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The kids are all right

June 17, 2007
Chicago Tribune

MUSIC | Children of pop music icons pay tribute to their roots by singing the songs of their famous fathers

BY THOMAS CONNER Sunday Show Editor

Spencer Gibb is sitting in traffic in Austin, Texas, and he sighs. He thinks for a moment, then says, "People think it must have been a breeze being me." He's been talking for half an hour about the delicate relationship with his father, the Bee Gees' Robin Gibb, and he's been dispelling most preconceived notions about what it's like to be the progeny of pop royalty. Like it's not all bon-bons and Keith Richards parties, and all the doors do not open automatically to you.

"People know your heritage, so you never get to be you," he says. "They walk into the club where you're playing, and they say, well, 'You better be f---in' good.' I mean, facing that kind of thing certainly forced me to learn my instrument and be good. Because if you can just get people over that hump and get them to listen to what you're doing, then it is actually worth doing."

Think about it: You're the son of a huge pop icon. What do you do? Do you pursue a career of your own in any field other than pop music? If your particular paternal pop icon is well off, do you pursue a career at all? Or do you submit to the famous family genes and have a go at the music biz yourself?

Offspring of famous parents have pursued all of the above, but at least 14 of them bit the No. 1-with-a-bullet and followed him into the family business. Out now, exclusively at Target stores, is a CD called "A Song for My Father," a collection of kids of famous dads each performing one of their father's songs. Salvador Santana (Carlos' kid) does "Evil Ways," Ivan Neville (son of Aaron) does "Yellow Moon," Jen Chapin does, of course, Harry's working-dad staple "Cat's in the Cradle," and so on.

It was a long road to this point for each one of them, too. Most of the contributing artists we spoke with about this project previously had never recorded one of their father's songs, hoping to keep his legacy at arm's length long enough to establish their own musical identity.

"At some point you've got to get out far enough to see yourself as yourself, and see Dad for who he is, too," says Sarah Lee Guthrie, who has not only the legacy of her father (Arlo Guthrie) to wrestle with but that of her grandfather (Woody Guthrie). "And those are the best Father's Days -- when it's not just dad and child, but person to person."

The man behind the plan

The artists on "A Song for My Father" are the children of boomer-era pop stars. Two reasons for that: Those are the singers old enough to have grown children now, and they're the singers Jim Brandmeier likes.

"A lot of these people are my heroes," Brandmeier says in an interview from his Madison, Wis., home. "They're people I like and respect."

Brandmeier -- yes, he's the brother of Jonathon Brandmeier of WLUP-FM (97.9, "The Loop") -- formed his own record label and called it 180 Music. "Because I wanted us to get back to music," he says. "With radio consolidation and record company consolidation, it seems creativity has been delegated to the board room. So let's do a 180 and get back to the music."

"A Song for My Father" is one of the label's first discs. But beyond the father-child hook, Brandmeier -- a jazz flutist and a former commercial jingle producer in Chicago -- saw in this collection a chance to promote out-of-the-box musicians.

"This isn't so much about artists forging a career in the wake of their father's shadow, it's about forging a career with music and artistry that isn't necessarily the most commercial or Top 40 thing. That's a much bigger challenge than outshining a famous father," Brandmeier says. "A.J Croce, for instance -- young people don't know his dad [Jim Croce], but he's out there making music right down the line in the opposite direction of the Top 40. Ivan Neville is a great musician, and the Nevilles are a close-knit family, but they don't fall into the commercial cracks. ... I mean, these kids all seemed very proud of their fathers. The Nelsons [Matthew and Gunnar] were doing a tour last summer, a tribute to their late father [Ricky Nelson], a whole tour playing his music and telling stories. They certainly didn't look at that as an obstacle or a shadow. They saw it as an honor."

But many of these songs and all of these musical dads were once Top 40 and very commercial. The fact that the next generation singing the same songs is now far left of the commercial center made facing up to this project even more daunting for the kids. They're all eager to honor Dad, but sometimes they need a little time to themselves first.

And this isn't the first time they'd been asked. Devon Allman, son of Allman Brother and guitar hero Gregg Allman, says -- like all the artists we spoke with -- he's been approached for dozens of other tribute projects to his dad. In fact, the first such suggestion came from Gregg himself.

"I remember Dad saying, when I was 18, 'Let's go in and cut 10 or 12 Allman Brothers songs and have you sing 'em all,' and I was like, 'Oh, nooooo!' " Allman says. "I mean, fans already are coming to my shows and yelling out for 'Whipping Post.' ... My usual response to that is that there's a pretty good band out there on the road that does a pretty good version of that song -- because it's theirs! I've got my own thing. I don't need to be Dad. And he's cool with that now."

He pauses. "Whew."

A one-time thing

For this CD collection, however, these artists decided to make an exception -- a one-time tip of the hat to dear ol' Dad.

"This project seemed classy," Allman says. "I think when you're a second generation of someone like my dad, it's real easy to fall into that campy category where things are not done with taste. This project really felt like a tribute, not like a bunch of kids cashing in on their parents. It's about our representation of what they do."

Spencer Gibb echoes that evaluation. "I've been pitched a lot of this kind of thing over the years," he says. "I always turn them down because myself and my band [54 Seconds] weren't really into exploiting the name. And most projects seem kind of cheesy, but this one didn't. We had creative control, and it seemed like it was being done for all the right reasons. It wasn't just someone coming to me and saying, 'Hey, will you do "Staying Alive"?' Or asking some son of a Beach Boy to sing 'Good Vibrations.' "

In a way, that made it harder, though. Gibb says he agonized over which song to record. He chose "Run to Me," a Top 20 Bee Gees hit only briefly in 1972.

"Initially, we thought 'Run to Me' was too obvious for the band," he says. "We have that '60s melancholy thing going already, so we wanted to do a more well-known song and turn it upside down. We battled and battled, and we worked through some others in the studio, but it felt we were trying too hard. We kept coming back to 'Run to Me.' "

And what did Daddy Gibb think?

"He surprised me: He really loved it," Gibb says. "He's very critical of cover versions, but then he surprised me with something else. He told me 'Run to Me' was a hit single the week I was born. I never knew that. My only connection to it was that it was one of my favorite songs of theirs. And Dad wasn't present for my birth -- because he was promoting 'Run to Me' in the U.S.!"

Meanwhile, Sarah Lee Guthrie threatened to do all 15 minutes of her father's classic "Alice's Restaurant" for the CD.

"I thought it would be a great idea, and I actually learned the whole thing for the first time for this project," she says. She settled on "Coming in to Los Angeles." "It's a great song. I've been playing it for years with my dad, and it has a great energy. A lot of people try to rock that song out. I think it's more groovy, so we pulled it back, made it more mellow."

"That's what I wanted," Brandmeier says of his compilation. "I wanted these kids to honor their dads but express themselves in the process, too. And some of them really got a lot out of it. Louise Goffin -- she has two famous parents [lyricist Gerry Goffin and singer-songwriter Carole King]. She talked a lot in the studio, and her eyes were welling with tears. You could tell there was love there for Gerry. She didn't talk about Carole. This isn't 'A Song for My Mother.' "

He laughs. Maybe that's next. "Yeah, and we'll do 'A Song for Uncle Charlie' and 'A Song for Aunt Esther' ..."