Fat Larry’s Band are a name that goes back to the pre internet days of reading the few funk/soul review books (now torn to bits in my collection from many page turnings) in the late 90’s and early aughts. The Philly natives got lost in the transition of my own crate digging to such a degree, there are presently no LP’s or CD’s of theirs in my collection. Thanks to the presence of YouTube and social media in general,was able to listen to some of the music made by the late singer/drummer “Fat” Larry James,who was born today in 1949 and passed on 30 years ago this December 5th.
In their decade as a recording entity, Fat Larry’s Band recorded nine albums starting in 1976. Their first album to chart was 1982’s Breakin’ Out. As one of many late 70’s funk bands to survive the disco backlash and continue on innovating the boogie/post disco sound, Fat Larry’s Band not only had their only (mid way in the charts) R&B hit album in 82, but also one of their biggest charting hits. It was part of the soundtrack CD to the 2002 video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. The name of this particular song, and the one being discussed today, is “Act Like You Know”.
The song opens with Larry’s slow dragging,high key drum stomp with Larry La Bes’s shuffling,complex bass line providing the intro. The song then kicks into heavy gear with a a bouncing,high pitched bent synth squiggle and a liquid rhythm guitar-all along with the percussive kick on the drum’s rhythm. On the choruses, a melodic horn/string arrangement accent the choral vocals. On the bridge of the song, the drum/bass interaction of the intro is accompanied by a mildly Afro beat style horn chart. A talk sung outro to that goes into another refrain/chorus exchange that fades out the song.
“Act Like You Know” is one of those funk songs that has a very familiar opening. Certainly was to me-especially having never heard the song. As such, it has one of those hooks that a funk audience could respond very well and easily to. Its also very much out of the 70’s style of funk too. The boogie synth is a decorative element with the horns,drum and bass line remain the instrumental starts of the show. Larry’s smooth lead is also served well by the sweet harmonies that come along on the chorus. As a whole, the song showcased the live instrumental vitality of the post disco/boogie era.
Johnny Gill was born in 1966 in DC,known by the big and strong black population as “Chocolate City”. Coming from a religious back round,he started singing in his families gospel group the Wings Of Faith. He began his recording career in 1982,at the age of 16. It was his childhood friend (and soon to be duet partner) Stacy Lattisaw who convinced the baritone singer/songwriter/ bassist/ guitarist to submit demos to record companies. While he completed his education via tutoring, he elected to pass up studying electric engineering in college for a life in music.
Gill’s career took him from duets to a stint in New Edition (succeeding Bobby Brown) in the late 80’s to a revived solo career after that. One that extends to this very day. He’s also made over 80 appearances on television film in his duel career as an actor. One album that I always wanted to seek out from this multi talented teen prodigy was his debut on Cotilian Records from 1983. It was produced by Freddie Parren-famous for helming youthful family acts such as The Jackson 5 and The Sylvers. One song that stood out to me on Gills debut was “I Love Makin’ Music”.
A percussion march and Gill’s call and response vocal lead into the main part of the song. The whole thing is built around a central groove. This consists a jumping funky drum built around heavy Afro Brazilian styled percussion. Gill provides a thick slapping bass thumps,a chunky rhythm guitar stomp while Perren plays a slippery synth bass. On the bridge of the song,the rhythm reduces down to a thick slap bass solo from Gill before returning to the main theme-urging pianist Clarence McDonald to “play some jazz” and such as the song gradually fades itself out.
“I Love Makin’ Music” mixes some of the kiddie funk style ultra singable melodic approach of Perren with some of the harder funk style Gill seemed to be going for. Not only are Gill’s often growling baritone vocals sound at least a decade older than he actually was,but if he plays as much as I can guess on this album his talents on guitar and bass are deep,strong and right in line with the 70’s soul/funk vibe which he came out of. Even though its not necessarily an aspect of Gill’s solo career that most people today might remember readily,it began the budding prodigy’s music career in superb form.
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.
Loose Ends were formed in 1980 as a trio consisting of vocalist/guitarist Carl McIntosh, songwriter and keyboardist Steve Nichol and lead singer Jane Eugene. They started out as Loose End,recording a pair of singles in 1982 produced by the Emoo brothers from the UK soul group The Real Thing,who themselves had been successful in the 70’s. Their first three singles “In The Sky”,”We’ve Arrived” and “Don’t Hold Back Your Love” were all excellent live instrumental oriented boogie funk. But it wasn’t until their debut album in 1984 did their sound fully coming together and they became successful.
The debut album in question is entitled A Little Spice. This album had a stripped down electro element to it,along with the trio’s jazzy songwriting that made their sound so distinctive. It was something I found preowned at my local record store Bullmoose for literally a few bucks. Remembering having some vague knowledge about the band. But the CD cover had me interested enough to pick it up. From the first moment I heard it,wanted to here more by the group. And later sought out other albums by them. The song that motivated me most from that debut was “Hanging On A String (Contemplating)”.
A drum machine kick into an electronic Afro-Latin percussive drum machine kicks in. McIntosh provides an echoed rhythm guitar swell,along with higher alarm like tone while Nichol provides a round synth bass for fattened support at the bottom. By the time the refrain and Eugene’s vocals emerge,McIntosh’s six not guitar line and Nichol’s synthesized melody take over. On the chorus,electronic orchestration join up with McIntosh and Eugene’s vocal harmonies. On the last bars of the song,a Clavinet like keyboard along with a spiraling guitar solo take over as the song fades out.
“Hanging On A String (Contemplating)” is one of the most rhythmically and harmonically complex songs and grooves to come out of the electro/boogie funk era. McIntosh and Nichol truly deliver on a mix of highly Afrocentric drum machines and synth bass,along with very jazzy guitar and orchestral keyboards. Jane Eugene’s vocals have a strong jazzy ranginess and an extremely soulful,passionate delivery that matches the music to a tee. Loose Ends are known for few other key songs. Yet this song is likely the one they’ll always be best remember for. And for very good reason too.
The Temptations had been a fixture at Motown for 20 years by the time the labels silver anniversary rolled around. They’d only left for a brief few years in the late 70’s. And returned with the mammoth uptempo hit “Power”,one of the few late in the day disco era songs with a tough political message. A year and a half later,the band did a reunion tour and album with David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks. Neither former member of the (sadly) revolving door group stuck around very long. As messy as the Temptations personnel and personal situation continued to be,they continued on with their recording career.
1983 turned out to be a pretty big year for The Tempts. They had a memorable faux “battle of the bands” with the Four Tops,and also released two albums. While neither were a commercial success,both were very strong and contemporary musical statements. The first was the boogie funk/new wave influenced Surface Thrills,often criticized for sounding more like a solo album for lead singer Dennis Edwards. The second album was the more harmony laced soul ballad oriented Back To Basics. The album also reunited them with producer Norman Whitfield for songs such as “Miss Busy Body (Get Your Body Busy)”.
A heavily reverbed and echoed drum,heavy on the cymbal hits provide the basic rhythm to the songs intro. Soon a bass and higher synthesizer duet with a Vocorder before Edward’s voice kicks in with a classic Whitfield bluesy juke joint piano backing him up. On the choruses,the rest of the Temps join him along with a pounding funky beat and electric slap bass thumping away. A rhythm guitar accompanies bass singer Melvin Franklin before the second refrain of the song gets started. Just before the bridge,the Temps all rap in harmony before the closing chorus fades the song out.
“Miss Busy Body” is a song that surprised even me. Henrique and I both discussed about a year ago how hard and heavy this funk stop was. It was extremely hard for 1983,with the electronic elements being tangy and brittle. It would’ve been heavy in the early/mid 70’s too if the Tempts had recorded it with Norman Whitfield then. Dennis Edwards always comes in at his very best on the hard funk numbers,with his thundering husky soul wail. The mixture of electro/boogie funk with earlier 70’s harder funk sounds all come out at their very hardest here-perhaps the Tempts funkiest songs of the early 80’s.
Billy Ocean,born almost 67 years ago this year in Trinidad as Leslie Sebastian Charles, decided to follow follow in his Grenadian father’s musical ambitions after his family moved him to Essex,England in 1960. He first got his taste of musical success singing in London clubs as a teenager while carving out a living for himself as a tailor. Recording his first album in 1976 in more of a Philly/Motown pop soul style,his second album in 1980’s City Limit had two songs in “Are You Ready” and “Stay The Night” that LaToya Jackson on her debut album the same here.
He broke out commercially in 1981 with the title track to his third album Nights (Feel Like Gettin’ Down. It was only a few more years before his string of new wave/disco hits such as “Caribbean Queen” and ballads such as “Suddenly” made him a superstar. In the early 80’s however, Billy Ocean was primarily a boogie funk artist with a very strong attention to song craft and keen understanding of a strong groove. His fourth album Inner Feelings was one I tracked down for a buck on vinyl. Its a wonderful album in this immediate pre-superstar boogie sound. And one of my favorite songs on it is called “Calypso Funkin'”
A jazzy synth brass chart starts off the intro to the song,which starts out as an Afro Brazilian percussion jaunt with a heavy slap bass line. This is accentuated by a slippery electric piano part along with Ocean’s vocals for several bars. And that’s when the boogie drums bring in the more straight ahead dance beat for the choruses-along with a nice fast paced funk rhythm guitar. Each chorus is accentuated by a silent break with a female sigh. There are two instrumental bridges to the song. One showcases a steel drum solo playing the changes. The other is a Vocorder solo before the chorus closes out the song entirely.
Even during his hit period,Billy Ocean never stopped expressing his Afrocentricity in different ways. He even re-recorded the lyrics to his song “Caribbean Queen” and re-titled it “African Queen” for release across continental Africa. “Calypso Funkin'” actually brings in the melodic and rhythmic influences of the vast spectrum of Calypso music deriving from Ocean’s native Trinidad-a music originally derived from West African Kaiso music with colonial French influences,into his post disco/boogie funk sound of 1982. Its another strong example of the Afrocentric musical elements still present in the boogie funk era.
It was Henrique who brought to my attention today that Kashif Saleem,born Michael Jones in NYC,passed away this last Sunday. The causes is still unknown as of now,and not that important. What does matter is that while Kashif was well known as a producer for other artists,it all stemmed from lesser sung achievements of his own. He joined the disco funk band B.T Express as a teenager for their third album Energy To Burn in 1976. He began producing for Evelyn King on her 1981 hit “I’m In Love”-beginning a long tradition of him producing funky female talent in the early 80’s. His talent went even further than that.
Alongside Stevie Wonder,Kashif is known as a synthesizer pioneer in funk/soul. He extended on Wonder’s work by creating sounds that became known as the boogie funk sound. That is mixing live rhythm sections with electronic orchestrations and melodies. He was an orphan who managed to get up of a very abusive foster family. While in primary school,he focused strongly on music. Even learning woodwind instruments-pretty rare for even multi instrumentalists. His self titled solo debut came out in 1983. The song that epitomizes his artistry on it for me is an instrumental entitled “The Mood”.
A strong,space heavy Afro Latin snare/hi hat drum starts off the song. The remainder of the song consists primarily of Kashif’s vocals and many layers of synthesizers. There’s a fluttering synth string,a wispy higher tones one in the back round and a brittle bass one accompanying the multi tracked layers of Kashif’s almost operatic,jazzy vocalese. On the refrains of the song,the melody goes into a higher key and a high funky rhythm guitar assists the melody. On the final choruses of the song,Kashif sings vocalese through a Vocoder before the song fades out.
Kashif’s boogie funk production style is generally spare but glistening enough to appeal to 80’s soul singers. But the moment I heard this instrumental 12 years ago,it was entrancing what a sonic marvel this really is. Its basically an Afro Latin jazz/funk number produced in the more electronic boogie style-with some beautiful chordal modulations and…just a general magical quality to the synthesized sounds created. Kashif will be remembered for me as someone able to get the most warmth out of 80’s era synthesizers. And I am hoping that will continue to be his most enduring musical legacy.
Shalamar are the vocal group Soul Train created. And the more I get into their music,the more I realize its potency. The band were the youthful embodiment of the post disco/boogie sound of the late 70’s to mid 80’s. It was also the springboard for the solo careers of the rangy singer Howard Hewett and the ultra funkified Jody Watley. One of the key members in terms of their performance ethic was guitarist,songwriter and above all choreographer Jeffrey Daniels. He’d been a partner dancer with Watley on the Soul Train line during the shows salad mid 70’s era. By the early 80’s,he was an unsung icon.
The reason I view Daniels as an icon today is because he showed Michael Jackson the dance move that made MJ’s career. Originally referred to as the back step,it became more popularly known as the Moonwalk-originally the name for the dance done in a complete circle. Daniels eventually helped choreograph the music videos for “Beat It” and others. On his own,Daniels ended up living between Osaka Japan and Nigeria,the latter of which he’s a judge on the local Idol program. His biggest creative input for Shalamar was on their 1981 album Go For It. In particular its closing jam “Rocker”.
Crowd sounds regarding band producer Leon Sylvers begin the song,continuing throughout. First the stomping,percussive funky drum kicks in. Then the thick,chord heavy slap bass kicks in before an open wah wah guitar kicks into the similarly themed refrain during the drum break. That refrain adds multiple keyboard and synth brass into the same brew with Daniels’ leading backup vocals. Towards the end of the song,the synth brass takes a strong and sustained presence over the main groove and crowd sounds. The lead vocals return as the song fades out.
“Rocker” has a rather different flavor than most uptempo Shalamar jams. Most of them were more lead/harmony vocal based in terms of the groove. Everything on this number is built around percussive drum breaks and slap bass solos. It was composed and sung primarily by Daniels himself. With its stripped down rhythms and atmospherics,this is the perfect type of funk for popping,locking or just about any type of 70’s era funk dancing Daniels was continuing to innovate during the videocentric early 80’s. On a purely musical end,its also some of Shalamar’s heaviest straight up funk.
Filed under 1980's, Boogie Funk, dancing, drums, Howard Hewett, Jeffrey Daniels, Jody Watley, moonwalk, post disco, Shalamar, slap bass, Soul Train, synth brass, wah wah
Bobby Caldwell is someone whom I’ve tended to view as a artists musician and something of the epidome of what they often call “grown folks music” these days. Another native New Yorker deep into jazz and classic pop/rock,Caldwell found musical homes in both Memphis and Miami. These cities are strong musical melting pots in and of themselves. Having myself recently dug right into his late 70’s/early 80’s albums,Caldwell has revealed himself to something of a solo multi instrumentalist Steely Dan musically. Only with rather more emotionally earnest and romantic lyrical content.
Caldwell’s West Coast style jazzy funk sound is best known to most through 1977’s “What You Won’t Do For Love”. Recently,Caldwell met up with producer Jack Splash while on tour-which Caldwell does frequently while also recording fairly consistently. Splash has been noted for his retro styled productions with folks such as Alicia Keys,Mayer Hawthorne,Cee Lo Green and many other similar artists in the neo soul/electro funk vein. Last year he and Caldwell collaborated on a project entitled Cool Uncle. One song that got my attention from this strong album is called “Never Knew Love Before”.
A thick,funky drum begins the song starts the song with pounding,right in the Afro Latin clave percussion. A slap bass brings in two different keyboard lines. One is a brittle synthesizer line playing the chord changes,and a splinkling electric piano plays the main melody somewhat in the back round. The drumming solos for a moment before the chorus comes in,which in turn adds a sustained slap bass line to the keyboards,drums and percussion. Breezy accenting horn charts (or samples-difficult for me to tell) play along with the song until the electric piano and sustained cymbal closes the it all out.
Caldwell’s talents as a multi instrumentalist are at top form on this song. One thing this song totally brings out about Caldwell’s talent is that he doesn’t write simplistic songs on any level. The boogie/electro funk has modern instrumental sounds for sure. Yet the entire musical content is hard core 80’s funkiness. Also its a song that celebrates arrangements. In a day and age where a lot of contemporary R&B songs have three or four basic chords, Caldwell delivers refrains,choruses and bridges with strong melodic differences. This really makes “Never Knew Love Before” stand out all the stronger as top notch nu funk.
Filed under 2015, Bobby Caldwell, Boogie Funk, drums, elecro funk, electric piano, horns, Jack Splash, jazz funk, multi instrumentalists, Nu Funk, percussion, slap bass, synthesizers