Soul, Funk and Disco

Curtis Mayfield “Curtis” (1970)

Curtis’s call to unity and peace is that we are all going to hell for being assholes; I absolutely love that. Here everyone is telling everyone to form a love train and hold hands and Curtis is saying that if things don’t work out now maybe we’ll get things right in hell. The music is just as revolutionary, an embrace of what was going down on the East side of the United States in the 60s and the music that has been going on in the western hemisphere since the 16th century. Dirty funk with prog-rock ascension (“(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell We’re All Going to Go”) and a Motown hit with a 5-minute jam (“Move On Up”), Curtis knows no limits and it’s all for the better; even simple soul like “Miss Black America” and “Wild and Free” feel like transcendent miracles of celebration with lyrical potency.

There’s The Last Poets who were looking at all the failures going on and then there was Isaac Hayes looking at a bright future, but both were either too cynical or scarred to look at each other. This is Curtis standing up aware of the shortcomings of black society in the late 60s (“Don’t accept anything less than 2nd best” he sings in triumphant glory) and looking up at the bright days behind the gloomiest haze of despair in the album’s centerpiece “We the People Who are Darker than Blue”. Curtis knows there is no point in pondering what could have been of Africa had it not been ravaged and he knows there is no use in lying about black people coming on top. There is no black and white, there is only poor or rich and lucky or unfortunate. You can only embrace those small moments when things are looking up in your life and you make a connection to the history that binds you to that moment. This is what Curtis accomplishes for forty minutes and it’s a beautiful thing. –Allistair

Stevie Wonder “Innervisions” (1973)

There is absolutely nothing like it. I could spend the entire review spouting off fawning superlatives, but suffice to say this is my favorite album of the 70’s, and my favorite non-jazz album of all time. From the opening chords, Stevie envelops you in a new type of funk; dark, complex and intense. “Too High”, “Higher Ground” and especially “Jesus Children of America” exemplify this sound, and they are what immediately grab you about the album. There is also gorgeous, emotional soul (“Golden Lady”, “All in Love is Fair”) and one track that lies in between (“Living for the City”). “Visions” is perhaps the most startling song, however. It isn’t really soul at all, and it’s definitely not funk. It’s a haunting and heart-felt meditation on the blindness of hatred that metiphorically contrasts it with Stevie’s own sightlessness. Just writing about this album gives me goosebumps, and if you’ve never heard it, you need to get on that, right now. –Lucas

Earth, Wind & Fire “Earth, Wind & Fire” (1971)

I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard this debut because it couldn’t be further from the glossy disco I was used to associating with the group. Instead it is a bare bones, no nonsense funky affair not unlike early Tower of Power or Sly and the Family Stone. There are also nods to rock in the tough drumming, and jazz fusion on the weirdly titled closer “Bad Tune”. The peace and love lyrics get kind of grating, as does the “banter” in between songs, but these are small grievances on an otherwise still fresh sounding album. –Neal

Al Green “Call Me” (1973)

Sometimes, less is more. Sometimes, a skeletal backbeat, some whisper-thin organ and a barely audible moan can trump a mighty wail over lush, swelling orchestration. If you were to put any of the tracks off of Call Me on a soul compilation next to Aretha Franklin or, say, Wilson Pickett, they’re going to sound out of place. Compared to most soul or R&B artists, there is no muscle, not in the music or the vocals. It isn’t that Al Green doesn’t have a voice to shatter mountains (he does), it’s just that he chooses not to deploy it here. And while you might be able to resist his spell for 3 1/2 minutes at a time, the effect of all of these tracks taken together is delirious and intoxicating. Instead of coming to you, Al never raises his voice. He makes you lean close, really pay attention. He teases and seduces and withholds gratification until even the slightest breath is devastating. “Have You Been Making Out O.K.” is aimed at an ex-lover, and designed to buckle her knees by the end of the first verse. The two country standards lose none of the heartache of the originals, but are completely re-conceptualized in a soul setting so that they’re sexy and barely recognizable. Even “Jesus Is Waiting” is a sultry come-on to examine your faith. Bottom line, this is a classic. You need this album. –Lucas

Minnie Riperton “Come to My Garden” (1970)

You’ll rarely hear music this magical. Borrowing from soul, orchestral pop and psychedelia in equal measures and seemingly unscathed by commercial considerations, on “Come To My Garden” Minnie follows a more organic, pastoral and ultimately more genre-busting path than during her later, more commercially successful period with Capitol Records. Also, her voice seems more in tune with the arrangements and is generally less affected, putting her often multi-tracked whistle register to chilling use as what sounds like a human woodwind instrument, which is best exemplified on “Completeness”. On the evidence of this utterly delicious recording, Riperton clearly has been a major influence on vocalists such as Kate Bush and Alison Goldfrapp. I’m spellbound and speechless. Listen here. —Michael

Williams And Watson “Two For The Price Of One” (1967)

In the sixties there were thousands of soul sides produced, however, the market was singles driven, so finding a period soul album playable start to finish is tough. I know you might reckon, “What about Motown?”! If you own enough sixties era Motown albums you know exactly what I mean. Being the biggest soul label during the sixties they were VERY guilty of using “filler” tracks to pad the albums, often reusing backing tracks or having their artists sing standards. Well, fortunately, the genius of Mr. Larry Williams and Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson defies the cliche’! Two For The Price Of One is a wide open, pedal to the metal…SOUL album…it’s exactly what you’d expect from this infamous pair…nothing but DANCERS! In fact, TftPoO is so danceable half the albums tracks are Northern Soul classics (biggest being “Too Late” and A “Quitter Never Wins”). This is what an album of soul oughta be…you ain’t heard NOTHING till you’ve heard this! –Nipper

Chic “Risque” (1979)

Niles Rodgers said that he formed Chic as a kind of black disco version of Roxy Music. And, in turn, the slick syncopated grooves with those art-deco grand piano splashes wound up influencing everything from early rap (the riff from “Rapper’s Delight” is taken straight from “Good Times”) to Madonna. Perhaps it’s their use of minor keys but Chic’s tunes all have this melancholy air about them – a bittersweet portrait of the swinging, hedonistic 70s and all that followed in its wake. It’s beautiful music — none more than the sensual “Warm Summer Night” with its circular structure punctuated by “Papi!” — from a gritty decade. –Singer Saints

Parliament “Osmium” (1970)

A trashy, kitschy, collage-like soul album in which Clinton begins to lay the ground of the P-funk sound. Those expecting the heavy psyched-out guitar rock of early Funkadelic will find this a little “poppy.” Those expecting the streamlined dancefloor grooves of Parliament will find this a little “rocky.” But this is no middle-ground record: they gospelize Pachelbel, dick around with country twang, and feature some bagpipes and harps in an ethereal soul workout about getting to the other side. It’s unlike anything else you’ve ever heard, though doubtless you’ve heard just about all of it: in the sampling of some rappist or another. –Will

Nina Simone “Emergency Ward” (1973)

I was a bit reluctant with this at first, mainly because this album is like 80% George Harrison, but GH was the true talent of the Beatles, so I guess if you’re gonna cover songs of one of the fab four, his make the most sense. God forbid she chose Ringo…. Somehow, I feel a 20 minute version of “Octopus’s Garden” wouldn’t hold the same potency as the belting gospel driven take on “My Sweet Lord”. For me though, it’s her take on “Isn’t It a Pity” that does it for me. This song is Nina Simone at the absolute height of her soul powers. Beautiful subtle vamping, super subtle bass for the melody to glide along, and her sublime warm and heartfelt, half spoken, half sung vocals. You really won’t find many tunes that melt the heart like her take on this one. –Ben

The Baby Huey Story “The Living Legend” (1971)

The posthumously released “The Living Legend” is solid, melodic, slightly psychedelic, catchy funk from top to bottom. In fact, it rocks surprisingly hard, with more than a little Sly Stone influence. Curtis Mayfield gets the production credit here, and this has got to be the most rocking thing he was ever involved in. Now, Baby Huey is no great singer, but he is “400 pounds of soul.” What he lacks in technical ability, he more than makes up for in delivery and personality. His sermon during “A Change is Going to Come” doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense, but it sure sounds good. Ditto for his ramblings on Mayfield’s “Mighty Mighty,” which didn’t fair too well on the singles charts, but may be one of the most chaotic, fun sounding recordings ever released as such – sorta like the Beach Boys “Barbara Ann” on acid. It, along with the rest of the album, really give you the sense that these guys must have been a ton of fun (literally) in concert. The standout tracks are most likely “Hard Times,” with its instantly recognizable, oft-sampled intro; and “Running,” which could be the most exciting, hardest rocking track on the whole album. –DL

Funkadelic “Let’s Take it to the Stage” (1975)

Let’s Take it to the Stage is easily a top-3 Funkadelic album, maybe even the best. It opens with the rocking one-two punch of “Good to Your Earhole” and “Better by the Pound”. I’ve always considered Funkadelic a rock band that is extremely funky, not vice versa, and these two tracks add credence to that way of thinking. Next is “Be My Beach” which is one of the most unique, trippy songs they have ever made. Bootsy’s vocals are fantastic. Fourth is Clinton’s updated take on Sly and the Family Stone’s “Jane is a Groupie”. “No Head, No Backstage Pass” is hilarious, sleazy, biting and to the point. It’s also on the verge of heavy metal, a concept that was being invented by Black Sabbath. Next is the title track which is the biggest “hit” off of the album. Memorable for the funk mob’s playful skewering of their contemporaries, this statement of dominance doesn’t hold up as well, to me, as the wonderfully crafted tunes that surround it. One track that holds up exceedingly well, however, is “Get Off You’re Ass and Jam”. Fueled by Michael Hampton’s frenzied guitar solos, this live staple practically assaults you when you listen to it. Hampton (along with his predecessor and inspiration, Eddie Hazel) still ranks among rock’s greatest guitarists, and his performance on this album is one of the reasons why.

While Let’s Take it to the Stage doesn’t get the recognition of Maggot Brain or One Nation Under a Groove, it is every bit as essential. Clinton and company were at a song-writing apex, giving us several 2-5 minute blasts of brilliance. The assertion that Funkadelic is the “black Beatles” is not far off base. Strip away the psychedelia, the dark humor, the monstrous bass of Bootsy and the general Funkadelic craziness, and you’ve got a perfectly crafted pop album. Of course, strip all of that away, and you don’t have Funkadelic. –Lucas

Oscar Toney, Jr. “For Your Precious Love” (1967)

Lordy, I’m a sucker for Deep Soul. You know the weepy, hollering gospel driven soul, which reaches through you and twists and pulls and pulls and twists on your heart till every last drop of feeling bad and blue, even if you have nothing feel bad about…spills over and drips down your face. Yeah…it is that feeling which Oscar nails! That said, Toney’s “Precious Love” LP is a solid chin wiggling and tear jerking event, but…there’s a song or two which crosses over into “classy pop”. But please don’t be afraid of strings, Toney is not given to schmaltzy “Warwick” pop/soul…oh, and there’s even, at least, one Northern mover…thankfully, which gives me time between weepers to dance over to a fresh box of tissues. –Nipper