Tag Archives: Michael Jackson

Funk & Disco Pops Of 1977: ‘Goin’ Places’ by The Jacksons

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Pop chart statistics may mislead you otherwise but, in terms of The Jackson’s’ early years at Epic this has to be their more consistent and enjoyable album. Whereas some of the production on their self titled debut from the previous year is somewhat by-the-numbers Philly soul and is also recorded rather flat this album is mixed up a lot hotter and,while still deeply ingrained in the Philly sound the grooves,rhythms and sense of funk are much strong emphasized. So this second Epic album is a lot more punchy, aggressive and uptempo than the debut.

I didn’t realize until recently that “Music’s Takin’ Over” was really huge in New York during this time-according to an interview with Chuck D of Public Enemy my friend Henrique heard. And I can see how it would be a huge funk monster because the guitar and bass riffs are MEAN and Mikes voice has a lot of strength on the song.The title song is the only tune here that doesn’t really represent anything entirely new for the group and kind of sounds just a little behind the times.

“Diff’rent Kind Of Lady” is one of two (again) self written songs and is another incredible groove that has this great sense of tension in the rhythm and a tad of Vocorder in the end.”Even Though Your Gone” and “Find Me A Girl” are more glossy Philly ballads than the kind heard on the debut and actually serve as good selling points for this album.There are a couple more great uptempo tunes in the heavily,percussive bounce of “Jump For Joy”-one of the most genuinely “positive thinking” type songs I’ve heard and the happily funky orientation of the music really delivers on the promise.

There are some excellent celebratory synthesizer squiggles at the conclusion of the song that help to bring it even more to life.”Do What You Wanna”,another self written tune has a really crisp Philly jump to it and..is yet another positive attitude kind of song.Michael singing “Don’t be phony just be for real” may seem slightly awkward now but at least then I could sense he believed it even for himself.

The pointed anti war ballad “Man Of War” points to the Jackson’s’ future Utopian vision of unity over conflict. This more than any other Jackson’s album from the mid/late 70’s really pointed the most to an individual musical and conceptual direction for the brothers.And even though this is still a very much ignored part of their recorded legacy that should at least be taken into consideration.

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Thriller At 35: The Michael Jackson Album That Started Something- The Roots Of An Iconoclastic Album

Thriller remains one of those generational milestones in my life. Its an album that millions upon millions of people around the world from the 60’s and 70’s generation can agree upon. Even people such as myself who experienced new while in the crib. And a day after its 35th anniversary, which my boyfriend reminded me of, still have a lot of questions to ask. Was its success based on its record breaking sales and marketing? And was it truly music that was so universal, everyone could love it? Now approaching its early middle years, Thriller probably stands somewhere in the middle of both questions.

One thing to understand was that Thriller came at a major crossroads of black music in America. There had of course been the post disco backlash/radio freeze out. And that also went along with a recession. Into that mix came MTV in 1981. With what turned out to be an anti black “just rock n’ roll” dog whistle policy to boot. Just over a month after Thriller  came out, the trajectory of Michael Jackson’s career changed. And it took MTV right with it due to the insistence of Jackson’s record label. What’s most important is that as disco “died”, Michael Jackson himself faced a prospect that impacted Thriller deeply.

Michael Jackson was always encouraged to aim high career wise. And he pushed himself to do the same-eventually at the cost of his own life. His Epic label solo debut Off The Wall was a massive success in 1979 and 1980. At the same time, it was caught up in the segregated music chart system America still deals with. Jackson even boycotted the 1980 Grammy Awards due to the racialist pigeon holing. He was used to near instant crossover. And he wanted to make measures to have that happen. The story of Thriller  therefore becomes the story of a songwriter and a band: Rod Temperton and Toto.

Toto were a band that epitomized the west coast AOR sound in the late 70’s/early 80’s. And after the release of their hugely successful Toto V (also in 1982), many of its members came into great demand as session musicians. Toto’s keyboardist Steve Porcoro, his drumming brother Jeff and its guitarist Steve Lukather were part of the Thriller sessions. In fact, Lukather played the lead melodic guitar on “Beat It”- itself an AOR number that became the first rock song on a Michael Jackson album. Of course, the song is best known for its solo from Eddie Van Halen on the bridge.

The most important element to Thriller’s sound was the late composer Rod Temperton. He was a member and creative mastermind of the disco era funk band Heatwave.  His compositions were contemporary. And generally utilized musicians who worked with Thriller’s producer Quincy Jones. People such as Greg Phillinganes, Paulinho Da Costa and Jerry Hey. At the same time, Temperton compositions always included jazz/big band style melodic licks within the disco/funk/soul rhythmic settings of his sound. This gave Temperton’s sound a multi generational appeal.

Between Quincy Jones’s production acumen and the musicianship of the members of Toto and Rod Temperton’s crew, the stage for Thriller’s musicality was set. “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” opens the album on a theatrically rhythmic note-with its round bass hook, hand claps and Manu Di Bango-like Ebonic chant on the bridge. Baby Be Mine” has similar instrumentation. And is a classic, shiny Rod Temperton poppy funk number. It mixes swinging bass and guitar lick with both orchestral and grooving synthesizer riffs. And its one of my personal favorites on the album.

“The Girl Is Mine” is a slow swinging contemporary pop number. Its a duet with Paul McCartney-with him and Michael playfully vying for the attentions of one woman. The title song of the album originated as “Starlight Sun”. The lyrics to this song are a big ambiguous. But from what I came to understand, it had to do with an interracial romance. The lyrics were alter to focus more on a horror film performance send up. Musically, its actually a more polished variation on the sound of a jazzy funk Heatwave song called “The Big Guns” from the bands Current album, also from 1982.

“Billie Jean” is another strong performance send up, probably Jackson’s most iconic. And funky. The keyboards, the guitar and of course Louis Johnson’s iconic bass line all revolve around the beat of the song. My friend Henrique and I have had discussions about this song being so strong identified with MJ on the club scene, many dancers default to Michael Jackson dance moves when this song plays on the dance floor. The fact that the songs originally long intro almost hampered Thriller’s overall sound quality showcases to just what degree Jackson was in love with the song.

“Human Nature” is another of my favorites on the album. The rhythm is unusually hollow and reverbed. And the instrumentation is more electronic than what’s on most of Thriller. Best way to describe it would be a slightly jazzy boogie/electro ballad. “P.Y.T (Pretty Young Thing)” started life as a beautiful Stevie Wonder like demo. Complete with completely different lyrics, melodies and another whole rhythmic approach. The released version is a lean boogie funk style number with a solid rhythm section, squiggly synth riffs and a hard rocking guitar from Steve Lukather on the bridge.

“The Lady In My Life” closes the album with one of two numbers on here that didn’t chart commercially. But it remains a Michael Jackson standard. Its the slowest ballad on the album. And everything from the Fender Rhodes piano, lead synth and bass line emphasize the melody. Its a showcase for Michael Jackson the singer. He’s doing call and response backups to himself here-with comes into play on the outro where he’s echoing  his lead with his bass voice. The song truly showcases what as elastic vocal range MJ had. Its melody even inspired jazz musician Stanley Jordan to cover it several years later.

The writer Rickey Vincent described albums like Thriller as modern day pop standards. To a number of musicians and dance music/hip-hop DJ’s today, these songs have the same type of resonance that the music of Lerner & Lowe, Johnny Mercer, Nat King Cole and Irving Berlin did on past generations of musical artists. Thriller lives on both in physical media and in the online world. Its streamed and downloaded across every major internet platform available today. And the music of the album has gone beyond massive sales success to became part of late 20th/early 21st century Americana.

Through looking back on Thriller now, I think there’s an answer to at least one of my earlier questions about it. And again Henrique already helped verbalize it. None of the songs on Thriller were totally new musically-coming right out of the blue. What it did do was bring together the different strains of black American music (even the racially co-opted rock style) from pop, jazz, soul and pop together in one album. And do so with the best musicians, producers, engineers and an amazing performer at the mic. And in the end, that’s probably why Thriller continues to be an iconic musical work of art.

 

 

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Can You Feel It” by The Jacksons

The Jackson’s were already prepping for their second album self written and produced in June of 1979-just when the finishing touches to Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall album were being completed. It made sense then that musicians such as Michael Boddicker, Jerry Hey and Paulinho Da Costa played strong instrumental roles between both albums. The Jackson’s Triumph  album turned out to be no mere extension of MJ’s swiftly developing solo music. It was one of the most truly collaborative albums they made together. With Michael, Randy and Jackie Jackson being its creative triad.

Each member of the family played a different part. Michael and Jackie contributed much in the way of songwriting. While Randy did the same with more instrumental touches as well. The brothers fully flowered independence earned them their most successful album in nearly a decade-both in terms of critical acclaim and commercial status. I’ve had a decades long relationship with Triumph now. And had actually grown up on a truly epic video to very musically like song that turned out to be the opening track of the album. The name of this song, of course, was “Can You Feel It”.

An enormous adult choir sings the songs chorus acapella for the intro. This is arranged masterfully by the talented vocalist/vocal coach Stephanie Spruill . The horns kick into the disco march that makes up for the refrain of the song. And also its central rhythm as well. Ollie Brown holds down the 4/4 beat to perfection. Nathan Watts and Ronnie Foster play a conjoined, clomping bass line. The string and horn melodies go right into Randy’s vocal intro. On the chorus, another drum is added for funkier sound. Along with David Williams chunky, reverbed guitar while Michael sang lead. With flourishes of synths and a choral bridge, the orchestration fades the song out.

Musically “Can You Feel It” starts Triumph off in a manner that would follow it through the entire album. That is showcasing disco’s roots in the cinematic soul/funk of the early 70’s. All wrapped up with a more electronic boogie/post disco twist. As for the songs Utopian message? Its tempting to view its plea that “we’re all the same/ the blood inside of me is inside of you” as being Michael and Randy being a bit removed from earlier civil rights struggles generationally. Yet the general message of seeing racial difference as positive is at its core. And its all pushed forward by a dynamic musical offering.

 

 

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Get It Together@44: The Jackson 5 Get A Brand New Thing

The Jackson 5 arrived at an important crossroads in 1973. Their recording career at Motown began with a string of four record breaking #1 pop and R&B hits for this literal band of brothers during 1969-1970. And the success continued fairly well over the next couple of years-with songs such as “Never Can Say Goodbye”,”Sugar Daddy” and “Little Bitty Pretty One”. By 1973, the youth appeal of the Jackson’s faded fast. These were now teenagers and young adults-with Tito Jackson already married and Jermaine engaged to be so. Was there a way for the Jackson’s to maintain their career in another way?

The mid 70’s arrived with changes to the music scene as well. The 2-3 minute,melodic and uptempo soul singles Motown had helped pioneer were giving way to a new sound. A cinematic,orchestrated sound with harder, funkier rhythms. The incoming funk era was based more on instrumentation than vocal groups singing refrain/chorus based songs. The Temptations had already taken this into account in the late 70’s-changing the base of their music to a more abstract “psychedelic soul” sound with the help of producer Norman Whitfield. Now it was time for the Jackson 5 to come of age.

The first Jackson 5 album of 1973 was Skywriter, a more musically diverse album that tried to offer more to the changing voice of 14 year old Michael Jackson. But the idea of a teenager singing so seriously about seduction on a cover of the Supremes song “Touch” went against the Jackson’s wholesome,youthful appeal. And (to me) wonderful songs such as the bluesy “The Boogie Man” and the more progressive funk/soul of the title song didn’t allow the album much success. It wouldn’t be until September 21st of that year that a change began to happen. Here’s what I wrote four years ago about it.


1973 was spelling out to be the year that would sink the Jackson 5’s thus far unbeatable luster at Motown. Skywriter and Michael’s solo album Music & Me had both been creative triumphs but huge creative failures. The brothers would all come to blame this on the fact that Motown was not welcoming their own input as songwriters and producers. In short,the Jackson’s were faltering because the realities of a music industry where artists were treated as commodities to be bought and sold had taken part of their innocence away.

Yet as the year progressed,Motown was suddenly no longer the mainstay of the pop/R&B scene anymore. The success from the O’Jays and Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes had made Gamble & Huff’s Philadelphia International Records the main focus on that level all of a sudden. And this began to fascinate the Jackson’s and their creative team to an enormous degree.

Inspired by this,the Jackson’s elected to musically refocus some so it seems. And one day in the summer of 1995,I managed to find someone to locate the then extremely hard to find 80’s era cassette tape of this album-not having a clue what to expect. Now that its thankfully available on CD? I can at last illustrate to others lovers of funk,soul,R&B and Motown the many wonders that this album has to offer.

The title song opens up the album. Its filled with the string orchestrations of the Philly sound. But the primary rhythmic nature of are these powerful layers of wah wah guitar,bass lines and an almost reggae style bass/guitar bridge. Michael’s nearly matured singing is heard with all it’s James Brown styled cries and accents-his iconic future already firmly in place. “Don’t Say Goodbye Again” is another Philly type midtempo groove-with a rather more resigned and adult take on romantic loss.

“Reflections” is the only interpretation that is actually relatively close to the original song. The 8+ “Hum Along And Dance” bares hardly any resemblance to the Temptations/Norman Whitfield original. Breaking out with organ,rock guitars,intense percussion,an almost Police Siren type synthesizer line, the song is a psychedelic funk/soul/dance behemoth-closing with a rather Spiritual/gospel West Indian drum style and choral vocal harmonies-with a mild Native American influence as well.

“Mama I Got A Brand New Thing” is another elongated number punctuated by a strumming acoustic style guitar and zig zagging and melodic synthesizer lines. “It’s Too Late To Change The Time” is right on time with Leon Ware acknowledging the rise of the reggae genre musically with the melodic,harpsichord led hook of a classic Jackson 5 number.

The lyrics have a reflective observation of the world at that time as well. “You Need Love Like I Do (Don’t You)” is a bassy, hand jive led funk number with a driving bass and harmonies that segues into the original full version of “Dancing Machine”-which led the way towards what would soon become the disco era of course.

Not too long after this album was released,the title song became a decent sized hit-though not to the level I feel it deserved. That being said? The albums last song “Dancing Machine” is the song that,when released as a single edit the following year ended up completely changing the Jackson 5’s commercial fortunes and bringing them their first top of the charts single since their 3 hit punch in 1970,really. In a way,this would become the last album of the Jackson 5 as part of the Motown family.

The two albums released in the two years following this album were released during a period of legal battles as they sought to split themselves from Motown for the purpose to gaining the creative control they felt they required for their music to succeed and grow further. This albums elements of funk,orchestrated soul and different world music/psychedelic instrumental turns led to this not only being something of a fully unified album statement for the Jackson’s.

But also heavily reflective of the transition from the funk era (in which this album was released during) and the disco era which would come later in the decade,and in which the by then creatively liberated Jackson’s would be a huge part of. But the road to that album starts right here-probably the Jackson brothers first fully formed and mature creative musical statement.


Get It Together was, and continues to be, possibly my very favorite full length album by the Jackson 5. I emphasize albums because of a conversation with my father when I first purchased this album. He wondered why I was at all interested in a full Jackson 5 album that wasn’t a greatest hits set. When I asked him why, he described the band as inconsistent. I didn’t know what the term meant then. But now, it does bring up an important point about how the Jackson 5 were perceived then. This was a carefully crafted cycle-with all songs flowing into the other for a strong album funk sound.

In terms of the Jackson’s music for Motown, Get It Together might’ve been the beginning of the end in terms of the bands love affair with what the label could offer them. Still, this was truly their coming of age album. Mike’s vocal hiccups, a trademark of his blockbuster solo career, first showed up on this album. Norman Whitfield helped put the album together-utilizing future Commodores arranger/producer James Anthony Carmichael in the process. Members of Motown’s LA session musicians-among them Crusaders such as Joe Sample and Wilton Felder, played on the album as well.

What I personally remember most about Get It Together the intersection between myself and the Jackson’s at the time of first hearing it. I was about the same age at the time as Michael Jackson had been during the time he and his brothers recorded this album. And as with Mike, my own creative outlook (especially with music) was growing independent from that of my family and social acquaintances. That experience with Get It Together taught me that sense of creative independence is key to growing up. And I have the impression this album has impacted many others in similar ways.

 

 

 

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Sunset Driver” by Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson began the sessions for Off The Wall, his first solo album produced by Quincy Jones, with the idea that he wanted to separate his adult solo career from what he’d been doing with his brothers. This was a concept he’d already pursued on their previous album Destiny from one year earlier. Talking with my friend Henrique, the then current sound of Barry White interested MJ in 1979-his album The Man and its emphasis on live horns and strings. That is the direction he pursued on the finished album. Early on in the sessions however, the music MJ and Quincy were making was slightly different.

Of course, instrumentally the same West Lake studio crew that worked on this album also played on the Brothers Johnson’s Light Up The Night. That album was recorded during the same time as  Off The Wall, but was released in 1980. So musicians such as Greg Phillinganes, Paulinho Da Costa, Jerry Hey, Rod Temperton and Toto’s Jeff Porcoro likely switched off from one album session to another. Since  Light Up The Night has a more electronic flavor to its grooves, it doesn’t surprise me too much that an early song from the Off The Wall sessions has a similar flavor. And it was called “Sunset Driver”.

The intro features what sound like higher pitched synth horns followed along closely by the drum-beat by beat. The drums then settle into a straight up disco friendly dance beat pounding away. The melody is led by a thick polyphonic synthesizer, with a pumping synth bass underneath it. Chucking right along with it is a scratching wah wah guitar. On the refrains of the songs, the string arrangements ascend and descend with MJ’s vocals. On the choruses, the strings sustain along with the lead synth. On the bridge, the lead synth goes into a more descending pattern before an extended chorus fades out the song.

Upon hearing it shortly following MJ’s passing eight summers ago, “Sunset Driver” emerged as an unreleased song I had trouble placing into MJ’s vast recorded catalog. Its a lot closer to the post disco/boogie funk of a Brothers Johnson song such as “This Had To Be”. Especially with the synthesizer being a far more significant element than it had been on the final cut of Off The Wall. Still with MJ’s dialog near the end of the song saying “that’s it Jerry,that’s nice”, its clear now that this shows MJ in a different and cutting edge electronic dance/funk flavor at the beginning of his adult solo career.

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Bobby Taylor 1934-2017: An Understanding Of A Major Motown Jelly Maker

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Bobby Taylor epitomizes what a phrase Henrique Hopkins told me several years ago. That in terms of making a difference in life, there are tree shakers and there are jelly makers. To extend the metaphor, DC native Bobby Taylor didn’t shake many trees save for the hit “Does Your Mama Know About Me”. And I myself only found out about him as a teenage watching a VHS copy of  the 1988 Showtime documentary called Michael Jackson: The Legend Continues. It was MJ’s brother Marlon who mentioned Bobby Taylor’s place in his history as the man who brought the Jackson 5 to Motown.

Taylor began his singing career in NYC-with a doo-wop group whose other members later joined the Teenagers and the Imperials. It was journey from groups in Ohio,San Francisco that led to him migrating to Canada and forming a multi racial band called the Calgary Shades. During this time, he had been in a band with a man who’d later become the drummer for Three Dog Night.  As for the Calgary Shades? The name came from the multi racial nature of their members. One of them was a young Tommy Chong, who would of course later go onto a career in comedy with Cheech Marin.

It was Supreme’s Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard who alerted Berry Gordy to the newly rechristened Bobby Taylor & The Vancouver’s after seeing them live. They had a live repertoire of mostly Motown covers. Gordy signed them to the self named imprint of Motown.  The Vancouver’s eventually broke apart due to a disagreement with Johnny Bristol and their headliner Chris Clark, who fired a couple members of the bands for missing a big whilst trying to obtain green cards. But they did record one self titled album on Gordy before this occurred.

Taylor’s history with the Jackson 5 is another story. In 1968, the Jackson brothers opened for the Vancouver’s at Chicago’s Regal Theater. Taylor was so impressed, he brought them to Detroit to audition for Suzanne De Passe and in turn Berry Gordy. The band were signed to Motown in a years time. Taylor was their first producer. He was involved in producing tracks for their debut album. Including an 11 year old Michael’s show stopping version of “Who’s Lovin’ You”. His emphasis was on classic soul cover songs-from within and without Motown.

What happened was that the J5’s debut was called Diana Ross Presents The Jackson 5. She was even credited as discovering them by Ed Sullivan on their first appearance on his iconic variety show. As Motown began moving its operations to the West Coast, Gordy didn’t give any credit to Taylor’s earlier work with the Jackson’s. While he did work with them a bit in LA on their second album ABC, Gordy along with Fonce Mizell and the late Deke Richards took on writing and producing for them. Taylor’s solo career on the labels VIP imprint went nowhere. He was dropped from the label and faded into obscurity.

Despite being something of the poster man for Motown’s lack of support for its behind the scenes people during its move from Detroit to LA, Bobby Taylor’s place in the labels late 60’s history remains carved in stone. He died of cancer on July 22nd of this year in Hong Kong. But bringing in what became the last of Motown’s classic groups in the Jackson 5 was no small feat. He even made some of the most insightful commentary on MJ on the documentary Michael Jackson: The Life Of An Icon.  So while belatedly so, wanted to remember Bobby Taylor for the great work he did in Motown’s peak.

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Music’s Takin’ Over” by The Jacksons

Goin’ Places, The Jacksons’ second on CBS/Epic records is (as are most things Jackson related) as being a commercial failure. But creatively,it was a totally opposite matter. Its an album celebrating its 40th anniversary later this year so I’ll cover it in further detail at that time. For one reason though,I wanted to go deeper into some of the individual songs from this album over the course of the year because many of them just stand out on their own merit. And one in particular,because its so in keeping with the Jacksons’ overall creative/sociopolitical ethic.

Upon leaving Motown, The Jackson’s fell under the production of Philadelphia International Records. Goin’ Places had more of a steady musical direction to it as an album than their self titled debut from a year earlier. And it all pointed towards the fact that the brothers were finding their freedom as a group. And for Michael Jackson,his freedom on his own a couple of years later-under the direction of Quincy Jones. And it all began with a song that I first heard opening up the CD of this album 24 years ago this year entitled “Music’s Takin’ Over”.

Tito’s crunchy rhythm guitar,a rolling and grooving bass line and the drum/percussion of Charles Collins and (likely) Randy Jackson provide the intro-along with a deep hollow guitar part that goes into the first refrain of the song. Each refrain of the song consists of a fluid 10 note rhythm guitar,the same slippery groove of a bass line,a steady rhythm and accenting horn charts. On the choruses, the guitar/bass/horn interaction is sustained with the vocal hook. After a bridge consisting of an extension of the intro,there’s a brief conga based take on the refrain before the main version fades out the song.

“Music’s Takin Over” is an excellent example of a sharp funk number arranged to sophisticated sleekness. This McFadden & Whitehead (with Victor Carstarphen)  really develops from the rhythm out to the melody,as high quality funk should. Lyrically,it is an enthusiastic celebration of the post 60’s outlook on music. In our time of attitudes asserting that “music could and can never change the world”,Michael Jackson’s earnest assertion of “music is a doctor that can cure a troubled mind” still burns with the emotional and physical reality of music I personally happen to follow.

 

 

 

 

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Leon Ware (1940-2017): Caught Up In The Soul Fire Of The Song

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Leon Ware is someone I’m not sure a lot of people outside the soul/funk community are too aware of. Among people I know such as Henrique Hopkins,Henry Cooper and Calvin Lincoln,he is very likely an icon. He maintained a solo career from 1972 up through the end of his his life. And was a fine singer. Mainly however,he was one of the finest composers in the soul/funk/jazz spectrum during the early 70’s. His style used a lot of jazz styled chord progressions,which he blended with strong pop hooks and heavy hitting lyrically romanticism.

Mister Ware composed two songs that inspired the singer/songwriter side of my soul and funk musical interests very strongly as a younger man. Those songs were Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” and (perhaps Ware’s best known composition) “I Wanna Be Where You Are”. That particular song was recorded by several different people. But became a huge success for Michael Jackson in 1972,and helped launch his solo career.  As far as Marvin Gaye was concerned,Ware gave the most help to him than he did for many other artist by composing the entirety of Gaye’s 1976 album I Want You  when the artist suffered from writers block.

That occurred just after Ware was the man behind the 1974 Quincy Jones album project  Body Heat.  This albums gurgling,swampy groove also included the memorable soul hit “If I Ever Lose This Heaven” (recorded the same year by Average White Band). And it helped Quincy’s heavily arranged jazz sound to get deeper and funky. Ware extended his talents onto Quincy’s next album Mellow Madness-itself featuring the debut of the Brothers Johnson. In the late 70’s and early 80’s,Ware continued his solo career and continued writing songs for artists like Melissa Manchester.

Ware passed away after nine years of suffering from Pancreatic cancer on February 24th. Even so,I’m one of those people who views the combination of jazzy chord progressions, soulful melodicism and and funky rhythm to be the most successful fusion of black American uptempo music. Along with people such as Stevie Wonder,Leon Ware celebrated the connections between all those elements as a songwriter. Which probably explains why he and Quincy Jones were such close associates. His influence can be felt today in the songwriting of artists such as King and Thundercat. And will therefore live on.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Rock Your Body” by Justin Timberlake

Justin Timberlake is an artist whose creative (as well as commercially success) has surprised me on some level. A Memphis native who came directly out of Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club along with Brittney Spears (who he dated for a short time),Timerlake was the lead singer of N’Sync,who came to be the poster child for what a lot of art house rock music people hated about “manufactured boy bands” as they’d put it. My late paternal grandfather,however,agreed with me Timberlake-with his soulful voice and beat boxing,came at music with a very different attitude.

This very musical oriented ethic even my grandpa,a man never into youth culture of any kind,was confirmed in late 2002 when he made his solo debut Justified. Its an album I got into a decade after it came out. Coming out during a time when most pop albums were being made by one or two people and was focused mainly on vocals,Timberlake’s debut featured not only The Neptunes (featuring Pharell Williams) and Timbaland,but also 70’s/80’s session great Nathan East along with Harvey Mason Jr. There was one song on it that remains my personal favorite. Its called “Rock Your Body”.

This is one of those songs where the refrains and choruses are carried by Timberlake’s vocal call and responses with himself. Musically however,this basic groove is extremely funkified. The high pitched rhythm guitar-like Clavicord synthesizer and bass line are both playing the same 8 note pattern-on opposite ends of the scale. A pulsing synth expands in and out lightly in the back round. The choruses and refrains are separated by calculated breaks in the music. After a jazzier chorded bridge,the song fades out with the bass line,drum and Timberlake beat boxing the bass line building back into itself.

“Rock Your Body” is a masterful production,one of Pharrell’s strongest overall. First time I heard it,it reminded me of Michael Jackson. Turns out Pharell had originally recorded the track for inclusion on MJ’s 2001 album Invincible. The late Jackson apparently turned it down,so Timberlake got one of his first major solo hits with it instead. The song has a grinding,glittery post disco funk sound to it that was very atypical for a lot of pop music of the early aughts. The build,structure and especially the singled out beatboxing at the end showcased Justin Timberlake totally living up to the musical promise he always exhibited.

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Dangerous 25:Ain’t Too Hard For MJ To Jam!

When Michael Jackson’s Dangerous hit the record racks on November 25th of 1991,I was very aware that it existed. All the videos for the album were premiering on the Fox television network. And tunes like “Jam”,”Remember The Time’ and “Black Or White” were part of the general pop culture soundtrack of the early 1990’s. At that point,my family didn’t have cable TV. And for that matter,little interest in pursuing new music by Michael Jackson at all. And neither did I. Recently,seeing the collectible 3-D diorama of the CD jacket painting purchased by my boyfriend brought back more memories.

On a family day trip to the city of Portland,Maine during 1994 I located  Dangerous on a brand new cassette tape,cannot recall the store exactly. But it was inexpensive. And I decided to pick it up. On the 2 1/2 hour trip back home from Portland,I listened to the 70+ minute album on my old Walkman via headphones. It was during MJ’s public trial by fire,so my first thoughts hearing it was that this would be the last new Michael Jackson that would ever be recorded. Luckily,that wasn’t the case. Yet during the internet age I was able to better articulate my views on the album via one of my Amazon.com reviews.


While not sure I entirely agree on this point. However there is a school of thought that,while containing many excellent songs and performances,Bad has often been viewed in revision as an album that was a bit musically behind the times. All I knew was that between there and here? Michael Jackson parted company from the production of Quincy Jones. Sure there were numerous reasons for this. One of them is why the two matters I just mentioned were interrelated.

Seems Mike had wanted to bring in Teddy Riley-the pioneering new jack swing producer,leader of Guy and by than already producing hits for Keith Sweat and Al B. Sure,to help out with his 1987 release. One can just imagine if MJ had songs like “Night And Day” or “Teddy’s Jam” on the radio during the time. But I can see Quincy’s side of it too. Why have too many cooks in the kitchen? Quincy and Bruce Swedien were almost too much on their own.

The project that eventually became this album began in the late 80’s-with Mike independent to choose Riley as producer but retain master engineer Swedien as well. But not only was Mike’s post record breaking status alienating him from the music loving public. But he was also about to branch off into a totally new,and perhaps even unexpected musical direction.

As usual,an enormous marketing campaign ensued between Mike and Epic-with the Fox TV network even agreeing to air a new MJ video as they came out. So MJ was all set for yet more record breaking for sure. And this time he was going to do so with music that was breaking some new ground as well.

Opening with a smashed glass and deep voiced countdown,”Jam” opens with the album with a spare,MIDI horn accented new jack funk masterpiece where along with a guest spot from Heavy D.Lyrically Mike is battling optimism and cynicism,from within and without,on this song. “Why You Wanna Trip On Me”,with MJ’s beat boxing part of the percussion along with Teddy’s ultra funky guitar and keyboard riffing suggests that,just perhaps,there were broader issues for people in the world to think about than Michael Jackson’s eccentric personal life.

“In The Closet” is a rhythmically amazing number. Mike’s acapella vocalese,beat-boxing and sensually hushed vocals make up the core of this number until Teddy’s popping synthesizers come into the sexually tense chorus. “She Drives Me Wild” is the most musically busy number here-instrumentally the melodic equivalent of being in a highway traffic jam of engines,car horns,breaks-the sounds of which are all heard as rhythmic elements as Mike sings of being extremely sexually aroused.

“Remember The Time” has the most slippery music and melody here-a very clean and typically Teddy Riley uptempo new jack number full of MJ’s trademark composition elements. “Can’t Let Her Get Away” is another highly funked up number-with Mike as a sexual pursuer.

“Heal The World”,a proclamation for his soon to launch foundation is a hyper melodic smooth jazz-pop type mid-tempo ballad while “Black Or White” takes a Stonsey,guitar fueled yet polyrhythmic rock/funk direction. While racially ambiguous on some levels,the bridge where Mike growls “I ain’t scared of your brotha’/I ain’t scared of no sheets” tells a whole other story entirely.

“Who Is It” is a rhythmically heavy,stripped down and very slow grooving funk groove with Mike as “the other man” whose contemplating his lover being unfaithful-and of course nervous it might be someone he knows well. “Give Into Me” is a slick,darkly hued rocker where Mike begs for sexual release over a chorus of loud power chords. Beginning with a vocal choir from the Andre Crouch Singers “Will You Be There”,of course to become the famous theme song to Free Willy is a beautifully orchestral blend of American gospel and South African choral music

The song not only shows African/African American musical connectivity instrumentally, but also lyrically has an aural vastness about it-with Mike himself emerging with a powerful vocal crescendo at the songs conclusion. One song I always personally loved from this album,and which I feel may be underrated by some, is “Keep The Faith”. This song starts off seeming like a melodic ballad. Until Mike sings “’cause you can climb the highest mountain” and suddenly the song transforms into melodically and rhythmically powerful modern gospel.

He’s not singing of any particular religion exactly. In his trademark pleas for univeralism Mike suggests here that faith isn’t necessarily something of a religious nature. One area where his univeralist attitudes may have had a really solid point to make. “Gone To Soon” is a very slow orchestral ballad (not written by Mike) and dedicated to his young friend Ryan White,the teenage boy who died after years of suffering from AIDS. The title song ends the album-with similarly powerful (if musically fuller) groove that begins the album-again focusing on Mike’s dejection when a lady is playing him for a fool.

While Teddy Riley should continue to get a big applause for being able to effectively modernize MJ’s production,it it Mike himself who really came through on this album. Musically speaking,this might well be the most successfully forward thinking and ambitious album Michael Jackson ever recorded in his entire career. One huge reason for that is that Mike,a man with an enormous amount of different ways he can musically utilize his voice,uses that element of his talent as a huge instrumental element on much of this album.

On the Teddy Riley produced uptempo numbers that begin this album,Teddy’s digitally sampled/synthesized instrumental effects are undoubtedly a big part of it. But also the fact that the percussion tracks come from Mike embracing the aural tradition from hip-hop,such as from rappers like Doug E. Fresh,of beat-boxing with their voice to provide both the main and counter rhythms as well. This created an entirely new (and very very funky) template for Mike’s uptempo music here.

Even when the tempo slows,and the subject matter becomes more trepidatious  on the second part of the album? Mike’s singing approach is also different. His voice here is almost exclusively in its lowest possible tenor range-growling and pounding out the lyrics,again rhythmically in the finest James Brown tradition. This is my personal favorite side of Mike’s vocal style.

One which he’d maintain for the rest of his musical career. Sadly,both personally and professionally,the years after this represented a sad and slow decline for MJ. With the smothering arrival of alternative rock on the pop scene later in 1991,this was probably the last time the public hung on every word about what Michael Jackson would do next. And is a rhythmically powerful,and sadly cut off new direction for MJ.


As indicated by my review,Dangerous was really the final time a Michael Jackson album happily stopped the world. The releases of his later albums,not to mention his death,also had mammoth effects on people. But at the time,they tended to come across as the surprise of a fallen cultural icon making major headlines. Even still on its quarter century anniversary,Dangerous  found MJ making his own musical history again. And for one last time perhaps,doing so in a manner that was as based in creative energy as it was trying to sell an album. So happy anniversary ,Dangerous!

 

 

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Filed under 1991, 25th anniversary, Amazon.com, Bruce Swedien, Michael Jackson, Music Reviewing, New Jack Swing, Teddy Riley