What’s Going On: Black Conversations and Football Dreams

Marvin_AlbumcoverIn 1967, Tammi Terrell, Marvin Gaye’s long time duet partner, collapsed into Gaye’s arms while on stage.  Terrell was diagnosed with brain cancer.  She battled this retched diseased for the next three years losing her battle in March 1970. Gaye was devastated and went into a stupor.  He became a recluse and confined himself to his Detroit home.  Future NFL Hall of Famers Lem Barney and Mel Farr whom befriended Gaye two years prior–Barney was said to have boldly knocked on

Tammi Terrell with Gaye

Tammi Terrell with Gaye

Gaye’s front door to introduce himself to the singer wherein which the singer invited him into his home and they became friends along with Mel Farr, later.  Gaye, Barney, and Farr hung out together, partied together and played sports together.  When Gaye became withdrawn with grief and sorrow as a result of Tammi Terrell’s death, friends Barney and Farr went to pay their dear friend a visit in an effort to cheer him up.  They succeeded in getting Gaye to get out and become more active and exercise.  They played basketball, golf, jogged, and lifted weights.  One day according to Barney, the singer invited he and Farr to the famed Hitsville studio, which wasn’t unusual, to watch him record tracks for an upcoming album.  However, this day was different! Gaye handed out lyric sheets to Barney and Farr.  Gaye wanted the two brawny football players on his record.  Lem_Barneydetroit-lions-mel-farr-52-topps-1970-orange-back-nfl-american-football-card-43888-p_1_He needed their voices to re-create a sonic atmosphere of what it sounded like when brothers-particularly Black men, came together to hang out, talk, and get caught up with each other.  As a result, Barney and Farr stepped up to the microphone to be heard signifying on arguably one of the most recognizable song intros ever recorded.  That song was “What’s Going On?”

“What’s Going On?” was Marvin Gaye’s passionate protest of the Vietnam War.  Gaye’s new album of the same name was an epoch departure from the singer’s smoking love and slow groove ballads prior.  Needless to say, Berry Gordy, founder of Motown and composer of the “Motown Sound”–a music crafted to be non abrasive (to white sensibilities and radio) and catered to a pop oriented cross-over audience, found Gaye’s new album ridiculous in the Motown idiom.  Consequently, Gaye’s album was not released for six months.

During the six-month struggle with Motown, Marvin Gaye refused to record any new music or take on any performance gigs, which Biographer Ben Edmonds suggests lost him a half million dollars.  Rather what Gaye did in fact was to train to play in the NFL! Yes, the National Football League! He wanted to leave music behind.  Gaye believed he could play the game because he had several dreams of catching a pass and running it back for a touch down during the Super Bowl. He enlisted his football buddies Barney and Farr to help him train so that he would be able to get a try-out with the Detroit Lions.  They agreed.  As a youth, Gaye never play a down of football citing that his father would have beat him if he played sports because preacher’s kids didn’t play sports. However, at this point in his life he was serious about his new endeavor.  He worked out, ran daily and implemented a rigorous weight lifting regime. Gaye even practiced with the Eastern Michigan University football team to work on his fundamentals and catching technique.  Gaye’s biographer David Ritz suggests he worked him-self into great shape and gained 25 to 30lbs of muscle.

Jesse Jackson and Gaye Play a little B-Ball shortly After his Football workouts

Jesse Jackson and Gaye Play a little B-Ball shortly After his Football workouts

Other writers describe Gaye as fitting the bill of a football player as he was 6’1”, strong and had become fast from his workouts.

In the end, Gaye’s dream of catching a pass in the NFL and running it back for touchdown never materialized.  Barney and Farr arranged a meeting between Gaye and the head coach of the Detroit Lions, Joe Schmidt.  Coach Schmidt, through many conversations with Gaye, denied Gaye a tryout for fear of a lawsuit if the singer was injured.  Gaye, of course, was disappointed and hurt.  He felt he wasted his time, effort as well as lost money (cancelled concert bookings) while training to play football all to be shut down before even setting foot on a field.

In January 1971, “What’s Going On” single was released (without Gordy’s knowledge) and became one of Gaye’s largest hits.  The single quickly reached gold status and both Lem Barney and Mel Farr, as record personnel, received their RIAA gold records–making them the only NFL Hall of Famers to have a gold record. That’s What’s Going On!

Happy Black Music Month!

Gaye speaks with his dad about those football dreams!

Marvin Gaye, Jr.: The Humanitarian (with a nod to Frankie Knuckles)

Marvin-GayeYesterday marked the 30th anniversary of the death of Marvin Gaye, Jr. Hard to believe it’s been that long. Had he survived the tragic death, by the hands of his father, he would reached 75 years of life. Imagine that! Today we can remember and recognized Marvin as one of the most important music artist of our time. His music, his voice, and his lyrics are indeed timeless.

Marvin’s presence has not faded. He is often the central figure in academia and out in the streets among project aristocrats on issues of race, society, culture, politics, economic, and the musicality of it all. He is the litmus for soulful sexy R&B, today.   Marvin is perpetually relevant. He continues to influence art in all its forms. Marvin was the everyday man, commenting on the everyday experience with an unmatched passion, which marked him as a humanitarian. marvin-gaye 2During a 1971 interview with Phil Symes, Marvin speaks of the content on his then new album What’s Going On he stated, “The material is social commentary but there’s nothing extreme on it. I did it not only to help humanity but to help me as well, and I think it has. It has given me a certain amount of peace.” Marvin was talking to us. We are still listening and will continue to do so.

**In honor of Marvin Gaye and Frankie Knuckles, whom we lost yesterday, I submit the following Big Moses House mix of “What’s Going On”:

Seriously Wrong On Purpose!

Country Paisley

Country Paisley

Are they serious?  Really, are Brad Paisley and LL Cool J serious?  Wow! By all accounts it seems they are every bit of sincere and genuine as can be.  Their duet “Accidental Racist”, released last week, seems as though it was unintentionally jettisoned through a secret portal from a parallel universe–it’s familiar, but wholly bizarre.  According to Paisley and Cool J this song is intended to spark a much needed conversation about race and race relations from what appears to be the perspective of an historically unaware Southern white male and an all too forgiving urban Black male.  The artists and certainly the song can’t be serious.  Not only is it a strange artist pairing, but also wrong on so many levels.

Let me explain!

First level of wrong, the use of Country music to raise awareness of race relations in America or more succinctly race relations in the South is preposterous in so far as gaining the attention of the urban Black youth, whom the song very well wants to include in its conversation on the subject given Cool J’s presence on the track.  Country music by in large is neither coveted by the urban Black millennials nor the urban Black Baby Boomers, generation X, or Y.  In short, Country music from a Black perspective (partly mine) conjures up images of big country white men in blue jeans, cowboy boots, big brimmed hats, bolo ties, missing sleeved tee-shirts and plaid shirts, pick up trucks, beer, and the Confederate flag.  As such, its real or imagined imagery repels the social and cultural sensibilities of urban Blacks.  The likelihood of Black urbanites purposely seeking out “Accidental Racist” as a musical interlude or a method of escape from the pressures of ghetto life in the hot wicked city is remote at best.  Brad who?  Paisley’s song can’t be serious.

Second level of wrong, is the fact that Paisley recruited Ladies Love Cool James, a.k.a. LL Cool J to kick a ‘para’ verse.  For you millennials who may be reading this, I’m referring to the guy who hosted the Grammys, yeah him!  For the rest of us, Cool J is the man!  Remember “Radio”, “Rock The Bells”, “I’m Bad”, “I Need Love”, “Around The Way Girl”, and the redeeming “Mama Said Knock You Out”?  I’m not sure how this Paisley/Cool J collaboration came about, but . . . Well let me say it this way, Cool J has amassed an unprecedented rap career wherein which he is about to enter his 30th year in the so called rap game . . . (applause here).  He has diminished his bad boy persona enough to make significant inroads to Hollywood and Television.  Hell, he boldly took off his cool ass Kango to costar in NCIS Los Angeles. Whaaaat!  He’s had his time.  He’s had his day and it is now dwindling down as far as the rap game is concerned.  Cool J’s rap prowess is legendary, however he holds little cultural capital in today’s Hip Hop world.  Urban Black audiences barely responded to his last album release Exit 13 in 2008.  If Paisley’s intention was to reach beyond his legion of Country music fans and into the world of the urban Black youth who would otherwise ignore his music he missed his target with the enlistment of the G.O.A.T. Paisley’s song can’t be serious.

Finally, and the third level of wrong are the lyrics of the song.  Paisley’s verse and chorus are laughable in their sincerity.  Don’t get me wrong his vocal delivery coupled with his chord progressions are remarkably sturdy in terms of what is expected in a mid tempo Country song.  However, what is problematic is the content. tee It is what he is saying, which can be deemed laughable.  His lyrics suggest a southern white man wearing a Confederate flag t-shirt while ordering a coffee from an urban Black youth barista in Starbucks should only be viewed as a Lynyrd Skynyrd fan.  Is he serious?  In no way shape or form does Lynyrd Skynyrd come remotely close to the outer hinterlands of the cultural consciousness of the urban Black youth. Who is Lynyrd Skynyrd?  That Confederate flag emblazed on the t-shirt holds a meaning that is imparted to Black youth by the community in which they live, their family, and personal experience.  Paisley’s narrative suggests a dismissal of the horrible history indelibly connected to the Confederate flag within the Black community.  With these lyrics, Paisley seems sadly unaware of cultural and social realities surrounding race relations.  Furthermore, and most distressing are LL Cool J’s lyrics.

Cool J wants to forget this?

Cool J wants to forget this?

His vocal delivery unlike Paisley’s is underwhelming and appears opaque in comparison to his previous beastly recordings.  But disturbing is what he says.  One line in particular, which has become controversial in terms of its forgiving nature, is as follows: “If you don’t judge my gold chains, I’ll forget the iron chains.” Cool J, can’t be serious.  He suggests that if Southern whites stop racially profiling urban Black males then they will in turn forget the enslavement of millions of Blacks.  This is not going to happen.  Upon hearing this, MSNBC The Cycle host, Turé expressed his outrage with Cool J verse and said, “I’m not going to forget it . . . what are you talking about?! . . . Mama should knock you out!”  When confronted, Cool J struggled to clearly explain what he meant by that particular verse.  Surely, Cool J cannot himself believe in this verse.  This lyric is completely out of sync and opposed to the current conversation on race and race relations in America.  Paisley and Cool J can’t be serious.

What Gold Chain?

What Gold Chain?

In the end, the song “Accidental Racism” is a flop.  It will fail to engage productive discussion.  The use of Country music to enter an on going discussion on race and race relations was a poor move to secure the urban Black youth.  The employment of LL Cool J does not make sense either–his popularity and familiarity with both urban Black youth and Southern whites is waning to non-existent.  Lyrically the song pays no attention to the realities of urban Black or Southern white culture.  Are they serious? I am!

The POTUS and His Vinyl Close Up

POTUSAlbum covers, since their inception, have always been a great sign-post of the climate of our times.  Their images are visual cues that direct everyone from the culturally focused individual to the political astute citizen to the casual music listening fan toward the current grand social narrative of the day.  Savvy musical artists in cahoots with photographers and visual artists (in this new era of entertainment it is most likely the director of artist branding) design their album covers to attract and stimulate interest in their content.  Some of these efforts have been regrettable and forgettable, while others have been remarkably memorable and remain culturally relevant decade after decade.

So, what kind of visual cues are being made about the grand current social narrative when dime-a-dozen digital artists place the POTUS,  Barack Obama, on the cover of iconic album covers?  Does Obama’s presidency serve as the musical content in which the dime-a-dozen digital artist is trying to attract and stimulate the culturally focused individual and the casual political fan?  Either way, the following album covers containing the image of the POTUS are indeed memorable and culturally relevant . . . at the moment.  And if anything, are too cool to be regrettable.

[Try to make out some of the original album covers and artists]

1 1A 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19

Scandal: I Know Why Bey Lip-Synched!

Beyonce Lip SynchingOk, it’s been over a week since Beyonce sang the Star Spangled Banner on the Capital steps in celebration of the historical second inauguration of President Barack Obama.  The following day of the event it was revealed that she lip-synched her performance on such a momentous occasion, which set off a firestorm of commentary and opinions that ranged from it being the best performance of her life to so what!  Well, the following is my commentary and opinion of her performance and most likely not the last public discharge on the happening before Beyonce’s next performance: the Superbowl Halftime Show.

So what is it that I have to say that has not already been said?  Well I hope to put into context the reason Beyonce decided to lip sync the tune and the reason we were all talking about it.

First let me say that to me her performance was not surprising.  During her live performance, I thought it was just good.  It wasn’t spectacular or all that! Just good. I’ve heard better. The next day, when I heard she might have lip-synched her performance I thought, “Ok, I’m not surprised.”  Please understand the Star Spangled Banner is a relatively easy song to sing.  I can sing it (albeit it may not be pleasing to your ears).  Its melody, which has it’s origins in an 1800 century English social club was composed no doubt while inebriated, is catchy and memorable which is why you can hum along when you forget Francis Scott Key’s words, which he scribed almost a century later.  Although it is an easy song to sing, what makes its performance special lies in the ability of the singer.  Here is the reason why shower singers or alone-in-the-car singers like me will never be asked to sing the song in public.  The song’s simple melody provides plenty of space for the gifted singer to seemingly perform vocal miracles at will.  Not many can do this.  Able gifted singers are free to explore the boundaries of their gift with this song. The ability to perform at this level is what makes it an amazing anthem and exciting to listen to, especially when sung by someone who is indeed capable.  Enter Bey.

Let me be clear here, I’m not hating on her, she is simply neither capable nor gifted enough to perform the song in a spectacular manner.  And for that matter a lot of folks are not either.  Bey’s vocal prowess is limited.  She lacks the range and power needed to create a memorable performance.  A few articles, penned in her defense last week, announced she was one of the greatest singers of all time.  Ha, this is laughable.  Her mentors are still around, right?  She possesses nowhere near the vocal talent of Patti, Chaka, Gladys, Anita, and certainly not Aretha.  These truly gifted singers at Bey’s age were unrivaled in their talent.  Bey, to no fault of her own, does not have what it takes in terms of her physical voice to match any performance of her mentors.

Aretha at 30 around Bey's age.

Aretha at around Bey’s age, 30.

Even in comparison to her contemporaries such as Ledisi, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys and I’ll throw in the untouchable and seasoned Rachelle Ferrell just to f**k with the curve, she falls extremely short of the mark.

What Bey did was not unprecedented. That day the choir, not the soloist, lip-synched to a prerecorded track.  Also in 2009, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the violinist Itzhak Perlman “string-synched” their performance because string instruments are notoriously temperamental in cold weather.  They did this because they had no physical control over their instrument . . . like Bey.

Ok knowing this about her lack of ability, it’s great she did in fact lip sync her performance.  Can you imagine what it might have sounded like?

So, why was this a scandal if others have in essence faked their performance as well?  It’s the expectation created by the event.  We the people expect the best when it comes to such events like the Presidential inauguration.  For decades the best and most significant/impact-ful singers, poets, writers, and politicians were gathered together to help set the tone of the up coming Presidency.  With this type of talent we the people expect the best.  Bey’s lip synching performance was not the best for the American people.  Of course her fans beg to differ or simply shrug it off and say, “so!”  Along with the fact that most Americans hold high expectations of all portions of the inauguration we also expected the best from Bey, which would have been a live, sincere, and authentic performance.  However, when it comes to the singing talent of Bey, I feel most of the world has been duped into believing what she is not.  I believe we have confused her ability to entertain with the ability to sing.  These are two very different things.  Let’s not get it twisted, Bey is not a singer and never has been a singer.  As mentioned, she is not physically capable of sangin’.  What I mean by this is I doubt she can belt out any tune in my living room sans a mic with enough power, conviction, skill, or emotion to move me.  Please realize this, I refer to my vocal luminaries to guide me in the direction of a person who is truly gifted in voice. [a few of my vocal luminaries in terms of women are of course Patti, Chaka, Aretha, Rachelle, but also Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Mahalia Jackson, Whitney Houston, and again Jennifer Hudson . . .] I recognize and embrace those singers who match my vocal luminaries and move me.  I will never embrace anyone who falls short of this high bar as a singer.  Why would I accept anything less or mediocre?  Bey can indeed hold a tune, but so can many others.  Bey is mediocre.  Rather than a singer I define her as an extremely successful entertainer.  She possesses many abilities to entertain her fans and even me.  An entertainer does it all to appeal to a mass audience.  She can hold a tune, dance, and act.  Bey is an entertainer! I like entertainers; I like being entertained.  Ben Vereen and Sammy Davis, Jr. were entertainers who were also in the top ten of the list in all those categories that define an entertainer.  They could sing, dance, and act on a high level.

Davis acting his ass off in the film "A Man Called Adam"

Davis acting his ass off in the film “A Man Called Adam” click here

Unlike Vereen and Davis, I believe Bey being mediocre in all of these is still able to dupe the American public into thinking she is a singer on a high level.  She is not the best singer, she is not the best dancer, and she is not the best actor by any stretch of the imagination.  Today’s entertainer does it all and is categorized wrongly as a singer.  And it is because of this wrongly placed moniker Bey, an entertainer, was chosen and expected to do the work of a singer at the Presidential inauguration.  I believe this was made a scandal because we expected Bey to be that amazing singer and she failed us.

Furthermore, I believe Bey knows she can’t sing on that level.  According to all the reports and articles, Bey at the last minute decided to lip sync her performance.  Why?  Was she nervous? Did she forget the words?  I think not! She has sung the Star Spangled Banner many times before both live and lip-synched.  I believe she did not feel capable of creating a memorable performance with her knowingly limited skill.  I can imagine her saying to H.O.V.A., “I know I’m not going to be able to sing anything better than what I did in the studio yesterday not to mention I have not practiced with the Marine Band.”  She lacked the ability and with this lacked the confidence to even try.  In so many words she had no guts, no courage, no gumption . . . in essence no Balls!  This is completely expected when you don’t believe in your own talent.  Bey demonstrated pure fear.  Any stellar singer worth anything would have marched out on the steps of the Capital and did the damn thang!  Four years ago Aretha Franklin sang her ass off in colder weather and very little warm up time.  In an interview about her spectacular performance she commented that she wished she had more time to warm up because her performance would have been better . . .  Balls!  Oh and she also commented she wanted to give this historical occasion an atmosphere of authenticity.  However when you are unsure of you own instrument or lack the ability you will fold like a wet noodle.  Luckily Bey recorded a stand in the day before and tagged out of the task.

With all this being said I feel Bey’s credibility, as a singer is unchanged in my mind. I didn’t expect her to do anything more.  Hell, if anything it should have been better, after all, she recorded in near perfect conditions in a studio the day before.  In the end, I hope you can understand the context of Bey’s performance or lack there of.  She is a physically limited singer, which she is fully aware of who lacks the self-confidence to perform on the grandest of stages all while an audience who has been duped into believing she is a singer who can create something amazing!

Oh, the scandal!

This coming Sunday when you are watching the Superbowl Halftime Show remember you are watching an entertainer and not a singer, so don’t expect to be amazed much by her vocal performance.  However you will be greatly entertained.

Ndegeocello Sings Simone!

Me'Shell NdegeocelloI confess I’ve been a fan of bassist/singer/songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello since she dropped her first album Plantation Lullabies in the early 90s.  I’ve watched her perform in L.A. several times and once in Atlanta in 2007, which was memorable I must say.  However, even more memorable than that was when I saw her years earlier live at the Virgin Mega store in Hollywood.  Ndegeocello played a small in-store set then signed copies of her second released Peace Beyond Passion (96).  I clearly remember asking her, as she signed the cover of my freshly bought CD, “Where’d you get that funk from?” like the P-Funk lyric.  She smiled and said, “Yes, right there!”  Wow! I just had a brief moment with Meshell Ndegeocello, whoa!

Over the years I’ve enjoyed the limitless range of Ndegeocello’s music.  As a serious soul music lover, I’ve especially relished in her exploration of the many nuances of soul. Ndegeocello and her music easily moved beyond the essentialist theory of the black artist.  She approached several other genres of music in her own unique way.

So, when I heard she was in the process of recording an album of Nina Simone songs I was excitedly perplexed (this is a good thing).  What would it sound like? Would it be funky with heavy bass lines? Or would the songs be reconfigured in emotion filled ballads with spoken word-like delivery? (You know how she does).

Nina Simone and Meshell Ndegeocello, on the one hand, are quite unique in their own right who together share some similarities.  Scholar Salamishah Tillet suggests, “Ndegeocello, like Simone, has dared to cross musical boundaries, express bold politics and be a steadfast presence as an African American woman instrumentalist in a male-dominated music scene.”  Also their similarities continue in terms of their fitting into socially comfortable places in America.  On the other hand, they are opposites in terms of the musical RESPONSE to their perspective eras; Simone confronted racial inequality amid social and civil unrest while Ndegeocello struggled in a post civil rights climate with her personal sexuality within rigid cultural mores.  A struggle afforded her by the work of Simone, in all seriousness.

Ndegeocello’s new album, Pour Une Âme Souveraine (For A Sovereign Soul) was released in October and is a wonderfully crafted tribute to Simone.  Pour Une Ame SouveraineFirst and foremost, Ndegeocello’s voice is perfect for the songs she sings while her musical approach is spot on.  She organically moves away–though not far–from the musical intention of Simone certainly due to the contemporary climate of the times. Ndegeocello finds a laid back groove for each song that departs from what NPR calls the “urgent” tone of Simone.  Her small group of musicians recorded the album with an obvious audible post soul aesthetic that is undeniably Ndegeocello.  She invited vocalist/musicians such as Cody ChesnuTT, Toshi Reagon, Sinead O’Connor, and Lizz Wright to join her on this tribute to Simone.  Collectively they sing with heartfelt respect for Simone whom Ndegeocello calls “royalty.”

This tribute album is a way to remember the indescribable force that was Nina Simone. Ndegeocello stated in a recent interview she hopes, “to get more people interested in her, check out her catalog and sort of revive it, and also use her story and learn from her story.”  After hearing the album it is clear to me that Ndegeocello was the perfect person to put forth this stellar tribute. Yes, Ndegeocello sings Simone!  In the end, I have to agree with Dr. Tillet when she suggests, Ndegeocello “has always been Simone’s heir apparent.

Your Sunday iPod add: Michael Kiwanuka: Raw Soul Folk

Here is your Sunday iPod add . . . any song form Michael Kiwanuka’s debut album Home Again.  For months now I have seen Kiwanuka’s face on the sidebar of my facebook page staring at me suggesting I should click on his image to hear his new music.  I’ve also seen his image on the bottom of my iTunes in a star-studded line up of what other listeners bought.  For months I have pass over his image and move on the next artist that caught my interest.

Well, today, after church and my daughter’s long rehearsal for a play, I headed home and I logged on.  There he was Michael Kiwanuka staring at me.  While eating my corndog I clicked on his image.  Wow! What took me so long to do this? What was I waiting for? Kiwanuka’s music combined the essential elements of acoustic soul and folk in the best way.  My musical taste are admittedly broad so, I listen to just about anything (I merely talk about the soul I listen to on this blog) and it’s been a quite along time since I’ve listen to some good contemporary acoustic folk music, rather, acoustic soul folk music.

I listened to a few of his songs and videos on youtube with amazement.  Kiwanuka, a 25 year old Brit with roots in Uganda has manage to capture a unique musical rawness of a generation and a half ago.  A recent USA Today article described his music as “warm and familiar as Sunday morning” and make sensible vocal comparisons to “Otis Redding” and “Bill Withers.”  However, I’ll take it a step further and easily compare him to the likes of badass guitar slingers and song poets such as Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and Richie Havens without reservation. He’s that good! His music is soulful and righteously folk yet contain just enough blues to elicit a mystical wonder that conjures images of deals being made at a Mississippi crossroads.

Listen to Michael Kiwanuka! Don’t sleep on MK! Don’t be like me and pass on him.

Add his album to your iPod and you will thank me later.

Check his videos below:

You gotta check out his version of Hendrix’s “Waterfall”