Category: STORIES

My Bob Dylan Story

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The Swedish Academy says it has given up trying to reach Bob Dylan, days after it awarded him the Nobel Prize of Literature. The Guardian, 10/17/2016

Bob Dylan has accepted the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, the Swedish Academy said, adding that getting the prestigious award left him speechless. Billboard, 10/29/2016

Yesterday evening the Swedish Academy received a personal letter from Bob Dylan, in which he explained that due to pre-existing commitments, he is unable to travel to Stockholm in December and therefore will not attend the Nobel Prize Ceremony. The Swedish Academy, 11/16/2016

In honor of Mr. Bob Dylan, who is scheduled to receive tomorrow, in absentia, the prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature, I submit this personal anecdote.

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When Bob Dylan stepped onto the stage at the Au-Rene Theater at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale two weeks ago, the crowd stood and applauded.

I, on the other hand, remained in my seat, shaking the ice loose in my whiskey.

This wasn’t the first time I’d seen Bob Dylan in concert.  That was 10 years ago at the Hard Rock Live in Hollywood, FL, and it was dreadful.

That spring night, Dylan mostly stood on a dimly lit side of the stage with his guitar, and labored through song after song with the least amount of interest, his face shadowed by a large black hat.

There was no greeting. There were no pleasantries. I don’t recall that he ever once turned to the crowd.

Our friends walked out early. My wife and I stuck it out for one encore but we were miserable. We argued on the way home.

The next morning, we talked about it. What a disappointment, she said. Well, I replied, it’s always a risk when you have certain expectations of an eccentric like him.

Bad night? Sure, but devoted and forgiving Dylan fan nonetheless.

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My big-hearted affinity for Bob Dylan started in October 1999.

I was engaged to another girl then. She was lovely and I imagined a good life with her at first, but as the months passed, I began to drift. I considered the possibity of relocating to a new city. Denver, San Francisco, anywhere but where I was. On the outside, I may have kept it cool with friends and acquaintances but inside I was crumbling.

It was around that time that I discovered Dylan, that is, I discovered my first Dylan record album, at a book sale at the Coral Gables Public Library, a two-record compilation titled Greatest Hits, Volume 2.

Released in 1971, “Volume 2” was once dubbed the album that best represents what Dylan has “wrought in popular music, as a composer, lyricist, and performer.” [Rolling Stone Record Guide, 1983].

I paid a dollar for it.

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With a marriage engagement hanging by a thread, I found solace in Dylan’s music, and in particular, one song – Don’t Think Twice Its All Right.

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Countless love songs have been written throughout history. Even Dylan wrote long songs, but this song is not one of them. This is a break-up song. Honest, crude, and unapologetic. (About the song, Dylan once wrote,“It’s a statement that maybe you can say to make yourself feel better.”). It was exactly what I needed.

By November that year, I had typed the feel-better lyrics and tacked them to a bulletin board above my desk next to a digital map of Northern California and a photo of a desert tree near the Grand Canyon.

By December, the song had become a personal anthem. Whichever action I needed to take, whatever consequences would come, I needed to be selfish, I needed to move on. It would be all right.

Greatest song ever? Probably not. Probably not even Dylan’s best song, but, it doesn’t matter.

At the concert in Fort Lauderdale two weeks ago, the set list consisted of many songs I didn’t know from his last two albums, Tempest [2012] and Shadows In The Night [2015]. Of course, he could have, and was entitled to, perform any of the more than 650 songs he has recorded since 1961.

The unpredictable Dylan opened the show with the single Things Have Changed from the 2000 film Wonder Boys, a somewhat obscure song (save for the fact that it won an Academy Award for Best Original Song).

He grinned. He even kind of danced. Already, this show was feeling good.

Then he strutted to a piano, removed his hat, and began playing another tune. He hit a few keys I knew. I sat up in my chair and turned to my wife and said, I think I know what’s coming.

And then it came.

Well, it ain't no use to sit and wonder why, babe

Even you don't know by now

And it ain't no use to sit and wonder why, babe

It'll never do somehow




When your rooster crows at the break of dawn

Look out your window, and I'll be gone

You're the reason I'm a-traveling on

But don't think twice, it's all right.




And it ain't no use in turning on your light, babe

The light I never knowed

And it ain't no use in turning on your light, babe

I'm on the dark side of the road




But I wish there was somethin' you would do or say

To try and make me change my mind and stay

But we never did too much talking anyway

But don't think twice, it's all right.




So it ain't no use in calling out my name, gal

Like you never done before

And it ain't no use in calling out my name, gal

I can't hear you any more




I'm a-thinking and a-wonderin' walking down the road

I once loved a woman, a child I am told

I gave her my heart but she wanted my soul

But don't think twice, it's all right.




So long honey, baby

Where I'm bound, I can't tell

Goodbye's too good a word, babe

So I'll just say fare thee well




I ain't a-saying you treated me unkind

You could have done better but I don't mind

You just kinda wasted my precious time

But don't think twice, it's all right.

 

That night, there would be no disappointment, there would be no fight. The ice in my drink had broken loose and dissolved into my whiskey.

Copyright © 2016 Long Play Miami

Little Beaver & the Stones

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Last week, after posting my story about Willie “Little Beaver” Hale, I noticed that there were several readers that found their way to this site not from Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit but rather from an obscure four-lettered website – www.iorr.org. It turns out that this is the official website for the Rolling Stones Fan Club; the acronym “iorr” stands for It’s Only Rock-n-Roll.

I like it, I like it, yes I do.

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A little more digging brought me to the site’s fan forum where one inquisitive Stones fan, under the heading Willie Hale – Little Beaver – almost a Stone? had posted that he once read that Little Beaver had been approached to join the Rolling Stones after guitarist Mick Taylor left the band in the 70s. The fan closed with, “Does anybody know anything about this?”

A few years back on the same fan club site, there was this exchange about Little Beaver’s iconic guitar playing on the 1971 Betty Wright hit song ‘Clean Up Woman.’

Rolling Stones Fan 1: “I always thought that the Stones studied the way the two guitars work together on Wright’s hit. There are two interlocking guitar parts on that record that are fun to play. I might be wrong, but I think one of the parts was played by Little Beaver who was supposedly considered for the M. Taylor slot.”

Rolling Stones Fan 2: “You’re right about Little Beaver playing on Clean Up Woman… Great Miami funk… I also heard he was considered to replace Mick Taylor.”

Over the course of the more than 5 hours, over two days, that I spent with the legendary Miami guitarist at his home in Opa-locka, this topic never came up. I did my fair share of prep work for the interview. Did I miss something this big?

I called Beaver the other night and asked him about it.

No, he said, he was never actually approached to join the English rock band but, …

There was a concert or a tour and I did hear that it was a toss-up between me and Stevie Wonder performing with them.

Was it a concert or a tour? I asked.

I think it was a tour.

Let’s pause for a second and reflect on this.

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In the summer of 1972, the Rolling Stones, upon release of their album Exile on Main Street, embarked on a tour across the U.S. and Canada. The opening act night after night? Stevie Wonder.

Wonder, then 21 years old, was just hitting his stride with the release of his LP, Talking Book, which contained the classic hit ‘Superstition.’ On the tour, he would join the Stones on stage during their encores on songs like ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ and ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.’

Willie Clarke, a producer and composer who oversaw the production of ‘Clean Up Woman’ as well as many of Little Beaver’s R&B records at TK bettywright1said he didn’t have much recollection of the Stones/Beaver story but he said it wouldn’t surprise him that Beaver received consideration.

Beaver won guitarist of the year around that time so he was very popular.

The Stones 1972 American Tour remains one of the most famous concert events in music history and the subject of countless published works including documentaries and photography books. The tour is credited with elevating the band to the very top of the rock-n-roll world.

And Stevie Wonder? With the wider visibility and exposure to a rock audience gained during the tour, his career flourished, cementing him as one of the most celebrated musicians of our time.

Here’s Little Beaver again:

The fact that it was between me and Stevie Wonder… Man, just to be in the company with Stevie Wonder, that’s all I need.

That was great to me.

Stevie Wonder & the Stones, 1972:

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In case you missed it, here’s the Long Play Miami story on Willie “Little Beaver” Hale – Part 1 and Part 2.

Copyright © 2014 Long Play Miami

Little Beaver – Part 2

If you missed Part 1, read it here.

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Circa 1963.

Little Beaver’s debut performance at Overtown’s Knight Beat club had just ended. Frank Duboise, a local musician, was watching from nearby. After all, his band, The Chicken Scratchers, was the club’s house band at the time. Duboise approached Beaver afterwards and invited him to join his band on the spot.

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We ended up in Coconut Grove at the Tiki Club. Bobby Marshall was the MC. We had B.B. King come there one night. We were the house band and B.B. was the star.  And that’s when I first met Sam & Dave…

Beaver remembers playing to a packed house every weekend with the Chicken Scratchers. But they didn’t just play at the black clubs. Duboise had another gig, a “white evening lounge” off of NW 27th Avenue.

Frank liked to play Sinatra… ‘cause he worked for the judges downtown on 12th Street and so he would do little gigs for the judges and lawyers.

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Beaver says that whenever Duboise would start with “that stuff” (Sinatra music), he’d ask Beaver to leave the stage.

He would let me go. Go have a drink or something…,

because I play too loud.

He only stuck it out for about a month.

Sure, the gigs were fine and the pay ($75 per night) was pretty good but Beaver says he started to miss Florida City.

I was getting lonesome. I didn’t have many friends in Miami. So I left the band and went back down to Florida City and I played where I always played; at the Lucy Street Bar somewhere back there on Krome Avenue.

One night he happened to cross paths with Frank Williams. Williams and his group The Rocketeers were the ‘it’ band of Miami’s soul scene at the time. They backed up just about every artist that rolled through Miami’s Overtown club scene. They had also cut some records of their own under William’s label, Saadia (named after one of his twin daughters) and were getting local airplay. In other words, their music could be heard day and night from Coconut Grove to Liberty City.

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Williams asked Beaver to join his band as lead guitarist (former guitarist Joey Gilmore left the band in 1964 to enlist in the Army). Beaver accepted. It was time to move on from Florida City anyway. The real action was happening in Miami. So one day he had a friend drive him to The Island Club in Overtown where Williams was set to perform that evening.

I didn’t have no attire to wear on stage, you know. And so Frank got one of them porters there or whatever you call them who had a little white outfit and I used one of his little outfits that [first] night.

What a combo. A 19-year old bluesy virtuoso with Miami’s hottest R&B act.

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They played behind the likes of Sam & Dave, Teddy Pendergrass, Johnny Taylor, Etta James, Betty Wright and on and on.

Then he pauses and says:

But, Frank exploited me, so to speak.

Whenever the word “exploit” comes up during any of these interviews with past Miami musicians, it makes me cringe a little.  So I say, you mean in a good way, right?

Sure, it turned out to be in a good way but I didn’t know it at the time.

I didn’t want to be a vocalist. I was a musician at heart. Still am, you know. I didn’t consider myself no singer. All through my life coming up when I learned to play guitar there was always a vocalist in the group. That was the singer. And we all acknowledged that. I wasn’t no singer. I guess I was kind of like Nat King Cole.

Beaver then tells me a story about Cole, that he never wanted to sing but one day at a club one of those “gangster guys” came in and wanted to hear One For My Baby, One For My Rose. For some reason, which in hindsight seems like a legendary anecdote, the lead vocalist wasn’t there. So the club owner told Cole to either sing the song or find himself another job.

After that, it was history. Nat was a singer, whether he wanted to be or not.

Beaver says Williams wanted him to sing.

Me and Frank had a big discussion about it, brought tears to my eyes. I was so mad. He got mad too. I can get guitar players a dime a dozen, he said. I need someone who can sing and do a little more than just play the guitar.

He kind of twisted my arm ‘cause I was making pretty good money. I didn’t want to leave that job and go back down to [Florida City] ‘cause I figured I kind of wore out my welcome going back down there a second time…, so I was forced to stay and I started to sing.

After that, whenever the Rocketeers played at the Island Club, Beaver had to sing a few numbers too. He didn’t like it but he grew into his new role.

(He sits up in his chair a little.)

Eventually I became the favorite with the people. They enjoyed everybody but they especially came out to hear Little Beaver. Instead of Frank Williams and the Rocketeers on his poster boards he put up, it was Frank Williams and the Rocketeers featuring Little Beaver.

‘Cause Little Beaver was the drawing card.

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Beaver acknowledges Frank William’s influence on him.

I give him credit. He got me started.

I had to start somewhere.

The Rocketeers were one of the hardest working bands in Miami at the time, drawing full houses week in and week out, and Little Beaver was aFrankWilliamsRocketeers_zps9aa910cb big part of it. From 1964 to around 1968, they were the featured act at the Knight Beat, then Mr. James Club, then Continental Club, then Double Decker Lounge, and finally back at the Knight Beat. They also got into the studio and cut some good sounding soul records including the hit You Got To Be A Man (Phil-LA-of Soul, 1966).

Things were good, for a good little while, he says. Until they weren’t.

Clyde Killens

Clyde Killens

Beaver says Frank Williams wanted to run some clubs, manage them like night club impresario Clyde Killens, who at the time ruled over the Overtown club scene.

Killens could get just about anybody to perform at his clubs.

Beaver thinks the two of them partnered up on some things and Williams got in over his head with debts. He eventually stopped paying the band.

Clyde would come in and take all the money.

Everything that came through the door.  Every penny.

The Rocketeers were finished. First the horn players left, and later, one by one: bassist Edmund Collins, drummer Robert Ferguson, pianist Louie Howard, and Little Beaver.

We just couldn’t do it no more. I was like four or five months behind in my rent.

Meanwhile, just outside the club’s doors, the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. Beaver recalls the social changes underway in the late 60s.castaways-sign#

Black people were taking their money to [Miami Beach]…, places like the Castaways or the Eden Roc.

They weren’t going to the black clubs.

We had our own clubs, …prestigious black clubs. But we lost clientele.

He goes on.

A lot of people enjoyed the freedom. They wanted to go to the white clubs just to say We Made It. It’s like we needed to find our identity. But we already had an identity.

We talk about this for a few more minutes, about those that have and those that have not and how the haves always want more.

But let’s get back to music history.

During one of Little Beaver’s night club performances, he came to know Willie Clarke, songwriter/producer with TK Studios and former co-founder of Miami’s Deep City Records. Clarke invited Beaver to come out to TK’s Hialeah studios, which at the time was gaining momentum as a player in the national soul music scene.

I went out there and they wanted to hear some of my material. I played one song for them – Joey.

The song is a ripe blend of soul and blues about a man under duress ’cause his baby is calling out another man’s name.

Released under TK’s R&B label (Cat), the record wasn’t a hit right away. But Beaver didn’t just sit around. He formed his own group and started playing “the same little joints as before.”

Then Dave Prater (formerly of Sam & Dave) called.

Prater had just split from Sam Moore and was coming back to Miami. He wanted Beaver and his group to back him up on his solo U.S. tour. After a few dates, the tour turned out to be a disaster.

We were starving…, every place we’d go was canceled because he was booking himself as “Sam & Dave” and he didn’t have Sam. I mean, I sounded good singing with him but I wasn’t Sam. That was crooked. When people got [to the show], they canceled.

He says one day he called from the road over to TK studios. Willie Clarke got on the phone.

He said, Hey man, when you coming home? You got a hit!

With a little help from some friends, mainly local DJs like Butterball from WMBM, Joey (Cat, 1972) broke out and onto the Billboard R&B charts, reaching #48 on the list.

At this point in the interview, Little Beaver pauses to look out the front window. It’s not so much a look but rather a departure from this moment.

In 1974, Beaver blew the doors open on his music career with his biggest hit record.

There was a guy. He was a white fellow, jail bird, I didn’t know it at the time. He had a long rap sheet. But anyway I used to go over his apartment and smoke a little weed and listen to records. And he played this song by a white group and I heard the chord changes and the chord changes stuck. I couldn’t get rid of it. So I started to go home and play those chords changes. And I kept playing them.

And then there was a commercial on TV, one of those island commercials, like Jamaica, Tahiti, you know, with the girl all dressed in a little suit with her hair hanging and it was like ting-tun-ting-tuun… ting-ku-ku-kun ting-tun… just over and over and I said man, that’s soothing.

So I started to put that together with those chord changes. And I came up with Party Down.


Party Down (Cat, 1974) debuted on Billboard’s R&B Charts on September 21, 1974 and raced up to #2. Little Beaver was a household name.

He was even invited to perform the hit song on Soul Train.

Yeah, that was my Ed Sullivan show.

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Beaver says the record was so commercial, it’s still selling with each generation that discovers it.

I get more money from royalties now than I did back then when it first came out.

He tells me about the day he learned that Jay Z had used one of his songs from the Party Down album.

I went on WikiPedia one day. You know…, I look at myself once in a while, see what they saying about me.

And I see Jay Z just sampled one of [my] songs. I said, what? I didn’t even know who Jay Z was. There’s so many of them, Jay Z, Smooth E Z, L Cool, Cool Cool, there’s a million of them. I didn’t have a gangsterclue who Jay Z was.

Jay Z used Beaver’s song, Get Into The Party Life, for the 2007 film American Gangster starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe.

I got paid pretty good.

Little Beaver’s recording career after 1974 lost some steam. He had a couple mild hits but the R&B audience had changed as they gravitated more towards disco music. Beaver’s last recording was I Feel Like Crying (Cat, 1978). In 1980, TK, which produced some of the biggest disco hits in the world, folded, as did the Cat record label. Little Beaver put away the guitar and got himself a job.

He worked as a cleaner with Miami-Dade Transit for 30 years until he retired in 2012. Hardly any of his colleagues knew he was Little Beaver. They all knew him as Willie [Hale].

Beaver says he just never had the desire to continue with the music career.

I didn’t want that fame and fortune and Hollywood thing. I wasn’t after that.

He says when he reminisces, it makes him laugh.

I have never tried to do anything but people seek me out. I’m not trying to be famous. But my name keeps poppin’ up. I had a DJ email me from San Diego, California, wants to interview me. He’s into my music. I hate to say I’m not interested so I just pretend I didn’t hear…

He pauses again and looks towards the window.

I don’t want all of that fuss, man.

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Copyright © 2014 Long Play Miami

Little Beaver – Part 1

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It’s the blue house with the maroon van parked out front.

Willie “Little Beaver” Hale is giving me directions to his home three days before our scheduled interview.  Beaver, as he prefers to be called, has finally agreed to sit down with Long Play Miami; it took almost a year. Even after this phone call, I have some doubt. He has stood me up in the past.

On the morning of the interview I call him to confirm our appointment but he doesn’t return the call. Rather than wait and lose another opportunity I head over there, to Opa-locka, Florida, to find the blue house with the maroon van.

I arrive at his home about 45 minutes later. A chain link fence along the perimeter of the property stands between me and the blue house. The front gate is secured with a pad lock. There are hurricane shutters (slightly open) on the windows and iron wrought bars over the front door. And while the maroon van is indeed parked out front, there is no indication that he’s home. I stand there outside his gate and as I’m dialing his number on my cell phone I hear the almighty jingling sound of keys.

I look towards the front door and notice the silhouette of a man emerge. The door opens and he walks out wearing a grey t-shirt, blue jeans and a plain white baseball cap. He doesn’t say a 2013-12-05 13.31.41word. We shake hands over the chain link gate and then he inserts one of the keys into the padlock, unlocks it and invites me inside.

Save for a couple of his own CDs on the kitchen table and a gold-plated framed portrait from his younger days, you’d never know you were in the presence of Little Beaver, arguably the most important and accomplished R&B guitarist of Miami’s soul scene of the 60s and early 70s.

“I don’t know very much,” he mumbles as he sits down in his favorite chair up against a window. It has hurricane shutters too, letting only a glimmer of daylight slip into the living room. Then he says:

The people that know me ’round here don’t know I’m Little Beaver. There’s one guy on the corner.

And there was an older, white couple across the street. They used to call me Beaver. Their son used to smoke crack with Rick Finch so that might be how they found out I was Little Beaver.

Rick Finch was co-founder, along with Harry Casey, of the Miami super group KC & The Sunshine Band, the disco powerhouse that put out five #1 songs between 1974-1979 and became one of the most commercially successful 70s bands (second only to the Bee Gees). Little Beaver and Finch met way back at Henry Stone’s TK studios in Hialeah in the early 1970s. Beaver was one of the studio’s session musicians.

Beginning around 1963, upon arriving to Miami from Forrest City, Arkansas, Beaver played lead guitar for some of the leading R&B club acts around town. Around 1970, he was invited by local producer Willie Clarke to join TK and record under their funk label, Cat.

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Beaver had an impressive, albeit brief, solo career, hitting his peak in 1974 with the funky-soul number Party Down. Beaver also arranged and played the guitar tracks on many of the soul records produced in Miami including Betty Wright’s sensational hit Clean Up Woman (1971).

In fact, Beaver’s guitar, described by Rolling Stone as “delicate” and “oozing,” can be heard on almost every Miami 60s/early 70s soul and funk record that was worth a dime.

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Growing up in Forrest City, AR (he was born in nearby Marianna), Little Beaver was known for two things: (1) a pair of front 2013-12-05 15.17.43teeth resembling those of a certain semi-aquatic furry animal – which earned him his nickname – and (2) his talent for the guitar.

My step father Clarence Jones Sr…, he bought a box guitar for about 11 bucks. It was while he’d go to church and he had a couple other guys and they like to sing gospel. So he decided he was going to learn to play guitar, strum along while they sing, you know.

But Beaver says his step dad could never find the time to play.

The guitar was just sitting there leaning against the wall.

He says he “plucked on it” for a while, teaching himself how to play a few chords. He immediately began drawing interest around Forrest City.

There was this guy named Anderson that everyone around town called Sarge because he walked like a soldier. He showed me my first fingering on the guitar, how to actually play notes. He showed me how to play traditional blues chords. For about a month I thought I was a master.

Soon after, the first gig opportunities came to him.

There was a keyboard player in Pine Bluff, Arkansas during the time when Bobby Bland was popular. He used to come get me. In fact, a lot of people would come and get me ‘cause I was the only guitar player in Forrest City that they could find available.

He says that on the weekends they’d pick up a drummer and the three of them would head over to “a joint” located in tiny Stuttgart, Arkansas.

Tiny place.

Just a wood shed.

Enjoy yourself; drink beer; eat fried chicken, you know.

This was about 1960-61. Beaver was still a teenager.

He looks towards the front window as if he’s expecting someone. But there’s no one there, at least no one I can see.

You know, for a long time I played with a clamp.

A guitar clamp, for those that don’t know, is a small tool or bracket that is clamped onto the neck of the guitar near one of the frets and presses down on the strings. It allows the guitarist to play in a certain key.

You just play [the guitar] straight with a clamp. But the other way, when you are ready to play a chord, you gotta finger it.

That was hard. I didn’t have them big buttermilk fingers like BB King. BB had them big ole’ fingers. I [played] with little bitty fingers… But I couldn’t reach the bass [top chord on a guitar].

Beaver said his index finger didn’t have “enough power.”

It was too short. So I put my brain to work and finally I figured out how to play the bass [chord].

He wiggles his little bitty thumb at me.

When it becomes obvious that I don’t really understand this technique, he gets up from the chair, disappears into a corridor, brings out a black guitar case and lays it on the couch near the chair. There is dust on it. Two white little critters scurry across the top. He wipes them away before they reach their destination.  The last time Beaver took out his guitar was when a film crew from PBS stopped by a few months ago to interview him for an upcoming documentary.

Then he pulls out a red Gibson guitar and settles back in his chair.

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And that little itty bitty thumb? It disappears behind the neck of the guitar for a second before reappearing above the neck to hold down the top chord.

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There’s only a few people that play with their thumb on the bass and most of them came through me. 

Then he strums his famous riff from the 1972 Betty Wright Miami soul classic Clean Up Woman.

When he finishes, I take a few photos of him – with his permission.

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Beaver moved to Florida in 1963. He says he had a friend named Wilbert that during the high seasons would drive to Florida City to work in the migrant farms and then once the season ended, he’d head back to Arkansas.

He came home one Christmas to see his family. And on his way back to Florida he stopped through Forrest City to say hello to me. And I was laying there. My mom had just slaughtered a hog that we had fed all the summer, fattened up real good. She bought a freezer. It was full of pork chop, bacon. I’m laying there getting fat. Not working.

[Wilbert] said if you was in Miami, Florida you’d get a job just like that (finger snap). That’s where all the big bands come through. He just went on and on.

Beaver told his mother he wanted to go.  She suggested he talk to his step dad who was outside and ask him for some money.

I didn’t go that way. I just got in the car with Wilbert and we hit the road coming back to Florida. I might’ve had two pennies in my pocket. Maybe.

But I knew if he ate, I would eat. If he slept, I would sleep. That’s how much trust and confidence I had. People was honest back then. A friend was a real friend.

Friend enough to let you sleep in his car.

They got to Florida City and Wilbert and his wife stayed in a trailer while Beaver took up temporary residence in Wilbert’s car.

I was there in Florida City for a good, little while. Not working, not knowing that many people.

But there were people that befriended me ’cause of my guitar.

People like Willy who would bring him food from time to time; T.C. who took him in a few nights; Junior who worked at “a big old house” and let Beaver stay there too for a while. And then there was “wild, big old guy” Benny who owned a barbershop in Goulds. Beaver says it was Benny who first brought him up to Miami to mix in with the local music scene.

He took me to the Sir John Knight Beat Club one night. Butterball was the M.C. that night…

Butterball

Butterball

I give Butterball credit for discovering me.. the great Little Beaver. Because Benny talked Butterball into putting me on the talent show.

Nobody knew me. I didn’t know where I was.

And I sang Please Please Please and rocked the house.

 

Read Part 2 here.

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Copyright © 2014 Long Play Miami

 

Money for Nothing: The Larry Mobley Story

You know we never got one penny for that record.

50 Cent in video screenshot for "Money"

50 Cent in video screenshot for “Money”

Larry Mobley is on the line.  He’s called my office to follow up on a conversation we had yesterday.  He wants to know again where I had heard that the rapper 50 Cent had sampled Am I a Good Man, the classic Miami soul song that he and his partner, Larry Greene, recorded more than 45 years ago.

The original record was released by the Miami label DEEP CITY RECORDS in July of 1967.  According to the website, www.whosampled.com, the song has been sampled at least 14 times including by the rapper pictured here on his 2012 track Money.

50 Cent, oh Lord.

It’s a shame that me and Larry [Greene] didn’t profit at all from any of that. I’m not talking about millions.  I’m talking about hundreds, you know.

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Larry Mobley met Larry Greene around 1955 when they were both in junior high school in St. Petersburg, Florida and immediately bonded. After all, they both liked to sing.  Greene preferred a high pitch (“like Curtis Mayfield”) while Mobley sang in a low, almost baritone pitch. They’d practice their harmonizing night after night.

Royal Theater, St. Petersburg, FL

Royal Theater, St. Petersburg, FL

People were so surprised that two voices could sound so blended together and make a sound that sounded as if it were 3 or 4 voices. That was back from sitting behind the community center in St. Pete at 11 and 12 o’clock at night, just rehearsing, just singing.

Mobley and Green would join up with three other singers and win a few talent contests at St. Petersburg’s old Royal Theater. They called themselves the El Quintos back then.

In 1962, Mobley was drafted into the Army.  Two years later, he returned to St. Petersburg and reconnected with his old friend Greene. The two of them started up again, this time as a duo. After a few performances around town, they learned that Miami was the place to be.

There was a lady that was from Miami in St. Pete.  She heard us sing and told us about the talent show at the Knight Beat club.

The Knight Beat was located inside the Sir John Hotel in Miami’s Overtown district. The club’s host was local legendary music promoter Clyde Killens who made the Knight Beat the epicenter of Miami rhythm & blues during the 1960s. Mobley and Greene decided to make their way to Overtown. They hitched a ride from a friend named Clifford and arrived in Miami one afternoon in 1964, heading straight to where the action was: the Sir John Hotel.

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We just went down for the talent show and we were gonna come back, but people accepted us and applauded us. So we decided to stay in Miami.

Mobley and Green, who called themselves Them Two, were offered a slot on the club’s popular weekend show known as the Fabulous Sir John Revue.

They had the dancers, and they had Willena Mack…, and then me and Larry came on right before the featured artists came on. All the stars that came into Miami to sing at the Knight Beat, we opened the shows for those singers.

Them Two featuring  Larry Greene (left) and Larry Mobley (right)

Them Two featuring Larry Greene (left) and Larry Mobley (right)

Clyde Killens’ club attracted the crème de la crème of black entertainment: Sam Cooke, Count Basie, Jerry Butler, Sam & Dave, Etta James.

And then there was Joe Tex.

Joe Tex

Joe Tex

You know he really got mad at us because the crowd…, oh man, when me and Larry got on the stage and started singing, the crowd just ate us up, you know. And Joe

Tex got a little aggravated that he had to follow us.

But he was known for that. He always wanted to be the one who brought down the house.

Mobley says Them Two didn’t perform in the hard soul, church-like style of Miami’s reigning duo Sam & Dave that was popular at the time. Them Two were more classic R&B.

We didn’t do any outrageous dances on the stage. Whenever we came on, our voices had women doing a thing in the audience.

We sang, and women loved our songs.

During the year 1967 came Them Two’s big break. Willie Clarke, co-owner of the local record label DEEP CITY RECORDS wanted their voices on a track.  The music track to Am I a Good Man had already been recorded and arranged by Clarke and his collaborator Clarence Reid.  Deep-City-Labels-12-and-45-copy3-1440x279Mobley and Green were brought into the studio, rehearsed it a couple of times and then once the recording light was on, they sang the hell out of it.

I’m telling you that was the only time that we had ever been to the studio. It was a nice recording and we liked it.

In July 1967, the record was released.  The song has been described by music lovers as one of the “enduring masterpieces” of Miami’s soul music scene of the 1960s. But it wasn’t all that well received at the time of its release.  Actually, it wasn’t well played by DJs and without radio play there was no other way of generating mass appeal.

You know disc jockeys back in those days, … payola, you know. They got money under the table to play things.

Me and Larry used to go to different radio stations and talk with the DJs and while we were there they would play it. We went down to W.F.U.N. which is a white station down in South Miami and we talked with one of the disc jockeys and he played it a couple of times on the radio.

DJs back in those days were money crazy. A lot of money was being put under the table to play songs, you know.

Mobley implies they were doomed from the outset.

Sam & Dave was the group that was out from Miami at that time. And then came Betty Wright, and after that, you know, Henry Stone, …  he was a Jewish guy that had a lot of money and they had their agendas with the musicians that they catered to. So I don’t know. Me and Larry never did get on board.

Incidentally, Henry Stone has admitted to his involvement in paying DJs off in a book recently published titled “The Stone Cold Truth on Payola in the Music Biz.” Payola happened back in those days. DJs got money, girls, booze, coke. Whatever they wanted, and in return, they’d play the records. Its no secret that this was a common method to promote a black artist’s music to a white DJ in the 1960s. Some artists got their due. Others missed out.

Larry Mobley today

Larry Mobley today

Am I a Good Man was one of those that missed when it was first released.  But artists like 50 Cent, or the Showtime series Hung (which used the song in its premier episode), or any number of creative outlets and outliers have resurrected the song for a new generation.

Mobley didn’t know any of this, at least not until our most recent conversation.

In today’s world, a multi-millionaire rap artist can use the music of an original Miami soul classic, lay down a rhyming lyrical vocal track and the video can draw 3.7 million views on YouTube.  On the other side of that soul classic, there’s a man who sang the original vocal track on the song and he doesn’t even own a computer.

In 2007, Mobley and his wife relocated to a retirement community in Tamarac, Florida after a bank foreclosed on their Miami home.  Every month, he receives two checks in the mail: one from the Social Security Administration and a second one from Miami-Dade County (he’s been a retired Veteran Service officer since 1991).  On Thursdays, Mobley picks up groceries from the local church near his home. I’m not ashamed to say it, he tells me.

Am I a Good Man never amounted to much for Larry Mobley. Yet it remains close to him, literally. He has an original copy of the 45 RPM record in his home. He keeps it inside a book where its been stored for a while, untarnished by dust or decay, like a lasting memory.

The last time he heard the record was a few years ago when he was still living in Miami.

I used to sit and just play it over and over, turn it up loud because we had this huge Florida room and we had these big 15-inch speakers and I used to play it, over and over.

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End Note:

The other member of Them Two, Larry Greene, was killed in an automobile accident more than 20 years ago.  Mobley was one of the pallbearers.

Copyright © 2013 Long Play Miami

Woe Ain’t Me – Reflections of a Florida Blues Man

2013-03-15 21.32.27Joey Gilmore is a blues man, but not the kind that brings you down.

Whether as a response to discrimination, poverty, injustice, or simply a lost love, traditional blues music has forever been synonymous with melancholy and human misery. You’d think that blues singers were the same; always feeling, well…, blue. If so, then Joey Gilmore is the light that cracks through that stereotype.

See the thing about blues, well, you know that’s what R&B means, rhythm and blues. It’s blues with rhythm to where you can dance.

There was such a stigma about the blues [back in the day]. Blues was mostly considered music for poor people; poor, black and ignorant…

The sad part is that people miss out on so much about the blues because there’s such a terrible misconception about it.

Blues is great music, man.

Gilmore, 68, plays blues with an upbeat. He uses guitar progressions and rhythms that make you feel good, even if [he] used to wake up every morning, to get to work by nine, but then [he] lost his job and now [he] can’t even borrow a dime.

Gilmore was born in Ocala, Florida. By the time he was 5 years old, he was an orphan.  His mother passed away and his father ran off, leaving him and 7 brothers and sisters behind. The children moved in with whoever would take them. Aunts, uncles, cousins. Young Joey found solace in music.

I started banging around on tin cans, buckets and barrels and stuff. Whatever I could find a beat on.

He taught himself well enough that he was invited to join the high school band at Lincoln Park High as a drum major. Gilmore also taught himself guitar and started his own band at 14. One afternoon, the band was invited to play a gig at the opening of a gas station in Mascotte, FL.  The year was 1959, and small Florida towns like Mascotte were deep into segregation, much like the rest of the south. Gilmore’s band proved to be quite popular at the event. People were dancing, mingling, integrating. And then, from a distance, Gilmore saw a truck. As it approached, he could make out the passenger. It was Fred Thomas, then Mascotte’s mayor and chief of police.

He came stormin’ in… while the party is going on. Rolled in with his foot dragging out the door. The car didn’t hardly stop long enough.  In those days they had one of those big long whip antennas and the dirt road wasn’t paved like they are now and he come in with a cloud of dust behind ‘em and the whip antennae just going back and forth…He jumped out the car and came over and said, I ain’t gonna have it, I ain’t gonna have it, I ain’t gonna have these nee-gees and white folk mixing in my town.

He broke the party up and everybody had to go home.

It was funny. 

To others, the memory might have had a lasting emotional effect. But to Gilmore, it plays like a comedy. He goes on to say it was no big deal, we got through it. ‘It’ being the ‘it’ that segregated people by the complexion of their skin, the period when whites and blacks stood at diametrically opposite ends of the social ladder. And Gilmore’s reaction, some 50 years later? It was no big deal.

For the most part…, blacks and whites got along better [back then] than they do today.

That’s how Joey Gilmore carries himself.  He doesn’t let things make him blue.

And in return, the universe seems to bestow goodness onto him.

In 1962, after graduating from Lincoln Park High, Gilmore was looking for a proper reason to leave his hometown of Groveland (FL).  One day, Gilmore received a phone call that would change the course of his life. It came from his brother-in-law who lived in Miami. The call went something like this: Hey Joey, Frank William’s band is looking for a guitarist. Do you want to come down here?

Soon after, he was on a Greyhound bus, one-way ticket stub in hand. Gilmore arrived in Miami on a Sunday. By the following Wednesday, he was performing at Cafe Society in Overtown with Frank Williams & the Rocketeers, one of Miami’s most popular R&B bands of the 1960s. But the progression from Groveland to the Cafe Society stage wasn’t so linear.

After meeting Frank Williams that Sunday, Gilmore learned that the band was actually looking for a bass guitarist, not a lead guitarist. They told him he had three days to learn how to play it.  Gilmore got to work.

They had a dressing room upstairs over the stage. That’s where I would go, every day, day and night, and practice on bass.

It turned out Gilmore was no stranger to the bass guitar.

When I was at home, I used to get on my back porch, turn my record player on, get me a stack of records and I would take my amplifier and I’d turn all the treble off the amplifier, nothing but bass. Just turn the bass wide open and turn the volume up high so I can get that punchy sound. And I’d take my guitar and tune the strings down…and I would sit down with the record player and play the bass line on every song.

The Wednesday night performance at the nightclub went smoothly and launched Gilmore’s professional career, one that would figure prominently in Miami’s surging inner city nightclub scene of the 60s and 70s.

Frank Williams & the Rocketeers. Gilmore is second from left.

Frank Williams & the Rocketeers. Gilmore is second from left.

Gilmore played bass guitar with the Rocketeers for two consecutive years until 1964 when he joined the Army. When he returned after a two-year stint, Frank Williams had found a replacement, bringing in Arkansas-native guitar virtuoso, Willie (Little Beaver) Hale. No worries. Frank Williams formed a new band for Gilmore and named them The Rocketeers No. 2.  And this would be Gilmore’s band. He would play lead guitar and often handle lead vocals.  The Rocketeers No. 2 performed at popular nightclubs in Overtown and Liberty City, among them, Double Decker Lounge, Mister James Club, and the Continental Club. This went on for a few years.

Miami1967q2

Then in January 1971, The Big Break: R-1550594-1227729210

Gilmore cut his first ever record as lead. The song was written by Little Beaver and titled, Somebody Done Took My Baby And Gone. It was issued on Frank William’s independent label, SAADIA RECORDS, which was named after one of his twin daughters.

The record was then reissued two months later by the Philadelphia soul label, PHIL-LA-OF SOUL, one of the major soul labels of that time.

It was a national hit record. It was in the top 10 on every soul radio station in the country.[1]

I ask him to tell me about that experience.

Sad to say it but I was green as grass. I didn’t know anything about the business end of it so consequently I never got a dime from none of it.

But I had popularity as far as going to different towns and playing. I had radio play all over the place. I would go to places and it was like wow, this is superstar. But I didn’t know it. I thought I was a band player.

When he says he was green as grass, he means it. Joey Gilmore got ripped off by concert promoters over and over again. He didn’t have a manager to help him with those things. He says all he knew how to do was put a band together and play music.

But Gilmore doesn’t dwell on it, and we move on.  gilmore45

In 1976, Gilmore signed with the Henry Stone label, BLUE CANDLE, a division of TK Records. He released a few singles and a self-titled (Joey Gilmore) funk album.

He rode that wave for a few years.

Musicians thrive on the whims of the public but that can be risky because things might be roaring today and tomorrow it’s different. That’s the way the music world is, constantly up and down.

Gilmore then turned to blues music.  In 1989, he released So Good To Be Bad, a blues album in the style of his hero, B.B. King. The record landed him gigs overseas, including a 12-week tour in Switzerland.

Since then, Gilmore has recorded four additional blues album, the last two titled The Ghosts of Mississippi Meet the Gods of albumsAfrica (2006) and Bluesman (2008), both to critical acclaim. A few years ago, he won the prestigious International Blues Challenge awarded by The Blues Foundation of Memphis, TN. These days, he’s still going strong. This summer he’s booked to play blues festivals in Austria, Italy, and Germany. You may occasionally get a glimpse of the man performing at the Sunday Jazz Brunch in Fort Lauderdale. And when you listen to Joey Gilmore play the blues, don’t expect melancholy.  Not from him.

Everybody has stories and you want to spend time whining about yours? [No way.] I could be down in the dumps and I turn on the TV or go out and talk to people and man, if you listen for awhile, you say, I ain’t got no problems. Homeless people… and people who don’t have jobs.

Every day I wake up on the green side of the earth is a blessing to me.

I don’t let anything get me down.

… even if somebody done took his baby and gone.  Here is Gilmore’s 1971 hit song:

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Footnote:

[1] I checked the Billboard Book of Top 40 R&B Hits, an anthology that covers the period 1942-2004. While Gilmore’s song Somebody Done Took My Baby and Gone does not appear to have cracked the Hot R&B chart in 1971, a reflection more of the times, in the 1940s, there were 2 similarly titled songs that did garner a mention: Somebody Done Changed The Lock On My Door (Louis Jordan, 1945) and Somebody Done Stole My Cherry Red (Eddie Vinson, 1949).

Copyright © 2013 Long Play Miami

Chronicles of a Cuban Rapero

yrak3This interview was conducted in Spanish.

Yrak Saenz, all 235 lbs of him, plows into the sofa at his Miami Shores townhouse which he shares with his wife, Beth and their 7-year old son, Thomas.  He kicks up his legs to the side, crosses them and lets them fall on the sofa’s arm rest.  I take a seat next to him. A few minutes before he placed a bottle of 75-proof Havana Club rum on the coffee table and offered me a drink. Not one to refuse his charity, I poured some into a mug and took a swig. The rum stung my throat a little but once it reached my gut, it felt right.

Yrak (pronounced Eeh-rahk) Saenz was born in Havana in 1971.  His mother, a hospital nurse, raised him and his sister. His father was an alcoholic who left them when he was only 8 years old. He died some years later.  Yrak didn’t know him that well.  He says he missed the simple things: tossing a baseball with him, talking about girls…, typical father-son stuff.  Hardship is a given when a father is absent. Its another thing growing up in a country like Cuba, with a government that limits access to information, among other things I take for granted as an American.

Full disclosure: I am the son of parents who emigrated from Cuba to escape Castro’s dictatorship some 53 years ago. Lots of Cubans remained for reasons too many to enumerate here. And they had to find a way to survive.  As a teenager, Yrak’s survival hinged on music. That was his outlet.  Not the traditional salsa heard on Cuban radio.  He preferred the music de la calle called cargas fed directly from Miami radio stations like 99 JAMZ and Power 96. It was the 1980s and at any time, if it was meant to be, they could get Public Enemy or Run DMC.

We had this antenna which we made out of a wire hanger and with a Selena Russian radio that was very robust we could pick up distant radio signals if we adjusted [the homemade antenna] this way or that way.

His hands snake around in front of me.  His face squeezes and releases its muscles as if he can still hear the music from those days.

As isolated as Cuba was (is) from the outside world, Cubans were finding ways to get whatever bit of light through the cracks, acquiring radio signals and live feeds, ironically from the imperialistas living across the Florida Straits. In essence, one can imagine that around the same time the children of Cuban exiles were break dancing at Miami parties, this was also happening in the backstreets of Havana. The children of exiles and the children of those that remained, gusanos and fidelistas, dancing to the same beat on any given night.

Yrak’s contribution to the emerging Havana hip hop scene was dropping rhymes over a neighbor’s rhythmic clap or layered over the instrumental breaks of rap songs that someone may have brought back on cassettes after a trip to the States. Over time, Yrak perfected his delivery, his tone, and his cadence amongst friends in the barrios.  And in the process learn something else.

I began to realize that I had an ability with words, how I was able to communicate, how I could not only reflect my life, but also the lives of others, and how people could change and empathize not only with me but with others too. That always made me closer to mi gente, always closer to la calle.

Gradually, Rap Cubano’s popularity began to spread in the wake of growing discontent. Hip hop was becoming not only more audible in Havana but also more visible.

The streets would fill up with kids coming out and break dancing. There were a lot of B-boys. Then the cops would eventually come around and break it up.Suburbia: Public housing in Cuba

One of the key artistic elements of hip hop culture – graffiti – was beginning to appear on the sides of decaying buildings in Alamar, Havana, considered the birthplace of Cuban hip hop.

rensoli2Then in 1995, a Cuban rap aficionado, scholar, and promoter named Rodolfo Rensoli organized the first rap festival in Havana, right in the Alamar section. In a recent interview, Rensoli said that the purpose was to “provoke an artistic revolution and take rap to a higher level.”

Yrak rounded up four friends from the neighborhood and participated in the festival.  The event was a showcase for emerging rap artists. There was also a rap competition.  Yrak’s group came in second, behind that year’s grand prize winner, Primera Base.

He was just getting started.

A year later he formed Doble Filo (Double Edged), a rap duo that aimed to represent the influence of two distinct music genres.

We had the ‘freaky’ which is what we called rock music in Cuba and I was the rapper. We wanted to do something unique.

At the 1996 festival, Doble Filo won the grand prize with a rap song called Al Doblar de la Esquina.  The song’s message: that violence is prevalent in the streets of Havana despite the Cuban’s media refusal to report it. You don’t have to go far to find it, it’s around the corner.

They were invited to record the song at the studio of musician Silvio Rodriguez. It was one of the first official recordings of Cuban rap ever.DF-Cuba-MG-4566

After that, Doble Filo went through several makeovers including experimenting with a female vocalist until 1998, when current member Edgar O. Gonzalez a/k/a Edgaro joined the group. Edgaro brought a  different concept, image, lightand purpose to Doble Filo. He was younger (about 15 years Yrak’s junior), caucasian, stylish, had lived in the Netherlands, spoke English, and was heavily influenced by American music.  Their initial colloborations took off from the outset.

At that point, Doble Filo, well entrenched in the rap scene, wanted to make a living off of their music.

In 1998 and 1999, we played concerts and we didn’t make any money. I worked in a shoe factory and I didn’t make any money… we were coming out of our Special Period* that was comiendote la vida and I wanted to earn a living.

Cuba’s Special Period (Periodo Especial) occurred following the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991. Cuba lost its primary ideological and economic sponsor and the Castro government initiated desperate austerity measures, including severe widespread cutbacks to the use of energy resources. Food rationing and agriculture deterioration lead to famine and other social problems.

Yrak says that in Cuba all artists have to be part of el sistema. You cannot work independently and earn a living from your craft.  So he and his contemporaries worked to institutionalize rap in Cuba, to commercialize it.

I remember that at a General Assembly meeting I had an opportunity to address Fidel Castro publicly.  And one of the things I said to him was that rap was the voice of a new generation, not of protest, but of speaking out for change, for a better quality of life, a better life… I thought it was important for the media to focus more on these voices than of those that dance [along with mainstream music] . All you see in the local press was baila, baila, muevete, muevete. There wasn’t a voice that spoke of change, or social improvement.

At this point in the interview, I begin to feel a little uneasy. Its the first time he invokes Castro’s name during the interview. And he does it so matter-of-factly. I think about my dad and my grandparents who are no longer here. They remained Cuban exiles until their last breath. What would they have said had they had an opportunity to address Castro?

Yrak says the Assembly discussion was an important point, a seed, if you will. Within a year or two, Cuban media outlets were all over the annual rap CUBA-MUSIC-RAP-MANO ARMADAfestival, giving rap music its due, says Yrak.  Or maybe they were monitoring events for the government. Who knows? But as things go, something indeed happened.

During the 2002 rap festival a rapper named Papa Humbertico did what would have been unthinkable in prior years. He publicly rapped against the police. Fidel’s police.  Calling them a nightmare, calling them criminal.  “I detest you,” he cried out.

A month later, Yrak says the Cuban government stepped in.

Cuban rap got so immense. It was all over the streets. You know, when the youth have a voice anywhere in the world and they express themselves, their influence, their demands,… that makes governments nervous. 2012-12-08 acr

It’s not a fantasy that rap was born in the U.S. And you can’t deny that the U.S. and Cuba are not on friendly terms.  With all the history of rap… of protesting, of speaking the truth,… with 4,000 people attending a rap concert and the rappers on stage rapping against the police, .. the government said, wait, wait, we have to control this.

So they created the Agencia Cubana de Rap (Cuban Rap Agency).

Yrak says that most of Cuba’s early rap groups were invited to join. Doble Filo accepted the invitation.  The Cuban Rap Agency handles promotion, marketing, and some recording for the rap industry under its own label, Asere Productions.  The agency also sponsors lectures and tours.

I think to myself, why would Doble Filo join a Castro-government sponsored agency?  Especially knowing that they just want to control him and his peers before they get out of hand.  Besides, isn’t rap supposed to be anti-establishment? Isn’t it supposed to rage against the machine?   

He repeats what he said earlier: That in Cuba all artists have to be part of el sistema or you cannot work, you cannot earn a living.  Doble Filo wanted to make a living as artists.  Under the Agency they now had an opportunity to make some money.

Self serving?  Maybe a little. But who am I to judge? I was born and raised here, not there.  

In an April 2009 CNN article titled How Hip Hop Gives Cubans a Voice, Yrak is quoted as saying this about the Cuban Rap Agency: “[It] has an agenda that goes with the government’s agenda. It doesn’t limit me but it does force me to be creative in how I express my ideas.”

He also said that his generation – old school rappers – were forced to limit what they expressed about life in Cuba. The new school of rappers have a more defiant attitude.

Los+Aldeanos+2Aldo Rodriguez of the new school group Los Aldeanos is also quoted: “Hip hop is an art form that speaks the truth about how people are living.” In what seems like indirect criticism aimed at more ‘commercialized’ groups like Doble Filo, Rodriguez said, “Our lyrics don’t always go with the standard Cuban rhetoric and often that won’t get airplay,” adding that his group isn’t allowed to perform at local theaters.

Ironically, Los Aldeanos never joined the Cuban Rap Agency and they are the most popular rap group in Cuba today, according to Yrak.  He says that which is prohibited and controversial is always in demand.  Their music spreads across the island faster than any other rap group’s.

I ask Yrak about being part of el sistema versus remaining underground like Los Aldeanos. He is quick to remind me that the underground rappers would not exist if it weren’t for groups like Primera Base and Doble Filo, the first wave of rappers in Cuba that introduced rap music into the consciousness of Cuban culture, spearheaded the movement and laid the groundwork for new avenues of expression.  About 7 years ago, the new generation of rappers began to appear: Los Aldeanos, Silvito Libre, Eskuadron Patriota.

[The new rappers] came with a different vision. One of indifference or defiance: One of … ‘I don’t care anymore, I don’t want to be part of the system. I don’t want to be associated with anything. I have nothing to lose.

Yrak says that these groups should not dismiss the likes of Doble Filo and Primera Base. People can’t think about a future if they disregard the past, he says, adding, you have to know where you came from to know where you’re going.  Back in the day, Doble Filo too voiced their opinions. But their style was more subtle, he says. They used metaphorical lyrics and selective wordplay to describe the discontent with day to day life in Havana.

Maybe I’m not like The Aldeanos. I don’t sing, ‘down with Fidel’. Maybe I don’t say that. But the people know what I think.

He says he never holds back on saying what he wants to say. (I understand that we are sitting in Miami as opposed to Havana. He doesn’t have to look over his shoulder here. But he knows this article will be published on the internet, and it will get around, maybe even reach Havana.)

I have a commitment not only to myself as an artist but also to my people (pa’ mi gente). I can’t be someone who says one thing on stage and then another thing off stage. I won’t look good.

I ask him if the integrity of his music is ever compromised as a result of being associated with the Cuban Rap Agency. Whether he ever feels manipulated?

[The Government] never says you can’t say this or that. You live in Cuba. You know what you can and cannot say [publicly]. I have never in my 20 years of making rap music been told anything like that.

But I also take advantage of whatever mechanisms are available as part of the Cuban Institute [of Music] to be able to spread our music.

One of those mechanisms is to be permitted to travel outside of Cuba. Miami is his second home. His wife and second child live here. He has another son who lives in Havana, and an ailing mother.  So he returns to Cuba on a regular basis.  But spending time in Miami has had a profound effect.

My music is more open, more mature since I’ve been in the U.S. because I see Cuba from outside. I see other possibilities to promote, to create, other possibilities that I didn’t have in Cuba.

In Cuba, I was limited to information. I had limited access to the internet. I was operating under one particular way of thinking and here it’s more open.

Doble Filo’s last album Despierta [Awaken] seems to reflect that. It’s their most non-subtle, opinionated work yet. And even moredoble-filo-portada recent material continues the trend. A song he wrote two months ago called Clandestino contains the rap lyrics: “My people know me well, they know that I am not lying. I don’t care if I’m annoying, I don’t depart from the context, I fought with all my strength for what is mine and what is ours. I have a thousand reasons, a thousand excuses. Why should I forget about this if I reflect the streets in my words. This is the truth, against censorship, dictatorship, against that power that breaks us and manipulates us, …”

On this day Yrak Saenz sits in his Miami Shores home, ninety miles from Cuba. He has one foot here and another foot there. His mind, present of his surroundings, turns to the future. He begins to wonder about the possibilities, about his purpose.

I have this dream, this vision,… to be able to return to Cuba and try to unite Cubans on the island, not the fidels, not the castros. I mean the simple man.. the guy who eats the bread he gets every day.

It’s what I have to do, man.

Me toca a mi hacerlo, asere.

One rap at a time, Yrak.

From within and from afar.

Here is the video for Apenas (Abro Los Ojos) from Doble Filo’s recent CD, Despierta.

Copyright © 2012 Long Play Miami

Alamar, Havana image courtesy of Jan Sochor

Lost & Found: The Della Humphrey Story

Della4In 1968, Della Humphrey was an 8th grade student at Miami’s Edison Junior High with a gift for knocking your socks off with her voice. She was tearing up the talent show circuit and collecting trophies, and ribbons, and plaques of adoration. There was something special about her, e.g., [P]otential, and her family knew it.  They did what they had to do to set her along the right path: they got Della a manager.

Meanwhile, not too far away, Clarence Reid, a Miami soul singer / songwriter / producer, was working on his follow-up song to Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do [And Still Be a Lady], a hit record by Miami’s other up-and-comer Betty Wright. With his second song, Reid wanted to stay on message about empowering women. He titled it: Don’t Make the Good Girls Go Bad. Reid presented the lyrics to Steve Alaimo of TK Records of Hialeah, Florida. TK was owned and operated by Henry Stone and had produced and distributed Reid’s first song on their own label, Alston. But Alaimo was reportedly unimpressed. It sounded too much like the first song. Reid wasn’t happy. “He snatched up the lyrics and hauled ass,” says Willie Clarke, who co-produced most of the big Miami soul records of that time. Clarke says that Reid walked from Hialeah to Overtown, and gave the lyrics to little Della. Reid had been a judge at one of Della’s recent singing competitions. He knew the girl had chops. They flew up to Philadelphia and made a deal to record Don’t Make the Good Girls Go Bad on Arctic Records, a division of Jamie/Guyden.

The song instantly soared in Miami, reaching #1 in November 1968 on local radio stations. The record also cracked the national Billboard R&B charts where it enjoyed a six-week run, peaking at #18. Della was now a star.

“The song was blasting all over the radio,” remembers Willie Clarke.

Della returned home from Philadelphia and continued performing live. Soon after, Your Love is All I Need, Della’s second recording, also written by Clarence Reid, was heard on Miami radio.

Della recorded a couple of more songs but none too popular and then around 1973, Della vanished – just like that – from the spotlight.

During the summer of 2012, I went looking for her. I began checking the internet for other blog posts, chat forums, news articles, any reference whatsoever as to her current whereabouts. Nothing. I researched marriage licenses, traffic tickets, and property deeds. The effort pointed to towns and cities across the U.S, most of them unfamiliar to me, places like Loveland, Ohio and Florence, Kentucky. A search for death records located 12 Della Humphreys that had passed away since 1973 but no definitive matches for the Della I sought, not a trace.

One day I came across a former journalist who had tracked down Della’s family a few years back. He told me Della didn’t want to be found. Nevertheless, I called around and left voice messages on answering machines across the country. I did this again and again. Finally I reached someone who seemed to know everyone in the Miami music business in the 60s. An hour later he provided me a telephone number belonging to “one of his girls” who he thought could help. When I called her, she told me she knew Della’s nephew. Small world.

I called the nephew and he promised to talk to his ‘auntie’ and get back to me the next day. But the next day passed, and the day after, and the day after that. Over the course of a few months, I left him messages, texted him, emailed him. He wouldn’t respond. Time slipped away. I began to forget about Della Humphrey. I figured this was not only my fate but hers as well: to be forgotten deliberately in order to keep whatever good memory of her intact.

A few weeks later, in November 2012, I received a surprise call. It was the nephew. “I have Della’s number for you,” he said. “She’s waiting for your call.”

Here is Della’s story.

******************************************************************

Della Humphrey has no regrets.  She tells me this six times during the phone interview.  My gut tells me it’s something she has pondered before.

The interview with Della Humphrey lasted 72 minutes.  It’s only the second interview she has done in at least a decade. We start at the very beginning: her growing up in the Scott Projects in Liberty City, being the youngest of three girls. Her parents were good parents, as in, model parents – nurturing, protective, strong moral fiber.  Her childhood memories are vivid; attending Lillie C. Evans Elementary and having Sidney Poitier’s niece as her first grade teacher; participating in a Cinderella play at Holmes Elementary with Betty Wright as the fairy godmother; playing in the neighborhood with her girlfriends; events at the James E. Scott Community Center. She was also the youngest in the choir at New Hope Baptist Church on 15th Avenue DellaHumphreyMiami68in Liberty City.  Fond memories.

After she won a few talent shows around the age of 12 or 13, Della’s family got her a manager, Jack Corbitt. He began booking shows and making connections for Della: Virginia and Washington D.C., a gig to sing before the Premier of the Grand Bahamas in Freeport. And the song that put her on the map was Don’t Make the Good Girls Go Bad.

The record is considered by soul music enthusiasts the world over as a classic.  Co-written and produced by Clarence Reid and Jack Corbitt, and recorded in Philadelphia, the song cemented Della’s place in Miami’s forgotten history of soul.

We were just very happy to have sold half a million copies of that one song for a beginner artist with Arctic Records. I think at that time I was the youngest artist with that company.

I ask her about the first time she heard it on the radio.

I think one by one we were all stretched out and laid out. There were my sisters and I don’t even want to mention my mom, oh my gosh, you could hear her around the corner somewhere.  We were very excited. It was a big ac_1bmoment in my life and one that’ll last me a lifetime.

In the beginning, there was a whole lot of new stuff going on for myself, just a kid playing in the neighborhood, visiting with other girlfriends and neighbors. Then suddenly there was a multi record deal, autograph signings at record conventions, touring.

The song remains a coveted piece of history. Last year, the rappers Drake and The Game collaborated on Girls Gone Bad in which they sampled Della’s original song. I ask her about it.

I was excited. I mean, [the original song] was in the 60s… This is what, 2012, are you kidding? To find a different generation … to have an interest in that song by any means.., it was exciting to me, it was a good thing. For someone else to do their own rendition, I applaud that. I think it’s wonderful.

Della could be my music teacher any day.

We talk a little about Your Love is All I Need, the B side to her first recording, which she remembers “quite well” and brush over the two other records she made in 1969: Wait Until Dark and Girls Have Feelings, songs that were written and arranged by Reid and Corbitt for Arctic Records.

King+Sporty2In 1971, Della shifted away from the dwindling soul scene. She worked with King Sporty, a Jamaican-born artist who was married to Betty Wright. He produced her song Dreamland, previously recorded by the Wailers (Bob Marley’s back-up band) in the mid 1960s.  Its her first and only foray into reggae.

It was a new style of music for me. I thought it was cool.

 

About 22 minutes into the interview we get to that jumping-off point.  After Dreamland, Della didn’t record any more music according to my research. In fact, I found no other indication of a Della sighting anywhere. My conclusion: Della Humphrey, once a local celebrity, disappeared from the spotlight at about the age of 16, with seemingly an exciting, dynamic career path drawn out for her.

I ask her why she vanished so abruptly.  I think I catch her off guard.

Yes,.. a break from the music because I was so young when I started.. everything was dedicated to the music to.. going here, going there..everything.. going places as kids and young people do., you never want to not have that moment…

Della struggles to find the right words, to explain it to a stranger on the phone. It’s not as fluid as when she’s talking about her music.

She tells me that after high school, she moved to Philadelphia. The year was 1975.  She says, it was a choice “of my own.” (She draws out the words ‘on-my-own,’emphasizing her ownership of that choice.) She said she did not want to have “the music thing going.”

I wanted something different. Everything from 12 yrs old had been me, my mother, my manager. ..I kind of wanted to have a quiet time. And I did, for awhile.

Della enrolled at Philadelphia Community College and took courses in theatrical arts.  She had relatives there that helped her get around.  But music called to her.  She couldn’t stay away from it long enough.  She began meeting different people and making contacts in the music industry, securing gigs at popular jazz clubs and hotel lounges.  She went back to singing as a “self contained artist” which meant she could work with whoever she wanted to.  She felt, to some extent, liberated.  And it was just the right scene for her too.

The [Philadelphia] environment had a lot of swag. It was flavorful. You always met people doing something that you wanted to do. And that’s what happened with me.

She got to work with artists like McFadden & Whitehead, the Philly-based duo who recorded the hit song Ain’t No Stopping Us Now, and Ron Tyson of the Temptations.  It was all good, she says.

After Philadelphia, where she spent about 12 years, she moved to Minnesota in the early 1990s, traveling even further away from Miami’s tropical climate and towards the Twin City’s sub-zero temperatures.  Talk about getting away.  I ask her why Minnesota?  She says she tried to extend her music career there but she doesn’t elaborate. It doesn’t seem that important to her.

Since about 2001, she has been living in Georgia, in a town north of Atlanta. She’s married to her husband William, an aviation mechanic, who also had a side music career as a saxophone and keyboard player in a funk band once.  Della likes living in Georgia:

 It’s a small county, very nice, very quiet. When I want to go home (Miami) there’s the excitement of being home and all the things to do, you know, and then I can appreciate the quiet time when I get back. I get that here.

I return to a point of most interest in her life story: when she left Miami. She replies that after early success, well,…

Some of the things asked to do – how can I say this?

She pauses to find the right words to say. I tell her she could go off-record if she prefers.

Well, .. I don’t want to bash anybody, who am I to bash anyone? I count it all joy. It was a great opportunity and privilege and I’d like to keep it that way.

Being young, and under management, things don’t always go well. People have disagreements with the management and production, things of that nature. So I was not of age, and I had no authority there. And my parents felt that if something was not in my best interest, it was just not going to happen.

(By management, she is referring to Jack Corbitt. More on him later.)

I ask if she has any regrets.

No, I don’t …,  if  you can trust anyone you should be able to trust your mom and dad. So no, I don’t have regrets. I still have my family and lots of love and everybody else has the squabbling stuff to deal with. No, I don’t have any regrets as far as that.

Did she ever feel cheated or taken advantage of?

Oh yes, absolutely. But like again, I myself, you’ll get through it, however long it takes, you know and to come out, going in feeling one way, and to come out feeling another totally different so I have no regrets. I don’t. Now someone else on the other hand, maybe. I don’t know. But for me, I can say, no, I don’t have any regrets. I go home, often [Miami].

I didn’t owe anybody anything. I felt good waking up each day.

I slept good at night.

Everybody can’t say that.

_____________________________________________________

PART 2: DELLA & JACK

By the time Della graduated from Miami Edison Senior High in 1971, three years removed from her hit single, she was beginning to lose her groove.

Jack Corbitt, reached in his Connecticut home one afternoon, recalled the good days. Like when she was invited to sing at a concert at the Philadelphia Convention Center with a lineup that included Stevie Wonder and other heavyweights of the Motown and Philadelphia soul scene and Della brought down the house.

The owner of the record label got down on his knees so that Della could use his back (as support) to sign autographs. I had Stevie Wonder in line, I had Johnny Taylor, and who’s autograph did they want? Little Della.

A brief background on Jack Corbitt.

In the mid 1960s, Jack was a nightclub manager, first at The King of Hearts (60th St/NW 7th Avenue in Liberty City), and later at the Mr. James Club (36th St/NW 2nd Ave). One day he received a call from his wife’s cousin, Beulah.  Beulah was Della’s mother. Everyone in the family knew Jack had connections in the music business. He had managed the early careers of Sam & Dave.[2]

Beulah wanted Jack to oversee Della’s career.  Then before saying anything else, Beulah had Della sing an Aretha Franklin song over the phone.

Which one? I asked Jack.

I’m Losing You.

Blew me away. I told her you give me 10 minutes and I’ll be there.

ps_2013_02_05___14_07_12

Jack’s connections led him to Clarence Reid. Reid had the song for Della. Soon after, they were all at the studio recording Don’t Make the Good Girls Go Bad for the Philadelphia record label, Arctic.

The sky was the limit for Della. Following the Philadelphia Convention Center performance, the soul hit-producing team of Gamble & Huff wanted to sign her as their first artist to launch a new recording label, Philadelphia International.  New York’s Apollo Theater called and wanted Della to perform there.

Here’s what Jack remembers:

Oh man, it was a blast.

But you know, as soon as Della became somewhat popular …. Then I got involved with this mama-drama. And I had to deal with that crazy stuff, man.

Like many times before and since, in the high pressure world of an artist, especially a young black artist in the 1960s, booms and busts go hand in hand. And Della’s career was no exception. That was absolute. Things began to gradually fall apart. Della’s family became more involved in her music career. Jack saw it as meddling and a distraction. He was losing his authority.  It came to a tipping ps_2013_02_05___14_08_42point one day when Della showed up to a rehearsal with a friend, violating one of Jack’s fundamental rules.

I said to her what did you bring this girl here for? I told you to never bring anyone to our rehearsals.

And she shouted back at me – What did I do wrong this time?

It was then that he told Della they were done.

That’s when we split. I left her…It came down to that rehearsal. That’s what capped it. That broke our connection.

Here’s Della’s response.

No, it didn’t go quite that way. Something else had happened and that’s what caused the distance there…

You know, money can do a lot of things.

That something else she’s referring to had to do with events leading to the Apollo Theater performance, which never happened.  She said the fee payment was sent in advance to Jack and that he didn’t send her all the money she was due.

When it came to me not getting the money that I should have been getting, there was a big stink.

My dad and my mother were concerned about that. How can you do this? It was breaking me down. For my mom and dad to give the guardianship to you (Jack) and this is how we do it?  That was not a good feeling.

And that’s what I remember. That’s when the break up came.

It all fell apart when he stopped telling the truth.

Jack has a different memory.

As far as the Apollo Theater was concerned. I went through this mama drama situation where she figured that Della was supposed to get more than she was getting paid. But you see what she didn’t understand was that, hell, entertainers would die to get into the Apollo, man. People would pay just to perform. Because if you can rock the house at the Apollo, you made all over the nation, you follow what I’m saying?

I tell him what Della said, about him taking the money.

Man, I got no damn money up front. The deal was never closed.

We had discussed certain issues [with The Apollo’s director]. He made me an offer for a performance. The offer [$500] was fine with me but it wasn’t fine with Della’s mama. She figured she was a big star … she should get more money. Not understanding that the appearance at The Apollo was worth, you know, more money than she can think about.

He tells me that all he ever got as her manager was ten percent per performance of whatever Della got.  That’s minimal when you consider that the average performance fee was $250, making his take $25.  But I think it probably didn’t matter much to him. He drove a Cadillac in those days.

My thing was getting Della to where she needed to be.

There was never a situation where she was supposed to get paid money and never got paid. I wasn’t in it for that.

That’s not my style anyway.  That’s not me. I don’t operate that way.

ps_2013_02_05___14_10_10#After Jack and Della split, Della’s mother took over her management. But the music business is an unforgiving place for novices. By the time Della finished high school in 1971, Jack’s connections were gone, the crowds weren’t there, the gigs had died, and opportunities slipped away.  Bad times led Della to bad things; from alcohol to drugs to walking around the streets looking for her next “whatever,” she says. This went on for a while, for years.

Rock bottom is how Jack described it.

She went through something terrible, man. When I came to Miami my daughter knew where she was hanging out and took me there to find Della.  Della was too ashamed for me to see her. But I wouldn’t leave until she came out. And then she came out and hugged me and said, Jack, you’re the best thing that ever happened to my life. And we both cried.

My daughter was like a street person too, you know. She knew where Della was.. ‘Cause Della was in the streets.

Blew my mind, man.

Jack says that Della’s family shunned her when she fell into the drugs and barred her from living at home.

Della denies it happened like that. Sure she had her addiction problem, but her mother would never have barred her from home.

They didn’t put me out. They just never would have done that. No, that’s not true. I don’t know where he got that from…, no…, no way.

When I call Jack again and press him on this, he says:

She doesn’t want you to know. There’s no reason for me to say that. This took place…It happened. I wouldn’t say so if it didn’t. I wouldn’t do anything to hurt Della, trust me.

I love her to death but the truth is the truth.

Della says that Jack wanted to blame her parents.

But it was not my parents’ fault. They trusted him. My mother and father put me in your hands.

..My mom and my dad did the best for my interest. I would never ever, ever, ever blame my mom or my dad during anything that happened during my music time.

She says that Jack didn’t keep good company and that he didn’t look after her, as a guardian should.

Little by little I told [my parents] things that I would see when I was with him and different people he knew… I didn’t know them…

She pauses to collect her thoughts. She’s not comfortable bashing anybody. Then she wraps it up.

It happened. I got through it.  And I’m truly grateful. I really am.

Della says she found salvation in the graces of her family, her friends, and church members and pastors from Liberty City’s Shiloh Baptist Church on NW 95th Street. Della was able to get clean and in 1975, four years removed from high school, she embarked on a new journey. To Philadelphia. Leaving Miami and the good, bad and ugly times behind. There she connected with a new scene, made new friends in the music business, and made a fair living performing at jazz clubs.  And she kept her nose clean and her mind right, she tells me.

Della and Jack are just two people who knew each other for a short but impressionable time. The thing that brought them together is the thing that broke them apart. But there is no acrimony. There is no regret. There is mutual love and respect. And they do still talk now and then. In fact, it was Della who called Jack to let him know that I wanted to interview him. And he agreed.[4]

Here’s Jack again:

We’ll always be who we are, Della and I. Every time I’m [in Miami], if she’s there we see each other, with love, remembrance, of the good times.

Della is still my sweet heart and always will be, as long as we have life.

_____________________________________________________

PART 3: DELLA, THE PHILLY YEARS
Philadelphia night club, circa late 1970s
Philadelphia night club, circa late 1970s
From left to right: Della, Dr. Perry Johnson (DJ), Patti LaBelle, unknown. At a Philadelphia night club, early 1980s.
From left to right: Della, Dr. Perry Johnson (DJ), Patti LaBelle, unknown. At a Philadelphia night club, early 1980s.
Philadelphia, early 1980s
Philadelphia, early 1980s
Posing before a performance at Fairmoint Park, Philadelphia, circa early 1980s.
Posing before a performance at Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, circa early 1980s.

Footnotes:

[1] Note that the R&B Anthology lists Della’s year of birth as 1956, but this is false and was likely perpetuated by her handlers to the point that its actually recorded in official reference books found at your local library. Della was actually born in 1953.

[2] Sam Moore and Dave Prater were the most famous R&B tandem to come out of Miami in the early 1960s. Eventually they broke out on their own and signed with Stax Records where they recorded the iconic soul hits, Soul Man and Hold On, I’m Coming.

[3] Clarence Reid is the irrepressible Georgia native singer-songwriter-turn-dirty rap performer (BlowFly) who if there was ever a statue built for the icons of the 60s Miami Sound, his bust would be there, alongside Henry Stone, Willie Clarke and Betty Wright.

[4] Della also told me she wanted to be on the line during the interview with Jack because “he knows quite a bit. Some of the things I couldn’t remember.” I politely said no.  Ok, she said.

Copyright © 2013 Long Play Miami