Like not a few young women before her–Carla Thomas at Stax was another prime example–Betty Wright was instrumental in establishing a scene/label/genre which proceeded to drop her by the wayside on the way to bigger things. In Wright’s case her decidedly un-hip 1968 hit “Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do” was a foundation record for the burgeoning Miami scene which, following her 1971 monster hit “Clean Up Woman,” became a major player in 70’s funk, soul and disco. Her label, Alston Records, spun off TK (home of the McCraes–whom the teenage Wright discovered–and KC and the Sunshine Band) and the rest was history. In funk central’s move from Memphis to Miami, Wright was a major player.
She never had another hit as big, but it wasn’t for a lack of making great records, a fate she shared with a lot of fantastic R&B female singers who were her contemporaries: Stacy Lattisaw, Ann Peebles, Candi Staton. One or two shots at the mainstream, then back to the modern chitlin circuit or the gospel highway or a bit of both.
Twenty-five years ago I came up with a home-made mix-taping concept called Radio Free America that eventually turned into about forty home tapes (later reconstructed for CD). The idea was to compile records from every conceivable rock ‘n’ roll genre, as long as they had the beat, the beat, the beat. Those mix-tapes ended up providing me with about as good a definition of rock ‘n’ roll as I’ve ever come up with–whatever the girls on Shindig and Hullabaloo could dance to. Of course, any concept needs to start somewhere and after about two minutes, I knew where those forty tapes had to start:
Betty Wright passed away from cancer on May 10 at the age of 66, mostly forgotten everywhere except Black America…and my house.
10) Various Artists What It Is! Funky Soul and Rare Grooves 1967-1977 (2006)
Deep, yes. But also wider than any but the experienced might suspect before diving in and stroking for the far shore. “Soul Finger” and Aretha’s “Rock Steady” are among the few crossover hits. Big names like Curtis Mayfield and Earth, Wind and Fire, or those like Charles Wright, Lulu, Clarence Carter, Rufus Thomas, Dr. John, who might at least be familiar to fans of the period, are not represented by their best known hits. Most of the rest is really obscure (or was, until this was released as one of Rhino’s last great boxes in 2006).
At four discs, five hours and 91 cuts, this never even comes close to quitting. What might catch the uninitiated by surprise, in a hardcore funk collection, is the range of tempos.Plenty of fast stuff, sure. But who would deny this, where Patti Labelle sings “if I ever lose my BIG mouth, I won’t have to talk anymore” and you can feel the distance between the white man (then called Cat Stevens) who wrote the rest of it and the black woman who added the key word?
The third remarkable album released by Fairport in the Year of our Lord, 1969. This one, following the death of their drummer, Martin Lamble, (a death that had a similar crushing effect to James Honeyman-Scott’s on the Pretenders a generation hence), was almost all Sandy Denny. Numbed by loss, the others decided to follow where she led. That turned out to be a a labyrinth of English folk music from which it could be argued only guitarist Richard Thompson ever fully emerged. This isn’t the first time I listened, but I never really heard it before. Now I’m mini-obsessed. A couple of more spins and I might be up to a post on Denny in ’69, one of the most remarkable years any vocalist ever had. For now, I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it. And I’m taking precautions, because I’ve realized that if you wander too deeply in these woods, you mightn’t find your way out.
8) LatimoreStraighten it Out: The Best of Latimore (1995)
In addition to the two cuts I highlighted earlier in the week (novelties, but deep too), mostly a straightforward set of fine-tuned 70s R&B. A little funk, a little soul, a little big-voiced balladeering, a lot of traditional Love Man, all rendered with a mix of silk and grit that makes for good smiling and nodding music. No small thing these days.
Measure for measure. My favorite album by my favorite modern singer, possessed of a brand of fatalism Sandy Denny might have recognized. What might be forgotten now is that this record almost killed her career when it failed to go gold or platinum like her previous three. Nashville is famously unforgiving of slackers. Somebody is always ready to take your place, especially when you’re either an unrepentant honky tonker or a female, forget both. She pulled a fast one by switching labels and running up a string of awards which was modest next to Reba’s (before) or Miranda’s (after), but astonishing given how uncompromised her voice was. You can hear all of that here. “God Will” is an all time killer and “I Came Straight to You” the best smile in her catalog. But this time around, another one stuck deeper than usual.
6) Tanya TuckerMy Turn (2009)
Her 24th album, the first in six years at the time and still her latest to date. All of which might help explain why, for the first time ever, she sounded relaxed. Relieved of the pressures of stardom for the first time since she was thirteen, she was able to bring something new to a bunch of classic country covers that included signature songs from Hank Williams, Buck Owens, Ray Price, Lefty Frizzell. All the songs her daddy wanted her to sing and nobody, but nobody, ever said she lacked guts.
5) Mel TillisHItsides 1970-1980 (2006)
A beautifully constructed overview of the man at his peak. He broke into Nashville in the sixties with one of those good singer/great writer reps that were common at the time. Unlike almost everyone else who wore the tag he turned out to be a great singer too. Though he wrote only about a third of them, every one of these twenty-five cuts from his golden decade feels lived in.
The boundaries (neither of which he wrote)?
On one end, “Stomp Them Grapes,” which would have done Roger Miller proud. On the other, “Your Body is an Outlaw,” as deep and scary as anything by George Jones, which he sang with his eldest daughter a year after I served fish sticks and french fries to two of her younger sisters at the girls’ camp sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention in Ridgecrest, North Carolina.
Never let it be said that the South is an uncomplicated place.
(Oh, and he did write: “Detroit City,” “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” “Mental Revenge.” Like that.)
4) Candi StatonEvidence: The Complete Fame Records Masters (2011)
The “evidence,” presumably, for the case of someone who should have been a much bigger star. There’s plenty of that here. It’s hard to understand why anyone who looked and sounded as great as Candi Staton–and had so much talent surrounding her–didn’t really cross over until she went disco (helping create the paradox of the soul singer who used disco to reach a wider audience even as more famous soul singers were being wiped out left and right).
If I had to put my finger on it, I’d blame the material, which is good, but lacks that one killer that might have put her in heavy rotation at the pop stations and brought the rest into focus. The biggest exception is “Stand By Your Man” which did cross over (nearly as big as “Young Hearts Run Free”), but, unfortunately, left no trace, having already been defined for purposes of useful narrative by Nashville’s Tammy Wynette. Too bad, because Candi had a great deal more to add to the concept than Hilary Clinton, who stood by her man long enough for him to lock up half of Candi Staton’s neighborhood.
3) Paul Revere & the RaidersThe Complete Columbia Singles (2010)
This wanders about…and intrigues. Over nearly a decade and a half, they developed a theme: Stomp. Then do something else (Brill Building pop maybe? Hot rod music?)
Then Stomp. Then do something else. (Psychedelia maybe? Country rock?)
The essence of the Stomp is on The Essential Ride, a single-disc comp that focuses on the mid-sixties and includes the hits everybody loves, plus “Crisco Party.” In the days when “Louie, Louie” was being investigated by a congressional committee, that one was too obscene even for a garage band B-side (hence is missing here). And if you just want the Stomp, you could go here.
You’d be missing a lot, though. Mark Lindsay was one of the great hardcore rock and roll singers. Everybody knows that (though just how much he sounds like Mitch Ryder before Mitch Ryder on some of the earliest sides here might still startle you). But he was one of the great pop-rock singers, too. And, whatever one thinks of “Indian Reservation” (I love it without reservation, but I know there are serious dissenters), you can also hear how much they had earned the right to a #1 Protest Record because, as protest records go, it’s not a patch on 1966’s “The Great Airplane Strike” (which sounds like it should be the title of a solemn documentary on union organizing and is a good joke) or 1967’s “Do Unto Others” (which sounds like it should be the title of a Lenny Bruce routine and is serious….and lovely).
2) Kendrick LamarGood Kid, M.A.A.D. City (2012)
The World is a Ghetto, two generations on. Except that white critics cut Kendrick all the slack they never gave War, nothing’s changed. That might be why an outsider like me can’t tell whether it’s me or Lamar who feels tired.
One line stuck out, though: Hearing “I’ve never been violent…until I’m with the homies,” made me hear my old daddy quoting his Uncle Sam, speaking to him in the Tennessee hills in the twenties, saying “One boy is one boy. Two boys is half a boy. Three boys is no boy a’tall.”
I wish I could remember if Uncle Sam was the one who told my old daddy stories about chasing cows into the woods to hide them from the Yankees the night they drove old Dixie down.
Funny what you remember and what you don’t.
1) The Roots, Undun (2011)
The World is a Ghetto, two generations on. It even starts with a quote from the Geto Boys’ “Mind Playin’ Tricks on Me,” which, a generation back, was The World is a Ghetto one generation on.
Which leads to the question: Are all rap albums now rewrites of “The World is a Ghetto?” And if nothing’s changed, is it because we can’t change or we won’t?
“Shoorah! Shoorah!” was not out of time. The writer, Allen Toussaint, was as hot as a pistol and specialized in southern funk with a slightly Caribbean undercurrent. His “Lady Marmalade,” cut with LaBelle, was one of the era’s signature hits.
Betty Wright herself was the founding queen of Miami’s soul scene. (One of these days I’ll have to do a post on the phenomenon of young women establishing a scene and then being forced to hang on by their fingernails when the boys step in to take over.) She had a hit at fourteen with “Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do,” then turned into a teen talent scout who eventually brought both Gwen and George McCrae to her label, Alton. Alton was the springboard producer/exec Henry Stone used to put Miami on the map, not with either of the McCraes or the later arriving KC and the Sunshine Band, but with Wright’s own “Clean Up Woman,” an across-the-board smash in 1971.
Like a lot of rough-voiced soul singers (especially those never associated with Memphis or Motown) Wright maintained a steady, if unspectacular, presence on the R&B charts, but barely dented the pop charts after her one big hit.
The failure of “Shoorah! Shoorah!” to make much noise even on the black charts while her disco-fied label-mates and fellow scenesters were conquering every chart and scene in sight, circa 1974/75, must have been….depressing. Here’s Wright on her attitude at the time: “I used to sit down and think of all the weird things I was gonna do to make me explode–chopping up a plane or something.”
A little extreme maybe, though maybe telling of the crucible that black life in America can be. And when you think about some of the records that have been hits over the years, you can see where she might have felt pushed against the wall.
What does it take to get a hit in this world!
…Just on a personal note, I once did a series of mix-tapes designed to cross all genres of beat music that ran to thirty tapes at ninety minutes each. “Shoorah! Shoorah!” wasn’t just the first record on the first tape. It was the record that gave me the idea. After the great CD selloff of 2002, when a few years passed and I was trying to find an organizing principle for re-constituting my CD collection on a limited budget, I decided to start by acquiring the music on those tapes.
I use genre definitions/designations as much as anybody (though I frequently add a word like “ethos” or “aesthetic” to, I hope, broaden the scope). Like a lot of shady compromises, they’re a useful shorthand. For instance, I’m not over-fond of the term “girl group.” There’s a kernel of truth in the phrase, but it’s also limiting on a lot of levels and not even entirely honest as straight description. That’s probably why Arlene Smith, Mary Weiss and others have, shall we say, found the phrase a little lacking (i.e., they hate it and think it’s ridiculous).
Still, when I use it, most people know what I mean, especially most people inclined to read this blog.
So, until somebody think’s of something better, “girl group,” or Charlie Gillett’s modesly preferable, “girl talk,” will have to do for a certain range of vocal styles widely practiced by young women from the late fifties through the mid-sixties. You can’t continually play with accepted usage sans constant nagging explanation without risking either mass tedium (when one explains) or plain and simple confusion (when one does not).
Genre labels we have, then. Often they bleed into each other: Prog/Art; Bubblegum/Sunshine Pop; Frat/Garage; Acid/Psychedelia, frequently causing hot debates among cognoscenti, who then use the line between those who “get” it and those who don’t to make purely social distinctions. Incidentally, this seems to be mostly a “male” thing, which almost always begins in youth but often outlasts it. The finer the distinctions–that is, the more such minor differences are blurred or outright invisible to those outside the charmed circle–the more intense the feeling inside the circle.
“That’s not bubblegum, that’s sunshine pop!” might be all that’s spoken aloud.
The “You moron,” part is sometimes repressed–think where civilization would be otherwise–but it’s generally implied.
For the most part, as you can note from the This/That labels above, this takes place on the fringes. None of those genres, however defined, would take up more than few short pages in any standard history of rock and roll. Some wouldn’t get a paragraph.
There’s at least one distinction, though, that can’t be entirely related to quibbling among the quibblers..
What is Funk? And what is Disco?
No matter how meticulously or academically anyone makes specific musical arguments for exactly what elements set one record off from another–the funk record from the disco record–there’s simply too much ground in the middle for me to ever be truly comfortable with the limits placed on either side of the divide.
What is Funk?
And what is Disco?
Here’s one possible definition:
Funk is music crit-illuminati types are bound to respect, even if their preferred listening is the Grateful Dead.
Disco is music no one is bound to respect, even if their preferred listening is Funk.
Now, what any one person actually respects, and what anyone and everyone are bound to respect aren’t necessarily the same things. I’m sure at least some Grateful Dead fans genuinely love and respect funk and I’m sure at least some hardcore funk fans genuinely love and respect disco.
But the narratives have come down from on high. If you read a history of rock and roll that has a funk chapter and a disco chapter, you’ll almost certainly encounter a very distinct difference in tone.
Funk is pure, man.
Disco is…well, it might not still be crap…Disco has earned some respect.
But it’s…well, it’s not funk, now is it?
Unless, of course, maybe it is. (That “Punk” about half as influential and way less than half as commercial, generally gets about as much ink as Funk and Disco combined, is another topic for another day.)
Much to ponder–why the funkster need not explain himself, but the disco-lover still sort of does–but meanwhile, here’s a weird little test.
Which of these records always…ALWAYS…shows up on funk collections? And which of them always…ALWAYS….shows up on disco collections.
For the record, “I Get LIfted” is a funk standard and “Rock Your Baby” is a disco standard but I’d love to know just how that distinction was made, because I certainly can’t make it.
Oh, I can hear lots of differences in the records, but not one that defines that particular line or remotely suggests why/how the line has been made so hard and fast. I mean, did Miami club-goers in 1974 make this distinction? (I’m guessing not, but it’s only a guess.)
Did George McCrae, the singer, make the distinction? (Ditto.)
Did Harry Wayne Casey, the man who, with his partner Rick Finch, wrote and produced both records, and whose own hardcore southern funk band, which he led as KC and the Sunshine Band, and which all but single-handedly shifted the main action in southern music from Memphis to Miami, would soon, of course, be labeled “disco,” make the distinction? (Double ditto.)
No, if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say the main drivers in deciding who was who were marketers and critics, though they probably used “insiders” (producers, street-level journalists in particular scenes, etc.) to educate themselves on how best to exploit and play off one set of opinions against another for the sake of maintaining profit margins and the control they represent
Hey, the political system and the economy run that way, why not the record industry?
The way all of that worked out for Casey, Finch and the Sunshine Band was that they sold a ton of records, got some fame and fortune out of it (I’m guessing the producer/writers got most of the latter)…and got shoved under the “disco sucks” truck that was careening through seventies’ culture, wrecking everything in sight, up to and including what was left of Martin Luther King’s dream.
I wonder what might have happened if, instead, they had been labeled the legitimate and self-conscious heirs to Stax–right down to the multi-racialism, which was also running rampant at the time, very much threatening to make the Dream come true–who took a new and exciting twist on southern funk to places it had never gone before commercially?
I mean, compared to what might have been tossed away by the marketing departments making up their phony rules (without resort to cross-corporate collaboration, I’m sure) and the crit-illuminati safely playing along (real shock, that!), KC and the boys getting back-handed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nominating Committee every year (whereas, even their late-arriving, oh-so-New-York counterparts, Chic, at least get repeated shots at being backhanded by the actual voters), is small potatoes.
If we’d ever gotten past those labels, though, learned to recognize, for starters, that, say, funk and disco were two sides of a very tightly melded coin, and needed no distinction, then who knows?
Or what if we’d just kept right on calling all R&B-oriented dance music “funk” and kept considering all of it something that everybody was bound to respect, instead of neatly separating out the half that sold the most records and attaching it to the word “sucks?”
Who’s to say we wouldn’t be closer to living the Dream, instead of watching it drift further and further away?
Maybe it’s all trivial, what we do with language and race and deciding who matters.