Category Archives: Bobby Womack

Christmas is 4 Ever: The Bootsy Collins Holiday Album I Can’t Decide If I Like

bootsycollins-christmasis4ever

Of my many musical guilty pleasures, Christmas music is probably my guiltiest. I have a fascination that borders on the morbid for those silly, disposable albums of festive music popular artists tend to release between the months of September and November, to be listened to (if at all) between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. And while I certainly appreciate the classics–Bing, Elvis, Ella, Phil Spector, the Jackson 5–I almost prefer the also-rans: the goofy ones; the seasonal records few bother listening to and even fewer bother remembering.

The following is a review I wrote ten years ago (!) of one of those records: Christmas is 4 Ever by funk bass legend and real-life cartoon character Bootsy Collins. As you’ll see, I liked it a lot at the time. My opinion on it has fluctuated in the years since; these days, it’s pretty much a crapshoot whether I’ll think it’s a goofy good time or an infernal racket. But that’s the risk of pop Christmas music: depending on your mood, it can be as warm and nostalgic as a mug of hot cocoa or as obnoxious as a string of LED lights on the strobe setting. Sometimes, it can even be both at the same time. I haven’t given Christmas is 4 Ever my annual listen yet, but i think I will this week. Who knows, maybe I’ll finally like it as much as I did 10 years ago:

If anything about Christmas is 4 Ever is an unqualified success, it’s that the album is a blast from beginning to end–something that could probably be ascertained from a mere glance at its ludicrous snowglobe cover art and whimsically spelled track listing, with titles like “Jingle Belz,” “Chestnutz,” and “WinterFunkyLand.” Of course, as anyone who’s bothered to investigate his solo career can attest, Bootsy is nothing if not fun; and when it comes to the campy, cartoonish, but oh-so-heavy fun(k) that is his stock in trade, this Christmas effort does not disappoint. Just try to keep a grin off your face when “Boot-a-Claus” turns in a loose, effortlessly funky rendition of “Jingle Bells,” or when the man once dubbed “Player of the Year” (always the sexiest star in the P-Funk constellation) injects some lascivious eyebrow-wiggling into Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas Baby,” crooning that he’s “about ready to come down your chimney.”

But Bootsy’s addition to the Christmas canon has more going for it than just kitsch appeal. For one thing, like all the best holiday R&B music, his arrangements boast an intuitive, yet unclichéd grasp on the Christmas mood. Boots’ version of Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” (here rechristened as “Dis-Christmiss”) manages to conjure up images of snow-frosted windows and toasty firesides while retaining its essential throb and groove; “Silent Night,” while hardly guilty of taking its name literally (how could the Baby Jesus possibly have gotten any sleep with Bootsy slapping his Space Bass all over the other side of the manger?), adds the requisite dose of holiday sentimentality without ever laying it on too thick.

And even when Boots and company aren’t quite capturing the spirit of the season–it’s difficult to imagine the manic jam “Happy Holidaze,” complete with guest appearance by Snoop Dogg, getting much rotation in front of even the funkiest of Christmas trees–Christmas is 4 Ever succeeds in being the best straight-up album Collins has released in years. Not only is the material more consistent than 2002’s B-star studded Play with Bootsy, it just sounds like vintage Bootsy. It has that woozy, anarchic P-Funk clutter of horns, bass, guitars and synths: no doubt due at least in part to the presence of ex-Parliament keyboard legend Bernie Worrell, who rounds out a truly impressive guest list including former J.B.’s leader/trombone player Fred Wesley, ex-Zapp keyboardist Terry “Zapp” Troutman, former Rubber Band members Joel Johnson and Frankie “Kash” Waddy, ex-Funkadelic guitarist Michael Hampton, and soul institution Bobby Womack, as well as Bootsy’s own brother (and funk heavyweight in his own right) Catfish Collins. And if all that wasn’t enough, the songs themselves are littered with self-referential quips: a move typical of latter-day Bootsy, which could have been cloying if it wasn’t so goddamn fun to hear “Bootzilla”‘s indelible “wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiind me up!” in its umpteenth incarnation.

Indeed, it may be Christmas is 4 Ever’s firm grounding in Bootsy’s past that makes it such an enjoyable listen, particularly for those who don’t happen to share my perverse love for holiday music. Listen to “Be-With-You” without paying attention to the lyrics and it sounds like exactly what it is: a pitch-perfect remake of the 1976 Rubber Band hit “I’d Rather Be with You,” amped up with Zapp-style Vocodered vocals and just maybe sounding better than ever. But place such autobiographical touches within the context of yuletide nostalgia, and what you have is an album which reflects on holidays past and present even while it serves as a summation of the now 65-year-old (!) Bootsy’s lofty position in popular music history.

Case in point: the legendary funkateer opens “WinterFunkyLand” with “thank you”s to his former mentors James Brown and George Clinton; elsewhere, he dedicates “Chestnutz” (a.k.a. “The Christmas Song”) to the man who made it famous, Nat “King” Cole (also, probably not coincidentally, the first Black man to find a place in mainstream America’s holiday songbook). And that’s where Christmas is 4 Ever really triumphs, both as a Christmas record and as a watermark release for Bootsy himself. With its warmth and sentimentality, the album feels like a stack of season’s greetings addressed to loved ones from years past, inviting us to bask in the glow of friends and family that seems to burn brightest late in the month of December. Granted, that sentiment might come off as a little goopy for some potential listeners–or, you know, pretty much anyone who might be reading this. But if Christmas is about anything, it’s goopiness, and Bootsy has done well to recognize as much.

Besides, what other Christmas album can you name that features a holiday message from reformed pimp/Snoop Dogg “spiritual advisor” Bishop Don “Magic” Juan? I’ll tell you one thing: it sure as hell ain’t Christmas with Perry Como. And that, my friends, is as good a recommendation as any.

Check out Dystopian Dance Party next week for more of my thoughts on recent and vintage Christmas music, including the holiday albums of James Brown and, um, R. Kelly. Happy holidays!

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Filed under Bernie Worrell, Bobby Womack, Bootsy Collins, Christmas music, Donny Hathaway, Fred Wesley, James Brown, Snoop Dogg

Anatomy of THE Groove: I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much” by Bobby Womack (1985)

Bobby Womack passed away two years ago this year. Cancer and the beginning of Alzheimer’s disease had begun to erode away his body and mind. In light of artists whose creative output might’ve faded from their own minds such as this one,it seems all the more vital that their admirers keep their art close to their own hearts,minds and souls. Hearing Womack’s faltering voice and the somewhat dour music of his final album The Bravest Man In The World wasn’t the easiest thing for me to hear. Even on that, the man hadn’t skipped a beat as a songwriter and guitar player. And that alone reminded me of what kept him going as a soul survivor over the years.

In order to hear the man still in full command of his musical presentation,all I had to do was go back to the mid 1980’s. And my own family playing 45’s around the household. During the mid/late part of the 80’s decade,many soul/funk icons of the 60’s and 70’s were making hugely successful comebacks. Aretha Franklin,James Brown and Earth Wind & Fire being among them. Womack was somewhat unique in that he never went away during the 80’s. In fact his 1981 album The Poet was a huge critical and commercial success during the post disco radio freeze out. His 1985 release So Many Roads produced one such 45 RPM record played by my family called “I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much”.

A phased pedal drum roll literally fades into the song. Rhythmically it’s a 72 BPM mid tempo number that starts out with a pulsing snare-along with a high pitched lead synth and a Japanese Koto-like one underneath. Womack’s bluesy,soulful guitar wails in the back round as that musical stranger in the dark. Once the actual beat kicks in, a throbbing synth bass comes in as accompaniment-as Womack’s distant guitar plays a more rhythmic role. The difference between the refrain the chorus and refrain comes from the use of notes. And later on with the additions of more orchestral synthesizers. The song continues with this basic musical throb until it fades out.

The addition of mid 80’s synths and urban contemporary production values actually give way to the fact that this is still a classic Bobby Womack soul slow jam underneath any instrumental sweeteners on top. In that case it’s rather like Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald’s “On The Own”,if actually quite a bit rootsier with people such as Merry Clayton as the gospel/soul backup choruses.  The probing musical vibe Womack sets here goes well with the concept. He’s weighing the pros and cons of being attracted to his best friends wife on this song. And the stripped down,adult contemporary variation of soulful rhythm & blues really makes this stand out for me as a somewhat latter day Womack classic.

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Filed under 1980's, 45 records, Bobby Womack, drums, guitar, rhythm & blues, synth bass, synthesizers, Uncategorized

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Mr. D.J. Don’t Stop The Music” by Bobby Womack (1979)

One of the things that made Bobby Womack have such musical longevity is the fact that he was such a renowned songwriter playing even outside his own field. This was particularly true for the jazz world. George Benson’s iconic instrumental hit “Breezin” was of course composted by Womack. He also worked with Crusader’s sax/bassist Wilton Felder on the 1980 album Inherit The Wind.  This album became a smash in London,and was likely part of the still gestating UK acid jazz scene. The man still continued to maintain his solo career-making a new album every year throughout the 7o’s. The decade ended in a very unexpected way for him however.

After dealing with a cocaine habit during his time recording with Sly Stone on his There’s A Riot Goin’ On,Womack lost his four month old son Truth in 1978. This apparently turned the habit into a serious addiction over the next decade. Still the man was on a musical roll. In 1979 he released his final album of the 70’s on Arista Records entitled Roads Of Life. I first encountered the CD during the late 90’s at Borders Books & Music. And only recently picked it up as part of a classic album vinyl reproduction box set of Womack’s Arista period. The album is seriously funky overall. The song that said it all for me was called “Mr. D.J. Don’t Stop The Music”.

After a screaming call to “come on with the music!”,the percussion accented drum beat rolls on with a wah wah pedal fueled Clavinet rings in the song. As the percussion increases,Womack and the band vocally contribute to the songs party atmosphere while a round,pulsing synthesizer and a funky harpsichord really pump up the choruses of the song. After the third chorus of the song, Womack plays one of his amp’d up blues/rock guitar solos. This goes into a piano solo fueled by climactic strings-bleeding into a wailing sax and back into a more rhythmic piano call and response. The strings segue out of this into the repeated chorus that continues on into the songs fade out.

Recorded at Muscle Shoals studios with former Motown Funk Brothers Jack Ashford and Eddie Bongo Brown (on drums and percussion),this song is another superb example of the type of orchestrated,danceable funk that could function very easily under the mirrored ball of the disco floor.  The party sound vibe that always worked so well for the stomping disco/funk sound really brings out the groove as well. Womack’s ability to play and write funky music had really come into it’s own by the end of the 1970’s. And it really shows how much clout he held among the big funk/soul/jazz session players at the time that he could get together with them to jam out strong grooves like this one so regularly.

 

 

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Filed under 1970's, Bobby Womack, clavinet, disco funk, drums, Eddie "Bongo" Brown, guitar, Jack Ashford, Muscle Shoals, piano, Saxophone, strings, The Funk Brothers, Uncategorized

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Lillie Mae” by Bobby Womack (1968)

Bobby Womack is understood to me today as being an enormous soul survivor. Both literally and figuratively. This Cleveland Ohio native came up in the same state would produce so many funk luminaries in the 1970’s. Particularly in Dayton. He started in his family gospel band The Womack Brothers,which included his famous brother Cecil. Once they were discovered by Sam Cooke and became his backup band,Sam changed their name to the Valentinos. He bought them to LA with him,and re-focused them from gospel toward pop flavored soul. Following Sam Cooke’s death,Womack worked as a session musician for Ray Charles for the next four years-having disbanded the Valentinos.

Having worked at Chip Moman’s American Sound Studios,famous for launch the late 60’s comeback of Elvis Presley,Womack found himself doing session work for Aretha Franklin on her major 60’s breakout albums. During this time Womack began to work on a solo album of his own. The rhythm section involved on his debut were bassist Mike Leech,organist Bobby Emmons,drummer Gene Chrisman,pianist Bobby Woods and a fellow guitar player in Reggie Young. His solo debut was the 1967 release Fly Me To The Moon. It’s title song was a doo-wop styled version of the Frank Sinatra hit. The song that moves me most off this album however was called “Lillie Mae”.

The song is heavy on the rhythm. The drum is playing a fast shuffle with the rhythm guitar chugging away with equal rhythmic energy. On each chorus and refrain,the horn section either burst out or sustain themselves melodically-depending on the chords of the given part of the song. On the refrain the organ comes in,again playing a very strong sustain. On the end of the songs second refrain,the organ transitions into the chorus with a big,up scaling psychedelic explosion of sound. The song concludes with the refrain of the song repeating as it fades out-having the organ play hi hat like percussive accents on the very last moments of it.

My very first reaction to hearing this song was that it sounded very similar to Elvis’s song “A Little Less Conversation”. That isn’t at all surprising as that was also recorded with Chip Moman’s production. And came out the same year as this. As it stands,this song is a quick tempo’d example at countrified funky soul at it’s finest. The guitar very much picks up on JB’s use of the instrument at the time as a fully involved rhythmic element to the drums in the song. It also includes the instrumental sustains used on Memphis/Stax soul records at the time. So right at the very time the funk was getting ready to burst out into a genre all it’s own,Bobby Womack was playing his part in the entire funk process.

 

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Filed under 1960's, Bobby Womack, Cecil Womack, Chip Moman, country/soul, Elvis Presley, funky soul, guitar, Sam Cooke, The Valentinoes, Uncategorized