Listen to this track by first graduating class members of the funk-soul school of hit singles Sly & The Family Stone. It’s “Family Affair”, the last number one hit they’d enjoy, and one included on their seminal There’s A Riot Going On album released in 1971.
By this time, the soulful togetherness that their material exemplified so well by the end of the idealistic 1960s had given way to darker, more claustrophobic themes that were perhaps more appropriate to the cultural landscape of the early ’70s. The war in Vietnam was raging with no end in sight, Kent State students had been gunned down by the National Guard, and Altamont had made the hippy dream of Woodstock into something of a zero net gain.
This shift in tone on this record also had a lot to do perhaps with leader Sly Stone’s descent into hard drugs, and his tendency to isolate himself from his band members in all kinds of other ways, too. This track was created largely without them, with Sly and his sister Rose taking on vocal duties, and with Sly playing everything else himself but for the Fender Rhodes (Billy Preston), and electric guitar (Bobby Womack). As for the drums, this song was the result of the earliest use of a drum machine on a mainstream hit. Technically then, this isn’t really a band effort in the strictest sense. But, neither was the rest of the album.
Nevertheless, it was a hit even if it would also be their peak. Despite some notable material afterward (“If You Want Me To Stay”, “Que Sera Sera”), it was all downhill from here for Sly & The Family Stone as a band. Maybe it’s appropriate that this was their last number one single, seeing how relevant the subject matter is to who Sly Stone was as a writer, and as an individual as a part of a group at the time. Read the rest of this entry
Listen to this track by Hammond B3 organ kingpin and soul jazz practitioner Jimmy Smith. It’s “Root Down (And Get It)” as taken from his 1972 live album Root Down Jimmy Smith Live. The record was recorded live in Los Angeles in February of that year. You can hear the clinking of the glasses which serve as a kind of unofficial percussion section as the patrons listen to the groove as it unfolds. And boy, does it ever.
Like Wes Montgomery with whom Smith partnered on many occasions, Smith was interested in the pop music side of the soul jazz spectrum. But also like Montgomery, Smith was a formidable improvisationalist even if some of his sides are viewed as a bit lightweight.
Yet, here on this cut, it’s the funk that really shines through. And it serves somewhat as a beacon of light for the music that would emerge in ensuing decades, too. Read the rest of this entry
Listen to this track by masked and anonymous Parisian disco-electro twosome, Daft Punk. It’s their made-for-summertime single “Get Lucky” as taken from their long-awaited 2013 record Random Access Memories. The song features vocals by Pharell Williams, a vocalist, songwriter, and one-half of The Neptunes production team.
Also joining them on this track is the one and only Nile Rodgers playing that impossibly funky rhythm guitar part that only he can play. If only they could have got Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson too for the full on Chic effect, although that bass part played by Nathan East nails that Edwards style. But, that’s the thing with this song, and with the rest of the record as well; it is very conscious of its inspirations.
This tune is unabashedly 20th century, with ’70s disco, and ’80s electro being the main courses, supplemented by fender rhodes soft rock textures and real drums, as played by Omar Hakim no less, to supplement the duo’s characteristic vocoders, drum machines, samplers and synths.
There seems to be quite a lot of sentimentality on this record as a whole, with a number of other contributions and references to bygone eras to be found therein.
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Listen to this track by super-stylin’ three-sided jazz force of nature The Oscar Peterson Trio, led by the aforementioned ivory-tinkling Montrealer Oscar Peterson. It’s “Night Train” the title track from the classic 1962 release of the same name – Night Train. Peterson is joined on this by one-time Mr. Ella Fitzgerald and acoustic bass colossus Ray Brown, and supernaturally slick drummer Ed Thigpen.
When the song was recorded for Peterson’s record, it was aimed at the charts specifically by producer, and former Verve owner Norman Grantz. That’s why it doesn’t stretch out as much as some jazz tunes of the era. It’s the length of pop song that would get play on early ’60s radio, perhaps like a song like “Take Five” by Dave Brubeck had done. And it certainly was a big success for Oscar Peterson, being one of the most recognized records he’d put out during a long and celebrated career.
But, this tune and the record it comes off of holds a special place in my heart during my teenage discovery of jazz. And I know I’m not the only one. Read the rest of this entry
Listen to this track by Duchess of Soul and sisterly presence to the Queen (but definitely her own woman), Erma Franklin. It’s “Piece of My Heart”, a 1967 single that would be more famously associated with Janis Joplin by the next year.
The song is by big time R&B writers and producers Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns and put out on Shout Records as a vehicle for Erma Franklin. The song would later become something of a late-20th Century standard with versions by Dusty Springfield to Sammy Hagar (?!), Faith Hill, to Joss Stone.
But, Erma Franklin recorded it first, setting the stage for the song’s long life in various annals of the pop charts.Not only would this tune be an R&B hit. It would help to shape the way songs were sung in general, in soul music, and in rock music, too.
So, what distinguishes Erma’s version? Read the rest of this entry
Listen to this track by Alabama rock ‘n’ soul, and so much more quartet Alabama Shakes. It’s “Hold On” a storming track as taken from their word-of-mouth meteoric 2012 debut Boys & Girls. The song is a single from that record, pulling in a myriad of influences from eras past.
Particularly evident is a strain of classic soul music that sounds like it came from Otis Redding’s pen is interwoven into the lines and the general feel on this song, and on others. But, the spirit of early ’70s British blues rock and hard rock, with traces of Led Zeppelin, the Faces, and the Stones, isn’t undetectable either.
Photo: Pieter M. van Hattem / Contour by Getty Images
There’s something ineffable that roots the young band firmly into the now as well. In tapping into traditions of the past as they do, they somehow escape the cliches completely. To rise above bar band blues, and to become a part of a grand continuum of disparate and complementary styles instead is a tremendously difficult feat.
It’s not been easy for many bands working out an identity in these kinds of musical milieus without the term ‘retro’ being mentioned. Carving a unique path through a musical landscape marked by many broad and asphalted sonic highways is a rare accomplishment. But, I think Alabama Shakes have done it.
But, how? Read the rest of this entry
Here’s a clip by new-school by way of old-school soul singer, and sometime hip-hop DJ in another life, Mayer Hawthorne. It’s ”Maybe So, Maybe No”, a single from his debut 2009 record A Strange Arrangement, put out on indie label Stone’s Throw records.
The head of that label, one Peanut Butter Wolf, signed Hawthorne after hearing two songs from Hawthorne’s selection of demos, both songs sounding like tracks from the classic soul period immortalized between 1964 to 1974. This era is a common hunting ground for hip hop DJs looking for obscure samples to use in their work.
His efforts were fueled by his genuine love of music from this classic period, and aided by his Detroit-born parents who bought him 45 RPM soul records as gifts from the time he was a kid growing up in nearby Ann Arbor. This amassed library of soul singles enabled a love for the sound of vinyl records in general. As a result, his career as a DJ was ignited.
But, how did this guy also become a straight up soul singer, and one of this calibre, as well as a hip hop DJ? Well, this is where thinking of musical evolution in a linear way can trip you up. Here’s what I mean. Read the rest of this entry
Listen to this song by much-missed R&B stylist, and elementally gifted vocalist Etta James. It’s “Tell Mama”, a broiling example of full-on soul-power, charged with the fire of the blues, as taken from the album of the same name, Tell Mama, from 1968.
The record and song was something of a comeback for James, who first broke out in 1960 after some minor dents in the R&B charts previously. She had become sidelined by the middle of the decade by a series of personal problems, including a growing heroin habit. Her addiction to drugs would continue to be a personal millstone around her neck for many years.
Yet, the sheer power of her voice, and the uniqueness of the same, would remain undiminished. And this tune is my favourite of her songs, which is really saying something given the quality of her output.
The comeback itself was successful, with this song being top 10 on the R&B charts, and with the album being her first for almost half a decade to hit the Billboard 200. This tune would become something of a signiture hit, along with “At Last”, her version of Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want To Make Love To You”, and another cut off of the same LP – “I’d Rather Go Blind”.
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Allen Toussaint on tour with Elvis Costello in 2007, with Steve Nieve on organ in the background (photo: Bruno Bollaert)
Listen to this track by singer-songwriter and musical collaboration stylist Elvis Costello, and go-to New Orleans piano-man and songwriter Allen Toussaint. It’s “Freedom For the Stallion”, a gospel-tinged song re-interpreted here as a key track on their 2006 Joe Henry-produced collaborative album River In Reverse.
This album brought together the two artists, plus Elvis’ backing band The Imposters, guitarist Anthony “A.B” Brown, and the Crescent City Horns. The song is an older tune by Toussaint, recorded by acts that include Lee Dorsey, The Hues Corporation, and Three Dog Night. Even Bob Dylan had a shot at it.
This widespread coverage of the song may be because it’s such a succinct lament of the state of the world, a true protest song, with a genuine message that is all-too relevant as much today (if not more so) as it was when it was written.
The arrangement here ramps up the gospel feel on it, and Costello’s voice is plaintive and very connected to the material, a pleading prayer for justice in a world where the greedy and the heartless profit, while others suffer the effects. .
In 2006, the song was in a very specific context, although no less grave than it is today. Read the rest of this entry
Listen to this track by million-selling New York soul vocalists the Persuaders. It’s their signature single and their biggest hit to date from 1971, “Thin Line Between Love and Hate”. Here is a classic tale of neglect, seeming acceptance, pent up anger, and one of the best lyrical payoffs in the history of soul music.
Pop music is full of stories of how love can go wrong, and how lovers can become callous, taking each other for granted. Many more are about the scorned woman, the one waiting at home while their men are out “doin’ the camel walk”.
But, with this song, the emotional landscapes are not quite that easily defined. We have the man who is out on the town at all hours, and his seemingly patient and selfless other half waiting at home for him, even at 5 O’clock in the morning, ready to fix him something to eat, unfazed by his absence up until then.
Who could predict how the story would end up from here? And, what else does this song reveal?
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