Tag Archives: Funk

Let us Rejoice! Most Systems Go!: The Neville Brothers


Well, all systems are go! At least for now, even if behind the scenes a veritable tech menagerie is working overtime to stave off complete oblivion. In my free hours since the loss of my digital world I’ve dug out ancient tiny external drives and copied the most complete libraries of music and photos that survived to other safe havens. My desk is a bomb site of USBs, wires, little external drives and those two ugly fat Seagates, still dead as stones.

Even the MacAir which was similarly defunct has been persuaded (by the good unblocker, Ganesh, perhaps?) to come to life again. So while the panic levels have decreased somewhat there is still some ways to go before I can sleep completely easy at night.

Thanks to all of you who provided comfort and even offers of help and cash to get the show back on the road. That was unexpected and really, very deeply appreciated!

So to celebrate the resurrection of the Dog, let’s groove to one of my perennial favorite family acts: the Neville Brothers of New Orleans Louisana USA. Lots of sparkling music and plenty of excellent positive vibrations seems like as good a way as any to pick up where we left off.

Dig it!

(P.S. as with all Neville Brothers records, volume up high is recommended)


Track Listing:

01 Love Spoken Here

02 The Sound

03 Holy Spirit

04 Soul To Soul

05 Whatever You Do

06 Saved By The Grace Of Your Love

07 You’re Gonna Make Your Momma Cry

08 Fire On The Mountain

09 Ain’t No Sunshine

10 Orisha Dance

11 Sacred Ground


Heal thyself: Cymande




Just the first day of the working week and one’s soul and body is already aching. No complaints, mind. Just a cold assessment of the current reality. Several more similarly long and full days await until the weekend arrives and I depart on another trip. This time to my favorite part of the world, India. Mumbai for a couple of short weekend days and then the nation’s capital for meetings and hopefully a bit of down time to stalk through the streets with all my senses open to ‘receptive’.


One does find there are days and weeks of days when despair and sadness are hard to keep at bay. What with all the shit happening in the Middle East and the suffering and rudeness of the ruling classes towards anyone who is not one of ‘us’ is enough to make the heart break.

When I get into those kind of places I generally find a long walk outside followed by a cold beer and some fine tunes return my inner barometer to the normal range. And over the weekend the tunes I turned to were from an old band with the slightly hard to pronounce name of Cymande (Shamaanday).

I used to spy this album in record stores years back and inevitably paused to take in the intriguing cover art. There was something just off beat enough about it to want me to try it out but of course I would opt for the more familiar product. In those days of youth when one is supposed to be full of adventure, I have to confess my musical tastes were firmly unadventerous. But let’s not look back.

Except perhaps to give praise. And much praise is due to these chaps with the unusual name. A group of West Indian immigrants in the UK, Cymande mixed together reggae, proto-dub, funk, sweet soul harmonies and a righteous message on their very limited number of records.   Except for a tiny number of music snobs, club hounds and critics the records didn’t get much uptake; the band disbanded in the late 70s.

Rediscovered by samplers a number of decades on, Cymande has probably reached a wider audience in the past 20 years then they ever did in their heyday.

This is very groovy music. Listen. And you’ll instantly be aware of its healing qualities. The deep throbbing bass shakes the blues loose (or perhaps packs it further down?) and slowly draws you to surrender.   Like a musical body tonic, Cymande, are an elixir.

Heal thyself!

The Message

Track Listing:

01 Zion I

02 One More

03 Getting It Back

04 Listen

05 Rickshaw

06 Dove

07 Bra

08 The Message

09 Rastafarian Folk Song



A Funky Frog Indeed: Mr President


As a writer about music I regularly struggle to find sufficient vocabulary to express certain concepts and feelings.  Take, for example, ‘funky’.  I certainly know when a piece of music is funky. It has that sound of course, which is a bass-driven beat overlayed with jittery guitar or keyboards. Sometimes a dollop of brass in sprayed into the mix to fill (or accentuate) particular gaps.  Funky music has a certain feel, for sure.  It makes your knees wobble back and forth, up and down. Soon your shoulders are nudging around and your eyes are closing as your head sways in time to the beat. That feeling is good! Outasight!! Fantastic!!! Groovy!!!!


There is more to funky then a feeling or a type of rhythm. There is a spirit to funky. A funky person has a certain presence, perhaps even an aura. His clothes hang differently on his body. They are filled with a funky-ness, which is invisible, inaudible but most definitely palatable.


Funky, sources tell me, derives from a Kongolese word, lu-fuki, which means, in its literal meaning, ‘strong body odor’.  The meaning is is perhaps reinforced by contact with fumet, ‘aroma of food and wine,’ in French Louisiana. But the Ki-Kongo word is closer to the jazz word ‘funky’ in form and meaning, as both jazzmen and Bakongo use ‘funky’ and lu-fuki to praise persons for the integrity of their art, for having ‘worked out’ to achieve their aims. In Kongo today it is possible to hear an elder lauded in this way: ‘like, there is a really funky person!–my soul advances toward him to receive his blessing (yati, nkwa lu-fuki! Ve miela miami ikwenda baki) Fu-Kiau Bunseki, a leading native authority on Kongo culture, explains: ‘Someone who is very old, I go sit with him, in order to feel his lu-fuki, meaning, I would like to be blessed by him.’ For in Kongo the smell of a hardworking elder carries luck. This Kongo sign of exertion is identified with the positive energy of a person. Hence, ‘funk’ in black American jazz parlance can mean earthiness, a return to fundamentals.


And as the truest form of funky music came out of New Orleans (adopted so wholeheartedly by Brotherman James Brown) this etymology which blends Louisana French and African languages seems completely plausible.

For all the interest the above digressed introduction may generate I am still at a loss to find a word that embodies the sound, the feel, the spirit and the smell of ‘funky’.  So, I won’t even try.

Mr President

Mr President

One of most satisfying purveyors of funky music that I’ve come across in recent years is a French guy who goes by the name of Mr President.  His birth name is Bruno “Patchworks” Hovart and he’s an accomplished groove-miester with a number of groups/identities/projects behind him, including the very cool Uptown Funk Empire.  Here is an interview, which though a trifle old (2006, before his Mr President persona), speaks to the influences and journey of Mr Hovart.


imgresThere are so many uplifting, moving and grooving grooves on this record it is not possible to sing all of their praises. The revue-esque intro Mr President Theme, lets you know this is going to be a ‘show’ with lots of stuff going on. Hovart’s very bad (meaning good) guitar strokes are a highlight throughout, conjuring up aural images of afrobeat bands or the aforementioned Godfather of Soul.   But it is not just the guitar playing, it is the arrangements, and structures of each song, that are so alluring. Each one has a different feel but not one misses the mark. Horns are here, organ and silky soul voices too.  Highlights for me are the neo-soul, The Best is Yet to Come as well as the Al Green super classic Love and Happiness to which Mr. P has added a glassy edge. But the swinging closing number Trouble  (the tenor sax that jumps all around the bottom of the groove is addictive) is hard to ignore. Ditto: Left to Right and Tribute to RZA.


Not bad for a Frenchmen I say!



Track Listing:

01 Mr President Theme

02 Meet Again

03 From South To North

04 Celebrate

05 Tribute To RZA

06 Love & Happiness

07 The Best Is Yet To Come

08 Left And Right

09 Get It Sometime

10 You Move Me

11 Ginger X Walk

12 Homeless Soul

13 Bike Riding

14 Who’s Gonna Fall

15 Trouble


Funky Rising Sun: Jiro Inagaki and Soul Media


Another slice of Japanese musical sashimi for everyone’s aural pleasure tonight. I’ve just returned from a long and hard couple of weeks of travel, which took in Tokyo, Seoul, Paris, Brussels and now (tomorrow) Singapore!  Feeling pretty wiped out!

I love Jiro Inagaki’s music which is usually referred to or labelled as jazz.  But as this album shows, and the title suggests, jazz for Jiro, is definitely not bebop or post bop.  Rather it is more on the funky, soul jazz, R&B side of the tracks.  He often covers soul standards (Funky Stuff, here) and doesn’t hesitate to draw dance beats, WAR-sounds and lots of brassiness into the equation.

I’ve not been able to dig out much useful information about Mr Inagaki but his name pops up from time to time as a sideman with other Japanese jazz artists and he has enough name recognition in record stores in Tokyo for the shop keepers to point you to a (small) section of his CDs.

Whoever he is, I think he plays the sax with great feel and funk. His band, Soul Media, is pretty capable as well. Quite a big band it sounds like which would probably be even more fun live than on tape.

Nothing wrong at all with this piece of Japanese-jazz-funk-soul.  Grab a geisha and settle down for some groovy moments.

Funky Stuff

Track Listing:

01 Painted Paradise

02 Funky Motion

03 Breeze

04 Scratch

05 Funky Stuff

06 One for Jiroh

07 Gentle Wave

08 Four Up



Shaman of the Soul: James Brown

Brother James Brown

Brother James Brown

This most definitely is the album of the week.  It’s been playing again and again for days: when I wake up, before I go to bed; taking over the spirit like a bol weevil of the soul.


To get you into the mood here is a brilliant article on the man, James Brown, and the feature for this evening, The Payback, by none other than Julian  Cope. The article itself is a shining of example of the lads from Liverpool having more acute vision for American black music than most Americans themselves.

The Payback

Track Listing:

01 The Payback

02 Doing The Best I Can

03 Take Some… Leave Some

04 Shoot Your Shot

05 Forever Suffering

06 Time Is Running Out Fast

07 Stone To The Bone

08 Mind Power





Soaring Soul: Tower of Power


The renowned horn-driven funk outfit Tower of Power have been issuing albums and touring the world steadily since the early ’70s, in addition to backing up countless other musicians. The group’s leader since the beginning has always been tenor saxophonist Emilio Castillo, who was born in Detroit, but opted to pursue his musical dreams in Oakland, California. It was in Oakland that Castillo put together a group called the Motowns, which, as their name suggested, specialized in ’60s-era soul. Castillo teamed up with a baritone sax player (and Motowns fan) Stephen “Doc” Kupka, and soon the Motowns had transformed into Tower of Power (one of the first tunes the duo penned together was “You’re Still a Young Man,” which would eventually go on to be one of Tower of Power‘s signature compositions).

Tower of Power played regularly in the Bay Area throughout the late ’60s, as their lineup often swelled up to ten members, including such other mainstays as Greg Adams on trumpet and vocals and Rocco Prestia on bass. By 1970, the funk outfit had inked a recording contract with Bill Graham‘s San Francisco Records, resulting in the group’s debut the same year, East Bay Grease, which failed to make an impression on the charts as Tower of Power were still trying to find their own sound.


Tower of Power

Tower of Power

But it all came together quickly for the group, as 1972’s Bump City would touch off a string of classic hit releases, including 1973’s self-titled release (which included another one of the group’s most enduring tunes, “What Is Hip?”), 1974’s Back to Oakland, plus 1975’s Urban Renewal and In the Slot. While Tower of Power remained a must-see live act, the quality of their subsequent records became erratic, resulting in some admirable releases (Ain’t Nothin’ Stoppin’ Us NowLive and in Living Color) and several uninspired albums that are best skipped over (We Came to PlayBack on the Streets).

Despite the dip in the quality of their albums, Tower of Power remained a much in-demand backing group for some of pop/rock’s biggest names, including Elton JohnSantanaBonnie RaittHuey LewisLittle FeatDavid SanbornMichelle ShockedPaula AbdulAaron NevilleAerosmith, Michael BoltonBilly PrestonPiLRod StewartTotoMerl Saunders, and others. Tower of Power remain very active to this day, keeping up a brisk touring schedule and issuing such new albums as 1999’s Soul Vaccination: Live; while several compilations were issued around the same time: Rhino’s double disc What Is Hip?: The Tower of Power Anthology (1999) and Very Best of Tower of Power: The Warner Years (2001), plus Epic/Legacy’s Soul With a Capital “S”: The Best of Tower of Power (2001).

The band celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2008 and still retained five original founding members. (AMG)


Ain't Nothin' Stoppin' Us Now

Track Listing:

01 Ain’t Nothin’ Stoppin’ Us Now

02 By Your Side

03 Make Someone Happy

04 Doin’ Alright

05 Because I think the World Of You

06 You Ought To Be Havin’ Fun

07 Can’t Stand To See The Slaughter

08 It’s So Nice

09 Deal With It

10 While We Went To The Moon


It Certainly Is!: Grant Green

Grant Green

Grant Green

My favourite jazz guitarist has always been George Benson (sans the singing, except on Breezin’, which is simply one of the most delightful albums on the 1970s) but it is Grant Green that I love listening to more these days.  Green is a guitarist who puts the tune above the technique. Whatever he played seemed not just to swing, but to sing, as well.  And I love soul-jazz which Grant became known for in his latter years.

Often overlooked by jazz critics and snobs, Grant Green, is now building a posthumous reputation as an exceptionally expressive and talented musician.

Green was born in St. Louis, Missouri. He first performed in a professional setting at the age of 12. His influences were Charlie Christian, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, and Jimmy Raney, he first played boogie-woogie before moving on to jazz. His first recordings in St. Louis were with tenor saxophonist Jimmy Forrest for the United label. The drummer in the band was Elvin Jones, later the powerhouse behind John Coltrane. Grant recorded with Elvin again in the early Sixties. Lou Donaldson discovered Grant playing in a bar in St. Louis. After touring together with Donaldson, Grant arrived in New York around 1959-60.

Lou Donaldson introduced Grant to Alfred Lion of Blue Note Records. Lion was so impressed with Grant that rather than testing Grant as a sideman, as was the usual Blue Note practice, Lion arranged for him to record as a group leader first. However, due to a lack of confidence on Green’s part the initial recording session was only released in 2001 as First Session.

Despite the shelving of his first session, Green’s recording relationship with Blue Note was to last, with a few exceptions, throughout the Sixties. From 1961 to 1965, Grant made more appearances on Blue Note LPs, as leader or sideman, than anyone else. Grant’s first issued album as a leader was Grant’s First Stand. This was followed in the same year by Green Street and Grantstand. Grant was named best new star in the Down Beat critics’ poll, in 1962. He often provided support to the other important musicians on Blue Note, including saxophonists Hank Mobley, Ike Quebec, Stanley Turrentine and organist Larry Young.

Sunday Mornin’ , The Latin Bit and Feelin’ the Spirit are all loose concept albums, each taking a musical theme or style: Gospel, Latin and spirituals respectively. Grant always carried off his more commercial dates with artistic success during this period. Idle Moments (1963), featuring Joe Henderson and Bobby Hutcherson, and Solid(1964), are thought of as two of Grant‘s best recordings.

Many of Grant’s recordings were not released during his lifetime. These include McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones (also part of the Solid group) performing on Matador (also recorded in 1964), and several albums with pianist Sonny Clark. In 1966 Grant left Blue Note and recorded for several other labels, including Verve. From 1967 to 1969 Grant was, for the most part, inactive due to personal problems and the effects of heroin addiction. In 1969 Grant returned with a new funk-influenced band. His recordings from this period include the commercially successful Green is Beautiful and the soundtrack to the film The Final Comedown.

Grant left Blue Note again in 1974 and the subsequent recordings he made with other labels divide opinion: some consider Green to have been the ‘Father of Acid Jazz’ (and his late recordings have been sampled by artists including US3A Tribe Called Quest and Public Enemy), whilst others have dismissed them (reissue producer Michael Cuscuna wrote in the sleeve notes for the album Matador that “During the 1970s [Green] made some pretty lame records”).

Grant spent much of 1978 in hospital and, against the advice of doctors, went back on the road to earn some money. While in New York to play an engagement at George Benson’s Breezin’ Lounge, Grant collapsed in his car of a heart attack in New York City on January 31, 1979. He was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, and was survived by six children. Since Green‘s demise, his reputation has grown and many compilations of both his earlier (post-bop/straight ahead and soul jazz) and later (funkier/dancefloor jazz) periods, exist. (Wikipedia)

Ain’t It Funky Now! is the third of three thematically organized Grant Green compilations in the Blue Note Original Jam Master Series — all of which focus on his final period recording for the label, between 1969 and 1972. Green was deeply interested in popular Black music in his late period and that is reflected in these seven cuts taken from six different albums. The title track, of course, is the a read of the James Brown classic and also features Blue Mitchell on trumpet and Idris Muhammad on drums, among others. At nearly ten minutes, it’s a deep-stretch groove piece with Green‘s guitar playing gritty and dirty center-stage. Other highlights include “Ease Back,” a Meters cover from Green‘s Carryin’ On outing, and a nasty version of the Isley Brothers‘ “It’s Your Thing,” with Chuck Rainey and Muhammad in the rhythm section. The set closes with a decidedly non-funky yet very soulful cover of the Stylistics‘ “Betcha by Golly Wow” with Wilton Felder on bass, Hall Bobby Porter on congas, and fine soprano and tenor work from Claude Bartee, Jr..  (AMG)

Ain't It Funky Now_ Original Jam Master 1

Track  Listing:

01 Ain’t it Funky Now!

02 Ease Back

03 It’s Your Thing

04 Love on a Two-Way Street

05 Let the Music Take Your Mind

06 I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing

07 Betcha by Golly Wow


Funky Urban Myth: The Ohio Players

Ester Cordet...cover girl and  Playboy Bunny

Ester Cordet…cover girl and Playboy Bunny

I came to the United States in 1975. Even then, at the age of 17, I haunted record stores, which used to be plentiful and places of great warmth, individuality and social interaction. In between classes at the University or as I transited downtown enroute home on the Number 6 bus, I would, as if by spiritual compulsion, wander into a record store and flip the racks.


Records cost $4.98 in those days, a princely sum to me. And an actual purchase was made probably once every couple of months.  The music collection grew slowly in those days.   Thank Jehovah for the C-90 tape though.  While vinyl was precious, tape was cheap and friends’ record collections freely accessible. I remember reading the small print on some of the tapes, that recording music and ‘distributing it’ was illegal.  Reminds me another practice, more contemporary, about which the same corporations rail on a daily basis.  But I digress.


During those flip-through-the-racks-of-vinyl sessions several records consistently caught my eye.  Honey by the Ohio Players was one.  The photograph of a naked model holding up a jar of drippy, shining honey certainly got the blood racing. I often picked up the album and looked at it wondering what sort of music it contained. My tastes were extremely underdeveloped in those bygone years and there was no way I was about to risk $5 on a record full of music I might hate. But boy! Was that cover something.


Many, many years later I was cashed up enough to take the plunge. I saw it on the internet and typed in those fateful numbers on the Mastercard and have thrilled to the sounds ever since.  The Ohio Players, from Dayton, Ohio, had been around for many years when Honey was released in 1975. Several changes to the personnel and as many changes of labels coupled with solid stints in New York and Detroit as backing band to other acts helped develop a brass-driven funky sound which was their signature.  By the early and mid-70’s they were riding very high indeed, on the R&B charts and regarded as one of the top African American acts of the day.


The Ohio Players

The Ohio Players

Of course, in addition to their trademark sound, which also featured the very unique and powerful voice of ‘Sugarfoot’ Bonner who doubled on guitar, was the Players’ preference for sexy women on their album covers.  When Playboy Ms October 1974 wound up on Honey, they were at their peak in every way.


The record was a huge success.  Love Rollercoaster was the smash which dominated black radio stations for months. Obviously, I was not the only lonely horny kid who loved the cover, because soon after the record’s release, rumours began circulating in certain circles (none of which I was in anyway proximate to) about the lovely lady all covered in honey.


The full cover

The full cover

The story goes that during the photo shoot for the cover Ms October was in fact covered in a ‘honey-like’ acrylic, not the real thing.  When the shoot was done, the poor woman was unable to get off the floor. She was glued down! With effort she was extricated but with much damage to her beautiful body which meant the end to her modelling career.  When she stormed back into the studio some days later to demand justice, the Players’ manager jumped up and stabbed her. Fatally.  It is her horrific death scream that can be heard on Love Rollercoaster!


Thankfully, this is an urban myth, but one the Ohio Players were willing to milk to drive the sales of this stunning 70’s icon through the roof.  After Honey the band had a couple more hits but by the end of the decade this sort of music was considered out of date and OP disappeared from the scene. But their influence can be heard in everyone from Luther Vandross to Prince.


Get down!


Track Listing:

01 Honey

02 Fopp

03 Let’s Love

04 Ain’t Givin’ Up No Ground

05 Sweet Sticky Thing

06 Love Rollercoaster

07 Alone



The Fellow Traveller: Steven Bernstein and MTO

Sly Stone

Sly Stone

In everyone’s musical journey there are fellow travellers; friends with whom you not only share music but who open doors to new artists and styles. I can name several–Ned, Brian, Peter, Ian—without whose contribution my understanding of the musical universe would be so much more narrow.


Tonight I’ll name one more fellow traveller, Phillip Walker. For more than a decade, as colleagues in several organisations and friends (when we are both in the country), Phillip has introduced me to a huge quantum of music especially jazz and music from South Africa, where he lived for many years.

At the moment his life has taken him back to Africa where he runs a large development program for an Australian NGO. He is still turning me on to wonderful sounds such as Steven Bernstein and the Millennial Territory Orchestra. 


Knowing nothing about Bernstein I’ll let the people at All About Jazz do the talking about this very good album.


The Sly Stone songbook is a solid gold thing, and it is strange that it is so rarely revisited. Then again, repertory tributes are generally paid to artists who have passed. Stone is still with us, although, it sometimes seems, only just: over the last few decades, he has been ravaged by “personal problems” which would likely have finished off any mere mortal. The man who promised the late 1960s/early 1970s counterculture that he wanted to take it higher, and whose pre-Family Stone band was simply called The Stoners, has himself gotten higher than most—and the subsequent crash and burns have not been pretty.

Step forward downtown NYC trumpeter Steven Bernstein and his little big band, the Millennial Territory Orchestra. As a pre-teen growing up in Berkeley, California at the time of Stone’s post-Woodstock ascent, Bernstein was aware of the Family Stone, but too young to be a card-carrying fan. He plugged in later. When, in 2009, he was asked to come up with a strand for NYC’s River To River Festival, which was that year celebrating Woodstock’s 40th anniversary, he suggested a Sly & The Family Stone tribute.

MTO Plays Sly grew out of that project. Mercifully, it is no “recalibration,” “reimagining” or “reconstruction.” It is a celebration, a loving jubilance, pure and simple. The nine-piece MTO romps through some of Stone’s best-loved songs, sticking closely to the spirit of the originals, augmented by guests including Parliament-Funkadelic organist Bernie Worrell (67 years old and the hero of the hour), Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, remix wizard Bill Laswell and a mix ‘n’ match lineup of vocalists comprising Martha Wainwright, Antony Hegarty, Shilpa Ray, Dean Bowman and Sandra St. Victor.


Most of the material is taken from the Family Stone’s first-flush albums: Life (Epic, 1968), Stand! (Epic, 1969), There’s A Riot Goin’ On (Epic, 1971) and Fresh (Epic, 1973). If a few of the best tunes are missing—including “Dance To The Music” (1968) and “I Want To Take You Higher” (1969)—that is inevitable. Stone produced too many to include all on one album.

Eight of the eleven main tracks (there are additionally a couple of brief interludes) have vocals, five of them taken by either Sandra St. Victor or Dean Bowman, gospel-drenched soul singers who perfectly inhabit the material in front of them: “Stand,” “M’Lady,” “Skin I’m In,” “Fun” and “Time.” Antony Hegarty‘s reading of “Family Affair” is hyper-vulnerable; Martha Wainwright’s “Que Sera, Sera” by turns fatalistic and defiant; both singers make the songs their own without losing touch with the original recordings. Shilpa Ray‘s blues/punk “Everyday People” is at times a little mannered, but it cooks, too.

Of the instrumental tracks, Bill Laswell’s primal-funky “mix translation” of “Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa” is the most radically inclined, but it, too, is in the spirit. Worrell, a longtime Laswell collaborator, wails centerstage, and the groove is heightened by a Vernon Reid guitar riff as insistent as any tenor guitar ostinato in Afrobeat originator Fela Kuti‘s bands. The track fades dubwise.

The two “Sly Notions” interludes, both featuring MTO‘s violinist Charles Burnham and banjoist Matt Munisteri, inject a little bluegrass into the proceedings: a style and ethnicity mash-up of which the Family Stone would surely have approved.


Thank you Sly, Steven and especially, Phillip!

MTO Plays Sly

Track Listing:

01 Stand (Featuring Sandra St. Victor, Bernie Worrell & Vernon Reid)

02 Family Affair (Featuring Antony Hegarty)

03 Sly Notions

04 Que Sera, Sera (Featuring Martha Wainwright)

05 M’Lady (Featuring Dean Bowman)

06 You Can Make It If You Try

07 Everyday People (Featuring Shilpa Ray)

08 Bernie Interlude (Featuring Bernie Worrell)

09 Skin I’m In (Featuring Sandra St. Victor)

10 Sly Notions 2: Fun (Featuring Dean Bowman)

11 Time (Featuring Dean Bowman & Vernon Reid)

12 Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa (Bill Laswell remix)

13 Life




Bitchin’: Blaxplosion 70’s Funk

blaxplosionIn 1965 the young black actor Sidney Poitier starred alongside Anne Bancroft in a thriller called ‘The Slender Thread’. The job of scoring the film went to Quincy Jones, a jazz trumpeter from Lionel Hampton’s band. He had completed scores for ‘The Pawnbroker’ and ‘Mirage’ by this time and was set to score a number of television series. He said of Sidney Pollack, director of ‘Slender Thread’, that he was ‘a modern guy who didn’t get shocked when he heard a far-out piece of music’. This gave him the artistic freedom to experiment outside of the traditional jazz score. The track ‘Big Sir’ which closes the album gave a hint at what was to come. Up-tempo, with a strong ‘four’ feel, it captured the evolving soul sound using full, brassy instrumentation.

Poitier went on to star in the racially-charged ‘Guess who’s coming to dinner?’ in which he played white middle-class Katherine Houghton’s boyfriend to the mixed reactions of her friends and relatives. ‘In the heat of the night’ saw Poitier playing a cop coping with Rod Steiger’s racist redneck sheriff. These films showed Poitier in a presentable, middle-class light, tolerated rather than accepted by the white society in which he found himself. While Poitier set about taking the Hollywood screen by storm, Jones meanwhile was in considerable demand as a soundtrack composer. Amongst his most well-known works are T.V. themes such as ‘Ironside’, ‘Sanford and Son’ and soundtracks for a number of later major Hollywood releases like ‘The Heist’ ($) with Warren Beatty and ‘The Italian Job’ with Michael Caine.

Although Poitier’s films, mainstream Hollywood creations at best, suggested that it was possible for blacks to be accepted into white American society, the reality for many was harshly different. Race riots had broken out in cities across the US. The Black Panthers, with a large following in deprived areas of the big cities, were advocating militant action. Regardless of Poitier’s positive influence on society through his films, they simply did not reflect life for the black majority at that time.

By now, major ‘black’ artists such as Funkadelic, the Impressions, Sly’s multiracial Family Stone and even James Brown were producing music which carried a serious political message on the back of an angular, forceful groove. The R&B charts proved that demand for ‘music with a message’ was at a high. Black audiences wanted cinema that reflected their daily experiences in the same way. As the 1970’s began, these wants were met in two distinct forms. The first, following Poitier’s lead, provided a mix of comedy and serious drama which happened to include black lead roles. Bill Cosby, Flip Wilson and later Richard Pryor started their careers in this way. The music in these films also tended to be ‘acceptable’ to the white-owned studios, produced by Motown-style soul artists such as Curtis Mayfield. Vocal duties tended to be taken up by Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight or one of the Staples Singers. The subject matter reflected the big studios’ unease with handling the pressing social issues of the time.   The films which produced the most innovative music, if not plot, were the black alternative to these mainstream offerings. Now known as ‘blaxploitation’ films, they satisfied the demand from inner-city audiences for movies made by and for blacks. It should be noted that the term ‘blaxploitation‘ refers to the films’ continuation of the trashy ‘exploitation’ films of the 1960’s rather than the film studios ‘using’ black actors.

Early examples tended to follow a typical James Bond style. 1969’s ‘The Lost Man’ (Quincy Jones soundtrack) and the British ‘Uptight’ (Booker T & the MGs) provided two notable early soundtrack albums. As these films saw a commercial release the talented black director Melvin Van Peebles was working on a comic drama in which a white bigot wakes up to discover he has black skin. Released in 1970, ‘Watermelon Man’ proved to be a hit and propelled Peebles into the Hollywood limelight. Hoping that success would allow him to make a film closer to his experiences, he began to produce a film written for the black audience and quickly discovered that the major studios wouldn’t touch it.

Called ‘Sweet Sweetback’s Badaaass Song’, it was vicious and uncompromising and deemed inaccessible to whites. Peebles went ahead and produced it anyway, financing it largely himself. Unable to show the film in many cinemas, he persuaded a few black cinemas in Detroit, San Francisco and New York to show it. The response was incredible. People queued in their hundreds to see what was essentially the tale of a promiscuous black antihero as he makes his way towards Mexico to evade the white police. Peebles wrote his own score and enlisted the assistance of a newly-formed group called Earth, Wind and Fire who happened to be friends with one of his production crew. poster_cleopatra_jones

Almost simultaneously, MGM Studios were shooting the first big-budget Hollywood blaxploitation film, ‘Shaft’. The studio had been struggling and badly needed a hit movie to revive its flagging fortunes. In the film, according to MGM’s synopsis, a ‘black, muscular, fine-looking’ private detective called John Shaft (played by Richard Roundtree) comes up against a variety of mobsters, hustlers and kidnappers, proving himself handy both in bed and with a gun. White critics proclaimed that it was a true reflection of life on the streets when it was really nothing more than a slick thriller that just happened to feature black actors.

MGM were delighted when ‘Shaft’ went on to win an Oscar. The statuette was awarded to long-time Stax records artist and arranger Isaac Hayes for his ‘Theme from Shaft’. His appearance at the Oscar ceremony had as much of an impact as his music. He appeared on a floating piano in a shirt made entirely of chains.

The theme is one of the most memorable and enduring pieces of music written for film. Beginning with a toppy, tight hi-hat rhythm complimented by a superbly edgy wah-wah guitar, the theme told the entire story of the film inside three minutes. The lyrics, thanks to Hayes‘ accomplished songwriting background, simultaneously satirised and glamorised the hero. The whole score was strong, following cinema convention in that slow ballads accompanied intimacy and brass and drums were used for the chase scenes. The difference was in the funk; gritty but danceable, the album went on to sell in the millions and remains a classic. poster_slaughter

Most of the soundtrack albums that followed, in the same way as Shaft’, provided a number of hit singles in their own right. Shaft’s soundtrack, and the film itself, set the style of black movies for the next five years before the genre died out as it became increasingly ridiculous. ‘Shaft’ was quickly followed by a sequel, ‘Shaft’s Big Score’, for which the soundtrack was written by the film’s director Gordon Parks, with help from O.C. Smith who provided the vocals. The third, and last, in the film series was ‘Shaft in Africa’ which blended Johnny Pate’s jazz background and experience as arranger for The Impressions with African rhythms and a hefty slab of the funk. The Four Tops provided a great theme and hit single, ‘Are You Man Enough’, for the soundtrack. This album features many strong tracks and is well worth seeking out. ‘Shaft’ also spawned a TV spinoff series. poster_tnt_jackson 1972 saw the artistic peak of the blaxploitation soundtrack. Several of America’s biggest black artists were working on soundtracks simultaneously. Marvin Gaye’s superb ‘Trouble Man’ album, much covered and respected, provided the only significant outlet for his jazz aspirations of his career, and allowed him to include several instrumental funk tracks. Bobby Womack, assisted by jazz soundtrack veteran J.J.Johnson, showcased some of his finest soul tracks on ‘Across 110th St.’ The highlight of this period was undeniably Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Superfly’. Only four years previously Mayfield had been producing upbeat, happy songs for The Impressions. He had by now absorbed the rhymical influence of James Brown‘s music along with the melodic feel of Marvin Gaye and was producing music wide-ranging in mood. ‘Superfly’ was as violent a movie as you could find. It romanticised the antics of a drug dealer antihero, Priest, played by Ron O’Neal. Mayfield‘s beautiful and compassionate songs completely undermined the apparent message of the movie and represent his finest work. poster_the_black_six

The films that followed became more formulaic as the seventies progressed. Plot-wise, most of them were either ‘private detective takes on the mob’ or ‘dealer becomes king of the pimps’. Record companies fought to add their biggest stars to any soundtrack they could get space on. Virtually all of the major soul artists and many minor stars of the period can be found on a blaxploitation album.

James Brown, ably assisted by regular JBs trombonist Fred Wesley, provided scores to 1973’s ‘Black Caesar’ and 1974’s ‘Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off’. The latter was a sequel to ‘Slaughter’, which had no soundtrack LP but featured a Billy Preston theme song. Interestingly, James Brown’s best written-for-film album, ‘The Payback’, was rejected by director Larry Cohen for ‘not being James Brown enough, y’know?’. The film was ‘Hell Up In Harlem and eventually featured an Edwin Starr soundtrack.

Solomon Burke wrote music for ‘Cool Breeze’ (1972, with assistance from Gene Page) and ‘Hammer’ (1973), for which an album was never issued. Allen Toussaint scored ‘Black Samson’, released in 1974. Gene Page, with the Hues Corporation, wrote 1972’s ‘Blacula’ soundtrack while Roy Ayers produced the superb ‘Coffy in 1973. The Blackbyrds made their contribution with ‘Cornbread, Earl and Me’ while The Impressions provided songs for ‘Three The Hard Way’. Barry White wrote music for 1974’s ‘Together Brothers’ which included some solid stripped-down funk instrumentals. Even drummer Bernard Purdie wrote a score to an erotic film called ‘Lialeh’ in 1974, subsequently issued on a scarce LP.

Motown’s Wille Hutch provided two fine albums in the form of ‘The Mack’ (1973) and ‘Foxy Brown’ (1974). J.J.Johnson, a veteran jazz musician with a strong ear for soundtrack composition, often wrote his best work in collaboration with other artists. 1971’s Bill Cosby western ‘Man and Boy’ saw him working with Quincy Jones and Bill Withers. The superb ‘Across 110th Street’ was written with Bobby Womack. Johnson also wrote the music for ‘Willie Dynamite’ (with Martha Reeves) and ‘Cleopatra Jones which included a hit theme from Joe Simon and vocals from Millie Jackson.

A relatively early blaxploitation release,Come Back Charleston Blue’ features an interesting 1920s style soundtrack thanks to Quincy Jones. This album also includes Donny Hathaway’s soulful classic ‘Ghetto Boy’. The 1973 sequel to ‘Black Caesar’, ‘Hell Up In Harlem’ had a theme song by Edwin Starr while Barbara Mason sang the theme to ‘Sheba Baby’ in 1975. The unlikely choice of Osibisa provided the ‘Superfly’ soundtrack sequel in the form of ‘Superfly T.N.T.’ in 1973.

Many of the best blaxploitation soundtracks were issued on major record labels, for which the collector should be thankful. Sales figures for these albums were invariably respectable but failed to live up to those of the original ‘Shaft’ LP. In addition to the mainstream releases there were a number of notable independent issues. The Fantasy label issued the soundtrack to the adult cartoon ‘Fritz The Cat’ and followed this up with ‘Heavy Traffic’. Ed Bogas and Ray Shanklin, responsible for the original material on these two albums, wrote a further soundtrack to a serious black drama ‘Black Girl’ on Fantasy with the assistance of a number of great studio jazz musicians including Bud Shank. The Rimshots, studio band of the Platinum / Stang label, contributed tracks to the Stang label’s 1976 score to ‘Patty’. Bizarrely this all-soul album was taken from a film about Patty Hearst.

In a fitting close to the mainstream blaxploitation genre, Isaac Hayes provided soundtracks to, and performances in, two films in 1974 and 1975, ‘Truck Turner’ and ‘Three Tough Guys’. Although both albums have good funk moments (check out ‘Tough Guys Theme’ and ‘Pursuit of the Pimpmobile’ from ‘Truck Turner’) they’re not as vibrant and consistent as ‘Shaft’. The cinema genre had effectively ended as a creative force but the musical influence continued. Curtis Mayfield produced the soundtrack to ‘Short Eyes’ and appeared in the film, and arranged Let’s Do It Again’ for The Staples Singers and ‘Sparkle’ for Aretha Franklin. War made a late appearance with the soundtrack to ‘Youngblood’ in 1978.

The proliferation of action and kung-fu B-movies during the late 1970s provided source material for several notable special-pressing soundtrack albums to accompany the original films. The obscure Happy Fox label gathered a number of small-time soul artists to score ‘Black Fist’ in 1977. In the same year the abysmal action movie ‘Bare Knuckles’ spawned a superb soundtrack album on the tiny Gucci label scored by Vic Caesar, one of the stars of the movie. It should be noted that, surprisingly, a large proportion of blaxploitation film soundtracks were never issued on commercial soundtrack albums. The movies for which a soundtrack was issued were not necessarily those with the biggest stars or highest budget, a fact that may dismay blaxploitation film enthusiasts. A limited selection of tracks from otherwise-unissued scores can be found on sound library or special pressing LPs.

Many of the soundtracks to these movies, like the films themselves, disappeared into obscurity during the 1980s. The recent revival of interest in cinema and 1970s culture has lead to a corresponding desire to explore the music of the blaxploitation genre, and with it the long-overdue acknowledgement of the huge influence of its artists on modern music. (http://www.blaxploitation.com)

I’ve included this long article because it is (obviously) an excellent overview of the Blaxploitation genre of film and funk from the 1970s. This collection is not from these films per se but rather another layer of the black American urban sound that was and remains so popular.

Funk away!


Track Listing

1-01 That Thang [Pee Wee Ellis]

1-02 Short Eyes [Curtis Mayfield]

1-03 Ripplin [The Ripple]

1-04 It’s A New Day[Skull Snaps]

1-05 Dudley Do Right [Leroy Hutson]

1-06 Hang On In There [Bobby Womack]

1-07 I Made A Promise [Sir Joe Quaterman]

1-08 Can’t Nickname The Truth [Sly Stone]

1-09 Stump Juice [Jimmy McGriff]

1-10 Stoop Down {Ernie K-Doe]

1-11 Jessie Joe {Jean Knight]

1-12 Thank You  Lettin Me Be Myself Again [Maceo and All the King’s Men]

Disc 2

2-01 Sport [Lightinin’ Rod]

2-02 Chicken Strut [The Meters]

2-03 Marvellous [The Jungle Band]

2-04 Cakes [Jimmy Steig]

2-05 Mag Poo [Maceo and All the King’s Men]

2-06 Koochie Koochie Koochie [Mavis Staples]

2-07 Get Off [The Ripple]

2-08 Moon Walk [Pee Wee Ellis]

2-09 Jazzoetry [The Last Poets]

2-10 You Said A Bad Word [Joe Tex]

2-11 Chameleon [Buddy Rich]

2-12 Give Me Back My Freedom [Sir Joe Quaterman]

2-13 Bitchin’ [Charles Rouse]