Tag Archives: Thom Bell

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

Advertisements

She’s Gone – Hall & Oates

Hall & Oates always seemed to view popular music as a playground for them to have fun in. Many white soul singers and groups have suffered from a purism born of a desire to be taken seriously. Daryl Hall was taken seriously – by Thom Bell, by Gamble & Huff, by Smokey Robinson (who tried to get him signed to Motown), by the Stylistics and the Delfonics, whose members Hall knew when he was a kid (he’s 69 years old – the band have been going since the very early seventies), and by the Temptations, with whom he and Oates struck up an easy friendship.

Knowing that he had the respect of these guys seems to have freed Hall to be whatever he’s wanted to be in the moment, and so his music has ranged far and wide. In the late seventies, it acquired new wave synths. He moved to New York and made a punk-infused art-rock solo album with Robert Fripp, king of gonzoid guitar, before casually returning to pop to become an icon of the early MTV age. In the 1980s, Hall, with his huge mullet, and Oates, with his bubble perm and porn-star moustache, were almost like a cartoon of themselves, and always looked like they were having a hell of a lot of fun.

But at heart, Hall and Oates are soul brothers, and their most enduring and emotionally affecting songs tend to be soul ballads, records like Everytime You Go Away (made famous by Paul Young, but recorded in a bravely minimal gospel style by H&O), Sara Smile and, above any other, She’s Gone.

She’s Gone is one of my favourite records of all time, no question. Top 10, easily. Right up there with Native New Yorker, Wedding Bell Blues (Laura Nyro’s recording, obvs), I Need Your Lovin’, What You Won’t Do For Love and the rest. It’s a masterpiece, and I love everything about it: the A/B to B chord change that 10CC nicked for the intro to I’m Not in Love a couple of years later; the way Hall doubles Oates’s melody in the verses an octave higher before stepping out at the end of each verse, letting the words pour out of him, as if from some from unhealable wound; the masterful string and brass arrangement; the bluesy guitar in the intro; Bernard Purdie’s patient shuffle on the drums. It’s all wonderful.

That’s before we get to what’s probably the finest key change in popular music. Unearned within their songs, most key changes fall flat. They signify no emotional release, only the idea that a raising of pitch might have been connected in some way to a raising of the emotional stakes in some other song in the past, and so might work again here, in some Pavlovian fashion. This “X Factor” key change has given them a deserved bad name. When I noticed Lou Barlow incorporating key changes into a couple of songs on his recent record, I had to stand up and applaud his bravery.- few serious songwriters risk it these days.

The key change in She’s Gone is the opposite of the lazy key change. For a start it happens late in a song filled with patient build-up and intelligent lyrical detail. Moreover it comes about in semi-tonal increments, with the listener unsure what key the song’s going to land in. It becomes a dare: when we arrive, finally, at whatever key we’re going to be in, are the singers going to be able to hit the high notes still? It’s like Hall & Oates are setting themselves a challenge, egging the band on to keep raising the bar, always confident they’ll be able to clear it. But the actual key change is accompanied by a kind of emotional key change too, from grief to something very close to joy – the journey taken by so much of the best soul music. So much of the best music, full stop.

If you only know Hall & Oates as the group that did Maneater, or Private Eyes, or even Rich Girl, She’s Gone is the song to make you permanently re-evaluate them.

Hall-Oates

Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 6 – Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind this Time) – The Delfonics

There’s nothing I don’t like about the Delfonics’ Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind this Time). Thom Bell’s luxurious sting arrangement, William Hart’s soaring falsetto, the electric sitar (Bobby Eli, I think, rather than Norman Harris), Bobby Martin’s French horn call that begins the song, the key change to A going in to the first verse from the intro, that rhythmically displaced chord change in the chorus – it’s all wonderful, and you can’t give enough credit to Thom Bell for his creativity. But even so, when I put the song on, it’s usually because I want to hear that drum track. And for that, we have MFSB drummer Earl Young and engineer Joe Tarsia to thank.

Earl Young is an unquestionable great of popular music, the supplier of countless great drum performances from the late 1960s and all through the ’70s. But he shines brightest on Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind this Time). Joe Tarsia, engineer and studio owner, and presumably Thom Bell (since, as producer, the decision was ultimately his) were convinced of the need for the drums on their records to be uncompressed, loud and proud. As a consequence, no matter how sophisticated, ornate and opulent the arrangement, the drum tracks on songs coming off the Philly conveyor belt meant business. Young’s studio kit had a 26-inch bass drum. On Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind this Time), Young plays meaty, powerful rimshots all the way through (which, along with his intricate hi-hat work, is a Young trademark), his tom-and-snare build-ups in the choruses have an aggressive physicality to them and his work on the brass is decisive and authoritative. Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind this Time) is a complex, conflicted song, and, to wax psychological for a moment, if the orchestra reinforces and amplifies the tenderness that the singer still feels for his love, Earl Young’s drums stand for the part of him that is delighted to be standing up for himself and finally be proving her wrong.

Young’s magnificent performance is given the sound it deserves by Joe Tarsia, recording engineer and owner of Sigma Sound studio. His philosophy was to attempt to record the session as accurately as possible and save the clever stuff for the mix, but he was not afraid of capturing real room sounds as part of that process. The drum sound on Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind this Time) is noticeably reverberant and big, and it’s not something that was added in mix. Indeed, Greg Milner quotes Tarsia as describing the contemporaneous West Coast quest for total separation and dryness as “ridiculous… it was the producer not willing to commit. He wanted to be able to take the guitar out later, which you can’t do if it’s bleeding into five other microphones.” Leakage was Tarsia’s friend, not something of which he lived in mortal fear, and he sculpted that live sound – and, according to Milner, the session that produced the backing track for Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind this Time) was completely live, orchestra and all – into one of the most incredible-sounding recordings ever made.

earl young
Earl Young (photo © Andrew Small)