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.