Tag Archives: songwriters

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Read My Lips” by Michael Franks

Michael Franks has a somewhat unusual back round for a jazz artist. He primarily studied art and got a bachelors degree in comparative literature. While his Southern California family always played jazz around him, none of them were musicians. And Frank’s actual musical experience came from buying a guitar at 14 that came with six private lessons. While at UCLA, he began playing in folk rock and writing songs-inspired by his favorite (and known for his rhythmic writing style) Theodore Roethke. His main talents became as a composer after his college years.

I first discovered Frank’s music in…a pretty undignified way. It was a cassette copy of Frank’s 1987 album The Camera Never Lies given to my dad by a janitor who said he pulled it out of the dumpster outside the TV station my father worked master control at. This got me interested in seeking out more albums by him. And finding out he wrote many songs for artists I later got into-from the Manhattan Transfer to The Carpenters. In a funk context, one of my favorite songs of Franks opened up his 1985 album Skin Dive, the first album he co produced. The song was called “Read My Lips”.

Chris Parker’s drums kick off the intro-with the slap bass of Marcus Miller and bluesy guitar licks of Hiram Bullock accompanying Frank’s vocal hooks. Rob Mounsey’s synthesizers come into play in different ways throughout the song. On the refrains, they assist Frank’s vocal melodies. On the choruses, they act as a synth horn type orchestral element. Bullock’s guitar and Miller’s bass become fuller elements on the b-section as well. On the bridge refrain of the song, the key of the song changes to a higher one before an extended chorus serves to fade out the song.

“Read My Lips” is a superb way for a gentle vocals, with so much subtlety of expression, as Michael Franks to create funky music. For one, he has exactly the right people for 80’s jazz/funk fusion in his bass/guitar lineup-with the iconic Marcus Miller and the late Hiram Bullock. The arrangement is relatively spare and very Minneapolis in terms of the keyboards. But the bass and guitar provide very heavy, funky meat along with Chris Parker’s pocket groove. Michael Frank’s music went from more mellowness to heavier funkiness in the mid to late 80’s. And this is one song that reflects that strongly.

 

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Leon Ware (1940-2017): Caught Up In The Soul Fire Of The Song

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Leon Ware is someone I’m not sure a lot of people outside the soul/funk community are too aware of. Among people I know such as Henrique Hopkins,Henry Cooper and Calvin Lincoln,he is very likely an icon. He maintained a solo career from 1972 up through the end of his his life. And was a fine singer. Mainly however,he was one of the finest composers in the soul/funk/jazz spectrum during the early 70’s. His style used a lot of jazz styled chord progressions,which he blended with strong pop hooks and heavy hitting lyrically romanticism.

Mister Ware composed two songs that inspired the singer/songwriter side of my soul and funk musical interests very strongly as a younger man. Those songs were Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” and (perhaps Ware’s best known composition) “I Wanna Be Where You Are”. That particular song was recorded by several different people. But became a huge success for Michael Jackson in 1972,and helped launch his solo career.  As far as Marvin Gaye was concerned,Ware gave the most help to him than he did for many other artist by composing the entirety of Gaye’s 1976 album I Want You  when the artist suffered from writers block.

That occurred just after Ware was the man behind the 1974 Quincy Jones album project  Body Heat.  This albums gurgling,swampy groove also included the memorable soul hit “If I Ever Lose This Heaven” (recorded the same year by Average White Band). And it helped Quincy’s heavily arranged jazz sound to get deeper and funky. Ware extended his talents onto Quincy’s next album Mellow Madness-itself featuring the debut of the Brothers Johnson. In the late 70’s and early 80’s,Ware continued his solo career and continued writing songs for artists like Melissa Manchester.

Ware passed away after nine years of suffering from Pancreatic cancer on February 24th. Even so,I’m one of those people who views the combination of jazzy chord progressions, soulful melodicism and and funky rhythm to be the most successful fusion of black American uptempo music. Along with people such as Stevie Wonder,Leon Ware celebrated the connections between all those elements as a songwriter. Which probably explains why he and Quincy Jones were such close associates. His influence can be felt today in the songwriting of artists such as King and Thundercat. And will therefore live on.

 

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Rod Temperton: The Star Of A Story I Love So Well

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Rod Temperton is my personal favorite composer of the last four decades. The funk and disco era he was a part of is generally thought of to be all rhythm based-simply to make you want to dance. But along with people such as Stevie Wonder,Con Funk Shun’s Felton Pilate and Earth Wind & Fire’s Maurice White,Temperton showcased how to write funky music with very singable,jazzy melodic scaling and modulation. He is yet another one of those figures who not only inspired this blog itself. But also the entire way I listen to music. And probably how I’ll continue to listen to it.

Temperton sadly passed away on October 5th,2016. Sources say of cancer,at the age of 66. His family wishes to protect his privacy. Which is totally logical as he lived as pretty much of a recluse. He was born in post WWII Lincolnshire,England. He apparently described his family,particularly his father,parenting him more with a radio by his bedside than their own presence. That began his lifelong love of music. From spending time as a drummer,working in the office of a frozen food company in Grisby he continued his fascination with music. This eventually landed him in Germany as a keyboardist.

In 1974,he answered the personal ad of Johnnie Wilder for the new band his was forming called Heatwave. He  became the chief songwriter for the band-honing his craft with hits such as “Boogie Nights” and “The Groove Line”. This earned him the attention of Quincy Jones. He than became a household name as a composer for Michael Jackson,namely the song “Thriller”.This is what Temperton is best known for. He wrote with the Westlake Studio crew for The Brothers Johnson,George Benson,Patti Austin and maintaining a songwriting relationship with Heatwave until they stopped recording after 1982.

The late Johnnie Wilder described Temperton’s personality as possessing a good sense of humor and a friendly attitude. This naturally made him a good musical partner for Quincy Jones. The man composed so many funk/soul/dance classics in the 70’s and 80’s that it would be too long to go through all of them. So today,I’m going to run down only the Rod Temperton songs that personally moved me the most. And chances are,many of them are being played on a radio station in your town at this very moment too. And that level of popularity is part of what makes many of these songs so enduring and distinctive.


Heatwave

“Boogie Nights” (1976)

The very idea of putting a swinging drum/jazz guitar opening and closing to the Moog bass led funky disco of this song gave it a strong and thoroughly musical sense of continuity.

“The Star Of A Story” (1978)

This might very well be my very favorite ballad of the late 70’s. With it’s processed electric pianos and orchestral sonics,its essentially a jazz tune with some tremendous multi tracked harmonies from Johnny Wilder. It was such a strong song,George Benson covered the song two years after Heatwave originally recorded it.

“The Big Guns” (1982)

In a lot of ways,this song became the instrumental prototype for what Temperton would do with Michael Jackson on the song “Thriller”. What this has is a slower,more complex percussive rhythms,jazzy scat singing and even a synthesizer solo from Herbie Hancock.

The Brothers Johnson 

“Stomp” (1980)

Temperton really know how to compose melodies spacious enough for both vocalists and instrumentalists. This song does both as a collaboration with Louis (also deceased) and George Johnson. Its a total bass/guitar showcase of course. But it also allows space for George Johnson’s vocal leads as well.

George Benson

“Give Me The Night” (1980)

This song is instrumentally a fairly close cousin of MJ’s “Rock With You”. Difference being the rhythm is far leaner-allowing Benson’s different guitar and lead vocal/scat playing parts to be more prominent in the mix.

“Off Broadway” (1980″

Oddly enough I first heard this as incidental music on a rerun of SCTV. Its built around Moog bass and horn/string interactions-all allowing Benson to shine on an evolving solo on this fine instrumental.

Patti Austin

“Razzmatazz” (1980)

This is probably one Patti’s most vibrant uptempo songs. The song is very stop heavy with horns,strings,guitar,keyboards and drums all playing the high key melody and rhythm. On the other hand,its a dance funk masterpiece where everything seems to fit just where it needs to go.

“Love Me To Death” (1981)

This album track from Austin’s Qwest debut  Every Home Should Have One is a gurgling mid tempo jazzy post disco groove with a deep,liquid guitar riff. To me a wonderful example of the clean production,molten instrumentation and harmonically powerful melody.

Michael McDonald

“Sweet Freedom” (1985)

This sonically heady dance/pop song from the 1985 comedy Running Scared is a song I remember singing to when I was 6 years old. So whether I knew it or not,Temperton’s songwriting style was deeply impacting on me before I even knew who he was. It has all the hallmarks of his writing and production style-emphasizing a rhythmically heady uptempo number with vast (in this case more electronic) instrumental sonics.

James Ingram

“One More Rhythm” (1983)

This song from Ingram’s debut album Its Your Night has an extremely singable melody. And uses modern production touches such as bass synthesizers and dancable refrains to what essentially amounts to a big band swing jazz revival. One of my all time favorite Temperton compositions-showing his understanding of Quincy Jones’ outlook on the musical continuity of black America.

Michael Jackson

“Rock With You” (1979)

One of the songs that helped launch MJ into a popular musical force of the early 80’s,”Rock With You” has such mellow instrumental sonics (including bass from Rufus’s Bobby Watson) that this steamy uptempo disco pop groove seems more like a ballad. And that’s probably not an easy quality to achieve.

“Thriller” (1982)

This is of course the song Temperton is best known for. It sounds like it sprang from a late in the day Heatwave demo. Its led by light percussion,hefty synth bass lines and a brittle liquid rhythm guitar on its bridge. Instrumentally,its one of Temperton’s finest compositions.


2016 is reminding me of the fact that today,most casual music listeners are again associating songs with singers. That instrumentalists,arrangers and composers are often afterthoughts. That’s because of the non stop parade of death this year of big musical icons. On a happier note,the internet and newer documentary films are bringing the creative history of these icons to live on a broader level. For me,Rod Temperton is such an artist. I could mention him in the same sentence as Nat King Cole and Burt Bacharach as one of the greatest mid/late 20th century musical composers.

 

 

 

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Filed under 1970's, 1980's, Brothers Johnson, Funk, George Benson, Heatwave, James Ingram, Michael Jackson, Michael McDonald, Patti Austin, Quincy Jones, Rod Temperton, songwriting, UK