“With an awe-inspiringly integrated and thoroughly unassuming knowledge of all the nooks, crannies, and hidden corners of American popular culture, there’s no more appropriate cheerleader for musical humanity than Jake Austen, a polymath force of nature who’s been amazing me for twenty years. If any of the rest of us had just a hundredth of the energy, enthusiasm, and big-heartedness that Jake seems to show with every project he undertakes, the world would be a much better place—and a lot more fun.”—Chris Ware, cartoonist and author of Jimmy Corrigan—The Smartest Kid on Earth
Flying Saucers Rock 'n' Roll: Conversations with Unjustly Obscure Rock 'n' Soul Eccentricsby Jake Austen
For nearly twenty years, the much-beloved music magazine Roctober has featured work by some of the best underground cartoonists, exhaustive examinations of made-up genres such as “robot rock,” and an ongoing exploration of everything Sammy Davis Jr. ever sang, said, or did. But the heart of the magazine has always been the lengthy conversations with overlooked or forgotten artists. Flying Saucers Rock ’n’ Roll gathers the most compelling of these interviews. Eccentric, important artists—including the rockabilly icon Billy Lee Riley, the jazz musician and activist Oscar Brown Jr., the “Outlaw Country” singer David Allan Coe, and the pioneer rock ’n’ roll group the Treniers—give the most in-depth interviews of their lengthy careers. Obscure musicians, such as the Armenian-language novelty artist Guy Chookoorian and the frustrated interstellar glam act Zolar X, reveal fascinating lives lived at rock’s margins. Roctober’s legendarily dedicated writers convey telling anecdotes in the fervent, captivating prose that has long been appreciated by music enthusiasts. Along with the entertaining interviews, Flying Saucers Rock ’n’ Roll features more than sixty images from the pages of Roctober and ten illustrations created for the book by the underground rock ’n’ roll artist King Merinuk.
"Colonel" Dan Sorenson
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Flying Saucers Rock 'n' Rollconversations with Unjustly Obscure Rock 'n' Soul Eccentrics
Duke University PressCopyright © 2011 Jake Austen
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBrother Where Are You? James Porter (1996)
Oscar Brown Jr.
Oscar Brown Jr. did it all. Though he thought of himself as a songwriter, Columbia Records and a few enthusiastic jazz fans convinced him he was a vocalist. He was a playwright, a poet, an activist, and when called upon he could don the hat of political candidate (including a quixotic run for Congress), TV host (Jazz Scene U.S.A.), radio performer (appearing as a teen on Studs Terkel's Secret City), curator (at Chicago's DuSable Museum of African American History), and actor (including a memorable role in Larry Cohen's 1996 blaxploitation revamp Original Gangstas). Around 1948, as radio host of Negro Newsfront, he earned the billing "America's First Negro Newscaster." Some see him as a forerunner to socially conscious black singer-songwriters like Gil Scott-Heron or Meshell Ndegeocello; others consider him a genuine revolutionary, a man so radical even the Communists wouldn't take him. As he is a deity in Chicago's black arts community, it feels blasphemous to worship at just one of Brown's temples, but nonetheless, I'm compelled to highlight his awesome achievements as a lyricist. His collaboration with Max Roach on 1960's We Insist: Freedom Now Suite was an ambitious, thrilling Civil Rights–themed project. Notable covers of his compositions include versions of "The Snake" by Al Wilson and Johnny Rivers, "Brown Baby" by Mahalia Jackson and Lena Horne, and "Dat Dere" by Rickie Lee Jones and Mel Torme. But like many poets schooled in oral traditions, his words had the most impact when they came out of his mouth. His comical dissection of street swagger in "But I Was Cool," his evocation of a street vendor's cries in "Watermelon Man," and the chilling rhythmic re-creation of a slave auction in "Bid 'Em In" were masterpieces when performed by their composer.
In our conversation, from early 1996, Mr. Brown tells his amazing story, and demonstrates the rebellious nature that kept him on the fringes despite his tremendous gifts:
Oscar Brown Jr.: I'm a Chicagoan; I grew up in the Chicago public schools, went to Englewood High School and finished there in 1943. I went to about five or six colleges, but I'm still a freshman—I never did quite make it in the university world. However, I did get involved in performing, first in radio as an actor, and I became a newscaster, and finally I became an entertainer, as I am now—that is, a singer, actor, and performer in various media. I had a program called Negro Newsfront and it was on for about five or six years from 1947, the latter part of '47, thru about 1952. It was on several stations (laughs) 'cause I used to get kicked off the air all the time for being really controversial. I started out on WJJD, which was a station that was sunup to sundown, so my starting time would change during the year, because I was early morning. Then they said they didn't have any more time for me, and I asked my listeners to send in cards and letters so I could try and get a new sponsor. I got so many cards and letters I just took a whole bushel basket full of 'em over to the Parker House sausage company and told Mr. Parker to pick a card—any card ... read these cards. He became my sponsor, and then the Baldwin Ice Cream Co. was one of my sponsors—these were all little black businesses around. The main sponsor, however, was my father's business, the Midway Television Institute, which was a school that taught refrigeration and radio and television to veterans. Anyway, that's what that newscast was about. It went from WJJD to WGES, which was Al Benson's station, and there it had a big audience because that was a very well-listened-to station, and after that, I had big problems with them. They kicked me off the air, and I went over to WHFC, and I hung in there for a year or so doing both news and DJ work. That was kinda my early beginning.
James Porter: How did you get kicked off of WGES—a black music station—doing a black-oriented talk show?
Oscar Brown Jr.: Well, I was very outspoken. I used to have editorial comments that would get me in hot water at the station. I left that and went into the labor movement. I became a program coordinator for the United Packing House Workers of America, that was the organization that represented the people who work in the stockyards. In those days, Chicago was known as the "Hog Butcher of the World," by Carl Sandburg's poetic standards. It was a very exciting job; there were 20,000 people in the district that I was representing, and my job was to conduct programs for women's rights, political actions, civil rights, farm labor relations—the cows and pigs all came from the farms, and so we wanted the workers and the farmers to understand some of their common problems because we felt that the owners, the bosses of the packing houses, tried to pit the farmers against the workers, and tell them, "We can't pay good prices for your cattle because the workers want so much," and then they'd tell the workers the opposite—"We can't pay you any higher wages because the farmers are demanding too much." So, my job was then to go down to these little county fairs and put up an exhibit to try to befriend the farmers. So it was really an interesting job; I did that for about five or six years, and then I got killed in a political war, in the union. I went to work for my dad in the real estate business—he had a business at 4649 Cottage Grove Avenue by this time. He'd moved from the Television Institute into this private real estate business, and I went to work up there. But, I wasn't very successful as a real estate person; I was trying to write a show called Kicks and Co. I was writing songs and I was trying to get various singers to become interested in my songs. This would be in the middle fifties into the late fifties. I guess I should back up a little bit because in the latter part of the '40s, as I got to be twenty-one, I became very interested in politics. I joined the Communist Party, for one thing, and I ran for political office—I ran for the state legislature on the Progressive Party ticket in 1948—I lost—and I ran for Congress as a Republican in 1952, at which time I also lost. I wasn't a Republican, but it was so difficult to get on the ballot as an independent that we decided, my young crew and I, that we would try and get on the ballot on the Republican Party ticket just so we could raise issues 'cause we wanted to fight the Democrats. We were really young zealots, and that went on till I got booted out of the Communist party when I was thirty years old, about 1956. It was one of those situations where, "you can't fire me, I quit!" (laughs) We fell out on the race question. I was just too black to be red! (laughs) They called me a "Negro nationalist," which meant that I was very interested in the problems that befell black people, and I saw things from that perspective, which was kinda natural, 'cause that's where I was. During that period, around 1955, in order to keep me from running for office anymore, I got drafted. I was twenty-eight years old by this time, but they put me in the Army and then kicked me out for being a Communist. McCarthy was doin' his number—I was scared to death; on the way down to Arkansas to be in the Army, I just knew I was gonna go to the stockade! However, I didn't ... the Supreme Court reversed it, 'cause it was totally unethical for them to force me in and then kick me out, 'cause I didn't wanna come in the first place! And I'd taken the Fifth Amendment and all. But anyway, all of that stuff sorta faded as I was in the Army; I got to singin' in the service clubs with a fella from Chicago named Al Coletta. He and I called ourselves the Two-Tones.
And that was your intro to showbiz?
Well, I was always interested in being in a show—I was always a ham. I mean even when I was workin' for the union, if some errand carried me to a place where there was a stage I'd find myself wanderin' across the stage.... I think the thing that got me goin' was songwritin.' I had been writin' songs as a hobby when I was a teenager, then I kinda got serious about it. I copyrighted some of 'em, and I was thinkin' about gettin' 'em published. But finally, when my first son was born, I wrote a lullaby called "Brown Baby," and I liked that so much that I tried to get it to Harry Belafonte and I began to write more songs. I really started writin' songs just to keep from goin' crazy in the Army.
So Harry Belafonte recorded "Brown Baby?"
No, no, no, Harry Belafonte didn't do shit. (laughs) No, but he encouraged me a lot because I saw him as an example, as sort of a role model, as somebody I wanted to be like. I mean, we were the same age, but he had gone into show business, he had made a hit record, he made movies, he was goin' into production, he had his own office—this was what I really aspired to be.
Somewhere down the line you wrote a song for a group called the Delegates, on Vee Jay, with Dee Clark called "The Convention." ...
That happened sorta at that time I was writing songs, tryin' to get singers to do 'em. I wasn't tryin' too much to be a singer myself, although I had performed in the Army. But when I got out of the Army, I started writin' more songs, and I got fired from my job in the union. I went to work with my father in the real estate business, ostensibly—I really wasn't doin' much real estate business. I had a license to sell real estate, but I didn't sell one building—mostly I was upstairs, writin' songs, and by this time, I had a loft, it was my office, and I had gotten into the idea that I wanted to be a playwright, as well as a songwriter, and so the best way to do that would be to write a musical. So I started with my own musical called Kicks and Co.
When was this?
This would have been about ... 1957.
It appears to me that you were down with the whole theater and jazz scenes. How did you sidetrack into rock and roll with the Delegates?
Vivian Carter—Vivian was the Vee, and her husband Jimmy was the Jay—so they had this company. Vivian was on the radio while I was on the radio, so I knew them. And when I started writin' songs, it was just a question of getting songs written. I wasn't particularly—at that time, it wasn't the way it is now ... you have rock and roll and crossover and rhythm and blues and all these little differentiations with names ... the pop, and the easy listening ...
It was all one world, huh?
Yeah, it was music! (laughs) so yeah, there was rock and roll, of course—it had just come in ...
But it wasn't separated ...
Well, not ... it wasn't divided—rock and roll was all of it! White people weren't even in it yet! (laughs) When they got into it, they became rock and roll and we were now rhythm and blues! But this is something that's done in boardrooms and in sales meetings. This has nothin' to do with what the creative artists are doin' in the clubs or in the rehearsal halls or anything else. Show business is two worlds, and the names which we're talkin' about usually come from the business side. (laughs)
And "The Convention" was kind of a novelty thing, where you were spoofin' the acts of the day?
With that particular piece, I was makin' a spoof ... they were attacking rock and roll, that is the established businesses, because rock and roll messed 'em up! Up until rock and roll came along, they had the "Hit Parade," and the music was generally played on the radio that was popular was the music that was show tunes, and out of the movies, and out of a sort of white milieu. All of a sudden, it started gettin,' you know, Little Richard! (laughs)
Yeah! Whoa! And the whole thing began to change! (Starts imitating Richard's piano style) "Ding-ding-ding-ding...." (both laugh) It all just changed! And, BMI came in, the Broadcast Music Incorporated. All the music prior to that had been ASCAP music and that was show tunes and stuff. BMI started playing this black music and that began to take over. After a while, they started squeezin' the Hit Parade out—Snooky Lanson and all that stuff! (laughs)
No more Patti Page!
Well, Patti, I think she hung in there for a while! But all of that was kinda bein' eased out ... or had to adapt and had to start singin' that stuff. Then, of course, in '63 here came the Beatles, and this was the first time, a situation where white guys could sound like black guys ... and prove that they weren't. (laughs) They were all for that—"oh, wow!" When Elvis Presley came along, same kinda thing. But always, up to that time, the music had been pretty much ...
So, the way I got in with Vee Jay was simply because I knew Vivian and Jimmy, and I was tryin' to break into the music business and there they were. I even tried to form my own record company, Creation Records.
Anything ever come out?
Yeah, we put out a record, I forgot what the name was ...
Was it by you?
Yeah, it was by me ... recorded down here at Universal Studios, I paid for it, had a distributor ... but I didn't know beans about it, you know; I didn't have the money and you can't just do it like that, you know? So I blew maybe three, four thousand dollars of somebody else's money.
You still have copies after all this time?
Do you have copies of most of your records?
I don't have copies of any of 'em. I don't have anything to play 'em on. I don't carry that kind of stuff around. I got to be such a gypsy, after while, that it was much more profitable to travel light, for personal and political reasons, all kinds of stuff.
You told me you envisioned yourself as a writer. How did you make the transition to singer?
Well, nobody was singin' what I was writin' (laughs), so that was how that happened! When I was writing songs and I was trying to get people to sing my songs, and I was writing a musical by this time, Kicks and Co., then A Raisin in the Sun came to town. Lorraine (Hansberry, the playwright), her family lived across the street from where I lived. Anyhow, I went over to her house and sang some of my songs to her and read this play. Her husband, Bob Nemiroff, was a songwriter; he was also in the music publishing business, with a man called Phil Rose, who produced Raisin. So I started sending my songs to Bob Demarol in NYC, for them to kick around to try to get singers to record 'em. He carried it to Columbia Records and Al Ham was interested in my performance, so they contacted me with a contract to become a singer. So I sent 'em that contract with a note saying it looked like a clever circumvention of the Thirteenth Amendment to me and I wasn't into being a singer anyway, and what were they gonna do with me as a writer. Mitch Miller saw that and said, "Who needs him?" At the time, Mitch was head of Columbia's A&R. A year passed and Al called me again. I signed; they never rewrote the contract, but it did launch me into a singing career.
So the first LP was Sin and Soul?
There's all these quotes from famous people plastered on the front cover. You had to have been getting around by this time.
By that time, I had written a play, I'd gone to New York, I was hooked up with Columbia Records, and then Nemiroff and his partner decided that they would like to produce Kicks and Co. I'd written this play in hopes that Phil Rose was going to produce it. The three of them got into an argument about who was gonna have artistic control and they fought with Phil, and because Bob had been instrumental in my getting a recording contract, he asked me would I let him and his partner be the producer. I agreed to do that. So when I went to New York the first time to record, I had brought this play along. As the first record came out, I was involved in doing backer's auditions to raise money for the play. All this was happening simultaneously. I got my first engagement, which was at the Village Vanguard. That's when I was presented on the Today program, because I was a sensation at the Village Vanguard. (Today show host) Dave Garroway himself was so personally impressed that he came to see me with his daughter a couple of nights later. He invited me, on the spot, in the club, to come on the Today show, and they turned over the whole two hours of the television show to a backer's audition to raise money to do Kicks and Co.
Excerpted from Flying Saucers Rock 'n' Roll Copyright © 2011 by Jake Austen. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Jake Austen is an independent music writer and the editor of Roctober magazine. He is the author of TV-a-Go-Go: Rock on TV from American Bandstand to American Idol, the editor of A Friendly Game of Poker: 52 Takes on the Neighborhood Game, and a founder and co-host of the cult-favorite dance show Chic-a-Go-Go, which airs on Chicago Access Network Television (CAN-TV).
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