Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

RIP: Mose Allison, 1927-2016

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Jazz-blues singer-songwriter and pianist Mose Allison is yet another extraordinary example of the ways in which the best (and by that I mean, the only good) American popular music made by white people borrows, steals, and is inspired by music that is tied to a root of African or African-American origin. American music is, as the narrative goes, where “the races meet;” the space where we walk right in, set right down and let it all hang out. While that is often the case, Black, Latino, other non-white, female, LGBTQ, and disabled musicians will tell you a different story; the contradictions are a part of the story too and must be aired out consistently to get the full picture. This is perhaps related or not to how Allison, a Mississippi-born white man came to sing cotton-picking songs on the piano and inspired a generation of rock musicians to look back and discover Bukka White, Sonny Boy Williamson and Willie Dixon. When Allison opened his mouth to accompany his piano songs in 1963, he reached The Who, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, the Clash and the Pixies… and that’s only a fraction of the artists he touched.

 

Read the entire article at Down With Tyranny!

Filed under: anti-war, Blues, cross cultural musical experimentation, Jazz, ,

RIP: Leonard Cohen, 1934-2016

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As if Tuesday’s election result wasn’t enough to knock out poets, artists, activists, and other sentient beings, Thursday’s announcement that singer-songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen, 82, had died earlier in the week was simply too much bad news in an already unprecedented year of loss. Not only will Cohen obviously be missed by fans and fellow artists who relied on his wisdom, but women have rarely known an artist of Cohen’s generation who loved, admired, honored, respected, and employed them in the studio and on the road as consistently as he did.

The women in Cohen’s life were not simply ornaments, adjuncts, or names in song titles: Marianne, and Suzanne were famously real people as was Joan of Arc. But Cohen who notoriously loved the company of women, was also an advocate for working women artists and paid them (we hope equally as their male counterparts) to write with him, produce and engineer his records, and sing on the road. Even in the so-called liberal, open-minded and progressive music business, there are relatively few working female producers and engineers and too few top name recording artists who employ them. But Cohen consistently placed female collaborators in the highest levels of operation. That he should be such a hit with us is no surprise. Elevating women in song and verse is one thing but having the knowledge and humility to take our value into the workplace added a layer and depth to his own art. His actions are pretty much unprecedented in the male-dominated music business, unless I’m missing something: Jennifer Warnes, Sharon Robinson, Leanne Ungar, Perla Battala, Anjani Thomas, Julie Christensen and Rebecca De Mornay were among his most frequent collaborators; I’ve missed some, but you get the idea. Cohen’s biographer was Sylvie Simmons and Lian Lunson directed the 2005 concert film, I’m Your Man.

Read entire article at Down With Tyranny!

Filed under: Arts and Culture, new article, , ,

Etta James: 1938-2012

R&B legend Etta James, who would’ve turned  74 in a couple of days, has passed away after a long battle with leukemia complicated by dementia. Discovered by Johnny Otis (he was the one who rechristened Jamesetta Hawkins, Etta James), she was brought closer to the mainstream by Leonard Chess, and remained in her lifetime the First Lady of the Blues.  James was known for her hits “At Last,” “Tell Mama,” “Wang Dang Doodle” and “I’d Rather Go Blind” among many other greats, as well as for her struggle with drug addiction.  Inspired by Malcolm X, she joined the Black Muslims, as a way to get clean.  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 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.  Following a near decade 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 receive awards from all quarters, from the Blues Foundation, Grammy and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, for her contribution to early rock’n’roll.

Sadly, Ms. James’ final months were disquieted by family finance trouble and a lawsuit pending between her husband, Artis Mills, and her son, Donto James (which was reportedly settled before her passing). She also made headlines in recent years when while falling ill she was still touring, performing, and calling out Beyonce (the singer had portrayed her in Cadillac Records, though it wasn’t the celluloid portrayal of her that the blues diva minded so much—in fact she went on the record as quite liking it). James didn’t like it when Mrs. Jay-Z went and performed the James signature song, “At Last”, for the President and Mrs. O at the inaugural festivities, though she eventually came clean about the hurt feelings behind being excluded from the inaugural ball proceedings.  Truth be told, James would’ve had to have had to considerably clean-up her NC-17 stage show for a G-rated White House appearance, as even in her early ’70s, the blueswoman walked the razor’s edge. Ms. James has been in my thoughts this past year, and especially in the last day since her early mentor Johnny Otis’ passing; my condolences to the James-Mills families, friends and fans.  Here she is one more time, with Robert Cray, Johnnie Johnson, and Keith Richards, singing Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Gal”.

More on Etta James, her relationship to early rock’n’roll, and her experience with the Nation of Islam in Keep on Pushing.

 

Filed under: Blues, Keep On Pushing, Rhythm & Blues, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, , , , , ,

Johnny Otis: 1921-2012


Johnny Otis, the great bandleader, writer/performer/producer, nurturer of musical talent, political activist, broadcaster, preacher, visual artist, and apple grower has died.  He was 90 years old.

Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes was born to Greek immigrant parents in Vallejo, California, and grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood in Berkeley.  It was Nat “King” Cole and Jimmy Witherspoon who suggested that he relocate to Los Angeles where he joined up with Harlan Leonard’s Kansas City Rockers, the house band at the Club Alabam on Central Avenue; from there, his career as a bandleader began in earnest. He hit with a version of “Harlem Nocturne” and took his California Rhythm & Blues Caravan on the road, bringing his revue to Black America.  Known to some as “The Godfather of Rhythm and Blues,” what Otis gave to rock’n’soul as a DJ, producer, writer and advocate of African American culture is incalculable:  He produced Big Mama Thornton and the original version of “Hound Dog”; he was an early discoverer of Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard and Little Willie John, whom he noticed at a Detroit talent show.  He gave early breaks to Little Esther  Phillips and Etta James (he produced “Roll With Me, Henry”, her answer song to Ballard’s “Work With Me, Annie”) and produced some early takes by Little Richard.  He played on and produced “Pledging My Love” by Johnny Ace and wrote “So Fine” and “Willie and the Hand Jive.”  He nurtured artists from Jackie Payne and Sugar Pie DeSanto as well his son Shuggie Otis, and his grandson Lucky Otis.  He remained devoted to R&B throughout his lifetime, promoting it on his public radio broadcast, The Johnny Otis Show, on which he also spoke out about the issues he was passionate about—chiefly poverty and racism. “The fact that so many human beings in American are without adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or hope for the future constitutes a national disgrace,” he wrote in 1993.  “I fear that as more of our country’s wealth is concentrated into fewer hands and American corporate fascism becomes more entrenched, the shame in the streets will grow.”

Otis lived his life if not passing then certainly living more comfortably among blacks, participating in the struggle for equality in the early ‘60s, and becoming adept at his own political and spiritual speechifying. His first book, Listen to the Lambs concerned the Watts riots of 1965.  Influenced early on by Minister Malcolm X, Otis ultimately entered politics working as Deputy Chief of Staff to Mervyn M. Dymally, a lifelong California politician. Otis also started his own churches, the Landmark Church in Los Angeles, turned Landmark Community Gospel Church in Santa Rosa: All were welcome.  “The most meaningful activity at our church was feeding homeless people,” Otis wrote.

Otis was also a visual artist with paintings, carvings and sculptures to his credit; believe it or not, he also marketed a line of apple juice, made from apples grown at his Sebastopol farm. Splitting his life between his native Nor Cal and his adopted Southern California homes, he died in Los Angeles, leaving his wife of 60 years, Phyllis, and an entire extended Otis clan.  My condolences to all of them, and to all those who loved him: “Rock Steady”, Mr. Otis, and thank you.

Johnny Otis is among the artists whose stories contribute to the rich history of where music meets social and political activism.  Read more about Otis and others like him in Keep on Pushing.  He told his own story in Upside the Head!  Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue, available through his website.

Filed under: Keep On Pushing, Rhythm & Blues, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, , , , ,

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