Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

The Last Holiday: MLK, Stevie Wonder, Gil Scott-Heron and John Lennon

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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.”  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: Arts and Culture, Bob Marley, Concerts, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Uncategorized

The King of Love

“Somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right,” said Dr. King in his final speech, delivered on April 3 to striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. The following day, April 4, the civil rights leader, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and beloved hero to millions around the world, was shot to death on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Forty-six years later, the work of non-violent protest in the name of desegregation, voting rights, racial harmony, jobs, freedom, opportunity, and an end to wars, is carried on by an international community of civil rights advocates and human rights and anti-war activists. Among the musical tributes in response to the tragedy were Dion’s popular “Abraham, Martin and John,” Otis Spann’s less-known “Blues for Martin Luther King, ” and Nina Simone’s enduring and emotional “Why (The King of Love is Dead),” first performed in his memory on April 7, 1968, the national day of mourning following the assassination. For further reflection on Dr. King’s message of love, please start with the The King Center archives, dedicated to the non-violent eradication of poverty, racism and violence.

 

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Civil Rights, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Freedom Now, Uncategorized, , ,

New Doors Single Benefits All Tribes

Ghost Song FNLYou have to hand it to the Doors’ drummer John Densmore: For over 40 years he’s refused to cave-in to requests from advertisers to use his band’s music in commercials when artists of more stature have not hesitated to compromise.

So why has this drummer (largely regarded to be a rock band’s low man) managed to stay so hardline and true when it comes to decision-making? “You know a long time ago Jim Morrison kinda blew up at us because we were considering ‘C’mon Buick light my fire…’ Because the dough looked good and we were young.  And Jim didn’t primarily write that song, and I thought God, he cares about the catalog, what we represent in general, the whole thing.  And he’s dead. And I’m not.  So I’m not gonna forget that,” said Densmore. His most recent book, The Doors: Unhinged, chronicles his battle with his former bandmates for the rights to the Doors name and his efforts to keep their musical legacy clean, while serving as the drummer’s meditation on greed—how it impairs people and society.

In a world filled with clutter, contradiction, and compromise, this past Black Friday, the Doors issued a limited edition single of “Ghost Song” b/w “Drums,” its sleeve designed by Shepard Fairey. “Ghost Song” is of course plucked from Morrison’s poetry, the one that nods to Indians…scattered on dawn’s highway, bleeding… “Drums” is a composition by Peter La Farge recorded by Densmore for Rare Breed, a tribute to the songs of La Farge (first popularized when Johnny Cash cut them on his 1964 Native American-themed album, Bitter Tears).  Both Fairey and Densmore advocated staying out of stores on Friday, but for those who ignored the boycott (protesting over-consumption and the shooting of Mike Brown) and just couldn’t resist shopping, proceeds of their Doors purchase went to the Honor the Treaties organization which funds collaborations between Native artists and Native advocacy groups. Again, you can thank Densmore for that.

So when people ask me, as they often do, why I should want to write a book about Jim Morrison and the Doors, I tell them there is more to the band than its singer’s alcoholism and “Light My Fire.”  In fact, there is a deep well of influence from which the band has drawn, though it generally remains hidden from view. Tonight at the Balboa Theatre in San Francisco, I will be noting the publication of my book Shaman’s Blues which delves into some of those influences by introducing the Doors documentary When You’re Strange (2009), directed by Tom DiCillo. Both the film and the book are additions to an already healthy pile of Doors-related material on view and for sale—it is arguable whether the world needs more of the same.  And yet these two 21st century Doors artifacts drive home a similar point: Here is a band that succeeded where its peers and contemporary artists have failed to hold the line: They chose not to sell-out.  That’s something worth remembering, documenting, and celebrating.

Filed under: Uncategorized, , , , , , ,

History: Rosa Parks Born Today

February 4 is the birthday of Rosa Parks, the civil rights activist remembered for refusing to move to the back of the bus: The Montgomery Bus Boycott, in the name of the desegregating public transit, was organized immediately following her arrest on December 1, 1955.

Born Rosa Louise McCauley in Tuskegee, Alabama in 1913, Parks was a student of non-violent protest, an active member of her local chapter of the NAACP in Montgomery and a great admirer of both Dr. King and Malcolm X; her refusal to move on the bus that day was not part of any kind of group action or occupation—she held her seat on her own steam. And yet far from receiving any heroine’s awards, Parks paid the price for asserting her right to ride: In the immediate aftermath of the desegregation effort, she could no longer find work in Montgomery.  She and her husband Raymond moved north, eventually settling in Detroit where she worked the better part of her life as a secretary for US Representative John Conyers.

Parks would one day receive the highest honors in the land– from the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal (Harry Belafonte was honored in 2013), to the Presidential Medal of Freedom (awarded to her by President Bill Clinton) and the Congressional Gold Medal.  And if you dared to mess with the Mother of the Modern Day Civil Rights Movement and her legacy in a movie or a song, look out:  Parks was known for slapping down artists with legal actions and launching her own boycotts against them. But there was one song that met Ms. Parks’ high standards: “Sister Rosa,” a tribute to her by New Orleanians the Neville Brothers, appeared on their 1989 album, Yellow Moon.  Produced by Daniel Lanois, and accompanied by The Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Brian Eno for the sessions, Yellow Moon is an exceptional record, even by the Nevilles’ own high standard: Produced by Daniel Lanois, the band transforms two Bob Dylan songs (“With God On Our Side,” “The Ballad of Hollis Brown”), the Carter Family classic “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” Sam Cooke’s civil rights anthem, “A Change is Gonna Come,” and Link Wray’s “Fire and Brimstone” (title self-explanatory, taken from the guitarist’s obscure and brilliant 1971 album). Standing alongside the Neville Brothers’ bayou-fired originals, “Sister Rosa” is their attempt at rap.

Parks passed in 2005, though matters of her personal estate have not been resolved and her detailed personal archive has not yet found a permanent home.  She would’ve been 101 this year.  For more information on Rosa Parks, visit the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute.

Filed under: Civil Rights, cross cultural musical experimentation, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Freedom Now, Hip Hop, Malcolm X, Never Forget, Uncategorized, video, , , ,

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