SHUGGIE OTIS / “Island Letter”
In classic R&B, there is a well-known tradition of the male vocalist testifying in falsetto to an absent woman (or soon-to-be absent) over a molasses-like groove—meaning, sweet, slow and very, very thick. There are so many of these songs that an adequate overview would require a book. Instead, I’m just going to cherry-pick a few of my favorites. No rhyme or reason, just some sweet, sweet soul for your earhole. Sweet Charles – “I Won’t Last A Day Without You” – From Food For Funk(Polydor – 1995; originally released in 1974) The first track up is one of the obscurities. ‘Sweet’ Charles Sherrell is a singer and multi-instrumentalist who also served briefly as band director for James Brown’s J.B.’s. To my knowledge, Sherrell recorded only one album under his name, the entertainingly-titled, For Sweet People From Sweet Charles. On “I Won’t Last A Day,” Charles sounds something like Ronald Isley channeling Curtis Mayfield as he serenades his girl with sincere and sweet nothings like, “I can take all the madness the world has to give / But I won’t last a day without you.” Darondo – “Didn’t I” – From Let My People Go – (Luv & Haight, 2006; originally released in 1973) I first heard this righteous three minutes of sonic perfection a couple months ago when I bought a funk/jazz compilation named Freedom Time. It’s a cool compilation. I was enjoying it. Then, just as I turning into the parking lot at work, this track came on. It hit me so hard, I had to listen to it twice the first time and I almost made myself late. Back in the early Seventies, Darondo was a part-time musician and full-time pimp (although he denies it today—just like a pimp) operating out of the home of ‘The Game,’ Oakland, CA. Yes, Darondo drove a Rolls Royce with a vanity plate bearing his name and yes, he carried a cane, but more germane to the discussion at hand, Dorando’s entire musical career (which consists of three two-sided singles and a newly-discovered set of reels) has been recently compiled on CD. (I was planning on making this one the feature track, but Oliver Wang at Soul Sides [link: http://soul-sides.com/2006/02/darondo-he-gave-you-everything.html] beat me to it. Hit the link ASAP and he might still have the track available for download.) Al Green – “Have You Been Making Out OK” – From Call Me (Hi, 1973) Truthfully, there are probably 10-15 Al Green records that would fit the bill here. Think about it: “Your Love Is Like The Morning Sun,” “The Love Sermon,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart,” and of course, the immortal “Simply Beautiful” (which I’m saving for another post). Any of those songs would sound right in this mix. I’m going with “Have You Been Making Out OK” because it’s an album cut (which means three or four of you might not already know it) and because the lyrics fit in with our theme. Check the way Al’s falsetto almost breaks as he asks ol’ girl, “Did he make you happy?” Junior Byles – “Curly Locks” – From Curly Locks: The Best Of (Heartbeat, 1997; originally released in 1974) Technically, “Curly Locks” isn’t R&B, but it was recorded in 1974, a truly stellar year for Black music, so that’s good enough for me. This is one of those classic ‘your Daddy don’t like me’ records—you can’t help but love it. Over a sparse keyboard-and-drum groove, the dreadlocked Rasta repeatedly asks his ‘curly locks’ sweetheart which way is she going to go, his way or her Dad’s? An associate of legendary crazyman Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Junior may or may not have been out of his mind as well. (Listen to Junior’s maniacal chuckling during the last chorus—what’s that about?) One things for sure, this little romance between Curly Locks and her dreadlock Rastaman was doomed from the start. The only one who hadn’t figured it out was Junior himself. Third World – “Got To Get Along” – From Third World (Island, 1976) Let’s stay with the reggae theme for a minute. Or at least, with a reggae band, because there’s nothing reggae about this one except for the ‘locks the singers and players were sporting when the cut the track. Third World’s debut album is an absurdly lush collection of classic Roots reggae…until track #6 that is, when all of a sudden they break out the blackout shades, tight-fitting three-piece suits and slow-motion dance steps for “Got To Get Along,” as perfect an imitation of overly-sincere ‘please come back, baby’ Soul music that you’re every likely to hear. I’m at a complete loss as to what these cats had in mind when they put this track on a reggae album, but I’m glad they did. The Temptations – “Just My Imagination” – From Sky’s The Limit (Motown, 1971) And speaking of tight-fitting suits and equally tight choreography, we all know this one already…or should. It’s Eddie Kendricks’ swan song with the Temps and their second-to-last #1 single (1972’s “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” was the last). At first, the story is about has heartwarming as it gets. “Soon we’ll be married and have a family,” Eddie sings in that inimitable croon of his. “A cozy little home out in the country with two children, maybe three.” But by the end of the verse, the truth comes out—my man is off his rocker, completely lost somewhere deep, deep in fantasy land. “In reality,” Eddie admits, “She doesn’t even know me.” If this one doesn’t get you at least a little choked up, you’re a heartless bastard and I feel sorry for your wife. Shuggie Otis – “Island Letter” - From Inspiration Information (Luaka Bop, 2001; originally released in 1974) When a record starts off with a question like “Did you think about me at all?” you know there’s some serious reminiscing, lamenting and nostalgia-ing in your immediate future. I’m making this one the feature cut for two reasons. First, because nobody except music nuts seem to know who this cat is…which is a shame really, because Shuggie’s Inspiration Information album has that rare combination of musical brilliance, mild insanity and mainstream accessibility that usually portends millions and millions of copies sold. (Prince, anyone?) Not to mention that Shuggie was all of 19 years old when he began recording this album…by himself. That’s right, he wrote all the songs, played all the instruments and overdubbed all the vocals…by himself. (Stevie Wonder, anyone?) I don’t know what you were doing when you were 19, but I was dropping out of college, spending every nickel I had on 12” rap singles and eating way too much pizza. As for Shuggie, he was composing, playing, singing, recording and producing songs that are still blowing minds 30 years down the line. In another life, he could’ve been rich and famous—I’m convinced of it. Oh, and did I mention that Shuggie wrote “Strawberry Letter #23” around the same time he was getting out of high school? It’s true, he did. Anyhow, the second reason I’m posting this one is, I’m a Digable Planets fanatic and as such, I want every other Planets fan out there to hear the source for that so-so elegant groove that graces “For Corners.” This is it, y’all. So there you have it. Seven examples of super-bad ‘my girl done up and left me’ or ‘did me wrong’ or ‘was never mine in the first place’ R&B (and reggae too + a rap that samples the soul) and all of it from that magical first six years of the Seventies, back when a man wasn’t afraid to cry, hyperbole and overstatement ruled the day, and Soul music was king. Play these for your baby, make sure you bring some chocolates and a lil’ something to drink on and if you still can’t get lucky, my man, there’s no helping you at all. -Mtume ya Salaam What, no Mayfield? Mtume, Mtume, I dig what you’ve done, I just don’t understand how you did it without including at least one Curtis Mayfield joint. I don’t have any particular one in mind. I’m going to pick one and just put it in the juke box. Won’t even say no more about it. I'm glad you did this quick, little survey of sweet soul falsetto music, but, you know, I still got to say: what, no Mayfield—you know Mama and I raised y'all better than that ;->) —Kalamu ya Salaam P.S. The Curtis track is from 1975. P.P.S. Am I the only one who finds it macabrely ironic that an alleged pimp uses a biblical reference to call his album "Let My People Go"—to quote Nikki Giovanni: ain't they got no shame?!!?
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