Wherein soul’s most frank, straight-talking diva proves herself the missing link between Moms Mabley and Azealia Banks
Of all the crimes the internet has committed, perhaps the most heinous is the fact that there are millions now living who only know Millie Jackson as that women straining on a toilet as featured in countless clickbait ‘Worst Album Covers Ever’ lists.
There’s a case to be made that her 1989 album Back To The S**t! in fact boasts one of the greatest album covers ever. It’s funny, makes no concessions to decorum, and perfectly suits a potty-mouthed concert recording where Millie advises her female fans on how to best cover up their flatulence in front of their partner (“I know you all ‘How’m I gonna *poot* without him hearing me?’…You just get a lot of toilet paper, and you wrap that shit together, and you cup it… Put a muffler on that fart! I got that shit down to a science…”), and admits that “over the years I know I’ve told you bitches when to fuck, how to fuck, how long to fuck, who to fuck, and everything…”
Certainly, Millie has spent a glittering career offering her fearless, forthright and acerbic take on sex and relationships, never feeling the need to prettify her blunt home truths. Her 1974 masterpiece Caught Up is a conceptual piece, its first side exploring infidelity from a most controversial angle: that of the ‘other woman’. This was a radical stance: much classic soul balladry is penned from the perspective of the wronged lover, or the repentant adulterer; even The Dark End Of The Street celebrates its illicit love under a veil of guilt, haunted by the possibility of discovery (the refrain of “They’re gonna find us”).
Not so with Caught Up; here, Millie boldly stakes her claim to another woman’s husband, placing her pleasure, her illicit love, over the bonds of matrimony and the responsibilities of fatherhood. On (If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want To Be Right, as the Muscle Shoals Swampers strike up a groove that wouldn’t have been out of place on labelmate Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul, she summons a great gospel roar to declare “there ain’t no power on this Earth to ever separate us, baby”, as she seeks to put asunder that which God hath coupled together, a more profoundly sacrilegious moment than any pimply metal group ever managed. On that first half of Caught Up (she takes up the role of the wronged spouse for Side Two), morality doesn’t come in to play: Millie is selfish, taking that which doesn’t belong to her; still, that doesn’t make her yearning, her lust, her anger or her pain any less real, any less affecting. If anything, her songs are all the more powerful for the taboos they break, the tastefulness they disregard.
Like Hayes on Hot Buttered Soul, Millie fleshes out the dramas within her songs via spoken-word spiels. Live, these raps become ribald sermons, Millie sharing filthy jokes with her audience and driving her point home with smouldering black comedy. Capturing a set performed at Los Angeles’ The Roxy in 1979 by Millie and her Easy-Ak-Shun Band, backed by both the East Coast Horns and the Muscle Shoals Horns, Live And Uncensored finds those raps running long and wild. It plays out like some canny fusion of concert album and comedy record, and is certainly a funnier listen than Live: Take No Prisoners, the infamous Lou Reed live set recorded at New York’s The Bottom Line the previous year that saw the Velvets frontman indulge in lengthy, bitter and vitriolic monologues, taking acerbic swipes at Hollywood stars, rock critics and even the Bottom Line audience themselves.
The Roxy audience similarly were not spared by Millie’s wit: a number of her celebrity peers were in the crowd that night, including The Pointer Sisters, for whom Millie raises a round of applause. The Pointers, she says, “be talking the same old shit I be talking, they just clean it up.” That’s not how Millie rolls. “I got to put a little cursing in my shit,” she grins, “or y’all won’t even buy it. There’s some people here who think I’m dirty. I really couldn’t give a shit, cos you all buy my records. Them same ones be talking about I’m dirty be buying my shit and hiding it. I do not resent that, I’ll take the sales any way you wanna give them to me.”
This spiel precedes one of Live And Uncensored’s more remarkable tracks, Phuck You Symphony training Millie’s crosshairs on everyday hypocrisy and po-facedness. She’s talking about those fans who buy her records but stow them away when company comes round, leaving more respectable disks on display atop their music centres, “Bach, and Beethoven, and all that other shit that y’all can’t even pronounce… So people think that’s what you really into.” For this portion of the audience, for “all you hiding my shit”, she assembles a chorus of backing singers (including labelmates Ray, Goodman & Brown and occasional James Brown duettist Brandye) and has them sing symphonic “Fuck You!”s through a bravura Beethoven pastiche. Legend has it (via the estimable Bill Brewster, author of the excellent Last Night A DJ Saved My Life) that Paradise Garage DJ Larry Levan would play this track at his legendary club-nights if anyone crossed him.
Hypocrisy, it is clear, is a game Millie Jackson doesn’t play, and she applies her razor-sharp honesty to her own shortcomings and failings as surely as she does the lovers who don’t meet her high standards. She’s mischievous, transgressive, deriving power from saying the unsayable – during the rap at the heart of the Roxy performance of (If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want To Be Right, asking her audience to sympathise with the Other Woman, she declares “what gets to you most of all is these god-damn holidays, gotta always be by yourself. Can’t even see the n***** at Hallowe’en, he got to be with the kids.”
Seconds later, she’s advising the audience on “getting yours” from their men: “They like them sweet ‘I love you’s… That’s why their wives’ blowing it – she figures she done had him long enough to stop lying.” Moments later, she’s skewering her man’s lame bedroom talk, his vanity, his neediness, his credulousness, yelling “Lie your ass off, they like that shit. I’m telling you, they love it.” She’s shocking in her unvarnished truths. She’s also hilarious, her indecorous peeling away of social taboos recalling Richard Pryor at his then-contemporary peak, or the raunchy party albums cut by blue-talking black-vaudevillians like Rudy Ray Moore and Moms Mabley.
Live And Uncensored is more than just a comedy album, however. Millie’s Easy-Ak-Shun group are in the pocket throughout, lucid and supple enough to pull back into bristling holding-pattern grooves when Millie gets talking, snapping into action when she needs them to. On the smouldering Put Something Down On It they follow Millie flawlessly, as she slips from passages of quavering vulnerability to righteous, angry hollers, even segueing into a fierce minute or so of Do You Think I’m Sexy with enough venom to leave Millie audibly breathless, chuckling that she’s got to “slow this shit down… This god-damn disco shit will kill an old bitch like me.”
Millie’s intolerance of bullshit, her straight-talking, her truthfulness, lend extra weight to Live And Uncensored’s softer moments. She covers Just When I Needed You Most, which singer-songwriter Randy VanWarmer took to #4 in the Billboard charts that summer, and recasts the saccharine MOR as the sweltering southern-soul barn-burner it always should have been, thanks to blistering saxophone from pre-fame Hendrix collaborator Lonnie Youngblood, and Millie’s additional extemporised verse, which evokes the song’s stung and betrayed heart: “someone as slick as me, I don’t know how you managed to do this, but I do believe I got screwed while screwing”. A cover of Kenny Rogers’ Sweet Music Man, prefiguring her later sortie into twang territory with 1981’s A Lil’ Bit Country, the song’s lachrymose tale of moments of onstage magic undone by the indignities of life as a touring singer grounded by a lewd preamble exploring how artists are expected to trade sexual favours for fame. Meanwhile, in Millie’s hands, Toto’s AOR cornerstone Hold The Line is transformed into a storming, scouring attack on the latest in a long line of unworthy lovers.
Millie sure could sing: gospel strong when she needs to be, soulfully sweet when the song deserves it, draping the mournful bones of I Still Love You (You Still Love Me) with bruised, gauzy grace. But it’s the way she talks that makes Live And Uncensored such a remarkable set. And the title doesn’t lie: much of Live And Uncensored deserves the “Rated XXX” appended to 1982’s similarly raw Live And Outrageous, whether its Logs And Thangs (a speech dropped in the middle of opener Keep The Home Fires Burning that chides her lover for “flicking your bic so much elsewhere that you’ve run out of fuel”, announcing her intention to get “one of them ‘outside fires’ started”, and an extended, unabashed single-entendre about how larger ‘logs’ are better than smaller ones), or The Soaps (an unexpected ten-minute digression halfway through All The Way Lover that attacks “black bitches” for watching soap operas that only feature black actors as maids and servants, predating Public Enemy’s Burn Hollywood Burn by over a decade), or A Moment Of Pleasure (a seething bedroom scene that would make even Betty Davis blush, as Millie breathes “I love the way you doin’ it to me, baby… The sheets getting all wet… Gotta change the sheets! We keep this up, we gonna have to change the mattress!”).
In Millie’s world, love was no pageant of candy, flowers and Hallmark Valentine’s cards, and sex was no soft-focus, de-odorised and artfully choreographed exercise. You don’t go to Millie Jackson for the fantasy, you go to her for the truth. And on Live And Uncensored, that’s what she delivers: the scabrous, hilarious, painful truth, soulful as all get-out, searing and essential. Laugh all you like at that album cover with her sat on the toilet; Millie Jackson for sure gives you the real shit, if you can take it.