DEATH Comes Full Circle

Music Features
DEATH Comes Full Circle
Mar 6, 2009, 19:54

Death - ...For the Whole World to See

The East Detroit street of Lillibridge crosses East Vernor Highway about five miles from downtown. It's a working class black neighborhood, has been since anyone can recall. In the 70s, solid auto work at the Detroit Three plants that surrounded East Detroit kept the area a bit cleaner than many of the surrounding enclaves, and the families tended to stay together. Funny how a steady income can mend the troubles that often tear units asunder. But the 70s was a pretty good time in Detroit's black community, relatively speaking. The riots had prompted some change and the unions were finally coming to terms with the notion that having blacks in their ranks was a good thing rather than trouble. Coleman Young, a black man, was elected mayor of the city in 1973 and held the office for 20 years. One of his first moves:  He advised white people to move on out. And music, well, it was still riding the high tide of Motown. Anyone who would consider himself a true black man worshipped at the alter of Motown and all that the label had done for black music and the race in general.

Bobby Hackney: “Everybody in our community was into Earth Wind & Fire and Motown and the Philly sound, Al Green, alla that. We were encouraged to put rock and roll down. But my original dad, he died in 1968 and my mom raised us kids. And she had a boyfriend who was a security guard who worked all the concerts in town. He had access to every venue in town, from Masonic to Cobo Hall, to Ford Auditorium. And us three boys went to every show.”

“Us three boys” were Bobby, David and Dannis Hackney and they grew up along with their three sisters in a small frame 2-story, 3-bedroom house on Lillibridge. On a cold February evening in 1964, Earl Hackney gathered the family in front of the black-and-white Zenith TV and advised them to watch. The Beatles were making their U.S. broadcast debut on Ed Sullivan and the three never looked back. As the oldest at age 12, David immediately took the lead in securing some instruments while Bobby, 8, and Dannis, 10, followed obediently. Over the next few years, the boys would play incessantly, toying with R & B, but somehow knowing that the three-chord wonder of the Beatles was really where it was at.

Bobby: “David was way out front of all of us, he was going to see everybody. He saw Alice Cooper in 1972 on the Killer tour, then saw the Who at Cobo on the Quadrophenia tour. After that, he came home and told us that we needed to play rock. At first, we thought he was crazy. At the time we were a band called Rock Fire Funk Express and just doing what we were expected to do, playing funk or whatever. But because that Who show influenced him so much and we started really going to more and more rock shows…It was a spiritual thing, we just wanted to play rock and roll. Once we started to play rock, our friends would come over and watch us practice. We had to educate them on rock and roll. Before they started seeing us, they thought Funkadelic was rock. But we were writing these songs that we felt. And by that time, say 1974, we'd been going to concerts and shows at the Michigan Palace, seeing Iggy and the Stooges. We saw Thin Lizzy at a Warner Brothers showcase at Ford. We would always go see Bob Seger at the annual show at Cobo Hall he would do when the auto show was in town...  It was always fine, no problems with us being black. We were just black hippies and we had a blast. Detroit was always cool like that. We never had any trouble or had any fights or anything. And meanwhile, all of this music was influencing us in a way that no one else in our community could understand. We wanted to play rock music. We had no idea what punk music was, we were just playing Detroit music.”

Rock Fire Funk Express became Death, which was David's idea. Using a name with such a negative connotation was, of course, a show-biz type notion, but David's idea was to expand the very concept of Death and explore it from both negative and positive sides. He had a vague notion of a rock opera, much like Quadrophenia. But first, the band needed a deal of some sort. The black community had rallied around Motown as a way out of the ghetto, and landing a record deal or a production deal was seen as more important than playing live. A single record, even a 7-inch single, had the potential to catapult an act into the mainstream and out of poverty. So in early 1974, Death approached a gentleman named Don Davis who ran an operation called Groovesville Productions. The boys had recorded a couple of songs on a little Sony tape player at their home, “Politician's Eyes” and “Keep a Knocking,” and they showed up to the Groovesville office on Wyoming with a tape. Just three kids with a dream, and Davis was a guy who could make dreams come true. Davis was a music legend, having played guitar on several Motown hits. In the 60s, he worked at a number of Detroit record labels before being called to Memphis in 1968 to become head of production for Motown's primary soul music competitor, Stax Records.  He had returned to Detroit and continued with his own production company. He was looking for something new. He got it when Death showed up. Death entered the studio with Funkadelic Boardman Jim Vitti as engineer.

Don Davis: ”I ended up working on a number of rock projects, including Robin Trowers's In City Dreams and the first Rockets album. And at Groovesville, we had signed pop, rock, it didn't matter what it was as long as it was good. In the black community in Detroit, rock was not really a big form. But I always liked it, from Presley on.

Bobby: “He was uneasy about the name right from the start, but he really liked Politician's Eyes and we signed a production deal. He had contacts at all the labels, and he let us know that our stuff would be given to them. And he kept his word. We were living at home, all three of us, and over the next two years, we would record at Groovesville and rehearse at home. We practiced every day Monday through Friday. My mom let us take one room and use it as a practice studio. On weekends, we would take it easy or go record. Sometimes we would play shows, but we didn't play any big gigs. We would play parties and get out a little play places like Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti. Most of it, though, was at our house. People would come over and we would play. And it was funny, most of our audience was black. We were kind of waiting to see what would happen with Groovesville in 1974 and 1975. Finally, Don Davis kept his word and Clive Davis at CBS heard it and mentioned that he liked it and that we could have a deal as long as we changed our name. My brother David was the leader and he said 'no way.' Death was his concept, he had this whole plan for the name and the band. But this was 1975, we were black hippies and we never really told CBS about this whole concept. It was just an unmarketable name to them. We were young and cocky and David told Don to tell Clive Davis to go to hell. After that, Don Davis soured on us. He had to do business with CBS and the other labels. Don had taken us under his wing, and this really killed that relationship. We were kind of left in the cold. We had been living this lifestyle, having a studio to go into and just being rock and roll guys. We had jobs, sometimes. Dannis worked at Simmons and Clark Jewelry on Broadway downtown over by Grand Circus Park. David was the genius of the band so there was no way he was going to work. We had been working to be a band for all this time. And there we were, with this record that no one would put out. It was 1976, the radio was going corporate. Even the great stations like WWWW and WABX were starting to get more structured. Disco was coming in and we all really hated disco. We were in the middle of the black community and giving off this really angry vibe in response to disco. We went ahead and pressed 1,000 45s, but when we went to the stations, they told us the days of bringing a record in and talking and getting some airplay like that were over.”

And for all purposes, Death was over. They gave their singles to friends and family. A family friend was living in Vermont and invited the dispirited group up for a two week visit to clear their heads. And they stayed, all three of them, in Burlington Vermont, for a while.

Bobby: “We didn't even know what New England was. It was like, 'what did you do with the old one?' But we all fell in love with Burlington. It had such a nice vibe, lots of clubs, it reminded us of Ann Arbor only more intense.“

They changed the name of the band, finally, after flyering for an upcoming show, the band name at the top of the poster, drew some attention from the police. The new name was 4th Movement. David picked the name. They did more recording, music intended for Death projects. They had families. David eventually moved back to Detroit in the early 80s and died of lung cancer in 2000. 4th Movement became a reggae band called Lambsbread, which pays the bills today for Dannis and Bobby.  This could be the end of the story for Death, one of the nation's first all-black rock outfits, but for a guy named Robert Manis in Chicago. Manis found a copy of the Death single on eBay and bought it for $800. Manis turned to local record label Drag City. Which led the small label to Bobby. This month, Drag city released a 7-song ep, For the World to See giving Death a future. The vinyl pressing sold out within a week. Death is suddenly hip. No word from Clive Davis.

Bobby: “One day not long ago I got a call from my son. He was in San Francisco, doing some traveling, and he said Dad, do you realize they are playing your music at underground parties out here?' I thought he meant Lambsbread. But no, it was Death. David predicted all this was going to happen and that the world was going to come looking for us. He was the one who told me to hold on to a copy of the master tape and I had it archived. But I had never even told other people about Death and no one ever asked. Even my son, Bobby, who is 29 years old, when I finally told him, was surprised. But we had met with so much rejection that I was reluctant to ever bring it up. Life had moved on. Now it's coming back around.”


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