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Music Journeys: Greg Harris

Feb 7, 2020

Greg Harris has served as president and CEO of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum since 2013, but his love of music and museums began well before that. On this edition of Music Journeys, Harris shares his personal path to Cleveland, steps that included running a record store and working at the Baseball Hall of Fame. 

2020 marks a big milestone for the Rock Hall as the museum celebrates 25 years in Cleveland. The induction ceremony also returns to town in May. In the Music Journeys podcast, Harris will explain the selection process, talk about this year's inductees, respond to criticism regarding a lack of women in the Rock Hall, and discuss the museum's transformation headlined by two recent exhibits. We'll also take you inside the Rock Hall in Cleveland to hear how the opening of one of those exhibits sounded - and we'll do so with the help of four Rock & Roll Hall of Famers. Greg Harris our featured guest on this edition of Music Journeys. Thanks for listening.   

Jul Big Green performing at the museum November 21, 2019... 

Cleveland-based musician Jul Big Green warms up the crowd before the opening of a new exhibit at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Even though four hall of famers were the big draw on this November night, there were pop-up performances like his scattered throughout the six-floor building. Greg Harris describes live music as a living, breathing art form, and it's something that's celebrated at the Rock Hall. 

"It's not just instruments and cases," Harris said of the museum and the emphasis on live music. "We did 100 days of live music on our plaza this summer. So when you walk up to the museum, odds are there's going to be a band cranking, and you're going to feel the power of Rock & Roll. Our mission is to engage, teach, and inspire through the power of Rock and Roll. When your mission is to do that, you can inspire and engage people in a lot of ways. When we put a band on stage, it's very different than a place that puts a band on stage just for entertainment. For us, it's mission-centered. We put original music on our stage, and we expose people to the power of Rock and Roll."   

Harris has served as president and CEO of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum since 2013, but his love of music, museums, and stories began long before that. Among his jobs before coming to Cleveland, running a record store, managing a band, and working at the Baseball Hall of Fame. 

"I was born in the middle 60's in Trenton and lived for the first ten years in New Jersey," Harris said. "Then the next seven years, I lived across the river in Pennsylvania. In that part of the world, Springsteen was everywhere."   

Growin' Up by Bruce Springsteen plays...

"We all love Bruce," Harris continued. "He was telling our stories, and we connected with him in a really powerful way. I was listening to Philadelphia radio. I was listening to college stations out of Princeton and Trenton and hearing alternative, punk, and indie music from great college radio stations along with the big FM stations as well as some AM stations that were playing great 50's and oldies stuff. That whole mish-mash kind of brought it together for me. I play guitar, but not well. Back then I would listen and play and jam with people. But always on the band side, I ended up helping by running the sound or by moving the gear or by ultimately being the road manager and not being the person up on stage."

The North Wind Blew by the Ben Vaughn Combo plays...

"At one point, I road-managed a band called the Ben Vaughn Combo," Harris said. "We actually played Columbus quite a bit. Not just loving music, but being able to live it. We would go to stations like this all over the country with the band and do in-studio sessions. Being around people that love music as much as you do, you kind of heighten each other. Now to be working at a place that celebrates this connection that we all have with Rock & Roll and the important moments of our life is just a dream come true."

"When I stand here and look back, it's a pretty straight line," Harris continued. "But while it was happening it didn't feel that way. Dropping out of school and opening the record store when your friends were finishing school, road managing a band, and ultimately going to graduate school and working some other jobs. Then to have the Baseball Hall of Fame experience for 14 years - the oldest and best established hall of fame in our country. They started in 1939 are really best in class. Then to take that and apply it to a young place like the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has just been a dream. And then the other night, I was lucky enough to spend some time with Nick Lowe after his show.” 

Somebody Cares For Me live version by Nick Lowe and Los Straitjackets plays...

"I was able to connect with Lowe and his guitar player Eddie Angel, one of the Los Straitjackets," Harris continued. "Those are people I met back in the 80's in the record store days while road managing other bands. It's this great sort of convergence, and these circles all come together. I feel very fortunate. The trick is to take a place that's as big and strong as the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame with all these visitors, but still give it that DNA and that feeling that makes Rock and Roll so special and so powerful without it being overly slick or commercialized. It has to be real, and by having this path gives you a good barometer to keep it real."

Keep On Chooglin' by Creedence Clearwater Revival plays...

"One of most special aspects of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is that every single visitor that walks through the front door has a lifetime of memory, a reservoir of life tied to this music," Harris said. "So when they hear a certain Creedence song, they think of the greatest road trip of their life. When they hear a Jackson Browne or a Carole King song..." 

Music by Carole King plays...

"...they might think about that time their heart was broken and how that music was there. They might think about somebody they haven't seen in a long time. They might think about all the other people that might love the same thing. There's a power in that connectedness, and that's Rock and Roll." 

If there's one thing about the Rock Hall that divides music fans, it's the topic of who's in and who's not. First, let's have Harris outline the selection process. 

"There's a lot of talk about it because I don't think most people are aware of how it works," Harris said. "There's a nominating committee. That committee is made up of a number of music critics, industry people, and other musicians. Tom Morello, Questlove, Dave Grohl - folks like that are on the committee. Everybody nominates two. And there are some rounds of voting, and it becomes a ballot of roughly 15. The reason you nominate somebody is because of their impact and influence, not necessarily record sales. Did they take the art form and do something new and interesting and drive it in a new way. That's why a band like Velvet Underground..." 

Rock & Roll by Velvet Underground plays...

"...who sold probably 100,000 to 200,000 records entered the hall of fame before some artists that sold tens of millions of records. So the ballot gets made, and then the ballot goes out to a voting body of about 1,000 people, and the largest voting block are all the other living inductees. So Bono votes, Tina Turner votes, Smoky Robinson votes, and then the top five vote-getters are elected to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. So it's election by your peers, and that's really meaningful. The process has served us pretty well. If you think about all the people and bands to make records, there's only 330 in the hall of fame. That's an exclusive club. Everybody feels like the band they loved that meant so much to them should be inducted. That said, simply because they had a great record or a great moment doesn't necessarily put them into that stratosphere. Fans care who's in and who's out, and artists care. That means we're remaining relevant. If people didn't care, that would be a bigger problem." 

Fans do play a small role once the nominees are announced through online voting. In fact, this year the Rock Hall partnered with Google so that just a simple search prompted a pop-up ballot.     

"Fans can vote once a day," Harris continued. "They can pick their five that should be inducted. We aggregate all the fan votes. They form two composite ballots that get tallied with the total. The margin between the top five and maybe six and seven is a pretty thin margin, so the fan vote does matter. We picked up this model from the Heisman Trophy. It's how they handle it. We've been doing in for about three years. Last year, I think we had 3 million votes cast."  

More than 8 million votes were cast for the 16 nominees announced in October - Pat Benatar, Dave Matthews Band, Depeche Mode, The Doobie Brothers, Whitney Houston, Judas Priest, Kraftwerk, MC5, Motorhead, Nine Inch Nails, Notorious B.I.G., Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Todd Rungren, Soundgarden, T.Rex, and Thin Lizzy. 

Fan reactions ran the gamut. For instance, take Whitney Houston. Some wondered why she's not already in, while others questioned her inclusion in a Rock & Roll museum.    

"Your listeners are knowledgeable music fans," Harris said. "I think people realize that Rock & Roll was never just for skinny guys with long hair and guitars. In the 50's, you've got street-corner Doo-Wop harmony, rip-roaring Rockabilly, dance songs - all called Rock & Roll. In the 60's in the same section of the record store, you could have Simon & Garfunkel and Jimi Hendrix. In the 70's, you could have Roxy Music, the Allman Brothers, and Depeche Mode all considered Rock. That's the idea. It's never been just one thing. When you look at artists like Whitney, she had such a massive influence. Greatest voice of her generation, but her voice is incredibly versatile and powerful. She could connect with her audience in amazing ways. In a direct connection, her legacy is Jennifer Hudson, Lizzo, and Mariah Carey. Her influences were Aretha, the Jackson Five, and Mahalia Jackson. Just powerful stuff."

In the end, Houston was selected as a member of the 2020 class along with Depeche Mode, Doobie Brothers, Nine Inch Nails, Notorious B.I.G., and T Rex. 

"You think about the Doobie Brothers with that wind in your face, open-road California sound and compare that to industrial Nine Inch Nails out of Cleveland, synth-pop with Depeche Mode, or Notorious B.I.G. coming out of Brooklyn with pretty hard-hitting hip-hop,” Harris said of the 2020 class. “In Whitney Houston, much like Marvin Gaye and Aretha, she had soulful ballads combined with hard-hitting rockers as well as dance music. And then T Rex, they roll in that great crunchy sound and inspire Bowie, Elton John, Guns N' Roses, even Metallica and through to Nirvana. These are very different genres but all under the great canon of Rock & Roll."

But the lack of women in the Rock Hall has been a source of contention among many fans. A recent NPR story included music writer Evelyn McDonnell, who analyzed every band leader and member of a group and found that only 69 of the 888 inductees are women. That's less than 8 percent. Only one of the three female nominees made the 2020 class, but Harris remains optimistic that will change moving forward.    

"Overall, the majority of our inductees have been male through the years," Harris said. "It is a reflection of the music industry in general. When you look back at 1950's Rock and Roll and even the 1960's, it's heavily male-dominated. As we move into further eras, you do get more women in Rock. Our expectation is that the composition of the nomination will begin to reflect that more when we move into those eras. To be eligible for nomination to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, you had to have made a record 25 years ago. This continues to evolve." 

"The pool of eligible artists continues to grow," Harris continued. "But it's a process and getting more women on the ballot is very important. I certainly hope voters weren't thinking about just picking Whitney Houston and not Pat Benatar. You have five votes and can vote for all the women on the ballot if you like. It's not an either/or. So I hope it continues to advance and continues to mature. The statistics that are out there look at every single person that's been inducted, which is one way to look at it. Another way to look at it is there's 330 artists that are inducted, so that a band counts as a one. Using that math, we're at about 15 percent female, which is low. But in many ways, I think it's a reflection of the amount of music that was made in the 50's and 60's, and I think we get more of an explosion of female performers especially in the 80's and 90's."

While there's debate about Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees, there's no doubt about the museum's transformation in Cleveland to a more engaging experience for music fans. Walk by the Garage exhibit, and you can play the instrument of your choice or catch a group of people jamming. 

Sample of a jam session at the Garage from November's Play It Loud exhibit opening... 

"We opened up a space on our second floor called the Garage, where visitors can play music and jam with each other," Harris said. "Magical things happen in there every day. We had somebody down from Toronto killing it on Stevie Ray Vaughan stuff, and seeing the joy on his family's face and other visitors is pretty special. We've had pros come in and surprise people. But we feel we built a space that was true to the independent record store vibe and true to the venue vibe. It's not too polished. It's not too perfect. It's authentic. When visitors put a guitar around their neck, it's not a simulated guitar hero. It's a Telecaster. It's a Stratocaster, It's a Les Paul. They're really playing these real instruments. There's a magic in that."   

Then there's the most recent exhibit --- Play It Loud: The Instruments of Rock and Roll, part of a philosophy to exhibit the best of the best according to Harris.  

"We want the guitar the song was written on or that moment, not just the signed thing," Harris said. "Iconic instruments. There's a white Fender guitar that's central in that exhibit. It is the guitar Jimi Hendrix played the Star Spangled Banner on at Woodstock. So we exhibit the guitar. Those of us that know the story get goosebumps. But for people that don't know the story, you see Jimi in context with it and see and hear video of him playing it so it gives the full curated experience."

Jimi Hendrix playing the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock...

"It needs to have the bold statements a young person needs to know," Harris continued. "At a time in our country when hundreds of thousands of people gathered in a field to question what it meant to be Americans, Jimi Hendrix played the most American of songs on this instrument. You want that moment and that storytelling piece that people can connect with." 

At the official opening of the Play It Loud exhibit, Harris enlisted a little help from four Rock and Roll Hall of Famers. 

"It's the biggest exhibit the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has ever done," Harris told the crowd at the opening. "Many of these instruments have never been exhibited before, and they've never been in the same place at the same time. Many of them are still owned by the artist. Now usually when you open one of these things, you cut a big ribbon. This is a museum that's dedicated to Rock & Roll. We're going to let Rock & Roll echo through this building, and that's how we're going to open it. From Heart, 2013 inductee Nancy Wilson.”

"The exhibit is astounding," Wilson said. "There are incredible things in there. My blue Ovation from 1978 is featured, when I was just a kid. That guitar became a very close friend and wrote a lot of cool songs with me and now sits with the likes of Hendrix, and Page and Clapton. It is an honor. To the museum, you've been an amazing staff and wonderful team and generous and super organized, which never happens. So thank you. Enjoy yourselves here at the Rock & Roll altar."  

Wilson did not perform, but the next guest did - former Eagles guitarist Don Felder.

"I came to this piece of property before there was anything standing here," Felder recalled. "They had the foresight to bring us here and show us where this fantastic building was going to be built. They actually made this dream come true for all of you and for everyone to come here and see and feel and know what Rock & Roll is. The history in this Play It Loud is not comparable to anything else you'll see. Everybody that was anybody is up there. For my original double-neck guitar to be hanging up there alongside that kind of company is an unbelievable honor for me. I don't have to play a live show for a dollar in my life, but the reason I'm here is because I love to play for you guys. You might remember this song from 1976."

Felder performing Hotel California...  

Rounding out the evening were Metallica's Kirk Hammett and Robert Trujillo, who shared quick stories and jam session.  

"My guitar that's downstairs, I haven't seen that guitar in like 8 years," Hammett reflected. "And it's a cool guitar. I think I took that one to Russia."

"My bass, that was a collaborative situation with my wife Chloe," Trujillo said. "It's the Aztec bass. The last time I remember playing that thing was with 80,000 people in Mexico City. So there's a great spirit to that instrument, and it represents everything from love to Heavy Metal." 

Hammett and Trujillo jam together...

Play It Loud: The Instruments of Rock and Roll will be open through September 13. Fans attending the exhibit's opening night seemed to enjoy the experience. This northern Ohio couple has also noticed a broader change at the museum. 

"Yeah, definitely gives you a little bit more than just looking at objects," Joe Koenigsmark said of the museum. 

"The vibe totally changed from when it opened up until now because they have so many different interactive things," Margaret Koenigsmark added. "They've got bands, events, movies, and panels. We've been to a ton of different panel discussions from photographers to band members, and it's been great. We are really digging it." 

"As we look into the future for the museum, the onsite museum is terrific and we want everybody to see it," Harris said. "We've been investing in what we call Museum 2.0. We've rebooted the whole place. We built an immersive theater that we hired Jonathan Demme to do the edit for that just surrounds you in the greatest seats in any concert. But then outside of Cleveland, we have travelling exhibits that are in multiple cities. Then we have Rock Hall EDU, our online learning platform. Any teacher or student out there can visit the Rock Hall website. There's hundreds of assets they can use in their classroom. You can talk about the March on Washington, and when you do you can actually show footage of Dylan performing at the march or one of our curators talking about music and the civil rights movement and music as a social force. Rock Hall EDU is a big way to impact a lot of people and put Rock and Roll and history together to help tell a story but help support curriculum materials that teachers are delivering anyway." 

During the Fast Five, Greg Harris mentioned his son, who's making his own music.

No One Listens by Jack Harris plays...

No One Listens - the latest single from Jack Harris. You can find more information about and music from the younger Harris at jackharrissongs.com. And for central Ohio listeners, you might find Harris performing in the area as he's continuing his education and music career in Columbus.

The 2020 induction ceremony returns to Cleveland’s Public Auditorium May 2. Special guests and presenters will be announced in the coming weeks. The museum also expects to have special events at it celebrates 25 years of existence in September.