Living music legend, Pioneering Muslim inducted into Rock-n-Roll Hall of FameBy Starla Muhammad -Staff Writer- | Last updated: Sep 4, 2012 - 11:28:53 AM
From leaving home in the late 1940s as a 16-year-old touring on the road and experiencing the segregated South, to joining the Nation of Islam in the 1950s, Bro. Norman’s musical journey reached a crescendo recently with his induction into the famed Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year, along with fellow Muslim, Abdul Bin-Asad (formerly Lawson Smith) as members of the hit group, The Midnighters.
At 78, Norman Thrasher, now Norman Bilal Muhammad, has no intentions of slowing down. Having worked with musical legends Barry White, Little Richard, Ramsey Lewis, The Dells, The Spinners, Melba Moore and a host of others, there has been one constant and unwavering presence with him every step of the way, says Bro. Norman—Islam.
“I was born here in Detroit, Michigan, June 4, 1933. My uncle, my father’s brother, was a follower of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and Master Fard Muhammad at that time and he had told me, I was crawling on the floor and he had told me that one day the Black man was going to rule the world. He told me that when I was crawling. And I remembered that language all of my life and waiting for it to happen,” Bro. Norman told The Final Call.
They would often dress their best, a testament to an era in which regardless of economic circumstances, displaying a clean and sharp presentation was the order of the day.
“Everybody wanted to dress to impress and if you had on a shirt and tie, opposed to some blue jeans and a tee shirt, you got more respect,” said Bro. Norman. “In school I used to change my tie and shirt sometimes and slick down my hair between breaks, between classes. You wanted to make sure people thought that you were better than who you were by the way you dressed,” he added.
Even the musical style was unique back then, notes Bro. Norman.
“Very seldom an individual would sing by themselves so we were forming groups. My group was called the Serenaders and then we were called the Royal Jokers,” says Bro. Norman. Groups sang slow songs, known as ballads, in order to attract the young ladies but Bro. Norman also enjoyed upbeat, fast tempo songs.
“We were at the Paradise Theatre which was the main theatre in the city of Detroit everybody went to. Billy Water and The Dominos were there that week. They had a record out called ‘Have Mercy, Baby’ and during the break, a brother jumped back and started to boogying on the saxophone solo and he went to dancing. So we said, ‘What in the world is he doing?’ And that started me to dancing back then and I’ve been dancing ever since,” says Bro. Norman.
Bro. Norman, who sang bass with The Midnighters, joined the group in 1956 as a road manager, collecting ticket money and money from the promoters. He eventually was asked to join as a singer after another group member failed to show up one night. He remained with The Midnighters until the early 1960s.
In April of 2012 Bros. Norman and Lawson, the last surviving members of the group were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, along with five others who were posthumously honored. The group’s hits include, “Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go,” and “Work With Me Annie.” They were inducted by music great Smokey Robinson.
While today Black entertainers can freely travel throughout the United States, in the 50s and 60s it was a different story for Bro. Norman and others.
“We would leave Tampa, Florida going to St. Petersburg and pass by at 2 o’clock in the morning and see crosses burning out there in the field but didn’t realize what it was because we didn’t stop. We just saw people out in these fields burning these big crosses and later on we found out it was the Klu Klux Klan,” he added.
Always remembering his uncle’s words about the rise of Black people, Bro. Norman began studying the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad in the 1950s. It was a tape of the Nation of Islam patriarch played by a representative of Mr. Muhammad from Baltimore, Minister Isaiah Karriem, that he heard the voice for the first time.
“From that day to this day I fell in love with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s voice because his voice was calling me to him and that’s what started me to following him. And that was 57-years-ago,” said Bro. Norman, who was friends with Malcolm X even before becoming a Muslim. He also grew up with another legend, Motown founder, Barry Gordy. Through the years, Bro. Norman worked with Capital Records, 20th Century Fox and other major record labels.
He credits Islam with helping him stay strong in an industry full of temptation and sin. The F.B.I. would come by the booking agency to tell them to stop booking The Midnighters when Bro. Norman and Bro. Lawson joined the Nation of Islam, he said. “But we were making so much money for the agencies and the promoters that they couldn’t stop us. They wouldn’t dare stop us.” Bro. Norman, who served as Fruit of Islam captain in Atlanta, said he was honored to meet Mr. Muhammad for the first time in 1964.
Bro. Norman continues performing to this day, traveling with Little Richard, has performed for Min. Farrakhan a number of times, and is still recording and releasing music. He attributes his success and longevity in the entertainment industry to remaining steadfast in his faith as a student and follower of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. He offers this advice to young people wanting to do the same: “Learn how to stay humble and don’t try to go on the stage and try to outdo somebody else. Just go on the stage and do the best that they can with what they do and Allah will bless them to be successful.”