All posts by Larry Buford

Larry Buford is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, and author of Book/CD titled "Things Are Gettin' Outta Hand" (Steuben Pub.) He writes Human Interest articles and entertainment reviews for various newspapers across the country. He is also an editor, and provides services for press releases, interviews, business letters, resumes, etc. A native Detroiter, he is a former Motown songwriter.
Etta James

Don’t Cry Etta James … Don’t Cry, Baby!

Etta James
*When the editor (Carolyn Baker) of Jam Source Magazine asked me to write an article on the late great legendary singer extraordinaire Etta James in celebration of Jazz Appreciation Month, I was hard-pressed to come up with something new about the artist that has not already been said…then bingo! I went to a book signing and got the angle that I needed.

She was born Jamesetta Hawkins. By age five she was known as a gospel prodigy; at the time of her death she’d mastered R&B, jazz, blues, and rock. As she began her professional singing career the name Jamesetta was inverted to Etta James. One of her early hits that soared to number two on the R&B charts – “All I Could Do Was Cry” – was co-written by Motown founder Berry Gordy before there was Motown. Chess Records producer Ralph Bass remembered about the recording session:

“One take and Etta was crying her eyes out for real. The band wanted her to do it over. I told them ‘Forget it’…how much more soul could I get from a singer?”

Etta James had a lot to cry about. Raised by a series of foster parents – the good and the bad – she referred to her biological sleep around mother as “the mystery lady.” She speculated that her father was the professional pool player Rudolf “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone whom she met briefly for the first time at age 49. Her childhood struggles set the stage for a life of alcohol and drug abuse. There was a quality about James’ voice that made you cry. To this day I can hardly listen to “I’d Rather Go Blind” without welling up as singer/actress Beyonce did in her portrayal of James in the movie “Cadillac Records.” I can only wonder if there was some irony in James’ hit “Don’t Cry Baby” to remind her to get through the song without crying.

Etta James and Beyonce

Etta James and Beyonce

Now back to the book signing, it was music critic Nelson George promoting his new book about the TV dance show, Soul Train. His guest was an original Soul Train dancer, Marco De Santiago who recalled when Etta James appeared on the show along with The O’Jays (1978 season eight, episode one): “She was singing a song and became really emotional, and so she had to sing the song probably three or four times…and Don Cornelius asked her to sing that song again…this time just don’t cry. Etta James had to tell him that this song was just so personal. I didn’t know all the things Etta James had been through at that time [continued drug use, etc] and for Don to not show compassion. Some artists were given the privilege to sing live, and some artists lip-synced [over a track]. Etta James actually sang the song, and each time she sang it, it ripped her to shreds. Don would let her get her composure…he was a little irritated…I had never witnessed anybody cry in a song.”

That song, “Sugar On The Floor” was included in James’ album “Burnin’ Down The House” which was recorded live at Hollywood’s House of Blues in 2001. One critic said at the time: “Her big full voice had lost none of its richness” from her first recording in 1954 at age 16. James gave her all in a song.

She was quoted: “My mother always told me, even if a song has been done a thousand times, you can still bring something of your own to it. I’d like to think I did that.”

Following is the video to the song “Sugar On The Floor” and the lyrics:

You’re a stranger to me /Still you give me your life/ I toss it to one side/ Still you’re sweeter to me /When will I be sure

It’s warm where you are/ But my lips just don’t burn/ I feel so insecure/ When you try to be kind

Could I, could I ask for more?/ Feel like sugar on the floor

Sugar on the floor Sugar on the floor

Looking at you now/ I know you only want to find me/ Still I need a reason to leave the past behind me

There is no easy way/There is no easy way /To learn how to fly

I hope that I could care

When I turn around you’re there/ Should I, should I ask for more? /I feel like sugar on the floor/ I feel like sugar on the floor/ Sugar on the floor /Oh, oh, ooh Ooh, It’s warm where you are /But ooh I wish we could be closer/ ‘Cause I’m living in a dream/ And I can’t show you /Still you’re sweeter to me/ When would I, when would I be sure?/I feel like I’m sugar on the floor/ Feel like sugar on the floor All I need, /All I need is somebody to love /All I need, All I need is somebody to care about me/ So I won’t be wasted/ Oh, wasted on the floor /Oh I, oh I I feel like I’m sugar on the floor

Re-printed by permission. Here’s the original Jam Source article:

soul train cover1

Book Signing at Eso Won: ‘Soul Train’ by Music Critic Nelson George

soul train book coverLongtime music critic Nelson George was on hand April 3rd to talk about and sign his new book “The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture and Style” at Los Angeles’ Eso Won bookstore in Leimert Park.

His guest was an original “Soul Train” dancer Marco De Santiago. The room was packed and every ear attentive to the behind-the-scene stories they came to tell. The interest was so high that once I got to the counter to buy my own copy, the books were sold out. Kudos to Eso Won owner James Fugate and his team for a well-coordinated event!

Among the things discussed were the little-known rivalry between American Bandstand’s host Dick Clark and “Soul Train” creator and host Don Cornelius; and the fact that many male celebrities came from near and far attracted by the sexy mini-skirted Soul Train dancers that the cameramen took license to reveal on national TV. For instance, Marvin Gaye met his second wife Janis on Soul Train which he sings about in his song “After The Dance.”

Nelson George and Marco De Santiago

Nelson George (left) and Marco De Santiago

Also discussed was Cornelius’ indifference to celebrities and staff alike. George stated:

“Don Cornelius was absolutely one of the most formidable people you ever had to interview. He wasn’t a ‘huggy hey-man-how-you-doing’ type brother. The cool, the reserved…that’s how he was and how he presented himself to the world very often. I remember [when] I was at Billboard magazine from 1982 to 1989 as the Black Music Editor…I had been to Soul Train a few times…going to Don’s office was almost like going to the principal’s office…and that voice comes at you…” De Santiago added, “I was actually terrified of Don and I think most people were because he was ultra-aloof. He rarely had eye contact with you, and if he did give you eye contact you had no idea what was going to spew out of his mouth…he didn’t tame his tongue…he would rarely smile…he just wasn’t the kindest man but you did have respect for him.”

George: “He was not someone you can go like ‘I just love Don Cornelius’ in that emotional way…there were barriers…and there were very few people [like] Marvin Gaye, Barry White, Smokey, The O’Jays…he had a tight group of people who really, really lauded him. One of the most famous episodes of Soul Train is Marvin Gaye and Don Cornelius playing one-on-one basketball refereed by Smokey Robinson.” The two also mentioned some female artists including Janet Jackson and Diana Ross that Cornelius was kind to, and discussed – despite his opinion – how he reluctantly embraced Rap and Hip-Hop to stay current.

One of “Soul Train’s” standouts – De Santiago, always stylishly dressed, had his own unique dance style. He said he was surprised and unprepared for his celebrity when people would recognize him on the street. He tries to keep all the Soul Train dancers in contact by throwing an annual Christmas party.

George says “I wrote this book for the internet age. I tried to make sure that the show number and the year [are] very specific when I mention something…everything in the book is online…you can see all these clips…that way I’m not making anything up. It’s all there.”

De Santiago said he received a call from the Smithsonian Institute asking if he could get in touch with all the dancers that are still around to see if they would donate clothing and other items from the “Soul Train” era. They want him to be the curator for a permanent “Soul Train” exhibit at a museum they’re building that will be called The Smithsonian Museum of African-American History – an honor that underscores the significance of Soul Train being an agent for the evolution of culture and style.

eso wan audience for nelson george

A very attentive Eso Won audience

Claudeete Robinson and Ron Brewington

Motown’s Claudette Robinson Does ‘ActorsE’ Chat with Ron Brewington (Watch)

Claudeete Robinson and Ron Brewington

Claudette Robinson and Ron Brewington on ActorsE Chat

*Dubbed the ‘First Lady of Motown’ by Motown founder Berry Gordy for the very fact that she was the actual first female to be signed to the infant label; Claudette Robinson, original member of The Miracles and former wife of Smokey Robinson opens up about how it all began.

Watch the ActorsE Chat interview video (below) as Claudette tells interviewer Ron Brewington about graduating from high school at age 15, joining the U.S. Marines and becoming a sharpshooter.

She also tells of The Beatles expressing how much they were influenced by The Miracles. She talks about Marvin Gaye on what would have been his 75th birthday April 2nd.

During the interview one ‘chatter’ asked, “How do you think the lyrics [today] are so different from The Miracles [compared] to now?” Claudette, still beautiful and looking like royalty answered, “I think that has a lot to do with the person who’s writing them…lyrics come from the heart and it’s what you yourself are feeling…I think there was a lot of love and emotion that people had ‘back in the day’ [laughs]…not saying that [writers today] don’t have the same feeling and emotion, but they’re not expressing it in the same way…we were definitely about love and caring and sharing and respect. I’d like to see more of that.”

Claudette is hoping her book will be published in 2015. Here’s the ActorsE Chat interview:

Following is a story I wrote when Claudette appeared on the cover of Jam Source Magazine in 2012:

Claudette Robinson: A Quiet Storm! – by Larry Buford

Hurricanes and a tropical storm have bore her name – Claudette – and it bespeaks the impact she had behind the scenes at Motown Records for decades. You see, by the time The Supremes broke out with their blockbuster “Where Did Our Love Go” in 1964, she could have already been considered in those days a seasoned veteran of the music industry. Claudette Robinson – then a member of The Miracles, and wife of lead singer Smokey –  was the voice that added that special spice to hit songs like “Shop Around,” “Who’s Lovin’ You,” “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me,” “What’s So Good About Goodbye,” “A Love She Can Count On,” “Happy Landing,”  and many others.

If not for the PBS broadcast network where she has performed with other members of the group in recent years, Claudette would remain in relative obscurity because she stopped touring with the group before Blacks began to get more frequent exposure on major TV in the early sixties. She and Smokey decided she should come off the road in order to begin a family, but she continued to record with the group on all the songs – hits like “Tracks Of My Tears,” Ooo Baby, Baby,” and “I Second That Emotion” –  up until Smokey went solo in 1972.

Dubbed “The 1st Lady of Motown” by Motown founder Berry Gordy, one can only imagine what the Robinson household must have been like in Detroit as Claudette’s hit-songwriting husband churned out the hits (in addition to The Miracles) for various artists like Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, and The Temptations.

Although she stops short of discussing their divorce after being married 27 years, Claudette says of Smokey, “I never saw him like that [a heartthrob]…Smokey was very romantic…when he would come home from the road he gave me a real kiss like he meant it. He always brought me gifts – Valentine’s Day, Sweetest Day, Birthday, Anniversary, you name it. Smokey was as romantic as his lyrics were – what he wrote, he lived it at home [thus the lyrics to “I’ll Try Something New”]. He wrote me letters, cards…most times he would make a card – sometimes with lots of words and sometimes short and sweet. He would also draw pictures…most people don’t know he is a great artist in that regard too.”

Recently Claudette was invited to the White House along with other Motown legends including Smokey, Martha Reeves, Stevie Wonder, and founder Berry Gordy for a Motown at the White House tribute. She says, “It was my first time at the White House, and it was a wonderful event!” In April 2012 Claudette and the other original members of The Miracles were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (Smokey had already been inducted as a solo artist back in the ‘80’s).

Today, as a youthful looking grandmother of three, Claudette remains very active in charity events and fundraisers, and is a board member of various organizations. She has a fabulous website at ClaudetteRobinson.Com, and – once her forthcoming book is released – is very excited about going on a book tour to meet and greet the fans who have been so supportive of The Miracles for over five decades.

The Miracles receive star

The Miracles receive star

Little Jimmy Scott

‘Great Day in Cleveland’ A Documentary

Little Jimmy Scott

Cleveland’s own jazz great Little Jimmy Scott is featured in documentary

*Since the year 2000, Hall of Fame Productions Incorporated (HFP) has been preserving – through interviewing, photographing and videotaping – the history of the Cleveland, Ohio area’s African-American jazz performers and venues.

The result is a memorial and educational documentary of the subjects many of whom unfortunately are now deceased. Those featured in the video include composer Hale Smith, whose compositions were performed by a range of great artists from jazz saxophonist John Coltrane to the Cleveland Orchestra; Grammy Award winning composer and saxophonist Willie Smith; the iconic blues guitarist Robert Lockwood, Jr.; keyboard/vocalist Duke Jenkins and many others. Clevelanders interviewed who are still living include internationally recognized male vocalist Little Jimmy Scott; keyboardist Eddie Baccus who for over half a century has been a Cleveland resident and performer; jazz historian and saxophonist John Richmond; Tri-C Jazz Fest Artistic Director Willard Jenkins and many others.

A preview of this historical documentary titled “Great Day in Cleveland” will be shown on Wednesday April 16, 2014 from 6-8 pm at the Judge Sara J. Harper Children’s  Library located at 2453 E. 43rd St. at Quincy Ave. (Cuyahoga Community College Ave.) in Cleveland.

Dr. Fred Wheatt, founder and president of HFP says, “The documentary is titled after ‘A Great Day in Harlem’ [a 1958 photo taken by freelance photographer Art Kane] that captured many African-American jazz musicians’ images as they were collectively gathered in Harlem, New York.” In 2001 HFP gathered Cleveland area African-American musicians for a historic photo and video shoot. The photo shoot took place on the steps of Friendship Church located on E. 55th St. at Central Ave., the heart of Cleveland’s Black community during the early 1900’s. Dozens of the area’s best musicians attended the shoot. The video spotlights never before shown interviews and images of some of Cleveland’s best jazz musicians, including the above mentioned artists, and many others that have had an influence on Cleveland and even the world.

In addition to the documentary, there will be a dialogue on Cleveland’s African-American people, places of interest, institutions, culture and infrastructures that have affected Cleveland’s African-American jazz scene from the early to mid-1900’s. Panelists include Dr. Regennia Williams, Harold Wyant, Reverend Lindsey Tufts, Sr., Jesse & Eleanor “Ladybird” Dandy and Folio Mays.

The event is free and open to the public. However, seating is limited and individuals who would like to attend must call Hall of Fame Productions at 440-247-6872 to reserve a ticket. For more info go online to or call Hall of Fame Productions at 440-247-6872.

marvin gaye -red knit cap

Remembrance: Marvin Gaye, Coincidentally!

Marvin Gaye at Forum

Marvin Gaye

*Author’s note: Following is an article I wrote 12 years ago in 2002. April 1st, marks the 30th anniversary of Marvin Gaye’s death. April 2nd would have been his 75th birthday. Marvin’s music is still relevant today, and just as exciting as it was when his recordings were first released. God bless his soul.

[A couple weeks ago I met a guy who had a striking resemblance to Marvin Gaye. Since I had never met Marvin personally, I allowed the writer in me to pretend that it was he, and take my mind back to a landmark time in my life. It was 1984, a day I had anticipated with great eagerness. The negotiating was done, and finally, I was scheduled to sign an exclusive songwriter contract with Motown Records!

Sadly however, when the moment came, instead of all the fanfare and flowing champagne I had envisioned, it was a very somber occasion. It was April 2nd – the day after Marvin was shot and killed. Although Marvin was not under Motown contract at the time, he was still family, and foundational to what Motown had become. Understandably, the mood at the Sunset Blvd. office was not business as usual. Those who had shown up for work that day were solemn – still numbed by the tragic news that hit the airwaves just 24 hours ago.

While I sat at the desk signing the contract, someone snapped my photo. A quick handshake followed. That was it. The only thing I felt afterwards was awkward.

This was supposed to be one of the happiest days of my life, but I couldn’t shout, couldn’t click my heels, nor do any of the other things I’d imagined prior to the tragedy. My two accomplices and I quietly left and went to lunch.

It’s been 18 years since Marvin's death, but it seems like yesterday. Coincidentally, when his Grammy award winning song “Sexual Healing” first hit the airwaves, I remember thinking it had been 18 years since another favorite, Sam Cooke, had been shot and killed in December 1964. Another coincidence: both singers added the “e” to their last names during their professional careers.

The night before Marvin died, I was at my piano playing some very melancholy chord progressions – I was in that mood for some reason.

When someone suggested I write a tribute song to Marvin after his death, I remembered those chords and developed them into a song. After the Motown powers-that-be listened to the demo, word came back that they did not want to commercialize Marvin's death. Of course that was before the Commodores’ “Night Shift” release, and Diana Ross’ “Missing You” both of which had huge commercial success. The song I wrote called “When He Sings” was intended for Smokey Robinson (not to be confused with “When Smokey Sings” [which came later] written by some folks I’d never met).

The recent coincidence of meeting, within the same week, Marvin’s look alike, and also meeting for the first time, former Motown engineer Art Stewart, who worked closely with Marvin, prompted me to go to that sacred file in my memory. I’m glad I did. Marvin was special, and the date of his passing will always be etched in my mind as my bittersweet entry into the professional realm of the music business.

Oh, by the way, the Marvin look-alike told me people often make comments about the resemblance. He recalled meeting Marvin at one time, and Marvin, noting the resemblance, just laughed!]

larry buford

Larry Buford: Observing Lent – The True Fast is True Sacrifice

Larry Buford

Larry Buford

*The 2014 Lenten season began March 5th and ends on April 17th. It is a time of fasting the 40 days leading up to Easter Sunday. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent for Catholics and most Reformed and Protestant denominations.

The 40 days is what scholars believe to be symbolic of the 40 hours Jesus spent in the tomb spanning three days from Friday afternoon to early Sunday morning. This belief is supported by the Biblical significance of the number 40 – Jesus was in the wilderness 40 days before he began his public ministry; the children of Israel were in the wilderness for 40 years before entering into the Promised Land, and other references throughout scripture.

While the Lent tradition is observed in various ways among different churches and cultures, its purpose is mainly for the faithful to give up certain luxuries like certain food, drink, or some vice as a form of penitence. It’s a spiritual discipline; an outward show of expression to draw us nearer to God, but is it the true fast? Is our observance pleasing to God? We fast with an expectation of God’s blessings but are we fasting in vain?

The Bible reads: “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke…Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn…Then you will call and the Lord will answer…” [Isaiah 58: 3-9, NIV]

There’s an old story I heard about the chicken and the pig debating their value-add to a plate of ham and eggs. In the end the pig explained “What you bring to the table is a contribution, but I bring a sacrifice.” When we fast are we merely tipping our hats to God, or are we really committed to doing what is well-pleasing in his sight? Observing Lent is fine, but what a difference we would make if we “lent” ourselves to the needs of others every day in and out of season as a true sacrifice and testament of our faith.