ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, DEC. 2, 1988
By Steve Newton
Living Colour is not your typical rock ‘n’ roll band. Drummer William Calhoun is a graduate of the Berklee School of Music, where he won the Buddy Rich Award as an outstanding percussionist. Bassist Muzz Skillings has played salsa, jazz, and reggae in assorted bands in Queens, New York. Vocalist Corey Glover has appeared in various TV commercials, and he plays Francis, the smart-mouthed young soldier in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. And guitarist Vernon Reid served an apprenticeship with steller jazzman Ronald Shannon Jackson.
So what are these four black guys doing playing in a straightforward, heavy-duty rock band? They’re crossing barriers, and you can join them at the Town Pump next Thursday (December 8).
“It’s a definite challenge playing with this kind of power and trying to bring a measure of improvisation to it,” says Reid, on the line from Bremen, West Germany. “But just because you’re playing rock doesn’t mean you have to limit what you do. Look at Frank Zappa–he does some of the most complicated music I’ve ever heard, and it’s still considered rock music.”
An acclaimed player who’s been lauded in recent editions of Guitar Player and Guitar World, Vernon Reid was born in England to West Indian parents before his family moved to New York City.
“My parents were totally into American music,” Reid recalls. “I grew up hearing everything from Xavier Cugat to Dionne Warwick. The Temptations’ records like ‘Cloud Nine’ and ‘Psychedelic Shack’ were all a big influence on me, as was everything by James Brown.”
And Carlos Santana was his first real rock hero.
“Carlos was a great inspiration, and he still is. His kind of spirit is very important–his openness and inspiration. I mean, just to read an interview with him. He’s always seemed very unselfish, very giving, and very much in awe of music. And that’s something that really impressed me, ’cause I’m very much in awe of music and musicians myself.”
As a teenager, Vernon Reid studied with leading jazz guitarists like Ted Dunbar and Rodney Jones before his apprenticeship with Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society.
“He’s almost like a cult figure in the modern jazz world,” says Reid of mentor Jackson, “because the kind of music he plays is almost like the punk movement in jazz–the whole harmolodic thing that Ornette Coleman was doing, and James Blood Ulmer. Jackson is definitely one of the most original composers to come along in many years.”
From the heavy rock sound of Living Colour’s debut album, Vivid, you wouldn’t think that the band’s members have played with the likes of Harry Belafonte, Bill Frisell, and Jon Zorn. The LP’s opening track, “Cult of Personality”, comes close to heavy metal, especially once Reid starts blazing away with his solo.
Reid is a founding member of the Black Rock Coalition, a New York-based organization dedicated to combating racial stereotypes in the music business. And Living Colour’s generally considered the coalition’s flagship group.
“Rock is not a foreign thing for me and a lot of other black musicians in my generation,” Reid says. “It’s just that there aren’t a lot that get a chance to be recorded. There are a few bands, like Bad Brains and Fishbone. And there’s Jean Beauvoir and John Butcher, but they’re part of the lucky few. There are a lot of other bands that aren’t getting the kind of shot that they should get, but I think they will once people’s attitudes start to change about what rock and roll really is.”