The second installment of the Instrumental Voices radio program aired on November 20, featuring live cuts from R&B, Funk, and Soul legends. Live records are special to me because they preserve the social dimensions of the performance. Listen to the audience respond to Donny Hathaway’s “The Ghetto”; one audience member can be heard to say “Alright, this is it,” over Hathaway’s vibrato-laden Wurlitzer intro. Her interjection captures the anticipation and foreknowledge of the landmark recording. Later, when Hathaway asks the audience for a soul-clap, they are so present, so responsive that they don’t miss a beat. Hathaway conducts this antiphony with self-assured grace.
Improvised raps, like that on Curtis Mayfield’s “We’re a Winner” and throughout Curtis/Live, shape the meaning of the performance and preserve important details of the historical and political moment. Mayfield refers to an article in a John H. Johnson publication (Ebony, Negro Digest/Black World) about radio stations’ reluctance to play such a politically-minded, yet relentlessly positive song. As yet, I have not located the precise article to which he refers, but the back issues are all available through Google Books if you want to take a look.
Not only the contextual details, but the musicianship and improvisational genius found in the extended solos, breakdowns, collaborative exchange among performers, the bandleader’s directions, and even the mistakes make these enduring records. The exchange between artists is heightened in the live setting, and there are several cover tunes here. Aretha’s rendition of Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With,” for me, surpasses all other versions. Later on that record, Ray Charles comes to the stage to perform “Spirit in the Dark,” but that recording almost didn’t make it on to the album because Charles was embarrassed about forgetting lyrics, making up his own as he went along (“It’s like a movie star / Talking to Ray Charles”).
This is representative of the way in which cultural memory becomes encoded in these performances–they mark special places and charged moments. Represented here are famous venues like the Apollo, the Fillmore West, the Bitter End, and Carnegie Hall, and festivals like Woodstock, the Monterey Pop Festival, and the Newport Jazz Festival. These live records present an alternative mode of social history–one inscribed in wax.