At #8 on the Cash Box Top 60 in R&B Locations for January 16th 1971 was a powerful, no punches pulled protest against the Vietnam War, a conflict that in 1968 involved over 500,000 US troops, that in 1970 President Nixon had expanded into neighbouring Cambodia. An increase in opposition culminated in the killing of four Kent State University students by the Ohio National Guard while the scenes of US troops returning home in body bags on nightly TV news disturbed American homes. “Stop The War Now” is Edwin Starr’s follow up to the classic “War” & perhaps unfairly sits in the shadow of that great hit. The troubles of present day USA has been brought sharply into focus by last week’s events in Washington, incited by the soon-to-be ex-President. 50 years ago the best summation of the wider tumultuous state of the nation sat at #3 in the Cash Box R&B chart.
Curtis Mayfield was, by 1971, already recognised as a significant contributor to American music. During his apprenticeship at Okeh Records young Curtis’ aptitude for simple, sweet melodies that caught a radio listener’s ear developed into a string of hits for his group the Impressions & others. Singles with more than a tinge of Gospel, “Amen”, “Meeting Over Yonder” were released alongside the gently romantic like “I’m the One Who Loves You” & “Talking ‘Bout My Baby”. A growing involvement in the Civil Rights Movement & an association with Martin Luther King Jr inspired songs that promoted Black positivity & pride. The spiritual “People Get Ready” was as early as 1964. Later “We’re A Winner”, “This is My Country” & “Choice of Colors” were more assertive & polemical. In 1970 Curtis left the Impressions & his first solo LP was rightly much-anticipated. The innovation & realisation of this new phase was still a surprise & a delight.
Curtis Mayfield was ambitious for & far-sighted about his music, his business & his race. The first minute of “(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Gonna Go”, an ominous fuzz bass, a female voice talking about the Book of Revelations, Curtis’ echoed shouts “Sisters! Niggers! Whities! Jews! Crackers! Don’t worry…” then a scream, shows that things have changed, doors have been kicked open, new ground has been broken. What follows is an update on Chicago Funk, an urgent, perfect mesh of brass, string, rhythm guitar & percussion. The radio edit of the track is half the length of the 8 minutes on the album, that introduction too strong for mainstream airwaves. Like “Move On Up” “If There’s A Hell…” is best appreciated as originally intended. There are still those so-sweet, romantic, melodic love songs on “Curtis” but this solo debut showed that Mr Mayfield knew it was time for shit to get real, that things needed to be said, that lyrically & musically he was a great force.
Meanwhile at the Sex Machine club in West Philadelphia, on 52nd & Market, (long gone, a good time, you know it) Kool & the Gang were recording their first live album. The New Jersey school friend Gang got together in the mid-sixties as a Jazz group who soon found that for an eight piece band it was more financially viable to play Soul covers & back touring acts in local clubs. Spotted, signed, produced & managed by Gene Redd, bassist Robert “Kool” Bell’s name was moved to the front in 1969. A debut album, instrumentals dominated by a fresh, funky & kool horn section, included two Top 40 R&B hits & got their name about. On stage the band put on quite a show & the Sex Machine set was one of two live albums released in 1971.
“Who’s Gonna Take the Weight (Part II), from “Live at the Sex Machine”, is at #28 on this week’s chart. I suspect that the relatively mild opinions expressed at the beginning of Part I meant that this was the side of the 45 played on the radio. Of the 10 tracks on the album four are covers of well-known songs that are difficult to improve upon (“Walk On By”, “I Want to Take You Higher”). Given the Kool treatment they become part of a tight Soul-Jazz set that’s very enjoyable even with the over-dubbed audience screams. “Who’s Gonna…” has a solid rhythm section underpinning the so fashionable wah-wah guitar & a hot brass ensemble. In 1973 Kool & the Gang had a commercial breakthrough when their “Wild & Peaceful” record produced two Pop Top 10 singles. As Disco became more prominent they smoothed out their style, still making the R&B chart but the albums were no longer going gold. In 1979, a new singer, J.T.Taylor & a change to ballad oriented material found the resurgent group hitting a run of success that lasted until the mid-1980s. Man, Kool & the Gang were a big deal. I know that “Celebration” (Wah-Hoo!) & “Get Down On It” are still well-loved by many but if I need a little K & the G around it’s the rougher Funk of “Live At the Sex Machine” I’ll be reaching for.
Master keyboard player Billy Preston was a late contender for the “fifth Beatle” belt. When, in January 1969, George Harrison invited him along to the “Let It Be” sessions it was to join a bickering not-so Fab Four who would break up before the year’s end. As George hoped the group were accepting of their guest & tensions were eased. Just a week later Billy was on the roof of Apple Corps in Savile Row (London’s glittering West End, just off Regent St, you know it) performing alongside them in their final live appearance. In April “Get Back” had “The Beatles with Billy Preston” on the label, the only time such credit was given. The respective beliefs of George & Billy in Krishna & Christ had a mutual credo of all you need is Love & after signing for Apple the pair began work on Billy’s album. For the title track of “That’s the Way God Planned It” Eric Clapton, Keith Richards & Ginger Baker showed out to assist on an impressive, positive song that sure sounded like the hit it was in the UK. The single suffered in the US from an inexperienced record label who had never really needed to promote Beatles records. Billy had recorded his first album when he was 16 years old, the respect for his talent was reflected in the demand for his services from many major artists. This Beatle association brought a whole different level of attention.
“Encouraging Words” was recorded with another all-star cast. Co-producer Harrison, possibly hoping that his group would continue to record, contributed two of his song stash to the project. That’s how Billy Preston’s version of “My Sweet Lord”, at #50 on this week’s R&B chart, came to be released in the UK two months before the “original”. Billy takes the song to church, guests the Edwin Hawkins Singers making it more “Hallelujah” than “Hare Krishna”. It may lack the impact of Phil Spector’s Wall of Acoustic Sound on George’s version but Billy, aided by the Temptations’ touring band, sure gets his groove on. “Encouraging Words” is a fine mix of Soul, Gospel & Rock with Delaney & Bonnie’s stellar band providing great back up. Billy had a good 1970s with big solo success while maintaining an involvement with the Rolling Stones in the studio & on tour. In August 1971 he joined George & his friends for the “Concert For Bangladesh”. His barnstorming “That’s The Way…”, Billy feeling the spirit & dancing across the stage, almost stole the show. We’ll end with that because I & probably you could use a little Joy at the moment.