Latimore – “It Ain’t Where You Been… It’s Where You’re Goin’” (1976)

First of all, look at this cover. It’s OK. I’ll wait.

Now that’s cool. I’m not saying you could unironically rock that look today. If you’d tried you’d better be tough as hell and quick with your fists. But man, there is some serious 1976 cool happening here. Latimore, the noted keyboardist, is sitting at a piano… but in a barber’s chair. The whole thing dares you to pick up the record… if you think you’re down enough.

It Ain’t Where You Been… is more on the soul side of funk, but it definitely jams, the organ and horns supplying the funkiness over the rhythm section swing.

Ohio Players – “Honey” (1975)

Honey is widely regarded as the best album by the Ohio Players, and it certainly had the chart success to back up that assertion. The album itself made it to #2 on the Billboard 200 and the Players got a #1 single with “Love Rollercoaster”. “Sweet Sticky Thing” also cracked the Top 40 in 1975, landing at #33, and that same year Honey was awarded a Grammy for Best Album Cover Art (the model is Playboy‘s Playmate of the Month for October 1974, Ester Cordet… and if you think the cover is risqué you should see what’s inside the gatefold). All of that would be reason enough for me to have picked up Honey this weekend. But none of those reasons have anything whatsoever to do with my decision. No. I bought it for something that happened a year later, in 1976, specifically the third single from the album peaking at #30. Because, you see, that single has a tie to Seattle. A dozen years after it first charted it would be covered by a then obscure band that was part of a blossoming musical scene that would shortly explode out of the Pacific Northwest like a drop-D-tuned comet. The band was Soundgarden. The Ohio Players song was “Fopp”, and the band recorded two versions of it, including a dub mix, on their 1988 four-song 12″ also called Fopp.

I bought Fopp on vinyl right when it came out and played the hell out of it, especially the two versions of the title track on the A side. At that time in my life I wasn’t buying 12″ singles, had no concept of a remix, and had yet to hear of Adrian Sherwood, so I had no idea what to make of “Fopp (Fucked Up Heavy Dub Mix)”. “Fucked up” I understood, as well as “heavy”. But “dub” meant nothing to me. All I knew was that the way the original track was manipulated, plus the inclusion of samples from Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, blew my teenage mind.

The original version of “Fopp” is some serious funk. While Soundgarden rocked it up quite a bit, it’s still recognizable both for the underlying groove and the horns. Even the vocals are familiar sounding, Chris Cornell using his trademark voice and screams to capture the pitch changes on the original (which appears to have multiple vocalists). The other thing that works well is the speed – the Ohio Players keep things heavy in a funky way, methodically pacing the low end, which was right in Soundgarden’s wheelhouse. (♠)

There’s an urban myth that the song “Love Rollercoaster” captures the scream of a woman being murdered, and one version of the myth indicates that woman was the cover model Ester Cordet. In later years the band has denied that a murder was involved, attributing the sound to one of their own band members Billy Beck. Which is, of course, exactly what you’d expect them to say regardless of the facts. That being said, you can barely hear the alleged scream, so I have no idea what the fuss is about even though I do love me a good urban myth.

Honey is a solid album even without the Soundgarden connection, definitely worth a listen on its own merits.

(♠) Holly completely disagrees with me on this. Completely. Don’t worry though, we’re still together.

Stevie Wonder – “Innervisions” (1973)

There are things I take for granted as a rapidly-approaching-fifty-year-old person. The relative convenience of air travel. Modern medicine. Grocery stores full of food. The bullshit that is the two-party political system. And, of course, recorded music.

Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions came out a couple of years after I was born, and the album itself is now 46 years old. And here I am listening to it on a vinyl disc that’s almost half a century old while enjoying some coffee on a Saturday morning. However, if I was my current age in 1973… would I be listening to a 46 year old recording for enjoyment? Said recording would have to date from 1927 and would have been on a shellac disc or a cylinder, so I guess it’s possible, though I likely would have needed a vintage machine to play it, unlike my ability to use my modern Rega to spin some old school Stevie. And would middle-aged 1973 me actually even want to listen to that music from 1927? Maybe. I don’t know. But chances are I wouldn’t have been born into and grown up in a household in which music was readily available on records, 8-tracks, cassettes, and dozens of radio stations. I suppose as I get older I’m simply more likely to notice how things change, but also how they stay the same, all the while recognizing that just because an experience has been ubiquitous in my lifetime doesn’t mean it was for people just a couple of generations older than me. People who are still alive. To paraphrase the incomparable Lemmy from Motörhead, “I remember a time when there was no rock ‘n’ roll, when there was only your parents’ Rosemary Clooney records.”

So what about Innervisions? Well, the more recent Rolling Stone lists rank it as one of the Top 25 albums of all time. Think whatever you like about Rolling Stone, but that’s still some high praise. And it won the Album of the Year Grammy, which despite some historically questionable choices (Toto IV in 1983) isn’t an accident.

Wonder’s signature ARP synth certainly makes it feel dated today, but his voice and passion, not to mention those sweet grooves, will still hold you. His original version of “Higher Ground” is every bit as funky as the better known (to my generation) cover by Red Hot Chili Peppers. Lyrically it’s incredibly deep, covering a range of issues like drug abuse and racism while somehow being both cautionary and optimistic at the same time. And those Latin vibes on “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing”? C’mon. If that doesn’t make you dream of dancing outside with that special someone you might be dead. And it goes pretty great with a cup of coffee on a quiet Saturday morning too.

Stevie Wonder – “Talking Book” (1972)

Prior to picking up this battered copy of Talking Book the other day, I’m fairly confident I’d never listened to a Stevie Wonder album all the way through. My relationship with Stevie was via his greatest hits catalog, songs I’d hear on my parent’s car stereo, and probably “Ebony and Ivory” when it first came out. I know the same ones everyone else does, though I suspect that my depth of knowledge is much shallower than a typical person my age. I’m not sure why, but for whatever reason I was just never curious enough to listen just a little harder.

The 1,500th Post All Time Top 5 experiment got Stevie Wonder back on my radar, as two of my friends included Songs In The Key Of Life on their lists. The only copy I fond the other day was in pretty bleak shape so I passed on it, but I did snag this VG (OK, maybe a bit less than VG…) copy of Talking Book, which was from the same period. I figured the album would be in a similar feel to it’s opening track, the Stevie-mega-hit “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life”, but that’s not when I got when I dropped the needle. In fact, that song is more the exception than the rule. There’s a certain sterility about that track, even on vinyl (♠), that sound that comes from such a great song being so perfectly performed that it seem fake, as in “c’mon man, no one can possibly make a song so impeccably smooth”, but there it is… real. So real and so perfect as to almost become boring. But don’t worry, because the rest of Talking Book is real. And I’m not talking just about the blazing funk of the B side opening “Superstition”, with that simmering tempo rise and Wonder’s spiritualism-soaked voice. That’s pretty good too, and fortunately didn’t succumb to the perfection-induced fate of its partner.

Don’t let this make you think Talking Book is two hit singles and eight fillers because that would be a terrible mistake and you wouldn’t listen to the rest of this great music. Sure, “Blame It On The Sun” feels like an attempt at radio-friendly chart-topper, but there’s a lot of depth to the rest of this album. The sentimental-without-being-sappy “Big Brother”, the prog-rock-style guitar solo dropped into the middle of the otherwise smooth jazz of “Lookin For Another Pure Love”, and the crescendo of “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)” are more than ample reasons to get yourself a copy of Talking Book. Plus you get a few big hits thrown in for free.

(♠) I think the flatter sound I hear on this 1970s vinyl is, in this case, better than something remastered over say the last 30 years. That flatness actually serves Wonder well.

The Honeydrippers – “Volume One” (1984)

In 1985 Robert Plant earned his highest placement ever on the Billboard singles chart, performing on a song that made it all the way up to #3.

And it was with an R&B cover song. A song that twice before had cracked the Billboard Top 40 – the original making it to #1 for Phil Phillips in 1959, and the 1981 version by, of all people, Del Shannon, sneaking up to #33 in 1981, just a few years before Plant’s version. Robert Plant sang on nine studio albums by one of the biggest rock bands the world had ever (and has ever) seen, Led Zeppelin, and had already released two post-Zeppelin solo albums. Yet it was a cover song he recorded as part of a fun side-project band called The Honeydrippers that got him all the way up to #3 on the singles chart. Apparently the irony wasn’t lost on Plant, who hoped the success of “Sea of Love” wouldn’t make the world see him as an aged-rocker-turned-crooner. Turns out he didn’t have much to worry about.

What he did have, though, in 1984, was an excellent five-song EP recorded under the name The Honeydrippers, an all-star ensemble that included Jimmy Paige, Jeff Beck, and Nile Rodgers on guitar, jazz drumming legend Dave Weckl, and Paul Shaffer on keyboards. The five cuts were all classics originally written and recorded between 1947 and 1961, well-known songs to an earlier generation but certainly not to the younger demographic Plant generally appealed to.

I know I had a copy of this record back in the day, though I can’t remember exactly how it came to me. My best guess is that it was being played on the radio and I got it because of its association with Plant and therefore the mighty Zeppelin. That being said, I didn’t see it as just a novelty – I’ve been a big fan of “Sea of Love” for a long, long time ,and certainly know all the words by heart. That wasn’t a real stretch for me though, even back in my rock/metal years, since “Thank You” off of Led Zeppelin II had always been one of my favorite Zeppelin songs, and there are certainly some similarities between the two.

Stylistically Volume One covers a bit of ground, from the R&B of “Sea of Love” to the up-tempo of Ray Charles “I Got a Woman” to the quasi doo-wap of “Young Boy Blues” to the rockabilly of “Rockin’ at Midnight.” What these songs have in common is that all came from a simpler, less produced era of music, and all share their roots with rock. Every facet of the record is excellent, from the crisp, true music to Plant’s voice, giving him the opportunity to do some things he’d never done before and showing a different side of his range.

It’s too bad we never got another Honeydrippers record. The re-release did include a live version of “Rockin’ At Midnight” as a bonus track, and the band performed live a few times (most notably on Saturday Night Live), so there is some material out there that could conceivably be packaged at some point… hell, maybe we’ll even see another record someday. We can only hope. But for now, check the dollar bins and pick yourself up a copy.