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Rock and Roll Book Club

Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Got To Be Something Here: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound'

Andrea Swensson's 'Got To Be Something Here: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound.'
Andrea Swensson's 'Got To Be Something Here: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound.'Jay Gabler/MPR

by Jay Gabler

October 11, 2017

"This isn't the kind of music that comes out of Minneapolis!"

When Dick Clark interviewed Prince on American Bandstand in 1979, he unwittingly voiced the ignorance of generations' worth of music fans — particularly white music fans. It wasn't just in New York and L.A. that they couldn't believe a funky African-American musical genius could possibly come from Minneapolis — it was right here in the Twin Cities, too. For many, that's still the case, which is just one reason why Andrea Swensson's new book is so important.

Got To Be Something Here, out this week from the University of Minnesota Press, is subtitled The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound. "The Minneapolis Sound" is the name that was ultimately bestowed upon the aesthetic associated with Prince and with his local peers — notably Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

The hard-hitting synthesis of rock, pop, and R&B helped define the sound of the '80s, and it wasn't just the coincidence of Prince's birth that made it a "Minneapolis Sound." Through both musical and social history, Swensson — my colleague here at the The Current — explores the history of R&B in the Twin Cities from the 1950s through the 1970s, revealing how the music was shaped by geography, demographics, and persistent institutionalized racism.

The cruel irony of this chapter of Minnesota music history is that in one of the country's most segregated metro areas, R&B was often integrated. Minnesota's first rock and roll record, Augie Garcia's "Hi Yo Silver" (1955), was sung by a Mexican-American fronting a band that included Jimmy Jam's dad (Cornbread Harris) and Prince's uncle (Maurice Turner). The first R&B record was cut a few years later, with a black group (the Big M's) laying it down in the basement studio of their neighbor, a young Jewish man named David Hersk.

That was in the Near North neighborhood of Minneapolis, essential crucible of the Minneapolis Sound. The 1966 riots that emerged from rising tensions between black and white residents of that neighborhood also resulted in the founding of The Way, a community center that launched with a week of dance parties and became a musical hub where members of a virtuoso band called the Family mentored youngsters including Prince, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, and André Cymone.

When Paisley Park recently held a battle of the bands, the fact that Prince would play Northside competitions in his early days was widely touted. True enough — and it's also true that those festivals at the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center evolved in part due to the fact that African-Americans were unwelcome at Minneapolis's Aquatennial Parade. That may be why Cymone just laughed this year at SXSW when asked whether there was any local "buzz" around Prince back when the two played together in the band Grand Central. The mainstream press weren't covering North Minneapolis neighborhood events. They were at the Aquatennial.

Local audiences were once able to hear the hottest African-American musicians at a hopping downtown venue called King Solomon's Mines, a swinging hot spot in the Foshay Tower where R&B bands played killer shows for integrated audiences...except that the club closed in 1968, after having its liquor license yanked as part of a pattern of discrimination against venues booking black bands downtown.

Is it a wonder Clark was surprised? Maybe not, but if he really knew Minneapolis, he'd have known that R&B music was thriving despite the noxious harassment of African-American artists. At venues like the BYOB Club Nacirema in South Minneapolis and the incongruous country/R&B hybrid Flame on Nicollet, the musicians were on fire. On-stage integration continued to mark the scene, in bands like Willie and the Bumblebees, West Bank barnburners who took a few weeks in 1971 to back Bonnie Raitt on her debut album, recorded on an island in Lake Minnetonka.

Got To Be Something here is both an inspiring and an infuriating read, all the more so for Minnesotans who recognize that the patterns of our past continue to mark our present — as Swensson repeatedly notes. In a moving introduction, she points out that when protesters blocked I-94 in the wake of Philando Castile's death, they were "literally walking in their elders' footsteps" through the former Rondo neighborhood. What used to stand on the site of the Fourth Precinct police station where a grieving and angry community gathered after Jamar Clark's death? The Way, the community center that helped birth the Minneapolis Sound.

On Oct. 28, a historic gathering of local R&B greats will convene at the Fitzgerald Theater for an event celebrating the publication of this book: among them will be Cymone, Wee Willie Walker, Wanda Davis, the Valdons, and the original Family. These artists claimed their place in Minnesota music history long ago — and finally, the history books are starting to reflect their stature.