The slyly insinuating groove of “Spreadin’ Honey” opens Varese Vintage’s new collection dedicated to Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, and it’s a more than appropriate choice. Beginning with that 1967 single for the small Keymen label, Wright has spread his brand of musical honey over tough funk grooves to create a small but still beloved, and frequently sampled, catalogue. The Best of Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band is a vivid overview of the group’s 1969-1972 period at Warner Bros. Records – and even beyond.
Warner Bros. became acquainted with Wright, then a successful session guitarist, when he and his band backed Bill Cosby on his 1967 hit single “Little Old Man.” Wright and his crew were signed in their own right to the Burbank label before the year was out. Their first, self-titled LP (also known as Hot Heat and Sweet Groove) is overlooked here, likely as Wright has disavowed it over the years. It wasn’t until he solidified the band’s line-up that the “true” Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band was born: saxophonist Big John Rayford, bassist Melvin Dunlap, drummer James Gadson, trumpeter Gabe Flemings, trombonist Ray Jackson, guitarist Al McKay, and another saxophonist, Bill Cannon. (The line-up would alter, however, throughout Wright’s Warner Bros. tenure.)
This new collection kicks off in earnest, then, with 1969’s “Do Your Thing,” recorded live at the Haunted House. A throbbing funk workout inspired by the varying dances happening simultaneously in the club, it lacked conventional melody or even much in the way of lyrics, but the power of the rhythm and Wright’s potent guitar lead saw it climb all the way to No. 11 Pop/No. 12 R&B in 1969. “Less is more” was proven with strong, subsequent tracks like “Do Your Thing” and the tough “Till You Get Enough” with its unrelenting beat and horn stabs. The B-side of the latter, Wright and Yusuf Rahman’s “Comment,” was a solemn ballad of social consciousness, swathed in strings; “the band hated it,” reveals Wright in Bill Dahl’s liner notes.
Though the band concentrated on original material, one choice cover reprised here came from the pens of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Their dramatic “I Wake Up Crying,” introduced in 1961 by Chuck Jackson, brought out the tenderness in Wright’s rough-hewn voice; his slow-burning arrangement from the 1969 album Together made subtle use of orchestration as well as his taut guitar.
“Must Be Your Thing” (1969) was the first 45 to place Wright’s name in front of his band, and he had taken over as sole producer, but the band’s immediate, seemingly improvised sound was largely unchanged. Still, there were detours from the established template. One was 1970’s “Love Land,” a pop-friendly R&B nugget. Featuring a vocal from drummer James Gadson, Wright noted to Dahl that the sprightly, melodic confection was “the hardest thing I ever did.” Gadson added, “I think I had to go back three times to do ‘Love Land.'” Wright and Rahman’s “Tell Me What You Want to Do” was in a pleading, classic soul mold. But it was the same year’s irresistible, back-to-basics admonition to “Express Yourself” that became the band’s most successful song, peaking at No. 3 R&B/No. 12 Pop.
The tunes here are as varied as possible. 1971’s “Nobody (Tellin’ Me About My Baby)” alternates between uptempo and mellow moods. The throat-shredding declaration that “Your Love (Means Everything to Me)” was another top ten R&B hit that year, but the hits would soon dry up. The B-side “What Can You Bring Me,” written and sung by Gadson, is hard-hitting and imploring. Varese has included one outtake (the energetic, urgent “Keep Saying”) which premiered on a 1993 CD compilation.
After five albums with the band, Wright recorded one solo LP for Warner Bros. (1972’s Rhythm and Poetry) before moving to ABC/Dunhill for another couple of albums. But compilation producers Wright, Cary Mansfield, and Bill Dahl have brought this musical story completely up to date with the inclusion of two new, previously unreleased tracks from the songwriter/bandleader/arranger. The uplifting “Happiness” has the danceable rhythms and riffs that are hallmarks of classic Wright (with a more contemporary production sheen, of course), balancing smooth verses with a driving chorus. “Remember That Thing” is a greasy groove-based tune in the vein of Wright’s funkiest.
Dahl has provided the new liner notes here, and Now Sounds’ Steve Stanley has attractively designed the entire package in period style. The Best of Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, a fine tribute to Wright’s lasting contributions to funk and R&B, is available today from Varese Vintage!
- Spreadin’ Honey
- Do Your Thing
- I Wake Up Crying
- Till You Get Enough
- Must Be Your Thing
- Comment (If All Men Are Truly Brothers)
- Love Land
- Express Yourself
- Tell Me What You Want Me to Do
- Your Love (Means Everything to Me)
- What Can You Bring Me
- Nobody (Tellin’ Me About My Baby)
- I Got Love
- Keep Saying
- Remember That Thing
Track 1 from Keymen single 108, 1967
Track 2 from Warner Bros. single 7250, 1969
Track 3 from Together, Warner Bros. LP 1761, 1969
Tracks 4 & 6 from Warner Bros. single 7298, 1969
Track 5 from Warner Bros. single 7338, 1969
Track 7 from Warner Bros. single 7365, 1970
Track 8 from Warner Bros. single 7417, 1970
Track 9 from Express Yourself, Warner Bros. LP 1664, 1970
Track 10 from Warner Bros. single 7475, 1971
Track 11 from You’re So Beautiful, Warner Bros. LP 1664, 1971
Track 12 from Warner Bros. single 7504, 1971
Track 13 from Warner Bros. single 7577, 1972
Track 14 first released on Express Yourself, Warner Archives CD 45306, 1993
Tracks 15-16 previously unreleased