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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Steppin’ Out” by Joe Jackson

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.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Joy Ride” by TLC

TLC are a group that I never thought would come back. After all in terms of membership,its all come down to Chilli and T-Boz. Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes was in many ways the heart and soul of the 90’s trio. Since the time of Left Eye’s passing, the remaining two members have made some appearances,collaborations and been the subject of a biopic here and there. But even with all the trials,tribulations and financial ruin of their heyday,it didn’t seem that the passing of a key member would ever find them re-emerging in a huge way in terms of new studio material.

All of a sudden in early 2015,T-Boz and Chilli announced they were going to be releasing and fifth and final studio album using a Kickstarter campaign. Other artists such as Katy Perry and Justin Timberlake made major donations to their crowdfunding effort. The new self titled album was released June 30th of 2017. A couple of years earlier, the duo format of TLC went on tour with the New Kids On The Block and Nelly. And they released two new singles from their forthcoming album in Japan the next year. One of them is what I’ll be talking to you about today. Its called “Joy Ride”.

A three beat,echoed drum with a four note descending/ascending bass line provides the intro. A horn blasts gets into the funky shuffling drums,the bouncing pop of a rhythm guitar and the continuing bass line from the intro. Along with a three note,descending hip-hop style piano. As the song progresses,with little melodic changes from refrain to choruses,the rhythm alternately shows down as silences,horns and hand claps all join the instrumentation in different parts of the song. An extended chorus of the song concludes it all with the duo’s harmonies echoing the song to its fade out.

“Joy Ride” is a superb arrangement for TLC. Its based in their classic mix of live instrumental funky soul with a hip-hop friendly twist. The melody and harmonies of the group are just as locked down too. Written by Rebekah Muhammad, the song certainly understands the history of whose doing it. As I said to Henrique, its not something that shows TLC’s sound as changing all that much. But in as much as the original trio kept the funk and soul alive in their hip-hop based music in the 90’s, its just a really comforting thing to be back on the TLC tip. Even if it is just for one last time.

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Too Funky” by George Michael

George Michael celebrated his first posthumous birthday yesterday. His death came very sadly and suddenly on Christmas day last year. Since that time,I have learned (along with my boyfriend) just to how important George Michael and Wham were to the post disco UK dance/funk/soul scene of the 1980’s. Wham were one of the “big four” bands on the UK’s major music program Top Of The Pops.  As for Michael’s solo career, it operated from 1987 through 1991 before his record company conflict began. Yet that five years had Michael as part of a huge growth period for cutting edge,funky dance music.

His final single before these record company conflicts was originally recorded for his sophomore solo album Listen Without Prejudice Vol.1. It eventually ended up being released for the AIDS charity CD entitled Red Hot+Blue in 1992. All the proceeds from that and Michael’s accompanying single went to HIV/AIDS related causes. It was also Michael’s first extensive use of sampling-from sound clips from The Graduate and The Tony Hancock Show to a sample from Jocelyn Brown’s “Somebody Else’s Guy”. The name of the George Michael song that did all these things was “Too Funky”.

A fast electronic piano drum rundown introduces the song. Its a thick,slow drum machine rhythm with some shuffling, Brazilian style conga/percussion accents. The melodic body of the song is a round,five note synth brass part-along with pulsing electronic strings and like minded bass line. The piano/bass/drum interaction make up the refrains. With each choral variation, the synth brass returns and varies in tone. After a bridge that condenses the song down to the drums and bass line,the chorus fades the song out to a close with the piano part and the final sound sample of the song.

“Too Funky” is a song that basically pulls together all of the funkiest elements of 80’s dance music innovations. It has the the percussive shuffle of DC go go, the dramatic synthesized horns of the Minneapolis sound and the repetitive bass and piano of house music. What makes it “too funky” is not merely the sexually free (yet somehow post AIDS) lyrical content. But also the somewhat slower tempo and that percussive jump on the rhythms. George Michael wouldn’t put any new music out for four years after this. But it sure capped off the beginning of his solo career with a strong groove.

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Anatomy Of The Groove: “Skin I’m In” by Chairmen Of The Board

Chairman Of The Board are a true example of just how deeply seeded the Motor City soul sound of Motown became by the end of the 60’s. The late “General” Norman Johnson was the groups lead singer. He had started out in a group called The Showman. And when Motown’s classic songwriting trio Holland/Dozier/Holland left Motown to form their own label Invictus (also home to George Clinton’s Parliaments at the time), Johnson was paired with Eddie Curtis,Danny Young and the Canadian native Harrison Kennedy to form Chairman Of The Board.

The band had their debut hit in 1970 with “Give Me Just A Little More Time”. Musically it was squarely within the classic Motown style soul sound. What made it so unique was Johnson’s hiccuping,idiosyncratic lead vocals and very strong songwriting. By the mid 70’s, most of the members of the group were on the way to solo recording. The groups place in funk history was confirmed by their final album in 1974 entitled Skin I’m In. It was produced by another Motown alumni in Jeffrey Bowen. And one of its key numbers was its title song.

A swirling,bluesy rhythm guitar and bass bursts open the song. That guitar gradually mutates into a fuzz tone. And as the slow,funky drum slogs its way in,that rhythm guitar is accompanied by a fuzz toned one. As the song progresses,Johnson’s rangy vocals build up the song musically with Clavinet riffs and horns that build in intensity during the choral sequences. After a thunder like burst of sound, an instrumental bridge consisting of bell like synths and piano scaling returns the songs to its horn/Clavinet/bass and guitar oriented chorus until the song fades itself out.

“Skin I’m In” is the very funkiest song I’ve ever heard from Chairman Of The Board. Of course, was somewhat prepped for it by my literary funk research during the late 90’s and early aughts. Musically its a supreme example of slower rhythms making a song funkier-and full of a psychedelic soul blusiness in the instrumentation and melody. Johnson’s lyrics about black Americans consistently being kept from progressing in America is “united funk” at its finest too-with him exclaiming on the choruses “Its so HARD to live in the skin I’m in!”. So this is prime mid 70’s funk with a message!

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Anatomy Of THE Groove: “Games People Play” by The Spinners

The Spinners were a Detroit band who at one point were actually co credited with the name of their home city-the Detroit Spinners. Also as the Motown Spinners at times because original members Billy Henderson, Henry Fambrough, the late Bobby Smith and Pervis Jackson recorded a number of singles for the famous Detroit label. Their biggest hit on the label was of course “Its A Shame”,sung by GC Cameron. Cameron was succeeded by the late Phillipe Wynn. Wynn was part of a three lead singer lineup of the band at Atlantic Records-for a series of albums produced by Philly maestro Thom Bell.

That period of the Spinner’s recording from 1973-1976 was their most commercially successful. While they’d go on to make some superb records after that,its that early/mid 70’s period that defines them in the public consciousness. Pervis Jackson was one of the three lead singers of the band. Though he passed away from cancer in 2008, his bass vocals were a key part of their five part vocal harmonies. There was one time where his vocals became more the star of the show. And that was on another huge smash hit for them from their 1975 Pick Of The Litter album called “Games People Play”.

A spacious drum thump starts out the song. A high pitched rhythm guitar,filtered piano and close knit bass line provide the basic melody along with accompanying horn lines. A string riser segues into that intro extended out into the refrain of the song. A second statement of the song extends out into a different chord-focusing on the horns and strings playing along with the lead vocals,which include female guest singer Evette L.Benton. The chorus of the song finds the groups vocal harmonies singing the the melodic string and horn orchestration. Its on this chorus that the song fades out.

“Games People Play” is one of my very favorite Spinners song. Its some of the finest produced mid tempo cinematic soul of the mid 70’s Especially the vocal exchanges. For Pervis Jackson’s part,his moment on this song occurs during the beginning of the third refrain where his bass voice sings “12:45”. As I understand it, that lyrical phrase became his nickname for a time. The end result is one of the best vocally oriented musical studio soul sounds of its era. Thom Bell was a master of highly musical vocal productions. And this is one of many fine examples of this from the Spinners during the 70’s.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Zanzibar” by Billy Joel

Billy Joel is at the core of how I tend to relate to pop/rock music. A Bronx native, Joel’s music career was less inspired by his father being a classically trained pianist than in his mother pushing him into taking piano lessons. This cost him the credits to graduate from high school-playing in a piano bar just a bit too long so it seems-trying to earn money to support his family. He eventually joined up with a band called The Hassles. He and the bands drummer Jon Small ended up forming Atilla and releasing one album in 1970. After the duo broke up,he began his solo career with the 1971 album Cold Spring Harbor.

As his music developed,particularly after early hits such as “Piano Man” and “Captain Jack” after being signed to Columbia,Joel’s sound began to take on even stronger elements of the Broadway show tune and pre rock jazz styled pop that had always been an influence on him. This culminated in his 1977 release The Stranger,produced by the late Phil Ramone. Its followup 52 Street was part of my moms 8 track collection. And upped the jazz influences even higher. One song from the album that stood out for me on that particular musical end is a tune called “Zanzibar”.

After an opening piano flourish, Joel is dueting with himself on both a melodic and a bass piano arpeggio-with Liberty DeVito’s drums keeping in time with the rhythmic piano for the refrains. Dancing around this are a high electric piano and round bass line. The chorus returns to the more rhythmic piano style and bursts of rock guitar from Steve Khan. Joel duets with piano and a backwards keyboard loop before the bridge goes into a straight swinging bop jazz arrangement with Freddie Hubbard soloing on flugelhorn and trumpet. After a choral/refrain repeat,this swinging solo fades out the song as well.

 

After hearing this song enough for so many years, it has a quality of the progressive jazz rock being done by both Gino Vannelli and Steely Dan during the late 70’s. That Steely Dan influence-especially Hubbard’s trumpet solo,has been discussed by many people. Joel’s elaborate melodicism and way with a strong,funky rhythmic groove also maintained the Steely Dan like cryptic lyric regarding trying to pick up a sexy waitress at a sports bar. It also showcases,with both its writing and choice of musicians, how funky and soulful an artist like Billy Joel can be with a strong jazz base to their musical sound.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove For The Brothers & Sisters Who Aren’t Here: “So Good” by The J.Geils Band

With the passing of J. Geils several days ago at the age of 71, have been thinking a lot about the J. Geils Band. Most of my life,they came across as New England’s answer to the Rolling Stones. They played a party hardy mix of soul,rhythm & blues and rock as a heavy touring group for most of the early to mid 70’s. Between native New Yorker John “J.Geils” Warren’s versatile guitar style along with Peter Wolf’s stage theatrics and powerful voice, the band expressed a strong sense of a rock band who knew how to stay in the groove rather than simply making songs that had grooves.

As with many 80’s children,I primarily know them for their hits “Centerfold” and “Freeze Frame”-incidentally both on the same album from 1983. And those were actually two of their best songs,even aside from being big hits. Years later,I started to hear about a 1977 album they made that didn’t do too well commercially called Monkey Island. About a year ago,found a vinyl copy of it and upon the first listen,it became more than clear that this was one of the most soulful boogie rock bands at that point. One song that really stands out from the album for me is entitled “So Good”.

Stephen Bladd’s tambourine accented,clapping drums and Seth Justman’s piano provide the intro to the song. The Brecker brothers Michael and Randy soon join in as part of the horn section that plays the melodic changes throughout the song. On the refrains, J. Geils lays a funky high pitched rhythm guitar along with Danny Klein’s bopping bass line. On the choruses,the horns play a huge part in the melody. After J.Geil’s guitar is heavily flanger pedaled for the bridge,the bands harmonica player takes a spirited solo before a reprise of the chorus fades out the song.

“So Good” really hit me hard with its upbeat,bouncing funky soul flavor. Between the harmonica solo and Wolf’s slightly raggedy lead vocals,there was something about it that reminded me of what the band War were doing in the mid 70’s.  At the same time,it had a more conventionally poppy focus with its accessible melody. The bands R&B attitude also gives this song a strong bite as well. There’s certainly a lot more J.Geils for me to explore in the future. All the same,this has to be the funkiest thing that I’ve heard from them up to this point.

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove For The Brothers & Sisters Who Aren’t Here: “My Dream” by Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry’s passing a couple of days came as something of a surprise to me. Not the passing of the 90 year old man. But just the idea that his name was suddenly back in the news. Berry was a legacy artist before I was born. And retired from recording just a year before. Basically,the man can be regarded as the three crowned royal triad of rock n’ roll along with Ike Turner and Little Richard. As a matter of fact,Chuck Berry took from the Chess blues sound,from which he derived, to mix in the country influence and essentially innovate some of the basic and classic rock guitar riffs for the entire genre.

Berry faded from grace over the years,due perhaps in part to thick and fast changes in rock ‘n roll during the late 60’s. That and a couple of personal scandals he had to deal with. While he was recording an album before he died that had yet to be released when he passed on,he recorded a series of albums on Chess in the early 70’s that showcased him broadening out different ends of his personality. One of them was a 1971 release entitled San Francisco Dues. Its gained enough popularity to get a recent CD reissue. And one telling song on the album is entitled “My Dream”.

Berry played a high pitched guitar riff at the beginning of the song,before the main groove kicks in. The song has a slow,grinding beat from Bill Metros. The big,round bass line of Jack Groendal bounces ably along. Chuck follows the rhythm of the song with his rolling,bluesy piano-which increases in intensity as the song progresses. Of course,the music of song is basically a template for Berry to softly “rap” a poem that describes his ideal home,ideal female companion,literary choices and the music that he’d want to play there. All before the song comes to a flat close.

“My Dream” musically has a grinding New Orleans bluesy funk vibe about it. The fact that Berry primarily concentrates on his piano rather than better known guitar playing makes it tonally very interesting. The tale he tells has the feeling of a man contentedly prepared to settle down and enter into a comfortable semi retirement. That would not happen for another 7-8 years after this song came out of course. But he’d continue to perform his classics for years after this. Of course,soulful moments like this should not be forgotten among Chuck Berry’s classic 50’s and 60’s rock ‘n roll bible of hits all the same.

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “B’wana She No Home” by The Carpenters

The late Karen Carpenter and her brother Richard dominated the early 70’s pop charts and radio. And were a duo who helped define what we now know as the easy listening sub genre. As such,The Carpenters are still only very loosely considered to be a rock act. And would likely be exhibit A for “devoid of funk” to the ears of many. That is…not entirely true on the last part. As instrumentalists, Karen especially came out of being a jazz drummer. She loved classic Motown too. While at first not always evident,Karen Carpenter’s love of rhythm proved very significant for The Carpenters a bit later on.

By 1977,Karen’s anorexia and Richard’s prescription drug addiction kept them from being too musically involved. This happening at a time when both desired to mature as artists and change up their sound. The result was the 1977 album Passage. Not only did it contain no drumming from Karen,but no songs written by Richard either. The duo produced the album with a variety of contemporary jazz songwriters and musicians. The hit they had was a version of Klaatu’s “Calling Occupants (Of Interplanetary Craft)” But the song that really got me here was the Michael Franks composed opener “B’wana She No Home”.

Ron Tutt’s bossa/calypso drumming (with Tommy Vig and Jerry Steinholtz on percussion and congas),Joe Osborn’s slinky and flamboyant bass line along with Peter Jolly’s piano make up the intro and refrain of the song-along with Tony Peluso’s bluesy electric guitar. On the choruses,this guitar gets more fuzz filtered. Tom Scott joins in with his sax breaks on the second refrain. He also solos twice in the song. Once on the bridge playing a flute solo. And then,after Karen’s final chorus of the song,he plays a bop styled improvised sax solo as the song fades out.

One of the best things about “B’wana She No Home” is that its the bluesy Calypso jazz/funk vibe Michael Franks set up in his composition brings out another side of Karen Carpenter vocally. Rather than being in her usual reflective and somewhat sad vocal mood, she gave this song the female equivilant of Frank’s sensual and amorous vocal delivery. Even though the Carpenters who not as creatively involved in this song as they normally were,it set up the more soul/disco influence Karen Carpenter solo material recorded a couple of years later. And the more soul/pop based music of their final albums together.

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Door Number Two” by Walter Becker

Walter Becker is one of those players whose proven himself the ultimate “comeback kid” as it were. The Queens native met Donald Fagan while the two attended Bard College. And of course they would soon be the core of Steely Dan. While the songwriting of Steely Dan was a collaborative effort between the two,Becker’s instrumental influence generally came through his guitar solos.  They grew from a virtuosic blues rock style in the early 70’s to an intricate,crisp jazz tone later on. A serious of exhausting events led Becker to leave Steely Dan following their Gaucho album-remaining musically inactive for a decade.’

In 1993,Steely Dan reformed and began touring. Becker released his solo debut album 11 Tracks Of Whack a year later. With a somewhat more stripped down musical approach and vocal style closer to that of Eric Clapton,his albums were as critically successful as Fagans. But didn’t have quite the same commercial appeal. It would be another 15 years later that his sophomore album Circus Money. This was an independently released project from 2008 that featured the same superb studio players Becker had worked with in the past. It also started out with just the right groove on the song “Door Number Two”.

A bass and light snare based beat,crystalized sounding piano and bluesy rhythm guitar provide the intro-along with a moody electric piano solo. The basic rhythm of the chorus than comes in. This is a bossa with a clean guitar burst playing a single chord on every other bar or so-with the piano,keyboard and slippery bass line playing along with the female backup singers vocalizing the choral lyric. The refrain finds Becker singing a bluesy line with more piano improvisations behind him. Chris Potter provides a great bop sax solo on the bridge and extends it into the chorus that fades out the song.

Years of being a record producer and even a one time member of the sophisti pop group China Crisis really helped to enhance Walter Becker’s musical flavors as a solo artist. It wasn’t until revisiting “Door Number Two” for this overview did I realize that it has the vibe of a lower key “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag”. The bossa Latin/boogaloo funk is there in the rhythm. Still Becker’s love of jazz comes through all the way-with musicians Keith Carlock,Jon Herington,Jim Beard and Ted Baker all solo right in the pocket of this groove. And it all makes for a great example of jazz with a raw rhythm attitude.

 

 

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