Funk

Communicators & Black Experience Band - “Has Time Really Changed”/”The Road” (Tri Oak, 1974) & “One Chance/Is it Funky Enough?” (Duplex Records, 1973)

This group – or two groups together – put out some rather strange singles; one side soul and/or politico with the flipside funky. According to the excellent band summary from heavyweightfunk45s.com below, included in its entirety, “Has Time Really Changed” was considered controversial because of its “politics” for much radio play, you can hear this if you listen in, but it’s not that explicit (the bass voice that comes in to ask the rhetorical question is a bit loopy, out-there, to my ears at least, thus diminishing the message of the rest of the lyrics).

The b-side “The Road” seems to be the group’s best-known track, understandably as it’s pretty fantastic:

The other single follows a similar formula, the a-side is a highly expressive soulful, verging on doo wop, lament:

(Have to admit: I like “One Chance” a lot, yes it is extremely corny that is known to me) … then here it is, the  excursion to funky town (a truly great song in itself):

Here’s the info from the heavyweightfunk45s.com site on the group/s:

“The Black Experience Band came together around 1970 to back up the Communicators, a vocal group. The band’s early line-up featured Charles Bailey (trumpet), James “Butch” Barton (trombone), Eli Brown(saxophone), Willis Norman (lead guitar), Roy Hubert (rhythm guitar), Willie Hill (bass guitar) and Linwood Parker (drums). The B-sides of their two 45s with the Communicators released on Durham's, North Carolina, record labels Duplex and TRI OAK, highlight the band’s immersion in funk in the style of Kool & the Gang and Funkadelic. After parting ways with the Communicators, the group backed up the Modulations for a time and then played as a self-contained band before breaking up. Later line-ups included James Brown, a saxophonist who also played with Bite, Chew & Spit out of Asheville, North Carolina, and trombone player Bill Amey.

The five-member harmony group The Communicators showcased the vocal talents of Tommy Clegg, Izell Gooch, Sylvester Howell, James Jenkins, and Cager Perry. Backed up by the Black Experience Band, the Communicators’ debut recording in 1973 was a pleading love ballad called “One Chance" b/w "Is It Funky Enough?". Originally a regional sensation on the local Duplex imprint, the record was later picked up by Sylvia Robinson’s Turbo label out of New Jersey. The group followed up with "Has Time Really Changed” b/w "The Road" in 1974. Disc Jockeys considered the ballad "Has Time Really Changed" too political, and gave it much less airplay than “One Chance.”

“Going Down for the Last Time” parts 1 & 2, plus extended, Ronnie Keaton & Oceanliners (Konduko Records, 1974)

This record is a perfect example of the funk that impresses, in the way it upsets expectations about how the genre should sound; of course, there is zero foundation for this comment, or anything else at all (who am I, of all people, to make any claims?)  but I’ve always disliked the excessive showiness of funk – the solos, the waiting for applause, the glitter, flashy lights and costumes - been suspicious of it, of performers and audience alike. Too often it falls into a kind of bad faith caricature; major exceptions made for a lot of the work of Eddie Hazel. No surprise in any of this, it reflects my temperament and cultural background.

This track is wonderful, though in the way it has all the elements, the sound and essence, keeping it on mute almost. I particularly like the use of the flute, used as if it were a sample on part 1 and the backing vocals – what a smart contrast between the woman’s resolve about leaving a man (who once had a job) with the men singing their parts so gently, “no mo.” Lovely.

Then for “part 2”, this impression is even more pronounced, it’s almost a dub in the way it’s done:

The flute is replaced/supplemented by horns, or they’re made more dominant; the sleepy male backing vocals become the main element.

Here’s something I found on a website in French, funk-o-logy.com, posted by Weego on the section labelled “index funky,” which I’ll translate into English.

 “A hit (une bombe) of sister funk, Florida sauce. The b-side is falsely called “part 2” when in fact it’s the instrumental. Written by singer Ronnie Keaton and King Sporty (owner of the electro-funk/reggae label Konduko in Miami and husband of soul singer Betty Wright). Ronnie Keaton is not known to have put out anything other than this excellent single that came out in 1974. The Oceanliners are credited on the label info (Jerome Smith on guitar, Robert Johnson aka Shotgun on drums and Anthony Turner on bass) who later became the Sunshine Band, of KC & the Sunshine Band fame; “that’s the way han-han han-han I like it …”). They accompanied Betty Wright on stage. There are two variations of the label: one yellow, the other green. This information probably won’t interest anyone else apart from me!”    

And the extended mix :

“Song for you” Popcorn (Prime Choice, Shannell Records, 1983)  

Taken from an almost unlistenable EP, apologies to its makers, especially those commenting below the YouTube videos (the man who played keys, in particular), this song is a little marvel. Perhaps that’s unfair, there might be some interest in the Prime Choice release, some humour perhaps – the song “Handy Man” starting with a phone ringing sfx – but most of it sounds like variations on “Ma Cherie Amour,” without anything remotely Stevie about it, not really.

Here  is the EP in any case:

“Song for you,” though, is pretty much perfect in every way. I love the shy-soul-funk-type vocals, and the sentiment, the way the singer seems to be reaching out to express the feeling, it’s very nice – the way the bassline does its descending thing around 3’30” and its odd atmosphere, something that is atypical for releases of its type. Not unheard of, but less common (ergo: rare).

It turns out that the singer/producer of this Florida funk track is known for his Christian-theme recordings; see his Discogs listing: “James Ward is a composer, performer, and recording artist whose innovative Christian contemporary music has been a widespread influence throughout the Christian church and entertainment community since the early 70's..” The artist k.a. James, Jim and Calvin “Popcorn” Ward.   

‘Why did you do it’ Margaret Singana (Tribal Fence, Casablanca, 1977)

This is one of the most covered songs, originally by UK white funk merchants Stretch released on their 1975 album Street Life. Some of the artists include Sam and Dave, offering up a perfect soul-inflected disco groove (covering all the elements, strings & horns included natch)

A 2011 article in the Guardian on the Stretch original states that ‘lyrically, it comes close (…), in its reproachful fury to Dylan’s scabrous masterpiece, ‘Positively 4th Street.’ To then add, ‘still more surprisingly, it was the rarest of birds: a work of lasting genius from a mid-70s white funk band.’

Thinking about the lyrics then, they are easily what make the song for me. Something about their ambiguity comes through the version by the South African singer, Margaret Singana, who was known as ‘Lady Africa’ (here’s some info on her background, career and discography). The uncertain perspective comes from the central premise of who was ‘wronged’ (to use an old-fashioned word) and how.

Singana states that she was was the one who was hurt, as she sings ‘the damage is much deeper than you’ll ever see/Hit me like a hammer to my head/I wonder were you pushed or were you led?’ This makes you think she is a cheated-on partner, but later this becomes less clear as the gender of the third party to her betrayal is a man not a woman:

My friends they listen to the things I say
They listen and they hear more everyday
But I know they never understand it
Because it was no accident you planned it

Why did you do it? Why did you do that thing to me?
Why did you do it? Why did you do that thing to me?
The only one who knows the truth
Man it's him me and you

The only one who knows the truth/Man it's him, me and you

Within the canon of soul/R&B and funk/disco this perspective is truly original. Most of the time it’s a woman or man singing about how she/he discovered her partner with another and works through how they will react (disco/funk songs often take another path, frequently riffing on notions of attraction and attractiveness). This performance feels deeper, more primal linked to a profound betrayal.

Singana's rendition has a remarkable internal quality to it, especially in the way she under-sings, keeping it low in a way that is extremely powerful. She is not singing out of her outrage as most singers do when covering the song, basing it on shock to the ego (how could you do it to me?) but invokes something else. The nature of the blow is so hard, so unexpected that it affects her entire sense of self.

Yet this betrayal is never spelled-out and laid out for our edification and entertainment - Singana's performance is private, secretive. Reinforcing this impression, the 10 seconds from around 2'08" when the music goes quiet is pure brilliance.

Here’s a live performance of Singana singing her 80s hit, ‘Hamba Bekhile’ (We are Growing) which was the theme song for the TV series Shaka Zulu and in a surprising quirk of history reached the top of the charts in … Holland. 

‘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.  

‘Color Blind,’ single Maze, feat. Frankie Beverly (Capitol Records, 1977) two versions, plus live performance of Raw Soul

Could have selected any number of great songs by Frankie Beverly in his various groups (Maze, Raw Soul) but chose this 1977 version of ‘Color Blind’ for the depth of the recording, the no-space nature between the elements and its simplicity. The other side of the single was ‘While I’m alone’

Here's the earlier version, which follows the other funk path of the big-band sound and interests me a lot less.

Below the video on YouTube, there's a nice comment from Michael Burton Sr (such comments are one of the best things about YouTube) :

'As the original Stage Manager of Maze featuring Frankie Beverly 1975 - 1978, I'm always excited to find a rare oldie of the Guys, and no exception with this track with my best friend McKinley "BUG" Williams (R.I.P.) singing. Color Blind said it then, and still makes a statement today, it was a real story in 1971 when this was recorded. Some things just never get old.'

Some info on Frankie Beverly now, just love the names of these groups: this in itself indicates an earlier innocence (something that continues in contemporary rap/hip-hop culture with the MC names that are often impossible to pronounce and/or made up of bizarre capitalizations, it's as if the artists are both playing and constructing barriers, ie to say their name you need to have heard it first).

As a teenager (Frankie Beverly) formed The Blenders, a short-lived a cappella, doo-wop group that were influenced by The Dells, The Moonglows, and The Del Vikings. After that outfit dissolved, he founded The Butlers (subsequently Frankie Beverly and the Butlers), which would be the first group he recorded with in 1963. In 1967, he cut “If that’s what you wanted”, which became a northern soul standard. As time passed, they caught the attention of the record producer Kenny Gamble, who eventually released recordings by the group.

It turned out that music performed by The Butlers did not fit into the “Philly Sound”, and after some heavy touring, the group relocated to California. The unit was re-christened as Raw Soul and caught the attention of a sister-in-law to Marvin Gaye. Gaye featured them as an opening act at his shows, and also convinced Beverly to change the band’s name to Maze.

To close the story, I'll let Frankie Beverly’s lyrics have the final word:

'I've often heard that white is right
You better believe black is alright too
So is blue and green and yellow
What difference should it make to you

These ties we got on us just ain't too hip
I know you got your thing and I've got mine
We've been judging people by colors
Maybe we should all be color blind

What I want to know is
What color have you colored peace
What color is harmony
What color have you colored peace
What color is harmony

There's a saying you can't judge a book by it's cover
What are we doing but just that
We've been judging people by color
Love ain't got no color that's a fact

What color have you colored peace
What color is harmony
What color have you colored peace
What color is harmony'

Really like this live performance at by Raw Soul (Recorded Live: 2/15/1975, Winterland, San Francisco, CA) – everything everything everything.

'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.

‘Never gonna leave you’ Evans Pyramid (12" Funk Records, 1978, reissue Cultures of Soul, 2012) plus ‘Simply say I love you’ & more

Apparently transcending its subject matter - the straightforward expression of dedication and devotion - this song by Evans Pyramid thus makes the music's message ambiguous. Universal, while deeply personal.

I can’t think of another vocal performance in the genre that sounds remotely like this (sleep-walking, half-asleep allowing the music to generate the mood of determination, which it does in abundance). On one level, this ‘sleepiness’ gives the impression that this is an arch, knowing performance, similar to those of shoe-gaze type groups from the UK in the 90s, not a man singing how he’ll forever stay true.

Yet largely because of the music – this development, building sense of momentum and sharp sounds that play against the deep foundations of the bass line/drums - this song conveys a message of faith, hope and resilience. Rather than a lover singing to the one he loves, it might be an inner voice, singing how it will soon be over, singing to you as if you were a child, cradling your body, offering comfort.

There is such vulnerability in this man’s voice; it seems like he is expressing something close to his heart and very being. (This is why I feel it might in fact be him singing to his own self rather than a second person).

Writing in Pop Matters Elias Leight comments in light of “Never gonna leave you”

"During opener “Never Gonna Leave You”, there are soft harmonies, sweet and wonderfully melancholy. The way the melody turns a corner about two minutes in, very slowly and steadily, seems like a perfect expression of the song’s sentiment, faithful and inevitable."

Faithful and inevitable

Then, providing more information about the group:

"Evans Pyramid is the project of Andre Evans, one of those musicians who few people have heard of, despite him having played with a number of important figures in jazz, soul and funk. He came up as a drummer and worked with Grant Green, the famous jazz guitarist, and “Brother” Jack McDuff, a talented Hammond B-3 organ player. Soon he moved on to soul groups, playing with Dyke and the Blazers (of “Funky Broadway” fame), the Delfonics (who played a role in developing the lush Philadelphia soul sound), Isaac Hayes (who wrote huge hits for Stax and wildly ambitious solo albums) and Little Anthony (a master of doo-wop-esque ballads)."

You can read the rest of the article here. From the same release/reissue, something completely different, simply beautiful …