Monday, October 21, 2019

“Oakland Stroke” by Tower of Power

Legendary West Coast funk/soul outfit Tower of Power blasted a hole through the funkmosphere with this supersonic groove back in 1974. This is dynamic, heavy-duty funk as only Tower of Power could do it. Rocco Prestia’s nimble-fingered bass work surges through the groove like an electric current, and David Garibaldi fires up the funk with an insane beat. His complex, rapid-fire drum pattern has gone down as one of the baddest funk beats ever put on wax. Also, T.O.P.’s celebrated horn section puts an exclamation point on the funk with some explosive horn volleys. And let’s not forget Lenny Pickett, who shuts it down with a fantastic tenor sax solo. The track also features some smokin' organ work from Chester Thompson. This is pure funk at its most raw and exhilarating; and it shows why Tower of Power has a longstanding rep as one of the tightest funk bands of all time.

“Oakland Stroke” was written by Garibaldi, Emilio Castillo and Stephen Kupka. It’s a track from T.O.P.’s  fourth album Back to Oakland, released in the spring of 1974. The track bookends the album--part 1 at the intro, with Part 2 closing out the album. It's short and sweet, just 0:53 for the intro, and part 2 clocks in at 1:08. It’s amazing how much funk the band managed to pack into such a small amount of time. Not a drop of funk was wasted on this cut.

Back to Oakland, which was produced by Tower of Power, contains the moderate hit "Don't Change Horses (In The Middle of a Stream)," which peaked at #26 on the U.S. pop singles chart and #22 on the R&B singles charts. The album also features the classic funk-jazz instrumental "Squib Cakes." Modern Drummer Magazine voted Back to Oakland one of the most important recordings for drummers to listen to.

The lineup for Tower of Power when they dropped Back to Oakland was the following: Lenny Pickett  (1st tenor sax, alto sax, bass sax, soprano sax, flute, alto flute, piccolo); Stephen "Doc" Kupka (baritone sax, English horn, background vocals); Francis “Rocco” Prestia (bass); Greg Adams  (trumpet, fluegelhorn, orchestra bells, background vocals); Mic Gillette (trumpet, fluegelhorn, trombone, bass trombone, background vocals); Emilio Castillo (2nd tenor sax, background vocals); Bruce Conte (guitar, background vocals); David Garibaldi (drums); Lenny Williams (lead vocals); Chester Thompson (organ, bass pedals, piano, Fender Rhodes piano, clavinet, background vocals); and Brent Byars (conga drums).

Tower of Power was formed in Oakland, California in 1968 by Emilio  Castillo and  Stephen Kupka.

"Oakland Stroke," Parts 1 & 2

Friday, September 13, 2019

P-Funk Artist Pedro Bell’s Three Best Album Covers

Pedro Bell—the artist and illustrator responsible for Funkadelic’s iconic, mind-blowing album covers—died on August 27. He was 69. The cause of his death has not been announced. Bell’s imaginative cover art played a significant role in the P-Funk experience and contributed immensely to the band’s mythology. For the Funkadelic album covers, Bell created an alternative Afrofuturist universe filled with psychedelic sci-fi imagery and assorted freakazoid characters. He also wrote the liner notes for Funkadelic’s albums under the name Sir Lleb, which is his surname spelled backwards.  In celebration of the artist, I’ve written up short reviews of my top three Pedro Bell album covers.

Hardcore Jollies – Funkadelic (1976)

This is my favorite Pedro Bell album cover. It’s emblazoned with rich, vivid colors and eye-popping images. Bell’s wild imagination was at its most fertile during the creation of this dazzling cover art. It just jumps right out at you. The album cover is strange and otherworldly but also quite beautiful. It’s not just one of Bell’s best album covers; it’s one of the best album covers period.

Cosmic Slop – Funkadelic (1973)

Cosmic Slop was Bell’s first album cover for Funkadelic, and it’s a stone-cold masterpiece. It’s at once horrifying, weird and brilliant. He visually captured what the band was all about—bold irreverence, unconventionality and pure invention. And it's all topped off with ample dollops of freakiness. After Bell began doing the Funk Mob’s cover art, enjoying a new Funkadelic album was no longer just an auditory experience but a visual one as well. Owners of new Funkadelic albums would pour over Bell’s bizarre, surrealistic cover art while listening to the band’s new tracks.

One Nation Under a Groove — Funkadelic (1978)

Bell’s amazing cover art for Funkadelic’s landmark album One Nation Under a Groove puts an Afrocentric twist on the iconic Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima photograph. Bell replaces the U.S. Marines with a motley funk crew of men and women raising a Pan-African flag with R&B emblazoned on it. It’s quite a powerful statement about black identity and empowerment. It’s also a strong statement about the power of black music and how it has always been the pulse and bedrock of American music. There is a lot less going on here than on most of Bell’s Funkadelic album covers, but it’s just as effective in grabbing your attention.

Pedro Bell left behind a wealth of great artwork, and he'll always be remembered by Funkateers for his incredible cover art. Rest easy Captain Draw.

Related blog entry: Pedro Bell: Picasso of P-Funk

Thursday, August 22, 2019

“School Boy Crush”: Average White Band’s Much-Sampled Classic That Forever Made Sleigh Bells Funky

The founding members of Average White Band in 1974 
The 1970s were the golden age of funk music. The explosive rhythm-driven style that James Brown birthed in the 1960s became a major force in contemporary music by the ‘70s. And funk wasn’t just music for people to shake their rumps to on the dance floor. It was also a powerful political statement. Funk was a sonic expression of freedom, protest and cultural identity for black Americans. And the ancient tribal rhythms of their African ancestors were apparent in funk’s potent grooves. Perhaps that was one of the reasons why rap artists were so drawn to funk.

A slew of amazing funk bands emerged in the ‘70s. And one of the top funk outfits from that decade was the ironically named Average White Band. When the band dropped its 1974 smash “Pick Up The Pieces,” many funk fans were initially shocked to learn that a group of white musicians from Scotland were able to capture the essence of funk music so accurately and with so much passion and soul. AWB’s predominately black following and the band's genuine love and appreciation for funk and R&B illustrated once again that music is the true universal language and has the power to break down racial, social and cultural barriers.

AWB released a lot of great music back the day, including the massively funky “School Boy Crush,” a single from the band’s Grammy-nominated third album Cut The Cake (1975). Although it was only a moderate hit on the Billboard singles charts—pop (#33), R&B (#22)—it went on to become a funk classic and huge sampling source for many hip-hop and R&B artists. It has been sampled on a total of 151 songs.

The track’s monstrous bass line and dead-in-the-pocket beat caught the attention of young artists and producers in search of strong grooves to sample. “School Boy Crush” also boasts nasty rhythm guitar licks, punchin’ horn lines and super-funky clavinet. And let’s not forget those dope sleigh bells! Sleigh bells never sounded so funky. Just that little touch added so much to the track and took it to a whole other level. It also enhanced the song’s childlike vibe of a kid experiencing his first crush.

Grammy-winning songwriter/producer Dallas Austin sampled those funky sleigh bells to maximum effect on TLC’s platinum-selling debut single “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg.”  The sleigh bells also turn up on Nas’ “Halftime,” a single from his landmark debut album Illmatic. Producer Large Professor did a masterful job of seamlessly incorporating the sleigh bells into the track’s powerful beat. And legendary hip-hop duo Eric B. & Rakim sampled the sleigh bells and the main guitar riff from “School Boy Crush” for their iconic track “Microphone Fiend.” Also, famed West Coast rapper Too $hort’s track “Life Is… Too Short” features a dynamic interpolation of the bass line, main guitar riff and other sonic elements from “School Boy Crush.”

In addition to “School Boy Crush,” a number of other AWB tracks have also been sampled, including their biggest hits “Pick Up The Pieces” and “Cut The Cake.” In all, their music has been sampled on a total of 447 songs, making them the fifteenth most sampled act of all time.

Average White Band had a big impact on both funk music and hip-hop. The creation of sampling enabled the band to reach a whole new audience of young listeners who missed the '70s funk revolution.

"Schoolboy Crush"

"Schoolboy Crush" at Amazon

TLC's "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg"

Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg at Amazon

"Microphone Fiend" by Eric B. & Rakim

"Microphone Fiend" at Amazon

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

NYC Duo BAD Will Make You “Sweat” With Hot New Single

New York has long been a hotbed for rising musical talent, and one of the most promising new artists to emerge from the Big Apple is the music duo BAD, which is comprised of singer/songwriter Julia Brex and producer/arranger/multi-instrumentalist Jackson Hoffman. The talented pair recently dropped the infectious electro-funk single “Sweat.” This track is an exhilarating throwback to the funky synth-filled dance grooves that DJs bumped at clubs and on the radio back in the 1980s and early ‘90s.  It’s a cheeky, playfully sexy ode to the workout culture and workout songs from that period.

The track features scorching synth blasts, a percolating beat, and super-groovalistic horn lines provided by acclaimed trumpeter/arranger Philip Lassiter and his funk band Philthy. And Brex’s rich, vibrant vocals sound terrific over Hoffman’s crisp production.

Brex and Hoffman, who met in high school, have been writing and recording music together for eight years.  They have focused primarily on pop songwriting and production work for other artists. Their shared passion for funk music resulted in the formation of BAD less than a year ago. They released their debut EP, GOOD, in March. The duo skillfully melded synth-funk and electro-pop on the tracks for the sterling four-song EP.

BAD draws inspiration from retro funk and soul, ‘90s and early 2000s pop and R&B, and contemporary pop and hip-hop. In a recent interview, Brex and Hoffman said that they want BAD to “be what a Prince and Max Martin collaboration could have been.” They added that they want to create music that is “nostalgic yet fresh, throwback yet brand new.”

Here are BAD’s social media links to stay apprised of new releases and any other projects the duo might have in the works: InstagramFacebook and Tumblr.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Soul/Funk Band The Burroughs Bring Some Classic Old-School Flavor To Digital 45

The Burroughs, Colorado’s stalwart purveyors of “Sweaty Soul Music,” recently released a digital 45 on Eddie Roberts' (The New Mastersounds) new label Color Red that features two new tracks. Fans of great old-school funk and soul will definitely appreciate this offering from the talented nine-piece groove outfit.

“The Slip” is a James Brown-inspired deep funk track. Frontman Johnny "RedBird" Burroughs serves up a dynamic vocal performance that captures the spirit of the Godfather of Soul right down to the bone-chilling screams and funky grunts. He also injects some wicked humor into the mix and displays his great storytelling skills. The song is a tongue-in-cheek tale about ducking the many pressures and aggravations of modern life. The band drops pure fire on this funkalicious groove—super-tight horn lines, bumpin’ bass, dirty rhythm guitar and a sizzling beat. And can we talk about that bridge? The Godfather himself would tip his hat to this monster of a bridge, which raises the track’s funk level through the roof. 

The Burroughs dip into some retro ‘60s-laced soul on the smooth summertime jam “Forever In Love.” This track has a fantastic horn arrangement that showcases the talents of the band’s amazing horn section. And Johnny delivers a lustrous vocal performance, which is further sweetened by the soothing background vocals. This is the perfect track to blast at a summer cookout. “Forever In Love” sets a chill nostalgic vibe that brings to mind vintage R&B classics from the 1960s and early ‘70s. The two tracks on the digital 45 were produced by Kim Dawson of Matador Soul Sounds and Mike Tallman, Color Red's Creative Director.

Formed in 2013, The Burroughs have earned a reputation as one of the most exciting and dynamic live bands in Colorado. The band thrills audiences with its potent brand of soul and funk and has built a dedicated following that extends across the state and beyond. The members are Johnny Burroughs (lead vocalist, bandleader); Mary Claxton (drums, vocals); Sean Hagemeister (guitar); Tom Amend (keyboards); Jeremy Fallis (trombone); Brian Claxton (bass); Alec Bell (trumpet); Briana Harris (alto saxophone); and Hayden Farr (baritone saxophone). 

The band’s charismatic frontman Johnny Burroughs grew up in the church and works as a licensed minister and music pastor; he brings that same passion and inspiration from his church services to the stage. The Burroughs’ shows are exhilarating, soulful celebrations where audience members are uplifted and energized. The band always brings the thunder at concerts and never fails to electrify its audiences. 

The Burroughs have performed at a slew of renowned music festivals and venues, including Bohemian Nights New West Fest, The Block Party, The Greeley Blues Jam, Boulder International Film Festival, The Fox Theatre, Denver Day of Rock, The Aggie Theatre, The Underground Music Showcase, among many others.

And they have shared the stage with national music acts such as Zapp, the Steve Miller Band, Orgone, The Reminders, Southern Avenue, Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials, Walter Trout and Samantha Fish. 

The band released a full-length studio album, Got to Feel, in January of 2018. And they dropped their live album Sweaty Greeley Soul in 2015. The album was recorded live at the Moxi Theater in downtown Greeley, Colorado. The Burroughs were voted the “Best Band" of Greeley in 2014.

When The Burroughs aren’t blowing up the stage or laying down tracks in the studio, they focus on community outreach in their hometown of Greeley. They have partnered with organizations such as Weld Food Bank, Greeley Boys and Girls Clubs and Habitat for Humanity. And the band has an ongoing partnership with Greeley-Evans District 6 Schools with the goal of bringing music education to students of all backgrounds.

For info on new music releases and tour dates, visit the Burroughs’ website.

"The Slip"

"Forever In Love"

Both tracks on the digital 45 are available at Amazon

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Laura Reed Drops Inspirational Anthem “Better Days”

South African-born, Nashville and NC-based singer-songwriter Laura Reed brings the fire on her rousing new track “Better Days. The song is about pushing forward during hard times and not becoming disheartened by life’s many setbacks because things will eventually get better. Reed reflects on the rough periods in her life when she was a struggling artist playing to empty rooms and busking for quarters—and how those bleak days failed to diminish her passion or break her spirit. Instead, they toughened her resolve. Reed’s inclusion of her own personal struggles underscores the song’s strong inspirational theme.

The talented multi-instrumentalist serves up a gutbucket harmonica riff on this dynamic country-tinged anthem. And her powerful vocals are packed with grit and soul. The track has a great mellow section that builds to a triumphant crescendo with Reed belting out a soul-stirring, “Hold on!!”

“Better Days” was produced by Reed and her longtime collaborator producer/singer-songwriter Shannon Sanders, a two-time Grammy winner. It was released on the Nashville-based label Blue Rose Music. The song also has a terrific lyric video, which was directed by Tim Duggan of 5Folds Creative.

Reed has definitely been seeing better days of late. Her music career has been steadily on the rise over the past several years. Her solo debut album The Awakening (2014) was met with high praise from both music critics and fans. And she has made a name for herself as an electrifying live performer who never fails to raise the roof when she hits the stage.

She was named Best R&B Solo Female Artist at the Nashville Industry Music Awards (NIMA) in 2014 and 2015; and she also won the award for Best Live R&B/Soul Performer at NIMA 2015. And Reed’s music video for her song “Dragging My Heart” garnered her a nomination at the Long Island International Film Festival.

Reed’s music has been featured in the films Chloe and Theo (Dakota Johnson, Mira Sorvino); The Cold Light of Day (Bruce Willis, Sigourney Weaver, Henry Cavill); and the Alicia Keys-produced indie film The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete (Jennifer Hudson, Jordin Sparks, Anthony Mackie).

Also, Reed’s uplifting retro soul/pop song “Wake Up” received heavy rotation on Nashville’s independent radio station, Lightening 100, which gained her famous fans such as Sheryl Crow and Debra Messing. And she had the honor of performing the National Anthem twice at Madison Square Garden.

During her music career, Reed's had the opportunity to work with people like George Clinton, Jewel, Robert Randolph, Killer Mike and Karl Denson. And she appeared on both albums by funk supergroup The Big Ol’ Nasty Getdown. Additionally, Reed has shared the stage with acclaimed soul artists such as India.Arie, Miguel, and Anthony Hamilton. And she was the featured artist in a promo for harping legend Lee Oksar’s harmonica line.

Visit Reed’s website for new music releases, concert dates and info on other projects she's involved in.

"Better Days" at Amazon

Related blog entry: Laura Reed: Soulful Songbird Spreads Her Wings

Friday, May 24, 2019

"I Know You Got Soul" by Bobby Byrd

James Brown’s longtime right-hand man Bobby Byrd scored a hit of his own in 1971 with the massively funky single “I Know You Got Soul.” The track is bursting with energy, soul and tons of funk. Byrd’s booming, earthy voice proved a perfect fit for this rousing funk anthem. The instrumentation is provided by Brown’s legendary band, the J.B.’s, so naturally the groove is tighter than a camel’s butt in a sandstorm. The syncopation is on full-tilt with the bass, drums and guitars intersecting to create a joyful rhythmic explosion. Also, J.B.’s bandleader Fred Wesley lays down a greasy trombone solo, and Brown provides some soulful background vocals. In addition to Wesley, the other players on the track are Fred Thomas (bass), John “Jabo” Starks (drums), Jerone “Jasaan Sanford” Melson (trumpet), Hearlon “Cheese” Martin (guitar), Jimmy Parker (alto sax),  Johnny Griggs (congas), Robert Coleman (guitar) and St. Clair Pinckney (baritone sax).

“I Know You Got Soul” was written by Brown, Byrd and Charles Bobbitt. It was produced by Brown and released on King Records.  It peaked at #30 on the Billboard R&B singles chart. In the late 1980s, the song found a new audience when it was embraced by the hip-hop community via sampling. It was sampled by a slew of rap artists, including Public Enemy (“Fight The Power), Eric B. & Rakim (“I Know You Got Soul”), Ice Cube (“Jackin’ For Beats”) and Kid ‘N Play (“Gittin Funky”). And it was sampled on Brown’s 1988 hit “Static,” which featured R&B/hip-hop group Full Force. In all, “I Know You Got Soul” has been sampled on 150 songs. An extended 4:42 version of “I Know You Got Soul” was included on the 1988 compilation album James Brown's Funky People (Part 2).

Other notable Bobby Byrd tracks include “Keep On Doin’ What You’re Doin'," “Hot Pants – I’m Coming, I’m Coming, I’m Coming” and “Funky Soul #1.”

Brown and Byrd had a long history that dated back all the way to the beginning of Brown’s professional music career—and even before that. The two met in 1952 during a baseball game outside of a juvenile detention center in Toccoa, Georgia where Brown was serving time for burglary. Byrd, who was from a religious family, was playing for his local baseball team in a friendly game against the prison team in which Brown was the pitcher. The two teens hit it off as they shared a mutual love of music. Byrd’s family successfully petitioned for Brown’s early release and opened their home to him.

 Byrd was a member of an a cappella group called the Gospel Starlighters. The group later changed its name to the Avons when it adopted a more secular R&B-based sound; they soon changed their name to the Five Royals and finally to the Flames. Brown joined the group as their drummer in 1954, but it wasn’t long before he took over lead-singing duties. The group made a name for itself as a great live act that boasted amazing stage chops and an extremely charismatic front man.  Due to their growing popularity and dynamic live shows, the group began calling themselves the Famous Flames. The headstrong Brown eventually relegated the other members to his background singers, and the group renamed itself one final time to James Brown and the Famous Flames.

The group released their first single “Please, Please, Please” on Federal Records in 1956. It became a big hit on the U.S. R&B singles chart, peaking at #6. The track served as a powerful launching pad for Brown’s incredible recording career, which spanned over four decades.  Byrd and Brown maintained a professional relationship until 1973. In his association with Brown, Byrd had a number of different roles, including background singer, organist, collaborator, hype man, songwriter and arranger.  Byrd was featured prominently on classic tracks such as “Soul Power” and “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine.” And his cowriting credits include Talkin’ Loud & Sayin’ Nothin,” "Licking Stick – Licking Stick,” “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine,” “Get Up, Get in It, Get Involved” and “Lost Someone.”

Byrd is one of the unsung heroes of funk music; his significant contributions to the genre are often underappreciated or completely overlooked. He cowrote some of Brown’s seminal hits that helped push the funk genre forward. And let’s not forget, the world may have never been blessed with Brown’s great talent had it not been for Byrd and his family’s generosity. They recognized Brown’s gifts and potential early on and provided him an environment where those gifts could flourish. He might have fallen back into a life of crime had Byrd not entered his life.

 Byrd was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame posthumously in 2012 as a member of the Famous Flames. He was also a 1998 recipient of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation’s Pioneer Award.

"I Know You Got Soul" at Amazon