During the mid 1990’s when I was seriously getting interested in funk, the only way that was really practical to hear the music that was interesting to me was via the Mercury Funk Essentials series. The ones that I purchased were through the now defunct BMG Record Club and the artists involved were The Bar Kays,Cameo and Con Funk Shun (all of whom had two volumes) as well as a double Ohio Players anthology in the same series called Funk On Fire. The interesting part is these compilations contained a good share of slow ballad numbers. And I’d always skip over them to the funk oriented material. Searching on Amazon.com today there was a comment on a music review about how slow songs in soul/funk was “grown up music”. Probably a comment with the tongue planted a little bit in their cheek. At the same time it reminded me of my own approach to funk and soul. Even today only a handful of slow songs (mainly by Ohio Players,Heatwave,Earth Wind & Fire,The Isley Brothers and Con Funk Shun) have truly impacted on me. So for reasons I’ll discuss a bit later in this article, the subject of slow funk and soul seemed a good subject to go into.
Seems that a few years ago Beyonce’ herself suggested that,vocally fast and slower songs were the biggest challenge while mid tempo songs were the most simple-since apparently the natural human rhythmic cadence is itself in the mid tempo area. With the majority of commercial soul/R&B songs never veering outside the mid tempo today,there is also an enormous proportion of female singers as opposed to musicians of either gender. One thing that has changed enormously is a sexual reversal in the music. Female singers have come to be more aggressive lyrically and musically-and have tended more and more towards dance oriented material and the “oversouling” vocal method. Younger male singers have generally adopted a far less aggressive vocal posture. And most of the soul/funk slow jams recorded today are done not by Whitney Houston,Diana Ross or Gladys Knight but rather people such as Joe and Tyrese-who are more in mold of Luther Vandross and Babyface who really innovated the softer voiced slow jam type singer. Many 70’s and 80’s uptempo funk singers have also gotten involved in this.
One prime example is Charlie Wilson. He was the lead singer and keyboard player of The Gap Band from 1974 up until roughly 1994-including a massively successful string of uptempo funk hits in the late 70’s/early 80’s. Today Charlie is given many lifetime achievement awards for his work outside the Gap Band,again primarily slow ballad oriented. While in political terms this might have to due with Charlie’s involvement in troop support during the decade long “war on terror”, its also important to note that even on his newest album Love Charlie there are always strong funk songs on his album, but they are presented as album tracks at best: at worst,as filler. This was also the scenario for Lionel Richie in The Commodores. The band consisted of very strong musicianship from a group of Tuskegee graduates who actually helped innovate a number of southern funk sub-genres,with the very rare presence of black management as well.. By the late 70’s the slow ballad songs Lionel had written for other artists such as “Still” and “Three Times A Lady”, as suggested by their co-producer James Anthony Carmichael,were the songs they were becoming known for as opposed to “Brick House” or “Slippery When Wet”.
In the end it would seem that even fifteen years ago my reasons for skipping past the slow jams on funk albums or collections has more to do with music politics than personal taste. On the other hand,often funk bands best songs can be their slower ones. Kool & The Gangs’ “Summer Madness”,Ohio Players “Good Luck Charm”, the aforementioned Gap Band’s “You Light Up My Life” (NOT the Debbie Boon song by the way),”Bootsy Collins “Vanish In Our Sleep” as well as slow jam Isley Brothers masterpieces such as “Sensuality” and “Voyage To Atlantis”-not to mention Earth Wind & Fire’s “Reasons”,”Love’s Holiday”,”Devotion” and “Keep Your Head To The Sky”. These songs had enormous lyrical heart,spirited song craft and intense instrumental vitality. And are much needed examples of why a slow soul/funk ballad can really do a lot for a band/soloist in the right hands. On that note I bid you adieu for a few weeks for two interrelated reasons. Do to a lot of good and not so good things happening in my life at the moment, I am dealing with a bad case of writers block in terms of totally original ideas. So time to enjoy a bit of the brief Maine summer while recharging my creative batteries. Enjoy your July and your music!