This Week’s Theme: Music Is History by Questlove (1971-1980)
I’m in the middle of reading Questlove’s latest book, Music Is History, and as soon as I started reading it I knew I had to work it into a Faux Show. The book is divided into fifty chapters, one for each of the first fifty years of his life. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of music related to that year, often with a specific artist or song highlighted in the chapter. That made the song selections easy, as this show is basically a companion for the first ten chapters, 1971-1980. In addition to the fourteen songs related to the book, I’ve attempted to include other songs that I believe would be given the Questlove seal of approval. There will be more shows to come for this theme as I continue reading, but these first ten years are a great starting point.
Welcome to Radio Faux Show Volume 2, Number 12.
First things first – click a link to start listening and then come back to read about this week’s songs.
This is not the first time that Questlove has appeared as a theme on the Faux Show. The third Faux Show blog post I wrote was on July 18, 2021 for Radio Faux Show Volume 1, Number 20 and the theme was Questlove’s amazing documentary on the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. Prior to that, I became a Questlove fan when The Roots became the house band for The Tonight Show and I realized (many years too late) what a great musician he is. That realization was strengthened when both John Legend and Elvis Costello released albums with The Roots. After that, every time I saw Questlove talk about music, play music, and pretty much do anything, I realized more and more that he and I are kindred spirits. When he talks about music and writes about music, he expresses the same wide-eyed wonder that I feel with regard to spending a lifetime educating myself about music.
Although he and I have some obvious differences in our upbringing, we are about the same age (although I hit 50 a few years ago), we both grew up in the same part of the country (my parents met in his hometown of Philadelphia in the ’60s), and we both started our journey toward a love of music during the greatest decade of music (the ’70s). Although I don’t share his musical ability, I am not a stranger to songwriting and live performance. In many ways, I think I could have been Questlove if I had been switched with him at birth (although my drumming may not have been good enough to make me a musical icon!).
Most importantly, I share his views that Music Is History. I can’t say for sure if he meant this title to provide as much insight as I see in it, but I believe it is a perfect choice for several reasons. If read a certain way, music is history is a theme I have stated in several Faux Shows. In order to understand people, the best way is to understand the music they enjoy. In doing this, you can learn their history, their culture, and that they are not much different than you. Taken literally, the history of the world can be traced through music. Music is history in that folk songs, ballads, hymns, and any other form of music with lyrics can be studied across the millennia in order to understand the history of all people throughout the world. Most personally though, music is history in that it is the most definitive aspect of MY history. There isn’t a single period of my life that I don’t associate first with music above all other memories. I can’t say for certain, but I would not be surprised if Questlove shares this type of musical memory. For me at least, this is the real meaning behind the title, and that makes me extremely happy.
Ms. Faux is also a huge Questlove fan, so it was no surprise when one of my Christmas gifts in 2021 was this book. Everything about this book is exactly what I enjoy reading in a book about music. I will admit that I am reading the book slowly, especially once I realized that I wanted to create these companion Faux Shows to go with the book. Questlove’s writing style, at least for this book, is very conversational and it would be easy to zip through many chapters at a time. Instead, I am using the book as a guide to researching new music. As I read each chapter, I take notes about the music being discussed and then go listen to the artists and songs he has highlighted, with a focus on those with which I am not familiar. This week’s show focuses on the first ten chapters of the book, which equates to the first ten years of Questlove’s life. This is a great place to start, and I can’t wait to continue this journey through the decades over the next few months.
Music Is History: Chapters One to Ten
Chapter One: 1971 – Stretched On History’s Wheel
Let me make it clear right off the bat that this is not a book review. I’ll just say that I love this book and I think that anyone who is interested in music, especially the popular music of the last fifty years, would find something of value in reading it. Instead, I am going to focus on the music I have discovered from reading the book. After all, that is the reason I make the Faux Show – to discover new music.
This 3-page long chapter is my favorite of the book so far. Questlove’s movement from the death of a friend to a song he feels a strong connection with to one of the best descriptions of a jazz tune I have ever read let me know right away that I was going to enjoy reading the book.
Tony Williams “There Comes a Time”: In a spiritual sense, anyone who reads this book should feel privileged to now know about the personal connection that Questlove shares with this song. There is no way I could feel that connection, but I am glad that I now know the song. It is extremely unique, and I can’t stop listening to it.
Miles Davis “Nefertiti”: The title track to Davis’ last acoustic album is interesting for one simple fact, as described by Questlove. There are no solos. There is just the head, over and over and over. Considering that this band included Davis on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on sax, and Herbie Hancock on piano, a song with no solos is almost unbelievable. As Questlove states, each time Miles and Shorter repeat the line you can hear the dread and the boredom, the sarcasm, the defiant exhaustion. The fact that Davis was about to move into his electric phase comes as no surprise once you listen to this song. However, the reason this is the song selected for the chapter is the contradictory celebration of music provided by bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams behind the repetitive horns of Davis and Shorter. I’d listen to Carter play anything, so hearing him get to show his creativity on this song is a wonderful gift. Starting around the 3-minute mark, the drumming of Williams builds into a beautiful chaos that you don’t often hear in straight-ahead jazz. This song is one of my favorite discoveries of the book so far.
Chapter Two: 1972 – Music Is The Message
This chapter is focused on a discussion of blaxploitation films Shaft and Super Fly. Both films, including their soundtracks, are discussed with regard to their impact and importance, as well as within the historical context of the movement of blaxploitation films from just movies into a money-making subgenre. Most importantly, they are discussed as part of a discussion taking place at the time as to whether these films made a positive or negative impact on the views of people, especially black people, toward violence and crime.
Curtis Mayfield “Think”: The chapter ends with a discussion of the penultimate song on the Super Fly soundtrack. By 1972, the song “Think” was known as either the 1960 James Brown cover of The 5 Royales or, more commonly, the 1968 Aretha Franklin song. However, the Mayfield song is yet a third different song with this title and, as Questlove states, is thinking in the Mayfield sense: social consciousness, the levers of class and race, history.
Chapter Three: 1973 – Past Is Prologue – And Protest
Any chapter of a book about 1973 and protest is sure to reference the Vietnam War. This chapter is no exception, although it also describes the importance of protest music with it’s brief history of the Billie Holiday song “Strange Fruit.”
Most interesting though, is Questlove’s story about trying to get Bill Withers to come out of his decades-long retirement to record one more album. In the story, we learn about The Roots recording a cover of Withers’ song “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” with John Legend for their Wake Up! album. This results in Withers writing the band an email about how much he liked their rendition and then, after a show in L.A., Questlove getting the chance to meet one of his heroes, Withers, and sit down with him to explain how important he is to him. He laid out his pitch for how important it is that Withers record one more album to remain part of history, and Withers sat and listened with all of the attention, poise, and grace one would expect from him. When Questlove was done, Withers simply said “no,” and that was that. Bill Withers died ten years later, in 2020, 35 years after his final album was released.
Bill Withers “I Can’t Write Left-Handed (Live)”: This song is from the 1973 album Live at Carnegie Hall. It is mixed in among a show of several other much more famous songs from the first two Withers albums. It was never recorded in the studio, but it is hard to see how a better version could have been recorded once you hear the wonderful spoken intro over the meditative piano/backing vocals of this version.
Chapter Four: 1974 – Cool Like That
This chapter focuses on what/who is/isn’t an example of black cool, and uses the examples of Miles Davis, Muhammed Ali, Pam Grier, and James Brown to define it. This chapter is one of the best of the book so far, and I especially like the statement that cool is staying just enough behind the beat to make an intelligent decision without sweating the fact that you’re slowing the pace for your own benefit. This concept makes obvious sense musically, especially for a drummer, but it also relates to anything in your life. Sometimes you just have to be cool.
Most of the chapter is devoted to James Brown and includes one of the best explanations of James Browns’ success I’ve read. Attributed to Al Sharpton, he says: The black artists with white audiences before Brown, from Nat “King “Cole to Sam Cooke to Motown’s stars, crossed over into the mainstream. Brown made the mainstream cross over into Black Music.
James Brown “The Payback”: This is one of the greatest funk songs of the ’70s.
I can do wheelin’, I can do dealin’, but I don’t do no damn squealin’.
I’m a man, I’m a man, I’m the son of a man.
I don’t know karate, but I know karazor.
Chapter Five: 1975 – The POV Lane
In this chapter, Questlove links together the fact that history is told by those who both see it and are allowed to report it (therefore we often don’t learn from others who may have seen something different), the Weather Underground (a left-wing radical group for several bombings in the first half of the ’70s), a song by Al Jarreau (“You Don’t See Me”), and a song called “Darktown Strutter’s Ball.” It is a slightly meandering, but in the end powerful, discourse that I am still not sure I fully digested. Another read-through may be required, as this feels like an important chapter to understand.
Al Jarreau “You Don’t See Me”: As Questlove states, this is not the type of material associated with Jarreau. It is on his 1975 debut album We Got By and tells the tale of a jilted lover who murders his ex and her family (or at least threatens to). It is dark, powerful, and nothing at all like the smooth, jazz-tinged love songs that made him a household name in the ’80s. The vocals are amazing and make this one of my favorite discoveries of the book so far.
Chapter Six: 1976 – Having Two Parties
This chapter is about Stevie Wonder, Songs In The Key Of Life, “Sir Duke,” Duke Ellington, and Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon’s love of Duke Ellington. Until I read this chapter I did not know how much Nixon loved Ellington. I guess we can put one check mark in the Nixon was not an asshole column. The Nixon WAS an asshole column is already so full that I don’t think we can fit another check mark in there anyway.
Stevie Wonder “Sir Duke”: This is one of the greatest songs ever written in homage to another performer.
Duke Ellington “Come Sunday”: Ellington premiered this composition, one of his most famous, as part of his Carnegie Hall appearance to perform Black, Brown, and Beige in 1943. He then shelved the piece, about the centrality of the church in African-American life, for fifteen years. In 1958, he released his studio version of Black, Brown, and Beige, including this song with Mahalia Jackson as vocalist, and then repurposed the tune again in 1963 for his My People stage show about African-American history.
Chapter Seven: 1977 – Future To The Back
A lot happened in 1977. Elvis died, Star Wars opened, the Concorde was approved for supersonic flight, the first space shuttle flew, and the first outer space signal was picked up by S.E.T.I. Most importantly, at least for this week’s show, the mini-series Roots debuted. This is where The Roots got their name.
Questlove spends most of the chapter discussing sampling, so you know there is a lot of good meat in there to digest.
Quincy Jones “Mama Aifambeni (Roots main theme)”: Questlove wraps up a discussion of anachronism in music by stating that he understands now that Quincy Jones’ anachronistic use of windchime synths in Kunta Kinte’s time was his way of dealing with the questions How do you talk about the past without denying the inevitable future? How do you move forward aggressively without aggressing against the past?
Epmd “Please Listen To My Demo” and Faze-O “Riding High”: See Creation, Duplication, Inspiration, and Theft
Chapter Eight: 1978 – Disco Tech
The theme of Radio Faux Show Volume 2, Number 9, which I just published three weeks ago, is disco recordings by non-disco artists and was inspired by the unfortunate Carole King song “Disco Tech.” Imagine my surprise when I turned to this chapter and saw it’s title and theme and realized it is about the same period of time. Even more coincidental is that part of the chapter focuses on a song I included in my show, “Original Disco Man” by James Brown. I was also glad to see a brief mention of the disco movement’s importance in expanding the public’s acceptance of the LGBTQ community, a positive impact of disco that is often ignored when discussing the negative aspects of the disco music of the late ’70s.
As for the music, I would have selected the godawful yet wonderful James Brown song if I hadn’t just included it three weeks ago. Instead, I selected a song that defines disco music. When the aliens invade, “Boogie Oogie Oogie” will be the perfect choice to explain to them how to shake their booty.
A Taste Of Honey “Boogie Oogie Oogie”: As I learned from Questlove, this song is most interesting because it allowed this band to win the Best New Artist Grammy Award instead of Chris Rea, Toto, The Cars, and Elvis Costello(!). That may be the best example of how the popular music of today may not be the popular music of tomorrow. As usual, Elvis Costello rises above the fray and provides a thoughtful defense for A Taste Of Honey winning the Grammy instead of him in this Variety interview.
Chapter One: 1979 – An Idea Runs Wild
This power-packed chapter is focused on the fact that E-minor is the funk key. According to Questlove, this began with the song “Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin).” Prior to this song, no dance music was in E-minor and now millions of dance songs have been written in that key, all because of this song. Questlove’s music nerd explanation is that it’s the easiest key, it’s naturally funky, and a bass player can stay there vamping to their heart’s content. The danger is that songs in E-minor can turn into lazy riffs with no melody. When done correctly though, such as by Sly, George Clinton, and Prince, this key can create the greatest funk songs ever written. I love this chapter.
Pleasure “Glide”: The obvious selection for this chapter is the Sly Stone song, but I went with “Glide” because it is the first funk classic to groove its way into the young Questlove’s soul. I couldn’t find the single edit, which is the version he recommends, but using the full length album version actually makes more sense for this playlist because it is a great example of an E-minor funk jam losing its way and turning into a meandering casualty of funk excess. I still love it anyway.
Chapter One: 1980 – Teach The Children
The best part of this chapter is the imagined conversation between Aretha Franklin and her sister Carolyn. It is a true story that Carolyn talked Aretha out of suing Steely Dan for referencing her in the song “Hey Nineteen,” but Questlove’s fictional story of how that happened is great.
Steely Dan “Hey Nineteen”: That’s ‘Retha Franklin. You know? The Queen of Soul. It’s true of all of us. We’re just growing old.
Artist of the Week: The Roots
It wouldn’t be right to make this week’s theme a book by Questlove without making his band The Roots the Artist of the Week. I am not an expert on the music of the Roots, but I know some basics and there are two points I think need to be made when discussing this great Philadelphia band.
The Roots are innovators in the use of a live band for hip-hop recording and performance. They started out in the late ’80s as two high school kids busking, with Questlove on a bucket drum and Black Thought rapping. By the time they recorded their debut in 1993, they had added a bassist, and within a few years they were a full band and a major-label Top 40 act. Their links to jazz and soul music are obvious when you listen, and although they use plenty of samples in their recordings there is an undeniable impact on their sound that is created by their being a band of great musicians.
The Roots are arguably the most talented session group working today. The smartest thing that a late night host ever did was when Jimmy Fallon made The Roots his band for Late Night. There have been a lot of great talk show bands (my favorites being the Paul Shaffer Late Night band in the ’80s and the Max Weinberg Late Night band with Conan O’Brien), but The Roots are the best of them all. All of their hard work paid off in the 21st century when they turned themselves into a band that superstars want to work with, most notably Toots & The Maytals in 2004 with True Love, John Legend in 2010 with Wake Up!, Elvis Costello in 2013 with Wise Up Ghost, and of course as the Tonight Show house band from 2009 to the present.
The members of The Roots have gone on to do many side projects, and Questlove is now a modern-day encyclopedia of 20th century music, but the fact that they started as two high school friends busking on Philadelphia street corners and playing high school talent shows is the true story of The Roots. They are the definition of cool and one of the most inspiring stories of how hard work can pay off. Not everyone who tries their line of work succeeds, but it is always nice when success comes to good people who earned it all on their own through raw talent and effort.
Happy Birthday (March 20)
Spike Lee is a screenwriter, director, and producer whose films include some of the most important of the late 20th century. If you haven’t watched a Spike Lee film, start with Do The Right Thing and then watch the rest as well. I’ve celebrated his birthday this week with the introductory interlude piece from the Roots‘ 1999 album Things Fall Apart, which features a sample of Denzel Washington from Lee’s 1990 film about a fictional jazz trumpeter, Mo’ Better Blues.
Harold Mabern was a post-bop jazz pianist. He was a session musician throughout the ’60s for artists including Betty Carter, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Freddie Hubbard, Sarah Vaughan, and many others. Although he never landed a long-term gig with any of them, he worked continuously from the ’60s on, including the recording of approximately twenty albums as a band leader starting in 1968 and up through 2018.
Alphonso Martin was the percussionist and occasional vocalist for reggae group Steel Pulse.
Lee “Scratch” Perry was one of the inventors of dub reggae and a legend in reggae’s history. He died last year and you can read more of my thoughts about him in Faux Show 2-1.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a gospel guitarist and vocalist and one of the originators of rock and roll. She cleverly combined gospel and secular music in order to create gospel-influenced pop music that pre-dated Ray Charles’ similar style by almost twenty years. Known as The Original Soul Sister and The Godmother of Rock and Roll, her influence on artists such as Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis helped define rock and roll music in the ’50s. She was a guitar pioneer and was one of the first recording artists to use distorted guitar. She influenced the British blues movement after touring with Muddy Waters in the early ’60s and being seen by Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Keith Richards. She was one of the definitive Unsung Heroes of Rock and Roll.
Special Birthday Wish (March 20)
I didn’t include him in this week’s playlist, but today is Fred Rogers’ birthday. I’ve written before about how I feel about this man, and I have a sneaking suspicion that Questlove may share my positive attitude toward Mr. Rogers. In the middle of all of the hatred and violence in our world today, it seems like a good time to turn to this wonderful man for some advice.
3 Chunks of Funk
There are more than three funk songs on this week’s show, but I dropped these three in at the beginning to start it off right.
James Brown “The Payback”: This is essential funk by the man who invented funk.
Al Jarreau “You Don’t See Me”: Jarreau is not known as a funk artist and the strength of this song is in his amazing vocals, but it is still a great piece of funk.
Pleasure “Glide”: This is the biggest song for these Oregon funk masters who were discovered by Grover Washington and mentored by Crusaders’ trombonist Wayne Henderson.
A Taste of Honey “Boogie Oogie Oogie” (#1 7/22/78)
The Roots “What They Do” (#34 2/8/97)
Steely Dan “Hey Nineteen” (#10 12/13/80)
Stevie Wonder “Sir Duke” (#1 4/16/77)
2 for “Two”day
The Roots “Act Won (Things Fall Apart)” and “What They Do”
Creation, Duplication, Inspiration, and Theft
Liquid Liquid “Cavern”: This song is now legendary for its hip-hop connections. The band was a New York No Wave band in the early ’80s. They release several singles and EPs, including the now historic and highly collectible 1983 Optimo EP, which includes this song.
Faze-O “Riding High”: Faze-O released three late ’70s albums and were the front band for funk masters The Ohio Players during live shows. This song is the title track to their 1977 debut and is their most famous single.
Barry White “Your Love – So Good I Can Taste It”: I wouldn’t say there is anything special about this song, but it is a Barry White groove so you know what to expect. The song is relatively long, which is saying something for a Barry White song, but the slow build of the 6-minute intro into the 6-minute main song works well.
There aren’t any cover songs this time around.
I think it is fair to say that all of the songs selected for this week’s theme most likely inspired Questlove in some way.
Epmd “Please Listen To My Demo”: This track from the band’s album Unfinished Business is built solidly upon the song “Riding High” by funk group Faze-O.
Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five “White Lines”: As soon as you hear the song “Cavern” by Liquid Liquid you start singing “White Lines.” This is one of the most recognizable samples in the history of hip-hop. It is also one of the first lawsuits for use of a song in a hip-hop sample without permission. Although a long court case ended with a win for Liquid Liquid, Sugar Hill Records went under before they could provide compensation.
The Roots “What They Do”: This first Top 40 hit by the group is built from a sample from the Barry White song “Your Love – So Good I Can Taste It.” The entire track is a mellow groove and features a nice guitar solo as a closing. Coincidentally, the song also uses a sample from the Epmd song “Knick Knack Patty Wack” from the album Unfinished Business.
Thanks for listening (and reading)!
|1||Quincy Jones||Roots: Main Title (Mama Aifambeni)|
|2||Al Jarreau||You Don’t See Me|
|3||James Brown||The Payback|
|6||Harold Mabern||Greasy Kid Stuff|
|8||The Roots||Act Won (Things Fall Apart)|
|9||The Roots||What They Do|
|10||Barry White||Your Love – So Good I Can Taste It|
|12||Epmd||Please Listen To Me Demo|
|14||Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five||White Lines|
|15||Steel Pulse||Your House|
|16||Lee “Scratch” Perry||Blood of the Dragon|
|17||A Taste of Honey||Boogie Oogie Oogie|
|18||Steely Dan||Hey Nineteen|
|19||Tony Williams||There Comes A Time|
|20||Bill Withers||I Can’t Write Left-Handed (Live)|
|21||Sister Rosetta Tharpe with Lucky Millinder & His Orchestra||Shout, Sister, Shout!|
|22||Duke Ellington||Come Sunday|
|23||Stevie Wonder||Sir Duke|
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