Women’s History Month: Nina Simone’s “Four Women”

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Lately, between Andresmusictalk and my own blog Dystopian Dance Party, I feel like I’ve been writing a lot about Nina Simone. Not that I’m complaining, of course. Simone is one of my all-time favorite artists: a bold and daring a performer who nevertheless carried herself with an imperious dignity that earned her the title “High Priestess of Soul.” And, especially in the late 1960s, her voice as a radical Black woman made vital contributions to the very culture that marginalized her.

Take, for example, her 1966 song “Four Women,” an emotional portrait of the manifold ways African American women have been oppressed throughout history. Over an ominous blues piano line, Simone lends subjectivity to four archetypal figures: the dark-skinned slave “Aunt Sarah,” the mulatto “Safronia,” the Jezebel/prostitute “Sweet Thing,” and finally the embittered militant “Peaches.” With her last verse, she declares that the rage at the heart of the Black Civil Rights movement is both inevitable and justified by the indignities of the past; “I’m awfully bitter these days,” she admits, “because my parents were slaves.” And in inhabiting these figures–widely perceived as negative, racist stereotypes–she gives them a sense of humanity and empathy that could not be found in the women’s movement of the time.

The place of Black women in feminism has of course been contested since the days of Sojourner Truth; it remains, unfortunately, an ongoing struggle, seen most recently in debates leading up to this January’s Women’s March on Washington. But with songs like “Four Women,” Nina Simone ensured that the uniqueness of Black women’s experiences were expressed, whether “mainstream” feminism chose to acknowledge them or not. And her music continues to resonate–as evidenced by the above cover version, performed by the Berklee College of Music chapter of Black Lives Matter. It is, as ever, sad that a song written about the plight of Black women in 1966 could remain so necessary over 50 years later; things being as they are, however, at least now we can be glad it exists.

Remember to check out Dystopian Dance Party next week for five more days of music by great women artists! See you soon.

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Teddy Pendergrass’s Self Titled Debut Album Is About To Turn 40: A Blue Note Goes Solo

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Teddy Pendergrass’s debut album will be 40 years old this coming June 12th. It was a huge part of the Philly soul renaissance that peaked during the late 70.s 1977 alone was also one of the red letter years,along with 1977,where funky and soulful album masterpieces seemed to dominate the music world in general. Since this coming Sunday would’ve Teddy’s 67th birthday,it seemed fitting to give his classic debut album upon leaving Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes an overview. And luckily I already wrote one via Amazon.com,shortly after his passing in early 2010,that can be presented here.


Well here I go copping out lol. Teddy Pendergrass has just passed and here I am reviewing him for the first time. Interesting how when someone isn’t with us anymore that sometimes our thoughts about their artistry really come to the surface. In this case it’s a good thing because this is Teddy’s debut solo album and it was and still is a joyous occasion all around. This is one of those albums that,among it’s eight tracks you’ll be hard pressed to find a dud in the bunch.

Between the writing,production and lyrics of Gamble & Huff and the unmistakable sound of MFSB there is a level of consistency and musical potency here that so many people making their solo debut outside a group setting can hope to achieve. It wasn’t as if Teddy hadn’t already achieved a brilliant level of quality with the Blue Notes but at the same time he only outdid himself here. With the varying rhythms,tasty orchestration weaving in and out of the songs and Teddy’s elastic shouts and gruff coos not only made him a huge star with this release but made huge creative strides as well.

The tempo is raised on “You Can’t Hide From Yourself” and again,there’s a message in the music: let what that message is be a surprise when you hear it. Not only that but the percussive groove and the instrumental rhythms within them cross the boundaries between soul,funk,Latin,pop and disco music with such an ease you may in fact forget that the very nature of the Philly Sound embraces all of those flavors into it’s own sound with the musicality of those involved running on all thrusters.

“Be Sure”,the hit “I Don’t Love You Anymore” and “The More I Get,The More I Want” are all equally shimmering jams all emphasizing the same type of idea and all with the same catchy and well arranged tunes as well. As with many albums of this era the the mid tempo tunes really give singer and musicians the opportunity to stretch out in different ways. The soulful “Somebody Told Me” and the Latin inflected groove of “Easy,Easy,Got To Take It Easy” both allow the heavy,easy and mid range of Teddy’s vocal instrument to announce the versatility he was capable of.

“And If I Had” and “The Whole Town’s Laughing At Me” of course give you two of those great Teddy ballads,building on the same foundation as the uptempo tunes he does here. On this album Teddy sings about the ins and outs of romance,the twists and turns of the sexual revolution and the social concerns of people at the time-all embodying the strengths of the Philly Sound and few solo performers pulled it off quite the way Teddy did. In the end you have as astonishing a debut as anyone could possibly ask for.


Teddy Pendergrass: 1950-2010

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Record Store Stories: Happy 64th Birthday To Chaka Khan, Plus Rufus’s ‘Street Player’s Vinyl LP Goodies

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Chaka Khan hit yet another personal rough patch last year so it seems. Thought she had to cancel her concert tour to re-enter rehab,she has reached 64 without succumbing to last years “funkapocalypse” of musical artists deaths. Though her solo career has been an amazing progression,there will always be something a bit magical to me about her grooves with Rufus. Especially in the mid 70’s to early 80’s. The scope of evolution from their blues/rock oriented early sound to a uniquely produced jazzy funk sound in their later years really came into focus on their 1978-just prior to Chaka going solo. The name of that album was Street Player.

This album marked the moment when David “Hawk” Wolinski became an official member of the band. And their one and only album featuring Andre Fischer’s successor in drummer Richard “Moon” Calhoun. This is not a story about this album however. Its about being in my town of birth-Waterville,Maine. And visiting a record store there with my boyfriend Scott called Record Connection. This record store is somewhat nationally famous so it seems. And between its full priced records and dollar bin vinyl,there is always something unique to be found at this place.

Whilst visiting there last time,I found a copy of Street Player on vinyl for 4 bucks. I had a CD copy but the cover had gone missing and I always loved the gate fold of the band playing B-ball. Upon getting the album out into my mom’s car,I found something very exciting. It was a press kit filled with official promo photos and information sheets. It revealed an amazing on the spot type history of Rufus,Chaka Khan and their musical position by the late 70’s. For Chaka’s birthday celebration,I’m going to post this material here to speak for itself in regard to the band,its perceptions and those of their record label.


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-Happy 64th birthday CK!

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Pilot Error” by Stephanie Mills

Stephanie Mills is an artist who I knew primarily through consistent name dropping-all before delving deeper into her music in the last couple of years through used vinyl. This Brooklyn native began her career as a Broadway stage actress at the age of nine in Maggie Flynn. As an actress her most famous role of course was as Dorothy in the stage production of The Wiz. While her rangy,gospel soul belt of a voice she seemed to be natural for recording. Yet her early to mid 70’s album releases were not very successful for her. This all began to change during the disco era.

After 1979’s “What ‘Cha Gonna Do With My Lovin”,Mills (one of a small minority of black American recording artists with black management,incidentally) began a winning streak that kept her consistently on the R&B charts and on DJ’s turntables on the dance floor at the exact moment disco transitioned into the boogie sound. One such album from this period was the 1983 release of Merciless.  Recorded at the height of the boogie/electro funk era,she began the album with a version of Prince’s B-side ballad “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore”. But one if its more defining grooves was the song “Pilot Error”.

A heavy drum and conga based percussion rhythm starts out the song unaccompanied. Then an synth riser that sounds simulating an airplane engine opens into the refrain of the song. This is that rhythm playing along with a snaky synth bass-with a popping rhythm guitar playing the accents. Another synthesizer plays some slightly jazzy harmony chords. On the choruses,the vocal aspect of the melody goes into a harder gospel vibe (complete with backup harmonies) and the percussion going up a bit higher in the mix again. The lead synth takes a solo on the bridge before the chorus fades out the song.

“Pilot Error” is one of the most masterful productions I’ve heard from 1983. It has elements of boogie’s use of synthesizer’s as orchestral elements for sure. But it also has that sense of arrangement and live percussion that defined the 70’s funk era. The Smokey Robinson like lyrical metaphors (which extend so well into its accompanying music video) also dovetail (pun intended) into the airplane like synthesizer effects. In terms of its arrangement and instrumental choices,this song is a strong candidate for the Top 10 grooves from the boogie/post disco funk era.

 

 

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Trans Europe Express Turns 40: Kraftwerk’s Rendezvous With T.E.E

Trans Europe Express

Kraftwerk now represent part of the base value of the electro funk sound as far as I’m concerned. Obviously Stevie Wonder’s 70’s works on TONTO innovated that sound in a major way as well. A large part of Kraftwerk’s sonic additions to the electro/techno music genres come from the album that’s celebrating its 40th anniversary today-1977’s Trans Europe Express. Ralf Hutter,Florian Schneider,Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flur had already been the going lineup of the group for four years by the time this came out. And it not only changed the face of music,but the entire general sound of the group itself.

Since their 1974 album Autobahn, Kraftwerk’s music had been becoming more thoroughly electronic in nature. The interesting thing I didn’t know about Trans Europe Express was that it was conceived and recorded in 1976-releasing the next year. That meant that it all came to be before Donna Summer’s equally game changing electronic dance masterpiece “I Feel Love” with Giorgio Moroder. Karl Bartos once spoke of James Brown in a recent Krautrock documentary as being a huge rhythmic influence on Kraftwerk’s late 70’s and early 80’s sound. And much of that got started on this album.

Much of Trans Europe Express is divided into two musical suites-each divided into separate cuts. Yet each following unifying themes. The “suite” of “Europe Endless” (which begins the album),”Frans Schubert” and the closer “Endless Endless” all surround the use of the Synthanorma sequencer,a customized device which allowed them to electronically orchestrate these pieces-melodically based in European classical music. The first of these numbers develops into a rhythmically grooving uptempo jam that runs for over 9 minutes. The sequenced melody is the glue that binds it all together all the same.

“Trans Europe Express” is all based on a slow,heavily resonating electronic drum/ percussion rhythm. The melodic instrumentation involves a series of up and down scaling orchestral string synthesizers backed up by some thick,funky Moog bass. On its extended shadows “Metal On Metal” and “Abzug”,the spoken word elements and orchestration are replaced by electronic industrial tones and repetitious choral vocals. There are two other separate songs on the album. One is the slow,ominous pulse of “The Hall Of Mirrors” and the percussive,almost melodically Gothic styled “Showroom Dummies”.

It was really two people who got me interested in the Trans Europe Express album. First was Afrika Bambaataa. And the other was my father. He told me a story of how he and his old friend David were driving to the Maine state capitol of Augusta while playing this album on an 8-Track. My dad described a memory of hearing the song “Trans Europe Express”‘s metronomic,train like rhythm as they watched the lines in the middle of the road go by. Considering Kraftwerk’s love of industrial rhythm going back to “Autobahn”,this is a superb aural legacy as to the type of groove Kraftwerk innovated with this album.

Trans Europe Express also innovated the way electronic albums were assembled. With six of its eight tracks being variations of two songs, this could very well be one of the first extended remix albums as well. Its implicit lyrical themes of cultural celebration (in this case a futurist,unified Europe) and celebrity self reflection are likely just some of the reasons this album is so influential on electro hip-hop and techno music genres. In as much as it in turn wrote the book on what has become the EDM genre, Trans Europe Express remains a treasure trove for both explored and unexplored dance music revolutions.

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Anatomy of THE Groove For The Brothers & Sisters Who Aren’t Here: “My Dream” by Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry’s passing a couple of days came as something of a surprise to me. Not the passing of the 90 year old man. But just the idea that his name was suddenly back in the news. Berry was a legacy artist before I was born. And retired from recording just a year before. Basically,the man can be regarded as the three crowned royal triad of rock n’ roll along with Ike Turner and Little Richard. As a matter of fact,Chuck Berry took from the Chess blues sound,from which he derived, to mix in the country influence and essentially innovate some of the basic and classic rock guitar riffs for the entire genre.

Berry faded from grace over the years,due perhaps in part to thick and fast changes in rock ‘n roll during the late 60’s. That and a couple of personal scandals he had to deal with. While he was recording an album before he died that had yet to be released when he passed on,he recorded a series of albums on Chess in the early 70’s that showcased him broadening out different ends of his personality. One of them was a 1971 release entitled San Francisco Dues. Its gained enough popularity to get a recent CD reissue. And one telling song on the album is entitled “My Dream”.

Berry played a high pitched guitar riff at the beginning of the song,before the main groove kicks in. The song has a slow,grinding beat from Bill Metros. The big,round bass line of Jack Groendal bounces ably along. Chuck follows the rhythm of the song with his rolling,bluesy piano-which increases in intensity as the song progresses. Of course,the music of song is basically a template for Berry to softly “rap” a poem that describes his ideal home,ideal female companion,literary choices and the music that he’d want to play there. All before the song comes to a flat close.

“My Dream” musically has a grinding New Orleans bluesy funk vibe about it. The fact that Berry primarily concentrates on his piano rather than better known guitar playing makes it tonally very interesting. The tale he tells has the feeling of a man contentedly prepared to settle down and enter into a comfortable semi retirement. That would not happen for another 7-8 years after this song came out of course. But he’d continue to perform his classics for years after this. Of course,soulful moments like this should not be forgotten among Chuck Berry’s classic 50’s and 60’s rock ‘n roll bible of hits all the same.

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Women’s History Month: Yoko Ono and the Invention of Feminist Rock

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The last few years have seen a much-deserved critical rehabilitation for Yoko Ono: once reviled as the Woman Who Broke Up the Beatles (whatever that’s supposed to mean), she’s now widely recognized as a key figure in conceptual art; even her avant-garde music has entered the canon as an inspiration for punk and alternative rock. But one facet of Ono’s artistry that I think remains underrated are the more commercially-minded albums she released in the 1970s, while married to (and in collaboration with!) ex-Beatle John Lennon. These albums were not only, in many cases, more interesting than the records Lennon himself was releasing around the same time (yeah, I said it); they were also arguably the first serious attempts to marry rock music and radical feminism–decades before the riot grrrl movement, and using her famous husband’s musicians, no less.

On “Yang Yang,” from her 1973 masterpiece Approximately Infinite Universe, Ono takes a grinding blues-rock arrangement by the Greenwich Village street band Elephant’s Memory (with a certain “Joel Nohnn” sitting in on guitar) and pairs it with lyrics that make “I am Woman” sound like “Stand by Your Man”: “No kick is good enough for lifetime substitution / No brick will give you a lifetime consolation / And whether you dig it or not / We outnumber you in population / And leave your private institution / Get down to real communication / Leave your scene of destruction / And join us in revolution.” This is the stuff of radical women’s liberationist pamphlets, not mainstream rock albums released by the wives of former Beatles. And while, predictably, Yoko never got her proper due for inventing feminist rock, at least we can appreciate it now.

If this post has piqued your interest, check out the full-scale guide to Ono’s discography I wrote last year; last month, my sister and I also recorded a podcast about her larger influence as an artist. And of course, we’re writing about important contributions by women in music all March on our blog Dystopian Dance Party. And, if you’d like to start seriously getting into Yoko’s music, you’re in luck: Secretly Canadian Records is currently reissuing her albums on vinyl and streaming services, from 1968’s infamous Lennon collaboration Two Virgins to 1985’s Bill Laswell-produced (!) Starpeace. It’s quite the journey, but well worth checking out!

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Silky Smooth” by Irene Cara featuring Hot Caramel

Irene Cara is a seminal figure in the history of women in music. This Bronx born singer/songwriter/actress began her career as a child beauty queen before recording her first album in 1968 at the age of 9. By 1980,she’d become primarily known as an actress. The film adaptation of Fame and her theme song for the film rocketed her to stardom. This essentially made her a queen of movie themes,with her theme song to the movie  Flashdance “What A Feeling” being something of a signature song for her. At the same time,this is my first time profiling Cara here.

While she cut three studio albums during the 1980’s,most of her musical output on those albums focused more on uptempo retro pop songs and cinematic ballads. After years of continued work in film and television,Cara entered back into the world of music in 1999 by forming an all female (and mostly African American) band called Hot Caramel. Today is actually my first day finding out about this. Cara’s first album with the band came out in 2011. From what I heard,it featured a strong about face in her musical focus. The song that stood out most for me is called “Silky Smooth”.

A thick electric piano riff provides the intro to the song. The song itself is anchored by a slow drum beat-accented by some brittle brush stroking. The electric piano continues to play the jazz main melody of the song. The rhythm guitar provides some bluesy accents while the heavy bass line plays an effective thud up with the beat of the song. The song has two bridges. One features a string synthesizer solo. On one of the last bars of the song,the drums take a flamboyant solo accented by horns. These horns and the synth strings remain with the song on its final bars before it fades out.

As enjoyable as Irene Cara’s music was in the 80’s,I never expected her to re-emerge with a new album in the 2010’s. And certainly not with an all female band of writers and instrumentalists playing hardcore funk. “Silky Smooth” is not just hard funk for this artist, but as its own reward too. The rhythm is slow and grinding and the instrumentation and melodies are slinky and jazzy. Cara’s voice has a lot more crunch and bite to it than it did interpreting more pop oriented material. So again,this is very surprising. But it showcases the breadth of Cara and her bands talent at producing a hefty funk groove.

 

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Tommy LiPuma (1936-2017): The Soulful,Funky Producer With The Blue Thumb

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Tommy LiPuma is a record producer who represents something similar to what Quincy Jones,David Rubinson and Arif Mardin meant to me. That is if I saw their names on the production credits,there was the instant impression that funk,soul and/or jazziness would be deeply involved with said album. He was the  first person to produce The O’Jays in the year 1965. This helped them get their first R&B Top 40 hit in “Lipstick Traces”. The Ohio native was was so diverse, he even produced a single for the late Ricardo Montalban called “La Campanilla” two years later. He would go on to found the Blue Thumb label in 1968.

Much as with Quincy Jones, LiPuma consistently championed the black American music spectrum in his production choices. An ill child who discovered R&B and jazz through long hours listening to the radio,LiPuma took up saxophone when he went to barber school intending to follow his father’s footsteps. With the music bug never leaving the man,he began moving up the musical ladder to become one of the most renowned jazz/soul/funk producers of the 60’s,70’s and 80’s.  The best way I feel to pay tribute to him is create a list of my favorite album productions he did for you to check out. Let the exploring begin!


Michael Franks-The Art Of Tea/1975

Al Jarreau-Glow/1976

George Benson-Breezin’ & In Flight/1976

Stuff/1976

Al Jarreau-Look To The Rainbow/1977

Deodato-Love Islands/1978

Michael Franks-Burchfield Nines/1978

George Benson-Livin’ Inside Your Love/1979

Yellowjackets/1981

Randy Crawford-Secret Combination/1981

Randy Crawford-Windsong/1982

Yellowjackets-Samurai Samba/1985

Patti Austin-Gettin’ Away With Murder/1985

Miles Davis-Tutu/1986

Joe Sample-Spellbound/1989

Miles Davis-Amandla/1989

Joe Sample-Ashes To Ashes/1990

George Benson-Standing Together/1998

 

 

 

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Anatomy of The Groove: “Dance Little Sister” by Terence Trent D’Arby

Terence Trent D’Arby is yet another example of a vital funk/soul revival occurring 30 years ago,in 1987. This ambitious NYC multi instrumentalist came from a multi racial and very confusing back round-with bigamy and a lot of moving around involved. After a failed career attempt as a boxer and going AWOL from the US Army after collage,D’Arby formed the band The Touch while in Germany in 1984. After their debut album,the ambitious D’Arby decided to forge ahead with a solo career. His first and generally best known release being 1987’s Introducing The Hardline-produced out of London.

The first time I heard of D’Arby was with his hit song “Sign Your Name”,a jazzy Brazilian number that I thought was Stevie Wonder at the age of 8. It was decades until I purchased his entire debut album. Many of its other successful songs I’d missed out on originally. Knowing only of another D’Arby song called “Delicate” recorded for his third album  Symphony Or Damn from 1991.  At that time,one song leaped right out for me and my mom. Especially in terms of its groove. So much so that we actually planned on doing a conceptual music video for the song. Its called “Dance Little Sister”

A high hat heavy funky drum groove begins the song-with D’Arby improvising a a humorous vocal ad lib. After this,the lead synthesizer plays a high pitched,ten note riff over two bars before the instrumentation of the refrain comes in. This is a chunky rhythm guitar and ascending bass line playing call and response to accompanying horn charts. On the choruses of the songs,the harmonic phrases of the melody becomes more sustained to follow D’Arby’s gospel soul shouting. Saxophonist Mel Collins plays a solo over the rhythm section during the bridge before the chorus repeats until the song fades out.

Listening to it all these decades since it first came out, “Dance Little Sister” sounds like something of a middle ground between Prince’s Minneapolis live band funk sound and the approach of neo soul to come within the next decade. It definitely maintains the mid/late 80’s approach of condensing a funk groove. On the other hand,its one of the hardest live band funk jams of the late 80’s to be sure. Not only are horns used on it,but the synthesizer is used in the 70’s approach of having it be part of a full band sound rather than a dominating factor in the groove. Another international funk breakthrough of 1987.

 

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