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