Gary Byrd and the G.B. Experience – The Crown (Vocal)

Outside of the US Gary Byrd is best known for this 1983 track.

But Byrd’s records – including this and other Stevie Wonder co-writes – make up a relatively small part of his career.

Byrd started out in the 1960s as a teenage radio DJ in his home town of Buffalo, and after several successful years, and still a teenager, he moved to New York’s foremost black radio station, WWRL-AM, in 1969.

It was at WWRL-AM that Byrd created his G.B.E. (Gary Byrd Experience) show, whose influence is perhaps best illustrated by it being referenced in the lyrics of the 1973 James Brown track ‘Mind Power’.

Stevie Wonder was also a fan of Byrd’s show and it was Wonder’s interest that would lead to the creation of this track.

After hearing Byrd delivering spoken word pieces over music in the mid-1970s, Wonder invited Byrd to collaborate on lyrics for his now-classic 1976 album, Songs In The Key Of Life.

Their friendship would continue until a chance call in 1981 where Byrd revealed he was working on a project to create an extended-length track which would preach equality whilst teaching the a more balanced social history than was taught in most US schools.

Wonder was keen to collaborate and the pair spent almost three years developing the track between their other projects – Wonder eventually produced the track and sings a verse midway through.

The end result is a first in so many ways.

It sees the Motown label moving into the rap market, it sees Stevie Wonder collaborating on a rap record, it’s simultaneously delivers a disco classic, and it has a staged glossy picture sleeve was was unusual on rap records in 1983.

The single was released on 12″ only due to its length (just short of 11 minutes) and whilst it flopped initially in the US, it was a success in the UK where it spent 9 weeks on the chart, peaking at number 6.

It would be almost a decade before Public Enemy promoted similar messages (compare “I used to hurry home from school/I used to always feel so blue/Because there was no mention in the books we read about my heritage” from The Crown with “Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps/Sample a look back and you’ll find/Nothing but rednecks for 400 years” from Fight The Power) – albeit that P.E. delivered their rhymes with much greater ferocity of course.

As for Byrd, he would go on to carve out the most remarkable career, releasing his own records and spoken word pieces, continuing to broadcast radio in his own unique style, presenting TV shows and delivering inspirational lectures along the way.

Yet despite the variety of Byrd’s output, there is probably no more fitting artefact than this pioneering 12-inch single to illustrate the quality and richness that exists in Byrd’s work across several media, over six decades.

That it happens to also be Stevie Wonder’s best ever 12″ single adds further to this record’s prestige.

Label: Motown
Cat No: TMGT1312
Year: 1983