Lost Notes S2 Bonus: Power to the People

Left to right: James Mott, Michael Torrance, and Clark Bailey. Photo by Ducho Dennis, courtesy of It's About Time Archives.

The new season of Lost Notes will be here in September. Meantime, this summer, we’re sharing a couple of bonus episodes. 

Fifty years ago, an unlikely musical group evolved out of the Oakland chapter of the Black Panther Party. They were called The Lumpen. And although they quickly gained a following for their air-tight funk, they were always meant to be much more than mere entertainment.

Where other bands of their era were content to coast on good vibes, the Lumpen were out to preach a message of revolution in places where that message wasn’t always wanted. They were a musical cadre whose mission was to spread the seed of social revolution, armed with funk, attitude, and matching outfits.

In this special bonus episode of KCRW’s music documentary series, Lost Notes, producer Peter Gilstrap speaks with former members of the Lumpen, as well as affiliated members of the Black Panther Party. These exclusive interviews include conversations with Michael Torrence, Saturu Ned, Emory Douglas, and Billy Jennings . It's the story of the rise and fall of an unlikely R&B group born out of social upheaval.

Michael Torrence today. Photo by Peter Gilstrap.

Read the full transcript below:

MICHAEL TORRENCE: We were definitely as hardcore as anybody cause we dropped everything to come. Okay? We left everything to come. We didn’t join to sing. We joined to be revolutionaries. We joined to make the revolution. We joined…to be Panthers!

In 1973, Michael Torrence is a 22-year-old Black Panther. He’s dedicated himself to the cause and obeyed every command. He’s a true soldier.

But five years of complete devotion to the Panthers has taken a toll. Now, Torrance is desperate to focus on his personal life, just for a while.

But to do this, he needs to get permission, and it's got to come from the top.   

Torrence shows up at the Lamp Post — it’s a bar in West Oakland — where Panther leader Bobby Seale is having a birthday party. The two men huddle in a corner and talk for a while, but it’s all good. Seale gives Torrence his blessing for some time off. 

Torrance is relieved … but as he’s making his way out of the bar, someone tells him that Huey Newton wants to see him. And he wants to see him now.

Newton is Seale’s comrade and co-founder of the Panthers. 

Seale gives Torrence his blessing for some time off. Torrance is relieved … but as he’s making his way out of the bar, someone tells him that Newton wants to see him. And he wants to see him now. 

For years, Newton has been a strong and charismatic leader. But recently his moods have been unstable. Tonight, for whatever reason, he’s agitated.  

Torrence is ushered into a back room. And there, flanked by a couple enforcers, is Newton.   

MICHAEL TORRENCE: And he says, “Comrade, I hear you want to leave us. Well, do you want to leave bad enough to die? Do you really want to leave bad enough to die?” I don’t understand the question. And [Newton’s associate] June takes a gun and puts it to my head. Oh no, comrade, I don’t want to die. He say, “Okay. So this is what’s going to happen, you say…” But comrade! “Would you tell this brother not to talk when I’m talking?” And so comrade give me a boot to the mouth. I stand corrected. “Okay then. So. You say, all power to the people.” All power to the people.

So, Michael Torrance has just been persuaded to rethink his request for some time off. And a pistol to the head is hard to argue with. 

Torrence’s five years in the Panthers have been intense. It’s been a rollercoaster life of extremes. Many times he’s picked up a gun.

But he’s also picked up a microphone.  

Torrance did not join the Panthers to sing. But the movement’s Minister of Culture gave him and three other young soldiers a special assignment for the cause. It was a musical cadre whose mission was to spread the seed of social revolution through the Trojan Horse of funk and soul.

It was an R&B group called the Lumpen.

The Lumpen’s music is explosive. The band is powerful, and so is the message. 

The Lumpen work non-stop for the cause, killing it wherever they perform: San Francisco, LA, New York, Philly, and the Midwest.

But it only lasts 11 months. Then things in the Black Panther Party begin to implode.

What you’re about to hear is the story of the rise and fall of an unlikely R&B group born out of social upheaval. But why did the Black Panthers even need a musical act? Why did they need a band whose militant agenda would put them up against the forces of prejudice and law and order with every downbeat? Thing is, the  Lumpen weren’t out to make hit records, they were out to change American culture. 

It’s a journey unlike that of any other band.

And Michael Torrence was at the center of it. 

Saturu Ned (aka James Mott) today. Photo by Peter Gilstrap.

In 1966, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale co-found the Black Panther Party. They’re both students at Merritt Community College in Oakland. 

Within a few years, the Party offers educational programs, food service, free medical care, and drug rehab to the Black community. And the Panthers lead the fight against rampant police brutality.

By the end of the ‘60s, change is in the air, and the Bay Area is ground zero.

MICHAEL TORRENCE: San Francisco at that time, we were in the Fillmore District. It was very high-tension. Police were riding, you know, four or five deep. If you were out selling your papers they would come and harass you, snatch your papers, maybe arrest you, threaten you. But at the same time there was a lot of energy. That’s the best thing about it. You could really feel the energy, particularly among younger people, that we felt we could really make a change. Not only could we make a change, we were going to make a change. There was this commitment to die if necessary.

Those “papers” are  the weekly bible of party information, a publication called The Black Panther. And the Howard Quinn Printing Company on Alabama Street is where the Lumpen story begins.  

SATURU NED: Wednesday night was distribution night, where we would get out the paper. Everybody would come.

That’s James Mott, now known as Saturu Ned. In 1970, he’s newly arrived from the Sacramento chapter.

All the future members of the Lumpen are in attendance that Wednesday night: Torrence, Mott, William Calhoun, and Clark “Santa Rita” Bailey. They all have musical backgrounds ranging from church choirs to pro-level experience, but when they meet, they’re just loyal young soldiers taking orders along with everybody else.

SATURU NED: It was a community gathering in Fillmore. I want you to imagine, at that time, Fillmore is not like it is now, changed, and the gentrification. It was, Fillmore.

MICHAEL TORRENCE: And on those distribution nights when various chapters would all come together from the Bay Area to get the paper out, we would sing.  

SATURU NED: And we would sing at that point just doo-wop songs. So one night I went over there and the three of us sang and I joined in. And we started harmonizing. We just blended in so cool!

MICHAEL TORRENCE: And then what we began to do was we’d just put other words to the popular songs. Because we would be singing what we called revolutionary songs to encourage us in the struggle. In terms of the Lumpen, it kinda grew out of that. Just us singing together. Part of, I guess, the tradition of just singin’ while you work.

  It’s a typical Wednesday. The four Panthers are at the print shop, stacking and racking and harmonizing into the night. But this time, there’s someone listening: Emory Douglas, the party’s Minister of Culture.

Billy Jennings today. Photo by Peter Gilstrap.

SATURU NED: So after I got back to Central, Emory comes in and says, “Hey brother, Comrade James, you know, everybody relates to music.” I say, yeah Emory, they do.  He says, “You guys sound good. We could create a group and the group could be part of the Ministry of Culture, where we could be able to get that message out in the music.”

EMORY DOUGLAS: Oh yeah, well that was from when I first heard them.

Emory Douglas is the brilliant style guru and visual artist whose iconic posters and flyers helped brand the movement.  

EMORY DOUGLAS: I just would make suggestions, possibly adding some social justice context to the lyrics.

At this point, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton are both behind bars. So Douglas approaches Panthers Chief of Staff David Hilliard. He understands the value of spreading the word through music, and he greenlights the project. He also gives the group a name: The Lumpen.  

It’s a play on Karl Marx’s idea of the lumpenproletariat : the lower class that would rise up to crush the capitalist power structure.

BILLY JENNINGS: At the time the party was coming about, political education, political awareness, was growing tremendously.

Billy Jennings is a former Panther and the party’s long time historian. He was tight with the Lumpen members fifty years ago, and still is to this day.

BILLY JENNINGS: In 1968, James Brown put out a song that really changed everything, because black people, prior to that time, referred to themselves as Negro. You know? James Brown came out and said, we’re black and we’re proud. And once that record come out, you could never go back and say you’re a Negro. You could never go back! James Brown couldn’t have did that in ‘68 if there wasn’t a group like the Black Panther Party that had set up a foundation of knowledge already.

MICHAEL TORRENCE: Well, Emory was the Minister of Culture, so recognizing the role of music historically in black people’s struggle and part of our culture period, he began to say, we can do something with this! You guys sound decent together anyway, because we just clicked like that. And so he encouraged us to put something together.

SATURU NED: It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t like, [yawning] Okay guys, we’re starting at nine. Your day was never ending. If you were able to get some time…it’s like, hey look, we got 45 minutes to rehearse!  

MICHAEL TORRENCE: Whatever rehearsal we would do we would have to do after whatever other assignments or duties we had. So we had to go sell the papers, we had to do the breakfast program, we’d have to do the garbage run, we’d have to do security. We’d have to do whatever it is that any other Panther would do.

From the Panthers’ perspective, The Lumpen was not about show business. It was about contributing to the revolution.

MICHAEL TORRENCE: As a matter of fact, for us it was a point of pride, to prove that we were 100% Panthers. Singing for us was just political work. And if they said the next day, okay, that’s it. Fine. Cause we didn’t join for that. If I was really about that, I could have been trying to do it out there in the world. I could have been out there trying to get paid. We never got paid, it was just, if this is how we can be helpful, if this is how we can be useful, if this will advance the cause, this is what we’ll do. But it was always, we follow orders.

And now, only a few months since they were harmonizing to the oldies at the printing plant, their orders are to get onstage and get to work. Educate the people, spread the word, and earn money for the party.

The Lumpen assemble a six-piece interracial backing band from local players sympathetic to the cause. They’re called the Freedom Messengers.

By the summer of 1970, the group is performing at rallies, community gatherings and Panther events around the Bay Area.

And they’re good. They’re tight. It’s a professional show on par with almost any act. They’ve got the energy of James Brown, and the dance moves and harmonies of the Temptations. But the lyrics are all about what the Panthers are all about.

MICHAEL TORRENCE: And Bobby Seale had just been arrested in New Haven, so the first thing we put together was “Bobby Must Be Set Free.”

That song, titled “Free Bobby Now,” was recorded at a studio in San Jose in August 1970.

Bill Calhoun, the group’s songwriter, thought the session was intended to be a demo. But the Panthers decided to release the single  as-is, putting another one of Calhoun’s songs, “No More,” on the flip side.

The record was released on the Panthers’ own Seize the Time label, with credit to Black Panther Party Productions. It was promoted in the Party newspaper, and sold at live shows and Panther events. Any profits were funneled back into the party.   

The Lumpen took the single around to Bay Area radio stations, but the lyrics were considered too provocative for airplay. 

RICKEY VINCENT: They took the craft seriously.

That’s Rickey Vincent. He’s the author of “Party Time: The Inside Story of the Black Panthers’ Band and How Black Power Transformed Soul Music.” It’s a subject he knows well. His mother was an early Panther.

RICKEY VINCENT: When they did “People Get Ready” by Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, they hit those notes that you had to hit that show respect for those aspirations that were in that song in 1964, ’65. The Lumpen flipped the lyrics, obviously. Instead of saying “People get ready there’s a train a’comin’,” they said, “People get ready, the revolution’s come, you don’t need a ticket, you need a loaded gun.” And it was like, wait a minute, that’s soul music the way it’s supposed to be sung, but those are not lyrics the way we’ve heard them before  

The Lumpen start headlining their own shows. Their single isn’t getting radio play — ”Free Bobby Now”  is considered too controversial — but word of mouth and constant promotion in the Panther newspaper are drawing crowds. They’re gigging weekly, doing benefits and playing college campuses up and down the West Coast.

And when they’re not headlining, they’re on bills with the Grateful Dead, Carla Thomas, and Curtis Mayfield  

And not only is the music on fire, but the live show takes choreography to a whole ‘nother level.

MICHAEL TORRENCE: Non-stop. Once we hit the stage, non-stop. Even mixed in a dance routine where we would act out, brothers on the block playing dice, and James Mott would be a cop. He’d come and harass one and he’d be beating this brother up and—oh, it was Funky Broadway—and he’d be beating him with a club and I’m watching it and then I’d finally get disgusted and say, I’m not going to take it anymore,” and I’d jump on the cop and Clark and I together,  we’d beat the cop down. So it wasn’t just the singing, it was the choreography. The whole experience was something they hadn’t seen before. They’d seen it, but they hadn’t seen it like that.

In the winter of 1970, the band hits the road for a tour of the Midwest and east coast. The crowds are enthusiastic. But tension is in the air.

DAVID LEVINSON: And I’ll never forget this…  

David Levinson is the Freedom Messengers’ 19-year-old sax player. After a show at the University of Minnesota, a snowstorm is kicking in. The band is packing up their gear when they’re approached by members of the Black Student Union.

DAVID LEVINSON: They invited the Lumpen and the black members of the band to stay with them, but they didn’t want the white members of the band, of which there were two of us.  

SATURU NED: These guys from the student group come out and they look like a military junta, got on the black berets and the black boots. I’m like, what are you guys doing? Oh, uh, who are those white guys? Excuse me? They’re a part of the Lumpen band. Well, they can’t stay! We told’em, look you motherfuckers, we’re not staying if they’re not staying. I said, this is a people’s revolution and these are our brothers that we stand behind.

DAVID LEVINSON: That’s just a small example of the kind of camaraderie and unity we felt, so there never was any racism promoted for or practiced by the Black Panther Party at all.

The Lumpen are also in the cross hairs of the cops wherever they go. Late one night after a college show in New Jersey, the police follow the band down an empty road heading out of town.

SATURU NED: They made us get out the car. They knew who we were and it was pitch dark where they pulled us over, we were like, this is it. The gon’ kill us. There was a general rule back then, go to a lighted area. What they did was, one car got in front of us, slowed down. The other one got right behind us. And they waited for that real dark area to pull us over—this is part of the intimidation, right? There were four of’em. They was grinnin’. Sing for us! So we started singing—what was that song—[SINGS] “As we stroll along together…” And who are these guys in the back!? They made’em unload all he band equipment. Okay, you can put it back in again. They was messing with them. We’re gonna still kill you fuckers. This’s the kind of language they’d tell us, right? They would harass us to let us know, we watching you. We know who you are.

But the Lumpen are battling another force besides the authorities. And it’s coming from within the party.

MICHAEL TORRENCE: There were people in the party, some in leadership, some in the rank and file that said, yeah, these guys think they’re something special.

BILLY JENNINGS: If it wasn’t for Emory, I don’t think the Lumpen would have came about because Emory is the one who had the juice. And there was people that wasn’t into the Lumpen. They didn’t think revolutionaries should be doing that kind of thing. But they were older people too , there weren’t R&B people, they were blues people, and during that time there was a difference. Most of the leadership was southern guys. Southern guys like blues. We are young guys, we like R&B. So that’s why they never really got any more higher than they were because they were always related to as Panthers first.

PETER GILSTRAP: ‘Cause Eldridge was still promoting violence, right?

MICHAEL TORRENCE: Right. Huey and Bobby were moving toward a survival program. Even we had to change because all of our original songs was about picking up the gun. There was some other things going on internally, in terms of some of the things being done by Huey that I didn’t agree with, I didn’t join for. And it wasn’t about the police. That was the thing that was bad about it. I was never scared about the police. It’s a bad thing when you get more concerned about the people that you work with than you do with the cops.

As the atmosphere within the Party becomes more desperate, interest in the group from those in power dwindles to nothing. The Lumpen members are re-assigned. They’re taken off R&B duty and put on security detail. Their days as a group are numbered.

EMORY DOUGLAS: No, it wasn’t justified, it could have been worked out, but you know we had people who wanted to exercise their position as far as being in charge. All those things played into it, petty spitefulness. All that.

MICHAEL TORRENCE: We never thought of ourselves as anything other than Panthers. And the Lumpen was a cadre, a unit for a cultural purpose. We loved it, we enjoyed it, but in the big picture, it’s just another assignment. And so when the situation and circumstances change, then you move on to the next assignment. And we didn’t really have time to mourn about it. Because that’s exactly what happened.

On May 23, 1971, in Sacramento, the Lumpen play their last gig. A few days later, Bill Calhoun decides to leave the party. He was the group’s songwriter. 

  So only 11 months after it began, the band is done. 

But the Panther Party is still Michael Torrence’s life. It’s all he’s known since he was a teenager.

MICHAEL TORRENCE: I was loyal to it. I had committed my life to it, I had every intention, as far as I was concerned at that point, that that was going to be my life.

Which brings us back to that night in 1973 at a bar in West Oakland. The night Torrence talked to Bobby Seale and asked for some time off from the Panthers. 

MICHAEL TORRENCE: So anyway, I go to Bobby at his birthday party at the Lamp Post and I said, well Chairman, I have a daughter. She needs some support. Plus, I’m having these little anxiety attacks that’s affecting my work, it’s affecting my effectiveness. I don’t wanna quit, I don’t wanna leave, but I need some time. Get myself back together, and then I’m coming back. I’m coming back. And Bobby was real cool with me on it, you know. And I’m crying. I’m shedding tears.

Torrence is leaving the bar when Huey Newton calls him back upstairs. He says the Party will contribute $50 a month for Torrence’s daughter’s support. Then Newton puts a gun to Torrence’s head and says this...

MICHAEL TORRENCE: Okay then. We send fifty dollars, but you say, “all power to the people.” All power to the people. So I stuck around. And about six months later, one of the guys from Chicago comes by. Says, “You still wanna go? Cause we can’t afford to pay for your kid no more. So you can go, you can leave now.” Ok. Well, all right then. Power to the people now.

And that’s it. Michael Torrence is out of the Black Panthers.

MICHAEL TORRENCE: And it was traumatic. What was traumatic for me was leaving. What was traumatic was what it had become. 

PETER GILSTRAP: Did you feel betrayed?

MICHAEL TORRENCE: YES! Absolutely. Betrayed, angry, bitter, frustrated. Yes. It took me a while to get back to what they call livin’ in the world. Cause the Party was my world. You ask me what I was, I was a Panther. That’s what I was and who I was. And then to lose that...and try and adjust to out being here, and get a job. What am I gonna put on my resume? Where you been the last five years?!

But Torrence did have something on his resume that worked outside of the revolution: The Lumpen. It got him a job.

Torrence wound up singing behind Marvin Gaye, and he appeared on the singer’s 1974 album, “Marvin Gaye Live!” It was recorded just a few miles away from where the Lumpen recorded their own live album just four years earlier, in Oakland.

Torrence went on to write, produce, and sing for other artists for the rest of the 1970s.

Though he parted ways with the Panthers almost 50 years ago, it’s still part of him.

MICHAEL TORRENCE: As far as the Black Panther Party’s concerned, I don’t regret anything. I was with people; these things last a lifetime, like me and Calhoun and James and some of the other ones…and I wouldn’t take that back for anything. Did we make some mistakes? Yeah. But at the time, for what it was, it was right on time. I was just glad to be a part of it. Like I said, we never did it to get famous, we never did it to get rich. We did it because we really wanted to do something for our people, and make a change.