Do the Tighten Up
'Texas Funk' Spreads the Little-known Gospel
Sometimes you have to cross an ocean to find something good in your own back yard. Such is the case with Texas Funk, released last fall on London-based Jazzman Records. Archiving 20 obscure Lone Star funk sides (and one from nearby Shreveport) from the late Sixties and early Seventies, Texas Funk unearths a largely unknown stratum of Texas music history.
Funk sprouted forth as an adjunct to Southern soul in the mid-Sixties with James Brown hits like "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Down in New Orleans, the Meters tapped the essential groove with polyrhythmic exercises like "Sophisticated Cissy," while in Houston, Archie Bell & the Drells gave lessons on a new dance called the "Tighten Up."
Although it was the T.S.U. Toronados and not the Drells backing Bell on the actual record, "Tighten Up" topped both the pop and R&B charts in 1968. Bell's H-Town name-check in the song's intro sealed its status as Texas' most readily identifiable contribution to funk, but Texas Funk proves there's much more to it than "Tighten Up."
Compiled by UK collectors/DJs Gerald Short and Malcolm Catto, Texas Funk is the result of two years of research on both sides of the Atlantic, locating artists and master tapes. Unlike less scrupulous compilers, the pair also took pains to ensure every track is fully licensed.
"We're eight hours ahead [of Texas], so it involved regularly staying up until the early hours, making hundreds of phone calls," relates Short. "It was also difficult because the only information we had to find out about the artists was what was written on the original record label, which meant a lot of cold calling trying to find a person who we thought lived in a particular town or area."
Geographically speaking, funk was all over Texas three decades back. From Longview to El Paso, energetic, club-honed groups waxed killer singles in limited pressings that command premium prices today. While often quite obvious in their emulation of established acts like Sly & the Family Stone and War, there's something unique about all of these groups.
"They added something extra," offers Short, "something that can only come from having what I would call a strong sense of identity and ability to do their own thing."
The high school kids in Longview's Majestics, for example, deftly break James Brown's vocal style down to a series of grunts on top of a relentless, tight-nut instrumental that belies their age on 1969's "Funky Chick." San Antonio's Little Jesse Jr. & His Teardrops & the Tears kick off their charmingly erratic 1971 instrumental "Funky Stuff" with a foghorn that sounds like an expedient version of the sirens that begin the Ohio Players' 1975 hit, "Fire." The El Paso-based Soul Ones' primitive percussion jam from 1971, "Soul Pot," approximates the sonic sensation of having a great band just outside your bedroom window.
In some ways, the proliferation of funk in Texas during the late Sixties parallels the state's garage rock output during the same period. As Josh Davis, aka DJ Shadow, points out in the liner notes, "Making wild, violent music was one of the few relatively safe ways of letting off steam in a territory where the long arm of the law reached further than most."
Pasadena-based producer/songwriter C.L. Milburn produced garage rock tunes like "Make Me Some Love" by the Knightsbridge, as well as two of Texas Funk's harder cuts: "Funky Smunk" by the Brothers Seven and a previously unreleased recording of Bobby & the Premiers doing James Brown's "I Got the Feeling." The latter is punctuated by a ferocious vocal from Bobby Rosales that just about splits your head open.
"Bobby opened a lot for James Brown and played with some other R&B groups, because at the time, they were the top group in El Paso," Milburn recalls. "The Brothers Seven, being in Central Texas, they had their own thing going in that area. What it was, I really can't tell you, but it was just a little different."
Austin-based collector/DJ Noel Waggener, who designed the album's striking cover art, helps spread the Texas funk gospel every other month when his Waxploitation DJ collective puts on a soul dance-party at the Continental Club. He believes the breadth of styles explored by these artists helps Texas stand out from the pack.
"You have a really diverse range of sounds within the Texas sound," says Waggener. "You have the real southern-fried sound of what Lou Pride & the Groove Merchants were doing out at Suemi Studios in West Texas. Then you have black psychedelia, like the Fabulous Mark III's 'Psycho' from here in Austin."
"Psycho (Parts 1 & 2)" may be the greatest Austin single never heard. Recorded in 1972 at Lone Star Studios, produced by Mark III vocalist Larry Hargrove and released on James Polk's Twink label, "Psycho" is one of the most sought after 45s among funk collectors. The instrumental starts off with a jarring, freeform freak-out before launching into a frenetic car-chase score with racing horns and congas.
Polk, long one of the fathers of Austin jazz, founded Twink in 1969, borrowing the nickname of the Hide-A-Way Lounge's proprietor for the label's moniker. The organist initially created the label as an outlet for his own group, James Polk & the Brothers, whose gritty, jazz-flavored single "Power Struggle" also appears on Texas Funk. Polk started the Brothers in 1962 while attending Huston-Tillotson College. The group's first show was at the Flamingo Lounge on Chicon Street.
"Austin was a very good place to play funk and R&B during those years," Polk recalls. "It was before integration destroyed the black neighborhood. There were many black establishments for bands to play, and large black audiences who appreciated the music."
Though black musicians performed the majority of the songs on Texas Funk, the album also highlights the contributions of Mexican-American acts that dabbled in funk at the time, including Tejano legends Sunny Ozuna and "Little" Joe Hernandez. Ozuna's Sunny & the Sunliners deliver a smoky rendition of War's "Get Down," while Little Joe & the Latinaires turn James Brown's "Soul Pride" into a Chicano power anthem.
Most of the artists on Texas Funk were unaware of the cultlike following their records were attracting, especially in the UK.
"They were always surprised," says Short. "Very often it was something they did 30 years ago and had almost forgotten about. Some of them denied it and had to be reminded. Some didn't care, saying it was old stuff that wasn't relevant any more. We had to persuade them that the music they made all those years ago was relevant and so good that people would want to listen and dance to it today!"
There's a long history of British music fans rekindling interest in "lost" American soul music, exemplified by the "Northern Soul" movement that grew out of northern Britain's dance clubs during the early Seventies.
"There have always been funk collectors, too, but nowhere near on as large a scale as Northern Soul," explains Short. "But a few years ago, Scottish Northern Soul DJ Keb Darge switched to playing funk 45s, and he gained quite a following, so interest started to rise."
Having found an audience in the UK, Short is working to release Texas Funk stateside through Stone's Throw Records. In the meantime, the import's high sticker price will be of little consequence to Texan aficionados of hard funk. The rush of exhilaration one feels upon stumbling onto this treasure trove is analogous to buying a pair of used bell-bottoms and finding a $20 bill in the pocket.
The era of large funk ensembles tapered off with the mid-Seventies ascendance of disco. "The club owners thought they could just play a disco record and have a drummer and just pay the DJ and drummer," says Waggener. "Then it got to where it was only the records."
While some of the artists drifted away from music, others evolved and kept at it. Polk went on to join the Ray Charles Orchestra in 1978, serving as pianist, organist, arranger, and conductor over his 10-year tenure. He now serves as associate director of Jazz Studies at Southwest Texas State and performs regularly around Austin. In 2001, Polk reactivated Twink to release When Evening Comes, an album of his jazz compositions. C.L. Milburn continues to write songs and produce, and Larry Hargrove had a minor hit in 1998 with "Leave Bill Clinton Alone."
"A lot of what's on the Texas Funk compilation is just a moment in time, and it's not necessarily part of any continuity in the life of a band or anything," observes Waggener. "It's just a moment in these individuals' lives. They may have gone on to be a welder or a state worker or city councilman or whatever. That just may be one small moment in their lives, but it's preserved on wax forever."