Various Artists: Smooth Grooves: Cruisin' Classics

Mark Anthony Neal

Various Artists

Smooth Grooves: Cruisin' Classics

Label: Rhino
US Release Date: 2002-05-07

One of the functional myths of the post-World War II era circulated in the image of the Ford Mustang -- top down, hair in the breeze -- and the classic American pop (often produced in Detroit, like the car) that blared from the newly installed AM radio. In the 1960s, images of the Mustang celebrated the mobility of America's newly minted middle classes, particularly during "hot" summer days. More specifically it celebrates the ability of the middle classes (in a city like New York) to pack up the car and cross the George Washington Bridge and head up the Palisades Parkway to Bear Mountain or to drive through the Bronx (in what is affectionately known today as the South Bronx) across the Whitestone or Throggs Neck bridges in route to Jones Beach and Eastern Long Island. But more importantly, perhaps, it helped achieve the ideological function of making the American Dream a romantic, available and consumable image for the folks who still held a belief that dreams do come true. On the real, a whole lot of folks sat on stoops and porches and in parks in Baltimore, Philly, Brooklyn, Detroit, Gary, Little Rock, Dallas, Omaha, Crenshaw, Watts, and Miami listening to the pop music of the 1960s on their handheld transistor radios, and despite the myth of middle class mobility (and their cars), Rhino's new collection Smooth Grooves: Cruisin' Classics celebrates some of the most soulful of '60s and '70s pop music -- music that folks in the 'hoods and ghettos of America often listened too as a reprieve from the real time "heat" of poverty and disenfranchisement.

Perhaps no one group personified the "souling" of American pop music in the 1960s than Felix Cavaliere and the Young Rascals. Songs like "I've Been Lonely Too Long" and "People Got to Be Free" all captured the essence of the cultural exchanges (often contentious) that took place of East Coast street corners in the 1950s where black, white (usually Italian or Jewish), and Latino boys sang doo-wop and played stickball (see the late Richard Broadman's Brownsville Black and White, 2000). The ethos was perfected in the Rascals' 1967 classic "Groovin'" where the group sings about the easiness and freedom of Sunday summers ("I can't imagine anything that better / The world is ours whenever we're together . . ."). Whereas the Rascals were clearly impacted by the sounds emanating from Motown (anything from Tommy James and the Shondells would have been a great addition to the collection in that regard), the Isley Brothers' version of Seals and Crofts "Summer Breeze" (1974) offers a another take on the democratic dreams of '60s and '70s pop music, as they offer a highly personalized and distinct version of a song that got little, if any, airplay on black radio when Seals and Croft first recorded it. The song was one of many "classic" Isley remakes of pop recordings including stinging versions of Todd Rundgren's "Hello It's Me" and Carole King's "It's Too Late".

Smooth Grooves: Cruisin Classic works hard to capture the "multi-culti/multi-ethnic" ambitions of AM radio-styled pop music in the '60s and '70s, by tapping into musical sensibilities ostensibly bred beyond America's borders, but that are thorough examples of classic American pop. Headed by Jorge Santana (brother of Carlos), Malo's sweet, sweet "Suavecito" (1972) captures the "Brown Eyed Soul" movement of southern California, where Chicano singers and musicians were influenced by the harmonic structures of doo-wop as does Tierra's later version (1980) of The Intruders' (of early Gamble and Huff fame) "Together". South African born trumpeter Hugh Masekela's rollicking "Grazing in the Grass" (later taking to another level by Friends of Distinction) is another example of the globalization of various styles of "black" music. The success of Maskela occurred at the same time that American audiences were being introduced to more "serious" South African musicians such as the legendary Miriam Makeba and pianist Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibriham).

But like so many of the compilations in the Smooth Grooves series, Cruisin' Classics is about infectious and confectious black pop. Motown is represented via "Sweet Love" (1975) an early Commodores hit that gave audiences an early indication of Lionel Ritchie's ability to craft pop candy. Smokey Robinson's "Cruisin'" (1979), easily his most popular solo track, is also included. The Stylistics' classic "You Make Me Feel Brand New" (1974) is still dreary and cliché after damn near 30 years (probably performed at 10,000 weddings since its release) but still speaks to the pop songwriting genius of Thom Bell and the late Linda Creed. Bell was also behind the boards for the Spinners' breakout hit "Could It Be I'm Falling in Love", (1972) which was recorded in the early stages of the group's five year run of crossover pop success, which included tracks like "Games People Play" (1976) and their duet with Dionne Warwick "Then Came You" (1974).

The gems of the compilation are some of the more obscure tracks. Despite the memorable refrain "Diamond in the back / Sunroof top/ Digging the scene with the gangsta lean" William DeVaughn's important "Be Thankful for What You Got" (1974) is one of the most strident critiques of materialism recorded in the soul tradition as he reminds listeners "You may not have a car at all, but remember brothers and sisters / You can still stand tall / Just be thankful for what you got". Though the Staple Singers are primarily remembered for their strident tome of uplift "I'll Take You There" (the group's patriarch, the late Pops Staples immortalized to the hip-hop generation courtesy of a Cedric the Entertainer routine), they were perhaps their most soulful with Curtis Mayfield behind the boards on the track "Let's Do Again" which topped the soul and pop charts in 1975. The song is the title theme from the second (and most popular) of three Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby films. Both the song and the film are some of the best examples of 1970s African-Americana, that somehow has resisted the kitschy elements found in so much '70s nostalgia. The song, of course, features the signature leads vocals of Mavis Staples, who has never gotten the recognition she deserves, though artists from Prince (who produced Soul Mama in the 1990s) and Aretha Franklin (who shared a mic with Staples on Franklin's One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, 1988) have given Staples her deserved props. Staples re-team with Mayfield and Poitier/Cosby to sing the theme to the third film A Piece of the Action (1978).

Other significant additions to the Smooth Grooves: Cruisin' Classics compilation include Bloodstone's also too sweet "Natural High" (1973) (which some enterprising neo-soul outfit needs to remake), featuring its pleading wah-wah intro and "Golden Time of the Day" (1978) from the vastly underrated Frankie Beverly and Maze (see Prince's "Count the Days" from the Girl 6 soundtrack for his tribute to the group's longevity). Also notable are Bobby Womack's "Woman's Gotta Have It" (1972) and Heatwave's "Mind Blowing Decisions" (1978).

* note: songs included in compilation are in bold letters.

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