Tag Archives: Chess Records

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Mean Mother” by Etta James

Etta James has one of the biggest voices,both literally and figuratively among the female blues and soul vocalists of her day. She was also a survivor. As much as many writers tend to literarily paint black artists of her day seem as if they lived within impenetrable emotional armor,Etta survived by being able to an occasional gentle laugh at some of the troubles that marred most of her life. As what could be described as a prime example of the Silent Generation OG figure at Chicago’s famous Chess Records,changes in music over the decades seemed to roll off of her. Not to mention the musicians and producers who helped her creatively reshape herself.

One of the saddest legacies of Etta’s life was the fact that so much of it was marred by periods of substance abuse. First it was heroin throughout the prime of her career. Than an addiction to prescription drugs in her final years. On the other hand,she almost always looked her best and gave her best performances outside of her personal situation. Following a 1970’s spent in and out of rehab, Etta transitioned in the next decade by teaming up with the recently passed New Orleans writer/producer/performer Allen Toussaint for her 1980 album Changes. The album begins with a bang right out of the box with “Mean Mother”.

That snarling,high pitched rhythm guitar wail that introduces many classic funk grooves gets this one going along with a powerful drum kick. Then the percussion accents kick in with thick sustained Clavinet riffing,blocky acoustic piano and the massive deep bass line holding everything up comes into play. On the rapped intro of Etta’s the drums are subordinated to the percussion. On each chorus,her vocals are accompanied by scaling down horns-which call out from the bottom up on the end of each rhythm statement of the song. The opening guitar snarl also takes a similar position on the last couple choruses of the song before it fades right out of earshot.

Etta James made some magnificent uptempo grooves and ballads over the years. The advent of funk in the 70’s seemed almost tailor made for her deep,resonant growl of a voice. This instrument of tough control and sophistication gets all it’s assistance from this song which showcase how funk is often blues played with a raw rhythm attitude instrumentally and a clean sound to top off on. The thickness of this groove is very similar in flavor to Gil Scott-Heron’s “Shut ‘Em Down” of the same vintage-only minus the synthesizer touches. It’s tale of living as “a child of god born to a family black” extends on the ever present soul power she possessed.

 

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Filed under 1980's, Allen Toussaint, Chess Records, Chicago, clavinet, drums, Etta James, Funk, Funk Bass, percussion, rhythm guitar, Uncategorized

Anatomy of THE Original Super Heavy Funk for 4/27/2015: “Mighty Mighty (Spade And Whitey)” by The Impressions

One of the important things I’ve learned about Curtis Mayfield over the years is the extent of which his social consciousness evolved. This was also an important factor in America’s silent generation as a whole-extending across the nations color and economic lines. Starting out as mainly the composer/guitarist for The Impressions,Curtis soon became the bands lead singer as well. He became something of a windy city whiz kid-writing and producing for other acts as well. This not only changed the entire trajectory of his musical career. But re-focused the thematic priorities of himself,Sam Gooden and Fred Cash as well.

Throughout the 1960’s,this Chicago powerhouse vocal trio continually churned out songs such as “Keep On Pushing”,”Amen” and of course “People Get Ready”-all anthems of the civil rights movement and released between the march on Washington and the murder of Malcolm X. With later songs such as “We’re A Winner”? It was clear the confidence of the civil rights movement was evolving into the black power movement-for America and The Impressions. In 1969,following the murders of Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy a year before? Donny Hathaway co-produced the bands 1969 album The Young Mod’s Forgotten Story,which included another powerful song in “Mighty Mighty (Spade And Whitey)”.

First thing heard on this song is an enthusiastic,youthful applause before a thundering drum roll inaugurates the calling outcry of the Memphis soul style  horn section that does a call and response dance with Curtis’s gurgling wah wah guitar. Throughout the main body of the song? The rolling beat is accented by a JB style mid pitched rhythm guitar. Before the horn sections emerge again,there’s a brief low blues guitar as well. On the chorus of the song,a sustained gospel style organ comes in to keep pushing the main melody of the song forward. Towards the end of the song,before the chorus closes out the song,the vocals of The Impressions completely recede while Curtis does a full Albert King style amplified blues solo.

In all honesty? Today is the first day that I’ve ever actually heard this song. Sometimes however? A first impression (pun more intended than I was hoping it to be) can say a thousand words. On two very important levels? This song speaks to two viewpoints of the cultural changes in race relations at that time. Musically the song is just about at the perfect intersection between the contemporary funk explosions of James Brown and the Chicago style urban blues that was coming out of the Chess label only a decade earlier. Lyrically it’s a similar situation. On one hand Curtis is very earnest in schooling the young that the power structure of America will be weakened as “we’re killing up our leaders” and “we all know it’s wrong”. By the end of the song he muses “if your cut you’re gonna bleed/might I get a little deeper/human life is from the semen seed”. This song musically and lyrically speaks so deeply into the primal nature of racial violence? It deserves to be understood in 2015 as much as in the late 60’s.

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Filed under 1960's, black power, Blues, Bobby Kennedy, Chess Records, Chicago, civil rights, Curtis Mayfield, Fred Cash, Funk, funk guitar, horns, James Brown, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Sam Gooden, The Impressions, wah wah

Seeing The Music: Andre’s Guide To Funk,Soul & Jazz Documentary Essentials!

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                   During the time I was growing up,the majority of men  around me were mainly interested in watching sports on television and action films in the movie theaters. From adolescence onward, the one thing that moved me in both media were musical documentaries about the black American musical spectrum that I was then absorbing like a sponge. The understanding of rhythm and harmony I received from seeing these musicians perform,speak of their histories along with the music they made provided me with a full sensory experience far beyond what I could’ve received from the limited literature of the era I was receiving.

                        Initially I was going to combine documentary films with biopics in the same blog. Since dramatizations  are a completely different medium of film making technique? Decided instead to break them up in separate but related blogs. Also because I received a very different level of education from them as well. Before hand,some of these documentaries are very hard to find even on YouTube. Many have never even been issued on DVD. Yet I highly recommend seeking all of them out if you are looking to seek out a first hand education on the soul,jazz,funk and R&B musical spectrum.

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        This aired on PBS in 1995. The eighth part of it focused specifically on the genre of funk and it’s development from James Brown on through George Clinton. The final volume focused on hip-hop. The names of Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash first came to me through watching this documentary. Not to mention the knowledge of rap’s musical roots in Jamaican reggae DJ’s such as Kool Herc. While some of the narrative commentary shows a limited understanding of the connectivity of black American music’s connectivity? The insights of interviewees such as Maceo Parker,Alan Leeds,George Clinton,Afrika Bambaataa and Chuck D are extremely insightful to what drove the music forward.

record row cradle of rhythm and blues

Narrated by the late Chess Records icon Etta James,this documentary not only opened my eyes to understanding the history of blues,soul and funk in 60’s Chicago. But was also the first glimpse I got into the idea of black American financial empowerment. Jerry Butler explained it best in this when describing how Curtis Mayfield starting his Curtom label,taking control of his publishing,took the Chicago scene into the funk era by closing down the era of people such as Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker functioning as “musical sharecroppers”.

The strong emphasis this has on United Record Distributors,the only black American record distributors  in their time run by the Leaner brothers,proved extremely significant in my understanding of black America’s experience with capitalism for years to come. And the level of communication in the civil rights era through the iconic radio station WVON,such a significant force in the city that if an artist wasn’t on their play list,record stores would not stock their music. Possibly my favorite musical documentary all told.

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It was this epic documentary mini series,hosted by Diana Ross that really allowed me to understand the internal workings of Motown records. From it’s foundational years when Berry Gordy,having failed as a record store owner in Detroit,began writing songs for Jackie Wilson. And then borrowed $800 from his family to start what become an American musical institution. A black American institution. The interviews follow Motown’s changes from it’s salad period in the mid 60’s,through the funk and disco era when the artists had the most creative control,on through Berry deferring ownership of the company in the mid 80’s through it’s resurgence with vocal boy bands and then Puff Daddy Combs remixing the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back”. A very complete and thorough history on The Sound Of Young America.

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Overall I’d apply the same viewpoint to this documentary as I would apply to PBS’s  Rock ‘N’ Roll from seven years earlier. It’s understanding of musical connectivity,absolutely key to jazz,is more limited to the participants (such as Ken Burns  and Wynton Marsalis) perceptions of the music than it is lacking. Yet the decision to weave an internal documentary on the life and career of Louis Armstrong as a key figure in jazz is double edged: it didn’t quite succeed in term of historical continuity but did showcase how the aspect of modern black American musical might’ve derived from Armstrong’s approach. I learned about important sociological figures in the music such as Buddy Bolden,James Reese Europe and Sidney Bechet here as well. With the help of my father’s asides,this helped complete my historical understanding of jazz.

Scratch

Went to Portland Maine to see this movie,in a little movie theater underground of a local clotherie. It was actually a suitable environment for this film. It traces Grand Mixer DST’s pioneering turntable work with Herbie Hancock on his “Rockit” project. It than goes on to discuss the fine art of crate digging for used vinyl by hip-hop scratch artists. There was no irony to the fact that I was myself crate digging myself,only for my personal listening pleasure and musical enlightenment,less than an hour after seeing this in the used record stores of the city of Portland. One of those films that was both influential and validating exactly at the time I saw it.

Earth Wind & Fire Shinning Stars

Probably the one documentary I was the most excited to learn about upon it’s release. It follows the ascension of Maurice White from his childhood in Memphis to switching his college major from premed to music and playing with the Ramsey Lewis Trio before forming his first and second incarnations of Earth,Wind & Fire. The fact that bassist/trombonist Louis Satterfield,saxophonist Andrew Woolfolk,drummer Ralph Johnson and guitarist Al McKay go deeply into their own insights on how music functioned in terms of being a member of Earth Wind & Fire during it’s prime period.

Stevie Wonder Classic Albums

In terms of the Rhino Classic Album series? This now very hard to find DVD interviews all of the musicians involved in the long winded and dramatic recording sessions to what is considered Stevie Wonder’s shinning musical pinnacle. Stevie demonstrates the double keyboarded Yamaha GX-1 (known as the Dream Machine)- a polyphonic synthesizer I find sonically and visually impressive. Another favorite part is where Stevie showcases how his musical acumen allowed him to cover over for a harmonic solo at the end of “Isn’t She Lovely” that a harmonica player of his caliber shouldn’t have made. Hearing the musical insights of this mans inner visions was a hugely important musical milestone for me.

Marvin Gaye Life & Death Of

Marvin Gaye’s history has,especially in the hands of author David Ritz,was generally depicted for me literarily in extremely magisterial terms. This BBC documentary,one that came my way through a life changing act of barter in itself,really did a lot to put more of a human face on the complexities of Marvin Gaye’s musical and personal life. Through interviews with the artist himself and penetrating reenactments of the even of his childhood? I’d recommend this as the best available visual documentation on Marvin Gaye.

Tom Dowd

Tom Dowd is probably listed as the producer of more albums than anyone in American music history. This man started out working for the Manhattan Project on the atomic bomb. And his career as a producer extends throughout both the black music and rock era spectrum-an array of artists as diverse as John Coltrane to Lynyrd Skynyrd. The amazing about this documentary isn’t merely the musical history. But Down provides an inside look,right at the mixing board,onto how he instrumentally layered songs such as “Layla”. A key story for understanding the intricacies of the musical creative process.

Bob Marley

For many years Bob Marley was mainly known to me as a superficial icon of a certain local stoner culture,one that tended to feel sociopolitical change derived solely from drug use and how it changed the consciousness. This story chronicles the complex wheel of Marley’s musical life-starting from his childhood in Trenchtown,Kingston in Jamaica through his near assassination attempt in 1976 through his passing on from Melanoma in 1981. This really broke it down exactly what about his back-round and viewpoint on the Jamaican music industries corruption that motivated the sociopolitical consciousness of the reggae music he helped to pioneer and export the world over in his lifetime.

Respect Yourself

It was thanks to Netflix that I found out about this documentary about Soulville USA! Stax Records were both the rival and opposite to Motown’s business model during it’s mid 60’s heyday. This is extremely thorough on it’s representation of Stax literally rising back from the dead following the double cross of Jerry Wexler’s Atantic Records ownership over Stax’s catalog following the death of Otis Redding, the labels burgeoning social consciousness embodied in Isaac Hayes,the Staple Singers and Wattstax during the early 70’s and financial bloating bringing the label down mid decade. Than Stax came back decades later-with a music school for young musicians to boot. Especially following the creative managing of Al Bell and interviews with many of the artists from Stax’s heyday? This is the essential story of Southern Soul from when Stax really bought the funk into the music.

Michael Jackson Life Of An Icon

Michael Jackson’s story has been re-purposed in the media so many times? It is nearly impossible to approach his life story with total objectivity. Thus far,this is one documentary that does the best job of doing so. For one,it concentrates on Mike’s late teens and early adulthood in terms of his musical development. And by interviewing everyone from Bobby Taylor,who first discovered the Jackson’s performing onto 80’s era manager Frank Dileo? It strips away some of the overbearing adulation and downright hero worship that this distinctive and funky musical talent found somewhat responsible for his own end. An end that came far too soon. Probably the essential Michael Jackson documentary thus far.

unsung_logo2012-wide

Unsung is an unprecedented documentary series on the cable network TV One. The reason for it’s importance is that it profiles an often underrated musical icons from within the soul/funk spectrum. And does so with a great level of care and compassion. As of now I’ve not been privileged to see every episode of the series. Yet the stories of people such as Tammi Tarrell,David Ruffin,Donny Hathaway,Full Force,Angela Bofill and Heatwave lead singer Johnnie Wilder provided an excellent insight into artists either misrepresented or not even spoken of broadly in other media circles.

Finding Fela

It was a reference in Paul McCartney’s documentary Wingspan that first gave me indication to the name Fela Anikulapo Kuti. This story probably brings my understanding of the African American musical spectrum near to it’s final stages. My conversations with blogging partner Rique are consistently referencing Kuti. And this film really expands on that understanding. The understanding of Fela as the Nigerian James Brown,whom he in fact was very highly influenced by through travelling through America during the years of black power in the late 60’s.

While the man bought the sound and social consciousness of total rhythm into his combination of African Highlife and jazz-funk?  He also set upon living a lifestyle of breaking down conventions,largely coming out of the corruption that led to tragic events such as the murder of his own mother. This really embodies the full spectrum of emotion a life can have-from pioneering,to humorous to tragic. And it also helps bring out peoples understanding and misunderstanding of what African culture is really all about.


Sometimes when I try to encourage people to watch more documentaries,they often respond by saying that they find them boring. At the end of the day they say? They want to escape,not learn. What I’ve personally come to understand is that knowledge functions as both a destination and an escape. Just depends on how you receive it. Being lectured at about topics by a teacher isn’t always the idea method of education. Yet through documentaries on a favorite subject? One can experience first hand,sometimes comic history,joy and tears from the viewpoint of all involved.  And for me? These have all provided the ultimate in learning while being simultaneously entertained.

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Filed under 1990s, Bob Marley, Chicago, crate digging, Earth Wind & Fire, Etta James, Fela Kuti, Funk, George Clinton, Heatwave, Herbie Hancock, James Brown, Jazz, Ken Burns, Louis Armstrong, Marvin Gaye, Maurice White, Mavis Staples, Memphis Soul, Michael Jackson, Portland Maine, reggae, Stax, Stevie Wonder, Tom Dowd, Unsung series, Vee-Jay

Anatomy of THE Groove 09/05/14 Rique’s Pick : “Give We the Pride” by Chuck D & Mavis Staples

For todays Friday Funk song, we again turn to Chuck D, aka Mista Chuck, this time alongside one of the great funky soul activist matriarch singers of the Civil Rights and Black Power era’s, Ms. Mavis Staples of the Staple Singers. “Give We the Pride” is both an evolution of the self respect messages of Public Enemy as well as a milenial take on classic Staple Singers songs such as “We the People”, “This World”, and “Respect Yourself”, uber funky cuts all that encouraged self love and respect as black people moved into the new vistas at the end of the era of Jim Crow. It represents a continuation of the growth and evolution of Chuck D and Public Enemy’s sound, as Chuck raps over a band playing a new, milenial version of the type of funky soul they grew to fame and acclaim by sampling. The circle is complete, as Chuck and co have gone from keeping the funk alive by sampling it to actually laying it down with a matriarch of the music like Ms. Mavis Staples.

The track is a funky soul, late 60s, early 70s groove. Full band sound, with rhythm section augmented by organ pads, and a horn section including the heavy horns like Baritone sax. The drum beat is very kinetic and hyperactive, and the groove is based on a syncopated riff played by the bass and guitar, the instruments hit that riff for two bars and then rest, with the organ chords then taking up the space they vacated. This creates a nice stop and start feeling to the groove. The drum fills in at various points, and they very interestingly drop the drums out of the track at certain intervals to highlight the vocals, both for Chuck’s rhymes and Mavis Staples singing.

Ms. Staples vocals are fine soul grit, and her message is one that encourages black people today, young people in particular, telling them, “we need pride to survive.” She has a line I really dig where she questions black people’s current materialistic consumption, saying we don’t need all of the expensive labels, because, “Instead of worrying bout the clothes and jewlery/that don’t do nothing for me/because we got the/best, most beautiful/brown or chocolate/cocoa butter skin/in the world.” Ms. Staples lyrics are phrased like a prayer for Pride for black people in this current time, and its much appreciated from a great artist such as her who’s led many times through her art, along with her family.

While Mama Mavis prays for the children and admonishes them, Uncle Chuck takes the adults to task for being corrupters of the young, saying “I’m seeing old folks applaud/nonsense we cannot afford.” One of Chuck’s pet peeves has been what he feels is a lack of leadership and admonishment coming from our current crop of black middle aged folks and elders.

The video itself is special as well. As Chuck D takes a trip to Chicago and records with Ms. Mavis in the Chess records studio. Chuck also shoots scenes near black cultural landmarks such as the Ebony/Jet publishing building. The use of Chicago in particular is signifigant, with the rampant kiling that has been going on in that great city recently. Chuck does his part in this song and video to address and better that situation as well by pointing out the positive aspects of black peoples history and struggle in a city like Chi-Town.

“Give We the Pride” finds Chuck D in a new format for his music and message, rhyming in front of a band as hes done for the last decade, alongside one of his inspirations. Mavis Staples and The Staple Singers are one of the main influences on Public Enemy’s music, one of the reasons those brothers couldn’t see things going in a bad direction and be silent. Chucks voice is even thicker, and he rhymes in longer, more complete thoughts and sentences as opposed to the old choppy approach. Its as if the longer phrases of the new music also inspire a longer sentence structure. Chuck ain’t trying to be cute here! And the song itself is a cool merger of two different generations of artistic activists, coming together and using their great voices to motivate the people in the new Milenium. “Let me walk with my head up high/let me know that I’m fly.”

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Filed under 1970's, 1980's, 1990s, Blogging, Chuck D, Funk, Funk Bass, Hip-Hop