Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Left Rev. Mc D: Eugene McDaniels, R.I.P.

Singer, songwriter and music producer Eugene McDaniels passed on yesterday at the age of 76. Who? You might not know his name but if you were around in the 1970s you know and love some of the songs he penned, the two most famous of which are Roberta Flack's big hit "Feel like Making Love" and Les McCann and Eddie Harris's "Compared to What."

Gene McDaniels
got his start in the very early sixties singing pop soul. He had a string of hits, "A Hundred Pounds of Clay, and "Tower of Strength" come to mind. He had a beautiful voice and these are masterpieces from a very mainstream genre. But times changed, and those times set McDaniels free.

"Compared to What," although not performed by McDaniels himself, went to number one on the legendary 1969 Les McCann/Eddie Harris album "Swiss Movement." Very different than his earliest soul songs, it's been covered by hundreds of artists, including Roberta Flack, who became one of his key songwriting partners in the 1970s and the linchpin of his behind-the-scenes commercial success. It's one of those songs, like the work of the somewhat harder-edged Gil Scott-Heron, also recently lost, that is foundational to hip-hop with its almost chanted lyric couplets.

"Compared to What" is a political classic, a bitter statement of the times:

"Slaughterhouse is killin' hogs
Twisted children killin' frogs
Poor dumb rednecks rollin' logs
Tired old lady kissin' dogs
I hate the human love of that stinking mutt (I can't use it!)
Try to make it real — compared to what? C'mon baby now!

The President, he's got his war
Folks don't know just what it's for
Nobody gives us rhyme or reason
Have one doubt, they call it treason
We're chicken-feathers, all without one nut. God damn it!
Tryin' to make it real — compared to what? (Sock it to me)"

About the same time McDaniels created the lyrics and the strikingly original vocal arrangements for jazz vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson's album Now. It's an almost psychedelic existential concept album, full of the creative ferment of the moment, bridging the acoustic and electric sounds, and raising political and spiritual consciousness. McDaniels also created similar vocals for Billy Harper's 1973 Strata-East album Capra Black that show a masterful command of harmony.

While McDaniels also went on to produce songs and albums for a long range of artists with a more commercial sound albeit with his musical integrity intact, to me his most exciting works are his two early 1970s Atlantic solo albums "Outlaw" and "Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse," and his side project "Universal Jones." (That's the track "River" from Universal Jones above). Styling himself "The Left Rev McD," McDaniels immerses himself in a genre-bending hippiefied contusion of lyric and sonic transgression. The album Outlaw features the cover statement "Under conditions of national emergency, like now, there are only two kinds of people – those who work for freedom and those who do not … the good guys vs. the bad guys.”

Check out some of the lyrics for the title tune of Outlaw:
"She's a nigger in jeans
She's an outlaw she don't wear a bra
She's a whitey in jeans she's an outlaw she don't wear a bra
Her disposition is mean
She's the grooviest lady you ever saw
She does not fry her hair
She's an outlaw she don't wear a bra
She does not dye her hair
She's an outlaw she don't wear a bra
She thinks justice is fair
That's why she's living with nature not the law
She bows down to no man
Although she's in love with three..."

And there's "Love Letter to America":

"Hey America
You could of had it any way you wanted it
You could of been a real democracy
You could of been free
Hey America...
I could have loved you more
More than you will ever know
You are my homeland
Hey America
The only thing you can respect is violence now
You lost the gift of love don't ask me how
But you lost it now..."

Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse continues his exploration of a psychedelic sound somewhere between jazz, rock and folk. It also serves up a healthy dose of anger at the times.

Here's some of "Supermarket Blues":
"Strolled up to the counter
Slammed my hand down on the cashier and said, 'scuse me please
But I bought this can of pineapple the other day
When I got it home it was a can of peas, goddamn
If I'd wanted those I'd have picked my nose
And thrown on in the back to the vegetable freeze
Just then the supermarket manager hit me from behind
Brought me to my knees y'all
I've got the supermarket blues and it's really more than I can use
I've got the supermarket blues and if I've got to choose
It's really them I'd like to lose

When I came to, sirens were wailing away
When I touched my face my hand turned red
As I struggled from the floor the crowd called out for more
Some old lady kicked me in the head, goddamn
For God's sakes lady I only want to trade a can of peas for a lousy loaf of bread
Just then a cop rushed in and joined the fun
Threatened my life with some lead y'all
The old lady who kicked me in the head
Called me a communist jerk and just generally got uptight y'all
She said "how can a savage like you know anything, boy
You ain't even white," goddamn
I really wish I had stayed home and gotten high
Instead of coming into the street and having this awful fight..."

While McDaniels continued to work up until the day he died, he did seem to withdraw from the urban chaos that seems that seems to have haunted him. In the last clip below he describes himself as a "hermit living in Maine," with his wife of may years.

"There's a river somewhere
That flows through the lives of everyone
I know it flows through the valleys and the mountains and the meadows of time
yes it do
There's a star in the sky
Shines in the life of everyone
You know it shines in the valleys and the mountains and the meadows of time
Yes it do
There's a voice from the past speaks through the lives of everyone
You know it speaks through the the valleys and the mountains and the meadows in time
Yes it do"

—from "River," 1972

What a great loss, but what a poetic legacy of music.

"Lovin' Man" from 1971, on his album Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse.

"Now" from Bobby Hutcherson's 1969 album of that name on Blue Note.

Last year McDaniels talks about "Compared to What." See his website for more of these.

Lyrics copyright by Eugene McDaniels; transcribed here by me.


  1. Eugene was alright with me. I'll miss him. R.I.P.

  2. RIP. Headless Heroes is one of my all time favourites LPs. I bought a copy of the blaxploitation film The Mack years ago and instead of it having the famous score by Willie Hutch it had a different score by Eugene McD. Does anyone know why? Also, I did a little tribute mix to Headless Heroes using all the records I could think of that have sampled the album.