First, there was the gold record. Vernon Reid had spent nearly six years’ slamming his head against a brick wall of indifference, paying exorbitant dues as he fought for his inalienable right to rock. So when he was finally handed a plaque commemorating a half-million sales of Living Colour’s first album, Vivid, Reid – the band’s headstrong founder and virtuoso guitarist – almost broke down and cried.
“I was thinking about all the things I’d been through to get this,” Reid says a little sheepishly, recalling the postshow ceremony at the Palace, in Los Angeles, back in February 1989. “Breaking up with girlfriends, guys in the band leaving – all of that. I was really close to tears.”
Then there was the time Casey Kasem nearly sent Reid into hysterics. “I was in a hotel room in Florida, and I heard Casey Kasem come on the radio and talk about us on American Top Forty,” Reid says. “That was mind-blowing, especially when you think about where we’re coming from.”
But Reid insists that as a measure of success – of the true impact and import of Living Colour’s hard-fought black-rock crusade and that of the Black Rock Coalition, the black-music-activist group that Reid cofounded in 1985 – nothing beats the imperial seal of approval that he, singer Corey Glover, bassist Muzz Skillings and drummer Will Calhoun received last fall from the self-professed “architect of rock & roll” and black-rock daddy of ’em all, Little Richard. The band, then doing opening-act honors on the Rolling Stones’ Steel Wheels tour, was about to drive out of the Los Angeles Coliseum after finishing its set when Richard, who was backstage, walked up and introduced himself with characteristic flamboyance: “Hi! I’m one of those glamour boys you been singin’ about!”
“That was heavy,” Reid says, laughing. “We were surprised that he even knew us.”
The next day, Richard invited Living Colour up to his room at the Hyatt on Sunset Boulevard for a chat. For the band, though, it was more like a private audience with the pope. Even now, the band members are reluctant to divulge the specific nature of their conversation. Glover says simply, “We were so awe-struck. We were catatonic.”
Richard himself is anything but, especially on the subject of Living Colour. “I was telling them to make sure they sign all the checks,” he says, cackling with glee. “And to play from the heart, which they do. And to give your all. If you don’t give your all, you don’t give nothing, and Living Colour does give their all.
“They play with feeling and conviction,” continues Richard, who contributed a dynamite guest rap to the sidesplitting raver “Elvis Is Dead” on Living Colour’s new album, Time’s Up. “Do you understand me? They are not just saying words to be saying them. I think black people need to support them as well as white people, to realize the contribution that they are making at this time. The same thing that started in the Fifties with me, they are taking it through the Nineties. And God bless their souls. They are keeping it alive.”
“You talk about moments,” says Reid. “That was the moment. Hendrix played in Little Richard’s band. He was the cat who did ‘Good Golly Miss Molly,’ who turned concerts into riots. Having Little Richard say, ‘You guys are doing the right thing’ – if I needed validation, that’s it. Everything else really don’t mean shit.”
An early gig?” Vernon Reid toys pensively with his chopsticks in a Japanese restaurant in New York City’s East Village and casts his mind back to the bad old days of the mid-Eighties – before gold records and Casey Kasem, when Living Colour was playing the 2:00 a.m. cleanup slot at CBGB and Reid’s dream of a black rock band with sociopolitical heart and jazz-funk flair was getting a universal thumbs-down in record-company A&R offices all over town.
“Okay, this is before the current lineup,” Reid says. “We were at Seventh Avenue South [a defunct jazz club], and that night was so bad that the night manager came up to me and said, “You guys had so few people here that if I really wanted to make an issue of it, you owe me money. Ha, ha, ha!’ The sound of his laughing echoing down the stairs as he walked away – man, that was a really low ebb.
“I had a vision, though,” Reid continues. “I believed in the music, and I always believed that if it got the chance to get out there, that people would like it. I didn’t put a number on it, though. Because my scale of things was all very small.” For example, Reid looked up to the venerable avant-jazz group the Art Ensemble of Chicago. “They were self-contained, and they’d managed to keep that going,” he says. “To me, that was success.”
What’s happened to Reid, 32, and the other members of Living Colour over the past three years isn’t just success, it’s sweet justice. Originally given a lukewarm welcome by a music industry that widely believed that a black rock & roll band’s album was a contradiction in terms, Living Colour’s 1988 Epic debut, Vivid, eventually sold 2 million copies worldwide, mostly on the strength of the band’s incendiary live shows and heavy MTV video play. The album yielded two Top Forty singles, “Cult of Personality” and “Glamour Boys.” “Cult” won a Grammy for best hard-rock performance, and the band also walked away with an armful of statuettes at the 1989 MTV Video Music Awards, including Best New Artist.