Black Music Month: The Troubled Genius of Jimi Hendrix, Bushwick Bill, DJ Screw, Mary J. Blige, Rick James, Ray Charles and more

African-American

musicians have made significant contributions to the rich culture of our

country and the world. June is Black

Music Month, and is dedicated to the recognition of African-American

artists who have enhanced our lives through creating some of the world’s most

treasured music. 

 

Our musical

roots span a diverse means of expression that hark back to the drums and dances

of Africa used in rituals and ceremonies. 

 

When the

slave trade began in the 18th century, spirituals sung by the slaves

were more than songs of praise and worship, as they often communicated secret

messages about escape routes for runaway slaves and other hidden messages. 

 

This music

and its altered forms still resonate today from the same place that they began

within the artist – a soul tortured by the pain and suffering of mental and

physical anguish.  

 

Despite

successful chart ratings, many of our most celebrated musicians have struggled

to maintain peace in their personal lives. Uninitiated admirers of the dazzling

lyrics and choreography of Dorothy Dandridge, Tina Turner and Frankie Lymon

have been made privy to their personal pains in big screen movies that reveal

both the artistry of these performers, as well as their dark spirals of being

misunderstood

 

They were simultaneously

lonely, rejected and revered by their country, and reviled by their ethnic brothers

for committing that unwritten sin: “making it.” And sometimes they were just

plain beaten down by the elusive Cupid, who would aim errant arrows at their

bruised hearts. Today we are taking a look at a few of our most beloved artists

and their troubled times.

 

Jazz

 

Charlie “Yardbird” Parker (1920-1955)

 

Charlie

“Yardbird” Parker is considered the one of the greatest musical innovators of

the 20th century, and a main contributor to the development of Bebop (modern jazz) in the 1940’s. His

style of saxophone playing was unmatched and he worked with some of the

greatest musicians in the world such as Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, Max

Roach, and Miles Davis. 

 

His career

was significantly impacted by the lack of attention to his music by the main

stream record labels. Parker’s battle with drugs and alcohol served to further

harm him both physically and economically as he was both banned from the

legendary 52nd Street club in New York named after him, Birdland, and also forced him to spend

time in rehab for his drug use. In 1954, he attempted suicide after the death

of his daughter and died in 1955 from complications of pneumonia at age

thirty-four.

 

Billie Holiday (1915-1959)

 

Billie

Holiday is considered one of the best jazz vocalists of all time. She was born

Eleanora Fagan, but later changed her first name to Billie after film star

Billie Dove.  Billie was discovered in

Harlem, and is most well known for her songs that plaintively cry for the pains

and suffering of her Black brothers and sisters as they tried to eke out a

living. 

 

Songs such as

“God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit” both recorded in 1939, dealt with

disenfranchisement from the American Dream after Black blood had been spilled

on the battlefields of WWI, and swinging from trees in the inhumane practice of

lynching that was not censured but tacitly accepted. 

 

Holiday’s

successful music career was marred by several arrests for narcotics use and she

battled alcohol abuse as well. She spent a year in drug rehab but was unable to

shake the evil lure of her addiction. Before her drug and alcohol abuse related

death on July 17, 1959 in a New York City hospital, she continued to tour and

wrote a biography entitled Lady Sings the Blues (1956), which was later made into the film starring

Diana Ross.

 

Teenage Pop Star

 

Frank J. “Frankie” Lymon (1942-1968)

 

Frankie Lymon, portrayed in the movie Why

Do Fools Fall In Love by Larenz Tate, was considered one of the first

African-American teenage pop stars.  At

the age of 13, Frankie formed the group Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers and

served as the lead singer.  The group’s

debut single “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” was a top 40 hit!  He is given credit for paving the way for and

influencing the sound of The Jackson 5, Diana Ross, and Smokey Robinson. 

 

Lymon lead a troubled life, however. He left the group after just one

year for an unsuccessful solo career, and began abusing alcohol and drugs. At

the young age of 26, Frankie Lymon died of a heroin overdose.

 

Hip-Hop

 

Richard Shaw, a.k.a. Bushwick Bill

(1966- )

 

Bushwick Bill,

born Richard Shaw in Kingston, Jamaica, is no stranger to traumatic life

events. This well-known rapper joined the Geto

Boys in 1988 making a name for himself, not because of his dwarfism, but

because of his unique voice.  As a member

of the Geto Boys and as a solo

artist, he wrote and performed on three gold and platinum albums.

 

In May of

1991, Bushwick forced his then 17-year-old girlfriend to help him commit

suicide by having her shoot him. The attempt was unsuccessful in that he didn’t

lose his life, but lost his right eye. Bill is now a Christian rapper, and

recently commented on R&B singer Houston Summers after his failed suicide

attempt. 

 

Houston

attempted suicide by jumping from a 13th floor hotel room while

overseas in London. After being restrained by security personnel and locked in

his room, Houston gouged his eye out. It was reported later that Summers had

been under psychiatric supervision for bipolar disorder, and has an addiction

to the drug PCP.  Said Bushwick, “I

wouldn’t wish that on anyone else, to force the hand of death.”

Robert Earl Davis, Jr., a.k.a. DJ Screw (1971-2000)

 

Rapper,

DJ, and producer Robert Earl Davis, Jr. was born in Bastrop, Texas. As a child

he spent time in Smithville, Texas and Los Angeles, California, and began

collecting records at the age of five. Davis dropped out of high school to

focus on a music career, and in 1989 began his career as a disc jockey. It is

rumored that he would spend hours upon hours mastering his trade, working on

tapes and developing a handful of artists as he prepared them to perform in

local clubs. 

 

In

1993 DJ Screw became a household name among rap fans nationwide with his album All Screwed Up!  His unique style involved slowing the tempo

of songs to half their normal speed or less and mixing it with other music. He

would often “screw” music together creating head bobbing beats. DJ Screw opened

the Screwed Up Record and Tapes Store in Houston, Texas and a record

label. 

 

With

screw music’s hallucinogenic Hip-Hop style, however, came drug use. Many who

listened to the music drank codeine containing cough syrup mixed with soda to

“enhance” the effect of the music and their overall experience.  DJ Screw was known to “sip syrup,” and on

November 16, 2000 he was found dead in the restroom of his Houston recording

studio from a codeine overdose.  

 

Rock & Roll

 

Chuck Berry (1926-)

 

A musician, singer and composer, Charles Edward Anderson Berry is

considered one of rock’s most influential and enigmatic figures. Born in a

middle class neighborhood in St. Louis, he is given credit for influencing The

Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. The

high point of his career between the ‘50s and ‘60s included over 30 songs that

are considered rock & roll classics. 

 

In the words of the late John Lennon, “If you tried to give rock &

roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.” With his guitar, he turned

country into rock, and forged the way for other greater rock guitar players. Many

call him the Father of Rock & Roll. 

 

His life, however, was not without chaos.  At age 17, Berry and two friends went on a

robbery spree, stole a car, and upon capture he was sentenced to 10 years in

prison.  He served three years in a

reformatory for young men, and while incarcerated he learned boxing, started a

band and singing quartet, and boasted about being intimate with the

superintendent’s wife.

 

Berry later served two other prison terms – one for tax evasion, and had

a run-in with the law in July of 1990 as he was accused of drug trafficking and

possession. His estate was raided by the DEA and resulted in the confiscation

of marijuana and pornographic videotapes. Charges were later dropped. 

 

Berry, now 81, still plays once a month in his hometown of St. Louis at

his music club Blueberry Hill in the Duck Room, which is named after his famous

“duck walk” that he often performed on stage.

 

Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970)

 

Growing up playing guitar in his hometown of Seattle, Washington, it

seemed as if Jimi Hendrix was destined for fame. He imitated blues greats like

Muddy Waters and early rock & roller Chuck Berry. In 1959 he joined the

army and became a paratrooper. He received an honorable discharge in 1961 after

an injury and came home to start a life-long career in music. Hendrix played

backup to musicians such as Little Richard, B.B. King, Ike and Tina Turner and

Sam Cooke. 

 

In 1964, Hendrix moved to New York to further his career, and was

“discovered” by British bass player Bryan Chandler of the Animals. In 1966,

Chandler arranged to manage Hendrix, and flew him to London where the Jimi Hendrix

Experience was created. The band’s first single, “Hey Joe” hit number six on

the British pop charts, and the group became an over night sensation. 

 

The Jimi Hendrix Experience made its first U.S appearance in 1967 at the

Monterey Pop Festival. Jimi amazed the crowd that evening with his bizarre

guitar distortion, feedback, and volume. In that same concert, Hendrix played

the guitar with his teeth and set his guitar on fire, leaving the crowd star

struck. The group later disbanded, and his performances at Woodstock in 1969

along with his blazing rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” are two of his

most memorable moments. 

 

Sadly, Hendrix’ career was plagued with drugs and alcohol. He used LSD,

cocaine, and was rumored to use heroin. In September of 1970, Jimi Hendrix died

following barbiturate intoxication and inhalation of his own vomit.   

 

Rhythm and Blues

 

Mary J Blige (1971-)

 

From high school dropout to Hip-Hop and R&B diva, Mary J Blige is the

ultimate example of success.  Born in the

Bronx in 1971, she eventually ended up in Yonkers, New York living with her

mother and sister. Blige grew up in what she describes as a drug-infested,

crime and poverty-stricken area, where she was molested at the age of

five. 

 

Before dropping out of high school, Mary J recorded a karaoke version of

Anita Baker’s “Caught Up in the Rapture” which made it into the hands of Andre

Harrell at Uptown Records. Four years later, Mary J was dubbed the “Queen of

Hip-Hop Soul” and released her debut album What’s the 411?, produced by

Sean Combs. The album went triple platinum. 

 

In 1999 Mary J went on a tour sponsored by the beverage company

Seagram’s. She recalls always having a cup in her hand, drinking large amounts

of gin and grapefruit juice. The drinking led to smoking weed and cigarettes,

and eventually to cocaine use that could easily have ended her career; all this

to mask the pain of abusive relationships and growing up hard without a father

figure. 

 

Thankfully, Blige’s strong spiritual background, the death of Aaliyah and

an ultimatum from then boyfriend and now husband Kendu Isaacs, saved her. Among

her list of accolades are winning three Grammy’s in 2005, several successful

albums and a recent tour with Hip-Hop mogul Jay-Z.    

 

Rick James (1948-2004)

 

James Ambrose

Johnson, Jr., also known as Rick James, was born in Buffalo, New York. James

was the third of eight children and was raised in a strict Catholic household

by a single mother. His uncle, Melvin Franklin, was a vocalist with The

Temptations, and may have had some influence on his pursuit of music as a

career.  At age 15 he joined the Naval

Reserve, but when it interfered with his music career, James went AWOL and fled

to Canada to continue playing music. 

 

When he

returned to the States, he eventually served time. After a short run with his

band called The Mynah Birds in Buffalo, he traveled to Los Angeles playing bass

for several short-lived bands. In 1977, he started a solo career and debuted

his album Come and Get It which

included the hit songs “You and I”

and “Mary Jane.” 

 

James became

known as the King of Punk Funk, and released two albums in 1979, and the

Grammy-nominated 1981 project Street

Songs, which included the hit Teena Marie duet “Fire and Desire.” Street Songs went triple platinum and

brought James instant fame. Throughout his career, the singer battled with

drugs and alcohol abuse.  In the early

1990’s his cocaine use was out of control, and he spent two years in prison

after being convicted of assaulting two women. 

 

After his

release from jail and an attempt at a comeback, Rick James suffered a stroke,

which ended his musical career. Thanks to comedian Dave Chappelle, James had a

few more moments in the limelight, but his health was poor and he died in his

sleep on August 6, 2004.

 

The family

initially attributed the 56-year-old artist’s death by heart attack to “natural

causes,” but the Los Angeles County coroner concluded that a combination of

nine drugs likely contributed to James’ death. The substances discovered in the

post mortem autopsy included cocaine, methamphetamine, the painkiller Vicodin, the

anti-anxiety drug Xanax and the anti-depressant Wellbutrin.

 

Marvin

Gaye (1939-1984)

 

Born Marvin

Gay, Jr. (the “e” was added later) in Washington, DC, the young and talented

singer was exposed to music and mayhem early in his life. His father, Marvin

Gay, Sr. was a traveling minister and cross-dresser who often had fits of rage.

Somehow young Marvin continued to sing and learned to play drums in his

father’s church. 

 

Gaye joined

the Air Force after high school, only to be discharged after disobeying orders.

He returned to DC to continue his singing career with the Marquees and Bo

Didley, and later with the Moonglows. It was his introduction to Berry Gordy

that catapulted his career. He initially played drums for Smokey Robinson and

the Miracles, but his vocal talents did not go unnoticed, and he eventually

signed his own record deal with Motown. 

 

After several

R&B hits with Motown, Gaye partnered with the talented vocalist Tami Terrell.

The duo was amazing, and recorded hits such as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”

and “You’re All I Need to Get By.”  Despite

their happy times, Terrell’s health began to decline and it was discovered that

she had a brain tumor. After her death in 1970, Gaye became severely depressed

and resorted to drugs and alcohol to mask his pain. Despite heavy drug use, he

was still able to record one of his most popular albums, What’s Going On, in 1971. 

 

Issues with

Motown forced Gaye to leave the label and sign with Columbia Records.  In 1982 he recorded and released the

multi-platinum song “Sexual Healing.” 

Gaye’s financial and health problems, combined with a protracted battle

against drug addiction and alcohol, resulted in him living with his parents. On

April 1, 1984 Gaye was shot and killed by his father during an argument. It was

later discovered that his father had a brain tumor.

 

Blues/Country

Western

 

Ray

Charles Robinson, a.k.a. Ray Charles (1930-2004)

 

Ray Charles

is undoubtedly one of the most talented and versatile musicians ever to walk

the face of this earth! Born during the Great Depression and raised on blues,

country, gospel, jazz and big band music, Ray Charles showed an interest in

music at the early age of three. After completely losing his vision by age

seven, he was admitted to a state-supported school for the deaf and blind in

Florida. There, he learned to read and write music in Braille. 

 

After his

mother’s death when he was only 15, Charles left the school and traveled with

the chitlin’ circuit, playing with dance bands. He began using heroin at age 15

– around the same time he met the young and talented Quincy Jones, who Charles

taught to write and arrange music. Ray Charles went from playing in a small

trio called the McSon Trio to signing a record deal with Atlantic Records. 

 

In 1954

Charles recorded “I Got A Woman,” which reached number one on the R&B chart in

1955. Ray’s successful career had no bearing on his difficulties with substance

abuse, depression and marital problems. Charles has a list of awards and honors

longer than my arm, however, his greatest contributions to music come from his

innovative style and meshing of gospel and secular music. The movie Ray starring Jamie Foxx is a must-see,

as it depicts the extraordinary life of Ray Charles Robinson.

 

Funk

 

George

Clinton (1940-)

 

Very few

people know that funk music legend George Clinton started his career in the

1950’s performing doo-wop music. The former North Carolina-born barber was

inspired after hearing pop star Frankie Lymon, and started a doo-wop quintet

called the Parliaments in 1955 while living in New Jersey and straightening

hair (not cutting hair – “It was more lucrative,” says Clinton).  Clinton left Jersey for Detroit after an

unsuccessful career with the Parliaments. He continued to hustle, making

records, publishing, and producing. He also began experimenting with LSD. 

 

The

Parliaments became Parliament, with influences from Jimi Hendrix and Sly and

the Family Stone helping to mold the band into its funky and unorthodox form

known today. Clinton would actually perform naked on stage, often under the

influence of drugs. Clinton, the front man for both Parliament and later

Funkadelic began using crack cocaine in the 1980’s. He was still able to

maintain a somewhat successful career – his most well known hit being “Atomic

Dog.” 

 

Considering

multiple legal battles and deals gone bad, George Clinton is still in demand,

and is often seen or called upon to perform at special events –  including a party by former president Bill

Clinton. 

 

Despite celebrity

and fame, many great Black musicians have struggled with illegal drugs, alcohol

and mental health issues.  Racism, human frailties, and untreated or

unrecognized mental disorders are often culprits in these tendencies. Racism

effectively limited opportunities for financial advancement and social

acceptance, thus impacting these artists’ abilities to make a living. 

 

Conceivably,

depression and anger related to those difficulties directed some of these

sensitive, creative musicians to the addictive qualities of drugs and alcohol

as an escape. The temporary euphoria possibly enabled them to continue

their artistic pursuits, dulled the pain of racism, masked mood disorders like

anxiety and depression, and briefly suspended the harsh realities of being Black

in the music world.

 

Check me

out in the June issue of Ebony discussing my take on the state of Hip-Hop!  Special thanks to my big brother Eric

Whitfield, jazz saxophonist for his help with this piece.  He is a walking textbook when it comes to

music.  Visit me at h2doc.com and shoot me a question at

DrRani@h2doc.com.  It’s Tha Hip Hop Doc, they call me H2D – come on now

let’s get Hip Hop Healthy.  Peace, I’m out! 

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