Miles Davis is a difficult man to like. He was parsimonious when it came to sharing credit on his compositions and abusive to his wives. Worse, he felt obliged to brag about it. But he was also a jazz genius, a would-be boxer with sickle-cell anemia and, late in his life, diabetes; a man who’d storm onstage for a concert against his doctor’s advice while he was fighting pneumonia.
That being said, civil rights did seem to be something he cared for. In 1985 South Africa was very much on Little Steven Van Zandt’s mind, particularly the resort Sun City, which was planted right in the middle of one of the desolate bantustans imposed on the native South Africans by white Afrikaners. Ronald Reagan’s policy as President was a thing called ‘constructive engagement’, a double-speak term that amounted to encouraging business investment in South Africa in the hope that this would change their racist policies.
Little Steven had a different vision. Recall that this was a time in the 1980’s when large charitable events involving large collectives of pop artists had briefly become the norm. Farm Aid was just around the corner in the U.S., and continues to this day. Live Aid, “We Are the World” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” had all brought awareness of the drought and starvation of Ethiopians. But the pop response to the Ethiopian crisis was largely apolitical; it didn’t address the conflicts that had brought this famine on the Ethiopian people.
The Sun City project was different. It had to be. If there was to be change, you had to address the root of the problem, which was the government-sanctioned program of Apartheid. Like all these projects Sun City did not lack for enthusiastic volunteers. And from the first day, producer Arthur Baker and Little Steven thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be wild to get Miles Davis to play trumpet over this drum log”, on the demo record?
As it happened, Miles’ sound man had also been Little Steven’s sound man on one of his tours. the job of contacting Miles fell to Danny Schecter, a journalist who early on became involved with the project. Now honestly, Miles Davis was a hard man to get ahold of, but when Schecter made the call, the immediate response was, “When do you want me there?”
On the big day Miles laid down his part over two takes, which would soon form the bedrock of what would become the jazz session for the album. Towards the end of the first take, he did the kind of unexpected thing he was famous for. In a rasp barely above a whisper he muttered, “You can’t go in there, you’re the wrong color.”
This was not planned; it was all just improvisation on Miles’ part. Baker and the others thought at first he was talking about the cameraman who was there to film all the project’s sessions. They soon realized Miles was talking about South Africa, so baker said, “Keep those tapes rolling.”
At this point recording technology had advanced to the point where it wasn’t really necessary for every artist to perform their part in the studio all at the same time. It was possible to record all the different parts and mix them all together later into a coherent track. That’s how “The Struggle Continues” came together, and how through electronic means the Miles Davis Quintet was reunited.
Keyboardist Herbie Hancock had cut his teeth with Miles’ Quintet in the mid-60’s and had made quite a name for himself as the leader of his own group the Headhunters in 1973. More recently he’d experimented with dance and funk, most especially with his 1983 single “Rockit”. He would be the first artist to play behind Miles’ track, and he would blow everyone’s mind with the seven-minute solo he laid down.
One problem. Little Steven knew Hancock’s work was great, but it wasn’t going to work with Miles’ stuff. Luck was with them. In a few weeks Hancock would be performing at the Village Gate in New York with bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams, the other members of Miles’ classic Quintet. The Sun City crew assembled at M & I Recording, where Williams had been recording his latest album, there to overdub their parts onto Miles’.
Keyboardist Richard Scher and Nigerian drummer Sonny Okusons had already contributed their parts. A friend of Little Steven had brought his three-year-old son to these sessions. As the musicians were leaving Steven asked, “Well, Sam, what do you think?”
“It needs some guitar,” Sam replied.
Out of the mouth of babes. The next day the great Stanley Jordan added his guitar.
Now on to the track itself. I’m not a jazz expert, I can only give you my best with my pallid ear, but here goes. A slow fade in on the horn brings you to those furious rolling drums. The trumpet sounds an urgent call to action. Two minutes in comes Herbie Hancock’s part, and he’s on fire. Underlying the entire track is a solid bass by Carter and then at four 1/2 minutes we hear Miles’ accusation: “You can’t go in there, you’re the wrong color.”
Sun City was released on December 7, 1985. I’d just like to note that Nelson Mandela was released from prison less than five years later on February 11, 1990. Apartheid died a well-deserved death by 1994. I’d like to think Little Steven and all the artist involved in Sun City did their part to make that happen.
“The scariest encounter of the Sun City project had to be Miles Davis,” recalled Steven Van Zandt. “I wrote the intro for him to play… He’s just not friendly. He makes Lou Reed look like a pussycat… He came in, sat down and I played him the ‘Silver and Gold’ tape. He’s sitting next to me, and he talks real low and slow, and right in my ear: ‘Hey man, do you want me to fucking play or what?’ So he does his take, and I asked him to redo it with the mute on. I went and reassembled his old quintetwith Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums.”
[wikipedia entry, Sun City]