The Emptiness Of Packaging, The Power Of Levi Stubbs, Playing For Kings: B.B. & M.L., And Knowing What Time It Really Is …
Now More Than Ever … The “fifth wheel” sat in the back as the loving couple up front sang along to the hits on the pop radio station. The nadir was reached when Chicago’s then-current hit, “Just You and Me” came on. “You are the love of my life,” Randy crooned. Brandi responded, “You are my inspiration.” It’s a Sunday night somewhere in the suburbs just south of Atlanta; early autumn ’73. If bus service was available close by, then jumping out of the car was a viable option. “Just You and Me” was Chicago’s latest low, a song in such bad taste it was hard to imagine even Cher recording it. But Chicago, having veered way off Dearborn Street on to Primrose Lane, had grown comfortable producing tunes for the starry-eyed and smitten.
Electing to stay in the car even as Randy and Brandi did their best Donny-and-Marie, thoughts turned to Chicago. What happened with them anyway? Just four and a half years earlier, then known as Chicago Transit Authority, they released their first album (a 2-record set, as would be the next two albums). Delivering a stellar debut, Chicago quickly became a staple of progressive FM radio. They could rock. They were funky and bluesy. The band also wore their left-wing politics on their sleeves. Musically, they offered commentary, somewhat driveling, on the ’68 Democratic Convention (held in Chicago) and its aftermath. Specifics aside, Chicago at least embraced the proper spirit. What happened at the convention, with its shattered hopes, lies, brutality and making villains of young protesters beaten by cops, was America’s shame. Most in the country were far from embracing the views of the “Chicago 7,” but anger and dissent that summer were justifiable. And regardless of one’s political views, it was clear that many of the songs on Chicago Transit Authority were top-drawer material. “Beginnings,” “South California Purples,” “Questions 67 & 68,” “I’m A Man” and “Does Anyone Really Know What Time It Is?” all sounded fresh and vibrant. Now all this band needed was a snazzy logo.
The guys at Logo Central, likely inspired by a certain soft drink, created a bright new insignia for Chicago. The simple but illuminating logo made Chicago’s album covers gleam at end caps for years. Chicago had pizzazz: the band had the image, the marketing strategy – they delivered product. Now all this band needed were more good songs.
Their second album, Chicago, released in January ’70, featured one great song, “25 or 6 to 4,” and a few good ones (“Make Me Smile,” “Fancy Colours” and “Wake Up Sunshine.”). There was also the flute-infected “Colour My World,” a dreary exercise which became a favorite at high school proms. The next year, Chicago III was released. The third of the two-record sets had even slimmer pickings, with only one exceptional song (“Lowdown”). No doubt, the guys were exhausted. 6 long-playing discs in less than two years. A lot of touring too. The highlight of their touring was a week-long stint at Carnegie Hall. Yet despite all the practice, the performances there were not representative of the band’s best live work. No matter. Chicago, in October ’71, released Chicago at Carnegie Hall, a 4-record set that caused a stir more centered on its marketing and packaging. Inside the box set were posters and data on the voting laws of all 50 states. It was commendable that Chicago sought to get out the vote, essentially urging their fans to “Dick Nixon before he dicks you,” as Johnny Rivers put it, but creatively, the band was running on empty. At the peak of their immense popularity, they found new ideas harder to come by.
Summer ’72 saw the release of Chicago V, a single-disc void of the toughness and smarts of “I’m A Man” or “Does Anyone Really Know What Time It Is?” On the album’s hit single, “Saturday in the Park, ” Chicago sounded closer to Tony Orlando than to Steve Winwood. However, the new album did feature a political song of sorts, “Dialogue (Parts 1 and II).” Said dialogue was a conversation between two young men, one troubled by the man-made, greed-driven hardships of the world and the other content with the numbness of suburban life. The second part of the song ends with the band singing, “We can make it happen, we can make it better, we can change the world now….” Even those wanting change and weary of Nixon rolled their eyes. Crawdaddy! magazine opined that Chicago insisted “on bullshitting its audience.” That insistence grew stronger, and naturally, things got thicker.
From the mid ’70s on, Chicago built upon its fan base with more hits tailor-made for proms, including “Just You and Me,” “Call on Me,” “Old Days,” and “If You Leave Me Now.” Deep in their hearts, the members of Chicago must’ve had misgivings, although Tony Orlando had to be envious.
As Chicago transitioned itself from the Nixon era to the Jimmy Carter years, they remained a top concert draw. In the Atlanta area during the 70s, they played at Lake Spivey (near Margaret Mitchell’s fictional Tara), Atlanta Stadium, the Omni and Georgia Tech’s Alexander Memorial Coliseum. During the week of the Coliseum gig, Atlanta rock and roll artist Darryl Rhoades stopped by Peaches Records and Tapes to say hello and talk shop. Breaking away from my duties for a few minutes, I walked outside with Rhoades to discuss the upcoming show he and his Hahavishnu Orchestra would perform that same week. Always the timely satirist, Darryl wanted to do a musical spoof on Chicago. He had already assembled some ideas, framing a piece called “Suburban Guerillas,” which included the melody from “Beginnings.” I suggested lampooning “Dialogue,” with the line, “Do you think we’ll have some quality on our next LP?” and then, “No, I never never think of that at all.” Darryl liked that one and used it in a grand presentation that opened with a bit of “Chicago,” as in Sinatra’s toddlin’ town. The smart and funny take-off concluded with the coda, “We can make some money, We can make some money…” From Dearborn Street to Primrose Lane, indeed: Chicago had long insisted on bullshitting its audience.
The Empty Sidewalks Of My Block …. The tumultuous summer of ’68 supposedly helped inform the musical creations of Chicago in their early days. They used a tape of Democratic Convention protesters chanting, “The whole world is watching. The whole world is watching….” as part of a track on Chicago Transit Authority. What the world saw at the convention and throughout ’68 was often too painful to watch. The spring that year had been especially tragic. Robert F. Kennedy, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination in what would’ve been a very different convention, didn’t live to influence such matters as he was gunned down in Los Angeles on June 5, having just won the California Primary. Kennedy’s assassination came two months and one day after the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. Both assassinations cut deeply through the mainstream of the country, but the pain of King’s death weighed most heavily. The loss of King was profoundly hurtful. When one was truly paying attention, the sadness was overwhelming.
King didn’t hold public office. He represented millions who weren’t in politics and who were kept at bay by the powerful. His family didn’t have a Palm Beach or Hyannis Port for retreat as the grief took hold. No servants to handle requests and whims. Dr. King’s family, whether one was black or white, seemed like many of us. And from that family, a loved one – arguably the greatest leader of the 20th Century – was gone. Empathy for that family seemed just as deep as that for our country, a land sadly adrift.
Certain songs from that sad time resonate over the decades. The sound in one’s mind when reviewing long-past moments is often the music from days gone by. When the MLK assassination is evoked, so are a couple of hit records from ’68 by the Four Tops. Still part of the Motown assembly line of hit-makers, the Four Tops were branching out, recording songs written by rock and folk artists. As the emptiness felt over King’s death took hold, the Four Tops’ rendition of Tim Hardin’s “If I Were A Carpenter” filled the airwaves in Atlanta where the King family and much of the world gathered to praise, honor and bury Dr. King. “If I Were A Carpenter” expresses a desire to be loved and accepted, regardless of one’s lot in life. Whether employed in a wood shop or mill, the figure in “If I Were A Carpenter” is confident in his own self-worth, yet he realizes his worthiness must be acknowledged by the one who means the most to him. That sense of dignity was what the black people of Montgomery, Alabama demanded in ’55 and ’56, during the bus boycott, the first civil rights action led by Dr. King. The demands of the citizens were incredibly modest, for example, one being that black bus riders “be treated with courtesy.” That type of humility, given their circumstances, is reminiscent of the words penned by Tim Hardin and voiced so strikingly by Four Tops lead singer Levi Stubbs.
The powerful voice of Stubbs provided great lift to the dozen plus hits by the Four Tops. His rich baritone filled the group’s recordings. Whenever Stubbs was heard, it seemed he lived inside the songs. Such was the case on the Four Tops’ rendition of “Walk Away Renee,” their first hit single of ’68. An achingly beautiful song as originally recorded by the Left Banke in ’66, Stubbs took it up a notch. “Walk Away Renee” depicts heartbreak over lost love, where one’s environment appears vacant, even if the streets are just as they were prior to one’s world falling apart. Stubbs conveyed that feeling of devastation.
The Blues In Memphis …. Among the last words Martin Luther King, Jr. said on April 4, 1968 were in a request to saxophonist Ben Branch. As King looked down from the porch of his Lorraine Hotel room, he calls out, “My man!” to Branch after Jesse Jackson, also in the parking lot, tells King that Branch would be playing at their rally later that evening. King requested Branch play “Precious Lord,Take My Hand,” and to “play it real pretty.” Branch said sure. That’d be a piece of cake for him, a veteran of the Memphis music scene, having played on B.B. King’s first recordings in ’49 when MLK was barely out of his teens. It was natural enough for Jesse Jackson, the hep cat of the civil rights movement, to have Branch close by. Branch had appeared at benefits for SCLC Operation Breadbasket and Jackson’s PUSH, doing good and giving back.
Seconds after the lighthearted exchange with Jackson, Branch and King, the world went dark. Shots rang out. King went down, dying in a pool of blood. Jackson ran up to King’s room. In that very horrible moment, a touchstone of Jackson’s career was reached – rather dubiously.
Jackson smeared King’s blood on his shirt, which he kept on that night and the next day, even as he appeared on the Today Show, stating Dr. King died in his arms. Given how he’s prospered and been politically celebrated, it could be said Jesse Jackson got away with that lie. When one’s life is all about one’s success and acclaim, a little lie about a big event may not seem such a big deal. Some people chose to overlook that it was actually Ralph David Abernathy who held Dr. King at that tragic time. Like the band from the city where he built his political career, Jesse Jackson was skilled at bullshitting his audience.
More than most public figures in the second half of the 20th Century, Jesse Jackson worked to stay in the news. A striking figure and usually well prepared, Jackson commanded press conferences and events. Many of the causes he promoted were thoughtful and worthy, though it was often implied attention be granted him too. He also possessed the natural gifts of a successful politician. Richard Nixon, a lifelong campaigner himself, called Jackson “a poet.” Certainly, he was far more skilled at the flesh-pressing than his colleagues from the movement days such as Abernathy or John Lewis. In ’77, when both Abernathy and Lewis were running for the same congressional seat (vacated by Andrew Young, another of King’s right-hand men) in Atlanta, it was obvious neither had the flair Jackson would later display in his presidential campaigns. On one Saturday afternoon, Abernathy and Lewis dropped by the Peaches Records and Tapes on Peachtree within 30 minutes of each other. Lewis then seemed shy, although earnest when asking for support. Abernathy appeared as the loving uncle, asking, “Will you vote for me?” Before one could answer, he’d give you a big hug, exclaiming, “Thank you, thank you!” As it turned out, Atlanta City Council Chairman Wyche Fowler, long an Atlanta vote-getter, won the congressional seat (in ’86, Lewis was elected to Congress, beating Julian Bond in a heated race for the seat formerly held by Young – then Atlanta’s Mayor).
Jesse Jackson would’ve lit up Peaches that day with his smile and proclamations, dazzling the shoppers like Earth Wind and Fire. He was the shining star and he knew it. At times, during his presidential campaigns of ’84 and ’88. there was the sense he felt entitled to the Democratic nomination. And if not that, at least the second spot on the ticket. As with any presidential race, there were multiple factors at play, but rare was a nominee who’d feel comfortable with a running mate as electrifying and self-absorbed as Jackson.
Out A Carpet Of Gold … The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and naturally, Jesse Jackson, Jr. wished to launch a political career while the bright lights were on his dad. The younger Jackson gave a speech at the ’88 Democratic Convention in Atlanta, impressing some more than others. There was the expected oohing and ahhing over the younger Jackson’s speech, but honesty compelled one to admit he wouldn’t have been at the podium were it not for his lineage. But he could always run for Congress in his hometown. In ’95, he was elected to represent Illinois’s 2nd Congressional District, encompassing Chicago’s Southside and the adjacent suburbs. To no one’s surprise, like Johnny Rocco, JJJ wanted more. In the back of his mind, he thought he might win the presidency. Dad could take credit for paving the way. Yet history gets messy. Another politician from Illinois, Senator Barack Obama, also an African-American, was elected President in 2008. Obama made it to the White House without the help of Jackson the elder, actually quite envious of the success he never achieved. Once when Obama’s name was mentioned and thinking his mike was off, Jackson said, “I’ll cut his nuts off.”
With Obama still fully-equipped and in the Oval Offfice, Jesse Jackson Jr. had reason to believe his ship had come in. He could assume Obama’s Illinois Senate seat. One of his aides got word to the Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich that in exchange for appointment to a Senate seat, Jackson could help raise millions for the Governor. That would help with Blago’s next campaign. A lot of walking ’round money. The Federal Government, already aware of Blago’s corruption, gets wind of the Jackson proposal and begins a major investigation. Through their digging, more of JJJ’s untoward behavior comes to light.
A lot of money was flowing into the younger Jesse’s hands, some of it on to his wrist. The U.S. Justice Department, in the administration of Barack Obama, filed charges against Jackson, accusing him of misuse of $750,000 in campaign funds. Jackson spent the money on, among other necessities, a $43,000.00 Rolex watch. The Feds had the goods on him, so he agreed to a plea deal, which will reportedly keep him in prison for 57 months. While doing time, JJJ can ponder all the other things he purchased with taxpayers’ money: An Eddie Van Halen guitar, membership to a health club, cruises, a reversible mink parka for his wife and some nifty Michael Jackson memorabilia. He may also contemplate how many months of meals $43,000.00 could’ve provided scores of his constituents in the blighted parts of Chicagoland he represented. To his credit, he may already be feeling the guilt. He’s Jesse Jackson, Jr. and he knows much of the world has been watching. When Jackson left the courtroom on February 20, he said, “Tell everybody back home I’m sorry I let them down, okay?” His apology will be accepted by many, although this time, they will hope he’s not bullshitting his audience.
When Chicago used the chant, “The whole world is watching” on their first album, it seemed a chant of defiance. There was, after all, much to defy. But the chant didn’t sink in, especially with those who really needed to ponder the words. A Come-to-Jesus moment is wasted when foes think they’re just being told to go to Hell. There’s no reconciliation, no forgiveness and certainly no justice. 45 years later we still have our wars of choice. Even as we reverse course on packing soldiers off for yet another muddled cause, the champions of muddled causes say the country is weak for showing restraint. There’s an unbelievable streak of meanness in our country that generates death and mayhem. From all that, a clattering segment celebrate the weapons. And there’s always the greed and the desire for more that corrupts even the most mild-mannered among us. Nice people. Nice people like Jesse Jackson, Jr., who by now, even without the $43,000.00 Rolex, really does know what time it is.
More resonant than the chant on the streets of Chicago is the Bob Dylan song, “When the Ship Comes In,” recorded in ’63. To a sweet but eloquent melody, Dylan sings of a world watching and hoping that the honorable prevail. The listener takes in what’s being seen.
A song will lift
As the mainsail shifts
And the boat drifts on to the shoreline.
And the sun will respect
Every face on the deck,
The hour that the ship comes in.
Then the sands will roll
Out a carpet of gold
For your weary toes to be a-touchin’.
And the ship’s wise men
Will remind you once again
That the whole world is watchin’.
Wise men such as Douglass, Gandhi, King, Havel and others have reminded us of what the world sees and how new visions can be shaped. Being truthful, unlike tyrants, corrupt politicos and, yes, bloated rock groups, can help us realize – even in small ways – that vision.
Author’s Note: Recommended reading on the subjects covered in this story are many, the best being Jesse, a fine biography by the late Marshall Frady. Also worthy of any reader’s time are John Hinchey’s Like A Complete Unknown, Louis Cantor’s Wheelin’ on Beale, and Requiem for A King by Rebecca Burns. Thanks also goes to friends Peter Stone Brown, John Hinchey, Darryl Rhoades and Tom Poland for their advice and encouragement. And in keeping with full disclosure, I worked as a volunteer with the Gary Hart campaign in 1984, when he ran for the Democratic Presidential nomination against Jesse Jackson, among others.