Best of Perception & Today Records compiled by DJ Spinna and BBE Soundsystem
Perception Productions, a New York based label that ran from the late 60s through until 1974, was a strangely eclectic affair. Its roster stretched from a radical Afro-American poet through to the pop band King Harvest whose hit ‘Dancing In The Moonlight’ became a massive hit for the UK band Toploader a couple of decades later. The inbetween points covered jazz, funk, vocal harmony soul and proto-disco. In fact distilled down into this compilation the label provides us a view of Manhattan’s black music scene of the period, from the established greats to the fresh young things who would make their mark in the coming years. The two men who ran the label, President Terry Phillips and Boo Frazier burned brightly for that half a decade before almost entirely disappearing from the music scene.
When they started up the label their initial signings suggested that the black high arts were their true love. The first year saw Shirley Horn, James Moody and the most famous of them all Dizzy Gillespie signed in quick succession. Gillespie is one of African-American music’s most important figures, who in the 1940s alongside Charlie Parker figureheaded the revolutionary changes in jazz that were labeled Bebop. He was rarely without a record deal from that day forth until his death in 1993, so getting him to sign to the new label was something of a coup. He made two albums for the label, the second ‘Portrait Of Jenny’ was a beautiful jazz album, but his debut ‘The Real Thing’ put him in a more contemporary setting. The funking up of Dizzy was a success and the two tracks we feature here are groove jazz masterpieces. In particular Mike Longo’s ‘Matrix’ has been long sought after by collectors and is a well known sample used most effectively by the Beatnuts on their track ‘World Famous’. The saxophonist – and flute player – James Moody is a contemporary of Gillespie’s his playing was nearly as well respected. He had first recorded in the 1940s, but had often had problems with addiction, which had at times, seem him hospitalised. By the early 70s these problems were largely behind him and he was becoming a respected elder statesman in the music world. He also recorded two albums for Perception ‘The Teachers’ and ‘Heritage Hum’ from where we draw the lovely title track. ‘The Teachers’ was recorded with a young jazz-rock group called the Albert who released two albums for Perception both called ‘The Albert’. Fronted by vocalist Otis Smith ‘One Life’ is lifted from the first.
By the early 70s jazz was going through a tough period and it may have occurred to Phillips and Frazier that if their labels were going to survive they needed to diversify, however their jazz leanings continued throughout the label’s time. Organist Julius Brockington was a young talent and a typical leader of an organ combo, the most popular format for the jazz clubs in the Black neighbourhoods of the day. His records are in not especially sophisticated, in some ways the music is organ funk or RnB, rather than jazz, as can be seen on this frantic cover version of Aretha Franklin’s ‘Rocksteady’. He also had a single for Perception with his family group the Brockington’s ‘I Just Got To Know’. Brockington and his band backed Baltimore based poet Wanda Robinson on her second album for the label ‘Me And My Friend’ from which we lift ‘A Possibility (Back Home)’. Her first album was produced by Anthony Davis, but features two tracks that use the backing tracks from the Patrick Adams produced group Black Ivory (more of whom later), one of these ‘Instant Replay’ used the group’s ‘I Keep Asking You Questions’ as its background music. You can listen and compare. Saxophonist Tyrone Washington signed to the label in 1972 to record the obscure album ‘Roots’ which had Hubert Eves on piano. Washington had gotten his breakthrough in the late 60s when he worked with Horace Silver and recorded his debut album for Blue Note.
Brazilian singer Astrud Gilberto was one of the most successful jazz artists of the 60s with her records for Verve, most notably the hit ‘Girl From Ipanema’ recorded with Stan Getz. Her sole album for Perception was something of a gem, with arrangements by Eumir Deodato who at the time was at the height of his success with Creed Taylor’s CTI label. She is backed by an all-star group that includes Airto Moreira, Billy Cobham, Patrick Adams and Mike Longo. Produced by the singer herself, it featured the wonderful ‘Gingele’ and a stunning version of Jorge Ben’s ‘Take It Easy My Brother Charlie’. The final fruit of Perceptions’ dalliance with jazz that we look at is Joe Thomas’ ‘Is The Ebony Godfather’. The flautist was nearly 40 when he made this album for Today, late some would say but the good grooves of ‘Chitlins & Cutchifrutos’ and his version of Gary Byrd’s proto rap ‘Every Brother Ain’t A Brother’ obviously attracted the attention of jazz producer Sonny Lester with whom Joe spent the rest of the 70s recording for his Groove Merchant and LRC labels.
When they stepped into the soul and funk arena Perception / Today really found their feet through two people in particular Bill Curtis from the Fatback Band and a young producer called Patrick Adams. The Harlem born Adams was just into his twenties when he began working for the label and he proved incredibly versatile. With Jon Bartel he produced funk rock which was clearly being aimed the same audience that was propelling Motown’s group Rare Earth to the top of the charts. Jon Bartel was the singer songwriter who fronted a group that included Larry O’Brien on guitars and Abe Blaingame on percussion (the LP label credits the artist as the Jon Bartel Thing). Bartel recorded a single album for Perception which came out in 1972 and you can perceive Adams at work in the rhythm guitar arrangement of ‘Naturally Good’, whilst ‘You’ve Just Been Bitten’ includes a big break just waiting to be sampled. Adams also produced the radical funk group Madhouse who’s album ‘Serve ‘Em’ features a vicious caricature of Richard Nixon and a sleeve note that states that the group just knew that the American people would sentence themselves to four more years of hell in the 1972 Presidential election.
His greatest moments at the label came with Black Ivory which was the group that also first introduced the musical world to the genius of Leroy Burgess. Both Burgess and Adams are today lauded as some of the most important figures in the history of dance music, Adams with his songwriting and productions on his own P&P label and for scores of others. Burgess as a performer – often with Adams – and also as a songwriter and producer. Black Ivory were formed when Harlem native Leroy Burgess met his then girlfriends brother Larry Newkirk and discovered that he had a group called the Mellow Souls, after hearing Leroy’s voice Larry asked him to join the group. by the time they joined Today the group consisted of Leroy, Russell Patterson and Stuart Bascombe. They recorded two albums for the Today ‘Don’t Turn You Around’ and ‘Baby, Won’t You Change Your Mind’. We’ve lifted all three tracks we use from their debut album, which was recorded in New York and at Sigma Sound in Philadelphia. The strings and uplifting choruses on ‘Surrender’ and ‘You Keep Asking Me Questions’ certainly reflect the emerging Philadelphia sound, whilst ‘You and I’ shows the group’ roots in vocal harmony singing. Their greatest success came after leaving Today to go to Buddah, most notably their dance classic ‘Mainline’ from 1979.
The Fatback Band’s history is very much that of how street funk developed in New York. Bill Curtis had been in New York since the early 50s, and had been an on the road drummer who had played behind all the big stars of the time either on tours that travelled around the country or as part of the legendary Apollo Theatre’s house band. By the late 60s he was working out of Queens, providing bands for all sorts of events from club gigs to weddings, from covering chart hits to playing calypso. He also had his own label for which he provided the main band, known after the label – and Bill’s drumming style- as The Fatback Band. Tiring of never being paid as an independent label he decided to hand that task over to someone else and signed to Perception in 1971. Their first breakthrough came when with the release of their debut album ‘Let’s Do It Again’ the track ‘Going To See My Baby’ was picked out by New York’s number one soul DJ Frankie Crocker who started playing it on his show. With his support the group broke through with hits such as ‘Njia (Nija) Walk’ from their second album ‘People Music’. They were rapidly picking up an audience and their final release for the label ‘Dance Girl’ was proving to be very popular when Perception went bust and the record was lost. Fatback then signed to Spring’s ‘Event’ label and went on to massive international success with amongst others ‘Spanish Hustle’ and ‘I Found Lovin’.
Much of the rest of the label’s roster was filled up with one off recordings aiming at greater success. The Eight Minutes for instance where a family group from Chicago who were clearly being aimed at the market dominated by The Jackson 5. Produced by James L Porter, their one album ‘An American Family’ showed that they were of a higher quality than most of the acts that tried to muscle in on this territory as evidenced by the tracks that we feature. JJ Barnes and Debbie Taylor were soul singers who recorded in many places both before and after Perception. Barnes’ biggest success came in Detroit in the late 60s but his recordings at Perception were perfectly pitched to show off his voice. Debbie Taylor released the album ‘Coming Down To You’ on Today to little notice which is a shame because numbers like ‘Too Sad To Tell’ deserve more attention. Bobby Rydell had been a pop singer for Cameo Parkway Records in Philadelphia in the early 60s, he clearly had a decent voice as shown on ‘Honeybuns’ but he was a strange signing to Perception / Today.
I’ve saved a final mention for the Johnny Pate written and arranged Blaxploitation soundtrack for ‘Brother On The Run’. Pate was an accomplished jazz bassist, recording for the Bethlehem label in the 50s. In the 60s he found himself much in demand as the consummate arranger on the Chicago soul scene working alongside Curtis Mayfield on much of his seminal production work. In the early 70s he recorded the ‘Outrageous’ album for MGM and also made two fantastic soundtrack albums. The most famous of these is ‘Shaft In Africa’ with the acid jazz classic ‘You Can’t Even Walk In The Park’. Just as good is the rare ‘Brother On The Run’, which features Pate alongside a stellar line up of Joe Beck on guitar, Jerry Dodgion on reeds, and a main theme sung by Adam Wade.
When Perception closed its doors in 1974 it had been producing records for nearly 5 years. It’s left behind a legacy of great soul, funk and jazz which is contained within the compilation.
Dean Rudland- December 2011