Depending on whom you are, where you’re from, and your taste in music you may or may not have heard of a band called “Death” from the city of Detroit. If you haven’t, well then you need to change that. So take a seat and let me explain to you why it is very important that you know who this band is.
When I think of Detroit I’m reminded of Motown legends like Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, and the Jackson 5. A burgeoning rock band formed by three brothers, and I mean that in both ways, was not even a blip on the radar at the time artist like The Supremes, Diana Ross, and Smokey Robinson were burning up the charts with what are now widely considered timeless hits.
David, Bobby, and Dannis Hackney were the youngest of 4 boys. Musical boundaries did not exist in their household, and despite rhythmic and soulful pull of the legendary Motown, these three young men decided that they would choose the road less traveled. The Hackney brothers chose Rock & Roll as their weapon and set out on a musical journey that would not come full circle for over thirty years.
Now as I said this is a story about a band called DEATH, but before they were so ominously named they were known as ROCK FIRE FUNK EXPRESS. It was not until after the tragic death of their father in a car accident that the name of the band would change to the moniker that they are now famous for. David was the lead and thus had chosen the new name. His brothers, though unsure of the reception it would get, yet still believed in his vision and the band.
The year was 1975 and behind the hallowed walls of Unites Sounds Studios a band known simply as DEATH was creating a sound that the world had never heard before. They walked the same halls as Miles Davis and Muddy Waters, but the sound they created was so ahead of its time that the musicians of our era have taken to calling it protopunk. That’s right, punk rock, and it was good. Now, as three black brothers living in Detroit in 1975 and playing punk rock, they were more than ahead of their time. They were visionaries.
The Hackney’s formed DEATH in the spring of 1974. Pre-dating what is largely considered the start of the punk rock movement that brought about The Sex Pistols and The Ramones by a couple of years. So what happened to DEATH? Well, although the movers and the shakers of the music industry loved their sound, it was the band’s name that scared away would be benefactors and kept them from being able to book gigs. Faced with the decision to change the name or lose their opportunity, David chose the latter.
To change the name would spoil the vision and these three brothers stood their ground.
In 1977 the band was disbanded. With no labels wanting to sign them and limited venues willing to book them the Hackney brothers called it quits, but not before pressing 500 45’s containing the songs “Politicians in My Eyes” and “Keep on Knockin”.
Fast forward to the year 2008. One of the few remaining copies of DEATH”s self pressed single appeared for on eBay for sale. The ‘buy it now’ price was $800. For record collectors finding the DEATH record was something akin to finding a four leaf clover. That was the spark that re-lit the flames. Word eventually gets back to Bobby Hackney by way of his son who moved out to California. The DEATH single was being played at house parties and it was gaining quite a bit of popularity. It wasn’t long afterwards that Rian Murphy of Drag City Records was at his door. He was chomping at the bit to hear a bit more of what DEATH had to offer.
Wait, wait, wait! Before we go any further we need to take stroll back down memory lane to when the band broke up. David was given the masters of all seven songs they recorded at United Sound. Unfortunately David had passed 8 years prior to the rediscovery of the DEATH single, losing his battle with lung cancer. Yet, when he was first given the masters, David had the forethought to entrust them to Bobby. He knew that one day the world would want to hear their music and that he might not be around when that day came.
Sadly, David was right, but he lives on in that music and in 2008 the sons of Bobby Hackney formed Rough Francis. Bobby Jr., Julian, and Urian covered the songs of DEATH in tribute to their father and uncles. In 2009 Drag City released DEATH”s debut album “…For the Whole World to See” and later that year the band was reformed with Dannis and Bobby being joined by Bobbie Duncan, who was in a reggae band the two brothers formed some years after disbanding DEATH. Since then the band has had their music featured on several sitcom’s, released a second album, and even had a song on a motion picture soundtrack. It had been over 30 years in the making but DEATH had finally arrived.
So that’s it, kind of the cliff notes version, but that is the story of DEATH from Detroit. They took the scenic route to fame, and although I am sure they would have preferred a meteoric rise to the top, their story reminds all good musicians that great musicians let the art speak for itself, and even if people don’t quite get it now, be patient. One day your time will come.