THE BLACKBYRDS: TALKING IN RHYTHM
With their haunting, Grammy-nominated single 'Walking In Rhythm' hitting the British mainstream airwaves and pop charts in the early summer of 1975, self-contained quintet The Black-byrds unquestionably achieved the first serious breakthrough for jazz-funk music in the UK.
Initially amalgamating while studying music, The Blackbyrds were originally the brainchild of jazz trumpeter supreme Donald Byrd. When, during his days as a music master at Washington`s Howard University, he decided to take the cream of the musicians under his guidance and turn them into a band (hence the name “Blackbyrds”!). While Byrd first intended the band to merely support him in concert, it wasn`t long before he shrewdly began to see the major potential of a young, sharp-looking group playing funky jazz, and eventually signed them to Fantasy Records - as a group in their own right - in 1973. With the outfit`s self-titled 1974 debut album immediately attaining Gold status in America (pioneered by the disco-flavoured funker 'Do It Fluid'), The Blackbyrds arguably reached their successful peak in 1975 with two further big-selling albums - 'Flying Start' (featuring the aforementioned 'Walking In Rhythm') and 'City Life' (which in turn spawned the soul-funk classic 'Rock Creek Park').
With the seven consistently-successful studio albums they released on Fantasy from 1974 to 1980 all boasting a classy blend of jazz, soul, Latin and funk, The Blackbyrds would become a major inspiration to late Seventies/early Eighties British jazz-funk acts like Light Of the World and Hi-Tension. While, with the likes of Gang Starr, Da Lench Mobb and Full Force sampling their music, they have also - more recently - made a significant impact on today`s hip hop generation.
Relaxing backstage immediately following their well-received Saturday afternoon live set at the recent 42nd Southport Weekender, three members of The Blackbyrds` stellar mid-Seventies hit-making line-up - drummer Keith Killgo; bass-player/vocalist Joe Hall III; and guitarist Orville Saunders II - enjoy a brief-yet-interesting chat with 'B&S'.
Current recording activities?
Keith Killgo: “I have a new album coming out, called 'Mr. Clean'. As well as featuring Joe and Orville from the group I`ve got singers like Bobby Caldwell, Peabo Bryson and Ruben Studdard all guesting on different songs. So I`ve got a pretty decent line-up, and basically it`s just feelgood music. We`re playing a gospel tune; a couple of original songs; an Al Jarreau tune… While the title track 'Mr. Clean' is actually a (jazz-funk trumpeter) Freddie Hubbard tune that we`ve kinda put the DC vibe on. So we`re hoping to sample (Washington, DC go-go music legend) Chuck Brown on it. You know, I`m just trying to do some different stuff. It`ll be released on the Krosslink label - and, while it`s coming out as a Keith Killgo solo album, it definitely echoes the vibe, the sound and just the whole overall concept of The Blackbyrds. Which is something I did deliberately, so it would just add to whatever it is that we`re doing as a group. Because we do still try to tour like once a year, both in The States and abroad. Particularly in the UK, where we feel we have our greatest fan-base.”
How they recall being mentored by Donald Byrd?
“Basically Donald never let you think you could play. You know, you`d play, he`d look over and say `OK, I need to talk to you, man. I don`t know what that is that you played or why you played it. But we need to TALK!`. He`d constantly challenge you musically. He`d throw music in front of you and, whatever instrument you played, he`d make you go research all the cats that played it. Not only the jazz cats, but the classical cats, the blues cats... So you`d become well-rounded. Then, once you`d read UP on them, he`d make you LISTEN to all their MUSIC! So that, when you were up there onstage playing, he could see your progress. You know, he`d definitely check on you on a daily basis to see if you`d done your homework. We`d have these all-the-way-down-to-the-ground kinda band meetings. But, though we hated it at the time, it made us the musicians we are today. We were basically rookies, and we learnt from the best in the business.”
How The Blackbyrds feel about their music being sampled by today`s hip hop generation?
Keith Killgo: “I think it`s great, `cause it`s kept a lotta things alive and in people`s EARS. So it`s very complimentary - and our message to the rappers is definitely `Keep doin` it, guys! Don`t stop!`! I mean, it was so funny when 2Pac used `All I Ask`, because I can`t actually figure out what he sampled from it! You know, I listen to it and it`s like`Wow, where IS it? It`s gotta be in there SOMEWHERE!`! But, you know, he gives the credit. And to be blessed by 2Pac Shakur to me is the ultimate honour! Because, though I`m older than he is, I`m just a fan of his MUSIC. And the fact he was that knowledgeable about music that he actually went to The Blackbyrds for a sample on one of his songs makes him OK with us!”
Words PETE LEWIS