Thursday, August 4, 2011
The WDAS-FM Black Rock LP
In early 1971, Philadelphia's WDAS-FM switched from a "progressive rock" format to "progressive soul." ("Progressive" in early '70s radio lingo meant "album-oriented.") This was apparently prompted by owner Max Leon's exasperation over the inability of his on-air staff (which included his son Steve) to stay on the right side of the FCC by not airing drug-friendly records. With LeBaron Taylor as station manager, WDAS become one of Philadelphia's legendary stations and still stands tall as an adult-oriented R&B outlet.
A late '72 promo album called WDAS-FM Black Rock gives us a good look at the format philosophy that gave the station its pioneering legacy. Benefiting from its album-rock background, the station's progressive soul offerings were picked "exactly in the same way progressive rock stations pick their music," as Taylor says in a late '71 Billboard. The term "black rock" never stuck - early WDAS was probably too experimental, even incorporating jazz into playlists, for such a narrow label. And by the latter part of the decade, soul had softened enough for it to seem unthinkable.
The playlist (links take you to YouTube):
Africa - "Here I Stand" (1968): Africa was an updated incarnation of the Valiants ("This Is the Night"). Their Music from "Lil Brown" LP, with album art mimicking the Band's Music from Big Pink owes as much to the Isley Brothers' "Your Old Lady" as it does to Haitian voodoo music. "Here I Stand," though, could have been nailed by the late '60s Dells.
Mandrill - "Symphonic Revolution" (1970): Nowadays we recognize the term "progressive" to signify "ambitious," "complicated," or "on the long side." Along those lines, this War-meets-King Crimson track, which is taken from Mandrill's debut LP, is one of this compilation's most "progressive soul" tracks.
Earth, Wind and Fire - "I Think About Lovin' You" (1971): This drowsy #44 R&B hit, having appeared on the group's sophomore LP The Need of Love by the time Black Rock came out, features the vocals of Sherry Scott and manages to offer few hints of the group's explosive glory days to come.
Jerry Butler - "I'm a Telling You" (1961): This is one of "Iceman" Jerry Butler's many early '60s Curtis Mayfield-penned tracks, and it's cut from the same cloth as "He Will Break Your Heart," which also featured background vocals by Mayfield. Standing in as this compilation's important "oldie" representative, "I'm a Telling You" hit #25 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #8 on the soul charts, and is only the second song I know of to mention "baseball shoes." (Claire Hamill's "Baseball Blues" is the other.)
The Impressions - "Choice of Colors" (1969): This sophisticated Impressions classic, a staple on many a Top 40 station promo comp for its ambassadorial qualities, is actually credited on this album to songwriter and head Impression Curtis Mayfield (see above). The song was a #1 soul hit and reached #21 on the Hot 100.
The Counts - "Why Not Start All Over Again" (1971): The Counts, from Detroit, were led by alto sax player Demo Cates and first made their mark as the Fabulous Counts ("Get Down People"). This funky track features Levi Stubbs-like vocal outbursts and an extended B3 organ solo.
Rotary Connection - "Peace at Last" (1968): Funkadelic meets the Delfonics on this Christmas track explaining how St. Nick works his magic by getting stoned on mistletoe. Lyrical refrain: "He's an institution/We like him like he is." (A controversial December 1968 Billboard ad for Rotary Connection's Peace album depicted Santa as a war casualty.)
Richie Havens - "Just Like a Woman" (1967): Havens' notoriety as a Woodstock vet made him a shoo-in for a compilation like this, but so did his habit of rephrasing Dylan and the Beatles in worthwhile ways.
Quincy Jones - "Money Runner" (1972): Although Quincy Jones qualified as a seasoned music biz pro long before this, "Money Runner" was only his second Hot 100 hit, peaking at #57. Taken from the soundtrack for the heist movie $ starring Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn, this cut, along with those by Earth, Wind and Fire and the Persuasions, served as one of the Black Rock compilation's other hot new offerings.
The Persuasions - "Buffalo Soldier" (1971): This stentorian recording by the still-active kings of a cappela, taken from their third album (Street Corner Symphony), still had that new record smell when this compilation came out.
Joe Cuba - "Bang Bang" (1966): Cuba-tinged dance tracks that found an easy fit with soul playlists in the '60s were called "boogaloo." Although the genre was no longer in its prime by '72, quintessential tracks like the Joe Cuba Sextet's "Bang Bang" (with its "cornbread, hog maw, and chitterlings" refrain) had all kinds of business joining this "black rock" party.
Demon Fuzz - "Hymn to Mother Earth" (1970): This is the other truly "progressive soul" song on the compilation according to our present-day understanding of that term. Although it shows up here in edited form, "Hymn to Mother Earth" clocks in at over 8 minutes on Afreaka, Demon Fuzz's only album.