R&B Gold: Miami Soul Stew

Studying the great American art form of R&B, I often find inspiration from traveling to different parts of the country and digging into the local influences.
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Studying the great American art form of R&B, I often find inspiration from traveling to different parts of the country and digging into the local influences. A recent Mavericks gig on the Sirius-XM Outlaw Country cruise brought us to Miami, the town where lead singer Raul Malo and drummer Paul Deakin grew up. While driving through Raul’s old stomping grounds listening to mixes of our upcoming live album, I started thinking about what sort of local musical influences may have shaped the direction of the band. While originally known for their chart-topping success in the country genre, the Mavericks have long since broadened their scope to become masterful interpreters of Latin, ska, jump, swing, and rock & roll, with a big dose of early R&B. A little research turned up some interesting facts about Miami’s contributions to the R&B world, some surprising connections, and a long-buried gem of a performance from a local boy that did well.

Miami’s cultural diversity creates ideal conditions for great music with deep ties to the Southern traditions of blues and country. It also has a long tradition of jazz—in part nurtured by the world renowned program at the University of Miami—as well as the various flavors from nearby Caribbean islands, such as calypso and soca from Trinidad and Antigua, reggae from Jamaica, salsa from Puerto Rico, and the full spectrum of Afro-Cuban music from Cuba. But it was a Jewish World War II veteran from the Bronx with a love for “race music” (as it was then called) who started recording local talent, eventually building an empire that became a driving force in popular music.

After a brief period working sales and promotion for Jewel and Modern Records, Henry Stone moved to Miami in 1948 and set up his own distribution business and recording studio. While he would later form TK Records, introduce KC & the Sunshine Band, and have a big role in the development of disco, in 1951 Stone recorded four tracks with a young singer/pianist who would go on to change the musical world: Ray Charles. Stone heard Charles performing at a hotel lounge, and set up a session that netted the sides “St. Pete Florida Blues,” “Wondering and Wondering,” “Why Did You Go?,” and “Walking and Talking.” The tracks themselves are of historical importance, but their striking similarities—all of them 12-bar blues forms performed at a slow drag tempo, with the bass playing simple half-notes—show that the artist and producer were not yet fully realized. Charles moved on to bigger and better things after hooking up with Atlantic Records, but these recordings were the beginning of Stone’s shaping of the South Florida musical landscape.

Stone’s first major success was releasing the Charms recording of “Hearts of Stone” in 1954, a track that stayed at #1 for ten weeks, and has remained a cornerstone of the doo-wop repertoire. Typical of a swinging two-feel, the bass plays big, fat half-notes, but instead of pedaling between the root and 5th, he sticks to the root. Stone also played a role in getting James Brown signed to King Records, recording his first hit, “Please, Please, Please.” In 1959, Stone recorded the dance hit “(Do the) Mashed Potatoes” with a group called Nat Kendrick & the Swans, who were actually James Brown’s backup band, the JBs. The instrumental track initially featured Brown shouting the title over the groove, but due to contractual obligations, they overdubbed vocals by someone not instantly recognizable. The original recording with Brown was re-released on The Legendary Henry Stone Presents: Nat Kendrick & the Swans. While a groovy track, bassist Bernard Odum keeps it simple with a half-note, root-5 line over the 12-bar blues progression.

In 1971, Stone scored a major hit with Betty Wright’s “Clean Up Woman,” a track that hit #6 and stayed on the U.S. Pop Singles charts for 14 weeks. The track was co-written by Clarence Reid and Willie Clarke, and featured the thick P-Bass tone of Edmund Collins, a regular in TK Records’ pool of studio bassists. The groove centers on the guitar riff played by Willie Hale, a.k.a. “Little Beaver,” a session guitarist who also recorded many sides as a leader. The bass line (Ex. 1) intertwines with the guitar riff in an interesting way—make sure you can feel the “a” of beat two to nail the entrance of the bass riff. Another Miami R&B artist is pianist/singer/songwriter Latimore, whose 1974 #1 R&B hit “Let’s Straighten It Out” has been covered by Monica and Usher, B.B. King, Etta James, and Clarence Carter. The original recording features a cool tuned-down P-Bass riff played by Ron Bogdon (Ex. 2 is the basic idea). On a 5-string it lies well in one position, but given the year, it was undoubtedly played on a 4-string—with either all of the strings, or just the E string, dropped a whole-step. For simplicity, I’ve tabbed it for D drop-tuning.

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Also in 1974, Little Beaver recorded “I Can Dig It Baby,” a medium-tempo Caribbean feel, with a rare pop-music performance by the Florida Flash himself, Jaco Pastorius. Credited on the album as Nelson (Jocko) Padron, it takes all of two notes before you know who is driving the bus on this track. Jaco historian and curator Bob Bobbing told me he drove Jaco to an audition at Miami’s famed Criterion Studios that led to this session. “Jaco didn’t want to become a session player, but he did want to get his name out there. He played along to the audition track, doing his thing, and one of the other bassists stood up in the middle of it and started yelling, ‘No Fair!’” While the audition didn’t lead to a session career, it did bring him to the attention of Steve Alaimo, a partner of Henry Stone in Alston Records, and a prolific producer in his own right. When a vacancy opened up, Alaimo brought in Pastorius for this one track, and the results are pure R&B gold. Jaco’s bridge-position Jazz Bass tone stands out amidst the thick, chunky P-Bass-dominated genre, and his rhythmic drive brings to mind classics like “Come On Come Over” and “Palladium.” Example 3 is a close approximation of the main riff, a percolating finger-funk line that is classic Jaco.

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Jaco grew up absorbing the local grooves, and one that was always under his hands according to Bobbing was the 1971 hit “Funky Nassau” by the Bahamian group the Beginning Of The End. Bassist Fred Henfield lays into the main groove (Ex. 4) with a fat J-Bass tone, pulling off some astonishing fills before blowing our minds with this syncopated solo break (Ex. 5). Anyone familiar with Jaco’s musical vocabulary will recognize this lick.

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I was initially surprised at the depth of Miami’s influence on the world of R&B, but I now see that I have only scratched the surface. The wealth of talent and material rivals any major-market town, and its history extends back to the earliest days of the genre. It looks like I’ll have to revisit Miami to do the town justice.


Ed Friedland is currently touring with Grammy Award winners the Mavericks, and living outside of Nashville, Tennessee.