What ties this week’s selections together is not merely their spoken word component (though it’s significant, certainly). Nor is it just their cause of change and greater societal welfare. Awareness-raising ballads, agitprop invective, activist commentary, summons-to-action and subversive parody are everywhere in recorded music – African-American or otherwise.
Their defining aspect, rather, is their specificity. “Invitation to Black Power,” “It’s Free” and “I Care About Detroit” aren’t broad laments of urban blight or gospel-liberated anthems. Theirs are messages associated with specific causes, specific religious organizations, specific cities, specific venereal diseases, even, and they’re calibrated to their communities accordingly.
The late ‘60s and early ‘70s would be the apogee of this sort of thing, specialized message records reflecting the general tumult of the era – the counterculture, the assassinations, the radical strategizing and the sexual and cultural politics. Music suffused the era’s upheavals, and the years’ idealism and anger inspired more than a few to disseminate the word in turn on the very model of audio expediency, the 45 rpm record. It’s music meets message meets shiny black wax this week on Office Naps.
1. Shahid Quintet, Invitation to Black Power, part I (S and M)
Despite its reference to the “long, hot summer” – Detroit’s deadly spell of rioting and discord in 1967 – I believe that “Invitation to Black Power” was actually produced in Chicago. The selection was likely recorded in 1968 or 1969 – after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s April 1968 assassination, certainly. But no substantive light can be shed on the Shahid Quintet or Richard or Earl Shabazz, who, either way, were probably not related. (Shabazz is a frequent surname assumed by Nation of Islam adherents.)
Its mysteries aside, “Invitation to Black Power” is a fascinating, a one-of-a-kind snapshot of a particular dimension of the black inner-city experience of the late ‘60s. It’s a bit amateur, sure, and its format is more a throwback to earlier beat-poetry-with-cool-jazz collaborations than the screeching saxophones and intellectual aspirations of contemporaries like Archie Shepp or Amiri Baraka. But it succeeds in one account: running down, humorously and unpretentiously, the Nation of Islam promise of rebirth, equality and separation of the races.
2. Shahid Quintet, Invitation to Black Power, part I (S and M)
Which is not to say that “Invitation to Black Power” was ever a proselytizing tool espoused, officially or otherwise, by the Nation of Islam in the local communities. It has more the flavor of a vanity project, the handiwork of a ragged jazz combo and two men with poetic and theatrical proclivities and the zealous energies of the converted.
Earl Shabazz and Richard Shabazz might have envisioned their record finding its way to their local Black Nationalist bookstore, they might have seen it being sold at local poetry readings. Some forty-odd years later, though, they likely wouldn’t have foreseen that their recording had landed mostly in hands of white record collectors, the inevitable home to such cultural ephemera.
3. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, I Care About Detroit (Motown and Stein & Van Stock, Inc.)
A name that looms large in America’s pop music annals, William “Smokey” Robinson was born in 1940 in Detroit and grew up singing and writing songs for the local vocal group the Five Chimes. The Five Chimes became the Matadors who, in turn, metamorphosed into the Miracles, the group with whom Robinson, the very icon of the romantic, urbane tenor, would go on to become one of the definitive voices of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Besides his considerable vocal gifts, there was Robinson’s acumen behind-the-scenes at Motown Records and his longstanding partnership with the man at the head of the Hitsville U.S.A. empire, Berry Gordy, Jr. It was Berry Gordy, then an aspiring producer, who recorded the Miracles for their first single “Got a Job,” a minor hit for the New York City-based End Records in 1958. It was Gordy who signed the Miracles as one the first groups to his fledgling Tamla Records (later absorbed under the Motown Record Corporation aegis) and it was Gordy, too, who made Smokey Robinson the company’s vice-president in 1961.
If early Miracles records failed to catch fire, 1960’s million-seller “Shop Around” changed all that. It would be the first in a decade-long series of hits like “Tracks of My Tears,” “I Second That Emotion” and “The Tears of a Clown.” Robinson’s successes as in-house songwriter and, later, producer mirrored both the ascendancy of the Miracles as one of the decade’s great soul groups and the broader fortunes of Motown.
The little-known “I Care About Detroit” was Motown in full 1968 flower, the synthesis of social consciousness and soulful groove, the embodiment of young, interracial, turned-on America. Penned by Michigan labor attorney Jack Combs and Detroit R&B; vocalist Jimmy “Soul” Clark, this was the second of two Motown 45s produced for “Detroit Is Happening,” a summer-long education and recreation program implemented after the Detroit riots of 1967.
The record industry was not quite the cynical monolith in 1968 that it is today. Still, Motown Records was a mainstream tastemaker and hardly one to hurl itself at a cause without a certain reflexive measure of caution. If Motown is to be commended for their gesture to public service, then Detroit’s disillusionment was that much more acute when Motown Records abandoned the imperiled city for its sleek new Los Angeles headquarters in 1972. Coming together for unity and progress seemed like a good idea until everybody had tried out their new, leather-upholstered swivel chairs.
Officially parting with the Miracles in 1972 to pursue a solo career, Robinson’s success as an adult-contemporary R&B; singer – and unwitting pioneer of the dreaded quiet storm format – tapered off sometime after his biggest solo hit, 1981’s “Being With You.” A vice-president at Motown until the company’s sale to MCA in 1988, Robinson has remained semi-retired since, with a few albums of smoot
h ballads and gospel in the last decade-and-a-half.
4. Bishops of the Holy Rollers Fallout Shelter with Curtis Colbert, It’s Free (CAVDA)
This spoken-word gem was written and performed in part by Gylan Kain, a poet and a founding member of the Last Poets, easily the best-known spoken-word group in the pre-rap era. To the relentless beat of conga drums, the Last Poets spieled unsparingly about revolution, racist society, poverty and the plight of African-Americans. Kain, though he never actually recorded with the Last Poets, took their aesthetic one step further on his sole LP, 1971’s Blue Guerrilla, a potent stew of psychedelic, funky jazz and Kain’s incendiary poetry and surreal incantations.
Produced by Gylan and Denise Kain (his wife, presumably) for the Chicago-based Citizens Alliance for VD Awareness, “It’s Free” has moments that bear resemblance to Blue Guerilla’s colorful, stream-of-consciousness imagery. If the references to “johnsons” and pre-AIDS unprotected sex seem a bit quaint in 21st Century America, then the level-headed humanism and candor of “It’s Free” seem positively radical in cultural terrain presently mediated by sinister, regressive forces like the Christian Coalition. Still, “It’s Free”’s quandary is not unlike that of any organization attempting to connect with a younger demographic. It’s hip, it’s direct, “It’s Free” rises to the challenge of outreach with aplomb and intelligence. The problem was neither its message nor how it was conveyed, though. The problem, rather, was the stomach-turning imagery of “It’s Free.” No one ever, ever played this record, which explains why this 45 is always in perfect condition when you find it.
In recent years, Gylan Kain has collaborated with the Dutch jazz and turntablist group Electric Barbarian.