Smoke, Roberta Kelly and more
While Cameo introduced Cecil Holmes’ Chocolate City imprint through the “Find My Way” single, the first Chocolate City album (CCLP-2001) belongs to Smoke (1976), the eponymous debut by an eight-piece funk band. Re-titled Blacksmoke when the group changed its name, the album doused listeners with horn-driven funk (“There It Is”), a stirring ballad (“You Needn’t Worry Now”), and a sunny slice of soul-pop (“Sunshine Roses and Rainbows”). Produced by Wayne Henderson and engineered by F. Byron Clark, Smoke is perfection, track for track. Why the quality did not translate to record sales is as great a mystery as why the albums by Gloria Scott and Greg Perry did not attract a larger audience.
“Screamin’”, which landed just inside the R&B charts, neatly and succinctly summarizes the album’s strengths in three minutes. Smoke is perfectly in sync on the track, with the rhythm effortlessly carried by Anthony Fisher’s climbing basslines and a horn section that adds a brassy garland over the rhythm section. It showcases the stellar songwriting of Michael Fisher (the band’s guitarist and composer) and gives lead vocalist, Arnold N. Riggs, Jr., one of his steamier outings. “Said I’m hot under the collar/So hot and bothered/That I’m just about to holler” is just one of the few tasty morsels he rhymes over the melody. “Screamin’”, and Smoke, merit a massive rediscovery mission.
Roberta Kelly: “Zodiacs” (Zodiac Lady, 1977)
One of the most essential early Casablanca releases is the Oasis-issued Trouble Maker (1976) by Roberta Kelly. Produced by Giorgio Moroder with Pete Bellotte, and powered by the Munich Machine, it shared the same musical company as Donna Summer’s A Love Trilogy (1976), featuring an early version of Teddy Vann’s “Love Power”, later reworked by Luther Vandross. The same team returned on Zodiac Lady. If Donna Summer scored with Four Seasons of Love (1976), then why not center an album around the moons and stars? From the silver emblems nestled in Kelly’s coif on the album cover that depict each sign of the zodiac to song titles like “I’m Sagittarius” and “Funky Stardust”, it is difficult to escape the theme of Zodiac Lady.
“Zodiacs” is a time capsule for the sign-centric social mores of the mid-‘70s. Over a quasi-Cuban rhythm, Kelly explains how all signs are “searching for the sign that goes with their own sign of the zodiac”. The song is simply unabashed fun. While Kelly lays down a powerful vocal, she is also winking at the listener. It’s hard not to love “Zodiacs”. The Munich Machine is flawless, Kelly is exuberant, and Moroder and Bellotte deliver one of their most irresistible productions. “‘Zodiacs’ is my favorite song performed by Roberta Kelly,” Moroder says. “I’m not a fan of astrology, but this song – the way the melody goes, and the lyrics – gives me new meaning of the supernatural.”
Lalomie Washburn: “Shade of Blue” (My Music Is Hot, 1977)
A firebrand extinguished too soon. That is the epitaph of the late Lalomie Washburn, who passed away in 2004. One of the first artists Russ Regan signed to his Parachute label, the Omaha-born Washburn funked things up around the Casbah. With her untamed candy-colored hair, saucy delivery, and sassy persona, she sang straight up about love, sex, and music. “It ain’t how you put it in but how it fits,” she teased on “Double Funkin’”, wearing a provocative expression on the album cover to emphasize the point. Before her debut, she had already carved out a career as an in-demand songwriter, most notably as the force behind “I’m a Woman” and “At Midnight” by Rufus & Chaka Khan. My Music Is Hot afforded an album’s-length excursion into the rocking soul and spirit of Lalomie Washburn.
She became a poetic sorceress on “Shade of Blue”. It’s a cocktail of different styles and musical elements: blues-inflected piano, background vocals lifted out of a gospel choir, and horns that would not be out of place at a Memphis recording session. A dizzying flute trill, devoid of any category, provides an intriguing counterpoint to the cyclical rhythm section vamp that closes out the song. Then, of course, is her voice – earthy, a little world-weary, and inimitably soulful – rounding out the scope of sounds brought together in an unforgettable four minutes. When you find it, play it loud. Her music is hot.
Randy Brown: “I’m Always in the Mood” (Welcome to My Room, 1978)
Parachute got an infusion of Memphis soul when Randy Brown joined the roster in 1978. Brown had worked at Stax in the late ‘60s and had even recorded an album’s worth of material for the label with his group Randy Brown and Company in 1973. (At the time, only the single, “Did You Hurt Yourself” was released on Stax’s Truth subsidiary. After Brown become an established solo artist, Fantasy released the eight-year-old set as Check It Out). Years later, Homer Banks and Carl Hampton, songwriters and producers that Brown knew from Memphis, invited Brown out to Los Angeles after hearing him on a record by The Temprees. Banks and Hampton invited Brown to record the songs that would ultimately comprise his first solo album, Welcome to My Room.
The album treats listeners to Brown’s thundering baritone and Paul Riser’s soaring string arrangements. “I’m Always in the Mood” is a contagious listen, a song designed for both the bedroom and the dance floor. “Just call my name and I’ll come like showering rain,” he growls, but it’s not a crude come-on. Instead, Brown’s delivery is soulful and suave. It’s agreed that Welcome to My Room is the most essential of the four albums Brown recorded for Casablanca (the first two appeared on Parachute, the latter two found a home on Chocolate City). Universal released the album as a budget CD for a brief time in 2000 but the time is ripe for a Best of Randy Brown that properly contextualizes his estimable contributions to Casablanca.