Saturday, February 18, 2012

Dick Anthony Williams, RIP

With everything going on this week, the death of venerable character actor Dick Anthony Williams on Feb 15 kind of slipped under the radar. Had it not been for the post on the page of FB friend, actor Erik Todd Dellums, I probably would have missed it entirely.

The Chicago-born actor and two-time Tony nominee died at 73. At 6' 7" and possessing a coolly-slung baritone, Williams played judges, district attorneys, radicals, preachers, cops, criminals, doctors, federal agents throughout a 40 year film career. He was in Dog Day Afternoon, Edward Sissorhands and Mo Better Blues.

But Williams was in The Shield, The Jerk, The Deep, The X-Files, The Rapture, The Star Chamber, The Omen III, The Jeffersons, The Deep, The Anderson Tapes, The Lost Man.He was in episodes of Starsky & Hutch, Nanny & the Professor,  Law & Order, Ten Speed & Brown Shoe, Cagney & Lacey.

He played his characters cool, smart and with a knowing side-smile; he could show them thinking, rather than just reacting. And although he was rarely the star of any of these vehicles--which is a sin in its own right--Williams could be counted on to deliver an unforgettable performance. Even as a pimp Pretty Tony in The Mack, the brother could bring the heat:

Here is an early role in the seldom-seen 1968 movie Up Tight! In an amazing scene that features a constellation of black talented actors including Raymond St. Jacques, Frank Silvera, Janet MacLachlin, Williams--sitting the almost the farthest from the camera, no less--is just devastating:
I wish I could find a clip to show you, but Williams' Malcolm X in the 1989 American Playhouse broadcast of The Meeting is every bit as good as Denzel Washington's more widely seen portrayal in Malcolm X.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

First colored girl in the office: 1950s workplace integration

Check out this oddity from the 1950s: A dramatically-acted government film about a company hiring its first black office employee.

The film, The New Girl in the Office, was made by the President's Committee on Government Contracts, an agency created by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1953 (JFK changed the title of the agency in 1961, leaving me to believe the film is from the 1950s).

The New Girl in the Office stars Gail Fisher as Mary the aforementioned girl who gets a secretarial job in a white-owned company because of new federal equal employment policies. Employees are hostile and Mary is get the picture. The film features Ed Asner, Lou Gossett, Clarice Taylor and other actors whose faces would, along with Gail's, become familiar in the decade to come.

The film is 30 minutes long and is almost laughably dead-serious--and a little patronizing--in its earnestness. "She's gotta be so likeable, that any white girl with a chip on her shoulder would think twice before she starts any trouble," one character says.

Which isn't to say there aren't some laughs here, although unintentional. The Urban League leader who tells  the very cute Mary at 11:32 that not taking chances causes one's pride to "shrink down to 10 inches" is clearly trying to send her a coded message of a different sort, ain't he? And I think the boss's secretary is passing--that's why she's accepting. The dark-haired male executive with the hot coffee fetish is also, I bet.

Some good old mid-century sexism is at play. The women are the cattiest about Mary; the guys seemed to take it in stride. One of the chicks threatens to quit, but instead of letting her go, the boss persuades her to stay to keep the other women from leaving. Pimp!

Of course, the secretaries end up accepting Mary. Even the one that threatened to quit. I wish she would have made a sequel in about 1970 when Mary goes back to school, gets her degrees, and decides to move up the ladder a little more.

As an actress, Gail Fisher was a bit of a ground-breaker herself. An early 1960s spot she did for All laundry detergent made her the first black person to have speaking lines in a national television commercial. She's best known for being Joe Mannix's secretary--and clearly he was digging on her--in the 1968 to 1975 television show Mannix. She died in 2000 at 65.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Dobie Gray, R.I.P.

Singer songwriter Dobie Gray died yesterday in Nashville. He was 71.

Brother Dobie was probably best known for the 1973 ballad Drift Away--and we'll dig on that in a bit. But his first date with stardom came with 1965's The In Crowd, a hip if elitist manifesto to the benefits of belonging to the right group. Best lyric in the song: "We make every minute count/Our share is always the biggest amount." Gangsta!!

Gray didn't write The In Crowd, but he penned songs for scores of other folks, including Tammy Wynette, Etta James and Three Dog Night. And he saved a little gold for himself:

Friday, December 2, 2011

The forgotten funk of Dyke & The Blazers

I discovered Dyke & the Blazers back 1985 when I bought a Rino Records compilation of 1960s soul that had the group's small 1969 hit, "Let a Woman Be Woman (And Let a Man Be a Man").

Damn, I was blown away. Deep, entrenched funk. Closer to Stax Records' stuff, but more stripped down and dare I say funkier. Arlester "Dyke" Christian handled the vocals with a voice ragged voice with a whine like an aged jet engine after a cross-continental flight, But that voice and that music was truth.

As the above clip shows, these guys could get as funky as James Brown ensemble, although Brown was a far better vocalist than was Dyke. But still: why weren't they famous?

At the cusp of what could have been stardom, Dyke was shot to death in Phoenix in 1971 in a possible drug deal. What a loss. But Dyke & the Blazers did leave a little something behind. Christian wrote "Funky Broadway," the jam later made famous by Wilson Pickett. Dyke's version ain't bad either.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Sylvers...Reconsidered

I always thought The Sylvers got a bit of a raw deal.

I mean, here is a family group that was talented as hell, with charismatic lead singers in Edmund and Leon, flawless harmonies and were beautiful to look at and could boast nine R&B top-40 hits in eight years. "Boogie Fever" in the clip above was a number one Pop and R&B hit. And yet with all that, they still labored under endless comparisons to that other musical family the Jacksons.

More than 30 years later, the Sylvers are worth re-examining. Because they were indeed bad in their own right. So let's blow some dust off this stuff and take a look.

And this one--"Fool's Paradise" from 1972--could be a Fugee's jam 20 years ahead of its time. And the choreography is off the hook:

Edmund died in 2004. Leon, of course, went on to be a super-producer and hit-writer, churning out almost all of Shalamar's hits back in the day. The Whispers, too.

Monday, November 28, 2011

'Pepsi Generation' meets R&B: circa 1970

Lee Bey's Soul Closet has been on hiatus for more than a year. But it's time to open it up again. And we do so with this great video from 1970 featuring the group Chairmen of the Board--you probably know them by their 1970 hit "Give Me Just a Little More Time." Here is a lesser-known song that is still a jam, "You Got Me Dangling on a String."

The song has the same punchy, hook-laden post-Motown sound as the group's other work of the period--and that of their Hot Wax/Invictus labelmates like Honey Cone, 100 Proof (Aged in Soul) and others. The label was started by Motown's stellar writing team Holland/Dozier/Holland.

Lead singer General Johnson was as good as they came when it came to singing pop/soul, bending and stretching notes around the song's catchy beat. But the video is even better than the song. It's damn near a love-in, with mini-skirted women dancing and twirling around as a low-placed wide-angle camera captures it all--not to mention a fair amount of thigh, midriff and rumpshaking. (Personally, I'm liking the girl with the black-and-white striped top and black pants.)

And Johnson, frankly, is a handsome dude in that funky flared blue suit and Jim Kelly afro. He's about 30 here and at the top of his game. Johnson died last year age 69.

The shindig takes place at the Washington Monument in D.C. Can you imagine that happening today? Hell naw. Not with monuments on lockdown, security clearance and other stuff designed to protect our freedom. But if the sight of a three brothers jamming with beautiful women surrounding them doesn't send the message of freedom, I don't know what does.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Def by Temptation

Not many black horror films made over the years. Help me out here: Blacula, Abby, maybe J.D.'s Revenge, Bones, Tales from the Hood. Beyond that, I'm struggling to think of more.

Ah yes--Def By Temptation, released 20 years ago this month. It starred Kadeem Hardison, Bill Nunn and James Bond III as a trio trying to keep a sexy succubus from killing the men of NYC. Bond directed and wrote the film.

I haven't seen it since 1990 and probably should watch it again, but I remember it being a not-at-all bad flick, despite the pretty low production budget. The idea of a sexy black woman as the "monster" in a horror movie seemed pretty cool at the time. And the hot actress who played her, Cynthia Bond--well, let's say if I were in that movie, she woulda ended up killing me, too.

Looking at the movie's details on, the cast includes singer Freddie Jackson, Najee--remember his jam "Betcha Don't Know"--a pre-fame Samuel L. Jackson, Melba Moore, John Canada Terrell (the playboy character from She's Gotta Have It and Starleana Young (!) who my old skool R&B fans will remember co-wrote sang the female second lead for Slave and wrote the group's smash "Just a Touch of Love."

Ok, searching netflix this week.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

When R&B Went New Wave...

It doesn't get remembered much anymore, but there was a brief period in the early 1980s when elements of New Wave--a predominantly white musical genre--found their way into R&B.

And these weren't tunes designed to crossover into white markets. A segment of black teens were listening to New Wave music (such as the B-52s, the Vapors, Blondie and others), and influential black radio DJs like Chicago's Herb Kent--whose "Punk Out" show on the old WXFM was huge--were spinning New Wave jams for black audiences. So black music took steps to keep up.

Leon Sylvers III's wicked-as-hell bassline (coupled with Earnest Reed's guitar work) in Janet Jackson's "Come Give Your Love to Me" from 1982 has heavy New Wave elements. As does O'Bryan's "Gigolo":

Even jazz folks got in on it. Here's a forgotten (and partly inexplicable) one from Bill Summers & Summers Heat, "Seventeen."

And there is Andre Cymone, the talented protege of Prince:

Friday, January 22, 2010

Robert "Squirrel" Lester of the Chi-Lites Dies at 67

We'll get back to the fun soon here at the Soul Closet. Lately, its been a place of mourning with Teddy Pendergrass and Willie Mitchell dying this month. And now we have another name to add to the roll: Robert "Squirrel" Lester, of the Chi-Lites--the group's second tenor, who died today at 67.

Lester's death death leaves Marshall Thompson as the last remaining original Chi-Lites member. Creadel "Red" Jones died in 1994 at the age of 54. The group's leader Eugene Record passed in 2005 at 64.

But those boy leave behind some great music.

And their biggest hit, performed live sometime between Red's death and Eugene's. The sounded good, still.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

R.I.P. Teddy Pendergrass

Teddy Pendergrass died Wednesday at 59 in Philadelphia. Pendergrass underwent colon surgery last year and, according to his son, had a "difficult recovery," news reports said.

So as we hang the purple bunting on the doorknob of the Soul Closet today, let's honor the Teddy Bear with a few clips.

And here: "Two Hearts<" with Stephanie Mills:

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Willie Mitchell

Willie Mitchell's name might not immediately ring a bell. But if you're over the age of 40, you have--no doubt--shook, finger-popped, nodded or flat out sang along to the music Mitchell created.

During the late 1960s and 1970s, the producer-songwriter was responsible for those iconic, deep-footed soul classics on Hi-Records, cut by folks like Al Green, Syl Johnson, Ann Peebles. You know the ones. But click on the links to listen anyway.

Mitchell died Monday. He was 81.

Monday, January 4, 2010

M*A*S*H...with a black cast?

..well, not quite. But that was the intent with "Roll Out," a short-lived black-cast 1973 CBS series that was the brainchild of "MASH" TV show creators Larry Gelbert and Gene Reynolds. Rather than focusing on Korean War medics as did "MASH," "Roll Out" focused on the hi-jinks of the predominantly black 5050th Quartermaster Trucking Company in World War II. The show started Stu Gilliam, Hilly Hicks and Mel Stewart (best known as George Jefferson's brother Henry on a few eps of "All in the Family.")

Here's a photo from the St. Louis Dispatch's TV listing book for October, 1973:

So the question for today is, "Was the show funny?"


Which goes to show moonlighting--and I'm talking about Gelbert and Reynolds--is not always a good thing. "Roll Out" lasted 12 episodes and was later replaced in its CBS time slot with a show that had a lot more staying power (and laughs): "Good Times."

Friday, January 1, 2010

"No-o My Brother; You Got To Buy Your Own."

You remember the commercial for "Hey Love," a mid-1980s late-night spot that advertised 1960s and 1970s slow jams? You probably can't recall the songs offered. But what you do remember--no doubt--is when one actor in the commercial asks to borrow the compliation and is rebuffed by the second actor with a line that became immortal:

"No-o My Brother; You Got To Buy Your Own."

The line became a part of pop culture lexicon for years, turning up with a wink on the tv show "Martin" and the movie "House Party." Even in 1989's "Say Anything," John Cusack's Lloyd Dobler character asks, "Hey my brother, can I borrow a copy of your "Hey Soul Classics"? Dobler's young brother replies: "No, my brother, you have to go buy your own." The line still resonates. I was at a gathering two weeks ago of 30- and 40-something black folks and the line was mentioned, bringing a laugh.

The commercial is still fun to watch. The guy who utters the line is John Canada Terrell, who would become better known as the pretty boy Greer Childs character in Spike Lee's 1987 breakthrough film "She's Gotta Have It."

Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Gap Band

Still sounds good. And if Charlie Wilson isn't one of the best vocalist/front men of any musical genre during the 1980s, I don't know who is.

And sure this sounds like their earlier hit "Outstanding." But it's still a jam. And I'm digging the video:

Monday, December 28, 2009

What Can I Say Monday? "Cherchez La Femme"

"Cherchez La Femme" by the oddly-titled Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band is one of the more unusual--and memorable--hits of the mid-1970s.

The 1976 song is one part Big Band; one part Disco: an intelligently-written ditty of misfortune and heartbreak with a killer hook--"Cherchez La Femme"--and the sweet, twinkling vocals of lead singer Cory Daye. (Patti Austin sang background on the track.)

"Cherchez" was co-written by Buzzard band member August Darnell, who is playing bass in the above video, and his brother Stony. In the video, you'll note the group omits the middle part of the song which tells of Miggie Bonija, a woman tired of living in debt who nonetheless cheats on her hard-working man and, as Daye sings, she "goes next door, I know that she's just playing the whore." (Before Springer and Povich, kids, you couldn't really call a woman a "whore" on daytime TV.)

By the way, Darnell himself found success in the 1980s as Kid Creole, zoot-suited frontman of Kid Creole & the Coconuts:

"Cherchez" has held up over the years. Gloria Estefan did a remake in the 1990s. And in 2000, Ghostface Killah nicely borrowed from "Cherchez" for his "Cherchez LaGhost":

So what does the title mean? It's a French phrase that means if a man is in some kind of trouble, "look for the woman" to be the cause of it somehow. Writer Alexandre Dumas created the reference in the 1860s (he actually wrote "cherchons la femme") in the novel "The Mohicans of Paris," in a passage where a detective figures a woman was at the root of a crime. A Google search shows O Henry used the phrase in 1909, "Ah! yes, I know most time when those men lose money you say 'Cherchez la femme' - there is somewhere the woman."

See what you can learn by visiting the Soul Closet?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Spinners

My soul-loving 14 year old daughter, Cassandra, found the above video clip on youtube a few weeks back. It's the R&B group The Spinners, at the height of its power, performing "Mighty Love" at what I am guessing is the 1975 Grammy Awards.

"Mighty Love" is one of group's best songs if not THE best. On vinyl, it begins as a song of remembrance as lead singer Bobby Smith beautifully and wistfully expresses pain of lost love. Then co-lead singer Philippe Wynne, who joined the legendary group just three years earlier, rides in on his siren-like tenor, testifying to the power of love--and solidifying his place as one of the most electrifying singers of his brief era.

Here's the group again, lip syncing "Could it be I'm Falling in Love" on Soul Train. Smith takes us through most of the song, then Wynne slips in at the 3:38 mark, ending the song with as brilliant a piece of ad-libbing as you'll ever hear on wax.

Wynne leading the group on their biggest hit, "Rubberband Man" on the Midnight Special TV show.

Wynne left the band in 1977 for a solo career that never quite got off the ground. He did make some great music briefly with Parliament-Funkadelic, most notably his vocal gymnastics on "Knee Deep"--best part of that song: When Wynne, almost surprised, sings the killer line, "Could this be me? Immersed in funk so deep?" The great voice was stilled when Wynne died of a heart attack in 1984.

Bobby Smith, now 73, still leads the group, although, in addition to Wynne, four other original and early members of the group have died.

A Soul Closet Mystery:
Remember the Spinners song, "Games People Play"? There is clearly--or so it seems--a woman singing some of the verses. But whenever the group appeared on TV back then, I remembered my pre-teen self waiting to see what the woman with the feathery voice looked like, only to have the camera cut to Spinner member Henry Fambrough---a dude!--singing the girly part. What the heck? I mean, dig:

So was it a chick or Fambrough? Session singer Barbara Ingram was credited as the female voice, but according to Wikipedia, the group's songwriter and producer, the legendary Thom Bell, said it is actually Fambrough with his voice sped up. Ingram died in 1994.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Forgotten Soul: Alton McClain & Destiny

There were a quite a few great girl vocal groups in the late 1970s disco/soul scene: The Emotions, High Energy, and more. I'd almost forgotten about Alton McClain & Destiny, a trio who made it big in 1978-1979 with this hit, "It Must Be Love."

"Love" is a great piece of late 1970s disco/R&B: Alton McClain's agile, feather-light soprano washes over a bouncing musical sea not unlike, say, The Emotions "Best of My Love."

Here's another clip of them singing the same song. The budget for this one didn't cover much beyond the camera, donuts and the cost of filling the pool behind them, but video is fun to watch. And they shake a little harder in this one:

Alton McClain & Destiny broke up in the early 1980s. Alton married the supremely gifted songwriter Skip Scarborough--one of my favorite songwriters--who will get profiled here in the Closet soon, trust me. Just for openers, Scarborough co-wrote LTDs "Love Ballad," wrote "Lovely Day" with Bill Withers (who also sang it); Phyllis Hyman's "The Answer is You"; Anita Baker's "Giving You the Best the I've Got." He also produced Confunkshun during their peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But I digress...

Sadly, Destiny member D'Marie Warren (she's wearing black pants in the second video above) was killed in a car accident in 1985. Scarborough's sensitive pen was silenced in 2003 when he died of cancer. Alton McClain Scarborough is still in the game and sounding good. Here she is giving glory to the Lord last year at Mt Pleasant Ministries in Bethesda MD.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Christmas...with Soul

We getting yuletide, now, here at the Soul Closet. And what better way to do it with Salsoul Orchestra's "Merry Christmas All" from 1976. Pound for pound for my money the second best Christmas song of the past 40 years. Salsoul Orchestra was the at-times 50 piece latin/soul/disco orchestra that backed up Salsoul Record's stable of artists during the label's heyday in the mid-to-late 1970s. "Merry Christmas All" comes from a their successful "Christmas Jollies" album. Denise Montana, who is still in the game, crisply handles the lyrics.

The late, great Eartha Kitt with the sexiest Christmas song on record:

This next clip isn't about Christmas. But its wintry. And it's got Soul:

So if "Merry Christmas All" is the second-best Christmas song of the past 40 years, what's the best one? Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas." Peace...

Monday, December 7, 2009

Afro Sheen

Someone should study the cultural impact of the partnership between "Soul Train" and the Chicago-based Johnson Products Company. Owned by George E. Johnson, Johnson Products--not to be confused with Johnson Publications, which publishes Ebony and Jet--was a leading sponsor of the Train during its 1970 and 1980s heyday. And the commercials for Johnson Products' Afro Sheen and other hair goods featured proud and respectful depictions of black people--played out before a national audience.

George Johnson started the company with $500 in the 1950s. By 1971, Johnson Products was the first black-owned enterprise to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. The company's hold on black hair care products slipped when the Revlons and Avons of the world elbowed their way into Johnson's market. The company was sold in 1993 and ultimately became part of L'Oreal.

But the commercials, which aired almost exclusively with Soul Train episodes, are priceless:

The Afro Sheen Blow-Out Kit! I got one when I was 8.

And dig these 1980s Classy Curl spots, one with Matt and Ola, who themselves became near-celebs behind this campaign (and dig a young Stacey Dash, bouncing her curl around in the second spot):

And we close with three classy spots from 1975:

Friday, December 4, 2009

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Give yourself a little time and check out this performance by the incredible Sister Rosetta Tharpe, one of the most inventive artists of 20th century gospel music. Her voice had the heat of a blues singer--not surprising since gospel and blues are cousins--but when Tharpe straps on that electric guitar? Glory.

The mind-blowing performance above of Sister singing "Didn't it Rain," was recorded live at a Manchester England train station in April or May of 1964 as part of the American Folk Blues and Gospel Caravan show that toured the UK then. That's Cousin Joe Pleasant (who made great music with Sidney Bechet 20 years earlier) on piano introducing Tharpe.

Tharpe was born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas in 1915. Her 1944 gospel hit "Strange Things Happening Every Day" was a top 10 Billboard hit on the secular black music chart. No wonder: the song is straight boogie woogie behind its spiritual fact, listen closely and you wonder if it's really a bit of rock-and-roll a decade before the fact. Especially when Tharpe comes through with guitar solo at 1:32 mark:

This live version of "Down by the Riverside" has great solo at 1:30. (Queen Latifah: Learn how to play guitar and here's your Oscar) And wait..listen to Tharpe spitting rhymes in this one:

Tharpe's long career ended in October 1973 when she died following a stroke. She lost the use of her legs after a stroke three years earlier but still performed until the end. But we don't have to end on such a sad note. Sister wouldn't want that. So let's go back to Manchester for this slow burner "Trouble in Mind." Swing out, Sister; Swing out:

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

When Felix and Oscar were black...

An interesting find from 1982: the short-lived ABC sitcom, "The New Odd Couple," with Demond Wilson as Oscar Madison and Ron Glass as the persnickety Felix Unger. It only lasted 18 episodes and although not as funny as Neil Simon's original renderings of Oscar and ain't bad and its nicely cast. In fact, compared to "Tyler Perry's House of Payne," and "Meet the Browns," it's damn near Noel Coward.(And the opening titles and updated Odd Couple theme kinda rock.)