Life of the Party Music
Party Music: The Inside Story of the Black Panthers’ Band and
How Black Power Transformed Soul Music
(Lawrence Hill Books, 2013)
As a black child growing up in the late 1960s to mid-1970s, I had witnessed many examples of how Black Power culture made its way into society. From the wardrobes my eldest brothers had worn—black leather coats, slacks, shoes, and apple-shaped headgear—and the afros they sported to match their black-rimmed glasses, to the community program my dad launched in Rochester, NY, appropriately called “Soul School.” Much of this was the result of the efforts of the national Black Panther Party (BPP), helmed by Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, Kathleen Cleaver, and others.
Probably the best example of Black Power’s effectiveness was in popular music, and this is where author Rickey Vincent comes in. Vincent—whose mother, Tami, was a member of the Black Panther Party—is best known for his book Funk: The Music, the People and the Rhythm of The One (St. Martin’s Press, 1996). His latest book, Party Music, serves three purposes. First, he tells the story of the Lumpen, a singing quartet (William Calhoun, Michael Torrence, James Mott, and Clark Bailey) that toured cities where the BPP had offices, with the goal of spreading the organization’s message through the roar of funk and soul. Second, Vincent expands on how the message of Black Power worked its way into popular music, and its effectiveness. Third, he tells the back story on the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party, from its inception in 1966 through its dissolution into American society during the 1970s and well into the 1980s.
Party Music was based on Vincent’s dissertation for his doctorate in Ethnic Studies from the University of California, Berkeley in 2008, and that is how the book is effectively laid out. The first section gives an overview on the Lumpen’s formation in early 1970. Their name, given to them by BPP Chief of Staff David Hilliard, is derived from the word “lumpenproletariat,” which Vincent explains as:
Most of the local [Black Panther] Party members who took [the] regular political education classes […] were aware of the meaning of the name, which, as (William) Calhoun explains, “is based on Karl Marx’s social analysis which says that the lumpenproletariat are the lowest strata of social society […] including ‘swindlers, confidence tricksters, brothel-keepers, rag-and-bone merchants, organ-grinders, beggars.”’ But, while Marx believed that this subclass was too unstable and vulnerable for co-optation by the bourgeoisie and the ruling classes [...] [Huey] Newton believed that the “social scum” at the bottom could be organized and politicized into a new vanguard of revolutionary change.
Backed by the horn-driven band, the Freedom Messengers, the Lumpen—with support from Hilliard (who lobbied the BPP leaders on the group’s behalf)—would take the modern soul and funk tunes of the day by Sly and the Family Stone, the Temptations, and Curtis Mayfield, then rework the lyrics to reflect the message the BPP wanted to communicate: messages of revolution, self-defense, the elimination of the “pigs,” as well as the demand for Bobby Seale’s freedom from jail. The Lumpen even recorded a single—“Free Bobby Now”—and their live show at Merritt College was caught on tape for future album release.
Vincent takes on the herculean effort of explaining not only the Lumpen’s story, but also the rich backstory of soul music in the 1960s. He references the greats—Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, the Temptations, Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin—as well as those whose music clearly inspired those involved in revolutionary change in the USA. Due to the BPP’s roots on the West coast—Oakland and San Francisco—Vincent details the influence of Sly and the Family Stone, whose music served as an excellent soundtrack for the period. He also makes a fine reference to the NYC-based Last Poets, whose works on the Douglas label made a clear distinction between the brave—black revolutionaries—and the cowards: “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution.” Of course, Vincent details the soul power of the Hardest Working Man In Show Business, James Brown, whose foray into message music kept him more relevant in the eyes and ears of fans as well as the public.
While Vincent makes sure that folks such as Nina Simone (“Mississippi Goddam”), Marvin Gaye (“What’s Going On”), the Staple Singers (“I’ll Take You There”), and the Temptations are not ignored, he almost glosses over an important figure in music who inspired Black Power: the late Curtis Mayfield. While Curtis’s works with the Impressions had a spiritual message, tunes such as 1964’s “Keep On Pushing,” which Vincent calls “spiritual” in nature, were early examples of Curtis’s assertiveness as a composer, especially with its direct, to-the-point reference to the civil rights movement. What should be noted is that Mayfield and the Impressions had a Top 10 pop hit with “Keep On Pushing” at a time when Billboard magazine had not-so-intelligently discontinued their R&B chart (the publication reactivated that listing in early 1965). While Vincent does indeed mention Curtis’s further foray into political message music (“We’re A Winner,” “(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below We’re All Gonna Go,” the brilliant Superfly soundtrack), the composer’s journey in that area began much earlier.
Where the reader needs patience is when Vincent goes into the back story of the Black Panther Party—its rise, peak, fall, dissolution, and effect on society (especially in the organization’s hometown of Oakland). While many chapters don’t even make an indirect reference to the Lumpen or their works, the input from folks such as musician/producer Nile Rodgers (a BPP member of the NYC chapter), Chaka Khan (of the BPP-Chicago chapter), as well as Huey Newton’s shift toward inclusion of the gay community and women’s rights (predating anything most politicians have done since) adds vitality to these chapters.
While the Black Panther Party did not have a happy ending (counterintelligence from the FBI, infighting, and drug use all damaged the movement), the Lumpen’s dissolution was anti-climactic. By 1971, group members had families and were ready to move on to become participants of the larger society. It is satisfying to read that Calhoun, Torrence, Mott, and Bailey each became employed in social organizations that help the disadvantaged and the needy.
Vincent’s Party Music is a fine book regarding a chapter of American history that has not been sufficiently documented in the past. It is an illuminating and mostly great read that slowly but surely does its best to chronicle the Lumpen’s story as well as that of soul music during America’s most recent turbulent times.
KEVIN GOINS is a veteran of the music and media industries. He has written liner notes for reissues by Noel Pointer, Jerry Butler, the Staple Singers, Freda Payne, Stephanie Mills, Jeffrey Osborne, Mary Wells, Nancy Wilson, the Temptations, Seawind, Five Stairsteps, Main Ingredient, and Tavares. He is the host/producer of the internet radio series Soulful Conversations and New Grooves Radio (mixcloud.com/musicmankevin). Kevin resides in New York City.
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