By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
It was sometime around 1977, Southern soul singer Millie Jackson recalls, when she realized she had "a reputation that preceded me."
"I was booked to appear on The Merv Griffin Show, and everybody was runnin' around lookin' scared," she remembers. "I came on to sing Merle Haggard's 'If You're Not Back in Love By Monday,' which was the second single off Feelin' Bitchy. Merv kept looking at the record, sayin', 'Uh, uh, can we say the title on TV?', real nervous and smilin' too much. Charlie Pride was another guest, and while I was singin', he kept lookin' over there like, 'Hey, hey! That's my song! Somebody stop her!'" (Pride had covered the tune as well.)
"Well, by the time I went over to the couch to talk, there was a countdown to the end of the show," she chortles. "They did not want me to talk. Merv was like, 'Uh, uh, so this is your new album, Millie?' and then he'd say, 'Yes, this is your new album.' He was answering every question he asked. I never got a chance to open my mouth."
By the time of that appearance, a reputation for foul-mouthed irreverence and political controversy had stuck to Jackson as steadfastly as one of the "Warning: Adult Content" stickers that inevitably accompanied her records. Since the release of her definitive soul "concept" album Caught Up in 1974, the Georgia native had been selling records and stirring ire, mostly within the black community. The Rev. Jesse Jackson tried to warn potential listeners away from her recordings and live shows, where she'd segue into long, obscenity-spiked tirades about religious hypocrisy, black male sloth, black female vanity and the sexual comedy and tragedy that marked their relationships. Anti-apartheid activists decried her South African appearances, despite the fact her contract stipulated she'd only perform for integrated audiences. Her unpopular political and cultural views, of course, inflamed leaders mostly within the black community; in the larger world, it was her fondness for words such as "shit" and "motherfucker" that limited her appearances on TV and radio.
"They didn't realize I could talk for three hours without saying a curse word," she said. "So that's what I'm doin' now, every week."
On weekday afternoons, The Millie Jackson Show on Soul 73 KKDA has Jackson ensconced inside the demo studio in her Atlanta home's basement, spinning new and classic R&B from her own collection (including a liberal dose of her own tunes), making brief sponsor announcements, but mostly "acting the fool" with co-hosts Trish Hodge, Munchie and traffic man Dubya B, all broadcasting from Dallas. They laugh over bizarre news tidbits, occasionally tackle hot-button subjects like the Christian church's treatment of gays and lesbians (Jackson is--surprise!--an outspoken advocate for gay and lesbian issues, oftentimes baiting the strangely hostile Hodge when she raises such topics), and make extensive fun of Michael Jackson's entire clan as well as gun-toting millionaire hip-hop performers. Every now and again, there is raucous coarseness--a disagreement over whether you should or shouldn't look before you flush the toilet--and innuendo--all kinds of leering suggestions about a real news report of a moose humping an Ontario car--but no outright cursing or sexual explicitness.
"This is to let the rest of the world know I can resist those seven words you're not supposed to say," Jackson notes. "Except it doesn't have much to do with those seven words. It has everything to do with who's listening and who decides they're 'moral.' This radio station in the Midwest, the DJ played the wrong cut on Eminem's Slim Shady album. Now the government's fining them $17,000. And that DJ didn't even say anything."
This is not Jackson's first foray as a KKDA personality. She'd extensively toured Texas during the late '70s and early '80s and began to acquire close friends in Dallas, including then-promoters Dwayne Carraway (who's currently running for Dallas City Council) and Al Wash. She even briefly considered moving here to escape the "craziness" of her adopted New York City (she chose Atlanta because it was near her stepmother). In 1992, KKDA morning DJ Willis Johnson called and asked if she'd join him on Monday mornings as a co-host. That gig was demanding, but she accepted--she flew into Dallas very early Monday mornings for two years. She had to quit her "Monday madness" to begin a three-year North American tour of Young Man, Older Woman, a loosely plotted revue with dancers, comic vignettes, a drag queen host and, of course, Jackson blasting out ballads and rockers decrying all the bullshit that passes for "communication" between the sexes.
Jackson has always insisted on singing songs her way despite current sales trends, which scores her points for artistic integrity but doesn't always pay career dividends. Her first big chart single, 1973's "Hurts So Good" was a sanctified piece of gut-bucket soul arriving just as that studio-slick pop music democracy known as disco was beginning to dominate the radio. It's a tribute to Jackson's sandpaper-satin delivery that her anachronistic ode to romantic masochism became a hit. The vocals on that tune pretty much locked her into the sensual screams, bellows and moans that were typically regarded as distractions on a dance mix. She never really tried to jump the disco train that brought so many artists of her era to multiplatinum sales from racially diverse audiences. Still, through the second half of the '70s, Jackson sold hundreds of thousands of albums--all of them cut from sessions at Alabama's Muscle Shoals--that asserted her raw-throated style: She'd approach covers as diverse as Bad Company's "Feel Like Making Love" and Kenny Loggins' "This Is It" and make them feel like born-to-be Southern soul scorchers.
But the albums that contained them were spiked with a gimmick that eventually overshadowed the music--the watershed Caught Up and Still Caught Up formalized the between-song "bedroom raps" that became the centerpiece of her reputation. Both albums told of an adulterous relationship from two female viewpoints--the woman who's cheating and the woman being cheated on. Songs like "Leftovers" ("Stop lickin' the jar, girl/Scrapin' the bone" of her man) alternated with her prototypical "The Rap," in which Jackson the adulteress brazenly declares one of the best things about seeing a married man is "when you go to the Laundromat, you don't have to wash nobody's funky drawers but yo' own."
What trailed off into the early '80s were increasingly repetitious song choices paired with premeditated rants about women not getting enough oral sex, unemployed men not getting jobs and hypocritical fans who buy her dirty albums but hide them behind Bach and Beethoven ("Shit y'all don't even know how to pronounce," she declares in her much-loved "Fuck You Symphony," in which that salute is repeated over urgent classical strings; it was an early inspiration to Lil' Kim, who Jackson claims calls her "Mom"). The pinnacle (some say nadir) of her confrontational approach was 1982's Back to the Shit; Jackson appeared on the cover, panties around her ankles, straddling a toilet with a grimacing-grunting expression aimed at the viewer. Onstage and in the studio, Jackson had developed a mock adversarial relationship with audiences, paring her fans down to two key minority demographics--one black, the other white.
"Working-class black women have always bought Millie records," she declares. "And back in the '70s, their men hated it. They [the women] had to hide the shit. Their men was like, 'Don't be bringin' that woman into my house.' Middle-income blacks would buy the music, but they'd be embarrassed about it. They were worse than Iowa whites. A friend of mine operated a record store in a middle-class black neighborhood in Atlanta, and folks'd come in and whisper, 'Do you have Feelin' Bitchy?' real low. He'd be like, 'What?! Say that again!!' You'd think they be buyin' condoms or somethin'."
And who compromises Jackson's white fans, by her estimation?
"Every time some white guy come up to me and say, 'Hey, Millie, when ya next album comin' out?', I always answer back [with another question]," she cackles. "I say, 'How's yo old man doin'?' Gays have always dug what I was tryin' to say. Occasionally, 'cause of them, white women with gay brothers or gay best friends get a hold of my shit and like it."
At age 56, Jackson is the peer of artists such as Gladys Knight and Otis Redding, although she began recording much later than they. She never quite "crossed over," as they did, to be appreciated by mainstream white audiences and critics, but she alternately professes not to care and expresses some frustration with the whole concept as a barometer of success. If she can still pack nightclubs and concert halls around the country, does it matter if they're in largely African-American neighborhoods? Certainly, she won't trip over herself to make bids for white respectability, although she's not loath to snatch up the occasional mainstream exposure that comes along--she stepped in after Tina Turner declined a duet with Elton John on "Act of War," and that 1985 single charted high in England. Right now, Jackson is focused on the audience that made her--KKDA's The Millie Jackson Show finds her reading the schedules from South Dallas clubs, prank-calling Church's Chicken employees and making fun of Jesse Jackson, the lily-white Grammys and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs. White audiences are welcome, but first-time listeners quickly understand their concerns are not paramount here.
Jackson admits dedicating 15 hours a week to on-air chat--not to mention off-air news research, song selection and choosing general themes to keep the banter from straying into babble--consumes her work schedule to the detriment of other projects. It's another example of "me making a promise and painting myself into a corner," she sighs. Musically, homages to Jackson have recently surfaced: She's rapped with Lil' Kim in the studio, making official the debt that the Notorious B.I.G.'s protégé/lover owes Jackson, as do the platinum-profane Missy Elliott and Foxy Brown. Euro-housemaster Etienne de Crecy samples Jackson's "If Loving You is Wrong" and "What Went Wrong Last Night" on his recent album Tempovision. But Jackson herself is temporarily dormant as a recording artist--she's been without a label since the small but prestigious, Atlanta-based Ichiban Records folded two years ago. She's in the process of forming her own (possibly to be called Weird Wreckords), insisting pragmatically: "Major labels do not wanna sign an old lady like me, and if they did, they wouldn't promote me." Jackson goes into the studio on weekends to record tunes for a new album she wants to call--and she's not kidding--Not For Church People. The title came from Jackson's brief conversation at a formal dinner with a woman who obviously disapproved of her career.
"Yeah, they sat me next to the church person," she snickers. "People started asking me, 'Millie, what you gonna call your new album?' And this woman who looked at me like I was crazy when we met said, 'I guess it's not for church people.' I said, 'That's the name of it. You just named it. Not for Church People. She suddenly got real excited. She said, 'A lot of people are gonna buy it if they think it's not for them!'
"I looked at her and I wanted to say, 'Yeah...people like you," Jackson remembers with a howl.