Over a period of 18 months, producer Vivienne Perry and director Dan Vernon embarked on a brave journey to track down the musical prodigy Ike White who had all but evaporated from public view and memory. A character who, it would soon become clear, had the elusive traits of promiscuity and unconventionality rooted in his DNA. Eventually locating White in 2018, residing under the tawdry stage alias David Maestro in California with his Russian partner, his residence was a far cry from the perilous days of his youth. He was firmly a product of the gang culture which enveloped his youth. By nineteen, he was condemned to life imprisonment for murder – which had exceeded the delicate bounds of a botched robbery attempt – in California’s Tehachapi Correctional Institute. As a young boy, he had been classically trained by his musician mother and his father, who also played in an R&B group. In his nascent years, he became a session musician for the inimitable blues lady, Big Mama Thornton. Music would become one of the few constants in Ike White’s life and it was a skill for which he honed a DIY ingenuity from within the walls of his prison cell. In 1974, he came to the attention of eminent soul and R&B producer Jerry Goldstein, who had collaborated with high-class talent of the 1970s, including Sly Stone and Jaco Pastorius.
Soon White would be centre of attention in the most outlandish way imaginable. Session musicians, producers, sound engineers centred on his host prison to record a solid six-track concept album which would become as elusive and revered as he himself. Changin’ Times would be released in 1976. With the gritty style that comes from first-hand experience, Ike White’s songwriting and arrangement talents were evidently on par with any hit-selling funk and soul musician of the day. The album was littered with deep sonic journeys which collided with the lo-fi-styled jazz fusion of ‘I Remember George,’ and instrumental lyrical solos which fitted with the neatly layered bass jams of ‘Love and Affection,’ which could easily have rivalled the Ohio Players, Tower of Power or any individual Gil-Scott-Heron or Bill Withers production.
In the title track of the album, ‘Changin’ Times,’ White introduces himself as a shadowy figure in desperate need of that one more chance at self-rejuvenation – “I’ve got a chance to carry on”. As the documentary progresses and the enigma of Ike White becomes a little clearer, songs such as ‘Changin’ Times’ and ‘Happy Face’ are attempts at catching a grip of his own personal existence as they relate to insightful products of the social conditions he himself faced, such as the systemic racism and response to that by the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, which White himself followed. It is ironic in some respects that he did have the chance to “carry on,” as he saw it. The producers poignantly illustrate this tragic reality throughout. The ability to effect change was in his control all along but naïveté, pride or persistent ignorance failed to see the transformation that White so desired.
His own brand of convict or outlaw soul saw him catch the attention of none other than Stevie Wonder, who upon hearing his irrefutably prosaic material was convinced that he had potential in abundance. Stevie Wonder would go on to successfully petition for White’s release in 1976. Within a matter of two years, he had retreated to the confines of his inner self. His multiple shortcomings as a husband and father had a real effect on those who longed for a more intimate relationship with him.
His own poignant lyrics on ‘Changin’ Times’ from 1976 would capture his inner craving for rebirth until 2018: “Life is so empty / I’ve got the blues deep in my soul / I’ll be out in the cold”.
The documentary is upfront. There is no camouflaging or no scampering effort at justification of his impulsive, and at times selfish behaviour. As the story reaches its hard-hitting and tragic climax, Ike White’s story becomes part of the social commentary he had imbedded in his own music. It is a challenge and a wake-up to a contemporary society which, for many, is burdened and increasingly eclipsed by the losses and sins of yesterday.
Arena: The Changin’ Times of Ike White was co-produced with the support of Northern Ireland Screen and Belfast-based producer Erica Starling and is currently available on the BBC iPlayer.
The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.
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