The music of Gene McDaniels was a big inspiration to me before, during and after the writing of Keep on Pushing: In many ways he and his largely untold story was the motivation to write a book that provides not only an overview of intersections between music and social and political movement, but takes a close look at some of the artists/activists who were undermined by a climate and culture ultimately unequipped to support their visionary work. And yet, rare groove chasers know well the name Eugene McDaniels; his 1971 album for Atlantic, Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse is a standard-bearer for psychedelic soul/funk/jazz rhythms and is borrowed frequently for its samples (most famously by the Beastie Boys in “Get It Together”). The album is a fierce statement of black pride, anger, and frustration, equally powered by a super-soul fever, peace, and ultimately love. It’s a showcase for McDaniels breadth as a composer, from folky singer-songwriter styles (“Susan Jane”) to proto-rap (“Supermarket Blues”); McDaniels’s strongest words are demonstrations of righteous indignation, though he also offers spiritual ideas.
The Lord is black, his mood is in the rain,
The people have called he’s coming to make corrections
You can hear his voice blowin’ in the wind
McDaniels is the composer of “Compared to What,” the 1969 jazz-soul wartime protest made famous by Les McCann and Eddie Harris: “Possession is the motivation that’s hangin’ up the goddam nation.” McDaniels was born in Kansas City in 1935, studied at the Omaha Conservatory of Music, and graduated from Omaha University. After forming a band in the 1950s, he signed with Liberty Records and hit in 1961 with “A Hundred Pounds of Clay,” followed by five more Top 40 hits, including “Tower of Strength.” All in all, McDaniels had six Top 40 records in 1961 and 1962 before he turned his focus to writing (he worked closely with Roberta Flack and ultimately wrote her hit “Feel Like Making Love,” among others). By the time he attempted to launch his solo career as a singing and songwriting artist, McDaniels had had the time to chew on what he wanted to say and had an intensely unique way of saying it. He was fearless with his melodies and in his verses. The instrumentation was a wild combination of folk-funk: electric and acoustic bass rubbed against guitar, drums, and piano, and they all combined with lyrics that strike chords of deep recognition. With the fascist-fighting folker’s impeccable style of oration, he injects the song with theatrical and emotional soul power. As he sings, he evokes images of a man increasingly incensed and so confused by injustice that he’s stretched to the point of losing his mind. His elegy for the red man, “The Parasite (For Buffy),” dedicated to Sainte-Marie, is a shining example of his dramaturgical song style that places his subjects in a social, political and psychological context. But McDaniels’s revolution of the mind is a peaceful one; though he paints pictures of hell and all hell breaking loose, his narrator does not advocate use of violence as a solution. Rather, violence is portrayed as the problem. “Supermarket Blues” describes a situation in which a man demands his money back for a can of peas marked as pineapple and ends up with a beating. Somehow he even finds a way to inject dark humor into the mess: “I wish I’d stayed home and got high instead of coming into the street and having this awful fight.” Whatever darkness he’s describing, McDaniels’s point of view remains poised and unique; his higher consciousness and keep-on-pushing spirit bleeds between the notes of each slyly rendered gospel-laced track. Years later, the white-rapping, Tibetan-Freedom-loving Beastie Boys would turn to McDaniels, nicknamed the Left Rev McD, for a sample, as would the Afro-centric, conscious hip-hoppers, A Tribe Called Quest. Last year, John Legend and the Roots brought back a version of “Compared to What.”
During the course of the five years I was writing and researching Keep on Pushing, I attempted to reach McDaniels a number of times, hoping he would answer some of my questions about his early ’70s work and the mysterious stories of conspiracy and suppression that surround it, though my requests remained unanswered. In the book, I attempted to unravel his story the best I could, the facts based on bits and pieces from pre-existing interviews, including information passed on by Pat Thomas who reissued Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse and its predecessor, The Outlaw. With little information available to me, in the end, I came to my own conclusions about McDaniels and his exceptional work, the kind of music that reaches inside, touches the soul, and alters it. The Left Rev. McD made a difference, and mercifully the music remains, though his presence will be missed: Eugene McDaniels made it real—no comparison.