Soul, Funk and Disco

Shuggie Otis “Freedom Flight” (Epic, 1971)

Shuggie Otis still isn’t as famous and celebrated as he ought to be. Although his discography is relatively small, his name should be uttered in the same reverent tones the listening public reserves for superstars such as Sylvester Stewart, Jimi Hendrix, and Prince.

Now, Otis’ 1970 debut LP proper Here Comes Shuggie Otis has some stellar moments, but Freedom Flight is where he really blossoms. He would follow it up in 1974 with another classic, Inspiration Information, before going many years without releasing new music. David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label revived interest in Otis’ mellifluous mélange of psychedelia, blues, and funk with its 2001 reissue of Inspiration Information that included four cuts from Freedom Flight. It was one of the best music-biz moves the Talking Heads frontman has ever made.

Otis certainly had connections to some of the top players in the biz thanks to his father, the R&B artist/bandleader Johnny Otis. But still, for a 17-year-old to create an album as ambitious and brilliant as Freedom Flight is astonishing. It’s no wonder legends such as Frank Zappa, Al Kooper, and the Rolling Stones wanted to tap the multi-instrumentalist prodigy’s talents.

Ice Cold Daydream” is a fantastic opening number, complex yet catchy funk rock that could make Sly Stone do the splits out of respect. Shuggie’s guitar effects are sweet as hell, and he plays organ and bass like a badass, too. Somehow I’d gone my whole life not knowing about Mike Kowalski—who’s played with the Beach Boys, Nick Drake, and John Martyn—but he proves himself to be a truly funky drummer. Papa Johnny chips in with percussion, which was very nice of him.

Shuggie flexes his formidable blues muscles on “Me And My Woman” and “Purple.” Written by Gene Barge, the former song is about a roller-coaster romance and though it’s pretty straight-ahead, it’ll put serious lead in your pencil. (Does anyone still use this expression? No? Cool.) Shuggie plays guitar, bass, and keys, and his guitar solo is a thing of ornate beauty, while his rhythm guitar chikka-wakkas are nasty. “Purple” is a simmering, shimmering seven-minute blues stroll that one could imagine working well in a classy strip joint. Shuggie once again excels on guitar, bass, and organ and Jim “Supe” Bradshaw adds crucial harmonica accompaniment.

My two favorite tracks here are “Sweet Thang” and “Strawberry Letter 23.” The former was co-written with certified Dirty Old Man Johnny Otis and received high-powered help from George Duke on organ, Wilton Felder on bass, and Aynsley Dunbar on drums. This is swampy funk that’s greasier than Dr. John’s Gris-Gris in a New Orleans grease fire. “Sweet Thang” is so sexy, I can’t think of a metaphor or simile that’ll do it justice, but your libido will surely throb like it’s never throbbed before. “Strawberry Letter 23” is Shuggie’s most famous song, thanks to the Brothers Johnson’s glazed-soul cover that dominated radio in 1977—and justifiably so. Shuggie plays everything on it, and dozens of listens to his and the Brothers Johnson’s versions cannot diminish the elegant elation that this mellow, pastel soul gem induces. Shuggie’s sleigh and orchestral bells and his gilded, ascending guitar arpeggios lift this song to the seventh circle of heaven. It’s one of the purest expressions of enchantment ever put to tape, up there with Hendrix’s “Little Wing” and the Velvet Underground’s “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’.”

Finally, the nearly 13-minute “Freedom Flight” is a patiently unfolding, bluesadelic drift that’ll get you floating in the way that a Hendrix jam at its most blissed-out can do. Duke, Dunbar, and Felder appear again, but it’s Richard Aplanalp on tenor sax and oboe who steals the song. Aplanalp played on Bruce Palmer’s The Cycle Is Complete, and it shows. His blowing has that tender yet questing tone that suggests intimacy with the eternal. The band achieves a peaceful, easy feeling, in excelsis. “Freedom Flight” serves as an exclamation mark in lavender haze to an album that’s a manifesto of artistic adventurousness… created, I remind you, by a 17-year-old. -Buckley Mayfield

Jackson 5 “ABC” (Motown, 1970)

I am asking you to take seriously the second album by the Jackson 5. ABC peaked at #4 in the US albums chart, and it marked a significant advance for the Gary, Indiana song-and-dance boys, led by the irrepressible 11-year-old Michael. Even though “I Want You Back” hit big on the J5 debut LP, this was when it dawned on the world that he was destined for supernatural stardom. (Note: I’m not going to touch on Michael’s post J5 years and all the problematic baggage he accrued until his death in 2009. Rather, I’m going to focus on the abundantly raw and fresh talent of the pre-adolescent Jacko, for the sake of everybody’s mental health. If you want to read an unsparing analysis of Michael’s troubled life, check out Paul Morley’s devastating The Awfully Big Adventure: Michael Jackson In The Afterlife.)

You know the two #1 singles here—“The Love You Save” and the title track— by heart, and yet (if I may project) you still get a rush when you hear them 50-plus years later. They were written by The Corporation, a songwriting/production team headed by Berry Gordy and including Freddie Perren, Deke Richards, and Fonce Mizell, brother of Larry, another formidable songwriter/producer. These ringers were trying to fill the void left by supreme hit-makers Holland/Dozier/Holland, who’d departed from Motown in late 1967.

Whoever decided to start the album with “The Love You Save” deserves respect. The excitement meter slams to 11 from the first second as Michael’s voice cuts through the Funk Brothers’ session-pro bubblegum-funk/soul hullabaloo like a perfectly modulated clarion. The vocal interplay is fantastic; these are the best “woo”s, the best “bum da bum bum”s. It was likely rehearsed for grueling hours under the relentless tutelage of Berry Gordy and papa Joe Jackson. You can hear the prodigies’ voices pinging around the stereo field with quickness and stealth. From that breathless beginning, the LP descends into the lightweight, strings-laden ballad “One More Chance.” It verges on maudlin, but some nice, subtle guitar clangs in the margins. As for “ABC,” anyone who grew up on pop radio in the early ’70s and/or watched the Jackson 5 TV cartoon series can’t help feeling their heart inflate with euphoric helium from the first falsetto “ba ba ba BA BA.” The carefree, spring-legged funk of this pop perfection provides an endlessly renewable source of energy; ask Naughty By Nature and Ghostface Killah. Listening to “ABC,” you don’t even pause to think about how in the hell an 11-year-old from the Midwest’s stinkin’ armpit could know about love and how he could have the gonads to implore a girl to show him what she can do. Counterpoint: Love isn’t as easy as ABC… nor even as XYZ.

Let us now linger on “2-4-6-8,” the album’s underdog champion, written by the Northern soul star Gloria Jones and British songwriter Pam Sawyer, who also penned the Supremes’ “Love Child.” “2-4-6-8” is a lesser-known classic that’s actually more sublime than the two number ones. The guitars, bass, drums, handclaps, and vocal arrangement are all phenomenal; Jermaine steps up righteously when needed and the backing falsettos are on point. The melody and chorus (basically a cheerleader’s chant) should come off as corny, but are utterly inspirational, and the undulating funk rhythm acts as a sonic trampoline. When Michael shouts, “I may be a little fella/but my heart is as big as Texas/I have all the love a man can give/and maybe a little bit extra,” you might die from the cuteness. I once played this song 20 straight times, and I’ll probably do so again. It’s cheaper and more effective than any upper on the market.

After that peak, the highlights somewhat taper off. The Holland/Dozier/Holland tune “(Come Round Here) I’m The One You Need” is a headlong headrush of Motown Northern soul, but kind of boilerplate-y. Co-written by Stevie Wonder, the power ballad “Don’t Know Why I Love You” really pushes Michael to the extreme of his emotional range with regard to the mystery of love. Against the odds, the song convinces you that this little dude actually has experienced romantic turmoil. And how ballsy was it to attempt the heavy, dank funk of Funkadelic “I’ll Bet You”? The song’s actually better suited for the Temptations, but J5 gamely embody its grown-folks funkitude. The guitarist (damn Motown for the lack of credits) goes the fuck off with a fried solo that’s redolent of Dennis Coffey’s crispy tones. The album closes with “The Young Folks,” which the Jacksons’ mentors the Supremes originally did. It’s unintentionally funny to hear MJ trying to inhabit the persona of a spokesman for the young generation. Still, it’s a solid orchestral soul tune with a killer bass line and Michael emotes passionately with jutted jaw.

The prodigious Motown factory was humming along at an astonishing rate in 1970, and J5 certainly benefited from it. But the brothers also showed they could rise to the sky-high standards Gordy & co. demanded from their roster, even though they were too young to vote. I daresay that this is J5’s peak. Now let us know who played on it, Mr. Gordy. -Buckley Mayfield

Lenny White “Venusian Summer” (Nemperor, 1975)

For a musician who played drums on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and lent rhythmic bombast and intricacy to fusion gallants Return To Forever, Lenny White is (un)fairly obscure. But his debut solo album, Venusian Summer, is a stunner, every bit as dazzling as its Larry Kresek-illustrated, sci-fi cover.

It helps that White gathered some of jazz’s most burning instrumentalists to help him realize his ambitious vision. The extroverted funk of “Chicken-Fried Steak” features Ray Gomez spraying bold guitar graffiti over White’s and bassist Doug Rauch’s greasy-as-a-KFC-grill groove. Organist Jimmy Smith’s adds another layer of spiciness. I’d never eat the titular dish, but I’ll gladly lap up this track dozens of times. Funk gets stronger and more tensile yet on “Away Go Troubles Down The Drain,” with more guitar and organ pyrotechnics, this time by Doug Rodrigues and Weldon Irvine, respectively. The song’s like that old carnival ride, Tilt-A-Whirl, but with better rhythm and dynamics. Fans of Herbie Hancock’s Man-Child will tear their bell bottoms doing the splits to this.

Dedicated to the crew of the Starship Enterprise, the 10-minute “The Venusian Summer Suite; Part I. Sirenes” is commandeered by synth master Dr. Patrick Gleeson, with help from Peter Robinson on synth, Tom Harrel on synth and flugelhorn. They all engage in awe-inspiring, stellar tone painting; this is deep, overcast ambient music in the Klaus Schulze and Peter Michael Hamel veins. On “Part II,” Harrel’s flugelhorn kicks in and things oscillate to a higher level, recalling Deodato in “Also Sprach Zarathustra” mode or Isaac Hayes stretching out with one of his orchestral-funk epics. Hubert Laws’ far-roaming flute solo and Robinson’s clavinet co-star in this space-pimpin’ track.

Side two’s dominated by a couple of lengthy showcases for that furious fusion virtuosity your punk-loving buddies warned you about. “Mating Drive” is the most RTF-like song here, a gleaming, cruising, rococo tour de force that would make prime-time Mahavishnu Orchestra bow in respect. The piece revels in excess like the most audacious prog-rockers and fusioneers, and earns their indulgence tenfold. That’s to be expected when you have studs such as Larry Young (organ), Rauch (bass), Gomez (lead guitar), Onaje Allan Gumbs (organ), and Rodrigues (rhythm guitar) at your command. LP-closer “Prince Of The Sea” begins mellowly then gradually accelerates into a fluid jazz-funk groove filigreed by Gumbs’ icily pointillistic acoustic organ. What follows is a battle royale between guitar gods Larry Coryell and Al DiMeola: the former’s insanely intricate and mercurial guitar solo versus the latter’s fleet-fingered, fuzz-toned curlicues of virtuosity. We get articulate wails galore from both of these prolix axe heroes in this duel for the (s)ages.

I bought my copy of Venusian Summer for $3 many years ago, but it still usually sells for under $10 in the US. So there’s really no excuse to not grip your own copy and cheaply ride the lightning out of this solar system. -Buckley Mayfield

Chrome “Alien Soundtracks” (Siren, 1977)

Alien Soundtracks was where Chrome became the Chrome over which freaks worldwide have been flipping their lids for over four decades. Following the solid yet fairly trad 1976 debut LP The Visitation with founder Damon Edge at the controls, Alien Soundtracks is the San Francisco industrial-psychedelic-rock band’s first record with the uniquely blasted guitarist Helios Creed in the lineup. And what a difference he made.

Though recorded during punk’s first rude bloom, Alien Soundtracks aptly sounds as if it’s beaming in from a more grotesque and bizarre planet, one on which Johnny Rotten and Joey Ramone—gawd love ’em—would seem like innocuous cartoon figures. Allegedly recorded to accompany a live sex show, Alien Soundtracks indeed generates erotic charges, but in a form that Pornhub likely would regard as too twisted.

Album-opener “Chromosome Damage” fades in as if rising from a pit, then clicks into an accelerated, warped rock attack that reeks of rocket fuel and amphetamines. Edge croaks, “I wanna fly, I wanna fly away” before the song just fades out and morphs into a nightmarish, backward-sucking inversion of French psychonauts Heldon. Creed’s guitar sounds like if Jimi Hendrix were irradiated with Strontium-90; Helios forges some of the sickest tones ever to be associated with the mundane term “rock.” The lysergic intro of “All Data Lost” leads into a skittering, Jaki Liebezeit ca. Tago Mago ratatat and Edge’s voice downshifts into a Syd Barrett-like murmur that ripples into infinity. “SS Cygni” finds Chrome at their funkiest, but this is the hypnotic machine chug of This Heat more than it’s the bon vivant strutting of James Brown or the Meters. ‘Tis a pity it doesn’t last at least three times longer. By contrast, “Nova Feedback” is eerie, menacing, and woozy, as Creed peels off proggy, contemplative riffs that contrast with the doom-laden business roiling below. It’s a masterpiece of chiaroscuro.

The strangeness does not let up on side 2. “Pigmies In Zee Park” unloads helter-skelter guitar, percussion, synths, and mysterious vocal consternation before a gong hit produces a segue into a Floydian head trip. Edge dares a grotesque mockery of a Johnny Mathis croon about “pigmies [sic] in the park by the zoo waiting for you.” It’s damned creepy. Finally, things shift again into a manic, automaton shuffle, like a threshing machine operating in triple time. The move epitomizes Chrome’s masterly madness. “Slip It To The Android” almost comes across as a novelty-dance track, with its bustling bongo-like beats and insectoid Moog buzzes, but Creed’s needly guitar solos and Gary Spain’s Jean-Luc Ponty-esque electric-violin riffs reveal Chrome’s rarely noted Frank Zappa influence.

The methodical funk of “Pharoah Chromium” could be early Black Sabbath covering Funkadelic’s “You And Your Folks, Me And My Folks,” with an articulate, anguished Creed solo glazing this strange trudge. It sounds as if Helios let second guitarist John Lambdin take lead on “ST 37,” a Residents boogie cross-hatched with all sorts of wonky synth tones and percussion timbres. It was distinctive enough to inspire a ’90s Texas band to name themselves after it. “Magnetic Dwarf Reptile” is as bizarre as its title, and it enables Creed to flaunt that muted, radiated tone that hovers in the region of Richard Pinhas’ axe work for French sci-fi-obsessed psych juggernaut Heldon. Here and elsewhere, Creed proves he can finesse exceedingly precise arabesques or unleash massively distorted riffs that dwarf Tony Iommi’s.

That sound would dominate the essential 1979 follow-up, Half Machine Lip Moves and other otherworldly classics such as 3rd From The Sun, but all of Chrome’s ostentatious mutations cohered most rewardingly on Alien Soundtracks.

(Alien Soundtracks has been reissued on vinyl four times. A word to the wise, though: Avoid the Cleopatra editions—which is good advice in general for any release.) -Buckley Mayfield

Miguel De Deus “Black Soul Brothers” (Underground, 1977)

Miguel De Deus played guitar and sang for the outstanding Brazilian psych-rock groups Assim Assado and Os Brazões—the latter of whom were the fantastic Gal Costa’s backing band during the heady years of 1969 and 1970 and who should at least be as well known and regarded as Os Mutantes. Alas, De Deus—who died in 2007—and his bands still lack the high profile of Mutantes, but obrigado anyway to the Portuguese label Groovie for reissuing Black Soul Brothers and that hot Assim Assado LP in 2016 and 2017, respectively. These records provide a vivid picture of a musician with a brazen wild streak and keen instincts for the funk.

Right from jump of opening cut “Cinco Años,” MDD lets us know that the funk’s gonna be strong, bulbous, and bubbly on Black Soul Brothers. The female backing vocalist—who is maddeningly uncredited—soars in radiant counterpoint to MDD’s alpha-lech grunting. (His voice is an acquired taste that you may never embrace, but the music’s too good to reject the band outright.) You can practically smell the sexual friction in the elastic keyboard riffs twanging between the busy rhythmic hustle and bustle. “Pedaços” peddles a festive funkiness that would segue nicely in a set of tunes by War, Jimmy Castor Bunch, AWB, and Cymande (particularly, “Bra”). I don’t pass out compliments like that every day.

“Mister Funk”—which written by De Deus and Nelsão Triunfo—may be titled with heavy-handedness, but it’s a greasy, brassy groove bacchanal that will surely make your gang feel kool. The salacious summertime soul of “Flaca Louca” may test your patience due to MDD’s goofy growling, but the woman on the mic compensates for his shortcomings. At least you can’t say Miguel lacks enthusiasm…

The album peaks on “Black Soul Brother,” which was co-written by Paulo Rocco and the album’s producer, Santiago “Sam” Malnati. It’s extravagant funk that makes Sly Stone and Tina Turner seem like wallflowers. Whoever the woman singing with Sarolta Zalatnay-esque zest is, she convinces me that she needed her own album. Maybe she got it, but we’ll likely never know. The rowdy funk of “Lua Cheia” gets splattered with MDD’s gruff yelling, but the mellifluous sax parts and a bass line that coils like a gymnast working out on the uneven bars tilt the song into the W column. Bafflingly, MDD closes the record with the ballad “Fábrica De Papéis,” even though his voice isn’t in the least suited for this style. But the music’s nicely lush and seductive, the keyboard and guitar sparkling and caressing with tenderness, and the female backing vox is requisitely dulcet.

Forty-four years after its initial release, Black Soul Brothers still sounds like an explosive party platter that would make James Brown get up offa that thing, pronto. Its potency more than overcomes its creator’s grating vocal flaws. -Buckley Mayfield

Brute Force “Brute Force” (Embryo, 1970)

People of dubious maturity levels like to ridicule Herbie Mann for posing shirtless and exposing his man pelt on the cover of his very good bargain-bin LP Push Push. But listen up: Besides being a savvy musician with a keen ear for prevailing trends, Mr. Mann flaunted sharp A&R acumen for the Atlantic Records subsidiary Embryo in the early ’70s. (Oh, by the way, the flautist also released at least six great albums as a bandleader—which is six more than the mooks who mock him have made.)

Anyway, one case in point for Herbie’s acute scouting skills are Yellow Springs, Ohio’s finest, Brute Force, a sextet whose best-known member was Sonny Sharrock… who guested on some of Mann’s own records. Now that I have your attention, let’s discuss why you need this overlooked album by this obscure group.

Produced by the Herbster himself, Brute Force immediately busts out of the gate like a thoroughbred with its ass on fire. “Do It Right Now” is a rock-and-soul “seize the day” anthem with bandleader Richard Daniel’s vocals swathing heads in warmth in the mellow-vibrant vein of Terry Collier and Lou Bond. Sharrock’s fiery guitar filigree really launches this song skyward. The anti-conformity song “Some Kind Of Approval” bubbles somewhere between early-’70s Curtis Mayfield and Stark Reality. Daniel gets off a sublime keyboard solo and Sharrock adds zonked guitar roughage for this soul-jazz gem that’ll raise your spirits and heart rate.

The Deacon” rambles soulfully like peak Booker T. & The MGs, with its rapid conga slaps and peppy horns making me want to watch NFL highlights from the ’70s. “Right Direction” moves in said place, and you’ll want to shoot its euphoric Latin rock into your veins—percolating congas, sweeping horns, and Daniel’s vocal flights of unstoppable positivity and all. On “Monster,” an incredibly cool bass and conga intro leads into an uptempo horn-rock jam with guitar fibrillations stroked from the instrument’s nut. It sure sounds like Sharrock’s diabolical handiwork, although he’s not credited. Still, I’d bet your stimulus check that it is indeed Sonny shredding. The playing recalls his outré work on his and wife Linda’s Paradise LP. The song builds to an intensity and wildness that bear the Sharrockian stamp, so it can’t help being a highlight.

Speaking of which, “Ye-Le-Wa” is another one. 14.5 minutes of balletic free jazz that waxes and wanes with brassy verve, this track’s not unlike Pharoah Sanders‘ output of that same era, but with more of a grounding in out-rock protocols. Daniel’s soulful vocals may not match Leon Thomas’ high-flying yodelics from “The Creator Has A Master Plan,” but they’re certainly moving, even if they simply repeat the title. The record closes with “Doubt,” a tranquil, flute-enhanced comedown after the previous blowout. Strangely, it recalls the beautifully placid “Love Sketch” by Paul Revere & The Raiders side project Friendsound. Will wonders never cease?

So, whether you’re a Sonny Sharrock completist or someone who simply enjoys soul jazz that rocks with finesse and fiery interplay, you need Brute Force. Herbie Mann would never steer you wrong, shirt or no shirt. -Buckley Mayfield

Ben Sidran “Puttin’ In Time On Planet Earth” (Blue Thumb, 1973)

One wonders how a nerdy-looking, non-famous white keyboardist/singer convinced legends such as Miles Davis drummer Tony Williams, James Brown drummer Clyde Stubblefield, and session bassist Phil Upchurch of Rotary Connection and Chess/Cadet Records fame to back him on his third album, Puttin’ In Time On Planet Earth. Granted, Ben Sidran had co-written Steve Miller Band’s 1969 “Lady Madonna”-biting hit “Space Cowboy,” but still. You wouldn’t think a guy like this would have that kind of clout. Maybe Sidran simply charmed them into the fold, and coaxed Blue Thumb Records to compensate them handsomely? Whatever the case, praise your deity of choice that these cats somehow gathered to lay down this understated gem.

I’ve heard five Ben Sidran albums, and Puttin’ In Time On Planet Earth is the best. Now, the opener, “Full Compass” (which Upchurch wrote), a 39-second burst of flamboyant, Mahavishnu Orchestra-like fusion, is a red herring. But on the next track, “Play The Piano,” Sidran’s true nature emerges. It flaunts Sidran’s hip, Mose Allison-esque vocals that express how doing the thing that the title says is salvation. Sidran tickles out wonderful cascades of chords on the far right side of a grand piano while Upchurch and Stubblefield lift the rhythm from Prime Mates’ “Hot Tamales,” one of the greatest Latin/New Orleans funk songs ever. Your ears will do somersaults of joy. The striding blues jazz of “Have You Heard The News” exudes that irresistible Mose bonhomie and is boosted by the deft Mr. Williams on drums.

Face Your Fears” features old Sidran buddy Steve Miller on acoustic guitar. It’s an inspirational jazz-pop song with Frank Rosolino on trombone and Sidran on Mellotron bringing new tones to the record, and it really soars in the second half thanks to Miller’s wonderfully warped electric-guitar solo and Tim Davis’ blissful backing vocals. “Walking With The Blues” is actually more dulcet smooth jazz than anything that sounds like Howlin’ Wolf. Here, Sidran sings in his most comforting, confidential tones as Bill Perkins exhales sultry, sinuous tenor sax solos. It’s quite precious.

As fine as all of this has been, Planet Earth really peaks on the last two tracks. I’ll be damned if the title track doesn’t share the same rhythm as that B-boy favorite, Can’s “Vitamin C.” Coincidence? I hope not. I love the idea of Clyde Stubblefield paying homage to Jaki Liebezeit. Upchurch lends crucial wah-wah guitar to this very classy approximation of blaxploitation-flick funk, while Sidran peels off keyboard runs that evoke Deodato circa “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)”.

Even better is “Now I Live (And Now My Life Is Done).” An ultra-slinky groove snakes with guile as Sidran vamps with enough verve to make Donald Fagen green with envy while guitarist Curley Cooke is on crystalline form, somewhere between George Benson and Pat Martino. Sidran’s use of bells and boinger percussion toy really add spine-tingles to this surreptitiously funky song. Throughout, Sidran recites an existentialist poem written by doomed 16th-century prisoner Chidiock Tichborne, who was executed for plotting to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I. Crazy backstory, right? This is simply one of the most sublime tracks I’ve ever heard, regardless of genre, and alone worth the price of admission, and then some. -Buckley Mayfield

The Supremes “New Ways But Love Stays” (Motown, 1970)

If you abandoned the Supremes after Diana Ross departed the hit-making vocal group, you should reconsider. Start making amends by listening to New Ways But Love Stays, the second studio album with Jean Terrell as their lead singer. Ably assisted by Mary Wilson, Cindy Birdsong, and the Andantes, the Supremes proved they could thrive without their head diva, scoring their biggest post-Diana hit with “Stoned Love” (#7 on the Billboard singles chart), a slice of irresistible soul that’s at once brassy and blissful—a very difficult feat.

See, another reason not to bail on the Supremes sans Ross is that Motown in 1970 was still producing some of the most ambitious and ingenious soul music in the world. I wish I could tell you who’s responsible for the luxurious backing on New Ways, but Berry Gordy was stingy with credits for some unfathomable reason. Frank Wilson produced every song here except one, though, and he deserves plaudits for the maximalist, orchestral excitement happening here. And whoever selected the songs to cover merits a medal.

The album opens with a version of the Spinners’ “Together We Can Make Such Sweet Music.” A love song, uh, supreme, this is sumptuous, busy soul that testifies with intricate vocal arrangements and vaguely psych-rock guitar embellishments. And is that a Minnie Riperton-like wail or synth hijinks at the end? Whatever the case, it’s awesome. A reverent cover of a reverent song, the Supremes’ “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is executed with utmost skill and nuanced feeling. It elegantly explodes when it needs to, although Art Garfunkel still has the ladies beat with that showstopping chorus. I bet Paul Simon was pleased, and not just for the royalty checks.

Doing one of the Beatles’ funkiest and oddest songs, “Come Together,” may seem counterintuitive, but the Motown brain trust and the Supremes made it something special. They made a sitar the lead instrument, surprisingly relegating the bass to the background. It’s pretty funny as well to hear Terrell sing “walrus gumboot” and to ham it up on the “hold him in his armchair, you can feel his disease” line. What goofy fun this is. Speaking of which, the rendition of “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” is the album’s peak. I realize you may be skeptical, but hear me out. This accidental jock jam and 1968 chart-topper by one-hit wonders Steam has been transformed by the Funk Brothers into a clap-happy charmer with sitar accouterments, slamming beats, and sax filigrees to fly for. This is DJ gold, and you should see people’s faces when you tell them who’s responsible for it.

Some other highlights on New Ways include the mellow and funky “It’s Time To Break Down,” which hip-hop producer DJ Premier sampled for Gang Starr’s “JFK 2 LAX.” You just can’t deny orchestral soul with that mighty Motown budget behind it. And while “Shine On Me” may be boilerplate Motown upfulness, it bears so much vocal creamy sweetness and is inflated by inspirational horn charts, you may mistake it for a Rotary Connection joint.

New Ways‘ original title and cover caused some controversy within Motown’s offices. Stoned Love was deemed too drug-friendly and the women’s black turtlenecks were considered an endorsement of the Black Panthers, so compromises were made. Weak sauce, Mr. Gordy, but thanks anyway for releasing such a gem.

*The 1991 CD reissue contains a bonus cut of Stephen Stills’ “Love The One You’re With.” -Buckley Mayfield

Eddie Harris “I Need Some Money” (Atlantic, 1975)

The late American saxophonist/vocalist Eddie Harris is king of the jazz bargain bin, now that Billy Cobham’s catalog is rising in stock. Nearly all of Harris’ albums go for under $10; if you see one from the late ’60s or ’70s, grab it.

Over his prolific career, Eddie Harris was an adept balladeer, bluesman, straight-ahead bop melodicist, funky party-starter, turbulent free jazzer, and experimentalist with a keen interest in the mind-bending properties of electronic effects. I Need Some Money arrived toward the end of funk’s reign and near the beginning of disco’s dominance, and you can hear Harris and his skilled group seeking ingenious ways to move bodies.

That approach is obvious from the opening track. More than anything, “I Need Some Money” resembles the soulful, swerving funk of the O’Jays, early Commodores, and Larry Young’s Fuel. Harris’ lyrics lament the high cost of living, a common theme in black music of the ’70s, and one that’s proved to be timeless. Hell, it’s been my anthem in this messed-up year of unemployment and limited opportunities. The refrain of “Everything is so damn high!” will prance through your brain for hours. “Get On Down” starts with unsettling stomach-hunger sounds (probably created with a quica) and Eddie saying “excuse me.” A tentative beat percolates and about 100 seconds in, the song shifts into an unstoppable jazz-funk groove that bubbles and shimmies like Stevie Wonder’s “Superstitious.” Harris drops in some chuckle-worthy scat singing and Leon Thomas-esque yodeling, adding levity to a track that’s almost too much fun. “Get On Down” is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Shifting into a sparser, lower key, “Time To Do Your Thing” is an Afro-Latin percussion fest and a dancin’/romancin’ soundtrack for the carnally advanced. Above all the timbrally interesting beats, Harris’ robust, snaky sax (alluding to Wonder’s “Maybe Your Baby”), Bradley Bobo’s lubricious bass, and Ronald Muldrow’s clanging guitar engage in a vivacious conversation. Harris goes on another tangent with “Carnival,” a weirdly festive exotica excursion. It’s powered by the sort of drum-machine beats that would animate many ’80s synthwave groups, with Harris’ sax FX’d into timbres more associated with synthesizers the instrument Bird and Trane made legendary. African whistle, talking drum, cabasa, and massed, jokey chants add to the track’s otherness.

I Need Some Money‘s peak might be the nearly 12-minute “I Don’t Want Nobody.” Sounding like Spirit Of Eden-era Talk Talk over a decade before the fact, the musicians conjure a gospel-tinged blues of somber majesty. Harris sings through an electric sax at the beginning to feminize his voice while Muldrow’s guitorgan whirs into the church-y mode of Spiritualized’s “Shine A Light.” Rufus Reid’s six-string bass and the guitorgan entwine in a lofty dialogue, as the broken-hearted singer licks his wounds. (“You’ve always said that you love me/That I’d be the only one/You thought of me every night/Why did you say we have a future”). Absolutely crushing. (Trivia: Oh Sees’ John Dwyer is a huge fan.) The album ends with “That’s It,” an alternate-world version of Quincy Jones’ Sanford And Son theme—slower, but just as inspirational and grimy.

From what I’ve read, the title of I Need Some Money was the truth. Alas, Harris didn’t score a hit with it, but in his pursuit of lucre, he inadvertently cut his best album of the decade. If it’s a “sell-out” move, it’s akin to Miles Davis’ similar stab at commercial success that resulted in an uncompromising classic: On The Corner. Bonus: Money still commonly dwells in the cheapie bins. -Buckley Mayfield

Björn J:son Lindh “Sissel” (Metronome/CTI, 1973)

One of my goals in life is to bring Björn J:son Lindh’s outstanding music to more people’s attention. It’s hard work, but somebody has to do it. I’m by no means an expert on this Swedish fusion flautist/keyboardist, but I do think he has at least four albums that deserve precious shelf space in your home. These records—Ramadan, Cous Cous, Second Carneval, and Sissel—flaunt Lindh’s idiosyncratic way with melody and dynamic, funky rhythmic finesse. I’d like to explore in more depth Sissel, as that’s the LP I find myself playing out most in DJ sets.

When you hear lead cut “Bull Dog,” you’ll understand why I and other fusion-friendly disc jockeys rely on Sissel for rocking parties. The opening break stands out from your run-of-the-mill funk with its nimble metallic and woody percussion accenting a deep, methodical bass/drum groove, all slashed by Lindh’s staccato flute striations. Midway in, Jan Schaffer’s fluid, pointillistic guitar solo launches “Bull Dog” into John Abecrombie/Gábor Szabó heights. Shout out to Stefan Brolund’s staunch bass line, as well. “Storpolska” represents one of the great red herrings in music. It starts like an ancient folk song in an odd time signature, until Schaffer’s blaxploitation-funk, wah-wah’d guitar riff and Mike Watson’s churning bass materialize and shift things to Shaft-land. A wonderful cognitive dissonance arises when Lindh starts to blow pastoral-prog flute airs over the urban-turmoil soundtrack, which boils to Miles Davis/On The Corner levels, as Schaffer’s pyrotechnics soar into Sonny Sharrock/Pete Cosey dimensions of sculpted chaos.

Similar to “Bull Dog” in its sparseness and percussive vocabulary, “Your Own House” is even funkier and more laid-back. No wonder it’s been sampled in nine songs, including those by Aceyalone, Black Milk, Meat Beat Manifesto, and Attica Blues. The chorus recalls Herbie Mann at his most beautifully melancholy. Written by Jan Schaffer, it’s a perfect track with which to end a DJ set; it feels as if the music’s poignantly waving goodbye. The title track’s hard-hitting, action-packed fusion à la Deodato’s Prelude; Lennart Aberg’s soprano sax solo baroquely rips. Sissel closes with a cover of Joe South’s 1968 anti-hypocrisy country-rock classic, “Games People Play,” on which Schaffer’s guitar sounds a bit like a sitar. South’s melody is so well-suited for Lindh’s delicate euphony, and it’s amazing how the song sounds at once cheerful and downhearted, especially in this version.

Lindh’s ’70s albums are neither very common nor ultra-rare, but when they do turn up, they’re usually reasonably priced. Grab one next time you see it, and validate my thesis, if you’d be so kind. -Buckley Mayfield

Eddie Kendricks “People… Hold On” (Tamla, 1972)

After a hit-strewn 11 years with the Temptations, for whom he sang lead and arranged vocals on many songs, singer Eddie Kendricks embarked on a solo career in 1971 with All By Myself. But it was his sophomore solo set, People… Hold On, where the golden-falsetto’d soul man seriously realized his potential and stretched the parameters of what a Motown artist could accomplish on record, sashaying through the door to artistic freedom that Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder had opened.

People… Hold On enjoyed only modest commercial success (#131 in the US album chart, three singles that entered the top 100: “Eddie’s Love,” “If You Let Me,” “Girl You Need A Change Of Mind”), but it’s Kendricks’ strongest solo LP. (The silky-toned singer sadly died from lung cancer in 1992 at age 52.)

Album-opener “If You Let Me” saunters in nonchalantly, a seductive funk-soul charmer to the core. Its first words—“Baby, I know I blew your mind”—prefigure what the artist is going to do to the listener. True enough, the next track, “Let Me Run Into Your Lonely Heart” proves itself to be one of the greatest funk jams on Motown. In the Funkadelic/Sly & The Family Stone realm of filthy and heady groove science, this cut should be way better known. Another side 1 highlight is “Girl You Need A Change Of Mind,” a fixture throughout the ’70s at NYC DJ David Mancuso’s legendary Loft parties. It’s simply one of the silkiest, sleekest proto-disco songs to which your ever-lovin’ ears and ever-swivelin’ hips will get down. In a similar vein, “Date With The Rain” breezes in with a swift, danceable rhythm over which Kendricks sings ecstatically about walking and crying in the rain, his heart breaking despite the incredible groove soundtracking his dejection. Lovers of that paradoxical music/lyrics split à la Smokey Robinson will be in heaven.

Now, about 40 percent of People… consists of fairly trad, bubbly Motown soul balladry, and they’re fine, if sometimes saccharine, songs, but they don’t prepare us for the album’s pinnacle, “My People… Hold On.” This towering anomaly in the Motown catalog has been sampled at least 25 times, including by J Dilla on 2006’s Donuts and by Erykah Badu on 2008’s New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War). Understandable. The conga beats and bass line are deep and sensual, the chicken-scratch guitar very subliminal, and the backing vocals and Kendricks’ lead are poised yet impassioned, calling for unity and strength among black folks fighting systemic oppression. (It’s hard to imagine D’Angelo not taking comprehensive notes to it.) It’s phenomenal how Kendricks and company imbue so much gravity into this song, considering how few elements are deployed. An innovative benchmark in ’70s funk, “My People… Hold On” should play at every Black Lives Matter function.

Despite being created by such a popular musician on a revered label (which reissued it on wax in 2018), People… Hold On is still under-acknowledged. That’s a mystery… and a damn shame. -Buckley Mayfield

Can “Monster Movie” (Music Factory, 1969)

Choosing a favorite Can album is like pinpointing your favorite orgasm—damn near impossible, but fun to contemplate. As with many things music-oriented, it depends on your mood. One of the great things about these German geniuses (plus their American and Japanese vocalists) is how different each LP is. On any given day, your fave could be the unique funk bomb of Ege Bamyasi, the aquatic space-out of Future Days, the psych-rock/musique-concrète amalgam of Tago Mago, the proto-techno rhythmagic of Soon Over Babaluma, the alien dub and robo-funk of Flow Motion, or the raw-nerved, Velvet Underground-inflected trips and trance jams of Monster Movie. Or yet another one. Choose your adventure, etc.

My lifelong love affair with Can—whom I consider the greatest rock band ever—began with Monster Movie in the very early ’80s. I was smitten from the first seconds of “Father Cannot Yell,” which is a skewed, avant-garde take on the Velvet Underground at their most adrenalized—but with a loose-cannon, African-American sculptor on vocals instead of a NYC hipster. Nothing else really sounded like this in 1969: Holger Czukay’s ominous pulsations of sinewy bass; Jaki Liebezeit’s robust, tricky beats; Irmin Schmidt’s synapse-sizzling keyboard fibrillations; and Michael Karoli’s radiant guitar; Mooney’s spluttering of a disturbing, primal, parental scenario. “Father Cannot Yell” is not so much a traditional rock song as it is a surge of panicky energy that makes you think earth is spinning off its axis.

The next track, “Mary, Mary So Contrary,” ushers in a 180º shift to slack, clanging rock in the vein of the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” and Cream’s “World Of Pain.” Karoli’s articulate guitar lead whines and snakes through the song like a tortuous siren and is underpinned by Liebezeit’s emphatic, deceptive funk beats. Mooney’s obsessive, lyrics about the titular woman are strange, but this might be the most conventional love song in Can’s canon, outside of “She Brings The Rain.” “Outside My Door” features a wonderfully doleful train-whistle harmonica wafting over a spasming psych-rock roar that’s somewhere between 13th Floor Elevators ca. Bull Of The Woods and Mass In F Minor-era Electric Prunes. Mooney looses a stream of discombobulated consciousness in which the standout line is “Any color is bad.”

Monster Movie climaxes on “Yoo Doo Right.” A 20-minute Ouroboros jam of throbbing intensity and sublime subterranean tremors, this is really Holger and Jaki’s show. The formidable rhythm section creates an undulating foundation of low frequencies, heavy on the bass twang and tom-toms, over which Schmidt’s keys and Karoli’s guitar fill the firmament with aching drones that hint at VU’s “Black Angel’s Death Song.” Mooney sings about his lust-object mantras as if possessed: “once I was blind now I can see/now that you’re in love with me/you made a believer out of me, babe/you made a believer out of me/she said, ‘yoo doo right, yoo doo right.’” At around 8 minutes, the song reduces to rimshots and Mooney sadly intoning the lyrics for a minute; then the rest of the band resume forging periodic swells of keyboard burbles and a fuzzed-out guitar riff that’s like a fanfare for an advanced civilization. Czukay and Liebezeit continue to build a mountain of rhythm out of bare necessities. Mooney’s OCD rants and tender singing capture the mindset of a man in an agitated state of romantic thralldom. It’s an exhausting yet exhilarating trip.

Monster Movie contains some of Can’s most straightforward rock moments, but also their most prodigious improv epic (just nudging out “Halleluwah”). It’s a start-to-finish mind-bender and a rewarding entry point into their incomparable catalog. -Buckley Mayfield