Ray Charles represents soul music’s very beginnings to such a degree,I really have yet to meet anyone who wouldn’t associate him with that word. Probably why he’s referred to as the Genius Of Soul. The man’s 12 original Atlantic Records album from 1957 through 1961 still remain testaments to the genre as it was developing itself. He even helped create the framework for funk along with James Brown on his Wurlitzer electric piano solo on the song “What’d I Say”. While his ABC label albums were often ballad heavy country/western oriented concept albums,Brother Ray always burned brightly when the tempo went up.
In 1977,Ray Charles decided to sign back with the Atlantic label. Times had changed since he’d left them 16 years earlier. The funk was in full throttle,and disco was coming in fast. Now when I first discovered these albums from Ray’s second Atlantic tenure even existed, there didn’t seem to be much said about them. But a few years ago,they started showing up more often at flea markets and used record stores in my area of Maine. So decided to pick a few of them up. That includes the first of them in 1977’s True To Life. It’s a great album,but the one song on it that really caught my attention was “Game Number Nine”.
A thick polyphonic synthesizer opens the song playing a straight up 12 bar blues breakdown. Then the slow crawling drum kicks in with the simmering,complexly noted Moog bass bubbling underneath-itself accompanied a higher pitched synth tone. This represents the main body of the groove itself. On the choral breakdowns, Ray sings call and response to bleeping space funk synths and his own groove Wurlitzer soloing. By the time the song is nearing it’s end,Ray is accompanying that electric piano soloing with some very nasal blues synth accents as the song fades out.
Billy Preston had been a member of Ray Charles’ band in 1967. The one thing I find most interesting about “Game Number Nine” is how close it was with Preston’s then current approach to funk. The song brims with Ray’s own personality-from his electric piano style and sly,girl chasing lyrics. Him bringing in that chunky rhythm and blues approach into the heavy funk groove did remind me of Preston’s approach. Especially the way Ray also used synths to play the guitar and bass parts. It’s a great and unsung example of Ray Charles not only giving up the funk,but keeping current with the progress of the genre.
Aretha Franklin,having turned 74 today,has been alive during one of the most significant musical periods in terms of soul’s transition towards rhythm-towards funk.Her signature song at Atlantic was a version of Otis Redding’s “Respect”,which really showcased how the Southern soul style she embraced was edging towards that funky timing. Now Aretha has had some amazing uptempo songs,many of which were major hits,over her time as a recording artist. And they’ve all showcased how despite understandings to the contrary, that uptempo music can be just as timeless as balladry. Of course as with any artist,there were peaks and valleys for her. Some of those peaks were also pretty high ones.
Focusing to a degree on gospel soul/R&B ballads during the early 70’s,Aretha was becoming very well aware that the musical tide was shifting towards the more uptempo sound she’d pioneered in the late 60’s. So at some point in 1970-early 71 Aretha had a basic piano sketch of a groove that she presented to some of the new musicians she was working with. They were drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie,future Stuff guitarist Cornell Duperee and electric bass extraordinaire Chuckrh Rainey. This trio allowed for this song to be built directly from the rhythm up and become huge early 70’s hit for her. The name of the groove was “Rock Steady”.
Pops Popwell and Dr.John provide a hot Brazilian percussion accent to the bluesy organ of Donny Hathaway. From here Purdie’s drums really get going within this bed of percussion shaking along. Cornell get’s his James Brown rhythm guitar going on in a serious way in the center of this groove while Rainey’s bass is patted in with the sound of a deep, pulsating heart. On the choruses,Aretha’s vocals are echoed along with the backup harmonies from the Sweethearts Of Soul. Each refrain is buffeted by the very jazzy Afro pop charts from The Memphis horns. On the bridge,Purdie provides a percussive drum back that’s now one of the most famous in history before the song fades out.
There are times where the funkiness of a groove has to be discovered by listening closely. “Rock Steady” is not one of those grooves. It’s a song that demands moving and heavy booty shaking. With it’s strong Afro-Latin horn and percussion vibe,this is actually one of the songs that help inaugurate the “united funk” era of the early/mid 70’s. Everyone playing in on this song act in the manner of JB as one rhythm machine. The song construction is so advanced,it thickens the whole sound. Aretha even lets us know to “call this song exactly what it is” before declaring it “a funky and lowdown feeling”. So as with Wilson Pickett’s “Funky Broadway”,this groove really assumes it’s funkiness proudly.
Filed under 1970's, Aretha Franklin, Atlantic Records, Bernard Pretty Purdie, Chuck Rainey, Cornell Dupree, Donny Hathaway, Dr.John, drum breaks, drums, Funk, Funk Bass, horns, Memphis Horns, organ, percussion, Pops Powell, rhythm guitar, Uncategorized
For much of my life? I have,as is the case with many,known former Drifters leading man Ben E. King for one song. The song was of course “Stand By Me”. It was re-purposed so many times over the years. Including the 1986 Rob Reiner/Stephen King film of the same name. On the other hand? That narrowness of perception on my part led me to neglect some very important music King made during the 60’s and beyond.
Having recorded for a variety of labels in the 60’s,many spin-off’s of a parent,King began recording for that main label Atlantic in the mid 70’s. By then the label was both iconic and legendary for it’s rich history in bringing soul music and it’s many tributaries to the American public-with artists such as Ray Charles. At this point? The focus of King’s music was changing. And it was very strongly reflected in the title song to his 1975 release Supernatural Thing.
This is one one of those songs that just starts it’s groove right off the bat. It’s a slow tempo drum with conga accented dance rhythm. With that is a higher pitched rhythm guitar-with a liquid high bass line playing the bluesiest of changes. Right in the middle? A subtle organ basically extends deeply on the bass. After King’s main vocals receive the call and response treatment from the female backup vocalists? There’s a repeated,jazzy swing drumming on the bridge before the song fades on the main theme.
With Ben E. King’s sad recent passing at the age of 76? This song came up in my conversations with Rique. Never heard it before though. One thing I noticed about this song is that it adds a light Latin percussion flavor to what basically amounts to the same sort of cleanly produced “united funk” one might hear with James Brown on “The Payback” or Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead”. Especially with the higher pitched bass playing the blues. Only unfortunate thing for me personally is that I never heard this song while the man was alive. Still it’s a very very strong groove from the funk era and showcases another side of this artist.