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Ed Ward, Rock Critic And Historian, Dead At 72

14 hours ago
Originally published on May 5, 2021 6:44 pm

Ed Ward, an incisive former critic and editor for Rolling Stone and longtime contributor to WHYY's Fresh Air, died this week in his home in Austin, Texas. He was 72 years old.

Ward was known for the historical precision of his work — who was playing what, who was friends with whom, what they were imbibing. In a piece on the label Paramount Records, Ward described the legendary Charlie Patton on Fresh Air in 2015 as "... a towering figure who was looked up to by most of the other Mississippi bluesmen ... Once his records began to sell, Patton would load up a car with his friends, his girlfriends, his ex-girlfriends and some whiskey and head to Grafton, Wis., to record. One of those friends was [the also-now-legendary blues player and singer] Son House." The details, both incidental and integral, were typical of Ward's work.

Born in 1948, one can find Ward's byline across all of the early rock magazines — principally Crawdaddy, Creem and Rolling Stone, the latter where he worked for a time as the reviews editor. He eventually moved to Austin, Texas — a city he became a relentless booster for.

In 2016, Ward published The History of Rock And Roll, Volume 1 – its sequel followed in 2019; both remain rigorous books that fastidiously surveyed the genre's formative history from 1920 to 1977.

In its first volume, Ward was committed to preserving the work of acts integral to rock's development, despite not having reached the heights of an Elvis or Ray Charles – the types of figures who would only be appreciated long after they were gone.

Chapter one of Ed Ward's The History of Rock And Roll, Volume 1 opens with a mention of Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues."
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Ward told various interviewers a third volume would have traced the history up until the 2000s Napster era, though it was never finished.

In a 2016 interview with Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, Ward was asked if he had any regrets about his career or life. He replied, after a life spent tracing the past: "A little late for that, don't you think?"

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Ed Ward was the type of incisive, hard-to-please rock critic who loved the music so much he wasn't afraid to call out the lazy and uninspiring. A former writer and editor for Rolling Stone and longtime contributor to WHYY's Fresh Air, Ward died this week in his home in Austin, Texas. He was 72 years old. NPR's Andrew Limbong has this appreciation.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: There was once a furniture company that started a record label.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGH WATER EVERYWHERE, PART 1")

CHARLEY PATTON: (Singing) The back water done rolled, Lord, and tumbled, drove me down the line.

LIMBONG: This was in Wisconsin in 1917, and it was called Paramount Records. One of their most successful acts was a guy named Charley Patton, a Mississippi bluesman, who was - well, I'll just let Ed Ward tell you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ED WARD: A towering figure who was looked up to by most of the other Mississippi bluesmen, although he didn't strictly play blues but mixed it with older forms. Once his records began to sell, Patton would load up a car with his friends, his girlfriends, his ex-girlfriends and some whiskey and head to Grafton, Wis., to record. One of those friends was Son House.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY BLACK MAMA, (PART 2)")

SON HOUSE: (Singing) Well, I solemnly swear, Lord, raise my right hand...

LIMBONG: This is from one of Ward's pieces on WHYY's Fresh Air, where he served as the program's rock historian. Those precise details about who was playing what, who was friends with whom, what they were imbibing undergirded Ward's work. Edmund Ward was born in 1948. You can find his byline in all those early rock magazines - Crawdaddy, Creem, Rolling Stone - where he was, for a time, reviews editor. He eventually moved to Austin, Texas, a city he was a relentless booster for. Here he is on Fresh Air in 2003, reliving Austin's '70s punk scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHEAP GIRL - LIVE")

THE SKUNKS: (Singing) The spray on your hair, it makes your head look frozen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WARD: The Skunks were one of Austin's first punk bands, although in retrospect, they were really more of a hard rock band. And I could see they had a following since there was a girl dressed up in a skunk suit dancing while they played. But they were only part of the scene swirling around Raul's, a beer bar near the University of Texas campus where, presided over by the gentle but firm hand of Joseph Gonzales, weird bands and weird audiences were gathering despite harassment from frat boys and other creeps.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUSH ME AROUND")

THE SKUNKS: (Singing, unintelligible) I don't want to be a mess (ph).

LIMBONG: In 2016, Ward published "The History Of Rock And Roll, Volume 1" - and its sequel a few years later. These were rigorous books that spanned the genre from 1920 to 1977. In the first volume of the book, despite the Elvis Presleys and Ray Charleses of the world, he wanted to shine a light on overlooked acts who were integral to rock, the types of figures who would only be appreciated long after they were gone. So Chapter 1 opens with Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRAZY BLUES")

MAMIE SMITH: (Singing) He makes me feel so blue. I don't know what to do. Sometimes, I sit and sigh and then begin to cry.

LIMBONG: He told various interviewers a third volume would have traced the history up until the 2000s Napster era, but it was never finished. In a 2016 interview with Creative Loafing: Tampa Bay, Ed Ward was asked if he had any regrets about his career or life. He replied, a little late for that, don't you think?

Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADRIANNE LENKER'S "MUSIC FOR INDIGO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.