A longtime producer of soul, pop and country records brought to Elizabeth City State University Tuesday night his contention that rhythm and blues broke down the walls of segregation in America.
The presentation by Steve Buckingham was the inaugural event in the new Community Connections performance and lecture series.
Buckingham, who produced records for artists such as Melissa Manchester, Linda Ronstadt, Dionne Warwick and Dolly Parton, taught a course at Vanderbilt University in Nashville called “R&B Tore Down the Walls of Segregation.” He later taught the course for two semesters at Virginia Wesleyan University.
Buckingham’s case for R&B’s role in ending segregation is based on three distinct but related points: The power of individual songs such as “People Get Ready” by Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions and “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke; the significance of interracial studio house bands such as the Funk Brothers at Motown and Booker T and the M.G.s at Stax Records in Memphis; and the important role that music played within the civil rights movement.
Douglas Jackson, a professor of music at ECSU, explained in his introduction of Buckingham that Buckingham produced records in an era when musicians performed live in the studio and mixing was done on elaborate analog equipment.
“This is a lost art,” Jackson said.
Buckingham, a native of Richmond, Virginia, told the audience that in the 1960s he played in a band that performed rhythm and blues. He had an opportunity to work with legendary R&B artists such as Jackie Wilson and the Drifters.
“We experienced the problems of segregation in the 60s,” Buckingham said.
The artists weren’t able to walk through the front door at most venues, while white musicians in their bands could, he said. He and other white band members couldn’t stay at the same motels as the artists, he added.
It was a rough time for black artists, Buckingham said. There were lynchings taking place and Freedom Riders were being killed.
Buckingham said seeing James Brown in concert in 1965 “changed my life.”
“Once he hit the stage it was nonstop for three hours,” Buckingham said. “Everybody wanted to be like James Brown, and tried to be, but there was nobody like James Brown.”
As the 1970s began he worked as a session guitarist. In 1977 he had a chance to produce his first record, “I Love the Night Life,” by Alicia Bridges. The record would became an international smash single.
“That opened up the world to me,” Buckingham said.
Shorty afterward, he produced an album for Melissa Manchester and then one for Dionne Warwick.
“It was a fast track,” he said.
Buckingham lived in Nashville, Tennessee, for four decades and produced about 375 albums.
“You were expected to get it on the first, second or third take,” Buckingham said of the way recording sessions worked in those days.
Buckingham showed two films during his presentation. One focused on the role R&B artists played in breaking down segregation while the other focused on songs that played important roles in the Civil Rights movement.
One of the films quoted civil rights leader Andrew Young, who said “the music was the soul of the movement.”
Young also was quoted as saying Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” was an important song for addressing social issues. Other songs highlighted in the films Buckingham showed included Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” and Otis Redding’s recording of that song, “Heaven Help Us All” by Stevie Wonder, and “I’ll Take You There” by the Staples Singers.
As “I’ll Take You There” was playing, ECSU students Nyasia Luke and Jaylen Webb, who are music students and accomplished singers, began singing along.
Buckingham said it made his night to hear students singing every word to the Staples Singers’ song. He had remarked in a conservation prior to the presentation that he had noticed many young people today have not heard of even legendary artists such as Aretha Franklin.
The Gospel group Blinds Boys of Alabama were also featured in one of the films, and Jerry Butler remarked that gospel music was the genesis of all R&B and rock and roll.
Interviews with Freedom Riders and leaders of the Civil rights movement were included in the films. They talked about violence and other hardships that they faced, and how music inspired them throughout the struggle.