Burn, Baby! Burn! The Autobiography of Magnificent Montague
As you might expect given the Wilson Pickett biography I am researching, I am currently plowing my way through dozens of other hopefully relevant books, many of which deal exclusively with black music and explicitly with black history and culture. One of the more rewarding has been Burn, Baby! Burn! The Autobiography of Magnificent Montague.
If the phrase Burn, Baby! Burn! sounds familiar, that’s because it was chanted on the streets during the Watts Riots/Rebellion of 1965. But it was only used by the people in the first place because it was the on-air calling card of “Magnificent Montague,” easily the most popular black radio DJ in LA at the time, if not across all of the USA. He had coined the phrase to describe a hot piece of music, and you can hear it in its intended idiom on a truly sizzling eight-minute version of “In The Midnight Hour” performed by Wilson Pickett, with Booker T. and the MG’s as his backing band, and Magnificent Montague extemporizing as MC, at the 5/4 Ballroom in Watts just 72 hours before the riots. (The recording is included on the compilation A Man and A Half.)
Nathaniel Montague was most certainly no rabble-rouser; as is immediately evident from his autobiography, he was more of a romantic. But he was enormously proud of his people, and, even before he made good money from the payola that was a part of DJ culture at the time, he set about collecting artifacts of black history – spending literally thousands of dollars when he came across the first ever publication of Negro Spirituals, for example. Some of the artifacts are overtly racist, but of course (see the “Coon Coon Coon” sheet music below), but many are not, and his autobiography is therefore as much a celebration of under-celebrated black people through American and world history as it is his own life story.
And yet Montague was not blinkered by race either. He was only married once, to a white girl called Rose, from Louisiana, whom he fell in love over the airwaves, when she repeatedly called into his show as a 16-year old; the end of the book finds them still together decades down the line. And, recognizing that the historical suffering of the Jewish people was similar to that of his own race, and additionally acknowledging the support and patronage offered by Jewish entrepreneurs to black musicians over the years, he converted to Judaism in 1960. He is as harsh in his book on Malcolm X as he is on Elvis Presley – though the latter section is especially praiseworthy, one of the most articulate I have read on why so many black people felt, as Montague puts it, “knifed in the back” by the success of the man whom “we” (i.e. whitey) came to call the King:
You wonder why black folk talk about conspiracies where white people don’t see them? This was one: a conspiracy to sell black music to whites by making it look white and never tell the consumer where it came from. Some of those black artists would be dead before the next generation of white artists – the first generation with a conscience, bands like the Rolling Stones – gave credit where credit is due.
Burn, Baby! Burn! was written with the assistance of a white journalist and former listener, Bob Baker, who tracked Montague down twenty years after the Watts Riots for a newspaper story. Uncommonly poetic for what initially looks like another entertainer’s memoir, it is as compassionate and generous as it can at times be righteously infuriated. It is peppered with the full cast of musical characters who came to define soul music, the genre with which Magnificent Montague truly found his fame and his fortune. For example, I was already aware from my research that it was thanks to Montague’s on-air support that Wilson Pickett’s original version of “If You Need Me” gave Solomon Burke’s Atlantic Records cover such a close run for its money; I was not, however, aware that Montague produced and/or financed the recording of Don Covay’s “Mercy Mercy,” featuring a young Jimi Hendrix on guitar, which similarly became a hit on Atlantic.
Sadly, the story has an unhappy ending. Magnificent Montague wants to take public his collection of black artifacts, now surely the largest in the world, but he doesn’t want to just donate them to a museum. As someone who has hustled his way through life, all the way to owning his own radio station, he’s looking on it as a business deal. Seeking to open a museum of his own, he sets up an office on Wilshire Avenue, on LA’s Museum Mile, puts out but 5% of his collection on display … and is unable to procure the backing from other successful people of his race. A painful chapter at the end asks involves some soul-searching that lacks for an answer:
What had happened to my race? Why had they thrown all this away? Why had they thrown away their spirituals and their dialect poetry and all the inspirational lessons of the hard times, all the testament to our race’s strength? Why were the calling themselves African Americans when Africa had so little to do with who they were? Were they uncomfortable about our American history?
Searching on the ‘net after finishing the book, I learn that Montague went bankrupt trying to launch the museum, the final financial blow dealt by the son of a man Montague praises throughout the book, Allen Klein. Most searches revealed that his collection was being put up for auction two years ago, piecemeal if it couldn’t find a single buyer, and I went to bed, upon completing the book and my Net search, depressed that Montague could not have held on long enough to have connected with the new African American History and Culture Museum, to be opened on the Mall in DC, alongside all the other great Smithsonian Museums, next year.
But it looks like he did do so. This story, published by the American Arts Trust, indicates that the Smithsonian did indeed step in and purchase the collection, which is summarized in the pre-auction video below. I will seek to verify.
As he notes for himself, in an ideal world, Burn, Baby! Burn! would provide part of the curriculum for Black History Month, given how it delves into the lives of poets, inventors, scholars and artists who have been cast by the historical wayside in favor of the same four or five (admittedly noble) figures my 4th Grade son will no doubt come home extolling over the coming month.Such brief biographies are peppered throughout the book, but are most strongly gathered in the final chapter, where Montague presents people like Thomas Rutling, Anthony Burns, the Reverend William J. Simmons, William Still, “Blind Tom” Bethune, Richard B. Harrison – and in the middle of all this, includes the Caucasian Quaker Thomas Garrett, pointing out, with no lack of pertinence, that “without white abolitionists, there would have been no Underground Railroad.”
And without Magnificent Montague, black radio might have been very, very different. Nathaniel Montague is still with us at the age of 86, and we can but hope that he holds on long enough to see his collection make it to the public, after all. And if so, his own life story – or at least this book – should form part of the collection.