A Funky Family Affair (Soul February 13th 1971)

The fastest rising record, up 16 places to #18 (with a bullet, a Super Soul Sure Shot indeed) on the Cash Box Top 60 in R&B Locations for February 13th 1971 was on it’s way to a month long stay at the top position. “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” headed both the R&B & the US Pop charts in March the third time that the Temptations enjoyed such a double header success. It’s such a great, even significant track that I’m not waiting until the 50th anniversary of this achievement so let’s get to it.

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Despite the defection of David Ruffin in 1968 The Temptations had maintained their position as the US’ premier vocal group. Three one-hour TV specials, two with the Supremes (R.I.P. the wonderful Mary Wilson), one their very own &, beginning with “Cloud Nine” (1968), a move to Psychedelic Soul kept them at the front of the pack. However the group was unhappy this new style was less dependant on their own superlative vocal performance than on the innovative but dominant productions of Norman Whitfield. In 1970 “Ungena Za Ulimwengu (Unite The World)” became the first Tempts 45 to miss the US Pop Top 30 since 1964. With “Just My Imagination” Whitfield & his lyricist Barrett Strong returned to the emotional love ballad in the style of the “Classic Five”, they, arranger Jerry Long & the whole group delivered a beautiful perfect single. Eddie Kendricks had not provided the lead vocal on a Temptations A-side since 1968’s “Please Return Your Love To Me”. His performance of of this reverie about Love is perfectly pitched, the slower, clear reveal that “in reality, she doesn’t even know me” still resonates 50 years later. the Temptations were back.

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However things were not right with the group. Eddie Kendricks was, like David Ruffin before him, looking for a way out & already recording a solo album. The personal & health problems of Paul Williams were affecting his performances in the studio & on stage. In April 1971 doctors advised Paul to retire from the group. Their appearance on the Ed Sullivan TV show highlights the rift within the the Temptations, Eddie putting some distance between himself & his fellow members. Whitfield had lined up “Smiling Faces Sometimes” as the follow-up to “Imagination” but Eddie was gone by then & promotion without his featured vocals was impossible. Of course there were still great Temptations moments, more big hits to come but “Just My Imagination” serves as a poignant watershed in the long career of a great group.

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With roots in Gospel & Folk the four Chambers Brothers, with the addition of electricity & a drummer, had by the mid-1960s a spirited, still sanctified live set incorporating Blues & Soul. Still, the full 11 minute glory of “Time Has Come Today” was a surprise, An epic, ambitious, assured mix of sock-it-to-me & the Summer of Love incorporating Sly Stone, James Brown & the new Psychedelia this was the shock of the new, Afro-Rock, an instant classic, now an obligatory inclusion on any film or documentary concerning the turmoil of late 1960s America. The edited single version made the US Top 20 & while their subsequent releases didn’t make the same impression or have the same commercial success the Chambers Brothers continued to make interesting, inventive records.

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Well alright! “Come in Mr. DJ, Phife by the microphone. Down with the Tribe Called Quest, yes man”. The rather fantastic “Funky” was at #30 on this week’s R&B chart & this is where TCQ found their introduction to”I Left My Wallet In El Segundo”. 1971’s “New Generation” is the fifth album by the Chambers Brothers since the success of “Time…” & it’s a varied, robust, dramatic collection, a collision of so many ideas that compares to Funkadelic. “Are You Ready?” sure sounds like a hit to me & it’s not the only one. If this had been the soundtrack to a blaxploitation movie we would still be finger-popping along to these tunes today. As it was this was not the group’s time & this line up went their separate ways the following year.

1970 had been a winning year for Sly Stone. A “Greatest Hits” collection would go on to sell five million copies, it included the single “Thank You (Falettin Me Be Mice Elf Agin)” which hit #1 in the US Pop chart in February. The film of the Woodstock Festival, released in June, captured the excitement & immediacy of our music in a new way & Sly & the Family Stone’s electrifying performance of “I Want To Take You Higher” was a highlight of the fifth highest grossing movie of the year. Atlantic Records offered Sly his own Stone Flower imprint for any productions he wanted to give them. it was, of course, a family affair.

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Slipping down the chart at #33, Vaetta “Ven” Stewart was Sly’s little sister. Along with Mary McCreary & Elva Mouton she had provided backing vocals for his “Stand” album &, as Little Sister they recorded two singles for his new label. “Somebody’s Watching You” is a re-working of a track from “Stand”, a sparse, atmospheric cover it is too, a Sly & the Family Stone record in all but name so it matters. Alone in the studio with a new-fangled drum machine, a violin case full of drugs & the problems that such fame brought, Sly continued to innovate & redefine urban music. There were only to be four single releases on Stone Flower, Little Sister had returned to the background when later in 1971 Sly & the Family Stone were back at #1 on the chart with “Family Affair” & a ground-breaking, brooding album. The major Soul stars were ready with their state of the nation social commentaries at this time & “There’s A Riot Goin’ On” would sit among the very best of them.

For this week’s live highlight we jump forward three weeks to March 6th 1971, to Black Star Square in Accra, Ghana when great American Soul stars including Wilson Pickett, Ike & Tina Turner, the Staple Singers & Santana honoured that country’s Independence Day. The all-singing, all-dancing, 100% energy of Voices of East Harlem get the funky party started in the best possible way. They are young, gifted & Black, there’s a whole wild bunch of them & it’s irresistible. My friend Mani attended this concert, proud & excited that his American idols should come to his city. I loved to share my lunchtime & his vivid memories of a great day.