This year for Father’s Day, Very Smart Brothas is doing a series titled “A Song For My Father” where we asked a few writers we know to write pieces about songs they’d dedicate to their dads.
Figure it’s about 2 a.m.
Pop and I are rolling south on Interstate 55 through the Memphis area, bound for Baton Rouge, La., to visit family in his home state. We’ve been on the road together for about nine hours—not counting the time he drove from Detroit to pick me up in Chicago—and he’s been behind the wheel for a couple hours following my long stretch past the Mason-Dixon line.
Memphis has some of the first lights we’ve seen in a while, breathing some much-needed energy into us both. As we exit the city, Isaac Hayes’ “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” pops up on my playlist; what had, up to that point, been a steady stream of conversation goes dead as we embrace Isaac’s 18 minutes and 42 seconds of soul remake perfection.
“Phoenix” is one of my favorite songs of any genre, from one of my favorite albums of any genre: Hot Buttered Soul, Hayes’ 1969 magnum opus. It’s almost certainly one of my favorites because it was one of pop’s favorites before my existence was ever considered.
He eventually broke the silence: “If you would’ve told me back in the ’70s I would be listening to this with my grown son, I wouldn’t have believed you,” he said.
Pop and I hadn’t completed a proper road trip before. Sure, we’d done the family thing a few times when I was a kid—most notably a trip from Detroit to Disney World to Louisiana and back in a Saturn of all godforsaken vehicles. That trip was tainted by constantly fighting with my sister for space in the backseat of a compact sedan and my stepmother’s Eagles’ Greatest Hits cassette on repeat until I wanted to shoot the radio.
This was quite different: We had a tricked-out black Cadillac XTS that felt like rolling on a waterbed, thanks to pop’s access to fleet cars as a then-General Motors employee. I insisted that we make up for the Eagles with proper tunes: Enter “Soul Clap 2.0,” an Apple Music playlist of old soul music from the 1960s and 1970s that I’ve been building for years.
Currently at 133 songs and nearly 11 hours, it has everything from the Dells, Dramatics, Four Tops, Average White Band, Curtis Mayfield, Sly & The Family Stone and any act your uncle told you “you don’t know nothin’ about” at some point. Since our drive down was at least 14 hours of ride time, we eventually ran through the list. But that’s the beauty of half-century-old soul music: It’s nothing to play it on repeat.
We had every intention of checking into a hotel if we got tired, but it never happened…thanks in large part to “Soul Clap.” Isaac and his contemporaries’ gift of lengthy tracks made the monotonous cornfields of Southern Illinois and intimidating darkness of I-55 in Mississippi flow by in a breeze.
“Do you have the extended version? That’s the one I want to hear,” pop asks as the radio version of Isaac’s “I Stand Accused” hits the shuffle. No one talks over music and manages to make it compelling quite like Chef from South Park, so I hit the iTunes Store to download the version that includes his preamble about how he’s into a woman who’s committed to someone else.
Technology also contributed to the ease of our trip—especially the tricked-out Caddy—but it’s technology that also stifles our communication to this day: Pop refuses to own a smartphone and has never sent one text message in his 71 years, insisting to Verizon that he not be able to receive them on his flip phone. (He insisted on calling OnStar for directions during the trip just because he wanted to prove it’s “cooler” than Google Maps.)
Making matters worse, we live in two different states and we both actually hate talking on the phone. We go protracted periods of time without talking to each other, so when we do get together—especially away from other family members—I get the unfiltered, “inappropriate” version of him that’s amused me since I was a little boy. That version of him has always come with mixed results: I was a newlywed when we took the trip in 2013, and in want of wisdom from a father who was, at the time, 23 years into his fourth marriage.
Like many old Black men, his advice was short and generally useless: “I don’t know what to tell you look how many times I’ve been married don’t ask me.” Days later, on the return trip, out of nowhere: “You know why we work? She leaves me alone.”
“You don’t have any James Brown on this playlist?” I did, but, apparently, it wasn’t enough. So, at some ungodly hour on some ungodly stretch of highway in the bowels of Mississippi, I scrambled to iTunes to please my old man.
Pop and I aren’t exactly simpatico in our music tastes: He still views hip-hop—my favorite musical genre—as “noise” and would happily never have it cross his ears. But he (and my mother) is the reason I listen to old dusties like they’re currently on the Billboard Top 40. One of the reasons I’ve sworn off of dating women in their 20s is because most of them look at me like integral calculus whenever I lose myself in Donny Hathaway’s “For All We Know.”
The irony is that, because much of old soul music serves as the building blocks for hip-hop and modern R&B, he’s more responsible for my love of hip-hop than he’d be willing to accept. But, on this trip, the only times I could get my fix of hip-hop were when I was working out with my headphones or the rare periods when I was in the Caddy without him. Heaven forbid Jay-Z would be playing when the car turned on—it would’ve been the same response from him since I fell in love with hip-hop in the late ’80s: “Turn that shit off.”
“I know I’m a heathen, but I really love this song,” he says when “People Get Ready” by Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions comes on. It’s the most gospel-tinged cut on “Soul Clap,” but we’re both heathens who love it. It’s the one song that makes me think of him when he’s not around; I’m not sure I’d be able to listen to it again should he leave before me.
I have a stronger sentimental fondness for my father than I do any other human; if ever I did become a parent, it’s because I’d want to have the relationship with my child that he had with me. America expects Black dads to disappear when they part ways with their mothers, and he went in the other direction. For me, the road trip was deeper than visiting our Southern family: It’s very likely the last road trip we’ll ever take, though I’d clear my entire schedule if he hit me up today to take another one.
I occupy myself with his mortality more than I’d like to. I watch the little hair left on his head go from salt-and-pepper to white, and I see my peers on Facebook lose their parents suddenly and realize I’m nowhere near ready. I get frustrated that he’s a cliched Black male Baby Boomer who refuses to visit the doctor for anything short of a severed limb, and I realize I have to be OK with it, because I’m OK with him.
I complete the trip by arriving at my crib in Chicago in the middle of the night as my wife sleeps. He insists on powering through another four hours of driving alone to Detroit instead of staying the night at my place. To help get him there, I burned him a data CD—yes, a data CD in 2013—of “Soul Clap” that’d play in the Caddy. It’s the least I can do to keep him alive. I’m not sure what the trip would’ve looked like without the playlist, but I’m certain it would have been an inferior experience to what we had.
I have just shy of 150 playlists on Apple Music. So many of them evoke so many memories, as good music always should. But “Soul Clap” will always be pop and I rolling to the bottom of the country in the Caddy. I suppose I could create a playlist more meaningful someday, but I can’t see it.