Thursday, 31 October 2013

Earth, Wind & Fire - Now, Then & Forever

Not just the title of Earth, Wind & Fire's new album, but a highly appropriate heading for these humble jottings regarding the evergreen  funk band who burst into your author's life around forty years ago.

The album has been out on the streets for eleven days at the time of writing, and it is only by my perusing through the online version of Blues & Soul Magazine, and listening to "Now, Then & Forever" on Spotify, that I have come to realise  just how good this  latest work by arguably my favourite band of all time really is.

Having politely listened to the "best" of Pink Floyd with my housemate and our dinner guests last night, I cannot express enough how refreshing this latest collection is to my hearing buds.

"Now, Then & Forever" offers fresh, exciting new material that also retains the overall Earth, Wind & Fire "sound".

I am not going to review the album here. There are far better purveyors of that respected trade than I could ever aspire to. Suffice to say, the music on offer is a spectrum of sound, from dance-able funk, to smooth love songs to jazz fusion that were the trademark of those halcyon days that spanned the 1970s and 1980s.

So why should this album, their first for eight years, be so highly regarded? The band have, by their own admission, gone back to their roots. Two years ago the album was ready to be released; founder member Philip Bailey, who has taken over the reins from Parkinson's-stricken former band leader, Maurice White, listened again to the collection and decided it just wasn't good enough.

Bailey then decided to listen to all of Earth, Wind & Fire's recordings, from the early days, through the golden era which heralded their major successes on the disco floor, onward to the experimental period when they allowed themselves to get caught up in the digital explosion, thereby losing that fresh cutting edge sound that gave them so much success.

It was clear that they needed to get back to that crisp sound with the Phoenix Horns, real percussion and hypnotic bass lines that carried them through their most prolific period.

As a group, Bailey, Verdine White (Maurice's bass playing brother) and percussionist Ralph Johnson, the three survivors from the band's glory days, decided they had to get back "into the groove".

Two years on, returning from the drawing board, Earth, Wind & Fire have come up with a classic album that brings back the excitement of "September", "Boogie Wonderland"; the freshness that brought us "That's The Way Of The World" and the romance of "After The Love Has Gone".

With "Love Is Law", "Dance Floor" and "The Rush", as well as the rest of the album, Earth, Wind & Fire return to the arena as victors.

And just to add to the excitement, BBC viewers caught Earth, Wind & Fire on the "Strictly Come Dancing" Results Show last weekend.

Earth Wind & Fire are definitely back living  the "Fantasy" of  a resurrected career. I, for one, am filled with "Gratitude".

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Happy Birthday Otis Williams

October 30 marks the 72nd birthday of one of the greats in R&B / Soul music. Otis Williams, founder and last surviving original member of the Temptations, was born in Texarkana, Texas but moved to Detroit Michigan at the tender age of ten years old.

Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 1989 as a member of the most successful black American group of all time, Williams' tenor voice very rarely came to the fore of the Temptations' numerous hits. The distinctive, rasping, anguished vocals of David Ruffin (replaced by Dennis Edwards in 1968) or the silky, falsetto timbre of Eddie Kendricks were generally regarded as the "voices of The Temptations" during the group's most successful period during the 1960's.

Although not prominent on their hit recordings, Williams was the mainstay of the group, having to deal with the falling by the wayside of several members of The Temptations, notably the fall from grace of Ruffin, Paul Williams and the subsequent departure of Kendricks.

Along with his long standing buddy, Melvin "Blue" Franklin, Otis Williams kept the group together, albeit with a number of personnel changes through the years. The sad loss of Franklin, who died in 1995 following a series of brain seizures, left Williams as the last surviving member of the group who had originally joined Motown in 1961.

The Temptations still perform to this day; the current line up is: Otis Williams; Ron Tyson; Terry Weeks; Joe Herndon and Bruce Williamson.

In a recent interview with Ebony, Otis Williams shares his thoughts on his musical legacy, along with some strong criticism of today's music scene.

I'm sure all our readers join me in wishing Otis Williams a very Happy Birthday and many thanks for keeping the Temptations going through the good and difficult times.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Southern Soul Is Alive And Kicking!

The Southern states of the U.S.A. are steeped in a long history of music. African Americans have enriched that history, from ”negro spirituals” through to Blues, Jazz, R&B and Soul Music.
This writer’s first introduction to Soul was via the rasping vocals of the likes of Otis Redding and Wilson Picket back in the 1960s.

The Stax record company, based in Memphis Tennessee, and the Fame, and later, Muscles Shoals studios based in Muscles Shoals Alabama, launched a new wave of Rhythm and Blues across America and the rest of the world during those halcyon days that revolutionised popular music.

Singers, such as Pickett, Joe Tex, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Candi Staton, Bettye Swan, The Staple Singers and Millie Jackson cut some of their biggest hits in Muscle Shoals.

The Stax label provided an even greater legacy through artists such as Redding, Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas, Eddie Floyd, Booker T & the MGs, William Bell, Johnnie Taylor and many more.

The seventies brought singers like Al Green, Denise Lasalle, Tommy Tate, Luther Ingram, Ann Peebles, Dorothy Moore to the public eye; all based in the Southern States.

So what’s happening today? Veterans such as Lasalle, Floyd, Moore and Staton continue to wow their fans; but a new breed of Southern Soul artists have burst on the scene in recent years.

Artists such as Darryl Johnson, Alonzo Reid, Sweet Angel, MsCharli Creole Diva and Jerry Adams are proving to lovers of Soul Music that the South still has a lot to offer.

Joe Tex II, son of the aforementioned Soul legend, is continuing the legacy of his father’s classic work; Joe’s reworking of I Gotcha into a soulful ballad is a fine example that the Southern Soul sound is still alive.

Darryl Johnson, of the Detroit Memphis Experience, and former member of The Chairmen of the Board, has launched his solo career with a beautiful song entitled “Nightmare” that has broken through to the UK Soul Top 20.

Sweet Angel has been recording bluesy soulful original material, in the Denise Lasalle, Betty Wright vein since 2007. Her latest single, “Still Crazy For You” is attracting radio play both sides of the Atlantic.

Alonzo Reid paid his dues as a youngster, learning from such gospel acts as the Swan Silvertones before going on the road with the Pilgrim Jubilees of Chicago. Alonzo later played behind the likes of Shirley Caesar, The Mighty Clouds Of Joy and The Soul Stirrers before crossing over to Rhythm and Blues in 1997.

Having played drums and percussion for the late, great Marvin Sease for 14 years, Alonzo stepped up to the plate with his debut CD, "Undercover Freak" in 2011. Alonzo has just released his new single, "Three Wishes".

MsCharli, Creole Diva, was first noticed as an opening act for the likes of Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland before being acclaimed as “Best New Female Vocalist” by highly regarded Southern Soul critics on the release of her debut EP, “Can I dance 2Nite” in 2004.

MsCharli currently has a new single, “Giddy Up” making waves, along with a clever Zydeco arrangement of the same song.

Jerry Adams, with a strong gospel background, and influenced by Motown giants , The Temptations and Marvin Gaye, is currently attracting a great degree of interest through his joint release of “Rock You” and a remake of the classic “My Girl”.

So, it is clear, that just from these few examples, Southern Soul IS alive and kicking!