Charlie Wilson has gained a great deal of popular acclaim in the last decade as a solo artist known as Uncle Charlie-a contemporary electro soul balladeer in a manner similar to Ron Isley’s Mr Biggs character. Following his 90’s era struggles with addiction and eventual homelessness, Wilson had already made a huge name for himself with his brothers Ronnie and Robert in the Gap Band. Their grooves such as “Oops Upside Your Head” and “Burn Rubber On Me” were enormous P-Funk inspired classics in the late 70’s/early 80’s. Many admirers of the bands music often think of this peak period of popularity as the beginning of their career. In reality,it was really their commercially fortunate mid point.
Forming in 1967 as the Greenwood Archer And Pine Street Band in their native Tulsa Oklahoma, the Wilson brothers’ first big taste of fame came in 1974 when they joined Leon Russell as backup musicians on his Stop All That Jazz album. Later that year,Russell’s label Shelter signed the rechristened Gap Band and released their debut Magician’s Holiday. At the time the group was a septet consisting of the Wilsons,percussionist Carl Scoggins, drummer Roscoe Smith,guitarist O’Dell Stokes and a horn section consisting of Buddy Jones,Chris Clayton and trumpeter Tommy Lokey. It was Lokey who wrote the groove I’m talking to you about today entitled “Tommy’s Groove”.
The jam gets a stone cold start with a thick,fast paced mix of wah wah guitar and Clavinet duetting together in tonal unification. This along with bursts of organ as a percussion life effect. The horn section leads the melody into the a fan faring chorus that begins on the same theme-both separated by a powerful funk break. As the rhythm section lays the foundation,the horns serve to carry the vocal parts of the song. Then a powerful gospel/soul organ solo gives way to another horn fanfare taken at a somewhat higher octave than the first. After a straight replay of the original theme,the song fades out on composer Tommy Lokey’s jazzy trumpet solo.
Primarily Charlie Wilson is known as the Gap Band’s lead vocalist-his fruity and somewhat idiosyncratic Southern drawl laying the groundwork for the vocal approach of the new jack swing genre of the late 80’s and early 90’s. Even during the groups prime hit period however,Charlie was still their keyboard player as well. Since Total Experience’s Lonnie Simmons wanted to showcase his vocals, it was up to early instrumentals such as this to showcase Charlie’s talents as a musician. Here he’s a unified participant in heavy duty jamming in the united funk era. His strong organ solo and Clavinet riffs showcase what a gifted keyboard groove master Charlie Wilson actually is.
Filed under 1974, Charlie Wilson, classic funk, clavinet, Funk, Gap Band, horns, Leon Russell, organ, Robert Wilson, Ronnie Wilson, Tommy Lokey, Uncategorized, Uncle Charlie, wah wah guitar
Leon Russell’s contributions to 70’s era black American music were extremely significant. Having been a strong session player with everyone from the B.B. King to Ray Charles, he began his solo career with a similar intent. His 1972 song “This Masquerade” became a major smash hit for George Benson four years later. And he got the Gap Band their first taste of recording as session players themselves on his 1974 album Stop All That Jazz. As an artist who strongly understood the instrumental and compositional balance that exists in the musical eclecticism of the late 60’s an early 70’s, Russel entered the middle of the latter decade with a whole new creative outlook.
In 1976 Russel formed his own label called Paradise Records. Having already recognized (in a similar manner to Little Feat’s Lowell George) the linkage between his burgeoning southern rock style and the soul/funk/R&B/jazz spectrum, he wanted to further that approach in his own music. During that same year he wed the vocalist Mary McCreary. She had been a member of Sly & The Family Stone’s all female harmony backup group Little Sister during their early 70’s period. The new couple decided to musically collaborate. This culminated in their duet recording The Wedding Album. And it all lead right off with a song called “Rainbow In Your Eyes”.
It begins with Mary in a beautifully multi tracked, acapella vocalese duetting with herself in straight up gospel form. Right after this Leon kicks right in with a thick bluesy synthesizer accentuated with some higher pitched,ringing electronics. That same Clavinet like synth tone is the key rhythmic element to the song-right with the swinging drums of Teddy Jack Eddy. This maintains a close relationship with Russell’s melodicism throughout the song. He and Mary exchange each vocal phrase and on the refrains, they’re both in close harmony singing with the accompaniment of the bell like synthesizer sounding very similar to wedding bells.
For me this is one of the most beautiful examples of Russell’s mid 70’s sound. It’s got a thick, grooving stomp about it. Leon’s Okie drawl and Mary’s deep,gospel belt both work wonderfully as the pair sing about the inner strength their love will bring to each of them as people. Especially the powerful image of them as a creatively strong biracial couple in the post civil rights era South. And on a purely musical level, the melodies mix of sweet country/western flavors with the thick bluesy funkitivity of the instrumentation bought it to life. Al Jarreau thought so much of it he did cover of the song on his sophomore album the very same year. It’s one of Leon Russell’s finest slices of funk in many ways.
Filed under 1970's, acapella, country/soul, drums, Funk, Gap Band, George Benson, Leon Russell, Mary McCreary, Paradise Records, Sly & The Family Stone, synthesizer, Uncategorized
Much as injecting personal affairs into this blog has been controversial on many different ends? It’s unavoidable in this case. 2015 has proven to be a year consisting of many hardships, challenges and often misery for humanity. On the creative end of that? It was deeply soul destroying for me when Ronnie and Charlie Wilson sued both Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars for credit in their massive hit “Uptown Funk”. Unsure what upsets me more: that the surviving Wilson brothers were negating their own possible comeback over greed? Or because of the fact that they themselves could be accused of musical plagiarism of P-Funk with their 1979 hit “Oops Upside Your Head”.
The matter was so distressing on this end that it became one of a bucket list of reasons why I took a six month hiatus from this blog to begin with. And why it may not be as it was again in the future. Still? Nothing in creativity is carved in stone. Not funk music,not the Gap Band and not even the future of either. And it reminded me of a time (the late 1990’s) when I was collecting Gap Band CD’s with great enthusiasm. And noticing the resemblance of the vocal timbre of “Uncle” Charlie Wilson and Stevie Wonder. At the conclusion of their 1983 release Gap Band V: Jammin’? A collaboration between the Wilson’s and Wonder finally occurred with a song entitled “Someday”. And it had a lot more to say beyond even that.
It’s actually one of the few funk,soul or R&B numbers I’ve heard that not only has a cold start both musically and vocally. But it also maintains that basic character throughout the entire song. The rhythmic body of the song is a steady drum beat accentuated by rolling percussion-that train like motion the Wilson’s tended to specialize in. The main melodic phrase is a very Wonder-like synthesized Clavinet-like baroque classical one-though likely played by Charlie himself. And this is accessorized by a slippery synth bass line. On the bridge? Wonder does provide an appropriate harmonica solo before leading into the pleasing,gospel soul vocal coda as the song fades out.
Charlie,Ronnie and the late Robert Wilson were not only successful at adapting the approach of Stevie Wonder into their own funk style on this song, but also gave up the props by gleefully collaborating with the artist himself-without whom the sound of the song wouldn’t have been so possible. This spirit of creative unity goes well with the beautifully stated tribute to the struggle for civil rights. And to the then yet unrecognized holiday in tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It’s one of the most eloquently layered and topical of the Gap Band’s songs. It may never have been recognized due to not being a hit. But it may be one of the Wilson’s crowning musical (and proudly funky) achievements.