Heatwave are a band I tend to avoid writing about because of a perceived personal bias. Readers of this blog are well aware of how my moms 8-track copy of their Central Heating album started me on asking serious questions about music. Such as those about songwriting,instrumentation and production. The band members were and (of those still alive) are among the very best of late 70’s disco era funk. Yet this year,we lost the most prominent songwriters for Heatwave with the passing of Rod Temperton. Yet with him an Johnnie Wilder Jr now gone,one member of the band prominent for me is still alive.
Keith Wilder,brother of the late Johnnie,is celebrating his birthday today. It was an exciting day for me when Mister Wilder accepted my friend invite on Facebook. He actually contributed to a number of Heatwave songs I love in the focus department. His voice has similarities to his brothers. Yet was generally in a lower range. And while in Heatwave, Keith’s singing had a gruffer soul/funk attitude about it. That made it ideal for the bands harder edged songs. One of my favorite Heatwave songs is from Central Heating. And its called “Send Out For Sunshine”.
An catchy,up-scaling Clavinet opens before a processed guitar brings the song directly into the refrain. This is an extremely funky lead Clavinet riff on the bassiest end of the instrument,backed up by a thick conga/percussion rhythm. Some heavily filtered,bluesy guitar riffs and occasionally bouncy synthesizer effects accent this mix. Between each refrain,a chunky rhythm guitar plays along. This guitar extends into the chorus along with the strings. On the final choruses,the song moves up a chord while Keith and Johnnie Wilder duet off each other until the song fades away.
“Send Out For Sunshine” is a song that has everything a funk song could offer. The groove is very Afrocentric -especially with Johnnie on conga’s,the Clavinet grooves and rocks at the same time and the rhythm guitar of Eric Johns really brings the song to life. The production sonics on this also have a strong space funk vibe in with the rawer elements-giving it a futurist flavor as well. Lyrically,using what might’ve been seen by some as a drug metaphor really demonstrates the power of natural serotonin from the sun as a positive element in the often bleak scenario’s painted in the songs lyrics.
Billy Preston was,in a similar manner to Stevie Wonder,an artist who used analog synthesizers,organs and pianos to create totally new sounds during the early/mid 1970’s. Wonder often utilized jazz oriented chord progressions-often emphasizing European classical arrangements as well. The sounds that Preston created were all based in hardcore soul,R&B and what had already occurred thus far with the innovation of funk. What both of them emphasized was a strong love of instrumental layering and love of leading their whole show by soloing on the Clavinet.
By 1975,the connection with Stevie Wonder’s music by Billy Preston became extremely evident. The album he recorded that year,It’s My Pleasure,was recorded at the TONTO synthesizer complex-the same facility used by Wonder,The Isley Brothers and Gil Scott Heron & Brian Jackson during this era. One of this albums hits actually featured a vocal duet with ex wife and frequent creative collaborator of Wonder’s in Syreeta Wright. She would eventually go on to do a duet album with Preston in the early 80’s. The name of this song was called “Fancy Lady”
Preston starts off the song with a descending Moog bass before the drum kicks in. This is a thick snare/cymbal kick surrounded by a bluesy sea of synth layers. This continues on the chorus-with the Moog bass and Clavinet weaving through it all like needle and thread. The refrains that Syreet sang on repeats the intro of the song instrumentally. Their are two instrumental bridges. One features polyphonic synths playing a call and response horn chart while the second is a percussive,unaccompanied drum break. Preston plays a full on synthesizer solo for the last minute and a half or so of the song before it fades out.
From the first time I heard it over 12 years ago,this song always stood out to me. Always had a special affinity for the early synth/proto electro funk that emerged out of the mid 70’s. Especially in such cases like this,it again brought the bluesy soul musical past into the electrified/digitized future. As synthesizers expanded in complexity,electro based music began to rely more on the sound than the musical base. And this is a good example of music that didn’t. Its funky because the synths are fat,play bass,guitar and horn lines and always maintain a heavy,chunky instrumental flavor.
Filed under 1975, Billy Preston, blues funk, clavinet, drums, Moog bass, synth bass, synth brass, synth funk, synthesizers, Syreeta Wright, TONTO
Wilton Felder was lost to us earlier this year. And today is his first posthumous birthday. There’s a lot that I didn’t know about him for years. Aside from him being a founding member of the Crusaders,he also participated in songwriting and playing for artists ranging from Joan Baez to the Jackson 5. Thanks to an episode of the locally produced Bay Area TV show ‘Soul School’,hosted by my friend Calvin Lincoln and hosted by my friend Henrique Hopkins,I learned Wilton Felder played bass on the J5’s debut hit “I Want You Back”. This opened up a whole new understanding for me about the man.
Until talking to Calvin and Henrique,I had no idea that Felder was both a sax player and a bassist. And had two separate approaches to each instrument. Calvin,Henrique and myself have each had discussions with each other about how exhaustive it might be to figure out how many sessions the Crusaders played on. What I do know now is Felder also played bass on Marvin Gaye’s massive hit “Lets Get It On” in 1973. When looking for a song that exercised Felder’s duel instrumental talents,my favorite of the bunch was “Honky Tonk Struttin'” off their 1980 album Rhapsody In Blues.
Joe Sample and Stix Hooper get it all started with a grinding Clavinet and piano duet along with a percussion accented funky drum. This is the basic groove of the entire song-with melodic variations for the solos. The choral solo is a bluesy walkdown where Felder plays sax directly along with his own bass line. After that,he plays a full on improvised jazz sax solo on the first bridge. The second bridge features a honky tonk piano solo playing a similarly bluesy improvisation. Stix provides a little fanfare that takes the song right on home to the main chorus of Felder’s bass/sax duet as the song fades out.
This is one of those songs that really brings out The Crusaders most enduring and endearing musical quality. That is the ability to blend the sleek studio sheen (which defined their work from the mid 70’s onward )with their down home bluesy funk instrumental attitude. “Honky Tonk Struttin'”pulls all of this together with its sophistifunk groove and the bluesy instrumental walkdown soloing. It also emphasizes Wilton Felder strong with his two instrumental talents-the rhythmic bass and melodic sax in tandem. That makes it a true shining moment for The Crusaders.
Filed under 1980's, blues funk, clavinet, drums, Funk Bass, honky tonk piano, jazz funk, Joe Sample, Saxophone, Stix Hooper, The Crusaders, Wilton Felder
Prince Rogers Nelson was no stranger to recording by the time he’d signed with Warner Bros. in 1977. He was barely 19 at the time. And had already had some experience in recording with Pepe Willie’s 94 East along with his own demos from 1976. Around the time he got signed by Warner’s in 1977,he,Owen Husney and Chris Moon were putting together Prince’s official press kit (a rather unconventional one with photos and an accompanying haiku on each one) and his first proper studio recordings at Minneapolis’s Studio 80. These songs passed into legend during the years before internet.
With the advent of online music and YouTube,these unreleased songs that have been circulating for years have come to light in a whole other way. One of these songs just leaped out at me when I first heard it. As I’ve made clear many times,I have a special affinity for early Prince. Especially as it set the stage for his greatest musical moments yet to come. The interesting thing is,it would prove quite significant in years to come,even if it was never officially released. But I’ll talk about the song first,and tell you the rest of the story later. And the name of this song is “We Can Work It Out”.
Bobby Z’s drums kick off with a chime,and maintains a percussive funkified back beat throughout. On the chorus and refrain of the song,Prince’s processed bass/guitar/Clavinet interaction plays in an upbeat,melodic fashion as he sings both the lead lines and the breakdowns in his most ethereal falsetto. On the bridge,that same bass/guitar/keyboard interaction starts playing in a more bluesy funk style-playing in that loose jamming instrumental style typical of Prince’s songs from this era. At the end of the song,this musical into the sound of a thunder storm before fading out.
Musically this song is structurally very in keeping with the sound of his debut For You-the key difference being that his Minneapolis Sound synth brass style wasn’t present yet. It’s brightly melodic,disco era pop/funk sound has a very sunny atmosphere. Lyrically speaking,the song is almost an audio press kit as it’s essentially a love letter to Warner Brothers. Especially singing lines such as “Music for the young and old, music bound to be gold” showcasing his hopes as well as his self confidence. Still the album ends with another lyric that would tell another story.
Prince’s last line is spoken in his best DJ style voice saying “Makin’ music naturally,me and WB”. While it’s apparent Prince was excited about being signed to a major record label,the line also signifies some of the matters that would one day set Prince at odds with the company. Throughout the song,Prince is telling the label “hope we work it out” over and over. The fact that he adds the line “Put your trust in me, I’ll never let you down/ cause I know I can count on you to help me make it”. By ending the song with the sound of a storm,its clear even early on Prince knew his future musical road would be complex.
Filed under 1970's, Bobby Z, clavinet, drums, Funk, Funk Bass, Late 70's Funk, Minneapolis, multi instrumentalists, Prince, rhythm guitar, Warner Bros.
Carlos Santana’s recording career has now spanned 46 years. From his upbringing in Mexico to being the band leader of Santana,his 69th birthday today is an excellent to point out one of the qualities that likely led to his longevity as a musician. One that’s not related to him having one of the most distinctive guitar tones of the last four decades. Like many jazz musicians,Santana’s music has evolved across a number of distinct periods. His percussion heavy Latin sound has remained intact for all of them. Yet the framework’s that sound settles into are always expanding with new developments in recorded music.
During the transition from the early to mid 1970’s,the Santana band itself was was going through one such transition. Starting out as major players on the Bay Area psychedelic rock scene in San Francisco,Carlos was doing more playing with musicians such as John McLaughlin and Alice Coltrane. His interest in jazz extended into funk,always an aspect of Santana’s sound too. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the bands album Amigos, which emphasized their new jazz funk sound most prominently. One such song of this style that keeps growing on me all the time is called “Tell me Are You Tired”.
A processed Fender Rhodes two note scale,separated by a cymbal crash,begin the song. David Brown’s bass then leads the congas and percussion along with the same two note Rhodes solo through the remainder of the refrain. The upcoming chorus has two parts. One contains a massively funky drum with an equally funky Clavinet solo. The second part is built around a lively Afro Brazilian rhythm and female choir vocals. After a second refrain and chorus,an increasingly intense improvisational Rhodes solo takes over the song even as the female choir vocal end of the refrain fades out the song.
Written by the songs drummer and Leon Ndugu Chancler and it’s keyboardist Tom Coster,this song really showcases Carlos Santana’s presence as a bandleader and inspiration more than a soloing instrumentalist. Coster really takes off on this song-both on Fender Rhodes and Clavinet electric pianos accompanying Greg Walker’s lead vocals. Santana’s funkiness seems to come from him always favoring a highly collective style of instrumental band style. And the funk genre made that ethic it’s strongest emphasis. And this unsung album cut is a shining light for Santana’s funkier grooves.
Filed under 1970's, Carlos Santana, clavinet, David Brown, drums, Fender Rhodes, Funk Bass, Greg Walker, jazz funk, Leon Ndugu Chancler, percussion, San Francisco, Santana, Tom Coster
Heatwave might be my personal favorite of the classic Dayton,Ohio funk bands. Difficult to be too objective about that. Interesting thing is,they represented a cross continental group-many of whom derived from Europe. The band sadly had very little recording longevity and a whole lot of bad breaks. But the five albums they recorded from 1977 to 1982 were all such well produced,well played on and well written funk/disco delights. The groups central composer was Rod Temperton. But the heart and soul of the band rose and fell along with their late lead singer/composer Johnnie Wilder Jr.
Wilder showed a great respect for good musicianship,good grooves and good melodies. It would also seem he ran Heatwave in a very paternalistic manner too. Apparently even deciding that members couldn’t get married-due to possible interference in the bands dynamic. With all the great funky dance hits Heatwave had, a 1979 car crash left Wilder a paraplegic and unable for perform for some time. While he began recuperating,Wilder was succeeded by future Commodore JD Nichols on the bands 1980 album Candles. Wilder composed one of my favorite jams on the album entitled “Goin’ Crazy”.
Heatwave’s keyboardist Calvin Duke begins the song with multi layered lead and bass Clavinet riffs-playing in staccato to three note riffs from the Fender Rhodes piano. On the choruses the drums kick in-ably accented by the highly prolific session master Paulinho Da Costa. Derek Bramble’s bass pops hard alongside Ernest Berger’s steady 4/4 beat and Duke’s high synth melody. On each refrain,the focus returns to Duke’s Clavinet solos. On the bridge,that Clainvet powers everything from climactic strings to the stop/start horn and Rhodes breaks that eventually bring the groove to a cold start.
This jam has that rare mix of professional studio sleekness and raw instrumental power. Heatwave are a tight unit on this song-with Calvin Duke,Da Costa and Johnnie’s brother Keith holding down the vocal fort on the refrains with his percussive “let’s clap,let’s clap”. The two types of electric piano used here are left the most raw-with the piano like tones of the Clavinet and melodic Rhodes really giving the song much of it’s instrumental power. It’s finely composed arrangement and funky danceability make this a fine example of why Heatwave threw down some of the most amazing disco era funk.
Filed under 1980's, Calvin Duke, clavinet, Derek Bramble, disco funk, drums, Ernest Berger, Fender Rhodes, Funk Bass, Heatwave, Johnnie Wilder Jr., Keith Wilder, Paulinho Da Costa, percussion, post disco, Rod Temperton, strings, synthesizer
Ahmad Jamal-born Frederick Russell Jones in Pittsburgh,Pennsylvania is one of those musicians whom I’ve been discovering a lot about within the last several years. He came into prominence at a time when a lot of younger jazz players just coming up were looking for a stylistic alternative to the be-bop oriented sound all around them. Much like Miles Davis,Jamal was a major innovator of the “cool jazz” school of the mid/late 50’s. Miles even said that Ahmad Jamal’s light touch on piano had an enormous influence on his own playing style after his sister Dorothy introduced him to Jamal’s music for the first time.
My own personal exposure to Jamal’s music didn’t come through anything like cool jazz. It came through my father in one of his mid 1990’s “here’s a jazz version of that” turns. What he played me was a jazz-funk interpretation of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” by Jamal. Somehow after that,I kind of conceptualized Jamal as being a thoroughly jazz/funk based musician. When actually nothing could be further from the truth. That being said,the man did put his understated style to some sleek funk over the years. My friend Henrique introduced me to another interpretation from 1978 of Steely Dan’s “Black Cow”.
Ahmad Jamal plays every melody on this song on the Clavinet. The intro,much as on the original has that direct bassy sound-accompanied by light percussion. As the drums build in,Jamal’s Clavinet tone becomes much higher for the refrain and is accompanied by a heavy drum beat and powerful funk bass line improvising every melodic change. On the choruses,the lead vocals are handled by three backing singers-one of whom is Eloise Laws. As the song progresses,these backup singers vocalize their way around Jamal’s increasingly rolling Clavinet improvisations as the song fads out.
Ahmad Jamal really does this song justice here. And not by altering too much,but rather expanding on what’s there. He upped the tempo just a bit and made it more percussive-which is about all he really changed. Instrumentally this song is a massive jazz/funk showcase for it’s present and funk’s future. The Wrecking Crew’s Hal Blaine is responsible for the sizzling percussion while the rhythm section and vocals are arranged by future SOS Band mentor Sigidi Abdullah. In terms of a cool jazz veteran interpreting then contemporary funk smashes,Ahmad Jamal really had it locked down.
Gino Vanelli is someone who was not the type of artist I’d always imagined he was. My earliest understanding of him was as a melodic pop balladeer. During the summer of 2008 I was pretty absorbed in his music,as well as learning about Gino’s ever evolving depth of character. And the most important thing about his music is that he allowed it to evolve. That’s because he was and still remains a jazz/funk based singer songwriter-an expressive songwriter,dramatic vocalist and a poetic lyrical storyteller right up there with the best in his respective genre of music.
His very first album was 1973’s Crazy Life on A&M. For all intents and purposes,this album was a duet album between Gino and his keyboardist brother Joe,who’d of course remain by his side for the rest of Gino’s musical career. The album has a pronounced Brazilian jazz rhythmic flavor about most of it-with just a touch of blues. But it’s stripped down,cozy night club flavor sets it apart from the cinematic fusion pop masterpieces Gino would turn out during the mid to late 70’s. One song on the album that truly stood out on my fourth full listen to Gino’s debut was a tune entitled “Great Lake Canoe”.
A processed Fender Rhodes electric paino starts off the groove-underpinned by a floating two note bass line. As the refrain starts up in earnest,the drum and percussion pump right up into the cleanest end of the Afro-Cuban rhythmic clave. That Rhodes piano and bass churn right away as Gino sings right there with the same major/minor chord melodic transition. Before each chorus a brittle,metallic synthesizer plays the change. On the bridge,that synth introduces a melodically improvised Clavinet solo before the final refrain and chorus of the song-where that metallic synth fades the rhythm right out.
It’s taken many listens to realize just how strong a Brazilian jazz-funk song “Great Lake Canoe” actually is. The groove never loses focus of the melodic content of the song. But the Fender Rhodes is a reverb laden friendly,funky giant on this song. Processed in the finest tradition of Steely Dan,Joe Vanelli hits the keys hard on this. While Crazy Life is a slower,mellower album this for sure is it’s funkiest moments. Gino sings of the natural beauty of a boat ride on America’s Great Lakes as a source of perspective on reality. And this groove gives a strong perspective itself on the funkiest side of Gino Vanelli’s sound.
Filed under 1970's, Brazilian Jazz, clave, clavinet, Fender Rhodes, Funk Bass, jazz funk, Joe Vannelli, percussion, reverb, Uncategorized
The Four Tops have always represented the ultimate human success of Motown. From before they signed with Berry Gordy’s now famous record label in the early days to the day lead singer Levi Stubbs passed on in 2008,the vocal quartet were an example of enduring together through the good and not so good times. Until each member died,the Four Tops never had a change in lineup. This might’ve lead to their longevity as hit makers too. With post Motown smashes such as “Ain’t No Woman (Like The One I’ve Got)” and the Top 10 R&B smash hit in the Philly inspired uptempo number “Catfish” in 1976.
It was around 1995 or so that I began exploring Motown acts beyond their reputation as “hitsville”. One day during that summer I was visiting an antique store with my family. And they had a selection of used vinyl. Among them were two ABC lable era Four Tops album in 1976’s Catfish and it’s followup from the next year entitled The Show Must Go On. Both of these records were filled with singable and highly danceable songs. Played both to the degree that they’re both new fairly scratchy. The song that’s continued to endure so strongly for me is the title song from the 1977 album The Show Must Go On.
A dramatic,descending horn fanfare opens up the song-just before the accompanying strings and hard swinging 4/4 drum beats kick in to the tune of a jazzy three by three not bass line. On the refrain of the song,Stubb’s customarily powerful voice thunders in with a highly rhythmic piano,Clavinet and and pumping disco bass propel the groove forward. The intro appears as a buffer between each refrain-only with a vocal part. The bridge of the song strips down to the drums,slapping bass and Clavinet before slowly building the horns and strings back into the musical conversation before it fades away.
With group member Lawrence Payton helping out with the arranging on this song, it’s right up there with some of the finest Philly style funky disco records of the mid to late 1970’s. The strings,horns and other instrumental sweeteners have a strong power that draws the listener into the intensely powerful rhythm section. The rhythmic Clavinet on this song is a funkified beast all of it’s own-played so low and so heavily it almost sounds like genuine percussion. As time had marched on,my appreciation for this groove after learning so much about what goes into creating music has only increased!
Filed under 1970's, clavinet, disco funk, drums, Four Tops, horns, Lawrence Payton, Levi Stubbs, Philly Soul, piano, slap bass, strings