We are, of course, living through a moment in which both the threat and presence of death feels suffocating. I’ve always been wary of Soul Sides turning into one long death roll of musicians and artists that I admire because it would feel unrelenting but I also don’t want to ignore all these giants that we seemingly are losing on a daily basis. In the end, we can mourn their passing but also celebrate what will survive them for years to come: the music that made them memorable to begin with.
This isn’t meant to be remotely definitive or comprehensive of everyone we’ve lost…it’s just a nod of respect to some of the artists I’ve long respected, whose work I will continue to cherish.
Manu Dibango (d. March 24, age 86) . For many of us, Manu’s songs were our introduction to Afrofunk. As both an artist and producer, Manu’s influence spanned both a generation and continent. Soul Makossais the biggest release he ever had but I will forever stay enamored with AfricanVoodoo, a library record he put together a few years after Soul Makossa blew up.
Gene Deitch (d. April 16, age 95). I was introduced to animator/illustrator Deitch’s work through vintage issues of The Record Changer, a midcentury record collector’s magazine where Deitch often did the cover art and interior cartoons. The above, from July 1947, was one of several covers that Deitch did that attacked American segregation by pointing out the hypocrisies of how we love Black music but not Black people. In 2013, many of his illustrations were compiled into A Cat On a Hot Thin Groove.
Don Campbell (d. April 23, age 69). Inventor of The Campbellock, Campbell was a giant in contemporary street dance in helping pioneer “locking” which would then find its way incorporated into early b-boy/b-girl styles. Campbell also had a minor hit with the single that celebrated his dance: “Campbell Lock.”
Hamilton Bohannon (d. April 24, age 78). Bohannon was discovered in the early ’70s by Motown and went onto to have a successful disco-era career but for beat heads, we all gravitated to Stop & Go, his and his Detroit band’s debut album on Dakar: a veritable feast of samples that 100% hold up today.
Tony Allen (d. April 30, age 79). Fela Kuti was the name most people saw on Afrobeat albums but the person actually providing the beat? That’d be Allen, easily the most influential percussionist to come out of the Afrobeat movement. He has a deep catalog but start with his debut album with Africa 70, Jealousy.
Steve “Stezo” Williams (d. April 29, age 52). Stezo started off as a dancer with EPMD before branching into becoming a rapper in the late 1980s. He was part of the last wave of early golden era artists for whom rapping and dancing were a mark of distinction. Stezo’s 1989 debut album, Crazy Noise, is a perfect snapshot of rap music of the era and well worth a listen.
Andre Harrell (d. May 7, age 59). Harrell is best known for starting Uptown Records which would absolutely pivotal to shaping R&B and hip-hop at the turn of the ’80s to ’90s. He was an architect of the New Jack Swing sound, help folks like Heavy D. and Mary J. Blige get off the ground and discovered Sean “Puffy” Combs (and by extension, Biggie). He also was the Dr. Jeckyll in the early rap group, Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde.
Betty Wright (d. May 10, age 66). This one really strings and not just because it happened this morning. 66 is really young all said and Wright is such an important figure in soul, especially as the premier artist to come out of the vibrant Florida R&B scene of the ’60s and ’70s. I wanted to include her rendition of Bill Withers’s “Ain’t No Sunshine” above to tip the hat to Withers, who I already wrote about after his passing, but if you’re going to dip your toes into her catalog, start with her debut, My First Time Around, recorded when she was only 14. Just an incredible talent, all around.
This past Monday, I had a two hour set on Dublab. It opened with a short Bill Withers tribute before moving into some “feel good grooves.” In the second hour, I turned things over to my 15 year old, EMW, who programmed and sequenced a set based around stuff she’s been listening to during lockdown. It’s a family affair.
At risk of being solipsistic, this is what I wrote for my intro and it still stands true to me today.
“It may sound contradictory to describe Bill Withers’ voice as “uniquely plainspoken,” but this singer and songwriter from West Virginia coal country began his career at the crossroads between folk, R&B and rock. He was neither a showy shouter nor a sweet crooner. Instead, Withers always conveyed his emotions with a simple, forthright earnestness — the everyman singer with a poet’s soul.”
As a bonus, never forget this awesome 1972 live performance; check out my fly guy James Gadson on drums with his sparkling smile.
Part of how I’ve wanted to spend these weeks of social distancing time is by creating more things for people to listen to and one of the things I put out via the Heat Rocks podcast Facebook group was asking for topics you’d like myself and/or Morgan to talk about and of course, Soul Sides’ readers are always welcome to throw out your own topics (leave it in the comments section below).
Here’s episode #1, where I answer two questions: 1) what kind of music was I really into in college? 2) What’s an example of artist/album from a genre that Heat Rocks typically does not get into?
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.
I didn’t realize this until a friend pointed it out but my longtime out of print compilation, Soul Sides Vol. 1, is on Spotify:
All things considered, I’m still very proud of the comp and more to the point: I think it holds up in terms of the selections. I realize that’s self-serving for me to say but in contrast, I don’t feel like Vol. 2 aged nearly as well. If I had a do-over for that volume, I’d probably change most of the songs or perhaps abandon the covers angle altogether. Vol. 1 though still feels like both a snapshot of my tastes at the time I put it together but most of the selections also feel timeless to me. Anyways, if this is your first or 30th time listening, hope you enjoy!