R & B 101

It was the same stupid argument all over again–Isaac and Ernie sitting down at their usual meeting place—Wong’s coffee shop drinking the usual blend.  Wong’s was an institution on Market Street near Powell, having been there 30 years.  The clientele were mostly senior citizens who came in for a cheap breakfast—eggs, bacon and coffee for 1.99.   Wong’s didn’t have fancy coffee—they only had three blends to choose from—weak, weaker and weakest.  Isaac and Ernie liked Wong’s, not for the coffee, but for the music.  The owner had placed speakers on the ceiling and played the local soul station.  It was there that Isaac and Ernie would get into their stupid argument.

“Man…the Isley Brothers sang Twist and Shout better than the Beatles.  There’s no comparison”, Isaac would say, taking a righteous sip of righteously weak coffee.

“Well” said Ernie, “I wouldn’t say the Beatles’ version was necessarily inferior to the Isley Brothers, only different…that’s all”.

“Man, quit bullshittin’.  You can’t compare the voice of John Lennon to the voice of Ronald Isley.  Just listen to both versions…John Lennon is copying the Isley Brothers version note for note.

Both men sipped their coffee.  Ernie ordered toast.

“Exuse me, you got any grape jelly?” Ernie asked.

“Yeah…I’ll bring it”, said Wong, wearing a white short order cook’s hat.

“Here you go…”

“Thanks”

They had given him strawberry jelly in those square plastic containers—they always gave him strawberry and he’d have to ask for grape…again.  He didn’t mind—it was just one of those things.

“You take it too seriously”, said Ernie, spreading on the jelly.  “I’m not even a Beatles fan…I’m just trying to be objective about it…that’s all.

The 2 talked as workers passed by–some stopping in for a donut or a bagel; some in suits and ties walking in, some carrying their dry cleaning sealed in cellophane.  They seemed tired and zombie -like—as though they didn’t want to go to whatever destination that lay ahead.  Isaac and Ernie loved the music that filled Wong’s but the folks that came in didn’t seem to hear it.  For Ernie and Isaac it brought back memories.

“Hey, remember…”
They often sat reminiscing about their group, about their dreams to one day sing and record albums—dreams that swirled and rose again and again.

“You know”, Isaac said, “We could have been a good group…we had harmonies and we had some cold lyrics, my man…”

They had started a group 20 years ago…maybe 25 years ago, they didn’t know exactly.  They called themselves “The African-American Express”.  Isaac and Ernie co-wrote a song called “Ghetto Oasis”.

 

I’ve been so

Many places

 

Run so

Many races

 

But there’s no

Place I’d rather be

 

Than at the

Ghetto Oasis

 

The group played small clubs in San Francisco.  They were ahead of their time, calling themselves African-American before it became fashionable.  The group was made up of relatives and old high school friends.  They based their sound on the group called the Dramatics.  Frankie would hit the high-notes the way Ron Banks did.  Ron Banks was to the Dramatics what Eddie Kendricks was to the Temptations.  They were hooked when they heard the Dramatics song, “In the Rain”.  Soon after they formed the “African-American Express”, they were contacted by lawyers for the American Express credit card company.  They were told to drop their name—that it sounded too similar to “American Express” credit cards.
“We ain’t trying to sell credit cards” Isaac protested, “We’re trying to make music”.

The name “African-American Express” was homage to Curtis Mayfield, who had penned the song “People Get Ready” with his group The Impressions.

“…The greatest song ever written…” Isaac would say.

Tragedy soon hit the group.  The lead singer suddenly died.  Billy Swan lay dead in an alley near Fillmore Street, shot in the back of the head—his body injected with car battery acid.  The killer was never found but it was said that Billy had huge gambling debts and was supposedly having an affair with the wife of a policeman.  The group was never the same—Billy was irreplaceable.

“He had a voice like David Ruffin”, said Frankie, swirling his coffee.

“Damn straight” replied Isaac, rubbing his eyes.

The two had been so involved in their usual conversation that they didn’t notice that the radio wasn’t turned on.

“Hey Wong…can you cut the radio on…my man?”

Wong was busy spreading cream cheese on a Bagel but he nodded, knowing what was needed.  The radio, it seemed, was magic.  Every time he turned it on, a special song seemed to be on the air—a song that would spur on another topic of conversation.

A man walked in, an elderly Chinese man.

“One coffee please”

Wong poured coffee into the small Styrofoam cup.

“There you go”, said Wong, taking a dollar from the man.

“I heard you might be closing soon”, said the man, pouring sugar into the cup.

“Maybe…” said Wong”.  “Developers want to buy this building and the building next door.  They want to build a shopping center…”

The man poured cream in his coffee and sat down.

Isaac and Ernie nodded at the man.

“Hey pops…how you doin’ this morning?”

The man waved and sat down at to his coffee.

“Hey Wong…can you hit the radio?” asked Isaac again.

“Oh…I’m sorry”, said Wong, reaching up and flipping the switch.

A voice came over the speakers…

“Good morning…it’s 10:00 straight up on R&B 101…San Francisco’s new R&B station with your boy Poppa Ganda…This is new music from “Too Sly Foo…on R&B 101”

“What the hell is this…?” asked Isaac.

“It’s Too Sly Foo”, said Frankie.

“Who?”

They drank their coffee but the music didn’t sound the same.
“Hey Wong, you got it on the wrong station…”

“I never change the station” Wong replied.  “I’ve had it on the same station for the last 10 years…”

“Where’s James Brown, The Temps, Otis Redding, Aretha…?  Where’s…?

Wong didn’t answer.  He was busy wiping the counter top.

Isaac and Frankie listened to “Too Sly Foo”.  It was a vocal group, the drums sounded mechanical and they sang in harmony.

 

Bump it up

Girl, grind

It hard

 

I’ll jump in

Your stuff

When i get

It up

 

“That’s the thing about today’s music”, said Isaac.  “Where are the lyrics…?”

“Come on now…”, said Frankie.  “When we was makin’music, we was saying shake that thang and all that.  What’s the difference?”

“The difference is that we had a little more class.  We didn’t get too nasty about it, you know.  There was artistry to it.  You know brother, we was all singing about fucking, but we didn’t come out and say it.  Nowadays they put it out there like a piece of meat on a platter.  Remember when the Sherilles sang, “Will you still love me tomorrow?”  They was talking about fucking too but they did it with clever writing.  These days they come right out and say…you wanna fuck?”

“Well, we’re living in a different day and age”, said Frankie, drinking last drop of coffee.

Another song came over the radio, followed by another one.

“You know something man” said Isaac, “All these songs sound the same.  They’re singing the same way”.

“What do you mean?” asked Frankie.

“What I mean is that their inflection, their passion sounds forced.  They’re singing about love and hurt and heartache but I can’t feel what they’re saying.

“Are you saying that all the singers sound the same…?  How can you make a judgement like that when we’ve only heard 2 or 3 songs?”

“Look man, I’ve heard music outside of Wong’s coffee shop.  I don’t live in a funeral parlor, I do get—“

“You’re bitter…you don’t think the folks today have talent but your angry because our group never did anything”.

“No, I’m not bitter”, said Isaac, snatching his coffee cup, rising for a refill.  He gave his cup to Wong who filled it with hot coffee.

A voice came through the speakers.

“It’s the new R&B 101…R&B for San Francisco.  It’s our first day on the air and we’d like to show our new listeners our appreciation by—“

“They think they can buy us…that’s the problem”, said Isaac, pouring sugar into his coffee.

“Hey Wong”, said Issac, “What do you think of the new groups today…the rhythm and blues groups?  Do you think they sound the same?”

Wong leaned over due to his being deaf in one ear.

“I don’t listen too much”, said Wong.  “But I like Johnny Cash”

“Johnny Cash?”

“Yeah…that song about the prison was good”.

Isaac walked back to the table.

“Man…Wong is into that hillbilly music”

The traffic on the street was crowded.  The electric busses and trolley cars passed by as bike messengers weaved in an out of traffic like eels.  The sound of jackhammers pounding the ground could be heard, men with hardhats directed and diverted traffic as huge cranes rose in the background like big erect metallic penises.

“Man, the city is changing, said Ernie.  Remember when Market Street was classy.  Was a time when you dressed up when coming down here”.

“There’s so many homeless now”, said Isaac.

Most of the people were gone.  Isaac and Ernie remained drinking coffee.   The music didn’t stop.

“You know” Issac began, “All these groups sound the same.  Back in the day, you could tell a where a group was from.  Chicago groups had a certain sound, Detroit had a sound, Memphis had a sound.  Nowadays it sounds like they’ve all gone to the same singing school–like they’ve all attended R&B 101”

Ernie shook his head.

“I hear you brother”.

A voice came through the speaker once again.

“…It’s the new R&B 101…R&B for San Francisco”

Isaac shook his head and rose from his seat.

“Later on, Wong”

Isaac and Ernie walked down Market Street, disappearing into the Bart Station.  A week later they walked up Market, heading for Wong’s.  When they arrived, a sign greeted them.

 

Wong’s coffee shop out of Business.

Thanks you for many years support

 

“Aw man…what’ happened?” Isaac asked, looking through the glass.  The counters were torn from the ground and the walls appeared to have been bulldozed.

“Shit man, the place looks gutted” said Frankie, gazing at the building from top to bottom.

“Man, they ain’t too many places like Wong’s around no mo’…”

The two walked across the street, turned around and looked back at what once had been Wong’s coffee shop.

“Where we gonna go now?” Frankie asked.

“Hell if I know…” said Isaac.

The cranes in the city skyline appeared to have doubled since the day before.  Half-built high rises stood in the distance, dwarfing Wong’s, dwarfing everything and everybody on the street.

“Where we gonna listen to our music at?” Frankie asked, his eyes moist in the cold morning.

“I don’t know”, said Isaac.

They both walked up the street, heading somewhere else.

 

 

© 2005 Tony Robles

 

 

 

 

 

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