Big Break Records has just boarded the B.T. Express – destination: the crossroads of funk, soul, and disco. Give Up the Funk: The B.T. Express Anthology 1974-1982 is a comprehensive, career-spanning 2-CD, 31-track chronicle of the band that scored ten U.S. R&B chart entries (including two No. 1s) and five on the Pop chart (two top 5s).
B.T. Express was formed by Richard “Rick” Thompson on guitar, Bill Risbrook (tenor saxophone), Carlos Ward (alto saxophone), Louis Risbrook (bass), Dennis Rowe (percussion), Terrell Wood (drums) and Barbara Joyce Lomas (vocals) in the New York borough of Brooklyn. Aligned with producer Jeff Lane and the independent Roadshow Records, the band ended up on Scepter Records (still reeling from the loss of its marquee artist, Dionne Warwick, to the Warner Bros. label) via its distribution deal with Roadshow. B.T. Express pulled out of the station like a freight train with its very first single, “Do It (‘Til Your Satisfied)” in 1974. The insistent, catchy track penned by Billy Nichols and mixed by “father of the 12-inch single” Tom Moulton kicks off BBR’s compilation – one of seven sizzling tracks here from the group’s debut album of the same name. “Do It” worked its way up to No. 1 R&B/No. 2 Pop/No. 8 Disco and set the stage for the extended jam “Express” (complete with train whistle!) which repeated the No. 1 R&B success in addition to hitting the summit on the Disco chart and making No. 4 Pop. It even crossed the pond to reach No. 34 on the U.K. Singles Chart. B.T. Express was on the fast track to disco stardom.
That introductory album introduced the many sides of the band, whether via the slinky grooves of “Once You Get It,” the brassy funk of “If It Don’t Turn You On (You Oughta Leave It Alone),” the sassy style of “That’s What I Want for You, Baby” (with Randy Muller’s soaring string chart) and the Norman Whitfield-esque psychedelic soul of “Mental Telepathy.” B.T. Express, guided by producers Jeff Lane and Trade Martin, was rooted in classic R&B and applied enough melodic hooks to their dancefloor riffs to successfully attain crossover success.
For this largely chronologically-arranged collection, songs have been culled from each one of the band’s subsequent six albums, plus a 1980 Greatest Hits LP. 1975’s Non-Stop continued the sound and feel of Do It, right down to the urgently admonishing single “Give It What You Got” (“…to get what you want”), which made the Pop top 40 and R&B top 5. The not-quite-politically-correct “Peace Pipe” was co-written by Brill Building veteran Mark Barkan (“She’s a Fool,” “Pretty Flamingo”). With its storming “Half Breed”-esque intro and driving disco rhythm, it was even more successful, making No. 5 R&B/No. 31 Pop/No. 3 Disco. Non-Stop also indulged in some more mellow moments, including a soulful revival of Bacharach and David’s timeless “Close to You,” with an arrangement by Andrew Smith that happily did its own thing rather than emulate the Carpenters’ hit version. (Its duet format echoes Jerry Butler and Brenda Lee Eager’s rendition, which Butler later reprised with Thelma Houston.)
1976’s Energy to Burn marked a number of changes. It was the band’s first album via Roadshow’s new deal with major label Columbia (as Scepter had folded with Florence Greenberg’s retirement), and also the first to feature new keyboardist and future star Kashif. (Like so many large outfits, B.T. Express experienced a number of personnel changes over the years.) While the group’s cover of Gamble and Huff’s silky “Now That We Found Love” hasn’t made the cut for this anthology, four standout tracks have. Billy Nichols’ “Can’t Stop Groovin’ Now, Wanna Do It Some More” echoed the tribal beat of “Peace Pipe,” and the frantic tempo of the title track looked forward to the group’s next, more explicitly disco-centric LP.
Function at the Junction (1977) didn’t have a cover of Shorty Long’s Motown favorite, but did have a set of upbeat songs that tapped right into the dance zeitgeist such as Carlos Ward’s lush instrumental “Eyes” and the smooth and breezy group-harmony vocal showcase “Sunshine.” For 1978’s Shout!, Jeff Lane vacated the producer’s chair for the first time and was replaced by Billy Nichols, who also contributed to a full six of the album’s nine tracks including “Shout It Out.” The single returned B.T. Express to the upper echelon of the R&B chart by upping the funk quotient that had been underplayed in the disco gloss. The Nichols co-write “What You Do in the Dark” was a bit of suggestive fun, and Carlos Ward’s “Ride On B.T.” a pulsating mission statement for the band.
Backstage, however, B.T. Express was coming apart at the seams. Give Up the Funk is named for the minor hit single off 1980, B.T.’s first album of the new decade. The group itself was vastly different, as Kashif and founding vocalist Barbara Joyce Lomas were among the departures from the line-up. Billy Nichols, too, stepped back. Morrie Brown helmed 1980 in a relatively throwback fashion, with songs like “Does It Feel Good” and “Have Some Fun” fitting into the disco-funk vein the band had already perfected. Kashif’s comments in a Wax Poetics interview, quoted in Stephen “SPAZ” Schnee’s liner notes, are telling: “My musical tastes were very sophisticated. I wanted to play other music. They were happy where they were.” Whereas Kashif saw the direction in which R&B was headed, B.T. Express was creatively at an impasse…for the moment.
When B.T. returned in 1982 for Keep It Up, the group was finally ready to at least partially embrace the keyboard-driven style which would become synonymous with the 1980s. A host of producers came on board including Brad Baker, Jerry Friedman, and Glen Kolotkin. “Let Yourself Go” and the title track echoed the band’s past funk triumphs, but with a pronounced pop leaning. The ebullient “Star Child (Spirit of the Night)” and gleaming “This Must Be the Night for Love” (featuring the lead falsetto vocals of William Robinson, not to be confused with Smokey) nudged B.T. Express closest to a streamlined, contemporary sound. But, after a few more singles on Earthtone and King Davis Records, the group called it a day.
A vibrant listen, Give Up the Funk: The B.T. Express Anthology 1974-1982 collects the best of this fondly remembered band. It has been curated and sequenced with the finesse expected of Big Break and producer Wayne A. Dickson. The packaging in a Super Jewel Box, likewise, is up to the label’s high standards, with an illustrated 16-page booklet featuring Schnee’s liner notes and credits. Nick Robbins and Dickson have crisply remastered these dancefloor classics. This set will, undoubtedly, make your body move!
- Do It (‘Til You’re Satisfied)
- Once You Get It
- That’s What I Want for You Baby
- Mental Telepathy
- If It Don’t Turn You On (You Oughta Leave It Alone)
- This House is Smokin’
- Give It What You Got
- Peace Pipe
- You Got It, I Want It
- Close to You
- Can’t Stop Groovin’ Now, Wanna Do It Some More
- Energy to Burn
- Depend on Yourself
- Make Your Body Move
- Funky Music (Don’t Laugh At My Funk)
- Shout It Out
- What You Do in the Dark
- Ride On B.T.
- Give Up the Funk (Let’s Dance)
- Does It Feel Good
- Have Some Fun
- Funk Theory
- Let Yourself Go
- Keep It Up
- Star Child (Spirit of the Night)
- This Must Be the Night for Love
CD 1, Tracks 1-7 from Do It (‘Til You’re Satisfied), Roadshow/Scepter SPS 7117, 1974
CD 1, Tracks 8-12 from Non-Stop, Roadshow/Scepter RS 41001, 1975
CD 1, Tracks 13-16 from Energy to Burn, Columbia/Roadshow PC 34178, 1976
CD 2, Tracks 1-3 from Function at the Junction, Columbia/Roadshow PC 34702, 1977
CD 2, Tracks 4-6 from Shout!, Columbia/Roadshow PC 35078, 1978
CD 2, Tracks 7-10 from 1980, Columbia/Roadshow JC 35078, 1980
CD 2, Track 11 from Greatest Hits, Columbia/Roadshow JC 36333, 1980
CD 2, Tracks 12-15 from Keep It Up, Coast to Coast/Roadshow FZ 38001, 1982