Feeling Funk, Y’all! Soul Music Gets a Facelift in the Seventies
George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Kool & the Gang took the reins from the great James Brown.
Sweet Soul Music
Right at the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll, an enlightened Billboard reporter crossed out “race records” on the charts and substituted “rhythm & blues.” Black musicians thus joined the popular music cosmos, sharing the bounty enthusiastically bestowed by open-minded baby boomers with cash to spare.
Along the way, soul music became the brand that codified Black musical aspirations. Record labels such as Atlantic, Motown, and Stax found it profitable to assimilate Black recordings and performance. The latter came with colorful matching outfits, finger-snapping synchronized dancing, and smooth, melodic harmonies. The Temptations’ “My Girl” became the go-to number at White teen dance parties. Soul became synonymous with “establishment” music.
There was a hunger to return soul music to its rhythm & blues roots.
James Brown, who had been around since the fifties, was a sort of contrarian to this assimilated product. Oh yes, his stage shows featured synchronized dancing. But they were raucous affairs, with “soul brother number one” screeching out an uncompromising, rhapsodic message of blatant sexual desire and Black liberation (Sly and the Family Stone would follow suit). Brown’s call-and-response technique (“Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing”) cast a spell over his predominantly Black audience.
By the late sixties, songs such as “Cold Sweat,” “Give It Up or Turnit Loose,” and “Mother Popcorn” were uniquely James Brown: strutting, danceable syncopated riffs stripped down to their rhythmic essence, staccato horn bursts, with Brown’s vocal skipping along to the beat, barely revealing melody or pitch. These were the first funk records.
The “founding father of funk,” George Clinton, had traditional soul ambitions when he formed the Parliaments in suburban New Jersey in the early sixties. The band charted a 1967 hit, “(I Wanna) Testify,” and soon Clinton was commuting to Detroit to be a songwriter and producer for Motown.
By 1970, Clinton was juggling two separate bands that, because of contractual land mines, signed with different record labels. Clinton consolidated both under the banner of Parliament-Funkadelic, or P-Funk, with band members rotating performances as one big music collective. Britannica hits a good note on P-Funk’s sound:
The band combined the hard rock of Jimi Hendrix, the funky rhythms of James Brown, and the show-stopping style of Sly & the Family Stone to fashion an outgrageous tribal funk experience. P-Funk emphasized the aesthetics of funk as a means of self-fulfillment; to “give up the funk” meant to achieve transcendence.
Get Off Your Ass and Jam
As the seventies progressed, Parliament-Funkadelic concerts got more, uh, eccentric. When I caught them in the eighties at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, it was like watching a three-ring circus (I had a blast). Here is a live 1978 performance of the song, “Flashlight,” four minutes long, published by LawdyMissClawdyMEDIA via YouTube:
Some Funk Notables
Sly and the Family Stone brought their “sunshine pop” funk to the west coast (along with Tower of Power’s “What Is Hip?”). You can read my article about Sly here. Legendary producer and composer Nile Rodgers is probably best known for founding disco-era bands like Chic (“Le Freak”) and Sister Sledge (“We Are Family”), as Rodgers deftly blended the disco beat with elements of jazz and funk.
Dayton, Ohio, is home to two formidable funk bands: the Ohio Players (“Love Rollercoaster”) and Zapp (also known as Zapp & Roger), the latter protegees of George Clinton whose use of their trademark “talk box” gave us the subgenre, electro-funk.
Kool and the Gang
Scroll back to the early seventies, before disco had a chokehold on the radio, and imagine a dance floor without the strains of Kool and the Gang, led by Robert “Kool” Bell. Their earlier hits (“Jungle Boogie” and “Funky Stuff”) from the 1973 album Wild and Peaceful featured chunky guitar riffs and “party” horn-and-chant workouts that would inspire budding disco acts.
Feel the Boogie!
In 1975, Kool & the Gang released Spirit of the Boogie with its rowdy title song. Here is a live TV performance of “Spirit of the Boogie,” three and a half minutes long, published by MOMOFUNKONE via YouTube:
The next year, Kool’s minor hit single, “Open Sesame,” made it onto the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.
As the decade progressed, Kool & the Gang entered a four-album partnership with Brazillian producer Eumir Deodato, who nudged the band toward mainstream pop and dance music (“Ladies Night” and “Celebration”). White America grabbed on.
Earth, Wind & Fire
Unlike George Clinton’s envelope-pushing performative chaos and down-and-dirty defiance, Chicago-based Earth, Wind & Fire preached clean, uplifting messaging amidst a sound crafted to be cool, calculated, and precise. Bandleader Maurice White, the son of a doctor and grandson of a New Orleans honky tonk pianist, balanced his funk “with mainstream jazz, soft soul, and African folk rhythmic devices.” Their elaborate stage shows were designed by magician Doug Henning.
In an act of mischief or jealousy, the lyrics of one P-Funk song retaliated, “earth, hot air, and no fire.”
Although they still tour today, Earth, Wind & Fire was a seventies hit-making phenomenon, logging five platinum albums containing hits such as “Sing A Song” (1975), “Shining Star” (1975), “Serpentine Fire” (1977), “September” (1978), and “Boogie Wonderland” (1979).
Here is the “official” video of “Serpentine Fire,” from All ‘n All (my favorite EW&F album), three and a half minutes in length, published by Earth, Wind & Fire via YouTube:
All of the artists mentioned had consequential recordings in the eighties, as Rick James and Prince hopped on board. The influence of funk spread to other genres in the eighties and beyond, with funk providing the rhythmic basis for much of American dance music.
With the rise of rap music and its sampling of funk classics, funk has grown in stature and significance in hip-hop culture. Today, if you’ve ever felt like dancing to a song on the radio, chances are good you’re “feeling funk, y’all!”