Birthday Music, Part III–The End of an Era

With this last installment of the birthday music series, I travel back in time to my pre-teen and teen years.  I have to admit that I had a really hard time choosing songs for this post; every time I thought about an artist I wanted to write about, five more popped in my head. I honestly believe I could write a book about the music of my life. For example, I wasn’t able to include the Tom-Tom Club, Salt and Pepa, New Edition, The Art of Noise, Roger and Zapp, Rob Base, Public Enemy, Biz Markie, Kurtis Blow, Erik B and Rakim, or LL Cool J. Or even some of the rock groups I listened to like Queen, Journey, The Talking Heads, and R.E.M. And don’t get me started on the “Quiet Storm” artists, like Peabo Bryson, Freddie Jackson, Anita Baker, Sade, Frankie Beverly and Maze, and Smokey Robinson. Regardless, this post might get long, because I LOVE ALL THE SONGS.

I’ll start with my eight-grade prom. Seems like as good a place as any, and that was also around the time that Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall came out.  I went to the prom with a guy whose nickname was Pee Wee. I still don’t know why we called him that, but he was a family friend and cute enough.  He wasn’t my boyfriend or anything, but I needed a date at the last minute, and he was it.  I borrowed a dress from my older cousin, since I really didn’t have anything formal to wear. My parents had said “NO,” the first time I asked about going, so we had not shopped for a dress. At the last minute they decided to let me go, and kindly escorted me and Pee Wee to the prom. And yes, they stayed with us until it was time to go.  The only songs I remember from that night  are “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin” and “Human Nature” by MJ, although surely they played other music. 🙂

The other love of my life during this time was you guessed it, His Royal Badness. By the time I started 9th grade, we had moved from our all-Black neighborhood to a mixed one across town. Cable television had become a serious thing and we had ALL the channels, including MTV and BET. The first video I actually remember watching is Prince’s “Little Red Corvette,” but I’m sure you know that Prince doesn’t do Youtube, so I can’t post it for you here.  However, I can’t talk about Prince without mentioning The Time. I loved them just as much as Prince, (well, maybe not JUST as much), and I loved their antics on stage as well as in the movies. My all time favorite is “The Walk,” but since it’s not on Youtube anymore, I’ll post one of my other favorites:

This was also during the time when Donnie Simpson was hosting Video Soul and we would rush off the bus to make sure that we didn’t miss a minute of his show.  Here a few favorites I remember from that time period:

I loved Latifah when she was rapping back in the day!  And those dancers? In those shorts? Yeah, baaabbby!

What y’all know ’bout this?

Or this?

And this?

These three videos were “Skate Center” music. The Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam song was one of the songs they played for backwards skating because it had a slower tempo. We LIVED for the skate center when I was in high school. It was the one place where all the “cool kids” hung out on Sunday and Wednesday nights during the summer, and we’d behave all week just to get a chance to go. My sister and I knew if we got into trouble and were put on “restriction” for anything during the week, the skate center was a no-go.

Y’all know I love my ballads, and before I get to Luther, I have to pay tribute to a few other artists that captured my love and affection as a kid.

I know you remember James Ingram. He had a couple of duets with Patty Austin and our high school graduation song, “Somewhere Out There,” was based off of a duet with Linda Ronstandt. Yeah, they picked that.

My oldest friend (we are six months apart in age), obviously went to the cooler school, because their graduation song was this:

One of my other favorites is Alexander O’Neal. Alex has been going through some thangs the past few years, but he was an amazing singer in his prime:

I loved myself some Phyllis Hyman. She was beautiful with a voice to match. It broke my heart when I heard that she had committed suicide:

Before I wrap this thang up, I’ve got to include a little more of the funk that defined R&B in the 1980s.

From Atlanta, GA:

And I KNOW y’all remember this group! How could you forget a Black man on tv in a codpiece??

I kinda listened to this one on the down low ’cause it was nasty. LOL!  I was too young to know what most of it meant, but I knew I’d get in trouble for listening. The strings, y’all, the strings. They don’t make songs like this anymore.

I’ll end this blog with my all-time favorite ballad by Luther Vandross.  I loved this song so much when I was a kid, and I would listen to this song over and over until I had all the words down pat. I also hated it when they played the shorter version on the radio, because I wanted to hear it ALL.

Imma go ahead and say this, regardless of the backlash I may get: They don’t make them like this anymore. No doubt there is “good” music coming out now, but I don’t think we have as many singers as we used to. We have “entertainers.” They look good, they can dance (or not), and they have lots of technology and special effects to cover up their weak vocals. And I can’t remember the last time I heard a full orchestra on a new record. Oh wait, yes I can. D’Angelo’s “Cruisin” had a beautiful string arrangement. And before you tell me that people can’t afford it these days, ask yourselves how many of these new artists have an entourage of 20 or more people on their payroll and ain’t doing nothing but hanging around?  Right. I know a big part of it is the music industry and its impetus to crank out a hit every other day.  Still, I miss the music of my childhood because it was GOOD music.  I know you miss it too.

Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed my musical retrospective. Like I said earlier, I could do this for days, but I’ll stop here. This post is a little longer than the other ones, but hey, give me a break, it’s my birthday. 🙂

Birthday Music, Part II

Today’s trip down memory lane is comprised of music from the 1960s. I was born in 1969, but I’ve always felt connected to the music of my parents’ young adult life, as well as that of the post-Civil Rights era.  My maternal grandmother LOVED herself some Sam Cooke. Now, let me say this, I loved my grandmother, but when we were kids, she wasn’t sweetest old lady on the block.  In her later years when she was nicer to us, my dad used to joke that now she was an old person trying to get into heaven.  Don’t judge us too harshly, we were little, and she was kinda mean, and we loved the way our other grandparents doted on us and indulged our every whim. Grandma A. didn’t spoil us much, and she was a force to be reckoned with. She worked in a funeral home, and had raised seven children pretty much on her own after she and my grandfather divorced.  She took good care of us when we visited, but we weren’t allowed to do much, not even swing in the swing set on the porch! This why we were so surprised the rainy summer afternoon she blew off the dusty Sam Cooke records on her hi-fi, (again, look it up if you don’t know what that is!), put on “Everybody Likes to Cha-Cha-Cha,” by Sam Cooke, and proceeded to show us how to do it.

Me and my sister ’bout fell out! Make no mistake, my grandmother was a fox: she was always dressed to the nines when she went out and she ALWAYS smelled like talcum powder and Esteé Lauder Youth Dew.  I never saw the woman break a sweat, and I know she worked hard. But dancing? Our eight and nine and a half year old selves just couldn’t believe my Grandma A. was doing the Cha-Cha-Cha to Sam Cooke! She was in her powder blue slides and flower print shift, (don’t act like you don’t know what a “shift” is), and she was gettin’ down! Now, that wasn’t my favorite Sam Cooke song, that honor goes to “Bring it On Home to Me,” but I’ll never forget that afternoon in Alabama with my Grandmother getting her groove on to the Cha Cha Cha song. Here’s to you Alga Mae:

One of my favorite groups of the 1960s was of course, The Supremes. They were stylish, beautiful, and I loved ALL of their songs. I can’t even pick a favorite, well, maybe “Someday We’ll Be Together,” but I remember when I was in high school Phil Collins remade “You Can’t Hurry Love,” and even then my critical self decided that he couldn’t hold a candle to The Supremes, and I promptly went out and bought a 45 of the original version.  Back then, our local record store was Flip Side Records, and you could buy anything on vinyl. My dad had one of those huge console stereo systems, and it could play EVERYTHING.  I don’t even think you can find one of those things now, well, you can probably find one on eBay.

My other favorite group was you guessed it, The Mighty Temptations. I just loved everything about them, especially their smooth vocals and precise dance moves. I had cassettes, (a box set, no less), of all of their hits and I also had one for The Supremes, as well as The Miracles.  I think I loved “Just My Imagination” best because it’s such a sad song. I also kinda loved it when Hall and Oates sang “The Way You Do the Things You Do” with them at The Apollo in 1985.  And let me just say that until MTV came along, I thought Hall and Oates were a Black duo. Yeah, I did.

I can’t finish this blog without mentioning Marvin Gaye, the smoothest brother singing in the sixties. I’ll just post a couple of  videos and let  you bask in his chocolate glory…

Ok, I love this next song, and I’m not going to comment on the back up dancers. Context, people, context; it was after all, 1963.

Tomorrow, my last blog in this series: the music of my pre- and teenage years, the 1980s.

Birthday Music, Part I

So, this week marks the 44th anniversary of my birth. Those of you that know me personally know that my birthday is 9/11, yeah, THAT 9/11. While I’ve never been much for celebrating birthdays, I am inclined to do a little reflection and introspection as I mark another year in the world.

Today, I’m posting music from the 1970s. So much of my little world was surrounded by music, GOOD music, and although there is no way that I can write about all the songs I loved as a kid, I’ll share a few of my favorites here:

I fell love with Kool and the Gang on first listen! This song is still one of my favorites, and I’ll never forget hearing it in Mrs. Mathews’ 5th grade class. My best friend at the time, Pam, started the dance party (I was much too shy to get up), and Mrs. Mathews let us have at it for a few minutes. I loved her class, as this is where I was introduced to Edgar Allan Poe and “Annabel Lee.” I could listen to Mrs. Mathews read this poem all day. She had the most amazing southern accent, you know the ones cultivated by “southern gentility,” and at nine years old, I had no real notion of the race and class issues associated with that moniker; I just knew I loved her sing-song accent and that this poem made me cry because it was so sad. And besides, this post isn’t about that.

Another one of my favorites was “Takin’ it to the Streets” by the Doobie Brothers. I remember seeing them on the television show “What’s Happening” and that  two-part episode is probably my favorite. Rerun was trying to bootleg their music at a concert and of course got caught. I don’t remember much else about it, although you can watch it on Youtube if you are so inclined.

The last video I’ll post is one of a classic Jackson Five performance on Soul Train. It’s hard to believe that I was only four years old when this episode first aired. All I really remember is that my dad had this album on 8-Track cassette (look it up if you don’t know what that is), and I wanted an MJ afro. I had a LOT of hair when I was little, and I could hardly wait for my weekly wash so that I could pick out my hair when it finally dried.  I only had a little time before mama sat me down in front of the stove with the Blue Magic hair grease and straightening comb, so my Angela Davis /Michael Jackson afro was more of a fantasy than a reality.

Tomorrow, I’ll post some of my favorites from the 1960s. I was born on the tail end of that decade, but I’ve always felt like I was a 60s baby. I don’t know why, but I do know that 1969 was a pretty good year for me….

What Means a Friend?

As I was reading Brittany Cooper’s thoughtful post The Politics of Being Friends With White People over at Salon today, I paused to think about my own experiences over the years with white people. When I was in third grade, my best friend in Mrs. Beck’s class was a white girl named Lisa.  Well, I guess we were friends. She sat in front of me in class and we’d pass notes back and forth, and most days, she’d ask me to brush her hair. She had the longest hair I’d ever seen, and I loved to play in it. (As a child, I wanted to be a hairdresser, and I would try to “do” anyone’s hair that was brave enough to let me. My sister is still mad at me for burning her hair with a marcel iron when I was nine.) I don’t remember much else about our interactions, but I do know that I loved her with the kind of love that only third grade girls can have for each other. One day though, we took our seats in class and she scooted her seat up and turned away from me when I spoke to her. A deep sense of dread overcame me, and although I can’t quite remember the entire exchange, I knew that my blackness and her whiteness had become an issue in our friendship.

Let me explain: In my Georgia hometown, the desegregation of schools came a bit late. In 1977 I was eight years old, and I was bussed from neighborhood school to a nearly all white school 13 miles away, and I say “nearly” only because there were a couple of Vietnamese students that lived in the area and attended the school. The goal of the school desegregation movement for my school board at that time was 70/30, 70% white and 30% non-white for the predominantly white schools, although I don’t recall any white kids being bussed to the all Black schools. Regardless, it was a traumatic transition for me; I left the comfort of my mom walking us to school every morning and having personal relationships with my principal (the beloved Mr. Caldwell) and my teachers, to being a statistic.  I felt alone for the first time in my short, sheltered life. My sister, two years behind me in school, would join me soon, but until then, I was on my own. Like Brittany, I didn’t fit in anywhere: I was a shy bookworm and used more Standard English than not, so the Black kids thought I “talked white,” and the white kids couldn’t get past the color of my skin. I was smart, but shy, so I withdrew into myself until Lisa decided she wanted to be my friend.

What I remember most about the end of that friendship was not only the loss of my friend, but a profound sense of the universe shifting beneath my small brown legs.  I’ve referred to this moment in other contexts as The Moment I Realized I was Black. Of course I knew I was Black, but I didn’t KNOW I was Black. In other words, in my Black working/middle-class neighborhood I was loved and protected, we knew everyone, and they knew us. So much so that if we got in trouble two streets over, our parents knew about it before we got home. We had so many aunties and grandmothers I can’t begin to name them all. But most of all, my humanity was never in question; I knew exactly who I was, and everybody was Black like me. My blackness wasn’t anything to be ashamed of, or even to pay much attention to. It just WAS. However, upon my arrival at Britt David Elementary School, it became readily apparent that my blackness was a problem. I was different in a way that had been illegible to me, and my growing knowledge of the racism that existed outside the safety of my neighborhood shattered the bubble I had previously lived in.  I was Black, and at Britt David, Black wasn’t beautiful at all.  Black was a stereotype, a nuisance, an oddity to be dismissed or denigrated. I wasn’t sure what to do about that, but I knew that at some point Lisa realized I was Black, or maybe it was that someone told her that she shouldn’t be my friend because I was Black. The particulars don’t really matter, but I remember clearly when she told me I wasn’t “allowed” to brush her hair anymore.

I was hurt when Lisa rejected me, and don’t think I had another white friend for several years after that. I wasn’t sure I could trust them not to reject my blackness and I didn’t want to be their “Black friend.” Thankfully, over the years I connected with other nerdy Black girls and boys and forged other friendships, and it was only when I went to college that I began new friendships with white people. I can honestly say that now I have two close friends who are white women, and race is something we discuss often and earnestly.  I am thankful that they are women who understand the politics of race, gender, and sexuality, and that our conversations on these topics are ongoing and always self-reflexive.  I do believe that it is possible to be friends with white people, but I also know that those friendships are forged by truly recognizing the humanity of others, and the ways in which societal, structural, and systemic racism shapes our interactions with others.