‘Mississippi’ Charles Bevel   2 comments

August 26, 2011

Recalling A Brief Musical Encounter: Meeting ‘Mississippi’ Charles Bevel

 In March 1972 I moved to Chicago to work for A&M Records as the label’s local promotion rep.  I had similar responsibilities working for other labels (RCA, Scepter, Janus, Brunswick, Alligator, and many more) from my home in Milwaukee for a couple of years before. Once in Chicago, I began calling on area radio stations, press, retailers, wholesalers, concert promoters, and anyone else who might advance the career of the artists that A&M signed and I represented. I liked the job, and I liked working with the artists, but that is not to say that I liked all of them equally. As with most of the people we meet in life, some of them leave you with enduring pleasant memories, and an appreciation for what they are trying to do as an artist, while others well, not so much. Like I said, some of them leave you with good thoughts.

One of the radio stations I visited regularly was Chicago’s WMAQ, an MOR (Middle-Of-the-Road) station with a powerful AM signal, owned in those days by NBC. Their offices and studios were located in Chicago’s famed Merchandise Mart. The Mart is a depression-era structure that at one time had the greatest square footage of any building in America: 4,000,000 square feet. Driving up to the building along the Chicago River, you can imagine that this is what a modern aircraft carrier must look like in dry dock. But that would be an unfair comparison, at least to the aircraft carrier. The building is massive.

I made weekly visits to WMAQ to pitch A&M’s new releases for airplay. One day in late 1972 or early 1973 I stood in the elevator lobby on one of the floors that NBC’s AM, FM, and TV stations occupied. I had announced myself to the receptionist, and while waiting for the music director I noticed a thin black man, perhaps 30 years old, sitting on a bench in the lobby. To my surprise, he got up and approached me. My recollection of the conversation goes something like this:  “Are you the A&M Rep” he asked. I said “yes” to which he replied, “I thought so. My album is coming out on A&M.” I was startled and spent a moment trying to decide if this was really a new artist for the label or another whack-job fishing for access to the label’s A&R department. He had an infectious smile, and as I found out weeks later, at age 34, he was a decade my senior. “What’s your name?”,  I asked. “My name is Charles Bevel, ‘Mississippi’ Charles Bevel”.

I asked him what he was doing up at WMAQ and he told me he was working as an engineer for NBC. I don’t know if he specified which side—radio or television—but at least now I understood how we happened to meet there. He told me more about the album he’d be recording, and mentioned two names, telling me that “Calvin Carter would be producing the album and Jerry Butler would serve as the Executive Producer.” Carter, as a successful record producer, was a familiar name to me in those days. Butler on the hand was a larger-than-life figure.

My respect for Jerry Butler was built on two things. The first was the way his recordings from the late 1950s and 1960s resonated with me the way you want records to resonate; emotional, personal, and musically compelling. From those days through today the songs remain clear in my mind: “For Your Precious Love” (co-written by Butler with Arthur and Richard Brooks,) “He Will Break Your Heart” (co-written by Butler with Curtis Mayfield,) “Moon River” (Henry Mancini’s classic song,) “Hey Western Union Man”, and “Only The Strong Survive” (both co-written by Butler with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.) His string of hits were masterpieces of popular music that transcended genre labels like R&B or Pop. These were “everyman” records. One would have to be tone-deaf or stone deaf in America during those years to miss the quiet elegance of these recordings the moment they came on the radio.

The second reason I respected Butler was his ability to own these songs through his recordings. Yes, others have recorded them, but it’s not the chronology or the copyrights that we follow; it’s Butler’s version that we remember for each song as the defining interpretation of these gems. Butler’s name attached to the album suggested Bevel’s was a recording worth waiting for.

Charles Bevel then went on to tell me what kind of music, that is, what kind of album he’d be recording. It sounded interesting but not a simple mainstream pop record or a rock ‘n’ roll album or folk or R&B. That didn’t mean it was without merit or couldn’t get airplay or make the sales charts. In those days, A&M was known to regularly sign artists who might not be easily categorized but nevertheless, radio, retail, and consumers took an interest in. A&M was the label that signed The Carpenters and The Strawbs; Supertramp and Sister Janet Meade; Falco and John Hiatt; Toni Childs and Suzanne Vega.

With an immediate liking of Charles, and a suspicion that the team of Carter, Bevel, and Butler would create a strong recording, my passive interest in what ‘Mississippi’ Charles Bevel would do in the studio was turned upside down. Anticipation was now in play. At that point, WMAQ’s music director was ready to see me and Charles Bevel and I parted company. It would be six months before I would hear the album I’d heard about that day in the lobby.

When I received my advance copy of Meet ‘Mississippi’ Charles Bevel, I liked what I saw and heard. A big, smiling face was on the cover and above the face the last name appeared in oversized typeface: BEVEL. I wasn’t sure which radio station to approach first, but I knew which tracks I liked: the opening tracks on both sides. They were the first track on side 1, “Overheard”, and the first track on side 2, “Making A Decision”. The A&M liner notes, written by the late Chuck Casell, included ‘Mississippi’ Charles Bevel’s description of the inspiration behind “Making A Decision”. Bevel said that it was written

. . . after I had gotten to Chicago and hadn’t gone on to Memphis. I was staying with this friend, and I’d gotten up one morning to take his wife to work in his great big old panel truck. It’s about 6 in the morning in October, dreary, winter is coming on. I don’t have any winter clothes and I’m saying to myself, agonizing over the decision to leave Cleveland, and my family and the TV station and go to Memphis. And it came in my mind, “making a decision when the sun is shining is different from when the sun is not shining.” So I went home to his house and in about 30 minutes I had the whole thing down, word, music, everything. I guess that’s about the quickest I ever wrote a song.

And there were other tracks generating interest from radio and press people.  “Sally B. White” and “Porcupine Meat”, became the “A” and “B” sides (respectively) of the same single. (Another blogger calling himself Devil Dick uncovered a copy of this single and these two tracks three decades later. You can follow the link to read what he had to say.)  Nevertheless, for my taste, the standout tracks were “Making A Decision” and “Overheard”. The entire 10-track listing, in order, was: “Overheard” • This Thing Happened To Me” • You’ve Got The Power” • Keep On Stepping” • “Making A Decision” • “Sally B White”• “Porcupine Meat” • “Don’t Lie To Me” • “Trying To Break The Habbit • “Black Santa Claus”.

Robert Christgau, one of the most enduring music critics said this, in part, about the album: [Bevel’s] songs are about black courage, hypocrisy, and ambivalence in a world shaped but not defined by racism; many of them ring like the proverbs and fables that provide him with crucial bits of language. The melodies are as sensible and eloquent as the lyrics, and Calvin Carter’s production respects and augments Bevel’s relaxed folk-soul voice. Christgau, predictably, is far more concise and eloquent than most, and who am I to disagree. 

The album did not have the success that any of us had hoped for. I don’t recall Meet ‘Mississippi’ Charles Bevel making any of the album charts. The A-side of the single, “Sally B. White”, did make the R&B charts, spending six weeks on the Top R&B Singles Chart, peaking at number 77 in April 1974. The second single didn’t chart at all.

Inexplicably, as happens more and more these days—part of the aging process I assume—names leap into my consciousness taunting me to stop, think about the person, and then do something about it. When the name and image of ‘Mississippi’ Charles Bevel arrived front and center in my head I happened to be driving through Mendocino County. Even if I wanted to immediately surf the web I couldn’t. But while I continued to drive on, I kept thinking about the man I met so many years ago.  When I got home I began to look through my books, music, and research papers; I did some web-surfing, and pieced together my memories of that day at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago when I met  ‘Mississippi’ Charles Bevel. Hopefully, he’s still writing, still playing, still singing as Christgau wrote—”about black courage, hypocrisy, and ambivalence in a world shaped but not defined by racism.” I’ll wager he’s still a warm and approachable person.

On the website for KGNU’s Black Radio Days (worth checking out for its own rich content), there is autobiographical information by ‘Mississippi’ Charles Bevel, from which the following excerpt is taken “There is the powerful hope that someday through my ‘other children’—those half nourished artists that I have given birth to—you will get to taste, see, hear, touch, smell, and even balance against your own, my mysteries—the real biography of ‘Mississippi’ Charles Bevel.”

Thanks for allowing me to be an infinitely small part of your large biography.  Here’s to you ‘Mississippi’ Charles Bevel.

David Steffen

© David Steffen 2011

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2 responses to “‘Mississippi’ Charles Bevel

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  1. I intended to draft you that little bit of word to say thanks the moment again for your personal awesome basics you have featured in this article. It is certainly incredibly generous with people like you to grant publicly precisely what a lot of folks could have offered for an electronic book to help make some bucks for their own end, precisely seeing that you could possibly have tried it in case you considered necessary. These inspiring ideas as well served to be the fantastic way to fully grasp that some people have similar eagerness really like my own to learn many more on the subject of this issue. Certainly there are a lot more pleasurable periods in the future for those who start reading your blog post.

  2. I still have a vinyl copy of Meet Mississippi Charles Bevel. No record player but I hang on to it in hopes I may someday hear Overheard again. Love that song.

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