Tag Archives: Funk

‘Sign O The Times’ At 30: Prince Bares The Cross Of His Time To Settle Down

Sign O The Times

Sign O The Times is the tale of three different Prince album projects. Because Prince was cutting edge in terms of the presentation of music as well as the sound of it,he recorded enough music during 1986 for three albums. Two of which were multi album sets. Those were The Dream Factory,Crystal Ball and an album credited to a pseudonym Camille. Due to Warner Bros. displeasure with so much Prince music coming out during a years time,all of this content was whittled down into a double album set. And it was all finally released thirty years ago today as Sign O The Times.

My own personal history with the album came with seeing a very choppy take of the music video for I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man”,one of the albums rockier hits,on a VHS tape of music videos my father recorded for me at work from MTV. That was early in 1988. I first heard the hits for the album years later on the collection The Hits/The B-Sides. It was shortly after the albums tenth anniversary that I first picked it up on CD. I’d only read about it through Allmusic Guide before. And unlike with many written reviews,after hearing Sign O The Times so often I still totally agree with the guide’s positive assessment of the album.

Sign On The Times is generally considered to be either his best or most significant album of the 80’s. The obvious reason for this album being considered is best is probably because,even with Prince’s trademark eclecticism,all of the musical ideas and combinations on this album work perfectly for what they are. Its detractors sometimes point out how disjointed the album is. To the point of being highly uneven. In a way, that’s also why this album is so important. As my friend Henrique pointed out to me, its perhaps Prince’s best early use of his vault material. None of this music was meant to heard together,but it sounded as if it were.

Any album that managed to put such disparate music, all intended for different projects,into a context that had some semblance of conceptual unity is the sign of a highly creative mindset. In many ways,the internal maturity Prince seems to showcase throughout this album comes out in his approach to its presentation. Its not him so much trying to fuse different genres into a whole anymore. But rather showcasing his ability at playing funk,soul,dance and rock ‘n roll with equal vitality and identity. Writing my review on Amazon.com of this album was a bit daunting. But it did manage to convey more specifically what the album was musically.


I’m not sure what I can say that hasn’t already been said about what is very justly regarded as a classic album. Well maybe the best thing to do is discuss a little about why it might be so revered. In the three years or so since his commercial breakthrough with Purple Rain,Prince had been carefully balance creativity with his need to communicate with his audience. It was a restless struggle that’s basically defined his career and,to an extent his personal character up to this point. Somehow here he managed to make it all work.

Basically this is a double album pieced together from from three aborted 1986 album sessions and reworked into what ended up being one of his 80’s classics. As with any Prince album the sound is eclectic yet somehow consistent. On this album though the range of subject matter lyrically is much broader in scope and in a lot of ways more mature. During this time Prince was also interjecting strong live band and solo elements of jazz into his sound. It’s not only in the instrumentation but in the arrangements too and,not only that his production elements-especially his noted,inventive use of the LINN LM-1 drum machine is on full display here.

The title song here is a completely stripped down,pulsing musing on outwardly focused social ills of the day and very surprisingly became a big hit as well. There are also a good deal of genuinely sunny weather sounding pop/rock tunes such as the bouncy “Play In The Sunshine”. At the same time these songs,being that it’s Prince are not mere “fun” tunes and give you the full spectrum of weather as each song concludes with these minor chorded jazz-funk/blues instrumental bridges that express the human race’s duel consciousness very well.

There’s also a couple of dense,moody funky rockers in the explosive “It”,the tough grooving,hip-hop beat inflected “Hot Thing” and the stomping “Strange Relationship”. This album also offers up enormous doses of funk. Both the classic “Housequake” and “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night”,with their precise horn charts and chunky rhythm guitars not only showcase the obvious James Brown influence but give a possible wink to out JB might’ve sounded had his career not been stalled after the mid 70’s and had he just continued on innovating.

So Prince is actually kind of picking up here where one of his musical heroes left off. There are also a series of songs here that just pull everything he does best together. One is the slinky,electronically polyrhythmic jazz-funk of “The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker”-one of my favorite Prince songs and one containing an intentionally misleading come on in the lyric. “If I Was Your Girlfriend” has a similar musical idea married to a lyric that plays on the idea about how opposite sexes may not relate to each other as well as they think.

“Forever In My Life” is a very poignant bluesy funk number that is about Prince maturing when it comes to matters of love. “U Got The Look” is one song here that does sound a little bit like his 1984 era material well,by degrees anyway although Sheila E’s percussion effects and the slicker production make it very distinctly it’s own beast. On an early nod toward what would later become known as praise rock “The Cross” has a very anthemic guitar god styled flavor and is one of Prince most rock oriented songs ever.

On the horn packed soul ballads “Slow Love” and “Adore” Prince is at his most sweet and romantic since the lyrics on his debut album For You. So across the sixteen songs on this album you get a Prince musically and personally in transition,augmenting his musical sound into yet another new territory while still keeping a foot in his original style. Also the lyrics illustrate Prince’s psyche in a similar place and in a way this stands as something of a peak of the stylistic progression he’d been working on since the 80’s decade got started.


Sign O The Times stands as a significant example,be it by accident or partial design, of Prince’s understanding of what his classic soul and funk progenitors had done. Artists such as Ray Charles were expert at playing many different kinds of music-from the soul style he innovated ,jazz and country music. And Prince was able to bring his own artistic personality to multiple styles here as well. It also showcased him in a new musical period too. It was one where he was no longer an on the loose partier. His outlook on nuclear war and other social issues here is not that of resignation anymore. Its one of concern for the future and a better life.

It was author Jason Draper who, in his coffee table book Prince: Life & Times in 2008, described the overall atmosphere of the album best. To paraphrase his words,the album jacket features an out of focus Prince in the foreground. He is walking away from what appears to be the set of a local production of Guys & Dolls. There is a glowing plasma ball in the center of it all. Draper speculated,and perhaps correctly so,that it was not only representative of Prince focusing more on music and less on the rock lifestyle. But also on Warner Bros passing on his planned releases as well.

Prince also delivered an album here that seemed to have provided a better viewpoint for music writers. My father described one such instance where Downbeat magazine (which is generally highly critical of even jazz releases) gave Sign O The Times a 5 star review-essentially describing it as Prince’s magnum opus. This was either in the late 80’s or early 90’s.  Now I can only relate my fathers story about this since I cannot find any confirmation in online archives for it. But it does speaks volumes about how the musical and personal maturation dealt with on the album has had positive results on even professional music journalism.

On its 30th anniversary,this album is also a shinning example to artists and producers who,today, inspired by Prince’s instrumental condensation of funky dance grooves. The Minneapolis sound has become the mainstream production approach now. But what is important for modern producers inspired by Prince is to take a listen to how even on these songs,most done by Prince himself,are possessed of strong chord changes and thick grooves. In fact, Sign O The Times should be experienced fully by any DIY producer/musician today before their next production because it remains that strong an album for that ethic.

My Favorite Songs From The Album For You To Hear:

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‘Commodores’ Turns 40: The Tuskeegee Funk Icons Take It Easy As Sunday Morning

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The Commodores were a band who I didn’t personally associate with funk for many years. A lot of it had to do with how musical literature handled them. That was until it became clear through finding (and listening) to them that the Commodores first four albums from 1974 through 1976 were by and large hardcore albums in what is referred to as the Southern funk genre. The sound was inspired heavily by Milan Williams’ Billy Preston-like Clavinet and the bands extremely strong instrumental vitality. When 1977 came along,the band released their self titled album-one which is celebrating 40 years with us as of today.

This album marked huge changes for the band. Displayed proudly on the jacket,flying through the sky like a fictive jet airliner,is the Commodores new metallic “belt buckle” logo. This would seem to signal a new level of success for them. Commercially,that’s exactly what happened. It was their second #1 R&B chart album in a row. And it was their first album to cross over into to pop Top 5. It also had the advantage of containing the bands two signature songs in the classic funk of “Brick House” and the soul ballad “Easy”. Of course,I was able to convey some of its broader musical influence on my Amazon.com review of the album.


In terms of the funk era of the early/mid 1970’s? It was The Commodores,in terms of newly formed bands, who most thoroughly represented the genre on Motown. Milan Williams, William King,Walter Orange,Thomas McClary and of course Lionel Richie in particular had now proven important members of a formidable musical team. Many of the bands members were multi instrumentalists. With their previous album Hot on the Tracks,the bands funk was at its most diverse and creative.

Their funk was able to blend strong pop songwriting with hefty grooves that put them into the possible position of being a Southern version of Earth Wind & Fire in terms of success. Story goes that around this time,the bands co-producer James Anthony Carmichael had told Lionel that the songs he was writing for the Commodores didn’t work. And that he should be recording the songs he was writing for other people instead. This album marks The Commodores at the exact point before that change began to seriously take place.

“Squeeze The Fruit”,”Funny Feelings”,”Funky Situation” and “Patch It Up” are all very much in the league of the classic 70’s Commodores sound-that think,bass/guitar fried sound that…well to me always represented what made them distinct among the funk bands of that era. On the faster of those numbers? The feeling is almost rocking in a very clean and soulful way. On the slower numbers? The effect is very much in the Sly Stone vein-again with that Southern twist. “Heaven Knows” can actually fool you.

It starts out sounding like a mid tempo,melodic love ballad before spinning of into that Southern Sly Stone variant funk sound on the choruses. “Won’t You Come And Dance With Me” and “Funky Situation” both have slightly more jazz oriented choruses as a wraparound for the heavy funk elements. “Zoom” is actually a very elaborate,cinematic ballad that contrasts heavily with the the countryish gospel leanings of the big hit “Easy” which closes out the album. “Brick House”,with its bass line and cat calling is not only the best known Commodores funk hit but among their very sexiest as well.

Just as a frame of reference,without introducing any needless musical spoilers? This would be the last Commodores album that would have this particular sound about it. Their final two albums of the 70’s such as Natural High and Midnight Magic would favor melodic soul/pop and slow Lionel Richie penned ballads to a far stronger degree than hard funk. At least in terms of how their albums were put together. I do realize there are people who would say that entire change was already underway by the time of this album.

And if someone asked me over a decade ago I’d probably have agreed with them. But one thing I realize is even the Commodores slower numbers during this period represent part of a diverse,fuller funk/soul album package than they might’ve seemed. On this album? The slow songs are slow jams. Full of soul and full of cinematic funk. They have a rhythm and you can tap your foot to them. So when all things get done? This is in fact something of a coda on The Commodores classic funk sound. And a very strong one that any Commodores/Motown/funk admirer who doesn’t already have it should seek out.


Since writing this review,my personal views on the Commodores ballads have broadened. Much of that comes from seeing them through the eyes of my friend Henrique Hopkins. He experienced them through the strong black community of his native Oakland,California. And its helped me to realize how much true Southern soulfulness permeates both the fast and slow music on this album. That might have a lot to do with this having been their breakthrough album. It offered up the best and most soulful side of everything this band can do. And essentially began an entirely new musical period for them in doing so.

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Tommy LiPuma (1936-2017): The Soulful,Funky Producer With The Blue Thumb

Tommy LiPuma

Tommy LiPuma is a record producer who represents something similar to what Quincy Jones,David Rubinson and Arif Mardin meant to me. That is if I saw their names on the production credits,there was the instant impression that funk,soul and/or jazziness would be deeply involved with said album. He was the  first person to produce The O’Jays in the year 1965. This helped them get their first R&B Top 40 hit in “Lipstick Traces”. The Ohio native was was so diverse, he even produced a single for the late Ricardo Montalban called “La Campanilla” two years later. He would go on to found the Blue Thumb label in 1968.

Much as with Quincy Jones, LiPuma consistently championed the black American music spectrum in his production choices. An ill child who discovered R&B and jazz through long hours listening to the radio,LiPuma took up saxophone when he went to barber school intending to follow his father’s footsteps. With the music bug never leaving the man,he began moving up the musical ladder to become one of the most renowned jazz/soul/funk producers of the 60’s,70’s and 80’s.  The best way I feel to pay tribute to him is create a list of my favorite album productions he did for you to check out. Let the exploring begin!


Michael Franks-The Art Of Tea/1975

Al Jarreau-Glow/1976

George Benson-Breezin’ & In Flight/1976

Stuff/1976

Al Jarreau-Look To The Rainbow/1977

Deodato-Love Islands/1978

Michael Franks-Burchfield Nines/1978

George Benson-Livin’ Inside Your Love/1979

Yellowjackets/1981

Randy Crawford-Secret Combination/1981

Randy Crawford-Windsong/1982

Yellowjackets-Samurai Samba/1985

Patti Austin-Gettin’ Away With Murder/1985

Miles Davis-Tutu/1986

Joe Sample-Spellbound/1989

Miles Davis-Amandla/1989

Joe Sample-Ashes To Ashes/1990

George Benson-Standing Together/1998

 

 

 

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Anatomy of The Groove: “Dance Little Sister” by Terence Trent D’Arby

Terence Trent D’Arby is yet another example of a vital funk/soul revival occurring 30 years ago,in 1987. This ambitious NYC multi instrumentalist came from a multi racial and very confusing back round-with bigamy and a lot of moving around involved. After a failed career attempt as a boxer and going AWOL from the US Army after collage,D’Arby formed the band The Touch while in Germany in 1984. After their debut album,the ambitious D’Arby decided to forge ahead with a solo career. His first and generally best known release being 1987’s Introducing The Hardline-produced out of London.

The first time I heard of D’Arby was with his hit song “Sign Your Name”,a jazzy Brazilian number that I thought was Stevie Wonder at the age of 8. It was decades until I purchased his entire debut album. Many of its other successful songs I’d missed out on originally. Knowing only of another D’Arby song called “Delicate” recorded for his third album  Symphony Or Damn from 1991.  At that time,one song leaped right out for me and my mom. Especially in terms of its groove. So much so that we actually planned on doing a conceptual music video for the song. Its called “Dance Little Sister”

A high hat heavy funky drum groove begins the song-with D’Arby improvising a a humorous vocal ad lib. After this,the lead synthesizer plays a high pitched,ten note riff over two bars before the instrumentation of the refrain comes in. This is a chunky rhythm guitar and ascending bass line playing call and response to accompanying horn charts. On the choruses of the songs,the harmonic phrases of the melody becomes more sustained to follow D’Arby’s gospel soul shouting. Saxophonist Mel Collins plays a solo over the rhythm section during the bridge before the chorus repeats until the song fades out.

Listening to it all these decades since it first came out, “Dance Little Sister” sounds like something of a middle ground between Prince’s Minneapolis live band funk sound and the approach of neo soul to come within the next decade. It definitely maintains the mid/late 80’s approach of condensing a funk groove. On the other hand,its one of the hardest live band funk jams of the late 80’s to be sure. Not only are horns used on it,but the synthesizer is used in the 70’s approach of having it be part of a full band sound rather than a dominating factor in the groove. Another international funk breakthrough of 1987.

 

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Sister Sledge Album Review for Their First Decade: A Tribute To The Late Joni Sledge

Sister Sledge Albums

Sister Sledge were a Philly family group who still have their firm fan base of course. And I consider myself among them. Still,most casual 70’s music lovers know them primarily for “We Are Family”,”She’s The Greatest Dancer” and “All American Girls”. Those are three very noteworthy and important disco era songs to be known for. At the same time, the music of Debbie,Joni,Kim and Kathy Sledge had a huge impact both before and after their big crossover period in the late 70’s and early 80’s. The passing of Joni Sledge at the age of 60 a few days ago put me in the mind of doing this tribute to them in this way.

One of the most important things I ever learned about Sister Sledge,thanks to the Wounded Bird label’s reissues-as well as through the kind help via Twitter from the sisters on my overview here of their 1998 song “African Eyes” on this blog,that Sister Sledge were far more of an album oriented soul/funk/disco group than many may realize. So today,to celebrate the living Sledge sisters and the departed Joni,wanted to celebrate Sister Sledge’s first eight albums from 1975-1985 through my Amazon.com reviews of them which I’ve written over the last decade or so.


Circle Of Love/1975

In 1975 these teenage sisters cut this album. Kathy,Debbie,Kim and Joni sure have their sisterly harmonies down pat,and they know just what to do with their voices. The music on this album is definitely rooted in early-mid 70’s Philly soul and Motown The title track is a superb example-upbeat and catchy as they come.The same goes for the fairly funky soul of “Protect Our Love”,’Pain Reliever” and the clever closer “Fireman” with a really cool,eerie horn solo at the end.

One thing the Sledge sisters are intent on doing is is exercising their fine intervening harmonies on a set of finely crafted soul ballads very much in the Philly style too but also rooted in classic 60’s Atlantic soul-these songs truly make excellent use of the over 30 musicians (including John Tropea’s mildly psychedelic turns on guitar) who play on this album.

The lovely “Cross My Heart”,”Don’t Miss Him Now”,”Love Don’t Go Through No More Changes On Me” and “You’re Much Better Off Loving Me” will certainly please any fan of the soul balladry that was coming out of Natalie Cole and Aretha at this time but the vocals that these sisters thrown onto them are purely icing on the cake.

For fans of Sister Sledge during their Nile Rodgers/Bernard Edwards produced We Are Family era will definitely want to check out ‘Circle Of Love’.Not only does it show how Sister Sledge got started but showcased them in the days when disco was just starting to boil over and was still just under the ground;the Philly and (late day) Motown production used on this album are very much part of the disco-funk-pop sound that would soon make Sister Sledge famous.So this comes very highly recommended.

Together/1977

Well it’s 1977,Saturday Night Fever is out and the disco era is in full swing. On their second time around the Sledge’s have jumped ship to the Munich scene,but it’s not Giorgio Moroder and Pete Ballotte;they’ve hooked up with producers Michael Kunze and Sylvester Levay,who was also the keyboard and sax player on this album. So this album allowed them to not only stay contemporary and embrace eurodisco to a degree but also diversify their musical pallet. Unlike Circle of Love this album focuses on uptempo and dance tunes with a larger amount of variety.

The punchy “Blockbuster Boy”,two Stevie Wonder covers in “I Was Made To Love Him” and “As” as well “Moondancer” and “My Favorite Song” certainly fit right into the then highly popular disco sound and,as always,the sisters inject more then enough of their own personalities and spunk to give these tunes a timeless feeling. But the sisters also get down with some heavy funk-namely on Kathie Sledge’s self penned “Do The Funky Do”-with it’s punching keyboards and seriously deep beats it actually qualifies as a funk classic along the same lines as The Bar-Kay’s “Holy Ghost”.

They add a little more disco stylings to the same general pallet on “Funky Family”,which could actually be seen as a somewhat more rowdy and less tame prelude to “We’re A Family”.A cover of “Sneaking Sally Through The Alley” is with little doubt one of the funkiest things on this album,and his made even more of a surprise since the sisters didn’t alter the lyrics to a mans point of view as they did on their Stevie Wonder cover. One of the finest overall tunes here is “Can’t Mess Around With Love”-a Brazilian pop tune with a look and vocal very much out of the Sergio Mendes school.

The two ballads that are here “Hold On To This Feeling” and “Hands Full Of Nothing” even seem to have a more urban feel to them and a newfound sophistication. This would be their final album before the pair of Chic productions that would make the Sledge’s superstars and it will be obvious even on the first listen that the future starts here and the changes are coming fast.

We Are Family/1979

Isn’t it interesting that,after all these years of listening to and collecting albums by Chic and Sister Sledge alike,that this was the very last hole I had to fill in my collection of the latter. And it’s the album which contains the songs I personally identify most strongly with them. Recently? That changed on a family trip to Portland. I’d seen this album,even cheaply.

And still avoided picking the CD up. Lately it seems as if Nile Rodgers and the Chic Organization have again become the focus of funky dance music. And as another reviewer here pointed out? With their ability to work well with female singers? This 1979 represent something very important not just to the artistic collaboration. But to the musical era itself.

The uptempo songs on this album are classic Chic disco/funk classics-with their chunk style bass/guitar interaction and heavy strings that even somehow got transformed into a rhythmic element. That goes for the electric piano decorated “He’s The Greatest Dancer”,”Lost In Music”,”Thinking Of You”-with it’s opening percussion along with the bass/guitar duel and the closer “One More Time”.

Listening to the title anthem for an umpteenth time? This 8+ minute version stands out with an extended bridge showcasing Kathy’s gravelly,soulful voice calling out to Bernard Edwards for “more bass”-right in tune with the music. “Easier To Love” is a percussive mid tempo message song-asking for peace for over war (A LOT more complex an idea than it actually sounds) while the two ballads have their character.

“Somebody Loves Me” is classy and elegantly orchestrated. While “You’re A Friend To Me” takes that touch of class a notch higher with it’s dynamic,jazzy blusiness. While the two remixes of “We Are Family” and the one of “Lost In Music” are interesting in a percussive disco/house sort of way? The manner in which Nile and Nard simply expand the original music and vocal line of the latter on the 1984 remix really says more for what the song itself had to say from the get go.

The courser,soulful voices of Sister Sledge were probably the closest that Chic ever came to finding a group of female vocalists who had similar sounds to the women who sang in Chic themselves. And the excellent performances from the sisters,plus some of Nile and Nard’s finest material make this a disco era classic not to be missed out on.

Love Somebody Today/1980

This is Sister Sledge’s follow up to their massively successful 1979 outing We Are Family. Again Bernard & Nile are producing the their band Chic is playing backup-also featured,notably on the title song is Meco Monardo on sax. And the music is set firmly in their standing tradition of classy disco-funk grooves and punchy melodies. This album is home to some truly incredible grooves such as the title song,”You Fooled Around” and (my favorite) “Reach Your Peak”.

Another two great grooves are the funky “Easy Street” and the whimsical groove of “Let’s Go On Vacation”. On “Pretty Baby” the message of family solidarity is again re enforced and Kathie Sledge’s great singing really shows up in fine style on “I’m A Good Girl”.So musically this album is totally up to par. Non of the lyrics have quite the same punch as the first outings the Sister Sledge/Chic combo did and that might’ve played some part in the Sisters turning to Narada Michael Walden next time around,or maybe it didn’t I don’t know.

Either way this might be musically more artistic,with it occasional improvised sax solos from Meco then We Are Family was. But no matter how you cut it this was Sister Sledge’s final collaberation with the Chic family for a little bit. They would meet up with Nile Rodgers again later but this more or less concluded that period of their musical career.

All American Girls/1981

Jettisoning the Chic production team for Narada Michael Walden proved a pretty wise choice,considering the similarity in sound. The main difference is Narada and Sister Sledge were not out to create a samey disco album with arty flourishes this time. They were out to create a funky dance-rock album with a lot of variety and to a large extent they succeeded. The title song is a classic-VERY much Narada and very drum oriented nonetheless and very much in keeping with the hits Sister Sledge had with Chic,especially Randy Jackson’s wonderful bass “breakdown”.

“He’s Just A Runaway” is definitely the big surprise;more of a new wavish dance-rock number that really introduced Sister Sledge to the new decade with ease. This team of Sledge and Narada do not shy away from the mirrored disco ball here as “If You Really Want Me”,”Ooh,You Caught My Heart”,”Make A Move” and “Music Makes You Feel Good” certainly fit into that category. But the “bottom” on these songs is a bit phatter and therefore funkier. Disco is basically a form of lite funk anyway and this just really emphasizes that disco-funk hybrid a little more.

There is a peppy pop tune here in “Happy Feeling”,one of those little surprises commonly found on the best albums out there.”Next Time You’ll Know” and “I Don’t Want To Say Goodbye” are very nice ballads but really don’t need to be here;this album is really strongest when the tempo goes up and it would’ve worked just as well if a couple different kinds of uptempo songs were added instead of the ballads. Other then that I have no complaints.This is a great album in a string of excellent releases from Sister Sledge and we should all be lucky that it’s now out there again for us to enjoy.

The Sisters/1982

The year is 1982 and after being produced by Chic then Narada Michael Walden the Sledge’s decide to give a stab at the production themselves. The result is this very soulful album that,for the date is very strong based in late 70’s funk-pop and even makes a go of the gestating hip-hop movement with the super funky “Super Bad Sisters” featuring the sisters rapping very much in the Sugarhill style!”My Guy” is pleasant enough but doesn’t add much that Mary Wells didn’t to the original.

Much more unique are the original and somewhat experimental funk grooves of “Lighttfootin'”,”Get You In Our Love” and “Il Macquillage Lady”,all of which showcase the Sisters desire to make a detour from their patented disco-pop sound that made them stars and show they too could give up the funk with the best of them. There are a few great ballads here too,one of which is the mid tempo “Grandma”,very much in their tradition of celebrating family and how sometimes there is no school like the old school.

“Everybody’s Friend” is very reflective and features the creamy voiced Debbie Sledge singing lead. The album closes with the peppy “Jackie’s Theme:There’s No Stopping Us”,a great possible hit-that-never-was. This album will make you wonder why the Sledge’s didn’t produce themselves more often;they’d obviously absorbed everything they’d seen Nile Rodgers and Narada do in the past and found a style the they could work well with. This tends to be one of their more forgotten albums but it showed they did have a lot more talent then just their voices.

Bet Cha Say That To All The Girls/1983

On paper the collaboration of Sister Sledge and George Duke looked awfully good. Commercially this was a miserable failure despite the promise but that is not the case artistically. The guest list on this album is incredible:Michael Sembello,David “Hawk” Wolinski,Louis Johnson,Paulinho Da Costa,Jeffrey Osbourne,Al Jarreau and Ronnie Laws are featured.

But the focus is on the Sledge’s personality and Duke’s contemporary funk sound. “B.Y.O.B”,”Lifetime Lover”,”Shake Me Down”,the title track,”Gotta Get Back To Love” and “Thank You For The Party” are great uptempo tunes and not much I can think of shout ‘early 80’s George Duke-style pop/funk’ louder then these songs!

The ballads are also very trademark George Duke and everything even further removed Sister Sledge from their classic sound. Al Jarreau’s rapping and the cute lyrics of the title track should’ve spelled a great new beginning for Sister Sledge but it was not to be. The George Duke collaboration fizzled quickly and after this release Sister Sledge opted to return closer to more comfortable home turf.

When The Boys Meet The Girls/1985

It was ten years since Sister Sledge debuted with Circle of Love and five years since Nile Rodgers had spun pure musical gold with them.And fresh off of work on Chic’s unheralded Believer and Madonna’s blockbuster Like a Virgin Nile officially brings Sister Sledge into the mid 80’s with this album’s strong new wave funk overtones. The title song,”Dancing On The Jagged Edge”,”The Boy Most Likely”,”Following The Leader” and “Peer Pressure” capture that spirit which finds the flourishes of DX7 and Synclavier synthesizers colliding with live drumming for a sound that’s very MTV generation friendly.

“Frankie”,a bouncy little pop ditty makes a brief detour from this sound with a slightly more organic feel to it. Same can be said for “Hold On Poppy” and all the songs here are packed with unbeatable hooks and vocals. Strangely enough this never got a follow up for more then a decade;by 1985 Sister Sledge’s sound had been eclipsed by modern day female singers,some of whom were Prince proteges so the Sledge’s were starting to be seen as a bit over the hill. So again I am glad Wounded Bird reissued this and allowed this album to be enjoyed by a new generation who’ve been separate from it long enough to appreciate it’s charms.


Its amazing when running down Sister Sledge’s first run of recording just how much breadth and scope their albums covered. It ran the gamut from Philly soul,funk and disco in the mid to late 70’s to the ever evolving post disco,boogie and electro sounds of the early to mid 1980’s. As with any artists,there were peaks and valleys throughout this time. All the same,felt Sister Sledge don’t always get their due for their longevity and relative consistency in their first decade. For sure that period invited it. Still,it couldn’t work without talented people. And wish to thank the Sledge’s for the contributions to that era.

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Who You Talkin’ To?” by Jeffrey Osborne

Jeffrey Osborne-a Providence,Rhode Island native was came from significant musical lineage. His father Clarence “Legs” Osborne,who played trumpet for the likes of Duke Ellington,Lionel Hampton and Count Basie. Osborne formed up with the group that would become LTD in 1970. By 1976,the band was off to a run of successful funk/soul ballad based albums in the late 70’s and early 80’s that included major successes such as the funk of “Back In Love Again” and “Holding On” as well as slow jams such as “Love Ballad” and “Shine”. Osborne’s robust,gospel drenched baritone voice was a major highlight too.

Osborne left LTD in 1980 to begin a solo career. His self titled solo debut came out on his bands label A&M in 1982. It was produced by the late jazz/funk luminary George Duke. It was through Duke that I first took interest in this first solo album when I discovered it on CD about 12 years or so ago. Because of where LTD’s music had seemed to be going in the early 80’s,had the impression this would be a Lionel Richie like album that strong emphasized ballads. And Osborne’s solo career seemed to have been marketed that way. Yet he also came through with songs like “Who You Talkin’ To” as well.

Jerry’s Hey’s horn arrangements begin the affair-with the refrain consisting of Terry Smith’s drumming,Paulinho Da Costa’s always spicy percussion,a high chunky rhythm guitar part and a hard slap bass line from Larry Graham himself. George Duke provides the sung song title through his Vocorder along with Osborne’s straight lead. The horns punctuate every bar of the song. They also play a low thundering chart on the lead up to the choruses. The bridge finds the drums,percussion,horns and Vocorder playing for a rocking guitar solo before another series of choruses closes out the song.

The early 80’s did seem to find a lot of baby boom age and/or aged black American recording artists emphasizing heavily arranged ballads. That seemed to be the emphasis of vocal based artists of that day. Jeffrey Osborne was always diverse in projecting epic soul ballads and hardcore funk. And his solo debut changed nothing. I cannot think of a black male American vocal album of its time with such a hardcore funk piece as “Who You Talkin’ To?” on it. And including slap bass innovator Larry Graham no less. So for the funk lover,this might be the highlight of Jeffrey Osborne’s solo debut.

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Let’s Start The Dance” by Bohannon

Hamilton Bohannon is one of the key figures with me in getting into funk. Starting out as a school teacher,he eventually became a drummer for Little Stevie Wonder’s touring band in 1964. After moving to Detroit in 1967,his band The Motown Sound provided a similar function to The Funk Brothers-backing up many of Motown’s major acts. When the label moved to LA,Bohannon stayed behind and formed his own group. His name became part of the Talking Head spinoff Tom Tom Club’s 1981 hit “Genius Of Love”-chanted rhythmically on the bridge of the song.

Where Bohannon,whose turning 74 today,came into my musical orbit was via the Best Of Funk Essentials  compilation that introduced me to funkiness as a musical genre. It was a song that took me totally by surprise then. And even 22 years later,it still has a similar effect. Last year,I located a used vinyl copy of Bohannon’s 1978 album Summertime Groove. Part of the reason was because I knew that that song was on it. And funk is something I’ve learned to look for in its original album context. Its a heavily funkified album throughout. But still,it just bursts out of the box with “Let’s Start The Dance”.

Bohannon himself kicks right into gear from the start. The majority of the song is a high octane dance groove with the drums and its many fills up high in the mix. The rhythm consists of a high pitched rhythm guitar,a Clavinet playing the melodic accents and a jazzy bass line playing across two octaves. Each choral section is split by refrains featuring Bohannon’s flamboyant break beats-as the guitar plays some of the most rubbery chicken scratch rhythms around. The second chorus gets started with a revved up,rocking guitar part before the Clavinet takes more of a role in the mix before the song fades.

“Let’s Start The Dance” is a superb example of how of hard funk where all the instrumentation and vocals are extremely high key in sound. Even the melodic instrumental parts are projecting the same rhythmic flamboyance as everything else in the song. The result is punishing,super heavy funk that was recorded during the height of the disco era. The powerful gospel belt of Caroline Crawford on the refrains,along the drum breaks/chicken scratch guitar really become the defining moment of this song even after all these years. One which makes this a true late 70’s funk classic.

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Leon Ware (1940-2017): Caught Up In The Soul Fire Of The Song

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Leon Ware is someone I’m not sure a lot of people outside the soul/funk community are too aware of. Among people I know such as Henrique Hopkins,Henry Cooper and Calvin Lincoln,he is very likely an icon. He maintained a solo career from 1972 up through the end of his his life. And was a fine singer. Mainly however,he was one of the finest composers in the soul/funk/jazz spectrum during the early 70’s. His style used a lot of jazz styled chord progressions,which he blended with strong pop hooks and heavy hitting lyrically romanticism.

Mister Ware composed two songs that inspired the singer/songwriter side of my soul and funk musical interests very strongly as a younger man. Those songs were Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” and (perhaps Ware’s best known composition) “I Wanna Be Where You Are”. That particular song was recorded by several different people. But became a huge success for Michael Jackson in 1972,and helped launch his solo career.  As far as Marvin Gaye was concerned,Ware gave the most help to him than he did for many other artist by composing the entirety of Gaye’s 1976 album I Want You  when the artist suffered from writers block.

That occurred just after Ware was the man behind the 1974 Quincy Jones album project  Body Heat.  This albums gurgling,swampy groove also included the memorable soul hit “If I Ever Lose This Heaven” (recorded the same year by Average White Band). And it helped Quincy’s heavily arranged jazz sound to get deeper and funky. Ware extended his talents onto Quincy’s next album Mellow Madness-itself featuring the debut of the Brothers Johnson. In the late 70’s and early 80’s,Ware continued his solo career and continued writing songs for artists like Melissa Manchester.

Ware passed away after nine years of suffering from Pancreatic cancer on February 24th. Even so,I’m one of those people who views the combination of jazzy chord progressions, soulful melodicism and and funky rhythm to be the most successful fusion of black American uptempo music. Along with people such as Stevie Wonder,Leon Ware celebrated the connections between all those elements as a songwriter. Which probably explains why he and Quincy Jones were such close associates. His influence can be felt today in the songwriting of artists such as King and Thundercat. And will therefore live on.

 

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Walter “Junie” Morrison 1954-2017: We May Just Have You Covered More Then Bread Alone

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Walter “Junie” Morrison,who passed away yesterday at the age of 62,is a reminder to me of something me and friend Henrique Hopkins often discuss. With American pop’s music nonstop focus on vocalists,the musicians who helped create sounds we love to dance, listen and sing to often get neglected. Sometimes forgotten. I personally feel Junie is one of those people. One of the great Dayton Ohio funk innovators,Junie twice made his mark on the funk genre. First as a member of the Westbound era Ohio Players,with his Funky Worm” being their major breakthrough. And of course as a member of P-Funk.

Junie’s work with P-Funk on their late 70’s albums and jams,especially Funkadelic’s 1979 magnum opuses “One Nation Under A Groove” and “(Not Just) Knee Deep”,showcased him as an instrumental innovator yet to be. Whenever one of us here’s a flamboyant, melodic synthesizer riff from 80’s electro new wave to present day dubstep,they are in fact hearing a sound that Junie Morrison helped to created. Junie also maintained a successful solo career from the early 70’s to mid 80’s. My review of the Funkytowngroove’s reissue of a two CD set of a couple of a those solo records say a lot about what the man did for music.


Walter Junie Morrison is one of those three career punches in the R&B world. He started out in the Ohio Players during their Westbound years,started a solo career mid decade and of course became a starring member/contributer to P-Funk before relaunching his solo career in the early 1980’s. As one of the prime innovators of the “video game” style of melodic,high pitched funk synthesizer,a sound that’s come to transcend decades and fashion Junie already had something good to go with anyway.

Of course he’s also a very unique artist anyway. He really loves to be eclectic musically. And he also enjoys blending genres in ways that are very different and sometimes may even sound incompatible. That probably has a lot to do with why George Clinton bought him into his fold to begin with. Sometimes though artists such as this seem to say more as part of a whole than as their own people. Lucky for us that was definitely not the case for Junie here.

This set presents Junie’s 1980 recording ‘Bread Alone’ and 1981 realese ‘5’. Both of them showcase his interest in heavy songcraft,closer to the Ohio Players or Slave in that regard as opposed to P-Funk’s more abstract sound. Still that influence cannot help but show up. “Love Has Taken Me Over (Be My Baby)” for sure has a Parliament aspect to production. But songs such as “Why” and especially “Seaman’s First Class (Jock Rock)” have a much sleeker jazz-funk take with very strong sophistifunk overtones.

As a mutli instrumentalist “everything man” his bass,keyboard and drum lines all pop and thunder right with the demands of the melody and arrangement. “Funk Parts” is a very straight synth funk groove,heavy on the video game synthesizer. The title track,on the other hand is a very sentimental,romantic number mixing,interestingly enough country western and reggae. “Apple Song” showcases his unique take on arena rock with a very humanitarian/spiritual message over the seemingly simple melody.

‘5’ is another matter. Now this is pretty much stomping boogie funk all the way,starting with the mildly jazzy/pop styled “Rappin About Rappin” that has a very P-Funk inspired hook with the piano chords and female choruses-talking about “rapping about the games people play”. “I Love You Madly” and the hyper melodic “Last One To Know”, “Jarr To The Ground” and “Taste Of Love” follow in the same league-heavily crafted sophistifunk. On “Victim Of Love” Junie is rocking out on heavy cars belting out vocally JB style about a frustrating,forbidden love afair.

The ballad “Cry Me A River” again brings in that country pop flavor while the title track (there is one) sounds like it might be one of those implicit sexual messages that have gotten somewhat lost from music with time. Overall on both these albums Junie offers up a wide yet connected range of musical stylings into a music that is definitely eccentric and definitely his own. Actually on a similar path to Prince in a way,only with a much more obvious sense of wit and humor. Junie Morrison is probably one of the more unheralded all around talents in funk,soul and R&B. And for those in doubt these albums,especially taken together will go far in even changing the minds of any doubters.


Because Junie Morrison was a musical figure who deserves major celebration for his contributions to music (both sung and unsung),wanted to personally thank my Facebook friend Anthony Michael Calvert for being largely responsible for reissuing some of Junie’s solo albums on CD. He is the founder/joint owner of Funkytowngrooves,who issued this set as part of their Hidden Treasures series. So whether your a fan of P-Funk,the Ohio Players or just love that particular synthesizer approach Junie brought to the table,Mister Morrison’s musical life is one that deserves a strong degree of celebration.

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Through It All There’s You” by Robert Palmer

Robert Palmer was a consistently important figure in terms of continuing the appreciation of the full flower of American soul/funk by white artists/groups. The Rolling Stones got this going by progressing from urban blues covers of “Not Fade Away” to Al Green send ups like “Beast Of Burden” in the late 70’s.  Palmer,a Yorkshire native and 70’s Nassau Bahamas resident,also understood the strong progression black American soul/funk/R&B had by its very nature. So he evolved from New Orleans grooves with The Meters during the mid 70’s to electronic dance/rock/electro hybrids in his 80’s commercial peak.

Discovering Palmer’s mid/late 70’s music was a major treat for me in my mid 20’s. His first four albums from 1974 through 1978 were all primarily funk/soul based-adding Caribbean,reggae,blues and jazz influences along the way. His funk/blues/jazz hybrid sound is most evident on his first solo album Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley. It exercised his talents as an interpretive singer and a songwriter as well-splitting the album between two sets of musicians. Included among them were members of the band Stuff like Richard Tee and Cornell Dupree. Especially on the closing 12+ “Through It All There’s You”.

The majority of the song is based on a tripped down grooving vamp. This consists of a call and response funk bass and guitar line-with a heavily reverbed gospel blues organ playing all the changes to the pulse from kicking bass drum hits. This represents the first several bars of the song before the main,slow funky drum comes in. At about 5 and 8 minutes in,the bass drum and organ becomes higher in the mix for a an excited,joyful sound. Then the grooves slows down into a funky swing as the original vamp of the song slowly deconstructs itself for its own outro.

As one of Palmer’s own compositions on this album,”Through It All There’s You” represents the epitome of what he had to offer as an out and out funkateer. The groove is stripped down and instrumentally every bit as dripping with sexual energy as the lyrics. It starts with a heated buildup. And gets to the point of an orgasmic revelry at two points on the bridges of the songs. All before cooling back down at the end of the song. Palmer’s understanding of how to match lyric,vocal and instrumental mood in a song really shows itself strongly on this jam-honestly among my favorites of his from that 70’s period.

 

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