David Bowie’s embrace of the soul/funk musical genre has become caught up in several cultural mythologies. One is the rock community derived notion that soul and funk are “commercial” genres without much staying power. Especially on the uptempo side of it. Another was Bowie’s association with the early 70’s glam rock sound-with classics of the genre such as “Changes”,”Jean Genie”,”Rebel Rebel” and of course “Ziggy Stardust”. But when I first heard David Bowie’s Isaac Hayes inspired uptempo cinematic soul of “1984”, from his album Diamond Dogs from 1974? It was clear the man had a plan.
Bowie himself referred to this period of his career as “plastic soul”. He seemed to see himself as a white rock artist wanting to embrace a music outside of his culture. And that the burgeoning funk sound represented “squashed remains” of Afrocentrism in Western music. What helped to sooth his initial cynicism was the presence of the Nuyorican guitar maestro Carlos Alomar, the guitarist whose lines inspired many of the songs on what would become David Bowie’s 1975 album Young Americans. And indeed, the result was one of Bowie’s most dramatic musical and conceptual reinventions.
The title song starts the album-very much a stomping gospel inspired uptempo 70’s soul number. Its David Sanborn’s melodic sax solo that carries Bowie’s vocal melody. But between Mike Garson’s piano walk down-along with the bass/guitar interaction between Alomar and Willie Weeks. “Win” is a string laden ballad full of heavily revered rhythm guitar and Sanborn playing rather modal style sax flourishes. “Fascination” gets deep into the funk-with the bass, guitar and sax all heavily processed for a huge and meaty groove.
“Right” is a mid-tempo sax/percussion/Clavinet/guitar based groove-with the emphasis on a number of repetitive choruses. “Somebody Up There Likes Me” is a relatively balanced uptempo soul rocker-with a bluesy guitar break on the refrains and the use of synthesized string orchestration. John Lennon joins Bowie on a rocking soul version of Lennon’s Beatle classic “Across The Universe”-which has a country blues guitar flavor about it. “Can You Hear Me” is a very similar country soul type ballad where Lennon returns for “Fame”, the classic James Brown style funk hit, for the albums conclusion.
Young Americans has remained somewhat controversial over the years. Its often considered a classic album today. But Young Americans did bare out some of Bowie’s concerns about doing funk and Philly soul. These songs all have a strong groove. But some of the uptempo songs don’t have multi faceted structures-mostly repeated melodic choruses. And Bowie’s voice had a ragged rock style on the sleeker numbers. Some of the ballads had a more 60’s style country/soul flavor-showcasing how Bowie still had some catching up to do with what was happening in black American music by the mid 70’s.
Basically, the big hits in the title song and “Fame” are the two big occasions where the strong grooves and strong melodies come together. And the musicianship on all the songs is exciting and first rate. The presence of a young Luther Vandross as a backup singer here helped get the him (deceased along with Bowie today) a shot at his future solo career. In terms of funk, songs such as “John, I’m Only Dancing” and “Golden Years” a year later would solidify Bowie’s funk sound a bit better. But this album represents the important slow beginning for the funkiest, most soulful aspect of David Bowie’s sound.
Gregg Allman was of course married to Cher from 1975 to 1978. The union of course produced their only child,Elijah Blue. But just learned shortly after Allman’s passing that it produced a duo album for the couple in 1977. Credited as Allman And Woman,the album was entitled “Two The Hard Way”. They also went on a mini tour to support the album-also titled after the name of the album. The album was not a commercial success. And was even called “worthless” by one critic. Allman was part of the rock music scene. And Cher more general pop. This may have led to some of the album’s poor reception.
For her part,Cher could basically do whatever type of material she desired due to her long back round in pop and 60’s era musical sensibilities. Allman was a Southern rock innovator-always expected to be daring,rebellious and somehow “authentic”. Still with classic pop/rock songwriters such as Jimmy Webb and the versatile classic funky soul session bass player Willie Weeks on board,the album actually has its share of powerful musical moments. Among them was the first single (and the first song on the album) that was entitled “Move On”.
Steve Beckmeier’s ringing,higher pitched guitar grooving opens the song before Bill Stewart’s drum and Bobbye Hall’s conga fanfare leads right into the basic horn fanfare of the intro. The chorus is a steady dance rhythm accompanied by a heavy mix of flangered electric piano and Clavinet riffing playing close to Week’s bass line. The horn charts basically serve to glue the songs extended choruses together. The intro basically repeats itself for the bridge-with a brief electric piano solo before hand illustrated by the horns building into the mix. The final chorus of the song shows up to fade out the song.
“Move Me” is a wonderful song. What’s interesting about is that Cher, now a renowned diva, sings either call and response or in total unison with Allman throughout the entirety of this song. The production has a very uptown, Philly soul inspired groove to it. Filled with horns,punchy keyboards and high stepping rhythms. Allman’s gruff vocal delivery compliments Cher’s husky,tremolo laden approach extremely well on this song. Its basically a Philly style dance/soul groove out of the disco era though. Its not a pop /rock styled record at all. That’s important to consider with this musical pairing too.
George Harrison would’ve been 74 this Saturday. Remember very well the day he passed away because it was the delivery man for my parent’s new bed who told them he’d just heard the news. This was also around the time I was heavily exploring the music of “the quiet Beatle”. Harrison is said to have gone to Memphis on one of the Beatles trips to America and picked up some Booker T & The MG’s records. He loved playing the blues too. Later on,he developed a close musical relationship with Billy Preston. In addition to being one of the funkiest players around,Preston was also essentially a fifth Beatle during 1969.
Harrison’s first non experimental solo album All Things Must Pass was a huge success for him in 1970. His following albums didn’t fare so well. His mid 70’s album Dark Horse and Extra Texture began adding soul and jazz/rock elements into his sound. But a horse singing voice with Harrison at the time was part of what hindered their success. He had a huge comeback in 1976 with the debut release on his custom label Dark Horuse Thirty-Three & 1/3. The song that opened the album was originally a 12 bar electric blues piece he wrote while touring with Eric Clapton in 1969. It was called “Woman Don’t You Cry For Me”.
Alvin Tayler’s drums kick into his shuffling,funky shuffle. Willie Weeks chunky slap bass and Richard Tee’s organ provide the intro before Harrison’s slide guitar provides the main melody. David Foster himself counters with some serious Billy Preston style funky Clavinet. On the refrain,the drum and Clavinet go into a heavy break beat before Harrison’s guitar segues into the next chorus. That bluesy slide guitar plays the chorus as an instrumental on the bridge-before the musical combination used in the intro goes into the final choruses of the song before it finally fades out.
The first time I heard this song,turned out my father I both heard the song as something quite different. I heard it as a thick mid 70’s funk jam. He heard it as a total 12 bar blues. Actually, both of us were right. Funk is,as most 20th century American popular musical forms are,a blues based one. And this song does a superb job at bridging the musical generation gap. Harrison’ countrified blues slide guitar with the electrified “united funk” arrangement of the song showcases how important the form of it actually is to the instrumentation. Surely,this is one of George Harrison’s finest moments of the mid 70’s.