Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Gap Band

Still sounds good. And if Charlie Wilson isn't one of the best vocalist/front men of any musical genre during the 1980s, I don't know who is.

And sure this sounds like their earlier hit "Outstanding." But it's still a jam. And I'm digging the video:

Monday, December 28, 2009

What Can I Say Monday? "Cherchez La Femme"

"Cherchez La Femme" by the oddly-titled Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band is one of the more unusual--and memorable--hits of the mid-1970s.

The 1976 song is one part Big Band; one part Disco: an intelligently-written ditty of misfortune and heartbreak with a killer hook--"Cherchez La Femme"--and the sweet, twinkling vocals of lead singer Cory Daye. (Patti Austin sang background on the track.)

"Cherchez" was co-written by Buzzard band member August Darnell, who is playing bass in the above video, and his brother Stony. In the video, you'll note the group omits the middle part of the song which tells of Miggie Bonija, a woman tired of living in debt who nonetheless cheats on her hard-working man and, as Daye sings, she "goes next door, I know that she's just playing the whore." (Before Springer and Povich, kids, you couldn't really call a woman a "whore" on daytime TV.)

By the way, Darnell himself found success in the 1980s as Kid Creole, zoot-suited frontman of Kid Creole & the Coconuts:

"Cherchez" has held up over the years. Gloria Estefan did a remake in the 1990s. And in 2000, Ghostface Killah nicely borrowed from "Cherchez" for his "Cherchez LaGhost":

So what does the title mean? It's a French phrase that means if a man is in some kind of trouble, "look for the woman" to be the cause of it somehow. Writer Alexandre Dumas created the reference in the 1860s (he actually wrote "cherchons la femme") in the novel "The Mohicans of Paris," in a passage where a detective figures a woman was at the root of a crime. A Google search shows O Henry used the phrase in 1909, "Ah! yes, I know most time when those men lose money you say 'Cherchez la femme' - there is somewhere the woman."

See what you can learn by visiting the Soul Closet?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Spinners

My soul-loving 14 year old daughter, Cassandra, found the above video clip on youtube a few weeks back. It's the R&B group The Spinners, at the height of its power, performing "Mighty Love" at what I am guessing is the 1975 Grammy Awards.

"Mighty Love" is one of group's best songs if not THE best. On vinyl, it begins as a song of remembrance as lead singer Bobby Smith beautifully and wistfully expresses pain of lost love. Then co-lead singer Philippe Wynne, who joined the legendary group just three years earlier, rides in on his siren-like tenor, testifying to the power of love--and solidifying his place as one of the most electrifying singers of his brief era.

Here's the group again, lip syncing "Could it be I'm Falling in Love" on Soul Train. Smith takes us through most of the song, then Wynne slips in at the 3:38 mark, ending the song with as brilliant a piece of ad-libbing as you'll ever hear on wax.

Wynne leading the group on their biggest hit, "Rubberband Man" on the Midnight Special TV show.

Wynne left the band in 1977 for a solo career that never quite got off the ground. He did make some great music briefly with Parliament-Funkadelic, most notably his vocal gymnastics on "Knee Deep"--best part of that song: When Wynne, almost surprised, sings the killer line, "Could this be me? Immersed in funk so deep?" The great voice was stilled when Wynne died of a heart attack in 1984.

Bobby Smith, now 73, still leads the group, although, in addition to Wynne, four other original and early members of the group have died.

A Soul Closet Mystery:
Remember the Spinners song, "Games People Play"? There is clearly--or so it seems--a woman singing some of the verses. But whenever the group appeared on TV back then, I remembered my pre-teen self waiting to see what the woman with the feathery voice looked like, only to have the camera cut to Spinner member Henry Fambrough---a dude!--singing the girly part. What the heck? I mean, dig:

So was it a chick or Fambrough? Session singer Barbara Ingram was credited as the female voice, but according to Wikipedia, the group's songwriter and producer, the legendary Thom Bell, said it is actually Fambrough with his voice sped up. Ingram died in 1994.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Forgotten Soul: Alton McClain & Destiny

There were a quite a few great girl vocal groups in the late 1970s disco/soul scene: The Emotions, High Energy, and more. I'd almost forgotten about Alton McClain & Destiny, a trio who made it big in 1978-1979 with this hit, "It Must Be Love."

"Love" is a great piece of late 1970s disco/R&B: Alton McClain's agile, feather-light soprano washes over a bouncing musical sea not unlike, say, The Emotions "Best of My Love."

Here's another clip of them singing the same song. The budget for this one didn't cover much beyond the camera, donuts and the cost of filling the pool behind them, but video is fun to watch. And they shake a little harder in this one:

Alton McClain & Destiny broke up in the early 1980s. Alton married the supremely gifted songwriter Skip Scarborough--one of my favorite songwriters--who will get profiled here in the Closet soon, trust me. Just for openers, Scarborough co-wrote LTDs "Love Ballad," wrote "Lovely Day" with Bill Withers (who also sang it); Phyllis Hyman's "The Answer is You"; Anita Baker's "Giving You the Best the I've Got." He also produced Confunkshun during their peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But I digress...

Sadly, Destiny member D'Marie Warren (she's wearing black pants in the second video above) was killed in a car accident in 1985. Scarborough's sensitive pen was silenced in 2003 when he died of cancer. Alton McClain Scarborough is still in the game and sounding good. Here she is giving glory to the Lord last year at Mt Pleasant Ministries in Bethesda MD.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Christmas...with Soul

We getting yuletide, now, here at the Soul Closet. And what better way to do it with Salsoul Orchestra's "Merry Christmas All" from 1976. Pound for pound for my money the second best Christmas song of the past 40 years. Salsoul Orchestra was the at-times 50 piece latin/soul/disco orchestra that backed up Salsoul Record's stable of artists during the label's heyday in the mid-to-late 1970s. "Merry Christmas All" comes from a their successful "Christmas Jollies" album. Denise Montana, who is still in the game, crisply handles the lyrics.

The late, great Eartha Kitt with the sexiest Christmas song on record:

This next clip isn't about Christmas. But its wintry. And it's got Soul:

So if "Merry Christmas All" is the second-best Christmas song of the past 40 years, what's the best one? Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas." Peace...

Monday, December 7, 2009

Afro Sheen

Someone should study the cultural impact of the partnership between "Soul Train" and the Chicago-based Johnson Products Company. Owned by George E. Johnson, Johnson Products--not to be confused with Johnson Publications, which publishes Ebony and Jet--was a leading sponsor of the Train during its 1970 and 1980s heyday. And the commercials for Johnson Products' Afro Sheen and other hair goods featured proud and respectful depictions of black people--played out before a national audience.

George Johnson started the company with $500 in the 1950s. By 1971, Johnson Products was the first black-owned enterprise to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. The company's hold on black hair care products slipped when the Revlons and Avons of the world elbowed their way into Johnson's market. The company was sold in 1993 and ultimately became part of L'Oreal.

But the commercials, which aired almost exclusively with Soul Train episodes, are priceless:

The Afro Sheen Blow-Out Kit! I got one when I was 8.

And dig these 1980s Classy Curl spots, one with Matt and Ola, who themselves became near-celebs behind this campaign (and dig a young Stacey Dash, bouncing her curl around in the second spot):

And we close with three classy spots from 1975:

Friday, December 4, 2009

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Give yourself a little time and check out this performance by the incredible Sister Rosetta Tharpe, one of the most inventive artists of 20th century gospel music. Her voice had the heat of a blues singer--not surprising since gospel and blues are cousins--but when Tharpe straps on that electric guitar? Glory.

The mind-blowing performance above of Sister singing "Didn't it Rain," was recorded live at a Manchester England train station in April or May of 1964 as part of the American Folk Blues and Gospel Caravan show that toured the UK then. That's Cousin Joe Pleasant (who made great music with Sidney Bechet 20 years earlier) on piano introducing Tharpe.

Tharpe was born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas in 1915. Her 1944 gospel hit "Strange Things Happening Every Day" was a top 10 Billboard hit on the secular black music chart. No wonder: the song is straight boogie woogie behind its spiritual fact, listen closely and you wonder if it's really a bit of rock-and-roll a decade before the fact. Especially when Tharpe comes through with guitar solo at 1:32 mark:

This live version of "Down by the Riverside" has great solo at 1:30. (Queen Latifah: Learn how to play guitar and here's your Oscar) And wait..listen to Tharpe spitting rhymes in this one:

Tharpe's long career ended in October 1973 when she died following a stroke. She lost the use of her legs after a stroke three years earlier but still performed until the end. But we don't have to end on such a sad note. Sister wouldn't want that. So let's go back to Manchester for this slow burner "Trouble in Mind." Swing out, Sister; Swing out:

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

When Felix and Oscar were black...

An interesting find from 1982: the short-lived ABC sitcom, "The New Odd Couple," with Demond Wilson as Oscar Madison and Ron Glass as the persnickety Felix Unger. It only lasted 18 episodes and although not as funny as Neil Simon's original renderings of Oscar and ain't bad and its nicely cast. In fact, compared to "Tyler Perry's House of Payne," and "Meet the Browns," it's damn near Noel Coward.(And the opening titles and updated Odd Couple theme kinda rock.)