Idris Muhammad: A Most Unpredictable Career
Give Me A Head With Hair
In 1967, hippie culture, the Black Power movement, and antiwar protests were storming the barricades of mainstream American culture. One of the products of these quests for liberation was the popular and then-controversial musical Hair, which premiered off Broadway in October 1967, and then made its way to Broadway in April 1968.
“I used to play cabaret gigs on 125th Street with a bass player named Jimmy Lewis for West Indian dancers. [Guitarist] Eric Gale was on those as well. He liked the way I played, and the gigs were fun, because we were playing music that made people dance. That was right up my alley; that’s what I was doing in New Orleans. Jimmy told me that they were rehearsing this play at the Shakespeare House down in the East Village, and that I should go down there because they were looking for a drummer. So I went, and to my surprise there were these kids with long hair, dirty jeans, holes in their jeans, smoking reefer, and I said, ’Man, I don’t think I can do this!’ I had never been around that kind of atmosphere. I went to one rehearsal and I didn’t go back. Then the bass player told me that the musical director of the show liked me and they were looking for me. They were planning on taking the show to Broadway, so I thought, ’Well, it’s a steady gig and it’s Broadway!’ They had a book of 43 songs in the play, and my book was just chord changes. So I just made up rhythms to the songs.”
“We had opened off-Broadway, and then a few months later, we had opening night on Broadway. In the middle of the show, there was a net that fell onto the kids, and they came up out of the net with no clothes on! I was supposed to make two hits on chords but I never made the second hit because I was so shocked to see that these kids had no clothes on. I called my wife and said, ’Call a lawyer, because I think I might be going to jail because these kids have no clothes.’ But it was legal as long as they didn’t touch each other. That’s how I got to Hair. I ended up playing for the show for four-and-a-half years.”
The steady work on Broadway coincided with his increasing work in the studios. While Miles Davis and others were incorporating rock into jazz, a smoother soul-jazz form was developing that sprung from the mix of earlier R&B and jazz styles. Muhammad’s sound was perfect for this movement. Unlike the hard-edged records of the James Brown drummers or the Memphis Stax recordings of the day, Muhammad’s laid-back New Orleans rhythms provided a link between the traditional greasy organ trio style and the more urban funk that was coming on the scene.
Muhammad was the motive force for Lou Donaldson on the self-explanatory titles Alligator Bogaloo, Mr. Shing-A-Ling, and Everything I Play Is Funky, and also was the Prestige Records house drummer (along with Bernard Purdie). He was performing every night on Broadway and recording during the day at Rudy Van Gelder’s legendary studios in Englewood, New Jersey. During the period from 1969 to ’74 he banged out close to 170 albums for Prestige, creating a body of work that capitalized on the soul-jazz that had been pioneered by Jimmy Smith, Horace Silver, and others in the late ’50s. The roots of the acid jazz movement of the early ’90s would be sown here, in the pastel colors of the early ’70s. This included his own releases for Prestige, 1970’s Black Rhythm Revolution and ’71’s Peace And Rhythm.
But things weren’t all that they seemed to be. Muhammad, in a personal crisis, turned to spirituality to attain peace, and converted to Islam. “Regarding my conversion, I was in a lot of trouble in that period. My wife left me, and I became a junkie — although I was a clean junkie, nobody knew. Nobody saw me nod because I was always able to buy the stuff. I wasn’t around a lot of people who were junkies. [Trumpeter] Lee Morgan caught me at a dealer’s house one time, asked me what I was doing there and how long I had been doing it. I told him. Then he cursed me, grabbed me, and shook me, and told me I shouldn’t be doing this. I was searching for something to pull me out of this rut I was in.
“A friend of mine was a Sunni Muslim, and he showed me the Koran. I went to touch it, and he told me that I couldn’t read it until I had performed a Widhu, which is a ritual cleansing of the face, neck, and arms up to the elbows so that the contents of what you read can penetrate to your soul. I thought, ’Yeah, this is cool.’ That stayed with me. When I converted, I was given the name of Muhammad Idris. At that time, Muhammad Ali Clay was really popular, but he was part of a different sect. So I changed my name to Idris Muhammad. The day I became a Muslim, my whole life changed. I felt it was time to change my ways with the drug habit, so I stayed inside the house for a week, and kicked the habit. After that, and my conversion, everything changed. Everything. All the records I made were hits. My whole life changed spiritually. I got a hold of myself and I could think better. I was feeling better about myself as a human being.”
Many of those hits at Prestige were helmed by legendary producer Bob Porter. He recalls, “Idris was my choice. That is to say, in the beginning, the first date he was on was with Harold Mabern called Workin’ And Wailin’ in June of 1969. He was still Leo Morris then. Lou Donaldson was a friend of mine, and I knew his band like the back of my hand, and I had signed a bunch of people from his band over the years. So I was well aware of what Idris was capable of.
“The album that really made a difference was the Charlie Earland album called Black Talk!, which was recorded in December of 1969. That album was a huge hit, it sold close to 200,000 copies by the time it was all over. Everyone on that date went on to bigger things based on that recording.
“These recordings are like the second stage of soul-jazz,” Porter continues, noting the shift in the kinds of albums that were being produced in the late ’60s. “If you think of soul-jazz as beginning in the ’50s with people like Wild Bill Davis, Jimmy Smith, and Bill Doggett, rhythmically, they’re pretty much playing an extension of swing. But by the time you get into the mid ’60s and you get the introduction of Purdie and Idris into the soul-jazz mix, that’s where the funk comes in. It’s not straight-ahead soul-jazz swinging anymore.”