It would seem that a year before her passing? Teena Marie pronounced her third album Irons In The Fire to be her personal favorite. And that’s very interesting because it’s the first of her original albums I ever encountered on CD-back in my rack digging days at Borders Books & Music in the late 1990’s. Just under a decade? Ended up getting it online as part of my introduction to her music. As far as her love of the album? It was her first self produced album. And one to be proud of. One song on the album did catch my ear very strongly.
The general spectrum of Lady T’s music ran between torchy jazz and smoldering funk. It was ideally suited not just for her vocal range, but her style of composing as well. One song from this album turned out to be a fully formed version of an acoustic guitar demo she’d made a year after she first arrived at Motown in 1975. Of course when I heard it? The song just leaped out at me. Yet another case of funk being it’s own reward. So the song in question is called “First Class Love”. And even to this day? I’m still surprised by it’s overall power and energy.
The groove goes into heavy gear with a big horn intro. The rhythm is thick,steady and slow in fine funk style. A big chunky splendor of electric slap and accompanying brittle sounding synth bass. All having an instrumental conversation with the horns along the way. On the refrains,a higher pitched version of this brittle synthesizers drips into the melody like a musical fondue. There is a potent instrumental bridge that reduces the song down to a slamming beat and a phat,processed slap bass before returning to the main theme to end the groove.
Something about this song just cooks the essence of feminine focused funk down to it’s base roux. Every rhythmic element of this song,from it’s drums to it’s bass line, is thickened up by Teena’s production of it. Lyrically it’s probably her most sexually charged songs to this point. Her “first class love” is presented as an endless journey to the moon, and blue skies six months out of every year. Everything about the music tonally reflects the crawling,thrusting nature of physical intimacy. And ends up to be first class funk for you and for me.
Filed under 1980's, bass synthesizer, Borders Books & Music, CD's, Funk, Funk Bass, horns, Motown, synthesizers, Teena Marie, Uncategorized
Today Earth Wind & Fire founder Maurice White is turning 73. Out of all the funk bands to emerge out of the early 1970’s? EWF have always managed to maintain and enduring love and popularity. Even today,some of their lesser known albums are undergoing a slow reissuing process. Been thinking about finding an import CD version of the band’s debut album at the old Borders Books & Music 18 years or so ago. And about how I’ve kept going back to it again and again as my understanding of the bands history and significance developed.
It’s been over 44 years now since Maurice and Verdine White bought the original EWF sextet to Warner Brothers to record. And to their first show at Maverick’s Flat-courtesy of NBA great Jim Brown. Story goes their performance was so raggedy? The stagehands at Mavericks had to turn the lights down on them. That history actually had the effect of helping me to really appreciate their pre superstar sound, and because of how different it was. So in tribute to Mr.White? I’m going to talk about the very first song from the very first EWF album entitled “Help Somebody”.
A chunky rhythm guitar groove from Michael Beal introduces the drum and horn salvo. The we’re onto a thick blend of fast paced percussion with both wah wah and JB like rhythm guitar. It’s a phat,funky gumbo in which Maurice trades off vocal leads with two band members in Wade Flemmons and Don Whitehead. The refrain of the song spins off into a slower Brazilian salsa rhythm before cycling back to main theme of the song for two additional choruses. One features the group all chanting “reach out your hand and help somebody”,the other featuring a trombone solo from Alexander Thomas before another horn salvo closes out the song.
It would appear that critical reaction to EWF’s debut has significantly improved with time. That being said? This particular lineup of the band had a very different focus for their funk. Considering their participation in the soundtrack for Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song? This song has a strong blacksploitation flavor-with it’s fast chase scene pace and up front wah wah guitar. Yet Maurice’s Brazilian influence also comes into play on the refrain. And the bands renowned humanistic message of kindness and fellowship oozes out of every lyric. Both vocally and instrumentally? It is a far looser sound than they’d be known for. But there’s no doubt the funk was already percolating right out of the box!
Filed under 1970's, blacksploitation, Borders Books & Music, Brazil, classic funk, Earth Wind & Fire, Funk, funk guitar, Jim Brown, Maurice White, Mavericks Flat, percussion, Uncategorized, wah wah guitar
Michael Jackson was likely the first artist who ever focused my attention on instrumentalists. While admiring the vocal,songwriting and performance ability of the Jackson brothers in general? My attention would focus on the liner notes of their albums. This came after watching The Jackson’s-An American Dream mini series on TV. And my parents loaning me their Michael Jackson/Jackson related albums. I personally wanted to know more about the musicians whose sound made the rhythms snap,crackle and pop with funkiness and soul the way they did. It has gone on to be a tremendous learning experience for me.
Two of these musicians that I noticed on the liner notes to Mike’s iconic Off The Wall album,from my mom and dad’s original vinyl copy,were guitarist George Johnson and his bassist brother Louis. Considering my interest in bass players even then? It was amazing to learn just what a bass icon Louis Johnson in particular was. Not to mention his enormous debt to the 1980’s by his iconic electric bass line on Mike’s “Billie Jean”. While I knew who Quincy Jones was of course? I had no idea of the breadth and scope of his musical outreach until learning more about the Brothers Johnson.
A few years later during mid adolescence? I was browsing the CD racks at the now defunct Borders Books & Music. I noticed a collection of four newly arrived releases by…The Brothers Johnson. The earliest one, 1976 album called Look Out For #1 showed a photographically powerful image,take from below,of two super hip looking young musicians playing bass and guitar and singing with enormously enthusiastic expressions and stances. All of these album covers projected intensity. Album art is just art of course. But the best part was,as I veered toward adulthood, was discovering that these albums were musically just as energetically funkified as their cover art implied.
During my early 20’s? Something began to become uppermost in my understanding of the Johnson brothers musicality. Free jazz/bluesgrass/rock guitarist and writer for Allmusic.com Eugene Chadbourne perhaps worded it best about the revelation I had-when Mister Chadborne described the Johnson’s as coming from a period where musicians in the jazz/funk/soul genre were judged by the dues they paid in professional situations. As opposed to being judged by a romantic notion of street credibility. Since that latter notion totally defined the local understanding of musical appreciation around me at that time? This led me to more research,both through physical literature and my earliest experiences online, about the Johnson’s and other funk era instrumentalists.
By the time 2004 rolled around? And I was connecting with a group of local musicians/DJ’s as something of a local funk bands volunteer videographer? It was the story arc of how musicians such as George and Louis Johnson became musical icons that was fascinating me most. The brothers started playing with the Billy Preston band while still in high school. Quincy Jones then became taken with the duos talents. And he bought them in to record with his mid 70’s band on his 1975 release Mellow Madness-much of which qualifies as the earliest introduction of the Johnson’s duel playing and vocal harmonies. And the rest was history. In addition to success as a duo with their own albums? They would go from blistering session work with Herbie Hancock and George Duke to 80’s era work with Leon Sylvers and Slave’s Steve Arrington.
Looking back on it all now? The Brothers Johnson are the main reason why I have continued to focus so heavily on the instrumentalists relationship in the creation of the funk,soul and jazz music that has become such a source of creative and emotional inspiration for me. Getting back to the Michael Jackson angle? Now that the man sadly isn’t with us anymore? Whenever I hear his first two Quincy Jones produced solo records? It’s a lot more easy to tune into how Mike’s vocal hiccups take their turns popping right along with George and Louis’s instrumental licks on songs such as “Get On The Floor”,”Burn This Disco Out”,”Baby Be Mine” or the aforementioned “Billie Jean”. So among all the wonderful funky soul the Johnson’s have made? What I’d personally thank them for is helping increase my level of understanding of why playing in the groove works in music.
Filed under 1970's, 1980's, Allmusic.com, Billie Jean, Billy Preston, Borders Books & Music, Brothers Johnson, Eugene Chadbourne, Funk, Funk Bass, George Duke, George Johnson, guitar, Herbie Hancock, Leon Sylers, Look Out For #1, Louis Johnson, Michael Jackson, Off The Wall, Quincy Jones, Steve Arringon, The Jacksons, Thriller