Tag Archives: Bobby Caldwell

Free – Deniece Williams

Those of you who find your way over here regularly and have read pieces I’ve written on the Delfonics, Boz Scaggs, Marvin Gaye, Hall & Oates, the Bee Gees, Bobby Caldwell, Odyssey, Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, Michael Jackson, and so on, may remember that I like my soul and disco music smooth and opulent: steady-bottomed drums, deep bass, lush orchestration, electric piano, wah-wah guitar. That’s the stuff that really speaks to me.

The opulence of Deniece Williams’s Free was provided by the duo of Earth, Wind & Fire singer Maurice White and writer-arranger-producer Charles Stepney, a man who had already done nearly as much as the more celebrated Thom Bell and Gamble & Huff to move soul into new, rock- and psychedelia-influenced territory – he’d produced Marlena Shaw’s The Spice of Life (California Soul, Woman of the Ghetto), Terry Callier’s What Color is Love, and Minnie Riperton’s work (both solo and with the Rotary Connection). A pair of heavy-duty talents, then.

The full unedited album cut of Free starts out like an out-take from In a Silent Way, all abstract electric piano tinkles and out-of-tempo percussion, while Williams sings in her breathy upper register. After a full minute, the song kicks into life. At first it sounds like nothing so much as an R&B take on Harvest-era Neil Young, with Young’s trademark boom-boom-tssch drum pattern and the simplest of ascending basslines. At the first verse proper, though, Verdine White’s bass starts dancing and the song becomes something else entirely.

It’s a masterpiece of arrangement. White’s intricate bass playing provides all the of the internal movement: Al McKay on guitar plays a simple comp part, the horns are so laid-back they’re practically horizontal, and Jerry Peters’ piano, like the guitar, largely keeps it simple except in his brief solo and during the coda.

Williams’s vocal performance is similarly tasteful and soulful. Capable of nearly the same glass-shattering heights as Minnie Riperton, Williams largely underplays her hand during Free, singing quietly and intimately (appropriately for a song in which she twice sings “Whispering in his ear, my magic potion for love”), and reserving improvistation in her upper ranges for the song’s minute-long coda.

As celebratory of physical intimacy as it is, though, Free is ultimately a song about not wanting to be in love – “I’ll only be here for a while” is the last line of the final verse, while Williams’s plea “I want to be free, free, free” is underlined both by the pushed phrasing of those repeated “free”s (they fall on the quaver before the one) and the increasingly elaborate decoration she applies to the simple upward melody.

Free was a surprisingly big hit on both sides of the Atlantic: number one in the UK two years after it was recorded (and keeping her former employer Stevie Wonder off the top spot) and number two on the US R&B chart. Free, in its way, doesn’t sound like a hit. It’s so intimate, it doesn’t feel like it should be the property of the masses, especially compared to her other big hit, Let’s Hear if for the Boy (from Footloose), which went all the way in the US and hit number two in the UK. Free, as I’ve said, is a masterpiece, one of the very best of its type.

Deniece WIlliams

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The Songs from So Deep pantheon

Apologies for my somewhat odd posting schedule of late. I’ve been both pretty sick (chest infection) and hellishly busy (end of quarter), and have defaulted to writing about current preoccupations like British politics. I’m away this weekend, so won’t be back until next week now, but thought I’d leave you with what’s hopefully a fun one.

This blog has been running well over three years and in that time I’ve talked a lot about favourite songs and favourite albums, but without having put down a list in black and white.

So I thought I’d give it a try, and actually, it’s a tough exercise. The hardest thing is deciding how whether to include old favourites that you, if you’re honest, don’t listen to anymore. I’ve mentioned that Nirvana’s Nevermind was the album that inspired me to pick up a guitar and start playing, and in my teens I must have listened to it hundreds of times. But I’ve not sat down and listened to the whole thing as an album in a decade at least. I decided not to include it in favour of things that I still listen to regularly, but if the list were of albums that have meant the most to me, no question it would have to be in there.

Most of the records on my list I bought in my twenties. The one that’s newest, to me, is also the most recent, Hem’s Rabbit Songs, which I love for personal as well as musical reasons. The ones I’ve been listening to longest, Dust and Murmur, I first heard as a teenager in the 1990s, and I still hear new, fresh details in them each time I listen.

Top of the list, my two favourites, are Judee and Joni. I’ve written about both records here before. In fact, I’ve written about songs from most of these albums, if not the full albums themselves. Click on the links below for detailed thoughts.

  1. Judee Sill – Judee Sill
  2. The Hissing of Summer Lawns – Joni Mitchell
  3. Paul Simon – Paul Simon
  4. Good Old Boys – Randy Newman
  5. Murmur – R.E.M.
  6. Dust – Screaming Trees
  7. The Band – The Band
  8. Rabbit Songs – Hem
  9. The Heart of Saturday Night – Tom Waits
  10. Fred Neil – Fred Neil

The songs list is a bit less heavy on singer-songwriters and has more soul, funk and disco. For whatever reason, I’ve never found those musical forms as satisfying at album length, but maybe that’s down the road for me. Unsurprisingly, I’ve written about every single one of these here.

  1. Native New Yorker – Odyssey
  2. Didn’t I Blow Your Mind (This Time) – The Delfonics
  3. She’s Gone – Hall & Oates
  4. Silver Threads & Golden Needles – Fotheringay
  5. Stormy Weather – Nina Nastasia
  6. Tennessee Jed – Grateful Dead
  7. What You Won’t Do For Love – Bobby Caldwell
  8. What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye
  9. Someone to Watch Over Me – Blossom Dearie
  10. Rock With You – Michael Jackson

Coming across something unexpectedly excellent – the widening of musical tastes in the MP3 era

Way early on in the life of this blog I wrote about the idea of a canon of pop music and the unintended effects that the propagation of this canon by music media might have. The only real beef I have with a Mojo-style pop music canon is that it tends to construct its narrative around a smallish group – Sinatra, Presley, Beatles, Stones, Brian Wilson, Lou Reed, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Smiths, etc. – and forget the rest a little bit. But the rest constitute 99% of all the artists who have ever made records, and to convince yourself that none of them ever managed to release any really amazing music because they didn’t do it at album length, repeatedly, well, that’s looking at pop all wrong. One of pop music’s chief pleasures is the song you really love by an artist you otherwise have no real use for. Pop is a democratic form, probably the most democratic art form. Even workaday talents might pull three minutes of spectacular out of the bag in a way that just couldn’t happen amongst novelists (for example). Coming across something unexpectedly excellent – something that makes you change your mind about an artist you’d previously dismissed entirely – used to be a rare pleasure. If you’re anything like me, nowadays that can happen all the time.

This is old news for many fans, I know, but in case some of you haven’t quite put this all together in your head, it happened because of changes in technology, principally the MP3 and later technologies like Bittorrent, Limewire and Soulseek, which allowed people to download almost anything, by anyone, within a minute or two. You could now see whether you liked something without having to hear it first on the radio or part with money for it. So a generation of serious, deep-listening fans grew up, then, without inheriting the traditional (rockist) assumptions about what old music was worthwhile and what wasn’t, which were useful to my generation (I’m 32) principally as a filter. These kids grew up trying a bit of everything. The rockism-versus-poptimism argument that dominated critical circles in the early noughties has long been settled in pop’s favour. It’s resulted in a generation of music-makers who think about and consume music the same way the vast majority of music fans always have, without their tastes and aesthetics being circumscribed by ideology.

When I was a teenager, I relied heavily on received notions of what music was worthwhile and was much more ideological about what I listened to. How else would I know what to part with money for? Over time I’ve come to a position far closer to the poptimist one. My own listening on a daily basis is full of one-shot great songs by artists I have only one song by. My iPod playlists – which I play on my journey to work, more or less daily – are built around the likes of What You Won’t Do For Love by Bobby Caldwell, Guilty by Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb, Know by Now by Robert Palmer (such unexpected key changes!), More Than This by Roxy Music, Just Be Good to Me by SOS Band, Forget Me Nots by Patrice Rushen (that bass line!), Merrimack River by Mandy Moore (who would have seen that coming?) and Night Walker by Yumi Matsutoya. Some of which I’ve written about here before, others I no doubt will in future. Highlighting some of this stuff for people who don’t normally listen to pop/soul/disco/folk (delete as appropriate) is a major part of the point of this blog. I hope I’m doing it tolerably well.

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The SOS Band – makers of the apocalyptic Just Be Good To Me, written and produced by Jam & Lewis

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved, Part 5

9) What You Won’t Do For Love – Bobby Caldwell

I wish I knew which of the three credited drummers on the album actually played the drums on What You Won’t Do For Love (which, as regular readers know, is one of my favourite songs). Alas, I haven’t been able to find out. Andy Newmark is one of the drummers listed on the sleeve, and it could be him, but I’m not going to take that leap here.

Still, the drum track is great. 16th-note hats, cool semi-quaver bass drum, the most damped, low-tuned toms in the history of popular music and some great fills in the extended outro, which (as with Careless Whisper) seems to have been extended just because the drummer caught a groove that was so undeniable it needed to be heard. And all of this while playing so tight the track could almost pass as programmed.

10 Mars, the Bringer of War – Gustav Holst

To all the percussionists who’ve had the pleasure of hammering out the brutally exciting quintuple-metre drum pattern to Mars, from Holst’s The Planets, you lucky, lucky, lucky drummers, you!

A combination of reading material, current interest in odd metres and topicality (yesterday was the 95th anniversary of the Armistice) has recently led me to listen to The Planets, and Mars in particular, for the first time since my teens. So many allusions to it, quotes from it, uses of it on soundtracks and so on haven’t yet robbed it of its power to overwhelm. When two-thirds of the way through, the opening rhythmic pattern reasserts itself, louder than ever before, as if the downed Mars had suddenly sprung back to his feet, ready to finish things off this time, and the tympani and snare drums take a good battering, it’s hard to think of a more brutal, terrifying evocation of war.

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A necessary duty – I listen to all the various covers of What You Won’t Do for Love so you don’t have to

What You Won’t Do for Love, then. I’ve written about it before, as long-time readers may know. A perusal of the search terms that have led some folks here in the last couple of months suggests that a lot of people know the song, but don’t know who sang it, Boz Scaggs sometimes being assumed to be the artist responsible. I can understand why: apart from the obvious stylistic similarity, Caldwell even sounds like Boz vocally on some of his songs (My Flame, for instance). But as far as I know, Scaggs never has recorded What You Won’t Do for Love. It’d be like Neil Young recording Horse With No Name, or Dylan doing Eve of Destruction (except What You Won’t Do for Love is perfect, glorious and unassailable, while Eve of Destruction is miserable, wretched and laughable).

Loads of artists have taken it on, though. So here’s a run-through of some of the more notable versions. I may do a second post with more of these. I’m including full covers only, by the way. No samples.

1) Jessie Ware

The most recent take I know of is a Jessie Ware bonus track. A floaty version. I miss the bedrock of a groove on this version and the chirping synths, blipping and beeping all over the stereo field, are distracting. Her inclusion of a very South London delivery of ‘can’t let go’ (with a long ‘a’) in the middle of a vocal on which she otherwise affects an American accent is likewise apt to take me out of the song. There was an idea worth pursuing in this arrangement, she’s not a bad singer, and a less chill-out-in-the-juice-bar remix might improve things, but a thumbs-down from me for this.

2) Alexander O’Neal

This should have been a no-brainer slam dunk of a record. A great soul song and a great soul voice. But unfortunately this song isn’t really suited to the production its given here, which takes a weird 1988-in-2008 kind of approach. Alex slinks over the top of it, but the track is leaden and uninspiring.

3) Natalie Cole and Peabo Bryson

The right kind of backing track on this one, but the groove is a little on the slow side, making the song drag unnecessarily, and the arrangement is a touch too Jazz FM. Worthy, tasteful, very well sung (the harmonies are great) but a little dull.

4) Michael Bolton

Of course Bolton’s had a go at it! Singing, as always, like he’s in a rare form of dire physical pain that prevents clear enunciation, this is still restrained by his standards: the drums sound like they were recorded in a room rather than a cavern and the guitar solo isn’t too garish. Nevertheless, for this most subtle and understatedly adult of love songs, Bolton’s approach is ham-handed and free of nuance

However, if you’re of the mind, Timeless: The Classics Vol. 2 also contains his takes on My Girl, Tired of Being Alone, Sexual Healing, Let’s Stay Together, Ain’t No Sunshine, Whiter Shade of Pale and, um, Like a Rolling Stone, by his old buddy and sometime songwriting partner (yes, really) Bob Dylan. Those of you who want to hear Mike deliver his own idiosyncratic brand of casual ultraviolence on unsuspecting pop-music standards now know where to go.

5) Go West

I have rather more fondness for this than it deserves, since it was the first version I heard (back in the mid-nineties) when it was a reasonably big hit in the UK. Listening now after a good few years, it sounds very, very cheap. Brass section from a keyboard, drums from a box, Peter Cox’s vocal sung as if he was tensing his entire body and clenching his jaw too. But it’s endearing in a way Bolton’s version isn’t, possibly because of that very British make-do-and-mend spirit, in comparison to the high-budget glossiness of Bolton’s effort.

So there is no substitute for Caldwell’s original…

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His ship’s not sinking, he’s the king of wishful thinking, he’s Peter Cox

What You Won’t Do For Love – Bobby Caldwell

There’s a strain of music that came into existence around 1975 and began to disappear in around 1985. It sits on the opposite end of the fidelity spectrum to the messy lo-fi singer-songwriter stuff that entranced me as a teenager. Not a genre so much as a sensibility, it’s principally American (although copied all over the world) and could only exist in a booming industry. Its creation required the spending of a great deal of money, both on studio time and top-flight musicians; pillow-soft but steady as machine, it is, crucially, not machine-made. When hardware sequencing became a dominant studio resource in the mid-1980s, this music was finished commercially within a year or so and done altogether by the mid-nineties. Not black or white, not rock or pop, not funk or soul, it was instead all of these and none of these.

To make it, you needed electric pianos, jazz chords, dampened drums and vocals mixed dry and close. It was made by adults, for adults. To this day, it doesn’t have a satisfactory name. Some call it yacht rock, which speaks to its opulence but says nothing about the music itself, relatively little of which was rock. It lacks the aggression, the emphasis on power and backbeat, of rock music.

Bobby Caldwell made an enduring classic of this kind of music called What You Won’t Do for Love. Of course, it’s a great song, sung brilliantly by an underrated vocal talent. But that’s not all it is. Produced and engineered by Ann Holloway Masters (rare indeed in the late 1970s for a woman to not only produce but engineer a session), it’s a wonderful sounding record, too, with a glorious low-end richness (the bass guitar is gorgeously thick, the toms have been damped and tuned low) and a beautiful sleepy horn sound. The guitar plays Curtis Mayfield-esque soul licks, and Caldwell holds the whole thing together with his electric piano. Late in the song, during the long outro, a nocturnal synth comes in of the sort that would be sampled endlessly in 1990s hip-hop. The band hangs on to the groove for a few minutes after Caldwell stops singing, and frankly, if they’d have kept going for hours I wouldn’t skip it.

What You Won’t Do for Love hit big, deservedly, on the pop, R&B and Adult Contemporary charts. It’s been covered by Boyz II Men, Roy Ayers, Goldie and Go West and sampled by 2Pac (three times!), Biggie Smalls, Aaliyah, Kool G Rap and the Luniz. Caldwell will have a comfortable retirement off that little lot. Good on him.

But the style he worked in is a thing of the past now. As the record-making process became more computerised, the precision of the drum machine became more highly valued than the feel of a steady human drummer. Yet the feel of this style of music was the result of asking gifted musicians to play understatedly, without obvious shows of virtuosity, in service of the song. While the programmed rhythm and the MIDI keyboard might have seemed like shortcuts to a professional-sounding sheen, they led instead to the brashness and gigantism that we now associate with the 1980s (but which didn’t begin at the start of the decade – it crept in instead, becoming the dominant aesthetic around 1984 and 1985) and the rigidity and uniformity of today’s Pro-Tooled world.

 

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Just to clear things up…

bobby-caldwell

This is Bobby Caldwell, funky white guy.

Bobby-Caldwell drums

This is Bobby Caldwell, drummer

bobby caldwell

This is Dr Bobby Caldwell, plastic surgeon on St Elsewhere

Can I trouble you to listen to my new EP, Last Swallow?
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