Up until his death this week, Arif Mardin had one of the best f***ing jobs ever: producer for Atlantic Records from 1965 to 2001, presiding over some of the greatest soul talents to ever walk the planet. Talk about having a front seat to history…actually, talk about helping make it. Mardin wasn’t nearly as influential as say, Ahmet Ertegun or Jerry Wexler. He never had the mystical reputation that Brian Wilson or Phil Spector acquired. But Mardin wasn’t more than just a gifted producer, he managed to traverse the years and (in Busta’s words) stay relevant in the streets. Or at least, dance clubs and coffee bars alike. Mardin’s first big hits came with the Rascals in the mid’60s, then he helped the Average White Band blow up in the mid 1970s, then teamed with Chaka Khan and Melle Mel in the mid-80s, only to find success again with Norah Jones by the mid 2000s. And between those mid-decade marks, he also was instrumental in the careers of Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathway and a few other similarly obscure artists like that. Not a bad track record.
In short, Mardin’s influence has touched some of my favorite soul and funk songs. I pulled out just four out of a career that literally produced hundreds of possible songs.
Aretha Franklin: Day Dreaming
From Young, Gifted and Black (Atlantic, 1972)
I don’t think I’d ever want to commit to having just one favorite Aretha song but put me on the spot and “Day Dreaming” gets the quick nod on impulse. Sonically, it is just such a distinctive and sublime piece of sound craft, beginning with those drifting, dreamy keys. In this NPR interview, Mardin says it was Aretha’s idea to begin the song that way and in executing her wishes to perfection, Mardin created one of the most distinctive song openers I know. This song never, ever gets old for me. Ever.
Donny Hathaway: Valdez In the Country
From Extension of a Man (ATCO, 1973)
What always stood out to me about this song is that for an artist known – revered – for the lilt in his voice, “Valdez In the County” is an instrumental…and a damn fine one at that. There’s so much to like with this tune…for one thing, it’s like the best EW&F tune they never recorded and Hathaway (I presume), is killing it on the electronic piano here. Most importantly (and a testament to Mardin’s gifts) is that this song just plain sounds great.
Average White Band: School Boy Crush
From Cut the Cake (Atlantic, 1975)
Sure, James Brown thought they were a bunch of biters. And maybe it’s just a little too cheeky to name yourself the “Average White Band” but damn, these Scottish dudes could knock out some good funky stuff. Especially with “School Boy Crush,” you simply can’t be mad at a song that opens so beautifully with those bells and drums. Hell, if it’s good enough for Rakim, Special Ed and the X-Clan, that’s as certified as it gets.
Chaka Khan: I Feel For You
From I Feel For You (Warner Bros, 1984)
The significance of this song runs through so many layers: it’s one of the first huge rap-meets-R&B-meets-pop hits. It revitalized Chaka Khan’s career after her dip into the disco era. And it was the last real hit enjoyed by Melle Mel who was about to see his rapping career made irrelevant thanks to three guys out of Hollis, Queens. And mostly, this song kicks major ass – Prince’s songwriting, Chaka Khan’s singing, Melle Mel rapping = unbeatable combo. Check out that NPR piece to learn where Mardin came up with that intro.