Revisiting a legend of black Los Angeles
Tom Reed, once L.A. radio’s ‘Master Blaster,’ has spent a lifetime telling the story of the city’s black community; at 77, he is still pursuing his quiet brand of activism.
By Doug Smith
Of all the memories of the 1960s, nothing stirs as much fondness as the magic of AM radio pouring out the rough-cut exuberance of doo-wop, the English invasion, surf music and anti-war ballads.
We all had our favorite call signs: KRLA, “Color Radio” KFWB, 93/KHJ. And then, there was KGFJ, the station that carried the rich sounds of rhythm and blues.
I was reminded of all that recently when I heard from Master Blaster, the ambassador of soul who brought singers like James Brown to the mix of counterculture, psychedelic, anti-war and hurdy-gurdy sounds that paced that chaotic time.
I had pretty much forgotten about Master Blaster — or Tom Reed, his real name — until his book arrived, autographed and inscribed with the flattering words, “You cover Los Angeles like a warm blanket of hope and fairness.”
The author of “The Black Music History of Los Angeles, Its Roots” is quoted regularly in The Times. For the past dozen years, Reed has been the go-to guy for our obituary desk when it needs a deft, one-line remembrance of a black Los Angeles musician.
On the 2007 death of Nellie Lutcher, who had 10 top R&B records, Reed said: “She did it all. She was an entertainer, composer, arranger, writer, pianist, singer.”
Digging deeper in the archives, I unearthed a surprising memory: I had written about Reed 25 years ago.
I interviewed him in his apartment in a massive Los Feliz complex of long, dark hallways. He had fashioned it into a combination living space and one-man video production studio where he shot interviews for a twice-monthly TV show on the history of black Los Angeles.
This is how I described him then: “Tom Reed today is a more mellow — and yet evidently more pained — metamorphosis of the young disc jockey with the Afro hair who spoke to Los Angeles rapid-fire on KGFJ radio in the days of civil rights and anti-war protests.”
When I first ran across Reed his radio days were long over. But he wasn’t living on his reputation.
Reed had started a TV production company and began making documentary videos on black life in Los Angeles. He told the straight story, without the hype and stereotypes required for commercial success.
His shows didn’t falsely glamorize black subjects but emphasized the contributions they had made. I assumed his enterprise would be short lived, a victim of its own ideals.
So I was intrigued to discover that in the intervening years Reed had written the definitive book on the South Central Avenue music scene. It’s more of a catalog than a literary work, giving thumbnails of the famous — Ray Charles and Dexter Gordon — alongside the obscure, such as Nellie Lutcher, with equal devotion and brevity.
He received me in a neat condo on a quiet street in North Hills.
Though he has spent three decades chronicling black life in Los Angeles, Reed has embraced the multicultural city. When priced out of his mixed Los Feliz neighborhood, he found his way to the northeast San Fernando Valley where his neighbors are Latino, white, black and Asian.
At 77, Reed is slightly stooped, but slender and still stylish, dressed in all black with a shock of gray-white hair falling under a black porkpie hat.
Reed led me through a white living room hung with portraits of Black America, and then up a staircase to his studio where he keeps a collection of music literature and LP records.
Reed started at the beginning, telling me about a kid in St. Louis whose goal in life was to play in the black baseball league like his cousin, Elston Howard, the first black man to play for the New York Yankees.
Reed got as far as a tryout. After serving in the Navy, he found his voice on South Central Avenue in Los Angeles, where the black music scene was at its peak.
Reed’s DJ career ended abruptly. He said he was fired for taking a stand for better pay for black announcers.
An activist he has remained, and a far more persistent one than I had imagined in 1988.
Since then — contrary to my expectations — he continued to produce TV documentaries, which come out about once a quarter. He proudly calls his show, “For Members Only,” the longest, continuously running African American TV show.
Today, he has four part-time employees who sell ads, prepare scripts and manage finances. He still runs on a shoestring. He has to pay upfront for time on Channel 18, the Asian-language channel. It's a manifestation of the L.A. he loves that a black-oriented documentary holds an audience on Asian TV.
His documentaries have tackled black radicals Malcolm X and Ron Karenga. He’s also explored sensitive topics like crime, drugs and deadbeat dads.
He gave me a DVD of one of his favorites on the roots of black choral music. It’s a melange of glowing interviews, historical and archival photos — far from slick in production value but full of beguiling moments.
His next production, due to air Jan. 15, will celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.
It’s a little hard to make out Reed’s take on himself. “I’m a legend,” he said, “still out there doing it, still carrying the torch, still telling it like it is.”
He said that when the day comes, his life’s work will be maintained either at UCLA or USC — he hasn’t decided which.
In another moment, he dismissed all forms of adulation as trifles. “It’s not about awards,” he said. “It’s about making a contribution, about doing something with your life.”
Nor is it about money. “If you go for the big bucks, you have to do it their way.”
What counts, he said, is the contribution: to his craft, his race and his society.
I left him suspecting that I would never see this man again, but glad I had the chance to catch up on his story before it becomes material for an obituary.
In 1988, I found Reed interesting. Now I find him enviable.
I’m hoping that in another 10 years, when I reach his age, I’ll still be telling the story of Los Angeles like Master Blaster.