Pat Thomas has always been interested in counter-culture movements. As a freelance writer in the 1980s, he tracked down Allen Ginsberg and Abbie Hoffman, and in 2000, after moving from San Francisco to Oakland, the music producer who also worked in A&R for a pair of small labels "decided to dig into the Black Panther Party, since Oakland was their birthplace." After reading books on the Panthers and the Black Power Movement, he got to know key members like Elaine Brown and David Hilliard, "not so much for a research project, but because I wanted to know them as people." There wasn't a specific goal in mind: Thomas just wanted to have fun. But he soon began unearthing Panther media and material that, as a self-professed "music junkie," he had to share with the rest of the world. Listen, Whitey! The Sights and Sounds of Black Power 1965-1977, which Thomas will read from on Wednesday, April 11, at Pegasus Books (2349 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley), is the inspired offspring of getting to know a radical group of people.
"Once I decided to actually write a book, then it was 'for' and 'about' the music," Thomas said, explaining why Listen, Whitey! is emphatically not a history of the Panthers. "Nobody had done the music/recordings angle; that is what makes my book unique." The process began with Thomas enjoying "informal dinners" and "casual hangs" with the Panther members, because he wanted to know them personally, "as fellow human beings rather than statues in a frozen place and time in history." It wasn't long before Thomas began to dig deeper, ardently amassing rare recordings of interviews, speeches, and music by legends of the movement such as Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and Bobby Seale, plus Thomas' favorite find, a recording of the song "Who Will Survive America" by Amiri Baraka. ("It blows me away every time I hear it — great groove, inspired lyrics.")
The music always came first. And what would the book about the music be without the music itself? For readers hoping to hear the sounds themselves, Light in the Attic Records released a soundtrack to the book on CD and double vinyl, replete with liner notes. The album represents Thomas' presentation of "this incredible wide range of recordings with a basic storyline and some tidbits of oddball info," he said. Thomas is certain that readers of the book will "want to hear at least some of what I'm talking about."
The 90,000-word book includes 250-plus full-color album covers, singles, posters, and lyric sheets. As for its title, Stanley Nelson, the documentary director and producer who wrote the book's foreword, admits to a "small, small quibble" with Listen, Whitey!, which was originally the title of a series of soundtracks to movies about the Free Huey movement and the death of Martin Luther King Jr. "I don't know if any one particular person declared 'listen, whitey,'" Thomas acknowledged, "but it made for a great album title forty years ago." And a great book today. 7:30 p.m., free. 510-649-1320 or PegasusBookstore.com