Through my formative years, I watched a lot of Saturday Night Live, and the musical guests (not surprisingly) always fascinated me, in some cases blowing my mind. As a teenager especially I would videotape the show and if the performance was good (or, often, even decent) watch the musical bits over and over, studying the performances. I would also watch reruns on cable and was interested in the differences in musical style and allowable levels of eclecticism.
The Top 10 list below thus leans heavily on those years and also plays up performances that stood out relative to that artist (Bonnie Raitt, for example, had multiple appearances and sounded pretty much as good as she always did, which was amazing; on the other hand, I never heard the Neville Brothers sound better than in the performance cited below). Notable omissions include Betty Carter, Phoebe Snow, Joan Armatrading, Leon Redbone, Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time, Stevie Wonder, Santana, Johnny Clegg and Savuka, Living Colour, Tom Petty, Wynton Marsalis’ Quintet, Sting and (PLEASE pay attention to this caveat) EVERY artist who has appeared in the last 20 years, during which time I have seldom had a television. I’m sure there are many great performances that I have not included here, and I refer you back to the post’s title – these are performances that really impacted me, so if I didn’t see them they are inherently not relevant to this list, great though there may be. There are also lots of hidden gems that I did catch (the Power Station in 1985 – no one will likely claim that “Some Like It Hot” was a landmark, but with Tony Thompson’s drums and Lenny Pickett and the rest of the SNL horn section, it was SO funky) for which there’s not nearly enough space.
Without further ado . . .
1 ) “Diamonds On the Soles Of Her Shoes” by Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Paul Simon (1986)
Mind. Completely. Blown. To Bits. The song, the band, the grooves, yes, yes, yes. But the singing and dancing of Ladysmith Black Mambazo left a deep mark on me. This gets the nod over numerous other noteworthy Paul Simon moments, including his great “Rhythm of the Saints” band and his 1989 (15th anniversary special) reprise of “Still Crazy After All These Years” with the immortal Richard Tee on electric piano and Lenny Pickett taking a soulful and Brecker-worthy saxophone solo.
2 ) “Brother Jake” by the Neville Brothers (1990)
This tale of an ill-fated New Orleans man encapsulates the Neville’s sound, and when I saw this performance it was everything I wanted a soul/R&B/rock/swamp jam to be. Great song, great vocal harmonies, great lead vocal turns from Aaron and Cyril, great organ from Art, great saxophone from Charles. The performance trumps any live or studio version of the song I’ve heard, and I’ve heard a bunch.
3 ) “Sunless Saturday” by Fishbone (1991)
There had been numerous hard rock performances on SNL that I had seen and wanted to get into (Faith No More’s “Epic” did cross the I-dig-it threshold), but in hindsight I always longed for a little more soul. Enter Fishbone, whose thrashing guitars and drums provided a perfect backdrop for the socially conscious lyrics of this song (which they followed up with a super-soulful “Everyday Sunshine”).
4 ) “Radio Radio” by Elvis Costello (1977)
In this famous performance, Elvis changes course seconds into another song and lashes into a high-energy romp on this one.
5 ) “Drive” by Bobby McFerrin (1988)
Bobby McFerrin’s solo a cappella work also left a huge mark on my musical conception as a teenager. This is perhaps his best known song in that vein and shows his voice range and rhythmic command in full bloom. By 1988 the musical acts were getting more mainstream, so kudos to them for taking a chance here, prior to his commercial breakthrough.
6 ) “I’m the Slime” by Frank Zappa (1976)
Zappa’s snarl and burning lead guitar are supported on this classic tune by the voice of SNL’s Don Pardo representing the “slime” from the TV set.
7 ) “Big Bottom” by Spinal Tap (1984)
The greatest rock band that never was gives a signature performance of their signature song. It is worth noting that the doppelgangers of David St. Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel and Derek Smalls (Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer) were all at one time SNL cast members.
8 ) “Truganini” by Midnight Oil (1993)
Australian band Midnight Oil was a bit past their commercial peak in the U.S. by this point, but had lost none of their musical crunch or political swagger. This searing indictment of environmental irresponsibility and aboriginal exploitation manages to make you think and rock out, and this is the best live performance of the song I ever saw.
9 ) “Johannesburg” by Gil Scott-Heron (1976)
This important political yet super-funky song about the situation in South Africa is given a percussion-heavy reading and Gil is in fine voice.
10 ) “Give It To Me” by Rick James (1982)
That funk. That sweet, that funky stuff. What more can I say? All the evidence you need of what a dynamic performer Rick James was (and with noted irony of his appearance on a sketch comedy show, given that to younger generations he is better known as a character on Dave Chappelle’s show).