Valerie Simpson is turning 70 years old today. That comes as very important in that today is Women’s Equality Day. As far as I’m concerned,Simpson is a pioneer female songwriter for so many reasons. She maintained a very close marriage and professional relationship with Nick Ashford until the day he died. She also kept her own name professionally throughout their career together. And this included,of course their salad years at Motown- spinning out hits for people such as Marvin Gaye & Tammi Tarrell. That’s not to mention the duo continuing to maintain a successful solo career well into the 1980’s.
Ashford & Simpson albums always tended towards the most elaborately arranged and musically diverse wife/husband duet albums I’ve ever heard. By the early 1980’s,the pair had hits for themselves and others in the form of punchy funk,streamlined disco and elegant ballads. In 1982 the pair decided to put together a concept album. A decade before the arrival of hip-hop’s G-Funk sub-genre,the couple decided to use the contemporary post disco musical basis to present very personalized vignette with a street level basis. it was called Street Opera. And its biggest hit was “Street Corner”.
A slow and steady 4/4 drum just starts right up at the beginning of the song and continues throughout until the very end. On the intro,there’s a low thudding piano chord. Before each one there’s a thick guitar rev. After that,the bass line chugs along underneath a higher pitched piano playing a lead melody-with a string synthesizer joining the horn solos just before Nick & Val’s vocal chorus kicks in. On the refrains,the musical theme calms to a processed electric piano based melody and rhythm. But that instrumental chorus from the intro provides the basis for the entire song until it fades out.
Instrumentally speaking,this is one of the most lushly constructed example of the funkiest end of the early 80’s post disco sound I’ve heard. The main musical theme doesn’t vary all that much. But each instrumental statement the song makes is very strong. Lyrically its a very liberating tale of a ghetto woman who is…well either mistaken for naive or mistaken for a prostitute. Either way,Valerie Simpson is telling a man asking her for a ride that “the little girl has grown”. So it showcases how feminine dignity exists alive and well on the street corners across America.
Filed under 1980's, Ashford & Simpson, concept albums, drums, Funk Bass, horns, Nick Ashford, piano, post disco, rhythm guitar, string synthesizer, Valerie Simpson, Women, Women's Equality Day
Since there has been an ongoing disco-dance revival that’s existed pretty consistently since the late 1980’s? Its not surprising that so many of the most groove-centric and funk oriented instrumentalists have actually emerged out of the club/DJ scene that helped spawn the original disco era in the first place. France’s Daft Punk are a perfect example. One thing that evident about modern funk artists who grew out of the modern DJ/electronic scene is their admiration for the sleeker “sophistifunk” style that emerged during that late 70’s period. As for me,I discovered what was to me a totally unknown example of this via a friends recommendation of an artist called Magic Man. The act was called Chromeo. And hearing sound samples of them made me want to seek out more of their music. It was the song “Over Your Shoulder” from their newest album White Women that caught my ears the most.
Beginning with a growling,revved up bass the song goes straight into that a heavy bass/guitar interaction courtesy of David “Dave 1” Mackovitch-one half of this duo. The bass line to this song in particular is very perpulsive-bouncing and dancing along while almost jazzily improvising over the chord changes of the grooving lead guitar line and the drum rhythm. Because the basic song is so stripped down,this bass stands out very strongly. On the end of each chorus as sung by Dave on,the bands keyboardist Patrick “P-Thugg” Gemayel plays a melodic synthesizer solo with two different and exciting parts. One is very much in the vibrato oriented Bernie Worrell/P-Funk “video game” style and the other part more in the flamboyant,progressive style scaling similar to what Steve Miller Band used on “Fly Like An Eagle”. As the song fades to a close, Dave 1’s guitar solo takes on a somewhat more pop/rock oriented tone as well.
In the 1970’s Montreal had bought the world the exploitative jazz/funk delights of Gino and Joe Vannelli. And from what I hear Dave 1 and P-Thugg would appear to be bringing a similar impulse out of this Atlantic Canada city. Only thing time focusing in on that late 70’s sophistifunk and early 80’s boogie funk sound with an occasionally minor jazzy and psychedelic twist. Another captivating element of this song is its lyrical content. It tells the story of a man coming onto a woman who defines herself by the insecurity she feels about her looks and attraction to others. While traditionally classic funk and soul traditionally celebrated emotionally and sexually confident female virtues? The more visually conscious and often superficial modern outlook on youthful femininity is reflected lyrically in this song.
With lines such as “Oh the grass is greener everywhere you look/ So many people stare they got you scared of the girls out there/ This one’s cola-bottle size/And that one’s more of a model size/I know you heard this a hundred times” and especially “You see, your problems of self-esteem/Could be self-fulfilling prophecies/So arguably your best policy should be talking to me”? Dave 1 offers empowerment,rather than mere co-dependant enabling to his female romantic interest in the song. The polished,sleek yet instrumentally minimal nature of the song is equally reflective of the healthy and nurturing male attitude towards women this song projects. So this is not only strong modern funk with a heavy sexual subtext. But also one where a modern man is encouraging a modern woman to be confident,feminine and sexual all at once without losing anything.
When someone is living in an age when most female soul artists are presenting themselves largely through the most shallow end of physical sexuality, it can be easily to become cynical that well rounded feminine sensitivity had been lost along with an overall sense of poetry. The same goes for male artists in the same position. Two people who are looking towards the Afrocentric futurism that the jazz-funk era represented in the 1970’s in today’s music world are the bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding and Janelle Monae. While recognized by a certain creatively minded musical community,deserved recognition by the masses still evades them. Most still obsessed with sexually profane “contemporary R&B” female artists who are often more photogenic than innovative. Some react to this by assigning blame to past decades political problems,others blame the genre of hip-hop. However at a time when music wasn’t exactly having the usual healing effect on my soul? A song came my way that was a collaborative effort between Spalding and Monae. It’s called “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes”.
Instrumentally the song begins with a slow and steady Afro-Cuban conga based percussion line,over which is played a slippery and multi tracked high synthesizer solo-in which each track has the effect of a round echoplex type reverb effect which gave it the glistening glassy effect. After this introduction a live drum sound enters as Janelle begins singing a lyric that describes a very glamorous yet mysterious feminine figure (possibly Janelle’s android doppelganger character Cindy Mayweather) whose has a romantically bewitching persona. At the end of each chorus a high trombone is heard almost like an apparition in the back round of the song. The bassline weaves in and out of the rhythmic and melodic aspects of the song very much in the manner of a thread through a sewing needle,which maintains the jazz oriented flavor of the chord progressions of the song. The bridge is composed entirely of Esperanza engaging in some powerful multi tracked vocalese as the melody of the song entirely changes before going into the refrain-after which Janelle herself presents a romantic spoken word verse before the powerful jazz-rock guitar solo which closes out the song-accompanied by the chorus of “She’s got Dorothy’s eyes”.
Deeply inspired by the vital instrumental and production dynamics of late 70’s Stevie Wonder/Quincy Jones style jazz/funk/soul/rock hybrids,this is the type of somewhat minor chorded funk with a dreamy atmosphere that might fool the listener into believing its a slow jam ballad. But actually its uptempo funk in the vein of a Michael Jackson number such as “Rock With You” and “I Can’t Help It”. On the other hand,what distinguishes this song from them,and almost all contemporary funk/soul music is the heavy jazz elements. I didn’t realize until researching this song that Esperanza and Janelle both shared the vocal refrains throughout this song. Their vocal styles are so close and compatible its often hard to tell when one is singing-especially when their vocals are melded into the others through the production like melted aural caramel. Because of cultural changes in the perception of music production that occurred in the post Prince era, most modern funk in a band context even tends to prefer to keep a live instrumental aestetic with no frills.
This song clearly utilizes live instrumentation but enhances them with the most magical end of studio production. The song openly celebrates not only studiocentric musicality,but also showcases a strong female characterization of someone who is of great physical beauty yet is also astute enough to be able to bring out emotional fantasies in potential suitors as physical ones. There’s a strong sense of adult sensuality in this song-instrumentally and lyrically reflecting the hopes,desires and mysteries of someone secure enough with themselves to view romance beyond simply the physical desire. Not to mention paying tribute to the historically significant movie star who gave the song its title,”Dorothy Dandridge Eyes”-featured as the next to last song on Janelle’s September 10th album release The Electric Lady is not only a beautifully eloquent jazz funk song but an important blueprint for all modern female artists in this musical spectrum who are in all truth in need for a new and more meaningful creative voice.