This weekend at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, I caught a documentary about Death, a 1970s all-black proto-punk band out of Detroit. The documentary, titled “A Band Called Death” chronicled the group’s forming, brush with success, and descent into obscurity. The master tapes of their sole album, recorded under Don Davis’ Groovesville productions languished in an attic for over thirty years. That is until a perfect storm of record collectors resurrected the work, resulting in a New York Times article, a reissue, and a tour.
It was interesting that one refrain in particular was repeated throughout the documentary:
black people in Detroit just weren’t doing rock.
Sure, it wasn’t the norm; but I think that the idea that black people weren’t doing rock is an over-generalization. I would argue that early Funkadelic (especially the album “Maggot Brain“) is as much Rock as it is Funk. The wailing guitars melded seamlessly with gospel-tinged organs and sizzling drums into something quite some distance from Motown. Oh yes, and Eddie Hazel is a totally under-appreciated face-melting guitarist.
Besides, it’s worth noting that most classic “rock” idioms come from some sort of “black” music (from the earliest Rock and Roll to the Blues).
The other refrain heard in the documentary “A Band Called Death” was that the name “Death” was a huge stumbling block in the way of their success.
Interestingly, an all-black rock group called Black Merda came out of Detroit and recorded an album here in Chicago for Chess Records in 1970. They worked with another Detroit-based rock artist called Fugi (who also released some singles on Chess). It was by no accident that these folks found their way to Chess.
By 1969, Chess had released some unbelievable psychedelic Blues records featuring the label’s biggest stars, Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf. The backing bands were, for the most part, black (featuring Chicago session artists Morris Jennings, Pete Cosey, and more).
Below is a picture of Anthony Hawkins of Black Merda (with “Mary”) circa 1969. They are proudly holding copies of the two psychedelic blues records by Muddy Waters: After the Rain (1969) and Electric Mud (1968). More on those albums can be found here.
Black Merda’s album was released; but didn’t sell many copies. But, I’d credit their obscurity to the subsequent sale and implosion of Chess Records, rather than their death-related name.