Jerry Butler,known as the “Iceman” from Philadelphia DJ George Woods,is someone I consider to be one of the prime architects of the soul ballad. He co wrote the song “For Your Precious Love” with the Impressions. And as Rolling Stone magazine once put it,it embodied that marriage of gospel and doo-wop pop music that became the essence of soul music. Shortly after this 1958 crossover hit,Butler went solo. Many of his early hits such as the calypso flavored”He Will Break Your Heart ” were written by the late,great Curtis Mayfield. He currently serves as County Commissioner for Cooks County,Illinois.
The first time I heard Jerry Butler was from a very unusual source. It was via one of many free vinyl albums from a 1994 WMEB radio giveaway at the University of Maine in Orono that I often reference. The album was a 1976 Motown release entitled Love’s On The Menu. Didn’t yet know anything about Butler’s importance to the history of soul. The song that first stuck out to me was the “Motownphilly” style opener “I Don’t Want Nobody To Know”. Looking into the album today,another stand out song was its only R&B hit in the song “The Devil In Mrs. Jones”.
A cymbal heavy drum swing opens the album,with a thick Moog bass rising into a clucking wah wah guitar. That gives way to the slow crawl of a drum shuffle that’s the rhythm foundation of the song. The thick,ultra funky bass line is uppermost in the song-filling in the empty spaces between the Moog and drums. Female backup vocals and horns color the bluesy melody that leads directly into the chorus of the song. All the instrumental elements of the song come most prominently into play during the choruses. And its on that chorus that the song repeats on as it fades out.
Somehow when I first heard this album,this song got ignored. Today,it emerges as the heaviest funk I’ve yet heard Jerry Butler record. And of course,the vast majority of Butler’s recorded catalog isn’t something I’m particularly familiar. Known for his deep,smokey baritone on melodic pop soul numbers,”The Devil In Mrs. Jones” not only gives up the funk,but does so with the heaviest possible stomp. Its got the walking wah wah guitar,snaky bass,ticklish Moog synthesizer and slow shuffle that really defined mid 70’s “united funk”. Right along with Butler’s growling vocal turns as well.
Shuggie Otis represents what I refer to as a “new old artist” who defined my musical interests just after the turn of the millennium. His only knowledge to me before that was a passing reference as the composer (and original recorder of) the Brothers Johnson hit “Strawberry Letter#23”. It was through a Luaka Pop label reissue of his under sung 1974 album Inspiration Information that got my attention,through my father of course. My first thoughts hearing it was “this was a Prince/Stevie Wonder type musician who never was”.
Otis’s father Johnny was a very famous musical impresario,known in the lingo of his day as the “white negro” singer/musician/arranger/talent scout/DJ out of the Bay Area of California. Shuggie began playing with his dad in the end of the 60’s. But his own career never truly took off. In fact,he spent over 33 years tinkering with his follow up to Inspiration Information. The album was finally released in 2013 and was entitled Wings Of Love. Recorded over several decades,the first full song on the album (recorded around 1980) really caught my own ear. It was called “Special”.
A wooshing sound drives in the fuzz/ringing rhythm guitar combo of the intro as Otis responds to his own echoplex vocally. Than the main rhythm of the song kicks in-driving both the refrain and chorus whose changes are carried largely by Otis’s vocal changes. The drums have a heavy Brazilian march approach. The bass line loops around several guitar parts. One a phat wah wah,the other a light chicken scratch and another playing a quavering,high pitched ringing melody. On the refrain parts,Otis singing’s in a higher and calmer voice. And on the refrains,with a heavier shout along with the ringing guitar part.
Again,this was a song that seemed to be recorded in the early 80’s. Yet its origins seems to come out of the psychedelic/cinematic funk sound of the late 60’s/early 70’s. The production is very trippy-full of echo and fuzz filter on nearly every sound. Yet the groove is strong and funky all the way. In the intro especially,it reminds me a bit of Curtis Mayfield’s “(If There’s A Hell Below) We’re All Gonna Go”. Needless to say,this is generally punchier and more stripped down than that song was. Still,its one of the finest grooves I’ve heard Shuggie Otis throw down since the mid 70’s.
Filed under 2013, chicken scratch guitar, cinematic funk, drums, Funk Bass, funk rock, fuzz guitar, guitar, lead guitar, psychedelic soul, rhythm guitar, Shuggie Otis, Uncategorized, wah wah guitar
Chuck Mangione is likely the most commercially successful jazz flugelhorn players of the 20th century. After attending the Eastman School Of Music,Mangione filled the esteemed trumpet chair in the iconic Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. For at least two decades,Blakey’s Jazz Messengers had mentore many new generations of talented jazz soloists. And after forming his own group The Jazz Brothers with his keyboardist brother Gap,he went onto a hugely successful solo career-with his “Chase The Clouds Away” being used as an Olympic games theme song to the iconic pop smash “Feels So Good” that he’s best known for.
Those events occurred in the mid to late 1970’s. Having listened to more of his music at the recommendation of my friend Henry Cooper,it became clear that Mangione’s talents lay in him being a groove loving melody man. A lighter improviser similar to Herb Alpert,he also brought some of Miles Davis’s modal instrumental style into the pop end of the jazz fusion era-tending to record with smaller groups. This also extended into the 1980’s as well. One such example is from a song off his 1982 album entitled Love Notes. The name of that particular song is “No Problem”.
Gordon Johnson’s sustained bass line begins the song,and bops along with the main rhythm throughout the song. Playing the melodic counter to this is Peter Harris’s heavily filtered (and very processed electric piano like) electric guitar. Flutist Chris Vadala and Mangione play the same bugle call type melodic solo over this. And this makes up for the primary body of this 12+ minute song,save for one pitch heightening at the 7 minute mark. On two occasions,Vadala’s guitar and Johnson’s slap bass play a wah wah fueled “chase scene” style funk bridge with Magione blowing harder lines before the song finally fades.
“No Problem” is very stripped down for its length. It has Chuck Mangione’s love of minimalist cinematic grooves. Its also one of those grooves that sounds,in its entirety,like the intro to a song that doesn’t ever fully start. Therefore there is lots of drama about it. Everything playing around Everett Silver’s insistent beat on the drums give it a decidedly 70’s flavor for a song that comes out of the early 80’s. Because the rhythm and melody are defined by so many empty spaces,its the sort of groove that someone could actually tell a visual story too. And therefore a great example of dramatic mood funk.
Part II of “No Problem” to be heard here-courtesy of Henry Cooper
Filed under 1980's, Chris Vadala, Chuck Mangione, drums, Everett Silver, Flugelhorn, flute, Gordan Johnson, jazz funk, Peter Harris, pop jazz, rhythm guitar, slap bass, wah wah guitar
Shalamar are the vocal group Soul Train created. And the more I get into their music,the more I realize its potency. The band were the youthful embodiment of the post disco/boogie sound of the late 70’s to mid 80’s. It was also the springboard for the solo careers of the rangy singer Howard Hewett and the ultra funkified Jody Watley. One of the key members in terms of their performance ethic was guitarist,songwriter and above all choreographer Jeffrey Daniels. He’d been a partner dancer with Watley on the Soul Train line during the shows salad mid 70’s era. By the early 80’s,he was an unsung icon.
The reason I view Daniels as an icon today is because he showed Michael Jackson the dance move that made MJ’s career. Originally referred to as the back step,it became more popularly known as the Moonwalk-originally the name for the dance done in a complete circle. Daniels eventually helped choreograph the music videos for “Beat It” and others. On his own,Daniels ended up living between Osaka Japan and Nigeria,the latter of which he’s a judge on the local Idol program. His biggest creative input for Shalamar was on their 1981 album Go For It. In particular its closing jam “Rocker”.
Crowd sounds regarding band producer Leon Sylvers begin the song,continuing throughout. First the stomping,percussive funky drum kicks in. Then the thick,chord heavy slap bass kicks in before an open wah wah guitar kicks into the similarly themed refrain during the drum break. That refrain adds multiple keyboard and synth brass into the same brew with Daniels’ leading backup vocals. Towards the end of the song,the synth brass takes a strong and sustained presence over the main groove and crowd sounds. The lead vocals return as the song fades out.
“Rocker” has a rather different flavor than most uptempo Shalamar jams. Most of them were more lead/harmony vocal based in terms of the groove. Everything on this number is built around percussive drum breaks and slap bass solos. It was composed and sung primarily by Daniels himself. With its stripped down rhythms and atmospherics,this is the perfect type of funk for popping,locking or just about any type of 70’s era funk dancing Daniels was continuing to innovate during the videocentric early 80’s. On a purely musical end,its also some of Shalamar’s heaviest straight up funk.
Filed under 1980's, Boogie Funk, dancing, drums, Howard Hewett, Jeffrey Daniels, Jody Watley, moonwalk, post disco, Shalamar, slap bass, Soul Train, synth brass, wah wah
Prince’s 1996 three CD set Emancipation is going to be celebrating its 20th anniversary shortly. Usually very shy about publicity,Prince was extremely proud of this album. And he seemed to go all out,by his promotional standards,to get the word of this album out to the people. He even appeared with his wife of the time Mayte Garcia in an interview with Oprah Winfrey on her show. Just as I was first getting into his classic catalog,the “new” Prince of the era,in his O(+> persona,was showcasing a more personally revealing identity than his more enigmatic public approach had been a decade earlier.
Emancipation is an interesting conceptualization musically. As usual,Prince is instrumentally exploratory in terms of trying different genres. What’s most striking is that he goes for genres of the era that didn’t always require heavy instrumental acumen- such as house and his hip-hop interests of the era. What he did on this album was “Princify” them with his own musical touches. When I played this for my mother,whose extremely choosy in both the Prince and hip-hop she likes,one song stuck out for her and I that was both of those things. And the song was called “Style”.
A slyly rolling synth bass line begins the song-along with some muted horn lines and some percussive drumming. Then that drum rhythm starts in with a slow hip-hop friendly funk shuffle-along with some jazzy and melodic horn charts including (along with the NGP horns) Madhouse/Family era veteran Eric Leeds. On Prince’s slow,spoken word raps on the refrains,that bass/drum/horn/vocal re-sample combination really gets going before a sung falsetto bridge and Leeds sax solo. After that the song goes into a new synth line (similar to the horn line) before the song outro’s on the original refrain before fading out.
Instrumentally this song has a flavor very similar to a mid 90’s version of James’s Brown’s “The Payback”-with it’s bursts of wah wah guitar and jazzy funk/hip-hop attitude. Lyrically the song is more a conscious poem than a rap per se-with Prince giving many examples of what he feels “style” is. My personal favorite is “style’s not a logo that sticks to the roof of one’s ass/style is like a second cousin to class. In the end someone (maybe Prince in a slowed voice) slurs “I ain’t got no job,but I got style. So both musically and lyrically,this song has a strong level of musical and conceptual longevity to it.
Filed under 1990s, conscious rap, drums, Emancipation, Eric Leeds, Funk, hip-hop funk, hip-hop jazz, horns, O(+>, Prince, synth bass, The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, wah wah guitar
Maysa Leak is an artist who came to my attention after first hearing her expert,smokey alto in the early aughts. The Baltimore native graduated from Morgan State University with a degree in classical performance. She performed in the Morgan State Choir. It was there she met Stevie Wonder,who brought her in to be a backup singer in his late 80’s/early 90’s edition of Wonderlove. She was most prominent on his soundtrack for the 1991 Spike Lee Joint Jungle Fever. She released her solo debut in 1995 as well. While performing with different groups over the years,its a clear memory where I first heard her.
During the same time I was deep into bands like Jamiroquai,discovering Rufus/Chaka Khan,Miles Davis and the jazzy side of funk my mom picked up a CD called No Time Like The Future by Incognito. This is the first time I ever heard Maysa singing on songs such as “Get Into My Groove”,which I’ve already covered here. Her jazzy style permeates much of her life,so much so that she named her daughter Jazz. And that jazzy groove attracted me to more and more Incognito albums over the years. Their 2008 album Tales From The Beach contained one of my favorite songs sung by her on “I’ve Been Waiting”.
Maysa begins the song by saying “if my heart should betray my emotions,I hope you understand just what it is I’ve been feeling”. Following that,a VERY Stevie Wonder like major/minor jazz chord progression played on a high and bass toned Oberheim synthesizer begins the musical end of the song. This consists of a flutter wah wah guiter and light cymbal/bass drums kicking off a thick slap bass line playing along three chords. After a couple bars of that the slow,funky drums come in along with the Fender Rhodes electric piano and Bluey’s liquid rhythm guitar.
In between this refrain,there’s a brief musical bridge which brings in the tight horn charts-which play call and response to Maysa’s vocals. The Rhodes also plays a strong counter melody to this as well. When the chorus comes in,Maysa is multi tracked within a sea of percussive drums,wah wah guitar,dancing horn charts and the even snakier slap bass line. Just before the second round of choruses and refrains,the keyboards take over for yet another short bridge on the outro. The music strips down to its most percussive elements on the final choruses as the song closes out on a breezy Rhodes coda.
One day,I’m hoping Incognito will be somewhat more recognized worldwide for their often ingenious continuation of 70’s jazz funk in the modern age. Again as has been a continuing theme with me lately,this is a complexly arranged composition. The chord progressions and melodic changes,along with the changes in instrumental soloing throughout,make this one of the most sleekly arranged jazz-funk jams of the new millennium. Maysa’s strong personality and determined “grown folks” outlook on sensuality really make this one of 2008’s major jams of the year for me,anyway.
Filed under 2008, Baltimore, drums, Fender Rhodes, horns, Incognito, jazz funk, Maysa, Morgan State Choir, Morgan State University, rhythm guitar, slap bass, Stevie Wonder, synthesizers, wah wah guitar, Wonderlove
Ohio Players emerged in the early 70’s as the first wave of Dayton funk bands-which would later go on to include Sun,Heatwave,Slave and Zapp among others. Clarence Satchell,Ralph “Pee Wee” Middlebrooks and bassist Marshall Jones were originally members of the Ohio Untouchables. They started out as a backing group for The Falcons-whose members included Wilson Pickett,Eddie Floyd and the Untouchables original lead singer/guitarist Robert Ward. The apparently unreliable Ward was replaced by Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner . The band changed their to name to the Ohio Players by 1965.
The band signed to Westbound in 1970. There they added musicians such as Walter Junie Morrison. He provided their first major hit in the humorous funk groove of “Funky Worm” a couple of years later. In 1974,the band left Westbound and signed to Mercury while Junie stayed behind for a solo career and eventually joining George Clinton’s P-Funk-with George being an admirer of Ohio Players. Right out of the box on Mercury they had a hit which I discovered over 20 years ago in my parents 45 collection. But the album version is another entity altogether. It’s the title song to their Mercury debut Skin Tight.
Marshall Jones gets the party started with one of the most iconic bass lines in 70’s funk-with it’s bluesy base. Wah wah guitar joins in shortly before conga drums lead into the main song. It starts with ascending and descending horn charts. The drum plays a fast tempo that hits heavy on the snare on every other beat. The wah wah and percussion zero right in on the rhythm while the electric piano provides melodic accompaniment. Throughout the song,ascending horns define the chorus while descending horns define the choruses. After an electric piano solo on the bridge,the chorus fades out the song.
The first time I heard this song,it didn’t really occur to me that this was hearing funk 101 as it were. In terms of the mid/late 70’s sound of the genre,this song had it locked down. The call and response lead/falsetto vocals and horns,and the chorus staying right on the one for nearly eight minutes on the album version. Of course,Jones’ bass line became (as my friend Henrique pointed out) the signature riff on songs such as The Commodores “Brick House” a several years later. Ohio Players always gave up the funk after this. But “Skin Tight” is the song that truly got the party going for them on Mercury!
Filed under 1974, Clarence Satchell, Dayton Ohio, drums, electric piano, Funk, Funk Bass, horns, Leroy Sugarfoot Bonner, Marshall Jones, Ohio Players, percussion, Ralph "Pee Wee" Middlebrooks, Uncategorized, wah wah guitar
Even by the time I was seriously (and unfortunately) giving this CD the slip in the mid 90’s? There was that wondering what might’ve been if Gladys Knight & The Pips were given the full support and development within Motown. True they were around long before the label was. That being said?
They just bought so much uniqueness into the classic Detroit soul sound. As performers? They had the (then) forward thinking approach of having a woman as the lead singer with the male backup singers. Musically they presented the most important new flavors to the label’s sound. But that’s the main story behind this review anyway.
The title song,with it’s electric piano and the somewhat doo-wop version of “For Once In My Life” are both ballads built around the rhythm guitar. “It’s Gotta Be That Way” and “Can’t Give It Up No More” are more piano driven gospel soul slow jams. “This Child Needs A Father” is a spare,slow grooving Staples-styled Southern funk driven by wah wah along with the albums sumptuous,bluesy strings.
The grinding bluesy funk electric piano/rhythm guitar grind of Bill Withers’ “Who Is She (And What Is She To You),the another uptempo wah wah driven groove in “Daddy Could Swear,I Declare” and the Rhodes piano and percussion driven uptempo groove of “Don’t It Make You Feel Guilty” round out the album.
From where I sit? This is one of those albums where the vibe of every song just totally works on every level. The ballads have strong melodic,vocal and instrumental meat about them. And the uptempo numbers never,ever for a moment try to fake how funky they are. And it’s that Southern fried funkiness of Gladys & The Pips that truly brings this album to life.
The whole thing actually has much more of a Stax flavor than a Motown one to me actually. Even the way the orchestration is used. All of these songs tell stories and have messages straight to the listener-all focusing on romantic and family love. It’s warm,intimate and deeply rootsy funky soul that I very highly recommend.
Originally posted on May 27th,2015
LINK TO ORIGINAL REVIEW HERE!
Filed under 1970's, ballads, Funk, funky soul, Gladys Knight, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Motown, Motown Sound, Southern Funk, Southern Soul, strings, wah wah guitar
Gladys Knight & The Pips have always been a favorite of mine at Motown. Aside from the uniqueness of their setup (more on that later), their sound had that Southern soul vibe that set them apart from whatever else was happening at Motown in the late 60’s. After they left Motown in the early 70’s,they signed up with Buddah and had success right out of the box with 1974’s “Midnight Train To Georgia”. Three years later,Gladys night got a chance to have be the leading lady in the Stephen F. Verona film Pipe Dreams. She and the Pips would be the ones performing on the movie’s soundtrack.
The only reason I ever saw Pipe Dreams was due to an accident. My parents went to a video store to look for a copy of the then very rare film That’s The Way of The World,with Harvey Kietel and Earth Wind & Fire,on VHS in the late 90’s. They got me a pre-owned tape of Pipe Dreams instead-knowing how much I enjoyed Gladys Knight’s music. The film is a romantic drama set against a good deal of historical info on the then under construction Alaska pipeline. So it was only appropriate that the song that stood out most for me,as well as coming from the pens of Motowner Ivory Joe Hunter,was called “Alaskan Pipeline”.
A jingling chicken scratch rhythm guitar starts out the groove. The groove itself has a drum beat that clips along at a relatively slow 70 beats per minute for so. A Larry Graham style deep bass thump and a thick wah wah guitar set the stage for the rhythm too. The song also has a heavy bluesy piano that comes down really hard on the keys. The horn charts come in hot and heavy-accenting the choral vocals and harmonic “shoop shoops” of the Pipes,who actually sing the lead line for the backup. Interestingly enough,this song has no instrumental chorus per se. It just keeps grooving along until it fades.
This is some of the strongest funk I’ve heard from Gladys Knight & The Pips. It’s got that slow,crunching tempo. And the rhythm section is hot as they come with the bass ,guitar, horns and driving piano. This song reprises throughout the movie-especially in scenes of Gladys flying over the pipe line with her co star and real life husband Barry Hankerson. Lyrically the song tells the story of how the great employment opportunities the pipeline provides also open the door to massive corruption-another key component of the film. So it’s another example of strong message funk in a film soundtrack setting.
Filed under 1970's, Barry Hankerson, chicken scratch guitar, drums, Funk, Funk Bass, Gladys Knight, Gladys Knight & The Pips, horns, Ivory Joe Hunter, piano, Pipe Dreams, Soundtracks, wah wah guitar