Socialist Worker

Charlie Whitehead: rediscovering the righteous anger of a forgotten hero

by Yuri Prasad
Issue No. 1993

The annals of US soul music are littered with singers who should have been contenders. With a voice that had echoes of Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding, Charlie Whitehead ought to have made the breakthrough.

His writing team, producers and band were borrowed from Swamp Dogg, another “should have been”.

Dogg’s brass and rhythm sections create the Southern US soul sound that you would associate with the Memphis based Stax Records.

Most of Charlie’s recordings are from the early 1970s and chart both the radicalism and growing sense of despair among working class black Americans.

In Songs to Sing, there is a dark twist to “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing”, a song widely used in Coca-Cola adverts.

Charlie asks himself what he’d sing about if the whole world could hear his voice.

He answers, saying, “I’d sing about a war completely unjust, and a nation the world would no longer trust. I’d sing about the riots you seen on TV, and about how after 500 years people are still not free. I’ll sing about a beautiful land once we all face the truth.”

As economic depression gripped the US, millions of black Americans found themselves imprisoned in ghettoes, without jobs – while the promises made during the civil rights era were looking increasingly threadbare.

You can hear Charlie Whitehead’s righteous indignation in tracks such as, “Who Do They Think They Are?”

This asks, “Who do they think they are, to ask me to help them build a nation, built on segregation.

“Who do they think they are to ask me to live among the filthy waste, and tell me that it’s my place.”

And, it’s there in “Predicament #3”, where Charlie lambasts racist police who think that, “Black ain’t just a colour. It’s also a crime.”

Major record labels and radio stations did not find Whitehead an attractive proposition.

He went off the radar at some point in the mid-1970s.

But no one with an interest in radical soul music would be unhappy if yet another forgotten hero made a comeback.

Songs to Sing, The Charlie Whitehead Anthology, Kent Soul, out now

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Sat 25 Mar 2006, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1993
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