Charles Bradley’s cancer was made aware to me by my friend Henrique Hopkins about a year ago. That was a time I now refer to with weariness as the “funkpocalypse”. So many classic musical icons, both in and out of the soul/funk spectrum, were passing away faster than many could count it seemed. Again as Henrique pointed out recently, that was an unprecedented event. Bradley’s passing today reflects how the foreknowledge of his passing has provided the necessary time to reflect on where he fit into the contemporary soul/funk/R&B world.
Six years ago, a documentary film on the man was released entitled Charles Bradley: Soul Of America. Its one I haven’t seen. But there was a lot I already knew about him. He was raised by his grandmother in Gainesville, Florida. His mother had abandoned him as an infant. But by age eight, she took him back to live with her in Brooklyn, New York. Witnessing a James Brown show with his sister at the Apollo in 1962, Bradley became fascinated with perfecting JB’s vocal style and image at home. At 14, he ran away from home to escape the poverty of his life. For a time, he was essentially homeless.
After enlisting in the Job Corps, he ended up in Bar Harbor, Maine. He trained to be a chef there. He worked in that position for ten years. During this time, he overcame his stage fright. Mainly at the encouragement of co workers. He performed nights with a local band-who eventually got drafted into Vietnam. He then left Maine to travel out west. Eventually living in different areas of country. And performing small shows between odd jobs until 1996. At that time, he began working as a James Brown impersonator under the name of Black Velvet
This all occurred amidst trying to re-connect with his mother, almost dying after an allergic reaction to penicillin. Plus dealing with the murder of his brother. Finally in 2011, he became part of the Daptone label’s revival of late 60’s style soul & funk. And this is where my own saga with Bradley begins. I remember purchasing his first album No Time For Dreaming at Borders Books & Music-right as they were liquidating. I purchased his third album Changes during the time of finding out about his cancer diagnosis. In musical terms. I somehow still associate Charles Bradley with new beginnings.
Having been a predominantly Latino/African American man growing up in 80’s and 90’s Maine, its very compelling to me to think of a man who looked and sang so much like funk innovator James Brown being a chef in Bar Harbor. Although a port city in Maine with a good level of diversity, I am today very aware of the states less then 1% African American population. To think of a man like Charles Bradley first realizing his calling in Maine during the 1960’s is simply amazes me. Through all the man went through, he not only survived but thrived. And emerged as an artist fully funkified. He WILL be missed.
Just over ten days ago Larry Payton,the drummer for the Brooklyn based band Brass Construction passed away at the age of 62. The man was considered in the funk community as one of the major drummers of the day. Especially as danceable rhythms became a major musical priority in the disco era. Being that my mother was working in the modern dance field in mid 70’s NYC and was herself a Brooklyn native,it amazes me to think of all the powerful funk bands from Brass Construction to the Fatback Band having their days in the sun during that era. The story of this band and their musical breakthrough also runs very deep as well.
One of the bands founders Guyanese born Randy Muller. Originally founded as Dynamic Soul in Muller’s adopted home of Bedford-Stuyvesant (also my mom’s origin point),Brass Construction came out of an area blanketed by music as the funk era developed. A huge fan of the Afro-Latin percussion strains of Mongo Santamaria,the intellectually minded Muller turned down an offer for the band to sign to Motown’s Rare Earth imprint and signed the band to United Artists. Their self titled debut dropped in 1975. And it began with a song that would not only launch the band success wise,but also change the face of the funk for the rest of the decade. It was entitled “Movin'”.
The song begins with one of the heaviest horn blasts in funk before going into a quiet Fender Rhodes solo that launches into the main song. It is a hard hitting,percussive drum groove driven by hand-claps right on every beat. The rhythm guitar and a pumping, chordally jazz phrased bass line holds the groove steady as the horns play the main melody. A series of scaling chimes create a dream like atmosphere on top. On the refrains of the songs brittle wah wah guitar,sci fi synthesizers and the horns themselves each take on upfront soloing time. As the song goes on,these many combinations of rhythm and melody work with each other in funky unison until song fades out.
In terms of bringing the Afro Funk sound with it’s tight melodic horn charts and percussive drumming to the American public,”Movin'” really can’t be beat. With the emphasis on the basic 4/4 dance beat at the core,it was the nucleus of the New York disco sound that emphasized heavy funkiness. Payton’s drumming on this song echoed on through what would be heard on jams like “Running Away” from the Roy Ayers Ubiquity a couple of years after this. And this song was also kept funk’s Afrocentric identification intact in order to get people to really dance to their tune. This has made it one of the most enduring and important uptempo funk numbers of the mid 1970’s.
Filed under 1970's, Afro Funk, Afro-Cuban rhythm, Afrocentrism, Brass Construction, Brooklyn, disco funk, drums, Fender Rhodes, Funk, Funk Bass, horns, Larry Payton, New York, percussion, Randy Muller, rhythm guitar, synthesizer, Uncategorized
First time I ever heard Shuggie Otis perform was on an episode of Conan O’Brien in 2001. It was when his Inspiration Information album was reissued on Luaka Pop and suddenly there was an enormous demand for new music and performances by this once relatively obscure artist. Finally over a decade later we got that when Shuggie released Wings Of Love-an album of songs he’d recorded over the past 30-35 years. Still I’d always wanted to hear how he’d sound in a live setting. Bringing in a band that included his sons Eric and Nick for what he’s calling his Never Ending Tour,this album culls from a live date in Brooklyn NYC.
Of course it’s songs such as “Inspiration Information”,”Island Letter”,an elongated bluesy funk jam medley of “Sparkle City” and “Miss Pretty” and of course a version of “Aht Uh Mi Hed”-one of my favorite Shuggie Otis compositions in which the horn section plays the same part the Hammond Organ did on the original. “Tryin’ To Get Close To You”,”Me And My Woman” and “Doin’ What’s Right” present more of that Sly Stone-ish rhythm box based funk Shuggie expanded on as done in the live setting. “Sweetest Thing” is a slow,extended blues that goes on forever but really cooks as Shuggie’s guitar solo goes onto an organ on the next verse. “Wings Of Love” presents another elongated piece-playing out the Santana-like progressive fusion nature of the song. “Picture Of Love” and “Shuggie’s Boogie” both lay down the swinging blues thick while “Strawberry Letter#23” ends the affair on perhaps his best known song-done in a comfortable blend of his and the Brothers Johnson hit version.
All twelve of these performances here are wonderful. Shuggie Otis was much like Prince in terms of being the multi instrumentalist singer/songwriter/producer who seemed to be able to play a boundless array of musical styles. And this album album seems to play out that way. Very diverse running from funk to blues to progressive,exploratory jazz workouts. Of course after it’s over you realize one of the most important things about Shuggie Otis’s musical legacy-one that really shines onstage. And it’s that all of the music he plays represents links on one singular chain. And rather than play one link such as just the 12 bar blues? Shuggie explores the whole chain from top to bottom. And hearing him do this within a band context makes the whole affair all the more powerful to contemplate.
Originally Posted On October 16th,2014
Link to original review*