Rickey Vincent - the veteran Bay Area funkateer, radio DJ, University of California-Berkeley professor, and author of the bible of funk music (Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of The One (St. Martin's Press) is back with a new book that beautifully melds two of the author's passions - the history of local music and politics - and this month has doing some readings in San Francisco of his book. Next week he will be at the Main Public Library on Wednesday Feb 26th. "Party Music: The Inside Story of the Black Panthers' Band and How Black Power Transformed Soul Music" - recently published by Chicago Review Press is the story the short-lived five member funk band The Lumpen who, back in the late 60's/early 70's in Oakland, were the Black Panthers house band. Little known for many years after the fact the Lumpen were a close knit collective of activist musicians who used music and song as their medium to deliver their revolutionary ideology with the record "Free Bobby Now" about Bobby Seales. Even Vincent, a scholar on funk and local music, did not know about The Lumpen until he randomly found out about them about. Vincent instantly knew he had to learn more about the Lumpen, their music, and their historical impact, and to share this information with the public at large. The result is Party Music which neatly ties together the black music tradition with the black activist tradition. This week I caught up with Rickey Vincent to ask him about his new book, the significance of its content, and what to expect at his San Francisco book reading next week.
Amoeblog: How and when exactly did you first learn of the Lumpen and what was your initial reaction?
Rickey Vincent: Boots Riley called me around 2002 and said “did you know the Panthers had a funk band?” We had a good laugh, because we thought it was an absurd idea. We both knew how serious the Panthers were about revolution in our community. We also knew that many Panthers were soulful cats – because so many people from our community had joined the Party – but the idea of the organization putting together an R&B band just had an air of the ridiculous about it. But he told me to look into it and to ask so-and-so. And it all turned out to be true
Amoeblog: Can you tell me about the research you did for this book and some of the obstacles you faced in your investigations into this topic?
Rickey Vincent: I learned from Walter Turner (a journalist at KPFA) that the Panthers had a band called The Lumpen, and that they had a 45rpm single, with some good music on it. Locating the original artists took some time, but a few leads were helpful, like Billy Jennings and his Panther archival project Its About Time bpp.com. It took time to get each member talk about their time in the Party, and their time in the Lumpen. At first each one insisted that any discussion of their music is framed in the context of their revolutionary work in the Black Panther Party. They were not stars, they were rank and file members of a black revolutionary organization and that was important for them to make clear. After that, their stories all meshed and they provided a narrative that was relatively easy to weave together.
Amoeblog: How many of the band members are still alive or that you were able to contact?
Rickey Vincent: I located all four of the lead singers of the group, and a number of members of the backing band, whose membership changed a lot. (the backup band was comprised of youthful community supporters, not Panthers) All four of the lead singers of The Lumpen are doing well, around retirement age. They have lived lives of humble community service all of their years and none have renounced their ideals or have any malice toward their fellow former Panthers. It was a relief in a sense that there is a stereotype that many former Panthers are no longer support the ideals of the organization, but these guys stand proudly by what they did.
Amoeblog: Was "Free Bobby Now" the only record the Lumpen released?
Rickey Vincent: Yes the one single “Free Bobby Now” with a socially conscious ballad on the flip side “(won’t be) No More” 4a) And that record label that released it - Seize The Time - was it their own independent label and did it release other records too? This was all that they released as Seize the Time. The Party did release music by Elaine Brown in 1969 and 1973. That was on existing labels, and I don’t remember Seize the Time name being on those records.
Amoeblog: Besides the Lumpen if you were to pick the top 3 or top 5 other pro-Black/pro civil rights music anthems from that general time period what would they be?
Rickey Vincent: Hard to say. Curtis Mayfield came strong with songs like “Mighty Mighty Spade and Whitey” and “Choice of Colors.” James Brown did “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” and “I Don’t Want’ Nobody to Give Me Nothin”, and his camp also produced tracks by Hank Ballard: “Blackenized” and “How You Gonna Get Respect When You Haven’t Cut Your Process Yet” Some songs were soul standards that were universally popular, but also spoke to black pride, like Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man” and Aretha’s “Respect” That’s what the book is actually all about, how the black revolution made those songs relevant. The music did not need explicit lyrics to be a ‘black power’ soul song. But I always liked the New York deejay Gary Byrd’s 1972 single “Are You Really Ready for Black Power”
Amoeblog: On that same topic - what, generally speaking, was the reaction of radio stations to music deemed "revolutionary" and their typical stance when it came to possible airplay of such records?
Rickey Vincent: Radio stations were scared of explicit message songs, but the feel was in all of the music, especially JB’s funk. This is why so much great soul music supported black pride but also was presented as a universally inspirational message. Again, “Soul Man,” The Impressions’ “Woman’s Got Soul,” Ike & Tina Turner’s “Super Soul Sister,” Dyke and the Blazers’ “We Got More Soul” were ways to get on the radio and still support the black pride movement of the day. In that sense it was radical forAretha Franklin to title her 1971 album “Young, Gifted and Black” and while the title song is great, the singles were more pop oriented: “Rock Steady” and “Day Dreaming”
Amoeblog: With your wide knowledge of the history of funk/soul music how do The Lumpen rate strictly from a musician and song-writing stance with other artists from that same period?
Rickey Vincent: Their work stood alongside many of the other unheralded yet quality soul stars, like Syl Johnson “Is it Because I’m Black” or the Five Stairsteps “Ooh Child” that type of thing. Had they been able to continue recording, they would have been respected as a recording group, but not played on the air no matter what. Lumpen member Michael Torrence, after leaving the Panthers, continued to sing and his singing quartet “Ladies Choice” was hired by Marvin Gaye, and the famous performance of “Distant Lover” recorded live at the Oakland Coliseum arena in 1974 featured Torrence and his group as background singers. That song will last for all time as a soul classic. To be good enough to share the stage with Marvin Gaye says all that you need to say about the quality of the Lumpen singers.
Amoeblog: What were some of the unexpected discoveries you made while researching your book?
Rickey Vincent: That The Lumpen had two white members of their band. And when they toured the northeast, the black nationalists they worked with (typically Black Student Unions on college campuses) didn’t want the white players to join them. It was crazy. That the connections between soul music and the black power movement had not really been explored until I started researching them. There are a great many discussions of jazz and black power poetry and spoken word, and pop/rock protest anthems, but the role of soul music in the black revolution was always somehow on the side. Not any more. The Marvin Gaye connection of course.
Amoeblog: Does it surprise you that the history told in your book has gone untold for so long? And are there many other gaps in untold socio/political movements from recent decade American history?
Rickey Vincent:The entire field of history is a twisted mass of political agendas, distortions and omissions. History should recount the lives of a people at a given time and place. I was stunned when I started my research and looked up James Brown in the major Civil Rights History texts and for the most part his name wasn’t even mentioned. People “lived” the James Brown experience at the same time that they lived the Martin Luther King awakening, and the Malcolm X influenced rise in Black Power consciousness. History needs to start telling the people’s story.
Amoeblog: Since the book was published a few months ago what have some of the interesting or most rewarding responses to the book being?
Rickey Vincent: When Black Panther Party Minister of Culture Emory Douglas wrote a review of the book and made the connections between the funk that I’m known for, and the revolution that I wrote about. "Rickey Vincent, The Funk Master of the radio air waves has merged together in his book "Party Music" a wealth of comprehensive knowledge and insights about Panther Party Music and the history from which it evolved. Rickey masters the art of interviewing and writing about the revolutionaries in "Party Music" with the same will power and self determination as the Funk Masters he writes about, an amazing achievement." This review came just days after the book had gone to print, with the other great reviews on the back.
Amoeblog: Knowing Boots Riley's background and knowledge he seems like the perfect person for you to have write the book's forward. What did he bring to the table in his writing of the forward?
Rickey Vincent: Boots killed it! I think he always wanted to convey some historical background to his knowledge of music in the role of movements for social change, and this was his opportunity to do it.
Amoeblog: What can people expect from your upcoming book reading Feb 26th at the main SFPL branch?
Rickey Vincent: Should have some music, and maybe one or two original Panthers involved as well. Always connecting the music to the movement, and making connections so young people – hip hop generation folks – can see that their issues are connected to a legacy of struggle, and a legacy of soulful expression, which connects people across generations and movements for justice.
Amoeblog: What will your next book be about - assuming you will write another?
Rickey Vincent: As usual, I’m going in many directions. I’m teaching a class at UC Berkeley on the Free South Africa movement of the 1980s. That may develop into a more detailed account. Of course I’m also writing about P-Funk, and hope to have some works available soon.