Archive for February, 2009

Now & Then

The recent debate surrounding the stimulus package on the U.S. Senate floor made one thing clear: as a nation, we are engaged in a battle between the past and the present. Republicans have circled the wagons and are continuing to be proponents of tax cuts as a possible solution to the current crisis. Their ability to negatively define shines through, it’s not a stimulus package, it’s a “spending bill” that’s being debated.

Democrats are looking toward to a future that includes both capital investment and work programs. Exploration of alternative fuel sources, infrastructure repair, increased availability of broadband, and greening are all on the menu, and are part of the expressed future of the Obama era.

The effect is already being felt. A nineteen year old McDonald’s worker, who’s living the life of a go getter, jumped to his feet and thanked the Lord and the president for appearing in economically ravaged Florida at a town hall style press conference. When asked what his ambitions were, he informed Obama of his desire to be a DJ or announcer. Representatives of a local minor league franchise were paying attention, and the deep fryer played himself into a shot as a minor league play by play announcer.

The working poor didn’t always have to bum rush a presidential press conference in order to be heard. They were organized, and had representation. Garbage workers in Memphis, teachers in New York, and auto workers in Detroit (to name a few), all had strong unions, and were considered to be both important political lobbies as well as consumer groups. When their struggle wasn’t depicted on TV and in film, it was detailed dramatically on the radio. Soul music kept the working man’s plight within earshot of anyone who was bothering to listen.

Many of the great practitioners of this art form had been church-going and southern. The same was true of it’s listeners. The soundtrack for the great black southern migration into northern cities was heard regularly on black AM radio stations. Labels spearheaded by innovative record men with rosters filled with historic artists, singing the songs of the working man’s loss, joy, pain, and struggle were plentiful. The companies that excelled in this area were mostly independent mom and pop operations. It was exceptional music made at a tidy profit.

As in most endeavors, independent profit leads to corporate investment. Because of the change in business culture, the innovators gave way to record men, the record men gave way to accountants, and lastly, the accountants gave way to bureaucrats. Organizations flourished and the music suffered. Increasingly, there were fewer and fewer executives who were steeped in the tradition and lore of the soul men. Soul became passe, and then experienced a resurgence with a prefix.

Hit ’70’s sitcom producer of All In The Family and Sanford and Son, Norman Lear is the principal manager/owner of the Concord music group. He purchased Fantasy Records’ catalogue and with it, control of the master recordings of Stax Records. In an attempt to revive the brand, new projects by Lala Hathaway, Angie Stone, and Nikka Costa have been released.

Stax was one of the great soul labels from the golden age. A Memphis based mom and pop with grit and flair, the great midnight shouter, Otis Redding cut there. The genius, Isaac Hayes first recorded there. The secularized gospel family act, The Staple Singers, put it down there, and one of the first integrated bands of the rock era, Booker T. And The MGs, had a string of instrumental hits in the ’60’s and ’70’s. In a contribution to the Stax Profiles reissue series, Elvis Costello compiled and annotated a collection of the band’s grooviest dates.





Booker T. Jones (organ & piano), Steve Cropper (guitar), Donald “Duck” Dunn (bass), and Al Jackson (drums), were probably the best known lineup of the band. A crack group of sidemen, they also moonlighted as the Stax house band, and can be heard on hits by Sam and Dave, Eddie Floyd, and Rufus Thomas among others. It’s easy to see why they smashed. Booker’s organ and piano driven pieces had just the required amount of gravy laced with acid. Filling yet trippy.

The collection revisits the surfer sound influenced, Time Is Tight, the bluesy sanctified groove of Sunday Sermon, the Norman Whitfield like Soul Clap ’69, a rereading of Lady Madonna by Lennon & McCartney, the signature Green Onions, and a deep, jazzy, mid-tempo contemplation called Over Easy. I can hear the influence of the band on many, many artists that I’ve heard over the years, including: Santana’s early work for Columbia, Carol King, and those southern knights; Houston’s jazz/funk ensemble, The Crusaders. Plenty funky.

The south is still the region that provides us with some of the more soulful artists of today. I’ve been listening to projects by two of them lately, Anthony Hamilton, and India.Arie.

Hamilton is a veteran of the New York label odyssey. I first became aware of him and his music when he was signed to Andre Harrell’s Uptown/MCA imprint, through J Luv’s Polo Grounds Entertainment. Luv and Harrell were touting their discovery as the new Bill Withers.

As part of the North Carolina to Uptown underground railroad that had been traveled previously by Jodeci and Horace Brown, Hamilton seemingly had a bright future at the label. Then Uptown ran afoul of corporate politics before Hamilton could get his record on the release schedule. The new jack/hip hop soul dream factory was disbanded and Harrell resurfaced as the CEO of the former pop soul mega label, Motown. Hamilton was still in Harrell’s plans, but things quickly soured at the company, and Harrell was abruptly dismissed early in his tenure.

anthony hamilton


Forced to find a third label before his first record was released, Hamilton linked with fellow native North Carolinian and hip hop producer, Mark The Spark, and signed to the third party financed, and Atlantic distributed, Soul Life. The venture broke out of the gate with promise, releasing 2000’s Heard It All Before, by a North Carolinian that Harrell had failed to sign, Sunshine Anderson. The fortunes of Sunshine and Soul Life began to fade quickly, and the label was unable to adequately follow up their initial success, and was shuttered. Again, Hamilton was in play without having released a record. Anthony was not to be discouraged.

His throaty, urgent, and churchy voice never betrayed him, and his reputation continued to grow. Hamilton won a spot singing background on the prestige soul tour of 2000: D’Angelo’s Voodoo tour. Things were looking up. The former barber from Charlotte, saw the world, and saw it from an interesting perch; on the stages of packed houses all over the globe, and backing up the neo bad boy. Anthony peeped the game.

In 2001, I was the Executive Vice President of Urban A&R at Ted Field’s ARTISTdirect Recordings. Urban publicity exec, Tiarra Mukherjee, recommended that I sign him to the label. I knew Anthony from around campus and I wasn’t interested in becoming his fourth label. I wished that I’d reconsidered. Fortunately, Mike Mauldin and his son, Jermaine Dupri, didn’t share my concerns, and signed him to So So Def.



Anthony Hamilton may well be the finest singer working in the soul area today. His latest release on the So So Def/Jive label, The Point Of It All, is the rare, modern, corporate release that highlights the work of an adult African American male singer, singing about a less than perfect world that is largely without glamour, and aimed at an audience that understands. He is an artist perfect for a world in need of a stimulus bill.

Hamilton uses his considerable vocal ability to communicate vulnerability, longing, and joy. He doesn’t have the song writing craft of Raphael Saadiq, the eccentric bohemian world view of D’Angelo, nor the freaky sensuality of Maxwell. He’s just a guy using his gift in an attempt to transcend his limitations. What he lacks in some areas he makes up for in soulfulness.

References to greats that have cleared his path for him abound. Echoes of the work of Sly, Graham, The Isleys, and Curtis Mayfield can be heard throughout. Influences from his time spent at labels that had the intention of competing squarely with hip hop can be heard as well. Standout tracks include: It’s Hard To Breathe, Diamond In The Rough, The Point Of It All, and the pentecostal rave, Prayin For You. If indeed this project is “The Point Of It All” than his struggle was time well spent.

to be continued…..


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The Headliner II

The dreaded Los Angeles Lakers came into MSG last night and ended a modest three game Knick winning streak. The building heat was extinguished by Laker coach and former Knick golden age reserve, Phil Jackson; Kobe Bryant, and Pao Gasol. Bryant crept past the house record and dropped 61; a record that stood for over 20 seasons and was achieved by former Knick legend, Bernard King, in a Christmas day outburst of three point plays, finishes, and mid range jumpers.

On other fronts, one of the two marquee players from the Isaiah Thomas era, has apparently played his last game for the orange and blue. The other is surrounded in a swirl of continuous controversy that has taken a tragic turn. Problem child, point guard, and Brooklyn’s own Stephon Marbury, has reportedly been bought out of his existing agreement, and will practice his craft for the hated Boston Celtics. Somewhere from up on high, Red Auerbach is lighting another Cuban. The other former co-headliner, Eddy Curry, has recently been slapped with an ugly sexual harassment suit by a former male employee. Additionally, a former girlfriend and mother of one of his four children, was found murdered in her Chicago home. At this time, Curry’s playing future is in question.

The new front office is dumping salary and players, and installing a new system on the court. The two-pronged strategy is aimed at making the Garden an attractive contender for the LeBron James sweepstakes that are about to grip the NBA at the end of the 2010 season. The white hot Cleveland Cavs star will be at the end of his current contract then and will be taking all bids. We will see if all of those thrown up Rocafella dynasty signs are gonna carry any weight. As an inner circle member of Jay-Z’s clique, it has been rumored that James will be signing with Mr. Carter’s Nets franchise. However, ground has yet to be broken in Brooklyn for the proposed new building that the Nets are to inhabit. Hopefully, the lure of Broadway’s lights will be the ticket that will move King James’ court to The Garden.



Back in the golden era of the early seventies, the Knicks were clearly the standard that all NBA franchises were judged by. There would have been no question that a top player would want to play in New York. Between ’70-’74, the organization competed for the world championship 3 out of 4 seasons. The period produced: 6 of the NBA’s all time top 50 players, a hall of fame coach, a future presidential candidate, an eventual commissioner of the ABA, an expert on memory with over a dozen books to his credit, a zen master, at least one die hard fan for life, and a headliner unlike any other in the history of the team. Vernon Earl Monroe. “The Pearl.”

“The Pearl” came on the stage with a flourish. He was a product of Philly’s school yard tradition and had as many nicknames as he had moves; “Magic”, “Black Magic”, “Black Jesus,” and the one that stuck. He is one of seven former NBA players to have his number retired by two franchises. He is a former rookie of the year. He averaged over 40 a game as a college senior. 10,000 of his over 17,000 career points were scored for the Baltimore Bullets. At a time when Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand, and Dustin Hoffman could be regularly counted on to be in attendance, Earl Monroe gave ’em a show in sneakers.

Wayne Embery, the league’s first African American GM, was crafty. He shattered the Knicks’ hopes of winning back to back titles by acquiring Oscar Robertson and teaming him with the proud Prince Of Uptown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, for the Milwaukee Bucks. In his second year of pro ball, Abdul-Jabbar won the first of many eventual NBA titles. The following season, the Knicks needed improvement, so they sent Mike Riordan, Dave Stallworth, and cash the other way and acquired Monroe. I was somewhat confused because the previous season, Monroe had contributed to an early Knick playoff exit by putting on a devastating display of scoring in the Eastern Conference Finals. To my great pleasure, the Bullets went on to be swept by the Abdul- Jabbar/Robertson led Bucks in four games. In the eyes of a young Knick fan, The Pearl was still the enemy.

This all changed on Christmas day of ’71. My parents took me to my first game at the Garden. It was a matinee against the Bullets. The Knicks had acquired The Pearl the previous month. Despite the success of the previous two seasons, The Pearl was now a reason for my folks to buy tickets.

The game was heated, I don’t remember much besides the fourth quarter. New York was down 13 with under five minutes to play in the game. Baltimore, led by Wes Unseld, Archie Clark, and the backboard breaking, power forward, Gus Johnson, seemed to be cruising to a double digit victory. Then something special happened. Courtesy of The Pearl, I got one of the most memorable Christmas gifts that I’ve ever been given. I became a Knick fan for real.



On one of end of the court, the sum of the parts became equal to the task, and pitched a shutout for almost five minutes. With each stop, the building became more and more raucous. “Defense”, “defense” we all yelled. Every new Knick possession sent the crowd deeper and deeper into frenzy. On the other end, the Knick’s coach Red Holtzman, kept it simple. He gave it to The Pearl.

In a tsunami of spins, head fakes, between the leg dribbles, jump shots, and flava, The Pearl scored 13 unanswered points in a row. He put it on ’em. With one last stop, the home team grabbed a rebound and called a time out with four seconds left to play. Holtzman called a play that resulted in the deep shooting Dave DeBuschere receiving a pass at the top of the key. Big Dave was open when he caught it and cashed a deuce at the buzzer. Knicks win 100-98. I wondered, “Is it like this all the time?”



I’ve grown up to be able to call The Pearl a friend. In November of ’92, The Daddy Shaquille O’Neal made his professional debut at The Garden with the Orlando Magic. A friend invited me to attend and I accepted. My former label mate, NY filmmaker Brian Koppelman, invited me too, and I declined. The Pearl’s wife, Marita, called and invited me on his behalf. Regrettably, I couldn’t accept.

The game was on a saturday night. The Knicks won, but The Daddy showed the shape of things to come, and was just a little too much for Pat Ewing. Late in the third quarter, the voice of so many previous Knick games, John Condon, directed the attention of the audience to the Eighth Ave. baseline and announced, “Joining us and celebrating his birthday tonight, New York Knick legend, and hall of famer, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe.” Pandemonium struck, and the crowd went nuts!

Earl was seated in The Garden’s place of honor; celebrity row. Spike, Denzel, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Cosby were all in attendance, and would have been my companions for the game. After the game, I made my way down to the sideline, and the old headliner asked slyly, “So you didn’t want to spend my birthday with me?”

I smiled and said, “I already accepted an invitation. It wouldn’t have been right.”

Then he said, “What are you doing tomorrow?”

I told him that, “I was playing ball.”

With great subtlety he said in almost a whisper, “I’m playing again.”

I paused and asked with a bit of hesitation, “You mean, you want to play with me?”

He said, “‘What time are you coming to get me?”

So now I’m thinking, I guess Coltrane sat in with amateurs somewhere along the line, and I say, “11.”

I called my man Brian, and invited him too. We scooped the legend in Brian’s candy red Benz and drove out to my regular gym in Brooklyn. When we walked in, one of the guys says, “Gary, we know you want to win, but this is ridiculous!”

Me, B.K., and The Pearl got picked up, won 3 and bounced. The Headliner gave us one of those signature spins for old times sake, and laced B.K. with a no look assist for a layup.


Red Holtzman RIP

Shouts to Walt and Jaleesa, Sammy Koppelman, Marita Green, Dr Jeckyl, Pam Hall and Kevin Harewood.

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