India Arie Simpson was born in Denver, Colorado to a family not only drenched in music. But with a history at Motown as well. Her mother Joyce was a singer who toured with Stevie Wonder-as well as Al Green. After her parents divorced and she moved to Georgia, India’s musical interests (always encouraged by her family) became even more pronounced-as she actively began to learn both guitar and composition. This occurred while attending the Savannah School Of Art & Design. She also learned of her strong African roots via DNA testing-including that of the Kru people of the nation of Liberia.
India. Arie made her debut on Motown in 2001 with her Acoustic Soul. That literally described the first song I heard from her entitled “Video”, where she talked of her she desired music and humanity, for herself and others, not to be seen as a product. This resulted in India becoming a major face of the coalescing neo soul movement of the time. Her second album Voyage To India came out the next year. Its main single didn’t perform commercially the way “Video” did. But it was a huge step ahead in terms of instrumentation and songwriting. It was called “Little Things”.
The sound of the gong starts of the intro of vocal harmonies from India.Arie that begins the song-with a bell like electric piano echo in the back round. The drum, at first stop and start comes into the mix with a strong accent of heavy percussion and a heavy, ascending bass line. As the vocal/lyrical flavor of the song changes, so does the feeling of the music. Sometimes its mostly rhythm and bass. Other times rhythm guitar and electric piano flourishes are stronger-along with what sounds like a baby crying. The song comes to an abrupt end after a long vocal run on the extended chorus.
“Little Things” is an interesting song. Musically speaking, its a somewhat more stripped down variant of the jazzy chords of Stevie Wonder compositions and a soul/funk rhythm-similar to Mary J Blige’s “All That I Can Say”. In terms of its actual structure, its more of a folk type song. A lot of lyrical verses after another rather than a refrain/chorus/bridge setup. It has a heavier studiocentric approach than much of her debut album. To me, “Little Things” is an example of India. Arie using her amazing abilities as a composer for a beautifully flowing, neo soul friendly funky soul number.
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.
Brian Auger has been, much like Americans Art Blakey and Norman Connors, a great assembler and cultivator of talent during the 60’s and 70’s in his native England. His first band was The Steampacket in 1965,which included a young and then unknown Rod Stewart. As a session musician and famed player of the Hammond B-3 organ, Auger worked with everyone from Tony Williams to Jimi Hendrix. Formed in 1970, his Oblivion Express represented when Auger became such a talent cultivator. In particular with members of what became the Average White Band.
For the first six years of the 70’s, Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express released on album every year. The last of this series of albums released prior to 1977 was the 1975 album Reinforcements. Seen it on vinyl once,never picked it up and have come to regret it. This album helped to cultivate the guitar/percussion/vocal talents of soon to be Santana band member Alex Ligertwood as well. Being a jazz-funk innovator, this would seem to be an album based upon online listening that delved very strongly into funkiness. And one of its finest examples is the opening song entitled “Brain Damage”.
Ligertwood’s rhythm guitar,and soon percussion provides the intro the song. Auger himself comes in on electric piano along with bassist Clive Chaman’s thundering,jazzy line. Dave Dowle’s drums come into the arrangement-along with the biting lead guitar of Jack Mills. The refrains A section is a thick funky grind with a heavy Moog synthesizer providing the melody,while the B section goes into a heavier electric piano part. As this pattern continues, the B sections often serve as forums for solos. First for Auger’s electric piano,than his organ and Mills’ guitar before fading out on the main melody.
“Brain Damage” is a hefty jazz funk jam of the finest sort-very solo based and full of instrumental excitement. Not to mention its confident strut. The A-section of the main melody has a bass/guitar/drum/percussion interaction that reminds me somewhat of mid/late 70’s P-Funk to some degree. At the same time, its the instrumental soloing (all of which is very clear and beautiful) that relates it to the jazz/funk fusion sound of that period so strongly. Brian Auger is someone I’ll personally have to be checking out more of in the future. Simply based on hearing music like this from him.
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.
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.
Gregg Allman was of course married to Cher from 1975 to 1978. The union of course produced their only child,Elijah Blue. But just learned shortly after Allman’s passing that it produced a duo album for the couple in 1977. Credited as Allman And Woman,the album was entitled “Two The Hard Way”. They also went on a mini tour to support the album-also titled after the name of the album. The album was not a commercial success. And was even called “worthless” by one critic. Allman was part of the rock music scene. And Cher more general pop. This may have led to some of the album’s poor reception.
For her part,Cher could basically do whatever type of material she desired due to her long back round in pop and 60’s era musical sensibilities. Allman was a Southern rock innovator-always expected to be daring,rebellious and somehow “authentic”. Still with classic pop/rock songwriters such as Jimmy Webb and the versatile classic funky soul session bass player Willie Weeks on board,the album actually has its share of powerful musical moments. Among them was the first single (and the first song on the album) that was entitled “Move On”.
Steve Beckmeier’s ringing,higher pitched guitar grooving opens the song before Bill Stewart’s drum and Bobbye Hall’s conga fanfare leads right into the basic horn fanfare of the intro. The chorus is a steady dance rhythm accompanied by a heavy mix of flangered electric piano and Clavinet riffing playing close to Week’s bass line. The horn charts basically serve to glue the songs extended choruses together. The intro basically repeats itself for the bridge-with a brief electric piano solo before hand illustrated by the horns building into the mix. The final chorus of the song shows up to fade out the song.
“Move Me” is a wonderful song. What’s interesting about is that Cher, now a renowned diva, sings either call and response or in total unison with Allman throughout the entirety of this song. The production has a very uptown, Philly soul inspired groove to it. Filled with horns,punchy keyboards and high stepping rhythms. Allman’s gruff vocal delivery compliments Cher’s husky,tremolo laden approach extremely well on this song. Its basically a Philly style dance/soul groove out of the disco era though. Its not a pop /rock styled record at all. That’s important to consider with this musical pairing too.
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.
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”.