Sunday, August 24, 2008


When the Pointer Sisters burst onto the national scene with “Yes We Can Can” in mid-1973, they seemed completely different from any other popular group of the time. The Oakland, Calif. — born sisters — Anita, Ruth, June and Bonnie — clearly had some gospel music in their background and oodles of “soul,” but they also had a look and sound that hearkened back to the '30s and '40s, with echoes of Billie Holiday and the great female big-band singing groups. Nobody was going to confuse these girls with The Supremes. And “Yes We Can Can” was the perfect vehicle for their intricate harmonies and upbeat attitude: The song, written by the great New Orleans producer/songwriter Allen Toussaint, had been a minor R&B hit for Lee Dorsey in 1970 (Dorsey had previously had hits with such Toussaint numbers as “Ya-Ya,” “Working in the Coal Mine” and “Get out of My Life Woman”), but it was essentially unknown in rock music circles. The Pointer Sisters, it turned out, successfully bridged the white and black music worlds, and “Yes We Can Can” was precisely the kind of optimistic anthem of harmony and brotherhood that seemed to strike a universal chord at a politically volatile and divisive time.

The Pointer Sisters first sessions were cut for Atlantic Records, but that label was interested in a more traditional “soul” sound, and neither the group nor the label were pleased with the results. So in early 1972, Rubinson signed the band to a management deal, and it was around that time, too, that sister Ruth joined the group. That fall, they went into Pacific Recording and started work on the group's first album, beginning with “Yes We Can Can,” “Jada” and “Cloudburst” (all of which they had demoed before the Atlantic Records debacle). As fate would have it, midway during the recording of the album, Rubinson and Catero left Pacific Recording for good and moved their operation to Studio A of Wally Heider Recording in San Francisco, the hottest facility in town. Studio A, too, was equipped with a Quad Eight console, but by '72, Heider's had switched from Ampex 16-tracks to 3M models. The studio was a famously good-sounding tracking space, with a nice complement of high-quality microphones and a great-sounding echo chamber.

Clearly the formula worked. The album was released in March 1973 to immediate acclaim, and an edited version of “Yes We Can Can” stormed the airwaves that summer, lodging at Number 11 on Billboard's pop chart and Number 12 on the R&B chart. This started a chart run for the Sisters (and Rubinson) that included “Fairytale,” “How Long (Betcha Got a Chick on the Side),” “You Gotta Believe” and “Having a Party.”

The track has been sampled by acts like Big Daddy Kane ("3 Forties and a Bottle of..."), De La Soul ("Breakadawn"), NWA ("8 Ball"), and Pete Rock ("Escapism.")

Friday, August 15, 2008


Legendary record producer Jerry Wexler passed away today, August 15. Although he didn't quite invent rhythm & blues music, Wexler is credited with coining the term. The influential label exec and producer was instrumental in helping to popularize R&B in general and the careers of some of its greatest practitioners, from Ray Charles to Otis Redding to Aretha Franklin. Starting at Atlantic Records in the '50s, he was present when Charles invented modern soul music with "I Got a Woman." He signed a distribution deal with a small Memphis label that allowed it to grow into Stax, the '60s home of Redding, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, and other soul greats. He popularized the use of the FAME Studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala. (name-checked in Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama") by recording Aretha Franklin's landmark album I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You in 1967 -- simultaneously rescuing the future Queen of Soul from a doldrum career singing jazz-pop standards. He went on to sign groups as diverse as Led Zeppelin, Dire Straits, and the B-52s, and to produce for Bob Dylan, Etta James, Kim Carnes, and George Michael. Others he worked with included Dusty Springfield (on her classic Dusty in Memphis album), Wilson Pickett, and Willie Nelson.


Monday, August 11, 2008


(Courtesy of

It's been a tough year. First, Jimmy McGriff. Then Bo Diddley. And now, the "Black Moses" himself, Isaac Hayes, dead at 65.

He was perhaps best known for "Theme from Shaft"--with its riveting orchestration, definitive guitar play and signature sensual baritone vocals, the song for the 1971 movie "Shaft" not only became one of pop music's iconic songs, but also the defining work of Hayes' career.

Yet many don't realize that few figures exerted greater influence over the music of the 1960s and 1970s than Isaac Hayes; after laying the groundwork for the Memphis soul sound through his work with Stax-Volt Records, Hayes began a highly successful solo career which predated not only the disco movement but also the evolution of rap.

His influence also extended beyond music. His trademarked bald head, full beard and muscular frame, often adorned with a multitude of gold chains, made him a fashion trendsetter at a time when most of his contemporaries were sporting blowout Afros. He was also a symbol of black pride, and an activist for civil rights.

Hayes was born on August 20, 1942, in Covington, TN; his parents died during his infancy, and he was raised by his grandparents. After making his public debut singing in church at the age of five, he taught himself piano, organ and saxophone before moving to Memphis to perform on the city's club circuit in a series of short-lived groups like Sir Isaac and the Doo-Dads, the Teen Tones, and Sir Calvin and His Swinging Cats. In 1962, he began his recording career, cutting sides for a variety of local labels.

Two years later, Hayes began playing sax with the Mar-Keys, which resulted in the beginning of his long association with Stax Records. After playing on several sessions for Otis Redding, Hayes was tapped to play keyboards in the Stax house band, and eventually established a partnership with songwriter David Porter. Under the name the Soul Children, the Hayes-Porter duo composed some 200 songs, reeling off a string of hits for Stax luminaries like Sam & Dave (the brilliant "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby," "Soul Man," and "Hold On, I'm Comin'"), Carla Thomas ("B-A-B-Y,") and Johnnie Taylor ("I Got to Love Somebody's Baby," "I Had a Dream").

In 1967, Hayes issued his debut solo LP Presenting Isaac Hayes, a loose, jazz-flavored effort recorded in the early-morning hours following a raucous Stax party. With the release of 1969's landmark Hot Buttered Soul, he made his commercial breakthrough; the record's adventuresome structure (comprising four lengthy songs), ornate arrangements, and sensual grooves -- combined with the imposing figure cut by his shaven head, omnipresent sunglasses, and fondness for gold jewelry -- made Hayes one of the most distinctive figures in music.

After a pair of 1970 releases, The Isaac Hayes Movement and To Be Continued, he reached his commercial zenith in 1971 with the release of Shaft, the score from the Gordon Parks film of the same name. Not only did the album win Hayes an Academy Award for Best Score (the first African-American composer to garner such an honor), but the single "Theme From 'Shaft,'" a masterful blend of prime funk and pre-rap monologues, became a number one hit.

After 1971's superb Black Moses and 1973's Joy, Hayes composed two 1974 soundtracks, Tough Guys and Truck Turner (in which he also starred). By 1975, relations with Stax had disintegrated following a battle over royalties, and soon he severed his ties with the label to form his own Hot Buttered Soul imprint. Although both 1975's Chocolate Chip and 1976's Groove-a-Thon went gold, his records of the period attracted considerably less attention than prior efforts; combined with poor management and business associations, Hayes had no choice but to file for bankruptcy in 1976.

After the 1977 double-LP A Man and a Woman, recorded with Dionne Warwick, Hayes began a comeback on the strength of the hit singles "Zeke the Freak," "Don't Let Go" and "Do You Wanna Make Love." Following the success of his 1979 collection of duets with Millie Jackson titled Royal Rappins, he issued a pair of solo records, 1980's And Once Again and 1981's Lifetime Thing before retiring from music for five years. After returning in 1986 with the LP U Turn and the Top Ten R&B hit "Ike's Rap," Hayes surfaced two years later with Love Attack before again dropping out of music to focus on acting.

In 1995, fully enshrined as one of the forefathers of hip-hop and newly converted to Scientology, Hayes emerged with two concurrent releases, the vocal Branded and instrumental Raw and Refined. Under the official name Nene Katey Ocansey I, he also served as a member of the royal family of the African nation of Ghana while continuing simultaneous careers as an actor, composer, and humanitarian. In 1997, Hayes provided the voice of what was slated to be a one-time character on the animated series South Park -- Jerome "Chef" McElroy, the main characters' favorite school cafeteria worker. Hayes was an instant hit, and Chef became a regular character on the show, lending advice and, oftentimes, breaking into songs that gently sent up Hayes' image as one of R&B's ultimate love men.

He also remains one of the most sampled artists ever. Tracks like "Walk on By," The Look of Love," and "Joy" have literally been sampled hundreds of times, by artists ranging from Portishead to Kool G Rap, from Ultramagentic MC's and LL Cool J.

Thursday, August 7, 2008


After dropping two extremely dope 7 inch singles covering Wu-Tang classics, the El Michaels Affair (a loose collective of musicians affiliated with the monstrous Truth & Soul label in Brooklyn) deliver a nicely filled 12" featuring the legendary Raekwon on the title track. With a raw, gritty sound, and sparse, tasteful production, this is the kind of forward thinking hip-hop that is short on supply in today's bling-bling era. The pairing of a live band with a hip-hop artist is something the Scion label have been effectively doing since 2006, with previous entries from Connie Price & The Keystones with Big Daddy Kane and Rhythm Roots All Stars with Ghostface Killah. Amazing stuff.

Sunday, August 3, 2008


A really dope, fairly rare soul-jazz set from just before the point where soul-jazz turned once and for all into fusion, 1970's "Brother Jug" is very much an album of its time. "Brother Jug" is one of Ammons' better albums released soon after the tenor saxophonist's release from a seven-year prison sentence. Ammons' playing on this album has an unaccustomed grit; even on ballads like "Didn't We," there's an R&B-style honk to Ammons' tone that suits the funky, electric arrangements well. Featuring other legendary musicians like Billy Butler on guitar and Bernard Purdie on drums, "Brother Jug" is a great score.