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Blues Singer Otis Taylor

Otis Taylor brings his banjo to the studio for a concert and conversation. We'll hear tracks from his new CD, White African. Taylor plays guitar and ukelele in addition to banjo. His music is often described as minimalist, and his lyrics are often stories of race and racism. He's been compared to John Lee Hooker.

29:55

Other segments from the episode on August 16, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 16, 2001: Interview with Otis Taylor; Interview with Bradley Briggs; Commentary on Beale street 1952.

Transcript

DATE August 16, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Bluesman Otis Taylor discusses his newest CD, "White
African," growing up and renewing his musical career
NEAL CONAN, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Neal Conan, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Otis Taylor's new CD opens with the sound of a train and a blues line that
sets the tone for a recording critics describe as `intense, unsettling,
powerful and uncompromising.' Otis Taylor learned to play the ukelele, banjo
and guitar as a kid in Denver, Colorado, played in several blues and rock 'n'
roll bands, and then quit the music business in 1977. For 20 years, he worked
as an antiques broker and appraiser before deciding to get back up on stage.
"White African" is his third CD to be released in this second phase of
Taylor's career. The opening track is "My Soul's In Louisiana."

(Soundbite of "My Soul's In Louisiana")

Mr. OTIS TAYLOR: (Singing) Well, my soul's in Louisiana. But my body lies
in Tennessee. I didn't kill, kill no brakeman. I didn't kill no engineer.
Well, the white man pointed his finger, and then said what they always say.
They didn't bother, bother to hang me, they just shot me on the spot.

CONAN: "My Soul's In Louisiana" from Otis Taylor's new CD, "White African."

Otis Taylor joins us from Boulder, Colorado. Welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. OTIS TAYLOR ("White African"): Thank you.

CONAN: Tell us about that song. Where is that story from?

Mr. TAYLOR: Well, the idea was--when I was a little kid, I hitchhiked 64 to
the Berkeley Folk Festival, but I had to go ask my father if I could
hitchhike. And he told me that he used to ride the rails, you know, he used
to hobo. And he worked for the Pullman. So I was sort of surprised because
he's kind of really--surprised he did that. So I--and I just thought about
the Hillsboro Boys(ph) and things that happened in the South and whether it
was white or black about hobos, and how they kind of got in a lot of trouble.
When I was a little kid, I used to look for hobo camps at the Platte River.
So I think I had this hobo thing in my head most of my life. So I just sort
of write about a black hobo.

CONAN: In the liner notes of your new CD, there are 12 pictures of black men,
and underneath them the legend `wrong place, wrong time.' What does that
mean?

Mr. TAYLOR: Well, I just collect things. I collect photographs of blacks in
the West. And I was at a gun show once and--looking for American Indian art,
and I saw these photographs of these criminals, and--or people that are
arrested. Right? I want to say people who are arrested. And--so I brought
the whole collection of all the blacks and a few women and other people of
color, and I got them home and I started reading the back of them. And it
kept on saying, `arrested, vagrancy, released; arrested, vagrancy.' So all
those people were arrested and released. So they were just being hassled in
the '30s, you know? The late '20s and the '30s. And I thought it was
interesting. And so it's just sort of part of that kind of history.

CONAN: There's one other picture, though, with the same legend, `wrong place,
wrong time.'

Mr. TAYLOR: Yeah, that was my uncle, Andrew Bell(ph). He was a--oh, you
know, he lived a--you know, he ran the streets, as we say in the ghetto, you
know? And he was--got--they were robbing a crap game and he got shot. They
said, `Give them money,' he said, `No,' and I guess he miscalculated something
and was killed. Wrong place, wrong time, you know? But part of that history,
you know?

CONAN: On this CD, we already heard some of the song about the guy who got
shot for nothing. There's a song about suffering, another about a man trying
not to cry when his mother's sick, another about a homeless man whose child is
sick and dying, a song about lynching and a song about hunger. There's a lot
of bleak material there.

Mr. TAYLOR: Is there? Is that bleak? I mean, you know, I remember going to
see the movie "Midnight Cowboy" and I got so depressed. I mean, why all of a
sudden if I write a couple sad songs or--I went to see "Songcatcher" last
night and nobody s--you know, I don't know. I think blues got a little
party-oriented and so I'm kind of taking it back to maybe where it should be,
or maybe we should think about that. I don't know. I don't know. I don't
think myself it's so bleak. I mean, if you listen to cloak-and-dagger songs
that the Appalachian people sing, those are pretty bleak songs, too. So I
don't know why I'm getting the bleak rap, but that's the way it is.

CONAN: I wonder if somebody in your record company or your producer said, you
know, `Hey, you mind if we might want to lighten this up a little bit? Just a
little bit?'

Mr. TAYLOR: Oh, he did. My producer, he positively did. He actually
positively said, `Otis, all these songs are depressing.' I go, `Well, let's
do the first three depressing songs first, and just crucify them. Let's just
go for it.' I mean, this is what I do. This is what I'm doing. And I'm
happy with this, so let's not try to cover it up. You know? And it worked.
It was very successful, luckily. But he did argue with me.

CONAN: Producers generally win those arguments.

Mr. TAYLOR: He's my best friend. That helps. He's the one who rediscovered
me. Kenny Passarelli, he's my producer. And we're good friends and that's
why we work together as a team.

CONAN: You grew up in Denver and that is not a place that immediately leaps
to mind as, you know, the birthplace of the blues.

Mr. TAYLOR: No, no. I was born in Chicago. My parents are from--my
father's from Memphis. My mother's from Lake Providence. I'm like what you
call first generation Southern. Like an immigrant--you know, when people
migrated to Chicago, you know? So I'm part of that great migration, sort of.

CONAN: How old were you when you first got interested in music?

Mr. TAYLOR: I was 14 1/2. Well, I always liked music, but I got my first
banjo when I was 14 1/2, the Denver Folklore Center.

CONAN: Now you lived nearby that?

Mr. TAYLOR: Yeah, about five blocks away. Yeah.

CONAN: And you used to go over there and hang out.

Mr. TAYLOR: Hang out? I lived there. After school, on the weekends, you
know? A lot of kids lived there. It was a beautiful place. It was a
beautiful time in history, during that sort of folk--early folk time, you
know? Before psychedelic--you know what I mean?

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And you would--What?--ask people to teach you stuff?

Mr. TAYLOR: Yeah, I learned how to play for free. I just bummed lessons in
between the teachers' classes. And I was a pain in the you-know-what, but
they did it, and look at what happened. So it was beautiful, you know? I
really appreciated it.

CONAN: What kind of music were you playing then?

Mr. TAYLOR: I was playing Old-Timey banjo, Appalachian-style banjo. And
you're talking about the story where I went to a party and my banjo teacher,
Mike Kropp, he took me to a party where The Dillards were at and I played
banjo. They go, `Hey, you're really good. You can really play. You should
go down'--this is like 1964, maybe 1965. They said, `You should go down South
to those banjo contests.' And I said, `What did you say?' And I thought--I'm
thinking, `Down South? They're lynching people, killing blacks there.' Pfew!
Then I said, `I don't want to play the banjo that much.' I said, `I think I
want to back off and play harmonica more or something.' I was just going--I
got freaked out. And the sad part about it--you know, like until nine years
ago, I didn't even know the banjo came from Africa, which is really sad,
because I was like freaking out over something that was part of my heritage,
which was really a heartbreak, when you think about it.

CONAN: It's almost--given the stereotypes, it's almost daring for a black man
to play the banjo.

Mr. TAYLOR: Well, yeah, but isn't that sad, you know? It's a black
instrument, and, you know, Taj Mahal's still play--Alvin Youngblood Hart's an
incredible banjo player. John Jackson plays a banjo. And the guitar tunings
or banjo tunings, you know, your Delta guitar, they're open tunings. That's
what a banjo is. You know? And so it's--the whole thing--the blues, to me,
came from the banjo styles.

CONAN: You once said a fascinating thing about the styles that you learned as
you grew up and as you progressed as a musician. You've been kind enough to
bring your--your banjo into the studio with you there. And I was wondering if
you could show us and describe for us what you're doing, the different styles
that you learned, and as you progressed to a style that's all your own.

Mr. TAYLOR: OK, sure, we'll try to--I've never done a workshop on this
exactly, sort of, yeah...

CONAN: OK.

Mr. TAYLOR: ...but I'll try to--like say if you're frailing...

(Soundbite of banjo)

Mr. TAYLOR: ...that's going to be a very ticklish note.

(Soundbite of banjo)

Mr. TAYLOR: That's your sort of frailing style.

CONAN: And that's the style that you would have first learned, the
Appalachian style.

Mr. TAYLOR: Yeah. Yeah. Then you're picking, sort of.

(Soundbite of banjo)

Mr. TAYLOR: You know, just sort of finger-picking. And then my style is the
same style I play guitar was the same style when I was playing banjo. When I
play guitar, people used to say I used to play a guitar like a banjo even when
I was playing guitar. But I wasn't thinking about it, I just...

(Soundbite of banjo)

Mr. TAYLOR: That's my style. But I play the same style on guitar, too.
See?

CONAN: On your new CD, "White African," you do one song with the acoustic
banjo, "Momma, Don't You Do It." Could you play it for us?

Mr. TAYLOR: Yeah.

(Soundbite of banjo)

Mr. TAYLOR: (Singing) Momma, don't you do--do. Momma, don't you die.
Momma, don't you do it, don't make me cry. My momma is going to die. My
momma is going to die. I'm a man. Oh, I'm a man. I don't want to cry.

CONAN: Otis Taylor, his new CD is "White African." We'll be back after a
short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: My guest is Otis Taylor. His new CD is "White African." And I have
to ask you, you come up with some of the great record titles I've ever heard.
It's not only--"Blue-Eyed Monster" was your first comeback album and then
"When Negroes Walked the Earth" and now "White African." Does a lot of
thought go into those?

Mr. TAYLOR: No, and yeah. I just sort of--they come to me, you know? I had
this blue-eyed thing going, but I wanted to stay away from Frank Sinatra, and
I tried to get something with blue eyes and stay away from--you know? So
I--no, seriously, I'm not joking now.

CONAN: OK.

Mr. TAYLOR: I'm serious. And I wanted to--well, you can laugh if you want,
but I just want you to know I was--so I was thinking, `Man, I got the
blue-eyed, but I got blue'--see, I have blue eyes, by the way. Did you know
that?

CONAN: I did not know that.

Mr. TAYLOR: Yeah, yeah. So I was trying to stay away from that sort of
Frank Sinatra thing so I came up with the monster thing. You know? And then
"When Negroes Walked the Earth," the original "Negroes Walked the Earth" was
going to be "High Desert Negro." I said, `That's OK, but it's not kicking
it,' and so I just sort of played with it and--Bam--then it came through. And
"White African" was--just sort of started off as "White African." But a lot
of people told me--after "When Negroes Walked the Earth," they said I couldn't
come up with a title as good as that, so I decided I'd take the challenge. I
wasn't going to let them say that to me. And I'm happy with "White African."

CONAN: When you grew up in Denver, Colorado, did you listen to a lot of blues
records? Were you a student?

Mr. TAYLOR: No, no. My father was a big, big jazz fan. He was a bebopper.
He hung out with the jazz people. He worked for the railroad, so he was their
best friends, you know what I mean? He'd go across the country as a Pullman.
He'd be in San Francisco one day, and three days later, he'd be in New York.
And he just would go to all the festivals and hang out at the jazz clubs. And
when I was home, a kid, people--they'd have a lot of parties and I couldn't
sleep at night because they were making so much noise. So they were like--I'm
like second generation hip. You know what I mean? And--but one day my mother
got this Etta James thing, "Can't Judge A Book By The Cover," "All I Want To
Do Is Make Love To You(ph)," whatever it was, that big hit, and they played it
for about eight hours, and I really got into that, you know? I think that's
when it was starting. I remember when The Rolling Stones first did it, I
didn't like their version. You know? I didn't--so I was already getting
ideas about what I liked and didn't like when I was a kid about commercialism,
you know?

CONAN: Was there a moment, though, when you decided to become a musician?

Mr. TAYLOR: Yeah, when I found out I liked girls. I decided, `Yeah, this
works. This works. I could do this.' I'm serious. You think I'm joking.
I'm serious.

CONAN: I think you're dead serious. Now this was the late '60s. What kind
of bands were you playing in then?

Mr. TAYLOR: The first band I had was called the Butterscotch Fire Department

CONAN: Yes, it was the late '60s. Wasn't it?

Mr. TAYLOR: Yeah. Yeah, positively. Our first gig, which I thought was
interesting, was the Mr. Colorado Body Building Pageant(ph). That was, like,
a trip, man. That was--I wish I could make a movie about that. That was a
trip, you know ...(unintelligible).

CONAN: So you're playing psychedelic rock 'n' roll at that point?

Mr. TAYLOR: No, still traditional kind of rock 'n' roll blues.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. TAYLOR: Still not--not so psychedelic. I never got too psychedelic,
ever, in the sense, you know, us--that's why Kenny came back and got me
because he said I was the least commercial and more sort of into the roots of
it all, you know. I still like Hendrix songs and I used to like Arthur Lee,
Love. I used to like their stuff a little bit, but I was pretty into Howlin'
Wolf and Muddy Waters and things like that, you know. You know what I mean?

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Now in 1969, it looked for a little while like you might
become a star.

Mr. TAYLOR: Yeah, but it got messed up. I just--I was with Blue Horizon
Records, which did like, you know, the original Fleetwood Mac and Johnny
Signs(ph), but I was living in London and I signed something when I was 19--or
actually, my father had to sign it and they gave me no money...

CONAN: A record contract.

Mr. TAYLOR: Yeah. And they gave me no money, no nothing. And I said, `Oh,
I need some money.' They're looking at me, like, `Oh, we don't do that.' And
I said, `OK, bye,' you know. I just left. I didn't care, you know. I'm that
kind of person. I guess I'm just not--kind of live life on my own terms.
That's why I could quit music for 20 years, you know.

CONAN: Well, tell me about that. Why and when did you decide to leave the
music business?

Mr. TAYLOR: Well, at that time I was playing bass in a band called Zephyr,
and they were good friends and we kind of had a fight and it
physical, I don't want to do this anymore.' And about two months later, the
couple that I played with got divorced, so they were just going through some
hard times, you know. She passed away. I'm still good friends with David,
but that's--I just said, `I don't need this.' I didn't need it. I don't
think one should need anything, you know, when it comes to art. I don't want
to be an art victim, so I just walked away, you know, but I played music at
home. See, people think if you don't play in public, they think you stop
music completely. You know what I mean? They kind of get that confused.

CONAN: One of the things that jumps out, though, in your biography is the
blues man who was an antiques broker.

Mr. TAYLOR: Yeah, that's OK. Whatever.

CONAN: No. It just seems, you know--just a little odd juxtaposition there.

Mr. TAYLOR: Oh, I knew a lot of guys who were antique brokers who played
music and you'd be surprised, because antique brokers are like high-class
collectors. They collect and then when the collecting get too expensive, they
start buying and selling. And it's kind of--they become antique dealers.
They just didn't want to afford their habit. You know what I mean?

CONAN: Is that how it started with you?

Mr. TAYLOR: I think that a lot of the dealers, you know...

CONAN: What were...

Mr. TAYLOR: ...just like to collect.

CONAN: What were you collecting?

Mr. TAYLOR: American Indian art, you know, ethnographic art.

CONAN: And at what point did it get too expensive?

Mr. TAYLOR: It got too expensive when I was able to sell it and buy a house
in Boulder, which I've lived off for the rest of my life, you know. So that's
when it got too expensive. You know what I mean?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. TAYLOR: It was time to sell.

CONAN: Now when did you decide--as I understand, it was no great, you know,
instant light bulb Epiphany going off over your head to get back into the
music business. You'd been playing all along.

Mr. TAYLOR: Yeah. Well, it was an accident. I had a friend named Buck
Buchanan who had these stores called Buccaneer Stores, women's stores. And I
was involved with bicycle racing in the '80s for about five years. I had two
kids on the national team, third best team in the nation. And he just--he was
our main sponsor. I was a co-sponsor and, you know--and then he had these
businesses that kind of went belly up and he went Chapter 13, so he opened up
a coffee house, and I guess, you know, Judy Rodgers used to play there, and
Judy Collins. And there was--you know, he sort of reopened this coffee house
and asked me about getting equipment for a PA, because he knew I knew about
music. I said, `Buck, I'll call some friends and we'll come down and play for
you. And I ain't played in 20 years, but I will play music for you, Buck.'
And we did and it sounded so good we just kept on going. It was a fluke. It
was just a fluke. I hadn't really thought about it.

CONAN: But I assume that, you know, the headlines were not `He's back.' I
mean, this was not the comeback...

Mr. TAYLOR: No.

CONAN: ...of Michael Jordan or something like that.

Mr. TAYLOR: No.

CONAN: I mean, this was a difficult trail that you were starting out on.

Mr. TAYLOR: Yeah, yeah. I was--I have a friend who has a record shop called
Twist & Shout in Denver. And he always said I was obscure when I was young
and then I was obscure again and I'll probably be obscure again. I'm always
gonna be obscure because I'm not that commercial, you know. I don't think so.
Maybe I will be. Maybe people will catch up me or something, but I'm not
really that commercial. But if you want to buy my record, please do that. I
won't stop you, you know. But you know what I'm saying, don't you?

CONAN: Sure.

Mr. TAYLOR: Yeah.

CONAN: You've got your banjo there. Is there something you'd like to play
for us?

Mr. TAYLOR: Well, do you want to hear one of my songs or do you want to
hear--what do you want to hear?

CONAN: Why don't we hear one of your songs?

Mr. TAYLOR: One of my songs?

(Soundbite of Otis Taylor playing banjo)

Mr. TAYLOR: OK. Give me a second. OK. I'm gonna write a song for you
guys, OK. This is my dedication to you guys taking the time to do this for
me. So you have to give me, like, a word or two words and I'll write a song
about it. I can do this, man. Trust me.

CONAN: Window.

Mr. TAYLOR: Window. Oh, that's so easy, maybe.

(Soundbite of Otis Taylor playing banjo)

Mr. TAYLOR: (Singing) Don't close. Don't close up on me. Baby, don't
close--close up on me. Sittin' by my window, thinkin' 'bout--thinkin' 'bout
how things used to be. I think I'm going down to Pennsylvania. My goal is
way down to Mexico. I think I'm gonna go down to Pennsylvania and roll on to
Mexico, to Mexico.

CONAN: Window blues by Otis Taylor. We'll continue with Otis Taylor in the
second half of the show. I'm Neal Conan, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of harmonic music by Otis Taylor)

Mr. TAYLOR: (Singing) You're runnin' around. Runnin' around. We're runnin'
'round, girl, 'round and 'round. We're runnin' 'round, 'round and 'round,
'round and 'round. Runnin' 'round, drivin' me crazy. Runnin' 'round and
'round, driving me crazy, 'round and 'round. Mm-hmm. You're runnin' around,
mm-hmm, driving me crazy. Yeah. 'Round and around, girl, you're drivin' me
crazy. Mm-hmm. Don't know why. Don't know--know why. Don't know why, why,
why, you're drivin' me crazy. Around and around. Around and around. 'Round
and around, drivin' me crazy. Around and around.

(Credits)

CONAN: Coming up, the Triple Nickels. We talk with retired Lieutenant
Colonel Bradley Biggs, who was part of America's first all-black paratroop
unit. During the Second World War, they fought the forest fires triggered by
Japanese balloon bombs.

Also, Ed Ward remembers Beals Street, Memphis, circa 1952. And more with
blues artist Otis Taylor.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Neal Conan sitting in for Terry Gross. Let's
hear more of our conversation with blues artist Otis Taylor, who's back after
20 years away from the music business. His new CD is "White African." And he
performs at blues and folk festivals around the country.

You also teach blues.

Mr. TAYLOR: Yeah, I do--no, I don't call it teaching blues. I just try to
turn kids on to the conceptual thought of blues. I do a thing my wife, Carol
Taylor, thought of. It's called writing the blues program. And we take it
into schools and colleges and universities and have a thing, `I get the blues
when,' then they fill out what makes them sad. So then they can think how the
slaves felt when they worked in the fields, trying to get through the day. So
I try to teach the emotion of the blues to people, not so much the technical
part, you know? Just the emotion.

CONAN: What kind of stuff do the students come up with?

Mr. TAYLOR: Oh, God, I was at Ottawa. We did a school, and there was a lot
of refugees from Somalia and Kosovo. And every other kid said, `Well, my
uncle died.' `Well, my cousin died.' And then this one kid comes up, he
goes, `Well, when I couldn't have my Nintendo,' I'm thinking `Whoa, this got
light all of the sudden.' And then it hit me that his parents were divorced,
and he could only have one Nintendo at one house when he goes to visit. It
came to me what he was really trying to say. That was pretty deep. But they
say, like, when their parents go to jail or just all kinds of bizarre things
sometimes, you know, because they're kids. But then I have adults say bizarre
things, too. I've had adults literally crying when they do sessions with me,
too. So it's pretty deep. It's pretty intense.

CONAN: You have kids of your own.

Mr. TAYLOR: Yeah, my oldest daughter sings on the album, Cassie Taylor.

CONAN: I wondered whether part of your decision about making a comeback in
music--whether that involved your kids and your decision that you wanted to
speak to them, to some degree.

Mr. TAYLOR: Well, I think what I wanted to do was leave some kind of legacy
about who I was a long time ago because when I married my wife, she had no
idea--she knew I had instruments around the house. I'd play them. But she
didn't think I was--I was involved in bicycle racing. She said she would
marry me if I quit bicycle racing. So I did quit it. And then I snuck up on
her 10 years later and started this music thing. So she wasn't prepared for
it. And I just wanted to kind of leave the legacy of who I was, to my kids
maybe more so. I really sincerely felt that. And that's what Kenny told me.
And Harry Tuft of the Folklore Center said if I don't do it now, I wouldn't
get it done, and so I went for it.

CONAN: There is one song on your CD, "White African," that is particularly
personal, the "Saint Martha Blues." Can you tell us about that?

Mr. TAYLOR: Well, it all started--my mother's very closed off about the
South, and they don't talk about it much. My father talked about it a little
bit, but they really didn't talk about it much, and I think it's like Vietnam
essentially. You have these certain things and you just don't really want to
talk about it. And I think if you tracked enough black families, that 50
percent of them have relatives that were lynched, you know, through those time
periods. But people don't talk about it much.

And I was trying to find out about the Native-American, Indian blood we had in
our family and decided to call my mom up and started talking about this, and I
was a little confused because we have a stepgrandfather and a real
grandfather, and it sort of got very confusing. And so the stories started
coming out about, `Well, you know, your great-grandfather got, you know,
lynched.' And so that all kind of came together.

But the true story about the lynching is my grandfather--he was ordained by
Nat King Cole's father. And when he got his church, he named it A Grain of
St. Martha. And that's why he wrote the song, because he loved his mother so
much he didn't name it after a religious figure; he named it after his mother.
And I thought that was really interesting.

CONAN: Otis Taylor, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. TAYLOR: Thank you.

CONAN: We'll end by listening to "Saint Martha Blues" from Otis Taylor's new
CD, "White African."

(Soundbite of "Saint Martha Blues" by Otis Taylor)

Mr. TAYLOR: (Singing) My great grandfather, back in Lake Providence,
Louisiana, he was lynched. Not only was he lynched, they took his body and
they tore it apart. And they went to his wife Martha Jones and told her where
she could find her husband. Oh, oh, oh, Martha. Oh, Martha. Oh, Martha
Jones. She got to go downtown. Oh, she got to go. She got to go and find
her husband. They came to the door, they took him away. They hung him! They
hung him from, they hung him from the highest tree. The tore, they tore his
poor body, they tore his poor body apart. Oh, they tore, they tore his poor
body, they tore his poor body...

CONAN: Otis Taylor. His new CD is "White African." Coming up, America's
first black paratroopers, the Triple Nickles. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Bradley Biggs on black paratrooper unit the Triple
Nickles
NEAL CONAN, host:

This is FRESH AIR. Terry Gross is on vacation. I'm Neal Conan.

During the second World War, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited the
Army parachute school at Ft. Benning, Georgia, and asked, `Where are your
negro paratroopers?' The still segregated US Army had already formed
all-black infantry and tank units, but African-American soldiers were largely
relegated to non-combat duties. And the jump boots, wings and bloused
trousers of the elite parachute regiments were off limits.

Shortly after the president's pointed question, the Army started a black
airborne test platoon that expanded into the 555th Parachute Infantry
Battalion--the Triple Nickles. As the war was ending in Europe, the unit's
mission was changed. The Triple Nickles became the Army's first smoke jumpers
that battled Japanese balloon bombs in the forests of California and the
Pacific Northwest. Bradley Biggs was the first officer selected for that
unit. He later wrote a history called "The Triple Nickles." He joins us now
from Chicago.

Welcome to FRESH AIR.

Lt. Col. BRADLEY BIGGS (555 Parachute Infantry Battalion): Thank you.

CONAN: In the segregated Army that you joined before the Second World War,
what were your options?

Lt. Col. BIGGS: Very few. I was with the 372nd Infantry, and we were
stationed in a brook land, guarding bridges, of all things. And I asked
myself one day, `Is this the way I want to spend my military career?' Because
I always wanted to be an Army officer. And I said, `No way.' So I went off
to officer candidate school and got a commission ...(unintelligible)
infantry, and from then on I said, `Well, let's get where the action is.' But
like most of the men who came to join us, they wanted to be recognized as
soldiers, which is their citizenship and democratic right and privilege.

CONAN: And soldiers who did more than drive trucks or cook...

Lt. Col. BIGGS: Who did more than drive trucks or pass ammunition. They
wanted to do something differently. They didn't want to go into an
organization that had ammunition or rations or swept the streets or grave
registration. They wanted to be where the action was. And that's what our
spirit, our morale, was based upon--men who wanted the action. And we got
them.

CONAN: Since you guys were the first blacks in parachute school, all of the
men who trained you, by definition, had to be white. Did they make it hard on
you?

Lt. Col. BIGGS: A few did. One of the questions that struck us was: How
were we going to deal with the white instructors who were questioning who is
going to train the black paratroopers? Now can you imagine being assigned to
a duty, risky as parachuting is, working under an instructor who doubted that
you could really do the job. So we said, `Well, we're going to ignore that
and go on and do it anyway.' And we said, `Under no circumstance anyone was
going to quit.' We were going to jump out that 34-foot tower if we had to do
it without a harness. And Calkin(ph) used to say, `We'll jump out that
airplane without a parachute, if need be.' Of course he didn't mean that, but
that was the spirit and the attitude that we had.

CONAN: Now you ended up with more than 360 jumps, but I bet you remember that
first one particularly well.

Lt. Col. BIGGS: Yes.

CONAN: What was it like?

Lt. Col. BIGGS: There was some apprehension. You're graded on the manner in
which you exit from the aircraft. You're graded, also, on the way you land
from the end of your parachute jump experience. You're also graded on the
manner in which you control your chuting air. So there was some apprehension
you're going to do the right things you've been trained because you're under
scrutiny from the instructor in the airplane, as well as an instructor on the
ground. You want to make certain you did the right thing and did it right.

CONAN: Now when you jumped out that door the first time, did you look down?

Lt. Col. BIGGS: Oh, absolutely. I was looking down, looking for the
ground. And there was no fear, no consignation, but there is a very
difficult, should I say, apprehension that you experience when you jump out of
an airplane. But after a while you get use to it, and it becomes a matter of
fact.

CONAN: At the time, the bases at which you were training, in Georgia, North
Carolina, the conditions outside the base had to be difficult.

Lt. Col. BIGGS: They were very difficult, indeed. But we made it a point
to avoid the difficult spots. You don't look at a slew of water and run into
it just because it's there. You stay out of the trouble areas because you
know there are going to be difficulties if you go into them. So we always
told our men, and we practiced it ourselves, that if you're going to go to
town, go where you want to go, comport yourselves so the police don't have to
keep an eye on you. Don't allow yourself to get involved in fights or
scrapes, and above all, don't get into encounters with the local police
because they'll put you in jail and fine you in a minute.

CONAN: One thing that made the Triple Nickles different from the other
all-black units that were formed at about the same time, was the fact that
this unit was officered completely by blacks. That was extremely
controversial, because at that moment, you're putting black men--African
Americans in the chain of command.

Lt. Col. BIGGS: That was our great pride, that we were black from the
commanding officer down to the lowest private. We didn't have to have any
white officers come in and tell us what to do. We knew what we had to do. We
were prepared for it. We trained for it. And we performed at the highest
standards possible. We did not appreciate the fact that any white officers
would come down and give us some ideas, we already had our own policies in
place. And we knew that from our training, we'd done exceedingly well, and
our men had fallen in our footsteps and they would also do well.

CONAN: The official explanation--the Army's official explanation--for not
sending the Triple Nickles to fight in Europe was that the battalion was not
up to full-strength, and they wanted to send a complete battalion. It didn't
have the full complement of men. Do you buy that?

Lt. Col. BIGGS: No, we did not buy that at all. We were as trained and as
competent as any other white organization, airborne or otherwise. What we did
face was a shortage of personnel, but we could have picked up more personnel
overseas. The call after the Battle of the Bulge, a request was made for new
soldiers to volunteer to serve in white units. And they were what is called
the 5th Platoon. We had some of those 5th Platoon members join us in the 555
after World War III. They were glad they had volunteered to serve with us, if
we were going overseas during World War II. So that argument just doesn't
hold any water.

CONAN: Why do you think you weren't sent?

Lt. Col. BIGGS: We were not sent overseas because a new mission came up that
sent us out West to combat the Japanese balloon invasion, which many people
thought was serious enough to keep us out of the fighting in Europe.
Furthermore, the fighting in Europe was taking a different turn, where the
need for paratroopers was not as great as it had been.

CONAN: So, in April, 1945, you were all put on a train to go to the West
Coast. You arrive in Pendleton, Oregon, and you find out that you have a
completely new mission.

Lt. Col. BIGGS: We appreciated the fact that we were selected for a new
mission. We didn't know what it was until we got out to Oregon. By the way,
the population of Oregon was only 2 percent black, and we faced a lot of
discrimination when we arrived on the scene.

CONAN: It was no better than Georgia?

Lt. Col. BIGGS: No better than Georgia. We could not go into a hotel. The
restaurants in town would not serve us. There's only one place in town where
we could get a pool table to play pool on or to get a Coca-Cola.

CONAN: Tell us about the balloon bombs. These were released by the Japanese
from Japan, obviously, and then floated across the Pacific.

Lt. Col. BIGGS: Yes, they released them from a base in Honshu, Japan. And
they used the stratosphere to move them across the Pacific Ocean. They used
the same air currents that our Suchiti(ph) bombers were later to use, but are
practicing mission runs to bomb Russia. They would travel across the Pacific
Ocean at a speed of about 100 to 185 miles per hour. Then a very ingenious
device on them that, when they reached a certain altitude, the balloon would
cool and lower itself to a warmer altitude, where it would inflate and rise
again.

Now before it would rise, the device would drop a sand bag, making the balloon
lighter than it was when it left the Island of Honshu. It would take about
three days for one to get across the Pacific Ocean. And by the time it
reached the West Coast, all the sand bags had been dropped. The balloon was
weighted with a bomb, or incendiary bombs, so that the weight of it would land
into a wooded area, explode or detonate.

CONAN: I'm speaking with Bradley Biggs. He's the author of "The Triple
Nickles," America's first all-black paratroop unit, a unit in which he served
during the Second World War and afterwards.

Eventually the Japanese stopped sending balloon bombs and the Triple Nickles
were called back to the east coast and absorbed into the 82nd Airborne
Division. And you got to march down Fifth Avenue in New York City in the
great parade celebrating the end of the Second World War.

Lt. Col. BIGGS: Yes, that was General Gavin's doing. General Gavin was
color-blind. He'd always been a proponent of integration, having served with
black troops, and he knew what they could do. So he took the battalion under
his wing, had us put on the 82nd Airborne Division patch and marched down
Fifth Avenue with the 82nd Airborne Division. That's a wonderful, wonderful
gesture, and that really gave us an awful lot of good morale, things to talk
about.

CONAN: There was also an incident that happened to the Triple Nickles in
addition to the parade in Manhattan, in New York City. There were other, you
know, of course, celebrations, but there were also a lot of training exercises
that you guys went on. And one of them happened at Eglin Air Force Base in
Florida, and I was wondering if you could tell us that story.

Lt. Col. BIGGS: Oh, that was not really the 555th Paratrooper Battalion as an
organization. It was the personnel from the 555, and we'd already been
integrated into the 82nd Airborne Division. Now we went into the Eglin Air
Force operation as a major ground force unit. And one day, while we were in
the preparatory to go into the ground operation after we made our jump, a
flight of B-29 bombers was off course, and they dropped their bombs on the
tank company and our battalion, which was in the staging area.

CONAN: Live bombs?

Lt. Col. BIGGS: Live 29 bombs from 10,000 feet. We lost a half a dozen men.
Oh, about a dozen or so were wounded. The tankers lost five or six men and
several people wounded.

CONAN: Accidents happen in training exercises as well as in warfare; friendly
fire does happen. But this incident, you write in your book, was never really
investigated.

Lt. Col. BIGGS: The investigation was done by the Army, was swept under the
rug. A small article appeared in the newspaper somewhere in Florida, and that
was it. When I talked with the battalion commander, the squadron commander,
he said, `Well, my navigator said he was on course and on target, and he let
his bombs go at the right point.' And that just shut up the whole case.

CONAN: So nothing ever happened? No one was ever held responsible?

Lt. Col. BIGGS: Nothing ever happened. No one was ever punished.

CONAN: Did you ever find out why not?

Lt. Col. BIGGS: No, we never did. It was a closed case and we'd have to
let it go at that. What more could we do?

CONAN: Do you think--I just have to ask the question--do you think it would
have been swept under the rug if those bombs had fallen on white troops?

Lt. Col. BIGGS: It would not have been swept under the rug. There would
have been hits in the newspapers because the press was never favorable where
black troops were concerned in any war. But if they were white soldiers, the
white press would have been out there looking at what's going on, and they
would have carried on that investigation until they got something done.

CONAN: What would you say is the legacy of the Triple Nickles?

Lt. Col. BIGGS: We persevered in the face of being programmed for defeat.
We want the plebes at Westpoint, the midshipmen at Annapolis, the cadets at
the Air Force Academy to read what we have done and how we did it. And if
they can do that to understand the perseverance that went through our ranks
and what we felt in terms of pride and, also--not only just pride, but loyalty
to our country, that they be more prone to feel the same way about their
country. The whole nation needed to hear our story of how we persevered in
the face of opposition from everyone, who did not believe that the negro
paratrooper could survive. And we did survive with great firsts and great
accomplishments, more than any other Army unit.

CONAN: Thank you very much for coming in and speaking with us.

Lt. Col. BIGGS: It's my responsibility and obligation to do so.

CONAN: Bradley Biggs' book about America's first all-black paratroop unit is
still in print. It's called "The Triple Nickles."

Coming up, Ed Ward remembers one of rock 'n' roll's mother roads: Beale
Street. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Memphis' Beale Street in 1952
NEAL CONAN, host:

The history of rock and roll is filled with places where things came together
in just the right way and where careers were launched. Beale Street in
Memphis was one of those legendary musical breeding grounds. It began in the
1920s and continued for decades. Rock historian Ed Ward offers us a snapshot
of Beale Street in 1952 from recordings made by Ike Turner.

(Soundbite of music)

ED WARD reporting:

There are a lot places I'd like to visit with a time machine, but there are
few of them as appealing as Beale Street in Memphis in 1952. The place was
jumping with the hot blues scene which was just being discovered by the
outside world. And except for a kid named Elvis Presley and his friends, no
white people were visiting there.

Another young guy who was on the scene was a piano player from Mississippi,
who seemed to know all the rising stars. His name was Ike Turner.

(Soundbite of music)

WARD: Turner knew that records were the way to go if anybody on Beale was
going to get rich, and he'd take his discoveries to the Memphis recording
service owned by Sam Philips, a white blues fan who'd learned radio
engineering in the war, and Mr. Philips would send the masters off to the
Bihari Brothers in Los Angeles, who owned a number of labels, including
Modern, Flare, Kent and RPM. And, boy, did the Biharis like those packages
from Memphis.

Turner had an ear for talent, as we'll hear with these recordings he made in
1952. He started with the most popular guy on the scene, Roscoe Gordon.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ROSCOE GORDON (Musician): (Singing) `I want to tell you about, about that
gal of mine. I want to tell you about, about that gal of mine. She want to
dance every day and boogie-woogie all the time. She's a hot...

WARD: Gordon sang the blues and sometimes had a dancing rooster on his piano.
And although his records sound pretty primitive today, they sold. He was huge
throughout the South and loved to gamble, so one night in Arkansas, in a hot
dice game he didn't want to get out of immediately, he put his driver on stage
and told him to do a few numbers.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BOBBY BLAND (Musician): (Singing) Well, I'm just a poor boy, drifting
from town to town. Whoa, boy, drifting from town to town.

WARD: Bobby Bland had one of those voices, and even on these, his earliest
recordings, you can tell he was destined for greatness. He's still at it, in
fact. And just as soon as Bobby became a star, he hired himself a valet from
that Beale Street pool of talent.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JUNIOR PARKER (Musician): (Singing) You're my angel from heaven up above.
Hey, you're my angel from heaven up above. Yes. Oh, what a dream girl.
About as high as you can love. I love you, my angel...

WARD: Little Junior Parker would go on to make much better records than
"You're my Angel,"(ph) including "Mystery Train" and "Driving Wheel," before
he died during a botched surgery at the age of 40.

Then there was the kid from Mississippi who'd just shown up in town one day
and won so many of the weekly talent shows that they gave him a radio show to
keep him from competing anymore. He, unlike the rest, had already recorded in
Nashville, but it was in Memphis that B.B. King would make his name.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. B.B. KING (Musician): (Singing) Bee-bee boogey, darling. The bee-bee
boogey, baby. Do the bee-bee boogey if it takes you all night long. Well, I
looked at the clock. The clock said four. My baby jumped up, she said, `B,
let's go do the bee-bee...'

WARD: B.B. had a piano player who was pretty good named Johnny Ace. Johnny
only cut one side for Ike turner, but it showed that he had a pretty good
voice, too.

(Soundbite from song)

Mr. JOHNNY ACE (Musician): (Singing) When those midnight hours journey, I
was in my bed alone. When those midnight hours journey, I was in my bed
alone. Well, when I came home this evening, my woman had gone.

WARD: Junior Parker, B.B. King, Johnny Ace and Ike Turner all played on each
other's records, which gave birth to the name the Beale Streeters. (Technical
difficulties) just an impromptu band. They recorded behind gospel singers and
blues singers, but probably never played on stage as a group. They also had a
drummer who spent his whole life behind the scenes, a man named Earl
Forrest(ph).

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. EARL FORREST (Musician): (Singing) Got a whole heap of mama, and she's
all right with me. Got a whole heap of mama, and she's all right with me.
She must be because she soothes my misery.

WARD: This was all too good to last forever, but it lasted until at least
1954 when Johnny Ace either did or didn't commit suicide, depending on who you
talk to. B.B. King, Bobby Bland, Ike Turner and Roscoe Gordon are performing
to this day, and Earl Forrest still writes songs for blues acts. The Beale
Streeters are still around, but, boy, I would've liked to have seen them then.

CONAN: Ed Ward is a writer living in Berlin.

(Credits)

CONAN: For Terry Gross, I'm Neal Conan.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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