Saturday, October 23, 2021

“Sing a Song” by Earth, Wind & Fire

No band could musically convey sheer joy like Earth, Wind & Fire. Their exuberant R&B/pop hit “Sing a Song” is a prime example. The track is overflowing with good vibes and positive energy. It sounds like a carefree outing to the park or beach on a beautiful summer day. The song is about the therapeutic power of music and how it can lift people’s spirits when they’re feeling down. It boasts a stellar arrangement with bright horn lines, energetic guitar riffs and groovin’ bass. And Maurice White and Philip Bailey elevate the track with their vibrant vocals. The track also has a sunny, infectious chorus. This is definitely the cut to bump when you’re having a bad day, but it’s also great to listen to when you’re already in good spirits.

“Sing a Song” was written by White and EWF guitarist Al McKay. It was a studio track from Earth, Wind & Fire’s triple-platinum double-live album Gratitude, which was released on November 11, 1975. The song spent two weeks atop Billboard's R&B singles chart and peaked at #5 on Billboard’s Hot 100 pop chart. The gorgeous ballad “Can’t Hide Love,” another studio cut from the album, had an impressive showing on the Billboard’s R&B singles chart, peaking at #11. 

Gratitude was released on Columbia Records, and it was produced by Maurice White, Charles Stepney and Joe Wissert (live shows). The full band lineup for the album was Verdine White (bass, vocals, percussion), Larry Dunn (piano, organ, Moog synthesizer), Fred White (drums, percussion), Johnny Graham (guitar), Andrew Woolfolk (saxophone, percussion), Philip Bailey (vocals, congas, percussion), Maurice White (vocals, kalimba, drums, timbales, producer), Don Myrick (saxophone), Al McKay (guitar, percussion), Louis Satterfield (trombone), Ralph Johnson (drums, percussion) and Michael Harris (trumpet).

“Sing a Song” was included on the following film soundtracks: Something’s Gotta Give, Think Like a Man, Radio Arrow, The Color of Friendship and the video game For All Mankind Time Capsule. Also, it was sampled on the song “Hey Goldmember,” which BeyoncĂ© sang in the 2002 spy action comedy Austin Powers in Goldmember.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

“Hang Loose” by Mandrill

In 1973, Brooklyn groove outfit Mandrill scored their third hit with the eruptive funk jam “Hang Loose.” The dynamic track showcases the band's formidable musicianship. Fudgie Kae ignites the groove with a killer bass line, and the badass horn section serves up some potent brass funk. The kinetic percussion work and tight rhythm guitar riffs significantly enhance the song's groove quotient. Things shift from urgent hard-hitting funk to smoldering Latin jazz-rock on the instrumental bridge, which features a superb solo from guitarist Omar Mesa. Not to be outdone, Claude “Coffee” Cave lets loose with a scorching organ solo when the band returns to the main groove. 

The song touches on the daily struggle for survival in America, especially for those who live in distressed urban areas, and how this constant struggle places people at odds with one another, which begets violence and other crimes among those in the community.  “Hang Loose” calls for unity and peace and for people to respect one another.

“Hang Loose,” written by Cave, was a single from Mandrill’s third album Composite Truth (1973), released on Polydor Records. The song peaked at #25 on Billboard’s R&B single chart and #83 on Billboard’s Hot 100. The album also contains the band’s biggest hit “Fencewalk” (#19 R&B chart, #52 pop chart). The collection was produced by Alfred V. Brown and Mandrill.

The full band lineup for Composite Truth was Frederick “Fudgie Kae” Solomon (bass, acoustic guitar, percussion, vocals); Neftali Santiago (drums, vocals); Omar Mesa (lead guitar, percussion, vocals); Claude “Coffee” Cave (keyboards, vibraphone, percussion, vocals); Dr. Ricardo Wilson, aka “Doc Ric” (tenor saxophone, alto saxophone, percussion, vocals), Carlos Wilson (trombone, flute, alto saxophone, guitar, timbales, drums, percussion, vocals); Louis “Sweet Lou” Wilson (trumpet, congas, percussion, vocals).

Related blog entry: "Fencewalk" by Mandrill

Monday, September 27, 2021

Celebrated Sax Man, Pioneering Funk Veteran Pee Wee Ellis Dies at 80

Acclaimed jazz saxophonist, composer and arranger Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis died on Thursday, September 23, "following complications with his heart," said a statement shared on his Facebook page. He was 80.

Ellis was a pivotal figure in funk music and made major contributions to the genre’s early development through his work with James Brown. He joined Brown’s horn section in 1965 as an alto saxophonist but later switched to tenor saxophone, his preferred instrument. Within two years of joining the band, he was promoted to Brown’s musical director. Ellis co-wrote and arranged groundbreaking funk classics such as “Cold Sweat,” “Mother Popcorn (You Gotta Have a Mother For Me),“Licking Stick, Licking Stick,” and the iconic black pride anthem “Say it Loud - I’m Black and I’m Proud.” And he contributed his formidable saxophone skills to these influential tracks. The melding of Ellis’s jazz-honed chops with Brown’s gritty rough-and-tumble R&B roots helped bring a dynamic new element to Brown’s nascent funk sound.

In autumn of 1969, Ellis left Brown’s band to explore new music opportunities; he began collaborating with various artists, including George Benson, Hank Crawford and Esther Phillips. And in 1972, Ellis co-founded the jazz-rock funk band Gotham. The members of Gotham were Ellis, Linc Chamberland (guitar), Schuylar "Sky" Ford (vocals, acoustic guitar), Chris Qualles (bass), Frank Vicari (alto and tenor saxophone), John Gatchell (trumpet, flugelhorn), Jimmy Strassburg (drums, congas) and John Eckert (trumpet, flugelhorn). The band recorded some amazing fusion grooves together. 

Between 1979 and 1986, Ellis served as musical director and arranger for Van Morrison’s band and then again from 1995 through 1999. Ellis played on highly praised Van Morrison albums such as Into The Music (1979) and Beautiful Vision (1982).  In 2012, Ellis joined Ginger Baker's Jazz Confusion, a quartet comprising Ellis, legendary Cream drummer Ginger Baker, bassist Alec Dankworth and percussionist Abass Dodoo. They toured in 2013 and 2014, thrilling appreciative music fans with their stellar musicianship.

In the late ‘80s, Ellis formed the J.B. Horns with former James Brown horn players Maceo Parker (saxophone) and Fred Wesley (trombone). This trio brought heaps of funk onstage and in the studio. They also frequently backed singer/performer Bobby Byrd, another James Brown alumnus, in concert. In the early ‘90s, Ellis formed his own band, the Pee Wee Ellis Funk Assembly. The band remained active, touring and recording, for years. 

Ellis had a tremendous impact on contemporary music, leaving a large footprint in funk, jazz, R&B and jazz-funk. His far-reaching legacy will not be forgotten.

"Cold Sweat," part 1 and 2

                                        "Ease My Mind" by Gotham

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

“Queen Of Clubs” by KC & The Sunshine Band

KC & The Sunshine Band dropped this electrifying dance track in 1974. This hot cut displayed the Miami-based disco-funk outfit’s considerable talent at crafting potent booty-shaking dance grooves. The song is about an avid clubgoer who’s a legend of the club scene due to the excitement she always brings to the dance floor. This track has a rawer, grittier sound than the band's more polished disco chart-toppers that would come later. The groove pulsates with energy and funk; it’s driven by a ferocious beat that’s complemented by a dirty bass line. And the sizzling rhythm guitar licks significantly increase the groove’s funk level, while the horns blast tight salvos of brass fire. Frontman Harry Wayne Casey, better known by his stage name K.C., delivers an enthusiastic and soulful lead vocal performance. And the irresistible chorus takes the track over the top.

“Queen Of Clubs” was the third single from KC & The Sunshine Band’s debut album, Do It Good, released in 1974. It was co-written by Casey and producer, songwriter, percussionist Willie Clarke. It peaked at #66 on Billboard’s Hot 100, and it climbed to #25 on the Billboard’s R&B singles chart. The song performed extremely well in the UK, rising all the way to #7 on the charts. 

Do It Good, produced by Richard Finch, is a solid collection of R&B and funk tracks. In addition to “Queen of Clubs,” other album highlights include the super-funky title track and the infectious grooves “Blow Your Whistle” and “Sound Your Funky Horn.” The full band lineup for the album was Casey (keyboards, vocals), Jerome Smith (guitar), Richard Finch (bass, drums, percussion), Ken Faulk (trumpet), Oliver Brown (percussion), Vinnie Tanno (trumpet), Mike Lewis (tenor saxophone), Fermin Goytisolo (percussion), Whit Sidner (baritone saxophone), Beverly Champion (background vocals), Margaret Reynolds (background vocals) and Jeanette Williams (background vocals). And guest musicians included Jimmy “Bo” Horne, George McCrae, Gwen McCrae and Betty Wright, all of whom provided background vocals. 

Following Do It Good, KC & The Sunshine Band rode a string of global dance smashes to superstardom, becoming one of the hottest disco acts on the planet. The band was the first act to have four number-one singles on the pop charts in a 12-month period since the Beatles in 1964. They won a Grammy in 1978 for their contribution of “Boogie Shoes” to the massively popular Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. And the band received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2002.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

“You Gotta Believe” by the Pointer Sisters

Richard Pryor and the Pointer Sisters on the Car Wash set
Richard Pryor and the Pointer Sisters on Car Wash set
“You Gotta Believe” is one of the Pointer Sisters’ funkiest tracks. The bodacious groove lands smack dab in the funk zone and doesn’t let up. The song showcases the legendary group’s powerful gospel-infused vocals. The talented quartet brings tons of soul and fiery conviction to the mix. They kick things off in epic fashion with, “Doodle wop a-rat-a-tat boom/I'll make the sound of a jet plane zoom.” That’s one hell of an opener. Rose Royce bassist Lequeint "Duke" Jobe serves up a wicked thumpin’ bass line that’s sure to bring a big smile to the faces of funk lovers and bass players. The track also features some dirty guitar licks and a mammoth rumbling beat. 

The Pointer Sisters performed the song in a spirited scene from the 1976 cult comedy classic Car Wash. They play the Wilson Sisters, who are devoted acolytes of a silver-tongued Reverend Ike-type evangelist named Daddy Rich, portrayed with verve and devilish charm by Richard Pryor. Although the song is specifically directed at the character Abdullah, it could be taken in a broader context and applied to anyone who shares a similar attitude. It’s about how many people these days don’t have any faith, hope or belief in anything and often imprison themselves mentally with their own negativity, cynicism and anger—and they frequently take it out on others rather than taking a hard look at themselves. And the fact that the Wilson Sisters are followers of a rapacious charlatan doesn’t make their message any less valid. Sometimes deep wisdom can come from the mouths of snakes. The lyrics also have an underlying feminist theme and reflect on the tensions between black women and black men during that time. The Wilson Sisters indirectly ask the militant Abdullah if they can be allies in his “revolution” as opposed to them being adversaries. But he first needs to drop his chauvinistic and disdainful attitude toward black women before they can work together for the common good of the movement.

“You Gotta Believe” was co-written by Jobe and Rose Royce drummer Henry Garner, who also played drums on the track. The other players on the song were guitarists Kenji Brown and Melvin “Wah Wah” Ragin, who were both members of Rose Royce. 

The song was included on the Car Wash soundtrack, which was produced by Norman Whitfield. And it’s the only track on the album that wasn’t sung by a member of Rose Royce. “You Gotta Believe” had a pretty strong showing on the U.S. R&B singles chart, peaking at #14.

The Pointer Sisters—Anita, June, Bonnie and Ruth—already had a few hits and a Grammy under their belt by the time they recorded “You Gotta Believe,” and their appearance in Car Wash helped further increase their popularity. Their star steadily continued to rise in the ensuing years, and by the ‘80s, they were one of the biggest music acts in the world with a string of huge crossover hits to their credit. They received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1994 and were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2005. The group earned three Grammys during their career. 

Bonnie left the Pointer Sisters in 1977 to pursue a solo career and signed with Motown Records the following year. She landed several modest hits as a solo artist. Her biggest hit was a disco cover of the Elgins’ song “Heaven Must Have Sent You” ( #11 pop charts, #8 on the dance charts, and #52 on the R&B chart). She died last year from Cardiac Arrest at age 69. Anita and Ruth are the only surviving original members of the group. 

The Pointer Sisters performing "You Gotta Believe" in a scene from Car Wash

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Sly Stone taking the audience "Higher!" 
This powerful award-winning documentary takes a comprehensive look at the Harlem Cultural Festival. The free concert series was held in the summer of 1969—from June 20 through August 24—at Mount Morris Park (now known as Marcus Garvey Park), which is on the border of Harlem and East Harlem. It was held over six consecutive weekends, and more than 300,000 people attended. The festival was a rousing celebration of black music and culture. It was designed to be a positive and uplifting event that would raise people’s spirits and reinforce their sense of community and bring them together.

Ahmir “Questlove ”Thompson makes an auspicious directorial debut with Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). The acclaimed musician directs this absorbing documentary with the sure hand of a seasoned filmmaker. 

The long list of artists who performed at the festival reads like a veritable who’s who of influential black music legends. Some of them included Steve Wonder, Sly & the Family Stone, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, Gladys Knight and the Pips, David Ruffin and the Staples Singers. 

In addition to concert and archival footage, the documentary contains commentary from several people who attended the festival as well as some of the performers. It’s fascinating to hear firsthand accounts from attendees as they relive their experiences while watching the concert footage. Since the festival’s footage had been locked away in a basement for 50 years, it was the first time they'd seen the performances since they attended the festival back in ‘69. The festival was a life-changing experience for many of the attendees, and this great documentary provided them a platform to express how much it meant to them and how it has impacted their lives. “That concert was like a rose comin’ through cement,” said poet and playwright Roger Parris, who was in attendance at the festival.

One of the documentary's most touching moments comes when the 5th Dimension founding member Marilyn McCoo tears up while watching their festival performance. At the time, the group was often accused of “not sounding black enough.” However, McCoo and her husband Billy Davis Jr. (also a founding member of the 5th Dimension) explained that they loved all kinds of music and that the 5th Dimension’s sound encompassed several different styles, including pop, R&B, soul and jazz influences; and they asked, “How do you color a sound?” It was clear that those “too-white-sounding” accusations stung the couple. So it meant the world to them to have the opportunity to perform at the festival and be received so enthusiastically. A tearful McCoo said, “We were so happy to be there.”

Another emotional moment is when Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples take the audience to church with a soul-stirring rendition of the gospel song “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” It was incredible to watch these two vocal powerhouses bounce off one another with revival-meeting fervor. In her commentary, Staples warmly reminisced about that moment and expressed how much of an honor it was to share the microphone with her “idol” and “hero” Mahalia Jackson. The performance was dedicated to the memory of  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated a little over a year earlier. It was the Nobel Peace Prize-winning civil rights leader’s favorite song. He’d often invite Jackson to perform  it at his rallies and speeches. 

Groundbreaking band Sly & the Family Stone dazzled the audience with its electrifying gumbo of funk, rock, gospel, soul and psychedelia. The band kicked off its set with a ferocious performance of “Sing a Simple Song.” The exhilarating set also included their chart-topping smash “Everyday People.” And for the finale, they delivered a roof-raising performance of “I Want To Take You Higher” where Sly Stone engaged in some spirited call-and-response with audience members exhorting them to yell “Higher!” as loud as they could. The band’s original drummer and founding member Greg Errico provided commentary. He said: “Sly wanted to address everybody and everything. Music was the common denominator. And music made you want to challenge social aspects that needed to be challenged. And that’s what we did.”

Nina Simone brought attitude, elegance and soul to the stage during her set, which included a luminous performance of her song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” This was her debut of the inspirational black pride anthem; she would record it two months later at a concert at Philharmonic Hall for her live album Black Gold (1970). The Harlem Cultural Festival was the perfect venue to debut the song as there were many young black people in the audience who needed to hear it and be inspired by it. She also performed “Backlash Blues,” a scathing protest poem by Langston Hughes that Simone set to music. This festival performance showed what a formidable artist Simone was and why she’s such a revered cultural icon. 

A 19-year-old Stevie Wonder displayed his incredible talent and versatility during his set. He first wowed the audience with a wicked drum solo during his performance of the Isley Brothers’ smash “It’s Your Thing,” and then he scorched the stage with a sizzling clavinet solo—played through a wah-wah pedal—on an extra-funkified version of his hit "Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day.” Little did anyone know that Stevie hadn’t even scratched the surface of his prodigious musical gifts at that point in his career. He would go on to completely alter the landscape of popular music in the next decade through a string of brilliant albums.

A plethora of music styles were represented at the Harlem Cultural Festival, including blues, soul, jazz, gospel, funk, R&B, Latin, African, Caribbean and more. And the festival attracted great artists who hailed from all parts of the globe, including legendary South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, who famously melded American jazz with African folk. The documentary also touched on how Latin and black music intersected in Harlem. Puerto Ricans, Cuban Americans and Dominican Americans who lived in East Harlem influenced the music of their African-American neighbors and vice versa. This birthed fusion styles such as Afro-Cuban jazz. Pioneering Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria performed his popular Afro-Cuban jazz rendition of Herbie Hancock’s jazz standard “Watermelon Man” at the festival. Santamaria’s version of the song is a great example of how fusing Latin elements with African American-influenced jazz can often reap amazing results.

In addition to showcasing the amazing musical performances, Summer of Soul examines the festival’s cultural significance and the historical context of when it took place. During that period, the black community was experiencing a dramatic ideological shift. Attitudes and worldviews were rapidly changing among black Americans. As one commentator put it: “1969 was a change of era in the black community,” and another said, “We were creating a new world.” A number of young black activists at the time were adopting a more aggressive stance in fighting racial injustice; the feeling among this group was that the peaceful nonviolent approach advocated by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders had run its course and a more confrontational one was necessary to effect major change in the system. In Rev. Al Sharpton’s commentary, he pointed out that by 1969 there was a clear divide in the black community between those advocating violence and those who believed that nonviolence was still the most effective means of battling systemic racism.

The Black Power Movement was in full swing at the time. The movement pushed for black autonomy and self-determination and the building of social, economic and political power within the black community. And revolutionary group the Black Panther Party was really starting to gain traction and had chapters in major cities across the U.S. Also, many black Americans were embracing their African roots; this was reflected in their fashion, art, hairstyles and music. Wearing African attire was not just a fashion statement but a political one as well. It served as a subtle act of rebellion against the norms of and traditions of the dominant white culture, as well as an expression of pride in one’s African ancestry. Many audience members at the festival proudly wore their African-influenced clothing and hairstyles. Sharpton succinctly summed up this change of mindset in the black community: “‘69 was the pivotal year where the Negro died and Black was born.”

Summer of Soul thoroughly explores all of these developments to give viewers a better idea of what was going on in the black community at the time of the festival. This adds an extra emotional punch to the film and underscores the festival’s great historical importance.

The entire festival was filmed by veteran TV producer Hal Tulchin. He later tried to sell the footage as a television special, but no one was interested. The festival was overshadowed by Woodstock, which took place that same summer just 100 miles away in Bethel, New York. Woodstock got all the mainstream media attention, while the Harlem Cultural Festival was completely ignored. Tulchin even began calling it the “Black Woodstock” in hopes that it would raise some interest, but to no avail. 

Fortunately, thanks to Questlove and the many others involved in the making of Summer of Soul  (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), the festival is finally getting the recognition and shine it deserves. Now people of all ages and races will know how significant it was and can experience it through this fantastic documentary. 

Summer of Soul has been showered with praise by film critics and has won several prestigious awards, including both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.  And it currently has a near-perfect 99% fresh score rating at American review-aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes. 

Monday, June 28, 2021

Music Duo BAD Parties On “Jupiter”

NYC-based music duo BAD (Julia Brex and Jackson Hoffman) are back with another offering of their infectious brand of throwback dance pop. Their new single “Jupiter ''effectively captures the feel-good vibe of synth-driven 1980s dance grooves. The duo couldn't have chosen a better time to release this exuberant track; it’s the perfect summer jam—great for grooving to at the beach, bumpin’ in your ride or blasting at the family cookout. And it coincides well with the recent lifting of many of the Covid-19 restrictions. The track is filled with great melodic hooks and exquisite keyboard and synth lines. Hoffman’s production work is topflight as usual, and Brex’s shimmering vocals lift the track to the stratosphere. The song also boasts an indelible sing-along chorus. And Philip Lassiter’s superb horn arrangement further enhances the track’s uplifting tone. 

“Jupiter” is about leaving Earth to party with some fun-loving extraterrestrials at an interplanetary bash. In a recent interview, the duo said the song was inspired by the Covid-19 pandemic and the need to “escape to another reality.” And they want the song “to help spin us out of this state of retrograde we’ve been living in.”

Singer-songwriter Brex and Hoffman, a producer/arranger/multi-instrumentalist, have been writing and recording music together for a decade now. They formed BAD in 2018, and it was born out of  their mutual love for funk music. Since BAD’s formation, the duo has dropped several stellar tracks, which all contain their distinct and irresistibly funky retro sound. And their song “Refresher” is featured in the new comedy-thriller The Misfits, which stars Pierce Brosnan, Nick Cannon, Jamie Chung and Tim Roth.