Brothers Work It Out (Soul January 16th 1971)

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.

45cat - Curtis Mayfield - (Don't Worry) If There's A Hell Below We're All  Going To Go / The Makings Of You - Buddah - Germany - 2011 055

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.

Kool & The Gang | Samuelsounds

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.

Looking at a Kool & The Gang concert poster from back in the days feat. The  Chi-Lites & Major Har… | Vintage music posters, Concert posters, Vintage  concert posters

“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.

sgt. pepper's lonely hearts club blog. | Billy preston, George harrison,  The beatles

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.

Billy Preston - My Sweet Lord (1970, Vinyl) | Discogs

“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.

Through Our Voice The World Knows There’s No Choice (Curtis Mayfield)

Curtis Mayfield had a good 1960s. He & his boys from Chicago’s Cabrini-Green hood, the Impressions, had a run of 7 successive Top 20 hits with graceful gospel-soul songs of elevation & empathy. Over at Okeh Records Curtis learned about making records from 2 accomplished talents, producer Carl Davis & arranger Johnny Pate. This prolific trio cultivated a crop of Chicago artists which included Jerry Butler, Major Lance & Walter Jackson. They styled some snazzy, bespoke soul for these singers, at the outset catching whatever commercial way the wind blew before gaining the confidence to set their own course.

By 1968 Curtis had founded, with associate Eddie Thomas, his own record label, Curtom. His best songs for the Impressions, “People Get Ready”, “It’s Alright” & the sublime “I’m So Proud”, were modern hymns, endorsing & encouraging the positivity of Martin Luther King  & the Civil Rights Movement. Now Dr King had been murdered by racists, the war in Vietnam had become, in his words “a white man’s war, a black man’s fight.” Expectations of civil & economic progress remained unfulfilled. At the beginning of a new decade Curtis Mayfield left his group & began a solo career. He was 28 years old, he had something to say about America & his eloquence was matched by his vision for the music that would accompany the message.

“(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go “…Hot Damn ! The opening track of “Curtis” is an apocalyptic symphony. An everything including the kitchen sink drama almost 8 minutes long, the Book of Revelations for Jah’s sake. This first solo LP, “Curtis”, came in like gangbusters & kept on keeping on. Curtis was so ready for his new artistic freedom. Whether he was using a full orchestra to elegant effect or allowing “Master” Henry Gibson to drive the songs along with his sensational congas, everything was in the right place at the right time. There are still romantic songs, there’s the poetic “We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue” & not a wasted note in 8 minutes 40 seconds of “Move On Up”. The “Sgt Pepper’s” of 70s Soul ? You decide. Both singles were severely edited for the radio, not an improvement.

In 1971 you had to be either legendary or the Jackson 5 to score a #1 R&B LP. “Curtis” swapped this spot with Isaac Hayes before Aretha had 5 weeks there. Marvin’s  “What’s Going On” prevailed for 8 weeks before  Hayes returned with “Shaft” for an amazing 3 months at the top. Stuff I still listen to. It had taken a while for the longer form record to stand predominate in R&B. In 1969 Isaac Hayes’ ” Hot Buttered Soul”, just 4 expansive tracks, was a landmark in terms of sales & creative artistic control. Curtis Mayfield, with his own Curtom studio, was right on for this & ready to get busy.

Well…here we are then. It’s the aforementioned Henry Gibson on congas, Joseph “Lucky” Scott rocking the bass & some other very cool cats. How about that band ! Curtom Records was rocked by the premature death of Baby Huey in 1970. Just 26 years old, already a Chicago legend, Baby H was ready for national success. There were other productions, Mayfield made a final record with the Impressions, but it was his own work that was getting heard. “Curtis/Live!” (1971) is a double LP recorded at the small Bitter End club in New York, a perfect blend of his past with the present. From “Gypsy Woman” to “If There’s A Hell…”, it’s all Curtis & it’s all good. In the same year “Roots” was a set of new material including “We Got To Have Peace”. I don’t know if these songs were from a stockpile or if they were all new. Whatever the case this was a major creative outpouring.

Curtis was never going to shake off his religion, his romance & uncomplicated emotional exposition. I have seen his viewpoint described as “middle brow”, of being that of the “Black middle class”. I think this is meant as a criticism.Curtis may never have been down with Amiri Baraka “up against the wall motherf***er” or as raucous as the Last Poets but I’m sure he was a supporter of the Panthers 10 Point Programme just as he would endorse anything which helped black people move on up. There could be an element of love being the answer, of children being the future but Curtis was about self-advancement, about a brother helping a brother, being an achiever not a victim. If you are too cynical for those things then you are too cynical.

Curtis’ next move was perfect as a musical choice & as a business option. In the early 1970s blaxploitation movies were reaching beyond Quentin Tarantino & the urban black target audience. Whether it was “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” or, more likely “Shaft”, both from 1971, which set the trend, these films needed a funked-up soundtrack. “Super Fly” (1972) is the story of a cocaine dealer’s one last score, a $1 million deal for his pension. It’s a gritty, grainy, low-budget movie which anticipates Scorsese’s kings of New York  & the street-smart soliloquies of Rap. “Super Fly” made money, it was an influential film which was helped  then outgrossed by Curtis Mayfield’s perfect soundtrack.

“Super Fly” the record brought Curtis to a whole new audience. It topped the national charts, included 2 million-selling Top 10 singles. Curtis was not about the glorification of drug culture & was reticent about taking on the project. Of course he would never abandon long-held & heartfelt principles but the discipline of composing to a fixed brief & a deadline worked a treat. So, the title track, “Freddie’s Dead”, “Pusherman”, “Little Child Running Wild” ah… it’s a list & I could include the whole LP. Here, have another…

In the last clip (Oh no, it’s gone) Curtis is playing bigger gigs now. He is in the Premier League of R&B, Grammy Awards & more money than he could spend according to Jet magazine. There is a little loss of subtlety in having to please a larger audience but there is still an individual voice with something to say, a great band & some of the sweetest soul music ever made.