Sun Ra (born Herman Poole Blount, legal name Le Sony'r Ra, May 22, 1914 – May 30, 1993) is one of the oddest oddballs in Jazz. Despite being born as Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, he denied this person ever existed and claimed he was actually born as Sun Ra on the planet Saturn, where he was abducted by aliens and brought to Earth. They apparently told him to spread a message of intergalactical brotherhood and peace, which he took very seriously.
He and his band members began dressing up in Egyptian headgear and costumes and performed mystical music, characterized by long hypnotizing performances, mixed with Ancient Astronauts themes and imagery borrowed from Ancient Egypt culture and mythology. Sun Ra became very popular near the end of the 1950s and especially during the 1960s where fans of Psychedelica adored his shows. In 1974 he even managed to produce a feature film called Space Is the Place.
Sun Ra was definitely a very eccentric person. As an asexual he had no interest in romantic relationships. He was a very disciplined and a spiritual man who refrained from drinking alcohol and taking other drugs. He also genuinely believed the Science Fiction background he imagined for himself. During his final illness, Sun Ra's baffled physician called a neurologist for his advice. "This man insists he's from Saturn. What should we do?" The second doctor arrived, and taking one look said, "This is Sun Ra; of course he's from Saturn."
Also note that Sun Ra's extraterrestrial musician concept happened decades before David Bowie recorded Space Oddity (1969) and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972). Sun Ra was also a pioneer in using keyboards, synthesizers and influences from other genres in his work, predating Miles Davis' late 1960s experiments with jazz fusion. He is considered to be the Trope Codifier and Genre Popularizer for Afro-Futurism and was a big influence on George Clinton's stage shows and albums with Parliament and Funkadelic in the 1970s. Other fans of his music are Devo, who started their career as an opening act for his shows, MC5, The Residents, Matt Groening, dEUS and Björk. If you want to check out his work you may experience Archive Panic, for he was active from 1934 until his death in 1993, releasing well over 100 albums, comprising over 1000 songs. Not to mention the seriously limited editions pressed and printed by Ra and The Arkestra themselves. They used to doodle on the album covers before it was cool. These releases often had tracks available nowhere else.
To this day, the Sun Ra Arkestra continues to tour under the direction of Long Runner saxophonist Marshall Allen, which has acquired its own discography as well, and hopefully sending fans into space for years to come!
- The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)
- Strange Strings (1966)
- Space Is the Place (soundtrack) (1993)
- Space Is the Place (1974)
Sun Ra's music provides examples of:
- Afrofuturism: Trope Codifier, due to the way he combined sci-fi concepts with Egyptian and other African imagery.
- Alien Abduction: Sun Ra claimed he was abducted by aliens and brought to Earth from the planet Saturn. He elaborated on this theme in his stage shows and albums.
- All There in the Manual: He had his own magazine, "Sun Ra Research", devoted to extensive documentation on his perspectives on many issues.
- Ancient Astronauts: The earliest musician to deal with this topic.
- Ancient Egypt: Sun Ra was very interested in the culture of the Ancient Egyptians. He and his band members dressed in Egyptian-styled headdresses and costumes and their music often dealt with astrological themes and imagery pioneered in the Middle East.
- Astral Finale: In every concert.
- Atlantis: He recorded an album about Atlantis.
- Avant-Garde Music: He is considered to be part of the freejazz movement.
- Badass Pacifist: He claimed to be a "conscientious objector" in World War II, serving time in both prison and a psychiatric hospital before a hernia got him classed as a 4-F.
- Big Band: His band sometimes counted around 30 musicians a time.
- Celibate Eccentric Genius: Between his lack of sexual and romantic interest, his prolific and innovative musical talents, and his unique worldview, he qualified.
- Cloudcuckoolander: He claimed to be abducted by aliens and was actually born on Saturn. His eccentricity was manifestly skilled and bordered on Outsider Music, were it not that his music is actually performed by professionals.
- Clothes Make the Legend : Sun Ra never appeared in public without being dressed in his Iconic Outfit: long robe, Ancient Egyptian headgear. His Arkestra to this day continues the tradition.
- Concept Album: In a sense all his albums were built around the same afro-futuristic concept of Ancient Egyptian culture and space themes.
- Cool Old Guy: Marshall Allen is the epitome of this, born in 1924 and still leading the band!
- Crossover: Performed together with John Cage once.
- Cover Version: He covered "Pink Elephants On Parade" from Dumbo, which appears on the Disney tribute album Stay Awake too. But his most famous cover among jazz enthusiasts is Duke Ellington's "Take the A Train."
- Electronic Music: Sun Ra was an early user of both the electric piano and the Wurlitzer organ.
- Epic Rocking: His performances are sound scapes which could take on several minutes.
- Everything Is an Instrument: From Strange Strings, there is "Door Squeak," the titular instrument played awesomely by Sun Ra!
- The Future Will Be Better: His music spread the message that mankind would have to unite and that perhaps one day they would be picked up or transported by aliens to another more peaceful place in space.
- Genre Mashup: Sun Ra's music was a mixture of Jazz, Blues, Avant-Garde Music, World Music and Classical Music.
- God-Is-Love Songs: Sun Ra was very interested in all kinds of ancient mythologies and cults, Kabbalah, Zen Buddhism, gnosticism, rosicrucianism, numerology and mysticism. He mixed religious chants with space imagery. One album is called "God Is More Than Love Can Ever Be" and one song is called "El is the Sound of Joy."
- I Am the Band: Sun Ra was the face of his large musical ensembles.
- Improv: Like many other jazz musicians Sun Ra was fond of experimenting live on stage.
- Live Album: Brought out many concert albums, which was often the best way to experience the splendor of his work.
- Sun Ra performed on stage from the late 1930s until the early 1990s.
- Marshall Allen, who now directs the Sun Ra Arkestra, has been in the group since the late 1950s.
- Meaningful Rename: He considered his birth name a slave name, thus preferring Sun Ra not just as an artists' pseudonym but his actual persona.
- Messianic Archetype: Sun Ra saw himself as a chosen one, who had to tell the Earth, through music, to wake up and become one pacifist people.
- New Sound Album: For ''Strange Strings," Sun Ra had his Astro-Infinity Arkestra improvise on stringed instruments he had collected while he played an aluminum sheet with an "X" painted on it.
- The Power of Rock: "Space is The Place" talks about transporting planet Earth to a better planet out there through music.
- Pun: Called his band the Arkestra.
- Revolving Door Band: Many musicians came and went to join his band. Some stayed a long time. Others only for a few recordings.
- One fascinating anecdote, that may or may not be true: if Sun Ra didn’t like how someone was playing (or perhaps acting) he would just leave them stranded. The band would leave town without them. Sun Ra did this in Europe frequently enough for the State Department to ask him to at least abandon them stateside, as Sun Ra was causing a minor ongoing international incident by leaving Europe littered with Jazz musicians without passports after his tours.
- Self-Titled Album: "Jazz by Sun Ra", "Sun Ra Visits Planet Earth", "The Heliocentric Worlds Of Sun Ra".
- Sun Ra's Afrospace imagery inspired George Clinton to use similar themes on his albums with Funkadelic and Parliament.
- The lyrics of "Starship" from MC5' album Kick Out the Jams were partially borrowed from Sun Ra.
- Belgian rock band dEUS named a track on their album Pocket Revolution (2005): "Sun Ra". Lead singer Tom Barman is a huge jazz fan.
- The Show Must Go Wrong: One of his songs had the following message:You made a mistake. You did something wrong. Make another mistake, and so something right
- Space Rock: Probably a marginal example, as Sun Ra was Jazz rather than Rock, but boy oh boy did he have everything else associated with the genre.
- Touched by Vorlons: Sun Ra claimed to have earned his wisdom from interaction with Saturnians.
- Unperson: His past life was dismissed by him and he insisted he was born on Saturn and brought to this Earth under the pseudonym Sun Ra he made for himself. Thus Herman Poole Blount had never existed according to him.
- Vague Age: Adding to Sun Ra's mystery was the fact that his birth date remained a mystery until close around his death. Thus he could claim in his work that he was an ancient being.