- THE AUTHOR: Rashod Ollison, whose book is about how music was his salvation.
Little Rock native Rashod Ollison is author of "Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues, & Coming of Age Through Vinyl" (Beacon Press, 2016), a new memoir about growing up gay in a volatile family — and how music provided a sort of salvation. Ollison, a graduate of Sylvan Hills High School and an Arkansas Times Academic All-Star, is the pop culture critic for The Virginia-Pilot. Previously, he was a staff critic at the Dallas Morning News, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Journal News in Westchester, N.Y. and the Baltimore Sun.
Excerpted from "Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues, & Coming of Age Through Vinyl" by Rashod Ollison (Beacon Press, 2016). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.
Clara Mae was daddy's girlfriend.
She lived in a white house with two front doors — one opened to the living room, the other to the front bedroom. The white clapboard house faced a grassy lot, where a large pool of water sat for days after a heavy rain.
Daddy and I visited Clara Mae sometimes on the weekends in Malvern, about 45 minutes from our home in Hot Springs. He turned the white Buick onto the quiet street where Clara Mae lived alone.
"Your mama ask where we been, tell her we was at Big Mama's or Aunt Geneva's. Got that, Dus-Dus?"
I grinned when Daddy called me his variation of Dusty, my nickname. I nodded.
"I don't hear you, my man."
Daddy turned off the car in front of Clara Mae's and reached over my legs to the glove compartment, where he kept his half pint of Seagram's gin. He stared at her high, leaning porch for a moment before clearing his throat. Then he unscrewed the cap and took a quick swig.
I cracked up when Daddy threw back the first taste. His reaction was always the same. In my 6-year-old world, he was a big ebony clown. He tossed the bottle back into the glove compartment.
The narrow steps to Clara Mae's porch had no railing on either side. I wondered if anybody ever fell off. I wondered how Daddy negotiated the steps without falling. At home, he was anything but graceful. He tripped over toys, skates, board game pieces — things my sisters and I left around. It also didn't help that he was usually drunk, stepping in hours after he'd left work at the Reynolds aluminum plant. Mama stood there when the door flew open — hand on hip and lips looking like a slash in her face — ready to cuss him out.
But at Clara Mae's, Daddy was gentlemanly, despite the gin coursing through his veins. He patted his hair and adjusted his clothes before knocking on the door. Clara Mae answered with a wide smile accented with a gold-rimmed front tooth.
I'd overheard Daddy tell his buddies, "You know how I like 'em, man: light, bright, and almost white."
With her custard complexion, Mama was close enough. But Clara Mae didn't pass Daddy's brown-paper-bag test. She was the color of Big Mama's homemade sweet tea, and Clara Mae couldn't have been more than five feet tall, with features that seemed too large for her face. Her stringy, rust-colored Jheri curl was in desperate need of a few more sprays of activator.
Clara Mae may not have been a beauty queen from the neck up. But south of her collarbone, she was a petite brick house with generous hips and a have-mercy bubble ass. It was the same figure Mama had before she started to pack on pounds after Reagan and I were born.
Clara Mae's physical attributes and honeysuckle-sweet disposition, the opposite of Mama's no-nonsense ways, must've been what hooked Daddy.
"Looka there," she said, feigning surprise at the sight of me and unlocking the screen door. It was as though I were a gift she found on that raggedy-ass porch. "Just gettin' big and fine! Come on in here."
Clara Mae's ornately decorated living room couldn't have been more dissimilar to ours. Nothing was ever out of place: no stray shoes, no toys on the floor. No used dish or cup left for hours on the coffee table. At Clara Mae's, old-lady bric-a-brac adorned polished side tables. Plastic covered two wide, triangular lamp shades, and white doilies draped the arms of a faded floral couch and love seat. The stuffy decor belied Clara Mae's age. She was only in her thirties.
The scent of something savory and heavily seasoned sometimes thickened the air. Clara Mae cooked for us a few times. Her collard greens and hot-water cornbread nearly rendered Mama's irrelevant. Most times, though, her house smelled of vanilla and cigarette smoke. She and Daddy puffed on Viceroys.
Her living room was dominated by a long, handsome console stereo. Albums lined the front of it and flanked the sides. Her 45s stood in three brass racks. My eyes lit up at the sight of all that music.
"Go on, look through them records," Clara Mae said. "You know you want to."
"Don't mess 'em up, son," Daddy said, reclining on the couch as though he paid bills there.
On my knees, I flipped through the LPs, stopping at images that caught my eye: Patrice Rushen with long braids adorned with beads and feathers; Betty Wright sporting a globular 'fro, one hand on her hip, the other holding a microphone; Al Green in a dove-white suit sitting cross-legged in a wicker chair that matched his outfit.
I held up an album. "Look, Daddy, this lady got her tongue out."
Clara Mae plucked the LP out of my hand. "This ain't for you."
"Can I hear it?" I asked.
Daddy spoke up. "Who's that, Clara Mae?"
They laughed as if they were in on a private joke.
"Can I hear it?" I asked again.
"Boy, you don't know nothin' 'bout this," Clara Mae said.
"Go 'head and put it on."
"Raymond, this boy ain't got no business listenin' to no Millie Jackson."
"Put it on. Boy pro'ly hear worse over at Teacake's," Daddy said, referring to my profane grandmother, who sold brown liquor and homemade fried pork skins out of her house.
Clara Mae shook her head and placed the album on the automatic turntable. It fell and the needle slid into the first groove. An ominous bass line, overlaid with billowing strings and woodwinds, boomed from the speakers. Frayed around the edges, the husky female voice brought to mind the smoky, lowdown atmosphere at Mama Teacake's.
Millie sang of fires burning deep down inside, of love wheels turning that rendered one helpless and open to doing just about anything. I looked at Daddy, grinning at the sound of the record I'd picked. He smiled, nodding to the groove.
"Like that, Dus-Dus?"
I nodded my head the way he did. "Yep."
Clara Mae and Daddy laughed then looked at each other.
"Hey," Daddy said, rising off the couch. "Sit here and listen to that record, hear? Don't go touchin' nothin'. Just let the record play."
Clara Mae turned the volume up as Millie broke down the meaning of an all-the-way lover. She sounded like the free-spirited women who sat gap-legged in Mama Teacake's living room and cussed in coarse voices.
Daddy followed Clara Mae into the bedroom, which was next to the living room, and closed the door. As the album played, I heard an occasional thud on the other side of the wall. I had no idea what was going on in there — and didn't care. Millie was great company.
The needle played side A again. As Millie sang for the second time about fires burning deep down inside, Daddy emerged from the bedroom. His shirt was buttoned wrong. Clara Mae soon followed. Her dry Jheri curl was flat on one side.
- 'RUNNING OUT OF LIES': Like Johnnie Taylor sings.
Much of the down-home soul I remember hearing from my childhood explored the joys and pains of outside love. It was a popular lyrical theme in R&B in the early '70s, the newlywed period for my parents. I didn't come along until 1977, when disco thumped everywhere but not in the Ollison household. Blues-suffused soul and traditional gospel sparked good vibes and sustained us through bad times.
The come-hither croon of Eddie Kendricks and the symphonic love letters of Barry White were the soundtrack to the early years of my parents' marriage.
But by the time I was in kindergarten, their union had cracked and the songs darkened. Just about all of the records Daddy dug had something to do with cheating. And he certainly wasn't the only one listening. Just about everybody I knew had half-brothers and -sisters, "outside babies," as folks called them.
Clara Mae wasn't Daddy's only sidepiece, but she was the only one whose house I knew and whose food I ate. During my parents' marriage, two women bore children with strong Ollison features: thick eyebrows with high arches, full lips, and bulbous noses.
Mama, who was a few months pregnant with me, read the baby announcement for the first one in the morning paper. The baby's name, Antonio Ramon Ollison, stopped her because she had initially picked it for me. Apparently, Daddy liked the name enough to suggest it to the baby's mother, a young Malvern woman barely out of high school.
Mama forgave him after Daddy promised he'd never do it again. But he lied just as Johnnie Taylor did in "Running Out of Lies." It was "getting hard to think of an alibi."
Barely two years after my youngest sister, Reagan, was born, another woman in Malvern had another son. Mama had had enough.
Before he moved out of our house on Garden Street, Daddy spent hours playing those baby-I-didn't-mean-it songs in the living room in the dark: a cold Miller in one hand and a Viceroy burning in the other. He'd chuckle at a verse. But mostly, he stared straight ahead as an anguished voice on the stereo crooned how trying to love two sure ain't easy to do.
As the shattered pieces of the marriage settled around her, Mama knelt at the altar of Aretha.
She played "Amazing Grace," the legend's landmark 1972 gospel double LP, seemingly every waking hour during the turbulent years of the marriage, the only years I remember. The album often played on Sunday mornings as we got ready for church.
The fiery, holy sounds of Aretha shouting the good news, shadowed by the Southern California Community Choir, sometimes filled the house well into the night.
Daddy wasn't home much during the last two years of the marriage. Some of his things (his shoes, his clothes, many of his albums) disappeared. I didn't know where he stayed. Clara Mae's? Big Mama's? Whenever he showed up, he and Mama fought. Daddy, as usual, was drunk and the first to lay hands, shoving Mama against a wall, on the couch, on the floor. But she always fought back: kicking, scratching, and biting.
She clocked him in the head once with a phone. Her nostrils flaring, Mama set it down, carefully placing the receiver back on the base. Then she looked at us as we stood there scared and shocked.
"Y'all get somewhere and sit down," she said, stepping over Daddy, as he moaned and writhed on the floor, holding his head.
But whenever Aretha was on, order seemed restored. Her majestic voice grounded us, especially Mama. After she came home from her job at Coy's restaurant, where she prepared fancy salads all day, Mama often reached for Aretha.
The songs she played indicated her mood. If "Respect" or "(Sweet, Sweet Baby) Since You've Been Gone" rocked the house, her spirits were up; soaring ballads such as "Angel" and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" meant she was reflective; moody cuts like "Ain't No Way" and "Do Right Woman, DoRight Man" meant she didn't want to be bothered. So we tiptoed around her.
Even as a child I gathered that Aretha's music, especially her classic Atlantic recordings, was an extension of church. The air changed. A sense of reverence rained down as her voice soared from the speakers. I straightened up and listened. Coupling the skyripping strength of Aretha's voice with Mama's warrior-woman presence, I felt protected in Daddy's absence.
So much of Mama's life was reflected and refracted in Aretha's lyrics: the longing, the loss, the hope, the faith, the perseverance. In 1967, the year of the singer's pop breakthrough, Mama turned 17. She entered womanhood with the Queen of Soul as a cultural guidepost.
Aretha was the natural woman/genius from down the block, world-weary and accessible, nappy edges and all on full display. She mingled the muddy funk of the Delta with the cosmopolitan sleekness of the North. And in her music, Mama seemed to always find a home. She admired other dynamic black female singers of her generation and played their music often. Diana Ross and Gladys Knight come to mind. But her reaction to their songs wasn't the same as when Aretha sang. Mama swayed and rocked. She waved her hand in the air, the way she did in church. Sometimes she cried. In 1983, her marriage fell in sharp glittering pieces all around her. My oldest sister, Dusa, was 14; Reagan, the youngest, was 5; and I was 6. Garden Street was bleak, save for the aural sunbeam of Aretha singing through the surface noise of well-worn vinyl, assuring us that God would take care of everything.
In the summer of '83, a few months before my parents' divorce was final, we moved into the housing projects over on Omega Street.
The apartment felt like a step up from our place on Garden. That house, a small white one with three bedrooms, had been built sometime in the 1920s, with a wide front porch and not much of a yard in the front or the back. It faced the old National Baptist Hotel, at that time an abandoned building my sisters and I thought was haunted. Decades before, the majestic red-brick hotel attracted every major black performer who came to Hot Springs. The building, which took up a block, included a bathhouse, a performance venue, a conference center, a gym, and a beauty parlor.
The neighborhood surrounding the National Baptist Hotel had been a glorious one in the years before integration. Black doctors, lawyers, teachers, and other professionals lived in the stately homes, some of which were teetering on dilapidation just before we moved out. Reagan and I rode our Big Wheels up and down the hill in front of our house. Drunks staggering out of the dives and liquor stores on Malvern Avenue, the main drag that ran perpendicular to Garden Street, were mostly nice. Some were even parental, telling us to be careful on our Big Wheels and to stay out of the street.
We were all happy to leave that old white house, which was also home to mice and roaches. I remember once going into the kitchen and seeing a mouse swimming around in the cold, greasy dishwater left overnight in the sink. I almost pissed myself.
Daddy's absence hung over everything. I missed our clandestine trips to Clara Mae's; to the liquor store on the street directly behind the house, where he bought me Guy's potato chips and Dr Pepper; to the homes of his drinking buddies, where I was treated like one of the fellas. I wasn't given beer to drink, though occasionally Daddy gave me a quick sip of his and laughed his wheezing laugh as I frowned and gagged at the acrid taste.
I sat among his ragtag friends and absorbed their tall tales peppered with "bitch" this and "muthafucka" that. For the longest time, I thought my name was "Lil' Mafucka." As I followed Daddy into smoky backrooms, a grinning drunk man with a beer in his hand knelt down to rub my head and say, "Hey there, lil' mafucka."
I remember the last time Daddy darkened our front door on Garden Street.
It was a Saturday morning, and Mama was at work. Dusa was in charge, sitting on the couch talking on the phone, as usual. Reagan and I were glued to the TV, eating cereal and watching "The Smurfs," when the door opened and in walked Daddy.
We rushed him, hugging his legs. I couldn't remember the last time he had been home.
He hugged us and went into the bedroom he shared with Mama. We followed him, pelting him with questions: "You come home, Daddy? You stayin', Daddy?"
"Y'all go on back in the living room now," he said. "Go on."
We went back into the living room, giddy that he was home at last. After he was in the room for a while, I snuck in. He sat on the edge of the bed crying, something Daddy often did when he was drunk. So this wasn't an unusual sight.
He looked up, saw me, and sobbed.
"Your mama don't love me no more," he said.
I saw the luggage at the foot of the bed.
"I wanna go," I whined.
"Nah, you can't," he said, lifting himself off the bed.
He picked up his suitcases and headed out of the room. As he walked through the living room, Reagan jumped from her spot in front of the TV.
"Daddy, where you goin'?" She was in tears.
"I'll be back," he said, hugging us both. He looked over at Dusa, who was still on the phone. Daddy had been a father to her longer than he had been to us, and yet she seemed indifferent to his departure.
"Tell your mama I'll call later," Daddy said to Dusa, who just nodded and said, "Okay."'
"Y'all be good," Daddy said as he closed the door.
We didn't realize that Uncle Alvin, the husband of Daddy's sister Stella, had been outside the entire time waiting in the car. From the living room window, I saw Daddy load his things and get in. He and Alvin sat there for what seemed like a long time before leaving.
Daddy haunted every room on Garden Street. He lived barely an hour away in Malvern. But he may as well have been across two oceans because he didn't come around. In the new room I shared with Reagan on Omega Street, I kept a stack of 45s he'd bought me — music that connected us.Rashod Ollison will be at Little Rock's Pyramid Books at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 9.