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The musicology of Tom Bee

Tom Bee's music label, SOAR (Sound of America Records) is synonymous with contemporary Native music. The label features such best selling artists as the rapper Shadowyze, folk musician Howard Lyons, the world trance of Brule, and many others. In the late 1960s, 20 years before he founded the label, Bee laid the groundwork for the contemporary Native sound with his band XIT (pronounced "Exit"). Their body of work is arguably one of the missing links in the history of rock music. Three of XIT's original releases, "Plight of the Redman," "Silent Warrior," and "Relocation" have been reissued by SOAR along with their reunion CD and DVD "XIT: Without Reservation."

From a sonic standpoint, XIT is overwhelming. The band mixed the sculpted productions of the Moody Blues and Phil Spector with the orchestrated ballad sound Love's "Forever Changes" and the rock sensibility of Santana into the first Native concept albums. The lush productions on songs like "Beginning/At Peace" from "Plight" or "Awakening" from "Silent" are stunning (costing more than $100,000 each to produce). Native drums, bells, and traditional songs were incorporated into the production; the songs range from beautiful epics about the love of earth to hard-rocking protests against the injustices Native people have suffered.

Bee grew up in Gallup, N.M., near the Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial Grounds, where he became fascinated with the sound of traditional Native music. There was also an armory next to the grounds where he saw the founders of rock and roll perform, like Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and Fats Domino. Bee was fascinated with both styles of music, and he also discovered that a speech impediment he had since childhood went away when he sang. It was the perfect set of circumstances to create a future leader in the Native music scene. "I was raised on the wrong side of the tracks, but that's where all the action was," Bee laughed.

Bee started going to California every summer from the time he was 15 and eventually got his foot in the door of the record industry. In 1968, Exit (as it was originally spelled) released their first album, "Drive It," on the Mainstream label. In 1969 they had a concert in California, and while they were there Bee dropped off demo tapes to every major record company, including Motown. A few weeks later Motown contacted him about one of the songs, "(We've Got) Blue Skies," which was eventually recorded by the Jackson Five on their 1971 album, "Maybe Tomorrow."

Exit signed with the label and became the last band to record an album, "Plight," in the legendary Hitsville Studio before Motown moved to Los Angeles. "Motown wanted us to change our name to something more stereotypical, like Yellow Horse," Bee laughed. "That was around the time the American Indian Movement (AIM) was representing Native Americans in a contemporary fashion without stereotypes. We came up with 'XIT,' which means the 'Crossing' of 'Indian Tribes.'"

According to Bee, Motown loved "Plight," but they were stumped on how to market the album. It also met resistance from radio stations and retail chains. "As soon as they heard 'Go away White man, this is our land,' they said 'We don't want the record.' They heard it as a slap against America. The album was never meant to be militant or radical, it came from the heart and told a story, but unfortunately the truth hurts and cuts deep. The press called us 'the musical ambassadors of the American Indian Movement.' We believed in their platform, we did a lot of benefits in conjunction with AIM, and the message in our music basically was their platform, so it was a perfect combination."

A couple of years passed and XIT recorded the equally brilliant "Silent Warrior." Motown gave it heavy promotion, but this time resistance came from the White House. "President Nixon sent a letter to all of the radio stations encouraging them not to play it," Bee said. "They didn't want to be involved in, quote 'Any Indian uprising.' This was during the height of Wounded Knee. At the same time, Berry Gordy (the founder of Motown) told his salespeople to pull back because he didn't want to get caught up in any possible controversy." Ironically, Motown was simultaneously involved in producing their most politically-charged albums, such as Marvin Gaye's "What's Going on" and Stevie Wonder's "Innervisions." Bee notes that prior to XIT, the label had never released anything controversial. "I like to think that we stirred it up a little bit."

Motown overextended their budget and XIT was dropped. The band recorded one more album, 1977's "Relocation" for Canyon Records, but at that point all of the frustration was tearing the band apart. Bee kept XIT alive for a few more years, but finally called it quits in 1981 and bought the rights to the two Motown albums. "I went for several years not knowing what I wanted to do, but around 1988 people were asking me if I had any cassettes of the XIT albums for distribution, and I felt the timing was right for a new Native American label. I put quality productions, sales, graphics and marketing into the music and treated is as regular music, not just trading post music. SOAR brought Native American record companies out of a coma; we were the first company to put out Native music on CD, and the first to get it out to the mainstream retail shops."

XIT reunited in 1988 for a concert, and again in 2000 for a show presented on "Without Reservations." They have reunited once since then to a huge audience in New Mexico. "XIT not only pioneered Indian rock, but whether they admit it or not, we inspired the contemporary sound, the Robert Mirabals and Keith Secolas," Bee said. "XIT's records are still selling today because very little has changed in Native America." For more information on XIT, Bee's solo work and other SOAR recording artists, visit soundofamerica.com.