Bill Withers became a soul/folk icon with his early 70’standards such as “Ain’t No Sunshine”,”Use Me”,”Grandma’s Hands” and his signature song “Lean On Me”. Even in their time,these tunes were popular cover material for different artists across the soul,pop and jazz spectrum. A working class hero who literally demoed his songs and recorded his album (as it’s cover indicates) while employed as an assembler for Douglas Aircraft Corporation,Withers huge early success on the Sussex label evaded him by mid decade. By 1975 he signed to Columbia. And after his debut album Making Music, he released it’s follow up Naked & Warm the next year.
It wasn’t until the release of the documentary film Still Bill in 2009 did I notice any big revival of Withers music beyond his earlier hit period. It would seem his first two Columbia albums were not the major success he would have later in the decade with songs such as “Lovely Day”. Let alone his early 80’s collaborations such as “Soul Shadows” with the Crusaders and the smash of “Just The Two Of Us” with Grover Washington Jr. The man wrote his songs across the entire spectrum of soul-concentrating heavily on the down home 12 bar blues form in a similar manner to Gil Scott-Heron. His second Columbia album started right out of the box with another groove called “Close To Me”.
The funky drummer on this song starts right out slowly jamming hard on the one-accompanied by thick chords from the electric piano. This is soon accompanied by accenting percussion from a ringing cowbell before the thick and round synthesized bass line begins popping along with the another of the electric slap bass variety. The song itself sticks heavily to this main theme throughout-with the synthesizer emerging in higher tone generally before Withers’ vocal refrains. There is a brief bridge to the song which features a more sustained electric piano sound before the song begins a very slow fade out with Withers’ vocals going into sensuous talk singing coo.
While Bill Withers classic songs had a live instrumental naturalness that was proto neo soul in tone,this 1976 jam was something very different. His songs had always had a strong funk undertone. But it was here that his funk really emerged fully formed. The structure of the composition is pretty much the same as a “Grandma’s Hands”,”Use Me” or “Ain’t No Sunshine”. But the slow crawling beat hits right where the funk is supposed to. And the use of big round blurts of mid 70’s synth bass with electric bass slapping adds some heavy thickening of the funky stew this song generates. In a lot of ways,it’s my favorite out and out funk jam from Bill Withers.
Filed under 1970's, Bill Withers, Columbia Records, Douglas Aircraft Corporation, Funk, Gil Scott Heron, Grover Washington Jr., slap bass, Sussex Records, synth bass, The Crusaders, Uncategorized
On their final 70’s album Energy To Burn,BT Express showed themselves to be a band who was in the process of slickening up their sound. One year after that their keyboardist Michael Jones,key to their new sound,left the band under his new name of Kashif Saleem. He would of course go onto become one of the premiere producers of the next decade and a key architect of the boogie funk sound. What would be left for guitarist/singer Rich Thompson and company to do within the band who had only a few years earlier been so successful. Similar to Gil Scot Heron and Brian Jackson,B.T Express elected to title their 1980 album after the year itself-every bit as symbolic of their comeback as with the changes any musician could see coming up from under the groove at the time.
“Takin’ Off” begins the album with a symphonic fanfare of horns before launching into a hyper kinetic,percussion dance/funk number. “Heart Of Fire” literally doesn’t skip a heart beat,with a rhythm helped along by a punchy had smooth as glass synth bass intro that repeats on the refrains of the song. “Does It Feel Good To You” has a strong choral melody and a bass/piano led disco friendly dance/funk number with some powerful horns and percussive effects. “Give Up The Funk (Let’s Dance)” leaps right out as a possible best track on the album with it’s rapped intro increasing in volume until the slow 4/4 beat and percussive early drum machine kicks in to Thompson’s hard groove rhythm guitar and the classic B.T. Express call and response horns,vocals and percussion.
“Closer” and “Better Late Than Ever” are both fine ballads that are beautifully orchestrated and melodic while “Have Some Fun” is another disco friendly melodic dance/funk groove. “Funk Theory” ends the album on a rhythmically and melodically dynamic Brazilian dance/funk note with lyrics that talk about how especially in uncertain times,funk music has enormous power to bring different people together to do their dances-whatever they may be. Musically speaking this album has exceptionally high energy level. Possibly taking cues from Barry White and Quincy Jones’ productions of that era,the sound is extremely crisp and studiocentric rather than the more live sound the band was noted for. Not only that,but it really tuned into funk futurism. What with the mixture of drum machines and live drumming and at least one nod to the oncoming presence of rap. A wonderfully funky B.T. Express intro to the 80’s. And very likely more important to where the music had been and where it was going than anyone may even still think.
Originally posted on January 16th,2015
Link to original review here*