Category Archives: Sly & The Family Stone

Bitches Broth: Betty Davis, The Columbia Years, 1968-69

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Betty Davis is, as her ex-husband Miles would undoubtedly have put it, a bad bitch. Her trio of mid-1970s albums–including 1974’s They Say I’m Different, which Andre posted about last summer–constitute some of the rawest, nastiest funk-rock ever released. Imagine prime Tina Turner, but with a heavier rock influence; and what she lacks in vocal prowess, she makes up for with a persona so aggressive, you’d swear she was the one beating up on Ike. If you’re even the slightest fan of powerful women and/or heavy funk, then you need to hear Betty Davis.

That being said, my recommendation for the latest release of Betty Davis’ music, The Columbia Years, 1968-69, is a little more conditional. I received the compilation’s (gorgeous!) vinyl release for Christmas last month, and I love it; it sits proudly on my shelf even as we speak. But I can also understand why it wasn’t officially released until last year.

Comprised of two sessions recorded for Columbia Records in 1968 and 1969–the first produced by trumpeter Hugh Masekela, the second by Betty’s then-husband Miles Davis–The Columbia Years is, if nothing else, a fascinating historical document. For fans of the more famous Davis, it’s effectively ground zero for jazz fusion: the moment Miles hooked up with the circle of acid rockers and funkateers in Betty’s orbit, including Jimi Hendrix sidemen Billy Cox and Mitch Mitchell. Without Betty, there would be no Bitches Brew (in more ways than one–that album’s title is said to have referred to Betty and her entourage of countercultural socialities). According to the compilation’s liner notes, Betty’s come-hither purr in her cover of Cream’s “Politician” even ended up inspiring Miles’ song “Back Seat Betty,” a full 12 years after the couple split.

But just as Betty was never “Mrs. Miles Davis,” The Columbia Years is also of interest for reasons beyond its significance in Miles’ body of work. You can hear the seeds of Betty’s own unique stylistic hybrid being planted, as she tries her hand at a version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Born on the Bayou” heavily indebted to “Stone Free” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience; or even her own composition “Hangin’ Out,” which comes across as a tamer version of later party-girl anthems like “If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up.” For existing devotees, the opportunity to hear her earth-shaking style in embryonic form is priceless.

For newcomers, though, I’m afraid the appeal will be significantly lessened. The fact is, in 1969 Betty Davis didn’t really sound like Betty Davis yet; her vocals are thin, and she hadn’t yet developed the hellion’s rasp that made her voice on later records so distinctive. And, while the personnel on the sessions is impressive–not only Cox and Mitchell, but also John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and others–the arrangements lack grit and verve; they have the slightly patronizing feel that comes with the territory of crack jazz musicians slumming in “lesser” genres. It’s telling that Davis’ best music would be recorded with players who were funk and rock musicians first: her 1973 debut, for example, featured Santana‘s Neal Schon, Larry Graham, and other members of Graham Central Station and the Family Stone. It’s also telling that her music got better the more she was at the helm: her second and third albums, in 1974 and 1975 respectively, were both self-produced.

So, yes, everyone should listen to Betty Davis; and, since to know Betty Davis is to love her, then sure, eventually everyone should probably listen to The Columbia Years. But if you’re just getting started, don’t start at the beginning. Check out Betty DavisThey Say I’m Different, or Nasty Gal; hell, check out her canned 1976 album Crashin’ from Passion, later reissued as Is It Love or Desire? Then, circle back to The Columbia Years and see how it all began. With records like this being released and a new documentary set to premiere this summer, the time has arguably never been riper to rediscover Betty Davis. I can attest that she’s a discovery well worth making.

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Filed under 1960's, Betty Davis, Columbia Records, funk rock, Graham Central Station, Herbie Hancock, Hugh Masekela, Ike & Tina Turner, Jimi Hendrix, Larry Graham, Miles Davis, Music Reviewing, Sly & The Family Stone, Wayne Shorter

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Loose Booty” by Sly & Family Stone

Life seemed to be turning around for Sly during the mid 70’s. Though his albums with the Family Stone were continuing to be more or less solo albums featuring mainly Sly’s instrumental input, there were changes for him on many levels. Drugs had become a major factor in both his life and that of the other band members during the early 70’s. This led to the band being known for  continually missing gigs. And it also added to his isolation as an individual. While this had the effect of producing some very creative grooves this 60’s icon of peace,love and soul power was seemingly running out of steam when it came to reaching the people.

Sly himself attempted to turn this around by marrying actress/model Kathleen Silva. Their wedding took place as part of a big performance at Madison Square Garden in June of 1974. They had a child together named Sylvester Jr. A month later Sly released the album Small Talk. While it features the same idea of the band being overdubbed into his own instrumentation basically,the addition of strings on some tracks made for a somewhat slower and pop oriented album. Of course there was still a lot of funk to be heard here. One of these grooves that always stood out to me came in midway through the album,and is entitled “Loose Booty”.

The song starts right off with a stone cold fanfare of sustained horns,organ and drums over which Little Sister harmonize the title choruses. The following refrain strips down to the bass,organ and funk drumming-with Sly grunting out “Shadrach,Meshach,Abednego” as a rhythmic lyric. After a drum break featuring a high pitched female vocal call and response-concluding with a muted trumpet,the refrain returns with Sly trading off lyrics in classic Family Stone style with Rose,Little Sister and an unknown bass voice (perhaps Freddie Stone in a lower voice). The song repeats this  chorus/refrain/break patter twice before an extended refrain closes out the song right on the one.

In a lot of ways,this is some of the most instrumentally full funk Sly had done since the salad days of the Family Stone in the late 60’s. It still has the same hard funk flavor of Sly’s 70’s music. But with the dense mix of horns,drums,bass and organ it’s not at all as stripped down as anything on There’s A Riot Goin’ On or Fresh. Sly singing a rhythmic chorus just repeating the names of three pious Jewish kings forced to walk through fire in the bible for not bowing to the image of a king may say a lot more about how he felt he’d had to pay a price for his actions somehow-either personally or musically. In terms of sheer funkiness and the popularity of it’s breaks in samples,this is prime mid period Sly funk.

 

 

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Filed under 1970's, backup singers, drums, Funk, horns, organ, Shadrach,Meshach and Abednego, slap bass, Sly & The Family Stone, Sly Stone, Uncategorized

Anatomy of THE Groove: “In Time” by Sly & The Family Stone (1973)

It would seem that 1973 bought a lot of changes into the Family Stone. Sly Stone had pretty much recorded There’s a Riot Going On by himself in a state of paranoid isolation. Band members were dubbed in as needed,with some such as Larry Graham and Greg Errico barely utilized-if even at all. This combined with Sly missing gigs during this era,to the point of it being blamed for starting a riot in Chicago in 1970 meant that some serious changes were needed within the band,if it was going to endure. In 1972 Larry Graham left the Family Stone to form Graham Centeral Station,with drummer Errico leaving during the same period.

During this time Sly himself began revamping the band. He bought in Rusty Allen to play bass during the time Graham was leaving and Andy Newmark as a drummer to succeed Errico. A vocal trio called Little Sister,including future Mrs. Leon Russel in Mary McCreary also came into the mix. Sly recorded with somewhat more involvement from the band for the album that would become 1973’s Fresh. Being a musical perfectionist, Sly insisting on remixing these songs even after the album came out. While this resulted in the original US CD release of it containing some of these alternate takes,the album began with a very defining groove for 70’s era Sly entitled “In Time”.

Sly begins the song with Newmark playing a very idiosyncratic march that intertwines with his own Maestro Rhythm King,an organ based drum machine,to play an Afro Latin percussive rhythm. Freddie plays a very probing melodic guitar with Sly’s organ providing a melodic pillow in the back round. Sly’s two note bass line seems to be present on this part. On the choruses,the drumming gets seriously on the one along with the horns and Allen’s more flamboyant bass parts. And the horns also play their usual call and response role on each rhythm. On the two instrumental refrains,Jerry Martini’s sax solos accompany Sly’s organ before the song closes on it’s own repeated choruses.

What this song does is serve the best possible purposes an opening tune can on an album. It sets the state for the sound for what is to come in that regard. Fresh is an album that blends a stripped down production with a slick sound and a full instrumental approach. And this song can best be described that way. The funk on this song,especially with it’s heavy rhythmic breaks and Sly’s drawling vocals,is more fully formed than it was on the previous album. The sound of the Maestro Rhythm King on early 70’s Sly records would also find it’s way onto Shuggie Otis’s work from the same period. So again,Sly was on the cutting edge of blending innovative instrumentation with strong rhythmic funkiness.

 

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Filed under 1970's, Andy Newmark, drum machine, drums, Freddie Stone, Funk, Funk Bass, guitar, horns, Jerry Martini, Maestro Rhythm King, Mary McCreary, organ, Rusty Allen, Sly & The Family Stone, Sly Stone, Uncategorized

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) by Sly & The Family Stone (1969)

Sly & The Family Stone had a really big year in 1969. Their fourth album Stand! is now considered a landmark for the band. It was a full on effort featuring hugely popular hits such as “Everyday People”,”Sing A Simple Song” and the title song. Up until that time,funk was relatively new as a genre (had been a musicians term for decades beforehand),and was generally a singles medium. This new Sly album showcased funk as an album medium-with many hard grooving and melodic songs with equally popular potential. Being so important to funk as he is,it’s amazing I’ve personally never covered Sly on Andresmusictalk so far.

Sylvester Stewart was an artist whom I know about long before knowing his name,or the name of his band. It started at 11 years old when recording songs off the radio during a time of schoolwork induced insomnia. That was when I first heard “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”. At the time,I personally had no idea what I hearing was funk. And despite having heard a lot of it before had didn’t even know what funk was. The song itself was released in December 1969 as a double A side single to “Everybody Is A Star”. Sly Stone was getting ready to start work on what would become There’s A Riot Goin’ On at the time. So this gave him a placeholder to again change the face of funk during the wait.

On the intro,Greg Errico’s peddling hit hat drumming plays second to Larry Graham’s bass line,which accompanies Freddie Stones  James Brown like rhythm guitar throughout the song. Here he pulled the strings away from the fingerboard for a deep,round tone. This became known as slap bass. It’ more the rhythmic foundation for this song than Errico’s drums as it’s mixed up higher. As the collective vocals of the group come in to sing the refrains,Cynthia Robinson and Jerry Martini’s horn lines play call and response to Larry’s bass and the vocals. They do so on the refrain by wiggling in pitch,and on the choruses in full on fanfare. These horns swell to the thickness of the bass line as the song fades out.

Lyrically speaking,this song is somewhat more weary than is usually associated with Sly’s 60’s output. He references his past hits and some of the paranoia that comes with big time show business. The title even seems to imply a whole phase of the Family Stone’s creativity has come to an end. The melody also showcases funk’s blues base more than the gospel/pop melodies of the bands previous hits. It’s Larry’s slap bass that’s the star of the show here. While this technique had already been used in rockabilly,the level of rhythmic thumping on this song allowed for the instrumental vocabulary of funk to be forever altered. As such this wound up being Sly’s final funk innovation of the 1960’s.

 

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Filed under 1960's, Cynthia Robinson, Freddie Stone, Funk, Greg Errico, horns, Jerry Martini, Larry Graham, rhythm guitar, slap bass, Sly & The Family Stone, Sly Stone, Uncategorized

Anatomy Of THE Groove: “Rainbow In Your Eyes” by Leon & Mary Russell

Leon Russell’s contributions to 70’s era black American music were extremely significant. Having been a strong session player with everyone from the B.B. King to Ray Charles, he began his solo career with a similar intent. His 1972 song “This Masquerade” became a major smash hit for George Benson four years later. And he got the Gap Band their first taste of recording as session players themselves on his 1974 album Stop All That Jazz.  As an artist who strongly understood the instrumental and compositional balance that exists in the musical eclecticism of the late 60’s an early 70’s, Russel entered the middle of the latter decade with a whole new creative outlook.

In 1976 Russel formed his own label called Paradise Records. Having already recognized (in a similar manner to Little Feat’s Lowell George) the linkage between his burgeoning southern rock style and the soul/funk/R&B/jazz spectrum, he wanted to further that approach in his own music. During that same year he wed the vocalist Mary McCreary. She had been a member of Sly & The Family Stone’s all female harmony backup group Little Sister during their early 70’s period. The new couple decided to musically collaborate. This culminated in their duet recording  The Wedding Album.  And it all lead right off with a song called “Rainbow In Your Eyes”.

It begins with Mary in a beautifully multi tracked, acapella vocalese duetting with herself in straight up gospel form. Right after this Leon kicks right in with a thick bluesy synthesizer accentuated with some higher pitched,ringing electronics. That same Clavinet like synth tone is the key rhythmic element to the song-right with the swinging drums of Teddy Jack Eddy. This maintains a close relationship with Russell’s melodicism throughout the song. He and Mary exchange each vocal phrase and on the refrains, they’re both in close harmony singing with the accompaniment of the bell like synthesizer sounding very similar to wedding bells.

For me this is one of the most beautiful examples of  Russell’s mid 70’s sound. It’s got a thick, grooving stomp about it. Leon’s Okie drawl and Mary’s deep,gospel belt  both work wonderfully as the pair sing about the inner strength their love will bring to each of them as people. Especially the powerful image of them as a creatively strong biracial couple in the post civil rights era South. And on a purely musical level, the melodies mix of sweet country/western flavors with the thick bluesy funkitivity of the instrumentation bought it to life. Al Jarreau thought so much of it he did  cover of the song on his sophomore album the very same year. It’s one of Leon Russell’s finest slices of funk in many ways.

 

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Filed under 1970's, acapella, country/soul, drums, Funk, Gap Band, George Benson, Leon Russell, Mary McCreary, Paradise Records, Sly & The Family Stone, synthesizer, Uncategorized