Since musical styles come around again and again, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before horn sections start to be part of popular bands once again. The ’70s was a kind of golden age for the horns in pop music, and many of the recordings here capture the fullness of the horn section in the songs. Perhaps it’s that age old battle between digital and analogue, but listening to the late ’60s/early ’70s recordings (even in crappy mp3) reveals such a richness of sounds. I would love it if recording artists today could take a page from the production values of the early to mid 1970s and apply it to their own work, but considering how ProTools shaves off that “warm sound,” it’s highly unlikely that bands of today (using a more homebrew method of recording) will be able to duplicate that ’70s sound. Nevertheless, what we have here is a rather funky mix in which various brass instruments reach out and kiss your eardrums.
“Beginnings,” Chicago (Download)
The first and only time I saw Chicago play live was in 1983. They were doing a concert at what was called the Concord Pavilion (but now is called the Sleep Train Pavilion) in Concord, CA and a friend of mine had tickets. Oddly enough, it was a day concert, and the band had most of the original members, but damn if they didn’t rock the half-full house that day. Of course, they started the set with “Beginnings” and, yes, it was divine.
“What is Hip?” Tower of Power (Download)
My sister’s first boyfriend loved (I mean absolutely loved) Tower of Power. In retrospect, the guy was a creepy stalker, but I did like his taste in music. He used to play these albums at our house and marvel at the horn section. Being a young and impressionable kid, I soaked up his musing about what a great band Tower of Power was. And when I found out they were a local band (well, local in my neck of the woods), listening to them kind of filled me with a certain hometown pride. You know, when you heard Tower of Power on the radio next to other Top 40 acts, it was very cool to think these guys came from the Bay Area and were now being played on the radio. So when they asked “What is Hip?” The answer, of course, was Tower of Power.
“Cold Sweat,” James Brown (Download)
When I first started to drum, one of the first songs I learned was “Cold Sweat” from the world’s most sampled drummer, Clyde Stubblefield. Now Clyde didn’t sit down and teach me, but in a way he did provide me with a consistently perfect playback to practice with — along was some of the best funk players in the biz. Yes, the CD recording of “Cold Sweat” was on repeat as I banged away at my drums years ago, but after repeated listens, I started really listening to the horns on the track. And even though the beat on this song is just about as badass funky as you can get, those horns really lay a good foundation for some dancing. Do I even need to mention James Brown’s delivery on the song? Probably not, since my words couldn’t even begin to convey how wild and raw James Brown sings it. Just listen for yourself and turn the volume up!
“Skin Tight,” Ohio Players (Download)
It’s easy to peg these guys as just the “Love Rollercoaster” band. But digging just a little deeper into their catalogue, you’ll find a band with some really tight grooves and a solid brass section that rivals bands like Chicago and the mighty Earth Wind & Fire.
“Serpentine Fire,” Earth Wind & Fire (Download)
“Serpentine Fire” works its magic on you on so many levels. The drum/cowbell rhythm has an odd feel to it, but the horn punches bring the tune into more familiar funk territory in such a way that it’s just an irresistible gem with a strong chorus, false endings, and great vocal phrasing.
“Diamonds,” Herb Alpert (Feat. Janet Jackson) (Download)
“Diamonds” is more Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis than Herb Alpert, but you can’t really blame Alpert for calling in some favors to score a hit. And even though this song is bathed in that Jam/Lewis sound, Alpert is able to play the trumpet in such an odd way that it adds a layer of quirkiness that takes the song from a middling product of the late ’80s to one that’s a kind of sleeper hit that should be resurrected on many soul stations (if it hasn’t resurfaced already).