Mr. Ken Boothe
Happy Bastille Day!
This of course means next to nothing if you’re not French. However, one of the very few facts ingrained in my brain from high school French is the phrase “Quatorze Juillet”. This holiday celebrates not the storming of the Bastille (or the execrable song ‘Bastille Day’ by Rush), but the one year anniversary of same which marks the beginning of the modern French nation. As a result of this patterning, every July 14th I pause to remember my horrifying high school French teacher with a moment of silent reflection. So join me, won’t you, in hoisting a garlic-y snail and a Jacques Dutronc record, and saying ‘Vive le France!’ (unless you’re a Republican, in which case keep muttering…)
Today brings us to the third and final segment of the Jamaican Trip, during which we have made a cursory survey of soul recordings by Jamaican artists (barely scratching the surface).
Like the rest of the tunes I posted this week, today’s selection is a cover of an American soul record, but also amplifies (and to a point, transcends) the original version. This record is Ken Boothe’s 1973 recording of Syl Johnson’s classic ‘Is It Because I’m Black’.
Boothe was one of the most popular Jamaican singers of the 60’s and 70’s. He started out in Jamaica in a duet with Stranger Cole, moving on to a substantial career as a solo artist, in ska, rock steady and reggae. He always had a love for American soul music, and this is evident in ‘Is It Because I’m Black’.
The original recording, by Syl Johnson is one of the finest examples of his ability to combine the sound of the blues (where he got his start) with more modern soul styles. His performance of the song is a cry of pain, taken at a slow pace where the lamentation of the lyrics couldn’t be any clearer. As in his other Twinight recordings, upbeat, sock-soul killers or ballads, there’s a distinctive “southern” flavor to the record. ‘Is It Because I’m Black’ (most definitely a rhetorical question) is clearly of it’s time, in which soul music was in the midst of a wave of social consciousness. Where a record like Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ – rightly considered a classic – has an atmospheric, almost pop-inflected feel – Johnson’s epic (7+ minutes) recording sounds like a late night sermon from the stage of a Mississippi roadhouse, accompanied by the occasional cry of ‘Damn Right!’ and the welling of tears.
Ken Boothe – having grown up in the midst of a culture similarly damaged by racial inequity, colonialism and poverty – takes ‘Is It Because I’m Black’, ratchets up the righteous anger a few steps and delivers a performance that takes Johnson’s raised hand and turns it into a fist. Boothe – cutting the running time of the song in half – is like a tightly wound spring. Propelled by the persistent chank of the guitar and a rumbling bass, he delivers a bravura vocal performance, alternating between a smooth delivery and little explosions of emotion.
Though the LP that ‘Is It Because I’m Black’ hails from, ‘Let’s Get It On’ covers a lot of bases (everything from Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops, and Paul McCartney to a fantastic cover of Neil Young’s ‘Down By The River’), ‘Is It Because I’m Black’ stands alone as a landmark interpretation of its source material. Boothe went on to have a number of hits, including a huge pop hit in the UK with a cover of Bread’s ‘Everything I Own’ in 1974. He has continued to record over the years, and much of his work is available in reissue, on compilations devoted to his work, and various artists collections as well.