Roland TR-808 – Iconic Drum Machine

Ikutaro Kakehashi, the founder of Roland Corporation, died on April 1st at the age of 87.  Roland has produced a huge range of electronic musical instruments and effects since its founding in 1972, and Kakehashi developed MIDI, the Musical Instrument Digital Interface that sits at the heart of electronic instrument communication. But no product or invention by Kakehashi and Roland has had more impact on popular music than the TR-808 drum machine.

Manufactured for three years beginning in 1980, the 808 has been used by innumerable artists for nearly 40 years, and it’s said that the 808 is to hip hop what the Fender Stratocaster is to rock and roll.  The 808 was built just before sampling became widespread and produced 16 synthesized approximations to sounds from a bass drum to a handclap.

The first hit record to use the 808 appears to have been Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” from 1982.   Listen to the opening bars and you’ll immediately recognize the iconic sounds.

Soul Sonic Force’s “Planet Rock”, also from 1982, is credited with cementing the 808 into hip hop’s early vocabulary.

Whitney Houston used the 808 to set the beat for her 1987 hit “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”.

In 2008, Kanye West built his fourth studio album around the sounds of the 808, and even named the album “808’s and Heartbreaks”. The drum loop in “Say You Will” is all 808.

If you want to get the full scoop on this history of this important piece of technology, here is the trailer to “808” the movie!

Let’s Start 2017 With a Trip to Motown to Visit Bob Babbitt

It is oddly prophetic that my last post, four months ago, covered the band Hiatus Kaiyote.  Hiatus indeed!  Well Happy New Year to all, and allow me to begin the year with a trip way back to the early 70’s.

A few months ago I watched the movie “Searching for Sugar Man” for the first time.  Hard to believe it took me so long to see the 2012 Academy Award winner – thanks for the DVD, Margaret!  It’s a great flick if you haven’t seen it, and one little snippet from the movie is the basis for this post.

It seems that on Sixto Rodriquez’s first album “Cold Fact”, which included the track “Sugar Man” from which the movie title was taken, his producer hired some top notch Motown session men to back Sixto’s vocals and guitar.  Among them was bassist Bob Babbitt.

Babbitt was part of The Funk Brothers, studio musicians who backed most of Motown’s hits from 1959 to 1972.   A little research on Babbitt reveals that he played some of the most recognizable bass tracks in history, including those on “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” by Stevie Wonder, “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today)” and “Just My Imagination” by the Temptations, “War” by Edwin Starr, “The Tears of a Clown” by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” by Marvin Gaye, and many more.  In all he played on more than 200 Top 40 hits including 25 gold and platinum records.

Below is more than my usual number of videos, but turn up the bass and appreciate  Babbitt’s genius.  You’ll wonder what these songs would be without him.

Babbitt passed away in 2012 at age 74, some years after winning a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.  The 2002 documentary on The Funk Brothers, “Standing in the Shadow of Motown” is now on my “to watch” list.

“Get On Up” – Legendary Moments and Legendary Musicians from James Brown’s Career

The James Brown biopic “Get On Up” is not only a fine movie, it relates many fascinating moments from the career of The Godfather of Soul and reminds us of incredible musicians from his band.  The movie was produced by Mick Jagger, directed by Tate Taylor (who’s credits include “The Help”), and features a great performance by Chadwick Boseman who also played Jackie Robinson in the 2013 film “42”.

One entertaining moment recreated in the film is the appearance of James Brown and the Famous Flames in the 1965 Frankie Avalon movie “Ski Party”. “I Got You (I Feel Good)” was the highest charting single of Brown’s career.

The film also recreates Brown’s performance at the Teenage Awards Music International (TAMI) Show in 1964. Here is Brown performing “Please, Please, Please”, his first major release from 1956. The Rolling Stones had to follow this performance as the closing act at the TAMI Show.

Among the musicians from Brown’s band were sax player Maceo Parker, trombonist Fred Wesley, and bassist Bootsy Collins. Parker has had a long and varied musical career, recording 11 solo albums and playing with Parliament Funkadelic, Prince and dozens of other top rock, soul and jazz artists. In this video, after a couple of minutes of band intros Parker brings the funk (and that’s Fred Wesley, a man with his own titanic musical career, on trombone).

Bootsy Collins’ stint with Brown was brief, but came at the time of Brown’s turn from soul to funk. Collins joined Parker and Wesley as members of Parliament Funkadelic in the 1970’s and became a key member of the band. Here’s a clip of Bootsy, all decked out P-funk style, on his tune “Stretchin’ Out” with David Sanborn jumping in on sax.

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YouTube Just Got Even Better with Music Vault

Yesterday, Music Vault began the process of uploading thousands of concert videos to YouTube.  Search for “Music Vault” on YouTube to see a link to the new channel. Thank you Bill Sagan!

[ Dear Readers, we’ve noticed that three of the links on this post have gone dead.  In fact, for reasons unknown to us, it is hard to search the offerings of the Music Vault channel on YouTube.  We’ll update you if we figure out why.  In the meantime, while the Music Vault channel is still worth checking out, it is hard to search.  HarryDJ ]

Music Vault, which has its own website that launched only a couple of months ago, is part of Sagan’s on-line music empire that includes the subscription concert audio archives of Concert Vault, rock & roll memorabilia website Wolfgang’s Vault, indie music site Daytrotter, and on-line publication Paste Magazine. Learn a bit more about how Sagan got started in our earlier post.

While the Music Vault collection is heavy on classic rock, it also includes new music and fabulous jazz performances. Here is a sample to whet your appetite.

Ray Charles covering Paul Simon.

U2 covering Bob Dylan.

Louie Armstrong performing a song he recorded in 1949 that Fats Domino would later cover.

And it doesn’t get any more indie than Rubblebucket (get past her funny hat, this is a pretty interesting band)!

Going Way Back With That Eminent Hipster, Donald Fagen

Just in time for the recent holidays, Donald Fagen published his memoir “Eminent Hipsters”.   The book’s first chapter introduces us to one of his earliest musical influences, The Boswell Sisters.   Fagen lauds them saying, “…when I became familiar with the early work of Connie and her two sisters, I discovered that the Boswells had created a body of work rivaling that of Duke Ellington”.  High praise to say the least.

One Boswells song that Fagen discusses is “Heebie Jeebies”, a tune originally recorded by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five in 1926 and covered by The Boswell Sisters in 1929.   Below are the original by Armstrong and the Boswells’ version, with their tight harmonies and brisk rhythms. By the way, while of questionable historical accuracy, the Armstrong version is sometimes cited as the first scat singing on record (it comes at about 1:50).

Lest you worry that Fagen’s effusive tribute to The Boswell Sisters evidences any lack of respect for Duke Ellington, Steely Dan’s third album “Pretzel Logic” included a cover of Ellington’s first record to make the charts “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo”. Here is Ellington’s original from 1927 featuring the song’s co-writer, trumpeter Bubber Miley, and Steely Dan’s 1974 cover with guitar wizard Jeff Baxter’s imitation of a muted trumpet.

And here’s one more nod by Fagen to the Duke. Fagen’s most recent solo album, 2012’s “Sunken Condos”, featured the track “Weather in My Head”. When Fagen played the tune live on “Late Night with David Letterman”, what was that photo on the front of his electric piano? None other than the Duke and his orchestra!

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