Some artists never get due recognition within their lifetime. For Mike James Kirkland, he is getting that recognition 40 years later with a Grammy win for John Legend and the Roots cover of his “Hang On In There.” This is the untold story of his career and the song that aged 40 years before becoming an international hit. After hearing of Mr. Kirkland’s plight to thank John Legend and the Roots, we have decided to post his note at the bottom of the article in hopes it can reach their eyes.
How did you get started singing?
I started to sing with my older brothers and sisters in my parent’s home and in the church. I was around five or six years old at the time. I would say that parallels the experience of many singers. A good part for me was that I had a great mentorship situation with my older brother and older sister who both were really very talented in their own right.
I remember a song on the radio called “Old Donna.” The reason I remember it is because I wrote a song for my little girlfriend at the time who lived down the street. And of course I named it after her, “Old Patty.” That was the first time I remember trying to write a song for myself. Then when I got to high school, I was surrounded by people like Billy Preston, Ron Townsend from The 5th Dimension, Clarence McDonald, and Jerry Peterson who went to school with me.
Did you interact with any of them in a musical sense when you were in high school?
I remember one winter when we were all in a musical together. For the most part we were involved in the speakeasy scene and more jazz focused things. Jazz was really a tremendous influence on what we did. Since that class met right after the break in school, sometimes we would forgo the break and just head straight over to the music room. A lot of times Billy would have everybody circled around the piano with him doing a little concert. You’d get in there where you fit in. Billy had a professional jump on us. When I met him in school, it was right around the time he had just gotten back from a tour with Little Richard. Of all the guys I knew, he had the most professional exposure. I think he had already done the Nat King Cole show and all of that which I had grown up watching.
I always wanted to sing and be a part of that experience that Nat King Cole had on television. I thought that was about as slick as it got. Along with that, my brothers used to keep the house filled with records from Dinah Washington, Nat King Cole, the horn players of the time like Sonny Stitt, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis. When I saw myself as approaching and learning vocals, I mimicked these guys. Also guys like Sam Cooke. He was a unique bridge of all of these things. He was a gospel singer, he sang blues, rhythm and blues, folk, jazz, he was everything. He was my idol. I thought if I could just do what he did, I could do everything else.
Were you more interested in writing the songs, performing them, or both?
Well, you know, that was my naivety. I was silly enough to believe that if I was going to sing a song, somebody had to create it. I cut my teeth at a place in the West Los Angeles area. The place was called the Parisian Room on Washington Boulevard. I was going to Santa Monica City College at the time. At night coming back, I would pass the Parisian Room coming home from Santa Monica. That was the foundation of my career. I didn’t need a big band or anything, I just had a rhythm section and some singers, and I learned the standards at these open singer nights.
When my older brother learned I was doing this, he asked why I was doing all of it for no money. I told him, “Man, I’m not trying to make any money, I’m just having fun.” He told me that with my voice and talent, I should be making money doing it. But it came in one side and kind of just hung up there somewhere. Then when I was 18, he called me up and said that I had to write a song. I was like yeah right, because at that time I was preparing to be an All-American basketball player. I laughed about it but didn’t pursue it. He called back a few more times, each with more urgency and persuasion. Finally he told me he had made a bet that he could cut a record as good as a Motown record that we’d have on the radio within three months. He had seen a commercialism in me that I had not even seen. I just knew that people would shout, clap, and yell “Yay Mike” when I sang at the jazz supper clubs. So we got myself, my sister, and a few other guys together. But after about a month or so when they saw we were serious, everybody left because they had other jobs and such and didn’t want to hold us back.
So my brother and I picked up one other guy and wrote the first song which was “Victim of Circumstance.” That became the first release of Mike and the Censations. We recorded the song at Madeline Baker’s studio called Harmony House. The engineer there was named Calvin Harris. Calvin had just been hired to leave LA to go work at Hitsville. He was overwhelmed by the performance and production. That was the jumping off point for my writing. The second song we wrote was rushed. We didn’t have the time to perfect it, so it was just the instrumentals, but we reached the deadline, and got the record on the air within a couple months. We had released it on our own label Bryan Records.
So you handled everything on the project from creation to distribution?
Once we got it on the air, we saw that we needed help, so we shopped it around. Curtis Mayfield was the A&R Director at Columbia at the time. We took the record to Curtis, and he loved it. He told us to give him a month and he’d have a deal put together for us. Sometime in between that meeting and the 30-day mark, we got a call that he had all the paperwork for Columbia to sign us. We grabbed a hold of the contracts at the office and started to read them down. We were so excited. But the more we read, the more we realized we weren’t getting what we wanted because the bottom line was they were offering us three-thousand dollars for our masters. We spent more than three-thousand dollars to make the record. Ultimately we just said no because we wanted to be in the music industry, but not where we’re doing all the work and someone else is making all the money. Now the question was how to get paid for what you do. After about eight months of these types of deals, we decided to lease the record to a record label that was tied to a west coast distribution company. It was called Highland Records. After that, we did some cover records and a ton of originals. We were on a hectic schedule around that time.
Can you talk about the writing process for “Hang On In There?” It’s garnered you some attention recently.
John Legend and the Roots won a Grammy with that song. That was a huge honor. How it came about though is interesting. The B-Side of that record had been completed first. We did all those love songs and were trying to put together more that worked well. Leading up to that session for the Hang On In There LP, it was an unnamed project at the time. We had done a couple of songs that deviated from the African-American genre which said that you write about love or the blues or broken hearts. You didn’t touch anything else because nobody was interested. We messed around with a few songs that were the last of the bunch we owed to Highland. There was one called “Don’t Sell Your Soul.” That song started our unpeeling of the onion so to speak. Out of that came one of the bonus tracks from Hang On In There called “The Prophet.” It was kind of a telling account of what we were encountering socially and emotionally and even inter-relationally. We tried to release the record with Jose Wilson. We signed a deal, but he was preoccupied with promoting Barry White. He wasn’t ready to take a venture into what we called UFO music. It was under the sheet music. It was disguised in the usual genre, but with a differing message. It was kind of cutting edge because Mayfield and Marvin and Stevie all were apparently being pushed in the same direction. The other song we did in that same vein was “Where is the Soul of Man?” I had written it three or four years earlier. But it was hard to get my brother on board with it from a business sense. I tried to get jazz into our music earlier on. One of the deals he had made early on with me was that I’d make some money with R&B and then I could sing jazz all I wanted. In reality I had a schizophrenic writing pattern going on. I would write commercial-oriented music, and then I’d write out some stuff for my own soul that was more conducive to a freedom that my soul was crying out for.
Now, one of the last songs we cut as Mike and the Censations was called “A Man Ain’t Nothing But a Man,” was funky. Or fusion might be a better way to say it. It had these really driving bass lines and heavy rhythms, but these nice orchestral overtones that made that jazz fusion come alive in what we were doing. So we showed Ray, our arranger, that track and told him that was the expression we were trying to get to. My brother gave him the bass line and I gave him the melodies. He came back with “What Have We Done?” So now we had a few songs we really liked and figured we would go down swinging because no record company would promote this. We had two A-Sides and a B-Side, but nothing close to a full project. So my brother would call me at weird hours of the morning. I get this call and he says we have to write a song right then. We talked on the phone for about 20 minutes putting together this song.
How did the conversation go? How do you create a song over the phone?
He said, “We’re going to do this really funky jam.” He would say stuff like “chicken and collard green funk.” I said, “OK, I can hear that.” He told me we were going to lock it down to a sizzle. It would just fry. I told him we needed time to sizzle and fry, so it had to be some 16-bar phrases. Now that violated everything right there. You usually sang 8-bars and then turned it. We did three 16-bar phrases with 8-bar turnarounds for the hook. Then we did a half-chorus with a bridge. That typically would’ve ended a song. But then he said we had to get into this new album mode. So we stretched it out. He said, “Now what’s going to happen at the end of this is we’re going to go into 12/8 time and do the full expiration before turning it back to the 4/4 to take it home.” We got Ray on the phone and gave him the instructions.
He called us back when he was ready to go. It was all good except for one thing. I hadn’t written the lyrics. We had a deadline and a schedule, so I never told anyone I wasn’t ready. So when I got to the studio, Ray said, “Sing the hook for me.” I said, “OK, I’ll sing the hook for you.” Now, my friends and I had a saying when we were out at clubs. When we would leave, we’d say, “You hang on in there, you hear.” So I thought, why not. That’s how the hook came about; it was a euphemism we’d been using. So I sang it and Ray thought it was incredible. Between the time that I realized I didn’t have much to offer and the time we came to a real recording session, I had written two verses. I still didn’t have the courage to tell the arranger and producer that I didn’t have my work done. I went to the studio and locked in the band with only a hook and verse or two. After that they could keep going on their own. So I never got the third verse.
After the session was over, Robert asked me to sing the song. So either I was going to say, “Man, I don’t have no song to sing,” or else I’m just going to float it. This was a one-take performance. We recorded it and we were done. The third verse was a total ad-lib. I don’t really know if Robert ever knew that. I don’t think I’ve told anybody that I didn’t have that verse written. It’s like the kids today who talk about the rappers who write down the lyrics versus those who freestyle. That’s what makes me chuckle about Questlove picking this song. His spirit probably picked up on the freedom of that song. I would say 60 percent of it was never set to form, it was per-formed.
When I listen back to that song, I ask myself the same thing you asked me. “What in the hell was I thinking?” The thing about the three verses was, they each took a separate identity and they dealt with three whole different aspects, but they all focused back hanging in there. I didn’t write that way typically. The stories I wrote would have Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3. This was Book 1, Book 2, Book 3. It was a unique experience. Most people don’t win Grammy’s, and even less win them 40 years later. This year around September would be the 40 year mark of the start of that project. So 39 years later, Quest and John Legend hear something and perform it and get a Grammy for that song as the best R&B performance 2010. It was a huge point of satisfaction. John is a fabulous singer. How could you not like a guy who has 9 Grammy’s? I’m honored that they even looked my way. I’ve been trying to get a letter through thanking them.
Interview by Eric Sandler
It’s still tough to put into words the elation I felt when we learned that you, the Roots and John Legend had covered ”Hang On In There”. For some time now I sought out the means by which I could express my deepest gratitude. Much pondering “major writer’s block” and now this opportunity presented itself. Didn’t want to miss it. So simply put just to be included in such an esteemed project blew my mind, but a Grammy still has me in orbit.
Please pass along this note of thanks to the group and of course Mr. Legend.
Hope to see you soon and shake your hand. Until then “Hang On In There.”
God Bless You,
Mike James Kirkland
Be sure to look out for the Mike James Kirkland Anthology coming out in October on Ubiquity. It is a compilation of the early Mike and the Censations tracks with some unreleased material.