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!
The Five Stairsteps were the prototype family soul group-predating the Jackson 5 and The Sylvers by several years. They were made up of five out of the six children of Betty and Clarence Burke,a detective for the CPD. They were Alohe Jean, James, Clarence Jr., Dennis and Kenneth-known as Keni. For a brief time, the late Cubie Burke (the youngest brother” was part of the outfit. The became known as Chicago’s “first family of soul”. Their second album Our Family Portrait yeilded the hit “Something’s Missing’. But their best known song was 1970’s “O-o-h Child”.
By that time, the group were known as The Stairsteps. Alohe left the group in 1972. This was just before the group were brought to The Beatles attention by Billy Preston. After a five year hiatus, Preston and Robert Margouleff all came together to produce a comeback along with The Stairsteps-in their new configuration as a quartet. This 1976 album was entitled 2nd Resurrection. I’ve never heard the entire album. But what I’ve heard about it is that, it had a more synthesizer oriented sound. One song I did hear from it was the Keni Burke composition “From Us To You”.
Alvin Taylor’s drums come right in along with Preston’s wailing synthesizer. It keeps a steady, occasionally marching rhythm throughout. The main melody is first played by the harmonizing of Preston’s synth and Dennis Burke’s guitar for a massive melodic sound. This also represents the chorus of the song. Between each chorus, Preston harmonizes with himself on his honky tonk piano, bluesy polyphonic synth riffing and sustained organ. For much of the rest of the song, the Stairsteps vocal harmonies and adlibs sing right along with Preston until the organ fades out on the main melody.
“From Us To You” doesn’t sound to me like anything I’d ever think The Five Stairsteps (by any other name) would do. The drawling chorus, style of singalong melody and the thick groove of the music is far closer in flavor to the Brothers Johnson’s “I’ll Be Good To You” or a Graham Central Station number. Of course, Billy Preston’s instrumentation probably has a lot to do with its heavy funkiness. Interestingly enough, the Preston connection got the band signed to George Harrison’s Dark Horse label to make this album as well. And it certainly started with a strongly funkified new direction for them.
Kleer were a band whom I’d heard about for years,but never really explored their music. This 1979 sophomore album from this New York band showcases some of the ideal elements of the post disco sound. All of the songs,even the mid tempo ballads,have a heavy funk stop to them. Still the orchestrated strings and vocal harmonies from the height of the disco era are still a big part of these very well constructed,produced and played on funk jams.
Key Jams: “Winners”,”Rollin’ On” and “Open Your Mind”
Switch were musically speaking Motown’s closest equivalent to Earth Wind & Fire in terms of sound: big melodic sound that was filled with personality. Featuring the two elder DeBarge brothers in Tommy and the the late Bobby,as well as James Ingram’s brother Phillip,this band had the talent of being able to switch off instruments while playing. Hence their name. Everything from the ballads,funk and disco oriented numbers on this 1979 sophomore album of their’s were full of class and talent. Including the moments group mentor Jermaine Jackson stepped in to help out.
Key Jams: “Next To You” and “Go On Doin’ What You Feel”
As the 1980 Motown debut for the group formerly known as Philip Bailey’s pet project Kinsman Dazz, this really showcased horn players/singer/songwriter’s Bobby Harris and Skip Martin’s talents at blending a strong post disco pop funk sound with plenty of instrumentally jazzy touches. On this and it’s follow up Let The Music Play,the Dazz Band were not yet the electro funk juggernaut of the middle of the decade. Still their sound as evolving in another way.
Key Jams: “Shake It Up” and “Beyond The Horizon”
This 1981 album is actually the sophomore one of two albums released by this Five Stairstep’s spin off act. The album is full of some very saucy P-Funk influences-especially when it comes to Keni Burke’s thick,up front bass lines and the flamboyant vocals and arrangements.
Key Jams: “Really Wanna See Ya”,”Party Time” and “Same Thang”
Bobby Militello played sax with Maynard Ferguson during the height of his fusion period in the late 70’s. Apparently at the strong suggestion of Rick James,the newly rechristened Bobby M signed to Motown to record this 1982 album. Not only did it feature powerful vocals from Jean Carn on a version of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together”,but the writing and production of Jamaica,Queens musical icons Lenny White and Bernard Wright were the icing on the cake.
Key Jams: “Alto Man”,”Blow” and “Rome Tones”
Filed under 1970's, 1980's, Bobby Militello, Boogie Funk, Dazz Band, Invisible Man's Band, Keni Burke, Kleer, Motown, post disco, Switch, Vinyl