Funky16Corners Radio v.33- Soul Message – the Soulful Strings
Burning Spear (B) (Evans)
The Stepper (C) (Evans)
Soul Message (C) (Evans)
Listen Here (E) (Eddie Harris)
I Wish It Would Rain (E) (Whitfield/Strong/Penzabene)
There Was a Time (E) (James Brown)
You’re All I Need (E) (Ashford/Simpson)
Zambezi (F) (Evans/Hathaway)
Chocolate Candy (F) (Upchurch)
Valdez In the Country (F) (Hathaway)
1974 Blues (F) (Eddie Harris)
Hey Western Union Man (G) (Gamble/Huff)
I’ve Got the Groove (G) (Gamble/Huff)
I Can’t Stop Dancing (G) (Gamble/Huff)
Today’s edition of Funky16Corners Radio is a project that I’ve been promising to do (after several requests) for a long time. I finally got my shit together this weekend, and so here you have Funky16Corners Radio v.33 – Soul Message, the sound of the Soulful Strings.
I’ve only ever done one other single-artist edition of Funky16Corners radio (Lee Dorsey), and after much delay decided to devote a mix to the Soulful Strings as they are not only one of my all-time favorite groups, but also because they are woefully underrepresented in reissue. As far as I’ve been able to tell none of their albums have ever been reissued domestically, and aside from a track here are there on comps, you’d pretty much have to dig up the original vinyl (which took me quite some time) to get the whole picture.
Though their 45s aren’t too hard to come by, the albums (most of them anyway) are another story entirely. They don’t command too high a price, but they can be very hard to track down.
If you’ve hung around here (or the webzine) for a while you already know that I am a huge fan of the legendaryRichard Evans.
Evans, along with Charles Stepney – was the major creative force behind Chicago’s Cadet Records in the 60’s and 70’s. Originally a jazz bassist, Evans went to write, arrange and produce some of the finest records to come out of the Cadet catalog.
Despite what appears to have been a very busy schedule, in 1966 Evans began work on his own project, the Soulful Strings.
While Evans had always been an innovative arranger/producer, it was with the Soulful Strings that he began to experiment with the innovative instrumentation that he would go on to use to great effect with Dorothy Ashby, Marlena Shaw and Terry Callier among others.
Though at first glance the Soulful Strings appear to have been another easy listening/kitsch project engineered to cash in on an audience unable to stomach harder edged soul music (and the Chess brothers may very well have had that in mind) Evans was too much of a visionary to sit back and crank out dross. On the seven Soulful Strings LPs recorded between 1966 and 1971, Evans created some of the most interesting, vital sounds of his career.
It’s important to look past the name of the group and listen closely to the music on the records. When you do so the impression you get is not of a Montovani-esque vibe, but rather an energetic soul/funk/jazz rhythm section augmented (not overpowered) by strings.
This has everything to do with Evans’ vision of a truly soulful sound with a baroque twist (kind of a flipside of Stepney’s psychedelic soul experiments with Rotary Connection), but also with the players he worked with to build the sound.
Though only one Soulful Strings LP (Groovin’) sports a full personnel listing – the rest list only featured soloists – the core of the group was formed from the cream of Cadet sessioners like Stepney, Lennie Druss, Phil Upchurch, Donny Hathaway, Cleveland Eaton, Morris Jennings Jr. and Cash McCall, and vibraphonists Bobby Christian and Billy Wooten. The only strings players that are listed on multiple albums were violinist Sol Bobrov, and viola player Bruce Hayden, with bassist Eaton occasionally doubling on cello.
The debut LP, 1966’s ‘Paint It Black’ was composed entirely of covers. It wasn’t until 1967 and ‘Groovin’ with the Soulful Strings’ that Evans would include an original composition, and with ‘Burning Spear’ the group would have their biggest hit. The tune would go on to be covered by Kenny Burrell, S.O.U.L, Jimmy Smith, Joe Pass and the Salsoul Orchestra. There would be three Evans originals on ‘Another Exposure’, and none at all on ‘In Concert’.
It wasn’t until 1969 and ‘String Fever that an album would be dominated by original compositions, with tunes (and collaborations) by Evans, Phil Upchurch and Donny Hathaway beside two Eddie Harris tunes (1974 Blues and Cold Duck Time).
The final Soulful Strings LP, ‘Play Gamble-Huff’ was – as the title suggests – composed entirely of tunes written by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.
The tunes in this mix are not presented in chronological order, nor are all of the Soulful Strings albums represented. You can hear the title cut from ‘Paint It Black’ in Funky16Corners Radio v.31 – Soul Satisfaction*, and I’m holding off on tracks from the ‘Magic of Christmas’ LP until (wait for it…here it comes..) Christmas.
The mix opens with the Soulful Strings best known song, ‘Burning Spear’. Opening with kalimba (an instrument Evans would use frequently), the drums come in quickly until the flute takes the lead. It’s interesting that in a group where the Strings get top billing, the flute (mainly Lennie Druss, later Richie Fudali) is given an especially prominent role.
The next cut ‘The Stepper’ is a groovy swinger with some nice organ and a great guitar solo by Upchurch.
‘Soul Message’, another showcase for Lennie Druss has a propulsive beat and a seriously Eastern vibe.
Evans would dip into the Eddie Harris catalog several times, including a very nice version of the oft covered soul jazz standard ‘Listen Here’. It is one of the tracks from the ‘In Concert’ LP that sound (not surprisingly) ‘In studio’, or at least heavily overdubbed. Of the other ‘In Concert’ tracks included here, ‘I Wish It Would Rain’ is positively sublime, and one of my fave Soulful Strings cuts. ‘There Was a Time’, the group’s sole selection from the James Brown catalog actually manages to preserve some of the urgency of the original while recasting it in their own image. It also sounds as if it were actually recorded live. The final track included here from ‘In Concert’, Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell’s ‘You’re All I Need (To Get By), is another great fit of material to setting.
The next four cuts all come from what I consider to be the Soulful Strings finest moment, the 1969 LP ‘String Fever’. As I said earlier, ‘String Fever’ was composed almost entirely of group originals, which are all excellent. As a result, this is their funkiest album, with some of the tracks tapping into a slick, urban vibe that anticipates a lot of early 70’s soul.
‘Zambezi’ and ‘Chocolate Candy’ – both of which I’ve spun at DJ nights to positive response – are both incredibly cool. ‘Zambezi’ features some very groovy scatting (by Upchurch, I think) and ‘Chocolate Candy’, written by Phil Upchurch is a lost classic.
‘Valdez in the Country’ – which also features the guitar/scat combo) was one of the first Donny Hathaway tunes to be recorded, and went on to be covered several times by the likes of George Benson, Cold Blood, Gerald Veasely and Ernie Watts among others. Hathaway wouldn’t record it himself until 1973’s ‘Extensions of a Man’.
‘1974 Blues’, which originally appeared on Eddie Harris classic ‘Silver Cycles’ LP the year before takes a lighter approach than the original, with some great vibes (uncredited).
The final Soulful Strings LP ‘Play Gamble-Huff’ wouldn’t hit the racks until 1971. It features Strings-ized versions of several big hits, including Jerry Butler’s ‘Hey Western Union Man’ (also covered by Clarence Wheeler & the Enforcers), the Ojay’s ‘I’ve Got the Groove’ and Archie Bell & the Drells’ ‘I Can’t Stop Dancing’.
Though I can’t say why that was the end of the Soulful Strings, it wasn’t long before Evans was releasing solo albums, as well as working as a bassist and arranger for Natalie Cole, Peabo Bryson and Ahmad Jahmal among others. He eventually took a long-term position as a professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
That all said, I hope you dig the Soulful Strings.
I’ll be back later in the week with some funk.
Richard Evans – Arranger/Producer/bass
Lennie Druss – Flute
Charles Stepney – organ, vibes
Phil Upchurch – Guitar
Cleveland Eaton – bass, cello
Morris Jennings Jr. – drums
Bobby Christian – vibes
Billy Wooten – vibes
Cash McCall – guitar
Richie Fudali – flute
Sol Bobrov – violin
Bruce Hayden – viola
A. Paint It Black 1966
B. Groovin’ With the Soulful Strings 1967
C. Another Exposure 1968
D. Magic of Christmas 1968
E. In Concert 1969
F. String Fever 1969
G. Play Gamble-Huff 1971
The Sidewinder / Message To Michael – 1966
Paint It Black / Love Is A Hurtin’ Thing– 1967
Burning Spear / Within You Without You – 1967
The Stepper / The Dock Of The Bay – 1968
Jericho / The Who Who Song – 1968
I Wish It Would Rain / Listen Here – 1969
Zambezi / A Love Song – 1969
I almost forgot that there is yet another SS track in Funky16Corners Radio v.24.5 The Beat Goes On….