The Best of Rare Earth
20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection
Rare Earth

[Editor’s note: Last week I took on Prince’s Parade. Next up is Sign ‘o’ the Times, which requires more thought. Also, the World Series is about to start. While I’m doing all this extra thinking about Prince and baseball let’s take a look at a much simpler topic.]

Rare Earth was a white Motown group with three superpowers:

  • They were expert interpreters of black R&B.
  • Their drummer, who was 3’ taller than anyone else in the band, was a terrific soul-shouter.
  • They began every song like they owned the world.

Unfortunately, they had a fourth power: a knack for getting lost three minutes into every song. They were like the party guest who never knows when to go home. This talent is most apparent on their cover of “What I Say.” For the first three minutes they run Ray Charles right off the road. They played another four minutes. They shouldn’t have.

The Best of Rare Earth is a disc for the most passionate Rare Earth fan. That’s why the first song is not their powerful three-minute hit, “Get Ready” (1969). No, it’s the 21-minute wall of blubber that the hit was carved from, like a burger from a buffalo. I can’t believe that anyone other than a specialist would willingly listen to this track more than once. I have – when my friend Jeff invited me over to his house one day after high school, and again last week when the CD arrived from A 500-year interval is about right.

OK, so Rare Earth was long-winded. The late-’60s/early ’70s was a time of gusty musical winds. How do our boys stack up against their contemporaries?

  • They lack the discipline of The Byrds (the live version of “Eight Miles High”), The Rolling Stones (“Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’ ”), and Santana (“Black Magic Woman”).
  • They’re loose like Creedence Clearwater Revival (“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “Susie Q”), but they can’t bring things to a satisfying close the way Creedence can.
  • However, they don’t play funeral marches like Mountain (“Nantucket Sleighride”) or psychedelic plasmodium like Steppenwolf (“Magic Carpet Ride”) or Quicksilver Messenger Service (“The Fool”).
  • Their musicianship is superior to Iron Butterfly (“In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”) and The Grateful Dead (just about anything).

Actually, they remind me of The Allman Brothers, even though the Allmans are closer to the blues and Rare Earth is closer to jazz. Neither group knows when to cry “Hold, enough!”

[Editor’s note: All of these bands are better than Yes.]

Racial profiling
I have serious trouble with six Caucasians singing an ode to their African-American swamp mama in the album’s closer, “Ma.” Nevermind that it’s 17 frakking minutes long. Forget the lyrics. (Ma raised 13 kids on her own, but always sent them to church because that’s what Pa would’ve wanted? Pa only showed up once a year for sex, but he was religious? Which religion? Ma should’ve shot him 12 kids ago.) The dudes in Rare Earth are white. They didn’t grow up in a shack and their lives were never restricted by the color of their skin. Why don’t they sing something from The Sound of Music?

Surely Universal could’ve used the space hogged by “Ma” for the radio edit of “Get Ready” and maybe some other track from Rare Earth’s best effort, Rare Earth in Concert (1971), which came in a cardboard sleeve that looked like a hippie’s knapsack.

Summing up
The Best of Rare Earth gives us “I Just Want to Celebrate,” “Born to Wander,” and “Hey Big Brother,” which fit just fine in any Classic Rock rotation. If you can handle all 11 minutes, “(I Know) I’m Losing You” is rewarding. It’s slower than but similar to the Temptations’ hit “Ball of Confusion.” Rare Earth’s producer, the late Mr. Norman Whitfield, co-wrote both tunes, as well as “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.” (And “Ma.” Anyone can have an off-night.)

Rare Earth rocks harder than Blood, Sweat & Tears and plays better than J. Geils. You can go straight from Rare Earth to any jazz-fusion outfit of the 1970s. Give them a try. But be ready to push Skip.

Today’s Randoms: 1968 Jazz Edition
OK everybody. Here’s some vocabulary to help you talk like a jazz critic!

Set: The songs (or cuts) you intend to record.
Reading: Your cover of somebody else’s cut.
Date: If you record the cuts at a concert or all in one day, it’s a date.
Platter: The medium on which you record the set. Also called “sides.”
Wax: You wax the set onto the platter. As in “The best set he ever waxed!”
Lay down a groove: Play your part in a song so it can get waxed onto a platter.
Burner: Any Hammond B3 organist who waxes a funky platter has laid down a burner.

Frank Foster, Manhattan Fever
Fascinating sides from Foster, who played for years with Count Basie and led the band after Basie’s death. On Manhattan Fever, you get jazz you can almost dance to, some great soloing from Foster on the tenor sax, experimental stuff I skip no matter whose name is on the cover, and amazing drumming from Mickey Roker. I want to have his baby. Foster waxed some funky titles: “What’s New From the Monster Mill,” “You Gotta Be Kiddin’,” and the killer cut “Little Miss No Nose.”

Jimmy McGriff, The Worm
Mr. McGriff played the Hammond B3 organ, so you know how I’m going to end this paragraph. The Worm is a funky, fun platter with many highlights, particularly the cuts “Keep Loose” and their reading of “Think,” which I only knew from Aretha Franklin’s performance in The Blues Brothers. (Aretha co-wrote the song.) “Girl Talk” is a slo-mo groove that deserved a good waxing. Nine musicians contributed to this set; the cumulative effect is of a swinging jazz orchestra. Burner!

Worth a mention
Hank Mobley, Reach Out!
Mobley led hard-bop marauders in dates with names like No Room for Squares (1963). They tried a more commercial sound for Reach Out! I can’t fault musicians who want to make some money for once, but I doubt the public tossed much bacon onto this platter. Mobley’s heart wasn’t in it.

But Reach Out! is notable for the band’s reading of The Four Tops hit of the same name – the only time I’ve heard anyone else give this cut a spin. Fun but klutzy, with people getting lost in the groove, particularly the drummer, who may have believed he was in another song. Lily Von Shtupp put it best in Blazing Saddles, when she complained that men were always “coming and going and going and coming…and always too soon!”


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