WORDS BY: NICK GORDON BROWN
As Melvo continues to salute many of the pioneers and originators who have helped shape the Glitterbox philosophy, we continue to supplement the radio show with additional storytelling. Here we focus on the multi-genre recordings of vocal giants: Ms Chaka Khan (show 162) and Mr Billy Paul (show 163).
Chaka Khan is a byword for quality whose vocal calisthenics have allowed her to excel in numerous genres. She was once billed, most likely by an over eager record company marketing department, as the Queen of Funk. However, her effortless genre-hopping could just as easily have seen her dubbed Duchess of Disco. Our snapshot selection holds up a mirror to the wide range of styles in her peerless catalogue – a range as wide as her infectious smile.
Growing up in a bohemian part of Chicago, Chaka was flirting with the radical Black Panthers group by 14, and had a record deal fronting Rufus, a multi-racial funk band, by 17. It is from this era that we have culled our first cut. This Stevie Wonder-penned number from 1974 is the perfect introductory showcase for Chaka. When she tells us, “what I got to give will sho' 'nuff do you good”, it’s as if she’s crystal-ball gazing.
Rufus as a band was not a stable ship, and given her sheer presence, a Khan solo deal was inevitable – and her debut album (1978) opened with a stone cold classic which saw Chaka riding the disco wave with characteristic class.
A song written by Prince. A harmonica solo from Stevie Wonder. And an opening serenade rap from Melle Mel. Yet this song is all about Chaka, another milestone release as she put her stamp on the 1980s.
In case you were wondering, Chaka is equally adept at interpreting jazz – as when singing the standard that is ‘Summertime’. Giants of the genre have queued up to work with her – including Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock.
Ask someone for Chaka’s biggest track, and this is the one that will most likely vie for top spot with ‘I’m Every Woman’ and ‘I Feel For You.’ Released with Rufus in 1983 during one of Chaka’s sporadic returns to the group, ‘Ain’t Nobody’ is such a timeless number, that she now on occasions performs it with orchestral backing.
It was only a matter of time before Chaka was remixed onto the dancefloors of the house nation, but the 1989 Life Is A Dance – The Remix Projectwas still one of the first of its kind. As ever with such albums, the results divided opinion, but few would disagree that Tony Humphries delivered an absolute gem.
Chaka Khan has, of course, been sampled. A lot. We have opted for a contemporary producer to mark her ongoing relevance – here Kaytranada samples ‘I Know You, I Live You’ on one of his earliest releases from 2013.
In 2018 Chaka returned with a number that was soon ubiquitous, from dancefloors to airline ads. Produced by Major Lazer’s Switch, its foundation is the Fatback Band’s evergreen funk classic ‘(Are You Ready) Do the Bus Stop’.
Billy Paul had something of a rollercoaster career, but his place in the pantheon of soul greats remains assured. Born in 1934, he was making music in the 1950s and released his first album in 1968. However, it is for his work in the 1970s as part of the Philadelphia International Records (PIR) stable, that he is best known. Whilst often dogged by controversy, his Philly period was rewarding both creatively and commercially.
With a rich and adaptable vocal style, it is as a soul singer that Billy is most revered. This wonderfully upbeat number has particular lyrical resonance just now – “Thanks for savin' my life/ For pickin' me up/ Dustin’ me off/ Makin’ me feel like I'm living again.”
The Grammy award winning multi-million seller that became Billy’s biggest hit and signature tune. ‘Me & Mrs Jones’, a tale of an extra-marital affair, was deemed controversial on release in 1972, but that didn’t stop it topping charts worldwide and attaining legendary status. In later years, Paul would sue PIR for unpaid royalties on the track, winning a large settlement.
A different sort of controversy was to erupt with the follow up single to ‘Me & Mrs Jones’. Musically it was an about turn, from balladry to funk workout – but it was the lyrical content that was to impact Paul’s career. A black power call to arms proved too much for many in the conservative world of 1970s radio, and while ‘Am I Black Enough For You’ is now held in the highest regard, it stalled Paul’s career, and he found it hard to forgive label co-owner Kenneth Gamble, who he said chose it as a single.
Ultimately, ‘Am I Black Enough For You’ rode out the controversy to become the rallying call for many black artists that Gamble had no doubt hoped it would be. A fellow Philadelphian, rapper Schoolly D, took both the title and a large chunk of the chorus for his 1989 album; while UK reggae ambassadors Steel Pulse introduced it into their live shows.
By 1979, disco ruled the roost – Billy eased into the genre, but on his own terms. Our choice, ‘Bring the Family Back’, is a great soul record, but with just enough concessions to the production style of the time to nudge its way onto dancefloors.
We have again opted for a contemporary artist to highlight the ongoing relevance of the Billy Paul catalogue. On ‘Yah’ from 2017’s Damn album, Kendrick Lamar utilised Billy’s 1976 cut ‘How Good Is Your Game’.
Also in 1976, Billy took ’Let ‘em In’ by Paul McCartney’s Wings and made it very much his own, sampling Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, personalising the roll call of names to include his own heroes and family members, and delivering an impassioned vocal performance in contrast to McCartney’s laidback delivery.