If you've seen the rock documentary Rattle and Hum (1988), you'll a remember a brief but resonant scene.
After filming a inspirational tune, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," with a Harlem gospel choir, the members of U2 ended up back on the street--125th Street, about a block from the Apollo Theater. There, Bono and the Edge lingered for a long moment, watching an unlikely duo: a bearded older black man singing, strumming guitar, and kicking on a pair of hi-hat cymbals, and a young white man with a white cowboy hat playing harmonica. The duo was performing a song called "Freedom For My People":
That dorky looking white guy on the left is me. The singer/guitarist/percussionist is Sterling Magee. Back then, everybody in Harlem called him Mr. Satan. In the summer of 1987, when this scene was filmed, Sterling and I had been playing together for about six months.
The whole encounter took no more than two minutes. One moment we were playing the song, a recent addition to our repertoire; the next moment the sparse crowd in front of us was swelling, then, after another long moment, moving along. I noticed somebody filming us, but that's about it. I had no idea we were being checked out by what was, at that time, one of the most popular rock groups in the world. A member of their production team gave Sterling's friend and sometime-manager, Bobby Robinson, a card as they were leaving. (And no: we didn't meet U2 that day and still haven't met them.)
"That was U2!" somebody said after they'd gone. I'd heard of them--who hadn't?--but didn't know their music. I was a blues guy, not a rock guy, and quickly forgot about the episode. Then one of their people contacted Bobby and said they wanted to use the footage they'd shot of us in a movie they were making about the band.
I tell the rest of the story in my 1998 memoir, Mister Satan's Apprentice, so I won't repeat it here, except to say that it's a funny story and involves me being cursed at, viciously, by an entertainment lawyer from Hollywood.
But what about the song? There's been a lot of confusion about this over the years, so I want to set the record straight.
The lyrics--and they are brilliant--are 100% Sterling Magee's. He thought them up; he wrote them down. Then he brought them down to our spot in Harlem one day in the spring of 1987, strumming a basic chord pattern behind them. I added a wheezing 34 draw behind the refrain--"I like that!" he chuckled, quickly referring to it as my "frying-eggs sound"--and firmed up the breakaway section between verses with some soaring tongue-blocked octaves.
"Freedom For My People" wasn't blues. It's hard to say WHAT we were creating in this song. I've called it "folk-soul," because it reminds me of Richie Havens, but you can call it whatever you want.
The brief, 38-second excerpt of "Freedom" that made its way into Rattle and Hum showed up on every copy--cassette, CD, video, DVD--of the film and accompanying album: more than 20 million to date. And it made us famous in a small way, early in our duo career. The funny thing was, it didn't begin to convey the power and majesty of the song. It was just a tasting portion.
When Sterling and I went into the studio for the first time in 1990, we decided to record a full-length version. We did two takes. Neither of them was released on our first album, Harlem Blues (1991), but the second take was included on Mother Mojo (1993). That version has been in circulation for a quite a while.
Recently I pulled the master tapes from 1990 out of my closet and, with the help of a local studio found the first take. It's exceptionally nice--superior in every respect to the second take.
Now, at last, that first version of "Freedom For My People" is available as a single. You can purchase it at iTunes and Amazon.
If you cover or reference the song, here's full crediting information as listed at BMI. (Although it's not listed, Sterling Magee has 100% of the songwriting; we split the composer-side 50/50%.)