Outskirts of the Southern Canon
I am lying in bed on the Fourth of July. The apartment is empty. A box fan is propped on the dresser, blowing cool air, though I can’t hear it. I’m wearing headphones and listening to Bohannon: Speaks from the Beginning. This is the audiobook memoir of Hamilton Bohannon. Not the audiobook of the memoir, in other words, but the audiobook memoir—it only exists in an audio format. He didn’t find it necessary to write down the details of his life. Sound is his medium, always was. So he speaks.
I’m gonna speak directly to you as if we were standing face to face, Bohannon says.
I would tell you that Bohannon is one of the most important and least well-known musicians of the past half-century, but I’ve lately lost faith in sentences like these—“one of the most important and least well-known . . . ” (Important to whom? for example.) This is the second-hand language of the museum tour guide. I imagine a reader rolling her eyes in response, and she would be justified in doing so. Let’s just drop it altogether.
Here are some of the things you may be interested to know about Hamilton Bohannon: He led Bohannon & the Motown Sound, touring the world with the Detroit label's greatest artists—Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Diana Ross. He wrote songs with them, arrangements for them, drummed for them, lived with them, and loved them like they were family, which they were. He helped to engineer some ineffable portion of what we now understand to be the Motown Sound. He had a solo career as well, which was alternately sublime and baffling. (I mean this as high praise.) He was a disco pioneer, an innovator, one of the first to discover the oneiric possibilities of the endless, metronomic groove—of songs that aren’t narratives, but which begin in the middle and remain in the pocket, trancelike, neither rising nor falling, a kind of suspended funk animation. He stopped releasing music through official channels sometime in the nineties, but every few years reemerges with something new and internet-native: some dance that would surely take off if only anyone was still paying attention.
I want you to feel what I am saying to you, Bohannon says on the tape. There will be no floating, as they say, through the music, because my music and I are talking to you together. In this conversation from me to you, I’m going to approach, I’m going to release, and I’m going to attack. You will feel what I am saying, because this is not mechanical.
Vince Aletti, the great chronicler of the disco era, once wrote of Bohannon’s rhythms that they “pushed beyond boredom to fascination.” This, incidentally, is the highest ambition of my life: to push beyond boredom to fascination. What could be more vital, more difficult? The same is true—or I’m hoping will become true—of Bohannon: Speaks from the Beginning. It is an unusual artifact, with many unusual characteristics. It has the aspect, for one thing, of a New Age weight-loss cassette (the distant, unobtrusive music; the calming voice addressing you, the listener.) But if we want to know about this man, where he came from and how he lived, this may be our only opportunity. I am taking it.
I’m coming directly to you, Bohannon says. At times you might feel a little sadness, at times you will feel a little laughter, and at times you will feel the exuberance of my conversation to you. If I say “uh” in between my conversation, that’s because it’s real, not mechanical. If I say “thunk” rather than “think” that’s because it’s real while I am talking to you. I’m not trying to make my words sound cute. I’m Southern, and I’m going to sound Southern.
I close my eyes and turn up the volume. Yes, Bohannon says. I was born in this world.
Jet magazine, Nov. 2, 1977, pg. 36. A photograph: Marvin Gaye sits in a well-adorned living room with a pacifier in his mouth. In his lap, he holds the afro’d infant son of Hamilton Bohannon. “Ah, Big Baby,” reads the caption. “With identical pacifiers hanging from their mouths, Marvin Gaye gives Hamilton Bohannon, Jr., whose father was leader of Gaye’s band while at Motown Records, a loving pat on the stomach during the singer’s visit with the Bohannons in Atlanta."
Imagine Bohannon beginning his career in Newnan, Georgia, singing accompaniment to a jukebox at a café his father owns, adjacent to his barbershop. A barbershop on one end, that is, and a café on the other—a family operation. His mother and sister serve hamburgers and fries; Bohannon’s role is just to dance and to sing. He sings in church. He sings at his segregated elementary school. He sings in a gospel group, opening for the Prison Boys Quartet and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. He shares stages, in his teenage years, with Fats Domino, B.B. King, Little Richard.
He is offered a percussion scholarship to a university in Indiana, but opts to stay in Georgia, teaching at a school in LaGrange. Exposed to a life of show business, he declines it, denying his place on the stage. He backs away slowly, thinking it better to settle down. But it isn’t to be—of course it isn’t. There’s a car accident; he’s unclear about the details, but he hurts his foot. So I took a leave of absence, Bohannon says, and I decided to go on tour with a friend of mine, whose stage name was Gorgeous George. Jimi Hendrix sits in on guitar. The headliners on this tour—Bohannon’s leave of absence—are Jackie Wilson, Solomon Burke, and Joe Tex. Bohannon hits it off, in particular, with Stevie Wonder, who is thirteen years old and who invites him to become his drummer. Invites him, in fact, to move to Detroit and live with him in his mansion.
I begin to wonder about this foot injury, which prevented Bohannon from teaching but which permitted him to go on tour with Jackie Wilson, Solomon Burke, and Joe Tex. It’s difficult to imagine any injury that might accommodate this contradiction. Perhaps, in the end, Bohannon hadn’t been so ready to leave the stage as he let on. But let’s place this to the side for now, and take him at his word. He made it to Detroit—that’s the important thing.
You name it, we played for all of them, Bohannon says.
Let me tell you a funny story about the Temptations, Bohannon says.
Marvin Gaye really just wanted to play football with the Detroit Lions, Bohannon says.
Johnny Marr, guitarist for the Smiths, credits Bohannon with his appreciation for dance music, dating his conversion to the moment he first heard the latter’s 1975 single “Disco Stomp.” Marr talks about it in an interview with the magazine Ink 19. “It had this overstated choppy rhythm,” he says. “It wasn’t this vibrato as such, but I found the rhythm totally infectious and I was nuts about it.” During the recording of “How Soon is Now?” in 1984, the Smiths had reached an impasse, Marr remembers. He reached back to his childhood, looking for something new and something old, and what he found there was Bohannon.
Flipping through a biography of Brian Eno one afternoon, I come across this admission by David Byrne: “Talking Heads’ record collection in ’74, ’75, ’76 was equal mixtures of R’n’B and art rock," he says. “Funkadelic and Roxy Music. Fela Kuti and Iggy Pop. Velvet Underground and Hamilton Bohannon.” In the formidable earworm “Genius of Love,” by the Talking Heads spin-off group Tom Tom Club, they pay him the ultimate tribute—the kind of currency Bohannon understands best. They make his name into a chant:
Who needs to think when your feet just goBohannon, Bohannon, Bohannon, BohannonWho needs to think when your feet just goBohannon, Bohannon, Bohannon, Bohannon
It’s as though his name becomes more potent with repetition. Sometimes, while writing this, I find myself repeating the incantation under my breath, conjuring its power: Bohannon, Bohannon, Bohannon, Bohannon. I wonder what Bohannon would make of this. I imagine he would be pleased.
Bohannon’s preoccupation with his own name has always been an issue of note. But do not make the mistake of attributing this to simple arrogance. It has more to do with lineage, he says, with the pride he took in carrying on a legacy, in taking the modest material he was given and building it into an imposing monument, a spotlight aimed at the sky, a mantra for the dancefloors of the world.
Jet, Jan. 28, 1978, pg. 62: “Listeners unfamiliar with the personal side of dapper Bohannon often wonder why the drummer uses his name in his compositions, such as ‘Bohannon’s Disco Symphony’ and ‘The Bohannon Walk.’ The songs, he explains, are not glorifying him, but his father, who died in 1970, before he ever heard his son record a note of music.
“Bohannon, who also named a composition after his wife of seven years, Andrea—they have a son named Hamilton II—also learned religion from his father and mother and carries a 22-year-old Bible with him on the road. ‘I still pray everyday and I believe that good things come from God. If bad things happen it’s because I messed up somewhere.’”
I’m on the subway now, listening to Bohannon: Speaks from the Beginning. The subway car is crowded but the audiobook is a buffer against claustrophobia. Rather than consider my own problems, I have become deeply invested in Bohannon’s. Which are, all of a sudden, legion. It’s 1972 and Motown has relocated to California, putting many musicians out of work. No longer on salary, Bohannon is soon broke. I went back into the classroom, he says. I imagine him returning to the schoolteacher’s life, his mysterious foot injury having healed, his famous friends having abandoned him, his head hung in defeat. That was fun, he may have thought, but this is life.
But that is not what he thinks. Instead, he plots his return. I taught school in Detroit for one year, he says, and during that time, I wrote several songs. These he records at the home studio of his good friend Ray Parker Jr. (later famous for the Ghostbusters theme song), and on the strength of these songs, he earns a new record deal, one under his own name. Things got better, Bohannon says. I knew this would be the case, but all the same, I am glad to hear it. The subway reaches my stop, and I push through the crowd, elbowing my way toward the light at the top of the stairs.
You could begin with Bohannon’s 1973 solo debut Stop & Go; it would not be wrong to do so. An album of plush, largely instrumental boudoir-funk, with a handful of irrepressible DJ-crate mainstays—songs that couldn’t possibly fail on a dancefloor—along with some vague messaging concerning salvation. The only thing it’s missing, really, is Bohannon. He’s hiding out behind his drumkit, avoiding the mic. He isn’t really there.
Better to start with the February 15, 1975, episode of Soul Train, on which Bohannon performs his first real hit, “South African Man.” He plays his drums lazily, absent-mindedly. (This is an effect, of course.) He holds the sticks with the delicacy of an orchestra conductor. His hair is impeccable, coiffed, statuesque. His band members wear vests and leather and floral prints, but these bohemian accoutrements are not for Bohannon. He wears a leisure suit and tie. He could stand at a pulpit in this suit, or sell an insurance policy. As is always true of Bohannon’s lyrics, the message is a simple and repeated one:
South African ManHelp him if you canSouth African ManMake it a better land
Having grown up in segregated Georgia, apartheid must have struck Bohannon as a perfectly natural subject for an extended dance anthem. The participants on Soul Train appear to agree.
There is a sadness to this book, Bohannon: Speaks from the Beginning. I notice it one night, listening while walking home from a bar near my apartment. The pattern emerges this way: Bohannon relays some sort of wrongdoing on the part of a Motown celebrity, then laughs off their behavior as if it were all a joke. Marvin Gaye meets him at the studio one day, then gets distracted at the door by a new motorcycle. He asks the owner if he can test-drive the bike, and the man agrees, presumably because Marvin Gaye is the person asking. Bohannon waits at the studio for three hours, as does the bike’s owner. Later, Gaye calls and says he won’t be coming back. The other man is free to stop by his home sometime to pick up his bike, if he can find a ride. Ha! That was Marvin, Bohannon says.
Another time, Gaye enlists Bohannon’s band to record a series of backing tracks, for which he’d later write lyrics. They did so, but the songs were canned. Gaye never wrote the lyrics. Disappointing, maybe, but forgivable. It’s only years later that a former bandmate calls Bohannon to explain that the tracks have appeared on an extended edition of a new Marvin Gaye CD release. Gaye himself, the bandmate claims, had secured half of the royalties. Ha! That was Marvin, Bohannon says.
In these moments, I feel mortified on Bohannon’s behalf. I even wonder, in horror, if one of these ransacked songs might be “Checking Out (Double Clutch),” one of my favorite collaborations between the two men, included on the 40th Anniversary box-set edition of What’s Going On. It’s the only song I’ve ever found in which Gaye refers to Bohannon by name, a gesture I once interpreted kindly. But what if the opposite is true? What if the song is pirated goods, the product of a hijacking? Would Bohannon even care? An odd tonal tic seeps into the audiobook from time to time: He tolerates the jokes, the indifference, the discourtesy—and each time, he laughs. It’s possible that this is a manifestation of a form of love. It’s also possible that Bohannon doesn’t care.
Jet, May 22, 1980, pg. 55: BOHANNON GIVES $1,000 TO “YOUTH WHO DOESN’T CARE ABOUT ANYTHING.”
“Bandleader Hamilton Bohannon has donated $1,000 to the NAACP Youth Movement with a string attached,” the article reports. “‘I want the money to go to a youth who doesn’t care about anything.’”
In a book by Peter Shapiro titled Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco, I find this sentence: “After his disco baptism, [Arthur] Russell immediately connected the dots between Hamilton Bohannon and the minimalism of Steve Reich . . .”
Intellectually, I understand what this sentence means. But listening to Bohannon: Speaks from the Beginning, I can’t help but bristle at the implication. Too often, discussing the apparent breakthroughs of post-punk or post-disco, we credit the (mostly white) curators who could discern the value in this raw pop sludge, this funk debris, this disco trash, and who could then elevate it to the level of art through some sort of Frankenstein, avant-garde transfusion. From the low-brow to the high, as if by alchemy.
But Bohannon came to the same conclusions and didn’t need Steve Reich (or any of his numerous honorary doctorates) to do so. Listen to his 1975 single “Happy Feeling,” and you will know that Bohannon understood the possibilities of discordance, of the narcotic, of irony. Listen to “Disco Stomp,” and you will know that Bohannon understood the possibilities of the ecstatic and the surreal. More than that, it seems to me, he had a profound understanding of the sonic possibilities of joy. I am not sure if the same could be said for Steve Reich.
“It takes a lot to be happy,” Bohannon said in an interview in 1978. “It’s hard being happy.”
In the summer of 1983, the Atlanta Constitution ran a very strange profile of Bohannon, focusing, for whatever reason, on how well-behaved his children were. This is clarified in the headline: THERE ARE NO SHOWBIZ BRATS IN HAMILTON BOHANNON’S HOUSE. The author describes Bohannon’s spacious College Park home, where he’d retired after seventeen straight years on the touring circuit. He wanted to be a father again, to grow closer to his wife, to make sure his family attended Sunday School. “My children are good, they don’t have a superiority complex and they aren’t crazy,” Bohannon says. “If they are, somebody please let me know.”
His children aren’t crazy. At the end of Bohannon: Speaks from the Beginning he includes numerous audio testimonials from collaborators and friends and family members, all of them offering personal appreciations of Bohannon. His children participate, too, going on record to praise their father as a good man, a compassionate man, a man worthy of our respect. His wife, Andrea, we learn, has since died. She’s passed away to heaven, Bohannon says. And I love you, Andrea. Thank you again for giving me two beautiful children. Thank you—all love and spirit, Bohannon.
There are dark notes buried in the Constitution profile. We learn, for instance, that Bohannon hasn’t left his house in two years. I imagine him recording this audiobook memoir in a state of Howard Hughes–like isolation, endlessly replaying scenes from his past-life. The most memorable thing about the article, though, is the image that accompanies it: Bohannon standing with his arms around his children, who lean against him shyly. Behind them is an enormous, gleaming, cursive neon sign. It reads: HAMILTON BOHANNON. When I first saw the photograph, I assumed they’d taken it at a studio, or onstage after a concert. But as the caption explains, no: The sign hangs on the wall of his living room. Let’s hope it shines there still.
“Outskirts of the Southern Canon” is a part of our weekly story series, The By and By.
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