Kool & The Gang’s period of being produced by Brazilian jazz funk Eumir Deodato represented the third stage of their musical evolution. The Jersey band started out with their heavy jazz funk style of such albums as Wild & Peaceful and Spirit Of The Boogie. Than they made a series of albums that reflected a growing disco funk vibe from Open Sesame on through their first Deodato production in 1979’s Ladies Night. After that, the band embraced a more post disco/boogie funk oriented sound with radio friendly pop elements. By the mid 80’s, the band were basically radio friendly dance pop.
Dealing with K&TG as album artists in the early 80’s was a daunting task for me,having long accepted them as a singles act during that era. One day while looking through the cutout CD bins at a record store called Strawberries in the mid 90’s, I came across a K&TG album from 1982 entitled As One. I recognized the song “Big Fun” on it. And was happy to be able to hear it on the car CD player on the way home. The very first song that played upon popping it in helped me to really understand K&TG’s 80’s funk variant very well. And the name of this particular song was “Street Kids”.
George Brown’s drum kickoff begins the song before he puts himself into an in the pocket dance friendly beat for the remainder of the song. Deodato’s bubbling synth bass then proceeds to play call and respond to a two note synth-likely an OBX played by Ronald Bell. On the chorus, JT Taylor’s falsetto vocals play to the tune of Charles Smith’s liquid rhythm guitar-along with the bands powerful and melodic horn charts. There’s a B section with a sustained orchestral synth plays in the back round. This repeats somewhat later in the song as an extension of the chorus,which fades the song out in the end.
“Street Kids” is, to me, a superb example of Kool & The Gang adapting their sound for the post disco/boogie era. The horns,guitars and drums are still all the way live. But orchestral and bass elements are now electronic. The lyrics about street kids who “like to play Captain Video” and “doing the motor roller” go right with it. And the groove itself is squarely in the classic funk framework-right in the pocket and right on the one. JT Taylor has a tremendous vocal showcase here. You get his usual smooth tenor, his breathier falsetto and even his rapping. Part of a strong post disco reboot for this iconic funk band.
Nesbert “Stix” Hooper is the last surviving member of the band who originally called themselves The Jazz Crusaders. The Houston native spent most of his youth studying music even before any of this occurred. While enrolled at Texas Southern University, Hooper , he got a musical education that most would envy. Everyone from members of the Houston Symphony Orchestra to a number of local professional players. By the time of his peak with the Crusaders, Hooper’s musical excellent touched on everyone from The Rolling Stones,B.B. King and onto London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
What Hooper brought to his drum and percussion work was the in the pocket funk rhythm. And basically helped to shape the sound of what became the jazz-funk subgenre from the outset. As a Crusader,the man was and remains a musical icon. His solo career, consisting of two albums released in 1979 and 1982, didn’t seem to receive the recognition they deserved. Especially having heard them both. The first I got was the 1982 album called Touch The Feeling. My dad pointed it out in a discount vinyl crate to me some years ago. My own favorite cut on it is its final one called “Gimme Some Space”.
Todd Cochran’s huge synthesizer riser fades into the song before the intro comes in. Its a powerful one for sure-with Hooper’s drum hits announcing the horn charts coming at within 3-4 seconds of time between each other. That’s when the entire song kicks in. This consists of Hooper’s huge funky beat, Neil Stubenhaus’s thick slap bass and Larry Carlton wah wah toned bluesy guitar along with Cochran’s synth and the horn section. On the next part, the synths take on a distinctly spacey late 70’s P-Funk air. Everything comes together after that-from the calculated pauses and solos until it actually fades out.
“Gimme Some Space” is one of those funk jams that gives you exactly what the title implies. A good portion of the song relies on adding musical drama with long and calculated silences. That makes it very much in line with the James Brown/Clyde Stubblefield/Jabo Starks type of funk from the late 60’s. That being said, its basic instrumental character comes out of the late 70’s/early 80’s jazz/funk George Duke style take on the P-Funk sound. Its a powerful and strong blend of acoustic and electronic funk ideas that shows how powerful a musical figure Stix Hooper truly is.
Isaac Hays, born in Covington, Tennessee in 1942 was raised by his grandparents. He was encouraged to finish high school several years after dropping out due to the encouragement of his teachers. After turning down musical scholarships from several universities, Hayes began performing in the late 50’s as a teenager. By the mid 1960’s, he and David Porter became one of the major songwriting partners at Stax. Especially for the duo Sam & Dave. His solo debut Presenting Isaac Hayes wasn’t a big success in 1968. But its jazzier orientation pointed in a vital new direction for his music.
By that time, Stax was in trouble. Otis Redding had died with most of the original Bar Kays in a plane crash. And Atlantic Records had absorbed most of their back catalog. As a label functioning with no music, label owner Al Bell decided to have its remaining artists to record 27 new albums to give Stax new content. Hayes’s sophomore album Hot Buttered Soul was the most successful in 1969. Its extended, jazzy and psychedelic treatments of his own songs and interpretations became his signature sound. Even through his record breaking 1971 soundtrack for Shaft.
With Shaft, Hayes had basically created the production template for the disco era. That was elongated dance songs with heavy string and horn orchestration’s. As the disco era arrived in earnest, Hayes mid to late 70’s albums swam right along with the tide his earlier 70’s works had initiated. Not to mention his continuing soundtrack work for movies like Truck Turner and Three Tough Guys. As similar artists like Barry White ascended to popularity, some of Hayes’ albums got lost on the musical public. One of them was an album with an amazing title song entitled “Joy”.
A 7 hit drum beat (with plenty of hi hat around the middle) starts off the song at an approximately 80 BPM’s-which continues throughout the rest of the song. Then the snaky bass and distant seeming wah wah guitar accents chime in. From there, the strings rise up in volume right into the song-spiraling horn charts in the back round. A sustained organ swirl also joins the mix. A bluesy fuzz guitar plays to Hayes’s vocals. On the b section of the chorus, the melody gets a bit higher key with the orchestration. The song fades out with a long,grunting extended refrain.
At almost 16 minutes, “Joy” is one of those early 70’s funk operas. It actually reminds me a little bit of Barry White’s “I’m Gonna Love You Just A Little More Baby” from the same year. Its among the faster of Hayes’ usual extended ballad approach of the earlier 70s. Still, Hayes’ distinctive psychedelic and jazz tones keep this distinct as cinematic soul/funk was becoming more the mainstream at the time. And its for that reason that its actually one of my favorite Hayes’ solo numbers along with “Theme From Shaft”, “Groove-A-Thon” and his epic version of “Walk On By”.
Earth Wind & Fire’s 1977 album All ‘N All is about to celebrate its 40th anniversary this coming autumn. Today however, wanted to pick one particular song from this iconic album to talk about. And for a very special reason. Raised in Kentucky, Johnny Graham started out playing the trumpet as a child. And moved to guitar as a teenager. While touring with the new birth, Graham got contacted by Maurice White. Apparently some of the New Birth members had told White how great a guitarist Graham was. And White wanted Graham as one of his guitarists in his rebooted edition of Earth Wind & Fire.
That reboot edition of EWF debuting on Head To The Sky became basically the bands classic 70’s line up. Graham, who turns 66 today, provided a strong amplified blues flavor to EWF during its salad days. And his guitar solos on songs such as “That’s The Way Of The World” essentially added that musical element of earthiness present in their name. Another such solo turned up on the song that closes the first side of the original LP of the All ‘N All album. And a song that’s become album cut by many admirers of the band. The name of the song is “Love’s Holiday”.
A thick,cymbal heavy drum count comes in with the Phenix Horns playing a beautifully jazzy unison horn chart. Than Al McKay and Verdine White’s bass/guitar interaction comes in with the Ralph Johnson’s drum clipping along at approximately 72 beats per minutes The horns, including a muted trumpet play an accessorizing part along with very faint strings in the back round. And especially on the climbing B-section to the chorus, Philip and Maurice’s sing right along with them. Graham’s guitar solo comes in on the closing refrain-playing call and response with Maurice White’s vocalese.
“Love’s Holiday” is an example of that literal “slow jam” that EWF had been perfecting during their years with Charles Stepney and beyond. It would extend from songs like “Devotion” up through “Be My Love” from the early 80’s. By the time of this song in 1977, the band and its many musical collaborators had this densely arranged jazzy funk/soul sound down to a science. Comedian Steve Harvey even singled out this particular song as an example of what “real music” sounded like. Its one of the most melodically and harmonically beautiful ballads to emerge out of the funk era in the 1970’s.
Fat Larry’s Band are a name that goes back to the pre internet days of reading the few funk/soul review books (now torn to bits in my collection from many page turnings) in the late 90’s and early aughts. The Philly natives got lost in the transition of my own crate digging to such a degree, there are presently no LP’s or CD’s of theirs in my collection. Thanks to the presence of YouTube and social media in general,was able to listen to some of the music made by the late singer/drummer “Fat” Larry James,who was born today in 1949 and passed on 30 years ago this December 5th.
In their decade as a recording entity, Fat Larry’s Band recorded nine albums starting in 1976. Their first album to chart was 1982’s Breakin’ Out. As one of many late 70’s funk bands to survive the disco backlash and continue on innovating the boogie/post disco sound, Fat Larry’s Band not only had their only (mid way in the charts) R&B hit album in 82, but also one of their biggest charting hits. It was part of the soundtrack CD to the 2002 video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. The name of this particular song, and the one being discussed today, is “Act Like You Know”.
The song opens with Larry’s slow dragging,high key drum stomp with Larry La Bes’s shuffling,complex bass line providing the intro. The song then kicks into heavy gear with a a bouncing,high pitched bent synth squiggle and a liquid rhythm guitar-all along with the percussive kick on the drum’s rhythm. On the choruses, a melodic horn/string arrangement accent the choral vocals. On the bridge of the song, the drum/bass interaction of the intro is accompanied by a mildly Afro beat style horn chart. A talk sung outro to that goes into another refrain/chorus exchange that fades out the song.
“Act Like You Know” is one of those funk songs that has a very familiar opening. Certainly was to me-especially having never heard the song. As such, it has one of those hooks that a funk audience could respond very well and easily to. Its also very much out of the 70’s style of funk too. The boogie synth is a decorative element with the horns,drum and bass line remain the instrumental starts of the show. Larry’s smooth lead is also served well by the sweet harmonies that come along on the chorus. As a whole, the song showcased the live instrumental vitality of the post disco/boogie era.
Vernon Burch is a musical figure who is relatively obscure to me. Born in Washington DC, Burch is a guitarist whom its hard to find a great deal of personal information about. What could be found out about him was that he played with The Bar Kays during the time they recorded their Do You See What I See? album in 1972. He embarked on hissolo career starting in 1975-at first at United Artists and Columbia. He finally signed to Casablanca subsidiary Chocolate City in 1978,best known at the time as the label for funk stalwarts Cameo.
This was the disco era. And Burch’s place in music history was cemented in funk. In 1979,he released his second album for the label entitled Get Up. On the album he had arrangement help from Tom Tom 84 and funk icon Fred Wesley of the JB’s and P-Funk. Wesley arranged the horns on three of the songs on this disco funk album. While pursuing some of its songs on YouTube,one of these Fred Wesley arranged tunes leaped right out at me-for a number of different reasons both musical and otherwise. The name of the song is “Sammy-Joanne (One Half Woman,One Half Man)”.
A hard hitting disco beat from non other than James Gadson starts the song-along with a ticking keyboard from Michael Thompson. Burch’s rumbling,rocking guitar provides a string orchestra like effect as the intro slides into the main song-along with David N. Shields slap bass. As a descending synth and descending horns enter into it, the drum/ rhythm guitar/Clavinet/slap bass interaction all lock in for the refrain of the song. The stripped down bass/drum/synth sound of the intro provides the chorus. A bluesy guitar solo from Burch on the bridge extends into an extended,fading refrain.
“Sammy-Joanne” is a hard driving stomper- a perfect example of a funk song functioning as disco. What surprised me in the song is how it focused on a healthier and perhaps less hedonistic aspect of the disco era. The Sammy-Joanne character in the song is a hermaphrodite who finds acceptance and love as an implied transgender’ disco dancer. The character is celebrated,not made fun of and hated. And with gender related matters being a strangely controversial matter in 2017, this 1979 song celebrates sexual difference with some of the most funkified disco-dance music possible.
Superfly is a film I’ve never seen. Nor have the soundtrack to. One of the oddest omissions in my collection. The reason having the album never seemed a priority to own is because my father had the 2 CD special edition in the early aughts. A set complete with radio spots for the album from Curtis himself. And it was played to death. So there was a lot of exposure to the music from this 1972 classic soundtrack for the Gordon Parks Jr’s drug scene related epic staring Ron O’Neal as the dealer Priest-so as I understand a character planning on retirement after a final “sweet” drug deal.
Apparently Mayfield wasn’t particularly pleased by Parks’ movie after seeing a screening during the film scoring process. He was said to have described it as an “infomercial for cocaine”. Being the socially conscious man that Mayfield was? He decided to write a series of songs that not only ran thematically counter to the film. But also added depth based on different perspectives of Superfly‘s seemingly pro crime themes. The film itself can be debated. But what cannot be so easily is how Mayfield fleshed out one particular “flunky” pusher from the film in one of its classics called “Freddie’s Dead”.
Tyrone McCullen’s ultra funky drums start of the song accompanying Mayfield’s lead melody on a punchy fuzz guitar,with a layer of wah wah in the back round. As the song comes into itself,that bluesy melody the song starts out of with the countering orchestral strings,dreamy glockenspiel and big band horn charts accentuating the melody. All along with Henry Gibson’s percussion. Especially as the song jumps up a chord on the chorus. As the song progress,muted horns and psychedelic guitars and all, a bridge with a bass/string/percussion delay goes into extended chorus fading out the song.
“Freddie’s Dead” is one of those masterpieces of early 70’s cinematic funk for what became known as the “blacksploitation” genre of cinema at the time. It was famously covered by the ska/funk band Fishbone 16 years after the original due to its iconic status. Heard only as an instrumental in the movie, it gives a seemingly minor character an identity of people having “misused him,ripped him off and abused him”. Curtis then advises “Freddie’s on the corner now,so you wanna be a junkie wow,remember Freddie’s dead” in a beautiful example of funk working cinematically to help heal society’s ills.
TLC are a group that I never thought would come back. After all in terms of membership,its all come down to Chilli and T-Boz. Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes was in many ways the heart and soul of the 90’s trio. Since the time of Left Eye’s passing, the remaining two members have made some appearances,collaborations and been the subject of a biopic here and there. But even with all the trials,tribulations and financial ruin of their heyday,it didn’t seem that the passing of a key member would ever find them re-emerging in a huge way in terms of new studio material.
All of a sudden in early 2015,T-Boz and Chilli announced they were going to be releasing and fifth and final studio album using a Kickstarter campaign. Other artists such as Katy Perry and Justin Timberlake made major donations to their crowdfunding effort. The new self titled album was released June 30th of 2017. A couple of years earlier, the duo format of TLC went on tour with the New Kids On The Block and Nelly. And they released two new singles from their forthcoming album in Japan the next year. One of them is what I’ll be talking to you about today. Its called “Joy Ride”.
A three beat,echoed drum with a four note descending/ascending bass line provides the intro. A horn blasts gets into the funky shuffling drums,the bouncing pop of a rhythm guitar and the continuing bass line from the intro. Along with a three note,descending hip-hop style piano. As the song progresses,with little melodic changes from refrain to choruses,the rhythm alternately shows down as silences,horns and hand claps all join the instrumentation in different parts of the song. An extended chorus of the song concludes it all with the duo’s harmonies echoing the song to its fade out.
“Joy Ride” is a superb arrangement for TLC. Its based in their classic mix of live instrumental funky soul with a hip-hop friendly twist. The melody and harmonies of the group are just as locked down too. Written by Rebekah Muhammad, the song certainly understands the history of whose doing it. As I said to Henrique, its not something that shows TLC’s sound as changing all that much. But in as much as the original trio kept the funk and soul alive in their hip-hop based music in the 90’s, its just a really comforting thing to be back on the TLC tip. Even if it is just for one last time.
Deodato was one of the first major artists I had a experiences with during my early crate digging exercises. So much so that looking back, I wonder if the people in charge of stocking their 50 cent-$1 used vinyl bins had any idea who Eumir Deodato was. The history of this artist is something I thoroughly addressed last year with an overview of his 1978 song “Area Code 808”. This year, wanted to share a song connected to a one of these crate digging sessions that occurred in the early 2000’s. One that really taught me how to better scope out vinyl.
About 14 years ago, I was visiting the city of Portland Maine with my family. We found a new shop there-one we often still visit to this day. Its called Strange Maine. They sell old video games,books,movies and used vinyl. On the first visit,the store had a sizable jazz section. Flipping through it, I came across a 1980 Deodato album called Night Cruiser. Upon turning it over, the back cover proclaimed it featured a sax solo from Khalis Bayyan. Which made sense since Deodato was producing Kool & The Gang at the time. The song on the album that leaped out at me upon hearing it is called “Skatin'”.
A slow dragging 4/4 beat starts off the song with a flange filtered slap bass line and processed Fender Rhodes as the intro. The high pitched rhythm guitar joins in halfway through-with the scaling up strings getting into the main chorus. This showcases the rhythm section of the intro with a horn like synthesizer playing the leads. On the refrain,an ascending synth bass provides the backup to a melodic trumpet solo and string synthesizer. As each chorus goes on,the lead synth becomes more bell like in tone. Even the pitch of the song goes up on the last chorus before it fades out.
“Skatin'” is a song that truly plays up to both Deodato’s talents as both a funky musician and a cinematic,melodic arranger. This was a mixture that extended from the blacksploitation soundtrack to the extended disco mix. Its surely a disco era song if there ever was one. At the same time,the groove is slowed down to give it a deeply funkified crawl. And the fact that the song is as driven as much by a punched up slap bass as well as string and horn orchestrations makes this as strutting a jazz funk jam as The Crusaders “Street Life” in a way. Very much an unsung musical treasure from Deodato.