Thursday, April 18, 2019

"The Funky 16 Corners" by The Highlighters Band

In 1969, Indianapolis-bred groove outfit the Highlighters Band shook up the funk game with their track “The Funky 16 Corners.” This potent deep funk cut has been embraced by funk lovers across the globe and is considered an underground classic. The dynamic groove centers around a nasty bass line and is punctuated with funky horn blasts and sick rhythm guitar licks. It also boasts some smooth sax work, a super-tight drum break and a sweet organ solo.

The Highlighters were early disciples of James Brown's funk. “The Funky 16 Corners” captures the same raw, stripped-down sound of the seminal funk classics Brown released in the mid and late 1960s.

The Highlighters were formed in 1963 at Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis, Indiana. The original lineup was Cliff Palmer (sax), Richard “Boola” Ball (organ), Richard Corbin (bass), James “Porkchop” Edwards (drums) and Clifford Ratliff (trumpet). They started off as a jazz band, citing Wes Montgomery “Cannonball” Adderley and the Jazz Crusaders, as major influences.

Following graduation, the members were drafted into the Vietnam War, putting the band on hiatus. Upon discharge, Palmer and Bell reformed the band with new members James Boone (bass), James Brantley (guitar), Dewayne Garvin (drums) and vocalist James Bell. Inspired by the burgeoning  funk revolution that was taking hold across the country, the Highlighters transitioned to a more funk-based sound.

They released their first single “Poppin’ Popcorn” in 1969 on Rojam Records, an imprint owned by WTLC DJ Paul Major. The massively funky instrumental became a popular local favorite and shot to the top of the R&B charts in Indianapolis. The track is often credited with igniting the “popcorn soul” craze and is rumored to have even influenced James Brown’s smash “Mother Popcorn.”

The band quickly followed up with “The Funky 16 Corners.” Written by Bell, the song was inspired by the “Four Corners” dance craze that was blowing up across the country. It was released on the band’s own label, Three Diamonds. They had previously parted ways with Rojam Records due to a falling out with Major over some of his questionable accounting practices. The song was recorded in just one take, and like the band’s previous single, it became a huge regional hit. Riding the momentum of their two hits, the band landed the plum gig as house band at the popular indy nightspot Daddy Ray’s 20 Grand.

The Highlighters were putting together plans for an East Coast tour when their original drummer James “Porkchop” Edwards returned from Vietnam and wanted back into the band. The original members had previously promised him his spot back when he returned from service, so Dewayne Garvin was voted out.

Following Garvin’s exit from the band, disharmony among the members set in, resulting in the departure of Bell and Ball. Three Diamonds issued the single “Trying to Get Chosen” in 1970. The soulful love ballad is credited to James Bell & the Highlighters Band.

The lineup of Palmer, Brantley, Boone and Edwards recorded the mellow jam “Have a Little Faith” for local label Lulu Records before signing to Chess Records. The song is credited to Highlighters. The band traveled to Chicago to record six songs for Chess, but only one track, “Lulu,” was officially released.

After wrapping up their East Coast tour, the Highlighters officially disbanded in 1971. Some of the members worked together again in different bands: Boone, Brantley and Ball reunited for the Rhythm Machine. The band recorded one album and three singles, including the hot funk jam, “The Kick.” However, they were primarily a touring ensemble and spent much more time on the road than in the studio. And the band would pull in large crowds at their live shows.

Bell and Garvin linked up again for the band James Bell & the Turner Brothers, who recorded the minor classic “The Funky Buzzard.” The sizzling groove features a cold-ass drum break from Garvin. Garvin later became the drummer for Marvin Gaye’s touring band in 1974, and he toured with the Motown legend for four years.

The Highlighters have enjoyed a huge resurgence in popularity over the last few decades. Record collectors, DJs and funk aficionados worldwide have rediscovered their music. And their records have been commanding extremely high prices on the collector’s circuit. This renewed interest in the band prompted independent label Stones Throw Records to reissue "The Funky 16 Corners." And in 2001, the label released the funk compilation titled The Funky 16 Corners. The influential compilation contains funk songs and instrumentals recorded between 1968 and 1974 by largely unknown and unsung funk and soul bands. The Rhythm Machine's "The Kick" is included on the compilation as is the compilation's namesake, "The Funky 16 Corners" by the Highlighters Band.

This newfound interest in the Highlighters' music inspired Garvin and Bell to reconnect to form the New Highlighters, with brothers Dan and Clint Jones on guitar and Kenneth Burke on bass. Garvin and Bell even resurrected their old label, Three Diamonds, to release new music.

The Funky 16 Corners compilation is available on vinyl, CD and MP3 at Amazon

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