ZAPP & ROGER / “Living For The City”
Stevie Wonder is a musical genius. I know that’s not news to BoL folk, but the man really has gifted us with more great music than any of his peers. (And that includes Bob Marley even though Marley is probably more popular on a worldwide basis.) Stevie’s pinnacle position is based on the fact that he has created a significant number of iconic songs—songs that captures the zeitgeist of his/our/their era. “I Wish,” which is discussed in the Contemporary section, is one example. But on a similar theme, Stevie also produced “Living For The City.” No nostalgia there. Where “I Wish” was wistfully nostalgic, “Living For The City” was angrily defiant. The former a backward glance, the latter a steel-eyed stare at exploitation here and now. Here are a handful of cover versions of this Stevie Wonder classic. We start with Stevie’s original from Innervisions, which at the time was radio unfriendly at seven minutes long and included a dramatic interlude that broke the flow of the music. The interlude forced you to slow down, listen to and consider the message. Some of us are old enough to remember when “Living For The City” hit. Damn. Was this a Motown joint? Hell, no! This was Stevie Wonder doing it to death in a most un-Motown like fashion. Here we had an almost unmatchable fusing of the popular and the political. The record was so popular, everyone wanted it; the record was so political, everyone got the message. Pat Rhoden is an unknown. I could find absolutely nothing about him. He is one of a legion of undocumented reggae artists who took material from their Northern cousins and reggae-fied the songs. Put that inverted backbeat on it, some sweet harmonies and an exotic accent, ipsto presto, shazam, damn, mon, praise Jah, hallelujah, we go make a hit out of a hit. Reggae is double entendre personified. Rhoden’s version starts off mysteriously, sounding like some Southern funk before seamlessly seguing into that loping reggae churn. It’s an enticing, infectious groove. You got to rock with it. It's from the absolutely incredible Trojan Soulful Reggae Box Set. Violinist Noel Pointer had a mild hit with this version on his debut album. In recent years, Blue Note grooves have been the motherlode for sampling and DJ Smash updates Pointer’s instrumental into an instrumental club anthem on The New Groove: The Blue Note Remix Project, Vol. 1. I know they be line dancing for days on this one. Y’all might not be hip to brother Michael Hill and his band, Michael Hill’s Blues Mob, but here we have a sonic elaboration on Stevie’s opening motif of a young country-bred man coming to deal with the forward ways of ruthless urban life. Whereas Stevie used an urban approach, Hill goes back to a country throwdown with an Elmo James influenced blues guitar line: fat, wobbly chords with a single-string bassline and great slabs of electric slide. There’s a hard-thumping bass drum to remind us off the unremitting pounding one takes in the city. Hill sounds like a righteous deacon testifying. Then there are those tambourine beats. This is totally unlike Stevie’s vision but yet a precise snapshot of the city, the magnet that continues to draw folk from the rural areas of America, except that this promised land is actually a ghetto. Catch this on New York State of the Blues. Guitarist O’Donel Levy updates the country guitar and turns it into that wah-wah funk that the upsouth blues became. Instead of pounding, the drums are now dancing. An electric bass provides a harmonic counterpoint as O’Donel funkifies the atmosphere with greasy guitar licks. Available on Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky. And now for something sort of, well, sort of New Jack-ish. In fact this is from the soundtrack to that ghetto-famous crime movie, New Jack City. It’s Troop and Levert with a rap by Queen Latifah working mostly off of The O’Jays “For The Love Of Money” but also using immediately recognizable riffs from Stevie’s “Living For The City.” This is a clear example of the ongoing merger of old skool funk with new skool hip-hop, a merger that happens over and over. A formula yes, but a formula that always comes with a new enough twist that we eat it up and make it emblematic of a particular period, even if that period only lasts one summer long. Speaking about a particular funk formula next up is Roger Troutman and Zapp. Can you hear how the funk keeps getting up-dated? Man, Zapp is on it with this version. All the signature touches: the ultra-hard hand claps, the talk box vocals, the electronic keys and the prominent synthesized bass line. Them Ohio folk were specialists at this kind of slinky dance floor funk. If you're going to cover a classic then you should refashion it into something so singular that we know two things instantly: 1. We immediately know the source and 2. We immediately know who is doing the interpretation. Roger got this, right down to the preaching on the outro. Taken from Zapp & Roger Compilation: Greatest Hits. Ray Charles beget Stevie Wonder and Stevie beget “Living For The City” and Uncle Ray takes his nephew’s signature song and gives it an even stronger vocal interpretation than Stevie originally offered. Ray slows it down and goes deep inside the pain of that life, you feel the anguish. Just check the way my man says “Miss-ah-SIP-pee.” Sounds like he’s saying “pee” as in piss. Ain’t no doubt this is a hard luck story told by a first-hand witness. (Yeah, of course I know Ray is blind, but that’s just how hard the shit was, Ray Charles couldn’t miss seeing it.) “Y'all listen here,” this is a master at work telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Ray Charles was literally an old man when he cut this, but goddamn he flat out takes this song to another level of deeptitude. Available on the box set Genius and Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection. Finally what do you get when you but two geniuses together on one song: you get Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder doing “Living For The City” as a duet. Incongruously, it’s done as a big band blow-out. Ray at the piano and Stevie on clavinet and keys. They alternate verses. I wasn’t going to choose who was the better but then on the end Uncle Ray does one of those long, falsetto moans and I have to say: you got it. You got it! I don’t know how Ray does it. This version is a totally different arrangement from his own. It’s almost Hollywoodish with the big band arrangements including modulations when Stevie enters. It’s all tuxedo-ed up and yet, some how, some way, Ray Charles finds a way, even in the midst of splendor and excess (a chorus of eight back-up singers), Ray rises above and brings the funk. Stevie does a yeoman job of delving into the guts of his song, but it’s Ray driving this train. Ray Charles. Ray Charles! What a show. What a helluva show! —Kalamu ya Salaam P.S. If you still need convincing, go here and watch the video of the performance. Some songs.... Some songs just shouldn't be covered. Stevie Wonder's original recording of "Living For The City" is a masterpiece so vivid and lifelike that it's like cinema for the ears. As Kalamu noted, you have to really, really know what you're doing to bring your song to a dead stop right in the middle of the climax in order to throw in an entire vignette and then somehow come right back where you were and pick up the beat like you'd never let it go. It's a brilliant piece of work, no doubt. But these covers? Terrible. Seriously. I don't know if anyone ever tried covering "Living For The City" back in the Seventies when people were still bringing the raw, gritty, soul to the recording studio with them, but these covers just ain't cutting it. Uncle Ray tries hard, but you can hear all the "trying" in there. That's the studio version. On the live version, Stevie sounds like he's just kind of hanging around and Ray sounds high. (I'm not accusing anybody of anything. I'm just saying half his words are slurred. Maybe it was a stroke, I don't know.) The blues version sounds good instrumentally, but the vocals just don't work. Noel Pointer's remix thing (or whoever is responsible for that) misses the point so completely that it's not worth insulting. And besides all of that, none of these versions are appropriately epic enough to do justice to what Stevie originally put down. Stevie's original shit is a full-length feature film compressed into six or seven minutes of drama. The remakes are like listening to someone tell you about a great movie they saw. What you really want to tell them is, "Man, shut up and just let me watch the damned movie myself!" There is one exception though. That Pat Rhoden is banging! It starts off so strangely though. I was listening to the first verse thinking, what the hell am I listening to? The harmonies are ragged and slightly off-rhythm. The music sounds like it wants to be some swampy-sounding Southern funk but lost its way somewhere and ends up coming off sloppy (and not in a good way). But then the beat slows down and coalesces into that sweet reggae groove. I said, "Oh." Now I understood what was going on. Here's the thing about Jamaican covers. These dudes don't give a damn if a record is classic or unknown. They don't care if it's epic and majestic or a brief throwaway. It's a whole different approach to remaking music. The Jamaicans hear a tune they like, show up in the studio with a guitar player, a drummer and a dude on electric bass and just let it rip. It reminds me of hip-hop in that way; maybe that's the reason I'm a sucker for roots remakes of soul records. I noticed there are at least three occasions where Rhoden gets the lyrics wrong, but really, what difference does it make? They're just skanking around. I wouldn't be surprised if the recording we're hearing is the first take. That's one of the reasons it has so much genuine soul. These other versions are faking the funk. —Mtume ya Salaam P.S. Just realized, I never mentioned the feature track. It's probably the best of the versions I don't like. It's not good, but it's not particularly bad either.
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