People I’m Talkin’ About
by Terry Barr
I bought my first soul single in 1970: The Temptations’ “Psychedelic Shack.” Before then, I had spent the better part of five years buying “white” records, the first of which was The Beatles’ 1966 hit “Rain”/”Paperback Writer,” which my parents made me trade to my friend Steve for his copy of Paul Mauriat and the Orchestra’s “Love is Blue.” My parents thought something was wrong with my Beatles’ record, due in part (but only in part) to the fact that when I first put it on our portable phonograph, I mistakenly left the speed on 33 rpm.
The sound of someone, in this case John Lennon, moaning.
“That’s horrible,” my parents said. “Don’t play that again!”
A few years later, I bought John Lennon’s solo record, “Mother,” and, though I played it on the right speed from the beginning, my Dad still heard the moaning, only this time it was his own as he tried to reckon with a son who had such poor taste in music. To be honest, neither of us knew a thing about “Primal Scream Therapy.”
Dad did admit, somewhere in those years, that The Beatles’ “Yesterday” and “Michelle” were pretty songs, and that McCartney played a good bass. That was the most commentary I got from him on my generation’s greatest pop idols.
My mother preferred Elvis, though she acknowledged that The Beatles were influential. To her, Elvis was seductive, sultry, sexy–similar to the way Dad considered female chanteuses from the 1950’s like Peggy Lee and Julie London.
Left to their own record-buying impulses, though, Dad would find K-Mart budget bin recordings of Dixieland music—Pete Fountain, Al Hirt—or Big Band era combos like Tommy Dorsey and Glen Miller. Mom chose feel-good orchestra leaders like Ray Coniff, Sammy Kaye, and Guy Lombardo.
Of course, they both adored Sinatra and “Strangers in the Night.”
Sometimes the best I thought we’d ever agree on in contemporary 1960’s sounds was Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, you know, the suave sounds of “The Lonely Bull.” My parents even went to one of Herb’s concerts in Birmingham, and I remember that they thought Herb’s trombone player was particularly funny. He’d make faces, they said, and generally “cut-up” between songs. I assumed back then that Herb was “Latin-born,” though I couldn’t have said which Latin area other than Mexico, perhaps, or the southernmost part of California. It turns out that his family, indeed, was from the eastside of LA. His mother’s maiden name was Goldberg, and his father’s family immigrated to the US from the Ukraine and Romania. Not even Sephardic Jews.
In 1968, I bought Herb’s biggest hit: “This Guy’s in Love with You.”
“Well, he can’t sing,” Dad said, “but he put the song over anyway.”
Dad’s favorite all-time musician, though, was another Jewish man, Benny Goodman. Like Goodman, Dad was Jewish, and he played the clarinet, way back in high school and college. But when Dad entered the service in 1944, my grandmother hocked his clarinet so she could get some gambling funds. So, though I knew my dad could play the clarinet, I never heard him do so. He’d spin Benny Goodman records all the time, but I didn’t like that rooty-tooty stuff, nor could I grasp why Dad did. I know now that it was simply a matter of kinship and taste: we gravitate toward and cling to what is familiar. Though I’ve forgotten other details about those records and those hours I spent having to listen to them, the one detail I have chosen to remember, if not forced myself to is that Goodman’s orchestra included a man who played the vibes: Lionel Hampton.
“Listen to those vibes,” Dad would say, and hearing this sentence now, you might imagine Dad was hip. On one level, you might be right: Hampton was a black man, the first black man to play in an all-white Big Band group, though I’m sure that when Goodman played in the South, Hampton was stuck back in a black hotel somewhere. And my dad’s residing in the South his entire life meant that while he also saw Goodman perform live, his view of Lionel Hampton was obscured by the fact that Hamp was hidden, segregated, off-limits. Unseen.
I’ve been racking my memory, but it seems to me that Lionel Hampton is the only black musician that my Dad ever praised, though maybe he did say a good word or two about Louis Armstrong. Nothing though about Basie and Duke and Coltrane and Parker. I should have wondered why.
My mother, at least, thought Nat King Cole and Ray Charles were good, and, like me, she was fascinated by James Brown when we’d watch him together on Dick Clark’s afternoon teen show “Where the Action Is.”
Neither of my parents, however, ever bought a record by a black artist, and again, I never wondered why. I knew without anyone ever having to tell me the words of musical segregation.
In those days, the late 60’s, I considered it victory enough that they tolerated my listening to Top 40 radio stations like Birmingham’s WSGN and WVOK—where soul music was played intentionally with all the “white” genres. Still, none of us considered, or ever would consider, tuning to the all-soul stations like WENN or WJLD, except for the time in early 1971 when my friend Frankie tuned his portable to WENN and Tall Paul, the famous soul DJ, played Tyrone Davis’s “If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time” twice in a row, something a white DJ would never do. I remember feeling on this summer night that what we were doing, what we heard, was illicit, though I wouldn’t have had that word in my head then. No, it was just the feeling of it all.
To be clear, Dad hated all forms of pop music including white rock and roll, and not because he considered it “Devil’s music.” For him and for most adults I knew in that era (and I wince as I write this), it was “jungle music.” And no, I don’t mean that erotic, semi-parody by Morris Day and The Time (circa 1984), “Jungle Love.” That phrase conjured images of Tarzan movies when “the natives grew restless.” The real intent, the sexual allusion, didn’t reach me then.
While my mother loved Elvis, she didn’t own any of his records. Nor did she ever remark on the irony of Elvis’s black musical roots and the fact that when people in the early days first heard him on the radio, recorded from Sun Studios, they just knew he was black.
To be even clearer, my parents didn’t buy that many records anyway, much less shell out the 77 cents for me to spend on 45’s. However, when they joined the Columbia Record Club in 1965, they used one of their “free” album selections to order Paul Revere and the Raiders Midnight Ride LP, featuring the hit “Kicks,” my favorite song by my then-favorite band.
I was only nine years old.
Until 1969, when I started earning my own money mowing lawns in small-town Bessemer, Alabama, mainly the records I bought, or coerced my parents to buy for me, were the latest Paul Revere songs. But in that turning point year of 1969, I began gluing my ear to the radio and started buying all the hits: “Sweet Caroline,” “Honky Tonk Women,” “Crimson and Clover,” and even the breakthrough hit by major talent Bobby Sherman, “Little Woman.” In that year, I also began the eighth grade. It was our city’s fourth year of public school integration.
Thanks to George Wallace, Bull Connor, various white churches, and the Klan, segregation had so permeated our thinking that not only wasn’t it right to drink or swim the same water, go to school with a different race, or live in a “mixed” neighborhood, it was just as wrong to openly avow a black musical group, even Diana Ross and the Supremes. This, in spite of the fact that Diana herself was from the Birmingham area, and, it was rumored, had a cousin, Velma Duncan, who in 1968 became our junior high’s school librarian. Of course, in the Birmingham of my youth, Nat King Cole was beaten live onstage by racists who didn’t like his performing in front of white audiences. Also, local radio station WVOK sponsored semi-annual “Shower of Stars” concerts where such acts as The Rolling Stones, The Dave Clark Five, Paul Revere, “Little” Stevie Wonder, and The Four Tops appeared. Separately, for in those times there was always a Black and a White shower, just like the water from those drinking fountains.
So, while I and most of my peers could list the Supremes’ hit songs, almost none of us owned, or admitted to owning, any of them. Except my friends Joe and Randy.
We can learn much from how grade-schoolers emblazon their notebooks—what they write and what colors or legends they use. For me, a simple blue Bic pen enabled me to write “Paul Revere and the Raiders” in several strategic spots on my paler blue Nifty binder. I wasn’t original. Karen Fenstemacher and Robert Carnes had adorned theirs first with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, and The Lemon Pipers. This was fifth grade, 1966, and it was the first year that my best friend, Randy Manzella, and I were in the same class. Randy had a brown college binder, and, more importantly, Randy had older siblings, Al and Vicky, who knew more than us, who saw a wider world than us.
Who loved the Motown Sound.
So, on Randy’s binder, I saw written quite boldly in black and red, the legends: The Temptations, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas.
“You listen to soul music?” I asked.
“Yeah! Don’t you? We have all their records!”
It was one of “those moments,” and I wish I could say that the fullness of an epiphany hit me. But while there was nothing full about that or any subsequent moment over the next few months, the exchange lingered. The impression lasted in my mind, though at the time I wondered if Randy and his family were doing other things that I wouldn’t understand.
Sometimes after school, I’d visit my friend Steve’s house because he and his older sister had their own record player and plenty of 45’s. Steve played “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron” for me, as well as “Georgy Girl,” “Green Tambourine,” and “Young Girl.” While grooving to my older friend’s sounds, I didn’t tell him about Randy’s taste in music; I knew better. Still, I felt as if I were betraying something on these afternoons. It turned out that my not speaking about what I knew then would be a recurring theme in my musical tastes and my attitudes about Race.
On other occasions, my family would have barbecue suppers with the Terry family across the street. Their older daughter, Mary Jane (my first girlfriend), and I were also in the same class. I’m not sure which bands were her favorites, but her older brother, Joe, a guy who would later teach me things about my recreational world, had definite tastes. One Labor Day night in particular, he got on me for my limited views:
“You haven’t heard of The Tams or The Four Tops? That’s crazy. Don’t listen to what everyone else says. It’s the only music worth dancing to.”
And then he played “Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy,” and, for the first time, I saw the Motown label itself, the heart of a northern town.
Since my family didn’t listen to the radio much back then, it really got me when my mother tuned into WSGN one late afternoon. Maybe she wanted to check on the progress of Hurricane Camille in August of 1968. What I remember most is that in the course of two hours that afternoon, the disc jockeys played The Temptations’ “I Wish It Would Rain” three times. It seemed to be always playing, though when I see that afternoon now, I think the rain was already falling.
Two years later, the winter of 1970, and amongst all the other 45’s I purchase, I now bring “Psychedelic Shack,” one of the season’s biggest hits, into my collection. I bought it at a Sears store in our mall. I didn’t wake up that morning planning on buying it, and five minutes before I selected it, I don’t think I had decided to do so or knew that I would. But when I did pick it out of the rack, no one yelled at me, no one followed me. No one tried to stop me at all. The white clerk rang it up without a word, except to thank me for shopping at Sears, and I went home, put it on the stereo, and played it over and over. Maybe my parents remarked the sound, or maybe it just blended in with the other noise they heard daily now. Maybe we had all gotten past something, and maybe I could have bought other such records any time I wanted. In any case, my world didn’t change, except for the ways it did.
Soon, I followed that purchase with by other titles: “Check Out Your Mind,” Stoned Love,” “Walk on By (the Isaac Hayes version),” and “I’ll Be There.” I regret not buying “Someday, We’ll Be Together,” not appreciating what we had until it was gone, and even today, when I hear those opening violins strumming, I’m regretful but happy. Stoned in love with a sound that for so long I refused to hear.
And yet, back then as I listened to Casey Kasem counting down the American Top Forty on the radio on Sunday nights, I know this scene occurred, too:
I’m riding with my brother in the back seat of Daddy’s car, Mom on the front passenger side. Dad lets us listen to WSGN as we drive home from visiting his mother, my MaMa. When Casey gets to the Top Ten, I keep score. How many black artists make it in, and how many white? I pull for the white ones, perhaps so Dad won’t get too upset at soul music taking over, even though he doesn’t say anything much other than to remark every now and then about the way both black and white singers say “Bay-Beh” for “baby.” I don’t know why this bothers him, and for years I don’t even try to figure it out. Today, I understand that it was all about sex, the innuendos, the emotions. A man who says “Bay-Beh” would most likely do anything with a woman, things that civilized people would supposedly shun. Back then, though, my father considers all of these sounds of the city to be trash, especially the white music that has been influenced by the black.
On most of these nights of my competition, the black artists win. Early on, though, some groups like The Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose elude my categorization.
Or perhaps I’m simply trying to convince myself that they aren’t black.
“It’s Too Late to Turn Back Now.”
In this era of my increasing awareness and ease with black music and of the expanding integration of blacks and whites into our Bessemer school system, three scenes rivet me.
During the first week of my tenth grade English class, we have forty students crammed into a space that should comfortably seat about twenty-five. It’s a hostile atmosphere, too, as black kids and white kids can’t help but sit too close to each other.
Each day I walk into that class, I expect trouble, because I know our teacher, a woman just out of grad school, can in no way keep us apart for long. Anger is smoldering. We can hardly look at each other. Then, on the fifth day, our teacher silences us with an announcement: “The following students are being moved to Mr. Thomas’ class.”
All of the names she reads off are of black students.
When she is done, and those students have left, the only two black students remaining are Cheryl Carson and Bobby Wallace.
The rest of the class cheers, and now we settle in to reading our daily assignments, which, later in the term, will include The Diary of Anne Frank.
I remember looking at Bobby when I and all the other white students were cheering. We were joyous, relieved, and all he could do was smile, briefly, and then open his reader—I mean what else could he do?
I think that, just like us, Bobby is glad to be rid of the troublemakers, the black kids who seem so ready to “start something.” Several white students actually smile at Bobby, letting him know that we welcome his staying, that, by our light, he is one of the “good ones.” To that notion, I silently agree.
The second memory occurs the following year. Our eleventh grade Humanities class is equally divided between black and white kids. I am aware of how this sounds, but in that early part of my junior year, I had no idea that a black kid could be as articulate as Veronica Taylor, Willie Mays Hayes, and especially Diane Richmond are.
Diane is the most soft-spoken one, soft in her volume at least, though not so much in tone. My best friend Jimbo and I consider her “haughty.” She wears a medium-sized Afro and silver glasses. I think she is pretty, or at least I think so now because back then I cannot admit even to myself that a black girl could be pretty. Some days Diane speaks politely, but firmly, about our literature, about the state of the world, about things that “you all don’t understand.” I remember thinking she was touchy about Race, but more than anything, I remember thinking she was smart. I wish I had thought to wonder about her parents, her home life, her world and all its influences. I didn’t though. Then one day a window opened slightly. Someone was talking about music, some random hit song, and Diane—and I swear you could hear the dreaminess in her voice—says,
“Well, all I know is that whenever I hear Billy Paul sing ‘Me and Mrs. Jones,’ I just want to die.”
“Me and Mrs. Jones,” a song about a torrid, yet adulterous love. I knew the song and it was a big hit. I think about this now: while Diane was dreaming of the man who loved a married woman, I and my white peers were moving in time to “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” or “Slow Ride.” Such separate worlds.
I have never thought or said these words until now: I had a crush on Diane Richmond.
Though I have been married for thirty-three years, I sometimes wonder at how lucky I am to have found someone, how lucky any of us who were young back then was, given that we so willingly limited our possible loves, even our thoughts about those loves, to a certain type, a definite color.
At the end of that year, another moment, another musical interlude occurred. The scene of our annual “Tiger Talent” show.
Anyone could rehearse and compete in the show doing anything “talented,” but most of the performers were singers or bands. The Key Club, a white boys’ social club affiliated with the Kiwanis, sponsored a rock band. My friends Joe, Russ, and Steve were members, and they seemed to bring the house down with their rendition of Santana’s “Evil Ways.” They were followed by a group of five black guys who sang and danced to Heatwave’s “Boogie Nights.” The house came down again.
Of course, the house that came down for each act was color-coded.
Finally, a girl in my class, Joyce Williams, got on stage wearing a long, dark gown and a hat perched coyly over one side of her brow. She had three guys and backup vocalists and, in complete rhythm, they performed Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “If I Were Your Woman.” Joyce’s voice was deeper than Knight’s, and I wanted to vote for her at that moment. I thought it was her bravery, but in the end, it was simply her. In that moment, and I hope this makes sense, she became a girl to me.
Staying silent and true to my race, however, I voted for the Key Club band, which came in third place. Joyce came in second, and the Boogie Nights crew won. The black students were vocally victorious, the white students claimed the show was rigged, but off to the side stood Joyce, an otherwise quiet girl, a student none of us had really noticed until that night, that performance, that moment of high school fame. I know I could have lied and only said I voted for the Key Clubbers, and gone ahead and voted my conscience, but I didn’t. If only future regret could transcend present, misguided loyalty.
On the very next day, I bought a copy of “If I Were Your Woman,” a minor homage at best.
“Let me tell you ‘bout a place I know.”
It was five years after I bought my first record before I purchased one by a black artist. It was another three and a half years after that fact before I entered the home of a black person. Exponentially-speaking, I guess that math wasn’t so bad.
My mother and I are driving home from Jess Lanier High. In planning, it was supposed to be an all-white school built in the more elite, western end of town, named to honor our mayor, a George Wallace man if ever there was one. We’ve been to a meeting for those students going on the spring break trip to Europe (Holland, West Germany, and Switzerland). It’s storming outside, and Mom is allowing me to drive, though, as usual, her foot keeps mashing her imaginary brake. On Fourth Avenue, I try driving fast through what appears to be a good-sized puddle, but it must be a foot deep. Our white Gran Torino stalls, and I must get out in the rain and walk up to the closest house to ask a stranger if I can use their phone to call Dad.
We are in an all-black neighborhood.
I climb the porch steps, knock on the house door, a house perhaps just a shade plainer than ours in a neighborhood twenty blocks away.
An older man answers, and, when I tell him what I need, he opens his door wide.
“But my feet are soaked and I don’t want to track mud across your carpet.”
“Well, never mind that. You need help, and, after all, we’re just people.”
He doesn’t smile at that but leads me straight to the phone.
After I call Dad, this man, surely in his 70’s, makes me wait inside until my father comes. My mother sits in the car, wondering.
After Dad arrives, we push the car to higher ground, and soon the car starts again. I wave to the man in the house, and, as I drive away, I look back to where he is still standing on his porch, watching.
Today, I have occasion to drive past this section of town quite often when I visit my mother. I live in another state, and she and Dad moved two decades ago to a neighborhood near our former high school. You should see how all the color has changed in the intervening years. Still, try as I might, I cannot remember exactly which house was our sanctuary that winter night forty-three years ago. If I’m right, it’s a white house, the one with the red porch and steps. It’s pretty much run down, though, and sometimes I wonder if it’s still occupied, and if so, who lives there.
And if so, what music they’re playing.
Just this past weekend I drive by again, though I notice that three of the houses, all in a row, have red porch steps. I don’t know which one it is any longer, that is, if I ever really knew it. My childhood friend Joe is driving and helping me locate sites for an essay I’m writing on the Klan’s presence in my hometown. I have discovered that a Klansman involved in the murder of Viola Liuzzo—the white woman who was driving Civil Rights marchers back to Selma from Montgomery in 1964—lived only seven blocks from my family’s home. We find the house, which is now occupied by a black family. I take a furtive photograph for my story, furtive only because a young woman is sitting on the porch.
“We could stop and ask her permission, tell her what you want,” Joe says.
“You mean, tell her that a violent Klansman used to live here? And that we want to record this landmark for a story about my past? No, not a good idea.”
I wonder if I’m rationalizing. I wonder whom I’m protecting: her or me?
I’m also amazed at myself. I always thought this part of Fairfax Avenue, my home street, was completely populated by black families. Joe tells me that, no, white families lived through this area, interspersed among black families, separated somehow by this particular avenue. Amidst so many black families, there lived a Klansman. His house, surely even then, was no better or worse than the ones surrounding it.
Then I realize that not only did I live so close, but just a few streets down from this hatemonger’s house, our family maid, Dissie, also dwelled when I first knew her. Did she know? Did we? Did anybody?
Is it better to live with knowledge or without?
In this moment, I wonder again about Velma Duncan, Diana Ross, and Diane Richmond. Did they live nearby too, and if they did, or regardless whether they did, how did their lives change by what they saw, or breathed?
As Joe and I drive away from this house, these memories, we see a guy walking by. His t-shirt strikes me. It’s purple and gold, and has the legend “Straight Out of Old Jonesboro” printed on it.
“Hey,” I say to Joe. “I love that shirt. Let’s stop and ask him where he got it.”
“OK,” Joe says. “But be prepared to drive away fast if we need to.”
I don’t ask him why he says this. I know what he’s seen in his life. But this is a sunny Saturday afternoon, and I can’t believe there could be any trouble. Despite what I feel, despite what I want to be true, I don’t say anything in return, don’t challenge his authority.
When we pull alongside the guy, I shout out, “Hey man, I love your shirt! Where’d you get it?”
“Oh, this? It was some neighborhood gathering, a barbecue, and they were just givin’ out these shirts.”
He looks as if he can’t believe we really thought the shirt was cool, that that was why we stopped him. We thank him and drive on, and I still wonder what all he’s wondering, what it was like for him to be stopped by two older white men in a black Mercedes.
Joe says, “Old Jonesboro is the oldest part, the first settled part of Bessemer,” and then he drives us to the exact locale. I never knew the name of this section of town, much less that it was the first settlement of our town. The Jonesboro I know, the “new” Jonesboro was a formerly all-white neighborhood, and Old Jonesboro is, and always was, black. And now it’s just a collection of old shacks.
As I was thinking through all I didn’t know, what I still have before me to learn, on the Classic Rock Sirius station, the plaintive anthem of the Jefferson Airplane’s “We Can Be Together” begins.
There truly aren’t any coincidences in this world. That’s what my therapist says, anyway.
I think, though, about how these events, these limitations and fears and biases, have shaped me, and whether it’s possible to shed the damage done. Is it possible to heal, to embrace my failures as a part of me, a real part of me, and set them free? Or at least to talk about them, now, at this late date? To hear the sound of my own weakness?
I hope so. I’m still listening, too, to the sounds of the music of my life, my whole life, and though there are some genres I’ll never like—Gangsta Rap, Contemporary Christian, New Country—last week I bought the latest from Lady GAGA, Spoon, and A Tribe Called Quest. I know my parents wouldn’t appreciate the latter group’s “We the People,” but in our current age—I refuse to call it by the name of the man in the White House—listening to satirical taunts like “All you Mexicans, you must go, and all you Black folks, you must go… and all you poor folks you must go…Muslims and Gays, Boy we hate your ways,” I think about all that I was missing back then in those halcyon and segregated days of my musical past. All that I was hiding. And all the people, then and now, who will, I hope, forgive.
[Check out Terry’s back porch wisdom here]