vəˈräɡō/: a woman of strength or spirit; a female warrior.

Give the people what they want: A Voyage through the evolution of Motown and Stax. Where are we now?

“You can tell where black people are, at any given point in history, by (their) music” -Nelson George

(The Death of Rhythm and Blues)

Last week I tripped over the Hollywood Walk of Fame’s ceremony for the Funk Brothers, a hugely unsung group of incredible musicians who molded and created what is now known as the Motown sound. The Funk Brothers received very little credit for their contributions which ran from 1959 to 1973. By then, they had racked up more hits then the Beatles, The Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys. It wasn’t until the 2002 Documentary ‘Standing in the Shadows of Motown’ that the story of the Funk brothers was revealed. At the ceremony surrounded by famous well-wishers and fans (notably, Stevie Wonder) was Jack Ashford, one of the three surviving members. Also in attendance was Eddie Willis and an ailing Joe Messina who made a moving acceptance speech, choking up as he stated:

” We didn’t make hit records for white people, we didn’t make hit records for black people, we made hit records for everyone on the planet and that’s the excellence we strived for.” After reading this, I got to thinking. As we trip in to this new century bumbling and stumbling as the people called Americans, my man Tom Petty probably said it best: “the future is wide open.”

Now whether it is a bright or dark future is totally in our hands. Sure we rejoice at our ‘forward thinking’. We got a black President, gay folks may soon be able to get hitched in peace, women are saying it loud ‘sistahs are doing it for themselves’. However, like the 21th century, this is just the beginning and like all forward motions, the backlash will soon be upon us.

American culture is a mish mosh of great strides forward, only to come crashing backwards. For instance, right after slaves were freed and reconstruction inevitable, we killed Lincoln and called in Jim Crow. The forward march of the 60s gave way to the Utopian 70s only to fall into the cold money-grubbing hands of the 80s. All through difficult times, American music, especially from Black Americans, planted seeds of resistance. From Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ to Chuck Berry’s ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’ to Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s goin’ on?’, music is the most potent of the alchemical arts and can deliver its message anywhere, like an air-born virus. When it reaches the destination of our ear drums, it crashes into the synapses of our brains. If done right, music explodes its genetically-designed mind-bomb and changes us forever.

Motown compared to Stax was always considered to be the less obvious “black label” by some music fans. Many lamented that the label shied away from dealing head on with issues of civil rights or racism to the point where some groups were not even featured on the cover of their own albums, but were replaced by covers of frolicking white folk or cartoons.

Stax and its pure straight-up funk was hard to deny, apologetically restructuring the DNA of the deep south with Jack Johnsonesque-force even after the death of its resident heavy hitter Otis Redding and a portion of the incredible band, the Bar-Kays. Ironically founded by two white business people, Jim Stewart and his sister and label-namesake Estelle Axton (the “st” and “ax” respectively used to create the name ) Stax was Motown’s only real rival for years. With a house band like Booker T and the Mg’s and a roster that included Rufus Thomas, Isaac Hayes, the surviving Bark-kays, Shirley Brown, Inez Foxx…man I could go on.

However to dismiss Motown as some sorta ‘light in the ass’ cross-over driven endeavor is grounds for a straight-up back slap. Like Stax’s raw soul, Motown wrestled the ‘snatch up’ of Black American culture by the machine that is Corporate America and gave it back the ‘ The People’.

All of the cultural wars of the 50s soundtracked by Be-bop and narrated by the Beats were taken to the next level by the maximum r&b that was rock ‘n’ roll. The bastard child of the blues and jazz, Rhythm & blues, in turn, had a baby of her own. But she crossed over the tracks and started hanging with the hill-billy kids. In the late 50s, married by the sanctifying guitars of Ike Turner and Chuck Berry, trouble was a brewin’. Nothing scares rich, powerful white folk more than poor blacks and whites hanging out, comparing notes and conspiring. Lucky for them, the very essence of rock ‘n’ roll got gutted at the end of the decade–Elvis in the Army, Chuck on the run, Little Richard back to gospel and a plane crash taking out Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Richie Valens.

Motown and Stax creamed the MAN’s cookie cutter teen-replacement idols with a parade of Bobby’s and Frankie’s. The Funk Brothers powered through hit after hit, adding drum rolls, bass lines and even acid guitars to a soundtrack that took a code phrase for black music, ‘Music for the People’ and rephrased it as ‘Music for Young America’ inviting everyone to the party because no true revolution is won with only one group of people.

We take for granted how hard those times were, how this music healed, made you dance and often provided background music for some of our most troubled times. Take the song ‘Dancing in the Streets’ written by Marvin Gaye, William ‘Mickey’ Stevens and Ivy Jo Hunter, who provides actual ‘crowbar’ beatz on this tune. This song, first conceived as a ballad, evolved into a song about dancing in the streets to your fave summer song, no matter where you were. When riots broke out, however, in the corrupt cop-infested inner cities, the song took on a different meaning to protesters. It was a call to arms and Young America was up for it. This vibe of soul music dominated until the British invasion freed us of squeaky-clean teen idols completely. Now music programmers seeing young, white kids digging soul music for a change pushed the other music to the side for what they had hoped would be the ‘safe new thing’.

I’ve heard many a soul brother site the Stones and Beatles as appropriations of music of this time as “vulgar.” I have to admit, the bloodlines of ‘Dancing in the Streets’ runs deep in the Rolling Stones “Satisfaction.” The cultural grave-looting of white artists on black music from the era of the blues to the early 60s up until now is well documented. But there is also a trend of black Americans tossing the music of the older generation on the scrap heap. Some of those same soul brothas would call Blues deities like Howling Wolf or Muddy Waters “Uncle Tom” music, while the Brits took them on tour. We won’t speak of black radio’s shared habit with white radio of ignoring black rockers.

Recently, the rise of the female, British invasion brought some of the same vibes. Schooled on soul by the Magik of Lauryn Hill, carrying her potions of Motown, rock-steady and hip hop, a slew of white, female, soul singers attacked the US; from Duffy’s Dusty Springfield inflections to Adele’s full-bodied soul shouts to the late Amy Winehouse’s jazzy girl-group torch songs. Some accused them of stealing the soul from under us, while are own black stations ostracized home-grown Soul-sisters like Erykah Badu, Angie Stone and Jean Grae for light, pop-soul like Ashanti.

So here we are again at another crossroads. Turn of the century and the country is more diverse then ever, yet Justin Timberlake might steal our soul? My argument has been that I find it hard to dis a good groove just because the singer or band is white. Then I thought, maybe my militant colleagues are right. Black folk as a people have been takin’ it on the proverbial chin for a minute. Effigies of a Black President being lynched, talk of Voting Rights Act being questioned are happening now. What are we smiling about as we lose ground?

I resolved my conflict when I heard a cut from Tyler the Creator’s new album ‘Wolf.’ The enigmatic leader of Odd Future’s new-school charge, laments in the song ‘Pigs’: \’I don’t wanna go to jail/I just wanna go home’\. These lyrics are definitely informed by the raw, split-personality injected into hip hop by Eminem, Cypress Hill’s funk menace, and even the Sex Pistols punk-anarchy, as he spits out the venom of dealing with bullies and an absentee father, issues most kids can relate to. Even the album cover, a creepy Alice in Wonderland painting of a young, black man on a tricycle in a forest, speaks volumes. We as black folk are in a strange, new place. The country has been here before, but never quite this way; same war, new era. So if in this time, we have a Black President and a white, soul singer, wtf is wrong with that?

Carl Hancock Rux’s essay on Eminem ‘The New White Negro’ from the book ‘Everything But The Burden’ is provocative and fairly raw deconstruction of the white artist’s attachment to black folk and our culture. It includes Norman Mailer waxing poetic about the rise of the White negro. At the end, Rux surmises that the new, white negro has not arrived at black culture, but he was born into it and there is the difference.

So here we are the beginning of the 2ks with a new script about an old story; America. This time, however, we will never let the past die. Painful or joyous, we move into the future but prepare for the backlash,’ cuz’ it’s coming. Remember we all need each other and never let folks go unsung because all of our stories matter. So of the 14 members of the greatest, racially-integrated house band ever on the planet, only three survive. For the record kids, here are the names of all the Funk Brothers: James “The Hook” Jamerson, Bob Babbit, Earl Van Dyke, Eddie Willis, Jack Ashford, Joe Hunter, Joe Messina, Uriel Jones, Robert White, Eddie ‘Bongo’ Brown, Johnny Griffith, Richard ‘Pistol’ Allen, Benny Benjamin and Dennis Coffy.

Forward we go on the shoulders of giants. Stop fighting about the bullshit. Rise up because now is your time to give the people what they need.

About P.Downes

P.Downes
A Los Angeles-based Bajan, rude boy from Boston, P. Downes (Writer/Film & Independent Music Editor) is a card-carrying music and comic book geek with dreams of making movies. He's a published comic book writer, most notably "Killer Ape and Other City Stories," a collaboration with Greg Moutafis about a black, punk band who comes of age on the night of the LA Riots. Rumor has it that he types his articles in Spider-man Underoos for good luck.
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