Singer-songwriter Eugene McDaniels reinvented himself as a folk-soul outlaw
"If you listen to Outlaw, you listen to Headless Heroes, everybody missed the point, well, not everybody, but a lot of people missed the point. It’s humor; I was just having fun, it was fun."
by Andre Torres
Wax Poetics: You’ve said you dropped out of the music industry because of flesh peddlers?
Eugene McDaniels: Well, anyone who’s been in this industry for any length of time understands that it’s basic indentured servitude—this industry. It’s like any other corporate industry. It is basically set up to exploit and to garner profits. And it’s not about love of music. I would suspect that the majority of these people don’t love music. I don’t mean musicians, I mean the people who run our industry, which is usually lawyers and accountants, or entrepreneurs who know how to wend their way into the industry and function. For instance, when I was at Liberty Records, they weren’t interested in any of my own material for me. Which is okay, I mean, I can buy that. But I learned through time and paying attention, that really was about that fact that they were owning the publishing. So, it’s all about money. That’s what our industry has fomented through the years; that’s what has happened.
I mean, there was a time when—Tijuana Brass, they were people who were into the music and the artists. It was wonderful. That was a golden era, though brief. I mean, it’s horrible. Our industry has been absolutely destroyed by these greedy people. I mean, look at it; it’s falling apart. Everybody knows, and everybody knows why, but nobody’s talking. We’re all supposed to sit by and suck our thumbs, while these guys make a fortune, tear up our business, and leave. I mean, it sounds like other things that are happening in the world. It’s not so different than the other things that are going on. It’s the same old crap, over and over and over again. And the American people have sat still and let this stuff happen to them—us, all of us—and have not made a move to do anything about it. It blows my mind.
Was it after spending a couple of years at Liberty that your frustrations reached fever pitch?
Well no, actually, because I was speaking up, and speaking out, they wanted me out of there. Too much information, they did not want to deal with that. And I understand, I have no complaints. They were just doing what the rest of the industry was doing; it’s no big deal. Just making money, and exploiting and enslaving to some extent, artists, be they White, Black, or indifferent, it doesn’t make any difference; the color of money is green.
After you dropped out of recording in the ’60s, you played jazz clubs, doing standards and writing your own songs?
Yes, to some extent, yes. But I was encouraged not to, because they wanted me to sing whatever was happening in the top ten, because that was easier for their audiences not to have to work at. They could just check it out, and say, “Oh yeah, that’s a tune I heard on the radio, sounds good.” Something that people are familiar with so they can sell those drinks.
And this was primarily in New York?
New York, all over the country. That was not an important time for me, I mean, maybe it was really important in that it helped me grow, and grow up. I’m not bitter, I’m not angry, I’m not anything but happy. And I’m happy not because of the business, but because I’ve learned from the business. That’s why I’m happy. I’ve met some great people in this industry—some great musicians, some great writers, some great performers, great singers. Great minds. A gentleman by the name of Michael Melvoin, he was president of NARAS for a while. He was my personal pianist for a while, we traveled around the world, and made a lot of friends, made a little money, and had a lot of fun. And he’s a Rhodes scholar. I mean, the guy’s brilliant. He’s a brilliant mind. Our industry is full of amazing people, and I just happen to know Michael. One of his daughters played guitar for Prince for a long time.
And you played with Miles Davis and Coltrane and Cannonball?
That started back in ’59, ’60. I went to Hollywood from Nebraska, working my way across the country with a group called the Pineywoods Mississippi Singers. I got to California, I sat in, and people liked what I did. I got a job in Hollywood at a place called the Cellar, with Red Mitchell, the bass player, and Mel Lewis, the drummer, and Lorraine Geller, the piano player, and her husband, Herb Geller, very famous alto player; he was wonderful. And his wife, Lorraine, was one of the best jazz players in the country, but she was a woman, so she didn’t get the full recognition that she should have gotten. But I walked in, and I asked them if I could sit in, and they said, “Yes.” And after I finished they said, “Do you want a job?” And I said, “Yes,” and that was the beginning.
They were all jazzers, so I had this dual thing going on. I loved jazz, I’m singing jazz, but commercial record companies were coming and talking to me. I got picked up by a gentleman by the name of [Simon] Waronker, and he owned Liberty Records. Well, he signed me; we did this album called In Times Like These, ballads and beautiful things. Johnny Mann Singers and those people were involved. The next year he got sick, he had an aneurysm or something like that. I can’t remember exactly, I was a little young, and a little uninformed about things like that, but nonetheless, I knew he was a beautiful man. I knew that; he was a fabulous person.
But my career changed because the bean counter at the company, his name was Al Bennett, took over as president of the company, and hired a guy out of the mailroom. [I chuckle] No, hear me, a guy out of the mailroom produced me. So, it turns out the guy’s name is Snuff Garrett, famous guy now, very famous guy. And now that I’m a grown up, I can give him his kudos, because he really knew what he was doing, about what he was doing. I mean, he didn’t know what I was doing, but he knew what he was doing, and I give him that. I give him credit for that. He had suggested that I had thrown “A Hundred Pounds of Clay” away, and they put it out, and in three weeks it was number one. So he misunderstood me, and I misunderstood him. I owe him a debt of gratitude and thanks, because he’s just a human being who was born in the South, and raised in Lubbock, Texas; and his racist attitudes, and fears, and superior beliefs were just an outgrowth of his environment. I would venture to say that he’s not that kind of person now, because he’s learned. Look, knowledge, hopefully, matures us. Living, hopefully, brings knowledge. I hold no grudges or bad feelings against him, I have just reams of thanks for the hits that he got me, and that’s how I feel about it.
You’ve spoken in the past about having been rejected for not being “soulful” enough.
The thing is that you like what you like. Some people do everything they do for acceptance, and then other people just live by their beliefs and what makes them feel good. That latter belongs to me. I was just doing what I like to do. Look, you go to France and they force you to learn French. You can’t live in France and not know French. They don’t categorize you by race, they categorize you by nationality. If you speak French, and you live there, and you’ve got a French passport, you are a Frenchman. People can say whatever they want about the French, but I say they are a great people. A little odd compared to us, but we’re really odd compared to other people in the world. Having said that, I am a dyed-in-the-wool patriot. Because I believe in the Constitution, I believe that all people are created equal, in the sense that they have an opportunity to develop their possibilities. That’s been the hallmark of this country. Look, poor Black guy, born to a minister, who is a wonderful man with a deep heart, an abiding faith in God. My high school teachers told me to get a trade, and I said, “Well, I think I’m going to stick with the music.” And I’ve made millions of dollars with this music. Not for me necessarily, but somebody. It just goes to show that people who talk against show business, they’re talking about something they don’t know anything about. If they knew, that would be another thing.
A guy grabs a rock, he looks at the rock, he plays with it, he moves it around, and he says, “I got it, Pet Rock!” and got rich. This is the greatest country in the world. You can take a fucking rock, and get rich. This is the greatest country in the world, bar none. But we gotta learn how to vote properly; we’re voting for the wrong people, man. Just because somebody’s got a little money and shit, that’s no reason for us to be voting for them. We need somebody who’s a patriot, who cares about the country. I venture to say that ain’t what’s happening right now. The way it reads to me, these guys care about corporate coffers so they can make money. That’s all I hear, that’s all I’m seeing; I’m not seeing anything other than that.
It’s still common for record companies to exploit the “street” in artists.
Absolutely! Here we have it; we have Black people calling their own women “bitches,” when their mothers, and their sisters, and the women they love are women. I could never do a song where I’m calling a group of women “bitches.” I could never do it, because my mom is a woman, my sister is a woman, my daughter is a woman. My honey, the woman that I live with and swear by, she’s a woman. It’s like devaluing myself. If the woman that bore me, and gave me life, put her life on the line so that I’d be born, if I can call her a “bitch,” I’m really fucked up.
I can’t tell other people how to make money, how to think, what they believe in. I can’t believe for a second that any of these people who are calling Black women “hoes” and “bitches” believes it for a second. I don’t think they believe it for a second; they’re just making money. As far as I’m concerned, it has to be that way. I mean, somebody has to love somebody. Everybody can’t be completely detached from the fact that they were born, and they were nurtured, and somebody fed them, and helped them to get to school, and buy clothes and stuff. Everybody that’s a rapper is not a street urchin, who raised themselves in the street. I don’t believe it for a second, I do not believe that. I believe that it is just a ploy to make money. And fine. If they’re doing it just to make money, and they’re going home and apologizing to their mothers, and their sisters, and their girlfriends, and their daughters, then I can see that that’s okay. They’re beating the system, and I can get with that.
Could you talk a bit about your friend Les McCann?
Les McCann gave me my start as a writer. We worked together for two years in Hollywood at the Cellar. There were people around the block trying to get in there. We had such luminaries as Marlon Brando, Ozzie and Harriet, and their families, Ricky Nelson. It was unbelievable, stars and chauffeured cars. And we were making fifty dollars a week, apiece. It was just further exploitation. We went to the guy, asked the guy for a fifteen-dollar-a-week raise for the two of us, and he fired us. And went out of business. Talk about stupidity, my God, how dumb can you be. Sixty-five bucks a week? How about sixty-five bucks a night just to get started.
How was Outlaw received when it was released in 1971?
First of all, Rolling Stone ran a cover story—“Outlaw or Thief?”—suggesting that I didn’t write my own songs.
What were the grounds?
The grounds were racism—that was the grounds. It’s real simple. They’re not going to give somebody who’s hitting the nail on the head that’s Black; back in those days, they weren’t about to give credit. If it’s somebody like Robert Zimmerman, then they’ll give him the credit. And I love Miles Davis. So you can hear me going back and forth, and sometimes mixing the two, because these guys are very, very special to me. But that doesn’t eliminate the fact that I couldn’t be accepted just for what I did; they had to look for a flaw so that they wouldn’t have to hang with me, and let it be okay. I wasn’t doing the “bitches” and “hoes” thing. I understand the language; I know how to use the language.
I went to a party in New York City, and I’m cruising the party, and a guy walks up to me and he says, “Ahh, excuse me? You don’t know that you’re Black, do you?” Just like that. I said, “Are you out of your mind? What the hell is wrong with you people?” Boy, there are some sick puppies out there in this world. What am I supposed to do, fill some stereotype for somebody’s need?
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