Average White Band began work on their sixth studio album during 1977. According to the liner notes for AWB’s 2014 box set All Of The Pieces, the band were creatively exhausted after their first four studio albums-in particular the hugely successful later three of them. Hamish Stuart, Alan Gorie, Roger Ball, Steve Ferrone and company first recorded a duet album with Ben E. King. Seeing that collaboration could rejuvinate their sound, the band brought in guitarist Cornell Dupree (from Stuff) with a number of NYC session musicians for their 1978 release Warmer Communications.
“Your Love Is A Miracle” is a straight up wah wah guitar powered number-with the in the pocket Family Stone inspired horn charts, “duck face” bass popping, Steve Ferrone’s stop/start funky drum and (vocally) low leads and falsetto harmonies. “Same Feeling, Different Song” has the classic AWB horn style based off the JB’s. The rhythm, tempo and lead guitar comes out of the same vibe. But the liquid rhythm guitar of the refrains come out of the later 70’s sound more. “Daddy’s Come Home” benefits from Dupree’s crying bluesy guitar tone and the organ based country/rock style balladry of the song itself.
“Big City Lights” takes a straight up bass/guitar oriented uptempo funk number-focusing heavy on the horn charts that are often combined with a round synth bass tone for an even bigger sound. “She’s A Dream” is a jazzy melange of bass, guitar with melodic and creamy horn charts playing a medium tempo ballad. The title track lays down a groove that combines the grooves of funk with the repetitive chugging of reggae. “The Price Of A Dream” is a melodically strong sophistifunk styled number-again based heavily in the vocal harmonies.
“Sweet & Sour” is sleek yet heavy horn funk instrumental before the album ends with “One Look Over My Shoulder”. This is the song I remember most off this album for some reason. It has one of the most singable, hit oriented choruses. But the percussive mid tempo groove allows the horns to hit in all the right places. And make both the instrumental and vocal focuses of the song stand out equally. Musically speaking, Warmer Communications covers pretty familiar territory for AWB. And session players like the Brecker Brothers did make for strong writing and musicality as intended.
Where Warmer Communications might’ve been somewhat problematic had to do with changes in music among funk bands during the late 70’s. Between 1977 and 1979, the larger horn funk bands such as Earth, Wind & Fire, Tower Of Power, Kool & The Gang and the JB’s were beginning to update to the more high tech production style of the disco era. AWB’s production approach didn’t change in the late 70’s, even as their writing and playing remained strong. They’d rectify this (with controversial results) in the early 80’s. Still, Warmer Communications remains one of the bands strongest late 70’s albums.
Teddy Pendergrass, at least for his part, wasn’t keen on the notion that he’d be a contributor to the notion that there was a shortage of high quality music in 1978. Life Is A Song Worth Singing stands out as a strong example to the contrary. As potent as the Philly sound was in the 70’s, there were signs in the middle of the decade that there was a need to adapt the style in order to accommodate changes in the R&B/soul/funk world of music. Gamble & Huff already had been doing that as far back their second album with The Jacksons’ Goin’ Places.
Gamble & Huff were taking basic Philly orchestral soul/funk/disco sound, and swinging it just a bit harder driving. Where orchestration was a major part of the whole on Teddy’s debut, this album takes a different approach already with the first two cuts-including the title song and “Only You”. The strings take a strong backseat whereas the horns are upped in the mix. And the slower beats and rhythms are channeled into the same forward thinking musical approach. All with a strong use of rhythmic style electronics and keyboard textures while still being very recognizably the Philly Sound.
The title track not only showcases this production style to a strong degree, but has an excellent message about taking the time to find an inner strength (and hope in yourself) in times of crisis. It’s a message of self determination that Teddy is channeling directly from what James Brown,Sam Cooke and Curtis Mayfield did before him and extended into the disco/funk era pretty much uncut. And I also have to thank Gamble & Huff for keeping that going too. “Cold, Cold World” offers another message of hope on a great mid-tempo tune that looks to the same new direction as the faster tempo beginnings.
The new direction of “Cold, Cold World” is a modernistic sweet funk type of sound- given a toughness largely due to Teddy’s dynamics and that of the arrangement. The classic “Close The Door” and “When Somebody Loves You Back” offer up similar concepts right where one needs them. “Get Up,Get Down,Get Funky,Get Loose” is definitely a classic “Philly Jump” kind of tune and an example of the most positive direction disco was going at this time.. Now “It Don’t Hurt Now” is the slowest song here however it extends on the overall positively affirming and genuine good intentions of these songs messages.
As with its predecessor Life Is A Song Worth Singing makes you think, makes you happy and is romantically and creatively satisfying at the same time. And that makes it yet another example of an album that avoids the sophomore slump syndrome It’s also a prime example of what made Teddy Pendergrass such a great voice and artist. And on this album, Teddy also represented what writer Rickey Vincent referred to as the black male soul singer as a symbol of strength and pride. This makes Life Is A Song Worth Singing one of Teddy’s definitive albums.
Nina Simone had a very strong 1967 in the recording studio. She began the year with her Nina Simone Sings the Blues album. And then released this album during the Summer Of Love. It featured the same basic musicians as the previous album with Eric Gale and Bernard Purdie. However her musical priorities were somewhat different here. She was not putting quite the same emphasis on her own self written material here. Not only that but she wasn’t laying her heart and soul bare with a sense of instrumental grit and passion.
Realizing that old adage of those who won’t hear an angry shout straining to here a whisper, Nina put another side of herself on display with this time. One she was very adept at,but very much in contrast to what had come before. More over this is an album defined more by highlights than an overall concept. “It Be That Way Sometime” starts off the album with a strangely melodically steady brassy soul number,full of orchestration and horns. “Go To Hell” and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” again find her questioning in fine piano based gospel/soul spirit her own desires and necessity.
Those necessary desires ranged from injustice to redemption. On interpretations on “Cherish” and “The Look Of Love”,she dives headlong into her unique range for for two versions of these songs that are very vocally individual in terms of how he projects them. “Some Say” finds her returning to the deeply horn based soul that began the album. “Turning Point” is actually a favorite of mine-basically a show tune telling the story of how children are taught racial hatred. Her one original here “Consummation” is an all out show stopper,a theatrically orchestrated and sung number.
Her one original song here “Consummation” is a theatrically orchestrated and sung number-with Nina holding some very loud notes that go into the nature of human consciousness itself. More musically diverse and positioned for crossover attention than her previous release of the year, this album showcases how Nina’s talents had the potential to be very outreaching. At the same time often too individual to crossover to everybody. One would tend to either be reached intimately by her music or not. Since her music tends to have the latter effect on people, its probably a moot point in the end.
Bill Withers is certainly an artist I’ve grown with. Especially his non hit material, which never ceases to be wonderful to hear. And is often extremely funky too. In 1978 he released his final album of the decade ‘Bout Love’. It featured on it a song that I first heard recorded and sung by Herb Alpert on his Rise album a year later. When I first heard Wither’s version, it was a bit surprising he’d actually wrote it. As hadn’t paid proper attention to Alpert’ personnel credits. Still its the exact song I’d want to project for this Valentines Day-especially in America. The song is entitled “Love Is”.
Keni Burke of the Five Stairsteps gets the medium paced beat of Russel Kunkel going off with a heavy, rhythmic slap bass riff. Paul Smith adds a high pitched Clavinet (or Clavinet like keyboard) into the mix before the strings and horns kick in playing the main melody along with Withers’ voice. There’s a bridge where the bass and strings scale up before the song essentially builds back up from where it started-with everything building up from a milder sound to a more theatrical one. After another such scaled up refrain, that same pattern builds back up for a third time before the songs finally fades out on itself.
“Love Is” has both the structure of a funk song right on the one musically-with a gospel/folk like chorus-on-chorus melodic content. The funk is assured by Burke’s Larry Graham like slap bass and the overall Sly Stone type groove-mixed in with a healthy dose of disco era lushness with the horns and strings. Wither’s own guitar also plays a wonderfully supplementary role alongside Burke’s bass-especially with its bluesy drawl. Lyrically the call and response lyrics-alternately illustrating both love’s basics and more complex tenants are another aspect of why I love this song.
Holiday’s can be beloved, despised or even abandoned. Depending on the social and political atmosphere of the given time period. Valentine’s Day can be difficult even for those who generally love holidays. Bill Withers song here speaks a good message to such a situation. Suppose that when times of love for one’s individual self seems lacking? Or if someone is unlucky enough to be without love in a somewhat loveless community? Using romantic love as a worldly concept FOR community, empathy, caring and/or spirituality is one of the most positive things a soulful, funky song can offer. Happy Valentines Day!
Dennis Edwards, lead singer of the Temptations from 1968-1976 and again from 1980 to 1987 and Leon Ndugu Chancler, best known as the drummer on Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”, both passed away within two days of each other this week. The former at age 74, the later at 65. The interesting part of it was Ndugu passed away on what would’ve been Edwards’ 75th birthday-on February 3rd, 2018. Edwards was a singer, Chancler was a jazz session drummer. And it was still surprising to me the breadth of commonalities these two late musical figures have in common.
Dennis and Ndugu both hailed from the South. Edwards from Alabama, Chancler from Louisiana. They both left the South- Edwards for Detroit and Chancler for California. Both men studied their craft at universities in their adopted home towns. Their career paths differed-as Ndugu became a session player for artists ranging from George Benson to Kenny Rogers. And he was even George Duke’s main drummer for a decade or so. Edward’s became the lead singer of The Tempts during their psychedelic soul period. And the two finally crossed paths on the 1982 song “Money’s Hard To Get”.
Kerry Ashby’s synth bass provides the intro to a song-played in close unison to Stevie Wonder’s bassist Nathan Watts. Ndugu’s powerful drums then come in playing right in the the pocket. Along with Melvin “Wah Wah Watson” Ragin’s nimble rhythm guitar, that also comprises the refrains of the song. The chorus features Benjamin F. Wright Jr’s ultra funky horn arrangements-whereas those two sides of the songs are linked by a unison vocal passage with Ashby’s synth bass playing a more clomping style. After a bridge featuring a synth solo with the horns, an extended chorus fades out the song.
“Money’s Hard To Get” finds both Dennis Edwards and Ndugu Chancler at some of their very finest. Edward’s second tenure with The Tempts as at its peak vocal powers here-in a reunion with the seven then surviving members. His voice follows the emotional attitude of the song too-itself a classic soul tale of “love or money” somewhat in the vain of The Isley’s “Work To Do”. Chancler’s drummer, along the the horns, rhythm guitar and electric/synth bass fusion make this a terrific example of early 80’s post disco/boogie melding the live sounds of the 70’s with the electronic/new wave ones of the 80’s.
Rick James always seemed destined to have a career at Motown. From his work with the Myna Birds to being a member of the staff writing there. He had spent much of the 70’s a musical gypsy-recording a few records and performing with a few different rock bands during the decade before decamping back to Buffalo and forming the Stone City Band. He then returned to the record label that had seemed to provide a strong sense of security for him as an artist/band leader in 1977. And they dropped this debut album the following April of 1978.
“Stone City Band,Hi” opens the album with a live recording that adds a strong P-Funk horn based hump to it. “You And I” starts off with a rhythm guitar groove that swings into a full blown orchestrated female vocal gospel/disco chorus before going into a 7+ clavinet driven fast funk groove with some harmonically fluid jazz guitar accents by final refrains. “Sexy Lady” deals with a polished and precise jazz-funk number with a strong West Coast vibe about it. “Dream Maker” hearkens back to Rick’s doo-wop days with it’s spoken intro and piano based soul ballad shuffle.
“Be My Lady” is another melodically bright mix of bass/guitar/horn oriented funk with the disco beat and “woo hoo” chants. “Mary Jane” begins with an arena style guitar thump and orchestral synthesizer before going into a stripped down jazzy soul-pop ballad with a lyric that could be taken (in it’s time) in two different ways. “Hollywood” starts out as a tender ballad about Rick saying goodbye to his family, while leaving behind the ghetto environment he feels might destroy him, before ending on a reggae style coda. The album concludes with a reprise of the title song.
When I first got this album on vinyl, I remember not caring for it too much. Hearing it fresh today on CD helps me realize what a strong debut this really is. The steely punk funk sound Rick James would develop isn’t as evident on this album. He’s very much a live band styled funk/soul brother on this album-with little concern for crossover anymore than doing so on his own musical terms. Stone City Band were a strong outfit too-with a big band funk style that can switch years between monster humps and lush disco friendly sounds. An excellent debut from an artist and band still getting their legs.
One thing I’ll say for Aretha Franklin in the late 60’s: she managed to record almost constantly and churn out one classic after another. Didn’t matter if it was an original or an interpretation. Everything felt so soulfully brand new with her then. Hard to talk about Aretha without mentioning soul all the time. She surely didn’t invent the genre. Nor was she the only soul artist of her day making a gigantic musical statement. . But her identity could be felt a mile away. And with her key year of 1967 having come to an end? 1968 arrived with the lady not losing a single step in her stride.
“Chain Of Fools” starts out the album in all it’s bassy, bluesy gospel/soul glory. She throws in the stomping uptempo gospel soul for a version of James Brown’s “Money Won’t Change You”. Not to mention her version of PJ Proby’s “Niki Hoeky”, the horn based funkiness of “Since You’ve Been Gone “Sweet Sweet Baby” and the rave up of Ray Charles “Come Back Baby”-all Southern fried uptempo funky soul of the highest degree. Of course you have her iconic take of Carole Kings “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”-that rich string drenched,Sweet Inspirations honeyed vocal gospel/soul ballad treasure.
Good To Me As I Am To You” goes down into the belly of the blues while ‘Ree pumps out every last drop of the gospel soul from the Rascals “Groovin'” before taking on her sisters Carolyn’s souring soul ballad “Ain’t No Way”. Listening to this reminds me of the very strange way I actually got into Aretha’s music: it was very lopsided. It started in 1985-86. And thinking at the time she was a new artist. Of course, it was a year or so that I discovered oldies radio and there was “Respect”, “Chain Of Fools” and “Think”. Same goes for James Brown.
It was more recently that I realized albums like this were also the start of three very important factors in the soul genre. There was the move from balladry to melodic, horn driven uptempo numbers. There was also the idea of crafting albums in mind of being something you’d want to listen to all the way through. Rather than skip to popular radio hits. Not to mention the thematic assertions this made for female artists in general. So as with most of Aretha’s late 60’s Atlantic albums? This was a big time game changer that’s still a delight to look back on.
James Mtume almost seemed to be born into the royal family of funk. Everything seemed to come into place for it. He was born in Philly as the son of jazz sax icon Jimmy Heath. He went on to play with Miles Davis during the last few years before Miles’ late 70’s retirement period. That combination of being a Philadelphia native and having a strong back round is usually the key ingredients in a recipe for a funk icon. At first,Mtume had his mind on athletics. He achieved the title of the first black Middle Atlantic AAU champion in the backstroke, and in 1966 he entered Pasadena City College on a swimming scholarship.
After learning about music somewhat through the jazz musicians coming in and out of his adopted father,local Philly jazz pianist James “Hen Gates” Foreman,he had the abilities as a musician to begin his career as a session player on the West Coast by the early 70’s. He recorded a couple of albums as a leader.. These were both in a more free jazz style. In 1978 he’d teamed up with percussionist/arranger/producer Reggie Lucus and formed the funk outfit Mtume. They would hit pay dirt with 1983’s sexy “Juicy Fruit”. Yet one of their most telling grooves is the title song of their 1978 debut album Kiss The World Goodbye.
The drum kicks off the slow,percussive crawl of the rhythm for starts. A grinding guitar plays a funky blues riff that swiftly dovetails into another guitar line-this one a amp’d up rock one. This is assisted by some incredibly phat popping bass playing a lower version of the first guitar riff. This is the main body of the song-one that relies heavily on the one. As the song progresses,these main rhythmic elements are accented by both horn charts and synthesizer squiggles on every other chord or so. And this is how the groove goes on until it all fades out.
Taken as itself,this song is not only a great way for Mtume to debut as a band concept. But it is also so far removed from the electro/boogie sound they’d be known for 6-7 years later that is really showcases their musical arc. Mtume actually had four year gap from 1980 to 1983 where they didn’t record anything. But on this 1978 song,their focus was not only based more in the funk/rock aesthetics of Funkadelic,Ohio Players and Slave but the arrangement on this is especially thick. The instrumentation is so closely mixed,this song is among the most musically dense hard funk of the late 70’s.
Gary Bartz is a Baltimore native. He was a Julliard graduate who played with musicians like McCoy Tyner and Miles Davis. He formed the Ntu group as a leader-combining a number of different afrocentric forms of music that complemented each other. My friend Henrique had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Bartz one time. He discussed with me Bartz place as a “post Coltrane soprano sax player”-someone who was able to cut through the music of the electric jazz era with his sound. He now teaches at the Oberlin Conservatory Of Music in Ohio, when he’s not on the road.
Bartz generally toured with his own group. But he also seemed to have loved playing with funk musicians too. That came into play during the mid 70’s-when that particular groove became a bigger part of his sound. By his 1980 album Bartz, he was prettying much acting as an adjunct of the band Mtume. With James Mtume and Reggie Lucas writing, producing and using their band as Bartz’ backup musicians. Since its the only Gary Bartz album I presently have, it was easy to discover one particular song from this collaboration that stuck out for me. Its called “One-Eyed Jack”.
A passionate “OOOOOOH!!!” and a five beat drum intro gets the song right into gear. From there on its a slow, dragging drum beat. The bass is slapping hard on the one. A rhythm guitar, one with a wah wah sound and an acoustic piano are all speaking in similar musical phrases with the horns bouncing right along with them-led by Bartz’s sax. Mtume’s Tawatha sings the vocal hook throughout the majority of the song-accentuated by additional space funk synths. There are two refrains-which have the rhythm guitar/bass playing a smoother and more melodic jazz/funk phrase.
Even before the extended chorus fades out this song, “One-Eyed Jack” will likely call to mind mid 70’s P-Funk. In the spirit of Mothership Connection and “Undisco Kidd”. Bartz taking part in another band rather than totally leading it also showcases his versatility here. Henrique also mentioned Bartz’s favorite TV show was the documentary series Unsung. His only hope for it was that it would showcase more unsung jazz musicians than merely soul,funk and hip-hop ones. Considering these kids of jazz soloist and funk band crossovers? Bartz’s comment is more than apropos in this case.