Marva Whitney, who gained fame in the late ’60s as a backup singer for James Brown, and later as a performer in her own right, died Dec. 22 at age 68. Like Brown, she has been sampled countless times by hip-hop artists, most prominently on Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise” and DJ Kool’s “Let Me Clear My Throat.”
I put the song above, “What Do I Have to Do to Prove My Love to You,” on a mix CD a few years ago — coincidentally, I have it in the CD player of my car right now, so I’ve heard it five or six times over the past few weeks. I never get tired of it — there are so many little details to savor about the recording: first and foremost, her voice, which is soaked with emotion, yet strong and clear, even on the high notes. And the band behind her is amazingly tight — check out the nimbleness of the bass line and the light, jazzy feel of the drums. The horn section stays out of the mix for the most part, with the exception of a few quick stabs that add color at crucial points in the song. Around 1:30 in, the saxophone comes to the forefront for a confident, brief solo, weaving delicately in and out of the groove and then getting the hell out of the spotlight so that Ms. Whitney can take the reins for the big finish. There’s so much packed into this song’s brief running time — just under two minutes, 30 seconds — that it’s ripe for relistening.
So pause the Christmas carols for a few minutes and get down with Soul Sister Number One.
I’ve been on a Clash kick lately. I listened to London Calling in the car this past week during a long Thanksgiving-weekend drive, and at home, I’ve been gradually making my way, side by side, through the 36-song, 3-LP behemoth Sandinista! Hearing all this music is making me remember what I like so much about the band (among many other things: their anything-goes, throw-it-at-the-wall approach to songwriting). And it’s also making me sad all over again about Joe Strummer’s death in 2002, just as he and Mick Jones seemed to be on the verge of reuniting the Clash after nearly 20 years.
Big Audio Dynamite, the band Mick Jones started after he left the Clash in 1983, weren’t bad; their albums tended to be a bit spotty, but in their songs I hear an intriguing dance/electronic influence that the Clash could’ve pursued, maybe more successfully, had they decided to stay together. Today, I was scanning the liner notes of my copy of Big Audio Dynamite’s 1986 album No. 10, Upping St. and noticed something very interesting: Several of the songs were co-written with Joe Strummer, and Strummer himself produced the album.
This came as a surprise to me, since I was under the impression that, in 1986, the two couldn’t stand each other. The Internet hasn’t really been any help in explaining how this reunion happened and why it ended so quickly. But as far as I can tell, the next time Joe Strummer and Mick Jones did anything together creatively was when Jones joined Strummer and his band onstage just a month before Strummer died.
The Strummer/Jones songs on No. 10, Upping St. sound … not too far off from those of their former band, actually. Drum machines and sampling were still in their infancy when the Clash broke up, but if the band had stayed together a couple more years and experimented with those technologies, it’s not inconceivable that they would’ve come up with something like “Beyond the Pale,” this album’s best song. The programmed beat that begins the song hasn’t aged that well, but once the vocals come in (and is that Strummer harmonizing, by the way?), it solidly enters Clash territory, with a melody that’s sad and triumphant at the same time. It’s a perfect fit for the lyrics, which tell a plainspoken story of Eastern European immigrants braving treacherous conditions to start a new life in London: “Grandpa came from Russia / Stowed away, hidden in some bales / And he took my grandma dancing / As the air raid sirens wail.”
Elsewhere on the album, the Strummer/Jones songs make prominent use of then-current sampling and electronic-drum technology, which does date them a bit when listening to them today. However, “Sightsee M.C.!”‘s disjointed beat reminds me of the rhythmic experimentation on Sandinista!, and “Limbo the Law” — which, by the way, is a total Joe Strummer song title if I’ve ever heard one — has an anthemic chorus that would’ve easily fit, albeit in a reconfigured form, on Combat Rock. The duo’s chemistry was obviously still present, making it tragic that they stopped working together after this project.
Last year, when Jones was preparing to reunite B.A.D. for a brief tour, he let drop an interesting nugget of information about unreleased Strummer/Jones material from the No. 10, Upping Street sessions that might make its way to a forthcoming reissue of the album. That release still hasn’t materialized, but I’d be very curious to hear what else they came up with.
One last thing that’s interesting to note: In the background of the lyric sheet of No. 10, Upping St., you can faintly make out an image taken from a now-classic movie that was, at the time, a three-year-old box-office flop. Decades before rappers started appropriating Scarface iconography to establish their street cred, B.A.D. put Tony Montana’s “The World Is Yours” globe in their album art. Though I guess it’s not too surprising that these guys would be ahead of the times, right?