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Death: A '70s Rock Trailblazer, Reborn

Starting Wednesday, more than 1,700 bands will perform at this week's South by Southwest music festival. Many of them will get their first chance at a career breakthrough, but one had to wait 35 years for the attention.

In the 1970s, the music of Detroit could be split into two powerful scenes: the black soul, funk and R&B of Motown and the white rock 'n' roll of The Stooges, MC5, Bob Seger and Alice Cooper. Somewhere in the middle was Death.

Bobby Hackney sang in the band, which also featured his brothers: Dannis played drums; David played guitar and wrote the songs.

"We didn't fit in at all," says Bobby. "The rock bands that we identified with ... we didn't hang out with those guys. We were in the inner city, on the east side, in the black community. Most of the bands were doing stuff like Al Green, Earth Wind & Fire, The Isley Brothers. Being in the black community and having a rock band, people just looked at us like we was weird. After we got done with a song, instead of cheering and clapping, people would just be looking at us."

David Hackney's idea for a band name didn't help. "Our name of the band was Rock Fire Funk Express," says Bobby. "David convinced us to change the name of the band to Death. His concept was spinning death from the negative to the positive. It was a hard sell."

Record producers expressed an interest in Death, but demanded a name change. David Hackney refused. Disco was taking over, and Death broke up in 1977. But before it did, it recorded an album. Bobby Hackney Jr. heard two of the songs online.

"I was just floored. I was blown away. I just couldn't believe that it came out of our bloodline," he says. "I immediately called my father and I was like, 'Dad, why didn't you tell us about Death? Why didn't you ever show us these recordings? They're amazing.'"

Bobby Jr., two of his brothers and two of their friends formed a band called Rough Francis to play Death's songs. The legend grew of an uncompromising black rock band that predated punk, and last year, the independent label Drag City released the 1975 album, called ...For The World To See.

For Bobby Sr., the belated recognition is bittersweet. "David never wavered on the fact that the world one day would know about Death," says his brother. "He always believed it, right to the very end. As a matter of fact, right before he died in 2000, he came to me with some additional tapes. And he said, 'Listen, you gotta keep these.' And I told him, I says, 'David, I already have enough of our stuff, man.' And he said, 'No, Bobby, you gotta do this.' He says, 'Listen, the world's gonna come looking for this music. I know that you will have it.' This was maybe a year before he died."

This weekend, with a friend named Bobbie Duncan filling in on guitar, Death will reassemble to play its old songs at South by Southwest. A tour will follow, but beyond that, who knows?

Bobby Hackney, Sr., might know. "We have a saying, my brother and I: 'We're like passengers on a train, man. We're just gonna ride it to the station.' There's a conductor at the helm, and it's not us. And we don't know how long the journey will be, but one thing we will do, and we're committed to doing, and that is to honor our brother David every step of the way."

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)