The Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band:

Rather than try to tackle on all six of the Rhino UK reissues of the Watts 103rd series on Warner Bros., it just seemed more expedient to do half now and the other half soon. Andy Sax, the same guy who who put together the two Rhino Handmade comps I wrote about last week, also was responsible for putting together the entire series line for Rhino UK, complete with practically a second album’s worth of bonus songs and new liner notes. It’s too bad it didn’t come out domestically only since folks could have saved some money on them but at $17 a pop, it’s not they’re way overpriced either.

I picked two songs off each CD to highlight, beginning with the first and arguably “false” Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band album from 1967. “Spreadin’ Honey” is the song that purportedly started it all – the first to use the Watts name when the single first appeared on Keymen records. As I note in my liner notes for Live at Haunted House though, it’s an open question if Wright even played on “Spreadin’ Honey” and none of the other Watts musicians remember playing on that single either. Regardless though, it’s what put the Watts Band on the map, having first started out as a hit theme for radio DJ Magnificent Montague, then as its own single, and THEN, jacked (well, supposedly jacked) by the Soul Runners for another single, this time on Mo Soul.

“Fried Okra,” on the other hand, was recorded by the second Watts Band, the same on that Wright worked together with on the Bill Cosby LPs. No Gadson or McKay here but James Carmichael (pianist/arranger) was in the mix for these sessions which fill up all but one song on that first Watts album (“Spreadin’ Honey” being the exception. It was included by Warner Bros.’ insistence). Even though I don’t really love anything off this first album, “Fried Okra” at least has a slinky, funky jazz feel that I can roll with. This is the mono version which is included as a bonus on the CD – it has a harder bite than the original stereo version.

But wait…the thing about “Fried Okra” is that it further confuses the whole “Soul Runners vs. Watts 103rd” debate. A very similar track appears on a Soul Runners’ 45 as “Grits N’ Cornbread” and as Funky 16 Corners has researched, also shows up in the early ’70s (?!) as “Let It Crawl” by Society’s Bag (again, on WBs). WTF? Who recorded what, when? If the Soul Runners had nothing to do with the Watts Band (which is seems to be the conventional wisdom)…I could see how “Spreadin’ Honey” was recorded first by the Watts Band and then “borrowed” by the Soul Runners but “Grits N’ Cornbread” didn’t appear on the first Watts album until 1967 yet came out by the Soul Runners, supposedly, in 1967. What gives?

No confusion about the next pair of songs – they come from Together, the first “real” Watts Band album insofar as it contains the personnel everyone associates with the Watts 103rd name. It’s also my favorite album by the group, thanks to a stellar trio of songs built around “65 Bars and a Taste of Soul,” “Giggin’ Down 103rd,” and “A Dance, A Kiss and a Song.” Out of those, I’m posting up “65 Bars” because I like how hard a funk groove this lays down, especially with the horn section blazin’ away and a solid, in-the-pocket contribution by drummer James Gadson. “Poverty Stricken Chicken” is one of the bonus songs on Together; a previously unreleased song from the vaults that sounds like it should fit right around the time Together was being recorded. I can hear part of their earlier, Top 40 style here – there’s a very Stax-like quality to part of the arrangement – but you also hear some of the new ideas Wright was cooking up in this era.

In the Jungle, Babe is probably the Watts album I’m least familiar with and I’m not even sure why…I just never listened to it much even though it has some of the group’s most interesting songs, including “Comment” and “Love Land.” “Comment,” in particular, was considered controversial at the time for Wright’s tackling of racial tensions. As he put it to me, “people didn’t like it” and when I asked, “which people,” he grinned and said “White people.” Musically too, it’s an extraordinary ballad with its gospel brushes, the string accompaniment and an indelible set of vocals. (For whatever reason, it also sounds very post-Pet Sounds). To me, it’s really ahead of the curve for an R&B song – reminds me of something Roberta Flack or Donny Hathaway would have recorded a few years down the line.

“Oh Happy Gabe (Sometimes Blue)” is presumably a play on “Oh Happy Day” but name-checks trumpeter Gabriel Flemings. I had never heard this song in its entirety until recently and I’m feeling it like [braille/cordury/stucco]. It’s a lovely instrumental that builds in subtle layers, especially the overlapping horns. Magnificent song, all around.

Part 4 of the Watts 103rd Week (well, more than a week) will wrap up with the other three albums available as part of this Rhino/Warners UK reissue set.