Jeffrey Osborne-a Providence,Rhode Island native was came from significant musical lineage. His father Clarence “Legs” Osborne,who played trumpet for the likes of Duke Ellington,Lionel Hampton and Count Basie. Osborne formed up with the group that would become LTD in 1970. By 1976,the band was off to a run of successful funk/soul ballad based albums in the late 70’s and early 80’s that included major successes such as the funk of “Back In Love Again” and “Holding On” as well as slow jams such as “Love Ballad” and “Shine”. Osborne’s robust,gospel drenched baritone voice was a major highlight too.
Osborne left LTD in 1980 to begin a solo career. His self titled solo debut came out on his bands label A&M in 1982. It was produced by the late jazz/funk luminary George Duke. It was through Duke that I first took interest in this first solo album when I discovered it on CD about 12 years or so ago. Because of where LTD’s music had seemed to be going in the early 80’s,had the impression this would be a Lionel Richie like album that strong emphasized ballads. And Osborne’s solo career seemed to have been marketed that way. Yet he also came through with songs like “Who You Talkin’ To” as well.
Jerry’s Hey’s horn arrangements begin the affair-with the refrain consisting of Terry Smith’s drumming,Paulinho Da Costa’s always spicy percussion,a high chunky rhythm guitar part and a hard slap bass line from Larry Graham himself. George Duke provides the sung song title through his Vocorder along with Osborne’s straight lead. The horns punctuate every bar of the song. They also play a low thundering chart on the lead up to the choruses. The bridge finds the drums,percussion,horns and Vocorder playing for a rocking guitar solo before another series of choruses closes out the song.
The early 80’s did seem to find a lot of baby boom age and/or aged black American recording artists emphasizing heavily arranged ballads. That seemed to be the emphasis of vocal based artists of that day. Jeffrey Osborne was always diverse in projecting epic soul ballads and hardcore funk. And his solo debut changed nothing. I cannot think of a black male American vocal album of its time with such a hardcore funk piece as “Who You Talkin’ To?” on it. And including slap bass innovator Larry Graham no less. So for the funk lover,this might be the highlight of Jeffrey Osborne’s solo debut.
Billy Ocean,born almost 67 years ago this year in Trinidad as Leslie Sebastian Charles, decided to follow follow in his Grenadian father’s musical ambitions after his family moved him to Essex,England in 1960. He first got his taste of musical success singing in London clubs as a teenager while carving out a living for himself as a tailor. Recording his first album in 1976 in more of a Philly/Motown pop soul style,his second album in 1980’s City Limit had two songs in “Are You Ready” and “Stay The Night” that LaToya Jackson on her debut album the same here.
He broke out commercially in 1981 with the title track to his third album Nights (Feel Like Gettin’ Down. It was only a few more years before his string of new wave/disco hits such as “Caribbean Queen” and ballads such as “Suddenly” made him a superstar. In the early 80’s however, Billy Ocean was primarily a boogie funk artist with a very strong attention to song craft and keen understanding of a strong groove. His fourth album Inner Feelings was one I tracked down for a buck on vinyl. Its a wonderful album in this immediate pre-superstar boogie sound. And one of my favorite songs on it is called “Calypso Funkin'”
A jazzy synth brass chart starts off the intro to the song,which starts out as an Afro Brazilian percussion jaunt with a heavy slap bass line. This is accentuated by a slippery electric piano part along with Ocean’s vocals for several bars. And that’s when the boogie drums bring in the more straight ahead dance beat for the choruses-along with a nice fast paced funk rhythm guitar. Each chorus is accentuated by a silent break with a female sigh. There are two instrumental bridges to the song. One showcases a steel drum solo playing the changes. The other is a Vocorder solo before the chorus closes out the song entirely.
Even during his hit period,Billy Ocean never stopped expressing his Afrocentricity in different ways. He even re-recorded the lyrics to his song “Caribbean Queen” and re-titled it “African Queen” for release across continental Africa. “Calypso Funkin'” actually brings in the melodic and rhythmic influences of the vast spectrum of Calypso music deriving from Ocean’s native Trinidad-a music originally derived from West African Kaiso music with colonial French influences,into his post disco/boogie funk sound of 1982. Its another strong example of the Afrocentric musical elements still present in the boogie funk era.
Jackie Jackson,being the eldest of the Jackson’s siblings whose turning 65 today,brings to mind an important element in the Jackson family musical dynamic. With the enormous commercial success of the late Michael Jackson,it often seems that the different musical talents of the other family members are torn down in order to build up MJ’s cult of personality. Michael Jackson was a very talented performer,and one of the most rhythmic and distinctive vocalists of his era. Yet with such a musical family,his talent was made stronger (not weaker) by the unity he had with his brothers.
Born Sigmund Esco,Jackie was part of the main vocal trade-off’s between young Michael and Jermaine during the salad days of the Jackson 5. At that time he often sang high,reedy falsetto parts. When four of the brothers,including him,teamed with youngest brother Randy at Epic,the lead vocals Jackie provided to the group found him singing in his gruff,gravelly low tenor. Between the summer of 1979 and 1980,the by that time re-christened Jackson’s began work on their sixths album Triumph. Dominated vocally by Michael,the final song was a major triumph for Jackie in “Wondering Who”.
Ollie Brown’s hi hat drum kick off starts the song off along with Michael Boddicker’s melodic Vocorder line. It then kicks off into a percussive,uptempo Latin-funk rhythm with Boddicker’s brittle synthesizers and Vocorder providing equally rhythmic accompaniment. Nathan Watts’ 2 on three note bass thump and Tito Jackson’s low,fast past chicken scratch guitar lines lead into the 4/4 dance beat of the chorus-with the synthesizer’s becoming more orchestral. Tito’s bluesy guitar riff’s buffet each choral/refrain pattern. Michael and Jackie duet on the final chorus before Boddicker’s jazzy Vocorder scat fade out the song.
The first time I heard this song,it sounded as if the Jackson’s were ending their first album of the 1980’s with a nod to the future of funk. Indeed, they were. Composed wonderfully by Jackie and Randy Jackson,this song has a strong bluesy melody. Instrumentally it is extremely compelling. It’s a full on boogie/electro funk groove. And one where the synthesizers and Vocorder play the same role as the live percussion. The frenetic power of the songs music,combined with Jackie’s matured versatility as a singer,make this one of the best examples of futurist funk that ever came out of the Jackson’s camp in it’s day.
Filed under 1980's, Boogie Funk, chicken scratch guitar, elecro funk, Jackie Jackson, Michael Boddicker, Michael Jackson, Nathan East, Ollie Brown, Randy Jackson, synthesizers, The Jacksons, Tito Jackson, Uncategorized, vocoder
Chaka Khan’s very musical essence could be summed up through jazz. It was listening to Billie Holiday growing up in a family of visual artists that inspired her whole vocal approach. As a late 60’s counter culturally inclined teenager,she became involved with organizations such as the Black Panthers as well as Affro Arts out of her native Chicago. She encountered folks who’d later be members of both Sun Ra’s Arkestra and Earth Wind & Fire through Affro Arts. And this was all before she teamed up with a band known as Ask Rufus,and went on to enormous success as a leader singer and eventually a solo artist. So from jazz to rock to funk,Chaka never strayed from what inspired her.
Now in my late teens,there was one piece of vinyl of Chaka’s that I suppose would be referred to as a grail by the modern vinyl collecting community. It was her self titled 1982 album. While the least commercially potent of her early/mid 80’s Warner Bros. albums produced by Arif Mardin,it was known as being among the most unique and funkiest of her solo records.I personally found the vinyl in Boston. Eventually I managed to purchase the rare CD import offline. The album itself is a masterpiece of brittle yet cinematic electro funk. Chaka’s solo albums generally contained at least one musical tribute to her love for jazz. And on here it was perhaps her most defining one in”Be Bop Medley”.
A powerful drum kicks off with Chaka’s screaming vocalese before a chanking rhythm guitar strums along. A Vocoder kicks into a sturdy 4/4 dance rhythm with a synth bass scaling down. That’s the rhythmic element linking each part of the medley. The Hot House part of it has a metallic synth playing the chordal pattern whereas a Arabic style Fender Rhodes solo segues into “East Of Suez” along with some spirited percussion. An electric sitar begins the frantic synth bass take on Epistrophy whereas Yardbird Suite and has Chaka duetting with the Vocorder. Con Alma slows the song briefly to a swinging ballad tempo as a sax led Giant Steps finds Chaka scatting her way out of the song.
Having listened to this particular song over and over again for fourteen years now,this is one of the most instrumentally intricate and futurist examples of jazz/funk in the 80’s. It showcases once and for all that the electro funk movement did not represent a great to the funk genre. As Miles Davis-later a friend and collaborator of Chaka’s might’ve said, all quality music needs is the best caliber of instrumentalists. Steve Ferrone,Will Lee,Hiram Bullock and especially Robbie Buchanan’s rhythmic synth bass absolutely burn on this song musically. Plus her jumps from melody,harmony to chordal based singing-changing pitch and speed on a whim,make this perhaps Chaka’s most defining solo number.
Another significant musical element to this is how Chaka and the musicians playing with her on this showcase how much the instrumental innovations of be bop carry over into the funk era. It’s a stripped down,synthesizer derived naked funk that provides the main groove of this song that’s present throughout. It protects the beat much as Max Roach might’ve with Charlie Parker. Showcasing the evolution of bop from Bird,Dizzy and Monk on through John Coltrane is accomplished here by Chaka’s lead voice being the horn like voice,and her backups being much like string orchestrations. So also on a purely musical level,this paved the way for a possible whole new level of funk for the early 80’s.
Filed under 1980's, Arif Mardin, be bop, Chaka Khan, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, drums, electro funk, Fender Rhodes, Hiram Bullock, Jazz, jazz funk, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, percussion, Robbie Buchanan, Saxophone, scat singing, Steve Ferrone, synth bass, Thelonious Monk, Uncategorized, Warner Bros., Will Lee
Today being Martin Luther King Day brings up an event that occurred during my lifetime ,but of which I am also too young to remember fully. In the early 1980’s Stevie Wonder along with fellow musical artist/writer/poet Gil Scott Heron really championed the crusade to make Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday declared a national holiday. He even wrote a song for the occasion called “Happy Birthday”,included on Stevie’s 1980 album Hotter Than July. It was a song that was recorded and released five years earlier,however, that’s always gotten my attention-from hearing it on 8-track at the families lakeside camp growing up to my present day discussions with friend and fellow music lover Henrique Hopkins.
With an elaborate production taking two and a half years to complete,Stevie Wonder finally managed to release his double album plus four song EP which he entitled Songs In The Key Of Life. It continued the man’s commercial and creative winning streak that had began earlier in the decade. And did so by really reaching for even more imaginative and reflective instrumental,lyrical and compositional heights. One of the songs that impacted me on this sprawling opus was another example of being deeply effected by music that was not a huge commercial hit. But to me anyway,it’s the glue that made the entire album function as a strong musical statement. It was called “Black Man”.
Rhythmic intensity defines the groove from the get go. It’s a fast marching drum rhythm-accentuated by a lightly melodic ring modulated drum sound. A deep Clavinet solo is soon joined by a brittle Moog bass solo. A wandering,higher pitched synthesizer soon joins in along with the horns of Stevie’s band Wonderlove playing the melodic accents of his lead vocal parts. The bridge strips back most the instrumentation so the only things heard are the main rhythm,the modulated one. This leads into a intertwining pair of synthesizers playing a bluesy jazz melody before going back into the main theme-with a verbalized classroom recitation along with Stevie on Vocorder illustrating the songs lyrical theme.
The first time I heard this song,my mother described this song as a history lesson. And that is exactly what this is. Time has allowed me to appreciate on just how many levels it is. Stevie’s outlook on race relations here is not merely integrationist, but understanding the vitality and difference each race present in America brings to the nations continuity. Far as it’s place in black history goes names such as Benjamin Banneker,Garrett Morgan and Dr.Charles Drew would have remained unknown to me-as well as their contributions to the country. They all played a part,as Stevie sang of who helped make our banner wave during the bicentennial year this song was written to celebrate.
One major element that permeated the entire Songs In The Key Of Life album (especially this particular song) was Stevie’s use of the Yamaha GX-1,known as the Dream Machine. It was a double keyboarded synthesizer with a rhythm machine. It felt like a Hammond B-3 organ, but was a very tonally advanced polyphonic synthesizer underneath. It allowed Stevie to build the sound of his own sound along with Wonderlove. The most important thing one can ever say about Stevie Wonder as a musician is his contribution of innovative tonal sounds. Herbie Hancock once pointed out Stevie’s ability to deal with synthesizers on an organic level allowed it to become it’s own instrumental element of the band itself.
Instrumentally speaking,this might well be one of Stevie Wonder’s most exciting compositions. The energy level is both high enough to reach a breaking point, and controlled at a level where the excitement is totally attainable to the listener. The tempo is a lot faster than it is for most funk. Yet rhythm is locked down to a point where the multiple melodic conversations of the different keyboard and synthesizer tones that define this song express tonally the cultural diversity of America for the next almost 40 years from when this song was created to the present day. It’s one of a view songs out there with the power to get every American,of every shade to dance to it’s rhythms.
Filed under 'Songs In The Key Of Life', 1970's, Black History, clavinet, drums, Funk, horns, Martin Luther King Jr., Moog, ring modulator, Stevie Wonder, synth bass, synthesizers, Uncategorized, Wonderlove, Yamaha GX-1