“Makes no difference if you’re black or white.” Words spoken by that modern philosopher Michael Jackson. Actually in the America of the ’60’s it did seem to matter a tad but perhaps not just as much in certain musical circles. As we talked about funk in the very first article it was a hybrid of musical influence, jazz, latin and soul being the 3 major influences. But in certain areas there were other more bizarre influences, ones that stretched musical boundaries into weird shapes and sounds and fusions that led the way for others who weren’t confused to follow.
Who amongst us haven’t gone through boxes of vinyl, seen a familiar label, ie. Motown and checked the £1 sign in the corner and thought, “I’m having that!”?
Well I’ve done it on more than one occasion and then committed the mortal sin of forgetting about it for several years! Then about 5 years ago Disco made a comeback and because I was doing some Retro-DJ-ing I started to pick up 12″ singles like they were going out of fashion! In amongst such crackers by Brainstorm and Eugene Record I also picked up “Spirit Groove” by Mandre. I remembered the album with the silver helmeted refugee from the 1050’s sci-fi movie, “The Day The Earth Stood Still” and wrongly thought that it would be a Meco clone (remember those scary discofied versions of “Star Wars” and Close Encounters”)? How wrong can one man be! But it still wasn’t happening for me until I picked up a 99p CD, the soundtrack for the film “The Ice Storm”. I played it and was blown away by a track by Frank Zappa, “Dirty Love”. Now I knew that there was a funk connection with Zappa already. For when Roger Troutman named his group Zapp Frank was ready to go to court over the name until he learned that Bootsy Collins was the man behind the production and so he dropped it out of respect for the man! Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention were initially named “The Soul Giants” and a later line-up included that Jazz Funk giant George Duke who had been testing the water with several experimental outings prior to becoming involved with Zappa. Originally The George Duke Trio’s first gig in a rock-oriented venue came in early 1969 at a club in Los Angeles called Thee Experience. In the audience were Cannonball Adderly, Quincy Jones and Frank Zappa. George teamed up with Frank Zappa and toured for a year before joining Nat “Cannonball” Adderly in January 1971before rejoining Frank Zappa in 1973.
At this stage I want to completely baffle you by throwing another name into the article. One Captain Beefheart. Why? Because the Captain was a High School friend of Frank Zappa’s and musically the two of them, whilst appearing miles away from the acceptable view of black American music, were both lovers, respecters and contributors to the musical movement in America that came about after the Civil Rights Movement had broken down certain barriers and before Sly & The Family Stone championed the cause from a black perspective. Also, like Zappa, a number of musicians played on various Beefheart albums but not as fully paid up members of his Magic Band. They have been session players brought in to provide a particular sound. The Blackberries backing vocals were such and on “Clear Spot” (1972) this trio of female backing vocalists added harmony to the wonderful “Too Much Time” with its Stax-like feel. The Blackberries were made up of former Ikette Venetta Fields alongside Billie Barnum and Clydie King and during 1972/73 they were also backing singers for Humble Pie and then Pink Floyd. At Mowest they had an unissued single “Somebody Up There” backed by “But I Love Him” (Mowest 5020 ) as well as an unreleased album the self-titled The Blackberries. Another unissued album for Motown was the interestingly titled, “Eat It” but they did however appear on Tom Clay’s remarkable Mowest outing “What The World Needs Now Is Love/Abraham, Martin & John” which reached No.8 Nationally in the USA in 1971. This was a time when the Hippy movement and musicals like “Hair” had brought America kicking and screaming out of the 60’s and musicians had led a united front against bigotry and segregation. Something Funk had played an integral part in.
Move on now to finding some unmarked cassettes. I bunged them in my car tape player and was pretty impressed by the tracks but totally confused as to who they were by. Then “Spirit Groove” came on and the penny started to drop. Then a version of “Dirty Love” stormed out of the tape machine almost rising up to slap me into awareness that somewhere in my attic lay hidden treasures that I should have paid more attention to outside of obviously making a tape of it which I also chose to ignore. Oh well.
So who or what was Mandre? Well according to the Motown press machine Mandre was “funkier than Parliament” whilst another rumour was that Andre Lewis, the man in the mask, was uglier than sin, hence the silver orb! Considering that the label had signed Rick James during the same period I can’t believe that one, unless they only had the one mask to go ’round. Andre Lewis hails from Omaha and followed in his father’s musical footsteps. Lewis Sr. was a saxophone player with Duke Ellington and Count Basie later supporting the likes of Fats Domino, The Silhouettes, The Isley Brothers and Chuck Berry as well as being the bandleader for Etta James.
By the age of 13 Andre Lewis was himself travelling with the likes of Sam Cooke, The Orlons and Johnnie Taylor and also became a bandleader for his great friend Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson. Lewis was also one of the first musicians using multiple signal processors on keyboards and later helped pioneer the use of synthesizers on records and worked on developing the first digital drum machines. So, Mr Leedham, now you know who to blame. When Miles Davis wanted to form a rock band Lewis was in his mind and it was his ability to move effortlessly between musical genres that has made him so unique. By 1970 he had begun to work with fellow Omaha son, Buddy Miles and played organ on Miles’ original version of “Them Changes”. A year later a more rousing treatment was performed by King Curtis and issued as a single from his “Live At Philmore” set months before his premature death. Also in 1971 Lewis again played organ on the Buddy Miles track “Message To The People”
and by 1972 he had signed to Capricorn Records under the group name of Maxayn, named after his then wife’s name who was also lead singer in the group. Other group members were Emilio Thomas, and Marlo Henderson who contributed to, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest Soul albums of the 70’s, the 1974 release of “Perfect Angel” by Minnie Riperton. As well as that he also recorded on “I Am” by Earth, Wind & Fire and “Rejoice”, “Sunbeam” and “Come Into Our World”, the 3 Maurice White produced albums by The Emotions upon their departure from Volt.
Maxayn’s music was part funk and part gospel with a timeless quality similar to that which is heard in the Chess/Janus material of Minnie Riperton and which paved the way for contemporary singers like Lauryn Hill and Erika Badhu. After the self-titled debut Maxayn released the follow up, “Mindful”in 1973 while Lewis worked on other projects such as Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson’s “Listen” album (1973) for which he played bass and keyboards. The set featured the classic “Don’t Want To Be A Lone Ranger”. Also in ’73 he contributed to two other underrated sets, Labelle’s “Pressure Cookin'” for which he played organ, drums, bass, electric piano and clavinet, and D.J.Rogers self-titled debut on the Shelter label. Labelle had moved from Warner Bros. to RCA for this one album before signing to Epic where they would achieve world domination with “Nightbirds” featuring “Lady Marmalade”. Amazingly DJ Rogers went the same route, first to RCA and then to Columbia. Of the two the Rogers album is considered the strongest, an undiscovered soul classic whereas Labelle were still cutting their teeth.
Whilst working on the Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson album he went to a Guitar Centre on Sunset Boulevard to pick up some bass strings and a chance encounter led Marty Perillis, who was at that time Zappa’s road manager to phone him for an audition.
After George Duke left Zappa’s Mothers Of Invention in 1976 Andre Lewis took over keyboard duties and was one of the only musicians that Zappa hired who couldn’t read music but this was compensated for by the fact that he could remember material after one listening. With Maxayn Andre Lewis still had one final album for Capricorn and “Bail Out for Fun”was released in 1974 after which Maxayn bailed out of their contract but the group re-emerged in 1976 with Motown records contracting with Winston and Iris Gordy (Berry Gordy’s sister). Under the new name of Mandre (from M. Andre Lewis) he became one of the first people to record with a drum machine and synthesizers and was a tester for Roland products. His debut album included “Solar Fight(Opus 1” )as featured as a theme song for Wide World of Sports, a funky version of “Money (That’s What I Want)”, “Dirty Love” originally cut by Frank Zappa and “Masked marauder” co-written by Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson. Mandre kept the core of the group Maxayn intact but it was definitely Andre Lewis’s project and a showcase for his keyboard skills as Maxayn Lewis moved from the front to do backing vocals. More of the same followed in 1978 with the creatively titled “Mandre Two” before the third and final album “M3000” appeared in 1979. By the early 1980s, Maxayn Lewis could be heard singing on tracks by the Gap Band while Andre began to move towards Gospel music becoming the Music Director for a local BaptistChurch back in Omaha. Along the way he had trod a path that had seen him working alongside the aforementioned heavyweights as well as with Rufus, Carl Carlton, Angela Bofill, Stacey Latisaw, Edwin Starr, Charles Wilson and the Gap Band, Sly Stone, Bobby Womack, Freda Payne and Ike Turner. No mean feat for someone I’d left stuck in my attic for so long!