Nyack Sketch Log: Sam Waymon is on a Rock & Roll

by Bill Batson

Sam Waymon did Nina Simone, his late sister, proud when he came to the microphone at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Ceremony on April 14th. “They said I had three minutes, I said, ‘No, I don’t.’ I’m going to take the time necessary to say what I got to say,” Waymon declared. Any Nina Simone fan knows that if she hadn’t passed away in France in 2003 and been in Detroit for her induction, she would have said the same thing. But the job of taking the stage was left to Waymon, whose own legend as a singer and composer, and a defender of his sister’s legacy, continues to grow.

You can welcome Sam home from Motown on Record Shop Day, Saturday, April 21 at Kiam Records Shop at 95 Main Street at 1p.  (Kiam will open at 8a with free donuts and coffee from Boxer donuts. Traditionally, lines form early) Waymon will be signing deluxe color vinyl editions of the original soundtrack for Ganja & Hess, a groundbreaking film from 1973 that Spike Lee remade in 2015.

Over the last three years, Waymon has been on a (rock and) roll. Picking up an award for his sister at a nationally televised event one week and attending an album release the next are just two dates on his R&B renaissance timeline. Here are a few more of Waymon’s recent triumphs:

    • Da Sweet Blood of Jesus
      In February 2015, Spike Lee’s remade of Ganga and Hess titled Da Sweet Blood of Jesus premiered. The reboot featured Waymon’s song, You’ve Got to Learn. Ganja & Hess, released in1973, and directed by Bill Gunn, contains Waymon’s music and his performance in a scene shot in the Nyack Center when it was an active church. Ganja & Hess is the story of a black vampire. The film was honored as one of the ten best American films of the 1970s by the Cannes Film Festival.
    • Hell-bound Train, Heaven-Bound Travelers and Verdict: Not Guilty
      In July, 2015 Waymon wrote the music for the new Library of Congress/Kino Lorber released restoration of these pioneering African American films, made by an evangelical Christian couple, James and Eloyce Gist, during the 1920s through the 1940s.
    • Personal Problems
      Billed as the first all-black soap opera and shot in the 1980s, Bill Gunn and Ishmael Reed’s Personal Problems, had its first U.S. theatrical release in March of 2018. Waymon stars as a character described in one review as a “smooth-ass musician”with mellifluous tunes and dapper charm.

Sam Waymon in Nyack

Waymon moved to Nyack in the 1970s with the independent filmmaker Bill Gunn where they commenced a creative collaboration that produced the script and soundtrack for Ganja and Hess, a classic cult movie that blends afrocentric themes and vampirism. They lived in a house in Upper Nyack.

Sam Waymon’s R&B Renaissance


Record Store Day
StrangeDisc Records will release a deluxe color vinyl edition of the original soundtrack Ganja & Hess, 1973, a groundbreaking film that Spike Lee remade in 2015 – Waymon wrote the music for the film and gave a powerful performance as a preacher from the pulpit of the church that is now the Nyack Center. Only 1000 records have been printed. Waymon will be at Kiam to sign copies. Free donuts and coffee from Boxer Donut.  Doors open at 8a. Line forms earlier. All this fun on Saturday, April 21 at 1p at Kiam Records Shop, 95 Main Street, Nyack.

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Broadcast
The 33rd Annual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony will air on HBO at 8p EST on April 29

Maureen’s Jazz Cellar 
Sam Waymon and Jeff Doctorow will present Piano Meets Guitar on Friday, May 11 at 8p and 9:30p. $15. Doors open at 6p. Maureen’s Jazz Cellar is located at 2 North Broadway.

Go Fund Me
Concurrent with these professional triumphs, Sam is having some health and housing difficulties. In addition to his search for stable and affordable housing, last month, Sam found out he would need to undergo a second round of radiation treatment for a very rare form of skin cancer. Visit Sam’s Go Fund Me here.

The home overlooking the Hudson was built by Daniel Perry in the 1830s. Perry operated a boat building business from the property. Perry’s descendants sold the home to screen writing legend, Ben Hecht in 1929. Hecht came to Nyack to be close to his writing partner Charles MacArthur. In a confluence that foreshadowed the activities of Waymon and Gunn, Hecht divided his time between cultural and political activities. Hecht was a major supporter of the Zionist cause and used the home for fundraising events and strategy meetings.

When Waymon and Gunn arrived in 1969, one of their first visitors was Charles MacArthur’s wife, Helen Hayes, who regaled the newcomers with stories of pool parties held by the former occupants. Hayes’ welcoming gesture is remembered fondly by Waymon as one of the most meaningful days at the residence, on a par with their audience with the President of Nigeria and literary gatherings that included Toni Morrison, Amiri Baraka, and Gunn’s closest friend James Baldwin.

But the most memorable and certainly most choreographed visit was from the heavyweight champion of the world. In 1975, Minister Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam, learned that Gunn was being considered to write the script for an autobiographical film of the life of his disciple, Muhammad Ali. Before a deal could be struck, Gunn and Waymon were flown out to Chicago to meet with Minister Muhammad. Upon their return, they got a call from the boxer.  Even though the spiritual leader had given his blessing, Ali would not agree until he met Gunn at his home. The visit was a success and work on the project proceeded.

During this period,  Gunn wrote and directed Ganja and Hess, a film that was honored at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973 as one of the best American films of the decade. Waymon’s multidisciplinary talents are on display in the film in which he composed the score he performs. As a low budget effort, many of the props and furnishings, including the Rolls Royce and the Jaguar, belonged to Waymon. Gunn’s prolific career as a playwright, novelist, actor and film director ended in 1989 when he passed away at Nyack Hospital.

Waymon developed as an artist along side his sister, celebrated songstress Nina Simone. Sam and Nina (Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon) were raised in Tyron, North Carolina with six other brothers and sisters. Their parents, Mary Kate and John Divine were both ministers of the gospel. Both Sam and Nina started piano lessons at the age of three.

Simone recorded 40 albums and has influenced artists as diverse as Yusuf/Cat Stevens and Alicia Keys. During their partnership, Waymon was her manager and organist. They traveled the world performing, but they also found time to lend their talents and efforts to the Civil Rights Movement. Waymon still has scars from a march where non-violent demonstrators were set upon by a mob with bricks and batons. Sam and Nina performed at Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral in 1968.

Nina Simone

Nina Simone

As a surviving sibling, Sam was an outspoken critic of the recent Hollywood production based on his sister’s life. He was particularly critical of the casting of Zoe Saldana as Simone. Over 11,000 people have signed an on-line petition that echo his objections. For Waymon and others, Simone’s dark skin and African features defined and circumscribed her life. They are incredulous that actors of Simone’s racial identity were passed over for a performer who is reportedly using facial prosthetics and skin paint to portray the singer.

Sam Waymon and Duane Jones in Ganja and Hess

The auditorium where the Nyack Center holds after- school programs, Rivertown Film screens movies and the Chamber of Commerce operates the indoor winter Farmers’ Market was a set for Ganja and Hess. The opening and closing scenes of the film were shot there when the space was a sanctuary for a church. Waymon was cast as a pentecostal preacher, singing and stomping in front of extras who were members of the congregation that worshiped in the space at the time. Waymon shared the scene with Duane L. Jones, the actor who played the leading role as Ben in the classic 1968 horror film that launched what is now a national obsession with zombies, Night of the Living Dead.

Through his music, the enduring legacy of his collaboration with Gunn and his defense of his sister’s name and memory, Waymon acts as a guardian of the African American cultural universe. Waymon has expressed a concern that history has a way of remembering the battle but forgetting the blood. Through his composing and performance, Sam Waymon won’t let us forget either.

An activist, artist and writer, Bill Batson lives in Nyack, NY. Nyack Sketch Log: Sam Waymon is on a Rock & Roll © 2018 Bill Batson. Visit billbatsonarts.com to see more.

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