Ladies and gentlemen, Vernon Reid and his band, Living Colour, would like to share credit for the success of their platinum debut album, Vivid, with a dynamic but unlikely duo: Mick Jagger and Melvin the Barber. Melvin’s fame, unfortunately, never spread beyond the Brooklyn shop where he played the blues between haircuts and taught Reid how to handle a guitar pick. “Hold onto that pick,” he told Reid, “so that no one can ever pull it out of your hand.” Reid did. Fifteen years later, Mick Jagger was so impressed with Reid’s ability to punch out hard-rock riffs that he hired him to play on his Primitive Cool solo LP and produced two tracks that helped land Living Colour a recording contract for Vivid. “I’d like to see one thing make it into print,” Reid says. “And that is, Thank you, Mick Jagger.’ ”
Reid, 31, and company—singer Corey Glover, 24, drummer Will Calhoun, 24, and bassist Muzz Skillings, 27—can thank Jagger in person later this month, when they begin a 50-show stint as opening act for the Rolling Stones. As Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley and Prince found out, sharing marquee space with the Stones is often beneficial to one’s career. It could also help put the lie to a lingering perception in the industry that blacks should stick to rap, soul and funk and leave rocking to white boys. “We’d like to think that even if we were white and had blond hair people would still bug on our music,” says Reid. Adds Skillings: “As a black rock band, we may end up being just an exception to the rule. We hope, though, that this is the beginning of a major thing.”
When Living Colour was named Best Rock Group at the New York Music Awards last April, Reid questioned why the prize was named the Elvis. “The award might just as well have been named after Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Bo Diddley or even Big Mama Thornton,” he says. Coming from Reid, this is not idle rhetoric. As co-founder of a New York-based networking organization called the Black Rock Coalition, he is generous in offering advice and aid to other musicians trying to break through the color barrier in rock.
Living Colour’s music is only rock and roll, of course, but the social agenda is never far from the surface. “Taken together.” Reid says, “our songs are like a mural of our lives.” Of West Indian ancestry, Reid was born in England and moved to Brooklyn at age 2. His father, James, worked at the post office, and his mother, Mary, worked for a supermarket chain while raising Vernon and his two younger sisters. At 15, Reid was given an old guitar by a cousin and walked down the street to Melvin the Barber for informal instruction. “The guitar had very heavy strings, and my hands hurt for hours after I tried to play it.” he says. “It became a matter of will. I wouldn’t let it beat me.”
Reid, who later studied performing arts for two years at Manhattan Community College, eventually became an in-demand player on the New York avant-garde scene. Living Colour, which he formed in 1986, became something of a refuge for its members, whose interest in rock and roll was often viewed by their peers as a kind of musical perversion. Glover recalls catching flak from friends because he listened to doo-wop music and Steely Dan; Calhoun remembers getting cross-eyed looks years ago when he introduced some rap deejays to Led Zeppelin licks they could include in their songs. “For the deejays, I was a musician,” says Calhoun, “but to the other kids, I was weird.”
Despite Living Colour’s current good fortune, Reid has not forgotten his old friends. “I haven’t seen Melvin the Barber in years, but if he’s around I would love to talk to him,” Reid says. “He said to me, ‘If you stick with this guitar, one day I’m gonna see you on television.’ I’d like to tell him thanks, because it occurred to me when we did Saturday Night Live last April that what he said came true.”
—David Grogan, Lisa Russell in New York