N*gg*z Can’t Sang Rock & Roll: Funk Metal Soul Diva Joyce “Baby Jean” Kennedy of Mother’s Finest

One of the things I love about the 70s is finding out what didn’t get played on the radio. Unsurprisingly, “objectionable” language and subject matter often got slapped with a ban. Even Minnie Riperton’s “Inside My Love” was banned from the radio due to its lyrics. It is in this context that Black rock group Mother’s Finest found itself pushing boundaries with songs like “Niggizz Can’t Sang Rock & Roll,” an intentionally ironic title given rock’s Black origins, and albums that came later like Black Radio Won’t Play This Record.

And vocalist Joyce “Baby Jean” Kennedy has been part of the ride the entire journey. From its inception from the early 70s to its continued touring line-up, the Atlanta-born, Chicago-raised Joyce has been a member of Mother’s Finest and an undersung foremother of classic rock. In fact, she co-founded the group with vocalist Glenn “Doc” Murdock when they met Gary “Moses Mo” Moore and Jerry “Wyzard” Seay, guitar and bass respectively, in 1970. The original line-up was complete with Mike Keck on keyboards and Sanford “Pepe” Daniels on drums. While given the distinction of funk rock, Mother’s Finest is about as hard rock as they come right down to the core.

Yet Mother’s Finest is rarely mentioned among rock canon. While many of us have begun to acknowledge that groups such as Parliament/Funkadelic are essentially rock groups, that same courtesy has not been given to Baby Jean and company. Not surprising since history has done its best to erase blackness from all subgenres of rock, especially Black women, with a few exceptions.

Apparently, the group never set out to break boundaries or even make a statement. Joyce says, “Yeah, it’s not being exposed…or having the access to people’s ears. And of course, the rock people did not want to see African-Americans doing anything other than rhytym and blues. I’m not saying that we set out to do that, break format or whatever, it’s just the way it fell. That’s just the way the cards fell. This was a type of music that we all collectively put together and arranged. There was no intent one way or another whether it was going to be more rock or more funk or more soul, it was just meshed itself spiritually that way. It was a beautiful thing because we’re still here!”

Yet, the group has managed to enjoy a long run throughout its lifetime, still headlining shows throughout Europe (if I’m not mistaken) to this day. While the group formed in 1970, it would be another two years before the release of the first self-titled album. The album seemed to run a spectrum of psychedelic rock like their predecessor Rotary Connection to rock soul like their contemporaries Maxayn to psychedelic soul like other contemporaries Sly & the Family Stone. In either case, a Black woman’s voice was prominent and key to what made the group distinct from others of their time. While Joyce might be prominently featured on a ballad like “You Move Me,” she might be a prominent backup voice on other tracks such as “Feelin’ Alright.”

It’s unclear what’s happened with this album as far as the group’s catalogue goes. In fact, it isn’t even available for streaming on Spotify and fans have neglected to share more than three tracks from that particular album on YouTube. Furthermore, their second album was shelved and would not see the light of day until 2010. In the four years between the debut and the official second album, the group changed record labels and released a second self-titled album.

Perhaps controversy helped the group gain the attention it deserved, perhaps not. However, the album contained the song that would cement the group’s legacy.

“Niggizz Can’t Sang Rock ’n’ Roll.”

A Black rock group made this statement back in 1976 when rock and roll was arguably barely 20 years old. Mother’s Finest made it clear they knew it’s legacy and what belonged to them. Unlike many groups of the time, this was no peace, love and understanding hippie lovefest. Mother’s Finest were unabashedly Black and laid claim to rock as their heritage.

And this album fit perfectly within 70s album rock. Tracks like “My Baby” had a rock aesthetic of driving lead guitars, piano flourishes and of course Joyce’s souring vocals accented with backing harmonies. “Give You All the Love (Inside of Me)” drew straight from 60s rock jams but the instrument was the vocal that rode over the groove. Whereas the previous album merely seemed to test the waters, the second was a no holds barred rock affair, more in line with Black Sabbath than the Rolling Stones.

Whether due to controversy, the quality of the album or a combination of both factors, this seemed to be the album that finally brought Mother’s Finest the attention they needed. The next three albums, Another Mother Further from 1977, Mother Factor from 1978 and Mother’s Finest Live from 1979, all went gold. It is unclear (at least to me at this time) how much radio play they received from any outlet, but they did tour with the likes of Black Sabbath, The Who, Aerosmith, AC/DC and Ted Nugent (ewww) while supporting these albums.

Another Mother Further also includes some of the group’s most well known tracks including the somewhat anomalous track “Dis Go Dis Way, Dis Go Dat Way,” a dance track preceding The Rolling Stones’ “Miss You” and Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” by a year. Not surprising the group unironically embraced the popularity of disco at the time. Interestingly, this track appeared on the same album as a rock-charged cover of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles “Mickey’s Monkey.”

The album also included something that doesn’t seem to appear on any other Mother’s Finest album since the first 1972 outing — a ballad. “Thank You for the Love” is a standout not simply because it is a slow love song amidst hard rocking anthems like “Baby Love,” but also because it is as close to R&B as any track the group had done up to that point. In fact, Another Mother Further showed the group could play anything beyond hard rock and probably went a long way toward helping the group find its staying power.

However, an event in 1978 is possibly most responsible for the following Mother’s Finest enjoys in countries all over Europe to this day. In 1978, they appeared at Rockpalast, a concert series that took place in Essen that broadcast in different countries all over the continent. Apparently, their show has become the stuff of legend but many people outside of Europe would never see it until around 2003 when it was finally released on DVD, which also included a return performance from that year.

The group would become a part of R&B canon with 1978’s Mother Factor for a different reason. The ballad “Love Changes” appeared and eventually became a bigger hit when it was covered in the 80s as a duet by producer, singer and songwriter Kashief and R&B songstress Mel’isa Morgan. Furthermore, the album was a funkier outing with lead track “Can’t Fight the Feeling” opening the album, followed with the even funkier “Tell Me.” The album showed some of the versatility that colored the debut and was decidedly mellower than its predecessors with its emphasis on funk rather than rock guitar.

Maybe they missed the heavier sounds because 1981 saw the release of Iron Age, the group’s heaviest album at the time, announced with the guitar driven “Movin’ On.” But after the release of its next effort, One Mother to Another, the group went on hiatus. In an interview, Joyce explains, “Yeah we did [officially disband]. We hit a wall with Iron Age. You know, because the world still wasn’t quite ready for a multi-racial/ predominantly black rock band. They were’nt [sic] having it. It was difficult to find a place where there was a foundation for people to accept the band. We played everywhere with everybody — as an audience band we were accepted way up there in the hemisphere. When it came to the bureaucracy of the industry, they were not ready to change the coarse [sic] of how they did things in order to make this group happen.”

Joyce took time to work on her solo albums, Lookin’ for Trouble (1984) and Wanna Play Your Game! (1985). Despite her ability to hold a rock audience, Joyce opted for a direction more in line with R&B, funk and the electronic synth pop that made the 80s distinctly the 80s. In fact, her duet with Jeffrey Osborne, “The Last Time I Made Love,” became a Top 40 hit. She also recorded “Didn’t I Tell You?” for the soundtrack to quintessential 80s flick The Breakfast Club. Interestingly, she wanted to work with Phil Collins on the album that she says was not a good album but not a bad one, just one that “set no new tones.” A much different scene from 1981 when she performed with Molly Hatchet.

This was also the era that ended the classic lineup in which Barry “B.B. Queen” Borden had replaced Daniels on drums. He remained in the group until around 1989 when the group reformed to record its next album If Looks Could Kill, a very 80s R&B-centered album, before releasing a second live album, Subluxation (1990). At this point, Glen’s son Dion replaced Borden, which ended the group’s classic lineup. It would be this incarnation that saw Mother’s Finest pushing buttons once again with the provocatively named album Black Radio Won’t Play This Record in 1992. Nearly 20 years and the group found itself fighting the same battles of race and genre.

Not surprisingly, the group spent much of the next decade and beyond touring beginning with a world tour in 1993. By this time, the lineup had added John “Red Devil” Hayes (replacing Gary) and Ace Baker on keyboards. The next incarnation remained fairly consistent with Kerry “Lovingood” Denton on drums for the 2004 lineup and Johnetta “JJ” Johnson on percussion and backing vocals. However, by 2014, Dion was back on drums.

Mother’s Finest did more studio albums since Black Radio Won’t Play This Record. In 2003, Meta-Funk’n Physical put them in the same era as groups they probably influenced including Straight Line Stitch and Skunk Anansie. In 2015, the group released Goody 2 Shoes & the Filthy Beasts. And of course, like all legendary bands, there are a some known bootlegs and live albums.

Joyce says, “I’ve been around for a while, the only somebody that I can relate to as an artist is Tina Turner. She’s the only Africian-American sister that’s made any ground. The lady sold her millon units just in Germany alone, which was a huge market for Mother’s Finest too. Mother’s Finest has it’s sound so maybe it’s time for me to do a little solo record because we don’t want to change MF’s sound, right? So I do. I have plans. I’m already about eight or nine songs deep in our solo prject that I have been trying to finish for the last four years. I call it my “Funk Metal Rock Soul Diva” album. It’s going to be heavy. It is heavy but it’s sexy, it’s exotic. Just because it’s got heavy, heavy guitar doesn’t mean it’s gonna be a demonic type thing. This is just bringing the world together like MF brings the world together, so you got great vocals, great harmonies, the lullabies are great, the melodies are great. I’ve taken my time with this. I’ve done all the work, all the harmonies, everything.”

These days, Joyce still rocks the stage at age 68. She sports a blond twist out and continues to put in the work as her contemporary Tina Turner did well into her 70s. She is a reminder that Black women belong in rock as its foremothers and can hold that stage as long as they want:

“There was no architectural thing. Like this…we’re gonna do this move, we’re gonna make this move. This is Wyzard and Mo and Glenn and Michael and BB and Joyce. This is what happened when we got in a room and we created. We were free to do that, we respected one another, we relied on one another and this is what happened.”

*Note: videos and images appear on Wordpress article. Apologies they did not transfer here.


Originally published at cornerstorepress.wordpress.com on December 15, 2016.

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