JAMES BROWN: SOUL ON TOP


James Brown: Your Cheatin’ Heart + September Song
From Soul On Top (King, 1970)

I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to work on a story for the L.A. Times that ran today about James Brown’s “Soul On Top” concert he’s giving tomorrow at the Hollywood Bowl. The article breaks down the history of the project but here’s the short version: Soul On Top was a 1970 album Brown recorded with a 20 piece big band lead by drummer Louie Bellson with arrangements by Oliver Nelson. For the concert, Brown is teaming with Christian McBride who put together a 17 piece band and Bellson will be featured on at least one song.

Like 1969’s Gettin’ Down To It (recorded with Cincinnati’s Dee Felice Trio), it has Brown singing jazz, pop and country standards with a “jazz” band though obviously, the big band power of Bellson’s players creates a different atmosphere than what Felice’s trio knocked out. All in all, it’s one of Brown’s more interesting albums to be sure – it probably sounds less dramatic now (in a time where “big band funk” isn’t as unusual as it might have been in the late ’60s) but it’s not less unique amongst Brown’s massive catalog. I wanted to do two things with this post: one was to give folks a sampling of this album, the other to add some details that, for a variety of reasons, were left out of my story.

To begin with: it was very tough just selecting two songs from the album since really, I would have been just as happy with another pair than what I selected. What these two share in common – and why I chose them – is that they’re some of the more dramatic re-envisonings of “classic” standards that Brown had and Nelson pulls off the arrangements (as per Brown’s direction) beautifully. Both of these are supposed to be slow ballads but they get remade into what Bellson described to me as “boogaloo” rhythms (though Brown disagreed with the application of the term for reasons I didn’t quite get). The simpler way to say it is that they become funky, mid-tempo tracks that give a once-familiar song a whole new makeover. Personally, I’d probably given the edge to “September Song” as the better of the two but frankly, I think both are great.

This said, i don’t want to dress up the album as simply “funky big bang jazz!” without acknowledging that while Brown certainly wanted to bring a funk element into the project, there are some songs, especially the excellent “That’s My Desire” which are all soul and do a great job of showcasing Brown’s versatile vocal talents.

As for that bonus content, here’s a few based on my interviews with James Brown, Christian McBride and Louie Bellson:

James Brown on how he thought Bellson’s big band performed compared to his own band:

    “It was stiff – I wasn’t going to get out [of a big band] what I [could] put together [on my own] because they could make the quick turns and quick hits. [The big bang] swang, I didn’t want them to swing, I wanted them to CHOP, BAH, DAH, BAH BAM, you know.”

(Just to note: Brown was “very, very pleased” with the band but the specific question was how ddi they perform compared to Brown’s normal stage band).

Christian McBride on the challenges of writing new arrangements because Nelson’s originals were lost:

    “’ I hired a guy named Ed Palermo who’s a brilliant musician and arranger, he does the Frank Zappa Big Band in New York, he transcribed all of the charts off the album, which was pretty incredible, because the horns weren’t recorded very well. Listening to the original masters when we went back to listen to some of that stuff the mics were really far away from the horns so it kind of sounds like they had one mic over each section so it was kind of hard to really hear the individual parts compared to a Sinatra album with Nelson Riddle where everything is crystal clear. Considering that he did a hell of a job.”

Louie Bellson on the actual recording sessions that took place in November of 1969:

    “It couldn’t of been any better, because sometimes you do a CD, it can be a great band and the singer is not up to it or the singer is not gelling right. That can happen with the best of them, but this is a case of right from the first note that the band played to the first arrangement, we were in, we all knew this was going to be something great. Oliver played a big part of it. He had a chance to work with James before the recording so a lot of the background was something things that James Brown dictated to Oliver and Oliver knew exactly what he wanted. I think that kind of pre-recording is important, because you have to sit with the artists, especially the arranger to know what kind of background to use or write. That really was 90 per cent of the battle right there.”

THEME MUSIC

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My general policy, as stated to the right, is “no requests,” but I’ve been getting some great, interesting emails from people of late. This one I would have never predicted:“The girlfriend of a good friend of mine recently graduated from Northeastern U with a degree in Criminal Justice. She’s now pursuing a career as a private investigator. Her name is ______, she’s maybe 5’2” tall, weighs 110 lbs soaking wet, and she is a classic Connecticut suburban white chick, the kind you expect to find in a shopping mall, not the kind you expect to find surveilling insurance cheats.

Needless to say, if she’s going to survive on the mean streets of Boston as a PI, she’s going to need an ass-kicking theme song to play in her Mazda 626 on stakeouts. Megan’s theme song should be high-energy, fun, funky as hell, and pretty much turn her into Shaft. And unless you’re willing to send us an mp3, it should be the kind of thing that guys without a room full of vinyl can track down easily. Can you suggest a song?First of all, I’m not sure there’s any theme song that’s going to turn a 5’2″ “suburban white chick” into Shaft (though I find the desire for a racial transmorgification quite fascinating) but I like the idea of a theme song being able to reframe who we are and what impression we make on others.

Here’s my contribution…

Certain Lions and Tigers: El Soul Condor
From Soul Condor (Polydor, 1970)

I figure, if the point here is to take someone who might seem slight or easy to underestimate, lulling folks into complacency then smack them upside the head with some out-of-nowhere ridiculousness. That’s “El Soul Condor” in a nutshell…I’m pretty sure you’re not going to find too many covers of a Simon and Garfunkel song better than this. Certain Lions and Tigers is actually another permutation of Peter Herbolzheimer’s Rhythm Combination Brass band and ranks amongst the best of his ’70s fusion material (alongside Live From Onkel Po). Not sure if this will turn Charlotte into Shaft but if she run someone down in an alleyway, leaping garbage cans and dodging rats, I can hear this screaming in the background during that chase.

What would you suggest?

PACKING RECORDS, UNPACKING MUSIC

This is the realest shit I ever wrote: I’ve started packing my records up. After 16 years in the Bay Area, I (and the fam) are moving down to Los Angeles so I can take a job at CSU-Long Beach (yessir, Professor Wang if you please. Oliver if you don’t. Mr. Wang if you nast…oh, never mind). This is the first time I’ve ever had to hire movers for something more than just a cross-town slide and as befits my personality, I’m just a little paranoid at the thought of my two tons of records[1] rolling down I5 and then suddenly jack-knifing around Coalinga and having my vinyl distributed amongst ill-fated cattle.

So I decided to pull out a select number of records to take down with me when I drive from SF –> LA and this has been a most illuminating process. Some of the picks are no-brainers – records worth a few hundred dollars for example are worth putting in the “fire crate”[2]. There’s also a few not-so-rare records that just hold a lot of sentimental value for me…like my doubles of De La Soul’s “Buddy”. But when I started combing through even my crates of more rare, vaguely valuable stuff, I just skipped over most of it, thinking, “if these ended up lost or destroyed and I got the insurance money back for them…I’d actually be pretty ok with that.”

It’s rather sobering realizing that 80-90% of your collection is, in theory, disposable insofar as, it’d be a pain to replace certain items but you wouldn’t necessarily get that stabbing feeling in the pit of your stomach if something unfortunate happened to them. Certainly, this reflects some major changes in our times…physical music becomes less important (especially as a DJ) in a post-Serato world.

I also think I’m less attached to certain records just because they have a “cool” song or two and more focused on albums and singles that really move me (see my previous post about ballads). That’s a rather finicky category to pin down and on any given day, my sense of what I want to hear and sit with may change radically. But my musical listening of late has turned towards songs I’m completely obsessed over rather than more casual listening. In other words, the songs that move me the most are the ones that I want to put on repeat and just listen to over and over and over, insatiably. Notably – and thankfully – I’ve been managing to find these songs at least every few weeks or so. That doesn’t mean the rest of what I have in my collection is suddenly dull as beige or anything but if I can invoke the concept of “comfort music” the same way we think of comfort food, then I guess in these unsteady times, I want to drown myself in certain songs and tune everything else out.

At the same time, I don’t want to take all these records for granted. I bought them presumably out of some desire to own them and I’ve been making a point to go through and pull out different songs/albums I had forgotten about and bring ’em here. My messy move is your gain (I hope). So, for the next few weeks, I’ll be cleaning out the digital (and literal) closet in preparation for this move and hopefully, have a slew of posts forthcoming. Not everything I’ll be posting will be tunes I’m crazily obsessed over…but that doesn’t mean you won’t be.

Here goes…



Los Mitos: Eleanor + Mony Mony
From S/T (Hispa Vox, 196?)

True story: Back around 2004, I was doing a monthly soul/funk night at Milk with Matthew Africa and the Groove Merchant’s Cool Chris called Popcorn. We had just switched from Thursday nights to Saturdays and the crowd was less into the kind of music we were throwing down and instead wanted hip-hop (it’s one of those gigs where dumb white dudes[3] repeatedly come up demanding, “you got any 50 Cent? Play ‘The It’s Your Birthday’ song!”[4]

So, I’m up on the turntables, trying to keep the groove going and I decide, at this moment, what the perfect song would be is a Spanish language version of “Mony Mony”. I thought the song would kill. And it did. The vibe that is.

It was so bad that not only did it spur some people to complain about the music to the bouncer when they were leaving the club but someone went onto citysearch.com and posted a review of Milk where they named that song[5] as a reason they weren’t really feeling the night.

Of course, in seeking agreement that this song should have been brilliant, I sent it to a friend who promptly replied: “dude, I can’t believe you dropped this at a public setting. I’m sorry, the only way that works is if it’s a mash-up with Yung Joc bellowing over it…and I hate Yung Joc.”

Just for kicks, I threw on Los Mitos’ cover of The Turtles’ “Eleanor” on here as well. The group is from, I believe, El Salvador Spain. I’ve debated throwing this LP out but somehow, the debacle it inspired makes me a little sentimental about it.


Notes:
[1]Take that Peanut Butter Wolf! But yeah, we did the rough math and that’s what it comes out to. I’m vaguely horrified at this reality.

[2]So named by DJs who have a crate of records they plan to cart out in case a fire threatens their domicile.

[3]Seriously, it’s only white dudes (and women) who do this.

[4]By the way, DJs hate your guts when you do this. If we could have bouncers toss you out of the club for stupid requests, we’d do it. Even being cute may not help.

[5]That reviewer got it wrong though, claiming I played “the original version,” when in fact, it was a Spanish cover. Idiot!

SONGS OF OBSESSION: THE DELLS’ "LOVE IS BLUE"


The Dells: I Can Sing a Rainbow/Love Is Blue
From Love Is Blue (Cadet, 1969). Also available on the Ultimate Collection.

V/A: I Can Rhyme In Colors Medley. Features snippets from:

  • Prince Paul: Open Your Mouth
    From Psychoanalysis (Tommy Boy, 1997)
  • Edan: I See Colours
    From Beauty & The Beat (Lewis, 2005)
  • Smut Peddlers: Red Light
    From “Talk Like Sex Pt. 2″ 12” (Eastern Conference, 1999). Also available on Porn Again (Revisted)
  • Ghostface: Shakey Dog
    From Fishscale (Def Jam, 2006)
  • Blu: My World Is…
    From Below the Heavens (Sound In Color, 2006 forthcoming)

There’s no rush quite like a song obsession, where you just need to keep hearing the same song over and over again, with no diminishing returns. Despite the volume of music I sift through, it’s not often that I become that infatuated with a track. The last one was Smith’s “Baby, It’s You” and today, it’s been all about the Dells’ “I Can Sing A Rainbow/Love Is Blue.”

Let me rewind a moment. In my interview with the LA Weekly, I make a point to note: “I appreciate how [hip-hop era] sampling opens a door into the past, but often what you find is that the original material is far and away better than however the song gets sampled.” This Dells song is as perfect an example as I can think of. I was listening to the Blu song and the first thought was, “oh, this is the same loop at Ghostface’s “Shakey Dog.” I went and tracked down the original source (i.e. the Dells) and played it for a friend who then remarked: “yeah, Edan used this too.” I was surprised since I know Edan’s catalog pretty well and I definitely didn’t remember him having a song that sounded like the Ghostface or Blu…but then I realized: he sampled a totally different part of the song. Ok, that’s three. But Edan, at the beginning of the song says, “Prince Paul already looped this” – it’s in the actual song that he acknowledges this – so I went back and indeed, Paul did use the same loop that Edan uses for the short “Open Your Mouth.” Finally, just to make sure my bases were covered, I checked the-breaks.com to see if I had everything covered and realized I had forgotten about the Smut Peddlers who used the Ghost/Blu portion back in 1999.

So here’s the thing: five songs, a few by artists I really genuinely like and respect, using the same sample source…and none of them come close, in their own songs, to touching how goddamn amazing this Dells is. I’m not disrespecting the rappers; I’m merely noting that the original song is just on some insanely sublime level and that there’s no fuggin’ way you can sample it and hope to do justice to the source.

What’s so great about this song? Three things. 1) The shift from the mellow, almost folksy “I Can Sing a Rainbow” and then the out-of-nowhere dip into the funky soul blast of “Love Is Blue”. 2) The call and response between the lead vocalist and the rhythm/brass sections, i.e. “Blue!” BLARE! Blue! BLARE! BLARE!” There’s that moment where you know the hammer is about to drop between voice and instruments and you just know it’s going to be incredible. 3) Check out the string arrangement that’s subtly slipped underneath following that call-and-response. It adds this extra musical layer which turns a really good song into a wholly awesome one.

Of the various hip-hop songs that have flipped the track, “Shakey Dog” makes the best use of it, especially in bringing in Marvin Jr.’s loooooooong note from the end of the song and pitching it up to a scream. On the other hand, the Smut Peddlers were wise to use “my world is blue!” line (as does Blu, albeit seven years later).

SONGS OF OBSESSION: SMITH’S "BABY, IT’S YOU"


Smith: Baby, It’s You
From A Group Called Smith (Dunhill, 1969)

Still on the road. Just got back from Seattle and Portland – I attended a day and a half of the 5th annual EMP Conference of which I’ve gone every year even though, this year, didn’t present. Some really great papers though and it was very, very good to run into many old friends and colleagues, many of whom I only see once a year. Based on some convos I had there, we might be hearing something more from UW-Madison’s Charles Hughes who brought us that great Muscle Shoals series of posts earlier this year – he’s got something about the intersection b/t soul and country music that I think is going to blow people’s minds. Likewise, good friend Joe Schloss gave an amazing paper on Sly Stone that he promises to convert into a post for us. There’s a few other papers I might try to solicit but we’ll see what works out.

The song below isn’t actually related to any of that but I learned about the Smith’s cover of the Shirelle’s “Baby, It’s You” when I was doing research on the Gayle McCormick album I wrote about earlier. She started in Smith before going solo and “Baby, It’s You” was their big hit. I. LOVE. THIS. SONG. Seriously, I cannot get enough of it. This is the exact kind of cover that gets me loopy with excitement. It’s familiar yet takes off in a completely different direction at the same time and McCormick just KILLS it on the vocal. Too bad the rest of the album was more or less unlistenable to me. I don’t care though, “Baby, It’s You” is good enough to hold down a double album of tepid tracks. I drove from Portland to Seattle and back and that song held me down for the 6 hour round trip.

Update, 3/5/16: RIP to Gayle McCormick

TROUBADOURS + BYRON LEE: THEIR SWEET LORD



Byron Lee and the Dragonaires: My Sweet Lord
From Reggay Splashdown (Dynamic, 1971)

The Troubadours: My Sweet Lord
From Breakthrough (Hilary, 1972)

It’s no secret that I – love – covers. At times, I wonder if that means I don’t appreciate original compositions as much but it really just comes down to the surprise-factor in hearing a familiar song done in a new, interesting way. (At some point, yes, I will definitely try to bring back my CD, Deep Covers, back into production.)

I’ve had this Byron Lee for several years now – it is a great LP, especially since it has this song plus a cover of “Express Yourself” which is ace. I especially love it when reggae/rocksteady artists cover soul and rock songs: the reggae rhythm often complements the original style very well and what Byron Lee and the Dragonaires do to George Harrison’s sublime “My Sweet Love” is just phenomenal in really bring out the soulful qualities. I played this the other night at the record release party for Soul Sides Vol 1, towards the very end of the evening, and it felt like a great way to help close things out.

The Troubadours version is very new to my collection: I just got it less than 10 days ago and when I heard it, it was an instant impulse buy. This is more uptempo, “groovier” than Lee’s version but it’s an equally interesting and, to me, compelling take on the Harrison original. I can’t even really choose between this and the Lee to argue which one I like better: they’re different approaches and both appeal to me. I think that, more than anything, is a testament to the late Harrison and the beauty of his songwriting (which goes far too overlooked compared to the Paul/John debates).

ANIMAL CROSSINGS


Mama Lion: Ain’t No Sunshine
From S/T (Family Productions, 1972)

Kerrie Biddell: (It’s Not Easy) Being Green
From S/T (Bootleg, 1973)

Mama Lion’s cover of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” is arguably upstaged by the album’s cover art (like whoa) but I like how she approaches the song. Instead of the smooth vocals that we associate with Bill, ML unleashes her raspy bellows instead. Also good: how the song slowly builds until the first bridge and then the drums kick in.

I love that Australia’s Kerrie Biddell (who also laces that awesome Daly Wilson Big Band LP from Oz) does a cover of Kermit’s “(It Ain’t Easy) Being Green.” Seriously, more folks need to remake Sesame Street songs. People ever hear Willie Nelson singing, “The Rainbow Connection”? So excellent.

A SMOOTH MUTHA


Johnny “Guitar” Watson: You’ve Got a Hard Head + Loving You + It’s All About You
From Listen (Fantasy, 1973)

Renee Geyer Band: Hard Head
From Really Really Love You (RCA, 1976)

I’ve always liked the grain of Watson’s voice ­ a tinge of nasal but very distinctive ­ and he gets to work it out on this deeply soulful LP. Unlike his funkier fare from the later ’70s (“A Bad Mutha For Ya,” “Superman Lover,” etc.), this album is strictly on the bluesy ballad tip and it’s some of the best slow-cooked soul albums I know of. His accompaniement is lush but not as syrupy as say, Gamble and Huff. Maybe it’s the blues influence, which helps keep the music on the sparser side (well, sparse + an orchestral string section.

It’s always hard for me to pick a favorite song off this album since, frankly, I really love the whole thing, especially the first side which has nary a bad moment. That’s why I decided to pluck three from Side A alone. Normally, I’d keep it to two, but I can’t bear having to choose “It’s All About You” over “Loving You” or vice versa. Unfortunately, this album is only available on import CD ($$$) but now that Fantasy has gotten bought out by Concord, perhaps there will be a push to reconsider their reissue priorities.

Clearly, I’m not the only one who’s a fan of this album since Australian vocalist Renee Geyer covered Watson’s “Hard Head” for a concert album recorded in 1976. I like how she keeps true the original arrangement but her vocals are a nice contrast in style and sound.

SOUL HUT: THE RECAP

Southern Contemporary Rock Assembly: C.C. Rider
From S.C.R.A. (M7, 1971)

Afrique: Kissing My Love
From Soul Makossa (Mainstream, 1973)

Bill Black’s Combo: Tequila
From Rock N’ Roll Forever (Mega, 1973)

Ken Boothe: Down By the River
From Everything I Own (Wildflower, 1974)

Monty Alexander: Love and Happiness
From Rass (MPS, 1974)

For a limited time only, I decided to recap the five songs I sent over to Tofu Hut. I won’t bother to list all the biographical info since I already did it over at TH (start reading here for the full postings, plus John’s replies).


BONUS ROUND: SOUL SIDES GOSPEL PICKS

Charles May and Annette May Thomas: I’ll Keep My Baby Warm
From 7″ (Gospel Truth, 1973)

?: No One But the Lord
From LP (197?)

We admit: Soul Sides is not that up on our gospel but we managed to dig out two favorites that have long been in rotation ’round here. The first comes from Los Angeles’ Charles May and Annette May Thomas who recorded for the Stax-subsidary label, Gospel Truth. I can’t say enough about “Keep My Baby Warm,” which is just so damn soulful that it’s easy to forget that the allegory here might well be that “baby = Jesus” (at least that’s how I read it). You don’t really need to know that context though – like many gospel songs of the ’70s, it works in both secular and religious contexts.

Sorry for the secrecy but the second song, “No One But the Lord,” needs to remain in incognito status, at least for now (there’s enough heads out there who already know about this Bay Area gospel album in any case). Again, this is so funky that if not for the obvious Christian-inspired hook, this could pass for just a solid soul song. In fact, just change “the Lord” to “my man” and you can see what I mean.

TOMORROW’S YESTERDAY

Jefferson Airplane: Today
From Surrealstic Pillow (RCA, 1967)

Tom Scott: Today
From Honeysuckle Breeze (Impulse, 1968)

The original “Today,” appeared on Jefferson Airplane’s second album and you can hear the crunchy, feel-good, Summer of Love vibe to the ballad – incense and peppermints for real. Clearly, it had an effect on saxophonist Tom Scott who recorded a cover of the song not long after for his debut album. What’s interesting about his version is that it manages to sound quite similar to the original in some parts – especially the opening – but Scott’s sax wails take the song in directions that the Airplane’s vocals don’t.

People tend to be divided over Scott’s “Today”: some think it’s a little cheesball and musically daft. Others find it a great listen, especially as it bridges psych, pop and jazz together. I fall in the latter troupe.


This is freaky but I was planning on putting up Blackrock’s monster of funky rock tunes: “Yeah, Yeah” but as it turns out, Fluxblog beat me too it. Seriously, “Yeah, Yeah” is incredible: visit our esteemed peer and peep that science.