Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Coal into Diamond: The Inspiring Story of Gospel Funk

The incredible Sister Rosetta Tharpe, consummate gospel singer and secret inventor of rock 'n roll, soul and visionary funk music, circa 1940.

“I feel like there is an angel inside of me that I am constantly shocking.”Jean Cocteau

“When I’m on stage, I’m trying to do one thing: bring people joy. Just like church does. People don’t go to church to find trouble, they go there to lose it.”James Brown
The word "gospel," of course, literally means good news. But the really good news is that gospel music morphed into the blues, blues morphed into soul, soul morphed into funk, and funk eventually morphed into both rap and hip hop. There will inevitably be another mutation in this wild musical evolutionary chain, but who knows what exotic shape it might take, especially considering the weird fact that hip hop has already become part of mainstream white pop music?

When blues music went on a blind date with gospel music and had too much rhythm and blues to think, that unlikely marriage of heaven and hell gave birth to something called soul. In some ways the parents of both these sacred and profane styles didn’t want their kids going out together, let alone settling down and starting a dance-mad family that would shake up the musical world forever. Thus we entered the fray that would become the saga of gospel funk, and saw its incredible climb to the stellar soul heights after its humble beginnings in the hot holy Southern church pews of America where fervent worship was the only spiritual dish on the community menu.

When we listen with the right ears, perhaps even ears sanctified to some extent by the broadest and most inclusive context possible, we can easily discern something utterly obvious: gospel music went through surface transformations and stylistic tangents but it remained a new-world reincarnation of West African sacred possession rituals. We can thus trace the tracks of African-American spirit sounds and follow their funky journey back to its origins, when many artists first encountered the devil in the jumping church choirs of black Augusta, as they sang along with fervent family and frenzied pastors.

The primary demonic encounter for most soul singers would be with fellow Georgian native and the devil’s chief disciple James Brown, following rapidly in the wake of the visionary Ray Charles. Brown absorbed the reverential fury of faith and then shifted his allegiance to the raucous energy of the life force itself. But the church was the centre of not just a community of faith but also of living, breathing and sweating music. And the church, as we’ll clearly see and hear, was never fully left behind; in fact, Brown carried it inside of him right to the end, just as his own idols had.

 The astonishing James Brown, grandmaster of all today’s funk music,in 1984. (Photo: Lucian Perkins)

Meanwhile, Brown was exploding onto the scene at another kind of church, the fabled Apollo Theatre in New York, especially when he released his seminal Live at the Apollo Theatre album in ‘63. Brown had invented a completely new kind of American music, most famously with his release of Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag in 1965, which suddenly brought even white America into his seductive fold. The sensual abandon of Brown was a kind of John the Baptist moment, anointing many other musicians with the holy power of his new bump-and-grind scripture. This he did while still being a renegade church choir singer, thus establishing early on the twin polarities of his seemingly conflicting commitments. To him, there was no contradiction between these two poles, since somehow he intuitively perceived them as an alternating current conveying a life force that belonged to him alone, no matter how he chose to express it to others. He was both a generator of and an amplifier for an energy that couldn’t be defined or denied.

Yet the real origin of this skill at transmitting divinity through the body, a supernatural ability predating even his soul music, is definitely the beginnings of gospel music, what used to quaintly be called Negro spirituals. But the new forms of expression they engendered can barely be encompassed by the neologism Afro-physicals. Even more important than the blissed-out state their music provoked in us is the historical link each elder statesman (or woman) provided for the future fellow practitioners of their craft. Even the staid Ed Sullivan realized, when Brown appeared on his weekly variety show, that he was witnessing the arrival of something utterly new and breathtakingly bold not heard since he had introduced The Beatles.

There’s even a creative conduit flowing between an innovative performer such as Brown and a vital incarnation such as the late Prince, one that operates in a shared communal language as subterranean as music. They both liked to sing with the angels but also to dance with the devil, and I’m reminded of the Rainer Maria Rilke remark that he never wanted to get rid of his demons because he might also lose his angels. Brown, in fact, often stated his intentions very clearly, apart from his main objective to be the most famous and celebrated performer on earth, a feat he pretty much achieved.

James Brown, live on Ed Sullivan in 1965 (left) and Prince, performing live in 1985 (right).

Brown had not an ounce of false modesty in his quivering frame when he declared that he and his fellow howlers “sang like angels.” “I’d like to go back to gospel,” he once explained to Rolling Stone. “Really, I never left it. Or it never left me. The public may not know it, but the Sex Machine first did it to death for The Lord. I want to, I can testify. Gospel singing saved my life, except that I didn’t get to sing it in church that much, I sang it in prison.” Literally. He was harmonizing in jail cells in Georgia where he was sentenced to eight to sixteen years for breaking into cars in 1949. Soon he would be creating a new kind of American classical music.

A classic is something that never finishes saying what it has to say, and that’s vitally true of gospel and soul music, especially the kinds practiced by figures such as James Brown. The soul journey is never ever really over. In fact, one generation of singer-songwriter-performer sometimes actually continues saying precisely what their forebears were saying, in a kind of accumulating wave that never reaches any shore. That’s one of the things that makes it soul music in the first place, that yearning to arrive while constantly departing. Continuity is everything here -- not just the connections between varying styles but a far deeper spiritual continuum between totally different musical genres. Looking back at where traditions come from is almost as tantalizing as looking forward to try and imagine what’s coming next.

Each one of these stylistic evolutionary leaps is an embodied meaning which reflects, distills and crystallizes the core values and time of the culture that birthed it. I sense in both gospel and soul music a state of desire for spiritual solace, and there is both an inherent nostalgia for Africa and also a profound solastalgia for America: being homesick for a place while you’re actually still living there. Few genres of music have influenced American popular sounds and entertainment quite as profoundly as gospel, with artists such as Ray Charles, Solomon Burke, and James Brown being just the jutting tip of a vast and sonorous iceberg.

Long before it morphed so ironically into blues or soul or funk, gospel had itself already emerged from a much earlier fusion of West African song traditions: the scarring experience of slavery, Christian devotional practices, and the social nightmare of being black in the American southern states. Eventually, as the African-American spirit possession and worship traditions grew more active and post-Civil War Reconstruction catapulted waves of migrating newly freed individuals away from the rural south and northward into the industrialized urban zones, the influences of this musical genre became all the more prevalent.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe in action.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was still very active once The Beatles changed pop music forever in the mid-'60s, even though no one knew exactly what to call her amazing music. Perhaps we still don’t have a word to adequately describe it. A combination of traditional black gospel, rock before it was even invented, and a brazen kind of ferocity that wouldn’t come back into vogue until the '70s and '80s: the only term I can come up with to encapsulate her brilliance is gospel funk. It is satisfying, though ironic, that this year she was finally nominated for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a gesture that should have happened ages ago, considering that she was ten years ahead of Chuck Berry.

For me, it was Tharpe (1915-1973) who truly was one of the towering bridges between gospel and rock, fusing them into an unheard-of raucous romp, pumped along by her masterful electric guitar riffs delivered in her totally unique rendering of the classic gospel shaker “Down By the Riverside.” And paradoxically, this unique female performer was already twanging out adrenalin-charged steel guitar gospel riffs as early as 1944. In the hands of a primitive genius like Rosetta in 1945 with “Strange Things Happening Every Day," or “Up Above My Head” in 1946, or even the boldly revamped classic “Down By the Riverside” in 1948, it was obvious that a fresh new and as yet unexplored musical style and tradition was being born right before our eyes and ears.

This surprising transition between the early Negro spirituals (their historical name) and something as wild as Little Richard's “Lucille” is more easily understood when we realize that they both celebrate liberation and freedom: one being set free from the constraints of earthly bondage (in chains) and the other also being liberated, but through the bonds of the flesh (in the hot arms of Lucille). Victims of a social inequity such as being placed in the bizarre condition of property were given few forms of self-expression. Among the two avenues permitted or overlooked would be the ironic freedom to worship a deity who promised future release and the ability to channel their feelings into songs and music which offered an energetic release today.

The merger of African harmonies and rhythms with Christian narratives of hope and salvation produced an incredibly potent weapon for both survival and sustenance. The fact that slaves were prohibited from using musical instruments also inspired them to develop complex vocal structures which served as both instruments and weapons. The structures of these songs would evolve over time and form the complicated rhythms of the key black contributions to American musical culture. These in turn would nourish the astonishing sonic varieties of what we now know as soul and funk, as a result of isolated rural communities in the Mississippi delta where players and singers superimposed African instrumental finesse with the energies of American folk melodies and themes. The eventual arrival of the electric guitar and amplification transformed these rural delta folk blues roots and field chant lamentations into a dynamic and utterly new kind of urban sound, one which continues to evolve dramatically every hour of every day.

Yoruba masters of the talking drum, the original Nigerian soul music that spawned post-diaspora gospel and its own later derivatives, soul music and funk. These dudes, and their sublime brethren in juju spirit music, were the true origin of what later evolved into the rural soul sound of the Southern states and the urban funk sound of the northern cities.

Gospel music was the direct result of the forced Christian conversion of West African slaves in the American South, culminating in a roof-rattling kind of liberation sound that allowed its practitioners to rise up above and beyond not only the early physical bonds of oppression but also the social and cultural boundaries of their poor neighborhoods in big American cities in the North. There was no east or west, no north or south, in these gripping spiritual songs that spoke of a better life in a better world, even if it was the next world. What soul music would do to this Utopian gospel fervor was almost a matter of demanding a better life here and now, in this world, in this body. Its secular manifestations took the embodied meaning of faith and pumped it full to bursting with the life forces of desire, lust, sensual abandon, and a new kind of ecstatic dancing that was every bit as transformative as its original African roots.

Gospel music is often called the quintessential American musical language in the way it reflects the interaction of independent but integrated portions of a piece delivered by a wild and free group format, and how it quotes historical musical gestures in a myriad of new ways, eventually some so new that they were no longer technically termed gospel but rather soul. For readers interested in the more technical side of how these motifs are delivered and embroidered upon, a useful article is "A taxonomy of musical gesture in African American gospel music" (2010) by Andrew Legg. The gestures in question are not physical but vocal and energetic, and they assume even greater prominence once the transformation of gospel via blues is accomplished in soul and polyphonic funk.

The rest of us can simply sit back, bask in and be amazed by the degree of complex dexterity accomplished through the deceptively simple structures employed for the message, whether it’s the good news of the gospel or the delirious news of secular soul, to be delivered over and over again. The Nigerian origins of what we might call spirit-roots music (whether sacred or secular) can be summed up most accurately as passionately human, no less divine, and encompassing the twin roles of religion and music in black culture.

Clearly, without gospel there would never have been a starting point for soul and R&B music. Whether the song has upbeat tempo or a slow one doesn’t matter because these musicians are still going to produce music that is either about the blues or is telling a story of the blues, which is exactly what gospel has done from the beginning: it’s just blues music about the word of God. Its derivatives, soul and funk, merely brought those blues back down to earth.

The great Solomon Burke, 1961, around the time of his hit “Cry To Me” produced by Bert Berns.

Anyone who’s ever heard the ferocious James Brown or Solomon Burke deliver the sanctified secular goods we call soul music knows, or at least feels, that they’re also vividly witnessing a kind of atavistic spirit possession and hearing a special kind of funked up gospel testimony. When they swirl their way across the stage like a ceremonial voodoo doll, there’s no question that a living tradition has been transmitted from Yoruba culture in West Africa to pop culture in America. The propulsive devotional aspects of their soulful presentation can hardly be denied: it’s a stirring frenzy of faith and funk, transcending and unifying both of them into a musical message embodying a new sonic language of lust and longing.

Soul music did not arrive in our world like a gift dropped from a spaceship. After running away from church, leaving liturgy behind and starting to sing of personal woes usually associated with love and loss, the blues still met stylistically with gospel illicitly in clandestine juke joints in the red-light district of culture where a new and drastically different kind of rejoicing commenced. This was the original fusion music resulting in the soul sound, the next in a ribald parade of permutations where music appears to go wherever it wants to in order to tell a human story seemingly divorced from scripture. But only seemingly.

Historically we can easily designate the great Ray Charles as one of the first, if not the first, to forge a path out of the church and into the nightclub, away from the sacred (on the surface at least) and towards the musically profane (with an alternative kind of worship shifting gears). Charles (1930-2004) was a gifted visionary raised in Albany, Georgia who can clearly be seen as a signpost pointing to a brand new musical map, the cartography of future soul caused by the continental drift of gospel banging headlong into blues and beyond. Once he starts his signature rocking back and forth with an iconic composition like “I Got A Woman” in 1954 on Atlantic Records, it is impossible not to see him as a lighthouse illuminating the path that would sprout artists such as James Brown in ‘64, Stevie Wonder in ‘74, Prince in ‘84, and Sharon Jones in ‘94, as if the tumbling decades were themselves rhythmically birthing new branches to an ancient musical tree.

Musical history often seems like a conveyor belt of shared styles, each fusion nourishing the one to follow: technically speaking, all music is fusion music. As we’ll see, the first fusion was West African music with Christian scripture to make gospel; the second fusion was gospel with blues to make soul; the third fusion was soul with rock to make funk; eventually the fourth fusion would be funk with spoken word to make hip hop. But it all began with the astonishing virtuosity and pure power of James Brown. James Sullivan characterized it best in The Hardest Working Man: How James Brown Saved the Soul of America: “His mere presence was tumultuous, like freak weather. His singing, of course, was volcanic; his dancing, like a cyclone. . . .  [He] 'commanded the stage like a one-man riot.' . . . He was, undoubtedly, an innovator of rhythm and a mighty performer, but he was also a peerless self-promoter: ‘I’m looking for something that nobody else does.’”

Ray Charles, AKA “The Genius”

He found it early on and never lost it, inspiring multiple successive generations of soul performers to try to better or best him. In the flux and flow of influences and inspirations available to artists who inherit such vitally ancient traditions which are in direct collision with the shock of the new, the fabric and texture of the artifacts they carry forward is often as nebulous as the transition from church pew to bar stool itself. The question of originality in both gospel and blues is a tricky one. Folk art idioms are culturally absorbent blotters of human feeling, traded, shared and embellished in personal ways without ever altering the core content or intent one iota. So it is in the conveyor belt of self-expressions that shifts our focus from the sacred to the so-called profane, often making it almost impossible to know the true author of any given example of such richly communal traditions.

From West African villages to Augusta, Georgia and then northward to New York City: the continental drift and trajectory of soul music was riddled with a multitude of puzzling shapes and sounds, a storm of shifting emotional shadows on a contour map that’s still being drawn to this day. The main distinction to be drawn and emphasized, however, is that in the African-American inheritance of gospel and blues, soul and funk, the operational mode of a supreme deity is also practically managed on a day-to-day basis by a number of lesser but interrelated gods.

By now it’s abundantly clear that an arbitrary social, cultural and religious construct was superimposed over the West African indigenous traditions which were transplanted from their homeland first to the American south and then, after the “emancipation,” following the Reconstruction north to Chicago, Detroit and New York. This, of course, included the musical traditions that birthed gospel and morphed into soul music via the blues, and it’s most obvious in the distinctly different good-versus-evil narrative imposed upon the migrant populations, peoples who had no prior concept of “the devil” to speak of. They had spirits, yes, which existed in a plethora of forms and occupied the natural and supernatural worlds, but their culture and especially its music had no artificial boundaries between sacred and secular. Especially in music.

Essentially, everything was sacred, and the music was a means of both worshipping nature, touching the spirits within and without, and passing down cultural motifs and stories from one generation to the next. As a result, when the converted Christians began to reach beyond their colonial churches to embody the meanings in their daily lives, they quite comfortably re-embraced the secular world as just another facet or dimension of the sacred, not something opposed to or in conflict with it. So in a sense, when gospel singers ventured outward away from the altar, they were actually only following an almost atavistic past history and returning to a more harmonious mode of behavior, one that ideally suited their core character.

That there still exists a hearty strain of religious Pentecostal fervor in black secular street music is even more clear when we examine and listen to the stirring sounds of triumphant figures like James Brown.

Ultra-integrated: Booker T. and The MG’s, the greatest instrumental soul group on earth, ca 1968.

Readers seeking an accurate road map to the transformative mutation of sacred spirit music into secular soul music, and beyond, would be best served by the following creative and historical listening arc of albums offered up effectively in Piero Scaruffi’s timeline. Gospel: Mahalia Jackson, Live at Newport. Gospel to soul: Sam Cooke, Portrait of a Legend; Aretha Franklin, Amazing Grace. R & B to soul: Ray Charles, Birth of Soul, James Brown, Live at the ApolloEarly Motown: The Supremes, Gold, Percy Sledge, When a Man Loves a Woman. Later Motown: Marvin Gaye, What’s Goin’ On?; Stevie Wonder: Original Musiquarium I. Deep Soul: Otis Redding, The King of Soul. Memphis Soul: Al Green, Let’s Stay Together; Ann Peebles, Straight From the Heart. Neo-Soul: Macy Gray, On Now Life Is, D’Angelo, Voodoo, Erykah Badu, Baduzium, India Arie, Acoustic Soul.  British soul: Amy Winehouse, Back to Black, Adele, 2.

The pre-dynastic funk period (by which we mean funk before there was officially such a thing known as funk) also contains rhythm and blues and soul (before there was soul) like Ray Charles, Jackie Wilson, Booker T. and the MG’s, The Isley Brothers, and of course all the artists recording at both Atlantic and Stax Records. Yet this period should also contain blues and rock figures as well, such as Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley and Johnny “Guitar” Watson. To some extent it can even include late Miles Davis and even John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Charles Mingus and Art Blakey.

The unification period of soul-funk takes place in the first fully actualized late-'60s dynasty of James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Isaac Hayes, Parliaments, Joe Tex, and The Impressions. I would personally omit all Motown artists from the early dynasty of funk, as glorious as many of them were in their way, simply because they didn’t carry forward the real ethos. Perhaps weirdly, though, in the first funk dynasty one can also include black rock 'n rock-jazz-funk fusion artists, among them Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Buddy Miles and Electric Flag, Eric Burdon’s War and even Carlos Santana. At the edges of this first dynasty there even lurk such masters as Herbie Hancock, Donald Byrd, Jazz Crusaders, and at the final borderline of everything, The Art Ensemble of Chicago.

This synopsis, apart from being a great playlist and grand dance-party mix, is also the ideal historical path by which soul enters the cultural mixed-race mainstream and by which even hip hop has been tamed by commerce. This playlist is also a crash course in the secret ingredient that links gospel to soul and funk. They all want the same thing: they want you to be nearly ill with longing. Whether it’s a longing for salvation or for satisfaction really makes no difference, and often it can be a longing for both at the same time. My main contention here is one that we can easily hear if we listen carefully: gospel music is incredibly funky and funk music is surprisingly spiritual.

The incredible Buddy Miles and his Electric Flag, with Mike Bloomfield, 1968.

There’s an excellent book on the history of funk by Ricky Vincent, Funk: The Music, The People and the Rhythm of The One, And one of the key joys of Vincent’s early study of funk was that it offered up a valuable template for following this style (a word I prefer to genre) by constructing a series of funk dynasties, the fifth and most recent one being the hip-hop nation of the 90’s, which also includes hybrids of funk/hip like A Tribe Called Quest, as well as political rap like Public Enemy, Gangsta Rap like Tupac, and even funk-rock such as Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Most appreciated by a historian like me was Vincent’s inclusion of the earliest nascent stages of funk growth, what he called the pre-dynastics, and especially the fact that he offers a wide contextual grasp of history that supports my basic theme here in these pages. In his pre-dynastic funk stage of the late '50s and early '60s he includes the gospel music of James Cleveland, Mahalia Jackson and The Soul Stirrers (the origin of Sam Cooke), to which I would also, of course, add the visionary Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who was practically the sacred godmother of both Michael Jackson and Prince.
The second funk dynasty in history occurred in the early to mid-'70s and was what I call the bright and shiny period, which includes funky soul such as Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, The O’Jays and Barry White, the giant funk bands such as Brown’s JB’s, Parliament, Funkadelic, Earth Wind and Fire, Tower of Power and the (for my taste) too-poppy Commodores.

The third funk dynasty in the late '70s started to get more serious again with artists such as Bootsy Collins Rubber Band, Bar-Kays, and Undisputed Truth, as well as even bigger funkysoul bands such as Rufus and Chaka Khan, Heatwave and Maze, and of course the dance-oriented funk bands such as Kool and the Gang, BT Express Fatback and Chic (the beginnings of disco funk). In addition, jazz funk continued to push borderlines with George Duke, Grove Washington Jr., Roy Ayers, and Stanley Clarke.

The big boom occurred in the fourth funk dynasty of the '80s, with Rick James, Prince, Cameo, Gap Band, One Way, Living Color, Defunkt, Tackhead and Afrika Bambaataa (the origins of rap along with Gil Scott-Heron) as well as the ongoing shine of lighter funky pop (or pop funk) such as Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson, SOS Band, Midnight Star and Skyy. A corner was definitely turned into a somewhat new stylistic territory (or genre) during the fifth funk dynasty of the '90s, though it was clearly moving along a single continuum or creative spectrum from the very beginning. This was the domain of rap and hip-hop’s borrowing of the groove from earlier funk as a frequent foundation structure over which to intone spoken word or urban poetry.

Fela Kuti, AKA “The African James Brown,” ca 1977.

As the most recent funk dynasty, though some might say barely recognizable as such, this mid-to-late-'90s style included Digital Underground, De La Soul, Digable Planets, Arrested Developments, X-Clan, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Ice-T, NWA, Easy E., P-Funk Allstars, New Jack, New Rubber Band, OG Funk and Meshell Ndegeocello, among others. Meanwhile towards the end of the 90’s, just as the crossover was occurring in which jazzy hip-hop went mainstream and began influencing white musicians for white audiences, such as Christina Aguilera and Amy Winehouse, there also started to be a backlash against the highly digital and slickly produced corporate sounds which had risen to the top of the industry hierarchy.

But perhaps the most crucial inheritance from African culture in soul and funk music was the spiritual aspect inherent in music-making, the importance of bringing about a trance state and actually raising basic life rhythms up to a high universal level. As Vincent put it so well in his study, “African music, gospel music and jazz music were designed to accomplish this and with the funk, the tradition was continued.” We’ve already seen how the original African musical traditions did not separate sacred and profane in everyday life, let alone arbitrarily designate some music as spiritual and other music as sinful: the only real sin was to be dead while you were still living.

Once we see that core cultural connection of music being spirit-embodied, especially as exemplified by West African music’s lack of interest in making melodies follow along the surface of rhythms and instead focusing all the attention on the rhythm itself, we can also see how the real key to funk is an obsession with letting go, losing control, of submitting to a kind of pulsating oneness that leaves you no choice but to start dancing without a shred of self-consciousness.

As James Brown’s main biographer Cynthia Rose expressed it, “Funk is not a reconciliation of opposing rhythmic impulses, but the fusion and transcending of their essential conflict.” That’s the most accurate assessment of its mysterious allure I’ve heard so far. Luckily for us, it’s also an ongoing fusion and expanding transcendence that continues to this very day: witness as testimony the glorious ascendance of the gospel funk queen, the late Sharon Jones and her stellar crew, The Dap-Kings.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Spring 2018.

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