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Music

The Story Behind The Song: Phil Lynott reclaims his past with 'Ode to a Black Man'

Straight from the get-go, Phil Lynott was determined to make a name for himself as a rock titan, firstly as the lead singer of Thin Lizzy, secondly as a solo artist. His career was brief – he died at the heartbreakingly young age of 36 – but he certainly made an impact, especially in Ireland, where rockers Bono and Bob Geldof acknowledged the foundations he laid for them as artists. 

Lynott, like Rory Gallagher and Terry Wogan, had to prove himself in a Britain that, at the time, likened the Emerald Isle to the balaclava-wearing terrorists who tore buildings down to the ground. But, as a singer of mixed racial heritage, he had other barriers that he had to overcome in his personal life. Where he spent much of the 1970s espousing his Irish background, Lynott felt sufficiently comfortable in himself and his art to use his expression to give an overview of his life as a Black child growing up in Dublin. 

Rather than write a lament to the days he spent walking around the streets surrounded by white people, ‘Ode to a Black Man’ is his expression of gratitude to the Black icons who comforted him in his hours of need. “If you see Malcolm, tell him I’m next,” he sings, putting the Nation of Islam spokesman in a list that also salutes Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix. Of course, in the wild guitarist Hendrix, Lynott found a kindred spirit and an icon who showed the young Dubliner that a “Black fella” could front a formidable rock band, and Lynott was briefly pencilled in for a possible biopic on the guitar player in the 1980s. 

Lynott appeared on The Late Late Show to discuss the film, and the songwriting bassist went out of his way to pay tribute to the ‘Foxy Lady’ writer, stating that he was one of Lynott’s “heroes.” The bassist could never match Hendrix as a guitar player, but he had a much better singing voice, which he used to great effect on ‘Song For Jimi’ in 1980. 

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Shortly after, amidst the recording of his first solo effort, Solo in Soho, Lynott widened the net to include all of the formative influences that made him the artist he was in later years. Although ‘Yellow Pearl’ was the monster hit, ‘Ode To A Blackman’ is the more impactful tune, detailing his truth at its most unvarnished and raw. While in the throes of celebration, Lynott nonetheless throws his fist in the direction of those who did their best to smear and spite him on his life’s mission. “But the people in this town, that try to put me down,” he cries, “are the people in the town, that could never understand a Black man.”

“If Phil hadn’t died, I know he would be in the middle of this right now,” his friend Jim Fitzpatrick recalled. “He was very passionate about race. But he rarely had any racial problems in Ireland.”

Lynott instructed Fitzpatrick to include a panther on the cover of Nightlife, a subtle allusion to the American Black Panther movement. But judging by the recordings of Thin Lizzy, Lynott seemed more eager to identify himself as an “Irishman” over a “Black man”, perhaps in solidarity with Brian Downey, Gary Moore and the other Irish bandmates who contributed to his work. Tellingly, he saved ‘Ode to a Black Man’ for his solo album, precisely because it was so personal to his life, and not that of the band’s. 

Comedian Billy Connolly claims the bassist once likened being “Black and Irish” to “a pint of Guinness”, which goes to show how entrenched he was in the culture of the island. Much like the drink that is exported all over the world, Lynott is a fixture of Ireland, and more importantly, Dublin. His life is commemorated by way of a statue, erected in Harry Street. Judging by this interview, he waved away resentments as the trappings of an island caught in constant rain and perpetual grey clouds. “It’s begrudging to its own,” he told Hot Press. “But, by the same token, there is an awful lot who are very proud. I mean, I’m proud when I see U2 or the Rats make it. However, I think it’s an Irishman’s right to knock Ireland, but I get offended if anybody foreign does it. There is the hypocrisy that I’m talkin’ about!”

Back to the song: The tune is bolstered by a harmonica part recorded by Huey Lewis, and features Thin Lizzy bandmate, Scott Gorham, on guitar. It’s an exhilarating recording, and Lynott rarely sounded wilder, pivoting from an anthemic growl to a more sustained whisper, before giving way to the excitement rushing through him. Lynott performed the song during an episode of Old Grey Whistle Test, and while it lacks the sophisticated production value of the album version, it makes up in swagger and style.