By Chris Richards
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 20, 2006
It starts with a funky three-note riff -- one that hangs in the air like a lazy summer breeze.
Soon guitarist Orville Saunders is joined by drummer Keith Killgo and bassist Joe Hall as they ease into a cool, vintage groove. The beat putters along without a worry -- you can practically feel that breeze in your hair. Then the vocals kick in, nice and easy:
Doin' it in the park.
Doin' it after dark.
Oh yeah, Rock Creek Park.
Oh yeah, Rock Cree . . .
Killgo cuts the refrain short.
"Those 'Rock Creek Parks' gotta be strong, y'all," the bandleader warns from behind his drum kit. We're in the basement of Killgo's Fort Washington home, miles away from the D.C. landmark the Blackbyrds made famous 30 summers ago with their hit "Rock Creek Park." The sultry grooves of the song, one of the few great pop songs written about Washington, have become synonymous with summertime in the District.
The rehearsal's been easygoing until now -- Killgo clearly wants to get this tune right. He calls for an a cappella version before bringing the band back in. A few more takes and the Blackbyrds' breeze is blowing strong.
"We got it," Killgo nods. "It's not rocket science."
No, "Rock Creek Park" is not rocket science -- the tune wasn't even the Blackbyrds' biggest hit. But locally, it's the band's most beloved. The song (and the band) will be honored Saturday with a ceremonial resolution from the D.C. Council, when they perform at Carter Barron Amphitheatre.
Formed in 1973 under the aegis of famed jazzman (and then Howard University professor) Donald Byrd, the band of college students became a national sensation with its celebrated brand of jazz-inflected funk. The band wrote "Rock Creek Park" during a sound check in Camden, N.J., and it eventually became the lead-off track on their fourth album, "City Life." The song is delightfully simple, alternating between the funky "Doin' it" refrain and a breathy, bawdy breakdown. It peaked at No. 37 on Billboard's R&B charts on July 17, 1976.
The Blackbyrds found critical and commercial success in the following years but eventually parted with mentor Byrd, before going totally splitsville in the early '80s. Byrd's career also cooled as he focused on teaching, while keyboardist Kevin Toney embarked on a solo career in jazz.
But Killgo, Saunders and Hall reunited in 1999 as KOJO: The Original Blackbyrds. (They don't own the rights to the Blackbyrds name.) A few years of steady gigs followed, at home and in Europe. These days, the band members set a light schedule around their day jobs -- their concert at Carter Barron will be their first of 2006.
And while the Blackbyrds' career waxed and waned, "Rock Creek Park" never went away. The tune is a local party staple, a jukebox favorite, a quintessential summer jam that graces the airwaves all year round.
"That song always gets a great response," says Kathy Brown, operations manager at Majic 102.3, where "Rock Creek Park" is still in light rotation. "I'm originally from Chicago, but when I got to D.C. and learned about Rock Creek Park, I fell in love with that record all over again."
Haven't caught it on the radio? Maybe you've heard "Rock Creek Park" on the juke at Ben's Chili Bowl.
"We definitely play it," Kamal Ali says at Ben's.
Any personal memories of the song?
"Oh yeah . . ." He pauses before laughing. "Sorry, I'm married now!"
"I remember when it first came out -- it was sort of a risque song," says Scooter Magruder, manager of Roadhouse Oldies, a vintage record store in Silver Spring. "Teenagers loved it."
Teens today might know "Rock Creek Park" for different reasons -- it's on the soundtrack of the popular shoot-'em-up video game "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas." And any self-respecting hip-hop head should recognize the tune instantly. A slew of rappers have sampled it -- Ice Cube, Nas, De la Soul and Eric B. and Rakim, among them.
The Blackbyrds aren't complaining about the royalties they see from these various reincarnations, but they seem more pleased with the song's longevity.
Killgo says: "We never had any clue it would do what it did. I'm just glad that the three of us are alive to enjoy this."
KOJO: The Original Blackbyrds perform with Ray Parker Jr. and the Mike Stephens Project at Carter Barron Ampitheatre Saturday at 7:30. $20. Call 202-426-0486. To hear a sample of "Rock Creek Park," visit http://www.washingtonpost.com/music .