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Archive for October, 2016

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The Hollywood Talent

Nate Parker, the talented young Hollywood filmmaker who wrote, directed and produced “The Birth of a Nation,” the independently financed film, that is loosely based on the Nat Turner led slave rebellion of 1831, has seen better days. Right now, for him, life should be sweet: At a time when he should be basking in the elusive, triple scooped confectionary treat of box office success, critical acclaim and pre-Oscar worthy buzz, he probably woke up this morning, wondering how it all went so wrong.

“The Birth of a Nation” opened, weakly, this past weekend on an enhanced art house circuit of 2,100 screens. But last January, the picture set the Sundance Film Festival on its ear by winning all of the top festival awards, receiving a standing ovation at its premiere screening, and then – according to several sources – inspiring the richest acquisition deal in the festival’s history, when Fox Searchlight cut a check for $17.5 million for the right to distribute and market the film. At this point, things were still sweet.

Here comes the rough part: The spotlight and aura of success has shone on Parker for most of this past year. Because of this, his past came under greater public scrutiny, and according to published reports, Parker and a teammate from his college wrestling squad brought a young co-ed back to Parker’s living quarters, engaged in sex with her while she was under the influence of alcohol, and later, the young woman accused Parker and the teammate of rape. As a result of the young woman’s charges, Parker and the teammate were brought to trial. Parker was found innocent and the teammate went to jail, but eventually had his conviction overturned. Because of this, a couple of months ago, Parker had the Twittersphere lit. News of his previous indiscretion, his subsequent acquittal and the suicide of his accuser made for a lurid cocktail that became sensational click bait. I didn’t weigh in at the time because I was on a writing and social media hiatus, but Parker got roasted by Black Twitter, bloggers, feminists, consumer press, the trades and anyone who may have an interest in silencing a powerful voice who was willing to challenge the norms of white supremacy through art. And as anyone with any experience or savvy will tell you, one you’ve unleashed the collective hounds of the dark forces of the Internet, your ass is cooked. This past weekend, the film had a three day box office take of $7.1 million.

I paid to see the film last night, but I’ve been tracking the project for years. Russell Simmons sent the script to me when he was attached as the producer. He wanted my opinion of the piece. From scene one I knew that Parker had written a script that derived its power from its honesty about white supremacy. Parker’s rendering of the circumstances of the 1831 rebellion of slaves and free blacks that Nat Turner led in Virginia is a monumental undertaking that could have shaken up Hollywood, but because of the controversy surrounding its release, and Parker’s inability to express remorse or contrition over the death of his accuser, very few people may see it. And it’s a shame, because he’s created quite a work of art.

The young filmmaker worked for nearly a decade or better to bring his version of history to screens. When conventional financing couldn’t be arranged, he went outside the studio system, and enlisted the aid of the San Antonio Spurs point guard, Tony Parker and retired NBA veteran, Michael Finely, among others, to put up the production costs for his project. Given this particular moment where – due to the proliferation of hand held devices, and the 24/7 news cycle of social media – we have all witnessed blacks who have been subject to naked and unchecked violence by representatives of the state, and so, his film is needed now more than ever. In one memorable scene that references the current climate, Aja Naomi King, the beautiful young actress who Parker has cast as Nat Turner’s wife, Cherry Ann utters to an imagined Turner, and anyone else who cares to listen, “They killing people everywhere. For no reason at all, but being black.”

“The Birth of a Nation” is set in the time when cotton was king. In a time when the south’s primary crop helped America become a world power because the profit margins were incredibly good in a business where few labor costs were incurred. It’s set in a time when any and every slave was subject to the whims of every white man, woman or child. A time when the beloved wife of an enslaved husband could be summoned to perform sexually for a visiting guest in the “big house”. Set in a time when slave catchers could murder or rape any alleged or actual runaway with impunity. A time when disagreement over the cotton trade would eventually lead to a war that would result in the loss of more American lives than any other.

Religion and education, and who controls access to them is thematically at the center of Parker’s film. Because his plantation’s mistress discovers young Turner’s developing ability to read, she brings him out of the field and into the “big house” with her family. When the young genius reaches for the knowledge held in the books on the shelves of the plantation’s well stocked library, he is redirected toward the bible as the only suitable reading for him and his kind.

Drought hurts the crops of the agrarian based economy, and rumors spread of possible insurrection when their owners begin to fear reprisals from a poorly fed and cared for labor force. In order to suppress possible rebellion, a mature Turner is tasked with preaching the gospel to his people. When the itinerant preacher begins to see the harsh conditions of less fortunate slaves – and ultimately the spiritual corruption of the former childhood friend who eventually becomes his master – through radicalized eyes, he begins to make plans to rebel.

Activism through art, literature, music and film is an idea that I support wholeheartedly. I grew up listening to the freedom songs of Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Gil Scott-Heron and others. As a young adult, I worked in the politically charged moment that brought Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest and Spike Lee to wider recognition. Parker’s “The Brith of a Nation” fits nicely into this tradition. I wished that his highly evolved artistic voice had influenced him to display greater empathy in his role as the face of the film. Because he apparently, wasn’t influenced in this way, an important and potent work of art is being boycotted by many of the people who would benefit most from seeing it. I hope that the film going public finds a way to forgive young Parker for his mistakes, voices with courage like his are few and far between.

insiedplaya

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Ed Eckstine has worn many hats in this thing of ours; the first black president of one of the major record companies in the US, president of Wing Records, partner and general manager of Quincy Jones Productions, and my long time friend. He has also been a frequent guest contributor to the insideplaya blog. Earlier this week, pop/funk songwriting overlord and an old collaborator of Ed’s, Rod Temperton, died of cancer. We are all saddened by his loss. Please find below, a few thoughts Ed put together to remember his fallen comrade. – insideplaya 


Rod Temperton

My man Derek “Dee” Bramble’s Facebook page popped up on the screen. In a post that he’d written, he was lamenting the loss of an unidentified friend, mentor, and brother, who had been a Bramble supporter during many career milestones. My thoughts immediately went to the dark side because I knew of the role that Rod Temperton had played in Derek’s life. Rod was a founding member and the principal songwriter of the interracial, Anglo-American 70’s funk band Heatwave, whose career arc has been chronicled on the TV One series “Unsung.” Heatwave bassist Mario Medious’ life suffered a cruel turn when a woman stabbed him in the chest during a domestic quarrel, which ultimately caused him to leave the band. Derek Bramble was hired by Rod to replace Mario – as a raw but funky 18 year old Londoner – and thus began a career for Derek, as producer and songwriter for artists as diverse as David Bowie, Whitney Houston, Vanessa Williams and Faith Hill, to name but a paltry few. Derek loved Rod and vice versa.

Scrolling down the page, I read the unbelievable news through tears, “Rod Temperton, songwriter, dead at 66.”

My first exposure to Rod Temperton’s music was via Heatwave’s first global smash “Boogie Nights,” soon to be followed by the classic slow jam “Always and Forever.” It was 1977, and there was something about the jaunty grooves, and the mellifluous tenor of lead vocalist Johnnie Wilder Jr. that made Heatwave the right band at the right time, whether in the clubs, and on R&B and Pop radio too. After copping the debut album “Too Hot To Handle,” then digesting the other smash contained therein, “Ain’t No Half Steppin,” I knew what it was: the songs. 

Those songs had an immediacy that was simple, intoxicating, seductive and sophisticated, that drew me in and screamed, “Pay attention, there is a bad songwriting MF’er entering the building,” to quote Quincy Jones.

I was working for Quincy Jones Productions at the time, and I recall vividly “Q’s” infatuation with Heatwave and particularly Temperton’s songs. Shortly after the success of the first album had peaked, Epic Records released their second album “Central Heating,” led by the track, “The Grooveline,” and for Quincy – that was all he needed to hear. He was in, hook, line, and sinker, and became Rod’s biggest fan.

Some of my memory of chronological events has blurred with time, but I do remember a call coming into the office from Johnnie Wilder, informing me that the band was coming to the states. They were interested in a meeting with us regarding U.S. management, as they were impressed with the job that we were doing with The Brothers Johnson. Wilder asked if they could they speak with Quincy upon arrival.

Not long after that, Quincy called to say that he would see them, and that I should make myself available for a meeting at his house in Stone Canyon. Johnnie and Rod arrived and although the topic of management was discussed, Q was really all about getting to know Rod, and learning more about his background and inspiration for writing those great songs. We were blown away by Rod’s impishness, and his inherent “Britishness.” He told us he was not a particularly ardent fan of soul music, but he had answered an ad in Melody Maker for a gig as a keyboardist with a soul band led by American servicemen Johnnie and Keith Wilder because he thought he’d best get his chops up on the genre, as he was keen to get the hell out of the dark and gray climes of Northern England and the fish processing factory he was working in at the time.

He boned up on the sounds of Armed Forces Radio and Radio Luxembourg, and became largely inspired by the music he heard – particularly the Rufus, EWF, Stevie, and Kool and the Gang records that were in rotation then. It became immediately apparent that he had an intensely inquisitive and analytical mind that was easily able to process and dissect information, and utilize that information to satisfy his and the bands needs. He wrote about high times, the nightlife, and the “boogie,” yet he confessed he had never been in a club or “disco” as they were then called in the UK. He just understood that was what the gig called for. Jones, no slouch in the analysis department himself, was smitten, and from that moment a “bromance” set in song-land was born. Ironically Heatwave was about to embark on a tour of the states with Rufus & Chaka Khan, Brothers Johnson, Chic, and Narada Michael Walden. I vividly recall walking into the Omni Arena in Atlanta, toward the end of Heatwave’s opening act set, to the visual of the band performing in their full-on synchronized steps mode, which that night, climaxed with the Wilder brothers doing back flips, and forward rolls, then involving the entire band, sans drummer, in forming what can only be described as a “cheerleader pyramid” during the set closer of “Grooveline.” Eighteen thousand of the ATL’s funkiest concertgoers were on the brink of hysteria as they left the stage, and left other acts that were to follow to attempt to revive an audience who had just witnessed an Olympic gymnastics event replete with guitars, and cheesy jumpsuits with Heatwave emblazoned across them. In the current parlance, it was epic…

At the time, Quincy was in the process of finding songs for a bevy of projects he was about to begin. The world would soon come to know these as Rufus and Chaka’s ”Masterjam,” The Brothers Johnson’s “Light Up The Night,” and Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall,” albums.

The Author and Quincy Jones

Rod confessed to Q that he really didn’t like touring, and was eager to settle into a life as a songwriter for hire. So though when the tour was over, the band headed to New York to record their third album “Hot Property” with Quincy’s pal Phil Ramone at the production helm – the plan was that once that was completed, he would be free to come to L.A., and begin the process of locking up with Quincy, writing songs, and joining the production team Jones was putting together. Jones was elated, as he had been looking for a musical compadre and team mate that he could communicate, and chop up ideas with, and Rod seemed to be the man he was looking for.

Tragically, a week or so after the recording of “Hot Property” was complete, Johnnie Wilder returned to his home in Dayton, Ohio and was in a terrible car accident. A city services truck ran a red light and plowed into him, rendering him a quadriplegic and forever altering his life and career.

When the dust settled, Rod came to LA and the Quincy Jones/ Rod Temperton era of popular music began. Rod was a fixture around all of us in Quincy’s musical, social and business universe in those days. He was the constant object of love and laughter, ridicule and respect; here are some examples:

There were three constants whenever you saw Rod, the ever-present Marlboro cigarette dangling from his lips, a cup of coffee nearby any time of day, and his “woolly” or pull over sweater, that he would wear regardless of the weather. I was chuckling earlier today when I saw posted photos of him, and in not one was he wearing a woolly – possibly the only photos in existence of him with out one of his trusted sweaters.

Anyone who knows Quincy is aware that he has a nickname for everyone that he is close to; Rod’s was “Wurms.” When Rod would unplug from the hustle and bustle to either recharge or just go into the woodshed to write, he would retreat to his “home,” a houseboat in Wurms, Germany, on the west bank of the Rhine, 60 miles from Frankfurt. By his own admission, and according to his girlfriend, now widow, Cathy Buckley’s description – the place was a dump. It contained numerous spent cigarette butts, a bed, and his tools of the trade at the time, an off brand, low end Casio keyboard, and a cassette boom box he generously called his “studio.” Quincy constantly mused, “How in the world is he writing all of these bad tunes in this little hovel of a crib?”

Very often he did not write complete songs for Quincy to choose from; he would musically sketch out verses, choruses and bridges, and pass them on to Q. Quincy would listen, and say lets match intro #1 with verse #5, add chorus #2 and bridge #8,and then, “Voila!” Rod would combine all of the parts together, refine them, and tighten them up. Many times the lyrics were also sketches, awaiting Quincy’s input for theme or title ideas. Only after they had pored over them together and separately, would they become the classic tunes we know them as today.

I remember Patti Austin calling Rod “old porcelain pipes” for the decidedly off key heavily accented vocal stylings that would oft times accompany his demos. He was blessed with an arranger’s sensibility whose vocal harmonies brought his songs and Quincy’s productions to life. But as Q was wont to say, “For a no singing Mf’er, Wurms sure can hear some vocal harmony! “

Whenever I had the pleasure to be in his company, I was always taken with his rapier wit and sardonic sense of humor. Smart as a whip and funny as hell. There was a time when Quincy was working with a particular artist who was basking in, and particularly impressed with his own personal wealth; he also had a penchant for trinkets, especially expensive watches. He mentioned to Rod that he had a collection of over one hundred rare and expensive bejeweled watches in his collection that he liked to wear to highlight his sartorial presentation. Rod was gob smacked at the notion, “You can only wear one of those bloody things at a time!” Shortly after our arrival in Tokyo on a Japan tour, Rod made a point of highlighting about twenty knockoff watches he had acquired, by wearing ten up and down each arm – for his – and certainly our, savagely sarcastic amusement.

But now Rod is gone. An aggressive form of cancer they say…lung cancer many are speculating. Not long ago, he told Bramble – when he deigned to mention to him that he might want to quit smoking – “I’m going to die one day anyway, so I am gonna enjoy myself while I am here. Probably I’ll have a smoke the day I die.” The Rod I knew loved good food, or more accurately good meat. Quincy’s wife during those days, Peggy Lipton, was a health aficionado. She once said to Rod, while we were eating at Quincy’s, and Rod was rocking a hunk of meat of Fred Flintstone dimensions, “Rod, you might want to work in some vegetables, with that hunk of cow you are consuming.” 

“No need, I am getting all that I need right here. Might have a second.” was his response.

I had not seen Rod in years, although I asked after him whenever I saw Quincy, which is to say often, yet not often enough. His response was always the same – that they had just hung in whatever city, and had had a ball. They were still thick as thieves, and their love ran deep.

George Benson’s manager, and my friend, Stephanie Gonzalez, told me that last year she took her family to London while George was in the UK touring. They had the pleasure of spending a post gig evening on the town with Rod as their host, and, she said he was still his humble, hilarious, gracious, irrepressible self. A gentleman…

While he will forever live in our collective musical psyche, for the massive hits he gave us, I have always been as much a fan of his deep cut contributions like “Razzamatazz,” his composition on Quincy’s classic album “The Dude,” or “Live in Me” from Rufus’s “Masterjam,” Herbie Hancock’s “Gettin’ to the Good Part,” Tamia’s “You Put a Move On My Heart,” Quincy’s “The Secret Garden,” Benson’s “Turn out the Lamplight,” and the Anita Baker rendition of “Mystery,” amongst a host of others.

Sleep well Rod. My life was enriched beyond compare by God’s gift of knowing you in this lifetime, and “rain, shine, don’t mind, ‘cuz we’re riding on the grooveline tonight.”
 

Ed Eckstine

10/5/2016

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