This morning, while watching two episodes of the early-1970s sitcom “That’s My Mama,” I began reminiscing about the crush I had on the lead star, Clifton Davis.  Davis’ only competition in my young mind was Michael Jackson, whose posters adorned every wall in my pretty-in-pink bedroom.  Once I drifted down from the cloud-nine childhood fantasy of my marriage to Davis, I decided to do a Wiki-peek at Davis’ beginnings and current goings-on.  I was familiar with his acting credentials post-“That’s My Mama.”  For example, I was a die-hard fan of “Amen” (1986-1991), the groundbreaking prime-time sitcom that parodized the (Protestant) African American church, in which Davis portrayed the charismatic, dedicated minister, the Rev. Dr. Reuben Gregory.

As the main story arc charted the Rev. Dr. Gregory’s new career as a minister, another, parallel arc charted the church deacon’s daughter’s strategy to get her man — or, to put it more aptly, her man of the cloth.  Pictured in character in the above photo are (l-r) Davis as the Philly reverend with the legendary Sherman Hemsley as Deacon Ernest Frye and Anna Maria Horsford as Thelma Gregory (née Frye).  “Amen” airs in syndication on TVOne, and as I’m in the Northeast,  I set my DVR for 8 a.m. and 8:30 a.m.

While conducting my Wikipedia research, I recalled that Davis sang in different episodes of “Amen,” but I was totally surprised to discover that he wrote the song “Never Can Say Goodbye.”  The melodic, midtempo song was first recorded by The Jackson 5 and became a big pop and R&B hit for the legendary band.  Years later, disco queen No. 3, Gloria Gaynor (Donna Summer taking the top spot, followed by Sylvester), covered Davis’ song.  Of course it’s the ever-popular anthem and karaoke mainstay “I Will Survive” that placed Gaynor in the disco pantheon.

I also learned in my research that Clifton Davis had been a songwriter before becoming an actor, and that revelation got me thinking about the TVOne program “Unsung.”  I view “Unsung” fairly regularly, and I realize that the show strives for objectivity in its profiles of Black artists, so that’s fine and all.  However, I’m wondering now that the show has been airing for more than two years, why it focuses predominantly on singers, musicians and actors.

I can understand why the network would want to limit its focus to these categories of artists (for the time being), but doesn’t art also encompass dancing, painting, sculpting and photography?  In no way am I attacking TVOne — although when I visited its website, some kind of “toolkit” attempted to attack my computer … hmm — but I ‘m trying to open up dialogue about which art forms get promoted more aggressively in the Black media.

In the realm of drama, Clifton Davis is but one example of a Black artist who is unsung.  Thus, I hope that the producers of “Unsung” come across my blog — since it appears they have ignored my missives — and consider expanding the thrust of “Unsung.”

Regular readers of the Blah-Blah-Blah-Blah Blog already are aware that I love to digress, so I will do that once again.  While there’s a sprinkling of actors profiled on “Unsung,” singers and musicians are featured mostly.  If it’s true that TVOne is responding to what its viewers have requested, then in this blog I’m appealing to those viewers, too.  What am I getting at in this double appeal (i.e., to the producers and viewers of “Unsung”)?  Well, how about:  I’m sick and tired of folks, no matter what the phenotype, thinking of all Black people as musically gifted.

There’s a line spoken by a white character, an executive sports agent, in “The Game,” which is a well-acted dramedy series (returning on January 11, 2011, and airing on BET) that takes a satirical look at the relationships between Black footballers and their agents, and at the romantic relationships of all involved.  I can’t recall the exact quote, but the character is replying to an underling (also white) who compliments Tasha Mack’s (Wendy Raquel Robinson’s) vocal talent.

In the episode, Tasha mistakenly thinks that fellow agent Rick Fox (who from 2008-09 portrayed a fictional version of himself on “The Game”) sabotaged her career, and so she tells him off in song.   Her boss joins her in singing Rihanna’s “Take a Bow,” mocking her and Rick’s situation, until she leaves in disgust.  When the underling comments on Tasha’s great singing voice, his boss shrugs it off by saying something akin to, “They [emphasis mine] all do.”

My detractors will say, “Oh, Chantale, you’re just being too sensitive,” or, “Chantale, Chantale, stop playing ‘the race card.'”  To them I say, “Hey, I’m just keepin’ it real.”  You see, at different times in my life I’ve been asked some of the most annoying questions, or have heard annoying comments, related to music by white people such as:  “You mean you never sang gospel in church?” and “How come you don’t play piano?”  These questions and remarks rank right up there, or I should say smell rank down there, with such asinine questions and remarks as:  “What was it like to grow up in the ghetto?” and, my favorite from 1996, spoken by my white manager:  “Your hair looks too fancy for the office.  You should get your hair braided, to look more corporate.”   That last comment was made by one of the white-feminist bullies to whom I referred in my Paris memoir on this blog, titled, “To Be Black, American, Female and Alone:  A Brief Paris Memoir.”

My point about “Unsung,” though, should be clear.  That is:  Black people are just as well-rounded within the arts as without.  As “Unsung” prefers to focus on Black artists, it would be wonderful and groundbreaking to view profiles of Black people whose art forms have been underreported if not unrecognized.  Here’s a sampling of unsung Black artists by category:  photography (e.g., Rashid Johnson, Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, Deborah Willis and Linda Day Clark), choreography (e.g., Judith Jamison and Bebe Miller), paintings (e.g., William T. Williams, Sam Gilliam, Mickalene Thomas, Louis Delsarte and Kehinde Wiley), sculptures (e.g., Allison Saar and Willie Cole), poems (e.g., Nikki Giovanni, Imamu Amiri Baraka, Rita Dove, James A. Emanuel, Lucille Clifton, Lady Lee Andrews, Quincy Troupe), novels (e.g., ZZ Packer and Tayari Jones), graphic novels (e.g., Lance Tooks), collage art (e.g., Kara Walker), and multimedia (e.g., Betye Saar, Lezley Saar, Faith Ringgold, David Hammons, and Adrian Piper).  Yet all of the above-named artists of color, covering a wide age range, are very much alive as of this writing.  When I was a journalist, I had the pleasure of interviewing and witnessing the art of some of the aforementioned individuals, and I only wish that they could be lifted from the shadows before it’s too late.

As with many forms of change, baby steps are needed.  For now, it’s worth repeating that TVOne’s “Unsung” does a fine job of profiling Black singers and musicians.   Songwriters do get tossed in the mix as commenters on the subject of the profile rather than any of them ever being the subject.  I’m not referring to songwriters who also are performers, such as Angela Winbush and Teena Marie.

I was happy to see Winbush featured, but surprised to find that Lady Tee is unsung!  And in no way is “Lady Tee” Black, just as Dusty Springfield wasn’t, yet she had a soulful voice.  (What, is Joss Stone destined for “Unsung” 20 years from now?)  True, back in the day everybody on the block and beyond wanted to think that Teena Marie was Black, but I did and still do give her props for giving shout-outs to Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni (“just to name a few”) on the smash “Square Biz.”

Another Black songwriter who is unsung is Leon Ware.  The Europeans love him and know who he is.  We here in the United States should, too.  Well, many of us over the age of 40 and Black or Latino or Black and Latino probably know who Leon Ware is.  I mean, the man penned “I Want You,” recorded by Marvin Gaye and later by Fourplay featuring El DeBarge and Patti LaBelle.  Yeah, that’s all, right?  C’mon, people.  Ware also shared songwriting credit with “T-Boy” Ross on “I Wanna Be Where You Are,” which was written for tween-aged Michael Jackson.  Jackson made it a hit, and the song later was covered by Marvin Gaye, Jose Feliciano and many others.  Gen Xers who know Ware’s name probably associate him with the song he wrote for Maxwell:  the groovilicious “Sumthin’ Sumthin’.”

 

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Above:  Veteran actress Mary Alice, who portrayed the mother in the original Sparkle (1976) as well as memorable recurring TV characters on “Sanford and Son” and “Good Times” (pictured here in 1993 at the 45th Emmy Awards’ Governor’s Ball) definitely is unsung!  Here on the Blah-Blah-Blah-Blah Blog, I have noticed searches for “Mary Alice” by readers who are curious as to what happened to this fine actress.  Why haven’t any roles been created for her and other Black actresses of her generation (including Lynn Hamilton – see her in the photo below) to claim?

Photo Source: en.wikipedia.org

Above:  Veteran actress Lynn Hamilton, who portrayed “Donna,” the fiancée of entrepreneurial junkman Fred G. Sanford (Redd Foxx) in the landmark 1970s sitcom “Sanford and Son,” was phenomenal in John Cassavetes‘ Beat Generation film Shadows, but she’s still unsung!

Photo Source: imdb.com

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While one might not expect a Black painter or sculptor to be featured on “Unsung” anytime soon, could we at least have a few more actors?  I’ve mentioned Clifton Davis (again, an actor who was a songwriter first), and here are other unsung actors:  Mary Alice, Carl Lumbly, Novella Nelson, C.C. H. Pounder, Ernie Hudson, John Amos, Sherman Hemsley, Marla Gibbs, Vondie Curtis-Hall, S. Epatha Merkerson, Richard T. Jones, Lonette McKee, Philip Michael Thomas, Forest Whitaker, Tyra Ferrell, Blair Underwood, Regina Taylor, Viola Davis, Michael Beach, Dennis Haysbert, Reginald VelJohnson,  Andre Braugher, Clark Johnson, Mekhi Pfifer, Jesse L.Martin, Giancarlo Esposito, Jeffrey D. Sams, Wendell Pierce, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Audra McDonald, Mykelti Williamson, LaTanya Richardson (who many folks still refer to as Samuel Jackson’s wife, and while that’s honorable, she should be respected as an actor in her own right).

That’s by no means an exhausted list of underrated Black actors, but  the laundry must get done today.  Then again, all the washing machines probably are stuffed with lazy tenants’ clothes, anyway, so I’ll state further that I cry out for the cardiac paddles when I see a photo of an unsung Black actor in the “In Memoriam” portion of the Academy Awards broadcast.  I had one of those shocking moments when I spotted Alaina Reed-Hall’s photo flash by on screen.  The first time I saw Reed-Hall was on “Sesame Street,” and I find it disturbing and sad that both she and Matt Robinson — who created the “Roosevelt Franklin” Muppet  (the Muppet banished from “Sesame Street”) — were unsung.

It’s hard to believe two other unsung actors are deceased:  from “All in the Family” and its spin-off, “The Jeffersons”:  Isabel Sanford (the ORIGINAL “Weezy”) and Michael Evans (who co-created “Good Times” with Eric Monte).  Sanford passed in 2004;  Evans, in December 2006.  Sanford was the first Black actress to win an Emmy for Lead Actress (1981).  Sherman Hemsley, actor of the stage (“But Never Jam Today” and “The Lottery” with Vinnette Carroll’s Urban Arts Company; and “Purlie,” which was his Broadway debut) and screen (“All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons” and “Amen”), died in 2012.

 

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You know, too bad TVOne didn’t think of expanding the focus of “Unsung” by the start of 2010.  Already we’ve lost a major yet unsung actor, Vonetta McGee, in July.  (My condolescences go out belatedly to McGee’s husband, actor Carl Lumbly.)

Beautiful, elegant and eloquent, Vonetta McGee is immortal for her roles in Clinton Eastwood’s The Eiger Sanction (1975), which also starred Eastwood, and the Blaxploitation-era horror flick Blacula (which scared the bejesus out of me at the time because I was a kid).  However, how many of us recall her role in Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger (1990), which starred Danny Glover?

The photo below shows Vonetta McGee paired with Max Julien in Gordon Parks Jr.’s classic western, Thomasine & Bushrod (1974).  I remember that film better than I do Bonnie & Clyde. I suppose the reason for that is:  As a young child, I was proud that the lead actors resembled folks in my family rather than the folks fleeing my suburban neighborhood.

 

 

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REST IN PEACE, VONETTA MCGEE (pictured above with her co-star in Thomasine & Bushrod, Max Julien, star of the seminal Blaxploitation film, The Mack)

Max Julien

 

“2 Talented 2 B 4gotten”  Copyright © 2010 Chantale Reve  All Rights Reserved

Article was first published on the Blah-Blah-Blah-Blah Blog on December 4, 2010.

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