Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You?
The Bomb. That’s the first thing I remember. It was the end of World War II, and I was four years old, living in Washington, D.C., where all the talk was about the atomic bombs the United States had just dropped on Japan: Little Boy on Hiroshima and Fat Man on Nagasaki. People hoped that they would bring an end to the war, because the country was getting worn-out, and not just the soldiers overseas. They were having blackout drills where you had to turn your lights off at seven o’clock at night, and the planes flying overhead couldn’t even see the city. Other days there were military aircraft in the sky, rows and rows of them, and an overall sense of power, or threat, depending on your point of view. Nowadays people say they come from military families but back then every family was military: I had uncles who had been in the war and an aunt who was in the WACs. When the first bomb fell on Japan, people were happy, but they were also holding their breath: no one knew what was going to happen next. The only other thing I remember was potato chips. The Wise potato-chip factory was near us, and we could smell them in the air. Atom bombs, potato chips—you can’t eat just one.
I hadn’t been born in D.C. I was a proud product of the state of North Carolina, coming into the world in Kannapolis on July
22, 1941. I wasn’t born in a hospital, and there are rumors that I wasn’t even born in a house, that I emerged into the world in an outhouse. I can’t confirm or deny that. I was brought to the city not long after. My parents, George and Julious, didn’t live together for the most part, but for a little while they lived near each other. Both of them were government employees: my father worked at the U.S. Mint, disposing of money that had been taken out of circulation, and my mother cleaned up at the Pentagon. When the war ended, we moved again, this time to Chase City, Virginia, a small town about seventy-five miles from Richmond. I remember picking asparagus and running in fields. There were two white kids named Richard and Robert who used to take me and my brother Bobby Ray—a year younger than me—fishing and teach us about farming. They also told us how we should stay inside some nights because the Klan would come riding through on horses, wearing sheets. The way they described them to us, I imagined headless horsemen, holding their own heads like flaming pumpkins. I never actually saw them coming through town, but it’s a vivid enough memory anyway. Other than that, racism was only an abstract concept to the younger kids in town. There was one movie in town and we all went to the movie, black folk upstairs and white people downstairs.
I was a pretty quiet kid. I watched the world because the world seemed so big. About thirty years later, in 1978, I went back to that house in Chase City, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. There was a well outside that couldn’t have been more than two feet deep that I had thought was six feet deep at least. There was a little creek that I thought was a river. I thought the backyard was a mile long and two miles wide. I would run around and not come back until dark. At that age, I didn’t have a clear sense
of being a musician or a songwriter or an entertainer or anything. I wanted to be whatever I was seeing in the movies: a cowboy, probably.
Around 1950, I said good-bye to Virginia, too. It was spring, I think. My father didn’t show one day, and not very much was said about it. Some time later, a few weeks maybe, he reappeared, but something was different. He was driving a big black new Kaiser automobile, for starters, and the second he stepped out of the car he told us that we were leaving Virginia for New Jersey. I was excited to leave. It sounded like a fresh start, and not just because of the word New. We were going north. We were going in style, from the first moment we got on the highway all the way into New Jersey. From then on, to this day, I traveled the same routes and got familiar with all of the places, all of the road signs, the cigarette advertisements and so on. When we got into Philadelphia there were advertisements for Buttercup bread, Gillette razors. There were lots of Howard Johnsons lining the highway, and gas-station signs I had not seen before. That sparked my infatuation with being on the road and seeing the rest of the world. How could you not love it?
When my family pulled into New Jersey that first day, it was like a different world from Virginia. In Chase City, there had been only one movie house. In Jersey, there was one every four or five blocks, playing King Solomon’s Mines or Harvey. There were more cars and kids and street peddlers and less sky and air. My mother moved north soon after my father did, and she ended up in East Orange, about ten minutes from where we lived in Newark. Now and then we’d head into New York City, and that was another thing altogether. There were buildings that blotted out the sky. There were more people than I ever knew existed.
Work brought my father to New Jersey, and work kept him there. He unloaded ships at the docks, and when he came home at night he had a wagon piled high with potatoes and apples and cabbage that he would sell. That strong work ethic of his was passed down to us, both by example and by constant lecture. All of us who made the move there—me, Bobby Ray, Tommy, and Shirley (we had three others, Brenda, Robbie, Marie, who moved there later, and Jimmy and Patsy were born in Jersey)—were working from pretty early on: not only did we do our chores at home, but he made sure that we got jobs at local stores, too, sweeping up at the end of the day. We did good clean work, not always fun, but that’s what my father wanted. He was the boss, and all of us did what he said: get up in the morning, eat, wash up, clean up, keep things neat, don’t get into trouble. He didn’t play at all.
If I got my sense of hard work from my father, I got my love of music from my mother. My father was a churchgoing man and he liked singing gospel, but he worked all the time so it never really had a chance to take hold. He was part of little groups out of church, though, who organized living-room events where a few friends would get together and sing the hits of the day. He was a Sunday singer. My mother, on the other hand, had the music bug and had it bad. She played records around the house all the time and sang along with them. She liked blues, but not only the pure blues—she liked jump blues and rhythm and blues, too, everything from B.B. King and Muddy Waters to Louis Jordan and Wynonie Harris. It was the same kind of music that I would hear later on, in the sixties, coming back to me through British bands like Cream.
New Jersey in the fifties was a breeding ground for the next
generation of American music—or, more specifically, African-American music, though it wasn’t called that then. In East Orange, my mother lived right next door to Reverend Mancel Warwick’s grocery store. He had been a Pullman porter and then a cook, and he had ended up as a promoter for gospel records. He was also Dionne Warwick’s father. When we went to visit my mother, the Warwick kids were always out playing in the neighborhood, and I got to know them all: not just Dionne, but Cissy, Dee Dee, the whole family. I used to steal candy out of the reverend’s store, and my friends and I played at the ballpark up the street, right there in East Orange. I wasn’t any good at baseball. I couldn’t even be on my own team. They called me Porky and Feet—I had huge feet, adult-size by the time I was twelve years old.
There was another branch of my family over in Passaic: my aunt and my cousin Ruth, who took me to the apartments in town where the Shirelles were working on “Mama Said.” I was swept up right then and there. Ruth also took me to the Apollo, where I saw the Drifters, the Chantels, and dozens of other groups. I listened to them obsessively and loved them unconditionally. I loved the Flamingos, who had a huge hit with “I Only Have Eyes for You.” I loved the Spaniels and especially their lead singer, Pookie Hudson, who became the model for almost every young singer within earshot. I loved the Bobbettes, who were from Spanish Harlem and had a hit with “Mr. Lee” in 1957, and the Blue Belles, who were from the Trenton-Philadelphia area and featured a girl named Patsy Holt. They had a hit with “Over the Rainbow,” and she had a real powerful voice even then. Cindy Birdsong, who would later replace Florence Ballard in the Supremes, was also in that group. Years later, when Patsy was renamed Patti LaBelle and I was a hairdresser, I would end up doing her hair.
Even without the music, I loved living in Newark, in part because I was royalty. All you had to do was look at the signs. One of the main drags in Newark was called Clinton Avenue, and there was a whole area called Clinton Hills. They were all named after the early American politician George Clinton, who had been the governor of New York and the vice president under Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Some days the world seemed to revolve around me, a George Clinton who could go walking down a street named for him in an area named for him. In the middle of this neighborhood where I was royalty, in 1956, they built a new junior high school, and if you can believe it, they called it Clinton Place. And if you can believe that, in that first graduating class, there were no kids whose last names ended in A or B, so I was the first graduate: George Clinton of Clinton Place. You can believe it all because it’s all true.
As I got a little older, I moved out of the jobs my father got for me and into jobs of my own. I remember delivering milk, working on the Alderney Dairy trucks. I rode a route on Avon Avenue, and the driver of the truck would tell me about all the people who lived there. One of them, he said, was Sarah Vaughan. I knew of her from my parents, who had lots of her records, and a little later she had a big hit with “Broken-Hearted Melody.” I never saw her, just dropped bottles at her door. Years later we met backstage somewhere and I told her about it. “I brought you milk,” I said. She kind of squinted and frowned until she realized what I meant.
Maybe my most important early employment was on the street named for me, Clinton Avenue. There was a record store there called Essex Records, and I had an after-school job there sweeping up. They didn’t do returns too much back then—when
records didn’t sell, they didn’t go back to the label, but into the trash bin behind the store—and so lots of records ended up there. Some of them I kept for myself, and some of them, especially the white doo-wop groups and the white rockers, I took to school to sell to the kids. I was the record king of Madison Junior High School for a little while. When American Bandstand started, there was suddenly a way of seeing the differences between the artists—some of them, much to my surprise, were white. But in the mid-fifties, no one knew and no one really cared. You moved to what moved you and you got your hands on anything that made you feel larger. Little Richard would have been one of the records I sold to the white kids. I got fifteen cents a record. Jerry Lee Lewis was another one of the artists that moved, especially “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” Jerry Lee was my favorite too. He had a band that was tight as a motherfucker. Elvis was made to be funky and he had a crew surrounding him, but Jerry Lee was funky for real, stupid funky. When he got going he tore shit up. I also loved bands like the Isley Brothers: they were doing it like motherfuckers since “Shout” in 1959, moving and singing like three Jackie Wilsons all rolled into one.