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'Up the Creek (Without a paddle)' excerpt
A STORY TO START ...
We're here today to reclaim half of this forgotten record for funk history, but first of all, here's a story while you listen to the fat slapping bassline in the track above (turn it up loud and add a little bass for story emphasis) ....
There's a fascinating sequence in the "Make It Funky" episode of the great 1996 documentary series "Dancing In The Street", where the interviewer decides to trace back the origin of the classic funk bass slap - that's where the bassplayer's thumb slaps the lower octave, and another plucks the octave above - if that's too technical for you, just know that it's the centrepiece of the 70s funk sound.
The interviewer speaks to all the major bass players of the period, asking each who they'd first heard making that sound. He works his way back through Bootsy Collins, Larry Graham and others, and finally the trail ends at Rustee Allen of Sly and the Family Stone.
They cut to a surprised-looking Rustee - and from memory he's in a tuxedo, getting ready to play for a functions band in an empty bar somewhere, glory days long behind.
Anyway, that's Rustee, inventor of the slap bass, funking it up in the track preview above, and it looks like he's back on the trail now. So let's drop back into a pivotal moment in the Temptations' history ...
NORMAN LEAVES THE BUILDING
When writer/producer/arranger Norman Whitfield removed his brilliance from Motown; switched the company's logo upside down and formed Whitfield Records, he left the his main band the Temptations behind. Before this, he'd sometimes used his "other" band The Undisputed Truth as a testing ground ground for his epic, orchestral psychedelic tracks, then perfected the same tracks to great success on the Temptations' releases ... but after the final flourish of the Temptations' 1973 album "1990", with Rose Royce and the Funk Brothers laying the base for the psychedelic funk, he was gone.
Motown then attached producer Jeffrey Bowen to the band (with label head Berry Gordy in tow). Although he'd produced the band's 1967 album "In a Mellow Mood" under Frank Wilson's tutelage, the choice of Bowen was more likely predicated by his production of Chairmen of the Board's "Skin I'm In" from 1973. With a team comprised of Funkadelic members, that interesting album effectively took the sweet soul group into a dark psych-funk state that referenced the sort of work Norman Whitfield was doing at the time, and had included a take on Sly Stone's "Life and Death".
The new team came up with the surprisingly successful album "A Song For You", featuring the funky singles "Happy People" and "Shakey Ground" (also covered by Reneé Geyer on her live album). Backing for the funk tracks was provided by a few P-Funkers and some members of the Commodores, for whom Bowen had just done some tight work on "Machine Gun".
1975's "House Party" was essentially an album of leftovers, changing producers on almost every track, then Bowen's team re-assembled in 1976 for "Wings Of Love", today's album.
THE FAMILY STONE SIDE
Bowen went for a two-way bet on this album.
'Up the Creek (Without a paddle)' excerpt
'China Doll' excerpt
'Sweetness In the Dark' excerpt
Side One, the funky side, used several members of Sly and the Family Stone. This is the good side, and the reason I'm posting this album. "Sweet Gypsy Jane" opens with a 1-2-3-4 shout and a powerhouse vocal from Dennis Edwards. The single "Up The Creek Without a Paddle" failed to dent the charts too much, but is the equal to any dirty 70s Sly track. Likewise, "China Doll" and "Sweetness in The Dark" could come from a Family Stone album.
As good as some of these tracks are, these were apparently unhappy sessions, with Bowen heavily favouring singer Dennis Edwards over the other Temptations in the mix, and it would be the last album he produced for them.
I'm holding the cover of this record, and the weirdest thing is that the names of the Temptations themselves do not even appear on the credits (I've added them below) - this, more than anything, shows how the "idea" of the Temptations had been reduced to that of a brand for producers to place their stamp on. Later in the year they would rebel and mainly write 'The Temptations Do The Temptations" themselves, and then leave Motown for a few years.
The three tracks on Side Two are a different story altogether - it's essentially a psych-prog-concept production by keyboardist/arranger Donald Baldwin. Imagine Elton John waking up after a bad batch of drugs, trying to channel Brian Wilson via an army of mellotrons and synths, and creating a failed rock opera ...
Baldwin had scored well before with producer Bowen, arranging the aforementioned Chairmen of the Board's "Skin I'm In" from 1973, a much harder-edged affair. Bowen had taken him on to "A Song For You", on which he'd co-written a few tracks and played several instruments.
Here, however, he seems to have been handed an entire side of the record on a platter, and come up with a concept suite that has little to do with the Temptations or their particular talents. It may have been an attempt to re-capture some of the epic qualities of Norman Whitfield's productions - but unlike this, Whitfield had always managed to keep the funk within the darkness of his grand-scale storytelling.
IS SLY STONE ON SIDE A ?
Did Sly Stone write most of Side A and play keyboards ?
Wikipedia has (very) recently said yes, it's Sly, but as we all know Wikipedia publishes any old crap that you throw at it, so let's look at it a little more closely ....
The rationale/rumour from a few sources goes as follows : Sly Stone had tax problems at the time, having gone bankrupt in late '75 after finishing "High On You", and so gave his writing and playing credits on Side A of this album - see below - to Truman Thomas. (There's a few suggestions that he used Jimmy Ford as an alias but that's pretty easily discounted).
So who's Truman Thomas? He's a well-regarded organist, with a 1967 solo album; he played keyboards on Aretha's "Live at the Fillmore West" and "Aretha Arrives"; played organ on most early 70s Isley Brothers albums like "3 + 3" and "Live It Up", and co-wrote the much-recorded track "You're Welcome, Stop On By" with Bobby Womack.
So Truman's clearly a strong enough contender to have been a major writer on these tracks - yet .... those keyboards do sound like Sly.
Probably a more compelling argument and rationale for Thomas being an alias here for Sly is that later in the year, producer Bowen and most of the Family Stone took part in the album"Rose" by Rose Banks, Sly Stone's sister.
It's been suggested that Sly's "Wings Of Love" participation may have been some sort of tradeoff for Motown producing his sister's album. She covers his track "I Get High On You" , but then there are several tracks with Truman Thomas listed as a writer. This is the one that swings the argument for me anyway - if the rest of his band is there, surely he would have taken part in his sister's debut album?
Nevertheless, hours of google work maintain that the truth will always probably remain a mystery - Sly was so loaded by this point that he probably doesn't remember himself. His withdrawal from the public eye from the early 80s onwards - at a time where he was clearly starting to lose it, but could still cut it - made him into a mythical figure. I remember an early 90s doco called "The Search For Sly Stone" - which I can't seem to find online - where a european filmmaker unsuccessfully tried to track him down, dealing with an army of people who'd insist that Sly was "in the studio" at a time where he was more likely dribbling in a sandpit somewhere ...
That said, I've been fascinated in tracking Sly's gradual and unexpected re-emergence over the last two years - from his erratic appearances last year in places like San Jose and the North Sea Jazz Festival (better recording) : 1 -2 - 3, to New York last December, to handling interviews earlier this year- the impression is of someone gradually waking up.
Anyway ... Sly or no Sly, I hope you enjoy this slice of funk.
01. ‘Sweet Gypsy Jane’ (4:28)
02. ‘Sweetness In The Dark’ (3:06)
03. ‘Up The Creek (Without A Paddle)’ (3:28)
04. ‘China Doll’ (3:26)
05. ‘Mary Ann’ (7:41)
06. ‘Dream World (Wings Of Love)’ (5:38)
07. ‘Paradise’ (3:26)
Tracks 1, 3, 4 written by - Jeffrey Bowen , Jimmy Ford , Truman Thomas (could be Sly Stone)
Track 2 written by Jeffrey Bowen , Jimmy Ford
Tracks 5, 6, 7 written By - Donald Baldwin
Vocals - Dennis Edwards, Glenn Leonard, Richard Street, Melvin Franklin, Otis Williams
Clavinet, Organ, Arp Synthesizer, Horn and string arrangements - Truman Thomas (could be Sly Stone)
Bass - William "Billy Bass" Nelson , Freddie Stewart , Rustee Allen
Drums, Percussion - Ollie E. Brown
Guitar - William "Billy Bass" Nelson , Freddie Stewart
Synthesizer [Moog Programming], Keyboards, - Donald Baldwin
Trumpet - Pat Rizzo , Steve Madaio
Gordy Records, Catalog #: G6-971S1
Released Mar 1976
Executive Producer - Berry Gordy
Producers - Jeffrey Bowen and Berry Gordy
Vocal and Rhythm arrangements - Donald Baldwin
Art Direction - Frank Mulvey
Cover Illustration - David McMackin
Assistant Engineers - Jack Andrews , Jane Clark
Mixing engineer - Jeffrey Bowen
Recording, Mastering, Mixing Engineer - Russ Terrana
Published by Stone Diamond Music Corp. BMI
A product of Motown Record Corp.
"Wings of Love" - my own vinyl rip to WAV and MP3 @ 320kbps.
Other album links in this post go to :
Fullundie, Dr Okeh’s And It Don’t Stop 1, And it Don’t Stop 2, Rarin' to Go, Groove With You, La Magie de la Funk, Awangarda, Funky16Corners, Beyazgemi.
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