Earth Wind & Fire’s eighth studio album Spirit is an album that did a lot to help me to personally conceive of #1 hit funk in terms of an album medium. It celebrated its 40th anniversary this year. And I’ve already covered the album itself here. First purchased it on a cassette tape about 22 years ago. At that time,I remember fast forwarding through it to get to funkier songs. Upon upgrading to a CD copy a year or so later,it became clear that this was one of those very special funk era albums. Each time I listen to these songs,they improve like fine wine with each listening. Almost to the point of transcendence.
One member of EWF,who joined up on the bands fourth album Head To The Sky in 1973 was Andrew Woolfolk. This multi reed player primarily played soprano sax within EWF. As he describes it in the documentary on the band Shining Stars, the elements that he added into the band came from the jazz and funk side. He enjoyed a strong,melodic groove. He also loved to improvise in such cases too. Throughout the years,he’s done just this on many of EWF’s most popular and enduring songs. One song from the Spirit album that amazes me to this day is the Maurice White/Al McKay composed instrumental “Biyo”.
Larry Dunn’s glassy space funk synthesizers open the song before the opening fanfare kicks in. Its full on drums,Afro Latin percussion,Verdine White’s pumping bass line,McKay’s percussive rhythm guitar and the Phenix Horns running on their usual adrenaline. Verdine’s echoed five note bass slap,Maurice’s four note Kalimba melody and Johnny Graham’s bluesy guitar accents make up the refrains. Four members of the band get a chance to solo. Woolfolk does twice-starting and at the end. Graham and Dunn do a solo that dovetail right into each other before Maurice’s Kalimba solo before its fade out.
Earth Wind & Fire added many instrumental interludes/bridges to the albums from their late 70’s crossover period. But for me this is the finest full instrumental based on their sound of that time. The production and recording is a fine example of the band making some of the best recorded funk of that era. Its a melodically and instrumentally busy number with a lot going on sonically. But the powerful Afro-Caribbean funk arrangement still leaves enough room for several amazing solos to interlock with each other. And as a showcase for Andrew Woolfolk,its one of his shining moments of the mid/late 70’s.
Filed under 1976, Afro-Cuban rhythm, Al McKay, Andrew Woolfolk, drums, Funk Bass, instrumental, Johnny Graham, Kalimba, Larry Dunn, Maurice White, percussion, Phenix Horns, rhythm guitar, Saxophone, space funk, synthesizer, Verdine White
Ramsey Lewis always kept close connection with Earth Wind & Fire during the mid/late 70’s. The band were technically his musical child-being formed by his former drummer Maurice White. Ramsey’s 1975 album Don’t It Feel Good and it’s 1976 follow up Salongo had both been produced by Charles Stepney,who shared production credits with Ramsey and EWF over the years. Of course Stepney died later that same year. Ramsey compensated by giving EWF keyboard player Larry Dunn a try at the production side of a few cuts on his second album of 1977 entitled Tequila Mockingbird.
Personally I was first made aware of the song “Tequila Mockingbird” itself due to it’s appearance on the CD compilation set called The Electric Connection about a decade ago,after picking it up at a record store in Burlington Vermont. A couple years later,my personal fixation on mid/late 70’s Ramsey Lewis and it’s funky sounds led me to seek out the album itself. One of the songs on it instantly got my attention and featured most of the EWF musicians as it’s rhythm section-similar to the Sun Goddess from a few years earlier. The name of the song was called “Skippin”.
A drum kick from Fred White and a revved up guitar from Al McKay open up the song. The the drums are joined by Philip Bailey’s conga drums for an uptempo Brazilian rhythm Ramsey plays a horn chart like melody on his mini Moog-accompanied by Eddie Del Barrio’s arranged flute call and responses. McKay’s guitar and Verdine White’s bass provide potent accompanied. On the refrains,the settles settles down into an EWF style groove with Ramsey’s orchestral synthesizers. Del Barrio’s orchestration leads out into the next chorus of the song.
The bridge of the song comes after this second chorus. It starts with a Ramsey up-scaling on the Fender Rhodes-with Verdine playing the changes on slap bass. A high pitched tone on the Yamaha electric piano ushers in a third chorus. This time Ramsey’s plays one of his Chicago hard bop/soul jazz piano solos. He tickles the ivories into another who refrain. This one is defined by Ramsey orchestrating synthesizers around Del Barrio’s call and response woodwinds and Bailey’s percussion. The song goes back to the original chorus that started out the song as it fades out.
“Skippin” is a wonderful example of melodically simple,yet instrumentally complex Brazilian jazz/funk. The charts normally played by EWF’s Phenix Horns come by way of breezier woodwind instruments. Most important though is Ramsey’s use of chorally arranged synthesizers-which seemed to be the way to orchestrate in the late 70’s with Euro-disco and emerging new artists such as Prince. Larry Dunn exhibits a clear understanding of the qualities that Charles Stepney. He bought in Stepney’s sense of melodic ease with a funky rhythm section for “funk sweet as funk can be” for sure!
The reason this song got my attention was realizing I’d heard it before-in a very peculiar place. On Bangor Maine’s local NBC affiliate WLBZ,local TV personality Eddie Driscoll had utilized “Skippin” as the theme for his program The Grover Swale Show. Portrayed by Driscoll himself,Swale was a buck toothed flannel shirt wearing Maine salt type character. It really goes to show how a song with such a string singable melody can easily become a TV theme for somebody,somewhere. Upon hearing the song in it’s native context however,”Skippin'” really epitomizes Ramsey Lewis’s late 70’s jazz/funk approach.
Filed under 1970's, Al McKay, Brazilian Jazz, drums, Earth Wind & Fire, Eddie Del Barrio, Fender Rhodes, flute, Fred White, jazz funk, Larry Dunn, Maine, Moog, percussion, Philip Bailey, Ramsey Lewis, rhythm guitar, slap bass, synthesizers, Verdine White
Earth Wind & Fire had one important thing in common with a lot of 50’s and 60’s era black groups. Their creative and commercial momentum developed in a slower way. In their case,it seemed to be the more artistic reasons that played into this earlier on. Maurice White retained only brother Verdine on bass when he left Warner Bros. for Columbia. Their 1972 debut for the label Last Days And Time featured Ronnie Laws, the Friends Of Distinction’s Jessica Cleaves and Roland Bautista. But also introduced Philip Bailey, Ralph Johnson and Larry Dunn-the first two of whom are still the core of the band to this very day.
After that label debut that was still somewhat in the mold of the bands two Warner Bros. albums,the band regrouped still further. Ronnie Laws and Roland Bautista left. This opened the door for successors Al McKay,who’d played with Charles Wright as well as Andrew Woolfolk on soprano sax and an additional guitarist in Johnny Graham. Still retaining Cleaves for the time being,the band released their second Columbia album Head To The Sky. It has a somewhat unique sound for them as it has their renowned slick production, but retains a lot of their more experimental musical elements. In terms of funk,it’s the song “Build Your Nest” that really stands out for me on this album.
The song actually fades in with it’s intro. Musically the intro is a round,expanding wah wah guitar with a light and lilting Clavinet in the back round. A grimy guitar solo gets the main groove of the song going. The rhythm is based around a slower swinging funk-heavy on cymbal and with a strong brushing sound. The bass has a very gruff and brittle wah wah going about it while the rhythm guitar has that percussive James Brown flavor. Organ and Rhodes piano occasionally accent this thick musical bed. On the melody,there’s a descending chord that takes the main melody into a much higher key. The song returns to it’s main choral theme as it fades out.
When I first read about the Head To The Sky album in the Allmusic guide in the early 90’s,it was described as having some of the best uptempo songs the group ever made. That’s a big statement to make for sure. But this one is still very distinctive for them. First and foremost because it’s one of the few (if any) 70’s EWF funk numbers that succeeded without the presence of a single horn,let alone a horn section. The rhythm section entirely carries the groove. Lyrically the song allows Maurice to illustrate how important it is,especially for black couples,to fight for and maintain a happy domestic life. On that level,it’s actually one of my favorites of EWF’s earlier funk numbers.
Filed under 1970's, Al McKay, Columbia Records, drums, Earth Wind & Fire, Funk, Funk Bass, James Brown, Johnny Graham, Larry Dunn, Maurice White, Philip Bailey, Uncategorized, Verdine White, wah wah guitar
Writing Anatomy of THE Groove this week has really bought to mind how crucial the mid 70’s were to the greatest musical triumphs of the funk era. It’s a key conversational point between myself and Henrique,who’s still informing and inspiring me from behind the scenes on this blog. Watching a video of Maurice White serenading the late Natalie Cole with the song “Can’t Hide Love” inspired me to tell you,the reader how I feel about this song. Have covered a lot of EWF here. But this 1975 number is special to myself and Henrique in the entire annals of recorded funk.
Just the historical back-round of this song seems theatrical. When EWF decided to do a live album due to heavy touring keeping them from recording a whole new album after That’s The Way Of The World,they released a compilation of live versions of their songs from this touring instead. It was paired with four new studio tracks. And the song being talked about today was the last of them. The album was appropriately entitled Gratitude. The most interesting thing about the song was that it wasn’t entirely written by Maurice or the other band members.
The song started life as a song written by Louisiana born composer Skip Scarborough in 1973. It was included on the debut album for the LA based Fifth Dimension spin off group Creative Source. It would seem that Maurice White and company felt a deep connection to the song. And since Skip was already working his songwriting magic with EWF , they all teamed up to re-arrange the song in a whole new way for the band- three years after the original first came out. The result was yet another case of a re-imagined remake taking a song to an entirely different level.
The Phenix Horns fanfare into the song-accompanied at every turning by the popping,jazzy bass of Verdine White. The gentle,high pitched rhythm guitars,electric piano,drums and strings all come in to play the central refrain of the song itself. Each coming into their own climaxes with Maurice White and Philip Bailey’s righteous vocal heights. On the finale of the song? The refrain transforms into one of the most eloquently composed vocal harmonies in music history-with Bailey vocalizing wordlessly first in his natural tenor,than in his better known falsetto.
When my father asked me at age 16 what my favorite EWF song was? I told him it was this one. And each time I hear it to this day? The sheer level of musicality in the song still raises the hairs on my back. Between the vocals,the bass of Verdine White,the rhythm guitar of Al McKay,the electric piano of Larry Dunn,the Phenix Horns and Charles Stepney’s string arrangements? It all dovetails with Scarborough’s reworked composition for a superb example of the sweetest funk can be. And on a non instrumental level,it goes even further.
Henrique and myself are in funky synergy about this song being one of the most harmonically advanced moments in contemporary music. Especially when it comes to the final vocal choruses of Phillip Bailey. Everything in this song is built on harmony. It deals with a man telling his lover not to deny the emotions they both have for each other. And doing so in a manner that’s both strong and empathetic. It perfectly reflects the song’s musical virtues. And if someone asked me to name a handful of songs representing the pinnacle of funk? This would be at the top of the list.
Filed under 1975, Al McKay, Charles Stepney, classic funk, drums, Earth Wind & Fire, electric piano, Funk, Funk Bass, funk guitar, Larry Dunn, Los Angeles, Maurice White, Natalie Cole, Phenix Horns, Philip Bailey, Skip Scarborough, Uncategorized, Verdine White