Funk legends Fatback Band: ‘The US has cultural amnesia. Britain retains our music alive’

‘We pioneered line dancing with Bus Cease, hip-hop with Persona Jock, and home with Goin’ to See My Child,” says Invoice Curtis. “However Fatback nonetheless don’t get the respect we deserve.”

As founder, drummer and CEO of Fatback Band, Curtis could also be forgiven for his outlandish claims concerning the function the band from Queens, New York Metropolis, performed in shaping well-liked music. However the factor is, he’s not bragging. Fatback’s affect is in all places, from disco-funk to 50 years of hip-hop: their 1979 B-side King Tim III (Personality Jock) is the primary rap report, predating Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight by a number of months.

Not that Curtis expresses any bitterness. As an alternative, once I meet him and fellow Fatback founding member, keyboardist Gerry Thomas, at a Travelodge in Hounslow, west London – the band have been taking part in a residency at London’s Jazz Cafe – I discover each males full of excellent cheer. They first met in 1967 whereas in a band taking part in “weddings, bar mitzvahs, events” in Queens, says Thomas. “This was earlier than the DJ period, so we performed the hits that folks appreciated to bop to.”

Again then, Thomas was a rookie trumpeter whereas Curtis was an R&B veteran, having labored the chitlin’ circuit – venues for black Individuals throughout mid-century racial segregation – as drummer for dozens of acts, together with Jimmy Reed and Sam Cooke. At the moment they share a brotherly camaraderie: Thomas, 75, is filled with vitality and enthusiasm whereas Curtis, a remarkably effectively preserved 91, is droll and nonchalant.

“Invoice’s unstoppable,” says Thomas with an admiring chuckle. Curtis raises an eyebrow and notes that he now performs percussion on stage as “drumming for Fatback is difficult work”, however provides: “I’m from that college the place you’re employed until you drop.”

(Do the) Spanish Hustle spent seven weeks within the UK charts, peaking at No 10 in 1976.

Exhausting work has been a continuing in Curtis’s life, ever since he began out as an expert musician in his mid-teens taking part in with native blues outfits in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Though he grew up beneath Jim Crow-era apartheid, Curtis doesn’t recall these years as notably onerous. “There was segregation however I had white neighbours,” he says, “and white associates.

“OK, as soon as we bought to highschool, issues have been segregated – however that didn’t cease me doing what I wished to do.”

Thomas grew up within the Bronx, “surrounded by every kind of individuals”, and he didn’t expertise racial discrimination till he went on the street as a musician. “One of many band went right into a fuel station’s restroom within the south, oblivious to the truth that it was for whites solely,” he recollects, “and the proprietor pulled a shotgun on him. That woke us up.”

After finishing his navy service, Curtis settled in New York the place he labored within the Apollo theatre’s home band: “We backed Marvin Gaye on his Apollo debut. He was very humble, actually proficient.” And he labored dates with many rising stars, drumming for Aretha Franklin’s first New York look, in Greenwich Village. Whereas touring with Clyde McPhatter, he as soon as stayed on the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. “I noticed Martin Luther King talking from his balcony and I waved at him and he waved again. Later that day, on the best way to our gig, we heard the information of his homicide on the radio.”

Decided to run his personal operation, within the late Nineteen Sixties Curtis arrange Home of Fatback, a reserving company and report label he ran from Queens till 1992. There you may rent a funk, jazz or metal pan band, alongside ordering soul meals and go-go dancers to your social gathering. The Fatback Band shaped from musicians in its orbit. The loose-limbed avenue funk of their first three albums from 1972-74 turned heads, and would offer a blueprint for later developments in rap and home. “Invoice would invite his associates to our recording classes,” says Thomas, “and that’s why it feels like a celebration is beneath means – as a result of they have been partying whereas we have been taking part in.”

Fatback Band
Founding member Invoice Curtis is now 91 and has no plans to retire. {Photograph}: Echoes/Redferns

Curtis describes his distinctive drumming as “a mixture of my type with a New Orleans beat I realized within the navy and West Indian [steel pan] rhythms I heard once I shifted to New York”. Nicknamed Fatback – a phrase used within the US for the again fats of a pig – after a bandleader requested “gimme a few of your greasy, fatback drums”, Curtis is certainly one of well-liked music’s most interesting funky drummers. “We made uncooked music for dancers,” he replies once I ask how he developed his distinctive rhythms. “Too uncooked for many report labels.”

Signing to Spring Data, Fatback launched the album Preserve On Steppin’ in 1974, and the album’s big beats, shuffling rhythms and chanted choruses broke Fatback past New York. Thomas, then taking part in with the Jimmy Castor Bunch, was taken to a membership after a efficiency in Liverpool in 1975, the place he witnessed Fatback’s track Wicky Wacky (from Preserve On Steppin’) pack the dancefloor. Thomas talked about he performed on Wicky Wacky and was mobbed. “I known as Invoice and mentioned: organise some dates in England, they love Fatback.” So started a relationship that continues to at the present time.

“We bought within the van and performed each pub, membership and cowshed,” says Curtis, “and the individuals got here to bop and have a superb time. That constructed us a loyal following – Britain and Fatback, we bought a superb factor goin’ on!”

Fatback would rating six UK Prime 40 hits within the 70s and 80s, the most important being (Do the) Spanish Hustle in 1976 and a rerelease of the anthemic I Discovered Lovin’ in 1987. Thomas says of Spanish Hustle: “I used to be uncovered to plenty of Puerto Rican music and I made a decision to fuse their sound with our sound.” British DJ Steve Walsh recorded a model of I Discovered Lovin’ in 1987 during which he sings (atrociously) whereas including chants. Regardless of being launched on a tiny label, it managed to succeed in No 9 within the charts. Walsh, then an embryonic celebrity DJ, held membership nights that recurrently drew 5,000 individuals, however he died in 1988 as a consequence of problems after a automobile crash in Ibiza, Spain.

“Steve was a superb man,” says Curtis. “He used to tour with us, heat up the group earlier than we got here on. Again then the BBC didn’t play black music – DJs like Steve performed our information. They launched British audiences to Fatback.”

Certainly, Walsh was the foremost DJ for a soul/funk/jazz-funk underground which, like Fatback, was ignored by a rock-obsessed music press however developed into the UK’s greatest dance scene previous to rave. The youths who as soon as flocked to Walsh’s nights proceed to attend Fatback concert events, dancing to the Bus Cease and chanting to I Discovered Lovin’. “British audiences are the perfect,” says Curtis. “They’re loyal.”

I Discovered Lovin’ was the band’s greatest UK single, peaking at No 7 in 1987

“Within the US there’s a type of cultural amnesia,” provides Thomas. “Individuals overlook, and embrace the brand new. Over right here we get totally different generations of followers – they preserve Fatback’s music alive.”

Being ignored at dwelling could irk these funk icons, however being sampled by Kendrick Lamar, Björk and plenty of extra artists demonstrates the excessive regard Fatback are nonetheless held in. “I want everybody who sampled Fatback paid us,” says Curtis, “however loads don’t.” Legal professionals get known as: “Beastie Boys have been the primary we went after. Dr Dre was one other.”

Taking management of enterprise means the band’s early albums on Notion Data will lastly be part of their Spring LPs as reissues on Ace Data within the coming months, and Persona Jock options prominently on Greenback Invoice Y’All, a brand new compilation of early NYC rap. “Being from the Bronx, I heard cats rapping on avenue corners so steered we report with one,” says Thomas on how Fatback made the primary rap report.

“We have been within the studio ending our new album however I didn’t hear a success,” recollects Curtis, “and Gerry had this tune we’d recorded known as Catch the Beat that he thought a rapper may rhyme over.” Harlem’s King Tim III stepped up with high-speed rap promising “we’re sturdy as an ox and tall as a tree / We will rock you so viciously”, however their label, Spring, wasn’t so certain about him. “Again then, black radio DJs appreciated to speak lots – huge personalities,” says Thomas, “and Spring mentioned they’d hate Persona Jock. So it ended up a B-side.”

However one DJ from Los Angeles who warmed to it reportedly informed Joe Robinson, who co-founded Sugarhill Data together with his spouse, Sylvia, “that Fatback have the brand new sound,” Curtis says. “Joe informed Sylvia and so they went out and located the Sugarhill Gang.” Curtis nonetheless seems aggrieved at lacking out on a success. “We have been first however Spring tousled. I’ve been on this sport a very long time and it hurts when your label stands in the best way of chart success.”

His frustration is comprehensible: Fatback launched 16 albums and scored 26 US R&B chart hits with out ever as soon as touching the pop Prime 40. Spring messing up with Persona Jock was a part of a sequence of report label mishaps that befell the band.

“We had Road Dance and Goin’ to See My Child and Dance Lady all hitting on the similar time, after which Notion Data declared chapter. In 1983, our album Is This the Future? had simply been launched on Polydor and the president of promotion for R&B ups and dies, and that killed it. Then, in 1985, Fatback signed to [Atlantic Records subsidiary] Cotillion and we figured now we have been with a label that was going to advertise and get us out of there. Nicely, we simply launched So Scrumptious, then Atlantic shut down Cotillion Data and out goes Fatback.”

Fatback Band today
Energetic for the reason that 70s, Fatback Band are nonetheless going sturdy in the present day.

In 1993, Curtis put Fatback on ice, returning to North Carolina to take care of his ailing mom, however he reformed the band in 2002. “I felt like I nonetheless had just a few extra hits in me,” he says, and the band have since performed Glastonbury, Love Supreme and different main festivals amid a very totally different music scene. “After I was developing, you solely heard what the report firm wished you to listen to,” Curtis says. “Now, you’ve so many alternate options for locating music, and now any musician can report and even distribute. The draw back is everyone needs to be a musician – the sector is so crowded with wannabes that the true factor can’t come by.”

However Fatback carry on coming nonetheless. “The final 5 – 6 years have been a few of our greatest years,” he says, “individuals discovering us and our music.” Even at 91, he hopes they will tour the world earlier than he lastly retires. “We simply preserve doing what we do.”

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