Category Archives: Philadelphia

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Am I Black Enough For You” by Billy Paul

Billy Paul is another of far,far too many music icons of the 20th century who passed away during 2016. The Philly native grew up listening to jazz based singers such as Nina Simone,Carmen McCrae and Billie Holiday. After a stint in the army,where he was was stationed in post WWII Germany in the late 50’s along with Elvis Presley. Using this as an opportunity to further his love of music,he launched a jazz trio while in Germany. After getting out of the army,he became part of the burgeoning Philadelphia International Records,eventually releasing his debut album in 1970.

As with most people in America,my primary knowledge of this artist was via the ballad “Me & Mrs. Jones”. My father purchased a compilation of Billy Paul’s music. And after that,it became clear that this man did some amazingly cinematic uptempo tunes. Many of them with a very strong pro black sociopolitical bent lyrically. It was about a year ago when watching a documentary about Oakland’s Black Panthers that I heard a very funkified song with a very familiar voice. Turns out that voice belonged to the late Billy Paul. And the song (from 1972) was called “Am I Black Enough For You”.

A bluesy Clavinet riff dovetails into the percussive accented funky march of the drums. That Clavinet maintains itself throughout the song. At first,this is assisted by a bluesy rhythm guitar. The song has a rather elaborate,jazzy bass line holding the rhythm section together. The horns are both melodic and climactic-scaling upward on each of the songs choruses. Towards the end of the song,a fuzzed out guitar plays an eerie sustain in the back round as the percussion and a bluesy organ and guitar take over on the bridge. Then the songs main chorus takes over until it all fades out

“Am I Black Enough For You” is a psychedelic,bluesy funk number musically. One featuring a dense,thick instrumental sound. The melody is very overtly blues based too. Lyrically,the song speaks as much to the present day as it did for 1972. In both cases,an unpopular and widely disliked politician had become president. And anti black attitudes were a causal factor in both cases. This song lyrically suggests that strength in numbers will help black Americans to have power and dignity of person. And with Billy Paul no longer with us,that’s as fine a musical concept for him to heave us with as any.

 

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Filed under 1970's, Billy Paul, blues funk, civil rights, clavinet, drums, Funk Bass, fuzz guitar, horns, message songs, organ, percussion, Philadelphia, Philadelphia International Records, Philly Soul, pro black, psychedelic soul, rhythm guitar

Anatomy of THE Groove: “All Night Long” by Dexter Wansel

Dexter Wansel first became known to me as one of the Philly PIR team who worked on the 1976 debut album by the Jacksons. Being more broadly aware of the Philly soul sound now,Wansel seems to have a very different approach to music than Gamble & Huff and Thom Bell did. With disco era classics such as the Jones Girls “Nights Over Egypt” and “Keep On Dancing”,one of my favorite Jacksons’ songs off that Epic label debut,Dexter Wansel’s arrangements were based in his keyboard and guitar playing. Therefore his productions seem to have some of the funkiest bottoms of 70’s Phily funk and soul.

One thing Wansel also did was maintain a solo presence on PIR concurrent to his productions. One of these albums,which I never managed to pick up on vinyl despite seeing it all the time,was 1978’s Voyager. The album cover always stood out to me as a Trekker/sci fi admirer because of the prominent Star Trek model kit bash featured as some sort of robot riding through the desert. Through MP3 and YouTube,I’ve been fortunate enough to hear this album all the way through.And its an album that starts out with a funky bang with the jam “All Night Long”.

An otherworldly space funk Moog bass starts the song off. Then the drums come in playing a disco era friendly dance/funk beat. This is accompanied  by a mid toned rhythm guitar sustain,accenting horns and a SERIOUS slap bass thump. With the addition of an accompanying Fender Rhodes piano and Wansel’s falsetto/tenor vocal leaps this represents the choruses and refrains of the song. On the last part of the song,a major horn chart segues into a percussive,jumping beat over which a sassy,rocking blues guitar riffs with the phat slap bass and keyboard lines before scratching hard as the song closes out.

Without any hesitation, this is one of the hardest straight up funk jams to come out of the PIR camp. The beat has a swaggering,percussive shuffle. The keyboard/synthesizer parts are layered in a manner that lays somewhere between early 70’s “united funk” and mid/late 70’s space funk. And Wansel’s vocals (I’m pretty sure they’re his) have some of the slyly sexy attitude of his particular musical camp. Honestly I tend to think of Philly soul as the breezy,string laden proto disco sound of the 70’s. This helps showcase Dexter Wansel as a major player in the harder groove based element of the Philly sound.

 

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Filed under 1970's, dance funk, Dexter Wansel, drums, Fender Rhodes, horns, Moog bass, Philadelphia, Philly funk, Philly Soul, rhythm guitar, rock guitar, slap bass, synthesizers

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Shakedown” by Evelyn Champagne King

Evelyn King’s origin story as a profession singer is one that you seldom hear any more. She was discovered on a TV show and (obviously) through a a YouTube video. Another Philly native,King was discovered singing Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” while working as an office cleaner for her mother at Philledelphia International Records. Her future producer T (Theodore) Life overheard the teenager’s husky and rangy voice and began coaching her. In 1977 he signed up as her producer on at MCA records where she recorded her debut album Smooth Talk and it’s massive disco smash hit “Shame”.

One thing about King’s career arc is how much her strong,soulful voice was developed in terms of quality albums as well as singles. This is something usually done with instrumentalists,whereas singers are generally expected to churn out successful single records. In 1981 her music began moving in the boogie/post disco direction under the guidance of her new producer Kashif. In 1983,she moved onto Minneapolis Prince alumni Andre’ Cymone along with Leon and Foster Sylvers. This 1983 albume Face To Face contains one of my favorite grooves from King during era in “Shakedown”.

Phat orchestral synthesizers playing along with a snare sound heavy drum machine begins the song. After this,the drum machines goes naked with only live percussion providing some instrument undergarments-along with bursts of slap bass. Then the brittle synth brass comes in-eventually accentuating bluesy vocal lines on the refrains. This pattern continues throughout the song-with the choral bridge being sung over the more orchestral intro. On the bridge,Shalamar guitarist Miki Free provides scintillating layers of rocking lead guitar before the drum/bass/percussion based refrain fades out the song.

As a vocalist whose career generally celebrated quality album runs,Evelyn King also made funk as much a part of her sound as the disco-dance records she made. And her funk numbers have really served her well creatively and commercially as an uptempo based artist.  This one has really grown with me because it’s a great combination of boogie’s live bass and percussion with a Minneapolis style synth brass/drum machine powered groove. This type of sound would evolve into what Jody Watley did on “Looking For A New Love”-also produced by Andre’ Cymone. So on that level,this funk is a pretty big deal.

 

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Filed under 1980's, Andre Cymone, Boogie Funk, drum machines, elecro funk, Evelyn Champagne King, Foster Sylvers, Funk Bass, Leon Sylvers, Micki Free, Minneapolis Sound, percussion, Philadelphia, rock guitar, synth brass, synthesizers

Anatomy Of THE Groove for 12/7/2015: “Lock It In The Pocket” by Grover Washington Jr.

Grover Washington Jr. holds a somewhat unique position for my appreciation of instrumental music. He was my introduction to jazz/funk sax with “Just The Two Of Us”. That meant he was a key part of my musical core without me fully realizing it. Reading my close friend and musical blogging colleague Henrique Hopkins most recent overview of the nu funk band The Internet? It inspired me to realize something about my interest in funk. While that interest has evolved into one where I strongly appreciate studio coloring along with my favorite grooves? Learning about the music involved experiencing the strong,bright musical hues created by a straighter live instrumental aspect of the music.

During the summer of 1996? WMEB through the University Of Maine aired their first funk radio show. It was interesting as it always played the song before announcing who the artist was.  One such case hit me with a song called “Lock It In The Pocket”. I remember being in the car and dancing in place while on the passenger seat.  When the song was over,the DJ announced it was Grover Washington Jr. Learned later this song,recorded  in 1977 live at the Bijou in the man’s native Philadelphia, was recorded with his band Locksmith. They made a record of their own around this time. And since I haven’t yet over viewed any of Grover’s music? This is the one I’m most moved to do.

The fun in the funk begins when when the high rhythm guitar keeps a steady groove going along with the enthusiastic hand claps of the audience. The percussion builds right into that-right before the song’s funky drummer Millard Vinson chimes in. Grover himself takes a detour from this a refrain themed around an Afro-Cuban salsa style melody while easing onto the chorus with the band.  Grover plays with ever growing improvisational fire along with the steady guitar and percussion that builds exactly as the sax solo does. The melody then goes into minor chords-with keyboardist James Simmons on piano and ARP string accompaniment before Grover’s refrain closes it all out.

As my interest in 70’s jazz/funk has led into it becoming one of my favorite types of music to listen to? This song continues to stick by me all the more. Each time I hear it? There’s something new to learn. Since Grover was primarily known as a soloist? The biggest aspect of this jam is how much it emphasizes the importance of bands in the genre. As in any tributary of jazz,as Henrique has pointed out? A horn player can blow over almost anything. Here-with Grover’s improvisational excitement?  Locksmith really allow him to maintain that danceable and rhythmic thickness that would allow Grover (and likely his audience) to keep their bodies,minds and hearts moving to the groove!

 

 

 

 

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Filed under 1970's, DJ's, Funk, funk guitar, Grover Washington Jr., Jazz-Funk, Live music, Locksmith, Philadelphia, Saxophone