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Is Obama a Self-Hating White? What Booker T & the MGs Have To Do With It

By       Message Gregg Gordon     Permalink
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Is it just me, or has the whole damn world gone crazy?

That was the signature phrase a stand-up comedian friend of mine used to use, and it's the only way to describe the way I've felt observing politics the last couple weeks. Elliot Spitzer, Jeremiah Wright, and the whole, long-outlived-their-welcome Bush administration -- Sex, Lies, and Videotape, indeed.

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But it's the presidential campaign that most has my attention, in particular the controversy about Wright, Barack Obama's retired pastor and religious mentor. In a way, I understand it. Despite the truths underlying his played-to-death comments captured on video -- "God damn America"? -- no, you can't say that. It's going to come back to bite you. But it's no more outrageous than statements made by the Rev. John Hagee, who blamed Hurricane Katrina on a homosexual parade, or the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, who blamed 9/11 on the ACLU and the women's movement, or other prominent men of the cloth now supporting John McCain. And Wright, as a black man who once served his country in the Marine Corps and was rewarded with a seat on the back of the bus, at least has some grounds to be bitter.

So why the obsession? Why the different treatment? The inane, childish level of punditry has had me wanting to blow up my TV (only March Madness intervened). It makes the whole Louis Farrakhan flap of a few weeks earlier -- whether Obama's "condemning" his anti-Semitic statements was enough, or whether he must "renounce" him as well, or whatever the hell it was (it's not even worth looking up) -- it makes that whole nutty business seem like a rational discussion of the issues in comparison.

And my own effort to figure it out has taken me to some strange places, especially to Memphis, TN, where I lived for about a dozen years in the '80s and '90s. Memphis was a real education for a kid from an all-white suburb of Chicago, about 10 miles and 10,000 light years away from Obama's current stomping grounds. Half white and half black, Memphis is unusually challenged when it comes to race -- it's in your face with every trip to the grocery store -- and has been practically forever. It was there that British feminist and social reformer Frances Wright established a colony for freed blacks as early as the 1820s, and was run out of town when rumors of interracial free love flourished. Later in the century, when whites virtually abandoned the city in the face of a yellow fever epidemic, it was Robert Church, a mixed-race son of slaves rumored to be the wealthiest black man in America, who led the financing of its renewal. After he succeeded, the white folks returned and took it over again.

It could be an education even for the folks who grew up there. Charlie Musselwhite, the great blues harmonica player, once told me that as a kid in segregated Memphis in the '50s, he would meet his black friends at the small creek which separated their neighborhoods. When he was about 12, he went into a little grocery with one of those friends, and the white proprietor told him he was reaching an age when he shouldn't be hanging around with that boy anymore. "You may as well have just hit me in the stomach, I was so shocked," Charlie said.

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When I first got there, Graceland and Sun Studio were not yet open to the public, and the Memphis tourist industry consisted of a single club called Blues Alley. There you could still see real originals from the '30s like Little Laura Dukes sing Call the Police, backed by musicians who learned their chops on Beale Street -- not the plastic, Disneyland version that people visit today, but the original one, the one where Sun founder Sam Phillips stopped by chance on a trip from Alabama to a Baptist revival in Oklahoma, heard the music coming from every street corner, and had his life, and the country's, changed forever; the one where, W.C. Handy wrote in Beale Street Blues, you'd find "honest men, and pick-pockets skilled," and "business never ceases 'til somebody gets killed." People like B.B. King and Charlie Pride would come to Blues Alley and sit in when they passed through town visiting family, and elderly white folks would be treated to a night of authentic blues music on their bus tours to Nashville, New Orleans, and Florida.

The only strange thing about Blues Alley was the white guy playing bass, who I later learned was named Milton Steinberg, and he wasn't white at all, but rather a member of one of the most prominent black families in Memphis. His oldest brother, Luther, was one of the top bandleaders on Beale Street during its segregated heyday, the same time when a young Ben Hooks, later president of the NAACP, developed film for the family photography business while listening to the big bands play at the whites-only Peabody Skyway atop the South's most famous hotel, just a block away. A sister, Martha Steinberg, was one of the most popular personalities on WDIA, the first radio station in the country with all-black programming. It was at WDIA that B.B. King actually acquired his name -- he was the "Peptikon Blues Boy" during his antacid-sponsored 15-minute show. There's a famous photograph from backstage at a 1956 WDIA benefit show of two Kings -- B.B. and Elvis Presley. Elvis had just hit the big time with Heartbreak Hotel, and another WDIA dj, Rufus Thomas, told the planning committee they better put Elvis on last, because once he came on stage, the black teenage girls were going to tear the place up, and the show would be over anyway.

I met one of the Steinbergs -- Louie. Louie idolized his brother Luther and wanted to be a trumpet player like him. But Luther didn't need another trumpet player, so he told Louie to pick up the bass instead. And when Louie objected that he didn't actually know how to play the bass, Luther said, "Don't worry about it. You're gonna hit some wrong notes, but you're gonna hit some right notes too. Just play the thing loud."

Thus, before the better-known "Duck" Dunn joined the band, Louie was the original bass player in Booker T & the MGs. When you hear Green Onions, that's Louie, not Duck. In fact, Louie helped come up with the title of the song. After the tracks were laid down at Stax studio -- later known as Soulsville USA -- they were trying to come up with a title for the lyricless piece, and someone said it sounded "funky," and to Louie, "funky" meant "stinky," and that made him think of onions. That's how musical history is made.

All of the Steinbergs I saw looked as white as the driven snow -- Louie was so white he was pink -- but because of the peculiar "rule" of the old South that if just one of your great-great-grandparents was black, so were you, they were officially classified as "black." Any one of them could have easily "passed," as it was called -- moved to another town and silently become a proud member of the white race, leaving second-class citizenship behind -- but they didn't. They chose to remain among their friends, identifying with the black community and being embraced by it.

I never asked Louie about it. It just seemed weird -- "Hey Louie, how come you're so white?" The story I heard was that they were descended from an old Jewish plantation family from Arkansas. And Louie only mentioned it once, and then obliquely. It turns out the family's lack of pigment was an asset in their musical careers. Back in those days, some of the most lucrative gigs for black bands were out in the Mississippi countryside, where there wasn't much to do. So Memphis bands would frequently find themselves on Saturday night out in the sticks, and in the days before the electric bass, the big fiddle strapped to the top of the car was a dead giveaway. Getting back home was a matter of running the gauntlet, and if they were spotted by a cop, they could count on being pulled over and relieved of the evening's proceeds. But if one of the Steinbergs was in the band, he could pretend to be the "manager" and maybe talk their way out of it.

Visually, as opposed to hearing their records, most people know Booker T & the MGs only from Monterey Pop, the film of the San Francisco hippie movement's coming-out rock festival during 1967's Summer of Love. By then, Dunn had replaced Steinberg in the band, so it really was two white guys and two black guys -- instead of one white guy, two black guys, and one black guy who looked like a white guy -- and with the equally integrated Mar-Keys horn section, they backed the legendary Otis Redding. They didn't really fit in with the rest of the acts at Monterey. The horns moved in synchronized steps while they played, they wore suits, not paisley, and they didn't even smoke dope. They were just working class kids, black and white, from Memphis. But they played their asses off, like it just didn't matter, and for the first time in the lives of most of those hippies, it didn't. While Jimi Hendrix burned up his guitar at Monterey, Redding and the boys from Memphis burned down the whole house.

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Within a few weeks, Redding would die in a helicopter crash, with his biggest hit, the San Francisco-inspired Dock of the Bay, just barely in the can. In less than a year, Martin Luther King would be assassinated within a few miles of the Stax studio in Memphis, and things started changing all over. Stax was founded by an aspiring country fiddle player and his bank teller sister, and housed in an abandoned movie theater in the heart of the Memphis black ghetto because the rent was cheap. But by 1968, the neighborhood talent that knew an opportunity when they saw it -- Rufus and Carla Thomas, Booker T, Johnnie Taylor, the songwriters David Porter and Isaac Hayes -- had achieved enough success that there was enough money to argue about, so they did.

And in politics, without King, our racial discussion would soon come to be dominated by George Wallace, busing, and the Republican Party's Strom Thurmond-led "Southern Strategy." We've been paying the price ever since.

Which brings me back to our current politics and Obama. What explains the extremes I'm hearing -- the star-struck adulation from most blacks and some whites, and the seemingly bottomless, reasonless vitriol from others?

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Gregg Gordon is a writer, musician, activist, and otherwise ne'er-do-well in Columbus, Ohio. "Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little." - Edmund Burke

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