Category Archives: civil rights

Nina Simone – Young, Gifted, and Black

nina-superjumbo

Monday would have been Nina Simones 84th birthday; and, while Andre already did an excellent job of commemorating the occasion, I thought I’d pitch in with this review of some reissues I wrote way back in 2006 (!). Incidentally, one of the albums, Nina Simone Sings the Blues, was remastered late last year by the Vinyl Me, Please record of the month club; if you’re a member, you can still pick it up.

Over the course of her almost 50-year performing career, Nina Simone was many things to many different people. She was the husky-voiced blues goddess of “See Line Woman” and “Feeling Good”; the fearless Civil Rights crusader of “Old Jim Crow” and “Mississippi Goddam”; the sophisticated “High Priestess of Soul” who gave her definitive 1966 album its name. That is precisely why the essence of Simone is so difficult to capture on a single disc: to try and boil down a career as long, as varied, as singularly eclectic as hers into just a handful of iconic moments is an exercise in futility.

Thankfully, the compilers of a recent set of reissues understand that fact. Playing to just three of Simone’s many strengths, they wisely highlight each with a disc of its own: Sings the Blues and Silk & Soul, both originally released in 1967, cover their self-explanatory genres with the comfortable ease of a woman who had been blending them for years; while Forever Young, Gifted & Black: Songs of Freedom and Spirit compiles politically-minded highlights and rarities from the late ’60s. Granted, some might argue that these releases are inherently flawed, hailing as they do from the singer’s less renowned tenure at RCA rather than her two trailblazing years with Phillips. But if listening to this music with fresh ears proves anything, it’s that there’s a timelessness to all of Simone’s work, which no amount of critical grumpiness could ever erase.

© Legacy Recordings

© Legacy Recordings

As a matter of fact, these albums work a hell of a lot better than they have any right to. The track listing to Forever Young, Gifted & Blacks may read at first glance like a senseless grab bag of Civil Rights Nina: a single here, an alternate take there, a smattering of live cuts to fill the gaps. But the music within is never less than interesting, and often revelatory. Three excerpts from Simone’s performance at the Westbury Music Fair on April 7, 1968, a mere three days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, are the obvious highlights: a performance so charged that the stage banter by a shell-shocked, emotional Simone rivals the music for intensity. “Do you realize how many we have lost?” she asks before the rousing final chorus of “Why? (The King of Love is Dead),” a tribute to Dr. King originally released in edited form on Simone’s live album ‘Nuff Said!, here expanded to its full thirteen minutes. “They’re shooting us down one by one.” Next, she invokes the Birmingham Four and launches into an incendiary rendition of “Mississippi Goddam” that threatens to leave its better-known counterpart (from 1964’s Nina Simone in Concert) in the dust. “The King of Love is dead! I ain’t ’bout to be non-violent, honey!” she exclaims before the last verse, demonstrating in just thirteen words the miles of difference four years can make in the national consciousness.

The Westbury tracks are indeed something of a double-edged sword for the compilation: they leave one salivating over the prospect of a full-length release for that concert, while making the rest of the CD we do have look rather hodge-podge by comparison. But Forever Young, Gifted & Black still manages to hold together as an enjoyable listening experience. The Lorraine Hansberry-quoting title track, a vibrant collision of gospel exultation and pomp reverence, remains one of Simone’s most immediate anthems, while the alternate versions of the Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and Simone’s medley of “Ain’t Got No” and “I Got Life” from the musical Hair are both more intimate and more rollicking than their previously-released forebears. Finally, the collection is rounded out by a handful of album cuts: two live from New York City’s Philharmonic Hall in 1969 (already made available on 1970’s Black Gold), two from 1969’s To Love Somebody, and one from Silk & Soul. Although I can’t help but wonder why these tracks weren’t passed over in favor of more rare material, they’re all hits rather than misses; and with a specially-commissioned new poem by Nikki Giovanni adorning the inner sleeve, who really has the heart to quibble?

© RCA Records

© RCA Records

In many ways more compelling than the collection, however, are the reissues of Sings the Blues and Silk & Soul: not just Simone’s two greatest albums for RCA, but, in the case of Sings the Blues, her single most successful excursion into the “raw” side of her music–and as we all know, Nina was about as raw as a Juilliard graduate could get. Though it may not contain anything quite as gritty as 1965’s neo-work song “Be My Husband,” Sings the Blues’ smoky juke-joint confessionals stand comfortably with Simone’s best work. It’s also a more expansive album than its name implies, containing everything from frank expressions of female sexuality like “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” “Buck,” and “Do I Move You,” to a railing anti-racism anthem co-written by Langston Hughes (“Backlash Blues”), to a Gershwin cover (“My Man’s Gone Now”) and a version of “House of the Rising Sun” performed in the style of “Sinnerman.” The bonus tracks are few but worthy, and Sid McCoy’s weedy original liner notes, reproduced here, are also worth a laugh or two: “‘Sugar in My Bowl’ is one of those suggestive tunes successfully employing double entendre,” he explains.

© RCA Records

© RCA Records

Meanwhile, “It Be’s That Way Sometime” kicks off Silk & Soul in a funky, if somewhat mannered mode; the result, as Simone’s powerful vocals struggle for dominance with her lite-soul backing, is inspired, creating a tension that lasts throughout the whole record. Thus fiery, gospel-tinged “soul” like “Go to Hell” and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” rubs shoulders with the “silk” of contemporary cocktail-pop standards “Cherish” and “The Look of Love,” and somehow she manages to pull it all off with equal skill. Throw in a few lesser-known bonus tracks (one of which, “Save Me,” carries a co-writing credit by one Aretha Franklin), and this trio of Nina Simone reissues has its third consecutive success.

There is, of course, more to the Nina Simone story than even these fine discs can tell; if her career remains impossible to encapsulate in just one CD, it’s hardly any easier to contain with three. Yet Sings the Blues, Silk & Soul, and Forever Young, Gifted and Black remain concise statements of three of Simone’s most appealing sides: the reincarnated blueswoman, the crafter and interpreter of soulful pop melodies, the poet of the African American experience. If there’s any chance that these CDs could bring a deeper understanding of Nina Simone to a new generation of listeners, then a better means to that end could hardly be imagined.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under 1960's, Aretha Franklin, Blues, civil rights, Martin Luther King Jr., Nina Simone, people music, Soul, soul jazz

The Continuing Resonance of “Mississippi Goddam”

For reasons that should be obvious–and sort of rhyme with the words “Dump Conflagration”–I’ve been spending a lot of time this week thinking about protest music. And surprisingly, one of the songs that feels most relevant to our current (terrible) political situation is one that was written over 50 years ago, about a different (and even more terrible) political situation: Nina Simone‘s “Mississippi Goddam.”

It’s a testament to Simone’s brilliance as a songwriter and a performer–or maybe just to the world’s staggering shittiness–that a protest song as historically specific as “Mississippi Goddam” could have such long-lasting resonance. Simone wrote the song in early 1964, in response to two events from the previous year: the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Edvers in Jackson, Mississippi, and the fatal bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. But despite its ripped-from-the-headlines inspiration, she continued to perform “Mississippi Goddam” throughout her life, using its righteous rage as a vessel to contain whatever new disaster had struck Black America in the interim.

My favorite version of the song, for example, comes from April 1968, just three days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: an event, Simone tells the crowd, that “left me so numb, I don’t know where I’m at.” It’s a stirring version of the song, its middle section more devastating than ever: “Hound dogs on my trail / Little school children sitting in jail / Black cat crossed my path / I think every day’s gonna be my last / Lord have mercy on this land of mine / We all gonna get it in due time / ‘Cause I don’t belong here / I don’t belong there / I’ve even stopped believing in prayer.” As historically specific as the performance remains, its sense of hopelessness leapt out at me across the decades when I listened to it again this week. It’s hard not to detect a little of our present situation in the lines where Simone rages against the admonitions of moderate white liberals: “Don’t tell me / I tell you / Me and my people just about due / I’ve been there so I know / They keep on saying ‘Go slow!'”

mississippi_goddamBut if the rage Simone felt in 1964 and 1968 still feels relevant to 2017, then so, too, does the galvanizing purpose behind the song–which is the real reason why I found myself listening to it so much this week. “Mississippi Goddam” is about the terrible things that happen to marginalized people, but it’s also about standing up and demanding justice for those terrible things: not later, but now. Yesterday and today, reports of anti-inauguration protests, counter-events, and of course the Women’s March on Washington were the only things in the world that felt right, that made any sense at all. And, while I don’t know if the legendarily acerbic Ms. Simone would have been part of the Women’s March–though I will go out on a limb and say she wouldn’t have been caught dead wearing no damn pussy hat–I do think she would have approved of the many people taking to the streets. It’s going to be a long four years (Christ, I hope it’s only four years); but if we keep fighting like what I saw this weekend, I think we might be all right.

(This post is an expanded version of a blurb I wrote for my own blog. Come read my thoughts about 15 other songs of dissent on Dystopian Dance Party.)

2 Comments

Filed under 1960's, civil rights, Donald Trump, Martin Luther King Jr., Nina Simone, political songs, protest songs

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Am I Black Enough For You” by Billy Paul

Billy Paul is another of far,far too many music icons of the 20th century who passed away during 2016. The Philly native grew up listening to jazz based singers such as Nina Simone,Carmen McCrae and Billie Holiday. After a stint in the army,where he was was stationed in post WWII Germany in the late 50’s along with Elvis Presley. Using this as an opportunity to further his love of music,he launched a jazz trio while in Germany. After getting out of the army,he became part of the burgeoning Philadelphia International Records,eventually releasing his debut album in 1970.

As with most people in America,my primary knowledge of this artist was via the ballad “Me & Mrs. Jones”. My father purchased a compilation of Billy Paul’s music. And after that,it became clear that this man did some amazingly cinematic uptempo tunes. Many of them with a very strong pro black sociopolitical bent lyrically. It was about a year ago when watching a documentary about Oakland’s Black Panthers that I heard a very funkified song with a very familiar voice. Turns out that voice belonged to the late Billy Paul. And the song (from 1972) was called “Am I Black Enough For You”.

A bluesy Clavinet riff dovetails into the percussive accented funky march of the drums. That Clavinet maintains itself throughout the song. At first,this is assisted by a bluesy rhythm guitar. The song has a rather elaborate,jazzy bass line holding the rhythm section together. The horns are both melodic and climactic-scaling upward on each of the songs choruses. Towards the end of the song,a fuzzed out guitar plays an eerie sustain in the back round as the percussion and a bluesy organ and guitar take over on the bridge. Then the songs main chorus takes over until it all fades out

“Am I Black Enough For You” is a psychedelic,bluesy funk number musically. One featuring a dense,thick instrumental sound. The melody is very overtly blues based too. Lyrically,the song speaks as much to the present day as it did for 1972. In both cases,an unpopular and widely disliked politician had become president. And anti black attitudes were a causal factor in both cases. This song lyrically suggests that strength in numbers will help black Americans to have power and dignity of person. And with Billy Paul no longer with us,that’s as fine a musical concept for him to heave us with as any.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under 1970's, Billy Paul, blues funk, civil rights, clavinet, drums, Funk Bass, fuzz guitar, horns, message songs, organ, percussion, Philadelphia, Philadelphia International Records, Philly Soul, pro black, psychedelic soul, rhythm guitar

Anatomy Of THE Groove for 11/30/2015: “Someday” by The Gap Band

Much as injecting personal affairs into this blog has been controversial on many different ends? It’s unavoidable in this case. 2015 has proven to be a year consisting of many hardships, challenges and often misery for humanity. On the creative end of that? It was deeply soul destroying for me when Ronnie and Charlie Wilson sued both Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars for credit in their massive hit “Uptown Funk”. Unsure what upsets me more: that the surviving Wilson brothers were negating their own possible comeback over greed? Or because of the fact that they themselves could be accused of musical plagiarism of P-Funk with their 1979 hit “Oops Upside Your Head”.

The matter was so distressing on this end that it became one of a bucket list of reasons why I took a six month hiatus from this blog to begin with. And why it may not be as it was again in the future. Still? Nothing in creativity is carved in stone. Not funk music,not the Gap Band and not even the future of either. And it reminded me of a time (the late 1990’s) when I was collecting Gap Band CD’s with great enthusiasm. And noticing the  resemblance of the vocal timbre of “Uncle” Charlie Wilson and Stevie Wonder. At the conclusion of their 1983 release Gap Band V: Jammin’? A collaboration between the Wilson’s and Wonder finally occurred with a song entitled “Someday”. And it had a lot more to say beyond even that.

It’s actually one of the few funk,soul or R&B numbers I’ve heard that not only has a cold start both musically and vocally. But it also maintains that basic character throughout the entire song. The rhythmic body of the song is a steady drum beat accentuated by rolling percussion-that train like motion the Wilson’s tended to specialize in. The main melodic phrase is a very Wonder-like synthesized Clavinet-like baroque classical one-though likely played by Charlie himself. And this is accessorized by a slippery synth bass line. On the bridge? Wonder does provide an appropriate harmonica solo before leading into the pleasing,gospel soul vocal coda as the song fades out.

Charlie,Ronnie and the late Robert Wilson were not only successful at adapting the approach of Stevie Wonder into their own funk style on this song, but also gave up the props by gleefully collaborating with the artist himself-without whom the sound of the song wouldn’t have been so possible. This spirit of creative unity goes well with the beautifully stated tribute to the struggle for civil rights. And to the then yet unrecognized holiday in tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It’s one of the most eloquently layered and topical of the Gap Band’s songs. It may never have been recognized due to not being a hit. But it may be one of the Wilson’s crowning musical (and proudly funky) achievements.

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under 1980's, Charlie Wilson, civil rights, electro funk, Gap Band, Martin Luther King Jr., naked funk, Stevie Wonder, synth bass

Anatomy Of THE Groove for 6/19/2015: “Heroes” by The Commodores

By the time 1980 rolled around? The new decade found The Commodores as basically Motown’s premiere band. One capable of delivering on the hardest funk and the most delicately crafted,down home country soul ballads. Considering the band members all met at Tuskegee Institute,at the height of the civil rights and black power movements? It only seemed appropriate that as the less than certain social/racial atmosphere of the then new decade began to reveal itself? That the band would find a meaningful way to comment on the situation. This came in the form of the title song to the bands release from that year entitled Heroes.

Walter Orange starts of the song with a loud drum kick and proceeds to brush away lightly. All over a string and horn chart that descends into a stripped down ballad with Lionel Richie’s plaintive vocal lead accompanied by Milan William’s acoustic guitar-with accents from Ron LePread’s round slap bass licks. On the choruses? The drum kicks off into more of a big beat type sound-along with an almost rather staccato Brazilian type guitar lick. On the final refrain of the song? The band all join together for a heavy,bass/guitar driven funk stomp where the string section plays the bluesy melodic accents of that very same bass/guitar interaction right along with it.

Instrumentally speaking? This song showcases the strong musical breadth that The Commodores possessed during their prime. The focus of this song is often very spare-with the acoustic guitar,light drum brushing and bass accents leading much of it. In the tradition of mid 70’s Motown hits such as “Love Hangover” that showcased strong juxtapositions of groove and changes in tempo? This song starts out in a manner that doesn’t particularly suggest it’s ever going to be a funk jam. Yet that’s just what it becomes by the end. And it’s not an abrupt change. The changes in tempo,rhythm and feeling changes throughout the song-so the transition into hard funkiness is totally natural.

Much of the strong mood music this song presents comes out of it’s lyrical content. In addition to their Southern American heritage? Growing up in the era of the major civil rights gains of the 1950’s? This song eloquently and beautifully pays tribute to many of the historical figures and leaders who helped to advance the cause of liberation for black Americans over time. And interestingly enough does so without naming specific names. Well aware of the importance and rarity of them having black management in the personage of the late Benny Ashburn? This song basically speaks to the vital significance of being able to have internal icons black American’s can celebrate. In today’s world where some black people seem to all too easily apologize for even the cruelest of white racists? This is a song that I feel more young people today should hear and know something about in terms of it’s subtext.

Leave a comment

Filed under 1980's, ballads, Benny Ashburn, civil rights, Funk, Funk Bass, Heroes, Lionel Richie, Milan Williams, Motown, Ronald LePread, The Commodores, Tuskegee University

Anatomy of THE Original Super Heavy Funk for 4/27/2015: “Mighty Mighty (Spade And Whitey)” by The Impressions

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.

1 Comment

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

Anatomy Of THE Groove 4/10/2015: “Earth Mother” by Todd Rundgren

Soul and funk music have consistently been intertwined into Todd Rundgren’s solo career. It’s gone hand and hand with his ability to fuse his capabilities as a multi instrumentalist and working with other musicians with strong creative personalities-such as Utopia’s Roger Powell and Kasim Sulton. Celebrating an near half century in the music business? Rundgren is about to launch into a brand new tour with the boogie/electro funk revivalist Dam Funk as guest artist. His new album Global showcases how this has musically influenced him. Especially on one of it’s songs entitled “Earth Mother”.

A didgeridoo effect begins the song that goes into a hand clap powered rhythm as Rundgren does a call and response with female backup singers (including his wife Michelle) that goes into an isolated bass Vocoder vocal that goes into an organ sounding one before a slow,loping digitized go-go style drum stomp comes in accompanied by a round and again digitized bass synthesizer. This accompanies both the main lyrical body (where the synth bass line is expressed very subtly) of the song as well as the refrains. And in each refrain? A similar call and response vocal comes into play even up to when the song concludes on the Vocoder based statement.

Musically speaking? Rundgren does some amazing things with this song. He goes right for the jugular of the DC based go go funk sound-celebrating the idea of funkiness coming from slowing down a danceable tempo. Yet he also presents it in a song under four minutes as well. Instrumentally several things are happening here. The same gospel type call and response of the go-go/new jack era funk scene is present in the vocal arrangement. As well as the very strong aspect of the gritty “video game” style electronic bass synthesizer and digitized funk groove of early 80’s P-Funk that artists such as Dam Funk have bought into their musical orbit as well.

On the lyrical end Rundgren is paying serious tributes to woman’s right along racial and educational lines. The song itself references the Pakistani student activist Malala Yousafzai as well as the iconic historical story of Rosa Parks. This gives birth to my personal favorite lyrics from this song: “Rosa sat in the front of the bus/the driver start to make a fuss/the end result was so unjust/but she was sitting in front for the rest of us”. For his part, Rundgren clearly sees the entire matter of civil rights and racial justice as the ultimate service humanity can do itself. His frank yet thoughtful manner evokes genuine affection for the Curtis Mayfield’s,Stevie Wonder’s,Marvin Gaye’s and Gil Scott Heron’s who came before. And provides a modern day industrial electro go-go funk “people music” message song for 2015!

To learn more about Malala Yousafzai’s and Rosa Park’s importance in the history of human rights? Please click on the links provided below:

http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2014/yousafzai-facts.html

http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/rosa-parks

1 Comment

Filed under 2015, bass synthsizer, call and response, civil rights, Dam Funk, electro funk, go-go funk, Kasim Sulton, Malala Yousafzai, message songs, Michelle Rundgren, Rosa Parks, synth funk, Todd Rundgren

Anatomy of THE Groove Celebrating 100 Posts for 1/23/2015-Andre’s Pick: “Human Family” by Maya Angelo ft. Shawn Rivera

With my end of this shared blog making it’s 100th post today? I wanted to personally dedicate this to the memory of the late poetess and human rights champion Maya Angelou-who left this Earth in the summer of 2014. I’ve already shared a song she did with Ashford & Simpson in the mid 90’s But during her final year she teamed up with multi instrumentalist Shawn Rivera to record her reciting her poetry rhythmically over a contemporary hip-hop style backing for the 2014 posthumous release Caged Bird Songs,which leads off with the number “Human Family”.

The song leads off with a sizzling bass synthesizer tone which goes into a higher electronic alarm sound over which Angelou declares “It is time for the preachers,the rabbis,the priests,pundits and the professors to believe in the awesome wonder of diversity”.  A driving uptempo drum machine kicks in with a song that musically interchanges instrumental gears between each refrain. The first refrain showcases a gentler variation of that synthesized alarm sounding effect playing rhythmically very much in the vein of the late 80’s Bomb Squad sound,while the second refrain features a grinding and funky rhythm guitar solo from Rivera.

Maya Angelou was one of those people who epitomized the female black American side of what writer William Strauss famously coined as the Silent Generation. This generation,born during the second half of the Harlem Renaissance into the Great Depression were likely the most important black American generation of the 20th century. They were the generation of the civil rights and black power movements,of Rosa Parks,Martin Luther King Jr,Malcolm X,Bobby Seale and Huey Newton. When there’s such a spiraling level of positive change going on? It’s always helpful to have a sage maternal figure with a kindly dignity speaking of it in the literary sense. Maya was that person. And this deeply rooted nature of hers is dripping from this song like tears of tremendous joy.

Lyrically Angelou’s poem about the human family displays a series of situations in which people can possibly relate-at one point stating that while some are serious,others live for comedy. But either way? The reception of important values are still there. The central point of the song is Angelou’s statement “in minor ways we differ,in major we’re the same”. While her very musical style of poetry comes to full flower there,using the internal comparison between the differences in major and minor chords on a musical instrument?  The song is the idea statement for understanding differences rather than trying to homogenize them to your personal liking. At a time when America has just started recovering from the onslaughts of racism denials and fears over matters such as the Ferguson shooting of Michael Brown and the witch hunt of Bill Cosby at the end of last year? This shows that even in death,Maya Angelou’s message still has the power to help heal the hearts and minds of the people.

Leave a comment

Filed under civil rights, Funk, Hip-Hop, Maya Angelou, Silent Generation