“If you enjoy escaping, so to speak, that’s really what it is to me. It’s kind of like an escape into creativity, and thank God, I don’t know what I would do without that.”
Felix Cavaliere on Songwriting
“People Got to Be Free”
Music and Lyrics: Felix Cavaliere & Eddie Brigati
Producer: The Rascals & Arif Mardin
“People Got to Be Free” was released in 1968 and features Cavaliere on lead vocals. The song is a musically upbeat but impassioned plea for tolerance and freedom. It became a huge hit in the turbulent summer of 1968, spending five weeks at the top of the Billboard Pop Singles chart, the group’s longest streak.
So, let’s set the stage here. It’s 1968, Robert Kennedy has just been assassinated and you were out of the country in Jamaica. Why don’t you pick it up from there and tells us about “People Got to Be Free.”
Correct, I was in Ochos Rios. I heard about it on a shortwave radio. It was an extremely emotional event. I was seeing somebody who was actually there. I don’t think she’s ever been the same. I don’t think anybody in that room was ever the same. Can you imagine? You know, ‘Hey, we won, we won! Oh, what was that noise?’ It must have been horrible.
But in my case, I was a long distance [away] but it still hit me. I had met the [Kennedy] family. I was really involved. And I don’t know if our world has ever been the same because we don’t really know what would have happened. We might have a different planet right now, who knows, but that really affected me, and I wanted to write a song as just a statement.
It’s just like today, basically, the artists are tongue-tied. They’re afraid to step out because they lose half their audience. That wasn’t the case in the old days. We spoke out because we were really committed. I mean [John] Lennon is a perfect example. He made a lot of people angry, but he didn’t care. I didn’t care either.
And that’s the thing, I ran into difficulty with the record company ‘cause they did care. If you lose half your audience, they really cared.
Can you take me inside that conversation with the record company? I don’t see how the lyrics to “People Got to Be Free” are that controversial. They seem peaceful to me.
Yeah, well, Jerry Wexler, who was my adversary over there at Atlantic Records, God rest his soul, he was the guy we had to fight with for everything. They didn’t even want to put “Groovin” out because it didn’t have a drum on it. ‘No man, you guys are a rock n’ roll band. What are you doing with this Latin thing?’
I don’t know if you remember Murray the K?
Murray was in the studio while we did that song. He literally went to Jerry and said, ‘You know what man? I’ll put that on the radio today.’ That’s what he did for “People Got to Be Free.” They just said, ‘What are you getting involved for? Why are you even making it?’
I said, ‘No, man. You don’t understand. Sometimes you just got to tell people where you’re at. You can be on the other side.’ I had to do that. That was really important to me. When you’re involved in a campaign, you’re really involved. That was a really interesting time for the country and for me.