What makes the soul, funk and R&B music of the 1970’s so unique and powerful? Outside of the fact that it creeps into, nourishes and elevates your mind, body and spirit, it’s the soundtrack of profound change that embodies the most prolific and lush period of Black cultural expression that we’ve ever experienced. Its beginning was like the clouds had parted to bless the universe with radiant musical sunshine.
The penetrating artistic expression was ubiquitous, and not simply confined to the radio airwaves. When tuning into ABC’s detective drama Baretta from 1975-1978, we were treated to Sammy Davis Jr.’s haunting exhortations to keep our eyes on the sparrow.
With its 1975 debut, we were inspired by George and Weezie moving on up to that deluxe apartment in the sky on The Jefferson’s.
And on Good Times, the struggle of the Evans family was a reminder to those of us cramped into high-rise, low-income housing developments situated in the underarm pits of America's great cities. It showed the importance of keeping our heads above water and making a better way when we can. Fighting for our respect and dignity, determined to believe in the beauty and power of our dreams on a daily basis, '70s funk dripped clean through the instrumental masterpieces that readied us for Fred and Aunt Esther, Coolidge, Thorpe and Hollywood on The White Shadow, and the crotchety and curmudgeonly Detective Fish on Barney Miller.
And of course, where would we be without that weekly journey into “The Hippest Trip in America?” We bared the revolutionary effects of these emerging, transcendent, mesmerizing musical drugs on our hair, fashion and the way we soulfully, skillfully and artistically moved our bodies each weekend when Soul Train aired.
But those were merely appetizers to some of the most incredible film scores in cinematic history. Convince me that there’s a better soundtrack than the ones that James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, Willie Hutch and Bobby Womack produced for the movies Black Caesar, Super Fly, Shaft, The Mack and Across 110th Street, and I’ll convince you that Samuel L. Jackson deserved an Oscar for his work in Snakes on a Plane and Deep Blue Sea.
In terms of important albums and musicianship that continues to reach across time and space, where would we be as a society without the seminal work of the aforementioned? Along with Earth, Wind and Fire, pre-Bubbles Michael Jackson and his brothers, Marvin Gaye, Gil Scott - Heron, Stevie Wonder, The O’Jays, Donnie Hathaway, The Isley Brothers, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, The Temptations, Chaka and Rufus, (I don't know about you, but I can never tire of randomly blurting out, "RUFUS!!!") and Parliament-Funkadelic?
How about Van McCoy, The Ohio Players, Teddy Pendergrass, Phyllis Hyman, McFadden and Whitehead, Lou Rawls, Roy Ayers, Barry White, Quincy Jones, Bill Withers, practically the entire catalog of Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International movement and many others who are too numerous to mention?
They literally showed us the way to go.
We moved past the cookie-cutter formula that was designed to make the music chart sell and digestible for folks like Dick Clark in the ‘60s, and into a creative and introspective space in the ‘70s that articulated each artist’s reflections on war, poverty, crime, drugs, politics and the deteriorating conditions in this country’s forgotten pockets of urban despair.
There are few musical journeys like the ones you take when listening to Stevie’s Songs in the Key of Life, Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly, James Brown’s The Payback or Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On?
I am a child of the ‘70s, who sat in my father’s home office in a pre-gentrified Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn neighborhood that was still on wobbly legs from the urban riots of the ‘60s. Gently placing the needle on the wax of his vast collection of vinyl, marveling at the arresting power of the album covers, and drawing inspiration from the genius that elevated out of its grooves and into my very heart and soul, it was so good to me.
I love music, all kinds and genres. But that ‘70s Soul and R&B, if I was forced to choose just one, is the unmitigated funkniference that simply makes me wanna holla, and throw up both my hands. And when the DJ drops a choice cut from the era, I'm invariably on the dance floor, sweating, pumping my fists, wiping my brow and involuntarily screaming out at the top of my lungs, "Ayo!!! That's my jam right there!"