by Jon Hunt
Folks, I’m about to deliver the gospel to you: the Minneapolis music scene didn’t spring, fully formed, out of the fertile loins of Prince and the Replacements in the 1980s. Far too much of its rich history in the ’60s and ’70s has been lost in the telling – even the groups that made it “big,” like national big, have vanished to make way for our New Wave and punk rock heroes. We’ve already written about groups like Crow and Gypsy and the Stillroven here at l’étoile – but those are all rock bands. Even more sadly obscured has been the Twin Cities’ rich R&B and soul legacy, which is truly odd, considering how much attention the Time and the Revolution got in the ’80s. It’s true, though: if you can name a Minneapolis funk or soul performer from before that era, I’ll personally hand you a buck. Who writes about ‘em? Worse yet, who plays ‘em?
That’s all about to change. Secret Stash Records is doing the Lord’s Work – they’ve complied Twin Cities Funk & Soul: Lost R&B Grooves from Minneapolis & Saint Paul 1964-1979, an unbelievably righteous two-LP compilation of local soul, R&B and funk from the ’60s and ’70s that will knock you on your ass. Prepare to be educated: the album sports an unbelievably completist lineup of groups you’re about to fall in love with, like the Valdons, Willie Walker, Maurice McKinnies and the Prophets of Peace. And the booklet is jam-packed with photos that’ll have you lamenting the fact that you can’t go to the Riverview Supper Club, the Cozy Club or King Solomon’s Mines and see these bands play, night after night, like folks could all those years ago.
You can get a taste of this unbelievable scene on September 22 when members of these groups – including the entirety of the mighty Valdons – are reuniting as the Twin Cities Funk & Soul All-Stars for a performance of some of this incredible material. I saw a brief preview of this show a month or so ago, and you must believe me when I tell you: this is the show you cannot miss this year. This is the real deal, R&B music played by scene veterans who know their way around their instruments. These are genuine hometown heroes, folks, and you need to turn out in droves to make sure they know it.
Here’s a brief track-by-track rundown of Twin Cities Funk & Soul, so you can see what you’re getting (because you will be getting this):
The Valdons, “All Day Long” – Oh man, the Valdons. These guys shoulda been stars, full stop. The combo of thrilling soul harmonizing and the killer horn stabs of Navajo Train was an absolute winner, and “All Day Long” is proof. Listen to the propulsive percussion groove that drives this sucker, top down, from the top. “Workin’ on a chain gang, all day long” indeed – this thing works hard enough to power a small metropolis, baby.
Maurice McKinnies & The Champions, “Sock-A-Poo-Poo ’69″ – This is one of those lo-fi, gritty sounding soul/funk workouts that makes you wish nobody’d invented stereo or digital recordings. The mainline, right from the source – McKinnies comes on all James Brown, telling us he’s doin’ it to us “one more time in ’69.” The groove is a monster, too, full of killer rhythm guitar playing and killer horn/organ stabs, socking it to us like a sonofabitch.
Jackie Harris & The Champions, “Work Your Flapper (Part 1)” – The same Champions as above, working an even more dangerous groove, absolutely in the pocket of the JBs, propelled by a horn section that sounds like it’s straight outta the south and some skittering african-influenced rhythm guitar that sounds like it’s about to take off down the track. Jackie Harris sings an amazing black-power message over the top, masquerading it as a plea to shake your ass.
Mojo and his “Chi 4,” “She’s A Whole Lot’s A Woman” - It should be clear to you by now: the Minneapolis Soul Sound was all about finding a wicked groove pocket and working the shit out of it for 3½ minutes – and horns, folks, lots and lots of horns. I can only imagine dance nights here were sweaty as hell if songs like “She’s A Whole Lot’s A Woman” were part of it – it’s a propulsive blues jam with a coolly lo-fi harmonica break right down the center and a whole lots-a soul shoutin’.
Dave Brady and the Stars, “Ridin’ High” - A super-polished group with both white and black members, the Stars mined a soul sound aimed right at teenage America, heavy on the songwriting and lighter on the groove, with a cool garage-rock thing thrown in for the kids. “Ridin’ High” woulda sounded right at home on mid-’60s pop radio, sounding like a rougher, tougher Motown side with some killer punk-rock organ blasts and an absolutely magnificent hook.
Willie Walker, “I Ain’t Gonna Cheat On You No More” – Minneapolis’ best hope in the soul business was Willie Walker, a man with the smooth/rough voice of a Sam Cooke and smokin’ charisma drawn from years in the gospel scene that drew the ladies in droves. “I Ain’t Gonna Cheat” is a terrific, propulsive, gorgeously-recorded side that shoulda/coulda been a hit, with a damn perfect vocal performance that’ll knock you out.
Wanda Davis, “Save Me” – Our own Queen of Soul, singing a tune originally made famous by the actual Queen of Soul. A great vocal performance only slightly marred by a weirdly-out-of-tune guitar and redeemed by a killer drum performance.
Jackie Harris and the Exciters, “Get Funky, Sweat A Little Bit” – Another knockout groove in the same wheelhouse as James Brown, the Exciters work a skittering guitar line and a couple of killer soul-breakdowns into a soul classic. Harris eventually became a radio personality, and you can tell why – he’s all charisma and excitement, here, exhorting us to sweat as if we need additional prompting.
“Wee” Willie Walker, “There Goes My Used To Be” – Another stellar almost-hit from Willie Walker, and one of the few slow-swing jams on this double LP. Walker’s honeyed voice will knock you on your ass, the horns will astonish you, the backing vocalists will break your heart and the whole thing will have you wondering why Walker wasn’t just huge. He shoulda been. No question.
Wanda Davis, “Take Care” – The second Wanda track on this is the convincer – god, the slow burn here, with her voice sounding alternately sweet and heartbreakingly sad, bolstered by one of the best vibraphone performances you’ll hear, colored by a remarkable sax breakdown and resolving into near-tears at the end. Remarkable.
Maurice McKinnies & The Champions, “Sweet Smell of Perfume” – McKinnies sounds like David Ruffin here, all grit and heartbreak, and the Champions prove they’re equally at home with a slower number as they are with the funk workouts, with the echo-laden rhythm guitar still the absolute star of the thing, driving the track along and skittering along beneath McKinnies’ phenomenal performance.
Dave Brady and the Stars, “Baby, Baby I Need You” – Another great song aimed straight at teenage dances – you can just picture ’60s kids slow-dancing to this sucker, holding each other and swaying like the evening was never gonna end. A terrific falsetto performance and some gorgeous backup harmonies bolster this knockout number – another one that shoulda been a huge hit.
The Valdons, “Love Me, Leave Me” – More proof that the Valdons should have been huge. Listen to those falsetto harmonies and swoon, people, and listen to the way that Hammond B3 insinuates itself straight into your soul. Every bit as good as late-60s Tempts, every bit as good as anything on the national charts in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Willie and the Bumblebees, “Dipstick” – You probably know Willie Murphy from his ’60s folk material (Running, Jumping, Standing Still is a lost classic) and here he proves he’s equally at home with some of the best and most low-down funk you’ve heard in your life. This sounds like the best Meters instrumental they never did, propelled by an insistent high-bass groove and some knockout wah-wah guitar playing from Murphy.
Morris Wilson, “Rusty McDusty” – Welcome to early ’70s Minneapolis funk. This slow, slithery instrumental groove sounds like one of those crate-digger classics that ends up as the bed of a rap song where it’s the best thing about the whole damn thing, propelled along by a great electric piano performance and some magnificent sax stabs (and a killer flute break!) and a twangy guitar figure that pushes the whole thing along marvelously.
Band of Thieves, “Thieves in the Funkhouse” – You can totally see, in this song, where Prince was gonna come from – this has the kind of jazz-inflected chord change that he’d make his own years later, and a charismatic vocal performance that also leads straight into Earth, Wind and Fire and disco, with some remarkable keyboard playing and a sweet, eminently danceable groove.
Prophets of Peace, “You Can Be” – An awesome piece of message soul with some killer wah textures and some great male/female vocal interplay, not a million miles off from early-’70s Sly Stone with a touch of Staples Family thrown in.
Morris Wilson, “Saxophone Disco” More instrumental funk, sax-led, of course, per the title, and not actually disco but rather the early meaning of the word, i.e., discotheque, it’d be a while before the full-on four-on-the-floor would take over the dancefloor. This wicked little keyboard/sax groove is pretty damn hipshakin’, though, don’t you worry – if you have trouble finding the downbeat, let the wah-wah show you, baby.
Willie and the Bumblebees, “Honey From The Bee” – I honestly didn’t know about Willie Murphy’s funk/soul stuff, and I’m glad to finally hear it — far from being white-guy soul dabbling, this is a truly multi-racial slab of magnificent funk/soul stuff with the right kind of horn charts to place it straight in Minneapolis, and a great melody besides, with Murphy’s killer guitar playing bolstering a smooth band groove.
Prophets of Peace, “The Max” – The Prophets veering into damn-near Earth, Wind and Fire territory, with some jazz-inflected playing and terrific group vocals bolstering a damn-near-disco drumbeat – oh, it was the ’70s, folks, and it was magnificent. Do it to the max, indeed.
The Lewis Connection, “Get Up” – Pure funk on this one, very much in a Funkadelic vein (with requisite “Get up!” exhortations). Legend has Prince playing in this group at one point in his storied career, but forget that for a minute and let this unbelievable popcorn-funk bassline take over your shit – this groove is so monster it doesn’t need the Purple one to help it along.
Secret Stash Records celebrates the release of Twin Cities Funk and Soul: Lost R&B Grooves from Minneapolis & Saint Paul 1964-1979 with a listening party tonight during the Lady Heat Hot Soul Dance Party at Icehouse, where they’ll debut tracks off the compilation and Secret Stash Records will be on hand giving away Records, CDs, t-Shirts and tickets to the official release show at the Cedar Cultural Center on September 22. The album officially goes on sale next Tuesday, September 25.
Listening party: 10 pm Tuesday, September 18, $2, 21+, Icehouse, 2528 Nicollet Avenue, Minneapolis. Click HERE for the Facebook invite.
Release party: 8 pm (7 pm doors) Saturday, September 22, $13 advance, $15 door, all ages, Cedar Cultural Center, 416 Cedar Avenue S, Minneapolis, Click HERE for the Cedar site.
In-store performance by the Valdons: 6 pm Tuesday, September 25, free, all ages, Fifth Element, 2411 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, Click HERE for the Facebook invite.
To preorder the 2-LP set, click HERE for the Secret Stash Records site.