Much as injecting personal affairs into this blog has been controversial on many different ends? It’s unavoidable in this case. 2015 has proven to be a year consisting of many hardships, challenges and often misery for humanity. On the creative end of that? It was deeply soul destroying for me when Ronnie and Charlie Wilson sued both Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars for credit in their massive hit “Uptown Funk”. Unsure what upsets me more: that the surviving Wilson brothers were negating their own possible comeback over greed? Or because of the fact that they themselves could be accused of musical plagiarism of P-Funk with their 1979 hit “Oops Upside Your Head”.
The matter was so distressing on this end that it became one of a bucket list of reasons why I took a six month hiatus from this blog to begin with. And why it may not be as it was again in the future. Still? Nothing in creativity is carved in stone. Not funk music,not the Gap Band and not even the future of either. And it reminded me of a time (the late 1990’s) when I was collecting Gap Band CD’s with great enthusiasm. And noticing the resemblance of the vocal timbre of “Uncle” Charlie Wilson and Stevie Wonder. At the conclusion of their 1983 release Gap Band V: Jammin’? A collaboration between the Wilson’s and Wonder finally occurred with a song entitled “Someday”. And it had a lot more to say beyond even that.
It’s actually one of the few funk,soul or R&B numbers I’ve heard that not only has a cold start both musically and vocally. But it also maintains that basic character throughout the entire song. The rhythmic body of the song is a steady drum beat accentuated by rolling percussion-that train like motion the Wilson’s tended to specialize in. The main melodic phrase is a very Wonder-like synthesized Clavinet-like baroque classical one-though likely played by Charlie himself. And this is accessorized by a slippery synth bass line. On the bridge? Wonder does provide an appropriate harmonica solo before leading into the pleasing,gospel soul vocal coda as the song fades out.
Charlie,Ronnie and the late Robert Wilson were not only successful at adapting the approach of Stevie Wonder into their own funk style on this song, but also gave up the props by gleefully collaborating with the artist himself-without whom the sound of the song wouldn’t have been so possible. This spirit of creative unity goes well with the beautifully stated tribute to the struggle for civil rights. And to the then yet unrecognized holiday in tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It’s one of the most eloquently layered and topical of the Gap Band’s songs. It may never have been recognized due to not being a hit. But it may be one of the Wilson’s crowning musical (and proudly funky) achievements.
By the time 1980 rolled around? The new decade found The Commodores as basically Motown’s premiere band. One capable of delivering on the hardest funk and the most delicately crafted,down home country soul ballads. Considering the band members all met at Tuskegee Institute,at the height of the civil rights and black power movements? It only seemed appropriate that as the less than certain social/racial atmosphere of the then new decade began to reveal itself? That the band would find a meaningful way to comment on the situation. This came in the form of the title song to the bands release from that year entitled Heroes.
Walter Orange starts of the song with a loud drum kick and proceeds to brush away lightly. All over a string and horn chart that descends into a stripped down ballad with Lionel Richie’s plaintive vocal lead accompanied by Milan William’s acoustic guitar-with accents from Ron LePread’s round slap bass licks. On the choruses? The drum kicks off into more of a big beat type sound-along with an almost rather staccato Brazilian type guitar lick. On the final refrain of the song? The band all join together for a heavy,bass/guitar driven funk stomp where the string section plays the bluesy melodic accents of that very same bass/guitar interaction right along with it.
Instrumentally speaking? This song showcases the strong musical breadth that The Commodores possessed during their prime. The focus of this song is often very spare-with the acoustic guitar,light drum brushing and bass accents leading much of it. In the tradition of mid 70’s Motown hits such as “Love Hangover” that showcased strong juxtapositions of groove and changes in tempo? This song starts out in a manner that doesn’t particularly suggest it’s ever going to be a funk jam. Yet that’s just what it becomes by the end. And it’s not an abrupt change. The changes in tempo,rhythm and feeling changes throughout the song-so the transition into hard funkiness is totally natural.
Much of the strong mood music this song presents comes out of it’s lyrical content. In addition to their Southern American heritage? Growing up in the era of the major civil rights gains of the 1950’s? This song eloquently and beautifully pays tribute to many of the historical figures and leaders who helped to advance the cause of liberation for black Americans over time. And interestingly enough does so without naming specific names. Well aware of the importance and rarity of them having black management in the personage of the late Benny Ashburn? This song basically speaks to the vital significance of being able to have internal icons black American’s can celebrate. In today’s world where some black people seem to all too easily apologize for even the cruelest of white racists? This is a song that I feel more young people today should hear and know something about in terms of it’s subtext.
Filed under 1980's, ballads, Benny Ashburn, civil rights, Funk, Funk Bass, Heroes, Lionel Richie, Milan Williams, Motown, Ronald LePread, The Commodores, Tuskegee University
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.
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
With my end of this shared blog making it’s 100th post today? I wanted to personally dedicate this to the memory of the late poetess and human rights champion Maya Angelou-who left this Earth in the summer of 2014. I’ve already shared a song she did with Ashford & Simpson in the mid 90’s But during her final year she teamed up with multi instrumentalist Shawn Rivera to record her reciting her poetry rhythmically over a contemporary hip-hop style backing for the 2014 posthumous release Caged Bird Songs,which leads off with the number “Human Family”.
The song leads off with a sizzling bass synthesizer tone which goes into a higher electronic alarm sound over which Angelou declares “It is time for the preachers,the rabbis,the priests,pundits and the professors to believe in the awesome wonder of diversity”. A driving uptempo drum machine kicks in with a song that musically interchanges instrumental gears between each refrain. The first refrain showcases a gentler variation of that synthesized alarm sounding effect playing rhythmically very much in the vein of the late 80’s Bomb Squad sound,while the second refrain features a grinding and funky rhythm guitar solo from Rivera.
Maya Angelou was one of those people who epitomized the female black American side of what writer William Strauss famously coined as the Silent Generation. This generation,born during the second half of the Harlem Renaissance into the Great Depression were likely the most important black American generation of the 20th century. They were the generation of the civil rights and black power movements,of Rosa Parks,Martin Luther King Jr,Malcolm X,Bobby Seale and Huey Newton. When there’s such a spiraling level of positive change going on? It’s always helpful to have a sage maternal figure with a kindly dignity speaking of it in the literary sense. Maya was that person. And this deeply rooted nature of hers is dripping from this song like tears of tremendous joy.
Lyrically Angelou’s poem about the human family displays a series of situations in which people can possibly relate-at one point stating that while some are serious,others live for comedy. But either way? The reception of important values are still there. The central point of the song is Angelou’s statement “in minor ways we differ,in major we’re the same”. While her very musical style of poetry comes to full flower there,using the internal comparison between the differences in major and minor chords on a musical instrument? The song is the idea statement for understanding differences rather than trying to homogenize them to your personal liking. At a time when America has just started recovering from the onslaughts of racism denials and fears over matters such as the Ferguson shooting of Michael Brown and the witch hunt of Bill Cosby at the end of last year? This shows that even in death,Maya Angelou’s message still has the power to help heal the hearts and minds of the people.
I first purchased this album the day it came out and,upon listening to it on the way home decided to toss it aside and let it collect dust. It was not because I didn’t like it but it seemed like there was so much gloomy,dark sounding music coming my way during this time and because there was so much hype in the press about the “relevence” of this album it was only natural I’d be a little let down anyway-that commonly happpens. So four years later I decided to give it a listen and see how it impacted me now. First off it’s important to note that this album is firmly the domain of a fully mature Mavis Staples and not the youthful soul shouter of her classic days with the Staple Singers.
She sounds like herself vocally but her interpretations have a heavy,craggy world weariness about them that’s quite appropriate for the kind of album this is.Produced by Ry Cooder this album is mainly composed of moodily chorded,heavy reverbed hard modern blues/soul/rock style versions of civil rights era protest/spiritual songs such as “This Little Light Of Mine”,”Eyes On The Prize”,”In The Mississippi River” and “Jesus Is On The Main Line”. The fact the little to nothing is known of those who made up these traditional songs Mavis and Ry almost make it sound as if they wrote the songs together as originals. The songs are played as if they’ve been written by the musician and Mavis,as always has exactly her way with them vocally.
Most of the album follows on this slow,heavy handed level as Mavis has obviously come to the conclusion we must not be lax in our outlook on civil rights because,in particular in the era this was recorded in it seemed as if things in that regard were taking a turn back. Seeing how poorly many people behaved during the 2008 presidential election she may have in fact been onto something. Only “99 And 1/2” and “My Own Eyes” have anything close to a dance tempo here. This is not exactly a happy album but it’s not pessimistic either. It’s rather resigned and that might be why upon first listen I had little to no reaction to it. It’s an album you will have to take time to really get into if your interested. But if you take the time the rewards are very worth it,especially for your soul!
Originally Review Written On May 14th,2014
Link to original review here!*