Sunday, June 7, 2020

"Love and Unity" by The Burroughs

Colorado groove masters the Burroughs recently released their new Eric Krasno-produced digital 45, “Love and Unity.” The track’s positive message of uniting people through music is sorely needed now in the wake of the explosive events that have ripped the country apart. The mass demonstrations and riots following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer were a stark reminder that America is still a greatly divided nation. Floyd’s tragic death sparked a global movement where hundreds of thousands of voices have been raised against rampant police brutality and the bigger underlying issue of systemic racism. The Burroughs’ uplifting song is a welcome breath of fresh air amid all the chaos and racial unrest.

Frontman Johnny Burroughs brings his usual charisma and flair to the lead vocals and gets strong vocal support from his fellow bandmates, especially on the infectious chorus. And the Burroughs’ ace horn section serves up some of its patented brass magic. The high-energy track also boasts an irresistible rhythm guitar riff, phat bass and a blazing funk beat.

“Love and Unity” has the same optimistic tone of Sly & Family Stone’s early counterculture anthems during their pre-There's a Riot Goin’ On days. You can also hear some P-Funk and Ohio Players influence in the mix.

The song has a really cool music video, which was directed by Johnny Burroughs and stars Coloradans Ian Sharkey and Lauren Johnston. Shot in the band’s hometown of Greeley, Colorado, the video is a vibrant celebration of dance and diversity. It has a playful sesame street vibe and is filled with colorful sock puppets and features talented dancers from the Colorado Dance Collective and FoCo Flava.

The B-side of “Love and Unity” is the blistering hard-rock jam “We Got To Stand.” The song’s powerful message of taking a stand against injustice and inequality and speaking out for those who can’t is especially significant in today’s climate. The nine-piece ensemble gets raw and nasty on this ferocious groove, which features some badass organ work and a thunderous beat.

The Burroughs have been bringing their exhilarating brand of “Sweaty Soul Music” to appreciative fans since 2013. The members are Johnny Burroughs (lead vocals); Briana Harris (alto saxophone); Sean Hagemeister (lead guitar); Mary Claxton (drums, vocals), Jeremy Fallis (trombone); Kelsey Shiba (keyboards, vocals); Hayden Farr (baritone saxophone); Brian Claxton (bass); and Alec Bell (lead trumpet).

In light of rising racial tensions and the numerous protests taking place across the country, the Burroughs posted the following message on their Facebook page: “We owe the legacy, creativity, and leadership of black musicians for the existence of the music we love and celebrate. We stand in solidarity against racism and injustice that threatens the safety and freedom of our black friends and neighbors.”

Visit the Burroughs' website to learn more about them.

The official music video for "Love and Unity"

The Burroughs performing "Love and Unity" in the CPR Performance Studio

"We Got To Stand"

"Love and Unity" at Amazon

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

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Groundbreaking Rock ‘n’ Roll Innovator Little Richard Dies At 87

Influential rock ‘n’ roll legend Little Richard died on Saturday morning from bone cancer. He was 87. Born Richard Wayne Penniman in 1932 in Macon, Georgia, Little Richard was one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most important architects. He played a crucial role in the development of the genre during its infancy in the 1950s. The fiery and flamboyant musician’s amazing talent, charismatic personality and powerhouse performances made him a star and a pivotal figure in the burgeoning rock ‘n’ roll movement. His discography includes seminal rock ‘n’ roll classics such as “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” “Tutti Frutti,” “Lucille,” “Rip It Up” and “Long Tall Sally.” Little Richard lit up these tracks with his scorching gospel-infused vocals and explosive piano-playing style. His sound was a potent mix of boogie-woogie, rhythm and blues, gospel and jump blues.

Little Richard’s influence is immense. It reverberates in many corners of the music and entertainment world. And he was a major source of inspiration for iconic artists such as the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Elton John, Prince, the Rolling Stones, James Brown, David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding.

Additionally, Little Richard and his music helped break down racial barriers (playing to audiences made up of black and white fans) during a time when Jim Crow segregation laws were firmly in place and strongly enforced by authorities. He was also one of the earliest well-known recording artists whose stage persona had androgynous elements, blazing a path for many gender-bending artists who followed.

 Little Richard was a trailblazer on several fronts. His many contributions to music and popular culture will forever be remembered and celebrated.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Top Five Bill Withers Songs

Acclaimed soul legend Bill Withers died on March 30 from heart complications. He was 81. Withers was one of the most cherished and respected artists of the 20th century. Throughout the 1970s, he released a string of amazing songs, many of which have become timeless classics. He continued to release great music in the ‘80s, particularly in the early part of that decade. Withers had a rare gift as a songwriter and storyteller that few artists could match. All of his songs possess a sense of authenticity and emotional power that makes the listener believe every word as if it were gospel. Withers’ talents earned him tons of accolades and awards, including three Grammys. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005 and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2015. In recognition of the artist, I’ve made a list of my top five favorite Bill Withers songs. Here is the list in no particular order

Kissing My Love (1973)

This joyous tune touches on a subject that many people can relate to—the feeling of pure euphoria when kissing your sweetheart. The infectious groove features a percolating beat, funky wah-wah guitar licks and a superb string arrangement. And Withers infuses his vocals with heaps of gritty down-home soul. When this cut comes on, you have no choice but to "pat your foot, don't stop/put your foot on the rock.”

Kissing My Love at Amazon

Lean On Me (1972)

“Lean On Me” is a stirring anthem of hope, resilience and solidarity. It has long been a go-to song at public gatherings to lift people’s spirits and bring them closer together; it has been sung in a variety of settings, including school assemblies, church services, AA meetings, sporting events, charity fundraisers, weddings, protest marches and family reunions. This beautiful gospel-soul masterpiece struck a universal chord among listeners and is forever etched in our cultural landscape. There’s even a major motion picture named after it. One of the things that separates “Lean on Me '' from a lot other inspirational songs is the honesty and sincerity that Withers so effortlessly brings to it.

"Lean On Me" at Amazon

Grandma’s Hands (1971)

There is something truly magical about this song. The lyrics are so powerful that they could easily stand on their own as a poem. I can imagine seeing them on the pages of an anthology of great African-American poetry. However, the haunting music arrangement coupled with Withers’ soulful baritone make “Grandma’s Hands” a transcendent piece. The singer reminisces about his late grandmother’s generous spirit and quiet strength. The song showcases what a gifted storyteller Withers was. You can clearly envision the events that he recounts about his beloved “grandma” in the verses.

"Grandma's Hands" at Amazon

Lovely Day (1977)

On this breezy slice of R&B, Withers reflects on the restorative power of love and how it can help a person maintain a positive outlook in the face of life’s many hardships and uncertainties. The song has an uplifting, reassuring tone and is great to listen to when you need a musical boost for your spirits. And the arrangement is topflight—groovin’ bass, soothing horn charts and airy strings. A bit of interesting trivia about the song: Withers set a record for the longest sustained note on a US chart hit when he held a high E note for 18 seconds near the end of "Lovely Day."

"Lovely Day" at Amazon

Use Me (1972)

“Use Me” is the bittersweet tale of a dysfunctional relationship between the song’s narrator and his overbearing, emotionally abusive partner. She humiliates and undermines him at every turn, but he readily endures this mistreatment because the benefits behind closed doors outweigh the abuse: “It ain't too bad the way you're using me/'Cause I sure am using you to do the things you do.” The musical arrangement fits the lyrical content well. The seductive groove is bolstered by Ray Jackson’s funky hohner clavinet and James Gadson’s super-smooth drum pattern. And Melvin Dunlap’s bass work keeps the flow sweet and sexy.

"Use Me" at Amazon

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

“Get It” by Stevie Wonder, featuring Michael Jackson

Stevie Wonder’s 1987 single “Get It” marked the second time that he and Michael Jackson dueted on a song. The superstar pair had previously traded vocals on “Just Good Friends,” a track from MJ’s multiplatinum album Bad (1987). “Get It” is a step up from “Just Good Friends,” which is a rather pedestrian piece of pop/soul fluff. “Get It,” on the other hand, has some real bite to it. Both Stevie and MJ deliver strong vocal performances over a potent dance groove; and Stevie anchors the track with a nasty synth bass line and a bumpin’ electro beat.

The song is about a woman who’s wary of getting into a new relationship due to being hurt too many times. But Stevie and MJ try to convince her that they are different from other guys and can offer her more than just material things, heartbreak and empty promises—and they’ll shower her with tons of “tender love and affection.” The high point of the song comes near the end when MJ and Stevie engage in an epic riff-off to win over the girl; the two artists let loose with some vocal fireworks. It’s a shame that they never got the opportunity to perform this song together live. They surely would have left the stage in ashes if they had.

“Get It” was written, arranged and produced by Stevie. It was a single from his platinum-selling album Characters (1987). He played all the instruments on the track except for the guitar part, which was played by his longtime sideman Ben Bridges. And Mary Lee Evans accompanied Stevie on the background vocals. The song performed extremely well on Billboard’s R&B singles chart, peaking at #4. It also had a strong showing on the Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart, climbing to #11. However, it only made it to #80 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart.

And “Get It” and “Just Good Friends” weren't MJ and Stevie's only music collaborations. MJ and his brothers provided background vocals for Stevie’s chart-topping protest anthem you “You Haven’t Done Nothin,’” a single from the Grammy-winning collection Fulfillingness' First Finale (1974). And Stevie wrote and produced an entire Jackson 5 album in 1974, but it was shelved. One of the songs recorded during those sessions was “Buttercup,” which appeared on the 2009 compilation album I Want You Back! Unreleased Masters.

Additionally, Stevie and Susaye Greene co-wrote the haunting ballad “I Can’t Help It” for MJ’s landmark album Off The Wall (1979). Not long after that, MJ sang background vocals on “All I Do,” a track from Stevie’s 1980 LP Hotter Than July. And in 1985, Stevie and MJ joined a slew of other big-name music artists for the all-star benefit single “We Are The World” to help raise money for famine relief in Africa. The song, which was co-written by MJ and Lionel Richie, sold 20 million copies worldwide and raised millions for famine relief.

MJ and Stevie had similar career paths: Both were child prodigies who began their professional music careers at a very young age; and both got their start at Motown. The two enjoyed highly successful music careers while still preteens and went on to even bigger success as young adults. Upon reaching young adulthood, they successfully pushed for more creative control over their art, which resulted in their best and fully realized work. And both artists’ music helped define a decade—the ‘70s for Stevie and the ‘80s for MJ.

Stevie and MJ were also close friends; and they maintained that close friendship until MJ’s death. The pop/soul legend learned a lot about recording music and songwriting from Stevie. This was mainly through observing Stevie at work in the studio, and he’d just soak it all in like a sponge. In fact, MJ was in the studio when Stevie was putting together his magnum opus Songs in the Key of Life (1976). And what better teacher to learn from about making music than the Wonder man himself? MJ always drew inspiration from the best and applied it to his own work, be it in the studio, on the stage, or in his music videos.

"Get It" at Amazon

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Soul Nova Niki J. Crawford Shines Bright In West Coast Music Scene

Singer/songwriter/performer Niki J. Crawford has been electrifying the West Coast music scene with her impressive vocal gifts, dynamic performances, and rich sonic gumbo of funk, soul, rock, reggae, indie, pop, R&B and blues. The multitalented LA-based artist brings an honesty and authenticity to her recordings and performances; and she always forms a strong connection with her audience at her shows. Her talents have earned her a dedicated and enthusiastic following that stretches across California and beyond.

Crawford has shared the stage with music luminaries such as Al Green, Carlos Santana, Snoop Dogg, Aaron Neville, Macy Gray, the Roots and Sharon Jones. And she has performed on popular late-night television shows such as Late Show with David Letterman, Conan, Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

A versatile singer, Crawford’s vocals can be soothing and reassuring one minute and forceful and brash the next. She rains pure fire on tracks like soul/rock burner “What If,” then turns around and delivers an elegant, understated vocal performance on the majestic “No Fear.”

Crawford was born in a small country town in Springhill, Louisiana. She developed an interest in music at an early age and began singing when she was only six. The talented young singer eventually became the lead soloist in her hometown church choir. And music has been a big part of her life ever since.

Crawford was the lead singer for acclaimed LA funk/soul outfit Orgone for three years before spreading her wings as a solo artist. She has years of touring experience under her belt and has lit up stages all over the world with her immense talent. She's truly a force onstage.

In 2015, Crawford released her EP Genesis Block, a topflight collection of songs. And she released her first full album, The Second Truth, in 2018. This album  also boasts really strong material, all of which was written by Crawford.

In addition to being a recording artist, Crawford has a burgeoning career as an actor; she has appeared in films such as He’s Just Not That Into You, Revival, American Dreamz, Love Ranch, Mr. Sophistication and Killer Diller, which garnered her much praise from film critics. And she has guest-starred on popular TV series such as Ally McBeal and Wanted.

To learn learn more about Crawford, get tour dates, or info on any film projects she may have in the works, visit her website.

Crawford's original song "What If"

Crawford performs "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" at  Long Beach Jazz Festival 2016

Crawford's original song "No Fear"

Crawford's music available at Amazon

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 pore 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