The Rhythm Section
MFSB’s “Touch Me in the Morning”
Strings and Horns
Another memorable project I was proud and happy to have participated in was assisting Jay Mark while he mixed an album for Taj Mahal. Taj is a large man. I am 6’ 1” and I always felt a bit small around him. He is a living legend to me and some of his work over his long and successful career has been outstanding! From Giant Step and The Natural Blues to Recyclin’ the Blues and other Related Stuff on which he introduced the Pointer Sisters, to some very great albums from just a few years ago like Senor Blues and Maestro he has never ceased to impress me. I was lucky enough to work on Music Keeps Me Together.
About twelve years later I had an odd moment with Taj. I was backstage at one of his shows in Los Angeles. I was there with Rory Block who was being managed at the time by Taj’s road manager. Rory and he were off somewhere talking business, I was sitting in the green room not far from the stage. I had lost track of the time and Taj was winding down his show. He finished a number, and the crowd was going wild and all of sudden (to me) he burst into the room. I jumped to my feet and was looking him almost eye-to-eye, nose-to-nose. I did not know what to do. I froze. I didn’t know what to say or do. I wasn’t sure if I should be clapping or patting him on the back or what! He started pacing back and forth and I just wanted to run from the room. Almost as suddenly he stepped back out the door and proceeded to do his encores. I was not about to let it happen again and I bolted out of there as fast as I could.
Jay Mark is a great friend and a tremendous engineer. One of my favorite stories from Jay was of a rather amazing “Ah Ha!” moment. Jay grew up in Atlantic City, NJ and began working in sound at a very young age. He was often asked to mix front of house for touring bands as they played the Convention Center there. That was the case once in 1966. The crowd was quite loud and constantly screaming through the entire show. Seated in the sound booth Jay could solo the microphones from the stage and hear the band singing, and he thought, “Hey these guys are actually really good! Too bad no one can hear them”. They were a little band from Liverpool, England called the Beatles.
As an Assistant Engineer at Sigma Sound Studios, I was required to do a number of odd duties as the various sessions required. Sometimes it required being the “go–fer”. Once I had to run to a nearby record store to buy a copy of the single “Touch Me in the Morning” by Diana Ross. The reason I had to get it was that at 10 AM when the session began in which we were going to record that song for MFSB, the rhythm section and Zack Zackery were there to cover that song. Zack who played alto sax in the horn section was respected as the soloist and had played as the soloist on a large number of MFSB tracks already was there that day because Gamble and Huff wanted the cover of this song to feature Zack, and as a jazz musician first, they knew that Zack would best perform if he played live with the track and did not add his part on top later. So, there was Zack and the band ready to record but for one small problem… Zack did not really listen to pop music and did not know the song. Most everyone there was a bit shocked, so Gamble said, “Go get a copy of it right away so he can learn it”.
I ran to the store and bought the 45-RPM single, ran back and sat in the control room with Zack and played it over and over again while Gamble and Huff and the band sat around in the studio and the hallway. After about 15 minutes or so with Zack listening to the song over and over, occasionally playing a little riff along with the record, he said to me “Ok, I got it!” We went out and told Gamble and we assembled the band back in the studio. After just one or two run-throughs Gamble said, “Let’s try one”. I put the tape in record and Zack and the MFSB rhythm section played that song for 6 minutes and 23 seconds (final mix length) and every note that Zack played was a keeper. Not one note by anyone was re-recorded. All that was ever done to that record was the addition of the string and horn sections at another time and mix it. Zack, after only hearing the song four or five times at most, played his version of it with the band without a mistake and gave a tremendous interpretation of it that is to this day an outstanding recording. I always loved Zack and the horn section, as they were a very fun group. On subsequent MFSB albums there were tracks like “Zack’s Fanfare” and other great recordings that harkened back to the big band style that were influential on most American contemporary music.
One night, many years later I gave Zack a ride home from center city Philadelphia to his home in Cherry Hill,New Jersey after a MFSB reunion concert. On the ride home, I played him “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You” by the Spinners from the 1st album Thom Bell had produced for them in Philadelphia. That version features a tremendous swing arrangement featuring the old horn section at their finest. He claimed to hardly remember doing that one but said that he so very much enjoyed hearing it with me. It was a wonderful memory for me to be there in my car playing that track for him and seeing the sparkle in his eyes as he listened. He was a great player and a sweet, wonderful person. Sadly, Zack passed away a few years ago but I was so happy to have shared those two moments with him in particular, not to mention all the many times I was with him and the horn section playing on so many, many songs.
The Sound of Philadelphia original rhythm section, which is the core of MFSB, was a very good band of musicians that could support its own book, but I would be remiss if I did not address each of these remarkable people and the contributions and the accomplishments that they achieved both collectively and independently. I have already mentioned Earl Young the drummer and Norman Harris one of the guitarists and Ronnie Baker the bass player. Baker, Harris and Young (BHY) were the core and there will be more about each of them later as well, but I want to get to the others. Baker, Young and Harris in my picture.
Bobby Eli was a guitarist in the original rhythm section as well. He played a solid body guitar as opposed to Norman who played a hollow body Gretch (I think). Bobby like Norman and other guitarists who played with MFSB was a versatile and talented musician who went on to produce, arrange and write many successful records. He arranged one of Tower of Power’s biggest hits: “You’re Still a Young Man”. He co-wrote “Side Show” and “Just Don’t Want to be Lonely” by Blue Magic. He produced for them as well and produced for many other artists too. I was lucky enough to work with him as a first engineer on many of his productions with Loleatta Holloway, Atlantic Star, and Major Harris to name only a few. Eli on the right.
Bobby played on more records than almost anyone in Philly. He told me a great story about how he had played on a session in the morning at one studio and then at another studio later that same day and on the way home in his car he heard a mix of the song he played on in the morning being played on local Philly WDAS-AM radio that night! Bobby now owns his own studio in the Philly area and has added recording and mixing to his amazing skill set!
Vince Montana Jr. played vibes. He was one of the original, contributing members of not only MFSB, but to Sigma itself. I recently met with Vince and he told me about how he had helped Joe Tarsia literally build Sigma. Helping with wiring and carpentry etc., Vince received free studio time from Joe and Harry as pay back for his help in building Sigma. Vince’s career goes back before that. He once told me a story about Amil Corsin’s RecoArts Studio, which was Sigma before Joe Tarsia bought it. Amil was one of the great “mono” engineers of the 50’s and 60’s (and perhaps before then?). His sound was based on his mic placement techniques and locale of all the instruments and mics in his room. He was such a fanatic about it that during one session Vince who could not see his sheet music well, reached out and pushed the vibe mic a few inches out of his way (instead of moving the music stand) and Amil saw him do it. Well, Amil lost it and started screaming about how “If you move my mics you mess with my sound!” He proceeded to toss the entire session out of his studio, every musician, the artists and the very unhappy producer!
Vince did some fantastic arranging for MFSB. In particular I love his arrangement of “Poinciana” on the first MFSB album. He created the Salsoul Orchestra and produced, wrote and arranged almost everything ever done by them. I was there when he started it. Kenny Present was engineering, and I was the assistant. Vince had booked the studio and asked for the drums to be set up. When the session began Vince was there and in walked Earl Young. Earl looked around and asked, “Where’s everyone else?” Vince said, “It’s just you today.” So, Earl went out to the kit and played for a while as Kenny set up the levels and EQ to prepare to record the drums. After Kenny was ready, he informed Vince that he was ready to go. Vince pushed the talk back button and said, “Play the ‘Love I Lost’ groove for 6 or 7 minutes.” Earl asked about fills and Vince said not to bother and just play the groove. After he did that, Vince said, “Now play the ‘I Love Music’ groove for 8 minutes”. He proceeded to cut 6 or 8 tracks of nothing but Earl playing the dance beat of a bunch of very successful records. He then went about writing, recording and arranging all the Salsoul stuff that way, including the Salsoul Christmas album that made him money every year without fail! He did a dance version of “The Firebird Suite” that I worked on in the early 90’s that was quite good too. The Salsoul Orchestra was MFSB playing for another label… except no Gamble and Huff and everything was produced and arranged by Vince Montana. Vince looking at the camera.
He played vibes on a lot of songs in the history of the whole TSOP scene. You can look up any and all of the players I mention at www.allmusic.com or any such music database website to see the unbelievably long list of credits. Even my own credits there are worth a peek, even though most of those lists are 5 to 10% inaccurate and incomplete. For example, (according to Allmusic.com) I played drums in a surf band called The Astronauts from a town in Ohio (a surf band from Ohio?), during a time I was actually in high school. I also have a saxophone credit, some graphic design work and some background singing credits mixed in with my real credits that are obviously someone with the same name as me whose data is mixed in with mine.
Larry Washington was a percussionist with MFSB who played for anyone and everyone who ever recorded in Philly, I think. He usually played congas but sometimes play other instruments. He had a gift for locking a groove and laying it in and riding it through. In fact, listen to the O’Jays’ “I Love Music” and hear Larry open the song solo! All the producers who booked him over the years, time and time again, are all the proof that is needed for that statement. Look him up and you will see. My favorite story, which reflects his sunny disposition and infectious style, is his involvement with the “Young Americans” album that David Bowie made at Sigma.
One day I was hanging outside the window of Vivian’s office and as she hung up the phone, she started to show more excitement than I think I had ever seen her exhibit before. “MainMan” she said over and over, “MainMan is coming here! MainMan is coming here!” I looked at her and asked “MainMan? What’s that?” She looked at me like I was a clueless idiot and said that’s David Bowie’s production company!” I was duly impressed and even surprised a few days later when the session appeared on the blackboard for the next week and Carl and I were booked on a day session for rhythm tracks in Studio 1 with MainMan! Vivian said at some point, “Jim, you make sure you make them feel comfortable!”
That session was really a test session for Bowie to decide two things; was he comfortable at Sigma, and did he want to record with the MFSB rhythm section or use his road band. So, Vivian booked Baker, Harris, Young, Bobby Eli (I think) and Larry Washington. I can’t remember if any other guitarist or Vince Montana (on vibraphone) was there to be honest but what happened was interesting. The session was booked for one of Bowie’s background singers Ava Cherry as the artist. We did cut two basic tracks for her that day (maybe three) but the real decisions were made after the session. As far as I know the Ava Cherry songs were never completed (at least not at Sigma). Bowie was made to feel at home at Sigma by Carl and me because he booked three or four weeks of session time at night during the same weeks that he was recording his live at the Tower album with the Record Plant remote truck in Upper Darby. Those concerts were two whole weeks of sold-out shows, the recordings from which came his quadruple Platinum live album. Bowie wanted to record at Sigma but the MFSB house band was not going to work with his odd schedule and who knows, maybe the fit wasn’t right for what Bowie and his producer Tony Visconti wanted for the “Young Americans” album.
Interestingly, when the project began, I was not assigned to it, my best friend Michael Hutchinson was. He set a record for the most hours logged in by an assistant engineer in the history of the company on some of the weeks of that project that stood for years! Also, during that project was the only time we ever had groupies/super fans hanging around. Every night outside the door there would be the same small handful of fans waiting for them to arrive and waiting until they left. Bowie often stopped and talked with them too. Most amazing of all was the last night that they were there before Bowie and Visconti took the tapes back to England to mix it (stopping in NYC to record “Fame” and “Across the Universe” with John Lennon first), Bowie invited them into Studio 1 to listen. He brought all of those fans in and played the latest rough mix of each and every song for them in the control room. They were ecstatic!
Bowie and his band worked all those shows at the Tower Theater and then jumped in their limo and came to Sigma Sound Studios late at night to record. They often went until just before the morning session was due to start the next day. They also worked another week or two also at night (all in Studio 1) until they completed recording “Young Americans”. Here’s the twist, even though Bowie did not use Baker, Harris and Young, etc., he did use Larry! During the Ava Cherry session Larry impressed him with his “moose calls” as we used to call them. Larry and other percussionists do this thing where they strike the conga drum and then almost simultaneously slide a finger across the drum making a cool pitch changing sound. I am not sure Bowie and Tony had heard that before. Listen to the title track of “Young Americans” again and listen to the first instrumental break, it is not a guitar solo, it is not a keyboard or a sax solo, no it is a Larry Washington “Moose Calls” solo! Larry was the only TSOP musician to appear on “Young Americans”. Larry also played on most of the tracks they cut during those sessions too. For example, one song recorded at that time but not released until years later (which was Michael Hutchinson’s favorite) was “John, I’m Only Dancing”. It was most likely bumped from the album by “Fame” and “Across the Universe”. But just listen to Larry on every track Bowie cut in Philly. Rock on Larry! Rock on!
Besides Ava Cherry singing behind Bowie there was a tall handsome man named Luther Vandross. Yes, THAT Luther Vandross. During that time in Philly Luther is reported to have visited Gamble and Huff and said, “Sign me up!” To which they most likely thought, “We already have Teddy Pendergrass…” So, they passed on Luther. It is also rumored that, years later they passed on Boys to Men. You can’t get it right every time. And by then Kenny was more or less finished with the music business.
Roland Chambers was the guitar player in the Romeos, which was Kenny Gamble’s first band. I think Thom Bell was in the group at one point as well. Roland was often a guitarist in the rhythm section besides Norman and sometimes instead of Bobby Eli. Often all three were used. In the Funk Brothers in the Motown studios there were almost always three guitarists too. Roland and Norman can be heard driving the track on such hits as “I’ll Be Around” by the Spinners and “Love Train” by the O’Jays just to name a few. Roland was a writer, an arranger and a producer too. I had the great pleasure of working closely with him years later on a song he wrote with Kenny Gamble called “When I Give My Love This Time” for Phyllis Hyman. He had played in a group signed early to PIR called Yellow Sunshine which included his brother Carl on drums, Dexter Wansel on keys and T. Life on guitar. All of these people became a part of the PIR/Sigma world and I will talk more about them later in this book. Roland was a kind, gentle and soft-spoken man. Sadly, he suffered from what I believe was a stomach cancer which slowly ground him down in the last years of his life. He wrote a great deal at PIR near the end with Gamble and others, a few songs of which ended up on Phyllis’ last two albums. Roland was a legend among guitarist of his time. Norman Harris and Bobby Eli thought of him as the master. They revered his style and at times emulated it, as did many others. Roland third from left.
T.J. Tindall played electric guitar on many tracks for various Philly Sound producers. He was not always booked for every session but often if the producer wanted a harder more “rock” sound for a particular track T.J. got the call. One of my favorite examples is on the O’Jays’ “I Love Music”. T.J. is the lead guitar burning up that track. His is the first guitar solo, the short hard edged one, the longer one (after 4 minutes is Norman). T.J. wails on the out chorus too.
T.J. played in a rock band too. It was called Duke Williams and the Extremes, and they were signed to Capricorn Records (the same label as The Allman Brothers Band) and recorded two albums at Sigma. T.J. rocks, he simply rocks!
Also, in Duke Williams and the Extremes was a keyboard player named “Cotton” Kent. Cotton played for Norman and Vince and a lot of other producers when Huff stopped playing with the house band except for his own label PIR. Cotton played on all the Blue Magic albums and much, much more. But my favorite band that Cotton was in was the group Good God. They were a Philly band that formed out of the breakup of a band called Elizabeth. The Ransome brothers were the bassist (Mick I think) and the drummer (Hank) and the guitarist went by the name of Zeno Sparkles (Larry Cardarelli). The group got their name from Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet). Someone, probably Cardarelli, knew Van Vliet and the band was trying to come up with a name and were stumped and someone said let’s call Captain Beefheart up and ask him to name the band and the first words out of his mouth will be the band’s name. They all agreed and then called him up. After being asked to name the band Beefheart said, “Good God, I have no idea what you should call your band.” The band was forever known as Good God.
I have mentioned already Ron “Have Mersey” Kersey as the co-writer and co-producer of “Disco Inferno” and as one of the keyboard players who stepped in when Huff and Bell worked exclusively on their own work. Ron’s list of accomplishments is extensive through the 70’s and well into the 80’s. A look at the listing of his credits on a website like www.allmusic.com would tell it better than I. However, one of my favorite personal moments with Ron was in the mid 80’s when I was living and working in Los Angeles and he had relocated there too. I went to visit him at his home in Sherman Oaks and he showed me his home studio. He said that the royalties from “Disco Inferno” alone had bought him the house and the studio. Meeting with him that night was Jeffery Osborne who had some of his greatest success around then. I think they were just friends as I do not think there was any collaboration from that time. Ron also worked with Stevie Wonder in his years in LA. He is credited with piano and keyboard performances on The Secret Life of Plants album. He or his sister, who used to teach at the Art Institute of Philadelphia when I started teaching there in the early 90’s, told me he was deeply involved with Stevie on the Songs in the Key of Life record as well. Ron was a terrific arranger and worked very closely with Stevie on the arrangements for “Sir Duke” and “I Wish”. I do not think he received a credit as such but was thanked in the liner notes. Ron suffered a stroke in the prime of his life in 1997 and was incapacitated and hospitalized for years. He passed away in 2005. I loved working with him and knowing him. One of my favorite things he ever did was his arrangements on The First Choice’s album, in particular his work on the song “Love & Happiness”.
Of all the great characters in the Philly scene, one that many would say was a great and important character was Don Renaldo; the first violin and contractor for the string section. He later contracted for both the strings and the horns. Don was a vital and vivacious person. He led the string section on almost every song on almost every album made at Sigma and everywhere else in Philly. He was involved in one album, which featured him as the artist. I am not sure if that album was ever released, but I am sure that he was featured as a soloist on one MFSB track that Dexter Wansel produced. The song was “Fortune Teller” on Mysteries of the World. I can’t think of any other TSOP song that ever featured a violin solo.
Sam Reed contracted the horn section in the early days. At some point, however it was only Renaldo that managed both strings and horns. Sam was an accomplished soloist in his own right.
Larry Gold played cello in the string section on just about every date that was ever contracted at Sigma and many more I am sure. He is a talented musician who was in a folky group called Good News that was signed to Columbia Records at one point. He was also a co-producer on the Johnny’s Dance Band album some of which was recorded at Sigma. Larry Gold became a producer and writer at a certain point working with a lot of different artists and labels. Another thing he undertook in the music biz was opening “The Studio”. “The Studio” was co-owned by Larry and was used for many, many years in Philadelphia. Recent work includes John Legend, Jill Scott and the Roots just to name a few. At the time of writing this I have heard a rumor that they are discontinuing the studio and are now running their own label from there. Larry is in the middle facing the camera.