Magical, mystical, Afrocentric, progressive — words that could be used to describe any number of musical compositions by Sun Ra or his cosmic brothers and sisters, from John to Alice Coltrane, early ’70s projects on record labels like Detroit’s Tribe or Houston’s Lightin’ or the interests of one Washington, D.C.-native named Jimmy Gray that centered under one, perfect moniker: Black Fire. Gray spent nearly three decades pushing boundaries as a Black American promoter, distributor and, finally, record label owner. He oversaw 16 releases on Black Fire Records between 1975 and 1996, with a notable pause between 1980 and 1993. Yet despite Gray’s status as the label’s steadfast impresario, its genesis owed much to an outside enterprise, hands down one of the most varied and consistent imprints of the ’70s jazz underground.
James B. “Jimmy” Gray was born in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 7, 1937. The second child of James and Juanita Gray, he spent his entire childhood analyzing the records that his older sister played after school. Music, specifically jazz, became his love supreme, an affection he’d tend to the rest of his life. After graduating from Northwest D.C.’s Dunbar High, Gray spent some months in family-owned jazz clubs before taking a musical leave of absence to serve in the U.S. Navy. In the early 1970s he launched his first jazz-oriented radio show as “Black Fire!” and secured a promotional position at former Verve Records producer Creed Taylor’s successful jazz imprint, CTI. Gray was able to grow CTI’s regional market share by translating excess promotional vinyl into favors for radio play, offering DJs the opportunity to expand their range both on the air and in stores. His role rapidly evolved after other jazz-oriented labels took note of his promotional talents and made similar arrangements with him. 1973 saw the printing of his first distribution catalogue, weighted heavily with his primary client at the time — Strata-East Records. The publication borrowed its name from his on-air persona.
Distribution offered Gray the opportunity to build a rolodex of performers, record stores and one-stops (distributors like him who bought in bulk and serviced specific regions underserved by national distributors). His core included musicians Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson.
When demand for Gil Scott-Heron’s Winter in America and The Bottle led to challenges at Strata-East, Gray, sensing opportunity, stepped in. Scott-Heron and Jackson were flush with cash from their Strata-East sales and primed to finance future pressings. The subsequent influx of product allowed Black Fire Distribution to act as D.C.’s premier one-stop for jazz music, but in order to stay on track, Gray needed a helping hand. For that he turned to Richmond, Virginia, friend James “Plunky” Branch, bandleader for Strata-East outfit Juju, an ensemble that had gotten its start in San Francisco a number of years prior.
Gray met Plunky under adverse circumstances: one of Plunky’s friends had hipped him to Black Fire Distribution’s logo, an unauthorized use of the cover photo of Juju’s Strata-East debut Message From Mozambique. But Gray made amends and the two developed a fast friendship and, working together, they rapidly expanded Gray’s network.
Despite their success in distributing the biggest album on the imprint to which he was tied, Strata-East’s inability to reward Winter In America’s crossover-success troubled Plunky. Juju had already laid the groundwork for an up-tempo single that would serve to break from the deeper modal music they had perfected, fusing elements of jazz, African music and funk. Plunky wanted a hit: the prospect of success hobbling his enterprise wasn’t tenable. He realized that Strata-East had a ceiling: The success of The Bottle notwithstanding, the label’s titles were hard to market.
Gray took note and, with the access his expanded distribution network offered, he suggested that Black Fire transition from record distributor to record label. Oneness Of Juju’s African Rhythms became its introductory single in 1975, followed closely by an LP of the same name.
Gray began exploiting a time block on WHUR to create public awareness for African Rhythms; engineer Jim Watkins programmed its title track as the theme song for The Daily Drum, the station’s daily news program. Resulting regional exposure drove album sales in the market, and also allowed Black Fire Records to build a solid financial foundation on which to grow. Additional support came from Gray’s move to the smaller, yet impactful, community-oriented station, WPFW, where he’d remain for well over a decade.
Riding the tailwind of Oneness’ first effort, Gray had no trouble convincing promoter Norris “Brute” Little (President/Owner of Charisma Productions in DC), to include Black Fire aligned groups on his roster. Charisma was the promotions company of choice for Gil Scott-Heron, as well as Roy Ayers, and a mix of other like-minded artists. This presented Oneness Of Juju with an endless supply of gigs and cross-pollinated billings with well-known acts. Gray began scouting local shows for additional progressive performers seeking the support that only a label and serious promoter could provide. His first success was a performer and ex-Roberta Flack band member, keyboardist and vocalist Wayne Davis, who’d been pining for another shot at stardom.
Davis was a D.C. native: He attended historic Dunbar High School and then the D.C. Teacher’s College. He became close with Atlantic Records artist Roberta Flack, regularly performing with her group before being signed for a solo Atlantic LP in 1973. The album featured Flack, as well as her friend Eugene McDaniels and a who’s who of the New York session scene, from Jimmy Tee to Bernard Purdie. But A View From Another Place was his solitary major label offering. Davis switched gears and took the position of Music Director with St. John Freewill Baptist Church in Maryland, on whose doors Gray came knocking.
Both Davis and Oneness Of Juju regularly performed at DC’s Summer in the Parks and Malcolm X Day; Gray was connected to activist Charles Stephenson who was the co-organizer of Malcolm X Day and Anacostia Park Festivities. This connection would lead Gray to his next discovery, a band of young black rockers managed by Stephenson billed as Experience Unlimited. As Davis primed to record his Black Fire album, he called in the Experience Unlimited horn section for studio work.
Charles C. Stephenson made a name for himself as leader of The Third World Task Force Against The War In S.E. Asia, and an affiliate of the National Peace Action Coalition. Both groups organized non-violent, peaceful demonstrations to promote public awareness of local, national and international issues, with a focus on the disproportionate victimization of Americans of color. Stephenson represented local interests when he spoke at a 1971 rally in Southeast D.C.’s Valley Green Housing Project — a protest sparked by the lack of neighborhood police protection prior to and following the murder of three young black girls. With his Congress Heights apartment just a stone’s throw away, Valley Green was more or less an extension of home. But location and community activism aside, there was an additional reason for Stephenson’s concern — a young band he’d been managing had just begun practicing there.
Black Fire’s story burns forth into its fifth decade, its message not tempered, its sound pure. Its cycle, once again, complete.
Percussionist Andre “Pops” Lucas developed a special appreciation for the vacant first floor apartment/rehearsal space at Valley Green. Tenants never complained when the band fired up their amplifiers, unlike in their former headquarters — the basement of the Stephenson’s building, where Lucas’ family also resided. Lucas was a singer who had developed an interest in percussion after catching an earful of Santana on the radio. He’d started on a set of bongos — a gift from a fellow karate club student — which led to the acquisition of congas and the invitation to join a band. Members of that outfit were his classmates at Southeast D.C.’s Hart Jr. High during the late 1960s: drummer Ronald “Preacher” Roundtree and bassist Gregory “Sugar Bear” Elliot. Together with guitarist and trumpeter Donald Fields, they became The Young Hustlers. Whereas most kids in their primarily Black neighborhood were into the soul and funk style epitomized by local heroes such as The Young Senators and Chuck Brown’s Soul Searchers, these kids were heavy into rock. They emulated local needle-in-a-haystack black rock groups like JJ And The Invaders, as well as the biggest names in the genre: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, Led Zeppelin and Steppenwolf.
The Young Hustlers made their first public appearance at a Hart Jr. High talent show, where their interpretation of Santana’s Black Magic Woman earned them immediate praise. The positive response drove them to enter more talent shows throughout the year and test waters outside their comfort zone. In doing so, they changed their name to “Experience Unlimited,” both as an ode to their favorite musician, Jimi Hendrix, and to an evolving commitment to push their favorite brand of music forward.
Experience Unlimited were dedicated: members practiced together a minimum of three days a week, performing on the weekends when not completing homework for classes at Ballou High School. Their first practice space was located within walking distance of their school at Roundtree’s parents’ home, but there was a limit as to how late they could practice since both of his parents worked day jobs. When Roundtree’s family fell on hard times, his mother moved to Oxon Hill, Maryland, and it was then that Lucas, acting as bandleader, sought approval for practice space in the basement of his Congress Heights housing project. That space quickly became the place-to-be after upperclassmen JJ And The Invaders — having noticed the group’s raw talent at school — stopped by to give their younger charges some pointers.
Thus, Experience Unlimited began incorporating more funk elements in their music, and they drafted a quartet of soul singers from Ballou High that included Donna Taylor and a female friend, as well as the Fontaine brothers, Tony and Butch. The musicians also began actively seeking a horn section and additional percussion in order to market themselves on D.C.’s established cabaret circuit, with an eye on the burgeoning Go-Go scene.
With neighborhood gigs piling up, the group was in desperate need of a manager. Though both Lucas and Fields had the leadership qualities necessary to fill that position, they decided that an outsider with an extensive book of community connections would be a better fit. Lucas’s neighbor Stephenson didn’t disappoint — in short order, Stephenson connected the band to Valley Green’s recreation department, who then granted the use of that vacant apartment as a gratis rehearsal space. The space was open to the band, in whole or in part, and Experience Unlimited made the most of the opportunity, especially as Valley Green’s Courtesy Patrol Summer Project helped the band members acquire additional instruments when they were in need.
By 1974, Experience Unlimited had outgrown Valley Green. The band was famous, at least in Southeast D.C., and crowds filled the playground behind their apartment whenever they began to rehearse. Fans yelled requests, interrupted the band, and disturbed tenants, especially in the summer months when all of Valley Green’s windows were open. Stephenson identified an empty retail space on Howard Road, conveniently located between Congress Heights and Anacostia Park. The property was owned and managed by James Banks, D.C.’s former Director of Housing. A supporter of Stephenson’s community work, Banks offered up the space at a nominal monthly rent. The building’s considerable depth allowed Experience Unlimited to subdivide three sections. The plan was to support both rents and band expenses by outfitting the front section as an Afrocentric record store and head shop, with the store’s wares housed behind glass, a dedication to peace, love, and community connection. The central quadrant would then act as an office, the rear as a rehearsal space. Experience Unlimited timbale player David Williams and drummer Anthony “Block” Easton, who had replaced Roundtree after he left the group, managed the retail space and focused on procuring vinyl. Malik Edwards added finishing touches in the store’s glass windows with detailed artwork and lettering for an apt name: The House Of Peace. The operation was a success and Experience Unlimited used their profits to buy instruments, sound and lighting equipment, much of it from the Sears department store and local music shop that employed Tony Fontaine. Soon, Experience Unlimited had a self-contained sound and light rig which they could set up on any stage in the region.
It was during a 1976 Summer In The Parks booking with Oneness Of Juju that Experience Unlimited and their manager first met the man behind Black Fire. Jimmy Gray was hungry for progressive talent and, after Experience Unlimited completed their work for Wayne Davis, he offered them an album deal. The timing could not have been better. Roughly one year prior, D.C.-based writer, promoter, booking agent and label owner Max Kidd had presented Stephenson with an original composition, Hey You, Come Together, and a contract for a single. The deal stalled after Kidd suggested bringing in session musicians for studio recordings. Gray felt that the band was capable of recording an entire album, and since Kidd’s Cherry Blossom imprint had depleted the last of its funds releasing an Elvans Road Ltd. single during mid-1976, Gray’s Black Fire Records emerged as the band’s only viable option.
While Experience Unlimited remained a rock ensemble at their core, for Free Yourself, the band chose a safer route for a mid-1970s, Black D.C. group. They mixed in bits and pieces from funk, soul, afro-Latin, and jazz influences, while still allowing Donald Fields unbridled guitar solos, most notably on Funky Consciousness. But for the most part, they grabbed as much from Stevie Wonder and the Soul Searchers as they did like-minded D.C. groups like Brute, Aggression, T.A.A.C.K., and Public Notice, all of whom had documented their ideas in regional studios by 1977. Free Yourself saw the band using acoustic guitar to underscore Davis’s haunting vocal harmonies on its ballad People, at the same time that it offered up a raucous, then-contemporary hip-hop breakbeat on Funky Consciousness. Though the original deal with Max Kidd was long dead, his composition Hey You remained. Overall themes of love, understanding, peace, freedom, and social awareness directly reflected the group’s evolution from their earliest basement days to bastions of D.C.’s Black community with The House Of Peace.
Malik Edwards strove to illustrate Experience Unlimited’s world on Free Yourself’s cover: a sun for consistently good vibes; winged male and female beings representing freedom and the black experience; a butterfly fused to the female’s heart representing positive change; archangel Gabriel’s trumpet joined to the male, symbolizing the circle of life, from the beginning to the end.
Experience Unlimited’sFree Yourself was released in 1977, shortly after Oneness Of Juju’s Space Jungle Luv. It ranks among the most obscure Black Fire releases; most copies were consigned to The House Of Peace with some distribution stretching up the coast, where copies made it into the crates of only the deepest hip-hop DJs.
This is the definitive reissue of this album, lacquered directly from the original master tapes by legendary Los Angeles mastering engineer Bernie Grundman. In a move that the band would find fitting, its tapes were placed next to the original Track Records mono masters for Hendrix’s Axis: Bold As Love during their cutting session; Grundman was lacquering both concurrently. So, with this issue, Black Fire’s story burns forth into its fifth decade, its message not tempered, its sound pure. Its cycle, once again, complete.
This article was produced in partnership with Vinyl Me, Please.