Bringing the Beatles Back Home

Everybody knows (or ought to) that the Beatles drew heavily on black American music as source material for what became their signature sound. Particularly Smokey Robinson, Chuck Berry, the Isley Brothers, and—perhaps most importantly—“girl groups” like The Chantels, The Supremes, and The Shirelles provided a blueprint for harmony and arrangement.

The relationship between the British Invasion and American blues, soul, and R&B exposes the racially charged genre system of American popular music. White artists were able to sell reinterpretations of black music to white audiences—an old pattern, as old as any American music. Yet the Beatles were more than a blue-eyed-soul act, as illustrated by the fact that many black artists eventually reclaimed a piece of the Lennon-McCartney catalogue. Pat Boone certainly never had that sort of cross-over appeal.

Wilson and Duane

Although singers often used Beatles tunes to capitalize on their popularity, some chose the songs for their musicality and lyricism. I would argue that Wilson Pickett’s transcendent revision of “Hey Jude” with Duane Allman playing guitar at Muscle Shoals studio is one such case. Perhaps another—though it may offend purists—is Aretha Franklin’s fully amped rendition of “Eleanor Rigby,” especially performed live.

In addition to “Eleanor Rigby,” Franklin’s Live at Fillmore West includes covers of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Bread’s “Make it With You,” and Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With.” These choices amount to a deliberate gesture bridging racial and generic boundaries—musically integrating the usual Fillmore crowd, which Craig Werner describes as “accustomed to hallucinatory light shows and the psychedelic blues of the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane.” According to Werner, the “love crowd” found themselves “side by side with Black Power radicals” during the recording of Franklin’s album in March, 1971.

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It doesn’t hurt that she has one of the greatest R&B lineups ever assembled backing her: Bernard Purdie (drums), Cornell Dupree (guitar), Jerry Jemmott (bass), Billy Preston (organ), and King Curtis and the Memphis Horns transform the material and, therefore, the audience. Preston had already earned the unofficial title “the fifth Beatle” or, alternatively, “the black Beatle” for his important contributions to Abbey Road and Let it Be. His playing in both groups illustrates the pedaltone of black innovation underlying pop forms.

In the early-80s Eddie Murphy cracked wise about this cycle of appropriation and re-appropriation. In a Saturday Night Live sketch, his character, Clarence, claims the Beatles stole everything they knew from him. Murphy’s own ill-advised singing career even includes the Beatles’ “Good Day Sunshine” (disclaimer: click at your own risk).

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Other highlights of the playlist include the stripped-down gospel feel Bill Withers brings to “Let it Be” and Esther Phillips’ aching version of “And I Love Him.” These two songs, along with “Eleanor Rigby,” reappear most across the many soul, jazz, and R&B versions of Beatles songs. Stevie Wonder also brings a dose of psychedelic soul and a potent political subtext to “We Can Work it Out.” He urges: “life is very short and there’s no time / for fussing and fighting my friends / I have always thought that it’s a crime / so I will ask you once again / try to see things my way.”

I end the set with a music nerd’s tribute to Abbey Road, featuring covers of nearly all the songs on the album played mostly in order. George Benson and Booker T. & the M.G.’s each recorded full-length tributes to the iconic concept album, helping here with some of the transitions and medleys that give the album its epic contour.

Instrumental Voices Radio 1.29.15–Brining the Beatles Back Home

Sonia Sanchez–SOS

To mark the release of the recently published anthology of Black Arts writing, SOS–Calling All Black People: A Black Arts Movement Reader, Amherst Books hosted a launch party. Gathered students, educators, activists, and poetry lovers were treated to a reading, a glass of wine, perhaps, and good company. The title of the anthology invokes Amiri Baraka’s sounding the signal: “calling all black people, come in, black people, come / on in”. A few years later Gil Scott-Heron broke down the Morse code into the “re-Morse code” with his poem, “The Ghetto Code.”

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Cover art by Nelson Stevens, Spirit Sister 1972

Sanchez reissued Baraka’s call to action and spoke directly about the lessons we can learn from the Black Arts Movement with respect to today’s rallying cries against institutionalized injustice and violence. Baraka’s SOS, Sanchez noted, might equally stand for “save our selves” or “save our sons.” She told an anecdote about the ways in which integrity and justice were practiced at home, using her Herstory to illustrate the reciprocal relationship between empathy, coalition building, and collective action.

Sanchez’s description of a student’s coming to consciousness as a result of her encounter with this volume suggests the continued relevance and evolutionary vision of experimental and politically-committed black poetry. More than that, it points to the popular appeal of the Black Arts Movement.

The poems are organized around essential tropes: consciousness, Malcolm X, Coltrane and jazz, Africa, women, and heritage. Song lyrics by James Brown, Oscar Brown, Jr., Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Weldon Irvine, and Whitfield & Strong are included, as are texts of recordings by the Last Poets and Scott-Heron. The language of Black Power was shared widely among artists, musicians, and writers, and emerging multimedia forms amplified the possibilities for artistic collaboration and collective improvisation.

At the book launch, editors James Smethurst and John H. Bracey Jr. gave incisive talks before Sanchez read from her work and took questions. When the first question asked was about “a/coltrane/poem,” Sanchez told the story of her first reading of the work in front of an audience. She elaborated on her conceptual approach to performance, sound, and improvisation in her poetry and explained how she was influenced by John Coltrane, who reoriented listeners to sound because he seemed to open a space inside the music.

For the Millions

Abiodun21As a research assistant for Dr. Bernard W. Bell at Penn State, I heard my share of stories. I listened especially closely when he reminisced about the Black Student Movement during the late 60s and early 70s. While working with Dr. Bell, he published a provocative account of founding Black Studies at UMass, emphasizing his role in the institutional history. Many of the events chronicled in the essay, “Passing on the Radical Legacy of Black Studies at the University of Massachusetts: The W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies, 1968-71,” took place at the New Africa House.

Although I know Dr. Bell’s version isn’t the only one, I carried these memories with me to Amherst when I went to see Abiodun Oyewole speak and perform poetry with a rhythm section at the New Africa House. Oyewole co-founded The Last Poets in 1969, becoming a leader in the populist movement to unite poetic and musical forms using revolutionary, postcolonial, and Afrocentric practices that reflect the political realities and aesthetic sensibilities of black people. The exigence for this radical experiment with multimedia remains the same as it was during the Black Arts era, and Oyewole hasn’t lost his fire.

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The name, The Last Poets, comes from the South African writer Keorapetse Kgositsile; it became something of a franchise–picked up by different groups of poets around the same time. Felipe Luciano, Gylan Kain, and David Nelson founded a group that came to be called The Original Last Poets, who recorded the film Right On!: Poetry on Film in 1968 and released the soundtrack as an album. A year later, Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, Umar Bin Hassan, and Abiodun Oyewole formed the more well-known line-up.

The Last Poets’ self-titled album took its cue from Amiri Baraka’s early experiments with recording poetry accompanied by improvised music. Such albums transformed audio into a politicized medium that affirmed black consciousness and resisted constraints on black literacy. The Last Poets helped inspire mass participation in the Black Arts Movement, including by a young Gil Scott-Heron, then a student at Lincoln University, whose early recordings owe much to the The Last Poets’ synthesis of African percussion, collective chant, and revolutionary politics. Both The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron are featured in the new Black Arts Movement reader, SOS–Calling All Black People, edited by UMass professors John H. Bracy, Jr. and James Smethurst and the poet Sonia Sanchez.

At the New Africa House, Abiodun Oyewole was supported by Tony Vacca and Kevin Harrington (percussion), Donald Geesling (bass), Tantra Zawadi (poetry/vocals), and Massamba Diop (talking drum). I recorded a poem called “For the Millions,” which is included in his new volume of collected poems, Branches of the Tree of Life, published this year by 2Leaf Press.