If he sounds as if he walks a bit awestruck along pop music’s hallowed ground, it’s because he does precisely that when his rapid, stream-of-consciousness elocution bounces from Janis Joplin to Linda Ronstadt and beyond.
Besides, Glenn Gass, a nationally known music professor at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, knows rock music the way a vaunted violin prof knows Antonio Vivaldi. The 60-year-old Gass is, after all, a member of the education advisory board of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio.
And he’s bringing his wisdom, passion and cranked-up enthusiasm to “Women Who Rock: Moms, Music and Mission,” a fundraiser May 12 to support the Columbus-based Granny Connection’s efforts to help orphans of AIDS victims in Africa.
Gass, who began teaching rock history and Beatles’ courses at IU in 1982 long before any other serious music school allowed its staff to let down its hair, will headline a blend of lecture and sing-along targeting rock’s star females over more than half a century.
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“I call this (presentation) a musical women’s collage,” said Gass, speaking by phone from his office in Bloomington. “And I clearly want it to be fun.
“There’s no test at the end.”
He begins with an homage to pre-rock vocalists such as jazz’s Billie Holiday, or gospel’s Mahalia Jackson, whom he sees as waymakers for later female artists of rock. Not until Janis Joplin in the 1960s does he find a true female rocker considered in the same no-holds-barred league as male rock singers.
“Until then, most of the white female singers were sticking with Doris Day ‘How Much is that Doggie in the Window?’ kind of stuff,” he said. “Janis Joplin is the first person that I really can remember causing me to say, ‘Wow — I’m really rocking out to a woman.’”
The Granny Connection’s Ann Jones said she believes Gass himself has earned a few wows from people for boasting the world’s longest-running rock courses — and for non-music majors at that.
“Many people in the area really think a lot of him, especially his former students,” Jones said.
Gass, on the other hand, thinks highly of his students, who demonstrate a return benefit.
“I’m always learning new perspectives and approaches from my students,” he said. “You can’t hear music the same way in your 50s the same way you did when you were 15. It always fascinates me to hear some 18-year-old’s take on some heartache ballad that I maybe have outgrown in my lifestyle but still love in my heart.
“But I have to remember that, for the 18-year-old, the song is happening present tense, right there now in their life.”
Gass stated clearly that he wants to emphasize more sing-along than history-follow-along as he moves through a collection of songs stretching from Aretha Franklin to Ronstadt to Madonna and possibly Lady Gaga. The music will materialize in the form of video clips of tunes delivered as efficiently as a blistering Joan Jett guitar solo.
“The focus eventually and inevitably ends up on the so-called girl group era of the late 1950s and early 1960s,” he said, referring to acts such as the Shrangra Las and the Angels.
But Gass hopes to include up to 40-plus acts in his musical vignettes that he hopes truly do encourage listeners to let their voice be heard. If his audience is shy, he’ll croon a bit to the tunes to break down any barriers.
“But people usually don’t need that much coaxing,” he said. “The female voice, and especially the classic girl groups, are kind of like violins in an orchestra.
“They are the high end, and the melody rises to them. And the melodies are what really make so many of these songs last.”
Gass’s lengthy career at IU speaks to the enduring nature of pop-rock tunes even amid an ever-changing culture.
“To be honest,” he said with a laugh, “I thought I would have been out of a job 20 years ago.”
What: Women Who Rock: Moms, Music and Mission, a fundraiser to support the work of The Granny Connection, helping children orphaned by AIDS in African nations. The event will include a light meal, auction with Leighton Turner and a lecture/interactive sing-along with Indiana University music professor Glenn Gass.
When: 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. May 12.
Where: YES Cinema, Fourth and Jackson streets in Columbus.
Tickets: $25 in advance at Viewpoint Books in downtown Columbus or $30 at the door.