The Power of Humility

If the universe is infinite then you are at its very centre. The notion is momentarily intoxicating until you realize that so is everywhere and everyone else. Twin that thought with the three or four score we’ll be here while the universe celebrates its 13.8 billionth birthday. Both facts invite humility just as we need more of the stuff.

Humility is not the surrender of self-confidence or the abandonment of ambition. Rather, it is the conquering of the self-defeating twin demons of ego and narcissism. Humility offers the road to happiness and ticket to redemption.

With humility, accomplishment can be celebrated as the team effort it always is; the immediate team with which you attained the goal and the accident of your birth that put you at the right time in history, the right place on Earth, and with the right genes and health and doses of luck and ability to work in the first place. No team can thrive without humility. Without humility, a boss can only be a bully and a parent only a boss.

The Power of Humility

(Photo: postjesusonline.wordpress.com)

These, I believe, are humility’s three most important lessons:

1. Cool is a Myth: I recall the day it happened. I was with colleagues on a Friday afternoon when it was whispered, “Look over there. All the young people are deciding what they’re going to do tonight.” My eyes widened. How did that happen? I thought I was one of the young people.

Most people in their twenties think they’re cool. Most in their thirties worry that they are no longer cool. In their forties, many swear they don’t care about no longer being cool. Most folks in their fifties realize they were never really cool at all.

Test yourself at the next wedding or party. Try to find that person on the dance floor that made you giggle as a teenager. Can’t find him? Then it’s probably you.

Rather than standing as King Canute on the thundering, relentless shore, humility offers the option of laughter, the tranquility of acceptance, and comfort in one’s inevitably aging skin.

2. There’s Always Someone Better: I have played guitar since I was nine years old. I’ve played and sung in bars, clubs, and coffee houses and my band still plays a monthly gig at Lakefield’s Canoe and Paddle pub.

Last Sunday I was plugged in and enjoying a loping run along the river when Brian Setzer’s version of Mystery Train stopped me in my sweaty tracks. His guitar work was stunning, masterful, and unearthly. I clicked over to YouTube to hear more of his work of which I had always been sort of aware but never paid adequate attention to. He makes the guitar sing.

Back home, my trusty Gretsch felt like a fence post in my arms. I resisted the urge to put it on eBay. Only slowly did I regain my composure and re-dedicate myself to the instrument.

Humility allows the realization that not being the best, or even in the same ballpark as the best, is never a reason to quit or stop trying to improve. Humility invites us to imagine the tragic silence of a forest where only birds with the best voices sing and then find our song.

3. Some Things Can’t Be Fixed: Last Wednesday I held my three and a half month old granddaughter. I know how lucky I am that she and her sister live so close and that I see them nearly every day. On this morning, however, she was screaming. Tears flooded her squinting eyes as she launched into the vibrating cry that shakes parent’s and grandparent’s souls.

Her first tooth was poking through with the pain that, I am told, would drop any adult to their knees. Worse, is that infants live in the moment and so, in their minds, the agony will never go away. Worse still, for me at least, was that beyond the gel, teething toy, and cooing comfort of the gentle sway, there was nothing I could do, nothing.

Sometimes there is, indeed, nothing you can do. Sometimes, no matter who we are or who in our society to whom we turn, it can be neither avoided nor fixed. Pain will be suffered, disease will strike, an accident will happen, and a loss so devastating as to urge quitting it all will occur. Character is not made in those moments, it is revealed. Humility is character’s handmaiden.

The Power of Humility..

(Photo: http://www.discoveryplace.info)

So let’s praise the examined life, the charm of folly, the seeking of goals rather than credit, the experience rather than the picture, and the humble acceptance that we are what we are for the speck of time we’re here. With humility as our guide, our brief journey will be a whole lot happier for ourselves, for those with whom we work and play, and especially for those we love and love us back and make the trip worth taking.

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What Can We Learn from Leviticus, Wealth, and the Monkees?

As a historian, my job is to urge greater understanding of where we are through offering fresh perspectives on where we’ve been. My humble efforts constantly have me discovering things I never knew while challenging myself to reconsider things I thought I knew for sure. The curiosity quest has led to more questions than answers, which, I think, is as it should be. The following are among those issues and queries currently furrowing my brow.

Questions(Photo: http://www.cedar-rapids.org)

Science: In grade 4, Miss Haney taught me that man very early made jars stand up nearly perpendicular. The mnemonic device allowed me to remember the nine planets and their order from the sun. Look back and see what I mean; I’ll wait.

All was well until 2006 when scientists demoted Pluto to dwarf planet status because it had an unsteady orbit and was unable to “dominate its neighbourhood”. Then, thanks largely to the Hubble telescope, it was discovered that beyond our solar system there are perhaps a trillion planets. I don’t really know what a trillion is but it’s a lot more than eight. These new facts laid waste to Miss Haney’s old facts and ruined her perfectly charming memorization trick.

So, is science based not on facts but our best guess at the moment? If that is true, then what of mathematics, economics or anything else resting upon quantifiable truths?

Music: I used to sneak a small transistor radio into my bed every night. From beneath my pillow, so my parents couldn’t hear, I nodded off to a Buffalo radio station that skipped the latest rock ‘n’ roll across Lake Ontario just for me. I was ripe for the Monkees. I bought the records and every week enjoyed their TV show.

Although an enamoured nine-year old, I noticed that what I was hearing did not match what they were playing; especially Micky the drummer. It ends up that the Monkees sang but the music was played by a group of crack LA studio musicians called the Wrecking Crew. They were the same talented group we really heard when listening to The Byrds, Mamas and Papas, Beach Boys, Association, Partridge Family, Grass Roots, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and many more.

So, can music be enjoyed while accepting deceit in its creation? If so, does the same acceptance apply to other forms of artistic endeavour? If we accept deception in art, then where else will we wink at irony tilting toward lies – perhaps business and governance?

Bible: Until we stopped going to church for some reason, I attended Sunday school. Every week I fidgeted with the adults before we kids were led downstairs for a snack and lesson that we could actually understand. The rather violent portrayal of Jesus upstairs and the equally gruesome representation in the basement frightened me. The stories of God were thankfully reassuring as we were encouraged to consider Him as an old man who not only looked like Santa Claus but also acted a lot like him. Both had lists of naughty and nice and both meted out rewards and punishments although God seemed more quick to anger and a whole lot more spiteful and violent. I recall being shaken by the thought that I was apparently under constant surveillance.

I later enjoyed a university World Religions course, read a great deal, and, over the years, I have re-read the Bible four times. I learned to accept that Jesus was likely not the fair-skinned, blue-eyed, blond man with whom I’d grown up. I learned that crucifixion was the Roman’s chosen form of capital punishment. So wearing a cross as jewellery then would be like wearing an electric chair now. Further, I learned that God is no more a man than Santa but, rather, a concept.

All this was fine but I was more troubled to find myself cherry picking from the Bible. I read that Leviticus 18:22 says, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” Ok, I disagreed, but it was clearly stated that homosexuality is a sin. But wait, 25:44 says, “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves.” So slavery, alternatively, is not a sin but, in fact, encouraged. It must be so because Exodus 21:7 says, “If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as menservants do.”

So, can we accept the good things a religion proffers while ignoring the questionable stuff? Can we use a part of the Bible to justify a particular belief while ignoring other parts? Can we treat the Bible as a smorgasbord without cheapening or even rejecting its core message?

Wealth: I once worked at a school for teenagers who were damaged, learning disabled, culture shocked, lost in the criminal justice system, or just lost. Later, I worked in a private school where those of means could buy their children’s peers and opportunities no longer available in the ideologically besieged and fiscally starved public system. I found about the same percentage of happy and unhappy kids in both schools.

Happiness, it turns out, has little to do with money. Last year, University of San Francisco psychology professor Ryan Howell determined that buying more stuff, having more clothes and cars and living in bigger houses do not make people happier. His findings supported a 2010 Princeton study showing that happiness rises until income hits about $75,000. After that, it was found that happiness goes up not one whit even if one’s income soars higher than poor old Pluto.

So, was John Lennon right? Is love really all we need? If the studies are true then should we re-examine the meaning of success, the efficacy of ambition, and the value of materialism?

There are folks I know who are deeply offended by questions that invite an exploration of opinions that they have hardened into facts. The questions should none the less be asked. I believe that we owe it to ourselves to ask questions of ourselves, even if the answers are difficult, illusive, or impossible.

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Five Things I Know About Music

I blame Mike Nesmith. Also at fault are John Lennon, my Godmother, my cousin, and I suppose my grandmother. You see, my grandmother was the glue that kept our large, extended Ukrainian family together. Among my fondest childhood memories are Christmas parties in the big room downstairs that she had built for such occasions. After a meal set for three times the large number assembled, the tables and chairs were pushed aside for everyone to dance. But it was not records for us for my cousin had a band. And that’s where it began.

My cousin played a big red Guild guitar and it was about the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Like every year, I sat close and watched his every move. When I was eight I was intently watching like usual when my Godmother, resting briefly from the dance floor she loved so much, sat beside me and said she had a special gift. If I loved music so much, she said, then I should study the best. She handed me a copy of Elvis Presley’s first album. Blue Suede Shoes was good but Trying to Get to You was art. I had no idea a singer was allowed to do things like that. The notes and words were putty; they were toys.

album_Elvis-Presley-Elvis-Presley

Just as I was wearing the album to dust, The Monkees debuted on television. Yes, they were a made-up band but there they were alongside the TV fluff of the day with their long hair and music and living on their own in a funky beach house and there was Mike Nesmith playing, and looking a lot like my cousin’s Guild, a great big Gretsch. That did it.

I told my father that I had to have a guitar. He promised to pay half if I saved the rest – a good Dad. I stopped buying Hardy Boys books and salted paper route earnings and cut lawns to make more and soon had what I needed. It was not a Gretsch. It was not even close. It was a cheap, guaranteed-not-to-crack Harmony acoustic. I still have it. I walked eight blocks for lessons every Saturday morning but grew frustrated that the teacher had me plunking away at the Mel Bay Guitar Method when all I wanted was to learn Beatle songs. Yes, I had graduated from Monkees to Beatles and from Mike to John. After three months, I quit and set out to learn on my own.

Harmony guitar The Harmony Guitar

My first gig was in Grade 8 when another skinny boy and I stood stiffly on the big school stage and nervously plucked out Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer. In high school I partnered with a friend and we played coffee houses and pubs. While dangerously under age we did a month-long gig at a scruffy bar that was a motorcycle gang hang out. Arguments and fights regularly interrupted our country-rock tunes and earnest originals.

Later, an independent record label heard me in a little bar where I was making some extra cash to support my young family and signed to me a contract. We recorded three 45s (Google it if you have to) and they did OK. The second one did best and even made it to #2 in Sweden – damn Willie Nelson and Always on My Mind!

I still play every day. I still play Nesmith, Lennon, and Presley songs and still write new ones that few ever hear. I now even sing and play in a little band with two friends. We enjoy a gig a month at a local pub – music by neighbours for neighbours for nothing at stake but the fun old tunes provide for all.

From my grandmother’s Burlington party room to Lakefield’s Canoe and Paddle Pub I have learned five things about music:

  1. Genres are junk. There is so much commonality between what critics, radio stations, music companies, I-Tunes, and the rest say are categories of music that the categories are meaningless. There is good music and bad music. Which is which? It’s up to you – enjoy the power to decide for yourself.
  2. The Best is Not Opinion but Math – Nearly every kind of music was available in every era. Which era was best is a mathematics question. Do the math and determine the years in which you were thirteen to seventeen years old. That era produced the best music ever made.
  3. Commitment Matters – Chickens are involved in breakfast but pigs are committed. It’s the same sliding scale with music. To be involved is to listen and to deepen your involvement is to see music played live. To be committed is to play music yourself and to be fully committed is to play with others where you need to not only play but listen. Watch any band that hits a groove and see the endorphins flow. You will know when it happens by their eye contact and at the end they will laugh. Playing music is fun. That’s why they call it playing.
  4. It’s in the Wires – Our brains are wired to learn, remember, and enjoy. Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin, has done extensive research and found that music hits all three. Music literally re-wires our neural pathways, enabling us to learn more, remember more, and enjoy more in our lives than if music were absent.
  5. It Never Goes – Those studying Alzheimer’s patients have found that long after sufferers forget everything, they remember music. Know that right now there are old people who cannot recall their names but can still play the piano and sing Sinatra songs. I shudder to think that someday there may be an addled old man in a home somewhere strumming a guitar and warbling I’m a Believer.

With this now written I will turn from my desk, pick up my Martin and we’ll enjoy an hour or so together. Maybe I’ll sing that old Elvis song and remember my Godmother. She’s doing the best she can these days but I bet that despite all that’s been forgotten, she remembers the words better than I do.

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Inventing Home

Where are you from? Where do you live? They are the two most popular questions to ask travellers, party guests, and game show contestants. The answer allows a stereotyped categorization. It can spur a conversation or, perhaps, the decision to not bother starting one. It’s odd though, because while often seen as the same question they are two totally different inquiries. Ask yourself the two questions. Do you get two answers?

I am from Hamilton. It is known as Canada’s steel town although with the slow death of the industrial revolution the nickname means less all the time. Home to Huron, then French, and then British settlers, it is named for Robert Hamilton, a War of 1812 veteran, who built his estate at the west end of Lake Ontario. The place grew quickly as railways passed through on their way from the American border to Toronto. The pig iron plant arrived first. Then came the Steel Company of Canada (Stelco) and then, the smaller Dominion Foundry and Steel Company (Dofasco).

Dofasco Dofasco

My great grandfather was among Dofasco’s first employees. He got my grandfather into the foundry and he worked there for over 40 years. He never said a bad word about Dofasco. He always spoke of the bosses as Mr. This and Mr. That. My father worked there too. He tells stories of playing in the Dofasco baseball league and bowling league and hockey league. I recall as a child going to the Dofasco Christmas party. It was a massive affair where an entire building was emptied and then opened for the thousands of employee families. There were treats and games and Santa Claus and a wrapped present for every kid.

Stelco is gone now. Dofasco is all but gone too. Their shadows remain but they were bought and sold a couple of times and are now just cogs in transnational corporations with no ties to Canada let alone the city. Corporations may be constitutionally people but they neither have a home nor care much about those who do. With the steel plants went the others. Hamilton is not the same.

Go to any city. Go downtown near the river or the harbour at the lake. You know the places I mean in whatever city has entered your mind. The big old buildings are nearly all empty. Or they have been turned into fancy boutiques, offices, or condominiums. The places to shop and eat are elsewhere and everywhere the same as everywhere else. You can picture that street too can’t you? Walmart, Costco, McDonalds, and the Tims have taken care of it. Online shopping took care of what remained.

So that is where I am from – a ghost. I still have family there, I’m a proud McMaster University alum, and a great deal remains that I find invigorating and beautiful. But it’s a city re-inventing itself as surely as when Robert Hamilton created it in the first place. It will succeed. There are too many good people for it to fail. No one is sure how just yet, but a consensus will grow. It will enable enough people to recognize that a city, like a well-lived life, is not about money and stuff.

A community rests on shared values and the places where people from up and down and across town meet to enjoy the same things at the same time. Hamilton, and for that matter every city that is going through the same period of existential angst, will come out the other side when enough people say enough to driving out of town to have fun and to driving past boarded up shops once owned by folks they knew to stores the size of football fields to save fifty cents on toilet paper. The city will begin to move when people move by getting out of their cars and walking. When people start to walk they will need some place close to walk to and some version of Walmart won’t put a store there, or a book shop, or a pub – but a neighbour might, in an actual neighbourhood. In walking, neighbours will start talking and the rest will take care of itself. It won’t be easy, but then Robert Hamilton didn’t have it easy either.

Where I live is different. I live in a village of 2500 people called Lakefield. Lakefield was created on Ojibwa land just a few years later than Hamilton. It became known not for stinky steel but silent canoes. It was home to several canoe manufacturers including Walter Walker who made canoes and paddles for ordinary folks and royalty with the same dedication to excellence. It has always been an artistic place. Catherine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie lived and wrote in Lakefield as did Margaret Laurence. The Leahy band lives nearby as does Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins. First-rate painters, children’s book authors and illustrators, and sculptors call Lakefield home as do highly respected architects and film makers. The Lakefield Literary Festival and world-renowned Lakefield College School are here.

A river runs through the centre of my Village and it is only right that it does. It is a metaphor that speaks of perpetual movement and things that never change. Margaret Laurence wrote The Diviners here and, if you recall, the novel begins by speaking of a river that runs both ways. It does you know. It really does.

Canoe-and-Paddle-e1413940425220

Last week a new pub opened in Lakefield called the Canoe and Paddle. It is fashioned to reflect the look and feel of a pub one might wander into on an English afternoon or Halifax night. It is owned and run by folks from the village. Last Thursday my little rock band played the pub’s first night of music. It was music for neighbours by neighbours. Last night I walked across the bridge to stand with a pint and enjoy a Celtic band play one lively reel after another. The place was packed. As I looked around the room I realized that I knew nearly every face. Everyone glowed with the happiness of a Saturday night among friends, with neighbours, and in a community that understands the meaning of the word. The pub will do well. The Canoe and Paddle has reminded us that we understand what doing well means.

Hamilton is where I am from. Lakefield is where I live. It’s good to be home.

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Top 5 Concerts of the Last 5 Decades

Top 5 Concerts of the Last 5 Decades

Taxes are the price we pay for living in a civilized society but books and music are the best evidence that the civilization is thriving. Let’s leave books aside for the moment and consider music. People far smarter than me have failed to determine exactly why music is so pleasurable. It can be a hot bath or a cold shower, a dose of valium or a hit of Red Bull; music can be stimulating, irritating, compensating and luxuriating.

If the best way to experience music is to play it with others then the second best is to experience it with others. A concert is a visual, auditory, sociological carnival. The difference between a concert and a recording is like between a movie and a play. The concert is immediate, existing only in the moment, and enjoyed in the dark with others. There is danger because mistakes can be made. It is enthralling because art is being created right before your eyes. It is art that will exist only for an instant and then be gone forever.

I have experienced a lot of concerts and will not bore you with the entire list. A few I’ve enjoyed include Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, John Fogerty, Buddy Guy, Ben Harper, Sheryl Crow, Elvis Costello, Willie Nelson, John Hiatt, Jackson Browne, the Beach Boys, the Monkees, Phish, Bare Naked Ladies, Blue Rodeo, Chicago, Johnny Cash, Ricky Nelson, Ringo Starr, Kris Kristofferson and on and on.

Many concerts have disappointed. I saw Gordon Lightfoot in his prime but left wondering if he really wanted to be there. I saw B. B. King and Chuck Berry when their primes were in the rear view mirror. King rambled rather than played and twice during solos that he clumsily threw to his pick-up band Berry forgot what song he was singing.

Some concerts have delighted me. Bruce Springsteen was, well, he was Bruce for over three hours, outdoors, blasting into the summer breeze rock n roll played by grown men. All three Paul McCartney concerts left me amazed with the man’s energy, talent and catalogue. The first time I saw Elvis Presley I was thrilled by the musicianship of his band, his energy and charisma, and the power of his voice that in a couple ballads and gospel numbers seemed to shake the arena.

Image

Elvis in Niagara Falls, New York in 1975

I was once in Nashville. Arriving early to see Jerry Lee Lewis I found myself in a tiny, chicken BBQ juke-joint. I was told that the concert was out back and so walked through a small door and into a large parking lot with a thousand stacked-up folding chairs and a stage at one end. I pulled a steel chair from the pile, placed it in what would become the front row and a twelve-year-old boy offered to guard it for a dollar.  I returned an hour later to find the place packed and the boy good to his word. Lewis was terrific. He explained that when his career collapsed in scandal that the owner of the place was one of the few who would hire him and so he performed once a year to return the favour.

The best concerts are those that surprise me. One year at the Mariposa Folk Festival, back when it was on Toronto Island, we heard a deep baritone coming from a small stage. We spread our blanket and were captivated by the voice, songs and stories of Stan Rogers. Another Mariposa festival ended with John Prine. The brilliance of lyrics that combined humour, insight and bathos was magnificent and to top off a perfect show he was joined by his pal Steve Goodman. They played Souvenirs and Paradise and seemed lost in the joy of the songs, the crowd, and each other’s company. Music’s ability to unite strangers was evident with the sound (and aroma) of hundreds of us singing Paradise over and over again on the ferry back to the city.

Paul Simon’s Graceland tour was a special moment in cultural, political and musical history. Maple Leaf Gardens was an awful place to see a concert. I had seen the Good Brothers there and Jimmy Buffet and Neil Diamond and everyone always suffered the bad sight-lines and worse sound. That rainy night it did not matter. Nelson Mandela was still in jail and apartheid appeared invincible. But Lady Smith Black Mambazo danced with moves and rhythms that shocked and enchanted. They and others sang of their homeland sometimes in words we could not comprehend but with an emotional commitment that could not be denied. Simon was great but almost an afterthought as the singers, musicians and music of a country in pain beguiled us with a joyous spirit of undiminished hope.

Image Lady Smith Black Mambazo

The most surprising concert of all, and therefore my favorite, was close to home. The Pines is gone now. For generations it was an institution. The Pines was a smoke-smelling, falling-down, big box of a building just outside of my hometown that harkened back to the honkey tonks of the American south. At least, that’s what Ronnie Hawkins said one night as he led his band through old rock-a-billy songs while sipping vodka and orange juice from a beer pitcher.

Superman Song was on the radio at the time. It was funny and mournful. It was hopeful and sad. It spoke of Superman’s funeral, attended by his old superhero pals who were in awe of his life’s work but understood a man who felt unappreciated, unrewarded, and with an immigrant’s sense of homelessness. The band was called the Crash Test Dummies. The singer, Brad Roberts, sang so low and with a tone so melancholy that it suggested the voice of Methuselah; or maybe of God Himself. We bought tickets based on that one song.

Our surprising night began with the opening act. Lennie Gallant is from PEI and at that point had just recorded his first album. He had borrowed sound equipment from a friend; it was all stamped Rita McNeil. His voice was strong, his band was stronger and his songs were stronger still. They had catchy hooks, clever changes and lyrics that actually said something of life’s challenges and love’s trials and of a region of the country where there is a constant battle between hope, fear and fun. Every song was better than the last. At one point he sang a ballad of the sea, accompanying himself on an Irish bodran.  The night could have ended there, but then it got even better.

Image Lennie Gallant

The Crash Test Dummies exuded the perfect balance of show biz swagger and Canadian modesty. Roberts was obviously the leader and his voice the star. The harmony vocals of Ellen Reid were angelic. Her sarcastic banter and sly smile kept Roberts humble. Roberts introduced the band that included his older brother who he said was behind him and to the left but was smarter, more talented, better looking and more popular with women but still, he reminded us, behind him and to the left.

The songs were ingenious without being glib. The melodies were like all well-crafted songs in that they were fresh but instantly memorable and stirred an inkling that I’d had heard them before. Each offered a new perspective on an old idea. Each used interesting metaphors and offered unpredictable patterns and breaks, rhythms and instrumentation. Unlike some bands, no one showed off. They seemed to remember that when the songs are strong they will do the work; no one overpowered the songs or each other. You could see them playing for us but listening to each other and enjoying themselves; that’s why they call it playing. They sang their whole debut album and the Superman Song twice.

Image Crash Test Dummies

It was the best concert ever because I went expecting nothing and was surprised by everything. It was the music, the players, crowd, the venue, and those I was with – it was perfect. Canada has incredible musical talent. I’ve enjoyed concerts by Sam Roberts, Blue Rodeo, the Sadies, Randy Bachman, Serena Ryder, Royal Wood, April Wine, the Guess Who, Cowboy Junkies, Valdy, Murray McLaughlin, Blackie and Rodeo Kings and many more but I always kind of knew what to expect. But that night at the Pines, way back in 1991 took me by surprise and left me dazzled. The Crash Test Dummies and Lennie Gallant – the best concert ever.

    Top 5 Concerts of the Last 5 Decades

  1. Crash Test Dummies and Lennie Gallant – 1991
  2. Paul Simon – Graceland – 1986
  3. Bruce Springsteen – 2013
  4. Elvis Presley – 1975
  5. Paul McCartney – 2002