Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The Soulful Strings - Burning Spear

Richard Evans
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.


Blogger Todd Lucas said...

Interesting to hear this. I have one by them called "The Stepper" that I like quite a bit. Is the Phil Upchurch you mentioned the same guy who did "You Can't Sit Down"?

7/26/2005 02:51:00 PM  
Anonymous Jason Stone said...

I developed an interest in Richard Evans and The Soulful Strings from your web site and have acquired several LPs since ... I agree that String Fever is a great LP and "The Stepper," from "Another Exposure," is my favorite track!

7/26/2005 02:52:00 PM  
Blogger Larry Grogan said...

That is the same Phil Upchurch, a mainstay of Chess and Cadet for years.

Glad to hear that Funky16Corners tipped you off about the Soulful Strings. 'The Stepper' is a great tune (available on 45 also).


7/26/2005 03:24:00 PM  
Blogger guapo said...

It`s beautiful!

7/27/2005 04:51:00 AM  
Blogger AK said...

This is a great tune...you can check out a lesser known Richard Evans string arrangement here .

Great post as always.

7/27/2005 07:39:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To bad the only cd of the soulful strings is located in japan I think being sold at a ridiculus inflated price how sad that the brilliant work of these musicians is over looked. My favorate is "groovin" which is on their 1st lp yes Todd it is the same "Upchurch" who does lead on this particular cut check it out.....

8/25/2005 10:14:00 PM  
Blogger ron knight said...

I want to secure a copy of the soulful strings album Groovin - can anyone suggest where I may locate one?
Ron Knight entertainmentfirst@juno.com
Please contact me at above e-mail
your kind attention would be appreciated.

11/13/2005 09:18:00 PM  
Blogger Xtabay said...

I've posted a copy of the Soulful Strings LP on my blog. So go there to sample this out of print masterpiece

1/27/2006 05:38:00 AM  
Blogger Chap said...

Thanks for teaching me about this. I found a copy of Dorothy Ashby's Afro-Harping and was blown away.

Wax Poetics has some good articles on Charles Stepney in their Feb/Mar 07 issue.

7/03/2007 11:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Check here for the first Soulful Strings LP. And more of their catalog on the way!

2/27/2008 12:33:00 AM  
Blogger ishaan said...

nice to read this....he's my arranging teacher at berklee..

3/05/2008 12:32:00 AM  
Blogger Rob Carrington said...

Many thanx to both of you. I had this original wax when I was drafted and off to VNam. I have looked ferverishly for "Paint It Black" for years now. It is one of my alltime favorite tunes. This is like finding lost jewelry to me!!!!!

Thanx again,

Rob Carrington

10/10/2011 05:25:00 PM  

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