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.