James Brown Performs “I Got The Feelin'”

James_Brown_I_Got_the_Feelin'Listen to this track by funk-soul giant and musical Godfather to soul and her many children, James Brown. It’s “I Got The Feelin'”, a key track as taken from the album of the same name, I Got The Feelin’ released in the spring of 1968.

This song was one of a few key singles that would help to establish James Brown as a true innovator. The year before, he’d released “Cold Sweat”, a song of such importance to so many musical streams down through the years and up until today that its value cannot be measured. It helped to open up several musical directions for everyone from seventies funk, to electro, and hip hop in the eighties and sampled heavily ever since. But it initially set James Brown and his band on a path to create some of his most memorable and musically innovative songs of his career, like this one.

Among the most important elements that this song builds upon is the idea of what a lead vocal means, and how traditional singing is adapted to a new paradigm that has less to do with literal meaning or even straight melody, and more to do with something that only the body can express. Read more

Camille Yarborough Sings “But It Comes Out Mad”

Camille Yarborough The Iron Pot CookerListen to this track by Chicago-born singer, dancer, author, actor, poet, activist, educator, and hip hop seed planter Camille Yarborough. It’s “But It Comes Out Mad”, the opening track to her 1975 album The Iron Pot Cooker. On this release, she mixes spoken word narratives mixed in with funk-soul grooves and impassioned singing, often cited as an influence to hip hop and to future R&B releases, mainly because it frames important aspects of the black experience in such an unflinching way.

Yarborough’s voice in the mainstream is possibly most recognized by the jubilant “Take Yo’ Praise”, famously sampled by Norman Cook under his Fatboy Slim moniker, and his monster dance hit “Praise You” from 1998, one of the most empowering dance tracks of that decade, with Yarborough’s voice being central. That original song of Yarborough’s is also full of victory and joy, a love song to one person, maybe, but also to be applied to an entire culture who had seen terrible adversity and had survived it; slavery, Jim Crow, civil rights.

To contrast that, “But It Comes Out Mad” is something of a balance to “Take Yo’ Praise” in that respect, starting off the album and setting a stark tone that goes more in depth about that same struggle on a more granular level.  Read more

Parliament Play “Mothership Connection (Star Child)”

Parliament-MothershipConnectionListen to this track by earth-moving intergalactic funk pioneers Parliament. It’s “Mothership Connection (Star Child)”, aka “Star Child (Mothership Connection)”, the second track and third single off of 1975’s Mothership Connection and released in August of 1976.

This record was their second full-length album in the same year, following up Chocolate City which was released in the spring of 1975. That earlier album created a mythology that placed black culture in the mainstream, and in the literal seats of power in the United States where in real life it was absent; the white house and the Lincoln memorial as depicted on its cover. With the follow-up in Mothership Connection, lead creative mind George Clinton decided to make the presence of black people and culture known in another sphere where they had largely (Star Trek excepted) also been absent; in the stars, and the realm of science fiction. This led to an even more potent mythology and set of imagery for which Clinton and his various projects would become best known; a comic book-style world of outer space.

In some ways, Clinton’s child-like vision that frames the music here was the antithesis of much of funk-soul music at the time. It’s fun and full of abandon instead of political and earnest. And yet, with this approach, it was political in its own way, just by challenging the expectations of the mainstream, and helping to change perspectives on the role of black voices in the wider culture at the time. Read more

Jamiroquai Play “Too Young To Die”

Too_Young_to_Die_singleListen to this track by British funk soul collective and acid jazz scenesters Jamiroquai. It’s “Too Young To Die”, the second single as taken from their 1993 debut Emergency On Planet Earth. This version is the album version. A shorter radio version was released, scoring a top ten showing on the British charts.

The song combines the feel for early to mid-seventies grooves, complete with brass and string arrangements, with some unique ingredients of their own (a full-time didgeridoo player!). To the forefront is singer and principle Jason “Jay” Kay, who’s vocal stylings evoke a classic Stevie Wonder sound for which he was sometimes unfavourably compared. Stevie is a tough act to match. Yet Jamiroquai hit at just the right time, as British acid-jazz was gaining steam in the early nineties, also including acts like The Brand New Heavies, The James Taylor Quartet, and Ronny Jordan. After that scene petered out, Jamiroquai were still enjoying healthy chart action.

This song remains a highlight in the string of chart hits Jamiroquai put out during the nineties. Its retro feel is certainly musical in nature, full of jazzy chord progressions, funky bass, soul brass, and disco strings. But, the subject matter and the way that it is presented is pretty retro, too. It’s a political song that you can dance to. And it represented a shift from the paradigm of eighties and into a new decade, too.

Read more

The Beginning Of The End Play “Funky Nassau – Part 1”

The Beginning Of The EndListen 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.

But, how did Nassau get so funky anyway? Read more

Sly & The Family Stone Play “Family Affair”

Family Affair single Sly & The Family StoneListen 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 more

Curtis Mayfield Sings ‘Future Shock’

curtis_mayfield_-_back_to_the_world_album_coverListen to this track by funk-soul voice of conscience Curtis Mayfield.  It’s ‘Future Shock’ as taken from his 1973 album Back to the World . This is a song that muses on the state of the present world, characterized by poverty, inequality, and hopelessness, and how it will impact the coming world for future generations. It is another poignant, and extremely funky, wake-up call from a voice of one generation to the next.

Curtis Mayfield is regarded as something of a visionary, not only as a musician and a songwriter, but as a figure in soul music that took the genre itself to another level.  Mayfield’s political motivations are the fuel to much of his music, starting from his anthem ‘People Get Ready’ with his group the Impressions.  That song took a gospel convention of deliverance from the world into the next, and made it more worldly, where deliverance is still hoped for, but rooted in the here and now in this world.

Mayfield was a writer of conscience, clearly interested in being a voice of his community, and even those outside of it.  Yet, he was a musician interested in putting across an appealing sound, and solid songwriting as well.  He follows the instrumental template of the Superfly Soundtrack, his most recognized achievement, pretty tightly here.  But, there’s no harm in that, seeing as it had become a distinctive sound for him, with funk-soul grooves contrasted so adroitly with an orchestral string arrangement.  And as also per his approach, Mayfield aims his socially conscious eye to the thread of history, and to the plight of a generation, and the one to follow.

This is what this track is all about. Concerns for the rapidly changing world and the relative cultural unpreparedness to support that change was a reflection of socio-political sentiment of the time, reflected in turn in Mayfield’s work.  Even in academic circles, these ideas were being expressed in Alvin Toffler’s book of the same name, Future Shock released a few years before the release of this song.  The state of the world is no different today, with drugs in inner cities, and now in suburbs too, along with seemingly endless conflicts abroad that present young men and  women as fodder for war machines.

Even if Mayfield’s wah-wah guitar and funk-soul textures are decidedly, and wonderfully, rooted in the sounds of the early 70s, the problems which he is singing about certainly are not.  We have a new year and decade before us.  Maybe this will be the year that technological innovation and social consciousness are brought to the same level, when the types of solutions that technology presents, and the minds behind those innovations, can be applied to making our world a better place.

Happy New Year!

For more information about Curtis Mayfield, and for more music too, check out curtismayfield.com.


Rose Royce Performs ‘Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is’

roseroycecarwashListen to this track, a funk workout by groove-oriented soul-funk collective Rose Royce.   It’s ‘Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is’ as taken from the soundtrack album of the 1976 film Car Wash.

This tune has all of the hallmarks of classic funk; a groove-centric appeal, made to dance to, and with the voices of the musicians talking with each other as the song moves along.  It’s all here. For me, it’s the sound of celebration, with something of an off-the-cuff kind of feel about it.  Its interlocked rhythm driven by a deliciously sweaty bassline, percussive guitar, and tasty horn shots still sounds like it’s been made up on the spot.  And that’s part of what makes it so charming.

This song comes out of an era when the idea of black subculture meeting the mainstream was a pretty new idea.  It’s something we take for granted now, of course.  But, it’s important to remember that the civil rights movement was less than fifteen years behind the release date of this tune, and the movie in which it is featured.

If the characters in the film are more stereotypical then our modern sensibilities might be used to, then it’s because the movie was scripted by someone outside of the community it depicts – one Joel Schumacher who would later make a name for himself as a director.  And it’s marked by growing pains, with Hollywood attempting to branch out to brand new audiences by making films that feature the types of characters with whom those communities can more easily identify.

It should be noted that the soundtrack to the Car Wash movie had a more lasting impact than the film, produced as it was by legendary Motown impresario Norman Whitfield who produced the Temptations and Gladys Knight and the Pips, among others.  Rose Royce of course would have a smash hit in the title track to this soundtrack, among other hits like ‘Wishing on a Star’ and other songs that stand as a sort of middle ground between the influence of southern soul music of the first half of the decade and the smoother, and more ubiquitous disco of the second half.

For more about the Car Wash movie, check out the IMDB entry.


Bettye Lavette Sings Lucinda Williams’ “Joy”

ive-got-my-own-hell-to-raise-bettye-lavetteHere’s a clip of seasoned soul belter Bettye Lavette singing the song “Joy” as taken from her 2005 record I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise. The record, as it is explained,  consists of songs written solely by women, including Dolly Parton, Sinéad O’Connor, Rosanne Cash,  and Aimee Mann.  This one is a barnburner penned by Lucinda Williams, and ridiculously funked-up here by Bettye with sympathetic group under the eye of producer Joe Henry.

Bettye Lavette made a name for herself starting in the 60s, with minor hits on independent labels like “Let Me Down Easy” and many others. In the 70s, she continued to troll the borders of success, while never becoming a household name.  But, in 2005, her album ‘I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise’ raised her profile among fans of classic soul,  produced as it was  by a sympathetic and visonary Joe Henry, who also produced Solomon Burke’s well-loved comeback album “Don’t Give Up On Me”.  Her most recent album “The Scene of the Crime” is garnering equal praise, as is the retrospective “Take Another Little Piece of My Heart” which compiles recordings from 1969-70.

I’ve been thinking, and writing, a lot lately about the business of musical genres, and how we tend to group performers.  I am beginning to see more than ever that the boundaries between styles are really just illusory, that there are good tunes, and bad, but that the towering and impenetrable walls between rock, soul, funk, and country are only as real as the marketing departments at retail chains and record conglomerates say they are.

Bettye Lavette proves this nicely with her album, hailed as a critical triumph and a return to the world stage for Bettye who had been sidelined, perhaps ironically,  by the very forces that undermine this idea that genre isn’t really an issue when you’ve got great material.

And then of course, there’s the issue of gender.   Maybe the idea to start this record off was to show female empowerment in some way.   I personally find myself suspicious of estrogen-fests on record and on tour, and the ghettoisation of ‘female artists’ in general.   I ultimately find the approach narrow-minded and patronizing.  I’d read in the music papers that Bettye Lavette felt the same way, and was reluctant to cut a record of songs by female songwriters for these same kinds of reasons.  She is her own woman, after all.

And since she’s Bettye Lavette, and the songs are good, no one in their right mind would consider this record a ‘women only’ album.  It isn’t contained by gender, or expectations attached to it.  It’s got, if you will, brass balls, baby.  This makes the fact that all the songs are written by women to be immaterial, at least to me.

Listen to the absolutely filthy groove Bettye’s band lays down behind her, and her own feral delivery.  And what kind of music is it?  Blues-rock, soul, funk?  Well, yes.  And even if it incorporates some tried and true characteristics – American city names (thanks, Chuck Berry), and the idea of a road quest (thanks to Jack Kerouac, and the scads of rock and folk songs he helped to inspire), it is otherwise beyond description stylistically.

This could have something to do with the fact that Lavette is a soul/R&B vetran singing a tune by an alt-country titan of a songwriter in Lucinda Williams.  This is aural fusion cuisine, with lots of pepper, salt, and mysterious herbs and spices that make for something of an aphrodesiac that grabs you in all kinds of places.

For more information and music about and by Bettye Lavette, check out bettyelavette.com.


Soul Singer Ann Sexton Sings “You’re Losing Me”

Here’s a clip of no-bullshit, bona-fide Northern soul star Ann Sexton with a 2008 performance of her 1974 single “You’re Losing Me”, originally put out on small label Seventy-7 records.  Sexton is yet another link to the recent, and very encouraging, classic soul revival which has seen the recent rise of Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, Amy Winehouse, Jully Black, Joss Stone, and many others.  As a result, Sexton has dusted off some of her material from the classic mid-70s period, found now to be just what the crowds are after.

Southern Soul becomes Northern Soul
Ann Sexton: Southern Soul becomes Northern Soul

Not to be confused with the Massachusetts poet of the same name, our Ann Sexton was an obscure artist in her home country, made into a name on the British Northern Soul scene like so many others.  Even though she remained inactive as a performing musician since the 1970s, a resurgence in popularity found Sexton featured at a 2007 Baltic Soul Weekender festival in Germany where she was greeted with great enthusiasm.  The clip above is taken from an appearance at the very same festival the next year.

Sexton is a proponent of one of my favourite sub-genres of classic soul music – Southern soul.  In Sexton’s case, her popularity in the 70s Northern Soul scene in Britain is kind of ironic.  Of course, that ‘North’ refers not to the Mason-Dixon line, but rather to to clubs in the North of England where otherwise obscure soul singles were played by local DJs and made popular as dance music.  It remains to be something of a trend that British music scenes tend fill the role of curator of the best in American music, in some cases music which has gone unnoticed or remains to be underappreciated in America itself.

Much like the work of similar soul singers like Ann Peebles and Candi Staton, you can smell the sweat off of this kind of music.  Sexton kicks it with this tune, the sound of a woman who knows what she wants, what she doesn’t want, and isn’t afraid to say so. There is a certain toughness to this kind of music, which to me is better testament to female empowerment than in any “I Am Woman” anthems of the era.

For more biographical information about Ann Sexton, check out Soulwalking.co.uk.