[3 September 2009]
When not giving sway to WWE-level paranoid histrionics masquerading as a debate over the future of American health care financing, the media spent much of the summer of 2009 partying like it’s 1969. Shortly after (finally) bidding Michael Jackson bon voyage to that Neverland Ranch in the sky, it embarked on a no-stone-unturned-anew excursion in the Pop Culture Wayback Machine, all in tribute to a most tumultuous year.
The reminiscing actually started in June, with new considerations of the Stonewall riots as a turning point in the gay rights struggle. In July, we all went back to the moon, or at least to the moment when Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on it (goosed along by clips of the late Walter Cronkite’s live broadcast of it, as part of the coverage of his passing). In August, we saw various quartets of Beatles fans recreate the cover photo from Abbey Road, their last moment together in the studio, which was recorded 40 years ago (never mind the apparent fact that people have been doing their own spins on that iconic photo all along, not bothering to hinge it to any particular date in time). And we even saw a few where-are-they-now pieces about the Charles Manson clan, and their gruesome Sharon Tate-LaBianca murders over one L.A. weekend, dovetailing with the 13 August release from prison of former acolyte Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, who had tried to kill President Gerald Ford in 1975.
And then there’s Woodstock. As massive an event as that was, it’s taken on even more of a mythic status over the years, as the avatar of everything the ‘60s allegedly stood for, in all the decade’s free-love-and-drugs glory. The anniversary celebration came complete with numerous ways to remember the event by shelling out some anniversary bucks. There were music and concert footage reissues, with the weekend’s festivities served up whole or parceled out in newly sliced pieces at every price point. There were new books on the shelves,“ think pieces” galore in the music press (at least what’s left of it) and from cultural commentators all over the map, and Ang Lee’s fictionalized account of the festivities, Taking Woodstock. There was even a recreation, of sorts: a concert in Woodstock, Illinois by tribute bands representing much of the original lineup.
To hear the pontificators, attendees and everyone else carry on and on about the event, one would think that the world had been rocked onto a brand new axis over the course of one three-day festival. (Considerably less blather was expended towards the anniversary of an event that really did portend new things for music: the recording sessions later that Woodstock week that resulted in the landmark Miles Davis album Bitches Brew.)
None of that is all that surprising, given the Baby Boomer generation’s predilection for self-mythologizing. Today’s kids, raised on social media and the celebrity-industrial complex, have been charged with excessive narcissism, but if they’re guilty of any such crime, they came by it honestly. Their forebears, the young people who brought us all the aforementioned events or had front-row seats for them, gleefully tend to place the years they fully came of age, from 1964 to 1975 (from the onset of Beatlemania to the fall of Saigon), as the fulcrum of modern history, and their generation as the ultimate change agents.
In fact, they’re the people who helped nostalgia become a pop culture cash cow: by generating and consuming product after product basking in the afterglow of those long-gone days, they proved the existence of a sizeable marketplace of people willing to purchase their youth all over again (you could extend that concept to hair dying products, relaxed-fit jeans and erectile dysfunction drugs, too). Add to that a media industry happy to wring new content out of old file footage, and suddenly the past – or at least easily marketable slices of it (as in The Beatles: Rock Band) – becomes inescapable, as if it never had gone away.
Now, there’s no denying that 1969 was a significant year on many, many levels. And the media have always been suckers for any anniversaries ending in a 0 (by that token, expect much press this fall for the 30th anniversary of the Iranian hostage crisis). But for all the hype about the 40th anniversary of this and that major event, there’s been far less attention paid to the anniversaries of these events:
The first space flight outside Earth’s gravitational pull;
The invention of the microchip;
The introduction of Malcolm X to an American TV audience;
Court decisions overturning censorship measures against controversial works of art;
The first American battlefield death in the Vietnam War.
All those events took place 50 years ago, in 1959. That’s a year that doesn’t enjoy any of the cool factor or pop-cultural panache of 1969, or 1968 for that matter (there was a lot of reconsidering ’68 going on in ’08). Truth be told, 1959 is most commonly seen as the culmination of a pretty boring decade, compared to the social upheaval of the ‘60s. And compared to a moon landing, a raging war, rising (and often armed) black militancy, and three days of music in upstate New York mud, ’59 doesn’t offer much in the way of Epochal Moments or Major Chapters in History.
Nonetheless, Fred Kaplan asserts that 1959 deserves a second look. The title of his new book, 1959: The Year Everything Changed (Wiley), makes a pretty bold claim, and Kaplan’s description of some of the story lines that began or saw major shifts that year supports his basic premise, if not the subtitle’s hyperbole. Various trends in science, politics and the arts, developments that had been taking place far beneath the radar throughout the ‘50s, first bubbled up to the surface in 1959. Those blossomings, Kaplan writes, would set the tone for the freewheeling ‘60s, and beyond.
“The truly pivotal moments of history are those whose legacies endure,” Kaplan writes, “And as the mid-forties recede into abstract nostalgia, and the late sixties evoke puzzled shudders, it is the events of 1959 that continue to resonate in our own time.” Kaplan’s selective recounting of the year includes not only the aforementioned events, but also the emergence of independent cinema in America and “New Wave” filmmakers in Europe, turf wars over the fate of the American space program, charm-offensive visits to the US by Soviet Union leaders, and the first official US government report on racial discrimination.
Kaplan builds a pretty strong argument for 1959’s significance, full of long-lost historical detail snappily recaptured, with one foot squarely planted in the present day. And in retrospect, any year that (literally) began with the triumph of Fidel Castro and ended with the presidential candidacy of John F. Kennedy would seem to have more than its fair share of historical importance. But for all his thoroughness, he missed a few spots. There’s nothing in 1959about:
The premiere of The Twilight Zone, which made prime-time TV entertainment safe for thinly veiled moralizing about the dangers of Cold War paranoia and social inequality (and, by extension, other social issues);
The establishment of the renegade American Football League, which helped usher in the modern era of big contracts from TV and big paydays for players;
The birth of the Second City improv/sketch comedy troupe, whose influence trickles down through The Graduate, Saturday Night Live and even The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
And there are other events the book didn’t include, moments that fall squarely into this column’s typical purview that had ramifications far beyond the turning of the calendar (plus one that, as we shall see in due course, takes a personal detour). So jump into that ’59 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz with the maxed-out tailfins, contemplate what an original Barbie doll could fetch on eBay (yeah, she started in ’59 too), and enjoy this addendum to the roll call of More Reasons Why Everything Changed in 1959.
One of the few events in Kaplan’s timeline that did get noticeable media coverage this year is the $800 loan Berry Gordy received from his family to start a little record label called Motown. Of course, that label went on to become anything but little, but in 1959 there wasn’t anything to suggest what Gordy’s enterprise would become. He did have his first hit, Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)”, but the Hitsville USA factory wouldn’t forge its distinctive sound or start building its titanic canon for another couple of years.
Although “Money” is firmly established in the pantheon of Tunes Every Bar Band Should Know, there were two songs from 1959 that had a more immediate and lasting impact on black pop music. Both of them were released on Atlantic, the reigning r&b label of the day, but beyond that they couldn’t be further apart.
Let’s start with a song that has an interesting backstory – and a monumental postscript, to boot. In February, Ray Charles and his band recorded a hot blues tune they’d developed on the road. It featured Ray’s furious riffing on electric piano, then some non sequitor lyrics, then a false ending in which Ray was persuaded to keep the beat going. This he did, with a now-famous call-and-response routine with his background singers, which got extended all the way through the roof.
With some minor editing from engineer Tom Dowd, Atlantic ended up with a monster hit, the two-sided “What’d I Say, Parts I and II”. Its six minutes of wigged-out ecstasy captured all of the strains that went into Ray’s music of the ‘50s, that swirling, steamy cauldron of blues, gospel and jazz that gave rise to both the notion and genre of soul. It was the first song, a few months ahead of its time, to put the swing into the “Swinging ‘60s”.
To the surprise of virtually everyone involved, “What’d I Say” would be Ray’s last hit for Atlantic. His contract with the label was up at the end of 1959, and he received an overture from ABC-Paramount, a relatively new label with a few hits, deep pockets and the desire to make an impact in the music industry (its complicated parentage covering TV and film). They offered him not only good money, but also a chance to reach a broader audience, creative control over his music, and the chance to eventually own his recording masters – a deal never before offered in the rock era. Atlantic wouldn’t match it, and so Charles was off to a new label in 1960, where he would go from Genius to American Icon in the space of just a few years.
One month after “What’d I Say” was waxed, there was a recording session in March for a new incarnation of the Drifters, a group with a great pedigree that hadn’t done much of anything since lead singer Clyde McPhatter bolted for a solo career four years earlier. By this time, the original members were all gone, and a new lineup featured Charlie Thomas on lead. But he wasn’t up to the task that day, so Benjamin Earl Nelson stepped up on a tune he co-wrote with the session’s producers, the already legendary team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
The Leiber-Stoller chart called for production values at the opposite end of the spectrum from the hits they’d written for the Coasters, Big Mama Thornton, and others. Instead of a blues-flavored ditty for a tight combo to rip through, here was a melody that owed more to classical music than the R&B they helped popularize, a five-piece string section, a call for booming tympani, and a Latin-ized rhythm not part of the standard rock fare.
With Nelson’s impassioned vocals on top and the other Drifters doo-wopping inside the mix, nothing about the record sounded like the rest of the R&B landscape. This was clearly a meticulous, planned concoction of the studio, with more elements going on than most folks thought an R&B song could safely (or properly) accommodate. The Atlantic bosses refused to release it, and only after some re-mixing by Dowd did they give it their reluctant blessings.
The song was “There Goes My Baby”, and its massive success gave the Drifters a whole new identity (not to mention that new lead singer, who changed his name to Ben E. King). Almost immediately thereafter, putting strings and expansive production on a black pop record was no longer considered heretical. Leiber and Stoller ushered in the idea of the songwriter-producer as auteur, mentoring the young songwriters hanging out in New York City’s Brill Building, and taking a fledgling producer named Phil Spector under their wings. But from their perspective, this session was just one history-making moment in a career full of them, as the new Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography (w/David Ritz, Simon and Schuster) attests.
Kaplan gives space to three groundbreaking jazz albums recorded in ’59: Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue; Dave Brubeck’s Time Out; and Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come. But as “What’d I Say” and “There Goes My Baby” demonstrate, changes were afoot on the pop side of the black music ledger, too. And not all of those changes were happening in America.
The Sound of Young Jamaica
Motown wasn’t the only label to launch in 1959 that would revolutionize black pop music. But the label in question had its greatest impact in two different countries.
Like Berry Gordy, Chris Blackwell always had a bit of the hustler in him. Blackwell, the son of a wealthy Jamaican landowner, had scuffed around for a bit in his youth, soaking up the jazz in New York City for a bit, before taking a government job back home. When the government leadership changed Blackwell was left out of a job, so he turned to making something of the music he’d been hearing across the island.
Back then, in the late ‘50s, Jamaican pop music was still heavily indebted to American R&B, but there were some traces of the island’s own pop music identity beginning to emerge. Blackwell started an enterprise, Island Records (named for the book and movie Island in the Sun, to record some of the new sounds, starting with Laurel Aitken’s “Boogie in My Bones”.
The business was decidedly small-scale for a couple of years, until Blackwell moved to England in 1962. That just so happened to be the year Jamaica received its independence from the UK, and its music started to shed its American flava began to sound like, well, the Jamaican pop music the world has been digging ever since.
The Island sides Blackwell pressed while in Jamaica did a decent trade there, but attracted more of a following among Jamaicans who had immigrated to England and were eager for reminders of their native culture. So when Blackwell hopped across the pond, he took his business (and contacts with some well-placed figures in the Jamaican music scene) with him.
Things took off in 1964 with Millie Small’s worldwide hit “My Boy Lollipop” (which Blackwell licensed to a larger label that could manage the volume). Blackwell continued to document and market the busy Jamaican music scene, as the sound evolved from jaunty ska to poppy rock steady, to slowed-down, dreaded-out reggae.
He also branched out into rock, starting with a connection he’d made while promoting Small. At a taping of a British TV show, Blackwell met a teenaged Stevie Winwood, then starring with the Spencer Davis group. When Winwood formed his own band, Traffic, in 1967, Blackwell signed it up. Island went on to record a diverse line-up of British rock acts, as well as distribute acts on smaller labels. The burgeoning catalogue ranged from the proto-arena rock of Free, to the proto-glam of Mott the Hoople, to prog rock pioneers King Crimson, to folkies Fairport Convention, and from them Richard Thompson. Island’s bonafides as an artist-friendly, forward-thinking label stem from this wing of the operation.
But it was reggae music that kept the cash coming in – and soon in a bigger way than anyone had conceived. In 1972, Island financed a movie about a struggling Jamaican singer running up against the shady side of the business, The Harder They Come. The film was a minor hit on the American midnight movie circuit, but the soundtrack of songs written for the movie and recent Jamaican hits found an audience among young Americans looking for post-hippie era thrills, and made a global superstar of lead performer Jimmy Cliff.
Also that year, Blackwell came to the aid of Jamaica’s top band when they found themselves stranded in England without money to get back home. The Wailers – Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer at the time – had done everything they felt they could have done within Jamaican confines by then, and had struck out on various plans to reach the international market. Blackwell signed them up promptly, and saw in their sound an opportunity.
To their dark, dubby demo of songs like “Concrete Jungle” and “Stir It Up”, he added sweeteners – guitar solos, electric keyboards – to help catch the ear of American rock audiences. The result – 1973’s Catch a Fire—grabbed a foothold among some hippies, stoners and, most importantly, a handful of FM deejays back when they had a lot more freedom (and were expected to use it) in choosing what to play. The Wailers became Bob Marley and the Wailers after Tosh and Wailer left, and the rest became history.
Throughout the ‘70s Island became virtually synonymous with reggae music in America. Marley’s growing success opened the floodgates for the entire country, and the label put out essential music from just about every major artist of note, from Lee “Scratch” Perry to Gregory Isaacs, from the Heptones to Black Uhuru. Island also branched afield from Jamaica to release collections of pop music from Africa; 1982’s Juju Music introduced America to Nigerian superstar King Sunny Ade, helping to establish the “world music” section of your favorite music store.
Island also managed to keep its finger on the pulse of rock, with punk-era releases from the B-52s, Ultravox and the Slits, among others. But their superstar rock signing came in 1980 – a scrappy Irish quartet named U2. Years later, when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Bono said that had it not been for Blackwell’s confidence in them they would not have made it to even a second album.
In 1989, one year after Gordy cashed out of Motown, Blackwell did the same at Island (although he stayed around in an advisory capacity for another decade). Today, Island is just another name in a string of merged little guys into one faceless corporate conglomerate (Island Def Jam Music Group); its American website features not one reference to Blackwell or Island’s storied history. But Island’s historic catalogue of artists is mindblowingly extensive, and probably has a higher quotient of multi-genre, eclectic coolness than any other label. (What other current or former indie imprint can claim the likes of both Nick Drake and Eric B. & Rakim, or Grace Jones and Amy Winehouse?)
Island’s 50th anniversary is a non-event in America, but it’s big deal in Europe, with a coffee-table book, reissue packages, art exhibit, a tribute concert of Island artists at the Montreux Jazz Festival, and a website which features what may be the current Internet’s hippest streaming jukebox. Blackwell, far from his days selling 45s from his trunk, is widely recognized as one of the most important figures in British pop music history.
Yet for all of Marley’s brilliance, and the astonishing level of music that came from Jamaica in its first two decades of independence, it can be argued that part of the groundwork for the acceptance of pop music from a tiny black island in the Caribbean came from something else that started in ’59: a full appreciation of the power of the drum.
History will show that 1959 was officially a quiet year in the wave of independence movements that swept across sub-Saharan Africa beginning with Ghana in 1957, in that no nations formally severed their colonial ties that year. But the record is deceiving, as the groundwork for additional declarations was being laid across the continent. Seventeen nations established their independence in 1960, beginning with Cameroon on 1 January and followed by (in chronological order) Togo, Mali, Senegal, Madagascar, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Benin, Niger, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Chad, Central African Republic, Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Nigeria and Mauritania.
Across the water, there was an inkling of what was afoot in Africa within the nascent civil rights movement. Louis Armstrong and other prominent jazz musicians had gone on State Department-sponsored tours of Africa earlier in the decade, and the young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited Ghana for its independence celebration (as part of an American delegation which included then-Vice President Richard Nixon; King is said to have invited Nixon to Alabama, “where we are seeking the same kind of freedom.”). But the biggest connection of the era between black America and Africa may have been forged not by Dr. King, but by another Morehouse man.
After graduating Morehouse College in Atlanta, Babatunde Olatunji moved to New York City for post-graduate studies in public administration. Like many grad students then and now, he found himself short on cash, so he turned to making music for extra income. But not just any music, and certainly not the music in the Gotham air at the time. Olatunji was born in Nigeria, and drew upon his childhood drumming in Yoruban festivals to put together a percussion ensemble. The group became much more than a part-time gig: he ended up giving a 1957 concert at Radio City Music Hall with a 66-piece ensemble, which got him signed to Columbia by none other than the legendary producer John Hammond.
In the late summer and fall of ’59, Olatunji entered a recording studio with three other percussionists and nine singers. The group recorded eight pieces of hypnotic, propulsive jams derived from the leader’s Yoruban experience. The resulting album, Drums of Passion, opened ears all over America upon its release in 1960. Never before had African music been presented with such unadorned dignity and respect – by the biggest record label in the land, no less, not a small specialty concern working the limited ethnic market.
The music was different but not altogether off-putting, and drew listeners into its spell. Its authenticity separated it from the kitschy global soundscapes popularized by Martin Denny and Esquivel. And the recording’s production values added both depth and sheen to the performance, making it feel less like a geography lesson and more like entertainment.
But while it wouldn’t have gone on to sell millions of copies had it not been entertaining, for many of its fans Drums of Passion represented something far more profound: the first tangible evidence of a direct connection between American culture and African roots many did not even imagine existed. Not that Olantunji’s music was the actual mother lode from which all African culture sprung, but listeners discovered links between its grooves and the rhythms that propelled black American music. And for audiences sensing a connection between the civil rights movement and the African independence wave, this was more than just a record: Drums of Passion was one of the first pop culture products to allow black Americans to feel like they owned a tangible piece of the motherland.
Olatunji immediately joined the New York artistic cognoscenti, adding his drumming to jazz dates including We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite. His music would be covered by John Coltrane and Carlos Santana, among others. Santana remembers the effect of seeing people in a Bay Area park dancing to “Jin-Go-Lo-Ba” and recast the piece as “Jingo”, a highlight of his band’s 1969 debut album and a staple of their early live shows. Coltrane gave what turned out to be his last live performance at the Olatunji Center for African Culture in New York (captured on a low-quality recording and released as The Olatunji Concert: His Last Live Performance by Impulse).
Never one to miss an obvious tie-in, Columbia has released a two-disc deluxe edition of Drums just in time for its 50th anniversary, pairing it with its 1966 sequel More Drums of Passion and fleshing both discs out with recordings made with all-star jazz session players during Olatunji’s time with the label. As the musician who brought African percussion to worldwide pop audiences, his place in history is secure.
Olatunji influenced virtually every genre of pop music; deep inside the grooves of Drums of Passion one can hear beats that would be distilled a generation later within many a classic hip-hop jam. By the time he ascended to the heavens in 2003, he had become, for all intents and purposes, the first musician to imagine, and help bring about, a world of modern music connected by ancient, timeless rhythms. Not bad for a former grad student.
But let’s not give Olatunji all the credit for teasing the links between the simultaneous black freedom movements in America and Africa. Another important link came from, of all places, the South Side of Chicago.
Yes, in Fact, it Does Explode
It’s probably not much of an exaggeration to say that Joseph Asagai was the first African many black Americans met. Never mind that he is a fictional character.
Asagai, an exchange student from Nigeria, represents two dynamics that would play out in different ways throughout the ‘60s: the optimism in the first years of African nations’ independence from their European colonial rulers; and the shifting nature of black America’s relationship to Africa, and ultimately to blackness itself. The latter is dramatized in its essence by the plight of Beneathea Younger, a young sista caught between the affections of Asagai and of George Murchinson, an upwardly mobile brotha dismissive of Asagai’s pride in his homeland. Benethea rejects George, but we never find out if she takes Asagai up on his proposal of marriage and relocation to the motherland.
That storyline would be a weighty enough subject in and of itself, but in fact it is secondary to the main story of A Raisin in the Sun, the groundbreaking play by Lorraine Hansberry which debuted on Broadway in March 1959. The more-famous main plotline concerns Walter Lee Younger’s desire to move his family from an apartment in the South Side of Chicago into a new home that happens to be in an all-white neighborhood. The entire play, looking back on it after 50 years of American history, seems uncannily prescient: it captures black America at one of its most profound precipices, staring out at possibilities prior generations had little chance of envisioning, and wondering if they can make that giant leap into an uncertain future.
Hansberry (1930-1965), a native of the South Side herself, was uniquely positioned to not only perceive this moment in time, but also to capture it. First, the resistance the Youngers would face in trying to integrate a neighborhood parallels the playwright’s own life. Her father, Carl Hansberry, had tried to move the family into a previously all-white section of Chicago, only to be rebuffed by the existence of a restrictive housing covenant forbidding black home ownership in the area. He fought the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he won a narrow decision upholding his right to move into the new location. That home became something of a South Side salon for the black left; a young Lorraine would grow up with titans like W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson as frequent guests (not to mention her father’s brother, a renowned professor of African studies at Howard University).
Hansberry dropped out of college after two years (the University of Wisconsin, where she was the first black woman to live in her dorm), and moved to New York City, where she became a reporter and editor for progressive publications (including Freedom, which Robeson published and Dubois advised). She also met Robert Nemiroff while protesting for the desegregation of a college basketball team; the two eventually married and moved to Greenwich Village. Around that time, Hansberry felt the need to deploy her writing skills in a different direction, turning from journalism to drama.
A Raisin in the Sun took eight months to write, and one dinner party to find a patron: Philip Rose, who took the project on as de facto producer and helped get it opened on Broadway. The original cast included the crème of late-‘50s black acting talent: Sidney Poitier as Walter Lee (succeeded by Ossie Davis); Claudia McNeil as Mama; Ruby Dee as Walter’s wife Ruth; Diana Sands as Beneathea; Ivan Dixon as Asagai; Louis Gossett as George; and Glynn Turman as Travis, the son of Walter Lee and Ruth. The play took New York by storm, running for more than 500 performances and winning the New York Drama Critics Award for best play. The 1961 film version, directed by Daniel Petrie from a screenplay adapted by Hansberry, featured all the stage principals reprising their roles on screen.
The effects of A Raisin in the Sun on black culture haven’t stopped rippling in the years since its premiere. First, it made an instant star of Hansberry, who like other“ overnight’ celebrities had to make a sudden adjustment to being recognized constantly and juggling various demands on her time. But that nouveaux fame didn’t translate into mass acceptance of her work. NBC rejected a teleplay it had commissioned from her about slavery, and the eventual A Raisin in the Sun screenplay was her third whack at it; the studio rejected her first two versions as too radical.
Despite the opposition, Hansberry stuck to her activist guns, both in her writing and her support of progressive causes. She offered financial and artistic support to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and led a walkout of prominent black artists and activists during a meeting with Attorney General Robert Kennedy in which she upbraided Kennedy for the administration’s lack of tangible action on civil rights.
On a broader level, A Raisin in the Sun opened the floodgates for a generation of black theater. It was another milestone in Poitier’s ascendance toward full-fledged stardom, launched Gossett’s career in earnest, and allowed the other principals to stay busy for years to come (Dixon would co-star in the TV show Mission: Impossible). It also emboldened a new generation of black playwrights, directors and producers.
Throughout the ‘60s, black theater exploded all over America – not ominously, as from Hughes’ poem, “A Dream Deferred”, which gave Hansberry her play’s title, but as a cultural phenomenon, an injection of vitality into the art form, and a new platform for the discussion and exploration of blackness in modern America. There had been black plays before, but never had any of them captured the attention of a mainstream arts audience.
After A Raisin in the Sun, the next quantum leap was made by LeRoi Jones’ Dutchman (1964), which challenged both theatrical and societal convention in its provocative look at the intersecting dynamics of race and sex. From there, black theater companies sprang up in many areas, as part of the Black Arts Movement that took hold in the mid-‘60s.
One of the most important was the Negro Ensemble Company, the first professional black theater company, in New York in 1967. This wave of black dramatic creativity would continue into the ‘70s, accompanied by a renewal of black musical theater. (One unintended consequence was that Hansberry’s Mama, the strong, elderly matriarch, would become a stock figure in black culture, sent up rip-roaringly in the “Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play” vignette of George C. Wolfe’s 1986 satire The Colored Museum.)
Hansberry would not live to see all this happen. She was diagnosed with cancer in 1963, and died in 1965, the day after her play The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window closed on Broadway (after 101 performances). Nemiroff became her literary executor, and secured the publication of her unpublished scripts. He also put together a tribute to Hansberry (they had divorced before her passing, but remained partners in promoting her art), based upon her own writings and testimonials from Poitier, Robeson and a cast of thousands. That tribute became the 1968 Broadway production To Be Young, Gifted and Black; seeing that show prompted Nina Simone to create a black-pride anthem by the same name, which became one of her biggest hits.
Hansberry didn’t live to see A Raisin in the Sun became part of the American theatrical canon. There was the 1973 adaptation of it as a musical, choreographed by Donald McKayle, starring Joe Morton, and featuring a pre-Good TimesRalph Carter as Travis. There was a 25th anniversary revival, which was subsequently produced for PBS (so much by then for Hansberry’s writing being too hot for TV) starring Danny Glover. It returned to Broadway in 2004 (and TV in 2008), starring Sean Combs and Phylicia Rashad. And there have been countless productions of it over the years by companies of every shape and size. The script’s main issue of whether or not to move into an all-white neighborhood may not be as burning a societal question anymore, but its subtext about the nature of black modernity and progress lives on, as indicated by all the post-Obama whither-black-Americans art and analysis we’ve seen these last few months.
Finally, Hansberry didn’t live to see what another member of the A Raisin in the Sun creative team would go on to do. The play’s director, Lloyd Richards, would have a monumental impact on American theater. He was one of the first faculty members of the Negro Ensemble Company. He would continue in theater education as dean of the Yale School of Drama. In 1979, as artistic director at the Yale Repertory Theater, he mounted A Lesson from Aloes by the South African playwright Athol Fugard. In the ‘80s, he headed up the National Playwrights Conference, where he nurtured the work of a generation of talent including Wendy Wasserman and Christopher Durang. But while there, he took on a pivotal role in the development of one voice among all others.
He selected a submission by a Pittsburgh-based writer to develop for production. That playwright was August Wilson, and that play was Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Richards directed its 1984 Broadway premiere, which like A Raisin in the Sun received best-play honors from the New York Drama Critics Circle. After its success came five more Wilson-Richards collaborations ( Fences, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running, Seven Guitars) as part of Wilson’s epic ten-play cycle through the 20th Century. Wilson became the most produced black playwright, and perhaps the best-known American playwright period, of the ‘90s and ‘00s, adding to a legacy with roots in two humble, vibrant homes – the Hansberry’s and the Younger’s - on the South Side of Chicago.
Lorraine Hansberry, no doubt, would have been proud of the success of everyone involved in bringing her words to life, and happy to know that the lowly raisin that came to life in 1959 had evolved into a dream no longer hopelessly deferred.
Musical Gold Spun from Tin Pan Alley’s Wispiest Straw
There were a couple of black sports milestones in 1959. Charlie Sifford became the first black golfer to receive a Professional Golfers Association tour card, and Wilt Chamberlain began his prodigious pro basketball career. But the moment most emblematic of the time was an ending, not a beginning.
On the face of it, the call-up of infielder Elijah Jerry “Pumpsie” Green to the Boston Red Sox meant little in the overall scheme of things. The Red Sox weren’t that spectacular that season, and Green’s big league career was unremarkable. But Green was black, and the call-up made him the first black to play for the Red Sox. And that made Boston the last major league baseball team to desegregate its roster (“Pumpsie Green throws out First Pitch” by Mike Petraglia, Boston Red Sox.com, 17 April 2009).
It had been a dozen years since Jackie Robinson made history for the Brooklyn Dodgers. History views the event, and rightly so, as a breakthrough achievement. In the time between Robinson’s debut and Green’s, all-time greats such as Willie Mays, Henry Aaron and Elston Howard, and a legion of second-tier performers, changed the face of baseball, and in turn America. But the institution that had nurtured black baseball since the ‘20s paid the price for that progress.
Robinson’s floodgate-opening triumph meant that the Negro Leagues no longer had much of a role to play. With baseball rosters (slowly) opening up for black talent, the Negro Leagues essentially lost their raison d’etre, and their fan base, too. Players could openly aspire to a major league career, and black fans could watch their favorite stars play at the sport’s highest level. By 1959, only four teams were left in the last league, the Negro American League. It would go out of business the next year.
Baseball would have some desegregating still to do (its first black umpire in 1966, its first black manager in 1975). And football’s Washington Redskins and basketball’s St. Louis Hawks would not add a black player for a couple of years hence. But black America stood boldly on the verge of new possibilities in 1959, and was in no mood to be nostalgic about anything that smacked of second-hand status. And thus did the Negro Leagues pass with barely a notice, not to be remembered fondly (if at all) until the mid-‘70s, when new research and scholarship sparked interest in the institution.
Every year, of course, has its passings. Some of the more noteworthy passings in 1959, like the slow death of the Negro Leagues, indicate that an era had finally ended. Kaplan notes how the death of President Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, opened the door for a change in the tone of US foreign policy. He also chronicles the years-in-the-making opening of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, with its controversial design by Frank Lloyd Wright, who died six months before his building opened.
Other notable passings of the year hearkened back to standards no longer in vogue: swashbuckling action hero Errol Flynn; film directors Cecil B. DeMille and Preston Sturges (when was the last time you saw those names in the same sentence?); World War II hero Gen. George C. Marshall. Those deaths seem to support Kaplan’s thesis that 1959 marked a major turning point in American life. But no clearer measure of the distance 1959 put between itself and the past exists than that in the year innovators spun jazz into dizzying new directions, jazz also lost its two most romantic figures, stalwarts of a style long since faded from prominence, dead from beaten-down spirits and broken hearts.
Tenor saxophonist Lester Young died on 15 March at the age of 49, just after arriving in New York from a series of dates in France where his alcoholic demons pretty much won their last battle. On the way to his funeral, vocalist Billie Holiday remarked, “I’ll be the next one to go.” Four months later, she indeed was gone, at only 44.
Young and Holiday – Prez and Lady Day – were to song what Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were to dance. Separately they both were brilliant, but in each other’s company they approached the realm of the divine. Young’s warm tone and laconic flow matched Holiday’s off-the-beat delivery; they seemed to instinctively know how much even the slightest pause or inflection could convey, and never engaged in showy displays of technique, putting all their skills in service of investing each note they blew with sincerity and emotion. On their sessions together, it is almost as though they complete each other’s phrases, so in tune are they with each other, existing on a plane slightly more exalted than their bandmates.
It was no secret that the years had been hard to both of them. They turned to drugs and alcohol to ease the pain of the racism and personal hardships they experienced. In their ‘30s heyday they reigned, but by the end, both were shadows of their former selves. No amount of studio production could mask how ravaged Holiday’s once-magnificent instrument sounded, while Young was reduced to playing gigs with pickup bands wherever he could, sometimes sounding great (a series of Washington, DC dates from 1956 recorded by pianist Bill Potts) but more often than not, anything but great.
In their prime, though, they spun musical gold from Tin Pan Alley’s wispiest straw. They defined small group swing for the ages in a series of studio dates during the ‘30s and early ‘40s, taking trite material like “Me, Myself and I” and “A Sailboat in the Moonlight” and, along with some of the greatest musicians of the day, creating timeless music that rose far above whatever hellhounds were on their respective trails.
So large a legacy does their combined work pose, and so revered is that legacy, that it seems odd there are only fewer than two dozen recorded examples of it. Sixteen are collected on Billie Holiday and Lester Young: A Musical Romance, a compilation Columbia distilled from its ten-cd Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia. All the’ 30s sides starring the duo are there, plus their final hurrah, a 1957 performance of “Fine and Mellow” that, for six sublime minutes, reminded one and all of the glorious music they made together.
Charles Mingus would pay tribute to Young with the composition “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”, a highlight of his ’59 album Mingus Ah Um (one of several fine jazz albums that year beyond the history makers in Kaplan’s book) and a standard of the jazz canon to this day. Holiday’s last pianist, Mal Waldron, would dance along the forward edge of jazz for more than 40 years, collaborating with artists from Eric Dolphy to David Murray.
It seems sadly appropriate that this most majestic, tragic pair would be linked in death as well as in music. And if moments of new beginnings are sometimes also moments when other things end, it would seem like a marker of the times – theirs and ours – that their deaths would come in a year when so many new ideas and movements were being born.
Jazz had long ago left Young’s and Holiday’s swing era in its rearview mirror, and was about to bid adieu to the bebop that supplanted swing. Following the advances of ’59, it would take all manner of twists and turns, move through numerous styles, revivals, phases and is-jazz-dead arguments, and spawn great sax players and singers galore. But none like Prez or Lady Day, and certainly nothing at all like their unspoken magic as the star-crossed lovers of American popular art.
In Good Company Among the Generation Jonesers
There’s a particular reason why I couldn’t wait to dive into 1959, or look back at some of the major events Kaplan’s roundup omitted. That was the year I was born, on 29 August to be exact (a happenstance I wrote up previously in my Michael Jackson appreciation “He Got the Money, I Got the Good Looks”).
That places me in fairly eclectic company. Among the others sharing my birth year are White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, architect Maya Lin, former Public Enemy #2 Flavor Flav, news anchor Keith Olbermann, actress Rebecca De Mornay, and the American statehoods of Alaska and (speaking of the big 5-0) Hawai’i.
Technically that makes me party to the tail end of the Eisenhower years, but I’ve never claimed to be a child of the ‘50s. Nor do I really feel like a product of the ‘60s, at least not the mythologized version repackaged for ready consumption. I don’t remember where I was when John F. Kennedy was assassinated; all I know is that I was only four when it happened. Woodstock had no resonance for me as a nine-year-old at the time. I knew who the Beatles were, but that was largely thanks to my older sister, who was a teenager when they hit America and had many of their early albums.
The Baby Boomer generation is generally accepted to include those born between 1946 and 1964, but many of us born in the latter few years of that span don’t have the same experience as those born in the earlier part. TV staples of a ‘50s childhood like Hopalong Cassidy mean little or nothing to us. The national trauma of our early-‘70s teenage years, for example, was Watergate; the defining Rolling Stones song was “It’s Only Rock and Roll”, not “Satisfaction” or even “Gimme Shelter”.
Our generation created punk and hip-hop, rebelling against post-hippie musical excess and responding to a cultural landscape slowly becoming bleaker and harsher than the hopeful optimism the already-codified hype about the ‘60s kept shoving down our throats (which reminds me: punk provocateur Lydia Lunch and old-school legend Kurtis Blow were also born in ’59).
There’s even a moniker for us late-era boomers, Generation Jones, that distinguishes our experience as largely separate from those who made The Sixties, and slyly alludes to the comparative non-branded anonymity of our experience compared to our older siblings (and also our younger siblings from Generation X, and even our kids in Generation Y). Other Gen Jonesers include Prince, Madonna and Michael Jackson (all born in 1958), early hi-tech and online adapters Brewster Kahle, Jaron Lanier and Glenn Reynolds (b. 1960, the latter no relation to me), and the most famous person born in 1961, President Barack Obama.
Obviously, we Jonesers can’t claim the breakthroughs of 1959 as our own. But Kaplan’s entertaining slice of American history lets us take some wind out of the Boomers’ sail by noting that, contrary to popular opinion, they didn’t invent The Sixties from whole cloth. And it helps give our particular comings-of-age a cool factor and pop-cultural panache of their own, by showing us we were born at a time when so many of the things and events that have marked our lives to date first surfaced.
When I first discovered Ornette Coleman’s music through his Dancing in Your Head in the late ’70’s, little did I suspect that he had officially burst onto the scene the same year I did. When Spike Lee emerged with She’s Gotta Have It in 1986, I had no idea he was reinvigorating a tradition of independent filmmaking that dated back to my birth year. And I’d always taken it as faith that the Pill was a direct product of the women’s lib movement of the ‘60s, never knowing that its major clinical trials took place in the late ‘50s and that the Food and Drug Administration application to market it as a birth-control medicine was submitted 37 days before I was born.
All in all, it’s been a fascinating ride since 1959, both for me personally and for our world as a whole. I can’t wait to see what the next 50 years will be like.