The love-as-a-drug metaphor doesn’t get anymore potent or direct than on the classic 1970s soul hit “Stoned Out Of My Mind” by the Chi-Lites. Led by the honey dripping tenor-falsetto of Eugene Record, who wrote most of their tunes, Chicago’s own sweet soulsters likened a bad relationship with a femme fatale to a drug or drinking binge. The results were a propulsive, horn-laden classic that made it to #2 on the Billboard R&B charts in 1973.
“Stoned” was such a quietly influential classic, in fact, that when Paul Weller was at the height of his Soul & R&B obsessions with The Jam he chose to cover it for the B-side to the band’s last single, “Beat Surrender,” in 1982. The result was a a more suave take on the original with Weller’s lowered pitch and cool to the point of almost lounge-y delivery giving the song a completely different yet pleasingly smooth vibe.
The Chi-Lites’ original has more grit and funk and The Jam’s cover more polish and finesse. Take your pick — either version is about as good of a “love is a drug” song as there is in the pop canon.
A brief, shining 1970s phenomenon, the Florida family act Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose were essentially a two-hit wonder. Featuring very tight pop production and wonderfully controlled yet gritty lead vocals from Eddie Cornelius the quartet cut the incredibly catchy, string-heavy classic R&B pop single “Too Late To Turn Back Now” in 1972. Showcasing the band’s excellent lyrical dexterity that acted as a hook of its own — “I believe, I believe, I believe I’m falling in love!” — “Too Late” charted at #2 on the US Pop charts, outdoing its R&B status by three positions.
Their eponymous debut album also featured the Booker-T & the MGs-inspired “Treat Her Like A Lady”, a nicely funky story song with a moral about how to get the babes by being a gentleman. If it wasn’t exactly the political consciousness of Curtis Mayfield or Sly & The Family Stone, “Treat Her Like a Lady” was still on the right side of the moral equation and a propulsively danceable aural delight. It made it to # 3 on the Pop charts but only #20 for R&B, confirming that the band’s true niche was more Top 40 than true Funk or Soul.
If they never again reached those giddy heights, the band still had some good music tucked away on their LPs. “Don’t Ever Be Lonely (A Poor Little Fool Like Me)” is a sweetly catchy self-pitying number in the Tyrone Davis mold (sans the great TD’s Chicago-by-way-of-the-Deep-South soulfulness)…
…and “Big Time Lover,” the standout title track from their second album, played the reformed ladies man card just right, another fine entry in the long tradition of Rock and R&B “I used to run around ’til I met you, baby” cuts.
Though the Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose fizzled out just as quickly as they hit the big time, with both brothers Eddie and Carter finding very different religious callings later in the 70s, the songs they left behind are still a candy colored pleasure to listen to. Caught in a zone of pre-disco and scrubbed-clean Soul the band’s better efforts are simple, enjoyably well-executed pop records with a pleasing R&B veneer. And sometimes, in an age where modern R&B vocalists and production values can be at once cruder and more histrionic, that kind of clean, straight forward attack to making a 3-minute single can come across as mighty refreshing. I highly recommend picking up their greatest hits, The Story of Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose. Just as much as their trademark gaudy leisure suits they’re a 70s footnote but a damn enjoyable one.
2016 has officially become one of those singularly awful periods in Rock history, like 1959, when Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper all died in a single plane crash. Or that fateful stretch from 1970 to 1971 when Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison all OD’d. Continuing this year’s traumatic trend, the world lost the whirlwind musical talent known as Prince this past Thursday, April 21st. The Purple One joins his fellow chameleonic, gender-bending artist David Bowie, as well as Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey among the colossal figures in the Rock pantheon who’ve passed away this year. (Another we lost in 2016 is fabled Beatles producer George Martin, who thankfully lived to the ripe old age of 90).
It’s easy to forget with the passing of time what a controversial figure Prince was when he broke onto the scene in the early 1980s. But then, with album titles like Dirty Mind and Controversy he made it clear he was courting it. It was the Reagan era, a promised return to straight-laced, wholesome American values after the free-love 1960s and the if-it-feels-good-do-it pre-AIDS 1970s. Yet here was this diminutive, light skinned African American emerging fully formed from Minneapolis of all places, dressed like an English dandy and singing some of the dirtiest come-ons ever put to vinyl. A wonderfully unusual lover man — handsome yet pretty, satyr-like but delicate and petite with his pencil thin mustache, long hair and soft speaking voice belying his powerfully expressive singing style — it wasn’t hard for the manly men and hair metal rockers to make fun of Prince. Except that while they and their buddies were down at the local watering hole drinking Buds and listening to Slayer, Prince was systematically bedding their women and bringing those lucky ladies to previously undreamed of paroxysms of ecstasy.
With his utterly unique musical gift for passionate eclecticism, effortlessly blending Soul, R&B, Funk and Rock into one heady hedonistic potion with which to intoxicate listeners, he wasn’t just upsetting to uptight macho guys or self-appointed moral police like Tipper Gore’s dumb Parent’s Music Resource Center. Prince was downright revolutionary, challenging the established musical order of that era. A light-skinned black dude who could shred on guitar like a latter day Hendrix or Ernie Isley while simultaneously promising to ravage America’s daughters of all colors — was he an R&B/Funk sensation or a crossover artist like Michael Jackson, another rare performer who couldn’t be contained or labeled by the then-prevailing radio segregation between “R&B,” “Pop” and “Rock”? Was he just a borderline obscene libertine provocateur or in fact a sensitive sensualist poet-prophet for a new generation? The answer to all of those and many more questions about Prince was invariably Yes.
Prince was aided and abetted in his cross-cultural takeover by the coincidental rise of an even greater societal force, MTV, becoming one of the budding video network’s omnipresent early stars with his seminal (literally) video for the double-entendre filled “Little Red Corvette.” 1984 saw the culmination of Prince’s conquest with the spectacularly popular, semi-autobiographical film Purple Rain, the massively successful album of the same name and its host of high-charting hits, not least of them the gospel-infused title track, which became as close to a theme song as the ever-changing Prince ever had (or maybe it was really “Dirty Mind”). As someone who went to that movie upon its initial release in a small-town theater while away at school, I can testify to Purple Rain‘s impact on a bunch of horny teenaged white kids, even if today we might look back and see nothing much more than a long form video with a typically 80s outsider-makes-good storyline. With the United States still very much on Cold War footing with the Soviet Union and the threat of nuclear annihilation pervading the darkest corners of our young minds, when Prince sang “We’re all excited/But we don’t know why/Maybe it’s ’cause/We’re all gonna die!” on “Let’s Go Crazy” it was pure catharsis. Not to mention a fine excuse to live it up to the fullest right freaking now.
If Prince would never achieve those Olympian heights again his place in the pop music firmament was nonetheless firmly enshrined. He dabbled with Bowie-esque gender bending, as on the especially erotic yet thoroughly empathetic “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” He went through backing bands like Kleenex and collaborated with other artists with a similarly hyperactive drive, writing hit songs for the Bangles, Sinead O’Connor, Stevie Nicks and many others, while also shepherding new acts like Vanity, Bria Valente, Morris Day and the Time and Sheila E. He split from his record label, self-released his music and changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, then returned to a major label and started using Prince again. All the while, as he cranked out a ton of amazing music with or without further chart success, it was clear that he was not only his own unique phenomenon but also the spiritual heir to all those great musicians who merged the sacred with the profane, from the Delta bluesmen to Ray Charles and Sam Cooke to Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Rick James. In the process he created an unsettling, stimulating, booty shaking mix of something close to sexual Gospel music for the modern age.
Most of all, Prince refused to be pigeonholed. He was simply the greatest singer/producer/arranger/guitar player/keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist and showman of his time, the fantastic culmination of 20th century African-American music in one diminutive, hyperkinetic package. In the end there was no one like him, before or since. The purple light’s gone out all too prematurely. But we can thank the heavens for his tragically brief but utterly amazing 57 years on this humdrum planet. Because the eternal soul of Prince will always be here to guide us, his dearly beloved mere mortals, and help get us through this thing called life.
Tyrone Davis (1938 -2005) was one of the great R&B artists of the late 1960s and 1970s, even if today he may not be the first name that springs to mind. At a time when radio formats were increasingly being re-segregated, T.D. had a string of huge hits that placed high on the R&B charts, although with diminishing impact on the overall Pop charts. In another era, even just 5 or 6 years prior, he might have a been a crossover star along the lines of Sam Cooke or Otis Redding. But his artfully crafted, romantically remorseful songs ran counter to the prevailing trends in 70s-era Soul music, both in terms of their straightforward if dynamic compositions and in their almost total disregard for the red hot political topics of the day in favor of the timeless struggle for happiness between man and woman.
As so many musicians of color had before him, the Mississippi native traveled north and made his breakthrough in Chicago, where he was guided by the legendary producer Carl Davis (Tyrone even adopted that last name, changing it from his original surname, Fettson). T.D. had almost instant success at the tail end of 1960s with the pleading “Can I Change My Mind”. This breakout hit, originally a B-side, rapidly made it to #1 on the R&B charts and was #5 in Pop, minting the Tyrone Davis formula right out of the gate: a tightly arranged but not fussy horn arrangement propelling T.D.’s soulful tenor, which delivered, most importantly, the secret sauce: an inversion of the stud lover man persona into a flawed, vulnerable suitor begging for redemption.
From there he cranked out a series of fantastic uptempo soul ballads suffused with regret and second thoughts, filling the airwaves with sweet yet gritty pure Chicago Soul, always with a pleasing hint of his down-home country roots peeking through the worldly lyrics (for example, on 1975’s stellar “Turning Point”, we hear “toining point” more than “turning point” and “Loid, Loid, Loid” instead of “Lord”).
Davis was certainly limited by his strict adherence to simple, essentially throwback love songs, eschewing the prevailing trends in R&B music that embraced funkier, more elaborate and Afrocentric musical styles and also gave lyrical expression to political aspirations and grievances. Simply put, Tyrone Davis never made a protest song about the ghetto or racial oppression. That sort of overt social activism was not in his performer’s repertoire. And any dalliances he may have had with Disco later on did not exactly lead to memorable music to say the least. So no, T.D. will never be confused with Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, The O’Jays or Earth, Wind & Fire. But by staying true to his narrow range as a romantic Chicago soul man par excellence the best of Tyrone Davis, as typified by his standout sides for Dakar and Columbia, is really very good and well worth adding to any serious collection of classic R&B. If you’re looking to set the mood with some straight ahead romantic Soul, a selection of Tyrone Davis’ greatest hits will always get it done.
Maurice White had a composer’s sense of musical innovation, applying highly advanced theories to the rapidly evolving R&B of the late 1960s and early 70s to create a funky, sometimes disco-y but always feel-good stew that was also pleasantly steeped in astrology and ancient Egyptian mythology. Along with their contemporaries Parliament/Funkadelic and Kool & the Gang, EWF made the 1970s one of the most exciting decades for innovative and creatively satisfying African-American music with immense multicultural crossover appeal. Even the band’s more disco-fied hits like “Boogie Wonderland” were undergirded by an intellectual and musical rigor that allowed Jazz, Funk & Soul influences to bubble to the surface, subtly contributing to the overall vibe of ecstatic rejoicing.
Always focusing on the positive and the uplifting, Maurice White was committed to using the power of music for spiritual explorations and personal growth and seeking to put in sonic form the transcendence that comes from a profoundly positive shared experience. EWF’s live shows were legendary and remained inspiring right up until the end, a great multihued dance party for all their fans old and new. Earth, Wind & Fire incorporated African instruments such as Mr. White’s signature kalimba along with a killer horn section and the most up to date electronic keyboards. And then their songs were elevated to the stratosphere by the soaring falsetto vocals of Philip Bailey, as well as Mr. White’s own excellent vocal contributions. Truly, the best of Earth Wind & Fire inhabits a plane of musical excellence that moves both the booty and the spirit. If you could sum up Maurice White’s philosophy of self-improvement and spiritual nourishment through the power of music in one short phrase it would have to be “Keep Your Head To The Sky”. You’d be hard pressed to find a negative, downbeat sentiment in any of EWF’s extensive canon. Even their sad songs raise the spirit. And to pull that off without devolving into sappiness and pap takes a rare skill.
Maurice White surely exhibited that skill with a rare deftness and proficiency, the kind that seems effortless but is the product of countless hours of practice and study, of drilling a large crack ensemble, all while pushing musical boundaries and laying down a challenge to his peers to raise their game or get left behind. Go back and listen to Earth Wind & Fire’s best music and you realize how beautifully well crafted and elegant this alleged “pop” dance music is. it is one of the sins of omission in music criticism that R&B music rarely gets tagged with the “art” label. But certainly the seminal performances of EWF’s best recordings rise to that level, no matter how pleasing to the ear and the pelvis they are. Sadly, the genius behind so much of their tremendous success is gone now. But the music will live on as long as we’re capable of playing it. And when we’re looking for uplift and positive vibes, as well as rump shaking good times, there are very few other bands that will satisfy quite like Earth, Wind & Fire. That’s about as great a legacy as I can imagine anyone leaving behind for the world.
We at MFL would like to wish a Happy New Year to all our loyal readers and occasional visitors. We really appreciate you stopping by in 2015 and wish you & yours all the very best in 2016.
Our New Year’s Resolution is to keep on marching to the beat of our own drummer and expanding our horizons to all things interesting and gentlemanly and then hopefully sharing that with you. What’s yours?
R&B and Soul legend Bobby Womack has passed away at the age of 70. One of the classic “middleweights” of the African-American music scene in the 1960s & 70s, Womack made hugely popular singles that, like Tyrone Davis and Johnny Taylor, charted big time in R&B but did not have the crossover appeal of a Marvin Gaye or Al Green as radio was becoming more & more re-segregated.
Mentored by the legendary Sam Cooke, Womack followed a similar trajectory by emerging from strong Gospel roots to perform “profane” secular music. That connection was further cemented when Womack married Cooke’s widow not long after the latter’s shooting death, a move which many found distastefully opportunistic and led to de facto blacklisting by the music industry. But, as Womack always maintained, it was probably just a case of two people devastated by the loss of the most important person in their lives who found solace with each other.
Womack stayed busy and relevent to the end, recording with the Rolling Stones, The Roots, Mos Def and Gorillaz among many others. But it is for his special run of 1960s and 70s hits that he will be best remembered. One thing’s for sure: ain’t nobody gonna forget about Bobby Womack.
Often overlooked today because of his somewhat lightweight repertoire, Jackie Wilson should still be considered one of the all-time R&B greats. With his soaring range, boundless energy and legendary live performance chops, there’s a reason they called him Mr. Excitement.
After some relatively lean years in the 1970s Wilson’s remarkable 20-year run as a force in pop music was ended by a massive heart attack while performing at a Dick Clark oldies show in 1975. He would never awake from the resulting coma and passed away in 1984. But while Jackie Wilson never quite had the impact of a Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, James Brown or Curtis Mayfield due to his inability to evolve into a true Soul singer and adherence to the 3-minute radio single, a good anthology of his recordings belongs in any serious R&B and Pop music collection. It can safely be said that no one has ever sung quite like him. He had such a unique sound, almost operatic, that no one even tried. There was only one Jackie Wilson and when you hear him you can’t mistake him for any other singer in the Pop canon.
Following in Ray Charles’ footsteps by fusing gospel music with secular lyrics, Sam Cooke packed more soul into a 3-minute single than most singers can muster over an entire lifetime. In fact, many critics contend that he “invented” Soul music (although for me that is too simplistic an interpretation of the pioneers and sources of the genre). Blessed with suave charisma and a magical voice, Cooke’s all-too-brief career was filled with terrific highlights and smash hits, including 30 Top 40s between 1957 and 1963, as well as several posthumous successes like the glorious, Civil Rights-infused “A Change is Gonna Come”.
That epic song points to the direction Cooke would undoubtedly have headed had he lived: politically aware music committed to the cause of Civil Rights and social justice, just as he was in life. “A Change is Gonna Come” also prefigures the social awakening that such artists as Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye would undergo as the 1960s wore on by showing that protest music was a natural fit for R&B and soul and not merely the sole province of white folk singers.
Though there are a ton of songs to choose from among the less political, from “Wonderful World”, “Chain Gang”, “Cupid” and “You Send Me” to name just a few, the more classically blues-structured “Somebody Have Mercy” has always seemed to me one of the best Cooke recorded during his breakout crossover period onto the pop charts: soulful but not too sweet, lyrically very clever and featuring top notch musical backing.
Obviously, we can say that at 33 Sam Cooke died far, far too young, robbing us of a full lifetime of his rapidly evolving greatness. But with his enormous influence on the artists that followed him such as Otis Redding, James Brown, Al Green, Gaye, Ben E. King, Bobby Womack and on up to today’s soulful R&B singers, as well as popular music as a whole, we can also say that Sam Cooke never really died at all. The true immortals never do.
Blogging could be sporadic with the upcoming Turkey Day blowout but wanted to throw this great Sly & the Family Stone tune out there for y’all because it seems just right for the occasion…
One of the last gasps from that great interracial collective before drugs destroyed the band, 1969’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” could be cited as truly revolutionary for its bass line alone. Seeming to infuse nearly every funk track to follow in the 70s, Larry Graham’s “slapping” style of percussive bass is literally the sound that launched a thousand R&B bands. And of course the pure stoned compositional genius that is Sylvester “Sly Stone” Stewart is on full display here, with enough sonic and lyrical mischief happening to bring a smile to the most jaded hipster. It may be a cliche but it happens to be true: If Prince has a musical daddy, it’s Sly Stone.
Even after a full turkey dinner with all the trimmings, when you hear “Thank You” you’ll wanna shake it to the groove. So let’s take a moment to give thanks for great music and great food. And especially to the great friends & family who so importantly let us be ourselves–Thank You!