Masters of Funk Soul & Blues
Phil Hurtt couldn't sleep. That was the problem that set the stage for an epiphany. As the noted Philadelphia producer and songwriter lay awake, tossing and turning in bed one night in 2004, he thought about many things, including his city and his music. That's when an inspiration hit him. In the 60s, Detroit was the center of the music universe, as Motown rightly declared itself the "Sound of Young America." In the 70s, the mantle passed to Philadelphia, with Philadelphia International Records and other local labels bringing a sophisticated, orchestral yet danceable sound to the forefront. But success had receded in both places years ago, perhaps the victim of changing times, perhaps of bad decisions by record executives, perhaps due to the nature of the music industry itself. Yet one thing hadn't gone from Detroit and Philly: the talent. Some had died and everyone (especially the Detroit artists) had aged, but there was still talent. That's what hit Hurtt in the middle of the night. He knew the artists, the musicians, the producers. What if he could bring them all back together for a celebration of those two great cities and eras? Even better, what if he could create a concept project where Philly artists paid homage to Detroit and Detroit artists celebrated Philadelphia? With his ambitious idea in mind, Hurtt says, "I didn't sleep for two years."
Hurtt's goal was not only to get back together with friends in a familiar setting -- the recording studio -- but also to remind the world of the immense talent that was and is present in the two cities, talent that has often failed to receive its just due. During 2005 and 2006 he brought together an amazing collection of artists to fulfill his dream. Legendary performers like Freda Payne, Lamont Dozier and George Clinton as well as lead vocalists from the Trammps, the Stylistics, Blue Magic, the Three Degrees, Sister Sledge and the Delfonics came together. Better yet, Hurtt nabbed the legendary "house bands" of Motown and PIR, The Funk Brothers and MFSB, and began putting the pieces together, flying from Philly to Detroit and back again for multiple recording sessions.
The mass collective called themselves The Masters of Funk, Soul and Blues and the resulting recording, the 2-disc A Soulful Tale of Two Cities, was released in January, 2007.
For lovers of all that was right with popular soul music of the 60s and 70s, A Soulful Tale is an absolute treasure. Beginning with Jean Carne's smoking cover of the Stevie Wonder classic "Higher Ground," the collection runs through a well thought out selection of memorable hits from the two cities. Interestingly, the stars of Soulful Tale are not the Smokey Robinsons and O'Jays that were the faces of their respective labels, but are many of the lesser known but incredibly talented artists of the same era. So MFSB and the Funk Brothers, who only recently began receiving their well deserved public praise, are spotlighted here and sound terrific. And underrated singers such as Carne, Payne, Russell Thompkins Jr. (of the Stylistics), Ted "The Wizard" Mills (of Blue Magic), Jimmy Ellis (of the Trammps) and former Temptations lead Ali Ollie Woodson shine. Perhaps the biggest treat is hearing the strong, memorable vocal performances of a handful of men who were largely cast as writers or producers during the heyday of Detroit and Philadelphia. So cuts like the slow, Gospel-like take on "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" by Bunny Sigler, the soulful cover of "Sunshine" by Motown's Bobby Taylor, Lamont Dozier's reading of "Me and Mrs. Jones" and Hurtt's falsetto, big band rendition of "The Girl's Alright" are particularly pleasant surprises.
It's easy to give A Soulful Tale of Two Cities the benefit of the doubt and to want to like it, due to the presence of so many talented, underappreciated artists. But fortunately, nostalgia doesn't have to play a role in enjoying this disc. It stands on its own as a singular pleasure and a welcome platform for an amazing group of performers who sound as good in 2007 as they did decades earlier.
by Chris Rizik