Tag Archives: funky white guys

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

George Benson – Give Me the Night

The CVs of George Benson and Quincy Jones are so absurdly overstuffed with accomplishments in jazz that their pop records can seem like mere trifles in comparison. Platinum-selling, Grammy-winning trifles.

Just another day in the office for Q, who won 27 Grammys during his career and more lifetime achievement awards and honorary degrees than I can list. In fact, he’s probably won another award since I finished typing that last sentence. But for Benson, making the first record to be released on Quincy’s new label Qwest, this was the peak of his second career as an R&B singer and hitmaker, begun four years earlier with an early vocal performance, a cover of Leon Russell’s This Masquerade (a song that, in truth, Karen Carpenter had sung better. But she sang everything better than everyone else, so there’s no disgrace in that).

Benson had thitherto been known as a virtuoso jazz guitarist, who had played on Miles in the Sky and Songs in the Key of Life. He employed a picking technique adapted from gypsy jazz, and had a way with hyperspeed octave lines that even Wes Montgomery would have envied. If he veered towards the commercial end of jazz, it was by instinct, not because he couldn’t hang with the heavy players. He could play his arse off. But still, if around the time of Breezin’ (1976) you’d been asked which contemporary jazz player might also become a pop star, Benson would have been a good guess, a guess proved right when Benson recorded The Greatest Love of All for the Muhammad Ali biopic The Greatest. I’ll quickly declare a prejudice here: The Greatest Love of All is high up my list of the worst songs of all time. Absolutely loathsome from the first bar to the last. I’m a forgiving guy and don’t hold it against George, Whitney or anyone else who’s committed the aesthetic crime of recording that most mawkish of instant showstoppers, but I’d be very happy never to hear that song again.

Jones clearly recognised a kindred spirit in Benson and so picked him as the first artist for Qwest, setting his A Team to work on the new boy’s next record: engineer Bruce Swedien and songwriter Rod Temperton, the blackest white man ever to come out of Lincolnshire. A typically strong Temperton song, Give Me the Night employed the arrangement style developed by Jones for Off the Wall, filling every part of the frequency range with details and ear candy, sculpting a sound heavy at the bottom and airy at the top, mixing the latest synth sounds with brass fanfares that could have sat happily on a Sinatra swing record from the fifties. Prolonged contact with Benson’s pop work might induce hyperglycemia, but as a one-off single Give Me the Night sits halfway between the revelation of Off the Wall and the apotheosis of Thriller.

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George Benson, octopus hands

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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