Here is part 4 in an expanded and remastered blog post series on black musicians. You can read parts 1, 2, and 3 here. This deep dive post covers members of Santana all the way to 24 Carat Black.
Santana (Alphonso Johnson, Armando Peraza, Buddy Miles, Chester Thompson, David Brown, Doug Rauch, Hadley Caliman, Leon Chancler, Leon Thomas, Leon Patillo, Marcus Malone, Orestes Vilató, Paul Jackson, and Stanley Clarke): Santana, named after Mexican lead guitarist Carlos Santana were formed in San Francisco in 1966. They were a band with an ever changing lineup and had musicians of all ethnic backgrounds. They continued to tour even into the 2010s and are one of the best selling groups of all time, with 100 million albums sold worldwide.
Three years after the band formed, they got a record deal and that same year, they performed at Woodstock and that led to a meteoric rise for the band, making a name for them worldwide. Since this blog post is all about black musicians, we will be focusing on the band members and talking about their contributions. First, if you want to get into Santana, my personal favourite album is Abraxas. Below, I’ll share a playlist of Santana songs I love. My recommendation is that the first three albums are the essentials, the rest you can skip (unless you’re a diehard fan).
Alphonso Johnson played bass for Santana in the 80s, but before that he worked with Weather Report, Phil Collins, and Bob Weir. He started off as an upright bass player and switched to electric bass as a teenager. He was one of the first musicians to introduce the Chapman Stick to the public. In more recent years, he works as a music educator and has taught bass all around the world.
Armando Peraza was a jazz percussionist and member of Santana from the 70s to the 90s. He was born in Cuba around 1924. He was orphaned by age 7 and lived on the streets, supporting himself doing odd jobs. At 17, he became a professional musician when he heard at a baseball game that bandleader Alberto Ruiz was looking for a conga player. He moved to Mexico in 1948 to take care of his friend Mongo Santamaría, and lived there briefly before moving to New York City the following year to play in recording sessions and work with jazz musicians like Buddy Rich, Machito, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Dave Brubeck, Shelly Manne, and Chick Corea.
For information on Buddy Miles, see part 1.
Chester Thompson is a drummer who has worked with Frank Zappa, Weather Report, Genesis, the Bee Gees, and was briefly in Santana in the mid 80s. He was born in Baltimore, Maryland and his older brother played in the drum corps. His first instrument was flute and in school he learnt to read music. When he was 11, he switched to drums. As a teenager, he would fake his age to play live gigs in venues.
David Brown was the bassist of Santana from 1966-1971 and in 1974-1976. He was born in New York and grew up in Daly City. He played with Santana at Woodstock, Altamont, and the Closing of the Fillmore West in 1971.
Doug Rauch was the bassist for Santana from 1972-1973. He was born in New York and his mother was an opera singer. Michael Shrive invited him to join the band. He helped contribute to their jazz/rock/fusion sound. He also worked with David Bowie, Lenny White, and Jan Hammer Band. He died in 1979.
Hadley Caliman was a jazz saxophone and flute player who played on Santana’s album Caravanserai and on the Santana & Buddy Miles album Carlos Santana & Buddy Miles! Live!
Leon Chancler was born in Shreveport to a family of 7 children and was raised in LA. He started playing drums when he was 13. Growing up, he would tap on his desk and the poles in the hallway – at that point he knew that his ambition was to be a drummer. He graduated with a degree in music education. He worked with Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Donna Summer, Minnie Riperton, and wrote Let It Whip by The Dazz Band. He played on the Santana albums Borboletta and Amigos.
Leon Thomas was a jazz singer from East St Louis. He was known for his glottal stop style of free jazz singing that combined scat singing, vocalise, and pygmy yodelling and was called the John Coltrane of jazz vocalists. He toured with Santana in 1973.
Leon Patillo is a singer who got his start in his own group, Leon’s Creation – in the 60s. They were similar to Sly & The Family Stone. Besides Santana, he worked with Funkadelic and Martha & The Vandellas.
Marcus Malone was a founding member of Santana, playing percussion, but just before the band got a record deal, he was convicted of manslaughter and served a few years at San Quentin. Since his release in 1973, he was homeless, living on the streets of Oakland. Forty years later, he was accidentally discovered by a local station’s field reporter who helped him reunite with Carlos Santana. He was supposed to play on Santana IV, but in the end was not featured. In 2016, he was in a freak accident where an unsecured tyre flew off a car and hit him, leaving him needing life support. A very sad story.
Orestes Vilató is a Cuban percussionist who has worked with Ray Barretto, Johnny Pacheco, Cachao, and Fania All Stars. He played timbales for Santana and is considered to be one of the best timbales players in salsa.
Paul Jackson is a jazz bassist known for his work with Herbie Hancock in the 70s. He started playing bass when he was 9 and when he was 14 he performed with the Oakland Symphony Orchestra. He played on the Santana album, Festival.
To read about Stanley Clarke, read part 3.
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins: One hit wonder known for his theatrical pioneering shock rock song “I Put a Spell On You”. His performances were macabre, his clothes flashy, and he was doing shock rock way before Arthur Brown, Screaming Lord Sutch, Alice Cooper, and Marilyn Manson. One notable performance involved Alan Freed paying him $300 to jump out from a coffin on stage.
He was born and raised in Cleveland. He was adopted as a baby by a Native American family. As a child, he learned piano and as an adult he learned to play guitar. His original goal was to be an opera singer, but that didn’t pan out so he went into blues music. Allegedly, he served in the Army in WWII despite being a teenager. While in the Army and Air Force, he entertained troops and boxed.
“I Put a Spell On You” was released in 1956 and while it wasn’t a commercial success, it was a song that shaped rock and roll no doubt, with many musicians covering it: like CCR, Nina Simone, The Animals, Them, Bryan Ferry, and Buddy Guy. He didn’t like his persona though. He didn’t want to be called Screamin’ Jay Hawkins because he felt the name made a bogeyman out of him.
Shirley Goodman: R&B singer and half of the 50s duo Shirley and Lee who were known for the hits, “I’m Gone”, “Feel So Good”, “Let The Good Times Roll”, and “I Feel Good”.
In the 60s and 70s, she worked a session singer, singing on recordings by Sonny and Cher, Dr John, and The Rolling Stones. Shirley Goodman was good friends with Sylvia Robinson of Mickey and Sylvia and record label owner and Sylvia encouraged her to record a disco song, “Shame, Shame, Shame”. The song reached #1 on the R&B charts and #12 on the pop charts in 1975.
Shuggie Otis: Shuggie Otis is the son of jazz musician Johnny Otis. His father was of Greek descent and his mother was black and Filipina. As a baby, he got his nickname Shuggie from his mother, Phyllis. A prodigy, he started playing guitar when he was a toddler and started performing with his father’s band when he was 11, sneaking into nightclubs by wearing glasses and a fake moustache. Not only can Shuggie play guitar, he can also play bass, drums, piano, and organ. As he grew up, he started getting into more contemporary stuff like psychedelic rock like Sly & the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, and Love. At 15, he worked with Al Kooper on the Kooper Session album. My favourite track on it is “12:15 Slow Goonbash Blues”.
At 16, he released his first album, Here Comes Shuggie Otis. Two years later, he released Freedom Flight. Both of these albums are excellent. My favourite tracks from these albums are “Oxford Gray”, “Bootie Cooler”, “Funky Thithee”, “Shuggie’s Boogie”, “Hurricane”, “Baby I Needed You”, “The Hawks”, “Ice Cold Daydream”, “Strawberry Letter 23”, “Sweet Thang”, “Someone’s Always Singing”, “Purple”, and “Freedom Flight”.
His best known song is “Strawberry Letter 23”, notably covered by The Brothers Johnson.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe: Singer-songwriter and guitarist who crossed over from being the first great recording star of gospel to being a rock and roll pioneer and among the first musicians in that genre and given the honourifics “The Godmother of Rock and Roll” and “The Original Soul Sister”. She influenced Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Carl Perks, Chuck Berry, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Keith Richards, among others. She was also one of the first to use distortion on an electric guitar. Some of her best known songs are “Rock Me”, “That’s All”, “This Train”, “Strange Things Happening Every Day”, “Precious Memories”, and “Up Above My Head, I Hear Music in the Air”.
Slash: Guitarist for Guns N Roses. He was born in London in 1965 to an American mother who was a fashion designer for David Bowie, Ringo Starr, and Janis Joplin and a British father who was an artist who created album covers for Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. He said this about his background: “As a musician, I’ve always been amused that I’m both British and black; particularly because so many American musicians seem to aspire to be British while so many British musicians, in the ‘Sixties in particular, went to such great pains to be black.” He spent most of his childhood in LA, but also spent time with his British grandparents in Stoke-on-Trent. As a child, he got his nickname “Slash” from the actor Seymour Cassel because he was hyper. At 14, he learnt to play bass, but quickly switched to guitar after hearing his guitar teacher play The Rolling Stones, Cream, and Led Zeppelin.
In the early 80s, he joined a few bands, but those didn’t go anywhere, but he made connections with future GNR bandmates like Steven Adler and Duff McKagan. In 1985, Axl Rose and Izzy Stradlin asked Slash, Adler, and McKagan to join their band, Guns N Roses. In 1985 and 1986, they started playing a famous LA nightclubs like the Whisky a Go Go, Roxy, and Troubadour and around that time wrote their classics “Welcome to the Jungle”, “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, and “Paradise City”. In 1987, Guns N Roses released their first album, Appetite for Destruction, which has sold 28 million copies worldwide It is the best selling debut album in America, selling 18 million copies. Guns n Roses went on a 2.5 year long tour in 1991, called the Use Your Illusion Tour. Things weren’t going well in the band, so the lineup fell apart. Slash left in 1996 to focus on his project, Slash’s Snakepit. They released two albums: It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere in 1995 and Ain’t Life Grand in 2000. For me, this is more my kind of thing than GNR, because I like blues rock.
Slim Harpo: Blues musician born James Isaac Moore in Louisiana in 1924. He was influential in the swamp blues style and was one of the most commercially successful blues musicians of his day. Classic rock bands like The Kinks, The Yardbirds, The Who, and The Rolling Stones have covered his songs “I’m a King Bee”, “Shake Your Hips”, and “Got Love If You Want It”.
He was a firstborn and was orphaned at a young age and worked as a longshoreman and construction worker in New Orleans. He started performing as Harmonica Slim in Baton Rouge and would perform with his brother in law Lightnin’ Slim. He made his first recordings in the late 50s and took on the name Slim Harpo to differentiate himself from the other Harmonica Slim. “I’m a King Bee” was a regional hit, but didn’t make the national charts. However, it was influential to 60s rock stars. He always worked a day job even as a musician and even had a trucking business in the 60s so he could fund his tours. Just as he was supposed to go to Europe for the first time and record some more, he suddenly died of a heart attack in 1970 at the age of 46.
Sly & The Family Stone (Larry Graham, Cynthia Robinson, Freddie Stone, Sly Stone, Rose Stone): A funk rock/psychedelic soul band formed in San Francisco in 1966 and one of the first bands with a racially integrated, male/female lineup. Sly Stone formed the band with his brother Freddie and his sister Rose. The family were originally from Dallas, but were raised in Vallejo, California. The parents were followers of COGIC who encouraged their kids to express themselves through music and in the early 50s, Sly Stone and his siblings released a single called “On The Battlefield of the Lord”/“Walking In Jesus’ Name”. While in secondary school Sly and Freddie sang in doo-wop groups. In 1964, Sly Stone worked as a DJ for a San Mateo R&B radio station called KSOL. Alongside R&B bands, he would include white rock bands in his playlists. While working as a DJ, he produced singles for The Beau Brummels, The Mojo Men, and Bobby Freeman.
In 1966, Sly Stone formed Sly & The Stoners and Freddie formed Freddie & The Stone Souls. Sly’s friend Jerry Martini suggested the two bands amalgamate and become one. Initially called Sly Brothers and Sisters, they changed their name to what we know them as now, Sly & The Family Stone after their first gig. The classic lineup were Sly Stone on vocals and multiple instruments, Freddie Stone on guitar, Larry Graham on bass, Cynthia Robinson on Trumpet, Jerry Martini on saxophone, Gregg Errico on drums, Rose Stone on keyboard, and backing vocals by Little Sister (which included Vet Stone – Sly and Freddie’s little sister).
In 1967, they released their first album, A Whole New Thing. It wasn’t a commercial success and didn’t have any charting singles, but there are good songs like “Underdog” and “If This Room Could Talk”. I’d say they were still trying to find themselves and their sound with this album.
In 1968, they released Dance to the Music and Rose joined the band. The title track helped launch their career and get them popular, reaching #8 on the charts. Originally, they didn’t want to release that song as a single. That same year, they released Life, but this album didn’t go anywhere on the charts.
In 1969, they performed at Woodstock and released their breakthrough album, Stand!, which featured signature songs “Everyday People” and “Sing a Simple Song”. Their performance at Woodstock is considered one of the best at the festival and helped them reach new audiences and gain fans. However, newfound fame can lead to problems and conflict in a band. Freddie and Sly Stone started arguing with Larry Graham. The record label wanted them to make more marketable poppy music. The Black Panthers wanted the white band members, Gregg Errico and Jerry Martini replaced with black musicians. Like a lot of bands, someone got into drugs and a bad crowd and they aren’t themselves anymore. That someone was Sly Stone – getting high all the time and resulting in him becoming erratic and moody. As a result, the band fell apart and members started leaving. There was a year and a half gap between Stand! and their next album, There’s a Riot Goin’ On, but during that time they released hits “Thank You” and “Everybody is a Star” that were on the Greatest Hits album – considered one of the best greatest hits albums ever.
Still though, in 1971, the band released There’s a Riot Goin’ On and had success with the single “Family Affair”, which reached #1 and was the first chart topper by a band to use a drum machine. Like the album title suggests, this isn’t a happy album to dance to, nope. It’s a dark, more pensive album. There was a title track that ran for 0 minutes and 0 seconds. Some think that it was included in the track listing as a political statement referring to the July 27, 1970 riot in Chicago, but Sly Stone said in the 90s that it’s because he thought there should be no riots. This album was one of the first to use drum machines.
In 1973, Sly & The Family Stone released Fresh, their last top 10 album and has a lighter sound than the previous one. The big hit from the album is “If You Want Me To Stay”. Famous fans of the album include Miles Davis, Brian Eno, and George Clinton.
Small Talk, released in 1974, was the last album released with the original Family Stone. From there, the band fell apart even more. The whole band’s behaviour was erratic and they would miss gigs, refuse to play, or pass out because of drug use. This ruined their reputation and when they played a show at Radio City Music Hall in 1975, it was ⅞ empty and the band had to try to scrape together money to get home after the gig. That gig caused the band to break up. Freddie Stone left for Larry Graham’s Graham Central Station and Rose Stone turned to a solo career.
Sly Stone released three more albums in the 70s: High on You; Heard You Missed Me, Well I’m Back; and Back on the Right Track. I wouldn’t say any of these are worth your time, these don’t have the magic that the earlier albums have.
Here’s what the band were up to since the 70s: Sly Stone ended up homeless in 2011 and lived out of a camper van, later he sued for unpaid royalties and is still battling. Freddie Stone now is a pastor and has been a preacher for over 30 years. Rose Stone toured with Elton John as a backing vocalist in 2011 and 2012. In the 80s, she sang gospel music. Cynthia Robinson died of cancer in 2015. Larry Graham’s last release with Graham Central Station was in 2012.
Below, you can find my favourites from Sly & The Family Stone:
Sonny Boy Williamson II: A blues harmonica player and singer/songwriter. He was born Aleck Ford in Mississippi in 1912 (although there are disputes on the year ranging from 1897 to 1899 and even 1908) and went by multiple stage names like Rice Miller and Little Boy Blue before picking Sonny Boy Williamson, who was also the name of a Chicago blues singer and harmonica player, so he added the II next to his name. His stepfather was a sharecropper.
In the 30s, he travelled around the south and met other blues musicians like Big Joe Williams, Elmore James, Robert Johnson, and Robert Lockwood Jr. He was known for playing his harmonica without using his hands. In the early 40s, he played on the King Biscuit Time show advertising the titular brand of baking flour. It was on that show that he got his stage name. In 1949, he moved to West Memphis, Arkansas and lived with his sister and her husband, Howlin’ Wolf, who he would later parody with the song “Like Wolf”. He hosted a radio show.
It wasn’t until 1951 that he had his first recording session for Trumpet Records. After a few years, the label went bankrupt and his contract was sold to Chess Records in Chicago, so that’s where he went next. It was helpful that he was building a following there by appearing in Elmore James’ band. Between 1955 and 1964 he recorded 70 songs for Checker Records (a subsidiary of Chess). You can listen to his first singles for Checker on the album Down and Out Blues. Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, and Willie Dixon also play on this album. If you want to hear his later singles from 1957-1964, listen to The Real Folk Blues.
Classic rock fans might know the name Sonny Boy Williamson because he toured in Europe in the early 60s and while in London, he recorded with The Yardbirds and The Animals. Eric Clapton played on the live album, Sonny Boy Williamson and the Yardbirds. He also recorded with Jimmy Page and Brian Auger.
For some more classic rock connections, “Bring it On Home” was covered by Led Zeppelin in 1969 and “Eyesight to the Blind” was covered by The Who for Tommy in 1969.
Steve Ferrone: Drummer for the Average White Band and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. He also performed with musicians like Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Stevie Nicks, Duran Duran, Christine McVie, Slash, Chaka Khan, and The Bee Gees. He is from Brighton.
Stevie Wonder: Motown legend, needs no introduction. He was born Stevland Hardaway Judkins in Saginaw, Michigan in 1950. He was born 6 weeks premature and because of him being in an incubator, his eyes didn’t properly develop and his retinas detached so he was blind. His parents divorced when he was 4 and he and his mother moved to Detroit and changed his last name to Morris. He started singing in a church choir and with a friend on street corners and played piano, harmonica, and drums.
When he was 11, he met Ronnie White for The Miracles and sang a song he wrote called “Lonely Boy”. He was so impressed and took him to audition for Motown. Berry Gordy said yes and he had a deal. Producer Clarence Paul gave him the nickname Little Stevie Wonder. In 1962, he recorded two albums, The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie and a Ray Charles tribute album Tribute to Uncle Ray. The famous 12 Year Old Genius live album was also recorded that June at the Regal Theater in Chicago. The reason this album was so short at under 30 minutes was because in the 60s, Motown tours featured a bunch of musicians and each would play short sets – common practice across the music industry generally. That album helped launched him into stardom with chart topper “Fingertips” and he got a world record as youngest musician to be at the top of the charts.
However, things weren’t going great after that. He was growing up and his voice got deeper and he couldn’t be marketed as a child star anymore. Subsequent releases weren’t at the same level of success as fingertips and Motown were considering dropping Stevie Wonder. One songwriter saved the day and her name was Sylvia Moy. She convinced Berry Gordy to give him another chance and she and Stevie wrote the song “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”, which reached #3 on the pop charts. Stevie Wonder branched out into songwriting and co-wrote “The Tears of a Clown” for Smokey Robinson. From there, he got big hits with “I Was Made to Love Her”, “For Once in My Life”, “My Cherie Amour”, “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday”, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours”, and more!
In the 70s, he had even more success with hits like “Superstition”, “Living For The City”, “I Wish”, “Sir Duke”, and “Isn’t She Lovely?”. He had access to royalties and negotiated a good deal to get him a higher royalty rate and creative control over his music. He released great albums like Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life. In the 80s, he got even more political and experimental, by releasing the single “Happy Birthday” to get Martin Luther King’s birthday to be a national holiday and using synthesisers and a Fairlight CMI sampler. He worked with Paul McCartney on “Ebony and Ivory”. Overall, a legend and pop critic Jack Hamilton said this about Stevie Wonder – that he had the greatest creative run of any popular musician:
“Most Americans follow up their 21st birthdays with a hangover; Stevie Wonder opted for arguably the greatest sustained run of creativity in the history of popular music. Wonder’s “classic period”—the polite phrase for when Stevie spent five years ferociously dunking on the entire history of popular music with the releases of Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, and Songs in the Key of Life […] We’ve never heard anything like it since, and barring another reincarnation, we never will again.”
Sun Ra: Jazz composer, bandleader, and piano and synthesiser player known for his experimental sound, cosmic philosophy, and theatrical performances. He was born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Alabama – named after Vaudeville stage magician Black Herman. His nickname as a child was Sonny. He liked to keep his childhood a mystery and didn’t talk about it so he could keep this mysterious image – Sun Ra was a character and he would give these evasive answers – you couldn’t take any answer of his in an interview seriously. What we know for sure is that he was a child prodigy and could compose music by the age of 11 or 12 and could sight read music. In school, he was a straight A student, kept to himself, and spent his spare time in the Black Masonic Lodge reading books. In the 30s, he started touring with Ethel Harper and eventually took over as band leader, but that didn’t last for long. He went to university to study music education for a short bit, but dropped out because of this vision he had, which he claimed was a trip to Saturn and he claimed to have seen UFOs.
During WWII, he got drafted and refused to serve, which caused family to ostracise him and him getting arrested. Just after the war ended, he moved to Chicago, during the Second Great Migration of southern black Americans. While in Chicago, he got into Black political activism and decided to change his name to Le Sony’r Ra because he was uncomfortable with his birth name, which he called his slave name. He was very ahead of his time and made space themed and science fiction themed and Afrofuturist music and he and his band, the Arkestra, wore outlandish costumes that showed his fascination with Ancient Egypt and the space age.
In 1961, Sun Ra and the Arkestra moved to New York City and lived together to save money and so they could have rehearsals at a moment’s notice. He started getting praise from Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. In 1966, he worked with Al Kooper’s Blues Project, recording Batman and Robin under the pseudonym, The Sensational Guitars of Dan and Dale. In 1968, they moved to Philadelphia because New York is expensive, and that’s where they were based out of. That same year, they went on their first tour of California and the West Coast, playing to Hippie audiences. The reception was mixed because their style of music was quite different from what they were used to hearing from The Grateful Dead or Jimi Hendrix. Their production was huge with 20-30 musicians, dancers, fire eaters, and elaborate lighting and costumes – this is before P-Funk and their crazy Mothership Connection tour stuff!
Sun Ra’s inspirations came from everywhere. He was an incredibly prolific musician, recording over 1,000 songs and making him one of the most prolific musicians of the 20th century. There’s really no one like him!
Sweetwater (Albert Moore, August Burns, Elpidio Cobian): You might know this band because they played at Woodstock – the second act, just after Richie Havens, as a matter of fact. They were originally supposed to open the festival, but because they got stuck in traffic they were second. They formed in LA and started out performing in coffee houses, playing psychedelic rock/fusion music. They have toured with The Doors and The Animals. The band’s career were cut short because singer Nancy Nevins was injured in a car accident in December 1969 and suffered brain and vocal cord damage.
Albert Moore played flute. Before joining the band he was a police officer.
August Burns played cello. Before joining the band he studied the classics at UCLA.
Elpidio Cobian played congas. After leaving he band, he worked on movie sets.
If you’re going to listen to one Sweetwater album, listen to their self titled debut from 1968. I like the songs “Motherless Child”, “Here We Go Again”, “For Pete’s Sake”, “What’s Wrong”, and “Why Oh Why”. If you like Jefferson Airplane and The Association, you might like Sweetwater.
T-Bone Walker: Electric blues guitar pioneer who influenced BB King, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Steve Miller, The Allman Brothers, and Jethro Tull. He was born Aaron Thibeaux Walker in Texas. His mother and stepfather were musicians and they were friends with Blind Lemon Jefferson. At the age of 10 he left school and by 15 he was a professional touring musician. At 19, he made his first recordings as Oak Cliff T-Bone with the single “Wichita Falls Blues” b/w “Trinity River Blues”. Oak Cliff came from the community he was living in and T-Bone was derived from his middle name.
In 1947, he recorded his most famous songs: “Call it Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just as Bad)”, “Bobby Sox Blues”, and “West Side Baby”. He continued recording in the 50s, but slowed down in the 60s as he was getting older, but he performed at the American Folk Blues Festival in 1962 with Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon and won a Grammy for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording for Good Feelin’ in 1971. He died of pneumonia in 1975.
Taj Mahal: Taj Mahal was born Henry St Claire Fredericks Jr in Harlem and raised in Springfield, Massachusetts to a family who were Afro-Caribbean and African American. He grew up around music from around the world thanks to his parents who loved playing Afro-Caribbean music and gospel and constantly had a radio playing at home. Jazz was one of his favourite genres to listen to as well. When he was 11, his father died. When he was a teenager, he first started playing guitar and got lessons from a neighbour who could play acoustic blues guitar. Being a teen in the 50s, it was only natural he would get into doo-wop music and even sing it himself. Before the fame, he considered being a farmer as a career and even worked as a dairy farmer in Massachusetts. He also grew corn, redtop clover, and alfalfa. In university, he played in a blues band.
In 1964, he made a big move across the country to LA and formed Rising Sons with Ry Cooder. Rising Sons were one of America’s first multiracial bands with black, white, and Native American band members. Sadly while the band were together they only released one single, “Candy Man” b/w “The Devil’s Got My Woman”. The band had enough material for an album and even had Terry Melcher producing their music, but the band didn’t really go anywhere. It wasn’t until 1992 that these previously unreleased songs were released on a compilation album.
In 1968, Taj Mahal released his debut album, Taj Mahal & The Nach’l Blues and a song from that album, “Statesboro Blues” appeared on a Columbia sampler album, finally giving his music some exposure. That year, he first started working with The Rolling Stones and he performed in their TV special The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus. A prolific musician, he released 12 albums for Columbia Records in the 60s and 70s and released more albums on other labels later in the 70s. His work in the 70s incorporates influences from reggae and jazz.
By the late 70s, his music career was in a lull because of changing music trends, that being the time of disco, punk rock, and hard rock. In 1981, he moved to Hawaii and formed the Hula Blues Band.
Tower of Power (Chester Thompson, Hubert Tubbs, Lenny Williams, Michael Jeffries, Ronnie Beck, Rufus Miller – possibly others? Hard to find information on individual members of the band): Multiracial R&B horn driven band formed in Oakland in 1968. Emilio Castillo and Doc Kupka originally formed the band as The Motowns and toured around Oakland and Berkeley and wanted to play the Fillmore, but they knew they couldn’t get in with a name like The Motowns, so they changed to Tower of Power.
In 1970, they released their debut album, East Bay Grease on the independent label, San Francisco Records. The album title is a reference to their style of brass heavy funk rock that originated in Oakland. Other bands that emulated this style include Cold Blood, Chicago, and Blood Sweat and Tears. My favourite tracks on this album are “Knock Yourself Out”, “Social Lubrication”, “The Price”, and “Sparkling in the Sand”.
In 1972, they signed to a major label and released Bump City. It made the top 20 on the R&B albums chart and “You’re Still a Young Man” reached #29 on the Billboard Hot 100. I like the songs “What Happened to the World That Day”, “Flash in the Pan”, “Gone”, “Don’t to the Nightclub”, and “Skating on Thin Ice”.
In 1973, they released their self titled and most successful album, with it receiving a gold certification for sales over half a million copies. This is the album with the hit singles “So Very Hard to Go”, (#17 Billboard Hot 100) “This Time It’s Real” (#27 R&B), and “What is Hip?” (#39 R&B). If you have to listen to one Tower of Power album, pick this one. No bad tracks here!
In 1974, Tower of Power released Back to Oakland, which is considered by Modern Drummer Magazine as one of the most important albums for drummers to listen to. It’s another solid album, give this one a listen. My favourite track is the instrumental “Squib Cakes”.
In 1975, they released Urban Renewal. It was another successful album, reaching the top 20 in the soul albums charts and just barely missing it on the pop charts. The two singles “Willing to Learn” and “Only So Much OIl in the Ground” only made the top 100 on the R&B charts. I like the songs “It’s Not The Crime”, “I Won’t Leave Unless You Want Me To”, “Give Me The Proof”, “I Believe in Myself”, and “Walkin’ Up Hip Street”.
In 1975, they released In The Slot, I like the songs “Ebony Jam”, “You’re So Wonderful, So Marvellous”, “Vuela For Noche”, and “Drop it in the Slot”.
Tower of Power continued to release albums through the late 70s: Ain’t Nothin’ Stopping’ Us Now in 1976, We Came To Play in 1978, and Back on the Streets in 1979. I like the songs “You Ought to Be Havin’ Fun”, “It’s So Nice”, and “Deal With It”. Personally, I don’t these are as good as the previous ones.
The Undisputed Truth: Motown psychedelic soul recording act put together by producer Norman Whitfield. The members were in The Delicates and The Ohio Untouchables. They were a one hit wonder known for the 1971 crossover hit “Smiling Faces Sometimes”, which reached #3 on the pop charts. That song was first recorded by The Temptations. In the UK, they had one init with the disco single “You + Me = Love”.
Some other songs I like by them are: “You Got The Love I Need”, “California Soul”, “Ball of Confusion”, “Ain’t No Sun Since You’ve Been Gone”, “I Heard it Through The Grapevine”, “What It Is?”, “Superstar”, “Take Me In Your Arms and Love Me”, “Law of the Land”,
Voices of East Harlem: Young vocal ensemble that had 20 members ranging in age from 12-21. It started off as an inner city action project in East Harlem started by Chuck Griffin and his wife Anna. Originally, they were to perform at colleges and local benefits, but they got discovered and got more opportunities like performing at the Winter Festival for Peace at Madison Square Garden, which also had Harry Belafonte, Richie Havens, The Rascals, and Jimi Hendrix. They also performed overseas at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970, where they received a standing ovation and performed at the Soul to Soul concert in Ghana in 1971.
They released four albums, Right On Be Free in 1970, Brothers & Sisters in 1972, The Voices of East Harlem in 1973, and Can You Feel It in 1974. I can only find the latter two on Spotify. I like the songs “Cashing In”, “Just Believe in Me”, “Wanted Dead or Alive”, “Could This Be Love”, “Rare so Rare”, “Jimmie Joe Lee”, “Take a Stand”, and “March Across The Land”.
War (B.B. Dickerson, Charles Miller, Harold Ray Brown, Howard E. Scott, Leroy Jordan, and Thomas “Papa Dee” Allen): Multiracial funk rock band formed in 1969 in California. The band members knew each other in the early 60s from playing in other groups. The band were exposed to many different kinds of music since they grew up in mixed neighbourhoods in LA. Record producer Jerry Goldstein and singer Eric Burdon of The Animals put together the band after seeing them perform in North Hollywood. Eric Burdon was the lead singer from 1969=1971 and from 1976-1977.
In 1970, they released their debut album Eric Burdon Declares War. It was best known for the funky latin inspired hit single “Spill The Wine”, which reached #3 in the US. There are a couple of long medleys: “Tobacco Road” and “Blues For Memphis Slim”. Critics said the album had a lack of focus.
Later in that year, they released the double LP The Black-Man’s Burdon, a pun on the book title “The Black Man’s Burden” – which was written in response to Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden”. There are two suites on this album: one is based on “Paint it Black” and the other is “Nights in White Satin” (this one is split into two parts that aren’t next to each other on the album). The album has an iconic cover, but it’s a bit of a crazy album. I liked “Pretty Colours” and “Paint It Black”, but for the most part I found myself skipping.
After “Spill The Wine” there was a lull, but in 1972, War got a few hits with “All Day Music”, “Slippin’ Into Darkness”, “The World is a Ghetto”, and “The Cisco Kid”.
In 1974, “Ballero” reached #33 on the pop charts. This song was often played on Soul Train during the line dance scenes.
In 1975, War got two big hits with “Low Rider” and the reggae influenced call for peace “Why Can’t We Be Friends?”. The former was used in George Lopez’s TV shows and referenced in That 70s Show. The latter was beamed to space during the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project as a call for peace.
War’s last top 10 hit was “Summer”, released in 1976. War continued to release music through the 80s, but there weren’t any big crossover hits.
Wes Montgomery: Influential jazz guitarist and one of the most influential guitarists of the 20th century with his technique of plucking the strings with the side of his thumb and use of octaves. He was born in Indianapolis and got the nickname Wes from his middle name Leslie. His parents divorced when he was young and he and his brothers move to Columbus, Ohio with their father. His older brother Monk bought him a four string tenor guitar. He learnt guitar relatively later in life at 19, but worked hard and became a legend. An example of it really isn’t too late to follow your dreams.
In 1943, he worked as a welder and after hearing a Charlie Christian record and decided to buy a six string guitar. For a whole year, he taught himself to play guitar and spent hours improving his skills without formal training or knowing how to read music. He started playing in clubs by night while working a day job. One day, when Lionel Hampton was looking for a guitarist and hear him play like Charlie Christian, he hired him and he started touring, but because of his fear of flying he drove between each stop. Funny enough, his original plan wasn’t to be a musician as a career.
He was tired and touring with other musicians wasn’t his thing so he went back to Indianapolis and played local clubs. Then he and his brothers, Buddy and Monk formed a group and moved west and still working day jobs to support his family, which was exhausting. He recorded albums throughout the 60s. He won a Grammy in 1966 for Best Instrumental Jazz Performance. He died in 1948 of a heart attack.
Some guitarists influenced by him include: Steve Howe, Earl Klugh, Bobby Broom, and George Benson.
If you’re looking for a good Wes Montgomery album to listen to, listen to Montgomeryland and The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery.
Willie Weeks: Bassist who has played blues, rock, jazz, and country. One of the most in demand session musicians and has worked with so many rock superstars like Eric Clapton, Gregg Allman, David Bowie, Bo Diddley, Isaac Hayes, George Harrison, BB King, Joan Baez, The Rolling Stones, Steve Winwood, Stevie Wonder, and more!
He was born in North Carolina in 1947 and started playing bass as a teen. His biggest bass influences are Ron Carter, James Jamerson, and Ray Brown.
Wilson Pickett: Singer songwriter best known for the crossover hits “In The Midnight Hour”, “Land of 1,000 Dances”, and “Mustang Sally” – all of which have been covered by so many rock bands. He was born in 1941 in Alabama and grew up singing in Baptist church choirs. His mother was scary and would hit him with any object she could find around the house. He was so scared that he moved in with his dad in Detroit when he was 14. While in Detroit, he would sing on the streets in a similar style to Little Richard, who he called the architect of rock and roll. He was in a few vocal groups inspired by gospel before going solo: The Violinaires and The Falcons. The Falcons helped bring gospel to mainstream audiences and paved the way for soul. Two other members, Eddie Floyd and Sir Mack Rice went on to have successful solo careers. Wilson Pickett’s biggest success with the group was “I Found a Love”, which he co-wrote and sang lead vocals on.
His first solo hit was “It’s Too Late”, released July 1963, peaking at #7 on the R&B charts. Two years later, he got his first big crossover hit, “In the Midnight Hour”, #21 Pop #1 R&B. He wrote the song with Steve Cropper of Booker T & the MGs.
1966 was an even more successful year with three big hits: “634-5789 Soulsville, USA”, “Land of 1,000 Dances”, and “Mustang Sally”. If you want a good album of his to listen to, give The Exciting Wilson Pickett a listen. It was his most successful album. “Mustang Sally” is on The Wicket Pickett and there are some other good tracks on it like “New Orleans”, “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love”, and “Knock on Wood”.
In 1967, he released The Sound of Wilson Pickett, which had the top 10 hit “Funky Broadway”. I personally like the songs “You Can’t Stand Alone” and “Mojo Mama”.
After 1967, he didn’t get as many hits, but he had a few top 30 crossover hits with “She’s Lookin’ Good”, “I”m a Midnight Mover”, “Hey Jude”, and “Fire and Water”.
His songs have been covered by The Rolling Stones, Genesis, CCR, Roxy Music, Bruce Springsteen, The Jam, and more!
X-Ray Spex (Poly Styrene): Punk singer born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said. Her father was Somali and her mother was Scottish-Irish. As a teenager, she was a hippie and ran away from home with only £3 in her pocket. She hitchhiked and couch surfed between festivals. After seeing The Sex Pistols in 1976, she decided to form her own punk band, X-Ray Spex. Just before that, she tried her hand at reggae, but it didn’t really go anywhere.
The opposite of prolific, they only released 5 singles and one album, Germfree Adolescents, in the original years of 1976-1979. Still, their debut single “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” became a punk classic after the fact. It’s a feminist and anti-consumerist rallying cry. Isn’t that what punk is all about? Keeping to the punk attitude, the song has a saxophone on it, which is unusual for the genre. This was riot grrrl 15 years earlier. Other highlights from the album are “I Am a Cliche”, “I Am a Poseur”, and “Germ Free Adolescents”.
The band played at the Front Row Festival and Rock Against Racism.Lora Logic and Poly Styrene later joined the Hare Krishna movement. Poly Styrene reunited with X-Ray Spex in 1991 for a sell out gig and once again in 1995 and 2008. She died of spinal and breast cancer in 2011 at the age of 53.
24 Carat Black: 70s Soul and funk band from Cincinnati. They only released one album when they were active at the time, an hour long concept album called Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth, but songs from that album have been sampled many times by hip hop musicians like Dr Dre, Jay-Z, Naughty by Nature, and Kendrick Lamar. Group leader Dale Warren, nephew of Berry Gordy’s second wife Raynoma, worked as an arranger for Motown where he worked with The Supremes, and later for Stax, where he worked with Isaac Hayes, The Bar-Kays, and the Staple Singers. He also was a composer and conductor at the Wattstax concert in 1972.
In the 70s, he took this group of young soul musicians under his wing and wrote and produced their concept album, a political one that focuses on different aspects of poverty. It doesn’t glamorise it at all. Just tells it like it is with poignant lyrics. A very relevant album and topic even nearly 50 years later. This album was released in a time when pretty much only progressive rock bands were releasing epic concept albums, so this was a bold move. Sadly like a lot of music groups who push the envelope and do something really different, it didn’t get a lot of attention at the time, but in retrospective looks at it, it got more appreciation. Two albums were released after the fact, Gone: The Promises of Yesterday and III.
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