The Five Stairsteps were the prototype family soul group-predating the Jackson 5 and The Sylvers by several years. They were made up of five out of the six children of Betty and Clarence Burke,a detective for the CPD. They were Alohe Jean, James, Clarence Jr., Dennis and Kenneth-known as Keni. For a brief time, the late Cubie Burke (the youngest brother” was part of the outfit. The became known as Chicago’s “first family of soul”. Their second album Our Family Portrait yeilded the hit “Something’s Missing’. But their best known song was 1970’s “O-o-h Child”.
By that time, the group were known as The Stairsteps. Alohe left the group in 1972. This was just before the group were brought to The Beatles attention by Billy Preston. After a five year hiatus, Preston and Robert Margouleff all came together to produce a comeback along with The Stairsteps-in their new configuration as a quartet. This 1976 album was entitled 2nd Resurrection. I’ve never heard the entire album. But what I’ve heard about it is that, it had a more synthesizer oriented sound. One song I did hear from it was the Keni Burke composition “From Us To You”.
Alvin Taylor’s drums come right in along with Preston’s wailing synthesizer. It keeps a steady, occasionally marching rhythm throughout. The main melody is first played by the harmonizing of Preston’s synth and Dennis Burke’s guitar for a massive melodic sound. This also represents the chorus of the song. Between each chorus, Preston harmonizes with himself on his honky tonk piano, bluesy polyphonic synth riffing and sustained organ. For much of the rest of the song, the Stairsteps vocal harmonies and adlibs sing right along with Preston until the organ fades out on the main melody.
“From Us To You” doesn’t sound to me like anything I’d ever think The Five Stairsteps (by any other name) would do. The drawling chorus, style of singalong melody and the thick groove of the music is far closer in flavor to the Brothers Johnson’s “I’ll Be Good To You” or a Graham Central Station number. Of course, Billy Preston’s instrumentation probably has a lot to do with its heavy funkiness. Interestingly enough, the Preston connection got the band signed to George Harrison’s Dark Horse label to make this album as well. And it certainly started with a strongly funkified new direction for them.
Eric Gale started to teach himself guitar in his native Brooklyn at the age of 12. He played on the R&B circuit with acts such as King Curtis, Maxine Brown and Little Anthony & The Imperials. This laid the ground work for his future as a session great. While at Niagra University, he studied chemistry. The music bug never left Gale however. His major claim to fame was as a session ace during the 60’s and 70’s. As a member of the instrumental jazz funk outfit Stuff, Gale played with Paul Simon in 1980 for his One Trick Pony soundtrack. He was also part of Aretha Franklin’s stage band for a time.
He began a concurrent career as a leader with 1973’s Forecast, on the Kudu label. He recorded the bulk of his late 70’s albums on Columbia however. His first two albums on the label were Ginseng Woman in 1977 and Multiplication the following year. Both albums have been combined together at least twice during the CD era. And were recommended to me by my dad while crate digging. Revisiting some of the songs via YouTube, the song that really stood out uppermost in my head with the title song to the Multiplication album.
Andrew Smith’s jazzy march on drums starts out the groove-with Gale’s ringing guitar improvising along with Bob James’ synths and Alphonso Johnson’s exploratory bass line-starting the groove in a dreamy fashion. Then the horns kick into the groove with Gale playing an ever evolving, down home blues type solo while Richard Tee’s piano and organ join the rhythm section in holding up a soulful groove. All with the horns accenting the changes in key on virtually every chorus and refrain. Its on the closing extended chorus that Gale scales down on his guitar solo as the song itself fades out.
“Multiplication” is an excellent example of ace jazz/funk/rock/fusion session musicians bring a wonderful feeling to their grooves. Sometimes, albums made by session players are thought to be too technical and less human. Gale, Johnson, Jackson, James and Tee’s years of experience playing together really give this groove a great late 70’s jazz/funk version of the uptown, bluesy/soul nightclub musical ethic. And its Gale’s fluid playing style and rich, ballsy tone that lead the way with grooves of this particular type. Basically a theme he’d always variate on as a band leader.
Michael “Mick” Talbot could be described as the man who, even prior to James Taylor, pioneered the revival of Hammond organ based soul/funk on the British musical scene. In the late 70’s, Talbot played in a trio of mod revivalist bands. The best known of them in the end would be Dexy’s Midnight Runners. Mick of course found his voice with Paul Weller as The Style Council. They embraced an often jazz laced blend of contemporary funk,soul and dance music’s. All inspired by Weller and Talbot’s mutual goal to musically shatter the myths and culture of the rock music world.
The band released their debut EP in 1983 in several countries except for the UK, interestingly enough. The following year they released their be bop and hip-hop laced full length debut Cafe Bleu. On both these releases, a precedence was set for including Talbot composed Hammond organ based instrumentals into different sections of the albums. One of my favorites was originally featured as the B-side to the 1984 single version of the song “My Ever Changing Moods”. The name of this particular instrumental had a cute wordplay about it: “Mick’s Company”.
Talbot starts off the song playing an ultra funky riff-doubling up what sounds like a Clavinet setting on a DX-7 synthesizer-all before Hammond organ swirl breaks into the drum roll right into the song. The main theme is this Clavinet effect played with a round synth bass pumping heavy behind it. And Talbot’s bluesy organ playing a counter solo to the introductory synth riff. There are two B sections of the songs where it changes chords. And the organ solo becomes more elaborate. Talbot improvises more and more on the organ as the song processes towards its fade out.
“Mick’s Company”, perhaps the most of Mick Talbot’s organ based instrumentals with the Style Council, really epitomize a somewhat under explored instrumental funk direction for the 1980’s. It combines the bluesy song structure and organ improvising of hard bop/soul jazz, the guitar like Clavinet based sound of the 70’s and mixes both together with a mid 80’s digitized synthesizer/bass oriented approach. It really encapsulates the previous three decades of instrumental soul/funk in under 3 minutes. In the end, it helped give the Style Council their distinctive spin on funk and soul for the 80’s.
Queen have proven to be among the most enduring of the mid to late 70’s rock bands. Their densely layered rock opera based style came into its fullest flower on “Bohemian Rhapsody” from 1975’s A Night At The Opera. Known for their blend of musical professionalism and theatrical stage shows, it was the bands lead singer/songwriter Freddie Mercury who helped to conceptualize Queen’s musical adventure. And it took them through many different musical forms-from opera,rockabilly,hard rock and disco, to maintain their sense of drama. Even after Mercury’s early passing from AIDS in 1991.
In 1980/81, Queen had a huge dance hit with the heavily Chic inspired Another One Bites The Dust. During the early 80’s, Michael Jackson was a close friend of the bands. This likely spurred Mercury onto the possibility of Queen re-fashioning their music into a funkier dance/rock based form. This led to the 1982 release of the album Hot Space. Its regarded by many hardcore rock writers and fans as their worst album. Especially coming right in the middle off the anti disco radio freeze out. For me however, the albums first track instantly got my attention. Its appropriately called “Staying Power”.
A percussive drum machine, Roger Taylor’s live drums and a round, fat sounding synth bass and John Deacon’s rhythm guitar begin the song with Mercury’s grunts and vocal ad libs. On the second part of the intro, horn charts arranged by Arif Mardin play call and response to Mercury’s vocals, Brian May’s guitar and the synth bass. This also represents the B section to the chorus, where Mercury’s sings along with Deacon’s guitar and a whooshing synth riser. After an extended big band horn chart on the bridge,an extended chorus continues until Mercury ends the final horn fanfare with a whispered “gotcha”.
“Staying Power” is a great defining way to begin an 80’s Queen album. Its heavy duty post disco funk-full of big brassy horn charts. Both vocally and musically, its also pretty much Freddie Mercury’s show. He plays many of the instruments on this song-from the drum machine,synth bass to the big windy synth wash. So the rhythmic and melodic base of the song is his creation. Even if many in Queen’s classic rock style dislike them doing horn based electro funk without any lead guitars, Queen and Mercury’s musical power comes through both instrumentally and melodically on this hefty funk number.
John Abercrombie picked up his first guitar at age 14 in his native Port Chester,New York. He attended the Berklee School Of Music in the early to mid 60’s. He played with a group of fellow students at Paul Mall’s Jazz Workshop, a local my father often talked about seeing some acts at during his 70’s trips to Boston. This resulted in him being discovered by organist Johnny Hammond,who had him join his group for a time. After a brief time attending Northern Texas State University, Abercrombie returned to New York to become one of the most renowned jazz session guitarists in the city.
Abercrombie went on to recording as a leader on the German ECM label. This is one of those jazz labels that actually has its own particular sound. Primarily a jazz label, the artists on ECM didn’t want to focus too much on any other musical genre they adopted into their music. But more on their playing ability and their own sound. Abercrombie made his debut album for the label in 1974. It featured him in a trio with drummer Jack DeJohnette and fusion pianist/organist/synthesizer pioneer Jan Hammer. The album was called Timeless. And the title track is one of those songs that speaks a thousands words.
Hammer starts off the song with a sustained,deep synth bass tone. Than his organ comes in with its own kind of sunny sustain. Into this mix comes DeJohnette’s drums, which come through with some ascending hi hat and cymbal brushes creating a dreamy rhythmic atmosphere. Abercrombie’s guitar, playing a number of bluesy and faster gypsy jazz style licks, is complimented by Hammer’s synth bass changing harmonically to accommodate it. Around the bridge of the song, the drums gain a heavier power with Hammer’s synths rocking more. Then the song fades into its original theme as it fades.
“Timeless” is a nearly 12 minute song that’s based heavily around Abercrombie’s soloing. His style was light and understated-very much in the Miles Davis/Ahmad Jamal school. Yet he takes some very fast and elaborate runs too. Jack DeJohnette’s serves the soloing amazingly. While Jan Hammer provides that critical extra texture on his organ and synth. Its big,small,progressive and ambient all at once. Its also the first time hearing this song-after the passing the album over many times. John Abercrombie has sadly passed away this week at the age of 72. And this is a beautiful way to remember his music.
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.
Linx were a a Brit funk/soul/disco group with a rather short lived career. It was a six member band featuring keyboardist Bob Carter, drummer Andy Duncan, guitarist Canute Edwards, bassist Peter Martin,backup vocalist Junior Giscombe and lead singer David Grant. The group split up in early 1983-after Junior had left to begin a solo career and Grant was about to do the same. After a moderately successful solo career, Grant became a successful backing singer for people such as Rick Astley and The Lighthouse Family. He later became a judge on the UK TV show Pop Idol with his second wife Carrie.
Linx recorded two albums during 1981, the first of which I picked up four years ago on vinyl. Their major hit on it was “Intuition”, a Caribbean flavored post disco number became popular to its accompanying music video being played so often on the British music program Top Of The Pops. And all due to a technicians strike. The overall album is a superb example of how the post disco/boogie funk sound thrived,prospered and evolved along with new romantic/synth pop during the early 80’s. One fine example of this was the song “Together We Can Shine”.
A dance beat begins the song with a pulsing Fender Rhodes and a bluesy funk rhythm guitar break. As the main song kicks in, Martin’s slap bass line kicks in heavy. The dance beat becomes more steady. Carter adds spacey synthesizer flourishes-which become very high pitched on the choruses along with the melodic, liquid rhythm guitar bubbling right along. On the bridge of the song, the vocals of the refrain move aside for Carter’s piano solo before Grant’s vocals return. Before the fading refrain, the song breaks off into a percussive Brazilian funk breakdown.
Musically speaking, “Together We Can Shine” showcases the vitality and diversity within the UK post disco/boogie scene. Many American groups/ soloists emerging from that were primarily disco and funk based from the get go. In terms of Linx, its a different story. Bob Carter and Canute Edwards play in a manner very indicative of jazz oriented instrumentalists. Bassist “Sketch” Martin and drummer Andy Duncan have a strong Brazilian funk flavor to their playing. So this song is a superb example of the post disco sound coming from a diverse level of musicianship from the sound of things.
Fat Larry’s Band are a name that goes back to the pre internet days of reading the few funk/soul review books (now torn to bits in my collection from many page turnings) in the late 90’s and early aughts. The Philly natives got lost in the transition of my own crate digging to such a degree, there are presently no LP’s or CD’s of theirs in my collection. Thanks to the presence of YouTube and social media in general,was able to listen to some of the music made by the late singer/drummer “Fat” Larry James,who was born today in 1949 and passed on 30 years ago this December 5th.
In their decade as a recording entity, Fat Larry’s Band recorded nine albums starting in 1976. Their first album to chart was 1982’s Breakin’ Out. As one of many late 70’s funk bands to survive the disco backlash and continue on innovating the boogie/post disco sound, Fat Larry’s Band not only had their only (mid way in the charts) R&B hit album in 82, but also one of their biggest charting hits. It was part of the soundtrack CD to the 2002 video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. The name of this particular song, and the one being discussed today, is “Act Like You Know”.
The song opens with Larry’s slow dragging,high key drum stomp with Larry La Bes’s shuffling,complex bass line providing the intro. The song then kicks into heavy gear with a a bouncing,high pitched bent synth squiggle and a liquid rhythm guitar-all along with the percussive kick on the drum’s rhythm. On the choruses, a melodic horn/string arrangement accent the choral vocals. On the bridge of the song, the drum/bass interaction of the intro is accompanied by a mildly Afro beat style horn chart. A talk sung outro to that goes into another refrain/chorus exchange that fades out the song.
“Act Like You Know” is one of those funk songs that has a very familiar opening. Certainly was to me-especially having never heard the song. As such, it has one of those hooks that a funk audience could respond very well and easily to. Its also very much out of the 70’s style of funk too. The boogie synth is a decorative element with the horns,drum and bass line remain the instrumental starts of the show. Larry’s smooth lead is also served well by the sweet harmonies that come along on the chorus. As a whole, the song showcased the live instrumental vitality of the post disco/boogie era.
Vernon Burch is a musical figure who is relatively obscure to me. Born in Washington DC, Burch is a guitarist whom its hard to find a great deal of personal information about. What could be found out about him was that he played with The Bar Kays during the time they recorded their Do You See What I See? album in 1972. He embarked on hissolo career starting in 1975-at first at United Artists and Columbia. He finally signed to Casablanca subsidiary Chocolate City in 1978,best known at the time as the label for funk stalwarts Cameo.
This was the disco era. And Burch’s place in music history was cemented in funk. In 1979,he released his second album for the label entitled Get Up. On the album he had arrangement help from Tom Tom 84 and funk icon Fred Wesley of the JB’s and P-Funk. Wesley arranged the horns on three of the songs on this disco funk album. While pursuing some of its songs on YouTube,one of these Fred Wesley arranged tunes leaped right out at me-for a number of different reasons both musical and otherwise. The name of the song is “Sammy-Joanne (One Half Woman,One Half Man)”.
A hard hitting disco beat from non other than James Gadson starts the song-along with a ticking keyboard from Michael Thompson. Burch’s rumbling,rocking guitar provides a string orchestra like effect as the intro slides into the main song-along with David N. Shields slap bass. As a descending synth and descending horns enter into it, the drum/ rhythm guitar/Clavinet/slap bass interaction all lock in for the refrain of the song. The stripped down bass/drum/synth sound of the intro provides the chorus. A bluesy guitar solo from Burch on the bridge extends into an extended,fading refrain.
“Sammy-Joanne” is a hard driving stomper- a perfect example of a funk song functioning as disco. What surprised me in the song is how it focused on a healthier and perhaps less hedonistic aspect of the disco era. The Sammy-Joanne character in the song is a hermaphrodite who finds acceptance and love as an implied transgender’ disco dancer. The character is celebrated,not made fun of and hated. And with gender related matters being a strangely controversial matter in 2017, this 1979 song celebrates sexual difference with some of the most funkified disco-dance music possible.
Kate Bush’s 1982 album The Dreaming will be coming up to its 35th anniversary this coming September 13th. For years,I personally knew her only for her collaboration with Peter Gabriel. But none of her own music. It was from a YouTube anthology series Oddity Archive,hosted and created by my Facebook friend Ben Minnotte,did he process his love of the music of Kate Bush. So I sought out an album mentioned in one of his videos called Never For Ever. Interestingly enough, obtained The Dreaming for free in a CD grab bag I purchased earlier. Here is an Amazon.com review I wrote about it four years ago.
It would seem that when this album first came out? It wasn’t exactly very well received. On the other hand later Bjork,an artist who is very clearly influenced by Kate Bush’s musical approach from even my under-trained ears,cited this as a favorite of her albums for her. Of course OutKast’s Big Boi also cited this album as a favorite. And listening to this album its easy to see how that interest is far from merely generational.
With The Dreaming, Kate Bush brought in the then very new Fairlight CMI synthesizer computer to help her with this self produced album. One that took her original musical approach into the expansive world of world fusion. As well as accompanying musical tribalism. With one of its songs “Sat In Your Lap” originally inspired by Bush having attending a Stevie Wonder concert, The Dreaming stands as an example of an album that was (to some degree) an unexplored direction for early electronic sampling on a rhythmic level in what could be described as an early 80’s proto alternative album.