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
One of the important things I’ve learned about Curtis Mayfield over the years is the extent of which his social consciousness evolved. This was also an important factor in America’s silent generation as a whole-extending across the nations color and economic lines. Starting out as mainly the composer/guitarist for The Impressions,Curtis soon became the bands lead singer as well. He became something of a windy city whiz kid-writing and producing for other acts as well. This not only changed the entire trajectory of his musical career. But re-focused the thematic priorities of himself,Sam Gooden and Fred Cash as well.
Throughout the 1960’s,this Chicago powerhouse vocal trio continually churned out songs such as “Keep On Pushing”,”Amen” and of course “People Get Ready”-all anthems of the civil rights movement and released between the march on Washington and the murder of Malcolm X. With later songs such as “We’re A Winner”? It was clear the confidence of the civil rights movement was evolving into the black power movement-for America and The Impressions. In 1969,following the murders of Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy a year before? Donny Hathaway co-produced the bands 1969 album The Young Mod’s Forgotten Story,which included another powerful song in “Mighty Mighty (Spade And Whitey)”.
First thing heard on this song is an enthusiastic,youthful applause before a thundering drum roll inaugurates the calling outcry of the Memphis soul style horn section that does a call and response dance with Curtis’s gurgling wah wah guitar. Throughout the main body of the song? The rolling beat is accented by a JB style mid pitched rhythm guitar. Before the horn sections emerge again,there’s a brief low blues guitar as well. On the chorus of the song,a sustained gospel style organ comes in to keep pushing the main melody of the song forward. Towards the end of the song,before the chorus closes out the song,the vocals of The Impressions completely recede while Curtis does a full Albert King style amplified blues solo.
In all honesty? Today is the first day that I’ve ever actually heard this song. Sometimes however? A first impression (pun more intended than I was hoping it to be) can say a thousand words. On two very important levels? This song speaks to two viewpoints of the cultural changes in race relations at that time. Musically the song is just about at the perfect intersection between the contemporary funk explosions of James Brown and the Chicago style urban blues that was coming out of the Chess label only a decade earlier. Lyrically it’s a similar situation. On one hand Curtis is very earnest in schooling the young that the power structure of America will be weakened as “we’re killing up our leaders” and “we all know it’s wrong”. By the end of the song he muses “if your cut you’re gonna bleed/might I get a little deeper/human life is from the semen seed”. This song musically and lyrically speaks so deeply into the primal nature of racial violence? It deserves to be understood in 2015 as much as in the late 60’s.
Filed under 1960's, black power, Blues, Bobby Kennedy, Chess Records, Chicago, civil rights, Curtis Mayfield, Fred Cash, Funk, funk guitar, horns, James Brown, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Sam Gooden, The Impressions, wah wah