Friday, June 20, 2008

The Troubled Genius of Jimi Hendrix, Bushwick Bill, DJ Screw, Mary J. Blige, Rick James, Ray Charles and more

African-American musicians have made significant contributions to the rich culture of our country and the world. June is Black Music Month, and is dedicated to the recognition of African-American artists who have enhanced our lives through creating some of the world's most treasured music.  

Our musical roots span a diverse means of expression that hark back to the drums and dances of Africa used in rituals and ceremonies.  

When the slave trade began in the 18th century, spirituals sung by the slaves were more than songs of praise and worship, as they often communicated secret messages about escape routes for runaway slaves and other hidden messages. 

 This music and its altered forms still resonate today from the same place that they began within the artist – a soul tortured by the pain and suffering of mental and physical anguish.  

 Despite successful chart ratings, many of our most celebrated musicians have struggled to maintain peace in their personal lives. Uninitiated admirers of the dazzling lyrics and choreography of Dorothy Dandridge, Tina Turner and Frankie Lymon have been made privy to their personal pains in big screen movies that reveal both the artistry of these performers, as well as their dark spirals of being misunderstood

 They were simultaneously lonely, rejected and revered by their country, and reviled by their ethnic brothers for committing that unwritten sin: “making it.” And sometimes they were just plain beaten down by the elusive Cupid, who would aim errant arrows at their bruised hearts. Today we are taking a look at a few of our most beloved artists and their troubled times.


Charlie “Yardbird” Parker (1920-1955)

 Charlie “Yardbird” Parker is considered the one of the greatest musical innovators of the 20th century, and a main contributor to the development of Bebop (modern jazz) in the 1940’s. His style of saxophone playing was unmatched and he worked with some of the greatest musicians in the world such as Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, Max Roach, and Miles Davis. 

 His career was significantly impacted by the lack of attention to his music by the main stream record labels. Parker’s battle with drugs and alcohol served to further harm him both physically and economically as he was both banned from the legendary 52nd Street club in New York named after him, Birdland, and also forced him to spend time in rehab for his drug use. In 1954, he attempted suicide after the death of his daughter and died in 1955 from complications of pneumonia at age thirty-four.

 Billie Holiday (1915-1959) 

Billie Holiday is considered one of the best jazz vocalists of all time. She was born Eleanora Fagan, but later changed her first name to Billie after film star Billie Dove.  Billie was discovered in Harlem, and is most well known for her songs that plaintively cry for the pains and suffering of her Black brothers and sisters as they tried to eke out a living. 

 Songs such as “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit” both recorded in 1939, dealt with disenfranchisement from the American Dream after Black blood had been spilled on the battlefields of WWI, and swinging from trees in the inhumane practice of lynching that was not censured but tacitly accepted. 

 Holiday’s successful music career was marred by several arrests for narcotics use and she battled alcohol abuse as well. She spent a year in drug rehab but was unable to shake the evil lure of her addiction. Before her drug and alcohol abuse related death on July 17, 1959 in a New York City hospital, she continued to tour and wrote a biography entitled Lady Sings the Blues (1956), which was later made into the film starring Diana Ross.

 Teenage Pop Star

 Frank J. “Frankie” Lymon (1942-1968)

 Frankie Lymon, portrayed in the movie Why Do Fools Fall In Love by Larenz Tate, was considered one of the first African-American teenage pop stars.  At the age of 13, Frankie formed the group Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers and served as the lead singer.  The group’s debut single “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” was a top 40 hit!  He is given credit for paving the way for and influencing the sound of The Jackson 5, Diana Ross, and Smokey Robinson. 

 Lymon lead a troubled life, however. He left the group after just one year for an unsuccessful solo career, and began abusing alcohol and drugs. At the young age of 26, Frankie Lymon died of a heroin overdose.


 Richard Shaw, a.k.a. Bushwick Bill (1966- ) 

Bushwick Bill, born Richard Shaw in Kingston, Jamaica, is no stranger to traumatic life events. This well-known rapper joined the Geto Boys in 1988 making a name for himself, not because of his dwarfism, but because of his unique voice.  As a member of the Geto Boys and as a solo artist, he wrote and performed on three gold and platinum albums.

 In May of 1991, Bushwick forced his then 17-year-old girlfriend to help him commit suicide by having her shoot him. The attempt was unsuccessful in that he didn’t lose his life, but lost his right eye. Bill is now a Christian rapper, and recently commented on R&B singer Houston Summers after his failed suicide attempt. 

 Houston attempted suicide by jumping from a 13th floor hotel room while overseas in London. After being restrained by security personnel and locked in his room, Houston gouged his eye out. It was reported later that Summers had been under psychiatric supervision for bipolar disorder, and has an addiction to the drug PCP.  Said Bushwick, “I wouldn’t wish that on anyone else, to force the hand of death.” 

Robert Earl Davis, Jr., a.k.a. DJ Screw (1971-2000)

 Rapper, DJ, and producer Robert Earl Davis, Jr. was born in Bastrop, Texas. As a child he spent time in Smithville, Texas and Los Angeles, California, and began collecting records at the age of five. Davis dropped out of high school to focus on a music career, and in 1989 began his career as a disc jockey. It is rumored that he would spend hours upon hours mastering his trade, working on tapes and developing a handful of artists as he prepared them to perform in local clubs.  

In 1993 DJ Screw became a household name among rap fans nationwide with his album All Screwed Up!  His unique style involved slowing the tempo of songs to half their normal speed or less and mixing it with other music. He would often “screw” music together creating head bobbing beats. DJ Screw opened the Screwed Up Record and Tapes Store in Houston, Texas and a record label. 

 With screw music’s hallucinogenic Hip-Hop style, however, came drug use. Many who listened to the music drank codeine containing cough syrup mixed with soda to “enhance” the effect of the music and their overall experience.  DJ Screw was known to “sip syrup,” and on November 16, 2000 he was found dead in the restroom of his Houston recording studio from a codeine overdose.  

 Rock & Roll

 Chuck Berry (1926-) 

A musician, singer and composer, Charles Edward Anderson Berry is considered one of rock’s most influential and enigmatic figures. Born in a middle class neighborhood in St. Louis, he is given credit for influencing The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. The high point of his career between the ‘50s and ‘60s included over 30 songs that are considered rock & roll classics. 

 In the words of the late John Lennon, “If you tried to give rock & roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.” With his guitar, he turned country into rock, and forged the way for other greater rock guitar players. Many call him the Father of Rock & Roll. 

 His life, however, was not without chaos.  At age 17, Berry and two friends went on a robbery spree, stole a car, and upon capture he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.  He served three years in a reformatory for young men, and while incarcerated he learned boxing, started a band and singing quartet, and boasted about being intimate with the superintendent’s wife.

 Berry later served two other prison terms - one for tax evasion, and had a run-in with the law in July of 1990 as he was accused of drug trafficking and possession. His estate was raided by the DEA and resulted in the confiscation of marijuana and pornographic videotapes. Charges were later dropped. 

 Berry, now 76, still plays once a month in his hometown of St. Louis at his music club Blueberry Hill in the Duck Room, which is named after his famous “duck walk” that he often performed on stage.

 Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970)

 Growing up playing guitar in his hometown of Seattle, Washington, it seemed as if Jimi Hendrix was destined for fame. He imitated blues greats like Muddy Waters and early rock & roller Chuck Berry. In 1959 he joined the army and became a paratrooper. He received an honorable discharge in 1961 after an injury and came home to start a life-long career in music. Hendrix played backup to musicians such as Little Richard, B.B. King, Ike and Tina Turner and Sam Cooke. 

 In 1964, Hendrix moved to New York to further his career, and was “discovered” by British bass player Bryan Chandler of the Animals. In 1966, Chandler arranged to manage Hendrix, and flew him to London where the Jimi Hendrix Experience was created. The band’s first single, “Hey Joe” hit number six on the British pop charts, and the group became an over night sensation. 

 The Jimi Hendrix Experience made its first U.S appearance in 1967 at the Monterey Pop Festival. Jimi amazed the crowd that evening with his bizarre guitar distortion, feedback, and volume. In that same concert, Hendrix played the guitar with his teeth and set his guitar on fire, leaving the crowd star struck. The group later disbanded, and his performances at Woodstock in 1969 along with his blazing rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” are two of his most memorable moments.  

Sadly, Hendrix’ career was plagued with drugs and alcohol. He used LSD, cocaine, and was rumored to use heroin. In September of 1970, Jimi Hendrix died following barbiturate intoxication and inhalation of his own vomit.   

 Rhythm and Blues 

Mary J Blige (1971-)

 From high school dropout to Hip-Hop and R&B diva, Mary J Blige is the ultimate example of success.  Born in the Bronx in 1971, she eventually ended up in Yonkers, New York living with her mother and sister. Blige grew up in what she describes as a drug-infested, crime and poverty-stricken area, where she was molested at the age of five. 

 Before dropping out of high school, Mary J recorded a karaoke version of Anita Baker’s “Caught Up in the Rapture” which made it into the hands of Andre Harrell at Uptown Records. Four years later, Mary J was dubbed the “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul” and released her debut album What’s the 411?, produced by Sean Combs. The album went triple platinum. 

 In 1999 Mary J went on a tour sponsored by the beverage company Seagram’s. She recalls always having a cup in her hand, drinking large amounts of gin and grapefruit juice. The drinking led to smoking weed and cigarettes, and eventually to cocaine use that could easily have ended her career; all this to mask the pain of abusive relationships and growing up hard without a father figure. 

 Thankfully, Blige’s strong spiritual background, the death of Aaliyah and an ultimatum from then boyfriend and now husband Kendu Isaacs, saved her. Among her list of accolades are winning three Grammy’s in 2005, several successful albums and a recent tour with Hip-Hop mogul Jay-Z.    

 Rick James (1948-2004) 

James Ambrose Johnson, Jr., also known as Rick James, was born in Buffalo, New York. James was the third of eight children and was raised in a strict Catholic household by a single mother. His uncle, Melvin Franklin, was a vocalist with The Temptations, and may have had some influence on his pursuit of music as a career.  At age 15 he joined the Naval Reserve, but when it interfered with his music career, James went AWOL and fled to Canada to continue playing music. 

 When he returned to the States, he eventually served time. After a short run with his band called The Mynah Birds in Buffalo, he traveled to Los Angeles playing bass for several short-lived bands. In 1977, he started a solo career and debuted his album Come and Get It which included the hit songs “You and I” and “Mary Jane.” 

 James became known as the King of Punk Funk, and released two albums in 1979, and the Grammy-nominated 1981 project Street Songs, which included the hit Teena Marie duet “Fire and Desire.” Street Songs went triple platinum and brought James instant fame. Throughout his career, the singer battled with drugs and alcohol abuse.  In the early 1990’s his cocaine use was out of control, and he spent two years in prison after being convicted of assaulting two women.  

After his release from jail and an attempt at a comeback, Rick James suffered a stroke, which ended his musical career. Thanks to comedian Dave Chappelle, James had a few more moments in the limelight, but his health was poor and he died in his sleep on August 6, 2004.

 The family initially attributed the 56-year-old artist’s death by heart attack to “natural causes,” but the Los Angeles County coroner concluded that a combination of nine drugs likely contributed to James' death. The substances discovered in the post mortem autopsy included cocaine, methamphetamine, the painkiller Vicodin, the anti-anxiety drug Xanax and the anti-depressant Wellbutrin.

 Marvin Gaye (1939-1984) 

Born Marvin Gay, Jr. (the “e” was added later) in Washington, DC, the young and talented singer was exposed to music and mayhem early in his life. His father, Marvin Gay, Sr. was a traveling minister and cross-dresser who often had fits of rage. Somehow young Marvin continued to sing and learned to play drums in his father’s church. 

 Gaye joined the Air Force after high school, only to be discharged after disobeying orders. He returned to DC to continue his singing career with the Marquees and Bo Didley, and later with the Moonglows. It was his introduction to Berry Gordy that catapulted his career. He initially played drums for Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, but his vocal talents did not go unnoticed, and he eventually signed his own record deal with Motown.  

After several R&B hits with Motown, Gaye partnered with the talented vocalist Tami Terrell. The duo was amazing, and recorded hits such as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “You’re All I Need to Get By.”  Despite their happy times, Terrell’s health began to decline and it was discovered that she had a brain tumor. After her death in 1970, Gaye became severely depressed and resorted to drugs and alcohol to mask his pain. Despite heavy drug use, he was still able to record one of his most popular albums, What’s Going On, in 1971.  

Issues with Motown forced Gaye to leave the label and sign with Columbia Records.  In 1982 he recorded and released the multi-platinum song “Sexual Healing.”  Gaye’s financial and health problems, combined with a protracted battle against drug addiction and alcohol, resulted in him living with his parents. On April 1, 1984 Gaye was shot and killed by his father during an argument. It was later discovered that his father had a brain tumor.

 Blues/Country Western

 Ray Charles Robinson, a.k.a. Ray Charles (1930-2004)

 Ray Charles is undoubtedly one of the most talented and versatile musicians ever to walk the face of this earth! Born during the Great Depression and raised on blues, country, gospel, jazz and big band music, Ray Charles showed an interest in music at the early age of three. After completely losing his vision by age seven, he was admitted to a state-supported school for the deaf and blind in Florida. There, he learned to read and write music in Braille. 

 After his mother’s death when he was only 15, Charles left the school and traveled with the chitlin’ circuit, playing with dance bands. He began using heroin at age 15 - around the same time he met the young and talented Quincy Jones, who Charles taught to write and arrange music. Ray Charles went from playing in a small trio called the McSon Trio to signing a record deal with Atlantic Records. 

 In 1954 Charles recorded “I Got A Woman,” which reached number one on the R&B chart in 1955. Ray’s successful career had no bearing on his difficulties with substance abuse, depression and marital problems. Charles has a list of awards and honors longer than my arm, however, his greatest contributions to music come from his innovative style and meshing of gospel and secular music. The movie Ray starring Jamie Foxx is a must-see, as it depicts the extraordinary life of Ray Charles Robinson.


George Clinton (1940-)

 Very few people know that funk music legend George Clinton started his career in the 1950’s performing doo-wop music. The former North Carolina-born barber was inspired after hearing pop star Frankie Lymon, and started a doo-wop quintet called the Parliaments in 1955 while living in New Jersey and straightening hair (not cutting hair – “It was more lucrative,” says Clinton).  Clinton left Jersey for Detroit after an unsuccessful career with the Parliaments. He continued to hustle, making records, publishing, and producing. He also began experimenting with LSD. 

 The Parliaments became Parliament, with influences from Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone helping to mold the band into its funky and unorthodox form known today. Clinton would actually perform naked on stage, often under the influence of drugs. Clinton, the front man for both Parliament and later Funkadelic began using crack cocaine in the 1980’s. He was still able to maintain a somewhat successful career – his most well known hit being “Atomic Dog.”  

Considering multiple legal battles and deals gone bad, George Clinton is still in demand, and is often seen or called upon to perform at special events -  including a party by former president Bill Clinton.  

Despite celebrity and fame, many great Black musicians have struggled with illegal drugs, alcohol and mental health issues.  Racism, human frailties, and untreated or unrecognized mental disorders are often culprits in these tendencies. Racism effectively limited opportunities for financial advancement and social acceptance, thus impacting these artists’ abilities to make a living. 

 Conceivably, depression and anger related to those difficulties directed some of these sensitive, creative musicians to the addictive qualities of drugs and alcohol as an escape. The temporary euphoria possibly enabled them to continue their artistic pursuits, dulled the pain of racism, masked mood disorders like anxiety and depression, and briefly suspended the harsh realities of being Black in the music world.

 Check me out in the June issue of Ebony discussing my take on the state of Hip-Hop!  Special thanks to my big brother Eric Whitfield, jazz saxophonist for his help with this piece.  He is a walking textbook when it comes to music.  

 (c) 2008 Rani Whitfield. Published June 17, 2008 at

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