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
roots span a diverse means of expression that hark back to the drums and dances
of Africa used in rituals and ceremonies.
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.
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
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
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.
Charlie Yardbird Parker (1920-1955)
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 1940s. 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.
was significantly impacted by the lack of attention to his music by the main
stream record labels. Parkers 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
Billie Holiday (1915-1959)
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
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.
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
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 groups
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.
Richard Shaw, a.k.a. 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 didnt
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
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
wouldnt wish that on anyone else, to force the hand of death.
Robert Earl Davis, Jr., a.k.a. DJ Screw (1971-2000)
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
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
screw musics 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
Rock & Roll
Chuck Berry (1926-)
A musician, singer and composer, Charles Edward Anderson Berry is
considered one of rocks 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
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
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 bands 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
Before dropping out of high school, Mary J recorded a karaoke version of
Anita Bakers 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 Whats the 411?, produced by
Sean Combs. The album went triple platinum.
In 1999 Mary J went on a tour sponsored by the beverage company
Seagrams. 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
Thankfully, Bliges 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 Grammys in 2005, several successful
albums and a recent tour with Hip-Hop mogul Jay-Z.
Rick James (1948-2004)
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.
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.
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
1990s his cocaine use was out of control, and he spent two years in prison
after being convicted of assaulting two women.
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.
initially attributed the 56-year-old artists 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.
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
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.
R&B hits with Motown, Gaye partnered with the talented vocalist Tami Terrell.
The duo was amazing, and recorded hits such as Aint No Mountain High Enough
and Youre All I Need to Get By. Despite
their happy times, Terrells 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, Whats Going On, in 1971.
Motown forced Gaye to leave the label and sign with Columbia Records. In 1982 he recorded and released the
multi-platinum song Sexual Healing.
Gayes 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.
Charles Robinson, a.k.a. Ray Charles (1930-2004)
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.
mothers 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.
Charles recorded I Got A Woman, which reached number one on the R&B chart in
1955. Rays 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.
people know that funk music legend George Clinton started his career in the
1950s 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.
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 1980s. He was still able to
maintain a somewhat successful career his most well known hit being Atomic
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
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.
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.
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. Its Tha Hip Hop Doc, they call me H2D – come on now
lets get Hip Hop Healthy. Peace, Im out!