The New York rock and roll band Living Colour, with its hard-hitting songs and expert musicianship, had all the ingredients for success when it first approached the music industry. Yet record labels didn’t know what to do with the band, for the simple reason that all four of its members were black. Despite music-business stereotyping, Living Colour proceeded to banish all doubt with their 1988 debut album Vivid, which went gold, and their 1990 follow-up Time’s Up, spearheading a wave of eclectic and critically-acclaimed bands who challenged racial conventions.
Guitarist Vernon Reid, who started the band in 1985, struggled for years to realize his dream of an all-black, all-rock band. An early inspiration was rock guitar giant Jimi Hendrix, whose trailblazing songs remain some of the most popular music of the late sixties. For Reid, Hendrix provided an example of a black musician fusing traditionally black forms like the blues with psychedelia and other new styles. Yet the popular tendency to deemphasize Hendrix’s blackness frustrated Reid. When he was in high school, Reid told Charles Shaar
Living Colour members are Vernon Reid, guitar, born c. 1958 in London; Corey Glover, vocals; Muzz Skillings, bass, born c. 1964; and William Calhoun, drums.
Hard Rock band. Reid played guitar with bands The Decoding Society and Defunkt; Glover did acting work in films and commercials; Skillings and Calhoun worked as session musicians; band played on New York City club and college circuit, signed with Epic records, 1987, released first album, 1988.
Awards: Grammy for best hard-rock performance for “Cult of Personality,” 1989; MTV Video Music Award for best new artist, 1989.
Addresses: Record company —Epic Records, 666 Fifth Ave., P.O. Box 4455, New York, NY 10101. Other — Black Rock Coalition, P.O. Box 1054, Cooper Station, New York, NY 10276.
Murray, author of the book Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and the Rock ’n’ Roll Revolution, that he heard a white Florida deejay say “that Hendrix was black, but the music didn’t sound very black to him [the DJ].… and I flipped out. At the time I was very culturally aware of the race issues because of [black activists] Martin Luther King [Jr.] and Malcolm X and all the ferment that was happening in the Black Power movement. I didn’t really connect it all so much with music, but that really threw it in my face. It was a phone-in show, and I spent all night trying to call in. I fell asleep with the phone in my hand.” This early incident focused Reid’s attention on the attitudes he would eventually challenge.
Reid was born in London to West Indian parents and raised in Brooklyn. He assembled the first version of his band in 1983, while still playing with drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson’s jazz-fusion band The Decoding Society. Several different musicians played with early versions of the band, which would be named Living Colour in 1986, including jazz pianist Geri Allen. Reid met vocalist Corey Glover at a party during this period, and their common interests led them to collaborate. Reid left The Decoding Society in 1985 with the determination to form what Rolling Stone’s David Fricke termed “a full-tilt rock band celebrating the continuing vitality and enduring promise of Robert Johnson, Billie Holiday, Bo Diddley, Sly Stone, Ornette Coleman, and Bad Brains (to name but a few), with the muscle and volume of Led Zeppelin.”
That same year he co-founded the Black Rock Coalition (BRC), an organization designed to support African-American musicians hoping to break out of the straitjacket of “black” and “white” music categories. By 1990, the organization had a membership of 175 individuals and 30 bands, though Living Colour was the first to achieve mainstream success.
At a BRC meeting Reid met bassist Muzz Skillings, and soon thereafter ran into drummer Will Calhoun, who was playing for Harry Belafonte at the time. Glover left the band briefly to act in the film Platoon, and singer Mark Ledford fronted the band for its appearance at the Moers Jazz Festival in Europe in 1986. When Glover returned, the band played club dates in the New York area in 1987 and 1988.
Assisted by Mick Jagger; Made “Cult” Video
Mick Jagger, lead singer of the pioneering British rock band The Rolling Stones, heard Living Colour at a club date and was sufficiently impressed to produce two songs for the band, “Glamour Boys” and “Which Way to America.” The songs served as demos that helped them secure a record deal with the Epic label and were remixed for the LP Vivid, which was released in 1988. The album was slow to take off, and the first video, “Middle Man,” aired only scantily on MTV. The second video, for the song “Cult of Personality,” marked a breakthrough for the band, inspiring heavy radio airplay and increased record sales.
The video for “Cult,” a metallic rock tune with lyrics about blind obedience to leaders, featured film clips of politicians as diverse as Italian fascist Benito Mussolini and U.S. president John F. Kennedy, interspersed with energetic footage of the band onstage. Other songs from Vivid that fared well on radio and MTV were “Glamour Boys,” which, like “Cult,” became a Top 40 hit, “Open Letter (to a Landlord),” and “Funny Vibe,” a song about racism which included a guest appearance by the rap group Public Enemy. The LP went gold, then double platinum. Living Colour won a 1989 Grammy for best hard rock performance for “Cult,” and numerous trophies at the MTV Video Music Awards, among them best new artist. Rolling Stone’s Alan Light referred to Vivid as “one of the most promising—and with over one and a half million copies sold, one of the most successful—rookie efforts in years.” Reid’s band had answered industry concern that, in Fricke’s words, “black rock was a contradiction in terms.”
Shortly thereafter, Jagger invited the band to join the Rolling Stones on their 1989 Steel Wheels tour. Backstage after one of these shows, Living Colour was approached by Little Richard, one of the first black rock and roll artists to gain mainstream success in the fifties. “Hi!” Richard greeted the band. “I’m one of those glamour boys you been singin’ about!” For the band, Richard’s encouragement was stunning and uplifting. “That was the moment,” Reid told Fricke. “Having Little Richard say ‘You guys are doing the right thing’—if I needed validation, that’s it.”
Little Richard contributed a rap to the song “Elvis Is Dead” on the band’s next album, Time’s Up. This song both ridiculed the host of “Elvis sightings” publicized in tabloid newspapers and reminded listeners that Elvis Presley was a white singer making use of a black musical tradition. The song also featured a saxophone solo by former James Brown sideman Maceo Parker. A host of other noted musicians contributed to the LP, including rappers Queen Latifah and Doug E. Fresh. The album’s first single, “Type,” made the Top Ten with radio airplay, and its video fared well on MTV. Epic shipped 400,000 copies of the album to stores initially, and within a week the company was taking reorders. Time’s Up entered Billboard’s album chart at Number 82, and reached the Top 20 the next week.
The second LP was, as Reid remarked to Interview’s Charlie Ahearn, “a few steps removed from where we were when we did Vivid. ” Indeed, Time’s Up explored a wide range of musical styles, including rap, soul, and African “High Life” music, and also included spoken-word passages about black experience on “History Lesson” by noted actors Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and James Earl Jones. Among the subjects treated in the lyrics were sexuality in the age of AIDS, information technology, and the motivations of drug dealers. According to Rolling Stone’s Light, the album “represents the fulfillment of the band’s promise.… The challenge of a second record is to avoid formula, and this spectacular album is a tribute to Living Colour’s bravery.” Time’s Up was voted one of the best albums of the year in a Rolling Stone reader’s poll, and Living Colour voted one of the best bands.
In 1991 Living Colour joined the massive Lollapalooza concert tour, along with such diverse performers as hard rockers Jane’s Addiction, rapper Ice-T, and punk mischief-makers The Butthole Surfers. At the outset of the tour, the band released an EP, Biscuits, which included covers of Hendrix’s “Burning of the Midnight Lamp,” soul great Al Green’s “Love and Happiness,” and James Brown’s “Talkin’ Loud and Saying Nothing,” as well as an outtake from Time’s Up, “Money Talks,” and two live tracks. Yet Entertainment Weekly’s David Brown called the record “overambitious … Living Colour may indeed be the successors to Hendrix and Brown, but they need to make their biscuits with a simpler recipe.”
These criticisms still acknowledged Living Colour as the fulfillment of Reid’s ambitions: a successful modern black rock group with a solid connection to a black rock tradition. After years of frustration, the band had become rock heavyweights.
Vivid (includes “The Cult of Personality,” “Glamour Boys,” “Open Letter (to a Landlord),” “Middle Man,” “Funny Vibe,” and “Which Way to America”), Epic, 1988.
Time’s Up (includes “Type” and “Elvis Is Dead”), Epic, 1990.
Biscuits (includes “Burning of the Midnight Lamp,” “Love and Happiness,” “Talkin’ Loud and Saying Nothing,” and “Money Talks”), Epic, 1991.
Murray, Charles Shaar, Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and the Rock ’n’ Roll Revolution, St. Martin’s Press, 1989.
Down Beat, October 1990.
Entertainment Weekly, July 19, 1991.
Interview, September 1990.
Rolling Stone, September 6, 1990; November 1, 1990; December 13-27, 1990; March 7, 1991.
"Living Colour." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 25, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/living-colour
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