From the desk of Contributing Editor, Eli M. Getson–

Stax Records began as a small regional record label in Memphis in 1957 by brother and sister team, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, with the simple intent of selling records by taking advantage of the immense talent of the African American singers the South had to offer.  By the time the label went defunct in the mid ’70s it had provided the soundtrack for the Civil Rights movement and had rocked the music world. Artists Black and White alike would be profoundly influenced by the sometimes smooth, sometimes rough, but always hardworking soul singers like Al Green, Sam and Dave, Joe Tex, Carla Thomas, Arthur Conley, Eddie Floyd, Wilson Pickett, and the big man– Otis Redding.   There is nothing better than a funky, greasy, soul song and nothing was more soulful then the legendary Stax Records tour of Europe in 1967.  In my humble opinion this is when Soul music took over the world.

Stax Records headquarters in Memphis, Tennessee — Image by Bill Carrier © API photographers inc

The European Tour was to open these markets to the Stax sound and take advantage of the growing interest in Black American music, especially in the UK. By the time the tour was finished music would not be the same.  Stax management knew they had to tear it up every night if they were going to realize the commercial gains they wanted for themselves and their artists.  So they stacked the tour with an all star team– Sam and Dave, Eddie Floyd, and Arthur Conley were backed by the legendary Stax house band Booker T. and the MG’s and there equally epic horn section The Mar-keys.  This epic line up along with a good spirited competition to top each other made the show a raging success.

Pictured — Estelle Axton and Jim Stewart, siblings and co–founders of the legendary Stax Records (“ST” ewart + “AX” ton = Stax) — Image by Bill Carrier, © API photographers inc

Yet no one launched their star into orbit more the legendary big man from Macon, Georgia– Otis Redding. With vocals that combined the delicate phrasing of a balladeer with the shouts of a deacon in church, Redding destroyed it in the UK.  People still talk about Otis and his legendary performance in London–taking the Stones’ “Satisfaction” and giving it the Stax treatment along with his classics like “Try a Little Tenderness” and “These Arms of Mine”.  This along with his now legendary performance at The Monterrey Pop Festival that same year made him an enormous international star.

Otis Redding (at the Olympia Theatre, Paris), one of the legendary soul singers featured in Sweet Soul: Stax/Volt Revue — Live in Norway, 1967 — Image by © Jean Pierre Leloir, courtesy of Stax Records

The musicians, initially, viewed “Hit the Road Stax” with some trepidation, viewing themselves as a small, regional record label done good versus a global brand.  Some were even concerned that the European audiences wouldn’t like the music of a small, racially integrated label from the South.   That was until they got to England-everyone and I mean everyone of any import from the London music scene was scrambling to get tickets to see these shows.  Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Eric Burdon, John Mayall, Roger Daltrey, Pete Townsend, and The Beatles were all angling to see the London shows and hang out with the Stax artists.  In a now classic footnote of music history, The Beatles sent limos to pick up the Stax crew each night after the shows and, in a story no-one can verify, Paul McCartney supposedly kissed the great Booker T. and the MG’s guitarist Steve Cropper’s ring because he viewed him as the greatest guitar player he had ever heard.

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Thoreau said– most men live lives of quiet desperation. I would like to know how it feels for my desperation to get louder.” ~Bill Withers

1974 — Muhammad Ali and singer/songwriter Bill Withers chat during the Zaire ’74 Music Festival that preceded the epic Ali vs. Foreman’Rumble in the Jungle’ fight on Oct. 30th, 1974. Other performers included– James Brown, B.B. King, the Spinners, the Fania All-Stars, Miriam Makeba and  Zairian musical artists, all chronicled in the 2008 film,’Soul Power’. When asked later if it felt like a moving, historic racial event at the time Withers recalled, “No. It was two big guys going to fight each other at four o’clock in the morning. It wasn’t this great intellectual pursuit. And there’s a certain reality to going someplace where there’s a dictator. You notice the disparity in the wealth.” And in regard to the African-American movement that was hapeening to re-discover their roots? “Awwww, come on, man. It wasn’t a great historical moment. Interesting, but that was that. No great spiritual experience. Mostly what everybody found out was–we had been shaped and transformed by American culture and the history we had here, and they had been shaped by whoever colonized their place. They weren’t speaking any African languages. We were speaking English and they were speaking French. How African is that?” — Photograph by © Lynn Goldsmith via

Bill Withers was no natural born musician, or polished product of the recording industry. He was a simple man, a bit manic depressive he’d even tell you himself– and that may be why his plain spoken words, delivered so powerfully, pack the punch they do. The youngest of six kids, Withers was born in a bleak West Virginia town where coal mining was your best prospect.  He’d be the first man in his family to escape its grip.

Withers joined the Navy and got the hell outta there. It turned out to be a nine year hitch, and along the way picked up singing in bars wherever he found himself stationed. Later he picked up the guitar and taught himself a crude, but effect, playing style where he’d form simple barre chords and rhythms– this allowed him to passionately pound out songs without having to give much thought to his fingering– he could just slide his hand up and down the neck.

“Bill played just enough guitar to do what he did– But, what he did was really good.”  –Craig McMullen, Bill Withers backing guitarist.  Withers openly admitted he was a hack on the guitar, but he managed to wrench more power and emotion out of his instrument than other, more accomplished, players. –Photograph by © Fin Costello

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“I had a great sense of curiosity and a great sense of just wanting to achieve.

I just forgot I was black and walked in and asked for a job

and tried to be prepared for what I was asking for.”

–Gordon Parks



Gordon Parks (1912-2006)  — The iconic photographer, artist, director, writer, activist, and musician.

From the desk of Contributing Editor, Eli M. Getson–

During his 93 years, Gordon Parks led an extraordinary life, and bore witness to some of the most amazing events of the 20th century– often chronicling them through the lens of his camera.  Most of us who lived in the 1970s know him as the director of Shaft, the groundbreaking film that featured a black leading man whupping ass, bedding beautiful women– and all without as much as ruffling the collar of his trademark black leather trench coat.

However, Gordon Parks was much more than  Shaft. During his lifetime he was a friend to famous artists, musicians, athletes, politicians, fashion models, actors, and general movers and shakers– he seemed to know everyone who was making history in one way, shape, or form.  Parks also made his mark in photography, literature, film, music, and social activism.  I can also say from experience he was one of the most stylish and charming New Yorkers I have ever had the pleasure of meeting.

Gordon Parks filming “The Learning Tree”, Fort Scott, KS, 1968. — Photograph by Norman E. Tanis.

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Jack Johnson. The American boxing great still awaiting a pardon, on long ago trumped-up charges, that he’s more than due to receive.  Obama, for some reason, is dragging his heels– causing many to speculate that it’s because his old foe John McCain is the one strongly behind the effort to bring exoneration to the Black champ’s legacy. Democrats or Republicans– it’s always the same circus, just different clowns.

Arthur John “Jack” Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas on March 31, 1878– the first son in a family of six children born to Henry (a former slave) and Tiny Johnson.  Jack Johnson grew up poor– dropping put of school in the fifth grade so he could work on the Galveston docks to help support the family.  As a teen he began boxing in Negro matches organized to entertain proper white folk.  The winner of the match would collect whatever money was thrown in the ring by the appreciative spectators.

Johnson soon rose to the rank of Negro boxing’s heavyweight champion, and was called the “Galveston Giant.” Johnson wanted a shot a Jim Jeffries, the current White heavyweight champ, who refused to fight a black man. In 1910, they finally squared off, with Jeffries coming out of retirement to challenge Johnson– who had become the “unrecognized” heavyweight champion by knocking out Tommy Burns in 1908. Jeffries was hailed as the “Great White Hope” —a rallying cry started by none other than famed author, Jack London. He, and scores of Whites like him, wanted to see the boastful Black boxer beaten in the ring by a White man, in order to erase that “golden smile” from Jack’s face, and restore White America’s pride and position in what was being billed as– “The Fight of the Century.”

Jack Johnson

“If the black man wins, thousands and thousands of his ignorant brothers will misinterpret his victory as justifying claims to much more than mere physical equality with their white neighbours.” –The New York Times

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Growing-up in and around Harley biker culture, there was never any talk of African American riders– let alone that may actually have a part in contributing to American motorcycling culture. It was like Black riders flat-out didn’t exist. Now finally, their incredible story is starting to emerge through books like Soul On Bikes and the Black Chrome exhibit at California African American Museum. The images and accounts are not just amazing to look at and enjoy– they are also incredibly inspiring.  Many thanks to The Vintagent (one of my favorite blogs) and The Onyx Rider from which many of the pics & stories came.

East Bay Dragons Motorcycle Club

East Bay Dragons Motorcycle Club– circa 1960s.

When Sonny Barger formed the Oakland Hells Angels in 1957, a few miles up East 14th Street in East Oakland, a young black bike rider from Louisiana named Tobie Gene Levingston was soon to follow in his footsteps. The two knew and respected each other, and had ridden their Harleys together in the same East Bay neighborhood.

In 1959, Tobie Gene organized the Dragons, a loosely knit, all-black men’s club, one of the first of its kind. The dragon’s earliest incarnation began as an all-black car club and originally stemmed from Tobie Gene’s big brother role to keep his younger brothers and friends occupied and out of trouble. The Dragons became ten strong, including members like MacArthur, Hooker, Tobie’s brothers Joe Louis and Jonas, Baby Joe, Sam and Cousin Rabbit. Tobie Gene became the East Bay Dragons MCs first and only president, still reigning and riding after forty-four years.

soul on bikes the east bay dragons and the black biker set book


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