Playing a role in the Civil Rights Movement is a thread weaved into the blanket of America’s soundtrack. The legendary Stevie Wonder played an integral part in bringing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day into fruition with its own soundtrack.
Wonder recalled the first time he had heard of Dr. King. “I was 5 when I first heard of MLK.” As he listened to the coverage of the Montgomery bus boycott on the radio, “I asked, ‘Why don’t they like colored people? What’s the difference? I still can’t see the difference. Want to know why? Because there is no difference,” Wonder said. That moment fueled him to lead the crusade to help create Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
In 1968, just days after Dr. King’s assassination, Michigan congressman John Conyers introduced legislation to make a federal holiday in King’s honor according to History.com.
Congress didn’t move the bill forward and over the years, some states enacted holidays in honor of King on their own. In 1979, Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, testified before Congress but it didn’t work. Things started to change in the early 80s. Stevie Wonder penned the hit song, “Happy Birthday” on his 1980 album Hotter than July. The record pays respect to Dr. King with his portrait on the right and a collage of images from the Civil Rights Movement on the left.
Under Dr. King’s image, Wonder wrote: “Martin Luther King was a man who had that strength. He showed us, non-violently, a better way of life, a way of mutual respect, helping us to avoid much bitter confrontation and inevitable bloodshed. We still have a long road to travel until we reach the world that was his dream. We in the United States must not forget either his supreme sacrifice or that dream.”
The song celebrates King’s legacy but also takes aim at those who oppose the holiday with the lyrics:
“You know it doesn’t make much sense/ There ought to be a law against/Anyone who takes offense/ At a day in your celebration/ Cause we all know in our minds/ That there ought to be a time/ That we can set aside/ To show just how much we love you.”
After “Happy Birthday’s” release, Wonder and Mrs. King continued the fight to get Dr. King’s legacy honored. In 1982, she and Stevie Wonder presented a petition with more than six million signatures in support of the holiday to the then speaker of the house.
In November 1983 President Ronald Reagan signed a bill establishing the third Monday of January as the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Holiday. The first Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was celebrated January 20, 1986, nearly 18 years after his assassination.
To this day, Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” song is a familiar one embraced by the Black community when celebrating a friend or family member as an alternative to the traditional birthday song. The chorus is a joyful call to kinship.
Stevie Wonder still performs “Happy Birthday” to spread the message of Dr. King.
The lyrics were written 40 years ago, heralding a new America where dancing would be a path to freedom, where music would be a catalyst for inclusion and where people of different colors would play one another’s songs. About this and so many other things, Funkadelic was right. There is indeed a party going on right now on the mothership, and there are no VIP passes. Its all-inclusive.
One Nation Under a Groove- This is a dream that represents the opportunity to educate, awe and inspire the nation. And we are doing just that. To date, the National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM) educated 8,000 youth on the innovative and creative ways in which African Americans expressed themselves through the use of limited resources and memory to create music; connected 1,200 youth with prominent artists to cultivate a better understanding of the cultural and historical significance of African American music; hosted 5,650 adults through social networking programing that engaged them in discussions about America’s music culture; and reached 117,150 audience members through the provision of platforms for emerging artists to showcase their talents. Yet, there is still more we can do!
We need your help, now more than ever, to continue connecting the many voices that form the soundtrack of our American lives. With your support, we can create a museum that will inspire children of all backgrounds to read, write, and dream in unity. Together, we can create One Nation Under a Groove! Please donate today!
$100 will sponsor one artist to learn from professionals who have excelled in their music career during a Fine-Tuning Master class.
$150 will teach middle and high school aged children the art of writing lyrics through the Innovation of Lyrics and Spoken Word program.
$200 will purchase harmonicas for 20 youth to participate in From Nothing to Something program.
$300 will purchase spoons for 150 youth to participate in From Nothing to Something program.
$500 will further the stimulating monthly discussion that Sips & Stanzas provides to adults.
$1200 will provide 80 high school students a day to connect with prominent artists to gain leadership practice and a better understanding of cultural and historical significance of music created and performed by African Americans in Music Legends and Heroes program.
Joseph “Joe” Jackson, the patriarch who launched the musical Jackson family dynasty passed away on June 27, 2018 after a battle with cancer. The story of how the Jackson 5 rose to fame from Gary, Indiana is a well known tale. It’s also a well publicized story of how the entire Jackson family cemented their role in all facets of entertainment, making them music royalty. Over the years Joe Jackson faced his share of the wrath of the media, the same media that preyed on his son Michael Jackson before his death in 2009 and after.
In 2014, I spoke with Joe Jackson for SoulTrain.com, that was also shared on his website, in a rare exclusive interview about how he was working on telling his life story, if he had any regrets about his career, and what’s missing in music. However, there’s no word if the project he mentioned in 2014 was completed.
Here is an excerpt of that interview:
Shameika Rhymes (SR):Mr. Jackson it is an absolute pleasure to be speaking with you. Are you still working on the documentary “A Journey in My Shoes” that you mentioned on the “Piers Morgan Show” in 2013?
Joe Jackson: Thank you. I am, but instead of a documentary it will actually be a book instead called “A Journey in My Shoes” that will be my legacy. It’s about my life story. It’s about how I tried to get my boys out there and how hard I had to work several jobs to sustain my family. It’s about the rejection, the fighting, and the struggles, and the bad press that I’ve received for what I have done. It’s about the things that I had to go through to make my boys the superstars they became all over the world. It even addresses the flack I received about the way that I decided to raise my children.
SR:The music industry has changed so much since the Jackson 5 signed on with Motown. Mr. Jackson, what do you think is missing in music today?
Joe Jackson: It was easier back then, artists wanted it and wanted to be stars and they showed up prepared and they were developed, so they had lasting careers.
There’s a lack of artist development today, artists are just focused on putting out their music and then you never hear from them again. That’s just my thoughts on it.
SR: We spoke with Eddie Ray and he was the first African American executive at Capitol Records that tried to get the Jackson 5 signed onto their label. However, you made the decision to go with Motown instead. Do you think things would have been different had you decided to go with Capitol instead of Motown?
Joe Jackson: I think I made a good choice wouldn’t you say? (laughs)
SR:Absolutely! Mr. Jackson, when you look back on your life, especially your career, do you have any regrets?
Joe Jackson: No regrets at all. I enjoyed what I did and reached the goals that I set. My goal was to help my family make it and I achieved that. People had a lot to say about how it was done, but my family laughed all the way to the bank.
SR: Are you pleased with the way fans have kept your son Michael’s memory alive?
Joe Jackson: Yes, very much so. I appreciate it so much how they have remembered Michael. When I travel all over the world, fans show our family so much love. I just want to say thank you very much to the fans. I really appreciate all that they do for our family.
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.
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.
Crafting iconic music across multiple genres has allowed Grammy award winning singer, songwriter, producer James Mtume to create his own blueprint as his contribution to America’s soundtrack. The name “Mtume” means “messenger” in Swahili, and it fits his persona since he has delivered a powerful message of not being afraid of exploring, growing, and pushing boundaries in his musical career. His discography consists of jazz, R&B, funk, and pop.
While Mtume is the biological son of saxophonist Jimmy Heath, he was raised by his mother Bertha Forman and James “Hen Gates” Forman, a pianist with Charlie Parker’s band. He went on to fill his bucket list of top three talents he wanted to work with, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, and Miles Davis.
The Philadelphia native took what he learned from working with Miles Davis and began creating avant-garde jazz compositions filled with culturally conscious themes. In 1972, the Mtume Umoja Ensemble released Alkebu-Lan – Land of The Blacks, followed by Kawaida, Alkebu-Lan, and Rebirth Cycle.
By the ’80s, Mtume took jazz and transformed it with drum machines and synthesizers. The jazz, funk, and R&B sound created Mtume’s brand of “sophistafunk” that can be heard in songs like “What Ya Gonna Do with My Lovin?” by Stephanie Mills. He also produced and wrote for artists like Phyllis Hyman, Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack, Teddy Pendergrass, R. Kelly, K-Ci and Jo-Jo, and Mary J. Blige. He co-wrote the Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway classic “The Closer I Get to You,” and Stephanie Mills’ hit song “Never Knew Love Like This.”
In the 1980s, he created the band Mtume that included singer, songwriter Reggie Lucas and vocalist Tawatha Agee. In 1983, Mtume released the legendary hit “Juicy Fruit” from the album Juicy Fruit, a song that broke new ground with a man writing risqué lyrics from a woman’s point of view. That song would later provide the template for sampling in hip hop especially after the Notorious B.I.G. sampled the song in 1994. The group had other hits including, “You, Me, and He” and “Give it On Up (If You Want To).” Mtume’s magical pen has scored music for movies and television shows such as “Native Son,” and “New York Undercover.”
Mtume has consistently proven time and time again that he is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to straddling the lanes of music genres. I caught up with the living legend to talk about groundbreaking moments, creating timeless music, and why the face of R&B is changing.
Shameika: What has been the highlight of your career?
James Mtume: It’s hard to say the biggest, that’s like my favorite movie, there’s more than one. One highlight was being able to score the music for the show “New York Undercover.” At that time, I was probably the only black composer for a dramatic series on television. They were hiring black people for comedies, but “New York Undercover” was a groundbreaking show and it reflected us. The challenge for me was to put our music on television in a way that it had never been heard. That was an extremely gratifying emotion for me.
Shameika:It’s still a huge part of our culture even today.
James Mtume: Absolutely. I also had the opportunity to have a special place in the series called Natalie’s. It was a place where I could bring in new artists, redo the tracks, and have them perform a classic. For example, Mary J. Blige performing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” or 112 doing “After the Love is Gone.”
I also had the opportunity to bring in classic artists and have them redo their hits like B.B. King did “The Thrill is Gone,” Ashford & Simpson, Chaka Khan, and more. So, it was very time consuming because I had to put in 17 hours a day between scoring and redoing those songs. None of those tracks were from the record, I had to redo those and that’s where my producing chops were very helpful.
Shameika: Your music has had a huge influence on R&B, Hip Hop, and Jazz over the course of several decades. Why do you think your music is timeless?
James Mtume: I always say I never lied to the music and the music never lied to me. One of the axioms and principles that I try to do music by is always be honest to the idiom that you’re writing in. If I’m writing in jazz, then it’s straight up jazz, if I’m writing funk, it’s straight up funk, if I’m writing pop, then it’s straight up pop. It’s just about honoring the music and also never being afraid to embrace change. You know if you listen to where I started in avant-garde jazz, I did a couple albums of that then that was it. Then I joined Miles [Davis] and that’s where the electronic influence came in. So, to be able to grow and be honest with how you are growing. You always have to embrace change. I always tell people if you don’t change, eventually you’ll be changed by change. I was able to move from acoustic to electronic because it was a natural evolution for me. It was not like I was fighting reality, I tried to embrace it.
Shameika:A lot of artists seem to feel they have to conform to the type of music that’s out now, whether it’s incorporating auto-tune, or completely changing their style to fit what’s hot right now. What are your thoughts on that?
James Mtume: That’s a great point. If you just change because it’s what you think is happening, that’s called adaptation, trying to fit in. If you change because you are fitting into something, that’s metamorphosis. I evolved into those things.
“Juicy Fruit” was considered vulgar. When I took that song to Epic Records they didn’t want to release it. I had to fight to get the song released because they were so afraid of that one line. It’s the line that everybody waits to sing. Now if you compare that one line to what’s out here now, it’s like a nursery rhyme (laughs). You have to write for where your heart is. If you just write to fit in, it never works because it’s just imitation. I don’t believe in imitation, I believe in innovation.
Shameika: Speaking of “Juicy Fruit” you broke ground writing sexual lyrics from a female’s point of view. How different was that switch for you?
James Mtume: No two women can make another human being, and no two men can make another human being. It’s a male and a female sensibility that creates all of us. Now I’m not talking about sexual preference, that’s a different conversation. I’ve always believed that most men have a problem embracing their femininity. You have masculinity and femininity, women have it too. My mother explained it to me. So, writing as a male from a female’s perspective, it’s very easy for me. I just write from that. “You, Me, and He” was another one I wrote where a woman was telling a man about another relationship. There are plenty of songs, especially in R&B where the man is telling the woman about something. The man had to hear it. It wasn’t really a challenge, but it was an interesting perspective to have. So that’s why when you hear “Juicy Fruit,” the lyrics are very imaginative. I think women are much more sensual and they don’t think in stark ways like men do. “Candy Rain, comin’ down, taste you in my mind, and spread you all around,” and “You’re my chocolate star” that’s just where I come from, and I address that part of myself. It has nothing to do with sexual preference, it has to do with sensibility.
Shameika: How did you find your musical voice?
James Mtume: I think it goes back to the way I grew up, and the context that I grew up in. I grew up in a musical family. My biological father is Jimmy Heath, jazz saxophonist and composer of the world-famous Heath Brothers. My uncles are Percy Heath and Tootie Heath. The father that raised me, and I don’t use words like stepfather, but the father that raised me was also a great pianist out of Philadelphia, James “Hen Gate” Forman. I grew up maybe at dinner one night there might be Dizzy Gillespie, or another night it might be Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, or Miles Davis. They would come to Philly and more often than not, they’d be over to the house. So, I grew up listening to these great jazz musicians as a kid. That was in the late 1950s. So, I’m watching the birth of R&B, here’s Motown exploding, and we had Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” so I kind of had both worlds growing up with jazz, funk, and R&B. Of course, there was James Brown, so I’m musically schizophrenic I guess (laughs). I love all of it. I think that also allowed me to be open to growth, knowing there was more than one world. Of course, as I got older I began to listen to European classical music. When people say classical music they automatically mean European, but I say no there’s also African American classical music, our classical music is jazz. I can safely say I grew up with the classics. It was all full circle.
Shameika: You grew up listening to Miles Davis and then went on to work with him. What was the biggest lesson you learned from working with him?
James Mtume: The biggest lesson I learned working with him was once you cross a musical bridge, burn that bridge so you can never go back. That’s been my mantra. Once I feel that I’ve crossed, or accomplished a goal in one dynamic in music, I burn it, I can’t go back. If you don’t have a rearview mirror, you can only go forward. You can’t even see what you just did. People, especially artists get stuck in the quick sand and think they need to do the same thing and do the same music. But if you don’t grow then you are stagnant. If you burn a bridge you can’t repeat yourself. That’s what I learned from Miles. He also said once you begin to hear a new sound in your head, you have to change your band. When you change your music, you have to change your band. Who better to learn that from than a man who changed the direction of all music 3 or 4 times? Miles constantly evolved and succeeded. It also evolved with music.
Shameika: If you can’t go back then what do you think of people that say they miss the music from the earlier decades? Do you miss any music at all?
James Mtume: I always say this, music is the only art form that touches you, but you can’t touch it. What I mean by that is I can touch a book a poetry, a sculpture, or a painting, but I can’t touch a B Flat. You can’t touch sound, and yet sound touches you. That’s what makes music different from every other art form. Where were you the first time you heard a certain song? Was that with your first boyfriend? We have emotional and mental memory banks that takes us back to a period. I understand when people say they miss the music. I don’t miss any music period. I just acknowledge what was good during that period and what wasn’t. There’s only two types of music, good and bad, everything else is personal preference.
The thing that I do miss is the absence of young black bands. If you were to ask me to name you three black bands right now, I couldn’t. You can say The Roots and that’s where you get stuck. I love The Roots, but take them out then who do you have? Why are there no black bands? When I came up there was Earth, Wind, & Fire, Kool and the Gang, Parliament Funkadelic, Ohio Players, and the list goes on and on. You don’t have any black bands now and bands have a different emotional connection with people. That’s a sign, they don’t sign young black R&B singers if we really want to be honest about this. Usher has been around 20 something years, Chris Brown and who else? It drops off. Now videos are being made to replace the original sound of the art form.
They are out there but they’re not black. Justin Timberlake is doing it and he’s not black. It’s becoming more and more true. I say the goal of this business was to control black music without using black people. Some of these young artists are really talented but none of them are black, they won’t sign them. If you think about it, most of the young R&B singers are young white singers and some of them can really sing. What I’m saying is young people coming up don’t have a reference. We created an art form that we’re not even claiming anymore or that has been taken and removed from us. I don’t care what male R&B singer you had, we still had Al Green, I don’t care what young white band you had, we still had Sly Stone. We don’t even have the references anymore. That’s happening to rap music. Whoever controls the image of the music, controls the definition of the music. So, the image of R&B and soul music is not our face.
Shameika: What do you think of many artists just going the independent route since they aren’t being signed?
James Mtume: I think that’s the good part about social media; the technology. You can do your music, press send, and it’s all over the world. It’s like that’s the last refuge, because going the regular route doesn’t exist for us anymore. You are being redefined, and this is the music that you created and you are no longer the face of that. It started happening with the videos. I have a daughter that’s chocolate, that’s my chocolate star, and she was watching a video, she was probably around 6 years old, and she looked at me and said, “I guess I can’t be in the video.” I think she was watching a Prince video or something like that and she realized that there were no dark-skinned girls in it. I think about when we shot the video for “Juicy Fruit”, and we came off the road, shot it in one day. There’s an Asian girl in it and I’m not racist or anything, I didn’t think anything about it, but I looked back at it and thought all the videos are being watered down. I didn’t see the Rolling Stones having to have 80% black women in their videos. Why do we always have to crossover to them and they don’t have to crossover to us? That’s a very important point. They have also destroyed the honesty of our music, it became more about who you look like and how you look. It was crazy, I saw a lot. Rick James and I even talked about it. They watered down the music, you couldn’t even be honest to who your audience was.
Shameika: To your point about video, or at least T.V. shows; over the years there were shows that gave African American artists a platform like “Soul Train” or even “106 & Park,” and none of those exist anymore. What are your thoughts about that?
James Mtume: That’s a good point. Yes, we had those and we had Arsenio Hall. He got taken off the air, and the reason why that’s important for me to bring up 1995 was the first season for “New York Undercover.” In 1994, earlier that year, “The Arsenio Hall Show” was taken off the air. That’s one of the things that made me think about Natalie’s. In the script it was just a place where the cops went to meet and talk. I said you know what, Arsenio is off the air and there’s nowhere for people to see black artists. “Soul Train” was still on the air but that was a staple, but on a regular television series, there was no where to see black artists so that’s why I came up with the idea to bring in young artists and redo a classic and bring in classic artists to redo their hits. We started getting mail saying a lot of people were tuning in just to see who was going to perform at Natalie’s in the next episode. There was no place else for us to be seen.
We’d be foolish to not acknowledge that there’s been a design put in place. There’s not even black music departments anymore. There’s a phrase in one of our songs that says “there would be no R&B if not for me” and that’s what has happened.
Shameika: Your work has also been sampled a lot. Are there any particular songs that stand out to you that you love that sampled your music?
James Mtume: First of all, “Juicy Fruit.” I say we are the grandparents of hip hop sampling. That’s a result of Biggie and Puffy embracing it. I remember when Puffy asked me about wanting to sample “Juicy Fruit.” My only thing was anybody that wants to sample my music has to pay me. Back then a lot of artists were being sampled and not being paid. We cut our deal and that was great.
But to your question, I really loved Keyshia Cole and Missy Elliot’s interpretation on “Let it Go.” I’ve been sampled by Eve, Common, DMX, Nas, there’s so many names. Tamar Braxton, Jay-Z did on his first album Reasonable Doubt. I’ve had a major connection with major hip hop artists and I’m grateful for that because it’s important to feel that your music was able to expand beyond your own generation. I’ve been very fortunate with that. It goes back to being timeless. I always wanted to have the feeling that if you put on my music 30 or 40 years later, it would still have the feeling that it was recorded yesterday. That’s how I feel about a lot of great jazz, like Miles Davis. It taps into purity and it taps into that essence and a high musical standard. We can put on Motown records and when I hear “My Girl” it’s still great. Same with music by Curtis Mayfield, and he’s one of my inspirations. The fact is those are great songs. I put on one of my favorite things, jazz, and think oh my goodness it sounds like these cats recorded it this morning. That’s what you want to strive for; to make music that doesn’t get locked into a time reference.
Shameika: What else are you working on?
James Mtume: I pretty much retired in 1997 after “New York Undercover,” the only thing I did was co-wrote a song for a great singer named Bilal called “Soul Sista.” Right now, I’m working with Tawatha Agee, Mtume’s lead singer. We are back in the studio working on a new project for her. After 8 years of turning them down, I’m finally doing “Unsung.” It will air in June.
Shameika: In Kashif’s last interview with Mass Appeal. He mentioned you were one of his musical heroes. How did you feel about being hailed as a musical hero?
James Mtume: My man! Oh wow! Maybe I can give you a little background. Kashif got with Stephanie Mills and had all the charts from all those records we were doing. I remember him telling me that he would sit there and watch and study the chord changes we were doing. He said “it really opened up a door to me.” Needless to say, Kashif went on to create his own genre and his own set of accomplishments. I’m really flattered. I didn’t know that.
Shameika: Fill in the blank: My music matters because….
James Mtume: My music matters because I am just part of an endless link of black music.
African American History
For more information on James Mtume and other musical legends, visit the NMAAM website.
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?
Valentine’s Day is usually all about couples, but it’s also the perfect time to throw on some love songs. Over the years, some of the classic duets feature powerhouse vocals that are musically compatible and have contributed to America’s soundtrack.
From slow jams to songs that are perfect ways to get your two-step on, we have come up with some of our favorite romantic duets that you can add to your playlist to help celebrate the day of love and romance!
Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway crafted a recipe for love with their hit “The Closer I Get to You.” The single got even more leverage in 2003 when Luther Vandross and Beyonce covered the song.
Powerful Vocals of African American Musicians
The powerful vocal pairing of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell expressed relationship goals through the universal language of music. They had so many hits together, but “My Precious Love” tells a tale of the joy of finding the one.
What could be more romantic than having an “Endless Love?” Lionel Richie joined forces with ‘The Boss’ Diana Ross for the single that was featured on the soundtrack for the movie Endless Love. This song got even more mileage out of it when Luther Vandross & Mariah Carey’s cover blazed up the charts in 1994.
Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s 1967 hit “If This World Were Mine” inspired Cheryl Lynn and Luther Vandross to cover the song for Cheryl Lynn’s album Instant Love in 1982.
“Baby Come to Me” by Patti Austin and James Ingram has been hailed as one of the biggest baby making jams.
Celebrating Love with Soul
You can’t have a duet list without mentioning the ones that were truly relationship goals; songwriting partners and real life spouses Ashford & Simpson. Their single “Solid” is an uptempo love song that is truly timeless.
Bobby Womack and Patti LaBelle’s “Love Has Finally Come at Last” makes you want to find a lasting love and never let go!
Alexander O’Neal and Cherrelle took a page out of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s book when they performed together making listeners believe there was a love behind the scenes. The duo paired up for this love song “Never Knew Love Like This” for Alexander’s album Heresay.
King of Pop Michael Jackson could reign on his own but add in the vocals of Siedah Garrett and you have a song we just can’t stop loving! This 1987 hit “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” appeared on Jackson’s Bad album.
Hip hop meets R&B in this inspired Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell hit, “I’ll Be There For You / You’re All I Need To Get By” by Method Man and Mary J. Blige. The award winning single is easily one of hip hop’s greatest love songs.
Avant and KeKe Wyatt teamed up for several duets throughout the years, but their magic on the soulful “You & I” makes you just love the idea of being in love.
Eric Benet and Tamia made beautiful music with “Spend My Life with You.”
National Museum of African American Music Nashville
Of course the list of duets that have contributed to America’s soundtrack is a lengthy one and we couldn’t include them all. Head over to social media and let us know what your favorite duets are!
Through the use of galleries, artifacts, and interactive technology NMAAM has curated exhibitions that preserve and celebrate the legacy African Americans have had on America’s music.
You can’t mention the Temptations without thinking of their former lead singer with the distinctive growl and soulful vocal style of Dennis Edwards. The music world is still reeling from the news that the man that led the Temptations to their first Grammy award passed away February 1 from reported complications from meningitis, one day before he would have turned 75. If you were lucky enough to meet Dennis Edwards, you would be greeted with a big heartwarming smile and a twinkle in his eye. His larger than life personality and gospel infused powerful vocals were the perfect vehicle to drive the Temptations music through the late 1960s through the 1970s, putting his distinctive mark on America’s soundtrack.
Dennis Edwards was born in Alabama and later moved to Detroit. He joined the early Motown group, the Contours in the 1960s, best known for their 1962 hit “Do You Love Me” that was recorded before Edwards joined the group.
The Contours opened for the Temptations, and when lead singer David Ruffin left the group in 1968, Edwards joined the Temptations as their new front man.
Mr. Edwards joined the Temptations just as they were about to take on a new direction under the guidance of producing and songwriting legend Norman Whitfield, who was developing a sound influenced by the psychedelic stylings of Sly & the Family Stone; taking a departure from their signature songs like “I Wish It Would Rain,” and “My Girl.” Temptations members Eddie Kendricks, Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin, and Paul Williams all sang lead at one point or another but it was his gritty soul that cemented the group’s sound on songs like “I Can’t Get Next to You”, “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today),” “Cloud Nine,” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.”
Shortly after Mr. Edwards joined the group and recorded “Cloud Nine,” it won the group and Motown’s first Grammy in 1968. In 1972, they won another Grammy for “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.”
Dennis Edwards left the Temptations in 1977 to pursue his solo career but rejoined the group years later. During his solo career, he released the hit, “Don’t Look Any Further” featuring Siedah Garrett in 1984.
The song’s beat has been heavily sampled over the years, including in Eric B. & Rakim’s “Paid in Full,” Tupac Shakur’s “Hit Em Up,” and Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s “Get Money” with the Notorious B.I.G.
Siedah Garrett released a statement to the National Museum of African American Music about how working with Mr. Edwards helped her career:
“In the early 80s, I primarily was an unknown demo singer for L.A. based songwriters and producers and I recorded the song demo of “Don’t Look Any Further” for Dennis Lambert & Franne Golde. Motown accepted the song for their artist, Temptations ex member Dennis Edwards’ solo album. They wanted it to be a duet with Chaka Khan, but as fate would have it, Chaka was unavailable, and the company and Dennis agreed to use my demo vocal for the record. Once the single became a hit, Dennis asked me to do a club tour with him, and that was a fantastic experience for me. I feel his loss, and will be forever grateful to Dennis for giving me my first shot. I extend my condolences, prayers, and gratitude to his family for blessing us with his very special talent.”
Edwards released other solo hits in the mid-80s like “(You’re My) Aphrodisiac” and “Coolin’ Out.” His last album with original material was Talk to Me in 1993, followed by The Temptations Greatest Hits Live in 1995.
In the late 80s, he teamed up with David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks for a “Tribute to the Temptations” tour.
In the 1990s, he toured with a group called Dennis Edwards and the Temptations which led to a legal battle with Otis Williams over the use of the Temptations name. He settled by touring up until 2017 as the Temptations Review featuring Dennis Edwards.
Living legend and founder of the Temptations, Otis Williams released a statement on social media last week:
“We learned today with great sadness of the passing of our brother, Dennis Edwards. He is now at peace, and our love and prayers go out to his family. At this moment and always, we acknowledge his extraordinary contribution to The Temptations legacy, which lives on in the music. Temptations, forever.”
National Museum of African American Music
Dennis Edwards will be missed but his contributions to America’s soundtrack lives on forever. You can help celebrate his legacy and others just like him by visiting our website. NMAAM works hard to preserve the impact Edwards and his fellow contemporaries have made on America’s music.
Turn on the television in 2018 and you are guaranteed to hear a commercial using Jackie Wilson’s 1967 hit “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.” That is proof that Jackie Wilson played an integral part in crafting America’s soundtrack.
Jackie Wilson was at the height of his career in the 1950s through the 1960s during a time devoid of social media and the internet. It was a time where music reflected the racial injustices when fans couldn’t wait to see their favorite performers on shows like American Bandstand,The Ed Sullivan Show and Shindig!. It was a time when the Apollo Theater and the Copacabana was the place for artists to signal their arrival in the world of celebrity.
The Voice of Jackie Wilson
Jackie Wilson possessed a voice that had the vocal gymnastics to hit the mat, spring forward and catapult into the falsetto range and tumble across multiple octaves. He was an operatic tenor that harbored a glass shattering falsetto, used gospel drenched phrasing, and he had the ability to juggle several of the octaves in his range in the space of one syllable.
If you’ve never been privy to see Wilson perform in person or in rare footage, then allow me to paint the picture for you. Jackie Wilson’s stage presence was like no other and very easy to see how he received the moniker “Mr. Excitement.” Wilson’s show embodied electrifying dance movements that required jumping, twisting, and often times he relied on his boxing training to provide his fancy footwork on the stage. Wilson would glide across the stage only to take a dip down to his knees and spring up from the floor like his legs were made of jelly never missing a note. He would loosen his tie and take off his jacket without missing a beat. Just when you think things are about to cool off, he would be on his back close to the edge of the stage, crooning, as the ladies screamed and ripped his clothes off, clamoring for a chance to be closer to Mr. Excitement.
Becoming a Chart Topper
Jackie Wilson got his start singing in Detroit clubs after a successful short career as a Golden Gloves boxer. Wilson was a teenager when he replaced Clyde McPhatter (who went on to form the Drifters); singing lead for Billy Ward & the Dominoes before branching off into a solo career of his own. He was later signed to the Brunswick Records label. Wilson soon had his breakthrough with the help of Berry Gordy Jr. and Roquel Billy Davis. The duo penned hits like “Reet Petite (The Finest Girl You Ever Want to Meet)”, and “Lonely Teardrops” allowing Wilson to top the R&B charts and break the top 10 on the pop charts.
Jackie’s first Gold record was the co-authored Berry Gordy Jr. penned single, “To Be Loved” in 1958. More R&B chart-toppers followed in quick succession: “You Better Know It,” “Doggin’ Around,” and “A Woman, a Lover, a Friend.”
Throughout the years, he continued to transcend genre lines by crossing over from R&B to the pop charts with hits like “Night, ”Baby Workout” “Danny Boy”, and “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” to name a few.
Wilson had about two dozen chart topping hits from 1958 to 1968. In all, Wilson had 47 R&B hits, 24 of those crossed over to the Pop Top 40 chart. He released over 25 albums over the span of his career.
Celebrating a Musical Legend
On September 29, 1975 Jackie Wilson suffered a heart attack in the middle of a performance of “Lonely Teardrops” during a show in New Jersey. He went into a coma and never recovered. He remained incapacitated for the next 8 years of his life, unable to speak, dance, or sing again. Wilson passed away January 21, 1984 at the age of 49. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
It’s been 34 years since his death, but Jackie Wilson’s influence can be heard in many artists from the past to the present. Both Elvis Pressley and Michael Jackson have praised and credited Jackie Wilson for influencing their stage performances. During the Grammy Awards in 1984, Michael Jackson gave a tribute to Jackie Wilson during one of his many acceptance speeches that night, he said, “Some people are entertainers and some people are great entertainers. Some people are followers and some people make the path and are pioneers. I’d like to say that Jackie Wilson was a wonderful entertainer.”
Jackie Wilson is a musical legend that should be remembered for his contributions to music history. As for me, “I Get the Sweetest Feeling” when I hear Jackie Wilson’s music. “You Better Know It” that Jackie Wilson’s music and legacy lives on.
The music world is mourning the loss of ‘Queen of the Blues’ singer and songwriter Denise LaSalle. LaSalle passed away January 8. Media outlets report LaSalle suffered from health issues in recent months that resulted in the amputation of her right leg after she suffered a fall. She was honored with the “Queen of the Blues” title following the death of the previous “Queen of the Blues” Koko Taylor in 2009.
Combining Blues and Soul
LaSalle’s musical contributions have helped to shape America’s soundtrack. She combined the blues with a soulful touch that allowed music lovers to appreciate the fusion of the two sounds. Her on-stage performances often took on a risqué tone with her language and jokes.
LaSalle was born Ora Denise Allen in Mississippi on July 16, 1939. According to reports, she took LaSalle as her stage name after she moved to Chicago in her teens and started singing. Her debut solo single, 1967’s “A Love Reputation,” laid the groundwork for what would soon become her signature LaSalle sound.
LaSalle then started working with legendary Memphis producer Willie Mitchell. Their union helped to make her a household name with songs like “Hung Up, Strung Out” in 1970, and her signature tune “Trapped by a Thing Called Love” in 1971. “Trapped by a Thing Called Love,” which she also wrote, hit the top of Billboard’s R&B chart.
LaSalle is also well known for the ’70s song, “Now Run and Tell That.”
Making Her Mark on America’s Music Culture
Mississippi’s Malaco label became her home where she officially became known as a blues singer. She credits the genre change for breathing life into her career in an interview with Blues Blast. “It gave my career a new start, because I was kind of lost in the shuffle as an R&B singer,” says Denise. “When I got the opportunity to become a blues singer in 1982, I accepted it. There was no real competition, except the real Queen of the Blues, Koko Taylor, (and) except for Etta James. These were the only ladies out there that was really doing anything, cutting records and getting airplay. It was kind of the place to be.”
LaSalle penned other songs like “Your Husband is Cheating on Us,” “I Wanna Do What’s on Your Mind” and “It’s Lying Time Again,” a cover of Rockin’ Sidney’s “My Toot Toot,” that she called “My Tu Tu,” and “Love Me Right.”
In the ’90s, LaSalle turned her focus to gospel music; and in 1999 released the album God’s Got My Back. She crossed back over to secular music for her 2002 album Still the Queen and she continued on that path through her 2010 album 24 Hour Woman.
“Denise LaSalle shaped American music,” H. Beecher Hicks III, president and CEO of the National Museum of African American Music, said in a statement. “Her personality, her music and the role she played in shaping her genre truly made her the Queen of Blues. We were proud to honor her with NMAAM’s inaugural Rhapsody & Rhythm award in 2014, and to have truly experienced the reach of her craft and her impact on Jefferson Street when we jammed with her during the Jefferson Street Jazz and Blues Festival that year. Her legacy is a vivid illustration of the many ways R&B, blues and soul have blended to create America’s soundtrack.”
In an interview with the Jackson Sun in March 2017, LaSalle announced plans to open a Denise LaSalle Blues Academy of Performing Arts to teach the youth about the Blues. She was also on track to release her third gospel album The Gospel Truth.