Ed Ward, Rock Critic and Historian, Is Dead at 72

His reviews for Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone and Creem were admired. But his tough criticism at The Austin American-Statesman inspired a “Dump Ed Ward” movement.,

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Ed Ward, an uncompromising rock ‘n’ roll critic for Rolling Stone, The Austin American-Statesman and other publications who was also the rock historian on NPR’s “Fresh Air” and the author of two acclaimed books about rock, was found dead on May 3 at his home in Austin, Texas. He was 72.

His death was confirmed by his sister, Louise Ward, his only immediate survivor, who said that his body was found by the police and that it had been there for a few days. A cause has not been determined. Mr. Ward had diabetes and in 2012 had a pulmonary embolism.

“He knew the history of the blues, rhythm and blues, doo-wop, pop, folk, protest and psychedelic music, soul, funk, Tex-Mex, punk and techno,” Terry Gross, the host of “Fresh Air,” said on her show on Thursday. “He talked about the most famous musicians, like Chuck Berry and the Beatles, and the most obscure, musicians and bands that worked in the shadows of the music industry and never got their due.”

Mr. Ward began writing, first for Crawdaddy and then for Rolling Stone, while attending Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. In 1970, the year he would have graduated, he replaced Greil Marcus as the record review editor of Rolling Stone.

Mr. Ward’s review of the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” (1969) in Rolling Stone demonstrated his tough side: He called “Sun King” the album’s “biggest bomb” and its second side “a disaster.”

“They’ve been shucking us a lot lately and it’s a shame because they don’t have to,” he wrote. “Surely they have enough talent and intelligence to do better than this. Or do they?”

He said that his proudest moment at the magazine was when he wrote favorably about a single by Little Feat called “Strawberry Flats” (“a slab of out-and-out paranoia set to a nervous backing,” he recalled on “Fresh Air” in 2014) and said he hoped an album was forthcoming.

“Right off, I got a call from the press guy at Warners — ‘Do you really think they’re that good?’ he asked, adding that he hadn’t listened to it. I told him he should.” Early the next year, the rock band’s debut album, called simply “Little Feat,” was released.

Mr. Ward was fired from Rolling Stone after a few months (he didn’t get along with Jann Wenner, the publisher), then became the West Coast correspondent for the rock magazine Creem, a post he held for most of the 1970s. He left in 1979 to write about the thriving music scene in Austin as a music critic at The American-Statesman.

“Ed brought a reputation to Austin as an unflinching critic — Rolling Stone had a lot of clout — and he was not diplomatic in his writing,” said his friend and fellow writer Joe Nick Patoski, who described Mr. Ward as cantankerous and difficult. “Early on, there was a reaction to some of the things he wrote and it started a ‘Dump Ed Ward’ movement that had bumper stickers and T shirts.”

In a valedictory column in 1984, Mr. Ward said that he was depressed at the reaction to his work.

“See, I thought my job was to be a critic, so I criticized — helpful, constructive criticism, I thought,” he wrote. “I saw my function as being a pipeline to the national and international music business, giving insight to locals as I learned about goings-on and making sure the national and international folks knew that there was something going on here in Austin. Of course, there are people who are fanatics, whose relationship to criticism isn’t rational.”

Over the next decade, Mr. Ward was a music and food critic (sometimes, while he was still at The American-Statesman, under the pseudonym Petaluma Pete) for the alternative weekly The Austin Chronicle; one of three authors of “Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll” (1986), in which he focused on the 1950s; and, in 1987, one of several founders of the South by Southwest music, film and technology festival in Austin.

ImageMr. Ward, right, with his fellow writer John Morthland at the Rolling Stone Christmas party in 1970, the year he became the magazine's record review editor.
Mr. Ward, right, with his fellow writer John Morthland at the Rolling Stone Christmas party in 1970, the year he became the magazine’s record review editor.Credit…Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives, via Getty Images

Edmund Osborne Ward was born on Nov. 2, 1948, in Port Chester, N.Y., in Westchester County, and grew up in Irvington and Eastchester. His father, also named Edmund, was a traffic manager at Western Electric. His mother, Vesta (Osborne) Ward, had been a secretary before becoming a homemaker.

Mr. Ward recalled on “Fresh Air” in 1988 that he was in either second or third grade when he first heard records by Elvis Presley (who sounded to him like an “amphibian singing at the bottom of a well”) and Black harmony groups, like the Moonglows and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, which he preferred. His tastes shifted as he grew up, first to classical and folk music and then back to rock.

A few weeks into his freshman year at Antioch in 1965, he began writing music and book reviews for Broadside, a folk music magazine. That led to work for Crawdaddy in 1967 and to his first published work at Rolling Stone two years later, all done while he was still studying at Antioch, which his sister said he left one gym course short of graduating.

Following his years in Austin, Mr. Ward went to Berlin in the mid-1990s to work for a planned magazine that died before its publication, and then to Montpellier, France. During his years in Europe he wrote freelance articles, continued to contribute to “Fresh Air” (where he had been since 1987) and worked as a bartender.

He returned to Austin in 2013 and set to work on “The History of Rock & Roll, Volume 1: 1920-1963,” which was published in 2016. A second volume, taking the music’s history up to 1977, was published in 2019. But his publisher declined to publish a third one because the second book’s sales had not been as good the first one’s.

Although familiar names like Elvis and the Beatles are in the first book, so are those of Black artists like Earl Palmer, the drummer on Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” and many other classic New Orleans records, and Lowman Pauling, the guitarist and principal songwriter of the R&B group the “5” Royales.

“There is this misconception that on some day in 1954, Elvis invented everything all at once, and not only is that wrong, it’s really simplistic and unfair.,” he told The American-Stateman in 2016. “There’s almost no knowledge of the Black music of the ’30s, ’40s and early ’50s and the degree to which that shaped the sound out of which Elvis came.”

The book was, in a way, an outgrowth of Mr. Ward’s “Fresh Air” work. In segments lasting just seven or eight minutes, he would tell compelling, detailed stories about musicians and groups, both famous and obscure.

“I think that’s Ed’s most distinguished work,” Mr. Marcus said in a phone interview. “They were so interesting and well produced and so sharp. I’m not ignorant in this field, but every so often he’d present a segment about something I’d never heard of. He was a great explorer, a great excavator.”

But in 2017, when “Fresh Air” declined to interview him about his book, he quit.

“To leave ‘Fresh Air’ was a dangerous thing to do,” Mr. Patoski said, “and it hurt him because that’s how people knew him.”

Mr. Ward found another outlet for his storytelling: a podcast called “Let It Roll” on which, in 24 lengthy episodes between 2018 and 2020, he unspooled his history of rock.

“It was a Ph.D. class in music history to talk to Ed as I did,” the podcast’s host, Nathan Wilcox, said in an interview. “He boiled down history insightfully and into cohesive threads.”

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