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BLACK MUSIC MONTH: MORE '70s SONGS

 The following songs, further selections from our enormous Black Music Month playlist (now up on Spotify Apple Music and Vevo), represent a few more key cuts from the '70s. There's no way even a gigantic list can properly represent every significant development of an era, but these songs all had a powerful impact.

Sly & the Family Stone, “Family Affair” (Epic, 1971)
“Family Affair” was the lead single from the band’s fifth studio album, the provocative There’s a Riot Goin On, released in 1971. The percolating, bittersweet groove, which soared to #1, was rumored to be about his band and the Black Panthers, but Sly himself set that straight: “Well, they may be trying to tear me apart; I don’t feel it,” he said. “Song’s not about that. Song’s about a family affair, whether it’s a result of genetic processes or a situation in the environment.”

Bill Withers, “Lean on Me” (Sussex, 1972)
Withers himself summed up the meaning behind this eternally uplifting classic by describing his motivations in writing the song, explaining, “Romantic love you only wanna touch people because they’re pretty and they appeal to you physically. The more substantial kind of love is when you want to touch people and care for them when they’re at their worst.” It was a #1 rocket in 1972; the version on Withers’ Live at Carnegie Hall, recorded that same year, captures a stunning moment of collective catharsis. Over the years it’s become a true standard, with countless cover versions.

The Meters, “Africa” (Reprise, 1974)
Collectively, this New Orleans troupe was one of the funkiest beasts ever to prowl the earth—and while their ’60s instrumental sides on Josie enjoy a more sterling reputation, the band’s shaggy, song-oriented Warner years produced some jaw-droppingly deep grooves. This ode to “the Motherland” is an especially fierce example, highlighting Art Neville’s hella-greasy keyboard parts, Leo Nocentelli’s incisive guitar and the righteous syncopations of bassist George Porter Jr. and drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste. The Meters, who were Nawlins master producer Allen Toussaint’s house band, received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018; their influence on funk and hip-hop is incalculable, and they regularly pop up as samples on new rap and R&B hits.

Earth, Wind, & Fire, “Shining Star”(Columbia, 1975)
EWF brought spirituality and depth to their music amid the frothy, trendy disco era, and “Shining Star” is a powerful example of that lift. Written by band members Maurice White, Philip Bailey and Larry Dunn, “Shining Star” went on to hit #1 on both the R&B and Pop charts in 1975 and won the group a Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals. A single glimpse of the starry night sky on his way home from a recording session gave White the inspiration for this dynamic, encouraging jam, which fills new listeners with a sense of possibility every day. The band wrote and recorded their That’s the Way of the World album in Nederland, Colorado, which sits at the elevation of 8,200 feet—so the sky above the Rocky Mountains was no doubt spectacular. 

Aretha Franklin, “Something He Can Feel” (Atlantic, 1976)
“Feel” was written and produced by Curtis Mayfield for the 1976 film Sparkle, about an all-girl trio struggling for stage success in ’60s Harlem. Co-stars Lonette McKee, Irene Cara and Dwan Smith expected their version to end up on the soundtrack, but Mayfield, wanting a more mature tone for the cut, chose Franklin. Backed by the Kitty Heywood Sisters, she recorded it with Mayfield on guitar. The song was a #1 R&B hit and, more importantly for Franklin, a reboot; it was her first gold-selling record since 1972’s Young Gifted and Black.

Stevie Wonder, “I Wish” (Tamla, 1976)
This blast of wistful nostalgia appears on one of the most influential albums by a black artist ever, Wonder’s double-disc opus Songs in the Key of Life. It was inspired by the good vibes Stevie felt during a 1976 Motown company picnic—complete with games and other revels that evoked sweet childhood memories—that sent the artist straight from the picnic to Crystal Recording Studio. Punctuated by Nathan Watts’ indelible eight-note bassline, the vivid, grooving “I Wish” was Stevie’s fifth #1 song on the Pop chart and, along with “Sir Duke,” one of two #1s from the landmark Key of Life, which also took the Album of the Year Grammy trophy.

Marvin Gaye, “Got to Give It Up” (Tamla, 1977)
Originally a 12-minute excursion on side four of the 1977 double-LP Marvin Gaye Live at the London Palladium, this impeccably funky track was subsequently edited down to a more radio-friendly four minutes and went on to #1 on the Pop, R&B and Dance singles charts. “Give It Up” was initially conceived as a defiant parody by Gaye, who was being pressured by his label to wade into the roiling hot tub of disco. With Frankie Beverly of Maze on percussion, Gaye singing lead and background and playing keyboards, and his brother, little sister and future wife on backing vocals, this rambunctious recording (originally titled “Dancing Lady”) exhibits a raucous house-party vibe. It has far outlived most of the disco ephemera it was intended to spoof. In fact, the track’s syncopated DNA can be found in countless contemporary jams, as a court battle over Robin Thicke’s hit “Blurred Lines” established recently.

Bob Marley and The Wailers, “Jamming” (Tuff Gong/Island, 1977)
Marley’s first studio albums with the Wailers in the ’60s introduced the globe to the foundational reggae, rock steady and ska rhythms that had lifted up the poorest neighborhoods in Jamaica, such as Marley’s own hood, Kingston’s Trench Town. But this song from the Exodus album took on a new meaning when Marley returned to his homeland after a self-imposed exile in London, where he’d been in hiding since a 1976 assassination attempt.

Jamaica was fiercely divided when Marley performed “Jamming” during the 1978 One Love Peace Concert at Kingston’s National Stadium. At that show, Marley brought together the country’s feuding political leaders—Pro-Cuba Prime Minister Michael Manley and right-wing opposition leader Edward Seaga—who joined hands in a truce onstage, a pivotal sign of unity under the banner of Jah Rastafari. Marley had a gift for infusing party anthems with spiritual depth: “We’re jamming in the name of the Lord,” he sings amid the song’s sweaty syncopations, and you don’t doubt it.

Parliament, “Flash Light” (Casablanca, 1978)
Written by the P-Funk holy trinity of George Clinton, Bernie Worrell and Bootsy Collins, this relentless groove features a driving bass figure by keyboard wizard Worrell, crafted on the Moog synthesizer. As for the song’s trademark “da da da dee da da da” chant, it’s been reported that Clinton stacked some 50 vocal tracks to emulate the ancestral cadences he’d heard at the bar mitzvah of a label exec’s kid. It became the band’s first #1 R&B hit and the first #1 for Neil Bogart’s Casablanca label. Built around one of Clinton’s countless canny metaphors—the titular torch is designed to help a rhythmically clueless character “find the funk”—“Flash Light” survived its era and became a building block for decades of funk and hip-hop that followed.

Cheryl Lynn, “Got to Be Real” (Columbia, 1978)
This anthem to authenticity is one of the purest treasures of the disco years—and was the debut single by vaulting vocalist Lynn, who co-penned this delicious jam (which boasts a show-stopping key change) with David Paich and David Foster. It was a #1 Soul single, though it failed to crack the Top 10 at Pop. But its endurance (as cover song, sample and indefatigable dancefloor fodder) is a rebuke to the chart caprices of yesteryear.

Gloria Gaynor, “I Will Survive” (Polydor 1978)
The quintessential female-empowerment anthem—about finding the strength and perseverance to move on—was penned as a fuck-you to Motown Records, which had fired co-writer Dino Fekaris from a staff writing gig. Fekaris later formed a production duo with Motown producer Freddie Perren (“I Want You Back,” “The Love You Save” “ABC”), and “I Will Survive” was recorded by “the next diva that came along,” Gloria Gaynor.

After the anthem was relegated to the B-side in favor of the not-at-all-ironically titled “Substitute,” club DJs began spinning “Survive” in the clubs; their clear choice of the flip side forced the hand of label Polydor, which reissued it as a single. It peaked at #1 in 1979 and was the first and only song to win a Grammy Award in the very short-lived Best Disco Recording category. Countless cover versions, heartfelt karaoke takes and on-the-nose film and TV syncs ensued.

“From the beginning, I recognized it was a timeless lyric that everyone could relate to,” Gaynor said after performing the song for decades, “so I don’t get tired of singing it. I’m always freshening it up; changing the beat, the lyrics, modernizing the arrangement—I’ve even stuck a hip-hop section in the middle of it. I become 295% grade-A ham when I do this song, because people still love it.”

 Smokey Robinson, “Cruisin’” (Tamla/Motown, 1979)The Motown marvel had retired from the Miracles in 1972 and served for some years as a Motown exec before returning to the studio. The late-’70s represented a comparatively fallow period for the star, but this collaboration with fellow Miracles alumnus Marv Tarplin marked an intoxicating return to form (and the upper reaches of the charts). Rhapsodic, romantic and warm, it features a tour de force lead vocal that’s both velvety and flecked with grit—in other words, pure Smokey.

 

 

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