Vernon Burch is a musical figure who is relatively obscure to me. Born in Washington DC, Burch is a guitarist whom its hard to find a great deal of personal information about. What could be found out about him was that he played with The Bar Kays during the time they recorded their Do You See What I See? album in 1972. He embarked on hissolo career starting in 1975-at first at United Artists and Columbia. He finally signed to Casablanca subsidiary Chocolate City in 1978,best known at the time as the label for funk stalwarts Cameo.
This was the disco era. And Burch’s place in music history was cemented in funk. In 1979,he released his second album for the label entitled Get Up. On the album he had arrangement help from Tom Tom 84 and funk icon Fred Wesley of the JB’s and P-Funk. Wesley arranged the horns on three of the songs on this disco funk album. While pursuing some of its songs on YouTube,one of these Fred Wesley arranged tunes leaped right out at me-for a number of different reasons both musical and otherwise. The name of the song is “Sammy-Joanne (One Half Woman,One Half Man)”.
A hard hitting disco beat from non other than James Gadson starts the song-along with a ticking keyboard from Michael Thompson. Burch’s rumbling,rocking guitar provides a string orchestra like effect as the intro slides into the main song-along with David N. Shields slap bass. As a descending synth and descending horns enter into it, the drum/ rhythm guitar/Clavinet/slap bass interaction all lock in for the refrain of the song. The stripped down bass/drum/synth sound of the intro provides the chorus. A bluesy guitar solo from Burch on the bridge extends into an extended,fading refrain.
“Sammy-Joanne” is a hard driving stomper- a perfect example of a funk song functioning as disco. What surprised me in the song is how it focused on a healthier and perhaps less hedonistic aspect of the disco era. The Sammy-Joanne character in the song is a hermaphrodite who finds acceptance and love as an implied transgender’ disco dancer. The character is celebrated,not made fun of and hated. And with gender related matters being a strangely controversial matter in 2017, this 1979 song celebrates sexual difference with some of the most funkified disco-dance music possible.
Phoebe Snow is a native New Yorker who went from an artistic family who raised her in Teaneck, New Jersey to her college years of gigging from one Greenwich Village nightclub to another. She released her self titled debut album in 1974-having her biggest hit with “Poetry Man”. Her sound was somewhat unique-a mix of folk,rock,funk,soul and blues that suited her distinctive,bluesy growl that could also spread across several octaves. Her decision to give up music to care for her child born with severe brain damage halted her career after the early 80’s. But she never totally disappeared.
Her selfless parenting didn’t stop Snow (born Phoebe Taub) from performing the theme song for the first season of the sitcom A Different World. And released a few more studio albums before her death of a cerebral hemorrhage in 2011. Her third album It Looks Like Snow was her second for Columbia Records. On it she interpreted a song that was one of the last major Temptations hits before leaving Motown. It was co-written by P-Funk’s Eddie Hazel along with Jeffrey Bowen. Its an amazing groove for sure. But in 1976 for her third album, Phoebe Snow offered us her own take on “Shakey Ground”.
The hard groove wah wah guitar riff and metronomic drum count in begin the song as on the original. Yet the straight up,acoustically textured blues guitar riffing before the main groove starts adds a totally different flavor to it all. After all of this, there is the layers of guitar: rhythm and wah wah along with an accenting Clavinet. And of course the horns playing the changes. On the instrumental bridge, the bluesy guitar from the intro (likely played by Snow herself) takes a full on solo. That’s before Snow’s vocals take the chorus on an extended musical journey before it fades out.
There’s not much point in me comparing Phoebe Snow and The Tempt’s versions of “Shakey Ground”. Each are hard funk monster jams in their own right. Its the little things that really make the difference on Snow’s. Her super bluesy guitar riffs and solos give it a slightly more old timey flavor. And her jazzy,growling and sometimes unpredictable vocals give the song an emotional vibe on par with the strongest end of the mid 70’s female perspective. When thinking of what would’ve been Snow’s 67th birthday, this song somehow seemed exactly the right one to overview from a funk/soul perspective.
Airto Guimorvan Moreira almost seemed to have had a nearly innate sense of creativity. Raised in several different parts of Brazil by a family of folk healers, he was a professional musician by the time he just entered his early adolescence. After playing with Hermeto Pascal as a percussionist in the mid to late 60’s, he followed his wife (the vocalist Flora Purim) to the US. While there, his percussion sound became one of the building blocks of jazz rock fusion. In particular it most Latin end. His recordings with Miles Davis,Joe Zawinul,George Duke and Cannonball Adderley are now iconic.
Airto began his career as a band leader in the year 1970. And was fortunate enough to have released a brand new studio album every year until 1979. That and in between his many collaborations-including those with wife Flora Purim. That final album of the 1970’s was entitled Touching You,Touching Me. It wasn’t the most common album to find until the Wounded Bird label reissued it on CD several years ago. As with all the Airto albums I’ve heard, the album has a very high respect for musical quality. One song I truly love on it is a remake of Azymuth’s “Toque De Cuica”.
Airto’s percussion and Pete Bunetta’s drums start out the Brazilian disco funk rhythm the begins the song-with George Duke’s Clavinet, Marcos Valle’s Fender Rhodes, Bayete’s rhythmic piano and Alphonso Johnson’s bass all playing call and response with both the melody and rhythm. That rhythm changes to an elaborate series of funk patterns for the chorus and its B section-with Airto scatting fast and then slow-bringing in former Rufus member Al Ciner on guitar. After a couple of bridges echoing the intro, the first section of the chorus plays between percussive breaks until the song comes to an end.
Airto’s version of this song is an extremely complex one rhythmically. Took the time to listen to Azymuth’s original 1977 version entitled “Tamborim Cuíca Ganza Berimbau” and their version has more of a bossa fusion atmosphere. Its a good song for sure from both. Airto brings another whole energy to the song. And its generally the passion of the excellent players who joined him for it on this album. Its one of a handful of songs on the Touching You, Touching Me album that leaped right out in terms of rhythm and melody. And is one of many dozens of superb examples of Airto’s amazing artistry.
Greg Kihn,a Baltimore native same as funk icon Rick James,followed his early musical dreams to San Francisco. While still in high school, his mom helped him by submitting a demo to a local radio station while he played coffee houses locally . He moved to the bay area officially by 1972-painting houses,busking and working at a record store in the city of Berkeley. He eventually became part of Beserkley Records label as one of the first acts signed to it-along with other future rock icons such as Johnathan Richman of the Modern Lovers.
By 1976 he had his own group called The Greg Kihn Band. There biggest hit to date was the power pop classic “The Breakup Song” in 1981. During the early 80’s post disco era, the American popular music pendulum tended to swing towards guitar based rock songs. Still as with the decade before it, funk and soul could be found in any section of the record store. Often cleverly disguised by presentation as something else. New wave/synth pop of the era was a mainstay for this. But mainstream rock got a taste of this with the biggest hit Greg Kihn’s Band ever had with 1983’s ‘Jeopardy”.
Gary Phillips’ Clavinet riffing is heard with (as far as I know) Kihn’s own reverbed guitar chords providing a texturing accent to that and Larry Lynch’s steady drum beat and Steve Wright’s slinky, often elaborate bass line pattern . This pattern continues on throughout both the refrain and chorus of the song-with the chord changes reflected the changes in Kihn’s raspy vocal leads. On the bridge, Lynch’s drum plays a three note hit every other beat to the call and response Clavinet and guitar. Kihn’s bluesy guitar riff plays off the pounding drum for a more rockier pattern as the song fades out.
“Jepordy” is now seen as an 80’s rock classic-due mainly to its conceptually interesting MTV video and a hilarious parody by Weird Al Yankovic. But even I sometimes feel like the only one who might listen to this outside its accepted context and hear it as a driving funk/rock jam with a catchy song attached to it. The Clavinet grooves hard on this song,the drum maintains its driving post disco vibe. And the guitar plays something of an accessorizing role-atypical of much mainstream rock. That makes this both a potentially misunderstood and still beloved 80’s pop classic.
Gregg Allman was of course married to Cher from 1975 to 1978. The union of course produced their only child,Elijah Blue. But just learned shortly after Allman’s passing that it produced a duo album for the couple in 1977. Credited as Allman And Woman,the album was entitled “Two The Hard Way”. They also went on a mini tour to support the album-also titled after the name of the album. The album was not a commercial success. And was even called “worthless” by one critic. Allman was part of the rock music scene. And Cher more general pop. This may have led to some of the album’s poor reception.
For her part,Cher could basically do whatever type of material she desired due to her long back round in pop and 60’s era musical sensibilities. Allman was a Southern rock innovator-always expected to be daring,rebellious and somehow “authentic”. Still with classic pop/rock songwriters such as Jimmy Webb and the versatile classic funky soul session bass player Willie Weeks on board,the album actually has its share of powerful musical moments. Among them was the first single (and the first song on the album) that was entitled “Move On”.
Steve Beckmeier’s ringing,higher pitched guitar grooving opens the song before Bill Stewart’s drum and Bobbye Hall’s conga fanfare leads right into the basic horn fanfare of the intro. The chorus is a steady dance rhythm accompanied by a heavy mix of flangered electric piano and Clavinet riffing playing close to Week’s bass line. The horn charts basically serve to glue the songs extended choruses together. The intro basically repeats itself for the bridge-with a brief electric piano solo before hand illustrated by the horns building into the mix. The final chorus of the song shows up to fade out the song.
“Move Me” is a wonderful song. What’s interesting about is that Cher, now a renowned diva, sings either call and response or in total unison with Allman throughout the entirety of this song. The production has a very uptown, Philly soul inspired groove to it. Filled with horns,punchy keyboards and high stepping rhythms. Allman’s gruff vocal delivery compliments Cher’s husky,tremolo laden approach extremely well on this song. Its basically a Philly style dance/soul groove out of the disco era though. Its not a pop /rock styled record at all. That’s important to consider with this musical pairing too.
Chairman Of The Board are a true example of just how deeply seeded the Motor City soul sound of Motown became by the end of the 60’s. The late “General” Norman Johnson was the groups lead singer. He had started out in a group called The Showman. And when Motown’s classic songwriting trio Holland/Dozier/Holland left Motown to form their own label Invictus (also home to George Clinton’s Parliaments at the time), Johnson was paired with Eddie Curtis,Danny Young and the Canadian native Harrison Kennedy to form Chairman Of The Board.
The band had their debut hit in 1970 with “Give Me Just A Little More Time”. Musically it was squarely within the classic Motown style soul sound. What made it so unique was Johnson’s hiccuping,idiosyncratic lead vocals and very strong songwriting. By the mid 70’s, most of the members of the group were on the way to solo recording. The groups place in funk history was confirmed by their final album in 1974 entitled Skin I’m In. It was produced by another Motown alumni in Jeffrey Bowen. And one of its key numbers was its title song.
A swirling,bluesy rhythm guitar and bass bursts open the song. That guitar gradually mutates into a fuzz tone. And as the slow,funky drum slogs its way in,that rhythm guitar is accompanied by a fuzz toned one. As the song progresses,Johnson’s rangy vocals build up the song musically with Clavinet riffs and horns that build in intensity during the choral sequences. After a thunder like burst of sound, an instrumental bridge consisting of bell like synths and piano scaling returns the songs to its horn/Clavinet/bass and guitar oriented chorus until the song fades itself out.
“Skin I’m In” is the very funkiest song I’ve ever heard from Chairman Of The Board. Of course, was somewhat prepped for it by my literary funk research during the late 90’s and early aughts. Musically its a supreme example of slower rhythms making a song funkier-and full of a psychedelic soul blusiness in the instrumentation and melody. Johnson’s lyrics about black Americans consistently being kept from progressing in America is “united funk” at its finest too-with him exclaiming on the choruses “Its so HARD to live in the skin I’m in!”. So this is prime mid 70’s funk with a message!
Freddie Hubbard was one of the most important trumpet players of the post bop era. His many interactions in music had him involved with some of the most important developments in jazz throughout the 60’s and 70’s. Running from playing with Wayne Shorter,replacing Lee Morgan in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and beginning to lead his own groups. One of his best known works is 1970’s Red Clay-not only his first for the CTI label but the very first release Creed Taylor’s label ever put out. After several successful releases there,Hubbard began recording for Columbia.
Hubbard’s most famous album from his post bop period is Ready For Freddie from 1961. And so far,the only Freddie Hubbard album I have in any format. He’s an artist I’ve heard many times,but neglected just as much in terms of album purchases. He actually made some amazing contributions to the jazz-funk genre in the 70’s as well. That’s especially true for his mid to late 70’s Columbia albums. Always playing along with the best musicians of the era,one perhaps unsung example of Hubbard’s music in this period is the epic title song for his final Columbia album from 1979 entitled Skagly.
Hubbard,saxophonist Hadley Caliman and trombonist Phil Ranelin start this song out with a bluesy horn fanfare-with drummer Carl Burnett marching right to their beat. Burnett and percussionist Paulinho Da Costa then set up a Latin funk rhythm wherein Hubbard, guitarist Jeff Skunk Baxter, bassist Larry Klein, Billy Child’s Fender Rhodes and George Duke’s Clavinet all exchange a think rhythmic interplay together. Hubbard goes on an extended 8+ minute solo-expanding in melodic intensity and loudness before solos from Klein and Baxter lead up to the fanfare brings it all to an abrupt stop.
“Skagly” is a wonderful long form example of hard pop horn solos playing along with strong,live band jazz/funk interplay. George Duke and drummer Carl Burnett in particular knew exactly the kind of rhythmic environment that would be both jazzy and funky enough for Hubbard to literally blow his horn over. Its definitely Hubbard’s show in terms of the solo,and nobody playing on this song ever forgets that. That may be way it is so live band oriented and less electronic than much jazz/funk of the time. That gives the song a certain distinction as late 70’s jazz/funk built heavily around a trumpet solo.
Jimmy McGriff was a major soul jazz era pioneer of the Hammond B-3 organ. The Pennsylvania native studied a number of instruments growing up-taking up a day job as a cop in Philly for a short time. He later attended Julliard-also studying privately with the major Hammond organist (and childhood friend) before him Jimmy Smith-among others. He led a series of jazz combos during the 60’s,some of which included later jazz organ icon (then sax player) Charles Earland before he began moving into a funk direction during the late 60’s and early 70’s.
By the early 70’s,McGriff would’ve been apparently content to have began a semi retirement on his Connecticut horse farm. Due the rapid rate of issues his new record label were doing for his music,he began recording and touring again mid decade. One of his records during this period was 1976’s Red Beans. Only reason I know about the album and McGriff at all would be DJ/musician Nigel Hall. He played a number of tracks from his vinyl copy of the album on his radio show in the early/mid 2000’s. One of them was the albums opening title song.
A fast paced,almost Clyde Stubblefield like drum joins in with this flamboyant bass/rhythm guitar interaction before McGriff comes in-riffing right in rhythm on Clavinet. After that,the horn section comes in and alternate with McGriff in playing the rhythmic changes of the groove. On the choruses of the song,there’s a rocking fuzz guitar that takes over with the horns. On a couple of the refrains,Michael Brecker (I believe) takes a spirited sax solo that extends over a number of bars. This instrumental back and forth alternates until the song concludes.
“Red Beans” is one of the more instrumentally energetic,perhaps even punishing jazz/funk jams of the mid 80’s. It adds a strong improvisational flair to a groove that,with its fast tempo and spirited melodies, has a similar musical vibe to something Larry Graham & Graham Central Station might’ve done during this period. The bright,high recording quality of the song also adds to its strength. It also showcases McGriff finding an instrumental place for himself in funk with him playing Clavinet as opposed to organ. And in essence it signaled the beginning of a musical rebirth for him at that time.