Category Archives: Larry Dunn

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Biyo” by Earth Wind & Fire

Earth Wind & Fire’s eighth studio album Spirit is an album that did a lot to help me to personally conceive of #1 hit funk in terms of an album medium. It celebrated its 40th anniversary this year. And I’ve already covered the album itself here. First purchased it on a cassette tape about 22 years ago. At that time,I remember fast forwarding through it to get to funkier songs. Upon upgrading to a CD copy a year or so later,it became clear that this was one of those very special funk era albums. Each time I listen to these songs,they improve like fine wine with each listening. Almost to the point of transcendence.
One member of EWF,who joined up on the bands fourth album Head To The Sky in 1973 was Andrew Woolfolk. This multi reed player primarily played soprano sax within EWF. As he describes it in the documentary on the band Shining Stars, the elements that he added into the band came from the jazz and funk side. He enjoyed a strong,melodic groove. He also loved to improvise in such cases too. Throughout the years,he’s done just this on many of EWF’s most popular and enduring songs. One song from the Spirit  album that amazes me to this day is the Maurice White/Al McKay composed instrumental “Biyo”.
Larry Dunn’s glassy space funk synthesizers open the song before the opening fanfare kicks in. Its full on drums,Afro Latin percussion,Verdine White’s pumping bass line,McKay’s percussive rhythm guitar and the Phenix Horns running on their usual adrenaline. Verdine’s echoed five note bass slap,Maurice’s four note Kalimba melody and Johnny Graham’s bluesy guitar accents make up the refrains. Four members of the band get a chance to solo. Woolfolk does twice-starting and at the end. Graham and Dunn do a solo that dovetail right into each other before Maurice’s Kalimba solo before its fade out.
Earth Wind & Fire added many instrumental interludes/bridges to the albums from their late 70’s crossover period. But for me this is the finest full instrumental based on their sound of that time. The production and recording is a fine example of the band making some of the best recorded funk of that era. Its a melodically and instrumentally busy number with a lot going on sonically. But the powerful Afro-Caribbean funk arrangement still leaves enough room for several amazing solos to interlock with each other. And as a showcase for Andrew Woolfolk,its one of his shining moments of the mid/late 70’s.

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Filed under 1976, Afro-Cuban rhythm, Al McKay, Andrew Woolfolk, drums, Funk Bass, instrumental, Johnny Graham, Kalimba, Larry Dunn, Maurice White, percussion, Phenix Horns, rhythm guitar, Saxophone, space funk, synthesizer, Verdine White

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Can’t Save Tomorrow” by Ronnie Laws

Ronnie Laws is one of my favorite contemporary sax players of the late 70’s and early 80’s. Along with people such as David Sanborn,Laws’ sound bridged the gap between the bar walking sax style of the 60’s and the sleek smooth jazz sound that was to come. He’s someone who has a way of driving a melody into ones sub-conscience  with the power and beauty of his tone. He was also a fantastic soul/funk vocalist. While he obviously can’t vocally accompany his sax the way George Benson can his guitar, his ability to switch off works the funky emotions in the studio.

Laws had worked primarily with EWF keyboardist Larry Dunn as his producer in the mid to late 70’s. The sound they forged together started with a hard bass/guitar centered jazz/funk sound. Later in the decade some of the most cutting edge,spacey electronics /synthesizer orchestrations became an integral aspect of Laws’ sound. . In the early 80’s, the pair continued to adapt their synthesizer based jazz/funk sound into a decade that would be defined by it. One of my favorite examples of this is the lead off track from Law’s 1983 album Mr.Nice Guy entitled “Can’t Save Tomorrow”.

Laws starts out the song sing to the accompanying bass plucks of multi instrumentalist Leon Johnson. Its Johnson who provides most of the instruments on this song. After this intro,Laws’ voice and the bass line dovetail into the main rhythm of the song. That is a fast,funky shuffle consisting of several metallic synthesizers and Roland Bautista’s guitar harmonizing with a jazzy melody to Johnson’s slap bass. On The choruses,Laws sings his lead vocals in falsetto. There are two bridges here. One a sax solo from Laws,the other one of Larry Dunn’s spacey synth interludes before the refrain fades the song out.

All summer long,I’ve had this song on my phone’s MP3 player while peddling my bicycle around town. Its the perfect song for such physical activity because the song is propelled by a lot of forward motion. The drums,the bass,the synths,the vocals and the sax are all extremely earnest here-almost like a musical manifestation of the heart Laws’ lyrics indicate is pounding with intense passion. On the other hand,the production and overall sound of the song remains just about as sweet as any kind of funky music can be. And that’s what makes it one of my favorite Ronnie Laws jams.

 

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Filed under 1980's, drums, jazz funk, Larry Dunn, Leon Johnson, rhythm guitar, Roland Bautista, Ronnie Laws, Saxophone, slap bass, synth funk, synthesizers

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Gratitude” by Earth,Wind & Fire

Verdine White was just 19 when he took up his brother Maurice’s offer to join his then new band Earth,Wind & Fire in LA. It may have very well been the best choice Verdine ever made in retrospect. He once discussed feeling he’d make it big for sure having met Richard Roundtree and Jimi Hendrix upon arrival. The next six year’s found the band paying their dues for the massive crossover success their funk got in 1975 with “Shining Star and the That’s The Way Of The World album. Verdine is 65 today,and sadly his brother Maurice isn’t here for the event. Still whoever lives or dies,the funk is its own reward.

During this period of working closely with Charles Stepney,EWF were on the road constantly on their first massive tour-one that included visual illusions from Doug Henning and David Copperfield. They didn’t have time to record a full studio album so they released a double album-consisting mostly of the best live renditions of their songs up to that point from their touring. There were also five new studio tracks-the two most successful being “Singasong” and “Can’t Hide Love”. The album was another major smash hit too. One track Verdine participated in as a writer was the title song ‘Gratitude”.

Larry Dunn and Verdine start off the song with a close walk down on Fender Rhodes and bass,until a muted horn breaks into the full horn charts that begin the main song. The drums have a slinky,rather slow tempo with the Rhodes,slap bass and the horn charts accenting Maurice White and Philip Bailey’s vocal turns. Al McKay plays some occasional rhythm guitar licks and,as the song progresses Johnny Graham takes turns with his amplified blues licks.Before the song fades out, the melodic pitch goes up for it’s last couple of choruses.

Musically speaking,this song is a heavy stripped down funk relative to the more filled out “Shining Star” and 1976’s “Saturday Night”. This makes sense as it was made exactly between the two. It epitomizes EWF’s funk sound while Charles Stepney was involved in their production. It had the slickest studio based variant of that ultra bluesy Chicago style funk. With the studio hits off this generally live album were huge successes,this title song seems to be a bit neglected. And that’s interesting because it’s the heaviest funk among the albums five studio tracks. Any way around it,Verdine’s bass is a major star of the show.

 

 

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Filed under 1970's, Charles Stepney, drums, Earth Wind & Fire, Fender Rhodes, Funk, Funk Bass, guitar, horns, Johnny Graham, Larry Dunn, Maurice White, Phenix Horns, Philip Bailey, Verdine White

Anatomy Of THE Groove: “Let Me Talk” by Earth Wind & Fire

Earth Wind & Fire are one of those funk bands who included two guitarists and two drummers. In terms of the latter,there was Maurice White’s brother Fred and their main drummer Ralph Johnson. Johnson for his part is still an active part of EWF to this very day. Upon seeing him interviewed,he discussed his close instrumental relationship with the bands bassist (also still actively involved) Verdine White. He stated that if he didn’t play drums,he’d have been a bass player due to his close musical relationship with rhythm. And rhythm remains one of the key elements of the Earth Wind & Fire sound.

After an enormous run of successful hits from 1975-1979,Earth Wind & Fire were likely the most popular band of that time period. At the strong encouragement of Maurice White,the band traveled to Egypt among other locations the world over. When they returned to record their next album,music and not sales figures was foremost on their mind. So they cut a musically elaborate double album in 1980 entitled Faces. While it had their signature melodic sound,the rhythms were major game changers for them. The opening song really emphasized this,and it was one that Ralph Johnson co-wrote: “Let Me Talk?

Larry Dunn’s deep bass synth tone begins this song. What accompanies it are the Phenix horns riffing at hyper-speed through the musical magic of a sped up tape loop. The rhythm behind this is the same as  the refrains: a danceable Afro-Brazilian samba deep in the Latin clave. As the rhythm guitar and glistening synth accents play along with the horns and vocals,the bass hugs the rhythm tightly. On the choruses,the beat becomes more conventionally funky/pop-with synth bass taking a strong roll. That musical pattern continues throughout  this song until a quirky bit of recorded conversation concludes it.

“Let Me Talk” begins an album that Verdine White describes as them thinking “let’s cut something we wanna cut”. It was actually one of Maurice White’s personal favorite albums by EWF. And this song begins the album with a bang. With it’s Afro-Brazilian/Cuban rhythms and percussion,it’s structurally somewhat closer to the type of song EWF would’ve done in 1973-74. It still has their melodic pop craft that developed later further later in the decade though. Ralph Johnson and Al McKay wrote a song together here. And the rhythms of the song really showcase their instrumental interactions.

Thematically, Maurice and Philip Bailey make this song a lyrical dialog  about America’s escape from the beauty of and attention to blackness as the 1980’s began. Maurice is saying that a message burns within him everyday,while Philip’s part has him countering with a request to “play your role just as you’ve been told. As I write this,America is still embroiled more than ever in this attempt to deny the potency of black culture within and without it. And for both Independence Day and Ralph Johnson’s 65th birthday,its just the right funky “people music” to project for this time and place.

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Filed under 1980's, Afro Funk, Afro-Cuban rhythm, Afro-Latin jazz, Afrocentrism, Al McKay, clave, drums, Earth Wind & Fire, Funk Bass, horns, Larry Dunn, Maurice White, message songs, percussion, Philip Bailey, Ralph Johnson, rhythm guitar, synth bass, synthesizer, tape loops, Verdine White

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Skippin” by Ramsey Lewis

Ramsey Lewis always kept close connection with Earth Wind & Fire during the mid/late 70’s. The band were technically his musical child-being formed by his former drummer Maurice White.  Ramsey’s 1975 album Don’t It Feel Good and it’s 1976 follow up Salongo had both been produced by Charles Stepney,who shared production credits with Ramsey and EWF over the years. Of course Stepney died later that same year. Ramsey compensated by giving EWF keyboard player Larry Dunn a try at the production side of a few cuts on his second album of 1977 entitled Tequila Mockingbird.

Personally I was first made aware of the song “Tequila Mockingbird” itself due to it’s appearance on the CD compilation set called The Electric Connection about a decade ago,after picking it up at a record store in Burlington Vermont. A couple years later,my personal fixation on mid/late 70’s Ramsey Lewis and it’s funky sounds led me to seek out the album itself. One of the songs on it instantly got my attention and featured  most of the EWF musicians as it’s rhythm section-similar to the Sun Goddess from a few years earlier. The name of the song was called “Skippin”.

A drum kick from Fred White and a revved up guitar from Al McKay open up the song. The the drums are joined by Philip Bailey’s conga drums for an uptempo Brazilian rhythm Ramsey plays a horn chart like melody on his mini Moog-accompanied by Eddie Del Barrio’s arranged flute call and responses. McKay’s guitar and Verdine White’s bass provide potent accompanied. On the refrains,the settles settles down into an EWF style groove with Ramsey’s orchestral synthesizers. Del Barrio’s orchestration leads out into the next chorus of the song.

The bridge of the song comes after this second chorus. It starts with a Ramsey up-scaling on the Fender Rhodes-with Verdine playing the changes on slap bass. A high pitched tone on the Yamaha electric piano ushers in a third chorus. This time Ramsey’s plays one of his Chicago hard bop/soul jazz piano solos. He tickles the ivories into another who refrain. This one is defined by Ramsey orchestrating synthesizers around Del Barrio’s call and response woodwinds and Bailey’s percussion. The song goes back to the original chorus that started out the song as it fades out.

“Skippin” is a wonderful example of melodically simple,yet instrumentally complex Brazilian jazz/funk. The charts normally played by EWF’s Phenix Horns come by way of breezier woodwind instruments. Most important though is Ramsey’s use of chorally arranged synthesizers-which seemed to be the way to orchestrate in the late 70’s with Euro-disco and emerging new artists such as Prince. Larry Dunn exhibits a clear understanding of the qualities that Charles Stepney. He bought in Stepney’s sense of melodic ease with a funky rhythm section for “funk sweet as funk can be” for sure!

The reason this song got my attention was realizing I’d heard it before-in a very peculiar place. On Bangor Maine’s local NBC affiliate WLBZ,local TV personality Eddie Driscoll had utilized “Skippin” as the theme for his program The Grover Swale Show. Portrayed by Driscoll himself,Swale was a buck toothed flannel shirt wearing Maine salt type character. It really goes to show how a song with such a string singable melody can easily become a TV theme for somebody,somewhere. Upon hearing the song in it’s native context however,”Skippin'” really epitomizes Ramsey Lewis’s late 70’s jazz/funk approach.

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Filed under 1970's, Al McKay, Brazilian Jazz, drums, Earth Wind & Fire, Eddie Del Barrio, Fender Rhodes, flute, Fred White, jazz funk, Larry Dunn, Maine, Moog, percussion, Philip Bailey, Ramsey Lewis, rhythm guitar, slap bass, synthesizers, Verdine White

Maurice White Remembered On Andresmusictalk, Part 2: “Build Your Nest” by Earth Wind & Fire

Earth Wind & Fire had one important thing in common with a lot of 50’s and 60’s era black groups. Their creative and commercial momentum developed in a slower way. In their case,it seemed to be the more artistic reasons that played into this earlier on. Maurice White retained only brother Verdine on bass when he left Warner Bros. for Columbia. Their 1972 debut for the label Last Days And Time featured Ronnie Laws, the Friends Of Distinction’s Jessica Cleaves and Roland Bautista. But also introduced Philip Bailey, Ralph Johnson and Larry Dunn-the first two of whom are still the core of the band to this very day.

After that label debut that was still somewhat in the mold of the bands two Warner Bros. albums,the band regrouped still further. Ronnie Laws and Roland Bautista left. This opened the door for successors Al McKay,who’d played with Charles Wright as well as Andrew Woolfolk on soprano sax and an additional guitarist in Johnny Graham. Still retaining Cleaves for the time being,the band released their second Columbia album Head To The Sky. It has a somewhat unique sound for them as it has their renowned slick production, but retains a lot of their more experimental musical elements. In terms of funk,it’s the song “Build Your Nest” that really stands out for me on this album.

The song actually fades in with it’s intro. Musically the intro is a round,expanding wah wah guitar with a light and lilting Clavinet in the back round. A grimy guitar solo gets the main groove of the song going. The rhythm is based around a slower swinging funk-heavy on cymbal and with a strong brushing sound. The bass has a very gruff and brittle wah wah going about it while the rhythm guitar has that percussive James Brown flavor. Organ and Rhodes piano occasionally accent this thick musical bed. On the melody,there’s a descending chord that takes the main melody into a much higher key. The song returns to it’s main choral theme as it fades out.

When I first read about the Head To The Sky album in the Allmusic guide in the early 90’s,it was described as having some of the best uptempo songs the group ever made. That’s a big statement to make for sure. But this one is still very distinctive for them. First and foremost because it’s one of the few (if any) 70’s EWF funk numbers that succeeded without the presence of a single horn,let alone a horn section. The rhythm section entirely carries the groove. Lyrically the song allows Maurice to illustrate how important it is,especially for black couples,to fight for and maintain a happy domestic life. On that level,it’s actually one of my favorites of EWF’s earlier funk numbers.

 

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Filed under 1970's, Al McKay, Columbia Records, drums, Earth Wind & Fire, Funk, Funk Bass, James Brown, Johnny Graham, Larry Dunn, Maurice White, Philip Bailey, Uncategorized, Verdine White, wah wah guitar

Maurice White Remembered On Andresmusictalk, Part 1: “Shining Star” by Earth Wind & Fire

Maurice White,founder of Earth Wind & Fire and late 60’s drummer from the Ramsey Lewis Trio,passed away in his sleep yesterday morning at the age of 74. For several years now,my friend and creative consultant Henrique Hopkins have often discussed the reality of many silent and baby boom generation musical icons beginning to pass away. Many already have. Maurice lived with Parkisons disease for his final decades of life. And while his Earthly suffering is over now,he once said during EWF’s peak that while society was often too negative to beauty and love,he saw him and the band’s music as medicine. And that is the launching pad for this very special tribute.

The music of Earth Wind & Fire plays a crucial role in this particular blog. With Maurice being a musician,bandleader and producer as well as vocalist he understood the importance of the recording studio in advancing funk music’s popular notoriety. The whole notion of myself putting so much effort into taking the songs of this genre and breaking them down musically for many different people to read and potentially gain insight from was directly inspired by Maurice’s creative visions. As occurred recently,the sheer massive nature of EWF’s recorded catalog was intimidating in terms of over-viewing another of their songs. So it just flowed naturally to discuss their classic “Shinning Star”.

Brother Verdine opens the song with a ringing,shuffling and double tracked bluesy bass solo before the Phenix Horns burst right into action. A chanking wah wah follows Verdine’s continuing chunkiness on the bass line and the songs slow,slogging drums.  Al McKay’s rhythm guitar follows closely with the drums. Johnny Graham plays a bluesy solo over the horns on the chorus,which continues along with Larry Dunn’s Fender Rhodes solo before a beautifully calculated funk break enters into the second refrain of the song. There are a few more repeated choruses before Bailey’s chants of “Shining star for you to see/what your life can truly be” over a jazzier bass line.

“Shinning Star” clocks in at under 3 minutes-shorter than what’s normally expected for a classic funk number. It introduced a very strong pop song structure that holds close to the 12 bar blues,yet is directly out of the James Brown school of putting all the rhythm out front. The bass,the horns and the rhythm all do their dance on this song with a wonderful sense of release. As someone who found themselves being more and more of a natural non conformist as I grew up,listening to this song provided an important world of self confidence that has surely inspired many people. The music and the lyrics both create a truly inspiring impulse to the listener.

 

Many people today are convinced music cannot change the world or anyone’s heart. This song represents a great moment in history when the funk music genre was actually doing just that. During the mid 70’s it was serving a similar function as gospel and folk music had in the past-as an oral engine of sociopolitical commentary and personal understanding for the listener. And most importantly,this song allowed funk to really cross over onto the pop charts. So many of EWF’s songs from the mid to late 70’s have a similarly positive effect. And on this particular song the elements within the band that bought that effect to light shinned directly through thanks to Maurice White.

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Filed under 1970's, Al McKay, blues funk, Earth Wind & Fire, Fender Rhodes, Funk, Funk Bass, James Brown, Johnny Graham, Larry Dunn, Maurice White, message music, message songs, Phenix Horns, Philip Bailey, Uncategorized, Verdine White

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Can’t Hide Love” by Earth,Wind & Fire

Writing Anatomy of THE Groove this week has really bought to mind how crucial the mid 70’s were to the greatest musical triumphs of the funk era. It’s a key conversational point between myself and Henrique,who’s still informing and inspiring me from behind the scenes on this blog. Watching a video of Maurice White serenading the late Natalie Cole with the song “Can’t Hide Love” inspired me to tell you,the reader how I feel about this song. Have covered a lot of EWF here. But this 1975 number is special to myself and Henrique in the entire annals of recorded funk.

Just the historical back-round of this song seems theatrical. When EWF decided to do a live album due to heavy touring keeping them from recording a whole new album after That’s The Way Of The World,they released a compilation of live versions of their songs from this touring instead. It was paired with four new studio tracks. And the song being talked about today was the last of them. The album was appropriately entitled Gratitude. The most interesting thing about the song was that it wasn’t entirely written by Maurice or the other band members.

The song started life as a song written by Louisiana born composer Skip Scarborough in 1973. It was included on the debut album for the LA based Fifth Dimension spin off group Creative Source. It would seem that Maurice White and company felt a deep connection to the song. And since Skip was already working his songwriting magic with EWF , they all teamed up to re-arrange the song in a whole new way for the band- three years after the original first came out. The result was yet another case of a re-imagined remake taking a song to an entirely different level.

The Phenix Horns fanfare into the song-accompanied at every turning by the popping,jazzy bass of Verdine White. The gentle,high pitched rhythm guitars,electric piano,drums and strings all come in to play the central refrain of the song itself. Each coming into their own climaxes with Maurice White and Philip Bailey’s righteous vocal heights. On the finale of the song? The refrain transforms into one of the most eloquently composed vocal harmonies in music history-with Bailey vocalizing wordlessly first in his natural tenor,than in his better known falsetto.

When my father asked me at age 16 what my favorite EWF song was? I told him it was this one. And each time I hear it to this day? The sheer level of musicality  in the song still raises the hairs on my back. Between the vocals,the bass of Verdine White,the rhythm guitar of Al McKay,the electric piano of Larry Dunn,the Phenix Horns and Charles Stepney’s string arrangements? It all dovetails with Scarborough’s reworked composition for a superb example of the sweetest funk can be. And on a non instrumental level,it goes even further.

Henrique and myself are in funky synergy about this song being one of the most harmonically advanced moments in  contemporary music. Especially when it comes to the final vocal choruses of Phillip Bailey.  Everything in this song is built on harmony. It deals with a man telling his lover not to deny the emotions they both have for each other. And doing so in a manner that’s both strong and empathetic. It perfectly reflects the song’s musical virtues. And if someone asked me to name a handful of songs representing the pinnacle of funk? This would be at the top of the list.

 

 

 

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Filed under 1975, Al McKay, Charles Stepney, classic funk, drums, Earth Wind & Fire, electric piano, Funk, Funk Bass, funk guitar, Larry Dunn, Los Angeles, Maurice White, Natalie Cole, Phenix Horns, Philip Bailey, Skip Scarborough, Uncategorized, Verdine White