January is often thought of as a time for looking ahead and thinking forward. It’s a New Year: we make New Year’s resolutions, new commitments, and those of us who still write checks struggle to remember to write the correct year on them. But January can also be a time to take a serious look in the rearview mirror; to look backwards at what has been as well as forward to what might be. In order to make new resolutions, for example, we need to look back and see what it is we want to change about what we are doing and our lives. We need to look back to do this, and we need to look back seriously. Indeed, all of the many rituals and practices we observe throughout December and early January are as much about looking back as they are about moving forward and welcoming the new. We have to recall the story of the birth of Christ or the ties to the past that each Kwanzaa or Hannukah candle represent, and then we can connect with those things and bring them forward into our current lives. We need to know our past to fully appreciate our present and to look honestly toward the future.
One way of doing this for me is to look at lists of who died in the last 12 months and reflect on their impact and influence on me. Of course, that is easy when it is a friend or a family member. There is grief and pain, and we are immediately deeply in touch with what we lost and what it means. But if we are lucky, there are also people outside our immediate relationships who have had an impact on us that we want to acknowledge. For me, these are often musicians, authors, and other artists that have played a role in how I see and experience the world. The arts have had an incredible effect on my life, and they have done a lot to help me become who I am today.
One of the things I’m reflecting on is that we lost two R’n’B masters in 2022. I don’t normally play a lot of funk and straightforward R’n’B with the Dukes, but I incorporate some of it in my playing and singing, and it is something that I regularly listen to. And in 2022 we said, “Goodbye” to a couple of my favorites.
One of the masters we lost was Calvin Simon, the co-founder of what became the group Parliament-Funkadelic. This was the group the brought to the fore bassist Bootsy Collins and master songwriter singer, stage and dance director George Clinton. Calvin came along in the late 60’s, 70’s and 80’s-a time when Black popular music was going through big changes and venturing into new sounds, different instrumentation, and bolder arrangements. He played everything from straight up R’n’B dance tunes and ballads to funk, to protest music, to psychedelia, to gospel, and more. He always found a way to mix things up with wah-wah on guitars and organs, strong horn arrangements, background singers, incredible bass lines, outrageous costumes, and characters such as Dr. Funkenstein. The musical changes he and Funkadelic developed have been sampled thousands of times in hip- hop and rap, and The Mothership stage shows Parliament-Funkadelic put on are legendary. Suffice it to say, along with Calvin, there are 15 other members of that group who have been inducted to the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame. Wow!
We also lost Syl Johnon. I had heard Syl on songs such as Dresses Too Short, Different Strokes, and Is It Because I Am Black. His version of the Al Green song Take Me To The River is a classic; even Al said he preferred Syl’s version. His, Could I Be Falling In Love is one of my favorite romantic ballads with a great arrangement and wonderful vocals. Love it.
So as I am heading forward into 2023, I am also taking time to look back and re-listen to some other folks I haven’t listened to in a while. We lost several others, of course-the great Walter “Wolfman” Washington, Kim Simmonds of Savoy Brown, and Luther Guitar Johnson, to name a few. My remembering them and what they did is a good reminder of how things can come to influence me and matter to me, often without me necessarily looking for it or realizing that it is happening at the time. I think we are all lucky to have that experience. It is good to take time to stop, look back and be grateful for it. It takes at least one village to raise anyone, and if we are lucky, we have a number of great villages around us. For that I am eternally grateful.
Parliament/Funkadelic on YouTube: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0wBqWb43y6I&list=PLYN2kYOMfhBnx3XMylIcMPFpFcBLkvS-0
(There is also a lot of Syl Johnson on You Tube: