July 17, 2017
Released In 1975
Released By Cat Records
Here’s what I knew when I was 10: “Rock Your Baby” was a great song. I didn’t know who it was by, or from whence it came, or that it was a seminal disco song, but I instantly connected to the rhythm (including a drum machine — what was that?) and the mood, which was both lighthearted and melancholy at the same time. Then, a year later, in 1975, came another terrific song, “Rockin’ Chair,” which reminded me of “Rock Your Baby,” employing a similar propulsion and what sounded like the same singer on background vocals.
The songs had plenty in common, I found out later. Both were Number One on the R&B charts and in the top ten of the Hot 100, both came out of Henry Stone‘s TK Records empire, and they were sung by husband and wife, George and Gwen McCrae. That probably was George lending his falsetto “Ah-haaaaa’s” to Gwen’s big hit. Now, “Rock Your Baby” was a bit more successful, selling over 11 million copies and getting more airplay. Perhaps that’s why it remained more present in my memory than “Rockin’ Chair,” until one day at the Brooklyn Flea Record Fair when I found a copy of Gwen McCrae’s album of the same name. A bolt of recognition went through me and I bought it. I think it cost $2.00.
Once home, I dropped the needle and was instantly back in love. “Rockin’ Chair” is just undeniable, with a rich arrangement including piano, horns, guitar, that funky backbeat, and Gwen’s soulful vocals. Record fair score! But then then next song started. I was stunned by the hard funk of “Move Me Baby,” with a tambourine lodged so deep in the groove it could only be extracted with dynamite, and an insistent bass line that made the title of the song a command impossible to ignore. I moved to the groove, then I checked the credits: co-written by Harry Casey — I know who that is! The leader of K.C. & The Sunshine Band, who knew their way around a dance floor, and the public avatar of TK Records.
Song after song, the album just grew in stature, until I realized: this is an accidental classic. Accidental only because Henry Stone was more of a singles guy, with most of his long-playing success coming with Greatest Hits albums and compilations. But somehow, alongside their quest for the next hit song, Stone and his team came up with a collection that has the variety and consistency that you would expect of something from Atlantic or Stax in an earlier era, showing off Gwen’s versatility with ballads, floor-fillers extraordinaire, and mid-tempo seductions. Naturally, the 10-year-old me didn’t realize how sexy this stuff was — get down. But there was still something else I didn’t know: this was the second version of the album, which was originally self-titled and didn’t include “Rockin’ Chair.” Even though adding a top-selling 45 to lead off Side One was probably a cash grab, this is the one that should go down in posterity.
Besides Gwen and her fabulous voice, the other person who likely contributed most to the artistic success of “Rockin’ Chair” was Henry Stone’s main partner in crime, Clarence Reid. Some of you might know him as Blowfly, the dirty-talking proto-rap novelty act who would still require a Parental Advisory today. He’s also known for songs like Betty Wright’s “Clean Up Woman,” which, like “Rockin’ Chair,” was co-written with Willie Clarke. Reid wrote or co-wrote over half this album, including the stunning “90% Of Me Is You,” which puts Side Two into the stratosphere. The arrangement on that song is beyond brilliant: smooth strings in dialog with two guitars, one a waterlogged wah wah the other playing Wes Montgomery octaves, that TK swing, a haunting refrain of “What can I do?” echoing throughout the song, all to support McCrea’s desperate vocal take. It had been recorded the year before by Vanessa Kendrick, but it’s here that it all comes together. Not surprisingly, “90%” has been sampled many times, including by Mobb Deep (RIP, Prodigy!), who did little to alter the song beyond adding some chimes.
Henry Stone, who died at 93 in 2014, was very good at recognizing talent, gaming out a song, and starting record labels — supposedly he founded over 100. For a refresher on his legend, which stretched back to a Ray Charles song in 1951, try this short playlist. One thing he was not good at was his legacy. If you go on Spotify (or Amazon), you’ll find a haphazard jumble of compilations, re-recordings, strange cover versions, but nothing where he would give an album like Rockin’ Chair it’s due with, say, a deluxe reissue, remastered, perhaps including a few bonus tracks, an essay by Barry Walters, some cool shots of Reid, Casey and McCrae in the studio, in a beautiful slip-cased package — it deserves no less. Until that day, dig on this playlist and keep an eye out at your local music emporium for a used copy. It will be $2.00 well spent. And to my 10-year-old self I say: You’ve got good taste!
Emotive yet restrained, grandiose yet modest — McCrae’s dexterous voice was truly one of the most striking ones to come from the ’70s.
A few months ago, I watched Netflix’s musical drama The Get Down. It wasn’t the greatest Netflix Original Series I’ve watched, but, with the exception of maybe Luke Cage, it was the best Netflix non-documentary series I’ve watched that seamlessly integrated music into its scenes. I mention The Get Down because, for those of you who haven’t watched it, the show takes place in the 1970s and heavily features characters performing and listening to hip hop, disco, and soul. During that time, when I wasn’t watching, I found myself listening to the artists and styles depicted on screen. Gwen McCrae was not one of those artists whose name or music made it to the show, but after listening to Rockin’ Chair (which, by the way, seems to have a fascinating yet convoluted release history), I can easily imagine that I would have been listening to her music alongside Grandmaster Flash and Donna Summer. That’s not to say that I haven’t enjoyed listening to her now. Despite being groovier and less distorted than my usual affair, there’s a lot to appreciate here: obviously the dancey hits are some of the album’s biggest highlights, including funky beats of “Move Me Baby” and the album’s title track “Rockin’ Chair,” or, quasi-title track… or a non-album track depending on which edition or the album you’re listening to (again… there’s some convoluted history behind different versions of this album and it’s not something that’s easy to solve just by looking at the first few Google search results), but there are some deeper cuts here that are just as good even if they’re not as dance floor worthy. Even though there’s a good chance that this is my own interpretation and not the song’s intended meaning, the lyrical desperation and depiction of co-dependency in the sinister “90% Of Me Is You” wasn’t something I wasn’t expecting to hear, but it gives the album a lot of depth and makes it so much more than a pop record full of love songs. I can’t say that Rockin’ Chair will ignite a full blown interest in disco or soul records, but at least I now know that once I do want to dive in, I’ve got a good starting point.
I’m currently on vacation in Corolla, North Carolina, with 10 other adults and eight kids. (It’s exactly as bonkers as you might imagine.) Among the adults is my brother-in-law Brian — the same Brian I mentioned a few weeks back when talking about the diverse collection of sounds on Ringo Sheena’s Kalk Samen Kuri no Hana album. In Brian’s honor, I have to call out one of my favorite distinctive sounds of all time, which happens to be one of the first things you hear on Rockin’ Chair: the tone of the guitar in the title track. That dry, no-nonsense chop that’s been part of soul music since forever, achieved by telling your electric guitar to amplify the bridge pickup, which is the one furthest from the guitar’s fretboard. It’s so rhythmic that it’s barely tonal — more percussive than anything, with a close cousin in the way mandolin is often used in bluegrass. I just can’t get enough of that specific sound, and the way you hear it on “Rockin’ Chair” is the way it should be until the end of time. That said, I have to zoom out a bit and point to “90% Of Me Is You,” which contains a first line that belongs in the (yet to be founded) FIrst Line Hall of Fame: “How can I do the things I want to do when 90% of me is you?” If that doesn’t grab you by the ears, I don’t know what lyric would. Immediately impactful, just like that dry guitar tone. Is it too much of a stretch to link those to elements, especially after reading that Gwen McCrae married her husband George within a week of meeting him in 1963? How’s that for an immediate impact?
Every decade has its signature genre and musical claim to fame. More recent years in the 2000s have made that frame of definition a bit more ambiguous (the term “aughts” never really stuck well, did it?) but for the most part, there’s something about many decades of the past that tends to exist as the default answer for what gets musically connected with any one time period. Gwen McCrae’s Rockin’ Chair being right smack in the middle of the 1970s, fell right in the middle of all things disco, funk, soul, and to an extent, jazz. The nine track record, which has been released and re-released multiple times, indeed hits the mark with a definitively soul and funk sound — especially with the album’s titular standout hit. Smooth and flowing vocals, horns, a gentle but solid bass line, strings and keys, all being held together alongside steady drums and other percussion parts, combined with McCrae’s sensual lyrics (“Sexy baby, good lovin’ daddy / Let me be your rockin’ chair… Rock me gently / Make me feel like a cloud in the sky”) to create a distinctly mood setting single. What’s surprising though, after hearing this very focused and cohesive piece of work, is that despite the rest of the tracks giving a stylistically comparable arrangement and equally vibrant performance on the recording, the rest didn’t bring the album to an appreciated level equal to the title track. Returning to the opening thoughts about signature styles in decades, it’s interesting that this same scenario of “hit or miss” (no pun intended) carries through the years. Boy bands in the ’90s are a perfect analogous example, as a few reigned supreme in the decade and yet others, who had seemingly the same stylistic components applied to their music, fell shorter. That said, while McCrae certainly provides plenty of vocal character and emotion in her delivery, which makes Rockin’ Chair a fun listen and perfect for sustaining an overall 1970s soul vibe, perhaps it’s the album’s fluctuations between providing an interesting instrumental hook with lyrics that don’t excessively repeat, that unfortunately prevented Gwen McCrae’s commitment to soul, funk, and R&B music, from reaching its full potential and earning her recognition beyond one song.
Thanks to countless re-releases, there are several versions of this “debut” record, but luckily the sheer talent of McCrae will make any version an unavoidable classic.
In my spare time, what little I have, I like to read. So surprising, says the English teacher. But I do, and I read these spare little books I pick up here and there and shove into one cube of my Expedit, waiting until I care enough or it’s hot enough to lay unabashedly in a lukewarm bath for two hours on a Saturday morning while sweat pools on my brow and I get lost in a Piers Anthony or the Boy Scouts Handbook. It’s no surprise, then, to find me recently one foot out being licked by Isobel, the scent of tea tree in the air, as I read a fairly recent feminist manifesto by a 30’s-something British darling who mostly was on point but who claimed, to my fury, that there haven’t been that many fantastically creative women. “No women,” she writes, “have produced a band worthy of the Beatles or the Stones.” I could’ve thrown the book out the window at that point, as I am sure you can imagine. Listening this week to Rockin’ Chair from Gwen McRae, just as one example, was enough to make me want to smack this writer in the face with this vinyl and be like how can you discount the soul of Curtis Mayfield and the sexiness of Marvin Gaye wrapped up in the beauty of Gwen McRae? Look, if you want to throw women under the historic bus, go ahead, but realize you will look like a total asshole when people like me say that women have been historically forgotten, not historically unproductive. The absolute hip-swaying, violin-twining funk of someone like Gwen McRae is enough to discount shit like that contained within those popular pages. Put this on in the sweltering heat and relish the sweat that trickles down between your breasts. Grab your husband and muffle his heated protests with your mouth while you embrace the heat, sway to the gospel-infused power funk that pours out of your speakers, blistering in the blanket heat of Virginia summer. In the face of a culture that could let a woman decry other women without shame, turn down the lights, kick up the fan, and kiss your loved one while McRae’s sultry, throaty moans fill your living room.
Well this is quite a change this week on OYR — I’m actually intimately familiar with this week’s pick. I first became aware of Gwen McCrae’s album (originally titled For Your Love) because of every DJ/producer’s personal journey to seek out every sample ever used in their favorite hip hop tracks. Sure enough, this album is home to two monumental samples in my hip hop upbringing. The first is “Rockin’ Chair,” which is the record that initially drew me into McCrae’s catalog. Back in 1995, one hit wonder group Blahzay Blahzay would turn “Rockin’ Chair”‘s rhythmic guitar plucks and sensual cooing into an underground smash with “Danger!” The beat was absolutely addictive, and I can remember playing the groove until my tape literally popped (shootout to Biggie). The second, and more frequently used sample, is “90% Of Me Is You.” While Gwen McCrae’s cover version has been sampled many times over by the likes of Mobb Deep and Lost Boyz, the song’s most famous reincarnation was Main Source’s sampling of Vanessa Kendrick’s original version on their classic single “Just Hangin’ Out.” On a personal note, I have also run through this entire album a few times over, and sampled the tracks “Let Them Talk,” “It’s Worth The Hurt,” and “It Keeps Raining” for my own musical productions. Gwen McCrae’s post-soul, pre-disco album is rich with sample-able material and enough funk to sustain any party, bar-b-que, or road trip.
A key part of the rise of TK Records, McCrae’s stellar voice gave credibility to the surging new funk off-shoot that would become disco.
I certainly don’t want to cast too many aspersions on R&B as it has existed since the ’80s or so. I’ve liked some of those eras more than others (New Jack Swing stands out as a particular highlight for me), but none of it is really the same thing as what constituted soul music in the ’60s and ’70s. As of the late ’80s, I was still hearing soul and R&B used as synonymous terms where genre discussions were concerned, but that was just a vestige of an earlier time. The real soul stuff went out with the dawn of disco if you ask me. That makes Gwen McCrae’s 1975 LP, Rockin’ Chair, one of the last great examples of the soul sound that grew out of the merging of religiously-themed gospel and secular rhythm and blues at the dawn of the ’60s. Rockin’ Chair has moments that hark back to the glory days of Stax and Muscle Shoals, such as the horn-laced title track, or “For Your Love” (not a Yardbirds cover), which inspires thoughts of Aretha Franklin’s too-brief late ’60s peak. More often, though, we’re hearing the sultry strings and wah-wah guitars of the era during which Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield were setting benchmarks with blaxploitation film soundtracks. This stuff had slid fully into the syrupy morass of Barry White balladry and/or the dance-floor monotony of Donna Summer-helmed Giorgio Moroder tracks within a couple of years, and there’s a slight preview of what’s to come with the overlong one-chord coda to “Move Me Baby.” For the most part, though, this album lies well within the territory covered by the glory days of sweet soul music. And that’s just about ideal as far as I’m concerned.
As is often the case, it feels as if there are mountains of classic albums that have passed me by and that might never have reached my ears without this newsletter. But the specific part that made me perk up my ears on this album is on the song “It’s Worth The Hurt.” I don’t know if it’s an organ or some other instrument, but in the intro and the chorus, the guitar gets two opportunities to solo and then this lovely, five-note, otherworldly sound comes cascading down. I noticed it from the very first time I listened to the album and looked forward to it with each subsequent listen. That’s one of my favorite things about music: In the midst of an already excellent album, you can find these little gems of joy, if you’re keeping your ears open for them!
To me, the appeal of ’70s soul records is that each one always, without fail, contains something truly incredible. It could be a blowaway song, some fun horn arrangements, or just a bunch of tracks that make you want to get up and move. That’s why you’ll never go wrong picking up an old soul record at your local record store, even if you have never heard of the artist. Don’t worry, chances are the employees haven’t either. Rockin’ Chair actually has all of those things I mentioned: the blowaway song (“90% Of Me Is You), the fun horn arrangements (“Move Me Baby“), and tracks that make you want to get up and move (the first two tracks for sure). But the really incredible thing here is the voice of Gwen McCrae, surely one of the most versatile of its time. Listen to the title track and then “It’s Worth The Hurt.” Hear the difference? It’s night and day. On the title track, you get the glitz and glamour of soul, especially as it was transitioning into glossy disco. On the “It’s Worth The Hurt,” you get the gutsy, raspy vocals that made stars out of singers like Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, and Margie Hendrix, to a lesser degree sadly. Of course, this type of versatility was common with the top singers of that era (and any era really), but the fact that Gwen McCrae isn’t a household name means that her own vocal prowess got overlooked somewhere down the line, whether because of her husband’s eclipsing success, the convoluted history of her album releases, or some other tragic reason. This makes Rockin’ Chair not just a cool and cheap find at your record store, but a truly lost classic, one we can all enjoy better now thanks to the wonderful accessibility of music today.
Déjenme Llorar by Carla Morrison
Chosen By Catherine Dempsey