Rick Stevens the man in the center of this album cover. Why he wasn’t seen on the cover has to do with the fact he’d left the band before Tower Of Power’s eponymously titled third album of 1973 came out. Warner Bros released 1,000 copies of this album with the wrong cover by mistake before withdrawing it. Steven’s was a lead singer for the band from 1969 up to 73. Sadly he passed away on September 5th at age 77 of cancer. Thought about doing one of the songs Stevens sang lead on in Tower Of Power. But his own story, first discovered by me in Wax Poetic magazine, is a far grander one to tell.
Stevens was born in Port Arthur,Texas. But grew up in Reno, Nevada where he began singing in church during childhood. His maternal uncle was the iconic R&B/soul singer Ivory Joe Hunter, for whom young Stevens held much admiration for and who came to visit him between touring. Stevens moved to the Bay Area in 1966. And recorded with a number of bands and, after an aborted time with one such band in Seattle, he moved back to San Francisco and joined Tower Of Power in 1969. He was a strong vocal presence on their first two albums,especially in terms of ballads.
Songs such as “Your Still A Young Man” remained Stevens signature songs throughout his time with the band. After leaving the TOP, he became part of another local horn oriented band in the Bay called Brass Horizon in 1975. Sadly a year later, he was arrested for his involvement in a failed and fatal drug deal. He spent over 30 years in prison, where he converted to Christianity and swore off drugs. He spent his touring Northern California with his new band Love Power. He released a CD with them entitled Rick Stevens Back On The Streets Again Vol. 1 in 2014.
The news of Stevens death came to me through by a writer and Facebook friend A. Scott Galloway. He’d found out about the singers passing via fellow TOP member Lenny Williams online post,after Williams had received the call from Stevens son. Later in the day after finding this out, my friend Henrique and I got to talking about how he framed some TOP album covers on his wall- in tribute to his local Oakland funk heroes. Though Stevens presence in TOP was comparatively brief, his story ended up being an abbreviated career that did end in a redemptive journey of sorts. RIP Rick Stevens!
Gladys Knight & The Pips have always been a favorite of mine at Motown. Aside from the uniqueness of their setup (more on that later), their sound had that Southern soul vibe that set them apart from whatever else was happening at Motown in the late 60’s. After they left Motown in the early 70’s,they signed up with Buddah and had success right out of the box with 1974’s “Midnight Train To Georgia”. Three years later,Gladys night got a chance to have be the leading lady in the Stephen F. Verona film Pipe Dreams. She and the Pips would be the ones performing on the movie’s soundtrack.
The only reason I ever saw Pipe Dreams was due to an accident. My parents went to a video store to look for a copy of the then very rare film That’s The Way of The World,with Harvey Kietel and Earth Wind & Fire,on VHS in the late 90’s. They got me a pre-owned tape of Pipe Dreams instead-knowing how much I enjoyed Gladys Knight’s music. The film is a romantic drama set against a good deal of historical info on the then under construction Alaska pipeline. So it was only appropriate that the song that stood out most for me,as well as coming from the pens of Motowner Ivory Joe Hunter,was called “Alaskan Pipeline”.
A jingling chicken scratch rhythm guitar starts out the groove. The groove itself has a drum beat that clips along at a relatively slow 70 beats per minute for so. A Larry Graham style deep bass thump and a thick wah wah guitar set the stage for the rhythm too. The song also has a heavy bluesy piano that comes down really hard on the keys. The horn charts come in hot and heavy-accenting the choral vocals and harmonic “shoop shoops” of the Pipes,who actually sing the lead line for the backup. Interestingly enough,this song has no instrumental chorus per se. It just keeps grooving along until it fades.
This is some of the strongest funk I’ve heard from Gladys Knight & The Pips. It’s got that slow,crunching tempo. And the rhythm section is hot as they come with the bass ,guitar, horns and driving piano. This song reprises throughout the movie-especially in scenes of Gladys flying over the pipe line with her co star and real life husband Barry Hankerson. Lyrically the song tells the story of how the great employment opportunities the pipeline provides also open the door to massive corruption-another key component of the film. So it’s another example of strong message funk in a film soundtrack setting.
Filed under 1970's, Barry Hankerson, chicken scratch guitar, drums, Funk, Funk Bass, Gladys Knight, Gladys Knight & The Pips, horns, Ivory Joe Hunter, piano, Pipe Dreams, Soundtracks, wah wah guitar