The Crusaders – Look Beyond the Hill

Known originally as The Jazz Crusaders, The Crusaders rose from the ashes of Houston-area jazz groups which disbanded in the early 1960s. Shortening the name upon moving to Los Angeles around 1970, the original lineup of Joe Sample (piano), Stix Hooper (drums), Wilton Felder (saxophone), and Wayne Henderson (trombone) were soon joined by guitarist Larry Carlton and bassist Robert “Pops” Popwell. This would remain the core of the group throughout the 1970s, which was the groups most prolific and commercially successful period. The title track from their 1979 album Street Life reached #36 on the Billboard charts and is just an absolute jam. Henderson left the group in 1975 to focus on producing records full-time and and the group had all but disbanded by the mid-1980s.

Look Beyond the Hill was written by Wilton Felder, who played bass and marimba on the record in addition to saxophone. Felder was also a studio musician and his bass can be heard on Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On, Billy Joel’s Piano Man, and Steely Dan’s Rikki Don’t Lose That Number to name a few. The group did put together a reunion tour of the founding members (minus Stix Hooper) in 2010. The group left behind a mountain of music to sift through so I can’t telly you where to start, but I can certainly recommend this album as a good place to start.

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Greg Phillinganes – Lazy Nina

I had never heard the name of Greg Phillinganes before hearing Lazy Nina, but once I looked him up it called to mind how scientists describe their knowledge of dark matter: they couldn’t detect it directly, but evidence of it was everywhere. Scrolling through his Discogs page, it’s easier to find a legend of R&B/Soul that he hasn’t worked with. He appears on every one of Michael Jackson’s solo albums. He’s worked and/or toured with Herbie Hancock, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, Donna Summer, Eric Clapton, just to name a few. That said, I’m guessing of all the legendary artists he’s recorded with though, he probably treasures his appearance on Billy Crystal’s 1985 Christmas Song most of all.

Lazy Nina comes from his second solo album entitled Pulse, released in 1985. In putting together this post, I found a recording of him performing the song on Soul Train where you can see Greg in action:

In 2015 he gave an interview as part of an oral history project with the National Association of Music Merchants where he discussed how he was able to work with so many different talented musicians:

How am I able to fit in with so many kinds of artists? Just understanding who they are musically and getting into their essence and the essence of their music. It says to the artist that I’m paying attention to them, I’m not just bringing me to their situation. I’m completely adapting to their situation.

All of Pulse is worth checking out if you like this song. It leads off with a cover of YMO’s Behind the Mask and if that’s not enough to hook you then stop reading this blog right now!!!

Joe Bataan – Gypsy Woman

Long before he would become the king of Latin Soul, Joe Bataan was born Bataan Nitollano in East Harlem and in his teenage years headed up a street gang called The Dragons, according to a 2009 interview with Blues and Soul. As a result of his days in the Dragons, he was incarcerated at Coxsachie Correctional Facility and it was there that he discovered an interest in music. Upon his release in 1965, he formed his first group, Joe Bataan and the Latin Swingers, and the group was quickly signed to Fania Records. Gypsy Woman is the title track from their first release in 1967.

While Bataan is credited with writing this version, Curtis Mayfield’s group The Impressions released a song called Gypsy Woman in 1961. The lyrics are nearly identical, though the Impressions version doesn’t have people chanting “she smokes pot!” in the background or the Latin percussion that ties this song together in my opinion. Bataan would eventually help found the label Salsoul, for which he would record a few albums including this early hip hop song Rap-o Clap-o from 1979. Incidentally if you listen to Rap-o Clap-o and don’t enjoy it then kindly close this browser window and never return to this blog again, as it is not for you and very little in this world is.

The Equatics – Where Is Love?

Though they definitely have a grown-up sound, The Equatics released their only album Doin It!!! while they were still in high school. Bassist Benjamin Crawford was the catalyst that brought the Equatics together. A cadre of young musicians in Hampton, Virginia formed the nucleus of the group, and they played a mixture of funk, soul, and (perhaps surprisingly) prog rock, as Crawford was a big fan of Yes. After playing gigs near Hampton, the group decided to enter the Pepsi New Sounds of 72 contest, which involved sending a demo jingle to the company for the chance to win time in the studio. They were featured in the top 10 and recorded their jingle. Pepsi then followed up on the promotion by asking people to send in bottle caps along with votes for their favorite jingle, but this time the prize was much bigger: the chance to record an album at Pepsi’s expense.

The group’s campaign to get people to vote for their jingle paid off, and the result was this album. Once they got in the studio, the band’s manager (and Crawford’s football coach) Frank Johnson tried to move the band towards soul standards like Ain’t No Sunshine, in part because Johnson had always dreamed of being a soul singer. In fact, Johnson provides the vocals on this and another great track from the album Merry Go Round. The group cut the record in a hurry, not even bothering to name the label that was to be responsible for the record. Very few copies of the album were ever distributed, and most were limited to the Richmond, VA area until it became a favorite of crate-digging collectors. Differences between Crawford and Johnson eventually led the group to break up, leaving behind just this one record.

If you’re looking for the original I can only offer you good luck, but Doin It!!! was reissued in 2010 by Now Again Records. If you’re in the mood for more soul cut by young folks, check out I’m Not Ready For Love, which I wrote about a while back.

Hailu Mergia & Dahlak Band – Anchin Kifu Ayinkash

Though it’s hard to tell based on how good this album sounds, this is the only recorded collaboration between Hailu Mergia and Dahlak Band. Mergia was a member of Walias, which had regular gig at the Hilton in Addis Ababa. Because of a military curfew, patrons of the Hilton bar who weren’t guest would be stranded until sunrise, though with Walias playing it’s hard to imagine they minded too much.

Dahlak were a popular backing band around the same time, and they hooked up with Mergia because other members of Walias were busy in the studio with other vocalists. Mergia was eager to follow-up on his the success of his previous record with Walias, Tche Belew, so he recorded Wede Harer Guzo with Dahlak in the nearby Ghion Hotel, where Dahlak Band were the regulars. The album features instrumental arrangements of a number of well-known Ethiopian tunes as well as original compositions. While Mergia asserts these arrangements were quite popular in Ethiopia at the time, it was not widely distributed and may have been remained a local favorite if Mergia himself hadn’t sent the tape to Awesome Tapes From Africa, who restored and re-issued the recording to its former glory a few years ago.

The Final Solution – I Don’t Care

Word to the wise: before you tell someone “I love The Final Solution,” it’s best to make sure they know you are referring to the soul band and not something more sinister. Alas, in the age of Internet Nazis I suppose one has to be careful, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from sharing this soul gem resurrected by none other than Chicago’s Numero Group.

I Don’t Care comes from a soundtrack that The Final Solution recorded for a blaxploitation film called Brotherman that was never actually completed. According to an NY Sun article about the album upon its reissue, writer and producer Carl Wolfolk had the masters stashed away since the film was shelved until Numero brought them back from the dead in 2008. While I couldn’t find much in the way of info for the members of The Final Solution, Carl Wolfolk was a prolific producer of soul music in the 60s and 70s. Probably his most oft-performed song was Can I Change My Mind, which has been covered by Tyrone Davis, Willie Clayton, and Boz Scaggs. If you’re looking for this release on cassette that is sadly out of print, but CD, LP, and digital download are still available. I’m starting a new job soon and once I get paid this release is definitely on my list.

Labi Siffre – My Song

This song might be titled My Song, but it is probably better known as the sample used on Kanye West’s I Wonder from 2007’s Graduation. Labi Siffre was born Claudius Afolabi Siffre in Britain, and has had a long career in both music and literature. My Song comes from his third studio release, Crying, Laughing, Loving, Lying, which was put out on Pye Records in 1972. It seems like Siffre is one of those artists better known for the work he inspired than the music he produced himself. Madness reached number 4 on the U.K. charts with a cover of It Must Be Love and Jay-Z, Eminem, and Wu-Tang Clan have sampled Siffre’s I Got The. While these may be more well-known, Crying, Laughing, Loving, Lying deserves far more attention because it is a joy from start to finish, blending Siffre’s beautiful tenor with an excellent ear for melody and guitar that is as smooth as it is soulful. In particular, Cannock Chase and the title track are both excellent tunes in the vein of My Song. He recorded a number of albums in the 70s, including participating in the 1978 Eurovision context, and continued at a slower clip through the 80s and 90s. Perhaps that has something to do with writing three books of poetry in the 90s along with a play and a collection of essays. This album was re-issued in 2016 by new-wave label Demon Records, which has put out a number of records from Marc Bolan & T.Rex, Elvis Costello, and The Jesus and Mary Chain.