Saturday, March 22, 2014

Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Band

I've been reading "Hole in our Soul, The Loss of Beauty & Meaning in American Popular Music" by Martha Bayles, 390 pages of scholarly research and contemporary insight that's still relevant even though it was published in 1994. Shocked but pleased to find my love for 1960s funk vindicated as the author shares the point of view that something was lost circa 1968 forward as the music industry became more voracious and sophisticated, promoting "perverse modernism," shocking the public, pandering to the prurient. On the positive side, she celebrates 60s soul music as a culmination of the finest aspects our culture as expressed through the continuation of Afro-American traditions of community, ritual celebration and musical evolution.

While her book has many excellent analyses of various artists, their styles and relationship to surrounding society, the focus is on macro forces and philosophies, leaving closer examination of stylistic nuance to other authors. In keeping with the Funk Now charter, this week I'm going to hip you to some of the funkiest cuts ever produced, the works of Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Band. A few weeks ago I tried to qualify for Google AdSense hoping I could make some bread off of blogging, but they turned me down as not prolific and simply posting pointers to YouTube videos. Nevertheless, my role here is virtual guide to the golden age of funk, and my value added is to save the reader time by preselecting the best songs and the best representative recordings, adding (hopefully) insightful comments.

I'm surprised that my initial searching for information on the Watts 103rd Street Band has offered little more than what Wikipedia and the LastFM site usually offer about any artist. Notably two fine guitarists appeared in Mr. Wright's bands, Al McKay (later with Earth, Wind and Fire) and Mel Brown who I met and gigged with briefly in Honolulu in the mid 60s. Obviously Benorce Blackmon is also an excellent guitarist, having played on everything after Al McKay left in 1969, and Charles is a lefty guitarist himself. If I had but one CD by this band it would be Express Yourself: The Best of Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, an excellent collection featuring most of the YouTube links I have gathered from my memories and recent explorations.

My Amherst Studio Update blog will take a look at some of the architectural elements of a good funk recording next week, and I'll reference some of these songs for study. For now, just take a listen and enjoy!

Do Your Thing   first notable release
Express Yourself parts 2&1
Your Love (Means Everything To Me)
Loveland  a great doo-wop/funk fusion
What Can You Bring Me  bass on upbeat eighths!
Ninety Day Cycle People (funk sci-fi!)
I Got Love
Till You Get Enough
Gimme That Sammich
Nonsense (long - a lesson in spontaneity)

Martha Bayles has a new book, Through A Screen Darkly. Find out more at While America's image has been tarnished by cultural exports, she hopes to chart a positive path for the future. I hope to join that future and will offer some ideas when I finish my overdue essay on The Shape of Funk To Come.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Segue to Little Junior Parker

Two of my favorite artists recorded on the famous Duke Records label out of Houston, Texas. That would be Bobby "Blue" Bland and Little Junior Parker! Last week I focused the way-back machine on Mose Allison, and when I got to "That's All Right" I was reminded of Jr. Parker's version. Then my YouTube journey took me to Mr. Parker's lovely song, Someone Somewhere. For 50 years (!) I listened to that number in my head, couldn't find it in the old vinyl shops like Big Al's Record Barn or the Record Man in Redwood City, CA. A couple of years ago I checked YouTube again but the song was removed for copyright violations.

Apparently some of this rare old music is bird-dogged by their copyright holders, but most are too laid back to bother, or find value in keeping their titles publicized. I listen to songs on YouTube because it's too much work to search through my vinyl collection for 45s or search for album tracks. I'm slowly converting my vinyl collection to MP3s, but at the moment I'm stalled because I need a new high-quality stylus. When I found the previously unavailable Someone Somewhere as an MP3 download on, they got my 99 cents without hesitation. So, dear reader, dear listener, audition these sides, but when you hear something you really dig, don't "steal their bits." Jump on to a retail site and buy stuff for your "gold" collection and your own personal listening device.

Here's a list of my other favorites from Herman Parker Junior:
How Long Can This Go On  (flip side of Annie Get Your YoYo)
In The Dark
Driving Wheel (loud but no annoying echo like the re-release)
Look On Yonders Wall (good bari sax on this one)
I Need Your Love So Bad 
Don't Throw Your Love On Me So Strong
Five Long Years (very slow - great voice)
Mother In Law Blues
Sweet Home Chicago
Next Time You See Me

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Mose Allison -- He's Funky

Mose Allison is funky, He really is. His comping and audible grunting, sense of laconic irony in both his voice and his piano phrasing, Mose is funky. I got to catch him live on two occasions. He was an uncredited genius with an insensitive audience both times I saw him. He's serious about his music and he became frustrated with the half-filled house of inattentive and self-absorbed patrons and his response was to play his piano solos in seconds. Jarring -- and he had a right to his attitude -- but I preferred the Mose I heard on his recordings.

And what great records he made! Back in the day when 45s were the media of choice, some of us had record players in our cars -- like my friend Bill -- 54 Buick, two door hardtop with a rake, and a great collection of jazz and blues 45s. The records stacked upside down and dropped down after they played. There was a cookie can from Woolworth's that just fit the 45s. I was DJ, suggesting the song list, or taking direction and prepping the record stacks:
Parchman Farm, Eyesight To The Blind, Do Nothin' Til You Hear From Me, Don't Get Around Much Anymore, Seventh SonLost Mind "I lost my mind in a wild romance," Your Molecular Structure, That's All Right, Your Mind Is On Vacation "You're over-laughin' when things ain't funny..." Foolkiller's comin'!

Some said a white man playing piano couldn't be playing blues. Well Mose is from Mississippi, where you from? Again, he's got a right. Music transcends race and ultimately music transcends description. Yes, we can describe Mose as a jazz pianist, a "casual" vocal stylist, but don't forget expressive, hip, capable, subtle, deep -- and funky!
"It is only because the world looks on his talent with such a frightening indifference that the artist is compelled to make his talent important."  -- James Baldwin

Saturday, March 1, 2014

San Francisco -- South Bay Update

Sat in on the blues jam at Little Lou's on Winchester in Campbell Thursday the 27th of February, with bari sax man Ray DiFazio. It was an excellent night with 4 saxes up there for a few numbers. Host Aki Kumar graciously manages a steady procession of Bay Area blues luminaries, producing a stellar show. We had to wait to hear Aki, but it was well worth it -- he sings and plays blues harp just as good as he wants! Later stopped by the Quarter Note in Sunnyvale to help celebrate Diva Stativa's birthday. A wild funk-disco jam with 5 horns at one point, including old friends Tony Bolivar and Mike Luzzi, new friend Fred on trumpet. I'll be reviewing some of these local haps on the Funk Now blog in the future...
Sneaky Pete led off the jam in Campbell. Ray and I arrived a little bit later -- but I'll be jamming with Pete in a couple of weeks at JJ's San Jose. No cover on Thursday -- New York Pizza is next door and JJ's is "pizza friendly!"