Soul/R&B

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.”

‘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 …

‘If I Could Only Be Sure’/’Keep On Keepin’ On’ Nolan Porter (Nolan, ABC Records, 1972) plus P. Weller & Joy Division

This is such a distinctive sound, few other songs resemble it, even earlier Soul/R&B releases that are defined by their innocent musicianship a lot of the time and a kind of straight from the heart directness lack its essential grace.

Most notable is the guitar-line; this is what first attracted Paul Weller who covered the song on his 2004 album Studio 154 (and helped in the revival of Porter’s career in the UK/Europe from the ‘90s on).  Here are Nolan Porter’s comments on how Weller first fell for the song from a 2014 interview with Michael Grieg Thomas published at The ‘45s Club, focussing in on this:  

MT: Do you remember what kind of guitar it was recorded on?

Nolan Porter: I don’t remember the type of guitar, but I remember the guitar flair. You might know. That was Johnny “Guitar” Watson. That’s probably what got Paul Weller about the song more, was that guitar lick. And that’s Johnny singing with me on the background in some parts. He was really, Johnny Guitar Watson was something else, he spent the last few years of his life in England. He’s got one of his last few CDs he writes about is very cool. I remember he was one of the best R&B guitar players. I used to see him at the blues club a couple times in LA before I even met him and he was just so multi-talented. Him and Frank Zappa became really tight friends at the end, in the last few years of Frank’s life. And he recorded Johnny on a few tunes and it’s just wild. He was with Lizard Records for awhile and he liked Gabriel Mekler a lot.

If you compare Porter’s original first released as a single and then as part of his Nolan record, and Weller’s cover decades on you can see why the former is so unexpected, so lyrical. Weller takes a classic rock approach, a full-band sound with all the instruments at once, his voice too is more urgent, demanding, potentially angry, definitely frustrated. In contrast, Porter’s arrangement is subtle, allowing his voice to dominate over the guitar, drums/bass. The simplicity and cool of it makes it so powerful; it operates as a gentle entreaty. Porter’s delivery also works because of its understatement; there’s no shrieking, or plaintive wails just a few very cool ad-libs every now and again. The music, the voice and the arrangement operate as one, as a model of restraint.

Lyrically, too, it’s interesting for its plain language and repetition, and then the curious inversion intended to represent the depth of his dedication: ‘I'd turn my world upside down/I'd turn my smile all into frowns/I'd do anything at all/ If you'd only let me love you baby/Let me, let me love you baby …’

Porter is also known for the song ‘Keep On Keepin’ On’ …

The song went on to inspire Joy Division’s ‘Interzone’ from Unknown Pleasures, with the 1979 song borrowing the original Porter riff (apparently the latter song came about after the band was trying to learn the Nolan song).    

To give the final words to Porter, from the same 2014 interview quoted above:

MT: So we have some questions from the fanpage: What keeps on keepin’ you on?

Nolan Porter: It’s primarily the love of music, I would say that. Also, I don’t think in terms of age so much, when you have some something that you love and that you desire that you should try to develop a passion for, you’ll keep working, you’ll keep going if you have a passion. If you don’t have a passion for it, you’re not going to keep moving on. I love these old songs. They’re kinda like my children. They were never dead to me in my heart, in my creative heart. But I didn’t know that halfway across the world that they were alive, that people were digging on them. I know it sounds a little strange but I have a personal feeling for each one of those songs. So that; and the love of old music, the love of interaction with people, like yourself, the opportunity to do music with different people, that all keeps me going. 

‘Our love’ The Edge of Daybreak (Eyes of Love, Bohannan’s Records, 1979 reissue Numero Group, 2015)

Recorded in one session by inmates incarcerated for a range of offences (one was jailed after his car was stolen and used in a robbery), this is one remarkable song from a wonderful release that came to light in 2015, after being overlooked and forgotten for years. 

Marcus J Moore's article in Pitchfork on the 2015 reissue is fascinating and comprehensive, read it here - I was tempted to republish the entire piece, it's that good; this Noisey interview by J Bennett with lead vocalist, Jamal Jahal Nubi is similarly full of insight. 

Another article/review rather churlishly at the time of the reissue said the album wouldn't unseat any of the soul greats, I'm not sure. This song is quite beautiful, primarily for the vocal performance, it has a very distinctive quality. Yearning, longing are staples in soul music - one of the key default lyrical positions - and yet Jamal Jahal Nubi's vocals take it one step further. He expresses his desire, while his voice has a swing to it that's unusual. 

There's no stop/start here, it's constant and a perfect reflection of what's happening musically, as carried by the bassline; this is swooning music in excelsis that also makes space for  unexpected elements, check out what happens for about ten seconds from 2'30".  This, as I mentioned in an earlier post, is one of the most interesting to me aspects of the genre - see, for example, Aretha Franklin's 'Day Dreaming' from her 1972 record, Young, Gifted & Black - with Donny Hathaway on electric piano, as Wik explains:  'The single version omits the jazzy daydreaming like music, heard in the beginning and the ending of the song, where even the vocals sounded too psychedelic for most radio airplay.'         

The song was used in the soundtrack for Barry Jenkins' film, Moonlight; here's my appreciation of the film published one year ago.  

Alternate versions: ‘Oh my lover’ PJ Harvey (Peel Session, 1991 & Dry, Too Pure, 1992) plus Nina Simone

To begin with the essential sweetness of this demo version …

Underneath one of the videos posted online someone had written how PJ Harvey had recorded this demo as a teenager to get her first record deal; she sounds so young here, her voice is noticeably different, lacking the magisterial nature of the final recorded version. What’s interesting is the way this youthful voice dilutes the ‘female masochistic-schtick’ critique that could be levelled at the lyrics, as what comes through is the giddy enthusiasm, the excitement, spinning in a lovely exuberance (that total devotion thing fed to women via a lifetime of fairy-tales of all kinds), it’s got total bounce.

Love the way she doubles her voice at the end, it’s so impressive on every level: song-writing, performance, creative vision. As for the recorded version that came out on 1992 debut:

From that opening moment, the intensity of it: this is just one of those extraordinary songs. Listen to that distorted bass/guitar and the unexpected phrasing of the drums. It is archetypal – a folk song transposed to the modern era, timeless. It reminds me of this similarly magical live 1969 performance by Nina Simone of ‘Black is the color of my true love’s hair’ for the same seriousness of intent, declaration: the strength of the woman’s voice.

Here’s the Peel Sessions version from 1991, which sounds almost the same as the recorded version, which further demonstrates the level of Harvey’s musicianship (she was born in 1969, so only was only 22-years-old or so at the time of recording). Check out this interesting video with Harvey speaking about her creative, song writing process put up in 2011.    

Coda:

Related article: PJ Harvey 'Silence' (White Chalk, Island Records 2007) published 27th February 2016

I have written a lot on Nina Simone on this site, go here to find all the references.