“A long, long time ago...
I can still remember how
The music used to make me smile.
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And, maybe, they’d be happy for a while..
I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride,
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died..”
When I was a very little girl, I would hear this song on the radio and it would make me cry. I didn’t understand why, I was too little to understand the concept of death or dying and I didn’t really know what to song was about. There was just something about “the music dying” that seemed awful and forever to me. To this day that song still makes me a little sad.
Sorry I’ve been away for a bit. Been busy as you all know, working on new music but I felt like I needed to stop for a few days. The music just left my head. Feels like I can’t hear anything. The day I heard the news I was so stunned, hell everyone in the world was stunned, but I thought… in a day or so it won’t seem like such a shock. Even though it felt like I just lost a brother, it felt odd to be grieving so much for someone I’ve never even met. At first I said “I’m not going to watch any programs or news, or listen any radio stations playing his music, at least not for a while.” I taped a lot of stuff but I still haven’t watched, it feels too hard.
I can remember when Donny Hathaway died and feeling really sad but I was just a kid. I understood the concept of death better but up to that point I had never lost anyone close to me or been to a funeral. I knew it was a tragedy and though I didn’t understand how or why he died, I was very sad. Even though I was a kid, I somehow instinctively knew that music would be very different without him. Maybe that’s because I can remember the first time I heard Mr. Hathaway. It was Christmas of 1970. I was going to take my first plane trip to California to visit an aunt. I was going with my father and his parents and I was beside myself with excitement. When we arrived, the entire car ride from the airport to the house, all my aunt talked about were these two new artists that were making incredible, and really beautiful music. It was music for black people, young, hip, soul music for young, hip, beautiful black people. Of course that wasn’t exactly what she said but it’s how I remember it, it’s what she conveyed. It was music that people actually sat and listened to. It seemed to me, now thinking back on it, to be a new kind of blues if you will, very heady, dark and rich, their voices, both so soulful and so full of yearning. Those artists were Donny Hathaway and Al Green. During that vacation which lasted several weeks, there was no other music played in the house, and I mean no other music. But all of this was shaping me and I still remember it as one of the best Christmas’s I’ve ever spent with my dad and his family. Somehow listening to those two artists still remind me of my dad, so I was very sad when Donny died.
I also remember the day Marvin died. The shock of hearing of his death and how he died, I remember feeling ripped apart by that. Now I could really and truly relate, having begun to lose loved ones. I also knew that I would never be able to do anything with my life but music and was so completely engrossed in all things musical. More importantly though, I had met Marvin Gaye a few times and he was so very kind to me. Furthermore, not so long before, my childhood friends and I spent an entire summer dancing to Got To Give It Up. It was one of those records that defined a period in our lives and we never stopped playing it the entire summer long, literally. Now I knew music would never be the same.
Then three years ago James Brown passed and again we were all shocked and saddened. Where as Donny, Al, and Marvin might have been my mother’s music, James Brown was everyone’s music, young and old. You danced your ass off listening to James Brown, he kept it grimy, gritty, and soulful. It was soul of the rawest kind, not polished and beautiful but very honest and very real.
When I was a really little girl I was completely, and I mean completely consumed with two artists, one of whom was the magnificent James Brown. Now please believe me when I say this is the truth, my father played percussion with James Brown, (that’s not the part I want you to believe, though it is the truth), but before that, before I could even read, I could read the name James Brown, don’t ask me how because I don’t know. I just know that growing up in the St Nick projects, which is only a few blocks from 125th street (a major thoroughfare and shopping street in Harlem) we used to pass by the Apollo on a regular basis. If I passed that Apollo Theatre and saw the name James Brown on the marquee and my mother said we weren’t going I raised holy hell right there in the middle of the street. Now here’s something else I really want you to understand. You DO NOT have temper tantrums when a black woman is your mother, ok?? You just don’t do it, but that’s on the level, how much I had, not wanted, had to see James Brown. The funny thing is, and this is really funny, sometimes we would have tickets and my mother would be trying to explain to me that we were going to go but the show wasn’t that day or that he wasn’t even in town yet, he might be coming the following week or month but I would be standing in the middle of 125th street screaming at the top of my lungs and my mother would literally have to drag me away form the Apollo. After my dad started playing with him I got to see him often (which was made even better by getting to see my dad too) for as long as my dad had that gig, which wasn’t a very long time but long enough for me to have seen lots of shows.
I still don’t know why I was so mesmerized by James Brown but I suspect it might have been his dancing. I would stand on my seat and watch the whole show (I was only 3 or 4) and not move until it was over. I was star struck and I wasn’t the only one as evidenced by the many artists he influenced from George Clinton, to Jackie Wilson, to Prince, to Michael, speaking of which, the other artist I was obsessed with at that time was the Jackson 5 and particularly Michael.
Here at last was music, that even though everyone loved it, seemed perfectly geared toward black kids especially. In truth it reached all kids black and white, so much so that the Jackson’s white counterpart, The Osmond Brothers came quickly after. I was too young to remember Little Stevie Wonder, he was before my time, had I been a little older, I might have been daydreaming about Stevie but as fate would have it James Brown and the Jackson 5 are the ones who really struck me the hardest. Theirs are the first songs that I can actually remember besides songs I learned in school and the ones my mother would teach me.
My mother was a singer too and taught me many songs as a kid, particularly a lot of Doo Wop and Motown songs. I couldn’t read or write yet but I could harmonize with my mother and sing backup. I guess you could say that I already had the bug at that point, having seen my dad on stage and watching my mom singing. I’d be in the mirror, brush in hand singing with Michael, trying do the dance steps. When the Jackson’s were on television everyone in the building watched. Actually, if any black person was on television we’d all be glued to the tv, but Michael was different because he was this little kid, maybe 7 or 8 years old doing all this amazing stuff. though I was gonna’ marry him. No for real, I thought I was gonna’ marry Michael, I’m not joking.
I realized last week that for every phase of my life there was a Jackson or Michael Jackson record to go with it. All through my childhood and teenage years, even after I became an adult and was falling in love for real it was to a Michael Jackson song. Even my son became obsessed with Michael Jackson. I remember being absolutely mesmerized the first time I heard Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough. I would sit in front of the stereo and play that song and that album over and over and over again. I would study it. And then when we thought he couldn’t top himself he came back with Thriller. He looked totally different and we were all really surprised but we didn’t care. And then he outdid himself and everyone else by moon walking on the Motown 25th anniversary show.
My heart has been aching since I heard the news and hasn’t stopped. I feel like a fool but there it is. My sister in law told me when she goes to sleep, she grieves in her stomach for Michael. I know what she means. I’m trying to figure out why I’m so despondent over someone I never really knew. I wonder if it’s because it seems to me like he never got the to have the childhood he deserved and had to sacrifice so much of his whole life to be what he was to all of us. Or maybe I feel awful because it seems like he never got to have much happiness in his life, growing up with Joe Jackson for a father, then being harassed and torn down in his prime by greedy, shameless people who took advantage of him and did irreparable damage to the reputation of one of the greatest musical icons to ever live (now the kid comes forward and says Michael never touched him... disgusting). One of my closest friends says everyone on this earth feels exactly as I do because when Michael died our childhoods died with him. Beautifully said.. I think it’s that the music died.. at least for me.. for now.
No one in the world has ever been able to touch the hearts of so many and no artist has ever been loved more..
I hope you see..
God bless you.