Soul Jazz Records – ‘100% Dynamite’

The last few months of my joyful stay in Penzance met with a discovery of some classic new grits and grooves. I discovered 100% Dynamite, an absolute gem of a compilation form London-based Soul Jazz Records. These tracks were the real deal, the absolute cream of original Jamaican funky soul, ska and rocksteady by the likes of The Maytals, The Upsetters and the keyboard kid genius, Jackie Mittoo. Listening to, and being slightly blown away by the quality of the 14 tracks, it felt like my passion for funk and soul was being reignited, and better still it opened up a whole new world of Jamaican music.

The album featured ska and rocksteady versions of soul tracks I already loved. Aretha Franklin’s Rocksteady was given the full on ska treatment by The Marvells whilst Marlena Shaw’s Woman of the Ghetto was given a more gentle reggae tingle by Phyllis Dillon. But, what grabbed my groove the most was Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s house band (and soon to be The Wailers) The Upsetters’ stonking ska blast of James Brown’s Popcorn. Hell yeah, the drums and bass, man… just one killer break.

The Skatalites were well known to me, but not keyboard king Jackie Mittoo whose Stereo Freeze is just another funked up ska stomp. Devouring 100% Dynamite got me searching for more, and it didn’t take long for more Soul Jazz comps to get me. A year or so down the line they released New Orleans Funk and Saturday Night Fish Fry and my obsession with funk and soul kicked in again, invigorated by the brilliance of Eddie Bo, The Gaturs and Roger and The Gypsies immense Pass The Hatchet.

For any fans of funk, soul or ska, if you’ve not found it already, do yourselves a huge favour and dive deep into the Soul Jazz Records back catalogue. Having merged with Studio One, many of the comps feature the label’s legendary history. 100% Dynamite is aptly named. Get on it, and the four blasts of Dynamite that followed.

Booker T & The MGs – live at The Strand, Redondo Beach, Los Angeles

I got lucky. At the Oktoberfest in Munich I met a friendly young woman. It was a brief chat and we were both heavily steined. After many letters, the following April I was staying with her amazingly hospitable family in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles; a six-month stay including paid work, delivering hair products and picking up cheques. I was driving around Santa Monica, Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Venice Beach, Malibu and Melrose Avenue. Yeah, I got lucky.

That six-month stay included three months of travel across the States, so I saw enough to say two things. It’s an incredible country to visit but I’d never want to live there permanently. Amongst dozens of great memories a few were musical. A very friendly face gave me a tape of The Grateful Dead, one side American Beauty, the other Workingman’s Dead. I played it loads in my beaten up Honda Civic and Truckin’ loved it. That beaten up Civic took me all the way to Beale Street and Graceland in Memphis and New Orleans for the Jazz & Heritage Festival. The Radiators and Robert Cray stand out, and B.B King is memorable only for the horrific after effects of a colossal bowl of dodgy Cajun gumbo. Oh, the pain.

I saw Santana play at the Greek Theatre in L.A. That was special, though with daft, unrealistic expectations I remember being disappointed they weren’t as stunning as their live stuff on Moonflower which blew me away a couple of years earlier. Lastly, and most memorably, I saw the Stax house band, the Memphis soul originators and ultimate groove legends Booker T & The MGs at The Strand on Redondo Beach. I saw the billboard advertising the gig and I remember doing a double-take and thinking… THE Booker T & The MGs? Oh yes!

Booker T Jones on organ, Steve Cropper on guitar, Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn on bass and Anton Fig on drums. I was living the dream.

It was dark, it was smoky, it was emotional and everything I hoped it would be. I’ve seen Dylan and The Who in their later years and they bored me shitless. I was faintly nervous going in, but on that stage Booker T & The MGs were still the ultimate groove. That ‘60s sound was alive and totally happening. Green Onions, Time Is Tight, Hip Hug Her, Soul Limbo, Melting Pot… zero disappointment, maximum R&B.

Lenny Kravitz – ‘Let Love Rule’

In early 1990 I was still stuck on the 1960s. I was actually constantly looking all around me, searching for the good stuff. More often than not I ended up back in a familiar era. The mid ‘60s to mid ‘70s was, and still is, where it was at. The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays were pioneering the new sound, both were certainly influenced by soul and funk in particular, and both grabbed my attention. They were cool, I listened loads and liked lots, but that’s as far as it went for me.

An album that struck more of an emotional chord, whose flower child sentiment typified my own, was the debut long-player by Leonard Albert Kravitz, Let Love Rule. The blend of rock and funky reggae, heavily hippie-infused, felt loose and spaced out, like it was recorded under a fug of herbal haze. In 1990 Lenny was a complete dude, a musical maestro playing almost everything on the album; that dudeness was totally evident when we went to see him live at Kentish Town & Country Club. To say he lived up to expectations would be ridiculous restraint, he was fucking awesome, and whilst he’s subsequently (musically at least) fallen short, Let Love Rule was a ride.

I say fallen short, but could really go further. He made some decent tunes post 1990, but fame hit and instead of blossoming like Prince, he became a pastiche of himself, which could never be a good look. That said, Sittin’ On Top Of The World, Freedom Train, I Build This Garden For Us and title track Let Love Rule all oozed a mellow, blissed out psychedelic groove, and I just dug it. Lyrically the album pushed no boundaries, but it felt sincere, real and like Lenny Kravitz was gonna chop some Hendrix sized mountains.

It turned out that Kravitz was no voodoo child and no mountains were felled, but in 1990 Let Love Rule was one of the soundtracks to a summer of sizeable fun. An adventure was imminent, an idea hatched on the Costa Del Sol and planned with amigo Simon. We were going on a trip, and the start of four life-changing years of life spent mostly overseas.

Stevie Wonder – ‘Songs In The Key Of Life’

Stevie Wonder. Where do you start? I think I remember my first vinyl purchase was The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie. At 12 years-old Little Stevie Wonder was an absolute dude, shining like a star on drums, bongos, keyboard and harmonica. Having binged on soul and Motown for a few years, I was totally aware of Stevie’s genius, and had worn out the grooves on Looking Back, his triple LP anthology that was a thorough compilation of ‘60s Stevie. Next was another comp, Original Musiquarium I, which upped the ante, showcasing his golden era during the ‘70s. But still the best was yet to come.

Songs In The Key Of Life was Stevie’s masterpiece. Preceded in the ‘70s by four absolute classic albums, it was an almost impossible ask to go one better, but Songs In The Key Of Life is more than an album, it’s a work of art, a visceral musical discovery, a perfect illumination into melody and musicality. Two years in the making, Stevie was still just 26 years old when it was released, and whilst the likes of George Benson, Herbie Hancock and dozens of jazz and soul musicians contributed, this was totally Stevie, having written, arranged and composed everything and performed more than one man should ever be capable.

Songs In The Key Of Life covers the same kaleidoscopic range of musical styles and it does human emotions, but you’re never in doubt as to Stevie’s sentiment; an appeal for love and humanity in a world of growing inequality and injustice. Stevie is at his absolute best in all senses. I Wish, Sir Duke and As show Stevie at his funkiest and most soulful, but whatever the song or style here it’s sense of joy and grace are completely overwhelming. Love is ever present, and whilst the whole double-album is an uplifting euphonic rollercoaster, I remember the LP one, side two just blew me away, and hey, Stevie’s drums are the highlight, oozing effortless soul.

Now, I Wish is a stone cold classic, and Summer Soft is an absolute beauty but I just couldn’t get enough of Knocks Me Off My Feet. There are three tracks on the album on which Stevie plays everything, and this is one.

“I see us in the park
Strolling the summer days of imaginings in my head
And words from our hearts
Told only to the wind felt even without being said
I don’t want to bore you with my trouble
But there’s sumptin’ about your love
That makes me weak and
Knocks me off my feet”

I love everything about this song, but what killed me was Stevie’s drumming; it feels like he’s making love to the hi-hat, caressing it with such perfect subtlety… “I don’t wanna bore you with it oh but I love you, I love you, I love you”. Oh Stevie, you got me.

Songs In The Key Of Life was, and still is one of my all-time favourite albums. There are artists who inspire you to become a better person simply through their music. Stevie Wonder does that more than any other.