Bill Withers is certainly an artist I’ve grown with. Especially his non hit material, which never ceases to be wonderful to hear. And is often extremely funky too. In 1978 he released his final album of the decade ‘Bout Love’. It featured on it a song that I first heard recorded and sung by Herb Alpert on his Rise album a year later. When I first heard Wither’s version, it was a bit surprising he’d actually wrote it. As hadn’t paid proper attention to Alpert’ personnel credits. Still its the exact song I’d want to project for this Valentines Day-especially in America. The song is entitled “Love Is”.
Keni Burke of the Five Stairsteps gets the medium paced beat of Russel Kunkel going off with a heavy, rhythmic slap bass riff. Paul Smith adds a high pitched Clavinet (or Clavinet like keyboard) into the mix before the strings and horns kick in playing the main melody along with Withers’ voice. There’s a bridge where the bass and strings scale up before the song essentially builds back up from where it started-with everything building up from a milder sound to a more theatrical one. After another such scaled up refrain, that same pattern builds back up for a third time before the songs finally fades out on itself.
“Love Is” has both the structure of a funk song right on the one musically-with a gospel/folk like chorus-on-chorus melodic content. The funk is assured by Burke’s Larry Graham like slap bass and the overall Sly Stone type groove-mixed in with a healthy dose of disco era lushness with the horns and strings. Wither’s own guitar also plays a wonderfully supplementary role alongside Burke’s bass-especially with its bluesy drawl. Lyrically the call and response lyrics-alternately illustrating both love’s basics and more complex tenants are another aspect of why I love this song.
Holiday’s can be beloved, despised or even abandoned. Depending on the social and political atmosphere of the given time period. Valentine’s Day can be difficult even for those who generally love holidays. Bill Withers song here speaks a good message to such a situation. Suppose that when times of love for one’s individual self seems lacking? Or if someone is unlucky enough to be without love in a somewhat loveless community? Using romantic love as a worldly concept FOR community, empathy, caring and/or spirituality is one of the most positive things a soulful, funky song can offer. Happy Valentines Day!
Rick James always seemed destined to have a career at Motown. From his work with the Myna Birds to being a member of the staff writing there. He had spent much of the 70’s a musical gypsy-recording a few records and performing with a few different rock bands during the decade before decamping back to Buffalo and forming the Stone City Band. He then returned to the record label that had seemed to provide a strong sense of security for him as an artist/band leader in 1977. And they dropped this debut album the following April of 1978.
“Stone City Band,Hi” opens the album with a live recording that adds a strong P-Funk horn based hump to it. “You And I” starts off with a rhythm guitar groove that swings into a full blown orchestrated female vocal gospel/disco chorus before going into a 7+ clavinet driven fast funk groove with some harmonically fluid jazz guitar accents by final refrains. “Sexy Lady” deals with a polished and precise jazz-funk number with a strong West Coast vibe about it. “Dream Maker” hearkens back to Rick’s doo-wop days with it’s spoken intro and piano based soul ballad shuffle.
“Be My Lady” is another melodically bright mix of bass/guitar/horn oriented funk with the disco beat and “woo hoo” chants. “Mary Jane” begins with an arena style guitar thump and orchestral synthesizer before going into a stripped down jazzy soul-pop ballad with a lyric that could be taken (in it’s time) in two different ways. “Hollywood” starts out as a tender ballad about Rick saying goodbye to his family, while leaving behind the ghetto environment he feels might destroy him, before ending on a reggae style coda. The album concludes with a reprise of the title song.
When I first got this album on vinyl, I remember not caring for it too much. Hearing it fresh today on CD helps me realize what a strong debut this really is. The steely punk funk sound Rick James would develop isn’t as evident on this album. He’s very much a live band styled funk/soul brother on this album-with little concern for crossover anymore than doing so on his own musical terms. Stone City Band were a strong outfit too-with a big band funk style that can switch years between monster humps and lush disco friendly sounds. An excellent debut from an artist and band still getting their legs.
James Mtume almost seemed to be born into the royal family of funk. Everything seemed to come into place for it. He was born in Philly as the son of jazz sax icon Jimmy Heath. He went on to play with Miles Davis during the last few years before Miles’ late 70’s retirement period. That combination of being a Philadelphia native and having a strong back round is usually the key ingredients in a recipe for a funk icon. At first,Mtume had his mind on athletics. He achieved the title of the first black Middle Atlantic AAU champion in the backstroke, and in 1966 he entered Pasadena City College on a swimming scholarship.
After learning about music somewhat through the jazz musicians coming in and out of his adopted father,local Philly jazz pianist James “Hen Gates” Foreman,he had the abilities as a musician to begin his career as a session player on the West Coast by the early 70’s. He recorded a couple of albums as a leader.. These were both in a more free jazz style. In 1978 he’d teamed up with percussionist/arranger/producer Reggie Lucus and formed the funk outfit Mtume. They would hit pay dirt with 1983’s sexy “Juicy Fruit”. Yet one of their most telling grooves is the title song of their 1978 debut album Kiss The World Goodbye.
The drum kicks off the slow,percussive crawl of the rhythm for starts. A grinding guitar plays a funky blues riff that swiftly dovetails into another guitar line-this one a amp’d up rock one. This is assisted by some incredibly phat popping bass playing a lower version of the first guitar riff. This is the main body of the song-one that relies heavily on the one. As the song progresses,these main rhythmic elements are accented by both horn charts and synthesizer squiggles on every other chord or so. And this is how the groove goes on until it all fades out.
Taken as itself,this song is not only a great way for Mtume to debut as a band concept. But it is also so far removed from the electro/boogie sound they’d be known for 6-7 years later that is really showcases their musical arc. Mtume actually had four year gap from 1980 to 1983 where they didn’t record anything. But on this 1978 song,their focus was not only based more in the funk/rock aesthetics of Funkadelic,Ohio Players and Slave but the arrangement on this is especially thick. The instrumentation is so closely mixed,this song is among the most musically dense hard funk of the late 70’s.
Eric Gale started to teach himself guitar in his native Brooklyn at the age of 12. He played on the R&B circuit with acts such as King Curtis, Maxine Brown and Little Anthony & The Imperials. This laid the ground work for his future as a session great. While at Niagra University, he studied chemistry. The music bug never left Gale however. His major claim to fame was as a session ace during the 60’s and 70’s. As a member of the instrumental jazz funk outfit Stuff, Gale played with Paul Simon in 1980 for his One Trick Pony soundtrack. He was also part of Aretha Franklin’s stage band for a time.
He began a concurrent career as a leader with 1973’s Forecast, on the Kudu label. He recorded the bulk of his late 70’s albums on Columbia however. His first two albums on the label were Ginseng Woman in 1977 and Multiplication the following year. Both albums have been combined together at least twice during the CD era. And were recommended to me by my dad while crate digging. Revisiting some of the songs via YouTube, the song that really stood out uppermost in my head with the title song to the Multiplication album.
Andrew Smith’s jazzy march on drums starts out the groove-with Gale’s ringing guitar improvising along with Bob James’ synths and Alphonso Johnson’s exploratory bass line-starting the groove in a dreamy fashion. Then the horns kick into the groove with Gale playing an ever evolving, down home blues type solo while Richard Tee’s piano and organ join the rhythm section in holding up a soulful groove. All with the horns accenting the changes in key on virtually every chorus and refrain. Its on the closing extended chorus that Gale scales down on his guitar solo as the song itself fades out.
“Multiplication” is an excellent example of ace jazz/funk/rock/fusion session musicians bring a wonderful feeling to their grooves. Sometimes, albums made by session players are thought to be too technical and less human. Gale, Johnson, Jackson, James and Tee’s years of experience playing together really give this groove a great late 70’s jazz/funk version of the uptown, bluesy/soul nightclub musical ethic. And its Gale’s fluid playing style and rich, ballsy tone that lead the way with grooves of this particular type. Basically a theme he’d always variate on as a band leader.
Billy Joel is at the core of how I tend to relate to pop/rock music. A Bronx native, Joel’s music career was less inspired by his father being a classically trained pianist than in his mother pushing him into taking piano lessons. This cost him the credits to graduate from high school-playing in a piano bar just a bit too long so it seems-trying to earn money to support his family. He eventually joined up with a band called The Hassles. He and the bands drummer Jon Small ended up forming Atilla and releasing one album in 1970. After the duo broke up,he began his solo career with the 1971 album Cold Spring Harbor.
As his music developed,particularly after early hits such as “Piano Man” and “Captain Jack” after being signed to Columbia,Joel’s sound began to take on even stronger elements of the Broadway show tune and pre rock jazz styled pop that had always been an influence on him. This culminated in his 1977 release The Stranger,produced by the late Phil Ramone. Its followup 52 Street was part of my moms 8 track collection. And upped the jazz influences even higher. One song from the album that stood out for me on that particular musical end is a tune called “Zanzibar”.
After an opening piano flourish, Joel is dueting with himself on both a melodic and a bass piano arpeggio-with Liberty DeVito’s drums keeping in time with the rhythmic piano for the refrains. Dancing around this are a high electric piano and round bass line. The chorus returns to the more rhythmic piano style and bursts of rock guitar from Steve Khan. Joel duets with piano and a backwards keyboard loop before the bridge goes into a straight swinging bop jazz arrangement with Freddie Hubbard soloing on flugelhorn and trumpet. After a choral/refrain repeat,this swinging solo fades out the song as well.
After hearing this song enough for so many years, it has a quality of the progressive jazz rock being done by both Gino Vannelli and Steely Dan during the late 70’s. That Steely Dan influence-especially Hubbard’s trumpet solo,has been discussed by many people. Joel’s elaborate melodicism and way with a strong,funky rhythmic groove also maintained the Steely Dan like cryptic lyric regarding trying to pick up a sexy waitress at a sports bar. It also showcases,with both its writing and choice of musicians, how funky and soulful an artist like Billy Joel can be with a strong jazz base to their musical sound.
Giorgio Moroder first came to my attention through his productions with Donna Summer. Most notably his 1977 triumph “I Feel Love”. This heralded in the electronic space disco sound. And also,along with Kraftwerk,began the re-writing of the book for dance music in the decade to come. He came from a mixed Italian/German back round, and began releasing singles from the early 60’s to the early 70’s under the name Giorgio. Most notable of these was 1972’s Son Of My Father. A few of these songs being used in a film showcased Moroder’s future direction: as a king of the electronic soundtrack.
Moroder was a very busy man from 1976 to 1979. In addition to working with Summer along with lyricist Pete Bellote out of Munich,Germany he was also continuing his film scoring work. One protege he began working with during these years was fellow early electronic musician Harold Faltemeyer. He would later achieve a cinematic success of his own with his 1984 theme song to the Eddie Murphy vehicle Beverley Hills Cop with “Axel F”. Faltemeyer’s first taste of musical success came in collaboration with Moroder on the hit single from their soundtrack to the 1978 film Midnight Express called “Chase”.
A sequenced synth bass (a Moroder musical trademark) starts off the song-along with synth string orchestration using an echoed flanging effect. There’s also a pretty straight lead synth melody. After a few bars of this,the melody reduces down to the 4/4 drums,the bass sequencer and a series of clicking and clanging rhythmic percussion sounds. Than the synth strings slowly build back in for several more bars. After the song reduces to the drum and sequencer again,the main melodic synth plays a more involved melody before the song fades back out on several more bars of its own chorus.
“Chase” has become one of Giorgio Moroder’s signature pieces of music. Structurally the song mixes rhythmic and melodic elements of American funk and European classical music into a song that embodies the very sound of electronic/space Euro disco. Its far more stripped down and stylized than the contemporary EDM. So much so that during the height of EDM about a decade ago,the paranormal/conspiracy theory based radio show Coast to Coast AM used it as its theme song. Basically, this is one of a handful of electronic disco numbers in 1977/78 that pointed to totally to the future.
Chaka Khan hit yet another personal rough patch last year so it seems. Thought she had to cancel her concert tour to re-enter rehab,she has reached 64 without succumbing to last years “funkapocalypse” of musical artists deaths. Though her solo career has been an amazing progression,there will always be something a bit magical to me about her grooves with Rufus. Especially in the mid 70’s to early 80’s. The scope of evolution from their blues/rock oriented early sound to a uniquely produced jazzy funk sound in their later years really came into focus on their 1978-just prior to Chaka going solo. The name of that album was Street Player.
This album marked the moment when David “Hawk” Wolinski became an official member of the band. And their one and only album featuring Andre Fischer’s successor in drummer Richard “Moon” Calhoun. This is not a story about this album however. Its about being in my town of birth-Waterville,Maine. And visiting a record store there with my boyfriend Scott called Record Connection. This record store is somewhat nationally famous so it seems. And between its full priced records and dollar bin vinyl,there is always something unique to be found at this place.
Whilst visiting there last time,I found a copy of Street Player on vinyl for 4 bucks. I had a CD copy but the cover had gone missing and I always loved the gate fold of the band playing B-ball. Upon getting the album out into my mom’s car,I found something very exciting. It was a press kit filled with official promo photos and information sheets. It revealed an amazing on the spot type history of Rufus,Chaka Khan and their musical position by the late 70’s. For Chaka’s birthday celebration,I’m going to post this material here to speak for itself in regard to the band,its perceptions and those of their record label.
-Happy 64th birthday CK!
Hamilton Bohannon is one of the key figures with me in getting into funk. Starting out as a school teacher,he eventually became a drummer for Little Stevie Wonder’s touring band in 1964. After moving to Detroit in 1967,his band The Motown Sound provided a similar function to The Funk Brothers-backing up many of Motown’s major acts. When the label moved to LA,Bohannon stayed behind and formed his own group. His name became part of the Talking Head spinoff Tom Tom Club’s 1981 hit “Genius Of Love”-chanted rhythmically on the bridge of the song.
Where Bohannon,whose turning 74 today,came into my musical orbit was via the Best Of Funk Essentials compilation that introduced me to funkiness as a musical genre. It was a song that took me totally by surprise then. And even 22 years later,it still has a similar effect. Last year,I located a used vinyl copy of Bohannon’s 1978 album Summertime Groove. Part of the reason was because I knew that that song was on it. And funk is something I’ve learned to look for in its original album context. Its a heavily funkified album throughout. But still,it just bursts out of the box with “Let’s Start The Dance”.
Bohannon himself kicks right into gear from the start. The majority of the song is a high octane dance groove with the drums and its many fills up high in the mix. The rhythm consists of a high pitched rhythm guitar,a Clavinet playing the melodic accents and a jazzy bass line playing across two octaves. Each choral section is split by refrains featuring Bohannon’s flamboyant break beats-as the guitar plays some of the most rubbery chicken scratch rhythms around. The second chorus gets started with a revved up,rocking guitar part before the Clavinet takes more of a role in the mix before the song fades.
“Let’s Start The Dance” is a superb example of how of hard funk where all the instrumentation and vocals are extremely high key in sound. Even the melodic instrumental parts are projecting the same rhythmic flamboyance as everything else in the song. The result is punishing,super heavy funk that was recorded during the height of the disco era. The powerful gospel belt of Caroline Crawford on the refrains,along the drum breaks/chicken scratch guitar really become the defining moment of this song even after all these years. One which makes this a true late 70’s funk classic.