Rockin’ in the Free World
FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein is a Washington insider who advised former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) on telecommunications following Capitol Hill stints with David Pryor (D-AR) and Donald W. Riegle, Jr. (D-MI). His academic credentials are impeccable, with teaching experience at Stanford and Harvard where he did his undergraduate and graduate work with high honors.
But there’s a lighter side to this seriously accomplished individual. Jon once played a mean harmonica for a group of ragtag musicians who performed a tasty mix of jazz, soul, rock, rhythm and blues and cocktail lounge-style ditties in various bars and clubs that dotted ground zero of the free world.
I had both the privilege and pleasure of occasionally backing him up on the drums for a few years in the 1990s. Our bandleader was an equally charismatic and enigmatic fellow who went by the name Dr. Hot Pepper. He played keyboards and sang, claimed to be from Kansas City,Mo., but never revealed his real name or age. Friends in high places included singer-saxophonist Junior Walker, whom I was thrilled to meet backstage just months before he passed away, and legendary DJ Wolfman Jack. The good doctor attended both of their funerals and has since joined their collective spirit in the sky.
He battled alcoholism and seemed to live a hard life with little money in his pocket, albeit tremendous passion and boundless love in his heart thanks in part to his involvement with a D.C. church and un-abiding faith in a higher power no matter how horrific things became for him. Learning of his death several years after moving 3,000 miles away from the nation’s capital left me sad but grateful for knowing this unique and special soul who sat in with the band at my 1995 wedding and wowed the crowd.
Jon and I were fortunate to be part of a biracial band that brought together folks from all walks of life who were united in their love of music. We were the token Jews who toiled away alongside two of our African-American brothers in arms, tethered by a shared history of oppression deep into our gene pool.
I often described Hot Pepper, who very much respected our Hebrew heritage, as a cross between Sammy Davis Junior and James Brown. He covered the latter’s “I Feel Good” not once, not twice but often three times a night – closing each set
with the mega-hit that became his signature song and sound. As the night progressed, his performances often would degenerate into barely recognizable chord progressions, and when we’d pack up our gear, you could almost see the defeat in his eyes. The bottle seemed to always win out in the end.
To me, this destructive pattern seemed to capture the malaise of many black musicians in theU.S.before him whose spirit and life savings were crushed by the white-run business machinery around them. We owe these creative cats a major debt of gratitude for having paved the way for a soulful musical expression that has lifted our spirits, brightened our lives and been passed onto multiple generations the world over.