The Soulful Strings - Burning Spear
Richard Evans is a genius. Plain and simple. One of the greatest musical minds at one of the greatest record labels ever. A genius. Don’t know who he is? Evans was a producer, arranger, performer (playing bass with Sun Ra at one point) , and songwriter who was one of the driving forces behind Cadet records in the 1960’s,and more specifically the man behind the Soulful Strings. Evans produced (with Esmond Edwards) and arranged for artists such as Marlena Shaw, Woody Herman, Odell Brown, Dorothy Ashby and Terry Callier during his tenure at Cadet. He had a knack for creating expansive, string laden, musical tableaux, that in the most diverse settings always bore his unique stamp. Evans also had the good fortune to work with some of the best studio musicians (many of them members of the Chess/Cadet “house” band) available, including Charles Stepney (keyboards, and a major producer/arranger in his own right), Cleveland Eaton (bass), Phil Upchurch (guitar) , Billy Wooten (vibes) and Lennie Druss (flute). Despite the many landmark sessions he was involved with, Evans signature work was with his group the Soulful Strings. Conceived no doubt as an answer/antidote to the booming “beautiful music” market of the 60’s, the Soulful Strings took what could have been a run of the mill conceit and turned it into something else entirely. Between 1966 and 1971 Evans created seven Soulful Strings LPs on the Cadet label. Employing a repertoire composed almost entirely of covers, Evans and company created a unique sound, combining a sharp, soulful rhythm section with a lush string backing. The results, while occasionally hovering close to the “easy listening” universe, always managed to have something extra that kept things interesting. The really crucial element that made the Soulful Strings sound so successful was Evans talent as an arranger. Much like the great jazz arrangers Evans was painting his musical picture not through a single instrument but through the ensemble. He created a unified musical vibe, while still allowing space for his soloists to shine. His use of an electric rhythm section at the core of his group, as well as flavoring his arrangements with sounds like the kalimba and sitar made for a decidedly modern sound. Evans’ best known original composition – and probably the best known Soulful Strings tune – was ‘Burning Spear’. First appearing on the ‘Groovin’ With The Soulful Strings’ lp (and also released as a Cadet 45) ‘Burning Spear’ was eventually covered by Jimmy Smith, S.O.U.L., Kenny Burrell, Joe Pass and the Salsoul Orchestra (among others) and was redone by Evans during the disco era. Opening with the aforementioned kalimba, followed by a pounding snare, the tune soon kicks in with the flute stating the main theme. The beat never lets up, with the strings adding rhythmic propulsion, and Druss soloing wildly for almost the whole song. There are also some great moments with the flute and vibes playing in unison. In many ways the record’s polish, along with the strong beat presage the disco era. Unfortunately none of the Soulful Strings LPs are currently in print. Tracks are available here and there on compilations (including ‘Burning Spear’), but if you want to immerse yourself in the Soulful Strings experience you’re going to have to track down the original LPs. Most of them aren’t too difficult to find in the $20 - $30 range, and ‘String Fever’ (my personal fave) and ‘Soulful Strings in Concert’ should be high on your list. Their 45s should be much easier to track down at lower prices. Evans now works as a professor at the Berklee College of Music. 'Burning Spear' by the Soulful Strings' was included on the Soul Jazz comp 'Chicago Soul:Electric Blues, Funk & Soul -- The New Sound Of Chicago In The 1960's', which is available at DustyGroove. Stop by the Funky16Corners web zine for a longer look at Evans and his work.