It seems like yesterday, but it was 40 years ago. It started with family drama: My mother was the second person in her family to attend college, her older cousin, Thelma was the first. Thelma had lived in Brooklyn, and then, she reunited with her estranged husband and moved within walking distance of our block in Soul City. Both Thelma and my mother taught at the same school in the South Bronx, and they were also, both, the mothers of sons without siblings. For years, the two of them commuted to work together.
Thelma’s son, my older cousin, Charles (Chuck to the fam) was four years my senior, 6’3” tall, a track and field man and in possession of a physique that older men marveled at and girls lusted after. He was a big strong kid with a quick temper, and he didn’t get along with his father. Late in the first semester of his senior year in high school, Charles took exception to some poorly chosen act of Charles senior’s, and apparently, demonstrated his displeasure with a show of force that left no doubt who the man of the house was. As a result, he was forced to move in with us, and finish his senior year as my roommate.
I was in eighth grade, and very happy to have my “big cousin” around. I was tall for my age, reasonably mature and had the seriousness that children without siblings, and who are around adults all of the time, can have, so I got to hang out. It was the era of Dr. J, James Brown and Pam Grier; my cousin and I shared common interests in basketball, girls and music. He let me tag along with him to house parties, allowed me to play pickup basketball with him and turned me on to funky music.
My cousin was a soul and funk man with musical taste that leaned toward the progressive. The calypso-funk of Cymande and Mandrill, the revivalist, blues based, rebel funk of Graham Central Station, the acid laced funk/rock of Funkadelic, the romantic standup vocal harmonies of Blue Magic and The Stylistics all filled our home through his Marantz tuner, amplifier and the speakers he’d made in his high school wood shop class.
Funky and soulful times for sure, but during the winter and spring of ’74, the one record that cut through all of it was Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters. Before it’s release, in the fall of ’73, I’d heard jazz, I’d heard funk and I’d heard fusion but I hadn’t heard it all put together quite like that. Hancock and his collaborators whipped up a breakthrough cocktail of Afrocentric, subversive improvisation that challenged the status quo, infuriated jazz purists and changed the game forever-and the kids liked to dance to it too.
Previous to the release of Headhunters, Herbie was already an internationally known film score composer, instrumentalist, band leader and sideman to many of the greats including Miles Davis. In other words, he was a star. But after Headunters, he became a star in the funk world, and a staple of the Black FM radio phenomenon that was sweeping the country. The album was deeply influenced by James Brown, Sly Stone, Hendrix and Miles, and pointed toward the eventual emergence of both neo-soul and hip hop.
During the time when Herbie was rocking, 40 years ago, one Friday night, after my middle school basketball practice, Chuck and I hopped on a bus into neighboring Manhattan, caught the A Train, and saw Earth Wind & Fire open for Sly & The Family Stone at the Word’s Most Famous Arena. EWF was working in support of their Head To the Sky album, and Sly was touring off of Fresh. While we waited for the show to start, the simultaneously intoxicating smell of weed filled the air, and the funky soul of Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book poured out of the sound system. It was the first of three times that I saw EWF, and the only time I witnessed a performance by the national treasure, Sly Stone.
I’m not in touch with Chuck anymore. He lives on the other side of the country with a second wife and two boys. Our fathers, and my my mother have all passed on. His mother has been institutionalized with Alzheimer’s. But today is Herbie Hancock’s 75th birthday, and I wanted to take a moment to reflect on how I first became aware of how truly dope he was, and how good his music sounded on those wood shop speakers.
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