Jerry Butler,known as the “Iceman” from Philadelphia DJ George Woods,is someone I consider to be one of the prime architects of the soul ballad. He co wrote the song “For Your Precious Love” with the Impressions. And as Rolling Stone magazine once put it,it embodied that marriage of gospel and doo-wop pop music that became the essence of soul music. Shortly after this 1958 crossover hit,Butler went solo. Many of his early hits such as the calypso flavored”He Will Break Your Heart ” were written by the late,great Curtis Mayfield. He currently serves as County Commissioner for Cooks County,Illinois.
The first time I heard Jerry Butler was from a very unusual source. It was via one of many free vinyl albums from a 1994 WMEB radio giveaway at the University of Maine in Orono that I often reference. The album was a 1976 Motown release entitled Love’s On The Menu. Didn’t yet know anything about Butler’s importance to the history of soul. The song that first stuck out to me was the “Motownphilly” style opener “I Don’t Want Nobody To Know”. Looking into the album today,another stand out song was its only R&B hit in the song “The Devil In Mrs. Jones”.
A cymbal heavy drum swing opens the album,with a thick Moog bass rising into a clucking wah wah guitar. That gives way to the slow crawl of a drum shuffle that’s the rhythm foundation of the song. The thick,ultra funky bass line is uppermost in the song-filling in the empty spaces between the Moog and drums. Female backup vocals and horns color the bluesy melody that leads directly into the chorus of the song. All the instrumental elements of the song come most prominently into play during the choruses. And its on that chorus that the song repeats on as it fades out.
Somehow when I first heard this album,this song got ignored. Today,it emerges as the heaviest funk I’ve yet heard Jerry Butler record. And of course,the vast majority of Butler’s recorded catalog isn’t something I’m particularly familiar. Known for his deep,smokey baritone on melodic pop soul numbers,”The Devil In Mrs. Jones” not only gives up the funk,but does so with the heaviest possible stomp. Its got the walking wah wah guitar,snaky bass,ticklish Moog synthesizer and slow shuffle that really defined mid 70’s “united funk”. Right along with Butler’s growling vocal turns as well.
Larry Graham was described by Bootsy Collins one time on a PBS Rock N Roll documentary I saw as being “definitely” the innovator of funk bass. A lot of times,new instrumental ideas in music are an organic,collaborative process. In this case,Graham brought out a new approach for,what was in the late 1960’s the relatively new bass guitar. A lot of people who help write the musical vocabulary for a key part of a whole musical genre (as Graham did for funk) simply rest on their creative laurels .Graham didn’t. Upon leaving Sly & The Family Stone,he continued to innovate as the bandleader of Graham Central Station.
When I first began seeing Larry Graham solo albums while crate digging in the late 90’s and early aughts during summertime visits to the coast of Maine, the thoughts of both myself and my dad was “these albums must’ve really funked up the early 80’s”. It wasn’t until hearing “One In A Million You” did I realize that Graham’s initial solo focus was as a bass voiced soul balladeer. Then I discovered a vinyl copy of Graham’s 1983 album Victory,which I later got on CD. Its rich with rhythmically fat,often horn heavy post disco and boogie funk. What really hooked me in was the closing instrumental title song.
A high pitched synth brass plays a 12 bar blues type horn chart as the intro to this jam. After that,shuffling drums kick in. The main bass line of the song is a synth bass line playing its own 12 bar blues accompaniment to the higher lead line. On the refrains of the song,the melody becomes a bit more complicated and jazzy. The synth bass introduces a rocking electric guitar solo playing a driving,bluesy solo yet again. After another refrain,the song reduces down to bass and percussion-with Graham’s slap bass sololing being assisted by the high pitched synth brass as the song fades out.
This instrumental was written,produced and performed entirely by Larry Graham. Its a powerful song for me because it’s essentially a classic 50’s style rhythm & blues shuffle totally updated for the early/mid 80’s electro/boogie funk era. It uses modern synthesizers and drum machines. But the general feeling of the melody and rhythm is very much of the juke joint and the 60’s proto funk shuffle. Instrumentally,its all very powerful. The synths are played very intensely. And the slap bass is some of Graham’s finest thumping on the outro. Its a wonderful and unsung example of Larry Graham’s early 80’s solo funk.
Filed under 1980's, blues funk, Boogie Funk, drum machines, electro funk, Larry Graham, musical innovators, rhythm & blues, rock guitar, slap bass, synth bass, synth brass