The roots of one of the first all-Black bands to play and tour as a “punk rock” group starts around 1970 on Detroit’s east side.
Kenny “Reno” Richards said he was about 13 when along with some middle school friends started to an R&B group in their neighborhood near French Road and Shoemaker. By 1972 the group had a manager, Ace Jones, and was called The Salt & Pepper Band (or SPB) while featuring a White piano player and horn section. The group started to branch into jazz and blues songs as well as Jones got them bigger gigs including one playing a George McGovern for President event in Metro Detroit and then touring the Midwest & the South including the Tuskegee University in Alabama. According to Discogs, The Salt & Pepper Band backed up Jones on two singles – one in 1976 and one in 1977.
Around 1975, just before the singles were recorded, a four-piece version of SPB without the horns and piano started playing heavy rock and roll as well.
In 1977 Jones took the band to meet Jack Tann and Don Fagenson – a two-man business and music team looking to create something to cater to the emerging punk rock market. Richards said the then unnamed band rehearsed for about six months before Tann suggested the name. Then in March 1978 the band emerged along with The Traitors and The Pigs into a traveling three-band bill called “The Motor City Revue”. Richards said he believes his group was the first all-Black band to take on the mantel of “punk rock” and tour under it.
By fall 1978 the band was done with the punk rock days as “The Motor City Revue” ended. The group went back to playing R&B in Detroit until it broke up around 1984. Richards left Detroit for California in 1984.
A February 26th, 1978 article in the Detroit Free Press, the band had recorded at least one demo, a song entitled “Crazy White Bitch”.
“See, it’s a barrier between black and white, that word. We’re trying to break that barrier, like Richard Pryor. You got to smash it, to go beyond, and we feel like we bringin’ people more closer together. We’re trying to help, and I really like I love everybody… we really want people to understand. We ain’t out to offend no one. But things have got to change. And we gonna be part of that.” – Toby Davis Richards to the Detroit Free Press (February 26th, 1978)
In a six-page booklet created to drum up business for the Motor City Revue, it states: “The only Black New Wave band in the world, The Niggers make their national debut in February with The Motor City Revue.
Trading off the explosive nature of their name, The Niggers will automatically generate curiosity, notoriety and excitement as they travel from city to city. The Niggers are much more than an outrageous name. They are a powerful music mutation destined to gain national recognition.
Combined with The Traitors and The Pigs they make the Motor City Revue the most unusual package offered in 1978.”
The band played as part of Tann-Fagenson’s Motor City Revue at Bookie’s Club 870 on March 3rd and 4th, 1978 and did shows in Boston, at Philadelphia’s Hot Club and New York’s CBGBs later that same month.
Don McAlpine of The Traitors says the band was a funk group that answered an ad in the Detroit News that producer Jack Tann had placed seeking a Black band to play punk rock. The group was given the name by the producer, and asked to copy the type of songs The Traitors were doing according to McAlpine.
After taking part in the Revue shows in the spring of 1978, McAlpine claims the band stopped working with the Revue after a dispute about the headlining spot in the production. Richards said he didn’t know exactly why the group was dropped and the Revue ended.
As for the background on the band, the Detroit Free Press article from February 1978 stated the band was managed by a Detroit R&B producer known as Ace Jones who, wearing a turban and a black leather jacket, talked about how he, as a blues guitarist in his 40s and originally from Alabama, understands the questions about the name:
“I’ve been with these boys, keep ’em together, since they was 13. Now they are 20, 21 years old. They played jazz, they played the blues, they played waltz and polka music when I got ’em work at parties in Bloomfield Hills. They played for migrant workers, and I taught ’em Latin music.
I was nervous about the name. I asked 50 people – white and black – about it. These were my friends. A couple said, “Ace, you’re crazy.” But most of ’em said it’s time words like this that were said in private should be bought out there.
Sure, we want to cash in and go to the top. It ain’t been easy. Can you blame us? We got a gimmick. But we ain’t sellin’ ourselves-or the people-out.”
According to Ben Blackwell, Detroit music writer/archivist/Dirtbombs member/Third Man Records executive, when Jones talked about his work in Detroit, including several independent r&b sides in the 1960s, he was asked about working with this band. Jones said he did not have any of their material or know where they happened to be.
“Musically, the group was surprisingly good. The material was a cross between Jimi Hendrix and the Funkadelics. It had the feel and punch of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” – that could have been because one of the group’s songs used pretty much the same chord changes,” wrote Dave Zurawik, the reporter for the Detroit Free Press.
In 2020 Richards said he believes his former bandmates still live in the Detroit area with the exception of guitarist J.C. Richards who died in 2012.
If you happen to have any additional information about the band or recordings please let us know.