Thursday, November 12, 2015

This Cat’s Got It in the Bag

While writing recently about the roots and escapades of Ernest Tidyman’s famous African-American private investigator, John Shaft, for both Kirkus Reviews and The Rap Sheet, I kept coming across references to an author known as “B.B. Johnson” and another fictional troubleshooter of the early 1970s, Richard Abraham Spade, also known as Superspade. I don’t think I have ever come across any of the Superspade novels, but The Thrilling Detective Web Site provides this brief profile of their protagonist:
Richard Abraham Spade was a strapping 240-pound fellow who went from the ghetto to UCLA, where he made All-American as an offensive tackle, acquiring the interesting nickname of “Superspade” in the process. He was headed for a pro-football fame, but was sidetracked for two years in Vietnam. Returning stateside, forty-three pounds lighter, a lieutenant with a Silver Star and a Purple Heart; he wasted no time in turning his attention back to pro ball, only to have his career cut short by a serious injury.

At the start of his first case, he is 33 years old and has been working at Greene College in Santa Barbara for three years, as the black studies lecturer and part-time football coach, while pursuing his masters in political science. But this is just the calm before the storm. When his buddy is killed for political reasons, Spade finds himself “in the middle of a deadly blitz of bullets, broads and burning revolution …”

Each of these six men’s adventures paperback originals are billed as “a tough novel by B.B. Johnson,” which we’re told is “a pseudonym for one of Hollywood’s most talented and creative black personalities.” [The series is] resonant with Black Power relevance, and full of typical “out there” plots for the time, such as
Mother of the Year, which features Spade protecting a black beauty queen marked for death by a group of militant black feminists.
In an examination for Criminal Element of black 20th-century pulp fiction, Gary Phillips, creator of the Ivan Monk detective series and the Angeltown comics, adds that “If memory serves, Superspade’s super power was that he gave off a hyper pheromone that made a woman go weak in the knees for him. No, really.”

OK, since I have not (yet) read the Superspade paperback yarns, I can’t attest to whether their star exercised phenomenally seductive sway over the curvaceous women with whom he came into contact--though that would hardly have been unusual for a crime- or thriller-fiction leading man of the era. And certainly the tagline on the front of Black Is Beautiful (1970), the second Superspade outing, suggests this “other” Spade is no monk: “He’s a bad, bold soul brother up to his sweet hips in revolution--and women!”

What I do understand from conducting Web research, though, is that the man behind the nom de plume B.B. Johnson was in fact songwriter-composer Joseph Perkins Greene, who was born in Spokane, Washington, in April 1915 and passed away in Pasadena, California, 71 years later. The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) provides this page of references to Greene’s work being used in film soundtracks (including mention that Lauren Bacall performed part of his 1944 song, “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine,” in Humphrey Bogart’s The Big Sleep). Another page on the same site offers this short record of his musical career:
Songwriter (“Across the Alley from the Alamo,” “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine”), composer, author, producer and conductor, educated in high school and in private music study. He was a singer over KFRC in San Francisco, and later produced records for RCA Victor, Liberty and Vee Jay. His credits include conducting, scoring and writing work for television and films. Joining ASCAP in 1946, his other popular-song compositions include “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Cryin’,” “All About Ronnie,” “Make Me a Present of You,” “Soothe Me,” “A Ting A Ling,” “Chicken Road,” “Softly,” “Dusky January,” “Let Your Love Walk In,” “Tender Touch,” and “Annabelle.”
If it seems strange that a musician would eventually turn to composing crime novels, the Toledo Blade newspaper explained the shift in a syndicated article from May 17, 1970:
Orphaned at 14, Greene [said he] “earned all the education I got.” One of the ways he earned it was to peel 100 pounds of potatoes every morning before going to school.

Greene displayed musical talent early, sang and played in local bands, then drifted south to San Francisco to become a radio singer.

“I made band arrangements in bed and sold them to orchestras,” Greene said. “My biggest break came when Stan Kenton recorded one of my songs, ‘And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine.’ Following that I had ‘Across the Alley from the Alamo,’ which sold 4 million records by Kenton, the Mills Brothers, Woody Herman, and others.”

Greene established himself as a song writer, record producer, and composer of musical scores.

This prompted Paperback Library to commission the Superspade series, which are by-lined “B.B. Johnson”--“in case I get tired of writing the books and they hire someone else.”
The author of that newspaper piece, Associated Press Hollywood correspondent Bob Thomas, explained as well that Greene’s novels had already drawn film-industry interest. Producer Saul David (Fantastic Voyage, Our Man Flint) was said to have been planning a James Bond-like movie franchise based on the Superspade stories, with major help from Greene. But as far as I can tell, nothing came of that partnership. In his exceptional new book, The World of Shaft, Steve Aldous mentions that Greene had also submitted a proposal to Ernest Tidyman and his filmmaking partners for a sequel to the 1971 motion picture Shaft, but it had also been rejected. (The sequel was instead Shaft’s Big Score!)

Yet Greene’s conviction that “Negroes need to have their own heroes” did leave us with those half-dozen action-packed books, all of which were published between 1970 and 1971, and boasted cover illustrations by the extraordinarily talented Mitchell Hooks. I’m embedding images of those novels above and below, in order of their original appearance. You can find short synopses of the stories inside by clicking on this page from the Museum of Uncut Funk site.


Unknown said...

I bought and read the first book in this series back in the old days. I'm sure I still have it around here somewhere, but I wasn't encouraged enough by it to pick up any of the others.

Ed Gorman said...

This is one of the most fascinating biographies you've ever published, Jeff What a life and what a career. This was a man who persevered, Thanks for your work on this.