By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Rick James' career never stopped — how could it, what with all
the rappers sampling his songs? — it was just put on hold for a
couple of years.
“I wasn't dead. I was just in prison,'' James said in an
interview from his Los Angeles home this week. “I was still in the
minds of the people — I just wasn't functioning. Now I'm back, and
I did an album and I'm on tour. That's all I've ever done.''
Since the 1960s that's indeed all he's ever done. James' career
spans the whole of modern R&B, from his beginnings in a Toronto
band called the Mynah Birds (which included rocker Neil Young, of
all people) through his steady stream of hits in the late '70s and
early '80s — most notably, “Super Freak'' — to his most recent
reincarnation as a slightly more humble but no less powerful Mack
It's a life to reckon with, for sure, but James had more to
reckon with in the '90s, making more headlines than music. After
some problems with drug addiction, he wound up jailed on assault
charges and served nearly three years in a California prison.
Fortunately, James emerged from his sentence a sober man --
literally and figuratively.
“Jail was rough. It was like being in the middle of a Ku Klux
Klan meeting,'' James said. “I've never been one for people to be
telling me when to eat and when to shower and how to walk, and that
(stuff) went on for three years. It was a very degrading state, but
it was a curse that turned out to be a blessing.
“The experience brought racism into my life all over again. I
grew up in a working-class town (Buffalo, N.Y.), in the ghetto, and
I knew about racism then, but I became successful and never
encountered that anymore. I was totally removed from that. Prison
slapped that back in my face real quick. There are some racist,
sadistic, ignorant (people) in the world.''
James was bitter about the experience at first, but that soon
gave way to hope. During his incarceration, he wrote nearly 400
songs — “some political, some spiritual, some sexual, some
Fifteen of those new songs are on James' newest release, “Urban
Rapsody'' from the Mercury and Private I record labels. (Private I
was launched by Joe Isgro, a former indie record promoter whose
1986 arrest on payola charges shook the music business. The charges
were dropped last year, and both men are eager to put their legal
entanglements behind them.) The first single, “Player's Way,''
features Snoop Doggy Dogg. Throughout the record and its liner
notes, James emphasizes his desire to return to his “urban roots.''
Roots, though, are just what many in the current crop of R&B
kingpins are lacking, James said. Despite a slight debt to many for
keeping the idea of Rick James alive through samples of his riffs
and phrases, James is not at all impressed with the state of R&B
“I think it's pretty ... weak,'' he said. “I'm not thrilled
with what the young kids are doing. How can I be? I miss the
melodies in the songs, the lyrics — all these kids are doing is
sampling other people's (stuff) and trying to sound like Stevie
Wonder or Charlie Wilson. I can't appreciate that ... Most people I
grew up with had a vast knowledge of music, lyrical structure and
melody, and they played instruments. These kids have licks but no
melodic sense. But they're making money, so where do you draw the
Case in point: M.C. Hammer's “U Can't Touch This,'' a 1990 hit
built on the sampled riff from James' “Super Freak.'' The sample
was legit, and James made a nice chunk of change when the single
hit No. 1, but he's not thrilled about it.
“(Heck) no I wasn't impressed with that (garbage). I was
impressed with the money I made, and I was baffled that that song
could come back and make so much money, but I was shocked more than
anything. Hammer didn't come to me, he went through my company. If
he'd come to me, I would have refused him. After that, I told my
people that I didn't want anymore rappers using my stuff. The
(rappers) should come up with their own material.''
James launched his own career by trying to come up with his own
material — something new and innovative. He recognized from the
beginning that infusing R&B with other genres would not only create
that new sound but open him to a much wider audience. Working with
a base of Parliament-Funkadelic groove, James began adding rock,
soul, jazz and even classical elements to his songs.
The result was a long and varied — if not always as innovative
as he'd hoped — career featuring numerous hits in addition to the
“Super Freak'' smash, songs like “You and I,'' “Give It to Me
Baby'' and “Fire and Desire,'' a duet with Teena Marie many
consider one of the finest love ballads in R&B.
Other songs showed James deftly applying his hybrid techniques.
“Fool on the Street,'' for instance, is a smooth R&B number with a
decided Latin influence. “Dance With Me'' uses vibes to create a
clear jazz mood. “Mary Jane'' — a song about marijuana which
James said he still sings (“I Still sing it, I just won't smoke
it'') — mixes R&B with rock 'n' roll, a formula that brought James
most of his success.
“George Clinton was always an inspiration to me, and we're very
close,'' James said. “He was always experimenting with new sounds,
new textures, and it always enthralled me the way he could mix,
like, sci-fi with funk.
“I always wanted to take that groove to a new level. Like the
Beatles took rock to a new level, I wanted to do the same to R&B
... I didn't want to be stereotyped into the R&B genre. I'm not a
funk artist, and I don't like being labeled a funk artist. That's
too small a world. I want to do more than that.''
It must have worked. Most R&B stars today speak reverently of
James as the original bad boy. Even the late Marvin Gaye once said
of him, “I studied Rick's writing and stole some of his licks. We
Zac is Dead (Not really)
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Relax — our three little cherubs are alive and well.
A rumor is making the rounds that Zac Hanson, the youngest of
the Tulsa-native hit trio Hanson, was killed in a bus accident in
Europe. It's not true.
Of course, he is the barefoot one on the album cover, and
“MMMBop'' played backwards does sound like, “Zac is dead.'' (It's
a joke, kids. Ask your parents.)
Sources at Hanson's record label and management group confirmed
on Friday that the rumor was just that — and not a very funny one,
“You must be a star when rumors like this start floating around
about you, even if it is kind of sick,'' said Jolynn Matsamura,
publicist at Mercury Records.
Students at Jenks East Middle School were crying in the halls on
Friday morning when the rumor reached the Tulsa circuit. A Jenks
counselor said the rumor created “quite a stir'' and that students
were “all in a twit'' upon arriving at school.
“Everyone was freaking out,'' said Jenks seventh-grader Mary
Ellerbach. “We were all crying.''
Most students said they had been told that someone else had
heard the report broadcast on KHTT, K-HITS 106.9 FM. However, the
station denies reporting the rumor.
“We never announced it. After a lot of calls about the news,
though, we called Hanson's agent in Los Angeles, found out it
wasn't true, and reported that,'' said KHTT operations manager Sean
A Jenks student's mother who knows the Hanson family verified
the rumor as false and relayed the information to the school.
“Then all the kids chilled,'' a counselor said.
The rumor apparently originated in Europe and came ashore via
the Internet. It was in Oklahoma by mid-week; callers to a Thursday
night radio show on KSPI in Stillwater (which featured the Tulsa
band Fanzine) already were asking, “Is it true?''
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Hanson songs aren't so thick on radio anymore, but this is just the eye of
the storm. Get ready for TV and more hype as the Christmas season draws
Here's a round-up of Hanson news for the giddy Hanson fans and
their exhausted parents:
I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus: How do you capitalize on a No.
1 smash debut record and avoid the sophomore slump? Make a
Christmas album, of course. The trio has been stashed away in a
recording studio outside of London, hurriedly recording a
full-length disc of Christmas tunes called “Snowed In.'' Look for
the elves on shelves Nov. 18.
Read All About 'Em: An unauthorized paperback biography,
Hanson: MMMBop to the Top, is already on bookstore shelves, and
it was written by a woman who clearly has never set foot in Tulsa.
Rest assured, all will be righted when the official bio is released
by Virgin Press, also on Nov. 18. Written by Hanson family friend
and Urban Tulsa writer Jarrod Gollihare, the book, tentatively
titled The Official Hanson Book, has the blessing of the Hanson
clan. Gollihare said the book will stand out from others simply
because he's the only author granted interview time with the boys.
Not-So-Candid Camera: Also in November, look for a
feature-length video documentary of the Hansons titled “Tulsa,
Tokyo and the Middle of Nowhere.'' Cameras followed the kids around
on their recent world tour and put together footage of the wild and
crazy antics. The film's director, David Silver, told Entertainment
Weekly: “Despite their busy schedule, Hanson found time to
participate in the editing process. Their analysis of the footage
was absolutely right on.'' After all, they do have to figure out
what to do when they grow up.
But Wait, There's More: If a Spice Girls feature film wasn't bad
enough, the Hansons, too, are working on a theatrical-release film
likely due sometime next year. Word is that they plan to spoof the
Beatles' “A Hard Day's Night'' (Beatles fans, start writing
letters now). The project is in development now, and the writer
signed onto it is Morgan J. Freeman, who shepherded the acclaimed
“Hurricane Streets.'' He promises a light comedy, not a biography.
It Always Snows in My Hometown: Superteen magazine, in an
interview from its October issue, asked the Hansons if they took
anything on the road to remind them of home. After Isaac mentioned
a turtle (??!!), Zac said, “Our friends gave us a big globe of
Tulsa.'' Isaac: “Ya know, one of those balls you turn upside
Hanson Prank of the Month: Rhino Records mailed out an
advertisement for its Christmas season slate of boxed sets. In it,
they included some joke sets. Along with “Mista Rogers: What a
Wonderful Day in Da Hood'' and the 50-disc “Titanic: The Box
Set,'' they listed “Hanson: The Early Years,'' billed as “three
volumes of pre-natal hits.'' The cover art was a sonigram of a
fetus. It's just a joke, kids!
I Sat Through “Sabrina'' for This?: ABC wrapped up its TGIF
Hanson appearance PDQ. The boys were due to “host'' the network's
Friday-night sitcom line-up on Sept. 26. After sitting through two
hours of hype about this allegedly momentous occasion, fans were
treated with a far-too short and pointless little performance.
Rumors are flying now of an ABC Hanson Thanksgiving special. Stay
Internet Geeks, Part 1: There are more than 150,000 Hanson web
pages on the World Wide Web. Among those teens with all that time
on their hands, one has formed the Hanson Internet Alliance. It's
mission: “To protect Hanson webmasters from cyber-thieves'' who
steal photos, banners and ideas. If you are discovered ripping off
a fellow Hanson fan, the alliance will spread your site address
around and urge all fans to boycott it. Shiver me timbers.
Internet Geeks, Part 2: By far the most bizarre juxtaposition of
cultures appears on the page for Hanson Addicts Anonymous
uses a quotation from Kierkegaard to introduce its page full of
typical prepubescent hysteria. The page even offers a 12-step
program for Hanson addicts. Step One: “Place all Hanson CDs in the
trash can next to your computer. Close the lid and forget about
them.'' Step Two: “What were you thinking? Open the lid! Open the
All I'm Askin' Is for a Little Respect: In Britain teen mag Live
and Kicking this month, Zac stated the band's motto: “Judge us for
our music, not our age.'' Then he expanded it: “Think of us as old
people with high voices.''
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
It took an Englishman to resuscitate the heart of an Oklahoma legend.
A few thousand miles from his native Britain, folksinger Billy Bragg explored Green Country this week, visiting various remnants of Woody Guthrie's legacy, from old friends to the site of his Okemah home. It's part of Bragg's effort to understand Woody and his music completely and in context, to sweep up whatever memories remain of the Dust Bowl days that inspired America's greatest folk singer, and to investigate evidence of the political climate that nurtured a left-wing unionist almost as staunch as Bragg himself.
That perspective will be necessary when launching the next great Woody Guthrie project: at the request of Woody's daughter, Nora, Bragg is writing music for several dozen long-lost Guthrie lyrics that have none. The Woody Guthrie Archives in New York City maintain more than a thousand “unfinished'' Guthrie songs — lyrics with no chords or musical notation written with them, only vague notes about the feel of a particular song or Woody's mood and location when he wrote it. Bragg, along with Jeff Tweedy and his Americana rock band Wilco, is gracing several dozen of these songs with new music for an album to be recorded in January and released next spring.
“It seemed to me that if we were going to get in close to Woody then we needed to come and at least see Okemah and Pampa (Texas), these places where he lived. You can read so much both of what Woody wrote about Oklahoma and what subsequent biographers have written, but we wanted to actually come down here and see what it looks like now — take that contemporary feel away with us — and to go out to Okemah and walk the streets that Woody walked and talk to the people about how they feel about him ... We're just trying to get a feel for it.''
Part of the history Bragg wanted to visit was Tulsa's Cain's Ballroom. He sat down on the Cain's stage this week and spoke with the Tulsa World about his trip, the Guthrie project, the immortal legacy of Guthrie's music and politics, and why exactly it's taken a Brit to get a firm handle on a crucial piece of American history.
The pairing is actually quite perfect. Bragg might as well be the Woody Guthrie of England. Spin magazine referred to him as “a cross between Woody Guthrie and Wreckless Eric,'' and writer Gary Graff said “his fiery mixture of the Clash's energy and Woody Guthrie's political fervor (is) ... irresistible.'' Rock journalist Ira Robbins describes Bragg this way: “Playing a solitary electric guitar and singing his pithy compositions in a gruff voice, Billy Bragg reintroduced the essence of folksinging — not the superficial trappings, but the deep-down Woody Guthrie activist/adventurer type — to the modern rock world.''
From his 1983 debut through last year's mature “William Bloke'' album, Bragg has used utterly simple musical tools to create enormous strength and depth in warm love songs (“Love Is Dangerous,'' “A Lover Sings'') and trenchant, socialist political commentary (“From Red to Blue,'' “Help Save the Youth of America'') alike.
Sound like any folksinger you know? An Okie leftist (his guitar bore the legend, “This machine kills fascists''), Woody Guthrie was an activist whose politics were anything but theoretical; he had suffered the wrongs he strove so passionately to correct. His stated goal was to raise people's consciousness and esteem every time he sang.
“Woody's kind of activism is still going on today, but it's being done in different ways,'' Bragg said. “A band like Rage Against the Machine is making ideological and political music in a non- ideological society. It's not easy. There's not the popular front organizing now that there was in the '30s and '40s that Woody was feeding off. You can't make political music in a vacuum.
“I made political music in the 1980s because Margaret Thatcher was the prime minister, and she was forcing everybody to take sides and manifest their ideas in a more political way. She was a great inspiration to us.'' He nearly betrayed a smile. “I'm accomplishing the same thing as Woody inasmuch as I'm taking information from one part of the world and moving it around to another part — that kind of balladeer tradition. I feel I am very much a part of that and that Woody and I at least have that in common.''
The two troubadours also share political perspectives — views from the left. Bragg began his drive to Oklahoma immediately after a Sept. 24 concert at an AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh. During this interview, Bragg wore a T-shirt for the Detroit Sunday Journal, a newspaper that was published by striking union employees at the Detroit Free Press. He's well-acquainted with union politics and is well-equipped to perform and shape the music of the man who wrote, “Oh, you can't scare me / I'm sticking to the union.''
Still, Bragg acknowledges that the lack of ideological polarization in the '90s makes Woody's music seem, perhaps, quaint. So much of Guthrie's songs were topical, they must be viewed in context and in light of how that context has altered over the years.
“The important thing about Woody is that he represents one of the few periods in American history when there was some kind of left-wing cultural agenda,'' Bragg said. “When you listen to his stuff you can see that that was pretty important at the time. He gives us a sort of pre- McCarthy vision of America. So much of American history was rewritten around the time of the McCarthy witch hunts, and I think Woody suffered a lot from that.''
Indeed, Bragg said that during his visits last week to Okemah, he noticed that people still bore some shame over Woody's socialist affiliation.
“I'd like very much to ask the people who feel that way what they think a communist is. I think you'd find that their definition of a communist was not what Woody stood for at all ... He was right at a time when the ideas of popular-front communism were very relevant to the working people of America. Here in Oklahoma, the socialists were the third party before the war. But because of McCarthy, people have forgotten about that or simply left it out of history.
"But when you listen to Woody today, you understand that this did exist. If he has a message for us today it's simply that once there was a different political agenda, and it was more left- leaning, and that despite what the media tells us these days the left in America and the idea of unions and organizing and working people having a say is actually as American as mom and apple pie.''
The current working title for the album of new songs is “Union,'' chosen by Nora Guthrie. “She thinks it fits with the union between our generation and Woody's, as well as the strong relevance to what Woody wrote about,'' Bragg said.
Some of the unheard Woody songs are “what we think of as typical Woody protest songs,'' but many have little to do with politics. Bragg said he's trying to include a broad range of lyrics — “songs that perhaps you wouldn't expect Woody Guthrie to sing.'' For instance, there's one about flying saucers. There's also one about Joe DiMaggio. Bragg said that Nora Guthrie's goal for this project is to use these lyrics to bring a new dimension to Woody.
Bragg already has tried out some of the new songs. Last fall, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame hosted a week-long seminar, “Hard Travelin': The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie,'' culminating in a star-studded tribute show. On a bill including Bruce Springsteen, Ani DiFranco, Indigo Girls, Pete Seeger and Woody's son Arlo Guthrie, Bragg performed three songs, one of which was Woody's “Farmer Labor Train'' to the tune of “The Wabash Cannonball.''
Then came the two new ones. “The Unwelcomed Guest'' is the tale of a Western Robin Hood explaining — to his horse — why he robs from the rich and gives to the poor. Bragg then applied a shuffling rockabilly groove to a lyric called “Against the Law,'' in which Woody bemoaned that everything, even breathing, seemed to be illegal.
In collaborating with Woody, Bragg has to rely heavily on intuition and the notes Woody scribbled in the margins of these manuscripts.
“For instance, on the one about the flying saucers, he actually wrote on the manuscript, ‘supersonic boogie,' '' Bragg said. “It's a short song, only a couple of verses, and I found myself playing it kind of like Buddy Holly thing — not the same kind of chords but that same sort of rhythm. It fits because, a) it was written during the '50s and, b) Buddy Holly was from Lubbock, not far from Pampa.
“The music I'm trying to write for these songs is like a frame. I don't want to put modern rock on these songs, though I'm sure that, playing them with Wilco, there will be that angle to them. But that's not the point. The point is to cast these songs — frame them, if you like — in the music of popular America, in the music Woody was listening to while he was alive. You have to remember that Woody didn't die until 1967, so being in New York, he would have heard Beat poetry; he would have heard electric guitars, Chuck Berry, everything that was on the radio in the '50s; he would have heard R&B, as well as Bob Wills and Will Rogers.''
Bragg said he feels no great weight about “collaborating'' with Woody. There are, after all, still a thousand lyrics available for other artists to interpret if Bragg's take on his dozen or so don't meet with popular approval. Plus, Bragg said he received a lot of encouragement after his Hall of Fame performance.
“It was a good opportunity for me to try out these songs on a very critical audience of Woody scholars and friends and see what the reaction would be, see if they'd come up to me and say, ‘Forget it, son. You're wasting your time.' They very kindly didn't, and they gave me a lot of encouragement.''
Enough encouragement that Bragg dove headlong into the project and made this trip to Oklahoma to see some of the places Woody mentioned in his lyrics and life. It's a trip Bragg felt compelled to make if he were going to approach this project with respect.
“I could have just sat in England and read the manuscripts, but I do feel I would have left out a very important aspect,'' Bragg said. “Woody Guthrie is a quintessential American character, and he began here in Oklahoma, which isn't in the West, isn't in the Southwest, isn't in the South or the North; it's this giant crossroads. He ended up in New York, but he took his roots with him. He never really left Okemah and Pampa behind. So to do this project without coming down here, I wouldn't have been doing the full monty.''
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.