Soul Serenade: Curtis Mayfield — Keep On Keeping On

Curtis MayfieldCurtis Mayfield was 14 years old when he joined the group that would become the Impressions. He was born in Chicago in 1942 and by the time he was seven, he was singing in the church’s gospel choir with a group called the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers. Mayfield became friends with Jerry Butler in high school and in 1956, he joined Butler’s group, the Roosters. The other members of the group were the brothers Arthur and Richard Brooks. Two years later, the group changed their name to the Impressions and added Sam Gooden to the lineup.

The Impressions had an early smash with Butler singing lead on “Your Precious Love” and it was enough to motivate Butler to leave the group to start a solo career. Mayfield followed him and co-wrote and played on Butler’s solo hit “He Will Break Your Heart.” But Mayfield wasn’t interested in being a sideman and soon returned to the Impressions who had replaced Butler with Fred Cash. It was the classic Impressions lineup of Mayfield, Gooden, and Cash which signed with ABC Records and released a string of hits which began in 1961 with “Gypsy Woman” and continued with “I’m So Proud,” “It’s Alright,” “Keep on Pushing,” “Amen,” “We’re a Winner,” and “Choice of Colors,” which would be the last hit that Mayfield recorded with the Impressions.

After 14 years with the group, Mayfield left the Impressions to start a solo career. That is where Keep On Keeping On, the new box set from Rhino Records begins. Rhino has lovingly collected Mayfield’s first four solo albums to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the start of Mayfield’s solo career and to mark the 20th anniversary of his death. The set begins with Mayfield’s first solo album, Curtis, which was released in 1970 and reached the Top 20 on its way to becoming a Gold Album. Curtis includes the hit singles “If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go,” and “Move on Up.” In addition to its commercial success, Curtis was one of the most influential albums of its time, inspiring later socially conscious work by Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.

Curtis Mayfield - Keep On Keeping OnA year after his successful debut as a solo artist, Mayfield returned with Roots, which reached the Top 10 on the R&B chart. While not quite as successful as the debut, Roots scored with hits like “Get Down,” “Beautiful Brother of Mine,” and “We Got to Have Peace.” Mayfield’s next effort, which is not included in this set because it was not a true solo album, was his incredibly successful soundtrack for the film Super Fly. The album went to #1 on both the pop and R&B charts and pushed two singles, “Freddie’s Dead,” and “Superfly” into the Top 10.

In 1973, Mayfield released his third proper solo album, Back to the World. The album topped the R&B chart and returned Mayfield to the Top 20 on the pop albums chart. The album’s hit singles included “Future Shock,” “If I Were a Child Again,” and “Can’t Say Nothin’.” Mayfield’s fourth solo album and the final one collected in this set was released in 1974. Sweet Exorcist came within a whisker of the top spot on the R&B chart, settling at #2 and also found Top 40 success on the pop chart. The album’s success was driven by two hit singles, the title track, and “Kung Fu.”

Keep On Keeping On ends with the Sweet Exorcist album but fortunately, Mayfield’s career did not. He continued to record into the 1990s and standout albums from this period included Sparkle (1976) and Heartbeat (1979). “So In Love,” released in 1975, was the last Mayfield single to hit the pop chart but records like “Only You Babe” (1976), “You Are, You Are” (1978), and “She Don’t Let Nobody (But Me)” (1981), continued to find success on the R&B chart. In all, Mayfield scored more than 30 solo hits on the R&B chart to go along with a similar number of R&B hits during his time with the Impressions.

On August 13, 1990, Mayfield was paralyzed when a lighting rig fell on him during a show in Brooklyn. The accident ended his career as a guitar player but he could still write songs and sing, something he did to great effect on his final album, New World Order, in 1997. Mayfield died of complications from diabetes in 1999.

Curtis Mayfield is remembered for introducing social activism into soul music. The Impressions hits “Keep On Pushing,” “People Get Ready,” and “We’re A Winner” became anthems of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and were often used by Martin Luther King to inspire marchers. Mayfield and the Impressions were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1995 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 (he was also inducted into the Rock Hall as a solo artist in 1999, one of a handful of double inductees). He received a Grammy Legend Award in 1994 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995. Just before he died, Mayfield was elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Soul Serenade: Willie Tee, “Thank You John”

Willie TeeWilson Turbinton was born in New Orleans in 1944 and raised in that city’s Calliope projects. His older brother Earl played the saxophone and by 1960 formed the Seminoles. The younger Turbinton had the good fortune of having as a music teacher the legendary Harold Battiste. History tells us that Battiste was an excellent judge of talent and when he saw it in Turbinton he added the young man to his AFO (All For One) Band. The band also included the New Orleans icon Ellis Marsalis on piano.

As a part of the arrangement with Battiste, Turbinton, by then Willie Tee, recorded for the AFO Records label. In 1962, Tee released his debut single for the label, “Always Accused.” It wasn’t a hit but it served to establish the blend of jazz and R&B that Tee would pursue for the balance of his long career. It wasn’t long before Tee left AFO. He played with a band called the Souls for a little while and then signed with the NOLA label. In 1965, Tee released his first single for NOLA and “Teasin’ You” became the label’s first hit. Somehow the local hit found its way to L.A. and the Righteous Brothers covered it on the Shindig! television show.

The success of “Teasin’ You” came to the attention of Atlantic Records and they made a deal to distribute the single nationally. With a B-side called “Walking Up a One Way Street” the single didn’t make much of a dent on the pop charts but it came very close to the Top 10 on the R&B chart. Tee’s next single for the label was “Thank You John” and it failed to chart at all but it became a classic in the canon of Carolina Beach Music and was covered by Alex Chilton.

Willie Tee

Atlantic gave up on Tee after his next single, “I Want Somebody (To Show Me the Way Back Home),” also failed to chart. Tee returned to NOLA Records and released “Please Don’t Go” on the label’s Hot-Line imprint but neither that single or the follow-up, “Ain’t That True Baby” managed any charged success. By 1968, NOLA was out of business and Tee was on his own once again.

Tee hadn’t found much success as a recording artist so he turned to production. He worked with Margie Joseph on her 1969 Volt Records classic “One More Chance.” Tee’s piano playing eventually came to the attention of Cannonball Adderly who helped Tee to get a deal with Capitol Records. There, in 1970, he released his first album I’m Only a Man. But success as a recording artist continued to be elusive for Tee and his time with Capitol was short.

Tee then re-formed a band he had been in earlier with his cousin Ulis Gaines. Gatur released the ballad “The Man That I Am” and followed that with the funky singles “Your Love and My Love Together” and “Swivel Your Hips” that pointed to a new direction for Tee. In 1973, the Wild Magnolias Mardi Gras Indian Band enlisted Tee to put together a backing group for an album they were recording. He brought his older brother Earl and guitarist Snooks Eaglin and composed all of the music incorporating elements of funk and Afro-Cuban music and rearranging some New Orleans classics. The resulting album became one of the most beloved albums in Crescent City music history. The album was noted for spreading the Native American Mardi Gras culture to a worldwide audience.

In 1976, Tee decided to try his hand as a solo artist again. He signed with United Artists and released his second album, Anticipation. It was the last album he would ever make for a major label but he continued to play the clubs with Gatur. In 1988, Tee and his brother Earl made a jazz album for Rounder called The Turbintons. Eventually, Tee became a favorite on the Northern Soul scene in England and his music was sampled by hip-hop artists like Sean “Puffy” Combs and the Geto Boys.

Willie Tee passed away in 2007.

Soul Serenade: Graham Central Station, “Your Love”

Graham Central StationThe influence of Sly & the Family Stone has informed musicians for 50 years and has never waned during that time. The sound that Sly originated in the ’60s can still be heard in the most contemporary music. While the influence is indirect for many, it couldn’t be more direct than it is in the music of Larry Graham who, as the bass player for Sly & the Family Stone, helped to codify that sound in the first place.

Graham’s most important contribution to funk was undoubtedly what has become known as “slap” bass although Graham himself has always referred to it as “thumpin’ and pluckin’.” Whatever it’s called the style finds the bass player emulating the sound of a bass drum with his thumb and a snare drum with his second or middle finger. It’s a style that has been adopted by such bass-playing luminaries as Bootsy Collins, Victor Wooten, Marcus Miller, Stanley Clarke, and Les Claypool.

Graham was born in Beaumont, Texas. He was only 20 years old when he joined Sly & the Family Stone and he remained with that legendary band for six years. After leaving Sly in 1972, Graham formed a band called Azteca along with guitarist Neil Schon. Before long, Schon had departed to form Journey, and Graham put together Graham Central Station.

Graham Central Statino

The self-titled debut album for Graham Central Station was released by Warner Bros. Records in 1974. The lineup for the album included guitarists Freddie Stone (another Sly refugee) and “Dynamite” Vega, singers Lenny Williams and Patryce “Choc’Let” Bank, drummer Willie “Wild” Sparks, keyboard player Butch Sam, horn players P. Caboose, and “Happiness” Kennedy, and percussionist Milt Holland. The album was a Top 20 hit on the R&B chart and reached #48 on the pop chart.

Release Yourself was released that same year and included many of the same musicians. The album, which reached #22 on the R&B chart, included the single “Feel the Need In Me” which found an equivalent level on the R&B singles chart. The following year the album Ain’t No ‘Bout-A-Doubt It was released and it included the single “Your Love,” the biggest Graham Central Station hit. The single topped the R&B chart and was a Top 40 pop hit as well.

Graham Central Station continued to release albums in the ’70s, but after 1979’s Star Walk there was a gap of nearly 20 years before their next release, GCS 2000. The album was produced by Graham and Prince and was released on Prince’s label NPG. Despite Prince’s efforts to revive Graham Central Station’s career, neither the album or any of its singles charted, a failure that many people chalked up to there being too much Prince and not enough Larry Graham on the album. Missing was the freewheeling sound of the band’s earlier albums, replaced by the sound of studio perfection.

Prince didn’t give up on Graham Central Station however and featured the band as his opening act on the “Welcome 2 America” tour in 2011. The most recent Graham Central Station album, Raise Up, was released the following year.

Soul Serenade: Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers, “Bustin’ Loose”

Chuck Brown & the Soul SearchersI was discussing the column with my friend Michael last week. Michael is something of a music expert whose opinion I value. I mentioned that after seven years of writing the column every week it’s not always easy to come up with something new. Michael asked if I had ever written about Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers. I’ve written so many installments of the column that sometimes I don’t remember who I’ve written about, so I did a search. Sure enough, Brown and his band had not been featured in this space previously, Thanks for the suggestion, Michael.

Go-go. To people of my generation, it meant young women in cages or on platforms dancing intensely to 60s music. But if you are from the Washington, DC area, go-go means something else entirely to you. For you, go-go is a combination of funk and R&B that became popular in DC in the mid-70s. Many regional bands were part of the go-go scene but it is undeniable that Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers were the musicians who laid the groundwork for the music that became a sensation. In fact, Brown is known as the “Godfather of Go-Go.”

Brown grew up in poverty with an absent father in Gaston, North Carolina before moving to Washington, DC with his mother when he was six-years-old. By the time he was 15, Brown had dropped out of school and was living on the streets, making some money by shining shoes. He got into real trouble when he got into a fight and the person he was fighting died. Although Brown claimed self-defense, he was sentenced to eight years in prison for murder.

Chuck Brown

Chuck Brown. 2007. Credit: Glenwood Jackson Studio

It was in prison that Brown first got his hands on a guitar and started learning to play the instrument. When he was released, he moved back to Washington and began to perform at parties while making money at odd jobs like bricklayer and sparring partner at area gyms. Brown’s music career began in earnest when he began to play with groups like the Earls of Rhythm and Los Latinos in the 60s and he continued performing until his death in 2012, achieving enormous popularity in the DC area.

Brown’s recording career began with the 1972 Soul Searchers album We the People which was followed by Salt of the Earth two years later. But it was the third Soul Searchers album, Bustin’ Loose, that really put the band on the map. The album was released in 1979 and sold 500,000 copies, earning a Gold Record. The title single also attained gold status and topped the R&B chart for four weeks while crossing over to Top 40 success on the Pop chart. You can recognize parts of “Bustin’ Loose” in Nelly’s 2002 smash “Hot in Herre.”

Brown continued releasing albums right up until his death and beyond with 2014’s Beautiful Life. His influence on bands like the Soul Rebels Brass Band, Junk Yard Band, Rare Essence, and Trouble Funk is undeniable. Local promoter Darryl Brooks said, “He was a symbol of D.C. manhood, back in the day, because of the authority that he spoke with. He just spoke from a perspective that black men could understand.”

Brown was accorded numerous honors and awards during his lifetime including a National Heritage Fellowship in 2005. It is the highest honor that the United States awards in traditional and folk arts. Brown was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2011 for the song “Love” which he recorded with Jill Scott and Marcus Miller, and that same year he was honored at a National Symphony Orchestra concert on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol Building.

Soul Serenade: Dyke And The Blazers, “Funky Broadway”

Dyke and the BlazersA long time ago, in a galaxy far away, I was digging through some crates when I came across a record with a title that intrigued me by a group with a cool name. I didn’t know anything else about the song or the group but I bought the single that day and I still have it. It was something called “Uhh” by Dyke and the Blazers. My research tells me it wasn’t their biggest hit but that doesn’t make it any less of a cool record.
In the beginning, there was a guy with the somewhat unwieldy name of Arlester Christian in Buffalo, NY. Early on he took on the much simpler nickname, Dyke. At first, he was a bass player, working with a local group called Carl LaRue and his Crew. Somewhere around 1963 Carl and his Crew released a single on the KKC label called “Please Don’t Drive Me Away.” I’ll bet that one isn’t easy to find.

Meanwhile, clear across the country, there was a DJ called Eddie O’Jay and he managed a group called, that’s right, the O’Jays. Somehow O’Jay had become aware of LaRue and invited him to bring his band to Phoenix to back the O’Jays. Unfortunately, by the time the Crew made it out there in 1965, the O’Jays had departed for greener pastures. End of band.

Finding themselves without the means to go home, Christian and two other members of the Crew, guitarist “Pig” Jacobs and sax player J.V. Hunt, decided to stay in Phoenix. At the time there was a local group there called the Three Blazers and when they joined forces with the stranded Crew members they became Dyke and the Blazers. The rest of the lineup included Bernard Williams on sax, organist Rich Cason, and drummer Rodney Brown.

The new group played in the Phoenix clubs and they loved to jam. Out of one of those jams emerged the riff that became “Funky Broadway.” Most people probably think that the lyrics were inspired by the Great White Way in New York City, but in truth, Christian was thinking of Broadway in his Buffalo hometown and Broadway Street in Phoenix when he wrote it.

Arlester Christian

Enter Art Barrett. He heard the band, and he liked what he heard enough to become their manager. He quickly got them into a studio to record “Funky Broadway” and released it on his own label, which was called Artco. It was a big enough hit to get the band started, reaching the Top 20 on the R&B chart and crossing over to #65 on the Billboard Hot 100. The success came despite the fact that some radio stations banned the record because of the word “funky” in the title. Yes, you read that right.

Bass player Alvin Battle was added to the lineup to allow Christian more freedom as the lead vocalist. The success of the single led to a lot of touring for the group including stops at the legendary Apollo Theater. But the stress of touring got to them and by 1967, Dyke and the Blazers had broken up. Right after their split, Wilson Pickett released his version of “Funky Broadway” which of course was an enormous hit, #1 on the R&B chart and Top 10 on the pop chart.

Christian wasn’t done, however. He went back to Buffalo and put a new band together to back him. The second band included drummer Willie Earl who had been part of LaRue’s Crew, along with another drummer, “Baby Wayne” Peterson. Otis Tolliver played bass, Ray Byrd was on keys, and “Little Mo” Jones played trumpet. But the new lineup didn’t last, falling to pieces by 1969.

Instead of putting together yet another band, Christian moved to LA where he put out Dyke and the Blazers records that he recorded with session musicians. Those session musicians, by the way, eventually became known as the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band. Among the musicians was drummer James Gadson, who played with Bill Withers, and Al McKay and Roland Bautista, both guitarists, who later played with Earth, Wind & Fire.

Several successful singles resulted from this collaboration including “We Got More Soul, and “Let A Woman Be A Woman, Let A Man Be A Man.” The singles tended to be long jams that were edited down for radio play. Yes, “Uhh” was one of their singles too, but it didn’t make it into the Top 100 in 1970, and neither did two subsequent singles.

Things did not end well for Arlester “Dyke” Christian. He was getting ready to tour England and to do some recording with Barry White when he was shot dead on a Phoenix street in 1971. Some people tried to make it a drug thing but an autopsy showed neither alcohol or drugs in Christian’s body. A man named Clarence Daniels was arrested for the killing but the charges were dismissed citing evidence of self-defense.

Christian was buried back home in Buffalo.

Soul Serenade: James Brown, “The Payback”

James BrownBy the end of 1974, James Brown’s long and illustrious career was about to head into a fallow period. But the downswing came at the end of one of Brown’s best years ever as he ran three singles to the top of the R&B chart. It was the end of an era in which Brown came to be known as the Godfather of Soul.

The first of the three 1974 hit singles was “The Payback” and it had a story all its own. The lyrics, originally written by JB Fred Wesley but extensively revised by Brown, are a dark tale of betrayal but they could easily tell the story of the song’s history. Brown wrote the song for a film called Hell Up in Harlem which was released in 1973. But the film’s producer’s rejected the song because they thought it sounded like “the same old James Brown stuff,” as if that was a bad thing. The film’s director, Larry Cohen, allegedly found “The Payback” not funky enough. Right.

“The Payback” is as funky as could be but the record’s arrangement was sparse and airy as opposed to some of the hard-driving funk that had preceded it. And a wah-wah pedal was very much present, something else relatively rare on previous Brown records. Whatever the reasons were for the rejection, Brown was pissed off and he decided to release the single and its namesake album the following year.

James Brown - "The Payback"

The basic tracks for the two-part single were recorded in Augusta, GA in August 1973. The following month brass and backing vocals were overdubbed in New York City. In February 1974, Polydor Records released the single. It not only topped the R&B chart, it reached #26 on the Billboard Hot 100. Payback indeed. Brown’s next single, “My Thang,” was released two months later and also topped the R&B chart and crossed over to #29 on the pop chart. Brown’s final R&B #1 hit of the year was “Papa Don’t Take No Mess” which was released in August and reached #31 on the pop chart.

1974 was a very good year indeed for James Brown. But disco was in its ascendency and Brown was slow to respond. The records he released in the late ’70s failed to reach the Top 10 on the R&B chart. It’s not like Brown disappeared from the public eye during those years though. He appeared in films like The Blues Brothers and Doctor Detroit, and on tv shows like Miami Vice. And then in 1985, he came all the way back with the release of “Living in America,” which was featured prominently in the film Rocky IV. “Living in America” was written by Dan Hartman and Charlie Midnight. The single was released in December 1985 and raced all the way to the #4 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. It was Brown’s first Top 40 pop hit in ten years and the last one he would ever have.

Soul Serenade: Lyn Collins “Think (About It)”

Lyn Collins







But let me tell you something
The sisters are not going for that no more
‘Cause we realize two things
That you aren’t doing anything for us
We can better do by ourselves
So from now on, we gonna use
What we got to get what we want
So, you’d better think, think
Now’s the time when we have
That’s the thing I never will forget

When I heard the latest news about the unfolding Harvey Weinstein scandal the lyrics to this song came to mind. So I thought it would be an appropriate time to feature this funky record from 1972.

Gloria Laverne Collins was born in Texas in 1948. She began her singing career in her teens with the Charles Pike Singer and recorded her first single, “Unlucky in Love,” at the age of 14. Her break came when, after seeing James Brown perform, she decided to send her demo tape to him. Brown heard something he liked and asked Collins to join the James Brown Revue.

It wasn’t quite that easy though, and Collins had to spend a couple of years on the bench before being called into the Revue. While she waiting, Brown took her into the studio and she recorded five songs. Two of them, “Wheels of Life” and “Just Won’t Do Right,” were released as a single on Brown’s People Records label. Shortly thereafter she was handed the lead singing spot in the Revue where Brown dubbed her the “Female Preacher” in deference to her gospel-based singing style.

Lyn Collins

Despite the fact that Brown was not particularly well known as an enlightened male, he wrote and produced “Think” for Collins, and his J.B.’s provided the backing track. With its spare drumbeat and sometimes random background vocal interjections, it’s easy to imagine that the entire track was recorded live in the studio with little or no overdubbing. However it was recorded, it worked out well, with the record reaching to the Top 10 in 1972.

“Think (About It)” became the title track for Collins’ first album, released by Polydor, which included four other Brown-written songs. But first and foremost, Collins was a salaried member of the James Brown Revue and as such saw very little of the profits from her hit record. She contributed songs to blaxploitation films like Black Caesar, and Slaughter’s Big Rip Off, and there was a much-loved duet with Brown called “What My Baby Needs Now is a Little More Loving.”

Collins recorded one more album for Polydor before leaving the Revue in 1976. She moved to L.A. and got a clerical job at the Record Plant recording studio. She didn’t stop singing though, providing background vocals for artists like Dionne Warwick, Al Green, and Rod Stewart.

Funk had a comeback in the mid-’80s and Collins decided to try to be a part of it. She released a new dance single called “Shout,” and her two Polydor albums were reissued, bringing her to the attention of a new generation of listeners. Even more attention was paid when Rob Base & DJ Ezy-Rock sampled her “Think” vocal for their 1989 smash “It Takes Two.”

Fame arrived again for Collins in 1998 when Polydor released an album called James Brown’s Funky Divas which included 11 Collins songs. In 2005 she toured Europe where she was treated like a star by audiences. Sadly, Collins suffered a seizure brought on by choking on a piece of food. She died on March 13, 2005, at the age of 56.

Yes, “Think (About It)” was a hit in 1972 but the record became even more popular in later years for the samples it spawned. In fact, it became one of the most heavily sampled of all of Brown’s records, and that’s saying something. In addition to Rob Base & DJ Ezy-Rock, those who used one of the record’s five breaks on their own records included Roxanne Shante, De La Soul, Kid Rock, Janet Jackson, Snoop Dogg, TLC, and Fergie. The feminist anthem disguised as a funk record lives on in all of these recordings.

Soul Serenade: The Commodores, “Brick House”

The CommodoresThe late 1970s were a good time indeed for funk. Given the fact that disco and punk were both ascendent in those days, it’s remarkable that funk could have gained a toehold, but that’s exactly what happened. Last week I wrote about the 1978 Parliament hit “Flash Light,” and this week I’m going to remain in that era and feature a 1977 smash by the Commodores called “Brick House.
In 1968 there were two groups, Mystics, and the Jays, that were made up of students at Tuskegee Institute. Lionel Richie was a Mystic, a group that leaned a little more toward jazz, as were Thomas McClary, and William King. The Jays membership included Andre Callahan, Michael Gilbert, and Milan Williams. Those six got together and chose the name Commodores at random from a dictionary.

“We lucked out, we almost became the Commodes,” William King told People Magazine with a laugh.

At the start, they had a singer named James Ingram (no, not that one) and played frat parties and local clubs. Ingram was a little older than the other guys, and when he was sent to Vietnam, the Commodores replaced him with William ‘Clyde’ Orange, who played drums. The new singer split the lead vocals with Richie and wrote or co-wrote a lot of the Commodores’ hits.

It was a gig opening for the Jackson 5 that got the Commodores noticed, and signed to Motown in 1972. Their first hit for the label was “Machine Gun” in 1974. The single reached #22 on the Pop chart and was Top 10 R&B. “Slippery When Wet” produced a second hit for the band the following year, getting to the top of the R&B chart, and crossing over to #19 on the Pop chart. Top 10 hits like “Just to be Close to You” (1976), and “Easy” (1977) followed.

The songwriting on “Brick House” is credited to Lionel Richie, Milan Williams, Walter Orange, Ronald La Pread, Thomas McClary, William King, and Shirley Hanna-King was an uncredited writer. As the story goes, there were equipment problems in the recording studio so the Commodores took a break. Bass player Ronald LaPread began playing a riff, and soon the rest of the band joined in. Before long, they had a track.

Producer James Carmichael liked what he heard, but knew that there was still work to do to make it a song. William King took the tapes home, and he was asleep when his wife, Shirley Hanna-King came up with the “brick house” lyrics for the riff. William King told the band that he had written the lyrics, and it was decided that Orange would be the right singer for the funky groove, instead of Richie, who was singing a lot of the lead vocals at that point. It took years for the band to learn of Hanna-King’s contribution, and although she remains uncredited, the band does acknowledge her part in the creation of the hit.

The Commodores

“Brick House” was released in August 1977. The single rose to #5 on the Pop chart, and #4 R&B. The Commodores still had bigger hits in their future.

“Three Times a Lady” was their biggest hit. The Richie-sung ballad was released in 1978 and became a #1 smash on the Pop and R&B charts. The following year “Sail On” hit the Top 10 on both charts, and that same year “Still” again rose to the top of both charts. In 1981 the band had two more Top 10 hits with “Oh No,” and “Lady (You Bring Me Up).”

The success was more than enough to push Richie out of the nest in 1982 and on to a huge solo career. He was replaced by Skylar Jett. McClary left the following year, LaPread in 1986. Sheldon Reynolds (who joined in 1983) left to play with Earth, Wind & Fire the next year, and original member Milan Williams left in 1989, apparently because he would not play in South Africa.

Despite all the changes, the Commodores were not yet done. They did, however, become less funky, opting for a more easygoing sound. J.D. Nicholas, formerly of Heatwave, came aboard in 1984 and shared vocal duties with Orange. They hadn’t had a hit for awhile when “Nightshift,” with Orange singing lead, shot up to the #1 spot on the R&B chart, and #3 on the Pop chart. The song was a lovely tribute to two icons who had died the previous year, Jackie Wilson, and Marvin Gaye. “Nightshift” won the Commodores their first Grammy in 1985.

That hit marked the end of the Commodores stint with Motown Records. In 1990, they formed their own label, Commodores Records, and re-recorded their biggest hits for a two-volume compilation. There was also a live album and DVD, and a Christmas album. These days the Commodores are still out there, and Orange, King, and Nicholas are still part of the group, along with a five-piece band.

Soul Serenade: Parliament, “Flash Light”

ParliamentThree years ago in this column, I wrote about a group called the Parliaments. My story spoke about how they got their start in the back room of George Clinton’s barbershop in Plainfield, N.J. in the late 1950s, and how they scored a big hit in 1967 with a record called “(I Wanna) Testify,” which was released on Revilot Records.
The success of “Testify” meant that Clinton could expand the Parliaments vocal group to include five musicians and five backup singers. But there was trouble with Revilot, and the label enjoined Clinton from using the name Parliaments. In response, Clinton took the personnel he had and created a funk rock band called Funkadelic.

Revilot went out of business, which allowed to use the name Parliaments again, and he relaunched the group (with the same members as Funkadelic) and called it, simply, Parliament. The two bands were signed to different labels and played slightly different styles, but it was all funky. The first Parliament album, Osmium, was released in 1970. “Breakdown” managed to hit the Top 30 on the R&B singles chart the following year, but contractual problems continued and Clinton retired the Parliament name again.

New members continued to join the family during this period including keyboard player Bernie Worrell, guitarist Gary Shider, and bass player Bootsy Collins, who had been playing with James Brown. In 1974, Clinton brought Parliament back and signed the group to Casablanca Records. At that point, there was a definite stylistic difference between Parliament and Funkadelic. While the former found an R&B funk style that featured horns and complex vocal arrangements, the latter was pure guitar-driven funk. For touring purposes, the two groups became a juggernaut known as Parliament-Funkadelic.


Parliament found chart success with the albums Up for the Down Stroke in 1974, and Chocolate City the following year. The group’s most successful era in 1975 with the release of Mothership Connection. It was that album that began the lyric mythology that continued through Clones of Dr. Funkenstein (1976), Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome (1977), and Motor Booty Affair (1978). All of the albums found lofty positions on both the R&B and Pop charts and “Flash Light,” a song from the Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome, became a #1 R&B hit for the group in 1978.

“Flash Light” was written by Clinton, Worrell, and Collins, and found crossover success in the Top 20 on the Pop chart. In addition to being the first #1 hit for any group in the Clinton stable, it was the second million-seller for Parliament, following “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker).” Bernie Worrell was the star of the “Flash Light” show, crafting the song’s distinctive bass line on a set of synthesizers, and playing all of the keyboard parts. Collins, who ceded the bass parts to Worrell for the song, played drums instead, and his brother Catfish was the rhythm guitarist. Clinton sang lead and recorded something like 50 vocal tracks for the song’s distinctive “Da da da dee da da da” refrain. And by featuring Sir Nose D’VoidofFunk, “Flash Light” continued the lyric mythology that began on Bootsy’s “The Pinocchio Theory.” “Flash Light” was and is one of the most influential records in the history of funk and hip-hop music.

The empire kept growing but Clinton’s management style was somewhat questionable and by the end of the ’70s original members of the Parliaments were jumping ship. Fuzzy Haskins, Calvin Simon, and Grady Thomas, all of whom had been with Clinton in that barbershop in Plainfield, left in 1977, and it wasn’t a pleasant parting of the ways. Glenn Goins (guitar) and Jerome Brailey (drums) left around this time too. Gloryhallastoopid (1979) and Trombipulation (1980) failed to achieve the kind of success that Parliament had in their prime period. In the early part of the 1980s, Casablanca Records was having problems, and legal difficulties were looming as Clinton opted to disband both Parliament and Funkadelic as touring and recording acts.

Clinton didn’t quit, however, recording solo albums with a number of the musicians who had played in later versions of the two bands. The P-Funk All-Stars continue to tour with Clinton to this day, performing Parliament and Funkadelic songs.


A Fan’s Notes: Notable Albums Of 2016

David BowieYou don’t need me to tell you that 2016 was a very bad year for musicians. The list of great artists that we lost this year is staggering. The thing is, it’s been a pretty good year for music itself, with two of the departed artists releasing brilliant closing statements.

There’s more hip-hop on my list this year than ever before. I’m not going to make any big pronouncements about what that means, but there is no doubt that guitar rock is taking a backseat these days. Still, as long as there are young bands like Beach Slang, and veterans like Ian Hunter keeping the vibe alive, the announcement of the death of rock and roll is premature.

Here then, are some of my favorite albums of 2016. The Top 10 are listed in order, the balance of the list is random.

David Bowie – Blackstar

The innovative genius departed the planet for parts unknown only after making sure we had one last shimmering jewel to remember him by.

Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love!

An astonishing spin on the soul and funk of the ’70s from an artists whose talent apparently knows no limit.

Rumer – This Girls in Love (A Bacharach & David Songbook)

The British singer gets into the ring with the legends who have recorded these pop classics in the past, and walks out with her head held high.

The Rolling Stones – Blue & Lonesome

Admit it. You didn’t think they had another great one in them. Not so much a reinvention as a return to the electric blues that made us fall in love with them in the first place.

Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book

A perfectly named album as Chance has used every crayon in his box to produce this endlessly inventive mixtape.

Leonard Cohen – You Want it Darker

The brilliant Canadian poet left us as he found us, with an intimate, dark, and foreboding work of art.

William Bell – This is Where I Live

The legendary soul singer returns with an album that is every bit as affecting as his work during the classic Stax era.

Nick Cave – Skeleton Tree

The death of Cave’s young son informs every second of this haunting album. A powerful work of art carved from the most devastating personal tragedy.

Rick Barry – Curses, Maledictions & Harsh Reiterations

Barry proves once again that great Jersey shore songwriting does not begin and end with Bruce Springsteen. It’s Barry’s most mature work to date, and he remains an artist to watch.

Ian Hunter – Fingers Crossed

Oh, just another 70-something producing some of the finest music of his career. The latest in a brilliant string of solo albums that began in 1975.

Notable Albums of 2016

Also Worthy

Richmond Fontaine – Richmond Fontaine – You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing to Go Back To

Paul Simon – Stranger to Stranger

The Felice Brothers – Life in the Dark

Frank Ocean – Blonde

Gregory Porter – Take Me to the Alley

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

Elizabeth Cook – Exodus of Venus

Beach Slang – A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings

Keith Monacchio – The Dust-Up

The Silks – Turn Me On

A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service

Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth

Kanye West – Life of Pablo

Bonnie Bishop – Ain’t Who I Was

Nels Cline – Lovers

Emitt Rhodes – Rainbow Ends

P.J. Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project

Drive-By Truckers – American Band

Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate

John Legend – Darkness & Light

Reissued or Previously Unreleased

Bob Dylan – The 1966 Live Recordings

Big Star – Complete Third

Velvet Crush – Pre-Teen Symphonies

David Bowie – Who Can I Be Now? [1974 – 1976]

Betty Davis – The Columbia Years

Frank Sinatra – World on a String (Live)

Pink Floyd – The Early Years, 1967-1972, Cre/ation

NRBQ – High Noon: A 50 -Year Retrospective

Winfield Parker – Mr. Clean: Winfield Parker At Ru-Jac

Gene & Eddie – True Enough: Gene & Eddie With Sir Joe At Ru-Jac

The Beatles – Live at the Hollywood Bowl