James Brown and the Famous Flames’ “Live at the Apollo”

Album cover for Live At The Apollo

I’ve been listening to James Brown’s live album “Live at the Apollo” from 1963, this week. The record captures an amazing performance of James Brown and the Famous Flames at the Apollo in Harlem the previous year. It’s a great collection of R&B, Soul, and the beginnings of Funk The Famous Flames provide the backing vocals. The band consisted of a drummer, a bassist, a guitarist, an organist, and seven horns. Among those horns, we can hear saxophonist St. Clair Pinckney, who played with Brown until 1999 and had a couple of solo albums in the 80s.

The album opens with an aggrandizing track with organist Lucas “Fats” Gonder introducing James Brown, “So now ladies and gentlemen, it is star time… the hardest working man in show business.” Then Brown performs shuffling rhythm and blues track “I’ll Go Crazy” with a guitar line that rolls along like a locomotive. The song starts without any accompaniment as Brown sings with response from the audience: “You know I feel alright! (yeah) You know I feel alright, children (yeah) I feel alright!” He and the crowd just sound like they are having a great time and the interactions are real.

Try Me

Brown starts the soulful third track “Try Me” with just his voice singing the titular first line. We’ll immediate recognize the doo-wop chord progression of I-vi-IV-V, as well as the fairly typical doo-wop rhythm pattern. The Famous Flames sing ‘dooo… ooo’ underneath Brown’s lines and then answer back, repeating his lines “Try me.”

As with many of Brown’s songs the emphasis falls on the first beat, but that is less prominent here out of respect for the genre. The hi hat hits on every eighth note, with just a mild touch of swing; brushes hit the snare every second and fourth beat. The bass walks up and down, bringing the change from one chord to the next. The bass also supports the backing vocals, by matching their rhythm when singing.

Night Train

“All aboard the Night Train!” Brown opens their cover of jazz saxophonist Jimmy Forrest’s 1951 tune “Night Train.” Though Forrest’s tune was really a reworking of an even older song “That’s The Blues, Old Man” by saxophonist Johnny Hodges in 1940. Hodges was a member of Duke Ellington’s band, and the melody may have some roots there as well.

It’s a melody I know well; I grew up hearing the cover by Marvin Berry and the Starlights from the Back to the Future soundtrack. This version by James Brown has tremendous more energy, groove, and funk. The addition of vocals grants it even more excitement. They aren’t even necessary, but they make it personable and tie it together into the loose concept of losing and finding love that seems to run through the album.

The song follows a basic 12 bar blues chord progression, with a distinctive clean guitar riff. The bass drives along, a nonstop groove train. I love the choppy chords played on the organ through a Leslie speaker. It’s energetic and lively. This constant shuffling grooving energy clearly had influences on many, even post-punk rock bands like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. I like that

Lost Someone

Brown keeps “Lost Someone” going for over ten minutes, frequently teasing the audience building suspense. He utilizes this technique throughout the album: leading up to something to create anticipation and then dropping into the next segment or song. In this case, what feels like an extremely extended bridge turns out to be a drawn out coda that ends suddenly with the next song.

In spite of, or because of, I’m not sure.. this was my favorite song on the album. No small feat considering for nearly 8 minutes, the band is playing pretty much the same two bars over and over. Sometimes, the horns will pull back a bit, or work an octave lower. A mid section of under 2 minutes has no horns, but then they return as if to say, “We’re not done with you yet.” Sometimes the bass will hold back, or the drums will pause. Then after Brown builds up intensity, like a preacher, the drums will hit the snare and cymbal. The audience will scream in reaction.

This is a strong example of what the Music Genome project calls Extensive Vamping. The band will play the same short phrase repeatedly while a lead instrument will riff, or solo, over top. In this case, James Brown’s voice plays the role of the lead instrument. He teases and excites the audience. Encourages them to scream along, “Don’t just go “aah”, go “ow!”

I got something I want tell everybody
And I got something I everybody to understand now
You know we all make mistakes sometimes
And all the ways we can correct our mistakes
We got to try one more time
So I got sing this song to you one more time
I want you to know I’m not singing this song for myself now
I’m not singing the song only for myself now
I’m sing it for you too
And if I say stuff that makes you feel good inside
When I say that little thing
I say that little part that might sting you in your heart now
I want to hear your scream
I want to hear say ow!

Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life”

album cover for "Songs in the Key of Life"

I’ve been listening to Stevie Wonder’s 1976 double-LP “Songs in the Key of Life” this week. After spending a time with his 1973 album “Innervisions” back in August, I was looking forward to this one. Overall, this proved to be another great album by Wonder, serving up more of his unique blend of funk, soul, pop, and jazz. That said, I liked “Innervisions” more. My main complaint is that there’s too many songs and many of them are too long. This could’ve been two fantastic albums, but instead it is one overly long album. Many of the tracks have unnecessarily long codas. Still, I had difficulty picking just three tracks to dive into here, because there’s so much good stuff to choose from.

Sir Duke

I’ve known the song “Sir Duke” for a long time now. Several years ago, I got curious about the source material for the song “Let’s Get Busy Baby” by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Of course, I also first heard “Pastime Paradise,” because of Coolio’sGangsta’s Paradise.” “Sir Duke” begins with a dry kick drum hitting on every beat, with horns on the the first, second and third beat.. and just before the fourth. Then the next few bars mix horns on beat and syncopation. This mixture of percussive hops on the beat and then grooves on the upbeat is on the main ingredients of funk. Wonder users it expertly throughout the album.

Very dry bass and drums in the center channel emphasis the downbeat, while providing additional rhythm interest at the end of each measure. A clean electric guitar bounces in the right channel. An electric piano plays chords and syncopated arpeggios through a slowly rotating speaker on the left half of the stereo field. The chorus and break feature horns playing rhythmic melodic blasts in unison.

I especially like the rhythm of the pre-chorus, with instruments stacked in staccato eight notes, with a little hop during the 4th beat of each measure. This section, perhaps, pays the most musical tribute to the song’s name sake, jazz legend Duke Ellington. In a broader sense, Wonder sings in praise of swing. He mentions Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald in the second pre-chorus:

For there’s Basie, Miller, Satchmo
And the king of all, Sir Duke
And with a voice like Ella’s ringing out
There’s no way the band can lose

Summer Soft

“Summer Soft” follows the winter and summer out-of-touch with each other. Summer is represented by a female character that leaves in October, while the male October leaves in April. I’m not sure I understand what he’s trying to do with the lyrics with the two characts/seasons always leaving. It reminds me of 14th century poetry with its combination of simplicity and metaphor. The music is relatively upbeat, but the focus seems to be on confusion and loss.

The track combines pop-soul with jazz. The generous use of seventh chords contribute to the jazz-feel. Except for the intro, a swirling mixture of instruments play throughout. They contribute to a general sense of atmosphere, mostly padding out the background during the verses. However, during the chorus and the outro, these instruments all come alive. They pick up in energy, brightening and moving forward in the mix. I particularly enjoy the parts where subtle synths play smooth pulses like Morse-code echoing across the left and right channels.

I Wish

The side two opener “I Wish” quickly became my favorite song on the album. I found the song lends itself well for walking on the sidewalk. It has a forward-driving bounce and a city heartbeat that feels good. On the show “Classic Albums,” Stevie Wonder gave an informative demonstration on how he wrote and recorded the song. He played the majority of the instruments, including drums, keyboards and vocals. The bass in the song is also keyboard, played by Wonder.

Wonder is a very capable drummer, and he demonstrates that in this song with its amazing percussive groove. There’s no flash, he’s not showing off on the drums. The kick drum mostly hits on the down beats, with occasional hops on the upbeat. The 2nd and 4th beat of each measure usually has a snare drum, sometimes accompanied or replaced by handclaps. The hi-hat taps along keeping the tempo, a cymbal crash introduces the start of each section of the song. During the chorus he opens the hat giving some funk the drum groove. Then for the post-chorus, the hat opens giving a forward-pull to the upbeats.

Plucky bass synths dance in the left and right channels. This is fairly unusual, because producers, especially in the 70s, would keep the bass in the center. This is because having bass panned off-center could didn’t always work well with the needle of record players. But here, he has two basses, that will balance each other out. There’s also a bass guitar that usually mimics the bass synths, but draws attention to itself by adding some funky slides up and down the neck. During the chorus, the 2nd and 4th beats are strongly emphasized by the horns shouting out between Wonder’s single-syllable vocals on the downbeat. Man, this song really makes you want to dance. It’s impossible to sit still.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Electric Ladyland”

This week, I’ve been listening to the 1968 album “Electric Ladyland” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. About six months ago, I spent time with their first album “Are you Experienced?” That album was released just 17 months before this, their third and final album.

They certainly evolved over this short period of time. While I truly enjoyed their debut album, I absolutely loved this one. The first album was more of a psychedelic blues rock. This album takes that sound and launches into the stratosphere, pushing the experimental psychedelic elements. They’ve also folded in some ingredient of soul and funk.

The album opens with intro track  “And the Gods Made Love” which is some slowed down stuff. It’s kind of neat the first couple times and then I found it annoying. I wanted to talk here about the first real song 
Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland),” but I like to include a video link of the songs here and it’s not available on YouTube. Anyway, it is a great track and from the first thirty seconds, I knew I was going to love the album. It’s opens as a rather soulful funk-aware R&B song. Strange things are happening with the rhythms as the song seems to swirl upon itself. Experimental yet immediately accessible.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience recorded a fantastic cover of Bob Dylan‘s song “All Along the Watchtower” for this album. From what I’ve read, Hendrix got ahold of Dylan recording pretty early and liked this song immediately. The Experience worked on their cover for a few months and it was released within a year of Dylan’s original.  As great as Dylan’s lyrics are, the incredible soundscape of Hendrix’s version towers above the words. I know many of the words, but don’t really know what the song is about because what’s happening musically is so amazing. The verses serve more as passing narrative between the real action: Jimi’s lead guitar. 

A twelve-string acoustic guitar strums the chords throughout the song simply.  The lead guitar gives the track much of its psychedelic blues rock flavor. Jimi’s plays his stratocaster through a chorus and fuzz, with expressive filter modulation provided by a wah pedal. This sound of this combination of guitar and effects is all over the album. To see how the wah pedal is used to create these sounds, check out this excellent video by fuzzfaceexp. Some additional use of delay provides depth to the leads as well.

Another great song is “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” towards the end of the album. Again, the track mostly provides a space for Jimi’s chorus-fuzz-wah lead guitar to soar into wildly expressive explorations of sound. This starts with the opening measures, one of the Hendrix’s most famous riffs. One that I, unfortunately must admit, first hear in middle school as sampled in a 2 Live Crew song. The Hendrix track has a marvelously live jam quality to it; Even though it features use of overdubbing additional tracks, it was initially created as a jam.

I continue my complaint about the Jimi Hendrix Experience and overuse of stereo panning as an effect. Sometimes it adds something to a song, but mostly I find it annoying and distracting. Better, I feel to use panning of a delay effect, but that may not have been as readily an option as it is today.

Overall, I loved the album “Electric Ladyland.” There’s more playful experimentation than found on “Are You Experienced?” as well as a greater sense of skill and experience with their direction and recording.  Great album.

Stevie Wonder’s “Innervisions”

Stevie Wonder: Innervisions album coverThis week, I’ve been listening to Stevie Wonder’s 1973 album “Innervisions” for lessons I can learn to improve my craft as a songwriter. For years, my only real awareness of Stevie Wonder was his work in the 1980s. At eight years old, I saw his appearance on the Cosby Show. I watched it many times on VHS and used to sing the song “I Just Call To Say I Love You” throughout my childhood. By the time I hit my teens, I grew to find songs like this and “Ebony and Ivory” were just cheesy. I didn’t become aware of his fantastic 1970s work until fairly recently. Some of the stuff I had heard before without realizing who it was. I absolutely loved spending a week getting to know this album.

Wonder is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist and plays many of the instruments on the album. Every instruments on “Living for the City” is played by Stevie Wonder. Fender Rhodes electric piano opens the song spinning left-right through the stereo tremolo. As with much of the album, Wonder makes use of the legendary TONTO for fantastic synthesizer  sounds. Once the drums start, the kick hits on every quarter note through the verse and chorus, though changes for the bridge.

The chord progression is very simple for the verse: I – ii – I7 – ii, with the synth bass mostly bouncing on on the tonic every quarter note. The chorus rises through a IV-IV-V6-V7 progression. The da-da-da-da bridge contrast with the rest of the song by being in 3/4 time as borrowing a series of chords from outside of the key. The first chord of the bridge could be vi7♭5,  then to vi♭ to v♭ coming done to ii♭ back to I.

Though the music is funky with a definitely bouncing groove, it would feel rather laid back without the vocals. Wonder’s singing gives the track its energy. He sings the verses with a rhythm and a simple melody; it’s almost rapping. He also punctuates the rhythm with non-verbal grunts, pops and ‘hee’s;’ Michael Jackson undoubtedly drew influence from Stevie Wonder. The synth bass and electric piano may be the heart of the accompaniment, but the vocals are the drive.

One of my favorite tracks, “He’s Misstra Know-It-All” closes the album. Wonder provides all vocals and plays all instruments except the electric bass guitar. Acoustic piano plays chords throughout. The chord progressions runs I-I7-I6-iv6-I-V-IV for the verses and a bridge/chorus of ii-I-IV-V-vi7-V-I-ii7. This use of extended chords provides interesting movement while essentially staying in the same chord.

A different idea for me, that seems so natural in the song, is the use of multiple time signatures within the verses. The whole song is in 4/4 time with an exception at the end of each verse. Every verse has the refrain “He’s miistra Know-It-All” in 2/4 time.

I like the use of synthesizers to add little magical flourishes to the top end of the piano lines. Sometimes they are like soft sparkles drifting into the air.   At the half-way point, Stevie’s vocals pick up in energy and hand-claps increase the sense of energy. It also helps the song feel like it’s coming to a close.

Prince’s “Sign ‘☮’ the Times”

Prince's Sign O The Times album coverI’ve been listening to Prince’s 1987 Double LP “Sign ‘O’ The Times” for the past seven days. I devote each week to a different great album in order to learn as a songwriting musician. It also exposes me to a lot of great music. When “Purple Rain” came out when I was seven years old and I’ve been a fan ever since. Still, this week was really my introduction to “Sign ‘O’ The Times” which I’ve mostly ignored until now.

Despite some incredible high points, I found the album on a whole to be underwhelming. Some of that may be the expectation that it was going to be better than other Prince albums, due to collective critical acclaim. I just don’t think it is. I feel like much of it sounds like interesting song ideas and experiments that need more work. However, the album carries several great songs that I will definitely come back to.

The second track “Play in the Sunshine” was the first to get my attention. This upbeat track combines dance music with psychedelic pop. The chord progression is mostly I-I7-IV-IV7 repeated with a break between verses. The live percussions helps this track stand out. We can hear Prince’s favorite Linn LM-1 all over this album. His expert use of this machine leads to innovative and distinctive patterns; unfortunately he doesn’t incorporate enough variation within the tracks. “Play in the Sunshine” provides a great exception Even though the song only has a 100 BPM temp, the energy feels like much more. The use of the snare outside of the typical 2nd and 4th beat contribute to this.

There’s a sparse layering of instruments. Drums and bass play almost constantly; there’s a couple of keyboard lines that add effects and melodic color. I love the guitar solo in this song, even though it has little more than style. There seems to be a mixture of light flange with heavy distortion as he plays and bends screaming notes, adding a little wah towards the end.

Housequake” sounds like Prince had fun, but the fun didn’t last over repeated listening for me. There’s some great use of James Brown influence on the track. I really hear it in the funky clean guitar riffs and the way the real and synth horns are used. I also pick up on some George Clinton Funkadelic influence in the vocals. Especially in the way he’s being goofy and creating a character to encourage people to dance. But where Clinton could keep a repetitive groove going and maintain my attention, “Housequake” just doesn’t do enough with it’s 4 minutes and 42 seconds.

The track “It’s Gonna be a Beautiful Night” more successfully goes for that funk jam party feel. The kick drum hits on every beat for a dance-worthy four-on-the-floor rhythm. With snare and handclaps hitting on the 2nd and 4th beats. Parliament-inspired chants like “We are beautiful, it’s gonna be a beautiful night” encourage audience participation. Another chant repeats the Wicked Witch’s guards “Oh-wee-oh” from The Wizard of Oz. The chant reminds me of the “Oh-wee-oh-wee-oh” of The Time’s “Jungle Love” which was primarily written by Prince. This song manages to keep me engaged and feels like a good time to listen to. The greater use of variety throughout the song is an improvement over “Housequake”. I also suspect that other musicians had great input, which can enrich a song.

Starfish and Coffee” instantly became one of my favorite songs. The song opens with digital piano simply playing the chord progression of I-ii-V-I-vi-ii-V-I. This is based on the Circle Progression which is common turnaround progression in jazz and pop music. Vocal and drums then begin. Prince sings a simple melody that encourages sing-a-long, especially withe use of doubling backing vocals. Swirling synth pads give the song the psychedelic feel that the lyrics ask for. The lyrics are another strong-point for this song. They are narrative and provide a vignette of Cynthia Rose, a colorful unique character in the classroom.

Several moments of this album remind me of how I frequently hear Prince’s influence in the work of Trent Reznor. The track “U Got the Look” could very well be an NIN industrial track if the heavily distorted guitar was brought forward. The track also features a lot of great percussion work, with toms and bongos getting extra attention. Marching-band style rolls add an interesting texture to the track. I also just really love the sound of Prince’s guitar. I believe there’s some light flange or chorus with mixture of overdrive and distortion and a subtle reverb. It’s a great sound.

This album grew on me as the week progressed. I don’t personally agree that it is Prince’s greatest album. To simplify the story, Prince mostly wrote and recorded “Sign ‘O’ The Times” after suddenly firing his band The Revolution. I believe it suffers from being too much of a solo album. Perhaps we can all learn from this. The input of others can improve what we do, even one as incredibly capable as Prince. On the other hand, he’s also experimenting with combining genres and sounds. This experimentation is at times exciting, but sometimes leaves things feeling unfinished raw. Overall, a fantastic album, but not his best.