Whenever I hear Millie Jackson let loose her cutting monologues, I think of my adolescent cousin Verne.
Everybody has a Verne in the family — especially if you grew up in the traditions of a middle-American neighborhood like I did. Verne was the older of the kids. She would be the first to get married and move to another part of town.
Verne was earthy and seldom hypocritical, quickly telling it like it is with a bitingly honest sense of humor that was as dry as the desert. Her home would hardly ever be on the list of Sunday afternoon family visits. Every now and then, you would hear through the grapevine that her old man was giving her a hard time. We’d giggle at the stories that the two of them were seen running down a dirt road hurling obscenities at each other. A sigh of relief would overcome the kinfolk the day she got that no good bum out of her system.
But as we got older and entered budding adolescence, we found ourselves confronted with the true facts of life. All of a sudden, we discovered that Verne was a symbol of strength, wisdom and endurance — the kind of stuff that made her a Rock of Gibraltar, a heroine.
Millie Jackson, as an entertainer, has created that kind of image for herself. Her sharp, street-wise stature is that of a woman from the school of hard knocks. Her wit and self-confidence [sometimes ill-defined as being bitchy] has become a source of inspiration for young, troubled and lovesick females and a good number of males.
“I’ve heard all the stories”, Millie quips, as she unwinds in a chair at her midtown Manhattan office for an interview with ROUTES.
“In Detroit, a man hollered from the audience, ‘She’s not taking care of her homework!’ So I asked, Are you taking care of yours? His lady responded with an emphatic ‘no!’ And they started arguing back and forth until finally I said, Come up here, and they came on stage to air out their problems. She was a young girl, and he was an older guy. So I said, Well, you’ve got an older fellow here. Does he partee? Those floors are kinda hard on his knees, why don’t you just sit her on a dresser? They agreed and then left the concert arm in arm. They didn’t even go back to their seats.”
Every once in a rare while, a member of the audience, caught up in the Millie Jackson spirit, may even get the best of her. She shared one such incident with me: “We were finishing up a tour, and I told the audience that my horn players were on their last night. I told the crowd they had to leave because after two years with me you gotta be parteeing, otherwise it’s bad for my reputation. A guy from the audience shouted out to me, ‘Do you need a horn player?’ And I said, Yes, but you must come to the stage so that I can check your lips out first.
“He got up out of his seat, came to the stage, pulled out his teeth and said, ‘And I don’t bite!’ I swear, he was standing right in front of me with his lowers in one hand and his uppers in the other. That one got me. Everybody fell out in disbelief. But I guess that’s the kind of reaction I have with people.”
Millie’s directness and sound logic have also created scary moments for her. “This one girl came to our show in Chicago and wandered backstage to tell me she had spent her last money getting to the concert. She threatened to commit suicide if I didn’t help her. She insisted that I was her last resort. The woman, Millie explains, clung to a man who really didn’t want her and treated her accordingly. I just told her point blank that the man wasn’t worth it — no man is worth it. He sure isn’t worth killing yourself over. You’ll find another man.”
Whether it helped, Millie doesn’t know and never found out, but she concedes that the incident had her terrified. “Man, that scared the living daylights out of me. I even took her phone number and later tried to call her.”
Many men have accused Millie of breaking up their happy relationships. More than once, she has had a stranger walk up to her and charge, “If it wasn’t for you and those records of yours, me and my old lady would still be together. But no, she was always sittin’ around playing that junk.”
Then there is the man in Brooklyn who keeps sending her letters. “He thinks I’m spying on him.” It appears as though the stories in her albums, Caught Up, Still Caught Up, Feeling Bitchy and Get It Out Cha System, are tracing chapters of his life.
A small scar on her forehead has also led to repeated rumors concerning Millie’s reputation. Often it is immediately associated with some bizarre incident that in all likelihood was provoked by her get tough image from stage and record.
“Actually, I got that scar in a car accident,”she explains with a boisterous and gleeful laugh which contains that tell-tale drawl of her native rural Georgia.
Millie laughs a lot when talking about the contradictions between her onstage and offstage personalities. That laugh could easily be taken to reflect a I-don’t-give-a-damn attitude, but if you observe her closely, you find it is more likely to serve as a security blanket for a singer seeking to maintain a sense of sanity.
Millie says that most of her audience are lower income people and about 90-100 percent black. “I guess that’s because they understand me and I talk their language.”
She finds it amusing that white patrons who wander into her shows enjoy her performances almost equally. “They like me when they see me, but most of them just didn’t know that I exist — except maybe for a few used-to-be hippies and the underground music people. But I’m getting quite a few gays now, t00. They’ve got men problems also, you know.
“But I would say that basically the philosophy of my performance comes from my environment and not necessarily from personal experience. Having grown up in a black neighborhood, I can relate to the problems and I speak in a black Language,” she explains.
She assures me that in reality she just enjoys being herself.”I don’t want to be a superstar; otherwise, I may just become the kind of Millie Jackson that everybody thinks I am.”
I spoke with Millie again shortly after her duet album with Isaac Hayes hit the stores, This time, she reclined in her chair and announced, “I am mellowing in my older age. I am being nicer these days. Only when I am really provoked do I go off.”
Then the lady threw me for another ringer. As I was waiting for her in the lounge, I overheard her tell some friends about how she got thrown out of the Wienerwald Restaurant around the corner because she had asserted herself to a manager who had been disrespectful. She recounts the incident as we relax and then giggles, “I guess now you are going to think that the two Millie Jacksons are going to merge.”
Millie assures me, “No, I haven’t been in a gang fight, but if you push me, I will defend myself, I am not that much of a lady that I won’t know how lo knock the stuff out of you if you mess with me.”
It seems that not too long ago a young lady, seeking to put Millie down in front of the singer’s male companion, came face to face with the other Miss Jackson. “We were sitting in this restaurant, and the girl kept trying to put me down, saying to the man that left her never had a real woman and that he only hung around models and singers. Well, I listened to that BS for a while, and when I had enough, I said to her, ‘Come with me, I got something fascinating to show you. I took her to the ladies’ room and whipped her ass — just to show her that I was not one of those little ladies she thought was such a star that I had forgotten how to knock her out.”
Somewhat perplexed by her candor, I sought to cover up my puzzled look quickly asking: now will the real Millie Jackson please stand up!
“My grandfather once told me that you have to have at least two faces to survive,” she explained. “I have since discovered that in the record you need at least four, because you need that many cheeks to turn.” Whatever mood Millie Jackson may be in temporarily, you’ve got to hand it to her — she’s got her head on straight and can call most of her own punches [pardon the pun, Millie]. She heads up her own production company, Keishval Enterprises, Inc., the driving force behind the Millie Jackson/Isaac Hayes duet album, Royal Rappin’s.
That album introduced us mellower Millie, but she feels, “I wasn’t all that nice, but I also didn’t want to destroy Isaac’s image either — so we met halfway — he got a little bit dirty and I got a little bit clean.”
Millie was happy with many of the album’s cuts, simply because they were a result of the duo’s down-to-earth spontaneity. The tune Do You Want To Make Love, an old country standard, which the two of them turned into a lover’s tour de force, was a case in point.
“We really didn’t know what to do with it. I had done the song on an album, and Isaac had known it as a country tune. It was only supposed to be the b-side of a record. So, we figured, who gives a hell what we do with it? We didn’t even know the mikes were on when we went into the studio and started to sing and rap. We were just jiving around. When we got serious with the recording, it didn’t work right. So we printed the one where we were playing around.”
I suggest to Millie that the tune worked better for the two than the previous cut, Feels Like The First Time. “That’s simple,” Millie shoots back. “It’s hard to say it feels like the first time when you haven’t really had any.”
Millie Jackson products can rely on instant recognition and guaranteed minimum sales because of the following she has created through her string of successful albums and her fiery stage performances. But she is quick to tell you that her recording career didn’t just happen overnight. She started singing in small nightclubs in 1964, and it wasn’t until 1971 that she signed her first recording contract. In fact, one might say that fifteen years of stage experience are the key to her longevity.
After so many years on the road and almost ten in the studios, Millie Jackson speaks of the music industry with great authority and conviction. Of course, I couldn’t resist the temptation of sounding out her feelings about disco.
“I hate disco because it is monotonous. It is boring,” she announces. “And today all the record companies are crying because disco isn’t selling. You hear it 24 hours a day, and it’s blocking the space on the airwaves.”
“You have FM radio stations that have gone totally disco with uninterrupted shows. People can tape the top ten off the radio. So why go out and buy an album that might only have one song on it that you like anyway,” she surmises. Millie speculates that the recent wave of record company layoffs [and not just the errand boys she underscores] are proof of disco’s floundering. “They bought up all this junk that they can’t get rid of.”
Millie, however, doesn’t take a merely one-dimensional view of disco. “There is disco-muzak and then there are the message songs. I think I Will Survive has survived,” Millie notes. “It has lyrics and as long as you do songs with lyrics and people can dance to them, you’re still safe.”
What she doesn’t appreciate is what she calls computerized disco music. “You know the strings are going to come now and play for eight bars and then fall out; then the horns will come in and play and then she [the singer] will sing again about an hour from now.” Millie has one word for it: “boring.” After an hour of this music you can go crazy from all that boom-boom. Ever since Ring My Bell, everything is now going beeoom…beeoom…beeoom. It only has one beat on it. At least before you would get some syncopation. Now it’s just beeoom!”
“There have been some positive developments as a result of disco,” Millie notes, “It’s gotten a lot of black artists play on pop stations they normally don’t get.” But she is very quick to add that “it has also gotten a lot of people with no talent a hit record.”
In fact, Millie has come to the conclusion that disco has hurt the balladeers in the industry . “Nobody wants to go see a disco singer. They do nothing. You say to yourself, ‘Oh well, I bought this record, but this is very boring to look at.’ They realize, I’m not dancing now. I have to actually sit here and look at this boring song.”
On the other hand, the actual singers in the industry, who used to work small clubs five or six nights a week, can’t find gigs because their clubs have been turned into discos.
Millie blames the public for part of the problem. “They accepted it, because they were willing to pay the same money to go in and dance to the same records all night that they could have danced to at home.
“If there is such a thing as live entertainment in a disco, chances are the act will lip-synch their way through the show, unless,” as Millie notes with a smirk, “you want to go through the expense of hiring a light company, a choreographer and some dancers who will throw you around in the air while the music is doing all that other stuff. But who can afford it? In many instances, this is your first record and you won’t get more than maybe $2,500 a night —are you going to hire a light company for $3,000?
“Another reason for disco’s phenomenal takeover could be found in its acceptance by the white record buying public,” Millie speculates. “White people can dance to it. If you are going four beats to a measure, they’ve got to hit one of them. What we were doing before was off time to them. This is the first thing they have been able to do since the Twist.”
Millie also recalls “there was a time when the little rich white kid would be scolded for hanging out with those heathens if he came home with a black record — unless it was with Nat King Cole or Sammy Davis, Jr., or Stevie.
“But now, since disco, you can come in with these same artists’ records and parents won’t consider it a black record, but a disco record.”
Looking ahead, Millie feels that music will change rapidly, “Within the next year, I would say, music will go back to being very radical, like the radical songs of the Vietnam War where everybody was preaching about unfairness.” She feels the handwriting for such a change is Written on the wall. “Disco is a happy music. We all dance and we sing. But now that we are feeling the economic crunch, all the hatred will come back out. How long has it been since you heard of the last cross burning?” she asks. “The economy is getting bad and somebody’s got to be blamed. Nobody will say, ‘Yes,’ I’m the reason.”
Exhibiting some dark humor, Millie interjects, “Even if it ever came to where the whites and the blacks and the Puerto Ricans all got along, they’d all pick on the Eskimos.”
After sitting across from Millie for several hours listening to her philosophies, I return home to examine the tracks of her new double album, recorded live at the Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles. The lady breathes fire and brimstone with every note. I try desperately to sort out the real Millie Jackson from the stage character. I finally give up, realizing that Millie Jackson is a synthesis of everything she stands for, on stage and off. Of course, her stage character is embellished with lines and jokes aimed at the funny bone. But like Richard Pryor, there is a message in whatever she does, no matter how ridiculous. Maybe she’s a genius who has stripped away the walls of insecurity that each of us build around ourselves and has hung our wash out to dry without us even knowing it.
Anyway, it’s nice to know that my cousin Verne, with all her ups and downs, has been immortalized on vinyl. And maybe Millie Jackson has brought home the realization that there is a little bit of Verne in all of us.