MICHAEL GONZALES: PITTSBURGH ON MY MIND



Editor’s note: Michael is one of the hardest working, most prolific writers on music and film out there – I first started reading his work back in the 1990s, thanks to the book he and Havelock Nelson put out: Bring the Noise. I more recent years, I caught his “On the Corner” column for Popmatters.com but he’s penned for many outlets over the years, including Stop Smiling, Vibe, The Village Voice and Latina. His articles on soul music can be found at http://soulsummer.com and his own blog, http://blackadelicpop.blogspot.com.

Gonzales already wrote a great summer songs piece here and for us, he pens one about childhood summers spend in Steeltown USA. –O.W.

    Pittsburgh On My Mind

    by Michael A. Gonzales

    Years later I laughed when telling the story of how mommy shipped me and baby brother off to her hometown of Pittsburgh every summer.

    If we got out of school in June, two weeks later we’d be sitting on the Greyhound bus holding greasy bags of fried chicken and looking forward to life far away from our uptown apartment, the Harlem humidity and the wildness of the city.

    Though Aunt Ricky wasn’t our real aunt, she and mom dukes had grown-up together in that steel mill city from which Billy Eckstine, Billy Strayhorn and George Benson also hailed. Still, after our first visit in the early seventies, Aunt Ricky became like a second mother. Or better yet, our summer mother.

    There was also my cousin Denise, whom everyone called DeeNee. Three years older and ten years wiser, she had great taste in music. Last, but certainly not least, was Uncle Ed. Cool as Champale on ice, he was dashing as Sidney Poitier and always entertaining.

    As though it were yesterday, I can clearly remember listening to Uncle Ed (born in Jamaica, he loved country songs and played a wicked acoustic guitar) bursting into a chorus of “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow-Up to be Cowboys” while driving his green Mack dump truck through dusty construction sites or Aunt Ricky jamming Dr. John’s “Right Place, Wrong Time” as we drove to East Hills for frozen Cokes. “I’m always in the right place at the right time,” she assured me.

    Once, while spinning a Jackson 5 single in the basement of our Lincoln Road abode, I silently wondered how come nobody I knew ever played the b-sides of records. Curious, I flipped the seven-inch over (I think it was “Looking Through the Window”) and discovered the funky Michael Jackson gem “Maria.”

    For the remainder of that particular summer (please don’t hold my scattered brain to any specific year), I played that song continuously.

    If I’m not mistaken, that might’ve been the same summer that another dapper Afroed kid calling himself Foster Sylvers released the bump-o-matic “Misdemeanor” and almost kicked the future king of pop to the curb. Luckily, a movie about killer rats was all the rage and Motown dropped the aural sugary single “Ben,” pushing big nosed Mike back to the top of the pop charts.

    A few weeks later I went through musical puberty when the whole family attended a house and I witnessed a roomful of adults slow grinding to “Let’s Get It On.” Standing in the doorway as the sensuous song splashed from the speakers, I watched the grown folks dancing close (a few with their own spouses even) and realized that the song wasn’t about playing in the sandbox.

    Two summers later, Cousin DeeNee introduced me to live funk music when Aunt Ricky made her ask me if I wanted to go to a concert. Being all of twelve, I hadn’t yet been to any real shows (except for old school dudes like Ray Charles and Little Anthony) and wasn’t sure it was something I really wanted to do. “Who’s playing?” I asked.

    When DeeNee snidely replied, “Graham Central Station,” I didn’t know who the hell she was talking about, but promised I’d let her know. Later, when I overheard mention that her best friend Helen, a pretty brown skinned girl who’d be dead a few years later after a fatal asthma attack, was also going, my decision was made.

    Bookish and shy as I was, my young ass had a love jones for Helen and would’ve followed her anywhere. “OK,” I want to go,” I told DeeNee the next day. She sucked her teeth as though I was ruining her life. Yet, as the show got closer DeeNee didn’t seem to mind too much. She even let me play GCS’s three albums, my favorite being Ain’t No ‘Bout-A-Doubt It. It not only had cool album art, but also featured the amazing ballad “Your Love” and the black vinyl celebration of “It Ain’t Nothing But a Warner Brothers Party.”

    By the day of the show, I was well-versed in GCS tunes. “I heard Sly Stone might be there!” DeeNee screamed as Uncle Ed, who was our chaperone for that night, sped to the Civic Arena. Once inside, we choice to forego the seats for the opportunity to stand close to the stage in what was once dubbed festival seating.

    Surrounded by an audience that looked like they had just disembarked from the soul train, we excitedly stood beneath cloud of reefer smoke; I had no idea what I was inhaling, but I felt great.

    With hair that would’ve made Snoop Dogg jealous, Larry Graham slapped his bass into funky submission and rocked-out for over two hours. The highlight of the entire night was when the groovy Graham Central played a rousing version of their funk hit “The Jam.”

    At some point Larry grabbed the mic and screamed, “We gonna wake Pittsburgh up tonight,” as the domed ceiling slowly open. Overhead the stars twinkled bright and the band was tighter than a pair of Flagg Brothers platforms.

    Twenty-four years later, when my late girlfriend Lesley Pitts was doing publicity for Prince, she introduced me to Larry Graham. When I gushed that his Pittsburgh concert was my first, he asked, “Was that the same show where we opened that dome?”

    “Gosh, with all the shows you’ve played, how do you remember that one?”

    “It cost me $1,000 to open that dome,” he replied.

    Foster Sylvers: Misdemeanor
    From S/T (Pride, 1973)

    Michael Jackson: Maria
    From Got To Be There (Motown, 1971)

    Graham Central Station: The Jam
    From Ain’t No ‘Bout-A-Doubt It (Warner Bros, 1975)


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