Saturday, December 13, 2014

Music Reviews: The Chi-Lites, Stuff

The Chi-Lites
As much as any other music artist or group not named James Brown or The Jackson Five, The Chi-Lites were the primary group that would exist on a soundtrack of my childhood. I have many positive early memories that involve Chi-Lites songs. My father sang a lot around the house. I recall Chi-Lites songs being among his favored groups. People tend to look back through a rosy lens at the music of their childhood; I am likely no different in this regard. Nonetheless I do think that The Chi-Lites were special for their time and compare positively with a lot of the singers around today. The Chi-Lites (a Chicago based group, hence the name) were a smooth soul/R&B singing group that updated fifties doo-wop stylings for the then current pop/soul market. They combined soul, gospel, pop, funk and slight mixtures of rock-n-roll and even lounge music for a format and sound that was pretty perfectly balanced between sweetness and grit. A lot of their early work featured compositions which opened with heart felt spoken word intros that segued into passionate tenor leads, sparse instrumentation with occasional fuzzed out guitar leads and slickly harmonized backup singing. Like any other group that wanted to sell records and thus continue to eat, the Chi-Lites changed with the times, moving from the funk, romance and nationalist inspired lyrics of the early seventies to smoother semi-disco sounds of the late seventies and early eighties. I prefer the earlier sounds which are disproportionately represented here but to each his or her own. If you are into soul music or pop-soul with generally positive, or at least not overtly negative lyrics, The Chi-Lites may have something for you. Musically you can easily hear the family relationship between The Chi-Lites and Curtis Mayfield's music or some of Hendrix's clean toned ballads. 

The Chi-Lites' primary, albeit not exclusive, songwriter and lead singer was Eugene Record. His plaintive tenor defined male romantic need though it would take time before I understood his lyrics.

I enjoy the long intro to (For God's Sake) Give More Power to the People. It's like an airplane or rocket taking off. That music hearkens back to a time when change of all kinds was in the air and black people were unashamed and unapologetic of being well, black. There was a tinge of optimism in the air. I also like their version of Marvin Gaye's Inner City Blues better than the original, a shocking bit of blasphemy for which my brother has flatly promised to ritually excommunicate me from the United Sound Church of Detroit. Speaking of Motown, You're no longer part of my heart is very similar to dozens of contemporaneous Motown works. If I were Berry Gordy or H-D-H I might have sued just on general principle. Oh Girl is a modernized blues lament with an added country twist. I always thought that it was a harmonica featured on that tune but it's actually a melodica. Prominent bass scatting on For God's Sake (Give More Power to the People) and Are You My Woman is provided by Creadel "Red" Jones. I love singing his parts while I'm driving. The Man and The Woman points out the necessity of duality for the creation and promulgation of life and morality. No matter how much men and women might occasionally get on each other's nerves, neither is possible without the other. That's a message which still needs to be heard. Trouble's A Coming is a gospel-rock tune which I had not heard before. It sounds to my ears like something which with different lyrics could have been on 1972 era Sesame Street. That's a compliment. Homely Girl is another countrified soul ballad which is similar to some Stax songs. Apparently Beyonce and a few other modern singers sampled "Are you my woman.." for their own songs which I have not heard. I'm not a huge fan of sampling, even if everything is properly credited and paid, which I believe it was. But whatever.

The Chi-Lites recorded for Brunswick Records which was run by the alleged Mafia associate Nat Tarnopol (who also "owned" Jackie Wilson). The scene from the movie The Five Heartbeats where Big Red dangles a recalcitrant musician outside of a hotel window for daring to question him about missing royalties was supposedly based on a real life incident between Tarnopol and a restive Jackie Wilson. Allegedly some of The Chi-Lites later discovered that not all credits and royalties had been properly paid or accounted for by Brunswick. There were battles within the group for recognition and money. Most of the original singers are now deceased. Like with any other family there were sudden tragedies which alternately brought them closer together and drove them further apart. I can't say who was right or wrong or who was stealing and who was living right. All I know is that they created wonderful music. 

Oh Girl   Have You Seen Her? The Man and The Woman  The Coldest Days of My Life

You're No Longer Part Of My Heart   A Lonely Man  Are You My Woman(Tell Me So)

(For God's Sake)Give More Power to the People   Trouble's A Comin

Inner City Blues(Make Me Wanna Holler)   Write A Letter To Myself   I'm Not A Gambler

Marriage License Let Me Be The Man My Daddy Was  Toby  Homely Girl


Gordon Edwards, Eric Gale, Cornell Dupree, Richard Tee, Chris Parker
and Steve Gadd (l-r)
Stuff was a peculiar band in that it was deliberately made up of sidemen who ran in a lot of the same musical circles. I don't mean that they were untalented. Much the opposite, in fact they were all extremely talented musicians. But their best work prior to Stuff was generally done backing other people, not as leaders. The people with whom they recorded and/or toured separately and occasionally together is far too long to list completely here but included such luminaries as Aretha Franklin, King Curtis, James Taylor, Bill Withers, Joe Cocker, Steely Dan, Lena Horne, Dizzy Gillespie, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Billy Joel, Miles Davis, Paul Simon, Donny Hathaway, Carla Bley, Ron Carter, Barbara Streisand and many more. Although when tasked to do so they could and did provide some burning solos on their chosen instruments, with a few exceptions none of them were known as soloists. The group had no charismatic frontman or frontwoman lead singers. There was nobody out front dancing. So the odds of the group finding success in a crowded seventies R&B marketplace seemed to be relatively low. But for a brief glorious moment Stuff did have market and critical success. Stuff created a number of swinging danceable compositions that could equally be described as funk-jazz, R&B, pop-gospel, uptempo blues, and pop. Most, but not all of their work was instrumental. Some of their music was constructed so similar to vocal pop compositions that you're wondering what happened to the singer. Stuff's music was almost symphonic in arrangement. For Stuff, the almighty groove was the key. No matter if someone took a solo or not, nobody ever ever ever let up on the groove.  The band was the living incarnation of the Sly Stone song Everybody Is A Star

Of course for my money the best solo ever recorded on a Stuff cut was pianist extraordinaire Richard Tee's insane pounding gospel solo on Do You Want Some of This. The group was functionally and musically a democracy but was initially put together by Gordon Edwards, the bassist. On the infrequent occurrences when someone is singing on a Stuff recording, it's often Edwards. I wouldn't describe him as a great singer but he was a direct and honest one. Hear his raspy voice on Love of Mine
Other Stuff members included soul guitar demigods Cornell Dupree and Eric Gale and jazz fusion/funk/rock drummer Steve Gadd. Gadd was relentless on the drums. Dupree and Gale played intricate interlocking mostly clean guitar parts. Either one alone could sound like two guitarists by himself. If all you know of guitar is someone playing with as much volume and distortion as possible, these two guitarists may be a welcome revelation. The band also occasionally had a second drummer, who also worked in an R&B/jazz style, Chris Parker. Sometimes Bubba Gets Down is from a live show in Japan, where the band was quite popular. It's a 2/4 soca tune. On Need Somebody, which is the last track on the "More Stuff" album (starts at 29:54), it's Tee who's doing the singing. I like his voice a little more than Edwards' but it's all good. Parker and especially Gadd show why drums are so important to a band's sound. I think modern R&B has lost so much by eschewing drummers for samples and machines. I like this band a lot. For me it's good music to listen to while I'm exercising or cleaning the house. It's organic soulful music that will almost certainly draw out and dissipate negative emotions. Stuff recorded only three studio albums under their own name ("Stuff", "More Stuff" and "Stuff It") but the releases are easy to find. I'm not crazy about their slick cover of Orleans' Dance with me but that's because I like the original so much better. YMMV. Gordon's Theme is sublime. Stuff wasn't afraid to use space in their music.

Do You Want Some of This  Reflections of Divine Love  Sometimes Bubba Gets Down

Foots(Live at Montreux)  My Sweetness  Love Of Mine  How Long Will It Last

That's The Way of The World  More Stuff (Full Album)   

Honey Coral Rock/You Are So Beautiful  Dance With Me   Gordon's Theme
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