Wax Poetics founder Andre Torres sits down with the singer-songwriter Eugene McDaniels, whose revolutionary melding of folk, jazz, and soul with sociopolitical commentary allegedly got the attention of the FBI.
Andre Torres: You’ve said you dropped out of the music industry because of flesh peddlers?
Eugene McDaniels: Well, anyone who’s been in this industry for any length of time understands that it’s basic indentured servitude—this industry. It’s like any other corporate industry. It is basically set up to exploit and to garner profits. And it’s not about love of music. I would suspect that the majority of these people don’t love music. I don’t mean musicians; I mean the people who run our industry, which is usually lawyers and accountants, or entrepreneurs who know how to wend their way into the industry and function. For instance, when I was at Liberty Records, they weren’t interested in any of my own material for me. Which is okay. I mean, I can buy that. But I learned through time and paying attention, that really was about that fact that they were owning the publishing. So it’s all about money. That’s what our industry has fomented through the years. That’s what has happened.
I mean there was a time when—Tijuana Brass, they were people who were into the music and the artists. It was wonderful. That was a golden era, though brief. I mean, it’s horrible. Our industry has been absolutely destroyed by these greedy people. I mean, look at it: it’s falling apart. Everybody knows, and everybody knows why, but nobody’s talking. We’re all supposed to sit by and suck our thumbs, while these guys make a fortune, tear up our business, and leave. I mean, it sounds like other things that are happening in the world. It’s not so different than the other things that are going on. It’s the same old crap, over and over and over again. And the American people have sat still and let this stuff happen to them—us, all of us—and have not made a move to do anything about it. It blows my mind.
Was it after spending a couple of years at Liberty that your frustrations reached fever pitch?
Well, no, actually, because I was speaking up, and speaking out, they wanted me out of there. Too much information—they did not want to deal with that. And I understand. I have no complaints. They were just doing what the rest of the industry was doing. It’s no big deal. Just making money, and exploiting and enslaving to some extent, artists, be they white, Black, or indifferent, it doesn’t make any difference; the color of money is green.
After you dropped out of recording in the ’60s, you played jazz clubs, doing standards and writing your own songs?
Yes, to some extent, yes. But I was encouraged not to, because they wanted me to sing whatever was happening in the top ten, because that was easier for their audiences not to have to work at. They could just check it out, and say, “Oh yeah, that’s a tune I heard on the radio, sounds good.” Something that people are familiar with so they can sell those drinks.
And this was primarily in New York?
New York, all over the country. That was not an important time for me. I mean, maybe it was really important in that it helped me grow, and grow up. I’m not bitter, I’m not angry, I’m not anything but happy. And I’m happy not because of the business, but because I’ve learned from the business. That’s why I’m happy. I’ve met some great people in this industry—some great musicians, some great writers, some great performers, great singers. Great minds. A gentleman by the name of Michael Melvoin, he was president of NARAS for a while. He was my personal pianist for a while. We traveled around the world and made a lot of friends, made a little money, and had a lot of fun. And he’s a Rhodes Scholar. I mean, the guy’s brilliant. He’s a brilliant mind. Our industry is full of amazing people, and I just happen to know Michael. One of his daughters played guitar for Prince for a long time.
And you played with Miles Davis and Coltrane and Cannonball?
That started back in ’59, ’60. I went to Hollywood from Nebraska, working my way across the country with a group called the Pineywoods Mississippi Singers. I got to California, I sat in, and people liked what I did. I got a job in Hollywood at a place called the Cellar, with Red Mitchell, the bass player, and Mel Lewis, the drummer, and Lorraine Geller, the piano player, and her husband, Herb Geller, very famous alto player; he was wonderful. And his wife, Lorraine, was one of the best jazz players in the country, but she was a woman, so she didn’t get the full recognition that she should have gotten. But I walked in, and I asked them if I could sit in, and they said yes. And after I finished, they said, “Do you want a job?” And I said yes, and that was the beginning.
They were all jazzers, so I had this dual thing going on. I loved jazz, I’m singing jazz, but commercial record companies were coming and talking to me. I got picked up by a gentleman by the name of [Simon] Waronker, and he owned Liberty Records. Well, he signed me. We did this album called In Times Like These, ballads and beautiful things. Johnny Mann Singers and those people were involved. The next year he got sick. He had an aneurysm or something like that. I can’t remember exactly; I was a little young, and a little uninformed about things like that. But nonetheless, I knew he was a beautiful man. I knew that. He was a fabulous person.
But my career changed because the bean counter at the company, his name was Al Bennett, took over as president of the company, and hired a guy out of the mailroom. No, hear me, a guy out of the mailroom produced me. So, it turns out the guy’s name is Snuff Garrett, famous guy now, very famous guy. And now that I’m a grown up, I can give him his kudos, because he really knew what he was doing, about what he was doing. I mean, he didn’t know what I was doing, but he knew what he was doing, and I give him that. I give him credit for that. He had suggested that I had thrown “A Hundred Pounds of Clay” away, and they put it out, and in three weeks, it was number one. So he misunderstood me, and I misunderstood him. I owe him a debt of gratitude and thanks, because he’s just a human being who was born in the South, and raised in Lubbock, Texas; and his racist attitudes, and fears, and superior beliefs were just an outgrowth of his environment. I would venture to say that he’s not that kind of person now, because he’s learned. Look, knowledge, hopefully, matures us. Living, hopefully, brings knowledge. I hold no grudges or bad feelings against him, I have just reams of thanks for the hits that he got me, and that’s how I feel about it.
You’ve spoken in the past about having been rejected for not being “soulful” enough.
The thing is that you like what you like. Some people do everything they do for acceptance, and then other people just live by their beliefs and what makes them feel good. That latter belongs to me. I was just doing what I like to do. Look, you go to France and they force you to learn French. You can’t live in France and not know French. They don’t categorize you by race; they categorize you by nationality. If you speak French, and you live there, and you’ve got a French passport, you are a Frenchman. People can say whatever they want about the French, but I say they are a great people. A little odd compared to us, but we’re really odd compared to other people in the world. Having said that, I am a dyed-in-the-wool patriot. Because I believe in the Constitution, I believe that all people are created equal, in the sense that they have an opportunity to develop their possibilities. That’s been the hallmark of this country. Look, poor Black guy, born to a minister, who is a wonderful man with a deep heart, an abiding faith in God. My high school teachers told me to get a trade, and I said, “Well, I think I’m going to stick with the music.” And I’ve made millions of dollars with this music. Not for me necessarily, but somebody. It just goes to show that people who talk against show business, they’re talking about something they don’t know anything about. If they knew, that would be another thing.
A guy grabs a rock, he looks at the rock, he plays with it, he moves it around, and he says, “I got it, Pet Rock!” and got rich. This is the greatest country in the world. You can take a fucking rock and get rich. This is the greatest country in the world, bar none. But we gotta learn how to vote properly; we’re voting for the wrong people, man. Just because somebody’s got a little money and shit, that’s no reason for us to be voting for them. We need somebody who’s a patriot, who cares about the country. I venture to say that ain’t what’s happening right now. The way it reads to me, these guys care about corporate coffers so they can make money. That’s all I hear, that’s all I’m seeing; I’m not seeing anything other than that.
It’s still common for record companies to exploit the “street” in artists.
Absolutely! Here we have it; we have Black people calling their own women “bitches,” when their mothers, and their sisters, and the women they love are women. I could never do a song where I’m calling a group of women “bitches.” I could never do it, because my mom is a woman, my sister is a woman, my daughter is a woman. My honey, the woman that I live with and swear by, she’s a woman. It’s like devaluing myself. If the woman that bore me, and gave me life, put her life on the line so that I’d be born, if I can call her a “bitch,” I’m really fucked up.
I can’t tell other people how to make money, how to think, what they believe in. I can’t believe for a second that any of these people who are calling Black women “hoes” and “bitches” believes it for a second. I don’t think they believe it for a second; they’re just making money. As far as I’m concerned, it has to be that way. I mean, somebody has to love somebody. Everybody can’t be completely detached from the fact that they were born, and they were nurtured, and somebody fed them, and helped them to get to school, and buy clothes and stuff. Everybody that’s a rapper is not a street urchin, who raised themselves in the street. I don’t believe it for a second, I do not believe that. I believe that it is just a ploy to make money. And fine. If they’re doing it just to make money, and they’re going home and apologizing to their mothers, and their sisters, and their girlfriends, and their daughters, then I can see that that’s okay. They’re beating the system, and I can get with that.
Could you talk a bit about your friend Les McCann?
Les McCann gave me my start as a writer. We worked together for two years in Hollywood at the Cellar. There were people around the block trying to get in there. We had such luminaries as Marlon Brando; Ozzie and Harriet; and their families; Ricky Nelson. It was unbelievable, stars and chauffeured cars. And we were making fifty dollars a week, apiece. It was just further exploitation. We went to the guy, asked the guy for a fifteen-dollar a week raise for the two of us, and he fired us. And went out of business. Talk about stupidity, my God, how dumb can you be. Sixty-five bucks a week? How about sixty-five bucks a night just to get started.
How was Outlaw received when it was released in 1971?
First of all, Rolling Stone ran a cover story—“Outlaw or Thief?”—suggesting that I didn’t write my own songs. [Wax Poetics has not confirmed this. –Ed.]
What were the grounds?
The grounds were racism—that was the grounds. It’s real simple. They’re not going to give somebody who’s hitting the nail on the head that’s Black, back in those days, they weren’t about to give credit. If it’s somebody like Robert Zimmerman, then they’ll give him the credit. And I love Miles Davis. So you can hear me going back and forth, and sometimes mixing the two, because these guys are very, very special to me. But that doesn’t eliminate the fact that I couldn’t be accepted just for what I did. They had to look for a flaw so that they wouldn’t have to hang with me, and let it be okay. I wasn’t doing the “bitches” and “hoes” thing. I understand the language; I know how to use the language.
I went to a party in New York City, and I’m cruising the party, and a guy walks up to me and he says, “Ahh, excuse me? You don’t know that you’re Black, do you?” Just like that. I said, “Are you out of your mind? What the hell is wrong with you people?” Boy, there are some sick puppies out there in this world. What am I supposed to do, fill some stereotype for somebody’s need?
It brings up the question of what really comprises the Black identity?
Right, right. The Black identity is that we are Americans. I stand by that, till the day I move on from this earth. We are Americans, all. I don’t want to be categorized as anything else. It is obvious I’m Black, and I’m proud of all of that. I’m a Black American, and I’m proud of that. But underline American because some of my children are lighter than others, some are darker than others. And that’s all right with me. My grandfather was Black as my shoes, and my dad married a nice light-complexioned sister, and that’s all good. It’s just a flower garden; it’s no big deal.
Could you discuss “Welfare City”?
Let me demythologize. I think that in absentia, people are given too much credit. [cracks up laughing] We all have our personal saints and demons running rampant inside us, and I’m just the person who’s aware of that, it’s no big deal. Yes, we’re all original works of art, but some of us are more aware of what’s happening inside us than others, that’s all. It doesn’t mean the others aren’t having the same thing happening, or some version of that happening inside them. We all have the need to belong to some core group that thinks alike. But the only place we really hook up is when something is absolutely true. That’s when the human being, and the human sensory system hooks up, then we become one. I’ve read great philosophers—Eastern philosophy, Western philosophy, and my grandfather was as great a philosopher as any man that has been published. My father was as great a philosopher as any man that has been published. The point is that we are all born with each cell of our bodies having the complete knowledge of the universe. It’s just tapping it, that’s the point. How do we get to these ultimate truths? We live in a matrix; that’s why the movie is so big, because it represents our society. Society is a matrix; it is a cover that we put on nature in order to make money. This is real simple stuff, this is 101 shit. It’s no big deal, it’s just that we get hung up in the matrix, and after a while we believe that that’s what’s real. That’s not what’s real, believe me. When you shit and piss and eat, that’s what’s real. When you fuck, that’s real. When you cry, when you have tears, there’s a reason for that. The body functions totally separately from the way we think. We think inside the box, which is the society. The body is functioning outside the box, functioning in nature. So we’re at odds with ourselves. Think about it. So that’s where I’m coming from. If you listen to Outlaw, you listen to Headless Heroes, everybody missed the point, well not everybody, but a lot of people missed the point. It’s humor; I was just having fun, it was fun. Maybe on Headless Heroes, there were a couple of tunes. [And] “Hey America” [“Love Letter to America”], granted, I was saying something, or saying something I was thinking or feeling. “We could have had it anyway we wanted it. We could have been a real democracy.” But we’re a real corporation. We’re not a real democracy; we’re a real corporation. And the heavy right wing, they want to keep that reality, because they love money; money is their god. I see money only as a tool. It is no more than a wrench, or a hammer, or a fork, or a knife. Money is a tool, that’s all it is, and people have given it the status of God. It is so stupid. Take us back thousands of years, and we’re still worshipping idols. It’s always something.
I read that you used bang out four tracks in four-day runs?
I don’t know about four tracks. But I used to write songs, like, four at a clip, four or five songs a day. I have so much shit in my head, I’ve figured out that I’ll never be able to get it all down. So I’ve decided to give up on that, so if something really strikes me as, “Yeah, I like that,” then I’ll just go ahead and write it.
What’s your process?
That’s another myth by the way. See, some people are talkers, some people love to talk, you can’t stop them from talking. I can’t turn my head off, so these ideas are just coming in reams. I can’t even write fast enough to get the ideas. They’re coming through, but I can’t stop them, so I can say, “Hold it, so I can write this down.” It’s like having a muse that’s sitting somewhere on my shoulder whispering in my ear. It’s amazing, and it’s been that way my whole life. I found a place to put some of those ideas; I’m writing screenplays now.
Could you talk about the importance of the choir in your work, the Welfare City Choir?
When I was a kid, eleven years old, I put together an a cappella group called the Echoes of Joy. So any kind of group singing concept was based on that. It’s something I love and enjoy; it’s no big deal. The Welfare City Choir was just a bogus name. It was just having fun, making fun, poking fun. No big deal. But all of my buddies were in on it with me, including my wife at the time, Susan Jane.
How was the band put together?
It was me and my buddies. The album was made with me and my buddies, that’s the truth. It could just as easily been Herbie Hancock, he just wasn’t in town at the time.
Was Mother Hen the only pianist? Was Harry Whitaker on Rhodes at all?
Yes it was Mother Hen, but Harry played on Headless, and did most of the arrangements too. I love Harry, he’s an Aquarian like me, I love him a lot. He’s an amazing guy.
Is there any significance to the title of the Left Rev. Mc D?
I got so tired of all this right-wing crap; I just got tired of it. So I just figured there’s Right Rev. this, and right wing that, so I said, Okay, we’ll just call it the Left Rev. I have a [new] song called, “You Can’t Fly With One Right Wing.”
If we Americans paid attention, you’ll notice that the right wing will say one thing, and they will do another thing. They say, “Oh, we’ll have the war won in two weeks.” Now we’re talking about years of engagement. They say, “No child left behind.” The schools can’t get funding; teachers are being laid off. It’s all bullshit. These people lie. Al Franken wrote the book Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot. That’s right; of course he’s right. Because these guys will do and say anything for money. Their whole lives are about money; their money is their god. They will adopt religion in order to make money; they will do whatever they have to do. They are frightening, these people, they are fucking frightening. And we’re just so innocent, and so stupid, and so asleep that we go vote for these assholes. It’s crazy; it just doesn’t make any sense to me. I don’t know what everybody’s thinking. Everybody’s got their thumb up their ass and their eyes closed.
We’re lulled by the consumerism and money as well.
Right! We start thinking like they think, which is money is God, and that’s not right. When we lose our humanity, we lose our country. And you’ll notice, the country is heading downhill, because the humanity is just bleeding away. Don’t get me started. What do we need to be healthy? We need good air, we need good water, we need good food, and we need some kind of good mental health to be healthy. All of that stuff is being eroded—it’s sick. I can’t help it if I can see. I can’t close my eyes to it; other people can play the game and be stupid. Hey, whatever. All I got to say is, we’re hastening the end of this earth, and we need to stop it, and grow up, and take care of our business, and drop this fucking matrix, and get on with what is natural.
The lyrics of “Headless Heroes,” released in 1971, seem rather pertinent today.
It was actually written in 1969.
And here it is 2003.
Doing the same dumb shit. We are like children, we need to believe that our leaders are our fathers, and they would not let us down, they will take care of us—bullshit. All you have to do is think about the tyrants that have come along, and taken that trust, and misused it. The same shit is happening here.
Like it did in the Roman Empire?
Hello? And Nazi Germany’s another one. There are many many other examples. Yugoslavia, that guy [Slobodan Milosevic], he could have been a healer, and brought all of those people together, and they would have had one of the greatest countries in the world. Instead, he fucking destroyed the country because he couldn’t have his way like a spoiled fucking brat. It’s ugly shit, man. Humans can be so ugly, when it’s totally unnecessary. We’re all going to go back to the dirt. What the hell? Why not leave something worthwhile instead of taking everything, and having people hate us, and living with the guilt? It’s horrible. Tell me George Bush does not have trouble sleeping, and I’ll show you a liar. Because he’s got to feel guilty; he cannot do this shit and not feel guilty. He has to feel guilty.
You think? I sometimes wonder if that mechanism hasn’t already been shut off years before they ever get to that point.
The thing is, the more knowledge you have, the more you have working inside your body. If you go against the nature of your body, which is harmony—nature seeks harmony, and these people are divided from their harmony—it becomes hard to sleep. I guarantee you he takes pills to sleep. And I don’t know this, but I know this. You can’t do the wrong thing forever, and just go to sleep, and sleep like a baby; it just doesn’t work. Guilt is a real thing. It’s a mechanism, it’s part of our system, and anybody who is sociopathic enough not to feel that, needs to be locked away somewhere. Because we need somebody who cares about our children, and about our world, about our country, about our health, about our well being. We all need to be caring about each other. That’s how you feel good, you help an old lady across the street, you feel great. It’s a simple thing.
I was downtown, and a guy was trying to get from one town to the next. He says, “Excuse me, brother, I need a little help. I’m trying to get to such and such town.” I said, “Well, if you go to the police station, they should be able to get you the information you need to get yourself there.” I went to my car, and my guilt turned me right around. I walked back and handed him ten bucks. I said, “Get yourself something to eat before you get started on your quest.” It ain’t about that I did something for him. It’s about that he did something for me, because he reminded me of my humanity. That way, I got a chance to feel good—when I’m using my humanity. When I’m not using it, I feel cynical just like everybody else, because I live in the matrix too. I’m in the matrix constantly, and [am] constantly divided in a certain kind of way, because I’m looking at the matrix and saying, “Shit, man, we live in this, and we have to fight to be who we are inside ourselves. We have to wage a war just to be real.”
Almost a sort of schizophrenia?
Right! That’s what I’m talking about.
This dual identity is something you seem to handle well, having become famous as an R&B/pop star, while having this almost mythic underground cult persona as well. How do you deal with being seen playing a dual role?
I don’t see it as a dual role. I see that our society, which is the matrix, wants us defined as one thing so we can be controlled. But none of us is one thing. We’re all greatly diversified if we were truthful about who we really are.
Masculinity, there’s a word. Guys are so worried about their masculinity that they’re always trying to prove it; because they’re afraid someone’s going to perceive them as weak or homosexual. Everybody’s preoccupation with homosexuality is a waste of time, because it’s a non-issue. What the issues are—is the water clean? Is the food safe? Is the air breathable? Are we feeding the hungry? Are we taking care of people who need health care? Those are the important issues.
Yeah. Public relations people are polishing people’s images and stuff; they’re not there taking care of the business of humanity. Everybody forgets we’re human, we need to take care of that, because when we’re not taking care of it, there’s somebody there trying to destroy it. Because if you dedicate yourself to money, then you’re dedicating yourself to the destruction of the human race. Making money is different than taking money.
I was hoping you could talk about your relationship with Leon Pendarvis and how the Universal Jones project came about?
We met by accident, and we started hanging out together, and I asked him if he wanted to help me put a band together around what I do. And he said yes, because he didn’t know anybody. He was new to New York, and I introduced him to everybody. We had a great band, I loved that band. We opened for B.B. King on a Western tour; it was fun. That was the last thing I’ve done. This new material is the first thing I’ve done since then.
You’ve written extensively for Roberta Flack.
She recorded fifteen of my tunes, but she hasn’t released all of them. Roberta was a gracious lady to me, and she treated me like her own kin, her own family; and I will be forever indebted to her for life.
I started him just like I started Leon Pendarvis. It was a similar situation: he was new to Hollywood, and I introduced him to people. I said, “If you listen to me, you’ll do fine.” He listened, then took it from there, and did more than fine. We wrote songs together, and he was my hands for my production. I always work with a musician because what I do is—I’m a thinker, I’m a watcher, I’m a seer of angles and things. I’m not really a musician, although I know exactly how I want the music to sound, and I know how to get that out of musicians. But you can’t write the notes down and make that happen.
Do you know who Ron Carter is? Ron understands me. We’re old friends; we’ve been friends forever, since 1969 [or] ’68, around there. He understands that I work with my ears. Cannonball Adderley called me “elephant ears.” And my ears are small, so he wasn’t talking literally. I’m a blessed person in that I can hear all music—I can hear it, and I can appreciate it. I am not a snob, as far as music is concerned. I listen to country music, I listen to world music, I listen to South American music, I listen to hillbilly bluegrass music. I love gospel music. I love jazz. Frank Sinatra’s one of my favorite singers ever, but so was Donny Hathaway, and so was Marvin Gaye. So was my friend Sam Cooke. We were buddies, Sam and I; we were tight. I love him. He was a terrific guy. He called me up, “Gene, what kind of car should I buy?” I said, “Buy a Ferrari, man,” and he did. [laughing] He bought a Ferrari. I said, “My God, you haven’t got anything better to do with your money?”
But to ask me how to spend it?
You could live vicariously.
And I did. He drove to my house as soon as he got it. He said, “Okay, you drive it. I don’t know what to do with this thing.” It was fun. He was a fun guy. I loved him. He used to come through Omaha, Nebraska, when I had my little quartet, and we would open for the Soul Stirrers. ’Cause my father was a minister, we did gospel music and stuff; it was fun.
I understand you recorded an album and the tapes were stolen?
Yes, I did an album with Herbie Hancock, Miroslav Vitous, and Jack DeJohnette, and somebody stole the tapes.
What was this project?
It was an independent project; they came in and worked with me for free. Can you hear what I’m telling you? I’m telling you they walked in the studio, and spent an entire day in the studio with me for free, and somebody stole the tapes.
What year was this?
It had to be between ’74 and ’80.
How did it all go down?
I was heartbroken. It was in New York, and I had to leave town, and I came back, and the guy who owned the studio said, “We can’t find the tapes.” I did all those things that I had done from Headless Heroes and from Outlaw. I picked certain ones that I wanted to do, and they ate that shit up. They just killed that music; it was so awesome that I couldn’t even stand it.
I’m going to make it a mission of mine to find the “stolen tapes.”
Whew! Hey, let me tell you something, you find those, I’ll give you $10,000. I would love to have those tapes.
You got a deal.
Consider it a contract, man; you find ’em, I’ll pay you.
What was the full story about the Nixon administration calling Atlantic about you? Was it about Outlaw or was it about Headless?
I think it was about both of them. I think Outlaw got their attention, and then when Headless Heroes came out the next year, then they pounced.
How did you come to know of this?
I got called in. Nesuhi or Ahmet, I can’t remember which, called me in and said, “What’s going on? What are you doing? You’re drawing undue attention to my label. What are you trying to prove?” And I said, “I’m just having some fun. It’s humor. Where’s everybody’s sense of humor? I didn’t realize I was insulting people.” And the truth is, it shouldn’t insult anybody because we’re all supposed to be patriots, so everybody should be on my side. They just got rid of me. It was easy. I’m just another Black guy, no big deal. My feelings were [that] I made my statement, and there’s somebody out there who heard that statement. Now that’s a paraphrase, that is not the words that were said because it’s been too long ago. I can’t remember exactly what was said. But I can remember the feeling of what was said. They seemed frightened by it. They said it came from the White House.
You know you’re making some powerful work when it hits like that.
I can’t judge what I do because it’s me. It’s like judging myself—I can’t do that. All I can do is, I’m an artist, and I’m doing my art—however crude it may be. It’s been interesting to say the least. [laughs] I’m never bored. I hear people talk about they’re bored. I have never been bored in my life, and I’m not now. At sixty-eight, I’m still grinning. Life just gets more complex, and more lush everyday.
We are all born with each cell of our bodies having the complete knowledge of the universe. It’s just tapping it, that’s the point.