Death: A '70s Rock Trailblazer, Reborn An African-American rock group surrounded by soul music, Death had a tough time finding an audience in 1970s Detroit as its own sound shifted from funk and soul to hard rock. It took until last year for the world to discover Death's bold, surprising rock 'n' roll.
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Death: A '70s Rock Trailblazer, Reborn

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Death: A '70s Rock Trailblazer, Reborn

Death: A '70s Rock Trailblazer, Reborn

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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When the South by Southwest music festival kicks off today in Austin, music fans will have 1,700 bands to choose from, and for many of those bands, it's a chance for career breakthrough. One group waited 35 years for recognition. NPR's Stephen Thompson has this story of a band from Detroit called Death.

STEPHEN THOMPSON: In the 1970s, the music of Detroit could be split into two powerful scenes: the black soul, funk and R&B of Motown; and the white rock and roll of The Stooges, MC5, Bob Seger and Alice Cooper. Somewhere in the middle was Death.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BOBBY HACKNEY (Singer, Bass Player, Death): We didn't fit in at all. The rock bands that we identified with, I mean, we didn't hang out with those guys. I mean, we were in the inner city on the east side.

THOMPSON: Bobby Hackney sang and played bass in the band, which also featured his brothers: Dannis played drums; David played guitar and wrote the songs.

(Soundbite of song, "Politicians In my Eyes")

Mr. HACKNEY: (Singing) (unintelligible) they don't care who they (unintelligible) not unless they get along, politicians in my eyes...

Mr. HACKNEY: Most of the bands were doing stuff like Al Green, Earth Wind and Fire, The Isley Brothers. And, you know, I mean, being in the black community and having a rock band, people just looked at us like we was weird. You know, after we got done with a song, instead of cheering and clapping, people would just be looking at us.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. HACKNEY: (Singing) Always trying to be slick with their tail out (unintelligible) irresponsible boys (unintelligible) young men tonight. We have waited so long for someone to come along and (unintelligible) but the way is to look...

THOMPSON: David Hackney's idea for a band name didn't help.

Mr. HACKNEY: Our name of the band was Rock Fire Funk Express. And David convinced us to change the name of the band to Death. His concept was spinning death from the negative to the positive. It was a hard sell.

THOMPSON: Record producers expressed an interest in Death, but demanded a name change. David Hackney refused. Disco was taking over, and Death broke up in 1977. But before it did, it recorded an album.

(Soundbite of song, "Where Do We Go from Here???")

Mr. HACKNEY: (Singing) Where do go from here, where do we go from here, where do we go from here?

THOMPSON: Bobby Hackney Jr. heard two of the songs online.

Mr. BOBBY HACKNEY JR.: And I was just floored. I was blown away. I just couldn't believe that it came out of our bloodline. I immediately called my father and I was like, Dad, why didn't you tell us about Death? Why didn't you ever show us these recordings? They're amazing.

(Soundbite of song, "Keep on Knocking")

Mr. HACKNEY SR.: (Singing) If I could remember that you didn't wanna say my name. If I could remember it was you getting in my way. You came down and I, I (unintelligible). Well, I got news for you, that (unintelligible).

THOMPSON: Bobby Hackney Jr., two of his brothers and two of their friends formed a band called Rough Francis to play Death's songs. The legend grew, of an uncompromising black rock band that predated punk, and last year, the independent label Drag City released the 1975 album, called "...For The World To See."

For Bobby Hackney Sr., the belated recognition is bittersweet.

Mr. HACKNEY SR.: David never wavered on the fact that the world one day would know about Death. He always believed it, right to the very end. As a matter of fact, right before he died in 2000, he came to me with some additional tapes. And he said, listen, you got to keep these. And I told him, I says, David, I already have enough of our stuff, man. And he said, no, Bobby, you got to do this. He says, listen. He says, the world's going to come looking for this music. And he says, I know that you will have it. You know, I mean, this was maybe a year before he died.

THOMPSON: This weekend, with a friend named Bobbie Duncan filling in on guitar, Death will reassemble to play its old songs at South by Southwest. A tour will follow, but beyond that, who knows?

Mr. HACKNEY SR.: We have a saying, my brother and I: We're just riding. We're like passengers on a train, man. We're just going to ride it to the station. There's a conductor at the helm, and it's not us. And we don't know how long the journey will be, but one thing we will do, and we're committed to doing, and that is to honor our brother David every step of the way.

THOMPSON: For NPR News, I'm Stephen Thompson.

(Soundbite of song, "You're a Prisoner")

Mr. HACKNEY SR.: (Singing) (unintelligible) when I sing with you, but often when I look at people like you...

MONTAGNE: And you can hear songs by Death and also listen to live concerts from South by Southwest, tonight and tomorrow, at

(Soundbite of song, "You're a Prisoner")

Mr. HACKNEY SR.: (Singing) 'Cause (unintelligible) with a man, no one would show when you rest. You're a prisoner, a prisoner, a prisoner, a prisoner. You're a prisoner, a prisoner, a prisoner, a prisoner...

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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