by Matt Rogers
Over the years, I’ve met many older, bitter singers and musicians who have had their work sampled throughout the world, and though they may be grateful that their art has been re-utilized and (just maybe) recognized by later generations, they would have always been happier to have cashed a check here and there. Melvin Bliss was not one of the bitter ones. Though for someone whose song—“Synthetic Substitution”—literally created the backbone for a mind-blowing bevy of hip-hop classics and hits throughout the ’80s and ’90s, he had every right to be. Sure, it was the intro breakbeat of the song that everyone bit and flipped, but one can’t forget that it was a Melvin Bliss record: a B-side to a 45 that at the time, in 1973, was a near afterthought at best. Hell, Melvin wasn’t even at the studio when the band, including the drummer (Bernard Purdie he thinks, but didn’t know for sure), laid down the funky beat. “Reward” was the A-side and was what he hoped it would bring.
It’s perhaps absurd to say you can know someone after only meeting with them for a few hours, even if it’s in their own house. But after hanging out, shooting pics (and the shit) with Melvin Bliss in his modest Jamaica, Queens, home, I truly felt I had a strong sense of the man. At seventy-five, he looked to be in excellent shape, a tall, gracious blue-eyed presence. He was truly excited about his upcoming feature in the magazine, even though he’d never seen a copy of Wax Poetics. In fact, the article would probably be the closest in a long time he’d ever get to seeing a vinyl copy of “Synthetic Substitution,” being that he didn’t own one himself. He was still gigging at local country clubs, churches, and other small joints, and was hopeful that the article and pics would land him something steadier, maybe even take him overseas. Judging from the once-sporty car parked in back with the four flats, he could use the check. For the reality was he lived off of his monthly V.A. stipend, in addition to whatever he made selling essential oils and toys as a street vendor—the well-paying gigs of weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other private celebrations having dried up years ago, when most folk stopped hiring bands for anything fun.
I left with an autographed CD-R of him singing standards not of soul or funk, but the music that he loved—big band jazz—the cuts so distant from what most people knew him for, the disconnect was truly discombobulating. Except for that voice, which, whether singing “Fly Me to the Moon,” “Reward,” or “Synthetic Substitution,” was undoubtedly a one-of-a-kind instrument. I was looking forward to coming back and doing a podcast with Melvin, with him listening to and talking about some of the long list of sonic iconics “Synthetic Substitution” had fed over the years, for he’d said that he hadn’t heard most of them and wouldn’t know where to find them even if he’d wanted. Sadly, his heart unwound before we could do it. To say its beat lives on, however, is an understatement.