Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

The Rock ‘n’ Soul of Jesus

This repost is an annual tradition. Happy Easter.

In 1969, Norman Greenbaum had a worldwide hit and US #3 with “Spirit in the Sky.” Greenbaum sold over two million copies of the single in which he claimed he had a “friend in Jesus,” never mind that he was Jewish. “Spirit in the Sky” was not the first or the last time Jesus hit the charts, but its success marked the unofficial beginning of a Jesus movement in and outside of rock that impacted the popular arts, from Broadway to Bob Dylan, in the ‘70s.

Partly a reaction to the hippie culture and also a part of it, the Jesus people, or Jesus freaks, as they were proudly known within their movement, generally sought to return Christianity to its origins. The seeds of today’s Christian right as well as its progressive left-wing were both sown in the loosely established communities/communes, and in some cases cults, which sought to throw off religious strictures as well as its staid music. Ironically, the so-called devil’s music conservatives railed against is massively marketed today as Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), a major tool to keep young people interested in faith, though that isn’t the subject of this post. Rather, for Easter Week, I give you songs sung by generally secular rockers who went sacred at the height of the Jesus music movement of the ’70s, a 10-year period bookended by ’69’s “Spirit in the Sky” and “Gotta Serve Somebody” (1979, the last time Dylan had a high-charing single at #24).

In 1966, John Lennon joked the Beatles were bigger than Jesus and caught hell for it, though by the time he invoked Christ’s name and sang of his own crucifixion in 1969′s “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, all was forgiven and only a few outlets banned it, branding it sacrilegious.  By the end of the year, the Beatles were all but said and done, and it was the Quiet One who revealed himself to be the spiritual seeker of the group. Sporting a look that was rather Christ-like, George Harrison spent four weeks at #1 in the US and five weeks at #1 in the UK at the end of 1970 and the beginning of 1971 with “My Sweet Lord,” the song that kicked off a kind of Jesus-mania in ’70s rock.

Speaking to his Krishna consciousness, while throwing in a couple of hallelujahs, Harrison was famously accused of copping the “doo-lang” backgrounds from the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” (a song about a boy which has been known to double as a spiritual). And yet, Harrison disavowed the influence, claiming his inspiration came from “Oh Happy Day”, a top five 1969 hit for the Edwin Hawkins Singers. “Oh Happy Day” grew from a Northern California gospel choir’s homemade record derived from an English hymn dating back to the 18th Century (Spiritualized revived “Oh Happy Day” in the late 20th Century). Gospel music had been rocking souls since at least the 18th century in the Americas, where African rhythms joined field, work, and folk songs, to old hymns from the British Isles, and made way for a new form of expression giving voice to the inner lives of the oppressed. In his book People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music, author Robert Darden speaks to the theological ideas and arguments behind the music:  By evoking a more powerful spirit, gospel-inspired work served to fight the demonic institutions of slavery and Jim Crow law. The 20th Century story of how church singers like Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, and more turned gospel into soul is among the greatest told tales in music history as are the origins of the blues, a music where heaven and hell, and Jesus and the devil, go head to head regularly. Rock ‘n’ soul were built on gospel and blues foundation and remain inextricably intertwined, their resonances in rock proving to be everlasting (I write about gospel, blues, soul and music’s connection to people’s liberation extensively throughout this site and in my book, Keep on Pushing).

Here’s an example of how a song traveled in the Year of Our Lord, 1971, a big one for Jesus and his greatest hits: In May, Gene MacLellan’s song “Put Your Hand in the Hand”, the title song from the debut album by Canadian rock group Ocean, became a million-seller and high-charting Billboard hit (I’ve seen it listed as a #2 as well as #3). The song was originally cut by Anne (“Snowbird”) Murray and went on to be recorded by Jesus-loving artists from Elvis Presley to Loretta Lynn. “Put Your Hand in the Hand” hearkens back to the first gospel song to score a number one crossover hit: “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”, as done by Laurie London in 1958. Mahalia Jackson—gospel’s reigning queen of soul during the civil rights era—would also put the song in Billboard’s Top 100. The Jesus rock of Ocean did not turn out to be quite as enduring or memorable, though the Jesus music movement continued to gain momentum in the ’70s thanks to, well, Jesus and the 1970 Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice album project turned hit Broadway play bearing his name.

In May of 1971, songs from Jesus Christ Superstar with Ian Gillan (Deep Purple) in the role of Jesus were also making their way to the charts. Murray Head (as Judas) and his version of “Superstar” were sitting at #20 and peaked at #14 in the US in June. Another song from the show, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”, the “Him” being Jesus, and the “I” being Mary Magdalene (as sung by Yvonne Elliman) rose to #28, also in 1971.

Even the Rolling Stones got into the Jesus spirit that year: After the darkness that marked Altamont, they traded “Sympathy for the Devil” for when the Lord gets ready  andYou Got To Move” by Mississippi Fred McDowell (from their Sticky Fingers album). Here’s a clip of them in 1975 performing it with Ollie Brown and Billy Preston joining on vocals.

In 1972, the gospel-based Staple Singers busted the crossover charts with Be Altitude, featuring the hits, “I’ll Take You There”, “Respect Yourself”, and the lesser-known “Who Do You Think You Are (Jesus Christ the Superstar)?”

In 1972, the Off-Broadway play, Godspell, scored a hit off its original cast album with “Day By Day” which went to #13 on the pop charts. Following the West End success of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1973 it was turned into a hit film, directed by Norman Jewison. Here’s a clip of Carl Anderson in the role of Judas, rockin’ the Jehovah out of the title song, followed by Murray Head’s chart hit version.

Curiously, it’s another Norman—not Jewison nor Greenbaum but Larry—who is widely considered to be the godfather of the aforementioned contemporary Christian rock. Bob Dylan followed his work, and the Pixies’ Black Francis grew up on it. A bit of a wild card, Larry Norman is generally well-regarded as an artist, remembered as a risk-taker, an experimentalist, and an iconoclast who didn’t cotton to the status quo in rock or Christian music. Also contributing to the coalescence of contemporary Christian music was Explo ’72, a festival concert that gathered over 75,000 young Jesus people in Dallas to see Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Larry Norman, and gospel artist Andrae Crouch for a kind of “religious Woodstock,” so-called by the Reverend Billy Graham, who was in attendance. According to author Andrew Beaujon’s book Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside the Phenomenon of Christian Rock, Explo set in motion the beginnings of the contemporary Christian music industry. Soon after, specialty labels formed, and the contemporary Christian music market was born to boom. “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music” was Norman’s answer to conservatives, who thought rockin’ for Jesus was not in concordance with the road to salvation. Though surely as the Jesus rockers were dismissed from the inner sanctum of evangelical Christiandom, they had also impacted the sound of church hymns too: Catholic mass went “folk” in the ’70s and some of those freshly arranged hymns remain in church repertoire today.

In 1972, Rhodes Scholar Kris Kristofferson sang “Jesus Was a Capricorn” on the album of the same title. He didn’t stay a Jesus rocker for long, though he had a definite claim in Jesus, given he was named for him—twice. “Morning Has Broken”, a Top 10 Cat Stevens hit in 1972, was based on the Gaelic hymn “Bunnesan” that’s been sung in churches as “Morning Has Broken” since at least 1930s. The Englishman of Greek origin has long since converted to Islam, first as a non-singer, now singing again. “Jesus is Just Alright” as covered by the Doobie Brothers was also a chart hit in 1972, though the Byrds had already recorded the Art Reynolds song in 1969.

Though by far, the biggest news in Jesus rock of the ’70s was Bob Dylan’s conversion to Christianity. Before developing his own distinct song style in the mid-‘60s, his lyrics vigorously opposed to injustice, Dylan had started out his career adapting old spirituals for his own form of protest song. By the mid-‘70s his Rolling Thunder Revue was as devoted to seeking justice for falsely accused prisoner Ruben “Hurricane” Carter as it was to an excessive rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Following that harrowing passage, Dylan, in characteristic retreat mode, embraced Christianity. Born again, he cut two gospel albums, 1979’s Slow Train Coming and Saved (1980) produced by self-proclaimed Jewish atheist, Jerry Wexler.

“Gotta Serve Somebody” from Slow Train Coming won the Best Male Rock Vocal Grammy and has since been covered by gospel artist Shirley Caesar, blueswoman Etta James, Neville brother Aaron, Texas troubadour Willie Nelson, marvelous Mavis Staples, and Hammond B-3 giant Booker T. with the M.G.’s. while John Lennon (“Serve Yourself”), and Devo (undercover as a Christian rock act, Dove) famously parodied it. At the time of recording, Dylan was pilloried: His 14-night stand at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater in 1979 featured nightly picketers stationed outside the theater. The reviews were radically divided. On 1981’s Shot of Love, Dylan answered some of his critics on songs which mixed secular and sacred and yielded at least one of his most enduring spiritual works, “Every Grain of Sand.”

In part owed to the controversy inspired by Bob Dylan’s gospel period, some believers choose to keep distinctly sacred references to Jesus out of their songs while others use his name as an invocation. Dylan faithful Patti Smith famously opened her rendition of “Gloria” with the line, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”; she titled a song and an album “Easter”, while “Ghost Dance” features the holy incantation, “we shall live again.” Her friend and collaborator Robert Mapplethorpe’s Catholicism left its fingerprint on her; she continues to be inspired by poet and artist William Blake whose portraits of the divine move beyond confines of religious dogma.

Punk and alternative rock depictions of Jesus are not unheard of: Joey Ramone sang “I’m Not Jesus”, and Jesus rode beside Paul Westerberg in “Can’t Hardly Wait”, while a rather unholy trinity of bands, the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Jesus Lizard, and Jesus Jones all named themselves after the big man. Flaming Lips, Ministry, and Spacemen 3 have got their Jesus songs too; they are but a small sample of alterna-Jesus references. Indie rock has its share of artists like Pedro the Lion and Sufjan Stevens whose Jesus-inspired work stays more on the downlow, like that of U2, Bruce Cockburn, Moby, Midnight Oil, Polyphonic Spree, and Lambchop: All make allusions to JC and Christianity while enjoying success in the secular world.

In hip hop, the Lord’s name is occasionally given a shout-out, but none took on Jesus better than Kanye “Yeezus” West whose 2004 single, “Jesus Walks” dared to speak of the very subject we’re talking about: With the Jesus movement in rock long in decline, to sing about him was often considered the equivalent of career suicide, yet West’s success was an exception. “Jesus Walks” peaked at #11 Pop and #2 R&B, sold over half a million copies, and was certified gold.

In 2008, the gospel songs of Dylan were compiled by the music’s greatest stars on Gotta Serve Somebody. The career of gospel songstress Mavis Staples has achieved a full-blown rock revival following her contemporary albums produced by Ry Cooder and Jeff Tweedy. Southern California roots band Dead Rock West revived the Staples classic, “This May Be the Last Time” (the song the Rolling Stones borrowed for “The Last Time”), alongside works by Blind Willie Johnson and the Jesus and Mary Chain on their gospel-inspired collection Bright Morning Stars. Though the charts may never again see the high number of Jesus jams the ‘70s saw, if you’ve got the time to seek, you’ll find plenty more from where these came.

Happy Easter to all Jesus rockers, readers, and people of all faiths: May your spirit be refreshed as you continue in the struggle for peace and justice. (A version of this column originally ran in Crawdaddy! as The Origin of Song and appears elsewhere on this site).

 

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Gospel, Soul, , , , , , ,

Happy Birthday Etta James

Etta-James2Today is the birthday of the great R&B singer, performer and songwriter, Etta James. Californian by birth, Jamesetta Hawkins entered this world on January 25, 1938, the child of a wayward mother and a father she liked to say was the pool player, Minnesota Fats (her belief was never exactly disproved). Shipped off to live with relatives who could better care for her in San Francisco’s Fillmore District (“The Harlem of the West”), she was discovered and rechristened Etta James by Greek-American Johnny Otis. Both Otis and James created identities as specifically California blues artists that they grew into international followings. Together they cut “Roll With Me, Henry” (an answer song to Hank Ballard’s “Work With Me, Annie”) and a few more sides before she left Modern Records for her ‘60s tenure with the Chess brothers in Chicago.

Known for her hits “At Last,” “Tell Mama,” “Wang Dang Doodle” and “I’d Rather Go Blind” among many other greats, she was an inspiration to drag queens (the disco artist Sylvester learned how to party in her apartment), rock’n’rollers (most famously Janis Joplin) and anyone with a pair of ears. Etta herself was at one time inspired by the charismatic speaking of Malcolm X; she joined the Black Muslims, as a way to get clean from drugs (it was a battle she waged for the better part of her life).  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 her friend 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). Often 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 thrive. She received awards from all quarters, from the Blues Foundation, Grammy, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. She also ultimately got to grips with her addictions. First Lady of the Blues, James passed away a few days shy of her 74th birthday in January of 2012. We miss you Etta James:  The blues just ain’t the same without you.

Above, “I’d Rather Go Blind” was written by Ellington Jordan and James, and is among her most beloved recordings. Below, Alicia Keys and Bonnie Raitt paid tribute to James at the 2012 Grammy Awards. Keys was also born on January 25, as was the pre-war Tennessee bluesman, Sleepy John Estes.
Read more about Etta James and Alicia Keys in Keep on Pushing

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Blues, Keep On Pushing, Malcolm X, Rhythm & Blues, Rock Birthdays, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, Soul, video, , , , , , ,

What Makes a Legend? Solomon Burke

Solomon BurkeClassic Track: Everybody Needs Somebody to Love.” Recorded by the Rolling Stones, Wilson Pickett, the 13th Floor Elevators, the North Mississippi Allstars, and even the Blues Brothers, Solomon Burke used his tune to testify his message of love until the very end (he was born on March 21, 1940 in Philadelphia and died on the morning of October 10, 2010 on his way to a sold-out gig at the world famous rock club, the Paradiso in Amsterdam). Burke first hit the Top 10 R&B charts in 1961 and 1962 with “Just Out of Reach (Of My Open Arms)” which was immediately recorded by Betty Harris, and followed with the Bert Berns song, “Cry to Me”, also cut by the Rolling Stones in 1965. That year Burke scored an R&B number one with his own song, “Got to Get You Off Of My Mind.” The decades in between the ’60s and the present have in part been described by Burke as his “pits of hell,” but by the millennium he’d made a comeback: Don’t Give Up On Me was a 2002 Grammy-winning blues album featuring songs by Elvis Costello, Brian Wilson, Nick Lowe, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Tom Waits.

Career Highs: Crowned by a DJ who called him the King of Rock ‘n’ Soul in 1964, Burke took the scepter and the cape and ran with the gimmick, paying no mind to what James Brown or anyone else had to say about the title. Performing perched atop his onstage throne, Burke was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. He was extraordinarily honored to have performed at the Vatican for Pope John Paul II.

Career Low: He perceived that Atlantic Records honcho Jerry Wexler stonewalled his dream project, the Soul Clan, a super-group projected to make bank and fund much-needed community-based projects in the late ’60s. Initially conceived to include Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett, Redding’s death by plane crash was the first devastation. Pickett’s exit followed, which left Burke, Don Covay, Ben E. King, Arthur Conley, and Joe Tex to record a rousing single, “Soul Meeting”/”That’s How I Feel.” But when the recording budget was withdrawn, the album was filled-out with substandard tracks. “Those dreams got crushed… it shattered us,” Burke told me in 2008.

Essential Listening: Burke’s swansong Nothing’s Impossible was released in 2010; it may also be considered his masterpiece: An old-school Memphis soul recorded made in collaboration with legendary producer Willie Mitchell, they recorded it at Mitchell’s Royal Recorders, home of Al Green’s and Ann Peebles’ hits, and it got the stylized, Hi Records rhythm and sound—a fitting farewell from two soul masters.

And if you like that: Nashville (2006)  a nod to his love of country music, was produced by Buddy Miller and features duets with Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, and Patty Griffin.

Quotable: “The best soul singer of all time.” – R&B Producer Jerry Wexler

This column originally appeared in Crawdaddy! October 11, 2010

Read more on Solomon Burke in Keep on Pushing

Filed under: R&B, Rhythm & Blues, Rock Birthdays, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, Solomon Burke, Soul, Soul Birthdays, video,

The Battle of Bettye LaVette

Bettye-Lavette-200x300Everyone’s talking about the new Bettye LaVette tell-all book, A Woman Like Me, in which she dishes the dirt on her old friends from the Motor City and describes some of the worst gigs she ever had, among other shockers.  I’ve not yet read it (Santa forgot to deliver it), but  I had my own conversation with LaVette a couple of years back and it was originally published in Crawdaddy! online.  I’m reposting it in its entirety here, or as LaVette would say, it’s making a ” comeback from the crypt,” just in time for the new year.

I’d certainly heard of the battle of Bettye LaVette, a struggle that lasted for decades and ended with the singer’s triumphant comeback, but I hadn’t really heard Bettye LaVette until I put on The Scene of the Crime, LaVette’s disc on which she’s accompanied by the Drive-By Truckers:  So moved was I by her song interpretations, by the record’s end, I was hunched in a chair, sobbing into my hands.

LaVette is a seamstress of song, ripping up the compositions of others and tucking and tailoring them until they’re customized to fit a dynamo. The ability to pinch syllables here, personalize language there, and slip inside a song the way LaVette does is at the heart of her artistry. The moment I grasped how much power she packs into a song came somewhere in the middle of her remodel of “Talking Old Soldiers”, an Elton John and Bernie Taupin tune she’d rescued from the ’70s. As she told of graveyards and memories, LaVette sang, “It don’t seem likely I’ll get friends like that again,” and Taupin’s words about a soldier became not only a ballad of a sole survivor but the story of a woman’s life. I think it was LaVette’s tough but tender declaration of the idea that where there is life, there will also be loss that got to me. But I’m not sure… I don’t think very clearly when my rational thoughts are mingled with the primal stuff. When I was done listening, I knew I wanted to ask her about how she prepares to go that deep into the world of song, night after night.

Of course, LaVette’s heard that query and others like it plenty of times before. It’s probably safe to say that LaVette has heard everything. “Like about recording, they’ll say, ‘Was it very difficult to do this?’ and I’ll say ‘No, they’re just songs. It isn’t surgery. Basically, they’re just like “Happy Birthday”, you just rearrange them!’ she says excitedly. And yet, without her 40 years of dark nights packed into them, the songs she sings in Scene of the Crime would hardly be the same at all.

Once or twice in her promising career the soul songstress had the rug pulled out from under her cha-cha heels. The story of her long-waged war on going unheard started in 1962 when, at the age of 16, she was dropped from her label on the eve of a tour to promote “My Man—He’s a Lovin’ Man”, her Top 10 R&B hit. There was another less notorious incident, when “Let Me Down Easy” (a sweet and low slice of mid-’60s soul released by another record company) failed to take the world by storm as planned. But LaVette’s infamous blow came in ’72, on a second bet with Atlantic, following the completion of her session in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, with the Memphis Horns. It was hoped that the masterful Child of the Seventies would be her overdue breakthrough, though the record was inexplicably locked in a vault for the next 28 years.

Between ’62 and ’02, LaVette recorded (she charted R&B a few more times) and performed, though she was often relegated to hotel bars and stages even less illustrious. “The same show you see now I was doing for $50 a night. That’s the way I was raised. That’s the way I work mine,” she says. And yet the stone survivor hasn’t lost her ability to laugh at what’s been framed as her tragic fate. “I figured that if I could live long enough to get over to everyone’s house and do a show on their porch, I could get to ‘em all,” she says. Meanwhile, offstage she fielded dumb-ass questions like, “Didn’t you used to be Bettye LaVette?”

And then, at the turn of the century, the winds of change started to blow for the artist who was once and always Bettye LaVette. First off, a French record label dug up the tapes of Child of the Seventies and released it as Souvenirs, setting the gears in motion for her now-famous comeback “from the crypt,” as she calls it. By 2004, a collection of newly recorded works, A Woman Like Me, had earned her a W.C. Handy Award for contemporary blues achievement. Her steady and recent ascendance is owed to the critical and commercial acceptance by rock audiences for two albums recorded and released in the last three years for hipster haven, Anti Records, starting with 2005′s I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise (a collection of songs produced by Joe Henry and written by women, among them Aimee Mann, Sinead O’Connor, and Fiona Apple). But mostly it’s last year’sScene of the Crime, for which she returned to Muscle Shoals to record 10 handpicked songs produced by herself, David Barbe, and Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers that brings it all back home for LaVette and kicks things up a notch.

Recorded at FAME Studios in Hood’s hometown, he assembled the studio personnel, including his band as well as old-soul hands, like his dad and bassist David Hood (who played on LaVette’s obscured Child of the Seventies album) and keyboard legend, Spooner Oldham. Together, they created a bed of Southern comfort upon which LaVette laid her smoke and honey voice. The singer chose the songs—from the likes of writers such as Willie Nelson and John Hiatt to (brace yourself) Don Henley—then proceeded to give them her patented country-soul twist (you have to believe anyone who can wrest some goodness from a Henley song has got it going on). In addition to her 14 karat pipes, LaVette’s got jewel-toned ears. She’s constantly listening and hearing things in songs that most regulars can’t detect, though only a handful will make the cut and get the LaVette treatment. “For me, it’s like choosing who I would make love to. Just because I liked a guy, I wouldn’t have to go to bed with him… but we could be friends,” she says.

Born in Michigan as Betty Haskins, LaVette claims she’s been singing since she was 18 months of age, following a dictionary-defining soul music baptism: she witnessed the traveling gospel stars of the day come to drink and dance the night away at her mother’s Detroit juke joint, though her own Catholic roots left her without much church in her voice. “Gospel certainly has an influence in any black voice, but you hear more blues in my songs because every Sunday morning my family had a hangover,” she says. “My people are from Louisiana, so there was that mixture of gumbo, prayer, drink, the rosary, and that whole bit. They’ve got that so jumbled up; I don’t think anybody understands it. But my mother understood it perfectly,” she says.

When the ’62 tour was scuttled LaVette was just 16; the disappointment she endured while watching her peers overtake the Detroit music scene left her with a hole in her soul the size of Wayne County. Eventually, she filled the space with lesser passions and valuable life skills, though she says, “They took my joy,” to borrow a phrase from a song she favors by Lucinda Williams.

When I spoke to LaVette about her joy a couple of weeks before Christmas, she was off the road in New Jersey, at home with her husband, Kevin Kiley. The singer who has been described as “fierce,” “tough,” and “stubborn,” sometimes all in the same sentence, was charming and effervescent, though her voice was tired and hoarse. “Since last Thursday, all I’ve done is talk and drink champagne,” she said. “I’ve called everyone I’ve ever known.” LaVette had been letting folks know that, after 45 years in the business, she had just received her first Grammy nomination for her performance in the TheScene of the Crime. And with that, the battle of Bettye LaVette is finally won.

Crawdaddy!: Congratulations on your Grammy nomination. Am I right in guessing that the feelings accompanying the industry validation are somewhat bittersweet?

LaVette: All of the bitter is gone. I’ve done so many things with the bitter. It’s more like a vindication—like someone who’s been in prison for 46 years and is finally rele
ased.Photo by Elizabeth Fladung

Crawdaddy!: Was there a part of you that always believed recognition would come?

LaVette: No, not in the last 20 years. You can’t believe that for 46 years. People who say, “I always knew this would happen…” are crazy just like me, but they just took it another way. Even if I thought it for 30 years, it’s impossible to think you’re going to be up for a Grammy after 40 years. I didn’t think that I’d have another record contract. I figured some little label in Europe would offer me something and put it out and I’d do that. As long as I could sing, I could continue to work.

Crawdaddy!: If you don’t mind me asking, how did you come by your name, your last name in particular, which is pretty unusual?

LaVette: As everything in my life, they came over a period of time. The spelling of it is one story; the naming of me is another.

Crawdaddy!: Please tell both stories.

LaVette: After we came out of the studio one Sunday, they said, ,”You can change your name if you want and have a stage name,” and I was coming up with stuff like LaLa LaFool. I was 16! I wanted to be glamorous… I was thinking of grand names, not realizing the more grand the name the more you had to live up to it. Everybody wanted to be a Labelle or a Vandella. My best girlfriend… introduced me to everyone in Detroit who was recording at the time. I loved her and my mother hated her. Her middle name was Lavett and I thought it was so pretty. I added the e to LaVette because it looked better and I added the e to Bettye when I started doing theater because it made a pretty autograph. There was an article that said it had to do with numerology. Why does everything have to be so complicated? I think I might be a little disappointing as an interviewee because people want me to say, “I had to light five candles and paint the room orange.”

Crawdaddy!: I don’t think that’s disappointing at all. Your story is a perfect illustration of teenage reason: You weren’t thinking of the future, you only cared what your best girlfriend thought and what your mother didn’t like and you wanted to be a glamorous grown-up. What got you discovered at that age?

LaVette: A guy discovered me, who was just like any other guy, trying to pick me up, saying he could make me a star, only he took me to Johnnie Mae Matthews. I was really lucky… it was just a lucky set of circumstances (Lavette’s record for Matthews was nabbed for distribution by Atlantic Records). When I signed with Atlantic, Berry Gordy wanted to have a deal with Atlantic. Atlantic was the biggest recorder of black R&B music in the world. I still know people who Berry Gordy owed five dollars to, at that time. People ask me, how is it that you were never a part of Motown? It was nothing to be a part of! It wasn’t a business move! [laughter]. This was segregation… truly a time when all blacks knew each other. All the blacks who drank corn liquor and who had come up from the South and had jukeboxes in their living rooms came to my house. All the blacks that wanted to be on jukeboxes hung around on the streets and in front of Motown and the zillion other recording studios there at the time. There were the blacks that were like Aretha’s father, the Reverend Franklin, or like Berry Gordy’s parents who had black businesses. All of these people who have now become legends were just poor black people like me, including Berry Gordy, or maybe even mostly Berry Gordy.

Crawdaddy!: I know you’ve told this part of the story many times before, but when Atlantic dropped you, how did you deal with the initial disappointment?

LaVette: I never got over it. But you just add the feeling to a song. I’ve been waiting for them to call for 46 years on and off. I’d wait some weeks and I’d give up some weeks. In the back of my mind, whether I believed at one point they were ever going to call, I did make the decision that if they ever called I was going to be ready. That’s a decision you really have to make. You have to decide that you are going to drink as much water as you do champagne… that you are going to cry and puff up your face as much as you don’t. You have to let people be good to you. You have to believe at some point that you really are good and that’s what you’re going to do, even if you’re going to do it for $50 a night.

Crawdaddy!: When you worked with Cab Calloway on Broadway in the ’70s, did he have any words of wisdom on the ups and downs in the life of an entertainer?

LaVette: No. I just had to act the way my manager taught me, like he was the star and I wasn’t. I worked on my craft, went to bed at a certain time, got only so drunk, showed up on time. That was the way show business used to be. I’ve been lucky with people… people who believed in me, people who’ve had faith in me, stuck with me. They’ve helped me stay alive. I just got my voice back today because from Thursday till the day before yesterday, I’ve been calling people. I called my best friend in the fifth grade… she and her husband have always supported me, coming to little dives and bringing their neighbors with them. I called everybody who ever bought me a drink or tried to help me.

Crawdaddy!: The new album is just fantastic. I love the opening Eddie Hinton song, “Take Me Like I Am (Still Want to be Your Baby).” Have you always liked his songs?

LaVette: I am not a music enthusiast at all. The last people I liked were Otis Redding and [obscured by laughter] but songs run out of my husband’s nose. He’s a record collector and dealer and a historian and he knows everyone who has ever heard tell of a microphone. I’ve been exposed to more music in these five years that we’ve been married… he plays music continuously. Like now, I’m watching the Republican debate because that’s what really entertains me and he’s listening to music in his office. But if music of any kind is playing, I hear it regardless. If I’m trying to relax, all I can hear is music. In five years, I’ve heard him play 30 songs that I liked—30 I wanted to sing. I picked 10 that I asked him to catalog for me. Patterson Hood sent me 50 songs and I didn’t want to sing ‘em and the record company sent me about the same amount of songs and I didn’t want to sing ‘em, and I’ll explain to you, it wasn’t that I didn’t like them, it was that I didn’t want to sing them.

Photo by Elizabeth FladungCrawdaddy!: I’d like to talk a little about the relationship between country and soul music, how it’s so effortless for you to slip a country song into a soulful arrangement.

LaVette: My mother’s favorite singers were Red Foley and Tex Ritter. She must’ve been the only black broad who sold corn liquor in the ghetto who listened to Red Foley and Tex Ritter, and she was an avid Grand Ole Opry listener, so I heard that every week. And then we had the jukebox there in the house that had all the latest black songs of the day. I was hearing that and I wasn’t thinking of any of it as country or blues, those were just the songs I heard. And then, it being segregation, we had all the gospel singers coming to the house… I was singing whole songs when I was like 18-months-old. My mother said I never spoke baby talk, I immediately started talking. I never saw any children, so I talked like they talked and I cussed like they cussed.

Crawdaddy!: Did you like the music of your day?

LaVette: I was always an avid Drifters fan. The first time I went on the road with Clyde M
cPhatter and Ben E. King I was breathless… I’d only been singing for like a month. When Otis Redding joined us and we were working at the Royal Peacock in Atlanta, Otis and I, we were the people that no one had ever heard of, the last ones on the totem pole, and we were giddy: we’re with Clyde McPhatter and Ben E. King!

Crawdaddy!: Which song do you think of as your signature?

LaVette: “Your Turn to Cry” and “Let Me Down Easy.” “Let Me Down Easy” beared up well till they could find me down in the crypt, so I would think, “Your Turn to Cry” and “Let Me Down Easy.” If everything else disappeared that’s what I’d want to be remembered by.

Crawdaddy!: As I was listening to “Talking Old Soldiers” from the new album, I started to weep and I wondered if it’s hard for you to put yourself in the kind of space to sing the sad songs, night after night?

LaVette: It’s hard to sing as hard as I do, and it’s hard to move about on those heels and stay in perfect form, that’s the hard thing. But the songs are sad, no matter if you sing ‘em 100 times. It’s a very sad song. Every time I would hear that haunting piano, it would put me in that mood. I wouldn’t have to conjure it up or think of when my puppy died or anything. When I’d hear that sad, haunting sound on piano, even if I didn’t know that song, I would think of something else sad. It’s a sad, desolate song. I told my husband… people are going to be hiring me for funerals!

Crawdaddy!: I almost have to stop listening it’s so sad.

LaVette: I love that feeling. I’ve always lived my life in b-flat minor. “Let Me Down Easy” was in that key. Some people in England tell me it’s the saddest song they’ve ever heard. I’ve talked to men my age who said they were in boys’ school and had to crawl under their beds, listening to it crying and they didn’t even know what they were crying about. I can remember coming home from school, listening to Bobby Bland’s “Lead Me On.” I guess I was 12 and I was breaking down crying, it was just so sad.

Crawdaddy!: You open your shows with a rocker, “The Stealer”, by Free. How did that one enter the set list?

LaVette: That’s from the It’s Your Turn to Cry album. I never sang it, since we recorded it, until we started this five years ago. That is so much fun and it’s so me. We just decided it’s going to be my opening tune forever. The first CD, from after the coming out of the crypt, I was trying to sell it. “The Stealer” rose to the occasion so I let it be the opening tune. I think show business, I don’t think records. I think maybe Bob Dylan could open with whatever he wanted to or something, but when I think of opening a show I think of something that really properly introduces you, makes everyone stop talking. “The Stealer” has worked out great.

Crawdaddy!: In your live show you continue to perform “Joy” by Lucinda Williams too. I love the way you sing that. What is it about that one that makes it a keeper?

LaVette: The song immediately appealed to me. When they listened to that song they asked me, “Why do you like that?” That was one they couldn’t hear at all. When I listened to what she was saying, I knew exactly what she was saying. I could tell she was talking about a lover but my lover has been this career thing all these years. “Talking Old Soldiers” was an old soldier but I was talking about this bar I used to hang in. The stories can relate to you, even if they’re “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.”

Crawdaddy!: What did you do with all your emotions when you weren’t singing as much as you are now?

LaVette: I would just take the emotion and do other things with it. I would make something hearty like gumbo, put all that stuff into other things. I would garden because they weren’t letting me sing. I would put it everywhere. People were coming by leaving their cards, asking if I would do their yard! It was breaking my heart, but I took the pride, that I had done it so well. But do you think I wanted someone asking me to do their yard?

Crawdaddy!: I need to ask you to reveal another secret: How do you stay in shape?

LaVette: I do yoga. I need to keep my stomach and back muscles strong so I can holler and sustain notes. I don’t think people realize this is a physical activity. You have to rest, drink a certain amount of water. But a routine? No. I don’t feel like I owe it to this business to work out everyday… I worked out every day while I was waiting to relieve frustration. That and stomach in, no matter if you’re making love or making coffee.

Filed under: Interview, Soul, , ,

The Subject Was Soul: Solomon Burke

June is African American Music Appreciation Month, so in the spirit of appreciating, here’s a reprint of my June 2008 interview with Solomon Burke, the Philadelphia-born King of Rock’n’Soul.  At the time we spoke, it was my aim to get him to talk about the soul music of the ’60s, how it soundtracked through the civil rights and black power eras to become inextricable from those times. Yet aside from his reminiscences about those times and the friends he’d lost, Burke had some other thoughts on the subject of soul that were quite unexpected.  As an interviewer, I’m always happy to be surprised, but what I really didn’t expect was how four years later, I would still be carrying  the conversation with me.  Nor did I realize till much later, the ways in which our talk would ultimately set the course I took for my book, Keep on Pushing (this is mostly a full transcript of the first interview, including some parts that didn’t appear in the book). Burke’s final recording, Nothing’s Impossible, made with Willie Mitchell at Royal Recorders in Memphis and released in 2010, was a fine farewell.  The singer passed on October 10, 2010, on his way to Amsterdam where he was quite popular. I regret I never got the chance to say thanks again for the inspiration he provided me over  the course of our two interviews.

“Liberace was soulful. In fact, you couldn’t get any more soulful than Liberace,” laughs Solomon Burke, only he’s not joking.

Ever since 1964, when an enthusiastic DJ crowned Burke the King of Rock ‘n’ Soul, he’s taken his title seriously. Plus his added credential as a minister born into the House of God of All People means when you ask him a question like, “What is soul?,” he’s going to go deep.

“Kennedy was soulful. Him and Robert together were two soulful brothers, doing their thing, you know, releasing their energies. They could say a few words and boom, you felt it. It made a difference.”

Not too long into my conversation with Mr. Burke, as I was happy to address him (and he didn’t discourage me), boom, I felt it too. Whether it’s his clerical background or just part of his nature to be a listener, Burke is a skilled raconteur who saves space for other voices in the room, responding on a careful soul to soul basis with his conversant. For example, he was just as keen to talk about my work as he was his own (I’ve edited out most of that conversation for the interest of the general readership). Author Peter Guaralnick, in his book Sweet Soul Music, referred to Burke as a “…rare spirit, a ‘character who is also a serious artist’” and to his “outsized spirit and outsized talent.” Most of what I know about Burke’s history comes from Guaralnick’s interviews with him. But what I felt when I talked to Burke myself was something else entirely—perhaps best described as spiritual refreshment—and it’s something that I will carry with me from here.

He’s a Philadelphia native who loves country music and a former “wonderboy preacher,” with 21 children, 89 grandchildren, and 20 great grandchildren. “I’m blessed to have children and grandchildren in almost every state… they’re my record promotion staff!” As a full-time singer, he’s managed to oversee a fleet of snowplows, run concert hall concessions, a drugstore, and tend to corpses as a doctor of mortuary science (no, not all at the same time, but usually by juggling more than one extra-musical activity at a time). As an earthbound man of large appetites and unstoppable force, his road has been paved with many contradictions. His peers called him one of the greats—he’s counted Sam Cooke and Otis Redding among his close friends—though he lost them when they died young and under unsettling circumstances. “If You Need Me” (written by his friend Wilson Pickett), “You Can Make It if You Try”, and “I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to Be Free)” are foundational to soul sound, style, and attitude, though Burke’s renditions never moved into the mainstream from their R&B chart positions. Jerry Wexler who signed Burke to Atlantic called him the greatest soul singer of all time, yet when Burke sought Wexler’s help in building community-based businesses and charities with profits from the Soul Clan (Don Covay, Ben E. King, Arthur Conley, and Joe Tex), he was told, “Go back and learn some more songs and pay attention to your records and get out there on that road and try to promote these records and stop thinking on that other stuff,” says Burke. “He didn’t want us to be entrepreneurs; he wanted us to be record sellers.”

So that’s what he did, leaving Atlantic behind for smaller concerns like Bell and Chess, though there were times he fell off the record radar and into “the pits of hell,” as he calls the hard times. Burke may have lost some fortune, but he never lost his humanity nor his versatile, velvet vocal hammer quality; it’s a combination that appealed to fans like the Rolling Stones, who covered him back in the day, and Elvis Costello, Van Morrison, and Tom Waits, who submitted songs to be covered by him on his 2004, award-winning return to rock ‘n’ soul, Don’t Give Up on Me. He’s since released a tribute to country titled Nashville, and a collection featuring gospel greats is in the works. In June 2008, he delivered Like a Fire with its title song written for Burke by his friend Eric Clapton. The smoldering blues, pop, and twang album includes “We Don’t Need It”, an old school-styled soul song written by Keb’ Mo, and the tough “A Minute to Rest and a Second to Pray”, by Ben Harper, who sits in on the track. The sessions for Like a Fire were overseen by Steve Jordan, a producer and drummer for rock’s super-names who also wrote and co-wrote some songs. When Crawdaddy! contacted Burke for this interview, he was at home in Southern California, where he’s lived for 40 years. Following an 18-week stand at the Sands in Vegas and an offer to do 12 more, he went to LA for a little vacation. “I called my mother in Philadelphia, said I was bored here with nothing to do, and she said, ‘Don’t come home now, there’s six feet of snow.’ So I thought, I’ll take a little vacation. I’ve been on vacation ever since 1968!”

Crawdaddy!: I want to start by saying thanks for all the great music.

Solomon Burke: I’m still trying.

Crawdaddy!: You’re succeeding. Your performances on the new album are as moving as ever. Tell me how you first became acquainted with Steve Jordan.

Burke: We’d been talking about making an album for a couple of years now… I worked with him on festivals and I loved his rhythms. It’s so nice when you’re working on a big festival show with 75 acts and you only have 20 minutes to rehearse and the drummer’s on time, someone who keeps the rhythm and the pulse. He’s not only a taskmaster—I recognized him as a great musician and a beautiful person.

Crawdaddy!: When you got the songs together for this one, was he a part of the selection process?

Burke: He was certainly a part of that—we had a wealth of songs to choose from. We had these songs from my great friend Eric Clapton, “Like a Fire” and “Thank You”, and I wanted to go with the strongest songs that would make the strongest story, because the story has to be able to reach somebody. That’s my goal. 

Crawdaddy!: What piece of Clapton’s song “Like a Fire” jumped out and made you recognize, “This is the story”?

Burke: I had quite a few of those on this CD but it was the line, “burning in my soul.” There’s a difference from when it’s burning in your heart or burning in your mind. When it’s burning in your soul it’s affecting the movement, your expression, your taste, your desires, your needs. It’s deep—it’s deeper than heartache—it’s burning in your soul. A lot of people don’t understand that and this is why, to me, it meant so much. It was able to get to the core of the feeling and I just wanted to sing it lightly, and as rightly as possible, without shouting it and without hammering it and without bam bam bamming it out, but with that touch. And he has that magic touch on the guitar that’s so comforting.

Crawdaddy!: Yes, that is the exact description of it—comforting. I want to come back to the songs but since the subject of soul’s come up, it would be great if the King of Rock ‘n’ Soul would define soul in his own words.

Burke: You set me right up for this one: It’s a burning desire, that’s an everlasting fire, burning inside the heart and mind and spirit that develops a soul. It happens with you in your writing, it happens to a cook, to a poet, and an artist. When something happens that you create and develop, it’s a personal soul expression that comes out. You and I may talk for an hour and you may take 10 minutes of what I said and make it all come out in 10 lines or 10 words. That’s the soulful expression coming from you, connecting with me, or whomever you’re dealing with. That’s the song, that burning desire, that’s like a fire within us. We either turn the flame up or turn it down. We make it work for us. The soul within you regulates exactly what you need and what you want and what you desire to release.

Crawdaddy!: How about the phenomenon of soul music and its rise in the ’60s? Will you speak to that aspect of soul and how it relates to the African American experience?

Burke: Well, it’s very nice to think that it’s a category of race but it’s not—it’s a category of face. It’s face value: Who you are, what you value, and what you’re about. It makes no difference what color your skin is or what country you’re from. It has nothing to do with color, it has nothing to do with time, it has nothing to do with a certain world. It’s who you are. Tom Jones is soulful. Dusty Springfield is soulful. We can go back… Beethoven was soulful. Marian Anderson was soulful. Paul Robeson was soulful. Liberace was soulful. You couldn’t get anymore soulful than Liberace! Ray Charles… c’mon!

Crawdaddy!: What do you think shuts down the soul and extinguishes the fire?

Burke: Hurt. Pain. Suffering. Disappointment. Shame. Recognition.

Crawdaddy!: Or lack of it?

Burke: All of it: Lack of love, lack of affection, confusion… all these things contribute to that lack of soul.

Crawdaddy!: When I think of the great soul singers I can’t help but think of their personal trials…

Burke: Sam Cooke. Jackie Wilson. C’mon! Wilson Pickett… you know, Aretha Franklin… there’s a fire burning inside of her right now, right this minute. If we could get a hold of her right now, you could hear that fire. When she sings certain songs, it’s released. When she sings, “Chain chain chain,” you can hear a thousand people singing it. That was written by Don Covay, who can express it better than anyone in the world, but he wrote it for Aretha because he felt her need. Tom Jones sang, “What’s new pussycat?” I could say it 40 times and it doesn’t come out like he does. When I say it, it sounds like I’m talking about a cat! When he says it, it’s a love affair. Isn’t that amazing?

Crawdaddy!: I really like that idea of a soul connection, as you say, Don Covay could really feel that Aretha needed to sing that song and passed it on.

Burke: Right. And he wrote it saying nobody can sing this but her. Imagine being the creator of this song—he’s such a great writer—I wrote many songs with him—”Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye)”, “Tonight’s the Night”, he wrote “Chain, Chain, Chain” [“Chain of Fools”]. When I got the song “Don’t Give Up on Me”…

Crawdaddy!: The Keb’ Mo song on your album? That’s right in that spirit, isn’t it?

Burke: Right in that spirit: “I don’t want it / I don’t need it”… that song is today. There is somebody sitting in their car saying, “My car note’s two months behind, rent’s late, and now I’ve been laid off. How am I going to go in there and tell these kids I ain’t got no money for their graduation? How am I going to deal with this? I’ve already been to the pawn shop…”

Crawdaddy!: That’s exactly what’s happening. People need music that speaks to the soul in these times!

Burke: People need each other. We need to realize that we’re all one. We need to touch upon each other’s hearts and not try to destroy each other.

Crawdaddy!: Amen. Will you talk a little about Ben Harper’s soulful nature? I see him showing up at all kinds of community events, speaking out, pitching in.

Burke: Isn’t that scary? Is his soul a message of the word or what? I turn the television on and I say, “Oh my God, tornados, floods, earthquakes, war… how much time we got? Just a minute to rest?” Can you imagine a soldier leaning against the wall saying, we got a minute… now we gotta go, and pray we get to the other side? These are the things that affect me. This is what affected me with this song [“A Minute to Rest, A Second to Pray”]. If I can bring home that message to someone and say, “Stop! Stop dealing with drugs. Give up that gang. Put that gun away. Don’t hold up that store. Don’t rob that person. You’re losing your life in one minute. You’re taking away everything you dreamed for. That’s not the answer. Don’t run away from home. Think about it. It can work out. Just take a minute.”

Crawddady!: Did you have any role models to inspire you in your ministry work as you were coming up?

Burke: I had an extra blessing because when I was born I had the support of trombones, tubas, and bass drums. I never knew what key I was crying in but I must’ve done all right because it didn’t confuse the church! So I thank God for that and I thank God for that guidance my grandmother gave me—that walks with me today and has not changed my connection or direction, and has allowed me to go through trials and tribulations and situations. Beyond a terrible moment of life and from the pits of hell, I can emerge, and I want to teach others to emerge from that. Trouble doesn’t last always. And where there’s a dark cloud, there’s a sun getting ready to shine. There is a rainbow.

Crawdaddy!: Your album Don’t Give Up on Me was perceived as a comeback. What did it mean to you?

Burke: I called it a come up. It was a step up. I was catching up to my step up… the Fat Possum situation was an incredible story. I met this fellow at a festival in Portland. He said, “I’m with Fat Possum,” and I said, man, what kind of insult is this? I mean, I’m trying to lose weight, I’m working on it! I told my daughter, don’t be evil to the guy, he’s a nice guy, but just get his number or something and we’ll call him… this tall guy with afro hair sticking out, and I’m thinking he’s gotta be some coach for the Fat Possums… he wants me to be their mascot. So I get on the plane and he’s the last person on the plane and he sits right behind me. He says, “… I don’t know if you believe in fate…” And I say, “Do I believe in fate? Do you have a suit that’ll fit me?” That’s the beginning of that story. We hit it off, had lunch, and made a record. It was one of the greatest moments in my career and the first record company that was ever sincere and dedicated and real; it has left an everlasting memory in my mind. We had a two-page contract; they lived up to every word of that contract and they did everything they possibly could for that record to bring it home and they gave me my first Grammy. But they gave me great songs—Elvis Costello, Van Morrison, come on, that was an incredible CD.

Crawdaddy!: Did they have to sell you on the producer?

Burke: They had to sell me on Joe Henry because I didn’t know Joe Henry and Joe Henry didn’t know me. But what I liked about it was there he was with us having lunch at a deli and he wanted some grilled pork chops. I’m having matzo ball soup and he wants grilled pork chops? This is the guy we need to have producing. Little coincidences that for me are the soulful part of it, that special touch of soul we talk about.

Crawdaddy!: There’s plenty to say about the technical aspects of your new record, playing, songwriting, and production, though I’m afraid we just got around to the soul of it today. I think our talk helped me more than it will help your record!

Burke: It’s not about the album, it’s about this moment in time. I tell Eric that there are a lot of people who understand what we’re doing. And he says, “I’m glad.” This is the secret: We don’t stop. Once
we’re on the move, we keep going. We don’t turn backwards. We go forward because it’s a journey, it’s not a trip. Anyone can do a trip, one way or round trip. When you’re on a journey, you have a destination.

Crawdaddy!: Speaking of journeys, I noticed your summer concert schedule: Europe in one city a day? How do you endure?

Burke: Prayer. And faith… because that’s the journey that we’re on. We’re sending out that message: Send a little love, let’s light a fire, don’t give up on me, I can’t stop loving you, If you need me call me… isn’t it amazing?


Filed under: R&B, Solomon Burke, Soul, , , , ,

Curtis Mayfield, Part Two

Amoeblog: There’s a lot of “Keep On Pushing” titled songs. Which one were you thinking of when you titled your book?

Denise Sullivan: I was thinking of the original song by the Impressions, written by Curtis Mayfield and the way “keep on pushing,” and “move up a little higher” reoccur in his other songs, like “We’re a Winner”and “Move on Up.” Mayfield isn’t talking about the ladder of success and financial status. He’s talking about raising consciousness and about transcendence–about moving above and beyond circumstances. Combine those themes that are of deep interest to me with the genius of his composition and you get a title that I hope conveys the potential for extreme unity, between message, music and people.

Filed under: Curtis Mayfield, Keep On Pushing, 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, , , , , , , , ,

Curtis Mayfield

Performing with the Impressions and with gospel music as his inspiration, Curtis Mayfield helped to set R&B in a powerful new direction in the ’60s. By the ’70s, he was contributing to the further politicization of soul music. “We Got To Have Peace” is from his 1971 solo album, Roots.

Filed under: Curtis Mayfield, Keep On Pushing, Soul

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