In the past two weeks, boomers have lost two greats from the world of music: Dennis Edwards and Hugh Masekela. Widely different in their approach to music, both musicians presented socially-conscious songs of the era along with other pop selections. Boomers were all the more appreciative for it, including Mister Boomer.
Dennis Edwards – February 2
Born in Alabama in 1943, Edwards grew up in Detroit. Like most of his musical contemporaries, he sang gospel and studied music as a teen. In the early sixties, he was a member of the Contours, best known for Do You Love Me (1962). After the Temptations fired David Ruffin in 1968, Edwards became the lead singer. His gritty vocal moved the band’s sound to a more bluesy, soulful direction, inspiring the group to pen more socially-conscious songs.
Edwards presided over some of the Temptations biggest hits, including Cloud Nine, Psychedelic Shack, Ball of Confusion, I Can’t Get Next to You and Papa was a Rollin’ Stone (Mister Boomer’s favorite). Edwards left the band in 1976 following their separation from the Motown label. During his tenure, every album the band released made it to the Top 40, with several entering the Top 10. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, along with the Temptations.
He released several albums on his own, but none crossed over from R&B to the pop charts. He rejoined the band when they returned to Motown in the early ’80s, then left, then came back for another year in 1986 for one album. Finally, he rejoined the band one more time from 1987 to 1989.
Hugh Masekela – January 23
Mr. Masekela began life in South Africa in 1939. At the age of fourteen, he showed a keen interest in music, but his family could not afford an instrument. A local minister, on tour in the U.S. promoting his book, mentioned Hugh’s predicament to a radio host. The man suggested he get in touch with Louis Armstrong. The minister did just that and Armstrong agreed to give him a trumpet to give the boy back in South Africa. From then on, Hugh Masekela was never separated from his music. By the 1950s, he began to develop his brand of Afro-Jazz. Years later he would be known as the Father of South African Jazz.
After criticizing the South African apartheid government with his music, he left for New York in 1960 for what would become a 30-year exile. In New York he enrolled in the Manhattan School of Music and was a big fan of the city’s jazz scene. He frequented the jazz clubs to see Miles Davis, John Coltraine, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Mingus and Max Roach. Subsequently he became friends with Dizzy Gilespie and Louis Armstrong, who suggested he draw on his African experiences rather than rely on influences from American music.
Masekela’s debut album, Trumpet Africaine: The New Beat from South Africa, was released in 1963. In 1964 he married singer Miriam Makeba, but divorced two years later. By 1967 he was living in Los Angeles, having befriended David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young and others. His LA friends got him a slot in the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, alongside Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Ravi Shankar, The Who and Jimi Hendrix.
His biggest break came in 1968, with the release of Grazing in the Grass, an instrumental composed by Philemon Hou. The song reached number one on the Billboard charts, crossing all boundaries between rock, jazz and pop. Mister Boomer recalls his brother bringing the 45 RPM record home. It was a catchy tune that all members of the Boomer household could enjoy. Mister B has that 45 in his collection today.
One year later, Harry Elston of the band, The Friends of Distinction, wrote lyrics to the tune. Their cover of the song peaked at number three in the Billboard Top 100 in 1969. Lyrically a throwback to the vernacular of the time, the song featured such mind-blowing phrases such as, Grazin’ in the grass is a gas, baby, can you dig it. Mister B will stick with Masekela’s instrumental, thank you.
Hugh Masekela was a bandleader, composer, singer, trumpet player and flugelhornist. In 1977, He wrote Soweto Blues about the 1976 uprising in Soweto, South Africa, a song that his ex-wife went on to sing at the beginning of the Paul Simon Graceland tour in 1986. Masekela had been criticized for collaborating with Simon on the Graceland album, and the tour got a smattering of a few hundred protestors in London, because some people felt Simon’s work for the album in South Africa violated the United Nations cultural boycott against that country. Masekela insisted that Simon’s album did the opposite, bringing the plight of his beloved South Africans to the forefront of world discussion.
By the 1990s, Hugh Masekela had been married four times. His lack of success in marriages was countered by his musical prowess. He released over 40 albums, and worked with many of the top artists of the time, including Harry Belafonte, Dizzy Gillespie, The Byrds, Fela Kuti, Marvin Gaye, Herb Alpert, Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder, among others.
The passing of these two musical giants once again illustrates how musical genres criss-crossed among pop, rock, R&B and jazz in the sixties, especially on the radio; the same stations that played 1910 Fruitgum Company and Cream would also play Ray Charles and Hugo Montenegro. Consequently, boomers were exposed to artists and sounds from around the globe to build what became, in Mister Boomer’s opinion, the greatest decade of American music in history.
Did you have the chance to see Dennis Edwards or Hugh Masekela in concert, boomers? Which records do you cherish?