Tag Archives: Curtis Mayfield

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 Band as players and singers

Just an addendum to the piece I wrote the other day on The Band. Not nearly enough gets said about these guys as singers and players. If Robertson isn’t quite the player I once held him to be – he’s never really convincing again as a rock ‘n’ roll player after the Dylan tour of 1965-66, and his clean, soul-style playing is just too slavish in its imitation of Curtis Mayfield for him to be considered a player of the first rank – Danko, Hudson and Helm are among the most immediately distinctive players of their primary instruments. And Robertson was, for a couple of years at least, a songwriter of idiosyncratic brilliance

Rick Danko’s bass style is unlike anybody else’s. He never made a feature of locking in with Helm’s kick. He wasn’t a root-fifth country plonkster, or a straight-eights guy. He did this weird syncopation thing that was totally his own. Bass Musician magazine called it Danko-ing. There’s no better term for it; it was totally his own thing. He compared it to playing horn bass, and there was something very tuba-esque about his tone at times.

Here’s how to Danko:

danko-ing

Levon Helm, I’ve said before, is one of my very favourite drummers. He was a very danceable drummer. Funky, with a lazy late backbeat, like Al Jackson’s was late, like Earl Young’s was late, like Ringo Starr’s was late, like Jim Eno’s is today. He put it right where it felt best. And he did it while singing lead and harmony vocals.

As for Garth Hudson, weird eccentric polymath Garth Hudson, you’re talking about a guy who could play a lightning-speed organ solo, create ever-shifting textures with his Lowery, custom build his own effects boxes for totally unique sounds, tear it up with a honking tenor-sax solo or make you cry with a tender soprano sax solo. He’s totally unique. A true one-off.

The Band’s harmonies were great, too. While they swapped lead vocals – and in the early days tended to trade lines with each other within songs – there was a defined three-part harmony they tended to fall back on: Helm at the bottom, Danko in the middle and Richard Manuel on top, often singing falsetto. You can hear it clearly on the beautiful Rockin’ Chair. Manuel sings the verses, but in the choruses, that’s him right at the top. Then he drops down to take the lead again. They’d do it the same way live as on record. It’s not a slick sound. They didn’t hit their consonants at the same time, take their breaths in perfect synchronisation or soften their distinctive timbres to better blend their voices. They sang from the heart, and they sounded wonderful.

Still No Clapton, Part 2 – To Kingdom Come by The Band

This is an article about Robbie Robertson the guitar player rather than Robbie Robertson the songwriter. And so I’m obliged to start with Dylan’s quote about his one-time sideman:

The only mathematical guitar genius I’ve ever run into who doesn’t offend my intestinal nervousness with his rearguard sound

I’ve logged hundreds of hours listening to the Band’s music. How many times have I listened to The Band and Northern Lights, Southern Cross? 50, 80, 100 times each? If you add in the number of times I’ve listened to the 1966 Dylan/Hawks set from Manchester Free Trade Hall, I may have as many as 500 hours or so on just this one group. I know the Band’s music well, I know Robertson’s playing well. I still have no idea what Dylan was driving at.

Playing with Dylan, Robertson’s solos were apt to be scrappy and messy. He bit hard into notes, and played without much vibrato. If he played one note and held it, you wouldn’t think, Ah, yes, the tone and control of a natural lead guitar player, as you would with, say, David Gilmour. Robertson’s attack, the lack of refinement, was the whole point. As Barney Hoskyns noted in Across the Great Divide, there has always been something of the enthusiastic amateur in Robertson’s playing.

The step change in his style occurred during the recording of The Basement Tapes. Partly because he’d played enough solos to last him a lifetime and partly because of the discipline enforced on the group by recording to a cheap mono tape machine at low volume in a clangy basement, Robertson emerged a different player. His new style was sensitive, tasteful, based on a deep feel for the song and an understanding of how and where one should play to complement, but not compete with, the singer. It is this version of Robertson that is a guitar genius.

A key text for me has always been To Kingdom Come. The second track on the Band’s debut, Music from Big Pink, contained the only Robertson lead vocal (until Islands‘ Knocking Lost John) in the Band’s catalogue and the only extended lead guitar break on the whole of the first album. As such, it debuted all the facets of his new style: a superlative tone, a mastery of structure and repetition, a much more prominent vibrato, and a string bending technique that begins to anticipate the great Jerry Donahue (who widened the folk and country guitar player’s vocabulary immeasurably with his arsenal of contrary-motion bends and double-stop bends that go up by different intervals). Most evident, though, is the soulful influence of Curtis Mayfield, audible in the R&B/gospel licks that Robertson was now interweaving with his bandmates’ vocals. He retained enough bite that you still knew it was him, but what was gone, at least from his recorded work, was the frantic quality that his playing had in the early years. Leaving this behind, he truly became the mathematical guitar genius Dylan had praised so highly a couple of years before.

Robbie
Robertson, latter days with the Band

Some of the author’s own work. The author is not Robbie Robertson unfortunately: