Thursday, September 24, 2009

Earth, Wind & Fire: Musical Messengers on a Mission

Earth, Wind & Fire
Earth, Wind & Fire were a band to be reckoned with throughout the 1970s and early ‘80s. Led by Maurice White, former session drummer for Chess Records and player for The Ramsey Lewis Trio, EWF took the music world by storm with a slew of R&B and pop hits and dazzling concerts.

One of the things that set Earth, Wind & Fire apart from a lot of other popular R&B bands at the time was the cosmic, mystical air they had about them. They came across as musical sages with an important message to share with the world. Indeed, EWF were a band on a mission, and their quest was to spread positivity and inspire their listeners. They took on the role of spiritual cheerleaders for their audience, preaching self-reliance, self-awareness and self-improvement. EWF tried to instill in their listeners that they could achieve anything if they set their minds to it. And for some reason, all this felt genuine and not just a good marketing gimmick.

But in order to get people to listen to your message, you’ve got have something to grab their attention first, and EWF were more than up for the challenge. White assembled a group of the baddest players this side of P-Funk. The band included bass virtuoso Verdine White (Maurice’s brother) and singer/songwriter/percussionist Philip Bailey, who possesses a four-octave vocal range and a beautiful falsetto that would make Smokey Robinson envious. Rounding out the line-up were the super-tight Phenix Horns (Don Myrick saxophones, Louis "Lui Lui" Satterfield trombone, Rahmlee Michael Davis trumpet and Michael Harris trumpet); keyboard wizard Larry Dunn; talented axe men Al McKay, Roland Bautista and Johnny Graham; and dynamic drummers Ralph Johnson and Fred White (brother to Maurice and Verdine).

And then there’s Maurice White, founder and leader of EWF. As the band's guiding light, White wore many hats: songwriter, drummer, producer, arranger, timbales and kalimba player, and vocalist. And he handled all these duties with equal brilliance. In addition, White was a great showman who knew how to take control onstage and immediately connect with the audience.

Earth, Wind & Fire's music moved listeners of all ages, races and nationalities. The band’s sound was as multicolored as their costumes--a rich stew of funk, jazz, Latin, rock, African, pop, gospel and soul. They could jump from roof-raising funk to catchy pop to intricate jazz to gorgeous ballads and do it all well. The band was on a winning streak in the ‘70s, dropping hit after hit, including “Mighty Mighty,” “Shining Star,” “Can't Hide Love,” “Reasons,” “Boogie Wonderland,” and “Fantasy.” And they were not just a great singles’ band but also had strong cohesive albums, such as That's the Way of the World, All ‘N All and Gratitude. Moreover, the band has sold more than 90 million albums worldwide and won six Grammys.

And their concerts were captivating displays of impeccable musicianship combined with great showmanship and elaborate stage sets—sort of like Miles Davis meets P.T. Barnum. They even hired magicians Doug Henning and David Copperfield to make their shows even more spectacular.

During the ‘70s and early ‘80s, EWF earned their spot as one greatest bands of all time, even having some critics dub them “The Black Beatles.” But EWF didn’t need to be compared to any band, because they were amazing and unique in their own right. No one will ever forget the mighty Earth, Wind & Fire as they left an indelible mark on popular music.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

James Brown: Still Underrated After All These Years

James Brown Photo by Soul Portrait

Although James Brown has received tons of accolades for his incredible talent, I feel that he is still underrated. By many, he’s remembered as a tremendously gifted showman who released great records to dance to. However, that is just scratching the surface of what the legendary artist had accomplished in his 50-year career in the music industry. Much more than just a great entertainer, Brown was one of the most important and influential music artists of the 20th century.

During the mid-1960s, Brown reshaped the musical landscape with the creation of a raw, rhythm-heavy form of R&B that we’ve come to know as funk. This new music style was polyrhythmic and heavily syncopated and more earthy than most of the R&B that was heard on the airwaves at the time. The rhythm took precedence over melody and harmonies in this fresh new sound, which was quite unique at the time. Brown's grooves were explosive; the guitars, bass, drums, and horns ricocheted off one another to form the sonic equivalent of a combustion engine. In Brown's hands, all the instruments functioned as percussive components in support of the groove. Funk is all about the groove and how it moves the listener on an instinctive and visceral level.

Additionally, Brown’s funk possessed a tribal edge and had direct ties to his African roots. Funk immediately connected with America's black youth. It spoke to them in a way that no other previous genre ever had. Funk represented the freedom of pure black expression with all of its visceral power and authenticity intact. It was rebellious, aggressive, unabashed and in-your-face, not tamed and watered-down for easy mainstream consumption. Consequently, the existence of funk alone was a huge political statement. Before long, people of all races and social standing around the world began to embrace the funk. The power of "the One" was just too strong to ignore or deny.

Funk took center stage in the ‘70s with the emergence of popular funk bands such as Earth, Wind & Fire, The Ohio Players, Kool & The Gang and The Average White Band. These bands charged full force through the funky path that Brown had blazed for them the previous decade. In addition, innovative, groundbreaking music acts such as Sly & the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder and Parliament-Funkadelic expanded on Brown’s blueprint, adding their own unique touches to the  genre. And in that decade, Brown remained at the top of his game, dropping countless funk classics, including “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine,” “Funky Drummer,” “Super Bad ” and “The Payback.”

Moreover, Brown’s dynamic performance style also proved to be very influential. Superstar artists/performers like Michael Jackson, Prince and Mick Jagger owe a great debt to the Godfather of Soul. When you watch their live performances, Brown’s influence is undeniable.

Additionally, his grooves were the foundation for early rap records via samples. Hip-hop music wouldn’t have even existed without Brown’s funk. And he anticipated rap on early-‘70s records such as “Escape-ism” and “King Heroin” in which he spoke the lyrics instead of singing them. And let’s not forget “Say It Loud - I’m Black and I’m Proud,” one of the most iconic black pride anthems of all time, where he rapped the main verses and only sang on the song’s famous chorus and the bridge.

Disco music was another descendant of funk. In fact, most contemporary dance music can be traced back to Brown’s early funk grooves--house, techno, trance, trip hop, jungle/drum ‘n’ bass, breakbeat, etc. And Brown’s influence is not only restricted to R&B, hip-hop and dance music; it also can be heard in pop, rock and even alternative music. Alternative funk-metal bands such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, Primus and Faith No More are all products Brown's pioneering funk innovations decades earlier.

And if that weren’t enough to remove any doubts of Brown’s massive impact on popular music, let’s take a peek his accomplishments on the charts. He had 99 singles make Billboard’s top 100. The only artist to have more was Elvis Presley. Additionally, he had a staggering 116 entries on the Billboard’s R&B singles charts, seventeen of which went to number one. Only Stevie Wonder and Louis Jordan had more number ones on the R&B charts.

Also, his concerts were the stuff of legend. Brown (aka “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” and "Mr. Dynamite") electrified audiences all over the world with his powerhouse performances and set the bar unbelievable high for every performer who came after him.

As a way to measure Brown’s amazing legacy, try to imagine what popular music would be like without him… didn’t think you could.

James Brown & the Famous Flames turn out the T.A.M.I. Show with an explosive, history-making performance in 1964.

James Brown and the original J.B.'s tear up the stage on an Italian TV show in 1971.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Underrated Bass Players

This is a list of some great players whose talents I think have been sorely overlooked:

Verdine White (Earth, Wind & Fire) - I know he's respected by his peers and music journalists, but his name rarely comes up on music forums when people make up lists of great bass players. Verdine is wizard on the instrument, and more people need to recognize his gifts.

Colin Moulding (XTC) - He always brought something interesting to his bass lines, great melodic sense combined with amazing technical precision.

Jermaine Jackson - I've heard some people don't even believe he ever actually played the bass on any of the Jackson 5 or Jacksons' songs or any of his solo work, but rather had a stand-in playing his bass parts. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jermaine is a consummate bass player who held down the bottom on the Jacksons' tunes as well as his solo work. I think many people were so mesmerized by his brother MJ that they often overlooked his considerable talents.

Carol Kaye - She played bass on several of the Beach Boys hits and was a Motown session player and added bottom to a number of Phil Spector productions. And that's not even scratching the surface of all of her accomplishments on the instrument. But for some reason, she never got the recognition that someone like James Jamerson received.

Cordell "Boogie" Mosson and Rodney "Skeet" Curtis - Both brought heavy doses of funk as bass players for the P-Funk army but were usually overshadowed by the more flamboyant Bootsy Collins.

Prince - Yeah, I said it. He's more recognized for his guitar-playing abilities, but if you really listen to some of his bass work, you'll realize he's a helluva player on the instrument.

The Top Five Songs Written By Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson has garnered heaps of well-deserved praise for his gifts as a singer, performer and dancer over the years. But his songwriting abilities are frequently underrated or completely overlooked. I've run into many otherwise musically knowledgeable people who didn't even know he had written and composed many of his best and most iconic tracks. They were under the impression that all of his songs were written by others.

The pop/soul superstar was more than just a song-and-dance man or producer's puppet but an extremely creative artist who played a integral part in the creation of his own sound and musical direction. So with that in mind, I decided to put together a list of what I think are the top five songs MJ wrote and composed.

1) Billie Jean - This song is epic in every way. I can say without hesitation that "Billie Jean" is one of the greatest pop songs ever recorded, from its pulsating bass/drum intro to MJ's anguished vocals to the haunting string and synth flourishes. And let's not forgot the incredible chorus. He's touched on similar themes of paranoia, betrayal and fear on other tracks but never more brilliantly than on "Billie Jean."

2) Beat It - Rock, pop and R&B wrapped into one exhilarating package. "Beat It" boasts a monster riff that any rocker would be proud to call his or her own, and MJ bites into every verse with a sense of urgency and clenched anger. And the icing on the cake is Eddie Van Halen's face-melting guitar solo.

3) Stranger In Moscow - MJ's voice aches with sadness on this beautiful, atmospheric meditation on loneliness and isolation. The song is magnificently arranged with gorgeous harmonies and delicate synth lines--a criminally underrated gem.

4) Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough - I like how the intro is just MJ speaking softly over a hypnotic synth bass line and slight percussion, and then suddenly, the track explodes into this amazing whirlwind groove. From the soaring string parts to the percolating guitar and keyboard riffs to MJ's soul-stirring falsetto, this cut is pure sonic joy.

5) Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' - This was the perfect track to kick off side one of Thriller. The propulsive bass line drives this gargantuan groove, and MJ delivers his verses in funky rapid-fire succession. The song is a rhythmic masterpiece, full of tight brass jolts, infectious keyboard lines and hyper-kinetic guitar riffs. It reaches its climax on the African tribal chant, which is heightened by the multi-overdubs of MJ chanting "mama-say-mama-sa-mama-coosa!"

Other great MJ-penned songs that just missed making the cut:
  • Smooth Criminal
  • Streetwalker
  • Bad
  • Working Day and Night
  • Dirty Diana
  • This Place Hotel
  • Leave Me Alone
  • The Way You Make Me Feel
  • Who Is It

Welcome to Funkatropolis

What's up peeps. This is a blog designed for those who love to read and talk about music. I hope you like it.

To kick things off, here's the late, great singer/guitarist Glen Goins from Parliament/Funkadelic taking the audience to church singing "Mothership Connection."