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Archive for March, 2009

As I’m writing this, I’m listening to Gladys Knight and The Pips cook on, I Heard it Through the Grapevine, the great Norman Whitfield’s stunning production that recalls the days of my childhood in Soul City—a childhood made infinitely more colorful through listening to the programming of the legendary hit-picking PD of WBLS-FM. Drive time in the New York metro area was appointment listening. The voice, personality, and programming of “The Wood” the shortened nickname of Frankie “Hollywood” Crocker made it so. “Hollywood” was his handle because of his larger than life image and lifestyle.

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FRANKIE CROCKER (an unidentified friend) AND LEGENDARY CROONER BILLY “MR. B” ECKSTINE (courtesy of Ed Eckstein)

Frankie’s was not just a radio show, it was aural theater practiced by a master of the medium. For a young kid he offered a peak into a world of grown folks’ music, wit, style and sophistication. He was a symbol of afro-centricity, hipness and colorless Manhattan chic. He seamlessly presented MFSB, Curtis Mayfield, Herbie Hancock, Eddie Kendricks and Frank Sinatra as parts of a whole he eventually called, Urban. He was the star who played the music of stars. A study of Frankie’s get down was a primer on the game. Once the game came calling, I was ready to heed.

In the summer of ’82 I was a young aspiring executive in the promotion department of the pioneering hip hop label, Sugar Hill Records. Home to the Sugar Hill Gang, The Treacherous 3, Busy Bee, and Grand Master Flash and The Furious Five. At the time, it had been a hot little diskery that had built it’s billing on the taste of the emerging hip hop audience. Owned by Joe & Sylvia Robinson, a couple who’d had a great deal of success in a previous incarnation as the proprietors of the soul music label, All Platinum. They’d recorded classics by, The Moments, The Whatnots, Spoon Bread and Linda Jones, Sugar Hill was an important, black owned independent.

Their previous label, All Platinum missed the disco craze and had fallen on fallow times, and by the late seventie they were looking for something new. Their oldest son Joey was a frequent patron of two important early hip hop clubs, The Disco Fever in The Boogie Down, and Manhattan’s Harlem World. He heard and saw live performances by the seminal Cold Crush amongst others, and reported the shift in the wind that was about to happen to his parents. This resulted in the master conceptualist, Sylvia scooping three guys off the streets of Soul City and turning them into, The Sugar Hill Gang.

THE SUGAR HILL GANG

By the time I joined Sugar Hill, they’d already had a string of smash party records to their credit. Sylvia had the ear. Joe was the operator. He talked to the distributors and radio. Sylvia was the queen of the studio. It was instructional to watch them both do their thing. In the early summer of ’82 things were about to get serious. I stepped into a company that was about to release, The Message. The record by Flash and ’em that signaled the social significance of hip hop to the uninitiated. The black radio community jumped on the record with two feet, but Crocker played it first. The acid test for a national smash.

In late ’82 Crocker had a birthday that was celebrated in five different New York clubs simultaneously. I attended the editions held at Xenon and The Underground, he was a big thinker, and tireless self promoter. Later that winter in early ’83, he would exhibit visionary thinking by organizing, Frankie Crocker’s Big Apple Awards. An awards show taping that he held at The Savoy theater, and produced and hosted himself.

The music business participated en masse. We all came to kiss the ring, bold print names, and comers too; Tommy Mottola, Hall & Oates, Earth Wind & Fire, Nile Rogers, David Bowie, Earl Monroe, Kid Creole and The Coconuts, Chaka, Bruce Lundvall, George Benson, and the promotion staff of Sugar Hill Records to name a few. The power of Frankie Crocker was on full display that night. The show was shot on spec, didn’t attract a syndicator, and was never seen. It was a gloriously glamorous affair that presaged Don Cornelius’, Soul Train Awards.

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HALL & OATES

In the fall of 1990 I was a young A & R man in the employ of Irving Azoff’s Giant/Warner Brothers Records. I was in LA to get a sneak preview of Mario Van Peeble’s film, New Jack City. I was a key reason that the film’s producers, George Jackson & Doug McHenry had chosen Azoff’s start up to release their soundtrack to the film. I accompanied white hot, new jack producers, Dr. Freeze and Stanley Brown to the screening. It was obvious that Barry Michael Cooper’s screenplay, Wesley Sipes’ performance, and supporting turns by Ice-T, and a young comedian named Chris Rock would combine to make cinematic history. Remembering the music of the blaxploitation soundtracks of my youth that I’d first heard on Crocker’s program, made it much easier to pick hits that resulted in 5 million units sold.

I had an invitation to attend a party to celebrate the 25th birthday of Teddy Riley that was happening after the screening. Teddy was the man! He’d given the whole game a new direction with what Barry Michael Cooper had dubbed the “new jack swing.” Labels in business with Teddy scored big. MCA had won when he gave them, My Prerogative for Bobby Brown. Motown had jumped off with Teddy produced, Soul City quartet, Today. Vintertainment/Elektrta crushed when Teddy blessed them with the essential, Make It Last Forever by Keith Sweat. Uptown/MCA was built on Teddy’s jams. All of this had gone down before he turned 25. The platinum reign of the new jack boy king was the subtext for the party. The atmosphere promised to be festive.

The party was to be held on a yacht that was paid for by Teddy’s then manager, Harvey Alston and the head of Uptown/MCA, Andre Harrell. I was late. After the screening, I had stopped by my hotel to change. I’d appeared at the dock with Freeze and Brown in tow. The boat hadn’t sailed without us but the boarding plank had been raised, and it seemed that the capacity had been reached already.

On the dock was a throng of LA scensters that included, the legendary “Chief Rocker” and Jackson 5 cousin, Stony Jackson. Crocker was between stints at BLS and it didn’t appear as though anyone was concerned about him getting on the boat. In fact, you would have had difficulty proving to me that there was anyone on that dock who recognized him aside from me.

Andre Harrell’s young A & R exec Sean Combs appeared on the deck of the boat, and took a message to Harrell that we were still on land. The boarding plank was put down and my party, and I were admitted. I don’t recall Crocker getting on the boat

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THE BIRTHDAY BOY

In the mid nineties New York’s music scene was in transition. Young Sean Combs was beginning to blaze with his Badboy/Arista imprint. His discovery, Biggie and he had made history with, Ready To Die. Andre Harrell had left the helm of Uptown/MCA to head up a directionless Motown. I’d signed a young artist with potential named D’Angelo, and his debut record was released in ’95. Crocker returned to BLS and was playing, D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar like it was the national anthem.

The watering hole of the moment for the fabulous, creative, hot, and warming up was New York nitelife overlords, Eric Goode and Serge Becker’s restaurant, The Bowery Bar. It was the latest example of downtown fabulousness. On it’s premises, I’d sat and discussed the merits of Walter Mosley with Laurence Fishburne, and politics with Quincy Jones and Veronica Webb. I’d seen Uma Thurman squired by, Quinten Tarantino. I’d talked theater with Annabela Sciorra, met Richard Branson, and met a future business partner, billionaire, Ted Field. I tried to never miss a Thursday night.

Of course, Crocker found his way into this mix, and one night we were seated together for dinner. Our companions were independent promo don, Joey Bonner and Russell “Rush” Simmons. Crocker had been playing a jawn that LL Cool J had done with Boyz II Men and as the principal of Def Jam, Simmons was paying homage. During the course of dinner the fact that I’d signed, D’Angelo came up and Frankie, always the cutting edge tastemaker was visibly impressed. But why not? He was looking at an extension of his own taste when he was looking at me.

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Shouts to Joey Robinson Jr., Fred Buggs, Marie Sellers, Boo Frazier, Pam Hall, RIP Joey Bonner, Frankie Crocker and Joe Robinson Sr.

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I remember hearing Frankie Crocker say in an interview that he hadn’t enjoyed programming AM radio because, “…they wouldn’t let me play Jimi Hendrix records.” He wouldn’t have to worry about such small thinking in the FM world of the early seventies because there was no one to say, “We don’t do it that way around here.”

Fortunately for Crocker, the spirit of experimentation was in the air in post King black America. At almost precisely the moment that “The Chief Rocker” took control of 107.5 FM’s playlist, several developments ensured that black FM would have resonance…

In the film world, historically subversive Melvin Van Peebles wrote, directed, and starred in the first “blaxploitation” film: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song – an anti-authoritarian black male fantasy where the protagonist gets his revenge on “the man.” In creating a template for a new business model Van Peebles struck gold, as well as a blow for independent filmmaking. To give the right musical feel to his project he hired the Jim Brown-managed Earth Wind & Fire to score the film.

The success of this film and its soundtrack was replicated time and time again. It forced the Hollywood establishment to open its previously selective doors to black musical talent other than Quincy Jones. Willie Hutch, Curtis Mayfield, Bobby Womack, Barry White, Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Roy Ayers, Herbie Hancock, and others all contributed to a flood of celebrated ’70s soundtrack genius. These projects provided Crocker with an abundance of classic singles and album cuts with heavy promotional tie-ins, timely subject matter, and excellent stereo sound quality—all performed by some of the most important stars of the day.

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THE REV. JESSE JACKSON AND THE LATE ISAAC HAYES IN A
SCENE FROM THE FILM WATTSTAX HAYES IS PRESUMABLY
CELEBRATING THE NEW FOUND ACCESS TO HOLLYWOOD PAYCHECKS

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A POSTER FROM THE OSSIE DAVIS DIRECTED COTTON COMES
TO HARLEM A BENEFICIARY OF THE SWEETBACK PHENOMENON

The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—coupled with heavy anti-war sentiment—caused an increase in protest music recorded by ’70s-era black artists. Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On set off a wave that Sly Stone, James Brown, Roberta Flack and Stevie Wonder, to name just a few, caught and rode to both critical and commercially favorable results. They provided classic recordings of social consciousness that easily found their way onto what was initially a black underground free flowing format.

In this environment a couple of veteran Philadelphia hit makers started what would eventually become the dominant label of the period. The duo was Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and the label was the legendary Philadelphia International. Home to The O’Jay’s, Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes, Billy Paul, Lou Rawls, Dee Dee Sharp, Archie Bell and The Drells, and the smooth, lush orchestrated, stereo friendly, Sound Of Philadelphia. Here was yet another engine cranking out sophisticated programming for Crocker’s World’s Best Looking Sound.

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HIT MEN LEON HUFF AND KENNY GAMBLE

Later, the culture of New York dance clubs, club jocks, remixers, labels and artists provided the palette from which Crocker was able to create his aural drive-time portraits. Tom Moulton’s extended versions of the double sided smash 10 % b/w, My Love Is Free by Double Exposure, ushered in an era of dance-driven programming that reflected the torrid, fever pitched and crazed New York club scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Out of this came independent labels: Sal Soul; Prelude; Sutra; 4th and Broadway, and artists: Chic; Sister Sledge; Change; The Nick Straker Band; Gwen Guthrie, The Peech Boys; Gino Soccio; Donna Summer.

I grew up with this in both the foreground and background of my youth. It was the soundtrack of an era. It would be a rare person of color who felt no connection to Inner City Broadcasting’s flagship property, and the driving personality behind it’s success. What ultimately happened was this: WBLS became number one across all demographics in NY, with Frankie redefining the mainstream appeal of the black experience, reshaping and ultimately recasting it as “Urban.”

The hipster man about town – with the foreign cars, fur coats, taste for fried chicken, models, Dom P, and general “high living” – became one with the music, the times, the station, and the zeitgeist. He was the Man and it was his flash, wit and musicality that cast him as the direct predecessor of Diddy.

All of this free-wheeling eventually led to trouble, and Crocker was fired and re-hired at least 4 times. His relationship to Inner City was similar to Billy Martin’s with the Yankees – a true big time winner, uncontrollable by the higher-ups.

to be continued….

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The New York radio market in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s was rich, varied and deep. Toward the end of the decade of love, AM radio was king. Powerhouse WABC-AM New York, featured a potent lineup of jocks with names like Cousin Brucie, Ron Lundy, George Michael, Chuck Leonard, and Dan Ingram. They were the first choice on the dial for a kid riding in his mother’s Chevy on his way to basketball practice.

They were a pure top 40 play. You could hear The Beatles, The Stones, The Everly Brothers, Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield, Bobbie Gentry, Tom Jones, The Temps, The Supremes, big James Brown singles, novelty records of every stripe, Sonny and Cher, and others. It was early integrationist programming driven by the singles buying habits of the young. They held sway over New York ratings for years.

Further to the left of the dial at 6600, WNBC-AM provided a similar brand of programming minus the star wattage of ABC’s jock lineup. Ted Brown, Big Wilson, and a little known, Don Imus played almost the exact same records, but fewer of them. I grew up with a commuting New York City school teacher for a parent, and NBC was game tight with the traffic reports for the Cross Bronx Expressway. The occasional Billy Preston smash would grace their airwaves, but other than that, they held little appeal for a young black kid growing up in Soul City. There was all news and all talk at both WINS-AM and WCBS-AM, talk and AC at WOR, and soft rock at WDJY-AM.

At the dawn of the seventies, I began to spend more time with an older cousin who lived in Do Or Die, and a local neighbor, who was also older, from up the street. Both of them had very progressive taste and exposed me to hot funk and soul hits from that era. The Barkays’ Soul Finger, Scorpio by Dennis Coffey and The Detroit Guitar Band, The Isley Brothers It’s Your Thing, Power by Earth Wind & Fire, and The Stylistics’ Break Up To Make Up, were just a handful of the titles that my mentors had in their 45 collections.

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DENNIS COFFEY AND….

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SOUL CITY’S ISLEY BROTHERS

This whet my appetite for more of that funky stuff and set me on a journey that has not yet been completed. The next stop? WWRL-AM New York, a prime example of the network of black radio stations that dotted the country and were the primary outlets for black artists in the ’50’s, ’60’s and ’70’s. To my ear it was very different. First off, all the jocks sounded like my older cousins in North Carolina and men at the barber shop. They had southern inflection in their speaking voices and were very down home in their delivery.

The morning man was a cat named Enoch Hawthorne Gregory, “The Dixie Drfiter.” Other spots were held down by Jerry “B” Bledsoe, Hank Spahn, and Gary Byrd. Collectively, they provided the soundtrack for southerners who had migrated north in search of greater opportunity. Their playlist reflected the tastes, humor, struggle, heartbreak, and triumph of a people on the rise. Bobby Womack’s Harry Hippy, Don Covay’s I was Checking Out As She Was Checking In, Luther Ingram’s If Loving You Is Wrong were all first heard by me on WWRL. All classics.

I left the public school system and went into a stint of private schooling in 1970. I was educated with more affluent children. The differences were represented in many ways, but as I recall, one of the most striking was the fact that I was riding more often in foreign cars to basketball practice. Not particularly interesting in and of itself, but I heard FM programming more frequently. The old family Malibu had a standard option AM radio. To know how revolutionary it was to hear FM stereo after years of listening to AM, you’d have to remember the early difference between network television programming and cable.

FM was the home of underground freeform rock stations. You could hear musicians with social consciousness singing songs of protest, and the acid laced rock of the time all blended into one. You could go weeks and never hear the same record twice. Hendrix, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Santana, Curtis Mayfield, Grace Slick, Clapton, and Joni Mitchell were all core artists. WNEW-FM’s Scott Muni and WPLJ’s Pat St. John pioneered the format. This was pretty much the deal until a game changer came on the scene, “The Chief Rocker” Frankie Crocker.

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THE FORMER WKTU PD CARLOS DeJESUS & FRANKIE

Frankie had been a product of the New York radio wars, and had jocked at both WWRL and WMCA. He’d been the PD at RL and felt constrained by what he considered to be the narrow perspective of the station. New York political and media don, Percy Sutton, had control of two stations on the dial, WLIB-AM, a soul directed daytime broadcaster, and WLIB-FM. The latter eventually became WBLS-FM 107.5 on the dial, the call letters where Frankie changed the way people listened to the music played by black artists forever.

to be continued….

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As I’m writing this, I’m listening to a jawn from blazing new MC, Drake. “Unstoppable” is the name of his breakout performance featuring Lil Wayne and Santogold. If you haven’t heard it yet, get bizzy. M.I.A. mentor, Diplo is pulling the strings on this one.

Black History Month ’09 has been a memorable one. A political satirist in the employ of Citizen Murdoch’s fish wrap, crossed the boundaries of common sense and sound judgement when he created a cartoon that credited a monkey with being the architect of the much-needed stimulus bill. This set off a firestorm of controversy that gave Rev. Al Sharpton a chance to do what he does. Get himself booked on TV.

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Similarly to the Imus “nappy headed hos” incident, the media outlet was slow to recognize the racist nature of its employee’s failed attempt at humor, and was forced to disassociate itself from the work of the offender as a result of organized economic pressure. The need for greater diversity on the editorial desks of New York’s fourth estate continues to be a glaring one.

The movie business got together a week ago Sunday night and honored itself. Director Danny Boyle’s rags to riches love story, Slumdog Millionaire, deservedly crushed the competition and took the best picture and director’s statuettes. The ceremony was colorfully produced and somewhat disjointed. It featured a show stopping dance number that included a performance by Mrs. Shawn Carter.

African-American actresses, Taraji P. Henson and Viola Davis, shared the honor of being nominated in the category of Best Supporting Actress for their respective performances in The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, and Doubt. The eight minutes that Davis spent on screen, proved once again that there are no small roles. Oddly, the annual montage that recognizes the members of the film community who have died since the previous year’s ceremony, omitted legendary screen siren, Eartha Kitt.

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EARTHA KITT

Clues of just how different the Obama presidency will be are starting to be revealed. On Thursday afternoon, for the first time, a sitting president received a visit from a professional sports team that is not the defending champion of its league. The former backup point guard from Occidental College, hosted his favorite squad, the Chicago Bulls. There were no reports that Chicago’s rookie point guard sensation, Derek Rose, offered any tips on economic policy.

Friday night, the visiting Bulls played the Washington Wizards. The game was viewed from court side by Obama. This will hopefully give a boost to a league that was forced to take a two hundred million dollar loan on behalf of 11 unnamed franchises that are also in need of stimulus. The Wizards won by 23.

Wednesday night the Obamas hosted a reception and concert to honor Stevie Wonder. The Library Of Congress Gershwin Prize was bestowed upon El Toro Negro, the national treasure and Motown’s most potent creative force ever. The prize commemorates the contribution made by George and Ira Gershwin while celebrating the song writing excellence of the recipient.

PBS broadcast the show on Thursday evening, and a diverse group of performers entertained Wonder and the Obamas with interpretations of classics from the Wonder song book. An eclectic group of artists including: Diana Krall; Martina McBride; Tony Bennett; Will.I.Am; new jazz bassist/vocalist, Esperanza Spalding; the previous Gershwin Prize recipient, Paul Simon; and the contemporary artist whose work best represents the Wonder worldview of political consciousness, spirituality, romance, and soulfulness; India.Arie.

Arie’s current release, Testimony: Vol. 2, Love & Politics is the real deal. The gifted young singer/songwriter has recorded a work of maturity and depth that reflects her deepening understanding of the world around her. Her politics had been previously understated, but her anthemic, There’s Hope, from Testimony Vol. 1, had been a track the Obama campaign could believe in, her involvement with Ashley Judd as a UNICEF ambassador and AIDS activist, and her contribution of her song, Beautiful Flower, as a fund-raiser for Oprah’s South African Leadership Academy for girls, all contributed to a more overtly political direction in her music.

ESPERANZA SPALDING

ESPERANZA SPALDING

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INDIA.ARIE

Arie’s Wonder influenced writing and phrasing are used to good effect on Ghetto, a mid tempo contemplation on the globalized universality of poverty. The brilliant rereading of Sade’s Pearls is deeply moving, and features the Ivory Coast’s Dobet Gnahore. Her duet with Musiq Soulchild on Chocolate High, is simply sweet soul music. Therapy, a tribute to an ideal mate, is another standout.

All and all, Testimony: Vol. 2, Love & Politics, is a modern look at today’s world through the eyes of an evolved and spiritual artist. The combination of pop song craft, world music, and church, contribute to redefining the R&B genre and giving it a much needed dose of internationalism. It’s an ideal soundtrack for the new stage that the African-American experience is being presented on.

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