Smokey Robinson’s music still stirs the soul His iconic songs such as ‘Quiet Storm,’ ‘Just to See Her’ and ‘Cruisin’ define love songs for generations

The man dressed in black stood on the New York stage, strong yet vulnerable. His green eyes sparkled like stained glass windows illuminated by a summer sun. He was singing a song he had to sing. And he’d been singing it as if he were standing in front of a closed door imploring the love of his life to unbolt the lock.

He was building to the song’s climax but not its end. Members of the audience perched on the edge of their seats and leaned in, as if they sought to hold the hand of the man in black: Could he still hit the notes he had in 1965, two decades before? Could he still make the audience feel what it had come to feel, young and in love?

And then he hit the notes ” … ’cause I-i feel-uh eel … one day, I’ll hold you near …” and the audience leapt to its feet with grateful and relieved applause. Smokey Robinson had hit the notes. On that night, as in so many nights before and since, he’d built bridges with his song, bridges that took his audience back to loves gained and lost, loves lost and regained.

Oooo, Baby, Baby.

Now on tour, Smokey continues to sing some of his greatest hits, the soundtrack of so many lives, especially American baby boomers. The great bard of romance, a Motown singer, producer, songwriter and vice president while in his early 20s, turns 78 today.

And from where I sit, if Smokey had only written “Ooo Baby Baby,” he’d merit his place in the Rock and Roll and the Songwriters Halls of Fame.

But the Detroit native has done so much more. The winner of multiple Grammys has written more than 4,000 songs, including hits for his Miracles (“Tracks of My Tears”), Marvin Gaye (“Ain’t that Peculiar”) and Mary Wells (“My Guy”).

During the 1960s, with compositions such as “Shop Around” for his group The Miracles, and “My Girl” for The Temptations, Smokey helped bridge the nation’s racial divide; he gave America a common vocabulary to talk about romantic longing and love. But for all his songs extolling romance and love, you could party with Smokey, too, especially in the ’60s. He encouraged people to do the jerk or the monkey. He sang that dancing was all right and medicinal, too: “I Gotta Dance to Keep from Crying.”

After leaving his Miracles to go solo in the early ’70s, in 1975 he released the album A Quiet Storm. It would later lend part of its name to a mellow radio format, born at Howard University’s WHUR before spreading across the nation. And in the late ’70s, and early ’80s, he introduced a new generation to his music with songs including “Cruisin’ ” and “Being with You,” music that was made for love.

More recently, Smokey released Timeless Love, a collection of songs from Cole Porter, the Gershwins and other authors of the Great American Songbook. Smokey has made his own soulful entries in that book, expanding its scope. Artists from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to Aretha Franklin, Mobb Deep and the Zapp Band have recorded his songs. Rappers such as J Dilla, Kanye West and Wiz Khalifa have sampled Smokey’s “Much Better Off,” one of the all-time great blue lights in the basement, slow-drag songs.

And on recordings or in live performances, Smokey has sung with everyone from Sheryl Crow to former president Barack Obama, the latter a White House rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

Aided by his faith, Smokey has overcome a wrenching divorce from his first wife Claudette, a longtime member of the Miracles, and an addiction to drugs. The remarried father of three has reached back to help pull others from the clutches of drugs.

Smokey is a rich man who has helped make America so much richer. During the 1960s, he helped unite the nation through his songs. Today, he helps unite the generations.

Late last year, he released a Christmas recording: Christmas Everyday. His life and career have been gifts to us all. Monday is Smokey’s birthday. Let our rejoicing rise.

Ooo, Smokey, Smokey.

The players’ anthem: when Marvin Gaye sang ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at the 1983 All-Star game Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Pat Riley, Magic, Dr. J and more on the pride and heartbreak of witnessing Gaye’s rendition of the national anthem

Being the head coach of the Lakers, and coaching the All-Star Game at the Great Western Forum that day … it just made it a special, almost spiritual-type moment for me.

— Pat Riley


Marvin Gaye could not have looked more quintessentially Marvin Gaye if he’d tried. It was Feb. 13, 1983: the afternoon of the 33rd annual NBA All-Star Game at The Forum in Inglewood, California. Everyone was packed in, a stone’s throw from Hollywood. Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Maurice Cheeks, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Reggie Theus, Moses Malone, Pat Riley, Bill Laimbeer, Andrew Toney, Alex English, Robert Parish, Jamaal Wilkes and more. Even then the synergy of basketball icons and a musical icon made all the sense in the world. And now as the NBA All-Star Game returns to Los Angeles this weekend — the fourth time since the game’s 1951 inception that it’s been held in the L.A. area — the synergy is a given.

Thirty-five years ago, things were of course different. Nowadays, fans have a huge say with regard to who starts in the game. The top two vote-getters draft their own teams. And music is a quintessential part of the NBA All-Star Weekend experience. The NBA named Migos’ “Stir Fry” the weekend’s official anthem, and a slew of the hottest musical artists in the game are expected to host countless parties. The omnipresence of celebrities courtside has made the NBA America’s most culturally significant sport — and it will be turnt up even higher for the All-Star Game.

The Eastern Conference All-Stars of the 1983 All Star Game: the front row (L to R): Maurice Lucas, Isiah Thomas, Middle Row: Bill Laimbeer, Buck Williams, Robert Parish, Moses Malone & Larry Bird. Back Row: Assistant Coach Bill Bertke, Trainer Ray Melchiorre, Sidney Moncrief, Reggie Theus, Marques Johnson, Head Coach Billy Cunningham, Julius Erving, Andrew Toney, Assistant Coach Jack McMahon, Assistant Coach Matt Guokes

NBAE via Getty Images

The 1983 Western Conference All-Stars of the 1983 the front row: Gus Williams, Jim Paxson, Middle Row – Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Jack Sikma, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Artis Gilmore & Maurice Lukas. Back Row – Assistant Coach Bill Bertke, Assistant Coach Dave Wohl, Jamaal Wilkes, Alex English, Head Coach Pat Riley, George Gervin, Kiki Vandeweghe, David Thompson & Trainer Jack Curran

NBAE via Getty Images

But back then, Gaye was a feel-good comeback story. Following a stint in Europe where the singer temporarily escaped demons that had nearly devoured him, he was riding high off the success of the smash album Midnight Love, which was, in turn, fueled by the Goliathan influence of its landmark single “Sexual Healing.” Gaye would use the NBA’s center stage to propel him to the Grammys just 10 days later.

Gaye, a linchpin of swagger, walked to center court at The Forum in a deep blue suit — jacket buttoned — wearing dark shades courtesy of an NBA gift package that had been distributed to all media and VIP guests. But there was something wrong with the shades. “[The sunglasses] had ‘L.A. All-Star’ imprinted on the lenses,” said Brian McIntyre, the NBA’s public relations director in 1983. “Trouble was, whoever printed them, printed it backwards.” Gaye either didn’t know, didn’t show, or didn’t care. He also didn’t know he was the second choice — Lionel Richie, sitting on the huge success of his solo debut, had turned the NBA down for the anthem honors.

Players and coaches lined up on opposite free-throw lines. The honor guard of nearby Edwards Air Force Base was behind Gaye with the American and California flags raised. Seventeen thousand people in the arena were on their feet for the national anthem — there was little reason to expect a diversion from the way “The Star-Spangled Banner” had been performed their entire lives.

“We’d only heard the national anthem done one way,” said then-Chicago Bulls guard Theus. Having coached the Sacramento Kings and at New Mexico State, the two-time All-Star is now head coach at Cal State University, Northridge. “We weren’t anticipating anything. We knew he was Marvin Gaye.”

Gaye had intertwined his way into the sports world before. He’d sung the anthem on many occasions — each time in the traditional format. Four years earlier, in 1979, Gaye sang at the second Larry Holmes/Earnie Shavers fight at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. In 1974, he sang the anthem at Alameda County Coliseum in Oakland, California, before the Raiders’ regular season finale vs. the Dallas Cowboys. And Motown’s crown prince belted out “The Star-Spangled Banner” before Game 4 of the 1968 World Series between the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals — the Tigers ended up winning in seven games. Ironically, for Game 5 of that series, young singer José Feliciano performed the anthem with a slower, brooding twist that caused some Tiger Stadium attendees to pepper the blind Puerto Rican musician with boos. The backlash derailed his Grammy-laden career for decades.

“In my mind, ‘What’s Going On’ … had the most impact on me than any record, ever.” — Pat Riley

Gaye was an avid sports fan— he even once tried out for the Detroit Lions. And he floored Motown founder (and his former brother-in-law) Berry Gordy when he told him, at the apex of his prolific singing, songwriting and producing career, that he wanted to pursue boxing. Whether he knew it or not though, as much as Gaye found inspiration in the athletes who stood behind him on The Forum’s court, they found as much if not more in him.


“I’ve gone on the record many times saying that Marvin Gaye was my favorite artist. His music touched me in a deep, special and personal way. Reading Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye, it’s kind of gut-wrenching. It’s heartfelt in terms of the struggle he had … Just to do what he wanted to do. He really just wanted to be a crooner. He just wanted to sing and share his gift with the world. But pressure came from a lot of different places to be more, do more, and that eventually cost him his life.”

Julius “Dr. J” Erving


Gaye was a tortured spirit whose life oftentimes played out publicly — despite the singer’s natural shyness. “Marvin’s problems can easily be understood by listening to his music,” Gordy said in the 1987 documentary series, Motown on Showtime. I come up hard, come on, get down / There’s only three things that’s for sure / Taxes, death and trouble. ‘Trouble Man’ was a song he did for a soundtrack that was, of course, probably reminiscent of his life.”

Gaye attempted suicide by cocaine overdose in Hawaii in 1980. The years leading up to the All-Star performance were taxing — physically, mentally, emotionally and financially. “About 1975 through about 1983 hasn’t been very good,” he said in a 1983 interview. “The last seven years of my life haven’t been exactly ecstatic … I’ve been happy, and most of the time pretty depressed.”

By the time of the 1983 All-Star Game, Gaye had long since returned from his self-imposed European exile. He spent two years in Ostend, Belgium, ostensibly away from failed relationships, financial woes and drugs. While there, Gaye co-wrote (with Odell Brown and David Ritz) 1982’s sultry “Sexual Healing.” But long before the Europe and “Healing,” Marvin wrote the score to the lives of many NBA All-Stars who surrounded him that February afternoon.

Marvin Gaye performs in the Netherlands.

Rob Verhorst/Redferns

“[Marvin’s music] resonated with me just growing up as a kid in the ’60s and ’70s in Chicago,” said Hall of Famer and 12-time All-Star Isiah Thomas. The two-time NBA champion and Finals MVP point guard laughs at the memory of first meeting Gaye in Hollywood — alongside Johnson — at the famous and infamous The Palladium. Thomas was surprised Gaye knew his name. “His music was our music. He really hit how we were feeling … in poverty, and our desperate cry for just recognition, and understanding.”

Abdul-Jabbar, on a break from the book tour for his Becoming Kareem: On and Off the Court, recalls running into Gaye at studio sessions for his friend Stevie Wonder’s 1976 Songs In The Key of Life. These, said the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, were among the best times ever. “Marvin Gaye was absolutely on the forefront of [artists tackling societal issues]. He was an important guy, artistically, at that time. He talked about issues that resonated in the black community in a very meaningful way.”

“You knew it was history,” Erving said, “but it was also ‘hood.”

Quite possibly the most excited for Gaye’s performance wasn’t a player, but a coach. During The Beatles phenomenon of the ’60s, Riley — much like Quincy Jones, apparently — never truly caught the wave. “I was raised on doo-wop, Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, Jimmy Smith. Then when Motown really had it course in the early ’60s, that was it for me,” he said, the enthusiasm in his voice rising with each memory. “I was all about The Four Tops and The Temptations. The Supremes.” But as for Gaye himself, “What happened in the late ’60s was a lot of what’s going on in our society today. People just not agreeing what’s happening with our government,” Riley said. “In my mind, ‘What’s Going On’ — for my lifetime — had the most impact on me than any record ever.”


“[After the game,] it was just common knowledge that whenever you talked about the anthem, everybody just pointed to it like, ‘Yeah, that was the best one that was ever done.’ Not because his techniques were good — they were — but because spiritually, in that moment, he really captured the feelings of everyone in The Forum. I’ve never been part of an anthem where everybody’s just in unison and lost control and just started moving. It was a beautiful moment.” — Isiah Thomas


Before Marvin took the floor at the Forum, there was mild panic. Then-NBA commissioner Larry O’Brien was an old school, by-the-book type of guy. O’Brien had told McIntyre during the previous day’s rehearsals, “Make sure we don’t have anything that’s going to cause a scene.”

All during the day, and right before the early afternoon tipoff, Gaye was nowhere to be found. “[Lon Rosen, Lakers’ director of promotions] hadn’t heard from Marvin or his people. They weren’t sure where he was,” McIntyre said. There’s a chuckle in his voice now. But 35 years ago it was anything but a laughing matter. “So they started looking for a backup, I think.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZ9WdCunvy8

Arriving only moments before showtime, Gaye made his way to the floor. A longstanding myth says the notoriously recluse singer was intentionally late to avoid tension with Lakers personnel who believed his rendition was too long the day before at rehearsal. While he adjusted the microphone stand, a simple, yet infectious instrumental began playing. Lawrence Tanter, the Lakers’ public address announcer panicked. “Ah s—,” he reflected. “They’ve got the wrong tape. This is ‘Sexual Healing.’ ”

But it wasn’t. It was a simple beat dubbing a drum track done by Gaye’s guitarist and musical director Gordon Banks and a keyboard track Gaye laid down himself. And what happened next would be the only time in history the national anthem closely resembled a rhythm and blues song. There isn’t a blueprint for Gaye’s charisma. Or his showmanship. It was innate. “You could feel the vibe as soon as he walked out there,” Theus said. “He was the epitome of cool, and smooth at the same time.” Gaye’s anthem was patriotic in its own soulful way, but it was simultaneously debonair, too. Each note left his vocal chord with the pizzazz of a street crooner.

Something special was happening. Riley was standing next to Abdul-Jabbar. On the surface, Riley was calm. But his mind raced a mile a minute. “I was thinking to myself, ‘We’re about to see something very unique here,’ ” the three-time Coach of the Year said. “Then the first words came out of his mouth, and he went on. Then he went in a different pitch. It was mesmerizing to me.”

Gaye, the archbishop of swagger. “You knew it was history,” Erving said, “but it was also ‘hood.” For a two-minute stretch, the basketball world revolved around Marvin Gaye and within his gravitational pull were MVPs, world champions, former rookies of the year, future Hall of Famers and 17,505 in the stands. “We were two-stepping, listening to the national anthem,” said Johnson with a laugh. “We were just bouncing left to right. It blew us away. We just got caught into the moment of this man. People just forgot it was the national anthem.”

“We were two-stepping, listening to the national anthem,” said Johnson with a laugh.

Off the rip, the crowd swooned. They shouted and clapped as if the NBA All-Star Game had momentarily swapped places with a gospel choir. “Before you knew it, you were swaying, clapping and were like doing something to the anthem that you’d never done before in your life. Or since,” said Thomas. “It just wasn’t the players. It was the whole arena. Everyone in unison almost caught the Holy Ghost.”

“You kinda paused for a second, listening,” said Oklahoma City Thunder assistant coach Maurice Cheeks, who was making his first, as a Philadelphia 76er, of four All-Star Game appearances in 1983. Cheeks has also been head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, the Sixers and Detroit Pistons. “You looked around to see if anybody else was appreciating this the way you are … everybody was — especially the crowd.”

A roar had risen by the time And the home of the brave capped off Gaye’s rendition. He’d given the national anthem a makeover. Gaye, later in 1983, offered a self-diagnosis. His depression stemmed from a deep empathy for humanity. All he wanted was for people to listen to him. In less than three minutes on The Forum’s hardwood, he’d done just that. If only for a sliver of time, the anthem wasn’t about the stars, the stripes or whatever its original intentions were. Gaye made it a song about love, inclusion and triumph.

The crowd showered him with a standing ovation. How do we follow THAT? many of the players wondered. The walk back to the bench following the anthem was one of excitement and befuddlement. Players slapped high fives, laughed and recapped. “Everybody was like, ‘Man, he tore the house down!’ ” Johnson said, essentially yelling into the phone. “Going to the bench like, ‘Man! That was unbelievable!’ ”

As Gaye exited the floor, he pulled Erving aside. It was a brief meeting of the sex appeals. The two had met before at shows in New York, Washington, D.C., and in Virginia. “I got something coming out. You gon’ love it,” Gaye told Erving. The “it” he referred to was a then-unreleased song called “Sanctified Lady.” Unfortunately, though, only Erving would be alive to hear the record following its 1985 release.

East All-Star Julius Erving dunks one past the imposing figure of West All-Star Artis Gilmore.

Getty Images

The Eastern Conference, led by Erving’s MVP effort of 25 points, defeated the West, 132-123. But all the talk after the game centered on Gaye. The buzz was still electric. This was of course the pre-internet era. The race was to obtain any sort of recording of the performance. “I remember the conversation being, the game was great,” said Theus. “But that it wasn’t anywhere near as good as Marvin Gaye.”

“It wasn’t even about the game,” said Johnson. “The whole attention was on, ‘Is it on TV? Make sure we get a copy! Find Brian [McIntyre]!’ ”

McIntyre for his part was a bit queasy. He knew the younger generation was enamored with the performance. Lakers owner Jerry Buss, called it, even in the moment, “the greatest anthem of all time.” Yet, in the back of his mind McIntyre was dreading the older generation’s response. Of those possible complaints, O’Brien simply told McIntyre, “You have to answer them all.”

The official CBS after-party was packed. Finger foods and cocktails. David Stern, O’Brien’s eventual successor, and his wife Shelly were in attendance, as was Rick Welts (current Golden State Warriors president), Russ Granik and Gary Bettman. All anyone wanted to hear was Gaye’s anthem. “They were replaying the game [at the party], but every so often someone would say, ‘Let’s hear it again!’ ” said McIntyre. “So they’d switch it back to the anthem and play it all over again. The crowd was just into it.”


“[Marvin] died young and it’s like there was an unfulfilled promise. I’m looking at these rock bands, they’re doing all this crazy stuff, and they’re still touring. They’re still making music! Guys going into their ’60s, ’70s and hitting 80 and they’re still out there. Bill Withers is still out there making a little noise every now and then. So Marvin, what would he have been able to accomplish had he survived the demons?” — Julius “Dr. J” Erving


Much has changed. The NBA looks completely different. Players carry far more leverage than they did in 1983. The style of play has shifted to a more perimeter-based attack. And even the national anthem sounds different — in rankings and context. The biggest story of the year is NFL players kneeling during it in protest of police brutality and the state of the criminal justice system. For those who stood on the floor that day in 1983, they remain connected to Gaye’s rendition. The version sung by Whitney Houston at the 1991 Super Bowl is the only other anthem close to a comparison to Gaye’s rendition, in their eyes.

“This is what made it so special,” said Johnson. “Everybody said, ‘Wow.’ Everybody went absolutely crazy. It was blacks, whites, everybody — saying, what a moment.”

The moment was one so memorable the NBA had Marvin’s daughter, Nona, perform the same anthem “in a special duet” with her father at the 2004 All-Star Game, when it returned to Los Angeles. In a sport littered with previous anthem singers such as The Temptations, Destiny’s Child, Mary J. Blige, John Legend, Brian McKnight and more — Marvin Gaye remains on the NBA’s musical Mount Rushmore.

But how does Gaye’s anthem fit into the current conversation around it? “We have to take everything in context,” said Abdul-Jabbar. Many of the issues Gaye addressed in his music run parallels to Colin Kaepernick’s original message. “I think that people were trying to make an issue of the anthem because they didn’t want to deal with the issue Colin Kaepernick raised, which is the fact that black Americans — unarmed black Americans — should not be getting killed by police officers at the rate that they are. That’s what the issue is.”

For Theus, it’s a simple matter. “Marvin Gaye’s rendition of the national anthem superseded and surpassed any negativity that was in anyone’s mind,” he said. “When you hear something like that, you don’t hear the national anthem that everyone is talking about today. It was another national anthem that we were listening to. You can’t relate the two.”

“So Marvin, what would he have been able to accomplish had he survived the demons?” — Julius “Dr. J” Erving

Ten days after the All-Star Game, for “Sexual Healing,” Gaye was awarded the only two Grammys of his career. “I’ve waited … 20-something years to win an award like this,” he said in his acceptance speech. He thanked God, his children, his mother, and his fans. He did not, however, thank his father. Almost prophetically, he closed the speech saying, “Stay with us, we’re gonna try and give you more.” Gaye embarked on what would be his final tour in the summer of 1983. He traveled with, and kept a preacher in one room. His drugs in another. In a figurative sense, Gaye stood between heaven and hell throughout his Midnight Love tour.

Marvin Gaye holds ones of his Grammys.

Ron Galella/WireImage

“I expose myself because the fans demand it,” he told his ex-wife Jan Gaye. “I offer myself up for slaughter. I am the sacrificial lamb. If their pleasure requires my destruction, so be it.”

By the Detroit stop, Gaye was a zombie. “After the performance, we got back to the dressing room,” Mel Farr recalled of his final meeting with Gaye. (Farr died in 2015.) “He had all those hangers-on giving him this drug and this drug. I said, ‘Wow, man. I don’t think he’s going to make it.’ It was that bad.”

Four-hundred fourteen days following his anthem, on April 1, 1984, Gaye was murdered by his father, Marvin Gay Sr., a day shy of what would have been his Marvin Jr.’s 45th birthday. The house where the killing took place was but seven miles from The Forum. Toward the end of his life, as he battled voices in his head, Gaye still understood the importance of Feb. 13, 1983. “I asked God,” he said, “that when I sang [that anthem] that it would move men’s souls.”

He most certainly moved Riley, who keeps hours upon hours upon hours of Gaye’s and Motown’s greatest hits near him at all times. The Miami Heat president still keeps a framed picture of himself, Abdul-Jabbar and the Western Conference All-Stars lined up watching Gaye. Call it his way of paying homage to an artist he says changed his life and enhanced his perspectives long before the NBA came calling. Thirty-five years later, after the 1983 All-Star Game, from his South Florida office, there’s pride and sorrow in his voice.

“I’m privileged to have been there at that moment when this icon sang that song. The people that were in that arena that day saw something unique, probably changed people to some extent,” Riley said. “The tragic way that Marvin died was something that was very depressing for a lot of people. I know it was for me. But,” he said, “[Marvin will] always be in my heart because I hear his voice all the time. You never forget people like this.”

Forty years later, George Clinton’s Mothership is still landing A look back at the P-Funk — and a look ahead

George Clinton, the big-picture man behind the music juggernaut that came to be known as P-Funk, talked big trash on Parliament’s Chocolate City, tormenting white keepers of the status quo about the African-American majorities in the nation’s capital and other urban cities bogarting local political power. The large-scale power grab, Clinton fantasized on the album’s title song, was a prelude to electing the first black president of the United States — Muhammad Ali.

Provocative ideas for the time (early 1975), yes. But Clinton had larger targets in mind and knew where he had to go to hit them. He had to go astro. “We had put blacks in places where they had never been perceived to be,” Clinton said in an interview with The Undefeated. “So the next one was to have blacks in outer space, and I knew that a clones concept would get it too. It was thought of even before we did the Mothership Connection studio album.”

The “it” that Clinton speaks of was a funk attack of successive studio albums by Parliament, 1975’s Mothership Connection and 1976’s The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein, with tales of blacks as street-savvy “afronauts” returning to Earth to reclaim secrets hidden inside Egyptian pyramids, including “using science to cheat death.”

Those record projects begot the P-Funk Earth Tour in 1976 and ’77. The concert offered pimps as stage characters, lyrics that equated the band’s music style, uncut funk, with pure cocaine and a prop that the Smithsonian Institution describes as the most iconic stage prop ever: “A huge, multicolored-lights-flashing, smoke-spitting spaceship that landed onstage during a gospel-heavy call-and-response rendition of ‘Swing Down, Sweet Chariot’ ” that whipped audiences into spiritual frenzy.

“Only if P-Funk could sell their records to a mass pop audience, and thus encourage whites to attend their concerts in force, would whites feel safe.”

And off the spaceship came Dr. Funkenstein, one of Clinton’s lasting musical characters, in a floor-length fur coat striking a pimp pose with his index finger held straight beneath his nostrils.

Parliament’s label then, Casablanca Records, captured the hugely successful tour on record, releasing Parliament Live: P-Funk Earth Tour on May 5, 1977. Acknowledging the 40th anniversary of the double-album release, Clinton talked about how the tour came together and why the band’s music and philosophies, particularly from that double album, have endured for generations. Ever the salesman, Clinton also took the opportunity to hype “I’m Gonna Make You Sick,” which, when released this fall, will be the first Parliament song to be released since 1980.

Need convincing of the Live P-Funk Earth Tour’s impact? A replica of the original mothership anchors the Musical Crossroads exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Music from the album has been sampled by a who’s who of hip-hop: Common, 50 Cent, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Digable Planets, Public Enemy and Ice Cube. Listen closely to the opening drum rolls on Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 “The Heart Pt. 3 (Will You Let It Die)” and it’s clear the inspiration came from P-Funk drummer Jerome “Bigfoot” Brailey’s drum intro on the live version of “Do That Stuff.” The influence on Lamar can also be heard on To Pimp A Butterfly’s “King Kunta” (2015): A female vocalist repeats, “We want the funk” in a nod to the Earth Tour’s “Tear the Roof Off the Sucker.” Afrofuturism artists such as the Sa-Ra Creative Partners and Flying Lotus acknowledge that their baptism into the movement came from the P-Funk Earth Tour.

“It was a dream of myself and Neil Bogart of Casablanca Records,” Clinton said. “He did it for us, Kiss and Donna Summer at the same time. He was a promotion man. He got behind us and backed all of us. And then we had the music from Bernie Worrell, Bootsy Collins, Garry Shider, Glenn Goins, Fred Wesley and Maceo, Eddie Hazel. He knew, especially after Chocolate City, that we knew what we were doing.”

Rickey Vincent, a lecturer in African-American studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of the 1996 book Funk The Music, The People, And the Rhythm of The One, said the P-Funk Earth Tour was a logical culmination in the mid- to late 1970s toward larger shows and profits in the music business. But there was more to it. “George can say he was just clowning, but at the same time he understands the ethos of soul music,” Vincent said. “And that is to put black people in a better place. You don’t have to be an ethnomusicologist to understand a lot of underlying themes in black music into the ’70s was ‘We’re going to be free.’ You can’t get much freer than outer space and reclaiming the power that came with building pyramids in Africa.”

Clinton has never claimed to be a guru. He shuns such talk. To hear him tell it, he just wanted to be big. Actually, the biggest. “The Who, David Bowie, Rolling Stones. I’d seen them all do those big shows, big productions, and I wanted to do one with funk music,” Clinton said. “I wanted to have a prop that not only was deeper than anything that any black group had done but bigger than any white group had done.”

The Earth Tour was a massive undertaking. And costly. Clinton said Parliament’s record label set up a $1 million loan for him, and he turned to Jules Fisher, a Tony Award-winning lighting designer whose work included Jesus Christ Superstar and Chicago. Fisher designed the stage set and props for Earth Tour, according to Clinton.

The show demanded that the band, famous for its onstage looseness and improvisation that could stretch a four-minute studio song into a 20-minute live jam, play and move with discipline. The show was essentially scripted. So the band needed to rehearse, and it did for two or three weeks, Clinton said, at a onetime airplane hangar in Newburgh, New York. He put Maceo Parker, the saxophone player who had joined P-Funk after years with James Brown, in charge. “Anybody from the James Brown bands, I don’t care if it’s Bootsy, Maceo, Fred Wesley, you learn so much discipline,” Clinton said. “They can pretty much run s—. And Maceo and Fred are so diplomatic. They know the writing side, they know the musician side. They made it so much easier.

“With the [P-Funk Earth Tour], we had props moving around. You had to be in a certain spot at a certain time. If not, that spaceship might knock upside your head.”

The Earth Tour opened on Oct. 26, 1976, at the Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans. The band discovered right away that the show’s “script” was all wrong. “They had the mothership land first, at the opening of the show. That was the climax. As great as the band was, there was nothing we could do to top that spaceship landing,” Clinton said.

By the next show, the mothership landing came near the concert’s end. With that change, audience excitement and anticipation for seeing the mothership soared. And singer/guitarist Goins took full advantage. His vocal pleading with the audience to join him in calling for the mothership to land during a psychedelic, funky-church arrangement of “Swing Down, Sweet Chariot” elevated the live show to what many describe as a religious experience.

The energy jumps off the record. Brailey’s thumping foot on the bass drum. (“We want it to feel like a heartbeat,” Clinton said on the recording.) Worrell’s keyboard and synthesizer strokes filling in around, behind and on top of the rhythms. The crowd in the Oakland Coliseum clapping in unison on The One and answering Goins’ call for the mothership, singing, “Swing down sweet chariot stop and let me ride.”

The mothership lands. Audience screams fill the venue. They explode louder still when Clinton as Dr. Funkenstein disembarks the spaceship.

“It was like I was going back to church,” said Vincent, who witnessed the Earth Tour as a teenager. “They were signifying, bringing back those dreams.”

Parliament Live P-Funk Earth Tour captured all that sound and emotion during shows in January 1977 at the Los Angeles Forum and the Oakland Coliseum. The album offered live versions of hit after hit: “P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up),” “Do That Stuff,” “Mothership Connection,” “Dr. Funkenstein,” “Tear the Roof off the Sucker,” “Undisco Kidd.” Eleven live songs in all, plus three new studio cuts.

The release stayed on the Billboard 200 album charts for 19 weeks, a May through September achievement even more impressive because the music was undeniably black and urban — as were most of the audiences at the Earth Tour shows. At that point, even with huge promotion from Parliament’s record label and free publicity generated by coverage of the never-before-seen spaceship landing in mainstream newspapers and newsweekly magazines, P-Funk Earth Tour had gained little crossover traction. Why? In early September 1977, John Rockwell, a writer for The New York Times, offered white fear as an explanation.

A replica of the original mothership anchors the Musical Crossroads exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“P-Funk music isn’t a real mass success yet because whites have grown afraid of black concerts in general. … In the big urban centers it’s mostly a black crowd, and whether it’s realistic or not, whites seem to be scared: There are too many reports of black gangs terrorizing isolated whites at black concerts,” Rockwell wrote. “Only if P-Funk could sell their records to a mass pop audience, and thus encourage whites to attend their concerts in force, would whites feel safe. But since their dazzling stage show helps sell the records, they have a self-perpetuating problem.”

Still, the album achieved platinum status. That summer, Billboard 200 album charts listed live concert albums from Marvin Gaye, Al Jarreau, Lonnie Liston Smith, the Bee Gees and two from the Beatles. In early August 1977, 16 of Billboard’s Top 200 albums were live concert recordings. In the same time span this summer, not a single live album was on the Billboard 200 chart. Live concert audio releases are no longer a thing, and not just because of DVDs.

Vincent, the funk history author, believes that artists take some of the blame for the disappearance of live concert recordings. In the late 1980s, he said, standards for live performances were lowered and bad reviews followed. Demand for lackluster concert recordings nose-dived, Vincent said.

Dexter Story, a Los Angeles-based musician and producer who has been marketing director for record labels such as Priority, Bad Boy and Def Jam, thinks fans just turned to a different product to get what they used to get from live records.

“People like bonus material — remixes,” Story said. “Back then, in ’77, the live album was the bonus material. As a fan, getting live albums was a treat. The live interpretations of what the musicians had done in the studio were a treat as well.”

In late July, Story produced a show for the venerable Grand Performances summer concert series in Los Angeles. It was called Mothership Landing: Funk and The Afrofuturist Universe of ’77. Music from the P-Funk Earth Tour dominated the set. “They asked me what I wanted to do,” Story said. “I chose to focus on 1977 and Afrofuturism. It was a great opportunity for me to go back to my funk roots.”

Music from P-Funk — Parliament, Funkadelic, Bootsy’s Rubber Band, the Horny Horns and others — carried the show. “As I started to transcribe their music for the concert, I found out it was a lot more complicated and complex. There was a complexity to that music that I hadn’t fully appreciated.”

That music — much of it credited to Clinton, Worrell and Collins — is one reason P-Funk has endured, Story believes. “They were laying a foundational aspect of rhythm that was informed by James Brown and Sly Stone,” Story said. “On top of that, they added jazz-influenced horns … four- and five-part horn harmonies. The horn players were jazz musicians. Another level was the church sound in the voices, gospel-influenced vocals. And still another level was Bernie Worrell. He was speaking on keyboards to me. From piano to organ to Moog, he was speaking.

“Lastly, you’ve got the layer of George Clinton on top of all of that great sound. I just gave you the ingredients of a P-Funk sandwich,” Story said. “Now, go ahead. Take a bite.”

A number of the musicians and vocalists who performed on P-Funk Earth Tour record have died. They include Worrell, Garry “Diaperman” Shider, Goins, Richard “Kush” Griffith, Cordell “Boogie” Mosson and Ray Davis. Among the other players, only former Bootsy’s Rubber Band vocalist Gary “Mudbone” Cooper currently tours with Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic. Michael “Kidd Funkadelic” Hampton, Brailey, Fuzzy Haskins, Calvin Simon, Grady Thomas, Parker, Wesley, Rick Gardner, Lynn Mabry, Dawn Silva, Debbie Wright and Jeanette Washington have left the touring band. Some still show up on P-Funk-related studio projects, such as Funkadelic’s 33-song First, You Gotta Shake the Gate, released in 2014.

The massive change in touring personnel isn’t surprising, considering four decades have passed since the P-Funk Earth Tour. So much time has passed that Clinton’s Chocolate City is no longer majority black, and his fantasy of a black U.S. president actually happened. But Clinton tinkers with the band regularly. Adds new musicians. Brings back former ones. Introduces new sounds such as violin, mandolin and the didgeridoo.

“It’s hard to keep a band together over time. We get older and settled down, and want to do other things,” he said. “And there’s always a need for young legs and vibes. Younger players bring an energy. And you need that, especially the way I push the band. You have to have young legs to be out there.”

For his latest iteration of Parliament Funkadelic, Clinton leans heavily on family. There’s his son, Tracey Lewis Clinton, and three of Tracey’s children; Clinton’s stepdaughter; and another of his grandchildren, this one the daughter of Clinton’s daughter, Barbarella Bishop. The drummer, Benzel Cowan, is the son of longtime and current P-Funk trumpet player Bennie Cowan. And guitarist and vocalist Garrett Shider is the son of Shider, the band’s diaper-wearing musical director who served as Clinton’s No. 2 from the early ’80s until his death in 2010.

“Garrett was born into the band,” Clinton said. “He’d be backstage with his mother, Linda. We called him ‘Soundcheck.’ ” In keeping the strong family theme, Garrett Shider recently released his first solo CD, Hand Me Down Diapers. It includes contributions from George and Tracey Clinton and other P-Funk band members. The project is a heartfelt tribute to his father and sounds like Funkadelic during the Hardcore Jollies days.

“George was really good when my father passed, bringing me into the group,” said Garrett Shider, who joined Clinton on the road full time in 2011. “He knew I needed some help. It was his way of making sure he was looking out for his right-hand man’s son.”

Such strong family connections in the music business aren’t commonplace now, and if they exist, they aren’t factored into artists’ branding. That wasn’t always so. Black music groups often made family connections, real or contrived, part of their marketing strategy. The Jackson 5. The Five Stairsteps. Sly and the Family Stone. The Isley Brothers. The Sylvers, Pointer Sisters, The Brothers Johnson, DeBarge, and Earth, Wind & Fire. More recently, there’s Jodeci. And, of course, Wu-Tang Clan.

“There are not a lot of groups anymore, first of all,” Clinton said. “Hip-hop artists have different styles, and so many are focused on an individual. Plus, the record companies will try to separate you anyway. Wu-Tang has done it well.” For Clinton, bringing in family was relatively easy. “They all grew up together, basically. They knew each other,” he said.

“They were all doing different styles of music, and they were doing well. We were able to put them together. Younger musicians do things differently. They don’t mind sometimes playing live over recorded backing tracks. We just play on top of it. You get the best of both worlds.”

Clinton said he will release his first Parliament studio project since 1980’s Trombipulation by the end of 2017. It’s called Medicaid Fraud Dog. The first single from the album, “I’m Gonna Make You Sick,” should be released by the end of October.

“My son, Tracey, and my stepdaughter, Brandi, did a lot of work on the album,” Clinton said. “Lots of good sounds and grooves on it. Scarface is on the single. We’re doing three or four remixes. Junie Morrison [former member of P-Funk] was working on one of the remixes when he died.”

He plans for the single to be available just before he takes a short break from his current tour. Clinton still performs more than 200 live dates annually. “We still sell out all over the world,” Clinton said. “We work, ’cause it’s a job.”

Music might be a healant just like it was 50 years ago, in the summer of ’67 What we need now is love and a song like ‘All Around the World’

“People hand in hand

Have I lived to see the milk and honey land?

Where hate’s a dream and love forever stands

Or is this a vision in my mind?”

— Stevie Wonder, “Visions”


Some people remember 1967 as a very good year for pop music, from Aretha Franklin singing “Respect” to Frank and Nancy Sinatra singing “Something Stupid.” They remember a summer of love that gave way to a fall where the Beatles sang “All You Need is Love,” a simple declaration of interdependence and an enduring international anthem for complex and ever-changing times.

In 1967, in some important ways, things were getting better all the time. The Loving v. Virginia decision struck down bans against interracial marriage in the United States. Thurgood Marshall was named the nation’s first black Supreme Court justice, and Carl Stokes was elected the first black mayor from a major American city, Cleveland.

But 1967 was a year inflamed by strife, too; war raged in the Middle East and in Vietnam. Cities such as Detroit, Newark, New Jersey, and other places burned across America. Richard Nixon marshaled white resentment in his march toward the Republican nomination for president.

Which is to say, 1967 was a year of turmoil and triumph, just as every year is, including this one, a time when new walls of exclusion are championed and old monuments commemorating Confederate soldiers and officers come down.

From the mid-’60s through the mid-’70s, we were blessed with music that tended to heal and enlighten, inspire and challenge.

Today, when political lies threaten to trump moral truths and profits trump creativity, the music doesn’t salve society’s wounds as it once did or seemed to.

But earlier this month, I heard two veteran bluesmen perform a song the nation badly needs: “All Around the World.” The song, co-written by blues master and Grammy winner Keb’ Mo’, is an upbeat call-and-response tune. Backed by a tight band, Mo’ and his touring partner, Grammy winner Taj Mahal, ripped through the song in New York’s Central Park.

Like Stevie Wonder’s “Visions” in the 1970s, “All Around the World” imagines a world spinning on an axis of love:

There’ll be love all around the world (All around the world)/ There’ll be peace and understanding (All around the world) …

Neither I nor the song advocates a fey and feckless love that merely prompts us to forgive our tormentors, again and again. The love we need and the love the song talks about gives society a powerful emotion, strong enough to stare down evil and douse the torches lit by bigotry, ignorance and injustice in Charlottesville, Virginia, and all around the world.

Keb’ Mo’ and Taj Mahal, who have a new CD out and are touring under the banner TajMo, performed their rousing song on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to a rapturous response. It’s the kind of song I can imagine John Legend recording with a gospel choir and a rap break by somebody like Chance the Rapper. It’s the kind of song I could see everyone from Ariana Grande to Garth Brooks to Kirk Franklin adding to their live shows. It’s the kind of song I can imagine becoming a thumping recessional tune in various houses of worship or at rallies for an America that lives up to its majestic promise for all its people.

It’s the kind of song I can imagine being recorded by a cross-section of artists, a kind of “We Are the World” for the 21st century, in the name of social equality or world peace.

Like other masters of the form, Keb’ Mo’ and Taj Mahal play a blues that’s animated by joy. They sing and play the way Ella Fitzgerald sang her songs, the way Louis Armstrong blew his trumpet, the way Stephen Curry dribbles his basketball, with joy and love. And that’s what we’ll need to come together and make a better tomorrow.

All around the world.