Tag Archives: tribute

Reggie Lucas (1953-2018): A Musical Life

Reggie-Lucas

Reggie Lucas is one of those names who appears on the credits of many albums. In all my years of crate digging, I’d grab just about any album which credited him. Didn’t matter if it was on guitar, as a producer or not. Lucas’s lineage was strong as iron. Born in Queens, the man got his start playing within the Philly soul community as a session musician with MFSB and as a live musician with Billy Paul. In 1972, he began his professional association with Miles Davis, where he met percussionist James Mtume. Together they put together a new band named after James’ taken surname.

Mtume started out as an avant garde jazz outfit with electric elements, very much inspired by Miles’ loose grooves of his mid 70’s period. The band added singer Tawatha Agee in 1978 and released Kiss The World Goodbye. This version of Mtume was a full funk/soul elements. Lucas also began production work during the late 70’s. He began and association with both Phyllis Hyman and Stephanie Mills that would last several years and albums. He also produced jazz sax player Gary Bartz during his own transition to a funkier sound.

Lucas’s biggest success as a member of Mtume was with their 1983 hit “Juicy Fruit”, a sexually spicy electro funk jam that inspired an equally famous hip-hop reboot called “Juicy” by Notorious B.I.G, who also sampled the original hit in his song. During that same year, Lucas provided production on the then little known singer/dancer Madonna Ciccone on her debut album. His LINN drum and guitar work, including Lucas’s own composition “Borderline”, would find him part of the musical team that launched one of the 20th centuries major dance music superstars.

Looking back on his accomplishments today? Reggie Lucas served a similar function on guitar as Marcus Miller did as a bassist. He came to fame as a musician working with Miles Davis. And went onto become a session player for a number of soul and pop artists-many of whom themselves became iconic. Lucas may have passed away on my 38th birthday. But in the end, Lucas was another major seed that Miles planted into the tapestry of black American music during the electric jazz and funk/soul/disco era’s.  To me, this will be what I’ll always think about when contemplating Lucas’s creative arc.

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Is It Still Good To Ya: A Tribute To Both The Late Nick Ashford & To The 40th Anniversary Of This Classic Ashford & Simpson album

 

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Ashford & Simpson’s songs have somehow grown with me through my musical “soul education”. All the way from hearing their “Don’t Cost You Nothing” on public service LP’s (staring James Earl Jones entitled ‘Genius On The Black Side) that my father was given all the way up to finding them credited all over the place as songwriters on my many Motown collections. Within the last decade or so? I’ve been reviewing their own albums online as well. Yet somehow neglected this first CD of theirs I ever had. Something I got as a bonus selection when belonging to the old BMG Music Service.

After all this time and listening’s? Long overdue for me to go into the album here. “It Seems To Hang On” opens with a creamily beautiful example of disco friendly uptempo soul-full of liquid rhythm guitar and Valerie’s extremely sensuous vocals in particular. The title song is a richly orchestrated ballad filled with climactic harmony vocal choruses. “The Debt Is Settled” is a thick,stripped down piano/bass oriented groove that comes to life via it’s light percussion accents. “Ain’t It A Shame” is a breezy, mid tempo Brazilian style soul/pop number

“Get Up And Do Something” is, on the other hand, a thick funk number with a full scaling bass line, choppy keyboards and rhythmically jazzy refrains. “You Always Could” is a horn packed, soulful shuffle while “Flashback is a fine example of Latin flavored disco. The album ends with the instrumentally gospel infused mid tempo ballad “As Long As It Holds You”. What amazes me about this album is that this married duo could continually turn out high quality hit soul/funk/pop music on themselves as well as Chaka Khan and at the time preparing for a Diana Ross session.

It was likely the momentum of their oiled approach to their music over the years that kept Ashford & Simpson rolling right along- in terms of the level of their musical output. This emerges as another fine release in a strong of fine Ashford & Simpson albums in the mid/late 70’s. They offer up the best in their diverse stylistic arsenal. This album has the lush disco era uptempo material, blues structured funk and their slinky and cinematic balladry. And everything suited very well to the male/female duet format Nick and Val helped build-both together and for other artists as well.

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Brothers Keeper: Reviewing The Neville’s 1990 Album In Tribute To Charlie Neville (1938-2018)

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The Neville Brothers were a semi regular presence in my musical life to such an extent? They almost worked their way into the aestetic back round of that life. That was until I started exploring their music 5-6 years ago. And found that, in terms of music that came out following the 1980’s, the Brother’s Keeper is quite different from what I could possibly have imagined. Known about this for a long time. Picked it up same day,same format and same price as I did the Neville’s Fiyo on the Bayou. Decided as I often do to listen to the two together.

I expected both albums to be excellent and interesting. And that they both are. But there’s something on this particular album that is somewhat hard to put into words. It’s a sort of flavor you get from that type of 1970’s funk that stretched conceptually out beyond merely the latest dance or whatever. In terms of cultural,moral and spiritual understanding this album makes no apologies in showcasing the Neville’s outlook on all of that both lyrically and musically all at once. It’s nothing like their late 70’s,early 80’s sound at all. They evolved into something quite different.

A  good deal of these songs (in fact)  have a strong blues/country-soul vibe to them from “Steer Me Right”, the Linda Ronstadt duet of “Fearless”, “Fallin’ Rain” and “Witness” actually have more a potent combination that is closer to a country/soul/blues fusion somewhere around the middle since there’s a lot of gospel overtones in their too. “Brother Jake” isn’t exactly a heartwarming tale but at the same time it’s one of my favorites here and showcases them modernizing their funk again. Only it’s very much late 80’s sounding.

“River Of Life” and “Mystery Train” are very funk oriented but delve into the blues end of it a bit further,again telling some captivating stories that I won’t spoil for anyone here. “Sons And Daughters” is goes right back to the West Indian style percussive rhythms of Congo Square- with Charlie Neville himself delivering a spoken word lyric to the effect of politics being used as a force to spiritually bankrupt human kind to the point where there’s only “free speech unless you say too much”. “Jah Love” again points to the Afro Caribbean spirituality of the New Orleans culture.

Lyrically and musically the title song is contemplates the idea of brotherhood (both literally and figuratively) over some major chorded Crescent City type funk. The album ends with Aaron’s “Bird On A Wire”,the most sleek and 1990’s style track on this album with it’s (then) fully contemporary album. Even though one might not think of it in precisely these terms,this is a funk album. Not generationally perhaps, or in terms of it’s relation to the funk era of the 70’s. But in terms of how it presents itself stylistically and rhythmically.

This quality is especially significant on the lightly percussive opener “Brother Blood”. It has a very diverse range of  grooves and messages here that somehow all coalesce into itself. Of course when one discuss New Orleans, funk of some sort or another is bound to come into the equation sooner or later. Far as I know? The musical term “funk” itself was born there during the earliest days of jazz. In a nutshell, I suppose that’s the most important thing this particular album reflects. And can add to that importance especially one song in particular here has on the legacy of the late Charlie Neville.

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Prince’s ‘For You’ At 40 Years: A Debut Of Love, Sincerity & Deepest Care

Prince Rogers Nelson arrived at the tail end of the 70’s-during the era when P-Funk and jazz funk artists such as George Duke (both his musical heroes at the time) were in the throws of their peak grooves. With Stevie Wonder having hit his peak, and Shuggie Otis having not quite reached it,  Prince emerged as the barely 20 year old “wunderkind” from Minneapolis. As with a number of musicians before him,  Prince was insistent on doing it all right from the get go. Writing,producing-even down to playing all the instruments. Musicians like Wonder before him had a decade of preparation to get to that creative independence.

Prince was apparently so confidant in what he was doing, he stipulated all of this in his recording contract before he got started.  What is important on For You is that even in the very beginning, Prince wasn’t trying to change the face of music itself. He definitely had his musical influence. But he didn’t exactly where them on his sleeve either. Instead, he elected to integrate them into his own unique soul/funk style. This album introduced that style of music that would later be called the Minneapolis sound. With Prince playing all the instruments that sounds main trademark was the multi-tracking of synthesizers.

In the late 70’s, Prince’s arsenal of synthesizers included  Oberheim’s, ARP’s and Polymoog’s. These were polyphonic instruments that allowed him to create his own heavily harmonized electronic soul symphonies. It’s sort of an extension on what Wonder did with TONTO earlier in the decade-only in a somewhat more cinematic style. Most of this album’s sound is built largely on harmony over rhythm:Prince at the drums and Prince playing guitar while his multi-tracked vocal and synthesizer harmonies fit very nicely into that rhythmic backdrop.

And even for that this album, especially for a debut, is very much a magical experience. Prince sings all the songs in his dreamily soulful falsetto voice. After the a capella title track,consisting of nothing but harmonized vocalizing we come to the almost trance like synth funk of “In Love” where we get the first of one of Prince’s famous lines “I really wanna play in your river”. The closest this album came to a hit single is the stop-and-start funk of “Soft And Wet” which contains what sounds like a pretty jazzy, improvised synth solo in the bridge of the song.

Prince always cited Joni Mitchell as an enormous musical influence on him and songs like “Crazy You” and “So Blue” with it’s water drums, fretless bass riffs and acoustic guitar riffs have roots very much in…say something like Hissing of Summer Lawns,an Joni album Prince exhibits a special fondness for. Both of these songs also possess a strong Brazilian jazz flavor at their core. The emotionally naked ballad “Baby” finds Prince baring his heart to his lover whom apparently learned she has become pregnant. His lyrical tone on the song also maintains a sensitivity in its earnestness.

“Just As Long As We’re Together” and the more mid tempo “My Love Is Forever” both have the strong Carlos Santana guitar sound that Prince always cited. And both would fit well sound wise on Santana’s late 70’s albums such as Inner Secrets or Marathon. And even more in that vein would be the fierce guitar fueled funk rocker “I’m Yours”. A lot of people have criticized this album for being both un melodic and boring. Those are two things this album definitely is not. As a matter of fact that may be why a lot of people don’t like it as much as later Prince albums.

The harmonics and melodies on this album are somewhat overwhelming at times. And the production of For You was apparently so elaborate, Prince blew the entire budget he was given on his first three albums on this one project. I’ve long speculated with friends that this reality might’ve led to the more famous stripped down variation of MPLS funk of Prince’s hit period.  As with Bernie Worrell before him, Prince made the still relatively new synthesizer his own personal orchestra..  That factor was already so well established on this album, it’s more than worth a second notice.

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Anatomy of Two Late Funkateers: “Money’s Hard To Get” by The Temptations

Dennis Edwards, lead singer of the Temptations from 1968-1976 and again from 1980 to 1987 and Leon Ndugu Chancler, best known as the drummer on Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”,  both passed away within two days of each other this week. The former at age 74, the later at 65. The interesting part of it was Ndugu passed away on what would’ve been Edwards’ 75th birthday-on February 3rd, 2018. Edwards was a singer, Chancler was a jazz session drummer. And it was still surprising to me the breadth of commonalities these two late musical figures have in common.

Dennis and Ndugu both hailed from the South. Edwards from Alabama, Chancler from Louisiana. They both left the South- Edwards for Detroit and Chancler for California. Both men studied their craft at universities in their adopted home towns.  Their career paths differed-as Ndugu became a session player for artists ranging from George Benson to Kenny Rogers. And he was even George Duke’s main drummer for a decade or so. Edward’s became the lead singer of The Tempts during their psychedelic soul period. And the two finally crossed paths on the 1982 song “Money’s Hard To Get”.

Kerry Ashby’s synth bass provides the intro to a song-played in close unison to Stevie Wonder’s bassist Nathan Watts. Ndugu’s powerful drums then come in playing right in the the pocket. Along with Melvin “Wah Wah Watson” Ragin’s nimble rhythm guitar, that also comprises the refrains of the song. The chorus features Benjamin F. Wright Jr’s ultra funky horn arrangements-whereas those two sides of the songs are linked by a unison vocal passage with Ashby’s synth bass playing a more clomping style. After a bridge featuring a synth solo with the horns, an extended chorus fades out the song.

“Money’s Hard To Get” finds both Dennis Edwards and Ndugu Chancler at some of their very finest. Edward’s second tenure with The Tempts as at its peak vocal powers here-in a reunion with the seven then surviving members. His voice follows the emotional attitude of the song too-itself a classic soul tale of “love or money” somewhat in the vain of The Isley’s “Work To Do”.  Chancler’s drummer, along the the horns, rhythm guitar and electric/synth bass fusion make this a terrific example of early 80’s post disco/boogie melding the live sounds of the 70’s with the electronic/new wave ones of the 80’s.

 

 

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Charles Bradley-1948 to 2017: Losing A 21st Century Soul Man

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Charles Bradley’s cancer was made aware to me by my friend Henrique Hopkins about a year ago. That was a time I now refer to with weariness as the “funkpocalypse”. So many classic musical icons, both in and out of the soul/funk spectrum, were passing away faster than many could count it seemed. Again as Henrique pointed out recently, that was an unprecedented event. Bradley’s passing today reflects how the foreknowledge of his passing has provided the necessary time to reflect on where he fit into the contemporary soul/funk/R&B world.

Six years ago, a documentary film on the man was released entitled Charles Bradley:  Soul Of America. Its one I haven’t seen. But there was a lot I already knew about him. He was raised by his grandmother in Gainesville, Florida. His mother had abandoned him as an infant. But by age eight, she took him back to live with her in Brooklyn, New York. Witnessing a James Brown show with his sister at the Apollo in 1962, Bradley became fascinated with perfecting JB’s vocal style and image at home. At 14, he ran away from home to escape the poverty of his life. For a time, he was essentially homeless.

After enlisting in the Job Corps, he ended up in Bar Harbor, Maine. He trained to be a chef there. He worked in that position for ten years. During this time, he overcame his stage fright. Mainly at the encouragement of co workers. He performed nights with a local band-who eventually got drafted into Vietnam. He then left Maine to travel out west. Eventually living in different areas of country. And performing small shows between odd jobs until 1996. At that time, he began working as a James Brown impersonator under the name of Black Velvet

This all occurred amidst trying to re-connect with his mother, almost dying after an allergic reaction to penicillin. Plus dealing with the murder of his brother. Finally in 2011, he became part of the Daptone label’s revival of late 60’s style soul & funk. And this is where my own saga with Bradley begins. I remember purchasing his first album No Time For Dreaming  at Borders Books & Music-right as they were liquidating. I purchased his third album Changes during the time of finding out about his cancer diagnosis. In musical terms. I somehow still associate Charles Bradley with new beginnings.

Having been a predominantly Latino/African American man growing up in 80’s and 90’s Maine, its very compelling to me to think of a man who looked and sang so much like funk innovator James Brown being a chef in Bar Harbor. Although a port city in Maine with a good level of diversity, I am today very aware of the states less then 1% African American population. To think of a man like Charles Bradley first realizing his calling in Maine during the 1960’s is simply amazes me. Through all the man went through, he not only survived but thrived. And emerged as an artist fully funkified. He WILL be missed.

 

 

 

 

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Sparkling In The Sand: A Tribute To The Late Rick Stevens

TOP album cover with Rick

Rick Stevens the man in the center of this album cover. Why he wasn’t seen on the cover has to do with the fact he’d left the band before Tower Of Power’s eponymously titled third album of 1973 came out. Warner Bros released 1,000 copies of this album with the wrong cover by mistake before withdrawing it. Steven’s was a lead singer for the band from 1969 up to 73. Sadly he passed away on September 5th at age 77 of cancer. Thought about doing one of the songs Stevens sang lead on in Tower Of Power. But his own story, first discovered by me in Wax Poetic magazine, is a far grander one to tell.

Stevens was born in Port Arthur,Texas. But grew up in Reno, Nevada where he began singing in church during childhood. His maternal uncle was the iconic R&B/soul singer Ivory Joe Hunter, for whom young Stevens held much admiration for and who came to visit him between touring. Stevens moved to the Bay Area in 1966. And recorded with a number of bands and, after an aborted time with one such band in Seattle, he moved back to San Francisco and joined Tower Of Power in 1969. He was a strong vocal presence on their first two albums,especially in terms of ballads.

Songs such as “Your Still A Young Man” remained Stevens signature songs throughout his time with the band. After leaving the TOP, he became part of another local horn oriented band in the Bay called Brass Horizon in 1975. Sadly a year later, he was arrested for his involvement in a failed and fatal drug deal. He spent over 30 years in prison, where he converted to Christianity and swore off drugs. He spent his touring Northern California with his new band Love Power. He released a CD with them entitled Rick Stevens Back On The Streets Again Vol. 1 in 2014.

The news of Stevens death came to me through by a writer and Facebook friend A. Scott Galloway. He’d found out about the singers passing via fellow TOP member Lenny Williams online post,after Williams had received the call from Stevens son. Later in the day after finding this out, my friend Henrique and I got to talking about how he framed some TOP album covers on his wall- in tribute to his local Oakland funk heroes. Though Stevens presence in TOP was comparatively brief, his story ended up being an abbreviated career that did end in a redemptive journey of sorts. RIP Rick Stevens!

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Anatomy of THE Groove For The Brothers & Sisters Who Aren’t Here: “Holy Thursday” by David Axelrod

David Axelrod was yet another example of an artist I’d likely never have grown up knowing about had it not been for my father and his reading. Tended to think of him as somewhere as the middle ground between Quincy Jones and Henry Mancini. Growing up in South Central LA,a predominantly black and Latin community,Axelrod loved big orchestral arrangements yet strong contemporary soul,jazz and funk rhythms.  Having grown up in a family who embraced left wing ideas,the themes of his music often explored the sociopolitical and spiritual changes of the 60’s and 70’s-during which he was recording.

Axelrod also associated himself with artists from a number of different genres in the role of producer/arranger. This included Cannonball Adderley,Lou Rawls and Letta Mbulu just to name a few. His legacy has been celebrated during the early aughts through magazines such as Wax Poetics. Especially when it came to how many hip-hop artists actually kept his sometimes forgotten songs alive through samples in their own music. Awkward as this sounds,even to this day I haven’t given David Axelrod’s music the attention it probably deserved. So today,I will be over-viewing one of his most famous songs “Holy Thursday”.

A two chord piano up scale along with a 2-3 note electric bass accent opens the song, before the piano turns into a vibraphone. Shortly thereafter, the thick funky drum shuffle kicks in along with the string and horn arrangements playing the piano part. Every other verse,with the same basic instrumental setup as the intro,the drumming turns over to a cymbal heavy jazz swing. On the bridge of the song,there’s a full on vibraphone solo before a heavy swinging drum solo for a few bars. A soulful piano and psychedelic rock guitar bring the song an outro similar to how it all began.

“Holy Tuesday” is one of those songs that,like the very best of Quincy Jones’ work, encapsulates not only the many of the musical but cultural flavors of its time frame. Released on his now iconic 1968 debut album Songs Of Innocence, the song represents a height of cinematic soulful jazz grooves. It has the rhythmic foundation of James Brown, the big jazz orchestral sound and piano/vibe solos-along and elements of what would become psychedelic soul with its rocked out guitar. Its therefore more than worthy of being a song successfully revived through the best of hip-hop’s preservationist legacy.

 

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