Here’s a clip of country-pop songwriter Eddie Rabbitt and gospel-soul first lady Mavis Staples with a version of “Suspicious Minds”, bringing together at least three disparate elements of music I love – soul, country-without-hats, and Elvis – yet in very strange packaging. This is seemingly taken from an Elvis Presley tribute show, and Rabbitt starts the clip with his song ‘Kentucky Rain’, a hit song he wrote for Elvis in 1970. And then (oddly) Mavis joins him from the middle-eight of “Suspicious Minds”. Still, any excuse to hear Mavis sing…
I suppose in some ways it’s not entirely strange to see these two together, although I still think this is a great example of unexpected musical collaborations. Still, Mavis’ solo material often bordered on country (‘A House is Not A Home‘), and Rabbitt’s often bordered on smooth R&B (‘Suspicions‘). And because this is an Elvis tribute, I suppose the idea was to show just how blurry the lines are.
Ultimately, this kind of an odd musical pairing reveals that classifying music into genres shouldn’t be the be all and end all of understanding where the music actually comes from.
This tune packs a punch; a song of regret as expressed by a man who finds himself the victim of his own mistaken priorities. His work has taken him away from focusing on the one he loves. Will she forgive him, or is it too late? In this song, we don’t get to find out. We only hear the anguish of a man who knows he’s messed up, and that he has come to this realization, perhaps, too late.
This is a love song with a big helping of desperation, which really hits me whenever I hear it. I’ve had my own troubles with losing sight of love, and what is important. In this, I kind of find this tune reassuring; that I’m not the only one.
William Bell never gained the stature of an Otis Redding, or a Wilson Pickett. Yet the foundations of a great soul singer are evident in his passionate vocals that bring out the best in his material, putting the song first before any self-indulgent acrobatics by which so many soul singers are often known.
His work while with the Stax label helped to define the sound of southern soul music, and the sounds associated with Stax in particular. His first album Soul of a Bell remains to be an undiscovered gem by many soul fans.
Bell was a songwriter previous to his role as a performer. His first hit was 1961’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water”, the self-penned song which remains to be the one for which he is best known. He is also responsible for co-penning Albert King’s hit for Stax, “Born Under a Bad Sign” with Booker T. Jones, a song which Bell himself recorded. The song is now considered to be a blues standard.
The tune was also covered by Cream in 1968 on the Wheels of Fire LP, proving that his material was open to interpretation as well as cross-over appeal. Indeed, “I Forgot to Be Your Lover” was sampled by the hip-hop artist The Alchemist, featured in the track “Worst Comes to Worst” by Dialated Peoples.
William Bell continues to be a steady performer today, gaining a W.C Handy Heritage award in 2003, and having put out his most recent album in 2006, A New Lease on Life.
Here’s a clip of legendary soul and R&B sessioner Bernard Purdie demonstrating why King Curtis, Aretha Franklin, Steely Dan, Dizzy Gillespie, and many others sought his skills as a drummer from the 60s onward.
Purdie is one of my favourite drummers, and I think he gives away his secret in this clip; he is a drummer who is interested in melody as much as he is in the groove. This is certainly identified on Aretha’s Live at Filmore West, and on Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam, my two favourite examples of his work.
For more information about Bernard Purdie, check out Bernard Purdie’s official website, which outlines just how prolific he has been as a session drummer, as well as a bandleader.
Here’s a clip of one of the Founding Fathers of Funk, Maceo Parker and his band All the King’s Men with their 1970 funk workout “Funky Women”. The song comes from the album Doing Their Own Thing.
One of the things that top drawer funk musicians do very well is take the attention off of their own individual skill, and shift it to what the band as a whole is creating in the moment. And they do this in a few ways, it seems to me.
First, the emphasis is on the groove, which is simply the nature of the beast; everything interlocks and interrelates to achieve this end. Second, they keep everything simple by having equally straightforward goals, namely to get people on the floor and get them moving. There is no funk if there is no sweat, after all. And third, even if each band member is named and invited to solo, the ultimate objective is to contribute to what has been offered by the one who’s played his bit before. And fourth, the band lets the audience in on what is being created as it’s happening, sometimes even letting them know where the music is going to go (‘Let’s we hit it and quit it! ‘We gonna give the drummer some?’).
“Funky Women” does all of this, and has the additional benefit of being really, really playful, and very sexy too. We get some fine playing from all involved, each band member having gone through James Brown’s school of hard knocks where they were fined for mistakes among other punishments. Yet, this isn’t workmanlike playing – it’s pure joy, pure excitement, pure funk, with each instrumental solo delivered with a woman’s voice in mind. The lilting trumpet is the voice of the breezy, talkative girl. The deep tenor sax is the voice of the sultry man eater in the red dress. And Maceo’s own alto sax the short and sassy party girl.
All the while, Maceo is the master of ceremonies, the spinner of the tale, the setter of the scene, inviting his guys to imagine a humid evening playing a club in a roomful of appreciative, and vibrant women, who are to be looked upon not as mere decorations in the scene, but the very lifeblood of it, the living reasons for making music in the first place – to see them dance, to see them laugh, to draw them closer. I just love this tune, an ode to the beauty of women and a reminder of how closely music and dance is tied to other physical yearnings. And “Funky Women” is ultimately about acknowledging how great it is to be alive, as a physical being.
A close friend and collaborator with James Brown during his mid-to-late 60s period, Maceo Parker is of course a figure of authority in his own right, having made albums of notable consistency together with Brown, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, and Prince, as well as on his own, even if his profile isn’t quite as high as some of these artists. Parker’s handle on funk, soul, and even jazz remains undiminished, active as he is as a touring performer and recording artist today.
In honour of the passing of soul legend Isaac Hayes, here’s a clip of the self-proclaimed black Moses Hayes with his, arguably, most popular song ‘The Theme From Shaft’. This track comes from the 1971 blaxploitation film that helped to kick start a genre, one which shed light on the state of things in the inner cities of America, while simultaneously making a pantheon of heroes for those who lived there.
The song is one of the few theme songs which endures to this day that is this much of its time. The chicka-chicka-wah guitar is clearly in early 70s territory, yet for whatever reason, this song and its signature guitar and hi-hat opening helps to build the legendary status of both the film, and Hayes himself. And it shows just how ambitious soul music could be, and how successful a lushly orchestrated arrangement of strings and brass mixed with guitars and drums could be too, while still being accessible and not overblown. It builds a sort of slow-burn tension that is pure genius. This for me is Hayes’ masterstroke. One bad mutha, in fact.
Before his role as the chocolaty-voiced solo artist, and before the creation of his 1969 masterpiece Hot Buttered Soul, Isaac Hayes was a key player in the success of the Stax label in the mid to late 1960s. His contribution to the careers of Sam Moore and Dave Prater, known as soul duo Sam & Dave, is incalculable. Along with his services as staff pianist for Stax, he wrote the lion’s share of Sam & Dave’s material, including the smash “Soul Man’ along with partner Dave Porter. Most songwriters pray for the day they can write even one tune as strong as that one, capturing the essence of soul music; pure joy in delivery, an undercurrent of sexuality, and the celebration of one’s own identity. Yet Hayes wrote scores of them; “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby”, “Hold On, I’m Comin'”, “You Don’t Know Like I Know”, and many more.
But, even if he’s no longer able to make any more concert appearances, write more songs, or put out new albums, his name and influence is forever preserved in the spirit of Stax, the evolution of soul, and the legacy of musical history.
Here’s a clipof underrated soul powerhouse Donny Hathaway with his famous interpretation of Leon Russell’s “A Song For You”. The track is taken from the singer’s second album, 1971’s Donny Hathaway.
Donny Hathaway had only just started to gain momentum before his death in 1979 of an apparent suicide, most likely due to the chronic depression he’d battled for a good portion of his life. The work for which he’s probably best known is his duets with Roberta Flack, most notably on their hit “Where is the Love?”, a stunning track which is arguably one of the greatest soul singles of that decade – which is saying something.
The thing I like most about his voice is the fact that it just sounds so natural, so unaffected. The emotional landscape in this song alone, a tale of trying to save a love that has long since gone, is vividly real just because Hathaway’s performance is so respectful of its subject matter. His ego isn’t all over this, as it might be with a lesser talent. He lets the story do the work. He takes Leon Russell‘s song, and inhabits it.
Hathaway is one of those artists that should have been famous, and if he’d lived, perhaps he would have been at least on par with Luther Vandross in terms of commercial appeal. I’d like to think he probably would be celebrated with a resurgance like Solomon Burke and Al Green are currently enjoying too. This was the calibre of his talent. Yet, it’s not as if he’s left no mark on the work of current artists. If you can’t see the thread of Hathaway’s influence tied directly to Alicia Keyes for instance, I’d urge you to play the above clip again.
2008 appears to the be the year of the funk-soul revival, with momentum gained perhaps by the Dap-Kings-abetted Amy Winehouse smash Back to Black last year. It seems that there is an audience for sweaty, down-to-earth soul music after all. And one of my recent discoveries is Eli ‘Paperboy’ Reed and his band the True Loves. Reed is a 24-year old Boston resident who appears to be borrowing James Brown’s muse, and cheating on her with the muse of Wilson Pickett while he’s at it.
On a recent compilation from MOJO magazine, I was introduced to the closing track on Eli’s album, Roll with You, the track in question being “(Do the) Boom Boom”, a song after the tradition of Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1000 Dances” and Slim Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips”. The tradition of course has a double entendre at its core; the “dance that’s goin’ around from the old folks down” sure as shit ain’t square dancing, good people. It’s been a while since I’ve heard new music so full of energy, enthusiasm, and downright verve. The only things I can hope for is that more artists of this calibre emerge in the mainstream and make this revival more than just a passing fad.
This is the third round of a series where you the reader vote on the best version of a classic tune. This week, it’s pop classic, “Killing Me Softly”, which was first a hit in 1973 for Roberta Flack, revisited in 1996 by hip-hop/R&B collective the Fugees.
The song itself is one of my favourites of all time, with a sort of Astrud Gilberto lilt to it. I wonder if she ever covered it? I must find out. Anyway, the tune’s strength lies in the melody for me, and because of the open-endedness of the narrative. The scene is set with the narrator at a concert, hearing a tune which sets her off in some way, flushed with fever and embarassed by the crowd. Just what is it about what the guy is singing that is getting to the narrator anyway? What were in those letters of hers? Does it matter? Not really. But, the mystery of it makes it kind of sexy. Apparently, this was a true story based on a trip to a concert by, wait for it, “American Pie” singer Don McLean. I somehow doubt that “American Pie” caused feelings of embarrassment. It was probably another tune of his. But you never know.
This is of course the breakthrough version and an enormous radio hit in 1973 for Flack from the album Killing Me Softly. Flack had a hit the year before with “Where is the Love?” with Donny Hathaway, and another one before that with the superlative “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. But “Killing Me Softly” is the one which shot her voice into the stratosphere, creating as it did an instant classic that would be celebrated and butchered by club singers thereafter. Roberta Flack’s voice has a sort of aching quality to it, which really serves the material. She doesn’t over-sing this, although the temptation to do so might trip up someone of less interpretive skill. This is a story about quiet desperation, of inner turmoil, while trying to maintain composure. As such, Flack nails the tone of it exactly, with a seemingly effortless delivery. This is one of the sexiest vocals ever recorded.
In 1996, The Fugees put out their album The Score to rightful acclaim. Part of the reason for this was this excellent take on the track in question. Singer Lauren Hill, with compatriots Wyclef Jean and Pras take on a Herculean task – bringing something new to this song without crapping all over it. The results are impressive, with Hill showing as much restraint vocally as this tune demands. As I said before; this is a song about being vulnerable, and not wanting others to catch wind of that vulnerability. In the age of over the top melisma which seems to dominate R&B singing since Whitney Houston and her followers established the standard, it would have been easy to let one’s ego get in the way. But, this version is ego free, with an obvious love for the source material by all concerned pretty evident. In terms of phrasing, Hill adds a few things of her own (I love the Jamaican patois she adds in there – “there he was this young bwoy…” ), but she plays it close to the original which makes for a pretty clean delivery that might have otherwise been too cluttered. And the addition of the beat is subtle enough not to get in the way of the voice.
So, which is it to be, good people? Roberta Flack? Or, the Fugees? Is there another version that trumps both of these?
Here’s a clip* of one of my favourite vocalists, Gladys Knight, performing her hit “If I Were Your Woman” on the Ed Sullivan Show, 1971. The song was taken from the LPIf I Were Your Woman. Dig those green outfits!
(Feb 2012 – *the clip has since been removed – once again, because it’s not actually a part of history at all, but privately owned property.)
(Feb 2014 – booyakasha! Well, it’s a clip of a clip anyway:)
Knight and her bandmates the Pips had been signees of the Motown label in the 60s, but never quite made the upper echelons of the label’s line-up. In my view, they stand out from the crowd quite a bit in terms of Gladys’ powerful, and very sexy, delivery, which stands in opposition to, say, Diana Ross who is a more middle of the road vocalist in a pop vein. I wonder if the difference in style had anything to do with their relative lack of success while at Motown. I strongly suspect so. The group would score their biggest hit after they left the label, with their immortal “Midnight Train to Georgia” in 1974.
Knight’s vocals and her arrangements were decidedly entrenched in a Southern tradition – gutsy, passionate, and earthy, with a strong whiff of the funk running all the way through. I always wonder if they wouldn’t have done better on Stax for their 60s sides, or at very least Atlantic. Yet, they had a good working relationship with the Funk Brothers, who often pushed Gladys’ performance in the studio by stepping up their own, knowing that she would rise to the occasion – and Gladys would always oblige by meeting them, note for note.
For me, Gladys Knight is among the giants in soul, male or female. She carved out an individual sound to match any of her contemporaries.
This article from the Village Voice speaks to a big concern of mine having to do with Amy Winehouse. Well, two big concerns, actually. The first is that with all of the soap-operaesque press she’s received over the past few months, is her music likely to play second-fiddle to all of the drama surrounding her personal problems. And the second is, will Amy be an Etta James, or a Janis Joplin?
I personally think that she is one of the most interesting, talented vocalists working today. But, she’s a drug addict and alcoholic too, and the chance of her being swallowed by her own demons looks pretty likely. But, people in her position have made it through before.
There’s been plenty of voyeurism surrounding this extremely talented singer, and motives for writing about her vary, I suppose. Some of these motives are about the cash to be made in circulation, in that a public train wreck always sells papers. For me, I just want to keep hearing new music from her. And something inside me wants her to be OK, which right now she’s clearly not with drug problems and a husband in jail. I think this concern is where the attached article comes from too.
Read the article and make up your own mind on this. And tell me what you think, people.