India Arie Simpson was born in Denver, Colorado to a family not only drenched in music. But with a history at Motown as well. Her mother Joyce was a singer who toured with Stevie Wonder-as well as Al Green. After her parents divorced and she moved to Georgia, India’s musical interests (always encouraged by her family) became even more pronounced-as she actively began to learn both guitar and composition. This occurred while attending the Savannah School Of Art & Design. She also learned of her strong African roots via DNA testing-including that of the Kru people of the nation of Liberia.
India. Arie made her debut on Motown in 2001 with her Acoustic Soul. That literally described the first song I heard from her entitled “Video”, where she talked of her she desired music and humanity, for herself and others, not to be seen as a product. This resulted in India becoming a major face of the coalescing neo soul movement of the time. Her second album Voyage To India came out the next year. Its main single didn’t perform commercially the way “Video” did. But it was a huge step ahead in terms of instrumentation and songwriting. It was called “Little Things”.
The sound of the gong starts of the intro of vocal harmonies from India.Arie that begins the song-with a bell like electric piano echo in the back round. The drum, at first stop and start comes into the mix with a strong accent of heavy percussion and a heavy, ascending bass line. As the vocal/lyrical flavor of the song changes, so does the feeling of the music. Sometimes its mostly rhythm and bass. Other times rhythm guitar and electric piano flourishes are stronger-along with what sounds like a baby crying. The song comes to an abrupt end after a long vocal run on the extended chorus.
“Little Things” is an interesting song. Musically speaking, its a somewhat more stripped down variant of the jazzy chords of Stevie Wonder compositions and a soul/funk rhythm-similar to Mary J Blige’s “All That I Can Say”. In terms of its actual structure, its more of a folk type song. A lot of lyrical verses after another rather than a refrain/chorus/bridge setup. It has a heavier studiocentric approach than much of her debut album. To me, “Little Things” is an example of India. Arie using her amazing abilities as a composer for a beautifully flowing, neo soul friendly funky soul number.
Stevie Wonder had entered the 1980’s in an interesting musical position. He began the decade on a political crusade with the late Gil Scott-Heron to make Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday a national holiday. Musically however,his albums began coming fewer and farther between. Since becoming an innovative musical icon after his early/mid 70’s salad days,he was still commercially successful. But the blend of organic and electronic sounds and melodies he’d pioneered was mainstream by the early 80’s. So technically,he wasn’t considered to be so much of a musical innovator anymore.
That being said, Wonder’s songwriting approach was something very few could copy. Especially with all its jazzy complexities. Thus he began developing to the artist he is today: a man whose current music was based more on collaboration and songwriting for and with other artists. Most notably Jermaine Jackson’s “Let’s Get Serious” and Gary Byrd’s “The Crown” during the early 80’s. He only had three formal studio albums during the 80’s though. And the third of them was the 1987 album Characters. It had a home in my family’s cassette collection right when it came out. And fast entered my musical core.
Characters is an album that has garnered mix opinions from everyone from writers to critics to fans. A good deal of that has to do with it being from the late 80’s. And public opinion of changes in music during that time is a complex and controversial one. On a personal level however,its one of my very favorite albums by Stevie Wonder. It came out in a year that also included Prince’s Sign O The Times and when Michael Jackson’s Bad came out. So there was a renewed interests by soul/funk artists of making creatively and commercially successful music in what started as a rather rock based musical decade.
Now Characters is also an album that did indicate the continuing distance black American artists were having with the pop charts at the time. The Top 10 of the R&B charts in American placed the album right within it. He even did an MTV special featuring a guest appearance by the late Stevie Ray Vaughn to promote the album. But it landed only within the pop Top 20. Still that was enough for many people to appreciate Stevie Wonder making a new album at that time. Five years ago,I wrote a review of this album on Amazon.com going further into the albums more musical virtues.
Stevie Wonder had recorded his previous album In Square Circle in 1983 but released it in 1985. Even though its clear based on internet knowledge that Stevie didn’t write all of the songs on this particular album at the same time. On the other hand,the production was contemporary to its release. Stevie Wonder’s musical success was in a very interesting place in the late 80’s. At only a mere 37 years old Stevie,having been a child prodigy, was already a musically iconic figure before 40. Something of a modern day popular equivalent of a George Gershwin and Duke Ellington in terms of his body of musical accomplishment by this time.
He had created an entire template for funk composition in the 70’s. He was able to show the innovations of funk were not merely instrumentally challenging dance music,but could have its own style of songwriting to accompany it as well. By the 80’s,funk was changing into a more electronic style of dance music that didn’t (and still doesn’t) suit everyone’s fancy. The pop audience had also found a new darling in Michael Jackson,an artist Stevie once helped mentor. For his part Stevie seemed to have no trouble dealing with this. The R&B community still regarded him as their main man,and that hadn’t (and still hasn’t) changed. So in terms of his commercial output,on this album he went more for quality than quantity.
“You Will Know” is a beautifully dreamy mid tempo slow groove opener,with Stevie’s classic multi layered keyboards playing his complex chord structures on a song that pleas for hope among the hopeless. “Dark ‘N’ Lovely” is an intense,uptempo dance/funk piece with some heavy bass Clavinet type synthesizer work mixed with spacier electronics that reflected a theme of darker hued African American’s as being treated differently in society.
“In Your Corner” takes this modern electronic funk instrumentation on a song that reflects more the flavor of 60’s Motown-with a tale that basically picks up where “I Wish” left off:Stevie’s possible imagined (or real for all we know) life as a young adult. “With Each Beat Of My Heart” is a mostly acapella ballad,built upon some transcendent multi tracked harmonies from Stevie and him breathing in the rhythm of a heart beat itself-providing mainly piano and harmonica as the other instrumentation.
“One Of A Kind” is a deeply funky dance number,again built on dynamic harmony and Stevie’s poetically lovelorn lyrical preoccupation. “Skeletons” is a strong funk mashup of themes between “Superstition” and “Part Time Lover”-not too far in flavor from Cameo’s Word Up only a bit warmer and gentler in instrumental flavor.
“Get It” is a heavy dance/funk number-again duetting with Michael Jackson to return the favor from “Just Good Friends” on MJ’s Bad-finding the two aggressively trading off lyrics call and response. The clavinet based funk returns on the wondrously grooving “My Eyes Don’t Cry” whereas “Come Let Me Make Your Love Come Down” marries Stevie’s electronic grooves with a heavy blues featuring a guitar solo from B.B.King playing Lucille herself.
“Crying Through The Night” is one of my own favorites here-a Latin flavored number updated from a song he recorded in the mid 70’s. The two most intriguing songs are “Galaxy Paradise”,which strongly anticipates R&B/funk’s near obsession with Arabic melodies in the 80’s funk context and “Free”,which brings to mind his Bach-styled Clavinet “classical funk” sound for some dynamic “people music”.
This album is actually one of my very favorites of Wonder’s-certainly his finest of the 1980’s for me,as well as his last release of the decade. Not only did he dip strongly into his celebration of the innovation of funk,jazz,soul and European classical that defined his blockbuster 70’s successes but also had the time to anticipate a few modern day funk/soul musical concepts along the way as well. As controversial as this might sound to some 1980’s musical naysayers,this album is easily as innovative and thrilling for its era as Songs in the Key of Life was a decade before this.
Just listening to any Stevie Wonder album,especially if someone is seriously learning about music,can be a school lesson in sound layering and composition in itself. And at the end of the day, Characters was no exception to that rule. Even myself making music on Garage Band with Apple Loops now, I find myself hearing melodic/rhythmic combinations the way Wonder might. Says a lot for Stevie Wonder’s music influencing the creativity of a non musician…sound mixer. Characters above all things showcases how no matter when he created,Stevie Wonder’s sound remained intensely vital.
Cuba Gooding Sr is probably famous for to two things. One would be as the lead singer for the Harlem vocal trio The Main Ingredient after their original lead singer/songwriter Don McPherson died. The other would be a the father of actor Cuba Gooding Jr of Jerry McGuire fame. Under McPherson,The Main Ingredient mixed romantic and black power themed funky soul. During Gooding’s era,the political elements became less pronounced. And the group began doing more cinematic soul numbers arranged by Bert DeCoteaux. At the same time, The Main Ingredient never fully lost their funk.
Cuba Sr’s history is every bit as political. His name derived from his father Dudley marrying a woman when he fled to Cuba. After being murdered due to her support of Pan Africanist leader Marcus Garvey,he vowed on her death bead that his first child would be named Cuba. Gooding was in the process of working on documentary about his family tree before he was found dead in his car on April 20th,2017. Though best known for their 1972 hit“Everybody Plays The Fool”, one Main Ingredient song that always stands out to me in a similar vein is the following years “Something Lovely”.
A drum kick off breaks into the instrumental intro of the chorus. This is lead by a descending string and muted trumpet arrangement. When Cuba and the rest of the trio come in with their three part harmonies,the arrangement pairs down to a wah wah guitar/bass/drum/electric piano based sound. That goes for the arrangements too-accented occasionally by a several not long horn chart before the next chorus. After one refrain where the horn arrangements play the vocal lines, the trio finish the song out with an extended reprise of the chorus.
“Something Lovely”,written by Stevie Wonder and Syreeta Wright, is a masterpiece of funky soul arrangement as far as I’m concerned. The harmonies that Cuba,Luther Simmons and Tony Silvester come up with on this song are a superb example of funky soul as sweet as it can be. Its from their 1973 album Afrodesiac, which I purchased at the recommendation of an employee at one of my favorite record haunts Dr. Records when I was trying to exchange a defective CD of Parliament’s Funkentelechy Vs The Placebo Syndrome.
I fell in love with the Afrodesiac album after getting it. Especially in the interpretive material it embraced. Stevie Wonder offered some of his own material and wrote two songs for this project itself. I also discovered one of my favorite Isley Brother’s songs “Work To Do” through The Main Ingredient doing it on this record. The very unexpected passing of Cuba Gooding Sr not only reminded me of that youthful musical discovery. But also of Gooding’s strong musicality and respect for quality. He will be missed by many and I wish his surviving family all the best at this difficult time.
An artists musical focus isn’t required to match up to their lyrical concepts. And vice versa. Yet when those two creative aspects come together,especially in the hands of a great musical talent,the results can often defy description. One such case is Stevie Wonder. He had matched musical and lyrical concepts beautifully through singles during the 60’s. In the early 70’s,he crossed this ethic into the age of the album. His 1976 release Songs In The Key of Life is the finest example of how Stevie Wonder was innovating AOF-a term I’m coining for album oriented funk.
Songs In The Key of Life was his most long winded productions up to this point. It took him 2 1/2 years to complete this album. With a list of musicians that would take up several paragraphs and his fascination with Yamaha’s polyphonic duel keyboards instrument the GX-1,Stevie Wonder and the group of musicians who recorded this put a lot of blood,sweat and joyful tears into the album. It was likely intended as a triple album set. But was whittled down to a double album plus an EP 45 packed into it. Until this time,the only genre of music that was really give this lavish presentation was progressive rock.
It was actually the first Stevie Wonder album (not counting radio hits) I’d ever heard. Though only part of it at first. On a dark,balmy night sometime in 1989-90 my mom was at our summer camp washing dishes. We had an old silver Emerson turntable/ cassette/ radio/8-Track player to listen to music on out there. My mom had ordered SITKOL on 8-Track from Columbia House Music Club. It was a double tape set,but she’d given one half of it to her friend Billy Ray while still living in NYC. It was several years later that I finally heard the entire album on vinyl from my mom and dads record collection.
Songs In The Key Of Life is one of a handful of albums that provided the blueprint to how I listen to music up to this very day. It had some amazing and funky hits such as “Sir Duke” and “I Wish”. On the other hand,being conceived as a powerful album statement with zero filler material,its an album that contains some songs that are just very special to millions the world over. If asked to mull it over,each of them probably can make a list of those special songs from this album to them. Today,I offer you my own journey through the songs of Wonder’s keys of life that had a profound effect on my own life.
“Have A Talk With God”-I am not a religious man. But the way Stevie Wonder talks about the positive effects prayer and faith have on him makes a deep impact. With its space funk synthesizers,bluesy melody and slow dragging vocals it offers up god as “the only free psychiatrist”-contrasting with the 12 bar blues form’s typical association with secular humanism.
“Pastime Paradise”-This might very well be the most expansive song instrumentally and lyrically to come out of the mid 70’s. The Arabic style melody,Afro Latin percussion,synthesized orchestration and Hare Krishna bells/chants make for an early example of what would one day become world/pop fusion. Which makes sense since the song talks about people with a progressive emotional understanding versus those with a more conservative one. And its place in post hip-hop history is assured through Coolio’s 1994 remake “Gangsta Paradise”
“Summer Soft”-Stevie Wonder is an artist who is defined by melodic modulation. This song provides a beautiful tone poem in that regard. He discusses the advantages of the season with a wistful mid tempo ballad sung in falsetto. Then he talks about the seasons being gone in his powerful low voice over a powerful,uptempo gospel/funk revelry.
“Ordinary Pain”-Another fine example of modulation. It starts out with a slow ballad about dealing with the ordinary and apparently “necessary pain” coming from the end of a romance. This is a common thread in Wonder’s romantic songs. This song comes to an end,then returns as a hard core,Moog bass driven funk song from a female perspective sung by Wonderlove’s Shirley Brewer.
“I Wish”-With its bouncing Fender Rhodes piano,ARP synthesizer,bass line along with the hot horn charts,this nostalgia based piece of funk is one of Stevie Wonder’s most enduring hit songs.
“Black Man”-Seeing before my eyes the way this song was layered in recording studio on the relatively rare Classic Albums Series DVD documentary on the making of this album only enhanced my appreciation of this brilliant funk opus. The mix of brittle space funk synthesizer layers with equally brittle,electric horns make this history lesson on the many races of people who built America (with a strong black focus) one of Wonder’s finest pieces of funky music.
” Ngiculela-Es Una Historia-I Am Singing”-On this song,Wonder presents an Afro Latin type of tango done in his electronically orchestrated style. In the languages of Zulu,Spanish and English he sings of true love coming from the heart. Likely relating to individual romance and love of humanity as well.
“As”-This song is one of Stevie Wonder’s masterpieces on the Fender Rhodes electric piano alone. Essentially a mid tempo jazz-funk ballad,it was interpreted by many key figures in that genre during the late 70’s. One can see why as its among Wonder’s most melodically challenging songs ever. Even though I’ve later read commentary that the lyrics of this song were lazily written,its clear that few can have the same high level of emotional expression in their love songs than Stevie Wonder does on such occasions as this.
“All Day Sucker”-This is a hardcore funk jam taken from the EP that came with this album. Using brittle synthesizer accents to accompany the scaling vocal modulations of the song itself,this is one of a handful of fine slices of the funky pie that Stevie Wonder serves up throughout the double album in general.
One thing about Stevie Wonder and this album is that,along with the Motown Monday radio marathons the local oldies radio stations used to have,is that it kind of gave the preteen Andre the impression of Motown as being almost like a fairy tale kingdom. One that omitted sounds and melodies unlike any other. After learning the reality of the hard work and talents that really went into all of it,I did hear of Richard Pryor’s comedy monologue on 1983’s Motown 25 that indeed viewed the label and its artists as being like Detroit’s knights of the sound table.
Songs In The Key Of Life has a sound that could seem magical to the musically unknowing. And even with knowledge,the magic created ON it never truly goes away. The writer John Hamilton is currently tracing the racial double standard of 20th century pop musically. Namely how veteran (generally white) rock artists are seen as aging with grace while black soul/funk artists are generally placed mainly in the context of the past. On Songs In The Key Of Life,Stevie is not only looking towards the future conceptually. But successfully paved the way for it on a musical level as well.
Note from Zach: As you may or may not know, I’ve spent the last several weeks writing about the songs from Prince’s debut album on my chronological Prince blog, dance / music / sex / romance. In the process, I’ve been struck by the many contingencies that exist around For You, and Prince’s early career in general. If things had gone even slightly differently; if his label–or, for that matter, Prince himself–had shown even a little less confidence in his artistic development; then we would be looking at a very different musical landscape in 2016. There’s also the fact that, as I’ve noted several times in my track-by-track posts, it’s difficult to look at For You in retrospect without seeing it as just the first, not-entirely-successful glimpse at a talent and vision that would find its full expression in years to come. But what if that perspective wasn’t the default? What if For You wasn’t the first step in a long career by Prince, but in fact his first and last album? This post is my attempt to think my way through this situation: think of it as a look back at For You from a possible alternate timeline. I don’t know if I will do this for other albums in the future–or, like, ever again–but I thought it was an interesting exercise to examine Prince’s earliest days as a recording artist through a completely different lens. I hope you find it interesting, too.
The reclusive multi-instrumentalist known only as “Prince” may not be as much of a household name as, say, Shuggie Otis; but to serious aficionados of 1970s funk and soul, he inspires a kind of hushed reverence normally reserved for the likes of Stevie Wonder. In fact, Prince’s mainstream obscurity and his cult notoriety are two sides of the same coin: both stem from his having released only one album, 1978’s For You, before he disappeared from the music scene completely. Thanks to a decades-long process of discovery by collectors and rehabilitation by critics, however, in 2016 he stands as one of the great “what-ifs” of 20th century pop music.
The story behind the making of For You is fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. An introverted musical prodigy from Minneapolis, Minnesota, Prince signed a multi-million dollar contract with Warner Bros. Records when he was just 17 years old–which unsurprisingly made waves in the recording industry trades at the time. Also remarkable was the fact that, as a 1978 press release put it, “Prince did it all. Composed the music, produced the sessions. Played the instruments (drums, guitars, pianos, bass synthesizers and more) and sang all the lead and background vocals. He even wrote the string parts.” He was, according to legend (and the press release), the youngest producer in W.B.’s history as a label.
(Photo removed at request of rights holder.)
But Prince’s inexperience and perfectionism proved to be his undoing. The story goes that he blew through all $180,000 of his three-album recording budget on For You alone: holing up in the Sausalito Record Plant for days on end, tinkering obsessively with the songs. When it was finally released, the album was a modest success: lead single “Soft and Wet” even reached Number 12 on the Billboard Hot Soul Singles Chart (though it peaked at only Number 92 on the Hot 100). But the second single, “Just as Long as We’re Together,” stalled at Number 91 on the R&B charts; the album itself also dropped rapidly, peaking at only Number 163 on theBillboard 200. Prince did get some positive press from African American teen magazines like Right On!, where his soft, almost feminine good looks and ineffable air of mystery made him marketable as a pop idol. But the mainstream largely passed him by, and Warner ultimately decided that another album wasn’t worth the investment; after Prince made an awkward, tentative live debut at Minneapolis’ Capri Theatre in January 1979, the label cut their losses.
Which is a shame, because if nothing else, For You positively bristles with potential. The aforementioned “Soft and Wet” is futuristic funk, streamlining the pioneering synthesizer sound of earlier acts like Parliament with an added dose of fey, flirtatious sexuality. Closing song “I’m Yours” starts as a lite-funk workout, then transforms abruptly into full-blown arena rock. The opening title track, meanwhile, is lush baroque soul–not to mention evidence of how Prince managed to blow almost $200K on a single record–with a blissed-out a cappella chorus of multi-tracked Princes singing in unison. It’s like an R&B “Good Vibrations”; the kind of bold, hubristic statement you’d expect from an established artist with multiple successes behind them, not an upstart teenager who came out of nowhere and would return to obscurity just as soon.
There are also more predictable pleasures, albeit always with a subtle tweak. “Baby” is a note-perfect Philly soul simulacrum (had Prince ever even been to Philadelphia?), with lyrics about the decidedly unconventional subject of an unplanned pregnancy. “My Love is Forever” is chirpy disco, but with guitar leads more muscular than even Nile Rodgers would dare attempt. “In Love” also sounds decidedly of-its-time, but with lyrics (“I really wanna play in your river”) that are disarmingly frank in their eroticism. And on the soft songs–“Crazy You” on Side One, “So Blue” on the eccentrically-named “The Other Side”–the 18-year-old shows a depth of musical range and vocal dexterity far beyond his years. For You isn’t earth-shattering, per se–there’s a reason why it didn’t set the world on fire when it came out in 1978–but its subtle blend of musical styles and Prince’s oddly demure lustfulness belie an inventive artistic persona that isn’t quite like anything else, before or since. It’s little wonder that several influential members of the new school of “alternative” R&B, including Frank Ocean and Janelle Monáe, swear by this relatively obscure debut record from the late ’70s.
The afterlife of For You is even stranger than the story of its birth. Prince, as mentioned above, seems to have disappeared after he was dropped by Warner: presumably back to his hometown of Minneapolis, though conflicting reports also claim he became a successful session musician in L.A. It’s certainly difficult to imagine an artist as bold and ambitious as Prince clearly was leaving music behind entirely; there are thus numerous rumors of later maneuvers from behind the scenes. The tracks “Do Me, Baby” and “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” from the 1979 debut album by André Cymone–Prince’s fellow Minneapolitan, and his bass player at the ill-fated Capri Theatre show–are both heavily rumored to have been written by Prince; though they don’t sound quite like anything on For You, so whether it was actually him is anyone’s guess. There’s also been speculation that he played the guitar part on Lipps, Inc.’s 1980 single “Funkytown”: still the biggest hit ever to come out of the Twin Cities. Otherwise, all pop cryptologists have to go by is a string of little-known B-sides from Minneapolis-based artists like Sue Ann Carwell and Alexander O’Neal, with writing credits from suspiciously pseudonymous-sounding names like Joey Coco and Alexander Nevermind.
Meanwhile, the stature of Prince’s sole official release has only grown with time. The album was out of print for most of the 1980s, until it received a spike of notoriety among crate-diggers in the hip-hop era: see, for example, the sample of “Soft and Wet” in RBL Posse’s “I Ain’t No Joke.” This led to the album being reissued in the early ’90s, along with a renewal of interest from critics and musical historians. Today, as noted above, it’s a bona fide cult record, feted among artists and listeners on the left field of R&B, pop, and hip-hop for its unique, genre- and gender-fluid sensibility. Prince, meanwhile, has remained reclusive, though he’s presumably still alive: with the album’s 40th anniversary fast approaching in 2018, it would be great to see him come out of retirement and play some of these old songs for his new and growing fanbase. The world might not have been ready for For You in 1978, but I think it just might be ready now. Hopefully, wherever Prince is today, he realizes that.
(All right, that’s it, y’all…thanks for indulging me in this little A.U. fan fiction exercise. I’m actually taking next weekend off from Andresmusictalk, but I’ll be back on October 8 with something that will almost certainly not be about Prince. See you then!)
The Spinners were a group who had two of the most distinctive lead singers in 70’s soul. During their years in Philly,their main lead singer was Phillipe Wynne-a master of powerful vocal idiosyncrasy. In their Motown years,their final lead singer of that era was George Curtis “G.C.” Cameron. He was a Vietnam vet who recorded a couple of solo albums for Motown after his years with the Spinners. In 2003,he became one of the lead singers of the Temptations. Today at age 71,Cameron has had a rich and varied career celebrating music on both a creative and political level in the state of New Jersey.
In 1970,The Spinners recorded their second and final Motown album entitled 2nd Time Around. Story goes that they were not creatively prioritized on the label. On the other hand,Stevie Wonder felt the opposite because he wrote two songs for the group which were featured on this album. The first was “Its A Shame”. This went on to become their biggest hit for Motown. And is probably the song most people associate with G.C. Cameron. The other song Wonder wrote didn’t perform as well commercially,but to me stands on equal level musically. The name of this song is “We’ll Have It Made”.
A deep honky tonk styled (though not honky tonk sounding) piano opens the song. The bass drum kicks into the main rhythm-which is a big percussive sound marked by epic hi hat hits. These are accented by screaming,melodic horn charts. These instrumental parts mark both the chorus and the refrain of the song-using different chord modulations for each segment. After the chorus,there are these jazzy bridges where Cameron goes into his smoothest low baritone. Towards the end of the song,all the musical elements come together for a huge chorus that closes out the song.
“We’ll Have It Made” is a song that instrumentally bridges a hot,heavy uptempo and a stomping country soul sound beautifully. Even more so,Stevie Wonder’s jazzy modulations give the song its complex character. Cameron sings each vocal part as different characters. On the refrains and choruses he’s a huge soul shouter. On the jazzier bridges, he’s a smooth and almost poppy crooner. The moment I heard this song,it made me think about what might’ve happened to the Spinners on Motown had Stevie Wonder worked more fully with them. This and “Its A Shame” still stand as shining moments of this collaboration.
Maysa Leak is an artist who came to my attention after first hearing her expert,smokey alto in the early aughts. The Baltimore native graduated from Morgan State University with a degree in classical performance. She performed in the Morgan State Choir. It was there she met Stevie Wonder,who brought her in to be a backup singer in his late 80’s/early 90’s edition of Wonderlove. She was most prominent on his soundtrack for the 1991 Spike Lee Joint Jungle Fever. She released her solo debut in 1995 as well. While performing with different groups over the years,its a clear memory where I first heard her.
During the same time I was deep into bands like Jamiroquai,discovering Rufus/Chaka Khan,Miles Davis and the jazzy side of funk my mom picked up a CD called No Time Like The Future by Incognito. This is the first time I ever heard Maysa singing on songs such as “Get Into My Groove”,which I’ve already covered here. Her jazzy style permeates much of her life,so much so that she named her daughter Jazz. And that jazzy groove attracted me to more and more Incognito albums over the years. Their 2008 album Tales From The Beach contained one of my favorite songs sung by her on “I’ve Been Waiting”.
Maysa begins the song by saying “if my heart should betray my emotions,I hope you understand just what it is I’ve been feeling”. Following that,a VERY Stevie Wonder like major/minor jazz chord progression played on a high and bass toned Oberheim synthesizer begins the musical end of the song. This consists of a flutter wah wah guiter and light cymbal/bass drums kicking off a thick slap bass line playing along three chords. After a couple bars of that the slow,funky drums come in along with the Fender Rhodes electric piano and Bluey’s liquid rhythm guitar.
In between this refrain,there’s a brief musical bridge which brings in the tight horn charts-which play call and response to Maysa’s vocals. The Rhodes also plays a strong counter melody to this as well. When the chorus comes in,Maysa is multi tracked within a sea of percussive drums,wah wah guitar,dancing horn charts and the even snakier slap bass line. Just before the second round of choruses and refrains,the keyboards take over for yet another short bridge on the outro. The music strips down to its most percussive elements on the final choruses as the song closes out on a breezy Rhodes coda.
One day,I’m hoping Incognito will be somewhat more recognized worldwide for their often ingenious continuation of 70’s jazz funk in the modern age. Again as has been a continuing theme with me lately,this is a complexly arranged composition. The chord progressions and melodic changes,along with the changes in instrumental soloing throughout,make this one of the most sleekly arranged jazz-funk jams of the new millennium. Maysa’s strong personality and determined “grown folks” outlook on sensuality really make this one of 2008’s major jams of the year for me,anyway.
Syreeta Wright had a long and fascinating musical journey. She started as an aspiring ballet dancer from Pittsburgh who landed a receptionist job at Motown. Settling in Detroit,her backing vocals for latter day Supremes hits led her to be considered as Diana Ross’s replacement in the group. She met Stevie Wonder around that time. He encouraged her to begin writing songs. They two eventually married and recorded together for Wonder’s 1971 album Where I’m Coming From. Though the marriage ended in divorce,her and Wonder continued to collaborate creatively throughout the decade.
Syreeta had another short lived marriage a few years later,moving to Ethiopia in the mid 70’s to teach transcendental meditation. She returned to her solo career on Motown in the late 70’s and early 80’s Her second album of the 80’s decade was called Set My Love In Motion. I picked it up on vinyl in NYC around 1998 or so. Finally picked up a CD copy through the Funkytowngrooves reissue label. Its actually a very unsung classic in what I now understand to be the post disco/boogie funk genre. And the one song this album that signifies this most for me is called “Move It,Do It”.
This is a song dominated by instrumental layering. It starts out with a high pitched synth wail,a round bass one and an orchestral one right in the middle tone. These sweeten up the thick,slow rhythm guitar and equally slow funky drumming. On the vocal refrains of the song,the higher pitched synth plays a sunnier melody as the rhythm guitar goes up a bit in pitch. The song returns to the main chorus after this. The bridge of the song reduces that chorus down to the drums,rhythm guitar and synth bass before the main one returns to close out the entire song.
One conversation that Henrique and I had onetime had to do with the different musical courses Wonder and Wright were taking at the start of the 1980’s. Syreeta embraced the futurist synth funk/post disco boogie sound Wonder had helped to innovate in the 70’s during these years. Wonder meanwhile returned to a live band oriented sound during this period. “Move It,Do It” makes me wonder how Wonder’s sound might’ve been circa 1980-81 if he’d elected to base his sound of the time more on his one man band approach. Still the slinky sensuality of Syreeta’s attitude brings her own musical flavors right up front.
Upon starting this new feature on Andresmusictalk, the subject of 12″ inch singles was something that was always intending to be covered. With their extended,often remixed versions of the original album versions,the 12″ inch single is a format that derived from the disco era. And actually started in it with DJ’s playing the records for dancers as opposed to live bands. It was about a year or so ago that I started collecting these 12″ inch extended/remix singles again. So here is the first ones of this semi regular aspect of this feature. And it actually starts out just as the disco era had peaked.
On Your Knees (1979) is a very funky Eurodisco number,whose single featured eye catching cover art by Bronx born art/fashion photographer Richard Bernstein. The B-side “Don’t Mes With The Messer” deals more with the Broadway musical style of theatrical disco Grace was so known for in her 70’s era music. So you hear two sides of Tom Moulton’s late 70’s disco productions for Grace.
Listening to Edgar Winter’s Frankenstein 84 remixes from…1984,it becomes clear just how much this early 70’s glam rock classic makes a lot more sense in a mid 80’s electro funk setting. With the used of sequencers and Vocorders,Winter creates a break beat/hip-hop friendly variation on himself. Especially when his very strong,often outright growling,rap comes in on the “Monster Rap” mix.
1987’s Characters album is my favorite Stevie Wonder album of the 1980’s. On his 12″ inch single for “Get It”,his duet with Michael Jackson from that album,the drums shuffle more than on the album. And the break beats are re-sampled heavier. This gives it a flavor closer to the then emerging new jack swing variety of funk coming out of people such as Teddy Riley and Chuckii Booker.
The 12″ inch single for “Skeletons” from the same Stevie Wonder album is it’s own matter entirely. The DX-7 synthesizer on the intro is replaced with a thick,funky rhythm guitar for one. Also on the drum and synth bass interludes,Stevie’s call and responses of “hmm hmm hmm” and “oh wow” are set to samples of Ronald Reagan speeches. It really showcases what Stevie means singing”somebody done snitched on the news crew/it’s gettin’ ready to break”.
It was somewhat surprising to find a 12″ inch vinyl single from 1999. But on this set of remixes of Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name”,you get Rodney Jerkin’s original hip-hop/pop version,a Daddy D remix that has an Afrika Bambaataa style electro funk groove while Maurice’s Last Days Of Disco has a late 70’s dance/early 90’s house flavor. It showcases how the song might’ve sounded in three different eras of time.
One thing about 12″ inch singles that I’ve forgotten about is how much they bring out that punchy,analog sound that vinyl is so renowned for. Some of these were actually 33 RPM,but the majority were 45 RM so that probably helped out a big in that regard. It also lasted far longer than I knew-about up to the advent of the MP3 and today they are making a comeback with the big vinyl revival. Creatively speaking,they allow remix producers, sometimes even the artists themselves,re-imagining their own work in new,unexpected ways. And this makes the 12″ inch vinyl single a format worth expanding on.
Michael Henderson is right up alongside Larry Graham in terms of cracker jack bass player/composers with his baritone singing voices. As a Detroit native,he was most influenced by Motown Funk Brother (and bass guitar icon) James Jamerson. Jamerson played a lot of jazzy riffs-especially backing up Stevie Wonder. So it made sense that Henderson,a pioneer fusion jazz bassist,would bring his own bass complexity to Wonder’s music in the late 60’s/early 70’s along with session work for Marvin Gaye,Aretha Franklin, The Dramatics and Dr. By then,Henderson was moving further into his jazz chops.
Henderson transitioned from a soul session player into a jazz one during the early/mid 70’s. Working with drummer/talent scout Norman Connors and jazz pioneer Miles Davis found Henderson helping both artists transition into a soul and funk based approach-especially with Miles’ On The Corner in 1972 and Connors You Are Starship in 1976. That same year Henderson inked a solo deal with Buddah records. His solo debut Solid is a masterpiece of his multiple talent-with its strongly funky title song. For me,another song that pulls together Henderson’s talents on the album is “Let Love Enter”.
Muruga Booker’s conga drum roll and percussion introduces the the song. It features the acoustic piano,Henderson’s bass and the ongoing percussion playing a funky variation of the Brazilian samba rhythm. The melody of it all,as illustrated by Henderson’s scaling voice and lyricism,is based in Brazilian jazz with it’s major and minor chord changes. A straight up percussion part bridges the similarly themed refrain and choruses together. On the bridge,trumpeter Marcus Belgrave delivers a succinct accompanying horn solo as Henderson’s backup singers improvise the melody with him to the songs fade out.
This song reveals itself as having taken a lot of influence from both Norman Connors and Miles Davis. Most of the playing has Miles and Norman’s light musical touch. It also celebrates that Brazilian flavor that Stevie Wonder often had. What bridges these influences is that jazzy funk/soul attitude. It has a strong,melodic groove to it, and its not a simple song either. The chord progressions can be sung and hummed. Yet they offer a lot of challenge for musicians and vocalists who wish to do so. As such,its something of a defining musical moment for Michael Henderson from the beginning of his solo years.