This piece was originally published on FYIMusicNews.
Electric Black Man is a milestone ‘60s recording and penetrating musical document from a Canadian singer who should have been an international superstar.
Arthur Lee (of the band Love), Jimi Hendrix, the Chambers Brothers, Black Merda and Richie Havens were all from a generation of black men who stepped off the “soul train,” took a new direction and immersed themselves in an emerging counterculture. The music they made was first stamped “soul psychedelia” by white critics, but Toronto singer Eric Mercury had a different take on this new sound.
I was roommates with bassist Stu Woods (Bob Dylan, Don McLean, Janis Ian) on 88th Street in Manhattan in late 1968. The two of us shared a mad passion for all genres of music. Big Pink played endlessly, as well as anything from Miles Davis, Jeff Beck and organist Jimmy Smith. At times I would purchase a recording based solely on the cover art. Mercury’s Electric Black Man found its way to a hi-fi I bought with a few dollars on 42nd Street. Stu and I repeatedly dropped the needle.
There was something in those grooves that crackled with urgency and directness. It was the vocalizations of unknown singer Eric Mercury. It was the raw power, the seriousness, the brutal honesty of each shattered word that stuck in the head. It was a voice that sourced a dozen iconic singers from across the soul and blues spectrum — stashed in the heart, processed, and then let it go.
If you missed out back in the day, this great recording has now been remastered. JAZZ.FM91’s Walter Venafro co-hosted Soul Nation with me earlier this month, and when I popped Mercury into the mix, his head spun. He thanked me profusely for letting him in on this well-kept secret. He’s now a righteous fan.
I cornered Mercury and transported him back 50 years for a bit of reflection and understanding.
Electric Black Man caught music critics off guard. What was it they took issue with?
At that time, there was no conversation about black anything in the artistic community except for the Last Poets. To raise the subject was the kiss of death in the business. My views had hardened because of Martin Luther King’s murder and the influence of the Black Panthers and the Black Muslims. I had problems with the idea of rocking my music and being black at the same time. I didn’t know there was such a thing as “black music” within the industry. My education had just begun.
Would you call this “soul psychedelia”?
“Black rock” was how they began to refer to it. There were only a few black musicians that were involved in the creation of it playing in what was called “two-toned” bands. R&B radio didn’t even play Jimi Hendrix, who had become a pal, along with drummer Buddy Miles (The Electric Flag).
The choice of songs? How was this made? From your original Night Lady to Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man.
Producer Gary Katz took me to meet a friend of his who worked at Peer Southern, a major publishing house. They played me a few songs, and I loved Hurdy Gurdy Man. Katz and Eddie “Shoes” Choran had some other friends that were songwriters and performers: Bobby Bloom and Marty Kupersmith. They brought us You Bring Me to My Knees. Lou Stallman contributed Everybody’s Got the Right to Love. Gary Katz has great ears.
Gary and Shelly Weiss wrote A Long Way Down. I wrote Tears No Laughter, Enter My Love and Electric Black Man, and I co-wrote Night Lady with Steve Tyndall. Elliott Randall introduced me to Tyndall, a close friend who brought me Earthless. Shelly Weiss became my road manager.
Your vocals on Electric Black Man are as powerful and gutsy as any male vocalist of the era — Ray Charles, Paul Rodgers, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding. Where does this come from?
My vocal heroes were always R&B/blues singers: Hank Ballard, Ray Charles, Don Covay, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Lou Rawls, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, etc. [It was] from years of stealing their influence and covering their songs. That’s how my vocal style was crafted.
Did you tour behind the recording?
Eric Mercury’s Birthright toured the U.S. extensively playing all of the big venues … I continued to tour and perform long after I was at Stax Records. One live recording at the Fillmore East [is] coming soon. Stax recorded me live at the Houston Astrodome, which is most likely lost in the recent fire at the Universal Studios warehouse.
How was the band for the recording selected?
Gary, Elliott and I picked the studio musicians from those we liked and had a connection. Randall brought Harvey Brooks in on bass and Richard Greene on violin and the drummer, whose name I don’t remember.
Looking back, how do you see the ‘60s and the time spent?
Electric Black Man is the first of eight recordings and will never die. Inside of it lives the heartbeat of the times conceived inside a political, social and counterculture. It’s the same kind of feel we’re living today. I’m still a hippie, still angry, and still full of love for justice. It’s students of music who have refocused on this recording. The recording and I will be back shortly.