Soul, Funk and Disco

Jean Knight “Mr. Big Stuff” (1971)

It’s easy to overlook Jean Knight’s sole – killer – Stax album, as it so evidently centres on the huge, huge hit “Mr. Big Stuff”. But that smoking, slightly reggae-esque funk jam really wasn’t a fluke. Miss Knight had pipes that were greased in the finest Deep South gospel tradition, and, when paired to the producing magic of Wardell Quezerque, she had the ability to churn out a soulful masterpiece of an album, every bit the equal of Aretha Franklin or Mavis Staples’ finest moments.

Knight’s rough, blues-drenched vocal is apparent on the slow grinding, gospelish workout “A Little Bit of Something (Is Better Than All of Nothing”), where her huge voice is accompanied by Jerry Puckett’s sweet, country-soul guitar noodlings and divine back up vocals. It’s back to the Funk with the hard socking “Don’t Talk About Jody”, a sturdy answer song to Johnnie Taylor’s smash hit “Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone”. Jody’s been getting a bad rep, per Jean Knight, and she’s here to set some things straight, cause Jody made her happy. Fat, sleazy funkin’ comes your way once more with the ploddin’ “Take Him (You Can Have Him)”, an incessant groove-based finger-snapper layered in horns and propelled by William Laverne Robbin’s thick bass. There’s an old-timey feel to the glorious, slow ballad “Why I Keep Living These Memories”, with its jazzy guitar chops and low-fi piano. A great showcase for Knight’s churchily testifyin’ vocal power. The same can be said for the bone-chilling, richly orchestrated mid-tempo lilter “One-Way Ticket to Nowhere (It’s the End of the Ride)”, a warm tune filled with Bacharach-like hooks and melodies. That chanking guitar, poppin’ bass and gutbucket groove is back with the swankin’ “Call Me Your Fool If You Want To” and the incisively rompin’ “Your Six-Bit Change”, featuring more crunchy guitar lines and piles of brass.

It’s a shame Jean Knight has been typecast as the “Mr. Big Stuff”-singer. This album is testament to a huge talent. Do yourself and justice a favor and get this gem of an album. —soulmakossa

Prince “Parade” (1986)

Parade is definitely one of Prince’s finest releases. It’s a sprawling kaleidoscope of sounds and textures, many new to his oeuvre, many previously explored. And it all coheres awesomely, feeling much longer than its forty-five minute running time. Opening with a brisk four-song suite, Parade’s atmosphere is set: that is, anything can happen, and its all going to be quirky and beautifully strange. Images of France embellish the album’s lyrics, while musically there is everything from swooning ballads, vaudevillian pop, funk, psychedelia, and, oh yeah, some of what was to be expected from Prince by this point. That comes in the form of Kiss, the magnificent lead single and the most popular song here. But really there are plenty of gems to found, from New Position’s clanking march, to Girls and Boy’s bouncy textures, and all the way to the achingly gorgeous closer, Sometimes it Snows in April. A much bigger hit in Europe than the U.S., Parade is unfortunately overlooked on a popular scale, but is worth anyone’s time who is willing to let its wonderful world envelop them. —automatic1

Billy Paul “War of the Gods” (1974)

Billy Paul was always one of the hippest talents on Philly International – mixing together soul and jazz influences with a deeper sense of spirituality, and long experience as a sophisticated vocalist. This album’s one of his most sublime efforts – kind of a quasi-spiritual record with a similar high-concept approach to some of Marvin Gaye’s work from the same time. Gamble and Huff produced and wrote most of the record – including the two long tracks that make up side one, “I See The Light” and “War Of The Gods”, the latter of which starts out slow and moody, then breaks out into a club groove. Other titles include the more standard soul tune “The Whole Town’s Talking”, plus “Thanks For Saving My Life” and “Peace Holy Peace”. —Chris

Bohannon “Stop and Go” (Dakar, 1973)

This album is pure and simple hard pulling, rhythmic funk that hits you over the head and electric kicks your aorta! The eight songs each hold on their own, weaved together intricately with the driving bass lines and thumping wa wa guitars that you might hear sampled by Dilla or even Large Professor.

The spirit of the album originates in a sense of the daily grind (the first track “Stop & Go”), penetrating that hustle with astounding resonance. Hamilton takes us to the grit of the streets in “The Pimp Walk” but raises the blaxploitation theme to an apotheosis of drum licked bluesy soul. And then shit gets flipped up. “Run it on Down Mr. DJ” is a bombastic proto-disco track that anticipates Bohannon’s signature style captivating the club music of the late 70’s and forever changing the game. Just after the boogie friendly joint, we get pushed into a crunching, funkified gospel number that sweats with a call to “Save their Souls.” It’s not enough. Hamilton grounds himself from the celestial realm into an earthly jazz croon to the mothers of this land in “Singing a Song for my Mother.” And how else to end such a powerful sonic reflection on the struggles, styles, and joys of life than a push towards “Happiness” that makes you realize that you’re not so jaded after all. A drum clap bass line holds down this anthem, and just wait for the booming vocals chant “happiness, everywhere / talkin’ ’bout happiness everywhere” to baloon this song into the heavens of the funk. —keskejecoute

Jon Lucien “Rashida” (1973)

1973 was a good year for chilled out, soulful grooves. Along with Terry Callier’s masterpiece “What Color Is Love” we have Lucien’s best work “Rashida.” It could almost be a companion LP to Callier’s as it has a very similar vibe. It is a lushly produced collection of spaced out soul and folk that adds in elements of Latin music and a hint of Lucien’s Caribbean heritage. He has one of the best voices in music and its warmth gradually draws you deep into the record. Lucien never feels the need to show off or be flashy and he lets the strength of his lyrics do the work. Buy this and Callier and you will instantly improve your soul collection. –Jon

Demon Fuzz “Afreaka!” (1970)

Progressive rock in the ’70s was traditionally recognised as being the realm of white, occasionally nerdy, hippy-types. However, challenging such notions was the all black Demon Fuzz, who signed to Pye’s prog label, Dawn, in 1970.

Afreaka!, released in the same year was there one and only album. Five tracks pitch Demon Fuzz somewhere between prog rock and psychedelic soul-laced jazz excursions, with a threadwork of world music, tribal beats and the ever-trusty wah-wah pedal weaving its spell somewhere beneath. The opening instrumental of ‘Past, Present and Future’ begins in purest progressive rock style with the meandering showmanship of a grinding bass, prior to some sultry horns kicking in and the song taking on a psychedelic jazz /soul feel that wouldn’t sound out a place on the backing track to a 70s blaxploitation flick. It continues to blend styles for just shy of ten minutes, and amazingly, for a song that is both instrumental and of a jazz-influence, doesn’t get boring. The first of three vocal tracks, ‘Disillusioned’, keeps the jazz infusion ball rolling, through the faster paced ‘Another Country’, and leading to the eight minute long ’Hymn to Mother Earth’, a gently drifting paean to the ecosphere that bursts with dramatic interludes and is underscored by the prog rock weapons of choice, the organ (sounds like a Hammond) and flute.

Demon Fuzz’s blend is just right and succeeds in cooking up an appetising dish of progressive rock/soul/jazz/world fusion. One that’s well worth the more traditional progressive rock fan dipping their finger into. —Nick/Head Full of Snow

Jerry Butler “The Iceman Cometh” (1968)

Although mostly recorded in Philadelphia, this album by soul troubadour Jerry Butler is in the Chicago Soul vein all the way; it’s too hard and gritty to be called ‘Philly’ – which wouldn’t surface as a genre until the early ’70s – despite the beautiful arrangements and sometimes huge orchestration. Teaming up with future hitmakers Gamble and Huff, Butler cut his finest LP in 1968 with ‘The Iceman Cometh’. Veering between uptempo soul nuggets and truly magnificent, haunting ballads, many a contemporary R&B artist found inspiration in it and plenty of its tunes were covered well into the ’70s.

One of Butler’s best loved cuts, the bouncy, mid-tempo romper “Hey Western Union Man” became nothing short of a standard and the same can be said for the gently cruising gospelfide rockin’ soul beater “Only the Strong Survive”, one of the centrepieces on Elvis Presley’s comeback album ‘From Elvis In Memphis’. Speaking of Memphis, the horn heavy “Can’t Forget About You, Baby” smacks of that big brassy Stax sound. A ferocious floorshaker, drenched in the sweet, purring vibe of the Hammond organ and embellished with the right amount of strings. Butler’s pleading, warm voice is at its best here, especially on the chorus. Decidedly more Windy City is the breezy, mellow “How Can I Get in Touch With You”, with its warm jazzy guitar, vibes and swirling violins. And then there’s that deliciously groovy, laidback ballad “Just Because I Really Love You”, where the horns stretch out in suspense and the piano sounds dark and ominous. That same spooky atmosphere hangs around the brassy intro to “Lost”, a shufflin’, brooding piece sporting a crashing back beat, which works its way up to an anthemic, jubilant chorus. Another soon-to-become evergreen appears in the guise of the slow burning “Never Give You Up”, a brilliant pop-soul confection covered by everyone from The Jacksons to Isaac Hayes. Equally snappy is the soft, despondent lament “Are You Happy”, with more subtle orchestration and another heart wrenching vocal. Up next are two superb, dark, intensely sad ballads: the ghostly “(Strange) I Still Love You”, with its ethereal backing vocals, churchy organ and weeping strings, and the truly goosebump inducing “Go Away – Find Yourself”, an unbelievably touching, sweet rendering, majestically orchestrated. Butler ends this magnificent longplayer on a more upbeat note, as he swoons, croons and wails his way through the country soul gem “I Stop By Heaven”. A masterpiece. —soulmakossa

Marvin Gaye “Here, My Dear” (1978)

When Motown released Here, My Dear, Marvin Gaye was not one of the most commercially successful soul performers anymore. Actually, he was not strictly SOUL at all, anymore. With What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye had created himself a new slot in pop music, just as Stevie Wonder had done for himself with Music Of My Mind (all the way up to Songs In The Key Of Life). Marvin Gaye would record only one more album for Motown after Here, My Dear; In Our Lifetime, despite its great moments, suffers from having been released by Motown without Marvin’s authorization (it was unfinished). Here, My Dear, however, was recorded and finished under his supervision. Most of the instruments you hear were played by Marvin himself. It is the testimony of an artist at his artistic peak, of his separation from his former wife, Anna Gordy, member of the Motown clan. Since the frankness in which Marvin sang about his marriage and divorce, collided with the fact that Motown was indeed the label to release the album, and also partly due to the fact that a double album with no obvious single was not exactly helpful in the year 1978 for big sales, Here, My Dear was a commercial flop.

Now, 25 years later, a listener who is interested in good music doesn’t care about such things. All that counts is the quality of the music. Unfortunately, until today, this album has been Marvin Gaye’s most unjustly underrated record. Okay, there aren’t any hit singles, but Here, My Dear is an exceptionally good album. There is not one filler song on this two record set. Instead, one is enchanted (and disturbed) by the straightforwardness of how Marvin Gaye relates the experience of divorce. Musically, it’s one of the most sensual albums ever recorded. Marvin sings like there’s no tomorrow. He supports himself vocally via playback recording. The tight playing and the almost chamber-music atmosphere create a density and harmony which cause addiction – you want to play the record again and again. The no-kitsch approach to the production has helped the album age with grace. Here, My Dear is one of the great masterpieces of the 70’s. —Yofriend

Syreeta “Syreeta” (1972)

Syreeta’s career was hidden in the shadows of her husband, Stevie Wonder, and never really reached the commercial success she deserves despite the quality of her recordings. I strongly believe “Syreeta” to be one of the best debut albums of all time. Five star material from start to finish with Stevie’s masterful hands all over the production and songwriting. More than being just a vehicle for him to flex his talents though as his wife has such a great voice and passion for the music she takes the songs to the next level. Any soul fan needs this record in their collection as do all Stevie fans. –Jon

Second take: You’ll find sweet soul, synth-inflected funk, folk and gospel on Syreeta’s debut. Even the clever use of a vocoder can’t disguise her husband, Stevie Wonder’s, voice on “She’s Leaving home.” In fact his presence is felt all over this great album. “Syreeta” is a must have soul LP! –David

Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 “Stillness” (1971)

This is not one of your parent’s radio-friendly Brasil ’66 LP’s (although we love those too). Here the group seamlessly blend folk, Brazilian pop and psychedelic rock for some surprising results. The often sampled, funky version of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” is a definite highlight along with the quiet title track, the jazzy version of Joni Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning,” Caetano Veloso’s “Lost in Paradise” and the breath-taking arrangement of Blood, Sweat and Tears’ “Sometimes in Winter.” This often overlooked LP is a Jive Time Records’ staff favorite and one that sees a lot of our turntable. It’s also relatively scarce for a Sergio Mendes title so grab it when you see it! -David

Funky From Now On: 
A Guide to Funk, Part I “Proto-Funk”

Funk’s advent was the result of a convergence of many musical events, a “perfect storm” precipitated by the coalescing of all the major postwar African-American musical forms, among them jazz, blues, r&b, and gospel. Like many other innovations in American popular music, it came into its own in the ’60s. Its evolution can be heard in the output of musicians from just about every major US city, but Detroit, Philadelphia, Memphis, and New Orleans (see below) were the real hotbeds of activity. But if there is one individual who can be seen as the form’s prime architect, it’s a man from Macon, Georgia by the name of James Brown. Accentuating rhythm above all else, and essentially making his backing band, the Famous Flames, a massive percussion instrument, the Godfather laid the groundwork for The Groove. This proto-Funk sound exists in some shape or form on just about all of his King Records releases from Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag onwards. But many of his peers were also throwing down. Here’s a short list.

1. The Bar-Kays Soul Finger (1967) Though there are other great tunes in this assortment of instrumentals, its title track, with its thumping bass and blasting horns, is deservedly the standout. Even the record’s unavoidable association with one of the greatest tragedies in Soul music history—it’s the only one the original lineup recorded before  three of its members perished with Otis Redding in a plane crash—can’t  detract from its joyous groove.

2. Sly and the Family Stone Dance to the Music (1968) This sophomore effort by the Bay Area psychedelic soulsters is where they really find their footing. Much more of a group effort than Sly’s later work, its melding of fuzzed-out guitar, stinging brass, life-affirming vocals, and the stellar basswork of one of funk’s greatest innovators, Larry Graham, ushered in a new era.

3. The Meters (1969) – No other city is as deserving of the title “The Cradle of Funk” as New Orleans. In the late ’60s, literally hundreds of artists in that city cooked up potent stews of tight grooves and fat beats, and the Meters were the undisputed head chefs. Their Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn-produced debut features a smoking collection of instrumentals, including the original version of “Cissy Strut”, now a Funk standard.

4. Eddie Bo and the Soul Finders The Hook and Sling (1997) Elsewhere  in the Crescent City, this prolific national treasure, whose output spanned  from the early 50s to just a few months before his death in 2009, unleashed one of early Funk’s catchiest numbers, “The Hook and Sling”—a sizable  hit on the R&B charts in 1969. Every bit as much of an innovator as his peers, Bo unfortunately remained in their shadows for most of his career.  Even stranger, he never managed to cut a full-length LP during this, his most important, period. This 1997 compilation serves as the next best thing.

5. Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band Express Yourself (1970) Seminal release by Charles Wright and the best incarnation of the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band. [Read full review here!]

Further listening: Let’s face it: Funk is really a singles medium. It’s an unfortunate fact that many records from its golden era were hastily thrown together affairs. A typical LP might contain one or two amazing tracks scattered amongst some lackluster mid-tempo numbers and cheesy ballads. (Yes, we’re talking about you, James Brown!) This is where one can be thankful for the modern miracle called the compilation. The music industry initially was slow to recognize it as a genre fit for this type of (re)packaging, but by the mid-90s stylishly packaged funk compilations were a common sight in even mainstream record stores. Many of these are riddled with overplayed hits, so one is advised to dig deep. The Brits seem to do them the best. The London-based Soul Jazz Records sets the gold standard for comps and reissues. Their three volume New Orleans Funk series is an essential intro to some of the best music from Funk’s early days. Similarly, BGP’s Superfunk series is uniformly great. –Richard P

Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band “Express Yourself” (1970)

Somewhere between the funk formalism of James Brown and free-spiritedness of Sly Stone can be found Charles Wright. In a perfect world, this enormous talent would be mentioned in the same breath as Redding, Gaye, and Green, but Wright’s long-term success was hobbled by the line-up changes of his various backing bands, inconsistent records, and other music biz unpleasantries. Though he recorded lots of great music–even his weakest efforts are at least worth hearing–this record is his best. Its title track is its most famous (and most sampled), but other tracks like “I Got Love” and the free-form funk freakout, “High as Apple Pie parts 1 & 2”, give it a gospel-like sense of joy. Few reissued records have caused as much confusion as this one. The original release kicked off with a tight little number called “A Road Without End”. Future pressings, however, replaced that track with “Love Land”, which appeared on his previous LP, In the Jungle Babe. “Love Land” is a great song in its own right, but it doesn’t suit the feel of Express Yourself as well as the track it replaces. For this reason, an original pressing of the record is well-worth tracking down. –Richard P