Tag Archives: Funk

Anatomy Of The Groove: “I Love Makin’ Music” by Johnny Gill

Johnny Gill was born in 1966 in DC,known by the big and strong black population as “Chocolate City”. Coming from a religious back round,he started singing in his families gospel group the Wings Of Faith. He began his recording career in 1982,at the age of 16. It was his childhood friend (and soon to be duet partner) Stacy Lattisaw who convinced the baritone singer/songwriter/ bassist/ guitarist to submit demos to record companies. While he completed his education via tutoring, he elected to pass up studying electric engineering in college for a life in music.

Gill’s career took him from duets to a stint in New Edition (succeeding Bobby Brown) in the late 80’s to a revived solo career after that. One that extends to this very day. He’s also made over 80 appearances on television film in his duel career as an actor. One album that I always wanted to seek out from this multi talented teen prodigy was his debut on Cotilian Records from 1983. It was produced by Freddie Parren-famous for helming youthful family acts such as The Jackson 5 and The Sylvers.  One song that stood out to me on Gills debut was “I Love Makin’ Music”.

A percussion march and Gill’s call and response vocal lead into the main part of the song. The whole thing is built around a central groove. This consists a jumping funky drum built around heavy Afro Brazilian styled percussion. Gill provides a thick slapping bass thumps,a chunky rhythm guitar stomp while Perren plays a slippery synth bass. On the bridge of the song,the rhythm reduces down to a thick slap bass solo from Gill before returning to the main theme-urging pianist Clarence McDonald to “play some jazz” and such as the song gradually fades itself out.

“I Love Makin’ Music” mixes some of the kiddie funk style ultra singable melodic approach of Perren with some of the harder funk style Gill seemed to be going for. Not only are Gill’s often growling baritone vocals sound at least a decade older than he actually was,but if he plays as much as I can guess on this album his talents on guitar and bass are deep,strong and right in line with the 70’s soul/funk vibe which he came out of. Even though its not necessarily an aspect of Gill’s solo career that most people today might remember readily,it began the budding prodigy’s music career in superb form.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “I’m Back For More” by The Tavares

The Tavares are a group I’ve seen albums by in so many budget vinyl bins over the years, I didn’t have much context of their significance in the soul/R&B/funk world. Perhaps on their records being so common in Maine is a matter of geography.  This New England based group from New Bedford, Massachusetts got their start as different incarnations of The Turnpikes. Along the way,that group attracted future musicians such as Aerosmith’s drummer Joey Kramer and P-Funk/Talking Heads icon the late,great Bernie Worrell. By 1973, the five Tavares brothers alone signed to Capitol for a succession of R&B smashes.

One member of the group Butch Taveres is turning 69 this year. And so far,the only music I am all that aware of them for is their participation in the blockbuster Saturday Night Fever soundtrack-in that case covering The Bee Gee’s composition “More Than A Woman”. For some reason,always associated the singing siblings as being primarily based in slow jam ballads and Philly style disco songs. But just yesterday,I learned they had a far funkier side that showed up on the final song of their 1979 album Madam Butterfly entitled “I’m Back For More”.

A slow shuffling drum,bluesy filtered Fender Rhodes piano and a snarling,jazzy bass walk accompanies the harmonies of the Tavares along with horn and string accents on the intro alone. During the refrains of the song,its the drums,Rhodes and strings that carry the song along with the groups close and often jazzy harmonies. On the earlier bars of each refrain statement,the drum kicks up a bit more than shuffles. On the latter choruses,a wah wah guitar joins the musical mix. On the final choruses,the horn charts take presidents with the groups call and response exchanges as it fades out.

“I’m Back For More” brings to mind the feeling of three songs that define the funkiest side of the disco era for me. It has the rhythmic and horn/string cadence of Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby”,the jazzy keyboards and swagger of Edgar Winter’s “Do What” from 1979 and a melodic element similar to Toto’s “Georgie Porgy” from a year earlier. Its the type of song that bridges disco,funk and classic harmony vocal based 70’s soul with such a strutting,funky yet laid back kind of groove. Cannot think of a better song to pay tribute to Butch Tavares with,personally.

 

 

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Stevie Wonder At 67,’Characters’ Nearing Its 30th Anniversary

Characters

Stevie Wonder had entered the 1980’s in an interesting musical position. He began the decade on a political crusade with the late Gil Scott-Heron to make Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday a national holiday. Musically however,his albums began coming fewer and farther between. Since becoming an innovative musical icon after his early/mid 70’s salad days,he was still commercially successful. But the blend of organic and electronic sounds and melodies he’d pioneered was mainstream by the early 80’s. So technically,he wasn’t considered to be so much of a musical innovator anymore.

That being said, Wonder’s songwriting approach was something very few could copy. Especially with all its jazzy complexities. Thus he began developing to the artist he is today: a man whose current music was based more on collaboration and songwriting for and with other artists. Most notably Jermaine Jackson’s “Let’s Get Serious” and Gary Byrd’s “The Crown” during the early 80’s. He only had three formal studio albums during the 80’s though. And the third of them was the 1987 album Characters. It had a home in my family’s cassette collection right when it came out. And fast entered my musical core.

Characters is an album that has garnered mix opinions from everyone from writers to critics to fans. A good deal of that has to do with it being from the late 80’s. And public opinion of changes in music during that time is a complex and controversial one. On a personal level however,its one of my very favorite albums by Stevie Wonder. It came out in a year that also included Prince’s Sign O The Times and when Michael Jackson’s Bad came out. So there was a renewed interests by soul/funk artists of making creatively and commercially successful music in what started as a rather rock based musical decade.

Now Characters is also an album that did indicate the continuing distance black American artists were having with the pop charts at the time. The Top 10 of the R&B charts in American placed the album right within it. He even did an MTV special featuring a guest appearance by the late Stevie Ray Vaughn to promote the album. But it landed only within the pop Top 20. Still that was enough for many people to appreciate Stevie Wonder making a new album at that time. Five years ago,I wrote a review of this album on Amazon.com going further into the albums more musical virtues.


Stevie Wonder had recorded his previous album In Square Circle in 1983 but released it in 1985. Even though its clear based on internet knowledge that Stevie didn’t write all of the songs on this particular album at the same time. On the other hand,the production was contemporary to its release. Stevie Wonder’s musical success was in a very interesting place in the late 80’s. At only a mere 37 years old Stevie,having been a child prodigy, was already a musically iconic figure before 40. Something of a modern day popular equivalent of a George Gershwin and Duke Ellington in terms of his body of musical accomplishment by this time.

He had created an entire template for funk composition in the 70’s. He was able to show the innovations of funk were not merely instrumentally challenging dance music,but could have its own style of songwriting to accompany it as well. By the 80’s,funk was changing into a more electronic style of dance music that didn’t (and still doesn’t) suit everyone’s fancy. The pop audience had also found a new darling in Michael Jackson,an artist Stevie once helped mentor. For his part Stevie seemed to have no trouble dealing with this. The R&B community still regarded him as their main man,and that hadn’t (and still hasn’t) changed. So in terms of his commercial output,on this album he went more for quality than quantity.

“You Will Know” is a beautifully dreamy mid tempo slow groove opener,with Stevie’s classic multi layered keyboards playing his complex chord structures on a song that pleas for hope among the hopeless. “Dark ‘N’ Lovely” is an intense,uptempo dance/funk piece with some heavy bass Clavinet type synthesizer work mixed with spacier electronics that reflected a theme of darker hued African American’s as being treated differently in society.

“In Your Corner” takes this modern electronic funk instrumentation on a song that reflects more the flavor of 60’s Motown-with a tale that basically picks up where “I Wish” left off:Stevie’s possible imagined (or real for all we know) life as a young adult. “With Each Beat Of My Heart” is a mostly acapella ballad,built upon some transcendent multi tracked harmonies from Stevie and him breathing in the rhythm of a heart beat itself-providing mainly piano and harmonica as the other instrumentation.

“One Of A Kind” is a deeply funky dance number,again built on dynamic harmony and Stevie’s poetically lovelorn lyrical preoccupation. “Skeletons” is a strong funk mashup of themes between “Superstition” and “Part Time Lover”-not too far in flavor from Cameo’s Word Up only a bit warmer and gentler in instrumental flavor.

“Get It” is a heavy dance/funk number-again duetting with Michael Jackson to return the favor from “Just Good Friends” on MJ’s Bad-finding the two aggressively trading off lyrics call and response. The clavinet based funk returns on the wondrously grooving “My Eyes Don’t Cry” whereas “Come Let Me Make Your Love Come Down” marries Stevie’s electronic grooves with a heavy blues featuring a guitar solo from B.B.King playing Lucille herself.

“Crying Through The Night” is one of my own favorites here-a Latin flavored number updated from a song he recorded in the mid 70’s. The two most intriguing songs are “Galaxy Paradise”,which strongly anticipates R&B/funk’s near obsession with Arabic melodies in the 80’s funk context and “Free”,which brings to mind his Bach-styled Clavinet “classical funk” sound for some dynamic “people music”.

This album is actually one of my very favorites of Wonder’s-certainly his finest of the 1980’s for me,as well as his last release of the decade. Not only did he dip strongly into his celebration of the innovation of funk,jazz,soul and European classical that defined his blockbuster 70’s successes but also had the time to anticipate a few modern day funk/soul musical concepts along the way as well. As controversial as this might sound to some 1980’s musical naysayers,this album is easily as innovative and thrilling for its era as Songs in the Key of Life was a decade before this.


Just listening to any Stevie Wonder album,especially if someone is seriously learning about music,can be a school lesson in sound layering and composition in itself. And at the end of the day, Characters was no exception to that rule. Even myself making music on Garage Band with Apple Loops now, I find myself hearing melodic/rhythmic combinations the way Wonder might. Says a lot for Stevie Wonder’s music influencing the creativity of a non musician…sound mixer. Characters above all things showcases how no matter when he created,Stevie Wonder’s sound remained intensely vital.

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Love Is All Around” by Eric Burdon & War

Eric Burdon’s best known for being the lead singer for The Animals,part of the bluesiest end of the 60’s British Invasion along with the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds. Of course The Animals are best known for their version of “House Of The Rising Sun”. After that band split up in 1969, Burdon and producer Jerry Goldstein formed the band War out of a group of black LA musicians such as Lonnie Jordan, Thomas “Papa Dee” Allen,Harold Brown and Danish born harmonica player Lee Oskar. And they were a commercial and musical success right of the box.

The debut album of this outfit was 1970’s Eric Burdon Declares War. Its blend of Latin rock and soul was an important part of the funk process. Recording only two albums while together, Burdon left the band to their own devices after collapsing onstage of an asthma attack during one of their performances. The band officially reunited for a live performance at the Royal Albert Hall in 2008. Via YouTube listening,one of my favorite songs by the Eric Burdon led edition of War is the title song to their 1976 archival release-which was entitled Love Is All Around.

With a hi hat tapping away at the beginning,the low growling bluesy guitar that defines Burdon’s vocal melody start out the song. Its one that has a very basic groove throughout it. It consists of that same guitar riff from the intro,the hi hat and lightly shuffling funky drum. Each bar is accentuated by a grooving organ riff. After several bars of this, a pitch bent horn section plays the refrains with the organ. On the bridge,the drums rock out a bit more-with the organ and horns in a more sustained. The basic groove of the song repeats itself with call and response vocal choruses until the song fades out.

When I first heard the way this song was put together,it instantly reminded me of the sound that Sly & The Family Stone had on their first three albums. Those pitched up and down horns,the rhythmic organ andthe instrumental trade offs. Most of this very late 60’s style groove (both musically and lyrically) is actually very instrumentally condensed -consisting mostly of an evolving refrain. The bridge more or less serves as an in a break in sound to the choral vocals that end the album. Even though it was released later,its a vital example of War and Eric Burdon’s contribution to the funk process.

 

 

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James Brown’s ‘Get On The Good Foot’-An Extended Album Overview For The Godfather’s 84th Anniversary

James Brown was one of few artist who,upon first hearing the box set Star Time,made a thoroughly positive musical impression on me. Only one song didn’t then nor fully does now make a huge impact on me. And of all songs it was “Get On The Good Foot”. Its one of many 70’s funk classics of course. Just when set up with so many of his classic extended funk pieces such as “There It Is”,”Hot Pants”,”Soul Power”,”The Payback” and “Funky Drummer”? Something about the groove didn’t have the same vitality to me somehow. And that opinion seems strange to any friend or family member I tell it to.

This song is also the title song of James Brown’s second 1972 album. Its one which I saw for years on CD. Mostly at the old Borders Books & Music. Yet my lack of interested in the title song had me avoiding it. That continued onto the period when I began exploring original JB albums-always favoring The Payback or any of the Apollo live albums over Get On The Good Foot. It became somewhat rare on CD and vinyl in my area during this time. When I started to here more about what the rest of the album had on it,was luckily able to snag an inexpensive used CD of it and take the whole thing in.

James Brown seems to have presented even his studio records in much the same manner he did his life shows. You would have re-workings of classics from his catalog. And he’d take the grooves and songs he was currently working-and put them into that mix. That had the effect of making JB’s studio offerings in his salad days rather more intimate affairs than most. I personally was first exposed to the title song of this album plus “I Got A Bag Of My Own” via JB’s box set ‘Star Time’. After taking many years to track this,Brown’s first double studio album,down on CD, it became clear just how important this enormous musical statement was to The Godfather at the height of his funky innovations.

The title track of this album is one of his known classics. For unknown reasons,this particular groove is the only JB funk jam that never totally moved me. Surprising considering how bass/guitar/horn driven it is. On “The Whole World Needs Liberation” a Latin soul jazz styled groove-filled with percussion,electric piano,heavy bass and strings illustrates a vocal call for freedom. “Your Love Was Good For Me” is a beautifully orchestrated Chicago type sweet soul number. “Cold Sweat is done up as a faster,slightly more modern take six years after the original. There’s also a recitation over a cinematic soul backdrop from Hank Ballard about JB’s musical cultural importance.

“I’ve Got A Bag Of My Own” is one of JB’s most fiery funk jams-with its percussion rhythm and deep bass/guitar chord. The almost rocking intensity of “Funky Side Of Town” keeps a similar groove percolating along with “My Part/Make It Funky”. “Nothing Beats a Try But A Fail” is a 6/8 time bluesy soul ballad of determination whereas the album ends on a similar note with “I Know Its True”. “Please Please”,a retake of JB’s first hit from 1956 is a 12+ minutes musical treatise on everything from brotherly love to his bands origins in the American South. There’s also a retake of the earlier R&B shuffle of “Ain’t That A Groove”,there’s the slow jazzy blues instrumental horn shuffle of “Dirty Harri”.

Since I first began listening to James Brown intensively just over two decades ago,have been gradually exploring his original albums. Especially the ones from the early/mid 70’s. It would seem from listen to this album that 1972 was an extremely strong year along for him musically. With the classic JB lineup in full affect here,this album is assembled as something of an in studio concert. With no breaks between the songs. Some songs are cinematic soul in par with the early 70’s blackspoitation era,some are tone ballads and others are just seriously funky. Its got all sides of classic James Brown of the early 70’s-perfectly capable as keeping it just as live in the studio as he would on stage.

Its kind of a funny afterthought that my friend Henrique and I both grew up during a time when James Brown’s 70’s studio albums were all back in print on CD along with his numerous compilations. As for my case,ended up passing them by for purely monetary reasons. Even though many of them were out of print by the time I could’ve afforded them,have always endeavored to hunt them down. And each time I do,there’s something to learn about the way James Brown presented his recorded music. In every way what the Star Time box set did for me when I first heard it.

Get On The Good Foot actually has the total opposite effect for me that the song first had. And even has me appreciating more hearing it in its native context. This is an album that actually pushes the JB funk sound-based on repeating phrases “on the one” and lushly orchestrated mid tempo/ballad melodies into an album length concept. And in doing so, Get On The Good Foot was a dry run for JB’s next double album opus in late 1973’s The Payback. In the end, this is an album that might’ve been the one that really put it all together for James Brown in terms of the best way to present his studio albums.

*Here’s a link to the Amazon.com review I did of this album that this article is based on. Please click on the review and click the yes or no button there if it helped you or if you liked it. You’ll be glad that you did. And it might even be good to you!

 

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Star Time At 26: Celebrating James Brown And The Grandest Record Of His Funky Legacy

Image result for James Brown Star Time

Star Time will have been around for 26 years this coming Sunday. And tomorrow would’ve been The Godfathers 84th birthday. The interesting thing about my history with JB is that for a couple of years in the 80’s,I thought that “Unity” and “Living In America’ were his very first songs. There was a huge disconnect between my youth in Maine and the musical arc of JB that still continues to run deep within the African American community. Of course by the end of the 80’s, it was important to my family that JB be appreciated beyond having been arrested for domestic abuse.

That 1988 arrest barely phased me because at the same time, I heard “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” on oldies radio for the first time. So knew this was an artist with serious history. Then almost a decade later,my father played “Cold Sweat” for me. And suddenly the music of James Brown became a necessity rather than a footnote in adolescent musical appreciation. Was deeply exploring funk music than. And JB was the one innovated that genre. Different music books I was reading then stated the definitive way to get into JB’s music was a 4 CD box set entitled Star Time.

Star Time is now a huge key notation between myself and friends online,such as Henrique Hopkins. In fact,it was part of many musical topics that helped he and I develop our friendship earlier on. Far as I’m concerned, its also one of the best multi disc compilation any artist has put together. I actually first discovered JB songs that are among my favorites such as “Think”,”Let Yourself Go”,”Funky President” and “Get Up Offa That Thing” on Star Time. And that is huge encouragement to dig deeper into the vast musical world of James Brown.

During this period, Star Time was a volume far outside the price range my  17 year old self. Luckily I was a member of the old BMG music club. And they had this particular box set on sale for half price. When I ordered it,my father wanted to borrow it disc by disc of course. It made sense. About 90% of JB’s recorded music was unknown to both of us. Of course that’s because James Brown is likely the most prolific black American recording artists in terms of released material. Even Star Time could only scratch the surface. What the box set does do is showcase exactly why James Brown was a major musical icon.

Star Time is a box set that covers JB’s music from 1956 through 1984. It starts out with he and his Famous Flames rhythmically unique take on doo-wop on “Please Please Please” and ends with the first part of his duet with Zulu Nation founder/hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa on “Unity Part 1”. What’s between that is a musical journey that you do not even need to read the wonderful essays included (by writers such as Nelson George) to comprehend. Its just 5 hours of music that showcases the many key points on the musical road of James Brown.

One of the most vital thing about Star Time is how it emphasizes how James Brown’s career wasn’t like a freight train run with a bunch of different stops. It was actually a fluid continuum. James Brown’s nickname “the hardest working man in show business” often referred directly to the almost super human level of touring/live shows he did for much of his life. During these shows,he didn’t merely present his present music of the time. All the periods of his musical progression were covered-adding newer songs as they applied to JB’s performance flow.

Although this is a box set of studio singles presented in chronological order, Star Time still presents that JB continuum in the same way his live shows tended to. Hence it also presents JB as an early precursor to the remix artist too. Original early 60’s versions of “I Got You” and “Its A Man’s World” are presented in the same setting as their better known hit versions as a result. This box sets nearly 30 years worth music music showcases JB going from doo-bop/R&B ballads into his funk innovation-with disco and hip-hop entering the mix later on. Not to even mention hitting on his instrumental music as well.

Even though this album was part of the huge 1990’s CD box set boom,there are few of these box sets that project the musical breadth of the given artist quite the way Star Time does. Given all that, this set doesn’t only entertain. It teaches while your dancing (and even singing) along to the music. Again that’s right in the key of what JB brought to funk: the idea that life was a soulful dance. And that everyone was living to the rhythm whether they realized it or not. So Star Time wasn’t only a musical lesson for myself and others. It can often be a live lesson at the same time.

 

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Music’s Takin’ Over” by The Jacksons

Goin’ Places, The Jacksons’ second on CBS/Epic records is (as are most things Jackson related) as being a commercial failure. But creatively,it was a totally opposite matter. Its an album celebrating its 40th anniversary later this year so I’ll cover it in further detail at that time. For one reason though,I wanted to go deeper into some of the individual songs from this album over the course of the year because many of them just stand out on their own merit. And one in particular,because its so in keeping with the Jacksons’ overall creative/sociopolitical ethic.

Upon leaving Motown, The Jackson’s fell under the production of Philadelphia International Records. Goin’ Places had more of a steady musical direction to it as an album than their self titled debut from a year earlier. And it all pointed towards the fact that the brothers were finding their freedom as a group. And for Michael Jackson,his freedom on his own a couple of years later-under the direction of Quincy Jones. And it all began with a song that I first heard opening up the CD of this album 24 years ago this year entitled “Music’s Takin’ Over”.

Tito’s crunchy rhythm guitar,a rolling and grooving bass line and the drum/percussion of Charles Collins and (likely) Randy Jackson provide the intro-along with a deep hollow guitar part that goes into the first refrain of the song. Each refrain of the song consists of a fluid 10 note rhythm guitar,the same slippery groove of a bass line,a steady rhythm and accenting horn charts. On the choruses, the guitar/bass/horn interaction is sustained with the vocal hook. After a bridge consisting of an extension of the intro,there’s a brief conga based take on the refrain before the main version fades out the song.

“Music’s Takin Over” is an excellent example of a sharp funk number arranged to sophisticated sleekness. This McFadden & Whitehead (with Victor Carstarphen)  really develops from the rhythm out to the melody,as high quality funk should. Lyrically,it is an enthusiastic celebration of the post 60’s outlook on music. In our time of attitudes asserting that “music could and can never change the world”,Michael Jackson’s earnest assertion of “music is a doctor that can cure a troubled mind” still burns with the emotional and physical reality of music I personally happen to follow.

 

 

 

 

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‘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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