Tag Archives: Fred Wesley

Anatomy of THE GRoove: “Sammy-Joanne (One Half Woman,One Half Man)” by Vernon Burch

Vernon Burch  is a musical figure who is relatively obscure to me. Born in Washington DC, Burch is a guitarist whom its hard to find a great deal of personal information about. What could be found out about him was that he played with The Bar Kays during the time they recorded their Do You See What I See? album in 1972. He embarked on hissolo career starting in 1975-at first at United Artists and Columbia. He finally signed to Casablanca subsidiary Chocolate City in 1978,best known at the time as the label for funk stalwarts Cameo.

This was the disco era. And Burch’s place in music history was cemented in funk.  In 1979,he released his second album for the label entitled Get Up.  On the album he had arrangement help from Tom Tom 84 and funk icon Fred Wesley of the JB’s and P-Funk. Wesley arranged the horns on three of the songs on this disco funk album. While pursuing some of its songs on YouTube,one of these Fred Wesley arranged tunes leaped right out at me-for a number of different reasons both musical and otherwise. The name of the song is “Sammy-Joanne (One Half Woman,One Half Man)”.

A hard hitting disco beat from non other than James Gadson starts the song-along with a ticking keyboard from Michael Thompson. Burch’s rumbling,rocking guitar provides a string orchestra like effect as the intro slides into the main song-along with David N. Shields slap bass. As a descending synth and descending horns enter into it, the drum/ rhythm guitar/Clavinet/slap bass interaction all lock in  for the refrain of the song. The stripped down bass/drum/synth sound of the intro provides the chorus. A bluesy guitar solo from Burch on the bridge extends into an extended,fading refrain.

“Sammy-Joanne” is a hard driving stomper- a perfect example of a funk song functioning as disco. What surprised me in the song is how it focused on a healthier and perhaps less hedonistic aspect of the disco era. The Sammy-Joanne character in the song is a hermaphrodite who finds acceptance and love as an implied transgender’ disco dancer. The character is celebrated,not made fun of and hated. And with gender related matters being a strangely controversial matter in 2017, this 1979 song celebrates sexual difference with some of the most funkified disco-dance music possible.

 

 

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A Blow For Me,A Happy 40 Years For You: The Album Where Fred, Maceo And P-Funk Officially Met At Their Crossroads

The clean transition from James Brown to George Clinton’s P-Funk all comes down to Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker. These were two totally different approaches to funk. JB laid down the groundwork. P-Funk, while more psychedelic in the beginning, took over where Sly Stone left off by the mid 70’s in terms of embellishing JB’s basic structure for the music. It was the horns that really did a lot of this of course. And George Clinton knew that. And in 1977 he gave that end of P-Funk its own identity with A Blow For Me,A Toot For You. Here’s my Amazon.com review that goes further into what it was musically.


As probably the most significant horn section in all of funk? The band that Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley led had a lot of different names. They were the JB’s,they were All The King’s Men,they were The Macks and eventually a part of the funky heartbeat in the nervous system of George Clinton’s P-Funk during the mid 70’s. After working as part of Bootsy’s Rubber Band,George decided that the already iconic Maceo and Fred needed a P-Funk era album of their own. And in 1977 they got their chance.

“Up From The Downstroke” is presented here as an extended stripped down variation of Parliament’s original where the collective horn charts interact call and response style to the horn solos. The title song slows the tempo right into the groove with the horns responding directly to Bernie Worrell’s orchestral synthesizer. “When In Doubt,Vamp” finds the horns all playing rhythmically in classic James Brown style.

“Between The Sheets” finds the horns intertwined into a thick mixture of reverbed, liquefied bounding bass and rhythm guitar/keyboard interaction while “Four Play” begins with a singled out funky drum before going into a jazzy rhythm guitar led jam. “Peace Fugue” ends the album with the electric piano tinged ballad that closes it all out with a more melodic style of trumpet solo.

During the time I first listened to this on vinyl? Something about the album lacked some of the rhythmic sauciness and vigor that I was used to hearing out of P-Funk at that particular time. Listening to the vinyl again over a decade later? I realize just how important this album had been in showcasing how musically clean,spit and polished the P-Funk sound actually was during the peak of it’s powers.

Maceo and Fred’s expert horn solos and interactions are explored in ultra sleek productions where time was taken in the studio rather than the often hit and run recording sessions James Brown had often done. This became a model for some of the later studio works of these musicians after they departed from P-Funk. And is a superb example of George Clinton and Bootsy Collins’ prowess as studio producers.


Back when I was first getting into P-Funk,it was during a crate digging experience that I located this album on vinyl In all honesty, it is not as powerfully innovative as Mothership Connection or Ahh The Name Is Bootsy Baby. In a way, that was kind of the point. P-Funk began as a somewhat instrumentally undisciplined psychedelic rock and soul outfit. And the discipline that JB alumni such as Fred,Maceo and Bootsy (mainstays of the Horny Horns) brought their blend of controlled chaos to make sense of P-Funk’s intent. On that level, this album is a crucial stepping stone for P-Funk’s late 70’s peak.

 

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Ahh…The Name Is Bootsy,Baby…40 Years Old: Revisiting a P-Funk Classic

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When P-Funk first began to enter my life 22-24 years ago,Bootsy Collins was the first part of the outfit that really got my attention as an individual musician. As most of you reading this blog for some time know,have always been a big admirer of the bass and bass players. Which is awkward because as long as I can remember,hearing bass lines in songs isn’t always easy for me. True,most music listeners may be trained not to hear it. But still to this day,have trouble personally hearing the instrument in a busy instrumental mix. Bootsy has been refreshing for me in his pioneering of  a “bass in your face” style.

His 1977 album Ahh…The Name Is Bootsy,Baby! is a superb example of this. It was recorded with his Rubber Band,his own personal adjunct of the P-Funk musical army. In addition to P-Funk mainstays such as Bernie Worrell,his brother Catfish,Mike Hampton,Glenn Goins and Jerome Brailey,it also featured drummer Frankie “Cash” Waddy and vocalists Gary Cooper and Robert Johnson. The album itself is divided into separately themed halves. The first is uptempo and funk based,while the second is ballad oriented. On vinyl,those themes were divided in a “two sides of Bootsy” approach as it were.

The title song that begins the first side is the first Rubber Band song I ever heard,though originally as the first song on the Bootsy compilation CD Back In The Day. For the most part,the most prominent element is the deep,pounding Moog bass accentuated by  Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker’s horns. The song itself is a musically fictive meet and greet between Bootsy with his younger fan base known as “geepies” asking him questions about his general sense of funkiness. As jazz critic Gary Giddins said of Louis Armstrong,only the great musicians get their own theme song. And this one is certainly that for Bootsy.

“The Pinocchio Theory”,powered by a heavy wah-wah/horn interaction and “Rubber Duckie” are both two more superb examples of Bootsy’s funk style. Both are rhythmically and melodically flamboyant at the same time. All with a joyous sound played to draw people to the funk,and never to play over their heads. The invocation of preteen based pop culture elements,used similarly to George Clinton’s social satire,is well catered to Bootsy’s somewhat younger target audience. “The Pinocchio Theory” is also the origin point of one of P-Funk’s most famous quotes: “don’t fake the funk or your nose’ll grow”.

Interestingly enough,at my first time hearing this,it was still at a time when I skipped over ballads on funk albums generally. So am only hearing these as perhaps the most musically important aspect of this album. With funk,suppose one expects the rhythm to be strong and upfront. Much as with Larry Graham’s ballad approach,slow soul ballads such as “What’s A Telephone Bill?” and the more mid tempo shuffle of “Can’t Stay Away” are turned into funk ballads because of Bootsy’s hefty,quaking “duck face bass” (as I call it) that punctuates every melodic line of both songs.

The album is book ended in the middle and end by interludes such as “Preview Side Too” and a reprise of the title song. The later revisits the part of that song where Bootsy and Catfish play a Jimi Hendrix style revisit of the melody for “Auld Lang Syne “-seeming to express the album coming out early in the year-as well as a new generation of funk getting started. The former as well as “Munchies For Your Love” express far sleeker variation of Funkadelic’s earlier psychedelic rock ventures-only in a slower and more minor chorded jazzy sort of instrumental framework.

This represents one of a serious of albums where,on every song,some element of the bass instrumental sound is upfront and personal on every song.  Before funk emerged as a genre,bass players were not taken very seriously in any popular genre of music. Because it brought rhythm upfront,bassists became vital in funk from the get go. Through his time with James Brown onto George Clinton,Bootsy emerged as funk’s leading bass superstar in the late 70’s. And as this album has turned 40 a week ago now,the idea of the “bass hero” might be Bootsy’s most enduring legacies this album in particular has left on music.

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Funky Drummer” by James Brown & The JB’s

James Brown’s grooves importance to me is that they came to me pretty late in the game. That is in terms of discovering funk. Long before that happened on a personal level,the discovery of The Godfather within the newly emerging musical genre of hip-hop came at the same time as the advent of the computer sound sampler. Public Enemy’s Bombsquad made samples of JB’s music a mainstay in their rhythmic based sound. While I feel it important for the funk to always remain it’s own reward,JB’s music in particular would probably not be so well known to so many American’s between the ages of 20-50 without the funk archive that is sampling.

There are many JB numbers that remain a key part of the vocabulary of the samples library. One of them however remains key. It was recorded on November 20th,1969. And was released as a single five months later. Originally it was released at a two part single version-each of the parts less then three minutes a piece. When I first heard the full version on the JB box set Star Time,it made little impact on my ears or me feet. After coming back to it over a decade later,it became clear how much an understanding of JB’s rhythmic intent opened this song right up. And the name of of this important groove is called “Funky Drummer”.

The trumpets of Joe Davis and Richard Kush Griffith both play right on the beat with the songs own funky drummer Clyde Stubblefield. The main groove of the song is a vamp based on Stubblefield hitting the snare high on the second or third beat-depending on where Kush,Fred Wesley,Maceo Parker and the rest of the JB horn section happened to be hitting on the groove from. Of course Jimmy Nolan’s trademark chicken scratch guitar locks it all down along Charles Sherrell’s busy,jazzy bass line. JB plays a number of organ solos-starting short and ending more elaborately near the end of the groove while sharing a space for Maceo to solo too.

Of course what really gets it going is when JB calls out  Stubblefield solo with just his snare-on-the-one beat twice in the groove. That’s the part that became the nucleus of the hip-hop beat during the sampling age. As it’s own groove,”Funky Drummer” is a straight vamp without any long musical breaks or changes in melody. In a lot of ways,it almost stands as pretty raw funk material from the JB’s. What keeps it so fresh and exciting is the amazing musical precision involved. This is probably where JB himself might’ve fully succeeded in his ambition to get his entire band to sound like a drum. And that will probably continue to remain this songs legacy in the anatomy of the funk groove.

 

 

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Filed under 1970's, Charles Sherrell, chicken scratch guitar, Clyde Stubblefield, drums, Fred Wesley, Funk, Funk Bass, Hip-Hop, horns, James Brown, Jimmy Nolan, Maceo Parker, organ, Richard Kush Griffith, Sampling, Saxophone, The JB's

Anatomy Of THE Groove: “Step On Your Watch Part II” by The JB Horns

Maceo Parker was a musician that I began to appreciate long before James Brown’s music actually came into my life. In the mid 90’s,Parker came to the city of Portland Maine to perform with the road band he maintained at the time. Unfortunately I was not yet 17,and he was playing in a tavern where alcoholic beverages were being served. It was actually not too long after that when my father was constantly playing the compilation set Funky Good Time by the JB’s. He also pointed out a CD to me that was simply called The JB Horns. He said that even then it was pretty rare and recommended I check out a groove on it called “Step On Your Watch”. Very happy that I took his advice.

A delayed drum beat accompanied by two rhythm guitars-one a classic JB style higher pitched one and a lower dripping one is the way the song itself begins. At the end of each rapped vocal refrain an amp’d up,bluesy guitar segues between the breaks. Each instrumental chorus of course features two sets of horn solos between Maceo,Fred Wesley and Pee Wee Ellis. One is a very intense one,the other one has a gentler and more romantic tone about it. The vocal calls continue to keep the multiple guitars,back beat and the horn charts going on and on with a sustained level of funky intensity until the song finally fades itself out.

One of the qualities I appreciate about this song is that it presents a very professionally recorded variation on the classic James Brown funk approach. Being made around 1990,this song still has it all. The open rhythm in the beat that allows for solos to take flight, the calculated use of breaks and of course the renowned horn charts of Maceo,Fred and Pee Wee. Again it still gets to me that the music of the JB’s on their own came into my life before the music of James Brown really did. Hadn’t yet heard “Cold Sweat” all the way through at this point. So even to this day,there’s a quality about this song that really brings out the most exquisitely produced end of the JB style groove.

Maceo turned 73 yesterday. Much as I’d like not to admit it,with the recent passing of EWF’s Maurice White it feels appropriate to keep giving props up to the major instrumental icons of funk and soul while they are still living. Maceo is a musical institution who pretty much wrote the book on rhythm based funk saxophone playing. It was no easy task selecting one of the many James Brown,JB’s,Maceo & The Mack’s or Horny Horns songs that the man was involved with. The fact this one came right to mind showcases how it’s the music this man made,as opposed to enormous popular acclaim,that impacts most on the listeners funky emotions.

 

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Filed under 1990s, Funk, funk guitar, James Brown, Maceo Parker, Pee Wee Ellis, Saxophone, trombone, trumpet, Uncategorized

Anatomy Of THE Groove for 12/10/2015: “Crush It” by Parliament

Yesterday marked the 35th anniversary of the final (so far) album release from Parliament. It’s an album that had my curiosity from the get go. Ended up purchasing it right after trying in vain to skate to some late 90’s uptempo country music at the local roller rink which, ironically, would’ve been an ideal place to give up some funk. Even though I already knew that even some P-Funk admirers held this album in low regard?  There was one major source of comfort for me that I learned regarding this album later on.

Although I still feel funk needs to remain it’s own reward? The Oakland,California hip-hop duo Digital Underground elected to sample primarily from this album and it’s predecessor on their own debut album a decade after this was released. Since that duo share a home city with my friend Henrique? This album has wound up being a conversational reference when we’re discussing P-Funk. The first song on the album instantly leaped out  from my CD play at home, and set the tone for what was to come. It had a very earnest title too: “Crush It”.

A two beat call leads off with a wiggly bass synth that keeps up throughout the main rhythm- percussion accented dance beat with a bouncing stride style piano. This is soon joined by Bootsy Collins’ “duck face bass” as I call it,with the main melody courtesy of Fred Wesley and his Horny Horns. On the refrains? The Brides Of Funkenstein  provide some jazzy vocalese. The main vocals of the song are spoken word exchanges between Bootsy and George Clinton himself as Sir Nose. There’s a separate and harmonically complicated vocal refrain from The Brides as the song fades out.

Musically speaking? This song showcases just about every quality that made P-Funk what it is. Interestingly enough? The boogie funk sound of using synthesizers as bass and guitar sounds with live instrumentation was in full swing during this time. While P-Funk pioneered that “video game sound” in the late 70’s? It had by this point jelled into somewhat of an instrumental signature for them by 1980. Especially when it came to relative newcomer in keyboardist David Spradley,who’d come into P-Funk on Parliament’s previous album.

George Clinton’s use of conceptual metaphor was on full swing during the course of this song. While P-Funk itself was coming apart due primarily from music industry fear over it’s ambitions as a potential “new Motown” (as George put it in his recent biography)? The concept of musical blandness/fake funk personified by Sir Nose showcases that character itself flying apart. In this song? Sir Nose Jr pledges to give up the funk in opposition to his grooveless father. So in the end? This probably showcases P-Funk defiantly sticking with their funk. Even as the genre is coming under fire during the post disco radio freeze out of the time.

 

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Filed under 1980's, bass synthesizer, Bootsy Collins, David Spradley, Fred Wesley, Funk, Funk Bass, George Clinton, Hip-Hop, humor, Oakland California, P-Funk, Parliament, synth bass, synthesizers

James Brown-The MAN Who Started It All: Andre’s Amazon Archive Special Presentation

James Brown-Funk

If there was any one musical artist I’d have to credit for inspiring this entire blog? It would of course have to be James Brown. From his coining of the funk aestetic itself to his iconic work ethic? It was Mr. Dynamite,the King Of Soul,The Hardest Working Man In Show Business,The Godfather and the minister of the new super heavy funk that really got this music taken seriously as a genre. And just about anyone who goes on a stage today dancing like Michael Jackson is connected completely to JB! Funny thing is at first? There were elements of his music I found somewhat tedious.

When someone is a fairly new music listener seeking melody? Sometimes you can miss out on someone fundamentally changing the nature of music itself. JB concentrated almost his entire musical energy with his band members on creating different types of rhythm. It was actually only after years of listening to many sorts of funk that it came to me just how musically innovative this man was. Despite being primarily a singles oriented artist? I wanted to present to you here today my favorite full length James Brown albums (that I’ve heard) from his extremely vast catalog.


James Brown & His Famous Flames Tour The USA (1962)

During the first six or seven years of his career James Brown was essentially known for his energetically performed soul ballads and stage shows. That is generally what soul was at the time. When the music was uptempo, it was generally considered to be rhythm & blues. And soul was generally the romantic ballad end of that still new spectrum of music. Only in revision to many people realize that even from the get go, James Brown was always changing the rules. He vocally performed his soul balladry with the theatrics and passion of the salvation gospel tent show. As the 1960’s began to come in, James began to embrace rhythm & blues to a greater degree. He was also listening to another type of music called boogaloo coming out of New York-with it’s African pop influence and use of musical breaks. With this new outlook on uptempo music in his arena, James’ music was beginning to change.

“Mashed Potatoes USA” is a very compelling song-a dancable yet fairly slow tempo rhythm & blues piece with a very raw rhythm attitude-filled with drum and horn breaks. Its quite possibly his first foray into the funk process,if not the full on funk itself. “Choo-Choo (Loco Motion)”,”Three Hearts In A Triangle” along with the instrumentals “Doin’ The Limbo”,”Joggin Along” and “Sticky” are all heavily rocking and organ/horn based R&B with a consistent and chunky rhythmic flavor that on the other hand is decidedly unbroken. “I’ve Got Money” returns for a bit to the possibility of the funk process again. “I Don’t Care”,interestingly one of the few examples of his original soul ballad style, actually begins the lyrical process for his funk innovation “Cold Sweat” with him stating “I DON’T CARE about your past”. “Like A Baby”,”Every Beat Of My Heart” and “In The Wee Small Hours” are examples or James’ earlier instrumental organ blues throwdowns to round this out.

Often mistaken for a live album because of its title, this 1962 studio recording by James Brown and his Famous Flames is a neglected but very important album for James’ catalog. Its his first album to put a significant amount of attention on heavy rhythm and uptempo tunes. You begin to hear him and the Flames beginning to find their signature instrumental style that they were still ironing out, by trying out different styles from soul to R&B to blues on their earlier recordings. Being from the era that it is, this album is of course likely a collection of James Brown “sides”,recorded originally in intention for release on 45 A and B and cobbled together on this long player to bring them together into a loose theme to resell them. Of course less cynically this also is influenced by Ray Charles’ intentionally conceptualized ABC-Paramount era albums as well. So this also finds James discovering the possibility that he could develop as an album artist perhaps. Despite its lack of popularity in James vast and vital recorded catalog, this album is an important dry run for his future that is very underrated.

Live At The Apollo 1962

Someone once described the film Purple Rain as “a timely event that captured a revolution as it was happening”. Much can be said of this particular album. So much has been made of this albums legendary status and it being one of the “greatest live albums of all time” it all just can’t help but diminish it’s impact. Now saying this is even JAMES BROWN’S greatest live album of all time would be padding things just a tad but the fact is this is one of his most defining albums of his late 50’s/early 60’s career.

One big reason is that it represented something of a concluding chapter onto this part of his career. At this point JB’s live shows with his Famous Flames were still based around a dozen or so of his early blues and doo-wop oriented singles such as “I’ll Go Crazy”,”I Don’t Mind”,the rollicking “Think” (one of my personal favorites) and his then new single “Night Train”. But it’s not the presentation of those songs musically that really makes this live performance what it was.

For one rather than playing before an Apollo audience so excited that his performance was interrupted by screams and applause the audience sounds serve more to cheer him on from tune to tune,stopping largely during the performance due to the wordless level of respect James’ presence seemed to demand.There’s a medley of songs here but the whole album plays that way;James and the tight Flames flow from one horn fueled soul workout into another with little more than a scream and/or a horn blast to indicate passing into another song.

Also elements from songs such as “Please Please Please” appear throughout the song and James often refers back to “Lost Someone” and “I’ll Go Crazy” as phrases throughout the album-treating his single songs as parts of a unified entity as opposed to separate statement. Since albums as a studio entity were almost unknown during this time outside Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra,for someone as single based as James Brown the live show seemed the best way to express this unity in his music at the time.

At the times when the audience does interact with James it’s very strong and mutual and seems to happen almost as a matter of course. Because the visual element of James’ dancing,the whole cape routine and sweating is missing you’ll have to refer to the liner notes for photographs of the event to get something of the idea of what it looked like if you even need to. In fact for the most part the musical presentation here should do the job nicely. They say music cannot create imagry but the nature of albums such as this will make many people wonder,as it did with me as to the all around truth of that statement.

It’s A New Day-Let A Man Come In (1970)

Okay that’s got to be my worst review title but after hearing this album you may have a similar reaction. True it took a several years and many a patchwork album for James Brown to finally get to this,one of his earliest full on album masterpieces. And in all honesty? It’s an album I only really knew a lot about recently due in part via a strong recommendation via the members of Breakestra in Waxpoetics magazine. In all likelihood this the earliest full length studio assemblage of the original JB’s lineup with Bootsy and Catfish Collins and such. One of the qualities that makes this such a unique album even by James’ standards is how much he goes for the cinematic approach to funk here-taking the basic framework of his sound and often augmenting it with either dynamic orchestrations,arrangements or both within his still intensely rhythmic framework. Not only that but he’s concentrating very heavily on melody. The idea of James combining melody and arrangements into his trademark tight funk sound opened up his music to many new possibilities and allowed his new musical recruits the change to challenge themselves instrumentally. The title,in fact is no lie.

It goes way beyond music here. Culturally James is at the PEAK of his Say It Loud: I’m Black And I’m Proud period. So the message in his music is in full swing. The first two numbers in the title song and “Let The Man Come In And Do The Popcorn” are perfect examples of his “new funk” as it were. Very much in the league of his early full on funk period but also superbly arranged as well. On “World” he actually showcases how the cinematic groove has bought him to a distinctive funk ballad style and he re-harmonizes his older “It’s A Man’s World” and “If I Ruled The World” in much the same way. The result is their original message is also deepened as well. “Georgia On The Mind” takes the song normally associated with Ray Charles and takes his own lyrical liberties,even adding “I’m from August Georgia”,an interesting reference for this South Carolina native. “Give It Up” is an instrumental rendering of one of his biggest funk era numbers. The closers “Man In The Glass” and “I’m Not Demanding” are additional great examples of his unique brand of cinematic funk-the latter making his social agenda more than clear as he insists (I’m not demanding,I’m begging and pleading),showing a type of…confident desperation if you can imagine it as he speaks to “the people” very directly and honestly.

In addition to the musical aspect of funk James Brown was more than key in developing the consciousness in it’s lyrical message. It’s a type of construct I myself refer to as “people music” and it was key to the development of what funk writer Ricky Vincent calls the united funk period in the music. On this 1970 album James is laying the groundwork for all of that. I am not sure if anyone does or ever will think of James Brown as an album artist in any way. But if they do,or ever do it’s likely works like this will be part of what’s mentioned in that context. It’s not merely the focus on longer songs. But also they fact there is a very flowing musical concept at work here. Something James had been putting together in one way or another since the mid 60’s. And it was finally coming into itself in the early 70’s on albums such as this. As for his 60’s innovations there are many compilations that tell the story about as perfectly as one could ask. But as for where James stood at the start of the album oriented 70’s funk era? This would be an excellent release to explore along with his many full length triumphs to come early in that decade.

Revolution Of The Mind-Live At The Apollo Volume III (1971)

During 1971,James Brown and his band were right in the eye wall of their hurricane of the groove. This perfect storm was the opposite of destructive,however. It was a storm that created,got people to move their feet and contemplate moving their minds as well. It was the beginning of a funk era-“united funk” as writer Ricky Vincent calls it. And James was leading the way. Every time I saw this album,the cover always attracted me. Of course the concept of the black man as a metaphoric prisoner in America was completely appropriated into the latter hip-hop culture’s imagery. But what I tuned into was the expression on James’ face as he looked between the bars. It was one of positive minded dreaming and wonder-about the possibilities of himself and others as liberated individuals-internally as well as externally. This photograph on the cover art really got my mind wandering in terms of what kind of music laid within. Since James Brown would’ve been 81 if he had lived this year? I thought this would be the perfect time to explore this albums contents.

Opening with the usual intro it goes right into the fast tempo funk of “Its A New Day So Let A Man Come In And Do The Popcorn”. That same fast paced groove continues onward through a fast medley of “I Can’t Stand It”,”Mother Popcorn” and “I Got The Feelin” along with “Call Me Super Bad” and “Soul Power”.. It gave the aural impression of James’ iconic quick footed choreography one can almost hear through the audio. The album itself actually starts off with a nearly eight minute “Bewildered”-a ballad wherein James actually gives a positive take on Woman’s Lib from a black female perspective. “Sex Machine”,”Escape-Ism” and a 12+ minute “Make It Funky” are a none stop funk workout-the latter containing a vitally street level conversational “rap” where James’ encourages his band members to proudly mention (and take pride in) their Southern home towns. After this James cools down with a short version of his soul ballad classic “Try Me”. “Give It Up Or Turnit Lose” and “Hot Pants” continue the heavy funk right into the end and applause.

If someone were to ask me what album do they think represents the core essence of James Browns’ musical character during the height of his funk prime,I would recommend this album without hesitation. As innovative and vital as his studio recordings were,there is something about the atmosphere of James Brown’s live shows that best showcase the nature of his musical talent. It gives him more time to personally interact with his band mates-bringing a level of intimate male bonding into his creative outpouring of talent. Of course the rhythmic nature of this music brings out the very finest in the exploratory organ solos of Bobby Byrd and the deeply percussive bass/guitar interaction between Hearlon Cheese Martin,Robert Coleman and Fred Thomas. But it also communicates James Brown’s multi faceted messages of action. When someone dances to this music,they will likely feel compelled by the sound of the groove and the words of James to do something very important for the world. This is live “people music”-straight up funk of the highest degree. And truly a testament to James Brown during his creative peak.

There It Is (1972)

Before I had much conception of James Brown in the 70’s,this animated and colorful CD cover always got my attention whenever I saw it. Of course nothing could prepare me for the musical virtues it embodied in terms of sheer funkativity. Though this was made smack dad at ground zero of his peak years in the early/mid 1970’s a new funk generation was already on the horizon. The “united funk” era was about to arrive. This meant a sound with a slicker,better production and sometimes more of a pop orientation than anything he’d had ever served up. However with his reputation for excellence being so well known by this point,he wasn’t in any danger of being out of date yet either. “The Godfather Of Soul” was know known as “The Godfather” PERIOD when it came to funk. So anything he did was by terms under influential AND under the influence of those who were following in the path he’d set. On the other hand,in terms of where James stood on funk this represents him setting the bar at a very high place because it’s his finest example of funk in an album context.

In the very beginning the title song gets into the groove right away. The slowest parts of this album are represented in a three part series of raps on “King Heroin” and “Public Enemy#1 Parts 1 & 2”,anthropomorphising the narcotic as speaking for itself and it’s parasitic effect on the world. James illustrates this in such emotionally effecting terms…well let’s just say the facts speak for themselves. On “I’m A Greedy Man” we’re presented with some of the fastest funk we’ve heard from James,appropriate with it’s implicit dialog on male sexual power. “Who Am I” is a slower ballad that showcases a change in his style. More of a cinematic soul ballad that’s an extension of the type he’d begun doing on albums such as Its a New Day-Let a Man Come in and,with it’s highly self analytically lyrics indicated a fuller on embrace of the “united funk” ballad style. Of course “Talkin’ Loud And Saying Nothing”,a Watergate era warning on trusting those people the song decries as “loud and wrong” rides that line between the Africaness of it’s rhythm and the bluesy harmonic nature of the song quite well with it’s type of funk.

On another faster funk groove of “I Need Help (I Can’t Do It Alone)” talks of his outlook on these newer people involved in funk in a way,bringing the message of the music out more than even he had. James’ future reputation as godfather of hip-hop is unintentionally established on his take of “Never Can Say Goodbye” at the end. Musically he takes more of a modern samplers approach to it,not covering the entire song wholesale but re-harmonizing by “looping” the songs initial melodic phrase. And he’s doing it using his band and not computers. So that shows how forward thinking he was,even if it wasn’t too deliberate. James Brown was riding in a high place during the years 1971-1974. His innovation of funk was inspiring a number of old and new faces who themselves were already making key contributions to the genre. Not only that but he had the advantage of still being at his own musical peak in terms of funk while this was happening. There are many great examples of this era of funk out there. But for a good example of where the man who started it all was when the genre was starting to change hands,this is a great place to go.

The Payback (1973)

1973 offered a lot of potentially difficult challenges for The Godfather. Road manager Alan Leeds illustrates them in timeline form in the liner notes to this particular CD. Basically it all comes together like this. James was branching out into the world of soundtrack scoring with ‘Black Ceaser’ and then ‘Slaughter’s Big Ripoff’. Much of the music on this album was intended for another such soundtrack. Well eventually the deal fell through. Not only that but his audience,who’d once looked to him for guidance regarding the sociopolitical environment of the time,felt betrayed by his endorsement of President Nixon. Especially during the Watergate scandal. Not only that by during this time his son Teddy was killed in a car accident. For the first time James was facing major burn out,even checking himself into a hospital for physical recuperation for a time. All the same,he was James Brown. He had work to do. So there were all these unused songs and out of it came…this.

This album is considered to be James’ finest of his 70’s funk period. One of the reasons is not only the fact all of the songs are of some extended length. But the emphasis is so firmly on the funk and the moods it’s transmitting. The title track of course is ground zero for big time sampling but also James’ assertions “I NEED THOSE HITS!”. Always incredible in his intended double meanings. The lone ballad “Doing The Best I Can” is very much in touch with the times musically,closer to the sweet funk of Curtis Mayfield than doo-wop. On the eight minutes “Take Some…Leave Some” and “Shoot Your Shot” that wah wah guitar packed groove re-emerges. A mildly slicker sort of funk considered the full immersion in the “united funk” era of the day. But the stress of his experiences,and those he is witnessing in his own community are very much felt. Sometimes even to the point of near heartbreak in “Forever Suffering”. This along with the near 13 minute epic “Time Is Running Out Fast” also showcase a heavy reliance on a somewhat jazzier style of horns from Fred and Maceo even more so than usual.

“Stone To The Bone” keeps that groove moving straight ahead. Of course the closer is another funk epic in “Mind Power”,with James urging us to understand that while we all have physical needs both athletic and sexual,our knowledge and consciousness deserves more TLC than we give it. This album is a very psychological exploration for James. For the first time in his career,he’s beginning to show some wear and tear from that cluster of difficult events. But James did with it what he always did in tense situations: he basically continued to work through it. This time though,life really inspired. Never on this album is he foaming at the mouth with anger. He’s expressing his emotions with a lot of candor and more than enough analyticalness. If the phrenology chart on the back (later referenced by The Roots) doesn’t clue you into the exploration of the inner sanctum that this albums represents,it’s place as James’ key contribution to the United Funk era should say something. In almost all cases,the grooves and messages speak for themselves.

Reality (1974)

Following his enormous success with The Payback,James Brown began to watch as the members of the JB’s began to splinter off-eventually jumping onto George Clinton’s mothership as The Horny Horns. At this point James found himself in a very different position in terms of recording. He was thinking in terms of recording in more advanced studios than he had in his 60’s heyday. To supplement his band he bought in session players such as David Sanborn,Joe Beck,Joe Farrell and Cornell Dupree-soon to become part of the band Stuff. Acutely aware of the importance of maintaining his cultural position in immediate post Wategate America? This album was right on time.

It’s the title song that sets the tone for the album-with James still very much in his blacksploitation mode of heavy orchestrated rhythms and the use of flute and string orchestrations. He’s in the same place on “Don’t Fence Me In” and “All For One”-one which he blends together several of his socially relevant numbers with the backup vocalists singing with him “say it loud-WE’RE PEOPLE AND PROUD!” “The Twist” revitalizes Hank Ballard’s Chubby Checker hit with JB’s “funk twist” as it were while “Funky President (People It’s Bad)” non too subtly reminds the black community of the importance of maintaining self reliance-and not thinking racism won’t take less overt forms-even advising to “save your money like the mob”. “Further Up The Road” and “Check Your Body”-with it’s whispery vocals evoke the “Doing It To Death” style funky shuffle.

Of the ballads “I’m Broken Hearted” again revives the blacksploitation style orchestral/cinematic production while his take of Anthony Newly’s show-tune “Who Can I Turn To” brings out his renowned soul pleader vocal approach. As for the mixture of Fred and Maceo transitioning out of the JB’s and session players gradually taking their place? James Brown’s production sound is becoming sleeker and somewhat less distinctive. That’s not to say that his grooves are not still instrumentally at their peak. And they are. This was a man who’d just triumphantly played for the Ali/Foreman fight in Zaire. Having been experiencing the schism of African and African American cultures alternately on his tours over the years? He understood the dichotomy of black people in the African continent being both the powerful and the poor versus the more one sided expectations of African America. And this album,in more ways than one,encouraged those around him to keep their eye on the prize of reality in his own funky kind of way.

Nonstop! (1981)

Now it’s actually pretty common knowledge that the years between 1980 and 1985 were not as innovative for James’ as was previously thought. Honestly I had no idea this album existed until fairly recently. One thing that should be said about this album is that musically it actually acheived something very special. Considering his already legendary status it would’ve been all too easy for James to just tour and do the same golden oldies the same way every time. In as much that James was also still holding true to his stage first/record-when-you-could mentality the pace of his live shows still influenced his studio music. But the recording quality,even in random studios of the kind he tended to make records in were better across the line by the early 80’s.

The album starts out with “Popcorn 80’s”,a good example of his classic sound functioning perfectly in a modern studio context. “Give The Bass Player Some” is just plain MEAN funk broadening his sound into the realm where….well 70’s style funk ended up during the disco freeze out,ironically a place where a great groove could just be what it is. “You’re The One For Me” is the lone ballad and it isn’t until the end you realize that the quiet storm-funk style (hard as that is to imagine,especially for James) is actually a tribute to Minnie Riperton. I wish I knew who was doing the vocal impersonation of her on the song-it might’ve been a borrowed clip of her voice I don’t know.

By this point electro funk was emerging from the underground and beginning to penetrate the charts and…of all people James was right where with “Work Cycle Inc” which,with it’s slightly clipped rhythm and synthesizer use is the closest thing he had at this point and is a high point of this recording. “Super Bull-Super Bad” again does a terrific job on extending a 70’s style JB groove within the contemporary production ethic,even to the point of using his classic “Super Bad” as a basis,something James had been doing all his career. On “Love 80’s” James promises a mini concert and delivers just that in slow jam style,introducing one of his newer musicians, as well as playing smidgens of “America The Beautiful” and paying tribute to people such as Louis Armstrong along the way.

As indicated in the song James was in the mood to go back to some of his early style of music from the Famous Flames era.Considering the political atmosphere of this period and the accompanying trend to “embracing traditional values” that was to come it’s no surprise that the album ends with a modernized version of “I Go Crazy”. So in keeping with the double edged cultural transitions of this time frame the sound of the album glides effortlessly from lightly contemporary funk to doo-wop inflected R&B. Also maybe the times had caught up with James in a way too seeing as that combination of those two styles had been occurring in the music since the mid 60’s. No matter how you add it up this is one of James Brown’s most powerful and driving records of his sleeper period. And I hope one day some country,somewhere will realize that and put this out on CD format.


Now this particular subject could very be someone that I expand on further in this blog. At least later one. With nearly 80 full length studio albums to his credit-not to mention live albums? James Brown is not only very likely the most prolific black American musician this side of Duke Ellington. But his enthusiasm for the creation and development of his art,on it’s own terms,could and should be a great source of inspiration on a new generation today. One with a far less certain approach to musical presentation. Thank you!

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Filed under 1970's, Alan Leeds, blacksploitation, Bootsy Collins, Famous Flames, Fred Wesley, James Brown, Maceo Parker, Rickey Vincent, The JB's

The Anatomy of THE Groove 8/22/14 Rique’s Pick : “Still the Man” by Bootsy Collins featuring Al Sharpton

Bootsy Collins 2011 album “The Funk Capital of the World” was rightfully hailed as a return to form for Bootzilla, the top student, the Rhinestone rockstar, the promised one of funk. Such titles might sound like blustery braggadocio, but when you look at his career arc of providing top shelf funk for two of the pillars of the music, James Brown and George Clinton, as well as carving his own unique legacy as  a player,  personality and band leader, one must admit there has always been something extra special about Bootsy. “The Funk Capital of the World” as a whole was informed by Bootsy’s apprentischip in the James Brown band. While Bootsy spent the majority of his career expanding the horizons of the bass, developing his own thick, wet, effects laden bass tone, and hot rodding his bass so that he could solo with the guitar expressiveness of Jimi Hendrix, this album was all about him playing bass. Straight up bass lines that hit on “the One which we believe in.” Bill Laswell noted once when he produced Bootsy that he was not playing much bass anymore, a practice Bootsy feels began when the synth bass of Bernie Worrell began to take up more space, freeing the bass player to play accents instead of laying down the main part. On “Still the Man”, Bootsy’s appreciation of James Brown peaks, as he invites Al Sharpton to lay a James Brown style oration/toast/rap over a straight ahead funky J.B’s type of beat. The message of the song was sorely needed because again, Mr. Brown’s influence was so great it gets taken for granted at times, especially in the Black musical community he did so much for.

The song begins with Sharpton talking, followed by a classic J.B style horn hit from the band. The groove is serious, as Bootsy hits a bass line in the J.B’s style, somewhat reminiscent of the bass line on “Get on the Good Foot”. The horn line takes you back to lines such as “Give it Up or Turn it Loose”. Ladies croon “He’s still the man”, as the guitar player gives you a little bit of what Prince calls “Chicken Grease”, i.e sixteenth note chord strums. The track gets more and more complex, as the horn chart continues to develop, in a way that is still reminiscent of Brown’s great arranger Fred Wesley, but reminds you more so of his work with P Funk. The way the track hints and suggests various James Brown songs reminds one of a sample collage or pastiche of Brown songs, but it’s done here by a live band. After Sharptons rap we get an actual trombone solo, which definitely ups the J.B’s factor, in the style of Fred Wesley’s ‘bone solos.

Sharpton goes on to remind us why James Brown is still important and relevant to contemporary music and culture. This is very signifigant because Al Sharpton is a man who James Brown mentored and helped rise to his prominence on the national scene. Sharpton talks about J.B’s musical impact and how when he looks at many things artists do today, he sees James Brown, Brown is “Still the Man.” One of my favorite lines in the whole piece however is “whenver an artist goes into the studio and sings a song for a cause bigger than themselves, I say James Brown is still the man.” This of course brings to mind all the fabulously powerful message songs in The Godfather of Soul’s career. After Sharpton finnishes his praise song, Bootsy has his original Rubber Band keyboardist, Joel “Razor Sharp” Johnson play a riff similar to Brown’s piano playing on “Sex Machine”, using an organ tone. Bootsy even calls for “Some organ”, as James himself called out in their classic concerts at the Olympia Theater in Paris in 1971.

“Still the Man” is a funky interlude of a song on a great modern funk album by Bootsy Collins. “The Funk Capital of the World” takes an almost Quincy Jones style approach to album construction, inviting a number of guests, including Cornel West, Chuck D, Snoop Dogg, Flea, and others Bootsy have worked with over the years to deliver his message. Bootsy seems to be in a heavy musical big brother role, teaching about the beginning of funk as he knows it, and what it meant both musically and culturally. And why he feels that funky spirit is needed today. Of course, a big part of this is James Brown, and Bootsy does something that is fairly simple but somehow rarely done by paying direct tribute to James Brown. Bootsy teams up with one of Brown’s biggest protoges, Al Sharpton, to do it, as if to remind young cats of where their thing comes from. The result is a funky song that gives one a little bit of relief if they’re a James Brown fan and wonder what he would sound like in the present day, as well as making us feel validated in our appreciation of a man who had his first hit nearly sixty years ago. It’s hard to believe an artist who began so long ago is still vital and important in the direction of modern music, but so it is with James Brown. As he always said, put him with ‘Bach, Beethoven, and Brahams.” And I’m glad that people he inspired to funk like Bootsy Collins and Al Sharpton can still take the time out to celebrate and praise, and educate on the importance of Mr. James Brown.

 

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Filed under 1970's, 1980's, 1990s, Blogging, Funk, Funk Bass, James Brown