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Not so black, though, that the nurses in the segregated St. Louis hospital where he was born in 1936 didn’t get confused. When his relatives came to view him, he had to be moved from among the white babies to his proper place. Although Reed has done well for himself — his career in newspapers, radio and TV stretches back over 40 years — the postnatal mix-up is the kind of story that can make a person think deeply about race. What might have been different if he’d been born white?
As it is, Reed’s race has provided a rich field for his excavations. Since 1980, his For Members Only Television has been producing black-themed independent talk shows and especially documentaries, aired most every holiday Monday — including this Monday, February 18, on KSCI-TV 18 at 11 a.m. This latest chapter will draw on his homegrown archives for clips featuring world-music innovator Don Cherry, rock & roll rhythm king Bo Diddley and the 1995 Million Man March, plus Reed’s customary segments on overlooked black notables. It’s so real, it doesn’t seem like television.
Reed answers to no one about his choice of topics. “As long as we’re not cussin’ and fuckin’ on the air,” he says, kicking back last week in his North Valley townhouse, “we’re cool.” Reed buys his own airtime and finds his own sponsors — Budweiser, ARCO, local businesses. This marketplace methodology dates back to his time writing for L.A.’s The Sentinel in the days when black journalists would starve if they didn’t also sell ads. But his main inspiration was ’40s and ’50s radio.
“Most of the black disc jockeys did not work for stations, they bought their airtime. That was the height of payola, all kinds of shit going on, but it was also the height of rock & roll, rhythm & blues.” This was in D.C., Chicago, St. Louis, Seattle, not just New York and L.A. “Just as big as Alan Freed, man, that’s how powerful these guys were. The guy created his own little thing. Never went to school — his on-air experience was right there. If he fucked up the King’s English, well, you heard it. But the guys, man, had soul. And they knew their music.”
Reed’s own broadcast training shows in the contained explosiveness of his diction: He wasn’t called the Master Blaster just for his turntable selections. After stints in Kansas City, Detroit and New York, he pumped out the soul sounds for L.A.’s KGFJ in the ’60s and ’70s. “You could hear it like gangbusters in San Diego,” says Reed. “Me and Wolf [Wolfman Jack] worked back to back. We controlled this motherfucker. We ran it, Jack.”
Payola wasn’t dead. “Everybody was taking a little money,” says Reed. “I’m being honest, that’s how it went down. And you had a salary, but I made my money with record hops.” He’d appear at venues like the Mardi Gras, South Gate Palace, Dooton’s Music Center and the Apartment, bringing in name artists such as Big Joe Turner, O.C. Smith and Percy Mayfield to lip-synch. Diversified entrepreneurship again. Survival.
Those were crucible years for American black identity. Reed’s own groove, though, had already been dug. As a child, he was allowed to observe the booze-and-blues sessions of his pianist-singer uncle, Walter Davis. Another uncle, more godly, was Vance “Tiny” Powell of gospel’s original Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. His godfather was a riverboat musician; a cousin was Elston Howard, the catcher who first integrated the Yankees.
His professional life put Reed next to Malcolm X, Ron Karenga and more beacons to steer by. He moves briskly along the walls of his home, showing his stuff. Pictures with Dizzy Gillespie and Muhammad Ali; another shows Reed as the complete ’70s Master Blaster — bell-bottoms like jib sails, Afro the size of a steering wheel. Photos of admired musicians: Jelly Roll Morton, Hadda Brooks, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Ray Charles, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, even Ice-T. Sports figures, too. Franco Harris. “Jackie Robinson was a bitch, man.” Chick Hearn! “He brought personality to it. Nowadays, they don’t want personality.”
Work by black artists. Powerful sculpture and lithograph by Nathaniel Bustion. Pieces by Ronette Honeywood, John Heard and Charles Wight. A photo by Howard Moorhead. A beautiful rough-textured abstract panel by Reed himself. Striking wooden figures from the Obi and Dogon tribes. Ancient stone heads, one from the Olmecs and one from the Shang dynasty, each displaying African lips, African eyes.
Several closets bulge with shelves of Reed’s videotape archives: the history. The Black Music History of Los Angeles — Its Roots, that is, a recurring title in his television documentaries, and also the title of his coffee-table book, now in its fourth printing. (Inquire at P.O. Box 27487, L.A., CA, 90027.)
“History was always exciting to me,” says Reed. “My father and my grandfather told us who we were, where we came from. But blacks don’t even want to say that they’re black. Anything but a nigger. They disown themselves, because they don’t know history.
“People are searching, lookin’ for the real deal. And that’s important. When you’re thinkin’, man, you’re dangerous.”