Forty years ago, Bill Cosby was the closest America came to a black president, garbed as he was in I Spy tennis whites. Unfortunately, the role of ambassador is a thoroughfare, and Cosby—along with other crosstown-traffic ’60s crossovers like Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier—bore a burden of both mainstream and radical expectations that would inhibit anyone’s attempt at leading a normal life. No surprise that he’s been speaking out these days, trading in Jell-O for pound cake via the multimillionaire’s relentless assaults on black materialism and hip-hop culture. (Look for his own contribution to the genre soon.) The fact that he’s been lumped in with modern-day conservatism would at first appear to echo the tragicomic descent of Charlton Heston from civil-rights marches to bloodshot libertarianism. But it says more about how our culture has changed, rather than Cosby, and that’s reflected in this semi-anonymous tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., originally released in 1971. Never at a loss for words, Cosby included more than 2,000 of them in the original liner notes, an evocative snapshot of black bourgie radicalism at the time, which is to say that Cosby reveals an anger at his former tentativeness.
Yet the music is wordless, two side-long Sun Ra–esque modal kozmik grooves that share the wooziness of Albert Ayler’s work (the Dusty Groove label has never released an album that so aptly described the sonic temperament of its appellative) as well as Ayler’s mournfulness: The bassist on “Martin’s Funeral” breaks into “The Song of the Volga Boatmen” for a stretch, while the harmonica on “Hybish, Shybish” echoes desperately. Recalling a stretched-out version of pre-sparkly Earth, Wind & Fire circa Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the record’s personnel info has been sketchy, though there’s reason to believe that Charles Wright’s Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band (of “Express Yourself” fame) may be the primary players, as the album does recall the stoned, off-kilter jamming of their “High as Apple Pie” series.
Cosby has always possessed a taste for avant-jazz, and Badfoot Brown reminds us that musically and philosophically, he’s no Stanley Crouch. Then again, Crouch wasn’t always Stanley Crouch, either—the passage of time does fatten us up to protect us from our better instincts. Former guest host Cosby forgot Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s name during a recent Tonight Show appearance, and I’ve been told by Dusty Groove that they’ve hesitated checking specific details with the notably irascible Cos, as he might not wish to relive this blast from the past. But that’s why memorials like this exist, isn’t it?
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 6, 2008