Eugene McDaniels was a singer-songwriter, producer, and activist whose music and message challenged the status quo and advanced dialogue on the intersections of musical expression and activism. With a powerful voice and an innate ability to push the boundaries of songwriting, McDaniels addressed issues of racism, politics, and social justice in his music, earning him both critical acclaim and controversy. Over the course of his career, he worked with some of the biggest names in music and left an indelible mark on the worlds of jazz, soul, and R&B. But McDaniels’ is most notable for using his platform to speak out against injustice and fight for the rights of oppressed people everywhere. Blending artistry and activism, Eugene McDaniels was an innovator in every way possible.
Eugene McDaniels, or Gene McDaniels (as his music was released under this name for a number of years), started his music career in the early 1960s as a suave singer and songwriter in the jazz and R&B scenes. He had a distinctive voice and a talent for writing catchy, romantic songs, which earned him a following and several chart hits, including “A Thousand Pounds of Clay,” which landed atop Billboard’s top 100 hits in 1961. His early music was marked by lush arrangements, sophisticated chord progressions, and soulful vocals, and showcased his talent for crafting memorable melodies. However, McDaniels would later undergo a dramatic shift in his music; the late 1960s saw a sharp departure from the easy-listening, pop friendly content of McDaniel’s early career.
The sixties saw many movements for equity in class and race, with the civil rights movement taking a collected, persuasive, and demanding approach to legislative progress for the Black community. This era also saw the rise of the organizational efforts of the Black Panthers, who understood the disadvantages of waiting for a political system that was never designed to be equitable. The Panthers’ took remedial steps to materially improve their community, like the free lunch program and other forms of mutual aid. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr on April 4, 1968, had a profound impact on black creatives. Fred Hampton, the leader of the Black Panthers, was killed not long after, on December 4th, 1969. These two men were two powerful symbols of hope and progress for many black Americans, and their deaths left an immense void. In the aftermath of the deaths of important Black figures, many black artists and musicians turned to their craft as a means of processing their grief and anger, and as a tool for activism. The music of the time became more overtly political and socially conscious, as artists like Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, and Gil Scott-Heron responded to the changing times with music that spoke to the struggles of their people.
Although we can never truly know what McDaniels felt at that moment, his actions were loud. He left the country entirely to focus on his craft and adopted his name in its entirety; the works he produced as Eugene are a testament to the radical thought that was omnipresent in the Black community and the country at large in one of the most transitory eras in the American public psyche. McDaniels worked as a songwriter for other artists while he wrote his next two albums, penning tracks for Roberta Flack, Gladys Knight, and Les McCann, among others. These songs were critically acclaimed, and lyrically thought provoking, but it is Eugene McDaniels' 1970 album "Outlaw" and 1971 album "Headless Horsemen of the Apocalypse" that greatly expand on his insightful critiques against deep-rooted systemic violence and American social issues. "Outlaw" takes aim at the establishment, with lyrics that criticize the government, the police, and the military-industrial complex. McDaniels' lyrics are unflinching in their critiques, each song latent with scathing condemnations of racism, poverty, and police brutality. This album was so overt in its critical content matter, that his label refused to support any of his solo projects in the future, and completely blacklisted the release of his next album on any of their platforms. "Headless Horsemen of the Apocalypse" takes on similarly weighty topics, with songs that address environmental degradation, war, and political corruption. McDaniels' music on these albums is marked by its intensity and urgency, with driving rhythms, piercing horns, and searing guitar solos. McDaniels’ consecutive releases in the early 1970s showcase his fearless approach to songwriting, and his willingness to use his art as a tool for social change.
Musically, McDaniels’ work on these two albums is often described as psychedelic soul, or jazz rock, but its singularity in sound is undeniable. To me, “Outlaw” is an album that is perfectly embodied by its cover art: Eugene is a sonic cowboy who rides to the beat of his own drum. My absolute favorite track from McDaniels’ is Sagittarius Red, it is a three-minute excursion through a thousand different emotions, and is an absolute masterpiece. Although, lyrically, it is very straightforward, Eugene’s voice and production on this track are emblematic of an artist free of any creative boundaries. I urge anyone who can to listen to just that one song.
My journey through McDaniels’ music started through Spotify. He has two artist pages, one under Gene McDaniels and the other under Eugene McDaniels. I found his two works from the seventies listed under Eugene, and I was immediately captivated. I could not find any information about him under his artist bio, so I did more research and found his ‘alternate persona’ from the early sixties. The music he released was so different between the two profiles, I had to find a medium to talk about it. As a songwriter for countless black artists of his era, McDaniels is an icon: he wrote ‘Feel like Making Love’ by Roberta Flack, which has been remade in countless iterations by artists across the world (my favorite version is by D’Angelo <3). We will be listening to music that has seen his creative presence for the rest of our lives, and he left this world a better place than when he entered it. Rest in peace to a legend, Eugene McDaniels.