A couple of weeks ago I asked my brother Isaac Littsey, a talented and very knowledgeable person on music, to write a little something about Black Music Month. In his own words…
June is “Black Music Month,” so when my brother, Arthur, asked me to write a few words about its significance I struggled a bit. Black music is so far reaching and broad that to try to reduce it to a few simple paragraphs would, in my opinion, not do it justice. At least not the justice it deserves. So what I’m going to try and do is give you a look at Black Music as the soundtrack of my life. Now I’m sure each of us has a “soundtrack” or at the least, we have music that when we hear a particular song, we remember either where we were or what we were doing, when the song was popular. There were so many songs that were part of my soundtrack that what I’ve done was, go on my computer, put on my list of “soul classics,” and as they played, just sit back and reminisce.
WOW, the very first song that played was “Soldier Boy,” by the Shirelles. The year was 1962. I was starting my junior year in high school (Pershing High School/Detroit for all of my alumni friends). This was before Motown became a significant musical entity and there was not a lot of “black music” being played on the radio. American Bandstand was still in its adolescence and to hear the Shirelles sing that song on the radio was a real awakening. You’ve got to remember that the Vietnam War was going on at the time. I was in the R.O.T.C. and catching a lot of flak about my uniform and that song became some sort of validation for my cohorts and me. The teasing stopped as soon as the refrain “Soldier boy, oh my little soldier boy, I’ll be true to you” began. With that song and others like “This is Dedicated to the One I Love”, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” and “I Met Him on a Sunday” (remember “da doo ron ron ron da doo ron ron) the soundtrack began.
There were others then and later like the Chantels, the Jaynets (remember “Sally Goes Round The Roses?”), the Crystals (Uptown, He’s a Rebel) who along with performers like Nat King Cole, Jackie Wilson, Clyde McPhatter, Ray Charles, Brook Benton, all of whom gave “pop music” some “soul” and helped elevate soul music performances to prominence.
This was also the time of talent shows and “street corner symphonies.” I was fortunate to go to school with some of the best of the local talents, like the fellows who would become The Dramatics. Here’s a shout out for Elbert Watkins, my friend, who passed in 1992 (Ron Banks, “Wee Gee” Howard, Johnny Mack Brown, Lenny Mayes, and Tony Hester who, also, are no longer with us). Gino Washington (“Gino Is a Coward”) and Demetrius Cates of the Fabulous Counts were schoolmates, as well.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention two people who played a significant part in my soundtrack. Grady Pounds, perhaps the finest pure singer I’ve known (his renditions of “So Much in Love,” by the Tymes and “Farewell My Love” by the “Temptin” Temptations are two of my all time favorites) and Carl Holloway, definitely the finest drummer I’ve known. None of those elaborate drum sets for Carl. He could do it all with a snare, a tom, a bass drum, a cymbal and a high-hat. Hey, if you read this fellas, “holla back.”
It was around this time when I started connecting music to my personal experiences. Little Anthony and the Imperials’ “Going Out of My Head” just started playing. Music had just added a voice and words to my developing interest in love and falling in love. When I was walking around totally confused about what was happening to me, the words of the music became my screenplay. The words to the soundtrack of my life.
There were the Ronettes (“Do I Love You, Be My Baby, Walkin’ in the Rain”), there was Gene “Duke of Earl” Chandler asking, “What Now?” and wanting us to “Just Be True,” there were the Impressions (“Little Young Lover, Gypsy Woman, Minstrel and Queen, I’m the One Who Loves You”). In fact, it was with the Impressions that I first heard Jerry “the Ice Man” Butler. Jerry Butler’s “Need to Belong, Make It Easy On Yourself” and “He Will Break Your Heart,” were stand-ins for all the words I thought at the time, but hadn’t the nerve to say.
Confused at the time about my relationship with “love”, I was encouraged by knowing that I could be both Mary Well’s “Two Lovers.” When Mary sang “My Guy,” “The One Who Really Loves You,” when she reminded me “What’s Easy for Two, Is Hard for One” (“Let’s get together and go for a walk in the park”), my oh my! Ooh, “You Beat Me to the Punch” just played from my song list! What I loved about Mary was that, through the daze and the haze, she would always be “Your (my) Old Stand By.”
As nervous a time as it was, though, there was The Intruders to help me transition from “Cowboy to Girls,” and Archie Bell and the Drells to show me how to “Tighten Up.”
During the summer “Heatwave” we were “Dancin’ in the Streets” to Martha and the Vandellas. My favorite songs by then were “Come and Get These Memories” and “Jimmy Mack.” And I remember skating to “My Baby Loves Me.”
There was Justine “Baby” Washington’s “I Can’t Wait Until I See My Baby’s Face” and “That’s How Heartaches Are Made.” Maxine Brown’s “Oh No, Not My Baby” and Jimmy Ruffin’s, “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?” Oh yeah, I can’t leave out Ms. Jackie Ross. The refrain of those French horns on “Selfish One” was a clarion call to the dance floor.
Before there was the Jackson 5, we had the Jackson 2. I’m talking about Chuck and Walter Jackson (related only by their talent). Chuck Jackson with “Any Day Now,” “Tell Him I’m Not Home,” and my favorite “I’m Your Man.” Walter Jackson with “It’s All Over” and “It’s an Uphill Climb from the Bottom.” This was music that not only set the scene, it told the story.
And then there were the Dells. Yes, the Dells. The soulful harmonies, the tight interaction of melodies and backgrounds, made slow dancing one of the most pleasurable actions on the dance floor. I’m still amazed at how long Marvin Junior held that note in the song, “Stay in My Corner.”
And speaking of the dance floor, how about the time when “The Godfather of Soul” James Brown recorded “Live at the Apollo” with the long version of “There Was a Time” (Hey hey, I feel alright…One time, uh!).
The Friends of Distinction helped me with “Going in Circles,” and along about that time the Originals with “Baby, I’m For Real” helped me to explain what I didn’t have the words to say.
Other songs that might not be as well known, from that time were Jimmy Williams’ “The Half Man,” Tony Clark’s “The Entertainer,” Ruby and the Romantics “Hypnotized,” The Radients “It Ain’t No Big Thing,” and how about Sammy Turner’s “Lavender Blue (Dilly Dilly),” or “Elephant Walk” by Donald Jenkins. I know I am leaving some really important tunes out, my soundtrack and possibly yours as well, but maybe you’ll include them in your soundtrack and let me know about them.
With the emergence of black radio, we were blessed with great deejays…the people who became conductors and arrangers of my soundtrack. People like Ernie Durham, Butterball the Jr., Leon Isaacs (out of Chicago but airing on WJLB weeknights at 9:00 or 9:30, somebody help me out here?) and a young Donnie Simpson, whose family lived just down the street from me.
There were so many others. The rest of the Motown groups (the aforementioned Temptations, the Supremes, the Four Tops…), the Atlantic groups and singers (Aretha Franklin, the Spinners, Ben E. King, the Drifters…). There was Stax-Watts with Isaac Hayes, the Bar-Keys, Rufus and Carla Thomas (father and daughter), Booker T & the MG’s. So many artists, so much music…I would need more space to mention them all.
I’ve really enjoyed this trip back in time and I hope your musical experience matches or exceeds mine. One thing though, it seems we are going to need more than one “Black Music Month” a year to cover them all.
I am looking forward to knowing, with your comments, about the soundtrack of your life.
Isaac Littsey, Jr.
Isaac also has a blog of his own and you can read his comments at www.declarativeusa.com
- Elle Varner Celebrates Black Music Month With ‘Fearless’ Michael Jackson (theboombox.com)
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- BLACK MUSIC MONTH: “We Got The Jazz” – The Top 5 Artists To Mash-Up Rap With Abstract (allhiphop.com)
- Dawn Richard Embraces Black Music Month by Honoring James Brown’s ‘Say It Loud’ (theboombox.com)
- Black Music Month Spotlight: Jade Simmons (dangerouslee.biz)