Soul, Funk and Disco

The Staple Singers “Be Altitude: Respect Yourself” (Stax, 1972)

The consensus best Staple Singers album, Be Altitude: Respect Yourself is a paragon of gospel roots music blooming into R&B and funk songcraft with a sociopolitical message. Produced by Stax Records co-owner Al Bell and augmented by the Muscle Shoals rhythm section, Memphis Horns, and multi-instrumentalist Terry Manning, the album yielded three hits— “Respect Yourself,” “I’ll Take You There,” and “This World”—and only one dud. While music steeped in Christianity usually gives me hives, the Staple Singers were so soulful and righteous with it, they could even sway atheists to get behind their uplifting, Jesus-intensive songs.

“This World” opens Be Altitude with David Hood’s bass and Roger Hawkins’ drums locking in and funking hard from the get-go in this instant mood-elevator, which the Staples adapted from the musical production The Me Nobody Knows. The star of the show, Mavis Staples, asserts herself as a powerful, husky vocal presence. As a lad listening to the radio in the ’70s, I associated her voice as a source of comfort and strength. Same goes for her dad, Pops Staples. That feeling hasn’t faded at all in the ensuing 50-plus years.

Although you’ve probably heard “Respect Yourself” hundreds of times, take a moment to reflect on how odd it was for a radio staple (pun intended) to start in a low-slung, tense manner and then blossom into a rousing call-and-response gospel-funk self-empowerment anthem. Keeping with the hits, “I’ll Take You There” boasts one of the most attention-grabbing intros ever, with a bass line by Hood that should get him inducted into the R&R Hall Of Fame, although it was lifted from the 1969 reggae song “The Liquidator” by Harry J Allstars. This is the epitome of spare, Meters-like funk, and it somehow peaked at #1 in the singles chart.

“Name The Missing Word” is a deep cut that’s as sizzling as any of the hits, thanks to that down-South funkitude native to the Muscle Shoals studio band. On “This Old Town (People In This Town),” the musicians exude “Rip This Joint” energy, propelling the Staples into rare, hell-raising form. The spring-legged funk of “We The People” is a feel-good jam that’s as effusive as Sly & The Family Stone’s “Everyday People.” “Are You Sure” is a melodious and touching plea to watch out for your fellow human. The only low point is “I’m Just Another Soldier,” a Pollyanna paean to the power of love. Honestly, I’d rather hear the jubilant bonus track from subsequent reissues, “Heavy Makes You Happy.” -Buckley Mayfield

Located in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, Jive Time is always looking to buy your unwanted records (provided they are in good condition) or offer credit for trade. We also buy record collections.

The Ventures “Underground Fire” (Liberty, 1969)

There’s no way most mortals have heard all of the Ventures‘ 250-plus albums. Nor, it is fairly certain, are all of the Ventures’ album worth hearing. Even the band members would admit that many of them were hastily pumped out to capitalize on trends. The Ventures were blessed—or cursed—with the ability to play nearly every style of music with verve and ingenuity. And they and/or their labels seemingly possessed an urgent need for money. So, the Ventures’ discography from their ’60s/’70s peak looks like a precursor to Guided By Voices’, for sheer prolificness.

Now, with regard to this surf-rock institution founded in Tacoma, Washington, I’m a shameful dabbler. But of the tiny fraction of LPs by them that I’ve heard, Underground Fire stands out. As most mortals know, Ventures’ albums consist mostly of covers of popular tunes from whatever period they were released. And they often have a marketable theme—or gimmick, if you want to be less charitable.

By contrast, Underground Fire can pretty much stand alone as a creative milestone for the Ventures. Side one’s all originals; side two’s all covers of some heavy, late-’60s hits that you know and probably love. But the group prove they’re much more than master replicators of popular idioms; these cats can also write some memorable instrumentals, when they set their minds to it.

The title track kicks off the album like the Yardbirds exorcising some blues-rock demons. New lead guitarist Gerry McGee apparently thought that surf rock had runs its course, and the rest of the band acquiesced with his more scathing vision. “Embers In E Minor” is cool, driving rock that has the air of hip British library music of the time. Were the Ventures secret KPM Records fans? One hopes so. Possibly the funkiest song in the Ventures’ discography, “Sea Of Grass” finds bassist Bob Bogle and drummer Mel Taylor really upping their game here. This may be blasphemous hyperbole, but I’d put “Sea Of Grass” in a DJ set with the hardest-grooving cuts by Booker T. & The M.G.s and the Meters.

In “Higher Than Thou,” Bogle’s bass line is a monster of minimalist propulsion while McGee’s guitar leads are greasy blues-rock lightning. It’s a serious party jam that may help you reach its titular state. With its on-the-nose title, “Country Funk And The Canned Head” is, you guessed it, a Canned Heat homage, as well as proto-ZZ Top boogie. (By the way, Mel Taylor was Canned Heat bassist Larry’s brother.)

Underground Fire‘s cover songs are as familiar to most seasoned listeners as the fingers on their record-flipping hand. On “Born To Be Wild,” the Ventures lean in to this Steppenwolf biker-rock staple like their paychecks depended on it. No vocals necessary when you have such slashing guitar interplay and an urgently punchy rhythm section. As for “Sunshine Of Your Love,” folks of a certain age don’t really need to hear this Cream classic in 2024. But if we must, the Ventures’ vicious, funked-up version is the way to go.

There’s also a respectful rendition of “The Weight,” but we only need the Band’s, to be brutally honest. The Ventures’ “Light My Fire” stands as a great contribution to the canon, if you dislike Jim Morrison’s vocal presence. And, if I may conjecture, John Durrill’s rococo keyboard excursions probably impressed Ray Manzarek. The same concept applies to “Down On Me,” except if Janis Joplin’s voice somehow gets on your nerves. McGee tears off fluid, searing leads—just a commanding performance. The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown nugget “Fire” blazes brightly and maintains the album’s theme with panache.

Underground Fire hasn’t been reissued on vinyl in the US in 55 years. Regardless, you should be able to find copies fairly easily and cheaply. I scored mine a few years ago in an Oak Park, Michigan shop for $2.99. -Buckley Mayfield

Located in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, Jive Time is always looking to buy your unwanted records (provided they are in good condition) or offer credit for trade. We also buy record collections.

Eddy Senay “Hot Thang” (Sussex, 1972)

As a guitarist from Detroit coming up in the ’60s and ’70s, Eddy Senay had to deal with some tough competition. Funkadelic’s Eddie Hazel, the Funk Brothers’ Dennis Coffey, the MC5’s Fred “Sonic” Smith and Wayne Kramer, etc. But Senay held his own among these heavy Motor City axe-slingers on his two lone albums for Sussex, Step By Step and Hot Thang (both released in 1972). He wasn’t as incendiary a player as the aforementioned musicians, but Senay ruled as a purveyor of mellow finesse, a virtuoso of blissful licks.

Hot Thang bears similarities with Mel Brown’s Chicken Fat (reviewed on this blog earlier this year). Both records eschew vocals (let us give thanks) and possess a sinuous, sinewy approach to bluesy funk. Sometimes the best way to start an album is to ease your way into it. Fig. 1 is “Just Feeling It,” a laid-back psych-blues charmer that would make Khruangbin flip their wigs. “Down Home” bears Steve Cropper/Booker T. & The M.G.s vibes. Country funk of the highest order, the song rewardingly chews the aforementioned Chicken Fat.

Written by Donny Hathaway and Richard Evans, “Zambezi” remains one of the coolest funk cuts ever, with Senay operating at his flashiest and most dexterous, working in perfect tandem with the uncredited, flamboyant organist. It’s the album’s peak and my go-to cut from it for DJ sets. Almost as great are “Jubo” and “Reverend Lowdown.” The former’s hard-hitting, elastic funk screaming to get on a blaxploitation-film soundtrack; the latter’s stripped-down, James Brown-ian funk with tambourine-augmented beats. Scorchers, both.

Senay’s such an ingenious musician, he can make even an over-covered hit such as Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” sound necessary. He does it with requisite solemnity, but also a peppier tempo and funkier rhythm. It’s one of the best versions of this song, which, given how many there are, is serious praise.

Modern Harmonic reissued Hot Thang on vinyl and CD in 2017. Get it on all formats -Buckley Mayfield

Located in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, Jive Time is always looking to buy your unwanted records (provided they are in good condition) or offer credit for trade. We also buy record collections.

Tony Joe White “Tony Joe” (Monument, 1970)

The late Tony Joe White should’ve been at least 75% as popular as Elvis Presley. He had the deep, sexy voice, the knack for telling vivid stories in songs set in his Louisiana swampland youth, the tight guitar playing, a sly sense of humor, and the rugged good looks. TJW was the whole package, and he was more versatile than Elvis (who charted with White’s own biggest hit, “Polk Salad Annie”). So while Tony had some commercial success (the aforementioned hit in the last sentence and “Rainy Night In Georgia”) and wrote a couple more blockbusters for Tina Turner ca. 1989, he didn’t come close to the fame and fortune of his fellow Southern stud. Life ain’t fair, etc.

TJW’s first five albums from 1969-1972 are all great and representative of his prodigious sangin’ [sic], songwriting, and guitar-pickin’ skills. I could’ve written about any of them, but I chose his third LP, Tony Joe, because I dig the poncho Tony’s wearing on the back cover and the horse he’s riding looks cool. I also picked Tony Joe because it starts with one of White’s toughest tracks, “Stud Spider,” which Light In The Attic Records placed on the first comp of its essential Country Funk series. In conjunction with Muscle Shoals hotshots Norbert Putnam (bass), David Briggs (organ), and other session-musician ringers hanging around Nashville studios at the time, White weaves a lustful tale of love via the metaphor of spider behavior while he and the boys erect a slow-burning funk edifice to accentuate the lyrics’ drama. Kanye West and Common have sampled Jerry Corrigan’s drums from this one, and it’s surprising more hip-hop producers haven’t.

Further excursions in grooviness occur with “Save Your Sugar For Me,” a paragon of country-funk accessibility, with White’s trademark libidinousness leading the way and female backing vocalists (uncredited, unfortunately) adding that titular sweetness. With natural gusto and grunting lasciviousness, Tony embodies the Southern-fried braggadocio of Otis Redding’s “Hard To Handle.” Clearly, TJW was born to perform this soulful crotch-scorcher. “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)” (previously done by Jr. Walker & The All Stars) reveals White’s tender side with mellifluous harmonica playing and a confidential singing tone.

Another highlight occurs on “Conjure Woman,” an ominous pounder about a swamp-dwelling witch whom the narrator feared would put a spell on him. The album’s low point is Donnie Fritts/Spooner Oldham’s “My Friend,” a string-heavy ballad that unfortunately tumbles into the maudlin column. White’s better when he straps on the acoustic for some minimalist blues, as he does with “Stockholm Blues” and “Widow Wimberly.” Speaking of blues, White really rises to the occasion with his take on John Lee Hooker’s lean, menacing 1962 original of “Boom Boom.” He lays on the hambone-tough-guy persona thickly while playing mean harmonica and subtly savage electric guitar over the top of the classic’s pitiless lope. This version’s nearly eight minutes long, and it’s all gripping. Ain’t no way Elvis could do it better… -Buckley Mayfield

Located in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, Jive Time is always looking to buy your unwanted records (provided they are in good condition) or offer credit for trade. We also buy record collections.

Syreeta “Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta” (Motown, 1974)

Syreeta Wright (1946-2004) was a fantastic soul/funk vocalist respected for her releases on Motown and its MoWest subsidiary. Blessed with a dulcet and expressive voice, she worked with her genius ex-husband Stevie Wonder on her best albums: 1972’s Syreeta, 1974’s Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta, and 1977’s One To One. She also contributed to Stevie’s Where I’m Coming From and Music Of My Mind LPs and to jazz saxophonist Gary Bartz’s Juju Man and Music Is My Sanctuary. Syreeta later worked with Beatles/Rolling Stones auxiliary member Billy Preston on a grip of albums in the late ’70s and ’80s.

Ms. Wright was in the running to replace Diana Ross in the Supremes, but Berry Gordy ultimately went with Jean Terrell. Gordy allegedly changed his mind about this decision, but Supreme Mary Wilson miraculously overruled him. I humbly submit that Syreeta would’ve been a fabulous Supreme.

Anyway, Stevie Wonder was on such a creative hot streak in the first half of the ’70s, he could bestow multiple high-quality albums’ worth of tunes to his former main squeeze and still regularly pop out classics under his own name. Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta showcases the Motown legend’s ex-partner in spectacular form as both singer and lyricist.

“I’m Goin’ Left” is a wonderful way to start an album, its action-packed R&B buoyed to bubbly panache by drummer Ollie Brown and bassist Reggie McBride’s chemistry and Syreeta’s defiant and saucy vocals. Background vocalists Minnie Riperton, Denice Williams, Lani Groves, Shirley Brewer, and Anita Sherman all shine hard, and Stevie had them in seriously tight formation behind the LP’s main character. The love-drunk orchestral soul ballad “Spinnin’ And Spinnin'” gets vertiginous, thanks to Paul Riser’s swoon-worthy arrangement. “Come And Get This Stuff” showcases the singer’s sexy and funky side, with fab backing-vocal ballast and an intricately nimble McBride bass line to die for.

“Your Kiss Is Sweet” ranks as one of Wonder’s greatest, most joyous creations. It’s an upful quasi-reggae strut that elevates with phantom festive steel drums, jabbing bass, and singing that flaunts Wright’s expansive range and sparkling personality. There’s a good reason Fatboy Slim put it in his LateNightTales mix. If you don’t experience love at first listen, you need to see a doctor. Hell, I may need to go to one to get this super-infectious song out of my head…

The rest of the album can’t live up to “Sweet,” and side 2 dips into the maudlin-ballad bag too often for my taste, including “I Wanna Be By Your Side,” a collab with former Spinners vocalist G.C. Cameron. However, “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” attains a tender, rueful sublimity in a saga about remaining friends after a romantic breakup. (Written from bittersweet experience, it seems safe to say.) Syreeta’s at her most Riperton-esque here.

Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta should’ve made the gifted singer a star, but alas, it only peaked at #116 on the US album chart—though hip-hop producers sure love to sample it. But at least Björk covered it in Icelandic on her 1977 debut album. -Buckley Mayfield

Located in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, Jive Time is always looking to buy your unwanted records (provided they are in good condition) or offer credit for trade. We also buy record collections.

Keith LeBlanc “Major Malfunction” (World, 1986)

The music world suffered a serious loss when Keith LeBlanc, the powerful and influential drummer for Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, Mark Stewart And The Maffia, and many others, passed away on April 4 at age 69. The eulogies for his work behind the kit were effusive and widespread. Understandable, as LeBlanc had lent his rhythmic prowess to two major movements in the 1980s, recording several sessions for artists on the pioneering hip-hop label Sugar Hill and for the innovative UK dub imprint On-U Sound.

Beyond those important contributions, LeBlanc sat in on studio dates for popular artists such as R.E.M., Tina Turner, and Nine Inch Nails. He also maintained an interesting, uncompromising solo career, marked by the galvanizing 1986 debut LP, Major Malfunction. This followed the 1983 underground-club sensation “No Sell Out,” in which LeBlanc spliced snippets of fiery Malcolm X speeches into a rock-ribbed electro/hip-hop jam.

With On-U boss Adrian Sherwood at the controls for Major Malfunction, LeBlanc led a group featuring fellow Sugar Hill/Tackhead badasses Doug Wimbish (bass, guitar) and Skip McDonald (guitar, keyboards, engineer). (The title refers to the description of the Space Shuttle Challenger exploding shortly after liftoff in early 1986.) Finally free to do their own thing, LeBlanc and crew let loose with a sampladelic banger built more for the concrete bunker than for the dance floor.

“Get This” launches the record with sick keyboard warpage that’s like a virulent bug moving through an intestinal tract. Soon, LeBlanc’s huge beats pound through a disorienting miasma of disturbingly slurred vocals and fried guitar riffs. On the brutal industrial funk of “Major Malfunction,” LeBlanc threads samples of broadcasters, then-President Reagan talking about the tragedy mentioned in the previous paragraph, with bonus commentary from the Beat author William S. Burroughs, e.g., “Your planet has been invaded.” More jagged, pugilistic electro funk caroms forth on “Heaven On Earth.” “There ain’t no heaven on Earth nowhere,” growls an angry Black man amid sampled yells of the damned. Clearly, LeBlanc’s m.o. was to overwhelm the listener with spoken-word samples and equilibrium-subverting production techniques applied to militant, club-wrecking tracks.

Reputedly, “M.O.V.E.” was a Ministry song that LeBlanc repurposed for his own record; Keith had worked on that band’s 1986 LP, Twitch. It’s a rugged, polyrhythmic shuffle on which African Head Charge member Bonjo’s bongos really slap the track into overdrive. The funkiest and most psychedelic cut here, “Technology Works Dub” is laced with eerie chants and distorted whooshes, with a robotic voice intoning, “Technology works. Technology delivers. Technology is a modern quasi religion.” LeBlanc obviously was skewering the blind faith corporations put in tech while simultaneously using sonic gear designed with it to prove its value in other fields. The chaotic piece “You Drummers Listen Good” closes the album strangely, as a gravel-voiced preacher rants about young women falling for drummers, before it eases back into a slab of exotic funk rock.

The stilted quality of Major Malfunction‘s rhythms was endemic to a lot of vanguard electronic music and hip-hop in the ’80s. While working within those technological limitations, though, LeBlanc found a way to make his beats funky and timbrally exciting—they hit with the exaggerated THWACK of fists hitting faces in Hollywood blockbusters. There were good reasons why so many musicians—both experimental and mainstream—wanted him to supply beats. RIP, Keith LeBlanc. -Buckley Mayfield

Located in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, Jive Time is always looking to buy your unwanted records (provided they are in good condition) or offer credit for trade. We also buy record collections.

Sadistic Mika Band “Sadistic Mika Band” (Doughnut/Harvest, 1973)

Led by the wife/husband team of vocalist Mika and guitarist/composer Kazuhiko Katō, Sadistic Mika Band released three very good albums in the ’70s (this one, Black Ship, Hot! Menu) that peddled an over-the-top strain of glam rock, with surprising undercurrents of funk. That funk mainly came from bassist Rey Ohara and drummer Yukihiro Takahashi, the latter of whom later played with electro-pop legends Yellow Magic Orchestra.

Sadistic Mika Band often have been called the Roxy Music of Japan, and for good reason: their chops and production values were impeccable and their songwriting teemed with invention and personality. While SMB presented as goofier than Bryan Ferry and company and didn’t attain the popularity of their British counterparts, they did open for them on the UK leg of their 1975 Siren Tour and accrued a fervent cult status among collectors.

This album bursts into vivid life with “Dance Is Over,” full-on glam with flashbacks to ’50s rock & roll, as was common in the first half of the ’70s. Being Japanese musicians, though, SMB imbue the homage with a flamboyant excessiveness and surplus adrenaline. Now that they have our attention, SMB deliver the killer funk bomb that is “Silver Child.” Mika giggles, gasps, screams, and belts over a fathoms-deep groove and absurdly oscillating wah-wah guitar pyrotechnics. The song makes Parliament-Funkadelic at their most extravagant sound buttoned up. Drop “Silver Child” in a DJ set and watch the floor explode.

Nothing else on Sadistic Mika Band quite matches that peak, but a few inspirational flashes occur. “Galaxy Way” offers truly odd tropical funk with marimba and synth while “Milky Way”‘s pseudo-reggae rock foreshadows Patti Smith Group’s “Redondo Beach,” and is accidentally funky, to boot. “Picnic Boogie” is at once a parody of American rock and doo-wop and an apotheosis of it. Mika’s charming sassiness here makes one wonder why she didn’t get more time on the mic for this record. “Arienu Republic” is peak freewheeling glam that would make Marc Bolan, David Bowie, and Gary Glitter stomp their hands and clap their feet. Have Asian musicians ever sounded more British, even while singing in Japanese? Doubtful.

A few songs on Sadistic Mika Band tilt too heavily into sentimental-ballad territory for my taste, but they’re executed with serious panache. This was a common trait in Far East Asian pop music of the mid 20th century and it has its devotees, but maudlin singing has always disagreed with me. Hearing how much sheer glee went into SMB’s music, you can’t help feeling shocked that the band’s catalyst, Kazuhiko Katō, hanged himself in 2009.

Sadistic Mika Band has been oop on vinyl since 1975, though Universal Music Japan re-released it in on CD in 2018. Suffice it to say, a major reissue campaign for SMB’s ’70s LPs is overdue. -Buckley Mayfield

Located in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, Jive Time is always looking to buy your unwanted records (provided they are in good condition) or offer credit for trade. We also buy record collections.

Eugene McDaniels “Outlaw” (Atlantic, 1970)

Eugene McDaniels’ outré political-protest-album era was short, but yielded two classics: 1970’s Outlaw and 1971’s Headless Heroes Of The Apocalypse. These records deviated from his previous output as a relatively conventional R&B singer, becoming treasure troves of samples for hip-hop producers and earning love from counter-culture types, too. His rabble-rousing 1969 anthem “Compared To What” was turned into a hit by Les McCann and Eddie Harris, and it somewhat foreshadowed Outlaw. By 1975, though, McDaniels was in full-on loverman mode with Natural Juices. While Headless Heroes has been sampled more and garnered more critical accolades, Outlaw is just as powerful an artistic statement.

To achieve this lofty work, McDaniels enlisted elite session players Ron Carter (bass), Hugh McCracken (guitar), Eric Weissberg (guitar), Ray Lucas (drums), and Buck Clarke (percussion), plus musical director Williams S. Fischer. This team served as exceptional facilitators of soulful, rock-oriented ballads and occasional forays into funk and gospel. Eugene threaded the needle with songs that double as fascinating character studies and trenchant sociopolitical commentary.

“Outlaw” portrays rebellious women who don’t wear bras nor fry their hair, but rather live with nature and not with the law. Surprisingly, “Outlaw” sounds like one of those elegantly stumbling, blues-rock gems from the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet. “Sagittarius Red” offers more Stones-like balladry, flaunting McDaniels’ vast range and emotional depth as a singer, a rich combo of soulfulness and rock bravado.

“Welfare City” is an absolutely joyous ode to flouting convention, hanging out with the kids in Washington Park, and smoking joints. It’s powered by a total earworm of a melody that moves in huge, sugary loops and possesses some of the most infectious “yeah yeah yeah”s and “la la la”s. The gospel intro of “Silent Majority” gives way to a lean, staunch protest song that gathers strength with each passing bar. The guitar interplay between McCracken and Weissberg glints and coils with glorious tension in a tune that’s a perfect merger of Shuggie Otis and Phil Ochs. The song segues seamlessly into “Love Letter To America,” a devastating condemnation of the USA. “Hey, America, you could’ve been a real democracy/You could’ve been free/You could have had me for your friend and not your enemy/The only thing you can respect is violence now/You lost the gift of love, don’t ask me how.” McDaniels renders this brilliant concept with tough tenderness.

In “Unspoken Dreams Of Light,” McDaniels loquaciously castigates the genocide of indigenous peoples (called “Indians,” in the parlance of the time) to a backing in which heartfelt balladry and incisive jazz-funk alternate. It’s a fantastic roller-coaster ride. With its über-funky opening drum break, “Cherrystones” unspools into a low-lit, laid-back charmer in which McDaniels sarcastically lambastes greedy, apolitical assholes. Reminiscent of the sidewinding seductiveness of the Rolling Stones’ “Stray Cat Blues,” “Reverend Lee” relates a tale about a clergyman who succumbs to the fleshly temptations of “Satan’s daughter.” The album closes with “Black Boy,” a trembling ballad in which McDaniels shows the rare ability to simultaneously project vulnerability and strength.

On the record’s back cover, McDaniels wrote, “under conditions of national emergency, like now, there are only two kinds of people—those who work for freedom and those who do not… the good guys vs. the bad guys.” Evergreen truth. -Buckley Mayfield

Located in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, Jive Time is always looking to buy your unwanted records (provided they are in good condition) or offer credit for trade. We also buy record collections.

Timmy Thomas “Why Can’t We Live Together” (Glades, 1972)

If you only know Why Can’t We Live Together for its stirring, racial-harmony-desiring title track (which peaked at #3 in the singles chart in early 1973), you’re in for a treat. This is a damn strong album all the way through—and reputedly the first record to prominently feature a rhythm machine instead of a drummer. A session musician for Miami’s T.K. Records, Timmy Thomas played and sang every damn thing on Why Can’t We Live Together, and he deserves way more respect for this LP than he’s received. (The gifted soul singer and multi-instrumentalist passed away in 2022 at age 77.)

“Why Cant We Live Together” was Thomas’ only pop hit, although he earned several R&B chart placings. Recorded in mono, this track cut through the commercial-radio clutter with its stark production, the plaintive soulfulness of Thomas’ vocals, the distinctive timbres of the Maestro Rhythm Master drum machine and Lowrey organ, and the simple power of TT’s peace-mongering lyrics. Throughout the LP, Thomas plays bass lines with his organ’s foot pedals, and he creates an incisive one for this all-time classic. For what it’s worth, “Why Can’t We Live Together” has racked up more than 31 million plays on $p0tify—with the album’s next most popular track clocking only 725k. In other trivia, the song’s been covered by Sade, Santana, and Steve Winwood, among others, and was sampled by Drake for his “Hotline Bling” hit. Putting money in Thomas’ bank account is the best thing that that Canadian hip-hop mediocrity’s ever done.

“Rainbow Power” follows with a low-slung paean to ethnic diversity, calling for Americans to “love… your brother,” no matter one’s race; its message remains evergreen. “Cold Cold People” soulfully excoriates soulless ghouls over a drum-machine pattern that ticks methodically and ominously while Thomas gets rococo on the organ. “Dizzy Dizzy World” is a wistful ballad about status-climbers while “Opportunity” comes over like a pep talk given by the most soulful and funky striver you’ve ever heard. By far the most uptempo track here is “Funky Me,” an instrumental that has an almost proto-techno propulsion and swiftness. I recommend it to DJs who urgently need to get the crowd moving.

The LP’s two covers are phenomenal. Inspired after hearing it in the movie Play Misty For Me, Thomas turns Roberta Flack’s awesome interpretation of Ewan McColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” into a low-lit, instrumental with fibrillating, vibrant organ tones carrying the weight of the heartbreaking melody. A mournful tour de force! Thomas follows it with a rendition of the Chi-Lites’ “The Coldest Days Of My Life,” one of the saddest ballads ever conceived; he inhabits its rueful doldrums with natural panache. Thomas’ minimalism wrings maximal sympathy and he equals the original masterpiece—something most listeners would’ve thought improbable.

One drawback to Why Can’t We Live Together is the relative similarity and lack of spontaneity of the beat patterns, but Thomas’ yearning vocals and moving melodies more than compensate for that. -Buckley Mayfield

Located in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, Jive Time is always looking to buy your unwanted records (provided they are in good condition) or offer credit for trade. We also buy record collections.

Can “Ege Bamyasi” (United Artists, 1972)

The recent passing of vocalist/lyricist Damo Suzuki (may he rest in peace) reminded us that his short run with krautrock gods Can (1970-1973) constituted the peak for the greatest rock group ever, if consensus opinion holds any water—and I think it does, for a change. Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi, and Future Days—what an unfuckwithable triumvirate of albums! Each one is phenomenal in different ways, exemplifying Damo’s incredible ability to adapt and catalyze. (Suzuki’s crucial contributions to songs on the Soundtracks and Unlimited Edition collections should not be overlooked, either.)

As much as I love Tago Mago and Future Days, I have to pick Ege Bamyasi as my favorite of the Damo era. It captures Can at their most concise and funky and, at times, downright catchy. How many times have you caught yourself bellowing along to Suzuki’s “Hey you! You’re losing, you’re losing your vitamin C”? Too many times to count, no doubt.

Ege Bamyasi begins seemingly in mid jam, as “Pinch” instantly plunges the listener into a vertiginous vortex of torqued funk rock. Talk about an exciting welcome into the closest thing I can think of to a perfect album… Suzuki is in rare tough-guy mode on the mic on this tensile, rugged track, with everyone in the band at the absolute pinnacle of their powers. It’s hard to imagine any other drummer than Jaki Liebezeit executing this kind of complexity and controlled power while keeping the funk bumpin’. In a 180º turn from “Pinch,” the subtly suspenseful “Sing Swan Song” bubbles into life, its aquatic tranquility foreshadowing 1973’s Future Days, but its loping funkiness belongs exclusively to this LP. The seductive cha-cha funk of “One More Night” represents some of the most understated party music ever created, with Irmin Schmidt’s obliquely pinging keyboard motif elevating the song into rarefied status. Suzuki’s sotto voce intonations are a blessing for stressed-out heads, even if toward the end he clenches up.

The record’s best-known song by far, “Vitamin C” is the staccato funk bomb that’s detonated a million acrobatic breakdance moves. This track possesses a strange anti-gravitational pull; it seems to hover five feet off the floor and also contains a passage of oddly moving, old-world melancholy. And then comes a bizarre coda featuring a chorus of crickets and a piercing keyboard drone that bleeds into the album’s longest cut, “Soup,” which eventually breaks into a jagged funk juggernaut not unlike “Halleluwah.” “Soup” goes off on tantalizing tangents, including an agonizing noise interlude that sounds like a pitched-up cement mixer. Then it gets even weirder, with Damo seemingly trying to speak Italian without knowing how, while the rest of the band go on a stridently abstract bender that could break the spirit of the staunchest avant-gardist.

A huge contrast ensues with “I’m So Green,” whose featherlight funk makes you feel as if you’re levitating. Liebezeit’s beats are at once militarily precise and designed for hedonism, while Michael Karoli’s guitar carries a surprising Hawaiian sway and sigh. As for Suzuki, he’s in supplest form. This is one of my go-to Can tracks in DJ sets. Ege ends with the paradoxical “Spoon”: so light yet so ominous, so spooky yet so funky. Schmidt’s head-spinning keyboard swirls entwine with Karoli’s spidery spangles while bassist Holger Czukay and Liebezeit lay down an earthy, girthy rhythm. Thus ends one of the most spellbinding albums ever, one whose pleasures are infinitely renewable. -Buckley Mayfield

Located in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, Jive Time is always looking to buy your unwanted records (provided they are in good condition) or offer credit for trade. We also buy record collections.

Mel Brown “Chicken Fat” (Impulse!, 1967)

Impulse! Records, of course, is revered as one of the world’s preeminent jazz labels, with a roster boasting Alice and John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Albert Ayler, Charlie Haden, Archie Shepp, and many other legends. However, Impulse! is less celebrated as a champion of blues and funk (and funky blues). But with Mel Brown’s dynamite 1967 LP, Chicken Fat, the company proved it could hold its own with the best in those fields.

Born in Mississippi and based in LA, Brown—who passed away in 2009—was an in-demand session musician throughout the ’60s, playing with Brenda Lee, Nancy Wilson, T-Bone Walker, the Olympics, and B*ll C*sby. Impulse! must have been looking to branch out stylistically when it signed Brown for his debut album. Whatever the case, they got a doozy with Chicken Fat.

The record begins with “Chicken Fat,” which is as gritty and funky as the title is gross. The guitar interplay between Brown and Herb Ellis is complex and soulful and full of fowl squawks, and the groove is absolutely raunchy. I’ll be spinning this in DJ sets for years to come. Written by Brown, Ellis, drummer Paul Humphrey, and bassist Ron Brown (no relation), “Greasy Spoon” follows with some fleet and elite blues-funk, distinguished by a killer descending bass line by Ron Brown. Mel is in scintillating form on guitar, spraying brilliant glinting chords over the sexily torqued groove. Here and elsewhere, maniacal instrumental prowess abounds. “Slalom”—written by popular session trumpeter Jules Chaikin—brings a staccato, churning strain of funk that foreshadows Medeski, Martin + Wood by over 20 years. “Shanty” is careering blues funk of exceptional fluidity and action-film-soundtrack wizardry.

On the bluesier end of the spectrum, “Home, James” is a lackadaisical, louche number laced with flashy Brown soloing. This tune would segue well into David Lynch’s “The Pink Room,” although Gerald Wiggins’ curiously dinky electric-organ sound is almost comical. The Oliver Nelson composition “Hobo Flats” features either Brown or fellow guitarist Arthur Wright going buck-wild on the wah-wah pedal over a languidly libidinous blues saunter. Such a sick display of virtuosity—it gave my ears vertigo. Chicken Fat ends strongly with “Blues For Big Bob,” a choppy, Booker T. & The MGs-like head-nodder with an unstoppable groove, a loopy organ solo by Wiggins, and a guitar solo of head-spinning intricacy.

Portland’s Jackpot Records reissued Chicken Fat in 2023, so it should be relatively easy to find and affordable. -Buckley Mayfield

Located in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, Jive Time is always looking to buy your unwanted records (provided they are in good condition) or offer credit for trade. We also buy record collections.

Marlena Shaw “The Spice Of Life” (Cadet, 1969)

Jazz and soul singer Marlena Shaw—who passed away on January 19 at age 81—was a true American musical treasure whose abundant vocal charms and moving lyrical skills peaked on The Spice Of Life. Produced and arranged by Cadet Records geniuses Charles Stepney and Richard Evans, The Spice Of Life boasts two of Shaw’s greatest and best-known songs, “Woman Of The Ghetto” and “California Soul.” The album would be worth the price of admission just for these two classics, but it contains some other lesser-celebrated gems, too.

But first, “Woman Of The Ghetto.” Talk about putting your best foot forward… This street-level, soul-funk classic has been sampled 204 times, and that makes sense. A tense, riveting song that can stand shoulder to shoulder with Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead,” “Woman Of The Ghetto” finds Shaw relating a tale of woe in wrenching detail: “How do you raise your kids in the ghetto/Feed one child and starve another.” The female backing vocals scat in vibrant consolation with Shaw while kalimba accents reminiscent of those early Earth, Wind & Fire LPs, a memorably trenchant bass line, and eerie, hysterical harmonica interjections multiply the drama. Damn, this cuts deep.

As for the cover of Ashford & Simpson’s “California Soul,” it’s simply one of the most uplifting orchestral-soul masterpieces ever waxed, with Stepney and Evans’ deft fingertips all over it. If you aren’t smiling and floating to this within the first 10 seconds of this billowing beauty, go see a shrink. It’s not hard to hear why this rendition’s been sampled 35 times. “Liberation Conversation”—co-written by Shaw and Bobby Miller—is a feisty, funky highlight in the Marva Whitney vein, featuring more of that delightfully buoyant ga-ganga scatting that Shaw also emitted on “Ghetto.” “Blues ain’t nothing but a good woman gone bad,” she declares, as if speaking from bitter experience.

T-Bone Walker’s “Call It Stormy Monday” gets transformed into swanky jazz blues with gorgeously anguished guitar and harmonica parts while “Where Can I Go?” is a languidly funky ballad in which Shaw’s voice effortlessly evinces subtle shades of pride, melancholy, and regret. The loping gospel funk of “I’m Satisfied” would appeal to fans of Pastor T.L. Barrett—a very great thing, indeed. Similarly, the freewheeling paean to liberation, “I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel To Be Free),” peddles rollicking gospelized soul. Credits are damnably scant on this LP, but that rococo, quicksilver guitar solo sure sounds like Phil Upchurch and whoever’s on organ just blazes.

A few schmaltzy cuts penned by the celebrated songwriters Goffin & King, Mann & Weil, and Johnny Marks don’t hit with this critic, but they don’t detract much from The Spice Of Life‘s overall greatness. This album shouldn’t be too hard to find nor should it be very expensive; Verve did the last official vinyl reissue in 2018. -Buckley Mayfield

Located in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, Jive Time is always looking to buy your unwanted records (provided they are in good condition) or offer credit for trade. We also buy record collections.