Listen to this track by Bahamian soul-funkateers and pan-cultural stew-stirrers The Beginning Of The End. It’s their big international hit named after their hometown, “Funky Nassau” as taken from the 1971 album of the same name, Funky Nassau. The record came out on Alston Records, which was a subsidiary of a major label responsible for some of the greatest R&B ever laid down on wax – Atlantic.
The band is made up of the three Munnings brothers; Raphael “Ray” on organ and lead vocals, Roy on guitar, and Frank on drums. The line-up was filled out by Livingston Colebrook on second guitar, and Fred Henfield on bass, and with even more Munnings relatives on horns.
The result was a unit tight enough to reproduce the vital alchemy it takes to pull a tune like this off; a seamless groove with enough muscle to stand up to being taken apart, with each player getting a solo spot. And then, the whole thing comes back together again, as if to prove how durable that groove really is, as if for sheer, joyous, summery bravado.
The Apollo Theater, Harlem New York City (Source: Paul Lowry)
There have been many vital legendary musical venues that have helped to shape the destiny of pop music. But, few have the pedigree of the immortal Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York City.
Since it was founded in 1934, several of the musical acts that now stand as pioneers in jazz, blues, soul, funk, rock, and hip hop got their start in this otherwise humble theatre located at 253 West 125th Street. And while these artists developed from beginners, to practicioners, to exemplars, and onto immortality, the world changed as a result.
Their work helped in breaking down barriers between musical styles, and also between groups of people who had been separated by the oppressive social norms of their times. As these norms were torn down (and good riddance), the music they made has endured, and the lives of music fans everywhere have been enriched.
Listing every artist that came out of the Apollo Theatre, or had career-defining shows there, would make for a very long read, indeed. So, as is my custom here at the Delete Bin, here is a list of 10 that I hope will suggest the wide spectrum of talent they represent. Take a look!
Listen to this track by neo-soul pianist, singer, songwriter, and R&B ingenue Alicia Keys. It’s “Fallin'”, the first single as taken from her debut record Songs In A Minor, a record that succeeded in making her the talk of the town when it was released in 2001. Part of that buzz was down to it’s classic feel, plugging into the spirit of classic soul music.
Further to that connection to music of past eras, the themes would be familiar too; a troubled relationship that cannot be denied, despite the pain that is associated equally with the pleasure it brings. This is certainly a common theme in pop music, and R&B music from a woman’s point of view in particular, from Billie Holiday’s take on “Ain’t Nobody’s Business”, to Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved A Man The Way I love You”, to Keys’ contemporary Macy Gray, with her song “I Try” by the end of the 1990s.
Listen to this track by Stax staffer, soul music innovator, and future South Park cast member Isaac Hayes. It’s “Walk On By”, Hayes’ expansive interpretation of the Bacharach-David pop hit that appears on 1969’s Hot Buttered Soul.
Hayes had been a stalwart songwriter at the Stax label, penning many hits for resident artists, most notably Sam & Dave, and their song “Soul Man”. But, the time between that song and the end of the decade was a wide one. A lot had changed. One important thing that had shifted was the standing relationship between Stax and Atlantic, the latter of which had distributed the former’s catalog from 1965. Atlantic had claimed Stax’s output when it in turn was bought by Warner in 1968 as per the contract signed by Stax founder Jim Stewart when the distribution deal was initially struck. The requirement to back-fill Stax’s offering with new work was suddenly a vital priority. It was the end of an era, and the beginning of a new one.
How did this turn of events help to establish Isaac Hayes as a soul music icon, a status that lasted over a forty-year career as a solo artist? (more…)
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. (more…)
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. (more…)
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.
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. (more…)
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.
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.