I wanted to plug something I’ve been working on for months, this year’s Pop Conference which starts this Thursday, April 22, and goes through Sunday, April 25.
For those unfamiliar, the Pop Con is an annual gathering of music writers, scholars, artists and fans to get together for a few days and present papers, panels and roundtables about a slew of topics related to, well, pop music. It is, by far, one of the favorite things I’ve been involved with for the past 20 years.
For this year’s conference – dubbed the Pop Convergence because of its virtual nature – I helped organize, program and produce it. I’m really proud of what our team pulled together and I would love to see you all stop by to check out any of our sessions. It’s all free and open to the public. You just need to register at popconference.org.
Besides the daytime sessions of panels and roundtables, we have some awesome Friday (April 23) evening events, kicking off at 5:15pm PST with the Flower Bomb crew leading an hour long dedication to the music of Stevie Wonder!
Then Pop Con co-producer Jason King will be in convo with DJ D-Nice, talking about spinning music during lockdown. And I’m incredibly excited by the evening closer: a two hour Midnight Musical extravaganza, curated by Rev. Dr. Alisha Lola Jones, which will take us deep into the heart of contemporary gospel and African American musical traditions.
Again, all of this is free and open to the public. Just visit popconference.org to register.
Let me back up a moment: I first discovered Labi’s music — actually, just one song at the time, “I Got The” — circa 2000 when it was sampled on both Eminem’s “My Name Is” and Jay-Z’s “Streets is Watching.” And for quite a number of years, I just thought “someone with a memorable name made a pretty good funk track.” That’s as far as things went.
Then, in 2008, Charles Aaron gave a wonderful paper about Labi at that year’s Pop Conference and for the first time, I realized there was so much more to him than just a single song. This is one of those rare cases where I can precisely pinpoint a lightbulb moment of realizing “I want to learn more about this artist.” It truly did begin with Charles’s paper.
I quickly discovered “damn, it’s really hard to find Labi’s albums in the U.S.” because none of his ‘70s LPs were ever distributed here. Hell, the CDs didn’t appear until the late ‘90s. I ponied up for int’l shipping costs from the UK and one by one, began to bring in his LPs. All of them are awesome in their own right but his 1972 LP, Crying Laughing Lying Loving absolutely floored me. As I wrote here, it was like I had been waiting my whole life to discover Labi. I was that moved by his genius.
A few years later, I wrote about Labi and his music in a lengthy post here. It was a modest attempt to articulate part of what I found so magical about his music. As it turns out, he read it and when it came time to find someone to help pen the liners for his box set, he and his manager approached me. To say I was honored would be a massive understatement. (On a side note, even if blogging feels very “mid 2000s” now, creating Soul Sides has been extraordinary good to me over the years).
It was an…interesting process. For one, it was originally slated to be 2000-3000 words which seemed sufficient at the time. But then I realized the paucity of writing about Labi out there. It was shockingly little, all said. And so, in my desire to try to tell a story that hadn’t been told before, I began asking for more and more details. I blew past 3000 words with ease and sheepishly went back to ask “uh, so how much longer can I make this?” The reply, which was heartening, was: “as long as it needs to be.” They ended up being a bit over 7000.
Also: I’ve written my fair share of liner notes but never in such close collaboration with the artist. He preferred to conduct everything by email and so each new piece of correspondence brought forward all manners of personal details, a few corrections, the occasional poem. By the end, he had taken to copy-editing the notes. (He felt I used too many commas. Guilty as charged).
All in all, I’m very proud of the final product. This says more about how scarce extant writing about Labi is but I believe the liners for My Song comprise the most comprehensive set of biographical and discographical background about Labi ever written though I very much hope others go further and do more; he deserves it.
Richard Ryder and the Eighth Wonder: Phase III (Y’Blood, 1972)
This is a very curious 7″ EP I’ve had for years but it wasn’t until earlier today that I was thunderstruck by something about it — and specifically the song “Phase III” — that I should have picked up on a long time ago: the song is intertwined with Amanda Ambrose’s “(I Ain’t Singing No More) Sad Songs”. Fans of my Soul Sides Vol. 1comp (or of The Artifacts) should already be well-familiar with Ambrose’s tune but it wasn’t until today that I even realized that it and “Phase III” had so much in common.
My theory — and this is purely based on circumstantial evidence — is that “Phase III” was the equivalent to a demo version that eventually was turned into “Sad Song” (as it was originally entitled) on Ambrose’s Laughing LP. For one, the Phase III EP was copyrighted in 1972, Ambrose’salbum was copyrighted in ’73. Moreover, “Phase III” is mostly an instrumental, with some similarities in arrangement, but neither song immediately sounds like a cover of the other; had “Phase III” been purely an instrumental, I doubt I ever would have made any connection between the two. But around the 2:40 mark, the main hook of Ambrose’s “Sad Song” is right there. *mind blown emoji*
Backing up a sec…this whole EP is already unusual. It was bankrolled by George Youngblood on his Y’Blood imprint and in case people didn’t know who he was, the back cover conveniently tells us that he was the former defensive back for the Chicago Bears (though he was drafted by the Rams). Y’Blood only put out a handful releases, including singles by both Eighth Wonder (who I assume was some kind of family band) and Richard Ryder and it seems like each of their respective Y’Blood 45s were reissued onto this EP.
However, I don’t know to what extent Ryder or Eighth Wonder had anything to do with the song “Phase III.” On here, writing credit goes to both Youngblood and Don Trotter, the latter of whom, we are told on the cover, was the writer of “Love Land,” a minor hit for the Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band in 1970. Trotter is the credited producer for the Phase III EP but notably, his name is not anywhere connected with Ambrose’s “Sad Song.” The credited writers on that song are — and this just blows my mind — Charles Wright, Catherine Rahman and Yusuf Rahman. On Ambrose’s original Laughing LP though, it’s only a “V. Rahman” who’s credited; presumably Yusuf but mis-credited with a “V” instead of “Y.”
Let’s back up even further: Yusuf Rahman was a keyboardist who helped co-write the Watts 103rd St.’s 1969 song “Comment” and he also helped arrange and play onseveral other Watts 103rd St. albums. As such, it seems almost certain that Rahman and Trotter knew one another; at the very least, they would have moved in the same circles. None of this explains the connection between “Phase III” and “Sad Song” however. If it truly was a Trotter composition in 1972, how did he get replaced as the credited writer in 1973 by Rahman? And if “Sad Song” was co-written by Wright, did Wright also have anything to do with the PhaseIII project? As far as I can tell, there’s no formal connection between Wright and Youngblood or Ryder or Eighth Wonder.
I love these little mysteries because something as simple as a song can hint at a larger world of musical communities that aren’t always obvious at first glance but once you scratch the proverbial surface, you begin to see the intersections all criss-crossing around.
Part of how I’m dealing with the Great Disruption is by creating more things for folks to listen to so I blew the dust off my old personal podcast, The Sidebar, and invited an old friend/colleague, Michael Barnes of The Melting Pot to join me and talk about a unique version of Sly and the Family Stone’s 1974 album, Small Talk, that he came upon over 10 years ago.
In this episode of Single Servings, we look at “Dead,” a single originally arranged/co-written by Moses Dillard and recorded by Carolyn Sullivan in two versions, one for the local Dallas-Fort Worth label, Soft, then picked up for national distribution by Philips. It’s one of the most morose soul songs out there, with its local version including graphic details of suicide. Even the more sanitized version is still plenty dark but what makes it memorable is also the fact that Major Bill Smith, who ran Soft alongside several other labels, ended up pressing up well over a dozen different versions, vocal and instrumental alike, on a variety of imprints. See Mark Allbones’s continual cataloging of the “Dead” permutations over at Soul Source.
2019 was a good balance between new music I discovered/enjoyed vs. old tunes I’m continually finding via records. I find that raising a teenager helps with the former and while I would never try to pass myself off – these days – as having a finger of the musical zeitgeist, I think it’s valuable to stay engaged with new music coming out. Anyways…I’m going to flip this from the round-ups of the last few years and start with the old tracks I gave heavy run to last year. (Not in ranked order)
1. The Rascals: My World (1968)
So…yeah, I slept. I think the only reason I even came across it last year was because of the 3 Ft. High and Rising anniversary mixtape. Anyways, this is an example of a perfect ’60s pop song in terms of all its core elements: the vocal interplay is key, the instrument and arrangement decisions are lush without being overbaked, and the hook is a legit ear worm.
2. Karen Dalton: Are You Leaving For the Country? (1971)
Credit for this goes to Jason Woodbury who brought in the Dalton LP for our Heat Rocks episode. I find the song haunting and melancholy and even this city boy isn’t immune to its sentiment.
3. Basabasa Experience: Homowo (1979)
Earlier this summer, I was crashing for a couple of nights with my friend Hua and in his office, he has a small stack of records and this was near the top. I was intrigued by the title and asked about it and he just put it on and I was instantly smitten. It’s easily the best African disco LP I’ve ever heard and “Homowo” is a standout thanks to those opening synths and the lyrics.
4. Italian Asphalt and Pavement Company: Check Yourself (1970)
No shade on The Intruders, who originally recorded this Gamble/Huff tune, but this cover by the IAP Co. is straight crossover fire.
5. Ohio Penitentiary 511 Jazz Ensemble: Psych City (1971)
The best prison spiritual jazz LP ever recorded. Ok, maybe the only but seriously, this whole album is a gem. Read more here.
6. Kalle & L’African Team De Paris : Africa Boogaloo (1971)
I’ve long been a fan of New York boogaloo influences returning to its African roots and this single, written/produced by Manu Dibango, is a stellar example of the genre.
7. Nina Simone: Cosi Ti Amo (1970)
The High Priestess taking it higher for an Italian jukebox-only cover of her “To Love Somebody,” sung in Italian. I have Y La Bamba’s Luz Mendoza to thank for this since I came across it when she chose Simone’s LP for her Heat Rocks episode.
8. R.D. Burman: Dance Music (1976)
Listening to Freddie Gibbs/Madlib’s “Education” (see below) compelled me to track its sample source back to this R.D. Burman-produced Bollywood marvel that packs in four movements in so many minutes. I find the whole song to be magical but the portion that kicks off a little after two minutes in is the best.
9. Herman Davis: Gotta Be Loved (1971)
A white whale that took me a few years to hunt down, I think of this as a repentant playboy’s anthem. Love the whole groove of this one-off single from St. Louis MO’s Davis, especially the plinkling piano after “I hear the raindrops” opening line.
10. The Delfonics: He Don’t Really Love You (1968)
Talk about coming out the gate: this is the Delfonics’ first single and it’s a masterful deep/sweet soul tune. The hook is massive and shout out to whoever is working the kettle drum on this.
11. Sweet Daddy Reed: I Believe To My Soul (1969)
Came across this via my dude Pablo: Sweet Daddy Reed takes Ray Charles’s original and strips it down to its bluesy bones. So deep, so good.
12. Breakers Two: I’m Gonna Get Down (1965)
When I came upon this in Amsterdam’s awesome Wax Well Records, I assumed it was an early electro single given the artist name and song title but nope: it’s a gorgeous island soul single from Guyana.
13. Joby Valente: Tu N’es Pas Riche, Tu N’es Pas Beau (1970)
Same trip to Amsterdam also brought me to Paris and I scooped this (plus the “Africa Boogaloo” single from earlier) at the ace Superfly Records. Originally from Martinique, Valente recorded several sides for the French/Guadalupe label Aux Ondes and this B-side is a killer blend of her voice with some soul boulder goodness on the track.
14. Members of the Staff: Stop the Bells (1972)
Bought this one off of the aforementioned Hua: a Leon Haywood-produced, Gene Page-arranged, local L.A. tear-jerker that’s definitely NOT what you want to play at a wedding.
15. Fully Guaranteed: We Can’t Make It Together (1972)
One of the last things I picked up in 2019, I love how this is an answer/rebuke track to the 1970 soft rock hit, “Make It Together.” Take that, Bread!
Ok, onto the new joints….
1. Jamila Woods: Betty
I mean…Jamila made a song about Betty Davis. That’s already frickin’ awesome but it’s also my favorite tune off her Legacy! Legacy!” Those opening piano chords lure you in and I was hooked all the way through the stinger. I just wish it was longer but hey, I don’t want to be greedy.
2. Valerie June: Cosmic Dancer
Would I have guessed that Valerie would absolutely smash a T-Rex cover? Actually, yes, yes I would. The melancholic beauty of her rendition is just sublime.
3. Bazzi: I.F.L.Y.
This might be the most “Spotify sound” track on my list but if I’m a victim of the algorithm, I’m ok with that. Give me all the mellifluous guitar R&B beats.
4. Normani: Motivation
This feels like retro-Destiny’s Child and I mean that in all the best ways.
5. Los Retros: Someone to Spend Time With
I’m fine with Tapia’s general sound but it’s the pairing of his voice with Firelordmelisa’s that makes this work as well as it does.
My only knock: why is there no 45 for this yet?!?!?!
6. UMI: Sukidakara
UMI is one of my favorite new artist discoveries and I love that she gets to bust out her Japanese skills on this one. My 14 y.o. was already into her sound but discovering that UMI is half-Japanese (like her) endeared her even more.
7. Samm Henshaw: Church
London’s Henshaw is also one of my favorite new artist discoveries. I thought his 2018 single, “Broke” was stellar and this new gospel-infused single is similarly awesome. Glory glory hallelujah.
8. Kota the Friend: Chicago Diner
The lyrics here are…just ok but the vibe? Cookies in the oven on a Sunday, indeed.
9. Lady Wray: Come On In
As the late Matthew Africa would have called this: it’s a soul boulder.
So. Damn. Heavy.
10. Brainstory: Beautyful Beauti
Straight outta the Inland Empire, Brainstory’s Buck was one of my favorite albums of 2019 and this single, in particular, embodies everything great about their sound/style.
11. G Yamazawa: Good Writtens Vol. 5
I’m digging G’s entire “Good Written” series so this really was a toss up between equals. Regardless, I’m hyped for whenever he puts out some new studio material in 2020.
12. Amber Mark: Love is Stronger Than Pride
Technically from 2018 but no song got more early 2019 play than Mark’s luscious riff on Sade’s classic.
13. Solange: Stay Flo
I’m not sure how a song can sound sparse and lush at the same time but here we are.
14. Freddie Gibbs, Madlib, Yasiin Bey, Black Thought: Education
I suppose this is lab-engineered to appeal to ’90s heads like myself but I don’t care. Having these three cats flow over that R.D. Burman loop (see above) is lo-fi gold.
15. Lizzo: Truth Hurts
Artist of the year and it’s not particularly close. We’re all in Lizzo’s world now.
Prison rock, blues and soul songs/albums are a genre unto themselves but prison jazz albums aren’t nearly as common. This early ’70s album is one of the rare exceptions. Recorded by inmates at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus, OH, Hard Luck Soul, despite its name, is a modal/spiritual jazz album, comprising of just four songs, all between ~5-10 minutes in length.
The background behind this album was chronicled when it was reissued by UK’s Jazzman Records in 2012; I’ll just quote a bit from what I assume were the reissue’s liner notes:
“Band leader Reynard Birtha was originally from North Carolina, where he played in a band called The Outer Limits… [He] ended up in Cincinnati, and through a mutual passion for music, he met fellow musician Logan Rollins, nephew of jazz legend Sonny Rollins. They became friends and jammed at local clubs before both ended up in the State penitentiary, for reasons not entirely clear. At the time it was customary for musicians to visit the prison and give concerts…these visits were not only a source of entertainment for the prisoners, but they were also a source of inspiration for musicians like Reynard. He and Logan formed the 511 Jazz Ensemble, incorporating the remnants of the prison Pit Band. Reynard recalls that “the number 511 was the P.O. box address of the prison, and we would perform in the yard during every holiday, while the prisoners marched around and got their food.”
I was very fortunate to luck into an original copy of the album, signed by all the inmates/players but what was mostly notable was that it also came with a mimeographed two-sheet that was a memo sent by a trio of inmates to the prison warden to propose the creation of “‘511’ Jazz Society,” which was a different entity from the 511 Jazz Ensemble. To summarize:
The ‘511’ Jazz Society was originally proposed in November of 1970 by a trio of inmates (Cartier, Cook and Chappell). They were fans of the “Jazz Roundtable” radio show, put together by the Columbus Jazz Society, for air on WOSU (which I assume was the college radio station at Ohio State Univ.). The three inmates wrote:
“Music-wise, Columbus is predominantly “Country-Western” oriented; consequently, we devotee’s [sic] of jazz, America’s only original “ART FORM” suffer from lack of exposure to our preferred medium of musical entertainment.”
(Is there a racial subtext here? Oh my yes.)
Therefore, Cartier, Cook and Chappell proposed the formation of a jazz appreciation group in the prison, aka the ‘511’ Jazz Society, that would regularly meet to “hear the latest innovations in this particular field of the ‘Musical Arts.'” They suggested that they would hold “panel discussions between the members…concerning the artist, his style of playing, improvisational and expressionistic ability; the general progress of Jazz, harmonically and culturally, since it’s inception early in this century.”
They had already gotten permission from Rabbi Zelizer to hold society meetings inside the prison chapel (“either Monday’s or Friday’s… From our point of view, Monday’s would be the most suitable.”)
On the second page is a list of rules for the Society, established after the warden had given his permission. One of the rules stated “25 members should be the quota. As a member leaves the institution or drops out, another man can fill the vacancy.” The inaugural group of 25 members, listed by inmate number and surname, are included.
Best as I can tell, almost none of the players in the 511 Jazz Ensemble were part of the inaugural Jazz Society (the only exception could be George Williams, lead guitar, as there was a “Williams” listed as a Society member). However, it’s entirely possible that the Jazz Ensemble players joined the Society later; the liner notes for the reissue don’t mention the Jazz Society at all which is curious but it’s possible that Ensemble leader Reynard Birtha simply didn’t recall the Society some 40 years after the album had been recorded. In any case, this kind of random ephemera that sometimes comes with vintage records is one of the great things about collecting said vintage records.
And in any case, even without it, this was still a wonderful find. The music by the Ensemble makes for a sublime end-to-end listen. There’s a lot of atmosphere in the sound that I assume is a product of the acoustics of the chapel they recorded it in and that enhances my experience of listening to it, especially since, overall, the engineering is pretty solid for an album that wasn’t taped inside a proper studio. I dig all four tracks but the ~10 minute songs that begin each side – “Psych City” and “Counterry Bosa Davan” – are my favorites given how they unfurl over time. Enjoy!
This past Monday, I participated in the awesome “Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace: From Watts to Detroit” symposium at UCLA and I gave a short presentation about Aretha’s under-regarded Columbia years. I took that talk and turned it into this slideshow video above. Hope you all enjoy!