Eric Gale started to teach himself guitar in his native Brooklyn at the age of 12. He played on the R&B circuit with acts such as King Curtis, Maxine Brown and Little Anthony & The Imperials. This laid the ground work for his future as a session great. While at Niagra University, he studied chemistry. The music bug never left Gale however. His major claim to fame was as a session ace during the 60’s and 70’s. As a member of the instrumental jazz funk outfit Stuff, Gale played with Paul Simon in 1980 for his One Trick Pony soundtrack. He was also part of Aretha Franklin’s stage band for a time.
He began a concurrent career as a leader with 1973’s Forecast, on the Kudu label. He recorded the bulk of his late 70’s albums on Columbia however. His first two albums on the label were Ginseng Woman in 1977 and Multiplication the following year. Both albums have been combined together at least twice during the CD era. And were recommended to me by my dad while crate digging. Revisiting some of the songs via YouTube, the song that really stood out uppermost in my head with the title song to the Multiplication album.
Andrew Smith’s jazzy march on drums starts out the groove-with Gale’s ringing guitar improvising along with Bob James’ synths and Alphonso Johnson’s exploratory bass line-starting the groove in a dreamy fashion. Then the horns kick into the groove with Gale playing an ever evolving, down home blues type solo while Richard Tee’s piano and organ join the rhythm section in holding up a soulful groove. All with the horns accenting the changes in key on virtually every chorus and refrain. Its on the closing extended chorus that Gale scales down on his guitar solo as the song itself fades out.
“Multiplication” is an excellent example of ace jazz/funk/rock/fusion session musicians bring a wonderful feeling to their grooves. Sometimes, albums made by session players are thought to be too technical and less human. Gale, Johnson, Jackson, James and Tee’s years of experience playing together really give this groove a great late 70’s jazz/funk version of the uptown, bluesy/soul nightclub musical ethic. And its Gale’s fluid playing style and rich, ballsy tone that lead the way with grooves of this particular type. Basically a theme he’d always variate on as a band leader.
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.
Michael Franks has a somewhat unusual back round for a jazz artist. He primarily studied art and got a bachelors degree in comparative literature. While his Southern California family always played jazz around him, none of them were musicians. And Frank’s actual musical experience came from buying a guitar at 14 that came with six private lessons. While at UCLA, he began playing in folk rock and writing songs-inspired by his favorite (and known for his rhythmic writing style) Theodore Roethke. His main talents became as a composer after his college years.
I first discovered Frank’s music in…a pretty undignified way. It was a cassette copy of Frank’s 1987 album The Camera Never Lies given to my dad by a janitor who said he pulled it out of the dumpster outside the TV station my father worked master control at. This got me interested in seeking out more albums by him. And finding out he wrote many songs for artists I later got into-from the Manhattan Transfer to The Carpenters. In a funk context, one of my favorite songs of Franks opened up his 1985 album Skin Dive, the first album he co produced. The song was called “Read My Lips”.
Chris Parker’s drums kick off the intro-with the slap bass of Marcus Miller and bluesy guitar licks of Hiram Bullock accompanying Frank’s vocal hooks. Rob Mounsey’s synthesizers come into play in different ways throughout the song. On the refrains, they assist Frank’s vocal melodies. On the choruses, they act as a synth horn type orchestral element. Bullock’s guitar and Miller’s bass become fuller elements on the b-section as well. On the bridge refrain of the song, the key of the song changes to a higher one before an extended chorus serves to fade out the song.
“Read My Lips” is a superb way for a gentle vocals, with so much subtlety of expression, as Michael Franks to create funky music. For one, he has exactly the right people for 80’s jazz/funk fusion in his bass/guitar lineup-with the iconic Marcus Miller and the late Hiram Bullock. The arrangement is relatively spare and very Minneapolis in terms of the keyboards. But the bass and guitar provide very heavy, funky meat along with Chris Parker’s pocket groove. Michael Frank’s music went from more mellowness to heavier funkiness in the mid to late 80’s. And this is one song that reflects that strongly.
Julian “Cannonball” Adderley’s musical output and history is such a vast subject, I find it somewhat intimidating to write about. The Tampa native and his trumpet playing brother Nat were playing with Ray Charles in the early 40’s. After his musical studies and years of band leading positions, he was noticed by Miles Davis for his blues rooted approach to the sax. His works with Miles included albums such as Milestones and the modal jazz classic Kind Of Blue. Miles’ musical journeys, from avant garde to electric jazz fusion, continued to inspired Adderley’s own music until his passing in 1975.
One idea that Cannonball and his brother Nat did at different times in the early 70’s were a pair of albums with their own groups with the subject matter being a lighthearted look at astrology. That was the side of Cannonball and Nat Adderley’s artistry that I’m most familiar with. Another album of Cannonball that was played around the household a lot was a 1973 album called Inside Straight. It was a live in the studio session recorded at the Fantasy studios in Berkeley, California. The song that got my attention right from the get go on the album is the opening title song.
Roy McCurdy’s in the pocket drumming gets the groove going at 88 bpm, with Hal Galper’s Fender Rhodes and Walter Booker’s bass clomping along rhythmically right along with it. Cannonball plays an equally rhythmic 12 bar blues melody in his classic style over this-giving the song a strongly themed chorus. He improvises on this theme for much of the second minute of the song. On the second chorus of the song, someone (likely Cannonball) is making a squawking, almost flatulent like vocal horn effect. The choral theme of the intro fades out the song.
“Inside Straight” is just the kind of hard bop/soul jazz/funk process type of groove that shows how vital Cannonball’s music was in the early 70’s. Especially in terms of the evolution of jazz into the funk era. The groove itself is very straight forward and clear-its relatively slow tempo allowing Cannonball’s funky improvisations to really take flight. It really embodies how distinct Cannonball’s approach to sax was to allow it to evolve. That common ground between he and Miles Davis’s approach to music is really what makes this such a standout Cannonball Adderley number for me.
Amy Winhouse is quite possibly THE popularly successful jazz oriented female vocalist during my adult years who wasn’t strictly a balladeer. Born to a English Jewish family, her exposure to jazz came early in life. Her mother was a singer for a time who dated UK jazz sax player Ronnie Scott. And her father sang her Frank Sinatra songs as a child. She began playing guitar and writing songs at age 14. At 20, she released her debut album Frank, a rather neo soul oriented album produced by Salaam Remi. In 2006, she took the world by storm with her Back In Black album, recorded with the Dap Kings.
Winehouse’s career was marked by a dysfunctional family and love life. And a lot of resulted drug abuse and eating disorders. Sadly, she joined the 27 club in 2011 from a culmination of her self destruction. My friend Henrique and I have talked to some level about the significance of her musical legacy-especially in regard to her breakout album Back In Black. Upon hearing her debut album however, it became clear to me just how vital her jazz/funk/soul sound was even at the start of her career. And one number that illustrates this well is called “Mr Magic”.
Winehouse starts out the song with steady jazz guitar strumming-with Remi’s drums playing an in the pocket beat right along with her strumming. Winhouse’s vocals are accompanied by Vincent Henry’s punchy sax solos. John Adam’s Fender Rhodes also provides a solo that plays the exact counterpoint to Winhouse’s main guitar rhythm. The chords on the chorus have a brighter tone to them. The bridge of the song showcases an instrumental section featuring an extended sax solo from Henry and one from Adams on Rhodes before all the horn charts fade out the song following an extended chorus.
“Mr Magic” is a great example of a song that has was written on guitar. While the instrumentation has a neo soul spareness and doesn’t feature a discernible bass line, everything is on the rhythm with this song. From Winehouse’s vocal solos to her harmonies on the chorus, she is every bit part of the instrumentation vocally as Billie Holiday was before her. The horn and Rhodes based jazz/funk sound of the song also provided a template on how she’d expand this sound later-when working with the Dap Kings several years later.
Blood, Sweat & Tears were the first major jazz-rock group to hit the scene. This NYC group was formed in 1967 by Al Kooper. The main members included Mothers Of Invention album Jim Fielder along with Steve Katz and Bobby Colomby. It was also the first self contained rock group to have an integrated horn section. The group would record through the 70’s-losing and gaining new personnel as they went along. Including their original lead singer Al Kooper. Their most famous lead singer is David Clayton- Thomas. He joined the band for their sophomore album in 1968.
Thomas’s raspy,soulful vocals and songwriting immediately hit pay dirt for the band with the hit song “Spinning Wheel”. He continued writing for the band until pursuing a solo career after the 1971 album Blood, Sweat & Tears 4. He returned to the band just under five years later. They continued to record studio albums, with the ever changing lineup, until their final album to date came out in 1980’s Nuclear Blues. This was their first and only album on the MCA/LAX record label. One of the highlights I’ve heard so far is the David Clayton-Thomas penned title song of the album.
A rumbling, blasting bass synth tone with a cinematic wind like sound from behind it provides the intro to the song. The horn charts blast in along with the rhythm guitar, popping bass and an equally popping keyboard part in the back round. The B-section of the main theme has the Clavinet takes over behind Thomas’s vocal. On the bridge, this same B-section is played up as an instrumental part. First with an organ solo, than a sax solo playing behind an eerily bouncing, heavily reverbed bass line. During the extended chorus fading out the song, Thomas breaks into a mini rap over that same bass line.
“Nuclear Blues” finds Blood, Sweat & Tears, by this time on their 11th studio album, having marinated on from their elaborate jazz/rock arrangements into a well oiled jazz funk ensemble. Especially with the then newest members such as the bass/guitar duo David and Robert Piltch. Along with keyboardist Richard Martinez and the slow, in the pocket drumming of Bobby Economou. David Clayton-Thomas wrote a straight up 12 bar blues for this musical backing-one with a timely lyric dealing with the tail end of the cold war. This makes “Nuclear Blues” a perhaps unsung swansong of Blood, Sweat & Tears.
Redbone came to my attention through my friend Ben Minnotte over at YouTube’s ‘Oddity Archive’. The context was regarding backwards masking of songs. Ben described them as a Native American rock band. That got me seeking out their albums on vinyl. Especially, as with so many, I knew them mainly for their 1973 hit “Come And Get Your Love”. The band was started by the brothers Patrick and Candido Vasquez, known by Pat and Lolly Vegas, in Coalinga, California. The group actually came together from mere cents in their pockets after Pat won the first ever Coca Cola singing context.
The name Redbone apparently derives from a Cajun term of people of a mixed race heritage. Pat and Lolly, both of Native and Mexican descent, went from playing surf music in the mid 60’s (which resulted in their name change at the suggestion of their label) and session playing for people such as Tina Turner,Elvis Presley and James Brown. The brothers were inspired by the part Cherokee heritage of Jimi Hendrix to form Redbone to began with. And it was in the late 60’s that the members of the band began to come together to shape their sound.
The original lineup of the band aside from Pat and Lolly were drummer Peter DePoe and rhythm guitarist Robert Anthony Avilla-known as Tony Bellamy. Bellamy passed away in 2009-a year before Lolly Vegas passed. Bellamy’s birthday would’ve been today. And it reminded me of listening to Redbone’s albums and finding that amazing musical mix of rock,Cajun (with frequent lyrical references to New Orleans),jazz and funk. Definitely out of the diverse 60’s era pop music landscape, I wanted to focus on one of their songs today. The one chosen was this 1974 Redbone tune entitled “Physical Attraction”.
Butch Rilera’s drum roll starts off the groove with a bang-before the horn charts start playing a strong melody with Lolly Vegas’s trademarked Leslie rotating speaker effected guitar (sounding something like an electric sitar). This represents the instrumental element of the chorus. The refrain consists of a fast paced Clavinet groove with accents from Bellamy’s ringing rhythm guitar. The songs concludes on what what starts out as an extended chorus. Then it all goes into a sustained horn crescendo that serves to fade out the song.
“Physical Attraction” has a sound that reminds me something of what would happen if Sly & The Family Stone collaborated with the Edgar Winter group. The rhythmic precision and horn fueled melodies of funk is combined with the heavy drumming of horn rock. By the early/mid 70’s, it would seem that Redbone were embracing the heavier soul/funk aspect of their sound. Which was evident from the outset anyway. This particular song has the vibe of an unsung hit if I ever heard one. And a great testament to this first Native American rock band.
Michael “Mick” Talbot could be described as the man who, even prior to James Taylor, pioneered the revival of Hammond organ based soul/funk on the British musical scene. In the late 70’s, Talbot played in a trio of mod revivalist bands. The best known of them in the end would be Dexy’s Midnight Runners. Mick of course found his voice with Paul Weller as The Style Council. They embraced an often jazz laced blend of contemporary funk,soul and dance music’s. All inspired by Weller and Talbot’s mutual goal to musically shatter the myths and culture of the rock music world.
The band released their debut EP in 1983 in several countries except for the UK, interestingly enough. The following year they released their be bop and hip-hop laced full length debut Cafe Bleu. On both these releases, a precedence was set for including Talbot composed Hammond organ based instrumentals into different sections of the albums. One of my favorites was originally featured as the B-side to the 1984 single version of the song “My Ever Changing Moods”. The name of this particular instrumental had a cute wordplay about it: “Mick’s Company”.
Talbot starts off the song playing an ultra funky riff-doubling up what sounds like a Clavinet setting on a DX-7 synthesizer-all before Hammond organ swirl breaks into the drum roll right into the song. The main theme is this Clavinet effect played with a round synth bass pumping heavy behind it. And Talbot’s bluesy organ playing a counter solo to the introductory synth riff. There are two B sections of the songs where it changes chords. And the organ solo becomes more elaborate. Talbot improvises more and more on the organ as the song processes towards its fade out.
“Mick’s Company”, perhaps the most of Mick Talbot’s organ based instrumentals with the Style Council, really epitomize a somewhat under explored instrumental funk direction for the 1980’s. It combines the bluesy song structure and organ improvising of hard bop/soul jazz, the guitar like Clavinet based sound of the 70’s and mixes both together with a mid 80’s digitized synthesizer/bass oriented approach. It really encapsulates the previous three decades of instrumental soul/funk in under 3 minutes. In the end, it helped give the Style Council their distinctive spin on funk and soul for the 80’s.
Steely Dan disbanded after the release of their 1980 album Gaucho. Walter Becker retired with his family to Maui. Donald Fagen released a very successful solo album in 1982 called The Nightfly, basically semi-autobiographic nostalgia that served as a musical followup to Gaucho to a degree. Becker did occasional production work,in particular with the British group China Crisis in 1985. After some aborted sessions after working together with singer/model Rosie Vela in the late 80’s, the pair came together with Becker producing Fagen’s sophomore solo album Kamikiriad in 1993.
With that album being a positive experience, the two launched on their first live tour in roughly 20 years in 1995- for both Becker’s solo album 11 Tracks Of Wack and a box set containing remasters of all their studio albums Citizen Steely Dan. This prompted their first live album Alive In America. A couple of years later, Becker and Fagen were recording Steely Dan’s official follow up to Gaucho. In 2000, the album came out as Two Against Nature. Much to my surprise, it won album of the year at the 2001 Grammy awards. The opening song that got my instant attention is called “Gaslighting Abbie”.
Ricky Lawson’s hi hat heavy drums start off the groove with Fagen’s Fender Rhodes/ Clavinet and Becker’s high rhythm guitar playing a brittle call and response. Lawson’s drumming gets into that slow,funky beat-with Becker and Fagen’s Rhodes/rhythm guitar continuing for the refrains of the song. The B section and choruses takes the song across several chord progressions. On the second refrains, the horn charts quietly enter the mix. On the bridge, Dave Tofani plays an electrified sax solo before Becker takes a guitar solo. An extended refrain plays out with a sustain horn chart fading out the song.
“Gaslighting Abbie” basically picks up where the musical approach of Gaucho left off. Rhythmically its structured as a strongly funk based composition. In terms of the notes,chords,harmonies and instrumentation however, the vibe of the song is highly jazzy. It establishes Steely Dan as perhaps being their own particular sub-genre of music as opposed to a group embracing many genres. Becker, Fagen the the players they work with fully understand the composition their dealing with here. And it made it a fresh and very familiar start to the first album of their early aughts comeback.
Queen have proven to be among the most enduring of the mid to late 70’s rock bands. Their densely layered rock opera based style came into its fullest flower on “Bohemian Rhapsody” from 1975’s A Night At The Opera. Known for their blend of musical professionalism and theatrical stage shows, it was the bands lead singer/songwriter Freddie Mercury who helped to conceptualize Queen’s musical adventure. And it took them through many different musical forms-from opera,rockabilly,hard rock and disco, to maintain their sense of drama. Even after Mercury’s early passing from AIDS in 1991.
In 1980/81, Queen had a huge dance hit with the heavily Chic inspired Another One Bites The Dust. During the early 80’s, Michael Jackson was a close friend of the bands. This likely spurred Mercury onto the possibility of Queen re-fashioning their music into a funkier dance/rock based form. This led to the 1982 release of the album Hot Space. Its regarded by many hardcore rock writers and fans as their worst album. Especially coming right in the middle off the anti disco radio freeze out. For me however, the albums first track instantly got my attention. Its appropriately called “Staying Power”.
A percussive drum machine, Roger Taylor’s live drums and a round, fat sounding synth bass and John Deacon’s rhythm guitar begin the song with Mercury’s grunts and vocal ad libs. On the second part of the intro, horn charts arranged by Arif Mardin play call and response to Mercury’s vocals, Brian May’s guitar and the synth bass. This also represents the B section to the chorus, where Mercury’s sings along with Deacon’s guitar and a whooshing synth riser. After an extended big band horn chart on the bridge,an extended chorus continues until Mercury ends the final horn fanfare with a whispered “gotcha”.
“Staying Power” is a great defining way to begin an 80’s Queen album. Its heavy duty post disco funk-full of big brassy horn charts. Both vocally and musically, its also pretty much Freddie Mercury’s show. He plays many of the instruments on this song-from the drum machine,synth bass to the big windy synth wash. So the rhythmic and melodic base of the song is his creation. Even if many in Queen’s classic rock style dislike them doing horn based electro funk without any lead guitars, Queen and Mercury’s musical power comes through both instrumentally and melodically on this hefty funk number.