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.
Sisters Wanda,Pamela,Jeanette and Sheila Hutchinson (whose celebrating her birthday today) made up the Chicago vocal group The Emotions. Beginning their recording career on Stax records in the early 70’s,most notably their appearance in the 1972 concert film Wattstax. The group added youngest sister Pamela when they signed to Columbia in 1976. Their debut album Sunflower was produced by Earth Wind & Fire founder Maurice White. And as well the rest of their albums for the next few years,most of the EWF crew were among the many session musician greats who played on the album.
A week or two ago,I purchased a used vinyl copy of The Emotions second Columbia album Rejoice. Its one that I turned down 20 years ago on CD,and came to regret it. What it happy news is that the album is consistently strong from start to finish. Everything from musicianship,arrangement and general creativity is at a premium. Maurice White even said a decade ago that it was his personal favorite production outside EWF. Its best known song is the iconic uptempo hit “Best Of My Love”. And for good reason. That’s the first song on the record. Its final song,the title cut,is perhaps even stronger for another reason.
Paulinho Da Costa’s percussion and James Gadson’s drums start out the groove with a bouncing Afro Brazilian thump-complete with hand-claps. On the third and fourth bar,this is augmented by melodic accenting slap bass,guitar and flute. A thick wah wah guitar,string and horn arrangement come in before the first refrain. The chorus has the same basic instrumental set up only in a more conventional funky disco beat. That Afro Brazilian intro represents both the setup to and the choruses themselves. And that chorus extends itself up to the songs fade out.
The entire vibe of “Rejoice” seems to come from the same spirit as EWF’s All ‘N All of the same vintage did. Maurice White says he got the “Brazilian bug” musically when travelling to the country with his wife at that time. And this songs mix of positive thinking lyrics and the pure gospel joy of the Hutchinson sisters really reflect some of the strongest mixtures of Brazilian rhythms and American funky soul of the late 1970’s. Its also the perfect bookend to an album that begins and ends with its strongest cuts. With much strength in between. Musically,it caps off one of The Emotions’ finest recorded moments.
Many jazz musicians made funk albums during the late 60’s and throughout the following decade. Being that this was a music based primarily in rhythm,starting with James Brown’s concept of his entire band becoming a drum,it was a wonderful new medium for melodic piano and horn players to improvise over. Herbie Hancock took a very different path than his ex boss in this area,with Miles Davis playing his horn primarily over funky vamps. Hancock took the time to create strong funk compositions that are today considered jazz/funk standards. And both musicians innovated enormously during this time with their approaches to the jazz/funk sub genre.
By the middle of the decade,Miles had gone into temporary retirement. And Herbie continued to forge ahead musically. His relationship with producer David Rubinson dated back to his arrival at Columbia. As the 70’s progressed, jazz/funk began to evolve towards what the band Brick would describe in song as dazz-short for a new subgenre called disco jazz. With the new four on the floor dance beats providing optimal opportunities for a composer as keen as Hancock’s,he allowed his musical imagination to take flight right across the dancefloor in the same way he had with earlier forms of funk. The result was his 1979 album Feet’s Don’t Fail Me Know and it’s opening number “You Bet Your Love”.
The drum and percussion rhythm laid is laid down the the Headhunters’ Bill Summers and Kansas City session ace James Gadson. Ray Obiedo’s rhythm guitar and Eddie Watkins’ phat slap bass introduces Hancock’s spacy synth orchestrations. His lead vocals on vocoder are introduced by a breathy female backup group singing the chorus. These vocals continue throughout the refrain and with Hancock on the main choruses. They also introduce the bridge of the song where Watkin’s and Obiedo again solo with Hancock’s synths playing the horn charts-plus his Fender Rhodes soloing. The song concludes with a continual repetition of the chorus with vocoder improvisations from Hancock himself.
Writer Rickey Vincent referred to Feet’s Don’t Fail Me Now as being one of the best records of 1979. Sonically and in terms of funk,I have no argument with him. This song is important for Herbie Hancock in two ways. For one,the song is structurally right out of the big band swing school. At the same time,thick and phat bass/guitar lines and percussion beef up it’s glossy space disco/funk sound. This allows for the second important aspect of this song. On it’s bridge,Hancock uses polyphonic synthesizers to simulate big band horn charts-actually his variation of the Minneapolis sound on the jazz level. That makes this a rhythmically vital and musically innovative Herbie Hancock groove.
Filed under 1970's, Bill Summers, David Rubinson, disco funk, disco jazz, drums, Eddie Watkins, Fender Rhodes, Herbie Hancock, James Gadson, jazz funk, percussion, Ray Obiedo, rhythm guitar, slap bass, space funk, synthesizer, Uncategorized, vocoder