Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Stew and Heidi Rodewald, aka The Negro Problem, on Making It

Stew and Heidi Rodewald left Los Angeles for New York and Broadway where they found success with their coming-of-age musical, Passing Strange (now available as a Spike Lee Joint on DVD).  I spoke with them about their new album, Making It, and how their love got lost in the mix in the new issue of Blurt.

Filed under: Interview, new article, , , , ,

Etta James: 1938-2012

R&B legend Etta James, who would’ve turned  74 in a couple of days, has passed away after a long battle with leukemia complicated by dementia. Discovered by Johnny Otis (he was the one who rechristened Jamesetta Hawkins, Etta James), she was brought closer to the mainstream by Leonard Chess, and remained in her lifetime the First Lady of the Blues.  James was known for her hits “At Last,” “Tell Mama,” “Wang Dang Doodle” and “I’d Rather Go Blind” among many other greats, as well as for her struggle with drug addiction.  Inspired by Malcolm X, she joined the Black Muslims, as a way to get clean.  As Jamesetta X, she attended Temple 15 in Atlanta where Louis Farrakhan was minister.  “I became an honorable Elijah Muhammad Muslim…No more slave name.”  She believes her example may’ve had some influence on Cassius Clay turning toward the organization, though in her case, the faith didn’t stick.  She lived to tell these stories and more in her autobiography, A Rage to Survive.  Following a near decade sidelined by trouble, she resurfaced in the late ’80s after appearing in the Chuck Berry tribute film, Hail, Hail Rock’n’Roll, to largely resume her career and receive awards from all quarters, from the Blues Foundation, Grammy and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, for her contribution to early rock’n’roll.

Sadly, Ms. James’ final months were disquieted by family finance trouble and a lawsuit pending between her husband, Artis Mills, and her son, Donto James (which was reportedly settled before her passing). She also made headlines in recent years when while falling ill she was still touring, performing, and calling out Beyonce (the singer had portrayed her in Cadillac Records, though it wasn’t the celluloid portrayal of her that the blues diva minded so much—in fact she went on the record as quite liking it). James didn’t like it when Mrs. Jay-Z went and performed the James signature song, “At Last”, for the President and Mrs. O at the inaugural festivities, though she eventually came clean about the hurt feelings behind being excluded from the inaugural ball proceedings.  Truth be told, James would’ve had to have had to considerably clean-up her NC-17 stage show for a G-rated White House appearance, as even in her early ’70s, the blueswoman walked the razor’s edge. Ms. James has been in my thoughts this past year, and especially in the last day since her early mentor Johnny Otis’ passing; my condolences to the James-Mills families, friends and fans.  Here she is one more time, with Robert Cray, Johnnie Johnson, and Keith Richards, singing Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Gal”.

More on Etta James, her relationship to early rock’n’roll, and her experience with the Nation of Islam in Keep on Pushing.


Filed under: Blues, Keep On Pushing, Rhythm & Blues, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, , , , , ,

Johnny Otis: 1921-2012

Johnny Otis, the great bandleader, writer/performer/producer, nurturer of musical talent, political activist, broadcaster, preacher, visual artist, and apple grower has died.  He was 90 years old.

Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes was born to Greek immigrant parents in Vallejo, California, and grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood in Berkeley.  It was Nat “King” Cole and Jimmy Witherspoon who suggested that he relocate to Los Angeles where he joined up with Harlan Leonard’s Kansas City Rockers, the house band at the Club Alabam on Central Avenue; from there, his career as a bandleader began in earnest. He hit with a version of “Harlem Nocturne” and took his California Rhythm & Blues Caravan on the road, bringing his revue to Black America.  Known to some as “The Godfather of Rhythm and Blues,” what Otis gave to rock’n’soul as a DJ, producer, writer and advocate of African American culture is incalculable:  He produced Big Mama Thornton and the original version of “Hound Dog”; he was an early discoverer of Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard and Little Willie John, whom he noticed at a Detroit talent show.  He gave early breaks to Little Esther  Phillips and Etta James (he produced “Roll With Me, Henry”, her answer song to Ballard’s “Work With Me, Annie”) and produced some early takes by Little Richard.  He played on and produced “Pledging My Love” by Johnny Ace and wrote “So Fine” and “Willie and the Hand Jive.”  He nurtured artists from Jackie Payne and Sugar Pie DeSanto as well his son Shuggie Otis, and his grandson Lucky Otis.  He remained devoted to R&B throughout his lifetime, promoting it on his public radio broadcast, The Johnny Otis Show, on which he also spoke out about the issues he was passionate about—chiefly poverty and racism. “The fact that so many human beings in American are without adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or hope for the future constitutes a national disgrace,” he wrote in 1993.  “I fear that as more of our country’s wealth is concentrated into fewer hands and American corporate fascism becomes more entrenched, the shame in the streets will grow.”

Otis lived his life if not passing then certainly living more comfortably among blacks, participating in the struggle for equality in the early ‘60s, and becoming adept at his own political and spiritual speechifying. His first book, Listen to the Lambs concerned the Watts riots of 1965.  Influenced early on by Minister Malcolm X, Otis ultimately entered politics working as Deputy Chief of Staff to Mervyn M. Dymally, a lifelong California politician. Otis also started his own churches, the Landmark Church in Los Angeles, turned Landmark Community Gospel Church in Santa Rosa: All were welcome.  “The most meaningful activity at our church was feeding homeless people,” Otis wrote.

Otis was also a visual artist with paintings, carvings and sculptures to his credit; believe it or not, he also marketed a line of apple juice, made from apples grown at his Sebastopol farm. Splitting his life between his native Nor Cal and his adopted Southern California homes, he died in Los Angeles, leaving his wife of 60 years, Phyllis, and an entire extended Otis clan.  My condolences to all of them, and to all those who loved him: “Rock Steady”, Mr. Otis, and thank you.

Johnny Otis is among the artists whose stories contribute to the rich history of where music meets social and political activism.  Read more about Otis and others like him in Keep on Pushing.  He told his own story in Upside the Head!  Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue, available through his website.

Filed under: Keep On Pushing, Rhythm & Blues, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, , , , ,

Chuck D: A Hero to Skid Row

Rapper Chuck D brought the noise, the love and his ministry of music on Sunday to the folks who need it most:  The residents of LA’s Skid Row, the largest community of homeless people in the USA.

Chuck D organized Operation: Skid Row with LA CAN (Community Action Network) which provides homes for the homeless and with whom he collaborated on the new book, Freedom Now, concerning the human right to housing. He brought Public Enemy (Flavor Flav, Professor Griff)  along to the show which also featured the old school talent of Brother J of X-Clan, Kid Frost, Yo-Yo and Egyptian Lover of “Egypt, Egypt” fame, as well as Money B and Korrupt (read the full report from the LA Times).

“When America has a recession, black America has a depression. When America hits depression, then you have a group of people based on their visual characteristics who are in total desperation,” Chuck D told the Ventura County Reporter last week, though details about the concert were kept vague until the last minute,  to keep the focus on homelessness and to discourage gawkers and overzealous fans.

The Skid Row neighborhood is described as having the largest “stable” population of homeless people—approximately 4,000— in the US, though in practical terms, the area is anything but stable:  It is under-served, its residents for the most part are unheard, and it exists as a world largely invisible to the greater Angeleno and American population. Filmgoers caught a glimpse of the Hollywood version of Skid Row in the 2009 film, The Soloist, starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr,   based on the true story of LA Times reporter Steve Lopez and his relationship with a homeless musician, Nathanial Ayers.  At the beginning of 2011, Pulitizer Prize-winning journalist Patt Morrison of KPCC broadcast a two-part series on the area in which she spoke to residents, some of them belonging to families spanning three generations there, as well to law enforcement and emergency and social service personnel who serve the neighborhood.  More recently, eyes have been on Skid Row in relation to where its concerns intersect with the Occupy LA movement.

I can think of no better way to honor the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his actual birthdate than by shining some light on the plight of our poorest—the bottom one percent—and making the effort to extend a hand to them. “Feed the people, their minds, body and souls, and hopefully attract attention to make this invisible situation visible,” says Chuck D, now celebrating 25 years since the release of Public Enemy’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show.  I have a feeling this is not the last we’ll be hearing from him or from hip hop on the matter of Skid Row.

More on Chuck D, Public Enemy and hip hop consciousness in Keep on Pushing.

Filed under: Concerts, Hip Hop, Keep On Pushing, , , , , , ,

Happy Birthday Dr. King

It was a long road to the third Monday in January when all 50 states observe Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in their own unique ways.  Largely owed for making the dream of a King holiday a reality is Stevie Wonder, who back in 1980, wrote the pointed song “Happy Birthday” then launched a 41-city U.S. tour (and invited Gil Scott- Heron along) to promote the idea which was first mooted by Rep. John Conyers in 1968. The musical efforts were ultimately the key in collecting the millions of citizen signatures that had a direct impact on Congress passing the law signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, declaring a day for MLK. Observed for the first time in 1986, some states were late to the party, however, by the turn of the 21st Century, all were united in some form of remembrance of the civil rights giant. “Happy Birthday”, which served as the Wonder-campaign theme (and is now the “official” King holiday tune) is  the last track on Hotter Than July. The album also features “Master Blaster”, Wonder’s tribute to Bob Marley who had been scheduled for the tour till he fell too ill to participate. Stepping into the breach was Scott-Heron whose new book, The Last Holiday, is part memoir/part the story of how Wonder used a song to bring home a US federal holiday. Born in Atlanta Georgia on January 15, 1929, Dr. King would’ve been 83 this year.

Filed under: Concerts, Gil Scott-Heron, , , , , , ,

Survive Baraka, Survive

“Never settle for the given.  What is it that hasn’t been mentioned? What is beyond that?” These are the words of activist, actor, poet, playwright, director, and music critic Amiri Baraka. “Art is supposed to unlock you, make the world more available to you,” like the way he felt when he heard Thelonious Monk for the first time, he said. Baraka was at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles last weekend, in conversation with his daughter, Kelly Jones, curator of the wildly successful exhibit, Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960—1980, to discuss art and family, though the conversation inevitably turned to Baraka’s recurrent theme, surviving America. “Do you understand the world?…What do you think?… What is important to you?…What is it you want to say?…How do you say what the world is?…How do you tell us who lives on this planet?…How do you make something speak to the world?…” These are the questions he asks of himself and of other artists.

Born LeRoi Jones in 1934 in Newark, NJ, where he lives today, Baraka chronicled the birth of free jazz as a journalist; he wrote an Obie award-winning play, The Dutchman, and he is the author of Blues People, one of the first books to make connections between music and social history. Equally informed by the poetry of Langston Hughes, the politics of Malcolm X and the Black Mountain College poets, Allen Ginsberg and the Beat movement, in the mid-‘60s, Baraka founded the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School (BARTS) in Harlem which contributed to the development of a new, unapologetically black style of writing, its creation dovetailing with the Black Power movement’s cultural agenda. His album It’s Nation Time—African Visionary Music, for Motown’s Black Forum label, features his Black Nationalist poetry set to music.

Stirring it up for 50 years, in 2002, Baraka was named Poet Laureate of New Jersey and of the Newark Public Schools amidst controversy over his poem, “Somebody Blew Up America” (who? who?  who?). That same year, The Roots accompanied him on “Something in the Way of Things (In Town),” on their album, Phrenology. More on Amiri Baraka, the Black Arts Movement, and his connections to music, from blues to hip hop in Keep on Pushing.

Filed under: Blues, Jazz, Keep On Pushing, , , , ,

Goodbye Old Year, Happy New You

Among arts enthusiasts, there is the year-end tradition of list-making, that compulsive, hierarchical compiling of bests and worsts that at its most sinister and cynical is rooted in the marriage of media and market forces and at its most benign is a form of entertainment for us media freaks and geeks. I happen to enjoy the tradition of critically reviewing the year in culture; it helps me remember its themes and threads and some of the good times as I determine what I shall carry forward versus what I’d rather forget. Listmaking or at least the act of reading and sharing of lists, is a form of community; and a little like resolutions, a list can hold you accountable for your taste, revealing however impeccable, poor, quirky, or mediocre it might be. Top Tens are also great conversation starters, and they can contribute toward creating a grassroots buzz for the otherwise unheralded.  Word of mouth is still my favorite way of receiving a recommendation, especially when so many other channels of information have been cut-off or rendered unreliable.  “I didn’t hear it, but a friend told me she liked it,” is often a good enough reason for me to try something new. Which brings me to my own list of a few of my favorite things from 2011.

Tassili by Tinawiren produced by Ian Brennan: Mali music spiked with the art rock of TV on the Radio, a taste of New Orleans from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and all the soul of Tinawiren’s distinct desert blues.

Detroit Ville Sauvage aka Detroit Wild City, directed by Florent Tillon, concerns the regenerating landscape and pioneering people of one of America’s greatest cities.

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, directed by Goran Hugo Olsson, conjoins lost and found footage of the struggle in the ‘60s and early ‘70s with the voices of contemporary artists and activists (its narrative echoes the story told in Keep on Pushing, but that’s not the only reason I liked it).

La Havre by Aki Kurismaki.  A middle-aged French bohemian with problems of his own offers asylum to a young immigrant from Africa, separated from his family in the port city of La Havre.

Activist and educator, Dr. Cornel West and journalist Tavis Smiley for The Poverty Tour.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee for her activism.

Journalist Amy Goodman for her coverage of the Occupy movement

All the citizens who occupied our streets and parks, from coast to coast.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides.  The story of trio of students forced to reevaluate everything they’ve learned up until graduation day will ring through for not only ’80s grads but the graduating classes of  2012 and 2013, too.

The Last Holiday by Gil Scott-Heron: A memoir as well as the story of how a hip hop original, alongside Stevie Wonder, contributed toward establishing the federal holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I can’t wait to read it.

Who and what contributed to some of your most treasured moments, events and artistic endeavors from the year that was?  And what are you looking forward to in the year that is?

Twenty-eleven was chock-a-block with personal milestones on my calendar—not least of which was the publication of Keep on Pushing--though I’d like to begin 2012 with a few words of thanks for the memories, inspiration and encouragement from this past super-year. First to my readers—whether we are strangers, relatives, colleagues, kindred spirits or friends for real, your support of the book has meant a great deal to me.  In the cases where we’ve dialogued, whether about the book’s themes, its soundtrack, the artists, and my reasons for writing about them, your inquiries and  feedback have been most gratifying. I am indebted to the thoughtful interviewers—broadcast and print journalists—who took the book to their hearts and invited me in for conversation.  In a new section of the blog headed Audio, I’ve recapped some of those recorded highlights (or I should say, the miracle that is internet radio and its archives has preserved them, in perpetuity).  Also, I owe yet another round of thanks to the publications that reviewed the book, as well as to the book sellers and librarians who invited me to participate in events at their stores and institutions, my editors and publisher Lawrence Hill Books and its distributor IPG, as well as the the musicians and poets who supported me at those appearances by performing for free. Chuck D’s tweet  about the book on New Year’s Eve ended the year on a sweet, high note.

We plan to Keep on Pushing throughout the election year with our revue. If you are a musician, a poet, an educator, activist, or a citizen who wants to get into it and get involved, please be in touch. Wishing us all peace, prosperity and good health in the new year (and whatever else it takes to move up a little higher, someway, somehow).

Filed under: Keep On Pushing, Occupy Wall Street, Reviews, , , , ,

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