Soul Survivors

The Soul of John Black gets by with a little help from its friends.

In my neighborhood, in the early '70s, there was always talk of uprising," John Bigham recalls. "I grew up in the era of the Black Panthers and the Blackstone Rangers in Chicago. And they weren't gangs in the sense of destroying property and terrorizing people. They were gangs in the sense of 'Let's uplift our people. Be black and be proud.'"

Speaking by phone from his adopted city of Hollywood, Bigham exudes cool confidence rather than militancy. The 45-year-old frontman/guitarist is one half of the talented songwriting team behind the Soul of John Black; bassist Christopher Thomas co-anchors the R&B-based outfit. Bigham also possesses a highly acute bullshit detector. Whether he's discussing survival as a session musician, something the union vet refers to as "fuckin' extinct" and being on "a conveyer belt," or the current state of hip-hop ("being exploited to the max"), Bigham doesn't mince words. So it's a bit surprising when he defends America's era of blaxploitation films. The genre was mostly scripted, directed and distributed by whites during the dark days of the Nixon administration, with stories featuring one-dimensional black stereotypes such as hit men, drug dealers, pimps and prostitutes.

"When you're a black kid, you're like, 'Well, shit, are there any movies with people like me in 'em?'" Bigham says. "Yeah, there's Blacula -- the craziest movie ever made. And it scared the shit out of me, so it did its job. And the guy [William Marshall] who actually did the role is a Shakespearean actor. It took a lot of people to make those movies: the film crew, the script, the costumes, a lot of shit. You don't just have the actors acting out those over-exaggerated characters. But I don't think any black person is offended by Blacula -- as stupid as it may be -- or Superfly. The bottom line is, people who aren't black assume that's how we are. As in any other culture, that's where the problems are.

Back in Black: Christopher Thomas and John Bigham 
are the Soul of John Black.
Back in Black: Christopher Thomas and John Bigham are the Soul of John Black.

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"But I think black people enjoyed seeing that craziness," he adds. "They're not living those lifestyles. The thing people miss is, the shit was comedy. It wasn't Amos and Andy. It wasn't nobody goin' around shufflin' their feet. It was just total fun."

Four years after the bloodsucking, baritone-voiced African Prince Mamuwalde entered cinematic folklore in the hood, 1976's J.D.'s Revenge also burned its way into Bigham's memory. A supernatural thriller shot in New Orleans with a soundtrack by a then-unknown Prince, Revenge tells the story of a dedicated law student possessed by the spirit of a 1940s-era gangster, one with a taste for fedoras, straight razors and bitch-slappin' the ladies. Two decades after its release, when it came time for Bigham to give his new musical project with Thomas an identity, he recalled the dueling Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of J.D.'s protagonist and how it paralleled his own sudden, unexpected transformation into a soul crooner.

"I didn't create the alter ego," Bigham points out. "It was just there, and I basically named it. I wasn't a singer before, trying to sing all these heartfelt songs. And all of a sudden, I could sing! I just thought it was a miracle."

Miracle or not, don't call Bigham's engaging music "neo-soul" -- hot buttered, re-buttered or otherwise.

"We're not trying to bring shit back," Bigham declares. "The soul that I refer to is the spirit within. If a total soul purist comes to a show and sees me play a solo -- then smash my guitar -- I don't know if they would consider it soul. Especially if my amp is on ten -- which I might do.

"The music is pretty straightforward if you're into jazz, blues, rock or hip-hop," Thomas adds. "But we're trying to come across as songwriters, because the music is that personal."

Thomas, 34, has an impressive jazz dossier to his name and hails from St. Louis, where he cut his teeth on violin and cello. The bass player cites Duke Ellington's low-end ace, Jimmy Blanton, as a primary influence. Thomas studied under Ellis Marsalis (Wynton Marsalis's father) at the University of New Orleans in 1989. Three years later, the late, great jazz singer Betty Carter -- best known, perhaps, for her duets with the late Ray Charles -- recruited the young musician for an eleven-month stint, providing him with his most significant career break.

"She's high on my list," Thomas notes. "She respected me as a musician and took me on my own, rather than because I had friends who played with her. I was living in New Orleans at the time, and she said, 'I'm gonna pay you enough to live in New York City.'"

More doors opened for Thomas in the Big Apple. During the '90s, he supported Joshua Redman, Harry Connick Jr., Terence Blanchard, the Brian Blade Fellowship and the Lincoln Center Orchestra.

"They're all gigs," Thomas says. "Playing Carnegie Hall is about as great as playing a free show at the park. To tell you the truth, the people at the park are gonna be so into you, 'cause it's free. In Carnegie Hall, with the hundred-dollar tickets, they're not even gonna give it up to you. I know if I paid a hundred dollars, nobody could tell me to sit down and be prissy."

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