Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Soul Nova Niki J. Crawford Shines Bright In West Coast Music Scene

Singer/songwriter/performer Niki J. Crawford has been electrifying the West Coast music scene with her impressive vocal gifts, dynamic performances, and rich sonic gumbo of funk, soul, rock, reggae, indie, pop, R&B and blues. The multitalented LA-based artist brings an honesty and authenticity to her recordings and performances; and she always forms a strong connection with her audience at her shows. Her talents have earned her a dedicated and enthusiastic following that stretches across California and beyond.

Crawford has shared the stage with music luminaries such as Al Green, Carlos Santana, Snoop Dogg, Aaron Neville, Macy Gray, the Roots and Sharon Jones. And she has performed on popular late-night television shows such as Late Show with David Letterman, Conan, Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

A versatile singer, Crawford’s vocals can be soothing and reassuring one minute and forceful and brash the next. She rains pure fire on tracks like soul/rock burner “What If,” then turns around and delivers an elegant, understated vocal performance on the majestic “No Fear.”

Crawford was born in a small country town in Springhill, Louisiana. She developed an interest in music at an early age and began singing when she was only six. The talented young singer eventually became the lead soloist in her hometown church choir. And music has been a big part of her life ever since.

Crawford was the lead singer for acclaimed LA funk/soul outfit Orgone for three years before spreading her wings as a solo artist. She has years of touring experience under her belt and has lit up stages all over the world with her immense talent. She's truly a force onstage.

In 2015, Crawford released her EP Genesis Block, a topflight collection of songs. And she released her first full album, The Second Truth, in 2018. This album  also boasts really strong material, all of which was written by Crawford.

In addition to being a recording artist, Crawford has a burgeoning career as an actor; she has appeared in films such as He’s Just Not That Into You, Revival, American Dreamz, Love Ranch, Mr. Sophistication and Killer Diller, which garnered her much praise from film critics. And she has guest-starred on popular TV series such as Ally McBeal and Wanted.

To learn learn more about Crawford, get tour dates, or info on any film projects she may have in the works, visit her website.

Crawford's original song "What If"

Crawford performs "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" at  Long Beach Jazz Festival 2016

Crawford's original song "No Fear"

Crawford's music available at Amazon

Monday, October 21, 2019

“Oakland Stroke” by Tower of Power

Legendary West Coast funk/soul outfit Tower of Power blasted a hole through the funkmosphere with this supersonic groove back in 1974. This is dynamic, heavy-duty funk as only Tower of Power could do it. Rocco Prestia’s nimble-fingered bass work surges through the groove like an electric current, and David Garibaldi fires up the funk with an insane beat. His complex, rapid-fire drum pattern has gone down as one of the baddest funk beats ever put on wax. Also, T.O.P.’s celebrated horn section puts an exclamation point on the funk with some explosive horn volleys. And let’s not forget Lenny Pickett, who shuts it down with a fantastic tenor sax solo. The track also features some smokin' organ work from Chester Thompson. This is pure funk at its most raw and exhilarating; and it shows why Tower of Power has a longstanding rep as one of the tightest funk bands of all time.

“Oakland Stroke” was written by Garibaldi, Emilio Castillo and Stephen Kupka. It’s a track from T.O.P.’s  fourth album Back to Oakland, released in the spring of 1974. The track bookends the album--part 1 at the intro, with Part 2 closing out the album. It's short and sweet, just 0:53 for the intro, and part 2 clocks in at 1:08. It’s amazing how much funk the band managed to pack into such a small amount of time. Not a drop of funk was wasted on this cut.

Back to Oakland, which was produced by Tower of Power, contains the moderate hit "Don't Change Horses (In The Middle of a Stream)," which peaked at #26 on the U.S. pop singles chart and #22 on the R&B singles charts. The album also features the classic funk-jazz instrumental "Squib Cakes." Modern Drummer Magazine voted Back to Oakland one of the most important recordings for drummers to listen to.

The lineup for Tower of Power when they dropped Back to Oakland was the following: Lenny Pickett  (1st tenor sax, alto sax, bass sax, soprano sax, flute, alto flute, piccolo); Stephen "Doc" Kupka (baritone sax, English horn, background vocals); Francis “Rocco” Prestia (bass); Greg Adams  (trumpet, fluegelhorn, orchestra bells, background vocals); Mic Gillette (trumpet, fluegelhorn, trombone, bass trombone, background vocals); Emilio Castillo (2nd tenor sax, background vocals); Bruce Conte (guitar, background vocals); David Garibaldi (drums); Lenny Williams (lead vocals); Chester Thompson (organ, bass pedals, piano, Fender Rhodes piano, clavinet, background vocals); and Brent Byars (conga drums).

Tower of Power was formed in Oakland, California in 1968 by Emilio  Castillo and  Stephen Kupka.

"Oakland Stroke," Parts 1 & 2

Friday, September 13, 2019

P-Funk Artist Pedro Bell’s Three Best Album Covers

Pedro Bell—the artist and illustrator responsible for Funkadelic’s iconic, mind-blowing album covers—died on August 27. He was 69. The cause of his death has not been announced. Bell’s imaginative cover art played a significant role in the P-Funk experience and contributed immensely to the band’s mythology. For the Funkadelic album covers, Bell created an alternative Afrofuturist universe filled with psychedelic sci-fi imagery and assorted freakazoid characters. He also wrote the liner notes for Funkadelic’s albums under the name Sir Lleb, which is his surname spelled backwards.  In celebration of the artist, I’ve written up short reviews of my top three Pedro Bell album covers.

Hardcore Jollies – Funkadelic (1976)

This is my favorite Pedro Bell album cover. It’s emblazoned with rich, vivid colors and eye-popping images. Bell’s wild imagination was at its most fertile during the creation of this dazzling cover art. It just jumps right out at you. The album cover is strange and otherworldly but also quite beautiful. It’s not just one of Bell’s best album covers; it’s one of the best album covers period.

Cosmic Slop – Funkadelic (1973)

Cosmic Slop was Bell’s first album cover for Funkadelic, and it’s a stone-cold masterpiece. It’s at once horrifying, weird and brilliant. He visually captured what the band was all about—bold irreverence, unconventionality and pure invention. And it's all topped off with ample dollops of freakiness. After Bell began doing the Funk Mob’s cover art, enjoying a new Funkadelic album was no longer just an auditory experience but a visual one as well. Owners of new Funkadelic albums would pore over Bell’s bizarre, surrealistic cover art while listening to the band’s new tracks.

One Nation Under a Groove — Funkadelic (1978)

Bell’s amazing cover art for Funkadelic’s landmark album One Nation Under a Groove puts an Afrocentric twist on the iconic Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima photograph. Bell replaces the U.S. Marines with a motley funk crew of men and women raising a Pan-African flag with R&B emblazoned on it. It’s quite a powerful statement about black identity and empowerment. It’s also a strong statement about the power of black music and how it has always been the pulse and bedrock of American music. There is a lot less going on here than on most of Bell’s Funkadelic album covers, but it’s just as effective in grabbing your attention.

Pedro Bell left behind a wealth of great artwork, and he'll always be remembered by Funkateers for his incredible cover art. Rest easy Captain Draw.

Related blog entry: Pedro Bell: Picasso of P-Funk

Thursday, August 22, 2019

“School Boy Crush”: Average White Band’s Much-Sampled Classic That Forever Made Sleigh Bells Funky

The founding members of Average White Band in 1974 
The 1970s were the golden age of funk music. The explosive rhythm-driven style that James Brown birthed in the 1960s became a major force in contemporary music by the ‘70s. And funk wasn’t just music for people to shake their rumps to on the dance floor. It was also a powerful political statement. Funk was a sonic expression of freedom, protest and cultural identity for black Americans. And the ancient tribal rhythms of their African ancestors were apparent in funk’s potent grooves. Perhaps that was one of the reasons why rap artists were so drawn to funk.

A slew of amazing funk bands emerged in the ‘70s. And one of the top funk outfits from that decade was the ironically named Average White Band. When the band dropped its 1974 smash “Pick Up The Pieces,” many funk fans were initially shocked to learn that a group of white musicians from Scotland were able to capture the essence of funk music so accurately and with so much passion and soul. AWB’s predominately black following and the band's genuine love and appreciation for funk and R&B illustrated once again that music is the true universal language and has the power to break down racial, social and cultural barriers.

AWB released a lot of great music back the day, including the massively funky “School Boy Crush,” a single from the band’s Grammy-nominated third album Cut The Cake (1975). Although it was only a moderate hit on the Billboard singles charts—pop (#33), R&B (#22)—it went on to become a funk classic and huge sampling source for many hip-hop and R&B artists. It has been sampled on a total of 151 songs.

The track’s monstrous bass line and dead-in-the-pocket beat caught the attention of young artists and producers in search of strong grooves to sample. “School Boy Crush” also boasts nasty rhythm guitar licks, punchin’ horn lines and super-funky clavinet. And let’s not forget those dope sleigh bells! Sleigh bells never sounded so funky. Just that little touch added so much to the track and took it to a whole other level. It also enhanced the song’s childlike vibe of a kid experiencing his first crush.

Grammy-winning songwriter/producer Dallas Austin sampled those funky sleigh bells to maximum effect on TLC’s platinum-selling debut single “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg.”  The sleigh bells also turn up on Nas’ “Halftime,” a single from his landmark debut album Illmatic. Producer Large Professor did a masterful job of seamlessly incorporating the sleigh bells into the track’s powerful beat. And legendary hip-hop duo Eric B. & Rakim sampled the sleigh bells and the main guitar riff from “School Boy Crush” for their iconic track “Microphone Fiend.” Also, famed West Coast rapper Too $hort’s track “Life Is… Too Short” features a dynamic interpolation of the bass line, main guitar riff and other sonic elements from “School Boy Crush.”

In addition to “School Boy Crush,” a number of other AWB tracks have also been sampled, including their biggest hits “Pick Up The Pieces” and “Cut The Cake.” In all, their music has been sampled on a total of 447 songs, making them the fifteenth most sampled act of all time.

Average White Band had a big impact on both funk music and hip-hop. The creation of sampling enabled the band to reach a whole new audience of young listeners who missed the '70s funk revolution.

"Schoolboy Crush"

"Schoolboy Crush" at Amazon

TLC's "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg"

Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg at Amazon

"Microphone Fiend" by Eric B. & Rakim

"Microphone Fiend" at Amazon

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

NYC Duo BAD Will Make You “Sweat” With Hot New Single

New York has long been a hotbed for rising musical talent, and one of the most promising new artists to emerge from the Big Apple is the music duo BAD, which is comprised of singer/songwriter Julia Brex and producer/arranger/multi-instrumentalist Jackson Hoffman. The talented pair recently dropped the infectious electro-funk single “Sweat.” This track is an exhilarating throwback to the funky synth-filled dance grooves that DJs bumped at clubs and on the radio back in the 1980s and early ‘90s.  It’s a cheeky, playfully sexy ode to the workout culture and workout songs from that period.

The track features scorching synth blasts, a percolating beat, and super-groovalistic horn lines provided by acclaimed trumpeter/arranger Philip Lassiter and his funk band Philthy. And Brex’s rich, vibrant vocals sound terrific over Hoffman’s crisp production.

Brex and Hoffman, who met in high school, have been writing and recording music together for eight years.  They have focused primarily on pop songwriting and production work for other artists. Their shared passion for funk music resulted in the formation of BAD less than a year ago. They released their debut EP, GOOD, in March. The duo skillfully melded synth-funk and electro-pop on the tracks for the sterling four-song EP.

BAD draws inspiration from retro funk and soul, ‘90s and early 2000s pop and R&B, and contemporary pop and hip-hop. In a recent interview, Brex and Hoffman said that they want BAD to “be what a Prince and Max Martin collaboration could have been.” They added that they want to create music that is “nostalgic yet fresh, throwback yet brand new.”

Here are BAD’s social media links to stay apprised of new releases and any other projects the duo might have in the works: InstagramFacebook and Tumblr.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Soul/Funk Band The Burroughs Bring Some Classic Old-School Flavor To Digital 45

The Burroughs, Colorado’s stalwart purveyors of “Sweaty Soul Music,” recently released a digital 45 on Eddie Roberts' (The New Mastersounds) new label Color Red that features two new tracks. Fans of great old-school funk and soul will definitely appreciate this offering from the talented nine-piece groove outfit.

“The Slip” is a James Brown-inspired deep funk track. Frontman Johnny "RedBird" Burroughs serves up a dynamic vocal performance that captures the spirit of the Godfather of Soul right down to the bone-chilling screams and funky grunts. He also injects some wicked humor into the mix and displays his great storytelling skills. The song is a tongue-in-cheek tale about ducking the many pressures and aggravations of modern life. The band drops pure fire on this funkalicious groove—super-tight horn lines, bumpin’ bass, dirty rhythm guitar and a sizzling beat. And can we talk about that bridge? The Godfather himself would tip his hat to this monster of a bridge, which raises the track’s funk level through the roof. 

The Burroughs dip into some retro ‘60s-laced soul on the smooth summertime jam “Forever In Love.” This track has a fantastic horn arrangement that showcases the talents of the band’s amazing horn section. And Johnny delivers a lustrous vocal performance, which is further sweetened by the soothing background vocals. This is the perfect track to blast at a summer cookout. “Forever In Love” sets a chill nostalgic vibe that brings to mind vintage R&B classics from the 1960s and early ‘70s. The two tracks on the digital 45 were produced by Kim Dawson of Matador Soul Sounds and Mike Tallman, Color Red's Creative Director.

Formed in 2013, The Burroughs have earned a reputation as one of the most exciting and dynamic live bands in Colorado. The band thrills audiences with its potent brand of soul and funk and has built a dedicated following that extends across the state and beyond. The members are Johnny Burroughs (lead vocalist, bandleader); Mary Claxton (drums, vocals); Sean Hagemeister (guitar); Tom Amend (keyboards); Jeremy Fallis (trombone); Brian Claxton (bass); Alec Bell (trumpet); Briana Harris (alto saxophone); and Hayden Farr (baritone saxophone). 

The band’s charismatic frontman Johnny Burroughs grew up in the church and works as a licensed minister and music pastor; he brings that same passion and inspiration from his church services to the stage. The Burroughs’ shows are exhilarating, soulful celebrations where audience members are uplifted and energized. The band always brings the thunder at concerts and never fails to electrify its audiences. 

The Burroughs have performed at a slew of renowned music festivals and venues, including Bohemian Nights New West Fest, The Block Party, The Greeley Blues Jam, Boulder International Film Festival, The Fox Theatre, Denver Day of Rock, The Aggie Theatre, The Underground Music Showcase, among many others.

And they have shared the stage with national music acts such as Zapp, the Steve Miller Band, Orgone, The Reminders, Southern Avenue, Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials, Walter Trout and Samantha Fish. 

The band released a full-length studio album, Got to Feel, in January of 2018. And they dropped their live album Sweaty Greeley Soul in 2015. The album was recorded live at the Moxi Theater in downtown Greeley, Colorado. The Burroughs were voted the “Best Band" of Greeley in 2014.

When The Burroughs aren’t blowing up the stage or laying down tracks in the studio, they focus on community outreach in their hometown of Greeley. They have partnered with organizations such as Weld Food Bank, Greeley Boys and Girls Clubs and Habitat for Humanity. And the band has an ongoing partnership with Greeley-Evans District 6 Schools with the goal of bringing music education to students of all backgrounds.

For info on new music releases and tour dates, visit the Burroughs’ website.

"The Slip"

"Forever In Love"

Both tracks on the digital 45 are available at Amazon 

Related blog entry: Love and Unity by the Burroughs

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Laura Reed Drops Inspirational Anthem “Better Days”

South African-born, Nashville and NC-based singer-songwriter Laura Reed brings the fire on her rousing new track “Better Days. The song is about pushing forward during hard times and not becoming disheartened by life’s many setbacks because things will eventually get better. Reed reflects on the rough periods in her life when she was a struggling artist playing to empty rooms and busking for quarters—and how those bleak days failed to diminish her passion or break her spirit. Instead, they toughened her resolve. Reed’s inclusion of her own personal struggles underscores the song’s strong inspirational theme.

The talented multi-instrumentalist serves up a gutbucket harmonica riff on this dynamic country-tinged anthem. And her powerful vocals are packed with grit and soul. The track has a great mellow section that builds to a triumphant crescendo with Reed belting out a soul-stirring, “Hold on!!”

“Better Days” was produced by Reed and her longtime collaborator producer/singer-songwriter Shannon Sanders, a two-time Grammy winner. It was released on the Nashville-based label Blue Rose Music. The song also has a terrific lyric video, which was directed by Tim Duggan of 5Folds Creative.

Reed has definitely been seeing better days of late. Her music career has been steadily on the rise over the past several years. Her solo debut album The Awakening (2014) was met with high praise from both music critics and fans. And she has made a name for herself as an electrifying live performer who never fails to raise the roof when she hits the stage.

She was named Best R&B Solo Female Artist at the Nashville Industry Music Awards (NIMA) in 2014 and 2015; and she also won the award for Best Live R&B/Soul Performer at NIMA 2015. And Reed’s music video for her song “Dragging My Heart” garnered her a nomination at the Long Island International Film Festival.

Reed’s music has been featured in the films Chloe and Theo (Dakota Johnson, Mira Sorvino); The Cold Light of Day (Bruce Willis, Sigourney Weaver, Henry Cavill); and the Alicia Keys-produced indie film The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete (Jennifer Hudson, Jordin Sparks, Anthony Mackie).

Also, Reed’s uplifting retro soul/pop song “Wake Up” received heavy rotation on Nashville’s independent radio station, Lightening 100, which gained her famous fans such as Sheryl Crow and Debra Messing. And she had the honor of performing the National Anthem twice at Madison Square Garden.

During her music career, Reed's had the opportunity to work with people like George Clinton, Jewel, Robert Randolph, Killer Mike and Karl Denson. And she appeared on both albums by funk supergroup The Big Ol’ Nasty Getdown. Additionally, Reed has shared the stage with acclaimed soul artists such as India.Arie, Miguel, and Anthony Hamilton. And she was the featured artist in a promo for harping legend Lee Oksar’s harmonica line.

Visit Reed’s website for new music releases, concert dates and info on other projects she's involved in.

"Better Days" at Amazon

Related blog entry: Laura Reed: Soulful Songbird Spreads Her Wings

Friday, May 24, 2019

"I Know You Got Soul" by Bobby Byrd

James Brown’s longtime right-hand man Bobby Byrd scored a hit of his own in 1971 with the massively funky single “I Know You Got Soul.” The track is bursting with energy, soul and tons of funk. Byrd’s booming, earthy voice proved a perfect fit for this rousing funk anthem. The instrumentation is provided by Brown’s legendary band, the J.B.’s, so naturally the groove is tighter than a camel’s butt in a sandstorm. The syncopation is on full-tilt with the bass, drums and guitars intersecting to create a joyful rhythmic explosion. Also, J.B.’s bandleader Fred Wesley lays down a greasy trombone solo, and Brown provides some soulful background vocals. In addition to Wesley, the other players on the track are Fred Thomas (bass), John “Jabo” Starks (drums), Jerone “Jasaan Sanford” Melson (trumpet), Hearlon “Cheese” Martin (guitar), Jimmy Parker (alto sax),  Johnny Griggs (congas), Robert Coleman (guitar) and St. Clair Pinckney (baritone sax).

“I Know You Got Soul” was written by Brown, Byrd and Charles Bobbitt. It was produced by Brown and released on King Records.  It peaked at #30 on the Billboard R&B singles chart. In the late 1980s, the song found a new audience when it was embraced by the hip-hop community via sampling. It was sampled by a slew of rap artists, including Public Enemy (“Fight The Power), Eric B. & Rakim (“I Know You Got Soul”), Ice Cube (“Jackin’ For Beats”) and Kid ‘N Play (“Gittin Funky”). And it was sampled on Brown’s 1988 hit “Static,” which featured R&B/hip-hop group Full Force. In all, “I Know You Got Soul” has been sampled on 150 songs. An extended 4:42 version of “I Know You Got Soul” was included on the 1988 compilation album James Brown's Funky People (Part 2).

Other notable Bobby Byrd tracks include “Keep On Doin’ What You’re Doin'," “Hot Pants – I’m Coming, I’m Coming, I’m Coming” and “Funky Soul #1.”

Brown and Byrd had a long history that dated back all the way to the beginning of Brown’s professional music career—and even before that. The two met in 1952 during a baseball game outside of a juvenile detention center in Toccoa, Georgia where Brown was serving time for burglary. Byrd, who was from a religious family, was playing for his local baseball team in a friendly game against the prison team in which Brown was the pitcher. The two teens hit it off as they shared a mutual love of music. Byrd’s family successfully petitioned for Brown’s early release and opened their home to him.

 Byrd was a member of an a cappella group called the Gospel Starlighters. The group later changed its name to the Avons when it adopted a more secular R&B-based sound; they soon changed their name to the Five Royals and finally to the Flames. Brown joined the group as their drummer in 1954, but it wasn’t long before he took over lead-singing duties. The group made a name for itself as a great live act that boasted amazing stage chops and an extremely charismatic front man.  Due to their growing popularity and dynamic live shows, the group began calling themselves the Famous Flames. The headstrong Brown eventually relegated the other members to his background singers, and the group renamed itself one final time to James Brown and the Famous Flames.

The group released their first single “Please, Please, Please” on Federal Records in 1956. It became a big hit on the U.S. R&B singles chart, peaking at #6. The track served as a powerful launching pad for Brown’s incredible recording career, which spanned over four decades.  Byrd and Brown maintained a professional relationship until 1973. In his association with Brown, Byrd had a number of different roles, including background singer, organist, collaborator, hype man, songwriter and arranger.  Byrd was featured prominently on classic tracks such as “Soul Power” and “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine.” And his cowriting credits include Talkin’ Loud & Sayin’ Nothin,” "Licking Stick – Licking Stick,” “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine,” “Get Up, Get in It, Get Involved” and “Lost Someone.”

Byrd is one of the unsung heroes of funk music; his significant contributions to the genre are often underappreciated or completely overlooked. He cowrote some of Brown’s seminal hits that helped push the funk genre forward. And let’s not forget, the world may have never been blessed with Brown’s great talent had it not been for Byrd and his family’s generosity. They recognized Brown’s gifts and potential early on and provided him an environment where those gifts could flourish. He might have fallen back into a life of crime had Byrd not entered his life.

 Byrd was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame posthumously in 2012 as a member of the Famous Flames. He was also a 1998 recipient of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation’s Pioneer Award.

"I Know You Got Soul" at Amazon

Sunday, May 12, 2019

"Take De Funk Off, Fly" By The Ohio Players

As the 1970s were drawing to a close, the Ohio Players were still funkin’ as hard as ever. The legendary band dropped the gargantuan funk groove “Take De Funk Off, Fly” in 1979. This is nasty uncut funk as only the Ohio Players could do it. Marshall Jones steers the groove with a massively funky bass line, and the horn section rains down pure fire with some tight horn salvos. And Sugarfoot puts an exclamation point on the funk with his scorching lead guitar work.

Also, this track  features one of the coldest bridges I’ve ever heard. The sleek synth line coupled with a dope rock-tinged guitar riff elevates the bridge to pimp-level smoothness.

And there’s a bit of P-Funk flavor on this track with a Bootsy-esque spoken-word vocal, as well as possibly a Mu-Tron effect on Jones’ bass to give it a rubbery Bootsy Space Bass feel; or it could even be a synth bass shadowing Jones’ real bass. This illustrates just how much P-Funk dominated the funk game from the mid to late ‘70s that even an established band with their own original sound like the Ohio Players copped a bit of the Funk Mob’s swagger.  Don’t get me wrong, it still sounds like an Ohio Players joint, but the P-Funk influence is undeniable.

“Take De Funk Off, Fly” is a track from the Ohio Players’ Everybody Up album, which was released on Arista Records in 1979. The album's title song peaked at #33 on Billboard’s R&B singles chart. The catchy, upbeat groove was probably the most disco-y cut the band had ever recorded. The album climbed to #19 Billboard’s R&B album chart and #80 on the pop album charts. Everybody Up was produced by the Ohio Players and was the only album that the band released on Arista.

The band lineup for Everybody Up was Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner (guitar, lead vocals); Ralph “Pee Wee” Middlebrooks (trumpet); William “Billy” Beck (keyboards, synthesizer, lead vocals); Marshall “Rock” Jones (bass); James “Diamond” Williams (drums, backing vocals);  Clarence "Satch" Satchell (saxophone, backing vocals); Marvin “Merv” Pierce (trumpet) and Clarence "Chet" Willis (guitar, backing vocals).

“Take De Funk Off, Fly” was written by Bonner, Jones, Beck, Middlebrooks, Pierce, Satchell and Williams.

“Take De Funk Off, Fly” at Amazon

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Prince’s Musicology Album Revisited

Prince’s Musicology album turned 15 on April 20—just a day before the third anniversary of the legendary artist’s untimely death at the age of 57. The 12-song collection was released on Prince’s NPG Records label and distributed by Columbia Records. It was his first album to be distributed on a major label in five years. Musicology is one of Prince’s most overlooked and underrated works. Although it went double platinum in the U.S., made the top five in several countries, and won two Grammys, it’s not an album that many people bring up when discussing Prince’s work.

The album kicks off with the title track where Prince takes the listener on a funky trip down memory lane.  He reminisces about some of the music he grew up on and gives big shout-outs to a few of his musical heroes:  James Brown, Sly Stone and Earth, Wind & Fire. Fittingly, the groove has a very old-school James Brown flavor, with Prince serving up some super-funky rhythm guitar licks in the spirit of some of JB’s talented axemen, people like Jimmy Nolen, Hearlon “Cheese” Martin and Phelps “Catfish” Collins. This track earned Prince a Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance at the 47th Annual Grammy Awards in 2005.

“Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance” is an idiosyncratic tale of a gigolo and his rich sugar mama. It’s a unique groove with some nice guitar work from Prince. “Illusion, Coma…” is followed by the rueful breakup song “A Million Days.” The song is impeccably arranged and has an engaging melody.

“Life ‘O’ The Party” is rousing, unapologetic funk as only Prince could do it. The heavy-duty electro groove has a monstrous beat and a gritty vocal performance from the Purple One. And sax diva Candy Dulfer provides some strong vocal support, particularly on the hooky chorus. She also contributes some sizzling sax. Singer/producer/musician Chance Howard provides additional vocals. Also, the bridge has a really cool and unexpected tempo change.

Prince displays his considerable gifts as a ballad writer on the sumptuous “Call My Name.” He delivers a powerful and impassioned vocal performance, which scored him a well-deserved Grammy win for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.

“Cinnamon Girl” addresses anti-Muslim discrimination in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. While Prince’s lyrics tackle this sensitive topic in a thoughtful fashion, the music itself doesn’t quite measure up. It’s the type of uninspired pleasant pop-rock that could have been done by any mainstream artist at the time. It’s far below Prince’s usual musical standards. Its saving grace is a marvelous guitar solo from the Purple One.

Prince’s impressive bass chops are in full effect on the elegant “What Do U Want Me 2 Do?” His nimble bass plucking really makes the song. The track also features some smooth, jazzy guitar work, also courtesy of His Royal Badness.

“The Marrying Kind” boasts an infectious rock-tinged groove with some hot drumming from John Blackwell. The track also features the dynamic horn trio of sax legend Maceo Parker, Dulfer and trombonist Greg Boyer. “The Marrying Kind” segues right into “If Eye Was The Man In Ur Life.” These two tracks blend so well together that they feel more like two halves of one composition than two separate songs.  With these two tracks, Prince goes on a mini sonic odyssey across different moods and styles. It’s one of the more imaginative segments on the album, showing that Prince was still quite an adventurous artist in 2004—and continued to be until his passing.

His Royal Badness serves up another amazing vocal performance on the pleading gospel-laced ballad “On the Couch.” You’d think Prince grew up in the church the way he gets down on this one. The man could blow.

Prince voices his disillusionment and anger with the system on the scathing “Dear Mr. Man.” With all the divisiveness and rancor besetting America now, this politically charged track is more relevant than ever. Prince touches on some of the burning sociopolitical issues that continue to plague us:  institutional racism, war, environmental abuse, indifference to the poor, and double-talking politicians who are more concerned with power than truly helping the people they were elected to represent. The somber groove fits the lyrical content extremely well. Rhonda Smith’s strong bass line nicely frames Prince’s soulful vocals. The track also features a superb horn arrangement, and the Purple One brings some great wah-wah guitar licks to the mix. And Maceo closes out the song with a plaintive sax solo. “Dear Mr. Man” is without a doubt one of Prince’s most underrated tracks.

The final song on the album is the wistful ballad “Reflection.” Prince fondly reminisces about simpler times in his life.  The song has a very laidback tranquil flow, like someone just kicking back on a quiet, peaceful day reflecting on the past. It’s a nice touch to close out the album on a nostalgic note in the same way that it began.

Musicology was produced, arranged and composed by Prince. It peaked at #3 on the Billboard 200 album chart and sold two million copies in the U.S. It was his most commercially successful album since Diamonds and Pearls in 1991.  Also, the album was supported by Prince's highly successful U.S. tour, Musicology Live 2004ever. The tour was attended by 1.47 million fans and earned $87.4 million. It covered 52 cities across the U.S. with 77 shows. Additionally, he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame that same year. So 2004 turned out to be a pretty damn good year for His Royal Badness.

While Musicology doesn’t come close to Prince’s best works, it’s still a very strong effort and deserves more love than it’s been receiving. It’s definitely worth a revisit, as there are several unsung gems to be found.

"Dear Mr. Man

  "Life 'O' the Party"

Musicology at Amazon

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

Thursday, March 28, 2019

"You, Bluebird" by Jane Child

The multitalented—and criminally underrated—Canadian artist Jane Child released this incredible track back in 2001. This synthpop gem is bursting with creativity and sonic brilliance. It boasts an indelible melody coupled with a fantastic vocal arrangement. The track also features a powerful, bone-rattling synth bass line that would even make Stevie Wonder proud. “You, Bluebird” has an uplifting tone but with a wistful undercurrent, and Child sings her verses with great passion and longing. 

The poetic lyrics are open to different interpretations. One interpretation could be that the song is about yearning to be as free as a bluebird with the ability to fly far away from all the pain, suffering and madness of the world. Or perhaps this is simply a love song, and the bluebird embodies the feelings of fulfillment, contentment and heady elation that the love of another person can bring—with the bluebird/lover rescuing the song's narrator from a life of loneliness, sadness and hopelessness: "But you make the darkness/All rosy and bright." The bluebird has long been a symbol of happiness, hope and joy, and those are all of the things that true love can instill in someone. 

"You, Bluebird” is a track form Child’s third studio album, Surge, which was released in 2001 on her own label Sugarwave. She wrote, produced and arranged all the tracks on the album and played most of the instruments. It’s a very strong collection of electro-funk, synthpop, industrial, pop and rock. Unfortunately, the album wasn’t promoted properly and didn’t get the love it deserved on the radio, or anywhere else for that matter. It’s actually quite sad that such a gifted and adventurous artist like Child is so slept on. 

Surge was Child’s last album release, and it’s definitely worth checking out for those who love creative well-crafted songs coupled with exemplary musicianship and sterling production.

"You, Bluebird" at Amazon

Related blog entry: "Don't Wanna Fall In Love" by Jane Child

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The Meters Drop Some NOLA Funk On “Just Kissed My Baby”

“Just Kissed My Baby” is a stone-cold banger by New Orleans funkmasters the Meters.  This cut showcases the band’s formidable skills at creating nasty deep-funk grooves. George Porter Jr. makes his presence felt in a big way with a mammoth bass line, and Zigaboo Modeliste burns up the pocket with his super-funky drumming, while Leo Nocentelli cooks up some wicked wah-wah voodoo on guitar. Art Neville infuses his Hammond organ work with massive dollops of Big Easy soul. And the horn section drops pure fire with some tight horn blasts. Also, Lowell George from the rock band Little Feat contributes some sweet slide guitar licks.

“Just Kissed My Baby” was written by Modeliste, Nocentelli, Porter and Neville.  It’s a track from the Meters’ influential and acclaimed fifth album Rejuvenation, released in 1974. The collection—co-produced by Allen Toussaint and the Meters—is filled with stellar funk and soul tracks, including the irresistible “Hey Pocky A-Way,” which peaked at #31 on the Billboard R&B singles chart. Rejuvenation was ranked number 138 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of all time.

Many hip-hop heads discovered “Just Kissed My Baby” via samples. Public Enemy sampled it on their track “Timebomb.” Other artists who sampled it include EPMD (“Never Seen Before”) and Fabolous (“Right Now & Later On”). It was also featured on the popular video game Grand Theft Auto IV’s soundtrack.

 The Meters dropped tons of great funk back in the day and built a sterling rep as one of the baddest funk outfits in the game. Although they didn’t attain the popularity or record sales of bands like P-Funk, Sly & the Family and the Ohio Players, the Meters left a huge musical legacy and are one of the most influential funk bands of all time. They brought a down-home New Orleans flavor to funk music that all funk lovers are extremely thankful for.

"Just Kissed My Baby" at Amazon

Monday, February 11, 2019

Janelle Monáe Tore The Roof Off The Grammys With Explosive, Funk-Filled Performance

R&B sensation Janelle Monáe further solidified her stature as one of the most exciting and dynamic artists/performers working today with an electrifying medley of songs from her critically acclaimed Dirty Computer album during Sunday night’s telecast of the 61st Annual Grammy Awards. She brought the funk with both barrels, thrilling the audience with her amazing talent and powerful stage presence. 

Monáe kicked off the performance with the Prince-inspired “Make Me Feel.” She appeared onstage holding a pale-green Fender Stratocaster, flanked by her dancers, and proceeded to play the track’s funky rhythm licks as she sang the verses. After one of the dancers removed the guitar, Monáe really cut loose and delivered a stunning, roof-raising performance that was filled with nods to the legendary music holy trinity of James Brown, Prince and Michael Jackson. The medley also included “Django Jane” and “Pynk.” Her dancers even wore the famous vagina pants from the now-iconic “Pynk” music video.  

Other performance highlights included a dazzling unison moonwalk that was flawlessly executed by Monáe and her dancers, and the show-stopping finale where she burned up the stage to James Brown’s funk classic “I Got The Feelin’.”

Many people were floored by the performance with Monáe receiving tons of love across the Internet and elsewhere; music stars like Diddy, Ariana Grande and Lady Gaga heaped praise on the performance. Even former first daughter Chelsea Clinton gave Monáe a shout-out on Twitter. And many entertainment and music publications wrote that the performance was one of the biggest highlights of the night.

Monáe was nominated for two Grammys this year: Album of the Year for Dirty Computer and Best Music Video for “Pynk.” Although she went home empty-handed, she was still a huge winner Sunday night. Just ask anyone who watched her performance.  

Related blog entry: Janelle Monáe Releases Prince-Inspired New Track "Make Me Feel."