African Americans have contributed to many facets of America’s soundtrack. One area that isn’t discussed as much is the contributions to the country genre. It’s a widely known fact that country legend Charley Pride came on the scene in 1966 and became the first black country artist to experience country music success. Pride was the first black country singer to perform on the Grand Ole Opry. What seems to have gotten lost in the history books is who the first Black woman was to perform on the show. Linda Martell, was the first black woman to appear on the Grand Ole Opry in 1969.
Martell was born in South Carolina in 1941 where she developed an appreciation for country, blues, jazz, and R&B music. At the age of 5 she began singing in the church choir and performing R&B songs with a small group around Columbia, South Carolina that included shows at the Charleston Air Force Base.
Martell’s first recorded work was with R&B group Linda Martell & the Anglos with a single in 1962. The group recorded another single in 1964.
During one of her performances at the Air Force Base, Martell was harassed by officers who insisted she sing a country song. She finally gave in to their requests, blowing them away, changing the course of her career. Martell caught her big break in 1969 after that performance landed her a trip to Nashville, Tennessee for a demo recording session. The tape landed in the hands of producer Shelby Singleton who signed Martell to his Plantation Records label.
The summer of 1969 was a busy one for Martell. Her song “Color Him Father” from her debut album, Color Me Country made the Top 25 on the Billboard Hot Country Charts.
Linda Martell made history as the first African American woman to appear on the Grand Ole Opry sharing the stage with musician Roy Acuff for her debut performance. She would go to make almost a dozen more appearances on the legendary show.
Her debut and only album was released by Plantation Records in 1970. She released two more singles “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” and “Bad Case of the Blues” which both landed on the Top 60 charts.
She appeared on shows like Country Carnival, 16th Avenue South, Midwestern Hayride, the Bill Anderson Show, and Hee Haw.
Linda Martell retired in 1974 to care for her children.
In 2014, she appeared on the Swedish television show Jill’s Veranda where she sang along with the host of the show and explained why she left the music business behind. The show also revealed she became an educator, but the video proves her voice has just gotten better with age like a fine wine.
The infectious catchy dance song “The Loco-Motion” is a part of America’s musical soundtrack. The story of Little Eva and her hit song is one of being in the right places at the right time.
Eva Narcissus Boyd was born in Belhaven, North Carolina in 1945. Named after her aunt, Little Eva first started singing in the church. She moved to New York in 1960 hoping to break into the music industry, and she soon landed a gig singing with The Cookies, and found some work doing backup vocals during studio sessions. However, Little Eva’s big break didn’t come from working in the industry; it came from a babysitting job.
The husband and wife songwriting team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King hired 17-year-old Little Eva as a babysitter. After they wrote the song “The Loco-Motion,” that may or may not have been inspired by Chubby Checker’s “The Twist,” Goffin and King asked Little Eva to sing the demo so it could be pitched to Dee Dee Sharp on Cameo Parkway. It turned out so well, it was eventually released as a single.
The song reached number one on the pop and R&B charts in 1962 cementing Little Eva’s spot in music history. She appeared on popular dance shows like Shindig and American Bandstand and traveled around the world performing the song.
Her follow up single, “Keep Your Hands off My Baby” reached number twelve on the pop chart and number six on the R&B chart.
Her third single, “Let’s Turkey Trot” was a top 20 single on both charts.
In 1971, Little Eva retired from the music business to focus on her three children, but it didn’t stop the loco-motion from chugging along. In 1974, Grand Funk Railroad remade the song into another number one hit, and in 1988 Kylie Minogue had a top five hit with her remake of “The Loco-Motion.” The renewed interest in the song, led to Little Eva getting gigs on the cabaret and oldies circuit. She recorded “Back on Track” in 1989 and toured with a show that featured acts such as Little Richard.
In 2001, Little Eva was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She died on April 10, 2003 at the age of 50. In 2009, Little Eva was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame.
It’s been a long time coming and as an interpreter of song, Bettye LaVette has started a new chapter of her career with her tenth album, Things Have Changed.
It’s the first album for the soul singer on a major label in nearly thirty years. On the album, she takes on the songs of Bob Dylan with a mixture of grit, soul, and blues to spin it into an interpretive masterpiece of her own. To pull off the transformation of the original songs, LaVette worked with producer Steve Jordan, and musicians such as Dylan’s long-time guitarist Larry Campbell, bass virtuoso Pino Palladino, and keyboardist Leon Pendarvis. Keith Richards and Trombone Shorty were added to the mix to create a recipe of rock ‘n’ soul. The album will be released on Verve Records on March 30.
Bettye LaVette has had a highlight worthy career that spans nearly six decades; from bringing down the house with her rendition of “Love Reign O’er Me” during the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors to President Obama’s 2009 Inauguration concert when she joined the stage with Jon Bon Jovi to sing “A Change is Gonna Come,” a song fitting for a woman whose change has finally come with recognition.
NMAAM caught up with Bettye LaVette to discuss her new album.
This is completely different for you to devote an entire album to one songwriter. What made you do that for your new album, Things Have Changed, and why Bob Dylan?
Bettye LaVette: I don’t know that I went in thinking I just wanted to do one songwriter. I certainly would not have decided this on my own. A friend of mine, and photographer Carol Friedman, who has done most of the photographs of me recently, especially the ones that make me look like I have long legs (laughs). She is a good friend and a life -long Bob Dylan fan and it’s always been her dream to hear me do Bob Dylan songs. I’m sure she knew unless that unless something big happened, it would not be forthcoming. Here again, as an artist, I would never hone in on one artist at this point. But when the biggest record company in the world says they think it’s a great idea, I said, ‘so do I!’ (laughs) So, that’s how it came about. The man just won a Nobel Peace Prize for lyrics. I recorded a few of his songs previously. One was called “Most of the Time” and it appealed to me and the way I felt at the time, then another one called “Everything is Broken,” and one called “Unbelievable” on the Worthy album. I did those because they were funny to me. They actually tickled me, because the lyrics were funny to me. I enjoyed those. I never would have chosen twelve of his songs, but with that task before me, I’m not a cover artist and I wasn’t trying to cover him and I wasn’t going to do a tribute to him.
That took a long time, longer than I have ever taken on any one piece of music. These, I had to rewrite some of them, like the verses and lines and put them in my mouth. He’s a very weird writer because he writes vignettes, not songs and they have chapters. Then it took weeks to learn however many of these songs. But I took verses out and lines out and freshened up some lines and some things that only 80 percent of the country knows who Belle Star and Clark Gable are, so I had to change those to Bruno Mars and Otis Redding. I had to find something that captured me emotionally. The song “Emotionally Yours” was one of those. I liked the words. I knew that I wasn’t going to cover them or tribute them, and that was one of the things I expressed to my producer Steve Jordan. He is now known as the ‘Bettye Whisperer,’ because I can’t play anything so I had to act out and sing out everything that I wanted. This is the first time I’ve had a Black producer in many years. It was interesting.
Once you got that part down, it only took you a few days to knock out the album in the studio.
Bettye LaVette: It only took 3 days. I don’t go in the studio with questions. I’ve already thought of what we are going to do. I have the attention span of a child, so doing things over and over I just can’t do it (laughs). Steve Jordan was on a very tight schedule so we were very fortunate to have him, and many of the others as well. Larry Campbell had been with Bob Dylan for many years. These guys work 24/7. It was going to be tight anyway, but I don’t think they knew how tight I can hang. I was like I’m from Detroit (laughs).
Why did you name the album Things Have Changed?
Bettye LaVette: So many things have changed. I have a new manager, a new booking agency, this new brilliant record company, this new producer, and I’m going to be blonde most of the time. I don’t want to call it a last- ditch effort, but I want this to work.
I had to find songs that could be turned around that could naturally fit. I chose those because Bob Dylan will occasionally lean [toward] gospel every once in a while, and those lent themselves to that. I wanted to do something that hadn’t been heard on Black radio and we could completely turn it around. That’s why I wanted to do “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” I wanted to go completely different and Steve understood that. I sung with my keyboard player and made a tape with him, and I had to show them how to make rhythm with the way that I was singing it. The keyboard player just played the changes to the song and I put the rhythm in my voice so that gave Steve the indication on where to put things. He is such an intelligent musician and producer.
The way that you sang those Bob Dylan songs on your new album, Things Have Changed, are so soulful.
Bettye LaVette: Thank you very much. I’m very interested to know what Bob Dylan fans think. His fans are like worshippers and Blacks don’t know anything about him at all. I’m interested to know what Blacks think about the album and Bob Dylan worshippers.
The lyrics of the songs really stand out because you made them your own.
Bettye LaVette: A lot of Bob Dylan fans say they absolutely love him, but they never knew what he was saying (laughs).
Let’s discuss a few of the songs on the album. Talk about “What Was It You Wanted.”
Bettye LaVette: For that one and everyone looked at me like I was crazy, but I said let’s put trombones on it. I wanted a New Orleans feel and they went right to Trombone Shorty, and I said ‘I didn’t mean New Orleans itself!’ (laughs) But, it was exactly what I wanted. Bob Dylan will lead you to the ledge, but he won’t push you, see I will. I had to push to get this sound.
How about “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight?”
Bettye LaVette: Yes! That one and “Emotionally Yours” made me say ‘wow he will cry!’ (laughs) When I drank a bottle of champagne and sang both of those, and I said listen at this song. I found out a tremendous amount about Bob Dylan and these songs. The only way I could put them in my mouth, I had to get all the way into them. I had to sing them not because I liked them, but because I wanted to say it. It had to be something I wanted to say.
What about the song “It Ain’t Me Babe?”
Bettye LaVette: I wanted it to be so different from what he did on the song, I wanted it to be more blues. I wanted it to be more like a drunk Jimmy Reed song. Singing it like they did is like trying copy someone’s art, but how do you feel about it? How mad are you? (laughs)
In your book A Woman Like Me, you mentioned having “buzzard’s luck,” looking back at that and your journey to now, what kind of advice would you give to someone to not give up and keep going?
Bettye LaVette: I would say people have to use logic, it’s the most important thing. If you are following some stuff that you know you can’t do, try to get some logical opinions and try to weigh it good. If people hadn’t been pouring their money into my career, I would have long since quit and not just kept going because I want to sing. People kept calling me, maybe it was the wrong people, maybe the deals fell apart, but they kept calling. If I had joined the church and they didn’t call or if I ran off with some man that beat me every day and they didn’t call, then I probably chose the wrong thing, but they kept calling. When they called, they said, “I have your last record, and wanted to know if you want to do another one.”
I have an album that was recorded in 1972 that was not released, and I talk about it in the book. I got under the dining room table and wanted to stay there. That was the most heartbreaking thing that ever happened to me, and someone else called and I came out from under that table.
It’s like if you have some kind of logical indication that the road you are on is correct, stay on that joker and don’t do nothing that will impair it. Don’t stay up all night and do all that cocaine if you want to sing, don’t go out with some dude that’s going to hit you and mess up your face if you want to be a model. Make logical conclusions. When I left Detroit and left Atlantic and got released from my contract, there was no logical reason for me to do that, and I’ve thought about that for over 50 years. No logical reason for me to do that and it cost me 20 years. All you ask for on your deathbed is more time. Don’t give your time away. That would be my only regret. Once I embraced logic, it has helped me. Plain old logic.
Why do you think having a place like the NMAAM is so important?
Bettye LaVette: It’s strange that there hasn’t been something like this already. They can use it to show the connection from this to that, from the field to this and that. I’d love to see it.
The Rock ‘n’ Roll genre was born somewhere between a church and a nightclub in the heart and soul of a woman named Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Imagine a Black woman singing gospel music accompanied by an electric guitar, growling and stomping; that’s what you hear when you listen to the songs of Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
This year’s class of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees include Sister Rosetta Tharpe, also known as the Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll, although she was a gospel superstar. She could shred on the electric guitar and shout praises to God one minute and secular pleasures in the next breath. She crossed color lines by touring with white artists.
Tharpe is credited with introducing the spirituality of gospel into the secular world of rock ‘n’ roll, inspiring the likes of Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and Little Richard. Little Richard called her his greatest influence and Chuck Berry said that his entire career was just “one long Rosetta Tharpe impersonation.” It is befitting that Sister Rosetta Tharpe is finally getting the recognition she deserves for her contributions to America’s soundtrack.
Rosetta Nubin was born in 1915 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. At the age of six, she moved to Chicago and joined the Church of God in Christ where she developed her distinctive performing style. In her teens she married a preacher named Thomas Tharpe, but divorced him a few years later, keeping the surname as her stage moniker before heading to New York.
At the age of 23, in 1938, she caused an uproar by leaving the church for show business to perform sexually laced songs in New York City, where she impressed the likes of Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. She soon began playing alongside Ellington and other top musicians.
The idea of a woman playing a guitar was almost non-existent at the time, but Rosetta Tharpe squashed that notion by mastering the art associated with masculinity. She managed to create her own sound by fusing gospel with rock ‘n’ roll. She recorded Decca Record’s first gospel songs in 1938 including her hit song, “Rock Me.” The song showcased Tharpe’s guitar shredding skills mixed with blues and gospel music that revealed she could transcend faith-based music and push boundaries in her own musical style.
She also recorded “That’s All,” “The Man and I,” and “The Lonesome Road” for Decca Records. All of these recordings became instant hits, establishing Tharpe as one of the nation’s first commercially successful gospel singer.
After years of working up north with swing bandleader Lucky Millinder, Tharpe toured the south with gospel legends the Dixie Hummingbirds. In 1945, her single, “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” on Decca Records, featured a guitar solo and was the first gospel single to cross over to what was called the “race” (later known as R&B) Billboard charts, paving the way for rock ‘n’ roll. In 1947, Sister Rosetta was the first person to put a 14-year-old Little Richard on stage, and it changed his life and the course of music from that moment on.
She then met singer Marie Knight and the pair recorded “Up Above My Head” and toured as a team. Knight sang and played piano, and Tharpe sang and played both guitar and piano. In 1951, after an affair with Knight, Tharpe married her third husband in Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. in front of 25,000 fans.
In 1964, during one of her most iconic performances, Tharpe played a gig in an abandoned railroad station that was broadcast nationwide. It was raining, but Tharpe got out of a horse drawn carriage, picked up her electric guitar, plugged in, and played “Didn’t it Rain” and sang with such conviction and praise
People often commented that she “played like a man,” to which Tharpe often replied: “Can’t no man play like me. I play better than a man.”
Tharpe’s career didn’t get the same hype as her male counterparts did in the late 60s and 70s, and that could have been in part due to her religious material. In 1969, she was nominated for a Grammy for Best Gospel Performance for the album Precious Memories. Her last known recording was in 1970 for Danish TV singing “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” She passed away in 1973 in Philadelphia.
While Tharpe’s name has been swept under the rug despite her influence, she has received a couple of honors posthumously. She was honored by the U.S. Postal Service in 1998 with a commemorative stamp. Her version of “Down by the Riverside” in 1944 was entered into the National Recording Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress in 2004.
Through her distinctive voice and gospel blues crossover style, Tharpe’s influence can be heard in artists of the past and present. A pioneer worthy of recognition.
With a multi-platinum selling vast genre discography that spans decades, the legendary Jody Watley is still a musical force to be reckoned with today.
Jody Watley was destined for the stars the minute she stepped out on stage for the first time with her godfather, the legendary Jackie Wilson. She started setting trends as a dancer on the show Soul Train. As an original member of the group Shalamar, Watley’s distinct tones can be heard on classics like “A Night to Remember,” “(This Is) For the Lover in You,” and “Second Time Around.” In 1983, Watley left the group and a few short years later launched her solo career that further cemented her role on America’s soundtrack. Watley’s debut album skyrocketed up the charts with hits like “Real Love,” “Looking for a New Love,” “Don’t You Want Me,” and “Still a Thrill.” The album garnered her a Grammy for Best New Artist and catapulted her into style icon status.
Watley’s musical journey continues today with her new group Jody Watley featuring SRL. Watley, along with Nate Allen Smith and Rosero McCoy, are a vocal dance trio that has already made a musical mark with their newest single, “The Mood” as it is has claimed the number two spot on the U.K. Soul chart and number one in the Netherlands. Watley’s solo jazz single, “Waiting in Vain,” landed in the Top 20 Smooth Jazz Network.
I spoke with Jody Watley about her career highlights, her new music, and inspiring a new generation of artists in music and fashion.
You have a long list of accolades, but what would you say are the top three highlights of your career?
Jody Watley: The Black Music Honors of course, where I received the Crossover Music Icon award. It was just awesome, especially since I’ve been in this for a couple of months or so as an artist (laughs). To be doing it this long and to have the influence that I’ve had and to actually have it acknowledged, that actually meant a lot. Winning the Grammy for “Best New Artist” and “Looking for a New Love” was released in 1987. Obviously, the whole album changed my life in so many ways. Winning the Best New Artist that year is always going to be super special and again during that particular time in my life.
I had performed with Stevie Wonder, who is one of my childhood heroes, and I still love him today. He had a television special on MTV back in the late 80s when his song “Skeletons” came out. I performed “Superstition” with him on his special. The ironic thing is I had done that song in a talent show when I was in 7th grade with the group that I had called Black Fuzz (laughs). We were called Black Fuzz because we all had these big afros and I was so nervous. Even though by that time I had been an artist for a while, there is nothing more nerve wracking to me then performing with someone that you admired growing up. Those are the three that really stand out.
Another highlight is I remember when I got the call that I was going to be in People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People issue. It meant a lot because at that time, they weren’t covering really any black artists except Whitney Houston for something like that. I shaved all my hair off and people wondered why I did it. I didn’t want it to be about the hair, I just wanted to clean faced, with my crooked teeth, and just do it like that.
Speaking of crossing over, going into your debut album Jody Watley, did you go in with the mindset that you wanted to crossover to other genres?
Jody Watley: One thing I know for sure is that I didn’t want to be like anybody else that was out at the time. Michael and Janet [Jackson] were doing the choreography and they were very great at it and no one does it better. I wanted to be different and make the statement that you can be different. I wanted it to be funky and have my spirit come through in it. It was never about the crossover, it just came. Maybe for some it’s a goal, but I just wanted to make the statement that I’m Jody Watley, this is my debut album and I’m not trying to be like anybody else, just being me and I want to make it cool for other girls that feel like they don’t fit in, that it’s cool to be them and be different. I really just wanted to make that statement, the style that black girls could be rockers too, with the heavy metal chain belts and all that. I wanted them to see we can do whatever we want to do. That was most important to me.
It has been a little over 30 years since Jody Watley was released. If you could hop into a time machine and go back to 1987, is there anything you would have changed at that time?
Jody Watley: In thinking about it, I would have had a different manager. For my first manager, I looked to see who managed Michael Jackson and Madonna, because they were really successful and I wanted them to be my manager. Freddy DeMann managed both of them. I went to them for management and when all was said and done, Freddy was going to manage me, but Madonna said he couldn’t manage me and manage her too, so they ended up shifting me to a junior manager in the company named Bennett Freed and he was really inexperienced. He was in over his head. He also managed the group ABC from London. He said you will probably sell 50,000 and they will probably sell platinum and it ended up being the other way around. I sold double platinum and they sold 50,000 (laughs). He made a lot of mistakes. I succeeded anyway. I think anytime you have someone in your circle, and that’s me speaking to myself even now, that it’s usually a red flag if they don’t really believe in you, get rid of them. If I had to change one thing, I would have gotten a different manager since it wasn’t going to be who I really wanted to manage me anyway. That experience and really pushing your vision through, that’s really the only thing I could think of from my debut album. It succeeded despite of him, it was God and the universe and destiny. He was the weakest link.
You are a style icon and you can see your influence even in artists today. When you look at them and see what they are doing, do you see that influence as they are creating their own lanes with fashion?
Jody Watley: I think it’s awesome, in particular with Rihanna. She’s my favorite. I’m so proud, I love it. I have a lot of Fenty and I pretty much have supported everything that she’s done from Puma, to the clothing line, to Fenty. I really love that she has been able to capitalize off the fact that she’s stylish.
One of the things that I wanted to do was to have a clothing line since people wanted to dress like me, but I couldn’t get anyone to take it seriously. That again goes back to having the right manager. I did convince MCA to give away tiny Jody Watley perfume for promotion for the third album. So again, it was ahead of all the record companies and marketing companies, and they just didn’t get it. I couldn’t get the right person to see why it made so much sense, but to see it come to fruition for those artists, I think it’s wonderful and I feel a part of that.
You have been cited as an inspiration for many artists, but who inspires you these days?
Jody Watley: I’m inspired by Rihanna, I love what she’s doing. Even with everything that I’m doing, you know the consistency with branding along the way when people think of me whether it’s past or present style; there’s always an unpredictability. What’s she going to do next? Or what is she going to do now?
Like right now I have a jazz single out and I have an R&B group out and we have the number two R&B single in the U.K. and those are unexpected things. I am always inspired by people who are continuing to evolve and keep it moving. Oprah and people who are very business minded and creative. People who make other people feel inspired by the things that they do whether it’s through their social media, or out of the spotlight, and they are doing something good and it’s not stagnant. Oprah and Rihanna are up there. Richard Branson is another one. I read a lot about business people from John Johnson and how he built the whole Ebony and Jet to Berry Gordy and Motown.
My biggest inspiration coming up was my dad, because he was a very forward thinker. I am an Aquarian like him, he passed away a long time ago. He would do things like have Christmas in August and would say live in the now don’t wait to use these special dishes, if you want to dress up, do it. My dad was very influential in how I viewed life early on. Life is so precious.
Talk about your jazz single “Waiting in Vain.” People may not realize that you are such a versatile singer.
Jody Watley: My parents loved jazz when I was growing up. The many artists that came out of Motown were also very influential with me as a little girl. Jazz music was too. Nancy Wilson is one of my favorite singers of all time. I just love the genre. The first jazz single that I did was in 1990 for a project called Red, Hot, and Blue. It was the first project that created HIV and AIDS awareness and it was a charitable record. All of the proceeds went to create HIV/AIDS Awareness. We got to do Cole Porter songs any way we wanted. I chose jazz since it wasn’t a Jody Watley album, it gave me the freedom to do something different and show that side. I’m comfortable singing it and my tone suits it. So since then I’ve been wanting to do something and so I did a jazz version of Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain.” It’s so beautiful it’s got a Bossa Nova feel to it, I just love it. Even though I’m a dance girl at heart I’m a jazz girl too. It’s taken off so great.
It just shows a different side. Jazz is a big part of soul music and our culture. It’s my way of showing love to an art form that in many ways is overlooked. That was part of the inspiration also for releasing it. I’m really happy whether it is R&B, pop, electronica, dance, jazz; it’s all good.
You mentioned your new group, Jody Watley featuring SRL. The single “The Mood” has a different vibe. Is there an album in the works?
Jody Watley: Our target date for the album Bridges is June. Bridges is such a metaphor for life and is about evolving and leaving things in the past and moving onto other things. It represents so many things. I’m so glad our music is being well received. Our show is fantastic.
How would you describe the group’s sound?
Jody Watley: It’s a whole different vibe. It’s contemporary R&B and it’s got the pop flair to it. The album Bridges is pretty eclectic. There’s a mixture of hip hop, dance, and contemporary R&B. I call it a gumbo of styles but rooted in soul music. So, I think Jody Watley featuring SRL is a sonic revolution of love and it’s rooted in the love that we all have for quality music. It’s a mixture. It’s all fresh, we aren’t trying to be anything. We are the next great music trio for the now and moving forward. I’m proud of this album.
How do you stay relevant and the key to your longevity? Is the key really being able to be versatile enough to do all of it?
Jody Watley: It’s true, my fan base is so diverse. It is because I’ve never gotten stuck. I always make new goals for myself and it keeps people guessing and excited. New fans are coming on board, and people are often shocked I’m still doing it and that’s nice too to be able to surprise people. I think that’s how you do stay relevant and current; you don’t get stuck in the past and resting upon your laurels. The easiest thing is to go do a greatest hits tour and there’s nothing wrong with that, I do my greatest hits too but as an artist and just being alive, I’m always saying how can I be fabulous today? (laughs) I think that’s important and I like to remind people of that.
Why is having a place like the NMAAM so important?
Jody Watley: It’s so necessary and so important, rhythm and blues and soul music is the foundation for so many music genres in America. It is American music and influenced generations of people. To have that history which is often lost in our country, because it’s not just for us, it’s for the world. To have a place that is honoring the rich and profound richness of the legacy of our music, which is music for the world to me. If I’m in U.K. or Germany, American soul music is everywhere. There should be a place for all time where it is preserving African American music. It’s crazy that we haven’t had this before, but it’s better late than never and it’s very necessary and if we don’t do it then it won’t be done.
Fill in the blank: My music matters because…
Jody Watley: My music matters because it’s strong and joyful.
For more information on Jody Watley check out her website.
Mention the name Gerald Alston and you immediately think of soul drenched with an infusion of gospel. The lead singer of the legendary Grammy Award winning R&B group The Manhattans joined the group in 1970 with a voice that was influenced by the likes of Sam Cooke. With Alston’s soulful lead vocals, The Manhattans scored with hits like “Kiss and Say Goodbye,” “I Kinda Miss You,” and “Shining Star.”
Alston eventually embarked on a solo career releasing several albums before returning to his spot with The Manhattans. In 2015, Alston released his first gospel project, True Gospel. On the album, Alston is paying homage to Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers. With his rendition of some of their songs, he’s doing just that, stirring the soul and taking music lovers to church with the word. While working on a new gospel album, Alston and The Manhattans are also gearing up to celebrate the group’s 55th anniversary later this year.
I spoke with Gerald Alston about his staying power in the music industry, keeping the legacy of The Manhattans alive, and about his fond memories of L.C. Cooke and Dennis Edwards.
What has been the highlight of your career as a solo artist and as part of The Manhattans?
Gerald Alston: First of all, with The Manhattans, our first gold record, “Kiss and Say Goodbye.”
Then another highlight was when we won the Grammy [in 1980] for “Shining Star.”
Those were days that I really treasure. Another highlight was when I went to South Africa for the first time. The Manhattans were a household name all during apartheid. So, we were superstars over there. We got to the airport and there were thousands of people waiting for us. It was like that during the whole tour. We were scheduled to work for four days, but we ended up working for fifteen days and performed at sold out venues
Another highlight was in November 2005 when we were a part of a Sam Cooke tribute. Every time we were supposed to work with Aretha Franklin it got canceled but I stood right beside her during the finale. Couldn’t nobody tell me nothing because I was standing right beside Aretha Franklin. She is truly the queen and to stand beside her, wow. At the end of the show, she stopped us and asked us to come in and take pictures with us. I was beside myself! It was just an honor because all the great singers were there.
You and the group have a lot of years under your belt. What would you say has been the key to your longevity?
Gerald Alston: The key to longevity is that you put all your trust in God, that you know who you are and where you want to go. The type of songs that we write are about life that people can easily identify with. It’s important to sing what people what people can relate to. We are also very humble. We go out and shake hands, we go to radio stations, and we do interviews. Our thing today is that working with [radio] stations to do an interview and we have to be there early in the morning and the DJ at the station said “today you can’t get artists to be at the station at 6 in the morning to do an interview. They say they are tired or don’t feel like it and won’t come.”
I’ve learned over the years that we don’t do it as a favor by performing for them, they do us a favor by coming to see us. To serve and give them as much as we can to satisfy them, they are the ones that make us who we are. Back in the day DJ’s used to sell records for us, they would play it, and say this is a hit. If he or she said it, then people believed it because they were popular. It’s so different now, the humbleness is gone.
During the awards shows, there are always comments on social media about African American artists showing up for the Grammys or the American Music Awards, but they are nowhere to be found during the Soul Train Awards, BET Awards, or Trumpet Awards. Why is it important for artists to show up for the award shows that celebrate our music?
Gerald Alston: It’s important that we support each other. For our longevity, and being around as long as we have, we have been humble and even today we stay humble. It’s important because our fans are who makes us who we are. After concerts, we’re tired but who cares? We go up front and sign autographs and take pictures and enjoy ourselves with our fans. We have a good time. They see we are just like them and they will continue to support us. It’s important to do that. All artists should do that.
The Manhattans are about to celebrate 55 years in the industry. Are you doing anything to commemorate the occasion?
Gerald Alston: Yes, this August will be 55 years. We recorded a couple of things that we are going to release. I did a song called “Shades of Blue,” which is a tribute to the guys and to Blue [Lovett]. I just wrote two recent songs. I’m getting my son to write something for us. We are going to release an EP to celebrate 55 years along with some of our old stuff will probably be on there as well.
You are one of the last of The Manhattans from the group’s hey-day. Why is it important for you to carry on the legacy of the group? How do the newer members of the group feel having to fill those shoes?
Gerald Alston: It’s the love of it really. I spent all of my young adult life with The Manhattans. I started singing right out of college, well I didn’t even go a semester. I went back to school in September and in October, I met The Manhattans. From that day on I was a member of the group. It was something that became a part of my life, I fit in and it just worked. Troy May and David Tyson have been with me for over 20 years. They have had a chance to work with Blue and see all sides of Blue and the business aspect of it. We all grew up together. They are willing to take on the legacy and continue it with me and they are dedicated to it.
Your aunt is Shirley Alston Reeves who is a member of The Shirelles, and also an inductee of the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame just like yourself. Talk about her influence on your career.
Gerald Alston: She and my uncle Johnny Fields of the Five Blind Boys of Alabama were both an inspiration to me. They were in Henderson [North Carolina] and they left Henderson and made something of themselves through something that they dreamed of. My uncle was from Alabama but he married my aunt who was from Henderson. I grew up with singing in the house, my uncle was singing, my father was singing, and my mother sang. Both sides of my family, everybody was singing, I had no other place to go (laughs). It was just there. Shirley, my uncle, and my dad, and Sam Cooke paid a very important part of my life. I’m very thankful.
With Sam Cooke’s brother L.C. Cooke’s recent passing last summer, do you have any memories of him you’d like to share?
Gerald Alston: L.C. used to tell us about the stories about Sam. One of the funniest stories he told me was that he and Sam used to fight as kids. He said everyday they had a fight. It was like they looked forward to it every day. He said this particular day they got in the bed that night and said “Sam, we didn’t fight today” so they started going at it. He said their mother came in and made them stop. L.C. said he used to always get the best of Sam but he said this particular night Sam got the last lick. He said Sam hit him so hard he saw stars in color (laughs) when he said that I fell out laughing (laughs). He said he told Sam many years later that he got the best of him but he had told him earlier he never would have lived it down. But he had some wonderful stories about traveling and singing.
As a matter of fact, he wrote the linear notes for my tribute album to Sam Cooke. I think one of the most touching things he ever said was “I’ve seen a lot of people sing Sam’s song and they always tried to sing it better or sing like him, but you are paying a tribute to him and doing it your way and not trying to sound like him.” I was not, I was just paying tribute to a very great singer. It meant a lot coming from him to tell me that.
I sang at L.C.’s memorial. I flew up to Chicago and sang at the memorial, it was very nice. What was really hard for me was the Thursday before he died, we were on the radio together doing an interview for WMEL. He was talking and telling stories and we were laughing and the next morning I got a call saying L.C. passed away last night. I know he wasn’t well, but you couldn’t tell that he was that sick. It just blew me away when I got the call that he passed away. We did a 2-hour interview on the radio and it was kind of tough.
You also had the chance to perform with Dennis Edwards quite a bit over the years. His recent passing was a shock even though he had been sick. Do you have any memories you’d like to share about him?
Gerald Alston: I just pulled up a video of us performing at the Black Music Honors in Nashville, that was the first year they did the event.
I saw Dennis when he first got with the Temptations at North Carolina Central University. Their clothes got lost and the Temptations had to perform in their street clothes and they tore that sucker up! Then years later I was on stage with Dennis performing with The Manhattans in Detroit. As time passed we worked together many times. The best was Dennis, myself and Eddie Levert began to work together as Timeless Voices and it was amazing to see that much experience. I’ve seen young artists sing together in a finale and everybody out sings each other trying to see how many runs they can do. When I sang with Dennis and Eddie we just knew when to come in and not step on each other. It was self-explanatory, we didn’t compete, we already had our place and respected each other. I can tell you this Dennis Edwards was a singing brother. Dennis was always the same, he could fill a room if you were in his presence. He had stories, he would talk about the days of Motown. He shared them with us. He was an amazing person. I’ve always felt like that about him. I’m glad I got a chance to work with him. We went to South Africa together and we did a television show where we sang “My Girl” on the show and that was the first time I actually sang with Dennis in 1996. In the past 5 to 7 years we started doing Timeless Voices; it was originally Dennis, Eddie, myself, and Johnny Gill. Then New Edition started taking off again and Johnny couldn’t make all the dates. So, it was just me, Eddie, and Dennis.
Eddie and I performed on the 2018 Soul Train Cruise, we performed as Men of Soul. It was very nice. I will always cherish and remember it. Dennis was supposed to be there but as you know he was sick. The night that Eddie and I decided to pay tribute to Dennis and make sure we say something about him, then we got the call that he had passed away.
You worked with Wu-Tang Clan on a song called “Stick Me for My Riches.” That is definitely a departure from your usual music, how was that experience?
Gerald Alston: They were putting together this project for a movie, and we did the song together and it didn’t come together so they released it on their CD so that’s how we got to work together. It was nice, and it was different for me. In Japan and even here it got some play. The response blew me away. I didn’t even know it had been released out of the country, until someone messaged me on Facebook.
Why is it important to have a museum like NMAAM?
Gerald Alston: It’s very important for kids to know about their heritage and where they came from. Even the younger artists today need to know whose shoulders they stand on and where it all started. Let me give you an example; when MC Hammer did “Have You Seen Her?” My niece was like MC Hammer has a new record and I said no baby, the Chi-Lites did that song back in the 70s. So, I took her the CD and her mouth hit the floor. So many young people don’t know anything about the artist before them. It’s unfortunate that musicians, singers, or history buffs, or whatever, they need to know where the music started. I stand on the shoulders of my uncle Johnny Fields, my aunt Shirley and my dad, and Sam Cooke. When I first started singing, The Dells showed me so much support and we are still friends to this day. Billy Davis came to the show and told me some things that a lot of artist wouldn’t have even told me. I respect them and some of the other older artists, they weren’t the type to come in and say you did a great show if they didn’t see a great show. They would ask you “are you alright?” (laughs) Johnny Carter of the Dells chewed me out one day after a show after I did something that wasn’t appropriate for an artist. He told me to come by his room afterwards. He told me you just don’t carry yourself like that on stage, you have to be professional at all times. I just used that as an example but it’s important for kids to know our history. You’d be surprised that the kids today don’t know who Jackie Wilson was or Otis Redding, and even Sam Cooke, artists like that. Those are the artists that they are standing on their legacy. They made it possible for us. You look at Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, they were the two first artists to have their own publishing companies and record labels. They were the first to start that for black artists.
I had the chance to work with Jackie Wilson. He was an artist. He wouldn’t play on a show unless he headlined, in the 70s. We played in Washington DC and all of us had records in the top 5 or 10 and Jackie didn’t have anything new out. He would not play the show unless he headlined. If you saw Jackie on stage, you’d realize why nobody could follow him, he was one of the most exciting artists on stage that you have ever laid your eyes on and he could sing! He was a true entertainer. I respected him for that. He knew it. When he came on last, the wings would be full. He was truly just like they called him, Mr. Excitement. It’s important for people to know the history.
Keep up with Gerald Alston and The Manhattans on their website.
Influential blues guitarist Etta Baker was proof that it’s never too late to follow your dreams. She didn’t become a professional musician until she was 60 years old, and her technique influenced artists like Taj Mahal and Bob Dylan.
Etta Baker was born Etta Lucille Reid in North Carolina in 1913. Her father, Boone Reid, was a musician that taught her to play the six and twelve string guitars and the five-string banjo. Etta also learned how to play piano and violin. She grew up learning hymns, parlor music, rags, and Tin Pan Alley songs from her father. Etta often performed the blues with her father and sister at dances and parties in their community.
In 1936 Etta married Lee Baker and stopped performing publicly while raising their nine children.
Etta Baker’s unique playing style included her two- finger style of using her thumb and index finger which is prominent in Piedmont Blues. The Piedmont Blues features alternating the thumb picking the string bass while the fore finger picks the treble strings. She learned the finger picking style from her father, and in interviews she said it was a style that was used in the area where she was raised. In 1956, Etta and her father met folk singer Paul Clayton, where she played her signature song “One Dime Blues” for him. Clayton was so impressed that he showed up at her house the next day with a tape recorder and recorded Etta playing the song and several others. Her versions of “One Dime Blues” and “Railroad Bill” were featured on the album Instrumental Music from the Southern Appalachians.
1967 proved to be a tragic year as Baker lost her husband and a son, and she quit playing music for a while before turning back to it to help with her grief.
Bluesman Taj Mahal recorded an album with Baker in 2004 called Etta Baker with Taj Mahal. He spoke with the New York Times about how inspired he was by her picking style.
“I came upon that record in the ‘60s,” Taj Mahal said. “It didn’t have any pictures so I had no idea who she was until I got to meet her years later. But man, that chord in ‘Railroad Bill,’ that was just the chord. It just cut right through me.”
Baker worked at a North Carolina textile mill for 25 years before quitting to pursue a career as a professional musician. She released her first full album, One-Dime Blues in 1991 at the age of 78. “This man came down from Portland, Oregon and he said ‘Etta why would you work so hard, when you can pick up your guitar and make it easy. This was on Wednesday and I got to thinking about what he said and I went to the office and said I was quitting on Friday, and I did. I gave them three days notice,” Baker said in an interview with David Holt for UNC TV.
Baker couldn’t read music, but said she got her ideas for her songs through her dreams. “I dream a lot of my chords,” she said. Baker said it was like putting together a crossword puzzle to fit the chords together. She became a hit on the folk and blues festival circuit touring well into her 80’s but eventually stopped due to health problems. She died in 2006 at the age of 93.
Baker received multiple honors for her work. In 1989, Baker received the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award from the North Carolina Arts Council. In 1991, she received the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship, and in 2003, the North Carolina Award. She was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 2017.
Recently we interviewed Franklin Willis, music educator, vocalist, and education consultant. Willis, who performed twice as a part of our Emerging Artist Series at Sips & Stanzas, spoke candidly about the landscape of African American music, the importance of music education and what the museum will mean to our culture.
Describe your background. How were you introduced to the music world?
I was introduced to music at a young age while singing in the youth choir at Temple Church (Nashville, TN), performing in school talent shows, family reunions or any opportunity I was given to showcase my singing ability. I received my formal musical studies at Nashville School of the Arts (NSA) and was exposed to a variety of music genres and performance opportunities. While in the madrigal choir at NSA, I discovered my passion and joy for singing; upon graduating, I attended the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on a vocal scholarship. During my matriculation, I had the opportunity to sing at several community gatherings and functions, including serving as a vocal soloist with the Chattanooga Preservation of African American Song, a community vocal ensemble whose mission is to revitalize the history of music composed by African Americans. I then transferred to the University of Memphis to complete the Bachelor of Music in Vocal Music Education.
For the past nine years when I’m not on the stage singing, I am preparing our future singers, musicians, and songwriters in the classroom as a music educator. I currently serve as the music teacher at Andrew Jackson Elementary School (Metro Nashville Public Schools). My specialty is embedding musical instruction that will empower and engage all children to achieve their best.
How has music influenced your life?
It is the one constant in my life. It’s what can connect me to a person without speaking. It serves as a soother, wakeup call, or even a celebration. I couldn’t imagine a world without music.
How has the landscape of African American music changed over the years?
In my opinion, African American music has always helped shape and describe what’s going on in current events. From Negro spirituals to Hip Hop music. Our music tells a story. Sometimes a story of pain, hard times, trials, or even times of rejoicing, celebration, or a shout of praise. Our music will always adapt and change to tell the story.
Why is music education important?
Music Education Is important because music is something that reaches across all cultures. Music connects people that have the most and the least in common. Because of that music education is important so that the conversation and creativity continues. I believe that the study of music is a unique creative experience that provides opportunities to reinforce skills and concepts of other disciplines while developing lifelong learning skills. I am passionate that the cultivation of musicianship begins at a young age and that every child has musical potential.
You were a part of NMAAM’s Emerging Artist Series at Sips and Stanzas. What was that experience like?
For me, this was an amazing opportunity to share my gift with others. Art is unique in that it can be interpreted differently from one person to the next. I enjoy creating experiences for an audience through my artistic expression. The way I feel when I perform and my interpretation of the material affects how a member of the audience interprets it and shares with another and so on. The best thing is that a group of people can all hear the same thing and have several different or alike interpretations. That’s what is so great about music! So, to be featured as an emerging artist and to be able to share my talents and create a unique experience for a group of people was FUN!
What will a museum like NMAAM mean to the city of Nashville?
The Museum will serve as a resource for learning. A place to store information and preserve history. It will be a place where visitors to the city can see firsthand the love of art and how important it is in the local culture. Also, how African Americans have contributed to not only American culture but to the world culture.
Fill in the blank: My music matters….because it does the talking when words don’t make sense.
When mentioning traditional southern black gospel music, you can’t leave out North Carolina based gospel quartet The Sensational Nightingales. The group is one of the earliest gospel quartets. The group was founded as The Nightingales in 1942 by Barney Parks in Philadelphia. Parks was previously with the Dixie Hummingbirds. The original Nightingales line up included Howard Carroll, Paul Owens, Ben Joiner, and William Henry. They recorded several sides for Decca Records.
In 1946, Parked discovered a singer named Julius “June” Cheeks who had a soulful filled voice that evoked the emotion of a preacher. His vocals punctuated with high falsettos to raspy growls, he could carry the audience on an emotional musical religious journey. Cheeks style has been said to have been borrowed by artists like Bobby Bland and Wilson Pickett. Cheeks was influenced by the likes of groups like the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Fairfield Four, and the Soul Stirrers. Cheeks was singing with a quartet called the Baronets in South Carolina when he was approached to join the new line up of The Nightingales. That new group led by Parks consisted of Cheeks, Joseph “Jo Jo” Wallace, and Carl Coates.
The Nightingales rehearsed for a month in Goldsboro, North Carolina before their first appearances and since they were so sensational, they added the moniker to their name to become The Sensational Nightingales.
The group signed with Peacock Records and released their first single, “Will He Welcome Me There” in 1947. During the ’50s their hits included “New Burying Ground,” “Somewhere to Lay My Head,” and “See How They Done My Lord.”
Over the years, Cheeks would leave and return to the group until 1960 when he left to form his own group The Knights. The Sensational Nightingales added Charles Johnson to the roster to sing lead until the mid-80s, when he was replaced by Calvert McNair. The group is often referred to as “The Gentlemen of Song” for the way they carry themselves while singing soul stirring quartet harmonies.
The current line-up of The Sensational Nightingales consists of 91-year-old Joseph “Jo Jo” Wallace, Larry Moore, Horace “Sug” Thompson, and Darrell Luster, and they are still actively performing.
In October 2017, the group was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame for their contributions to the music industry.
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