10 Questions with ... Walker Smith
May 26, 2015
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Formerly a recording artist on the Casablanca label ... after Donna Summer ... during Funkadelics/Kiss/Cameo .... before the fall of the disco empire. Currently a novelist, occasionally dabbling in journalism and writing biographies of music legends.
1) How did you wind up writing Jack Gibson's biography?
Eddie Pugh twisted my arm, then he twisted Jack's arm until we both agreed to meet. It was love at first sight. Jack loved my writing style and I loved his history and comical (and mostly true) stories.
2) You started out in this business as a singer, tell us about that.
I came from a musical family. My father was a jazz drummer who loved Thelonious Monk, Stan Kenton and John Coltrane, and he had a big crush on Nancy Wilson. When I was little, we had wild jam sessions in our living room with local bebop musicians who taught me bop-slang. My mother was the earthy, beatnik-coffee-house-snapping-her-fingers-as-applause-for-incomprehensible-avant-garde-music type. Her favorites were Ella Fitzgerald and Rachmaninoff. She taught me to love classical music, jazz, nature and literature. My father taught me to love Blue Rondo a 'la Turk, Giant Steps, and independence.
So, being a Blue Rondo a 'la Turk, jazz, and literature-loving gypsy with a good singing voice and an independent spirit, I started gigging with some local R&B bands, and saved up what I considered a pretty sizeable fortune ($300). Then I pointed my little piece of car westward, and drove to Los Angeles. I auditioned for a few bands and was hired by a pretty cool jazz-funk band called Pyramid. Word was that they needed a singer. When I walked into that audition, there was a brother seated at his keyboard, working out some chords and singing ... No, correction ... He was SANGIN'! Big difference! My knees started knocking together and I was suddenly nervous, knowing that this guy could sing circles around me! They made me sing anyway, and somehow, I got the gig. Introductions were made. The sangin' piano man's name was James Ingram.
See? I told you he could sing circles around me...
Anyway, the band did some rehearsing and some recording (mostly rehearsing, as I recall), and ran its course before we all split up and went in different directions. I went to work for A&M Records Publishing Department, recording demos for their staff writers, like Leon Ware, who was there at the time. Eventually, someone heard one of my demos, and expressed interest in the singer, rather than the song. In what seemed like a blur, I was signed to a production company that in turn signed me to Casablanca. Believe it or not, I got a record deal before James, although his deal with Quincy Jones ended up being considerably more lucrative and enduring than mine. My first single hit the Billboard charts at #80 (I think) and was moving up the charts pretty well until it crash-landed into musical oblivion. I was to record two more solo albums before it all seemed like a waste of time. I knew I was an artist, and I was tired of being treated like a catalogue number. I had gone back to school anyway, to pick up where I had left off on my mission to be a great novelist someday. Looked like someday had suddenly arrived...
When I lost my house in the Northridge earthquake, I took that as a sign that it was time to move again. As I said, I have a gypsy spirit, so I enthusiastically moved to New York, the best place on earth for writers, even if you have to sleep and write on the floor. My career in the music business was over, but my writing career was just beginning. I had no idea then how valuable my childhood memories of bebop jam sessions, studio recording, and gigging with all those bands would be. But when you write, every single memory of every single person, place, or experience becomes a valuable tool.
3) How much of Jack's life story sort of culminate or paralleled some of the things you wrote in your other 3 books?
So many things ... My novel The Color Line takes place in the years surrounding World War One, which is the genesis of the Harlem Renaissance. Marcus Garvey plays a pivotal role in The Color Line, and on Day One of interviewing Jack, I learned that his father was the personal physician of Marcus Garvey! And that was just the beginning ... My novel Bluestone Rondo takes place mainly in the 1940s and 1950s on 52nd Street in New York, which was the Mecca of jazz. Almost every single cameo star that appeared in Bluestone Rondo was also a personal friend of Jack's! During his early days in radio, Jack also worked as emcee to shows featuring Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Errol Garner, Billy Eckstein, Dizzy Gillespie, Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, and the list goes on ... Mary Wilson of the Supremes plays a key role in Bluestone Rondo's later chapters, and of course, it didn't surprise me when Jack told me that Mary was a dear friend of his.
Actually, it got so crazy with all the parallels between Jack's life and my working draft of Bluestone Rondo, that I asked Jack if he'd like to be one of my cameo characters. He LOVED the idea, and got a big kick out of the scene when I wrote it. So if you happen to read Bluestone Rondo, look for Jack the Rapper on page 289...
4) What are some things about Jack that stood out during your conversations with him while collecting information for the book?
Jack had a great, natural joy about him. When he talked about all those early entertainment pioneers like Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Sammy Davis Jr., and all his friends from back in the day, he focused on the fun times. The royalty of black entertainment stayed at a hotel called the Lord Calvert because they were not welcome at any of the white hotels back then. It was another facet of some tough times for black folks that are most often seen as morose and hopeless, but Jack gave me a fun, colorful peek at how the biggest superstars banded together to keep their spirits up in the face of segregation.
Another thing that stood out to me, aside from his huge impact on early radio and the music industry, was how hard Jack fought to allow the rappers into his conventions when many of his sponsors and advisors were dead-set against it. He faced down the most influential executives telling them that he could not eliminate such a large element of black music from his convention because the whole convention was supposed to be about the free expression of all black recording artists. He had lived through segregation, and he would have no part in imposing segregation into his Family Affair. He won them over and we all know how it went. But even after the shooting incidents and the major drop in attendance, Jack stuck to his principles. All rappers should respect him for that and never forget him.
But I think what had the most staggering impact on me was Jack's love for his wife Sadye. He talks a lot in the book about his dalliances with other women, his work, and his social life, so when we got to the Sadye chapter of the book, I was a bit stunned. He poured out his emotions and I had no doubt about his devotion to her. It opened a door of understanding for me about how to view all humans, see past the flaws and mistakes, and see the whole person. He was an exceptional man, who loved an exceptional woman.
5) Could you share some his stories about his early radio days?
Well, the first and most important thing is that he blazed the trail for black music with his partner J.B. Blayton in 1949 when they opened the first black-owned-and-operated radio station in the United States - WERD in Atlanta. Then he went on the air and talked to the people in his own distinctive style. During some of the worst days of the civil rights movement, he held black folks together with nothing but the honesty of his words and the sound of his voice.
He told me a story about a nice church lady who brought him sweet-potato pies all the time and kept telling him about her sons, who were supposed to be great singers. Well, Jack liked those pies so much he didn't want her to stop bringing them, so he agreed to listen to her sons. That lady's sons turned out to be the Isley Brothers!
6) How did he come up with the idea for the Family Affair?
It was actually Sadye's idea. Jack had been working at Disneyworld in Orlando in their convention department, and had learned a lot while he was there. Sadye suggested that he take the idea of his Mello Yello industry magazine and combine it with all that know-how he had picked up at Disneyworld. They had very little money, but Jack was a good talker. He and Sadye made a lot of calls, got investors excited about the idea, and planted the seeds. Every year, it grew larger and larger, until all the major labels had to respect The Family Affair and see that their labels were well represented.
7) Share with us one of his favorite radio stories?
The best way to explain it is to give it to you directly from the book:
The civil rights movement was beginning to rumble in the '50s, at the same time I was at WERD. I didn't know it at the time, but I was sitting smack in the middle of history. Well, one floor up, to be exact. WERD had moved up the street from 2741/2 Auburn Avenue to 330 Auburn Avenue, or Sweet Auburn Avenue, as we called it. We shared the building with the newly-formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The bottom floor was theirs and we occupied the upstairs space.
There was always some kind of bustling activity going on downstairs -- strategy meetings, plans for boycotts, speech writing and the training of new volunteers. So all the WERD employees were getting all the breaking news first. And what we didn't hear about at the office, we found out over a big plate of ribs, because we all ate down the street at "Ben Reed's Houston Street Rib Shack." Ain't that a killer? There we were, greasin' down with Dr. King while he strategized, and not one of us had an inkling that what he was doing would change the world.
Dr. King traveled a lot during that time, but when I knew he was in his office, I'd take a break from my program and say, "And now, here's a word from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King." Then I'd dangle the microphone down through an open window to his office window, and he'd grab it and say something inspirational to the listeners. We were short on budget, but long on imagination, because we found all kinds of ways to keep ourselves going through those tough times.
8) Would you tell us about his days working at Motown? What other labels did he work?
He told me a great story about being a sort of "escort/bodyguard" for Little Stevie Wonder in the early days. Stevie was about 12 or 13 back then, and he was on stage raising hell with "Fingertips" when gunshots rang out from the back of the theater. Jack figured that Berry Gordy would behead him if anything happened to Little Stevie Wonder, so Jack ran up on the stage, slung Stevie over his shoulder "like a bag of potatoes" and ran for the nearest backstage exit. The funny part was that Stevie was trash-talking the whole time! The only one who was nervous was Jack. He also talks about how nervous the Supremes were before their first live appearance and how he had to go on with them and clown around to get them to relax. He tells about the famous Motown Christmas parties, and how all the stars would perform for each other. One year they had a surprise "guest" who somehow crashed the party. He had no idea who this unkempt hippie-looking girl was until she got onstage, clutching her bottle of Southern Comfort, and started "hollerin' her ass off." There was no mistaking the gut-bucket growl of Janis Joplin.
In Mello Yello, Jack takes you on the road with the "Motortown Review" and you'll know what it was like for all those Motown superstars bumping around on a cold bus from town to town for one-nighters in the South. He talks about the "Motown Charm School" and how serious Berry was about poise and sophistication for every one of his acts.
Jack also worked at Stax Records and was instrumental in getting Isaac Hayes' first big hit "By The Time I Get to Phoenix" on the air. Nobody thought that radio would play a record that was 18-minutes long, with a "rap" at the beginning of it. But that song was the centerpiece of Hot Buttered Soul, the first album Jack worked for Stax, and he made sure that radio played the whole 18-minute-long version. After that, long-rap singles became Isaac's trademark.
Jack also worked at Brunswick Records, promoting Jackie Wilson's records, and at Revelot Records.
9) I know he talked about a lot of people in the radio and music business, who were some of folks that came up a lot during conversations?
Jack talked a lot about Berry Gordy, who he had a love/hate relationship over the years, but it ultimately ended in a great friendship. He spoke often of Nat Tarnopol, who he disliked intensely, because of Tarnopol's cruel treatment of Jackie Wilson. But most of all, he LOVED talking about his contemporaries - "The Original Thirteen" - the first black deejays on radio, who blazed the trail with Jack for everyone in black entertainment to this day. He told several hilarious stories about them, exposing their young-man sins, and singing their praises as innovative pioneers.
10) Were you nervous about some of the things that Jack wanted in his book?
There were two stories that I was hesitant about, and I asked Jack if he was certain he wanted them in. He was adamant, so I left them in. While we were working on the book, Jack was carrying a lot of hurt and anger at several people in the music industry. After the fall of The Family Affair, he felt abandoned by many of the same friends he had helped along the way. One person he was angry at was Sinbad. He told me that they had been very close friends since the days of Sinbad's appearances at The Family Affair. They had celebrated the birth of Sinbad's children, spoke often and hung out a lot. When Sinbad got his own sitcom, Jack needed work. He told Sinbad about his days as a radio actor and pitched himself to play Sinbad's father in the series. Sinbad told him he'd try to make it happen. Jack waited for a call, but it never came. Then one night, Jack was watching the show and saw actor Hal Williams playing the role of Sinbad's father. He called Sinbad, and Sinbad said he tried, but couldn't move the producers. He promised that he'd get Jack on one or two of the shows somehow, but it never happened. Jack was angry because he never got another call.
Just before Mello Yello went to print, I spoke to Jack's daughter Jill about that story, and she told me that Jack and Sinbad had reconciled since we had finished the book. Sinbad was with Jack at the hospital on the day he died. So I put a comment into the book to that effect.
Are you enjoying promoting this book?
Yes, I am. I'm happy for the opportunity to do something for Jack that he spent his life doing for others. The greatest but most often overlooked thing that Jack the Rapper Gibson did with his life was this: He built a bridge of continuity for generations of cultural history figures, entertainment superstars, and political icons. Every year there was a beautiful mix of old and new; youngsters such as Will Smith, Prince, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis chatted with legends like Jesse Jackson, Reverend Al Sharpton, Nancy Wilson, Billy Eckstine and Berry Gordy ... It was important to Jack that the new crop of stars could hear their stories and look into the eyes of the people who had paved the way for them. And if I believe anything, I believe that Jack's legacy is worth preserving and celebrating. So it's an honor to talk about my friend, who also happened to be a great man.
What do you want people to take away after reading this book?
"Sankofa" is an African word that loosely translated means "return for it." It symbolizes the importance of learning from your past, or in this case, from someone else's past. The story of Jack's amazing life was filled the lessons he learned the hard way. In reading about his journey, you can't help but learn something that will have practical application in your life.
Jack's daughter Jill was very involved with the promotion of Jack's biography, could you talk about it?
Jill and I share a unique bond. She knows how dedicated I was to relaying her father's life accurately and faithfully. They were very close, and I also grew very close to him over the course of the two years we worked on the book. He knew he didn't have many years left, and he made me promise him that I would get the book published no matter how long it took, or whether he was alive to see it or not. He threatened to haunt me if I didn't! Once Jill and I reconnected about a year ago and decided to forge ahead and get the book out, we worked as a team. I ran ideas past her, about photos, cover images, title. The title had been a problem even when Jack was still alive. We went around and around and never could come up with the perfect title for the book. The working title was "The Rise and Fall of the Rapper." But we all knew that wouldn't work. So all these years later, it was about a week before the book went to print and I was being pressed for a final decision on the title, but I stalled again. Late that night, I flipped through the draft again, looking for inspiration, and came across the story of how broke Jack and Sadye were when they first decided to print their little "newsletter." They went to a stationery store and asked what the cheapest paper was. The proprietor recommended the goldenrod paper, which he had an excess of and he gave them a discounted price. Once the little newsletter began to take off, someone dubbed it the Mello Yello ... I grabbed the phone and called Jill right away: "Jill! We're so dumb! The title was right in front of us all the time! Mello Yello!" And Jill gasped and laughed. "That's it, Walker!"
When the first box of books arrived, my first call was to Jill. I could hear in her voice the same spiritual excitement that I was feeling. "We did it, Jill!" I said. "We sure did," she said.
So now Jack won't have to haunt me!
Could you tell us about the other books you've written?
I mainly write black historical novels, and my twist is digging up the most unknown history and reporting it in story form. My first novel, The Color Line, was set during the First World War and the Harlem Renaissance; Bluestone Rondo tells the story of the Jazz scene in the 1950s as well as how McCarthyism affected Black people in America. I also have a book out titled Letters from Rome that was a slight departure from my usual subjects. It explores a 1970s love affair but with a déjÃ vu twist that takes the reader from the flashy world of high-flying ABA basketball to the killing fields of Vietnam, with a side-trip to Africa. It sounds insane, but it's actually quite spiritual and, as usual, I manage to get my history in there.
I am currently working on a novel set during the civil rights movement in the '60s. There have been many novels based on the civil rights years, but most of them are set in the South. This book will focus on Chicago - Bobby Gore, Fred Hampton, and players and events that are often overlooked in the Civil Rights conversation. There is so much unknown black history that I never run out of subject matter!
I was hesitant about writing a biography, but all it took was that first interview for me to realize that Jack's life fell right in line with my "most unknown history" theme. He told me so many stories I had never heard before!
What is the deal with the running theme of using the same quote in every book?
The quote is: "Sing, Antoninus, sing." It was written by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, who went to jail rather than name names at the HUAC hearings in the 1950s. He is my personal hero, and also the screenwriter for the original film "Spartacus." The quotation is from that film, and a message to all artists who wage revolution through "songs." My books are my songs. And my weapon of choice is my pen. Uh, well, I guess my laptop....
Would you share with us a question no one ever asks you?
The question is this: "What is the deal with the running theme of using the same quote in every book?" And since you have now asked me that question, and I have answered it, then I guess this interview is over!
So never forget ... "Sing, Sam, sing!"