Rick James always seemed destined to have a career at Motown. From his work with the Myna Birds to being a member of the staff writing there. He had spent much of the 70’s a musical gypsy-recording a few records and performing with a few different rock bands during the decade before decamping back to Buffalo and forming the Stone City Band. He then returned to the record label that had seemed to provide a strong sense of security for him as an artist/band leader in 1977. And they dropped this debut album the following April of 1978.
“Stone City Band,Hi” opens the album with a live recording that adds a strong P-Funk horn based hump to it. “You And I” starts off with a rhythm guitar groove that swings into a full blown orchestrated female vocal gospel/disco chorus before going into a 7+ clavinet driven fast funk groove with some harmonically fluid jazz guitar accents by final refrains. “Sexy Lady” deals with a polished and precise jazz-funk number with a strong West Coast vibe about it. “Dream Maker” hearkens back to Rick’s doo-wop days with it’s spoken intro and piano based soul ballad shuffle.
“Be My Lady” is another melodically bright mix of bass/guitar/horn oriented funk with the disco beat and “woo hoo” chants. “Mary Jane” begins with an arena style guitar thump and orchestral synthesizer before going into a stripped down jazzy soul-pop ballad with a lyric that could be taken (in it’s time) in two different ways. “Hollywood” starts out as a tender ballad about Rick saying goodbye to his family, while leaving behind the ghetto environment he feels might destroy him, before ending on a reggae style coda. The album concludes with a reprise of the title song.
When I first got this album on vinyl, I remember not caring for it too much. Hearing it fresh today on CD helps me realize what a strong debut this really is. The steely punk funk sound Rick James would develop isn’t as evident on this album. He’s very much a live band styled funk/soul brother on this album-with little concern for crossover anymore than doing so on his own musical terms. Stone City Band were a strong outfit too-with a big band funk style that can switch years between monster humps and lush disco friendly sounds. An excellent debut from an artist and band still getting their legs.
James Ambrose Johnson,better known as Rick James has very misunderstood legacy to a number of people. Due to the controversy surrounding his sexual and drug habits, his musical legacy has been somewhat buried in the public eye. He started out as a member of the group The Myna Birds featuring Neil Young. He signed to Motown successfully with his Stone City Band in the mid 70’s following only minor success on the A&M label. A year or so later,he helped champion the career of another fledgling Motowner known as Teena Marie on her first solo album. And by the time the 80’s rolled around,James’ was poised for a whole other level of super-stardom.
According to Rick’s autobiography Confessions Of A Super Freak he pointed out how,very much like Prince he was a multi instrumentalist capable of doing so in the recording studio. Still he felt that the interaction of a full band,with it’s different rhythm and horn sections,could provide a broader musical base for his songs. So in the very first year of the 1980’s decade,Rick recorded the first album on the Stone City Band alone called In ‘N’ Out. I found a vinyl copy of this while crate digging over a decade ago. It’s an excellent big band funk album overall. It was the next to the last song on it that really caught my attention. It’s called “F.I.M.A. (Funk In Mama Afrika)”.
A space funk synthesizer starts everything off with accenting,marching conga drums. A shrieking Brazilian style disco whistle inaugurates the main song. From there it’s a ferocious mix of phat percussion,bassy wah wah Clavinet and horns playing to the Afrocentric vocal chanting. On the second refrain,this chanting becomes a call and response between the choral and solo voices. The percussion is also turned up louder in the mix at this particular point. The disco whistle and a slithery,liquid synthesizer emerge as the accompanying rhythm to this as well. The song fades out as this point with no break of the orchestration of the following tune leading it out.
There are times when listening to vinyl that I’ll move the needle on the record to one particular song that excites me-over and over again. And this groove is near the top of that list. Must admit that at the time of first hearing this, I had somewhat typecasted Rick James’ “punk funk” sound into too strict of a box. Was not expecting to hear such a hardcore Afro-Brazilian funk jam from the same man about to unleash “Give It To Me Baby” and “Super Freak” into the world. This song finds Rick playing a similar role to his band as Barry White did to Love Unlimited Orchestra-acting a an arranger and band leader (rather than singer) for a festive,funky and meaningful instrumental revelry.
Filed under 1980's, Afro Funk, Afro-Cuban rhythm, Afrocentrism, Brazil, clavinet, Disco, horns, Motown, percussion, Rick James, Stone City Band, synthesizer, Uncategorized, wah wah