When renowned jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd became the jazz studies director at Howard University in Washington, DC, one of his goals was to introduce young musicians to performing and the music business. He created a band featuring students and older seasoned musicians that could tour together, but arguments ensued because of the age gap between members. So Byrd brought together drummer Keith Killgo (pictured left) and bassist Joe Hall (second from right), both from the District; pianist Kevin Toney and saxophonist Allan Barnes (right) from Detroit; and guitarist Barney Perry, who was from Buffalo, NY but went to Howard, and The Blackbyrds were born. Byrd’s protégées had other musical interests in addition to jazz—they also love R&B and rock. The students had no idea where the band was going, they just wanted to play, learn from Byrd, and hear themselves on a record. Soon they were playing shows along the East Coast in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.
In 1973 The Blackbyrds traveled to Berkeley, California to record their self-titled first LP on Fantasy Records, produced by Byrd and fellow Howard students the Mizell Brothers. The record was a hit and contained the song “Do It, Fluid,” which reached the Billboard Hot 100. The group toured internationally on the weekends, maintaining full semester course schedules at Howard during the week. Their 1974 follow up “Flying Start” featured the hit “Walking in Rhythm,” which reached #6 on the Billboard Hot 100. Barney Perry left, Orville Saunders (second from left) joined, and in 1975 The Blackbyrds recorded both the albums “City Life,” which produced the hits “Flying High,” “Happy Music,” and “Rock Creek Park;” and the soundtrack for the film “Cornbread, Earl and Me.” Eventually the band’s lack of ownership of royalty rights to their music created too much financial strain and they went on hiatus after the release of their 1980 album, “Better Days.”
The Blackbyrds returned with a single, “Mysterious Vibes,” in 2003 and in 2010 they toured with jazz legend Herbie Hancock. In March 2012, The Blackbyrds released their first new album in more than 30 years, titled “Gotta Fly.” The group now features Killgo, Hall, Saunders, and Barnes, and in tradition with their early mission also features some new younger members including a former student of Killgo, who is a teacher at Anacostia Senior High School.
The Blackbyrds have also been sampled by hip-hop artists such as Big K.R.I.T., De La Soul, Del the Funky Homosapien, Eric B. & Rakim, Gang Starr, the Jungle Brothers, Nas, N.W.A., 2Pac, Ultramagnetic MC’s, and Wiz Khalifa.
“We’re not done yet,” says Killgo. We have some more to say.”