Category Archives: Phenix Horns
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.
Somewhere between the final two EWF albums of the early 80’s Powerlight and Electric Universe this album came out during the same year in 1983. Gradually during the first three years of the 80’s the entire Earth Wind & Fire camp was starting to falter from various pressures and creative differences. A lot of this moved in tandem with the same sort of situation occurring within the R&B/soul/funk world during that anti disco freeze out. Since this would be the first real formalized solo album by any member of that band Philip didn’t have to look hard to find a way to carve out his own musical niche.
He went to musician/producer George Duke,whose jazz/funk/pop musical style was very close at this point to EWF and whose falsetto vocals were deeply influenced by Bailey’s,to produce and play on this album. Seldom has there ever been a more appropriate marriage of talents in recent years. The result is a short,crisp album that respects musical quality to such as degree I have to say I’ll personally claim it as my favorite of Bailey’s solo albums.
Consisting of eight tracks,six of which are uptempo and very heavily steeped in the funk idiom there’s a great degree of variety and strength to everything to be heard here. The album opens on a very strong note with “I Know”,a number reflecting how much 70’s funk and 80’s new wave had in common and there the two styles could intermix into 80’s urban funk. It also has this great slow driving bass groove as well. “I’m Waitin’ For Your Love” and the closer “You Boyfriend’s Back” also bring in the rockier new wave influence,soon to be a primary element in Bailey’s solo music.
In these cases Duke’s Seawind Horns take the place of EWF’s Phenix Horns so…may be a somewhat new song and dance but definitely the same old tune. Because of it’s hybrid of classic funk styles with electronic arrangements the newer sub-genre of boogie funk found a place here on the potent “Desire”,with it’s popping synth bass and Bailey mostly in his lower vocal register and and the more deeply funky boogie variant of “The Good Guy’s Supposed To Get The Girl”. “Vaya (Go With Love)”,with it’s cleaner urban funk/pop/jazz fusion sounds more like a straight up George Duke number but seems in a way one of those hit type songs that got away.
On the strong “Trapped” and “It’s Our Time” with Deniece Williams Bailey is essentially still in his old fashioned EWF ballad style with the sweeping arrangements mixed with the idea of rhythm. Overall this album has nothing on it that might lower it’s quality. Also it contains more than a fair share of strong,melodic pop/funk styled grooves. So why did it go so unnoticed in it’s day?And why did people such as myself have to learn of it’s existence over a decade after it came out? Honestly after listening to this album not only on vinyl for years but on this wonderfully remastered CD….I really have no idea.
Bailey was huge at the time due to associations with EWF,the album was contemporary with not an embarrassing moment to be heard and Bailey’s voice was in prime shape. Sometimes when a great album goes unnoticed…it just does so for no rhyme or reason. Anyway what matters to me is that Bailey didn’t wind up becoming a full on pop crooner or an adult contemporary solo artist. Even outside EWF he managed to continue innovating and experimenting within the funk genre.
The results could be very surprising. But Philip Bailey had the potential as a huge creative talent. He also had the potential with his melodic,pop friendly approach to be coerced by others into becoming a big time sellout. Luckily the years have shown him to be someone who tends to follow the creative drummer rather than the more obviously commercial one. And as pop friendly as this is,no matter how little success it had commercially at it’s time it may be one of his most significant releases from a purely creative standpoint.
Originally posted on September 22nd,2011
Anatomy Of THE Groove For The Brothers And Sisters Who Aren’t Here: “Serpentine Fire” by Jimmy Smith
Jimmy Smith helped redefine the vocabulary of jazz organ during the hard bop/soul jazz era. With his heavily blues and gospel based approach,his use of the Leslie speaker on his Hammond B-3 organ became defined by distinct clicking tones between each key stroke. This idea of instrumental technique combined with personal finger touch has made Smith’s sound extremely influential among jazz style organists for the remainder of the 20th century. And with bands such as England’s James Taylor Quartet utilizing this approach on the Hammond organ, Smith is along with Roy Ayers one of the main instrumental pioneers of the 1990’s acid jazz sound.
As of today,it’s been five days since Earth Wind & Fire bandleader Maurice White passed away. When I think about it,Maurice and Jimmy Smith were both members of America’s Silent Generation-only on earlier and later ends of it. During the mid 1970’s,Smith’s musical style made yet another transition. This one towards a hard funk oriented sound. Because of his blues roots and love of placing his organ soloing in the context of heavy rhythm,the funk genre was an ideal for Smith to deal with during the late 70’s. Recording both bop and funk for the Mercury label at the time,Smith and Maurice White’s music dovetailed beautifully in 1978 when Smith interpreted the EWF number “Serpentine Fire”.
The lightly fan faring intro of percussionist Stephanie Spruill introduces this groove,over which Smith plays a smooth version of the songs initial melody on his B-3. John Phillips tenor sax and and Nolan Smith’s trumpet play the role of a stripped back Phenix Horns going into Abraham Laboriel’s bass line-itself similar to the bluesy melodic line of Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island”. On the central refrains,Smith plays the chords of the melody very much in classic bop style-with later variations showcasing call and response dialog with the two horns. On the choral links with the scaled up horns,Smith accompanies his own organ with a beautiful round Moog synthesizer bass tone.
Of course EWF had a strong jazz basis at the very core of their sound. When jazz soloists began covering their huge hits during the 70’s,that element really came out a lot more. Jimmy Smith’s take on “Serpentine Fire” from his 1978 album Unfinished Business is a superb example. Not only is he rounding heavily on his bop approach of playing chords, but on many of his solos he’s hammering on the organ in a very aggressively rhythmic sustain. The rhythmic sound of the song is a bit smaller,more live oriented than studiocentric. Of course that allows for Smith’s soloing to take center stage. It also allows for his to be a fantastically funky re-imagining of an Earth Wind & Fire classic.
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.