Last week was an excellent week for me as I taped my first appearance on SoulSchool Television, which aired in Vallejo, California as well as around the world wide web last Friday. The show was also repeated all weekend. Taping the show last Monday really started my week with a bang because it was fulfillng a dream I’d had for quite some time. I have already ran it down here on how viewing SoulSchool in my teens was something that helped me along the road of deeper music appreciation. Between my parents, Rickey Vincents funk book, my older hip hop heroes like M.C Hammer and Chuck D, and SoulSchool, I was able to escape the vapors of negative thinking and violence that was being sold in much of the pop music of that time period.
And there couldn’t have been a more apt subject to make my first appearance talking about. I’m sure many of you reading this are already aware of the passing of the great Joe Sample, keyboardist and founding member of the Crusaers, formerly known as the Jazz Crusaders. The Crusaders are a group who’s music I’ve always dug, being exposed to it in the home. But as the years have passed, I’ve found out more and more how essential they’ve been to music as session players. Members of the group played with Billy Joel, The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, Hugh Masekela, Hues Corporation, Bobby Blue Bland, Jimmy Smith, Carole King, Barry White, Seals & Croft and many many other artists. That list puts them up there as a truly dominating force of the 1970s music for me.
The Crusaders anthemic 1979 song “Street Life” is a landmark in particular for me. I grew up hearing the bright, brassy voice of Randy Crawford testifying, “That’s all that’s left for me.” When I was a kid, that song was some other kind of adult business. It was funky, bluesy, hip, jazzy, with a high gloss sheen and notes of sadness at the core when you licked away the sweet coating. It was one of my fathers favorite records, and looking back I could see why. In 1979 my dad was a 48 year old African American lawyer, naturalized as a citizen of the Republic of Liberia, where he’d lived for 20 years. He was on his second marriage and had five kids, unaware he had one yet on the way. But for me personally, I’ve always associated the world weary vibe of “Street Life” with where Liberia was in 1979. ’79 turned out to be a pivotal year in Liberian history, with a major civil disturbance known as the Rice Riots occuring that April when the President attempted to raise the price of rice, the staple food, during the midst of the world wide late ’70s recession and commodities squeeze.
What was going on however was more than a riot over the price of rice. It was a full blown revolution over the long years of rule by the descendants of the African American founders of Liberia. It was led by well educated young Liberians, many with a background partially in the ruling class and partically among the native people. These young men were schooled in the United States and Europe and witnessed the upheavels of the ’60s and ’70s and wanted to bring similar liberations to their home country. They began to question things like why their country only had one strong political party, why there was a boatload of money coming in from foreign concessions and yet poverty was rampant, and why the government ministers were the richest people in the land.
At the same time, the nation was prettying itself up to host the OAU, Organization of African Unity Conference, and also recieved a visit from President Jimmy Carter in that same year.
Mom and Dad were there watching the whole thing go down. My mother always told me a story about how the soldiers had set up a blockade during the riots. My father and my older brother George had gone to run some errand, Dad deeming it only safe for the two of them to do so under the conditions the country was in. She said something to the effect of Dad having moved a blockade and the soldiers harrasing them, until he flashed his credentials as an ex member of the Port Security, which was one of his first jobs when he got to Liberia.
My parents had the foresight to begin preparing to leave Liberia very soon after that. My grandmother, Ms. Leona Birden was falling into ill health here in San Francisco. Not to mention the fact that my brothers and sisters school fees at the American Consolidated School, the finest school in Liberia, were spiralling out of control. All of this and the political trouble gave him the impetus to get up and bounce, my family left a year after the Riots, in April of 1980. A week after they arrived, Dad is laying in bed in Oakland and he gets a phone call. “Your President just died”, he was told. “Who, Carter?” Dad replied. “Carters not your PResident, I’m talking about Tolbert, man.”
There is something about the mixture of celebration, joy and pathos in “Street Life” that represents 1979, what happened in Liberia, and also holds cautionary notes for what would soon happen in the black communities of America with the crack epidemic firing up a few years after that. The Crusaders, OG’s from Los Angeles by way of Houston, Texas, could have told many a young brother where that broad and spacious road led. Chic’s “Good Times” has similar notes of pathos in it, with lyrics that speak of “A rumor has it/its getting late/time marches on/you just cant change your fate.”
So music from 1979 always has a strong place in my heart and mind. When I hear a “Shake Your Body Down”, or a “I wanna be Your Lover”, or a “Street Life”, those funky, funky, joyful records, I always think about the Babylonians or Nero partying on the eve of their destructions. “Eat, drink and be merry, for tommorow we may die.” But “Street Life” is a record that mourns just as much as it celebrates.
There is a tape I’ve desperately been trying to find among my dad’s music collection I hope to share with everybody as soon as I can find it. It’s a tape from Liberia in early 1980. A young girl calls in to the radio station and requests “Street Life.” The radio announcer, in typical African “it takes a village” fasion, chides her, “You be in the street huh? What you know ’bout street life.” The girl said, “nothing, I just like the song.” Me and Pops would always fall out laughing when we heard that. It was so Liberian, and so full of the old school concern for the young. The same thing folks here talk about when they talk about the neighbors discipling you when you did bad as well as the parents.
“Street Life” was a song Joe Sample wrote, and he also played on a version Herb Alpert cut of it that very same year. I will always thank him for it and his tremendous contribution to his times. Sample and the Crusaders didn’t let jazz critics set their sound, they always let the people and the audience be the barometer of what they were doing. And they were able to touch many people because of that.