The Bee Gees recorded music in a number of different styles over the years. And they always had lots of soul in it too. Their breakthrough international hit “To Love Somebody” was written for Otis Redding. They recorded it themselves only after he died before he got the chance to record his version. After a period of focusing primarily on baroque balladry, the Gibb brothers re-upped with the late Arif Mardin to produce their 1974 album Mr. Natural. Their followup Main Course reinvented them as contemporary soul/funk artists. Perfect for the disco era-especially with Barry’s fiery falsetto vocals.
After that breakthrough success, Robert Stigwood’s label RSO ended its distribution deal with Atlantic Records \. This meant they could no longer work with Arif Mardin due to the contractual conflict of interest. Barry, Robin and Maurice decided to produce the album themselves-hoping to extend on their new sound. Like Hall & Oates after them, self production proved to be their friend. Their 1976 album Children Of The World, recorded in Quebec, continued the winning streak. One album track that really stands out for me is “You Stepped Into My Life”.
The drum roll of Dennis Bryon gets the groove going into a slow and ultra funky beat. The snaky Fender Rhodes of Blue Weaver accompanies Barry and Maurice’s thick,wah wah fueled bass/rhythm guitar interactions. Weaver’s layered synth strings melodically lead the way for Barry’s falsetto lead. This musical combination represents the chorus. String arrangements lead the melody on the along with this rhythm section on the refrains. On the closing trail of the song, the chorus extends into a bluesy lead wah wah played smoothly by Alan Kendall as the song fades out.
The first time I heard this song, it was an equally funky (if somewhat faster) version done by Melba Moore in 1978. This original version is solid proof that a dance song is at its funkiest when the tempo of the rhythm is slower. The whole vibe is similar to Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby-especially the “funk functioning for the disco era” aspect of it. The groove of this song is just super infectious. And the Gibb’s wonderful way with song structure takes it to the next level. Very much like the majority of the Bee Gees output during the mid to late 70’s.
Kool & The Gang’s period of being produced by Brazilian jazz funk Eumir Deodato represented the third stage of their musical evolution. The Jersey band started out with their heavy jazz funk style of such albums as Wild & Peaceful and Spirit Of The Boogie. Than they made a series of albums that reflected a growing disco funk vibe from Open Sesame on through their first Deodato production in 1979’s Ladies Night. After that, the band embraced a more post disco/boogie funk oriented sound with radio friendly pop elements. By the mid 80’s, the band were basically radio friendly dance pop.
Dealing with K&TG as album artists in the early 80’s was a daunting task for me,having long accepted them as a singles act during that era. One day while looking through the cutout CD bins at a record store called Strawberries in the mid 90’s, I came across a K&TG album from 1982 entitled As One. I recognized the song “Big Fun” on it. And was happy to be able to hear it on the car CD player on the way home. The very first song that played upon popping it in helped me to really understand K&TG’s 80’s funk variant very well. And the name of this particular song was “Street Kids”.
George Brown’s drum kickoff begins the song before he puts himself into an in the pocket dance friendly beat for the remainder of the song. Deodato’s bubbling synth bass then proceeds to play call and respond to a two note synth-likely an OBX played by Ronald Bell. On the chorus, JT Taylor’s falsetto vocals play to the tune of Charles Smith’s liquid rhythm guitar-along with the bands powerful and melodic horn charts. There’s a B section with a sustained orchestral synth plays in the back round. This repeats somewhat later in the song as an extension of the chorus,which fades the song out in the end.
“Street Kids” is, to me, a superb example of Kool & The Gang adapting their sound for the post disco/boogie era. The horns,guitars and drums are still all the way live. But orchestral and bass elements are now electronic. The lyrics about street kids who “like to play Captain Video” and “doing the motor roller” go right with it. And the groove itself is squarely in the classic funk framework-right in the pocket and right on the one. JT Taylor has a tremendous vocal showcase here. You get his usual smooth tenor, his breathier falsetto and even his rapping. Part of a strong post disco reboot for this iconic funk band.
Valerie Simpson is turning 70 years old today. That comes as very important in that today is Women’s Equality Day. As far as I’m concerned,Simpson is a pioneer female songwriter for so many reasons. She maintained a very close marriage and professional relationship with Nick Ashford until the day he died. She also kept her own name professionally throughout their career together. And this included,of course their salad years at Motown- spinning out hits for people such as Marvin Gaye & Tammi Tarrell. That’s not to mention the duo continuing to maintain a successful solo career well into the 1980’s.
Ashford & Simpson albums always tended towards the most elaborately arranged and musically diverse wife/husband duet albums I’ve ever heard. By the early 1980’s,the pair had hits for themselves and others in the form of punchy funk,streamlined disco and elegant ballads. In 1982 the pair decided to put together a concept album. A decade before the arrival of hip-hop’s G-Funk sub-genre,the couple decided to use the contemporary post disco musical basis to present very personalized vignette with a street level basis. it was called Street Opera. And its biggest hit was “Street Corner”.
A slow and steady 4/4 drum just starts right up at the beginning of the song and continues throughout until the very end. On the intro,there’s a low thudding piano chord. Before each one there’s a thick guitar rev. After that,the bass line chugs along underneath a higher pitched piano playing a lead melody-with a string synthesizer joining the horn solos just before Nick & Val’s vocal chorus kicks in. On the refrains,the musical theme calms to a processed electric piano based melody and rhythm. But that instrumental chorus from the intro provides the basis for the entire song until it fades out.
Instrumentally speaking,this is one of the most lushly constructed example of the funkiest end of the early 80’s post disco sound I’ve heard. The main musical theme doesn’t vary all that much. But each instrumental statement the song makes is very strong. Lyrically its a very liberating tale of a ghetto woman who is…well either mistaken for naive or mistaken for a prostitute. Either way,Valerie Simpson is telling a man asking her for a ride that “the little girl has grown”. So it showcases how feminine dignity exists alive and well on the street corners across America.
Filed under 1980's, Ashford & Simpson, concept albums, drums, Funk Bass, horns, Nick Ashford, piano, post disco, rhythm guitar, string synthesizer, Valerie Simpson, Women, Women's Equality Day