Tag Archives: Motown

Stevie Wonder’s ‘For Once In My Life’ Turns 50


Stevie Wonder turned 18 in 1968. This was a year when months made a  difference in daily life. And for music too. Wonder was still deeply involved in Motown’s assembly line musical approach. But his albums were starting to reflect more of his creative input and vision by the late 60’s. And on this album, he made major leaps forward musically. The title track  is a strong example-a funky uptown soul stomp that was originally a Broadway show tune from Man Of La Mancha. Wonder kept the melodramatic vibe of the song intact on this title song too. And it was the radio breakout here obviously.

Yet its on the slower tempo, deeply grooving funk of “Shoo Be Doo Be Doo Da Day” and the powerfully composed faster funk of “You Met Your Match” and “I Wanna Make You Love Me”-as well as the slower,brooding “Don’t Know Why” where Wonder hauls forth his Clavinet electric piano. Herein begins his mapping out the basic pattern for what would be his 70’s breakthroughs-still within the fairly traditional Motown context. Some songs showcase that  sound of the time with an emphasis on Wonder’s burgeoning songwriting.

“I’m More Than Happy (I’m Satisfied)” is a superb example on the uptempo end of that. “I’d Be A Fool Right Now” is actually one of my favorites here with its creamy orchestrations and strong song craft-easily could’ve been a Top 5 pop single in that regard. “Ain’t No Lovin'” and the breezy “Do I Love Her” have the same effect. Two covers-in the rather Dusty Springfield style take on “Sunny” and the big band arrangement of “God Bless The Child” round out this album album with it’s strongly funky closer “The House On The Hill”.

For Once In My Life musically spoke more to Stevie Wonder’s future than his past. Eight of its twelve songs were either written or co-written by him. And in many ways, it caps off what my friend Henrique and I call his “childhood career”. Funk had arrived during 1967 with James Brown and Sly Stone. And that was the basis of Wonder’s music here-especially with the Clavinet. Its also an important realizing that the funk genre itself was a process. And in terms of Motown and Stevie Wonder’s own artistry, For Once In My Life marked his ongoing journey into the funk genre of music.

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‘Here, My Dear’ At 40-Marvin Gaye’s Funky Space Reincarnation Of Romantic Endings & Beginnings

Marvin Gaye’s back story for his fifteenth studio album is well known by this point. Gaye’s wife Anna Gordy sued him for divorce following as he was pursuing a relationship with teenage Janice Hunter. And it was agreed that half the proceeds from his next album to go to Gordy as part of the divorce settlement. At first considering making a lukewarm album out of spite, Marvin decided to weave the reality about the end of  his marriage into one of his musically cinematic narratives- with a conceptually abstract twist. That was the nucleus of the album that became Here, My Dear.

The wah wah heavy title track starts out the album. As writer David Ritz pointed out, Marvin’s vocal harmony based style is rooted in doo wop. And the 70’s funky soft soul of this number, in the 6/8th country/soul shuffle tempo. “I Met A Little Girl” has a similar style- only a bit gentler reflecting both early 60’s Motown balladry and its narrative about the 12 years of his marriage to Anna. “Everybody Needs Love” is a moment where the basic groove of the opening title song extends into a full blown self examination of Gaye’s view on love in general.

“When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You” is also reprised as an instrumental. But its a whole other beast musically- a powerful, percussion laced groove filled with the kind of jazzy chords and melodic exchanges this album celebrates. Now for songs that get heavily into the jazz styled vibe? “Sparrow” alternates from blues to Afro Latin percussion-including a bop styled sax solo from Ernie Fields. “Is That Enough” goes for a cinematic approach that showcases not only heavily arranged orchestration, but a section of the song where the musicians jam away without lead vocals from Gaye.

“Anna’s Song” returns to the medium tempo R&B shuffling of “Trouble Man” from seven years earlier. “Time To Get It Together” gets deep into the thumping,percussion laced funk groove-filled with Marvin’s melodically soulful yet futuristic synthesizer playing. “Anger” and “A Funky Space Reincarnation” are both musically based on the same type of sophistifunk Rhodes/wah wah/percussion based funk crawl. Each conceptually contrasts the other. On the former, Gaye is reconciling his scattered emotions. On the latter, he in on a sci fi odyssey with Anna-attempt to seduce her in with “Venusian smoke”.

“You Can Leave, But It’s Going To Cost You”  is another funk number-this time with a more bluesy style of bass/guitar interaction as Gaye illustrates with journalistic clarity his final attempt to reconcile with his estranged wife. The almost Barry White like cinematic funky soul of “Falling In Love Again” goes into his assumed future with Janice. Over the years, my friend Henrique and I have discussed this perhaps more than any other Marvin Gaye album. It was actually first brought to my knowledge through my father purchasing the 8 Track during the 1990’s.

Having heard it with this depth of musical knowledge today? Here, My Dear emerges as probably the most funky breakup album to have been released. While it plays out like the kinds of cinematic soul album opera’s that Gaye had been doing with Leon Ware? A good cross section of the music gets as deep into a contemporary late 70’s sophisticated funk groove with a number of variations in flow and style. From deep in the pocket to jazzier and free flowing. And that goes directly with the “moods of Marvin Gaye” during the time this was recorded too.

With musicians such as guitarists Gordon Banks and Wali Ali interacting with  bassist Frank Blair? Not to mention the drum/percussion flow of drummer Bunny Wilcox with percussionists  Gary Jones and Elmira Collins? The added sweeteners of horn players Nolan Smith’s trump and tenor sax players Charlie Owens and Fernando Hawkins all play their roles in providing what amounts to the soundtrack for the divorce of Marvin Gaye. This is even played out in the Monopoly game of “judgement” on the albums back cover.

Here, My Dear didn’t endear itself to Anna Gordy at first. As David Ritz explained in his Gaye biography Divided Soul, Marvin invited Anna to a private listening of the album. Its conceptual voyeurism had her contemplating a suit for invasion of privacy.  That didn’t seem to have occurred. As my friend Henrique also pointed out, the modern cinematic video approach of a Kanye West might’ve helped visualize Marvin Gaye’s narrative on this album. Gaye did however help innovate the confessional funk approach with soul, class and imagination. Resulting in another album that continues to age like fine wine.

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Anatomy of Two Late Funkateers: “Money’s Hard To Get” by The Temptations

Dennis Edwards, lead singer of the Temptations from 1968-1976 and again from 1980 to 1987 and Leon Ndugu Chancler, best known as the drummer on Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”,  both passed away within two days of each other this week. The former at age 74, the later at 65. The interesting part of it was Ndugu passed away on what would’ve been Edwards’ 75th birthday-on February 3rd, 2018. Edwards was a singer, Chancler was a jazz session drummer. And it was still surprising to me the breadth of commonalities these two late musical figures have in common.

Dennis and Ndugu both hailed from the South. Edwards from Alabama, Chancler from Louisiana. They both left the South- Edwards for Detroit and Chancler for California. Both men studied their craft at universities in their adopted home towns.  Their career paths differed-as Ndugu became a session player for artists ranging from George Benson to Kenny Rogers. And he was even George Duke’s main drummer for a decade or so. Edward’s became the lead singer of The Tempts during their psychedelic soul period. And the two finally crossed paths on the 1982 song “Money’s Hard To Get”.

Kerry Ashby’s synth bass provides the intro to a song-played in close unison to Stevie Wonder’s bassist Nathan Watts. Ndugu’s powerful drums then come in playing right in the the pocket. Along with Melvin “Wah Wah Watson” Ragin’s nimble rhythm guitar, that also comprises the refrains of the song. The chorus features Benjamin F. Wright Jr’s ultra funky horn arrangements-whereas those two sides of the songs are linked by a unison vocal passage with Ashby’s synth bass playing a more clomping style. After a bridge featuring a synth solo with the horns, an extended chorus fades out the song.

“Money’s Hard To Get” finds both Dennis Edwards and Ndugu Chancler at some of their very finest. Edward’s second tenure with The Tempts as at its peak vocal powers here-in a reunion with the seven then surviving members. His voice follows the emotional attitude of the song too-itself a classic soul tale of “love or money” somewhat in the vain of The Isley’s “Work To Do”.  Chancler’s drummer, along the the horns, rhythm guitar and electric/synth bass fusion make this a terrific example of early 80’s post disco/boogie melding the live sounds of the 70’s with the electronic/new wave ones of the 80’s.

 

 

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78 On The Longplay: ‘Come Get It!’ by Rick James

Rick James always seemed destined to have a career at Motown.  From his work with the Myna Birds to being a member of the staff writing there. He had spent much of the 70’s a musical gypsy-recording a few records and performing with a few different rock bands during the decade before decamping back to Buffalo and forming the Stone City Band. He then returned to the record label that had seemed to provide a strong sense of security for him as an artist/band leader in 1977. And they dropped this debut album the following April of 1978.

“Stone City Band,Hi” opens the album with a live recording that adds a strong P-Funk horn based hump to it. “You And I” starts off with a rhythm guitar groove that swings into a full blown orchestrated female vocal gospel/disco chorus before going into a 7+ clavinet driven fast funk groove with some harmonically fluid jazz guitar accents by final refrains. “Sexy Lady” deals with a polished and precise jazz-funk number with a strong West Coast vibe about it. “Dream Maker” hearkens back to Rick’s doo-wop days with it’s spoken intro and piano based soul ballad shuffle.

“Be My Lady” is another melodically bright mix of bass/guitar/horn oriented funk with the disco beat and “woo hoo” chants. “Mary Jane” begins with an arena style guitar thump and orchestral synthesizer before going into a stripped down jazzy soul-pop ballad with a lyric that could be taken (in it’s time) in two different ways. “Hollywood” starts out as a tender ballad about Rick saying goodbye to his family, while leaving behind the ghetto environment he feels might destroy him, before ending on a reggae style coda. The album concludes with a reprise of the title song.

When I first got this album on vinyl, I remember not caring for it too much. Hearing it fresh today on CD helps me realize what a strong debut this really is. The steely punk funk sound Rick James would develop isn’t as evident on this album. He’s very much a live band styled funk/soul brother on this album-with little concern for crossover anymore than doing so on his own musical terms. Stone City Band were a strong outfit too-with a big band funk style that can switch years between monster humps and lush disco friendly sounds. An excellent debut from an artist and band still getting their legs.

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Little Things” by India.Arie

India Arie Simpson was born in Denver, Colorado to a family not only drenched in music. But with a history at Motown as well. Her mother Joyce was a singer who toured with Stevie Wonder-as well as Al Green. After her parents divorced and she moved to Georgia, India’s musical interests (always encouraged by her family) became even more pronounced-as she actively began to learn both guitar and composition. This occurred while attending the Savannah School Of Art & Design. She also learned of her strong African roots via DNA testing-including that of the Kru people of the nation of Liberia.

India. Arie made her debut on Motown in 2001 with her Acoustic Soul. That literally described the first song I heard from her entitled “Video”, where she talked of her she desired music and humanity, for herself and others, not to be seen as a product. This resulted in India becoming a major face of the coalescing neo soul movement of the time. Her second album Voyage To India came out the next year. Its main single didn’t perform commercially the way “Video” did. But it was a huge step ahead in terms of instrumentation and songwriting. It was called “Little Things”.

The sound of the gong starts of the intro of vocal harmonies from India.Arie that begins the song-with a bell like electric piano echo in the back round. The drum, at first stop and start comes into the mix with a strong accent of heavy percussion and a heavy, ascending bass line. As the vocal/lyrical flavor of the song changes, so does the feeling of the music. Sometimes its mostly rhythm and bass. Other times rhythm guitar and electric piano flourishes are stronger-along with what sounds like a baby crying. The song comes to an abrupt end after a long vocal run on the extended chorus.

“Little Things” is an interesting song. Musically speaking, its a somewhat more stripped down variant of the jazzy chords of Stevie Wonder compositions and a soul/funk rhythm-similar to Mary J Blige’s “All That I Can Say”. In terms of  its actual structure, its more of a folk type song. A lot of lyrical verses after another rather than a refrain/chorus/bridge setup. It has a heavier studiocentric approach than much of her debut album. To me, “Little Things” is an example of India. Arie using her amazing abilities as a composer for a beautifully flowing, neo soul friendly funky soul number.

 

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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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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: “Love Will Find A Way” by Lionel Richie

Lionel Brockman Richie’s life journey has a lot of twist and turns. Growing up on the Tuskegee campus of the famous black college right in his home town, he dropped out of the university after his sophomore year. After a brief time considering becoming an episcopal church, he devoted himself to music fully by the mid 60’s. He became the lead singer and sax player of the Commodores in 1968. After a brief stint at Atlantic, the Commodores struck gold at Motown as a major funk band during the mid 70’s. By the late 70’s, Richie’s contributions to the band were mainly as a singer/songwriter.

In 1982, Richie released his self titled solo debut. It turned out to be a 4x platinum hit for him. But mainly on the strength of ballads like “Truly” and the uptempo pop of “You Are”. At this point, the funkiness he displayed in the Commodores would be album tracks for him. His next album,1983’s Can’t Slow Down was a major crossover success for him-a diamond charting album in the vein of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Musically, the hits he was getting were a lot more diverse-from the Caribbean pop of “All Night Long” to the new wave rock of “Running With The Night”. Then there was “Love Will Find A Way”.

A slow,gated drum starts out the song. Then the close bass/rhythm guitar interaction. At the beginning, a Fender Rhodes is carrying the minor chorded lead melody. The rhythm guitar perfectly accents that-with the strings rising just as Richie’s first vocal chorus arriving. There’s also a light synthesizer part featured on the end. On the refrains of the song, the melody becomes a brighter and more major chorded one-with the strings leading back into the choruses.  A slippery,pitch bent synthesizer joins the mix just as the song begins to fade out on its final choruses.

“Love Will Find A Way” is, as my friend Henrique pointed out, a quiet storm groove ballad that also functions as soulful, immaculately produced “sophistifunk” as well. As it turns out, its very mature take on romantic advice dovetails very well into another hit song (and one of my personal favorites from Lionel’s solo career) called “Love Will Conquer All” from his next album-1986’s Dancing On The Ceiling. Same goes for the music of the song as well. Lionel Richie’s solo music, despite its success, has never been based in funk. But “Love Will Find A Way” does bring out that very functional middle ground.

 

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‘Commodores’ Turns 40: The Tuskeegee Funk Icons Take It Easy As Sunday Morning

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The Commodores were a band who I didn’t personally associate with funk for many years. A lot of it had to do with how musical literature handled them. That was until it became clear through finding (and listening) to them that the Commodores first four albums from 1974 through 1976 were by and large hardcore albums in what is referred to as the Southern funk genre. The sound was inspired heavily by Milan Williams’ Billy Preston-like Clavinet and the bands extremely strong instrumental vitality. When 1977 came along,the band released their self titled album-one which is celebrating 40 years with us as of today.

This album marked huge changes for the band. Displayed proudly on the jacket,flying through the sky like a fictive jet airliner,is the Commodores new metallic “belt buckle” logo. This would seem to signal a new level of success for them. Commercially,that’s exactly what happened. It was their second #1 R&B chart album in a row. And it was their first album to cross over into to pop Top 5. It also had the advantage of containing the bands two signature songs in the classic funk of “Brick House” and the soul ballad “Easy”. Of course,I was able to convey some of its broader musical influence on my Amazon.com review of the album.


In terms of the funk era of the early/mid 1970’s? It was The Commodores,in terms of newly formed bands, who most thoroughly represented the genre on Motown. Milan Williams, William King,Walter Orange,Thomas McClary and of course Lionel Richie in particular had now proven important members of a formidable musical team. Many of the bands members were multi instrumentalists. With their previous album Hot on the Tracks,the bands funk was at its most diverse and creative.

Their funk was able to blend strong pop songwriting with hefty grooves that put them into the possible position of being a Southern version of Earth Wind & Fire in terms of success. Story goes that around this time,the bands co-producer James Anthony Carmichael had told Lionel that the songs he was writing for the Commodores didn’t work. And that he should be recording the songs he was writing for other people instead. This album marks The Commodores at the exact point before that change began to seriously take place.

“Squeeze The Fruit”,”Funny Feelings”,”Funky Situation” and “Patch It Up” are all very much in the league of the classic 70’s Commodores sound-that think,bass/guitar fried sound that…well to me always represented what made them distinct among the funk bands of that era. On the faster of those numbers? The feeling is almost rocking in a very clean and soulful way. On the slower numbers? The effect is very much in the Sly Stone vein-again with that Southern twist. “Heaven Knows” can actually fool you.

It starts out sounding like a mid tempo,melodic love ballad before spinning of into that Southern Sly Stone variant funk sound on the choruses. “Won’t You Come And Dance With Me” and “Funky Situation” both have slightly more jazz oriented choruses as a wraparound for the heavy funk elements. “Zoom” is actually a very elaborate,cinematic ballad that contrasts heavily with the the countryish gospel leanings of the big hit “Easy” which closes out the album. “Brick House”,with its bass line and cat calling is not only the best known Commodores funk hit but among their very sexiest as well.

Just as a frame of reference,without introducing any needless musical spoilers? This would be the last Commodores album that would have this particular sound about it. Their final two albums of the 70’s such as Natural High and Midnight Magic would favor melodic soul/pop and slow Lionel Richie penned ballads to a far stronger degree than hard funk. At least in terms of how their albums were put together. I do realize there are people who would say that entire change was already underway by the time of this album.

And if someone asked me over a decade ago I’d probably have agreed with them. But one thing I realize is even the Commodores slower numbers during this period represent part of a diverse,fuller funk/soul album package than they might’ve seemed. On this album? The slow songs are slow jams. Full of soul and full of cinematic funk. They have a rhythm and you can tap your foot to them. So when all things get done? This is in fact something of a coda on The Commodores classic funk sound. And a very strong one that any Commodores/Motown/funk admirer who doesn’t already have it should seek out.


Since writing this review,my personal views on the Commodores ballads have broadened. Much of that comes from seeing them through the eyes of my friend Henrique Hopkins. He experienced them through the strong black community of his native Oakland,California. And its helped me to realize how much true Southern soulfulness permeates both the fast and slow music on this album. That might have a lot to do with this having been their breakthrough album. It offered up the best and most soulful side of everything this band can do. And essentially began an entirely new musical period for them in doing so.

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Let’s Start The Dance” by Bohannon

Hamilton Bohannon is one of the key figures with me in getting into funk. Starting out as a school teacher,he eventually became a drummer for Little Stevie Wonder’s touring band in 1964. After moving to Detroit in 1967,his band The Motown Sound provided a similar function to The Funk Brothers-backing up many of Motown’s major acts. When the label moved to LA,Bohannon stayed behind and formed his own group. His name became part of the Talking Head spinoff Tom Tom Club’s 1981 hit “Genius Of Love”-chanted rhythmically on the bridge of the song.

Where Bohannon,whose turning 74 today,came into my musical orbit was via the Best Of Funk Essentials  compilation that introduced me to funkiness as a musical genre. It was a song that took me totally by surprise then. And even 22 years later,it still has a similar effect. Last year,I located a used vinyl copy of Bohannon’s 1978 album Summertime Groove. Part of the reason was because I knew that that song was on it. And funk is something I’ve learned to look for in its original album context. Its a heavily funkified album throughout. But still,it just bursts out of the box with “Let’s Start The Dance”.

Bohannon himself kicks right into gear from the start. The majority of the song is a high octane dance groove with the drums and its many fills up high in the mix. The rhythm consists of a high pitched rhythm guitar,a Clavinet playing the melodic accents and a jazzy bass line playing across two octaves. Each choral section is split by refrains featuring Bohannon’s flamboyant break beats-as the guitar plays some of the most rubbery chicken scratch rhythms around. The second chorus gets started with a revved up,rocking guitar part before the Clavinet takes more of a role in the mix before the song fades.

“Let’s Start The Dance” is a superb example of how of hard funk where all the instrumentation and vocals are extremely high key in sound. Even the melodic instrumental parts are projecting the same rhythmic flamboyance as everything else in the song. The result is punishing,super heavy funk that was recorded during the height of the disco era. The powerful gospel belt of Caroline Crawford on the refrains,along the drum breaks/chicken scratch guitar really become the defining moment of this song even after all these years. One which makes this a true late 70’s funk classic.

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