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John Sinclair

The hardest working poet in the industry

Concise Biography by Al Campbell (All Music Guide) E-mail
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John Sinclair

Poet, blues and jazz historian, former manager of the MC5, radio host, and political activist all describe John Sinclair, but the consistent profile is one of a dedicated music enthusiast. Sinclair was born October 2, 1941, in Flint, MI, where he discovered rhythm & blues radio as a grade schooler. Disc jockeys like the Frantic Ernie D possessed the gift of consistently being able to speak in rhyme. His initial exposure to this music and unique banter had a life-altering effect on Sinclair. Upon graduation of high school he attended Albion College, University of Michigan at Flint, and went to graduate school at Wayne State University in Detroit for an M.A. in American Literature -- he did his graduate thesis on William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch -- before dropping out in 1965.

Throughout college Sinclair became enamored with jazz, embracing not only bebop but also the burgeoning avant-garde. Sparked by the love of this music, Sinclair took notice of the surrounding political culture that formed it. He heard Malcolm X speak, sided with the emerging antiwar movement, and had been introduced to a beatnik lifestyle. The combination of influences led to the creation of the Detroit Artists' Workshop, which would gradually morph into Trans Love Energies. Forming a commune with like-minded friends, they brought film, music, painting, and literature to anyone in the community who was interested, presenting art as universally tangible, not an unknown entity wrapped in an academic elitist shield.

In the midst of these high-energy surroundings, Sinclair was first introduced to the MC5 and shortly thereafter worked with the band as manager. In the midst of this creativity, the Detroit Riots took place in the summer of 1967. Coupled with years of police harassment aimed at the workshop, the tension forced Sinclair and friends to take refuge in the college town of Ann Arbor, MI. After setting up a similar communal situation in Ann Arbor, Sinclair followed the lead of the Black Panther Party and created their counterpart, the White Panther Party. The MC5 provided the musical vehicle for "total assault on the culture" propelling radical political statements to a national audience through rock & roll. The antagonistic rhetoric surrounding Sinclair found him among other political dissidents that were targeted by government officials.

Sinclair was finally railroaded off to jail after giving away two joints to an undercover narcotics agent. Since this was his third conviction on similar offenses, Sinclair received the maximum sentence of ten years. While in prison, the Free John campaign was founded and culminated in a benefit concert to get Sinclair released. Taking place in Ann Arbor, the benefit featured Phil Ochs, Stevie Wonder, Allen Ginsberg, Bobby Seale, and the main attraction, John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Lennon took up Sinclair's plight on the suggestion of newfound friends and radicals Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. He even wrote a song about the case, "John Sinclair," that was released on the Sometime in New York City album. Three days after the concert took place, the Michigan Supreme Court overturned his conviction and Sinclair was released from prison after serving two years.

A thorough investigation into these years of revolution was chronicled by Sinclair in his book Guitar Army, originally published in 1971 and featuring many sections written while in prison. Following his release, Sinclair hesitantly got back into music management and promotion, despite feeling burned by the MC5, who had discharged his services immediately when he went to prison; they dropped the White Panther rhetoric, made two more albums, and self-destructed in 1972.

Meanwhile, Sinclair co-founded the Rainbow Multi Media Corporation and the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival. When the funding for these projects ran out, he turned his attentions to local grassroots community issues, hosted radio shows, worked for NORML as state coordinator, and continued freelance writing for various publications. In 1991 the lifelong Michigan resident moved to New Orleans. The eclectic music scene flourishing in the Crescent City provided a rejuvenating base for the development of his spoken word poetry performances, backed by his band the Blues Scholars. He also started broadcasting at the award winning jazz and heritage radio station WWOZ.

1994 found Sinclair releasing his first musical project If I Could Be With You, featuring the Ed Moss Society Jazz Orchestra, from a performance in Cincinnati. In 1995 another live piece Full Moon Night was issued, this time featuring the Blues Scholars from a date at Kaldi's Coffeehouse in New Orleans, containing a freer musical backdrop more in tune with Sinclair's poetic style. Full Circle followed in 1996, reuniting Sinclair with early Detroit cohorts former-MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer and former-trumpeter of the Contemporary Jazz Quintet Charles Moore. The labor of love tribute to pianist Thelonious Monk, Thelonious: A Book of Monk, followed after years of red tape hassles, featuring Sinclair reciting his poetry sans musical accompaniment. In the late '90s, Sinclair also started digging through his taped archives of early Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival performances releasing discs by Sun Ra, Victoria Spivey, Roosevelt Sykes, Little Sonny, and various obscure Detroit blues artists.

Al Campbell, All Music Guide