Tag Archives: backup singers

1978 On The Longplay: Larry Carlton’s Self Titled Warner Bros. Debut From Room 335!

Larry Carlton spent the mid 70’s as an active member of The Crusaders. They were, during that time, a significant training group for musicians playing in the jazz/funk/ fusion genre. Musicians such as Wayne Henderson, Joe Sample and Carlton himself were part of the LA scene of session players who helped augment the sound of everyone from Sammy Davis Jr, Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell and of course Steely Dan. So by the time 1978 rolled around, Carlton had access to musicians such as then Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro and percussion icon Paulinho Da Costa. So his solo career was off and running.

Porcaro and keyboardist Greg Mathison shine on the opener “Room 335”-named for the recording studio the album was recorded in. The main theme of the song has a very similar melody to Steely Dan’s hit song “Peg”. This is augmented by string arrangements and serves as a forum for Carlton’s precise yet emotionally stratospheric playing style. “Where Did You Come From” is a soulful samba where Da Costa really shines percussion wise. Carlton sings lead vocal on the song-in a smooth,romantic. voice reminiscent of a higher toned version of how Herb Alpert sounds when he’s singing.

“Night Crawler” is of course a redone song that Carlton contributed to the Crusaders Free As The Wind album a year earlier. This version is very similar, though just a slight bit more polished in execution. “Point It Up” goes for a straight ahead jazz/rock shuffle-with Carlton and bassist Abraham Laboriel really taking off-especially with Laboriel’s slap bass riffing. “Rio Samba” brings Da Costa’s percussion, Mathison’s Rhodes and organ along with Carlton’s guitar for an melodically uptempo Brazilian fusion number. One where Carlton even finds a moment or two to rock out on its refrains.

“I Apologize” is a personal favorite of mine on this album. Its a heavily bluesy jazz/funk number-again with Carlton taking the lead vocal. This time, the vibe on that level is more Michael Franks. Enhanced by Laboriel’s slap bass again and the backing vocals from William “Smitty”Smith. With Carlton even taking off to solo on the bridge before the song changes pitch on the final few bars. “Don’t Give Up” brings in that clean, rocking R&B shuffle that sounds like an instrumental written for a Boz Scaggs. Again, Carlton really takes off on both ultra melodic and bluesy style solos throughout the song.

“(It Was) Only Yesterday” ends the album on its lone ballad-again with the string orchestra coming in behind Carlton. And at the same time as enhancement to the sustained cry of his guitar. One thing the Larry Carlton album clarifies, actually being his third proper solo album, is how much of an amazing vocal tone Carlton’s guitar has. Its actually close in technique to Carlos Santana at times. Yet is based more heavily around arpeggiated runs and pitch bending than consistently sustaining notes. But Carlton’s guitar sings. And on this album, many more times than he actually does with his voice.

Because the sound blends both late 70’s studio polish with heavy duty jazz/funk grooves and soloing, again many of these songs sound as if they were recorded for specific popular singers of that day. That makes this album an excellent album of how much late 70’s jazz/funk session musicians had an impact on the big West Coast pop albums of that era, especially. So Larry Carlton offers a great deal to the listener. Its got the blues, its got the Brazilian jazz, its got the funk and it rocks. Its also hummable and musical at the same time. And all those are excellent qualities for any instrumentally based album.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Are You Ready” by The Isley Brothers & Santana

Erinie Isley said in a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine  that he first crossed paths with the Carlos Santana at Columbia Records convention in the 70’s. He recalled Santana’s band “took all the oxygen out of the room” playing their hits such as “Black Magic Woman” from their Abraxas album. Both Santana and the Isleys. Both were innovating in the late 60’s-a time where Latin rhythms, psychedelic bass/guitar and soulful vocals were all coming together for a music that was both highly funkified and rocked out. It would not be until 2016 that a pairing of the two began to take shape.

My friend/blogging consultant was the one who informed me of the collaborative album Power Of Peace. Ron Isley’s sister in law Kimberley-Johnson Breaux, a member of Rod Stewart’s band when she made the introduction between the two,which resulted in a two song collaboration on the Santana IV album in 2015. For their newest project, they are covering a collection of 60’s era topical and spiritual “people music” songs originally from the likes of Willie Dixon, Marvin Gaye, Leon Thomas, Curtis Mayfield and Burt Bacharach. The first song is a version of the Chambers Brother’s “Are You Ready”.

Santana’s classic Afro-Latin percussion starts the song before the jazzy funk bass comes in-playing in a deeply melodic manner around all the polyrhythms. The drums soon come in play a classic two-on-three funk beat. After that Ron Isley’s lead vocals play call and response to a combination of Carlos’s clean guitar tone and Ernie’s heavily filtered psychedelic style. Both play off of each other in beautiful unison throughout the song over melodic backup singing. After a drum/percussion break with on the beat vocal grunts, the drums and guitars close out on a duel psychedelic rock guitar extravaganza.

“Are You Ready” showcases precisely what one might expect from an Isley Brothers and Santana collaboration-even half a century after their salad days. Carlos Santana and Ernie Isley are playing with each other at the top of their form-as if the two guitar icons have been playing together consistently for decades. The groove itself literally has everything message oriented “people funk” would ideally have: that percussive Afro Latin rhythm,the psychedelic solos along with the funky drum and bass line. And its a reminder of the musical daring that generations of musicians need to always remember.

 

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Filed under Carlos Santana, Isley Brothers

Anatomy of THE Groove: “California Woman” by Eddie Kendricks

Eddie Kendricks was the one member of the classic Temptations lineup who had a consistently successful solo career. He had many hits,many of them strutting uptempo numbers such as “Keep On Truckin'”,”Boogie Down” and “Girl You Need A Change Of Mind”. Many of these songs were produced by Leonard Caston Jr.  After mixed results with two 1976 albums recorded with Norman Harris,Kendricks turned back to Caston to fully produce his final Motown solo album in 1977 entitled  Slick. One song from the album actually found its way into my musical rotation very heavily this past year.

During this past summer of 2016,I actually took the time to do more bicycle riding. Unlike previous years,decided to take advantage of my phone’s MP3 player to listen to music while on these bike rides. Most of these songs were endowed with an appropriate sense of motion. And all of them were from within the soul/funk/jazz/Latin spectrum of music. During the course of the summer,I brought different songs in and out of this rotation in order to keep things fresh. And one of them was an Eddie Kendricks song that originally concluded his final Motown album. Its called “California Woman”.

A pulsing bass and drum pulse starts the song out-accompanied only by low rumble of strings. Shortly after,a loud vocal chorus scales up into Kendrick’s refrain. Here,the bass the and stomping shuffle of the drums are accompanied by lightly harmonic strings and horns-along with the vocal chorus serving the same function. On the chorus the horns and backup vocalists melodically descend with Kendricks. After a reprise of the intro on the bridge,the chorus of the song repeats for a couple more bars before the song abruptly ends on an outro of a very similar nature to its beginning.

In some ways,this song has some of the hallmarks of Leonard Caston Jr’s productions with Eddie Kendricks from before. The difference here is there isn’t as much focus on the bass/guitar interaction as there is the orchestration. Its basically just the kind of “sound with a good melody” as Kendricks himself preferred-with much care put into the production to make sure the groove was funky and the sweeteners on top had plenty of life to them. The lyrical tale of a “down home lady” becoming a movie star goes beautifully with the music’s strutting “OG” style of cinematic funky soul.

 

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Filed under 1970's, backup singers, California, cinematic soul, drums, Eddie Kendricks, Funk Bass, funky soul, horns, Leonard Caston Jr., Motown, strings

Anatomy Of The Groove For The Brothers & Sisters Who Aren’t Here: “Talk To The People” by Les McCann

Les McCann was,in terms of my own personal musical exploration,an artist I was introduced to by my father exactly between my explorations of Stevie Wonder and Miles Davis. And that actually isn’t a bad way to describe the middle ground McCann’s sound had in terms of Miles’s harmonic richness and Stevie’s unusual melodic senses. After all,both artists were pretty equally jazz in terms of composition. Les McCann was a brilliant composer in his own right. So much so his album Invitation To Openness  was one which my father kept out at our old family summer camp at Pushaw Lake the entire year round.

Les McCann is probably most famous for his song recorded by electric sax pioneer Eddie Harris (another important jazz/funk story I’ll get into another time) called “Compared To What”. That song was written by another frequent collaborator in Eugene McDaniels. McCann just seemed to be bursting with creative energy as a pioneer of synthesizers along with Herbie Hancock in the emerging jazz/funk idiom during the first half of the 1970’s. Albums such as Layers explored this most fully. Both musically and conceptually,the Les McCann song that says it all for me is the title song to his 1972 album Talk To The People.

A gentle electric piano melody from McCann starts off the song before a ringing,bell like percussive rhythm comes in on the drums. As McCann raps,his band are whispering the song title in rhythm in the back round. That turns to lead and backup singing (McDaniels included) as the song begins. A heavily filtered bluesy wah wah rhythm guitar and a thick,bouncing bass line joins in as a huge swell of backup vocals joins in on the choruses. As each refrain and chorus progresses,the instrumentation builds to climactic intensity. And it gradually fades out until only the sound of people talking exists as it fades.

In today’s age of reactionary racism,sexism and general prejudice,”Talk To The People” exists in the world as almost an anthem for a possible solution. Its slow funk,penetrating rhythms and emotionally charged jazzy modulations do indeed speak a very important message for the human race. McCann talks about how a lot of the worlds problems even then stemmed from lack of communication and empathy. Lyrically he comes to the conclusion,even before the song gets going,”lets hate all that does not allow us to love”. That makes this a shining example of why jazz/funk is such an important music.

 

 

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Filed under 1970's, backup singers, drums, electric piano, Eugene McDaniels, Funk Bass, jazz funk, Les McCann, message songs, people music, rap, rhythm guitar

STEVIEWONDERLAND!: Celebrating An Icon In Three Decades-“Bird Of Beauty” (1974)

Stevie Wonder’s life was almost lost on August 6th,1973. A truck driven by his late brother Calvin hit the back of a truck. Wonder was in a coma for four days. And the ensuing health complications almost denied him his sense of taste and smell. Blind from shortly after birth due to overexposure to an incubator leaving him with retinophothy of premurity, this knowledge of near death combined with losing two more of his senses had a profound effect on Wonder’s artistry. Already in a state of commercial and creative revelry with his music,these events deeply informed his music that was just yet to come.

Having dealt with a near death experience really informed Wonder’s next album entitled Fullfillingness’ First Finale. It was originally planned (and seemingly recorded) as a double album that Wonder decided to release in two parts. He never did. The part we did get in 1974 was a more somber,reflective album with a more stripped down instrumental approach. With songs such as “They Won’t Go When I Go” and “Creepin'” being fairly representative of the albums overall sound,it’s interesting that the album closes with two more upbeat songs. The first of which was called “Bird Of Beauty”.

Wonder begins the song with a 2 beat salsa rhythm-sticking the clave percussion in around the middle while Bobbye Hall plays a solo on the hollow sounding guica drum. The main body of the song has intertwining,jazz melodies played on the Clavinet and Fender Rhodes electric piano-with a rhythmic Moog bass bubbling in around the bottom. The  chorus of the song has Wonder building up the hi hats before returning to the refrain. In addition to a bridge sung in Portuguese Denise Williams,Lani Groves and Shirly Brewer provide the backing vocals-with the song extending ethereally on the chorus as it fades.

Stevie Wonder’s fascination with Brazilian rhythms became very apparent after he gained his creative freedom in the early 70’s. They were very prominent before this on “I Love Every Little Thing About You” and “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing”. This songs blend of sunny Latin jazz/salsa rhythms and funky rhythmic keyboards really emphasize it’s joyous sound. One that allows it to instrumentally dance and sing in so many different ways-all at the same time. Rhythm,melody and harmony all come together in the most beautiful ways here-all under the light of the musical sun Wonder creates.

The songs lyrical content has a double meaning for me. One is very personal. To overcome a fear of flying,my mother went skydiving  14 years ago. The words of “mind excersions” of this song made it part of the soundtrack to the video they assembled of the dive for her. It’s actually a song about altering ones state of consciousness naturally-without “black,white or yellow pills”. One could speculate this may have derived from Wonder having perhaps been given pain killers after his accident. With the recent and possibly pain killer related death of Prince,this is something to think about.

 

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Filed under 1970's, backup singers, Bobbye Hall, Brazilian Jazz, clave, clavinet, Denise Williams, drums, Fender Rhodes, guica, Lani Groves, Latin Funk, Moog bass, Motown, Shirley Brewer, Stevie Wonder

Anatomy of THE Groove Post-Mothers Day Special Part 1: “Don’t It Feel Good” By Ramsey Lewis

Mothers and fathers are indirectly responsible for the first musical rhythms we experience as human beings. It’s the heartbeat of the child itself. Prince illustrated this in the mid 90’s on his jam “Sex In The Summer”. In terms of literal music,my mother’s own musical interests seem connected to her being a former modern abstract dancer/choreographer. I’d describe her musical tastes as being eclectic-perhaps even overreaching at times. But fundamentally,it’s still a good groove that inspires her. And as much as my father has been the main musical guiding light in my family? My mother has made her mark too.

Ramsey Lewis is an artist whom I discovered through my family about 20 years ago. It was during the time where I was really getting interested in funk. And asking my dad to pull funky music out of his vinyl collection whenever he could. Most of this came out of his jazz collection. However,there was one album that he and my mom purchased together when they were first married. The album was by Ramsey Lewis. And it was 1975’s Don’t It Feel Good.  While the funk percolated across it with “Spider-Man” and “Fish Bite”,it was the opening title song that always caught my mothers ear. And later mine.

A deep,chunky rhythm guitar begins the song playing a deep in the pocket bluesy riff. Right into the middle of this pocket,a round and pulsing Moog bass settles right in. The drum keeps up the entire song with a slow,pulsing swing with plenty of rhythmic breaks. This is orchestrated by an ARP string ensemble. Ramsey’s Fender Rhodes solo improvises on the blusiness of the guitar. That same guitar buffets the refrain and chorus. Each chorus has a different vocal chorus. One has a Latin-jazz style vocalese. The other,which fades out the song,is based on the bluesy melody and states “don’t it feel good RAMSEY!”.

This is one of those funk jams that understands two of the most important things about the classic funk era. The deep in the pocket groove keeps the bluesy slowness in the rhythm and melody. Also the vocals really bring that element of jazz Miles Davis always championed,based on his mothers advice,for musicians to always play “something you could hum”. Added to all this,the song really knows how to stay on the one. The refrain/choral sequence is all based in advancing the melodic and rhythmic drama of this groove. And that makes it among Ramsey Lewis’s finest funk of the 70’s.

 

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Filed under 1975, Afro-Latin jazz, ARP string ensemble, backup singers, blues funk, drums, Fender Rhodes, funk guitar, jazz funk, Moog, Mothers Day, synth bass, Uncategorized

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Rock Steady” by Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin,having turned 74 today,has been alive during one of the most significant musical periods in terms of soul’s transition towards rhythm-towards funk.Her signature song at Atlantic was a version of Otis Redding’s “Respect”,which really showcased how the Southern soul style she embraced was edging towards that funky timing. Now Aretha has had some amazing uptempo songs,many of which were major hits,over her time as a recording artist. And they’ve all showcased how despite understandings to the contrary, that uptempo music can be just as timeless as balladry. Of course as with any artist,there were peaks and valleys for her. Some of those peaks were also pretty high ones.

Focusing to a degree on gospel soul/R&B ballads during the early 70’s,Aretha was becoming very well aware that the musical tide was shifting towards the more uptempo sound she’d pioneered in the late 60’s. So at some point in 1970-early 71 Aretha had a basic piano sketch of a groove that she presented to some of the new musicians she was working with. They were drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie,future Stuff guitarist Cornell Duperee and electric bass extraordinaire Chuckrh Rainey. This trio allowed for this song to be built directly from the rhythm up and become huge early 70’s hit for her. The name of the groove was “Rock Steady”.

Pops Popwell and Dr.John provide a hot Brazilian percussion accent to the bluesy organ of Donny Hathaway. From here Purdie’s drums really get going within this bed of percussion shaking along. Cornell get’s his James Brown rhythm guitar going on in a serious way in the center of this groove while Rainey’s bass is patted in with the sound of a deep, pulsating heart. On the choruses,Aretha’s vocals are echoed along with the backup harmonies from the Sweethearts Of Soul. Each refrain is buffeted by the very jazzy Afro pop charts from The Memphis horns. On the bridge,Purdie provides a percussive drum back that’s now one of the most famous in history before the song fades out.

There are times where the funkiness of a groove has to be discovered by listening closely. “Rock Steady” is not one of those grooves. It’s a song that demands moving and heavy booty shaking. With it’s strong Afro-Latin horn and percussion vibe,this is actually one of the songs that help inaugurate the “united funk” era of the early/mid 70’s.  Everyone playing in on this song act in the manner of JB as one rhythm machine. The song construction is so advanced,it thickens the whole sound. Aretha even lets us know to “call this song exactly what it is” before declaring it “a funky and lowdown feeling”. So as with Wilson Pickett’s “Funky Broadway”,this  groove really assumes it’s funkiness proudly.

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Filed under 1970's, Aretha Franklin, Atlantic Records, Bernard Pretty Purdie, Chuck Rainey, Cornell Dupree, Donny Hathaway, Dr.John, drum breaks, drums, Funk, Funk Bass, horns, Memphis Horns, organ, percussion, Pops Powell, rhythm guitar, Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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