Natalie Cole’s passing was the very first thing I heard waking up New Years Day of 2016. This turned out to be just one of far too many cherished musical icons who passed away during the course of the year-finally concluding with the loss of George Michael on Christmas Day. I’ve been aware of Cole’s music and presence in some way,somehow throughout my life. And at the end of the day,I do not desire to have her death be representative of what might be the worst all around year of the new millennium. So today,I’m going to talk about Natalie Cole related events that both influenced and taught me.
First time I ever heard her was when my mom and dad used to play a cassette tape of her 1987 album Everlasting for me. Its an excellent album I proudly have on CD today. The song they both went into it for was the Bruce Springsteen penned slice of rock n’ soul “Pink Cadillac”. With Aretha Franklin’s song “Freeway Of Love” fresh in my mind,that “pink Cadillac” concept seemed to crop more more than it really did. Of course a few years later,she beautifully honored her dad with her re-dubbed duet with her father (now itself a rebooted classic) in “Unforgettable”.
Toward the end of the 90’s,Natalie Cole re-entered my life when re-examining the late 70’s James Earl Jones PSA radio program LP set of my dad’s Genius On The Black Side. Each featured black musical icons,new and old,with wraparound interstitial’s about social security. One of them featured Cole’s debut hit from 1975 “This Will Be”. It was my first time hearing the song,however abbreviated it was. It was about a year later that the TV biopic Livin’ for Love. It was a unique presentation as it featured Natalie herself narrating her life story while Theresa Randall playing her young self.
As illustrated beautifully in this movie,Cole’s life had many highs and lows. She got involved in the music of the 60’s counter culture as a way to separate herself from her family legacy,married Marvin Yancy and engaged on a very successful solo career during the 70’s and into the 80’s. All the while enduring failed marriages and years of drug addiction in the process. However fictionalized the event was,the image of Randall’s Cole hearing her first hit “This Will Be” on the radio for the first time after having scored a fix in a back alley showcased the equal measure of success and irony in her life and career.
In recent years,friends of mine such as Henry Cooper (a big fan of her music and the biopic) and Andrew Osterov,who helped me to explore her earlier 80’s releases,Natalie Cole’s music and its consistent diversity has been brought even further into my field of attention. Much as with Whitney Houston,also not with us anymore,Natalie Cole is an example that musical talent is not simply a matter of genetics. But also one of influence and shared interest-no matter how musical the family is. And now being in a place where I’m starting to make my own music,its something to keep in mind.
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.
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
Several days ago? The new year of 2016 wrung in rather sadly with the news that Natalie Cole had passed away from complications with congestive heart familiar. Having been the daughter of Nat King Cole and growing up in a family she described as “the black Kennedy’s”? Natalie, in a similar manner to the also departed Whitney Houston, has occasionally been viewed as someone whose talents derived largely from genetics. Perhaps this led to the years of drug related self destruction that likely contributed to her death at age 65.
Being inspired by soul and rock music more than a jazzy approach? It was now iconic Chicago producers Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancy who really helped to beef up Cole’s career. After some unsuccessful label shopping,the team ended up at her fathers old label Capitol. There they all began polishing up work on Cole’s debut album Inseparable. While as a whole it’s gospel/soul ballads and uptempo numbers would define much of Cole’s musical output? The funk got turned up high on numbers such as one of my favorites here entitled “Something For Nothing”.
The groove kicks off with an ascending,classic funk riff from a bassy Clavinet. It’s assisted by a tickling soul stride type honky tonk piano. On each of these phrases? A high pitched,bluesy rhythm guitar riff rings into the next part of the song-all orchestrated by minor chorded strings. Assisted by stop/start funky drumming all the way? The Clavinet buoys the song until the strings and piano spin off into a bright,major chord 70’s Chi Town soul melody on the bridge before it all fades out on it’s original theme.
Listening to this makes me wonder why Natalie Cole,with her gospel heavy soul pipes,didn’t prioritize the evolution of funk as her career pushed forward. Considering how much this particular number has in common with Rufus’s “Tell Me Something Good”? It’s a song very much in the spirit of the “who says a rock band can’t play funk” ethic of taking the blues base,and smoothing it out for a more soulful and danceable groove. It’s still one of the finest examples of Natalie Cole with a strong groove and a strong tribute to her as a potential funky diva.
Filed under 1970's, blues funk, Capitol Records, Chicago, Chuck Jackson, classic funk, clavinet, funky soul, guitar, Marvin Yancy, Nat King Cole, Natalie Cole, piano, Uncategorized, Whitney Houston