Food Network star Alton Brown has hosted a trio of successful shows-- Good Eats, Iron Chef America, Cutthroat Kitchen -- and has authored numerous bestselling books. From discovering chaos through the Beatles to dealing with loss via Steely Dan and the song that derailed his career as a professional jazz musician, he shares his life in music. Alton has taken his show on the road for the “Eat Your Science” tour, which lands in LA on March 17 and 18. (Hosted by Eric J Lawrence)
1. The Beatles - A Day in the Life
2. Steely Dan - Reelin' Dan
3. John Coltrane - Lush Life
4. Talking Heads - Once in a Lifetime
5. REM - The One I Love
Eric J. Lawrence: Hi I’m Eric J. Lawrence, and I am here with Food Network star Alton Brown. Aside from the many TV shows he’s hosted -- Good Eats, Iron Chef America, Cutthroat Kitchen -- he’s also authored numerous bestselling books and has taken his show on the road for the “Eat Your Science” tour. But today we’re here to talk about five songs that have inspired him throughout his life as part of KCRW’s Guest DJ Project. Alton, thank you so much for joining us.
Alton Brown: Thanks for having me Eric.
EJL: What’s the first track you got for us?
AB: The specific ask from you guys was to come up with five songs that had influenced. That’s a very different kind of thing, because I think that very often we’re influenced by music without even knowing that it’s happening and it forces a certain amount of retrospection and looking back over your life.
I’m from Los Angeles, born here in 1962 and my folks were from a small town in North Georgia. They decided in 1969 to buy a small AM radio station in a small town and move back to Georgia. But it was a big culture shock that I went from living in North Hollywood to a town where kids came to school without shoes on.
To soften the blow or to somehow help me find my way, my dad would occasionally bring home demo records from the radio station. And one day, of course this is a couple of years after it had come out he brought me this kind of beat up station copy of this Beatles’ album called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which I had heard tracks from probably, but I wasn’t aware of them.
And I sat down with my little portable turntable and I was in bed when I finally was listening and got to “A Day In the Life” and I’ll never forget it.
I’m laying there in darkness and when that orchestral atonal crescendo happens, it scared the crap out of me. The hair stood up on the back of my neck. It was like the first time I had heard chaos, and I remember being terrified by it. And then there’s this massive E chord, it was like dropping acid. It was like a mind-altering experience. The album, of course, changed music, and we all know that. But, for me personally, “A Day in the Life” became kind of a benchmark of opening my eyes to a different phase of life.
EJL: Well here it is, the Beatle’s with a classic, “A Day in the Life.”
*Song: The Beatles – A Day in the Life*
EJL: What’s the next track you got for us?
AB: 1973 was a big year for me. My father died in 1973 on the last day of 6 th grade. I would’ve been 10, I hadn’t turned 11 yet.
And for some reason, in order to reckon with that tragedy -- kids don’t experience tragedy the same way everybody else does, it’s like somebody rocking the boat in a very big way -- I remember 1973 very strongly, musically.
It was a big year for music, a lot happened in 1973. The new guard was coming in, Elton John was on the rise. Alice Cooper, Zeppelin. There was a lot going on musically.
But then there was this funky little band called Steely Dan. I remember the first time that I heard this cut off of their debut album “Can’t Buy A Thrill”, “Reelin’ in the Years” with that amazing guitar solo by Elliott Randall, a session player. Jimmy Page later said that it was his favorite guitar solo of all time. But the real reason that I put this here isn’t because that one song influenced me as much as introduced me to Steely Dan, which became my signature band. They are mine. If I had a coat of arms, Steely Dan would be on it.
But I think “Reelin in the Years” was one of the first times I listened to a song and got this kind of poetic melancholy of loss and questioning things. It’s a happy song in so many ways and musically it’s a very joyful tune, but it’s a questioning song of loss. “The things you think are useless I can’t understand.” And that’s still a line that plagued me.
*Song: Steely Dan – Reelin’ Dan*
EJL: That was Steely Dan with “Reeling in the Years” as selected by our guest Alton Brown. Well, next on your list I see we get into some classic jazz with “Lush Life.”
AB: My father bought me a used saxophone when I was in the fifth grade, and it became a real totem for me.
I learned how to play and it became kind of my life. And jazz became a very big deal for me. And I thought this was something I might pursue.
But during my senior year, I had to write a paper. And then I read a reference to of course on the impulse label the album John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman.
Johnny Hartman a crooner who really didn’t believe himself to be a jazz singer. And when he was approached by some friends in management with the possibility of doing an album with John Coltrane, at first declined. Then he went to Birdland in New York and listened to Coltrane and they had this conversation, along with Coltrane’s keyboardist McCoy Tyner. And they decided to do this album together.
It’s not only Coltrane’s band at its height, what they would call the classic combo. But, from the relationship between an instrument - the tenor saxophone - and the voice of Johnny Hartman, it is absolutely sublime.
Album was recorded in a day. They used the first take of all but one track and only had one alternate track for each of them. And on the way to the recording studio, Coltrane and Johnny Hartman are sharing the cab to the studio and they hear on the radio Nat King Cole singing “Lush Life”. And right there on the spot Johnny Hartman decided we have to put it on the album. It was a decision made that day.
And when I heard it, I knew I was done. We had this little listening booth in the library and I listened and I walked out knowing that I would never be a professional jazz musician. I knew that I could never be as good as I could hear and that if I couldn’t be as good as what I could hear other people doing, then I had no interest in pursuing it.
*Song: John Coltrane – Lush Life*
EJL: John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman with “Lush Life” the track that utterly derailed Alton Brown’s jazz career.
AB: Indeed. For the betterment of all humanity.
EJL: Alton, what’s the next track you’ve got for us?
AB: I graduated high school in 1979, the New Wave was just getting started. As I moved into my college years we all started being aware of all this other music that was happening. Driving in the car one day I heard “Once in a Lifetime.” And, again, it was one of those songs that it penetrates on so many different levels musically because of this weird polyrhythmic thing that they did.
Of course I didn’t know at the time that Brian Eno had actually recorded each of the members of the band doing different things without knowing what the other members were doing and cross-fading them. But the main thing was this idea of ‘You will chase the American Dream, you will get the cash and prizes, and one day you will look around and say, ‘how did I get here? This is not my beautiful house, this is not my beautiful car, this is not my beautiful wife.’
And I realized with that song that I wasn’t going to be someone who chased normal dreams, I wasn’t going to go down the road most traveled, in my life. This song became my anthem. Through three different colleges and a lot of different years. And in some way, definitely when I look at the line of my life, it veered me.
*Song: Talking Heads – Once in a Lifetime*
EJL: That was Talking Heads with “Once In A Lifetime” as selected by our guest Alton Brown. What’s the last track you got for us?
AB: I went to the University of Georgia in the 80s. That was a hot bed of American music, really. During those years, Athens was a big deal. And I was aware of REM and they were okay but I wasn’t a fan.
But I had left the University of Georgia, I had gone to work in Atlanta at night, and I caught rumors that there was going to be a new album and that it was going to be a deal. And I knew that whenever they made a video they did it out of this little bitty company in Athens, they always had.
So I went back to Athens, I got a job working almost for nothing with this video production company. And I decided, I will wait.
And I waited, and this painter named Robert Longo who’s a friend of Michael Stipe’s showed up to this production company in town, hired this little production company, and hired me to be the cinematographer. I was 24, I wanna say, to be the Director of Photography for this, because we were of course shooting on film.
I shot the video for “The One I Love” off of “Document” and, although I will not say that the song itself changed my life, it set my career on a path. I became a commercial director at 26, and everything I have done since came out of “The One I Love.”
This song, I can honestly say, changed my life.
EJL: Absolutely. Here it is, REM with “The One I Love.”
*Song: REM – The One I Love*
EJL: And how does food play into music for you?
AB: They’re very interconnected and one of the reasons for that is because I can’t cook without music. You might be cooking one day in a minor key, you might be cooking one day with a funky jazz time signature like Brubeck or something. And then other days it might be more operatic.
I actually have a playlist for dishes, if I’m gonna make this, I’m gonna play this. For me, there’s something both theatrical in the act of cooking and most certainly, musical.
EJL: Alton, I want to thank you so much for joining us here at KCRW.com.
AB: An absolute pleasure, thanks Eric.
Photo by Dustin Downing