It isn’t a secret: Gene McDaniels, an unthreatening song stylist who scored several hits just before Beatlemania struck, and Eugene McDaniels, a Black Power militant who released two radicalized funk-soul albums in the early ‘70s, are one and the same. It may well be that I’m the only living critic who didn’t already know this, but it still feels like a minor revelation, as it might be to any listener who’s appreciated “both” artists’ work for years, though for entirely distinct, even incompatible, reasons. And even those in know might still wonder how McDaniels moved from Bacharach and David’s “Another Tear Falls” in 1962 to, say, 1971’s “Freedom Death Dance,” and what he was doing in between.
As for myself, I didn’t do the forty seconds of Googling required to confirm the connection until I stumbled on McDaniels’s “Gene”-era performance in The Young Swingers, a 1963 quasi-musical you could categorize as “teen exploitation” if that didn’t make it sound more exciting than it is. Shot and acted at a level below that of an average Perry Mason episode, the movie concerns some nice kids who just want to run their sketchy coffeehouse-with-entertainment but run afoul of a Heartless Developer intent on buying up the block. (Faulty wiring is a major plot point.) The principals – Rod Lauren? Molly Dee? – are justifiably obscure; the musical numbers run to blank-eyed renditions of the folk chestnut “Greenback Dollar.”
Though the movie isn’t overtly racist in the manner of many ‘40s and ‘50s musicals, in which black performers and white audiences never appeared in the same shot, McDaniel’s supporting role as Fred Lewis, a law student who spends most of his screen time hitting the books in a back office, practically defines “tokenism.” Inevitably, this NAACP poster-child at one point trades his V-neck for a natty suit to deliver “Mad, Mad, Mad,” an ersatz jump-blues, from the club’s postage-stamp stage. Though McDaniels in no way embarrasses himself in the role, it’s clearly a way station on the downgrade of his career’s first phase.
Born in 1935, the Nebraska-bred former gospel singer was marketed by mid-sized Liberty Records as a smooth black crooner in the Johnny Mathis mold, but his biggest successes were uptempo pop-R&B singles like the #3 “A Hundred Pounds of Clay,” built around an odd God-created-woman theme, and “Tower of Strength,” with a slide trombone hook and lopside phrase-lengths that mark it as an early Bacharach production. By 1963, though, the hits were drying up, and McDaniel’s turn in The Young Swingers was a step down from his earlier appearance in the Richard Lester-directed It’s Trad, Dad (known as Ring-a-Ding Rhythm in the U.S.).
Fast forward to 1970: The grainy, guerilla-styled cover shoot for the Outlaw LP finds a Bible-toting, denim-clad McDaniels flanked by then-wife Ramona, outfitted in ammo-belt and Angela Davis ‘fro, and a grim-faced white woman (one Susan James) with a semi-automatic. Its follow-up, Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse superimposes McDaniels’ screaming face on a painting of a samurai battle scene. Both credit the singer as “Eugene McDaniels,” his birth name, and as “The Left Rev. McD,” and if there’s any confusion about what he’s preaching, it’s put to rest by his epigraph to Outlaw: “Under conditions of national emergency, like now, there are only two kinds of people – those who work for freedom and those who do not.”
The packaging smacks of radical chic, and some of the content shares its counter-cultural date-stamp. The title track of Outlaw, co-written by cover star James, celebrates a free-lovin’ hippie chick: “She’s an outlaw, she don’t wear a bra….She cannot dig machismo, but she really can dig some masculinity.” Even here, though, there are more thoughtful moments: the loose 12-bar structure and the line “She thinks justice is fair, that’s why she’s living with nature and not the law” evokes Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me” (“the law can’t touch her at all”) and the distinction between law and actual justice recurs across both albums, especially on “The Parasite,” a nine-minute narrative of the first meeting between Europeans and Native Americans. (You can guess which group the title refers to.) Elsewhere, McDaniels’ attacks his themes of poverty, exclusion, and the meaning of freedom from varied angles, from urban reportage (“Welfare City,” “Supermarket Blues”) to spiritually-tinged allegory (“Headless Heroes,” “Sagittarius Red”).
Musically, much of Outlaws countrified blues, casually arranged, while Heroes is tougher, tighter, and more adventurous. With a distinctive two-bass underpinning supplied by prog hero Miroslav Vitous and Miles Davis alum Ron Carter, it’s largely the work of seasoned jazzmen essaying funk, and its no surprise that Ray Lucas’s drum breaks have resurfaced on records by A Tribe Called Quest and the Beastie Boys. McDaniel’s own roots in older, more mannered vocal styles can be detected in the mock-balladeering of “Love Letter to America” and the twisted, scat-like lines of “Cherrystones,” but on “Unspoken Dreams of Light,” he yells himself raw, pressing past any conventional notion of soul or jazz “chops.”
The albums’ home run may be Heroes’s “Silent Majority,” a sardonic unmasking of ideology behind the Nixon-era code-word for “real” America. “Silent majority/gathering around the hanging tree…stuffing their faces with pastry…not so silent far as I can see.” (Tea Partiers: Rev McD had your number.) The monotonous rhymes may not be the subtlest songwriting technique, but these weren’t subtle times, and the song makes its point as forcefully as the best work of contemporaries Gil-Scott Heron or The Last Poets. According to Patrick Thomas’s liner notes to a 2003 reissue of Outlaw, this is also the song that led figures in the Nixon administration – possibly even Spiro Angew – to pressure Atlantic to drop McDaniels.
Which they did, though weak sales were a factor as well. This helps explain his relative silence since the early ‘70s – independent releases in 1975 and 2005 have eluded me – but not where McDaniels was at between his most productive recording years with Liberty and Atlantic. Again, some of the answer is in the public record: Post-1963, McDaniels reinvented himself as a non-performing songwriter, penning the cynical “Compared to What” for Les McCann and Eddie Harris and the much-covered soft-soul ballad “Feel Like Making Love” (not to be confused with Bad Company’s) for Robert Flack, who also covered Outlaw’s “Reverend Lee.”
These credits give us some of the what and where, but not the why and how. It’s tempting to imagine The Young Swingers’s affable Fred Lewis passing the bar, joining and defending civil rights marchers in Selma and Birmingham, becoming disillusioned with “the law,” and dispensing underground justice as “the Left Reverend” in the post-Malcolm X era of the Black Panthers. Tempting, but utterly fanciful: The real McDaniels was in the music business all the time, and what happened to his writing and singing between 1963 and 1970 is no more and no less than what happened to the country.