The Pointer Sisters-Anita,the late June and today’d birthday girl Ruth Pointer (also the eldest of them) have always stood to me as an example of a truly democratic group. Aside from the 1977 departure of sister Bonnie,the remaining three sisters developed a vocal approach that focused on the importance of groups in vocally centered funky music. Their 3 part harmonies assisted one or the others sisters’ vocal lead generally. Ruth’s voice has always stood out very strongly for me. Her gospel powered husky tenor calls to mind what I’ve heard from the iconic Mavis Staples and more recently Lalah Hathaway. So Ruth and her sisters have really prioritized uptempo music in their repertoire.
Diversity seemed to be the key for the Pointers while recording for the Blue Thumb label in the mid 70’s. Their first three albums on that label were a mixture of swinging jazz,jump blues and even country/western. Vocally they performed everything as if each was their chosen approach to music. Of course each of these albums got seriously funky at one time or another. And for me that’s where their musical soul really shined through. Their 1975 album Steppin’ is the best such example-containing contributions from Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters. It was their classic writing partner of the era Allen Toussaint who provided Ruth’s shining groove on here called “Going Down Slowly”.
The drum and Melvin Ragin’s high pitched wah wah guitar give the basic beat a heavy reggae like skank to it. There are several layers of wah wah guitar-some of which trickle like falling rain while others burst forth like a revving engine. The piano comes down equally as hard while the bass line scales up and down as a strong,phat support system. Sharing the lead with her sisters Anita and June’s gospel/jazz style harmonies,Ruth even sometimes double tracks her own leads. After a brief bridge where the sisters “doo doo wop” harmonies scale up a pitch,the chorus repeats as the drums,guitar and piano to a fevered frenzy before fading down for the piano bring the song to an abrupt end.
One thing I love about this number is how it incorporates some of the static rhythm of reggae,itself a new and developing genre at that time,into it’s frenetic funk stew. The instrumentation of the song is pretty thick from the very start. But as the song evolves,the reverb and some more rocking guitar layers really thicken right up. In a more stripped down sort of way,this has a somewhat similar reggae/funk/rock approach that could be found a year later in the Rolling Stones “Hot Stuff”. Ruth’s voice has a power and elasticity that’s ideal for uptempo material. And she truly shines as the vocal lead on this example of musically powerful and lyrically assertive funk.
Filed under 1970's, Allen Toussaint, Anita Pointer, Bonnie Pointer, drums, Funk, Funk Bass, funk rock, June Pointer, Pointer Sisters, reggae funk, Ruth Pointer, Uncategorized, wah wah guitar, Wah Wah Waston
Etta James has one of the biggest voices,both literally and figuratively among the female blues and soul vocalists of her day. She was also a survivor. As much as many writers tend to literarily paint black artists of her day seem as if they lived within impenetrable emotional armor,Etta survived by being able to an occasional gentle laugh at some of the troubles that marred most of her life. As what could be described as a prime example of the Silent Generation OG figure at Chicago’s famous Chess Records,changes in music over the decades seemed to roll off of her. Not to mention the musicians and producers who helped her creatively reshape herself.
One of the saddest legacies of Etta’s life was the fact that so much of it was marred by periods of substance abuse. First it was heroin throughout the prime of her career. Than an addiction to prescription drugs in her final years. On the other hand,she almost always looked her best and gave her best performances outside of her personal situation. Following a 1970’s spent in and out of rehab, Etta transitioned in the next decade by teaming up with the recently passed New Orleans writer/producer/performer Allen Toussaint for her 1980 album Changes. The album begins with a bang right out of the box with “Mean Mother”.
That snarling,high pitched rhythm guitar wail that introduces many classic funk grooves gets this one going along with a powerful drum kick. Then the percussion accents kick in with thick sustained Clavinet riffing,blocky acoustic piano and the massive deep bass line holding everything up comes into play. On the rapped intro of Etta’s the drums are subordinated to the percussion. On each chorus,her vocals are accompanied by scaling down horns-which call out from the bottom up on the end of each rhythm statement of the song. The opening guitar snarl also takes a similar position on the last couple choruses of the song before it fades right out of earshot.
Etta James made some magnificent uptempo grooves and ballads over the years. The advent of funk in the 70’s seemed almost tailor made for her deep,resonant growl of a voice. This instrument of tough control and sophistication gets all it’s assistance from this song which showcase how funk is often blues played with a raw rhythm attitude instrumentally and a clean sound to top off on. The thickness of this groove is very similar in flavor to Gil Scott-Heron’s “Shut ‘Em Down” of the same vintage-only minus the synthesizer touches. It’s tale of living as “a child of god born to a family black” extends on the ever present soul power she possessed.
Filed under 1980's, Allen Toussaint, Chess Records, Chicago, clavinet, drums, Etta James, Funk, Funk Bass, percussion, rhythm guitar, Uncategorized