Posts Tagged ‘Earth Wind & Fire’

Now Maurice White, founder of Earth, Wind & Fire, is dead. How can we mourn so many pop legends in so short a time?!

Maurice White is one of only three drummers I can think of who founded a band that actually counts for something:

Maurice White, Earth, Wind & Fire
Mick Fleetwood, Fleetwood Mac*
Dave Grohl, Foo Fighters

* I mostly don’t like Fleetwood Mac, but I can’t pretend they don’t exist.

In the second half of the 1970s, Bruce Springsteen and Fleetwood Mac got the press, but EWF sold the records. I was going to include a list here of my five favorite EWF songs but I stopped when I hit 15. They were that infectious.

Maurice White and his band could play rock, jazz, funk, R&B, and (their downfall) disco. White started out as a session musician. Today in his memory I listened to one of his early gigs, the jazz disc Soul in the Night (1966). White might not have been a great drummer, but he was plenty good enough to play beside two all-star sax players, Sonny Stitt and Bunky Green.

(Bunky Green – now that’s a name. The man was destined to play the saxophone for Chess Records or third base for the Cubs.)

Soul in the Night is not the easiest record to listen to, but the artistry and competence it represents is reassuring in a world that offers us Donald Trump and the armed takeover of a bird sanctuary.

Rest easy, Maurice White.

Shining star come in to view
Shine its watchful light on you

Postscript: If you listen to Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Magic Mind” on All ’N All from 1977 you’ll hear Talking Heads’ future.



When I was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s (it took me awhile to grow up), I knew which music belonged to me and which music belonged to Old People.

My music was from The Beatles and everyone who followed in their wake. It was loud, it crackled with life, it was about life. Or it was about the life I wanted for my life. It shook me.

Old People’s music didn’t lay a finger on me. It drifted across the fields like a zephyr, and the flowers nodded demurely as it caressed them. Look what I’m writing here. The next thing to appear in this scenario is either Mother Nature or Snuggles the Fabric Softener Bear.

Old People’s music carried various labels, all of which form a tangle in my head because I’ve never learned anything about them: show tunes, Tin Pan Alley, Brill Building Pop, Easy Listening, Lawrence Welk. Today this is all subsumed under the heading American Songbook. I can only listen to this stuff when it’s been reinterpreted by someone from my side of the aisle, an artist who’s willing to travel over the hills and far away from the original: Janis Joplin and “Summertime,” John Coltrane and “My Favorite Things.”

So this is why I’ve never paid attention to Dionne Warwick, even though she’s recorded more than 40 albums since 1963, which casts a shadow on The Rolling Stones’ catalog, which is already overstuffed. To me, Warwick was from the Burt Bacharach/Hal David universe, which was my seal of disapproval. The songs they wrote for her (“Walk on By,” “Message to Michael,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”) and even her beautiful voice did not hold my attention. Back then I was probably too busy with Herman’s Hermits or Grand Funk Railroad.

Some years back I reached a level of maturity (it took me awhile to reach maturity) and I was able to sit still long enough to actually hear the American Songbook. I may not like what I hear, but I’ve learned to listen for the good in something instead of instinctively making my Mr. Yuck face.

Listening or trying to listen to the black music of the ’70s has been an illuminating project. At times I felt as if I were drowning. But most of the time I discovered new music I liked and rediscovered songs that are now favorites. In Dionne Warwick’s case, I’m glad I chose the ’70s because this was when Bacharach and David split up and Warwick had to find new writers. She never really adapted to disco or any other new style – she mostly skated above it all, like that zephyr from the third paragraph – but on Just Being Myself (1973) she showed that she could play that greasy kid stuff if she wanted to.

This is not the album I expected from the woman who sang the theme to the super soap opera Valley of the Dolls. Several tracks surprised me. “I Think You Need Love” is one of the lost classics of the decade. It’s almost the holy gospel! “You’re Gonna Need Me” is not only good, it could’ve been a blaxploitation theme song if only they’d assigned the lyrics to an idiot.

Warwick followed up with Then Came You (1975). This one was built around her hit of the same name from the previous year. She was backed by The Spinners on “Then Came You” and together they produced a gem of ’70s soul. My interest in Warwick stops here, but given that I expected to find nothing, I feel rich.

Roberta Flack
Flack’s debut, First Take, appeared in 1969, but thanks to Clint Eastwood I can include it in the 1970s. First Take gave us her bluesy version of the jazz classic “Compared to What” and the song she’s famous for, “The First Time Ever I Saw His Face.” Flack has a voice of uncharted power – uncharted because most of it is hidden below the surface, like an ice berg. I want to buy her a cup of coffee with three shots of espresso.

“The First Time Ever I Saw His Face” languished on this disc until Eastwood paid $2,000 to include it on the soundtrack of Play Misty for Me in 1971. With the exposure of a popular film around it, “The First Time” enjoyed a second time and became a hit everywhere civilization reigned (and in Indiana and Arkansas). Flack won a Grammy for “First Time” in 1972. Even I like it. But her next album, Quiet Fire, was all quiet and not fiery, and this was where I left her.

Roberta Flack’s middle name is Cleopatra. Of course I didn’t get a cool middle name like that. Good thing I don’t whine about it anymore. I’m mature now. 

Let’s finish Diva Week:

Chaka Khan
The R&B groups War and Rufus went through opposite evolutions. The unknown War was adopted by Eric Burdon after he heard them in some dinky club. Having Burdon singing with them was like finally finding their jet packs (“Spill the Wine”). When Burdon left, War’s career flew even higher (“The World Is a Ghetto,” “Gypsy Man,” “Low Rider”).

Rufus was not making much progress until they hired Chaka Khan to sing with them. She became so popular that they released an album in 1975 called Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan. Khan came and went for several years after that, and Rufus sputtered to a stop. But together they made “You Got the Love” and “Tell Me Something Good,” from Rags to Rufus, and “Once You Get Started,” from Rufus & Chaka Khan (both from 1974).

Chaka Khan has a voice like Tina Turner’s, with less power but maybe more finesse at close range. She has some similarities to Aretha Franklin, too, especially if you subtract Jesus. She is sexier than both, not as sexy as Donna Summer, but earthier. Summer always sounds like she’s having sex at Star Fleet Academy, if anybody in Star Fleet ever had sex.

For Khan’s first album, Chaka (1978), her label brought in Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, who wrote “I’m Every Woman.” Unfortunately, that was the only song Ashford and Simpson wrote for that album, and the quality in general falls off sharply from this first superlative track. Fortunately, Khan found a way to stay relevant and score hits right through the ’80s.

Tina Turner
I have to tread carefully here, because Tina Turner is a protected national resource. But I have to say it: There’s nothing Tina recorded in the 1970s after leaving Ike that’s good enough to devote your time to, and that includes her Acid Queen song in that awful Tommy movie. Fear not: In the ’80s she’ll dance onstage with Mick Jagger, brawl in the desert with Mad Max, and give us Private Dancer (1984). That’s plenty of fun for one decade.

So let’s end this survey of Tina Turner that’s as micro as her skirt and mention one of Ike and Tina’s last albums, Workin’ Together (1971). This is the one with “Proud Mary,” “Funkier Than a Mosquita’s Tweeta” (gets an A+ rating just for the title), and “Game of Love,” a blues song that anticipates Robert Cray’s themes but also gives us a glimpse into the Turners’ home life:

Just like you can cheat on me
I can cheat on you
There’s no rules in this game of love
It can be played by two

Joan Armatrading
I’m unprepared to discuss this very deserving woman, who may have been the black Joni Mitchell.

Why I am unprepared to discuss Joan Armatrading
Tomorrow is the beginning of the three-day Memorial Day weekend. This is my favorite holiday.

(For my non-USA readers, if I have any left: Memorial Day began as our way of remembering the dead from our Civil War. It’s original name was Decoration Day. In addition to attending parades, picnics, and Blue Angel flyovers, we also use this somber time to buy mattresses and consumer electronics at discounted prices.)

Wilfred Sheed wrote that baseball is the sport that has a whole summer up its sleeve. Memorial Day is my favorite holiday because it has a whole summer up its sleeve. The season is about to step on-stage. I can’t wait. I like this holiday almost as much as my birthday – and I like my birthday – because on Memorial Day I still have my birthday to look forward to, but my birthday is not so far away that it’s unrealistic to think of and in fact I can start pestering people about it.

For months I work like the 20-mule team that pulled Borax to stand ready on Memorial Day, getting those pesky projects out from under (like house and marriage maintenance) so I can get to the fun stuff for the summer. I don’t actually mean everything in that last sentence, in case you’re paying attention.

This summer I intend to make some serious progress on my novel, because frankly it’s about fucking time I seriously progressed and finished it already. Once again I’m freezing this blog in a block of carbonite, but I’ll be back in September after the three-day Labor Day weekend when I can no longer wear white and drink gin and the world will clamor for more of my musical insults and poorly informed insights. Everyone have a good summer.

Your album for Saturday, 23 May 2015, is Earth, Wind & Fire’s That’s the Way of the World from 1975. The interior art includes a photo of eight men with no shirts on, which may be a record for records.

This is my 199th post. Thank you for being there.


VIDA is a literary organization that every year counts how many men and how many women are published or reviewed in the big magazines and tries to point out how unfair it is that the editors of these zines, who are mostly men, publish mostly men, even though this nation as I understand it is about evenly divided between men and women and that probably goes for writers, too.

When VIDA started this count in 2010, men were running amok. For example, in 2010 The New York Review of Books reviewed 306 books by guys but only 59 by gals. This discovery turned out to be a big bucket of embarrassment for a fortress of liberalism. The editors of NYRB rumbled into action, and four years later the magazine reviewed 354 books by men and 164 by women. Calm down, ladies! Gender equality takes time, especially when men are in charge of the equalizing.

If a VIDA-like organization had been around in 1971 to tally the genders in the blaxploitation game, they would’ve surrendered in the first year. These films are trapped in a tar pit of testosterone. I could imagine Ike and Tina Turner being hired to compose a blaxploitation score, but not Tina by herself, and certainly not Aretha, Diana, or even Chaka.

No more warnings. What follows is my attempt to drive through the safety cones, tire spikes, and sand traps of blaxploitation music. Professional driver, closed course.

Here we go!

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)
Melvin Van Peebles (music performed by Earth, Wind & Fire)
Melvin Van Peebles was the writer, producer, and director of this film, which has the most titanic name of any movie ever made. The main theme in this story of an innocent man on the run from the law is that a woman will help you escape the police if a) you possess a jumbotron reproductive organ, and b) you agree to deploy it under her direction. Just an FYI.

Mr. Van Peebles and his son, Mario, also acted in the film (Mario wielded the jumbotron). The senior Van Peebles couldn’t read or write music but still composed the score. He then hired a hungry new band called Earth, Wind & Fire to record it.

Result: Time for the next record!

Shaft (1971)
Isaac Hayes (music performed by The Bar-Kays)
Surprise! There’s almost nothing to listen to on this double LP outside of the monumental theme song. It’s made up almost entirely of the instrumentals backing the action. You can only listen so many times to the music that plays when Shaft is in a cab or just walking around and not being a sex machine.

The main exception to this formula is The Bar-Kays’ 20-minute jam, “Do Your Thing,” which sounds like them doing their thing. The same thing. For 20 minutes. If only you could edit this down to about six minutes – it might be hot. (The Bar-Kays had a series of R&B hits in the ’80s, but that’s off-limits for now.)

I once owned this LP, but I sold it after I picked up the 45 of “Theme from Shaft.” The album version of “Shaft” is longer but not better.

Super Fly (1972)
Curtis Mayfield
Super Fly – the music, not the movie – is one of the few thoroughbreds in this field of pretenders, nags, and wannabes. This is not just Curtis Mayfield’s best, this is an album for somebody’s Hall of Fame. Mayfield writes compassionately about the lives of the out-of-sight, out-of-mind underclass. He’s especially good with the false road to salvation offered by “another junkie plan/pushing dope for The Man.” That road works just fine in this stupid movie but Mayfield won’t let anyone get away with that shit in his music.

There’s “Super Fly,” of course, and “Pusherman,” which is “Super Fly” at a different tempo and with different words, and the dealer’s inevitable end in “Freddie’s Dead”:

We’re all built up with progress
But sometimes I must confess
We can deal with rockets and dreams
But reality, what does it mean
Ain’t nothing said
’Cause Freddie’s dead

And these great songs are just the three that got the radio play! There’s plenty of funk to go around. “No Thing on Me (Cocaine Song)” is a skyrocket of joy, and not because the singer is suctioning up lines of white powder – it’s an anti-drug song.

If the blaxploitation genre did nothing more than give African-American actors and directors a chance to work and Curtis Mayfield a chance to compose this music, it would all have been worthwhile. 

Come Back, Charleston Blue (1972)
Donny Hathaway and Quincy Jones
Come Back, Charleston Blue is the sequel to Cotton Comes to Harlem. It’s a crime drama set in contemporary Harlem, but the unstirring soundtrack often sounds like the Jazz Age. “Little Ghetto Boy” is the one deserving cut. A reissue of this disc includes a live version of the song, which tops the film version and gives me an idea of how good Donny Hathaway must’ve been in concert.

Trouble Man (1972)
Marvin Gaye
Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve always wanted a nickname. In 1972, I boldly suggested to my teammates that they call me “Trouble Man.” For my audacity they beat me senseless. I’m referring, of course, to my chess-team teammates.

In the 1970s, Marvin Gaye could do anything, so why not write a jazz score for a suckfest movie about a black private dick? This one is a sex machine to only one (1) chick.

The Trouble Man soundtrack is atmospheric and way above average for this genre. “ ‘T’ Plays It Cool,” “ ‘T’ Stands for Trouble,” and the main theme are fine, but the title song, “Trouble Man,” is excellent, a slower, gauzier groove than Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” In places it could even slide into Steely Dan’s “Pretzel Logic,” which came along two years later.

The cliches can beat you a lot of ways in “Trouble Man” (“There’s only three things that I know/taxes, death, and trouble”), but the Trouble Man’s retelling of his life, punctuated by the refrain “I come up hard,” is haunting. Trouble Man, the movie, from what I’ve read of it, should haunt everyone who made it.

Gaye must’ve loved “Trouble Man” because he performed it often in concert. The version on Live At the London Palladium (1977) runs 6 and a half minutes and practically growls. There’s a real slugfest in the horn section. It would be no trouble at all to dance to it.

Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off (1973)
Black Caesar (1973)
James Brown
Only the hardest-working man in showbiz could compose and perform two soundtracks in the same year. However, he recycled his old songs from the ’60s to do it. Not exactly a rip-off but I wouldn’t hail Caesar, either.

Coffy (1973)
Roy Ayers
Coffy is the inspirational story of an ER nurse played by Pam Grier who uses her super-sexy body and substandard acting skills to lure despicable men to her home where she slips into something more comfortable and kills them. This is totally the best plot idea since Oedipus tried online dating.

The music was assigned to vibraphone master Roy Ayers, who at that time was busy combining jazz with funk. Later in the decade he added disco to his résumé. The unexpected results are worth looking at in more detail than these soundtracks normally deserve.

If you loved pounding on your xylophone when you were little, you’re gonna dig the theme, “Coffy Is the Color,” as Mr. Ayers sprints flat-out across his instrument. The first third of the record is a more-than-adequate run of funk until we run head-first into “Coffy Sauna,” a boring bit of lounge that was probably the background for a love scene set by a pool or maybe a long tracking shot in which Ms. Grier floats around in her underwear like an ethereal weirdo.

The interesting part – not many of these soundtracks have interesting parts – arrives in the middle.

You’d expect a song with a title as sophisticated as “Brawling Broads” to be the heart of this movie. But it can’t be, because this song is so poppy and friendly. It swings. In fact, it’s Steely Dan. Yes, on two separate blaxploitation soundtracks I have heard Steely Dan. I am hallucinating Walter Becker and Donald Fagen! Either those guys loved this music or I need to be detoxified.

“Shining Symbol” begins as a boring ballad that explains the significance of our heroine. (Ignore all of the singing and speaking on this disc.) Once the singing stops, the song opens the throttle and we get a funky stretch that again stars Ayers’ vibes.

“Exotic Dance” is not exotic. This instrumental is the most mature statement on the album. It sets a sophisticated mood. It’s filled with the sense of loss that comes with being human. What is it doing in a movie about a vigilante in a halter top and various other costumes that don’t block drafts?

The score ends poorly, especially with “Making Love,” which made me feel as if I were trying to climb out of an aquarium. I also think they unloaded a harpsichord somewhere in there. But Ayers, given what he had to work with, dug in and created a score that flies like an eagle and drops like a rock. Like Super Fly, I don’t think it resembles its own film. How did he get away with that? More power to Roy Ayers.

The Mack (1973)
Willie Hutch
Willie Hutch, a multi-talented Motown artist who wrote “I’ll Be There” for The Jackson 5, turns to scoring movies and does fairly well with this one. The dramatic “Theme of the Mack” runs on too long, but the extended blues jam “Mac Man (Got to Get Over)” works just fine and is definitely worth a listen.

“I Choose You” is a sincere declaration of love from a man who wants to marry his woman. This is so far beyond blaxploitation territory, especially in yet another movie about pimps, that The Mack should be applauded just for that.

Cleopatra Jones (1973)
J.J. Johnson
Tamara Dobson is a government agent with a license to kill. Shelley Winters is a drug-dealin’ criminal warlord with a devastating right cross. This is no more ridiculous than any movie with your recommended adult dose of Iron Man.

J.J. Johnson, a pioneering jazz trombonist, composed the score. Except for the theme song, I haven’t heard it. I’d rather learn more about the guy who sang the theme, Joe Simon, who worked at the lonely intersection of soul and country. I would’ve guessed that that intersection, if it existed, was somewhere between Mars and Jupiter.

Simon is a Chubby Checker kind of belter, and he lifts the Cleopatra Jones theme well above its natural level. In the ’70s, Simon had hits with the plaintive “Drowning in the Sea of Love” and the chumsy “Get Down, Get Down (Get on the Floor).” I’m betting that either one is better than the entire score to Cleopatra Jones.

Truck Turner (1974)
Isaac Hayes
Isaac Hayes throws a punch, shoots a gun. Lt. Uhura runs a brothel. Any questions?

Leave it to Isaac Hayes to write the music and play the role. I can’t comment on his acting, but I assume that he convincingly beats up every bad mother- (Shut your mouth!) in sight. The music trends toward jazz; it’s background music when you don’t want to be disturbed by anything in the background.

These tracks remind me of Tom Scott & The L.A. Express’ music for Starsky & Hutch (Hayes does it better) and made me realize how the cop shows of the ’70s – and any TV show or movie of that time that wanted to prove it was hip – were influenced by the blaxploitation breakthrough. (Or the blaxploitation breakdown, depending on your perspective.)

Willie Dynamite (1974)
J.J. Johnson
We’re saved – more pimps! Martha Reeves of Martha & The Vandellas sings the theme song, in which we learn that Mr. D has “seven women in the palm of his hand/got a woman for every man.” Sorry, that is an insufficient number of women for Shaft or Mac “Truck” Turner.

Forget everything Ms. Reeves sings on this disc. Forget most of the disc, which sounds like recycled cop show. But if you like funky bongos, try “Willie Chase” and “Willie Escapes.” The soundtrack to Willie Dynamite was obviously constructed by somebody who knew what he was doing, but that doesn’t mean I want to know what he was doing.

Roscoe Orman, our man Willie, has spent the past 40 years playing Gordon the schoolteacher on Sesame Street.

Foxy Brown (1974)
Willie Hutch
Pam Grier again, still sexy, still vengeful (“Please don’t make Foxy mad/Or you’ll find out that the lady is Superbad”). Willie Hutch again, serving up a funky homage to the music of Shaft, though he sings closer to Ike Turner than to Isaac Hayes. “Give Me Some of That Good Old Love” sounds like Rufus without Chaka Khan. The lyrics are painful.

This disc is considered a classic of the genre. That claim is probably based on tracks 6-8: “Out There,” “Foxy Lady,” and “You Sure Know How to Love Your Man.” “Out There” is almost atmospheric enough to fit on the Trouble Man soundtrack. “Foxy Lady” reminds me of “Nutbush City Limits” and “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).” “You Sure Know How to Love Your Man” has some real emotion to it. I could imagine it performed by Howlin’ Wolf.

Of the other tracks, “Have You Ever Asked Yourself Why” is a sweetheart that’s well within Fleetwood Mac’s range. The closing song, “Whatever You Do (Do It Good),” reminds me of “Can’t Turn It Loose” or something I heard on Soul Train. In fact I probably did hear it on Soul Train. Overall, a solid effort from Mr. Hutch, which is more than I can say of everyone else connected with Foxy Brown.

Last but not least:

Together Brothers (1974)
Barry White and the Love Unlimited Orchestra
I have fond memories of this album. In the summer of 1974, I worked in a record warehouse, and one record I never had to hump around on a hand truck was Together Brothers. That record did not sell. There were stacks of these LPs in a corner on my first day and there were stacks of them in a corner on my last. (Fleetwood Mac’s Mystery to Me was another favorite, for the same reason.)

The Together Brothers score is a peppy group of songs from a gentleman I associate with a glittery romance rather than a gritty ghetto. The songs are heartfelt. Most are disco-y. “Honey, Please Can’t You See” sounds like the disco hits in White’s future, particularly “You’re My First, My Last, My Everything.”

This isn’t a good record, but it’s better than it has any right to be.

Next time: More black music of the 1970s…but in a lot fewer words. There was an avalanche of blaxploitation soundtracks beyond what I’ve tackled here but someone else will have to listen to them!


In 2014 I heroically listened to every album Prince ever made. Well, I heroically came close. I listened to the first 14. I will eventually listen to the remaining 987. This was an exciting, enlightening quest for which I received 100% zero thanks. I didn’t get a link from Wikipedia. I didn’t get a lousy T-shirt from Prince. And, as always, WordPress refused to give me any money.

I remain undeterred. Why? Because it says BLOGGER on my uniform! So today I jump on my new project, the project I should’ve jumped on before I jumped on Prince: the black music of the 1970s. But first: The Rules!

Rule 1: Provincialism is good. I’m disqualifying 98% of planet Earth. Once you dive into my unscientific survey you’ll discover that almost all of these performers are from the USA. That’s because I’m from the USA. USA! USA!

Rule 2: One-hit wonders are blunders. The 1970s were a magnet for the truly awful (that was somehow spectacularly popular). For every passable tune such as Jean Knight and “Mr. Big Stuff” you get a dumpster full of this:

Billy Paul, “Me and Mrs. Jones”
Peaches & Herb, “Reunited”
Labelle, “Lady Marmalade”*
Anita Ward, “Ring My Bell”
A Taste of Honey, “Boogie Oogie Oogie”**
Hues Corporation, “Rock the Boat”
Carl Douglas, “Kung Fu Fighting”***

* This is the “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, c’est soir” song.
** I hate to put them on this list, because they were an early girl-power band with two female guitarists. Also, they looked most excellent in backless swimsuits. But their song sucks.
*** According to legend, “Kung Fu Fighting” was recorded in 10 minutes. Of course it was.

Rule 3: I make the tough calls! Reggae was obviously a vital part of the ’70s – it was a huge influence on British punk – but I don’t care for reggae so you won’t find it here. I like the blues but there’s no blues on my list because after half an hour it’s not the blues, it’s whining. There’s no rap because, while I like some rap, I don’t understand it.

Even within the genres I like – rock, psychedelia, disco, soul, R&B – I’ll have to leave out some fun people to make sure I can get through this project before 2250 A.D. Here are two:

  • Eddie Kendricks, who sang lead on The Temptations’ “Just My Imagination” and had a solo hit with “Keep on Truckin’.”
  • Johnny “Guitar” Watson, who played blues, jazz, and funk but is probably best remembered for that sentimental lament, “A Real Mother for Ya.”

Rule 4: I’m sure to forget somebody. I only remembered The Spinners about 5 minutes ago.

This list I’m about to unleash is not exhaustive, though it’s exhausting me. I might not make it past 1974. But here goes.

The ’70s begin!

On the starting line we have:

  • Marvin Gaye and worthy but lesser satellites: Al Green, Bill Withers, Donny Hathaway
  • Stevie Wonder
  • Diana Ross, but not The Supremes
  • Quincy Jones
  • Ray Charles
  • James Brown
  • George Clinton
  • Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, and Barry White
  • The Jackson 5, The Isley Brothers, and other notable families
  • Aretha Franklin
  • Jimi Hendrix
  • Sly & The Family Stone
  • Ike & Tina Turner
  • Gladys Knight & The Pips
  • Earth, Wind & Fire and Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes
  • Rufus (featuring Chaka Khan)
  • The Four Tops
  • The Spinners
  • The Temptations

Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder were at their height in the ’70s, and their height is somewhere north of the Matterhorn. I could write about them and never get to anyone else.

Diana Ross released 17 albums in the ’70s. (First on this list is James Brown’s brain-busting 28.) She played Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues. She recorded duets with Marvin Gaye. Like a true diva, Diana Ross can’t be ignored. But I can ignore her former co-workers. This was not their decade.

I am mostly going to ignore Quincy Jones. Sure, Jones can compose, arrange, produce, conduct, and play. He brought out the best in the senior-citizen Frank Sinatra and the young-adult Michael Jackson. “Killer Joe” is one of my favorite jazz standards. But almost everything I like about him comes before 1970 or after 1979. I’m only going to mention Jones once, for an album I’m not recommending, and I hope the Lords of Kobol will forgive me.

Did Ray Charles do more in the ’70s than make those dopey commercials for Scotch Brand recording tape? Run-DMSteve investigates!

Everyone on this list owes something to James Brown. Everyone who isn’t on this list owes something to James Brown, even if they were born in a galaxy far, far away. Soul Brother #1 began the decade with the 11-minute “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine,” a song that added substantially to my knowledge of how to deal with women (building on what I’d learned from Capt. Kirk and a stolen copy of South Pacific).

Brown ran out of fissionable uranium by mid-decade. His disco resurgence in 1979 doesn’t count.

George Clinton’s bands were Funkadelic and Parliament. After reacquainting myself with the few songs I knew and listening to the many I didn’t, I see him now as the secret weapon of the ’70s. Clinton has suffered the most from the way white radio playlists, particularly the Oldies and Classic Rock formats, exclude black artists.

We’ll get to Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway, Barry White, and Marvin Gaye, James Brown, and Quincy Jones again when we dive into the deep end of the Shaft/Super Fly machismo pool.

The Jackson 5 were the best family act of any color of any era. Their only contenders are Don and Phil Everly, and I think that’s a very close race. (The Isley Brothers are right behind them. Two more challengers popped up in the ’70s: The Pointer Sisters and The Staple Singers.) The J5 were superior to Sister Sledge, The Osmonds, The Carpenters, The Cowsills, The Partridge Family (OK, that’s cheating), the von Trapps, and everyone who has ever appeared on Lawrence Welk.

Jimi Hendrix existed in the ’70s for about nine months. His early death is the second-greatest tragedy in the history of pop music. (Mozart’s early death is first.)

With Aretha Franklin, it’s always 1967, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You is on the turntable, and you’re about to drop the needle on the first track, “Respect.” I can’t imagine the pressure this woman faced at the age of 25 with “Respect” heading her résumé. Bruce Springsteen faced the same pressure when he was 25 and had just recorded “Born to Run.”

Sylvester Stewart, aka Sly Stone, is mostly known for the music he gave us in the ’60s. By the time he got to the ’70s, his revolutionary zeal had congealed. Sadly, so had his optimism. Sly & The Family Stone’s last great album, There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1971), is as confused, cynical, and hard to listen to as The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street (1972). The main difference between the two is that Stone was apathetic. The Stones were sleazy.

Sly Stone fun fact: You could transfer “Just Like a Baby” from There’s a Riot Goin’ On to Exile on Main Street and nobody would know the difference.

Most of Ike and Tina Turner’s music evaporates while you listen to it. For every “Proud Mary” or “River Deep – Mountain High” they have 20 songs that are guaranteed not to stick to your ribs. But we needed The Ike & Tina Turner Revue because they created the image of Tina Turner as a force majeure. Ms. Turner gave us one good record on her own (Private Dancer), but that’s off in the ’80s.

Gladys Knight & The Pips recorded the first version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” a hymn that could make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window. In the ’70s they recorded “Midnight Train to Georgia.” I still want to kick them.

Earth, Wind & Fire were just getting started and didn’t know what they wanted to be when they grew up. Same with Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes.

Rufus was funky for sure, but they’re not as good as their contemporaries War. But they’re important for giving Chaka Khan a launching pad. Khan has a voice like Tina Turner’s, with less power but more finesse at close range.

The Four Tops’ many classics are all from the ’60s. In the ’70s they recorded two albums with The Supremes (minus Diana Ross), The Magnificent Seven and The Return of the Magnificent Seven. Not enough of a draw to make me listen. Sorry kids, but as I’ve stated many times in this blog I am paid to be unfair. All right, I’m not paid, but I’m still unfair.

The Spinners have left little behind them besides the image of five guys in yummy-colored pantsuits. But they had a run of hits in the early ’70s, starting with “It’s a Shame,” which I always thought was Al Green until I finally looked it up. Duh. However, I don’t care for the rest of their easy-listening catalog, and they gave us the gift of “The Rubberband Man,” which is clearly related to the crud back in Rule 2, so though they meant well they disappear as soon as this sentence hits the period.

The Temptations recorded “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” in 1972. This was another show-stopper written by Norman Whitfield. The Temptations could’ve stopped right there. But they didn’t, and neither will I. I’ll be back next time with: Blaxploitation!