Tag Archives: 1980’s

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Skatin'” by Deodato

Deodato was one of the first major artists I had a experiences with during my early crate digging exercises. So much so that looking back, I wonder if the people in charge of stocking their 50 cent-$1 used vinyl bins had any idea who Eumir Deodato was. The history of this artist is something I thoroughly addressed last year with an overview of his 1978 song “Area Code 808”. This year, wanted to share a song connected to a one of these crate digging sessions that occurred in the early 2000’s. One that really taught me how to better scope out vinyl.

About 14 years ago, I was visiting the city of Portland Maine with my family. We found a new shop there-one we often still visit to this day. Its called Strange Maine. They sell old video games,books,movies and used vinyl. On the first visit,the store had a sizable jazz section. Flipping through it, I came across a 1980 Deodato album called Night Cruiser. Upon turning it over, the back cover proclaimed it featured a sax solo from Khalis Bayyan. Which made sense since Deodato was producing Kool & The Gang at the time. The song on the album that leaped out at me upon hearing it is called “Skatin'”.

A slow dragging 4/4 beat starts off the song with a flange filtered slap bass line and processed Fender Rhodes as the intro. The high pitched rhythm guitar joins in halfway through-with the scaling up strings getting into the main chorus. This showcases the rhythm section of the intro with a horn like synthesizer playing the leads. On the refrain,an ascending synth bass provides the backup to a melodic trumpet solo and string synthesizer.  As each chorus goes on,the lead synth becomes more bell like in tone. Even the pitch of the song goes up on the last chorus before it fades out.

“Skatin'” is a song that truly plays up to both Deodato’s talents as both a funky musician and a cinematic,melodic arranger. This was a mixture that extended from the blacksploitation soundtrack to the extended disco mix. Its surely a disco era song if there ever was one. At the same time,the groove is slowed down to give it a deeply funkified crawl. And the fact that the song is as driven as much by a punched up slap bass as well as string and horn orchestrations makes this as strutting a jazz funk jam as The Crusaders “Street Life” in a way. Very much an unsung musical treasure from Deodato.

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Mystery Boy” by Culture Club

Culture Club are not only one of my personal favorite bands of the early 80’s. But also considered by many to be representative of the music of that period as a whole. It was formed around the occasional Bow Wow Wow singer George “Boy George” O’Dowd. The rest of the quartet included multi instrumentalists Roy Hay, Mickey Craig and Jon Moss. The conception of the band was a very funk friendly one-to bring in elements of different world musics with Western pop to create meaningful,danceable grooves. It was another element of the group that caught the worlds attention at the time a but more.

Dolled out in Kabuki makeup,flamboyantly colorful clothes and embroidered braided hair Boy George’s image,while likely reflecting the bands multi cultural musical sound to a degree,became controversial due to the openly gay George’s in your face attitude about his sexuality. He refused to hide the fact he was singing about men (perhaps his then boyfriend Moss) in his romantic songs. And flaunted his image with a nudge and swagger. The band were one of the most successful of their time. One of my favorite songs by them was actually a very early one from 1982 entitled “Mystery Boy”.

A pounding 4/4 beat with ringing,Brazilian percussion accents starts out the song-along with the high chicken scratch rhythm guitar that creates the base of the entire groove. The drum turns into a round drum machine for the rest of the song-with the rhythm guitar,vocals and pulsing synth bass-accented by a heavy heavily modulated synth horn. On the refrain,the keyboard sound is bright and more melodic while the rhythm guitar rolls along more. On the refrain,the music breaks down to the synth bass,drums, percussion and modulated synth-gradually building back into the chorus as it fades out.

Culture Club had some amazing soul/Latin/disco/funk tinged pop hits that defined them such as “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me”, “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya”, “Time (Clock Of The Heart”, “Miss Me Blind”, “Its A Miracle”, “Karma Chameleon” and “The War Song”-often with the accompaniment of big voiced female singer Helen Terry. “Mystery Boy”,which I originally heard as a B-side to my parents 45 of Culture Club’s “Church Of The Poison Mind”. Its a more brittle,driving post disco/boogie funk/New Romantic type song. And every element of the song kept the groove and melody percolating at the same time.

“Mystery Boy” also had its origins in a song originally composed for a Japanese TV commercial for Suntori Hot Whiskey. It just used the music however,the lyrics were originally written purely to sell the products. Some of the lyrics to the song remind of gay people in England in the 70’s and 80’s often referred to each other as “boy and girl”. With George not quite becoming quite so specific in referring to men just yet. In the end “Mystery Boy” showcases not only Culture Club’s funkiness but also their high enough musical quality to produce hit worthy non album tracks.

 

 

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‘Rio’@35: Duran Duran Do It There Own Way With A New Wave Religion

Rio

Duran Duran are perhaps my favorite of the new wave/synth pop bands of the 1980’s. Although my first experience hearing them new was via the song “Notorious”,their 1982 album Rio was unavoidable throughout the 80’s. Especially having access to any show that aired music videos. And that leads as to why Duran Duran were such an important band in the 1980’s. For one,though Australian,they were part of a second “British Invasion” during the new wave era. For another,they were able to mix style and substance in a time where music began to require strong visual appeal.

Henrique and I both share a love of Duran Duran and the Rio album. One part of this relates to the visual nature of it all-in particular the art deco style album cover as painted by Malcolm Garrett. The major part of the of it for us is how this album relates to the musical changes of the early 80’s. There may have been an anti disco radio freeze out in the states. But the bands bassist John Taylor discussed that his main inspiration during the time Rio was recorded was Chic’s Bernard Edwards. So as such,the entire musical sound of the album is a direct decedent of the funkiest end of American disco.

The grooves on all the songs on this album are equally as strong and vital as its melodies and vocals. The major hit songs such as “Hungry Like The Wolf” and the opening title song defined their sound using call and response reverbed rock guitars and arpeggiated Jupiter 8 synthesizer, the latter a then very new instrument. It helped create the pop sound of that era on that level. Several years ago,I did a review of the album on Amazon.com that went a bit further into Rio‘s relation to disco and funk. So would like re-post it here as part of this overview.


1982 was a very interesting year for pop music development in that decade as well as it was for Duran Duran. Their self titled debut album was already out and that was just mildly tentative looking back. And one of the reasons that first album seems that way is because of this. Many times a bands second release is a huge step up for them but,as if their first album wasn’t that strong (it was very good in many ways) this album was so potent it almost seemed like the work of another band entirely. One of the main differences here is that the bands rhythmic priorities had completely changed.

Whereas the album tracks on the first album favored an ambient electronica flavor this album went right for heavy funk polyrhythms,percussion effects and some of the most harmonically complex synthesizer riffs courtesy of Nick Rhodes. This is not only their breakthrough album but was great for the band as a whole because on every song on this album you get to see how incredible these guys are as musicians. John Taylor is one of the funkiest bass players in the new romantic movement after Mark King and every single one of these songs are percolating with his emotionally charged and varied bass lines

That goes from high to fret-less tone,onto slapping and walking lines: they guy puts it all into the music and it clicks appropriately with whatever song it’s accompanying. The first four songs on the album,including the mega hit title track and of course “Hungry Like The Wolf” are an example of the heavily Chic/ABC style funkiness this band appropriated for it’s own uniquely flavored sound not to mention the potency of “My Own Way” and “Lonely In Your Nightmare” where John’s bass lines get free reign to leap up and down where they want.

Personally these guys may have been young and full of it but lyrically (as well as musically) they certainly had a smart minded wit and imagination that would make Nile Rodgers proud. On “Hold Back The Rain” and “Last Chance On The Stairway” there is something of a poppy variation of the rock/funk sound,even if lighter on the jazz influence of Stanley Clarke’s School Days era that Level 42 dealt with too and Duran Duran put their complex pop style melodies with these songs. Every song here is brimming with melodic and harmony ideas you wouldn’t believe and that’s probably why it’s so popular.

It’s an excellent example of intelligently thought out and funky 80’s pop and yes: intelligence and funk usually HAVE to go together to make it all work out in that genre of music. The hit “Save A Prayer” is a pop song that does have a mildly more pronounced jazz influence with these unusually chorded synthesizers and harmonics as the same goes for “New Religion” and the pocket symphony of the closing “The Chauffeur”. Unfairly dismissed as being too easy an 80’s pop throwback for years this album has continually reasserted it’s strong musical values,as well as it’s sense of flair and invention that goes into the very best of pop music of any sub genre in any era.


Three and a half decades after the fact,Rio began a precedence for how pop music would present itself to present day. Decades of “replicative fading” with pop music hopefuls attempting to recreate this mixture of synth based funky rock mixed with fantastical musical videos,which is now the mainstream,has thankfully not take anything away from what made this album so strong.  The album was so much the opposite of a sophomore slump that the bands self titled 1981 debut,at first unsuccessful in the US, was reissued after Rio’s success and succeeded off the heels of it.

With its post punk and disco/funk influences still being so close in time period to it, Rio managed to pull together everything the late 70’s indicated 80’s music would go. And where it would continue to go after it. Because the most creatively successful music of the 2010’s has been the synth/new wave based nu-funk/boogie/disco spectrum, Rio also showcases how an album that can totally influence two ends of a future generation in very different ways. And that may continue to be Rio‘s most enduring legacy as an album.

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Don’t Play With Fire” by Peabo Bryson

Peabo Bryson isn’t an artist associated with funk at all. The South Carolina native made a name for himself as a quiet storm ballad vocalist-most notably with female singers such as Roberta Flack. He also became known a “Disney singer” as I call it-in particular the themes to the movies Aladdin and Beauty And The Beast. A consistent concert goer on the chitlin circuit as a teen,Bryson began singing and writing for local bands shortly thereafter. His 1976 debut album did well in his particular area. But it was when he signed with Capitol records a year later that his career really took off.

I actually came to that first Capitol album entitled Reaching For The Sky via that free vinyl radio station giveaway. There were a series of funk and disco songs on the album that forever changed my perception of Bryson. With his rich,expressive soul baritone he has an amazing way with thick uptempo songs on the same level as he does interpreting ballads. When I got on YouTube,I began exploring this side of his artistry further. A wonderful example of Bryson’s uptempo majesty came via the title song of his 1982 album entitled Don’t Play With Fire.

The album opens with a big three not synthesizer and drum based fanfare. Bryson himself than provides the percussion and electric piano as a bed for Ron Dover’s powerful tenor sax solo. This musical progression represents each chorus of the song as well. The refrain showcases the same rhythm with a jazzy,liquid rhythm guitar and a popping bass line that slaps down heavy every few bars. On the segments between each part of the song,the melody changes to have a more Latin flavor in the rhythm before the song fades out on the chorus.

“Don’t Play With Fire” is an excellent example of Peabo Bryson producing strong “sophistifunk”. Between its reality check based lyrics and Bryson’s literally fiery vocals,this jazz/funk based groove moves between slinky,seductive and theatrical between different sections of the song. Its a quality that was prominent in the uptempo songs on Peabo Bryson’s uptempo material during the late 70’s and early 80’s. From what I see on YouTube, it is considered one of his strongest general songs. And just in terms of the level of fine wine jazzy funk,it surely is to my ears.

 

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Herbie Hancock & The Rockit Band: The Bill Laswell Years (1983-1988)

Herbie Hancock's Rockit Band Albums

Herbie Hancock, whose turning 77 today, is a musician who has consistently celebrated diversity in his sound. And most importantly, he did so without ever diminishing any sense of ethnic identification. That was particularly significant in his embrace of African percussion styles on his early 70’s Mwandishi trilogy. After his electronic jazz/funk triumphs with the Headhunters and a series of solo albums after,the music tide around Hancock had turned again. Hip-Hop’s emphasis on minimalist beats,turntables and sequencers swam in with that tide by the early 80’s.

After working with Rod Temperton in 1982, Hancock began an affiliation with bass player/producer Bill Laswell. Along with his group Material, Laswell was formulating a musical concept which he referred to as “collision music”. That meant taking unlikely but complimentary musicians, from different genres, and seeing where the sounds would land. Laswell was also a strong jazz funk musician himself-with an avant garde twist. This collision music concept dovetailed beautifully with Hancock’s vision. And the two recorded a trio of albums released in 1983,84 and 88.

Each of these albums showcase the Rockit Band,who also released a concert film with Herbie on VHS tape during this period. These albums were not only the first to bring the jazz/funk sound of the 70’s into the electro/hip-hop age. But they also did so by eventually incorporating elements of different world musics into the mix as well. I’ve done Amazon.com reviews on a couple of these albums. But am going to add some of my own commentary here for this overview of one of Herbie Hancock’s most commercially and creatively vital periods in his long and amazing career.


Future Shock/1983

Between 1980 and 1982,Herbie Hancock found himself in an important transitional phase musically. In 1981 he released the album  Magic Windows,a hardcore contemporary funk album whose final number-the instrumental “The Twilight” clone began the journey to what would inevitably occur on this album. Of course between that was an interesting musical side bar in  Lite Me Up,a pop-funk album very much in the vein of a Qwest type release and featuring such Quincy Jones luminaries as Rod Temperton and the Brother’s Johnson along with vocalist Gavin Christopher.

This made perfect sense with Herbie’s involvement with that group of musicians even earlier on. Few but Herbie could’ve guessed what his next musical move would be. During the earlier part of the decade,a new music was already beginning to emerge from the also gestating hip-hop genre. It was called scratch-very much an improvisational art that utilized turntables in a percussive manner. So Herbie rounded on the high diversified bassist Bill Laswell,leader of the avant garde funk band Material as well as Grandmixer DST on turntable for a shift in musical priorities that would be extremely relevatory. Not only for Herbie but for the music of the 80’s in general.

“Rockit” is of course a scratch icon song of it’s day-the song that altered Herbie Hancock’s entire musical priorities while at the same time maintaining a bluesy jazz melody amid all the vocoder,synthesizers,drum machines and turntabling from DST. “Future Shock”,an elongated version of the Curtis Mayfield 1973 message song from his Back to the World album is the exact opposite of how this album starts and continues-its a pretty clean percussion/Clavinet based funk groove,featuring a Mayfield like falsetto from the very capable vocalist Bernard Fowler,that is something of a contemporary redressing of the sound of the Headhunters.

“TFS” is one of my favorites here-a strong electro funk jam that still mixes in a clavinet and a powerfully melodic acoustic piano solo from Herbie towards the songs end. “Earth Beat” is very much in tune with Laswell’s Asian oriented musical approach-utilizing a lot of samplers and found sounds in rhythmic patterns. “Autodrive” again gets back into the more funky electro groove of the title song,again with a cleaner rhythm while “Rough” builds a heavy drum machine pattern with a very Arabic rhythmic/melodic pattern before going into a megamix bonus track of “Rockit” that includes not only songs from this particular album but also the synthesizer break from Herbie’s 1973 funk breakthrough “Chameleon” from his iconic album [[ASIN:B000002AGP Head Hunters]].

One factor of this album that even I often thought about was the fact that Bill Laswell is a producer/musician often known for an intense musical smothering effect. In short,anything he touches musically becomes almost totally his. That is part of his art though-even though he sometimes gets a bit lost in his musical journey by being a little too eclectic. But one thing that you can say about Herbie Hancock is that he is an artist with a very focused vision.

Whether through the musical filter of DST’s turntabling or Laswell’s playing and production,the album possess funk’s key quality that is even shown in how one tends to dance to it-a quality of controlled looseness. Though some of the pan-international rhythms and melodicism plays into this music,the focus is very much on the groove and the always high quality of Herbie’s own composing ability and musicianship. Of course this album did for him commercially,with “Rockit” especially what Head Hunters had done for him a decade before.

It established Herbie as a fully contemporary artist and even got him some video airplay (even on MTV) with his clever music video for the single. Herbie had made at least one album every year during the 80’s before this came out,most not his best known works and few actually still in print. Yet this stands as his 80’s breakthrough and,although it was by no means a comeback,much of its commercial success might be owed to the fact it somehow  appeared to be.

Sound-System/1984

With the success of Future Shock and its big hit “Rockit”,Herbie had made one significant musical contribution to the 80’s decade: he managed to put an instrumental dance record onto the pop charts and even the music video world. And opened up the door for other musicians such as contemporaries of his such as Jan Hammer to do the same. The following year Herbie was back in the studio with Bill Laswell to record the follow up to that album.

As he was in the early 70’s,Herbie was continually fascinated by how to combine the modern electronic/hip-hop sample/scratch oriented effects that interested him with the heavily Afrocentric variety of funk. Again on the heels of another possible cultural innovation,Herbie bought in the Gambian musician Foday Musa Suso,who played an electrified African string instrument called the Kora,which produced a reverb laden Harp-like effect. This would have the effect of extending even further on the musical revelations he’d made on his previous album.

“Hard Rock”,”Metal Beat” and the closing title track are all very much in line with the approach of “Rockit”,but the instrumental sound is very different. The rhythmic patterns,keyboard parts and the addition of the Kora on the title song especially infuse these songs with an enormous Afro-Latin quality about them-which draws out the expansiveness of the groove and manage to make the electronics of it seem totally non-rigid.

“Karabali” has almost no relation to these songs at all-its an almost totally African,almost Cameroonian Makossa beat type number built heavily around Suso’s Kora. “Junku” perfectly blends the tight and danceable electro-funk sound of Herbie’s with the same Kora sound. Bernard Fowler returns for another vocal number in the bluesy funk of “People Are Changing”,very much a generational cautionary take where Herbie delights on both synthesizer and acoustic piano alternately. The bonus track is an extended version of “Metal Beat”,which draws out the African percussion element even more.

Something tells me this album didn’t resonate with the public the same as its predecessor had. And it isn’t because the album is too repetitious of it. It actually isn’t at all. But the basis for all of the songs on this album are African oriented drum patters and different rhythmic ideas-with anything American blues based rarely being showcased. While this album is chocked full of massively grooving break dance friendly electro funk,the basis for it isn’t particularly American it all.

It takes the heavy Afro-Latin influence of the previous album to a whole other level in fact. In many ways,that makes this one of Herbie’s best albums of the 80’s as the music is extremely close to his heart in the sense of being technically futurist yet rhythmically grounded in the tradition of the Earth itself. Manu DiBango himself could extend on the sound from his album in particular on his own release from the following year Electric Africa. As for this,Herbie may very well have sparked the public’s interest in Africa and African musical rhythms during the mid 1980’s. So again Herbie himself gained some success for himself while being a trailblazer.

Perfect Machine/1988

By the time this final album from the Rockit band was released, Herbie Hancock had already recorded a live album with Foday Musa Suso entitled Village Life,which was released in 1985. He’d also contributed to the Dexter Gordon staring film ‘Round Midnight a year or so after this. Along for the ride with Laswell and the Rockit Band were Ohio Players lead singer/guitarist Leroy Sugerfoot Bonner and P-Funk innovator Bootsy Collins with his space base. Both funk veterans were than making comebacks. And Hancock really helped them along on this album too.

The open title track and the closing “Chemical Residue” adds a pronounced Asian pentatonic scale type melody and sound (often used by “neo geo” dance music icon Ryuichi Sakamoto) mixed in with the electro/hip-hop rhythms. “Obsession”,”Beat Wise” and the highly successful “Vibe Alive” all feature Bootsy and Sugarfoot’s well oiled funkiness into Herbie and Laswell’s grooves with near perfection. A remake of “Maiden Voyage” with the new composition “P.Bop” puts the original melody into that digitized grooves. And really bring out the melody and rhythm together in one vital place.

Perfect Machine may actually be the most funk and soul based of the three Bill Laswell albums. The Asian twist to some of the melodies continues the tradition of the 1980’s proving Duke Ellington’s musical theory very correct: that American culture overall was taking on more and more Asian style overtones to it. Each of the Rockit Band era Herbie Hancock albums explored the electro/hip-hop style of jazz-funk with an abundance of musical ideas. And this album represents a fine closer to this particular period of Hancock’s artistry.


One of the interesting things about the Rockit Band period of Herbie Hancock’s career is that, although it took place during my childhood in the 80’s, it was dancing around the living room with my father to Hancock’s 1973 funk remake of “Watermelon Man” that represented my first exposure to his music. Perhaps its an odd jumping in point. But upon hearing tunes such as “Rockit” and “Hard Rock” in the mid 80’s,it made clear how much breadth Hancock’s music had. Always wondered what came between 1973 and 1983 with his music. And was very happy to discover it over a decade later.

The Herbie Hancock/Bill Laswell collaboration actually marked the first time where Hancock was actually hitting on an innovative approach before his mentor Miles Davis did. By no means to imply any competitiveness between the two. But its interesting to wonder if Hancock’s earlier in the game hip-hop/jazz innovations didn’t inspire Miles with his posthumous Doo Bop album in 1993. At any rate,what Hancock,Laswell and the Rockit Band did on these albums did open the door for later jazz-funk hybrids. And represent how the younger generations of today generally remember Herbie Hancock.

 

 

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Sister Sledge Album Review for Their First Decade: A Tribute To The Late Joni Sledge

Sister Sledge Albums

Sister Sledge were a Philly family group who still have their firm fan base of course. And I consider myself among them. Still,most casual 70’s music lovers know them primarily for “We Are Family”,”She’s The Greatest Dancer” and “All American Girls”. Those are three very noteworthy and important disco era songs to be known for. At the same time, the music of Debbie,Joni,Kim and Kathy Sledge had a huge impact both before and after their big crossover period in the late 70’s and early 80’s. The passing of Joni Sledge at the age of 60 a few days ago put me in the mind of doing this tribute to them in this way.

One of the most important things I ever learned about Sister Sledge,thanks to the Wounded Bird label’s reissues-as well as through the kind help via Twitter from the sisters on my overview here of their 1998 song “African Eyes” on this blog,that Sister Sledge were far more of an album oriented soul/funk/disco group than many may realize. So today,to celebrate the living Sledge sisters and the departed Joni,wanted to celebrate Sister Sledge’s first eight albums from 1975-1985 through my Amazon.com reviews of them which I’ve written over the last decade or so.


Circle Of Love/1975

In 1975 these teenage sisters cut this album. Kathy,Debbie,Kim and Joni sure have their sisterly harmonies down pat,and they know just what to do with their voices. The music on this album is definitely rooted in early-mid 70’s Philly soul and Motown The title track is a superb example-upbeat and catchy as they come.The same goes for the fairly funky soul of “Protect Our Love”,’Pain Reliever” and the clever closer “Fireman” with a really cool,eerie horn solo at the end.

One thing the Sledge sisters are intent on doing is is exercising their fine intervening harmonies on a set of finely crafted soul ballads very much in the Philly style too but also rooted in classic 60’s Atlantic soul-these songs truly make excellent use of the over 30 musicians (including John Tropea’s mildly psychedelic turns on guitar) who play on this album.

The lovely “Cross My Heart”,”Don’t Miss Him Now”,”Love Don’t Go Through No More Changes On Me” and “You’re Much Better Off Loving Me” will certainly please any fan of the soul balladry that was coming out of Natalie Cole and Aretha at this time but the vocals that these sisters thrown onto them are purely icing on the cake.

For fans of Sister Sledge during their Nile Rodgers/Bernard Edwards produced We Are Family era will definitely want to check out ‘Circle Of Love’.Not only does it show how Sister Sledge got started but showcased them in the days when disco was just starting to boil over and was still just under the ground;the Philly and (late day) Motown production used on this album are very much part of the disco-funk-pop sound that would soon make Sister Sledge famous.So this comes very highly recommended.

Together/1977

Well it’s 1977,Saturday Night Fever is out and the disco era is in full swing. On their second time around the Sledge’s have jumped ship to the Munich scene,but it’s not Giorgio Moroder and Pete Ballotte;they’ve hooked up with producers Michael Kunze and Sylvester Levay,who was also the keyboard and sax player on this album. So this album allowed them to not only stay contemporary and embrace eurodisco to a degree but also diversify their musical pallet. Unlike Circle of Love this album focuses on uptempo and dance tunes with a larger amount of variety.

The punchy “Blockbuster Boy”,two Stevie Wonder covers in “I Was Made To Love Him” and “As” as well “Moondancer” and “My Favorite Song” certainly fit right into the then highly popular disco sound and,as always,the sisters inject more then enough of their own personalities and spunk to give these tunes a timeless feeling. But the sisters also get down with some heavy funk-namely on Kathie Sledge’s self penned “Do The Funky Do”-with it’s punching keyboards and seriously deep beats it actually qualifies as a funk classic along the same lines as The Bar-Kay’s “Holy Ghost”.

They add a little more disco stylings to the same general pallet on “Funky Family”,which could actually be seen as a somewhat more rowdy and less tame prelude to “We’re A Family”.A cover of “Sneaking Sally Through The Alley” is with little doubt one of the funkiest things on this album,and his made even more of a surprise since the sisters didn’t alter the lyrics to a mans point of view as they did on their Stevie Wonder cover. One of the finest overall tunes here is “Can’t Mess Around With Love”-a Brazilian pop tune with a look and vocal very much out of the Sergio Mendes school.

The two ballads that are here “Hold On To This Feeling” and “Hands Full Of Nothing” even seem to have a more urban feel to them and a newfound sophistication. This would be their final album before the pair of Chic productions that would make the Sledge’s superstars and it will be obvious even on the first listen that the future starts here and the changes are coming fast.

We Are Family/1979

Isn’t it interesting that,after all these years of listening to and collecting albums by Chic and Sister Sledge alike,that this was the very last hole I had to fill in my collection of the latter. And it’s the album which contains the songs I personally identify most strongly with them. Recently? That changed on a family trip to Portland. I’d seen this album,even cheaply.

And still avoided picking the CD up. Lately it seems as if Nile Rodgers and the Chic Organization have again become the focus of funky dance music. And as another reviewer here pointed out? With their ability to work well with female singers? This 1979 represent something very important not just to the artistic collaboration. But to the musical era itself.

The uptempo songs on this album are classic Chic disco/funk classics-with their chunk style bass/guitar interaction and heavy strings that even somehow got transformed into a rhythmic element. That goes for the electric piano decorated “He’s The Greatest Dancer”,”Lost In Music”,”Thinking Of You”-with it’s opening percussion along with the bass/guitar duel and the closer “One More Time”.

Listening to the title anthem for an umpteenth time? This 8+ minute version stands out with an extended bridge showcasing Kathy’s gravelly,soulful voice calling out to Bernard Edwards for “more bass”-right in tune with the music. “Easier To Love” is a percussive mid tempo message song-asking for peace for over war (A LOT more complex an idea than it actually sounds) while the two ballads have their character.

“Somebody Loves Me” is classy and elegantly orchestrated. While “You’re A Friend To Me” takes that touch of class a notch higher with it’s dynamic,jazzy blusiness. While the two remixes of “We Are Family” and the one of “Lost In Music” are interesting in a percussive disco/house sort of way? The manner in which Nile and Nard simply expand the original music and vocal line of the latter on the 1984 remix really says more for what the song itself had to say from the get go.

The courser,soulful voices of Sister Sledge were probably the closest that Chic ever came to finding a group of female vocalists who had similar sounds to the women who sang in Chic themselves. And the excellent performances from the sisters,plus some of Nile and Nard’s finest material make this a disco era classic not to be missed out on.

Love Somebody Today/1980

This is Sister Sledge’s follow up to their massively successful 1979 outing We Are Family. Again Bernard & Nile are producing the their band Chic is playing backup-also featured,notably on the title song is Meco Monardo on sax. And the music is set firmly in their standing tradition of classy disco-funk grooves and punchy melodies. This album is home to some truly incredible grooves such as the title song,”You Fooled Around” and (my favorite) “Reach Your Peak”.

Another two great grooves are the funky “Easy Street” and the whimsical groove of “Let’s Go On Vacation”. On “Pretty Baby” the message of family solidarity is again re enforced and Kathie Sledge’s great singing really shows up in fine style on “I’m A Good Girl”.So musically this album is totally up to par. Non of the lyrics have quite the same punch as the first outings the Sister Sledge/Chic combo did and that might’ve played some part in the Sisters turning to Narada Michael Walden next time around,or maybe it didn’t I don’t know.

Either way this might be musically more artistic,with it occasional improvised sax solos from Meco then We Are Family was. But no matter how you cut it this was Sister Sledge’s final collaberation with the Chic family for a little bit. They would meet up with Nile Rodgers again later but this more or less concluded that period of their musical career.

All American Girls/1981

Jettisoning the Chic production team for Narada Michael Walden proved a pretty wise choice,considering the similarity in sound. The main difference is Narada and Sister Sledge were not out to create a samey disco album with arty flourishes this time. They were out to create a funky dance-rock album with a lot of variety and to a large extent they succeeded. The title song is a classic-VERY much Narada and very drum oriented nonetheless and very much in keeping with the hits Sister Sledge had with Chic,especially Randy Jackson’s wonderful bass “breakdown”.

“He’s Just A Runaway” is definitely the big surprise;more of a new wavish dance-rock number that really introduced Sister Sledge to the new decade with ease. This team of Sledge and Narada do not shy away from the mirrored disco ball here as “If You Really Want Me”,”Ooh,You Caught My Heart”,”Make A Move” and “Music Makes You Feel Good” certainly fit into that category. But the “bottom” on these songs is a bit phatter and therefore funkier. Disco is basically a form of lite funk anyway and this just really emphasizes that disco-funk hybrid a little more.

There is a peppy pop tune here in “Happy Feeling”,one of those little surprises commonly found on the best albums out there.”Next Time You’ll Know” and “I Don’t Want To Say Goodbye” are very nice ballads but really don’t need to be here;this album is really strongest when the tempo goes up and it would’ve worked just as well if a couple different kinds of uptempo songs were added instead of the ballads. Other then that I have no complaints.This is a great album in a string of excellent releases from Sister Sledge and we should all be lucky that it’s now out there again for us to enjoy.

The Sisters/1982

The year is 1982 and after being produced by Chic then Narada Michael Walden the Sledge’s decide to give a stab at the production themselves. The result is this very soulful album that,for the date is very strong based in late 70’s funk-pop and even makes a go of the gestating hip-hop movement with the super funky “Super Bad Sisters” featuring the sisters rapping very much in the Sugarhill style!”My Guy” is pleasant enough but doesn’t add much that Mary Wells didn’t to the original.

Much more unique are the original and somewhat experimental funk grooves of “Lighttfootin'”,”Get You In Our Love” and “Il Macquillage Lady”,all of which showcase the Sisters desire to make a detour from their patented disco-pop sound that made them stars and show they too could give up the funk with the best of them. There are a few great ballads here too,one of which is the mid tempo “Grandma”,very much in their tradition of celebrating family and how sometimes there is no school like the old school.

“Everybody’s Friend” is very reflective and features the creamy voiced Debbie Sledge singing lead. The album closes with the peppy “Jackie’s Theme:There’s No Stopping Us”,a great possible hit-that-never-was. This album will make you wonder why the Sledge’s didn’t produce themselves more often;they’d obviously absorbed everything they’d seen Nile Rodgers and Narada do in the past and found a style the they could work well with. This tends to be one of their more forgotten albums but it showed they did have a lot more talent then just their voices.

Bet Cha Say That To All The Girls/1983

On paper the collaboration of Sister Sledge and George Duke looked awfully good. Commercially this was a miserable failure despite the promise but that is not the case artistically. The guest list on this album is incredible:Michael Sembello,David “Hawk” Wolinski,Louis Johnson,Paulinho Da Costa,Jeffrey Osbourne,Al Jarreau and Ronnie Laws are featured.

But the focus is on the Sledge’s personality and Duke’s contemporary funk sound. “B.Y.O.B”,”Lifetime Lover”,”Shake Me Down”,the title track,”Gotta Get Back To Love” and “Thank You For The Party” are great uptempo tunes and not much I can think of shout ‘early 80’s George Duke-style pop/funk’ louder then these songs!

The ballads are also very trademark George Duke and everything even further removed Sister Sledge from their classic sound. Al Jarreau’s rapping and the cute lyrics of the title track should’ve spelled a great new beginning for Sister Sledge but it was not to be. The George Duke collaboration fizzled quickly and after this release Sister Sledge opted to return closer to more comfortable home turf.

When The Boys Meet The Girls/1985

It was ten years since Sister Sledge debuted with Circle of Love and five years since Nile Rodgers had spun pure musical gold with them.And fresh off of work on Chic’s unheralded Believer and Madonna’s blockbuster Like a Virgin Nile officially brings Sister Sledge into the mid 80’s with this album’s strong new wave funk overtones. The title song,”Dancing On The Jagged Edge”,”The Boy Most Likely”,”Following The Leader” and “Peer Pressure” capture that spirit which finds the flourishes of DX7 and Synclavier synthesizers colliding with live drumming for a sound that’s very MTV generation friendly.

“Frankie”,a bouncy little pop ditty makes a brief detour from this sound with a slightly more organic feel to it. Same can be said for “Hold On Poppy” and all the songs here are packed with unbeatable hooks and vocals. Strangely enough this never got a follow up for more then a decade;by 1985 Sister Sledge’s sound had been eclipsed by modern day female singers,some of whom were Prince proteges so the Sledge’s were starting to be seen as a bit over the hill. So again I am glad Wounded Bird reissued this and allowed this album to be enjoyed by a new generation who’ve been separate from it long enough to appreciate it’s charms.


Its amazing when running down Sister Sledge’s first run of recording just how much breadth and scope their albums covered. It ran the gamut from Philly soul,funk and disco in the mid to late 70’s to the ever evolving post disco,boogie and electro sounds of the early to mid 1980’s. As with any artists,there were peaks and valleys throughout this time. All the same,felt Sister Sledge don’t always get their due for their longevity and relative consistency in their first decade. For sure that period invited it. Still,it couldn’t work without talented people. And wish to thank the Sledge’s for the contributions to that era.

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove For The Brothers & Sisters Who Aren’t Here: “Roof Garden” by Al Jarreau

Al Jarreau’s artistry as a world class vocalist/singer has seldom been disputed. Though there was a time when it was said that,after the mid 70’s,Jarreau abandoned jazz for pop crossover. Its an age old argument. And honestly,it usually derives from ignorance. In Jarreau’s case,his musical and vocal approach always remained squarely rooted in jazz. From the vocalese/scat and tremolo effects of his musical heroes Jon Hendricks and Johnny Mathis to the arrangements of the music itself,Jarreau was one of a handful of jazz vocalists who could bring improvisation to a wider audience with a pop/funk musical twist.

Jarreau’s best known album was 1981’s Breakin Away. It was a Jay Graydon production. Graydon,like Rod Temperton,was a figure who really knows how to deliver soulful and funky music that has a strong jazz flavor to it. This style was extremely well suited for Jarreau’s jazz approach,since it was still required to make the whole thing work. And it was a massive (and in my opinion deserved) crossover triumph. And it spawned his best known hit with the mid tempo ballad “We’re In This Love Together”. While spawning two more big hits,a favorite of mine and many fans of Jarreau on this album is “Roof Garden”.

Its the trio of Jerry Hey’s horn arrangements,Steve Gadd’s impeccable funky shuffle and George Duke’s strutting Fender Rhodes that starts off this song with Jarreau’s spoken word/scat intro. Of course Abraham Laboriel’s stomping bass line is right along for the right. On the choruses,Jarreau is singing like a chocked,muted trumpet alongside Graydon’s liquid guitar. On the refrains,the horns and drums lock themselves into a dramatic big band swing style melodic arrangement. The bridge finds Jarreau scatting with Duke’s Rhodes until the big horn,choral and lead vocal part the fades out the song.

“Roof Garden” is one of my personal favorite Al Jarreau numbers. Its got so much high stepping,high strutting jazz/funk personality. Everything from the bass/guitar interaction to the horns is locked right into place. Jarreau was alternately comical and sassy on this song vocally. Especially singing lines at the beginning like “hang on,what ‘cha mama gonna say if she found you in a spot like this”. Jarreau delivered on every strength he had: improvising complex scales,scatting and vocalese of many sorts. While its still hard to believe he’s no longer with us,jazz funk like this will assure his sound will endure.

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Turn It Into Something Good” by Earth Wind & Fire

Earth Wind & Fire generally didn’t depend too much on outside songwriters and producers-unless of course their names were Skip Scarborough or Charles Stepney. They were more musical insiders who assisted the band just out from under foot. By the time of 1979’s I Am, Maurice White was producing most of album with David Foster. With the following years Faces, they were out to make a double album set of all new studio material. So outside songwriters on this album included Brenda Russell and Valerie Carter.

Carter passed away at the age of 64 yesterday,having apparently spent some years struggling with drug addiction. A prominent songwriter/backup singer who recorded a handful of solo albums in the 70’s,she worked primarily with other singer/songwriters. In particular James Taylor.  She also made two major contributions to the funk/soul genre. She composed a  now rare B-side for the Brothers Johnson in 1984 called “Deceiver”. Five years earlier,her contribution to the songwriting for EWF on their Faces album came in its second track entitled “Turn It Into Something Good”.

A medium tempo,conga clav laden Carbbean funk drum line lays the foundation for the rhythm of the entire song. Right from the start. In full interplay within this mix are the brittle,melodic guitar of Al McKay with Verdine White’s exploratory,rhythmic jazzy bass line. Playing call and response to this are Larry Dunn on the Rhodes piano and the Phenix Horns. This represents the intro,refrain and outro of the song. On the chorus of song,the chord goes up and so does the pitch of the Rhodes as Maurice and Phillip trade off their vocals in fine style. A bass/guitar/Kalimba rhythm segues out of this song onto the next.

As the late Maurice White was quoted as saying a decade ago now,he feels the Faces album was one where EWF were really in tune with their sound. His brother Verdine called it the type of album they really wanted to cut. Valerie Carter,Maurice White and James Howard Newton all came together to create one of the greatest triad’s of songs on an EWF album-with this one sandwiched between the heavy funkiness of the opener “Let Me Talk” and “Pride”. This song mixes the Caribbean/Calypso flavor with a poppy funkiness that goes with one of EWF’s classic empowering message songs for a decade of many challenges.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Watching You” by Slave

Slave are a band that I’ve desired to talk about for some time now. They were among one of the great late 70’s/early 80’s Dayton Ohio bands along with Heatwave and Zapp. What made them unique in their time however is that they were likely the first Generation X funk band-all of its members still in high school when they formed in 1976. Their first album the following year got them an instant smash funk hit with the song “Slide”,now a mainstay of what many funkateers refer to as “Dayton funk” subgenre. By their 1979 album Just A Touch Of Love,singer/songwriter/drummer Steve Arrington joined the band.

Arrington was only a member of Slave for four years,before leaving to form a successful solo career of his own starting in 1983. But in the early 80’s,Arrington’s unique (and occasionally idiosyncratic) vocal approach allowed Slave to become one of the bands to lay the building blocks for what is now known as the post disco/boogie funk sound. Their first album of the 1980’s (and second album to feature Arrington) was called Stone Jam. Its one of the few Slave albums to remain consistently in print over the years. One of its most well known (and successful) jams is called “Watching You”

Arrington throws the strong dance beat along with Mark Hicks high,clean guitar tone that revs up into the main chorus of the song. This features Ray Turner’s high pitched synthesizer melody and and the late Mark “Mr. Mark” Adams delivers a great walking,slapping bass line holding the whole thing together. The falsetto choral vocals transition to Arrington’s narrative vocals on the refrains. The bridge of the song has Arrington’s drums showcasing M. Mark’s powerful bass line as a solo-with Turner’s synths on the accents. A new chorus with both vocal parts continues until the song fades.

My friend Henrique and I often have a lighthearted dialog about a “super hip young brother in the early 80’s” driving around in a sporty little car trying to impress the ladies around him. “Watching You” brings up this image strongly. Its got the thick,bass/guitar oriented groove that was Slave’s stock and trade. That combined with its playful lyrics of young black people giving each other the admiring,romantic eye made the song and the Stone Jam album Slave’s biggest commercial success since the bands debut four years earlier. And this helps to define “Watching You” a post disco funk masterpiece.

 

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Al Jarreau (1940-2017): We Thank You For Your Service,But Do We Have You Covered?

al-jarreau-dreamscope2

Al Jarreau is one of those artists whose followed me from my first understandings of music to the present day.  “We’re In This Love Together” is one of the first pop song memories I have from a sentimental standpoint. Jarreau’s voice is now the creature of massive creative and commercial recognition-by everyone from music critics to the Grammy Awards.  Now its come to the realization that admiring Al Jarreau’s vocals is to understand the improvisational technique and unique phrasing of Jon Hendricks and Johnny Mathis. And that’s the way I will always think of the man.

Sadly,Mister Jarreau is no longer with us. A week ago,he cancelled his recent tour and announced his retirement. And yesterday my friend Henrique said he was no longer with us. He was exactly one month shy of his 77th birthday. Jarreau was an extremely successful man as an artist. A seven time Grammy winner (and 20 time nominee) from 1979-2013,he was also the recipient of two honorary doctorate degrees in music. The most significant part of this legacy was that his major label debut album didn’t get recorded or released until Jarreau was 35 years old.

Born in Millwakee,Wisconsin Jarreau graduated from Ripton College,and started a career as a rehabilitation counselor. By 1968, Jarreau was totally devoted to music after years of great success in the California bay area club scene. By 1975,he was signed to Warner Bros. records and recorded his major label debut We Got By. It started a precedence for the man writing songs that matched his distinctive vocals. These were chordally busy songs,always accompanied by the cream of the crop of jazz players of that era such as-which would go on to include the likes of Lee Ritenour,Freddie Hubbard and Paulinho Da Costa.

Al Jarreau’s vocal instrument was as idiosyncratic as it was ingenious. He was able to cross heavy jazz improvisational vocals over for funk,soul and pop listener’s with great success. That meant that his major breakout album Breakin Away could contain the urban classic “We’re In This Love Together” along with a show stopping performance of Dave Brubeck’s jazz standard “Blue Rondo Ala Turk”. How many crossover jazz singers of the mid 70’s to early 80’s can any of us say that about? There’s a lot of Jarreau’s music I have yet to hear. But even though he’s gone now,there’s much more to say of his musical legacy.

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