The Orbiting of Gene McDaniels


(image courtesy of Matthew Robbins Photography)

There was a period of time when I was not fully cognizant of the man and the artist that everyone calls Gene. Eugene McDaniels, however, has become one of the most significant forces in my music and daily life. Before I was even aware of Gene, I was orbiting him. His music was surrounding me. His influence was finding ways to reach me, having the graciousness to send intercessors.

This orbit lasted decades, weaving through other artists and points of entry (including his producer, his producer’s son, the artist that became his “voice,” his longtime studio engineer and collaborator, and his own son, among others) before threading the needle and opening a moment where I could connect with the man himself.

At first, I was not actively seeking Gene, or these people in his life. Rather, they met me on my journey, and all of them pointed to Gene. It almost seems a little like “Alice in Wonderland” or perhaps “Wizard of Oz.”

When gravity finally won after this long orbit, and I was drawn in to contact with Gene, I should have anticipated at that point that our time together would be brief.

Since his passing in the summer of 2011, I have rewound and replayed every spare moment I shared with Gene… every phone call, every unreleased note we listened to in the quiet of his car, and every piece of sushi between us. One might say that the tape in my mental recorder is showing a little wear from dragging it across the playhead repeatedly. But, these recollections have proven to sharpen my picture of Gene, and contribute to my better understanding of why our orbit was so long, and why our actual connection in person seemed so damn quick.

As brief as it seemed, Gene has obviously given me a lifetime of music and thoughts to understand and actualize. I am hardly the only one. The man was a sublime and wide-ranging vocalist who wrote some of the most genre-defining love songs in popular music. He learned the art of interpretation from his early pop career, and then wrote music that others wanted to interpret for themselves. He was a keen producer who understood how to make memorable artist-centered records. He has been hailed as an activist for social, political, and racial issues. His own recordings were so groundbreaking that, despite some of their label-imposed obscurity, are some of the most sampled and lauded records in hip hop music.

As this world approaches 2 years on without the person of Gene, it almost has become easier to see his presence everywhere in pop music, art, and culture. I’ve been looking, and I see him constantly.