There is a fine line sometimes between romance and memory. I am guilty of putting on the rose-colored Bootsy shades, but I try to keep it to a minimum. Sometimes, though, it is awfully tough: The summer after seventh grade, for example.
I find it hard not to remember those three months in amazing Technicolor. No job other than lawns, nothing to do but hang out with the neighborhood kids, listen to records, and ride my little motorcycle. My only goal for the summer? Don’t put on a shirt.
I spent hours tooling around on my little silver Honda wearing nothing but a pair of cut offs, navigating the narrow trails cut through the woods, jumping ditches and impersonating Bob “Hurricane” Hannah. Inevitably I would end up at the lake with the other guys, swimming while the bluegill nipped at our feet. And inevitably my friends would take off in a group race across the lake. I would go, too, though I was a weak swimmer and always got dropped. At the midpoint I would try not to panic. I could see myself floating blue and lifeless like Johnny O’Donnell.
Hal and I went to see Molly Hatchet that summer with Mother’s Finest as the opener. Mother’s Finest is another band that never got the recognition that they deserved. A brilliant live band that translated well to the studio, they rocked hard but committed the unforgivable crime of funkiness. Another Mother Further, their best known and finest album, ably demonstrates their range from hard rocking (“Piece of the Rock”) to bass thumping funk. “Baby Love” oozed more genuine sexuality than any of the disco divas of the era could muster, and when Baby Jean pointed at Hal and me half hanging over the balcony in funked out bliss we went out of our lusty little minds.
I can only guess why Mother’s Finest is one of the greatest bands to never conquer the world, but I think mine is a relatively good guess. They had big hooks, massive talent, and an outstanding live show. There’s no legitimate reason that they shouldn’t have been (and still be) huge. But damned if they didn’t choose to be black.
I don’t want to rant, but we like things to fit in comfortable niches. Teachers are smart, preachers are honest, and rockers are white.
Quick quiz: What brilliant rock guitarist has sold over 100 million records and had over thirty songs reach the U.S. top forty? If you said Prince, then go to the head of the class. Obviously his genius is much revered, but rarely is he mentioned alongside Kirk Hammett and Eddie Van Halen (to pick a couple of random guitar gods). He could hold his own in that company, but Prince is just an R&B artist as far as most people are concerned, if they are concerned at all.
Of course there are exceptions. Hendrix is one, but The Guys In Black Tee Shirts Who Jam classified him not as black, but as a mother fucker who jammed. And I’m not trying to make some hackneyed point about racism. It cuts both ways — for every Eminem who makes it through the filter there’s a Vanilla Ice — but from day one when Elvis brought Big Mama Thornton to the masses the rock monolith has hit the stage in white face. It’s the only way I can make sense of a world that venerates No Doubt rather than Fishbone, another one of the greatest bands you’ve never listened to. King’s X, Bad Brains, 24-7 Spyz, Living Color, Fishbone — the list of unforgivable blackness has been recited so many times that it would be a funny cliché if it wasn’t so sad.
I guess I wanted to rant, after all. Back to my seventh grade summer.
The big buzz of the summer was Dr. Fred’s television ministry. Dr. Fred was the artist formerly known as Brother Fred and was also our preacher. Apparently he completed or purchased a PhD during his tenure at our less than humble Southern Baptist church. He also purchased leisure suits in every color known to modern chemistry.
Our church was cavernous, hardly the quaint little pumpkin patch bound to attract the Great Pumpkin. Perhaps that’s why he works a lesser holiday. But cavernous wasn’t big enough for Dr. Fred, so each Sunday two collection plates were passed: the regular offering and the special building fund collection.
My father was a great hater of churches and preachers. He viewed them as crooks and charlatans; additionally, he was tight with a buck. This meant that he was never there on Sunday mornings to see how much my mother slipped into the offering plates. My stomach would knot when the deacon pushed the collection plate toward her and the bills left her hand. I worried that my father would know how much she gave, and I didn’t want to be there when he found out.
Soon the glory of Dr. Fred’s ministry could not be contained within the walls of a church, regardless of its size. The whole world needed to be touched by this great man’s testimony, or so we were told every Sunday morning as the deacons passed not one, not two, but three collection plates. We needed to maintain the church (plate one), expand the church (plate two), and bring Dr. Fred to the masses through his yet to be launched television ministry (plate three). Week after week my mother dutifully slipped bills into all three plates.
Every summer our church would hold a week-long tent revival. Each night featured special guests: a ventriloquist telling us about Jesus; a reformed addict telling us about Jesus; a really cool band singing about Jesus. The band was never cool. The effect was always similar to “cool as filtered through JC Penney.”
We sat in our folding chairs, our programs folded into accordion fans, and tried to stay focused in the humid Southern nights. Eventually the openers would pack up their dummies or their magic kits or whatever and Dr. Fred would make his way to the pulpit, resplendent in his wide lapelled suit of the night, Grecian Formula ‘do frozen in place. That year’s tent revival was the dry run for his TV ministry, so the hired production crew would spring into action when the glorious Dr. hit the stage. Cameras rolling, the preacher gave it his all night after night. Hellfire and brimstone, love and tears, sweat rolling off of him but never a hair out of place. By the end of each night it was obvious to us that the man was spent, but the Holy Spirit would once again grab hold of the good doctor just long enough to invite us to step forward and accept the Lord Jesus as our personal saviour.
Each night’s performance was gripping. The man knew how to work a tent. It was like watching a one-man play in three acts. The notion that he was doing it in an effort to save our eternal souls made the whole thing even a little touching.
That he was putting together a demo tape to shop around was pretty much forgotten until a few months later when we were told to tune into the local PBS station on Thursday to watch the one hour Dr. Fred television special, filmed live at our tent revival.
Of course I watched, but for the crowd shots. It was thrilling to see my friends and acquaintances on television. A week’s worth of material was edited down to an hour through liberal use of audience cutaways. There would be Dr. Fred, handsome in his rust-colored suit, making a cogent point, and then a shot of Miss Tammy nodding her agreement. Back to the preacher, now in a lime green suit, then cut to Mr. Doug waving a “testify” hand, head bowed. Back to Dr. Fred, now in a blue suit, now white, now rust again, now harvest gold. And that was the last any of us heard of Dr. Fred’s leisure suit of many colors television ministry, but not the end of Dr. Fred. He manned the pulpit at First Cavernous Church for many years after that.
Months later my father received a $3,500 bill from the church. “What the Hell is this? ” he said into the telephone. “I don’t owe you a cent….I don’t care how much your TV ministry cost….that’s not my problem….try it and I’ll sue you….well then they won’t be back. Don’t send anything else to me, understand?” He hung up the phone and threw the wadded bill into the trash can.
That was the end of my brief life as a regular church goer. My mother moved to a Presbyterian church, home of pastor Ed. Not Dr. Ed or Brother Ed, just Ed. No TV ministry, either, but the church had a building fund. Years later I heard that Ed was run out of town for dipping into his church’s building fund. He was giving the money to members of the congregation who were having financial problems. Maybe he should have spent it on Technicolor leisure suits.