Monthly Archives: August 2017

Givin’ It Back: Remembering The First Isley Brothers Album Showcasing The 3+3 Lineup

Marvin Isley, the youngest of the Isley brothers, may have passed away eight years ago. But the Cinninati born bassist graduated from the C.W Post College with a degree in music. By that time, he’d already co-wrote a major hit with the Isley’s in “Fight The Power”. Of course, the first time he and Chris Jasper actually played with Marvin’s elder brothers Kelly,Rudy and Ron came six years earlier. It was on a 1971 album where the Isley’s covered many pop and rock hits of the late 60’s and the then present day. It was called Givin’ It Back. And here’s a review of I wrote shortly before Marvin’s passing.


The late 60’s began the Isley’s funk period,circa 1968-1970 when their tune “It’s Your Thing” was enormous and every album seemed to leap them forward somehow musically. Than came this album. It’s 1971 at this point and the optimism of and defiance of the late 60’s had turned to more cautious,inward reflection. This effect musicians of all colors and back rounds and it had it’s effect on the Isley’s too. This album presents elongated cover versions of different pop tunes associated with that era,most of which had some cultural or political bent.

The sepia toned album covers features the three Isley’s with acoustic guitars and you do here those to a degree on this album but despite the way this was actually presented to me this is NOT an acoustic album by any stretch of the imagination. More accurately I would describe it as a mildly more psychedelic funk take on the folk/soul movement that was gaining some popularity at the time of artists such as Bill Withers.

The one thing you can guarantee from the Isley’s is that whatever they do you’ll find some of the most impassioned,soulful and intelligent interpretive vocalizing one is likely to ever hear and this album has it coming out the wazoo! The album starts off with a very Ike Hayes-like ten minute take on “Ohio” and Hendrix’s “Machine Gun”,both a good choice for a medley yes but the unique thing is it’s cinematic soul presented with some acoustic instrumentation so you get two flavors merging into one,yet again.

The most impressive thing about their versions of “Fire And Rain”,”Lay Lady Lay” and especially “Spill The Wine”,with that song’s originally rapped lyric element actually sung this time is how fully Ron Isley in particularly re-harmonizes the vocal arrangements and even if the music is on the same groove somewhat as the originals (melodically anyway) all of these songs sound heavily re invented as opposed to merely covered. The albums closes with the liked minded “Love The One Your With” and with that there’s a tone set not just for this particular album but the Isley’s future in general.

In the years to come after this they would continue refining different combinations of the flavors of this and the previous three albums prior to it to with their famous 3+3 format so even if this music literally reaches into it’s very recent past for song ideas it’s conceptualization also look forward to where the brothers were going musically.


At the time of writing this review, I actually had no idea that this particular album was both Marvin Isley and cousin Chris Jasper’s first time appearing with their elder brothers and brother Ernie,who’d started playing with the Isley’s just a year before. The Isley’s  would go through some amazing changes during the earlier part of the 70s-from a psychedelic tinged funk/soul sound to the folk/soul singer-songwriter stylings of Givin’ It Back. They were playing many styles of music that went with what’s called the funk process. And as a bass player, Marvin was a major part of this transition.

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Street Kids” by Kool & The Gang

Kool & The Gang’s period of being produced by Brazilian jazz funk Eumir Deodato represented the third stage of their musical evolution. The Jersey band started out with their heavy jazz funk style of such albums as Wild & Peaceful and Spirit Of The Boogie.  Than they made a series of albums that reflected a growing disco funk vibe from Open Sesame on through their first Deodato production in 1979’s Ladies Night. After that, the band embraced a more post disco/boogie funk oriented sound with radio friendly pop elements. By the mid 80’s, the band were basically radio friendly dance pop.

Dealing with K&TG as album artists in the early 80’s was a daunting task for me,having long accepted them as a singles act during that era. One day while looking through the cutout CD bins at a record store called Strawberries in the mid 90’s, I came across a K&TG album from 1982 entitled As One. I recognized the song “Big Fun” on it. And was happy to be able to hear it on the car CD player on the way home. The very first song that played upon popping it in helped me to really understand K&TG’s 80’s funk variant very well. And the name of this particular song was “Street Kids”.

George Brown’s drum kickoff begins the song before he puts himself into an in the pocket dance friendly beat for the remainder of the song. Deodato’s bubbling synth bass then proceeds to play call and respond to a two note synth-likely an OBX played by Ronald Bell. On the chorus, JT Taylor’s falsetto vocals play to the tune of Charles Smith’s liquid rhythm guitar-along with the bands powerful and melodic horn charts. There’s a B section with a sustained orchestral synth plays in the back round. This repeats somewhat later in the song as an extension of the chorus,which fades the song out in the end.

“Street Kids” is, to me, a superb example of Kool & The Gang adapting their sound for the post disco/boogie era. The horns,guitars and drums are still all the way live. But orchestral and bass elements are now electronic. The lyrics about street kids who “like to play Captain Video” and “doing the motor roller” go right with it. And the groove itself is squarely in the classic funk framework-right in the pocket and right on the one. JT Taylor has a tremendous vocal showcase here. You get his usual smooth tenor, his breathier falsetto and even his rapping. Part of a strong post disco reboot for this iconic funk band.

 

 

 

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Lucky Star” by Madonna

Madonna Louise Ciccone and her place as an American cultural phenomenon requires no clarification. From the early 80’s onward, she has been both a fashionista and a trend setter at the same time. What always interested me about her early days as a hungry and ambitious dreamer from Rochester Hills,Michigan is that she climbed up the musical ladder based (among other things) on the music of the black and Latin club scenes of post disco NYC. That has enabled her to not merely follow but often anticipate changes in danceable pop music throughout the decades.

Seymour Stein, co founder of Madonna’s label Sire Records, once spoke of Madonna’s first single (which was a 1982 song called “Everybody”) as not having her picture on the sleeve. He said the reasoning for that was that he felt she sounded like a black post disco artist. And had the opposite approach to what Motown did for Teena Marie in trying to make believe Madonna was black. Valid as a story or not, Madonna’s association with Mtume’s Reggie Lucus on her self titled debut album does make clear her musical connections. That also goes for one of the albums breakout singles “Lucky Star”.

A twinkling, high pitched synth riser begins the song. Then Reggie Lucus’s LINN drum dance beat comes in along with Paul Pesco’s melodic,chunky rhythm guitar. The brittle synth bass pops on every beat or two and is high up in the mix. Light synth horn accents are the order at first. Than by the refrain and chorus, there’s more sustain to the synths. There’s also an iconic be section-with has a thick grooving guitar from Pesco that’s punctuated by pitch pent synth stabs. After a couple such sections, the song settles into an extended chorus until it all fades out.

“Lucky Star” appears a relatively simple song at first. The melody is focused on Madonna’s voice and singability in general. What the production and electronic instrumental touches of Reggie Lucas brought to the song is a mixture of the brittle rhythms of post disco boogie funk, the solid beat of disco and the synthesized approach of new wave. In essence, it allowed Madonna to popularize and to a degree innovate the genre known as dance pop. Madonna herself once said all the negativity regarding her lack of talent helped her to do even better. And this song really set her notoriety alight.

 

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The Crusaders Remembered: “Gimme Some Space” by Stix Hooper

Nesbert “Stix” Hooper is the last surviving member of the band who originally called themselves The Jazz Crusaders. The Houston native spent most of his youth studying music even before any of this occurred. While enrolled at Texas Southern University, Hooper , he got a musical education that most would envy. Everyone from members of the Houston Symphony Orchestra to a number of local professional players. By the time of his peak with the Crusaders, Hooper’s musical excellent touched on everyone from The Rolling Stones,B.B. King and onto London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

What Hooper brought to his drum and percussion work was the in the pocket funk rhythm. And basically helped to shape the sound of what became the jazz-funk subgenre from the outset. As a Crusader,the man was and remains a musical icon. His solo career, consisting of two albums released in 1979 and 1982, didn’t seem to receive the recognition they deserved. Especially having heard them both. The first I got was the 1982 album called Touch The Feeling. My dad pointed it out in a discount vinyl crate to me some years ago. My own favorite cut on it is its final one called “Gimme Some Space”.

Todd Cochran’s huge synthesizer riser fades into the song before the intro comes in. Its a powerful one for sure-with Hooper’s drum hits announcing the horn charts coming at within 3-4 seconds of time between each other. That’s when the entire song kicks in. This consists of Hooper’s huge funky beat, Neil Stubenhaus’s thick slap bass and Larry Carlton wah wah toned bluesy guitar along with Cochran’s synth and the horn section. On the next part, the synths take on a distinctly spacey late 70’s P-Funk air. Everything comes together after that-from the calculated pauses and solos until it actually fades out.

“Gimme Some Space” is one of those funk jams that gives you exactly what the title implies. A good portion of the song relies on adding musical drama with long and calculated silences. That makes it very much in line with the James Brown/Clyde Stubblefield/Jabo Starks type of funk from the late 60’s. That being said, its basic instrumental character comes out of the late 70’s/early 80’s jazz/funk George Duke style take on the P-Funk sound. Its a powerful and strong blend of acoustic and electronic funk ideas that shows how powerful a musical figure Stix Hooper truly is.

 

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Bobby Taylor 1934-2017: An Understanding Of A Major Motown Jelly Maker

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Bobby Taylor epitomizes what a phrase Henrique Hopkins told me several years ago. That in terms of making a difference in life, there are tree shakers and there are jelly makers. To extend the metaphor, DC native Bobby Taylor didn’t shake many trees save for the hit “Does Your Mama Know About Me”. And I myself only found out about him as a teenage watching a VHS copy of  the 1988 Showtime documentary called Michael Jackson: The Legend Continues. It was MJ’s brother Marlon who mentioned Bobby Taylor’s place in his history as the man who brought the Jackson 5 to Motown.

Taylor began his singing career in NYC-with a doo-wop group whose other members later joined the Teenagers and the Imperials. It was journey from groups in Ohio,San Francisco that led to him migrating to Canada and forming a multi racial band called the Calgary Shades. During this time, he had been in a band with a man who’d later become the drummer for Three Dog Night.  As for the Calgary Shades? The name came from the multi racial nature of their members. One of them was a young Tommy Chong, who would of course later go onto a career in comedy with Cheech Marin.

It was Supreme’s Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard who alerted Berry Gordy to the newly rechristened Bobby Taylor & The Vancouver’s after seeing them live. They had a live repertoire of mostly Motown covers. Gordy signed them to the self named imprint of Motown.  The Vancouver’s eventually broke apart due to a disagreement with Johnny Bristol and their headliner Chris Clark, who fired a couple members of the bands for missing a big whilst trying to obtain green cards. But they did record one self titled album on Gordy before this occurred.

Taylor’s history with the Jackson 5 is another story. In 1968, the Jackson brothers opened for the Vancouver’s at Chicago’s Regal Theater. Taylor was so impressed, he brought them to Detroit to audition for Suzanne De Passe and in turn Berry Gordy. The band were signed to Motown in a years time. Taylor was their first producer. He was involved in producing tracks for their debut album. Including an 11 year old Michael’s show stopping version of “Who’s Lovin’ You”. His emphasis was on classic soul cover songs-from within and without Motown.

What happened was that the J5’s debut was called Diana Ross Presents The Jackson 5. She was even credited as discovering them by Ed Sullivan on their first appearance on his iconic variety show. As Motown began moving its operations to the West Coast, Gordy didn’t give any credit to Taylor’s earlier work with the Jackson’s. While he did work with them a bit in LA on their second album ABC, Gordy along with Fonce Mizell and the late Deke Richards took on writing and producing for them. Taylor’s solo career on the labels VIP imprint went nowhere. He was dropped from the label and faded into obscurity.

Despite being something of the poster man for Motown’s lack of support for its behind the scenes people during its move from Detroit to LA, Bobby Taylor’s place in the labels late 60’s history remains carved in stone. He died of cancer on July 22nd of this year in Hong Kong. But bringing in what became the last of Motown’s classic groups in the Jackson 5 was no small feat. He even made some of the most insightful commentary on MJ on the documentary Michael Jackson: The Life Of An Icon.  So while belatedly so, wanted to remember Bobby Taylor for the great work he did in Motown’s peak.

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Steppin’ Out” by Joe Jackson

Joe Jackson, born David Ian, came out of his Staffordshire,England into playing piano bars as a teenager. His early precociousness led him to earn a scholarship to London’s Royal Academy of Music. His first band was Edward Bear, later renamed Arms and Legs. They band broke up in 1976 after two unsuccessful singles. He got his professional name from the experience however. His demo got the him the interest of A&M records,who signed him in 1978. His Joe Jackson Band had a big new wave hit right out of the box with “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” from their debut Look Sharp!.

The Joe Jackson Band broke up after the 1980 album Beat Crazy. Jackson himself went on to record an album of swing and jump blues classics on his 1981 release Jumpin’ Jive – oddly enough presenting that style of music as the punk rock of its time in terms of public reception. His sincere interest in jazz music grew to the point where, in 1982 he released the album Night & Day-a vital collection of jazz,pop and Afro Latin musical ideas and the song writing of people such as Cole Porter. The song that became the most enduring and popular on the album was called “Steppin’ Out”.

The song (especially in the single version where it doesn’t flow from the previous song on the album) begins with a metronomic, lightly gated drum after which a sizzling synth bass comes into the song-with Jackson’s heavy keyed piano melody comes building into the arrangement. Layers of piano parts plus bursts of organ play a major part of the refrain. The intro represents the instrumental approach of the chorus. The bridge of the song features the piano melody with a sustained organ and high pitched bells as accents. An extended chorus fades the song out.
“Steppin’ Out” is a song that defined much of my radio listening with family as a child. They even had the 45 of it. Over 35 years after it first came out, its got a combination of sounds I haven’t yet heard in other music since. Let alone an early 80’s pop hit. The basic rhythm of the song is a punky, new wave rock style kickoff. So is Jackson’s vocal style. At the same time, his approach to piano and the harmonic chordal changes come out earlier American jazz inspired song writers. Plus the fact it uses more organ than any pop song of the time. Its…new wave jazz sound makes a distinctive and continually enduring song.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Joy” by Isaac Hayes

Isaac Hays, born in Covington, Tennessee in 1942 was raised by his grandparents. He was encouraged to finish high school several years after dropping out due to the encouragement of his teachers. After turning down musical scholarships from several universities, Hayes began performing in the late 50’s as a teenager. By the mid 1960’s, he and David Porter became one of the major songwriting partners at Stax. Especially for the duo Sam & Dave. His solo debut Presenting Isaac Hayes wasn’t a big success in 1968. But its jazzier orientation pointed in a vital new direction for his music.

By that time, Stax was in trouble. Otis Redding had died with most of the original Bar Kays in a plane crash. And Atlantic Records had absorbed most of their back catalog. As a label functioning with no music, label owner Al Bell decided to have its remaining artists to record 27 new albums to give Stax new content. Hayes’s sophomore album Hot Buttered Soul was the most successful in 1969. Its extended, jazzy and psychedelic treatments of his own songs and interpretations became his signature sound. Even through his record breaking 1971 soundtrack for Shaft.

With Shaft, Hayes had basically created the production template for the disco era. That was elongated dance songs with heavy string and horn orchestration’s. As the disco era arrived in earnest, Hayes mid to late 70’s albums swam right along with the tide his earlier 70’s works had initiated. Not to mention his continuing soundtrack work for movies like Truck Turner and Three Tough Guys. As similar artists like Barry White ascended to popularity, some of Hayes’ albums got lost on the musical public. One of them was an album with an amazing title song entitled “Joy”.

A 7 hit drum beat (with plenty of hi hat around the middle) starts off the song at an approximately 80 BPM’s-which continues throughout the rest of the song. Then the snaky bass and distant seeming wah wah guitar accents chime in. From there, the strings rise up in volume right into the song-spiraling horn charts in the back round. A sustained organ swirl also joins the mix. A bluesy fuzz guitar plays to Hayes’s vocals. On the b section of the chorus, the melody gets a bit higher key with the orchestration.  The song fades out with a long,grunting extended refrain.

At almost 16 minutes, “Joy” is one of those early 70’s funk operas. It actually reminds me a little bit of Barry White’s “I’m Gonna Love You Just A Little More Baby” from the same year. Its among the faster of Hayes’ usual extended ballad approach of the earlier 70s. Still, Hayes’ distinctive psychedelic and jazz tones keep this distinct as cinematic soul/funk was becoming more the mainstream at the time. And its for that reason that its actually one of my favorite Hayes’ solo numbers along with “Theme From Shaft”, “Groove-A-Thon” and his epic version of “Walk On By”.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Let Me See Your ID” by Artists Against Apartheid featuring Kurtis Blow, Melle Mel, Duke Bootee and Gil Scott-Heron

Kurtis Blow, starting life in 1959 Harlem as Kurtis Walker, graduating from becoming a student of communications and ministry to becoming the first major hip-hop MC to have a substantial hit with 1980’s disco based rap classic “The Breaks”. He had a string of hits in from the early to late 1980’s. By 1994, he’d become an ordained minister. He was also noted as an early example of hip-hop interpreting itself when Nas made a cover version of Blow’s “If I Ruled The World” in 1996. It was Blow’s strong pro black stance against racism that led him into perhaps the most socially significant projects of his career.

In 1985, E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt put together an album project called Artists Against Apartheid, which featured over 50 musicians,singers and rappers in protest against the oppressively racist South African government. Artists such as Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and percussionist Ray Buretto signed on. Along with rappers Grandmaster Melle Mel, Kurtis Blow,Duke Bootee,the late Nigerian musician Sonny Okosun and also late iconic jazz/funk poet/singer Gil-Scott Heron got together for a massively topical collaboration from this album “Let Me See Your ID”.

The percussive drum machines and turntabling of the late Jam Master Jay begin this song-with Melle Mell and Blow’s rapping before Miles’s impressionist trumpet textures plays over Gil Scott Heron’s poetic sections of the song. By this point in the song, Miles’ bassist of the time Doug Wimbish throws down some heavy duty funk slap bass. During the bridge of the song, Sonny Okosun sings his own lyrics while the conga’s of Ray Buretto come in and provide an extra rhythmic kick to the song for its final versus and chorus before it all comes to a stop.

“Let Me See Your ID” is one of the most superb early jazz/Afro-pop/hip-hop collaborations of its time. Musically, it showcases how vital heavy rhythm is linking all of these elements together. As for the songs lyrical cause, it has Melle Mell and Kurtis Blow earnestly rapping against racist government systems. Whereas Gil Scott-Heron’s poetic narrations provide his mixture of down home scholarly wit to the lack of knowledge many Americans have of the third world itself-never mind its problems. Its a song that, especially in light of today’s political climate, should be gone back to in a serious way.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Together We Can Shine” by Linx

Linx were a a Brit funk/soul/disco group with a rather short lived career. It was a six member band featuring keyboardist Bob Carter, drummer Andy Duncan, guitarist Canute Edwards, bassist Peter Martin,backup vocalist Junior Giscombe and lead singer David Grant. The group split up in early 1983-after Junior had left to begin a solo career and Grant was about to do the same. After a moderately successful solo career, Grant became a successful backing singer for people such as Rick Astley and The Lighthouse Family. He later became a judge on the UK TV show Pop Idol with his second wife Carrie.

Linx recorded two albums during 1981, the first of which I picked up four years ago on vinyl. Their major hit on it was “Intuition”, a Caribbean flavored post disco number became popular to its accompanying music video being played so often on the British music program Top Of The Pops. And all due to a technicians strike. The overall album is a superb example of how the post disco/boogie funk sound thrived,prospered and evolved along with new romantic/synth pop during the early 80’s. One fine example of this was the song “Together We Can Shine”.

A dance beat begins the song with a pulsing Fender Rhodes and a bluesy funk rhythm guitar break. As the main song kicks in, Martin’s slap bass line kicks in heavy. The dance beat becomes more steady. Carter adds spacey synthesizer flourishes-which become very high pitched on the choruses along with the melodic, liquid rhythm guitar bubbling right along. On the bridge of the song, the vocals of the refrain move aside for Carter’s piano solo before Grant’s vocals return. Before the fading refrain, the song breaks off into a percussive Brazilian funk breakdown.

Musically speaking, “Together We Can Shine” showcases the vitality and diversity within the UK post disco/boogie scene. Many American groups/ soloists  emerging from that were primarily disco and funk based from the get go. In terms of Linx, its a different story. Bob Carter and Canute Edwards play in a manner very indicative of jazz oriented instrumentalists. Bassist “Sketch” Martin and drummer Andy Duncan have a strong Brazilian funk flavor to their playing. So this song is a superb example of the post disco sound coming from a diverse level of musicianship from the sound of things.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Freaks For The Festival” by Rahsaan Roland Kirk

Rahsaan Roland Kirk, born Ronald Theodore in Columbus,Ohio, had a creative ethic strongly connected to his nigh time dreaming. That includes the two changes he made to his given name. As he started leading his own bands, his music grew from its hard bop roots to bring in elements of the avant garde and even older jazz styles such as ragtime. Kirk’s music also thematically explored the black power ethic of the 60’s-with a socially conscious comic wit that perhaps influenced 70’s funk era icons as George Clinton. As a multi instrumentalist, particularly with reed instruments, he was also a major innovator.

Blind from childhood due to a botched medical treatment, he developed a form of playing that has thematically broken records. It was known as circular breathing-which allowed him to sustain complex notes on saxophone almost indefinitely. Not to mention often playing three saxes at the same time. One album of his my father often playing parts of for me as a child was 1975’s The Case Of The 3 Sides Dream In Audio Color. It was a double album whose fourth side was largely empty saves for a sound snippet at the end. The song from it I’m talking about today though is called “Freaks At The Festival”.

Kirk’s rapping starts out the song before the ultra funky JB’s/Clyde Stubblefield style drum comes in-soon accompanied by Kirk’s bass sax melody. After this, his self made “one man horn section” accompanies the ever more flamboyant drumming, an amazing and complex funky electric jazz bass line. During the third chorus in, Kirk’s flute solo accompanies what I’m pretty sure is Richard Tee’s Fender Rhodes piano-with Kirk and the band exchange some their vocal raps. With some of the sax tones having some heavy fuzz peddle on them-all before everything comes to a big musical climax at the end.

“Freaks At The Festival” musically reminds me of what one might get if Cannonball Adderley,Art Ensemble Of Chicago and The JB’s all got together to do an avant funk record. The sound that the instrumentalists (who are hard to pin down due to crediting and my knowledge level at identifying musicians) is alternately controlled, focused, rhythmic and thematically chaotic. The wild way in which the melodies are played contrast heavily with its coherent funk rhythm attitude. And knowing what I know of him, this is one of Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s most defining songs that I’ve yet heard.

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