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February 2019

Black History Month 2019 Redux

Greetings and welcome to Black History Month once again! Seems like there is a whole lot of history being made now, and some of it is ugly.  How's that yearbook photo working out? I'll share a yearbook photo of my own, if you read the rest of this page, when I throw in a little "personal" black history from New Jersey in the 1970s.

How about we go back to some safe territory and enjoy some songs that were originally sung by black artists, then covered by white people. In my opinion, both versions are really good, but I will attempt to pick the winner.  The key point here is to learn about the original source. 

You could write an entire college thesis on the contributions of 1950's rhythm and blues on civil rights.  But you don't have to, someone already did us a solid, and you can download it for free.

Carol (Chuck Berry)

The catalog of Chuck Berry songs that have been covered is so long, it is hard to pick a song to compare.  Let's look at the original "Carol" and compare it to the Rolling Stones version. The song is a great example of the I - I - VI - I beat that was born in the blues and became a staple in Rock and Roll. But it is also the premier example of how to bend notes, perhaps most-famously used by Jimmy Hendricks when he played Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock nearly fifty years ago.  In Berry's Carol, you will hear the coolest wah-wah sound at sixty seconds in, and again at 1:18.

 

Now check out the 1964 live version of the Rolling Stones on the Mike Douglas Show.  A most sorrowful note-bending audio experience.  Maybe Keith Richards was a little nervous or was off his "meds".

Down on Me (Unknown)

If you are of a certain age and attended Montville Township High School in the 1970s and took an electronics class with Mr. Batson, you will remember that the only tape he provided for troubleshooting eight-track players was "Janice Joplin's Greatest Hits," most of which were recorded with the group Big Brother and the Holding Company. You might have memorized songs such as Piece of My Heart, Mercedes Benz, Get it While You Can and of course Down on Me.  With an eight track tape you never saw the album liner notes, so you thought that the song was an original work, but it is certainly not. Janis Joplin joined the "27 club" on 4 October 1970.  I am pretty sure Mr. Batson served in Viet Nam, not sure if that tape was also in southeast Asia.  The album version was recorded live and is awesome in my opinion. But maybe my opinion can't be trusted?  Once you understand the science of imprinting musical tastes, you are ready to move on and expand your listening pleasure.

Down on Me, recorded live, by Big Brother and the Holding Company featuring Janice Joplin

So, so, where did Big Brother and the Holding Company get that song?  Wikipedia lists Down on Me as "traditional", another way of saying "we don't know".  It is not listed on negrospirituals.com but it seems like it should be. Deacon Leon Davis made the first known recording of it, but I could not find it.  So we will settle for a recording from 1940, by Doc Reed, sung acapella. Down on Me fit in well with Depression-era America. One of these days I will transcribe the lyrics of both versions.  Doc Reed's rendition is far more depressing than Janis's.

Down on Me by Doc Reed

Dr. Robert Stafford (not sorry, but no music involved here...)

Let's look at some Montville Township High School history while we are on the subject.... none of the names below have been changed to protect the innocent, as they have all passed on.  Back in the early 1970s, MTHS was a new high school, not even accredited yet.  Because of the way it was  boot-strapped, some of us spent five years there.  Talk about bullying, you don't want to be a puny eighth grader on the bus with seniors, unless you have some cigarettes to bribe them.

One of the math teachers was Dr. Robert Stafford, simply known as "Mr. Stafford". Outside of school he was familiar to some of us, as his family was in the paving business.  They had paved my family's 900 foot driveway several times.  In a predominately white town (99%) they stood out as they were African Americans.  Back in those days paving was much harder, the asphalt was dumped from a truck into wheel barrows, distributed, then hand spread with rakes.  Robert Stafford worked summers with the paving crew.  Not a tall man, but built like a barrel from raking all that $&#@. I know it is called  $&#@ as I once worked for a mason, and about the best thing anyone ever called semi-liquid stuff that you wheelbarrow is "mud".  Dr. Stafford was a Tuskeegee graduate and a true gentleman, I assume he called out for "an additional allocation of bituminus aggregate" or some such when it was his turn for a wheelbarrow load.  He was quiet-spoken and taught the rudiments of calculus in an advanced algebra class, which helped my SAT scores for sure. The school had yet to offer real calculus, a major awakening to those of us who later went to engineering schools.

At some point in my five years there, Dr. Stafford was promoted to assistant principal, and became well-known to the student body as he often spoke at assembies and appeared at football games.  Perhaps around 1973 the high school procured a "universal gym", a modern weight set with pulleys and weights adjusted with pins.  Mr. Stafford stopped by during gym class, and wanted to try it out.  He chose the bench press station. Stafford took off his jacket (he was always dressed in suit and tie, even as a math teacher) and laid down on the bench.  I think the intent was to embarrass him, like a practical joke: someone put the pin on the weight set to the bottom of the stack (240 lbs if memory serves).  With no effort, he hefted the weight up, and then we heard a big ripping noise.  Turns out when his chest expanded, his shirt gave way, and ripped all the way up the back.  Yes, he was probably embarrassed, but cool as a cucumber he stood up and put his jacket back on, thanked us for the demonstration and went back to his office.

In the spring of 1976, for some reason the pricipal left his job, causing a vacancy.  All of us naively expected Mr. Stafford to be promoted, but it was up to the school board, a group of all-white (of course) adults who didn't spend a lot of time with the students. Soon they announced that they were bringing in a "Mr Calabria" (actually, Dr. Frank Calabria) to be our next principal. Here we need to point out that kids growing up in the 1970s were the most jaded generation in history, having witnessed the president leaving office, losing the Viet Nam war, and cancellation of Nasa's Apollo program.  Our football team sucked, the only team they ever beat was a tiny vo-tech school.  Athletic and band uniforms were the cheapest materials and ugly. The senior class traditionally did an artwork project to brighten up the school to leave as a legacy.  Two years earlier, the class valedictorian painted the senior lounge with an amazing menagery of animals. It was quite a lot of effort as the lounge was in a stairwell so the painting was two stories high.  For our Senior Project, someone brought in a paint roller and painted over her mural.  Nevertheless, the new Principal announcement caused protesting, tears, and a student walkout.  At some point Mr. Stafford told us the decision was OK, but I am here to tell you he was dissappointed as well.

Before I go on, let me say thar Dr. Calabria was well suited for the job, and is well remembered for his service in education...

So, what do jaded high school seniors with one foot out the door do to heal their feelings?  They hold a "deface Calabria" contest. His picture was in the student paper, so you ripped it out, scribbled on a beard or whatever and posted it in the Senior lounge.  An ad hoc committee got together and picked a winner: the best effort was the work of Robert Emmett Patrick Pollard III (that's the name he went by), and the title was Franken-Calabria. Pollard was far more clever that the average student but was often bullied because he was not born in Montville.  He used amazing wit and wisdom to subdue his tormentors.

The image below is from a MTHS yearbook, signed by "Pollard III", from the Unknown Editor's private collection.  Note that in this yearbook, on the only page that contains the only photo of the only African American employed by the school, a white guy is being made sport of. Further note that the sleeves and back panel on Dr. Robert Stafford's suit seems to be under significant tension....and that's gotta be an 18 inch collar on his shirt.

When I got my report card at the end of the final term, I had an F in gym class, because I never went to it, which should have caused me not to graduate.  I am pretty sure Mr. Stafford had a hand in fixing that for me. And thanks again, Mom! (My mother was head librarian at the school). Mr. Stafford probably didn't want to see this hoodlum for another year!

Dr. Stafford died in 1997, I believe from complications due to diabetes. 

Dr. Calabria died in 2015.

Robert Emmett Patrick Pollard III died in 2012 at his home in Austria; he probably moved there to put some distance between him and his high school experience.

Montville's trubute to Dr, Stafford appears on Wikipedia:

"The Auditorium of the High School is named in Honor of Dr. Robert O. Stafford. Dr. Stafford was raised in the township and was a long time teacher and Administrator at MTHS. Beloved by both students and staff for his integrity, character and devotion to the school, his name is thus memorialized."

One further piece of Montville history.  James Hicks (Jimmy to his friends), one of Montville's African 1%ers, was in the marching band as drummer in the 1970s.  Someone (perhaps Jimmy) literally sawed two tom-tom drums in half and mounted them to a harness.  Voila, we thought we had the best marching band drummer in the state!  Kind of like this:

 

The Tide is High (John Holt)

Here's a song that was popularized in the late seventies. The lead singer is Debbie Harry.  It is sheer coincidence that the group is named Blondie, don't you think?

Tide is High by Blondie

I'd bet that 99% of people listening to the Blondie version think it was an original.  Not true, it was originally cut by the Paragons, in 1967.  The Paragons were from Jamaica, a ska band (ska begat reggae), and one of their members wrote Tide is High.

Tide is High by the Paragons

I'll offer Blondie and the Paragons a tie on this song, especially since Blondie kept that ska beat. Andy Warhol's iconic painting of Debbie Harry sold for $5.9M back in 2011, a fact that must be weighed into her inpact on music...

Ain't Too Proud to Beg (Norman Whitfield and Edward Holland)

OK, it's back to the Rolling Stones to see if they can redeem themselves.  Here they are in the1970s, in full foppery.  Back in the 1950s if you dressed like that you might be called a "poofter", a derogatory term.  Nowadays, who even tries to analyze another man's clothing? The Stones provided a great live version of Ain't too Proud, IMO.  The song was written by two of the most prolific African American song writers of the 1960s, Whitfield and Holland.

Ain't Too Proud to Beg by the Rolling Stones

Now here's the original singer, David Ruffin, who was with the Temptations at the time.  This is a voice track without instruments, so you can really appreciate the artist. Note the octave rises, Mike Jagger didn't even attempt them. Score one for David Ruffin.

Ain't Too Proud to Beg by David Ruffin

Summary

In this battle of the bands, the there were two ties and two victories for the original African American artists. The Rolling Stones, "the Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World" unfortunately didn't deliver on their two entries.

Check out the Unknown Editor's amazing archives when you are looking for a way to screw off for a couple of hours or more!

Fan/hate mail can always be sent to UE@microwaves101.com

 

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