Shiela E. – Iconic: Message 4 America

Shiela E
Title: Iconic: Message 4 America

Artist: Sheila E.

Label: Stiletto Flats

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: September 1, 2017



Sheila E.’s Iconic: Message 4 America offers a musical palette of iconic songs, primarily from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Though the album dropped in September, the self-released project didn’t garner as much attention as it deserved, so we’re happy to give it a shout out during Black History Month.

Described as a musical movement for turbulent times, Sheila conceived of the album as “a call for us to rise up and stand for something that is greater than our self-interest.” Instead of creating new music, she chose to reinvent “some of the greatest protest and revolution songs . . . to fit current times.” Assisting her in this endeavor are members of her band plus a bevy of exemplary guests. Of course, Sheila Escovedo herself is a renowned drummer and percussionist perhaps best known for her work with Prince, but she’s also an amazing vocalist as she proves on each and every track.

The album opens with “Funky National Anthem,” a powerful medley drawing upon multiple texts beginning with Sheila’s spoken intro from the Declaration of Independence. After a brief (and yes, very funky) version of the National Anthem, the final three minutes draw upon some of the most famous and inspiring speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Presidents John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama. On this track, Sheila issues a “call for our leaders to rise up and work for the betterment of men and women, no matter the race, color, or creed.”

The first celebrity guest enters on the Beatles’ “Come Together,” with Ringo Starr taking over the drum kit. Once again, a rousing spoken intro kicks off the arrangement (as in the Primal Scream version): “This is a beautiful day / we are unified / we are of one accord / today we are together / when we are together we got power!” Sly & The Family Stone’s “Everyday People” also features original band members: Freddie Stone on lead vocal and guitar, and Lynn Mabry on tambourine.

An album of this nature can’t be complete without representation from Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield. On Gayes’ “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” Sheila deftly incorporates elements of “Trouble Man,” with Eddie M. (former Prince saxophonist) on lead vocals. “Pusherman,” the Mayfield classic from the Superfly soundtrack is sung by Sheila, who adds “You took Prince, Pusherman.”  You know she won’t finish this album without a Prince tribute. Anthony Antoine was selected to sing the combined “America – Free,” yet another amazing and provocative track.

Israel Houghton takes over on Stevie Wonder’s “Jesus Children of America,” with Greg Phillinganes on organ and Dino Saldo on harmonica. Really, it doesn’t get any better than this. Oh wait! Another highlight is the James Brown Medley.  Bootsy Collins joins Sheila for this funk fest that joins together half a dozen of JB’s Black Power era anthems, beginning with “Talking Loud and Saying Nothing” and concluding with “Super Bad.” And there’s more P-funk. George Clinton sits in for “One Nation Under a Groove,” which segues into “Mothership Connection.”

These are just some of the treats in store on Sheila’s masterful Iconic: Message 4 America, featuring some of the top musicians in the business performing amazing arrangements of iconic songs. I believe Sheila E. has also achieved her other goals: “To bring awareness, to spark conversation, to allow healing, to restore hope, to express love, to find peace, and to unite through music.”

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band

Artist: Easy Star All-Stars

Title: Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band

Label: Easy Star Records

Catalog No.: ES-1018

Release Date: April 14, 2009

One of my earliest childhood musical memories was thumbing through my father’s record collection and coming across the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I remember the album cover fascinating me so much that I just had to put the record on the turntable. From the first note of Sgt. Pepper I was hooked, and as each song seamlessly moved into the next I began to imagine the colorful soundscape that the music painted. Heralded as one of the most influential albums of all time, Sgt. Pepper is also considered to be a ground breaking example of the concept album, which is the primary reason that the Easy Star collective decided to re-envision a reggae/dub version of the album. After the success of the collectives’ first two albums, Dub Side of the Moon (2003) and Radiodread (2006), Michael Goldwasser of the Easy Star All-Stars cites the reasons behind the decision to infuse reggae into a Beatles classic: “We’ve focused on re-envisioning concept albums as reggae and it’s really important that the source material works as a whole and is not just a collection of songs. So, what better to take on next than the mother of all concept albums?”

The Easy Star All-Stars is a coalition of reggae producers and performers based in New York on the independent Easy Star label. The focus of the Easy Star All-Stars has always been on the process and the music itself.  First, Easy Star co-founders Eric Smith, Lem Oppenheimer and Michael Goldwasser make the decision on which albums will get the Easy Star treatment. Then Goldwasser, the producer, musical director, arranger and guitarist of the group, painstakingly transforms arrangements of the source material into reggae style: the goal is a musical melding at the genetic level, not just a parody with a summery beat. The band itself operates as a collective, with a rotating cast of musicians and artist contributing. At the core of the Easy Star Lonely Hearts Dub Band (ESLHDB) are Victor Rice (bass), Victor “Ticklah” Axelrod (keyboards), and Patrick Dougher (drums/percussion), augmented by Eddie Ocampo (drums). Also involved are active touring members of the Easy Star All-Stars, including Ras I Ray (bass, vocals), Ive-09 (percussion), Jennifer Hill (saxophone), Buford O’Sullivan (trombone), Pam Fleming (trumpet), and Tamar-kali (vocals).

As with the previous records, Goldwasser brought in a who’s who of reggae, dub and dancehall greats to contribute guest vocals. Steel Pulse, Matisyahu, Michael Rose (Black Uhuru), Bunny Rugs (Third World), and Ranking Roger (English Beat/General Public) are the most recognizable names; longtime Easy Star collaborators Sugar Minott and Frankie Paul continue their powerful association with the group; U Roy (a founder of deejay toasting), Max Romeo and The Mighty Diamonds are among the other veteran guest artists sure to generate anticipation amongst staunch reggae fans.

Having tackled the dark complexities of the human condition on Dub Side of the Moon and the depths of the human/computer/alien psyche on Radiodread, basing the next album in the series on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is both a logical choice and a departure of sorts. While it is widely credited as being one of the first concept albums (and therefore the stylistic predecessor of Dark Side of the Moon and OK Computer), Sgt. Pepper stands apart from both of these albums in that it is basically a collection of major-key pop songs. As with the first two albums, Goldwasser stayed true to the lyrics, melodies and chord changes of the songs, envisioning as if the songs had been written by Lennon/McCartney (and Harrison), but had been recorded in Jamaica under the influence of reggae. “With Dub Side, we translated Gilmore’s guitar solos into more traditional reggae elements, like a deejay toasting,” explains Goldwasser. “On “Paranoid Android,” [from Radiodread] we transformed heavy guitar solos into trombone lines. Here, we went the opposite direction. We embraced rock elements such as guitar solos, as well as conventional string sections, and more exotic instruments such as sitar and tabla. In doing so, we pushed the boundaries of traditional Jamaican reggae, just as the Beatles stretched popular music when they made the album in the first place.”

Conceptually, Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band stands alone just as the original album did, and personally I feel it breathes new life into a timeless classic. Since its release, ESLHDB has been #1 on the Billboard reggae charts and The Easy Star All-Stars have embarked on a Lonely Hearts tour.

For over a decade, Easy Star Records has been a trendsetting independent reggae label. Dub Side of the Moon and Radiodread form the backbone of a catalogue that includes progressive albums from John Brown’s Body and Easy Star All-Stars keyboardist Ticklah, reissues of classic materials from Sugar Minott and Linval Thompson, and new recordings from reggae legends the Meditations and Sister Carol. For more information on Easy Star Records and its collective check out their website.

Posted by Heather O’Sullivan

Stax Does the Beatles

Title: Stax Does the Beatles
Artists: Various
Label: Stax/Concord
Catalog No.: STXCD-30390
Date: 2008

Stax Does the Beatles is something of a companion CD to Stax Does Motown, which was released at the same time (and is also reviewed in this issue). The compilation aptly illustrates how the musical genres of rock and soul have drawn inspiration from one another, while at the same time bridging the racial divide that existed in music up until that time. British groups such as the Rolling Stones were heavily influenced by the blues, especially the electronic Chicago blues of Muddy Waters, but also did cover versions of Southern soul hits, such as Wilson Pickett’s “If You Need Me.” It was only a matter of time before inspiration began to flow in the opposite direction. By the late 1960s, Motown and Stax artists were covering a variety of songs made popular during the British Invasion, one of the most notable being Otis Redding’s version of Mick Jagger’s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (check out his incredible live performance on the recent DVD release Stax/Volt Revue Live in Norway).

This new compilation includes a small sampling of “soulful covers” of some of the Beatles’ hit songs that were reworked in the Stax studios. The tracks include an assortment of vocal and instrumental performances. Booker T. & The MGs, the Stax house band led by keyboardist Booker T. Jones, perform “Got To Get You Into My Life” (previously unreleased), “Eleanor Rigby” (released on Soul Limbo in 1968), “Michelle” and “Lady Madonna” (the latter two originally released on the 1969 album The Booker T. Set). Steve Cropper, the MGs famed guitarist, also contributes an instrumental version of “With a Little Help From My Friends.” Another Stax house band, the Mar-Keys, perform their 1971 cover of “Let It Be,” while the Bar-Kays are featured on “Yesterday” and “Hey Jude” (these tracks appear to have been recorded after the 1967 plane crash that claimed the lives of Otis Redding and most of the original members of the Bar-Kays).

All of the above adds up to a CD that is largely instrumental (9 of the 15 tracks), which though enjoyable, was something of a disappointment. In terms of vocal covers, the highlight of the CD is without a doubt the opening track, “Daytripper,” a previously unreleased studio version performed by the late, great Otis Redding. David Porter and Isaac Hayes, who teamed up to write many hit songs for Stax, both went on to record for the label. Featured here is Porter’s thoroughly enjoyable hard-driving cover of “Help” with backing provided by a Motown-style female trio, as well as Hayes’ somewhat meandering arrangement of “Something.” Carla Thomas, another of Stax’s major stars, performs a previously unreleased version of “Yesterday,” recorded live at the Bohemian Cavern (this is NOT included on the 2007 jazz-oriented CD Carla Thomas: Live at the Bohemian Caverns from the same 1967 performance). A pleasant surprise was provided by two of the lesser known artists in the Stax stable. Reggie Millner’s interpretation of “And I Love Her,” which has never appeared on CD, is punctuated by frequent falsetto bursts in the style later made famous by Michael Jackson. In John Gary Williams’ funky cover of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” from 1972, he inserts “a devotional spoken monologue” mid-song, in a similar manner to the opening of Diana Ross’s 1970 cover of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

Noticeably missing from the CD are Otis Redding’s version of “A Hard Day’s Night,” first released in 1982 on Recorded Live: Previously Unreleased Performances (revised, expanded, and reissued by Stax in 2002 as Good To Me: Live at the Whisky A Go Go, Vol. 2 ), and the fabulous version of “Hey Jude” recorded by Wilson Pickett with guitar accompaniment provided by Duane Allman. OK, I know the latter was issued by Atlantic and not Stax, but it certainly must be considered in any discussion of Southern soul covers of the Beatles songbook.

According to the liner notes by noted rock historian Richie Unterberger, Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein explored the possibility of recording what would become the Revolver album at the Stax studios in Memphis, and actually visited the studio in 1966 before scrapping the plan due to security issues. The Beatles and various Stax artists would finally meet for the first time in London in March of 1967, during the Stax/Volt Revue’s European tour. But aside from Steve Cropper’s later collaborations with John Lennon and Ringo Starr, the official alliance between the Beatles and Stax studios never happened. Too bad.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss