Wild Cherry – Play That Funky Music (Epic)
Barrabas – It (Atlantic)
Miami – Kill That Roach (Jayboy)
Real Thing – Can’t Get By Without You (PYE)
O’Jays – Message In Our Music (Philadelphia International)
Undisputed Truth – You + Me = Love (Whitfield)
James Wells – Baby I’m Still The Same Man (Polydor)
Isaac Hayes – Juicy Fruit (ABC)
Boz Scaggs – Lowdown (CBS)
Candi Staton – Destiny (Warner Brothers)
Peter Tosh – Legalize It (Virgin)
Barry Biggs – Work All Day (Dynamic)
Average White Band – Queen Of My Soul (Atlantic)
Manhattans – Hurt (CBS)
Marvin Gaye – After The Dance (Tamla Motown)
Other tracks considered: Biddu Orchestra Bionic Boogie (Epic) / David Ruffin Discover Me (Tamla Motown) / Dorothy Moore Funny How Time Slips Away (Contempo) / Gloria Gaynor Talk Talk Talk (Polydor) / Isley Brothers Who Loves You Better (Epic)
September’s Time Capsule kicks off with Wild Cherry and ‘Play That Funky Music’, which as the lyrics suggest was recorded by a group of white boys (from Steubenville, Ohio, formed by singer / guitarist Rob Parissi). The single, about a Rock & Roll band who switch their style to Funk, was somewhat autobiographical – the title is said to have resulted from a request by a black audience member at a live gig they played, who shouted ‘play some funky music white boy’. Originally intended as a b-side to their cover version of ‘I Feel Sanctified’, by Motown group, The Commodores, the track was issued as a single in its own right and soared to the top of both the Billboard Pop and R&B charts, eventually selling in excess of 2 million copies (the record reached number 7 in the UK). However, success turned out to be short lived and, despite being named Best Pop Group of the year by Billboard, Wild Cherry are nowadays remembered as a one hit wonder.
Barrabas were also a white band playing funky music. Hailing from Spain, where they’d formed in the 60’s, their style was a fusion of Psychedelic Rock, Funk, and Jazz. They’d go on to score in the discos with tracks like ‘Checkmate’, ‘Hijack’ and ‘Woman’ (which would become a classic cut at David Mancuso’s seminal Loft parties in New York). Released in the UK as the flip side to ‘Desperately’, which was a big Disco hit Stateside, ‘It’ found favour with British DJ’s who were into its funkier edge. Barrabas continued recording into the 80’s, but never managed to repeat their club successes of the early-mid 70’s.
Miami were a Florida band who recorded for the TK subsidiary, Drive. As well as releasing three albums themselves, the group were utilised by other Miami-based artists, including Clarence Reid, Little Beaver, George McCrae, Betty Wright and Gwen McCrae. ‘Kill That Roach’, from their 2nd album, ‘Notorious’, was, along with 1974’s ‘Party Freaks’, their best-known single. Once again, this was a record that seemed to find more favour at the time with British DJ’s than their US counterparts.
Following the chart topping exploits of ‘You To Me Are Everything’, the Real Thing almost repeated the trick with the follow-up, ‘Can’t Get By Without You’, which was kept from the UK top spot by Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’. It would be another two and a half years before the Liverpool band returned to the Top 10. Both ‘You To Me Are Everything’ and ‘Can’t Get By Without You’ would be remixed and re-released ten years on, in 1986 (these new versions called ‘The Decade Mixes’), with ‘You To Me Are Everything’ once again peaking one place higher (although not 1 and 2 this time, but 5 and 6).
The latest O’Jays single was ‘Message In Our Music’, which, although failing to make a dent on the chart, found a reasonable level of club success on both sides of the Atlantic.
One of the most distinctive Disco singles of the year was ‘You + Me = Love’ by the Undisputed Truth, a Detroit based group who’d scored a Top 3 US single in 1971 with ‘Smiling Faces Sometimes’ (on Motown’s Gordy label). Written and produced by their mentor, one of the true greats, Norman Whitfield (it was also issued on his own Whitfield label), ‘You + Me = Love’ was almost too progressive for mainstream consumption, although it was a big US Disco hit and, following sustained, if not blanket, club support in the UK it would eventually enter the chart in January 1977, just missing the Top 40 (peaking at 43). Although not one of the original group members, delivering the stunning lead vocal on ‘You + Me = Love’ was Chaka Khan’s younger sister, Taka Boom. Whitfield had been one of the key figures in developing the early Disco sound via his revolutionary work with The Temptations during the late 60’s and early 70’s, with records like ‘Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone’ and ‘Law Of The Land’, providing something of a template for how to gradually build a track for maximum impact – something which became standard with later Disco mixes. His place as a Disco pioneer would surely have been celebrated to a far greater degree had he not already been acclaimed as one of the most influential of all producers, his many credits including a record that is usually there or thereabouts when the critics name the greatest single of all-time – Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ (Whitfield also produced Gladys Knight & The Pips’ version of the same song a year earlier, which was Motown’s biggest selling release until Gaye’s version was issued). Whilst the Undisputed Truth only achieved a limited level of commercial success during their career (they’d record until 1979), Whitfield was about to unleash a new band who’d become one of the biggest names of the Disco era (more next month).
The latest production from Blackpool Mecca DJ, Ian Levine, was ‘Baby I’m Still The Same Man’ by James Wells, a Chicago born singer with roots in Gospel music, which had moderate success in the clubs here. Although the single failed to make any real impression back in the US, Wells would later score Disco hits in his homeland via ‘My Claim To Fame’ and ‘True Love Is My Destiny’ in 1978. Levine’s decision to play contemporary US Disco releases alongside his Northern Soul selections at the Mecca was splitting the Northern scene in two, the traditionalists up in arms and highly critical of the direction he’d taken. The type of Disco favoured by Levine was mainly the records breaking out of New York’s gay clubs, rather than the funkier tracks preferred by most British DJ’s. As I’ve previously stated, Disco wasn’t regarded as a specific genre in the UK back then, but a catch-all phrase for music people danced to in discotheques and clubs (usually Soul or Funk). However, the term ‘New York Disco’ was increasingly used when referring to the style of dance music that was now emerging from the Big Apple. Whilst the NYC Disco scene was very much gay led, the British Disco scene was always underpinned by a more soulful tradition, dating back to the American R&B of the late 50’s / early 60’s, which had a huge influence on the British youth culture that would make the Sixties swing. These differences are something that always need to be taken into account in order to gain a true understanding of how things evolved in the UK, where, quite often, massive club tunes from a New York perspective failed to take off here, and vice-versa.
Isaac Hayes followed-up his hit, ‘Disco Connection’ with another club aimed release, ‘Juicy Fruit’, but this time missed the chart, with the track receiving little support outside of the specialist nights
Regarded as one of the classic Blue-Eyed Soul singles, ‘Lowdown’ by Boz Scaggs, despite its popularity on the UK club scene, peaked at a somewhat disappointing position of number 28 on the British chart. By contrast, the single had reached number 3 Stateside, with the album it was taken from, ‘Silk Degrees’, becoming an American classic, which sold more than 5 million copies and spent over 2 years on the chart! Picking up a Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues song, ‘Lowdown’ was recorded with a team of session musicians, who would later form the nucleus of the hit band Toto. In the early 60’s, Scaggs, who was Ohio born, had left his Texas home to briefly join London’s burgeoning R&B scene, returning to record his debut solo album, ‘Boz’ in 1965. He’d later appear on the first 2 Steve Miller Band LP’s, ‘Children Of The Future’ (1968) and ‘Sailor’ (1969), before continuing his solo career with a series of albums for Atlantic Records. However, it wasn’t until he signed to Columbia that the commercial acclaim, which had previously eluded him, finally came thanks to ‘Silk Degrees’.
Coming on the back of one of the biggest club records of the year, Candi Staton’s new single ‘Destiny’ just missed the top 40, stalling at 41. Many people believed that Warner Brothers made the wrong choice, and that ‘Run To Me’ would have been a better follow-up, although neither could live up to the high expectations set by ‘Young Hearts Run Free’.
As one of the original Wailing Wailers, alongside Bunny Wailer and Bob Marley, Peter Tosh was a Reggae pioneer and trailblazer for the Rastafarian movement. The band, with their name shortened to The Wailers, would become one of Jamaica’s premier recording acts of the 60’s. In 1972, they signed for Island Records, who brought them to wider attention via the groundbreaking album ‘Catch A Fire’. At this point, Bob Marley didn’t always take the lead vocal, Tosh sometimes filled this role, his outspoken and candid approach never more apparent than on ‘Get Up Stand Up’, now a Reggae standard, which featured on the band’s 2nd Island album, ‘Burnin’’. However, Tosh and Bunny Wailer would leave the band after this album, following a disagreement with Island owner, Chris Blackwell, with subsequent releases credited to Bob Marley & The Wailers (Marley was, of course, soon to become ‘the first third world superstar’). Tosh would go on to release 8 solo albums between 1976 and 1987, the year he was murdered at his home during a burglary (although some believe this was a cover up, and that Tosh was assassinated, due to his forthright political views). His first album, ‘Legalize It’, featured the single of the same name, a memorable anthem for Marijuana, the sacred herb of the Rastafarian. Definitely not a record you’d hear on Radio 1!
‘Work All Day’ by Barry Biggs was a far less controversial Reggae single, which sneaked into the Top 40, peaking at 38. This was the first of half a dozen UK hits for Biggs between 1976 and 1981. His first Jamaican hit was a cover of ‘One Bad Apple’ by The Osmonds (often mistaken as a Jackson 5 track) in 1972, and he’d previously worked as a harmony singer for Clement “Coxsone” Dodd’s Studio One and Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle Studios (Dodd and Reid revered as the founding fathers of the Jamaican music business). Before his solo success he’d become a member of both the Crystalites and the Astronauts before accepting a position as the lead singer for Byron Lee’s Dragonaires.
As the name Average White Band hints at, this was another white band playing black music, but, unlike Wild Cherry, they were no flash in the pan. Not only were they white, but also British (Scottish to be precise). This was at a time when black British music was generally looked down on as vastly inferior to the ‘real stuff’ from the States – that is, apart from the Average White Band (who many assumed not only to be black, but black Americans). This wasn’t surprising, as the band, following an unsuccessful debut album on MCA, had relocated to New York and signed a recording deal with Atlantic Records, one of the most influential of all black music labels, in 1974. To further enhance their ‘authenticity’, the legendary producer, Arif Mardin, was brought in to work on their first, self-titled, album for the label (and subsequent releases on Atlantic). The resulting record topped the US chart, as did the single,’ Pick Up The Pieces’, a classic Funk instrumental. However, success was tinged with tragedy, as drummer and founder member, Robbie McIntosh, wasn’t around to enjoy these accomplishments, having died of a heroin overdose in Sept 1974. McIntosh and fellow AWB member, Alan Gorrie, thought they’d taken cocaine at a party, but this turned out to be heroin laced with strychnine. Both were violently ill, but McIntosh, unable to vomit, failed to get the poison out of his system, losing his life as a result. McIntosh would be replaced by Steve Ferrone, who became the bands first black member. Although they never again scaled the heights of their first Atlantic album, the band would continue to have UK hits until 1980, ‘Queen Of My Soul’ reaching number 23 on the chart.
Having scored a major hit with ‘Kiss And Say Goodbye’, the Manhattans returned with another ballad, ‘Hurt’, which exactly emulated the UK stats of its predecessor, peaking at number 4, whilst spending 11 weeks on the chart.
Marvin Gaye closes proceedings with the atmospheric ‘After The Dance’, another sensual slowie taken from the ‘I Want You’ album.
September ‘76 proved to be a highly significant month for me, as this was when I made my first visits to two massively influential Merseyside venues, The Hamilton in Birkenhead, home of Terry Lennaine’s Wednesday night Funk sessions, and the club that had already set my imagination racing, its weighty reputation preceding it via the Liverpool Funk crowd who came into the Penny Farthing most Monday. This was, of course, The Timepiece.
The catalyst behind both these discoveries was a DJ called Dave Porter, who I’d met via hospital radio (my weekly programme, which was called ‘Saturday Satellite’, would be launched this month). Dave presented shows on Radio Catherine, but was also filling in on a proper radio station from time to time – BBC Radio Merseyside, where Terry Lennaine hosted his influential Monday night Soul show, Keep On Truckin’. Dave was an extremely professional presenter, who knew all the tricks of the trade and would go on to make a successful career for himself on radio. He can still, to this day, be heard over the airwaves in the North-East.
I went to The Hamilton after spending the evening with Dave at Radio Catherine. He asked me if I’d like to come along as he was heading there afterwards. Terry Lennaine had a really good weekly scene going there, playing all the latest Funk and Soul that he featured on his radio show. I’d seen Terry play before, at the Chelsea Reach on a Tuesday, but this was a much more upfront setting, with an audience that included a number of black guys who’d come across from Liverpool (always a good indication of how highly a night was rated). I hadn’t met Terry, or if I had it would have been very fleetingly, but, being with Dave, I was properly introduced. Throughout the coming years I’d go to The Hamilton many times and become friendly with Terry, often sitting in on his radio show and sometimes driving to Manchester with him (it was Terry that first took me to Spin Inn in 1977). The most memorable Wednesday nights were his ‘Get Togethers’ – these were charity events for the benefit of disadvantaged children, with people only admitted if they brought a new toy with them (and woe betide those who brought something second-hand, as this would unleash the full wrath of Terry if he happened to be standing at the door). The Get Togethers would always feature a live act, and I’d get to see a number of British Funk bands at these events, including Hi-Tension, the Olympic Runners, The Real Thing, Rokotto, Delegation and Heatwave.
Just a few nights later, on Saturday September 4th, Dave asked me if I could cover for him at a wedding reception he was booked to appear at in Liverpool, at a venue called the Castle Court. I wasn’t working that night, so I said OK. I remember it being a tedious affair – to the best of my memory this was the last wedding reception I ever did. At the end of the night he picked me up and, along with Terry Lennaine, we headed to The Timepiece for the All-Nighter. It would prove to be a pivotal experience for me.
Walking into The Timepiece, the first thing I became aware of was that I, as a white guy, was very much in the minority – there was no mistaking that this was a black environment. I wondered if I was out of my depth and whether this was a place where a 16 year old white boy from New Brighton should be, although, being with Terry and Dave, who were also white, but seemed totally at ease, I figured I must be safe. Sticking close behind them, I made my way through the crowd to the DJ booth, which was graced by the formidable presence of Les Spaine. After Terry and Dave exchanged a few words with Les, they introduced me to him, at which point I felt as though I’d been officially welcomed to the club, which made me feel all the more secure. I soon realised that all around the booth there were DJ’s from other clubs in Liverpool, some of whom would ask Les what records he was playing, before scribbling the info down onto a bit of paper. Frank Elson would describe a similar scene in his Blues & Soul column a few months later; “the deejay stand was surrounded by jocks from all over Liverpool (and further afield), many with notebooks and pencils noting down the records. It seems that what Les Spaine plays at the Timepiece, the rest of the North of England’s funk clubs play the week after”.
Elson would also observe; “although the clientele is predominantly black there are plenty of white Funk fans in the club and for Liverpool, where it is a sorry fact that Black and White just don’t mix in clubs, there is a feeling of togetherness with everyone united by the music”. He added; “Liverpool is the only town where I’ve encountered any racial tension in Soul clubs but at the Timepiece manager Roy Carrington and Les must take the compliments for providing a trouble free atmosphere. Perhaps if other club managements would stop operating a racial bias they would find that a lot of it was only in their minds anyway”.
Completely intoxicated by the music and the dancing, I felt at home in no time. The night was a revelation to me – I’d seen the promised land! To quote my own recent article, ‘When Funk Held Sway’; “It made a huge impression on me and I resolved there and then that this was the type of audience, so knowledgeable with regards to music, that I wanted to play to. Some years later I would fulfil this aim when I worked with a similar crowd at Legend in Manchester”.
But, for now, I was just one of a number of Merseyside DJ’s who could only dream about presiding over the type of club night Les had built at The Timepiece, although each of us did our best to bring a taste of the TP (as the regulars would call it) to our own venues – these included Mike Davidson at places like The Beachcomber in Liverpool and the Scarisbrick Hotel in Southport, Funky Al at The Pun (Les’s former club), Kevin Horswood at Ruperts in Birkenhead and Funky George Spence at the Gladrag and the Cambean in Liverpool.
Another Blues & Soul writer (now editor), London based Bob Killbourne, would write at the time; “Les Spaine’s reputation amongst Liverpool soul fans equals that of the legendary Bill Shankley (of Liverpool F.C) to soccer fanatics”. And he wasn’t wrong!
Records from September 1976.
Revisited September 2006.