Archive for February, 2010

A Prescription For Disaster!

Posted in On Foreign Affairs with tags , , , , , on February 24, 2010 by playthell

 On American Military Provocations to China and Russia

 

 Missiles from China’s Mighty Red Army

 

Is President Obama Trapped by myths masquerading as history?

Since we know that President Obama is a highly intelligent man who, for the most part, has pursued a foreign policy that is something different and something more than that of his predecessor, there seems to be only one rational explanation for some of the irrational decisions the Obama administration is making in dealing with China and Russia in military matters. They are locked in a master narrative that bears little resemblance to historical truth or present reality! 

Although the administration’s foreign policy wonks must recognize the folly of these ideas, they dare not break free of this ideological prison for fear of political retribution from a woefully ignorant and increasingly paranoid electorate; an untutored mob who can easily be whipped into frenzy by right wing Republican demagogues and their point men – the verbose hysterics who dominate AM talk radio.  A poignant example of the extent to which they are servants of historical fictions is the Obama administration’s decision to sell advanced military weaponry to the de-facto island nation of Taiwan – which the Chinese have contended for over half a century is a part of China.  This is a clear insult to Chinese prestige and a threat to their national security.

To compound the insult and heighten the threat congress bans the sale of these same sophisticated weapons systems to China!  Fifty years ago, when US policy on this issue was formulated, the US could get away with such offensives with impunity. But it could prove very costly in today’s world.  China is no longer a technologically backward semi-fuedal nation in the process of modernization; it is a financial power that is the major US creditor, and a rapidly raising technological colossus whose universities are turning out ten times the number of engineers as US universities.

Furthermore, the Chinese have a massive well armed and trained military which would prove invincible in the face of any land invasion. This means that in the event of a conflict our military options would rapidly turn to nuclear weapons.  General Douglass McArthur understood this a half century ago, and warned that America could not prevail in a land war against “the limitless legions of China.” Even then, when China’s military was a far inferior force, the general advocated dropping the A bomb on them.  So the question thoughtful Americans should now be asking is: What would be the US response if China decided to attack and annex Tiawan?

President Bush’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from the Anti-ballistic Missile treaty in 2002 – which forbade the deployment of missile defense systems except in one location on their home territory and prohibited developing advanced technology that would cover larger areas – was bad enough. But President Obama’s decision to build a defensive missile shield in nations that were once allied with Russia is an even more dangerous game.  It justifies my skepticism about keeping Robert Gates as defense secretary; his hand is everywhere in this misguided decision. In a New York Times column of September 20, 2009 Gates confessed:  “I have been a strong supporter of missile defense ever since President Ronald Reagan first proposed it in 1983. But I want to have real capacity as soon as possible, and to take maximum advantage of new technologies to combat future threats.” 

President Obama’s Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, Ellen Tauscher, who is negotiating the agreements for deploying these defensive systems in eastern Europe, is also a longtime advocate of missile defense.  As the Chairman of the Strategic Forces Sub-committee of the House Armed services committee, she avidly supported Bush’s plan to build an anti-missile shield in Eastern Europe, even though she was a Democrat from California and most of her party opposed it.  Hence Ms. Tauscher’s appointment to her present position begs the question of President Obama’s real intentions when he announced that he was scrapping Bush’s plans to build the shield.  For, according to Under Secretary Tauscher, the Obama plan would provide for earlier deployment and cover a wider area than the system proposed by President Bush!  It’s beginning to look like the old “bait and switch,” a diplomatic bunko game.

Predictably, the Russians have declared these developments – and NATO expansion in general – to be a threat to their national security.  The Russian envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, announced to the press: “Maybe it’s against Iran, but that same system can be targeted against any other country, including Russia’s strategic nuclear potential. The U.S. is using Iran’s actions to globalize its system of missile defense….Our military shouldn’t believe some promises or intentions. We need to go on the assumption that a foreign military potential is approaching our borders.”  This has become the basic assumption of the “New Military Policy,” which calls NATO and US actions one of “the main external threats of war.”  Yet this doctrine will guide Russian military planning for the next ten years. And the comment of Igor Korotchenko, a retired Colonel who edits the National Defense Magazine, should certainly give cause for a pause.  “Russia must warn Romania that if the elements of the US missile shield are placed in the country they will become a target of Russia’s preventive missile strikes.”

The critical questions here are: Does the Obama administration believe the Russians are bluffing?   And if not, are we prepared to go to war with Russia to defend Romania if they are attacked?   What would happen to the Obama Presidency if the US were forced to back down?  And most important of all: Is any of this in the national interests of the United states or are they just playing politics?   The fate of the Obama Presidency is not the only thing hanging in the balance here…but the fate of the earth as well.

 This Russian Nuclear Missile Can hit Washington in 30 minutes!

  

 

***************

 Harlem, New York

Feburary 24, 2010

Let They Who are Without Sin Cast The First Stone!

Posted in Cultural Matters with tags , , , on February 19, 2010 by playthell

 

 Tigers Woods Confesses His Sins

 

I often wondered what the A in sportscaster Steven A’s name means.  Now I know: Asshole!  Of all the asinine, self righteous, pompous commentators who have weighed in on the Tiger Woods affair – or affairs to be accurate – none is more annoying than Steven A.  Donning his fake masque of indignation that he seems able to pull out of his bag of tricks at will, like a clown who can cry on cue, his condemnation of Tiger was merciless.   Little Steve’s pious posture and rhetorical chastisement of the great golfer was way over the top.  

Listening to him talk, I got the impression that he is so desperate to get off the sidelines – where recently he has been consigned to riding the pine – and back into the big time media game he will do anything to bring attention to himself.  And giving up the head of golf’s main man seems to be part of his putrid plan.  To listen to this guy you would think Tiger was accused of committing mass murder…like Dirty Dick Cheney, about whom he had little or nothing to say in his ill fated appearances as a news commentator on MSNBC, where he offered embarrasingly simple mind opinions.    Hence I wonder how much of his rant is inspired by plain old jealousy; since Steve’s performance in his field is mediocre at best, perhaps he’s just a diabolical hater!

But while Stevie may be at the bottom of the barrel of mediocre haters in the media – many of whom would gladly have traded places with Tiger in the boudoirs of those alabaster hotties he was stroking – he is not alone in his pious condemnations of the great golfer.  Some of the golfing press announced that they were boycotting Tiger’s press conference because he was not taking questions.  Well, as a reporter, that strikes me as cutting off your nose to spite your face.  This story is so big they cannot ignore it without risking the wrath of their editors and readers, who may wish to have a first hand account of the mood and atmosphere in the room, or what others in attendance might have been thinking.

As for Tiger’s performance, it reminded me of the occasion when the King of England presented himself to the Archbishop of Canterbury to endure a public flogging for his sins.  Although he was sad and humble, he was also stiff as a stuffed turkey and it was obvious his every word was seriously considered and carefully crafted.  He would be a fool to have done it otherwise.  Hence the skeptical observer might well wonder if he was really feeling contrite or was secretly wishing the earth would open up and swallow his inquisitors. 

After all, its really none of any of our business.   Like he eventually said, this is really a matter between Tiger and his wife.   Yet he apologized to everybody but Pete the Tramp; which he really didn’t have to do.   Hence the thoughtful observer must need wonder if he was rendering his apology with an eye toward salvaging his endorsement deals.  But no worry, for as Karl Marx correctly point out: ‘The capitalists will sell the hangman the rope to hang them with…if they believe they can turn a profit!

In any case, I am not so shocked or scandalized to learn that Tiger was laying pipe outside the house.  After all, it’s not as if he is a child molester, in his failing he has fared no worse that David, Samson and Solomon: three of the greatest men in the bible.  And he is following in the footsteps of many a pious Republican politician. That’s why I was incredulous when a self-righteous Republican putz advised Tiger to turn to Christianity for salvation from his sinful ways, since professions of faith in Christian dogma obviously hadn’t saved them!   

Hence it was a highpoint for me when Tiger announced that he was turning to the Buddist teachings of his beloved mother to find solace for his cheating heart. It seems that the Republicans, like many of the media wags throwing stones, have forgotten the wisdom of the old adage: “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones!”

 ***************

 

Harlem, New York

February 2110

A Fire Bird On Ice!

Posted in On Sports! with tags , , , , on February 17, 2010 by playthell

The Great Lysacek

 

 Evan Lysacek Takes Center Ice

I love the Olympic Games!  I love the summer and the winter games.  It is a spectacle like none other.  The Olympics are a celebration of sport that provides a path to glory as the best athlete in the world in your sport.  And it provides we mere mortals an opportunity to revel in the feats of supermen and wonder women.  The majesty of the winter Olympics reside in the combination of grace, elegance, prowess and death defying acts that combine in many of the performances.  Although, except for some of the lifts, one is not likely to suffer severe injury in figure skating, yet no event combines grace, elegance and prowess more perfectly than figure skating on ice.  And while there were several impressive performances  in the short program, no one did it better than the American wizard Evan Lysacek.

For those with an ear for music, it was apparent from the opening bars that Lysacek intended to go for the Gold. He had chosen as the accompaniment for his elaborate high speed choreography “The Fire Bird Suite,” by Igor Stravinsky, a composition of mind boggling complexity that scandalized the world of European classical music when it was first performed at the beginning of the twentieth century.  Its irregular rhythms, space age orchestrations and dramatic melodic theme demands the highest levels of choreographic imagination and flawless performance.   Mr. Lysacek rose to the occasion in grand style: pirouetting high and low, touching head to knee and extending his toe, twisting his body into pretzel like configurations, then soaring through the air with the grandeur of Stravinsky’s magnificent Fire Bird.

 

 Lysacek Takes a Turn!

 

Decked out in a striking black costume that gave him the aura of an avenging angel, from the starting pose Mr. Lysacek looked like what he was: An amped up World Champion who had come to claim the golden ring. His poise and prowess were apparent from his introductory maneuvers, gliding across the ice with the grace of a falcon in flight.  And when he lept into triple axles and Lutzes, boldly defying gravity, I was enthralled. Yet my cheers for Mr. Lysacek’s performance were based purely upon admiration for his virtuosity; it had nothing to do with national pride – a dubious motivation which George Bernard Shaw called “the last refuge of scoundrels. “

Since his performance was just beginning as I walked back into the room, I missed the introduction; hence I didn’t even know that he was American.  I figured he was Russian based on the his Slavic surname.  It was only after I heard his trainer speak to him in English with an unmistakably American idiomatic flavor that I realized he was a countryman.  And, in spite of my internationalist orientation and sportsmanship, I must confess to lapsing into niggling prideful emotions whose inspiration lies in primeval tribal instincts.  However I had paid especially close attention to Lycechek’s routine for a different reason: The young Russian /American Johnny Weir, who trains just across the river in New Jersey, had put on a show that left me breathless!  Yet the expert commentators didn’t even think he had a shot at the Gold.  So I was like: “Well, if this ain’t a Gold Medal performance I can’t wait to see what is.”

 Thus, when I heard the commentators say that Lysacek was the reigning World Champion I sat up and paid close attention. Although my technical knowledge of figure skating, as sport or art, leaves much to be desired, and I can regurgitate little of the esoteric jargon experts employ to describe the fantastic feats on ice, as a ex-athlete and longtime fan of dance and sport I recognize grace and prowess in the use of the human body: and I know greatness when I see it.  When the splendid insider commentary of the experts, which included former Olympic skating Champions, is factored in I felt I had a pretty good idea what was going on.  But as in living life or reading a good book: you get from figure skating what you bring to it. What I brought was a discerning eye for rhythm and grace, and a respect for the bio-mechanical possibilities of the human body.   And in these things Mr. Lysaeck was simply marvelous!

 Johnny Weir!

 

 

A Fashion Icon On Ice

 

** Bravo!!   Well…events have proven me  right on in picking Mr. Lysacek as the performer to watch.  On Thursday he took the Gold Medal!

A World Turned Upside Down!

Posted in On Foreign Affairs, Playthell on politics with tags , , , , on February 15, 2010 by playthell

Glory Days

 

 America Chooses to Rely On Russians to Fly Us to the Moon

Watching General Charles Bolden, the Executive director of the National Space and Aeronautics Administration, calmly explain to the press how NASA is getting out of the manned space travel business after they retire the space shuttle, was a surreal experience. He explained that during a five year interim, in which space travel will become a private civilian industry, America will rely on the Russians to ferry our Astronauts back and forth to the International Space Station. As one who grew up just down the road from Cape Canaveral, where the American space program’s launch pads were located, and remember well the fear and anxieties that haunted the collective American psyche when the Russians successfully launched Sputnik, the first man made satellite to orbit the earth, the whole thing seemed bizarre, fantastic, Alice In wonderland kinda stuff. 

It is further evidence that a paradigm shift has occurred in the relations between the US and Russia.  Having learned their lesson in the last World war, the nuclear armed super-powers have disciplined themselves by virtue of the MAD doctrine – Mutually Assured Destruction.  Hence they chose diplomacy over war in resolving the conflicts that will inevitably arise so long as leaders privilege their national interests over international cooperation.

No single act signals this paradigm shift more dramatically than this decision by the US government. It was not that long ago that American and Russian school children were being drilled on what to do in case of a nuclear attack from the other side.  This fear was the main reason for the sense of panic that overtook the American National Security establishment when they heard the undeniable beeps from Sputnik orbiting the earth at 18, 000 miles an hour.

 As a wise man once observed: Where an artist may look down from a hill and see a beautiful landscape to paint, a general will look down from the same hill and see a ideal place to position a battery of artillery.  Hence while scientists marveled at the research possibilities that the penetration of outer space provided, the Defense Department agonized over the military advantages of the orbiting satellite, which could not only spy on any part of the US and transmit the information to Russian intelligence experts.  That data could then be used to launch a nuclear missile from the satellite and hit any target on earth! 

 From the perspective of the generals this was a game breaker, a doomsday machine in the hands of their mortal enemy. This shocking development led to the rapid passage of the National Defense Act, which sought out the most gifted scientific minds among American youths regardless of their race or class, paid for a first class education for them, and they put a man on the moon!

 Major General Charles Bolden

 

 The First African American to Head NASA

 President Obama is also shooting for a game changing paradigm in his new policies on space travel: first by introducing a new era of international cooperation in space, which heretofore has been a backwards race to militarize space led by the US, and secondly he wants to create a civilian space travel industry which will one day make space travel routine and sprout entire new technologies that will metamorphose into new industries that will enhance life on earth.  It is no wonder that both General Bolden, an ex—Astronaut and the head of the Russian space agency are on cloud nine.  But for those whose vision of the Russians was forged in the middle of the twentieth century, it seems as if the world turned upside down.

 The International Space Station

 

  The Ultimate Symbol Of Cooperation Between Earthlings

 

  *****************

 

Harlem, New York

Februrary 2110

The Great Blizzard Of 2010!

Posted in Photo-Essays on February 11, 2010 by playthell

The View From Harlem’s Sugar Hill

At The Height Of The Storm

The City Disappears!

The Park Below

In The Beginning

Snow Paintings

A Blanket Of Snow

A Wall Of Snow Flakes

As Night Falls

Snow Crystals Levitate On Shadows

And Swirl In the Wild Winds!

The Morning After

Looking Over The Harlem River

***********

A Photo-Essay

By: Playthell Benjamin

Good Night Sweet Prince

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , , on February 4, 2010 by playthell

A Remembrance Of Teddy Pendergass

On The Sweetest Soul Singer Ever!

There is no telling how many people walking the earth today owe their existence to Teddy Pendergass, including my own twins Makeda and Samori. Annette John-Hall, a black female columnist with the Philadelphia Inquirer, reveals in a January 24 column “Plenty of women will tell you their children were conceived to Teddy’s boudoir ballads – ‘Close The Door…Love TKO.’” Then Miss John-Hall goes on to  give us a glimpse of the effect Teddy’s singing had on the ladies who enthusiastically listened to him: “But truthfully, Teddy could have sung the phone book and sold millions of records, that’s the kind raw, full-throttle sex appeal he had…such was the intimate power of his music.”

This does much to explain the magic moments I enjoyed with the ladies listening to Teddy’s records.  For my money Teddy was the greatest singer of Rhythm and Blues love songs that the gods ever blew the breath of life in.  Just as Zora Neale Hurston, that great student and interpreter of Afro-American culture, once observed that a black preacher “must be a poet in order to survive in a Negro pulpit;” a black singer of love songs must sound like a poet who’s really in love to woo and win a black audience.  And Black women of a certain vintage, wise dusky earth mothers that they are, have very demanding standards; a dude’s got to know how to beg with style alas.  Although great black singers of love songs are legion, nobody ever did it better than Teddy.

As a fellow Philadelphia I had many opportunities to view Teddy from his earliest performances; long before he captured the attention of the world with his thrilling baritone voice – an extension of the style introduced by the lead singer of the Dells, in the same way that Michael Jordon was an extension of the art of Julius “Dr. J” Irving on the b-ball court.  From jump street Teddy’s raspy rough edge sound radiated a sensuality that was more than mere animal desire.

Although the chemical reactions and electric sparks that his crooning ignites between males and females often fills the listener full of fluid and make them wanna do it – creating an urge to merge not unlike the heat sizzling between the beast in the fields – Teddy’s sound is the epitome of true romance.  It is grown folks music; reaching deep down to a level of emotional gratification that can be only achieved in true romance between mature adults….or an intense religious experience.

I can still remember the day I took a lady of mine to see Teddy at the world famous Apollo theater when he was the lead singer with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.  It was right after they had a big hit, and the theater was packed.  This was during that halcyon age in Afro-American culture before the removal of music programs from the public schools that provided the opportunity for black youths to participate in the joyous art of choral singing.

This was before the risqué excesses and hard edge truth telling of hip hop replaced the transcendent sermons of the church as a moral compass for increasing numbers of alienated youths – disillusioned young people who lost both faith and hope in the nihilistic milieu of the post industrial city and rejected the source of all great African America music: the black church.  But Teddy grew up in the sprawling black community of North Philly, and was very much a child of the church, whose deep spiritual power informed  the passionate way he sang his  songs.

The memory that stands out most  from that Apollo concert -aside from the warm harmonies, general polish and masculine elegance of the Blue Notes – was the magical effect Teddy’s performance had on the women in the audience. My date was an outrageously fine but very reserved southern lady who had impeccable manners and  two Doctorate degrees.  But then Teddy began to croon his tune in that special way in which he seemed to be singing to every woman in the room personally.

“Doctor Doctor” completely lost her cool right along with her unlettered sistas from round the way!  Ms. John-Hall, a compelling writer, recalls a similar experience: “I saw him at the Circle Star Theater in San Carlos California, during one of his ‘Ladies Only’ concerts in the early 80’s.  He’d get up, get down, get funky, get loose, rip off his sweaty shirt, and the heat seemed to just rise off of him like steam.”

I was astonished at Teddy’s gift for achieving this sense of intimacy in a crowded room; it was one of those rare instances of real magic I  have witnessed in a live performance – and I have spent a thousand and one nights in theaters and music halls.   I knew two things at that moment: Teddy was too big to remain merely the featured singer with Harold Melvin And The Blue Notes for long, and when he decide to fly solo he would soar straight to the top.  It wasn’t very long before I was listening to WBLS in New York and heard them announce that Teddy had split the Blue Notes and gone solo.  And just as I suspected, he soon blew up as large as the Goodyear blimp!

At the height of his prowess the Teddy Pendergrass show was something to see.  Having come of age at the end of a golden era of live shows, when every dance hall and beer garden had a live band, one had to learn the fine art of showmanship if one hoped to survive let alone thrive in the Darwinian milieu of show business.  This meant that one’s act had to be polished and original. I remember seeing Harold Melvin in performance some years after Teddy left, and I was still knocked out by his stage craft even as I preferred Teddy’s singing. Yet it was obvious that the experience he gained performing with the Blue notes prepared Teddy for stardom as a solo act, because it provided him the opportunity to develop the skills required to command a stage when all eyes are you.

Teddy was as much a man’s man as a ladies man. Whereas all the ladies wanted to be with him, all the men wanted to be him.  Especially the brothers of darker hues.  All of us who grew up in Teddy’s generation, or earlier, can remember when the only Afro-American males cast as sex symbols were mulatto, light skinned dudes with “good hair.”  Much like the women most often cast as romantic/erotic  interests in black music videos today.

Since white men, like white women, were the standard of beauty in a society that openly proclaimed white is right, and brazenly enforced racist standards in every aspect of American life by law and custom, the Afro-American romantic balladeers were often compared with their white male counterparts – even conferring nick names like “The Sepia Clarke Gable.”  We also remember how most black women thought Harry Belafonte was “handsome” and Sidney Portier was “ugly.”

I say “most” black women because there were, to be sure, some exceptions. Fortunately for me, my mother was one of those exceptions.  Unquestionable one of the most beautiful and elegant women in St. Augustine Florida, regardless of class or color, Mom was relatively tall, beige and as the daughter of a great dressmaker had impeccable taste in clothes.

Suffice it to say that comparisons with Lena Horne were commonplace, but I always thought they were being too generous to Lena.   Mom had such a Jones for very dark men that it was the subjects of jokes at Thanksgiving dinners with her family – who ranged from dark chocolate on her father’s side to light, bright very damn near white on her mothers side; some of them had blue eyes and blue veins too.

My Daddy, George Benjamin Jr., was as black as an ebony statue, and my mother thought he was the most beautiful man ever, physically and temperamentally.  she used to say “when God made your Daddy he broke the mould; George Benjamin was one of a kind.”  And she routinely told me that dark men were beautiful. Widowed in her early twenties Mom was a single woman who ran her own beauty business, and she had legions of suitors of all colors – although she always became enraged when white men  hit on her. The importance of having such a mother is that unlike some of my dark skinned peers I always thought I was fine, and I conducted myself that way.

Furthermore, my role models for what a hip ladies man was supposed to be were the men my mother chose, especially “RB,” who, after my father, was the great love of her life. Listening to him reminiscing about Senegalese soldiers he met in France during world War II, I asked RB what they looked like. He said nonchalantly: ‘They look like just like me.”  And although some folks thought RB was “black and ugly” an wondered out loud what she saw in him, Mom was always talking about how “fine” RB was, and sighing over the way he was built.  She loved the “jazzy” way he dressed – in fact she routinely gave him a Royal Stetson hat on his birthday often picked his clothes – and would praise the way he could talk sweet talk: “RB can talk a gopher out of his hole!” she would say.

So I learned from the belle of the ball how the game goes, what beautiful women of “particular” taste liked in a man. Hence I felt if I kept in good shape, dressed with style and knew what to say out of my mouth I’d be awright with the ladies. And that’s been the story of my life.  And then there was the fabulous Nat King Cole who, like guitarist George Benson, eventually put his instrument aside in favor of singing because it was more lucrative.

A romantic balladeer Nat was a genuine matinee idol and heart throb; the first of his ebony hue to achieve that status in black America, and  remarkably his style beguiled white women too.  Even in the racist south.  Like Nat, Teddy’s voice drove women mad; Which is why he could appear in “Women Only” concerts and fill huge auditoriums!

Nat King Cole

Virtuoso Pianist, band Leader, Crooner

Since I was enchanted by the ladies early on, I was also crazy over love songs…and thus deeply admired the great singers who sang them. As a boy I was thrilled by the sound Italian Neapolitan love songs, romantic arias from Grand Opera’s, and the Broadway show tunes that Julius La Rosa and Mario Lanza sang; as well as the middle of the road pop tunes sung by Perry Como, Dean Martin and Rosemary Clooney. I enjoyed the Irish tenors too, especially the turn of the century songs from the “Gay Nineties”  like “The Sidewalks Of New York” sung in Barber Shop Quartet style.  I just loved pretty music!

But once I heard the Afro-American romantic balladeers I flipped out and became an ardent partisan of their style; I dreamed of sing like them.  Let me say at this point, just to set the record straight: I believe the black American female singing voice is the most beautiful instrument that ever made music on this earth.  But that is a subject for another essay.  Here I wish to confine my commentary to the subject of Afro-American males that sing love songs, because they were speaking directly to the ladies and thus their music was an invaluable aid to the age old rituals of  seduction.

*********

Among the first singers who caught my ear were Herb Jefferies, Billy Eckstein, and Arthur Prysock. Part of the reason they attracted me was because they were all deep baritones and I was a basso by the time I was 14.  And although most of the gorillas – i.e. tough guys – sang the high falsetto tenor parts in the doo wop groups that were sprouting up everywhere – I continued to think of the bass cleft as the true providence of macho men.  At first I didn’t notice something all three of these singing sex symbols, who had the ladies swooning, shared in common: They were all light skin with curly hair like the fabled “Latin lovers” that Rudolph Valentino made the paragon of male heart throbs back in the early years of the twentieth century.

Father Of A Tradition?

Years later when I looked back on this group of balladeers, I  dubbed the genre “The Art Of the Mulatto Crooners.”  For the most part their repertoire was based in two traditions, Afro-American blues and “the great American popular song book.”  Virtually all Afro-American popular singers of that era started out singing blues based songs, often fronting bands. And these blues songs were generally written by black songwriters. The great American pop songs from Broadway shows and Tin Pan Alley however were written for the most part by songwriters who were largely white and Jewish – George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Rogers and Hart, etc.

These songs, many of which came from Broadway musicals, were characterized by well constructed melodies, complex harmonies and sophisticated lyrics.  For these reasons this music became staples in the repertoire of jazz musicians and are referred to as “standards,” tunes which any accomplished instrumentalist is expected to know by heart.  And for this same reason they became the text for singers who were greatly influenced by the jazz instrumentalists.

The great Billy Daniels from Jacksonville Florida – whose gorgeous “high yaller’ daughter Yvonne enchanted my teenage years with her silky soulful sensuous voice as a D.J. on WOBS in Jacksonville – also belongs to this tradition, although unlike the others he was a tenor. While there were certainly dark skinned men who made seminal contributions to the art of the sophisticated romantic balladeer – Nat King Cole, Joe Williams, and Louis Armstrong who began it all – they were not cast as sex symbols and paragons of male beauty like the mulatto men.

 On the Cover Of Jet Magazine

That Old Mulatto Magic!

Fortunately, by virtue of the marvelous alchemy of “You Tube,” it is possible to view these artists in some of their most celebrated performances.  For instance Herb Jefferies can be seen in all his splendor singing his great hit “Flamingo” with the Ellington Orchestra; while colorfully attired professional dancers perform an interpretive dance whose choreography was based on the lyrics.

Long before the birth of the modern video the record companies used to produce video shorts of musicians called “soundies.”   All the stars had them, and an amazing number and variety of them have found their way to You Tube.  These videos from back in the day were shot on film and the quality of the sound and images are amazingly clear. Some are actual scenes from Hollywood musicals.

On the Flamingo video Herb Jefferies looks like a tan Anglo-Saxon, but since being “colored” was an arbitrary social construction one’s cultural  identity was what mattered; the life “behind the veil” that gave Afro-African Americans what Dr. Dubois called “a second sight in this American world.”  The video of Billy Daniels performing his signature hit “That Old Black Magic” underscores this point.

He too could pass for white if he had a mind to.  Incidentally, both of these Mulatto stars married white women; which was a risky thing to do in apartheid America, and thus might suggest that, like the gifted Harlem Renaissance novelist  Jean Toomer, might have been trying to escape the “negro” identity that was foisted upon them by law and custom in spite of their alabaster complexions.

Herb Jefferies, who was also a star in black western movies, where he played a singing cowboy, married the famous burlesque queen Tempest Storm.  And it was rumored that Billy Eckstine, a great singer and journeyman trombonist, was under cover lovers with the German born movie star Marlene Deitrict. So these romantic balladeers were cross over heart throbs who thrilled  the ladies from all nations with their seductive art.

The Fabulous “Mr. B”

This mulatto paradigm of the romantic balladeer/sex symbol changed radically with the emergence of  the Delta Bluesmen and Rhythm & Blues singers, when dark skinned men like B.B. King and James Brown filled the erotic fantasies of the masses of working class black women – particularly in the south.  My mother, for instance, was wild about James Brown and never missed a show when he came to town.  James was a bonified sex symbol – with his boxer’s physique, Sugar Ray Robinson style, dazzling dancing, gospel / blues singing style, and passionate preacher’s voice James was the bomb.  I first saw him in 1956, when he was enjoying his first big his “Please,” Please” “Please.”   It was during the Sunday matinee show at the Royal Palm Café in Jackson Florida.

A Rhythm&Blues Innovator…

Who Changed The Color Of Romantic Balladeers

James Brown In the Beginning

The shows on these occasions consisted of a talent contest between singing groups, amateurs who were accompanied by the professional house band.  Then there would be a pause, the curtains closed, and suddenly a jocular well dressed M.C. would appear from behind the curtains and announce “Ladies and Gentleman its star time at the Royal Palm Café!”  Then he would introduce the main attraction.  On this occasion it was a new group called “James Brown and The Famous flames.”

He came on with the band rocking, and James was getting down with the “Mash Potatoes,” a style which become the basis for all of his moves on the dance floor.  And James Browns moves became the basis for the choreography of some of the greatest dancers in the rhythm & Blues tradition – Prince, M.C. Hammer and Michael Jackson for instance – which is to say the greatest dances in the American vernacular tradition!

I have made my comments specific to Rhythm & Blues idiom dancers because I don’t wish to give the impression that there was a paucity of singers who were also great dancers in the Afro-American tradition before the advent of R&B.   There have always been great song and dance artists – male and female – in the black American tradition: check out the video “Calloway’s Boogie” or “Cab’s Dancing” if you want to see a see one of the great song and dance men of all times.

Jackie Wilson

Mr. Excitement!

 James Brown was an original, and so were his contemporaries  Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Jackie Wilson, et al.   They were exciting singers and great dancers.  These were among the artists who laid the foundation for Rhythm & Blues.  But Teddy Pendergrass stems from a different tradition: The Male Quintet.  These groups were for the most part products of the city.  A great many of them from Chi-Town, Philly and New York.  Compared to the rough edged soulful southern blues sound these groups were urbane and highly polished. The lead singers often of these groups all became heart throbs and sex symbols, and they ran the entire color spectrum in black America.

Two of the most influential of these groups were the Dells, who hailed from Chicago, plus Harvey and the Moonglows.  Clearly the roots of Teddy Pendergrass’ style can be heard in the sensuous baritone vocal  timbres and passionate styles of Marvin Junior, lead singer with the Dells, and Harvey Fuqua, the Moonglow’s lead.  Both of these brothers were of hues darker than blue and the ladies loved them.  This is the tradition Teddy inherited, and he took it to new heights.  The fact that Teddy was around 6’4” and built like an athlete greatly enhanced the power of his voice to beguile the ladies.  And at times his performances appear to be a kind of mass hypnotism/seduction.

The Mighty Dells Featuring Marvin Junior

Marvin Jr. Was Teddy’s Role Model

Harvey and the Moonglows!

Harvey Fuqua: One Of The First Sexy R&B Baritone Leads

I have a video in my procession of Teddy performing “Close The Door” in live performance, and he was the consummate showman as sex symbol.  He is dressed is white, fitted slacks and wife beater which appear to be silk.  The whiteness of his costume accents his ebony skin.  And as he sings, gestures and gyrates, the women go crazy.   It is obvious that this man loves himself and knows his beauty; the whole performance comes across as some sort of public mating ritual as he struts around the stage like an ebony peacock.

Teddy Working The Crowd…

And Beguiling The Ladies!

Teddy’s performance is at once a shameless display of unbridled narcissism and a celebration of the unique beauty of the dark skinned Africoid male.  Every time he would croon a lyric like “I know what to do with it/If you ever let me get it!” then bust a provocative move, the women would freak out, screaming to the top of their lungs.  Women of all colors, classes and ethnicities.  This is quite something to witness for one who remembers when even Afro-Americans would chant sarcastically: “If you are white you’re right / If you’re Yellow you’re mellow / If you’re tan you can stand /If you’re brown stick around / But if you’re black get back!”

 

 

*******************

 

                                         

                                        * To See Teddy in all his glory click this link:

                                 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQh-_llN_UY

Billy Ekstine

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VWuGF-Xh-RM

 

Nat King Cole

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFyKAUBkdOs

 

Billy Daniels

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9g_Y2GufZbk

(This is an old movie clip, Billy daniels is the second singer on this clip)

 

James Brown

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LQdMZ1qrn6k

 

Harvey Fuqua

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FHStVqhicXY

Here Harvey is singing a pop tune in an attempt to “cross over”

The Village Of Harlem

February 2009

Humanity For Haiti!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Theater on February 1, 2010 by playthell

 

The Mickerline Haitian Dance Company

 Makeda Dancing Yambalu!

 

Binding Up The Wounds Of A  Fractured Nation

 And Restoring Their Soul Through the Rituals Of Song, Dance and Prayer

 

This Elegant Hostess

Exemplifies The Strength  and Beauty Of Haitian Women

The whole world mourns the tragedy of Haiti, a nation reduced to rubble by the forces of nature.  This cataclysmic event of biblical proportions wreaked what seems like unbearable  havoc and pain on the Haitian people without warning, an unbelievable tragedy which seems like a cosmic injustice for nation who has borne a lion’s share of the worlds suffering through out its history.  Once known as Saint Domingue, the richest colony in the 18th century after the independence of the English colonies to the north, and home of the world’s most vicious slave society.  With a power paradigm of white French planters over captive West African slaves, the nation of Haiti was born in a bloody revolution as the Africans rose to slaughter their captors and drive three European armies into the sea!

 The Haitian Revolution was one of the three great bourgeois revolutions in the 18th century that expanded human freedom by establishing the first Republics in the modern world. As the brilliant Trinidadian political philosopher and revolutionary theoretician C.L.R. James convincingly points out in his classic history of the Haitian Revolution, “Black Jacobins,” the Haitian revolution was a logical extension of this revolutionary process.  However this was the same conclusion the Afro-American female scholar Dr. Anna Julia Cooper had arrived at earlier when she completed her PhD dissertation on the subject of The French Revolution and the abolition of slavery at the Sorbonne in Paris during the 1924 academic term. 

 This subject held a special interest for Dr. Cooper because she had been born a slave in North Carolina in 1858, six years before the abolition of slavery in the “Land Of the Free” and she suffered under racial apartheid laws and customs all of her life – except when she went to France…or Haiti.  There can be no doubt that the Haitian Revolution was part of the great bourgeois revolution that rejected the age old theology of “The Divine Right Of Kings”  And this places them at the forefront of those who fought to expand the  fundamental conception of human liberty.

 Dr. Anna Julia Cooper

 A Pioneer American Scholar On Haiti

 

The story of Haiti is in many ways a representative anecdote for the black experience in the modern world – a constant struggle against racist white power for personal freedom, economic justice, and the right to happiness and dignity that, according to the canonical founding documents of both the US and French Republics –  Declaration Of Independence and Declaration Of The Rights Of Man – is an inalienable right due all human beings.  No where in the world did the slogans “Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!” mean more that they meant to the African slaves of Haiti.  Just as there were none in the British Empire who treasured the creed “We hold these truths to be self-evident That all men are created equal” more than African slaves and their descendents. 

 The commonality of our struggles against Europeans – whether in Europe or their descendents in the Diaspora – has forged a bond of fraternity between African Americans and Haitians that although tested by ethnic rivalries in big cities like New York and Miami, the best minds among Afro-Americans and Haitians have kept the bond of brotherhood firm. This bond was clearly in evidence at the Benefit concert, as many African American political and religious turned out to show their solidarity with our Haitian brothers and sisters. 

The long standing interests in Haitian culture and dance forms among African American dancers, choreographers and scholars – as exemplified by the works of Catherine Dunham and Zora Neal Hurston is continued by Ms. Makeda Voletta Benjamin, a serious student of the art of Haitian dance and drumming, who performed with the Haitian Dance Company.  Makeda intends to follow in the path of katherine Dunham and pursue a Ph.D in  Medical Anthropology, using her scientific background to investigate the role of music and dance in the healing arts of pre-industrial traditional socirties.  She was right at home with the Haitian dancers, because Makeda was raised as a Pan-Africanist, where her father constantly told her that the fate of African Peoples was indivisible and we shared deep cultural roots.

The Great Katherine Dunham!

 

 

 

She Brought Traditional Haitian Dance To The Theater 

Spirit Dance!

 

 

 Flash Of The Spirit!!

 

 

 

A Libation To The Ancestors

 

 

 

 Communing With The Loas

 

 Moving In The Spirit Of Haiti!

 

  

Diasporan Memories Of Mother Africa

 

 

 

*********************

 

 Ra! Ra!

 

 

 Finding Joy Amidst Tragedy

 

 Black Magic Dance!

 

 

The Children Joined Them On Stage!

 

 

 The Hope Of Haiti!

 

Suffer The Little Children

 For They Shall Inherit The Earth!

 

It Was An Uplifting Experience!

 

The Brass Sounded!

 

And The Community Leaders Came Forth 

The Rev. Doctor Edward Davis and Haitian M.d. Fritz Amie

 

Tho We Commemorated  A Tragedy

 It Was Not  Without Laughter!

 

And The Band Played On!!

 

 ****************

 

 * This performance can be seen on You Tube: Theviewfromsugarhill – Makeda Dances for Haiti

 Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New york 

January 31, 2110

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,931 other followers