Disco

‘Getting Nowhere Fast’/’Soul Strut,’ single, Floyd Smith (Dakar Records, 1968)

What a phenomenal single from Floyd ‘Guitar’ Smith. The contrast between the perfect on every level lament speaking of love and loss on side a) and the boss groove – it’s bossy too – of side two is something of real note. It’s hard to think of other releases as varied as this.

When doing some research on Floyd Smith, the fact that he had a career spanning two very different genres and sharply contrasting musical moments made me doubt whether it was in fact the same person: I’m still not completely confident that it is (the same man).

How was it possible that the same man who met and played with Django Reinhardt in Paris during the Second World war ended up recording 70s soul/disco greats (and even won the heart of one)? To quote da wik: 

In the 1970s, Smith moved into writing songs and record production, working with Dakar/Brunswick Records in Chicago, for which he recorded a few singles. He produced two albums with R&B star, Loleatta Holloway for Aware Records of Atlanta, as well as two (one completed, but un-issued when the label folded) with John Edwards, who later became lead singer of the Detroit Spinners. He produced two Top 10 R&B hits on Aware with Edwards (“Careful Man”, No. 8 in 1974) and Holloway (“Cry To Me”, No. 10 in 1975). In the late 1970s, he produced tracks on several albums with Loleatta Holloway for Gold Mine/Salsoul Records. He managed the former gospel singer and later married her.

Here’s a maybe too intense disco song from Smith, 1975.

Check out this strong interview with Smith by Jas Obrecht (former editor of Guitar Player and the founding editor of Pure Guitar magazine), published on his site, date unknown.  

'I want to be with you,' Gregory Andre And Two Plus Three, single (Sea Side/G.M.C. Records, 1978)

The most notable piece of information or commentary about this little gem seems to be that the group tried to usher in some false pretences to increase their commercial success. 'Recorded in Kansas City on G.M.C. Records,' as the note below the video states, 'in an attempt to bolster sales, producer George Chambers used his brother's San Diego address on the record.' To add, 'The plan didn't work.'

With its cosmic-sounds at the start (that return at the end) you can see why the song received the adjective psychedelic. Funk and soul also make sense but the most interesting for me is the disco appellation. Around 2’30” the song that had until then been a loose soul-inflected groove enacts the exposed percussion style that typifies a disco song, but the rest of the band plays on (albeit more subtly). It’s a fresh-take on the classic disco tic of allowing the drums, or bass take the floor by themselves as the other instruments look on, so to speak.

There’s lots to like about this song that seems barely remembered 40 years on, the clapping beat/the ‘hey!’ the singer's self-assurance and verve and the sweet and simple lyrics.

Versions: 'I don't know why' Stevie Wonder (For Once in My Life, Tamla, 1968) Jackson 5, Thelma Houston, plus live performance

Forming a kind of flawless constellation, three points in triangle, that arguably represents the pinnacle of achievement of Black American Music in the 60s/70s: Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Thelma Houston.       

This song with its highly complex lyrics, describing an addictive state of desire that makes no sense, was written by a sixteen-year-old Stevie Wonder. There is something so arresting about the music, with its heavy atmosphere of portent – those descending notes and the dramatic build – but what I like best about it is Wonder’s surprising (and idiosyncratic) vocal performance. Before the two-minute mark there is separation between Wonder’s vocal line and the music itself where he breaks away almost, sounding hazy and drugged; you can hear his breathing as it all falls apart and yet the music maintains its forward movement.

You throw my heart down in the dirt
You made me crawl on 
This cold black earth, baby
No I never, I never knew 
How much love could hurt
Until I loved you baby
Till I loved you baby, baby
Oh baby, I can’t stop 
I can’t stop crying can’t you see
Here I’m pleadin’ on my knees
I’m on my knees
Won’t you help me, help me please
Cause I love you, I love you baby
Sure enough, baby, yeah

Here’s a live performance from 1969 from the Hollywood Palace; check out the ever so hip “thank you” at the start, in acknowledgment of the brief applause from the audience (other listeners appreciate his little knowing laugh later on; I like the opening curtain effect behind Stevie that happens for no reason, as he is in front of it, at the start).

Second star in the constellation …

This gem was recorded when Michael Jackson was eleven years old, or maybe 12. There’s not much to write here, as it’s all there the artistry so obvious clear from first listen, the intensity of his delivery all the extremely cute ad-libs/Soul additions, from the opening drama of the, “sure enough baby, baby …” The “darling, darling, darling” and especially the “baby dear” added to the original “You made me crawl on/This cold black earth, baby” is so sweet.

The Jackson 5 released this version on their 1970 ABC album   

The third …

Thelma Houston, as a vocalist, has a lovely quality of restraint, of singing just behind the musical line and never over-stating and exaggerating things for effect. I like the way she sings in such a controlled, but sensual way: there are no playful additions here, no need. But this version is special, surely for the wonderful grace of the musicianship. Listening to this I can’t help but hear the continuum with the past, where current and earlier hip-hop feeds off this heritage. Obvious to say, I know, but listening to this it’s made so explicit the way the various elements play with notions of fusion, similarity and difference.

Other well-known artists have covered the Stevie Wonder classic then and since, including the Rolling Stones in 1969 with this out-of-synch honky tonk version that has certain charm. 

According to Wik

"The Rolling Stones released a 1969 cover of the song in 1975 on their ABKCO outtake album Metamorphosis. It was recorded on 3 July 1969 during the sessions for Let It Bleed, the night that news broke of Brian Jones' death. It was also used as the b-side for their 1975 single." 

Related article: Versions: “Sunny” Bobby Hebb (Sunny, Philips, 1966) 

 

‘New York’s Movin’ Ahzz (instrumental/single - Land of Hits, 1981)

Next to nothing available online about the artist or track, even if me writing this might be getting a bit boring/redundant now as it is the case for x-percent of the music featured here, nothing outside the artist/track info from AllMusic written by Andy Kellman: 

While just about any garage rock band that merely thought about recording a single has had their history documented in some form, the same cannot be said for countless disco and funk outfits that existed for short periods of time during the ‘70s. Ahzz would be one of those outfits for which little is known. A gliding, shimmering, dancefloor instrumental with lots of dub-style knob tweakings and a heart-stopping breakdown, the eight-minute “New York Moving” is one of the finest nuggets in the archive of Peter Brown and Patrick Adams’ numerous label catalogues. Released on the producers’ Land of Hits label in 1980, the song has thankfully remained in circulation thanks to Counterpoint’s Disco Juice, Vol. 2 compilation, which – like the first volume – documented Adams’ and Brown’s independent output.

(“dub-style knob tweakings and a heart-stopping breakdown”)

Happiness music that is so easy to appreciate, perfect in its construction with all the necessary elements: the deep drum/bass, the higher transcendent notes and hand-clap effects. Just a few seconds before the three-minute mark it becomes more complex, leaving the heartbeat of the drum exposed. And then at the end it becomes so clean and repetitive to end with a flourish. Producer Osborne Hunter appears to be only remembered for his work here, nothing else comes up when you search for his name.    

'Miura' Metro Area  (Metro Area, Environ, 2002)

Named as the second best album of the decade by Resident Advisor, while also getting recognition from Fact this release by the Brooklyn-based DJ duo - Morgan Geist and Darshan Jesrani's Metro Area maps out the sinister-sweet territory, perfectly.

Filtering down, distilling the essence of disco, within a strong 80s paradigm; never letting it turn too saccharine (the strings are brief, when they appear) or drowning it in irony. ‘Miura’ maintains a strong sense of itself as a piece of music, while allowing for the echoes.

Not too heavy, not too light - no need to go all-out epic. 

How to sustain that quality of naïveté in music, especially when referencing a style that was so embedded in a particular moment, without making it so self-conscious that it loses that original spark? What you find here is an act of homage via the cleverly constructed shifts, most notably at 2 minutes in. It’s the cutting back to display that demonstrates a kind of musical innocence to me. Darshan Jesrani considered these issues in an interview not so long ago, when asked:  

'Disco music has seen a significant resurgence of late, albeit in the form of edits and hybrid combinations of disco influences and other forms of dance; something that you've been famous for, among other things. What are your thoughts on the genre and its nuance?

I think the renewed interest in disco and the idea of disco represents a desire for something more from a night out and something more from the music that's played at nightclubs. However, I think it's important that people tune in and try to understand the spirit of the music in all its forms, and the social context and values that birthed disco, and the idea of dancing to mixed music in clubs. Too often the form and fashion is co-opted and the heart of the matter is lost. That wouldn't make for any kind of real revival.'

‘The heart of the matter …’  (that this music is one of community, of youth and memory). You could perhaps make a parallel with the early pre-man-in-hat-crooner Daft Punk; their early music had a spirit that was similarly enthusiastic and sweet: all about the influences.    

But it was always much more manufactured, part of a showy performance.

Here's a description of the Metro Area release from AllMusic to close, the record is ‘so rich with immediate pleasures that it would be understandable to take the craft and precision with which they were made for granted. This record is a deceptively intricate maze of tight machine rhythms, tumbling bongos, smacking handclaps, warm keyboard stabs, zapping synths, tickling pianos, lively loops of flute, guitar flicks, and seesawing strings. It's just shy of being an embarrassment of riches.’

Coda:

'90% of me is you’ Vanessa Kendrick (Glades Records, 1973) & Gwen McCrae (Rockin’ Chair, Cat, 1975)

Nice, with the subtle wah-wah (hard to imagine that adjective being used with this kind of guitar playing style; listening to it again, though I'm not sure if it is in fact a guitar, anyway), the Kendrick version is the smoothest certainly with the vocal-line held level with the music. I really like that over-dramatic build-up that fades, coming back every now and again.

In contrast, the Gwen McCrae version released the following year with its near identical, if not identical backing-track, has a much stronger personality that drives it along it along, making it a more assertive statement that comes through with the refrain ‘What can I do?’

Check out this interview with McCrae by a Swedish woman who goes by the name of Miss Funkyflyy, it's full of strong background information on the much-sampled, respected Soul star from the 70s. I particularly liked the interviewer's personal tale of discovery, where the enthusiasm comes through:    

Raised on Abba, like most Swedish girls of my generation, my first encounter with Soul came at the time when I was still more interested in my dolls than boys. I loved music, though, especially Disco, but the tiny pocket money I received weekly would not allow me to buy records. So when I discovered a huge bowl of cassettes that were on sale at the discount store where my parents bought groceries each Saturday, I was truly in heaven.

So what if the tapes were dusty and several years old! The choice was not easy, but finally I settled for the cassette with the most appealing sleeve. Luscious palm trees and a paradise-like beach adorned the sleeve of “The Best of T.K. Records -The Sound Of Sunshine” and the artists were K.C. and The Sunshine Band, Betty Wright, Timmy Thomas, George McCrae, Benny Latimore.. I hadn’t heard of any of these people, but when I got home and popped the tape in my deck, their music grooved me in a way I had never experienced before.

The climax came when Gwen McCrae, in the finest Gospel-tradition, moaned and wailed her way through a song called “Move Me Baby”. From that point on, I was hooked. The years went by and I grew out of playing with Barbie dolls, but I never stopped loving Gwen and the Sunshine sounds from Florida, the orange State.

Madlib (apparently) sampled McCrae's version of '90 % ...' on his 2001 Beat Konducta, Vol. 0 Earth Sounds release out on Stones Throw records, 'Tape Hiss (Dirty)' (and sampled another McCrae song, ‘I found love’ on his 2008 ‘Gamble on ya boy’)

Coda:

'Catch me on the rebound' Loleatta Holloway, 12" W.Gibbons remix (Salsound Records, 1978)

From an article on Loleatta Holloway published in The Independent in 2011 where she speaks about 'Hit and Run': 

"In April 1976 she signed to Gold Mind, a subsidiary of Salsoul, the New York label owned by the Cayre brothers that became a powerhouse of disco. Working at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia with the producer, songwriter and guitarist Norman Harris, and several of the session musicians associated with Philly Soul, she was at the forefront of the '70s phenomenon when she cut the epic "Hit And Run", whose Walter Gibbons 12in disco mix clocked in at 11 minutes.

"I wondered how on earth I was going to sing that fast and that long," she recalled. Yet, as the track evolved, she began putting her unique vocal stamp on it, ad-libbing and occasionally letting rip. "That's when the vamp started," she said. "I took off. And the vamp was always the part that made the song." 

"That's when the vamp started," she said.

The article also talks about the dramas Holloway had when Black Box lifted her vocal performance for their 1989 hit 'Ride on time' - she sued and received damages; her origins and work in the 70s. Below the video on YT there's a comment from the famed producer, Tom Moulton ... This is a classic disco song, but with such refinement and such energy amid the overall effect; yes I could break it down, but I won't. Just listen to it. There's not much more I can add here really. It's perfect in itself.