Passport are one of my favorite jazz-funk fusion bands. Klaus Doldinger,a Berlin native who’d studied in Dusseldorf and come in Oscar Peterson tribute bands and recorded solo records in America, is the saxophone player who formed the group in the year 1970. The band still exists today. In the 70’s and 80’s,they were perceived as a mainly European centered Weather Report-not having WR’s major international acclaim. Yet whether they were making progressive jazz/rock,jazz-funk,Brazilian jazz or even new wave inflected pop later, they generally seemed to always find just the right groove for their songs.
It was my father who first exposed me to Passport. He found their 1974 LP Looking Thru in the attic of his parents house when a tenant left some vinyl behind. Hearing that got me looking for more albums of there’s. One I did find was 1976’s Infinity Machine. This was in an early to mid 70’s lineup of the group which included drummer Curt Cress,keyboardist Kristian Schultze and bassist/guitarist Wolfgang Schmid. Today I have all their 70’s and 80’s album on CD. In any case Infinity Machine opened with a bang with the elongated instrumental “Ju-Ju Man”.
After a brief little drum kick,the song begins with a bumping uptempo percussion kick-with Cress’s drums fan-faring in with a strong swinging groove. Than a melodic 14 note Moog bass riff takes hold-with Doldinger’s sax accenting it. Afterwards,Doldinger solos with Schmid’s bass and guitar as call and response. After the sax breakdown of this choral/refrain sequence,Doldinger takes an elongated sax solo with Schmid’s bass the the Moog right along with him. After another solo on lead synthesizer,the main chorus/ refrain of the song repeats until it concludes the song.
“Ju-Ju Man” is some of the most vital,energetic and melodic jazzy funk I’ve heard this side of the Headhunters. The rhythm is driving,the solos are off the hook powerful and there are several parts of the song that are instantly hummable. Its also the type of jazz/funk that’s totally solo based. Curt Cress,as the drummer gives Doldinger and Schmid as primary soloists all the room to do their solos without merely vamping at “tennis without a net”. So in the end,it exemplifies Passport as one of the 70’s jazz/funk/fusion groups who really knew how to keep grooving and soloing locked right into place.
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!
Johnny Gill was born in 1966 in DC,known by the big and strong black population as “Chocolate City”. Coming from a religious back round,he started singing in his families gospel group the Wings Of Faith. He began his recording career in 1982,at the age of 16. It was his childhood friend (and soon to be duet partner) Stacy Lattisaw who convinced the baritone singer/songwriter/ bassist/ guitarist to submit demos to record companies. While he completed his education via tutoring, he elected to pass up studying electric engineering in college for a life in music.
Gill’s career took him from duets to a stint in New Edition (succeeding Bobby Brown) in the late 80’s to a revived solo career after that. One that extends to this very day. He’s also made over 80 appearances on television film in his duel career as an actor. One album that I always wanted to seek out from this multi talented teen prodigy was his debut on Cotilian Records from 1983. It was produced by Freddie Parren-famous for helming youthful family acts such as The Jackson 5 and The Sylvers. One song that stood out to me on Gills debut was “I Love Makin’ Music”.
A percussion march and Gill’s call and response vocal lead into the main part of the song. The whole thing is built around a central groove. This consists a jumping funky drum built around heavy Afro Brazilian styled percussion. Gill provides a thick slapping bass thumps,a chunky rhythm guitar stomp while Perren plays a slippery synth bass. On the bridge of the song,the rhythm reduces down to a thick slap bass solo from Gill before returning to the main theme-urging pianist Clarence McDonald to “play some jazz” and such as the song gradually fades itself out.
“I Love Makin’ Music” mixes some of the kiddie funk style ultra singable melodic approach of Perren with some of the harder funk style Gill seemed to be going for. Not only are Gill’s often growling baritone vocals sound at least a decade older than he actually was,but if he plays as much as I can guess on this album his talents on guitar and bass are deep,strong and right in line with the 70’s soul/funk vibe which he came out of. Even though its not necessarily an aspect of Gill’s solo career that most people today might remember readily,it began the budding prodigy’s music career in superb form.
Pete Townshend is best known as the lead guitarist of The Who-one of the most long lived 60’s rock bands next to The Rolling Stones. Townshend is often regarded for his onstage theatrics. He is also a talented multi instrumentalist. And an early proponent of synthesizers in early 70’s rock. The best example of this is the bands 1971 hit “Baba O’Reiley”,which was built around a European classic style melody played on the ARP 2600 synthesizer. After a very successful 60’s and 70’s, Townshend and the bands lead singer Roger Daltrey began to pursue solo careers at the start of the 1980’s.
Still The Who weren’t over quite yet. This came to my knowledge with a question I never got answered until learning about it online a few years back. From the mid 90’s onward,I’d often hear this song with an intro that had a terrific groove to it. Sounded like a prog/fusion style song,but it was during an era when classic rock radio didn’t often announce the names of artists for those not in the know. It wasn’t until hearing the song in a TV commercial that I was able to research it online through that stated what the song was. It was a song from The Who’s 1982 album Its Hard entitled “Eminence Front”.
A percussive drum box opens the song as a solo sound. The main groove of the song gradually builds in during the into. First it brings in a highly digitized,arpeggiated synthesizer. This is followed by a lower synth riff, as well as a jazzy Fender Rhodes solo floating over the higher notes. The main groove of the song adds a slow crawling drum groove,Townshend’s bluesy guitar. The chorus of the song brings John Entwistle’s thumping,fuzz toned bass in-along with a guitar build up on the outro of it. The Rhodes drives everything in the groove until the song finally fades itself out.
“Eminence Front”,written and sung by Townshend, deals lyrically deals with how the drug end of the rock ‘n roll lifestyle holds back creativity. And I can respect that alternate side of the coin. What really gets me is everything from the instrumentation to the vocal choruses of this song have a special musical interconnection. The song has the theatrical melodies of progressive rock opera (which The Who helped pioneer),but also a thick groove and harmony vocals of hardcore funk. It brings to mind the way the Stones embraced funk in their rock music: based on funk and soul’s current incarnations.
The Tavares are a group I’ve seen albums by in so many budget vinyl bins over the years, I didn’t have much context of their significance in the soul/R&B/funk world. Perhaps on their records being so common in Maine is a matter of geography. This New England based group from New Bedford, Massachusetts got their start as different incarnations of The Turnpikes. Along the way,that group attracted future musicians such as Aerosmith’s drummer Joey Kramer and P-Funk/Talking Heads icon the late,great Bernie Worrell. By 1973, the five Tavares brothers alone signed to Capitol for a succession of R&B smashes.
One member of the group Butch Taveres is turning 69 this year. And so far,the only music I am all that aware of them for is their participation in the blockbuster Saturday Night Fever soundtrack-in that case covering The Bee Gee’s composition “More Than A Woman”. For some reason,always associated the singing siblings as being primarily based in slow jam ballads and Philly style disco songs. But just yesterday,I learned they had a far funkier side that showed up on the final song of their 1979 album Madam Butterfly entitled “I’m Back For More”.
A slow shuffling drum,bluesy filtered Fender Rhodes piano and a snarling,jazzy bass walk accompanies the harmonies of the Tavares along with horn and string accents on the intro alone. During the refrains of the song,its the drums,Rhodes and strings that carry the song along with the groups close and often jazzy harmonies. On the earlier bars of each refrain statement,the drum kicks up a bit more than shuffles. On the latter choruses,a wah wah guitar joins the musical mix. On the final choruses,the horn charts take presidents with the groups call and response exchanges as it fades out.
“I’m Back For More” brings to mind the feeling of three songs that define the funkiest side of the disco era for me. It has the rhythmic and horn/string cadence of Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby”,the jazzy keyboards and swagger of Edgar Winter’s “Do What” from 1979 and a melodic element similar to Toto’s “Georgie Porgy” from a year earlier. Its the type of song that bridges disco,funk and classic harmony vocal based 70’s soul with such a strutting,funky yet laid back kind of groove. Cannot think of a better song to pay tribute to Butch Tavares with,personally.
The Spinners were a Detroit band who at one point were actually co credited with the name of their home city-the Detroit Spinners. Also as the Motown Spinners at times because original members Billy Henderson, Henry Fambrough, the late Bobby Smith and Pervis Jackson recorded a number of singles for the famous Detroit label. Their biggest hit on the label was of course “Its A Shame”,sung by GC Cameron. Cameron was succeeded by the late Phillipe Wynn. Wynn was part of a three lead singer lineup of the band at Atlantic Records-for a series of albums produced by Philly maestro Thom Bell.
That period of the Spinner’s recording from 1973-1976 was their most commercially successful. While they’d go on to make some superb records after that,its that early/mid 70’s period that defines them in the public consciousness. Pervis Jackson was one of the three lead singers of the band. Though he passed away from cancer in 2008, his bass vocals were a key part of their five part vocal harmonies. There was one time where his vocals became more the star of the show. And that was on another huge smash hit for them from their 1975 Pick Of The Litter album called “Games People Play”.
A spacious drum thump starts out the song. A high pitched rhythm guitar,filtered piano and close knit bass line provide the basic melody along with accompanying horn lines. A string riser segues into that intro extended out into the refrain of the song. A second statement of the song extends out into a different chord-focusing on the horns and strings playing along with the lead vocals,which include female guest singer Evette L.Benton. The chorus of the song finds the groups vocal harmonies singing the the melodic string and horn orchestration. Its on this chorus that the song fades out.
“Games People Play” is one of my very favorite Spinners song. Its some of the finest produced mid tempo cinematic soul of the mid 70’s Especially the vocal exchanges. For Pervis Jackson’s part,his moment on this song occurs during the beginning of the third refrain where his bass voice sings “12:45”. As I understand it, that lyrical phrase became his nickname for a time. The end result is one of the best vocally oriented musical studio soul sounds of its era. Thom Bell was a master of highly musical vocal productions. And this is one of many fine examples of this from the Spinners during the 70’s.
Billy Joel is at the core of how I tend to relate to pop/rock music. A Bronx native, Joel’s music career was less inspired by his father being a classically trained pianist than in his mother pushing him into taking piano lessons. This cost him the credits to graduate from high school-playing in a piano bar just a bit too long so it seems-trying to earn money to support his family. He eventually joined up with a band called The Hassles. He and the bands drummer Jon Small ended up forming Atilla and releasing one album in 1970. After the duo broke up,he began his solo career with the 1971 album Cold Spring Harbor.
As his music developed,particularly after early hits such as “Piano Man” and “Captain Jack” after being signed to Columbia,Joel’s sound began to take on even stronger elements of the Broadway show tune and pre rock jazz styled pop that had always been an influence on him. This culminated in his 1977 release The Stranger,produced by the late Phil Ramone. Its followup 52 Street was part of my moms 8 track collection. And upped the jazz influences even higher. One song from the album that stood out for me on that particular musical end is a tune called “Zanzibar”.
After an opening piano flourish, Joel is dueting with himself on both a melodic and a bass piano arpeggio-with Liberty DeVito’s drums keeping in time with the rhythmic piano for the refrains. Dancing around this are a high electric piano and round bass line. The chorus returns to the more rhythmic piano style and bursts of rock guitar from Steve Khan. Joel duets with piano and a backwards keyboard loop before the bridge goes into a straight swinging bop jazz arrangement with Freddie Hubbard soloing on flugelhorn and trumpet. After a choral/refrain repeat,this swinging solo fades out the song as well.
After hearing this song enough for so many years, it has a quality of the progressive jazz rock being done by both Gino Vannelli and Steely Dan during the late 70’s. That Steely Dan influence-especially Hubbard’s trumpet solo,has been discussed by many people. Joel’s elaborate melodicism and way with a strong,funky rhythmic groove also maintained the Steely Dan like cryptic lyric regarding trying to pick up a sexy waitress at a sports bar. It also showcases,with both its writing and choice of musicians, how funky and soulful an artist like Billy Joel can be with a strong jazz base to their musical sound.
Captain & Tennille were a pop act that defined the late 70’s. They mixed singable,radio friendly melodies with a keyboard based sound. Daryl Dragaon was a former LA surf musician and keyboardist for the Beach Boys in their early 70’s. Toni Tennille-native of Montgomery Alabama,she attended Auburn University there and studied classical piano. After her family moved to California,Tennille was commissioned to write music for a rock musical called Mother Earth. It was on tour with this production in San Francisco that she met her future husband/musical partner Daryl Dragon.
Their first and most iconic song was the Neil Sedaka penned “Love Will Keep Us Together” in 1976. One thing I’ve realized over the years is how much talent Tennille possesses as a composer and vocalist-with her elaborate melodies and soulful belt of a voice. By the end of the 70’s,the Captain & Tennille arrived at Casablanca records-to pursue a more soulful,funky sound. One of the songs from their 1979 album Make Your Move reflected this. It was their version of the song Crusader Stix Hooper penned for B.B King called “Never Make A Move Too Soon”.
The sounds of a small nightclub audience opens up the album just before Ralph Humphrey’s five not,percussive drum kickoff chimes in. That along with Abraham Laboriel’s thick,spacious five note slap bass riff. Dragon’s organ like keyboards accent this before the first bars of the song begins. It starts out with a stripped out funky dance drum stomp with the bass hitting the end of every bar. It builds into a bigger mix with a consistent slap bass line,organ and horns. These horns accompany Dragon’s synthesizer solo on the bridge before a repeated refrain closes out the song with huge horn fanfare.
‘Never Make Your Move Too Soon” is a superb example of a sleek blues/funk stomp in the late 70’s. And from a group associated with big pop smash hits such as the ballad “Do It To Me One More Time”,featured on this same album as well. Tennille delivers this sassy tale of a gold digging male lover with the entire female equivalent of the thick vocal growl that B.B. King had brought to the original recording. The fact that this and its 1980 followup Keeping Our Love Warm was a full on contemporary soul/funk album made one wonder where this duo might’ve gone in continuing in this new musical direction.