It was the Byrds album everyone hated in 1968. Now, ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ is a classic.

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In June, with so little fanfare they weren’t even listed on the bill, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman took the stage at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium to play a song from “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.”

They last did that on March 16, 1968, and it did not go well. They were the Byrds then, and the appearance at the Grand Ole Opry elicited boos, catcalls or indifference, depending on who’s telling the story. This time, backed by Marty Stuart and his band, the Fabulous Superlatives, the crowd cheered as McGuinn and Hillman kicked into “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” the Bob Dylan song that opens “Sweetheart.”

“I cried,” says Tyler Mahan Coe, a country music historian who hosts the popular “Cocaine & Rhinestones” podcast. “I never even imagined that it would hit me as hard as it did.”

It’s fitting that Coe was born 16 years after “Sweetheart’s” original release. Back then, the album stiffed, sparking the end of one of pop’s great partnerships. But over time, that sixth Byrds record has climbed from cutout bins onto most-important-ever lists. And now, at 50, “Sweetheart” is recognized for inspiring musicians from the Eagles and Elvis Costello to next- generation alt-country players such as Ryan Adams and Wilco.

“Every generation has this new take on roots and back to basics,” declares Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers. “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” is one of those great milestones or benchmarks.”

LOS ANGELES, CA – JULY 24: Byrds founders Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn perform with Marty Stuart at the Sweetheart of the Rodeo 50th Anniversary at The Theatre at Ace Hotel in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Rozette Rago for The Washington Post)


This year, Byrds founder McGuinn, 76, who regularly turns down millions to reunite the Byrds, recruited Hillman, 73, to celebrate the album with a short tour. They started in California last month and will continue in September with gigs in, among other spots, New York, Boston and Virginia.

It’s not a Byrds reunion, particularly with the third living founding member, David Crosby, not involved. But the set list isn’t limited to “Sweetheart.” McGuinn and Hillman explain how they got to Nashville by digging deeply into the Byrds catalogue, with hits such as “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” melding with lesser-known tracks that show how country music influenced them.

“Sweetheart” wasn’t just country-tinged. It was driven by banjos, fiddles and pedal steel guitar. It also launched Gram Parsons, who would quit the Byrds after a single record to embark on his short, influential career.

From L.A. to Nashville

They were called the Jet Set when CBS signed them in November 1964, but quickly switched to the Byrds. By April 1965, they released what became their first No. 1 hit, an electrified take on Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

The Byrds were defined by McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker 360, with its thick, jangly melody lines, as well as the gorgeous harmonies of McGuinn, Gene Clark and David Crosby. Hillman, a Los Angeles native with a passion for bluegrass, had joined to play bass. In early 1967, the Byrds released his collaboration with McGuinn, “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.” The Byrds would have three more Top-40 hits over the next year before tensions led to Clark and Crosby’s exits. “The Notorious Byrd Brothers,” an innovative, psychedelic pop record released in early 1968, was largely created by McGuinn, Hillman and session players.

Then, while standing in line at a bank in Beverly Hills, Hillman ran into a sandy-haired kid from Georgia who said he could play piano. Hillman brought him to McGuinn. Parsons was just 21.

“I asked Gram if he could play some McCoy Tyner type of piano,” McGuinn says. “Because I was into John Coltrane and the “Eight Miles High” kind of place. And he played some Floyd Cramer-style piano. Floyd played on Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel.” That was a song that got me interested in music. I thought, ‘Wow, this guy’s got talent.’ But I didn’t know he would turn into George Jones in a sequin suit.”


Aretha Franklin, The ‘Queen Of Soul,’ Dies At 76 ~ Big Loss

Aretha Franklin, pictured in 1968, died Thursday. Known as the "Queen of Soul," she recorded 17 Top 10 singles.

Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul,” died Thursday in her home city of Detroit after battling pancreatic cancer. Her death was confirmed by her publicist, Gwendolyn Quinn. She was 76.

Franklin sold more than 75 million records during her life, making her one of the best-selling artists of all time. She took soul to a new level and inspired generations of singers who came after her.

No one’s life can be condensed to one word — but Aretha Franklin came close when she sang one word: “respect.”

“Respect” was written by the great Otis Redding. In his version, a man is pleading, offering his woman anything she wants in exchange for her respect. He sang: “Hey little girl, you’re sweeter than honey / And I’m about to give you all of my money / But all I want you to do / Is just give it, give it / Respect when I come home …”

Aretha changed those lyrics to demand parity. “Oooh, your kisses,” she sang, “Sweeter than honey / And guess what? / So is my money …” In her hands, “Respect” became an empowering song — for black women and for all women. It was a No. 1 hit in 1967, and it became her signature song.

Franklin was 25 years old when “Respect” was released. But she had been singing since she was a small child in her father’s New Bethel Baptist Church.

“Someone found a footstool in the office and put it here on the stage, and they put it there for me to be seen because I was so small,” Franklin told NPR’s Morning Editionin 2004.

Aretha Franklin was born March 25, 1942, in Memphis, Tenn. — but she was raised mostly in Detroit. Her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, was a famous preacher, and her childhood was steeped in both music and the burgeoning civil rights movement. Her family was close friends with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who often stayed at their home. Some of the most important gospel artists of the day came to visit regularly as well, including Clara Ward and the Famous Ward Singers, Mahalia Jackson and Sam Cooke.

It was Franklin’s father who introduced her to the recording industry. Nicknamed “the man with the million-dollar voice,” C.L. Franklin was among the first Christian ministers to record his sermons (making dozens for the JVB and Chess labels) and to do radio broadcasts of his Sunday addresses; his 1953 sermon “The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest” is part of the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.

Franklin told PBS’s American Masters in 1988 that when she was a child, her father would coach her. “He would give me different records to listen to, to see if I could emulate them on the piano, different vocalists to listen to.” These were gospel artists like Ward and Jackson. But the young Aretha listened to popular music, too. And as she toured with her father she met R&B artists like Fats Domino and Bobby Bland.

There was also her Detroit neighborhood: It was filled with future Motown stars like Diana Ross, the Four Tops and Smokey Robinson, who grew up right around the corner from her.

Franklin made her first album for JVB when she was just 14 years old. It was a collection of gospel songs that included “Precious Lord (Take My Hand).”

Four years later, she confided to her father that she longed to cross over from gospel to secular music. So C.L. Franklin helped her make a demo that led to a contract with Columbia Records, initially working with the legendary producer John Hammond. Decades later, Hammond told NPR that when he first heard her, his response was, “‘This is the best thing I’ve heard since Billie Holiday. Who is she?”

In 1961, the bluesy “Won’t Be Long,” from her first Columbia album, Aretha: With The Ray Bryant Combo, became Franklin’s first song to reach the Billboard Hot 100.

After making seven records for Columbia over a six-year span, she signed with Atlantic Records — and that’s where she became the “Queen of Soul.”

At first, Atlantic wanted her to record at the Stax studios in Memphis, but Stax did not want to pay for the sessions. Instead, Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler took Franklin to the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama.

The Wexler/Franklin pairing proved magical. Franklin brought her own material to the label, and Wexler encouraged her to play piano in her recording sessions. And from 1967 to the mid-’70s, Franklin released a string of classics. The first was “I Never Loved A Man” — with her sisters as backup singers — followed by “Do Right Woman — Do Right Man,” “Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” “Think,” “Rock Steady” and “Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do).”

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Aretha Franklin: The ‘Fresh Air’ Interview


Aretha Franklin, music’s ‘Queen of Soul,’ dies at 76

Screen Shot 2018-08-16 at 1.22.18 PM.pngOne of the most celebrated and influential singers in the history of American vernacular song, Aretha Franklin reserved her place on music’s Mount Rushmore in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Her career spanned decades and was defined by such records as “Respect” and “Chain of Fools.”

Aretha Franklin, whose exceptionally expressive singing about joy and pain and faith and liberation earned the Detroit diva a permanent and undisputed title — the “Queen of Soul” — died Aug. 16 at her home in Detroit. She was 76.

Her representative Gwendolyn Quinn announced the death and said the cause was pancreatic cancer.

One of the most celebrated and influential singers in the history of American vernacular song, Ms. Franklin reserved her place on music’s Mount Rushmore in the late 1960s and early 1970s by exploring the secular sweet spot between sultry rhythm-and-blues and the explosive gospel music she’d grown up singing in her father’s Baptist church.

The result was potent and wildly popular, with defining soul anthems that turned Ms. Franklin into a symbol of black pride and women’s liberation.

Her calling card: “Respect,” the Otis Redding hit that became a crossover smash in 1967 after Ms. Franklin tweaked it just so (a “sock it to me” here, some sisterly vocal support there), transforming the tune into a fervent feminist anthem.

“Whenever women heard the record, it was like a tidal wave of sororal unity,” the song’s producer, Jerry Wexler, said two decades after Ms. Franklin first declared, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me.”

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Aretha Franklin, Queen of Soul, Dead at 76

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It was a small moment that would reverberate for decades. On January 24th, 1967, Aretha Franklinwas struggling to record “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” her first project for Atlantic after several years recording more conventional material for Columbia. As Franklin would recall, something with the studio musicians wasn’t clicking until someone said, “Aretha, why don’t you sit down and play?” Taking a seat at the piano, Franklin quickly cut the smoldering track that would become her first No. 1 R&B hit. “It just happened,” she said. “We arrived, and we arrived very quickly.”

And it never stopped. For more than five decades, Franklin was a singular presence in pop music, a symbol of strength, women’s liberation and the civil rights movement. Franklin, one of the greatest singers of all time, died Thursday of pancreatic cancer, according to her publicist, Gwendolyn Quinn.

“It is with deep and profound sadness that we announce the passing of Aretha Louise Franklin, the Queen of Soul,” Quinn said in a statement. “Franklin … passed away on Thursday morning, August 16 at 9:50 a.m. at her home in Detroit, MI, surrounded by family and loved ones. In one of the darkest moments of our lives, we are not able to find the appropriate words to express the pain in our heart. We have lost the matriarch and rock of our family. The love she had for her children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and cousins knew no bounds.

“We have been deeply touched by the incredible outpouring of love and support we have received from close friends, supporters and fans all around the world,” Quinn added. “Thank you for your compassion and prayers. We have felt your love for Aretha and it brings us comfort to know that her legacy will live on. As we grieve, we ask that you respect our privacy during this difficult time.”

“Aretha Franklin was one of the most iconic voices in music history and a brilliant artist,” Franklin’s record label Sony Music said in a statement. “Over the course of her decades-long career, which included many years with the Sony Music family, she inspired countless musicians and fans, and created a legacy that paved the way for a long line of strong female artists.”

Dubbed the Queen of Soul in 1967, Franklin loomed over culture in several monumental ways. The daughter of a preacher man, she was born with one of pop’s most commanding and singular voices, one that could move from a sly, seductive purr to a commanding gospel roar. From early hits like “I Never Loved a Man” and “Think” up through later touchstones like “Sisters Are Doin’ it for Themselves” with Eurythmics, there was no mistaking Franklin’s colossal pipes. As one of her leading producers, Jerry Wexler, said of her simmering gospel-pop classic, “Spirit in the Dark,” “It was one of those perfect R&B blends of the sacred and the secular … It’s Aretha conducting church right in the middle of a smoky nightclub. It’s everything to everyone.”

Her journey — from singing in her father’s church and tackling tasteful pop at the dawn of her career before becoming the voice of the civil rights movement — also embodied the African American experience of the 1960s. Her brawny, funked-up makeover of Otis Redding’s “Respect,” based on what Wexler called her own “stop-and-stutter syncopation” idea, was more than just a Number One pop hit in 1967. “She had no idea it would become a rallying cry for African Americans and women and anyone else who felt marginalized because of what they looked like, who they loved,” Barack Obama said in 2014. “They wanted some respect.” At 16, she went on tour with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and later sang at his funeral.

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50 years ago, Elvis had fallen from grace. But one comeback TV special changed everything.

Elvis Presley performs on the NBC soundstage during the 1968 comeback special. (Fathom Events)

It was 1968, and the King was all but dead.

The Summer of Love came and went, leaving the man once seated on the throne of rock-and-roll nothing but a drug-addled relic of a time past. Instead of dancing and necking and maybe even performing for the hippies in Haight-Ashbury, Elvis Presley had spent an endless seven years in Southern California, forsaking his music career for one on the silver screen. Hollywood, though, had not been kind to Presley.

During this stretch, Elvis pumped out movie after movie at an astonishing rate of three to four per year. But fans didn’t want a leading man. They wanted that smooth baritone, those gyrating hips, the coifed hair.

Unlike LL Cool J, Elvis needed a musical comeback. He got that in 1968 in the form of a 60-minute television special that revived his career and changed concert films forever.

That special, now 50 years old, will return to some 500 U.S. movie theaters for a special engagement Thursday and Monday, a celebration of one of rock’s monumental moments — one that almost didn’t happen.

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Elvis Presley fields questions at a news conference before heading off to Germany with the Army.

The rocker’s fortunes had begun changing in 1957 when he was drafted into the U.S. Army. The period would prove to be a dark one, during which the life of his mother ended and his drug addiction began.

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Live in San Francisco (Ry Cooder and Corridos Famosos album)

I don’t like most “live” albums but Cooder and Corridos Famosos make this an exception..



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Live in San Francisco is a collaborative live album by Ry Cooder and Corridos Famosos released in September 2013 by Nonesuch Records and Perro Verde.[1][2] The album was recorded in 2011 at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, California.[2] Cooder produced Live in San Francisco and recorded with members of Corridos Famosos, which included vocalists Juliette Commagere, Terry Evans, and Arnold McCuller, Joachim Cooder on drums, Robert Francis on bass, Flaco Jiménez on accordion, and the ten-piece Mexican brass band La Banda Juvenil.[2]
It was Cooder’s first live album since Show Time (1977), which Cooder also recorded at the Great American Music Hall with Jiménez and Evans.
This is Ry doing what he does best. Mixing in music that you wouldn’t normally put on the same album. To me, he is the Patron Saint of Un-Lettered Ethnomusicologists. Look at the genres of music and the variety of musicians he has played with over the past 40 years. A small sample: Buena Vista to V.M. Bhatt, Ronstadt to Rolling Stones, Farka Toure to Taj Mahal and on and on. So, here is a live album with back catalog classics, new songs, r and b, blues, Nortena, folk trad, and Banda. Be honest boys and girls…have you heard or know what Banda music is? I am lucky to call Ry my friend. A few years ago, he invited me to East L.A. to hear Banda music. I thought the motels in that part of town were damn reasonable at signboard prices of $15-$25. Till I realized that they were “per hour” rates. Yes, in that part of town. The club we went to had La Banda Juvenil in the marquee. They consisted of 3 trumpets, 2 bones, 2 saxes, a marching bass drum, a marching snare, a tuba and two singers. And, they were miked in a club that held maybe 150 people. Blown away was an understatement. At the break, the leader introduced and thanked Ry for coming out. I could feel the wheels spinning. And here they are tonite along with Flaco Jimenez (2013 NEA award winner). Along with the fab soulful vocals of Terry Evans and Arnold McCuller. And what about Juliette Commagere? She kills it on Volver Volver. (Trivia: Joachim Cooder’s bandmate from their high school days) Joachim is no gimmick either. The treble clef didn’t fall far off the music stand did it? And trusty Robert Francis smokin bass line keeps everyone’s heads bobbing. This is a live album. You get Ry yakking story after story between the cuts. Pulls it all together. Now go play this friggin’ loud on your best system, arm around your baby, cold beer or smoke nearby. And suddenly, all is well in the world.

Prayers for The Queen of Soul. The Great Aretha Franklin Gravely Ill. ~Daily Kos


Aretha Franklin in 1970

The truly one of a kind Aretha Franklin, whose soaring voice inspired generations of musicians, vocalists, soul aficionados and just regular folk like me, is gravely ill at her home in Detroit.

Truly unique in a genre, R&B and Soul, bursting with talent, Aretha’s singular and powerful vocals swept over and helped to define a nation experiencing transformation, upheaval and profound change like a bluesy siren’s clarion call.

There will never be another.

‘Seriously Ill’ Aretha Franklin Visited by Luminaries, While Others Pay Tribute

Aretha Franklin performing at an event for the Elton John AIDS Foundation in Manhattan in 2017. She is ailing and “surrounded by family members” at home, a spokeswoman for her family said.CreditDimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

An ailing Aretha Franklin was visited on Tuesday at her home in Detroit by Stevie Wonder and her ex-husband Glynn Turman, as tributes to the Queen of Soul poured in from around the world.

A spokeswoman for the Franklin family confirmed the visits and said in a statement that Ms. Franklin, 76, is “seriously ill and surrounded by family members who appreciate the outpouring of love and support they have received.” Don Terry, a representative for the Rev. Jesse Jackson, said Mr. Jackson will be visiting Ms. Franklin on Wednesday.

No additional details of Ms. Franklin’s illness were given, and the spokeswoman, Gwendolyn Quinn, declined to answer further questions.

According to two people who were in touch with the family but were not authorized to discuss Ms. Franklin’s condition, the singer of “Respect” and “Natural Woman,” who is universally hailed as one of America’s greatest voices, has been receiving hospice care at home.

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What John Prine Can’t Travel Without ~ NYT

The singer-songwriter always takes guitar picks, an Archie comic and five pairs of reading glasses.


Illustrations by Estelle Morris

By Nell McShane Wulfhart


The singer-songwriter John Prine has been playing his distinctive country-folk music on the road for nearly 50 years. He is currently touring in support of his newest album, “The Tree of Forgiveness.”

Mr. Prine and his wife, Fiona, are based in Nashville but spend much of the year in the St. Petersburg, Fla., area where they do very little. “Fiona is a beach person. I just bought a 1977 Cadillac Coupe DeVille and I’ve got that down at the house in Florida, so I usually take that to the carwash and go get a hot dog and wait for Fiona to come back from the beach, and then we go out to a nice restaurant at night.”

They also spend a lot of time in Galway, Ireland, where Ms. Prine has family. There, he says, he likes to “sleep all day and go to the pub at night. We’re very relaxed people.”

On tour he travels with three bags stuffed with old hotel keys, newspapers, shoehorns, corkscrews and much, much more. “I have one huge suitcase that’s usually overweight, so I pay extra money for it, and two garment bags that look like body bags; they’re stuffed — overstuffed — with clothes and suits that are too small. I hate to admit it to my wife, but I only wear two outfits on the road, and then a third one during the day, but I carry about 20.”

Here’s what he packs on every trip.

Credit Estelle Morris


“I take my own syrup, ketchup and mustard, just in case of emergencies, in my suitcase. Whatever I can steal from the hotels. It’s usually Heinz ketchup and they give you a weird mustard. You don’t get French’s or anything; you get some sort of Dijon or some mustard. That’s just for hot dogs. I don’t use mustard for anything else.”

Archie comic

“I’ve been subscribing to Archie for 40-some years and I just like to receive it in my mailbox. I subscribe to it under the name ‘Johnny Prine, Age 71,’ and I give my correct age and you know, you go to the mailbox once a month, and there’s an Archie comic there with your name on it — it’s kind of a nice feeling.”

Toy motorcycle

“With a little man on it. It’s kind of for good luck. I’ve had one of these ever since I could walk. I’ve had to replace it over the years because other kids steal it from you. It’s the guy on the back that I really like. He came with the motorcycle, so you wouldn’t want to throw the motorcycle away.”


“My wife just gave me a kazoo, so there’s a kazoo at the bottom of the bag. I just used mine on the latest record. Everybody in my band has a kazoo now.”


“I have an issue of Mojo music magazine in my bag; it’s a May issue, with a young Roger Daltrey on the cover. I’m not in it. I don’t know why — I’m very important. Guns of the Old West — it’s a magazine about antique pistols. I don’t collect them, but I have two I bought on the road about 20 years ago.”

Guitar picks

“I’ve got probably 11 in my pocket right now, and they’re orange, green, red and white, and they all have my name on them. I might give them to fans; it depends on what they’re like. I might give them one. I don’t like to be caught without a pick.”

Five pairs of reading glasses

“I lose them a lot, but then I find them later.”

Magnifying glass

“It’s about five inches in diameter. That’s what I used before I admitted to myself I needed glasses. I don’t throw anything away, if you couldn’t tell.”

“Shout, Sister, Shout!,” a Biography of Sister Rosetta Tharpe


August 3, 2018

When Chuck Berry died, last year, the obituaries were filled with the neon names of sixties rock and roll mourning Berry’s passing and declaring him the father of the form. But history doesn’t work quite that neatly. Everything comes from multiple sources, forms of music not least. In “Shout, Sister, Shout!,” Gayle F. Wald tells the story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915–1973), a daughter of the Sanctified Church, a sublime gospel singer, a songwriter, and a hot-guitar player who became known, with good reason, as the Godmother of Rock and Roll. Wald, a professor of English at George Washington University, published her fine biography in 2007, but it—and, more, Tharpe’s music—never quite got the attention it deserved. Wald will give you the story, from small-town Arkansas to the biggest stages in the country. Spotify, YouTube, and all the other obvious sources will give you the music: “Up Above My Head,” “Didn’t It Rain,” “This Train.”

If Tharpe is old news to you, my apologies, but you’ve got to hear her play and sing. Little Richard called Sister Rosetta his favorite singer as a child. Johnny Cash adored her voice. Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Isaac Hayes—they all loved listening to Tharpe and claimed her as an influence. Like Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, and Aretha Franklin, Tharpe lived in the country between the sacred and the profane, the Word of God and the realm of earthly, and earthy, matters. In the late fifties, the early stars of rock started hearing Tharpe sing “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” and it knocked them flat. “Say, man, there’s a woman that can sing some rock and roll. I mean, she’s singing religious music, but she’s singing rock and roll,” Jerry Lee Lewis told Peter Guralnick. “She jumps it . . . I said, ‘Whooo.’ Sister Rosetta Tharpe.”

Come On Out And Dance ~ NPR

At parties, rallies and riots, “Dancing in the Street” gets the people going

A few summers ago, I was in line at a Starbucks in the middle of the night, on the ground floor of a hospital on the north side of Chicago. My mother was in the intensive care unit upstairs. There were maybe a dozen people in line, of various ages and ethnicities, all with worn, worried faces under screaming yellow lights. I wondered what our different stories were; I don’t think anyone is happy to be in a hospital in the middle of the night.

Music was on overhead. People began to tap their toes, bounce slightly at the knee, and hum along softly to some of the lines we knew so well:

Calling out around the world,
Are you ready for a brand new beat?
Summer’s here and the time is right
For dancing in the street

And then, everyone in line — including the elderly couple in front of me, who I would learn were there because their granddaughter had been clipped by a car, and the teenage barista standing behind the counter — seemed to light up at the same time. We all sang out: “They’re dancing in Chicago.”

Then we laughed, smiled and began to talk to each other about why we were there, how long it had been, and what we remembered and loved about this song. We were dancing in Chicago.

“Dancing in the Street” is a song that stirs our souls. Great anthems do. But no less than the great Martha Reeves, who gave it such a powerful voice, says it was first and last a dance song.

“The song is about love and feeling free enough to dance in the street,” she told me in a conversation recorded for Weekend Edition Saturday. “You don’t have to worry about cars hitting you. You don’t have to worry about policemen coming and telling you you can’t dance in the street.”


In 1964, Reeves was singing in clubs around Detroit and working as a secretary at Motown Records. One day, the 23-year-old saw the company’s biggest star, Marvin Gaye, in a studio, working out a song he’d written with Mickey Stevenson and Ivy Joe Hunter.

Reeves says all she could say to Marvin Gaye upon hearing the song was, “Wow.” Gaye did her one better. “He looked over and saw me in awe of him and said, ‘Hey man’ — and this is his exact words — ‘Hey man, let’s try this song on Martha.'”

Martha and the Vandellas, which then included Rosalind Ashford and Annette Beard, recorded the song at Motown’s studios on June 19, 1964. They got it on the second take — though Reeves believes her first one was even better.

“But the machine wasn’t on,” she says. “Didn’t have the tape rolling. And then they said, ‘Well, Martha, can you do it again?’ And I didn’t get angry, but I was so disappointed because I thought I had nailed it.”

She must have nailed take two as well. “Dancing in the Streets” became a top seller in the United States and the U.K., competing with the rise of The Beatles to the top of pop charts around the world. It is now one of just 50 sound recordings preserved in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry.

1964 was also the year the Civil Rights Act was signed into law and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize. But racism and oppression persisted across the United States, too: That same summer, three civil rights workers and two black hitchhikers were abducted and murdered in Mississippi the by Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi.

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How James Brown Made Black Pride a Hit ~ NYT

It’s been 50 years since he wrote “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” a song that is still necessary.

By Randall Kennedy  

Mr. Kennedy is a law professor at Harvard.


James Brown in 1968 at Madison Square Garden. Credit Walter Iooss Jr./Getty Images

In the gym at Paul Junior High School in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1968, not that long before the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I asked a buddy whether he was interested in a certain girl. He told me that he was not because she was too dark.

He and I were African-American. (Then we would have called ourselves Negro.) So was she. All of us supported the Civil Rights Movement and idolized Dr. King, yet I did not hold my friend’s color-struck judgment against him. And he did not state his opinion with embarrassment. We had both internalized our society’s derogation of blackness.

Indeed, we luxuriated in the denigration, spending hours trading silly, recycled but revealing insults: “Yo mama so black, she blend in with the chalkboard.” “Yeah, well, yo mama so black, she sweats chocolate.”

It was precisely because of widespread colorism that James Brown’s anthem “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” posed a challenge, felt so exhilarating, and resonated so powerfully.

It still does. Much has changed over the past half century. But, alas, the need to defend blackness against derision continues.

The song, written with Mr. Brown’s bandleader, Alfred Ellis, was released in August 1968, five months after the assassination of Dr. King. It shot to the top of the Billboard magazine rhythm and blues singles chart, where it remained for six weeks. I still remember the thrill of singing along with Soul Brother Number One that first summer. I have done so hundreds of times since.

Various musicians in the 1960s tapped into yearnings for black assertiveness, autonomy and solidarity. Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions sang “We’re a Winner.” Sly and the Family Stone offered “Stand.” Sam Cooke (and Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding) performed “A Change is Gonna Come.” But no entertainer equaled Brown’s vocalization of African-Americans’ newly triumphal sense of self-acceptance.

That Brown created the song most popularly associated with the Black is Beautiful movement is ironic. He generally stayed away from protest, endorsed the presidential re-election of Richard Nixon, lavishly praised Ronald Reagan, and consistently lauded Strom Thurmond.

His infrequent sallies into politics usually sounded in patriotic, lift-yourself-up-ism. In the song “America is My Home,” he proclaimed without embarrassment that the United States “is still the best country / And that’s without a doubt.” Alluding to his own trajectory, he challenged dissenters to name any other country in which a person could start out as a poor shoeshine boy but end up as a wealthy celebrity shaking hands with the president.

James Brown combs his hair backstage before performing for American troops during the Vietnam War. Credit Simonpietri/Sygma, via Getty Images


At the very time that in “Say It Loud,” Brown seemed to be affirming Negritude, he also sported a “conk” — a distinctive hairdo that involved chemically removing kinkiness on the way to creating a bouffant of straightened hair. Many African-American political activists, especially those with a black nationalist orientation, decried the conk as an illustration of racial self-hatred. For a brief period, Brown abandoned the conk and adopted an Afro, but that was only temporary. The conk was part of the characteristic look of “The Godfather of Soul.”

Other than the refrain — “I’m black and I’m proud” — the lyrics of “Say It Loud” are wholly forgettable. They bear little of the artistry that graces the lyrics of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (written by James Weldon Johnson as a poem in 1900) or “What Did I Do To Be So Black and Blue?” (written by Harry Brooks and Andy Razaf in 1929). Written in a year in which more than 100 black people were lynched, the words of “Lift Every Voice” are a magnificent exhortation championing dignity, bravery and resilience. “What Did I Do …?” is an ironic protest that also highlights the self-loathing that victims of abuse all too often assist in inflicting upon themselves:

How would it end? Ain’t got a friend

My only sin is in my skin

What did I do to be so black and blue?


~~~  CONTINUE  ~~~