The third song on the first side of The Salsoul Orchestra’s second album proclaims “It Don’t Have to Be Funky (To Be a Groove).” But under the leadership of vibraphonist Vince Montana, Jr., the grooves were most certainly funky…as well as soulful, jazzy, and above all, danceable. 1976’s Nice ‘n’ Naasty, just reissued in an expanded edition by Big Break Records, is an even more eclectic collection than its predecessor. It continues Big Break’s top-flight program celebrating all aspects of the Salsoul Records legacy in high style, and also serves as a fitting tribute to producer, arranger, conductor and composer Montana, who died earlier this year at the age of 85.
Montana came into his own at Salsoul Records as both arranger and composer, building on the template established by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International Records and the MFSB house band, and indeed, utilizing many of those same talented instrumentalists to bring his Salsoul Orchestra to life. The sound of The Salsoul Orchestra wasn’t identical to MFSB, not only due to the infusion of Latin percussionists playing alongside Larry Washington (congas) and Earl Young (drums), but because Montana orchestrated in a different style for the group. MFSB frequently utilized five saxophones; Montana preferred two, combined with brass, at Salsoul. But the strong musical personalities of the players made the sound completely recognizable as Philly soul – after all, Montana and his fellow musicians had created the style with Gamble, Huff, Thom Bell and company – taken up a notch.
Hit the dancefloor, right after the jump!
The lush and atmospheric opener “It’s Good for the Soul” owes a debt to “TSOP” and “Love is the Message,” and sets just the right tone. The playfully seductive vocals of Evette Benton, Barbara Ingram and Carla Benson, a.k.a. the Sweethearts of Sigma (“I…love…you!” they coo), and a fluid, Wes Montgomery-esque guitar solo from the multi-talented Norman Harris are the cherries on top of this sweet sundae. There’s good use of stereo on this track and others on Nice ‘n’ Naasty, with the original album mix sounding better than ever as remastered by Nick Robbins. The ebullient feel of “It’s Good for the Soul” extends to Montana’s other compositions including “Standing and Waiting on Love” (co-written with Floyd Smith), an energetic and joyous symphonic dance party.
One third of the Baker-Harris Young production team with Norman Harris and MFSB/Salsoul Orchestra drummer extraordinaire Earl Young, Ronnie Baker delivers the “naasty” bassline in Montana’s title song. But Baker, as a songwriter, also contributed “It Don’t Have to Be Funky (To Be a Groove).” It has a touch of the up-tempo sound of The Spinners in its tight harmony vocals but also exemplifies the rapport between the cooking rhythm section and the swelling strings and horns.
Though championed as a disco orchestra, Montana’s group was capable of playing in all styles; Baker, Harris, Young, Bobby Eli, T.J. Tindall, Larry Washington, Ron Kersey, Don Renaldo and Jack Faith (all among the Sigma Sound Studios core of the Salsoul Orchestra) had proved themselves many times over at Philadelphia International. “Nightcrawler” was as far removed from disco as possible, a hauntingly evocative instrumental piece spotlighting Faith’s flute. And a medley of “We’ve Only Just Begun” and the then-ubiquitous weeper “Feelings” serves as a breather, emphasizing the lovely and lyrical side of the orchestra. The Sweethearts are out front and Montana leads on the vibes. This track, more than any other, puts the Nice into the album’s title.
The Latin percussion section works overtime on the concert favorite “Salsoul 2001” (adapted from Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” as popularized in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey) and especially Montana’s “Ritzy Mambo.” The oddly irreverent, twelve-second “Jack and Jill” ends the album on a less auspicious note than it began, but it hardly matters following nine tracks of sizzling music imploring you to dance your ass off.
Yes, it’s impossible to address Nice ‘n’ Naasty without making mention of the cover photograph, of Playboy model Ellen Michaels, clad in nothing but a “Dance Your Ass Off to Salsoul Records” T-shirt, sans panties, gazing alluringly over her shoulder. It was certainly a bold and provocative shot, instantly creating an identifiable image for the upstart New York label, and an image that further distanced Salsoul from the classy, often socially-conscious cover designs of Gamble and Huff’s enterprise.
Christian John Wikane puts everything into perspective in his exemplary essay, in which he’s joined by Bobby Eli as a tour guide through all of the music as well as the personnel. Eli’s reminiscences and observations about the styles of Norman Harris, T.J. Tindall, Vince Montana and others are a complete delight to read. Paul Bevoir’s booklet is typically well-designed. Five bonus tracks have been added to the line-up. Twelve-inch disco mixes of “Nice ‘n’ Naasty,” “It Don’t Have to Be Funky (To Be a Groove),” “Ritzy Mambo” and “It’s Good for the Soul” join the all-killer, no-filler single edit of “Nice ‘n’ Naasty” in the bonus section. “Ritzy Mambo” and Tom Moulton’s remix of “Funky” both extend the original tracks by roughly three minutes; Walter Gibbons’ remixed “Nice” is extended by less than one minute. Gibbons’ “It’s Good for the Soul” is the most radical reworking of the group.
BBR’s reissue of Nice ‘n’ Naasty is so good it’s baaad. Go ahead…dance your ass off!
- It’s Good for the Soul
- It Don’t Have to Be Funky (To Be a Groove)
- Don’t Beat Around the Bush
- Standing and Waiting on Love
- Salsoul 2001
- We’ve Only Just Begun/Feelings
- Ritzy Mambo
- Jack and Jill
- Nice ‘n’ Naasty (12-Inch Disco Mix)
- It Don’t Have to Be Funky (To Be a Groove) (12-Inch Disco Mix)
- Ritzy Mambo (12-Inch Disco Mix)
- It’s Good for the Soul (12-Inch Disco Mix)
- Nice ‘n’ Naasty (Single Version)