With the hoopla bestowed upon the film and television industries located here, it is easy to forget that Los Angeles is a leading market for the music industry. The individuals profiled here are just three of the legions of melody makers congregated locally, representing every conceivable style, genre, or category (with possibly new ones being fashioned for the future). Two have originated in other parts of the country, while the third reminds us that homegrown talent is just as original and compelling as any in these United States, or abroad. While it is likely their offerings might not suit every taste, this town is saturated with venues sure to pique one’s interest. All you need to do is look.
Blues Odyssey: The testimony of “Mighty Mo” Rodgers
“Mo Rodgers music is a breath of fresh air in the blues / R&B world…He combines sly social commentary with a great funky sound…I love his voice. He’s a welcome original.”
For music aficionados, Highway 61 has a deeper significance beyond its existence as a transportation conduit linking New Orleans, La. to Minnesota. The junction where Highway 61 crosses US Route 49 outside Clarksdale, Ms. was, according to folklore, the place where legendary bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his formidable musicianship. On a more concrete, tangible level, Highway 61 was the gateway for the children of Africa to escape the tyranny of the Jim Crow South for the (relatively) more peaceful confines of the north.
This harsh existence resulted in a “…music that was birthed from incredibly bad stuff,” notes blues musician Maurice Rodgers.
The melancholy refrains of lost love and hard times hint at darker, more grotesque events from Rodgers’ own family history of “…slavery and chain gangs and rapes and lynchings.”
The music they brought with them intrigued young “Mo” Rodgers in his hometown of East Chicago, Ind., where his father made a living as a “policy” banker in the numbers racket of the 1950s. Middle class “Negroes”, as they were called, preferred the respectable sounds of Rock and Roll and Rhythm and Blues to the primal call and response, field hollers, and work songs that 15 year-old Mo and his pal Willie Spencer (Willie B.) heard in the hole-in-the-wall clubs of “the small farms” area just outside of town.
Recently he tried to explain the allure for an impressionable youth.
“I think the Blues is more than just music…you just don’t hear Blues but (you) feel it.”
The elemental songs of Albert King, Jimmy Reed and others provided a basis for the classical piano lessons his parents imposed upon him, as he “tickled the ivories” in a high school combo, leading to an interracial band in college playing for White fraternities in and around Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana in the 1960s.
By 1966, a few fledgling attempts at making records left him yearning for greener environs, and like hordes of his generation he bounded a train in chilly November and headed west from Chicago armed with $100 and his trusty Farfisa organ.
“…it felt like I had rolled into paradise with the warm weather and palm trees everywhere.
“Paradise” was a run down hotel in then dilapidated Downtown Los Angeles. Mo struggled before placing an ad in the underground Los Angeles Free Press or “Feep” and connecting with a country lyricist needing music to go with his words.
“He paid me, as I remember about 30 dollars per song. I wrote 10 melodies, which got me enough money to move to Hollywood.”
This was a move as much symbolic as geographic, enabling him to become a “working musician,” as he began playing with a soul band in the vast network of Black night spots of the time, segueing to becoming the “house band” for local independent label Double Shot Records (serious collectors are familiar with its bright yellow 45 singles and slogan “Double Shot Of Soul”).
A notable product of this alliance is their studio work behind crooner Brenton Wood (“Gimme Little Sign” and “The Oogum Boogum Song”).
The following years yielded professional success as a producer for blues- folk artists Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, and as a staff writer at Motown Records. The cyclic nature of entertainment prompted him to finish his degree in philosophy (with the thesis “Blues as Metaphysical Music: Its Musicality and Ontological Underpinnings”) as a tribute to his mother who inspired his musical passage. Along the way, he has sustained himself as a schoolteacher, and served as an artist in residence at San Diego State University.
The close of the millennium saw the release of his self-produced “Blues Is My Wailin’ Wall,” saturated with historical and social commentary, underscoring Rodgers’ belief that this idiom is “…metaphysical music.”
This also signaled the mid-life procreation of “Mighty Mo” Rodgers. “Wailin’ Wall” (a reference to Jerusalem Western Wall, a pilgrimage site for the Jewish faith) was the first of what are now six installments of a planned 12 record odyssey “cycle,” or exploration of the genre bestowed upon Black people by God “…to deny, the lie of our nothingness.” The most recent iteration, “Griot Blues” is a partnership with Mali multi-instrumentalist Baba Sissoko.
To find out more about Mo Rodgers’ particular brand of blues go to http://www.mightymorodgers.com/.
Carrying the Torch: Niketta Scott builds on a sultry tradition
Niketta Scott was born long after her parents migrated from their native Trinidad, but the musical traditions from that Caribbean locale must have factored into the drive to perform manifested in her early childhood. In this, her parents indulged her lessons in acting, dance and voice. Steel drums were a staple at festivals in the Baltimore/Washington, D.C. area of her youth, and her proficiency on this instrument was, in turn, passed on to the clarinet and piano. These activities continued throughout high school, and unsurprisingly she chose theater performance as a major when she left her native Maryland, first to Rutgers University, then on to Fordham, where she could take advantage of that institution’s prestigious Lincoln Center to further her craft.
New York City is a Mecca for the arts, and so it was natural for Scott to remain there after graduation to pursue her dreams. At one time or the other, she has lived in three of the five boroughs, primarily focusing on Manhattan, the site of the Lincoln Center campus, and specifically the location of the West (Greenwich) Village. The experience of living there as an aspiring artist is, in Scott’s words, charged with “electricity.”
“I was lucky enough to work and live downtown where the music scene was very alive and pulsing through the ground,” she remembers.
“I would see some of the best musicians and house bands playing at legendary clubs like The Village Underground (past performers include Richie Havens and John Lee Hooker), the Cafe Wha (a proving ground for Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and Richard Pryor), The Groove Lounge (famously known as the home for rhythm, blues, and funk), and the Blue Note (site of numerous live recordings by jazz legends).” A focal point of the area is a one-way street (and adjunct alley), MacDougal Street. During its century and a half existence it has been frequented by scores of painters, poets, writers and all around bohemians.
The path towards stardom is, of course, not all glitz and glamour, and Scott dutifully engaged in the time-honored regime of waitressing and other mundane jobs between auditions, the drudgery broken up by periodic encounters with celebrities like Prince and Cheryl “Pepsii” Riley.
During this period, she sang and fronted for local bands like “Cosmo Lingo” and “Up Down.”
After a dozen years of pent up curiosity and the absence of pesky emotional entanglements, Niketta Scott decided to take the plunge, and moved 2,500 miles to Los Angeles. Six years in, she is enjoying the “tinsel town” experience, being careful not to compare the two cultural hubs.
“I’m still searching and discovering,” she says.
“What I will say though is that when I moved here and even to this day, I try my best not to compare the two. I had amazing experiences in NYC but I look forward to discovering more of what LA has to offer.”
One West Coast highlight has been the completion of her EP (Extended Play) album (funded on Indiegogo), titled La Femme Niketta “The Brass Heart” (https://www.amazon.com/Brass-Heart-Explicit-Lafemme-Niketta/dp/B01HUFA3DG). The compilation is an indulgence in her penchant for the 1940s and film noire. The cover image of Scott clinging a microphone, crimson liquid dripping down her hands and forearm, are a counterpoint for her provocative songs of desire, loss, and the search for the one.
Presently, Niketta Scott is busy rehearsing with her band at a performance loft in Hollywood, to showcase the music she showcased with “La Femme Niketta” The Brass Heart with other selections featuring a “pop” twist this summer. In the meantime, she may be heard singing burlesque with the “The Dollface Dames” at “Trip,” 2101 Lincoln Blvd., in Santa Monica.
Visit her website at http://www.lafemmenikettamusic.com/.
Aural Explorations: Dexter Story embraces his global heritage
Not readily known to the public, Dexter Story’s been linked many of the most significant figures in Los Angeles’ musical history of the past 30 years. With extensive experience as a music exec, on a personal level he is a multi-instrumentalist with roots in 1970s funk and soul, laced with ethnic music of the Third World. A cursory Google search lists his genre as “classic soul,” an inaccurate classification of his creative output.
Named for saxophonist Dexter Gordon, he was bused to Palisades High School as a teen, picked up the bass, drums, and guitar and impacted by his first concert (Parliament-Funkadelic) in 1977. Along with friends like Peter Washington (now a acoustic bassist who’s played with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and pianists Tommy Flanagan and Benny Green) he gained experience playing before adolescent audiences. A black and white photo (which served as the cover image for his 2015 album “Wondem”) from this era captures the budding musician holding a Teisco E-110 Tulip electric guitar purchased from Sears Roebuck.
Following his pal Washington to the University of California at Berkeley (where he picked up degrees in French and philosophy), his funk sensibilities merged with the Bay Area’s musical buffet, where he crossed paths with the likes of Ravi Coltrane, Slide Hampton, Wynton Marsalis, John Stubblefield, and Ernie Watts. Around this time he also developed an appreciation for world music, especially the sounds of east Africa.
This musical pedigree did not automatically translate to a performing career (curiously, Story’s first recording did not happen until 2005). Moving to New York City, he worked behind the scenes at such hip-hop labels as Def Jam and Priority Records, supported high-profile acts like LL Cool J, Montell Jordon, Meshell Ndegeocello, Musiq Soulchild, and Snoop Dogg (and was actually fired by rap impresario Sean Combs at Bad Boy Records).
As an interesting aside to this, Story planned to manage his brother, a promising rapper associated with Ice T’s group Rhyme Syndicate. Switching careers, today Tim Story is one of the most successful Black producer/directors in history with a resume that includes the “Barbershop,” “Ride Along,” and “Think Like a Man” franchises.
The years 1999-2008 found him working as the booking agent for the Temple Bar in Santa Monica, where he was responsible for showcasing some of the most eclectic performers in the city.
By 2007, Temple Bar had closed, and Dexter Story was positioned to step away from the business end of the industry to find his own artistic voice. Inspired by the example of playwright Suzan Lori-Parks’ 365 plays a year project, he set out to write a song a day for a year. Towards that end, he culled influences from Ramsey Lewis, and Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire (who started out as Lewis’ drummer), on top of the funk and indigenous memories of his youth.
At the urging of his friend and collaborator Carlos Gabriel Niño (who got him the gig at Temple Bar), he reentered the realm of performance, focusing on drums and percussion. His 2013 debut “Seasons,” on the Kindred Spirits label was abetted by the participation of his cohorts within the interconnected So Cal avant garde music community.
Curiously, in spite of his eclectic tastes, he did not visit Africa until 2015, after his next outing as a bandleader, “Wondem” (the Amharic word for “brother”) was recorded, an homage to Story’s affinity to the Motherland, specifically Ethiopian music. A National Public Radio review called it “… an informed take on pan-global music, focused on the multi-verse of tonalities found in one of the birthplaces of humanity.”
Presently, Dexter Story is putting the finishing touches on his latest, unnamed project. For an artist who defies easy characterization, his blend of Cali-soul-funk and eastern exotica makes for a welcome respite from the formulaic programming bombarding the airways.
Visit his website at http://dexterstory.bandcamp.com.
Catch Dexter Story’s interplay with Kamasi Washington on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2XVfUCRJvyg.