As strange as it may seem, Whitney Houston has been gone for five years as of yesterday. The tragedy of her and Bobby Brown’s only daughter Bobbi Kristina last year kept me away from writing about any of Whitney’s music on this blog. Of course with a good amount of time away from the negativity surrounding both of their passing bought Whitney’s positive musical triumphs back into perspective for me. Known primarily as a balladeer during the bulk of her career,the huge voiced singer continued to make quality comeback albums during the 90’s and early 2000’s whenever her personal situation allowed. By roughly 2004,even I had to admit she seemed to just disappear from the music scene.
In the late summer of 2009,Whitney burst back onto the scene with what turned out to be the final album she released in her lifetime. This album I Look To You was a very happy surprise for me having been recovering from the then recent passing of another 80’s era musical icon Michael Jackson. It was one of neo soul’s shinning stars in Alicia Keys and her then relatively new husband Swizz Beatz who really came through for Whitney on this album in terms of writing. And right at the beginning too because while the couple only appeared once here,it was a very memorable one at that. The result was “Million Dollar Bill”,a song that for me is one of Whitney’s musical triumphs of her latter days.
A fanfaring drum role starts off the songs 4/4 beat and accompanying chordal bass thumps. The refrain of the song features an elaborate drum solo that keeps putting itself in and out on the one with it’s brushing/cymbal work. It goes from subtle to right in your face right along with Whitney’s scaling,climactic vocals. The rhythm is kept going by a phase filtered Fender Rhodes electric piano right out of the Gamble & Huff school of mid 70’s uptempo Philly dance records. That keyboard solo occasionally takes on a higher,chiming tone on those more subtle moments. The instrumentation takes a total break for Whitney’s final chorus before closing out with a final burst of music and vocal power.
Actually this is one of my very favorite Whitney Houston songs ever. With her huge gospel/soul pipes, I always wondered why she didn’t tend to make uptempo songs a huge priority. Especially since she had so many excellent ones anyway. This song gave a modern production flavor to a classic disco era Philly uptempo dance groove. Especially with how Whitney’s go from nuanced to soul shouting right along with the drums-which themselves go from a light brushing sound to being heavier and higher up in the mix. It also shares a similar juxtaposition in tempo as Diana Ross’s “Love Hangover” as well. Take n on it’s own,it’s one of Whitney’s finest uptempo numbers.
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