The Five Stairsteps were the prototype family soul group-predating the Jackson 5 and The Sylvers by several years. They were made up of five out of the six children of Betty and Clarence Burke,a detective for the CPD. They were Alohe Jean, James, Clarence Jr., Dennis and Kenneth-known as Keni. For a brief time, the late Cubie Burke (the youngest brother” was part of the outfit. The became known as Chicago’s “first family of soul”. Their second album Our Family Portrait yeilded the hit “Something’s Missing’. But their best known song was 1970’s “O-o-h Child”.
By that time, the group were known as The Stairsteps. Alohe left the group in 1972. This was just before the group were brought to The Beatles attention by Billy Preston. After a five year hiatus, Preston and Robert Margouleff all came together to produce a comeback along with The Stairsteps-in their new configuration as a quartet. This 1976 album was entitled 2nd Resurrection. I’ve never heard the entire album. But what I’ve heard about it is that, it had a more synthesizer oriented sound. One song I did hear from it was the Keni Burke composition “From Us To You”.
Alvin Taylor’s drums come right in along with Preston’s wailing synthesizer. It keeps a steady, occasionally marching rhythm throughout. The main melody is first played by the harmonizing of Preston’s synth and Dennis Burke’s guitar for a massive melodic sound. This also represents the chorus of the song. Between each chorus, Preston harmonizes with himself on his honky tonk piano, bluesy polyphonic synth riffing and sustained organ. For much of the rest of the song, the Stairsteps vocal harmonies and adlibs sing right along with Preston until the organ fades out on the main melody.
“From Us To You” doesn’t sound to me like anything I’d ever think The Five Stairsteps (by any other name) would do. The drawling chorus, style of singalong melody and the thick groove of the music is far closer in flavor to the Brothers Johnson’s “I’ll Be Good To You” or a Graham Central Station number. Of course, Billy Preston’s instrumentation probably has a lot to do with its heavy funkiness. Interestingly enough, the Preston connection got the band signed to George Harrison’s Dark Horse label to make this album as well. And it certainly started with a strongly funkified new direction for them.
Cora Anne Walton, best known as Koko Taylor, came from being the daughter of a sharecropper in Tennessee to become one of the many singers on the early 50’s Chicago blues scene. First arriving with her truck driving husband in 1952, she was discovered by Chess Records talent scout/songwriter/session player extraordinaire Willie Dixon. She made her first singles during the 60’s. Including her first version of Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle”. While she got her first recording contract later in the decade from Alligator Records, Taylor’s best known musical outlet was through her live performances.
My parents both saw Koko Taylor perform twice in the early 1990’s. It was at the Hauck Auditorium at the University of Maine. My mother, normally not a concert fan, described Taylor as one of the most powerful stage presences she’d ever experienced. Through a blog dealing with the printed word, the sensations of the live concert experience isn’t always possible to convey with great accuracy. So it seemed appropriate to focus on one of her studio recordings that came close to capturing Taylor’s presence. One of them is the opening track of her 1969 debut album entitled “Love You Like A Woman”.
The songs groove consists of a heavy funky drum at the heart of the music. The rhythm guitar plays some chunky lines surrounded every little break in the rhythm. The bass plays an elaborate set of runs and walk downs whenever the rhythm needs it. Throughout most of the song, the horn section plays the roll of accentuating Taylor’s vocal leads. On the chorus of the song, the horns play a more sustained and melodic role in the song. The drums and a chicken scratch style of guitar makes up the a B section to that chorus. Several chorus/refrain sequences are played out before the song fades out.
“Love You Like A Woman” is a late 60’s song that encompasses that era in black American music very thoroughly. The song surely has soul-with its right on time message of a lady having to rule the roost in a household. Its also played with the utmost amount of funk-instrumentally influenced by the approach of James Brown and Stax. Structurally however, the song is all the way 12 bar electric blues. Much as with her contemporary Etta James, Koko Taylor was (especially with the help of Willie Dixon) able to show the versatility of the blues form in the era when soul and funk music was ascendant.
Peter Brown’s early history in his native Illinois (in the Chicago area to be more exact) almost seemed set up for him to be a major musical player in the future. His mother was artistically and musically talented enough to give him music lessons from an early age. His father’s career as a electronic engineering inspired young Brown’s interest on the technical end of music. He provided his son with different tape records. By the time he was an adult, Brown became a pioneer of the ARP synthesizer. Even becoming a spokesman for the instrument for a time.
Brown was fortunate enough to begin his musical career during the 70’s-when the psychedelic stew,funk and later disco era made for a much more diverse variety of popular music in America. Brown ended up with the Miami based TK label. There he met his first circle of musical cohorts-including his first producer Cory Wade. In 1977 Brown released a 12 inch single that would go on to become the first gold single in history. It would be included in another version on this debut album A Fantasy Love Affair a year later. It was called “Do You Wanna Get Funky With Me”.
A low,thundering burst of ARP synth bass and a higher textural tone begin the song over a pounding 4/4 disco beat. Then the main groove of the song comes in. The four on the floor beat is accented by spicy percussion,a slow rhythm and a thick bass popping/wah wah rhythm guitar interaction on the refrain. The choruses bring back the higher pitched ARP. On the bridge,the percussion is a slow Brazilian grind with a bumping synth bass,female vocal and synth brass accents. This groove holds together for 3 whole minutes until the refrain/chorus goes up in key to fade out the entire song.
“Do You Wanna Get Funky With Me” is one of the best examples I’ve heard of what my friend Henrique calls “funk functioning as disco”. The 4/4 dance beat is locked down tight for sure. The percussion also has a hard driving Latin vibe. And the synth/guitar/bass interaction-along with Brown and his backup singers screams, are out of the school of straight up hard funk. The use of synthesizers for the brass section over a hard funk groove reminds me of a less condensed version of Prince’s late 70’s sound as well. Major record that I’m happy to have had the pleasure of recently hearing for the first time.
Terry Callier is a lesser known figure among the Chicago music scene of the 1960’s. He was a childhood friend of some of the city’s future musical starts out of Record Row-in particular Impressions’ Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield. Callier eventually took after Mayfield as a guitar player and signed to Cadet at the end of the 60’s. Difference is Callier was as more of a folk storyteller. During that time,he began to take on a jazz influence to his pieces inspired by John Coltrane’s music. He recorded several acclaimed albums in the early 70’s and toured in support of Gil Scott-Heron and George Benson.
It was again my father who introduced me to Terry Callier about 12 years ago. It was through a reissue of a 1977 album called Fire On Ice,which was his debut on the Elektra label and was then getting a reissue on CD. It was also made clear about the gentle jazz/folk hybrid sound Callier was better known for. And that this 1977 album was not indicative of his usual sound. Sounded like something that was waiting to be heard based on that description. Of course there are still many folksy ballads on this album,the song that really stood out as being somewhat unique for Callier here was called “Street Fever”.
Michael Boddicker starts out playing a revving,unaccompanied guitar synthesizer-featuring a break with a thick popping sound before an up-scaling space funk synthesizer brings the cymbal heavy drum part in. On the refrain,the snare drums come in playing a slicker beat with the synthesizers playing multiple stacked melodies behind it. On the second chorus,the horns begin playing in close unison to the synthesizers. There is a screaming rock guitar solo on the final refrains-with eventually breaks off into the space funk synthesizer from earlier before the song comes to a quick halt.
This is a flat out amazing song in the sense it anticipates the brittle,new wave inflected sound of new wave and naked funk by several years. And that of course was the same thing the Isley Brothers were doing at the same time with tunes like “Livin’ In The Life”. Callier adds some tough 12 bar blues choruses to the affair-along with some percussive vocal grunts and shouts. At the same time,there is a strong production slickness to it. Since like the rest of it’s accompanying album it was recorded in Chicago,it showcased that the windy city was still rife with innovative funk/rock/soul sounds at the end of the 1970’s.
Don Myrick,the tenor saxophonist for Earth Wind & Fire’s Phenix Horns from 1975 to 1982,passed away over twelve years ago. Today would’ve been his birthday. He played solos on key songs such as Phillip Bailey’s vocal showcase on the live rendition of “Reasons” on the bands Gratitude album,as well their 1979 hit “After The Love Has Gone”. The mans way with jazzy harmonics was by no means limited to ballads. Myrick first met Maurice White as members of the Chicago band The Pharaohs-which also included future Phenix Horns trombonist Louis Satterfield. And it all came together for White and Myrick through the man that got Maurice’s career going to start with: Ramsey Lewis.
It was actually on EWF’s Gratitude album that I first heard the song “Sun Goddess”. It was a live version where Maurice announced that they were going to perform a song they’d done with Ramsey Lewis. I knew of this windy city soul jazz piano master from my father playing his Don’t It Feel Good album on vinyl for me around the same time. Just before I wrote this,Henrique Hopkins informed me that the studio version of “Sun Goddess” was basically an afterthought jam. And he and EWF felt the song off the album of that same title would be “Hot Dawgit”. But in the end this song ended up redefining Ramsey Lewis as a major player on the 70’s jazz funk scene.
Johnny Graham just strums away on a thick,rhythmic guitar on two chords-going up and down note wise. Verdine White supplies the thick yet metronome like bass.. Maurice himself kicks in the song on bass drum before Phillip Bailey’s conga’s kick in. Charles Stepney himself adds both the ARP string countering the rhythm guitar while adding a Fender Rhodes solo right along with it. On the choruses,Maurice and Phillip sing a beautifully melodic Brazilian style vocalese. On the second refrain of the song Don Myrick comes in with a sometimes squonking free-bop jazz style tenor sax solo. On the third,Ramsey comes in for his own Rhodes solo which closes out the song.
For all intents and purposes, this is an Earth Wind & Fire song instrumentally. Ramsey himself acted as an arranger and producer for it. As well as a soloist. It’s a musical showcase for the sonically beautiful tonality that funk rhythms and jazz harmonies can create when combined together by great musical talents. The sound of this jam creates such a visual impression in the mind. The guitar and keyboard orchestrations Stepney provided bring to mind the rising sun on a clear and hot summer morning,at least to me anyway. And with this combination of two talent’s (Ramsey’s and EWF’s) whom I’ve always respected,this is a reminder why funk is my main and favorite basis for music.
Filed under 1970's, ARP synthesizer, Charles Stepney, Chicago, Don Myrick, drums, Earth Wind & Fire, Fender Rhodes, Funk Bass, jazz funk, Johnny Graham, Maurice White, percussion, Philip Bailey, Ramsey Lewis, rhythm guitar, Saxophone, Uncategorized, Verdine White