On February 14, 1989 my Mother sent me a huge 8” x 10” birthday card manufactured by Hallmark titled “The Birthday Times”. The format loosely assimilated headlines of the daily newspapers. Under the heading, “News of the Month”, are three entries. One of them states, “Truman introduces civil rights to end segregation of schools & employment”. Another heading titled, “People Who Share Your Birthday” included comedian Jack Benny (1894) out of six entries. Columbia Records created and introduced the long-playing phonograph record, and Michelin introduced the first radial tires. What really got my attention was the heading “Life in the U.S.A – Then & Now” that made certain comparisons between 1948, the year of my birth, and 1989, the year of my 41st birthday. The average income per person in 1948 was $3,187, and in 1989--$30,453. One gallon of gasoline in 1948 cost $0.26, and in 1989--$0.93. A brand new Ford automobile in 1948 cost $1,150, and in 1989--$10,879. One gallon of milk in 1948 cost $0.88, and in 1989--$2.32.
Much has happened to me and the rest of the world since I first appeared at Burton Mercy Hospital on Eliot Street, one block west of Brush Street on the near east side of Detroit, Michigan. It was one of several large medical facilities where African American doctors and nurses could practice openly and legally in their chosen professions. The hospital was torn down many years ago to make room for—nothing, of course.
At some point, between 1948 and 1950, many sounds and vibrations in combination, which are commonly referred to as music, began to have a major influence on me and still does to this very day. At the age of two I received my first record player. It was a Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer model which only played 78-rpm recordings and I still have it. Eventually my Father installed a 3-speed changer which included 45 and 33 1/3 rpm records as well. In those days my interests involved absorbing all the music that I could possibly consume. I was too young to know about the labels that people attach to those sounds and vibrations. Before the end of the 1950’s I was aware of the patterns of labeling, descriptions, and comparisons, but I didn’t care about such nonsense—and I still don’t care. From way back to way forward I’m still active professionally with a life in music and I like it like that.
Leonard Clyde King Jr. a/k/a
Dr. Prof. Leonard King
September 12, 2010
For my parents, Leonard Clyde King Sr. & Alice Lucille King for their guidance and encouragement in cultivating the initial paths that I would follow to other paths.
WORDS RENDERED BEFORE PROCEEDING YONDER
(in other words, here’s the preface)
On this journey it’s wonderful to reflect on my initial goals for having a life in music and, after all of these years, to be able to acknowledge various intervals of personal achievements from the mid 1950’s until this very day. I could say that music chose me—and it did—but I also know that it was my life prior to my current life. What am I saying? Life is a continuous cycle as far as I’m concerned and I have applied myself over the years for growth throughout this journey. In my view it has nothing to do with what some people call reincarnation which means, as I understand it, you die first and come back later. Although I am not aware of what human body I inhabited on the last go-round, I do know that I arrived in this life with a basic understanding why our global society is what it is.
What was important for me to know related to the energy/spirit in understanding the simplicity of what my life’s work would be, and I discovered that answer before kindergarten. This will be the last time for me inhabiting a human body. The human species is so damn over-rated and, despite all of the wonderful people who do exist and try to evolve beyond mundane systems of governments, too many humans are viciously ponderous. When I die—which won’t be no time soon—I will return often in the form of energy/spirit to assist anyone who’s worthy of help, but as far as beginning again through the maturation process from childhood to adulthood? Screw that shit—I’ve paid my dues in more ways than one!!
I can honestly say that my life has evolved in the way I wanted it to be despite whatever adverse circumstances I’ve encountered. I was already submerged in music before I knew my name was Leonard—or Junior—which some of my family members still call me today (that’s cool with me). As for what I do in music: when I was nineteen years of age I decided to eliminate having to describe whatever music I play in order to satisfy the questions of those who ask—what kind of music do you play? What is even worse is when someone decides for me what it is I do and, over the years, it is something that I have grown to feel a certain disrespect for. Technically speaking, the music I perform, especially when I’m the bandleader, is the music of my ancestors—which cannot be denied. Terms such as “jazz” and “blues” were once racial slurs and I will elaborate on this further in one the intermissions.
Musicians, in general, are never allowed the right to describe whatever it is they do in music. For me, the music of my ancestors is a description I’m adamant in using these days. I am not a jazz/funky/blues/soul/old school/bebop/r ‘n’ b/rhythm & blues/Northern soul/new age/rock ‘n’ roll/avant garde/Motown/acid jazz/Third Stream/rockabilly/Western swing/country/neo-soul musician. Look at all of those words that don’t mean a damn thing!! The general public can sometimes be too prejudiced for its own good when it comes to embracing music (and themselves, too). If a person doesn’t dig jazz it doesn’t mean they won’t dig what I’m doing. It too easy to have pre-conceived ideas about music just based on a title description, but if anyone can start at zero, before entering a venue where I’m performing with my own group (or James Carter’s Organ Trio, too), and dig the music for what it is, then hopefully they can allow the music do its purpose—to heal and to educate. Our humor is evident, so if it’s entertaining to an audience it isn’t something we’re doing deliberately; it’s the natural joy that comes out of us. Soooo—enjoy the journey and let the music take you where we’re going!!
January 31, 2011
Junior Discovers So Sigh It T
My parents were both born in the southern United States of America in two states ‘next door’ in geography. My Father, Leonard Clyde King, was born in Ellaville, Georgia on October 29, 1921. He was one of seven siblings born to Eugene King Sr. (born March 1885, died June 1, 1932) and Willie Bell King (born March 3, 1889, died March 26, 1969). In actuality his birth name is LC King. It was very common in those days to give a male child initials in combination with a last name. I was in my 30’s when I found out about his name transition. During World War II he was drafted in to the United States Army while living in Baltimore. Like many others before him he grew tired of living in the south. Since he had a friend who lived in Baltimore he decided to move there in 1942. After a year he received his ‘greetings’ to report to Camp Meade, Maryland.
At the time of his induction he was told by military officials that the initials ‘LC’ would not be acceptable and he would have to pick two names in place of those initials, which is how ‘Leonard Clyde’ came into existence. When I asked him how he chose those two names he started laughing and said, “I thought about calling myself ‘Loose Coyote’ but that wouldn’t work. Then I thought about ‘Lost Child’ but that wouldn’t work either, so I came up with Leonard Clyde”. My guess is that he chose from a list of names. It was at that point in time when I realized that anyone who knew him prior to his arrival in Detroit, in March 1945, still called him LC—they never called him ‘Leonard’. After his discharge he came to Detroit, Michigan to live since his mother, two of his sisters, and his youngest brother had already settled there.
My Mother was born Alice Lucille Chapman in Talladega, Alabama, August 13, 1929. She was one of four siblings born to Phillip Chapman, Sr. (born November 15, 1906, died December 28, 1983) and Zadie Colley (born July 5, 1908, died January 14, 1980). Most of our relatives call her ‘Cille’ which is an abbreviation of her middle name. Although she was born in Detroit she actually didn’t move there until April 1945 to help tend to her father and stepmother because they were both healing from a serious automobile accident. She enrolled at Northern High School on Detroit’s North End where she graduated with honors in June 1947. She once told me that her counselor at school was disappointed that she wasn’t proceeding to college right after high school. That’s because both of my parents had a more important circumstance to deal with—getting ready for ME!! During my first five years I remember being influenced by sounds. Not any artists in particular or so-called styles, genres, and descriptions. I was excited by the variety of sounds I heard from everywhere—and I mean everywhere.
I cannot overemphasize the importance of just how these sounds were so readily available in my daily life. After World War II ended, and my Father relocated to Detroit, he entered “radio school” (that’s what he called it) as a result of the GI Bill for education to earn a certificate in electronics technology. It was actually called Radio Electronics & Technology School. When he inquired about applying to the school it was suggested to him that he should take courses to complete his high school education because he had only made as far as the 6th grade in the rural South. However, he insisted on taking the courses he was entitled to as a recent veteran of military service. As a result he could not be denied entry, however, the Veterans Administration and the school decided that he would study in compliance with a special observation so that, if he failed, he would have been forced to get his high school diploma first. What happened was he surprised them by doing exceptionally well and he graduated with “A’s”.
Afterwards he got a couple of jobs he didn’t care for, of which one of them was driving a ‘hi-lo’ forklift truck at a Ford Motor Company plant. It didn’t take long for him to realize that he needed to do something professionally that meant something to him rather than quitting a job every few months. At first he repaired radios’ but in 1949 the jukebox industry was very profitable. Since he had a great love for music it was a perfect match for him in combining his electric/mechanic expertise. As for me it was equally perfect in being an aspiring musician who was the first-born son of a jukebox operator/repairman—and jukeboxes were everywhere except churches, cemeteries, and banks, loosely speaking.
That year was professionally significant for him because our family was expanding very quickly. My brother Gregory was born on June 22, 1949, and my youngest brother Larry arrived on February 26, 1951 (he changed his first name to Atiba roughly twenty years later). In another four years my sister Denise was born on March 27, 1955, then five years afterwards my youngest sister Linda arrived on October 12, 1960. Between 1948 and 1951, the time period in which “The Boys” were born, we lived on Conover Lane in Ferndale, Michigan in an area with a lot of housing projects, more commonly known in the United States as, “The Projects”. These buildings were divided into separate units horizontally and housed anywhere from three to four families.
I do recall seeing some single family homes scattered in that area but the horizontal structures were dominant in our immediate area. We shared living space with my Uncle James King, my Father’s youngest brother, and his wife, Aunt Hattie. My paternal grandmother, Willie Bell King, whom my Father called “Ma”, also lived there. Shortly after Larry was born we moved to the Visger Heights area of downriver Southwest Detroit, in the spring of 1951, to 3204 Liddesdale Street. This area was bordered by four cities: Melvindale, River Rouge & Ecorse (geographically positioned next to each other), and Lincoln Park Of course I have no personal memory of this transition from living in Ferndale but I still have a very vivid memory of a different kind of transition that happened to me in September 1953—KINDERGARTEN!!
I do remember asking my Mother, “Why do I have to go to school”? I don’t remember what she said, but in recent years I’ve asked her about it and she told me the exact words of the adult and child dialogue:
Mother: “Junior, you’re going to have to go to school now that you’re 5 years old. Me: Do I really have to go? Mother: Yes. Me: Well, why don’t you go to school? Mother: I have to stay here and take care of your brothers. Me: Well, let me stay here and take care of my brothers while you go to school.
In reading the above words in print it’s easy to interpret them as some smart-mouthed kid giving his mother a hard time, but it wasn’t like that at all. At that point in my life I didn’t have any idea at all about this thing called “school” and what I was supposed to be doing while I was there. However, I honestly believe, to this day, that I was clairvoyant enough within myself to know that it was something that I wasn’t gonna like. And furthermore, I was having a good time leading a great life full of fun and music with no competition or judgment from people who were not privy to my world at time which, as far as I was concerned, was The Good Life from a 5-year olds point of view. The relatively short walk to Francis G. Boynton Elementary School, at the corner of South Fort Street and Visger Road, was like walking to the gallows (or whatever a close equivalent would be to a little kid). Despite the fact that I had never seen so many kids in one place at one time, which was sorta-kinda exciting to see, my main thought was: “I gotta get outta here”.
In those days kindergarten was in session only for half a school day, which meant I would be back home in time to catch “Lunchtime with Soupy Sales” at 12 noon on Channel 7, WXYZ-TV. I was crazy about that show with Soupy and his real people animated sidekicks: Pookie, White Fang, Black Tooth, Willie the Worm (whose character was eventually discontinued), and all the other funny stuff his staff would create. Since I had to give up my kind of fun for a few hours to go to school, Soupy and company provided me with a certain daily continuity of grown-up kids’ fun. As far as the kindergarten class was concerned, I thought the teacher, Mrs. Wright, was a very nice person and, in general, all the kids liked her. There are only a couple of things that I remember happening in her class.
For one of them I was standing with my classmates and involved in whatever activity it was, then we were asked to sit down on the floor. When I looked at the floor I noticed that the area where she wanted me to sit had a small amount debris, so I wouldn’t sit down as instructed. I didn’t say anything—I just didn’t sit, so Mrs. Wright asked me what was wrong and I told her that I was wearing my brand new pants and I couldn’t get them dirty by sitting down in some dirt. I honestly don’t remember if I sat down or not but I do remember her calling my mother to the school and saying to her, “Mrs. King, please let Leonard know that he has to follow directions like the other children”. When she explained what I had done my Mother just slightly chuckled and told her about how I was taught to care of my personal belongings, cleanliness, etc. But she did say that she would talk to me. She did but I don’t remember what was said.
Another thing that happened in class was when the percussion instruments were given to each of us to play. During one session I was given a triangle and a rod to strike it with. At some point during the song selection I decided to experiment with changing the sound of the triangle so I stuck it in between my ankle and my inner shoe. I thought I was really sayin’ something but Mrs. Wright put an end to that quickly in a no nonsense but respectful way. Not too long afterwards my percussion experiments would happen mostly at home with paint cans, garbage cans, or any surface that sounded good to my ears. A new drummer was beginning to emerge on the scene.
Deciphering the Blah-La-La
The years 1953 to 1960 included attending Boynton from kindergarten through the sixth grade including a slight diversion class called Reading Readiness. This was a program that was created by whomever to supposedly help strengthen kids reading skills before being allowed to proceed to the first grade from kindergarten. However, what happened to many of us, who were handpicked for that particular group, stigmatized us as children who were slow to learn or, let’s be totally honest, dumb—at best!! Whatever was being taught that was supposed to get us “ready” to enter the first grade and improve on what we just couldn’t figure out before—was??? It was never explained to us. Not even in official “kiddy” language that at least one of the adults at that school should have had some expertise. However, many kids who were not forced to take that detour had a different name in describing the program: Flunking the Sandbox—one of the recreational areas where kids would play during their “free time”. To this day my mother believes that Reading Readiness was implemented by the Board of Education to create positions that put more teachers on the payroll.
What was so interesting about my situation was that I was learning to read very well at that age. I just didn’t care about being there and witnessing things that did not make sense to me—even as a 5-year old. Since I was so attracted to music and phonograph records (I have no memories of any “live” music events during this time) the music, for me, was in the grooves of those recordings. I would look at the words written on various 78 & 45-rpm recordings and figure out what they meant in order to determine which one I wanted to hear. For example, I’d look at all of the word groupings listed on the label and if I saw A-T-L-A-N-T-I-C spelled out then I knew it meant Atlantic Records and I’d break that word into syllables, AT-LAN-TIC. If another grouping spelled a name, such as JOE TURNER, I would break it down to Joe Tur-ner, so I could pronounce everything at ease afterwards. There are those of the adult world who are not creative enough to really think about different yet effective methodologies that inspire whatever is very dynamic within each child. The main message I got during this time period was, ‘Do what you are asked to do and don’t ask or think why’. Of course if I did ask for clarity some of the responses I got just weren’t clear.
During those years mentioned above were my introduction to the social system of cultivated detachment—personal and collective—and its many aspects including hypocrisy, judgment, guilt, fear, and shame. I do recall the names of some of the teachers who, in their kindness, were an inspiration to me in their own perspective ways—Mrs. Dukeshear, the librarian, Mr. Spindler, the gym teacher, Mr. Herman Kushner & Mr. Dan Ascenzo, the music teachers. There were two or three more whose names I just don’t remember. In contrast to them there were two in particular who I will never forget. One is Mr. Bilobrezski. In those days I was one scared-assed kid who, fortunately, wasn’t a target of the neighborhood bullies. Mr. Bilobrezski must have noticed a certain fear when he attempted to confuse me by telling me that I wasn’t smart and I wasn’t very bright. I vividly remember responding to him, somewhat meekly, that I thought I was very bright. He responded, “No, you’re not very bright. You know that”. I still responded, “Yes I am” but it was mixed with a certain doubt. By then—the 4th or 5th grade—I was used to hearing many ugly and stupid comments that kids would say to each other, but this was an adult doing the same thing with a different energy and purpose. After my second or third encounter with him, when the school day ended, I went home and told my Mother what he said because I wanted to know what she thought. The next day she came to the school and chewed him out in a diplomatic matter-of-fact way but the message was clear: teach him the lessons you’re supposed to teach in your classroom and nothing else. I didn’t witness much of this encounter at all but I did see how it transformed his relationship towards me afterwards.
The second person was Mrs. Barclay. I honestly don’t remember anything from the lessons she taught in her social studies class but I do remember she had a very intense dislike for certain people making the news headlines of the day, in particular the Russian prime minister Nikita Khruschev, and Fidel Castro after the Cuban Revolution in 1959. The way she talked about them I just knew that on any given day it was possible that I would be very unlucky to accidentally encounter either one of them while walking down the street. At first I was so influenced by her controlled rants about those particular bad guys, among others, my attitude became negative towards them and anyone else she didn’t like. Eventually her rants included certain kids in the class and that’s where I ‘drew the line’. I used to watch her every move, and not just in the classroom, because my trust in her authority eroded very quickly.
Despite whatever misgivings I had at the time, I was very much interested in learning about everything that I could mentally consume. It is my understanding that the Detroit Public School system was one of the best in comparison to other metropolis’ in the United States at that time and, although there have been so many excellent teachers throughout the years, there is only so much support they have gotten from upper management and the government. People do not all learn the same way at the same pace, yet the criteria and structure of those “rubber stamp” curriculums and policies are sometimes just not inspiring. Other methods do exist with greater results highlighting the joy of learning that are embraced by those who dare to assess what is needed in their geographic locales to inspire young minds in ways that are enhanced (structured) more inclusively.
1959 was also the year in which I witnessed a significant change on the home front. My parents’ relationship was altered by something that caused a change in their daily interactions. Of course I heard some of things they would say to each other and I would try to piece these bits of information together myself to see if any of it made sense to me but it didn’t. Eventually I concluded that whatever it was I couldn’t get too wrapped up about it because it was their business and I was fortunate that my life in music began to really flower during this period. In the mid-1950’s I began to develop a reputation as a vocalist at Boynton during the ‘class’ that was called auditorium. It was very common, even straight through high school, for the students go to the auditorium for 30 to 40 minutes a day or every other day for creative recreation that would result in some kids performing skits, playing the piano, or singing. One or two teachers supervised us and I would volunteer to sing as often as I was allowed. Eventually my classmates would often ask the teacher, “Can LeonardKing sing today’? (The reason I spelled it like is because some people, even now, pronounce both names so quickly it sounds like a first name). At the time I would sing songs at home that were recorded by many people but at school I had a tendency to sing my favorites by Chuck Berry (guitar solos included), Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers (saxophone solos included), and Jackie Wilson (choreography included). Although I could hear the entire ensemble in mind as it was on the recordings, I wasn’t concerned that the audience couldn’t hear it since it wasn’t physically possible. What did happen was the beginning of neighborhood social validation that brought me the attention that I wanted for doing something that came natural to me.
Another significant situation that happened occurred during one of my immediate family’s occasional visits to my Grandfather’s house (we called him “Pa-Pa”, short ‘a’ sound). As we were getting out of the car I recognized the song that was playing on the record player. It was “Two Left Feet” by pianist Skip Hall and his Band on the Jamboree label. My Father had given him a copy some time before but we had a copy in our household, too, so when I heard that song I almost couldn’t contain myself. When we walked inside the house the whole place was jumpin’ with everybody dancing. Although it was common at some of our relatives homes for people to react to music by popping their fingers or by dancing, it was at Pa-Pa’s house, on Riopelle Street south of East Euclid in the area known as Black Bottom, that cemented my decision to be a musician. I already knew how music made me feel, but to witness that special spirit and see how it immediately influenced others to enjoy themselves in ways that didn’t need to be explained was all I needed to see. I wanted to do what the “people on the records” were doing. Since I hadn’t been exposed to much live music at that time (there were no jazz festivals or music in the parks) those phonograph records were ‘it’.
In September 1957 I began to take private drum lessons from a man named William Keith at Grinnell Brothers Studios on Fort Street, three blocks north of Southfield Road in Lincoln Park, Michigan. It was a full service operation that sold sheet music, musical instruments & accessories, plus a staff of instructors for private and group lessons. As a branch store it wasn’t as expansive as the main store on Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit which had two or three floors full of everything. The downtown Lincoln Park store was convenient because it was only five or ten minutes from our home. If my Father didn’t feel like getting out of bed to take me when the weather was warm on a Saturday morning, then I’d ride my bike. In those days there were no splibs (black people) living in Lincoln Park but I never had any problems.
In 1951, when we moved into our new neighborhood from Ferndale there were still a small concentration of white people living among us, but it wasn’t long before they relocated to Lincoln Park, Southgate, Allen Park, Melvindale, and Dearborn. However, their short exodus didn’t stop any neighborhood progress for those who remained. Black people in that region of Detroit became tightly organized politically, socially, and economically. Basic services could be obtained on Visger Road, starting with Miami Drug Store on the corner Fort & Visger and continuing all the way to Jean’s Shrimp Hut on the Ecorse, Michigan side of the street just before the railroad tracks (driving southward on Visger after passing Bassett Street, this street was the border for River Rouge, Michigan on the left and Ecorse on the right). Many businesses including dental and general medical facilities (including a major hospital), drug & hardware stores, small and large markets, beauty salons & barber shops, men & women clothing stores, night clubs, and pool & billiard parlors.
If we couldn’t find what we wanted on Visger then we would take a short journey to one or more of the outlying areas to shop. Since it was such an effective self- contained area to live in it was natural to feel a certain empowerment among ourselves which didn’t mean we felt better than people who lived in other regions within the city. Living on the southwest edge of Detroit meant that we weren’t in close proximity to the center of town, although it didn’t take long to drive there, so our personas were shaped by a kind of isolated prosperity that benefited the neighborhood in general, especially in considering how huge a land mass Detroit is.
I enjoyed taking drum lessons from Mr. Keith. He had a very relaxed but firm way of letting me know that my lessons and the results I achieved from practicing was fun and serious business simultaneously. At home I never had to be asked to practice—I would be asked to stop practicing after two or three hours. Beginning in September 1957 I practiced on a “Ken” model practice pad that was 7 ½” by 5 ¼” with a small black rubber slab in the middle. I still have it. Looking back I realize that it took a certain amount of concentration and discipline to look at the rudiments in the book—the Rubank Elementary Drum Method—and keep the sticks square in the middle of that rubber slab because the large circular drum pads didn’t exist back then.
Although I was a good student I remember one week when I didn’t feel like practicing what was in the book and, instead, opted to imitate what I was hearing on recordings. I faked some rhythms to sound like I had practiced but my mind was somewhere else. When I arrived at Grinnell’s for my lesson Mr. Keith asked if I practiced and I told him yes. So he counted off the lesson and I started faking my ass off. It was so obvious. He asked me to stop, then he said, “I thought you said you practiced”? I said I did, so he counted it off. I was so pitiful he immediately said, “Stop. Go home and practice and don’t come back until you’ve learned the lesson”. That was too much for my young ego so I went home and practice that lesson and the one after that without being asked, because I didn’t want to be caught unprepared like that again.
On December 25th I received a 14” Ludwig snare drum and was glad to have it. Several weeks later I asked my Father if I could have a drum set and he said, “Well….let me see what you do with that one drum first”, so I said “OK” without any disappointment at all. At some time during 1958 I received a bass drum and one 7” cymbal which resulted in me having to play the bass drum with the sticks to compensate for not having tom-toms (I was 15 before I had a basic complete drum set). Knowing my Father well enough by then I knew that he wasn’t going to waste any money on a lot of equipment if I wasn’t interested, so getting a drum set in phases was the best thing that could have happened to me because I learned to do more with less—but I didn’t realize that back then.
During the 1950’s, a music industry phenomenon that I now call ‘The Drummer’s Era’ was in full swing due to the popularity of many drummers such as Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Max Roach, Louie Bellson, and Art Blakey. For two years, 1954 to 1956, the Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet had some very popular recordings on the market and, in 1958, Cozy Cole had a Top Ten hit with ‘Topsy—Part 2’, as did Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers with Bobby Timmons composition, ‘Moanin’. I saw Cozy Cole on American Bandstand during one of its weekday shows, and on The Dick Clark Show which was aired early Saturday evening, and damn near couldn’t contain myself. During this time I was still practicing the exercises in the Rubank book and a couple of other books but I was becoming restless to play what I called ‘real music’.
In other words, not just rudiments in the books but to perform like the musicians I heard on recordings. I didn’t have an ensemble to rehearse with but that would change in a few short years when I called a few neighborhood kids who were studying their instruments, too. Greg began saxophone lessons with Mr. Keith during 1958 and had excelled quickly enough to be able to play “Harlem Nocturne” at one of Boynton’s evening music programs that were family oriented. Parents and relatives came to see and hear the musical progress of their siblings with pride. It was during one such evening when I performed as a solo vocalist with a microphone stand my Mother made for me out of wood.
She also used a small soup can and covered it with aluminum foil in constructing a fake microphone which she attached to the top of the wooded rod (it might have been a broomstick). Then she said I needed a stage name and came up with “Lenny Kane” as my alias. I felt as though I was walking on clouds that night and, although I don’t recall what I sang, I will never forget the wonderful reception I received from the audience. The “King Boys” began receiving a lot of attention through music. Larry began taking trumpet lessons that year but, in reality, his instrument was actually a cornet. (Note: from his birth in 1951 until he changed his first name to Atiba in 1971 his name was Larry King. As it relates to this book for chronological accuracy I will refer to him by his legally adopted first name when the story evolves to that particular time period).
Within a three-year period, 1958 to 1961, our parents received many requests from adults for their permission in allowing us to perform at social functions in the neighborhood, especially me. Those were the days when it was common for adults to be trusted with other peoples children. My Father often chaperoned us and some of the other neighborhood kids when we put a band together in 1963. I remember it being a time of great encouragement because there were many people who had various roles in mentoring us: Mr. & Mrs. John & Juanita Hill, choreographer Mrs. LaClaire Knox, Mrs. Hale (co-owner of Hale’s Drug Store on Visger Road), and Mr. William King (no relation).
We could cultivate impromptu sessions at Beechwood Community Center in River Rouge, Westside Community Center in Ecorse, Kemeny Recreation Center just a few blocks from our home, and Considine Community Center in Detroit on Woodward Avenue on the North End. Since it really meant a lot in aspiring to be an excellent musician, the metro Detroit area had a lot to offer young people. In later years my Mother would say that she never worried about us getting into trouble because we stayed so busy.
Our first official band was called The Kings of Rhythm which was just the three of us—“Those Nice King Boys”, as some adults used to say. Rodney Mack played alto saxophone with us briefly during 1962, but a real band starting taking shape in early 1963. Richard Sims lived on the same block we did and joined us on tenor saxophone. Mr. Hill played trumpet and he taught his daughter Adelphia how to play. In addition to her joining the group her parents allowed us to rehearse at their home. Darryl Moore joined us on upright acoustic bass. We were kids between 12 and 16 years of age and it didn’t take long for us to learn enough songs to play jobs. However, before any of this began I played my second professional gig in 1961 with a guitarist named Ben Jones, who lived on Annabelle Street right around the corner from us. He asked my parents for permission for me to play at a house party at Annabelle & Peters Streets, just guitar and drums. Then he said that we had to play ‘Hide Away’ by Freddie King once every set. Ben was only three years older than me and wasn’t as musically submerged as I was, but he had a special soulful ‘something’ that got to people and we had that party jumpin’.
It is very common, at performing venues of various sizes, for performers of several genres to take a break or an intermission, sometimes two in nightclubs. For me it is numerically impossible to figure out just how many times this has happened in life, so I felt it would be a good idea to do this in this book by expressing something that isn’t necessarily in chronological order—although the first part of this intermission is.
The word ‘authority’, according to one definition in The World Book Dictionary, means “The power to enforce obedience; right to control, command, or make decisions”, (p.136). Some humans assume roles of authority for different reasons that are cultivated in different ways. Between the ages of 11 and 14 I was very much aware of this ‘pecking order’ and I didn’t like it at all. I admit that I had a great childhood as far as feeling loved and protected to a large degree, but what helped to undermine my trust in certain people were the contradictions and outright lies that were acted out for the sole purpose of my absorbing information that would produce a lot of guilt, fear, and shame. Whether it was intentional or due to a person’s inner conflict, I didn’t like being on the receiving end of anyone’s personal confusion, so I had to figure out what I could do to protect myself—without any sanctioned authority.
Going to a church every Sunday had become a real drag. I was always the last one to get dressed and had to be fussed at constantly by my Mother. I also became tired of being told, by certain people, what was going to happen to me if I didn’t believe. A particular incident happened one afternoon after leaving a neighborhood market on Fort Street after running an errand for my Mother. A woman who was a friend of my Mother’s was on the sidewalk walking towards me. After exchanging pleasantries she asked why she hadn’t seen me at church recently. I don’t remember what I said but I remember her comment very well. She said, “Well son you have to go every week. You heard about what happened to that little girl who died the other day? If she had kept going to church she might still be alive”. I was immediately insulted at what she said and told my Mother as soon as I got home a few short minutes later.
I’m not sure what age I was when this happened, or if my Mother said anything to her, but a short time period had passed when I decided to implement a simple plan of in-house defiance. My guess is that I was 12 or 13 when, early one week, I decided that I wasn’t going attend church anymore, and I was prepared face the wrath of Mother Lucille. When Sunday came around I faked getting ready but made no attempt to complete this simple process. When she made it clear that she wasn’t going to ask me again that’s when I said, “I’m not going anymore”. As expected she said, “WHAT!! BOY, HAVE YOU LOST YOUR MIND”? So I said it again, not belligerently. I wasn’t scared (not totally) but I was prepared for the worst possible outcome with The Belt.
During those few seconds of waiting to dance The Twist, The Mashed Potatoes, The Wiggle, and some other spontaneous form of physical movement, my Father intervened and said to my Mother, “Now ‘Cille we can’t make him go”. I don’t remember her response but she didn’t like that, either. Then he said, “You see how he is every Sunday—you have to fuss at him all the time. We can’t make him go”. The result was that I was given a list of chores to do each week while the rest of the family went to The House of Transcendental Resplendence. These tasks were no problem for me because cleaning and organizing are actions that I didn’t mind doing—even now. My parents were not the kind of people to take the sides of their siblings and usurp their own authority.
Decisions were usually arrived at away from our eyes and ears. However, there was only one other episode that I remember with a similar outcome. I loved the music of the harmonica/vocalist Little Walter, and we had a copy of his big hit recording of 1955, ‘My Babe’, that I used to sing along to. One day I was singing it and she told me to take it off because a song like that was going to make me mannish. My Father entered the room at that exact time and said that the song wasn’t going to determine what kind of person I was going to be, and it was ok for me to listen to it. It reminded me of “Boogie Chillen” by John Lee Hooker with a similar scenario: “I heard Papa tell Mama, let that boy boogie woogie, ‘cause it’s in ‘im, and it’s got to come out”.
In the meantime I made a valid decision for myself: to be able to mix, mingle, and relate to people of all walks of life and not have to join the group of ‘You’re One of Us’ in order to feel the warmth of belonging. Additionally I rejected having to declare myself as someone with an allegiance to something that, in return, grants acknowledgement and recognition. Therefore I decided to become the best ‘Leonard Clyde King Junior’ I could possibly be with respect to anyone’s personal viewpoints of the world and where they saw themselves in it. First I had to discover who ‘Leonard Clyde King Junior’ was and learn to like him as much as possible. At that time I could not share my own personal viewpoints about life and where I fit into the scheme of things. Certain things I could share with my brother Greg, but some things were just better left unsaid while contemplating the further adventures of being a teenager.
In current times, since 2001, the media has flooded the general public with information related to terrorists and terrorists’ activities. So what is it that terrorists supposedly do? Create mayhem through fear and, sometimes, torture. In other words, mess with people. This can be applied to the bully on the grade school playground, the man or woman who beats the shit out of their children, sometimes injuring them for life. Fears are cultivated often via organized religion which teaches people that they cannot have a quality life unless they believe in certain principles. Acts of terrorizing people and other living entities happen everyday somewhere. I refer to human beings as the ‘human condition’ because we are conditioned as to how to think and what to feel for centuries. The so-called upper one percent does not have to worry about the lower 99 percent forcing them to create socioeconomic improvements that would help to benefit the lives of everyone. Of course to implement something of that nature would greatly disturb the massive profits they are accustomed to, so the beat goes on (sometimes upside somebody’s head).
After finishing the 6th grade at Boynton I was bussed (not for desegregation) to Morley Elementary School for the 7th and 8th grades (September 1960-June 1962). The first thing I remember as the bus stopped in front of the school was that awful funky smell from the slaughter house and soap factory located across the street. It was so bad that, during the first week, I couldn’t finish my lunch or eat anything so I just threw food away, but it didn’t take long for me to get used it, especially after having to endure on an empty stomach. The school was located in an area of Detroit known as Delray which was once a separate city until the early 1900’s when it was annexed to become a part of the growing Detroit metropolis. The geographic boundaries are between Fort Street & West Jefferson (bordered by the Detroit River), the Rouge River & Clark Street, and is generally described by two parts—the Low End (southward between Green Street and the Rouge River), and the High End (between Clark & Green Streets).
What is most memorable about that school for me is attributed to three teachers: Mr. Eddie Gordon, Mr. Conwell Carrington, and Mrs. McCravey (I think her first name was Juanita but I’m not sure). Their importance was equal and not necessarily in the order of their names mentioned in this paragraph. Mr. Gordon taught science and I do recall him saying that he competed in the Olympics. Recently I’ve discovered that he participated in the Summer Olympics of 1928 & 1932 and won first place in the long jump. (I was totally surprised to know that his son is Ed Gordon, the journalist). He had a very relaxed, humorous, and no-nonsense way of controlling a classroom and cultivating an interest in his teaching. Anyone who had the nerve to attempt to act a fool in his class knew what to expect: a tablespoon and a jar full of alum powder. We would have to dip that powder out of the jar, a heaping spoonful, put it in our mouths, and close them. After a few short seconds that damn powder would start getting hot and he would be smiling at us with arms crossed and say, “That alum is getting hot isn’t it”? If he wanted to talk about a certain issue, with either the girls or the boys, he would send one or the other group out of the room into the hallway just outside his door, and we knew better than to make any noises. What he projected to us was to be proud and unashamed of being who we are, and not to accept marginal goals as progress.
Mrs. McCravey was just as adamant in her own way (without the alum powder) of instilling pride and accomplishment. She was also well liked despite the fact that her words could sometimes cut you to shreads but not tear you down as a person. I recall one particular morning in her class when she lectured us about cleanliness and hygiene. Apparently one of the students must have been a little funky under the armpits, so she must have gotten a strong enough whiff to comment on it right away, saying “Now I KNOW everyone in here has soap and water at home, isn’t that right”?, without revealing who she thought it was. One time, after grading our homework papers, one paper in particular was stained, so without identifying the person she said, “I know you had mash potatoes last night because I got the gravy”. It was a real challenge not to laugh because you would be the next center of her attention.
Mr. Conwell Carrington was the music teacher and, although Morley did not have an instrumental music program, my interest was maintained because, as a pianist, he provided music accompaniment while the class sang the songs he taught us. An additional bonus for me would happen when he allowed me to bring my drums to school (my Father actually) and perform with him. Thinking back I don’t remember anything about what we played but I do remember being excited about the results. During my freshman year at Southwestern High School in 1962-63 he attended my first band orchestra concert there one evening. After congratulating me for my performance he said, “I was at the Drome (Lounge) last night to see Miles Davis and he has a drummer with him that’s not that much older than you, and he’s playing, too”. Immediately I had to find out who this guy was, so when I finally heard Tony Williams’ playing on Miles’ Seven Steps To Heaven album it was obvious to me that his playing was much more mature than mine at the time, but it served as a great inspiration to hear him, as a teenager, with his own musical identity.
Another scenario that I will never forget happened during 1960 or ’61. My Father brought home a 45-rpm version of ‘Cousin Mary’ by John Coltrane (‘Naima’ was on the flip side). At that time I wasn’t familiar with his ‘Giant Steps’ album which featured the full-length version, therefore Atlantic Records edited a shorter version that contained the theme and Coltrane’s initial solo choruses without the piano & bass solos, and last two tenor saxophone choruses before returning to the theme. I learned those first solo choruses note for note by scat singing along with the record. I was so proud of my accomplishment that I wanted to share it with an adult who didn’t live at my residence. In those days there were relatives and friends visiting all the time, so one afternoon my uncle James King was there. Since he loved music the same way my Father did I chose him to listen me scat with the recording. He was smiling the whole time (I can only imagine how I looked singing with my eyes closed) and afterwards he reached in his pocket and gave me a half dollar (50 cent) coin—which I was not expecting but it was so great to be validated at that moment. To this day whenever I hear that song I think of him.
There are three other memorable episodes from those years. Mr. Kushner and Mr. Ascenzo were the music conductors in assembling a large orchestra of students who lived in the overall Southwest area called the Southwest District Band. It was an orchestra of brass, woodwind, and percussion instruments. Young musicians from several schools would converge every Monday afternoon at Higgins School for a couple of hours. Some of the music we performed was the Ballet Scene from “Swan Lake”, the Golden Bell Overture, and Valse Suite from “Espana” among others. The orchestra would perform during the month of May for the annual Spring Music Festival, sponsored by the Detroit Public Schools in the Chadsey High School auditorium on the west side of Detroit. I now wish that these performances had been recorded because the orchestra played that music with a lot of conviction.
During one afternoon at lunchtime on the playground at Morley, I was standing in a spot not doing anything in particular when I heard a commotion and turned around to see Augustus Carter running at top speed. Since I never saw him running from anyone I was curious to see why, so I leaned out to see what it was and POW!!! The next thing I remember I was laying flat on my back seeing double out of one of my eyes. When I saw the look of shock on the other kids’ faces I knew something was wrong. The girl who was chasing A.C., as we called him, went after him because she said he felt her butt. Someone helped me to stand up and walked me to the office. It was then that I noticed the rim of my bottom eyelid was detached in the middle. My Mother was called to take me home and put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
I was getting a lot attention from people during my early development, but I was quite surprised to find out that there was someone who was actively promoting me as a new talent deserving recognition. Jesse Dunn was a drummer who was two years older than me and already attending Southwestern. I don’t recall if I ever heard him play but, for whatever reason, he was aware of my development and whenever I would see him walking through the neighborhood he would always say, “I’ve been telling everybody at school about you. I tell ‘em ‘Yeah, Leonard King is gonna be over here soon and he can play’. They’ll be waiting for you”. He used to say that so often that one day I said to him, “Jesse, you’re gonna have those guys hating me when I get there” but he would just laugh and say it was ok and there wouldn’t be any problems.
After arriving at Southwestern one morning during my first week in September 1962, my first thoughts were: “Ok, I’ll do these next four years then get on with my life”. I’m not sure how long it took me to get to the band room according to my class schedule, but when I got there everybody—regardless of what instruments they played—was waiting for me and I could tell that they were thinking: “This is the guy we’ve been hearing about”? Perhaps they thought I was an imposing-looking guy as opposed to the skinny runt who didn’t look old enough to be in high school. So when I walked towards the right rear of the room to the percussion section those looks were more intense including a smirk or two. Eventually the band director, Mr. Schumann, set the tempo for my first song to be played on the snare drum. Usually the new person in an ensemble never started on snare drum the first time out. You had to earn your way ‘up’ after playing a triangle or another small percussion instrument but I played that snare part flawlessly, much to my delight.
Eventually jobs began to increase for me during various times of the week. $20.00 was a lot of money for a 14-year old in 1962 plus I kept my paper route selling the Detroit Free Press until I decided I was too old to keep doing it—at age 15. Also I was able to cultivate a group of musicians to rehearse every week just for fun. On the evening of January 14, 1964, the Jazz Sextet with my brothers Greg (alto saxophone) Larry (cornet), Adelphia Hill (trumpet), Richard Simms (tenor saxophone), Charles Eubanks (piano), Darryl Moore (bass), and myself on drums, performed at the 1st Southwestern High School Talent Show. Our selections created a real sensation among the audience that evening much to our surprise. We even looked like a real band because we had matching outfits specially made for that event. The selections we performed were Terry by teenage drummer Barry Miles (who in later years switch permanently to piano), The Jive Samba, and Jumping With Symphony Sid.
The following morning, in between my first and second classes, I had to pay my “water bill” so I ventured to the boys’ lavatory. After handling my business I opened the door out into the hallway. A guy noticed me and said, “Hey man, weren’t you the one playing the drums last night”? When I said yes then he shouted very loudly, “HEY Y’ALL. THIS IS THAT NIGGA THAT WAS PLAYING THE DRUMS LAST NIGHT”. Everyone who was in earshot said, “Yeah. Sure is. Man, y’all got down last night”. It was another phase of increased visibility and acknowledgment for doing something natural as it related to the decision I had already made for my future.
Adelphia, my brothers, and I were also performing with older musicians at rehearsals every Sunday afternoon at Colonel Charles Young American Legion Post #77, when it was located on East Forest near St. Antoine on Detroit’s east side. It was a great learning experience for me overall with anywhere from thirty to fifty musicians. The bandleader, at the time we joined, seemed like an easy-going guy but he didn’t tolerate any bullshit. The music consisted of a lot of marches and certain orchestra pieces. Soon afterwards another guy became the conductor and the mood of the rehearsals changed slightly because he was a very impatient person and he didn’t particularly like the idea of having teenagers in the ensemble. At times when he wasn’t achieving what he wanted he would sometimes shout, “You young people over there, you’re not serious. Stop chewing the rag” in a heavy West Indian accent. Of course I am aware that there is a general stigma attached to some people of West Indian ancestry, so it isn’t my purpose to prolong a generalization, but this guy did have a temper. Eventually I decided that I was going to quit because I was tired of being accused of something that I didn’t do.
After the rehearsal my brothers and I were downstairs on the sidewalk in front of the building waiting for our father so he could drive us home. After arriving he looked at me and said, “What’s wrong”? I told him that I didn’t feel that the bandleader was fair in accusing me of something that didn’t happen, and I wasn’t coming back anymore. He said, “Yeah, sometimes these old men can get on your nerves, but you can learn something from these old men. So, I’ll tell you what—come back next week and see what happens. If it happens again then you can quit”. Sure enough the same scenario was repeated three or four times but I never did quit. There were long-termed benefits to being in that environment, therefore my Father was teaching me, in his own sly way, not to be a quitter at the slightest adversity.
Another advantage for music growth were Detroit area radio stations: WCHB-AM, WCHD-FM, WJLB-AM, WXYZ-AM, CKLW-AM (in Windsor, Ontario Canada), and WGPR-FM. Some of the radio hosts (or disc jockeys) such as Frantic Ernie Durham, Jack Surrell, Senator Bristol Bryant, Joltin’ Joe Howard, Larry Dixon, Larry Dean, Bill Crane (The Original Butterball), Lebaron Taylor, Bill Williams, Ken Bell, Martha Jean (The Queen) Steinberg, Jay Butler, Sporty J, Ed Love, Kady BeBe, Jack Springer, James Reese, Jerry Blocker, Mickey Shorr, Fred (Wacky) Weiss, Robin Seymour, Terry Knight, Bud Davies, Lee Allen, and Scott Regan were just some of the individuals on the air who captured my attention between 1955 and 1966. The jukebox, the radio, the record player, and the television set were mediums through which I experienced a vast array of sounds. Ed McKenzie was a radio DJ who also hosted a television program and featured many musicians that were not common to TV viewers during the 1950’s (if you dig what I mean!!).
I was also fortunate to be mentored in a loose non-dictated manner that allowed for self discovery. We were given the tools and the means to learn the skills of making and presenting music to the general public, plus social etiquette and deportment. It was natural to copy and mimic the sounds we heard on recordings, yet we were encouraged to learn as much music as we could possibly consume from a variety of sources. Therefore I was very pleased with the kind of jobs we would get that required learning any kind of songs that would get the job done, not just trying to sound hip for our own amusement. Very often we were the only people under 20 in the whole place, so we were able to win the respect of older audiences. When we first started working in night clubs we thought it was a drag because the money was less than what we made normally at larger venues. Also in those days it was common to perform the mandatory Sunday matinee show from 3 to 6 p.m. Then we’d have to hang close to the club and return there for two evening sets. This arrangement resulted in a very long day in contrast to playing cabaret shows that were four or five hours in length with two intermissions.
The cabaret show and dance was the kind of event that people would get all dressed up—I’m talking about super sharp—to attend on Friday or Saturday nights (sometimes during the week depending on the venue). Now...I’m aware that in some cultures the word ‘cabaret’ means a whore house or something related, but in Detroit those events were very respectful. Most of the groups that played those shows were at least 5 to 15 pieces because most of these places were large enough to hold 400 to 600 patrons. We performed for many benevolent societies throughout the city. These were charitable organizations similar to the ones prevalent in New Orleans for many years in which its members paid dues and, if any adverse situation were to happen to any particular member, the money from the dues would used to relieve the hardship. In those days I called them social clubs because I wasn’t aware of their greater purpose.
On many occasions there would be many adult couples in attendance at those shows where we were performing. Coming from a tight-knit community it was easy to know lots of people, therefore we knew a lot of their sons and daughters. As the night would progress, and the drinks would be steadily consumed, some of these couples would get loose and forget that teenagers’ were providing the music. I remember one woman, in particular on the dance floor, bending forward while she lifted up her butt, then her husband responded by gently humping her for a few short seconds, so you can imagine the fun we had watching these things that we weren’t supposed to see. We also had enough sense not to go to school and tell their kids, “Hey, on Saturday night I saw your daddy humpin’ your momma’s behind”. I’m not saying that it happened all of the time but when it did the entertainment was full circle.
Some of these venues were Prince Hall on McDougal at Gratiot, Local 876 on West Grand Boulevard at 12th Street (now Rosa Parks Boulevard), Local 212 on Mack off Conner, the ballroom of the Urban League, the Elk’s Club, and James Reese Europe Hall (the last two located on West Warren between the Edsel Ford freeway (Interstate 94) and Junction Street). It is interesting that we frequented two places named after two highly regarded African Americans whom we knew nothing about. Charles Young was the 3rd African American to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. After distinguishing himself enough to rise through the military ranks with honors, he earned the rank Lt. Colonel in 1916. When he requested duty in Europe during World War I the Army promptly retired him as not being fit for duty on June 22, 1917 under great protest. In June 1918 he rode horse back from Wilberforce, Ohio to Washington D.C. to prove that indeed he was fit for duty. He was reinstated and promoted to the rank of Colonel but was sent to Liberia, West Africa instead.
James Reese Europe was a musician who excelled at playing violin, mandolin, and piano. He eventually helped to create a very popular 100-piece orchestra that performed for African American & European American social functions in New York City. In 1916 he was approached by the Colonel of the 15th New York Brigade to put an orchestra together for the purpose of traveling to France to raise the moral of infantrymen in combat. When Europe finally agreed he was enlisted with the rank of Lieutenant. The ensemble was funded, created, and then sent to France as an attachment of the 369th U.S. Infantry. This unit fought so valiantly that it was nicknamed the “Hell Fighters”, and that title was also applied to the musicians as well. Europe briefly participated in combat and survived a gas attack, but his primary role was a bandleader. His orchestra was extremely successful in accomplishing its intended mission. The “Hell Fighters” received a hero’s welcome after returning to New York City on February 17, 1919. Immediately afterwards Reese quickly reestablished himself with a prized orchestra in great demand, but it was to be short lived because he was fatally stabbed on May 9th at Mechanics Hall in Boston Massachusetts by one of his musicians who was mentally challenged. However, in 1965 none of our band members were aware of who he was among those historical moments.
During the ‘60’s the NAACP would present its annual spring extravaganza every April at the Detroit Institute of Arts which featured the talents of many teenagers from various city neighborhoods. During the 1964 presentation I remember an episode where I was standing in between the layers of curtains taking a break before our next performance and Mrs. LaClaire Knox, the dance instructor and coordinator of the event, was in the wings. She then walked down the aisle where I was standing. As soon as she walked in front of me she said very coarsely, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE”? I said “I……..” and didn’t get a chance to finish because she chewed my ass out royally. After she walked away, another woman, who saw what happened, came over to me and said, “Baby, don’t take it personally. She’s got a lot to do here, you’ll understand”. And I did, because the following year I was in the same exact spot when I saw her walking toward me. That time I got the hell out of the way so quickly that I was surprised I could run so fast.
Also that evening, the performance of the Jazz Sextet was not very good. Considering how much we rehearsed, at least five days a week for several hours, the cats got a case of amnesia and couldn’t remember their parts. It didn’t help that we weren’t allowed to use the piano on stage due to union regulations, so George had to play the piano in the orchestra pit (where we usually performed). So I’m shouting their notes to them but I’m getting pissed off so badly that I’m making faces at them. When the evening ended I was standing in the wings when I noticed my Mother walking toward me so I knew what was going to happen. She said, “That’s not how you’re supposed to handle it”. So I said, “But Momma, we rehearsed every day”. She said, “I know but you’re not supposed to let everybody know. Don’t you ever do that again, you hear me”? I was still standing in the same spot when my Father said to me, “Look Junior, you have to understand that not everybody feels about music the way you do. Eventually you’ll have to surround yourself with musicians who feel like you”. In looking back I later realized that, during this time period, I was getting impromptu lessons for growing ‘tough skin’. However, my accelerated crash course for this would happen just four short years later.
After graduating from Southwestern in June 1966 with a “C” average—the typical result for overlooked geniuses—the music jobs became plentiful. Although I worked a couple of day jobs that didn’t last (with a lot of help from my friendly me) I was on course with exactly what I wanted until I took a strange detour at the end of the following year.
In the movie, Zeitgeist: Addendum, industrial designer & social engineer Jacques Fresco of The Venus Project, shared some interesting viewpoints:
“Governments try to perpetuate that which keeps them in power. People are not elected to political office to
change things. They’re put there to keep things the way they are. So you see, the basis of corruption is in our society. All nations are basically corrupt because they
tend to uphold existing institutions. All other subcultures are the same: they are basically corrupt”. (1)
“It’s not politicians who can solve problems. They have no technical capabilities. They don’t know how to solve problems. Even if they were sincere they don’t know how to solve problems. It’s the technicians that solve problems, not politicians—because they are not trained
to do so. All politicians can do is create laws, establish budgets, and declare war”. (2)
In taking Mr. Fresco’s words into consideration, I wonder how many parents attempt to discourage their daughters and sons from becoming politicians. There have been those who have established themselves through the process of attending, and graduating, from law school and are eventually elected or appointed to political positions. There are also those who arrive via different channels (favoritism, elitism, cronyism, etc.). By contrast, many adults continue to blatantly discourage or openly deny their offspring from pursuing a life in music—sometimes even in the Western/European classical field where the support, with some exceptions these days, has been admirable.
There are those among the general public who think, for whatever reason, that politicians can be most influential in creating a music ‘scene’ with a lot of employment for musicians. If certain cities have been known in previous years to foster an environment that is beneficial to artists overall, it isn’t because politicians have made it possible. It is only as viable and profitable by way of the business community and its association with social organizations who serve those communities. In recent years, especially during election season, I have known people to wonder if the political process is a plus factor in expanding opportunities beneficial to the music profession, however, it doesn’t work that way. For example, Mayor Tom Pendergast of Kansas, Missouri helped to make that city a profitable metropolis during the American Great Depression. An economic depression did not exist in Kansas City until after he was sent to prison for accepting a bribe of $750,000 in 1939—a lot of money in those days. Of course, music was not the primary or secondary focus of his political life but, instead, an outgrowth of his involvement in ‘illegal’ activities.
After being sentenced to Fort Leavenworth, the ‘scene’ in Kansas City was allowed to perish. There are many other well-documented examples of how vibrant communities, via their social interconnections, are allowed to rot as a result of political and military decisions, not just in South and North America (including Canada) but other countries who have sometimes imprisoned or murdered artists because of their popularity and the content of their songs—even if the lyrics seem to be critical of current circumstances.
In the U.S. it’s possible that artists are not concerned about personal danger as a result of material considered offensive by the government. The general network media does not allow such products to be aired at all, therefore the majority of the general public may not be aware of these artists existence. Whether it’s considered subversive or not, vocal or instrumental, the traditional media consumer outlets are not as dominant these days as in the past—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing since the percentages were not equally shared by the ‘company’ and the artists in the first place.
The point that I am emphasizing is community social responsibility for getting things done regardless of the function or dysfunction of city, state, and federal mandates. So far I’ve used the general music community for examples but it can also be applied to snow & trash removal, medical care, the food industry, and the misuse of science for social control. Anything that effectively impacts everyday life, for example: if citizens are having difficulty with someone dumping trash at locations within their neighborhood and, after several calls to the city government, response is minimal, what is the next course of action?
To handle it themselves on a weekly basis would perhaps be most useful in accomplishing community cohesiveness as opposed to the typical way of responding: “It’s their job, not mine”. If community efforts were to result in a system of great self reliance would it actually be viewed as problematic or not within the best interest of a controlling elite group? Earlier I used the phrase ‘human condition’ to describe the mental conditioning of general public acceptance of certain rules and regulations. Of course, there are those who dare to go beyond any imposed social restrictions to achieve results that are beneficial to many, not just a select few.
During different intervals of my life I’ve been able to resist a certain mold or cast for justifying my life. Between ages 5 and 20, I used to have dreams in which a giant hand would appear from nowhere and cover my mouth & nose. I felt as though I was suffocating and would struggle to break free in order to breathe and find safety. After I had awaken I would try to figure out just what those dreams meant, but eventually I realized I was suffocating from having to accommodate people socially in ways that sometimes did not have my best interests at heart. I often fantasized and day dreamed about where I saw myself in the kind of environment that was best for me within the boundaries of the general community. I wanted to feel an internal comfort zone that wasn’t based on compromise and facelessness. My Mother once told me that she noticed, early in my life, that I handled disappointments well. Eventually the suffocating hand disappeared.
Planning For Something…But Not Really
Before high-school-diploma-time I experienced two other influential episodes in which the outcomes are still relevant today. During one of the rehearsals with the Charles Young Post Band I was asked to play the glockenspiel, which resembles an xylophone and is held by a tubular shaft at the bottom with one hand, and struck with a hard mallet with the other (some are made horizontally and are played with two mallets). The West Indian conductor gave the count to begin and there I was—faking my ass off. After playing the song for a few minutes he stopped the band and had a look of concern on his face. He counted off the song again but after a couple of minutes he stopped the band, looked at me, and said, “You—play your part”. Well I knew I was caught for grand fakery so I said, “I don’t know how to play the notes that go up and down. I only know how to read drum music”. Then he said, “What do you mean, you’re a musician, aren’t you”. I answered yes. He said, “No you’re not. You’re a disgrace to the rhythm section”.
My young ego was bruised but I was past the point of quitting and I decided to do something about it. Charles Eubanks and I were the same age and he lived around the block from me at the corner of Annabelle & Francis Streets. In school he played the alto saxophone but I knew he played piano as well, so I called one afternoon and asked him to show me the fundamentals of music notation as well as basic piano lessons. To this day I owe a debt to Drew (which is what we called him—his middle name is Andrew) for those lessons in his parents’ dining room. His father, a former trumpeter, would sometimes give me sound advice also. I became adept very quickly at notating and playing piano while reading music despite the fact that I didn’t have one at home. We rehearsed at the Hill’s residence at least five times a week and they owned an old upright piano in their basement.
Several months later, sometime during 1964, I felt I had to have my own piano in order to develop properly including piano lessons, but I needed to convince my parents’ that I was accomplished enough on that instrument to be worthy of their investment in a spinet piano that would fit snugly in a corner of the dining room. So I asked them to come by our next rehearsal to see and hear for themselves. I don’t remember the name or the sound of the composition I played for them but I do remember reading an orchestration with four movements in different key signatures. The rest of the group also played their written parts and it was a drum-less presentation. I played that composition without any mistakes and my parents’ were highly impressed, therefore I just knew I was getting my own piano in a matter of time. I kept waiting until 1996 when I was a grown man and bought a restored upright piano for my youngest son, Qaadir, to practice on.
The ‘Post Band’, as we used to call it, was also how I came to the attention of trumpeter Bob Hopkins. I’m sure that one of the elders ‘hipped’ him to Greg and myself because he visited our home to ask permission for both of us to join the Bob Hopkins Big Band. I was 17 and Greg was 16. The first gig we played was at the Visger Inn in Ecorse. At the time Greg wasn’t a soloist but he could read very well, and he knew how to blend his sound into the overall ensemble. I was able to effectively ‘boot’ the band except for playing shuffle rhythms. My wrist used to get so tired I couldn’t maintain a steady even flow in order for the ‘feel’ to be relaxed. I would dread playing songs like ‘Honky Tonk’ or ‘Night Train’ because I just wasn’t up to it, so I had to deal with the humorous sarcasm of the older guys throughout the night. Someone would say, “Hey young boy--are your wrists getting tired”? Or, “Hey young boy--you need me to play the drums”? I was sweatin’ like crazy trying to hold it together. Although I received a lot of encouragement that night, I decided that I wasn’t going to be caught like that again on the next gig which was two weeks later. I practiced those shuffle rhythms damn near everyday among the other songs in the book. My Father taped the gig so I had a chance to study my playing in relationship to the band and would wince when I heard something that needed strengthening. The next gig was different—I ‘booted’ the band with much more authority and confidence that resulted in entirely different comments from the ‘cats’. “Hey young boy--I hear you back there”. Hey young boy—you’ve been practicing, huh”?
Bob Hopkins was very pleased with my improvement so he asked my Father to bring Greg and I to the next gig in Pontiac, Michigan which was an after-hours situation. As I was loading the drums into the car I could hear my Mother fussing about having minor youngsters out in the wee hours of the morning and I understood her reasoning. I don’t recall what my Father said but the only thing I cared about was making sure the drums stayed in the car. Since it was a Saturday night there wasn’t any pressure to get back home quickly. The venue where we performed was a huge hall and the presentation was the typical cabaret show and dance. The only other performer was a comedian/M.C. who ‘warmed up’ the audience at the beginning of each set before the band played. This evening was also recorded and the performances were good.
After the show we returned home around 7 a.m. and all was quiet along the southwestern front. Two or three weeks later I was reading the newspaper and noticed an article that told the story of an after-hours establishment in Pontiac that was raided for not being licensed. I told my Father and Greg and we quietly laughed about how we were lucky it didn’t happen while we were there. Several months later, in the fall of ’65 or spring of ’66, I had another after-hours experience at Franklin Delano Roosevelt Hall in River Rouge on West Jefferson Street. The Jazz Sextet performed for a dance between the usual hours of 9 p.m. and 2 a.m. Before we finished I was informed that guitarist/vocalist T-Bone Walker would be coming by the hall afterwards to jam with some of the older cats. When I found out that there wasn’t going to be another drummer or another set of drums available I volunteered my services immediately. Greg and I took Larry home after the show because we didn’t want to get into trouble for keeping our baby brother out too late, even though the age difference between him and I was only three years.
When T-Bone finally arrived he was greeted with a lot of respect and admiration by everyone there. To this day I don’t remember who the other musicians were but I remember that he quickly enquired as to whether or not I could play. Those elders gave me a great endorsement which put him at ease. I knew enough about him to know that if he didn’t dig you he had a way of letting you know it verbally which was not complimentary along with a certain look he’d give you. During the first song, which was something up tempo and different from his hit recordings, he turned towards me and smiled several times saying, “Yeah—yeah”!! For some reason I was experimenting with a certain feeling that felt real good to me but I wasn’t sure of just what it was or why I kept doing it, but the encouragement from him and others was immediate proof that I was “cutting the mustard”. It was probably around 5:30 a.m. when I decided that it was time for me to pack my drums and go home, so when I said, “Mr. Walker, I have to go home now” he was upset because everything was really happening. I was busting up the jam session by taking the drums and there weren’t any other drum sets present.
He looked at me and said, “Awwww, why you gotta take the drums now”? I told him it was getting late for me to be out at that hour. Then he said, “Well, where do you live”? So I told him, then he said, “We’ll bring the drums to your house when we finish”. Well, in just a few split seconds I could imagine my parents asking me later that morning—“Junior, where are your drums”? “T-Bone Walker said he would bring them home to me”. They would have said, “He’s gonna do what”? I wasn’t about to face that scene at all.
Although, in a way, I did feel bad for having to leave, there wasn’t any adult who was present at that moment who knew my parents or me well enough to vouch for getting my drums safely home to me later that morning.
So I learned a valuable lesson—if you can’t ‘hang’ then don’t make yourself available to complete what’s started, especially if you’re causing something to collapse. Looking at it from another view, if I hadn’t stayed then I wouldn’t have experienced the great exchange of music ideas with those elders who, in return, gave me a chance to test what I knew up until then and, afterwards, validated my accomplishment. It was a few years later when I realized what I was feeling that evening. I had a 45-rpm copy of ‘Sonnymoon For Two’ by tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins that was excerpted from his ‘A Night at the Village Vanguard’ album which featured drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Wilbur Ware. I used to listen to it often so perhaps Elvin’s rhythms were on my subconscious all along
The Bob Hopkins experience inspired me to assemble a big band of teenagers by adding other neighborhood musicians to the Jazz Sextet including Vincent Simpson-trumpet, Alvin Davis, Ronny Baker, & Donald Halliburton-trombones, Robert Collier-tenor saxophone, Ralph Todd-guitar, and Richard Armstrong-bongos. I learned how to transcribe music from listening to recordings and, once I learned that trombone charts were written in bass clef, chose material such as ‘Hot Barbeque’ by Brother Jack McDuff, and ‘Fat Bag’ by the James Brown Band and more. We didn’t have the expertise to perform material by Duke Ellington or Count Basie but there was a lot of instrumental music available and easily heard on the air. I wasn’t concerned about covering hit recordings with that group since I viewed it as an alternative to what the Sextet was doing. I called it ‘Leonard King and the Big Soul Band’ which was not an original idea. I borrowed it from an album title by saxophonist Johnny Griffin. Since it was mostly a rehearsal band there was no incentive to find work for it.
Employment for the Jazz Sextet increased steadily especially through 1967. Frank Garcia had replaced Darryl Moore on bass in the Fall of 1966. Like many other young groups looking for fame, and something that resembled fortune, we decided to search for a professional record company to take interest in us, although we didn’t have any business acumen for dealing with record industry matters. By then, at age 19, I had read stories by several people who admitted not understanding the contracts they signed and, instead, threw caution to the wind.
Earlier in the year we came to the attention of Impact Records whose owner (as far as we knew) was Harry Balk. His artists & repertoire person was Barney “Duke” Browner. I do not remember how the initial contact happened but in those days we were cognizant of lots of record companies in the Detroit area including their signed artists, the name of their publishing companies, and many of the musicians who performed on the sessions. It wasn’t unusual for companies to have their address and phone numbers listed on 45-rpm recordings. Sometimes it was easy to find their contact information listed in the Yellow Pages, so it’s possible that I sent them a letter telling them about us or called them on the telephone. I do recall seeing Duke Browner pantomiming a recording of his called ‘Crying Over You’ on Robin Seymour’s television show called Swingin’ Time, so it’s possible that the inquiry was addressed to him. (I saw the vocal group, ‘Shades of Blue’ on that show. They were also signed to Impact).
It’s also possible that we auditioned for them at their office which was located at 17111 Third Avenue at Merton, Detroit, MI 48203 between West McNichols and the southern border of Palmer Park (which was a really nice neighborhood at the time). Although I was slightly hesitant about becoming involved with the company I felt that if we were under contract to them for the least amount of time possible it would, at least, be a much better deal than was common at the time which was to sign a contract for seven years, and I would have refused that. At first I would ask both Harry and Duke a lot questions to try to gauge where we going with the relationship, but the other band members objected to my questioning because they thought it was going to “mess up an opportunity for us”, so I backed down from a lot of questions but I paid attention as best as I could to detect something that we needed to be aware of.
From the beginning, even before we signed the contract, I didn’t dig Duke Browner that much. He always appeared to be hiding something with that ‘shit-eating grin’ on his face. Also engaging in a simple dialog with him was almost impossible because he felt the need to contradict damn near everything we said, especially if we knew what we were talking about. I felt that he viewed us as kids who didn’t have enough common sense to question what they heard if it didn’t make sense. What helped to balance the mood of our interactions with Duke was Harry Balk. He was the kind of guy who could charm a boa constrictor out of biting him so he didn’t have any problem in getting us relax in order to extract whatever music benefits we had to offer—but I watched him, too. Since we were minors we had to get our parents signatures on the contract in addition to our own. George Rountree’s folks refused to sign and didn’t allow him to sign either (that was a good move on their part, in hindsight).
My Father suggested that we sign for the duration of one year with a one-year option which seemed fair enough to me at the time, especially as a result of not having a real understanding of the terms of the contract per paragraph. I asked him if he thought we should hire an attorney to represent us (and help us understand the language on paper that was English—but not really!!), but he said it wouldn’t be necessary since we were signed for a short period of time. My interpretation of this was, if Harry and Duke were gonna screw us, we wouldn’t be with them long enough for them to profit too significantly.
On April 25, 1967 we signed with Impact as ‘The Leonard King Sextet’. They didn’t like the word ‘jazz’ in our name because it wasn’t what the company was selling. Attached to the contract was an addendum for the signatures of the band members and their guardians’ signatures dated May 24, 1967, and notarized by Viola Mae Carter, who was the company secretary. (She was also the sister-in-law of my best friend while I was stationed in Vietnam, although I wouldn’t know that until the following year, but that’s getting ahead of the story). Until recently I had assumed that we recorded our first sides for them in April, but it’s possible that the session took place during the last week in May or the first week in June.
Mrs. Carter was also the one who’s responsible for inspiring a different name for the group. I honestly did not want my name in the title and preferred a group name instead. It was apparent that neither Harry or Duke had settled for the name we signed the contract under and they wanted something different. Mrs. Carter was seated behind her desk while the rest of us were standing in front trying to think of something catchy when she suddenly said, “I’ve got it. There’s a group called the Jazz Messengers. Why don’t you call yourselves the Soul Messengers”? Harry and Duke liked that title immediately and so did the other band members. I didn’t. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers had just left town after appearing at some night club for a few days. I was greatly influenced by Art’s drumming, among others, but I didn’t have to play that band’s material or imitate Art’s playing since much of the music we chose to play called for different rhythmic sensibilities (although I could easily imitate him when I wanted to). But most importantly I didn’t want people to think, “Isn’t that cute, he named the group after one of his influences”.
Since I wasn’t able to think of anything else during those few moments, Leonard King and the Soul Messengers became the official name. Once this was in place the next decision to be made was what songs should be recorded on our first outing. We were mostly an instrumental group with very few vocals. I didn’t learn how to sing and play drums effortlessly until later, but in ’67 there was an abundance of excellent instrumental music recordings. One song in particular that we played often was called ‘Spunky’ by the Monty Alexander Trio, and was a groove in the style of the Ramsey Lewis Trio whose recordings were very successful at the time. Monty’s song was basically a sprightly, medium-tempo, 12 bar blues form with a loose African-Cuban feeling (there’s no such country called ‘Afro’—you dig?). The melody was a short phrase with a ‘pickup’ before the first bar with the phrase lasting only two bars. My arrangement added some harmony phrases for the horn section to play and the tempo was a little slower than the original. Since the song was mostly improvised we kept it that way for ourselves. I told Duke the name of the song, who recorded it, and the publishing company listed on the label. He said it wasn’t long enough to be considered a song because it was less than four bars, but anything over eight bars could be considered plagiarism.
We were also told that all of our recordings would be released on their new subsidiary called Inferno Records. Once all of the documents were completed and signed it was only a short time afterwards when we journeyed to Tera Shirma Recording Studios one sunny afternoon on Livernois Avenue just north of Fenkell for our first professional recording session. Although we had been recording ourselves for several years with multiple microphones and a reel-to-reel tape recorder in the basement, and at various venues, Tera Shirma was the real deal. The building was comprised of two studios located in the same general area but I don’t recall in which one we recorded. Two songs were recorded: ‘Spunky’ and ‘I’ve Been Saved’. It’s quite possible that Ramsey Lewis 1966 hit recording of the old gospel song, ‘Wade in the Water’ (arranged by bassist Richard Evans), influenced us to try something along the same line.
George Rountree had been playing ‘I’ve Been Saved’ for several years every Sunday morning at a church in which he was the resident organist. When I met him in 1962 he was only 11 or 12 years old but he had the church gig even then. (Two years later, when I asked his mother for permission to join our group she consented, with the condition that no matter where we played on any Saturday evening, it was my responsibility to get him home soon after we finished so he would be at church on time the following morning). We used to fool around with that song at rehearsals just to amuse ourselves, but eventually I arranged that one too, and added a minor key section as an alternative to the major key song structure.
As for the session, we were excited about being able to record with a genuine Hammond organ. (During the mid ‘60’s we were often forced to deal with shitty pianos at many venues that were horribly out of tune or just physically wrecked. Sometimes our horn section couldn’t tune up properly so they had to adjust the brass slides and the saxophone mouthpiece in an unorthodox manner just to make it through the gig). Once we were inside the studio to begin setting up the instruments, we thought it was odd that an organ wasn’t there. Instead a different looking keyboard was present, so I asked Duke about the organ and he said the electric harpsichord was the ‘new’ sound, and would especially appeal to British audiences or others who liked the Beatles. None of us, including George, knew about this in advance so we felt a mixture of disappointment and resentment for not having the organ, yet we were glad to be making professionally produced recordings.
I’m not sure of how many takes we did or if it was just one take per song, but I do remember the group took a break and walked across Livernois to Cunningham’s Drug Store to get something eat at the soda fountain. My guess is this happened while we were waiting for the studio to get situated. In those days Tera Shirma had a major reputation and was one of the busiest recording studios in the city. (Check out the Soulful Detroit.com website for a complete and well-written “webisode” narrated by Ralph Terrana who was the founder and engineer along with his brother, Russ). We met vocalist/drummer Melvin Davis that afternoon. He was also active as a songwriter so it wasn’t unusual to find him everywhere at recording studios throughout Detroit.
Several days after the session we were summoned to the Impact/Inferno office to be updated about the company’s plan for the record release. Duke played a test pressing for us and we immediately noticed the addition of a guitarist and a conguero (conga drummer). We wanted to know who they were so Duke mentioned Dennis Coffey as the guitarist. To this day none of us remember who the other drummer was, but it was something else that caught my ear: the bass drum was totally absent from the mix. In those days musicians were not expected to attend or be invited to mix down & mastering sessions for post-production observations. It was enough just to know that you “cut a record” and everything else was handled by others. I was totally pissed off that the bottom part of the drum set was missing.
Then Duke dropped another bomb on us: he renamed ‘Spunky’ and called it “The Barracuda”. According to him a barracuda was a nickname, a term of endearment for radio disc jockeys who, when looking at the label, would see that title and feel automatically honored enough to play the recording—with no palm grease, of course (wink, wink!!). I asked him was he sure about that and he replied “yes”. Then he said that the company was putting a rush release date for the recording so the pressing plant would make it a top priority in their order. We didn’t have the slightest idea of how many copies were pressed on the initial run or afterwards, if warranted. Mrs. Carter gave each of us a memo that day with instructions for us to individually write Broadcast Music Incorporated and request a membership application for a song that we “wrote” which was being “released June 30 on the Inferno record label #2003. Ask them to rush the membership application”.
When Harry and Duke both discovered that George and I knew how to write lead sheets and orchestrations, they tapped the group to record several backing tracks for some of the vocalists on their roster. It was evident that they felt they had their own in-house session musicians who were competent enough in comparison to the Motown Records session guys. It was also very beneficial to them that we were young, hungry for more exposure within the music industry, and, most importantly, lacking the knowledge of knowing the nuts and bolts of the signed agreement we entered into. Once the record was released, as scheduled, they discovered that my Father was in the jukebox business, so they gave him a box of promotional copies for installation on the numerous jukeboxes he owned.
It’s because of Harry and Duke that we met, and were befriended, by one of the great radio personalities of that era—Frantic Ernie Durham from WJLB-AM in Detroit. I thought he was called ‘frantic’ because of the way he articulated his words so quickly and clearly, but I discovered much later that during the ‘50’s he hosted a show in Flint, Michigan, and when that show finished he would hit the road and drive to Detroit for a show there with little time to spare. (Interstate 75 did not exist back then. These days it takes at least an hour to drive that distance on super highway, so I can only imagine how long it took for the journey back then).
Entering the Big Time
It was during the middle of whatever week it was in mid-1967 when the ‘company’ told us that we were going to perform that Sunday evening at the Gold Room of the 20 Grand for one of Ernie’s weekly record hop & dances. As he used to say on his radio program, “One lean green’ll get you on the scene that’s ever so mean”. There’s no way to describe just how excited we were in anticipating what would happen that Sunday because, at that point in our lives as a group, we had so much experience and knew how to “work” an audience, so we didn’t anticipate any problems. When Sunday arrived we got there early, set up, and waited. Ernie arrived shortly after us, and we exchanged genuine pleasantries. While we were standing on the side of the stage it dawned on us that we weren’t told whether or not we were getting paid for that evening. So I asked Ernie if he was paying us and he told me that no one had said anything to him. So I just said “OK” and that I would ask Duke the next day.
In all honesty I could tell that Ernie was telling the truth, despite the fact that he was a great charmer in his relaxed way of talking to people. Nevertheless, we played a helluva show that night and our fan base began to explode shortly afterwards to other areas within the city and the suburbs. People who attended the Gold Room on any night had to be at least 18 years old with ID. The guys who worked the door would throw your ass out of there in a half of a millisecond if you were caught trying to fake your way inside. Of course an exception to the rule was extended to us since we did have band members under 18. The 20 Grand was an entertainment complex, located on the corner of West Warren and 14th Street that included a bowling alley (20 grand lanes as it was advertised), the Gold Room, and the Driftwood Lounge, which was for the ’21 and up’ crowd. The names of the innumerable amount of artists that performed in both rooms is endless and worthy of being a solid book of its own. (Note: I recently read a magazine article that mentioned businessman Ed Wingate as the owner of the 20 Grand. He owned the 20 Grand Motel that was built on the huge lot several feet from the complex. Bill Kabbush and Marty Eisner owned the actual complex).
We did a lot of Sunday shows for Ernie without expecting to be paid and everyone in the band agreed. For the first evening we accompanied a vocal group called The Volumes who were also signed to Impact/Inferno. Their recordings were released on the Impact imprint. They had a great show with tight harmonies and slick choreography. I will never forget the night that we accompanied Charlie & Inez Foxx. They are the ones who recorded the original version of ‘Mockingbird’ that was later covered by James Taylor and Carly Simon. Charlie and Inez were brother and sister but we didn’t know that until after we met. They also traveled with a woman who was their own personal guitarist. This woman was soooo funky and soulful. The grooves she laid down were so tight, thick and filled with a whole lot of grits, cornbread, sorghum, and molasses, if you dig what I mean!! Her music personality lifted us up to a dimension we never felt before, so you can imagine that we were sorry to see her go at the end of the night.
Charlie & Inez knew how to work a great show and they had that audience going crazy (Inez was a great singer). I learned a valuable lesson from Charlie that night and it happened by example because he wasn’t very talkative. I don’t recall what song we were playing but I do remember we had a nice groove going when I decided to play what is referred to as an around-the-world pattern. Since I’m right-handed, and my drums are positioned that way, the pattern I played started with the left side on the snare drum continuing through the upper and lower tom-toms on the right side. At the end of that pattern I would normally do a cymbal crash and continue with the groove. Charlie was listening to everything we did because he knew what he wanted from us, so when it was time for me to crash the cymbal he grabbed it so it wouldn’t vibrate. He immediately gave me a look that said, “Naw man, don’t do that”.
The other band members damn near died laughing when he did that because usually I was the one who would issue the ‘do’s & don’ts’ for what to play within the group, so it was a very humbling experience for me. There were many other artists we accompanied at “The Grand” such as the vocal group ‘The Precisions’ who had a hit recording with “Why Girl”. One of our favorites was vocalist Danny Woods. Sometimes we didn’t know who the featured artist would be for a particular Sunday, but if Ernie said that Danny would be there then we really knew that the show was going to be “on”. He had a great singing voice and a flair for comedy that could drive an audience crazy. For example, Danny would usually show up with one or two really good looking women with him. Then he’d consult with us about the songs for the show. When it was time to hit—BAM!! Electricity would be jumpin’ off like you wouldn’t believe. We helped him build that show to a frenzy, then he would asked the women in the audience which one of them wanted to come up on the stage with him. Those chicks would be waving their hands in the air shouting, “Danny, here I am Danny”.
Now Danny would never pick a good looking woman to get on stage with him—he brought those with him to the club. So he would choose a real homely, greasy, plain, and heavy set woman after taking several minutes to decide. The stage was raised a few feet from the floor level but just high enough to pull someone from the audience. In mid ’67 the mini skirt was very popular with young women and some older women if their physical dimensions allowed it. Danny would make wild and hilarious faces when he would finally spot a heavy set woman wearing a mini skirt (on her it would be a mini shirt) and pull—and I mean pull this woman with all of his strength off the floor and onto the stage while her skirt was damn near up to her breasts. Once she was on stage Danny would start cootin’ her in a quick motion and she’d be cootin’ right back. It was pure pandemonium in the Gold Room during those moments and we kept the groove jumping, which was challenging because we would be laughing hysterically, too. Danny would eventually join The Chairmen of the Board a couple of years later and sing the lead vocal on one of their big hits, “Pay to the Piper”.
Rarely were there any full rehearsals before these shows. Some featured artists would arrive two hours before show time to go over certain specifics including the songs and the keys (pitches) for each song. Sometimes there might be cues to look for in the choreography, for example: “When you see me step back, and touch my elbow, that’s the cue that we’re going to move to the right and stop. Once we do that then I want you to give me four licks on the drum—bop, bop, bop, bop!! That’s the cue for the next song and we’ll start right at the top”. Requests like that would usually come from vocal groups who really knew how to ‘step’, which was slang for really slick dancing.
There were only three or four times when a visiting artist would arrive at the venue, inquire as to who the band was, take one good at us, and flatly refuse to allow us to ‘back’ them until they were talked into their senses. The first time it happened was at the Gold Room but I can’t recall who it was—a single person or a group. Whoever it was asked me, “You’re the band for the show? Oh no—they’re gonna have to get me somebody that knows what they’re doing. You all are just kids”. I used the best diplomacy I could think of, for a teenager, but they didn’t want to hear it. When Ernie arrived I told him that the headliner didn’t want us to play, so he walked over and introduced himself. Then he asked if there was a problem that he could be of assistance, so the headliner said the same thing. That’s when Ernie said, “What?--This is Leonard King and the Soul Messengers” with his personally smooth way of talking. Then he said, “I’ll tell you what, they will play whatever it is you want them to play, so get with them and I promise you that you won’t be disappointed. I’ll put my reputation on the line”.
I was really relieved and emotionally touched that Ernie Durham, a grown man, would gamble with his reputation by validating a group of teenagers. We played the headliner’s show without one hiccup—no mistakes, so everyone was relieved after the first of two shows. Ernie knew what he was doing and we had his back, too. In those days we rehearsed at least five days week every week without fail. We also would rehearse over the telephone by playing recordings and listening for the nuances of whatever was. Our recall was very good and served us well during impromptu situations.
Shortly before our initial debut at “The Grand” we were still encountering shitty pianos at different venues but there was one situation that caused us to remedy this increasing dilemma. We were contracted for an engagement way out in Westland, Michigan which was a helluva hike from where we lived. Interstate 96 did not exist then so it took time to get there and we were totally unfamiliar the area. Somebody told me that it was a home of the Ku Klux Klan, but we didn’t know if it was true or not, so we just planned to be cautious as possible. In those days we used to travel to our engagements in my Father’s green 1956 Ford pickup truck in rain, sleet, snow, or sunshine. Three of us sat in the front cab and three others were in the back with all of the instruments. I was always the driver with Adelphia and someone else alternating up front. The neighborhood kids dubbed that truck “The Green Hornet” which was named after a popular TV program.
We arrived at the venue early to discover that there was no piano for George to play. We were totally outdone and without a solution to remedy the situation. A woman who was working at the hall walked over to us and told us she had an upright piano in her living room at home. She said we could use it but we would have to go there and get it. We agreed that it wasn’t a problem but then we found out how far we had to drive to get it—all the way to the east side of Detroit near the Roostertail Supper Club. Damn—that was just as far as the distance we traveled get to the gig in the first place, but it was our call to make so we agreed to do it. The woman gave us the keys to her house. We eventually arrived there, went inside, struggled to get that monstrosity out of the house and in the back of the truck while wearing our nice suits.
We didn’t have a rope that was long enough to secure the piano from tipping over so four of the guys had to sit in the back to prevent it from moving. On the way back to the hall it was a bitch trying to keep that piano balanced and Frank kept acting silly instead of being serious because he wasn’t securing his position properly. We were halfway back when Frank squatted down to do something. A huge truck flew past us which almost caused me to loose control of the steering wheel. Then I heard Frank hollering, “Ow, ow, ow”. He said that his fingers were pinched underneath the piano when the truck went by, but because we were so used to his drama, I pulled over to make sure he was ok. His hands didn’t appear to be jacked-up so we continued the journey. Luckily for us the weather was beautiful.
When we arrived back to the hall we immediately unloaded that piano off of the truck. The guy who booked us for the gig frantically walked towards us and said, “Where have you been”? We told him we had to get the piano in order to play as contracted. Then he said, “But the people all left. There was no band here so they left and went home”. Sure enough, when we walked inside that place was empty to the bone. So he said we’d have to come back another Saturday night to make up for it. We were totally outdone after all of the road time we killed trying to salvage a gig that we couldn’t have done anyway. It was right then in the parking lot that I decided to buy a portable organ so we wouldn’t have to worry about shitty pianos or non-existent pianos.
Greg and I agreed to chip in and buy something we could afford and easily carry, so we went to the Grinnell Brothers studio in Lincoln Park because they sold Hammond and Lowry organs, but we weren’t sure if they carried something portable in stock. Luckily for us they did so we settled on a Gem brand organ with its own amplifier. In those days the Farfisa brand organ was considered to have a really cheesy sound. What we bought was super cheesy but it was always in tune and blended ok with the overall group sound. George wasn’t able to buy his own organ at the time but we didn’t care, at least we had something that was better than the crap we were subjected to on arrival at different places.
Another funny/dramatic episode happened at a dance nightclub called ‘The Pumpkin’, that was also located on the outskirts of Detroit, but I can’t remember where. We were becoming so popular, and in demand for engagements, we were often hired because of our reputation only since some club owners or managers would hear about us just through word of mouth. However, I always had a signed contract with an agreement by both parties plus a security deposit for half of the fee in advance. On this particular Friday night the owner or manager of the club was walking past the stage on his way to the club’s office located a few feet from stage right. He looked at us and did a double-take before walking to the foot of stage. Then he said, “Gentlemen, what is the name of your group”? I told him, “Leonard King and the Soul Messengers”. The look on his face was mixed with concern and doubt as to whether someone had made a mistake in hiring us (it was funny to us that every time he spoke he would always preface his comments with the word gentlemen). Also it was obvious that he wasn’t in a position to hire another band or find out who was supposed to be there instead of us, so he asked us to play a couple of songs so he could hear how we sounded: in other words, he forced us to audition for a gig we already had. We played each song just long enough to make an impression on him and put his mind at ease. After the second song he was satisfied that we knew what we were doing, which was no mystery to us, and we didn’t have any problems ‘working’ the audience either.
In addition to my activities with the Soul Messengers I was also involved as a vocalist with an acapella singing group called ‘The Evolutions’ that included Frank Garcia, his younger brother Maurice, Johnny Johnson, and myself. The only live shows that I recall performing were the Southwestern High School talent shows, but we would rehearse often on a street corner that was conveniently located a few blocks from where we lived. In those days it was common for most of us in the neighborhood, who were imitating the popular singing groups of the day, to choose a spot where our parents couldn’t just look out the windows or doorways of our homes and see what we were doing. It was mostly a neighborhood of single family homes and easy to know most people, so no one would complain about our singing as long as we weren’t bullshittin’. We chose one of the corners at Beatrice and Gleason Streets. When the street lights automatically came on the illumination of the lights would serve as our own personal spotlight where we could pretend we were singing at some famous place.
Picking a side street was always preferable because of less automobile traffic. Also it was an unwritten rule that everyone had to show up with their teeth brushed and mouth washed because we had to stand close enough to each other to get a proper blend of our voices. If anyone had bad breath we would say, “Hey man—go home and take care of that funky breath and come straight back so we can keep going”. One day Frank and Maurice’s mother told us that she knew Ed Wingate’s wife who could arrange for an audition with him at their home. We knew that Wingate and his partner, Joanne Bratton, were having a lot of success with hit recordings by Edwin Starr, The Holidays, Pat Lewis, J.J. Barnes, and The Fantastic Four among others on their ‘Golden World’ & ‘Ric Tic’ labels, so we thought it was worth a try.
It was late afternoon on a warm day (perhaps in ’66 or ‘67) when we arrived at the Wingate’s home on Edison Street just east of Linwood on Detroit’s west side. After waiting for about a half an hour we finally met him and sang our best stuff with tight harmonies. When we finished he told us that we sounded pretty good but said, “You guys need a strong lead singer. Come back when you get yourselves a good strong lead”. What we didn’t know until later was, when it came to male vocal groups, his standard for excellence was The Temptations. According to Detroit legend he was known to say, “If they don’t sound like The Temptations then I don’t want to hear them”, so in thinking back to that day, I guess we were fortunate that he heard us at all.
I was not deterred or disappointed in any way in the days following the audition at Wingate’s home because the Soul Messengers were so active. Often each band member would make at least three hundred dollars a week—in 1967 dollars, a lot of money in those days. The cost (and overall quality) of living in Detroit was booming, especially for young people and it didn’t seem like it would ever end. It’s true that in the greatest of economic times, for as many people who do have access to money, there are just as many, or more, who don’t. As for the areas of the regional music business that we were a part of, the support for us was solid with room for more notoriety and residuals.
On Saturday evening, July 22, 1967, we performed at the International Masons Hall at the corner of Gratiot and St. Aubin Streets. We accompanied vocalist Kris Petersen who also played harmonica on a couple of songs. I do recall having a lot of fun performing that evening because the band was so ‘on’, and it stayed that way until the last note. When the gig had finished, while we were packing the instruments, I noticed that Kris forgot to take her harmonica which was on a table on side of the stage. Since we had only met that evening I did not have a phone number or address to mail it to her, but I did know that her then-current 45-rpm single, ‘Mama’s Little Baby (Is A Big Girl Now)’ was recorded at Artie Fields Studio on Woodward Avenue just a few blocks north of Owen Street. So I decided to take it there the next day in the early afternoon.
I’m not sure why I thought someone would actually be at the studio on a Sunday but I couldn’t think of anything else, so I asked my Father for permission to drive his car with the understanding that I would only be there long enough to give the harmonica to someone to give Kris. Since the weather was so nice (which inspired me to kill some time taking a slower route to the studio), I decided to take Fort Street to 12th Street, turning left and proceeding on 12th to Atkinson or Edison Streets, then turn right and proceed to Woodward Avenue. I was already out of the driveway, but before I could leave my Mother frantically opened the front door of the house and shouted for me not to go because she had just seen a news report on TV stating that there was rioting on 12th Street at that very moment. After parking the car I walked in the house to see for myself, so I can only imagine what I would have encountered had I arrived on that scene.
All of the news accounts stated the rioting was only incited after a raid at a blind pig on 12th early that morning, without any in-depth explanations. A blind pig is actually an unlicensed night club that functions very similarly to its licensed counterparts with a bar that serves alcoholic beverages complete with tables and chairs. It’s also known as an after-hours joint (among those establishments that were licensed to operate until 6 a.m.). There were always a few police officers from the Detroit Police Department that would patrol a Black neighborhood and allow those places to function if the proper palm grease was applied. However, the DPD had long been a source of brutality at random within Black communities with very little restraint exhibited. The most feared component of the DPD was a unit patrol called “The Big Four” that terrorized on impulse. These were big, burly White policemen who had nothing but contempt for Black people. Sometimes a Black police officer of the same proportions was in the unit as a driver, but he was an enforcer as well.
Lack of affordable housing, several urban renewal projects which continuously created displacement, and economic inequality were some additional causes in creating a volatile atmosphere on 12th Street. Over the years additional research has discovered the “straw” that caused the eruption of anger early Sunday morning July 23rd happened when policemen attacked women attending the blind pig. Additionally, Black business proprietors were given eviction notices several days earlier forcing them to move within a very short period of time. Although none of these proprietors were responsible for the burning and looting that morning, the essential problem was they did not own the property in which their businesses were housed, so they had no recourse to overturn the notices. Some of the proprietors had already relocated there from Hastings Street on the east side in which the business district was demolished and the land dug out to create the northward extension of Interstate 75, so having to be uprooted again was devastating. It has also been proven that the federal government wasted precious time in authorizing national law enforcement to contain the rioting within the first 24 hours.
In downriver Detroit we were fortunate to live outside the hub of where all of the action had taken place. Although we were subjected to a general curfew, like the rest of the city, there was still a certain amount of social activity in which we participated so I wasn’t worried about being caught by authorities if I was on my way home after the curfew began. I remember an afternoon when I was sitting on the porch of some friends of mine on Beatrice Street. We noticed a military tank slowly moving in the left lane on West Outer Drive. It made a left turn entering Beatrice and, once it became positioned adjacent to us, we started waving and smiling at the soldiers on board. I’ll never forget the look of bewilderment and relief on their faces to discover that nothing at all was happening. It was the only time I remember any troops being in our neighborhood.
It was during one evening, my brothers and I were coming home from somewhere, when my Mother told Greg and I that the Chrysler Jefferson Assembly plant, at East Jefferson & Conner on the east side, was hiring new workers. This was almost immediately after the curfew was lifted but it was still necessary to be cautious everywhere. I told my Mother that I already had a job so she asked me what it was and I told her music. She insisted that both of us go, and although we didn’t like it, we went there the following morning to apply for work and were hired on the spot. The irony of this is we were making damn near triple the amount of money in music that blue collar workers in the factory were making, so I didn’t feel that I was advancing toward anything that was beneficial to me then or in the future, but we were obedient sons. As a matter of fact, after working there for several weeks I came home one day looking for something that I thought was in a pocket of the jacket I only wore to the plant. When I searched the inside pocket I was surprised to feel what I thought was loose paper but I didn’t have the slightest idea of what it was. When I pulled the paper out of the pocket I noticed it was three weeks worth of Chrysler checks that I had forgotten about. As I said—my job was music.
When my brothers and I were kids one of the games we invented was called MUSICIAN. In the 1950’s it wasn’t possible for us to see professional musicians perform live because neighborhood all-ages music presentations did not exist at the time. Home video cameras and the internet (especially a website such as You Tube) didn’t exist either. Although there were many variety shows hosted by people like Arthur Godfrey, Ed Sullivan, Jack Paar (before Steve Allen), and several others, musicians were only allowed to perform one or two short songs on a show. It was enough to give us a basic perspective as to how musicians interacted while performing so, often at night when we were supposed to be sleeping, we would take turns imitating our chosen instruments in which we would switch roles the following evening. For some reason we all wanted to be the piano player and would argue about it, but since we were supposed to be sleeping, we learned how to argue quietly and would eventually choose another instrumentalist to imitate.
From imitating musicians to becoming musicians was a nice transformation for us. Once in a while the quest for more public exposure produced some humorous results. In early 1966 we requested an appearance on a television program called Talent Showcase in which one of the hosts was Bob Allison. The station was WWJ-TV Channel 4 (now WDIV-TV) located on West Lafayette a few feet east of Third Street in downtown Detroit. Our initial date for taping was cancelled because George never made it to our house to ride with us to the studio. One of the adult neighbors who knew him got him to engage in a long conversation, but instead of politely mentioning that he had something to do, he stayed there and participated. A week or two later we were inside the studio receiving directions pertaining to the structure of the program. There were three contestants—a team of three female tap dancers, our group, and a pianist.
There was a panel of two men and one woman—tap dance instructors—serving as judges for the performances. All of the contestants had to participate in a dry run before the actual taping began, including the part where everyone stood in line waiting for the announcer to say, “And the winner is…”!! It was during that moment when George said very quietly, “We’re not gonna win”. We knew it but it was best left unsaid. We gave a very strong performance during the taping but, in the end, guess who we lost to? The tap dancers, of course!! The two male judges were smiling and damn near drooling on themselves watching those teenage white girls in short skirts who would sometimes bend down as a part of their routine. The way those guys were acting was pure comedy to us and we’re still laughing about that to this day. Afterwards the pianist said he felt we should have won.
It was during this period when the Motown Records Corporation (simply known as Motown) was having a tremendous impact within the recording industry. Many people from other regions settled in Detroit to become a part of the bustling activity of music production that also included professional photography, record pressing facilities, music publishing companies, and an assortment of “side” hustles. My Father eventually asked me if I wanted to be involved with Motown and I told him no. I just didn’t see myself as a part of that system because I felt it would have been musically limiting for what I wanted to accomplish, plus I had definite ideas that were being transformed into real goals. Also I had a general mistrust of that organization even though I had never visited to see for myself, but he said he wanted me to meet a guy who knew about the inner workings of the company, and to listen to whatever information he shared, so I agreed.
We met at a place called Ann’s Bar on John R. Street between Piquette Street and Harper Avenue. It was owned by Ann Drew, the daughter of a businessman Arthur Drew, who my Father was working for at the time by servicing his jukeboxes. The guy we were meeting was sitting at a table waiting for us when we arrived and, after our introduction, I sat at the table listening to what he was saying. At some point he said, “Your father tells me that you’re a good musician and I believe it because he’s an honorable man”. Then he ask if I was thinking about possibly becoming involved with Motown and I told him no. He wanted me to know that he wasn’t trying to influence my decision in any way, so he said, “If you have any definite ideas about what you want to accomplish with a career in music then do that”. I thanked him for taking time to talk to me and confirming what I had been feeling all along.
Our group had the good fortune of meeting two session musicians involved with Motown who supported and encouraged our development. The first was guitarist/bassist Larry Veeder who lived in River Rouge. We met him through Darryl Moore who was taking lessons from him and he would sometimes loan Darryl his bass and amplifier for many gigs. We met pianist/organist Earl Van Dyke through Mr. William King (no relation) who was the president of the Southwestern High School Parent and Teachers Association. Mr. King was responsible for the development of the annual Southwestern Talent Shows. He eventually selected a panel of judges for choosing winners among the contestants, which is how Earl became involved. His band was also chosen to provide the music for all Southwestern proms every year during the month of June. Who was the band? The now-legendary Funk Brothers featuring guitarist Robert White, bassist James Jamerson, drummer Uriel Jones, and Earl at the Hammond organ.
By 1966 we were the house band for all shows and did not have to compete. Also I was designated the music director for the entire show which was challenging but I handled it. It was after the December ’67 show when Earl invited us to play at the Chit Chat Lounge located at 8235 12th Street for the weekly Blue Monday night. The above-mentioned people were there plus alto saxophonist Eli Fountain, and Martha Jean “The Queen” Steinberg who was the resident Mistress of Ceremonies. She was also the host of a very popular radio program on WJLB-AM radio. The Blue Monday shows were broadcasted weekly through the station’s airwaves and, as a result, we were able to receive a copy of our performance which I still have. To have been able to perform with the musical instruments belonging to the Funk Brothers was like a rite of passage (the movie refers to all Motown session musicians as Funk Brothers which isn’t true).
As for working at the Chrysler assembly plant(ation), that was some hard-assed work. One of the jobs I did involved using a thick rubber hammer to forcibly loosen and detach the clamps that held the middle frame section of the automobile after the welding was completed. Sometimes, at the end of the work day, my hands would be so numb it was difficult to hold a simple glass of water, therefore I’d have to wait three or four hours for the feeling to come back. Another job I had involved installing the front and back torsion bars that were necessary for inserting hood and trunk covers. The tool used for this process was a long metal wrench with a slotted hole—metal on metal. It was a very dangerous job because I had to be careful to put the right amount of strength on the bar while bending it forward to be inserted into a clamp, otherwise the bar would swing back at your head with the same force. I witnessed one of my co-workers get knocked out when that bar struck him on his temple. When he fell off the car onto the floor many workers rushed over to help him. One of the guys pressed the button that prevented the “line” from moving. Soon afterwards the foreman walk over to us to investigate why it wasn’t moving, so when we told him what happened he shouted, “Start this line and get back to work. Somebody will be here soon to take care of him”. I decided it was time to get the hell out of there, and I did—on an unforeseen path.
One day in August ’67 I received a letter from Highland Park Community College informing me that my grades were bad and not to return for the fall semester. I had enrolled a year earlier after graduating from high school but earning a college degree was not on my agenda at the time. I was successful at what I loved (music) and was making additional money at what I hated (the automobile factory), so I didn’t care about returning immediately. Another thing in my favor was being classified 1S by the Selective Service system because I had already completed the process exempting me from being drafted before receiving the don’t-come-back letter from the school. I had at least four months before they checked to see if I was enrolled at an accredited school in those pre-computer days.
In the meantime the gigs kept rolling in. Two prominent music proprietors, Quinton Perry & Randolph (Randy) Redley, visited our home one afternoon in August ‘67 to say that they were interested in Leonard King and the Soul Messengers being the house band for all of their cabaret show dances at Local 876 on West Grand Boulevard, west of 12th Street. These guys were firmly entrenched in promoting and presenting shows through their organization, Perry & Redley Productions which usually resulted in sold-out events. Our visibility in the Detroit area really expanded afterwards, and the telephone rang constantly for our services. At “876” we backed artists such as Al Greene (when he used an extra “e” in his last name, and had a hit with his first recording, ‘Back Up Train’), Darryl Banks (‘Open the Door To Your Heart’), Edwin Starr, and many others.
In early December I realized that I needed to enroll in school again but it had to be something that I really liked, so I applied to an electronics technology school at Woodward Avenue and Lothrup and was accepted (I don’t remember the name of the school). I was all set in preparation for January with a smooth transition in keeping my 1S status in tact. Shortly after I’d enrolled my Mother became concerned that I wasn’t in school at the time. I had roughly 45 more days to go without Selective Service knowing anything because those were pre-computer days, plus I knew what the time parameters were. She suggested that I go to the Selective Services office anyway and tell them I wasn’t in school at the present time, but had enrolled for the following semester. I wasn’t comfortable with that idea and told her they would draft me for sure if I did that, but she insisted that I go. I know that she was motivated by a combination of fear and protectiveness but it wasn’t a good mix for me.
The irony of it all was that I had decided to move into my own apartment in January and buy a car, which was so easy to do in those days as long as you could prove you were gainfully employed—and I was. The other irony is sometimes I wouldn’t heed to her suggestions and, once I walked out of the house, I would do something else entirely, so I have no idea as to why I was an obedient son on that fateful December morning when I caught the Fort Street bus, rode it to the end of the line, then walked to the Cadillac Towers building at the corner of Cadillac Square & Bates Streets. I don’t remember what floor the Selective Services offices were located, but I will never forget what happened when I walked in and told an employee I was enrolled in school for January, but not at the present time. The way she looked at me when I said it was an immediate indication that I made a BIG mistake for not following my first mind. At that moment I knew that soon I would be receiving an envelope from the U.S. government containing adverse information concerning my immediate future in which my current life would be traded for a life unknown.
In just a few short days I received a large official-looking envelope. After opening it I saw the first word that I dreaded: GREETINGS!!—and my new classification, 1A. No moments of joy or excitement followed after reading the simple words giving instructions as to what, where, and why I was to report to the Fort Wayne Recruitment Center on West Jefferson in the Delray area of Detroit. After all of the hard work it took to build the Soul Messengers into one of the top bands in the area I was now forced to leave everything behind to become a part of entity that I had no interest in.
(The reason for my being drafted has been altered among some of my family members who have retold the story saying that I blame my Mother but that isn’t true. In 1996 or ’97 my sister Denise was attending college and decided to do a research paper on my life. She did a great job but somebody misinterpreted the part about the draft. I didn’t discover this until later from one of my relatives, so I had to run it down the right way. I take full responsibility for that day. At the time, if I’d had the moxie to have done it differently, my ‘first mind’ would have yielded different results—NO ARMY!!).
Hup Two Three Four
During the evening of January 21, 1968 the Soul Messengers performed at the Gold Room of the 20 Grand for my bon voyage party. Several of my friends from the neighborhood were there to wish me well but I couldn’t help feeling a mixture of fun through the music and uncertainty for things to come a few hours later. My parents and my then-girlfriend, Delores Brooks, were with me for the short drive to Fort Wayne. Once inside the building Uncle Sam’s disciples began the psychological transformation process right away on all new recruits by the way they talked to us. I couldn’t count the number of times I heard the phrase, “You’re in this man’s Army now”. After all recruits were processed we boarded several buses that took us to Detroit International Airport in Romulus, Michigan (a 30-minute ride).
A sergeant told us we were being sent to Fort Dix, New Jersey instead of Fort Campbell, Kentucky—where Detroit guys were usually sent—because that particular base was overcrowded. To me it seemed as though Uncle Sam was damn near wiping the streets away with lots of guys including so many that I personally knew. The flight to Fort Dix was the first time ever for me being a passenger on an airplane. As soon as we arrived we were taken to a building in the middle of the night and told to stand, which we did for a while. The first thing I saw when I walked inside was red letters roughly five feet tall written on a white wall spelling the word K-I-L-L. After more processing all of us thought that we were going to be shown to our bunk beds, but those DI’s (drill instructors) really turned on the macho aggression and ordered us to sleep on the floor, no carpet—just cold tile. I tried to use my suitcase as a substitute for a bed but the attempt to be comfortable was futile.
On my second or third day at Fort Dix I remember sitting at a desk filling out some paperwork for further in-processing. Although there were a few sergeants already in the room, another sergeant entered and began to explain to us that, while the Army could not promise we wouldn’t be sent to Vietnam, if we signed on for an extra year we could sign up for the school of our choice after our eight weeks of basic training was complete. However, if we didn’t sign then it was possible we would automatically be chosen for advanced infantry training to be a “grunt”—an infantryman: 11B military occupational specialty (MOS). I didn’t want any part of that so, after only a few minutes of being allowed to make a decision, I signed on for an extra year and chose cook school for my MOS—94B20. I wasn’t totally cognizant of what I had actually done as a result of my snap decision until I returned home for my first weekend leave during February. I was in my parents’ living room when I announced my rationale for adding another year of the military. At that moment I heard the words, “You did what”? Then it hit me, and all I could say was “Oh”. Until then all I saw was the number “1” in my mind which I thought, in my naivety, wasn’t too bad to deal with, but their collective looks of surprise and concern caused me to see as it was: 365 days as ‘1’ year.
The Army was able to exploit my fear very easily and quickly within that first 48 hour time frame. Although I felt bad about it there was nothing I could do but ride it out and try to keep myself together by becoming more aware in determining other forthcoming circumstances. After basic training I was sent to Fort Lee, Virginia for eight weeks training at cook school. The daily regimen there was much looser for the cook trainees, especially on the weekends. After two weeks of not having any weekend assignments I would fly home on military standby every week afterwards, which usually resulted in a gig with the Soul Messengers that was triple the money that Uncle Sam was paying in the draft-era Army. (When the draft was abolished it was only then that the money was increased for new recruits. However, the civilian job market was deliberately starved which forced many young people to join the military in the absence of jobs).
I was almost busted for taking those unauthorized weekend trips back home. My friend Louis Green, from Milwaukee, Wisconsin covered for me during a late Sunday-night bunk check when I was nowhere to be found. Since his bunk was just a few short feet from mine, he jumped in my bunk and pretended to be me when the sergeant called my name. I was grateful for what he’d done when he told me the following day, but I still continued to leave every Friday after the noon formation and return late Sunday night under the cloak of darkness. The day that Martin Luther King Junior was assassinated, April 4, 1968, the mess sergeant called a meeting and explained to us what he heard on the news. He was trying to convince us to stay at Fort Lee that weekend because he felt it was safer, especially for those of us who were taking the Greyhound bus from Petersburg, Virginia to Washington, D.C. where rioting was going on. I insisted on leaving anyway and witnessed seeing some buildings on fire and lots of people in the streets when the bus pulled into the station in downtown D.C. I don’t recall what transportation service I used getting to Washington International Airport but I didn’t have any problems arriving there and securing a flight to Detroit or returning to the barracks afterwards.
It was also during the same month when Delores and I decided to get married, although the idea was probably mine. I was only two months past my 20th birthday and she was 19 (although her birthday was the following June). My Father tried to talk me out of it but, for whatever reason, his matter-of-fact reasoning with me wasn’t on point the way it usually was, so I didn’t heed his advice, but my Mother thought it was ok and I viewed her assessment as a green light to carry on. The wedding took place at Delores’ parents’ house in mid-June, however several days earlier she was thinking about canceling the ceremony, which in hindsight would have been the way to go, but my thoughts were different and I convinced her to continue with the plan—the initial sign of things to come.
Musically speaking, for a solid year prior to June 1968, the Soul Messengers were able to witness great shows either as participants or spectators. I will never forget when a miniature version of the Stax/Volt Revue came to the 20 Grand featuring Booker T and the MG’S, Carla Thomas, and Eddie Floyd. Al Jackson Jr., the M.G.’s drummer asked me for permission to play my drums and I was so in awe of him that I stood there looking at him without saying anything. He thought my silence meant I didn’t want to share the drums with him, so when he said, “That’s ok I have my drums out in the car” I said, “No, no, no. It’s ok, you can use my drums”. In those days it wasn’t common for drummers to put a rug or a piece of carpet under the drums to prevent them from sliding—especially the bass drum. I used to buy some circular rubber stoppers at George Hamilton’s Drum Shop when it was located downtown on Broadway that was supposed to stop the bass drum from slipping. It was never consistent, so halfway through Carla Thomas’ feature Al had to keep pulling the bass drum back to him. I couldn’t just stand on the side and watch in frustration so I walked on stage and put my foot in front of the bass drum so it wouldn’t move anymore. I stood there for the rest of their show even though I would sometimes wince slightly when he played a certain accent. He was one of my music heroes, too.
The Soul Messengers had the great opportunity to accompany the one and only Pigmeat Markham & his revue at Phelps’ Lounge. He was still riding high with a revived career after his recording “Here Comes The Judge” became a national hit. His partner Baby Seals and two other members had a great show. During the rehearsal Pigmeat instructed us to play the song “Knock On Wood” while he and Seals proceeded onto the stage. In those days it was common to play a song slightly faster than the tempo of the original recording in bringing the artists to the stage, so we did that for those guys, too. We played that show to perfection, so we were somewhat surprised to find out that Pigmeat wanted to see us in the dressing room. The way it usually worked at Phelps’ was like this: if there was something specific that an artist wanted changed or if it was a problem that happened during the show, they would just send someone to tell us. On the way to the dressing room we couldn’t imagine what had happened, so when we walked into the room Pigmeat said, “Boys—you all put on a helluva show—a helluva show!! But it’s only one thing you gotta do: slow that ‘Knock On Wood’ down and everything will be alright. You see—me and Seals—we’s old men, so just slow it down so we can do our thing right”. We were so relieved and said, “Yes Mr. Markham, we’ll slow it down”. It was ‘on’ after that.
On The Road To ‘Nam and Back
The day before I was scheduled to leave for Vietnam my feelings were somewhat joyful mixed with bittersweet emotions because Harry Balk and Duke Browner had arranged for a recording session at the former Golden World Studio on West Davidson between Dexter and Lawton Streets on Detroit’s west side. Berry Gordy had recently purchased Golden World Records including their subsidiaries and their studio which was renamed Motown Studio “B”. I was excited about being able to spend three hours recording with the Soul Messengers since I had to leave for one year’s tour of duty. As soon as we walked into the studio Duke spotted me and nervously walked over to me and said, “Leonard, I thought you were leaving for Vietnam today”? I told him it was the next day. Then we noticed a young Beatle-looking white guy sitting at the drums practicing. When we asked about him Duke only said they wanted to see how he sounded with the group—without me, so we accommodated them for about an hour. In the meantime there was a middle-aged white woman sitting off to the side with Harry, so we were trying to figure out who she was because she seemed to have a vested interest in the proceedings. My Father, who was with us, believed she was there to invest money into Impact/Inferno as long as her grandson/son/nephew/whoever was allowed to play on the session as promised by them.
The Beatle-looking kid just wasn’t happening musically for us, so after a few attempts my brother Larry asked Duke and Harry, “Why can’t we just have Leonard play the drums”? They were forced to relent because not one satisfactory take had been accomplished, studio costs were increasing, and I was going to play anyway on my last day at home. We recorded two or three of my compositions but the overall vibe in the studio was wrecked and, from what I remember, the results were just ok compared to how we usually performed those songs. I was so pissed at Duke and Harry I felt we should have nullified that contract immediately, but I didn’t have time to strategize anything so, for some reason, when I was alone for a few moments later that day, I started chanting repeatedly, “You’re not going to get anymore records out of us”. I didn’t know anything about affirmations or rituals so I must have tapped into something that was ancient within my subconscious. As far as I was concerned our business with Harry and Duke was finished—and it was. (In June 2010 my friend, Attorney Sabrina Cronin, reviewed that contract with me. We wouldn’t have made any money with those guys—period).
The following morning I was on my way to Tacoma Washington for processing that took two or three days before proceeding to unknown country (for me at least) aboard the Flying Tigers aircraft. The only thing I remember about that flight was sleeping, waking up, looking out of the window seeing mostly ocean water, and falling right back to sleep. The pilots stopped only once in Osaka, Japan to refuel, then continued to Cam Rahn Bay, the central coast of South Vietnam. The military, it seemed, often functioned under darkness involving maneuvers and the physical transport of troops, ammunition, etc.
The first thing I noticed as soon as I was off the plane was the tremendous heat that seemed to swallow me whole. The second thing was white sands as far as I could see, and the third thing was something I internally expressed: “Oh—I see what this is about. They sent me over here to die. I’m going to fool them and go back home even healthier than when I got here”.
Although the government via the media was still selling the war as a “conflict”, it was during those immediate seconds, while I was standing on those sands, when I was exposed to the stench of death. Not by an acute smell of something but an overall funky vibration that was dominant with my every step which meant war, not a conflict. Shortly afterwards I was sent to Camp Evans for further in-country processing. Some troops who were already there, and had advanced to the ranks of E4 or E5, didn’t want to be bothered with any FNG’s—Fucking New Guys with no experience, but I started a simple agenda of my own in short time. I arrived in ‘Nam with the rank of Specialist 4th class (E4) so I had advanced from being a private E1 or E2, but as an FNG I wasn’t exempt from any details such as guard duty, KP (kitchen police which meant peeling potatoes, mopping the mess hall, etc.), or other menial duties.
There was one detail in particular that was so fucked up it inspired defiance within me. Most of the bases in-country had out-houses, instead of toilets, to deposit human waste just like in some rural areas of the U.S. and elsewhere when typical plumbing and toilet systems were non existent. The container that held the waste was half of a steel barrel inserted beneath a large hole with a toilet seat attached to a flat surface—sometimes. Once the container began to fill it was the job of two FNG’s to go to the out-house, open the wooden back flap, use a long light steel rod with a hook at the end of it, grab a handle on the barrel, and pull it from underneath the hole. Both of them would grab a handle on each side of the barrel and walk to a designated area. Kerosene was then poured thickly over the waste and lit with several wood matches causing it to burn intensely while sending up a thick cloud of black smoke up to the sky. I was puzzled because I thought that one of the strategies of war was to make it extremely difficult for your “enemy” to determine where you were, therefore I didn’t see how it was possible for the enemy not to know where we were.
I never did find out what the military name was for that activity of super funky assault but I simply called it “The Burning Shit Detail”, and after a second episode the following day, I decided after participating in the morning formation, and eating breakfast in the mess hall, that I wasn’t doing shit (pun intended) for the rest of the week—and got away with it, too, but I don’t know exactly why. Maybe this act of defiance resulted in the assignment I received to report to An Khe province for duty with the 1st Calvary Division as a cook. I was not exempt from catching hell just because I was a cook. Contrary to popular belief that people arrive at by watching Hollywood war movies, the troops would have starved to death had it not been for the cooks. An enemy combatant knows this: if you kill off the cooks, and destroy the food supply, then what do you have? Low moral, hunger, and defeated troops regardless of how much ammunition is at everyone’s disposal.
(I wasn’t aware of my importance as a cook until the mid 1990’s while attending a family party at the home of some friends. I was informed that a fellow Vietnam veteran was there and he wanted to meet me. I was sitting on the front porch when he introduced himself. After talking for a couple of minutes he asked me when was I there so I told him July 1968 to July ’69. Then he asked for my MOS and I told him 94B20 and he replied, “A cook”? When I said yes he asked me to stand up. At first I thought he was kidding but he insisted. As soon as I stood up he saluted me and told everyone there how important the cooks were for everyday survival (“we couldn’t have made it without you guys”), plus we all had weapons and were subjected to possible death regardless of our MOS—bullets from the other side were not partial to what our titles were.
During my year in ‘Nam, the social conditioning and my assessments of life until then began to melt away simply because of new information I was exposed to by several GI’s who, like myself, were thirsting for answers to certain questions we’d pondered on our separate paths. One of the cats I hung out with was Saunders Carter. When we discovered that both of us were from Detroit we developed a bond and watched each others back as it related to some of the crazy shit around us. One day I was telling him about Impact/Inferno Records and mentioned Viola Mae Carter. He said she was his sister-in-law who was married to one of his brothers—small world. He also hipped me to the parallels between military and civilian rank-and-file systems for achieving social control. Both of us were a part of group of cats who looked out for each other’s best interest, especially since everyone had weapons and, most importantly, not everyone was worthy of being trusted.
To me there were some obvious divisions as it related to certain human characteristics in a war environment: white guys who were racist to the bone, black guys (and other so-called “minorities) who were full of self hatred, and others regardless of their pigmentations who were humble and helpful in their own ways. As a result of being forced to exist in a war environment, it eventually became easier for me to decipher the true characteristics within a person. Also it was the first time in my life that I was involved in a group of people who would not hesitate to protect each other against anyone we considered to be a common enemy among ourselves in the general area where we were stationed. Additionally we wouldn’t allow any guys in our group to openly kill someone they had a ‘beef’ with. There were many GI’s who were killed by those who wore the same uniform. I wasn’t concerned about any Viet Cong attacking me up close. The irony of this is the fact that the U.S. military, whenever war is declared by the banking industry and the politicians, will hire workers among the “peasant” class of people to do menial jobs on the same base where U.S. troops are stationed.
We saw Momma-san, Papa-san, and all age groups of Vietnamese civilians throughout our compound everyday doing laundry, general cleaning, and other duties. There was no way to tell if a person was in the Viet Cong just by looking at them, but I didn’t have any problems with anyone in the local population. As a matter of fact I was well liked among many of them because I didn’t “look down” on them for being who they were. Some of them used to say to me, “Hey King, you number one soul brudda”. Number one was highly complimentary but if you were labeled number ten it meant your reputation wasn’t shit. The U.S. government also employed deputized Vietnamese soldiers called ARVN’s (Armed Vietnamese Forces) who wore the same uniform we did. I didn’t trust them at all because, as far as I was concerned, they might have been VC with a lot of help from D.C., plus I don’t remember seeing them on our base at night, either. War is always so full of contradictory actions and it’s something that cannot be adequately explained to civilians who’ve never breathed or consumed such intense circumstances for an extended period of time.
When I was stationed in An Khe the hooch I shared with a few other GI’s was constructed of wood with a cement base. Later, when I was transferred to Phuoc Vihn further south, the hooch was a huge tent. I recall an episode there in which my friend Jerome Pea, from Flint, Michigan, had decided to settle a ‘beef’ he had with another GI. The cats in our group just happened to be standing outside of his hooch as he was walking out with his M16 in his hands. Jerome was a likeable guy who was always cracking jokes and laughing in general, but on this particular day there was something different about his smile as he was walking away from us. Instinctively we walked straight to him and said, “Give us the M16, man”. He insisted that everything was cool but we knew he had an issue with a guy and was on his way to settle the score, so after he gave us his weapon he proceeded to walk in the same direction. That’s when I said, “Gimme the frags (hand grenades) too, man”. Although he reluctantly handed them to me it’s possible we helped to offset his being sent to the stockade in Long Bihn for killing a guy who kept fucking with him.
I had my turn a few months earlier with a racist 2nd lieutenant, double racist mess sergeant, and equally racist captain at 1st CAV headquarters in An Khe (I remember their faces but I don’t remember their names). During one day around 12 noon in October 1968 I was told to report to headquarters because the captain wanted to see me. When I arrived the 2nd louie (lieutenant) was there also but it was the captain who did all of the talking and was the commanding officer. He asked if I understood why I was there and I said no, so he informed me that I was being charged with insubordination and failure to prepare under Article 15, from the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which is non-judicial punishment without trial. Then he asked if I understood what he was talking about and again I said no. He said that I was issued an order from the mess sergeant to clean the complete outside of the refrigerator but I left the top-right corner dirty. After he explained it I found it to be so humorous that I started laughing and understandably so: as the eldest sibling in my family, my Mother made sure that I knew when clean was clean—period!!
Since it was something that was natural for me to do, without having to be reprimanded or observed just to make sure I completed tasks, I just knew they would understand the mistake of their accusations and realize that I wasn’t faking any innocence to avoid their wrath. I thought that I had succeeded convincing them that they had made a mistake as the meeting ended, but I was told to report back to them the following day for his (their) decision. When I returned the captain said, “We were thinking about changing our minds because it seemed as though you were telling the truth, but we’ve decided that you were lying to us by pretending to look innocent, so we’re proceeding with the charges against you”. As the commanding officer it was his prerogative to charge anyone with an Article 15 if he felt there were one or more offenses committed by a “troop” in the opposition of duty. As I sat in the chair looking stunned he informed me that I had the right to appeal his decision by writing the Adjutant General (AG) which I promptly did. Those two muthafuckas were having fun playing cat and mouse with me because they zeroed in on my fear.
What they didn’t realize was their bullshit inspired the sleeping giant within me to wake up and smell the napalm—if you dig what I mean!! I honestly don’t remember how long it took for the AG to request my presence but I will never forget the outcome of that meeting. After a brief verbal exchange he asked me to be seated. For the next several minutes he would ask me a question, look at the Article 15 papers, then looked at me as though he had x-ray vision in order to get an accurate read on my personality. Eventually
he said, “You know, I’ve been observing you and listening to the answers you give me to the questions I’ve asked. Also I’m reading here what they say about you and I just don’t believe you did these things. Now…I feel that I am a good judge of character when it comes to observing people for who they really are, but I just don’t believe you could have done these things—unless, of course, you happen to be a great actor, but I don’t think so. Therefore I’m granting your appeal but I’m advising you to watch what you do because my guess is your company commander won’t like this”. Wow!! I didn’t expect that conclusion but it was exactly what I needed to happen and the AG called it right.
Those two assholes at headquarters were steaming mad afterwards so they promptly charged me with some other shit they made up for another Article 15 that was also appealed in my favor. After the 2nd blowup in their faces the captain sent for me and said, “Look King, you think you’re getting away with something but you’re not. You’re very sly and you’re very cunning but I want you to know that we’re going to get you, even if it means throwing you in the stockade at LBJ”. Those initials stood for Long Bihn Jail in Long Bihn, South Vietnam. I was too “green” to be sly and slick but I was becoming hip to what was happening around me and what I had to do to survive. Despite this awakening I had planned to do something that, to this very day, I’m so glad I listened to the voice of reason within me. Since the captain, not the 2nd louie, had the authority to issue Article 15’s, I had decided to get revenge and take him out—do you understand what I mean? I knew where that asshole liked to sunbathe so I was going to catch him off guard in his little private area and send him to the hell of his own making. Rather than use an M16 or a hand grenade my plan was to do him in with an ice pick because I wanted to use something that could easily fit under my shirt sleeve. Besides, cooks have access to different kinds of potential weapons if necessary.
I walked away from the hooch that day feeling totally ready for my own personal war vindication. When I was halfway to where I thought he would be I heard my own voice within say, “Leonard—no, don’t do it. Turn back around”. I froze in my tracks for a few seconds and returned to my hooch. As I sat on my bunk thinking I realized that the first person to be accused, if I had succeeded, would have been me because there were many who knew of the tensions between us. Also using an ice pick would have been messy, especially if I had botched the mission somehow, but I will say this: I’m glad that I was able to survive the war without any blood on my hands and, considering how intensely the military drills its killing methods into young minds, my resolve was to watch all adverse muthafuckas very closely to the point where I could feel the thoughts in their horrible brains. After all, it was only a mere ten months after leaving home—the first time ever for me being away from home on my own—and I was supposed to be a killer on one hand and a passive doormat on the other. Well…I wasn’t having it like that so I surrounded myself with as many trustworthy cats as possible, which wasn’t hard to do in a war environment.
Once the captain had failed to bring me down with Article 15’s he concocted another plan to ship me off to an area that was more dangerous than An Khe. I noticed that several guys had received orders from headquarters transferring them to another company somewhere, and the irony of it was all those guys were Black, but I didn’t just hang out the “bloods” so it was something that many of us noticed. I got an idea to bring legal charges against the U.S. Army for continuously fucking with me (might as well call it like it was), so I went to headquarters and told the company clerk that I wanted to bring charges against the Army, and did I have the legal right that allowed me to do so. He told me yes and gave me the form to fill out. Although he was surprised and somewhat amused by my audacity to “write up” the Army, he was very helpful and a nice cat in general. At some point during this process he asked if he could take my photo and I said ok, especially since I was a camera ‘hound’ in those days. I still have that photo and, at a glance, it looks so pleasant because of my wide smile that masked a deeper concern.
I didn’t really begin the process thinking that I would actually win, which would have resulted in my two nemesis’ being ‘called on the carpet’ for their evil ways, but it felt good to know that I had some kind of recourse, even if it was just symbolic. On another day in December ’68 I was summoned to headquarters and told that I was being transferred to another company and given orders (paperwork) which detailed my destiny. Since it was supposed to be official I took the papers and left going back to the hooch. Outside, just a few feet away, the company clerk ran towards me and said, “King, the copies you have in your hand are the only ones that exist. They weren’t sent through the chain of command so all you have to do is tear them up and that’s it”. To this day I thank him for watching my back. The other fortunate aspect of this scenario was it happened during the first week of the month right after pay day which meant that I had enough money to last for rest of month as long as I spent it diligently. I didn’t report for duty until thirty days later and no one snitched on me, therefore I just hung out and played it cool. To avoid be seen by the company brass and high-ranking NCO’s (non commissioned officers like a master sergeant or sergeant major) I would eat meals at a different mess hall that was attached to the 1st CAV.
The currency that was used to pay the troops was MPC (military payment certificate) and was printed in denominations on parallel with the U.S. dollar but with a different design. The Vietnamese currency was called piasters (pee-ah-sters). I also heard that there was some kind of political/economic deal that existed between the military movers and shakers on both sides who were involved in black market activities, and that there were a lot of South Vietnamese “higher-ups” who had a lot of MPC among themselves. I was also warned that whenever the design of the MPC was changed the old design was rendered obsolete and would result in our company getting mortared continuously overnight because that currency would be devalued on the other side. I never found out if it was true or not but I do know that we were mortared whenever it happened and I wasn’t trying to discover why.
After my 30-day “vacation” was up I reported to headquarters to let them know I was “back”. When the captain saw me he damn near shitted on himself and said, “King—what are you doing back here”? I told him the other company transferred me back because it had too many cooks and didn’t need me. He was mad as hell but there wasn’t anything he could do about it which, to me, was proof of those phony orders I was given. When I returned to the mess hall I discovered that the bone-head racist mess sergeant was replaced by an old self-hating negro with a down-home-plantation viewpoint, and he was warned that I was trouble. He gave me a hard time right from ‘jump street’ and I had to let him know who he was messin’ with, so I got up one morning, took a shower, put on my starched fatigues, spit-shined the leather portion of my combat boots, combed my hair, then I put on my new pair of sun glasses and proceeded to the mess hall to find out what Uncle Tom-Tom was all about.
As soon as I got there I saw him and walked in his direction with my best gangster façade. He didn’t get a chance to say one word because I did all of the talking and blocked him from saying anything. When I finally allowed him to speak he said, “King, I want you to know that I’m not scared of you”, so that’s when I lunged towards him like I was going to pop him with my fist. This cat was so scared he jumped backward slightly to brace himself for the punch. Little did he know it wasn’t my intention to kick his ass—just let him know that I wasn’t one to be messed with. What he didn’t know was I laughing my ass off internally at the sight of this guy being afraid of me. ME??? In ten months I was basically the same guy who reported to Fort Wayne for induction—a musician who had to give the impression of being a soldier in order to survive in a Far East jungle.
After my command performance Uncle Tom-Tom was cautious around me but he couldn’t help giving me the Evil Eye everyday. I remained in An Khe until the beginning of February ’69 when I was transferred to Phouc Vihn with the paperwork traveling properly through the chain of command that time. I didn’t mind leaving because my everyday conditions were not going to get better there, plus there was too much animosity between me and the “higher ups”. In Phouc Vihn I shared a hooch with some of the greatest cats I’d ever met. I arrived shortly before my 21st birthday and it didn’t take long for me to be accepted into their group. What helped, other than my personality, was I had a lot of ‘jams’ that many of them wanted to hear. My Father sent a reel-to-reel tape recorder to me at my request because the PX (post exchange) was on back order for receiving a new shipment, and I became desperate to keep up with all of the new sounds, although I did have a turntable, amplifier and two speaker cabinets. Some of my friends used to tease me about spending most of my check on music products, as though I had a helluva lot of choices otherwise.
Since I didn’t do drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes what else could I have spent that little “tee-nine-chee-bit” of money on? I damn for sure didn’t go to Sin City—the local red light district in An Khe because I had heard about cats going there ok and coming back with the Black Syphilis or the Blue Balls and I wasn’t having that at all. Maybe it was a scare tactic to keep the troops on the base. I don’t know but there was one friend of mine who was cool and had a lot of common sense. I recall one afternoon, several months after he arrived in country, having a conversation with him but his responses didn’t make sense so I wasn’t sure what to think, but afterwards another guy told me that he had been to Sin City. To this day I wonder if that was true, but I’m glad I never knew a damn thing about it because I didn’t forget the promise to myself at Cam Rahn Bay.
The availability of obtaining drugs during the war was on parallel with the availability in the U.S.—plentiful. Given that the land mass and general population in the West is much greater than Vietnam it’s no secret that drug consumption is higher in the West as well. Over the years there have been those who have expressed surprise that I didn’t return home as a drug addict, but I was adamantly against it. Of course I knew guys who did indulge but whatever they did was their business. I was also aware of a few guys who were the local suppliers of marijuana and a tablet called Binoctal (ben-knock-tall). According to an article titled, “Higher And Higher: Drug Use Among U.S. Forces In Vietnam” by Peter Brush:
“Tablets of Binoctal, an addictive drug consisting of
Amytal and Seconal, were available in tablet form
from Vietnamese children at from $1.00 to $5.00
for twenty tablets. Although technically a prescription
drug, Binoctal was available over the counter at
almost any Vietnamese pharmacy for about
eight piasters for twenty tablets”. (3)
I was told it was used for taming wild animals but I don’t know if that was true or not, however I did witness the effects of that tablet on a short guy who weighed damn near three hundred pounds. After taking the tablet he walked out of the hooch and spun around three times before falling flat on his back. Every guy who was available had to help lift this guy up and carry him to his bunk. It was a pitiful sight and there wasn’t anything that could be done except allow him to sleep it off.
A few days later the tablet hustler returned looking for another disciple and tried to convince me it was cool but I declined. He wanted me to know how powerful the tablet was and suggested that I put it on my tongue for a few seconds before giving it back to him. I agreed on the condition that he had to move at least five feet from me because I wanted to make sure he wouldn’t rush me in an attempt to get me to swallow it. I put that tablet on my tongue for about 4 seconds then I gave it back to him. He smiled and said, “Strong, ain’t it”? After he left I tried using toothpaste, mouthwash, and food to get rid of the lingering impression I still felt on my tongue after three days. The tablet was nicknamed Seven Seconds because supposedly that’s all it took for someone to get really high after swallowing it.
Another irony of life there were the spies who lived among us in neighboring compounds. As far as I know it was supposed to be true that an entity called the Central Intelligence Division (CID) was somewhere among us but we never knew where it was physically located. Therefore we were cautious enough not to do anything that would give them a cause to put us away. Late one evening around midnight, a lieutenant, with three GI’s, barged into our hooch in an attempt to catch us doing something illegal. At that moment we were sitting around talking shit and digging music. None of us hesitated to laugh those fools right out of our space after their failed invasion. They tried it again roughly two weeks later but this time the lieutenant had smoked so much marijuana he brought a thick heavy scent with him. We started laughing uncontrollably as he stood there looking dumbfounded and told him he better get the hell away from us before we report him to Washington D.C. It was necessary to have a damn good inner antenna to anticipate any bullshit that was unavoidable.
My life as a cook was hip: four days on and three days off with no extra duties such as filling sandbags, guard duty, or other shitty details. I was happy that I wasn’t in the Army band because those cats caught hell with all kinds of menial duties but I was totally exempt. There was one guy, a trombonist, who had a hipper record collection than mine (and mine was hip, too), so we would trade albums long enough to record them before returning them. I was consuming music of many so-called genres during that time but it was the music of Ornette Coleman that spun me around in all directions. Although I was familiar with his name I hadn’t heard his music before but, most importantly, a parallel development was happening then in reference to my changing world view which, by the way, didn’t have shit to do with Uncle Sam making a man out of me. I was already on that path of understanding the importance of acknowledging my ancestors for guidance in the gradual elimination of pre-conceived inaccurate notions about life.
One day when I walked into the food shed looking for a particular item I remembered a lesson learned about war profiteering. Instead of noticing the food names, on many of the manila-colored cardboard boxes that were stacked horizontal, I zeroed on the names of the corporations that were also printed on the boxes which resulted in another of many revelations I experienced during that time. My first exposure to the machinery of war profiteering happening during one of the history classes I took in high school. The teacher told a story about a guy who became rich by selling weapons to both the Union and the Confederacy in the war against each other—commonly known as the American Civil War (1861-1865). I had forgotten about those lessons until the moment I was staring at the names of those corporations written on those boxes who were profiting from the sales of food items. My curiosity for knowing more about other companies involved in the sales of goods and services became a real eye opener that helped me to understand the reasons I was there in the first place, and it didn’t have a damn thing to do with the typical red, white, and blue promotion.
In Phouc Vihn I felt more relaxed than I did in An Khe despite the fact that it was still in a war environment. A general saying among us was, “Cover your ass”, which meant do what you have to do to protect your own life. With snitches and spies among us I was fortunate to hook up with some trustworthy cats. In addition to occasional incoming artillery, my other concern was being on the alert for some of the largest rats that I’d never seen before in my life. Those damn things were the same size as some house cats in the U.S., and sometimes, without realizing it, one would enter the hooch across the sandbags that served as a perimeter around our living quarters. At any given moment it would move across the floor in front of me—and not too quickly either given its size. Needless to say, all of us would step back and let big Roquefort mosey along away from us.
As for preparing and cooking food in the mess hall, we used portable kerosene stoves to prepare hot meals (I don’t recall cooking on any typical stoves in Phouc Vihn, but I did in An Khe). After filling the portable stoves with kerosene oil we had to make sure that the valve was properly tightened, not only to avoid spillage but to insure that the right pressure was achieved in order for the unit to be heated properly. After breakfast, lunch, and dinner it was necessary to take the stoves outside and stand them up vertically, allowing them to cool off for roughly 20 to 30 minutes before opening the valve and draining the oil in an oil trap. All of the cooks had rotating days for this particular duty. It was early one afternoon, shortly after lunch, when the mess sergeant reminded me that it was my day to empty the stoves. I asked him had the stoves cooled off and he said yes.
When I opened the valve to one of the stoves I was immediately hit in the face with hot kerosene oil and started screaming my ass off. Instantly—and I mean instantly—four of the cooks ran out of the mess hall, and each one of them grabbed me by my arms and legs, lifted me up, and ran quickly to the water buffalo (a huge water container similarly shaped like the body of a buffalo). They placed my head under the spout, turned on the water, and saturated my face completely. I heard them shouting for me to open my eyes but I was too traumatized to comply, so two of the guys held my eyelids open under the water. Several minutes later I was asked if I felt ok enough to see and stand up on my own without their help, and I did. I walked back to the mess hall and the mess sergeant apologized for misjudging the readiness of the stoves. I didn’t know that he had called headquarters to dispatch a jeep to take me to the dispensary for further examination, so while I was waiting he suggested that I go back to the water buffalo and douse my face with more water before they arrive. I went back but the container was completely empty, so I couldn’t help thinking about what would have happened if the accident was several minutes later and there was no water available. Wow!! I really lucked out.
When I arrived to Phouc Vihn from An Khe I was asked about my last day of duty before out-processing, and I told them June 1, 1969, but it was actually June 30th. My simple plan was to hang out with the 1st CAV unit in Bien Hoa, South Vietnam for thirty days (just like a few months earlier) with no duties or responsibilities. Headquarters took my word for it because there was no way to verify it in those pre-computer days, plus I naturally convinced them at the outset which didn’t arouse any suspicions of my claim. Many of my friends from An Khe were in Bien Hoa by then. My plan worked like a charm but it almost unraveled a few days prior to out-processing when a company clerk, who knew me (but I didn’t know him), spotted me while I was walking somewhere. He walked over to me and said, “King, what are you doing here”? I told him I was there to process out but he disputed it and reported me to the company commander.
Soon afterwards the MP’s (military police) came to the hooch and told me they were under a direct order to bring me to headquarters. When I asked for a reason they said they were told that I was not in the 1st CAV division attached to the 15th Administration Company. As I rode in a jeep bound for headquarters I was able to convince them I was telling the truth, however the real test was waiting ahead. After my arrival the company clerk, as witnessed by the company commander, restated his claim, so he grabbed a log book which listed every name for each troop attached to the company and my name was listed. I beat the accusation on a technicality and kept a low profile during those remaining days.
A situation happened during out-processing that attempted to denigrate myself and several others into to lowly nothings. We were asked to enter a small room inside a building and proceeded to fill out paperwork before boarding a flight to return home. When it was completed we were asked to remain in the room until they (military personnel) returned to take us to the airfield. After several minutes they returned and told us to take off all of our clothes and put them on the desk. At first none of us complied because we were too stunned to think they were serious—but they were. They claimed it was possible we had photos that would contain actual scenes depicting the reality of war which was something the government did not want the American public to be aware of.
To put it bluntly: we were stripped search and it wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it standing there naked. Then we were told to bend over and touch our toes. After this they told us reach back, grab our asses, and spread our cheeks (so our assholes would be more exposed). Several minutes later we were told to put our clothes on and wait for them to return—again, but we were forced to do the same shit all over. Their reasoning was it was possible that we could have passed small photos to our buddies very slyly without them noticing. Under the DEROS system (date eligible for return from overseas) most Vietnam veterans returned home alone. I didn’t know those guys in that room and it’s a shame that we didn’t have any recourse for justice.
I don’t recall anything in particular during the return flight to the U.S. but I will never forget what happened at the military base outside of San Francisco. It could have been The Presidio (Army) or Travis Air Force base (it was difficult to get reoriented under the cloak of darkness) that served as the arena for reentry back home. I was given a brand new set of Army Dress Greens (suit, shirt, tie, belt, cap, & shoes) and orders for my new assignment at Fort Myer, Virginia, but when I arrived at the paymaster window for my money I was told “Uncle Sam doesn’t owe you anything”. There are no words to describe how I felt at that moment except, perhaps, feeling I had been given The Royal Fuck Treatment, but even that was tame. The Army gave me a travel voucher to catch a cab from the base to San Francisco International Airport and effectively stranded my ass there. The only reason I made it home, after spending all day at the airport, was because my Father wired money to me via Western Union. It was a bittersweet homecoming but I kept my cool despite my disappointment and anger.
I was also given a 45-day leave from the Army before reporting for duty. At home everything was basically the same as it was a year and a half earlier, but some things had changed—including me. The Soul Messengers had gotten used to running things without me during my absence so there was a certain resentment that was present at my first rehearsal. Since I had been mostly inactive from music my ‘chops’ were not up to par. Frank Garcia quit within the first hour because he didn’t want me to say anything to him about the notes he was playing on the bass, so he packed his gear and split. He had no idea that the other band members actually applauded his leaving several seconds later. We were booked for many engagements during my brief stay and our search for another bassist led us to Walter Rudds who was perfect for what we needed. I practiced often just to get my endurance up to last for an entire evening and I was reminded of an old cliché: if you don’t use it you’ll lose it. In the meantime it felt good to revisit many of the familiar spots such as Local 876, Prince Hall, Phelps’ Lounge on Oakland Street north of Holbrook Street, and Composite Hall on Caniff Street in Hamtramck, Michigan (its boundaries are inside Detroit).
Those 45 days flew by quickly but, since I had an additional eighteen months to serve, I was ready to get to the next phase of my military life which was technically my final phase before being honorably discharged in January 1971. I briefly lived on base at Fort Myer until I made arrangements for Delores and I to live off base at 1515 N. Scott Street in Arlington, Virginia. After reporting for duty at a consolidated mess hall on base, it didn’t take long for me to realize I was in a position similar to my experience in An Khe. As a result of my rank, time in service, and Vietnam service I was promoted to 2nd cook. The 1st cook was a white guy from Boston, Massachusetts. When I was in basic training at Fort Dix, many of the black guys from Detroit and white guys from Boston would fight damn near everyday. It was ironic that I hung out with guys who didn’t mind kicking ass damn near everyday, but I wasn’t a participant. However, this association was good for me because they wouldn’t allow anybody to mess with me (especially since kicking ass wasn’t my specialty).
At Fort Myer I had recently returned from living in the bush with all kinds of artillery and ammunition being fired over my head, so I was able to cultivate a matter-of-fact understanding with the 1st cook so he’d know where the boundaries were with me. I didn’t pretend to be a tough guy because it wasn’t my M.O. but I accomplished what I needed to make things as relaxed as possible. Six months later he was honorably discharged which meant I was now the new 1st cook. Wrong, wrong, wrong!! The mess sergeant promoted the 3rd cook over me who was actually a nice guy, but I had to let him know what was happening when I said to him, “You know you won’t be able to tell me what to do, don’t you”? He said yes and that was that. At that point I really began looking forward to being discharged from This Man’s Army.
In the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., I was able to see some of the international touring artists who performed at the Cellar Door. The first group was Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers with Randy Brecker-trumpet, Carlos Garnett-tenor saxophone, Sonny Donaldson-piano, Skip Crumby-bass, & the one and only “Bu” on drums in September 1969. I mentioned this to Randy recently and he said, “Oh yeah, I never got paid for that gig”. Shortly afterwards I saw the Cannonball Adderley Quintet with his brother Nat, Roy McCurdy, Joe Zawinul, & Walter Booker and they were on fire.
Another memorable evening featured Richard Pryor & the Herbie Hancock Sextet (Herbie on the Fender/Rhodes electric piano, Eddie Henderson-trumpet, Bennie Maupin-saxophones, bass clarinet, & flute, Julian Priester-trombone, Buster Williams-acoustic & electric basses, and Billy Hart-drums. Richard had done such great business the previous week he was held over for another one and alternated sets with Herbie. During the night I was there it was almost humanly unbearable because Richard was in his ascendancy in 1970 and was unmercifully hilarious. My stomach was hurting because, at one point, I was trying not to laugh which was impossible, and the Sextet was “pushing the envelope” in their own personal direction. To this day I wonder why I wasn’t there when Miles Davis’ group was in town. By then I was living in D.C., so I must have known about it, especially since Columbia Records has issued the now-famous Cellar Door recordings.
Meanwhile back at the mess hall, I was caught off guard one day in the kitchen area. Another cook was added to the roster after being caught AWOL in his home town of Flint, Michigan. As mentioned earlier it was natural to want to “break bread” with guys from your hometown or home state, so I was training him as to how we did things. One day we were talking in the kitchen when I noticed his personality was getting ugly, but I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. He began accusing me of things that didn’t make sense when all of a sudden—POW*^#@. He hauled off and slapped the shit out of me and I didn’t see it coming. This cat was roughly six and a half feet tall and I stood at 5 feet 11 inches and he was vehemently pissed off about something, however I told him that would be the last time he caught me like that. Sure enough, just a few days later, we were standing in the same exact spot facing each other when his mood started changing again, but I was ready for him.
He didn’t notice me reaching for the longest butcher knife in the kitchen, so when he began the motion to slap me again he was shocked at the sight of that butcher knife not far from his face. He said, “You gonna cut me”? I said, “I’ll kill your ass if I have to”. This cat damn near melted to the ground with caution because he saw I was serious. Then I began telling him that it was obvious he didn’t want to be in the Army, so I suggested he should leave the following day and return to Flint because that’s where he really needed to be, plus the Army and Fort Myer was just a waste of his time. The more I talked the more he agreed with me. His whole demeanor changed as he smiled and thanked me for understanding his situation. So what did I do? I talked that muthafucka into going AWOL and felt ok about it. The moral of the story is I did what I did to get his ass away from me—and it worked.
Meanwhile on the home front, the marriage was beginning to degenerate slowly but surely. I feel Delores had a general resentment for agreeing to the marriage instead of being adamant about changing her mind two years earlier and, at that time, didn’t want to be viewed as the ‘bad person’ who opted out several days before the wedding. Additionally, the birth of our only child, Leonard C. King III (I nicknamed him “Butch”) on August 19, 1970), only widened the divide. It was after his birth when I noticed more hints of things to come, but I believe it was because of his birth that the negativity between us increased dramatically.
In mid-January 1971, during a week of out-processing from the U.S. Army, I was shocked to discover I was only receiving $60.00 dollars total for a final payment. For whatever reason my financial records were totally screwed up, and there wasn’t anything I could do about it since I didn’t have access to them in the first place. It was time for me to leave and I was delighted that no one approached me to “re-up” for more time served. As far as I was concerned, the extra year I did was enough. I received an honorable discharged on January 25, 1971. My brother Greg had already flown to D.C., to help in the long drive to Detroit. Everything was cool until we came through the mountains in Pennsylvania on Interstate 80 where a horrible blizzard greeted us. Eventually we were forced to pull over and spend the night before proceeding the next morning. The weather conditions had improved and we were eventually glad to see the state border of Ohio first before arriving in Michigan.
All the Way Back
I was home for three short days when I was forced to return to the Chrysler plant, but I made the decision to work there only for one year. In the meantime I rejoined the Soul Messengers and reasserted myself as the bandleader. There was plenty of work in music and I met so many musicians that hired me for various gigs. I was exposed to a much broader scene than the one I’d known before being drafted and was having a great time despite working at the plant from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., then working at night sometimes during the week from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. There’s no way I would have sacrificed my life in music for the assembly line.
One of the first music jobs I was called for after returning home was with vocalist David Ruffin. It was to be a two-week run at Phelps’ Lounge and he was still very popular three years later after his departure from The Temptations. I’m not sure if there were any rehearsals prior to opening night, but the only one I attended was four hours before show time. The only other musician I remember from that gig was trombonist Phil Ranelin and it was the first time we’d met. The backup vocal group that David hired was The Monitors which included the same members except one that recorded their hit song “Say You”—Richard Street, Warren Harris, and John “Maurice” Fagin (Sandra Fagin, the other member was not present). While I was bringing my drums into the club, the guys in the group started expressing their enthusiasm in working with me. They kept swapping fives with me and saying, “Yeah, we got Leonard King on drums with us”, which was pleasantly surprising to me because I didn’t know they were that familiar with me.
Meanwhile David was watching all of those “props” I was receiving and he didn’t like it at all. He was the star but, during those moments, I was the one who was shining, so he grabbed one of my drum sticks and started giving me a strange look while he repeatedly struck the center his palm with the stick. He didn’t say one word during those moments but I was trying to interpret what it meant. Was he telling me he was gonna beat my ass with my own drum stick? That’s what I felt at the time but I thought he would eventually relax, especially since the first show turned out so great. I knew he had a reputation for “jumping bad” with people but I was 18 months back from South Vietnam and wasn’t about to be mishandled, so after the third evening I called drummer Andrew Jones to take my place (he was one of my replacements in the Soul Messengers during my absence). It was good that he was very excited about working with David—because I wasn’t.
Employment for the Soul Messengers was still plentiful for us as a self-contained unit and for backing artists who didn’t have their own accompanying musicians. Some of the artists we provided backup for included vocal groups like The O’Jays (shortly before ‘Back Stabbers’ was released), and ‘The Fantastic Four’ during two different engagements at Local 212, 12101 Mack Avenue west of Conner Street on the far eastside. Vocalist/guitarist Syl Johnson was featured one evening at Local 876. At the time he was still enjoying popularity from his hit recording, ‘Is It Because I’m Black’. He borrowed Ralph Todd’s guitar during the rehearsal so he could show him that song’s introduction, which he explained came from the song ‘A Taste of Honey’.
At the Apex Bar, located on Oakland & Smith Streets on the near eastside, we accompanied Buddy Lamp & The Lamp Sisters. Sometimes Buddy performed without his sisters but I was glad they were on the gig because they were excellent singers. Buddy possessed a great bluesy baritone voice and could shout just as soulfully as any of the well-known guys who were touring at the time. However, rehearsing with Buddy was a real trip because he didn’t know how to leave well enough alone. Once we got the song “down” Buddy would insist on doing it several more times even though there was no way to improve on it, so we were forced to deal with it. The evening was so successful that the management of the club consulted with all of us after the last set to book us for another engagement to which we all agreed.
We (the Soul Messengers) knew that we weren’t going to attend anymore super extended rehearsals with Buddy, so we opted to get to the Apex in enough advanced time just in case he wanted to add or subtract material. After he arrived he tried to put the shame on us for not having a rehearsal but I told him that everything would be just fine—and it was. At the end of the first set, during his announcements, he said, “How about a hand for Leonard King and the Soul Messengers”. The audience applauded wildly. Then he said, “They’re a good band but they don’t like to rehearse”. During the break I walked over to Buddy and politely mentioned to him that we played the show without any mistakes. He agreed it was an excellent show but he kept saying, “Yaw’ll didn’t make a rehearsal and you know we’re supposed to rehearse”. I couldn’t convince him otherwise yet he repeated the same comment to the audience after the 2nd & 3rd shows and, although we liked him and his sisters, we didn’t perform with them anymore afterwards.
The personnel of the Soul Messengers had changed but my brothers were there (Larry became Atiba during this time). William Wooten replaced George Rountree on organ. Ralph Todd was still on guitar and Warren Phinizee had replaced Walter Rudds on bass. Lindsey Brooks, my then-brother-in-law, was the vocalist. For the rest of the year I was able to maintain the day life/night life activities while figuring out where I fit into the scheme of things. On New Year’s Eve, 1971-72, we drove during a snow storm to Ypsilanti, Michigan, roughly 45 minutes west of Detroit, for a typical dance gig of the times. I became faced with an unexpected experience that added a dimension to my performing life which I might not have attempted—maybe later, but not then.
At some point a lady walked over to the stage and complained that we didn’t perform enough vocal numbers. When she asked who the bandleader was each one of those guys quickly pointed to me. She said we were an excellent group but we needed more vocals because “people want hear songs with some words”. I was totally outdone because I didn’t know how to coordinate drumming and singing together—only separate, which I was used to. This woman became such a pest by repeatedly coming to the stage, so I sang more to keep her at bay even though it was kicking my ass trying to coordinate both. By the end of the evening I had considered it a personal challenge in learning how to sing and play, and because of consistent gigs, I was able to get it together very quickly. Although I don’t have the slightest idea now who that woman was I still thank her to this day.
Violinist/bandleader Paul Whiteman once stated, in 1921, “We have to make a lady out of jazz”. Many historians have been very lukewarm or evasive in explaining what they’ve felt he meant by the statement. The usage of the word, jazz, has also been explained a countless number of times and the conclusions always vary. I like flautist/bandleader Herbie Mann’s assessment best. In one of the several interviews he participated during the ‘60’s for Downbeat Magazine he said, “Jazz—no one knows what it is. Everybody knows what it isn’t”. There have been many people I refer to as ‘revisionist historians’ who fabricate information to reflect their particular points of view, however, in all honesty, the words jazz, and blues, were actually derogatory words used to describe a certain music activity engaged in primarily by Black people in the U.S., early in the 20th century. It specifically meant ‘nigger music’ or ‘music of the niggers’ and nothing more. There are even those who have attached a sexual stigma in describing the music by saying jazz means to “jizz”, in other words, ejaculation or “coming” during sexual intercourse.
As for the re-vamping of music to sound ladylike, it is best to understand what it meant to be a lady in those days. In general she was a White female who had a limited role in everyday society and was expected to be subservient to White males. It was considered unthinkable for her to have her own viewpoints about sexuality, the right to have or not have children, the right to vote, the right to participate in political decision matters, the right to use ‘profane’ language in any social situation, the taboo of shaking a man’s hand too assertively, and the limitation of facial gestures to emphasize certain feelings whether words were expressed or not. Non-white females were, in general, not considered ladies at all, and other descriptions were used for them.
Making a “lady” out of the music meant to dilute the ‘Negroid’ qualities that were inherently natural to it from life on the African continent to the “New World”. To tone down its rhythmic assertiveness, alter the attitudes of song structures through Europeanized organization, and the use of lyrics reflecting “wholesome” values of everyday life was Whiteman’s kind of “lady”. This became difficult for him and others who shared his views at the time due to the phenomenal popularity of recordings by Black artists such as Mamie Smith and Ma Rainey beginning in the 1920’s and, most importantly, the desire among some of the early recording companies to establish a market for themselves by recording whatever necessary to create a public demand. Many White musicians were in awe of Black music expression and adapted themselves accordingly, especially since it was easier for them to attend live performances in Black neighborhoods, but not vice versa.
In the Black community there were many religious and civic leaders who were also at issue with the continued promotion of that “backwards devil music” which, in their way of thinking, only served to hasten the ruination of the ‘race’. Fast-forwarding to today, it appears that the views held by Whiteman and those early religious clergy and civic leaders are fully implemented when listening to a portion of music offerings post-1980. In other words, they won!! The dilution and elimination of the music’s uncompromising spirit is in effect. This music is practically non-existent in Black communities today in the United States, the cradle of the music’s infancy, and it was not acts by politicians or clergy alone that caused its demise.
The life blood of all humans is music—not religion or politics (especially throughout the African Diaspora). Why do I say this? Music, in reality, is actually magic. Over the years many definitions have been chosen by the status quo specifically to block the masses from receiving quality information. What we’ve been taught to be magic is actually called illusion, and there’s a formula in deciphering all acts of illusion from Harry Houdini to Doug Henning to David Copperfield, etc. In other words, there’s no mystery because each magical act can be easily explained in segments. However, this phenomenon erroneously called “music” cannot be explained when the musicians are able to perform uncompromising notes and vibrations without apology.
There have been many times in my life when certain things happen spontaneously between musicians that were not rehearsed. Yet what happens is that many ideas can be expressed between individuals who will play the same exact rhythm, melody, and harmony at the same exact time without looking at each other. Such things are not accidents or flukes but are end results to a kind of openness that happens when human energies are not opposed to each other—which is true unexplainable magic. I know we’re not taught such things but there’s a whole lot of important aspects of life that we’re not taught. Healing through music (magic) is common only in certain global communities that have maintained this phenomenon as apart of their everyday culture.
Since the mid 1970’s support for the music, among citizens who live in the “hood”, isn’t considered to be as important as it once was. In some cities it has been the constant promotion of crime in the news media intertwined with a faltering economy, the social devastation created through drug trafficking, the hiring of DJ’s to spin recordings and replace musicians, the discontinuance of live music by many latter-day proprietors of music venues who, even now, don’t know what the hell they’re doing. In their view the musicians are supposed do the majority of the work necessary to influence the participation of the general public in supporting venues while they (the proprietors) do very little. If the venue doesn’t turn a profit, from one day to the next, sometimes it’s considered to be the musicians fault—that’s crazy, ain’t it??
If I had a dry cleaning business would it be the fault of my employees if the public didn’t bring their clothes to my establishment? Would I be correct in berating them for not encouraging their family and friends to bypass other cleaning businesses and patronize mine often? Of course not!! That kind of thinking would be thought of as egotistical and self-centered. Many of today’s proprietors of music venues simply are not interested in canvassing their communities and becoming involved in the kind of action that can result in long term reciprocity. In other words, a limited partnering with other businesses and civic groups to create community support for the exchange of services rendered.
In the meantime whatever happened to the “chitlin’ circuit”?? It was a term used to describe the national network of music venues located in Black neighborhoods whose clientele was predominantly African American. Apparently it was not a term of endearment because there were some artists, famous among Black audiences, who began to complain and feel restricted in performing for “their own” regardless of how extensive their visibilities were geographically. They wanted to “cross over” to “where the money is” (the general code for White audiences) and most became disinterested in maintaining their original core audiences. Eventually the circuit disappeared as the support for many artists evaporated. For all of the excuses that have been expressed over time—the preference of attending professional and non-professional sports activities, supporting gaming establishments, the improvement in home entertainment products, and the declaration of poverty—it is obvious to me that this general apathetic attitude toward music—as it relates to public support—has been cultivated subliminally in producing the current state of existence.
I am most grateful to those people who have remained steadfast in their decisions to create regional outlets for the purpose of keeping the music alive, especially those who’s policies are all inclusive in allowing many artists to participate at their venues—not just a chosen few (such proprietors are rare these days). Supposedly, from what is often repeated in the media, there’s very little money available for the arts, education, and health care, but there’s an abundance of money available in the name of security and war. Nudity and human sexuality is still viewed by the many in the general population as being vulgar and disgusting. Politicians and their allies often vote for war and are in harmony with each other in understanding the economic profits to be made. As the award-winning journalist/investigator Greg Palast once stated: “Wars only end when they are no longer profitable”.
But politicians’ lives are not ruined by their support of war. Marital infidelity—among male politicians, not usually women—has been a key circumstance in bringing about the ruin of many (sometimes bribery, too). Oddly enough, as far as I know, not one guy has actually been caught in the act butt naked with any woman (who was naked herself). Instead it’s always been the innuendo, the hot rumors, the stories that are reported in the media that those guys cannot deny because of key people who ‘have the goods’ on them, therefore those are the circumstances which bring them down—not the number of people who die as a result of their political decisions. I personally feel that the Western world will not advance beyond where it is today (where it’s always been) due to the denial of some of the most natural aspects of life—music and sexual interactions, for examples—while embracing the most devastating aspects imaginable for adamant control of all living and non-living entities—war and homicidal interactions.
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Popular music—it is a description that has been in use for many decades to describe performances that are currently in vogue for public consumption. However, music performances, which have been historically broadcasted over the nation’s airwaves, are only allowed as a result of a loose group of individuals who have appointed themselves as the guardians of public taste. Popularity can only be achieved if a song is consistently rotated often throughout the course of a day. Even in the days before radio, television, and the internet, these ‘guardians’ of have existed. The Greek philosopher, Plato, believed that music should be censored and controlled to offset any possible influences in changing public behavior, especially if such behavior was not in accord with the social directions implemented by the ruling class.
Historians generally agree that Plato’s influence on Western culture is meritorious and has been embraced for several centuries through general adaptations that have been modified in accordance with the ideas of latter ruling classes. The article, “Plato’s Aesthetic”, written by Dr. David Clowney PhD, reveals Plato:
“wanted music and painting severely censored. The arts, he thought, are powerful shapers of character. Thus, to train and protect ideal citizens (my italics) for an ideal society, the arts must be strictly controlled”. (4)
It is my belief that much of our latter-day music industry has absorbed and implemented some of Plato’s general theories. “Popular” music that is promoted through the national media is consumed by the public largely through a ratings system. The “Top 100”, “Top 40”, and “Top 10” chart ratings via music industry trade magazines such as Billboard, Variety, and Cashbox (in past years) reflect a system of ‘green-lighted’ products in which the general public is deliberately groomed as consumers of pre-determined audio and video recordings considered to be safe, not necessarily thought provoking.
Saxophonist/composer Ornette Coleman’s music was considered to be weird in 1959 (although embraced by many people), yet these current times are beyond the year 2010, and his music is still considered weird? Coleman has had a very rewarding career with an international fan base. However, there has been absolutely no growth allowed for the repeated inclusion of his music or uncompromising sounds by others in the media rotation system (radio, television, etc.) which, I believe, is the outgrowth of Plato’s beliefs from centuries ago. Although he died in 347 B.C., his philosophies are very much alive in serving the needs of the so-called status quo even today, but not the general public.
Forward To a Different Dimension
In early 1971 someone suggested that I enroll in college to continue my education, especially since Uncle Sam would pay for it under the GI Bill. I was accepted to Wayne County Community College—WC3 as it is also known—at the beginning of February. This was a great experience for me because it was the first time ever in my life that I felt a real joy for academics, receiving all A’s and B’s for my coursework. WC3 did not have any campuses in Detroit during the years I attended so classes were held at various public schools throughout the city and, depending on the day and time courses were available, it was necessary for me to hop scotch across the city and near-suburbs to participate in classes (campuses were built soon afterwards). I enjoyed most of my instructors but the one who really caught my attention was historian Reginald Larrie. If I missed the first five minutes of his class it was like missing one hour because of so much information he imparted during each class. He also authored an informative book titled “Corners of Black History”.
1972 was a pivotal year for me. It was my second year back home after being discharged from the Army and, outside of my life in music, I wasn’t comfortable with having to deal with the same exact social interactions the way I did three years earlier, especially among my immediate family. They did not understand the transformation that had taken place within me. I returned home much more aware of myself, and I understood where I wanted to be as far as expressing myself among them, but it wasn’t possible to cultivate any different emotional interactions, and I flatly refused to tolerate pettiness or insensitivity through words or actions. I knew that it was difficult for them to truly understand my experiences in witnessing, and being effected by, the devastations of war, but I had outgrown the family dynamic and the way it had evolved—especially post-1959. Therefore I sometimes had to express myself in ways to let them know that I wasn’t one to be messed with (there’s no joy contained in that sentence). Unfortunately my matter-of-fact bluntness was misinterpreted like this: “Something’s wrong with Junior since he’s been back from the war”.
In order to save myself—and I use the word ‘save’ with all honesty and sincerity—I made the decision limit attending family gatherings around 1974 or ’75 with no regrets. With the exception of Greg, it’s possible that they still may not understand what really happened, but I haven’t been asked any hardcore questions either, so maybe Junior is still somewhat of a mystery to them—until now with this book. There wasn’t a government-sponsored program in existence to aid Vietnam veterans in their return to civilian life. Many years after the war’s end, a government study of the DEROS system for returning vets concluded that the system erred in allowing vets to return home alone—detached from their buddies with whom a bond or trust had developed during the tour of duty. I returned home in immediate isolation—from out-processing including being strip searched, the actual 18-hour flight, to in-processing back in the U.S. For me, as previously mentioned, the isolation was further intensified by my not getting paid on my return, plus the way the Army stranded me at the airport with no means of getting home.
In the early ‘70’s there was a popular television show called M*A*S*H that was aired weekly. I felt, and still feel, that the imagery of war, as depicted by the writing and the interplay of the actors, helped (among other things) to desensitize the American public from knowing anything & everything that was possible to know concerning the casualties of the war in Vietnam in all of its varying degrees. Of course the show created employment opportunities for those involved in its production, but it was a farce as far as depicting war as it really is. Here’s one example: Jamie Farr’s character, ‘Clinger’. There’s no way a muthafucka like that would have been allowed to exist in any war, not just the one in “Nam. A guy like that would have been sexually fucked and, afterwards, shot (only people who are squeamish and scared will cringe at the language I just used).
Horny men—with no women around them—will resort to doing all kinds of shit in a war zone. Fuck Hollywood depictions. Supposedly the time-period of the show took place during the Korean War in the early 1950’s. Even so, those scenarios were still a farce. Many GI’s figured out how to keep their spirits up regardless of the endless cycle of mortars, bullets, napalm, and grenades that were fired daily over our heads and, sometimes, right next to our asses. The blatant intensity of war was totally absent from the imagery depicted in the show for the obvious reasons: most American citizens who support war, and feel an inner justification in knowing that those wars are fought safe distances away from the United States do not want to experience the intensity and devastation of any war personally themselves including visual images.
Those who don’t support war are not inclined to want to know too much in depth. Maybe it would lead to organizing a large quantity of people all over the global community who might be effective in stopping wars from happening—and cutting off the rich elite’s money supply (it would take a lot of nerve and fearlessness among people to accomplish that, wouldn’t it)? One last point on this subject: who were the actual “baby killers” back then? I was fortunate that no one ever said those words to me, but I have always felt that it was unfair for anyone in the general public to hurl that phrase at returning veterans unless it was guys who bragged about taking people lives, especially the unarmed innocent. The corporations and mega-corporations are the killers who bask in the glow of their ‘blood money’. All wars are their wars as they safely tuck themselves away from the heat.
In the meantime it was my life in music that made the most sense to me. It was a social sphere that included people other than musicians, but music was the catalyst and the glue in a general bonding of relationships. The Soul Messengers experienced some personnel changes before and after the New Year began. Lindsey Brooks left in mid ‘71 after receiving a scholarship to play football at Jackson State College in Mississippi. Tim Allison, William Wooten, and Ralph Todd all left during the beginning of ’72. I was forced to fire Warren Phinizee because his indulgence in the substances caused him to be undependable (we lost a great musician in him at an early age). George Rountree had rejoined the group in January and I was glad to have him back with us after the year he spent with vocalist Billy Sha-rae.
By February we were a quartet that consisted of George, my brothers, and me. There was still plenty of work for the group because the Detroit economy was still thriving similar to previous years. After several weeks as a quartet I decided to fire Atiba for simply not being a team player, especially since we were like oil and water anyway. Greg left soon afterwards so I figured it was just another transition in the life of the group as far as personnel changes were concerned. It was during a lengthy engagement of at the Highland Park Holiday Inn when I met saxophonist Allan Barnes. I had already replaced Atiba with Edward Brooks on trumpet who was one of two younger brothers of Delores’, so when Greg left I asked Allan to join the group and he accepted.
It was also during that time when I decided that my year of working for Chrysler was over. As luck would have it I was fired the day before I was to quit which made it possible for me to collect unemployment for a while. In the meantime Allan stayed until he was accepted for enrollment to Howard University under the tutelage of Dr. Donald Byrd. As a result Allan became a charter member of the now-famous Blackbyrds group that Dr. Byrd assembled from some of his students. When I asked him to recommend someone as his replacement he suggested his uncle, Robert “Bobby” Barnes (Donald Byrd made his first recording, at age 15, with him). Bobby became a great mentor to me while a member of the group because he was older than the rest of us and had been performing professionally since the late 1940’s. He also had a great tenor saxophone sound in the tradition of guys like Buddy Tate and Willis “Gator Tail” Jackson.
Additionally he showed me how to improve my music notation skills which resulted in better written charts that were more mathematically coherent, plus he had a way of dropping pearls of wisdom on me in a moment’s notice that caused me look at something from another perspective. During one of our rehearsals he said to me, “Now that you’re out of the Army what do you want to do”? Very naively I said, “I want to get out there”. He looked straight at me and said, “Well…getting out there is easy. Staying out there is the hard part”. I just stood there afterwards with my mouth open for a few seconds but I knew exactly what he was saying, and I began to really think more seriously about what I had to do in order to sustain my life in music. To this day I thank Bobby for his wisdom and I can honestly say that, from 1972 to the present time, I’m still out here active in music.
By summer’s end I was forced to replace Edward because he was under-aged at 17, even though, at that time, the legal drinking age in Michigan had been lowered from 21 to 18. Although the band members were mindful in keeping him as far away from the bar as possible during break time, some club owners didn’t want to risk being charged with the appearance of serving alcoholic beverages to a minor by the state liquor commission, so Bobby recommended Jesse Virden to play trumpet. This combination lasted for roughly two months when, for whatever reason, work dried up temporarily, so we all took jobs elsewhere. When the work resumed Bobby and Jesse were busy with other things, so I hired guitarist Mike Johnson and we worked steadily as an organ trio until March 1973 when work offers for Leonard King and the Soul Messengers stopped. After ten years of maintaining a presence on the scene I knew we had gone as far as we could, and I was ok with letting go because we were fortunate to remain together that long without any effective management taking us to the next level. It has, and always will be, a source of pride for me in knowing how prepared in advance we were for the majority of all the artists we accompanied. George and I would transcribe music charts after getting the recordings. Some artists were only known for one or two recordings but their show consisted of other artists’ material. We were fortunate to have learned countless numbers of songs and earned the respect of the local music industry—it was OUR university.
During that same month Delores and I separated but were legally divorced early the following year. I maintained my relationship with Butch and had him with me very often. As a matter of fact he spent so much time with me that some people used to jokingly refer to him as my brother. Butch was basically doing ok until he entered middle school and essentially shut down from within. He just didn’t care about himself enough to put forth more of an attempt to improve, even if it meant being a “C” student. Instead he didn’t mind getting “E’s” and “F’s”. I wish I could say that I was able to get support from other family members but some of them actually coddled and spoiled him as a result of him being the first grandchild of his generation in our family. As frustrating as it was for me to witness his dilemma, it was equally frustrating not to be able to offset the direction in which he was headed. (At this point, in relating to the early chronology of my eldest son’s life, I’ve decided to refrain from revealing certain true episodes pertaining to him, his mother, and others because I would have to be super candid in doing so. Therefore I will only mention certain outcomes that should be easy enough to connect the dots in understanding what I choose to convey).
After the last days of the Soul Messengers I freelanced throughout the area and worked often with groups fronted by pianist Wilbert Peagler, bassist Curtis Rowland, and trombonist Norman O’Gara, among others. It was on a dance job with Peagler when I met guitarist Ron English at Local 49 on Oakman Boulevard at 14th Street on the west side. Little did I know that our paths would cross even more significantly in a few short months. Soon afterwards I met organist/pianist Lyman Woodard with Rowland on a dance gig at Mercy College on West Outer Drive a few blocks north of the Southfield Freeway. Lyman played the Wurlitzer electric piano that evening, and it was a special event for me because I knew back in the mid ‘60’s that I would hook up with him one day. In those days it was impossible to drive on the Lodge Freeway in either direction without seeing a sign, in large bold & black lettering on a white background—THE LYMAN WOODARD TRIO!! on the front of the Frolic Show Bar, located on the west service drive near West Euclid Street.
To this day I can’t explain how I knew I’d be working with him, especially since I didn’t meet or hear him until mid ’73, but it was yet to come. In August I received a call from a friend of mine from the old neighborhood who hired me to provide music for his wedding reception. I didn’t have a working band at the time because I still needed a break from regular band leading responsibilities, but I called Lyman and he accepted the gig. I told him I needed a bass player and he said, “Ron English plays bass”, so I had an instant trio that met at the gig with no rehearsal, but it worked out very well (I didn’t know Ron played electric bass, either). In September Lyman called Ron and myself to join him in a new trio to work every Thursday through Saturday at the Hobby Bar, at the corner of Linwood & Buena Vista Streets. Although the two of them had worked together intermittently since the early ‘60’s, I didn’t know what to musically expect but I knew it would be happening.
For all the experience I had gained from 1960 until then, Lyman’s and Ron’s original compositions—and their arrangements of other composers’ works—was a music territory to which, in many ways, I was ‘green’ to certain aspects but I caught on quickly. Lyman didn’t own an organ at the time but the club had its own ‘house’ organ (due to the popularity of musicians and recordings that featured the Hammond organ, it was common for club owners in many cities to purchase the instrument and install it as a permanent fixture). Also Lyman and Ron played their alternative instruments, electric piano & electric bass which gave us a two-bands-in-one type of presentation. After two months of steady rehearsals and weekly employment Lyman decided to take the trio into a huge former warehouse space that was being used for a makeshift studio.
For two days, November 26th & 27th, we recorded in that space which was located in the back of the Strata Concert Gallery. Most of the material was featured nightly at the Hobby Bar and was included in the release of the album two years later. The selections that didn’t make it to the final stage were “Love Theme from Spartacus”, and “Post Bebop Morality” which was a combination of two Charlie Parker melodies played simultaneously as a single theme—“Billie’s Bounce” & “Au Privave”. Spartacus wasn’t used because we never achieved a satisfactory take despite the slick groove it had. The Charlie Parker songs didn’t fit the overall characteristics of the other material, but at the time we hadn’t arrived to that conclusion. The original sessions were recorded on a 4-track reel-to-reel Teac tape deck with 10-inch reels recording at 7 ½ ips, and was owned by Barry Hershon who was the engineer and a friend of Lyman’s. The sessions were produced by trumpeter Charles Moore and drummer Bud Spangler who, in addition to pianist Kenn Cox, were the founders of Strata Records, a Detroit-based record company that was an outgrowth of the gallery.
We met percussionist Lorenzo Brown in Ann Arbor during a Sunday afternoon engagement in early October at the Del Rio Bar & Restaurant in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was (and still is) a small place that was a favorite meeting spot for students attending the University of Michigan. It was during some song we were playing when I thought I was hearing something very percussive but, because it was so crowded with people, I didn’t see anyone so I thought it was just my imagination. However, the audience became more excited as the sound became clearer and closer to the makeshift bandstand. Finally through an opening I saw Lorenzo. He was playing multi rhythms with a drum stick inside a large cowbell as he danced through the aisle from the front door to the back where we were. All of us were impressed with him as he continued to sit in with us for the rest of the gig. The following week Lyman convinced the owner of the ‘Hobby’ to hire Lorenzo, which is how he became included on the sessions.
The gig at the Hobby Bar lasted until February 1974 and, before it ended, had expanded to four nights a week. During the first few months with the group I noticed that Lyman had a quality in his personality that drew people to him and especially his music. During our days off in the beginning of the week I would be ‘chomping at the bit’ in anticipation of our rehearsals and gig nights. When the Hobby gig ended he told us about a remodeled night club that was soon to open in downtown Detroit inside the Pick Fort Shelby Hotel at West Lafayette & 1st Streets. We eventually started there the first week in April. The initial clientele at J.J.’s Lounge were not necessarily music lovers, so we had to tone down in order to keep the peace. It wasn’t long before our audiences were transformed with real party people who dug what we were playing. When Norma Bell joined the group during the summer the party animals really showed up. Lyman change the name of the group from the Lyman Woodard Trio to the Lyman Woodard Organization. Soon we were working six nights a week, Monday through Saturday, and the atmosphere in the club was happening every night. Although it only held a total capacity of 120 persons, each set would be jammed packed in rotation.
During this time I decided to discontinue my studies at WC3. I wanted to get further “out there” in my chosen profession of music and the pursuit of a higher formal education wasn’t important to me at that time (although it would be 26 years later). I remained with Lyman until late October when I left because of music differences. After Norma joined the band Lyman allowed a different music direction to happen that excluded much of the material we were playing before she joined. He wasn’t calling rehearsals for her to learn those songs, and if we did perform any of them she’d leave the stage rather than stand there for entire song without playing. I began to feel musically inhibited as a result. Working six nights a week didn’t allow me time to cultivate any alternatives to satisfy the void I was feeling, so I left the group and freelanced for the rest of the year straight through 1975, the year the November 1973 sessions were released on Strata Records as ‘Saturday Night Special’. I also began hosting a few radio programs on WDET-FM, eventually inheriting Bud Spangler’s ‘Jazz Today’ show when he left Detroit for San Francisco. I renamed the program “Full Circle” and it existed from June 1976 to October 1980.
As for ‘Saturday Night Special’ I recall attending a couple of overdub sessions after I left the group. During the first one I overdubbed my vocal track on ‘Creative Musicians’. Norma overdubbed her alto saxophone solo on ‘Joy Road’ shortly afterwards, and Lyman did quite a bit of overdubbing himself. By then John Sinclair, who Lyman had known since the early ‘60’s, became involved in the project. Sinclair was able to secure the use of the mobile recording truck owned by John Lennon & Yoko Ono and used it to finish the album. When I heard the final results I was shocked and disappointed because of the overall muddy sound (which was much clearer at first despite the echo-y room sound). Lyman changed the name of one of his compositions, ‘Black Bull’, to ‘Saturday Night Special’.
He also said it would be the title track of the album, so I envisioned an album cover with some kind of partying concept. I was shocked again to see the cover when it was finally released. The Detroit media was promoting its own environment as “The Murder City Capitol of the World” which I felt was pitiful in comparison to another city whose homicide rate was staggeringly higher. Therefore to give the album such a title further emphasized the media slant as far as I was concerned. Despite my feelings about the cover art at the time it’s the music that has become so regenerative, and I am amazed that the album is still popular with fans around the world—from our generation (Lyman, Ron, & myself) to young people in their 20’s in each decade and I’m very proud of being associated with it.
Turning Other Corners
From 1975 to 1982 I participated in many recording sessions, primarily at United Sound System in Detroit, and Pac 3 Studio, 7056 Greenfield Road in Dearborn, Michigan. It was an honor for me to be involved with pianist/organist Earl Van Dyke, and guitarist Robert White for some of those sessions. They were music heroes of mine long before Earl invited the Soul Messengers to the Chit Chat Lounge in December 1967. The great arranger David Van DePitte, who’s most famous for arranging the ‘What’s Going On’ sessions for Marvin Gaye, was the arranger on several of those sessions, too. I was employed by various producers including William Witherspoon who, like several people formerly employed with the Motown Records Corporation, elected to remain in Detroit instead of moving to Los Angeles, California. The session I did with Witherspoon was rhythm heavy to the bone and included percussionists Lorenzo Brown and Cato Witherspoon (William’s brother), bassist Roderick ‘Peanut’ Chandler, pianist Fito (I don’t remember his last name), organist Van Dyke, guitarist Eddie ‘Soup Bone’ Willis, and myself at the ‘traps’. It was a supercharged rhythm section and the pulsation was unbelievable in its overall feeling, but it was difficult for me to harness all of those rhythms and prevent the group from rushing the tempo until David told the cats, in a nice way, to let everything breathe naturally, and it worked
I met vocalist Dennis Rowland at some point during ’75 and began working with him at Dummy George’s, which was a very popular nightclub on West McNichols (6 Mile Road) at Griggs Street in northwest Detroit. Life for me as a freelanced musician during this period was very good. By then I was visible and available enough in receiving offers for work, and the quality of the musicians was excellent regardless of the type of job: night clubs, cabaret show & dances, weddings, or backyard barbeques. Although I enjoyed that scene very much I started to get the itch to become a bandleader again because of some particular music ideas I was hearing in my mind.
One morning in May 1976 I received a call from George Rountree asking if I would like to join vocalist Eddie Kendricks’ ensemble and I accepted. I had always dug Eddie’s singing when he was with The Temptations and, of course, George and I had worked together for many years in the Soul Messengers, so I accepted and joined May 21st. Eddie’s band consisted of mostly Detroiters: Eddie Willis-guitar, Roderick “Peanut” Chandler-bass, George on the Hammond organ, and myself on drums. Jules Vogel, the music director from Los Angeles, California, played piano and directed. Maude Mobley, from Detroit, was one of two backing vocalists (the other one was from Los Angeles but I don’t recall her name). Eventually horns were added including Gordon Camp & Jesse Virden-trumpets, Flip Jackson-saxophones & flute, and Don White-trombone, who was a veteran Motown Records session musician.
Eddie had a great show and a lot of hit songs including “Can I”, “Boogie Down Baby”, “Shoe Shine Boy”, “He’s A Friend”, and several others including a Temptations medley. Travel and hotel accommodations were really happening, plus the camaraderie among everyone was fun. At the time I joined his itinerary was filled with dates for the U.S., and I was told there would be some dates in Europe later in the year. Unfortunately everything began to change after a telephone conversation Eddie had with his manager, while we were in the lobby of the Hollywood Franklin hotel, in which he repeatedly told the guy, “You haven’t done nothing’ for me”. I was standing not far from Eddie so it was impossible not to hear what he was saying even though it really wasn’t any of my business. After hanging up the phone he told us that he was in charge from now on and things would get even better—wrong, wrong!! Bookings started dropping off like crazy and it didn’t take long, so he enlisted the services of a contraband salesman (you know what I mean?) to bankroll his operation in an attempt to maintain everything the way it had been.
‘Had been’ was just that—past tense. Nothing improved and Eddie didn’t help matters either whenever he decided to bitch at somebody he thought was an easy target. On the morning of September 4th, 1976, several hours after a gig at the Indianapolis Convention Center (Indiana), we were preparing to return to Detroit when he demanded that everyone stand in a circle in the parking lot so he could reprimand us one at a time, supposedly in reference to the show the previous night. His voice wasn’t happening but we were, so I waited for him to arrive in front of me. When he did I let him talk without interruption. When he finished I told him that he was the one who didn’t have his stuff together, and the rest of us backed him one zillion percent. He didn’t like that but I could have cared less, especially since I was the only one who spoke up. After returning to Detroit I decided to put a group together and leave Eddie’s sinking ship. Deep down in his soul I believe Eddie was a good guy who had a tendency to trust the wrong people who didn’t mean him any good.
I still worked with Dennis Rowland often when I wasn’t touring. He called soon after I returned from Naptown to gig at Dummy George’s (audiences dug him so much he was booked there often). After arriving at the club I noticed he’d added a guitarist to the group. His name was George Green and we became fast friends who had a lot in common musically. Soon afterwards we decided to form a band with the other members of the Dennis’ backing group. After three or four rehearsals George and I knew we’d have to get some other cats, so bassists Mark Geddes, Beverly Yancy, and pianist Rod Williams were briefly on board during the first year. The initial name we chose for the group was The Good Life Conspiracy until early 1977 when we settled for Strata Nova. For a year the core members were Bobby Wright-electric piano, Max Koster-electric bass, in addition to George and myself. Some of the venues we worked in Detroit were Cobb’s Corner (Cass Avenue & West Willis), The Speakeasy (Grand River off Cass Avenue), Jim’s Garage (Washington Boulevard & Larned), Cotillion Club ( Puritan Avenue north of Schafer Road), Song Shop (Cass Avenue & West Forest), Carson’s Supper Club (Amsterdam Street west of Woodward), and the Soup Kitchen (Franklin & Orleans Streets). Outside Detroit we performed at the Delta Lady (Woodward Avenue, two blocks south of Nine Mile Road in Ferndale), and Marcelle’s (Woodward Avenue north of Interstate 696), among others.
In mid ’77 Dennis was personally hired by the great Count Basie himself and remained with his orchestra for several years. Strata Nova kept busy on a weekly basis which was a good thing. We rehearsed two or three days a week to keep the music tight in preparing for performances at our usual spots, which would often lead to work in other venues through word of mouth, especially if another venue became aware of our ability to draw large audiences. Many patrons would request our original compositions in addition to the cover songs we performed (which often were rearranged to fit our music persona). During the years 1975 through 1980 I lived in the Milford Court Apartments on the corner of West Grand Boulevard and Milford Street. It was a very prolific time in my life for composing songs that were different from the ones I’d written earlier, and it felt good to take musical risks with song structures. I felt the music could be accessible to the average person without sacrificing my need to ‘fly’. Many hours were spent sitting at that kitchen table allowing a creative process that seemed to have no end.
I joined Lyman again in a new group he assembled with Robert Lowe-guitar, Allan Barnes-tenor saxophone, and Ron Jackson-trumpet in the spring of 1978. Fortunately I was able to commit to both Lyman and my own group without scheduling conflicts. That version of the Lyman Woodard Organization recorded the still popular ‘Don’t Stop the Groove’ live session at Cobb’s Corner in late January the following year. I learned a valuable lesson after leaving his group in ’74: to always have my own ensemble as an outlet to exhibit whatever music directions I wanted to pursue; therefore I wouldn’t have a reason to complain about anything as long as I felt musically nourished. Lyman was one of the greatest bandleaders I ever worked for. I participated in three different ensembles he organized—1973 through ’74, 1978 through ’79, and 1986 through ’88, including innumerable engagements throughout southeast Michigan for 35 years.
During the late 1970’s I was very pleased with the music goals I was achieving, and the employment opportunities that were available to me (little did I know that this era would soon be ending). As a result of my radio program sometimes I would get request from people to interview me or participate in panel discussions pertaining to music. One day in December 1978 I received a call from Dennis Talbert who was associated with the Afro-American Museum—first situated in a series of row houses—which was located on West Grand Boulevard just east of West Warren. (This was several years before Dr. Charles Wright, founder of the museum, was instrumental in relocating to a larger facility on Frederick Douglass Avenue, between Brush & John R Streets, then eventually relocating again to its present location at East Warren & Brush Streets, where it was renamed the Dr. Charles Wright Museum of African American History).
If I remember correctly, Dennis and others were assembling an exhibit showcasing music and musicians of different eras related to Detroit. I lived two blocks away and walked to the main entrance where I met Dennis and an elderly gentleman who possessed an aura of peacefulness and self-assuredness that left a lasting impression on me. Banjoist/vocalist Dave Wilborn was 74 years of age at the time, and he was feeling on top of the world as a result of his involvement with the recreated New McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. It was around 1924 when he joined percussionist William McKinney’s Synco Septet in Springfield, Ohio, which is where he was from. This ensemble accepted an offer for work in Detroit at some point during the following year. On the condition of a change in the group’s name, the group became known as McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. Initially some of the band members were insulted by that name (“Aw man, we’re not from the South. We don’t know anything about picking any damn cotton”) but it became permanent.
Dennis interviewed Dave immediately after mine concluded, so I stuck around to hear his reminisces and was so impressed that I asked him to be a guest on my radio program five days later. After arriving he looked at me and said, “Back to where I started again”, which was in reference to tuba player David Hutson seeking him out to start the New McKinney’s Cotton Pickers as a result of an interview he heard with Dave a few years earlier at the same radio station—WDET-FM. He was in good spirit throughout the interview and I made a decision that evening to capture, evolve, and maintain a similar joy and calm within myself that I witnessed with him. It happened, but much later….I’ll tell you about it in chronological time.
Strata Nova was still doing well in ’78 when Bobby Wright left so we replaced him with percussionist Craig “Congo Boogie” Brown rather than hire another pianist. During his audition he played with so much fire and conviction that George and I agreed to hire him right away. 1979 was also a good year for the group but the following year, as the fall season came, was to be the dawning of a new day of observing ‘the well running dry’. At one point Max Koster left for a short period of time and when he returned the personnel remained the same until I disbanded the group in 1980. The overall scene in Detroit began to drastically change and I wasn’t going to revamp the group into an all-disco band in the name of work. Additionally Craig had a girlfriend who was trying to sabotage my leadership by telling him I didn’t know what I was doing, and we would be better off if she managed the group, plus she was gaining influence over the other members, too. I didn’t care if Craig allowed the punani to rule him but I wasn’t going to allow it to rule me—especially by proxy. (A couple of years later she became his own personal nightmare—and then some).
By early 1980 I needed a change musically and it happened. Enter Donald Washington. A good friend, poet/author Kofi Natambu, told me I should hook up with Don because we had similar points of view. I wasn’t familiar with him at the time but Kofi kept insisting that we were musically compatible. Don had founded a youth orchestra among his music students at Remus Robinson Middle School on Detroit’s far eastside and managed to get great results. Eventually he titled the ensemble ‘Bird Trane Sco Now’, the references being Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Roscoe Mitchell, and whatever was happening ‘now’. Soon afterwards bassist Rodney Whitaker, saxophonists Cassius Richmond & James Carter would join the orchestra. Don and his wife, Faye, both specialize in woodwind instruments among others. Both were teaching in the Detroit Public Schools system at the time and I became a frequent visitor to their home on Braile Street near Rouge Park on the far Westside. Their children, Kevin & Donna, couldn’t help being submerged in music because it was saturated in their household. In the meantime Kevin learned his lessons well and has become an excellent musician as a drummer, pianist, and teacher in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota.
As 1980 drew to a close the ill winds of change blowing throughout metro Detroit had intensified and it wasn’t comforting. It was apparent to me that a movement was gaining momentum in undermining workers rights for annually increased benefits and better working conditions. I generally understood what was happening in Detroit in reference to the increased pressure generated by anti-union corporate bosses, and how all businesses were being impacted by their tactics. The bosses had powerful lobbyists to do their bidding for them in Washington D.C. Then-President Jimmy Carter began the process of targeting the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) in February 1981 to destroy them and weaken the effectiveness of their union, which was very powerful at the time. This was the “trial balloon” (test case) prelude to launch a national strategy for union busting in general.
On August 3, 1981, 11,359 air traffic controllers walked off the job. On August 4 President Ronald Reagan fired them all setting off national repercussions. The Democrat (Carter) started it and the Republican (Reagan) finished it—good buddies and not a damn thing was partisan about it (happens all the time). The success of defeating PATCO resounded loudly in Detroit and all of Michigan among the Big Bosses and it was never the same after they began slashing and bashing wages and operating budgets. By 1982 unemployment in Detroit drastically increased and most workers were unavoidably affected. For me the difference between 1979 and 1982—three short years—yielded results that fostered a certain anger within. As polarized as Detroit has always been traditionally in maintaining its class, caste, and racial systems, I was faced with a criteria created by some venue owners that determined whether I worked or not. Sometimes I would be asked how many white people were in the group. At the time (1979) Strata Nova was a quartet with three Blacks and one White. One club owner told me, “I classify that combination as an all Black group. If it was half and half or three Whites and one Black then I could hire you”. Then he stated his disclaimer: “Of course it doesn’t make any difference to me, but the clientele here won’t stand for it”.
I stopped seeking work in night establishments as far as band leading was concerned during the ‘80’s, but I accepted offers from others, even if it meant putting on a tuxedo and singing in a marginal society band. Despite the overall downward economic spiral I was witnessing, I became part of a group of musicians who frequently performed in each others homes. We called them “open hits”, not jam sessions, because our musical aims were centered on spontaneous improvisation rather than preconceived ideas and arrangements. We created special music agreements every time that sounded as though everything was rehearsed, but we had (and still have) a bond among us in knowing what to do. Trombonist William Townley, saxophonist Anthony Holland, pianist Kenny Green, bass clarinet & bassist Ubadah, bassist Calvin Perry (deceased), reed instrumentalists & percussionists Donald & Faye Washington, and myself. Invariably other cats would join us but we were the core players. We also managed to get paying gigs often enough without having to sacrifice anything musically.
For example, Don and I performed at the Ann Arbor Art Fair in July 1981 on the University of Michigan campus and tore the roof off the place. Well…not exactly because it was an outdoor engagement, but the audience really dug our presentation with just a saxophone and drum set group. I was also involved with bassist/vocalist Ali Jackson Sr., after he returned to Detroit to live in 1976 after years of living in New York City. Ali was a part of the population of Detroit musicians who moved to NYC in the mid 1950’s seeking better employment opportunities. His reason for returning was to help care for his aging mother who died a year later but he remained in Detroit afterwards. Ali was a real hustler who managed to ‘scare up’ work in the most unobvious places such as Saturday morning gigs in front of the R.L. Hurt Peanut Factory located in the Eastern Market on the city’s east side, and a small park bench area at the northeast corner of Monroe & St. Aubin Streets in Greektown (downtown Detroit).
Of course those were warm-weather situations, but during the winter months we’d work other jobs, not typical music venues but places where someone liked what we were doing and hired us. For me that was the kind of training that could only be achieved through understanding street culture and Ali was the king of knowing which way the wind was blowing. I worked with him often until he died in July 1987. He requested a concert instead of a typical funeral because he wanted the music to be precedent over everything else. Also his family told me that he appointed me as the music director. The entire proceedings, including dinner, lasted eight hours with so many musicians participating and it was a lot of fun from beginning to end.
Since the music scene was turned upside down from days past I decided to get a day job, but only with something that involved music, and in an area that I was familiar with as a consumer—a record store. Sam’s Jams, owned and operated by Steve Milgrom in Ferndale, was a store where I spent lots of time browsing and buying phonograph records, tapes, and eventually CD’s. He was familiar with me through my radio program, so I ‘sounded’ on him to hire me as a salesman and he did immediately. I used to really enjoy observing customers browse through the record bins while I ‘sized them up’ at a distance in determining what their music tastes were. Once I saw them patting their feet or looking at the speakers with inquisitive looks on their faces I knew I had a sale that was good to go. The other employees couldn’t understand how I knew the customer would buy the product, but it came from my training as a musician in learning how to read an audience and captivate them with a particular song according to the tempo, and the ‘feel’ (texture) of the music.
In 1981 I was asked to put a band together for a relative’s retirement party from then-Michigan Bell. Guitarist Kevin Carter had been after me to call him for a gig (especially when he found out I called another guitarist for the previous one). Don was always my first choice for woodwinds during that period, so I hired Kevin and bassist Donald Mayberry who frequented many of the groups I led in those days. At the end of the evening Kevin asked Don (Washington) if he gave music lessons because his kid brother needed a saxophone teacher. Of course he had no way of knowing that Don was one of the hippest instructors to ever teach in the Detroit Public Schools system and he told Kevin to bring his brother to his home for an audition. I was aware of the day and time set for the 13-year old to arrive so later that day I called Don to find out how it went and he was complimentary but casually said, “Wait until you hear him”. I was intrigued enough to find out shortly afterwards.
It wasn’t long before I heard James Carter on alto saxophone at Don’s home and was blown away. He had an old soul’s musical maturity from waayy back somewhere and his consumption of music encompassed all eras, which is why I had to hire him to play with my group. The first available opportunity happened December 6, 1984 at Detroit Audio Systems, 13110 West McNichols (Six Mile Road) on the northwest side of town. He was 15, four weeks shy of his 16th birthday, and he brought saxophonist Alex Harding with him. The other members were my old friend George Green-guitar, Barbara Huby (hugh-bee)-percussionist, and bassist Will Austin. It was a decent sounding group for a one-time outing but it was the first of innumerable jobs James and I participated in before he moved to New York in 1990. In ’98 he began to call me intermittently for various jobs, and from 2001 forward I’ve been permanently on board.
As I’ve stated earlier, the 1980’s was a strange period in my life but music activity remained as the glue that bonded the basic aspects together. During the fall of 1983 I began dating Annie Sanders. She had three children that I became very fond of and, for a short time, became their surrogate father in contrast to their actual fathers who were more than absent. We married in the spring of 1985 and eventually had two sons, Rahsaan Haadee King, and Qaadir Ali King, who were born in 1986 and 1988 respectively. It was a short-lived marriage (and rightfully so) that ended in ’88 but, as far as I’m concerned, my sons are the crown jewels to come from that relationship and I really enjoyed (and still enjoy) being in their lives and helping them grow to adulthood.
Given the circumstances that happened to Butch, my eldest son, as he declined my help in offsetting his downward spiral, it’s possible that I would have felt like a failure as a father if I hadn’t started again. Rahsaan and Qaadir are wonderful sons who, as children, were easy to raise, and now that they’re grown men I’m very proud of who they’ve become. (Here again I have abstained from revealing a lot of negative info pertaining to my relationship with Annie—who no longer uses that name. Sometimes I miss those days when both Rahsaan and Qaadir were kids, but I’m more than glad for these days since my interactions with Annie are totally nil).
In early 1985 I decided to form ‘The Strata Nova Orchestra’ with several musicians who were in my orbit at the time plus some of the youngsters in ‘Bird Trane Sco Now’. Many of the compositions performed were mine but included others by Randy Weston, Herbie Hancock, Lyman Woodard, Bobby Hutcherson, and Duke Ellington. Two concerts were presented April 8, and June 16, 1985 at the Theatre of the First Unitarian Church, the northwest corner of Cass Avenue & West Forest on Detroit’s west side (by Wayne State University). The orchestra personnel of the April show was comprised of Regina Carter-violin, Troy Lintez-trumpet, Ellis Washington-French horn, William Townley-trombone, James Carter, Willie Yates, Faye & Donald Washington-saxophones & flutes, Clifford Sykes-marimba & percussion, George Green-guitar, Rodney Whitaker-acoustic bass, Max Koster-electric bass, Danny Lewis-conga drums and percussion, & Dave Cox-multiple bass drums. Poets and spoken word artists were also featured: Trinidad ‘Trino’ Sanchez, Kofi Natambu, Kaleema Hasan, and Ray Tricomo. My special guests were percussionist Roy Brooks, and bassist/vocalist Ali Jackson Sr.
The personnel for the June concert was basically the same as the first with the exception of James Carter who was accepted at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in Twin Lake, Michigan, so I added saxophonists Cassius Richmond and Cookie Harrell to the ensemble (Rodney & Cookie would marry soon after high school). Also poet/author Lolita Hernandez joined us and it was the first time she’d performed with music accompaniment. The April concert was the first time Regina and James had performed together and I’m proud of the fact that it was within my ensemble. Both of them and Rodney have evolved with very distinguished careers in music, and I am proud of what they’ve accomplished so far. The Theater of the First Unitarian Church became my spot for the next three years in presenting concerts which allowed us to produce music without any limitations as far as the contents were concerned. All of the concerts after June ’85 were small group presentations featuring a core group of cats including James, Kenny Green, William Townley, Dave Cox, and Ron English. Although attendance for some of the shows in ’86 and ’87 were sometimes marginal at best, we carried on until mid-1988 when I decided to discontinue the series.
Speaking of Roy Brooks, I met him in the mid ‘70’s after he returned to Detroit to live after residing in New York City for many years. The initial encounter was at WDET-FM while I was hosting my radio program. The second time was at the short-lived Aboriginal Percussion Center that he co-owned with percussionist Charlie Bannister on the northwest side of the city. Eventually he called me to join his Aboriginal Percussion Choir in early 1983 and it was the first time ever for me to be a member of an all-percussion ensemble. Roy really knew how to get the best out of the musicians and his compositions were fun to play. He also accepted a suite I’d written titled ‘Alkebulanian Panoramic Viewpoints’ for inclusion to the repertoire, which was an honor because we played mostly his original material. In this ensemble he played steel drums, a carpenter’s saw, vibraphone & marimba, acoustic piano, electric keyboard with attachments including an Echoplex machine, a large sanza (forerunner to the latter-day kalimba), and drum set (Max Roach and Roy referred to it a multiple percussion set).
The ensemble included tap dancer (or terpsichorean) Flash Beaver (Virgil West), Emile Borde-steel drums, David Cox-multiple bass drums, Mubarik Hakim-djembe drum & conga drums, Barbara Huby (now Davis)-conga drums & percussion, Fahali Igbo-electric bass & African percussion, Gerald Jackson (Milt’s nephew)-vibraphone, Modibo Keita-djembe drum & percussion, Sundiata Keita-djembe & conga drums, Jerry LeDuff-electronic percussion & steel drums, Clifford Sykes-marimba, Harold Page and myself-drum sets. We performed at some great venues including the Detroit Institute of Arts with drummers J.C. Heard & Max Roach (two separate concerts), the Michigan League Ballroom on the campus of the University of Michigan, the Detroit International Jazz Festival, Chene Park Amphitheatre, and the Dr. Charles Wright Museum of African American History. We rehearsed most Sunday afternoons in the basement of Roy’s home on Quincy Street, a couple of blocks east of Grand River Avenue on the west side and I was with the ensemble for six years. The majority of our performances were very memorable to me including one that wasn’t a public performance.
Pianist Horace Silver came to Baker’s Keyboard Lounge one summer day in 1987 with a quintet that included vocalist Andy Bey, and drummer Carl Burnett. It’s common knowledge that Roy was a member of the Horace Silver Quintet from 1959 to 1964 and they remained in touch intermittently, so Horace wanted to see the Percussion Choir perform. We weren’t gigging anywhere that week so we all agreed to meet at Roy’s home so Horace could check us out. The only minor problem was a lack of transportation in getting Horace, Andy, and Carl from the Holiday Inn on West Nine Mile Road & Interstate 75 in Hazel Park, Michigan to Roy’s house and back, so I volunteered to drive my car. Those cats dug us and that’s no exaggeration, either. At one point Horace was so inspired with the music he asked for a cowbell so he could play with us. He also shared a lot of historical music anecdotes with me about his days in New York and some of his philosophies about nutrition. For me it was another crowning example of the oral tradition of education that’s most direct as opposed to formal methods of teaching that can sometimes be non-inclusive of certain factual information.
In early 1987 Lyman form another group that included Larry Smith-alto saxophone, Jeribu Shahid-bass, and myself. Lyman absolutely loved Larry’s playing so I wasn’t surprised when he ‘sounded’ on him for a gig at Café Josef on Griswold Street between Grand River and State Streets. That particular quartet was short-lived so he reformed the group adding Marlene Rice-violin, and Ron English-guitar. Although Ron, Lyman, and I had worked intermittently in other combinations of musicians under our varying leaderships, it had been years since we’d worked together on a weekly basis. After Jeribu left in the fall of ’87 Lyman brought in Sabrina Lamar-alto saxophone, and Diego Melendez-conga & bongo drums and vocals. We returned to Café Josef working three nights a week which was a great way to fine-tune all of the new material we rehearsed at Lyman’s house. The essential difference, equipment-wise, was he no longer owned a Hammond organ and instead opted to use a Yamaha DX-7 synthesizer.
The days of the organ bar and the east coast/Midwest organ belt had ended without fanfare. Even Jack McDuff and Charles Earland, among others, were recording and performing live with the Fender/Rhodes electric piano and various synthesizers because of the common industry assessment of those days: “Organ records don’t sell”. For me it was a drag to witness that particular change because too many organists were forced to adjust to the whims and changing policies within the unregulated music industry. Despite the shifting currents in the music business between 1950 and 1980, a certain amount of adventure in music was allowed that served as a point of departure in reference to typical radio play lists nationally. By the late 1980’s it was rare to hear any new recordings featuring organists who were popular in the ‘60’s and were still active. Lyman managed to get passable pseudo organ sounds from the DX-7 despite the absence of the ‘Big Wood’ but it was most unfortunate that the ‘87/’88 band was never recorded. To this day Ron and I remember performing several of Lyman’s ever evolving compositions which were, by then, steeped in African-Cuban music mixed with his own particular Detroit musicality.
He disbanded the group near the end of ’88 and the following year joined the Sun Messengers which was founded by saxophonist Rick Steiger. I recall him saying that he didn’t want to lead a band anymore having to subject himself to the circumstances that many of us, who had been around for a number of years, were dealing with at the time. In mid-1989 bassist Rodney Whitaker and I began assembling a group to perform different musical ideas. By then he and Cookie Harrell were married and had two children which would eventually expand to seven. We tried in vain to assemble a group but the only cats who came to rehearsals were either saxophonist Gary Farrow or trombonist Vincent Chandler, but only for a couple of times each. Eventually the group was just Rodney and me which is why I named it Proportioned Orchestra. We managed to get a big group sound despite the bass & drums/vocals combination. It was a perfect example of creating a grand audio illusion that sounded like more than two people—without any electronic enhancement gadgetry. As slick as our concept was we didn’t find much work but I don’t believe it had anything to with the instrumentation. Instead it had everything to do with the decline in the overall live music scene which, at that time, featured mostly reggae or blues bands. Fortunately we made some recordings that will eventually be released.
Meanwhile on the family front, my son Butch made a decision that he has yet to recover from. He allowed himself to be influenced into joining the U.S. Navy by his stepfather who wanted him out of the house—and repeatedly told him so. At the time he was enrolled in Schoolcraft College in Livonia, Michigan taking culinary arts courses and was doing very well. His instructors liked his work so much they chose him to participate in a few culinary arts shows at various places including Cobo Hall in downtown Detroit. Unfortunately whatever influence I used to have on him was gone by 1989 and it was painful for me to witness that he couldn’t see the outcome of his bad personal choices. Eventually the ship he was assigned to was sent to the country of Bahrain during the Persian Gulf War. He was there for several weeks before the ship was reassigned to its home port in Charleston, South Carolina.
During his off-duty hours he began hanging out with a young woman and her family who had a tendency of getting into a certain amount of trouble. Eventually he went AWOL—twice—causing the authorities to build a case against him. Things deteriorated rapidly for him which resulted in his arrest on a couple of charges and being sentenced to six years for each one. Fortunately for him he had the most lenient judge in Charleston who allowed him to serve six years for each charge concurrently instead of the full twelve years. I was there at his sentencing and, afterwards, accepted phone charges for his many calls at home. During one of our conversations I mentioned to him it was possible that the Christian or Muslim brothers were going to attempt to convert him but he didn’t believe it until one of the Muslim brothers zeroed in. Afterwards he abandoned his birth name but I won’t reveal his Islamic name because he still has a lot of ‘skeletons in the closet’.
He opted to serve his entire time and waived being released on parole in order to be finished without having to report to anyone afterwards. Unfortunately I wasn’t notified of his release date and when he returned to Detroit it was roughly a year later before I finally caught up with him at my parents’ home. Although it was a lukewarm reunion (since he likes to claim I never did anything for him) I still ‘left the door open’ for him but he never walked through it. As a matter of fact he told my Mother, “I’m trying to forget That Nigga”, which is his title for me whenever someone mentions my name to him. It’s too bad my eldest son opted to take that particular stance towards me but I’m used to it by now and, over time, it doesn’t bother me as much as it did before. I’ve only seen him twice in the last few years and it was the first time that was particularly troublesome. For economic reasons, in early 2005, I had no choice but to return temporarily to my parents’ house. At the time Butch would visit every Sunday and stay the entire day which, in his mind, was his domain for that day of the week.
I happened to be there on one of those days when he arrived and when I spoke to him he made a slight forward motion with his fists as though he wanted to pop me in the head. I decided immediately to get dressed and get the hell out of there because I didn’t want to risk the possibility of a physical confrontation, so I left and only returned after calling my Mother to find out if he had gone. That same day he visited my brother Greg and told him that he saw me and said “I felt like hittin’ That Nigga”. Perhaps that will be his final and ongoing assessment of me which, unfortunately, is of his own creation which, if he continues to be comfortable with it, then so be it. My guess is that his mother also feels a sense of accomplishment too over the years and, if so, I’m happy for her. Additionally Butch has adopted my brother Greg and my sister-in-law Gail to be his surrogate father and mother. As I mentioned a couple of seconds ago—so be it!!
By the end of the ‘80’s it was more than apparent to me that those great times I experienced in music during the ‘60’s and ‘70’s were gone, gone, gone. Emotionally speaking, I was beginning to let go of the tendency to lament about those days in contrast to what was happening at the moment, but I wasn’t exactly sure of what I wanted to do differently until I hooked up with someone who had a positive effect on me in general for a while, and would be very important to me overall.
I’d first met Majida Kinnard around 1980 but I don’t remember exactly where it was. I do remember seeing her dancing at Pontiac Central High School one evening because we were both performing in different ensembles. Although we had seen each other at different places (according to her she was checking me out first), and though there was a curious attraction between us, nothing happened until October 1989. By then I was divorced for almost two years which, during that period, I dated a few times but nothing serious. Professionally speaking, I was still reeling from the blatant economic deficiencies that culminated as a result of the wrath of “Reaganonmics” which was deliberate in bringing union-controlled Michigan down to its knees. It was hard for me to accept those changes as perpetual: a new day in which the professional music system was gradually dismantled in Detroit, and I felt frustrated in trying to stay alive professionally.
As a result I would often complain about how things were currently as opposed to how things used to be and I didn’t like it at all. The melancholy I was having for the then-recent good ole days was, at times, too much, and I would lament often about the days of the Motown Revue every year at the Fox Theatre on Woodward Avenue at West Elizabeth Street. I would reminisce about when I first saw Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers at the Minor Key Club on Dexter Avenue in Detroit when Reggie Workman, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Curtis Fuller, and Cedar Walton were with him in October 1963—four months after they recorded the album ‘Ugetsu’ at Birdland in New York City the previous June. A month previously I saw Dinah Washington at the Michigan State Fair with an organ trio called The Allegros (tenor saxophone, organ, and drums and they all sang, too). Dinah’s son, Bobby (Robert Grayson, Jr.) also appeared as part of a dancing duo with a friend of his. What a helluva show that was.
The Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company began sponsoring concerts at Cobo Hall in the early ‘60’s in conjunction with Newport Jazz impresario George Wein that were, in actuality, miniature Newport events with several artists performing during one evening only. Jimmy Smith, Cannonball Adderley, Carmen McCrae, Woody Herman, Nina Simone, Art Blakey (different group), Herbie Mann, Miles Davis, and many others would command the stage over several years. The first time I witnessed the James Brown Revue was at Cobo Hall in 1966. James had three drummers immediately behind him and the rest of the orchestra was spread out from there. Sometimes the drummers played together simultaneously creating a drum wall of sound that was slick because they didn’t overpower anyone, they just royally kicked ass the way all excellent drummers do, you dig??
In ’67 (also at Cobo Hall) I saw the Jackie Wilson Revue that was touring as part of a large traveling package called the “1967 Summer Shower of Stars”. That revue featured a cast of thousands including The Fantastic Four, Linda Jones (singing her big hit, ‘Hypnotized’), B.B. King, James & Bobby Purify (of ‘I’m Your Puppet fame), Oscar Toney, Jr. (singing ‘Without Love I Have Nothing), and comedian M.C. Gorgeous George. I wish I had a flyer or a program listing the other artists as well, but I do remember the show started at 8 p.m. and ended well after 1 a.m. Jackie didn’t grace the stage until after midnight and most, if not all, people stayed to see and hear him sing all of his hits from 1957 until then—that was a lot of music to perform and I’m telling you that entire arena went nuts. Everyone got their money’s worth that night. This small list of events is just a sample of innumerable great events of music I witnessed including those in which I was a participant throughout southeast Michigan. Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention the rock group Gentle Giant during their farewell tour in an over-2 hour concert at Harpo’s on Harper Street west of Chalmers on the eastside in October 1980.
It was great memories such as those that sometimes served as blockage within me at the time for not understanding the need to move on to something better, which I was trying to do, but where? Most of the work was in the “burbs” so I went out there and managed to find enough work but the quality of what I was doing was, to me, pure de shit—and then some. Much of 1980’s pop music was retarded to the bone. By then the pop music industry wasn’t interested in how artists sounded but were more concerned about how artists looked instead—“Hollyweird”, a term coined by Gil Scott-Heron. I used to complain about this often to Majida in our early days and she asked me what else would I like to do in music that didn’t involve being on stage or the bandstand, but I didn’t actually know. She was a dancer who, as a youngster, took dance lessons at the Taynton School of Ballet on Grand River Avenue off Scotten Street on the west side. She eventually absorbed a lot of skills from being involved with the Clifford Fears Dance Company, but her eventual focus became West African dances and she studied with the Studio of African Dance Philosophy under the direction of Ali Abdullah.
At the time we connected she had her own business, Lotus Dance Productions, and was successful in securing work at community family presentations and nursing homes. She suggested that I accompany her to see for myself and to develop ideas of my own in using percussion instruments and a tape player with pre-recorded music. The first place I contracted with was Hamilton Home on East Grand Boulevard off Charlevoix Street on the east side. Majida was already doing contract work there as a dance therapist and brought me on board as a music therapist. Although we weren’t licensed by any governing board we were very effective in our work, so we started getting more requests for our services.
Soon afterwards we both contracted work with Faye Adelson at the Levine Institute for its “Artists Enrichment for the Aged” program on West Seven Mile Road in northwest Detroit. For me the irony of working at Hamilton Home, although it was just for one hour twice a week, was observing the in-patients who were mostly World War II veterans (and two Vietnam War veterans) who were there because they could no longer take care of themselves. Although I had a lot fun performing with the guys by giving them small percussion instruments to play, and dancing with them to the music selections on the boom box, it was a subtle reminder for me to make sure I kept my shit together so I wouldn’t one day have to join the in-house population.
In the meantime, during 1990 steel drummer Emile Borde asked me to join a new group he was putting together called the Tropical Connection. We initially met as members of Roy Brooks’ Aboriginal Percussion Choir. He was also a member of the world famous Trinidad Tripoli Steel Band which his father, Hugh Borde, assumed leadership in 1951. The basic concept Emile wanted retained calypso and soca (soul calypso), but included assorted funky stuff and a couple of jazz songs in the group’s book. It was a good group that included Clarence “Bink” Williams-guitar, Fahali Igbo-bass, Anthony Holland-soprano & alto saxophones, and myself. The Trinidad Tripoli Steel Band consisted of family members—all Borde’s except the guitarist and drummer—and Emile had made lots of connections everywhere since the band traveled internationally, therefore he was in a good position to receive work offers constantly while remaining with the family ensemble in addition to his own.
As a result of receiving so many offers of work he used to book the Tropical Connection in two or three places during the same evening in different parts of town, with two or three groups of musicians, which in essence would have worked, but his fans wanted to see him with the group because, in general, he was well-liked. The problem with the two-or-three groups system was attributed to something other than money—Emile was a ladies man and, especially for his own gigs, women would be there to see him, not the rest of the band (I’m laughing my ass off as I read these words but that shit was true). Sometimes those chicks would be pissed at us—as though we had something to do with it. The only thing we would say to them was, “He’s running late he’ll be here”. Sometimes he would try to run back and forth between two gigs in order to keep the customers happy. This only worked if both gigs were reasonably close geographically but impossible if he was in Novi, Michigan and we were in Southfield. All I could do was smile, sing, and play the drums.
Between ’90 and ’91 I had a day life and a night life that began to increase with more work outlets. By then it was a daily shuffle with getting Rahsaan and Qaadir to school on time, then traveling to one of the nursing homes to conduct my music therapy sessions. Majida was introduced to Colette Gilewicz, the Executive Director of Young Audiences of Michigan, by a woman named Leslie Sharif who felt that she would be a perfect addition to their roster of artists. Soon afterwards she was doing contract work at different Detroit Public Schools with children who were enrolled in the national Head Start program. It wasn’t long before I was introduced to Colette too, and it was a nice contrast in being involved with kids who were pre-kindergarten and didn’t have any pre-conceived ideas about what we were doing in comparison to some of the individuals in the elderly population at the nursing homes who were slowly giving up on living.
Colette was, and is, a very likeable person who championed for the artists on the Young Audiences roster. She was able to cultivate various programs throughout the year in addition to the regular school year from September to June by sending artists to places such as Cobo Hall, the Chene Park Amphitheater, the Michigan State Fair, Eastern Market, the Children’s Center of Wayne County, Northland Mall (in Southfield, Michigan), and Young Audiences own summer youth programs at Historic Fort Wayne (which was no longer a military recruitment center). My presentation became very popular among many teachers and requests for my services increased throughout the school system. Another reason for those requests was because it was rare to see men, and black men in particular, presenting music in classroom settings with pre-kindergarten children. Usually it was mostly women that the kids would see on a regular basis.
At first I didn’t realize I was just one of a few guys who were making the rounds, but it became obvious eventually because there were two or three teachers who always checked for when I was available, and if I wasn’t available for a particular seven-week period at the time of their request, they would enter one for me immediately for the next seven-week cycle. For several years I handled two residencies a day for Young Audiences plus other children’s programs that Colette facilitated for us. In addition to Young Audiences of Michigan I also did contract work with Claudia Rogers, the executive director with Omni Arts in Education, at the beginning of 1992. Claudia was also very cool to work for and it was a fruitful experience for me overall. I always enjoyed interacting with kids but I never had a regular weekly outlet until the beginning of the ‘90’s. It was consistent until the severe nationwide budget crunch, in reference to funding many performing arts organizations who emphasized music education in schools, caused many of those organizations to dissolve.
On Saturday July 13, 1991 Majida and I were married in a nice, relaxed (for the most part), ceremony among family and friends in Scripps Conservatory located on Belle Isle, which sits in the middle of the Detroit River surrounded by Windsor, Ontario Canada, and Detroit. During the planning stages in the weeks before the wedding we were adamant about having sunshine on the actual day—as though we had any kind of control over the outcome. The sky was a gray overcast without rain and it remained that way until approximately 2:30 or 3 p.m. when the sun broke through and remained throughout the rest of the day. Our rationale was to avoid any clouds or rain on that day which would symbolize the marriage itself, and over the years I do feel that the marriage embodied more sunshine than clouds. Of course it’s possible that she may have a different point of view. In ’91 the newlyweds were “checkin’ each other out” as Sly Stone sang in ‘Family Affair’ and we were movin’ and shakin’ in our professional worlds, either individually or together for several arts projects.
For two years, 1991-93, we lived in the Gabrielle Townhouses on Sears Street in Highland Park, Michigan between Second and Third Streets (she was already there several years earlier). Since I was sharing custody of Rahsaan and Qaadir with Annie on the weekends, I decided to switch this arrangement to having them from Monday through Thursday because I needed to be aware of what they were doing as far as school assignments were concerned or anything else I needed to know. From Head Start through high school most people, who worked in the schools they attended, knew who I was because I would visit often—mostly unannounced. Rahsaan and Qaadir were the greatest kids to deal with and they didn’t cause trouble for anyone, not even themselves, so my visits were to stay on top of whatever. Since I’d always preferred being self-employed it was easy for me to be available to tend to my sons’ needs without having to ask for someone’s permission to do so. It was a joy for me to watch them grow because I knew, of course, that childhood was a brief phase to be in, and they would be grown men soon—as they are right now.
Here’s one last item in reference to politicians which, in actuality, is more in reference to the general public. It’s about many among the general public who honestly are not keyed into the inner workings of the political machinery of the United States (or other countries) but, during every election season, proclaim to be doing their “part” on election day only through the process of voting (which has been “Jimmy’d” with since the days of the Declaration of Independence). All politicians understand a very important necessity for campaigning anywhere: the less the public knows about them is good. The more success they have in presenting their opponents in negative light is also good. Once elected, if citizens among the general public are not organized into effective groups to hold those politicians accountable for their campaign promises—especially if it involves issues such as greatly improved health care, education, or other expanded social safeguards for all citizens—then that’s triple good for them, too.
I can’t help but to laugh when I see a person wearing a button that states, “I VOTED” or, “I VOTED—DID YOU”? Now this would be the primo button to wear on or after each Election Day: “I VOTED, AND THE ORGANIZATION OF WHICH I AM A MEMBER WAS VERY SUCCESSFUL IN BRINGING PRESSURE TO BEAR ON ALL OF THE POLITICIANS WE SUPPORTED. EACH OF OUR DEMANDS HAVE BEEN ADHERED TO AND IMPLEMENTED THROUGHOUT THE COMMUNITIES WE REPRESENT. SAFEGUARDS HAVE BEEN INSERTED WITHIN EACH LAW THAT PROHIBITS THESE LAWS FROM BEING OVERTURNED BY FUTURE LEGISLATIVE BODIES”. Now that would be a slick button to wear…well…perhaps with one of those advertising poster boards, the kind worn on both sides of the body that used to be common back in the “old” days which would be better to exhibit all of the information. Of course it would have to be a big-assed button to hold all of those words.
It would be even hipper to hold accountable the folks who make the politicians jump—the Big International Money Grips who can count on military force anywhere in the world to protect their business interests (I may have touched on this subject in one of the other intermissions but sometimes the hip stuff always bears repeating more than once). Now that I’ve stated the information in the last two paragraphs, I want to clarify those words and their meaning to avoid the possibility of the reader misconstruing or misrepresenting those words while conjuring different conclusions other than what I’m actually saying. KEEP VOTING FOREVER AND EVER—DON’T STOP!! I wouldn’t dare say otherwise. It’s your right, so keep on keepin’ on.
Although there are organizations of concerned citizens that do exist in helping to balance the scales of justices—and I commend those for their tireless work—the average citizen has a tendency to exercise the conditioning of social differences that all of us are subjected to upon arrival on this planet. The belief in these differences, among the general public, can serve as emotional walls and wedges in producing distrusts and hatreds. Of course the BIMG’s of the world (look in the last paragraph), a real minority group of control freaks, encourages the general public to devour itself daily—and with gusto, please. The sharing of the world’s wealth should not even be a fantasy within our minds as far as they’re concerned. A “better world tomorrow” will not happen with the antiquated and archaic systems that still benefit the self-chosen few. In the meantime the average person will not hesitate to throw their weight behind a fool.
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DETROIT BASHING IS ALIVE AND WELL
Did you ever stop think about why the national and international media organizations have been bashing the city of Detroit in print since the 1980’s? To be totally honest and truthful about it, the present day bashing has its roots in the Detroit media as far back as the 1930’s, and it escalated higher during the early 1940’s in helping to lay the foundation for a document now infamously known as ‘The Detroit Plan of 1946’. Although the purpose of the document was primarily aimed at Black people, White people, in many instances, found themselves disenfranchised on short notice as well. The Michigan Supreme Court ruled, in 1948, that the city of Detroit could condemn any land or buildings it deemed as slum dwellings through a declaration of imminent domain in which the land could be sold to a private developer.(5)
The Detroit Plan was formulated during the administration of former mayor Edward Jeffries (January 2, 1940 – January 5, 1948) but gained significant support beginning in 1949 with election of former mayor Albert Cobo (January 3, 1950 – September 12, 1957) who replaced many experienced bureaucrats with builders and realtors.(6) A Detroit Free Press photo dated November 3, 1955 shows nearly 130 acres of empty land.(7) As a result of Cobo implementing his policies of urban renewal in Detroit during the 1950’s—the first time anywhere within the United States—he helped to cultivate the crippling of the city’s infrastructure causing the damage that is still in effect today.
Revisionist historians tend to begin with 1973’s election of Mayor Coleman Young who, over time, had a hand in the city’s demise that was crumbling gradually. Despite the media rhetoric there are those individuals right now who play a significant role in keeping the city exactly the way is currently because it benefits an elitist few. Apparently the general public’s detriment is a small elite group’s delight. Detroit is actually a template for conditions to be implemented in other U.S. cities. It’s already happened elsewhere so, instead of looking at the selected imagery the news media projects internationally, it would be wise for concerned citizens in other cities to put aside their differences with the understanding that the powers-that-think-they-be may have designated their city for the next infrastructural collapse. Why wait to be surprised?
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CONTRABAND IS NOT AN ARTIST’S BEST FRIEND, UNDERSTAND???
Once upon a time there was a very popular daytime television show that was hosted by a guy—no, not Mike or Merv—who remained on the air for several years from the late 1960’s into the 80’s. Sometimes he would have music guests on his show in a manner that was similar to the “M” guys also. During one particular presentation, after his music guests had completed the only song they were allowed to play, the host walked over to them and thanked them for their performance. Then he proceeded to give the audience some background by mentioning who they’d performed with over the years until he dropped the bomb on one of musicians in referring to his drug bust for heroin use in the 1950’s. I watched this in disbelief because that particular statistic didn’t have anything to do with where he was at that point in his life. The look on his face, in being truthful about question the host asked him, was one of disgust and disappointment.
He had dearly paid the price for his youthful indulgences that derailed his career for several years until he successfully straightened out his own mess at the beginning of the
1960’s. By the mid ‘70’s he was consistently recognized for his music contributions that were performed by artists world-wide, and he accepted a university professorship teaching many young artists self-discipline through music. Although he could have continued teaching (he was in his late ‘70’s) he made the decision to retire, but he’s still active in performing as of this writing. Viewing what the TV host did served as a catalyst for me to maintain a promise I made to myself when I was still a kid in elementary school: to never involve myself in any bullshit which someone could throw in my face years later, especially drug & alcohol related bullshit. I really felt bad that the musician was caught off-guard that way, so I viewed it as a lesson for me in staying on the path I’ve been on. No one can ever accuse or imply something like that about me. Even those who don’t know me that well would know better if they heard such nonsense.
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STANDARDS UP, STANDARDS DOWN
Make no mistake about this—the main emphasis on cultural values in the United States is
placed daily on gaming, sports & prison industries, and war mongering. The funding of music pales in comparison to the aforementioned entities. Even top-rate symphony orchestras are catching hell in maintaining their operating budgets from one year to the next. In one or two instances the management of those orchestras were actually in-house saboteurs in their purposes to marginalize the orchestra down to community (volunteer) orchestra status. In the world of sports excellence is demanded. Economic support for sports teams remains and there’s no sign of decreasing athletes’ salaries across the board regardless of the nature of the sport—basketball, hockey, tennis, etc.
The support for music and other specific arts is dwindling every year. Excellence in music is not demanded of young practitioners these days. If it was then it’s possible that a program like ‘A-Mare-Ri-Kann Eye-Dull’ would not exist. “Simon Says”, my nickname for Cowell, probably grins all the way to the bank as one of the program’s creators, yet such a program serves to ridicule the contestants during their appearances. Originality is not the essence of whatever materials each contestant is allowed to perform, and I use the word, “allowed” because each person basically presents material previously performed by famous people or famous recordings. Is there room for originality? Why aren’t there any instrumental bands that play jazz, salsa, or blues? Why is it so important for three judges to lampoon some of the contestants after their performances? They didn’t KNOW what the contestants were going sing beforehand? How did the contestants make it past the audition and allowed to compete in a marginal or awful performance? Yet the general public watches that show religiously on a weekly basis as though it really means something.
So ponder this!! What is the sports equivalent to ‘American Idol’? There is none!! As I stated earlier excellence is demanded in sports. For example, the manner in which basketball was played during the era of Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain and Bob Cousy (late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s) is totally obsolete compared to the players in today’s National Basketball Association. Those earlier skills on the court are of no use in the competitiveness among those who are active now—not even in competitive street ball games. Now compare the adventuresome accomplishments of artists in music such as Frank Zappa, Curtis Mayfield, Gentle Giant, the World Saxophone Quartet, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Ursula Dudziak, Cassandra Wilson, Lonnie Plaxico, & Carla Bley, just to name a few, in comparison to certain “media darlings” of today. It isn’t surprising that most young artists these days are less interested expanding on the standard of music created by their predecessors and more interested in securing some kind of record deal or, worst yet, needing an outlet to receive attention via the music industry, but not a need to take the music to a higher plateau than their predecessors.
There’s no need for me to tip toe around pinpointing a devastating phenomenon that happened in various Black folks communities throughout the United States: the continued finger-pointing and misrepresentation of what happened to the historical musics of African American people within the communities in which they live. The typical whimpy excuse is that “White people are stealing are music from us”. That’s bullshit!! Remember what happened beginning in the mid ‘70’s in the ‘hood? Our brethren and sisteren stopped hiring musicians altogether and only hired dee jays to spin records at all of their social functions.
To this day being an excellent musician in the ‘hood has no relevance anymore in most cities with significant splib populations. So—what happened? Did Uncle Sam pass any laws outlawing live music in Black communities? Did the Ku Klux Klan threaten to ‘string us up’ if we kept playing “The Devil’s Music”? What force could be so powerful that this music, which was once so liberating to the souls and living spirits of Black people, had become so invisible within a period of ten years—1975 to 1985. Will the same thing happen in the field of sports? Hell naw!! We are sooooo conditioned to embrace sports and reject music. The proof of my words are there to be viewed in the communities by those who won’t deny themselves time to take a hard look at what’s left and to understand the denial it took to get there.
Much of the challenge is due to the continuing disconnect from knowledgeable elders in their communities and a total dependency on music business executives who for the most part, are accountants, attorneys, and assorted hustlers who only care about the “bottom line” for monetary profits. In the meantime there are wise elders who still live among us who have knowledge and “know-how” but unless they are consulted for what it is they know in order to impart it to those who don’t know, then the quality of the music becomes less (marginalized) over time regardless of the so-called genre. Of course, I really do understand what happened to cultivate the changes in our community consumption of music and it was clearly orchestrated by business decisions—not the public.
By the end of the 1970’s, music programs and curriculums were destroyed in the majority of all public school systems in most cities within the United States. It wasn’t possible for young people to maintain the music the way my generation did because, for the most part, the social systems that made it viable in the first place were dismantled so easily in the name of budget cuts. Who could blame the kids of the late ‘70’s and early-to-mid ‘80’s for producing sounds with turntables and other machines? Those were their instruments—not drums, guitars, etc. At first the recording industry viewed techno (Detroit), house (Chicago), and rap (New York/Jamaica) as mere garbage that didn’t deserve to be recognized or invested in but when the first underground “hits” were accomplished by small independent record companies, it was afterwards (as usual) when the major companies began to “smell” the money in establishing part of market for themselves. The main problem with how the music industry deals with artists’ contributions, no matter what title it’s given, is the inability in allowing whatever happened before to remain intact without molestation or annihilation.
Once something is declared NEW then what does that mean? Whatever happened before has got to go!! There will be NO popular co-existing of all genres especially in the United States. How does it feel to obsolete at the ripe old age of 30? In the meantime the general public is not conditioned to fight for such maintenance of music throughout our communities. THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS OLD MUSIC AND NEW MUSIC—IT’S MERELY THE CONTINUITY EVOLVING HUMAN ATTITUDES IN PRODUCING VARIOUS SOUND VIBRATIONS. The most important part of the equation is to determine what kind of control, as an artist, the “newcomers” want to have in determining directions towards music & business achievements. Of course there are those whose sole purpose is to see how much money can be made with little emphasis on the music itself. People like that aren’t doing anyone any favors including themselves.
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….…IS BEST KNOWN FOR…….
Sometimes it’s nice to do interviews with people who are really keyed into what I’m about in my world of music. However, listing a source of recognition for me varies from one writer to the next depending on whatever affiliations of mine they are familiar with, such as:
- “Leonard is best known for his work in the Lyman Woodard Organization”, or….
- “Leonard is best known for Leonard King and the Soul Messengers”, or….
- “Leonard is best known for working with James Carter.
Actually I’m best known for all of the above affiliations including Strata Nova, so I’d like to lay some more on you right now just in case you’re not hip to my multifaceted history:
- I’m known for being a good cook with certain specialties that I like.
- I’m known for being an excellent father.
- When I was married I was an excellent husband (and that ain’t no lie).
- I’m known for being very organized with attention to detail.
- I’m known for excellence in the “hoochie coochie” department.
- I’m known for maintaining a neat and clean household.
- I’m known for having a great sense of humor
- I’m known for being an excellent musician.
- I’m known for never messin’ with drugs or alcohol (red wine is good sometimes)
- I’m known for pursuing goals I want.
Well….that’s a decent list of stuff that various folks can attribute to who I am. Since I’m not a bragging person I’ll just leave it right there.
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“THE SLAVES” DID NOT COME FROM AFRICA
Language—any language—can be used to mask true meanings and reasons for why circumstances, positive or negative, are allowed to exist or be destroyed. A Great Myth that will continue to be utilized among future generations, just as it has been during previous centuries, is “the slaves were brought from Africa” to the Americas and elsewhere. Through years of negative conditioning including the education system, a myriad of documentaries, and simple word of mouth, that particular myth will be reinforced in years to come by those who believe it simply because they’ve been taught that it’s true—without challenge. The simple truth is this: hundreds of Africans were taken, stolen, kidnapped, and forced from their natural habitats. Therefore they became enslaved in various parts of the world—a process that has been referred to as the African Diaspora, or the scattering of African people who, in general everywhere, do not have genetic memories of past greatness. Aaahhh…..but we do have negative information that is still in use currently:
- CPT—colored peoples time, which is supposed to mean that Black people do not know how to be prompt for appointments.
- “Niggas are always late” (further reinforcement of CPT).
- “Whatever direction you’re traveling in, if you’ve got a nigga with you’ll never get to wherever it is you’re trying to go”.
- “I don’t want my sons or daughters to marry anybody too black”, (I’ve heard dark-skinned Black people say that).
- “Once a slave, always a slave”.
- “The drummer is the nigger of the band”. What!! You’ve never heard that?? It isn’t commonly said these days but that attitude is still prevalent. In so-called jazz music, once everybody takes their long-assed solos for several choruses, the drummer is supposed to be reduced to trading fragments of 8-bars or 4-bars within the song’s cycle with the same soloists who already soloed. It took someone like the great percussionist Max Roach in lighting the path away from that craziness which elevated the drummer to the front line—where I am to this day!!
To embrace the above ways of thinking is to insure and expect social ineptness among people who are targeted and encouraged to fail. No magic wand exist to erase the catastrophic outcomes that continue to produce acts of self-doubt, servitude, and violence among those who believe that their history ain’t shit, and that their ancestors who preceded them weren’t shit either. Once again: Africans were enslaved, not slaves!! The so-called ruling class continues to benefit from the negative conditioning of others and there’s no end to its continued implementation. However, there are those individuals who are not afraid of doing homework to discover the facts. I wish for their discoveries and outcomes to become contagious among those who need to know what they currently don’t know. Yeah I know….that’s a hard row to hoe but it isn’t impossible.
My Cup Floweth Over To Empty and Remains
Money comes and goes but the quality of my life remains. Of course I can only speak for myself in terms of a quality that makes sense to me. The years between 1992 and 1998 were excellent in terms of economic growth for Majida and myself. In ’97 she graduated with a Master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Michigan, but prior to that she found suitable employment as an intern while she finished school. By the mid-‘90’s I was doing more contract work with Young Audiences of Michigan, and Omni Arts in Education during the day, and performing often during evenings with the Garfield Blues Band featuring Garfield Angove-vocals & harmonica, Leonard Moon-vocals & keyboards, John Fraga (then Mike Marshall)-bass, and Paul Carey-guitar. Paul is the one who gave me the title ‘Dr. Prof. Leonard King’. He also invited me to join the Blues Disciples which featured Thornetta Davis & Terry “Thunder” Hughley-vocals, “Showtime” Johnny Evans-tenor saxophone, Kurt Beguhn-trumpet, & Bob Conner-bass.
Those were fun groups to play with and they both were featured at a neighborhood bar called Mahoney’s which was located on Mack Avenue just a few blocks east of Alter Road on the north side of the street. Mahoney’s was such a great venue for music at the time. Since Garfield’s group performed on Sunday evenings, and the Blues Disciples played on Wednesdays, I got a chance to know many people who frequented the club and gave their support to the musicians one zillion percent. Although we were only paid sixty dollars each for the night Terry Mahoney really took care of the cats. We didn’t have to pay for food or drinks while working there but none of the cats abused his generosity. I believe Terry knew he had quality cats who dug him for who he was, plus the atmosphere of the club served as great inspiration for playing. Mahoney’s was the only club I worked at during that period where I made a concession money-wise and didn’t mind it at all due to the trade-off of simple “perks” and fun. Eventually Terry sold the club and we were all sorry that it was a decision he had to make but we understood.
None of the clubs we played afterwards came close to Mahoney’s (I still miss that place). After a couple of years of mostly being in “blues” territory, especially performing older material by T-Bone Walker, Louis Jordan, Wynonie Harris, Jimmy Reed, Little Walter, and others, I began to get the urge to form another band in order to play original material. During this time Rodney Whitaker was with trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s group after a stint with the Donald Harrison/Terrence Blanchard band, so he wasn’t available anymore (we weren’t really gigging anyway, not even after bassist Hubie Crawford replaced him in Proportioned Orchestra). Guitarist Robert Tye and I had a great rapport on the gigs we were frequenting at the time, so I decided to form a new group with him, but my plan sprung a leak soon afterwards when he relocated to Chicago, Illinois. Therefore I scrapped my plans for building a new group and continued to focus on blues material and a wedding band repertoire (yeah—I did that, too).
It was in late February 1995 when I discovered, through a mutual friend, that Bob was back in Detroit after a very brief stay in Chicago. Shortly before this I met organist/pianist Chris Codish at Mahoney’s the day he turned 21 years old. He was playing with Johnnie Bassett’s Blues Band plus I saw him with some other cats around town but only playing blues. One day Johnny Evans called me to play a private party on Northwestern Highway in Southfield, Michigan. He said the group was going to be an organ trio with Chris, him, and myself, so I asked him, “Can Chris play stuff other than blues’? Johnny just looked at me and said, “Oh yeah, wait ‘til you hear him”.
During the first song, after hearing Chris, I knew I had to hook up with him some way. Then I thought about Bob and the light bulb definitely turned on upstairs as to the possibility of how the three of us would sound as a group, so I called them both and asked would they be interested in forming a new group and they agreed. During the first song at the very first rehearsal in Bob’s basement I knew they were The Cats for me.
From March 1995 ‘til the rest of the year we rehearsed at least twice a week. Our agreement was to emphasize the music and focus on building a great book of songs first as opposed to looking for gigs right away, therefore we didn’t make our public debut until January 1996 at the Music Menu Café in the Greektown area of downtown Detroit. It was located on Monroe Street, two doors east of Beaubien, and it had a great clientele of real music lovers who were loyal attendees every week. By then I had chosen the name ‘Oopapada’ for the group to be identified as such. Where did that name come from? From the Babs Brown (Gonzales) composition that the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra first popularized in 1947. Our first gig at the Music Menu coincided with the North American Auto Show at Cobo Hall, also downtown, that is held every January. Since there’s traditionally lots of foot traffic downtown annually for the week-long Auto Show, most downtown businesses profit as a result of its close proximity. Although it was f-f-freezing like crazy that night it was a good first-time outing for us.
During that same month both Bob and Chris suggested to me that they felt it was time to begin recording all of the material we were learning and stockpiling weekly. The irony of this is that saxophonist/clarinetist Wendell Harrison and his wife, pianist Pamela Wise, were giving me the same suggestions around the same time when I performed with them. Many of the compositions were mine, but we also performed songs by other composers and avoided choosing typical material—especially ‘bar/lounge’ material. So Bob and Chris suggested recording at Roscoe’s Music which was operated by ‘Roscoe’ White and located on Mack Avenue above Fiddler’s Music Store on the east side. For the next four years I paid for studio time there and we recorded enough material to fill three CD’s. The first one, “Non Yawn Varieties” was issued in the year 2000.
For Majida and I 1996 was a pinnacle year for us in terms of economic growth as a result of all of the contracts we were getting for music education and music therapy services, but it was soon to end due to the budget cuts of then-governor John Engler of Michigan who, with along his allies, drastically reduced funds for health care, arts, and education. Those key areas were central for us in maintaining our livelihoods comfortably without having to scuffle. By 1999 it was obvious to me that the ill winds of change were blowing again with a similar intensity to what I had experienced between 1980 and ‘82, but much worse now than then. I seriously began thinking about relocating to another city so it was only a matter of determining where to go. Also Majida was correct in pointing out to me that I had gone as far as I could go as a professional musician in Detroit and it was time to focus internationally for achieving new goals. I knew she was right in her assessment so I began to put promotional packages together and sent them to various people in the hope of coming to the attention of someone who could be instrumental in taking Oopapada to the next plateau. We participated in a few music showcases at different theatres with the intention of making an impression on those who would function in a managerial position on our behalf.
Of course this meant someone of influence who could get things done and book us around the world. We were all experienced enough to be able to spot a shyster or a crook but the ideal manager never manifested. Actually we were never approached by anyone with a management proposition so we just managed ourselves as best as possible. In early ’97 we were asked to accompany vocalist Thornetta Davis every Wednesday night at the Music Menu which was cool. Thornetta is a very dynamic vocalist with her own sound and she was easy to work with. The way the evening was structured included three sets of music and two intermissions. Oopapada played a short set for fifteen or twenty minutes each set before calling her to the stage. For me this arrangement was ok at first, but by mid-1998 I began to feel the built-in restrictions of not having enough “Oopapada time” to play our own material, so during August ’98 I decided to bow out of the Music Menu gig and find a more open working situation for the group—which never happened.
During the ‘90’s and into the first couple of years into the new century, as I mentioned earlier, the Detroit night music scene was mostly blues, reggae, calypso, and rock, but the jobs really started declining by 2002. I met guitarist Paul Abler in ‘99 and we became fast friends. He’s a great composer and one helluva musician. Unfortunately we never worked often enough to play his hip compositions, which was so frustrating to both of us. When he decided to move to New York in ’03 I understood why (we’ve played many times since then—but not enough. However, that’s changing and I’ll keep you posted). Between 1998 and 2000 I stopped accepting job offers if the money was too low or if the working conditions were too sad. Enter James Carter. In August 1998 I found out the drummer in James’ group had left so I called him the following morning and left a message on his answering machine: “Hey James, I heard ……..left. Give me a call”. Soon afterwards I received a call from his manager, Cynthia Herbst from American International Artists who simply said, “Hi Leonard, James wants you in Los Angeles to play at Catalina’s”. For me it was a great reunion because we hadn’t worked together since shortly before he moved to New York in ’90.
I’ll tell you this: the music chemistry I have with James is something that I only have with him. We’ve participated in all kinds of groupings including duos and we’ve always locked. There’s nothing preconceived about it—it’s just naturally that way. For the next two years he would hire me intermittently for certain projects. However, in 2001, beginning with the “Live at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge” sessions, I’ve been on board since then, touring internationally first with the “Chasin’ The Gypsy” project (where I met and worked with the famed bandoneon player Peter Soave), The James Carter Organ Trio (still current), and the James Carter Quintet (2008-2010). James, Gerard Gibbs, and I have become a family of brothers—on and off stage. The combination of fun and seriousness is evident among those who have seen us all over this planet.
The New Century Feels Like 1776
On January 26, 2000 my Father died at home after a long bout with prostate cancer. He was diagnosed with a swollen prostate gland in 1969 but sufficient information concerning prostate cancer did not exist at the time. Years later he told me that he went to our family doctor that year to find out what remedies could be utilized. The doctor asked him, “Does it hurt” and he replied “no”, so the doctor said, “Don’t worry about it”. He lived with a swollen prostate gland for twenty years before complications happened that resulted in a surgical procedure in 1989 at Veterans’ Hospital in Allen Park, Michigan to remedy the problem. Afterwards he was doing fine (as far as I know) until 1999 when his health began to worsen. By then Veteran’s Hospital (these days known nationally as VA Medical Centers) was situated at the then recently-built facility in Detroit as part of an east side medical complex of various hospitals and clinics. It was very uncommon for him to be ill outside of periodic nasal congestion, therefore he was on the go in his daily life. In considering his beginnings from childhood, he was a very independent man who made his own way in the big city up from Ellaville, Georgia in the early 1940’s to Baltimore, Maryland, then to Detroit after World War II ended.
Shortly before he died he wasn’t able to drive anymore. I went by the house one morning to drive him to the hospital and, when I walked through the front door, I asked him how he felt. He shook his head from side to side a couple of times and said, “I can’t get around like I used to”. It was then that I knew, in my heart of hearts, that he wouldn’t be with us much longer. He was a man who was loved and respected everywhere he went in his chosen profession, therefore it was possible for him to get what he needed in raising his family while working his own hours being the owner & operator of a juke box and vending machines business, first as an employee of Tony Vance, then Arthur Drew. In the early ‘60’s he began planning his eventual independence as a proprietor of his own business which did manifest for over forty years and he maintained his daily operations two months before he died. His presence is still strongly felt even now because a great majority of music that I was exposed to during the first twenty years of my life is undeniably because of him.
As I mentioned earlier, the first Oopapada CD, “Non Yawn Varieties” was issued in 2000 on my then-new label, Uuquipleu (yoo-kee-ploo) Records. I was looking for something catchy in a name that nobody could think of other than me, so I remembered a story my Father once told me about a guy who was a DJ in Detroit. In 1964 WGPR-FM Radio was purchased by the International Free Masons from businessman Ross Mulholland. The broadcasting format primarily targeted an African American audience and featured DJ’s such Sporty “J” and The Bullfrog, whose shows I listened to often. One day my Father happened to be home while I was listening to The Bullfrog and he said to me, “Oh yeah I know that guy”.
“Back in the 50’s he used to be called The Hoot Owl and he would say stuff like, ‘Yeah baby, this is the Hoot with the yoo-kee-pluke”. I used to laugh like crazy every time he told that story, so I eventually decided to title my record company Uuquipleu after figuring out the phonetics of how I wanted to spell it. Then I called my Father (in early 1999) to find out if he had been jivin’ me all those years in reference to The Hoot Owl story. He immediately said, “Yoo-kee-pluke”? I knew right then what I was going to do and decided, “Yep, that’s it”. Soon afterwards I went downtown to register the name with the city of Detroit and, to this day, I still laugh at how the clerk responded in trying to pronounce the word Uuquipleu before calling some of her co-workers to try it.
My reason(s) for starting my own record company was simply due to the affordability of paying for compact disc duplication fees that created a level playing field for artists like myself to produce and control their own products. Additionally I was excited about being able to manage and determine the quality of the products on my label without having to “bump heads” with anyone. In other words, the general business rule is this: those who invest the money are those who determine what the product will be in the end. For too many years, since the beginning of the recording industry in the 1890’s, artists have been basically looked upon as “cash cows” as a result of any and all recordings that are allowed to sell thousands or millions of physical recordings. The reason for emphasizing the word ‘allowed’ stems from the simple fact that only palm grease—money—or other significant favors among the movers and shakers in the recording industry is the medium for agreement in getting the recordings in the hands of consumers with ease.
Palm grease has also been utilized to kill (stop) a recording from receiving airplay and from being distributed throughout various markets either regionally, nationally, or internationally. Historically speaking, the profits reaped by record companies from hit recordings were never proportionately shared with artists anyway. One look at the typical recording contract offered to artists, from then to now, says it all—if you can read the legalese and screwy language in the way it’s structured without an attorney deciphering the contents. Performer/songwriters such as guitarist/vocalist Lowman Pauling of the 5 Royales vocal group, and pianist/vocalist Wynona Carr are just two examples of talented people who did not receive monies due them for recorded songs that did very well in the marketplace of the 1950’s. It’s no secret that The “5” Royales were very popular with their first hit recordings on the Apollo Records label in the early 1950’s (Carr was with Specialty Records of Los Angeles, California). They switched labels in 1954 and signed with King Records of Cincinnati, Ohio.
Because of the group’s national popularity, King Records, for the most part, released many of the group’s recordings with very little promotion because it felt that the strength of the group’s name and hit-recording track record would be enough to generate sales, but the other side of this type of thinking was based on the simple fact that the company could still earn a profit on each recording released as long as it was able to recoup the cost it invested per recording session. This was easily accomplished by the company because it was a self-contained enterprise with its own studio and pressing plant. For example, the company could record an artist(s) on Monday, have the discs mastered by Wednesday, then shipped to stores and/or distributors by Friday. If their products were successful via the “palm grease network” including radio airplay culminating in consumer demand then the profits were very handsome. The additional plus factor is this: most artists of the day, who were composers as well, did not own the publishing of the songs they performed, therefore all royalties were recouped by the company with the profits being distributed as the company saw fit to do.
I’ve often wondered what the actual tally is in determining the true definition of a “hit” recording. Is it 500,000 copies? 750,000 copies? Recently I’ve discovered that there’s no concrete standard that has been determined by the recording industry. After all of the expenses have been recouped by a record company for a particular physical recording (78, 45, & 33 1/3 rpm-discs, cassettes, compact discs, etc.), and a significant profit has been realized in the aftermath, it should be noted that the most important aspect of the equation is to maintain a profit margin on several products released simultaneously, especially for companies that have several artists on their rosters—and that only relates to physical product. Since many companies were successful in getting the composer (be it the artists or someone else) to waive their publishing ownership rights, this practice created an inlet for increased revenue on the profit line.
Since the greed factor can be a very significant component in an unregulated business (or any business) it has been very easy for a company to misrepresent the final tally in products sold, especially if two or three bookkeeping documents are used depending on who needs to examine “proof” of record sales. In many instances if an artist would ask to see the bookkeeping in order to find out for themselves, often the company would reply “You owe us”. The reason this was (is) so easy to accomplish lies in the practice of the company charging the majority of expenses to the artists accounts such as hotel and transportation fees, musicians’ session fees, restaurant and/or clothing fees, and in some cases, drug and alcohol expenses, and for other assorted “favors” rendered. This system was just as bad, or worse, than the sharecropping system in the Southern United States which was developed after the American Civil War.
Recently I checked the Broadcast Music Incorporated website to discover who the publishers were of Lowman Pauling’s compositions. What did I find? The same publishing titles listed on the recordings issued in the 50’s which means that, unless a written agreement was entered into by Pauling’s heirs and the current owners of his music, it’s possible that any current profits from CD outlets or internet music sites only benefit the current owners only. Wynona Carr’s composing skills were met with the same fate especially when Specialty Records became disinterested in promoting her recordings halfway through her ten-year period with the company. Although it is commonly assumed that these artists had poor record sales at the time, slippery accounting practices by such companies were common in underreporting the true nature of their commercial transactions. The owners of both of the aforementioned companies did extremely well when they sold their respective catalogs to other parties in later years.
Unfortunately for The 5 Royales and Wynona Carr artists attitudes related to self-reliance for artists ownership and profitability did not begin taking root (again) until the early 1960’s among such people as guitarist/vocalist/producer/songwriter Curtis Mayfield who started his first label in 1965 (Windy C), and owned his publishing company Curtom with his business partner, Eddie Thomas. As a matter of fact Curtis Mayfield was the original catalyst for me in starting my company. He mentioned in an interview I read (in the early ‘70’s) that it is in an artist’s best favor to own as much of themselves as possible in order to control their own outcomes. It’s something that stuck with me over the years that I never forgot and it was one of many factors that resulted in the formation of Uuquipleu Records.
In 2001 two more Oopapada recordings were released simultaneously on the label titled ‘We’re Household Names Today, Baby’ and ‘Zug Island Style’. I had a lot of help from some people who were fans of Oopapada and regularly attended our shows at the Music Menu. Charles “CW” Wood and his friend Teriese Stubblefield created the graphics and designs for the first three CD’s issued on the label. Teriese also took several photos that were used on the covers in addition the photos of William Townley. Their tireless work allowed me to be able to finally solidify the process that I had started in 1981 when I had some vinyl discs pressed that featured poet Kofi Natambu and myself on drums and vocals. That project was never finalized because I just didn’t have the money to complete it since it was in the old days of vinyl duplication which was very expensive for low budget independent artists to afford prior to the dominance of the compact disc.
CW’s friend, Bill McAllister, did a great job on the graphics for the ‘We’re Household Names Today, Baby’ CD. The concept I envisioned for the cover called for all types of products with Oopapada labels to be featured in a cartoon-type of style. Bill took my idea and came up with a masterpiece that was far beyond what I only could initially see in my mind. As for the overall work situation throughout metro Detroit gigs were spotty at best and I wasn’t diggin’ it either. I also began to envision myself living in another city outside Michigan even though I hadn’t the slightest idea of where I wanted to move at the time. In 2002 I began to visit Donald & Faye Washington at their home in Fridley, Minnesota which is only a few short minutes from northeast Minneapolis. I would accompany Don often on whatever errands he would run in various areas of greater Minneapolis. As a result of seeing a good majority of the city I was impressed with the overall “feel” of Minneapolis and made mental notes to myself for possible relocation at some point. For the next three years I returned there to get a greater look at the city.
Shortly before the new century began Majida and I began to experience marital difficulties which escalated significantly by the year 2002. Although she would often say she was leaving it wasn’t to be—at first, so consequently our daily interactions deteriorated in ways that were sometimes stressful. Eventually she began to gradually pack her belongings later in the year without finalizing a time frame for moving wherever she intended to go but we were both aware of what was expected. During a trip to Finland with the James Carter Organ Trio to perform at the Pori Jazz Festival, I met Auramaritta Matikainen who was a guide assigned to us by the festival producers during the three days we were there. A long-distanced relationship began to happen as a result of that encounter but it was to be several months later before I returned to Europe for a visit. Majida left after a few months in ‘03 which meant that I didn’t have to resort to planning any silent international escapades since Detroit, Michigan, and Jyvaskyla, Finland are thousands of miles apart.
For the most part the relationship with Auramaritta was very nice during the two short years it lasted, but it was inevitable that problems of a different kind would happen (no need to explain), so by mid-2005 we were done. As a result of my visits to Finland I met saxophonist Larry Price who is originally from Wilmington, North Carolina. He moved to Finland in ‘03 and is the only African America musician working in that country (unless another ‘blood’ has arrived on the scene). We became fast friends after our initial meeting and I’ve taken time to travel there twice in recent years to perform with him at a couple of venues. He has that Southern U.S. grits/gravy/cornbread & molasses way of playing between the old school (1940’ & ‘50’s) and today’s modern “feel” for music comprehension as it relates to that which is labeled jazz/blues/funk/soul/gospel/avant garde, etc. Eventually we will record a CD of his compositions when he returns to the States to visit.
Through Larry I met the Petrescu brothers—bassist Marian & pianist Mical—at the 2004 Pori Jazz Festival. We performed in an impromptu trio that Auramaritta managed to book for us on short notice. Since there wasn’t any time for a rehearsal we simply had a talk-through conversation concerning what songs to play and that was it. The chemistry between us was so hip that we had to perform an encore due the audience’s overwhelming enjoyment of our hour-long set. The only reason we didn’t perform a second encore was because the stage needed to be rearranged for the group who followed us. Both brothers and I knew there was a special magic created during our performances and, although it’s been many years since that initial encounter, I still look forward to performing with them again—hopefully with Larry next time. It’s always nice to hook up with great music minds no matter how impromptu the circumstances are.
In March 2005, though I’d be hard pressed to pinpoint the day or time, I decided to relocate to Minneapolis, Minnesota. I liked the “feel” of the city, plus it was time for me to experience another living environment. During my final year in Detroit I joined the Southpaw Isle Steel Band as a result of being asked by the group’s founder, Mark Stone. It’s a very versatile ensemble that focuses on several genres—not just calypso and soca. Therefore I ‘sounded’ on Mark about presenting a concert which primarily showcased the music of bandoneonist/composer Astor Piazzola. Mark dug the idea so we rehearsed for several months and began planning for a future concert presentation. Before it manifested in ’07, I relocated to Minneapolis on April 20, 2006. Although I was curious about the regional or local music scene in the Twin Cities area my professional intentions did not include becoming a local musician as far as working nightclubs were concerned. I joined the roster of Young Audiences of Minnesota a few months after my arrival. Colette Gilewicz, Executive Director of Young Audiences of Michigan, suggested that I contact the Minnesota chapter, which was great because I didn’t know it existed.
I was in my new home for three weeks before hitting the road again with James. From May to August I was only home two weeks at best before traveling again. When people would ask me how I liked my adopted home at first I didn’t have anything to report because was hardly there. Afterwards I had a chance to get around the city and get a feel for the local “flavor”. In the meantime Majida and I decided to give the marriage another chance. We drove from Titusville, Florida (where she was living with her mother and step-father) and returned to Detroit for a few days before proceeded to Minneapolis—all by car. What a journey that was. My youngest son, Qaadir, graduated from high school in June and left Detroit in September to live with us while enrolling in college. Although I ‘opened the door’ for him in moving to Minneapolis as an option, the final decision was his own choice and I was very glad he did, plus he was able to ‘find’ himself once he became used to his adopted city.
In January 2007 I officially joined the roster of Young Audiences of Minnesota after a one-school showcase (audition) at an elementary school in St. Paul. My program, “Drum Fun & Vocals, Too” was well received very quickly in the Twin Cities area which created a lot of employment and contacts outside of the area including schools in Austin and Rochester, Minnesota. It was good for me to have a ‘day life’ performing at school assemblies where the kids & adults were very receptive to my program, as opposed to having a ‘night life’ at bars & nightclubs where the scale for “local” musicians these days in the U.S. is at an all-time low. My international life with James Carter remained in full effect so it was nice for me to be able to return home and maintain a domestic itinerary as well. By December I discovered that I was in the top five artists in the Twin Cities who received the most request for appearances through ‘YAMN’ which was a total surprise to me. However, it was only to last another six months as a result of the restructuring the organization was forced to face due to shrinking budgets for arts funding in the U.S. Circumstances forced it to merge with a similar organization called COMPAS and it was eventually absorbed totally, officially ending its existence of many years.
In the meantime I still visited Detroit as often as possible. During one of those visits I journeyed downtown to visit my friend Chris Codish who was leading a group at a club called Cliff Bell’s. Through him I eventually met one of the owners and ‘sounded’ on him about presenting my 60th birthday celebration in February ’08. The club was packed that evening and afterwards I was given the “green light” to present other shows that year including “The Great Detroit Hammond B3 Tradition in May” that featured Gerard Gibbs, Oopapada, and the Lyman Woodard Organization. The following June featured The Southpaw Isle Steelband, and in August it was a “Detroit Homecoming” weekend featuring the Paul Abler Quartet (Paul-guitar, Sven Anderson-piano, Patrick Prouty-bass, and myself) on a Friday night, and Oopapada on Saturday. That weekend was a result of many previous conversations I’d had with Paul about presenting him in the right music situation to achieve a proper homecoming for him because he had only performed in the Detroit area once after moving to New York City in June 2003. Mark Stryker, from the Detroit Free Press, ran a full page story on the event which helped to achieve a sold-out weekend for both nights.
The features for ’08 concluded on November 22nd with the Lyman Woodard Organization CD release party. During the previous July I called Lyman and asked for his permission to release a recording, on my label, that featured an October 12, 1974 live performance of the Organization during our resident gig at J.J.’s Lounge in the Shelby Hotel. He gave me the ok, then soon afterwards I realized that I wanted to release another CD simultaneously which featured Lyman, Ron and myself during an evening at Sully’s Roadhouse in Dearborn, Michigan on July 10, 1993. For many years I’d listen to all of that music at home but, for the most part, very few people were aware of its existence. For the Cliff Bell’s presentation I expanded the trio of Lyman, Ron English, and myself with trumpeter Dwight Adams, saxophonist/flautist Cornelius, “Juju” Johnson, trombonist Steve Hunter, and percussionist Jerry LeDuff. It was to be Lyman’s last performances.
He hadn’t been in the best of health for several years, but it was more than obvious several months earlier in May during the B3 Tradition weekend that it was difficult for him to maintain his physical endurance for an entire evening. Therefore, for the CD party I decided to use Chris Codish and Gerard Gibbs alternately which would allow Lyman to play whatever he wanted when he felt like it. Chris wasn’t available for this event so Gerard performed for the bulk of the evening. The first set began at 9:30 p.m. and was jammed packed by 9:00. People were buying the CD’s way before I had a chance to give my first commercial for the evening. It was a living testament of public appreciation for Lyman despite the fact that he hadn’t maintained a steady working group since December 1988—a twenty-year gap although he would still receive calls from people for periodic performances as a band leader. Therefore the title I gave to him that evening was “Grandmaster Lyman B3”.
In February or March 2006 Lyman called me at home and, in a very subtle way, gave me instructions for his home-going without actually being direct or point-blanked with his words. He didn’t use words like ‘death’ or ‘dying’ to convey himself but I knew exactly what he was telling me even though I didn’t have the slightest idea of when that time would come. One day, during the second week in February ‘09, I was at the airport in Vienna, Austria in layover while enroute to another city in the middle of a tour with the James Carter Quintet, when I received a phone call from Lyman’s son, Lyman IV (also known as ‘Bear’), stating that his father was in the hospital. I knew then what I would be preparing for shortly afterwards. He died February 24, 2009 in his home town of Owosso, Michigan in the same hospital he was born. Soon after I returned from Europe, drummer R.J. Spangler and I collaborated on a music tribute to him at Cliff Bell’s on March 9, 2009. It was another great testament to Lyman with so many of his ‘alumni’ being present to jam and perform some of his many compositions.
Shortly after the tribute I called Matty Lee who does a lot of promotion work in the Detroit area in addition to booking a couple of venues. One of them was the Music Hall Center of the Performing Arts, so I told him that I wanted to do an orchestra tribute to Lyman using a 16-piece ensemble. Right away he said that Music Hall didn’t have any money to present it, but he’d talk to the officials at the Detroit Jazz Festival and get back to me. I said OK but stated that I didn’t want the DJF people to give me the usual ‘cry broke’ reasons that are veiled for one reason only: they neither respect nor know the value of Detroit-area artists especially as it relates to paying for their services—and they don’t care to know either.
Several weeks later Terri Koggenhop, who works for the festival, called me to inquire about my presentation. When she asked how many band members would be in the group I told her sixteen. She was ‘up front’ with me about the budget and asked if I would make a presentation with less musicians. I told her I wouldn’t be interested and declined the offer. Terri’s a cool person to deal with but she was given a budget by the “higher-ups” to adhere to and that was that—I turned it down. After three or four weeks Matty called to say that the festival organizers really wanted to have a tribute to Lyman for the 2009 festival and would I reconsider. I turned it down again because I didn’t want to present a 7-piece ensemble as a concession to not presenting an orchestra, plus the money offered for seven musicians was too low.
Terri called back a third time with an offer of more money for the smaller group plus covering my airfare (which the DJF wasn’t going to do the first go-round). I accepted the offer with the personal understanding that the orchestra would exist in the near future—somehow. On the evening of September 5th our set was to begin at 8 p.m. The great Brian Auger and the Oblivion Express preceded us but didn’t conclude their set until 8:30 p.m. (nobody asked them to stop, either). During the 30-minute interval in resetting the stage for us after Brian’s show, the stage hands were belligerent about transferring the organ from stage right (where Brian wanted it) to stage left (where I wanted it). They didn’t move it until I started getting testy with them which was at 8:50 p.m.—ten minutes before the down beat.
Since we were scheduled to perform a 90-minute set, this meant (so I thought) we would perform from 9 to 10:30 p.m. At 10:15 p.m. I was announcing the last song when a stage hand ran to the front center of the stage (on the ground) and began shouting at the top of her voice, “STOP! STOP! YOU CAN’T PLAY ANYMORE. STOP! STOP”! So I said to her, “Is someone performing after us”? She shouted, “NOOOO, BUT YOU HAVE TO STOP”. Now…Ron English is NOT a confrontational kind of guy, so he unstraped the guitar, told the audience good night, and left the stage (he had a microphone for speaking, too). I, on the other hand, was going to speak my piece before leaving the stage—and I did. I told the audience that I had turned down the gig two times because I was concerned that we would not be properly respected. However, plans were already made to present the orchestra as originally planned the following year. As a result of ’09, and the ’08 festival (with the James Carter Quintet—we got no love from the DJF as international musicians from Detroit—but I won’t get started on that one), I have no intentions of ever performing at that festival again.
In general 2009 was very eventful including the usual spring, summer, & fall tours of Europe plus a tour of Japan and other cities around the U.S. with the James Carter Quintet. Gerard and I recorded a session in late April at the White Room in downtown Detroit and it was one of the last sessions to be recorded there since the engineers were forced by the City of Detroit to relocate elsewhere. Soon afterwards I titled the new CD ‘More Extensions’ which I felt was an extension of the previous one, ‘Extending the Language’, in which James participated. The goal was to feature the organ and drums in tandem with material to show just how expansive this combination of instruments could be used in creating an audio reality on par with any larger ensemble. We were able to accomplish this goal due to the material chosen, the musical skills of Gerard and I, and the creative engineering skills of John Smerek.
Two very special engagements happened in late summer after a return visit to Japan. In August I took a trio consisting of Gerard, Ron English, and myself into the Dirty Dog Jazz Club in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan, which is technically “next door” to Detroit. It was a great 4-day run, business was good, but it was to be the only time the three of us performed as a group, plus the only time I worked at the venue. The following month I returned to Detroit and presented “Drummers’ Night Out” at Cliff Bell’s which featured all percussionists: Jerry LeDuff, Miguel Gutierrez, Mark Stone, and myself. What a ball we had that night!! George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic groups have performed “Tear the Roof Off the Sucker” for years—and that’s what we did that evening. It isn’t often that I get a chance to perform in an all-percussion ensemble these days, so I can truly say that a particular appetite was satisfied that evening.
One day in November I received an email from a writer in Kent, England named Keith Rylatt who was curious to know more information pertaining to Leonard King and the Soul Messengers. It just so happened that he discovered a copy of our lone recording, ‘The Barracuda’, and wondered why there weren’t any others. A brief search on the internet led him to my website for further info and my email address. He mentioned that he wanted to include information about me and the group in his book, Groovesville USA:The Detroit Soul & R&B Index, scheduled for release in February 2010. I supplied him with lots of information in reference to my life in Detroit during the 1960’s and, surprisingly, he told me that I was the only American out of many he attempted to interview who didn’t ask for monetary compensation.
For Detroiters like myself, who were very active on the scene in those days, the world of journalism has a tendency to place primary emphasis on the music activities of artists associated with the Motown Records Corporation. Thankfully there are people such as Keith and many others who are more keyed into Detroit artists over all. It wasn’t until the early 1990’s when a friend of mine, Chris Flanagan who’s part owner of Street Corner Music in Southfield, Michigan, hipped me to the fact that many people in the United Kingdom were avid fans of 60’s Detroit soul and r&b. It’s because of him that I began to reinvest time in paying attention to the home grown music from my own back yard. In retrospect I believe that the time line that has resulted in this book started with Chris and gained momentum during my conversations with Keith.
Also during November Oopapada returned to Cliff Bell’s for our CD release party that featured a DVD/CD double-discs set titled, “Studio/Live & Such”. With the exception of only once, all my presentations at Cliff Bell’s were profitable for the venue and myself. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the owners allowed the ‘sound guy’ to book the venue and it ain’t been the same since. Shortly after Lyman died I remained in close contact with his sisters, Susan Sasso & Jane Stevens. I told them about the big band material that Lyman, Ron, and I hadn’t performed in years and that it was time to do bring this music to life again, so they both agreed to fund the Lyman Woodard Organization Orchestra in 2010.
We agreed to present it on Lyman’s birthday, March 3rd at the International Institute of Metropolitan Detroit which is located in the heart of the city’s cultural district at the corner of East Kirby and John R Streets (the ‘sound guy/booking agent never returned my calls, so I picked another venue that was better). The orchestra featured John Douglas-trumpet; Steve Hunter-trombone; Keith Kaminski-saxophones; Johnny Evans-saxophones; Mark Kieme-flute, tenor saxophone, & bass clarinet; Rick Steiger-baritone saxophone; Robert Tye & Ron English-guitars; Chris Codish & Gerard Gibbs-organ & keyboard; James Simonson-bass; Diego Melendez & Jerry LeDuff-percussion, and myself on drums & vocals.
Faz, the sound engineer for the Sun Messengers, and John Smerek, the recording engineer did a tremendous job in using their skills for recording with such clarity. During the months before the event I had to transcribe most of Lyman’s music from the recordings. Many years before he died I would call him periodically to ask him for different charts pertaining to his music but he really didn’t feel like searching for any of it and would always say, “Leonard, when I’m done that’s it—I’m finished with it”. Therefore it became “fun work” to sit with his music and figure out the interesting voicings (harmonies) in many of his compositions.
‘A Portrait of Martha’, formerly known as the ‘Organ Interlude’ is a good example. In August ’08 he called me and said he wanted to change the title of the song in honor of Martha Reeves. He was, at one time in the late ‘60’s, the music director for her touring show and the song was originally constructed as the opening selection for an overture that was never completed. So during the evening of his music tribute, as soon as we finished performing the song, Ms. Reeves surprised everyone when she walked on stage and said some really nice things about him. I wasn’t aware she was there so when I concluded the end announcement saying it was written for her what a great surprise it was for her to suddenly appear.
In mid-January, two months before the orchestra event, Majida and I jointly decided that we had gone as far as we could with our marriage. At the core of our relationship we always had, and still have, a good friendship which we felt was more important to retain. We were not able to evolve beyond where we were at the time of our separation in ’03. At one point she had decided that she wanted to relocate elsewhere from Minneapolis, but in the meantime there wasn’t any pressure for her to move quickly, so several months passed before we both completed the process for the dissolution of the marriage which was final during the 3rd week of September 2010 and she left a week later. I still love Majida but we did what was best for both of us, plus we accomplished it without a lot of tension.
On August 12th I had the honor of performing with the Atsuko Hashimoto Trio which also features her husband, Yutaka Hashimoto. This encounter happened as a result of my friendship with the one and only Pete Fallico who is a real champion and supporter of the Hammond organ and the musicians who play it. His label, Doodlin’ Records, features products by organists from around the world including Brazil, England, Japan, and various “Soulville” cities throughout the United States. As a matter of fact he is the primary mover & shaker for celebrating the lives of organists past and present through the Jazz Organ Fellowship organization celebrations that are presented yearly in San Jose, California. It is precisely this event that brought me together with Atsuko and Yutaka. During one of my many hour-long conversations with him earlier in the year, he was filling me in on the details when he told me about his music guests from Japan who were scheduled to participate in the event but didn’t a have drummer. I told him that they had one now. On the day of the concert we were only able to rehearse for thirty minutes—tops. When it was our turn to perform the short preparation time we had was not obvious at all. Everyone thought we were a regular working unit, but great musicians have ‘got it like that’.
The time period from mid-August to the end of the year into the first month of 2011 was slow as far as work was concerned, so I took advantage of the ‘down time’ and began constructing my autobiography. Although the project was a part of my agenda of goals to attain, I previously never had a block of time to sit down and start putting it together, so in mid-September the opportunity to begin—and stay on it—happened without fanfare. Currently, in these so-called modern times, despite that fact that the internet has existed for several years, there are innumerable artists whose life’s stories have not or will not be told. In most instances it’s because an agent or publisher isn’t interested for whatever reason. As for me I was the prime candidate to make it happen which was not a problem at all. On some days I’d get so involved in writing it would be several hours later in the evening before I’d realize I hadn’t prepared dinner or done something else that was important as well.
In February of the following year James, Gerard, & I plus special guests spent one day for rehearsing at Carroll Studios in New York City, and two entire days of recording at Avatar Recording Studios in Manhattan laying down tracks for the “James Carter Organ Trio at the Crossroads” CD. Both Gerard and I became active several months prior in arranging music charts for each song in order to be keyed into whatever nuances were necessary, either predetermined or impromptu. As a result I sent the finished work to our guests who participated on selected tracks which included our Detroit homies vocalist Miche Braden, trombonist Vincent Chandler, & percussionist Eli Fountain, plus trumpeter Keyon Harrold, and two guitarists on different selections, Brandon Ross & Bruce Edwards. Jim Anderson engineered the session, and Michael Cuscuna was the producer. It was a real pleasure to work with Michael. I’d been aware of his many production credits since the beginning of the ‘70’s.
Roughly three months later, at the end of May, the double-disc Lyman Woodard Organization Orchestra was released a little over a year after it was recorded. Susan Woodard Sasso and I worked closely with a graphics designer friend of hers named Bill Barrett who did a great job in putting everything together. Although my communication with him was mostly via email he was able to take the basic outline I’d given him and create graphics that exceeded my expectations. Finally, after so many years, the orchestrations we first performed in the late ‘70’s and mid ‘80’s are permanent documents for repeated listening in the years to come. Susan, her sister Jane Woodard Stevens, and I agree that Lyman’s presence was there the evening of March 3, 2010 and I KNOW he dug it as much as we did.
Susan, Jane, & I presented the Lyman Woodard Organization (a 7-piece unit) in concert again at the International Institute on May 31, 2011 for the CD release party featuring a double-discs package of the concert from the previous year. The music performed at the latter concert was great but the attendance was much less than we had hoped for. As a result I decided it was time to finally develop a performance space with a little help from my friends (Colette Gilewicz and I are partners). It will be known as the ‘Lyman Elnathan Woodard III Performance Center’ and the general plan is to have it in motion sometime during 2013. Although it will be named in Lyman’s honor the genesis for doing this venture must be credited to my Vietnam War buddy Saunders Carter.
In June of 1988, almost 20 years after our return from the War, I was at his home one afternoon complaining about how and why many of the performance venues were operated, for the most part, by people who didn’t know what the hell they were doing. He allowed me to rant until I ran out of things to say, then he looked at me and said, “Are you finished”? I said, “Yes”. Then he said, “You sure”? I said yes again. Then he said, “Man, I’ve been listening to you complain about different people for the past fifteen minutes. How you gonna complain about somebody not doing YOUR job. You DO know that’s your job, don’t ‘cha”? I opened my mouth but nothing came out—he was totally right, and I’ve never forgotten. Since then I have internally wrestled with wondering when and how to implement such a venture, but now’s the time. A proprietor’s hat keeps falling in my lap—so be it. For the most part I won’t pursue working local nightclubs anymore. The only exceptions will be with James Carter because the circumstances are much better. For all of the years that I’ve helped many venues make a profit due to my presence via the music, I can do the same thing for myself with better results overall.
In June 2008 my brother Greg retired from Ford Motor Company after 30 years of working mostly on the afternoon shift. He hadn’t played his alto saxophone with any consistency during the majority of those years, so it was fortunate for him when saxophonist/vocalist, Maurice Garcia, invited him to join the Soul Explosion Band during the last half of 2009. Most of the members of the ensemble were raised in downriver southwest Detroit just as the members of Leonard King and the Soul Messengers were, at the time when the Soul Explosion members were still kids, but after several years of inactivity, the members reconvened that year for their class reunion. It’s a really great
band that has continued since as a group with weekly rehearsals and steady gigs. I’m very glad that Greg is active again on the ‘horn’. In our family we were the first two musicians to be active in music—we’re also the last two as well.
Sometimes I wonder if the offspring of my brothers and sisters were rerouted from even thinking about
having a life in music because it was something that Junior did. For all of the importance that Leonard King and the Soul Messengers are still acknowledged for it didn’t become contagious on‘the next in line’. I’ve met many musicians who have personally told me that they chose a life in music after seeing us perform. As for those who are in the immediate kinfolks’ ‘backyard"? Oh well ............. !!
Other goals and accomplishments are on the immediate and future horizons as time winds its way forward. For me it’s a good thing to be able to say, with candid honesty, that I’ve been able to attain all of my goals to the current day with more on the way. As long as I’m able to steer clear of blatant human adversity—with the help of my ancestors—the roads leading to many tomorrows’ can produce smooth rides from whatever directions that manifest. Of course I am aware of how intense human violence continues to be around the world which plagues masses of people globally with various acts of aggression by power mongers in varying degrees. So many lives have been ruined or eliminated by unforeseen accidents, but some people will say, “Well, the Lord wanted them to come home” which takes away the accountability for everyday destruction by humans all over this planet. Therefore to be able to dwell like a ghost in steering clear of much man-made debris, physical and non-physical, has worked out pretty good so far. In the meantime the rhythms of the world still provide great inspiration and the drummers of all instruments are still conduits for the rhythms of life in its greatest dynamic presence.
It was 20 and some-odd years ago, if my memory serves me well, when I began thinking about a loosely constructed idea of mine which, to put it simply, says that I have a guaranteed one hundred and fifty years of mortal life if I choose to see it through. Wouldn’t that be something, heh? The legendary pianist/composer/bandleader Sun Ra once stated that humans should be able to evolve into another being on earth similar to the way a caterpillar (he called it a worm) evolves into a butterfly” (8). But since humans are such an overrated species with a penchant for destruction, such an evolution, for the most part, isn’t capable of manifesting. He also said, “Some countries I’ve been in claim to have the key to longevity of life, but every country I’ve visited has cemeteries” (9). (My italics).
Well….one hundred fifty years of mortal life is something that I can laugh about unto myself because it isn’t something that I take too seriously in a physical sense, however I do believe that I can cultivate those amount of years in quality living—as far as what I feel that term means to me. The quality has been there all along which is something that doesn’t have to be proven or explained, but when my body vibrates in a certain way I know I’m on the case. As time goes on this document will be updated periodically with current information, or perhaps a historical anecdote that I missed during the initial posting which means, of course, that the drummer keeps on drumming.
The year 2011 was ok but I could feel the winds of change in reference to where I wanted to be in my life in contrast to where I was. There wasn't any work for ANY James Carter group combination between September 2010 and early February 2011, which allowed me to start on my autobiography. It was during February of that year when I recorded my final sessions with the James Carter Organ Trio which took place at Avatar Studios in New York City. I was the co-producer of the sessions that were eventually released as "At The Crossroads".
The remainder of 2011 and all of 2012 were pretty good, but the bookings began drying up. There were certain music agencies who were not interested in the presentation that they'd witnessed for roughly three years and requested a change. One of the proposals he received happened as a result of an article in Rolling Stone Magazine that referred to James as the "Jimi Hendrix of the saxophone". It's true. James can get a multitude of sounds out of that instrument that might sound electronic, but are strictly analog/acoustic in nature. We would have been the opening act for rock groups performing at huge venues such coliseums, but James wasn't interested.
In the meantime I continued to release CD's from Uuquipleu Records. Colette Gilewicz and I founded the Lyman Woodard Organization for the Arts with the intention of presenting our own events precisely the way we want to. I contacted Lyman’s twin sisters, Susan and Jane, to come aboard and assist in navigating the course as a functional arts organization. Since both of them lived in the western part of the U.S., and provided the majority funding, it was up to Colette and I to be the 'movers and shakers' in getting things done. She handled the administrative duties and I was the "boots on the ground" for everything else that needed tending to. We chose the International Institute of Detroit as the venue for our presentations because there was a decent-sized stage to fit an orchestra, it's located in the cultural district near Wayne State University, easy access parking, and the rental fee was do-able.
We were there for 4 years with a Sunday afternoon matinee concert four times for each quarter during the year. I knew that I wanted to devote more time to my own projects, so in December 2014, after a disastrous month of touring Europe and India, I officially left James Carter after 16 years of globetrotting. I continued to travel back and forth between Minneapolis and Detroit at different intervals because I continued to keep bonds with the musicians I really wanted to work with in the metro Detroit area. That will NEVER change no matter where I am in the world. There's a certain way we do things with the particular results that I’m used to over the years.
During 2015 and 2016 the LWOA gave presentations at two different venues—one each per year. The results were mixed, not because of the music, but due to the acoustics at each one that made it difficult to hear the music as we played. On April 6, 2016 I reluctantly was forced to return to Detroit to live due to changed economics which meant I couldn't continue to travel back and forth anymore. However, there was one trip I made to West Orange, New Jersey to hangout with my best friend, Paul Abler, in preparing for what was to be his last recording session during September 2016. Although I did sense that something was different on that trip, I didn't have a total grasp on what it was. So it was a total surprise when I received a phone call saying that he died in late March 2017. Shortly afterward I invited some musicians to my home and we played Paul’s songs in a tribute to him.
Colette and I were already great friends over the years so our relationship grew even more after my return. One day in April 2017 we agreed to get married after I presented a simple reason to her for doing so by saying, "This is it", since it wasn't gonna be with any OTHER people of interest, you dig? It was obvious to me that she was THE ONE….and still is, too. Our wedding day was August 12, 2017 which was a great day for everything that happened. I’m STILL impressed with the spirit of how it all happened including the music of The Millionaires, of whom since the summer of 2019 I’ve become a member.
Professionally speaking—these are some different days in contrast to previous years. For me, the decades of the 1960's and '70's were wonderful despite any social adversities. When I look back on the 1980's I feel as though the rug was pulled out from under me. At the time I thought it was due to an economic recession which would eventually bounce back to the days of yesteryear, but after 10 years it was obvious to me that a great era in my life was now history. Despite these changes I've ALWAYS been productive in achieving my goals. One aspect is the understanding to know that I have to finance what I want including recording sessions, performance engagements, etc. No problem—it will be what it's SUPPOSED to be. In this way it serves to prevent me from complaining about what other's don't do.
The year 2020 has brought forth a new era on planet EARTH'S landscapes. During January and February the Dr. Prof. Leonard King Orchestra prepared for an event at Cliff Bell's Restaurant in downtown Detroit on March 4th. The Lyman Woodard Organization for the Arts was presented with an award from the Jazz Organ Fellowship "for our dedication to Detroit's music community and our devotion to jazz organ, thus enriching this City's continuing jazz legacy. Pete Fallico, founder of the JOF, sent the award to us but was unable to attend, so Linda Yohn of WRCJ-FM radio presented it to us since she was the Mistress of Ceremonies for the evening.
A week and a half later—POW. Increased cases of the coronavirus put the brakes on much social interactions including music venues. Fortunately for me I had already completed three recording sessions over a four-month period: Oopapada in October 2019, Proportioned Orchestra in November 2019, and the Dr. Prof. Leonard King Orchestra in January 2020. All three products were issued during the third week in August. On September 5th the DPLKO performed live at the 2020 Detroit VIRTUAL Jazz Festival which was held at the Marriott Ren Cen Hotel on three stages. All performances were streamed on the internet and broadcasted live on the area's public radio stations.
There was a minimal amount of confusion that took place considering that it was the first time this ever happened during the 41 years the festival has existed. I loved how our set turned out. The work we all put into it was obvious from the first note to the last. Also, the fact that the Festival paid for ALL artists rooms at the hotel meant that it was easy for us leave our rooms and go straight to the stage without having to be concerned about parking and other pre-gig hassles.
The LWOA will present one more event for 2020 at a local hall as an appreciation to "The Cats" for working with us over the past ten years in achieving many goals. It will be very interesting in experiencing 2021 and beyond. Currently Americans are not being allowed into other countries due to the U.S. lack of handling the coronavirus. It’s been other regions of the world where U.S. musicians have made significant profits over the years, but it ain’t that way now, and it isn't known just WHEN it will change. In the meantime, I still have goals to attain.
Very special thanks:
To my mother, Alice Lucille King, and my brother, Gregory King Sr. for their valuable recollection of stories and events. It was great for me in journeying to the past prior to moving forward to the future in preparation for this book.
To Majida Kinnard King for 20 years of marriage and friendship. We accomplished much to be proud of regardless of the different paths we’ve taken since.
To Lyman Woodard III and Ron English for their friendship and musical openness that inspired me to take risks in music with comfort.
To George Green for his friendship and musical partnership. Our group, Strata Nova, had a lot to offer and we had much fun over many years.
To James Carter for all of the great music and fun times we continue to have throughout our international sojourns of which you opened the doors for my participation.
To Gerard Gibbs for your resilience and dedication in attaining music and personal goals since January 2002. You and James are my brothers—and you know it, too.
To Colette Gilewizc for unconditional friendship over the years especially as a tireless supporter of the arts.
To Robert Tye and Chris Codish for being great friends and for your help in the realization of Oopapada and Uuquipleu Records.
To Paul Abler for being a great friend and a great musician, too.
To Susan Woodard Sasso and Jane Woodard Stevens. We work very well together.
To William “Bill” Graham for a friendship above and beyond the call of expectations.
To the Washington family—Donald, Faye, Kevin, & Donna—for just plain being there, period!!
To Jerry & Annette LeDuff for just plain being there, too!!
To Cynthia B. Herbst for your friendship and the way you take care of business.
To William Townley and Kenny Green for your continued friendship over the years.
To my sons Rahsaan & Qaadir for being the persons that they’ve become—I’m proud.
To Larry Price “behind enemy lines” in Finland (as he likes to say). It takes a resilient cat to preserver in a culture that’s totally different from his place of origin. Thanks for your friendship.
To Larry Pinkney who’s been ‘around the block’ in so many ways and always manages to remain standing on his feet regardless of whatever social adversity arises.
To my father, Leonard Sr. who’s in the spirit world. The examples of manhood I witnessed as a child were inspired by you. Thank you very much!!
Sources (non-alphabetized and sequenced by chapter placement).
Leonard King and the Soul Messengers, The Barracuda b/w I’ve Been Saved, Inferno
Records 2003 (45-rpm), 1967.
Lyman Woodard Organization, Saturday Night Special, Strata Records 105, 1975.
Lyman Woodard Organization, Don’t Stop The Groove, Corridor Records LWCD
Various Artists, Blues From the Heart—Vol.2 Benefit for the Detroit Autism Society,
No Cover Productions 92920, 1993
James Glass, The Cutting Edge, No Cover Productions, 1994
Lyman Woodard Trio, Live at the 1996 Ford Detroit Jazz Festival, Corridor Records
LWCD 1773-2, 1997.
Rodney Whitaker, Hidden Kingdom, DIW Records 929, 1997
James Carter, In Carterian Fashion, Atlantic Records 830822, 1998.
Pamela Wise, Pamela Wise and the Afro Cuban Project, Wenha Video WV321, 1998
Oopapada featuring Dr. Prof. Leonard King, Non Yawn Varieties, Uuquipleu
Records 21480, 2000.
Oopapada featuring Dr. Prof. Leonard King, We’re Household Names Today, Baby,
Uuquipleu Records 21481, 2001.
Oopapada featuring Dr. Prof. Leonard King, Zug Island Style, Uuquipleu Records
Oopapada featuring Dr.Prof. Leonard King, Big Fahrenheit In Detroit, Uuquipleu
Records 21483/21484, 2002.
Ange Smith, Hope in the Dark, Word and World Records.
Florian Keller Presents Creative Musicians, Perfect Toy Records PT 001, 2002.
James Carter Organ Trio At The Crossroads EmArcy B0016081-02
Leonard King and the Soul Messengers (2-CD set) Uuquipleu Records 21493, 2012
Strata Nova (2-CD set) Uuquipleu Records 21494/21495 2012
Dr. Prof. Leonard King Stroni: What Everybody Else? Uuquipleu Records 21496 2012
Visger Road Drum Band Uuquipleu Records 21497 2012
Proportioned Orchestra Uuquipleu Records 21498/21499 2012
Dr. Prof. Leonard King Orchestra Uuquipleu Records 21500 2012
Dr. Prof. Leonard King & Larry Price Uuquipleu Records 21501/21502 2013
Dr. Prof. Leonard King Plays The Music Of Paul Abler--with one exception Uuquipleu 21503 2013
Dr. Prof. Leonard King Orchestra Oopapada Expanded Uuquipleu Records 21504/21505 2014
Dr. Prof. Leonard King 3 Scoops under 1 Umbrella Uuquipleu Records 21505/21507 2015
Lyman Woodard Lost & Found (Unreleased Now Released) Uuquipleu Records 21508 (EP) 2015
Books, magazine, and e-magazine articles
Landis, Sheila, “His Music Swings; On the Air and Off”, Michigan Musician,
Gallo, Mark E., “An Interview with Leonard King of Strata Nova”, Magazine,
Volume 2, Number 3, March, 1980.
McNeil, Dee Dee, “Percussionist with Big Dreams”, ‘Touch of Jazz’ column
Michigan Chronicle, February 6, 2002.
Caver, Gisele, “There’s Much More to Detroit than Motown”, www.soundsinthekeyofgee.com
Graham, William, “Drums On Ice”, Music 322, Spring, 2007.
Stryker, Mark, “Jazzmen Abler and King reunite at Cliff Bell’s”, Detroit Free Press,
August 7, 2008.
Rylatt, Keith, “Detroit Connection: An A-Z of the Motor City Artists”,
Groovesville USA, February, 2010. www.groovesvilleusa.com
Jefferson Hansen, PhD, recorded an hour’s worth of my performing and lecturing
at my home in northeast Minneapolis on December 5, 2009. Three segments are
posted on YouTube. Thank you, Jeff for envisioning me as a part of your project.
Special thanks to my sister Denise McCormick who was the first person to compose
a brief biography of my life. Presently I am unable to locate her document in my
files, but if she should have a copy then I will enter that information properly in the
Radio host Calvin Eusary composed and presented a special radio feature that
was broadcasted on WJZZ-FM in Detroit at one time during the late ‘80’s.
Some listener friends of mine heard the broadcast and were very
complimentary in reference to Calvin’s creativity. I never heard the broadcast
but I did thank him for acknowledging my work, especially since my
discography was limited at the time. Thanks to the persons listed in this section
for choosing to consider me important enough to write articles about aspects of
my life in music. Recognition is a good thing!!
Leonard C. King Jr.
P.O. Box 18096
Minneapolis, MN 55418
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