by Bill Batson
Each year, Sam Waymon’s star in the galaxy of American Black culture shines brighter. Waymon arrived in Rockland County in the early 1970s, and was launched into the arts orbit along with luminaries like his sister, Nina Simone, and his creative partner, the iconic writer and director Bill Gunn. Films, soundtracks, and television shows that he performed in or wrote continue to be re-released to critical acclaim. Last month, poet Ishmael Reed commemorated their collaboration on the first Black-produced soap opera, Personal Problems, in an essay for The Criterion Collection.
On April 14, 2018, Sam Waymon did his late sister proud when he came to the microphone at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Ceremony. “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 had been in Cleveland 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 as a defender of his sister’s legacy–continues to grow.
Over the last 5 years, Waymon has been on a roll. Here are a few more of Waymon’s recent triumphs:
- Da Sweet Blood of Jesus
In February 2015, Spike Lee’s remake 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 in 1973 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 1 of the 10 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 from 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, 2018. Waymon stars as a character described in a review as a “smooth-ass musician”with mellifluous tunes and dapper charm.
- Ganga & Hess released
Strange Disc records proudly presents a deluxe color vinyl edition the Soundtrack for the cult classic Ganga & Hess, with insert containing exclusive liner notes & rare photographic materials, exclusively for Record Store Day 2018. Curated and supervised by composer Sam Waymon himself, this release is strictly limited to 1000 copies worldwide.
- Improvisational Jamming: The Process and Production of Personal Problems by Nicholas Forster was published by Metrograph in July, 2020. The essay argues that Personal Problems, “confounded the lines distinguishing documentary and fiction and in doing so undercut the widely held misapprehension that black art was sociological first and aesthetic second.”
Sam Waymon in Nyack
Waymon moved to Nyack in the 1970s with the independent filmmaker Bill Gunn. 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 Headlines Ellen Jaffee Re-election Fundraiser
On Tuesday, September 22, I will hold an on-line fundraiser for New York State Assemblymember Ellen Jaffee.
Sam Waymon will perform,”I wish I knew how it would feel to be free”
If you would like to attend and support Ellen and learn how to participate in the most important election cycle of our lifetime, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Election day is Tuesday, November 3, 2020.
- The deadline to register online to vote is Friday, October 9, 2020.
- The deadline for registering by mail to vote is (postmarked by) Friday, October 9, 2020.
- The deadline to register in person to vote is Friday, October 9, 2020.
- The deadline to request a ballot by mail is (received by) Tuesday, October 27, 2020.
- The early voting period runs from Saturday, October 24, 2020 to Sunday, November 1, 2020, but dates and hours may vary based on where you live.
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; he composed and performed the score. 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 alongside his sister, celebrated songstress Nina Simone. Sam and Nina (Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon) were raised in Tyron, North Carolina with 6 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 3.
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.
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 online 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.
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.