Above This Wall
c2008 B. Greene
Early September 1969
“Just what is it you do all day?” We heard that question repeatedly from friends and family. If the job of a VISTA could be called anything, political organizing comes closest. The work of Saul Alinsky dominated much of the training. Alinsky, whose ideas changed the face of political organizing in the 60s, argued that lasting change could only come from working within the system. He felt that organizers, once their work took root, should remain largely invisible. In theory, Alinsky’s ideas provided structure; in practice, however, they took another form. Most often, calls for help at all hours, or figuring out how to put pressure on the system without getting arrested.
Meeting immediate needs dominated our first few weeks. A call came one night at 11 pm. requesting physical labor. A family had to move immediately. Either eviction or some other unexplained drama, but the VISTA on the other end of the line sounded frantic. We’ll be there. “I’ll drive,” David says, and out we go without benefit of coffee or candy for energy. We creep through dark streets that lead to the red brick of public housing and an even darker scene. Babies crying, closets emptied into plastic garbage bags, older children clutching stuffed animals, and single mothers, always single mothers with fear and fatigue on their faces trying to find words of apology, sentences that add up to some form of thanks.
“You’ll have to angle that out from left to right,” someone calls out as I help to maneuver a bottom heavy refrigerator down a flimsy flight of stairs in the failing light. “Watch your fingers,” Larry repeats, and I rearrange my grip on a small stove as it spills greasy bits of happier days onto my feet. We pack our car with boxes, bags, and small pieces of furniture and unload it at a relative’s house all before dawn. At least this family, still without a permanent home, has their belongings off the street. Back home I find sleep eludes me. Do I want coffee? Do I dare attempt to close my eyes again? I decide that a couple of beers in the afternoon heat offer better odds and spend most of the morning writing in my journal, trying to finish a poem, and wondering when the call to relocate last night’s refugees will come again.
On another occasion, a VISTA from the North side asks me to attend a Welfare Rights meeting. After a brief introduction to Mr. and Mrs. Thompson, I have the difficult task of helping them figure out how new state budget cuts will impact their lives. They sit quietly while I work the math. Mr. Thompson looks over my figures as I try to explain what the new law says and how it will affect their lives. Mrs. Thompson sits patiently, smiles politely at me but says nothing. They know their income will be reduced, but seeing the final figures brings deep sighs and new lines to their foreheads. Before me are the faces of people who depend on the same government that spends billions to wage war in Southeast Asia. The same government whose defense budget and space program waste more in an hour than they required for a lifetime. Ever the optimist, I try to couch this bad news in a hopeful wrapper. “Maybe in a few months, after the next election things will turn around.” We exchange polite smiles all around.
Later that night I feel something strange; anger, empathy, and fear swirl simultaneously through my brain. Am I seen as a helpful supporter or an agent of the same government that just claimed another chunk of this couple’s dignity?
Late September, 1969
It took the first two months to build our communications center. Late one morning, Larry returned home from running a few errands with a serious haircut. The fashionable long hairstyles on college campuses were always dicey in Texas. It was not uncommon for my housemates and I to be refused service in a restaurant because of our hair length. Usually, it took the form of no waitress coming to the table. After ten or fifteen long minutes we’d just get up and leave. Better to choose battles wisely. More than once taxi drivers would speed up just to yell, “Get that long hair out of the way.” Texans had little clue then that everyone from Merle Haggard to their own congressmen would wear their hair longer in the next few years. Till then, it was a liability. Larry figured his fund raising success might be hampered by hair length and chose to be the sacrificial lamb for the sake of the project.
After a quick shower, a clean shave (facial hair was also politically volatile) Larry put on a tie and headed off to NASA. When he returned, he called David and me into the “office” for an announcement. He had been successful. The same space program that had put a man on the moon a month earlier had a little contribution to make. No, not money, more like equipment and supplies. From NASA we received large rolls of photographic paper, (most outdated but perfectly usable) darkroom equipment and chemicals, and a smattering of standard office supplies. A few trips with the project’s one pick-up truck and we were in business. Larry knew that NASA could earn some good press by donating to a project that served people who stubbornly clung to the notion that the space program was at their expense. Within weeks, we had raised enough money for a couple of Gestetner copy machines and a state of the art electronic stencil cutter. Copy paper and ink often came from our own pockets.
When word spread that the VISTA Communications Center was open for business we started hearing from local groups. MAYO (Mexican-American Youth Organization needed flyers for a meeting. We delivered. VISTAS organizing for welfare rights requested a pamphlet; we promised something at the end of the week. The Communications Center was rapidly becoming an information clearinghouse as well. As summer yielded to fall, Carl Adams gave us a call. Adams was a native Houstonian who had spent the previous fifteen years traveling the world as a musician. A trumpet player, Adams had toured first with Ray Charles, and then in B.B. King’s band. With the birth of his third child in late 1968, Carl Adams had decided to remain in Houston indefinitely. Aside from wanting more involvement in raising his other two children, aged 5 and 10, Carl had a dream. It was called CUP, the Cultural Uplift Program. In the increasing Afro-centrist awareness of the late 60s, Carl believed that he could contribute to his community best by offering cultural awareness through music. He envisioned a series of community centers where children not only learned their musical heritage, they learned to make and play instruments as well. He figured if he could entice younger kids into learning how to make and play percussive instruments, he could also teach them the history of African music and their link to their own cultural identity. Going from homemade drums, rattles, and bells to brass and strings would be a natural progression. He was clear on the idea but needed help on getting support and promotion.
After a brief meeting with Carl, we decided to produce a brochure that would recruit funds and volunteers to make CUP a reality. Carl mentioned that he had a philosophical statement written out. A combination rationale and budget, he asked me to take a look at it in hopes his ideas could be used for the brochure. I spent a few days going over the sheaf of yellow legal-sized sheets. His heart was definitely there, but the writing was mostly illegible, the language wordy, and many of his ideas convoluted. Somehow, with help from Larry, we extracted the essence. Shortly after the pamphlet was completed, we accompanied Carl to a nearby church recreation room where a CUP workshop was scheduled. After making drums from tin cans, stretched pieces of inner tubes and rubber bands, the kids made more instruments from beans, gourds, bottle caps, and sticks. Although the trumpet was is meal ticket, Carl could play a few other instruments and soon found his way to an old piano sitting in the corner of the room. I don’t know which brought me more pleasure; the smile on the kids faces as music erupted, or the ear-to-ear grin filling Carl’s face.
Carl Adams/CUP workshop
Working with Carl was VISTA at its best. We were able to help jumpstart his dream. We remained friends over the next few
months organizing additional workshops or hearing more of Carl’s ideas. I loved talking about and listening to music with Carl. He knew quite a few people and often told me insider stories about his travels.
“Man I remember lots of times when we had to eat in the bus because some towns had laws against Black folks eating anywhere inside.” That’s OK, it made it easier to blow a little reefer after dinner”
“Where did you stay at night?” I’d ask.
“You know what, local people would take us in. Those early days on the ‘Chitlin Circuit’ we’d find a place to sleep with people who came out to the club that night. But the first time I went to Europe with Ray Charles’ band, we were treated like kings. First class hotels, great food, and the women, always hangin’ round. Some of the guys didn’t want to come back to the states. Every now and then one wouldn’t. They have always loved Rhythm and Blues overseas, funny how that is, isn’t it?”
Carl knew I loved the blues so it came as no surprise that he promised to introduce me to B.B. King if he ever came through Houston. That was just fine with me, but I eagerly settled for just hearing his wonderful record collection or his experiences playing with blues giants like King and Charles in Europe and Asia.
CUP struggled to attract supporters with deep pockets but Carl and I remained in touch. He’d invite David, Larry, and I over for a meal now and then just to catch up. My housemates were never without their cameras and often photographed Carl and his kids. The best of those photos they gave to the Adams family. Carl’s wife, Rosetta, was a strikingly beautiful woman who, when present, constantly seemed to be on his case. It was she who encouraged him to remain in Houston and give up the traveling part of his career. That was certainly understandable given they had 3 children all under 10 years of age. But there was something more, something that seemed to gnaw away at Carl. He’d indicated that his wife was into the supernatural, and had a trace of Louisiana Creole voodoo in her background. She certainly had Louisiana cooking down. The aroma of red beans and rice or a new batch of gumbo often filled their apartment.
Carl’s oldest and youngest
Carl and his baby
After a wonderful meal of barbeque, grits, and slaw one evening, Carl told me something that filled in the gaps.
“In March of 1968 I was on a European tour with B. and the band. I’d call Rosetta every few days. Right before I returned home, I called and she was really upset. She told me that the previous night she had a very disturbing dream. Man, she was really blown away.”
“Did she have disturbing dreams often,” I asked.
“Not really, but this was a nightmare because she dreamed that Martin Luther King had been shot and killed.”
Not only did she believe in the power of her dreams, she exhorted Carl to try to contact King’s entourage and dissuade him from going to Memphis, Tennessee where he planned to assist striking garbage workers.
“Nobody believes me Carl, she kept saying, you do don’t you baby? You gotta do something Carl. If you don’t it’ll be on your conscience the rest of your life.”
“How could she expect you to be responsible? It was her dream.
“What could I do, it was April 2nd, and King was shot two days later,” Carl said, holding back tears. “I don’t think she’s been the same since that phone call.”
I tried my best to relieve Carl of this burning guilt. He knew deep inside that there was very little he could do. I assured him that Martin Luther King would have gone to Memphis at any cost. Still, he brooded. I don’t doubt that Rosetta had that dream, but I’ve often wondered about their relationship, subsequent dreams and the strength of their relationship.
A few months later, I got a call from Carl about 7:00 pm one evening.
“Hey Bruce, Carl Adams. Hey man, B’s in town come on; can you pick me up in half an hour? I want you to meet him.” After my heartbeat returned to semi-normal, I had the presence of mind to make one phone call before picking up Carl. I called the editor of Houston’s first underground newspaper, Space City News. I knew some VISTAS working behind the scenes at this fledging alternative publication and I figured I could persuade them into a contribution at short notice.
“Hey listen, I’m going to interview B.B. King right now, do you want to use it? I’ll give you first crack at what I get.” They jumped at my offer. David loaded his Nikon, grabbed another lens, and agreed to meet up at the club in the Montrose area near Rice University. B.B. King was just beginning to enjoy crossover success in February of 1970 when he rolled through Houston. “The Thrill is Gone” was a huge hit and big things were in the works for the year ahead. I wanted to know all about his past and future, but how much could I get at this late notice? When we arrived and worked our way through the line to the front door of the club, Carl spoke to a security guard. We weren’t on any list. The mellow Carl Adams I knew was plenty pissed.
“Go get Sonny Freeman, he’s the drummer and leader of B’s band,” he barked. In seconds a small, well-groomed man appeared to greet Carl.
“Sonny,” Carl shouted, “This is my friend Bruce, we want to see B before the show begins. “
“Carl, my man,” Sonny said, “Right this way, B is in his dressing room.”
I realized immediately that those who knew him called Riley B. King, B, not BB. Sonny ushered us toward a door to the right of the stage. We entered and for the next 45 minutes everything went red. The room was carpeted and furnished all in red. Every light was red. Anything that wasn’t a shade of red soon turned one. The small room was filled easily filled with 20 people. In the middle stood the blues icon himself, a glass in one hand and a bottle of Old Grand Dad in the other. I’d entered a private party. Carl worked his way forward, made contact with B, and introduced me. When I asked for permission to interview, B obliged. Carl began to reminisce with other musicians in the room and left me on my own. Between my questions and his responses, B masterfully entertained his guests, sipping bourbon, kissing women, posing for photos, and taking my questions seriously. He told me how exciting it was for him to finally begin to get crossover acceptance. New venues were opening up; bigger record deals were in the works. He was even scheduled for an outdoor festival in California with the Rolling Stones. I worked fast; realizing that show time at the packed house could steal my opportunity any moment. There was one question that I needed to ask. I knew the answer, but a myth persisted and I wanted to get a response from the man himself. As blues music enjoyed a wider following, many people believed that two other musicians, whose last names were King were related to B.B. King. Finally I asked, “B, lots of folks still say that Albert Kind and Freddie King are your brothers? What’s the truth?” His instant response stands as a testament to the character of this blues legend. “Yeah, they’re my brothers all right,” (long pause, big smile) “Just like you are.”
B and Sonny on drums
I could hear the opening act through the door completing their set. The audience was courteous but they were there to see B.B. King. It must be difficult to open for a performer like King, I thought. But I’d heard the guys in the local band that opened that night were big fans of King and were just as excited to see his performance that evening.
Just about the time I ran out of questions, a well-dressed man circled behind B and, like a gust of wind produced his guitar. I came face to face with “Lucille.” In one motion, he handed the famous guitar to King who in turn took hold of his instrument and politely told me, “Excuse me, I got to go to work.” I followed Carl out the door. In less than 20 seconds, we sat in a short row of seats directly in front of the stage. No other empty seats remained. Somehow David appeared, camera in hand, and grabbed a seat. Before I could put my pen in my pocket I heard, “Everyday, everyday I have the blues.” B looked 10 feet tall on stage. With the first note he played, he entered another world. I don’t think I will ever see another performer interact with his audience the way he did.
B.B. King working with Lucille
What followed was a masterful set of new and old material. B took his fans back in time; calling off the year he recorded various favorites. His tight band knew when to forge ahead and when to let their engine idle. B’s face mirrored every emotion capable of being wrung from his music. When he sang, “The Thrill is gone,” the crowd erupted. Despite being a diverse group, it seemed to be predominately Black. Many women watched the entire show on their feet. The call and response between King and his audience was stunning. He not only worked the room, he worked those folks’ lives.
“Womens is just like a bus,” an enthralled admirer called out. “You miss one, you catch another.”
B nodded never missing note, closing his eyes and delivering the next verse:
I bought you a 10-dollar dinner; you said thanks for the snack,
I gave you a diamond ring; you said I want a Cadillac,
I let you live in my penthouse; you said it was just a shack,
I GAVE YOU SEVEN CHIDREN,
NOW YOU WANNA GIVE ‘EM BACK!
I’ve been downhearted, ever since the day we met,
My life is nothing but the blues, people, how blue can you get?
In the months that followed, I thought of that evening many times. The festival that B.B. King played with the Stones turned out to be the tragedy of Altamont, where Hells Angel’s acting as security killed a person. The horror of that incident remains captured forever in the Rolling Stones song and film “Gimme Shelter.” Fortunately that dark spot on the large festivals of the era had no negative impact on King’s burgeoning career. His optimism that night was well founded and it’s safe to day he deserves the title “King of the Blues.” I didn’t need to be concerned with the local Texas blues trio who opened for B.B. King that night either. In the end, they turned out all right. In tribute to King, they chose a double consonant for their name too. 38 years and numerous Grammies later, Z.Z. Top are doing fine.