Saturday, December 4, 2010

ESPN, the magazine: Best Advice Ever Received

My editor, Carmen Renee Thompson at ESPN, the magazine, had me and a dozen other reporters conduct over 300 interviews with a diverse group of athletes about the best advice they ever received from someone. Only about 15 made the cut for the tight space in the magazine. Here are a few compelling ones that didn't make it:

Boxer Bernard Hopkins:

"Society has been tricked and told that credit is better than cash. I was always told by mom and my grandmother the opposite. They had mortgages. My first 85,000K house in Philadelphia I had a 30-year mortgage. I paid it off in 5 years. The bank wasn’t happy. Then I got another one in Delaware. Paid that off in six years. I saw my mom scuffle for years and years and years, for a house she paid for 30 times over.

The most people told me about finances was to be a risk taker. I did the opposite. I never wanted to play in the stock market. I couldn’t get a lot of big returns.

I took the old school thinking, remembering when we didn’t have. I took care of my sisters, got them all houses they could afford. I didn’t want them to have mortgages. I am blessed to be in the position to give tough love. I bring my nephews to my crib. At the end of the day I want my nieces and nephews to see what 17 acres look like. I want them to see where the Vice President lives in Delaware. I want them to see what old money looks like. Any of these players throwing punches or dribbling a ball, think they got it. Let’s talk 20 years from now. Old money takes time to become old. I will be the first one in my family to start a trend. It starts with me to start that trend, so my kids can have something set aside as a trust. We don’t think that it doesn’t end, we don’t think about the heirs, about a dynasty trust, we think about the right now, let me get the rolls Royce, the Bentley, I'll get all the bling and it stops with us. That’s why we don’t have that dynasty. If you do, your name will never be forgotten.

My mother was the disciplinarian, she was always the one that kicked our butt. We had to get the biggest switch off the tree. She told us to stand up for what you believe in and never let anyone take anything from you. Those were the rules in any inner city in the US where black people lived. Detroit, Chicago, that was probably said to 90 percent of black young people in the hood. Keep your lunch money in your pocket. There was a lot of that going on in Philadelphia. My mother always told me to go back out there and fight. I always fought bigger guys. I always fought guys that were a couple of years older than me. Not by choice, they might have tried to take something from me. I remembered that and it carried me through today, always fight for what you believe in and never give up. I strayed from that. And when I strayed from not letting people take advantage of me I became a part of that industry on the street. I started not following my dreams.

But I got two educations—one in life and one in prison. A guy who has never been in a bad neighborhood will get swallowed up if he goes to that neighborhood. A guy from a bad neighborhood who never crosses out of the neighborhood will get swallowed up by corporate America. I have both. One was very painful. If you're not educated corporate America will swallow you up and spit you out and won't even kiss you before they screw you. In the other world you know what will happen--it's in your face. That’s why I'm a problem to some and a breath of fresh air to most, cause when you have that type of individual that can deal with both sides--I can put the suit on and still be me and not try to be other people and still get mad respect and still get that same respect on the other side. I can be comfortable in any setting. Whether I fail or I succeed I can look in the mirror and say it was my call.

See highlights from Hopkins:

Legendary Hoya coach John Thompson:

Click here for highlight of 1985 Georgetown Hoyas vs. Villanova game

My mother told me, "You can do anything you think you can, it's all in the way you view it, young man. It's all in the start you make. You must feel you're going to do it." Anytime I got depressed or discouraged about the team it came back to me. It wasn't just what she said, it was the fact that she said it. I believed everything she said. I had a lot of difficulty in school when I was young--trouble learning, I repeated sixth grade and her words helped me come through it. I would hear her voice in my mind eye's whenever I would come off a loss. I remember when I first started out at Georgetown. I inherited a program that was 3-22 and I had been a high school coach. Everybody was telling me I shouldn't have come to college. You tend to look at yourself and question your decision. But my recall would come back and I would think about what my mother told me. The other person who gave me the best advice was Bill Russell. He told me, "If you don't accept the praise, you don't have to accept the criticism." In other words, "Don't believe the good shit people say and you won't have to believe the bad stuff people say about you. Don't believe the hype and you won't have to believe the criticism." You can get caught up in your own hype, but if you believe that, you have to believe the criticism too. But his advice wasn't more important than my mother's. I was a mama's boy. When mama went left, I went left. When mama went right, I went right. [Laughs].

Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins:

Click here for Wilkins Top Ten Dunks

When I was 12, a guy basically showed me and taught me how to play basketball in the streets of Baltimore, MD. He said if I listened and learned I would be great one day and he said, "You will owe me and you will owe me big, but not in the sense you think. The only thing I want from you is for you to give to someone else what I'm giving to you." In other words, give them the same advice that he'd given to me. The advice was from Skip Wise, a playground legend and former NBA player for the Baltimore Claws and briefly with the San Antonio Spurs. I wonder if Skip Wise even remembers that. That's the best advice I was ever given.

He was considered one of the greatest of all time, but drug addiction and an eventual prison sentence derailed his career.

Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard:

Click here to see the left-hander hitter's triple deck grand slam

Stay on an even keel, don't get too high or too low--Jim Thome told me that. And the other one is you're only as good as your next at bat and that was my old high summer ball coach, Deron Spink. When Jim Thome told me that I was just trying to break into the league, this game can be up and down, you have the good and the bad. You can be up and at the drop of a dime you can forget how to hit. He was just saying make sure you stay on an even plane. You'll have that day where you go 5 for 5 and hit for the cycle the next day you may go 0 for 4 with four strike outs. That's just the law of averages in this game. He's a Midwest guy and I'm a Midwest guy, we were both the same in our beliefs. He's a humble guy as well.

My man D. Spink was just saying try to stay in the moment. Don't dwell on your previous AB whether you made an out or what not, but just stay in the present. You're only as good as your last at bat.

My dad and my older brother kind of prepared me for the fame, they prepared me before I got there. My older brother was in sports, so he told me things to look out for. I was always careful and watching myself and try not to put myself in compromising situations. My brother told me about being careful as far as girls are concerned. Being smart. Watching your environment when you're in clubs or whatever.

Boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard:

See highlights from Leonard vs. Hagler

The best advice that I ever received was from my father. He said to me one day "I’d rather be a man who has nothing but has it all, rather than a man who has it all, but has nothing. At the time, I did not understand his obscure words of wisdom. However, as I got older, I cherished his words. I began to understand what he truly meant. It is not the man with all of the materialistic amenities that has a fulfilling life, rather the man with the simplistic things that finds the most joy in life. I have found my most cherished moments to be when the only things surrounding me are my family and friends. It is only then that my heart is filled with joy and happiness that builds the memories that last a lifetime.

As I look back on my boxing career, I realized that my most cherished memories came from looking out into the audience and seeing the love and admiration on the faces of my family and not the endorsements that came with winning the title, which I can barely remember.

Boxer Kelly Pavlik:

See Pavlik's greatest hits:

Advice from Bernard Hopkins: It is something that's always said, but when it comes from a fighter you just fought, it means something. After I fought Hopkins, he said, "Every great fighter loses, some lose once, some lose twice, but you have to bounce back." He told me that after the fight in the corner. When it comes from a fighter that will be a Hall of a Famer it really hits you when its someone who has been in this situation.

From Ray Boom Boom Mancini: "If you had the opportunity make the most of it." Its a common saying. All those years coming up as a pro I was fighting on big cards, undercards, De La Hoya, big promotional companies. It was still a long process, so a lot of times you get frustrated--you know it's been five years and I haven't had a title shot and I am signed with the biggest promotional company. But then you think, well I'm signed with Top Rank, they're not just gonna sign me to not do anything, they sign the best fighters. I am getting a chance to fight in Vegas on the biggest cards you could possibly think of you gotta make the most of it because that window could close at any time.

I got good advice from Jim Brown--"Once you get to the top, its a hard road to get to the top, but it's even harder to stay at the top." A lot of is not just physically by being an athlete. Anything you do you're in the public eye--people are there to support you 190% and a lot of people seem to support you but really they want to see you down. One thing with this layoff over the summer and most of '09 you have a lot of the fan support. It helped me. It let me know I am not the only one going through that.

Miami Dolphins cornerback Vontae Davis:

See Vontae Davis's rookie year:

My grandmother has also been a big inspiration in my life. There is nothing I do that I don't talk to her about. She has always told me to believe in myself and trust in God. If I do that, I can't go wrong. She has always been supportive of the decisions I make as long as they are the right ones. She would tell me, "No matter what your friends are doing, you continue to be their friends. Just because they do something wrong, doesn't mean you have to do it either. One day they may grow out of this phase in their life and you will need them or you should set a positive example for them. You never know how your life will affect someone else's."

Dallas Maverick's Caron Butler:

See Caron's Buzzer Beater when he was with the Wizards:

I think the best advice I ever got from a professional athlete was from Pat Riley, telling me to keep my disposition as a player, my aggressiveness on both ends of the floor the same, and to never shy away from who you are. I think that was great because me being a rookie coming into the game, I was really shy of being who I was in a man's league. I was trying to feel my way around and find out what's my niche and he was like, “Just be you. Don’t shy away from your identity.” That was the best advice. That’s why I am successful today. When I originally came to the Heat and was trying to fit in, I wasn't fitting in. I wasn't being the guy they had drafted--being aggressive on both ends of the court--just having an edge. Once he told me that, I played with that edge for the rest of my career.

My most inspirational advice has to come from my mother and my grandmother. That's where I got the three D's from, determination, dedication, and discipline. That's what I base my foundation on. They taught me about never giving up, about sacrificing and always giving back to my community. Those are values I live by.

A lot of people helped me in my teens when I was getting in trouble. I had strong support. There was a guy named Jamil Aguirre that ran a recreational center, he served as a mentor to me. He was always in my ear preaching positive messages and just trying to guide me to do positive things in life and never deter back to the wrong path. He used to tell me just to stay humble because your gifts could easily be taken away from you. I always look at it like that, that's why I like giving back and serving my community because I look at where I came from. I remember where I came from and thinking, "If I made it out, I would do this..." So many guys that made it out never came back--not that they were obligated, but it was just the right thing to do.

For more quotes, see the July 28, 2010 issue of ESPN, the magazine with Ron Artest on the cover

Etta James vs. Beyonce

Last month, in the Kimmel Center on Broad Street in Philadelphia, a petite and raucous 72-year-old Sugar Pie DeSanto came onstage dressed seductively in a spaghetti strapped dress, heels, and a long gray ponytail hidden under a silver sequined beret. The 4’11”vocal powerhouse, who toured with James Brown’s revue and sang with childhood friend Etta James, belted out her 1960 hit, “I Want to Know,” with a gravelly voice and a cheeky smile.

Sugar Pie and Etta, "In the Basement"

There was sashaying, pelvic thrusts, kicking off of the heels, writhing across the stage, and---what in the world!---a backwards tumble! It wasn’t quite Shawn Johnson’s Olympic feat, but it was a tumble. The men, women, and the children screamed. She likely picked up a few internal injuries, but she also picked up a lot of respect from the younger fans in the crowd.

Sugar Pie doing her thing at R&B Foundation:

The venue was the R&B Foundation Pioneer Awards, brought to the City of Brotherly Love by hit maker Kenny Gamble. The Foundation, created to provide a financial cushion to aging R&B singers down on their luck (many who unwittingly signed shady deals in the days before artists started their own labels), helped DeSanto pay her rent for six months after an apartment fire left her homeless two years ago. Her husband, Jesse Davis, (who was her third and fourth husband) died while trying to put out a fire started in their Oakland apartment. DeSanto had called out to him to follow her as she ran out the door. By the time she got outside she realized he wasn’t behind her.

DeSanto is a Chess Records alum, like legends Fontella Bass, Moms Mabley, Muddy Waters, and Etta James. It’s not certain whether she will be featured in the upcoming December film, Cadillac Records, by writer/director Darnell Martin (I Like It Like That, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Prison Song), detailing the story of the record label. But her childhood pal, Etta, is being played by none other than Mrs. Shawn Carter. Beyonce is also serving as the executive producer of the film.

Howlin' Wolf's panty dropping Smokestack Lightning:

While no one puts on a show quite like Beyonce--with her man crushing thighs, abs of steel, universal beauty, and acrobatic dance moves--often performed in heels--red high heels---I have to wonder--Etta James? For real? Besides the obvious physical inconsistencies (they’re both thick, but Etta’s just a tad bit thicker) where is Beyonce going to go emotionally to get that?

True, when B turns into her alter ego Sasha Fierce onstage, anything is possible. From 20-foot high swings, to tight white T’s, short denim shorts, and singing chops for days, she gives an all out, sex drenched performance. There’s no hint of the safety and security of a Matthew Knowles boot camp or the stiff prestige of training at a Performing Arts High School in Houston. She becomes somebody you’d want to go to the club with and not just cause she’s the designated driver.

She has the spirit of independence like Etta, rebellious, unaffected by what people think. And she’s mesmerizing to watch.

But then the clock strikes midnight and Sasha turns back into Beyonce, a sweet, accomplished model, fashion designer, wife, singer, and dancer. The wild girl is gone. It took Etta more than a click of the clock to calm down. It took almost sixty years for her to just sit still.

Etta’s mother, Dorothy, a beautiful girl who was pregnant with her at fourteen, was a tornado of restless energy, who danced in and out of her life. Sometimes kidnapping her, they would travel on a bus for a weekend of adventure until being kicked off when running out of cash.

Staying in rooming houses and motels, her cocaine stash close by her, Dorothy was always ready for a party. So desperate to keep her around, Etta would tie a string around her diamond ring and hold the other end of the string, so if she fell asleep and Dorothy tried to slip out to a party, she would wake up.

There were other times when she took Etta to smoky clubs, lounges, ballrooms, allowing her to meet all the big names in the business. When Etta became a mother, Dorothy repeated history by kidnapping her grandson. Etta went her entire life wondering who her real father was and came closest to an answer in pool-shark Minnesota Fats.

She was raised by an aunt who died when she was twelve. She ran with a gang with her childhood pal and one of the finest girls in their neighborhood, Sugar Pie DeSanto. She bounced from school to school, stole, lost her virginity by fourteen, and by fifteen had dropped out of school, was on the road, and had begun her professional recording career.

Etta James, "I'd Rather Go Blind"

She sang gospel, blues, R&B, rock-n-roll, and jazz. She snorted coke, freebased, and mainlined heroin. Became a Muslim. Hung out with Ike and Tina, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Mick Jagger, Marvin Gaye, Minnie Ripperton, and Bob Dylan. Fought with James Brown. Hung out with drag queens. Was kindred souls with Aretha. Was adored by some men. Was beaten within an inch of her life by others. Was a party girl and a devoted wife. Had Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X knocking on her door to hang out. Got high with Miles Davis. Pulled guns on promoters who tried to cheat her out of her cash. Walked through a revolving door to rehab for most of her life. Shot heroin in her hands when she ran out of veins. Contracted tetanus from a dirty needle. Had an outside kid. Did jail time. And could count Elizabeth Taylor as one of her fans.

In Etta’s biography, Rage to Survive, by David Ritz, she details an exchange between her and her idol, the Queen, Dinah Washington. When she saw her walk into a club where she was performing, she decided to sing one of her hits, “Unforgettable.”

Dinah Washington's "Unforgettable" and she is:

In the middle of the song, she heard a crash. The Queen had swept the glasses off of a table.
“Girl! She screamed, pointing at my head, “Don’t you ever sing the Queen’s songs!”

She later told her in private:

“Don’t you ever pull shit like that, not when I’m around.”The Queen gave her a hug and the next day they hung out.

Etta has said in interviews that she doesn’t mind Beyonce playing her, though they don’t look much alike. She is fond of music by younger artists--Keith Sweat, Aaron Hall, Mary J. Blige--and doesn’t believe in the notion that younger singers can’t carry the musical torch.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Beyonce. I like her music. I just don’t want to look at the screen and see Beyonce playing Etta James. I just wanna see Etta.

And it seems like she has so many other things to do. She has an album dropping in November and is starring in a thriller. She models, she fashion designs, she sings, she wifes. Now she executive produces. Can somebody else have a job?

Beyonce: Check on It:

I understand we are in times of convergence, where one person has to be able to perform multiple tasks, but I’m a bit skeptical. Maybe I’m old fashioned. I like my hairdresser, but I wouldn’t want her performing my pap smear after she juiced up my jheri curl.

What if Stevie Wonder had decided to put out a fragrance, maybe call it Rocket Love? And got an endorsement deal from Nike? At the height of his career in the ‘80s, signed on to executive produce Beat Street AND starred as the breakdancer Lee? Would we have had Innervisions? Songs in the Key of Life?

Stevie's Rocket Love:

Lee, in all his glory, in Beat Street:

I’m not knocking the business savvy of artists today. There’s a reason the R&B Foundation is necessary. But I have a revolutionary idea. Why don’t we let trained actresses act in the movies?

Can’t we find a big-boned, supremely talented actress to play Etta? Someone who looks and feels the part? The casting director in Martin’s last film, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” the film adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston’s book, already hurt my feelings by having Halle Berry play the character Janie and Michael Ealy play the character Teacake (wasn’t Teacake dark-skinned in the book? Are Ealy’s eyes blue?).

But then, B is full of surprises. She pulled off giving up Popeye’s chicken and biscuits. I don’t know anyone else who has accomplished that. Maybe she will come through for me.

Seventy-year-old Etta James is still dazzling. In 2006, she released an album, “All the Way,” and I’m willing to bet, like DeSanto, she’s still shaking her hips. If we’re gonna do this convergence thing let’s get Etta James in the movies and maybe even her own fragrance. In the movie, she could play a take-no-prisoners, bad ass singer, no housecoat having, blues girl gone wild.

She could play, well, Etta James.

Originally published on

Review: The Story of the Wu-Tang Clan

Wu: The Story of the Wu-Tang Clan will premiere tonight on BET. It follows the Wu from their beginnings in Staten ("Shaolin") Island through their groundbreaking business practices- inside and outside the record industry, to their eventual break-up. Following the staid format of traditional documentaries-narration, interviews with childhood friends, quick cuts to neighborhoods--the Staten Island ferry, city landscapes-it simplifies the world's most influential hip hop group to an hour and 30 minutes.

But it's not entirely the fault of childhood friend Gerald K. Barclay, director and executive producer. It should have been told in parts-like their albums-one group story, separate solo in-depth examinations of each member, then coming back to the clan again. Wu-Tang Story I, II, III, until all of its told.

It fails to show their eclectic influences of Five Percent ideology, Inspector Clusoe, The Bible, a medley of drugs, the Qur'an, Taoism, the Iliad, Marvel comics, to every kung fu flick shown in a seedy 42nd Street movie house.

It just grazes the tip of their ballet on the microphone, their resurrection of the Wallabees with a new multi-colored flavor, and futuristic musical styles from their beats to their rhymes to their musical influences ranging from kung fu soundtracks to the Original Savannah Band.

Chez Chez La Ghost

Incarcerated Scarfaces--Raekwon:

What '70s girl group is sampled in this? What's the title?

The most poignant moments come with the formulaic, "Behind the Music" approach. Childhood friends come up with the brilliant idea to form a music group, the group becomes wildly successful, they're each lured away by the temptation of having more, being more, and then it all implodes. Competitiveness becomes compulsion and the group breaks up. It usually ends with a breakout star who goes on to a successful solo career, drug addiction, or Melba Moore-like acting in the Chitlin' circuit theater. In this case, the foreshadowing of destruction is Ol' Dirty bastard and his warring personal demons.

Midway through, Ol' Dirty is chubby-faced, recently released from prison, and seemingly having won the war of his addictions. Then vultures pull at him from all angles. Damon Dash signs him to a $1 million deal. His mother brags to the cameras that they have a book deal, a record deal, and a successful clothing line.

Members of the Clan are concerned for his health and urging him to lay low. It's when Ol' Dirty tells Mitchell "Divine" Diggs, CEO of the Wu, "I'm waiting to die, cause when I do, you mf's are gonna wake up," that empathy rules out over the Behind-the-Music irony. It's the moment where you see that Ol' Dirty, dubbed a free spirit by some, out of control by others, needs the Wu, the spotlight, needs to rap and to showcase his talents to stay sane in a newly sober world. He's on fast forward as he realizes his window to say no to the devil is very short.

The Wu story shows rare footage of the group performing in Hawaii, overseas, and in hole in the wall clubs, all in front of breathless, crying fans. It hints at their success in fashion, comic book lines, kung fu videos, all while continuing to sell millions of records.

This is where BET succeeds--in telling the young black youth about the innovation of what the clan did--a community of MC's that were able to step out from the pack, shine, and come back and be a family again. It shows RZA, the genius behind their making, who bargains for less money up front for their deal with Loud Records, in order to have the freedom to sign individual crew members to solo deals.

And it shows how he brought nine MC's from the warring Stapleton and Park Hill projects together in a basement to record Protect Ya Neck, where they were forced to come correct to prove a point. It gives us a slice, albeit a small one, of nine men that in 1993 emerged from the forgotten borough to form one of the most successful rap groups of all time.

Wu-The Story of the Wu-Tang Clan, premieres on BET tonight at 8pm. The soundtrack, due out Nov. 18th , features Wu's biggest hits as well as classics from several of their solo endeavors.

Originally published on How fast can you name all nine members?

Review: Raphael Saadiq at Ram's Head Live

On a nostalgic night at Ram's Head Live in Baltimore, when raucous gospel church stomping is mixed with Temptations-styled spins, slides, shuffles, and crooning, it's difficult to distinguish the old from the new. Raphael Saadiq's new album, "The Way I See It," a new downtown sound that's an ode to Motown-Stax-Philly International eras, when R&B, was, well, R&B, is the crux of the show, but it's when Saadiq sings his hits from the Tony! Toni! Tone! and Lucy Pearl days that the crowd sings along with the most fervor.

Lay Your Head on My Pillow

On a black and white inspired set, Raphael Saadiq stands out in a mustard-colored suit, (is that a zoot suit?!)-- black-framed glasses and a skinny black tie. Ram's Head is intimate, standing room only-more after-work happy hour than concert setting, with a few tables for couples-- giving the audience members a feeling that they are part of the show as they reach out to give Saadiq a pound whenever they feel like it and rest their drinks right on stage.

100-Yard Dash

After a 15-minute set from neo-soul/punk Southern California group, Tha Boogie, it seems like this is primarily the classy casual two-stepping crowd, more than the at-least-one-Colt-45-per-night getting down crowd. But as anticipation builds for Saadiq, the two-stepping gets a little more thunderous and the folks with the pink furry boots start to show up. By 8:45, the lights dim, the band comes out, and you hear: "Aii-Yi-Yi-Yi-Yi-Yi!!!" from the previously calm crowd. Purses are dropped, bird calls ensue, and Saadiq runs out playing the bass guitar. There's stomping, tambourines-and suddenly the two-step has morphed into a gospel stomp. He dives right into "Keep Marchin,'" an infectious and inspirational Temptations-meets-Marvin Gaye ditty that evokes images of fire hoses and barking German shepherds. He slows down the tempo, bringing in the holy rollers, double-clappers, and club heads, stretching it out for 5 minutes, before bringing it back up tempo, sending the crowd into a guttural roar.

Then he brings them down to a romantic purr when he steps into "Love That Girl," a song reminiscent of a Sam Cooke kind of innocent ecstasy, as he launches into 5-6-7-8dance routines with his two dancers complete with hand rolling, high knee kicking, and double-clapping. By the time he gets to "100 Yard Dash," he screams out, "I know y'all got some soul in Baltimore!! If you don't move to the back! There's leg room up in the front!" And all of a sudden, it's more juke joint, than high school disco. Then he launches into the Lucy Pearl hit, "Dance Tonight," and the crowd is giving him pounds, singing, stomping, and clothes are coming off.

He slows it down with "Just One Kiss," and then with a Jackson Five-like falsetto on "Oh Girl," a Joss Stone duet, and he and his two dancers are back to dance routines that end with freeze poses. Then he launches into a medley of his old school hits: "Lay Your Head on My Pillow," "It Never Rains in Southern California," "Anniversary," "Ask of You," "Just Me and You." By now the crowd has lost all inhibition and there's back rolling and grinding in between high pitched screams, "take your times," and lip poking.

He switches it again (mind you he hasn't broken a sweat yet) to "Be Here," his song with D'Angelo (no, D's not there. C'mon there's only so much a crowd can take). The crowd is rocking it out, arms pumping, and the scene now resembles a mosh pit. Then he gets naughty, throwing off his tiny tie to the audience, opening his shirt, and telling the ladies, "This place is crowded, don't know 'bout you, but I need some sex, some sex with you!" and launches into "Take a Walk," then moves into "Sure Hope You Mean It," and a gruff baritone voice in the back of the crowd screams out, "C'mon now!!" He stretches the song out for 10 more minutes, before he shuts it down.

"The show was fabulous," says 52-year-old Baltimore city worker, Deborah Hamilton, who is there with her girlfriend. "He puts on a classy show. It was old school and new school. I think I'm in love!!"

But, wait, it ain't over.

He comes back out with the bass guitar and people start boxing each other out for their positions back in front of the stage.

He finishes it up with "Never Give You Up," with Stevie Wonder on the harmonica, (No, he ain't there. C'mon people!) and raps it all up with his tribute to Katrina, "Big Easy," complete with the trumpeting sounds of a New Orleans brass band (The Infamous Young Spoodie and the ReBirth Brass Band).

Big Easy

As he finally ends it after a two hour church-meets-juke-joint-meets-teeny-bopper-concert, the drawers-down-to-the-back-of-their-knees thug set, the classy-casual set, the old-school set, and the healthy-eaters set, are all equally at ease and satisfied.

Originally published on

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Treme: Music Soothes the Soul Part II

In the next episode of HBO’s musically opulent series, Treme, set in New Orleans three months after hurricane Katrina, we’ll meet the prodigious talent of Troy Andrews, better known as Trombone Shorty, playing himself as one of many struggling musicians trying to get back on their feet.

Past the brightly-colored turn of the century French styled colonial houses, around the bend from the fantastical designs of Mardi Gras, is an area local New Orleanians refer to as Backatown, an area that includes the historic Treme neighborhood. Andrews is one of the gems to come from this area, a 24-year-old charismatic singer, trombonist, and trumpeter with sounds that exhibit a raw physical power belying his nickname. His album, of the same name, is due out on April 20, featuring an eclectic mixing bowl of rock, R&B, hip-hop, and jazz that he affectionately refers to as a “Supafunkrock.”

Where Y'At?

Andrews has backed up everyone from Harry Connick Jr., to Dr. John, to Green Day. Wynton Marsalis is “his biggest fan,” Lenny Kravitz has called him a “genius,” and Allen Touissant has said, “Don’t get me wrong, we got it going on here in New Orleans, he’s just better.” The album (Verve Forecast) produced by Galactic’s Ben Ellman features guest heavyweights Lenny Kravitz, Marc Broussard, and Allen Touissant.

Andrews who stands at over six feet was given his nickname when as a kid, he became so overcome with emotion watching a second-line parade, he grabbed his trombone and joined in though his arms weren’t long enough to reach all the positions of the slide. Before he and his neighborhood friends could afford instruments they’d go to the parades armed with a cardboard box as a snare drum or a bass drum and a big wheel as a tuba. He became a bandleader by the age of six. He made his debut at Lincoln Center and played in Lenny Kravitz’s band for over a year and a half—around the same time that Katrina struck.

He made it out just hours before hurricane and levee disaster. He was on tour with Kravitz, but had come back in time to get many of his family members out in time for the storm. He’s seen his musically fertile neighborhood, a place he calls the “most influential thing in my life,” change after the storm—gentrification, displaced residents from the storm, musicians leaving for brighter lights in New York—but he returns often and sees the residents struggle to keep the culture alive.

“We still have people that hang out under the Interstate,” says Andrews. “They get their wine, they play their Indian music—they’re the Kings of Treme, just playing on bottles. But they are getting old and once that’s over it might be a different Treme.

Originally published on and on April 10, 2010

HBO revisits the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina with a new series

This Sunday at 10pm on HBO, David Simon and co-creator Eric Overmyer’s, Treme will give viewers a trip to New Orleans that most haven’t seen past the beads, the booze, the boobs, and Mardi Gras floats. The storyline takes place three months after Hurricane Katrina and the Federal levee system failure, following an assortment of city residents as people use the weight of the area’s rich music and culture as affirmations amidst a government that has failed them.

The title derives from the neighborhood Treme, one of the oldest black neighborhoods in New Orleans and hailed as one of the birthplaces of jazz. There are the same crisscrossing storylines, rugged authenticity, insider’s viewpoint, regional dialogue, and the expectations that the audience will “get it” that made The Wire, alternately the “best show on television” and the most difficult to understand. In Treme, amidst circumstances like homelessness, government neglect, dead or missing family and friends, and being displaced, residents are determined to regain their footing, and that footing is a funky, dazzling dance infused with brass band music.

Viewers will recognize some faces from Simon’s critically acclaimed series, The Wire, including Wendell Pierce (who played the affable Bunk), and Clarke Peters, (the genius detective Lester Freamon)—both are accomplished musicians in real life. Pierce, a Julliard graduate, plays Antoine Batiste, a musician taking any gigs that will pay, including the seedy tourist traps and strip clubs on Bourbon Street. Clarke Peters plays the Mardi Gras Indian Big Chief, Albert Lamreaux, rendered homeless by the storm but determined to continue a tradition dating to when enslaved Africans were allowed to congregate in Congo Square and perform their homeland’s traditional songs and dances. The Mardi Gras Indians mask in Indian attire for parades, in part as homage to escaping enslaved Africans who were harbored by Native Americans.

Donald Harrison Jr., is a consultant for the show, a jazz saxophonist who has played with greats like Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Don Pullen, and is a Mardi Gras Indian chief in real life. He is the head of the Congo Nation, an Afro New Orleans cultural group. Each member creates ornate costumes each year for the parades that can happen throughout the year.

“Some people are honoring the Native Americans, some are honoring a day of freedom,” says Harrison. “You transcend to another state with the dances and music. When you have people who have been oppressed, they need those periods.”

Here Keith Frazier, a New Orleans musician involved with the series speaks about New Orleans after the storm and being involved with the series. Frazier is a bass player and cofounder of the Rebirth Brass Bandwith his brother Phillip and Kermit Ruffins.

-”We are playing ourselves in the series. Most of the band members went to school in Treme. In our scene we are negotiating a price for a second line procession that we had in New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina.”

-”Right after the hurricane I evacuated to Dallas. My band members were scattered—some in Houston, Baton Rouge, New York City, Baltimore, but we were still able to get together and make gigs happen.”

-”In New Orleans, Tipitina’s and the House of Blues were closed. But we still played at the Maple Leaf. We have a standing gig there on Tuesday nights. They stayed open after the storm, they used kerosene lamps because they didn’t have any electricity. We just continued playing music, that was one way for us to relieve the tension of everything else that was going on.”

-”I still live in Fort Worth, Texas. Some members came back, others are in Houston, Atlanta, because right now housing is not affordable to be a musician in New Orleans. Some people found the schools were better for their kids where they evacuated.Before the storm there were maybe 6 small ballrooms where you could play music, there’s probably only one left, the New Orleans Music Hall.”

-”A lot of people come to New Orleans and never experience that part of the city. They go to Bourbon Street or the Essence festival and they’re like, ‘Second lining..what’s that?’ I hope the series makes them want to investigate it and check it out for themselves.”

-”The Mardi Gras Indians use hand drums and tambourines—a lot of that comes from Haiti– African, Haitian culture. We went to Africa and they did a program and the guys were dressed as Mardi Gras Indians and we went to Cuba and saw the same thing, you can see where it came from Africa through the Caribbean to here.”

-”A lot of people in New Orleans feel like everything else has been commercialized we want to keep that for ourselves. They think this is something that belongs to me I don’t really want to share with anyone–if you want to come and enjoy it with me that’s fine. I think a lot of people in New Orleans feel like this is the last piece of Africa we have here and we don’t want to give it away. You can’t put a price tag on that.”

Treme premieres this Sunday at 10pm on HBO

By Ericka Blount Danois--reprinted from

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Black Pop Icons Where Are They Now?

As a child of the ’70s, I look at what my children have today in the way of cultural programming and Dancing with the Stars and American Idol are about as close as it gets. In the ’70s and the ’80s we had pop culture favorites for music and dance lovers like Soul Train, Solid Gold, The Gong Show, Music Video Connection, New York Hot Tracks, and for D.C. Metro area viewers, Soul of the City, a dance show, that, back then we just called the “Moon Man” show.

As kids watching the Moon Man on a UHF station, Channel 20 in Washington, DC., we would make fun of his neck, (or lack thereof—the complete opposite of Herschel Walker) the cheesy quality of the dance show with its futuristic studio set (hence the Moon Man), and the C-quality level of the dancers (some of which we knew because they were locals). Still, we hardly ever missed a show and tried to mimic some of the dance moves. I don’t want to expound on Solid Gold because it still conjures, for me, images of gold lame cat-suits and that’s painful.

On Soul Train we would always wait for the Asian lady with the long hair down to her knees to come down the Soul Train line. We hated really hard on her, mostly because of the exceptionally hard hair swinging (even those of us with long hair were discouraged from shaking it. That and wrapping it around your ear were just not cool. Very Farrah Fawcett-ish-R.I.P. It could earn you a beat down). The hair swing became her signature move and earned her the moniker of the “long-haired Asian chick.” Of course no one wears their hair that long now, and the shelves of beauty supply stores tell us why. For those that could see past the hair shaking to notice her petite soulful dancing understood that she was a trailblazer for multi-ethnic soul. In looking back I had to ask myself, could I have done those moves week after week in high heels? Stood there and watched as guests struggled with easy answers to the Soul Train scramble board? Figured out what dance moves I could maneuver to a slow jam as I wriggled my body and brushed my fingers held in two peace signs over my eyes? Waited for Don Cornelius to come up with a creative pick up line for a female artist as he undressed them with his eyes? The obvious answer came to me as I practiced some hair swinging and dance moves in front of the mirror recently: not so much.

So in lamenting my lost childhood I wondered where some of these cultural icons were today.

Remember…the long-haired Asian woman on Soul Train?

Well she has a name and its Cheryl Song and I found her to be, in looking back with a more open-minded, bad knee having maturity, a talented dancer—at least by ’70s and ’80s standards. You could easily imagine her dancing in a cage at a club like the Tunnel in New York, or at a rites of passage ceremony. Easily. And so I’m publicly apologizing for all the jokes we made about the hair shaking. Frenzied hair shaking does not diminish your dancing potential and in Cheryl’s case, it enhanced her brand and made her a courageous legend in the fans of Soul Train. Her family, who lived in Crenshaw, seems to have had a profound respect for African American culture and music. Her brother, Aaron Song, played harmonica and guitar in his own Chinese Blues All-Star Band—a band he played in when he managed his blues and R&B-themed high-end Chinese restaurant in Torrance, California.

Here’s a Soul Train tribute…

She went on to “star” in music videos like the late great MJ’s Beat It (she’s on at :07). She’s..well, the long-haired Asian lady that gets her hair pulled…

And Rick James’ Super Freak: (she’s at 0:26)

So..Where is she now?

Well I found her working her tail off at LAX airport as the executive assistant to the Federal Security director. She hung up her dancing shoes in 1995, but she’s still petite in her mid 50s and apparently has never cut her hair in her entire life span because it still falls below her waist. Here, she answers a few questions about her glory days:

Q. How did you come to be in Beat It?

A. Through Soul Train. Soul Train opened a lot of doors for me. Somebody invited me to go to watch Michael. Someone called the office of Soul Train and they referred him to me and they wanted to get Michael some people to teach him the Moonwalk. I spoke with Michael and I met with him and hooked him up with some of the male dancers that could do the moonwalk.

Q. Was that Jeffrey Daniel? Is that true that he taught him to moonwalk?

A. Yes, some other dancers too, but Jeffrey was the most famous. I talked with Michael on the phone and I talked with him when we met. He was eager to get someone to show him and he stressed that it HAD TO BE THE BEST!

Q. What was Michael like?

A. He was the sweetest person you could ever want to meet. When we did Beat It there were a lot of real gang members. A lot of the background ones, they were real gang members. I don’t know how they got them, but they were scary looking. And Michael went over, cause we were in one room all together, and Michael came over and shook everyone’s hand. The dancers weren’t gang members, but a lot of people in the background were and the people coming up out of the manhole were real gang members. We filmed in downtown Los Angeles, like 2 or 3 in the morning. Most of it took place in this dilapidated building.

Q. How did you learn how to dance?

A. I always liked to dance. I went to a black high school. I went to Dorsey in Los Angeles, and I always hung around with the dancers.

Q. How did you get on Soul Train?

A. A lot of people from my high school, Jody Watley, Jeffrey Daniel, were on Soul Train and they kind of brought me on as a dare. It was like, ‘Hmm, let’s bring her, let’s see what they say when we show her!’

Q. Were there any Asians on Soul Train before you?

A. No, I broke down the door. It was kind of scary at first and I knew a lot of people liked me and a lot of people didn’t like me. They felt like I shouldn’t be on this show. I had to prove myself.

Q. How did you get to the point where people respected you as a dancer?

A. Probably after a season. When I came back they were much more receptive. I did it for about ten years. We filmed one weekend per month. Filmed two shows on Saturday and two shows on Sunday.

Q. Was any of it choreographed?

A. You could pretty much dance however you wanted, but they placed everybody.

Q.What are some of your best memories of being on the show?

A. That’s where I met Michael.

Q.When he came to perform?

A. Right when he left the Jacksons. I was so nervous, it’s like you can’t even open your mouth. He was at a table and I was sitting there, and they introduced me to him. He asked for some Yogi tea from one of the health food restaurants from his people and then he talked to me about what he wanted in terms of dances. When I talked to him on the phone I was like frozen. I hung up the phone and said, “Did I just talk to Michael Jackson?” Out of everyone, I idolized him the most.

Q. What did you do after the Beat It video?

A. I did Super Freak with Rick James. He was like the comedian at school, always making everyone laugh. He was really down to earth. He would crack a joke about you and make everyone laugh.

Q. And then you choreographed for Lionel Richie?

A. Yeah, he was on Saturday Night Live doing a solo. A lot of the songs were slow, so I just gave him steps and directions and how to move, so it wasn’t like a really hard thing to do. But when you’re on stage and you’re not a real dancer, you’re like, ‘What am I supposed to do?’ It was pretty informal.

Q. When did you hang up your dancing shoes?

A. About 1995. I danced in Japan. I stayed there for like a month or two, then we went to Texas, Florida, New York on tour with the Soul Train dancers. We did choreographed numbers.

Q. Do people still recognize you? Do you still have the long hair?

A.YES! And it surprises me cause that was such a long time ago.

So, in thinking about Soul Train, it not only provided us with jokes for days, it also served as a launching pad for many musicians and dancers, including, but not limited to Rosie Perez, Damita Jo, Darnell Williams (Jesse from All My Children), Vivica Fox, Lela Rochon, Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniel, Fred Berry and the Lockers. And we’re gonna find them all!

Originally published on