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Opinion: Three eras of African-American music reviewed

March 15, 2012
By MARK J. MILLER , The Herald-Star

There's been a mountain of new releases since my last reviews, so let's get started!

One of my passions through the years has been my love of African-American music in all its complex shades and styles. Dear to my heart are the soul greats of the 1960s and '70s, especially James Brown, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Funkadelic, Parliament, Sly Stone, Marvin Gaye, Teddy Pendergrass, Curtis Mayfield, the Temptations and more.

Much of the this music has been reissued on CD several times, but a few things have fallen between the cracks.

One of the great moments in soul history resurrected is "Golden Gate Groove - the Sound of Philadelphia Live in San Francisco 1973," recently released by Sony Legacy.

The single CD boasts the complete live concert by stars then signed to Philadelphia International Records with the label's house band MFSB.

The "Sound of Philly," as it became known to be, included a mixed roster of veteran soul singers and others who were just getting started in their careers. The concert was performed in front of other label executives and movers and shakers in the music industry at the time to give the West Coast record industry a taste of what was happening in urban Philadelphia. Similar to Motown of Detroit, Philadelphia International Records boasted singers seeking AM radio gold, looking for that magic sound in a three-minute single. Also like Motown, acts would often be packaged together on tours, with in-house songwriters and a band consisting of the best funk and soul studio musicians available.

Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Teddy Pendergrass, the O'Jays and the Three Degrees were the performing acts, and it's easy to here Philly had its own sound - slightly more daring and sensuous than Motown, the Philly sound was hard-hitting. If Motown was about puppy love, teenage crushes and hand-holding, the Philly sound was all about sex. It was the golden age of soul and funk right before disco hit, and "Golden Gate Groove - the Sound of Philadelphia Live in San Francisco 1973" is a superb representation of cutting-edge soul in the early '70s.

"Giant Single: The Profile Records Anthology" is a two-CD set - also recently released by Legacy - containing a slew of early rap singles, courtesy of the New York-based label Profile Records.

It was the infancy of rap in the Big Apple in the late 1970s and early '80s that really set the standard for the emerging genre, and no one was hipper to the urban sounds than Profile. It was the age of turntables and boomboxes, and Profile Records was extremely adept at spotting, releasing and promoting early rap singles from such artists as Run-D.M.C. - the label's biggest-selling and most famous artists - to DJ Quik Fresh Three M.C.'s and Dana Dane.

This was a time when rap was ingenious, enjoyable, clever, fresh and even goofy and a decade before gangster rap would come along and ruin the genre.

There's joy in these grooves along with a smart irreverence toward blending music forms, particularly on Run D.M.C.'s duet with Aerosmith on the classic "Walk This Way." Even the world beat/rap artist Afrika Bambaataa got in on the action with "Zulu War Chant," featuring Time Zone, a sweet little gem of musical styles coming together.

The early days of rap were a heady time, and many of the genre's hard-hitting masterpieces were being created by RUN D.M.C., the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, N.W.A. and others. But the New York sound was all about the party, and no one was more in tune with that than Profile Records.

Aretha Franklin is an artist who needs no introduction as the premiere female soul artist of the 1960s. But the reigning queen still could deliver the goods long after the lights had dimmed later in her career, and "Knew You Were Waiting - the Best of Aretha Franklin 1980-1998," recently released by Legacy, shows the gospel-inspired diva to still have the goods well after the 1960s. There are some wonderful duets here, including the hit "Sisters are Doing it for Themselves" with the Eurythmics to an absolutely incendiary version of "Jumping Jack Flash" with Keith Richards' bad self lending vocal and guitar support.

Elton John, Michael McDonald and George Benson also lend their talents, and the results shed a light on an otherwise unappreciated era in Franklin's career.

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