Sunday, December 10, 2017

“Love Struck” by Jesse Johnson

Guitar wizard Jesse Johnson lays down some wicked funk on his 1988 hit “Love Struck.” The talented musician/songwriter/producer crafted a high-powered dance groove for this cut, which boasts an explosive beat and a booty-shaking bassline. The track also features some tight synth horn parts, and Johnson brings some of his fretboard magic to the mix with a ferocious guitar solo. This dynamic funk track displays Johnson’s considerable gifts as a musician, songwriter, arranger and producer.

“Love Struck” was a single from Johnson’s third studio album, Every Shade of Love, released in 1988.  The track climbed to #4 on the U.S R&B Billboard singles chart and peaked at #13 on the U.S. Billboard Dance Club chart. The song was written, arranged and produced by Johnson, as were all the tracks on the Every Shade of Love album.

Johnson first came into prominence on the national music scene as the lead guitarist and primary songwriter for the legendary Prince-formed funk band the Time. Johnson co-wrote the band’s big hits, “Jungle Love” and “The Bird.”  In 1984, he decided to strike out on his own to pursue a career as a solo artist. The Time was at the height of its popularity during this period due to the band's appearance in Prince’s blockbuster film Purple Rain. Johnson signed a solo deal with A&M Records that year.

The guitarist released three strong albums on the A&M label: Jesse Johnson’s Revue (1985), Shockadelica (1986) and Every Shade of Love (1988). He wrote, produced and arranged all three albums. Johnson only released one solo album in the ‘90s, Bare My Naked Soul (1996), and dropped his last solo album, Verbal Penetration, in 2009.

In addition to his own material, he has produced music for a variety of notable artists, including Janet Jackson, Paula Abdul, Cheryl Lynn and Debbie Allen. He has also worked with groundbreaking music legends Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder. Additionally, Johnson has contributed material to film soundtracks, including the 1996 crime drama A Time to Kill.

In 1990, he briefly reunited with the Time for the album Pandemonium—which he contributed his production, songwriting and guitar skills. He also worked with the band for the Graffiti Bridge soundtrack that year.

Johnson again reunited with all the original Time members for a live reunion performance at the 50th Grammy Awards, which aired on February 10, 2008. And he and the band performed a series of shows at the Flamingo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas that year. Johnson continued to work with the Time (which later changed its name to The Original 7ven) in the ensuing years until finally leaving the band for good in late 2011 and joining up with D’Angelo’s band, the Vanguard. He played on D’Angelo’s critically acclaimed album, Black Messiah (2014), which won a Grammy for Best R&B Album.

Another high point of Johnson’s career was when he performed at the White House as part of an all-star blues band for the PBS special “In Performance at the White House: Red, White and Blues.” The concert took place on February 21, 2012. In addition to Johnson, some of the other performers included B.B. King, Fred Wesley, Mick Jagger, Jeff Beck, Buddy Guy, Trombone Shorty and Gary Clarke, Jr. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama were in attendance for this celebration of blues music, which was held in recognition of Black History Month.

Johnson will be part of D’Angelo’s European tour, which will kick off at London’s Eventim Apollo on March 6, 2018. The tour will also include stops in France, Germany, Sweden and Norway. In addition to Johnson, the other Vanguard members scheduled for this upcoming tour are Bobby Ray Sparks (keyboards), Rocco Palladino (bass), Isaiah Sharkey (guitar), Chris “Daddy” Day (drums) and Red Middleton and Jermaine Holmes (vocals). Visit D'Angelo & the Vanguard's website for more tour info and dates.

Related blog entry:"Crazay" by Jesse Johnson featuring Sly Stone

Monday, November 20, 2017

Stevie Wonder Explores Love, Heartbreak and Spirituality on Fulfillingness’ First Finale

Stevie Wonder released five incredible classic albums from the years 1972 to 1976. It was one of the most impressive runs in the history of popular music.  The multitalented music legend was at the height of his creative powers during these years, which came to be known as his “classic period.” Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1974) was one of his album releases during this period of sustained excellence, inspiration and unadulterated genius.

However, whenever people talk about Stevie’s classic period, the albums most frequently mentioned are Innervisions, Songs in the Key of Life and Talking Book. Fulfillingness’ First Finale seems to be mentioned the least, right behind Music of My Mind. And it’s just as strong a collection as the other classic-era albums, but for some reason, it doesn’t get the same level of love and recognition as the others.

Perhaps First Finale is often overlooked because it was released between Innervisions (1973) and Songs in the Key of Life (1976), Stevie’s two most celebrated landmark albums.  It’s a testament to his great talent and exceptional output during the ‘70s that an amazing album like First Finale could be overlooked or underrated. Many talented music artists go their entire careers without an album as consistently strong as First Finale.

It should also be noted that First Finale was recorded after Stevie was involved in a terrible car crash in which he sustained life-threatening injuries. The near-death experience stirred a renewed spirituality in the artist. As a result, this LP has a more solemn, introspective tone than his other works from that period, as well as more pronounced spiritual themes.

 “Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away” is a spiritual song in which Stevie laments the fact that God’s love seems so far away during these troubled times of hate and division, and how it’s more important than ever that we embrace “His spirit.” The song possesses a wistful beauty, and Stevie sings his verses in a resigned and melancholy fashion.

Another song from the album with a strong spiritual theme is the elegiac “They Won’t Go When I Go.” Stevie muses on how his soul will go to a place of eternal peace and freedom upon his demise—a destination far away from all the wickedness, sadness, hate and suffering of the world. The song has a dirgelike Chopinesque feel to it, which helps emphasize its somber theme; it also has some soulful gospel shadings. And Stevie’s keyboard work here is superb—on the piano and the T.O.N.T.O. synthesizer. It’s just a brilliant piece of music and one of Stevie’s most underrated songs.

The album also touches on matters of the heart. The resplendent “Too Shy To Say” is an unrequited love ballad. This sonic gem is another example of why Stevie is untouchable as a ballad writer. The track features some exquisite pedal steel guitar work from Sneaky Pete Kleinow, and bass legend James Jamerson contributes his skills on the acoustic bass.

"Creepin’” also focuses on unrequited love with the object of Stevie’s affection invading his dreams at night. He sonically creates a mysterious and haunting atmosphere on this mesmerizing tune. Legendary singer Minnie Riperton brings her vocal magic to the track, and Stevie delivers a sterling harmonica solo.

Stevie decides to funk things up a bit with the irresistible Caribbean-flavored “Boogie On Reggae Woman.” This track features one of his funkiest Moog synth basslines. He’s just riding all over the groove on his Moog bass. And just when you think things can’t get any funkier, Stevie takes the funk up a notch with a smokin’ harmonica solo.

Side two kicks off with the blistering political anthem “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” where Stevie goes in with both barrels on the Nixon administration for its indifference, lies and corruption. This super-funky groove features some sizzling clavinet work from Stevie and some soulful backing vocals from his talented Motown labelmates the Jackson 5 on the “do-do-wops.” It’s one of the musician’s most powerful and scathing political statements on wax.

Following “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” is the bittersweet breakup song “It Ain’t No Use.” Stevie delivers a magnificent vocal performance here and receives strong support from Deniece Williams, Minnie Riperton and Lani Groves on the chorus.

Amid all the spiritual soul searching, heartache and fiery political protest, there are two uplifting tunes on the album to lighten the mood a bit: “Smile Please” and “Bird of Beauty.” “Smile Please” has a very hopeful tone with Stevie urging the listener not to dwell in sadness, because “There're brighter days ahead.” Michael Sembello's delicate guitar work helps enhance the track’s tranquil vibe.

“Bird of Beauty” is about transporting yourself away from all the stress and negativity of the world and taking a mental vacation, where much beauty and true happiness can be found. The song has a soothing tropical flow that’s enhanced by the rich background harmonies provided by Deniece Williams, Lani Groves and Shirley Brewer.

“Please Don’t Go,"another great breakup song, closes out the album. The song has an infectious melody and a stellar arrangement. And Stevie serves up yet another fantastic harmonica solo.

Stevie displayed a broad range of his talents on Fulfillingness’ First Finale. He played most of the instruments on the tracks and was the sole writer of every song, except for “They Won’t Go When I Go,” which he co-wrote with singer/songwriter Yvonne Wright. He co-produced the album with Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil.

Fulfillingness’ First Finale was a huge commercial and critical success. It was lauded by numerous music publications and won three Grammy awards—Best Male Pop Vocal; Best Male Rhythm and Blues Vocal Performance (for “Boogie On Reggae Woman); and the coveted Album of the Year award.

It topped the U.S. R&B album chart for nine non-consecutive weeks and spent two weeks atop the U.S. Pop album chart.  It also topped Canada’s album chart and reached #5 on the UK album chart. The album’s two singles (“You Haven’t Done Nothin’” and “Boogie on Reggae Woman”) also performed extremely well on the charts. “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” topped both the R&B and pop singles charts in the U.S. And “Boogie on Reggae Woman” reached the summit of the U.S. R&B singles chart and peaked at #3 on the U.S. pop singles chart.

Fulfillingness’ First Finale definitely earned its spot alongside Stevie’s other landmark albums from his classic period.  This collection, as with his other albums from that era, captures Stevie in complete control of his musical gifts, equipped with the vision, talent, technical skill and daring to see his creative ideas to their full fruition.

You Haven't Done Nothin'

They Won't Go When I Go

Thursday, November 9, 2017

“Ain’t We Funkin’ Now” by the Brothers Johnson

With the release of their blazing dance track “Ain’t We Funkin’ Now” in 1978, the Brothers Johnson showed once again why they were one of the big dogs of the funk game. Louis “Thunder Thumbs” Johnson’s powerhouse bassline drives this wall-shaking groove, and his brother, George “Lightnin’ Licks” Johnson, unleashes the funk with a scorching guitar solo. Also, the groove is augmented by a tight horn arrangement and Quincy Jones’ flawless production.

This mega-funky joint was a single from the talented duo’s third studio album Blam! (1978). It was co-written by Louis Johnson, Alex Weir, Quincy Johnson, Tom Bahler and Valerie Johnson. In addition to George and Louis, some of the other players on the track included their cousin Alex Weir (rhythm guitar), Steve Schaeffer (drums), Jerry Hey (Trumpet), William Reichenbah (trombone) and Lawrence Williams (saxophone). The track peaked at #45 on the U.S. R&B singles chart.

Blam! was produced by Quincy Jones. It topped the U.S. R&B album chart and climbed to #7 on the U.S. pop album chart. The LP went platinum, as did the other three Brothers Johnson albums that Q produced—Look Out for #1 (1976), Right on Time (1977) and Light Up the Night (1980).

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Influential Rock 'n' Roll Pioneer Fats Domino Dead at 89

Fats Domino, one of rock ‘n’ roll’s founding fathers, died of natural causes on Tuesday, Oct. 24, at his home in Harvey, Louisiana. He was 89. Domino was a towering figure in the music world who made significant contributions to rock ‘n’ roll and its development as a vital new genre in the 1950s.

The New Orleans-bred piano man carved out his own place in music history with his seminal sound, which is a vibrant mix of Delta blues, R&B, Dixieland and jazz. His powerful boogie woogie piano playing was complemented by his rich, soulful baritone voice. And in addition to his considerable musical gifts, Domino would charm audiences with his warm, easygoing personality. His genuine modesty was as big as his talent.

From the mid-'50s to the early '60s, Domino racked up a string of hits, including the standards “I’m in Love Again,” “Blueberry Hill,” “Ain’t That a Shame” “I’m Walkin’” “Blue Monday,” “Whole Lotta Loving" and “Walking to New Orleans.” Many of the songs were co-written by Domino and his longtime songwriting partner Dave Bartholomew.

During his career, Domino had 35 U.S. top-40 hits (11 of which landed in the top 10), and he sold more than 110 million records. He outsold every ‘50s rock act except for Elvis Presley. Additionally, Domino’s million-selling 1949 release “The Fat Man” is widely regarded as one of the earliest rock ‘n’ roll records.

Domino’s importance to modern music can’t be understated. He was one of the key progenitors of the new and exciting rock ‘n’ roll sound that took the music world by storm in the 1950s. And he was a significant influence and inspiration to many music greats, including Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Little Richard, Dr. John, Randy Newman and Elton John.

Moreover, Domino was among the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986—a well-deserved honor for an incredible artist whose music continues to be appreciated by people of all ages across all demographics.

"I'm in Love Again"

"The Fat Man"

Fats Domino performing "Blueberry Hill" on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956

Friday, October 13, 2017

"Funk Gets Stronger (Killer Millimeter Longer Version)" by Funkadelic, featuring Sly Stone

Funk masters George Clinton and Sly Stone
Legendary funk-soul brothers from another mother Sly Stone and George Clinton combine their groove forces for this dope Funkadelic joint. This funky strut of a groove is peppered with infectious horn lines, dirty guitar licks and stellar keyboard and synth parts.

Sly sings most of his verses in a bluesy whisper but occasionally lets loose with a few powerhouse wails to remind listeners that he was still in possession of one of the most soulful voices in funk music. And of course George Clinton is always down for a good funk party and contributes some clever lyrics and catchphrases as well as his signature off-center humor.

In addition to vocals, the multitalented Sly also played drums, keyboards, rhythm guitar and synthesizers on the track. Other players included Eddie “Maggot Brain” Hazel on lead guitar and Sly & the Family Stone alums Pat Rizzo (saxophone) and Cynthia Robinson (trumpet). Sly and Clinton co-wrote and produced the track.

This underrated funk cut didn’t get near enough play back when it was released on Funkadelic’s The Electric Spanking of War Babies album in 1981. In addition to “Funk Gets Stronger,” other great cuts from the album include the percolating “Electro-Cuties” and the lewd, crude and very funky “Icka Prick.”

Sly has recorded and toured with P-Funk off and on over the years and is close friends with George Clinton. Other P-Funk tracks that Sly has contributed his versatile talents include “Hydraulic Pump,” “Catch A Keeper” (both P-Funk All Star cuts), “The Naz” (Funkadelic) and “In Da Kar” by Funkadelic & Soul Clap.  Hopefully, there are more funky collabs to come with Sly, George and P-Funk.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Funkiest Synth Bass Lines

Herbie Hancock working his keyboard magic
The synth bass made its debut on the urban music scene in the early 1970s. It was introduced by groundbreaking artists like Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock, who had begun creating and experimenting with synthesizers in an effort to bring something fresh and unique to their sound. Synthesizers were soon taken up by other black musicians, and by end of the decade, many funk, R&B and disco artists had synth bass lines on their tracks. And by the mid ‘80s, the synth bass had become a fixture in contemporary music and could be heard in a number of different genres.

Listening to some of the great synth bass lines created over the years inspired me to make up a list of my 30 funkiest synth bass lines. Here’s the list in no particular order. 

Flash Light – Parliament 

Keyboard maestro Bernie Worrell took the synth bass to the next level on this galvanic funk classic. His big-bumpin’ Minimoog bass line serves as the funk engine for this roof-raising party jam, which had folks tearing up dance floors back in the day—and still does today.

More Bounce to the Ounce – Zapp 

Zapp’s influential funk classic features a Godzilla-sized synth bass line that forces listeners to surrender to the groove and rush the dance floor.

Living on the Front Line – Eddy Grant

This powerful politically charged reggae track boasts a searing synth bass line served up by the multitalented Eddy Grant, who plays every instrument on the track.

Bad  – Michael Jackson 

The sleek, sinister synth bass line drives this dynamic MJ classic, one of pop/soul legend’s funkiest grooves.

Boogie on Reggae Woman – Stevie Wonder

 Stevie brings bushels of funk and sonic joy through his amazing moog-bass work on this classic track. This song never fails to generate smiles and get heads bobbin’ whenever it’s played.

Smokey – Funkadelic

Bernie Worrell serves up some moog-bass brilliance on this unearthly gospel/funk masterpiece. The Wizard of Woo’s low-end work on this cut is thick, deep and devastatingly funky.

Sign ‘O the Times – Prince

Prince somberly reflects on the sociopolitical ills of the world on this funkified electro-blues chart-topper, which is anchored by a hard-hitting synth bass line.

Chameleon – Herbie Hancock

Jazz legend Herbie Hancock blew the minds of music lovers near and far when he dropped this gloriously funky instrumental back in 1973. This jazz standard features the now iconic synth bass line, which Hancock played on an ARP Odyssey.

Speed Demon – Michael Jackson

MJ brings massive doses of funk and attitude to this smokin,’ fuel-injected groove, which is bolstered by a badass synth bass line. 

Into the Void – Nine Inch Nails

Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor lays down a savage synth bass line on this ferocious industrial-funk groove.

(Not Just) Knee Deep – Funkadelic

Legendary groove master Junie Morrison delivers a sublimely funky Minimoog bass line on this epic funk/dance classic.

I Come Off – Young MC

Rhyme master Young MC spits his tight verses over a treacherous synth bass line on this dope old-school cut.

 Maybe Your Baby –  Stevie Wonder

Stevie delivers some potent synth bass magic on this blisteringly funky tale of heartbreak and infidelity.

Hyperactive! –Thomas Dolby 

 This electrifying new wave/funk hybrid is built around an urgent, stuttering bass line. It’s a truly unique groove that only the mad scientist of synthpop Thomas Dolby could have dream up.

Soft and Wet – Prince

This early Prince joint is filled with stellar synth work, including an irresistibly funky bass line. 

[couldn't find a clip of the original studio recording of the song online]

Atomic Dog – George Clinton

 George Clinton’s iconic and influential funk classic has a super-dope synth bass line that puts some extra stank on the funk.

You Are a Winner – Earth, Wind & Fire

Keyboard wizard Larry Dunn’s hyperkinetic synth bass line catapults this supersonic groove to its funkiest capacity.

Smooth Criminal  –  Michael Jackson 

 This singular R&B/rock/pop gem boasts an indelible synth bass line that immediately hooked listeners upon first play. It’s one of the most memorable and immediately recognizable bass lines in MJ’s discography.

Aqua Boogie (A Psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadoloop) – Parliament

Bernie Worrell lends his keyboard genius—including an ultra-funky Minimoog bass line—to this monster dance-floor groovathon.

Battle Flag – Lo Fidelity Allstars, featuring Pigeonhed

Andy Dickinson's inspired bass work (played on a real bass through synth pedals) significantly elevates the funk level on this exhilarating remix of Pigeonhed’s song.

Got to Give It Up – Marvin Gaye

Music legend Marvin Gaye personally laid down the bumpin’ synth bass line on this influential funk/disco classic. He played it on the RMI harmonic synthesizer.

Drive Me Wild – Vanity 6

This sexy Prince-produced track features a funky robotic-sounding synth bass line.

The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly) – Missy Elliott

Missy Elliott’s blissfully bizarre 1997 hit contains one of the phattest synth bass lines to ever grace a track. I mean this bass line is straight-up obese and insanely funky.

Cash in Your Face – Stevie Wonder

Stevie’s scathing musical statement on housing discrimination features a wickedly funky synth bass line.

Superfly Sister – Michael Jackson 

MJ gets waist-deep in the funk on this super-tight groove, which boasts a bangin’ synth bass line.

Reach for It – George Duke

George Duke’s funkalicious Minimoog bass line sets off this awesome groove in style.

Hey Mr. Jones – Jane Child

Multitalented Canadian artist Jane Child delivers some fantastic low-end synth work on this dark, harrowing peek into drug addiction.

Gloryhallastoopid (Pin the Tail on the Funky) – Parliament

This loose, good-time Parliament groove features a nasty funk bass line on synth.

Natural Born Killaz – Dr. Dre and Ice Cube

Former Death Row keyboardist Priest "Soopafly" Brooks serves up a menacing synth bass line on this diabolical G-Funk joint.

Action Speaks Louder Than Words – Chocolate Milk

This smoldering political-message track is anchored by Robert Dabon’s angry Moog bass line.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

“Scorpio” by Dennis Coffey and The Detroit Guitar Band

Motown guitar legend Dennis Coffey and The Detroit Guitar Band blessed the music world with this incredible instrumental back in 1971. Coffey serves up a potent guitar performance on this sizzling funk/rock cut. The dynamic track also features a terrific drum/conga breakdown, followed by a badass bass solo from famed Funk Brother Bob Babbit. Also, a bit of song trivia: the opening guitar line is actually made up of nine guitar riffs overdubbed by Coffey, spanning three octaves, giving it a more explosive and powerful sound.

 “Scorpio,” written and arranged by Coffey, was a single from his second album, Evolution (1971). The track shot up the charts—peaking at #6 on the U.S. R&B charts and #9 on the U.S. pop charts—and went on to sell a million copies. It’s now considered a funk classic and has been sampled on a number tracks, including “Bust of Move” (Young MC), “Night of the living Baseheads” (Public Enemy), “The Score” (The Fugees, featuring Diamond D), “All My Love” (House of Pain), “We’re All in the Same Gang” (West Coast Rap All Stars), “Jingling Baby” (LL Cool J) and “Mama Gave Birth to the Soul Children” (Queen Latifah, featuring De La Soul).

In addition to Coffey and Babbit, the other players on “Scorpio” are Joe Podorsic (baritone guitar); Ray Monette (tenor guitar); Eddie “Bongo” Brown (congas); Uriel Jones and Richard "Pistol" Allen (drums); Early Van Dyke (piano) and Jack Ashford on tambourine.

Coffey was born in Detroit, Michigan on November 11, 1940. He began playing guitar at age 13 and had his first recording session at 15 where he laid down some hot licks on Vic Gallon’s rockabilly single "I'm Gone" on the Gondola record label in 1956.

In the early ‘60s, Coffey played with the rock ‘n’ roll instrumental band the Royaltones.  The band landed the hits “Poor Boy” and “Flamingo Express.” The Royaltones also played on tracks for other artists, including Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Del Shannon.

During the late ‘60s through the ‘70s, Coffey made a name for himself as a prolific session player for the labels Motown, Invictus and Sussex.  As a member of the Funk Brothers—Motown’s legendary house band—Coffey played on tons of great tracks, many of which went on to become classics. 

Some of the well-known tracks that Coffey played on include “War” (Edwin Starr), “Band of Gold” (Freda Payne), “Someday, We’ll Be Together (Diana Ross and the Supremes) and the following Temptations songs: “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today),” “Cloud Nine,” “Psychedelic Shack,” “I Wish It Would Rain” and “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me).” 

Coffey’s creative use of distortion, Echoplex, fuzz tone and wah-wah pedals helped enhance the psychedelic-soul flavor on some of the Norman Whitfield-produced tracks for the Temptations.

Coffey also played on Funkadelic’s 1970 self-titled debut album, contributing his strong fretboard skills to the haunting, freakafied joint “Mommy, What’s a Funkadelic?”

The guitarist, composer and producer released his first album, Hair and Thangs, in 1969. He dropped his third album, Goin’ for Myself, in 1972. The album contains the exhilarating rock/funk instrumental “Taurus.” The track performed well on the U.S. singles charts, climbing to #11 on the R&B charts and #18 on the pop charts.  And the album peaked at #37 on the U.S. R&B album charts.

Following Goin’ for Myself, Coffey continued doing session work as well as dropping several more solo albums on the Sussex and Westbound labels. And he, along with Mike Theodore, produced and arranged the 1972 international smash “Nice to Be With You” by soft-rock band Gallery. 

The guitarist also holds the distinction of being the first white artist to perform on Soul Train. Coffey and The Detroit Guitar Band performed “Scorpio” on the super-hip music-dance television program on January 8, 1972.

Additionally, Coffey scored the 1974 Blaxploitation martial arts flick Black Belt Jones, which starred Jim Kelly. The film is now considered a cult classic.

Coffey continues to gig and record music. He recently released the album Hot Coffey in the D: Burnin’ at Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge, which is a live album that was recorded in 1968.

Check out Coffey’s official website for upcoming concert dates and other info.