CHARLES WRIGHT & THE WATTS 103RD STREET RHYTHM BAND : The Charles Wright Remasters (Label: Rhino)

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Although a native of Clarksdale, Mississippi – the birthplace of John Lee Hooker and located in the heartland of delta blues country – guitarist/pianist Charles Wright found fame in the late 1960s as one of funk music’s leading lights. He fronted a west coast multi-racial aggregation that reached its undoubted creative apogee with the freewheeling and subsequently much-sampled funk anthem, ‘Express Yourself’ in 1970. The band recorded six albums between the years 1967-1972, all of which have just been reissued in the UK on CD for the first time on Rhino. As well as being remastered from the original studio tapes, the majority of the CDs are supplemented by a large cache of previously unissued bonus tracks that have been discovered languishing in the Warner Bros. vaults. The group was originally formed in 1967 by producer, Fred Smith, who was looking for musicians to back up comedian, Bill Cosby. The majority of the group were members of Wright’s band, The Wright Sounds, but under Smith’s direction, changed their name to the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band. The outfit’s debut album, ‘HOT HEAT & SWEET GROOVE,’ was attired in a wacky, pop-art-style cover but sounds more contrived and rigid than truly ‘far out’ – it’s a curious blend of rambunctious party R&B (‘Caesar’s Palace’), kitsch pseudo-psychedelic covers (‘Yellow Submarine’ and ‘Girl From Ipanema’) and loping, bluesy, sax-infused proto-funk (the Ramsey Lewis-tinged ‘Spreadin’ Honey’). With Smith’s influence waning, the group had loosened up by 1968’s sophomore effort, ‘TOGETHER.’ The grooves are more fluid, exemplified by ’65 Bars & A Taste Of Soul’ and the super-soulful ‘A Dance, A Kiss & A Song’ (penned by the group’s drummer, James Gadson). On the downside, the album features a host of covers (ranging from James Brown’s ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag’ to the Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’) but there’s no denying the group’s energy. The new CD reissue contains eight additional tracks. The group’s loose-limbed, sunshine funk evolved further by the time of 1969’s excellent ‘IN THE JUNGLE BABE,’ which from a sonic perspective illustrated that they had discovered their own identity at last. It contains the group’s big Stateside smash, ‘Love Land’ (another superb Gadson tune), the epic ballad ‘Comment’ and irresistibly funky morsels like ‘Till You Get Enough’ and an incendiary version of Sly Stone’s ‘Everyday People (In The Jungle).’ The pivotal album in the group’s output was 1970’s ‘EXPRESS YOURSELF,’ by which time Wright had separate billing from the rest of the band. As well as the anthemic title song, the band revamped ‘Express Yourself’ on the 1971 LP, ‘YOU’RE SO BEAUTIFUL,’ which also contains ‘Just To Settle My Nerves.’ However, according to Wright in the accompanying liner notes, tensions within the group resulted in it being the singer/guitarist’s final official recording with the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band. Wright’s valedictory opus for Warner Bros was ‘RHYTHM & POETRY’ a solo venture from 1972. Consisting mostly of lengthy, funk-fuelled jams (‘Soul Train’ and the interminable ‘Run Jody Run’), it patently lacks inspiration and sounds like Wright was running out of creative gas after the core of his band (including Gadson and Ray Jackson) had defected to join Bill Withers. Completists, of course, and funk fanatics will want to acquire all six reissues – however, a more discriminating listener will probably find ample reward in just picking up a copy of ‘In The Jungle Babe’ or ‘Express Yourself,’ which represent the pinnacle of this pioneering funk group’s canon.

(CW) 4/5