Album of the Week: Shuggie Otis’ Freedom Flight (1971)

17. How’s that for writing “Strawberry Letter #23”? Yes, Shuggie Otis was 17 when he sported that cool mustache and wrote and recorded Freedom Flight, the predecessor to his masterpiece Inspiration Information and an excellent album in its own right. It’s one of his only records, as he essentially disappeared after 1975.

According to a 2016 profile in The Guardian, the guitarist “admits he enjoyed being out of the spotlight, away from the pressures of being Shuggie Otis, the erstwhile teen prodigy who never quite managed to capitalise on all the acclaim”. It is not often that an artist takes over 40 years to release their next album, but that is exactly what happened with Shuggie Otis. 2018’s Inter-fusion proves that he never lost his guitar-playing chops (or, you know, died or anything), but the songs aren’t there. The only track with vocals is “Ice Cold Daydream” a pale remake of the first track on Freedom Flight.

The Freedom Flight version of “Ice Cold Daydream” starts things off with pep. Then we have the classic “Strawberry Letter #23”, an all-time love song that became a hit for the Brothers Johnson several years later. Shuggie plays “Me & My Woman” with a blues expertise that would make B.B. King proud. “Purple” is a bit formless, but it still rips. Then there’s the title-track. “Freedom Flight” is a stoned 70s classic, a peaceful psychedelic odyssey. None other than George Duke plays keys here, and his assistance gives the track some rhythm after a few minutes.

As a listener, you can’t help but feel a little frustrated that there isn’t more to Shuggie Otis’s discography. Maybe his youthful spark didn’t last. Maybe he was too hard-headed about playing solo, or the alcohol got in the way. Whatever the case may be, Shuggie is a living legend, and Freedom Flight is a standout album of the rich 70s.

Listen to Freedom Flight here.

Album of the Week: Kool & The Gang’s Light of Worlds (1974)

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Is there any song quite like “Summer Madness”? Those rising synth notes (presented in my best written attempt above) are jolting; they raise the hair on your arms. The track is iconic enough that it’s been sampled hundreds of times (I heard it years ago in Digable Planets “Jimmi Diggin Cats”), and remains a highlight on Light of Worlds, the fifth album from Kool & The Gang.

Yes, it’s Kool & The Gang, of “Celebration” and “Ladies Night” fame. Light of Worlds finds them pre-Chart Toppers, but post-“Jungle Boogie”. In other words, they weren’t yet a total sensation but they knew how to make a hit. Light of Worlds, then, bubbles with under-the-radar jazz-funk flavor. As an ensemble, they rival Earth, Wind & Fire in their ability to blend funk and pop.

Fans of J Dilla’s Donuts will instantly recognize “Fruitman” from “The Diff’rence”. It’s a groovy, horn-filled jam and an early highlight. The rhythm section is super tight throughout the album, but the title track especially feels like the Gang in top form. The late Ronald Bell, who fronted the group, whips out his fat ARP synth on the second side, and oh boy does this thing rip. Listen to “Whiting H. & G.” and tell me you don’t feel like you’re cruising down the coast with shades on in a convertible. The seagull sounds at the end don’t hurt either.

I’m kind of surprised “You Don’t Have to Change” wasn’t released as a single: it’s as mellow and accessible as most anything else released in ’74. The melody in the verses to me recalls The Spinners’ “It’s a Shame”, which is another classic. “Higher Plane” was the album’s biggest hit on the R&B charts, and its tight funk guitar reminds me of another “Higher” song by one Stevie Wonder. “Here After” closes things on a stellar note, with a great voice-over and a spiritual-jazz leaning instrumental, complete with kalimba! I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this album to any fan of 70s soul music, whether pop, funk or jazz is your thing. Light of Worlds does it all and does it well.

Listen to Light of Worlds here.

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BONUS ROUND: YouTube comments on this live “Summer Madness”

“this version sounds clean and smooth like the album version, i love to smoke weed to this song” (from user masterbate23)

“i am seriously High and im loving this live version!” (from user DontPanic2008)

“Kool and the Gang are definitely cool.” (from user Shanedango32)

Album of the Week: Presenting Isaac Hayes (1968)

Isaac Hayes was the man before he was the man. At 22, the Tennessee native was playing keys on Otis Redding records and writing songs for Sam & Dave. Fast forward a few years and we arrive at his breakout Hot Buttered Soul (1969), one of those records to end all records, a consummate soul masterpiece. Stand it up next to What’s Goin’ On, Innervisions, what have you. Hot Buttered Soul is a monolith.

But it wasn’t Hayes’ debut. That would be the previous year’s Presenting Isaac Hayes, a surprisingly unknown soul-jazz session that deserves more props. The back-cover details the story of a typical 60s night in Memphis with Big Ike: “A few years back, Isaac strolled into Currie’s Tropicana Club in Memphis and sat in with the group, which included drummer Al Jackson, Jr. He sat down at the piano and began rambling over the keyboard. His offerings were an instant crowd success.” This was the Stax/Volt Records house band, essentially Booker T. & The M.G.s augmented with Isaac Hayes instead of Booker, who was in school at the time.

Presenting finds Hayes on piano and vocals, with the aforementioned Jackson Jr. on drums and Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass guitar. The trio’s Stax sessions for the album were improvised with no additional musicians. I’d love to hear more from these sessions, since the original album with 5 tracks is only half an hour long.

Once you’ve heard the full version of “Precious, Precious”, the album edit doesn’t really work. It’s sort of like if you took a 20-minute Coltrane session and cut it down to 3 minutes. Like its perfect follow-up Hot Buttered Soul, Presenting Isaac Hayes works best outside the confines of radio-friendly time constraints. The longform tracks here are just excellent – “I Just Want to Make Love to You” is raw: the sound is live and intimate, like you’re in the studio with the three players. With alcohol on his breath, Ike has a vocal swagger that pushes the track to the next level. It’s blues, as blue as Willie Dixon’s original, but Hayes’ chops on piano take it to the ever-transcendent realm of soul-jazz.

The “Going to Chicago Blues” track is another rambling wonder, with a fantastic vocal from Hayes at the end of the conjoined “Misty”. The closer “You Don’t Know Like I Know” is one of two Ike originals (though he makes every song his own), and the instrumental piece wouldn’t sound out of place on an Ahmad Jamal Trio record. There’s something in the timbre of the drums here, they’re just so warm and organic. While I wouldn’t mind vocals, it’s a great cut nonetheless.

And then, on streaming and reissue versions, we conclude with the long version of “Precious, Precious”. Wow! Big Ike is feelin’ it here! It’s no wonder he has that top hat and baton on the cover, because this is 20 minutes of magic. Sorry for the corny line, but listen! The man mumbles and wonders, the band carries the driving theme and the music just flows and flows. I love Isaac Hayes wordless vocals, it sounds like he’s making love to the music. Or, as Lil Wayne would say 45 years later, “I just fucked this piano”. Probably another reason they cut it for the first release.

If you like jazzy R&B, soulful jazz, soul-jazz, improvised blues jams or otherwise groovy tunes, don’t hesitate to give this one a spin. It’s an overlooked debut by an underrated master.

Listen to Presenting Isaac Hayes on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Ray Charles & Milt Jackson’s Soul Brothers / Soul Meeting (1958)

I recently rewatched Ray (2004) on HBO, which was fun, since Jaime Foxx is so charismatic and the music is so good. I think I realized this last year watching Fassbinder’s Gods of the Plague (1970), in which the protagonist slow-dances to “Here We Go Again” in one of the best scenes. Indeed, Ray Charles was immensely talented and his discography is full of gems. In 1958 he recorded Soul Brothers with the famed jazz vibraphonist Milt Jackson, AKA Bags.

This collaboration is interesting for a few reasons. For one, there are no vocals, which makes it atypical of Ray’s output and is probably why it’s one of the lesser-known releases in his oeuvre. Additionally, the two musicians decided to play around with different instruments, switching roles occasionally. That’s Ray Charles on saxophone on “Soul Brothers” and “How Long Blues”, where Milt Jackson plays the piano.

Soul Brothers and Soul Meeting were originally released as two different albums, both culled from 1958 sessions with the latter first released in 1961. The reissue combines them and sort of jumbles the track orders: for example “Soul Brothers”, originally the first track on the titular album, is now track 8. No matter – the two albums are quite similar and the relaxed nature of the pieces don’t require much of a formal order.

As I mentioned above, Ray plays the sax here, and he rips it. I especially love “How Long Blues”. Like most of these tracks, it’s in no hurry, but once you do reach Ray’s sax playing about 6 minutes in, it’s well worth the wait. “Blue Funk” has some tight guitar playing (courtesy of Skeeter Best) and groovy vibes from Bags. You can practically smell the smoke wafting out of some southern bar 60 years ago. As a jazzy collab, this is not the most immediate Ray Charles release. But it’s perfect for that laid-back Sunday afternoon vibe.

Listen to Soul Brothers / Soul Meeting on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Irma Thomas’s Wish Someone Would Care (1964)

Have you ever felt so lonely you could die? This is that feeling as an album. It’s filled with more lovelorn despair than any of my favorite sad-sack slowcore albums, all while being ten times as soulful and only half as long.

Dubbed the “Soul Queen of New Orleans”, Irma Thomas spent several years recording singles for New Orleans-based Ron Records and Minit Records while raising three children. The late, great Allen Toussaint found success as an arranger and producer on Minit (soon to be bought by Imperial Records), writing Thomas’s 1961 single “Girl Meets Boy”. The song is beautiful, but it does not foreshadow the hopelessness of this record, Wish Someone Would Care. Released at 23, her debut is lyrically pleading, but vocally it exudes the confidence and maturity of someone beyond her years.

The title track, composed by Thomas, opens the album perfectly. Every instrument is bursting with life, and Thomas’s first vocal is a great moan, filled with as much pain as melody. You can’t get a more perfect mission statement for a record filled with lonely yearning than “Wish Someone Would Care”. The next few tracks continue the theme, including the stand-out “Time on My Side”. This song was also released as a single three months later by the young British band known as The Rolling Stones, who had just released their first album and met Thomas in the UK.

Irma Thomas never had an album as commercially successful as this one since, but she is still around. In February, she said, “Survival is the thing I know how to do very well. Today or tomorrow, I get to the point where I can’t make a living singing. I know how to sew. I do a mean pot of red beans and rice.”

Listen to Wish Someone Would Care on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Nina Simone’s Emergency Ward! (1972)

The great Nina Simone has several lauded live albums, but Emergency Ward! stands out for two key reasons. First, there are are only three songs on this full-length LP. Second, only the first half was recorded in front of a live audience.

The live A-side, “My Sweet Lord / Today Is a Killer” was performed on November 18, 1971 at the Town Theatre in Wrightstown, NJ (just outside of Fort Dix). Noted political activist Jane Fonda (remember when she starred in an experimental political comedy by Jean-Luc Godard?) organized the event as a continuation of the vaudeville/variety anti-Vietnam War FTA tour. A transgressive performance, it allowed the soldiers stationed at Fort Dix the “chance to rail against the army”. Good thing Fonda was a Nina Simone fan.

The Fort Dix performance is electric. The band gets right to it: drums, tambourines, handclaps, bass and a choir quickly develop a rollicking groove to back up Simone on piano and vocals. Audience cheers and the timbre of the recording perfectly capture the live atmosphere of the theater. David Nelson, a founding member of The Last Poets, contributed the poem “Today is a Killer”, which Simone brilliant splices into George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord”. The album refers to the piece as a medley, but it’s really more of a new song, a lighting-in-a-bottle creation that was thankfully recorded by RCA technicians at the performance. Which, at 18 minutes on the album, is one of those tracks that sounds way shorter than it is. In fact, the only complaint I have about this release is how quickly this opening track fades out. Surely the live show was longer, but as listeners we can’t be sure what happened.

The last two tracks were recorded in-studio. “Poppies” is a lush song that RCA billed as a “poignant tribute to a drug victim” (see the ad below), though it probably has as much, if not more, to do with war. Then another George Harrison cover (again from his debut) in “Isn’t It a Pity”. If you’re a Galaxie 500 fan like me, you probably think that their version (which closes On Fire) is the best one. Unless you’d like it more sombre and less Beatles-y (Beatlesian?), Simone’s 11-minute rendition won’t change that. But it is lovely and intimate. The reissue/streaming version also adds “Let It Be Me”, culled from the Fort Dix performance.

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Somewhat strange RCA promo for Emergency Ward! Source: trunkworthy.com

The George Harrison connection isn’t all that strange if you know that her preceding album was Here Comes the Sun, which began with the titular track (written by Harrison). In addition, the concert she performed before the Fort Dix show (October 10 at Lincoln Center) featured a cover of another track from Abbey Road, “Come Together”. Thank god we don’t have to hear an 18-minute version of that. Apparently, Harrison was inspired by Nina’s take on “Isn’t It a Pity”, but I’m not sure the two artists ever met, let alone recorded together.

This period of Simone’s career was marked by frustration. Between the late 60s and early 70s, she had a strained relationship with RCA and America as a whole. Amidst label disputes, sociopolitical unrest and Simone’s increasing mental health issues, the fact of Emergency Ward‘s existence at all is kind of a miracle. This is an anti-war album, largely recorded (by RCA) at an anti-war event, and released (by RCA) with a collage of Vietnam-related news clippings (like Bombing of North Termed Highly Effective by U.S. – Accurate Laser Guided Bombs Believed Freely Used) on the album cover. But you probably won’t find it in your parents’ record collection. “While Nina remained proud of Emergency Ward, essentially a concept album, the commercial payoff was minimal,” writes Nadine Cohodas in her Simone biography Princess Noire (2012).

The next decade of Nina Simone’s career would be markedly less prolific than the previous one. In 1973 she moved to Liberia, then three years later to Switzerland. ”Switzerland is the only place in the world where I am at peace,” she told the Times in 1983. ”The people live in peace, and they don’t steal, and no one’s crazy. When the Swiss see fat tourists from America, they laugh as though it’s a circus and say it’s not possible for people to look like that. The Swiss have protected me. They know that after every visit to America I would always have to go to the hospital to recover.”

Not exactly high praise for the USA, but I can’t blame her. I’m just glad that today, as a time-capsule of a uniquely tumultuous period in American history, we have this magnificent album.

Listen to Emergency Ward! on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Roberta Flack’s Feel Like Makin’ Love (1975)

Atlantic / SD 18131 via LogicalSpock

Some of legendary singer Roberta Flack’s most popular albums include her debut First Take and later Killing Me Softly, gospel-leaning soul albums with immortal ballads like “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and the latter album’s famously Fugees-covered title track. But my favorite is the under-appreciated Feel Like Makin’ Love, a lush and sensual foray into the Adult Contemporary sound that defined many hits of the mid-70s.

Musically, Feel Like Makin’ Love is more Carole King than Nina Simone, its breezy title track earning a #1 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 as well as three Grammy noms including Song of the Year. Younger heads like myself may also recognize it from D’Angelo’s cover version on his mid-career masterwork Voodoo.

The vibe here is resolutely mellow and sexy, with a much larger band than previous Flack recordings, including but not limited to jazz legends Bob James (keyboards), Idris Muhammad and Alphonse Mouzon (drums), and Joe Farrell (oboe). Though quite accessible, the record is expertly arranged and performed, with an early highlight in “I Can See the Sun in Late December”.

“I Can See the Sun” was penned by Stevie Wonder, who was at a career peak around this time. It shows: the nearly 13-minute epic feels less than half that length, with Flack carrying the soaring melody and the band filling out the sound like sunlight shining into the forest of the album cover. It’s a wonderful song on an album full of them.

Feel Like Makin’ Love‘s recording process took over a year and was reportedly fraught with production disputes, leading to delays in its release and an emotionally distressed Roberta Flack. But you wouldn’t know that upon hearing it. The final product is an outstanding collection of smooth soul, ideal for summer days and nights.

Click here to listen on Spotify.