By Bobbi Booker
The Book Report
It’s been more than two decades since Philadelphia radio emitted the
introduction, “You’re listening to the good Dr. Perri Johnson, Music
Therapist.” While his absence from the local airwaves have been
lamented, Johnson has maintained the “healing feeling” he so often
talked about on WDAS-FM during the last 15 years as a licensed
clinical psychologist in Los Angeles. Johnson (who truly is a Dr. with
two Masters Degrees in psychology and Doctorate)has always maintained
that his work on the radio was intended to produce a pleasurable and
therapeutic effect and explores his theory in his debut book,
“Prescriptions: Therapeutic Poems for the Healing of
Depression”($13.99, Xulon Press).
“Prescriptions” is a self-help book which combines poems to help heal
depression with a discussion of the causes of depression and how to
overcome it. Each poem relates to a common experience of depression
and suggests strategies and behaviors to quarantine and reverse
various types of depression. Johnson renders psychological services to many in the film and
entertainment industry at his private practice in Hollywood Hills, CA.
Johnson grew up in North Philly, graduated from Benjamin Franklin High
School and received a BA Degree in Psychology from Temple University
while working at the school’s radio station WRTI-FM. Johnson’s
distinctive style drew the attention of WDAS who recruited him in 1970
for their experimental FM format to help shape the new sound. “It was
a compromise for me because somehow or another it had to all fit
together,” said Johnson.”We were basically doing underground rock.
They said I could bring in some of the stuff I was doing at WRTI, as
long as it blended. So they really got in my head early on that I had
to to flow.”
Radio programmers were allowing their FM air talent explore the long
play (or LP) albums in ways unknown on the AM side where the three
minute Top 40 radio format ruled. By the 1970s, FM audience size
surpassed that of AM, and Johnson was a pivotal player in that change
that started locally and resonated nationally.
“When Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ came out, I just put it on from
the beginning and let it play all the way through. That was unheard
of, radio just wasn’t do that, except underground radio and they
weren’t playing Marvin Gaye. A.M was playing ‘What’s Going On’ for
three minutes because that was the format. When we put that thing on
it blew up. It put us on the map. Then it became more about theme. And
we became a soundtrack for a lot of the (70s) movements that were go
One of those movements was disco, the indomitable precursor to hip hop
and both genres Johnson comfortable mixed during his broadcasts. In a
speaking style Johnson had perfected over the years, the popular jock
would effortlessly rhyme over the musical interludes that interspersed
his show. One of Johnson more popular rhymes over the beats of funk
music maker Hamilton Bohannon would lead to worldwide success for both men.
Teamed with Johnson’s syncopated lyrics, Bohannon’s style of music
would eventually influence the burgeoning hip hop scene with a double
hit in 1978 and1981.
“Perri fell in love with ‘Let’s Start the Dance’ and started
ad-libbing to that so I decided to put him on wax,” recalled Bohannon.
“(Philadelphia) is where it started at and then New York and all over
the East Coast and it became real, real big for me.” Bohannon’s
version of “Let’s Start II Dance Again (Rap Version)” featuring
Johnson climbed to #1 on the Billboard Dance Chart and remains among
the most frequently played radio tracks to this day.
After Johnson left the Philadelphia market, he settled in Southern
California, married had three children and eventually divorced after
17 years. “I think I’m living out the dream of my father,” explained
Johnson of his move to Los Angeles shortly after his beloved
father,Andrew, died in 1980.
“I was so close (to my father),” recalled Johnson. “He was the go-to
guy for decisions. I was successful early on and didn’t know how to
handle things, so I would go to him to get advice and just rely upon
him to be my confidante and my manager and to keep me grounded. He
steered me in the right direction and he provided the same support and
advice for others. Teddy Pendergrass use to go to him a lot and sit
and talk after Teddy and I got tight. He had a little office down on
Lombard Street and many guys would go by like Sony Hopkins and Kenny
Gamble. He was a wise guy.”
Recently, the Philadelphia radio market has witnessed a ‘return’ of
popular on-air personalities, including Miriam “MiMi” Brown who
received an on-air call from Johnson during her recent Mother’s Day
debut on WDAS. Brown, who was already besieged with well wishers
welcoming her back, received even more positive feedback after Johnson
“I believe that a part of what he lives for is to heal others and let
them know that they can be healed,” said Brown of her mentor and
colleague. “That’s what his book is all about. A lot of times we walk
through life and don’t even know what’s wrong with us. Perri’s whole
existence is to give people a better way of living and a better way of
existing on this earth and to be happy within their own skin and be
appreciative for the things that they do have. He addresses those
medical problems and helps bring about healing and solution. He is on
Longtime radio personality Gary Shepard also recalled Johnson’s early
plans to start a clinical practice to treat others like himself in the
entertainment business. “When he was on the radio he was putting out
words of wisdom that help people feel good about themselves and who
they are. It’s just brilliant the way he has used his poetry as a
therapeutic tool for people in a depressed state.”
Richard Wright, the acclaimed author of “Native Son” and “Black Boy,”
was born in Mississippi and raised in Memphis, but it is Philadelphia
that is honoring him with the proclamation of Richard Wright Week from
April 20- 27, 2008. Wright, who would have turned 100 this September, will
be the focus of a number of citywide presentations, including a
special Robin’s Bookstore address from the author’s daughter, Julia
Wright. The acclaimed author’s final manuscript, “A Father’s Law
($14.95, HarperCollins)” was just released by the younger Wright in
honor of her father’s birthday.
“As a present for his centennial, I dug up his last unfinished novel,”
explained Wright. “It’s the only existing draft of what he was working
on when he died. ‘A Father’s Law’ is about the relationship of a Black
police chief and his brilliant university-bound son. The police chief
slowly comes to suspect his son is the serial killer that he has been
assigned and promoted to find and punish.”
The novel was written during a six-week period near the end of
Wright’s life. “The book is unfinished, so you don’t know if the
father is imagining it, or whether the father has indeed a serial
killer for a son. It is an extraordinary book. Had he lived to finish
and perfect it, I believe it would have been a masterpiece. As it is,
it is riveting reading.”
Wright, the grandson of a slave, was born on the Rucker Plantation in Roxie,
Mississippi September 4, 1908. Soon after his family moved to Memphis,
Tennessee, in 1913, his father, a former sharecropper, abandoned the family, leaving his mother to support them alone. His family moved to Jackson, Mississippi to live with
relatives, and he graduated as valedictorian of his 9th grade class in May 1925, but left school a few weeks after entering high school. However, even as a youngster, Wright knew his calling. At the age of 15, Wright wrote his first story “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half-Acre”, and it was published in the Southern Register, a local Black newspaper.
Wright’s daughter explained that her father died prematurely at age 52
in Paris from the combined childhood effects of malnutrition and the stress of
the FBI’s continued investigation for being a member of the Communist
Party between 1932 and 1942. He departed the party in 1942 because of
“He spent some time in the communist party before effectively leaving
the United States never to return,” said Wright. “For people like (former FBI Director) J. Edger Hoover, once a communist always a communist. My father had grown beyond communism, but remained under surveillance and duress for the whole of his life, especially abroad where they were fearful he would denounce racism in the United States
in France where he lived.”
The literary giant raw and powerful prose was a source of fascination
for poet Lamont B. Steptoe. “I made a point of taking a course in
Black literature where I read ‘Uncle Tom’s Children,'” recalled
Steptoe. “I found the work compelling, poetic, nightmarish and
unforgettable. I made it a point to read everything that was published
by Wright. In 1992, I journeyed to Paris for a conference at the
Sorbonne in honor of Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Chester Himes
that would bring together many of the surviving members of the heady
days of the Black ex-patriot community in Paris from the fifties up
through the late sixties. There I met Ellen Wright, Julia Wright, the
late Ollie Harrington, who was one of Wright’s closest friends and
Wright’s grandson, Malcolm.”
The younger Wright noted that her father tackled astonishingly modern
themes for novels written over 45 years ago.
“He was very preoccupied by the impact of racism on the mind of Black
men and Black women,” said Julia. “That is exemplified in his study
‘The Mind of Bigger Thomas’ and his concerns throughout his whole life
on what makes a Black man angry. (He wondered) can we act on some of
these factors and give Black male minorities a rest from duress? It’s
such a present day problem and it’s being debated everywhere today.
It amazes me when I speak to audiences because I find so many time
bubbles in his work.”
“Red Ink: Celebrating the Radical Tradition in Literature” with Julia
Wright discussing Richard Wright and his work will feature Lamont
Steptoe and other area writers on Sunday April 27, 2008 at 2pm at
Robin’s Book Store, 108 S. 13th Street, Philadelphia. For more
information on various Richard Wright Week activities visit
www.robinsbookstoreonline.com or call 215-735-9600.
World-renowned film composer and trumpet player Terence Blanchard was returning from a two-week stint in Japan when Hurricane Katrina struck his New Orleans hometown. Blanchard and his family were forced to evacuate from their New Orleans homes for months, and his evolution as a displace musician fighting for the cultural rebirth his hometown continues to blossom. A portion of Blanchard journey is captured in both the CD and the documentary, “Flow: Living in the Stream of Music,” that follows Blanchard and his band on a stunning round-the-world musical journey. Additionally, director Spike Lee invited Blanchard to score his tour-de-force 4-part documentary, “When the Levees Broke.” One of the most poignant scenes in the film depict Blanchard and his aged mother and aunt clinging to each other during the family’s first post-Katrina visit to their ravage homes. Today, Blanchard says his mother and aunt are on the verge of moving back into their homes, but he is still concerned about the future of his hometown as it struggles to recover from a storm that occurred nearly two years ago.
During a quick studio break on Friday evening from mixing the “Levee” soundtrack he’s re-scoring for release this summer, Blanchard says he is concentrating on keeping a spotlight on the gravity of the new Orleans situation were thousands of residents continue to suffer.
“One of the things that we’re trying to do with the album is keep the awareness out there,” said Blanchard. “When we were recording the record, we did a take of a tune I had written in the New Orleans tradition in 4/5. It was very upbeat kind of song and I was going to close the album with it. But we decided to pull it form the album because we didn’t want to give anybody the impression that everything was okay. You know, because we want people to still talk about what’s going on and be involved in what’s happening.”
Blanchard was a pivotal voice in the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz “Commitment to New Orleans” initiative which includes the relocation of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance to the campus of Loyola University New Orleans from Los Angeles. “The Monk institute has a strong commitment to community service. They have a big outreach program that reaches a lot of high school, middle school and grade school kids. That program in itself will touch the lives of a lot of young kids outside the music world and hopefully will encourage some young musician in the field of jazz. We also told the students to come with a horn in one hand and a hammer in the other cause it’s all about rebuilding the city.”
The Institute’s programs will also provide employment for New Orleans musicians while attracting displaced musicians living in other areas of the country back to their hometown, and unite the city’s jazz, arts, and cultural communities.
“I don’t see the music (in New Orleans) as being lost forever because it’s such a part of our culture,” explained Blanchard. “It’s our DNA; you know, it’s what we’re made of. So I don’t ever really see that as something that’s going to be lost. But I do see (the music scene) taking a huge hit right now because there are a lot of musicians who are just not at home and they’re living elsewhere to make do, and that’s hard. I know some guys who’ve been instrumental in the music scene on New Orleans and they’re not in New Orleans right now. We have to be concerned about that. And there are people making efforts to bring those people back. There’s a lot of work to be done.”
“When it comes to jazz there’s certain cities in certain part of the country that get all the attention, you know, Detroit, New Orleans, Kansas City, New York. But, I went to school at Rutgers University and one of the things I learned is that New Jersey has a vast history with the music. And it gets overlooked a lot one of the pivotal creators of this music. He carved out a new path for the role of the guitar in jazz.
Terence was a featured panelist at this year’s Sundance Film Festival (he will also perform at the upcoming festival in 2007) and served as a keynote speaker at the Billboard Film and Television Music Conference in November. Flow: Living In The Stream of Music is scheduled to screen at various film festivals throughout 2006/2007, and has been touted as an engaging documentation of what it means to commit to a life in music, a landmark educational film for young people — and for anyone of any age facing the uncertain prospect of a career as a musician. “The overriding goal in what we do,” says Blanchard, “is to stop being musicians and start being the music.”
Remembering sculptor John Simpson’s genius through wood, words
John “Yah Yah” Simpson
By Bobbi Booker
Most folks look at a piece of wood and simply see the remnants of a tree. As a sculptor, John Simpson would look at the same piece of wood — a displaced branch or discarded tree trunk — and see a canvas.
Simpson’s death at age 71 on Dec. 3, lays to rest an artistic visionary whose highly evolved senses released the life forces inherent in wood and crafted into life-sized images of human figures that continue to resonate with art collectors, fans and friends alike.
Simpson, known affectionately as “Yah Yah” to many, was a unique and divinely inspired sculptor. He first started his craft as a boy in Norfolk, Va. fashioning play soldiers for himself from discarded wooden clothespins.
He was never formally trained, yet without being well versed in African art, he moved on to creating breathtaking works out of chair legs and baseball bats. When people first began comparing his sculptures to African works, he remained unaware of the connection. Others however, felt the sprit of Africa was clearly present in his artwork and jewelry.
“I feel so connected to Yah Yah’s jewelry,” neo-soul singer Erykah Badu recalled. “I remember when I first saw it, I was automatically taken back to the Congo, or whatever part of Africa represented in these atoms that are caught in this stuff. I could smell Africa with this jewelry.”
Badu, whose distinctive sense of style was enhanced by Simpson’s breathtaking jewelry, took time out from her studio sessions to poignantly describe her feelings after hearing the news.
“When I heard he died, I was wearing a ring that he made me out of turquoise rock and a spoon. This jewelry is like music to me. It carries millions of billions of atoms of those rocks and that metal in them. It’s impossible not to feel the expressions of my ancestors through that because Yah Yah’s hands did it.”
Simpson staged his first one-man show at age 18 with his 1959 Philadelphia exhibit debut. His work spanned over the course of six decades and was featured at the Brooklyn Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and is represented in the collections of such notables as George Dupont, Walter Edmunds and Charles Searles. Simpson taught art for three years at the Christina Arts Center in Wilmington, Del. and for one year in the Philadelphia Model Cities Program at the Ile Ife Black humanitarian Center.
Most recently, Simpson showcased his mixed media collection of wood sculpture and handcrafted silver artesian jewelry at the Ellen Powell Tiberino Memorial Museum.
“John was independent and one of the most productive people I’ve known,” said Richard Watson, curator of the African American Museum of Philadelphia. “He transcended description because his work was motivated by the love of the culture and people.”
Simpson married twice and was the father of five children: Karen Simpson, 50; John Ridley Seal Simpson, Jr., 47; Yvette Penny Simpson, 41; Oladele Simpson, 40 and Nile Simpson, 25. His oldest child remembered her father as an open-minded sprit who was intrigued with learning and sharing his experience from his global travels.
Simpson said her father traveled to South Africa twice, initially meeting with Winnie Mandela and gaining an audience with President Nelson Mandela on his subsequent visit.
“Every time he went somewhere, it was like he soaked up the culture, the people and the everything,” noted Karen. “He had that amazing ability to do that and then bring it back and put it into his artwork. It was unbelievable.”
Simpson’s halcyon years could be described as the period between the 1960’s and throughout the ’70s when maintained a studio at 34th Street and Spring Garden. The space served as a regional artist colony. Some of the guests that stopped by were legendary, yet Simpson, a quietly humble man, never bragged. It was just another natural occurrence in the life of a naturally gifted artist.
“Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughn, George Howard, Grover Washington and Stevie Wonder used to come to his studio when he was in West Philly,” evoked his daughter. “He was cool with them but it wasn’t like he was tripping about it. He would vibe with them and give them what he had to offer and would take in what they had.”
“He did a lot of work with entertainers,” concurred Watson. “He entertained the likes of people like the Funkadelic and Stevie Wonder and he made all kinds of things for people. Philadelphia International and the whole family of musicians frequented John’s studio. Erykah Badu was one of his latest clients and he was making jewelry for her. He did not go unnoticed and unappreciated whatsoever.”
Simpson was also a skilled conga player (he occasionally made and sold congas, as well) who frequently sat in on the jam sessions that would break out at his studio. “That place that he had at 34th and Spring Garden was really wonderful,” recalled friend and fellow artist, Falahuddain Deni.
“All the female dancers that used to be with Alvin Ailey would come down from New York and spend the night over there. He had drums set up in there along with a family of conga drums and an upright metal bass. Plus, he was such a groovy brother, even all the brothers loved him. He was the type of person who was natural with his leadership ability.”
Simpson’s art was the conduit that linked Africa to America and ultimately bridged the timeline between jazz and hip-hop. “Yah Yah” has been creatively described as a sorcerer of wood for his ability to take true nature forms such as a tree or piece of wood and breath a life-like image into it.
A piece of wood Simpson crafted into the image of Badu is prominently displayed in the vocalist’s Brooklyn apartment. “It’s like carving away at a piece of clay only to reveal what’s already there,” explained Badu. “Whatever piece he made, it was already there. He’s just filling the space up with the physical manifestation of it.”
A memorial honoring the life and work of John “Yah Yah” Simpson is scheduled for Sunday, January 6, from 1-4 p.m. at the African American Museum of Philadelphia, 701 Arch St.
=Originally published in The Philadelphia Tribune December 21, 2007=