Johnny Gill was born in 1966 in DC,known by the big and strong black population as “Chocolate City”. Coming from a religious back round,he started singing in his families gospel group the Wings Of Faith. He began his recording career in 1982,at the age of 16. It was his childhood friend (and soon to be duet partner) Stacy Lattisaw who convinced the baritone singer/songwriter/ bassist/ guitarist to submit demos to record companies. While he completed his education via tutoring, he elected to pass up studying electric engineering in college for a life in music.
Gill’s career took him from duets to a stint in New Edition (succeeding Bobby Brown) in the late 80’s to a revived solo career after that. One that extends to this very day. He’s also made over 80 appearances on television film in his duel career as an actor. One album that I always wanted to seek out from this multi talented teen prodigy was his debut on Cotilian Records from 1983. It was produced by Freddie Parren-famous for helming youthful family acts such as The Jackson 5 and The Sylvers. One song that stood out to me on Gills debut was “I Love Makin’ Music”.
A percussion march and Gill’s call and response vocal lead into the main part of the song. The whole thing is built around a central groove. This consists a jumping funky drum built around heavy Afro Brazilian styled percussion. Gill provides a thick slapping bass thumps,a chunky rhythm guitar stomp while Perren plays a slippery synth bass. On the bridge of the song,the rhythm reduces down to a thick slap bass solo from Gill before returning to the main theme-urging pianist Clarence McDonald to “play some jazz” and such as the song gradually fades itself out.
“I Love Makin’ Music” mixes some of the kiddie funk style ultra singable melodic approach of Perren with some of the harder funk style Gill seemed to be going for. Not only are Gill’s often growling baritone vocals sound at least a decade older than he actually was,but if he plays as much as I can guess on this album his talents on guitar and bass are deep,strong and right in line with the 70’s soul/funk vibe which he came out of. Even though its not necessarily an aspect of Gill’s solo career that most people today might remember readily,it began the budding prodigy’s music career in superb form.
Pete Townshend is best known as the lead guitarist of The Who-one of the most long lived 60’s rock bands next to The Rolling Stones. Townshend is often regarded for his onstage theatrics. He is also a talented multi instrumentalist. And an early proponent of synthesizers in early 70’s rock. The best example of this is the bands 1971 hit “Baba O’Reiley”,which was built around a European classic style melody played on the ARP 2600 synthesizer. After a very successful 60’s and 70’s, Townshend and the bands lead singer Roger Daltrey began to pursue solo careers at the start of the 1980’s.
Still The Who weren’t over quite yet. This came to my knowledge with a question I never got answered until learning about it online a few years back. From the mid 90’s onward,I’d often hear this song with an intro that had a terrific groove to it. Sounded like a prog/fusion style song,but it was during an era when classic rock radio didn’t often announce the names of artists for those not in the know. It wasn’t until hearing the song in a TV commercial that I was able to research it online through that stated what the song was. It was a song from The Who’s 1982 album Its Hard entitled “Eminence Front”.
A percussive drum box opens the song as a solo sound. The main groove of the song gradually builds in during the into. First it brings in a highly digitized,arpeggiated synthesizer. This is followed by a lower synth riff, as well as a jazzy Fender Rhodes solo floating over the higher notes. The main groove of the song adds a slow crawling drum groove,Townshend’s bluesy guitar. The chorus of the song brings John Entwistle’s thumping,fuzz toned bass in-along with a guitar build up on the outro of it. The Rhodes drives everything in the groove until the song finally fades itself out.
“Eminence Front”,written and sung by Townshend, deals lyrically deals with how the drug end of the rock ‘n roll lifestyle holds back creativity. And I can respect that alternate side of the coin. What really gets me is everything from the instrumentation to the vocal choruses of this song have a special musical interconnection. The song has the theatrical melodies of progressive rock opera (which The Who helped pioneer),but also a thick groove and harmony vocals of hardcore funk. It brings to mind the way the Stones embraced funk in their rock music: based on funk and soul’s current incarnations.
Captain & Tennille were a pop act that defined the late 70’s. They mixed singable,radio friendly melodies with a keyboard based sound. Daryl Dragaon was a former LA surf musician and keyboardist for the Beach Boys in their early 70’s. Toni Tennille-native of Montgomery Alabama,she attended Auburn University there and studied classical piano. After her family moved to California,Tennille was commissioned to write music for a rock musical called Mother Earth. It was on tour with this production in San Francisco that she met her future husband/musical partner Daryl Dragon.
Their first and most iconic song was the Neil Sedaka penned “Love Will Keep Us Together” in 1976. One thing I’ve realized over the years is how much talent Tennille possesses as a composer and vocalist-with her elaborate melodies and soulful belt of a voice. By the end of the 70’s,the Captain & Tennille arrived at Casablanca records-to pursue a more soulful,funky sound. One of the songs from their 1979 album Make Your Move reflected this. It was their version of the song Crusader Stix Hooper penned for B.B King called “Never Make A Move Too Soon”.
The sounds of a small nightclub audience opens up the album just before Ralph Humphrey’s five not,percussive drum kickoff chimes in. That along with Abraham Laboriel’s thick,spacious five note slap bass riff. Dragon’s organ like keyboards accent this before the first bars of the song begins. It starts out with a stripped out funky dance drum stomp with the bass hitting the end of every bar. It builds into a bigger mix with a consistent slap bass line,organ and horns. These horns accompany Dragon’s synthesizer solo on the bridge before a repeated refrain closes out the song with huge horn fanfare.
‘Never Make Your Move Too Soon” is a superb example of a sleek blues/funk stomp in the late 70’s. And from a group associated with big pop smash hits such as the ballad “Do It To Me One More Time”,featured on this same album as well. Tennille delivers this sassy tale of a gold digging male lover with the entire female equivalent of the thick vocal growl that B.B. King had brought to the original recording. The fact that this and its 1980 followup Keeping Our Love Warm was a full on contemporary soul/funk album made one wonder where this duo might’ve gone in continuing in this new musical direction.
Stephanie Mills is an artist who I knew primarily through consistent name dropping-all before delving deeper into her music in the last couple of years through used vinyl. This Brooklyn native began her career as a Broadway stage actress at the age of nine in Maggie Flynn. As an actress her most famous role of course was as Dorothy in the stage production of The Wiz. While her rangy,gospel soul belt of a voice she seemed to be natural for recording. Yet her early to mid 70’s album releases were not very successful for her. This all began to change during the disco era.
After 1979’s “What ‘Cha Gonna Do With My Lovin”,Mills (one of a small minority of black American recording artists with black management,incidentally) began a winning streak that kept her consistently on the R&B charts and on DJ’s turntables on the dance floor at the exact moment disco transitioned into the boogie sound. One such album from this period was the 1983 release of Merciless. Recorded at the height of the boogie/electro funk era,she began the album with a version of Prince’s B-side ballad “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore”. But one if its more defining grooves was the song “Pilot Error”.
A heavy drum and conga based percussion rhythm starts out the song unaccompanied. Then an synth riser that sounds simulating an airplane engine opens into the refrain of the song. This is that rhythm playing along with a snaky synth bass-with a popping rhythm guitar playing the accents. Another synthesizer plays some slightly jazzy harmony chords. On the choruses,the vocal aspect of the melody goes into a harder gospel vibe (complete with backup harmonies) and the percussion going up a bit higher in the mix again. The lead synth takes a solo on the bridge before the chorus fades out the song.
“Pilot Error” is one of the most masterful productions I’ve heard from 1983. It has elements of boogie’s use of synthesizer’s as orchestral elements for sure. But it also has that sense of arrangement and live percussion that defined the 70’s funk era. The Smokey Robinson like lyrical metaphors (which extend so well into its accompanying music video) also dovetail (pun intended) into the airplane like synthesizer effects. In terms of its arrangement and instrumental choices,this song is a strong candidate for the Top 10 grooves from the boogie/post disco funk era.
Terence Trent D’Arby is yet another example of a vital funk/soul revival occurring 30 years ago,in 1987. This ambitious NYC multi instrumentalist came from a multi racial and very confusing back round-with bigamy and a lot of moving around involved. After a failed career attempt as a boxer and going AWOL from the US Army after collage,D’Arby formed the band The Touch while in Germany in 1984. After their debut album,the ambitious D’Arby decided to forge ahead with a solo career. His first and generally best known release being 1987’s Introducing The Hardline-produced out of London.
The first time I heard of D’Arby was with his hit song “Sign Your Name”,a jazzy Brazilian number that I thought was Stevie Wonder at the age of 8. It was decades until I purchased his entire debut album. Many of its other successful songs I’d missed out on originally. Knowing only of another D’Arby song called “Delicate” recorded for his third album Symphony Or Damn from 1991. At that time,one song leaped right out for me and my mom. Especially in terms of its groove. So much so that we actually planned on doing a conceptual music video for the song. Its called “Dance Little Sister”
A high hat heavy funky drum groove begins the song-with D’Arby improvising a a humorous vocal ad lib. After this,the lead synthesizer plays a high pitched,ten note riff over two bars before the instrumentation of the refrain comes in. This is a chunky rhythm guitar and ascending bass line playing call and response to accompanying horn charts. On the choruses of the songs,the harmonic phrases of the melody becomes more sustained to follow D’Arby’s gospel soul shouting. Saxophonist Mel Collins plays a solo over the rhythm section during the bridge before the chorus repeats until the song fades out.
Listening to it all these decades since it first came out, “Dance Little Sister” sounds like something of a middle ground between Prince’s Minneapolis live band funk sound and the approach of neo soul to come within the next decade. It definitely maintains the mid/late 80’s approach of condensing a funk groove. On the other hand,its one of the hardest live band funk jams of the late 80’s to be sure. Not only are horns used on it,but the synthesizer is used in the 70’s approach of having it be part of a full band sound rather than a dominating factor in the groove. Another international funk breakthrough of 1987.
Slave are a band that I’ve desired to talk about for some time now. They were among one of the great late 70’s/early 80’s Dayton Ohio bands along with Heatwave and Zapp. What made them unique in their time however is that they were likely the first Generation X funk band-all of its members still in high school when they formed in 1976. Their first album the following year got them an instant smash funk hit with the song “Slide”,now a mainstay of what many funkateers refer to as “Dayton funk” subgenre. By their 1979 album Just A Touch Of Love,singer/songwriter/drummer Steve Arrington joined the band.
Arrington was only a member of Slave for four years,before leaving to form a successful solo career of his own starting in 1983. But in the early 80’s,Arrington’s unique (and occasionally idiosyncratic) vocal approach allowed Slave to become one of the bands to lay the building blocks for what is now known as the post disco/boogie funk sound. Their first album of the 1980’s (and second album to feature Arrington) was called Stone Jam. Its one of the few Slave albums to remain consistently in print over the years. One of its most well known (and successful) jams is called “Watching You”
Arrington throws the strong dance beat along with Mark Hicks high,clean guitar tone that revs up into the main chorus of the song. This features Ray Turner’s high pitched synthesizer melody and and the late Mark “Mr. Mark” Adams delivers a great walking,slapping bass line holding the whole thing together. The falsetto choral vocals transition to Arrington’s narrative vocals on the refrains. The bridge of the song has Arrington’s drums showcasing M. Mark’s powerful bass line as a solo-with Turner’s synths on the accents. A new chorus with both vocal parts continues until the song fades.
My friend Henrique and I often have a lighthearted dialog about a “super hip young brother in the early 80’s” driving around in a sporty little car trying to impress the ladies around him. “Watching You” brings up this image strongly. Its got the thick,bass/guitar oriented groove that was Slave’s stock and trade. That combined with its playful lyrics of young black people giving each other the admiring,romantic eye made the song and the Stone Jam album Slave’s biggest commercial success since the bands debut four years earlier. And this helps to define “Watching You” a post disco funk masterpiece.
Thundercat (born 1984 in LA as Stephan Bruner) is an artist I’ve wanted to profile for quite some sometime now. He’s had a very diverse career as a bass/guitar player. He began in the thrash metal band Suicidal Tendencies. As well as working close to nu jazz mainstay Flying Lotus. On his own,he has brought his talents to a diverse range of artists from Kamasi Washington,Erykah Badu and Kendrick Lamar. He began his solo career in 2011. While it maintains his diversity of sound to a degree,his focus has tended to be on the modern nu jazz/funk approach in terms of his own material.
The only Thundercat solo album I have is 2013’s Apocalypse. Its mix of electronica and jazz/funk was a very moving one. Cannot honestly say I was too crazy about all of his lyrics. And that is the main reason I’ve avoided covering the music of this child prodigy up until this point. Just a personal preference that funky music be a very complete package. That being said,he is about to drop a new album called Drunk. And his first song released from this album was introduced to me both by friends Andrew Osterov and Henrique Hopkins. Its a duet with Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins called “Show Me The Way”.
A processed Fender Rhodes piano,with Thundercat’s bass line tickling the chord changes next to his falsetto voice,opens the song before the drum-itself a three snare/two cymbal hit,comes in. During the choruses of the song,the Rhodes is phasered very heavily with a twinkling high pitched synthesizer. On the refrains,the arrangement calms down to a meditative soft jazz/funk/pop Rhodes and bass line. On two of these refrains,McDonald’s and Loggins’ vocal parts are introduced by Thundercat and light applause noise. The synthesizer/Rhodes duet improvises its way all the way to the songs fade.
“Show Me The Way” is an excellent tribute to the reality of the “soft rock” or “yacht rock” label often disguising strong jazzy funk/pop artists-that “funk/soul in every section of the record store”. Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald were prime examples of this ethic. Thundercat clearly understands how to compose such melodic and instrumentally intricate jazzy/pop/soul tunes with a strong funky groove as they did in their time. This mid tempo number features a lot of elaborate melodic improvisations-always very hummable. And is a superb comeback for all three artists involved for 2017!
Daft Punk,the French electronic house duo consisting Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo,have been extremely interesting to me. From their debut album Homework in 1997 up through their 2013 release Random Access Memories,their electronica /house combination has continually embraced elements of American funk and disco. And this tendency as gotten strong with each successive studio album they’ve made. The fact that both men play bass and guitar adds strongly to their rhythmic understanding of funky disco grooves. And has afforded them much commercial success as well.
First heard of the duo one evening while home alone with my dad at some point in 2001. We had the radio switched to local college radio WMEB. And one of the DJ’s was playing this song that really caught my ear. Wondered if it was a new acid jazz song by an artist like Jamiroquai or something. But it had a totally different flavor. More electronic. Since most radio stations in my area tended to play blocks of music with no announcements of songs/artists after 2000,it surprised me to hear the DJ announce that the artist was Daft Punk. And the name of the song was “Voyager”.
A very distant drum machine playing a disco beat begins the song,with an airy synthesizer accompanying it as the main melody. That intro soon breaks into a harder pounding version of the same beat-this time with a Nile Rodgers like clean rhythm guitar line along with the main melody. Within this,a wonderfully funky bass line pops out every note between the note possible in this song. This song has two bridges. One reduces down to a percussive rhythm with a wah wah guitar. The next features a Japanese sounding synth solo in the pentatonic scale. This becomes part of the final choruses the fade out the song.
“Voyager” is very representative of the kind of disco/funk hybrid coming out of electronic groups in the early 2000’s that I personally found very appealing. It had the synthesized sonic’s and melodies very popular on the European club scenes. But it also embraced the hard funk/disco approach that came from the American idiom. The fact that it had a Japanese style interlude might’ve served as a reminder of Japan’s pop culture strongly embracing funk and disco in the 70’s and 80’s. In all areas,this song represents a dry run towards the sound that would culminate on their 2013 hit “Get Lucky”.
Maurice White,one of the musical icons who passed away this year,it best known as the founder of Earth Wind & Fire-the most commercially successful of the 70’s funk bands in terms of crossover. On the other hand,the band broke up in 1984. And one of the many reasons brought up was that White had it in his mind that Columbia (the bands record label) were looking for him to do a solo album. This album got released in 1985. Its biggest single was with a (mostly) uptempo version of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me”. But it still remains something of a footnote in EWF history.
When I first heard the album on vinyl album around 18-20 years ago,am not 100% sure it came off as anything all that exciting. Of course,that could’ve just been a case of seeking something different from it than what it was. And what Maurice White’s self titled (and sole) solo debut does is present a series of electronic,pan African rock/funk/soul fusions with a mild melodic pop new age vibe about them. The EWF message is still intact. Its just going more for an attitude than a sound by a large. The one song that always got my attention strongly was the opener “Switch On Your Radio”.
A totally electronic synth orchestration fades slowly on the intro. Than suddenly the song bursts with a bluesy funk melodic statement. And it has all the instrumental elements of the song itself. The drum machine and Paulinho Da Costa’s percussion play off the guitar,electronic hand clap and slap bass lines with this melodic electro funk wall of sound. This represents the choruses of the songs. On the refrains and the bridge,the mix is somewhat more stripped down to focus on the vocals a bit. An extended chorus with vocal ad lib’s finish out the song as it fades.
“Switch On Your Radio” has a sound that crosses a lot of musical bridges. The overall drum programming of the song has the bigness of sound that was very much of its time. Yet the live percussion accents along with Martin Page slap bass,Marlon McClain’s rock guitar and the ethereal synthesizers of Robbie Buchanan make for a powerful sound that basically amounts to a progressive dance/funk sound. And the melody has that strong song construction White and Page are so noted for. Its an extension of the EWF sound for sure. And it also pointed to a possible future solo direction for White which didn’t continue.
Filed under 1985, dance funk, drum machine, Earth Wind & Fire, elecro funk, Marlon McClain, Martin Page, Maurice White, Paulinho Da Costa, percussion, Robbie Buchanan, rock guitar, slap bass, synthesizer
Chuckii Booker is one of those artists whose intricate history is equal to the seeming few who have a strong knowledge of him. He was perhaps better known as the musical director,producer and opening act for Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation tour at only 23-24 years old. His talents as multi talented singer/songwriter/producer/multi instrumentalist got him signed as a solo artist to Atlantic in 1988. Not because of his original talents as primarily a bass player. But because execs accidentally listened to the other side of the demo tape that featured his vocals.
If funk/soul music had followed a totally straight line in the late 80’s/early 90’s,Chuckii Booker would likely have been the intermediary step between Prince and D’Angelo. After a couple Top 10 R&B smashes,Booker became regarded as a producer. In that respect touching on the work of artists ranging from Vanessa Williams,his godfather Barry White and EWF alumni Phillip Bailey. It took me a couple decades to go out and pick up Booker’s two solo CD’s. One of them (and his final one to date) was 1992’s Niice ‘N Wiild. One of the songs that’s really gotten my attention off of it is called “I Git Around”.
After a brief moment of party dialog,the main groove of the song sets in. This is a pounding drum machine that hits a very strong,electrified snare drum sound on the second beat. Along with that are two bass lines. One is a pulsing synth bass,the other is “possibly” a live one playing a “duck face” funky wiggle. Booker brings explosive synth strings,horn lines providing a strong “video game” sound along with the bluesy accents of the chorus. Not to mention a chromatic piano walk down playing in and out throughout the song. Just before the song fades,Booker brings in a tough chicken scratch guitar.
The new jack swing style could (and often was) made extremely generic by many in its commercial heyday. Yet Chuckii Booker used this song (along with many of his others) to point out the sub genres roots in 80’s funk. And even with the mildly new jack friendly rhythm,the instrumental toughness and electronic flamboyance is straight up P-Funk. Everything from the instrumentation to the lyric is pretty much a direct extension of George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” from a decade before it. Makes one wonder how different 90’s uptempo music might’ve been had it followed this ultra funky model.
Filed under 1990s, chicken scratch guitar, chromatic walkdown, Chuckii Booker, drum machine, drums, Funk Bass, New Jack Swing, P-Funk, piano, synth bass, synth brass