Black Merda / Billy Davis Rhythm Machine / Sarah Borges
Sat, Mar 4, 2017 @ 8:00 pm to 2:00am
Black Merda were a funky rock combo with a significant debt to Jimi Hendrix, mixing fuzz-toned, psychedelic blues-rock with folky acoustic passages and contemporary late-’60s soul. Featuring guitarists Anthony and Charles Hawkins, bassist VC Veasey (aka Veesee L. Veasey), and drummer Tyrone Hite, the group got its start in the late ’60s after Veasey, Hite, and Anthony Hawkins had spent time in a band called the Soul Agents, backing Edwin Starr and Gene Chandler. Inspired by Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced?, they added Anthony’s younger brother Charles on second guitar and christened themselves Black Merda. Despite some interest around their Detroit base — including Norman Whitfield and Eddie Kendricks — Black Merda signed to Chess, thanks in part to the psychedelic soul eccentric Fugi (aka Ellington Jordan), who they also backed on his Mary, Don’t Take Me on No Bad Trip LP for Chess.
[From the Metro Times:] In the early to mid-1960s, the musicians were part of a group called the Impact Band and Singers, players who’d perform covers at parties. Hite was a Detroit native, but the Hawkins brothers and Veasy had moved to the Motor City from the South and met in high school. They quickly gelled into a band, “just playing around the neighborhood,” Veasy recalls.
They eventually solidified into a teenage session group for artists on small labels like Fortune and Golden World. “Somehow, word got around. They called us up and said, ‘We want you to come play in the studio.'” The teenagers would back up an artist’s demo, mostly for glory and fun, as the studio would hand them perhaps $10 or $15 a song. “It was cool money back then in the 1960s,” Wolfe says.
The adolescent musicians were pulled out of their R&B trajectory after Veasy spent some time in the military and discovered Jimi Hendrix while stationed in the Pacific Northwest. The band quickly renamed itself the Soul Agents and adopted a psychedelic style, and even released the first known cover of “Purple Haze” in 1968. And, unlike the rest of Detroit’s late 1960s acts, the Soul Agents didn’t wear ties and blazers.
As Veasy puts it, “We was all dressed psyched-out” with Afros and denim, at a time when even Parliament was still wearing matching suits and slicked-down hair. “We didn’t care what people thought about it,” Veasy says. “People thought the way we dressed was cool, you know. … We were so tight, we influenced George Clinton.”
Billy Davis Rhythm Machine:
Inductee of: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame , Doo Wop Hall of Fame , R&B Hall of Fame
25 Years with Hank Ballard
Inspiration and Tutor to Jimi Hendrix
Jackie Wilson’s Original Lead Guitarist
‘It’s Your Thing’ Guitarist for The Isley Brothers
Billy Davis is a trailblazing guitarist who grew up in Detroit, Michigan, a Southern transplant from Memphis, Tennessee. He has been a professional musician from the age of eighteen. Raised in the 1950’s Black Bottom neighborhood of Detroit with strong musical influences, he started his first band at the age of 17, as the headliner for Billy Davis & the Upsetters, which became Berry Gordy’s first in-house live band, pre-Motown, long before the ‘Funk Brothers’. Davis was so ahead of the times that a song title with “funk” had to be changed to “spunk” to receive airplay. His early use of the wah-wah pedal was outright rejected by his producers and band mates, then in later years became the signature for many other musicians.
Davis was a student of music from his earliest memories at age four years old; and at age eighteen, when an opportunity came about to audition for HANK BALLARD AND THE MIDNIGHTERS, he aced it. Joining this national act, he made it to the top right out of the gate. He toured with the Midnighters from 1959 through 1965 and acted as a right-hand-man to Hank Ballard.
Davis met the teenaged Jimi Hendrix in 1959, in Seattle while on tour with The Midnighters, becoming mentor to the future legend, teaching him what he knew about guitar. Also in 1959, Davis met B.B. King, one of his own personal heroes, and they became friends for life. Davis was to meet and become friends with many music legends.
In 1962 Davis was drafted to Ft. Knox, Kentucky, for basic training before heading to South Korea for 13 months. He arranged for Jimi Hendrix to audition with The Midnighters and Hendrix did join them for a short time. He himself rejoined Hank Ballard’s group upon his return from service, and continued until the group disbanded.
After The Midnighters, Davis made his way to New York and became a sought-after studio musician. He played with Jackie Wilson, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, among others, on stage and in studio. He played lead guitar on Jackie Wilson’s recording of ‘Higher and Higher’.
Billy Davis has an avant-garde guitar style that is difficult to categorize and package; he is skilled in many different genres. Back then, in spite of two record company contracts he failed to find his following. Making his way back to Detroit, Davis moved away from professional music for a time, married and had two children. He never lost his guitar skills or abilities, or his innate talent for music, nor his interest in being a musician. He kept in touch with his musical friendships. Recently he was invited to present an award to Sam Cooke’s daughter, Carla.
In the mid-1980’s the group SAM AND DAVE called and asked Davis to back them on a gig where James Brown was headlining. Brown, an old friend for over twenty years, gave Davis Hank Ballard’s phone number and suggested he call to reunite the band. Due to a call from Billy Davis, the Midnighters were on tour again, steadily throughout the 1980’s. The Legendary Hank Ballard was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, and Davis, his main collaborator, has a statue of his own. In 2001, most of the Midnighters along with Hank Ballard and of course Billy Davis, were among the first to be inducted into the Doo-Wop Hall of Fame, out of Boston.
Sarah Borges: Change is something that takes a little getting used to. If you need proof of this, ask the soulful Sarah Borges. After a long and successful stint with her band, The Broken Singles, 2011 marked the band’s breakup – and Sarah embarking on a solo career. She admits it took some time to adjust. “One of the things I didn’t expect is when you’re on stage and you’re doing a show, there’s certain things you have to do. You have to tune your guitar. You have to take a sip of your drink. It’s just inevitable. I guess I had my band mates fill in that space – whether it be telling jokes or on-stage banter. You can’t have that when it’s just you. That’s a change. You have to be ok with it being quiet for a second. Also, you play out with your bandmates so much – especially when you’ve been together for a long time, and you operate as a unit. You have to dig deep and think about how you’re going to make the show exciting by yourself instead of relying on others.”
However, “digging deep” has never been a problem for the Massachutess native. Whether it be through performances or her writing, Borges has learned to dazzle – and do it well. That ability can be heard all over her 2014 Radio Sweetheart disc, as well as her upcoming follow-up, Good and Dirty, due in early 2016. She attributes that ability to a very eclectic sound, which she comes by naturally, she says.
“I would say that my sound is straight up rock and roll, but it’s the sum total of what my record collection looks like. The new record that I am working on is certainly more Americana than the last record was. It’s also more rock than the last record. I would say that it’s a version of the live shows – a lot of loud guitars and loud singing. You can certainly dance to it.”
Just what was Borges listening to during those formative musical years? “When I started playing in a band, I listened to X and its’ offshoots, like the Knitters and other bands that its members were in. I also listened to a lot of old country from my dad’s record collection, and a lot of classic rock. I grew up in Boston, which in the 1990s was such a hotbed for indie rock. You could go and see all your favorite bands in the clubs every Saturday night. There’s a lot of musicians and bands that came from here, and were so accessible when I started playing. That helped me out a lot in terms of me thinking it was possible to be in a band.”
Though the creative side of her loves to record, Sarah says that it’s being on stage night after night that is truly her greatest passion. “That’s my favorite part of music. Every night is different, and determined by the people in the audience. Sometimes, the crowd is so ready to go, and sometimes you might have to work things a little more. I like to do it night after night, because it’s a living and breathing thing – and it evolves.”
When it comes to creating music, Sarah explains that she feels a little more free these days to let the listener inside her soul. It didn’t used to be that way. “I was so wary of getting too personal in songs, or I would think about things a lot before I wrote. But, I think after a long time of touring and playing, and having lived a little bit and having a child, I realized that the only way you’re going to have a serious connection with people is when you’re honest. Nobody can ever fault you for being that. With the new record, I have just gotten divorced, and I have a child. So, I’m not afraid to lay it out there anymore. What’s the worst thing that can happen? Nobody is going to die,” she says with a laugh.
For Good and Dirty, Borges received some all-star help in the producer’s chair. “I got to work with Eric “Roscoe” Ambel who has such a great track record – Steve Earle, Bottle Rockets, Joan Jett. I had met him through some mutual friends. He’s producing and playing guitar on it.”
To record the disc, Borges ventured outside of her Boston comfort zone. “I went to his studio in New York, and we worked on the songs a little bit. I’m using his guys that he plays with on the record. I’m excited about it, because I feel that it’s the most honest record I’ve made to date. The first single is called ‘Caught By The Rain.”
As the release date of the album beckons, look for Sarah Borges to be in her natural habitat. “We’re going to be on the road a lot. I was on tour with the Broken Singles for about eight years, then I stopped to have my son. The music business has changed so much since then, but one thing that hasn’t changed is people still go out and hear live music. I’m going to continue to do that, because that’s what I know how to do.”
Other songs from Good and Dirty that Sarah is ready to share with her fans include the autobiographical “Tendency To Riot,” of which she says is about “finding yourself at loose ends, and trying to figure out how to go out and have fun.” On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the emotional wallop of “Lucky Us,” which in the writer’s words is “a sad story about a relationship ending and how it wasn’t the greatest relationship to begin with. That’s the country weeper, I guess you could say.” One of the most beautiful cuts from the album is the evocative “All The Things That You’ve Been Missing,” which she describes as “a love song to New York City, which I thought was fitting since that’s where we’re making the record. It’s about looking at the city from across the bridge and wanting to make it big and do your thing, but you just can’t get there, It’s both metaphorical and autobiographical too.”
Telling her story – and being a musical bad ass in the process. That’s Sarah Borges. Take a listen. You’ll be glad you did.