Ronnie Foster was one of Buffalo,New York’s prime funkateers next to the far more famous Rick James. The primary reason for this was likely because Foster was a session keyboardist who recorded solo albums rather than a headliner. That meant a lot though because the man played on some of the finest sessions of the mid 70’s to early 80’s by Roberta Flack,The Jacksons,Flora Purim and Earl Klugh. He was particularly involved musically with George Benson-playing and composing for his blockbuster mid/late 70’s releases.
What first got me into Ronnie Foster was a funk based blog some years ago that linked the man with Stevie Wonder. Foster was one of an enormous cast of players who participated on Wonder’s magnum opus Songs In The Key Of Life. That led me to his two late 70’s Columbia albums entitled Love Satellite (1978) and the following years Delight. Wonder played drums on one song for each album. On Love Satellite, he did so on the instrumental”Happy Song”. On the follow up Delight,Wonder did the drumming on a vocal tune this time. And the name of that song was “Let Me In Your Life”.
Foster starts the song with an elegant,jazzy melodic phrase played on polyphonic synthesizer-with his acoustic piano tickling the chord changes. After two phrases of this,Wonder’s drums come dancing with their funky swing. On the refrains,the piano and synthesizer are joined by a rhythmic Clavinet and bouncy Moog bass. On the chorus,the melody descends into a minor key gospel key as a synth string ensemble accents the vocal. The bridge of the song features Foster playing a rhythmic electronic organ type solo over a popping disco bass line before the song closes out with the repeating chorus.
Ronnie Foster and Stevie Wonder were born in the same year,one day apart. Today Foster turns 66. This number showcases how much of Wonder’s compositional influence Foster had absorbed while working with him. Playing every instrument on this song,with backing vocals from people such as George Benson himself,Stevie’s musical sound is omnipresent. It’s in the layers of rhythmic keyboards. Not to even mention those Duke Ellington/George Gershwin style chord/melodic exchanges Wonder used. It really showcased what a strong and thoroughly musical influence Stevie Wonder could have on another instrumentalist.
Filed under 1970's, clavinet, drums, jazz funk, Moog bass, piano, Ronnie Foster, session musicians, Stevie Wonder, synthesizer, Uncategorized
George Benson’s vocal style always reminded me a great deal of a higher pitched Donny Hathaway,with just a touch of Stevie Wonder’s melisma for good measure. His vocal tone had such a general strumming quality,his technique of scatting with his guitar became a signature technique. So it was no surprise for me to find out that Benson was in fact someone who knew personally. And they had a musical connection with Phil Upchurch as Benson later covered Hathaway’s “The Ghetto”. Also important is that Benson had always sang AND played throughout his career-long before his 70’s commercial peak. So he is very accessible to appreciate on a purely vocal level as well as instrumental.
In 1976 Benson had a humongous bit of luck with his album Breezin’-produced by Tommy Lipuma and featuring the Bobby Womack penned title hit and his iconic cover of the Leon Russell ballad “This Masquerade”. Also being his debut for Warner Bros. records,Benson was now firmly positioned as a singer/musician who’d have a strong ear as an interpreter. Especially with his back round as a viruosic jazz guitar improviser. His second Warner Bros. release came out in 1977 and was called In Flight. It featured the same lineup of musicians as it predecessor. My personal favorite song from this album is a version of the Nat King Cole standard “Nature Boy”.
Cinematic strings sweep through the beginning of the song. These strings literally segue into Harvey Mason’s drums clipping along at roughly 96 bpm along with Stanley Banks’s two note popping bass,while Jorge Dalto’s Clavinet drives right in the groove along with it. Ralph McDonald’s percussion takes that rhythmic stroll along the way as Ronnie Foster’s electric piano plays along with bell like beauty. This basic groove is the musical atmosphere of the entire song-with the strings moving to the forefront for every other chorus. Benson’s lead vocal carries the first half of the song. On the final minute or two, the melodic focus is on Benson’s guitar/scatting hybrid technique he is so well known for.
When I first heard this,I had no idea Nat Cole wrote it. Benson sings the original melody very faithfully. At the same time,his timing along with the slow crawling, percussive romantic funk called to mind Marvin Gaye’s musical sound of the same period. Gaye had already done a version of this song in 1965. His interpretation was very close to the original. What Benson bought to the song vocally was not only a more modern gospel/soul flavor,but also that more contemporary Brazilian style jazz/funk instrumental atmosphere. It did an excellent job showcasing the evolution of black American music and to me represents an important milestone for George Benson the singer.
Filed under 1970's, bass guitar, clavinet, drums, electric piano, George Benson, Harvey Mason, jazz funk, Jorge Dalto, Marvin Gaye, Nat King Cole, percussion, Phil Upchurch, Ralph McDonald, rhythm guitar, Ronnie Foster, Stanley Banks, strings, Tommy Lipuma, Uncategorized, Warner Bros.