100 Essential CDs – Number 28- Funk Soul Anthems

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Funk Soul Anthems (Sony/BMG 2005)

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To be honest, this 44 track 2005 double CD set from the mighty Sony/BMG conglomerate is sloppily put together with errors in spelling, partial song titles, no sleeve notes, incorrect running order and one track which appears which is not even listed on the back cover. I’m not sure if they got round to putting it right on later pressings but I think it might have been the reason why I picked this up cheaply not long after its first issue and when it comes down to it it’s what in the grooves that count and here things are very impressive indeed with some real funk and soul classics. Most of the tracks date from the 80’s, five of the mainly earlier tracks do overlap with another of my essential recommendations “Disco Classics” but there’s plenty here which still sounds fresh 30+ years on. Spanning from 1972 to 1986 it contains four US chart-toppers, an impressive 25 UK Top 10 singles as well as some which have become funk/soul standards without breaking through commercially at the time.
With these essential CDs it is important to know what tracks can be found on them so here you will find them listed with their highest chart position (UK/US) if released as a single and links if I have more information on the artist elsewhere on the blog. I’ll pick out a handful of tracks to give a flavour of what makes these CDs essential.
Track Listings

CD 1

1.One Nation Under A Groove – Funkadelic (1978) (UK#9, US#28)
“So high you can’t get over it, so low you can’t get under it” is one of the many hooks in this sole hit from George Clinton’s Funkadelic. Clinton’s main group was Parliament, which went from being soul/doowop journeymen The Parliaments and by dropping that  “S” became the prime exponents of 1970’s space-age funk. They produced some great tracks (and some bonkers ones too) and were apparently incredible memorable live. There were US successes but over here they did not make the commercial breakthrough. Clinton was the mastermind behind other acts such as Parlet, The Brides Of Funkenstein and one of his proteges Bootsy Collins is also featured on this CD with a track which has become a funk classic without charting, Funkadelic were a more rock orientated, less commercial outfit than Parliament yet they were the act that made the showing in the UK Top 10 with this track. Albums such as “Maggot Brain”, “Free Your Mind And Your Ass Will Follow” and “America Eats Its Young” would not have screamed radio airplay in the 1970’s but this track proved irresistible and was the title track of an album many claim is the best all-time funk album. However, it is no surprise that album track “Promentalshitbackwashpsychosis Enema Squad (The Doo Doo Chasers)” did not follow it to the upper reaches of the pop charts. I always felt that if George Clinton, a maverick if ever there was one was able to rein in slightly the more hallucinogenic, cartoon and scatological elements in his output that Parliament and Funkadelic could have become absolutely massive.

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2. Can You Feel It – The Jacksons (1981) (UK#6)
3. Car Wash – Rose Royce (1976) (UK#9, US#1)

Perhaps the best use of handclaps ever in this song. The introduction made it instantly familiar and it’s no surprise that this debut hit made it to the top of the US pop charts in 1976 and began a great career for Rose Royce (a group, not a person). The title track of a small but charming film ex Motown producer Norman Whitfield proved there was life after The Temptations with his work with this group. I loved also the aching ballads which appeared on the “Carwash” soundtrack “I Wanna Get Next To You” and “I’m Goin’ Down” and although primarily a funk group Rose Royce did become known for their ballads with tracks like “Wishing On A Star” and “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” but that was because not many funk bands at the time were blessed with a vocalist as pure as Gwen Dickey.

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4. Rockit- Herbie Hancock (1983) (UK#8)
5. Let The Music Play – Shannon (1983) (UK#14, US#8)

“He tried pretending a dance is just a dance but I see/He’s dancing his way back to me”.  Brenda Shannon Greene’s electro track, an early example of what came to be called freestyle,  sounded like a breath of fresh air in 1983 with its sinuating groove and lyrically it’s a cracker of a track.  There’s a really effective personification of love here who is resorted to for advice in a manner which would not have been out of place in a Shakespearean comedy.  Universal themes over a cooking arrangement and a good enough vocal performance looked like Shannon would be here to stay.  This was her only US hit but it did begin a run of three more UK hits in the 80’s which were not a patch on this and she had a revival in the 90’s when DJ’s looked for diva voices to front their tracks and scored chart hits with both Todd Terry and Sash!

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6. I Can Make You Feel Good – Shalamar (1982) (UK#7) – Also on “Disco Classics
7. Word Up – Cameo (1986) (UK#3, US#6)

Cameo had been around some time before they made the commercial breakthrough which had been expected from them.  Larry Blackmon was the codpiece wearing mastermind behind this group which formed in the mid 70’s with 14 members.  Obviously, it was going to prove difficult to pay the bills., there was a lot of coming and going over the years, Wikipedia lists 33 members.  They should have made their big impression with “Find My Way” a great dance track which was included on the 1978 “Thank God It’s Friday” soundtrack.  By 1986 they had shrunk down to a trio and found themselves with UK chart success with “She’s Strange”.  “Word Up” with its spaghetti western funk feel and Blackmon’s snarling vocal performance gave them their first US hit and is probably their best ever track, certainly their most successful.  Bizarrely, in 1999 Mel B covered this song and got to number 14 in the charts without matching the joyfulness in the original’s performance and production.

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8. Last Night A DJ Saved My Life – Indeep (1983) (UK#13)
9. Going Back To My Roots – Odyssey (1981) (UK#4)

In 1981 Odyssey decided to zip up their boots and score their fourth UK Top 10 hit.  This song which was written and originally recorded by Motown legend Lamont Dozier tapped into the fascination in black ancestry triggered by Alex Haley’s book and TV series “Roots” and this combined a thrilling disco track with African chants.  In the US at this time Disco had been officially declared dead which meant that many missed out on great tracks like this.  The trio which consisted of two sisters from the Virgin Islands Lillian and Louise Lopez (Lillian having a great distinct lead voice) and by this time Bill McEachern were one hit wonders in the US (but what a one hit, the sublime “Native New Yorker) but we certainly took to them in the UK.  A version of Odyssey still exists today based in the UK and led by the deceased Lillian’s son Steven Collazo and I’m sure this track would still go down a storm.

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10. T.S.O.P – MFSB ft The Three Degrees (1974) (UK #22, US#1) – Also on “Disco Classics”
11. It’s Just Begun – Jimmy Castor Bunch (1972)
12. Oops Upside Your Head – The Gap Band (1980) (UK#6) – Also on “Disco Classics”
13. Stretchin’ Out (In A Rubber Band) – Bootsy Collins (1976)
14. Walking In Rhythm – Blackbyrds (1975) (UK#20, US#6)
15. Hi, How Ya Doin’ ? – Kenny G ft Kashif (1983)
16. Lowdown – Boz Scaggs (1976) (UK#28, US#3)
17. The Groove Line – Heatwave (1978) (UK#12, US#7)
18. Zoom – Fat Larry’s Band (1982) (UK#2)
19. Let’s Groove – Earth Wind & Fire (1981) (UK#3, US#3)
20. I Found Lovin’- The Fatback Band (1984) (UK#7)
21. Get Down On It – Kool & The Gang (1981) (UK#3, US#10)
22. Theme From “Shaft”- Isaac Hayes (1971) (UK#4, US#1) – Also on “Disco Classics”

CD2

1.Love Train – O’ Jays (1973) (UK#9,US#1)
2. Somebody Else’s Guy- Jocelyn Brown (1984) (UK#13)
3. Got To Be Real – Cheryl Lynn (1979) (US#12) – Also on “Disco Classics”
4. All Night Long – Mary Jane Girls (1983)(UK#13)
5. Sexual Healing – Marvin Gaye (1982) (UK#4, US#3)
6.Give Me The Reason – Luther Vandross (1986) (UK#24)

It always seemed to me that Luther Vandross never really in life or music moved too far out of his comfort zone.  There was a tendency to play it safe unlike the great male R&B singers of the past who were prepared to take risks.  But there was no denying that what Luther did he was amongst the very best at.  He knew the right formula for the big soul ballads, the party jams and the uptempo dance numbers.  He was an acknowledged soul legend before he broke through in any consistent way commercially and it was really his 1986 album from which this was the title track which pushed him into the superstar bracket.  This was the track the Epic label did not want to give up on and it was issued three times before it made #24 in the UK.  There were bigger hits from this album but I’ve always had a fondness for this song.  My ultimate favourite of his tracks is from his time as lead vocalist for the group Change with a song which was lyrically and musically edgier than much of his material “Searching”  but it is always good to hear this one.

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7. Hold Me Tighter In The Rain – Billy Griffin (1983) (UK#17)

Billy came to prominence aged 20 when he took over lead vocals after Smokey Robinson left The Miracles and was the voice on one of their biggest hits “Love Machine”.  By 1983 he was going it alone and this was his only Top 40 hit.  It’s a great piece of pop disco with a great vocal performance.  Billy struggled to make much headway with his solo career after this, he relocated to the UK and became the first artist to be released on the Motorcity label which began a long-lasting connection with producer and songwriter Ian Levine who was instrumental in bringing ex-Motown stars back into the studio.  Griffin worked with Levine on early hits for The Pasadenas and Bad Boys Inc and was a co-producer on the first album by Take That.

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8. Running Away – Roy Ayers (1977)
9. Ain’t Nothing Going On But The Rent – Gwen Guthrie (1986) (UK#5)
10. Twilight- Maze (1985)
11.I.O.U- Freeez (1982) (UK#2)
12. Lessons In Love – Level 42 (1986) (UK#3,US#12)
13. Make My Dreams A Reality– GQ (1979)
14. Expansions – Lonnie Liston Smith (1975)
15. You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) – Sylvester (1978) (UK#8,US#36)*

This is the track which is not even listed on the back of the CD and it is always a surprise when Sylvester makes his flamboyant entrance.  US vocalist Sylvester James was probably a decade before his time.  An openly gay, gospel-voiced, high octane diva who was a real one off and this relentless tour-de-force of an electro track was arguably his best and his biggest UK hit.  In the US they preferred the almost equally excellent “Dance (Disco Heat) which was more of an ensemble piece with his back-up duo Two Tons O’Fun who went on to become The Weather Girls.  Sylvester made another couple of visits to the UK Top 40 and was the vocalist of choice for pioneer electro/Hi NRG producer Patrick Cowley.  There hasn’t been a definitive career retrospective of Sylvester’s music which shows his ease as a gospel-drenched disco performer and a great vocal artist on less frenetic material.  He did a great version of the pop standard “I (Who Have Nothing)”

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16.Harvest For The World – Isley Brothers (1976) (UK#10)

Seventeen years after their first hit “Shout” the Isleys were back in the UK Top 10 with this message track which deals with global hunger the title track of their 4th studio album.  This is such a cool track with great vocals and real chunky use of percussion which gives this track a depth.  A higher chart placing was scored by The Christians with their cover version twelve years later but the Isleys’ original is certainly the one to seek out.

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17. Somebody’s Watching Me – Rockwell (1984)(UK#6, US#2)

If you’re the son of Motown supremo Berry Gordy surely chart success would seem inevitable, especially if you sign to your father’s record label.  But how about if you do this without your father even knowing, changing your name from Kenneth to Rockwell.  At least there would be no charges of nepotism there but how are you going to get a hit?  Well, Rockwell’s answer was to enlist Michael Jackson to help out with the vocals on this tale of 80’s paranoia, the lyrics of which seem very appropriate coming out of Jackson’s mouth.  That way you can score a Top 10 hit on both sides of the Atlantic and much publicity when the ruse is uncovered.  But can you get a long-lasting career out of that? In Rockwell’s answer it was no.  He obviously liked dark themes as his only further Top 40 appearance in his homeland was with the #36 follow-up “Obscene Phone Caller” which I can say I’ve never heard.  This debut was made memorable by Jackson’s contribution as it his hook-lines which stay in the mind.
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18. Solid- Ashford & Simpson (1985) (UK#3, US#12)
19. Mama Used To Say – Junior (1982) (UK#7, US#30)
20. Love Come Down – Evelyn “Champagne” King (1982) (UK#7, US#17)
21. Forget Me Nots – Patrice Rushen (1982) (UK#8, US#23)
22. What A Fool Believes – Aretha Franklin (1980) (UK#46)

The majority of these tracks certainly do deserve the anthemic status given to them by this release.  25 of them were bigger hits in the UK than in the US, which is unusual for an album which features predominantly American artists.  The UK never had that backlash against club music which happened in the US following the much publicised Death of Disco (Peter Shapiro is good on this) but by the early 80’s there were so many great radio-friendly club orientated tracks being produced that the US could no longer ignore its artists who were recording them.  Even British R&B influenced acts like Junior, Heatwave and Level 42 were making waves on the US charts.  This double CD is always a joy to listen to and even within the field of Soul and Funk showed what great variety of sounds was available to the listener.

Funk Soul Anthems is currently available from Amazon in the UK used from £2.72

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The Soulful Divas – David Nathan (Billboard Books 1999) – A Real Life Review

realivesdivasI don’t think this book was ever published in the UK, which is a shame, but it can be found over here on Amazon.  David Nathan is British, although he now lives in the USA and came to my attention first of all as regular journalist for “Blues And Soul” magazine and over the years built up quite a body of interviews which was used to inform this very readable and enjoyable book.  I read it first when it came out and was moved to write to David about it, that is not something I had ever done before and for a while we had a little bit of correspondence going.  What surprises me most of all is that there has never been a sequel to this book.  There has been a later edition but it seems to me that the author must have enough information stored away for a follow-up, but to date it has not appeared.  In his introduction he even mentions a string of names who could make up the second volume – come on David, what have you been doing the last 16 years!?davidnathan

The foreword is written by a great friend of David’s, the much-missed Luther Vandross who was a great fan of female soul music and for a time, as a youngster, ran the Patti Labelle fan club.   Luther observes;

“What a rich legacy these women have given all of us, and I got much insight into each diva’s personal traits through his (David’s)  memories and recollections.”

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Luther hits it spot on.  Rather than adopt a purely autobiographical approach David uses his personal experiences with these formidable women, both professionally and personally and that unlocks a whole lot more information about how these artists tick.  This is a very personal view of 17 “divas” Nathan has come to interview and in some cases befriend over the years .  14 get their own chapters and three wannabe divas (remember this book came out in 1999- Whitney, Janet Jackson and Toni Braxton share a chapter as the young pretenders).  The other 14 are responsible for some of the greatest music of all time – I’ll name-check them because you will want to know who you will be reading about- Dionne Warwick, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Esther Phillips, Doris Troy, Diana Ross, Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan, Patti Labelle, Millie Jackson, Natalie Cole, Phyllis Hyman, Roberta Flack and Anita Baker.

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One photo – 3 Divas – Patti, Chaka and Gladys

What makes this book a joy to read is that David Nathan has had his fair share of spats with these ladies over the years and beans are spilled here.  There is a sound balance between career observation, opinion and personal experience which gives this book its unique perspective.  The focus on the interviews for (mainly) “Blues And Soul” magazine gives a contemporaneous aspect, although, on occasion the reading of the old interviews can become a tad dry.

Nathan reveals in the first section how his passion for music developed (how passions develop is always a winner with me) and it was actually all through none other than Cilla Black;

“My bedroom wall was adorned with multiple photographs of the redheaded thrush.  In school, I defended Cilla’s version of “Anyone Who Had A Heart” until it got me into a few fistfights.”

In the UK of course, it was Cilla’s version of the song which rose to number 1 and Dionne had only a small hit with her original version which caused a considerable amount of bitterness from the American.  Everything changed for the young David when he heard Dionne’s version of “Walk On By” which became her first British hit.  He begged his mother for pocket-money to buy her first album and;

“That LP has gone with me everywhere I’ve been ever since that day in 1964.  As it would turn out, Dionne’s music not only served as my introduction to the world of African-American artists, but also literally gave me the blessed life and wonderful career I’ve had in the music industry for the past three decades.”dionne

The struggles of divadom provided an early exit for a couple of these ladies (Phyllis Hyman and the probably quite terrifying Esther Phillips) and since the book was published we’ve lost Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston, Doris Troy and Nina Simone.  In the interim period perhaps only a small handful have the same kind of profile as they had in the year of publication (Aretha, Dionne, Natalie and perhaps Chaka and Patti) as the passing of time has meant that these artists have had to slow down but anyone wanting to relive the glory days of these superb women should certainly consider reading this book.  There may be more thorough biographies/autobiographies out there on some of these ladies (springing to mind are Randy J Taraborelli’s “Call Me Miss Ross”, “Out Of The Madness- Janet Jackson” by Bart Andrews, “Don’t Block The Blessings” by Patti Labelle and the very impressive “Angel On My Shoulder” by Natalie Cole all of which should be on a Diva reading list) but as an overview and for the personal perspective this is hard to beat.

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The Soulful Divas was published by Billboard Books in 1999.