Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

The Last Holiday: On Stevie Wonder, Gil-Scott Heron and the MLK Observance They Turned From Dream to Reality


It was a long road to the third Monday in January when all 50 states observe the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the day 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 (he’d 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 Gil and Stevie 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.”  This year marks the 50th remembrance of Dr. King’s assassination on April 4. 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-war, Arts and Culture, Black Power,, Civil Rights, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Georgia, income disparity, racism, , , , ,

For Earth Day: The Story of Van Dyke Parks & The Esso Trinidad Steel Band

For Earth Day, I invite you to read the story of how composer and arranger Van Dyke Parks came to produce the 16-man steel pan band,  Esso Trinidad, following the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969. Thanks and congratulations to both Parks and Esso: Not only is their album a foundational contribution to the catalog of music that matters to the earth, the post you will be directed to is the number one most-read on this site, receiving daily views. Thanks for your readership and if you are able, please do something today as a steward of the ground beneath our feet (Mr. Parks suggests planting milkweed, to save the Monarch butterflies).

When 80,000 barrels of oil spilled into the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel in January of 1969, the crude-splattered water, beaches, and birds along the California coast in its aftermath became the symbols of modern eco-disaster. While the ensuing public outcry helped hasten the formalization of the environmental movement as we now know it, for musician Van Dyke Parks, the spill and “the revelation of ecology,” as he calls it, was a very personal, life-altering occasion. “It changed my M.O. and changed my very reason for being,” he says. The Union Oil rig rupture in Santa Barbara made Parks go calypso.

“When I saw the Esso Trinidad Steel Band, I saw myself in a Trojan Horse,” he says. “We were going to expose the oil industry. That’s what my agenda was. I felt it was absolutely essential.” From 1970 to 1975, Parks waged awareness of environmental and race matters through the music and culture of the West Indies, though in the end, “You don’t know whether to laugh or cry. That’s what makes Van Gogh go,” he says, “That’s what great art does.” Though Parks is referring directly to Esso Trinidad’s happy/sad steel drum sounds, he could just as easily be talking about his own experience during his Calypso Years. Read the full story here:


Filed under: Arts and Culture, Bob Marley, Calypso, Civil Rights, cross cultural musical experimentation, Earth Day Music, Environmental Justice, Georgia, Harry Belafonte, Interview, Reggae, video, , , , , ,

Kandia Crazy Horse: Ready For the Country

Kandia useKandia Crazy Horse is on a crusade to become the first black woman to be invited to join the Grand Ole Opry.

Noting that the oval office, hockey, tennis, “and even show jumping” can claim high-ranking blacks breaking the color barrier, Kandia asks, “Why not in country music? I wouldn’t want my children to think the only Black Country singer was Charley Pride.” Creating a black female presence in Americana is Kandia’s personal Kilimanjaro.

Read the entire story of Kandia Crazy Horse by Denise Sullivan posted in today’s SXSW edition of Blurt online.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Catch a Rising Star, Civil Rights, Concerts, Georgia, Harlem, Interview, Mali, new article, Now Playing, Smarter than the average bear, , , , , , , ,

In The Name of MLK

mlkIn one of those weird, under-reported facts, the origin of the third Monday in January when all 50 states are set to observe the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929) is not widely acknowledged, but it is in fact a musician we may largely thank for the creation of a federal holiday in the name of MLK.  Back in 1980, Stevie Wonder wrote his pointed song “Happy Birthday,” then launched a 41-city U.S. tour (and invited Gil Scott- Heron along) to promote an idea first mooted by Rep. John Conyers in 1968. The city to city tour was ultimately the key in collecting the millions of citizen signatures which had a direct impact on Congress passing the law signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, declaring the day for MLK. Of course it took some more years, more activist effort, more songs, and more applied pressure for the idea to catch on and the day to become a reality.

“Happy Birthday,” which served as the Wonder-campaign theme (and is now the “official” King holiday tune) is the last track on Wonder’s Hotter Than July album which also features “Master Blaster,” his tribute to Bob Marley.  The reggae giant was also scheduled for the tour until he fell too ill to participate. Stepping into the breach was Scott-Heron whose 2011, post-humously published memoir, The Last Holiday, details his own journey with music and activism; he retraces the long and winding road Wonder took to bring home a US federal holiday with the help of a song.  In a a strictly horrific twist of fate, the tour brought Gil and Stevie to Oakland, California, where they were playing in the name of King (as did Rodney Franklin and Carlos Santana) on the night John Lennon was assassinated.  The story of the evening is better read in Scott-Heron’s book, though here’s a clip of Wonder delivering the news to the assembled crowd, back in the time before we carried our own tracking devices.

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. On Monday January 20, cities all across the country will attempt to honor Dr. King’s dream the best they can, given our nation’s state of economic and moral poverty.  In King’s birthplace of Atlanta, Georgia,  the King Center, has a full weekend schedule of events culminating on Monday (the King Center’s events are dedicated to discussing and teaching non-violence). In San Francisco on January 20, there is an all-day celebration of King’s life, its theme Now is the Time, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts from 11 a.m. — 5 p.m. Among the events scheduled are author readings sponsored by Marcus Books, America’s oldest black-owned bookstore engaged in a final push to preserve culture and community in the City’s historic Fillmore District. San Francisco is generally struggling with displacement of its African American population, as well as other issues related to the City’s techsploitation of housing and services. City of Santa Monica hosts Southern California’s largest King Day event; this year’s theme is Unity in the Community. I am permanently dumfounded by the American shame that is Skid Row LA:  Just spitting distance from the unfathomable displays of wealth that define Beverly Hills, Hollywood and the Westside, human life and dignity are compromised there everyday.

Much like Dr. King’s vision, justice and equality in our democracy remain very much a dream. But wherever we go, whatever we do that day, let us not only continue to dream of love and peace, but to take an action toward eradicating poverty, eliminating racial injustice, and loving our fellows, in the name of MLK.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Marley, Concerts, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Georgia, income disparity, Origin of Song, , , , , , ,

Georgia (Georgia)

Georgia was on my mind this week—in the news, in the news—not once, but twice.  I lived there once upon a kudzu vine, in Atlanta, one block from the railroad tracks, spitting distance from Cabbagetown, the Ebenezer Baptist Church on Auburn Ave. and the Carter Center, devoted to “advancing human rights and alleviating suffering.”  I lived on a peaceful patch of urban land, in the most broke down flat on the block, and for the most part, I liked it. As for the rest of ATL’s urban sprawl, there was a whole lot of driving involved; it reminded me of  LA, only greener. I arrived down South, a freethinking, single white female from San Francisco, and was generally told I’d blend in with what was then called the “cosmopolitan” scene there, though I felt more like I’d landed on the moon.  For one thing, it was impossible to get a decent cup of coffee there back in ’89, a fact I never failed to remind my otherwise hospitable Southern pals, who in turn never failed to remind me, what would I know, anyway?  I was, afterall, fresh from “the land of fruits and nuts.”  Nevermind that those so-called fruits and nuts had taught me everything I knew about rock’n’roll at the time, as well as style, attitude and keeping it real (compared to what, I don’t know). Anyway, I don’t see those friends much anymore: We’ve largely gone our separate ways or they’re dead and gone now.  These things happen, though I’ve never really gotten used to them, nor do I like the idea of today here, tomorrow gone, though I’ve learned to accept life’s goings and comings, little inconveniences, and realities.  Part of how I dealt in Atlanta was with Coca-Cola: It pretty much cures everything that hurts.

In Atlanta I found new friends, and much to their horror there were nights I’d venture out alone, without them–a woman on her own—apparently some kind of taboo in the South, only I didn’t know that. So off I’d go, usually to the Colorbox, where musicians and DJs and artists of all kinds didn’t mind if I talked their ears off. They understood that I knew Georgia thanks to Little Richard, James Brown and Blind Willie McTell, Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor, President Carter and Dr. Martin Luther King.  I also knew that when Flashlight by Parliament played it meant last call on the dancefloor and that my heart would sink because it would be another week before I would see my friends and hear another De La remix turned up that loud again. Outside the Colorbox, and two records stores–Wax ‘n’ Facts and Wuxtry–the other place I felt at home in Atlanta was an hour outside of it in Athens, the college town known primarily as home of R.E.M., the South’s most beloved alternative rock band.  Their music and members once inspired me to do things–to take action in my community, to be a better person, to get into it and get involved. They were partly why I was in Georgia working in the first place.  R.E.M. reinforced for me in the post-punk era that music and message were actually compatible–that you could be human and be a rock star, that you could live, large, make mistakes and fall down, and move on.  And though I largely moved away from their music and the friends that bound me to it, upon the occasion of R.E.M.’s announced break-up this week, following 31 years together as a band, I got to thinking about them and Georgia again, my life and how I’ve  lived it, and all the people that have been and gone.  Me and Georgia were not forever either; ultimately it was a state I had to leave…

It wasn’t so much I got homesick for the West Coast, it’s just that things were different there, in ways that just didn’t set right with the Cali in me. Some people I knew and actually liked exercised their right to bear arms–just because they could–and that was one thing. These were people with whom I thought I had things in common, whose company I enjoyed, and yet, they thought it was also their right to determine my right to choose, and to exercise their right to free speech with nonchalant use of words I’d come to recognize as hate speech.  As a native San Franciscan and proud daughter of the blue state sisterhood, I was born to choose, and there are words I was raised up to never use, no matter what. And yet, there  is one thing on which my homestate and Georgia regrettably agree and that is the death penalty: We both have it and aren’t afraid to put it to use on a semi-regular basis.  And that’s the real reason I was thinking so hard on Georgia this September 21, the International Day of Peace, as it was preparing to execute one of its sons, Troy Anthony Davis, and did.

Some might say that as a music critic, it is not my job to weigh in on matters of life and death, but I disagree: There are some circumstances of this old life that I refuse to accept  and one is the death penalty.  Like former President Jimmy Carter, I reject it, in the name of “advancing human rights and alleviating suffering.”  “The death penalty in our country is unjust and outdated,” says the peanut farmer from Plains and you can call me a fruit and a nut, if you like, but I agree with him. I encourage anyone who feels the same way to take action and get into the reinvigorated effort to abolish the death penalty now. The link takes you directly to Amnesty International, an organization that for 50 years has fought in favor of human rights all over the world—I first heard about it in the ’80s, thanks to rock’n’roll and R.E.M.

(from a longer piece in progress)

Filed under: Georgia, , , , ,

Tweet Tweet

Recent Posts

Browse by subject or theme