Graham Reid | | 1 min read
In the liner notes to the Wright/Watts Band album Hot Heat and Sweet Groove in 1967, the comedian Bill Crosby -- then still a decade away from being the mainstream American television character he became -- said of this amalgam of funk, soul, pop and r'n'b that they sometimes played "mustache music, sometimes goatee, sometimes sideburns" sounds.
In that allusion to soul, jazz and rock he might have also added Afro hair stylings, because guitarist Charles Wright (who had started out in Southern doo-wop groups) and producer Fred Smith took this band into many diverse directions.
On the Hot Heat all-instrumental album they opened with a party-styled piece Caesar's Palace, followed it with a version of Yellow Submarine, got into a Soul Concerto and some steamy organ-driven Southern sounds on Fried Okra, didn't mind jazzing up The Girl From Ipanema or taking the mood down for Bring It on Home to Me with a vocal line so far in the distance it sounds like Wright (I guess that's who it is) was literally in another room.
Their diversity levelled out on subsequent albums where easy-livin' summertime funk and soul came to dominate, and their odd origins as a studio ensemble (of sometimes absent members) also stablised.
And when Wright stepped up as a soulful singer for the subsequent Together album and took control over their direction, they found their purpose. As the times changed -- the political heat turned up in black America -- so to did their intentions: In the Jungle Babe of '69 included a slow and thoughtful treatment of the Doors' Light My Fire, a strident stab into Sly Stone's Everyday People and, most significantly, Comment in which Wright looks at his communities fracturing, losing sons to Vietnam and friends peeling off into violent activism.
A real gospel/doo-wop heart-acher in the manner of Otis/Marvin but with dramatic punches, Comment still demands to be heard as it mixes politics, sentimentality and a sense of hope/hopelessness. And The Joker is a furious, horn-driven dancefloor stomper with twanging guitar.
Yet on the same album they also included the soulful Love Land which became a minor hit.
In this five CD collection, the final two albums Express Yourself (the title track sampled by NWA) and You're So Beautiful are perhaps even more interesting as all those elements are brought together in great, melancholy soul ballads and funky grooves.
For a long time the original vinyl of these albums was the domain of cool DJs who would probably have prefered they remain rare grooves.