Category Archives: backup singers

Anatomy of THE Groove: “California Woman” by Eddie Kendricks

Eddie Kendricks was the one member of the classic Temptations lineup who had a consistently successful solo career. He had many hits,many of them strutting uptempo numbers such as “Keep On Truckin'”,”Boogie Down” and “Girl You Need A Change Of Mind”. Many of these songs were produced by Leonard Caston Jr.  After mixed results with two 1976 albums recorded with Norman Harris,Kendricks turned back to Caston to fully produce his final Motown solo album in 1977 entitled  Slick. One song from the album actually found its way into my musical rotation very heavily this past year.

During this past summer of 2016,I actually took the time to do more bicycle riding. Unlike previous years,decided to take advantage of my phone’s MP3 player to listen to music while on these bike rides. Most of these songs were endowed with an appropriate sense of motion. And all of them were from within the soul/funk/jazz/Latin spectrum of music. During the course of the summer,I brought different songs in and out of this rotation in order to keep things fresh. And one of them was an Eddie Kendricks song that originally concluded his final Motown album. Its called “California Woman”.

A pulsing bass and drum pulse starts the song out-accompanied only by low rumble of strings. Shortly after,a loud vocal chorus scales up into Kendrick’s refrain. Here,the bass the and stomping shuffle of the drums are accompanied by lightly harmonic strings and horns-along with the vocal chorus serving the same function. On the chorus the horns and backup vocalists melodically descend with Kendricks. After a reprise of the intro on the bridge,the chorus of the song repeats for a couple more bars before the song abruptly ends on an outro of a very similar nature to its beginning.

In some ways,this song has some of the hallmarks of Leonard Caston Jr’s productions with Eddie Kendricks from before. The difference here is there isn’t as much focus on the bass/guitar interaction as there is the orchestration. Its basically just the kind of “sound with a good melody” as Kendricks himself preferred-with much care put into the production to make sure the groove was funky and the sweeteners on top had plenty of life to them. The lyrical tale of a “down home lady” becoming a movie star goes beautifully with the music’s strutting “OG” style of cinematic funky soul.

 

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Filed under 1970's, backup singers, California, cinematic soul, drums, Eddie Kendricks, Funk Bass, funky soul, horns, Leonard Caston Jr., Motown, strings

Anatomy Of The Groove For The Brothers & Sisters Who Aren’t Here: “Talk To The People” by Les McCann

Les McCann was,in terms of my own personal musical exploration,an artist I was introduced to by my father exactly between my explorations of Stevie Wonder and Miles Davis. And that actually isn’t a bad way to describe the middle ground McCann’s sound had in terms of Miles’s harmonic richness and Stevie’s unusual melodic senses. After all,both artists were pretty equally jazz in terms of composition. Les McCann was a brilliant composer in his own right. So much so his album Invitation To Openness  was one which my father kept out at our old family summer camp at Pushaw Lake the entire year round.

Les McCann is probably most famous for his song recorded by electric sax pioneer Eddie Harris (another important jazz/funk story I’ll get into another time) called “Compared To What”. That song was written by another frequent collaborator in Eugene McDaniels. McCann just seemed to be bursting with creative energy as a pioneer of synthesizers along with Herbie Hancock in the emerging jazz/funk idiom during the first half of the 1970’s. Albums such as Layers explored this most fully. Both musically and conceptually,the Les McCann song that says it all for me is the title song to his 1972 album Talk To The People.

A gentle electric piano melody from McCann starts off the song before a ringing,bell like percussive rhythm comes in on the drums. As McCann raps,his band are whispering the song title in rhythm in the back round. That turns to lead and backup singing (McDaniels included) as the song begins. A heavily filtered bluesy wah wah rhythm guitar and a thick,bouncing bass line joins in as a huge swell of backup vocals joins in on the choruses. As each refrain and chorus progresses,the instrumentation builds to climactic intensity. And it gradually fades out until only the sound of people talking exists as it fades.

In today’s age of reactionary racism,sexism and general prejudice,”Talk To The People” exists in the world as almost an anthem for a possible solution. Its slow funk,penetrating rhythms and emotionally charged jazzy modulations do indeed speak a very important message for the human race. McCann talks about how a lot of the worlds problems even then stemmed from lack of communication and empathy. Lyrically he comes to the conclusion,even before the song gets going,”lets hate all that does not allow us to love”. That makes this a shining example of why jazz/funk is such an important music.

 

 

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Filed under 1970's, backup singers, drums, electric piano, Eugene McDaniels, Funk Bass, jazz funk, Les McCann, message songs, people music, rap, rhythm guitar

Prince (Protégé) Summer: Jill Jones

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Much like the subjects of my guest post from last week, Jill Jones is a somewhat lesser-known figure in the Prince protégé pantheon. Whether you know her by name or not, though, you’ve definitely heard her sing: Jill’s is the first voice on Prince’s 1982 crossover smash “1999.” And, again like the Family, her self-titled 1987 album on Paisley Park is required listening for anyone with a taste for “purple music” from the latter half of the decade.

Though she only released one album under Prince’s tutelage, Jill Jones spent a surprisingly long time in his camp. The pair first met in early 1980, when both were on tour with Rick James–Prince as the opening act, Jones as a backing singer for Teena Marie. By 1982 she had graduated to singing with Prince, making memorable appearances alongside Lisa Coleman in the music videos for the 1999 album (I believe I’ve said elsewhere on the Internet that the sight of Jill pouting in her police hat and camisole was at least 70% responsible for my sexual awakening as a preteen), and was one of his handful of off-and-on girlfriends. Her solo career was supposed to take off in 1984, when Prince wrote a song for her to sing in his breakout feature film Purple Rain; it ended up on the cutting room floor, however, along with the majority of the rest of her scenes.

It was only after another three years of waiting that Jill finally got her time in the sun. Released in May 1987, Jill Jones was comprised largely of re-recorded versions of some of Prince’s best outtakes. “G-Spot” was originally intended for Vanity 6; “All Day, All Night” used a live backing track recorded in 1984 by the Revolution; “Baby, You’re a Trip” dated all the way back to the 1999 sessions, as did lead single “Mia Bocca.” But with its lush string arrangement by Clare Fischer–another Family connection–“Mia Bocca” is really the closing bookend to Prince’s glamorous Under the Cherry Moon era, and it’s a hell of a way to go out. Even on its own, it’s worth the album’s price of admission.

Jill_Jones,_cover_album,_US,_1987Or at least, that’s what I think; but it seems the record-buying public didn’t agree, as Jill Jones failed to chart on the Billboard Top 100 for Pop, Black, and Dance music. Jones stuck around Paisley Park for a few more years, recording some tracks for an abortive second album with Prince and appearing in 1990’s Graffiti Bridge film. Perhaps understandably, that was the last time they worked together. After spending most of the ’90s struggling to make a name for herself, Jill released a second solo album in 2001, then retired from the music industry. Earlier this year, however, she emerged from her long hiatus with another, dance-flavored album called I Am (presumably, we can expect her fourth record sometime around 2030).

Like many of Prince’s spinoff records from the late ’80s, Jill Jones is unfortunately difficult to get a hold of these days; it is, however, available on YouTube, and until such time as an official reissue occurs, that’s where I recommend checking it out. Jill Jones’ album may have been a victim of Paisley Park’s financial decline–and Jones herself a victim of Prince’s caprice when it comes to his side projects– but for fans of Prince and the Minneapolis Sound in general, it’s a buried gem.

Next weekend, we’ll pick up where Jill and Prince left off with the multiple protégés of 1990’s Graffiti Bridge. In the meantime, as always, keep it tuned to Andresmusictalk, and check out my other stuff on Dystopian Dance Party and dance / music / sex / romance.

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Filed under 1987, backup singers, Claire Fischer, Lisa Coleman, Minneapolis, Minneapolis Sound, Prince, Prince & The Revolution, Purple Rain, Under The Cherry Moon, Vanity

STEVIEWONDERLAND!: Celebrating An Icon In Three Decades-“Bird Of Beauty” (1974)

Stevie Wonder’s life was almost lost on August 6th,1973. A truck driven by his late brother Calvin hit the back of a truck. Wonder was in a coma for four days. And the ensuing health complications almost denied him his sense of taste and smell. Blind from shortly after birth due to overexposure to an incubator leaving him with retinophothy of premurity, this knowledge of near death combined with losing two more of his senses had a profound effect on Wonder’s artistry. Already in a state of commercial and creative revelry with his music,these events deeply informed his music that was just yet to come.

Having dealt with a near death experience really informed Wonder’s next album entitled Fullfillingness’ First Finale. It was originally planned (and seemingly recorded) as a double album that Wonder decided to release in two parts. He never did. The part we did get in 1974 was a more somber,reflective album with a more stripped down instrumental approach. With songs such as “They Won’t Go When I Go” and “Creepin'” being fairly representative of the albums overall sound,it’s interesting that the album closes with two more upbeat songs. The first of which was called “Bird Of Beauty”.

Wonder begins the song with a 2 beat salsa rhythm-sticking the clave percussion in around the middle while Bobbye Hall plays a solo on the hollow sounding guica drum. The main body of the song has intertwining,jazz melodies played on the Clavinet and Fender Rhodes electric piano-with a rhythmic Moog bass bubbling in around the bottom. The  chorus of the song has Wonder building up the hi hats before returning to the refrain. In addition to a bridge sung in Portuguese Denise Williams,Lani Groves and Shirly Brewer provide the backing vocals-with the song extending ethereally on the chorus as it fades.

Stevie Wonder’s fascination with Brazilian rhythms became very apparent after he gained his creative freedom in the early 70’s. They were very prominent before this on “I Love Every Little Thing About You” and “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing”. This songs blend of sunny Latin jazz/salsa rhythms and funky rhythmic keyboards really emphasize it’s joyous sound. One that allows it to instrumentally dance and sing in so many different ways-all at the same time. Rhythm,melody and harmony all come together in the most beautiful ways here-all under the light of the musical sun Wonder creates.

The songs lyrical content has a double meaning for me. One is very personal. To overcome a fear of flying,my mother went skydiving  14 years ago. The words of “mind excersions” of this song made it part of the soundtrack to the video they assembled of the dive for her. It’s actually a song about altering ones state of consciousness naturally-without “black,white or yellow pills”. One could speculate this may have derived from Wonder having perhaps been given pain killers after his accident. With the recent and possibly pain killer related death of Prince,this is something to think about.

 

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Filed under 1970's, backup singers, Bobbye Hall, Brazilian Jazz, clave, clavinet, Denise Williams, drums, Fender Rhodes, guica, Lani Groves, Latin Funk, Moog bass, Motown, Shirley Brewer, Stevie Wonder

Anatomy of THE Groove Post-Mothers Day Special Part 1: “Don’t It Feel Good” By Ramsey Lewis

Mothers and fathers are indirectly responsible for the first musical rhythms we experience as human beings. It’s the heartbeat of the child itself. Prince illustrated this in the mid 90’s on his jam “Sex In The Summer”. In terms of literal music,my mother’s own musical interests seem connected to her being a former modern abstract dancer/choreographer. I’d describe her musical tastes as being eclectic-perhaps even overreaching at times. But fundamentally,it’s still a good groove that inspires her. And as much as my father has been the main musical guiding light in my family? My mother has made her mark too.

Ramsey Lewis is an artist whom I discovered through my family about 20 years ago. It was during the time where I was really getting interested in funk. And asking my dad to pull funky music out of his vinyl collection whenever he could. Most of this came out of his jazz collection. However,there was one album that he and my mom purchased together when they were first married. The album was by Ramsey Lewis. And it was 1975’s Don’t It Feel Good.  While the funk percolated across it with “Spider-Man” and “Fish Bite”,it was the opening title song that always caught my mothers ear. And later mine.

A deep,chunky rhythm guitar begins the song playing a deep in the pocket bluesy riff. Right into the middle of this pocket,a round and pulsing Moog bass settles right in. The drum keeps up the entire song with a slow,pulsing swing with plenty of rhythmic breaks. This is orchestrated by an ARP string ensemble. Ramsey’s Fender Rhodes solo improvises on the blusiness of the guitar. That same guitar buffets the refrain and chorus. Each chorus has a different vocal chorus. One has a Latin-jazz style vocalese. The other,which fades out the song,is based on the bluesy melody and states “don’t it feel good RAMSEY!”.

This is one of those funk jams that understands two of the most important things about the classic funk era. The deep in the pocket groove keeps the bluesy slowness in the rhythm and melody. Also the vocals really bring that element of jazz Miles Davis always championed,based on his mothers advice,for musicians to always play “something you could hum”. Added to all this,the song really knows how to stay on the one. The refrain/choral sequence is all based in advancing the melodic and rhythmic drama of this groove. And that makes it among Ramsey Lewis’s finest funk of the 70’s.

 

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Filed under 1975, Afro-Latin jazz, ARP string ensemble, backup singers, blues funk, drums, Fender Rhodes, funk guitar, jazz funk, Moog, Mothers Day, synth bass, Uncategorized

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Loose Booty” by Sly & Family Stone

Life seemed to be turning around for Sly during the mid 70’s. Though his albums with the Family Stone were continuing to be more or less solo albums featuring mainly Sly’s instrumental input, there were changes for him on many levels. Drugs had become a major factor in both his life and that of the other band members during the early 70’s. This led to the band being known for  continually missing gigs. And it also added to his isolation as an individual. While this had the effect of producing some very creative grooves this 60’s icon of peace,love and soul power was seemingly running out of steam when it came to reaching the people.

Sly himself attempted to turn this around by marrying actress/model Kathleen Silva. Their wedding took place as part of a big performance at Madison Square Garden in June of 1974. They had a child together named Sylvester Jr. A month later Sly released the album Small Talk. While it features the same idea of the band being overdubbed into his own instrumentation basically,the addition of strings on some tracks made for a somewhat slower and pop oriented album. Of course there was still a lot of funk to be heard here. One of these grooves that always stood out to me came in midway through the album,and is entitled “Loose Booty”.

The song starts right off with a stone cold fanfare of sustained horns,organ and drums over which Little Sister harmonize the title choruses. The following refrain strips down to the bass,organ and funk drumming-with Sly grunting out “Shadrach,Meshach,Abednego” as a rhythmic lyric. After a drum break featuring a high pitched female vocal call and response-concluding with a muted trumpet,the refrain returns with Sly trading off lyrics in classic Family Stone style with Rose,Little Sister and an unknown bass voice (perhaps Freddie Stone in a lower voice). The song repeats this  chorus/refrain/break patter twice before an extended refrain closes out the song right on the one.

In a lot of ways,this is some of the most instrumentally full funk Sly had done since the salad days of the Family Stone in the late 60’s. It still has the same hard funk flavor of Sly’s 70’s music. But with the dense mix of horns,drums,bass and organ it’s not at all as stripped down as anything on There’s A Riot Goin’ On or Fresh. Sly singing a rhythmic chorus just repeating the names of three pious Jewish kings forced to walk through fire in the bible for not bowing to the image of a king may say a lot more about how he felt he’d had to pay a price for his actions somehow-either personally or musically. In terms of sheer funkiness and the popularity of it’s breaks in samples,this is prime mid period Sly funk.

 

 

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Filed under 1970's, backup singers, drums, Funk, horns, organ, Shadrach,Meshach and Abednego, slap bass, Sly & The Family Stone, Sly Stone, Uncategorized