Friday, July 17, 2015

Great American Songwriters: Michael Masser

On July 9, 2015, we lost an incredible American songwriter, composer and producer whom you may have never heard of: Michael Masser, born in 1941 in Chicago, became a stockbroker after attending the University of Illinois College of Law – but eventually left that career to pursue his true calling, and subsequently leave an indelible mark on the music industry.

At the age of 32, after honing his songwriting skills, Masser got his big break. He co-wrote (with Ron Miller) and produced the song "Touch Me in the Morning" which was recorded by Diana Ross – and which became a Number One smash hit. He immediately followed that success with the chart-topping "Theme from 'Mahogany' (Do You Know Where You're Going To?)" that landed him and lyricist Gerry Goffin an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song.

That moment may have felt like the peak of stardom, however, Masser's star still had a long way to climb. While producing Teddy Pendergrass' album "Love Language", he met and took a liking to a promising – yet still unknown – young singer, who sang the album's duet "Hold Me" with Teddy. Her name was Whitney Houston, and Masser had a hunch that she would be a success – so much so, that he wrote a number of songs for her to record. Three of those became Number One hits from her first two albums: "The Greatest Love of All", "Saving All My Love" and "Didn't We Almost Have it All". Masser's knack for composing sweeping melodies and writing super-romantic lyrics (yes, you'll see some patterns there) combined with Whitney Houston's phenomenal voice proved to be a match made in music history.

The incredible success that followed catapulted both Whitney and Masser, with the latter going on to write and produce hit after hit after hit. His credits include "Tonight I Celebrate My Love For You" (sung by Roberta Flack and Peabo Bryson), "Nothing's Gonna Change My Love For You" (George Benson and Glen Medeiros), "If Ever You're In My Arms Again" (Peabo Bryson), "Nobody Wants To Be Alone" (Crystal Gayle), "Last Time I Saw Him" (Dottie West and Diana Ross), "First You Have to Say You Love Me" (Neil Diamond), "Miss You Like Crazy" (Natalie Cole), "It's My Turn" (Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross), "All At Once" (Whitney Houston), and "Someone That I Used To Love" (Barbra Streisand).

While it could be said that Masser's career was comprised of a series of chance meetings and sheer luck, his talent was undeniable. With Whitney Houston, he created a surefire recipe for success – it combined distinctive electric-piano tones and certain syllables (just think of all those "ahhhh" sounds) that flattered the singer's voice and propelled it powerfully above the delicate keys – and while he was never able to replicate this sort of success with any other artist, he didn't need to. Together, the two made a sort of magic that just doesn't seem to happen much anymore.

In 2002, a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars was dedicated to Michael Masser and in 2007, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Can you believe that he first went to law school and worked as a stockbroker? It just goes to show that the road to success can take many twists and turns before it turns in the right direction, and that no two stories are ever the same.

For more stories, profiles, updates and news from the American music industry, be sure to keep following us here at HillTop Records.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Forget the Fireworks. Here are July’s Best Music Festivals.

Summer is in full swing, and with it the 2015 festival season – so no matter where in the country you are, consider it high time to enjoy some music-filled fun in the sun!

Here are our picks for the best music festivals happening this July:

Highberry Music Festival (7/2/2015 – 7/5/2015) in Ozark, Arkansas
Celebrate the 4th of July and the peak of the summer season with this laid-back but lively festival at the Byrds Adventure Center. The venue alone makes the event worth attending – it has beautiful campgrounds on 800 acres of land, full of majestic walking trails and spectacular vistas. Amid the Ozarks' scenic splendor, festival attendees may enjoy live performances by the likes of Railroad Earth, Earphunk The Schwag, The Grateful Dead Experience, and other great jam and tribute bands. Both single-day tickets and full weekend passes are available.

West Michigan Wine & Jazz Festival (7/2/2015 – 7/5/2015) in Montague, Michigan
Prefer to welcome summer over chilled glasses of Pinot Grigio? This elegant yet accessible jazz festival is for you. Along with three full days of live music by Checkers Morton, Xavier Davis Trio and more, this event will offer evening happy hours and dinners at various venues throughout Montague as well as a delicious jazz brunch on Sunday. Additionally, special theme nights will pair chocolate, wine and gourmet cheese while guests enjoy the smooth sounds of local jazz groups.

40th Annual 111th Street Stickball Music Festival (7/5/2015) in New York, New York
For a music festival to stick around for forty years, it has to be good – right? Well, this one is. While a highlight is definitely the annual stickball competition, which pits the country's best teams against one another in a classic street version of baseball, there will also be plenty for music lovers to enjoy. The main stage will host live performances covering everything from Latin salsa to R&B to soul, while organized games and vendors round out the wide range of offerings.

Newport Music Festival (7/10/2015 – 7/26/2015) in Newport, Rhode Island
Since 1969, this event has grown to become one that residents of Newport and the surrounding area wait all year long for. It offers the unique chance to listen to acclaimed chamber music in the famous Newport Mansions, as local millionaires lend their massive Neo-Classical and Baroque-style summer homes to a cultural cause. This year presents over 65 classical concerts in incredible ballroom and on perfectly manicured lawns, while other international artists play in impressive venues like The Great Hall of The Breakers. If you love chamber music or architecture or just a great party, you won't want to miss this event.

Sun Valley Music Festival (7/11/2015) in Alexandria, Kentucky
Free for children under age 12 and undoubtedly family-friendly, this is one festival that you can bring the whole brood to! It will be held at A.J. Jolly Park and will feature live bluegrass by Hickory Robot, the Comet Bluegrass Allstars, the Rail Splitters Empty Bottle String Band and other popular acts as attendees include tasty food items, ice-cold drinks (including beer) and vendors selling crafts and gifts. There will also be activities for children, and onsite camping for those looking to make a full weekend out of it.

Illinois Chamber Music Festival (7/12/2015 – 8/1/2015) in Bloomington, Illinois
Strings, piano, winds and harp are ready to come together at Illinois Wesleyan University to celebrate thirteen years of superior chamber music education. The program is designed for young musicians who wish to participate in intensive chamber music training, and the festival is a great way to see what these talented and enterprising young adults have been up to. Set up as a summer concert series, the festival offers 12 performances by faculty and students as well as guest artists from around the area. Best of all, each show is free and open to the public.

JulyFest Art & Music Festival (7/18/2015 – 7/19/2015) in Mentone, Alabama
First launched in 2012, this festival keeps getting bigger and better every year. The 2015 lineup includes David Lusk, Chris Hale, Elisha Tatum, Jess McClendon, and other fantastic acts including a headliner Saturday night performance by the Donna Hopkins Band. Attendees can expect to enjoy a delightful mix of blues, rock, roots and Americana music as well as booths showcasing the works of about 50 talented local artists and craftspeople.

13th Annual Edgewood Arts & Music Festival (7/24/2015 – 7/26/2015) in Edgewood, New Mexico
Brought to you by Wildlife West, this annual music festival features the best in local bluegrass, Western swing, Irish, singer/songwriter and other acoustic genres. The covered amphitheater and indoor venue provides plenty of comfortable seating, and you may also get up to tour the various workshops, contests, open jams and events taking place throughout the festival. Additionally, you are welcome to explore the zoo and other park features as you listen to musical Americana.

GnawBrew Beer Art and Music Festival (7/25/2015 – 7/26/2015) in Nashville, Indiana
By combining three of Nashville's favorite pastimes, this festival manages to offer something for everyone. It's just as much of an art and music festival as it is a beer fest, making this a truly one-of-a-kind event. Enjoy sampling and mingling with home-brewers and winemakers as you peruse booths filled with incredible art and listen to live music in the heart of Brown County. Don't want to leave at the end of the day? Don't! There will be onsite camping available, and festivities are sure to last until the wee hours.

31st Annual Reggae on the River (7/30/2015 – 8/2/2015) in Garberville, California
If you're a reggae fan, then you probably already know about this event – as it's officially the longest running reggae festival in the United States! Set on the banks of the majestic Eel River, it always delivers the best in reggae and world music to the hills of Humboldt County and attendees from across the country. This year's lineup includes Stephen "Ragga" Marley, Cham, Fortunate Youth, Tarrus Riley & Blak Soil, and a long list of other notable acts. Meanwhile, there will be over 60 vendors and on-profit booths, the ever-lively KidLandia, onsite camping, and more.

Didn't see what you're looking for? Try one of these great events happening in July:

– 25th Annual High Sierra Music Festival (7/2/2015 – 7/5/2015) in Quincy, California
4th of July Fireworks & Austin Symphony Orchestra (7/4/2015) in Austin, Texas
KC RiverFest (7/4/2015) in Kansas City, Missouri
Rock the Springs (7/4/2015) in Silver Springs, Florida
New Bedford Folk Festival (7/4/2015 – 7/5/2015) in New Bedford, Massachusetts
4th Annual Island Reggae Festival (7/4/2015 – 7/5/2015) in San Jose, California
New Hampshire Music Festival (7/7/2015 – 8/6/2015) in Plymouth, New Hampshire
Square Roots (7/10/2015 – 7/12/2015) in Chicago, Illinois
Equip The Sword Christian Music Festival (7/11/2015) in Inwood, West Virginia
Music in the Mountains 29th Festival Season (7/12/2015 – 8/2/2015) in Durango, Colorado
Frogtown Hollow Jam (7/17/2015 – 7/18/2015) in Columbus, Georgia
RiverFest (7/17/2015 – 7/18/2015) in Bellevue, Nebraska
Jazz and Rib Fest (7/17/2015 – 7/19/2015) in Columbus, Ohio
NelsoNucka Country Music Festival (7/18/2015 – 7/19/2015) in Nelson, Nebraska
Tullahoma Country Music Festival (7/24/2015 – 7/26/2015) in Tullahoma, Tennessee

For more information on fun festivals near you, visit – and be sure to keep following us here at HillTop Records as we bring you the latest news and updates from the American music industry!

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A Brief Introduction to Brazilian Music

Brazilian music has its origins in Native American culture. The country's indigenous people punctuated their religious rituals with a lively blend of rattlers, shakers and panpipes – thus creating their first songs. This music was later influenced by a number of outside cultures; as new populations emigrated to Brazil, so did their instruments and melodies.

In the 17th century, African slaves brought with them the passionate, frenzied drumming of their candomble rituals. On the other end of the spectrum were the slow, emotional ballads written by Brazil's first Portuguese colonists. Their preferred instruments were the cavaquinhos (similar to the ukulele), the bandolim (like a mandolin), bagpipes, and the Portuguese guitar. These sounds are all still evident in the country's music today.

Some say that Brazilian music as we know it today really started in the 1870's with the invention of the choro, an instrumental musical style involving multiple instruments that eventually led to the creation of the samba (which evolved around the start of the 20th century.)

From both African and European traditions came the sensual body movements (inspired by the infectious dances of the African slaves but also the polka, mazurka and other European rhythms) typically associated with Brazilian music. In the 1920's, these cultures combined to create the maxixe, a flamboyant tango very popular during that time.

It was not until the 1930's and '40's that the rest of the world (or at least North America) caught on to the beautiful, passionate melodies of Brazilian music. First came the love songs and then, in 1958, bossa nova hit the scene Рand changed Brazilian music (not to mention its influence on other styles of music) for good. M̼sica Popular Brasileira, or MPB (which basically classified any sort of music with Brazilian origins) hit global airwaves, and people everywhere became enchanted with the exotic sounds and romantic imagery of the genre.

Commonly considered to be the father of the bossa nova movement, Antonio Carlos Jobim was a great influence at this time. The classically trained composer showed his eclectic tastes through Ravel-inspired melodies and hints of the blues. He also partnered extensively with fellow songwriter Vinicius de Moraes, who was one of Brazil's most celebrated poets. Together, the two dominated the bossa nova scene for over 35 years – and impacted a countless number of international artists. From jazz saxophonist Stan Getz to musical legend Frank Sinatra, many important figures cited Jobim and Moraes among their greatest influences.

In Brazil, when you discuss the history of bossa nova, the name Astrud Gilberto will inevitably come to mind; the singer was a household name during the genre's momentous rise in popularity. Another milestone was the 1960 release of Jobim's and Moraes' film Black Orpheus, a musical that set the myth of Orpheus in present-day (at the time) Brazil during Carnaval.

In the decades since, Brazilian music (much like music in any part of the world) has shifted and expanded to reflect current global trends. In the 1980's, funk, rap and even metal were introduced to the scene; each genre managed to leave its mark to a different degree. Now you will find that the music of Brazil is just as varied as it is in any other country. However, its smooth jazz roots and tropical flair remain characteristics.

Want to explore the different types of Brazilian music? Check out the Brazilian stations at Live 365. Perhaps you will find something new to inspire your next songwriting venture.

As always, we will continue to bring you updates on and information about the world of music – so keep checking back with us here on our official HillTop Records blog.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Solstice Celebrations: The Best Music Festivals in June, 2015

Boasting the first official day of summer and the longest of the year, June is a month with a lot to celebrate – and for evidence of that, just look at how many great music festivals are happening now! No matter which part of the country you live in, you're sure to find a fun-filled outdoor event near you. To get you started, here are our picks for the best music festivals across the United States this June:

Rockabilly On The Route (6/4/2015 – 6/7/2015) in Tucumcari, New Mexico
Now in its third year, this four-day festival is the biggest event of its kind on historic Route 66 and in all of New Mexico. It comprises The Wheels On 66 Classic Car & Vintage Motorcycle Show, which is free to attend, as well as the Burn-Out, Pin-Up Contest, Cruise on 66, bowling, a classic movie drive-in, burlesque shows, a swap meet, and live music by The Creepshow, Wayne The Train Hancock, Hard Fall Hearts, Reno Divorce, and more.

Avalon Bikes, Blues & BBQ 2015 (6/5/2015 – 6/7/2015) in Paw Paw, West Virginia
As the first of Avalon Resort's annual Summer Lawn Parties, this annual gathering promises some serious fun in the sun. Attendees may enjoy a full weekend of food, bikes, live music and activities like guided rides, a motorcycle show, DJ music on the lawn and a Saturday night DJ dance. Admission is $5, and all proceeds go to the Wounded Warrior Project – so it really is a party for a cause. If you're in the area, you won't want to miss it.

Kickn Up Kountry Music Festival (6/10/2015 – 6/13/2015) in Karlstad, Minnesota
Nothing says "summertime" quite like a camping trip, and this one combines the best parts of that with an outdoor country music festival. The lineup features Mustang Sally, Dustin Lynch, The Highwaymen and more. There will also be food and souvenir vendors, games in the saloon, and plenty of opportunity to make friends around the campgrounds.

Cole Porter Festival (6/11/2015 – 6/14/2015) in Peru, Indiana
Starting with the 11th Annual Cole Porter Revue, Prehistoric Cole, this fun-filled event is for die-hard fans and the uninitiated alike. Enjoy live music at multiple stages around the Miami County Museum as well as food and guided tours of Cole Porter's restored birthplace, the Old Fashioned Garden and Cole's grave. Saturday evening will bring the headline concert, featuring Steve Ross at Peru High School. On Sunday, there will be a classic car show and a reprise of the Revue.

Golden Music Festival (6/12/2015 – 6/14/2015) in Golden, Colorado
Nestled against the rustic hillside of Colorado, the Golden Music Festival is both beautiful and fun-filled. It is held at the stunning amphitheater in Golden's Clear Creek History Park, and is one of the region's top bluegrass and Americana music festivals. The lineup features both national and up-and-coming acts, and tickets can be purchased for a single day or the entire weekend.

Chicago Blues Festival (6/12/2015 – 6/19/2015) in Chicago, Illinois
This is the largest free-admission blues festival in the world. It offers more than 60 live performances on five stages in Grant Park, situated on Chicago's spectacular lakefront. With three full days of music and fun, it draws a crowd – and it can be difficult to see the headlining acts. However, what makes this festival so special is the variety of side stages; you'll even find great musicians playing along the sidewalks near the park and the lake. Don't miss the homey Front Porch Stage, or grittier clubs like Chicago's South and Near West. There will also be plenty of food and beer stands to enhance the weekend.

Bill Monroe's Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival (6/13/2015 – 6/20/2015) in Bean Blossom, Indiana
Founded by the late, great Bill Monroe in 1966, this festival has grown exponentially to become a truly one-of-a-kind event. It offers eight full days of live music, performed by over 50 bands. The lineup this year includes Dr. Ralph Stanley & Clinch Mountain Boys, Spinney Brothers, The Grascals, and more – and there will also be competitions and workshops. So stop by to learn about the story of bluegrass, tour the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, or just sit back and listen to the tunes.

ZIONTIFIC Summer Solstice Music Festival (6/19/2015 – 6/22/2015) in Stockbridge, Vermont
Bring the whole family to celebrate the first official day of summer at this fantastic event, which includes everything from live music to onsite camping. There will also be a kids' zone with ongoing activities for children, a Wellness Village, river tubing, fire shows by Cosmic Karma Fire, a Silent Disco, and a food drive organized to benefit Strangers Helping Strangers.

2015 Pan People Music Festival (6/20/2015) in Denver, Colorado
Held on the Auraria Campus in the heart of Denver, this event is in partnership with the University of Colorado at Denver's College of Arts and Media. It showcases the talents of steel drum and steel pan groups from across the Front Range, and there will also be a dinner and special film screening. (The film is called "Pan! Our Modern Odyssey," and is an 80-minute docudrama on the evolution of steel pan.) Performers scheduled include Bison Pan Groove, The Pan Association, and more.

Rage Fest Music, Camping, and Arts Festival (6/26/2015 – 6/28/2015) in New Athens, Illinois
A three-day, two-night music and camping festival right on the beautiful shores of the Kaskaskia River, this festival promises fun respite from the city – and is actually only 45 minutes from St. Louis. Music lovers may enjoy over twenty acts on two stages, with performances going till the wee hours of the morning on Sunday.

Didn't find what you're looking for? Here are even more great events to keep an eye out for this month:

HOBA Bluegrass Festival (6/4/2015 – 6/6/2015) in West Plains, Missouri
16th Annual Roots on the River Festival (6/4/2015 – 6/7/2015) in Bellows Falls, Vermont
Brentwood LI Tropical Salsa Music Festival (6/6/2015) in Brentwood, New York
33rd San Francisco Jazz Festival (6/10/2015 – 6/21/2015) in San Francisco, California
Country Fan Jam (6/11/2015 – 6/14/2015) in Nashville, Tennessee
2015 Wakarusa Bluegrass Festival (6/12/2015 – 6/14/2015) in Wakarusa, Indiana
New Bedford JazzFest (6/13/2015) in New Bedford, Massachusetts
Reggae in the Hills (6/12/2015 – 6/14/2015) in Angels Camp, California
Blistered Fingers Family Bluegrass Festival (6/17/2015 – 6/21/2015) in Litchfield, Maine
Northern Sun Music Festival (6/19/2015 – 6/21/2015) in Hinesburg, Vermont
Joplin Jazz N June Music Roots Festival (6/20/2015) in Joplin, Missouri
The Thoroughbred Music and Arts Festival (6/27/2015 – 6/28/2015) in Aiken, South Carolina

To find even more music festivals and events near you, visit – and keep checking back with us here at HillTop Records, as we bring you the latest news and updates from the American music industry.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Meet Bagpipes

Unsurprisingly, bagpipes – those instruments you rarely hear outside of ceremonial music or Irish folk songs – boast a long and interesting history. While evidence of pre-Roman era bagpipes is shaky, it’s understood that these instruments have been around for a very long time – since perhaps as far back as 1000 BC, in the Middle East.

Prevalent in the Eastern Roman Empire, bagpipes have been depicted in countless paintings, carvings and literary works since. They are mentioned, for example, in The Canterbury Tales – and in John Derrick’s The Image of Irelande, from 1581. And while the first clear reference to Scottish Highland bagpipes appears to be from a French history, today we most often think of the instruments in terms of Irish and Scottish culture.

As cultures have grown in sophistication and technological advances, bagpipes have fallen out of fashion – and they have certainly been on a slow, long decline for quite some time. However, they are still used throughout the United Kingdom and Commonwealth Nations, and especially at formal military ceremonies. Police and fire services in Scotland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and the United States have adopted the tradition of fielding pipe bands for special occasions. And from time to time, you’ll see bagpipes enjoy a quick surge of popularity – when the film Braveheart came out, for example, or when Riverdance first hit the scene.

While bagpipe making was once a craft closely tied to heritage and traditional styles, it is now a multi-million-dollar industry largest in (surprisingly enough) Pakistan. In the late 20th century, the first electronic bagpipes were invented – showing just how far the instrument has come.

Today, dozens of types of bagpipes can be found across Europe and the Middle East – but the Great Highland bagpipe is by far the most well known. As with all bagpipes, their traditional purpose is to provide music for dancing – and no matter the style, the basics of construction remain the same: Bagpipes are aerophones, which use enclosed reeds fed from a constant reservoir of air in the form of a bag. Along with the air supply and bag, bagpipes are comprised of a chanter (a set of finger-holes that allows the player to create a melody) and usually at least one drone (a pipe that, while rarely fingered, produces a constant harmonizing note.)

If you’re looking for bagpipes in modern music, you won’t have to look very far. They may have waned in usage over the past few centuries, but they have definitely not disappeared. Just check out this list of Top 10 Rock ‘n’ RollBagpipe Songs, which include hits like “Come Talk to Me” by Peter Gabriel and “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)” by AC/DC. Who knows ­– the old-fashioned instrument may see a revival after all.

For more information and updates from the American music industry, be sure to keep checking back with us here at HillTop Records.

(Photo courtesy of Reddit.)