Thursday, July 15, 2010

Millie Jackson: The Bitch Is Back (1999)

(As published in the Illinois Entertainer ... )

"A couple of times," says the husky-voiced soul singer on the other end of the line, "I just had to knock the living daylights out of him to let him know that even though I'm a woman, I hit pretty hard."

In different times, the woman could've been Aretha Franklin talking about Ted White or Tina Turner about Ike. This time, however, it's Millie Jackson, the notoriously lascivious deep-soul diva, recalling the son she raised as a single mom in a man's, man's, man's world. "One day when he was a teenager," she continues, "I slapped him in the mouth. Blood flew and scared the hell out of both of us. He got scared and said, 'No, mama! No more! Don't hit me, Mama!' He ran upstairs, and I yelled, 'Now, get upstairs before I kill ya!'

'Then I told my girlfriend, 'Go see if he's all right.'" Jackson explodes into laughter. The irony that after twenty-eight years of making records her greatest hit may turn out to have been not a song but an act of decidedly tough love is not lost on her. "He was talking back to me, so I just stopped him. I busted his lip, he saw the blood, and it scared him. I saw the blood, and it scared me.

"We gained a new respect for each other," she adds, then explodes into laughter again.

It's a Saturday morning, and Jackson is doing interviews from her home in Atlanta to promote the release of Between the Sheets, her new domestic best-of on BMG's House of Hits/7N label. A sixteen-track chronicle of her eleven years on Spring Records (1972-'83), it joins Jive's 1994 The Very Best! of Millie Jackson in restoring to easy availability the career highlights of a singer who during her prime was every bit the equal--and sometimes the superior--of Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, and the Pointer Sisters, black female acts who during the '70's and '80's crossed over to white audiences while Jackson maintained a marginal mainstream presence at best. (Only 1972's "Ask Me What You Want" and 1973's "Hurts So Good," which reached twenty-seven and twenty-four respectively, hit the top-forty.)

Looking back, it's easy to see that what kept Jackson from crossing over had nothing to do with her singing and everything to do with her monologues, blunt raps in which she discussed marriage and adultery like a female cross between Redd Foxx and Little Richard. She titled her excellent 1979 live album Live and Uncensored and her 1982 one Live and Outrageous (Rated XXX). Both titles fit. And, unlike '74's Caught Up (which reached twenty-one on the album charts) and '77's Feelin' Bitchy (thirty-four), neither live album went mainstream.

Between the Sheets emphasizes Jackson the Singer at the expense of Jackson the Bitchy Monologist, reducing her eleven-minute version of "(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don't Want to Be Right," for instance, to three minutes and twenty-eight seconds by excising the rap portion altogether. The singing it emphasizes, though, does justice to Jackson's considerable interpretive gifts. Rare is the professional who can make Allen Toussaint ("I'll Be Rolling [with The Punches]") and Bobby Goldsboro ("Summer [The First Time]") sound as if they belong in the same career.

By including all ten minutes and thirty-nine seconds of '77's "All the Way Lover," however, the collection does capture one classic Millie monologue. "When I speak of an all-the-way lover," she begins, "I'm not only referring to the men, 'cause some of you women ain't shit either."

... And if you're not watching TV, you're on the telephone gossiping, tellin' your business. You're sittin' there talkin' about "Oh, honey, my old man sure did put a killin' on me last night! Ooh! It sure was good!" And your girlfriend be sittin' up talkin' about "Oh?" 'Cause she really didn't think the nigga could do nothin', and now you done told her how good it is she wants to go over and test it herself. Done blew your shit.... If not that, when your man get in, feelin' in a good and lovely mood, wantin' to get down and put some good lovin' on you for real, you be talkin' 'bout "Oh, no! I went to the beauty shop today, child! You can't be runnin' your fingers through my hair and messin' up my hair. I got my hair done!" Couldn't get his fingers through most of your hair if he wanted to, as nappy as it is.

"In fact," the monologue continues, "if I was some of these men, I'd just go out and get myself a sissy and call it a day and forget about it!"

These days, instead of striving to recapture the momentum of her youth, Jackson has capitalized on her gift for direct, extemporaneous communication by becoming the latest in a long list of celebrities to try her luck at talk radio. Currently, her daily three-hour Millie Jackson Show can only be heard on Dallas's KKDA Soul 73 AM (she does the show via a special hook-up from her home), but she has hopes for syndication. "Basically," she says, "it's whatever I want to do."

What she usually wants to do is play music, comment on the news, and, in what's certainly a talk-radio first, lead a twenty-minute aerobics class at the top of hour number three. "You count along with them, you tell them what to do, and you play a lot of Michael and Janet," she laughs.

"I just did it one day, being stupid. Johnnie Taylor has this song called 'Throw Your Hands in the Air,' and he was going, 'Throw 'em up!' And I said, 'Two, three, four--throw 'em up! Two, three--' And the girl on the other end said, "Oh, that was nice! I like the way you did that!" So I made it part of the show."

Little did she know how popular the segment would become. "I went away to do a concert, and when I came back, some lady called me up and said, 'Millie, where were you Friday? You know I have these people over here on my porch every day at five o'clock! You made us so mad, we just went to Dairy Queen!' So I said, 'Well, I guess I've got to do it because she's got the people over there on her porch.' So at five o'clock I holler, 'It's three-F time! Fat folk on the floor!'"

She explodes into laughter again. Clearly, despite looking back with Between the Sheets, she's in no mood to live off past glories. As for that teenaged son whom she once popped in the mouth, he--like his sister, Jackson's daughter Keisha--has grown into responsible adulthood with nary a scar to show for having matured in the shadow of an R&B singer with an infamously dirty mouth.

"When my son turned twenty-one." Jackson says, "we took him out to dinner, and he goes, 'Can I have a Heineken?' I said, 'Yeah, you're twenty-one. Why not?' He must've had about two swallows, swore he was drunk, came home, went to bed, and talked about 'Oh, that beer just knocked me out!'"

More explosive laughter. "And my daughter--she's part of the choir at church, part of the praise team. It's so funny!"

When pressed for the secret of successful single-parenting (which she readily admits is "harder" than the traditional kind), she'll say only that "nobody knows what they do when they come to children" and that all she did was "follow [her] instincts and do [her] best."

It's not exactly Dr. Laura, but then Dr. Laura won't ever likely top the R&B charts. Either way, it looks as if there's more than one way for a middle-aged woman to make a living out of feelin' bitchy.

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