Tag Archives: disco

Is It Still Good To Ya: A Tribute To Both The Late Nick Ashford & To The 40th Anniversary Of This Classic Ashford & Simpson album

 

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Ashford & Simpson’s songs have somehow grown with me through my musical “soul education”. All the way from hearing their “Don’t Cost You Nothing” on public service LP’s (staring James Earl Jones entitled ‘Genius On The Black Side) that my father was given all the way up to finding them credited all over the place as songwriters on my many Motown collections. Within the last decade or so? I’ve been reviewing their own albums online as well. Yet somehow neglected this first CD of theirs I ever had. Something I got as a bonus selection when belonging to the old BMG Music Service.

After all this time and listening’s? Long overdue for me to go into the album here. “It Seems To Hang On” opens with a creamily beautiful example of disco friendly uptempo soul-full of liquid rhythm guitar and Valerie’s extremely sensuous vocals in particular. The title song is a richly orchestrated ballad filled with climactic harmony vocal choruses. “The Debt Is Settled” is a thick,stripped down piano/bass oriented groove that comes to life via it’s light percussion accents. “Ain’t It A Shame” is a breezy, mid tempo Brazilian style soul/pop number

“Get Up And Do Something” is, on the other hand, a thick funk number with a full scaling bass line, choppy keyboards and rhythmically jazzy refrains. “You Always Could” is a horn packed, soulful shuffle while “Flashback is a fine example of Latin flavored disco. The album ends with the instrumentally gospel infused mid tempo ballad “As Long As It Holds You”. What amazes me about this album is that this married duo could continually turn out high quality hit soul/funk/pop music on themselves as well as Chaka Khan and at the time preparing for a Diana Ross session.

It was likely the momentum of their oiled approach to their music over the years that kept Ashford & Simpson rolling right along- in terms of the level of their musical output. This emerges as another fine release in a strong of fine Ashford & Simpson albums in the mid/late 70’s. They offer up the best in their diverse stylistic arsenal. This album has the lush disco era uptempo material, blues structured funk and their slinky and cinematic balladry. And everything suited very well to the male/female duet format Nick and Val helped build-both together and for other artists as well.

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‘Blam!!’: Ride-O-Rocket With The Brothers Johnson!

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Louis and George Johnson were pretty deeply involved with the LA session scene when they released their third duo outing in 1978. Its actually a superb example how even larger groups from that era were often augmented by sometimes over a dozen other session players. On the Blam!! album it was some fine, funky company in that regard. With the likes of Larry Carlton, Steve Khan, Richard Tee, Jerry Hey, Eddie “Bongo” Brown, Michael Brecker and David Foster (among others) as the musicians featured on this albums eight tracks.

Blam!! itself is musically one of the finest albums the Johnson’s made with Quincy Jones. And certainly among the most thoroughly funky. “Ain’t We Funkin’ Now” has that infectious hook-with Louis Johnson’s slap bass right up in your face. Not to even mention the call and response lead vocals that define both the chorus and refrains of it. The liquid instrumentation of the title song and on “Mista Cool” are tailor made for more hard and heavy funk-especially the delicious is the intro to the latter tune, where the keyboard fades in and out of the left and right channels of the speaker as the chords change.

“Ride O Rocket” puts Ashford & Simpson’s songwriting/production stamp on the bands sound. So its a funky uptempo soul tune where the refrain has that disco friendly piano walk down that Nick & Val always achieved so well in their 70’s heyday .As for the closing instrumental “Streetwave”? Well its  probably the finest instrumental these guys had done. It builds to a fevered intensity and works superbly as jazz, funk, R&B and even pop. With the bass and Rhodes providing a wonderfully cinematic intro.  Along with Jones’ big band style, muted horn fueled refrains.

The only element on this album that really contrasts with it’s harder edged core are the inclusion of two ballads. “It’s You Girl” is another instrumentally liquid number-with some beautiful processed guitar and Rhodes-along with Alex Weir singing lead and with an uptempo chorus. is a nice enough quiet storm kind of song but,sometimes a change of pace isn’t necessary if the rest of the music smokes.”So Won’t You Stay” is a more traditional slow jam-with George Johnson doing a pretty sweet vocal lead. Again it has a somewhat faster chorus-though a bit smoother in this particular case.

Blam!represents The Brothers Johnson’s final album released of the 70’s. Coming into recording on their on mid decade, Louis Johnson would soon get the gig of the lifetime. That was, of course playing on the first two Quincy Jones produced Michael Jackson albums, both of which became the biggest selling recordings of all time. The album also showcases the most sonically even blend of hard funk and sleek pop jazz in the late 70’s. And in all fairness, if I was asked to recommend one stand alone Brothers Johnson album that brought in all of their musical flavors in one place, Blam!! would likely it.

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78 On The Longplay: ‘Life Is A Song Worth Singing’ by Teddy Pendergrass

Teddy Pendergrass, at least for his part, wasn’t keen on the notion that he’d be a contributor to the notion that there was a shortage of high quality music in 1978. Life Is A Song Worth Singing stands out as a strong example to the contrary. As potent as the Philly sound was in the 70’s, there were signs in the middle of the decade that there was a need to adapt the style in order to accommodate changes in the R&B/soul/funk world of music. Gamble & Huff already had been doing that as far back their second album with The Jacksons’ Goin’ Places.

Gamble & Huff were taking basic Philly orchestral soul/funk/disco sound, and swinging it just a bit harder driving. Where orchestration was a major part of the whole on Teddy’s debut, this album takes a different approach already with the first two cuts-including the title song and “Only You”. The strings take a strong backseat whereas the horns are upped in the mix. And the slower beats and rhythms are channeled into the same forward thinking musical approach. All with a strong use of rhythmic style electronics and keyboard textures while still being very recognizably the Philly Sound.

The title track not only showcases this production style to a strong degree, but has an excellent message about taking the time to find an inner strength (and hope in yourself) in times of crisis. It’s a message of self determination that Teddy is channeling directly from what James Brown,Sam Cooke and Curtis Mayfield did before him and extended into the disco/funk era pretty much uncut. And I also have to thank Gamble & Huff for keeping that going too. “Cold, Cold World” offers another message of hope on a great mid-tempo tune that looks to the same new direction as the faster tempo beginnings.

The new direction of “Cold, Cold World” is a modernistic sweet funk type of sound- given a toughness largely due to Teddy’s dynamics and that of the arrangement. The classic “Close The Door” and “When Somebody Loves You Back” offer up similar concepts right where one needs them. “Get Up,Get Down,Get Funky,Get Loose” is definitely a classic “Philly Jump” kind of tune and an example of the most positive direction disco was going at this time..  Now “It Don’t Hurt Now” is the slowest song here however it extends on the overall positively affirming and genuine good intentions of these songs messages.

As with its predecessor Life Is A Song Worth Singing makes you think, makes you happy and is romantically and creatively satisfying at the same time. And that makes it yet another example of an album that avoids the sophomore slump syndrome  It’s also a prime example of what made Teddy Pendergrass such a great voice and artist. And on this album, Teddy also represented what writer Rickey Vincent referred to as the black male soul singer as a symbol of strength and pride. This makes Life Is A Song Worth Singing one of Teddy’s definitive albums.

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‘Chaka’-Life Is A Dance: Almost 40 Years Of Chaka Khan’s Debut Solo Album On Her 65th Birthday

Chaka Khan made a detour from Rufus in 1978 (just before they recorded their Street Player  album with her) to record her solo debut album. This came at a time when her  massively successful period as the lead singer of that band was beginning to become less personally fulfilling. With a more than enviable group of musicians at her disposal who all spanned the jazz, R&B and soul spectrum, the potent musical environment she was in an excellent position to create her persona outside of Rufus. It was  her presence that helped bring out the individual sound of  that band.

The question was still probably at this point about whether it was Rufus who were making Chaka the success she’d become. Or was it the other way around? This album actually revealed that it was a potent combination of both. “I’m Every Woman” of course starts things out,Chaka’s solo anthem and every bit a late 70’s Ashford & Simpson, piano laden disco-soul number if there ever was one. “Love Has Fallen On Me” is musically ideal for Chaka as the Charles Stepney composition has these heavy gospel/soul-jazz type chords and this intense change in arrangement.

“Roll Me Through The Rushes” actually extends the gospel flavor on what starts out as a very slow, electric piano heavy ballad than goes into some heavy funk at the end. “Sleep On It” and “We Got The Love”,with George Benson are both superbly grooving jazz-funk numbers filled with Richard Tee’s beautiful processed Fender Rhodes piano playing . “Life Is A Dance”, “Some Love”- with its chunky slap bass/wah wah guitar interaction, and “Message In The Middle Of The Bottom” get down to business with some gloriously produced funk that represent the most grooving songs here.

This album also features the more jazz-funk side of disco soul here on “A Woman In A Man’s World”,the more somber flip side to “I’m Every Woman” lyrically and closes with a potent,musically modernized update of “I Was Made To Love Him”,originally by Stevie Wonder and sung from a woman’s point of view. As a matter of fact, it’s the woman’s point of view that defines this album. Chaka presents herself here,from the cover art to the lyrics,as someone with a great deal of sex appeal but someone you could have an extremely deep conversation with as well.

Chaka’s creative approach is always very honest. In terms of her singing, this album is both instrumentally and vocally one of the more ambitious of her solo albums. This was helped all the more by the masterful production of the late, great Arif Mardin. The range of tempo and instrumentation in the material is diverse, not always 100% commercial and she even does herself one better than her customary singing her own back up vocals-all  by multi tracking them with some fuzzed out echo here for a symphony of Chaka’s. And for a wonderful a, promising debut  that gets better with each listening.

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Norman Connors: The 1981 Party Town Of ‘Mr. C’

Norman Connors music of the 70’s and early 80’s is something I personally cannot find much to any fault with, in the musicianship and compositional strength. Now he did establish something of a formula. That is basically emphasizing urban/adult contemporary fusion peppered with his free and Brazilian jazz influences. Basically his albums always contained a good handful of very slow ballads during this period. By 1981,it would seem Connors’ run of album releases was showing signs of drawing to a close.

The funk and disco eras were also both going in the same direction. So what did Norman Connors do? He changed up his groove. “She’s Gone” begins the album on a processed Rhodes piano led groove that’s thick on the boogie funk rhythm with horns and heavy percussion. “Party Town” throws on the bass and lead synthesizer in phat,grooving layers on a jam that gets down deep into electro funk territory. “Keep Doin’ It” has a rhythmically sleek post disco vibe while “Stay With Me” had a thick Caribbean style dance/funk percussive groove.

“Anyway You Want” and “Love’s In Your Corner” keep that percussive funk percolating right along while “Sing A Love Song” has a sexy mid-tempo jazz/funk vibe and an elaborate melody. It’s the closest thing to a ballad here. The album ends with the instrumental title song-combining Connors’ jazzy arrangements into the post disco/boogie framework. From beginning to end,this album is completely different then any other Norman Connors album I’ve ever heard. It actually doesn’t contain any slow ballads whatsoever.

The uptempo songs it contains are heavy on the contemporary funk style of the time. All the same,Connors talents as an arranger are all over this session musician heavy release. Most of his previous albums had contained funk oriented numbers. Yet the fact that this 1981 album prioritized it to such a degree showed how thoroughly musical a thinker Connors was. Uptempo funky music was not exactly publicly embraced during this era. Just perhaps, Norman Connors realized that his musical acumen had the power to not only change for his own sake but give the funky soul lovers just what they wanted

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78 On The Longplay: ‘Come Get It!’ by Rick James

Rick James always seemed destined to have a career at Motown.  From his work with the Myna Birds to being a member of the staff writing there. He had spent much of the 70’s a musical gypsy-recording a few records and performing with a few different rock bands during the decade before decamping back to Buffalo and forming the Stone City Band. He then returned to the record label that had seemed to provide a strong sense of security for him as an artist/band leader in 1977. And they dropped this debut album the following April of 1978.

“Stone City Band,Hi” opens the album with a live recording that adds a strong P-Funk horn based hump to it. “You And I” starts off with a rhythm guitar groove that swings into a full blown orchestrated female vocal gospel/disco chorus before going into a 7+ clavinet driven fast funk groove with some harmonically fluid jazz guitar accents by final refrains. “Sexy Lady” deals with a polished and precise jazz-funk number with a strong West Coast vibe about it. “Dream Maker” hearkens back to Rick’s doo-wop days with it’s spoken intro and piano based soul ballad shuffle.

“Be My Lady” is another melodically bright mix of bass/guitar/horn oriented funk with the disco beat and “woo hoo” chants. “Mary Jane” begins with an arena style guitar thump and orchestral synthesizer before going into a stripped down jazzy soul-pop ballad with a lyric that could be taken (in it’s time) in two different ways. “Hollywood” starts out as a tender ballad about Rick saying goodbye to his family, while leaving behind the ghetto environment he feels might destroy him, before ending on a reggae style coda. The album concludes with a reprise of the title song.

When I first got this album on vinyl, I remember not caring for it too much. Hearing it fresh today on CD helps me realize what a strong debut this really is. The steely punk funk sound Rick James would develop isn’t as evident on this album. He’s very much a live band styled funk/soul brother on this album-with little concern for crossover anymore than doing so on his own musical terms. Stone City Band were a strong outfit too-with a big band funk style that can switch years between monster humps and lush disco friendly sounds. An excellent debut from an artist and band still getting their legs.

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Est-Ce Que C’est Chic” by Chic

Nile Rodgers had a colorful life long before being the one of the founding members of Chic. This native New Yorker was born to a teen mother who, like his father, was a beatnik and heavy drug user. More importantly, it was an environment filled with music. Being drawn to the guitar at an early age, Nile began as a session player with the Sesame Street band-which was led by the iconic composer Joe Raposo. He gained much of his experience as the guitarist for the Apollo Theater house band. With them, he backed up acts as diverse as Aretha Franklin, Ben E. King and P-Funk.

It was while working for a  Sesame Street stage show that he met up with bassist Bernard Edwards.  Together they formed the Big Apple Band, who became the backup musicians for the vocal group New York City. After seeing a Roxy Music concert, Rodgers was inspired to change the name of the band to Chic. Their self titled debut helped establish disco as a genre of dance music-with songs such as “Dance,Dance,Dance” and “Everybody Dance” leading the way. The album also showcased what strong composers and musicians they were. Especially with album tracks like “Est-Ce Que C’est Chic”.

The song starts right off with an instrumental version of its chorus. This consists of Tony Thompson’s pocket dance beat with Nile and ‘Nard’s classic bass run/chunky rhythm guitar based rhythm dynamic providing the base of the song. Over that, there’s a chromatic walk down on piano. A glockenspiel and what sounds like an ARP string synth provide the harmonic sweeteners to the bottom of the song. The refrain take the song up a key slightly-emphasizing Nile and ‘Nard’s bass/guitar and closer piano riffs higher in the mix. After a barer version of it on the bridge, an extended chorus fades out the song.

“Es-Ce Que C’est Chic” showcases many examples of different trademarks this disco outfit would have in their time. One was the use of their name in song titles-along with a chorus that was sung partly in French. Instrumentally, it takes older black American ideas from bluesy soul jazz and R&B. And really stylizes them with a lot of sonic polish and elegance. The song lyrics about about an actress seducing people to get to the top, sung sweetly by Norma Jean Wright, showcase the witty (sometimes topical) story songs that reflect the disco era realities of which Chic were part of the soundtrack to.

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Do You Wanna Get Funky With Me” by Peter Brown

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.

 

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Too Hot To Handle: Heatwave’s Debut Album’s 40th Anniversary In the US

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Heatwave had been a huge international disco era funk mainstay from the get-go. When the late Johnny Wilder Jr began assembling the band while in West Germany-following discharge for the US Army in 1975. In 1976, the band released their debut album Too Hot To Handle in the UK. The original album cover art was a painting of a sun’s horizon over the sea courtesy of Norman Moore. The album was released on May 30th of the following year in the US. It was given a new cover. This one a comic book design of a vinyl album melting on a sidewalk-this time done by Robert Grossman.

This albums 40th anniversary has already passed. Oddly enough, it was one of the last Heatwave albums I actually investigated. Due to a broken CD player, my first copy of it succumbed to laser rot. A couple of listens to this album gave me to realize that its one of those albums that deserves a full form review of its contents. All the songs on it were written by the late,great Rod Temperton. And most of them showcased Johnnie Wilder’s dynamic, rangy vocal interpretations. So here,song by song is my own overview of the album. Not song by song exactly. But taking each of them as part of a wonderful whole.

The album starts off with a three prong uptempo punch. First is the title song-which uses call and response horn lines and slinky synthesizers playing similar melodic riffs-right along with the vocal trades of the Wilder brothers Johnnie and Keith. “Boogie Nights” starts off with a swinging,guitar based be bop type intro before heading into a driving Moog bass driven groove-one with funk functioning as top end disco. “Ain’t No Half Steppin'” is heavy bass/rhythm guitar oriented funk that’s directly descended from James Brown. Especially with its condensed, funky drum/percussion based bridge.

The album showcases a diverse range of songs from there out. The vocally epic,Philly style “Always And Forever” is a wedding dance classic now. It was recorded by Johnnie vocally as if he was performing live-ad libs and all. “All You Do Is Dial” has a gentle jazzy pop flavor while “Sho ‘Nuff Must Be Luv” has a cinematic Chi Town soul ballad approach. Those are the main ballads of the album. There’s also “Super Soul Sister”-a guitar and Clavinet fueled funk number that starts into a jazzy swing similar to “Boogie Nights” on the bridge.

“Lay It On Me” has a smooth funk vibe with a driving bass Clavinet,muted trumpet, strings and again Johnnie Wilder’s voice leading the way. The album ends with a nostalgic look back at old school child discipline on the (again) James Brown style funk of “Beat Your Booty”-this time with an open,round synth bass wash goosing the lead and harmony vocals along. Overall Heatwave got off to a powerful start with this album. Their basic sound was still built around the songs being played live. Still,their reputations as masters of the disco era funk/soul sound in the studio shines strongly too.

This band that was a little Dayton,a little continental Europe really showcased themselves as extremely funk oriented here. Not long after this, members of this group Rod Temperton and Johnnie Wilder Jr would become linked in different ways to the launching of a record breaking superstar in Michael Jackson. But with the massive hit success of “Boogie Nights” and “Always And Forever”, Heatwave came right out of the box as a funk band who could play serious grooves,right serious songs and sing serious melodies.  And for that, I have no doubt their legacy will live on.

 

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Donna Summer’s ‘I Remember Yesterday’ LP at 40: So Good,So Good To Feel The Love

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Donna Summer was someone whose full musical impact didn’t hit me at all until I was a grown adult. The discovery of her music recorded with Giorgio Moroder in the mid to late 70’s also helped me to alter my perception of disco. It wasn’t merely a medium of elongated singles meant for dancers of one particular generation. It was also utilized in different album length concepts reflecting the mainstream social revolutions of the 60’s and 70s-both real and fantasy based. Summer’s late 70’s with Moroder were among the most prominent disco albums reflecting this particular ethic.

I Remember Yesterday is an album of Summer’s with Moroder that interested me because it ended with “I Feel Love”,a song I first heard at the exact same time I was just starting to listen to Kraftwerk. Wanted to know what concept Summer,Moroder and Pete Bellote came up with together for an album with ended with what still often sounds like a totally futuristic song in 2017. A few years ago,I wrote a review on Amazon.com that goes deeper into how each individual song on the album. And how it all comes together into its overall concept.


Representing the final installment of what turned out to be a trilogy of concept albums released by Donna Summer on Casablanca records in 1976 and 1977,this album took a slight different approach to it’s music. Generally speaking musical concept tend to work on a floating timeline. Dream sequences,memories of the future,etc all work their way into lyrics at different times.

Well it doesn’t work that way here. Donna and Giorgio both were aware their musical interests worked on a timeline,even extending a bit before they were born. So the concept of this album wasn’t as much lyrical as it was cultural and moreover musical. It’s a journey from music’s past to an anticipated future. And as a musical timeline?I’m sure no one knew how spot on it would turn out to be.

The title song starts out the entire album…well in the best possible place: the big band swing era. As seen through the filter of the 4/4 beat,this brassiness (similar in flavor to Dr.Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band) showcases the origins of what they call Broadway disco. On the very catchy “Love’s Unkind” we’ve entered what sounds like some girl group/brill building type wall of sound.

And on “Back In Love Again” it’s total Holland/Dozier/Holland style Motown memories for Donna in a Supremes state of mind. By “Black Lady” there’s some fuzzed keyboards and we’re more into the 70’s blacksploitation funk era. “Take Me”,with it’s mix of dance rhythms and bass moog synthesizer and the lush ballad “Can’t We Just Sit Down (And Talk It Over)” are very much at present tense.

Of course the most talked about song here is “I Feel Love”,the closer representing the future. And especially now one realizes this is probably the birth of the electropop genre. Pulsing electronics inspired by the German dance music scene along with the repetitive vocal lines from Donna and flavor of an almost robotic orgiastic atmosphere,it’s the direction the parade was headed especially with new wave and even people as recent as Lady Gaga.

If Donna Summer never goes down in history for anything else it’ll be singing that one song. It’s also important to note this album also kind of takes you on an entertaining history through the eyes of the “black lady”. On the title song,she wants to dance the night away on a romantic adventure. By songs such as “Black Lady” and even “I Feel Love” she wants to experience life and sex on her own terms. And deal with the sensations on her own. It’s cultural marker,as well as musical ones are what makes this a very special album for 70’s era Donna Summer.


I Remember Yesterday remains one of my favorite full Donna Summer albums of the late 70s. One reason is how the albums takes a journey through time as an elongated musical continuum. It showcases how the 4/4 beat,an oft criticized element of the disco era, actually was part of music extending up through the different tributaries of rock n roll. This album focuses on music that has made people want to dance over the last few decades of the 20th century before it came out. And as such, I Remember Yesterday may be one of the most important musical statements of the disco era.

 

 

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