Soul, Funk and Disco

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

Parliament “Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome” (1977)

George Clinton was unstoppable. The previous album The Clones Of Dr. Funkenstein was good, but this LP is unbelievable. Bob Gun opens the album with danceable Funk. Then, Sir Nose d’Voidoffunk: aside from being ultra-funky and the “lyrics” mad beyond control, the music here may be the most advanced and far-reaching of all Parliament tracks. Just listen to Bernie Worrell’s synth wizardry and his abstract comments on the acoustic piano, Clinton’s Sir Nose travesty, the girls’ background vocals, the brass arrangement, the fat bass – at a running time of more than ten minutes, this song is a miracle! Other highlights: Funkentelechy (also over ten minutes long) and the hit, Flash Light . –Yofriend

Bill Withers “Just As I Am” (1971)

What a cool debut album! At first glance (including the cover), “Just as I Am” seems so low-key, almost unspectacular, but once you get used to these songs, and when you consider this is almost forty years ago, you come to realize just how much sophistication this guy Bill Withers had back then when he decided to record his first album. And in spite of a respectable cover version of Let It Be, Bill Withers outs himself as a respectable songwriter. His music is as related to the Blues and the Soul tradition as it is to the Folk tradition of, say, a James Taylor. One of Bill Withers’ best records and still a great record. –Yofriend

Chuck Jackson “Goin’ Back to Chuck Jackson” (1969)

Chuck Jackson must have been a really weird fit for Motown. Kind of like the Yankees acquiring Michael Schumacher; top brand aquires top talent, despite the obvious apples/oranges implications. His tenure at Wand was mainly filled with well-done Iceman ballad stylings with the odd Northern track (“Chains of Love”) thrown in for giggles. But just like the Iceman himself making a pair of brilliant albums in Philly, this album works extremely well. I would have to imagine that Chuck did something wrong in his interview with Berry Gordy. Maybe he didn’t seem too thrilled at the prospect of putting two white teenagers kissing on a beach on the album cover. Maybe he went on and on about how much he liked the new Isley Brothers single on T-Neck and how they’re doing so well now. In any event, Berry did not stack this album with songwriting talent. Two Smokey songs, one H-D-H, one Ashford/Simpson, one Stevie Wonder, and then some other guys. No producer’s credit either. Needless to say this does not sound like a 1969 Motown album.

The album starts off well enough with a Bert Berns song but then sidesteps into a big heaping pile of Jimmy Webb. There are a lot of Jimmy Webb fans out there; I am unequivocally not one of them. I like bits of the first Fifth Dimension album. Other than that, I think his songs are firmly in the schmaltzy pathos category and one of the worst things to happen to soul music (other than Bobby Womack) was the endless assembly line of “Witchita Lineman” covers. (Oh, you’re a lineman for the county? Shut up already and fix the power lines then.) Things pick up with a solid version of “Cry Like a Baby”. Side 2 is the real stormer, however. An interesting cover of Tyrone Davis’ “Can I Change My Mind” is great, even if the trademark jangly guitar is slightly buried. “I’d Still Love You” follows and, whoa, fuzz guitar! Ominous spoken intro leads into the best production on the album. Again, I would love to know who produced this cut, as it’s definitely not Norman Whitfield territory but it’s close. “The Day My World Stood Still” is a wonderful little sleeper that opens up into a dramatically darker bridge featuring swirling strings and woodblocks with an ersatz flamenco feel and a Chuck Jackson vocal that is certainly up for the challenge. It’s the kind of staggeringly effective minor key bridge that was more common to UK psych (just replace the ersatz flamenco with ersatz Middle Eastern). A baffling little excursion that I can’t get enough of.

Motown may not have given a lot of effort and attention to Chuck Jackson, but you should. Plus he looks pretty suave in that turtleneck. He certainly looks better than I do in them. –Mike

Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band “Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band” (1976)

This self-titled debut (!!!) album is one of my all-time favorite records. I’ve played it thousands of times and know it by heart. Too jazzy for Disco fans, too “trivial” for Jazz fans, too remote from “roots” for the Soul/Funk division, this album was and is a dream-come-true for all those who don’t wear blinkers when it comes to music. All seven songs are jewels, and together, they’re a string of pearls. No matter from which angle – the compositions, the arrangements, the singing, the performance – always five stars. I can’t think of or play this album without fits of rapture. –Yofriend

Shuggie Otis “Inspiration Information” (1974)

This is the ultimate soul-chill album. Shuggie is extremely versatile and this album exploits that ability. He might take you through a blaxploitation-era-sounding L.A. street walk as in the opener and “Strawberry 23”, a dub-influenced Hammond organ tune in “Aht uh Mi Head”. “Happy House” almost sounds like a millennial drum and bass piece. “Sweet Thang” might be one of the best soul jams on a blues number I’ve ever heard (here he’s successfully aped Duane Allman on guitar). He tries for some experimental stuff on his beat machine but the songs that shine are when he allows his guitar to create the atmosphere. Shuggie’s excellence is extremely subtle due in part to his highly laxed and soft vocal style and his tendency towards quiet groove. But this IS a 2am come down lazy groove album in the best sense. Don’t give up on the album in the middle instrumental section which drops off, as the album’s second half picks up starting with “Strawberry 23”. The high point of the album is the groove he kicks on the second half of “Island Letter”. All this, and the fact that Otis was practically a toddler when he made Inspiration Information, set the tone for what is certainly one of the most underappreciated albums and artists of all time. –B