Wednesday, August 29, 2018

“Blackberry Jam” by Leroy Hutson

R&B artist Leroy Hutson dropped this smelly funk groove back in 1976. This is pure uncut funk with all the groove essentials: tight horns, poppin’ bass, hot beat, nasty guitar licks and funky clavinet.  And some badass synth work further deepens the funk. The track also boasts a killer bridge.

“Blackberry Jam” was written, arranged and produced by Hutson. It was a single from his 1976 album Hutson II. It charted at #82 on Billboard’s R&B singles chart. Some of the players on the track included Reggie Gillerson (bass), Cordell Carter (drums), Stephen Harris (guitar), Michael Harris (trumpet), James Hirsen (keyboards—ARP Odyssey), Bill McFarland (trombone), Jerry Wilson (tenor saxophone), and Hutson himself was working the clavinet.

Hutson is one of soul music’s most underrated and underappreciated artists. Rolling Stone magazine once characterized him as "the best-kept secret of Seventies soul.” The multitalented singer/songwriter/producer/instrumentalist was a member of various vocal groups around his native Newark, NJ in the ‘60s. He got his first taste of chart success with the 1970 socio-political song “The Ghetto,” which he co-wrote with soul great Donny Hathaway, who was his Howard University roommate.  The track—which peaked at #23 on the  U.S. soul charts and climbed to #87 on the pop charts—is now considered a classic and one of the definitive messages songs of that era.

At Howard, Hutson was also a member of the vocal group the Mayfield Singers, which was put together by music legend Curtis Mayfield. The group consisted of Hutson, Donny Hathaway and June Conquest. The Mayfield Singers were known for their rich, soulful, choir-like vocal work. They released several tracks on Mayfield’s short-lived indie label Mayfield Records. The group even got the opportunity to perform at the legendary Apollo Theater in New York City. Despite the group’s strong vocal talent, their records failed to chart.

Nonetheless, Hutson’s affiliation with the Mayfield Singers opened up a great new musical opportunity for him. He was tapped to replace Curtis Mayfield as the lead singer of famed soul group the Impressions in 1971.  The Impressions recorded two albums during Hutson’s two-and-a-half year tenure with the group and scored two moderate hits on the R&B charts: “Love Me” (#25) and “This Loves For Real (#41).  He left the group in 1973 to pursue a solo career.

Hutson wrote, produced and arranged his first solo album, Love Oh Love, which was released in 1973 on Custom Records. The album showcases Hutson's strengths as a ballad writer and vocalist; the bulk of it is made up of beautiful R&B ballads. In addition to the great ballads, the album boasts strong cuts like “Time Brings on a Change” a haunting message song in the vein of Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield’s work.  The song features a dynamic string arrangement, a brooding bassline and stellar vocals.

The album’s two singles charted on the low end of Billboard’s R&B singles chart: “Love, Oh Love (#75) and “When You Smile” (#81). Hutson played percussion, synthesizer (ARP) and electric piano on the album. He brought in a talented group of musicians to handle the rest.

Hutson continued to record topflight music throughout the ‘70s and landed a few more hits, including the lush disco track “Feel the Spirit,” which charted at # 5 on Billboard’s disco charts and #25 on Billboard’s R&B singles chart. And the irresistible sweet-soul love song “All Because of You” peaked at #31 on Billboard’s R&B singles chart. In all, Hutson released seven solo albums in the ‘70s, and all were released on the Custom Records label.

Hutson’s musical output in his solo work slowed down considerably in the ‘80s. He only released one solo album in that decade—Paradise, which was released on Elektra Records in 1982. It’s a solid collection of jazz-laced mellow jams and quality funk grooves. It was his only release on the Elektra label.

In addition to his own material, Hutson has worked as a writer/producer for artists such as Roberta Flack, the Natural Four, Linda Clifford, The Voices of East Harlem and The Next Movement.

Hutson's music has been sampled by a slew of artists, including Erykah Badu, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Too Short, T.I., Wiz Khalifa, The Notorious B.I.G., Nas, Pete Rock, UGK, Adagio!, Young Jeezy, Memphis Bleek and Paul Wall.

Last year, he released the 19-song compilation Anthology 1972-1984 on Acid Jazz Records, a label based in East London. In February, Acid Jazz reissued the albums Hutson and Hutson II. And in May, they reissued two more of Hutson’s albums: The Man! and Closer to the Source. The label also released a four-part online documentary titled Leroy Hutson – The Man! It was directed by Lee Cogswell and produced by Mark Baxter. Watch it here.


Hutson II is available at Amazon on CD and vinyl

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Aretha Franklin, The Legendary Queen of Soul, Dies at 76

Aretha Franklin, one of the most celebrated and influential singers of the 20th century, died Thursday at her home in Detroit from advanced pancreatic cancer. She was 76.

Franklin has been the standard-bearer for female vocalists for five decades. Superstar vocal powerhouses—from Patti LaBelle, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey to BeyoncĂ©, Jennifer Hudson and Adele—are all indebted to the Queen of Soul. She created the blueprint for the larger-than-life vocal diva in contemporary music. Her influence is massive, extending across genres with legions of vocalists citing her as a major influence and inspiration.

The vocal legend was also incredibly versatile; she was at home singing in a number of different styles, including R&B, jazz, blues, gospel, pop, dance, show tunes and even classical.

Franklin’s powerful gospel-soaked vocals lit up classics such as “Respect,” “Baby I Love You,” “Chain of Fools,” “Think,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “(To Be)Young, Gifted and Black.”

She scored 20 number one hits on Billboard’s R&B singles chart, and 17 of her songs made the top 10 on Billboard’s pop charts. She sold more than 75 million records worldwide. And she has won 18 Grammys and was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Additionally, Franklin and her music have had a huge cultural impact. Songs like “Respect,” “Think” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” made Franklin a feminist and civil rights icon. “Respect” became an anthem for both movements. It spoke directly to these causes in a way that no other medium could. “Think” has been embraced by women as a feminist anthem due its themes of freedom and respect.  And many view “A Natural Woman” as a stirring celebration of womanhood.

Franklin was also a talented songwriter and had a hand in the writing of some of her best-known tracks. She wrote “Day Dreaming” and “Rock Steady” on her own and co-wrote “Think” and “Dr. Feelgood (Love is a Serious Business)” with Ted White.

Like many great soul singers, Franklin’s music career began in the church. Her father, Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, was the pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit. When she was very young, she sang with her two sisters, Erma and Carolyn, at New Bethel. The gifted young vocalist was performing solos by the time she was 10. In addition to singing, Franklin was an accomplished pianist, who taught herself how to play by learning the songs she heard on the radio.

Her father would often record his sermons, and these recordings were released on Chess Record’s Checkers label. Due to these recordings, the pastor’s fame grew and he would make appearances at churches around the country.  He brought his talented young daughter Aretha along on these church tours to provide piano accompaniment to his sermons and when he sang gospel songs.

At 14, Franklin recorded an album of hymns on the J.V.B. gospel label. After she turned 18, she decided to take her music in a secular direction. This decision was inspired by her musical idol Sam Cooke, who was a gospel singer before he switched to recording popular music.  She sent a two-song demo to Columbia Records, which resulted in her getting signed to the label in 1960. Franklin landed three top ten hits on the R&B charts with Columbia: “Today I Sing the Blues” (#10), “Won’t Be Long (#7) and “Operation Heartbreak” (#6). She was still in her teens when she recorded these tracks.

When Franklin’s contract with Columbia Records ended in 1966, she signed to Atlantic Records, which she had been eyeing for some time. Her association with Atlantic resulted in some of the greatest soul recordings of all time. She released a slew of classics during her 13-year tenure with the label, which helped bring soul music to an even wider audience. Franklin was crowned the undisputed “Queen of Soul” during this period.

She left Atlantic in 1979 and signed with Clive Davis’ Arista Records the following year. Franklin enjoyed more chart success with Arista with big hits like “Jump to It" and the Grammy-winning “Freeway of Love.” And she participated in some memorable duets with people like Dionne Warwick, Smokey Robinson, Elton John, Mariah Carey, George Michael, James Brown, Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra.

Franklin was the embodiment of soul music and one of the most gifted vocalists of modern music. She leaves behind a phenomenal musical legacy. Her music has inspired, moved and brought joy to millions and will continue to do so in the years to come.

"(To Be) Young, Gifted and Black"

Aretha performing “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" on  The Merv Griffin Show in 1967

Aretha performing Inez and Charlie Foxx's classic "Mockingbird" with pianist Ray Johnson in 1965

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

"Cheater" by Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson had a surfeit of material when he and Quincy Jones were putting together the Bad album. He reportedly wrote 62 songs for his highly anticipated 1987 follow-up to Thriller. Jackson originally wanted Bad to be a three-disc collection made up of 33 tracks. However, Jones eventually convinced him to trim the collection down to 10 songs with a bonus track ("Leave Me Alone") on the CD version.

As a result, a lot of strong tracks didn’t make the final cut, including “Cheater.” The Gloved One brings the funk with both barrels on this nasty groove, letting loose with a raw, gospel-infused vocal performance. Additionally, the track features a bumpin' bass line and dirty rhythm guitar licks. It also boasts a terrific bridge.

Jackson revisits one of his favorite themes on this song: betrayal. He blasts some shady folks who have backstabbed him. He doesn’t specify who these people are and exactly how they have betrayed him, but whatever they did has him pretty damn heated. The pop legend delivers his verses with tons of soul, attitude and righteous anger. It's one of his grittiest vocal performances.

“Cheater” was written and produced by Jackson and veteran keyboardist/songwriter/musical director Greg Phillinganes.  It’s unknown why this great track didn’t make it onto Bad. It later appeared on the comprehensive box set The Ultimate Collection (2004).

The musicians who played on “Cheater” were Phillinganes on keyboards and David Williams on guitar. No drummer is listed in the credits, so a drum machine was most likely used; and Phillinganes held down the funky bass line on the keys.

The Ultimate Collection is available on disc at Amazon