Boy, this takes me back.
That’s what I kept thinking the other night as I paged through a new coffee table book, “Soul R&B Funk: Photographs 1972-1982” by my friend and former colleague, Bruce W. Talamon. Another friend had sent it for my birthday — thanks, Herschel — and I opened it up, intending to spend a couple minutes with it. Next thing I knew, a couple hours had passed.
I had spent them in the company of Marvin and Stevie, Gladys and Aretha, the O’Jays, the Spinners, the Tempts and all the other lords and ladies of ’70s R&B. Page by page, Bruce brought back the singers and songs that were playing when I kissed a girl for the first time, when I learned to drive, when I was young and still knew everything.
There’s Teddy Pendergrass, laughing and carefree.
There’s Bill Withers, eyes closed, cradling his guitar like a woman.
There’s Patti Labelle, exhausted, resting her feet.
There’s Aretha, being Aretha.
I am a 61-year-old husband, father and pop-pop, but those pictures took me back to when I was none of those things, back to Big Apple caps and butterfly lapels, back to “Right on!” and “Dy-no-mite!” Back to when the world seemed simpler and less frightening (regardless of whether or not it actually was).
It took me back to a rainy day in 1976 when I rode the bus two hours out to West L.A. to show my writing samples to Regina Jones, publisher of SOUL (”America’s Most Soulful Newspaper”), a black entertainment tabloid. She brought me on as a freelancer, and when I graduated college a year later, I joined the staff as an editor. I was 19. Bruce was the photo editor.
In the interest of full disclosure, let me say what should be obvious: I don’t come to this as a dispassionate observer; I mean, I was in the room when some of these photos were taken. So make what you will of my enthusiasm for Bruce’s work. But understand that, professionally speaking, we grew up in the same place and that it gave us front-row seats and backstage passes to a transformative era in African-American — which is to say, American — popular culture.
It was only yesterday. But it was over 40 years ago, a fact that keeps taking me by surprise.
A few years back, a lady from some radio station called and asked excitedly if I’d like to win a chance to “hang out by the pool with Nicki Minaj.” She seemed nonplussed when I told her they’d have to pay me for it.
Why would I want to hang out by the pool with Nicki Minaj? I’ve hung out in the backyard with Michael Jackson, in the studio with Marvin Gaye and, yes, at Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles with Stevie Wonder.
Not to hate on Nicki Minaj. I’m sure she is some 20-year-old’s dream woman, as Gladys Knight was once mine. But I know where I’m from and I like where I’m from. Meaning the first post-Civil Rights generation. The kids who piled their hair high, climbed atop platform shoes, wore powder-blue suits with wide lapels and dared this staid old world to deal with the raw newness of us. Our music reflected that newness.
Like Marvin Gaye singing “Let’s Get It On” and causing a scandal.
And George Clinton of Parliament-Funkadelic stepping down from the Mothership.
And Verdine White of Earth,Wind & Fire levitating above the stage.
We were new. Now, of course, we are not.
I say that without lamentation or regret. The big wheel, after all, keeps on turning.
But for two hours on the evening of my 61st birthday, an old friend took me back. And you know what?
It felt like home.