While early reports have pegged Living Colour’s upcoming sixth studio release, Shade, as “a blues-based record,” let’s be clear about something. It is not an effort in the vein of what the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton or Gregg Allman have done with their similar experiments that included covers of genre classics and new material that sounded classic.
Rather, what Living Colour – one of the most underrated and underappreciated rock bands of the past 30 years – has done is taken the blues as a jumping point to the lands of rock, rap, funk, hip-hop, R&B, and even country and western. And bassist Doug Wimbish is bullish on the final results.
“What it is that we were trying to engage is to present that kind of sound in our music, and that’s where the adventure began. How all these different genres relate to the blues,” he says from his home studio in Connecticut. It was one of the places Wimbish and the rest of Living Colour – vocalist Corey Glover, guitarist Vernon Reid and drummer Will Calhoun — worked on the material over several years.
The genesis of Shade began in 2012, when the group was invited to perform at a concert celebration of what would have been blue pioneer Robert Johnson’s 100th birthday at the Apollo Theater; the band chose his “Preachin’ Blues” to cover. But with scant time to rehearse and discussion of how they wanted to “Colourize” the tune, they took the material in a completely different direction, their performance stunning the audience and others on the bill.
“It was kind of like…I had some ideas of how it should sound, but we had no time to prepare and Corey had just come off of a flight,” Wimbish recalls. “So we put it together quickly during sound check. But when we performed it that night…it was magic. That gave us this light. And it was the spark to prepare us for this record.”
“Preachin’ Blues” quickly found its way into the band’s regular set list, as did late rapper Notorious B.I.G.’s “Who Shot Ya?”, which Glover originally would do as a lark during pre-show warmups right around the time of the Trayvon Martin shooting. Glover’s screaming vocals were often delivered while his head and face were covered up by a gray hoodie to drive the point home.
But in the ensuing years with one after another black man shot and killed by police making news and leading to the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement, the song has unexpectedly taken on even more resonance. And Living Colour’s frenetic take (with Wimbish intoning the ominous title through the song) is a highlight of Shade.
“It’s crazy, there have been so many more incidents, and the times have changed even since we started playing it. It’s so relevant,” Wimbish offers. “Christopher Wallace was a great poet and a victim of gun violence himself, like some of the blues heroes. So we see the connection between ‘Preachin’ Blues’ and ‘Who Shot Ya?’” The band debuted a compelling and forceful music video some months ago.
As usual, the band also takes on a wide variety of political, social, and racial issues on the album, adding to the mix pointed songs about the news and social media (along with some more standard tunes on relationships, and a cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues”). But even if the lyrics were completely different, the music certainly stands up on its own.
Wimbish credits a lot about how the record turned out to producer Andre Betts, who first worked with the group on their 1993 record Stain and on and off since then. He says that Betts took their project “to the next level,” keeping the band members’ minds open and not playing favorites when the occasional disagreement arose.
“He was that outside voice we needed to cut through the oil and water and give us a way to find the right flow,” Wimbish says.
But despite putting out new music and touring incessantly, the average music fan knows Living Colour for one thing and one thing only: their second single off the 1988 debut record Vivid and handily most recognizable tune, “Cult of Personality.” And that's a damn shame.
There’s even a bit of actual studio chatter included on Shade, in which Houston rapper Scarface – who has worked with both the band and Betts – tries in vain to recall both the name of the song and the group that played it, only getting as far as humming Reid’s iconic guitar riff. When another voice in the studio tells him who it was, Scarface wants to know what happened to “Living Muthafucking Colour” and where all the other black rock bands are.
Wimbish is aware of this, even as a new generation who have never heard of the group knows the song from its inclusion in video games like Guitar Hero and Grand Theft Auto. It was also widely used as WWE wrestler CM Punk’s ring-entry song.
“Lots of people don’t remember the band and may wonder if we’re still around. Even Scarface didn’t know! That’s a hip-hop artist interpretation of trying to remember who we are. We’ve also influenced bands like Rage Against the Machine and Tool,” Wimbish says.
He also notes that the band’s name is often mistaken for the ’90s sketch comedy show In Living Color. “With the new record, we want to reach people who know us, but also those who go, ‘Who is Living Colour? Which one of you is Homey the Clown?’”
While Dough Wimbish is not an original member of the group – replacing Muzz Skillings — his connection to Living Colour predates even the band’s inception. He first met Reid in 1981 while in the band Tackhead, and was previously part of the Sugarhill Studios rhythm section. Those are Wimbish’s bass lines on Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” and “White Lines.”
Both musicians got a call to audition for Mick Jagger’s solo band in the mid-’80s, with Wimbish getting the gig while Reid formed Living Colour. As the all-black rock band started to make noise on the New York rock scene, Jagger asked Wimbish about them. The bassist sent the Stone and Jeff Beck (who Wimbish also worked with) down to CBGB’s to catch them live.
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Jagger liked what he saw, and not only co-produced Vivid with Ed Stasium, but had Living Colour as an opening act on the Rolling Stones’ “Steel Wheels’ tour. In 1992, Skillings left and Calhoun called Wimbish about joining. Within a couple of days, he also fielded calls about joining Bruce Springsteen and Seal’s bands.
“I always take the first gig offered, and that’s what I did here!” Wimbish laughs. He was also offered a chance to join the Rolling Stones when original bassist Bill Wyman quit, but Wimbish decided to stick with Living Colour. The job went to Darryl Jones, who – despite touring and recording with the group for nearly a quarter-century – has still not been made an “official” member. Then again, Ron Wood had to wait nearly as long.
No matter. Doug Wimbish and the rest of Living Colour are anxiously awaiting the release of Shade and the subsequent tour that will take them around the world. And in this era of the band’s journey, the bassist says he looks at things as if he were driving a car down the highway.
“I try to keep the front windshield clean to see what’s ahead, but also check my side mirrors to see what’s coming up behind me,” he offers. “Because if you’re always only looking in the rearview mirror, you might crash into something you don’t see ahead!”