Sting’s love of music goes back to his youth in Northumberland, England. Born Gordon Sumner, he’d gotten a deep impression from the Wellsend’s shipyward-seeing his future as being in that industry at first. He graduated from what’s now Northumbria University with an education degree. He taught as a headmaster for two years. Between his education and teaching, his played jazz gigs at night. That’s where Sumner was nicknamed Sting due to his apparent physical resemblance to a bee. By 1977, he’s moved to London to form the original lineup of The Police with Stewart Copeland.
As for The Police’s story, the rest is history. In 1984, The Police broke up. Sting’s by then legendary ego was driving him in the direction of solo work. The sound of The Police had grown in scope-from a punk reggae sound to taking on more pop and jazz elements. It was that side of their sound that dovetailed into Sting’s 1985 solo debut The Dream Of The Blue Turtles. Recorded with a quintet of jazz players in Omar Hakim, Darryl Jones, Branford Marsalis and the late Kenny Kirkland, the album got off to a musical and commercially powerful start with “If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free”.
Sting sings the chorus mantra style on the intro over Hakim’s drums-with Sting’s liquid guitar with a rather Asian rhythmic vibe. The drums take on a heavier, in the pocket rock drive after that. Kirkland’s organ, Sting’s funky rhythm guitar licks, Jones’ bass runs and Kirkland’s organ keep the groove thick-with Marsalsis’s sax accents playing melodically at every rhythmic turn. The bridge has a heavy A and B section. That A section hits heavy on the second beat-with a deeper guitar tone. And the B section bringing back everyone for a more progression tone before an extended chorus fades it all out.
“If You Love Somebody,Set Them Free” has been so hardwired into my own musical ear, its easy to forget that this was likely the last time a major pop artist utilized contemporary jazz players as their band for a solo debut. Sting’s songwriting is astounding-really letting go with the jazz flavor. At the same time, throwing in a heavy gospel/blues based R&B one as well. Still, Hakin’s drums in particular keep it somehow big and rocking. Listening to it now, its actually part of a series of musically daring records that Sting continued to deliver during the prime of his solo career.
The Five Stairsteps were the prototype family soul group-predating the Jackson 5 and The Sylvers by several years. They were made up of five out of the six children of Betty and Clarence Burke,a detective for the CPD. They were Alohe Jean, James, Clarence Jr., Dennis and Kenneth-known as Keni. For a brief time, the late Cubie Burke (the youngest brother” was part of the outfit. The became known as Chicago’s “first family of soul”. Their second album Our Family Portrait yeilded the hit “Something’s Missing’. But their best known song was 1970’s “O-o-h Child”.
By that time, the group were known as The Stairsteps. Alohe left the group in 1972. This was just before the group were brought to The Beatles attention by Billy Preston. After a five year hiatus, Preston and Robert Margouleff all came together to produce a comeback along with The Stairsteps-in their new configuration as a quartet. This 1976 album was entitled 2nd Resurrection. I’ve never heard the entire album. But what I’ve heard about it is that, it had a more synthesizer oriented sound. One song I did hear from it was the Keni Burke composition “From Us To You”.
Alvin Taylor’s drums come right in along with Preston’s wailing synthesizer. It keeps a steady, occasionally marching rhythm throughout. The main melody is first played by the harmonizing of Preston’s synth and Dennis Burke’s guitar for a massive melodic sound. This also represents the chorus of the song. Between each chorus, Preston harmonizes with himself on his honky tonk piano, bluesy polyphonic synth riffing and sustained organ. For much of the rest of the song, the Stairsteps vocal harmonies and adlibs sing right along with Preston until the organ fades out on the main melody.
“From Us To You” doesn’t sound to me like anything I’d ever think The Five Stairsteps (by any other name) would do. The drawling chorus, style of singalong melody and the thick groove of the music is far closer in flavor to the Brothers Johnson’s “I’ll Be Good To You” or a Graham Central Station number. Of course, Billy Preston’s instrumentation probably has a lot to do with its heavy funkiness. Interestingly enough, the Preston connection got the band signed to George Harrison’s Dark Horse label to make this album as well. And it certainly started with a strongly funkified new direction for them.
Eric Gale started to teach himself guitar in his native Brooklyn at the age of 12. He played on the R&B circuit with acts such as King Curtis, Maxine Brown and Little Anthony & The Imperials. This laid the ground work for his future as a session great. While at Niagra University, he studied chemistry. The music bug never left Gale however. His major claim to fame was as a session ace during the 60’s and 70’s. As a member of the instrumental jazz funk outfit Stuff, Gale played with Paul Simon in 1980 for his One Trick Pony soundtrack. He was also part of Aretha Franklin’s stage band for a time.
He began a concurrent career as a leader with 1973’s Forecast, on the Kudu label. He recorded the bulk of his late 70’s albums on Columbia however. His first two albums on the label were Ginseng Woman in 1977 and Multiplication the following year. Both albums have been combined together at least twice during the CD era. And were recommended to me by my dad while crate digging. Revisiting some of the songs via YouTube, the song that really stood out uppermost in my head with the title song to the Multiplication album.
Andrew Smith’s jazzy march on drums starts out the groove-with Gale’s ringing guitar improvising along with Bob James’ synths and Alphonso Johnson’s exploratory bass line-starting the groove in a dreamy fashion. Then the horns kick into the groove with Gale playing an ever evolving, down home blues type solo while Richard Tee’s piano and organ join the rhythm section in holding up a soulful groove. All with the horns accenting the changes in key on virtually every chorus and refrain. Its on the closing extended chorus that Gale scales down on his guitar solo as the song itself fades out.
“Multiplication” is an excellent example of ace jazz/funk/rock/fusion session musicians bring a wonderful feeling to their grooves. Sometimes, albums made by session players are thought to be too technical and less human. Gale, Johnson, Jackson, James and Tee’s years of experience playing together really give this groove a great late 70’s jazz/funk version of the uptown, bluesy/soul nightclub musical ethic. And its Gale’s fluid playing style and rich, ballsy tone that lead the way with grooves of this particular type. Basically a theme he’d always variate on as a band leader.
Michael “Mick” Talbot could be described as the man who, even prior to James Taylor, pioneered the revival of Hammond organ based soul/funk on the British musical scene. In the late 70’s, Talbot played in a trio of mod revivalist bands. The best known of them in the end would be Dexy’s Midnight Runners. Mick of course found his voice with Paul Weller as The Style Council. They embraced an often jazz laced blend of contemporary funk,soul and dance music’s. All inspired by Weller and Talbot’s mutual goal to musically shatter the myths and culture of the rock music world.
The band released their debut EP in 1983 in several countries except for the UK, interestingly enough. The following year they released their be bop and hip-hop laced full length debut Cafe Bleu. On both these releases, a precedence was set for including Talbot composed Hammond organ based instrumentals into different sections of the albums. One of my favorites was originally featured as the B-side to the 1984 single version of the song “My Ever Changing Moods”. The name of this particular instrumental had a cute wordplay about it: “Mick’s Company”.
Talbot starts off the song playing an ultra funky riff-doubling up what sounds like a Clavinet setting on a DX-7 synthesizer-all before Hammond organ swirl breaks into the drum roll right into the song. The main theme is this Clavinet effect played with a round synth bass pumping heavy behind it. And Talbot’s bluesy organ playing a counter solo to the introductory synth riff. There are two B sections of the songs where it changes chords. And the organ solo becomes more elaborate. Talbot improvises more and more on the organ as the song processes towards its fade out.
“Mick’s Company”, perhaps the most of Mick Talbot’s organ based instrumentals with the Style Council, really epitomize a somewhat under explored instrumental funk direction for the 1980’s. It combines the bluesy song structure and organ improvising of hard bop/soul jazz, the guitar like Clavinet based sound of the 70’s and mixes both together with a mid 80’s digitized synthesizer/bass oriented approach. It really encapsulates the previous three decades of instrumental soul/funk in under 3 minutes. In the end, it helped give the Style Council their distinctive spin on funk and soul for the 80’s.
John Abercrombie picked up his first guitar at age 14 in his native Port Chester,New York. He attended the Berklee School Of Music in the early to mid 60’s. He played with a group of fellow students at Paul Mall’s Jazz Workshop, a local my father often talked about seeing some acts at during his 70’s trips to Boston. This resulted in him being discovered by organist Johnny Hammond,who had him join his group for a time. After a brief time attending Northern Texas State University, Abercrombie returned to New York to become one of the most renowned jazz session guitarists in the city.
Abercrombie went on to recording as a leader on the German ECM label. This is one of those jazz labels that actually has its own particular sound. Primarily a jazz label, the artists on ECM didn’t want to focus too much on any other musical genre they adopted into their music. But more on their playing ability and their own sound. Abercrombie made his debut album for the label in 1974. It featured him in a trio with drummer Jack DeJohnette and fusion pianist/organist/synthesizer pioneer Jan Hammer. The album was called Timeless. And the title track is one of those songs that speaks a thousands words.
Hammer starts off the song with a sustained,deep synth bass tone. Than his organ comes in with its own kind of sunny sustain. Into this mix comes DeJohnette’s drums, which come through with some ascending hi hat and cymbal brushes creating a dreamy rhythmic atmosphere. Abercrombie’s guitar, playing a number of bluesy and faster gypsy jazz style licks, is complimented by Hammer’s synth bass changing harmonically to accommodate it. Around the bridge of the song, the drums gain a heavier power with Hammer’s synths rocking more. Then the song fades into its original theme as it fades.
“Timeless” is a nearly 12 minute song that’s based heavily around Abercrombie’s soloing. His style was light and understated-very much in the Miles Davis/Ahmad Jamal school. Yet he takes some very fast and elaborate runs too. Jack DeJohnette’s serves the soloing amazingly. While Jan Hammer provides that critical extra texture on his organ and synth. Its big,small,progressive and ambient all at once. Its also the first time hearing this song-after the passing the album over many times. John Abercrombie has sadly passed away this week at the age of 72. And this is a beautiful way to remember his music.
Joe Jackson, born David Ian, came out of his Staffordshire,England into playing piano bars as a teenager. His early precociousness led him to earn a scholarship to London’s Royal Academy of Music. His first band was Edward Bear, later renamed Arms and Legs. They band broke up in 1976 after two unsuccessful singles. He got his professional name from the experience however. His demo got the him the interest of A&M records,who signed him in 1978. His Joe Jackson Band had a big new wave hit right out of the box with “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” from their debut Look Sharp!.
The Joe Jackson Band broke up after the 1980 album Beat Crazy. Jackson himself went on to record an album of swing and jump blues classics on his 1981 release Jumpin’ Jive – oddly enough presenting that style of music as the punk rock of its time in terms of public reception. His sincere interest in jazz music grew to the point where, in 1982 he released the album Night & Day-a vital collection of jazz,pop and Afro Latin musical ideas and the song writing of people such as Cole Porter. The song that became the most enduring and popular on the album was called “Steppin’ Out”.
The song (especially in the single version where it doesn’t flow from the previous song on the album) begins with a metronomic, lightly gated drum after which a sizzling synth bass comes into the song-with Jackson’s heavy keyed piano melody comes building into the arrangement. Layers of piano parts plus bursts of organ play a major part of the refrain. The intro represents the instrumental approach of the chorus. The bridge of the song features the piano melody with a sustained organ and high pitched bells as accents. An extended chorus fades the song out.
“Steppin’ Out” is a song that defined much of my radio listening with family as a child. They even had the 45 of it. Over 35 years after it first came out, its got a combination of sounds I haven’t yet heard in other music since. Let alone an early 80’s pop hit. The basic rhythm of the song is a punky, new wave rock style kickoff. So is Jackson’s vocal style. At the same time, his approach to piano and the harmonic chordal changes come out earlier American jazz inspired song writers. Plus the fact it uses more organ than any pop song of the time. Its…new wave jazz sound makes a distinctive and continually enduring song.
Isaac Hays, born in Covington, Tennessee in 1942 was raised by his grandparents. He was encouraged to finish high school several years after dropping out due to the encouragement of his teachers. After turning down musical scholarships from several universities, Hayes began performing in the late 50’s as a teenager. By the mid 1960’s, he and David Porter became one of the major songwriting partners at Stax. Especially for the duo Sam & Dave. His solo debut Presenting Isaac Hayes wasn’t a big success in 1968. But its jazzier orientation pointed in a vital new direction for his music.
By that time, Stax was in trouble. Otis Redding had died with most of the original Bar Kays in a plane crash. And Atlantic Records had absorbed most of their back catalog. As a label functioning with no music, label owner Al Bell decided to have its remaining artists to record 27 new albums to give Stax new content. Hayes’s sophomore album Hot Buttered Soul was the most successful in 1969. Its extended, jazzy and psychedelic treatments of his own songs and interpretations became his signature sound. Even through his record breaking 1971 soundtrack for Shaft.
With Shaft, Hayes had basically created the production template for the disco era. That was elongated dance songs with heavy string and horn orchestration’s. As the disco era arrived in earnest, Hayes mid to late 70’s albums swam right along with the tide his earlier 70’s works had initiated. Not to mention his continuing soundtrack work for movies like Truck Turner and Three Tough Guys. As similar artists like Barry White ascended to popularity, some of Hayes’ albums got lost on the musical public. One of them was an album with an amazing title song entitled “Joy”.
A 7 hit drum beat (with plenty of hi hat around the middle) starts off the song at an approximately 80 BPM’s-which continues throughout the rest of the song. Then the snaky bass and distant seeming wah wah guitar accents chime in. From there, the strings rise up in volume right into the song-spiraling horn charts in the back round. A sustained organ swirl also joins the mix. A bluesy fuzz guitar plays to Hayes’s vocals. On the b section of the chorus, the melody gets a bit higher key with the orchestration. The song fades out with a long,grunting extended refrain.
At almost 16 minutes, “Joy” is one of those early 70’s funk operas. It actually reminds me a little bit of Barry White’s “I’m Gonna Love You Just A Little More Baby” from the same year. Its among the faster of Hayes’ usual extended ballad approach of the earlier 70s. Still, Hayes’ distinctive psychedelic and jazz tones keep this distinct as cinematic soul/funk was becoming more the mainstream at the time. And its for that reason that its actually one of my favorite Hayes’ solo numbers along with “Theme From Shaft”, “Groove-A-Thon” and his epic version of “Walk On By”.
William Royce Scaggs,nicknamed “Boz” (short for Bosley by a childhood pal) came out of his birthplace of Canton,Ohio to meet his original mentor Steve Miller-who went to college in Madison Wisconsin with Scaggs as well. After a failed stint on the London scene and a little known solo album released in Sweden in 1965, Scaggs returned to the US and became a key member of the Steve Miller Band for two albums of theirs during 1968. In 1969 he teamed up with the Muscle Shoals studio grew (in particular Duane Allman) to record his self titled major label debut album.
Scaggs always had the ability to surprise people with his music. He himself said he was interested in soul,R&B and funk. But what was contemporary in that music at the given time. The the result of his forward thinking musicianship were iconic songs such as “Lowdown”,”Jojo” and “Miss Sun”. In 1987,he retired from music to concentrate on his San Francisco nightclub Slims. After touring with a super group called the New York Rock & Soul Revue,he made his official comeback with the 1994 album Some Change. The song on it that got to me most was called “I’ll Be The One”.
A slow,swinging funky drum machine opens up the song with a light wah wah rhythm guitar. As well as brief accents from the vibraphone playing chordally off the bass and guitar parts. On the chorus,as the chords of the song change town,Scaggs’ voice is accompanied by a sustained organ like keyboard sound. On the secondary part of the chorus,the song changes chords again as a chorus of Vocorderized backup singers keep with these changes of melody. On the final few verses of the song,all of its instrumental elements come together with Scaggs’ vocal improvisation.
“I’ll Be The One” is one of those songs where,during a period when a good deal of soul music lacked instrumental vitality,that actually got exactly the right kind of vibe for the smooth jazz era. The production is slow,the groove a spare jazzy,funky soul. But the production is both sleek and punchy enough to stick out with its relaxed flavor. It also has a similar vibe to what would work for the Chicago stepping dances that originated in the 70’s. Don’t think its one of his best known songs,since the Some Change album produced no hit singles. At the same time,this is a very soulful non hit kind of hit.
Eric Burdon’s best known for being the lead singer for The Animals,part of the bluesiest end of the 60’s British Invasion along with the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds. Of course The Animals are best known for their version of “House Of The Rising Sun”. After that band split up in 1969, Burdon and producer Jerry Goldstein formed the band War out of a group of black LA musicians such as Lonnie Jordan, Thomas “Papa Dee” Allen,Harold Brown and Danish born harmonica player Lee Oskar. And they were a commercial and musical success right of the box.
The debut album of this outfit was 1970’s Eric Burdon Declares War. Its blend of Latin rock and soul was an important part of the funk process. Recording only two albums while together, Burdon left the band to their own devices after collapsing onstage of an asthma attack during one of their performances. The band officially reunited for a live performance at the Royal Albert Hall in 2008. Via YouTube listening,one of my favorite songs by the Eric Burdon led edition of War is the title song to their 1976 archival release-which was entitled Love Is All Around.
With a hi hat tapping away at the beginning,the low growling bluesy guitar that defines Burdon’s vocal melody start out the song. Its one that has a very basic groove throughout it. It consists of that same guitar riff from the intro,the hi hat and lightly shuffling funky drum. Each bar is accentuated by a grooving organ riff. After several bars of this, a pitch bent horn section plays the refrains with the organ. On the bridge,the drums rock out a bit more-with the organ and horns in a more sustained. The basic groove of the song repeats itself with call and response vocal choruses until the song fades out.
When I first heard the way this song was put together,it instantly reminded me of the sound that Sly & The Family Stone had on their first three albums. Those pitched up and down horns,the rhythmic organ andthe instrumental trade offs. Most of this very late 60’s style groove (both musically and lyrically) is actually very instrumentally condensed -consisting mostly of an evolving refrain. The bridge more or less serves as an in a break in sound to the choral vocals that end the album. Even though it was released later,its a vital example of War and Eric Burdon’s contribution to the funk process.
Filed under Eric Burdon, War