A 2003 episode from Tom Reed's 'For Members Only'
"Are you at the gate? I'm coming down." The voice on the intercom outside this sprawling, village-like condo complex in North Hills is clipped and urgent, almost impatient. Not the greeting that I expected. Nor is this place at the northernmost reach of the Valley, located at almost exactly the point where the 405 divides east from west, the place where I expected to meet Tom Reed in person for the first time.
Reed is one of those rare L.A. legends who's earned the designation, and, even rarer, still working on earning it. The self-styled "Master Blaster" is best known as a veteran deejay of L.A. soul radio during its glory AM years of the '60s and '70s -- KGFJ, KDAY--the music of my youth.
Back then, deejays were an integral part -- literally, the voice -- of the new cultural and political black empowerment that soul music represented and that it sometimes spoke to explicitly and unapologetically (James Brown caused quite a corporate stir with his seminal single "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud"). Reed is also a jazz aficionado and de facto archivist of local black music history; his voluminous 1993 book on Central Avenue is a treasure trove of photos and memorabilia he curated as a way of preserving and presenting black culture and history in a city that tends to pave over both history and culture of all kinds with maddening indifference.
It's the radio deejay persona that defines Reed most clearly, even though he's now white-haired and moving a little slow. At the village gate he scans me briefly and only nods, as if my appearance this afternoon is evidence of something that was ordained a long time ago.
He's dressed in denim overalls and a hat that covers his longish hair. He continues talking in the gruff voice and distinct cool-cat patter that's part straightforward ("How you doing?") and part cryptic ("Me, I'm just gonna keep doing what I'm doing, baby."). I can't tell if he's pleased or just satisfied that I've arrived on time. I'm here to tape a show at his request because he's seen my recently published book, a collection of journalism and essays spanning 15 years that, like Reed, takes a long view of local black history.
There is long, and then there is long: in Reed's presence, my history feels woefully recent. Reed has seen and interviewed them all, played them all. The photos and clippings of the black music greats started on the walls of the living room of his spacious condo and continue into the upstairs room that he uses as his television studio to do weekly tapings of "For Members Only," a black-themed music and news show that's been airing weekly on KSCI, Channel 18 since 1980.
Reed calls it the longest-running black-produced TV show in L.A. television history. Among the more interesting items on display are a James Brown bobblehead and a poster from the '60s or '70s depicting the black handshake and calling for an end to intra-racial enmity. Numerous media and political awards are spread amongst the framed photos, carefully grouped. This is a man very aware of his impact. But I sense that Reed is also restless. He wants to do more, make more, excavate more even black history that never gets enough recognition or discussion. It's an endless job. That I do know.
Reed the deejay gives me lots of directions -- sit here, put the microphone there, test the audio -- and beyond that he speaks mostly in asides. As his assistant Michael does an image check of Reed in the television monitor, I check it too and say that he looks fine. Making conversation. Reed suddenly turns to me with a knowing look, as if he's seeing me for the first time. "You've got to change up what you wear," he says. "Can't be looking one way all the time. Got to mix it up. I just put on what I feel. This" -- he gestures at his overalls -- "is what I feel today, you know what I mean?"
You mean, keep them guessing?
"Yes," says Reed with the smallest hint of a smile. "That's exactly what I mean."
Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.