A Book and a Documentary
One Day in December : Celia Sánchez and the Cuban Revolution
By Nancy Stout
Monthly Review Press, 2013
Review by Seth Sandronsky
In the opening pages of a new biography, Alice Walker’s Foreword sets the stage for the poignant portrayal of a person with scant name recognition in North America.Until, that is, the publication of One Day in December. Author Nancy Stout divides the book into four parts: Pilón, Manzanillo, Sierra Maestra, and Havana, Cuba, the main places where Sánchez and scores of other Cubans resisted, eventually toppling the Cuban government and replacing it with a revolutionary regime.
As Fidel Castro and his comrades returned to Cuba from training in Mexico, Sánchez, a doctor’s daughter, used her social status to advance strategy as part of the July 26 movement.
A map on page 20 helps readers orient themselves to key locales. Readers see where Sánchez organized fishing trips and other social events to mobilize opponents of the dictator Batista. Stout credits Sanchez’s successes to two vital qualities—toughness and secretiveness. In this way, she united farmers, doctors, and businesspeople, a remarkable class composition of opposition laboring to overthrow Cuba’s government.
After Castro and the other combatants arrived in Cuba to take up arms against the government, they suffered heavy losses, but survived, in part, due to Sánchez’s efforts to build a support network. She became a “clandestine, living underground using aliases and safe houses.”
Stout draws on extensive oral interviews and archival documents. Sánchez’s letters to Fidel Castro—and his to her—reveal much, such as how she dealt with death of fellow rebels and strategic and tactical maneuvers.
Frank Pais, a leading figure in the revolution (who lost his life in the process), sent selected recruits to Sánchez for training. Later, these recruits joined the armed rebel forces under Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara in the Sierra Maestra mountains.
Stout lays out Sánchez’s essential role, including disciplining guerillas whose actions endangered them and the rebellion. Sánchez was, Stout writes, “essentially the supply officer of the rebel army” who “developed an inter-mountain network of mule delivery teams” and “created a surprisingly large military complex, covering a square mile.”
While small, she was big in impact. Her work with a “women’s network” enabled it to help undermine the Batista government. “It’s a pity Celia never had a turn at being president,” Stout writes. “She was educated for the job, particularly as relates to her knowledge of Cuban history, of medicine, her unwavering commitment to social justice, and her popularity.”
In the final section, Stout lays out problems and solutions of the post-Batista order in Cuba. We discover how Sánchez dealt with these myriad challenges, not the least of which was the regime’s safety and security amid a bipartisan campaign of subversion originating from the White House.
Sánchez helped to improve women’s employment and stood up for the human rights of same-sex Cubans.Stout digs deep into the life and times of Celia Sánchez to broaden the reader’s sense of this woman and the social revolution in Cuba. She was there when it mattered for many, and Cubans’ love for her is proof of that.
Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento (firstname.lastname@example.org).
20 Feet From Stardom: The Unsung Women of Rock and Pop
Review by John Zavesky
Shakespeare noted in Twelfth Night: “Be not afraid of greatness; some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.” The bard’s words certainly prove true with the women portrayed in the excellent documentary film 20 Feet from Stardom. The film had a limited art house screening, but is being released on DVD this fall. The film focuses on the unsung heroes of many rock’n’roll and R&B hit; the female back-up singers, and in the case of a few, the primary vocalist.
Once upon a time in the days of the Brill Building and Top 40 radio, decades before boy bands and Pro-Tools software, the producer was king in the studio. The producer worked with the label’s A&R person to gather material for the artist. Sometimes the producer was the A&R person. Many used back-up singers in their productions. These were largely an anonymous group of women, and occasionally men, who worked with artists ranging from Ray Charles to Glenn Campbell, from the Rolling Stones to George Harrison and Joe Cocker, from the Talking Heads to David Bowie, from Sting to Bruce Springsteen.
This was before labels listed anyone much beyond the artist and producer on the album’s credits. This was when major labels had the system fine tuned to an assembly line of production. If the names Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, Jill Scott, Claudia Lennear, Clydie King, and Lisa Fischer don’t resonate, don’t feel bad. These are just a few of the unsung women who made all the difference in the success of a song. To get an idea of their contributions, try imagining what Elvis’s “Suspicious Minds” would sound like without back-up vocals. Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say” might still swing, but without the Rayletts, it wouldn’t be the same.
This was a time of exploitation and the appropriation of artists and their material. In the case of Darlene Love, producer Phil Spector literally took her vocal tracks, put out a record under the name of “The Crystals” and then got three women to lip-sync the song on American Bandstand, all to the complete ignorance of the artist who was actually singing the song. Love was abused and disabused by Spector over many years. Even when she finally broke away and signed with another label, Love discovered that Spector had purchased her contract and once again controlled her artistic output. Eventually, Love quit the business and ended up cleaning homes of the wealthy.
Love’s story is one of the more extreme cases, but each of the women profiled stood shoulder to shoulder with rock and pop’s superstars only to discover that stardom was elusive. Springsteen wisely observes in the film that, “It’s a long walk from the back by the drummer up to the front.” Claudia Lennear recorded a fine album in 1973, with Allen Toussaint and Jim Dickerson producing. By that time, Top 40 radio was a pale image of its former self and program directors reigned on FM radio. Lennear was black, but her album didn’t fit into the nitch the programers created for “urban music.” Outside of Tina Turner and Aretha, rock radio didn’t play many other black female artists’ material.
If there is a constant aside from sheer unbridled talent, it is that all of these women were survivors. Some, in the case of Lisa Fischer, didn’t mind playing the role of back-up singer. When you hold the gig of backing up the Rolling Stones on every tour since 1989, complaining would be considered bad form. Fischer embraces the anonymity it afforded her as a singer and artist. Others, like Judith Hill, continue to strive toward that microphone at center stage, despite setbacks.
Thankfully, life sometimes offers a second act. Darlene Love was finally inducted into the Rock‘n’Roll Hall of Fame by none other than Bette Midler. She has gone on to have a successful career when most people her age are retired. Merry Clayton and Claudia Lennear have seen their albums of the 1970s re-released. The fact that it has taken nearly 50 years to recognize these women for their talent and contributions is a tragedy. The fact that we get to witness some of this artistry in 20 Feet from Stardom and hear it on their albums again is a joy.
In connection with the film, Columbia Legacy has released The Best of Merry Clayton. For any doubters about Clayton’s contribution to probably the best song the Stones ever recorded, they need only listen to her version of “Gimme Shelter.” Her rendition of Neil Young’s “Southern Man” is amazing She takes a good song to far greater heights—a funk version full of rage, defiance, and vocal audacity. “Bridge Over Trouble Water” is certainly as good as Aretha Franklin’s version, but, as observed in the film, there can only be one Queen of Soul. “Grandma’s Hands” and “The “Mighty Quinn” solidify Clayton’s powers when it comes to gospel interpretations. Her recording of “Who’s Acid Queen” is powerful, if not more so, than Tina Turner’s.
Claudia Lennear’s vocals were heard backing up Joe Cocker and Leon Russell. She was once an Ikette and sang back-up vocals for George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh rubbing shoulders with the likes of Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan. Linnear also inspired the Stones to write “Brown Sugar.” Sadly, her only solo effort, 1973’s Phew, didn’t take off after its initial release and Lennear’s career stalled out. Happily, however, it has been re-released. The album is pure soul and blues. The album features “Goin’ Down,” an early version of the Toussaint song “Goin’ Down Slowly” which the Pointer Sisters had a hit with a few years later. “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky” is another fine Toussaint song. The disc also includes the bonus track “Two Trains,” which was not on the original album.
As many of the artists in the documentary observed, by the 1980s the phone just stopped ringing. With the advent of computer software, hiring back-up vocalists almost became superfluous. Today an artist can track their own vocals and sing their own harmonies. In an era where digital sampling has replaced just about every “live” musician on one recording or another, it is uplifting to see a film that recognizes the talents of these women. Do yourself a favor and catch the film. You might be surprised by just how good the past can sound.
John Zavesky is a writer, editor, and screenwriter. His articles have appeared in Z Magazine, CounterPunch, Palestine Chronicle, Dissident Voice, Los Angeles Times, and other publications.