I was chilling at the crib when I got a phone call from The Abstract Poetic. Cool brother, he’s got a new joint out called “Work It Out peep it at your leisure. Shit’s hot. He’s signed to Motown and they don’t seem to be as into his joint as I am, but that’s the life and the game we’ve chosen- sometimes you love it more than it loves you.
Despite his current career circumstances, he’s got a lot of love and a generous spirit to boot. Ater a bit of our usual chatter, he let me know that he had a purpose for calling. One of his label mates was in town on tour and playing the local basketball arena, and he’d arranged to vip me into the show with two on the floor and spare juice for an after show backstage gathering. “Cool,” I tell him, ” I’ll make it down to the gig.” ’cause my favorite recording artist of all time and America’s greatest living pop/soul/funk/jazz composer/performer is in town. My Brother laced me with two tickets for Stevie Wonder.
Some of you may know, some may not. I’m what they used to call a record man. I’m from just outside the Apple. I lived in a small town where people had big dreams. It was a soul and jazz music enclave where you ran into stars at the barber shop and in the grocery store. In the 70’s it was home to Grammy winners, arena headliners, producers, writers and aspiring players.
There was a good many of the black professional class represented, the working class and the working poor. There was also a few of Harlem’s hustla elite: number men and drug dealers who made five cent over the rent- as they used to say- and moved their kids to Jersey. American Gangster, Frank Lucas lived around the way. He merited top billing but there were lesser lights with Bergen County addresses too.
John Travolta dropped out of my high school and Brooke Shields used to ride her bike on the street where the public library was kept. It was the first fully integrated school district in the country. Needless to say, this made for an extremely interesting public school system, as well as an enormously colurful educational experience.
<a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/insideplaya/3328794189/” title=”744-1 by insideplaya, on Flickr”>
A COUPLE KIDS FROM AROUND THE WAY
There was an explosion of African American culture and self expression in the air and in the media. Locally, Bill Willoughby, a senior at the same time I was a freshman in high school, was a gifted, high jumping, silky shooting, smooth beyond his years, 6’8″ phenom, who was recruited by 200 Division I basketball factories. He decided to go to the NBA.. The next player to do it, made the same decision 20 years later. Local boys made good, and Jackson 5 producers, The Mizelle Brothers were blazing the charts with a new type of, jazz/funk that they blessed Bobbi Humphrey, and The Blackbyrds with.
It was an era to remember. While all of this activity was going on, there were a few dominant figures on both the national and international scenes. The sporting world was the personal domain of Muhammad Ali, Clint Eastwood was the top Box office draw, “All In The Family” controlled the Nielsens and across the board the most dominant recording artist was, Stevie Wonder.
From before the time I was in first grade until shortly after I turned 30. Mr. Wonder put it down. House party dance pop, mid tempo ballads, soulful finger poppers, love songs, Beatles’ covers, you name it. Guest shots on other artist’s sides, harmonica solos, soundtracks, tv appearances, tours, and of course, outside production on new discoveries, Grammy’s and more Grammys. He was prolific.
Joints with titles like; “We Can Work It Out”’, “Signed Sealed and Delivered”, “Higher Ground”, “Living For The City”’, “Superstition”’ and “Sir Duke” were classics. Lesser know album cuts like, “Jesus Children of America”, “You’ve Got It Bad Girl”, “Creepin” and “If It’s Magic” were top five in my spot. In order to get the money to buy his album “Fulfillingnes First Finale”, I sold my three speed Schwinn bike with the bannana seat. When you had the new Stevie joint, you could walk.
THIS TOOK ME FARTHER THAN ANY BIKE EVER WILL
His compositions, his voice, his keyboards and his productions oozed out of what was then referred to as Black radio like melted butter. He exemplafied the pain, the struggle, the suffering, the ambition, and the joy of, both a people, and an era. Herbie Hancock once told me this about Bill Withers and the same can be said of Stevie, “He wasn’t making records…he was making statements.”
Funny thing happend though. It seemed that white folks liked to play, dance and sing to his stuff too. The fever spread outside the hood. Along the way he became the sturdiest bridge between Black and Pop radio. A bridge that hundreds would eventually cross over, in order to go on to; greater access, exposure and economic freedom.
Paul Simon won the Grammy for Album Of The Year in ’75. In his acceptance speech, he thanked, Stevie Wonder for not releasing a record that year. Because Stevie had won Album Of The Year for the three previous years. Stevie was the truth.
Eventually one of the neighborhood hustlas started a soul music label that fell on hard times. In search of a new direction, he listened to his older son and put out a joint called “The Rapper’s Delight.” In it’s original form, the 12″ single was 21 minutes running time with the freshest free style, captured on wax, up to that point in time. Chic’s dance floor smash, “Good Times” provided the backing track to the sound of a new generation. Changed the game forever.
Ater a brief stint in college, and a slightly longer career in commercial radio, I went home to join the promotion staff of Sugarhill Records. Three years after the release of the game changer. I’d acquired a craft. I became a record promoter. Subsequently, I went on to many other labels, Def Jam, Uptown, Jive, Virgin and such. Put quite a few artists on the radio. LL, Will Smith, KRS-1, The Beasties, Grand Master Flash and The Furious Five, Tony Toni Tone, Vanessa Wiliams and others.
THE LABEL THAT CHANGED IT ALL
I hung out in the hipster spots. Places with names like, The Roxy, Danceteria, The Fever, The Latin Quarter, Save the Robots, The Milk Bar, The Garage, The Tunnel, The Underground, Area, Nell’s and The Palladium. I met the owners, became friendly with the staffs. I blended.
I read in cutting edge press that I was part of something alternately called, The Downtown Scene, Club Culture and The Hip Hop Nation. I frequented many of these estabnlishments with co-workers and collaborators. I began to notice that wherever I went there seemed to be famous people, models, film people and rappers. Something was going on.
I saw Madonna sing to tracks in a couple of clubs. I caught Will Smith and Jazzy Jeff doing their thing live. I caught Tribe opening for Ice Cube at The Apollo. I saw Run/DMC headline The Garden. Saw De La put it down.
I’d run into LL while he was hanging out with Chuck D from Public Enemy after I’d just seen Latifah’s first live performance. I was playing basketball with a a crew that included Rev. Run, his brother Russell and a brash intern named Puff. Seemed to be a lot of models around.
I became an a & r man. I signed, I picked music, I discovered. I worked on a sondtrack for a film called “New Jack City.” D’Angelo brought me a demo that I Iliked and I signed him to his first deal. Color Me Badd, one of the groups on “New Jack City” was nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy. I laced them with a song called, “I Wanna Sex You Up.” It smashed and went top 5 in twelve countries. Somewhere along the line D’Angelo won three Grammys of his own. Apparently I had taste.
Here we are just about a week after Thanksgiving and the holiday season is in full effect. I’ve traveled, experienced creative success, met all sorts of people and known true love. I’ve done everything except get rich. Don’t worry, I’m still at it. I’ve got plenty to be thankful for.
I’m feeling inspired because where ever I’ve gone, I’ve used a road that was paved by the artists and music of my youth. Earth Wind & Fire, Donald Byrd, Gamble and Huff, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Al Jarreau, Minnie Ripperton, and many, many others, have all shed a little light on the path, that led to creative success. But the brightest beacon of all came from the heart of the blind kid from Saginaw, Michigan. This holiday I want to thank God that I lived during a glorious time when Stevie Wonder was all over the radio.Oh yeah, Money still cooks. Catch him when he comes to your town.
Mad shouts to The Ab, Jayson Jackson and Manjit.