Friday, January 16, 2009

The Hearts of Soul

“If you ain’t got no money, ain’t nobody calls you honey,” Bo Diddley.

Granada Hills High School still stands at the north end of Zelzah Avenue, the same street where the first oil well in the San Fernando Valley was drilled in 1916. Granada Hills had been home to the Sunshine Ranch, where farmers tended well-manicured orange groves and grew apricots, walnuts and beans. In 1959, the same year my family moved to California, that Soviet shoe-thumping demon Nikita Khrushchev visited Granada Hills. He had wanted to go to Disneyland, but U.S. security forces were concerned for his welfare, so they chauffeured him instead to witness suburban splendor on Sophia Drive.

You'd hardly find a whiter place to live. Driving up and down our block on Gaviota Avenue, you'd see tidy lawns, each dotted with an orange tree spared when the orchards were paved for subdivisions. A Japanese-American family lived across the street. But other than the Kotas, every family resembled characters from 1950s situation comedy shows--in other words, bland beings of varying shades of white.

Over on Zelzah, we had two Blacks in our high school class. The boy ran track and the girl was a cheerleader. Among our massively huge graduating class of nearly 1,000, there were many Hispanics, reflecting the bussed-in students from neighboring Latino communities of San Fernando and Sylmar, but just our two Blacks. It would have been insane then--one year following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.-- to even think that America would ever elect a Black President.

Raised in a progressive Jewish family--my mother loved Sammy Davis, Eartha Kitt, and Jackie Robinson--I had great love for Black players on the Dodgers and Rams, and loved Elgin Baylor. But we were frightened of "Negros"--or as my father called them in unbridled Yiddish racism, "shvartzers". During the Watts Riots in the mid-60s, ash from the burning Los Angeles neighborhoods wafted over the hills and dropped like heavy snowflakes on our lawn. It snowed hatred for weeks. My parents locked the doors at night and worried that the burning would come to Granada Hills.

I had a sense of excitement for it, hoping something grim or powerful might explode into the vanilla calm of my staid adolescence. In my senior year, I took serious action: I joined Rinn and the Hearts of Soul.

Rinn wasn't very Black at all. In fact, she was Armenian. With her kinky Afro cut and wide nose, she may have passed for Black if you closed your eyes when she sang. Her two brothers played guitar and drums. But if they wanted to complete their soul band, they needed brass. So they recruited me to play tenor sax and heavily nordic Bruce Classpill to blow trumpet.

At first, we sounded like disparate parts of a rusted farm implement. But Rinn could belt out the standards. What we needed was rehearsing--and rehearsal space. Rinn said she'd look into it, and we were stoked when she picked us up at the high school band room and drove us to a house off of Chatsworth Street. It was a swell house for the neighborhood, on a large lot, with a cast-iron gate where we entered the yard. Rinn led us to a small studio that stood just beyond a wide, glistening swimming pool.

I was amazed to find myself inside a recording studio with sound-baffles in the walls and ceiling, an array of tape-to-tape equipment, microphones, mixing boards, and a genuine wonderland of guitars, saxophones, drum kits, and amplifiers. Rinn said we had the run of the place, but we had to take loving care of the instruments.

We'd work for hours on our set list: Knock on Wood, I Heard It Through the Grapevine, Tracks of My Tears, My Guy, Chain Gang, In the Midnight Hour. Rinn had worked out choreography, too, so when we were playing, Bruce and I would kick our legs in a Slauson rhythm or Mashed Potato, raise our horns, and end with a two-step shuffle. We were Black as ignorant whites could be.

There was a baritone sax in the studio and I found a way to work it into the repertoire, especially during Do You Love Me and Come See About Me. The bari took all the wind you had, and when you played the low notes, your entire body vibrated with the pitch. You were part of the instrument.

When we broke, we usually went out through the iron gate, but once we went through the house, having been invited inside for lemonade. The owner was a tall, strikingly handsome Black man with gigantic hands that wrapped all the way around when he shook mine. His name was Bo Diddley.

I had no idea he lived in the Valley. In fact, he kept the house for two more years before moving to Florida, where he passed away in June 2008.

Sadly, Rinn and the Hearts of Soul never performed a live gig. We played to friends at Bo Diddley's backyard studio, but eventually fell apart.

During that senior year, our student newspaper was invited to interview members of the Los Angeles chapter of the Black Panthers. But no campus organization would host them, and the principal forbade a visit on school grounds. I'm not sure I asked their permission before volunteering my home, but my parents were great sports about it, and one evening toward the end of the semester, four Panthers drove out from Watts and held forth in our living room before a group of students and teachers.

I can't remember the details, but one of the Panthers said something that terrified my parents. My father left the room and disappeared into the den. He later said I shouldn't "try a stunt" like that again. My mother said something about their suggestion that my parents give them our television and jewelry, but I wonder.

During my first semester at college in San Jose, I was asked by the Spartan Daily to cover a meeting of the Panthers on the east side of town. It was held in a small house, packed with Panthers and revolutionaries. The speaker was Angela Davis, and when she spotted me in the crowd--which must have been easy for her--she pointed to two bodyguards and they ushered me outside. They were polite and insistent.

I am certain today that if those misguided men had only known that I had blown bari for Rinn and the Hearts of Soul they would have let me stay.


Mon-sewer Paul Regret said...

Back in the early 70s, Bobby Seale came to the junior college I was attending to give a talk. He had a couple of bodyguards with him who stood on either side of Bobby. There was a Q&A session after the talk, and one person asked something that seemed innocuous enough, although to be fair I can't remember it any longer. Whatever it was, it struck the wrong chord with the bodyguards. The question had barely been asked when the two men moved quickly forward in front of Bobby and glared into the crowd. Suffice to say, I was really glad I hadn't asked that question, whatever it was.

Gabby said...

We lived in amazing times. Wish that young people had the same kind of audacity in tackling the b.s. in today's culture.

Char said...

amazing the changes we have seen in this generation and I have hope for what the next generation will see