During the late 1980s and early ‘90s, there was this contemporary revolution, a cultural renaissance going on in Black music. Artists were sampling, bending, and fusing rock, jazz, soul, funk, and hip hop—with a message. Whether it was verbal or visual, the messages rocked philosophical conscious thought and political activism. Along with Spike Lee films, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s art, African medallions, “Fight the Power,” Queen Latifah, Arrested Development, and Cross Colours clothing, you can’t conjure vibrant images of this era without the band Living Colour. Now, they’re on their way to the Philly area, for a show at Ardmore Music Hall on December 21.
An undeniable sound
In 1984 New York City, guitarist Vernon Reid formed Living Colour, an iconic Black rock band whose fusion was influenced by free jazz, funk, hard rock, blues, and heavy metal. The band’s lyrics range from personal to political and challenge stereotypical mentalities. After its original formation, the band solidified its best-known lineup with Corey Glovers on vocals, Will Calhoun on drums, and Doug Wimbish on bass.
The group’s foundation in diverse musical genres, political engagement, and straight-up New York City-style give Living Colour its undeniable sound. With soundbites of Malcolm X and John F. Kennedy over hard-hitting drums, unforgettable guitar riffs, and Glovers vocals, “Cult of Personality” won a 1990 Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance. This song evokes the use of propaganda and mass media to lure everyone to follow one idea or one person for commercial gain.
“That man can play!”
While Living Colour was about to make history at the Grammys, I was leaving my small-town home in Pennsylvania, on my way to Temple University. I was ready for my education, but music and art has always been my connector to the greatness of Black life in America. My grandparents were musicians, and music and dance were always a part of my life. My grandfather was guitarist, a steel-mill operator, and a champ on the local billiard circuit. He could have been any character right out of an August Wilson play. He was always willing to share his knowledge of music with anyone who wanted to learn. I remember sitting with my grandfather on the couch and watching Living Colour’s now-infamous 1989 Arsenio Hall performance. My grandfather said, now that man can play! Since then, I’ve followed this band, the music, and the message.
Four Black men presenting hard rock in a mostly white business was a difficult challenge in the mainstream industry. But it was the right time. Their look, sound, and perseverance were groundbreaking. Coming out of the Bronx, Calhoun grew up with pioneers of hip-hop like KRS-One, and had space to expand with visual artists such as Basquiat and Keith Haring. He never felt narrowed into one genre or mindset, he says.
Prior to their commercial rock success, Reid, Calhoun, Wimbish, and former Living Colour members were playing free and straight-ahead jazz and blues music with various headliners. In fact, Calhoun graduated from Berklee College of Music, received the Buddy Rich Jazz Masters award, and played with B.B. King and Harry Belafonte. In addition to the brilliant lyrics, Reid’s guitar riff in “Cult of Personality” is one of the most recognizable in American history. This song regularly has appeared on lists of the top 100 songs ever written, and Rolling Stone has Reid at number 66 on its 100 greatest guitarists list. The album Vivid is not only an unforgettable recording, but also broke barriers for more alternative rock groups in future eras.
Not the first and not the last
Although the band members have separated and come back together over the years, they have continued to make history individually. These rockers have played as band leaders, composers, and actors. Chances are you’ve heard them on a Mos Def (Yasiin Bey) album, or offering an original composition for choreography by Bill T. Jones. You may have seen any one of these musicians hosting a VH1 show or playing with a global West African act. But one thing’s for sure: whether on individual projects or as a group, these men never stop creating music and paying homage to the artists that came before them. Reid says, “We are not the first and not the last.”
Living Colour in Ardmore
Now, 35 years after its start, Living Colour remains a permanent voice of Black rock. The band is coming to our town, bringing all of the magic with them. I will be at Ardmore Music Hall on December 21, as excited as the first time I witnessed the band’s hard-hitting, soulful sound.
We can look forward to hearing the original hits from Vivid as well as newer music from more recent albums. The root of Living Colour's latest album came from a performance of Robert Johnson's "Preachin' Blues" at the 100th anniversary celebration at the legendary Apollo in New York City. Shade, released in 2017, “is the sound of a band coming to terms with its shadows and light,” says founder Vernon Reid. “From the blue pulpit of Robert Johnson to the mean red streets of Brooklyn ... Shade is the next chapter of a unique American journey.”
What, When, Where
See Living Colour on December 21, 2019 at Ardmore Music Hall, 23 East Lancaster Avenue, Ardmore, PA. (610) 649-8389 or ardmoremusic.com.
Ardmore Music Hall is an ADA-compliant venue. Find more accessibility info here, and don’t hesitate to call or email the staff at [email protected] in advance of the show with questions about your needs.