Masekela + Motown: a tough crusade
Producer Stewart Levine: it’s what’s in the grooves that count
“Barbara’s arrival came at a time when my star was on the decline, and I was slowly mutating into an ugly little asshole.”
The late Hugh Masekela minced no words in his 2003 autobiography, Still Grazing, as evidenced by the above. He could be equally dramatic in the glorious rainbow that was his music – and often surprising, too. It is, for instance, his trumpet-playing which helped to fuel-inject the Byrds’ 1967 hit, “So You Want To Be A Rock ’N’ Roll Star.” And less than a year after that, he added a relatively obscure Smokey Robinson song, “Little Miss Sweetness,” to his live set at the Whisky A Go Go in Hollywood.
Masekela’s death on January 23 sparked worldwide coverage, including this from the New York Times. Several obituaries mentioned Chisa Records, which the South African maestro formed in the mid-1960s with fellow musician and record producer Stewart Levine, and which was distributed and marketed by Motown Records from 1969-71. Levine graciously provided insights into that deal and those times when I was researching Motown: The Sound of Young America.
“To me,” Levine explained, “it was always the groove that was way important. Motown dug that, they understood that. It’s all about the groove.” And the name Chisa? “It’s an exclamation people [in South Africa] will make when the music’s cooking. In fact, on one of our first records, The Emancipation of Hugh Masekela, one of the cuts is called ‘Chisa.’ And everyone sings and shouts and makes it a party record.”
For Masekela, exiled from his motherland, it was in 1968 that the groove seriously got going in America, when “Grazing In The Grass” was a Number One hit through MCA’s Uni Records. “[But] the last thing they wanted to do was develop any of the other artists we came there with,” said Levine. “They kind of submarined us. We were radical and crazy, this was still in the ’60s, and we decided that we didn’t want any part of Universal anymore.”
Ed Wright, who had previously headed the black disc jockeys’ association, NARA, connected Levine with Motown and, specifically, with general manager Barney Ales. The Chisa exec flew into Detroit. “We had made some little singles with our own dough [after Uni], just to keep going.” One was a version of “Home On The Range” by singer/organist Stu Gardner. “It had a very mobile, strange kind of non-R&B feel to it, a little jazzy,” recalled Levine, who played it for Ales. “I think he realised there was something new, something fresh here. He laughed – and he liked it.” Gardner’s idiosyncratic “Home On The Range” became Chisa’s first release through Motown, in October 1969.
The Chisa principals were already acquainted with the artists of Hitsville, of course. “Masekela and I knew Marvin,” Levine told me. “We knew the Tops very well, and we knew Stevie and Gladys and Martha. They would all come to California and they’d look for something good to smoke. We always had the best smoke.” Gaye, in particular, seemed comfortable with the relationship. “He liked what we were up to and, lyrically, where Hughie was at. And Marvin, in more ways than one, was influenced by the little noises we were making. He came to LA and we would get high and talk politics and play a little music. It rubbed off on him.”
The Chisa/Motown union introduced Levine to others. “Norman Whitfield became my friend in the building [on Detroit's Woodward Avenue]. He had an office upstairs that was quite mad. Like psychedelic, like a teenager’s room – he had posters of Hendrix and shit like that, and there he was, in the middle of Motown.” Later, Whitfield admitted to Levine that “he stole the trumpet effect on ‘Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone’ from a Hugh Masekela record.”
Businesswise, Chisa at Motown became the responsibility of Al Klein, who was for many years the Detroit company’s influential point man in Texas. “He was a very far-out guy, bald with a goatee, very scruffy,” said Levine. “I think Barney took to the odd types.” Klein “loved us, because he knew Arthur Adams – before we did.” Indeed: the Texan soulman had recorded for Klein’s own label in Dallas years earlier. And so Adams’ melancholy “It’s Private Tonight” became Chisa’s third 45 release through Motown.
But the Lone Star state bestowed more than Adams upon this enterprise. From Houston came the Jazz Crusaders, comprising Joe Sample, Wilton Felder, Stix Hooper and leader Wayne Henderson, who doubled as Chisa's A&R man. “Our angle on rhythm & blues was southern soul, it really was,” remarked Levine. “To me, these guys were from Texas, so it was natural for them to play grooves. When we did Old Socks New Shoes…New Socks Old Shoes in 1970, which was their first Chisa album, it was really my attempt to make this music accessible.
“Motown loved it,” he continued. “ ‘Way Back Home’ became a hit, the album became a hit – and then they came to me and said, ‘We got a problem. Radio stations are having trouble playing them because they’re called the Jazz Crusaders. So I said, ‘Wow, well, fuck jazz. We’ll take that out of their name.’ Motown said, ‘Will they do that?’ I said, ‘Let me go back and talk to them.’ ”
And the band’s response? “Almost simultaneously, they said ‘Fuck jazz.’ They never got loved by the jazz police, the critics didn’t dig them anyway, so it was a no-brainer. I remember [Motown] being very, very surprised at how easy a sell it was.” Perhaps one reason was that pianist Sample and bassist Felder were playing on pop records by this time, including the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.”
Sample, Felder and the Jacksons shared another occasion: Motown’s 10th anniversary celebrations in San Francisco in August 1970. Chisa artists – the Crusaders, Masekela, Letta Mbulu – were showcased there for distributors and other guests; so were the Jackson 5. “We had our own, totally autonomous section of the show that night,” recalled Levine. “We were able to do whatever we wanted to do, and it shows you how concerned they were about trying to break us the right way. We broke it up!”
Yet the Chisa/Motown partnership ultimately failed to meet business expectations on both sides, despite a flow of innovative, exciting music, including two Masekela albums, Reconstruction and Hugh Masekela & The Union of South Africa, and Mbulu’s Letta. Nor was Motown short of commercial clout: in 1970, the company scored more Number One singles on the Billboard charts than in any other year. But “Chisa…The Home of Afro-American Music” (to quote a company slogan) was evidently out of sync with the market.
“What we were doing was radical,” Stewart Levine concluded, “but we didn’t think it was. There was no ‘world music’ yet, the term hadn’t been invented. We were doing what seemed natural. But for the music we were making, it was very hard to get radio play. And Motown was accustomed to selling records off radio play. I felt they did the best they could – and I’ve never said that about any record company.”
Like Hugh Masekela, Stewart Levine doesn’t mince his words.