Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Funky16Corners New Years Funkstravaganza!

Greetings one and all. The end of the year is not here, but it’s near. I’m taking the rest of the week off , so I decided to post up the Funky16Corners year end wrap up today. This way, you can download the goodness, transfer it to the data transportation/delivery device of your choice, and then rock the house on New Years Eve (proving once again to your friends and acquaintances that you are in fact the coolest person they know). It’s been a good year for the blog. Traffic reports have been excellent, and I’ve really appreciated all the kind words from the folks that stop here to check things out. On a personal level, I’ve found blogging to be one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done on a creative level, in that it keeps me writing (and learning) about music on a regular basis. I can’t say that the posts are all classics, but I certainly try to deliver both cool music and interesting stories whenever I can. On the macro level, this has been as shitty a year as I can remember. Thanks to the most incompetent and dangerous President we’ve ever had, we’re mired in a war half a world away that shows no signs of letting up anytime soon. Almost 2400 coalition soldiers have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan (2172 of them American), with thousands more seriously injured and God only knows how many dead Iraqis. Perhaps there’s some kind of sick karmic turnaround, forcing Bush to relive the war he dodged in the 60’s today (though he seems to be paying a relatively small price). Either way, we’re stuck in Iraq for the long haul, and lots of families will be incomplete (some permanently) when they gather to celebrate the New Year. Those of us that depended on the Democrats to counter the right wing juggernaut have been sorely disappointed by an opposition that seems afraid to oppose, finding them pushed into reactive mode time and time again by the ever more successful demagoguery of an unholy coalition of greed monsters, bible thumpers and gun nuts. The very definition of “patriotism” has been mangled and reformed as it’s complete opposite by those that would have us sacrifice our rights for “security”. We saw New Orleans and the Gulf Coast of Mississippi destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and then watched as our leaders proved how inadequate they really were in their response. So, it’s been a drag. But that’s why we’re here. I don’t harbor any illusions about the “blogosphere” (man, I hate that word) changing the world in any substantive way, but I do believe wholeheartedly in the healing power of music. Despite that fact that a brief look at most of the manufactured crap that inhabits the Top 40 would suggest otherwise, music is one of the great illustrations of the power of humans to express themselves in a way that moves others (in more ways than almost any other creative art). It can transmit happiness and sadness and everything in-between, make you raise your hands and shout, make you get your ass up out of your chairs and dance. That’s really the motivating force behind what I’m doing here. I’m trying to convey to you how I feel about music (one or two songs at a time) in the hope that you will eventually make that same connection. In a lot of ways it’s the kind of connection that people seem to get from religion - i.e. tapping into something elemental that moves your soul – but without all the messy rules and regulations. The other part of what I’m doing here is to try to keep these records alive. I may be outing myself as a music snob of the first order, but I don’t have much interest in “new” music. It was not always thus. It’s just that the vast majority of new music, major label or independent, seems to me to be infected with a kind of dullness that’s the by-product of post-modernist, ironic detachment – whether it’s intentional or not – that renders the end result unpalatable. Whether this is manifested in deadly, corporate homogeneity, or in self-marginalized trivia that’s too clever for its own good, it’s hard for me to listen to it without wincing. I know that not all music is this way, but there’s just so much of it that I got to the point where I felt besieged, and unwilling to battle a tidal wave of sonic crud, retreated to engage in a bit of sonic triage. It’s up to the readers of this blog (and others like it) to decide if this is just so much nostalgia, or if excavating and presenting old music – that may not have gotten its due – is a worthwhile pursuit. I think it is (obviously), and hope you do too. That said. Let’s get to the music. The first selection in our little year end funkstravaganza is one of the treasured gems from my Eddie Bo (and related) crate, ‘Can I Be Your Squeeze’ by Chuck Carbo. When I tell you that this record is as blow your doors off funky as anything you’re likely to come across in your travels, take me for my word, because when Eddie Bo is involved (in this case as writer/producer), the funk is mighty. Chuck Carbo was a longtime part of the Crescent City music scene as both a solo artist, and as a member (with his brother Chick) of the Spiders, one of the city’s great R&B vocal groups. Carbo already had almost two decades of performing experience under his belt when he dropped into the studio with Mr. Bo, circa 1969. It was there, with Bo, drummer James Black and the rest of Bo’s band that Carbo laid down a recording so hot, that it’s a miracle that the vinyl can hold the sound without melting. The tune opens with the drums running at full speed (the bass drum – played faster with a foot than some people can play with two hands – is a revelation), when Carbo (and I think Mr. Bo himself in the background) drops in with a Tex Avery-worthy wolf howl. OOOOOOOOOOWEEEEEEE! Look what I see! UNHHH! Good Gawd! The super-funky popcorn guitar comes in, followed by the bass, the backing vocals, and then Chuck. The whole thing moves along at a deadly clip, running like some kind of funkadelic buffalo stampede, with Carbo at the front laying out his tale of lust. When it gets to the breakdown, and Chuck’s all Git it! Git it! Git it young sister! Whip it! Whip it! Whip it young sister! ..and the drums are going 100 miles per hour and you realize that this is as tight as it gets, maybe tighter than some of the hottest James Brown joints, and you wonder where’s this record been all my life??? It’s just that good. As far as tracking down a copy, save up your jellybeans kids because it doesn’t come cheap, pulling between $75 and $100 for a decent copy (and the local NOLA pressing on Fireball is even rarer and more jellybeany). It has been reissued a few times, and of course you’ve got it here, so be happy, and dance. Numero two-o on the F16C New Years countdown is another bit of funky New Orleans-ness from the mouth of Mr. Lee Dorsey (and the pen of Allen Toussaint). ‘A Lover Was Born’ features backing by the members of the Meters and Mr. Toussaint himself on piano and backing vocals, as well as one of the funnier lyrics in the Toussaint catalogue. Opening with a Johnny B Good riff once removed, the off-kilter funky Nawlins drums come in followed by Lee spinning his tale of a creole Casanova. Suffice to say that although it’s not one of his better known records, it’s still one of his best. I mean, how can you beat – Girl if I can't love you A creole can’t make gumbo, a drunken man don't stumble A seeing eye dog can’t learn to lead the blind A bee don't deal in honey, the Beatles ain't got no money And watermelons grow on a grapevine Last but not least, I’m including a killer from Mr. Benny Spellman. If you know New Orleans music, you know Spellman as the bass voice on Ernie K Doe’s ‘Mother In Law’, as well as the lead on classics like ‘Lipstick Traces’, ‘I Feel Good’ and the brilliant ‘Fortune Teller’. This cut, ‘Don’t Give Up Love’ is from later in the 60’s. It features a horn line that sounds like it was lifted from Etta James’ ‘Tell Mama’ along with funky bass and drums and a demented sounding saxophone soloing in the background. It’s a much funkier sound than his earlier work, and a rollicking good time. See you in 2006. Happy New Year!

Monday, December 26, 2005

Laura Lee - Crumbs Off The Table

Miss Laura Lee
Happy Monday y’all! (deafening sound of crickets in the background). Yeah...I know. The Monday after Christmas, most of you are laying on the couch, in your pajamas, watching cartoons and eating Christmas cookies. I wish I was... Instead I’m here, slaving over a steaming hot blog just so you can download a nice song. No...go ahead, finish your cookies. I can wait. (sound of foot tapping, stage whistling, eyes rolling...) Seriously...another year gone by, vacation time sorely mismanaged, and funky tunes burning a hole in my player. Today’s selection is a number that has long been a favorite of mine, which – strangely enough – I just managed to grab a clean copy of. I first heard Laura Lee’s “Crumbs Off The Table” about ten years ago, when I picked up the Rhino comp ‘The Roots of Funk, Vol ½’. Surprisingly good – compared to the other ‘Roots of Funk’ volumes – the disc featured several artists who were then unknown to me, including the Fabulous Counts, Fugi, and Laura Lee (not to mention revealing to me for the first time that ‘Let Me Be Your Lovemaker’ was not in fact a Humble Pie song...). The CD was in heavy rotation in my crib (and everywhere else I managed to impose my musical taste on unsuspecting friends), and while I managed to score copies of almost every cut on the comp, ‘Crumbs Off The Table’ eluded me for years (more successfully than scores of rarer 45s). Anyway, from the first time I heard the tune, I fell in love with it (and Laura Lee). Lee was born in 1945 in Chicago, but grew up in Detroit. She recorded one 45 for Ric-Tic (To Win Your Heart b/w So Will I) in 1966 before moving on to Chess Records in 1967. She would record 7 singles for the label, most with Rick Hall at Fame Studios in Alabama. Her Chess sides are all worth hearing, but the best – by far – is the anthemic ‘Dirty Man’, one of the great soul ballads of all time (which I’ll post here in the future). It’s also a cornerstone of Lee’s rep as a powerful soul sister with a Women’s Liberation vibe running through her work. After a brief stop at Cotillion (two singles) she would move to Holland/Dozier/Holland’s Hot Wax label in 1970. She would record three albums (and eleven 45s) for Hot Wax and sister label Invictus Records between 1970 and 1974. Interestingly enough, “Crumbs Off The Table” had originally been recorded (and hit the R&B Top 10) in 1969 by the Glass House, a group that included Sherrie Payne (Freda Payne’s sister) and R&B veteran Ty Hunter, who had recorded for Anna and Chess. The tune, written by Payne, Edith Wayne and Ronald Dunbar was covered for the first time by none other than Dusty Springfield in 1971. Laura Lee’s version is the definitive take on the tune. Opening with a supremely loop-able bass/conga riff (later sampled by D-Nice and Ice Cube) , and gradually adding horn swells and wah wah guitar the tune hits its stride as Lee drops in, each of her lines punctuated by clavinet chords. She lays down the lyrics like she’s actually bawling out a cheating boyfriend for leaving all his good lovin’ in other ladies bedrooms. As “anti cheating boyfriend” manifestos, this is about as strong as they come, suggesting that the offender is actually impotent (ouch...). The arrangement is supremely funky in a stylish Detroit way, i.e. as funky as it gets outside of the realm of the dusty, small-label funk 45. If you can listen to this without at least thinking about dancing, you need to make sure you still have a pulse. Lee’s vocals are powerful and sexy (when she chants ‘I’m hungry baby!’ over and over, it’s like whoah...). Strangely, ‘Crumbs Off The Table’ only scraped the Top 40 in December of 1972. Lee parted ways with the H/D/H organization in 1975, and by the early 80’s was back on the sanctified side of the tracks, recording as a gospel artist.
Fortunately most of her best work is available in reissues.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

A Funky16Corners Christmas!

Ho Ho Ho!!! I’m not a huge fan of Christmas music. Don’t get me wrong....I love the classics, and I still get choked up when I hear someone like Tony Bennett work out on ‘O Holy Night’ or some such, but I am not one of those people that torture their family and co-workers with musical Christmas novelties from Thanksgiving until the day they burn the withered Christmas tree at the dump. That said, I couldn’t let the holiday arrive without a couple of quality slices of Christmas-related soul. I figured that one of the cuts ought to be fun, in a shake-yo-jingle-belled ass way, and who better to get things going than the mighty Count Sidney (and his Dukes). I’ve rapped about the Count in this space before, so I’ll spare you the history lesson and remind you that this might be the only record I’ve ever heard where they attempt to play ‘Jingle Bells’ on a ride cymbal. This model comes with a number of luxury features, including Count Sidney’s raspy voice, combo organ, twangy guitar and some cool lyrics. Listen as the Count goes on about his ‘Soul Christmas Party’ with ‘soul poppin’ music’ and how there’s ‘no Christmas like a soul Christmas’. He reps the shingaling, soul dance #3, and insists that Santa Claus got to have some soul to go around the world from Pole to Pole. The overall effect is that of a smoky, mistletoe laden go-go bar on the edge of the bayou with a slightly out of shape, tattooed stripper in a santa hat and little else. Everyone’s smiling, but it’s mostly the beer. Ho Ho Ho, indeed! The second selection comes to us from none other than the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. James laid down a buttload of Christmas recordings in the 60’s, from funky cuts like ‘Go Power at Christmas Time’ and ‘Santa Claus Go Straight To the Ghetto’, to mellow ballads like Mel Torme’s ‘The Christmas Song’. In the latter category we can surely include today’s selection, ‘It’s Christmas Time’. Never one to let people suggest that he’s anything but an old softie, ‘It’s Christmas Time’ sees Mr. Brown in a contemplative, sentimental mood. He’s missing his sweetie, and Christmas just won’t be the same. While I’ve never been partial to James Brown’s ballads – he is after all Mr. Dynamite, not Mr. Tears On My Pillow – it’s nice to hear him work it out in a mellow stylee. Unfortunately I am – at least as it stands now – unaware of any funky Chanukah sides. We celebrate both Christmas and Chanukah in our house, and since they fall on the same day this year, it’s only fair to send a shout out to our Jewish brothers and sisters, and to remember that some of our most beloved Christmas tunes were penned by Jewish composers: White Christmas – Irving Berlin The Christmas Song – Mel Torme Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer – Johnny Marks Let It Snow Let It Snow Let It Snow – Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne ...all the more reason to join hands across religious lines and remember that even if you decide not to celebrate a religious holiday this month, it’s still a great time to let the folks close to you know how much you dig them, and to show the rest of the world a little love. Also keep in mind the poor folks stuck over in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I'll be taking the rest of the week off for the Holidays, so have a great time, and I'll see you on Monday!

Monday, December 19, 2005

Evie Sands - Take Me For a Little While

Miss Evie Sands
Music history, especially when you’re talking about lesser known artists is often a mire composed of facts, factoids, rumor and out and out falsehood. The fun – and hard – part is sorting out which is which. I’m always happy to learn something new, even if it (often) exposes my ignorance on a topic I should have known better. At my age, I like to think I’ve heard it all, but then someone like Evie Sands rises out of the dustbin of history (to which she has been unfortunately relegated) and smacks me in the face. Here’s how this particular story plays out. A few months ago, I was surfing the net, looking at a list of new reissues, and I happened upon a review of an LP called ‘Any Way That You Want Me’ by an artist named Evie Sands. In that review the writer mentioned that Sands had recorded the original version of ‘I Can’t Let Go’ which was a big hit for the Hollies. I was stunned! The Hollies version of ‘I Can’t Let Go’ has long been one of my favorite British Invasion records, featuring prominently on mix tapes for years (I even enjoyed Linda Ronstadt’s late 70’s version). How could it be that I never knew that the song was a cover? I mean, it’s entirely possible that that fact passed me by (god only knows what I was paying attention to) but one of my best friends is a certified tea drinking, ascot wearing anglophile record collector who probably owns everything the Hollies recorded in the 60’s. It’s also possible that he did in fact know the tune was a cover, and that we never discussed it. Either way, I was surprised that I hadn’t encountered Evie Sands’ music at some point in the last 20 years. So I started rooting around for information (and records) , and discovered that Evie Sands was not only one of the more compelling female vocalists of the 60’s but that she had seen her original recordings of songs passed over by more popular re-recordings three times in three years. Sands was born in Brooklyn, and recorded her first records while still a young teenager. In 1965 she hooked up with Leiber & Stoller’s Blue Cat label. Blue Cat, along with sister labels Tiger, Red Bird and Daisy was home to some of the great soul, R&B and girl group records of the mid-60’s. Artists as diverse as Alvin Robinson, Bessie Banks, the Dixie Cups, Shangri-Las, Ad Libs and the Jelly Beans recorded for the labels with songwriters and producers like Leiber & Stoller, Ellie Greenwich, and Chip Taylor & Al Gorgoni. It was with the last pair that Sands made her two 45s for Blue Cat. Today’s feature was her first recording for the label. ‘Take Me For A Little While’ should have been a huge hit. Featuring Sands expressive, soulful vocal and a marvelous arrangement by Gorgoni and Taylor, it’s a classic example of female ‘blue eyed soul’, putting Sands on the same level as singers like Timi Yuro and Dusty Springfield (who apparently held Sands in high esteem). Sands was - even in her mid-teens - a sophisticated singer with a distinctive style, transcending the ‘girl group’ sound. It speaks volumes that her records have been warmly embraced by Northern Soul fans in the UK. In the summer of 1965, it looked like Sands was going to have a hit on her hands, with ‘Take Me For a Little While’ breaking into the Top 20 (sometimes Top 10) in several West Coast markets, and skirting the Top 50 in the East. Unfortunately, an unscrupulous promoter had taken a test pressing of the record to Chess records in Chicago, where they had Jackie Ross (who had just had a Top 10 hit with ‘Selfish One’) record a cover, which was rushed into the market, effectively torpedoing Sands version. Later that same year, ‘I Can’t Let Go’ was released, and instead of coasting on the momentum that should have been there from ‘Take Me For A Little While’, the record (also excellent) was met with indifference until the Hollies cover hit the Top 40 in the spring of 1966. That year, Sands moved from Blue Cat to Cameo, where she continued to work with Taylor and Gorgoni. Her third 45 for that label ‘Angel of the Morning’ was a rising hit in June of 1967 when Cameo went belly-up. Merrilee Rush & The Turnabouts covered the record and had a Top 10 hit in the spring of 1968. She moved to A&M records in 1969, where she would have her biggest hit with another Chip Taylor song, ‘Any Way That You Want Me’. Sands recorded for Columbia in the mid-70’s, but after that dropped out of sight for almost 20 years. She has since returned to recording and performing. As I said before, Sands’ 45s are popular with the Northern Soul fans (there weren’t all that many of them in the first place) and are fairly hard to come by, even at inflated prices (in the interest of complete disclosure, I got 'I Can't Let Go' on a late 70's UK comp of Red Bird/Blue Cat stuff). Her best Blue Cat sides are available on "Girl Group Sound: 25 All Time Greatest Hits From Red Bird Records", and the reissue of the ‘Any Way That You Want Me’ LP - is available over at Dusty Groove.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Fred Wesley & the JBs - Doing It To Death

Fred Wesley & the JBs
(Fred, bottom row, 2nd from left)
The groove. In all it’s splendiferous wonderfulness, phantamasmagorical, and exceptionally tromboneriffic. Aided and abetted by the Godfather, not Brando, but Brown. Once upon a time, back in the day, James Brown led a tribe of funkateers that were mighty tight and alright, who were capable of crafting a groove so righteous, so on the money,, that – like the big bang – it still reverberates today, sending it’s waves out in ever expanding loops into the galaxy. I’m not kidding. When James Brown steps up to the mike and shouts ‘Hit it!’, and the JBs – from a dead stop – start purring like a Ferrari engine, and then James says “Oh! How you feeling brother?” – and even though you know he’s talking to Fred Wesley, you reflexively say “Alright!” – and then James asks “You Feel good?”, and you say “Yeah!” – and then he says “You play so much ’bone brother!” – and you realize that he really is talking to Fred Wesley, and you pick up the 45 label, and there it is – white on red – Fred Wesley & The JBs ‘Doing It To Death’, and you’re all like “Oh yeah!”. That’s what it’s like. And the groove keeps rolling, and your head is nodding, and your feet are tapping, and your butt is moving and James and the boys start chanting ‘We’re gonna have a funky good time!” over and over again, and the guitar drops in at the end of the phrase like a hinge and you can feel the whole room start moving, and you realize you’re smiling like a fool. Then James calls on the band to take us all higher, and they do. And then, in the strangest development ever on a Top 40 record, James calls on Fred to favor us all with a trombone solo. A TROMBONE SOLO!?!? How cool is that? The Top 40 landscape of 1973 is absolutely thick with guitars and synthesizers and long haired screamers and such and Mr. James Brown, Soul Brother Number One, Mr. Try Me, Mr. Please Please Please, Mr. Dynamite and the hardest working man in show business takes a look back into the horn section, sees his man Fred Wesley oiling up his slide and decides that he has a fever, and the ONLY PRESCRIPTION is a trombone solo. You gotta love it. The chart success of ‘Doing It To Death’ – which although credited to Fred Wesley & The JBs is clearly a James Brown record – is a testament to the stature of James Brown. In the spring of 1973 it was a Top 40 (Top 20 in some markets) Pop hit, and a Number One R&B hit. NUMBER ONE! What’s so amazing (at least to me) is that ‘Doing It To Death’ is basically a vamp. A bloated riff. It’s as if James Brown had a big pie and decided just to serve up a steaming slice of funk, and that pie was SO tasty, SO funky that the record buying public just had to have some (and then seconds and thirds until they were sick). Taking a look at the charts from that period, it’s entirely possible that folks were so sick of crap like ‘Sweet Gypsy Rose’, ‘Delta Dawn’ and ‘The Morning After’ that they were craving something real, and as soon as they heard some of that patented JB-style groove they just had to have some. This is not to denigrate this record in any way, because as the band chants, it is indeed “A funky good time”. In fact, it’s a testament to the power of the James Brown sound that he could basically take a riff, staple on a chant (and a trombone solo), and press it up and it was still better than about 90% of everything else on the charts at the time. In 1973, studios the world over were filled with rock bands wasting thousands of dollars, composing epic pieces of crap that filled entire album sides, positively thick with pretentious, overwrought bombast. James Brown on the other hand, throws a party in the studio with his pals the JBs – who’s groove power is as they say unfuckwithable – peels off a little taste for his fans (in the form of ‘Doing It To Death’) which is more fresh and powerful than any dozen heavy Zeppelinized outfits and in the end it ain’t nothin’ but a thang. That’s what this is all boils down to. Ultimately, you can stack up all the warlocks, elves, Marshall stacks, embroidered dungarees, bongs, tour buses and nubile groupies, and if it ain’t a funky good time, it ain’t shit. ‘Doing it to Death’ is THE shit.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Shirley Ellis - The Nitty Gritty

Miss Shirley Ellis
Some folks know about it some don’t Some will learn to shout it some wont Sooner or later baby here’s a ditty Say you’re gonna have to get right down to the real nitty gritty Words to live by brothers and sisters. Like a fresh breeze from an especially hip fortune cookie, Shirley Ellis lays it down, and 2 minutes and 15 seconds later you’re collapsed on the dance floor, hands numb from clapping, hair know the drill. I’ve been wanting to blog this particular track for a long time for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, it’s one of my fave soul 45s from the 1960’s, male or female. Second, it spawned a couple of my other faves. Shirley Ellis hit the sphere (as Lord Buckley would say) in 1941, and by the time she was in her mid-teens had written songs that were recorded by the Chords and the Heartbeats. In 1959, she met (and later married) Lincoln Chase, himself a successful tunesmith having penned ‘Jim Dandy’ for Laverne Baker and ‘Such A Night’ for the Drifters. Together, Ellis and Chase wrote and recorded a number of hits through the 1960’s. ‘Nitty Gritty’ in November of 1963 was her first Top 10. The record, written by Chase and produced by Hutch Davies has one of the weirdest openings in soul history, opening with fake crowd noise, then followed by a single, tinny cymbal hit (which kind of reminds me of the high hats at the beginning of ‘Shingaling’ by the Cooperettes) before the drums drop and Shirley struts onto the scene. Ellis’ vocal is right on target, and the arrangement of the disc gets a lot better quickly with hard hitting drums for the dancers, shouted (and occasionally strange – check out that bass singer) backing vocals and stylish horns. It’s a rocking track, perfect for dancing, and one of Ellis’ best sides. A few years after ‘Nitty Gritty’, Ellis and Chase laid down the song for which she is - some would say unfortunately – best remembered, i.e. ‘The Name Game’, as in “Chuck, Chuck, Bo Buck, Banana Fana Fo...” ....well, you get the idea. She followed that with a string of similarly novel 45s, including cool ones like ‘The Clapping Song’ and some not so cool ones like ‘The Puzzle Song’. She recorded her last 45 for Congress in 1965, making the move to Columbia records in 1966. Her Columbia LP and 45s are well worth checking out for cuts like the Northern Soul-ish anthem ‘Soul Time’ and hard chargers like ‘Sugar Let’s Shingaling’. After 1967 it doesn’t appear she did much of anything. Except that is, inspire some great covers. The first – and one of my fave boogaloo sides – is Ricardo Ray’s cover of ‘Nitty Gritty’. Ray, one of the great Latin soul artists of the 60’s made a pretty straight cover of the tune, with some great shouted vocals, latin percussion (of course) and a fantastic horn chart. If you can track down the 45 (or the LP, which is a killer) on Allegre, do so. The second, which was probably the first version of ‘Nitty Gritty’ I ever heard is by Gladys Knight and the Pips. For some reason Gladys and the Pips seem to be overlooked when people start talking about funky records, and that’s a damn shame because the made some of the funkiest sides for Motown, including their version of ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ (my fave version), and ‘You Need Love Like I Do’ which I’ll be posting in the next few weeks. The GK& the P’s take on ‘Nitty Gritty’ features some very funky guitar, an unusual shifting tempo and great production. It shouldn't be too hard to track down either.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Lou Rawls - Season of the Witch

Mr. Lou Rawls
A few weeks ago I posted Letta Mbulu’s ‘Welele’, and promised that I’d be dropping another slice of Axelrod produced magic. That slice is a tasty one, Lou Rawls’ cover of Season of the Witch’. Back in the day, when I was a kid, Lou Rawls was the smooth-voice crooner placing hits in the top 40 that were like a more “adult” (in the mature sense) shot at the Barry White audience, i.e. folks looking to get their love on. The malt liquor is on ice, scented candles are burning and the silky sounds of Lou Rawls are pouring from the hi-fi, setting the scene for a night of “romance” (heh heh...). That is to say, that as a young teen, the sounds of Lou Rawls were inescapable on the AM dial, but at that time were for me, something to wait out until ‘The Streak’ came on. Some years later, when I was starting to delve into the world of soul music, I picked up a couple of volumes of the Rhino Records ‘Soul Shots’ series, one of which included Lou’s mighty ‘Love Is a Hurting Thing’. Suddenly aware that Rawls was something more than a leisure-suited smoothie, I started to keep my eyes peeled for some of his discs from the 1960’s. I eventually picked up a couple of LPs, including the one with ‘Love Is a Hurting Thing’ and a live disc with a fantastic version of ‘Tobacco Road’ that included one of Lou’s patented raps. That’s pretty much as far as I got. Until a few years ago, when I pulled a trashed copy of today’s selection out of a huge pile of unsleeved 45s (I have since “minted up”). The thing that first caught my eye (and ears) was the a-side, a cover of Mable John’s ‘Your Good Thing (Is About To End)’. Mable’s version has always been a fave of mine, and Lou did not disappoint. In fact, it was his singing on ‘Your Good Thing’ that really changed my view of Rawls. I can’t imagine anyone not liking Rawls’ voice. He has a deep, dark baritone and is a masterful singer in a wide variety of styles. He’s as adept soul as he is, jazz, R&B and pop. He started out singing gospel with his high school buddy Sam Cooke, touring with him in the Pilgrim Travelers. After a 1958 car accident that nearly killed him, sidelining him for more than a year, Rawls decided to make the move to secular music, and relocated to the west coast. He was discovered and signed to Capitol Records, where he recorded his first LP in 1962 (the same year he backed Cooke on ‘Bring It On Home To Me’). He recorded a number of LPs for Capitol, hitting the Top 10 with ‘Love Is a Hurting Thing’ in 1966. He hooked up with David Axelrod in 1967 and over the next three years recorded a series of excellent LPs. The 1969 LP, ‘Your Good Thing’ was hit (thanks to the title track which was a #3 R&B hit), and included today’s selection. ‘Season of the Witch’ has been covered a bunch of times (Bloomfield/Kooper/Stills Super Session, Brian Auger/Julie Driscoll, Terry Reid, Vanilla Fudge), I’ve always been partial to the original by Donovan, a hugely underrated (and somewhat misunderstood) performer. Largely because of his hippy dippy demeanor and close proximity to all things trippy in the mid-60’s, Donovan has been tossed by many onto the patchouli-soaked ash heap and forgotten. Those folks ought to grab some of the man’s albums and give them another listen. Because in an era where many of his contemporaries were in fact being sucked into their hookahs never to be heard again, Donovan was writing a lot of quality songs and making records that often crossed stylistic boundaries in new and interesting ways. His mixtures of folk, rock, psychedelia and jazz (yes jazz) were way ahead of their time, and hold up quite well today. Anyway...Lou Rawls take on ‘Season of the Witch’ is notable for a number of reasons. First and foremost, he does the song justice, taking a laid back but funky approach to the material that avoids a lot of the histrionics so common in other versions. Second, the arrangement is tight as hell, with some cool organ work, fuzz guitar in the background and a tasty vocal by Mr. Rawls. Lou stretches things out a bit too, with the track clocking in at almost 6 minutes! That said, with the Mable John cover on the flip, this 45 ought to be an essential resident in any self respecting soul collectors crate (it ought to be pretty cheap, too). Fortunately Stateside (in the UK) has released the compilation, “I Can't Make It Alone: The Axelrod Years” which features all of Rawls’ best collaborations with Axelrod on the Capitol label.

Friday, December 09, 2005

The Afro Blues Quintet + One - La La La La La

The Afro Blues Quintet + One
Brrrrrrrr! Man, it’s cold here in Jersey....and wet...and depressing. Looking out the car windows this morning there was nothing to see but driving rain, slushy piles of snow, mud and hundreds of other people, trapped in their cars who looked no happier about going to work than my wife and I did. So what to do???? Well, the doctor prescribes a slice of upbeat Friday start-your-weekend soul. Nothing too extreme (don’t want to strain anything), but something just hot enough, with just enough spice to get your blood flowing again, your muscles limbered up and to move your brain out of neutral, so that when you punch out at 5:00 you’re ready to make the best use of your hard-earned free time. How’s about a little Afro Blues Quintet Plus One? “Whodat?” you ask. Well. To begin with, today’s selection ‘La La La La La’ was first recorded in 1962 by Little Stevie Wonder and Clarence Paul (who wrote the tune). It was only Stevie’s second 45 (predating ‘Fingertips’) and didn’t stir up much chart action. Then, a couple of years later, a Chicano band from East LA, the Blendells laid down a very tasty cover of the tune, scoring a Top 10 hit on the West Coast, and going Top 40 in only one city east of the Mississippi, Pittsburgh (proving that city’s musical hipness once again). The Blendell’s version (released initially on Rampart, and then again on Reprise) has the same kind of laid back soulfulness as Cannibal and the Headhunters cover of ‘Land of 1000 Dances’, another East LA classic. The Blendells version opens with the announcement “ I’m gonna do a little song for you now that’ll make you clap your hands, kick your feet, and as a matter of fact, it’ll tear you up!” Indeed! The Blendells went on to record only one other 45 before breaking up As an aside, I would highly recommend picking up any of the ‘Brown Eyed Soul’ volumes released by Rhino for a beginners glimpse into not only the sound of the Chicano bands (the ones I mentioned plus the Premiers, Thee Midnighters and others) but also the soul and R&B by black artists that was such an important part of that scene (and continues to be part of “Low Rider” culture today). Around the time that the Blendells were happening, the Afro Blues Quintet + One were picking up speed. The Mira / Mirwood labels were one of the great LA recording operations of the 60’s. Run by Fred Smith (see Keyman records, Watts 103rd St Rhythm Band etc) ran the labels, with Mirwood focusing mostly on soul and R&B, and Mira hosting a (very) wide variety or sounds, from pop (Carol Connors) to folk rock (The Leaves, Primrose Circus) to jazz (Rene Bloch, Afro Blues Quintet). Formed in 1962 by vibist/leader Little Joe De Aguero, the ABQ worked bits of soul jazz, gospel and latin sounds into a formidable mixture. They recorded at least three LPs (there are apparently a few LPs out there that may or may not be legitimate), and seven 45s (one as Rene Bloch & The Afro Blues Quintet) for Mira. Also featuring pianist Bill Henderson, Bassist Norm Johnson, drummer Michael Davis, reed player Jack Fulks and percussionist Moses Obligacion, the group wasn’t too far off the mark from a Chess/Cadet soul jazz sound, with a little more dance-floor flavor added in. Their Mira LPs featured a wide variety of soul, jazz and pop covers with a sprinkling of originals. The ABQ version of ‘La La La La La’ (from 1967) opens with a solo flute, before the whole group drops in with ‘La La La’s, and handclaps. There’s a fantastic vibes solo by De Aguero, and great flute work by Fulks. They take the tempo of the Blendell’s version and kick it up a few notches for the dancers. The flip side is a relaxed version of ‘Where Did Our Love Go?’. I have to admit, that when I picked this 45 up years ago, I hadn’t heard anything by the group. I just figured with a name like that, and covers like that, it was worth checking out. It was a good investment. Since then I’ve grabbed a few other 45s, and one LP by the ABQ, and as they say ‘It’s all good.’ Individual ABQ tracks have been comped, and their ‘New Directions’ LP has been reissued and BGP has a compilation called ‘New Directions In Sound’ that’s worth picking up.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Della Reese - Compared To What

Miss Della Reese
"The President, he's got his war Folks don't know just what it's for Nobody gives us rhyme or reason Have one doubt, they call it treason We're chicken-feathers, all without one gut (God damn it!) Tryin' to make it real — compared to what? (Sock it to me, now) " Fuck yeah! ‘Compared to What’ is one of those songs that’s stood the test of time extremely well. It’s been covered countless times, by an extremely wide variety of artists and has managed to come across with its power intact. It’s also remarkably relevant to our current situation. Gene McDaniel (the songs author) had been an established pop star, hitting in 1961 with ‘A Hundred Pounds of Clay’ and then again in 1962 with original version of ‘The Point of No Return’ (later redone by Georgie Fame). He recorded steadily for Liberty records until 1965, then did a few sides for Columbia in 1966 and 1967. The assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 spurred McDaniels to pack his bags and leave the US for Scandinavia. It also inspired him to pen ‘Compared to What’. He passed the song on to his pal Les McCann (with whom he had worked prior to signing with Liberty) and the rest - as they say – is history. McCann (along with Eddie Harris) laid down a smoking (some would say definitive) version of ‘Compared to What’ at the 1968 Montreux Jazz Festival which was released the following year on the landmark LP “Swiss Movement”. The LP was a big hit (for a jazz disc) and spawned a wave of cover versions, including the sublime, soulful take by Roberta Flack on her debut LP, the Northern Soul fave by Mr. Floods Party and todays selection by Miss Della Reese. “Wha?!?!” you say? How did a recording by Della Reese, the lovable old coot from ‘Touched by an Angel’ with the crazy two-tone wighat make it onto the Funky16Corners blog? Well, ‘I’m here to tell you that Miss Della had a long successful career as a jazz and pop vocalist for decades before she started warming hearts in prime time. Reese started out in her native Detroit in the mid-40’s touring with the queen of gospel Mahalia Jackson. She began her own (secular) career recording for the Jubilee label through the 1950’s and then for RCA, ABC and AVCO in the 1960’s. She had a number of pop hits (most notably ‘Don’t You Know’ in 1959) and was a staple on musical variety shows. Her version of ‘Compared to What’ appeared on her 1970 LP “Black Is Beautiful’, which saw he taking a somewhat more soulful tack as far as material went. Now, normally, I wouldn’t go out of my way to grab ANYTHING by Della Reese, but I am always on the lookout for interesting cover versions of cool songs, and the day I pulled this out of a box at a record show my eyes lit up. I had my GP3 portable with me, so I slapped it on and was pleasantly surprised. The backing track is funky, and though Della does a little editing here and there in the lyrics – mainly easing off of the profanity/blashphemy – and mashes the last three verses into a single, powerful statement, this has become one of my favorite versions of the song. The arrangement (by trumpeter Bobby Bryant) is tight and -as you’d expect – brassy with some cool lead guitar. Gene McDaniels (by then ‘Eugene’) went on to record two rare groove classic LPs for Atlantic, ‘Outlaw’ and ‘Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse’. He also wrote Roberta Flack's hit "Feel Like Making Love". He eventually recorded his own version of ‘Compared to What’ for the soundtrack to the 2000 film ‘Girlfight’. Della Reese continued recording through the 70’s, and became a regular on ‘Chico & The Man’ following the suicide of Freddie Prinze. Since then she has appeared in dozens of TV shows and movies, most notably the hideously saccharine ‘Touched by an Angel’. So, the next time your in a drunken barfight over whether or not Della Reese ever did anything cool, whip out your Ipod and play this for them.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Sammy Gordon & The Hiphuggers - Upstairs on Boston Road Pt1

I was going to start out this post with an aphorism about how funk 45s are like potato chips (in that you can’t have just one), or like pizza (‘cuz even lame pizza’s still pretty good) but neither one of those comparisons said what I wanted. Then I thought “Hot dogs!” There are countless kinds of hot dogs, most are decent, and some are amazing, but if you don’t like hot dogs at all, it doesn’t matter how good they are since you can’t even imagine eating one without thinking about lips and assholes... Then I thought to myself, “ dogs..” (insert Homer Simpson drool here). Then I thought again (my brain is starting to hurt), and decided that food analogies really weren’t where it’s at when it comes to explaining funk 45s. I apologize for having wasted your time... Let’s start again. In the years since the whole funk 45 thing blew up (as far as an underground collectors scene can “blow up”), some great records have come to light, lots of pretty good records, and maybe even more run of the mill stuff. The thing is, if you really, really dig funky sounds, even the run of the mill stuff has its moments. However, if you found your way into the world of funk 45s via some amazing compilation of super-raer, break-filled bangers, where the only known copies are in Keb Darge’s super secret record box and on the wall in some Japanese record store, you might come into things with unnaturally high expectations. This is true of any music. If the first thing you hear is ‘A Love Supreme’, and it peels your eyelids back and makes your hair stand on end, you may have some trouble getting your groove on to some of the earlier Miles Davis Quintet LPs on Prestige. This certainly isn’t true of everyone. If your ears are truly attuned to any kind of music, you’re always going to go a little bit deeper than the dilettantes (I’m trying here to use that word with as little pejorative meaning as possible) in the crowd. That’s not to say that certain exceptional pieces of music from any subgenre aren’t going to have a legitimate effect on listeners. There’s hardly a record collection in the world that doesn’t have one or two oddball pieces, pulled from genres that the collector in question wouldn’t normally have anything to do with. There are also those that follow fads like a leaf in the wind, blowing from one section of the record bins to another (and sometimes back again) as fashion dictates. Where am I going with this? Like Tonto, I’ve had my ear to the rails and I hear a backlash a-coming. Maybe it’s not a full-scale backlash, but rather an ebb in the intensity of interest in all things funk 45. It’s just that it seems that the wave has broken, and as it recedes, it carries away with it those who’s interests were not as long lasting, who’s ears were seeking something else all the while, and justifiably the seekers who feel that a vein has been mined out and new discoveries are out there to be made (and they almost always are). These are all “legitimate” moves. It’s all about taste, and tastes change, and not everyone can tolerate a whole lot of one kind of stuff. It doesn’t help that the definition of funk is a flexible one, built on shifting sands. There are those (myself included) that would include a wide variety of sounds under the “funk” banner, knowing all the while that the stylistic distinctions are bleeding at the edges, melding with blues, soul, R&B, jazz, and even rock and that listeners are coming into the world of funk from all of these areas. Some get comfortable, stay a while and pass between those other “boundaries” at will (because for some they are not boundaries at all, but rather opportunities). As a result, most of those people (myself included, again) will always dig funk to a certain extent simply because it’s a permanent part of their palate. Others will root at the trough until the next big thing rolls by, and then will depart. That’s just the way things happen. So, I guess what I’m saying is, ‘Let the backlash begin’. It will have a negative effect on those who’s fortunes are in some way tied into the style (i.e. funk DJs, folks running clubs, live bands), but those things have always lived and died by the vagaries of public taste, and will – in an unfortunately Darwinian turn – either adapt or become extinct. But when they’re gone, no matter how epic a demise they experience, the music will remain. Why this rumination? Well, I just happen to have a very tasty funk 45 lined up as today’s selection, and sadly (though not unexpectedly) I haven’t been able to turn up a lot of hard data on the group. Sammy Gordon & The Hiphuggers were almost certainly a New York City band. They released a couple of tasty funk 45s on Brooklyn, NY labels (For The Archives and Lu Lu) and eventually morphed into a disco group (Their disco 12” ‘Making Love’ will set you back between $75 and $100). Today’s selection ‘Upstairs on Boston Road Pt 1’ is a very nice bit of urban funk that opens with a snappy little break, then busts wide open with horns and organ. When the “verse” starts the whole gang gets into a rolling tempo with some twangy guitar that suggests a bridge between the jazzy edge of Kool & The Gang and the patented James Brown git-down. There’s not that much of a change between parts 1 & 2 (otherwise I would have posted both halves). Anyway, I figured it’d make a good accompaniment to my State of the Funk 45 Address (as it is...). “Upstairs on Boston Road Pts 1&2” is supposedly the less expensive of the two funky Sammy Gordon & The Hiphuggers 45s (though it cost me more), but it ought to be findable for the $30-$40 mark. It has been comped on DJ Pogo Presents Block Party Breaks, Vol. 2, but I don’t think it’s in print anymore. The tune has been covered recently by the UK group Sting Davies & The Organites.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Funkadelic - I'll Bet You

Man...where do I start on this one? I first heard the Funkadelic version of ‘I’ll Bet You’ maybe 15 years ago. At the time, though I was aware of the Parliaments, the whole Parliament-Funkadelic thang kind of ran together. I was oblivious to the collective’s many transitions, and assumed that the UFO-soaked sounds of Dr. Funkenstein, Starchild and Sir Nose D’Void of Funk, i.e. ‘Flashlight’ (which I loved) , ‘Give Up The Funk’ and ‘Mothership Connection’ were basically the beginning and end of the “funky” works of Mr. George Clinton and his heavy friends. I was, of course, incorrect. I mentioned that I was hep to the Parliaments, the 1960’s soul group that lies at the root of the entire P-Funk empire. The 45s they recorded for the Golden World, Revilot and Atco labels in the late 60’s were amazing, running the gamut from stylish soul dancers like ‘Look at What I Almost Missed’, to gritty soul like “I Wanna Testify” , and on again to suspiciously psychedelically tinged items like “All You Goodies Are Gone” and ‘Good Old Music’. In fact the latter two tunes were a solid indicator of the direction that Clinton and the gang were heading in. I’ll spare you the details of their late 60’s contract hassles (since I’m not sure I could lay it out correctly), however, there was for a brief period, three entities revolving around George Clinton: The Parliaments, Parliament (no “s”) and Funkadelic (the participants in all three being basically the same with some stylistic divergence between the three). Essentially, Funkadelic was the Parliaments with their existing backing band (Billy "Bass" Nelson , Eddie Hazel , "Tawl" Ross, "Tiki" Fulwood , and – unofficially - Bernie Worrell) and a liberal sprinking of psychedelics. This “new” band would represent a sort of second tier which would in turn spawn Parliament, and then the merged Parliament-Funkadelic (and in turn several spin-off acts). I said, I was basically ignorant as to what the “original” Funkadelic sounded like, but had read some interesting things about them and decided to take the plunge. I had no f*cking idea... There are only a few times in my life where I can recall being floored by a group at first listen, but my initial playing of the ‘Funkadelic’ album was one of them. I had no idea just how freaky, acid soaked and especially HEAVY a band Funkadelic was. It was an epiphany. There I was, in the early 90’s, stunned that this album had already been knocking around for more than 20 years and no one I knew had heard it. How had I missed this? It was as if Clinton had kidnapped the Whitfield-era Temptations, a group of San Fran psychedelic all stars, and a vividly colored assortment of recreational narcotics, placed them all in a blender and threw the switch, eventually pouring out a potent mixture that still retained traces of its components, yet transcended them all. It’s safe to say that I listened to little else for at least a week, playing the disc for anyone I could like a wild-eyed preacher drunk on the word of God. To this day I can’t throw it on without listening to it at least twice in a row. It is a masterpiece. Needless to say, I highly recommend that if you haven’t heard the first three Funkadelic lps (Funkadelic, Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow, and Maggot Brain), and you dig soul and psychedelia, you need to go to the nearest record store and purchase all three because your musical life will not be complete until you do. That said, in my countless listenings to that first LP, the track that blew my mind the most was ‘I’ll Bet You’. Written by George Clinton, Sidney Barnes and Theresa Lindsey in the mid-60’s, the tune was actually recorded several times before Funkadelic, by Billy Butler (on Brunswick), Jean Carter (on Sunflower) , Theresa Lindsey (on Golden World) and (believe it or not) The Jackson 5 (on their ‘ABC’ album). Though these versions are all worth checking out (especially Butler’s, which picks up the tempo a bit), NONE of them can approach the hypnotic hoodoo of the Funkadelic version. Opening with drums that sound like Geronimo on the warpath (thank you Tiki), and followed shortly by a high guitar riff, the singers (aka the Parliaments – George Clinton, Raymond Davis, Clarence Haskins, Calvin Simon, and Grady Thomas) drop in, trading lines, sounding like the Temptations staggering out the emergency exit of the Grateful Dead bus. The tune grows, layer by layer, bit by bit (“slowly I turn...”) until exploding in a mushroom cloud of “waah waah waah”s and acid guitar. As freaky as this gets, there’s still a very solid foundation under it all. Probably the best aspect of the entire affair is that behind the crazy outfits and echoing, fuzz guitar there’s a fantastic soul record (in fact the single brushed up against the R&B Top 20). This is not to say that Funkadelic was created in a vacuum. These were after all the days when giants like Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone walked the earth. However, Jimi was never this soulful, and Sly never this psychedelic. I mentioned before that no one I knew had ever heard these records, and that is symptomatic of why Funkadelic weren’t the colossally huge mega stars that the music on this album should have made them. In an era when everyone was letting their freak flag fly, regardless of race, Funkadelic were straddling genres in a way that was difficult for the general public to wrap their ears around. They took soul and funk rudiments and bundled them up in psychedelic/progressive rock structures, with songs that often ran in excess of 6 or 7 minutes, that had long trippy interludes, sound effects and generally far out subject matter. In the end they were probably a little too freaky for black audiences and a little too black for everyone else. Funkadelic were almost a genre unto themselves, and in their 1970 form, no matter how amazing they were, they just couldn’t be nailed down (pop music being an industry obsessed with nailing people down, pushing them into corners and squishing them into tiny little boxes). While I’m sure a fair amount of stoners got their hands on – and dug – this album when it dropped in 1970, folks my age (I was 8 then), who were digging psychedelic and garage music in the 80’s, had no idea that this stuff existed. The 45 mix (with about two minutes sliced off from the album track) is still quite powerful. Finding a copy of the original 45 ought’nt be too terribly expensive (maybe $25??). You can probably grab a copy of the CD for ten bucks. I’d do that first. Then, your mind suitably blown to bits, you can wander the flea markets and garage sales of the world tracking down some of the same good stuff on vinyl.
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