Sidney Poitier, though born in Miami, was reared in the Bahamas, and he arrived in New York in 1943 with nothing but a thick accent and great ambition. I didn't know Sidney was from the Caribbean when I watched his work as a kid, which was good, since it would have made me view him negatively. Before Bob Marley and Rastafarianism put an Afrocentric, rootsy spin on Caribbean culture, I'd always viewed its transplanted natives (an upper-crust merchant class had been settled in Brooklyn for years) as snobby, snotty, and uppity. They had houses, first in Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights, and later in Flatlands, East Flatbush, and Flatbush proper. I went to school with their kids. I visited their neat little homes. I felt the odd condescending tone in adult voices. I sensed that they felt it was a shame I lived in the projects and my parents were from “down South,” and not Trinidad, Barbados, or Jamaica. My last name was George (a typical last name of colonized folk), but my domestic pedigree made me suspect, even if they thought I was “a bright boy.”
Sidney, whose career was built on masquerading as an African American, successfully avoided our prejudices. The very qualities I admired in Sidney were the things that made me resent the Caribbean folks I knew. The funny thing is that the regal bearing he projected would, in another context, have seemed insufferably superior. The most sympathetic thing about Rod Steiger's redneck sheriff in
In the Heat of the Night
was that the poor guy had to grapple with Sir Sid at his most lordly. It's one of the few parts where Poitier's haughtiness often overcomes his natural charm, resulting in one of his deepest characterizations.
Even in the wilting southern heat the second button on his suit always stayed closed. Anger flashed across his face when he slapped a racist Southern patriarch, and when he shouted, “I'm a police officer!” at Steiger's bewildered sheriff. But flash was all he did. Righteously angry, yes, but never so consumed by it that he was reckless or stupid. To see an entitled black man projected on a huge movie screen was an amazing thing in 1967. My mother made sure I experienced Poitier as much as possible. During his amazing run in 1967 of
In the Heat of the Night; To Sir, with Love;
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
, we saw them all. At ten years old I was given a crash course in sepia-toned white-collar masculinity. Because of his character, intelligence, and confidence, Sidney Poitier became the man I wanted to be. If he existed, even if it was just onscreen, I could, maybe for a moment, maybe just when I needed to, be Sidney Poitier. For a boy without a father, Sidney became a very useful role model.
Every morning in the sixties my family woke up to WLIB's
Soul at Sunrise
, a broadcast hosted by the mellow and melodious Eddie O'Jay, a baritone by way of Cleveland and, yes, the vocal group was named after him. The title
Soul at Sunrise
was no corny phrase eitherâit was accurate. LIB had one of those funky sunrise-to-sunset licenses most black stations at the end of the AM dial were saddled with, so O'Jay's show started both our days and LIB's.
Every school day started with syncopated organ accompanied by drums. Eddie's voice was low and slightly raspy, with precise elocution that sounded as good selling Nu Nile hair grease as it did introducing Shorty Long's “Function at the Junction.” O'Jay had a rhythm-and-blues voice that prodded but didn't push you out of bed. His voice let you catch another minute or so under the covers before you reluctantly gave in to the necessity of washing up, eating breakfast, and taking a rowdy bus ride to school. So for years our radio was set at 1190 on the AM dial.
There were secrets on
Soul at Sunrise
that it took me years to decipher. O'Jay would announce “BYOBB” parties for the coming weekend. Took me a while to get someone to tell me that meant “bring your own brown bag,” aka no alcohol was served but you could bring your own, a reflection of the fact that many black-oriented clubs didn't have a liquor license.
Another sample of O'Jay's shows were ads for the Boston Road Ballroom, a magical uptown nightspot I never got to visit, that every few months housed the
Jewel Box Revue
. Again it took me into my adolescence to find out that the
Jewel Box Revue
was a touring troupe of female impersonators. It was weird to me that “punks” and “faggots” were so reviled by the adults around me, yet people would pay money to see men dressed up as women.
By the time I was old enough to figure out what the Jewel Box was, LIB was being replaced at our home by technology. The black owners of LIB purchased a station on the FM band and called it BLS, which, in the Black Power-influenced early seventies, was known as the “black liberation station,” though it ultimately liberated only our listening habits, which ended up being more than enough. Out was the AM static at the end of the dial and the restrictions of daylight broadcasting. In was full-bodied sound twenty-four hours a day. Now we were experiencing the lush colors of music made by Curtis Mayfield, Gamble and Huff, and Barry White. Where LIB had been gritty and kinda country in its on-air style, BLS embodied the upwardly mobile class consciousness of college-educated blacks and those with white-collar aspirations.
WBLS's morning man was Ken “Spider” Webb, an avuncular brother with the demeanor of a suburban father gathering up his sleepyhead kids. No ads for the Boston Road Ballroom, the
Jewel Box Revue
, or Nu Nile hair grease on BLS. Webb would announce “the color of the day,” and scores of black New Yorkers would dig out their green slacks or black sweaters or yellow socks to match Webb's request. Sometimes you'd be on the bus or subway to school, and you'd spot black folk sporting Webb's colors, and found yourself part of a warm, connected family of listeners.
While Webb set a family tone in the morning, it was Frankie “Hollywood” Crocker, the afternoon-drive-time jock, who truly defined the station. In terms of cultural impact in New York City, Crocker was to the seventies what Jay-Z later became at the turn of the centuryâa style icon and an arbiter of cool. As the city's top-rated afternoon DJ, BLS's program director, and New York's leading black concert promoter, Crocker's musical selections helped define New York taste for many. Crocker's voice was a luscious, low tenor, well matched to a smooth, glib delivery and a suave arrogance that allowed him to say, “If I'm not on your radio, your radio isn't on,” and pull it off.
Reed thin, with a well-maintained Afro (that evolved into curls and a perm as the decade progressed), Crocker was a certifiable Big Apple sex symbol, who once celebrated his birthday by riding into Studio 54 on a white horse. In the early seventies the station's slogan was “The total black experience in sound,” and it very much was that with a wide range of nonsingles-driven artists, like Jon Lucien, Marlena Shaw, and Grover Washington Jr., who he featured alongside Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind, and Fire, and the Ohio Players.
But as BLS's reach grew, so did its ambitions. Could a black station redefine its identity and capture the pop market? By the time I was in college BLS was calling its format “urban contemporary” and its slogan became “the world's best-looking sound.” Crocker expanded the playlist to include the Rolling Stones (“Miss You”), Queen (“Another One Bites the Dust”), and all the disco you could standâSilver Convention (“Fly, Robin, Fly”), Cerrone (“Supernature”), Salsoul Orchestra (“Brazil”), and more. Crocker was living a crossover life, and the station reflected this. For a while this programming strategy worked, making BLS the city's number-one station, the first time a black-owned broadcaster had earned that distinction. Black radio had traveled a very long way from WLIB.
Despite the black community's collective pride in this success, as a young listener I felt increasingly that the station's playlist was missing something. Funk bands that were huge within the national black community (Cameo, Con Funk Shun, the Bar-Kays) and a slew of still vital deep soul survivors (Bobby Womack, Candi Staton, Millie Jackson) either didn't get played at BLS or only got played if they made “disco”-sounding records. And without Crocker's support they rarely got booked to play clubs, much less concerts, in New York. Moreover, not only did I miss what I wasn't hearing, I actively disliked much of what Crocker played, feeling that in building its ratings BLS had turned away from the black community that LIB and early BLS programming had embodied.
Over time my personal discomfort with BLS's direction evolved into a sense of betrayal that fired me up to write about music. By the time I was attending college I had come to believe that the musical (and social) values I'd grown up with were being replaced by music that was plastic and robotic. Looking back, I see that it was a profound desire to conserve the old soul music values that drove my interest in music criticism. The thing that saved me from being just another critic using the past to beat up on the present (the jazz world is full of them on and off the bandstand) is my curiosity. I loved Otis Redding like an uncle (and he was more a presence in my house growing up than any of my real uncles), but my taste never calcified.
For example, I knew Luther Vandross was special the first time I heard him sing with a studio group called Change. You can't find two singers from the same soul tradition more different in vocal quality, approach, and demeanor than Otis Redding and Luther Vandross. And yet both spoke to me and, on more than one occasion, made me tear up and cry. They wrote songs that communicated deep emotionâjust as R. Kelly does today (in his rare lucid, nonobscene moments).
There's a space where tradition and innovation coexist, where to revere the past is not to close your ears off to the present. Trying to find artists who did both, and studying how they did it, was a central theme of my life well before I was writing for a living. In retrospect, reconciling the revolution in radio from LIB to BLS, from AM to FM, from the rooted sounds of soul to the upscale ambitions of eighties pop, has been an obsession of mine since the mornings of
Soul at Sunrise
HANGING WITH CAPTAIN AMERICA
In the sixties I, like scores of future writers, was a member of the Merry Marvel Marching Society. I still have the oversized button I received for my membership fee featuring the comic book faces of Captain America, the Hulk, the Thing, and Spider-Man. In the Tilden projects I was not alone in my allegiance to the Marvel Universe. Along with my three best friends, Junior Williams (a lanky jock with a house full of family), Gary Smith (a stocky West Indian who could hit a stickball pitch a mile), and Dan Parks (a skinny, horn-rims-wearing bookworm like myself), I assiduously collected Marvel's superhero soap operas every week with my allowance money. All of us lived in 315 Livonia, and would travel in a pack down to the newsstands by the Rockaway subway station to pick up the latest installments.
It was Marvel, by the way, and almost exclusively Marvel. D.C. Comics never held my interest for any length of time. I'd look at Batman and Superman from time to time. Maybe sample the Green Lantern or the Justice League, but the D.C. format, in which evil was dispatched at the end of each issue, seemed way too easy. It didn't pull you along the way Marvel's stories did, and none of the D.C. comic heroes, save the odd Batman story, had the complexity of Marvel's many tortured souls.
As a budding student of history I gravitated to Captain America, not because I felt particularly patriotic, but 'cause I loved the World War II backstory, and his unending jousting with the Red Skull, a Nazi villain who, like Captain America, had somehow survived the war (and the decades) in fine fighting shape. That Captain America was endlessly tortured by the death of his protÃ©gÃ©, Bucky Barnes, resonated with me as well. In Cap's angst over the loss of Barnes, I projected some of my feelings about my absent father. That could be the adult me grasping for significance, but there had to be some reason I chose Captain America's dilemma as my own, instead of Spider-Man's troubled love for Mary Jane, Iron Man's fragile heart, or the Hulk's uncontrollable fury.
Any homoerotic yearnings in Captain America's constant moaning for Bucky went well over my head. Back in the Ville when I was growing up, if you were a punk or a faggot, you were castigated as effeminate or womanly. Captain America was an ass-kicking hero. There's no way he loved Bucky in any way other than fellowship. Yet when I look back at those many issues where Cap mooned over his young charge (and never had a real love interest from World War II to the sixties), it all does seem a bit queer now.
Anyway, I followed Cap in his own comic as well as in the Avengers, where a collective of superheroes gathered at Tony Stark's palatial Manhattan mansion (Stark being Iron Man's secret identity) to meet, train, battle intergalactic evil, and balance their outsized egos with the unending job of saving the Earth from destruction. Captain America was the only Avenger without some super or plain old special powers: Thor was the mythological god of thunder; Hawkeye was the world's greatest archer; Iron Man was cloaked in a computerized suit of hi-tech armor, etc. All old Cap had were some amazing reflexes and a red, white, and blue shield with a star in the middle. He was the Avenger's most mortal hero, and I one very mortal fan.