Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

On Stevie Wonder, Gil Scott-Heron & the federal holiday in the name of MLK, Jr.

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Today is the observance of a day for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. born January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. It was a long road to the third Monday of the month when all 50 states would observe a federal holiday named in his honor.  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 (Marley had been scheduled for the tour until he fell too ill to participate). Stepping into the breach was Scott-Heron whose 2011, posthumously published memoir The Last Holiday, details his own journey with music and activism, and helps retrace the long and winding road Wonder took to bring home the last US federal holiday, with the help of a song.

The Hotter Than July tour brought Scott-Heron and Wonder to Oakland, where they played in the name of King, along with Rodney Franklin and Carlos Santana. In a weird turn of events, the concert on December 8, 1980, coincided with the shocking night John Lennon was killed. The musicians and crew learned of the tragedy from a backstage television; the job fell to Wonder,  with Scott-Heron and the other musicians at his side, to deliver the news to the arena of assembled music fans. “For the next five minutes he spoke spontaneously about his friendship with John Lennon:  how they’d met, when and where, what they had enjoyed together, and what kind of man he’d felt Lennon was,” wrote Scott-Heron.  “That last one was key, because it drew a line between what had happened in New York that day and what had happened on that motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, a dozen years before.  And it drew a circle around the kind of men who stood up for both peace and change.”   Scott-Heron devotes the final pages of The Last Holiday  to a remembrance of how the murder of Lennon fueled the final drive to push for a federal observance of an official MLK Day.

The politics of right and wrong make everything complicated

To a generation who’s never had a leader assassinated

But suddenly it feels like ’68 and as far back as it seems

One man says “Imagine” and the other says “I have a dream”

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Black Power,, Blues, Bob Marley, Civil Rights, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Georgia, Gil

Filed under: Uncategorized

The Painters

For the last several years, my beat has generally been arts and culture: A lot about  books, the City of San Francisco and its people, and of course music, from folk to jazz.  But for reasons unexplained, I ended last year and begin the new decade with three consecutive stories on women who paint. 

Sylvia Fein is a surrealist and a centenarian, living in Martinez. Her enthusiasm not only for painting but for life (she’s an olive rancher, a sailor and a vintner) is an inspiration. The San Francisco Chronicle sent me to her home for the interview; her egg tempera on gesso board paintings and custom frames remain on view at the Berkeley Museum of Art and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) through January.

Deirdre White is a painter and arts educator. Five years ago I talked to her and her husband Tom Heyman about artists and gentrification. At the end of 2019, I spoke to White for my San Francisco Examiner column, SF Lives, when the Spring classes she teaches and others inside and outside her department at City College of San Francisco were abruptly cut just before Thanksgiving.  She has an exhibit opening January 31 at Ampersand International Gallery in San Francisco Her large canvas oil “carts and rigs” are informed by the lives and belongings of people who live on the streets here. Now That My Ladder’s Gone is on view through February.

Anna Lisa Escobedo is among the group of artists, not all but mostly women, who collaborated on the large mural Alto al fuego in la Misión, a tribute to those who’ve lost their lives to police violence in San Francisco and to state violence at the US border. Centered around the figure of Amilcar Perez-Lopez, I spoke to several artists on the project, including Carla Wojczuk and Lucia González Ippolito while covering the story for Current SF. The project was photographed beautifully by Ekevara Kitpowsong; we’ve worked together on several stories together about local muralists last year (including one on Juana Alicia whose work also inspired this newest addition to the Mission District’s mural scene).

Despite what you may have heard, San Francisco and the greater Bay Area still has plenty of art and artists living, working, thriving, creating beauty and making their statements here. Come and see us in the new year.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, San Francisco News, Women's issues, , , , ,

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