Thursday, January 29, 2009
"Does the world really need another funk band?
In this modern age of bluetooth-enabled blenders and ginseng toothpaste, the idea of a group of young men dedicating themselves to pursuit of the funk seems quaint, if not quixotic. Is fame and fortune their motivation? Unlikely. For funksters, Fate’s a fickle mistress, and history is littered with her rejected suitors. The foothills of Funk Olympus can be treacherous terrain, with shelter (both economic and critical) scarce.
But all is not soured wine and wilted roses. Witnesses to the quartet’s combustible performances report a rather elevated level of joy in the air, a certain carnival quality involving spontaneous finger-popping, palm-slapping and sole-stomping. Could this intoxicating fragrance of fun be the addictive additive that drives their devilishly dedicated desires?
Imagine, if you will, a random Ratskeller, canteen or speakeasy bouncing to a syncopated, stuttering sound. Fatback drums shake sweat from the walls, dancers jerk with disregard. Booker-esque organ tangles with sinister guitar, bass dislodges drinks from cabinets. This, reports indicate, is the world of Lefties Soul Connection. Who can blame the boys for choosing to ignore the enticements of investment banking, long-distance trucking and civil servitude when they hold the keys to this Dionysian playground?
And so they persist.
And so even a tweedbound muso-journalist such as myself, immersed in the button-down world of retro-future soulsonic scribery, has been forced to straighten my slouch, gaze up from my coffee-stained keyboard and take notice. What hip hop junkie could find fault with Lefties' raw Funk 45 feel, filtered through their hip-to-the-game beatwise sensibilities? What aspiring producer could ignore the mind-boggling array of open drumbreaks and MPC-enticing snippets that surface with alarming consistency throughout their music? What connoisseur of garage funk would deny the greasy grooves these fresh fellows finesse?
The collection you hold contains eleven LSC originals (and one Funky Chick from Texas), indicators all that these Amsterdammers are serious in their courtship of the funk muse. “Skimming the Skum”? One gets the impression it’s the scummier the better for Lefties. That rumbling you hear emerging from a dust-encrusted basement just may be the sound of these sonic excavators getting filthy in their pursuit of hard and heavy nuggets of nastiness. Another funk band? Sure. Make room for Lefties."
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Memphis 70 is a great collection of rare Soul gems released in the wake of the death of Otis Redding in late 1967. This comp shows what happened next as local musicians emerged from Otis' shadow and created new and exhilarating sounds. The earliest cut is the in-demand Funk/ R&B groove of Stacy Lane's 'No Ending' produced by the legendary Packy Axton, the founder of the Mar-Keys. We have plenty of funky grooves for those that want to keep the dancefloor moving, such as Alvin Cash's duet with Doris Porter, 'Tip Toeing', the incredibly rare 'Hard Times' by Billy Cee, the collectable break-beat 'Mississippi Mud' by the Smithstonian, and an amazing unreleased version of 'Shake' by the Ovations. There are also great slices of Funk by the Optimistics, Lillian Hale, Blackrock and Bow-Legs Miller. The whole lot is rounded up with some fantastic pictures, in-depth notes and an amazing cover image to make this a fine set.
When most people hear the word "popcorn," they probably think of Orville Redenbacher. When record collectors, DJ's, and fans of the backbeat hear that same word, it takes on an entirely new context: it's a sound, a movement, a dance--a FEELING. In much the same way that hundreds of bands cashed in on Chubby Checker's "Twist" phenomenon, popcorn-themed songs quickly became ubiquitous among dancefloors and radio stations in the late 60's. Legions of funk bands--some well-known, most not so much so--who had been inspired by the popcorn craze began to experiment with their own variations on the theme. So where did the popcorn come from?
Popularized by James Brown in the late sixties, the "popcorn" craze is thought to have evolved from Boogaloo music. "Boogaloo" was the sound of Latin teenagers in and around New York during the mid- to late-'60s; It was an Anglicized form of Latin music incorporating R&B, mambo, and rock & roll, among other forms. Often known as "popcorn" music or shing-a-ling, the style is also quite similar to Latin soul.
As for the popcorn dance, James Brown had been doing the "Mashed Potatoes Popcorn" dance as early as 1966, but the first hint of Popcornitude turned up in January of 1968, with the release of an inconspicuous instrumental single called "Bringing Up The Guitar," credited to the Dapps featuring Alfred Ellis. The Dapps were the all-white funk band Brown had fronted on his gigantic hit "I Can't Stand Myself When You Touch Me," though it's not terribly clear if they were the Dapps on this particular record. (Brown tended to throw that name around a lot. The classic 1970 band including Bootsy Collins that recorded "Sex Machine" and "Soul Power," for instance, recorded an unreleased single, "More Mess On My Thing," under the name The New Dapps.) Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis played sax on most of JB's mid-'60s hits; "Bringing Up The Guitar" itself was basically just an extension of the "Cold Sweat" beat, featuring a decent sax solo, a guitar playing octaves on a pentatonic scale, a little walking-upward bass figure, and the band chanting "c'mon! yeah!" Not much to it but the groove.
Brown started doing a little dance to "Bringing Up The Guitar" on stage, and it caught on. He called the dance the Popcorn, and in late August, 1968, the band re-recorded the instrumental as "The Popcorn" (credited to James Brown Plays & Directs). In fact, he wasn't playing, though he can be heard yelping a little; this time, Ellis switched to organ, and Maceo Parker contributed a smoking, curlicuing tenor sax part. It's not quite as crisp or funky as the first version, but when it was released in May 1969, it clicked, going to #11 on the R&B chart.
When "The Popcorn" clicked, though, the Godfather moved-fast. (This, please note, was in a year when he released 13 singles and 4 albums, and that's just counting the ones under his own name.) On May 13, he hybridized the words of "You Got To Have A Mother For Me" with the basic groove of "The Popcorn," and came up with "Mother Popcorn," one of the most monstrously funky records ever made. Released in June, "Mother Popcorn," despite its weird title, became a humongous hit: #1 on the R&B charts, #11 pop.
Now, James Brown was not a man to linger on his successes; he'd record the same song over and over, a few years apart, but he was too busy making his groove evolve to stick with a formula. But something about the Popcorn was different. A month to the day after he recorded "Mother Popcorn," he was back in the studio, recording the instrumental "Lowdown Popcorn." It frankly didn't bear much relation to the Popcorn groove, other than its cyclical walking bass part, but that didn't matter: you could do the dance to it, after all. (Well, you could do the dance to anything, actually.) It wasn't one of Brown's best instrumentals, but it still went to #16 on the R&B charts when it came out in August.
After that, all bets were off. Brown had a huge revue he traveled with; there was always a woman singer, whose job was to sing backup, warm up the crowd (usually with a short set that ended with "People"), and generally do the diva thing. In the fall of 1969, that was Vicki Anderson (the wife of Brown's longtime right-hand-man Bobby Byrd). In an attempt to cover the potentially lucrative answer-song market, he assigned her "Answer To Mother Popcorn (I Got a Mother For You)," and she co-wrote and sang the living hell out of it. It came out in September, and it wasn't a hit, but it's become a collectors' favorite, with an amazing screaming-diva vocal and a magnificently tense groove.
R&B organist Bill Doggett had had a great big hit in the '50s with "Honky Tonk," which Brown covered a few times in various guises; in September 68, Doggett released a new, Brown-produced version of "Honky Tonk," backed with "Honky Tonk Popcorn"-the latter with a composition credit reading James Brown.
Once the Godfather opened the popcorn floodgates, funk outfits from all over the country (and Globe) began to record their own interpretations of the popcorn. Some were fiery covers of Brown's originals; others were lo-fi funk vamps that simply gave shout-outs to the dance. And yet there were other obscure little gems, cobbled together by obscure funk bands and released by even more obscure regional labels on rare, if not impossible to find, 45's. That's where this set comes in.
The RDM Band's "Butter Your Popcorn" provides the opening track and title for the set. Deep funk legends Billy Ball & The Upsetters turn in a scorching track called "Popcorn 69", while, from the same year, German composer Franz Auffray brings a dark psychedelic number called "Son of Popcorn." (Admittedly, Auffray's track bears little resemblance to other "popcorn"-themed relatives on this comp--perhaps only referencing "popcorn" in irony-- but it remains a highly sought-after LP by beat junkies, with the original pressing often fetching up to $400 on eBay.) Fellow Germans the Poets of Rhythm bring the heat with "Hotpie's Popcorn," while Eldridge Holmes' "Pop Popcorn Children" also remains highly sought after by funk 45 collectors for its hard-hitting groove, featuring the Meters as a potent backup band.
Dillard Crume, the long-time guitarist and songwriter for the legendary gospel group the Soul Stirrers (once featuring a young Sam Cooke), delivers a wicked take on Brown's "Mother Popcorn", along with his backup band, the Soul Rockets. Indiana's Big Daddy Graham Trio checks in with "Tightening Your Popcorn," while fellow midwesterner Andre Williams from Chicago's Chess Records appreciatively tells us about how to "Do the Popcorn." Finland's Calypso King and the Soul Investigators drop the heavy, deep organ funk with "Micro Popcorn," and Brazil's Waltel Branco covers Brown's "Popcorn With a Feeling." The Soul Generals, thought to be from Alabama, (and later the name of Brown's backing band for the last 20 years of his life), bring some greasy goodness with "Granma's Funky Popcorn (Part One)." Brother Jack McDuff's "Butter (For Yo' Popcorn)" comes from his 1969 record, "Down Home Style," while East of Underground (recorded in 1971 by a group of US Army serviceman at the Armed Forces Network studios in Frankfurt, Germany) mix Latin and Funk on "Popcorn/Santana." The second version of "Honky Tonk Popcorn," the last track in the set, comes courtesy of an Australian band called the Pacific Rhythm Combo, and takes Bill Doggett's original track to funky new heights. And of course, the set wouldn't be complete without a contribution from Brown himself, whose band is at the peak of their powers in "Lowdown Popcorn."
Needless to say, the "popcorn" was more than merely a sound, a dance, a movement, or even a feeling. It was a code word amongst singers, musicians, and bands (and, eventually, record collectors) alike that evidenced a seismic shift in Western rhythm and redefined what we thought of as "dance music." In turn, the "popcorn" produced some of the most incendiary and sought-after records in all of record lore. The height of the popcorn craze, from 1968-1970, not only liberated people's bodies, but inspired countless other bands from around the world to (rightly) think with their hips instead of their heads. It cut away the fat and gristle, leaving meaty bass lines, vicious horn stabs, mighty gutbucket drums, tons of sweat, and hours of rhythmic ecstasy. Like legendary DJ the Mojoman used to say, the Popcorn put "cheer in you ear, dip in your Hip, move in your Groove, glide in your Slide, and the swing in your thing."
Thursday, January 22, 2009
David "Fathead" Newman, a jazz saxophonist who was a key member of Ray Charles' band for a dozen years and later became a high-profile session player, has died. He was 75.
Newman died Tuesday of pancreatic cancer at a hospital in Kingston, N.Y., according to his wife and manager, Karen Newman.
Newman's saxophone can be heard on many of Charles' landmark hits, including "I Got a Woman," "What'd I Say" and "Lonely Avenue." And it was Charles who helped Newman get his first album as a leader with the 1958 Atlantic Records release "Fathead: Ray Charles Presents David Newman."
Newman was born in Corsicana, Texas, on Feb. 24, 1933, but grew up in Dallas, where he studied first the piano and then the saxophone. He earned the nickname "Fathead" from his high school band teacher because he stubbornly refused to learn to read music, preferring instead to take it in by ear.
He went off to Jarvis Christian College on a music and theology scholarship but quit school after three years and began playing professionally, mostly jazz and blues, with a number of musicians including Buster Smith, Lloyd Glenn, Lowell Fulson and T-Bone Walker.
"I was brought up a bebop musician but it wasn't so acceptable, especially in Dallas," Newman told the Dallas Morning News some years ago. "You couldn't make a living doing that, so I had to play rhythm and blues. I adapted to it easily, being from an area where blues was prevalent."
He was playing in Smith's band in the early 1950s when he met Charles, who was then a piano-playing sideman for Fulson. The two hit it off immediately. Charles loved Newman's sound for its lyricism and sweetness and vowed to bring him aboard when he started his own band, which he did in 1954. The multifaceted Newman first played baritone saxophone for Charles but switched to tenor and became a star soloist.
"He really extended my music because he was into so many different types of music," Newman told the Canadian newspaper Ottawa Citizen in 2007. "I didn't really appreciate anything except bebop before I met Ray."
"In 1960 he started having a big band, an orchestra," Newman told the Tennessean newspaper some years ago. "Ray did all the arranging. He wouldn't even touch the piano, and he never wrote anything in Braille. He had perfect pitch. He would dictate a part and all you had to do was take notation and you'd have the arrangement. Ray Charles was a phenomenal musician."
After leaving Charles' band, Newman moved on to play with Herbie Mann's band in 1970-71 and recorded several more albums for Atlantic as well as Warner Bros., Fantasy Records and Muse.
Newman's versatility on reed instruments made him a first-call session player, and he worked with a wide variety of A-list players including Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Joe Cocker, and Dr. John, and with Natalie Cole on her "Unforgettable" album.
He orchestrated music for scores of films and played and appeared in the Robert Altman film "Kansas City." He later did a national tour with the band from that 1996 film for Verve records.
Newman himself became a character in "Ray," the 2004 biopic of Charles' life that starred Jamie Foxx. And while Newman thought that Foxx did a remarkable job capturing the life of a legend, he wasn't pleased with the way he was portrayed in the Taylor Hackford film.
In the movie, the character called Fathead is depicted as a brash young musician who turned Charles on to hard drugs. The soft-spoken Newman had said Charles had been using drugs for several years before they met.
"Drug use was prevalent at the time, even fashionable," Newman told the Columbia Daily Tribune. The movie, he added, "didn't really say that."
He is survived by his wife, four sons, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Another great release from the Truth & Soul label: this time bringing you The Bronx River Parkway. Based out of NY, this band was initially formed during an impromptu jam session at the Soul Fire studios in early 2002. In 2004, Pablo Rodriguez, of Candela Records, and visual artist, Rostarr, had the vision of melding the gritty style and aesthetic of BRONX RIVER PARKWAY with the distinct musical vocabulary of traditional Puerto Rican music. An inspired and breaks heavy album. The Soul and R&B influences of BRP remain the basis while traditional bomba, salsa, and rumba shine through to create something completely fresh.
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
With a title like "Are You Really Ready for Black Power" and an inauguration of a new president soon, what better time to revisit Gary Byrd's 1972 political jazz/funk classic?
Gary Byrd has been a controversial figure as a radio talk-show host in the '80s and '90s, appearing weekdays on radio station WLIB in New York City, one of several outlets owned by African-American businessman Percy Sutton's Inner City Broadcasting corporation. Byrd's musical roots extend to the '60s, when he met Stevie Wonder and wrote the lyrics for his songs "Black Man" and "Village Ghetto Land." He and Wonder teamed again in 1983, when Byrd co-wrote the historical/inspirational tune "The Crown," which was issued as a 12-inch on Wonder's Wondirection label. Wonder co-wrote the number, and also produced and sang on it. Byrd was a disc jockey in England during 1984, hosting a gospel radio program Sundays on the BBC titled "Sweet Inspiration." He wrote a poem about Halley's Comet for a European Space Agency broadcast, and later did oral narratives for syndication that were short portraits of African-American heroes.
The song comes from the B-side of a 45 (the other side being "Every Brother Ain't A Brother"). It was produced by Buddy Scott and arranged by Chico O'Farrill.