The Ancestors Welcome Singer-Songwriter Eugene ‘Gene’ McDaniels, 76, Who Wrote “A 100 Lbs. of Clay,” “Feel Like Making Love” and “Compared to What?”
I recall “A Hundred Pounds of Clay” as one of the songs on the radio from my first days living in California in the early Sixties. It had a sweet, Jackie Wilson kind of feel (Jackie Wilson (and calypso) really messed with the heads of some singers at that time; everyone was trying to ride that wave, and nobody could pull it off that well), but it was actually a hymn praising the Divine for giving this guy a woman. It can’t get any simpler than that.
Gene McDaniels died, possibly in his sleep, at his home in Maine on July 29. Close friend Ann Ruckert said on her blog: “His wife, Karen, told me he was working until the very end. They went to bed last night, he was full of ideas and new projects, and this morning, she turned in bed to wake him and he was gone.”
If so, it was a joyous end. Still positive, still in love with life and his work. It is a wonderful way to go.
What should not have surprised me is that this same singer, who had a four-octave range, wrote one of Roberta Flack‘s hits in the Seventies; and that he also wrote “Compared to What?” which became a hit for Les McCann and Eddie Harris in 1969. The Sixties had a way of transforming individuals, and Gene McDaniels at that point became interested in black consciousness.
Like many other Americans of the era, something happened to Eugene McDaniels between 1965 and 1970 that transformed him from Gene McDaniels to “Eugene McDaniels the Left Rev. Mc D”. The former Mr. McDaniels was a clean-cut soul singer in the mold of Jackie Wilson that enjoyed minor commercial success in the early ‘60s with songs like “A Hundred Pounds of Clay” and “Tower of Strength”; the reinvented Reverend posited himself as a fervent voice of protest, recording a pair of now-classic records for Atlantic in 1970 and 1971. But where many other artists dabbled in the counterculture to explore different ways of presenting their image or to take advantage of looser codes of moral conduct, McDaniels fully embraced the movement’s radical politics—so much so that then-Vice President Spiro Agnew allegedly called Atlantic to issue a verbal cease-and-desist order upon the release of his second record (Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse) for the label.
The President, he’s got his war
Folks don’t know just what it’s for
Nobody gives us rhyme or reason
Have one doubt, they call it treason
We’re chicken-feathers, all without one gut. God damn it!
Tryin’ to make it real — compared to what? (Sock it to me)
Born Eugene Booker McDaniels in Kansas City, Missouri, United States, McDaniels grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, and went on to have six Top 40hits in the Billboard Hot 100chart. The two that went into the Top 5 were 1961’s “Tower of Strength” (#5 on the pop chart) and “A Hundred Pounds of Clay,” which reached #3 on the pop chart, and sold over one million records, earning gold disc status. “Tower of Strength” reached #49 in the UK Singles Chart, losing out to Frankie Vaughan‘s chart-topping version.
In the late 1960s, McDaniels turned his attention to a more black consciousness form, and his best-known song in this genre was “Compared to What,” a jazz–soulprotest song made famous (and into a hit) by Les McCann and Eddie Harris on their album, Swiss Movement, and also covered by Roberta Flack. McDaniels also attained the top spot on the chart as a songwriter. In 1974, Roberta Flack reached #1 with McDaniels’ “Feel Like Makin’ Love.” This won a Grammy Award and McDaniels also received a BMI award for outstanding radio airplay, at the time of the award the song had already had over five million plays. (This is not to be confused with the Bad Company song of the same name.)
Other songs that McDaniels recorded included “Point Of No Return” and “Spanish Lace.” In the early 1970s, McDaniels recorded on the Atlantic label, which released the McDaniels albums, Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse and Outlaw.
In the 1980s, McDaniels recorded an album with the percussionist Terry Silverlight, which has not yet been released. In 2005, McDaniels released Screams & Whispers on his own record label. In 2009, it was announced that he is to release a new album, Evolution’s Child, which featured his lyrics, and a number of songs composed or arranged with pianist Ted Brancato. Some of the songs featured jazz musician Ron Carter on concert bass.
McDaniels also appeared in films. They included the 1962 film, It’s Trad, Dad!, (released in the United States as Ring-A-Ding Rhythm), which was directed by Richard Lester. He also appeared in 1963’s The Young Swingers. McDaniels is briefly seen singing in the choir in the 1974 film, Uptown Saturday Night.
I was in college when this song came out from Roberta Flack. It moved me and a whole lot of other people who made Flack a musical star to be reckoned with for a few glorious years. But she was a musician too, like McDaniel, as well as a singer; and she knew that the gentle directness of the message, beyond the simple cha-cha-cha of the music, was all it took to make men and women dream dreams of their loves, lost and found and waiting.
Hearing McDaniels sing his first hit from the Sixties, I am astounded by how clear and fresh he sounded. Sure, he is 75 years old at that time, but he sounds much younger and stronger. That’s also a sign of the state of his heart. A majority of the young Maine things who were gathered to witness this event have no clue who he is, or how seminal he was for Sixties rock, black rockers as well as the hip hop community. I’m sure that McDaniels did these kinds of “demonstrations” among other school age kids. Only a couple of them will remember and realize that greatness sat down and spoke with them and entertained them from his heart. And possibly, that is enough–a little here, a little there–to keep his music and memory well.
Thank you, Gene McDaniels. Come back to us again.
- Eugene McDaniels, RIP (brooklynvegan.com)
- A Rich Music History Long Untold is Revealed and Celebrated at the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- R.I.P. Gene McDaniels (fleamarketfunk.com)