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Cover Story

The Merda files

Their brand of ‘black rock’ was a Motor City anomaly. Finally, more than 30 years after calling it quits, the international kudos are piling high for Black Merda.

Anthony Hawkins, Tyrone Hite, Ellington "Fugi" Jordan and F. Charles "Little Charles" Hawkins pose for the camera, circa 1969.
Charles strums at home near his sister Mary, who holds Yogi, Veasey's infant son.
Soul Agents, circa 1966: (From l) Victor Stubblefield, Hite, Anthony Hawkins, Veasey and Gus Hawkins (no relation).
Veasey and Charles today.
Fugi, Anthony and Charles Hawkins, and Veasey, with spliff.
Veasey leans against a cigarette machine at Vertigo West, circa 1968.
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Published 12/1/2004

Detroit, circa 1969: The house lights of the packed Casino Royale dim. The club’s vibe is electric, the fog of cigarette and reefer smoke thicker than a Scottish moor. Four tall figures emerge from the wings of the stage, one settling in behind his drum kit, the other three drifting over to their guitars. As each man passes in front of his gear, the glowing red eyes of the guitar amps seem to wink conspiratorially at the audience.

Cords are twisted. Knobs get adjusted. Then, abruptly, the signature wail of a wah-wah cuts through the haze. The other guitarist replies with a brittle chucka-chucka-chuck-chuck and the drummer fires a machine-gun snare volley. Easing his way into the fray, the bassist nods his head in time with the beat. At the precise moment the stage lights flash on, he leans into the mic to grunt out a primal hunnhh! and the quartet slams into “Cynthy-Ruth,” a thick mélange of Hendrixian psychedelia, Muddy Waters-style chain-gang blues and dirty-ass funk.

This is Black Merda: siblings Anthony “Wolfe” Hawkins and F.C. “Little Charles” Hawkins on guitars and vocals, VC L. “Veessee” Veasey on bass and vocals, and Tyrone Hite on drums. Their visual impact is as arresting as their sound, all towering Afros, striped bellbottoms, flashy shirts and dangling scarves. And their reputation precedes them, with Merda hailed in local corners as being tighter and heavier than Parliament-Funkadelic, and pursued by such Motor City heavyweights as Norman Whitfield and Eddie Kendricks. Later the group will be courted by West Coast legends War, and in years to come the Merda praises will be sung by a choir of hipsters including Julian Cope, the Beastie Boys, DJ Z-Trip and Peanut Butter Wolf.

Merda’s musical fusion was unlike what was coming out of the African-American musical community at the time. Doing the “freaked-out thing” (as Veasey puts it now), the four men of Black Merda were acutely aware of being a breed apart from their Motor City (and national) peers.

“What we were doing was very different,” Veasey says. “These other [black] groups were kind of going into funk-rock then they switched to playing funk-dance music, but we were into doing psychedelic music. We’d play shows around the Detroit area and we used to do the psychedelic dress before Funkadelic were doing it, when they were still the Parliaments and still dressing like the Temptations. We dressed like that off the stage as well. Our dress, those clothes, we used to live like that every day.”

Laughing, Veasey adds, “We were young, fairly good-looking guys with these big Afros — and we were good.”

Ellington “Fugi” Jordan, a Merda friend and collaborator, says the band’s style came down to two words. “Black Merda considered the music they were playing a form of ‘black rock,’” he says. “I asked Veasey one day, ‘Veasey, why do you call it black rock?’ VC is a very straightforward guy, and he just said, ‘Because that’s what it is. We’re black and we’re playing rock!’”

Black rock: Author/deejay Rickey Vincent, in the chapter titled “Black Rock: Givin’ It Back” from his 1996 treatise Funk, correctly notes how rock ’n’ roll, despite being pioneered by Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Little Richard, had essentially become a white phenomenon by the early ’60s. With the eventual ascent of the hippie counterculture, however, intermingling of black and white styles was inevitable, and he cites in particular the hybrid music of Jimi Hendrix and Sly & The Family Stone as integral to the cross-pollination. Vincent writes, “Uprooting racial (and musical) stereotypes with each new release, Jimi and Sly utilized the freedom inherent in rock and roll to expose thriving new visions of society — visions induced by the social revolution of the black man in America and articulated by these black men.”

That’s precisely the cultural nexus Black Merda and a handful of other black artists of the era found themselves at. Some — the Chambers Brothers, War, Buddy Miles Express, Mandrill and Santana (the latter, arguably, more in a Latin-rock genre of its own) — made names for themselves. Others, Merda among them, were destined to be remembered primarily in regional circles: outfits such as Rasputin Stash, Black Heat, Iron Knowledge, Gran Am and the descriptively-named Blackrock. Still others, from Parliament/Funkadelic, the Isley Brothers and Stevie Wonder to the Ohio Players, Earth Wind & Fire and the Bar-Kays (whose 1971 album was actually titled Black Rock), had de facto rock material in their repertoire, but as Veasey suggests above, they eventually moved to funk and disco.

Black Merda, however, was the real deal. According to Chicago-based journalist James Porter, currently researching a book on black rock and co-author of liner notes for a new Merda CD reissue, it boils down to matters of authenticity and musicality. “Merda had the attitude,” Porter says. “They weren’t coming out in tuxedos and looking Vegas-y — they were kind of like a black answer to the whole new irreverence in rock, like not smiling for the camera or anything, and being raw and regular.

“One thing that further set them apart was the guitar,” he continues. “Most black bands who did the psychedelic thing back then, like the Chambers Brothers and Funkadelic, they really laid it on thick — like they went down to the instrument store and bought every foot pedal that Electro-Harmonix came out with. But those guys, Merda, they were playing with their bare fingers. They had that twang to their stuff. Not only that, they were originally from Mississippi, and they really did sound like they learned at the seat of actual blues musicians — just playing with the raw talent that God gave them.”

Fugi, who’s working on a book of his own, a musical/social memoir to be titled The Making of a Black Criminal, adds, “They never considered themselves [part of] mainstream America. They considered themselves guys who had their own personal view of reality. They were cool with everybody — no hatred among them. They weren’t racist or any of that stuff. I just thought they were the most unusual guys I’d ever met.”

During their relatively brief 1968-72 career, the Motor City foursome mustered only two albums, 1970’s Black Merda and 1972’s Long Burn the Fire. Yet while neither platter made any commercial impact, both went on to near-mythic afterlife in record-collector heaven. Copies of the LPs routinely trade on eBay for upward of $90, and bootleg CDRs dubbed from the records have turned up in Europe — this even after New York-based funk/soul specialists Tuff City officially reissued the albums on vinyl in 1996. When in 2002 an underground CD of rare early ’70s black rock called Chains & Black Exhaust appeared, a lysergic shudder of delight rippled through the collecting community; among the choice tracks was Merda’s “Cynthy-Ruth,” and no less a tastemaker than Britain’s The Wire magazine would enthusiastically liken the tune to “Charles Stepney’s controversial late ’60s arrangements for Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, but with Billy Childish’s production values.” With Tuff City finally giving the albums their first official CD release this month, a fully remastered 2-on-1 affair (The Folks from Mother’s Mixer) complete with unseen photos and detailed liners from Porter and New York musicologist Dan Nishimoto, the Merda buzz will only get louder.

The guys in Black Merda came of age in late ’50s/early ’60s inner-city Detroit. Veasey (who, along the Hawkins brothers, was born in Mississippi) recalls being 10 years old and seeing Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show. He instantly wanted a guitar, finally getting his wish a couple of years later when his father, a blues musician himself, swapped a bottle of wine for an old guitar and taught his son the rudiments. After a friend told Veasey of another guitarist, Anthony Hawkins, living in the neighborhood, a summit was arranged. The pair hit it off.

“I’d seen him one time before in a talent show singing a Bobby Rydell song. I thought he had a lot of nerve because he was out at the edge of the stage, right in front, while all the other singers in the group were hanging in the background,” Veasey says. “So I met him, and he knew ‘Honky Tonk’ and a couple of other things. I was impressed at that and he was impressed I could play my blues songs, so we just started hanging out together. That was the genesis of Black Merda, probably about 1960.”

Veasey and Hawkins spent endless hours learning songs from singles — a favorite was Freddie King, particularly the instrumentals that would appear as King B-sides — and if the tunes proved too difficult, they’d slow the 45s down to 33 rpm. The two would also engage in their own version of cutting contests, challenging each other to construct complicated chord sequences and training their ears in the process.

Eventually the duo was ready to turn in their acoustic guitars for electrics and start a combo. Dubbed The Impact Band and Singers, the group featured five vocalists, one of whom, Tyrone Hite, would later become their drummer. The Impacts played the Detroit area teen-club circuit, performing the obligatory pop and soul hits of the day (a young Bob Seger sometimes turned up on the same bill as the Impacts). They quickly notched an impressive enough reputation to draw the attention of several local producers including Don Davis — who worked with hit makers The Dramatics and Johnnie Taylor — and Bob Hamilton, of Ed Wingate’s Golden World label, then a chief competitor of Motown. Barely old enough to have their driver’s licenses, the Impacts found themselves in an enviable position.

“We weren’t really advanced musicians,” Veasey says of their work as session players, “but we were tight with what we knew, and whatever song we played we could make it sound like the record. And we were cheap. We were thrilled they were paying us to do demos, something like $10 apiece.”

In 1965, fate intervened when the Impacts were tapped by Hamilton to back up a vocalist named Edwin Starr. After his song “Agent Double-O Soul” became a breakout success for Golden World subsidiary Ric Tic, Starr wanted the same band that played on his hit to go on the road with him. Veasey (switching to bass for the gig), Hawkins and Hite, along with tenor sax player Gus Hawkins and trumpeter Victor Stubblefield, became the Soul Agents, and soon enough they were opening for the likes of the Temptations and Gladys Knight and playing venues such as Philadelphia’s Uptown Theater, Detroit’s own Cobo Arena and New York’s Apollo. (One night James Brown dropped by the Apollo, duly bringing the entire house to a standstill; asked by Brown if they knew any of his hits, the Soul Agents nodded yes and wound up backing up the Godfather Of Soul for an impromptu “Cold Sweat.”)

The next most significant step in the evolution of Merda would arrive in 1967. On tour with Chicago soulman Gene Chandler (“Duke of Earl”) while Starr was taking a break, the Soul Agents wandered into a Texas record store one afternoon.

Veasey says, “I’d had a short stint in the Army and was based up in Tacoma, Wash. One day I saw a picture in a Seattle paper and it said ‘Hometown Boy Makes Good.’ It was a picture of Jimi Hendrix, all freaked out and doing a back bend onstage. I didn’t know who he was, and I thought, ‘Man, who is this cat? Some black people try to do anything to get attention.’ [Laughs] Like he was a clown, you know? So I get out of the Army and we start touring around again. We stop at this record store and I happened to see Are You Experienced? sitting on a rack. I’d told the rest of them about this guy and we had been laughing about it, so I said, ‘Hey, there’s an album by the guy I was telling you about.’

“We bought the album so we could take it back and laugh at this guy — and when we finally played it, we didn’t stop playing it for a month. I couldn’t believe what we were hearing. Hendrix turned us around, and we decided we wanted to emulate him, as far as that kind of dress, the attitude. We felt we had a spiritual kindred.”

Minds suitably blown — Veasey additionally cites Sly & the Family Stone, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s and Muddy Waters’ Electric Mud as influences, along with copious marijuana intake — the decision was made to bring Hawkins’ younger brother Charles, also a guitarist, into the group, ditch the horns and embark upon a psychedelic rock trip.

The shift further enhanced the musicians’ reputations as a backing band. For his part, Starr wanted the Soul Agents for another tour, a high-profile one of the Northeast opening for the Temptations, and he was willing to sacrifice the horn section if it meant keeping his tight backing group happy. Veasey remembers being on the tour and walking out onstage at Madison Square Garden “dressed all freaked-out and psychedelic and girls just going nuts, people screaming and going crazy like we were the Beatles or something — and this is before Edwin even came out. Just going crazy.”

The quartet also found itself approached by members of Detroit’s musical elite; both Motown producer Norman Whitfield and the Temptations’ Eddie Kendricks were insistent about working with them. But feeling the association with the old-school Motown soul scene might dilute their impact, they kept such overtures at bay. “We were young and a little arrogant,” Veasey says, “and we just thought the ‘old Motown thing’ was passé.” They also adopted the rather un-soulful moniker Black Merda, having first come up with “Murder Incorporated” (rejected for the gangster connection) and then with “Black Murder” (a name under which they actually billed themselves briefly) before settling on the less confrontational play on words.

A steady groove of playing around the Motor City commenced, Merda primarily sharing stages with other black outfits — among them the Parliaments (who were gradually turning into Funkadelic), the Spinners and Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band — and appearing at local union halls and black clubs such as Casino Royale, Ben’s High Chaparral, Vertigo West and the Twenty Grand. As the Detroit music scene was largely segregated at the time (and, to this day, frequently still is), Merda remained largely unknown outside of the R&B crowd.

This is curious considering how in-sync Merda’s sound was with the scene that spawned the Rationals, the MC5, Stooges, SRC, Alice Cooper, etc. Veasey hastens to point out that Merda’s collective musical tastes were broad and that they were certainly aware of the Detroit rock bands; Merda once even landed a slot opening for Bob Seger and Alice Cooper at the State Fair, although the show got rained out. And he notes that a degree of black-white mingling would arrive once the flower-power, peace-and-love movement went overground — the influential Windsor radio station, CKLW-AM, including black music in its programming. Still, despite hard rock and psych exploding locally, Merda never really found its way to the white audience.

Around this time, Fugi entered the Merda picture. From Fresno, Calif., the fledgling singer-songwriter known as Ellington Jordan had been incarcerated in San Quentin for committing robbery, and while doing time he penned a tune called “I’d Rather Be a Blind Man” that was subsequently picked up by vocalist Etta James and slightly reworked lyrically as the huge 1967 hit “I’d Rather Go Blind.” Upon his release from prison, Jordan — Fugi — turned his newfound songwriting cachet into a deal with Chicago’s Chess Records and decided to relocate to a more thriving musical mecca — Detroit. One night in 1968, shortly after his arrival, Fugi wandered into a club where Edwin Starr and the Soul Agents were playing.

“Man, they were so impressive,” says Fugi. “I could just not believe these guys. They were just — tough. They weren’t just tight, they were a super-tight live band. It was like a combination between Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf all put together. And they all had that look: big huge naturals, a lot of the clothes and stuff.”

Fugi was formally introduced to Black Merda by Eddie Kendricks sometime later, and he eventually worked his way into the cliquish Merda inner circle. After Fugi moved into the band’s communal West Side house, a musical friendship blossomed as well, one product of that bond being a hypnotic slice of psychedelic funk called “Mary Don’t Take Me On No Bad Trip.” Merda initially came up with the music, and Fugi had a tape with him one day while riding around with Kendricks. “We were in Eddie’s Corvette and playing the song. He said, ‘Man, that sounds something like [sings], Ohhh, Mary, don’t you take me on no baaaaaad trip …’ And I said that’s gonna be the song right there. So that night I got high and listened to Jimi Hendrix and started writing the lyrics,” Fugi says.

Chess liked “Mary” enough to release it as a single in 1969 on the Cadet imprint. (Merda would also back Fugi on material for a proposed Cadet/Chess album that never materialized. In 1996, Tuff City obtained the rights to the unreleased record and issued it under Fugi’s name as Mary Don’t Take Me On No Bad Trip, its six songs highlighted by the title track, the Merda-ish “Revelations” and a soulful rendition of “I’d Rather Be a Blind Man” using Fugi’s original lyrics.)

At Fugi’s urging, Marshall Chess came to Detroit to see Merda. As journalist James Porter points out, the label was already in the process of moving away from its signature blues sound. “I think Chess was ready for them from the get-go,” Porter says. “Marshall Chess, I think, felt they were the answer to his prayers. Remember, he was the man who came up with [multiracial psych-pop group] Rotary Connection as well as Muddy Waters’ Electric Mud, so he was kind of waiting all along for the black community to come to terms with psychedelia. So Black Merda was just what he wanted: They were young, they were into the psychedelic thing, and they were African-American.”

Veasey recalls the meeting with the Chess label head well. “Marshall came over to our house on Wisconsin, near Six Mile, and the house was all freaked out from top to bottom, the furniture, black lights, nets hanging up on the walls. A lot of the old people in the neighborhood were afraid to come up to the house. And I had the album cover of Electric Mud opened up, with the big picture of Muddy with the robe on, and hung over the fireplace. Marshall comes up the steps and the first thing he sees is that picture of Muddy staring at him. He comes in, looks at us, we’re all decked out, and he says, ‘I’m convinced.’ We didn’t have to audition for him. He went back to Chicago and he sent us a letter saying there were plans to make us into a big group.”

Issued by Chess in mid-1970, Black Merda often gets compared to the first Funkadelic album, although its visceral, almost proto-punk rawness and socially stinging lyrics also locate it in the vicinity of the MC5. “Prophet” is a jaw-dropping opener, a martial-riffed manifesto with a swaggering vocal from Wolfe, who summarily hoists the band’s freak flag: “Let us introduce ourselves to you/We’re not prophets like some people might say/But we can save you from this mass of confusion/If you wanna be saved, we better hear you say/‘Set me free!’” Later Veasey takes over the mic for the bitter love song, “Cynthy-Ruth,” sounding uncannily like a young Muddy Waters. Elsewhere on the LP are edgy rockers, bluesy instrumentals (the luminous “Windsong” stylistically prefigures Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain”) and one memorably haunting dirge, “I Don’t Want to Die,” a meditation on death, Jesus and suicide. “We could be pretty moody guys,” Veasey says with zero expression.

The record’s spontaneous vibe is a clear reflection of the near-telepathic chemistry the members of Merda had built up through years of playing and living together. After it came out, however, the band realized that something had gotten lost in translation. During album mixdown, Chess producer Tom Swan decided he wanted to play up the group’s bluesier side. In the process he shaved off some of the band’s more psychedelic elements. Fugi, who attended the sessions, claims Swan “just threw a blanket on the mix. It had been so nice-sounding. Next thing I know, the album came out, and the music I loved, it was absolutely awesome, but the mix just suppressed everything.”

Veasey agrees the final product was flawed. “Live, we had a big, raw sound. We could do spontaneous stuff onstage that other people would think was rehearsed or arranged. And with the album, we had wanted that really big sound. But [Swan] toned it down. He took all the dynamics out of it.”

Deeply disappointed, Merda half-heartedly went about plugging Black Merda with a few radio station appearances and print interviews. Chess did a more or less reasonable job of placing ads, additionally issuing a single, “Cynthy-Ruth” b/w “Reality.” And in 1971 the group would gain some valuable national exposure when mainstream pop/rock magazine Hit Parader ran a feature on “black rock” that included profiles of the Bar-Kays, Funkadelic and Merda. Record sales, however, remained minimal, no doubt hurt by Merda’s stubborn unwillingness to tour extensively behind what they viewed as a substandard album.

In the spring of 1971, Merda was looking for a new direction. They purchased a Winnebago and headed out to Los Angeles with Fugi, who still had California connections and was now playing congas with the band. Tyrone Hite, having begun showing up late for gigs and gradually turning unreliable in the eyes of his bandmates, didn’t make the trip. The decision to replace their drummer would turn out to be a fateful one. But for the time being, once Merda hit the West Coast, everyone’s mood brightened.

According to Fugi, “The audiences loved us wherever we went. We had a club in Fresno where we used to play and it was so awesome. I’d wear a headpiece like Arafat, with jewels all around it, or sometimes a black hat like Paladin wore, and Merda was such a visually heavyweight group, looking like Hendrix and the Band of Gypsies.”

One of the groups Merda shared concert bills with in California was War. Enthusiastic about the group’s unique sound and style, War offered to sign Merda to their recently established production company. A few months into the sojourn, however, Merda got a call from Chess. Faced with the opportunity to make a second record with a bigger budget (and, it should be noted, having to contend with an increasingly problematic Fugi, who’d fallen into drug addiction), Merda went back to Detroit. That decision would also prove fateful.

Merda returned to the Chess studios, this time with producer Gene Barge and new drummer Bob Crowder. It became apparent very quickly what would differentiate the group’s first and second albums. Crowder, while no hack, simply couldn’t muster the same intensity on the kit as the departed Tyrone Hite; some of the material dragged as a result. Barge, for his part, suggested adding strings to several songs to lend a slicker, more soulful vibe. The strategy wasn’t an entirely flawed one; Veasey’s chilling murder ballad, “My Mistake,” is all the eerier and more epic-feeling for its sweetly sawing violins, particularly when an unexpected (and violent) twist arrives at the end. And the three men, having grown significantly as writers since the first album, were eager to try new things. But the overall result slightly defanged the lethal Merda bite.

That said, songs such as “My Mistake” and Wolfe’s “The Folks from Mother’s Mixer” still rank among Merda’s best. The latter in particular boasts a pair of intertwining riffs and an insistent bass line plus a cautionary lyrical angle (about the world getting crazier and crazier and spinning out of control) as timely now as it was then. “Sometimes I Wish,” penned by the younger Hawkins, has a yearning quality that neatly contrasts with some heavy fretwork. And the bluesy instrumental “We Made Up” offers evidence of Merda’s gifts as improvisers: It was made up on the spot in the studio.

Veasey claims that Fire was also intended to show the more reflective side of Merda. “We thought of ourselves as deep thinkers and were driven by the meaning and the emotion of the song, as opposed to using all types of musical gimmicks. I wrote ‘My Mistake’ to be poetic and to be meaningful; Wolfe wrote ‘Mother’s Mixer’ to say, ‘You got to slow down, you’re mixing people up too fast’ — people who are confused and out of sync with nature, you could put it.”

It’s interesting that while many of their songs contained social, racial and political themes, Merda steadfastly avoided becoming directly aligned with the left-wing political organizations — Black Panthers et al — of the day. “We could see where they were coming from and shared political points of view with some of them — we saw what the problems were,” Veasey says. “But getting involved with them just wasn’t our thing. We were more dedicated to being musicians and songwriters, and, although we weren’t putting things out there blatantly, we got our sentiments across.”)

Unfortunately for Merda, before the album had even been completed, Chess Records was sold to the GRT Corporation and the band’s principal supporter, Marshall Chess, was in England managing the Rolling Stones. In a curious move that Veasey now says was more intuitive than thought-out, Black Merda decided to shorten the name to MER-DA, perhaps as a subliminal response to the much-felt absence of drummer Hite. Amid the changes and confusion, the LP was released as a low-priority project on Chess spin-off Janus.

In 1972 Merda returned to the West Coast where they briefly reunited with both Fugi and Hite (who’d recently gone to California at the behest of Fugi to work on songs). But with no label support to speak of and zero promotion for Long Burn the Fire, the Merda flame gradually flickered and dimmed.

“If we’d had any sense we would have stayed [in California the first time],” Veasey says, with a rueful chuckle. “War was even talking about buying our contract from Chess. They were definitely in our corner. But for some reason we’d decided to go back.”

“It’s interesting that a lot of the really important black psychedelic stuff came out just as whites were considering psychedelia passé,” James Porter says. “Black and white cultures don’t always run parallel with each other. So although the change was in the wind as early as 1967, say you had on the same musical bill a black act and a white act, the white act would have long hair and be doing all this freaked-out stuff, while the black group would still be looking like the Harp-Tones. But it didn’t take too long before all that was disseminated and the brothers were gonna get their taste of psychedelia too.

“But then in the ’70s disco came along, along with tightened radio formats and a general conservatism in the record industry. Although there had been many rock festivals of the early ‘70s with [black groups] on the bill, artists slowly realized that they weren’t being invited to the rock ’n’ roll party anymore. To survive, they had to go disco.”

Economic realities or not, Merda had no truck with this changing of the guard. And as Long Burn the Fire stiffed, the members found their hearts, increasingly, weren’t into it anymore. By the end of 1972 the band was history.

“We just kind of stopped because we felt there was no place for us and the kind of music we were doing,” Veasey says, adding that while drugs and personal issues also came into play, “we’d been together for so long, from adolescence, that we kinda had submerged parts of our identities, you know?”

In the years that followed the split, the Merda guys all stayed active in music, working on individual projects and backing other artists. The original lineup even got back together briefly in 1980 under the somewhat dubious moniker “Detroit” (not the Mitch Ryder-led band of the same name). But in both spirit and name, Black Merda remained in retirement.

In talking about the breakup, Veasey betrays no hint of bitterness. There’s some regret, certainly — primarily over bad decisions, in particular the refusal to adequately promote the Black Merda album, a move that otherwise might have seen them cross over to the Rolling Stone and Creem rock crowd. Veasey also admits that Merda probably cultivated an arrogant streak at the expense of good business sense. “We thought we were original and different, doing something groundbreaking and meaningful. We put ourselves in the same category as Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles.” Otherwise, though, he’s satisfied that Black Merda left behind a genuine legacy, one that is in the process of being rediscovered.

“You know what? We never considered that wouldn’t happen, that we might never get a record made, because at the time that group was like an organic being. Black Merda just had some magic going. We were sharp from playing on the road and being around the best musicians. We had the look too. We were at the top. We’d proven ourselves.”

One evening, a few days before this story is to be filed, I play back the following message left earlier on my answering machine:

“This is Fugi. Listen, I thought I’d give you a heads-up. Black Merda and myself are going to record on the 10th of December in Detroit. We’re going to redo some of our old songs.”

I know from talking to Fugi previously that he’d always hoped to reconnect musically with his old friends from Merda; when a collection of Fugi material, Shaak (translation: Shake) came out on Germany’s Bogalusa label a year ago, Fugi even broached the subject of mounting a European tour, although nothing came of the discussions. So the next morning I ring up Veasey, who tells me that while Hite, sadly, is suffering from cancer of both lungs and therefore unavailable, signs are encouraging that a summit between Fugi and the other three will take place. “Fugi wants to rerecord ‘Mary Don’t Take Me On No Bad Trip’ and a couple of [Merda] songs, so yeah, that may happen. Matter of fact, I’m working on some stuff with Wolfe now. He has a recording setup at his house and we’ve been laying down some bass tracks and so on, and he’s using a couple of songs I wrote.”

The inevitable question, then: Would Black Merda ever resume live operations?

“Ahh …” Veasey takes a deep breath. “We’d have to rehearse for a month or two to actually be tight enough to go onstage. Don’t want to ‘kill the legend,’ so to speak. I’ve seen some old acts come out and still put on a helluva show, but I’ve also seen other groups and I go, ‘Y’all need to go sit down.’ Some people want all this attention because of something they used to have — or maybe didn’t get. But I’m not like that. I’d want [a reunion] to at least be in the ballpark, because if you go out there, people are looking at you from the past, when you were ‘young and virile’ and doing this thing. You don’t throw something together just to jump on some bandwagon. I wouldn’t get out there and embarrass myself or cheat the public.

“But if we got together and rehearsed long enough, and [laughing] if we had a manager who could back us with some money, well …”

He pauses to weigh the comment.

“Yeah, I think we could do it.”

Long burn the fire, indeed.

 

Go to tuffcity.com for Black Merda music.

This story is the 13th part of our Century of Sound series, tracing Detroit’s musical heritage over the last hundred years.

Fred Mills is a freelance writer. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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