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The Trammps: self-titled

Stephen B. Armstrong

The Trammps

The Trammps

Label: Legacy
US Release Date: 2002-05-21
UK Release Date: Available as import

After two years of cutting singles for Buddha Records, the Trammps formed their own label in 1975, which they named Golden Fleece. A short time later, the band put out their full-length debut and though it failed to make it far up the R&B chart, the album's lush Philly Soul arrangements and dance-friendly grooves impressed Atlantic Records enough to offer the group a contract. This decision was rewarded handsomely in 1977, when the Trammps released "Disco Inferno". The song not only scored well on both the R&B and pop charts, it also appeared on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, an album that won a Grammy and eventually went platinum 25 times over.

Two decades later, "Disco Inferno" still receives frequent play, in clubs and on the radio, and its ubiquity, as well as its charging bull rhythms, has probably misled audiences into thinking that it is the definitive example of the group's sound. The Trammps, however, reveals that the band once placed an equal, trilateral emphasis on harmony, melody, and beat. And because of this, most of its tracks feel like crafted songs, rather than manipulated loops, and they withstand repeated listening easily.

Re-released last May by Epic/Legacy, The Trammps also showcases the band's stylistic debts to '50s doo wop and '60s soul. A fast song like "Where Do We Go From Here", for instance, as it juxtaposes the high notes of Jimmy Ellis' tenor with the low tones of Earl Young's basso profundo, mimics the vocal dynamics Bill Pinkney and Ben E. King worked into the Drifters. And on the melancholy ballad "Down These Dark Streets", when the sad, contrasting voices fold together in the chorus, the influence of the Temptations, particularly their sound on "Papa Was a Rolling Stone", surfaces. "Love Epidemic" is even more direct with its acknowledgement of the past's importance. Written after the turmoil of the 1960s, after the assassinations, the protests, and the riots, it appeals for social and racial harmony. Ironically, as the Trammps make this plea, they borrow a trope from Martha and the Vandellas' call to action "Dancing in the Street". With their voices surrounded by powder keg hooks, that is, Ellis and Young cry out, "We're gonna spread it in Chicago/ And over in St Lou/ New York City/ And Philadelphia, too". Incidentally, the bonus tracks that wrap up the album, three singles recorded in 1973 and 1974 for Buddha, offer up similarly soul-stirring harmonies, as well.

But while the vocals and the lyrics on the Golden Fleece tracks cling closely to tradition, their arrangements are thick with the grooves and glossiness that came to life in the early '70s NYC club scene. Producer/songwriter Ronnie Baker (who also shaped the sounds of the Stylistics, the O'Jays, and the Spinners) frequently douses the music with strings and soaring female voices, for instance, and moves Stanley Wade's pulsing bass into the foreground. Sometimes the songs buckle under the weight of these kitschy ornaments. On the instrumental "Trammps Disco Theme", however, Baker and the band create a miniature symphony out of them. Beginning with a torrent of notes played on the french horn, the piece moves through three 60-second sections, picking up and dropping melodies quickly, making use of brass, keyboards, a jabbing guitar, and a piccolo flute. Entertaining, funky and, let's be candid, beautiful, this song makes the dozens of disco themes that followed it -- "Galactic Funk Star Wars", "Fifth of Beethoven" and so forth -- sound bloodless.

Arguably, The Trammps is a landmark work, albeit an overlooked one. Like Barry White's Can't Get Enough and Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life, The Trammps simultaneously honors traditional R&B techniques and subverts them, mixing up funk and soul and something else -- the silvery sweetness of pop. Of course, the same formula has been responsible for a lot of schlock. But it has also inspired several high quality artists -- ranging from Earth, Wind & Fire and the Dazz Band to David Bowie and Wyclef Jean -- to create some of their best music.

This album, in other words, throws serious doubt on the claim that all disco sucks.

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