Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Remembering The Outlaw: Eugene McDaniels

A portion of this post originally appeared here as an obituary in July, 2011.8765 It has been updated and amended as a remembrance.

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 A Tribe Called Quest and the Beastie Boys). The album is a fierce statement of Black pride, anger, and frustration, equally powered by a super-soul fever, a yearning for world peace, and ultimately love. A showcase for McDaniels’s breadth as a composer, from folky singer-songwriter styles (“Susan Jane”) to proto-rap (“Supermarket Blues”), his strongest words are demonstrations of righteous indignation (“The Lord is Black, his mood is in the rain…he’s coming to make corrections”).  His reward for creating such a unique piece of work was to have it recalled from the shelves and suppressed by Nixon’s White House; it remains a lost classic and is a story waiting to be told.

McDaniels is also the composer of “Compared to What,” the jazz-soul wartime protest made famous by Les McCann and Eddie Harris, a worldwide hit in 1969.

Born in Kansas City in 1935, McDaniels studied at the Omaha Conservatory of Music, and graduated from Omaha University. After forming a band in the 1950s, and singing with the McCann trio, 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.” With six hit records to his credit, McDaniels turned his focus to writing (he worked closely with Roberta Flack and ultimately wrote her hit “Feel Like Making Love,” among others). Following the success of “Compared to What,” by the time he attempted to relaunch his solo career as a singing and songwriting artist with his 1970 album The Outlaw, McDaniels had developed an intensely personal and pointed new style and direction. Fearless with his melodies and in his verses, the instrumentation on his early ’70s companion albums was a wild combination of folk-funk: electric and acoustic bass brushed against guitar, drums, and piano. The arrangements combined with the lyrics to strike inner chords of deep recognition, touching places in the heart  only music can reach. McDaniels injects each song with theatrical and emotional soul power, delivering the verses with a fascist-fighting folker’s impeccable style of oration.  Incensed and confused by injustice, his notes echo and stretch, like the sound of someone losing his mind. His elegy for the genocide of America’s indigenous population, “The Parasite (For Buffy),” dedicated to Native American and folksinger Buffy 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.

In Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop, I touched on McDaniels’s status as one of Nixon’s Enemies. It was in fact his story that in part inspired me to probe 50 years of freedom singing, and how resistance in song is received (or not) by a mass audience.  I remain deeply curious on the subject, but when my faith in music and in people is lagging, I pull out Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse and find it restores and inspires me. Whatever darkness he’s describing, the McDaniels 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 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 who used a piece of “Jagger The Dagger” throughout People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. John Legend and the Roots brought back a version of “Compared to What,” which was most recently updated by the trumpet player and bandleader Terence Blanchard (with E-Collective featuring PJ Morton).

Eugene McDaniels made it real—no comparison. Listen below to “Supermarket Blues,” his musical statement from 1971 on racial profiling, police violence, and white supremacy: It sounds as fresh as the day it was recorded.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Books, Eugene McDaniels, Folk, Jazz, Keep On Pushing, Protest Songs, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, , ,

The Outlaw, The Left Rev. McD, and Musical Warrior, Eugene McDaniels, RIP 1935-2011

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.

Filed under: Eugene McDaniels, Hip Hop, Soul, , , , , , , , ,

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