comics crossover with the Valley's DJ Foundation entitled Yumiko: Curse of the Merch Girl in 2012, and teamed with Miami, Florida, hip-hop ensemble ¡Mayday on the well-received collaboration, ¡Mursday! He also started signing Arizona emcees like MC Optimal, Cash Lansky, and Marley B. in hopes of hyping up homegrown talent.
Pedal-steel guitarist guru John Rauhouse.
Courtesy of Bloodshot Records
To call Jon Rauhouse a prolific performer would be a bit of an understatement, considering the sheer number of artists and acts that the renowned pedal-steel guitarist has performed, collaborated, or recorded with during the last four decades. Fans of Neko Case might be familiar with Rauhouse from his recent efforts with the singer-songwriter (including contributing to her Grammy-nominated 2013 album The Worse Things Get…), but his career stretches back much further than that and includes working with such folks as Sally Timms, Kelly Hogan, Grevious Angels, Billy Bob Thornton, John Doe, Jakob Dylan, the Old 97s, Visqeen, and Calexico, among others. Rauhouse has been a Valley music scene institution over the years (“When I started playing in Tempe in the late '70s, the drinking age was 19,” he says) and has sat in with countless influential musicians, both past and present, ranging from Kevin Daly and Sleepwalker to such present-day acts as The SunPunchers and North Brother Island.
Long before he became the "Godfather of Chicano Music," helped popularize pachuco music, was dubbed a national cultural icon, or had a phenomenal burger at named after him at Crescent Ballroom, Eduardo "Lalo" Guerrero was a childhood musical prodigy born in Tucson in 1916. After spending his childhood and formative years in the Old Pueblo performing canciones in restaurants with his ensemble Los Carlistas, the musician rose to prominence after the group was chosen to represent Arizona on a nationwide radio broadcast at the 1939 World's Fair in NYC.
Guerrero eventually moved to LA and became an prolific composer, songwriter, and singer from the '40s onward. "Lalo had the ability to do the traditional stuff but then get into the hipster side of things during his career," Dixon says. "And he did comedy albums, Christmas records, children's records ... he was very prolific and influential to many Latin artists of the day."
Gifted-but-troubled songwriter Doug Hopkins.
Without the genius of the late Doug Hopkins, Valley rock icons Gin Blossoms wouldn't have had their two biggest hits in "Hey Jealousy" or "Found Out About You," nor would they have necessarily existed, as he co-founded the band. And without those songs, the Blossoms, in all likelihood, wouldn't have been the early '90s success story they became with New Miserable Experience or helped launch Tempe into the national spotlight. Hopkins, who was kicked from the band in an ugly split in 1992 due to substance abuse problems, was a gifted-but-troubled soul who was respected and influential in the scene and whose legacy stretches back to the Tempe music scene's almost-paleolithic era of the early '80s with Moral Majority, The Psalms, and Algebra Ranch.
When thrash-happy bassist Jason Newsted arrived in Phoenix in 1981, he was a member of touring metal band Gangster, which just happened to break up while in town for a gig. When he left the Valley in 1986, however, he was the newest member of Metallica. During that five-year span, he starred in a few local acts, most prominently in the landmark thrash metal band Flotsam and Jetsam. Newsted was reportedly the driving force behind F&J, writing a majority of the songs on Iron Tears and Metal Shock, a pair of demo tapes, and their lauded 1986 debut album, Doomsday for the Deceiver.
He also did plenty of hustling to get their material in stores. "Jason used to come in to the west side Zia Records and sell me Flotsam and Jetsam tapes," Pawlicki says. "They were the big, influential local metal band, and they sold hundreds of tapes. And Jason was a really good bassist, since Metallica had their pick of the litter of bass players at that point, because a zillion people wanted to be in that band."
The late jazz legend Charles Mingus, an influence on generations of musicians, may have only spent the first four months of his life in Arizona, as he was born in the border town of Nogales in 1922, but our state's rough and ready atmosphere might have had a profound effect on his psyche. We posited such a theory in a 1993 piece documenting his wild life and musical legacy.
Charles Mingus may have thought little of his Arizona birthplace, but he certainly lived out the spirit of the Wild West long after Nogales was behind him. A 1966 documentary shows him casually testing out a rifle by blasting a hole in the roof of his New York loft. He regularly pimped and courted a bevy of whores. And he cradled a lifelong obsessive rage that falsely maintained his stepbrother had been lynched by a mob of angry whites. Mingus was forever paranoid of imaginary foils, once attempting to murder a fellow band member with an ax over an alleged racial slur. As for cowboy or musician stereotypes, the bassist unabashedly presented himself in Beneath the Underdog as someone equally comfortable with a holster or a bass.
Mingus is remembered today because the music he produced was no less volatile and unpredictable than he was. Once out of the ranks of such smoothies as [Stan] Getz and [Duke] Ellington, Mingus assembled more leathery musicians — among them sax screamers like Eric Dolphy, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and George Adams — forming big bands barely held together by spit and the directions Mingus shouted midtune as though he were herding cattle.
Eat your heart out, Miles Davis.
No discussion of influential musicians connected with our state would be complete without mentioning 1950s superstar Marty Robbins, who was born and raised in Glendale. "He's someone who influenced a sound and maximized their career in Arizona, without a doubt, because he was on top of country and rock charts constantly for over a decade," Dixon says. And how. Between 1952 and 1982, Robbins scored 17 different number-one songs on the country charts and six times as many hits in the top 40. And we're willing to bet you've heard at least some of his ditties during your lifetime, such as "Just Married," "Singing the Blues," "Maybellene," and his biggest song, 1959's "El Paso," which was used prominently in the final episode of Breaking Bad.
Like the gargantuan worms from Dune that sorta inspired its name, Tucson's alt-country collective Giant Sand lumbered through the desert for 31 years before finally expiring earlier this year. It was a chimeric beast, as evidenced by its ever-shifting roster of dozens of members, plus guest musicians that included indie rock royalty like M. Ward, Neko Case, and Vic Chesnutt. The only constants were singer/songwriting oddity Howe Gelb, his velvety well-worn croon, the collaborative nature of recording sessions, and the fact that its music will be beloved worldwide. Lanning says that Gelb and Giant Sand's voluminous discography is huge around the world and hugely influential. "They've been making records for so long, they've paved the way for a lot of independent bands, largely coming out of Tucson but somewhat in Phoenix as well," she says. "I'd even say they impacted many of the more guitar-based, jangle-poppy stuff that was coming out of Tempe."
John Convertino (left) and Joey Burns of Calexico.
On the subject of Giant Sand, scribes at the Riverfront Times described Giant Sand as a "charm school for artists to pass through on their way to bigger stages." That couldn't be a truer statement in the case of Joey Burns and John Convertino, two Giant Sand alumni who formed Tucson's Calexico in 1996. And they brought with them an appreciation for Latin-infused amalgamations with their western-meets-southwestern indie rock with a folkloric flair.
"[Calexico] is one band that truly represents Arizona, because they blend our history and our heritage so well," Lanning says. "They are truly, uniquely Arizonan." And they've repped our state nationwide, over the airwaves (ranging from appearances on Conan and Kimmel to broadcasts of Austin City Limits), or out into space. Former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a noted fan, selected Calexico's music to be played as "wake-up songs" aboard the space shuttle on two occasions for her husband, NASA commander Mark Kelly.
R. Carlos Nakai
Flagstaff-born musician R. Carlos Nakai is quite singular among the artists we’ve included on this list for any number of reasons. First off, the traditional Native American flautist’s music has been archived in the Library of Congress (via its American Folklife Center), as well as the fact that he’s collaborated with such esteemed figures as composer Philip Glass and Israeli cellist Udi Bar-David. Nakai, who is of Navajo-Ute heritage, has also been featured in the 2005 Terrence Malick film The New World and he has scored both a gold and platinum record (respectively, 1987's Earth Spirit and 1989's Canyon Trilogy), the only Native American-oriented albums to achieve such an distinction.
(Curt Kirkwood, Cris Kirkwood & Derrick Bostrom)
When Curt and Cris Kirkwood shared a stage with Nirvana during their MTV Unplugged in New York special in 1993, it exposed the Meat Puppets to an audience of millions. By then, however, the band (which originally featured drummer Derrick Bostrom) had already gained fans around the world, although not to the level of things after their breakthrough album, Too High to Die, and its main single, "Backwater," was released. Meat Puppets were more alt-rock/grunge at that point, but that was by no means their definitive sound. At the band's formation in 1980, it was more of a punk thing, which later evolved into a cowpunk and then weirdish art-rock hybrid or whatever else suited their fancy.
"One of the great things about the Meat Puppets is that they didn't sound like anything else," says local musician Michael Pistrui. "They were their own sound." While they toiled in obscurity for years, the band had many famous followers, including Henry Rollins, who reportedly helped Meat Puppets get signed to SST Records in 1983. And, of course, Nirvana covered "Lake of Fire" for the band's famous MTV Unplugged session. "They certainly had a big influence on a lot of folks, just with attitude and music and certainly great ties to the desert and a long history of playing here," Dixon says.
Sun City Girls
(Alan Bishop, Richard Bishop & Charles Gocher)
In many respects, the Sun City Girls were cut from the same cloth as Meat Puppets. As with their counterparts, the act involved a trio of musicians that included a pair of brothers (in this case, Richard and Alan Bishop) who sported a chimerical sound in the artier vein, and they initially had a smaller fanbase but have become a much-beloved band with worldwide acclaim. "They weren't a popular band at first but were known in that specific art punk scene," Pawlicki says.
The similarities sorta end there, as Sun City Girls' rock was more experimental and avant-garde. "Richard was such an advanced guitar player," Pawlicki says. "He was a guy who was playing jazz and entirely different things than punk rock when he was in that scene. They're so genuinely unique that they're an influence on bands here, but they're an influence on bands around the world, literally, in their case. Whenever Sonic Youth came to town, first thing they did was ask about the Sun City Girls."
Country music queen Jessi Colter.
James Minchin III
Although she's best known for her longtime personal and professional relationship with singing partner, collaborator, and husband, the late Waylon Jennings, Mesa-born country queen Jessi Colter has a certain amount of her own fame and renown. "I think as many people knew Jessi through Waylon, because they were a team for a long, long time," Dixon says. "She's always been a great songwriter and singer in her own right."
That includes penning and performing her chart-topping 1975 crossover hit singles "I'm Not Lisa" and "What's Happened to Blue Eyes," and writing songs for Rosemary Clooney, Marianne Faithfull, and Chet Atkins. Colter is also considered one of few female members of country music's true outlaws and has been cited as an influence by singer-songwriters like Iris Dement and current-day country stars Deana Carter and Faith Hill.
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