LES McCANN: YOU DIDN’T HAVE DIRTY SOCKS AT HOME?
illustration by jared pittack
James Brown may have styled himself “the Godfather of funk,” but any detailed reading of the genre’s sonic DNA string would have to award paternity rights to one Les McCann. A spate of ‘60s LPs documents a startling improvisatory power that made his band a major live draw in the waning days of bop jazz, with McCann’s rollicking tricky-fingered keyboard style finding its complement in pungent, cynical vocals. A miraculous set recorded with superstar tenor saxman Eddie Harris and other heavies live at the 1969 Montreux Jazz Festival was released as the bestselling Swiss Movement album and the ad-hoc band’s pass at Eugene McDaniels’ scabrous “Compared to What” went on to become one of the era’s most notable protest records. Despite all the topical references to Nixon and Vietnam, the song is retains its power by making itself about the consequences of doubt, love of money, hating the human love of that stinking mutt and other frightful possibilities. He’s now nearing eighty and celebrating rerelease of his 1972 soul masterpiece Invitation to Openness and publication under the same title by Fantagraphics Press of a book of jazz and soul photographs. Though warned by handlers not to exceed thirty minutes of time and told in advance of the man’s general irascibility, I found Les a genial, jolly and gnomic fellow whose regal authority kind of brings to mind old young King Tut. This interview by Ron Garmon.
I remember hearing ‘Compared to What’ as my first exposure to anything funky.
What? You didn’t have dirty socks at home?
Anything funky-sounding, I should say. They talk of James Brown and George Clinton, but did anyone ever throw a Godfather of Funk paternity rap your way?
Well, in Germany, they call me the Master Funkmeister.
And why not? The story goes you got involved in music after appearing in a Navy talent show in the mid-1950s.
I got out in ’56, went to music school and L.A. City College and started workin’ around town and everything just flowed. It took me time to play ballrooms and I must’ve worked every coffeehouse in southern California and people began to fill up the place and word spread. I thank God every day for that.
What was the L.A. jazz scene like when you showed up and McCann-ized it?
It was the last of the be-bop period— the new jazz or what they called the modern jazz. I wanted to take it to the church, like funky.
You recorded a number of your early albums live. What was the Troubadour like before hippies arrived?
It was a great period—lots of beautiful ladies, lots of young people. It was a fun period, right before the Change. That’s what I meant by the coffeehouses. Back then, when you came out of the church as I did, you were funky. There were other guys doing it but I was the one who got known first.
Funk seems to have been the obvious next stage in your evolution. Much of this happened after you signed with Atlantic after being on small jazz labels for years.
Way before. It was simply part of the evolution. By the time I’d gotten to Atlantic, I was off into other levels of music, y’know.
Swiss Movement was a revelation. How did you come to throw in with Eddie Harris, trumpeter Benny Bailey and the rest?
Eddie was also an Atlantic artist and our producer suggested that since we were gonna be at one of the first Montreux Jazz Festivals which Atlantic mainly put up the money for, the idea came up that we would record together while we were there. Once we agreed, we had to find other musicians. We’d heard Benny Bailey at some jam session and we’d already had two people turn us down. Once we heard him, we knew why. He turned out to be fantastic.
How long did you rehearse for that storied set at Montreux?
About ten minutes. It was all improvised. I think the crowd was in shock. They’d never heard anything like it. It was just one of those God-given moments. It’s not just the audience that was stunned but the band.
You can hear it as ‘Compared to What’ clatters to a finish. The band is also taken aback—‘What the hell did we just do?’
That’s exactly right! In fact, I was angry when it was over and I went back to my hotel room to cry on my wife on the phone. When I was done, my manager called and said ‘Man, the band’s calling you wanting to get your butt back onstage. There’s something magic going on.’ I thought we’d messed up, but I just had to let go and let God.
I’ve meditated on those words by Eugene McDaniels for years. They’re a series of profane and sacred observations of American society. This being 1969 and the United States being what it is, did you get any pushback or criticism for this?
When I first recorded it six years earlier, a Washington radio station was fined ten thousand dollars for the word ‘abortion’ in the song. By [the time] I did it for Atlantic, they bleeped out ‘Goddamnit’ the first few releases, but they eventually left it like it was supposed to be. Shows how far we’ve come.
The McDaniels original is pretty out there but not as churchy as yours and Eddie’s.
He was great with the lyrics and a great singer but nobody would ever call him soulful.
He’s too Bob Dylan. All about the words.
You’re the first person I’ve ever talked to who said that. I always tell people he’s totally into Bob Dylan and nobody ever believes me but here now you’ve said it—so I agree with you. When he sung that song to me over the phone, I said ‘That reminds me of Bob Dylan.’ He’s from Nebraska and the son of a preacher. I didn’t know anybody but insurance companies were from Nebraska.
Some artists have hits and nothing changes and for others everything changes. What did ‘Compared to What’ do for you and Eddie Harris?
Well, we earned a little money, y’know. Got to travel all over the world. We never went everywhere we could’ve gone. Eddie had his own band and I had my own. Everyone thinks we worked together but we didn’t.
Eddie Harris had a serious recording career too. Rhino rereleased a few of his ‘60s albums. Very pretty.
He was very famous for a song called ‘Exodus.’ You can’t get no funkier than that. He never got paid for that and he was very bitter about it. It was a radio hit and he never got the money. They had no distributor. It was just a little company in Chicago that got more than it could handle.
By 1972 and Invitation to Openness, you are swerving into sonic territory then being mapped by Miles Davis.
This is a totally different era in my music.
Very spiritual. Almost like the stuff George Harrison was doing.
Yes, yes, yes, yes. I’m from the church.
All of that was in the air… the Jesus movement.
What was in the air was Frank Zappa. The first Mothers of Invention record [Freak Out!]. I’m on that. We were young and it was like a big party. At the time, I was probably better known than he was. I liked it later when I saw him on television telling a senator to kiss his fuckin’ ass. I want to grow up and be just like that. The hippies weren’t around when I was growing up.
Well, you have to say they took to you.
We were embedded together even though we came from different directions.
What did you thinking looking over your book of photos? I work with photographers from time to time and they all talk about searching for the ‘inner person’ of the people they photograph. You seem to have nailed this down perfectly.
As soon as you get your first camera the first thing you do is look people in the eye. The eyes truly are the windows of the soul. To look into Count Basie’s eyes … what did you think?
I think it’s beautiful. There’s a definite highly specialized skill to photographing musicians at work that isn’t that well appreciated.
There was a bunch of them that didn’t like being photographed because they didn’t want anyone to see the powder under their noses. ‘Lemme take a shower first!’ Oh, God. I have no complaints, I love my life.
Do you feel differently about any or your subjects now than when you took the pic?
I’m sure I do. A lot I knew personally but only knew them at concerts, others I knew better. My brothers were photographers and three years after I bought my first camera I had twelve cameras. I had to learn when to take it out or take it out when nobody knew I was. I didn’t want people to know what I was doing so they’d pose. So I had to know when to take it out. I wanted to get these people doing things they weren’t down for. I was traveling the world seeing everything and wanted to photograph it all. Since I had my stroke and been in a wheel chair for two and a half years, I can’t really frame and carry prints around for exhibits, So this book is like an archive.
LES MCANN’S INVITATION TO OPENNESS: THE JAZZ & SOUL PHOTOGRAPHY OF LES MCCANN 1960-1980 IS OUT NOW ON FANTAGRAPHICS. VISIT LES McCANN AT LESMCCANN-OFFICIALWEBSITE.COM.