As a former teacher and coach, I really tried to overlook the color, nationality and/or creed of my students and athletes. For the most part, I feel like I was successful in reaching students as important individuals to my life. Since this is Black History Month, I got to thinking back to three situations that occurred to me with students that told me that I must be reaching them as people and not members of a race, country or religion.
The first situation happened during the next-to-last year of my teaching career. For the last six years of teaching, I taught mostly Honors Chemistry classes, which consisted of the strongest students the school had to offer in every sophomore class. In this particular class, we were finished with our final, and everyone was quietly talking. Now, I used to describe these classes as my United Nations classes since the kids were from all kinds of varying backgrounds. Anyway, the students were excited about Winter Break, when one of them innocently asked a Muslim boy what he did on Christmas. The boys quickly and dryly retorted, “Sleep.” He looked at me, and we started laughing like crazy.
The next circumstance happened once again right before Winter Break in that same school’s Honors Chemistry class. This time, one of my young lady Muslim students quietly came up to me at the end of class and handed me two candy canes, slightly bowed toward me and walked out of the classroom. I did not know what to think. Here, this young lady was giving me two candy canes, which have not only implications of Christmas, but also Christian overtones. After asking a couple of colleagues about their thoughts of the situation, they concluded that the young woman was showing both me and my religious belief the same respect that I had shown her all semester long. That action still brings tears to my eyes to this day.
Finally, back in 2004, when I was teaching at a different school, this time in an Integrated Chemistry and Physics class, a small group of young African American kids named me an Honorary African-American for the month of February that year. The girl who spoke for the group said it was because I didn’t really treat them any different from the other kids and that they trusted and respected me. All I could say was “Thank you”, as my eyes filled with tears.
So, since I was once named an Honorary African-American, I thought I would list my 25 Favorite Black Musicians of All-Time since it is Black History Month. Like I always told my students, once they had me as a teacher, they would always be honorary children in my family. Some of them I am still friends with them to this day, while the rest I wonder about all the time. Well, here’s my list, with my favorite album and song by each artist.
25. R. Kelly. Sure, the man had some problems in his past, but one things for certain: he’s THE R&B man of the 90s and beyond. 12 Play. “I Believe I Can Fly”.
24. 2pac. The man was, and still is, THE best emcee of all-time. Greatest Hits. “Changes”.
23. Mariah Carey. One of the greatest voices of all-time, Mariah has been a hit factory over the years. Daydream. “Fantasy”.
22. Lionel Richie/Commodores. I get it why Lionel felt he had to go solo, but how much more killer would have his solo stuff have sounded when played by the Commodores? Can’t Slow Down. “Easy”.
21. Janet Jackson. C’mon now! Put her into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame all ready! She has had nearly the same number of Top 40 hits as Michael and more than her other siblings, including the Jackson 5/Jacksons. Rhythm Nation 1814. “That’s the Way Love Goes”.
20. Smokey Robinson/Miracles. Smokey was named by Bob Dylan as the greatest poet of our generation. High praise from a Nobel Prize Laurette. A Quiet Storm. “Tears of a Clown”.
19. Chic. I won’t yell at the RRHOF about them again. We are talking about the funkiest, jazz-infused, rock-influenced disco band of all-time. Nile Rodgers Presents the Chic Organization: Up All Night. “Good Times”.
18. Whitney Houston. What a shame about Miss Houston. She had the purest voice ever, with just the right amount of sass to make her heads above the rest. Whitney Houston. “I Will Always Love You”.
17. The Isley Brothers. These guys have had hits in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s AND 2000s! Easily the most adaptable band to the current trends of the day, but for my money, it’s their early- to mid-70s output that defines them. 3+3. “That Lady”.
16. Earth, Wind & Fire. I just watched a video of a concert of theirs from 1980. There were musicians moving all around the stage, yet they sounded so tight. The brought the spiritual funk to us. Gratitude. “September”.
15. Sly & the Family Stone. This racially-integrated band from the Bay Area took the funk to the rock world seamlessly. Go watch the movie Woodstock to see how they ruled the weekend. Greatest Hits. “I Want to Take You Higher”.
14. The Temptations. THE Motown vocal band with the sharpest moves, the Temps transcended the times with their impeccable tunes. Anthology. “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”.
13. Little Richard. The original androgynous rocker scared the parents of teens who loved his music. I think it’s a crime that Pat Boone stole his songs and removed the soul from them in order to sell them to sanitized white kids.
12. Diana Ross/Supremes. Look up a list of the group’s hits, then Miss Ross’ list, and tell me they don’t belong here. The Motown Collection. “Stop! In the Name of Love”.
11. George Clinton/Parliament/Funkadelic/Bootsy’s Rubber Band/Parlet/Brides of Funkenstein/Horny Horns/etc. During the 70s, no one could touch Clinton’s musical empire. Parliament initially held down the funk, while Funkadelic did the rock. After a while, it became unclear which band was playing as they began to overlap in sound. Still, they took the funk to places that others have yet to discover. One Nation Under a Groove. “Atomic Dog”.
10. Bob Marley. Where would reggae be without Bob Marley? It wouldn’t be the music it is today. Legend. “One Love”.
9. Marvin Gaye. This was the man who changed how Motown dealt with their talent. Finally, the label began to allow their artists some autonomy. This change in philosophy paid off immediately with Gaye and Stevie Wonder. What’s Going On. “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”.
8. Ray Charles. Brother Ray brought together the worlds of blues, country and gospel into a new sound that we now call rock & roll. Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. “Hit the Road Jack”.
7. Aretha Franklin. The diva of all divas, Franklin brought powerhouse gospel vocal power to her R&B hits. 30 Greatest Hits. “Respect”.
6. James Brown. The Hardest Working Man in Show Business. The Godfather of Soul. Soul Brother #1. Regardless of your preference of a nickname for Mr. Brown, the man invented the whole funk language that influenced the work of Sly & the Family Stone; Earth, Wind & Fire; George Clinton’s musical empire and all of the Hip Hop nation. Star Time. “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud”.
5. Chuck Berry. During an 18-month period of time in the mid- to late-50s, Chuck Berry wrote all of his most influential songs that were the basis of the Beach Boys’ early surf hits and of the complete career of the Rolling Stones. Twenty-Eight Greats. “Johnny B. Goode”.
4. Jimi Hendrix. With and without the Experience, Hendrix completely changed the sound and use of the electric guitar. He died WAY too young. Everyone from George Clinton’s Parliafunkadelicment Thang through Living Colour and Fishbone to The Roots and Gary Clark Jr. are still trying to unravel his secrets. Electric Ladyland. “All Along the Watchtower”.
3. Stevie Wonder. Along with Marvin Gaye, Wonder successfully fought Motown for creative control over his music. And, if you though Stevie’s 60s music was a revelation, then how would you describe his 70s output when all things musical were under HIS control? That was rhetorical. Songs in the Key of Life. “Higher Ground”.
2. Michael Jackson. With his brothers, Michael was terrific. But, on his own, he was simply transcendent. He made the music world of the 80s colorblind in that everything that follow his Thriller album needed to be giving him thanks for their pop sound. Thriller. “Billie Jean”.
1. Prince. Really, I could have switched Michael and Prince and been happy. BUT, Prince was so creative throughout his life that it was difficult to fully digest his latest project before he was releasing a totally new one. But when one focuses on the years of 1982 through 1989, NO ONE was creating as much truly great music as His Royal Badness. The only thing, he followed up those years with another burst of creativity from 1992 to 1996 that many of us are just warming up to. Prince could play nearly any instrument with session player proficiency, write songs in all genres, record a choir of his own vocals in perfect harmony, dance as well as James Brown or Michael Jackson AND wail on a guitar like a blues or metal god. He was the total package in that skinny little body. Unfortunately, he and Michael both left us too soon. Sign ‘o’ the Times. “When Doves Cry”.
At this time, I would like to apologize to Otis Redding, Afrika Bambaataa, Lenny Kravitz, Living Colour, Fishbone, the Busboys, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, The Notorious B.I.G., Chaka Khan (with or without Rufus), Tina Turner (with or without Ike), OutKast, the Four Tops, Jimmy Cliff, Rick James, Peter Tosh, among the countless others who I have left off this imperfect list. But, this is what is perversely fun about making these lists – seeing who I left off. Here’s to all the black artists who have made my musical listening experiences that much more enjoyable over the years.