Tag Archives: Earth Wind & Fire

Funky Revelations Of 1987: ‘Touch The World’ by Earth Wind & Fire

Earth Wind & Fire had slowly declined in commercial success during the early 80’s. But even then? They still had enough momentum from their still recent classic run of the late 70’s to sustain them creatively and with the public. Still, the pressures of losing members due to creative differences, plus the effects of the post disco freeze out, was beginning to take it’s tole on a band who’d always been able to adapt to musical changes at every point.

In 1987 the bands core Maurice and Verdine White, Phillip Bailey, Ralph Johnson and Andrew Woolfolk were convinced by Columbia to reunite. They added guitarists Sheldon Reynolds, fresh from The Commodores and Dick Smith along with drummer Sonny Avery and a brand new horn section called the Earth Wind & Fire horns. The result is probably the first major comeback album experienced in my personal memory.

“System Of Survival” begins the album with with a very fast paced horn packed call and response type modern dance/funk jam dealing with the disintegrating effects of Reagan era trickle down economics. “Evil Roy” is an even harder edged,somewhat slower tempo’d groove with a strong bass/guitar interaction illustrating the slice of life tale of a drug pusher.

“Thinking Of You” is a kalimba-led melodic pop-jazzy jam with some creamy vocal exchanges from Maurice and Phillip.”You And I”,”Every Now And Then” and “Here Today And Gone Tomorrow” are all mid-tempo,melodic funk ballads that function as an update of the Charles Stepney era EWF school of balladry. “New Horizons” references samples of songs like “Shinning Star”,”That’s The Way Of The World”,”Reasons”,Serpentine Fire” and “Magnetic” before going into a fast paced,digitized synthesizer jazz-fusion led by an Andrew Woolfolk sax solo.

“Money Tight” is a stomping,electrified hard funk number dealing with the matter of unemployment. The title song is a shuffling mid tempo gospel number-featuring White,Bailey and Reynolds vocally illustrating how individual people’s lives of turmoil effect others. “Victim Of The Modern Heart” has a powerfully jazzy melodic exchange and another show stopping vocal from Bailey.

This album is one of those that I had the privilege to experience the moment it came out. It was an enormous family event when the cassette tape was bought into the this. “System Of Survival” and “Evil Roy” were showing up on the FM dial on car rides around the town while my father gave me the chance to tune into the music videos to these songs via Friday Night Videos. It was a proud experience for me, a young man growing up in semi rural Northeast Maine in the mid/late 1980’s, to hear music that not only had a strong social consciousness but offered hope for a better future.

It’s proud to know that this album might’ve been a successful entry point to EWF for people of the late Gen X age group living in areas that may not have had access to see them in a concert setting,and where funky music wasn’t as emphasized in the culture. Overall,a very successful entry for EWF into being able to fully integrate electronics into what amounts to a total revisit to their classic sound and musical spirit.

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All ‘N All At 40: Earth Wind & Fire In A Land Called Fantasy

Earth Wind & Fire’s eighth full studio album All ‘N All is music that’s continue to grow with me. Since the very first time I heard it. Only a few days before this writing, my friend Henrique even discussed with me how vital it was that EWF had three drummers aboard during their salad years. There was Ralph Johnson, as well as the bands founder and conceptualist in the late Maurice White. As well as his brother Fred. Maurice himself played drums on the song “Runnin'” from this particular album, a song that’s a particularly jazzy affair.

A somewhat humorous anecdote deals with All ‘N All‘s opening song “Serpentine Fire”. Again from Henrique. We were discussing the songs seemingly sexual playfulness. And how slow the tempo of the song was in relation to the rest of the playing. Turns out in timing the tempo, “Serpentine Fire” clomps along at around 69 BPM. So there is past, present and future lessons to be learned from All ‘N All for its listeners. The future is not ours to see of course. And its also important to absorb the past lessons the music on this album has taught. And I can only truly speak on personal experience in that regard.

All ‘N All has it own rich history. EWF as a band had just survived the tragic loss of Charles Stepney-as well as recording much of their following album Spirit without him. Maurice White then took a much needed vacation with his wife to Brazil and became deeply emerged in the Latin rhythms he heard out of Rio and Sau Paulo. Particularly those of Milton Nascimento. Milton and Maurice came to the conclusion that a combination of their sound would be a strong new element within Earth Wind & Fire. Especially since Afro-Latin percussion was already an enormous aspect of their sound.

Flash forward to the mid 1990’s and I am just getting into the albums of EWF. I remember riding my bike seven miles or so across a lot of traffic to get to the local mall area where there was a record store called Strawberries. Browsing through their cassettes I came across this album on tape. Though the cover was much tinier,it touched on a deep interest I’d had in ancient Egypt and the pyramids of Giza since before I even learned how to ride a bicycle to begin with. Recognizing at least one song on it,and seeing it was in my price range? I decided to purchase it.

After getting this tape home, I put it in my portable cassette player and…found myself travelling in a musical world I am going to try my best to explain to you now. Beginning with a somewhat Michael McDonald sounding Clavinet riff from Larry Dunn,”Serpentine Fire” kicks into high gear with clinging Brazilian percussive funk of the most meaningful order. I could write paragraph after paragraph about the lyric’s seemingly flexible meaning,but the slithering rhythmic nature of the music may tell the story even better. I’ve heard it said that “Fantasy” is rhythmically deep into the “4 on the floor” disco beat.

“Fantasy”‘s cinematic atmosphere transcends anything else for a song celebrating romantic imagination. The Kalimba interlude “In The Marketplace” goes into the furious horn funk of “Jupiter”-probably one of their cleanest played and most under heralded funk numbers they ever made. “Love’s Holiday” is a quintessential EWF mid-tempo groove that is more verse oriented when it comes to Maurice’s lyrical approach than his usually melodic style. The first part of Milton’s “Brazilian Rhyme” is next-concluding in a stomping,funky jam with Verdine’s bass bopping brightly.

“I’ll Write A Song For You” could be viewed somewhat as “Reasons” part II instrumentally -with the songs eloquently romantic lyrics building into a fantastically orchestrated climax. “Magic Mind” is another excellent uptempo funk number-with some of the most elaborate soloing from the Phenix Horns. “Runnin” is one of my favorites here. Starting out as a vocalese led melodic jazz-funk/fusion jam from Philip Bailey,the already heavy Afro-Latin strains in the rhythm come to a percussive frenzy by the songs second half-with Larry Dunn’s kinetic synthesizers bridging the two sections together.

“Be Ever Wonderful” closes the album with its only fully gospel/soul derived song on this album-ending with a triumphantly sung mid tempo ballad.  The only way I could even try to explain this is that the way in which the Brazilian rhythms and bouncing melodies on this album are carried out? The entire quality of the music on this album has the feeling of a journey, the feeling of motion towards a compelling knowledge outside oneself . This album brings mystery into focus,and brings time to a slower crawl. And its funk that is both spiritually deep and commercially successful.

All N’ All, from its gatefold artwork to its thematic content, also embraces ideas somewhere between monotheism and pantheism. Maurice White once referred to the albums title itself as referencing that idea of all human religions representing one higher power. EWF also blend in their variation of the classic secular/spiritual soul music themes. The romanticism of humanity seem to even become a spiritual matter on these songs. From the change in the bands logo to a golden roman style font onward, the entire affair was a musical rebirth for a band still deep in their peak musical powers.

The golden annivesary of this album seems far away. But at a mere decade away? It has just occurred to me that by 2027, all of the Earth, Wind & Fire members from this era may have passed away. But as its been said many times, the result of art is ones footprint in time. All ‘N All has the potential for its footprint not to be fully realized until all of its creators are gone. Thinking about the passing of Maurice White last year, his musical spirit in particular permeates this entire album. And he and his band of musical brothers fashioned a funk/jazz/soul masterpiece from that creative synergy.

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Love’s Holiday” by Earth Wind & Fire

Earth Wind & Fire’s 1977 album All ‘N All is about to celebrate its 40th anniversary this coming autumn. Today however, wanted to pick one particular song from this iconic album to talk about. And for a very special reason. Raised in Kentucky, Johnny Graham started out playing the trumpet as a child. And moved to guitar as a teenager. While touring with the new birth, Graham got contacted by Maurice White. Apparently some of the New Birth members had told White how great a guitarist Graham was. And White wanted Graham as one of his guitarists in his rebooted edition of Earth Wind & Fire.

That reboot edition of EWF debuting on Head To The Sky became basically the bands classic 70’s line up. Graham, who turns 66 today, provided a strong amplified blues flavor to EWF during its salad days. And his guitar solos on songs such as “That’s The Way Of The World” essentially added that musical element of earthiness present in their name. Another such solo turned up on the song that closes the first side of the original LP of the All ‘N All album. And a song that’s become album cut by many admirers of the band. The name of the song is “Love’s Holiday”.

A thick,cymbal heavy drum count comes in with the Phenix Horns playing a beautifully jazzy unison horn chart. Than Al McKay and Verdine White’s bass/guitar interaction comes in with the Ralph Johnson’s drum clipping along at approximately 72 beats per minutes The horns, including a muted trumpet play an accessorizing part along with very faint strings in the back round. And especially on the climbing B-section to the chorus, Philip and Maurice’s sing right along with them. Graham’s guitar solo comes in on the closing refrain-playing call and response with Maurice White’s vocalese.

“Love’s Holiday” is an example of that literal “slow jam” that EWF had been perfecting during their years with Charles Stepney and beyond. It would extend from songs like “Devotion” up through “Be My Love” from the early 80’s. By the time of this song in 1977, the band and its many musical collaborators had this densely arranged jazzy funk/soul sound down to a science. Comedian Steve Harvey even singled out this particular song as an example of what “real music” sounded like. Its one of the most melodically and harmonically beautiful ballads to emerge out of the funk era in the 1970’s.

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Time” by Deniece Williams

Deniece Williams was born in Gary,Indiana-also the home town of the Jacksons. And is very close in age to the musical family’s eldest member Rebbie. Very much like EWF’s late founder Maurice White,she initially had her eyes on the medical profession-in her case in becoming a nurse and anesthetist. She dropped out after one year at Morgan State University in Baltimore. She then recorded as a singer for a number of small labels until she joined Stevie Wonder’s band Wonderlove during the early 70’s.

After leaving Wonderlove in 1975,she released her solo debut This Is Niecy on the Columbia label,in the company of Maurice White and much of the Earth Wind & Fire musical crew. Her epic song “Free” really broke her into hit status,even getting her an appearance on Soul Train. She continued her association with EWF on through her followup album in 1977’s Song Bird. Discovered the album last year in the vinyl bins and became really entranced with every song on it. One particular song from the album that got my attention was the opening song entitled “Time”.

The Phenix Horns are fanfarring call and response style with the marching call like drum breaks on the intro of the song. After that,the entire musical flavor of the song thickens up with this big rhythm with a three note snare drum hit around the middle. Al McKay’s heavily reverbed guitar and Verdine White’s extended bass runs play musical hide and seek with Niecy’s vocals along with Larry Dunn’s electric piano and the Phenix horns. While the chorus merely changes the chord of the refrain a bit higher,the final part of the song finds the drums playing a more stop/start beat until it all fades out.

“Time” is the kind of intricately structured song EWF delivered in such a consistent,well oiled way during their mid/late 70’s salad days. Williams’ high and often quite loud voice literally does seem to sour and fly in her fine gospel drenched style throughout the entirety of this song. EWF were a band who had mastered their ability to be highly daring musically,often very jazzy and still leave room to accomodate singers with big voices. Like The Emotions,Deniece Williams was another such singer. And this song was a total funk triumph for her in her years recording with the members of EWF.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Turn It Into Something Good” by Earth Wind & Fire

Earth Wind & Fire generally didn’t depend too much on outside songwriters and producers-unless of course their names were Skip Scarborough or Charles Stepney. They were more musical insiders who assisted the band just out from under foot. By the time of 1979’s I Am, Maurice White was producing most of album with David Foster. With the following years Faces, they were out to make a double album set of all new studio material. So outside songwriters on this album included Brenda Russell and Valerie Carter.

Carter passed away at the age of 64 yesterday,having apparently spent some years struggling with drug addiction. A prominent songwriter/backup singer who recorded a handful of solo albums in the 70’s,she worked primarily with other singer/songwriters. In particular James Taylor.  She also made two major contributions to the funk/soul genre. She composed a  now rare B-side for the Brothers Johnson in 1984 called “Deceiver”. Five years earlier,her contribution to the songwriting for EWF on their Faces album came in its second track entitled “Turn It Into Something Good”.

A medium tempo,conga clav laden Carbbean funk drum line lays the foundation for the rhythm of the entire song. Right from the start. In full interplay within this mix are the brittle,melodic guitar of Al McKay with Verdine White’s exploratory,rhythmic jazzy bass line. Playing call and response to this are Larry Dunn on the Rhodes piano and the Phenix Horns. This represents the intro,refrain and outro of the song. On the chorus of song,the chord goes up and so does the pitch of the Rhodes as Maurice and Phillip trade off their vocals in fine style. A bass/guitar/Kalimba rhythm segues out of this song onto the next.

As the late Maurice White was quoted as saying a decade ago now,he feels the Faces album was one where EWF were really in tune with their sound. His brother Verdine called it the type of album they really wanted to cut. Valerie Carter,Maurice White and James Howard Newton all came together to create one of the greatest triad’s of songs on an EWF album-with this one sandwiched between the heavy funkiness of the opener “Let Me Talk” and “Pride”. This song mixes the Caribbean/Calypso flavor with a poppy funkiness that goes with one of EWF’s classic empowering message songs for a decade of many challenges.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Sing A Song” by Earth Wind & Fire

Earth Wind & Fire really came into its own when adding New Orleans born guitarist Al McKay in 1973 for their fourth album Head To The Sky. As Verdine White himself put it, McKay was already well known among musicians for his work with Sammy Davis Jr. and the Watt’s 103rd Street Rhythm Band by the time he joined EWF. This all came together to allow McKay to bring the strong pop element Maurice White was looking for. Al McKay was also another rhythm kind in the band. And that made brought him into close musical interplay with Verdine White and drummer Ralph Johnson.

McKay left EWF in 1980 following the release of their album Faces. By that point,McKay had already co-written at least two of the bands classic hit songs. One of them came from a guitar riff that Maurice White overheard McKay working on,so the story goes. And he felt the entire band should build a song around it. The song ended up being included as one of a handful of new studio tracks on EWF’s mostly live album Gratitude  from late 1975. Its one of those EWF songs that most people know by heart,and that includes myself. The name of it is “Sing A Song”.

An eight note bass/guitar interplay countdown opens the song. Than McKay’s main riff comes in-a thick a busy bubbling melody with Verdine scaling upwards on bass right next to him. The upbeat,sunny drums and the Phenix horns accent these instrumental parts. The Phenix horns do exactly the same thing for the vocal exchanges between Maurice White and Philip Bailey on the refrains. On the chorus,Larry Dunn’s Moog plays a variation of Verdine’s bass line. On the final chorus,Maurice and Phillip sing the breakdown together before an electric piano,the Moog bass and Phenix horns fade it all out.

Everything about this song literally seems to be singing. The Phenix horns with their brassy vibrato and Al McKay’s liquid rhythm guitar throughout this song give it an enormous vocal quality along with Maurice White and Phillip Bailey. The rhythms and bright melodies have some of the “united funk” era’s heaviest sense of gospel style joyousness to it. Having known a lot of people who’ve complained the lack of “genuine emotion” in music,this song takes the cake in terms of true happiness,and the power of music during the 70’s funk era to get to you sing a song to make your day.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “No Reply At All” by Genesis

Genesis began their career in the early 70’s as a progressive rock outfit,whose lead singer was the charismatic performer Peter Gabriel. Up until 1975,the bands sound was based in different forms of European classical music. Phil Collins succeeded Gabriel as a vocalist as well as being the drummer and one of the writers for the group with 1976’s Trick Of The Tail. Gradually, Genesis began to take on elements of jazz/rock fusion of a type Collins was playing in his other band Brand X. By the time of Genesis’s 1981 album Abacab,elements of modern funk and soul became an aspect of their sound as well.

That same year,Collins released his solo debut album Face Value. It was a very diverse album that’s now considered a classic. And also had its share modern funky/soul uptempo numbers. For both Collins’ solo effort and Genesis’s,Earth Wind & Fire’s Phenix Horns. They consisted of trumpeters Rahmlee Michael Davis and Michael Harris-along with the late,greats in sax player Don Myrick and trombonist/bassist Louis Satterfield. As a drummer,Collins musically related very well to the horn sections combination of melody and rhythm. This really showed in Genesis’s big hit from 1981 called “No Reply At All”.

The song starts out hot. The refrain consists of Collins’ percussive,fast paced rhythms with Tony Banks’ equally percussive synthesizer melody adding to Mike Rutherford’s phat,jazzy funk bass line. The Phenix Horns accent hard on every second beat. On the chorus,Collins’ drum roll brings in the refrain where the keyboard,guitars and bass line play along with a fuller horn chart-until another drum roll bridges each refrain/choral exchange. Banks on a solo piano with a Wall Of Sound style drum from Collins’ represents a bridge that leads into the choral/refrain exchange the closes out the song.

In terms of an English band mixing progressive pop/rock with Afrocentric,percussion/ horn based funk,”No Reply At All” is one of the finest examples at the beginning of the decade. The sound is not at all overcooked,which is a frequent aspect (and to some writers and critics,a complaint) about Phil Collins’ own solo combinations of the styles. Because this is coming as a collaborative writing effort from Genesis,a power trio band,each member deals with the combinations of rhythm,melody and arrangement extremely well. That makes this probably the funkiest moment Genesis had up to this point in time.

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Rejoice” by The Emotions

Sisters Wanda,Pamela,Jeanette and Sheila Hutchinson (whose celebrating her birthday today) made up the Chicago vocal group The Emotions. Beginning their recording career on Stax records in the early 70’s,most notably their appearance in the 1972 concert film Wattstax. The group added youngest sister Pamela when they signed to Columbia in 1976. Their debut album Sunflower was produced by Earth Wind & Fire founder Maurice White. And as well the rest of their albums for the next few years,most of the EWF crew were among the many session musician greats who played on the album.

A week or two ago,I purchased a used vinyl copy of The Emotions second Columbia album Rejoice. Its one that I turned down 20 years ago on CD,and came to regret it. What it happy news is that the album is consistently strong from start to finish. Everything from musicianship,arrangement and general creativity is at a premium. Maurice White even said a decade ago that it was his personal favorite production outside EWF. Its best known song is the iconic uptempo hit “Best Of My Love”. And for good reason. That’s the first song on the record. Its final song,the title cut,is perhaps even stronger for another reason.

Paulinho Da Costa’s percussion and James Gadson’s drums start out the groove with a bouncing Afro Brazilian thump-complete with hand-claps. On the third and fourth bar,this is augmented by melodic accenting slap bass,guitar and flute. A thick wah wah guitar,string and horn arrangement come in before the first refrain. The chorus has the same basic instrumental set up only in a more conventional funky disco beat. That Afro Brazilian intro represents both the setup to and the choruses themselves. And that chorus extends itself up to the songs fade  out.

The entire vibe of “Rejoice” seems to come from the same spirit as EWF’s All ‘N All of the same vintage did. Maurice White says he got the “Brazilian bug” musically when travelling to the country with his wife at that time. And this songs mix of positive thinking lyrics and the pure gospel joy of the Hutchinson sisters really reflect some of the strongest mixtures of Brazilian rhythms and American funky soul of the late 1970’s. Its also the perfect bookend to an album that begins and ends with its strongest cuts. With much strength in between. Musically,it caps off one of The Emotions’ finest recorded moments.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Switch On Your Radio” by Maurice White

Maurice White,one of the musical icons who passed away this year,it best known as the founder of Earth Wind & Fire-the most commercially successful of the 70’s funk bands in terms of crossover. On the other hand,the band broke up in 1984. And one of the many reasons brought up was that White had it in his mind that Columbia (the bands record label) were looking for him to do a solo album. This album got released in 1985. Its biggest single was with a (mostly) uptempo version of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me”. But it still remains something of a footnote in EWF history.

When I first heard the album on vinyl album around 18-20 years ago,am not 100% sure it came off as anything all that exciting. Of course,that could’ve just been a case of seeking something different from it than what it was. And what Maurice White’s self titled (and sole) solo debut does is present a series of electronic,pan African rock/funk/soul fusions with a mild melodic pop new age vibe about them. The EWF message is still intact. Its just going more for an attitude than a sound by a large. The one song that always got my attention strongly was the opener “Switch On Your Radio”.

A totally electronic synth orchestration fades slowly on the intro. Than suddenly the song bursts with a bluesy funk melodic statement. And it has all the instrumental elements of the song itself. The drum machine and Paulinho Da Costa’s percussion play off the guitar,electronic hand clap and slap bass lines with this melodic electro funk wall of sound. This represents the choruses of the songs. On the refrains and the bridge,the mix is somewhat more stripped down to focus on the vocals a bit. An extended chorus with vocal ad lib’s finish out the song as it fades.

“Switch On Your Radio” has a sound that crosses a lot of musical bridges. The overall drum programming of the song has the bigness of sound that was very much of its time. Yet the live percussion accents along with Martin Page slap bass,Marlon McClain’s rock guitar and the ethereal synthesizers of Robbie Buchanan  make for a powerful sound that basically amounts to a progressive dance/funk sound. And the melody has that strong song construction White and Page are so noted for. Its an extension of the EWF sound for sure. And it also pointed to a possible future solo direction for White which didn’t continue.

 

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Filed under 1985, dance funk, drum machine, Earth Wind & Fire, elecro funk, Marlon McClain, Martin Page, Maurice White, Paulinho Da Costa, percussion, Robbie Buchanan, rock guitar, slap bass, synthesizer

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Biyo” by Earth Wind & Fire

Earth Wind & Fire’s eighth studio album Spirit is an album that did a lot to help me to personally conceive of #1 hit funk in terms of an album medium. It celebrated its 40th anniversary this year. And I’ve already covered the album itself here. First purchased it on a cassette tape about 22 years ago. At that time,I remember fast forwarding through it to get to funkier songs. Upon upgrading to a CD copy a year or so later,it became clear that this was one of those very special funk era albums. Each time I listen to these songs,they improve like fine wine with each listening. Almost to the point of transcendence.
One member of EWF,who joined up on the bands fourth album Head To The Sky in 1973 was Andrew Woolfolk. This multi reed player primarily played soprano sax within EWF. As he describes it in the documentary on the band Shining Stars, the elements that he added into the band came from the jazz and funk side. He enjoyed a strong,melodic groove. He also loved to improvise in such cases too. Throughout the years,he’s done just this on many of EWF’s most popular and enduring songs. One song from the Spirit  album that amazes me to this day is the Maurice White/Al McKay composed instrumental “Biyo”.
Larry Dunn’s glassy space funk synthesizers open the song before the opening fanfare kicks in. Its full on drums,Afro Latin percussion,Verdine White’s pumping bass line,McKay’s percussive rhythm guitar and the Phenix Horns running on their usual adrenaline. Verdine’s echoed five note bass slap,Maurice’s four note Kalimba melody and Johnny Graham’s bluesy guitar accents make up the refrains. Four members of the band get a chance to solo. Woolfolk does twice-starting and at the end. Graham and Dunn do a solo that dovetail right into each other before Maurice’s Kalimba solo before its fade out.
Earth Wind & Fire added many instrumental interludes/bridges to the albums from their late 70’s crossover period. But for me this is the finest full instrumental based on their sound of that time. The production and recording is a fine example of the band making some of the best recorded funk of that era. Its a melodically and instrumentally busy number with a lot going on sonically. But the powerful Afro-Caribbean funk arrangement still leaves enough room for several amazing solos to interlock with each other. And as a showcase for Andrew Woolfolk,its one of his shining moments of the mid/late 70’s.

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Filed under 1976, Afro-Cuban rhythm, Al McKay, Andrew Woolfolk, drums, Funk Bass, instrumental, Johnny Graham, Kalimba, Larry Dunn, Maurice White, percussion, Phenix Horns, rhythm guitar, Saxophone, space funk, synthesizer, Verdine White