My upbringing was steeped in superstition. I was raised in the 1940s by my mother, a single parent, who gave birth to me at the age of 15. My maternal great-grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee named Plush, and although I never met her, Plush was a big influence in my life. Granny, Plush’s daughter was half-Cherokee and half-black but the Cherokee traditions were equally as important as the Pentecostal Baptist religion that we served. I was taught never to be cruel to others because that would double back on me later in life one hundred fold.
Granny was the matriarch of our family. She was a tiny woman who ruled with an iron hand. She was an entrepreneur, the head of our church choir, and the strongest woman I’d ever known. You couldn’t ever say “no” to Granny because if she asked you to do something, it was important. She believed in family. She believed in Jesus and God, and she believed in the mysterious ways of the Cherokee Indians that her mother instilled in her. Granny believed as her mother did, that you should never blow out a candle because you would cause the spirits to anger. You had to wet your fingers and pinch out the flame.
When I wanted something extra in our family besides food, I knew from an early age that I was going to have to manifest it from another source. I began working and utilizing my God-given talents early in life. Many times I would lie in the empty field close to our home in the Detroit projects known as Black Bottom, and I would close my eyes and visualize myself as one of the leading men in a film that I had just seen. I loved going to the movies on a Saturday after I earned the money to do so by carrying groceries to the cars of the supermarket patrons with my little red wagon. They would pay me a nickel or a dime, and many times I would earn enough early in the day to go to a double feature and be able to buy popcorn and candy, too. I knew that each time I was lucky enough to have a beautiful Saturday of movies and candy, that I had to leave an offering at a church for those less fortunate, so with my last pennies, I would wander into the Catholic church down the road and put my offering in the collection box.
I learned about the other way of life from the movies, and I was determined to experience that way of living. I didn’t know how to do it, but I spent so much time daydreaming that I believe I pulled it to me as my Granny instructed me to do. She had explained to my siblings and me that we could be whoever we wanted to be and to see ourselves in that way, and then it would manifest. She explained that a powerful energy was all around me and that I was protected by the spirit of my ancestors and especially by Plush. I loved hearing about Plush and the trials and tribulations of the Trail of Tears and the Cherokee Nation. I was and still am proud to have Cherokee blood running through my veins!
I wanted to be able to buy my mother a real home. We had eventually moved from Black Bottom to a new housing development called The Jeffrey Project. In reality, although the house was nice and new, I felt like a caged bird within the confines of this housing project. I found myself escaping in my mind all the time. I needed to be an athlete or a musician, something that would afford me a great way to support our family and get my mother the house she deserved for raising five children on her own by being a day-worker cleaning other people’s homes. I remembered the stories of Plush that I had been told as a little boy, and started to listen to the birds and their melodies. I knew that these were gifts from nature meant just for my ears and I hummed them over and over to not forget them.
Granny had taught me to harness the energy. Her words are still engraved in my psyche: “You must catch and act upon the winds of creativity and ideas immediately, as they are gifts from the muses that are fleeting and will leave you and move on to someone else who will use them first!”
In the beginning of my songwriting career I worked day and night to make my mark upon the world with my melodies and lyrics. I stayed true to Granny’s superstitions about capturing the creative energy as soon as it arrived and utilizing it. When I would go through a period of complacency, I began to notice that the muses didn’t reward me with the gifts as often as they had in the past. I experienced exactly what Granny had warned me about first-hand several times.
I had certain melodies, unfinished lyrics and titles that I didn’t push to complete. Several times I heard songs on the radio that were someone else’s original songs. This happened over and over, and it drove me crazy. Granny’s words haunted me.
Now if I have an idea in the middle of the night while I am sleeping, I force myself to awaken and run to the piano to lay down the melody. I turn on the lights and write the lyrics and stories down on the notepad that I keep by my bed on my nightstand. I don’t ever want that to happen to me again, although it is inevitable that it will. After over 50 years of my songwriting career, I am more grateful than ever to the muses for the gifts that they are still giving to me. And I take nothing for granted, ever.