Nile Rodgers had a colorful life long before being the one of the founding members of Chic. This native New Yorker was born to a teen mother who, like his father, was a beatnik and heavy drug user. More importantly, it was an environment filled with music. Being drawn to the guitar at an early age, Nile began as a session player with the Sesame Street band-which was led by the iconic composer Joe Raposo. He gained much of his experience as the guitarist for the Apollo Theater house band. With them, he backed up acts as diverse as Aretha Franklin, Ben E. King and P-Funk.
It was while working for a Sesame Street stage show that he met up with bassist Bernard Edwards. Together they formed the Big Apple Band, who became the backup musicians for the vocal group New York City. After seeing a Roxy Music concert, Rodgers was inspired to change the name of the band to Chic. Their self titled debut helped establish disco as a genre of dance music-with songs such as “Dance,Dance,Dance” and “Everybody Dance” leading the way. The album also showcased what strong composers and musicians they were. Especially with album tracks like “Est-Ce Que C’est Chic”.
The song starts right off with an instrumental version of its chorus. This consists of Tony Thompson’s pocket dance beat with Nile and ‘Nard’s classic bass run/chunky rhythm guitar based rhythm dynamic providing the base of the song. Over that, there’s a chromatic walk down on piano. A glockenspiel and what sounds like an ARP string synth provide the harmonic sweeteners to the bottom of the song. The refrain take the song up a key slightly-emphasizing Nile and ‘Nard’s bass/guitar and closer piano riffs higher in the mix. After a barer version of it on the bridge, an extended chorus fades out the song.
“Es-Ce Que C’est Chic” showcases many examples of different trademarks this disco outfit would have in their time. One was the use of their name in song titles-along with a chorus that was sung partly in French. Instrumentally, it takes older black American ideas from bluesy soul jazz and R&B. And really stylizes them with a lot of sonic polish and elegance. The song lyrics about about an actress seducing people to get to the top, sung sweetly by Norma Jean Wright, showcase the witty (sometimes topical) story songs that reflect the disco era realities of which Chic were part of the soundtrack to.
Phoebe Snow is a native New Yorker who went from an artistic family who raised her in Teaneck, New Jersey to her college years of gigging from one Greenwich Village nightclub to another. She released her self titled debut album in 1974-having her biggest hit with “Poetry Man”. Her sound was somewhat unique-a mix of folk,rock,funk,soul and blues that suited her distinctive,bluesy growl that could also spread across several octaves. Her decision to give up music to care for her child born with severe brain damage halted her career after the early 80’s. But she never totally disappeared.
Her selfless parenting didn’t stop Snow (born Phoebe Taub) from performing the theme song for the first season of the sitcom A Different World. And released a few more studio albums before her death of a cerebral hemorrhage in 2011. Her third album It Looks Like Snow was her second for Columbia Records. On it she interpreted a song that was one of the last major Temptations hits before leaving Motown. It was co-written by P-Funk’s Eddie Hazel along with Jeffrey Bowen. Its an amazing groove for sure. But in 1976 for her third album, Phoebe Snow offered us her own take on “Shakey Ground”.
The hard groove wah wah guitar riff and metronomic drum count in begin the song as on the original. Yet the straight up,acoustically textured blues guitar riffing before the main groove starts adds a totally different flavor to it all. After all of this, there is the layers of guitar: rhythm and wah wah along with an accenting Clavinet. And of course the horns playing the changes. On the instrumental bridge, the bluesy guitar from the intro (likely played by Snow herself) takes a full on solo. That’s before Snow’s vocals take the chorus on an extended musical journey before it fades out.
There’s not much point in me comparing Phoebe Snow and The Tempt’s versions of “Shakey Ground”. Each are hard funk monster jams in their own right. Its the little things that really make the difference on Snow’s. Her super bluesy guitar riffs and solos give it a slightly more old timey flavor. And her jazzy,growling and sometimes unpredictable vocals give the song an emotional vibe on par with the strongest end of the mid 70’s female perspective. When thinking of what would’ve been Snow’s 67th birthday, this song somehow seemed exactly the right one to overview from a funk/soul perspective.
Lisa Velez is one of those musical figures who impact upon me in both a musical and a personal way. A Puerto Rican descended woman coming out of NYC,her Latina back round has those two similarities to the maternal side of my own family. On a musical level,her group Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam were one of the first commercially successful purveyors freestyle. This was a hip-hop related for of electro funk,built on samples and break beats,that was linked to break dancing culture of the 1980’s. At the end of the day,it expanded on the same Afro-Latin attitude that was at the core of classic funk-for its time.
1986 through about 1991 was something of a renaissance of Afrocentric rhythms within the dance music of the day. This had its impact on funk of that time for sure. That being said,in the first two years of the 90’s a more Latin jazz flavor began to emerge out of that groove. Having been famously produced by pioneering hip-hop band Full Force,Cult Jam turned to the production team of Clivilles & Cole (the masterminds of freestyle megastars C&C Music Factory) to pioneer the groups final album Straight Outta Hell’s Kitchen. The song on it that impacts me most is “Let The Beat Hit Em”.
Beginning with a vocal sample urging “to turn your bass to ours”,a JB style synth brass hit opens into the main chorus of the song. This is a shuffling,conga drum led rhythm with Lisa singing over some jazzy electric piano sounds. The refrains of the song single out the the same Afro Brazilian groove-along with the number of spoken word samples and (indeed) screams directly from James Brown. As the song goes on,more and more elements accentuate the groove. The drum machines on the refrains get heavier. And on the closing choruses,the synth orchestra hits come on hard.
“Let The Beat Hit Em” closes with the vocal sample of a female voice asking “what will people say?”. And it makes perfect sense considering that Clivilles & Cole were among the last of the major pop oriented dance producers who championed strong Afro Latin poly rhythms during the sample/hip-hop era. Along with C&C Music Factory,this is one of the funkiest jams the duo threw down during the early 90’s. And a great transition for one era of freestyle dance music making way for another. The fact this has a mellower,jazz funk atmosphere showcases part of the new trajectory for the freestyle dance genre.
August Darnell got my attention instantly when I first heard Dr. Buzzard & The Original Savannah Band’s “I’ll Play The Fool For You” in the late 1990’s on CD compilation Pure Disco. The first thought I had was that it reminded me of what Duke Ellington’s orchestra would’ve sound like had Duke been alive for the disco era. The song had a heavy swing in with the dance beat to it. And it had that street level mix of wit and elegance so common in the swing era. It instantly got me seeking anything related to Dr. Buzzard or Darnell’s followup ground Kid Creole & The Coconuts.
Darnell himself is something of a man of mystery. He’s a native New Yorker all the way. The Bronx native even went as far as developing the fictitious back round of his Kid Creole character during the 70’s and 80’s,as he become more involved with different musical and theater related projects. Conceptualizing himself as a Caribbean Cab Calloway,his music had the funky eclecticism and conceptually obscurity of both Prince and P-Funk. Only with more if an island twist. One song on the groups 1985 album In Praise Of Older Women And Other Crimes really encompassed this beautifully. It was called “Endicott”.
A round percussion line kicks the song off. The groove itself is pretty much defined by a straight vamp throughout most of it. Its all the funky sweeteners that make it so exciting. The vamp itself is built on a stomping drum,a melodic vibraphone,chicken scratch rhythm guitar and a thick jazzy slap bass line playing very close to that guitar. These are accnted by Darnell’s soulful screams. Darnell’s lead vocals are accented by big band horn charts throughout the song. On brief bridges throughout the song,the female “coconuts” sing lead over the percussive drums. The original vamp of the song then fades it out.
Instrumentally speaking,this song has a Caribbean big band Prince vibe about it all the way. Especially on the rhythm guitar parts. Though the bass line is far thicker than most of Prince’s. Lyrically,this song is so hilarious to me. Endicott is a conceptual character Darnell sings about the whole song. He is willingly self sacrificing to his wife,and is considered an upstanding man. The Coconuts ask Darnell “why can’t you be like Endicott?” to which he sings “because I’m free,free of any made to order liabilities”. Its a wonderfully funky romp through the world of male/female domestic schisms.
Filed under 1985, August Darnell, big band swing, Caribbean Funk, drums, Funk Bass, horns, jazz funk, Kid Creole & The Coconuts, New York, rhythm guitar, vibraphone
Cameo started off under the name of the New York City Players-changing their name when they signed Cassablanca’s generally funk based Chocolate City imprint. The reason for that is thought to be avoidance of a lawsuit by the Ohio Players. Either way,they evolved from Larry Blackmon’s first band East Coast. That group had included the late vocalist Gwen Guthrie. By the time of their 1977 debut album Cardiac Arrest,the now septet had spent nearly two years polishing their grooves based on everything from the dance floor friendly grooves of Brass Construction to the sounds of P-Funk.
With each successive Cameo album,the band developed a sound that grew more and more distinctive. Most interestingly how they kept the growling flavor of hard Southern funk while adapting to the stripped down instrumentation of 1980’s naked funk. There are far too many wonderful and influential Cameo songs to discuss here on Andresmusictalk. With “I Just Want To Be”,”Shake Your Paints” and “Flirt” being just a few of a couple dozen. For the sake of Larry Blackmon’s 60’s birthday,I’m going to cover a song from their debut that epitomized their overall musical focus called “Good Times”
Dancable,cymbal heavy drums and hand-clapping start out the song-accompanied by a round grooving Clavinet. That’s when the low rhythm guitar comes in-along with a gurgling synth bass and a jazzy electric bass line jam their way into the mix. On the refrains,smoothly melodic electric piano gooses all the other instrumentation right along. On the choruses that start the song and repeat throughout,the horn section play some sharp and intensely rhythmic charts. Towards the end of the song,the drum begins fan-faring around a squirrely space funk synth before closing out on the chorus.
Musically speaking,this song showcases the early Cameo sound extremely well. In terms of sound,it is built around the thick wah wah sounds that defined their first hit “Rigor Mortis” from the same album-while also maintaining it’s jazzy harmonics as well. It also has the faster tempo and loose jamming style that would show up on “It’s Serious” from their sophomore album We All Know Who We Are from later that same year. Upon first hearing Cameo with this fuller sound some years ago,it came as a bit of a shock. It all showcased the versatility of funk that is the Cameo sound.
Filed under 1970's, Cameo, clavinet, dance funk, drums, electric piano, Funk, Funk Bass, horns, jazz funk, Larry Blackmon, New York, rhythm guitar, synth bass, synthesizer, wah wah
David Byrne,Tina Weymouth,Chris Frantz and Jerry Harrison had been honing their performance persona and songwriting skills at NYC’s CBGB’s for a few years before. They started as an opening act for The Ramones in the very late spring of 1975. Looking back at their early performances,the bands stripped down and precise grooves must have been very strange amidst the noisy atmospherics of mid/late 70’s CBGB’s. Their early recorded demos didn’t make of an impact until later the next year-when Seymour Stein of Sire Records signed them up and they began recording their debut album.
This first album entitled Talking Heads 77 has a very different vibe than most albums that came out of NYC’s original punk scene. The main inspiration for it’s sound wasn’t as much raggedy 60’s garage rock as it was the cleaner instrumental sounds of early 70’s soul and funk music. My personal experience with the bands music started more with their early/mid 80’s album and worked backward to this one. Not being the loud guitar thrasher type album I half expected,it’s opening song gives a good idea of the grooves that lie within. The name of this song is “Uh-Oh,Love Comes To Town”.
Byrne and Weymouth begin the song with a bass/guitar that scales up and down with each other until Chris Frantz hi hats turns over to a slow,shuffling funky drum with bouncy percussion fills. Weymouth turns out a late 60’s James Jamerson style bass line throughout in the spirit of “I Was Made To Lover Her” while Harrison deals with a sustained chicken scratch rhythm guitar line. Harrison’s organ like keyboards play a horn-like roll on the choruses which take the melody up a key. The bridge adds a shuffling steel drums solo before another refrain/choral pattern brings the song to a slowed stop.
One of the key elements of much late 60’s/early 70’s pop/rock was an imitation of the early/mid 60’s Motown sound. Now Motown has an effect on this song too. But Talking Heads were somewhat unique among funk inspired rock groups in that they were inspired by the present and the future of the music-not the recent past. So this song has the funkier melodic vibe of early 70’s Jackson 5ive style Motown-with the use of more James Brown inspired bass/guitar interaction and a light Caribbean flavor. In that way,it’s an excellent template for what Talking Heads groove would evolve into.
Filed under 1970's, CBGB's, chicken scratch guitar, Chris Frantz, David Byrne, drums, Funk Bass, funk rock, James Jamerson, Jerry Harrison, keyboards, Motown Sound, New Wave, New York, pop funk, steel drums, Talking Heads, Tina Weymouth
Bob James is actually an artist whom I discovered within the last decade and a half. A Missouri native whose music was informed by (and on) the city of New York,his sound drew a great deal of inspiration of theatrical Broadway musicals and film scores. This goes into James’ talents as a pianist,composer and arranger. His jazz bass and embrace of the 70’s funk sound led him to being one of the progenitors of the production style referred to as smooth jazz. His solo career has carried on for over four decades. And he was also a founding member of the smooth jazz group Fourplay.
It was actually due to another conversation with my parents that got me into first hearing Bob James music. The question posed to them was that,as a choreographer,had my mother ever done a piece based on a popular song. While the exact information was somewhat vague,she did remember that sometime in 1976 she had heard the Bob James song “Westchester Lady”. And something about it’s progression made it sound like it would be a good song for all the members of her troupe to choreograph as a group piece. So today,I’m going to endeavor to overview this song on a musical level.
Harvey Mason’s hi hat drum swing hugs Will Lee’s upscaling 7 note bass line on the intro,as Hugh McCracken’s mutron filtered electric guitar rhythmically plucks away. This is the entire rhythmic base of the entire song. The main melody of the song finds James’ electric piano playing a very riff filled with blue notes. That’s when the strings come in-at first playing along with the bass line. On the choruses,a huge horn ensemble comes in playing a very cinematic melody-accompanied by ringing bell like percussion along with the sweeping strings that grow in intensity.
The second refrain of the song features a bluesy sax solo from Grover Washington Jr. as the main instrumental part. The second chorus of string actually extends for a much longer time-adding more fluttering violins on the second turn of it. On the final refrain of the song,James’ electric piano and Eric Gale’s guitar play some bluesy call and response solos duets with the darting horn charts. As this bridge continues,their playing grows more intense and dramatic. Then the song simply goes back into the quiet groove of the first refrain as it proceeds to fade out entirely.
Considering the emergence of Isaac Hayes and Barry White during the first half of the 1970’s,it was no surprise that Bob James and the productions he did at CTI and on his forthcoming solo career would become part of the evolving jazz/funk fusion genre. The nature of this groove,with funkiness being the supporting element and the orchestration accenting it,indeed makes it ideal for a contemporary modern dance piece of it’s day for an ensemble of dancers. Each musician brings something important to this song’s funky dramatics. And that’s what brings this instrumentally danceable funk to life.
Filed under 1970's, Bob James, choreography, cinematic soul, drums, electric piano, Eric Gale, Funk Bass, Grover Washington Jr., Harvey Mason, horns, Hugh McCracken, jazz funk, New York, rhythm guitar, strings, Uncategorized, Will Lee
Atlantic Starr were known to me (as I’m sure they are with a lot of radio listeners) with their two late 80’s adult contemporary ballad hits “Secret Lovers” and “Always”. Though these weren’t the most instrumentally exciting songs ever made,they still showcased how talented the band actually were. The big surprise to me was that Atlantic Starr began as a heavy funk septet out of Greenburgh,New York. Central to the band was three Lewis brothers in guitarist Dave,percussionist and trombonist Johnathan and keyboardist Wayne-all of whom shared vocal duties. Today is Wayne’s birthday. And it felt right to tell the story of the bands early days.
While performing in Westwood,California the band were known by the name Newban. That is until they were signed to A&M sand Herb Alpert requested they changed their name. The clarifier “Atlantic” came from the bands East coast roots. And they were off and running to record their self titled debut in 1978. My friend Henrique Hopkins referred to one song from their early days to me through another source. It was a commercial for the LA soul radio station 1580 KDAY,which featured a cameo of a 20 year old Michael Jackson dancing to a song from Atlantic Starr’s debut. Henrique mused if MJ was dancing off it,it had to have been a special groove. And the name of this groove was “Stand Up”.
Drummer Porter Carroll kicks off the song,whose opener is defined by Wayne Lewis’s sharp and ultra melodic space funk synthesizer darting. Over this,the three Lewis brothers vocally harmonizes in unison with equally melodic horn charts. The refrain that follows deals with a thick interaction of chugging rhythm guitar,solid bass thumping,ringing percussion with the horns playing the accents. The pattern between the choral intro and this refrain repeats a couple of times throughout the song. There’s a bridge towards the end of the song that reduces the song down to it’s core elements of drums,percussion,bass and backup vocals before the horns chime back in until the song fades out.
I really want to thank Henrique for giving me a chance to really appreciate this song. As both of us agreed,Wayne Lewis’s opening synthesizer riffs are some of the most ear catching and powerful of the disco era funk sound. This song packs a strong rhythm punch about it,and has a really thick bottom layer bought bubbling up to the top as well. Clifford Archer delivers a great foundational bass line as well. It thumps and slaps pretty heavy in parts,but for the most part it provides a solid bed for the percussion and beat that are at the heart of the songs groove. And it was an excellent way for Atlantic Starr to kick off to a good start as a funk band.
Filed under 1970's, Atlantic Starr, California, disco funk, drums, Funk Bass, horns, KDAY radio, New York, percussion, rhythm guitar, synthesizer, Uncategorized, Wayne Lewis