Mr. Eddie Kendricks
“Listen – Keep On Truckin’ Pt1 MP3″
Greetings to all, and a happy mid-week oh my god we’re on the slow slide to Saturday, to you as well.
If the week were a wave, it would be on the verge of breaking, and we are all faced with the choice of standing up on the board and riding it out in style, or missing our chance and getting a mouthful of wet sand (or something like that).
In furtherance of the former – and the ensuing avoidance of the latter – I bring you the track that I alluded to this past Monday, that being the song which required more attention than I was capable of producing after what amounted to a long-ass day on the job. Now, I won’t jive you and claim that my brain is any fresher or sponge-cakey than it was on Monday night, but rather that I have a little more time tonight in which to lay out my case, and so I will.
Despite that fact that work, family life and blogging often leave me with barely enough time left over to sleep (who knew, back in the day, when I was a tyke fighting my Mom and Dad about going to bed, how much I would come to love a nice, satisfying snooze?), I have been managing to ingest a book or two every week.
Sometimes – like this past winter when I first entered into my current/ongoing period of employment hassles – I might invest a month or two in wrestling with something challenging (like ‘Moby Dick’ or ‘Ulysses’) in an effort to take my mind off of stuff like that. More often than not I’m likelier to grab something a little lighter.
Such was the case about a month back when I picked up the wholly excellent and informative ‘Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco’ by Peter Shapiro. It was both a great window into the earliest days of turntable culture (I would also recommend – highly – ‘Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey’ by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton) as well as a cultural survey of the artists involved in the creation of disco music.
I should begin by saying that in the 70’s, I was both a perpetuator and secret questioner of the “disco sucks” ethos. I was a long-haired, hard-rocker wannabe, and part of a cultural stratum in which all things disco – not just the music – were to be avoided like the plague. Though I was as homophobic as the next suburban teenage male, there really wasn’t a sexual element to our disdain for the disco culture (at least not consciously).
My recollection is that at least among the kids I hung out with, disco was a signifier not of sexual orientation or race, but rather of class and cultural differences.
We saw disco as the sole province of slick, Camaro owning, polyester wearing, blow-dryed, cologne soaked fools, and the music itself as an assault on all that was real and “authentic” about rock’n’roll (oblivious at the time to how unreal and inauthentic the music we worshipped was, especially in comparison to much of the dance music we ignored).
We were idiots.
I was an idiot (I may still be depending on who you ask).
But I had a secret shame.
While I loathed the vast majority of disposable disco-related pap that found its way onto the pop charts during the height of the disco craze (I speak now of the ‘Disco Lucy’s) et al), I actually dug a lot of “disco” records (and I only enclose the word in qualifying quotes because some of the records might not qualify to discerning ears as disco, but more on that soon). Among the groups who I liked then – and still listen to now – I would include KC and the Sunshine Band (don’t tell me ‘Get Down Tonight’ isn’t a great record), Chic, BT Express, Kool & The Gang, Barry White, tons of Philly Sound (MFSB, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes) stuff as well any number of lesser lights who managed to hit the charts (and fill the dance floors) at the time. I still remember seeing (and digging) Sylvester on American Bandstand performing ‘You Make Me Feel Mighty Real’, which to this day strikes me as an absolutely kick-ass record.
I think that the main issue for me then (though it only took me 20 years to get a handle on it), was a inability first, to have the balls to admit that I liked something my friends didn’t (no one wants to be excommunicated from their peer group), but also to separate the non-musical aspects of the disco world from the music itself, which not surprisingly represented several different musical styles/strains.
When you take even a cursory survey of the short list of artists above and the music they created in the 70’s, what you get is a feeling for the evolution of soul music in that decade. Very few of the artists on that list were born of the disco sound, but rather came from funk and soul, and as the tempos evolved, and the records got longer, the artists evolved as well.
This was not always the case, as a great many records extended for the dance floor were stretched like a sack of dog food, substance replaced by empty filler. But in a lot of cases, where folks like Tom Moulton were involved, the extended disco mix became a work of art. Moulton productions like the long version of ‘Do It (Til Your Satisfied)’ by BT Express, and the nine minute long remix of KC’s ‘Get Down Tonight’ – in which the basic vibe of the record is creatively and successfully reshaped – were fantastic examples of how a record might be expanded (as opposed to just stretched) for the dance floor. They illustrated how by extending a record – imitating in the studio what pioneering DJ’s like David Mancuso and Francis Grasso did at the turntables (on the fly, no less) what might have begun as a dance pop single might be turned into a ten minute long passion play in which a crowd might be brought up, down, and up again by playing with dynamics and more importantly, the beat.
It is also important to note that many of the records that have since become identified with disco – much like today’s selection ‘Keep On Truckin’ Pt1’ by Eddie Kendricks – predate the explosion of disco culture into American (and world) pop consciousness. Though they might have been a big part of what was then a largely sub rosa culture – while most people who heard ‘Keep On Truckin’’ were undoubtedly moved to dance, not many outside of the clubs in New York City and San Francisco were doing so in the context of what would become known as “disco”.
By the time ‘Keep On Truckin’’ was released (and became a major hit) in 1973, Eddie Kendricks had been out of the Temptations – a group for which Kendricks’ falsetto had been an indispensable element –for almost two years, and hadn’t been all that successful as a solo artist. Motown producer (and Northern Soul legend) Frank Wilson, along with Leonard Caston (who had been a member of the Radiants) and Anita Poree (who co-wrote the Friends of Distinction hit ‘Love or Let Me Be Lonely’) wrote ‘Keep On Truckin’ for Kendricks (as well as his follow up hits ‘Boogie Down’ and ‘Girl You Need a Change of Mind’) and the rest is history.
When ‘Keep On Truckin’’ hit the charts in 1973, I was an 11-year-old with a portable radio (remember them kiddies??) glued to my ear. I have a vivid memory of a sleepless night on a Boy Scout camp out that I spent shivering in my pup tent listening to WABC-AM out of New York City until I passed out sometime in the middle of the night. Over the course of a few hours I must have heard the record (the long version, i.e. Pts 1&2 together) at least three times. Unlike most of the other records getting played that night (which I can’t remember) ‘Keep On Truckin’ made a big impression.
The record itself falls into that gray area where it’s not quite funk – though it’s undeniably funky – but even less identifiable as what we’ve come to know as disco (other than that it was danceable).
Opening with a horn fanfare, ‘Keep On Truckin’’ launches at full speed, driven by a propulsive rhythm, equal parts bass and clavinet. While there are classy string flourishes, these are tempered by funky guitar and organ. The real unsung hero of the mix is whoever was working overtime on the vibraphone, sounding like Vince Montana on remote from Sigma Sound in Philly.
The interesting thing is that ‘Keep On Truckin’’ is really two records. The first – which you’re hearing today – is the basic, one-sided radio edit, fading out at around three and a half minutes. The version I heard that night in 1973 – which is the two-part single as a continuous edit – is a whole other bag. While his old group the Temps was working with Norman Whitfield to create socially conscious epics like ‘Papa Was a Rolling Stone’ and ‘Masterpiece’, Kendricks and Wilson took the “epic” concept, and stripped it down – removing almost everything but the groove – for the dancers.
I wouldn’t go as far as to suggest that what they ended up with is in any way the equal of ‘Papa..’ but rather that it signaled a change in direction. Going forward, records could still extend beyond the traditional boundaries of the 45, but the era of deep, impressionist soundscapes was coming to an end, to be replaced by a second helping of the groove (and then some). That so many of the records that followed failed to rise to a certain level of quality had more to do with what the audience was expecting, than what the musicians had to offer.