Tag Archives: DIsco Funk

Anatomy of THE Groove: “You Stepped Into My Life” by the Bee Gees

The Bee Gees recorded music in a number of different styles over the years. And they always had lots of soul in it too. Their breakthrough international hit “To Love Somebody” was written for Otis Redding. They recorded it themselves only after he died before he got the chance to record his version. After a period of focusing primarily on baroque balladry, the Gibb brothers re-upped with the late Arif Mardin to produce their 1974 album Mr. Natural. Their followup Main Course reinvented them as contemporary soul/funk artists. Perfect for the disco era-especially with Barry’s fiery falsetto vocals.

After that breakthrough success, Robert Stigwood’s label RSO ended its distribution deal with Atlantic Records \. This meant they could no longer work with Arif Mardin due to the contractual conflict of interest. Barry, Robin and Maurice decided to produce the album themselves-hoping to extend on their new sound. Like Hall & Oates after them, self production proved to be their friend. Their 1976 album Children Of The World, recorded in Quebec, continued the winning streak. One album track that really stands out for me is “You Stepped Into My Life”.

The drum roll of Dennis Bryon gets the groove going into a slow and ultra funky beat. The snaky Fender Rhodes of Blue Weaver accompanies Barry and Maurice’s thick,wah wah fueled bass/rhythm guitar interactions. Weaver’s layered synth strings melodically lead the way for Barry’s falsetto lead. This musical combination represents the chorus. String arrangements lead the melody on the along with this rhythm section on the refrains. On the closing trail of the song, the chorus extends into a bluesy lead wah wah played smoothly by Alan Kendall as the song fades out.

The first time I heard this song, it was an equally funky (if somewhat faster) version done by Melba Moore in 1978. This original version is solid proof that a dance song is at its funkiest when the tempo of the rhythm is slower. The whole vibe is similar to Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby-especially the “funk functioning for the disco era” aspect of it. The groove of this song is just super infectious. And the Gibb’s wonderful way with song structure takes it to the next level. Very much like the majority of the Bee Gees output during the mid to late 70’s.

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Anatomy of THE GRoove: “Sammy-Joanne (One Half Woman,One Half Man)” by Vernon Burch

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.

 

 

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In Full Bloom Approaches 40: Rose Royce Do Their Dance On This Sophomore Success

 

Rose Royce had a massive hit right out of the box with their 1976 soundtrack to the motion picture Car Wash. In fact, it marked the beginning of funk functioning for the disco scene. And Rose Royce retained their crown for the rest of the 70’s as part of the funkiest royalty of the disco era funk bands. Between Norman Whitfield’s productions on them and the very strong caliber of the band themselves, it all made it possible for their second album, 1977’s In Full Bloom to retain the hit status of its predecessor. Here’s an Amazon.com review I did about the album seven years ago.


Rose Royce made it clear on this album that not only was their life after Car Wash for them and producer Norman Whitfield but that they fully intended to forge ahead with their sound. By the time the 70’s was at it’s midpoint synthesizers and electronics had become an enormous part of funk music,especially in the hands of people such as Stevie Wonder and Billy Preston.

While that had come into play to a certain degree on previously,the fact that Rose Royce were one of the few bands ever to debut on a soundtrack recording meant that they were going to save certain types of experimentation for their next album,if any. Turns out they were so big from the start a sophomore set was almost guaranteed. So it was basically on this album that Rose Royce…well basically became Rose Royce as it were.

While very even keel in terms of fast and slow songs,this album is primarily devoted to funk. It showcased that this was what they intended to base their sound in. But right away the bands unique sense of reinventing their influences within their groove became apparent when they unconventionally opened this album with the ballad “Wishing On A Star”. It’s one of the finest crafted slow numbers they ever did and deservedly one of their classic songs. “Ooh Boy” and “You’re My World,Girl” are the two other ballads here.

And the most soulful of them too,very much in the spirit of Chicago and Philly styles of 70’s soul balladry. On the funk numbers,needless to say it really comes to a head. On “Do Your Dance” and “It Makes You Feel Like Dancin” represent Rose Royce’s signature funk sounds where every part of the band became a purely rhythmic element-chugging like a freight train with the percussion,synthesizers,bass,guitar and cosmic vocal harmonies. It’s very much a futurist concept to how modern hip-hop producers such as Timbaland and The Neptunes approach their style of funk as well.

“You Can’t Please Everybody”,”Love,More Love” and “Funk Factory” are potent reminders of their more straight ahead,horn based danced funk sound they already showcased on their debut. Weather on cosmic electronic/space harmony based funk to chunky,hardcore brassy grooves and ballads this outfit proved to be one that had it all,could do it all and did it all when it came down to it. Gwen Dickey proved the master of funky femininity,wrapping her very girlish but very confident voice.

Even though she would come to represent some interpersonal issues within the band in the coming years,at this point she was very much part of the “funk factory” the band were starting to become. One wonders,if things had been different if Whitefield records could have had Rose Royce be part of a movement that would do for funk what Motown had done for R&B. They were very innovative and experimental in their genre of music. But also were very commercially viable. In many ways that style seemed to end with them rather than begin with it as Ricky Vincent’s “united funk” era was coming to an end with albums such as this. But still,the deed was done.


In Full Bloom represented something very important for the all important 1976-77 period of disco era funk. Just as much as it represented that potential unexplored direction at Motown (through Norman Whitfield while he was still there) as well. One element is the bands combination of thick slap bass lines combined with heavily rounded Moog bass. That gave the grooves an enormous and up front bottom to work with-along with the wah wah guitars,strings and the sweet voice of Gwen Dickey. As such, it might very well be one of the most important disco era funk albums of its day.

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Disco Lady” by Johnnie Taylor

Johnnie Taylor has been a consistent conversation point between Henrique Hopkins and myself. And it was always in reference to him being a 60′ era soul singer who recorded and did consistently well with audiences up through the mid 90’s.  The West Memphis, Arkansas native got his start as Sam Cooke’s replacement in the gospel group The Soul Stirrers. In 1965, Taylor signed to Stax records. He became one of the labels major stars,leading to his nickname as “The Philosopher Of Soul”. After Stax folded in the mid 70’s,Taylor signed with Columbia-where he remained for nearly a decade after that.

Johnnie Taylor is also one of those artists who I knew about long before even knowing his name. That was from dancing around as a pre-teen to his major pop Top 10 crossover funky soul hit “Who’s Makin’ Love” from 1970-hearing it on oldies radio all the time.  In fact,that was a song I almost reviewed today. But there’s another song of his that came out half a decade later of his. One that Nelson George described the success of so wonderfully in his book The Death Of Rhythm & Blues. And musically,it has a surprising twist for me that I’ll get into after describing it. The name of this song was “Disco Lady”.

The drums kick right off into a slightly delayed 4/4 dance beat,accented by shaking bells. A high pitched melody on electric piano opens up the melody,which is accentuated by an equally melodic eight note bass line and a pulsing wah wah guitar. On each part of Taylor’s chorus,the horns accent his vocals in different ways. Sometimes with hard pulses,other times with a building sustain. On the bridge,the rhythm becomes a bouncing march before it melodically builds back into itself-complete with fanfaring horn charts and rubbery keyboards. The refrain repeats itself consistently until the song fades out.

“Disco Lady” is actually one of those fairly stripped down disco era funk songs where the instrumentation and the vocals are both designed for a slinky,sneaky attitude as opposed to a raucous one. As for that surprising twist I mentioned,it became known to me years ago that Taylor was backed up by P-Funk musicians on this song. Bassist Bootsy Collins, the late guitarist Glenn Goins and keyboard maestro Bernie Worrell and drummer Jerome Brailey play on the song. Along with backup vocals by Dawn’s (as in Tony Orlando) Telma Hopkins singing the backup vocals singing the chorus.

This song doesn’t exactly have the sound I would ever associate with P-Funk. And certainly not Tony Orlando & Dawn. But its songs such as this that have the power to help people understand how musicians function. If someone reads the liner notes to albums and look for names online,they’ll often find out that the best musicians in the funk,soul and jazz world especially have an expert sense of musical diversity. They know how to give a song what it needs-whether its based more on singers or instruments. And at least to me,that ethic is one of the major contributions of “Disco Lady”.

 

 

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Dance America” by Charles Earland

Charles Earland passed away 17 years ago this year. He was yet another Philly based musician in this most musically soulful city of brotherly love. Now he was a composer and sax player,but his primary contribution was as a organist/keyboard player. He started out backing up Jimmy McGriff in his late teens. After similar stints with Pat Martino and Lou Donaldson,Earland struck out on his own. His career as a leader began primarily in the hard bop/soul jazz idiom. Of course being of the American generation known as Silent,it wasn’t long before his music grew into full blown funkiness.

In 1978,Earland recorded an album entitled Perceptions.  The album focused heavily on the writing,production and occasional keyboard support of Randy Muller. Muller had headed up the Brooklyn based proto disco funk band Brass Construction. As well as being the mastermind behind the boogie funk sensations Skyy. Muller’s “Let The Music Play” actually got Earland a lot of disco/club action-keeping the funky dancers moving during the late 70’s. There’s another song from this album I just heard,and it just about blew my mind. The name of this jam is “Dance America”.

Skyy’s Anibal “Butch” Sierra revs up the deep rhythm guitar hard before the main groove kicks in. This main groove consists of a thick percussion accents supporting the upfront funky drumming. Earland’s Clavinet,a bass line that’s in the “Brick House” style school and Sierra’s processed rocking guitar all provide phat melodic AND rhythmic support all at once. The snare hits hard on the chorus-which is accented by a heavy space funk synth. The bridge features some hot horn charts. Then Earland begins rapping JB style about the different cities he and band intend to do their dance in before the song fades out.

“Dance America” sounds like one of the heaviest funk stomps to throw down during the height of the disco era. Backed up vocally and instrumentally  by members of Skyy along with Earland’s band, this also delivers on some of the driving hard rock guitar solo flavor that bands such as the Isley Brothers and the teenage newcomers Slave were doing around this time. Earland’s growling enthusiasm on the rap that closes out the song not only adds to the funkiness of the song, but is part of what defines it. It’s a monster jam of an example for that musically collaborative spirit at the very core of funky music!

 

 

 

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Filed under 1970's, Anibal "Butch" Sierra, Charles Earland, clavinet, disco funk, drums, Funk, Funk Bass, horns, percussion, Randy Muller, rock guitar, Skyy, synthesizer, Uncategorized

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Stand Up” by Atlantic Starr

Atlantic Starr were known to me (as I’m sure they are with a lot of radio listeners) with their two late 80’s adult contemporary ballad hits “Secret Lovers” and “Always”. Though these weren’t the most instrumentally exciting songs ever made,they still showcased how talented the band actually were. The big surprise to me was that Atlantic Starr began as a heavy funk septet out of Greenburgh,New York. Central to the band was three Lewis brothers in guitarist Dave,percussionist and trombonist Johnathan and keyboardist Wayne-all of whom shared vocal duties. Today is Wayne’s birthday. And it felt right to tell the story of the bands early days.

While performing in Westwood,California the band were known by the name Newban. That is until they were signed to A&M sand Herb Alpert requested they changed their name. The clarifier “Atlantic” came from the bands East coast roots. And they were off and running to record their self titled debut in 1978. My friend Henrique Hopkins referred to one song from their early days to me through another source. It was a commercial for the LA soul radio station 1580 KDAY,which featured a cameo of a 20 year old Michael Jackson dancing to a song from Atlantic Starr’s debut. Henrique mused if MJ was dancing off it,it had to have been a special groove. And the name of this groove was “Stand Up”.

Drummer Porter Carroll kicks off the song,whose opener is defined by Wayne Lewis’s sharp and ultra melodic space funk synthesizer darting. Over this,the three Lewis brothers vocally harmonizes in unison with equally melodic horn charts. The refrain that follows deals with a thick interaction of chugging rhythm guitar,solid bass thumping,ringing percussion with the horns playing the accents. The pattern between the choral intro and this refrain repeats a couple of times throughout the song. There’s a bridge towards the end of the song that reduces the song down to it’s core elements of drums,percussion,bass and backup vocals before the horns chime back in until the song fades out.

I really want to thank Henrique for giving me a chance to really appreciate this song. As both of us agreed,Wayne Lewis’s opening synthesizer riffs are some of the most ear catching and powerful of the disco era funk sound. This song packs a strong rhythm punch about it,and has a really thick bottom layer bought bubbling up to the top as well. Clifford Archer delivers a great foundational bass line as well. It thumps and slaps pretty heavy in parts,but for the most part it provides a solid bed for the percussion and beat that are at the heart of the songs groove. And it was an excellent way for Atlantic Starr to kick off to a good start as a funk band.

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Filed under 1970's, Atlantic Starr, California, disco funk, drums, Funk Bass, horns, KDAY radio, New York, percussion, rhythm guitar, synthesizer, Uncategorized, Wayne Lewis

Anatomy Of THE Groove For The Brothers And Sisters Who Aren’t Here: “Butter” by Richard Dimples Fields

Richard Fields,who apparently got the nickname Dimples by a female admirer who noted his ever-present smile,started his career as the owner of the Cold Duck Lounge in San Francisco. He released a couple of albums locally in 1975 and 1977. In 1981 he signed with Neil Bogart’s Boardwalk Records. His best known song was a remake of a song from his debut album called “If It Ain’t One Thing,It’s Another”, a message song of sorts that he was encouraged to re-do by an old high school friend he ran into at a used car lot. He had a good handful of hits in the 80’s that slowed over the years until he finally passed away in 2000 in the Bay Area city of Oakland.

During my childhood,a 45 of his hit “If It Ain’t One Thing It’s Another” was in rotation in the family home. It was the B-side to this entitled “Mr.Look So Good”,an uptempo disco/funk number that was the title song to his 1982 album,which got my attention most. Something about his soulfullness and conversational lyric style was always appealing. One day I came across another one of his albums while crate digging entitled Give Everybody Some!,also released in 1982. It’s the only full album by him I presently own. And it has a lot of excellent songs on it. The song that always stands out in my mind however is entitled “Butter”.

A pounding,deep bass Clavinet opens the song along with an uptempo,percussion laden drum beat. Two grooving rhythm guitar’s accompany this-one of which plays a more liquid line while horn fanfares call out on each break. A phat slap bass line brings in the main body of the song. It’s a very bluesy melody on the refrain and chorus. And once the intro is over,a brittle bass and higher pitched melodic synthesizer provide the man rhythmic hump whereas the horns and upfront bass carry the melody Dimple’s is singing more. Just before the song fades out,the synthesizers take a back seat to the drum,guitar and horn line that opened up the song on the intro.

This song is a touch post disco/boogie classic that actually focuses on a lot of harder 70’s funk elements,such as horns and a thick slap bass. But the synthesizers and sleek beat are still very much present. Especially on the JB’s style rhythm guitar and stripped down dynamics,this also brings out an early 80’s Minneapolis Sound flavor about it as well. Fields’ vocal style is very interesting one to me. It has the idiosyncratic nasal drawl of Michael Jackson,but also the quiet groan of Ray Parker Jr. There is surely a distinctive vibe to this funk. And a lot of that has to do with how strongly it straddles two generations of the music: the one of the present and that of the immediate past.

 

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Anatomy Of THE Groove For The Brothers And Sisters Who Aren’t Here: “Rock Me,Baby (Like My Back Ain’t Got No Bone)” by David Fathead Newman

David Fathead Newman is a name that I’ve been aware of for a long time. In fact it was hearing the name spoken by my father that introduced me to the music of Ray Charles-rather than the other way around as one might expect. A native Texan who, Newman came right out the jump blues R&B school to be one of the key musical figures to evolve the saxophone during the formation of soul music in the 1975’s. As part of Ray Charles band,he was iconic. During his years after leaving Ray,Newman did session work for people such as Aretha Franklin and BB King. Not to mentioning carrying on a successful solo career as a bandleader.

Recording for a series of different labels during the decade,Newman eventually landed at Prestige at the end of the disco era. With a musical pallet that painting it’s brushstrokes from soul to jazz,Newman had developed a strong funkiness that allowed him to find a way to put his horn into the key of the hottest dance music of the late 70’s.  He bought in members of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters in Harvey Mason and Bill Summers. Stuff’s Eric Gale and Cornell Dupree-strong session musicians in their own right also came in for the 1979 album Scratch My Back-Newman’s one album for the label. The song that caught my ear most hear was “Rock Me,Baby (Like My Back Ain’t Got No Bone)”.

Summer’s percussion get’s the groove started out,while Mason comes in with a phat 4/4 beat shortly after. Newman’s sax plays a popping tone along with the thick slap bass line. The deeply voiced strings dart over the main rhythm like musical shooting stars. Vocalist Flame Braithwaite comes in and sings several different choruses of the songs title-with party sounds from Newman and the other musicians moving right along with the rhythm of the song itself. On the refrains of this mostly chorus based song, the bass line begins popping up and down in the classic disco bass style as the melody follows suit. The main chorus of the song maintains itself until the song fades out.

My friend and inspiration Henrique has referenced this song on a couple of occasions as an example of “funk functioning as disco”. And in every way,it’s a hot jam for sure. With Harvey Mason playing away at around 110BPM,this is relatively slow in tempo compared to the majority of disco records from the late 70’s. This fives the song an extra funkiness. Not to mention the thick slap bass thumping of Wilbur Bascomb,Jr. Newman’s sax takes on the same rhythmic character of the bass on this song too-popping along percussively rather than playing the melody. So this wonderful reworking of the BB King classic takes the blues straight into the disco funk territory wonderfully.

 

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Smokey Robinson on Anatomy of THE Groove Part 2: “Can’t Fight Love”

Somehow or other I remember being five years old and thinking the song “Being With You” was sung by a woman. Had no clue who Smokey Robinson was then,what a high male voice was,or for that matter how to sing well. Still loved the song though. What I didn’t know until much later was that it was the title song of a 1981 album that was part of a huge musical comeback. That title song was a huge hit for him. It was also his first new album to be issued on the CD format if I heard it right. From song to song if this album were a baseball game,it would have a high batting average in terms of quality. Still there was one song that really stood out for me.

As with many albums in my collection, I first had this on vinyl. And eventually tracked it down as part of a 1980’s Motown CD twofer packaged with Smokey’s 1979 album Where There’s Smoke. Because this early 80’s entry into his catalog had a different kind of production sleekness due to advances in recording during the time, there was actually something a bit lost on the scratchy vinyl of this that I had when compared to the digital version on the CD. This really bought out one song that really stuck out at me on this album from the moment I first heard it. Originally it opened up the second side of the vinyl. And it’s entitled “Can’t Fight Love”.

A fast Afro Latin percussion rhythm opens the song with a round,bouncing drum acting as popping metronome. A conga drum introduces the main body of the song. It’s a thick,brittle and fast paced rhythm guitar and bass line. This is accented by a Clavinet-like synthesizer line along with a string like synthesizer counter melody. Hard horn charts blast in and out of the chorus heavy song. The bridge of the song returns back to the percussion based intro-with Harry Kim playing a Herb Alpert style trumpet solo. Suddenly the drum comes back to the mix where Kim’s horn solo is supplemented by an alternately slippery and brittle bass synth before returning to the chorus until the groove fades.

The thing that really makes this song such a strong groove aside from it’s thick bass/guitar interaction is the entire musical structure. Basically it’s melody has the Brazilian vibe of the Jacksons’ “Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)” with a more steady disco era 4/4 funk beat plus percussion accents. What really does it with this song for me is that it works a wonderfully arranged sophistifunk groove in with a song that’s composed in Smokey’s classic 60’s style-full of choruses sung at varying speeds and loaded with his soulful lyrical wordplay.  Though it’s an album track,it showcases just how powerful Smokey’s uptempo music can be.

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Anatomy Of THE Groove For The Brothers And Sisters Who Aren’t Here: : “Million Dollar Bill” by Whitney Houston

As strange as it may seem, Whitney Houston has been gone for five years as of yesterday. The tragedy of her and Bobby Brown’s only daughter Bobbi Kristina last year kept me away from writing about any of Whitney’s music on this blog. Of course with a good amount of time away from the negativity surrounding both of their passing bought Whitney’s positive musical triumphs back into perspective for me. Known primarily as a balladeer during the bulk of her career,the huge voiced singer continued to make quality comeback albums during the 90’s and early 2000’s whenever her personal situation allowed. By roughly 2004,even I had to admit she seemed to just disappear from the music scene.

In the late summer of 2009,Whitney burst back onto the scene with what turned out to be the final album she released in her lifetime. This album I Look To You was a very happy surprise for me having been recovering from the then recent passing of another 80’s era musical icon Michael Jackson. It was one of neo soul’s shinning stars in Alicia Keys and her then relatively new husband Swizz Beatz who really came through for Whitney on this album in terms of writing. And right at the beginning too because while the couple only appeared once here,it was a very memorable one at that. The result was “Million Dollar Bill”,a song that for me is one of Whitney’s musical triumphs of her latter days.

A fanfaring drum role starts off the songs 4/4 beat and accompanying chordal bass thumps. The refrain of the song features an elaborate drum solo that keeps putting itself in and out on the one with it’s brushing/cymbal work. It goes from subtle to right in your face right along with Whitney’s scaling,climactic vocals. The rhythm is kept going by a phase filtered Fender Rhodes electric piano right out of the Gamble & Huff school of mid 70’s uptempo Philly dance records. That keyboard solo occasionally takes on a higher,chiming tone on those more subtle moments.  The instrumentation takes a total break for Whitney’s final chorus before closing out with a final burst of music and vocal power.

Actually this is one of my very favorite Whitney Houston songs ever. With her huge gospel/soul pipes, I always wondered why she didn’t tend to make uptempo songs a huge priority. Especially since she had so many excellent ones anyway.  This song gave a modern production flavor to a classic disco era Philly uptempo dance groove. Especially with how Whitney’s go from nuanced to soul shouting right along with the drums-which themselves go from a light brushing sound to being heavier and higher up in the mix. It also shares a similar juxtaposition in tempo as Diana Ross’s “Love Hangover” as well. Take n on it’s own,it’s one of Whitney’s finest uptempo numbers.

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Filed under 2009, Alicia Keys, disco funk, drums, Fender Rhodes, Funk Bass, Philly Soul, Swizz Beatz, Uncategorized, Whitney Houston