Cat Stevens, now known as Yusef Islam, was born Steven Demetre Georgiou in London. He was from a Greek and Sweedish back round, from a family of restaurateurs. Adopting the name Cat Stevens by 1966, he began singing in coffee houses before recording a pair of popular albums and singles such as Matthew & Son in the late 60’s. After that, he contracted tuberculosis. And his long recuperation encouraged him to seek holistic therapies to improve his health. This not only effected his spiritual life, which would lead him to the Muslim faith later. But a change in his music focus.
By 1970 Cat Stevens was the UK’s top representative of the signer/songwriter movement. For the next several years songs such as “Lady D’Arbanville”, “Wild World”,”Moon Shadow”,”Peace Train” and “Oh Very Young”. By the mid/late 70’s, Cat Stevens was growing restless with his music and identity yet again-prompted by a near drowning in 1976. A year later he released the album Izitso, which added synthesizers to his musical mix. The hit off the album was “Remember The Days of The Old Schoolyard”. What popped off the album for me though was an instrumental called “Was Dog A Doughnut?”.
A deep electronic pulse that evolves into a spacey synthesizer wobble provides the intro to the song-almost like an introductory fanfare. After that,a four note synth bass melody comes in,at first unaccompanied,to be joined shortly by a spacious 2 beat drum pattern that repeats on the second. A high pitched digital sequencer accompanies this until it evolves into a mid range one playing an extension of the bass part. The sound of a dog part plays a percussive role in between. Chick Corea plays an electric piano solo on the bridge before an extended chorus leads to the song closing with the dog barking sound.
“Was Dog A Doughnut?” is unlike anything I’d personally have ever associated with 70’s Cat Stevens. First heard the song as part of a CD mix by New York DJ Danny Tenaglia that my mother picked up in the early aughts. It got the perhaps expected accusation of being “too robotic” by some rock oriented critics of the late 70’s. But basically, along with Kraftwerk, it provided a jazzy funk tinged addition to the European end of the proto hip-hop/electro sound to come in the 1980’s. Strange a it might seem to some, this very quality make it one my personal favorite Cat Stevens songs.
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.
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.
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.
Calvin Harris is yet another example of a European DJ/producer/multi instrumentalist in the 2010’s who have wound up keeping strong funkiness in their club oriented music. As a matter of fact, many of them (Harris included) have taken many contemporary singer/performer’s along for the ride with them. Hailing from Dumfries, Scotland, Harris is the son of a biochemist. Calvin himself had a very working class trajectory after high school-working odd jobs to buy DJ gear to develop his craft further. By 2011, Harris was working with pop artists such as Rihanna. And had several major albums on his own too.
Last week Harris, whose generally EDM based releases have generally veered about as far as nu disco in the past, released his fifth studio album entitled Funk Wav Bounces Vol.1. It is his first to include no instrumental pieces. And is heavy on collaborations with contemporary singers and rappers. The album first came to my attention riding around town with my mom and hearing the song “Feels” from it on the local new music radio. Very much enjoyed it but upon listening closer, I found Big Sean’s language in it too profane. On the song I’m doing today “Heartstroke”,its a somewhat different story.
A cymbal and jazzy electric piano melody opens the album,with Pharrell Williams deepened voice being soon joined by light percussion and rhythm guitar. When Young Thug’s lead vocals coming,the songs post disco beat and grinding,popping bass line comes in to join it for the first verse of the song. Pharrell joins Young Thug in call and response harmony on the choruses. The song changes octave a bit when Ariana Grande comes in as vocal lead-again duetting with Pharrell. After a bridge with a more sustained synthesizer part, it all fades out on a psychedelic Latin funk wah wah/percussion tone.
What “Heartstroke” actually does musically is very interesting. It showcases the most condensed groove present in the (in its day) somewhat necessitated lower budget of early 80’s post disco/boogie music. Yet it also has some the jazzy electric piano and Brazilian style percussion flavors of late 70’s jazz funk. The type that found its way into Quincy Jones’s late 70’s/early 80’s productions as part of the “LA sound”. Young Thug’s language has its issues here for sure. But he presents it with a Jamaican dancehall style vocal that makes this a strong mixture of older and newer funky musical ideas.
TLC are a group that I never thought would come back. After all in terms of membership,its all come down to Chilli and T-Boz. Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes was in many ways the heart and soul of the 90’s trio. Since the time of Left Eye’s passing, the remaining two members have made some appearances,collaborations and been the subject of a biopic here and there. But even with all the trials,tribulations and financial ruin of their heyday,it didn’t seem that the passing of a key member would ever find them re-emerging in a huge way in terms of new studio material.
All of a sudden in early 2015,T-Boz and Chilli announced they were going to be releasing and fifth and final studio album using a Kickstarter campaign. Other artists such as Katy Perry and Justin Timberlake made major donations to their crowdfunding effort. The new self titled album was released June 30th of 2017. A couple of years earlier, the duo format of TLC went on tour with the New Kids On The Block and Nelly. And they released two new singles from their forthcoming album in Japan the next year. One of them is what I’ll be talking to you about today. Its called “Joy Ride”.
A three beat,echoed drum with a four note descending/ascending bass line provides the intro. A horn blasts gets into the funky shuffling drums,the bouncing pop of a rhythm guitar and the continuing bass line from the intro. Along with a three note,descending hip-hop style piano. As the song progresses,with little melodic changes from refrain to choruses,the rhythm alternately shows down as silences,horns and hand claps all join the instrumentation in different parts of the song. An extended chorus of the song concludes it all with the duo’s harmonies echoing the song to its fade out.
“Joy Ride” is a superb arrangement for TLC. Its based in their classic mix of live instrumental funky soul with a hip-hop friendly twist. The melody and harmonies of the group are just as locked down too. Written by Rebekah Muhammad, the song certainly understands the history of whose doing it. As I said to Henrique, its not something that shows TLC’s sound as changing all that much. But in as much as the original trio kept the funk and soul alive in their hip-hop based music in the 90’s, its just a really comforting thing to be back on the TLC tip. Even if it is just for one last time.