Michael Jackson began the sessions for Off The Wall, his first solo album produced by Quincy Jones, with the idea that he wanted to separate his adult solo career from what he’d been doing with his brothers. This was a concept he’d already pursued on their previous album Destiny from one year earlier. Talking with my friend Henrique, the then current sound of Barry White interested MJ in 1979-his album The Man and its emphasis on live horns and strings. That is the direction he pursued on the finished album. Early on in the sessions however, the music MJ and Quincy were making was slightly different.
Of course, instrumentally the same West Lake studio crew that worked on this album also played on the Brothers Johnson’s Light Up The Night. That album was recorded during the same time as Off The Wall, but was released in 1980. So musicians such as Greg Phillinganes, Paulinho Da Costa, Jerry Hey, Rod Temperton and Toto’s Jeff Porcoro likely switched off from one album session to another. Since Light Up The Night has a more electronic flavor to its grooves, it doesn’t surprise me too much that an early song from the Off The Wall sessions has a similar flavor. And it was called “Sunset Driver”.
The intro features what sound like higher pitched synth horns followed along closely by the drum-beat by beat. The drums then settle into a straight up disco friendly dance beat pounding away. The melody is led by a thick polyphonic synthesizer, with a pumping synth bass underneath it. Chucking right along with it is a scratching wah wah guitar. On the refrains of the songs, the string arrangements ascend and descend with MJ’s vocals. On the choruses, the strings sustain along with the lead synth. On the bridge, the lead synth goes into a more descending pattern before an extended chorus fades out the song.
Upon hearing it shortly following MJ’s passing eight summers ago, “Sunset Driver” emerged as an unreleased song I had trouble placing into MJ’s vast recorded catalog. Its a lot closer to the post disco/boogie funk of a Brothers Johnson song such as “This Had To Be”. Especially with the synthesizer being a far more significant element than it had been on the final cut of Off The Wall. Still with MJ’s dialog near the end of the song saying “that’s it Jerry,that’s nice”, its clear now that this shows MJ in a different and cutting edge electronic dance/funk flavor at the beginning of his adult solo career.
Vernon Burch is a musical figure who is relatively obscure to me. Born in Washington DC, Burch is a guitarist whom its hard to find a great deal of personal information about. What could be found out about him was that he played with The Bar Kays during the time they recorded their Do You See What I See? album in 1972. He embarked on hissolo career starting in 1975-at first at United Artists and Columbia. He finally signed to Casablanca subsidiary Chocolate City in 1978,best known at the time as the label for funk stalwarts Cameo.
This was the disco era. And Burch’s place in music history was cemented in funk. In 1979,he released his second album for the label entitled Get Up. On the album he had arrangement help from Tom Tom 84 and funk icon Fred Wesley of the JB’s and P-Funk. Wesley arranged the horns on three of the songs on this disco funk album. While pursuing some of its songs on YouTube,one of these Fred Wesley arranged tunes leaped right out at me-for a number of different reasons both musical and otherwise. The name of the song is “Sammy-Joanne (One Half Woman,One Half Man)”.
A hard hitting disco beat from non other than James Gadson starts the song-along with a ticking keyboard from Michael Thompson. Burch’s rumbling,rocking guitar provides a string orchestra like effect as the intro slides into the main song-along with David N. Shields slap bass. As a descending synth and descending horns enter into it, the drum/ rhythm guitar/Clavinet/slap bass interaction all lock in for the refrain of the song. The stripped down bass/drum/synth sound of the intro provides the chorus. A bluesy guitar solo from Burch on the bridge extends into an extended,fading refrain.
“Sammy-Joanne” is a hard driving stomper- a perfect example of a funk song functioning as disco. What surprised me in the song is how it focused on a healthier and perhaps less hedonistic aspect of the disco era. The Sammy-Joanne character in the song is a hermaphrodite who finds acceptance and love as an implied transgender’ disco dancer. The character is celebrated,not made fun of and hated. And with gender related matters being a strangely controversial matter in 2017, this 1979 song celebrates sexual difference with some of the most funkified disco-dance music possible.
Airto Guimorvan Moreira almost seemed to have had a nearly innate sense of creativity. Raised in several different parts of Brazil by a family of folk healers, he was a professional musician by the time he just entered his early adolescence. After playing with Hermeto Pascal as a percussionist in the mid to late 60’s, he followed his wife (the vocalist Flora Purim) to the US. While there, his percussion sound became one of the building blocks of jazz rock fusion. In particular it most Latin end. His recordings with Miles Davis,Joe Zawinul,George Duke and Cannonball Adderley are now iconic.
Airto began his career as a band leader in the year 1970. And was fortunate enough to have released a brand new studio album every year until 1979. That and in between his many collaborations-including those with wife Flora Purim. That final album of the 1970’s was entitled Touching You,Touching Me. It wasn’t the most common album to find until the Wounded Bird label reissued it on CD several years ago. As with all the Airto albums I’ve heard, the album has a very high respect for musical quality. One song I truly love on it is a remake of Azymuth’s “Toque De Cuica”.
Airto’s percussion and Pete Bunetta’s drums start out the Brazilian disco funk rhythm the begins the song-with George Duke’s Clavinet, Marcos Valle’s Fender Rhodes, Bayete’s rhythmic piano and Alphonso Johnson’s bass all playing call and response with both the melody and rhythm. That rhythm changes to an elaborate series of funk patterns for the chorus and its B section-with Airto scatting fast and then slow-bringing in former Rufus member Al Ciner on guitar. After a couple of bridges echoing the intro, the first section of the chorus plays between percussive breaks until the song comes to an end.
Airto’s version of this song is an extremely complex one rhythmically. Took the time to listen to Azymuth’s original 1977 version entitled “Tamborim Cuíca Ganza Berimbau” and their version has more of a bossa fusion atmosphere. Its a good song for sure from both. Airto brings another whole energy to the song. And its generally the passion of the excellent players who joined him for it on this album. Its one of a handful of songs on the Touching You, Touching Me album that leaped right out in terms of rhythm and melody. And is one of many dozens of superb examples of Airto’s amazing artistry.
The Tavares are a group I’ve seen albums by in so many budget vinyl bins over the years, I didn’t have much context of their significance in the soul/R&B/funk world. Perhaps on their records being so common in Maine is a matter of geography. This New England based group from New Bedford, Massachusetts got their start as different incarnations of The Turnpikes. Along the way,that group attracted future musicians such as Aerosmith’s drummer Joey Kramer and P-Funk/Talking Heads icon the late,great Bernie Worrell. By 1973, the five Tavares brothers alone signed to Capitol for a succession of R&B smashes.
One member of the group Butch Taveres is turning 69 this year. And so far,the only music I am all that aware of them for is their participation in the blockbuster Saturday Night Fever soundtrack-in that case covering The Bee Gee’s composition “More Than A Woman”. For some reason,always associated the singing siblings as being primarily based in slow jam ballads and Philly style disco songs. But just yesterday,I learned they had a far funkier side that showed up on the final song of their 1979 album Madam Butterfly entitled “I’m Back For More”.
A slow shuffling drum,bluesy filtered Fender Rhodes piano and a snarling,jazzy bass walk accompanies the harmonies of the Tavares along with horn and string accents on the intro alone. During the refrains of the song,its the drums,Rhodes and strings that carry the song along with the groups close and often jazzy harmonies. On the earlier bars of each refrain statement,the drum kicks up a bit more than shuffles. On the latter choruses,a wah wah guitar joins the musical mix. On the final choruses,the horn charts take presidents with the groups call and response exchanges as it fades out.
“I’m Back For More” brings to mind the feeling of three songs that define the funkiest side of the disco era for me. It has the rhythmic and horn/string cadence of Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby”,the jazzy keyboards and swagger of Edgar Winter’s “Do What” from 1979 and a melodic element similar to Toto’s “Georgie Porgy” from a year earlier. Its the type of song that bridges disco,funk and classic harmony vocal based 70’s soul with such a strutting,funky yet laid back kind of groove. Cannot think of a better song to pay tribute to Butch Tavares with,personally.
Captain & Tennille were a pop act that defined the late 70’s. They mixed singable,radio friendly melodies with a keyboard based sound. Daryl Dragaon was a former LA surf musician and keyboardist for the Beach Boys in their early 70’s. Toni Tennille-native of Montgomery Alabama,she attended Auburn University there and studied classical piano. After her family moved to California,Tennille was commissioned to write music for a rock musical called Mother Earth. It was on tour with this production in San Francisco that she met her future husband/musical partner Daryl Dragon.
Their first and most iconic song was the Neil Sedaka penned “Love Will Keep Us Together” in 1976. One thing I’ve realized over the years is how much talent Tennille possesses as a composer and vocalist-with her elaborate melodies and soulful belt of a voice. By the end of the 70’s,the Captain & Tennille arrived at Casablanca records-to pursue a more soulful,funky sound. One of the songs from their 1979 album Make Your Move reflected this. It was their version of the song Crusader Stix Hooper penned for B.B King called “Never Make A Move Too Soon”.
The sounds of a small nightclub audience opens up the album just before Ralph Humphrey’s five not,percussive drum kickoff chimes in. That along with Abraham Laboriel’s thick,spacious five note slap bass riff. Dragon’s organ like keyboards accent this before the first bars of the song begins. It starts out with a stripped out funky dance drum stomp with the bass hitting the end of every bar. It builds into a bigger mix with a consistent slap bass line,organ and horns. These horns accompany Dragon’s synthesizer solo on the bridge before a repeated refrain closes out the song with huge horn fanfare.
‘Never Make Your Move Too Soon” is a superb example of a sleek blues/funk stomp in the late 70’s. And from a group associated with big pop smash hits such as the ballad “Do It To Me One More Time”,featured on this same album as well. Tennille delivers this sassy tale of a gold digging male lover with the entire female equivalent of the thick vocal growl that B.B. King had brought to the original recording. The fact that this and its 1980 followup Keeping Our Love Warm was a full on contemporary soul/funk album made one wonder where this duo might’ve gone in continuing in this new musical direction.
Freddie Hubbard was one of the most important trumpet players of the post bop era. His many interactions in music had him involved with some of the most important developments in jazz throughout the 60’s and 70’s. Running from playing with Wayne Shorter,replacing Lee Morgan in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and beginning to lead his own groups. One of his best known works is 1970’s Red Clay-not only his first for the CTI label but the very first release Creed Taylor’s label ever put out. After several successful releases there,Hubbard began recording for Columbia.
Hubbard’s most famous album from his post bop period is Ready For Freddie from 1961. And so far,the only Freddie Hubbard album I have in any format. He’s an artist I’ve heard many times,but neglected just as much in terms of album purchases. He actually made some amazing contributions to the jazz-funk genre in the 70’s as well. That’s especially true for his mid to late 70’s Columbia albums. Always playing along with the best musicians of the era,one perhaps unsung example of Hubbard’s music in this period is the epic title song for his final Columbia album from 1979 entitled Skagly.
Hubbard,saxophonist Hadley Caliman and trombonist Phil Ranelin start this song out with a bluesy horn fanfare-with drummer Carl Burnett marching right to their beat. Burnett and percussionist Paulinho Da Costa then set up a Latin funk rhythm wherein Hubbard, guitarist Jeff Skunk Baxter, bassist Larry Klein, Billy Child’s Fender Rhodes and George Duke’s Clavinet all exchange a think rhythmic interplay together. Hubbard goes on an extended 8+ minute solo-expanding in melodic intensity and loudness before solos from Klein and Baxter lead up to the fanfare brings it all to an abrupt stop.
“Skagly” is a wonderful long form example of hard pop horn solos playing along with strong,live band jazz/funk interplay. George Duke and drummer Carl Burnett in particular knew exactly the kind of rhythmic environment that would be both jazzy and funky enough for Hubbard to literally blow his horn over. Its definitely Hubbard’s show in terms of the solo,and nobody playing on this song ever forgets that. That may be way it is so live band oriented and less electronic than much jazz/funk of the time. That gives the song a certain distinction as late 70’s jazz/funk built heavily around a trumpet solo.
Prince is an artist whose history really fascinated me. Up until the age of 16,I was so ignorant of Prince’s history that I actually thought his career started with “1999”. It was amazing for me to learn that Prince’s recording career began in the late 70’s. Not only that,but that it still had a sound that was recognizably his own. Over the years,this late 70’s period for Prince has become a personal favorite. One that I really enjoy discussing. One of the most important things about this era was that,even in a crowded funk/soul environment,Prince got his first major crossover hit before the 70’s decade ended.
Prince first hit single “Soft And Wet”. This was rooted squarely in funk and commercially ,it landed pretty much within the R&B Top 20. But just barely crossed over to the pop listener. And as the very prejudiced anti disco movement began to gain footing in 1979,both Prince and Warner Bros understanding crossover would be necessary for his career at that point. So the solution would to find a way to create a song with heavy pop structure that would still maintain Prince’s homegrown funkiness. The solution was in his first R&B #1 and pop Top 20 hit in “I Wanna Be Your Lover”.
A pounding snare drum kick kicks off the song. For the first 2 1/2 minutes of this song,the refrain consists of a deep rhythm guitar playing on one bright,melodic chord. A high toned and bass synthesizer back this up along with the drums. On the choruses,a string synthesizer plays harmony to this. After a space funk synth on the final chorus,the song goes into a 3 minute instrumental section. This section brings in a high bass line playing a funk riff high in the mix over a similar synth backdrop. Then a higher synth brass part comes in-occasionally accompanying only the drums before the song fades out.
The first time I heard “I Wanna Be Your Lover” was the single edit,which is basically the vocal oriented first 2:50 minutes of the song. The version on Prince’s self titled 1979 album is a 5+ version that predominantly emphasizes the final instrumental section of the song. The entirety of the song is very funky. Its also where Prince was able to harness the stripped down,loose jamming funkiness that defined his debut album while introducing it with a strong sense of song craft. An element that could sung and hum. That makes “I Wanna Be Your Lover” perhaps the most important song Prince recorded in the 70’s.
Filed under 1979, crossover, drums, Minneapolis, Minneapolis Sound, naked funk, Prince, rhythm guitar, synth bass, synth brass, synthesizer, Warner Bros.
Prince really did create a technical and musical marvel with his debut album For You. Still out of Prince’s two albums of the late 1970’s,its his second self titled effort that proved to be his commercial breakthrough. That is in the sense he had a tremendous hit with it. That hit was “I Wanna Be Your Lover”. This was late 70’s sophistifunk at its sauciest-with a sleek groove that’s both sweetly melodic,but has a full on chunky bass/guitar groove about it. It started off this album. And its also the song that many mainstream pop music listeners pre 1980 might cite as the very first Prince they’d remember hearing.
I first became aware of this record through a handful of its songs making the cute of Prince’s first anthology set The Hits/B-Sides. So its probably best to discuss those songs first. “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad” is a very mainstream rock tune with some glistening,melodic power chords from Prince on this song written by Andre’ Cymone. The other is a classic Prince one man band version of “I Feel For You”. This is the first version I heard. And due to that reason,much as I love Chaka Khan’s far more famous cover,that’s pretty much its own thing next to this version.
Whats so interesting about this album for me is 3/4 of it is slow ballad oriented. When I first picked up the CD pre-owned,all there was to listen to CD’s were undependable bar code scanners some stores had. So it was a surprised that some songs such as “When We’re Dancing Close And Slow” and “Still Waiting” were rather country western/pop flavored ballads. “With You” has a 1950’s doo wop flavor to its slow ballad flavor. Of the slow songs on the album,my personal favorite is “It’s Gonna Be Lonely”-which has a then contemporary progressive soft rock flavor about it with its processed guitar reverb.
My favorite song on this album of course is “Sexy Dancer”. This is almost an instrumental. Prince’s panting becomes a percussive element to this lean,mean bass/guitar extravaganza that points to Prince’s signature early 80’s funk sound. Not to mention the jazzy Yamaha electric piano solo he takes on the bridge. “Bambi” is the other rocker here. This is a crunching hard rock number too. The focus of the song is on Prince having a crush on a woman who turns out to be a lesbian-spending the chorus trying to convince her “its better with a man”-seemingly for his own physical benefit only.
In the end,I have to agree with Prince on this album. It served its function very well in getting more people interested in his music. And as he implied,it did what it he intended it to do by featuring some strands of late 70’s pop music. On the other hand,Prince’s frank take on the sexual revolution of disco era and the albums general emphasis on funk made it clear the type of musician Prince would be. He would make melodies,rock out but never totally give up on the funk. In as much as it laid the blueprint for his commercial approach of the early 80’s,this album is a very significant one for Prince.