In the late 1960s, as a member of the Detroit-based R&B band The Chairmen of the Board, Harrison Kennedy got a memorable taste of racism. Entering North Carolina, he noticed a roadside billboard with an unwelcoming message, lit up and probably not sanctioned by the state’s board of tourism. “This is KKK country,” the sign read, “Love it or leave it.” Born and raised in Canada and unaccustomed to such a blatantly racist ultimatum, Kennedy was in favour of the latter option. He was outvoted, though, by his American band-mates.
“I was upset by it, but I was told by the other guys in the car that we were doing the gig," says Kennedy, speaking on the phone from his home in Hamilton, Ont. “They said we were going to get on stage, we were going to sing, we were going to get paid, we were going to leave and that I wasn’t to say a word.”
Turns out there was more to North Carolina than whatever was shown on The Andy Griffith Show. When it came to presenting the whole truth, Hollywood wasn’t always meticulous. It still isn’t.
Kennedy’s experiences touring south of the Mason-Dixon line were not unlike those depicted in Peter Farrelly’s Green Book, up for five awards at Sunday’s Oscars, including best picture, best actor (Viggo Mortensen) and best supporting actor (Mahershala Ali). Based on a true story, the sixties-set drama follows the erudite black pianist Don Shirley as he’s chauffeured through the American South by Italian-American bouncer Tony “Lip” Vallelonga. The film takes its title from The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide published from 1936 to 1966 to help black travellers find motels and restaurants that would accept them in a deeply segregated era. For its reverse Driving Miss Daisy depiction, Green Book has been called a white-saviour film. And as for its truthfulness, the family of the late Shirley has described the road-trip movie as a “symphony of lies.”
Still, whether Green Book hits the wrong notes or not, the thrust of the film rings true for Kennedy, now a Juno Award-winning acoustic-blues artist but once a member of the Motown offshoot The Chairmen of the Board, which scored a hit in 1970 with the pleading soul-pop of Give Me Just a Little More Time. “It was a normal thing,” says Kennedy, age 76, about touring and sourcing lodging during racially polarized times. “You found out out which hotels you could go to. In order to survive, you had to know.”
Moreover, some of Kennedy’s own life narrative overlaps with the story of Shirley, a multilingual musician who performed one of his own compositions with the London Philharmonic Orchestra before he was 20, and who went on to earn doctorates in music, psychology and liturgical arts. In one of Green Book’s key scenes, the Jamaican-born Shirley confides to his white bodyguard-driver that because of his education and relatively elevated social standing – his apartment was located above Carnegie Hall – he felt isolated from his own blackness, and other black people. Likewise, Kennedy, educated at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., wasn’t always accepted among fellow black musicians.
“They resented the fact that I came from Canada and that I ‘talked proper,’ ” says Kennedy, who as a child in the fifties often visited relatives in rural Tennessee. “I was kind of like a nerd, you might say.” A sweet-singing nerd who once had his car stolen by fellow musicians. “I never said anything about it,” Kennedy adds. “I didn’t want to bring trouble onto myself.”
While Shirley was protected during his tour by the tough, street-wise Vallelonga, Kennedy was looked out for in Detroit by Bob Babbitt, the burly Hungarian-American bassist who played on the Temptations’ Ball of Confusion, Stevie Wonder’s Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours), and half of Marvin Gaye’s landmark 1971 LP, What’s Going On. “I always felt like he had mob connections,” Kennedy jokes, about the Motown studio musician and member of the Funk Brothers. “I liked him. We got along.”
Asked about the racism he’s faced in Canada, Kennedy describes it as more subtle. “It hits you a different way here,” he says. “I’ve been told I sing ‘too black,’ for example.” Kennedy is also hurt that he’s never won a Maple Blues Award, an annual national prize for blues music. “But I don’t carry a chip on my shoulder,” adds the artist, whose most recent album is 2014′s This is From Here. “I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing. Once you realize that, the negative stuff doesn’t have any place to land.”
Harrison Kennedy opens for Michael Jerome Browne, at Toronto’s Hugh’s Room Live, Feb. 22; the 91st Academy Awards air live Feb. 24 at 8 p.m. ET on CTV and ABC