[12 October 2005]
The difference between Motown, soul, and funk has little to do with geography. Remember, Detroit was not only the home of Berry Gordy, Jr. and company, but also the address of the Queen of Soul (Aretha Franklin) and the Kings of Funk (Parliament/Funkadelic). Although Motown put Detroit on the musical map (literally with a map of the town on the record labels attached to the center of the discs), the Motor City also deserves to be recognized for its incredible contributions to soul and funk. (The terms soul and funk are somewhat synonymous.) This album should help remedy the situation. Searching for Soul: Rare & Classic Soul, Funk & Jazz from Michigan 1968-1980 contains 14 classic tracks, each one a gem that deserves to be part of the soul/funk canon. These cuts rank right up there with tunes like Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff”, Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold”, and other tracks from the period commonly found on most soul/funk compilations.
Gordy ran Motown as a hit factory with studio musicians that professionally pumped out an incredible number of successful records. Motown groomed its star artists for live performances at classy venues. The singers and players on this Motor City compilation recorded the tracks in basements and backrooms and sold their discs at beauty shops and mom and pop stores. These artists had day jobs and often had to borrow their instruments. These sides have always been obscure and hard to find. This marks the first time any of them have been on a CD.
Several traits separate Motown lyrically from soul/funk. The Motown label’s motto, “the Sound of Young America”, concerned innocent themes of love, while soul/funk more commonly involved sex. While the Supremes may have sung about “Baby Love”, Aretha was telling her man “sock it to me” and everyone knew what that meant. Many of the songs on this compilation concern doing the dirty deed, which is in fact the entire topic of El Riot’s hot and heavy “Do It Right”. Vocalist Roz Ryan commands the listener that “When you’re doing wrong/ Make sure you get it right.” Not only do several of the tunes here clearly concern erotic themes, so are some of the groups’ names, including the explicitly entitled Detroit Sex Machines and the more subtly monikered Burning Desire.
Soul and funk generally address adult themes, such as war, drugs, and the grittiness of urban life. Manual R. Holcolm’s plaintive “I Stayed Away Too Long” tells the story of a G.I. who has returned home from fighting overseas to find his girlfriend has found another man. He sings, “When I got your last letter/ I knew something was wrong/ But I was laying in a foxhole baby/ Deep in Vietnam.” Holcolm suffers his disappointment like a man, but he can’t help but be bitter. Robert Jay’s take on “Alcohol” makes Brad Paisley’s recent country hit of the same name come off as shallow. Jay knows the power of the bottle. He laments, “Alcohol oh alcohol/ I’ve got to let you go/ You’ve torn up my car/ You’ve put me behind bars.” Jay finds nothing funny about the drug that caused his wife to leave him and almost killed him on several occasions. Tommy McGhee lays down the code of the streets in “Give & Take”. McGhee sings, “No matter where you go/ If I do something for you, you gotta do something for me.” It’s a “universal truth” he declares, that nothing comes for free.
Musically, soul and funk feature wah wah guitars and horny horns with precision drumming. The sonic efforts here recall the best efforts of Isaac Hayes’s and James Brown’s groups, from whom these players obviously drew their inspiration. The disc includes several sizzling instrumental tracks, such as Wendell Harrison’s “Farewell to the Welfare (Part 1)” and Jay Ward and the Soul Searcher’s “Searching for Soul (Part 1)”. Harrison’s cut features an electric guitar solo that veers off into free jazz while the side musicians keep things grounded in funky chucka-chucka rhythms. The guitarist may be leaving welfare, but the musical line suggests he has left a material reality for a more drug-induced state. “Searching for Soul” takes one on a more earthly trip. The tempo mimics a train going down the tracks while the horns recall a steam whistle blowing. Both cuts are “Part 1”, which suggest the rest of the songs, the second parts, can be found on the flip side of the original 45s.
The instrumental Black Aces of Soul join forces with the vocal band the Eyes of Ebony to create the rollicking “Let’s Get on Down”, which combines a deep bass and drum groove with staccato horns with layers of different pitched voices to make a party anthem. The two groups keep things ragged enough to sound real yet polished and professional. The song begs to be played on the dance floor.
While all of the cuts here are first rate, Dee Edwards “I Can Deal With That” is surely the most outstanding track. Edwards tells her boyfriend he can cheat as long he goes through the trouble of hiding the fact from her and treating her like she’s the only one. Her expressive voice articulates the wisdom and pain of such a compromise. Meanwhile, the horn section behind her wails in sympathy and exultation. The song would sound right at home on the radio today, alongside tracks by John Legend, Mary J. Blige, and the like.