Monday, November 24, 2014

"Strollin’ With Nolen" by Jimmy Nolen

Acclaimed axeman Jimmy “Chank” Nolen showed off his prodigious guitar skills on this smokin’ rhythm-and-blues instrumental. This jumpin’ groove no doubt had folks cuttin’ a mean rug way back in the day. And you can’t go wrong with a hot sax solo. Nolen wrote and arranged the track, which was released in 1956 on Federal Records, a subsidiary of Cincinnati-based King Records.

Nolen is widely celebrated in the funk community as one of the genre’s most influential guitarists. During his long tenure as lead guitarist for James Brown’s band, he played on a number of seminal tracks that helped launch funk music—which became an important and integral part of contemporary music. Nolen is credited with inventing the chicken-scratch guitar lick, a signature of the rhythm-driven funk sound. He played his famous chicken-scratch lick on Brown’s 1965 classic “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” which is considered by many as the first funk record.  Due to his creation of the chicken-scratch lick and his pivotal contributions to a slew of influential funk tracks, Nolen is known as the “Father of Funk Guitar.”

Nolen was born on April 3, 1934 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He became interested in music at a very young age and began playing the violin when he was nine. And after listening to records by legendary blues guitarist T-Bone Walker, he picked up the guitar at age14. Before long, Nolen was impressing audiences at local clubs with his considerable guitar chops. He was eventually discovered by blues singer Jimmy Wilson, who caught him playing at a club in Tulsa. Wilson quickly recruited the talented young guitarist for his band. Shortly thereafter, Wilson brought Nolen to Los Angeles, where he began playing guitar for trumpeter Monte Easter and tenor saxophonist Chuck Higgins.  During this period, Nolen was also cutting his own tracks on Federal Records, including “Strollin’ With Nolen,” “It Hurts Me Too” and “Movin’ On Down The Line.”

Nolen joined Johnny Otis’ band in 1957, replacing guitarist Pete “Guitar” Lewis. Nolen played on Otis’ R&B smash “Willie and the Hand Jive,” released in 1958. Nolen left Otis’ band in 1959 to form his own R&B outfit, called the Jimmy Nolen Band. The band gigged around California and Arizona’s “chitlin circuit,” playing small clubs and ballrooms. And the band backed several big-name blues acts who came through Cali. The band only cut one track in the five years that they were together, as their key purpose was to make a name for themselves as a great backing band. By the early ‘60s, Nolen was backing blues harp legend George “Harmonica” Smith and leading his own band.

Nolen’s soulful, gritty playing style would eventually catch the attention of James Brown. He joined Brown’s band 1965 and helped the legendary artist/performer make music history by playing on tracks that ushered in a new dynamic sound known as funk. Nolen remained with Brown for pretty much the remainder of his career, save for a two-year period (1970-1972) in he which played with Maceo & All the King’s Men; Brown’s controlling, mercurial behavior and tightfistedness got to be too much for most of the original members, which resulted in a mass defection in 1970. However, Nolen rejoined Brown’s band in early ’73, where he would remain until his death on December 18, 1983. 

The stoic axeman quietly made his mark on the music world. His contributions to funk are undeniable, and his influence as a guitarist is massive.

The Rhythm & Blues Years CD by Jimmy Nolen at Amazon

Friday, November 14, 2014

Review of Brick’s Self-Titled Second Album

In 1977, R&B/funk/jazz band Brick followed up their successful debut album, Good High (1976), with this surprisingly strong effort. The Atlanta-based quintet easily sidestepped the dreaded sophomore slump with this winning collection of R&B, funk, jazz, dance and pop. It proved that the success of Good High was no fluke, and Brick was definitely a band to be reckoned with. The LP is chock full of great tracks that make for a very cool and enjoyable listening experience.

One of the album’s biggest highlights is the sunny, upbeat cut “Ain’t Gonna Hurt Nobody.” This breezy mix of soul, pop and jazz is pure sonic joy. Its irresistible chorus will have you singing along. Also, Jimmy Brown serves up a superb trombone solo, and axman Regi Hargis  Hickman sweetens the groove with his dope guitar work. The song saw some significant chart action, climbing to #7 on the U.S. R&B singles chart.

And “Dusic" is just incredible. The powerful groove is driven by Ray Ransom’s hypnotic and extremely funky bass line, which really pulls you in. And the song’s arrangement is tremendous: tight horns, phat beat, bumpin’ Hammond keyboard—all complemented by the band’s signature unison falsetto vocals. It also has a terrific bridge, which sounds like the band stopped off at a funk station to fuel up on some more funk before heading back into the main groove.

And Brown augments the funk with a killer flute solo. Listening to “Dusic” today, it still sounds as original and fresh as it did when it was first released more than 30 years ago. It kind of encapsulates Brick’s singular sound, which distinguished them from other R&B/funk bands during that period. The track performed extremely well on the charts—peaking at #2 on the U.S. R&B singles chart and #18 on the pop charts.

“Happy” is a blithesome soul/pop track with an uplifting, positive message. The song has a fun, playful vibe that wouldn’t sound out of place on a children’s TV program. It’s a great cut to put on when you’ve had a rough day and need a little boost. Brown again displays his versatile brass and woodwind skills on this track, playing a trombone, flute and trumpet solo. And the vocal work here is topflight, particularly on the unison-sung falsetto parts.

Another album highlight is the relentlessly funky party groove “We Don’t Wanna’ Sit Down (We Wanna’ Git Down).” Ransom’s bass work is fantastic throughout this hot track, and he takes the funk to another level with a nasty thumpin' solo during the breakdown. The track also boasts some dirty guitar licks and funky brass lines.

And the band members show off their considerable jazz/funk chops on the Earth, Wind & Fire-esque “Living From the Mind.” This kinetic, high-energy groove will have you bouncin’ in your seat and bobbin’ your head. And Ransom gets busy with some sterling bass playing on this cut.

The band slows things down a bit for the infectious love song “Honey Chile.” The track contains solid vocal work from the band members and a super-smooth sax solo from Brown.  Another great mellow track from the album is the soothing, reggae-flavored “Fun.” This is the perfect song to play while you’re just chillin’ and relaxing. And the track boasts some exquisite flute work from Brown, who’s pretty much the MVP of this album.

After listening to this album, you realize just how underrated Brick really is. This album catches the band at the very top its game. There are literally no weak tracks to be found on this outstanding collection. It’s an extremely consistent effort and stands up well after repeated plays.

And Brick is one of the band’s most commercially successful albums. It topped the Billboard’s U.S. R&B album charts and had an impressive showing on the Billboard pop album charts as well, peaking at #15. The album was co-produced by Brick and Phil Benton and was released on imprint label Bang Records.  And all the band members tended to the songwriting duties.

The lineup for Brick when they dropped this album was the following: Jimmy Brown (saxophone, flute, trombone, trumpet and vocals); Ray Ransom (bass, keyboards, vocals and percussion); Eddie Irons (drums, vocals and keyboards); Regi Hargis Hickman (guitar, bass and vocals); and Donald Nevins (keyboards, vocals).


"Ain't Gonna Hurt Nobody"

Brick album at Amazon

Related blog entry: Brick Adds A Little Jazz To Their Funk on Hit Song "Dazz"

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

I’m Just Like You: Sly's Stone Flower 1969-70

A daring and innovative artist, Sly Stone was never afraid to try something different and unique with his sound, and he embraced new technology in his recordings. He was one of the first big-name artists to incorporate drum-machine beats into his music. Starting in the early 1970s, he began using an early analog drum machine called the Maestro Rhythm King MRK-2 (aka the funk box) on some of his tracks. And he famously employed funk-box beats on tracks for Sly & the Family Stone’s groundbreaking album There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1971), including their #1 hit “Family Affair.” So for better or worse, Sly pretty much brought the drum machine into mainstream music with Riot.

And in addition to the Family Stone tracks, Sly also used funk-box beats for songs that he produced for artists on his short-lived imprint label Stone Flower Productions (1969-71). The label was set up by Sly’s manager David Kapralik with distribution by Atlantic Records.

A new compilation titled I’m Just Like You: Sly's Stone Flower 1969-70 explores Sly’s first experiments with the funk box. On November 4, independent label Light in the Attic Records released the LP version of the 18-track collection, which features tracks that Sly wrote, arranged and produced for Stone Flower signees Joe Hicks, Little Sister and 6IX. The album also contains tracks from Sly’s solo efforts during this period. Additionally, the LP has an early version of “Just Like a Baby,” a song that would later appear on There’s a Riot Goin’ On. It’s interesting to hear this future Riot track in its early incarnation.

I’m Just Like You: Sly Stone’s Flower 1969-70 also contains ten previously unissued tracks that are newly remastered from the original tapes. This album captures Sly as he was making the transition to a more dark, minimalist sound, which would define There’s a Riot Goin’ On. This new sound was worlds apart from the largely upbeat, optimistic and anthemic tracks found on the band’s previous album releases. These Stone Flower recordings served as Sly’s testing ground for the evolution of his new sound.

The album features two versions of “You’re The One” by all-female R&B trio Little Sister, which was fronted by Sly’s youngest sister Vaetta Stewart.  The early version of the song has a much different arrangement from the recording that was eventually released to radio. And the final version (“You’re the One, Parts 1&2") was released as a single and became a hit. The percolating funk/soul track climbed to #4 on the R&B charts and #22 on the pop charts.

The album also contains Little Sister’s stripped-down funk-box driven cover version of Family Stone track “Somebody’s Watching One,” as well as the trio’s full-band version of the song. The bare-boned, funk-box version of the song was released as a single and also became a hit, charting at #8 on the R&B charts and #32 on the pop charts.

Additionally, I’m Just Like You features tracks Sly wrote and produced for soul singer Joe Hicks, including the soulful, hard-groovin’ cut “I’m Goin’ Home” and its B-side “Home Sweet Home.” Another noteworthy Hicks track on the album is “Life & Death in G&A (parts 1&2).” This track has that singular, brittle, stripped-down funk-box sound that would distinguish many of the tracks on There’s a Riot Goin’ On.

And the collection also contains tracks Sly wrote and produced for six-piece multiracial rock group 6IX; these tracks are characterized by Sly’s new sonic direction, with slowed-down grooves and a heavy funk-box presence.  One of the standouts of the 6IX songs on the album is a slowed-down, extremely funky version of the Family Stone track “Dynamite.”

I’m Just Like You: Sly's Stone Flower 1969-70 is a terrific collection of tracks and a fascinating snapshot of Sly exploring new sonic terrain and mining a brand-new sound in the process. This new innovative sound was introduced to the world through There’s a Riot Goin’ On, which has had a significant impact on contemporary music; today Riot’s influence can be heard in the genres of R&B, hip hop, funk, soul and even pop and alternative music.

Dynamite by 6IX

I'm Just Like You: Sly' s Stone Flower 1969-70 at Amazon

Related blog entry: You're The One (Part 2) by Little Sister

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown

This compelling HBO documentary chronicles the rise of music legend James Brown, who was one of  the most important music artists/performers of the 20th Century. The documentary, which premiered on October 27th, examines Brown’s amazing ascension from an impoverished youth to an international superstar and influential cultural figure. Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown was written and directed by Oscar-winning documentary film director and producer Alex Gibney, and Mick Jagger was one of the executive producers.

The documentary examines Brown’s massive influence on the music and entertainment world. He was a peerless dancer/performer who influenced a slew of great performers, including Prince, Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Mick Jagger, Terence Trent D’Arby, Janelle Monáe and Bruno Mars. And perhaps Brown’s greatest achievement was his invention of funk music, which is an explosive, beat-heavy, rhythm-driven form of R&B. Funk has spawned a number of popular music genres, including disco, hip hop, boogie, house music, go-go, electro music, funk metal and G-funk. And the documentary explores how Brown cultivated this new funk sound and continued to expand it until it was an essential component of R&B music.

Mr. Dynamite is filled with incredible concert footage that features some of Brown’s most electrifying performances, including his legendary appearance on The T.A.M.I. Show in 1964, which introduced him to a young white audience in the U.S. and significantly broadened his fan base. It also has his 1966 debut appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show where he blew television viewers away with his raw and dynamic performance style. These concert clips display why people started calling him “Mr. Dynamite.”

The film also shows clips from his historic concert in Boston, Massachusetts following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968. Riots were erupting in cities all across the U.S. at the time, and there were concerns that violence might break out in Boston as well. The concert was held on April 5, the day after the civil rights leader's assassination, and anger in the black community was still at a boiling point. When audience members starting getting rowdy and rushing the stage, Brown stopped mid-performance, chided the crowd for their behavior and how it hurt Dr. King’s legacy as well as the Civil Rights Movement in general. The crowd quickly quieted down, and Brown launched right back into the song he was performing without missing a beat.

Invaluable clips like this show just how much Brown was respected and revered in the black community at that time. There was probably no other person alive who could have defused the crowd's anger and agitation in such an absolute fashion. And most agree that Brown’s concert prevented riots from occurring in Boston during those sad and bitter days following Dr. King's assassination. The documentary also touches on how Brown was inspired to write “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)," one of the greatest and most important black pride anthems ever recorded.

The documentary profiles the funk pioneer flaws and all. It pulls no punches when addressing the Godfather of Soul’s shortcomings. It paints a portrait of an exceptionally talented but controlling, insecure and somewhat isolated figure who had serious trust issues. The documentary examines Brown’s rough childhood, which may have been the root of his insecurities and sometimes irrational mistrust of people; his mother abandoned him when he was four, and he spent many of his childhood years living in his aunt’s brothel in Augusta, Georgia, and his father was often out of the picture as well.

Some of Brown’s former band members shared stories of his volatile temper and the despotic fashion in which he controlled his band. However, the musicians also praised Brown for his undeniable gifts as a performer and as a true music innovator and how they were proud to have played on some of his classic tracks, which ushered in new type of R&B sound in the 1960s and ‘70s. Some of band members who were interviewed for the documentary included Maceo Parker, Bootsy Collins, John “Jabo” Starks, Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis, Clyde Stubblefield and Fred Wesley. The film also contains numerous clips of interviews that Brown gave throughout his career, which offer some insight into his political and personal beliefs during different periods in his life.

And the documentary also features commentary from contemporary artists who discuss how Brown had influenced and inspired them as musicians and performers. Some of these artists include Kanye West, Ahmir-Khalib Thompson (aka Questlove), Chuck D and Janelle Monáe.

Brown was truly a one-of-a-kind artist. His impact was undeniable, and he wrote a new chapter in music history and blazed a path for numerous artists who followed. He achieved this through preternatural talent, obsessive drive, a powerful work ethic and sheer force of will. And this absorbing, well-researched documentary does a tremendous job of exploring Brown’s life—onstage and off—and how he came to be the world-shaking funk dynamo who forever changed the game in popular music and entertainment.