Tag Archives: Phenix Horns

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Love’s Holiday” by Earth Wind & Fire

Earth Wind & Fire’s 1977 album All ‘N All is about to celebrate its 40th anniversary this coming autumn. Today however, wanted to pick one particular song from this iconic album to talk about. And for a very special reason. Raised in Kentucky, Johnny Graham started out playing the trumpet as a child. And moved to guitar as a teenager. While touring with the new birth, Graham got contacted by Maurice White. Apparently some of the New Birth members had told White how great a guitarist Graham was. And White wanted Graham as one of his guitarists in his rebooted edition of Earth Wind & Fire.

That reboot edition of EWF debuting on Head To The Sky became basically the bands classic 70’s line up. Graham, who turns 66 today, provided a strong amplified blues flavor to EWF during its salad days. And his guitar solos on songs such as “That’s The Way Of The World” essentially added that musical element of earthiness present in their name. Another such solo turned up on the song that closes the first side of the original LP of the All ‘N All album. And a song that’s become album cut by many admirers of the band. The name of the song is “Love’s Holiday”.

A thick,cymbal heavy drum count comes in with the Phenix Horns playing a beautifully jazzy unison horn chart. Than Al McKay and Verdine White’s bass/guitar interaction comes in with the Ralph Johnson’s drum clipping along at approximately 72 beats per minutes The horns, including a muted trumpet play an accessorizing part along with very faint strings in the back round. And especially on the climbing B-section to the chorus, Philip and Maurice’s sing right along with them. Graham’s guitar solo comes in on the closing refrain-playing call and response with Maurice White’s vocalese.

“Love’s Holiday” is an example of that literal “slow jam” that EWF had been perfecting during their years with Charles Stepney and beyond. It would extend from songs like “Devotion” up through “Be My Love” from the early 80’s. By the time of this song in 1977, the band and its many musical collaborators had this densely arranged jazzy funk/soul sound down to a science. Comedian Steve Harvey even singled out this particular song as an example of what “real music” sounded like. Its one of the most melodically and harmonically beautiful ballads to emerge out of the funk era in the 1970’s.

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Time” by Deniece Williams

Deniece Williams was born in Gary,Indiana-also the home town of the Jacksons. And is very close in age to the musical family’s eldest member Rebbie. Very much like EWF’s late founder Maurice White,she initially had her eyes on the medical profession-in her case in becoming a nurse and anesthetist. She dropped out after one year at Morgan State University in Baltimore. She then recorded as a singer for a number of small labels until she joined Stevie Wonder’s band Wonderlove during the early 70’s.

After leaving Wonderlove in 1975,she released her solo debut This Is Niecy on the Columbia label,in the company of Maurice White and much of the Earth Wind & Fire musical crew. Her epic song “Free” really broke her into hit status,even getting her an appearance on Soul Train. She continued her association with EWF on through her followup album in 1977’s Song Bird. Discovered the album last year in the vinyl bins and became really entranced with every song on it. One particular song from the album that got my attention was the opening song entitled “Time”.

The Phenix Horns are fanfarring call and response style with the marching call like drum breaks on the intro of the song. After that,the entire musical flavor of the song thickens up with this big rhythm with a three note snare drum hit around the middle. Al McKay’s heavily reverbed guitar and Verdine White’s extended bass runs play musical hide and seek with Niecy’s vocals along with Larry Dunn’s electric piano and the Phenix horns. While the chorus merely changes the chord of the refrain a bit higher,the final part of the song finds the drums playing a more stop/start beat until it all fades out.

“Time” is the kind of intricately structured song EWF delivered in such a consistent,well oiled way during their mid/late 70’s salad days. Williams’ high and often quite loud voice literally does seem to sour and fly in her fine gospel drenched style throughout the entirety of this song. EWF were a band who had mastered their ability to be highly daring musically,often very jazzy and still leave room to accomodate singers with big voices. Like The Emotions,Deniece Williams was another such singer. And this song was a total funk triumph for her in her years recording with the members of EWF.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Turn It Into Something Good” by Earth Wind & Fire

Earth Wind & Fire generally didn’t depend too much on outside songwriters and producers-unless of course their names were Skip Scarborough or Charles Stepney. They were more musical insiders who assisted the band just out from under foot. By the time of 1979’s I Am, Maurice White was producing most of album with David Foster. With the following years Faces, they were out to make a double album set of all new studio material. So outside songwriters on this album included Brenda Russell and Valerie Carter.

Carter passed away at the age of 64 yesterday,having apparently spent some years struggling with drug addiction. A prominent songwriter/backup singer who recorded a handful of solo albums in the 70’s,she worked primarily with other singer/songwriters. In particular James Taylor.  She also made two major contributions to the funk/soul genre. She composed a  now rare B-side for the Brothers Johnson in 1984 called “Deceiver”. Five years earlier,her contribution to the songwriting for EWF on their Faces album came in its second track entitled “Turn It Into Something Good”.

A medium tempo,conga clav laden Carbbean funk drum line lays the foundation for the rhythm of the entire song. Right from the start. In full interplay within this mix are the brittle,melodic guitar of Al McKay with Verdine White’s exploratory,rhythmic jazzy bass line. Playing call and response to this are Larry Dunn on the Rhodes piano and the Phenix Horns. This represents the intro,refrain and outro of the song. On the chorus of song,the chord goes up and so does the pitch of the Rhodes as Maurice and Phillip trade off their vocals in fine style. A bass/guitar/Kalimba rhythm segues out of this song onto the next.

As the late Maurice White was quoted as saying a decade ago now,he feels the Faces album was one where EWF were really in tune with their sound. His brother Verdine called it the type of album they really wanted to cut. Valerie Carter,Maurice White and James Howard Newton all came together to create one of the greatest triad’s of songs on an EWF album-with this one sandwiched between the heavy funkiness of the opener “Let Me Talk” and “Pride”. This song mixes the Caribbean/Calypso flavor with a poppy funkiness that goes with one of EWF’s classic empowering message songs for a decade of many challenges.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Sing A Song” by Earth Wind & Fire

Earth Wind & Fire really came into its own when adding New Orleans born guitarist Al McKay in 1973 for their fourth album Head To The Sky. As Verdine White himself put it, McKay was already well known among musicians for his work with Sammy Davis Jr. and the Watt’s 103rd Street Rhythm Band by the time he joined EWF. This all came together to allow McKay to bring the strong pop element Maurice White was looking for. Al McKay was also another rhythm kind in the band. And that made brought him into close musical interplay with Verdine White and drummer Ralph Johnson.

McKay left EWF in 1980 following the release of their album Faces. By that point,McKay had already co-written at least two of the bands classic hit songs. One of them came from a guitar riff that Maurice White overheard McKay working on,so the story goes. And he felt the entire band should build a song around it. The song ended up being included as one of a handful of new studio tracks on EWF’s mostly live album Gratitude  from late 1975. Its one of those EWF songs that most people know by heart,and that includes myself. The name of it is “Sing A Song”.

An eight note bass/guitar interplay countdown opens the song. Than McKay’s main riff comes in-a thick a busy bubbling melody with Verdine scaling upwards on bass right next to him. The upbeat,sunny drums and the Phenix horns accent these instrumental parts. The Phenix horns do exactly the same thing for the vocal exchanges between Maurice White and Philip Bailey on the refrains. On the chorus,Larry Dunn’s Moog plays a variation of Verdine’s bass line. On the final chorus,Maurice and Phillip sing the breakdown together before an electric piano,the Moog bass and Phenix horns fade it all out.

Everything about this song literally seems to be singing. The Phenix horns with their brassy vibrato and Al McKay’s liquid rhythm guitar throughout this song give it an enormous vocal quality along with Maurice White and Phillip Bailey. The rhythms and bright melodies have some of the “united funk” era’s heaviest sense of gospel style joyousness to it. Having known a lot of people who’ve complained the lack of “genuine emotion” in music,this song takes the cake in terms of true happiness,and the power of music during the 70’s funk era to get to you sing a song to make your day.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “No Reply At All” by Genesis

Genesis began their career in the early 70’s as a progressive rock outfit,whose lead singer was the charismatic performer Peter Gabriel. Up until 1975,the bands sound was based in different forms of European classical music. Phil Collins succeeded Gabriel as a vocalist as well as being the drummer and one of the writers for the group with 1976’s Trick Of The Tail. Gradually, Genesis began to take on elements of jazz/rock fusion of a type Collins was playing in his other band Brand X. By the time of Genesis’s 1981 album Abacab,elements of modern funk and soul became an aspect of their sound as well.

That same year,Collins released his solo debut album Face Value. It was a very diverse album that’s now considered a classic. And also had its share modern funky/soul uptempo numbers. For both Collins’ solo effort and Genesis’s,Earth Wind & Fire’s Phenix Horns. They consisted of trumpeters Rahmlee Michael Davis and Michael Harris-along with the late,greats in sax player Don Myrick and trombonist/bassist Louis Satterfield. As a drummer,Collins musically related very well to the horn sections combination of melody and rhythm. This really showed in Genesis’s big hit from 1981 called “No Reply At All”.

The song starts out hot. The refrain consists of Collins’ percussive,fast paced rhythms with Tony Banks’ equally percussive synthesizer melody adding to Mike Rutherford’s phat,jazzy funk bass line. The Phenix Horns accent hard on every second beat. On the chorus,Collins’ drum roll brings in the refrain where the keyboard,guitars and bass line play along with a fuller horn chart-until another drum roll bridges each refrain/choral exchange. Banks on a solo piano with a Wall Of Sound style drum from Collins’ represents a bridge that leads into the choral/refrain exchange the closes out the song.

In terms of an English band mixing progressive pop/rock with Afrocentric,percussion/ horn based funk,”No Reply At All” is one of the finest examples at the beginning of the decade. The sound is not at all overcooked,which is a frequent aspect (and to some writers and critics,a complaint) about Phil Collins’ own solo combinations of the styles. Because this is coming as a collaborative writing effort from Genesis,a power trio band,each member deals with the combinations of rhythm,melody and arrangement extremely well. That makes this probably the funkiest moment Genesis had up to this point in time.

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Gratitude” by Earth,Wind & Fire

Verdine White was just 19 when he took up his brother Maurice’s offer to join his then new band Earth,Wind & Fire in LA. It may have very well been the best choice Verdine ever made in retrospect. He once discussed feeling he’d make it big for sure having met Richard Roundtree and Jimi Hendrix upon arrival. The next six year’s found the band paying their dues for the massive crossover success their funk got in 1975 with “Shining Star and the That’s The Way Of The World album. Verdine is 65 today,and sadly his brother Maurice isn’t here for the event. Still whoever lives or dies,the funk is its own reward.

During this period of working closely with Charles Stepney,EWF were on the road constantly on their first massive tour-one that included visual illusions from Doug Henning and David Copperfield. They didn’t have time to record a full studio album so they released a double album-consisting mostly of the best live renditions of their songs up to that point from their touring. There were also five new studio tracks-the two most successful being “Singasong” and “Can’t Hide Love”. The album was another major smash hit too. One track Verdine participated in as a writer was the title song ‘Gratitude”.

Larry Dunn and Verdine start off the song with a close walk down on Fender Rhodes and bass,until a muted horn breaks into the full horn charts that begin the main song. The drums have a slinky,rather slow tempo with the Rhodes,slap bass and the horn charts accenting Maurice White and Philip Bailey’s vocal turns. Al McKay plays some occasional rhythm guitar licks and,as the song progresses Johnny Graham takes turns with his amplified blues licks.Before the song fades out, the melodic pitch goes up for it’s last couple of choruses.

Musically speaking,this song is a heavy stripped down funk relative to the more filled out “Shining Star” and 1976’s “Saturday Night”. This makes sense as it was made exactly between the two. It epitomizes EWF’s funk sound while Charles Stepney was involved in their production. It had the slickest studio based variant of that ultra bluesy Chicago style funk. With the studio hits off this generally live album were huge successes,this title song seems to be a bit neglected. And that’s interesting because it’s the heaviest funk among the albums five studio tracks. Any way around it,Verdine’s bass is a major star of the show.

 

 

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Filed under 1970's, Charles Stepney, drums, Earth Wind & Fire, Fender Rhodes, Funk, Funk Bass, guitar, horns, Johnny Graham, Larry Dunn, Maurice White, Phenix Horns, Philip Bailey, Verdine White

Anatomy Of THE Groove: “Let Me Talk” by Earth Wind & Fire

Earth Wind & Fire are one of those funk bands who included two guitarists and two drummers. In terms of the latter,there was Maurice White’s brother Fred and their main drummer Ralph Johnson. Johnson for his part is still an active part of EWF to this very day. Upon seeing him interviewed,he discussed his close instrumental relationship with the bands bassist (also still actively involved) Verdine White. He stated that if he didn’t play drums,he’d have been a bass player due to his close musical relationship with rhythm. And rhythm remains one of the key elements of the Earth Wind & Fire sound.

After an enormous run of successful hits from 1975-1979,Earth Wind & Fire were likely the most popular band of that time period. At the strong encouragement of Maurice White,the band traveled to Egypt among other locations the world over. When they returned to record their next album,music and not sales figures was foremost on their mind. So they cut a musically elaborate double album in 1980 entitled Faces. While it had their signature melodic sound,the rhythms were major game changers for them. The opening song really emphasized this,and it was one that Ralph Johnson co-wrote: “Let Me Talk?

Larry Dunn’s deep bass synth tone begins this song. What accompanies it are the Phenix horns riffing at hyper-speed through the musical magic of a sped up tape loop. The rhythm behind this is the same as  the refrains: a danceable Afro-Brazilian samba deep in the Latin clave. As the rhythm guitar and glistening synth accents play along with the horns and vocals,the bass hugs the rhythm tightly. On the choruses,the beat becomes more conventionally funky/pop-with synth bass taking a strong roll. That musical pattern continues throughout  this song until a quirky bit of recorded conversation concludes it.

“Let Me Talk” begins an album that Verdine White describes as them thinking “let’s cut something we wanna cut”. It was actually one of Maurice White’s personal favorite albums by EWF. And this song begins the album with a bang. With it’s Afro-Brazilian/Cuban rhythms and percussion,it’s structurally somewhat closer to the type of song EWF would’ve done in 1973-74. It still has their melodic pop craft that developed later further later in the decade though. Ralph Johnson and Al McKay wrote a song together here. And the rhythms of the song really showcase their instrumental interactions.

Thematically, Maurice and Philip Bailey make this song a lyrical dialog  about America’s escape from the beauty of and attention to blackness as the 1980’s began. Maurice is saying that a message burns within him everyday,while Philip’s part has him countering with a request to “play your role just as you’ve been told. As I write this,America is still embroiled more than ever in this attempt to deny the potency of black culture within and without it. And for both Independence Day and Ralph Johnson’s 65th birthday,its just the right funky “people music” to project for this time and place.

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Filed under 1980's, Afro Funk, Afro-Cuban rhythm, Afro-Latin jazz, Afrocentrism, Al McKay, clave, drums, Earth Wind & Fire, Funk Bass, horns, Larry Dunn, Maurice White, message songs, percussion, Philip Bailey, Ralph Johnson, rhythm guitar, synth bass, synthesizer, tape loops, Verdine White

Andre’s Amazon Archive: ‘Continuation” by Philip Bailey

Continuation

Somewhere between the final two EWF albums of the early 80’s Powerlight and Electric Universe this album came out during the same year in 1983. Gradually during the first three years of the 80’s the entire Earth Wind & Fire camp was starting to falter from various pressures and creative differences. A lot of this moved in tandem with the same sort of situation occurring within the R&B/soul/funk world during that anti disco freeze out. Since this would be the first real formalized solo album by any member of that band Philip didn’t have to look hard to find a way to carve out his own musical niche.

He went to musician/producer George Duke,whose jazz/funk/pop musical style was very close at this point to EWF and whose falsetto vocals were deeply influenced by Bailey’s,to produce and play on this album. Seldom has there ever been a more appropriate marriage of talents in recent years. The result is a short,crisp album that respects musical quality to such as degree I have to say I’ll personally claim it as my favorite of Bailey’s solo albums.

Consisting of eight tracks,six of which are uptempo and very heavily steeped in the funk idiom there’s a great degree of variety and strength to everything to be heard here. The album opens on a very strong note with “I Know”,a number reflecting how much 70’s funk and 80’s new wave had in common and there the two styles could intermix into 80’s urban funk. It also has this great slow driving bass groove as well. “I’m Waitin’ For Your Love” and the closer “You Boyfriend’s Back” also bring in the rockier new wave influence,soon to be a primary element in Bailey’s solo music.

In these cases Duke’s Seawind Horns take the place of EWF’s Phenix Horns so…may be a somewhat new song and dance but definitely the same old tune. Because of it’s hybrid of classic funk styles with electronic arrangements the newer sub-genre of boogie funk found a place here on the potent “Desire”,with it’s popping synth bass and Bailey mostly in his lower vocal register and and the more deeply funky boogie variant of “The Good Guy’s Supposed To Get The Girl”. “Vaya (Go With Love)”,with it’s cleaner urban funk/pop/jazz fusion sounds more like a straight up George Duke number but seems in a way one of those hit type songs that got away.

On the strong “Trapped” and “It’s Our Time” with Deniece Williams Bailey is essentially still in his old fashioned EWF ballad style with the sweeping arrangements mixed with the idea of rhythm. Overall this album has nothing on it that might lower it’s quality. Also it contains more than a fair share of strong,melodic pop/funk styled grooves. So why did it go so unnoticed in it’s day?And why did people such as myself have to learn of it’s existence over a decade after it came out? Honestly after listening to this album not only on vinyl for years but on this wonderfully remastered CD….I really have no idea.

Bailey was huge at the time due to associations with EWF,the album was contemporary with not an embarrassing moment to be heard and Bailey’s voice was in prime shape. Sometimes when a great album goes unnoticed…it just does so for no rhyme or reason. Anyway what matters to me is that Bailey didn’t wind up becoming a full on pop crooner or an adult contemporary solo artist. Even outside EWF he managed to continue innovating and experimenting within the funk genre.

The results could be very surprising. But Philip Bailey had the potential as a huge creative talent. He also had the potential with his melodic,pop friendly approach to be coerced by others into becoming a big time sellout. Luckily the years have shown him to be someone who tends to follow the creative drummer rather than the more obviously commercial one. And as pop friendly as this is,no matter how little success it had commercially at it’s time it may be one of his most significant releases from a purely creative standpoint.

Originally posted on September 22nd,2011

LINK TO ORIGINAL REVIEW HERE*

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Filed under Boogie Funk, Earth Wind & Fire, elecro funk, George Duke, jazz funk, New Wave, Phenix Horns, Philip Bailey, pop funk, post disco, Uncategorized

Anatomy Of THE Groove For The Brothers And Sisters Who Aren’t Here: “Serpentine Fire” by Jimmy Smith

Jimmy Smith helped redefine the vocabulary of jazz organ during the hard bop/soul jazz era. With his heavily blues and gospel based approach,his use of the Leslie speaker on his Hammond B-3 organ became defined by distinct clicking tones between each key stroke. This idea of  instrumental technique combined with personal finger touch has made Smith’s sound extremely influential among jazz style organists for the remainder of the 20th century. And with bands such as England’s James Taylor Quartet utilizing this approach on the Hammond organ, Smith is along with Roy Ayers one of the main instrumental pioneers of the 1990’s acid jazz sound.

As of today,it’s been five days since Earth Wind & Fire bandleader Maurice White passed away. When I think about it,Maurice and Jimmy Smith were both members of America’s Silent Generation-only on earlier and later ends of it. During the mid 1970’s,Smith’s musical style made yet another transition. This one towards a hard funk oriented sound. Because of his blues roots and love of placing his organ soloing in the context of heavy rhythm,the funk genre was an ideal for Smith to deal with during the late 70’s. Recording both bop and funk for the Mercury label at the time,Smith and Maurice White’s music dovetailed beautifully in 1978 when Smith interpreted the EWF number “Serpentine Fire”.

The lightly fan faring intro of percussionist Stephanie Spruill introduces this groove,over which Smith plays a smooth version of the songs initial melody on his B-3. John Phillips tenor sax and and Nolan Smith’s trumpet play the role of a stripped back Phenix Horns going into Abraham Laboriel’s bass line-itself similar to the bluesy melodic line of Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island”. On the central refrains,Smith plays the chords of the melody very much in classic bop style-with later variations showcasing call and response dialog with the two horns. On the choral links with the scaled up horns,Smith accompanies his own organ with a beautiful round Moog synthesizer bass tone.

Of course EWF had a strong jazz basis at the very core of their sound. When jazz soloists began covering their huge hits during the 70’s,that element really came out a lot more. Jimmy Smith’s take on “Serpentine Fire” from his 1978 album Unfinished Business is a superb example. Not only is he rounding heavily on his bop approach of playing chords, but on many of his solos he’s hammering on the organ in a very aggressively rhythmic sustain. The rhythmic sound of the song is a bit smaller,more live oriented than studiocentric. Of course that allows for Smith’s soloing to take center stage. It also allows for his to be a fantastically funky re-imagining of an Earth Wind & Fire classic.

 

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Filed under 1970's, 1990s, Abraham Laboriel, Acid Jazz, blues funk, Earth Wind & Fire, Funk Bass, Hammond B-3, hard bop, jazz funk, Jimmy Smith, Maurice White, Moog, organ, Phenix Horns, Silent Generation, Uncategorized

Maurice White Remembered On Andresmusictalk, Part 1: “Shining Star” by Earth Wind & Fire

Maurice White,founder of Earth Wind & Fire and late 60’s drummer from the Ramsey Lewis Trio,passed away in his sleep yesterday morning at the age of 74. For several years now,my friend and creative consultant Henrique Hopkins have often discussed the reality of many silent and baby boom generation musical icons beginning to pass away. Many already have. Maurice lived with Parkisons disease for his final decades of life. And while his Earthly suffering is over now,he once said during EWF’s peak that while society was often too negative to beauty and love,he saw him and the band’s music as medicine. And that is the launching pad for this very special tribute.

The music of Earth Wind & Fire plays a crucial role in this particular blog. With Maurice being a musician,bandleader and producer as well as vocalist he understood the importance of the recording studio in advancing funk music’s popular notoriety. The whole notion of myself putting so much effort into taking the songs of this genre and breaking them down musically for many different people to read and potentially gain insight from was directly inspired by Maurice’s creative visions. As occurred recently,the sheer massive nature of EWF’s recorded catalog was intimidating in terms of over-viewing another of their songs. So it just flowed naturally to discuss their classic “Shinning Star”.

Brother Verdine opens the song with a ringing,shuffling and double tracked bluesy bass solo before the Phenix Horns burst right into action. A chanking wah wah follows Verdine’s continuing chunkiness on the bass line and the songs slow,slogging drums.  Al McKay’s rhythm guitar follows closely with the drums. Johnny Graham plays a bluesy solo over the horns on the chorus,which continues along with Larry Dunn’s Fender Rhodes solo before a beautifully calculated funk break enters into the second refrain of the song. There are a few more repeated choruses before Bailey’s chants of “Shining star for you to see/what your life can truly be” over a jazzier bass line.

“Shinning Star” clocks in at under 3 minutes-shorter than what’s normally expected for a classic funk number. It introduced a very strong pop song structure that holds close to the 12 bar blues,yet is directly out of the James Brown school of putting all the rhythm out front. The bass,the horns and the rhythm all do their dance on this song with a wonderful sense of release. As someone who found themselves being more and more of a natural non conformist as I grew up,listening to this song provided an important world of self confidence that has surely inspired many people. The music and the lyrics both create a truly inspiring impulse to the listener.

 

Many people today are convinced music cannot change the world or anyone’s heart. This song represents a great moment in history when the funk music genre was actually doing just that. During the mid 70’s it was serving a similar function as gospel and folk music had in the past-as an oral engine of sociopolitical commentary and personal understanding for the listener. And most importantly,this song allowed funk to really cross over onto the pop charts. So many of EWF’s songs from the mid to late 70’s have a similarly positive effect. And on this particular song the elements within the band that bought that effect to light shinned directly through thanks to Maurice White.

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Filed under 1970's, Al McKay, blues funk, Earth Wind & Fire, Fender Rhodes, Funk, Funk Bass, James Brown, Johnny Graham, Larry Dunn, Maurice White, message music, message songs, Phenix Horns, Philip Bailey, Uncategorized, Verdine White