Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Wah Wah Watson - 1976 - Elementary

Wah Wah Watson 

01. Goo Goo Wah Wah 5:36
02. Love My Blues Away 5:30
03. Cry Baby 4:02
04. My Love For You Comes And Goes 4:37
05. Together (Whatever) 4:53
06. Sunset Boulevard 4:09
07. Love Ain't Somethin' (That You Get For Free) 4:19
08. I'll Get By Without You 6:01
09. Bubbles 3:18
10. Good Friends 6:12

Bass – Louis Johnson
Clavinet [Hohner D6] – John Barnes
Drums – Ollie Brown
Guitar – Ray Parker, Jr.
Piano – Clarence McDonald, Joe Sample
Piano, Electric Piano [Rhodes], Synthesizer [Arp 2600] – Sonny Burke
Synthesizer [Maestro Universal Synthesizer System], Talkbox [Voice Bag], Electronics [Echoplex, Maestro Sample And Hold Unit], Effects [Boomerang Wah Wah], Guitar, Vocals – Wah Wah Watson

Melvin "Wah Wah Watson" Ragin may be one of the most talented musicians you have never heard of. As a session musician for the famed Motown Records - he had the honor of serving as a member of the Motown studio band throughout the 1970s. Wah-Wah played guitar in numerous recording sessions for a venerable who's who of artistic leaders including, Marvin Gaye, Herbie Hancock, Michael Jackson, The Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Bobbi Humphrey and more. A Detroit native, Wah Wah Watson earned his nickname from his dominating control and precision on the Wah Wah pedal. His talents made him a highly sought after commodity throughout the funk and soul heyday of the seventies. In 1976 Wah Wah decided to take a crack at a solo career, and turned his attention toward the release of his first ever studio album, "Elementary". Enlisting the help of his friends, who just so happen to be equally great and notable studio musicians, Wah Wah crafted a timeless collection of jazzy-funk grooves that was eventually found a home on Columbia Records. Unfortunately, Wah Wah's solo's career was cut short as the album received critical acclaim but was a disappointing commercial failure. Columbia did not repress "Elementary" and it remained out of print for decades.

Whenever I listen to music, one thing I always do is look at which musicians play on an album. One man whose played on more sessions than the average musician has had gigs, is the one and only Wah Wah Watson, virtuoso guitarist and a man who weaves that unmistakable wah wah guitar sound. If I was to try to list the albums Wah Wah has played on, then I’d still be writing his list of credits later this week. These include The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Quincy Jones, Rose Royce, The Beach Boys, Eric Clapton and Rose Royce. As I say, these are just a snapshot of artists Wah Wah’s accompanied. He’s been the go-to-guy for jazz, soul and funk artists since 1970. However, there’s much more to Wah Wah Watson than just a session guitarist. He was a member of Motown’s famous studio band The Funk Brothers, worked with every major Motown producer and is a songwriter and producer. While I’m reeling of remarkable facts about the master of the wah-wah pedal, I’ll give you one more fact about Wah Wah Watson. In 1976, Wah Wah Watson released his only solo album Elementary, which will be released by BBR Records on 30th July 2012. For anyone wondering about the title Elementary, just check out the album cover to Elementary. There’s Wah Wah complete with Sherlock Holmes deerstalker hat and puffing furiously at a pipe. No you’ll realize, to misquote Sherlock Holmes it’s Elementary my dear Wah Wah Watson. One thing you’re probably wondering though, why was Elementary Wah Wah Watson’s only album? That’s what I’ll tell you now.

How Wah Wah went from session musician came after he worked on Herbie Hancock’s 1975 album Man-Child. Wah Wah played on Herbie Hancock’s 1975 album Man-Child, forging a musical partnership that would see Herbie play on Herbie’s 1979 album Feets Don’t Fail Me Now and his two 1980 albums Mr Hands and Monster. Once the Man-Child was recorded, Bruce Lundvall president of CBS heard Herbie Hancock’s band live, with Wah Wah Watson weaving his wah-wah guitar and was astounded, totally blown away. There was Wah Wah with a bank of pedals, speakers and tubes surrounding him, all of which brought about this unique and unmistakable sound. Bruce realized hehad to sign Wah Wah Watson. After all, the guy was an innovator, totally way ahead of the musical curve. Soon, Wah Wah Watson was signed to CBS, with work ready to start on his debut album. For a musician like Wah Wah Watson, an experienced songwriter, musician and producer, this would be Elementary.

For his debut album Wah Wah Watson wrote three tracks, using his real name Melvin Ragin. The other seven tracks he wrote with various songwriting partners. This included writing two tracks Love My Blues Away and Love Ain’t Something (That You Get For Free) with Ray Parker Jr, who’d play guitar on the album. Dave Gruisin cowrote I’ll Get By Without You with Wah Wah. Herbie Hancock would cowrite Bubbles with Wah Wah. These tracks, plus five other tracks would be recorded with some of Wah Wah’s heavyweight musician friends joining him.

To produce what would become Elementary Wah Wah drafted in David Rubinson and Friends Inc. Recording sessions took place at several studios, in Los Angeles, including Village Recorders and Quad Tech. Wally Heider Recording studios in Los Angeles and San Francisco were used, as were Funky Features in San Francisco. In these studios, the all-star band would record. Herbie Hancock would join Wah Wah for the record sessions, while Ray Parker Jr played guitar, Joe Sample played piano and Sonnie Burke keyboards. The brass section included tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts and soprano saxophonist, while a rhythm section of drummer Ollie Brown and bassist Louis Johnson provided the album’s heartbeat. Wah Wah played guitar, while demonstrating his innovative side playing synths, Echoplex and a multitude of innovative instruments. Soon, the ten tracks that became Elementary were recorded. All that was left was for the Elementary to be released later in 1976.

On the release of Elementary in September 1976, the album sold poorly and failed to trouble the US charts. The same month Goo Goo Wah Wah was released as a single in the US, and again, failed to chart. A month later, in October 1976 Love Ain’t Something (That You Get For Free) was released as a single in the UK. Again, it failed to chart. Maybe the problem was that Wah Wah Watson’s debut album Elementary was far too ahead of its time, and record buyers would need to grow into his innovative, imaginative sound. Was that the case. That’s what I’ll decide, once I’ve told you about the music on Wah Wah Watson’s debut album Elementary.

Goo Goo Wah Wah opens Elementary, with Wah Wah’s unmistakable guitar drenched in echo, dancing its way across the arrangement, with the rhythm section, hissing hi-hats and keyboards for company. The sound is big, bold and dramatic with Wah Wah using the Voice Bag to good effect. His crack team of musicians combine with Wah-Wah as he innovates, not just with guitar, but with his effects. He fuses jazz, funk and even elements of rock, for six minutes, slowly and dramatically trailing the words “boogie, boogie, boogie using his Voice Bag.” In doing so, he innovates in such a way, that’s totally unique and absolutely compelling.

Love My Blues Away has a much straight forward sound, with bursts of subtle horns, accompanying the rhythm section as Wah Wah delivers a tender vocal. The tempo is slow, the band playing in such a way that matches the drama and hurt in the lyrics. They don’t overpower the tenderness of the vocal, with backing vocalists subtly accompanying Wah Wah. Later, after just two minutes, a blazing, emotive horn solo is unleashed by Ernie Watts, which is key to the song’s success. Lush strings are added, while the rhythm section grow the arrangement, which unfolds in waves. Similarly, Wah Wah’s vocal grows in power and pain, resulting in the best track on the album.

Cry Baby sees the rhythm section take charge of the track, before Wah Wah, accompanied by a jaunty piano delivers the vocal through the Voice Bag. This is effective, with the broody, dramatic rhythm section, keyboards and guitar enveloping his vocal. Although Sonny Burke’s piano playing plays an important part, it’s the rhythm section and of course the unmistakable sound of one and only Wah Wah Watson weaving his magic through the track that’s at the heart of the track’s inventive, innovative sound. 

From the inventive, innovative sound of Cry Baby, My Love Comes and Goes sees the introduction of the legendary backing vocalists The Walters Family. Their cooing, tender vocals are accompanied by keyboards, growling horns and lush strings while the rhythm section provide the track’s beautiful heartbeat. Wah Wah’s heartfelt vocal demonstrates just how good a vocal he is. He’s foregone the trickery of the previous track, his guitar playing more straight ahead. This results in a heart achingly beautiful track, that you’ll never, ever tire of. That I can promise you.

The unique sound of Wah Wah’s guitar opens the blistering Together (Whatever). It’s complete with gospel-tinged vocals from The Walters Family. With Wah Wah and his band creating a backdrop where funk and jazz combine, this is an intriguing combination. Punchy backing vocals accompany Wah Wah’s guitar which helps drive the track along, as The Walters Family add glorious testifying vocals. Again, Sonny Burke’s keyboards are at the heart of everything that’s good. He helps drive the track along, playing his part, before a sizzling, blazing horn adds the icing on this irresistible musical cake.

Elementary is a bit like Forest Gump’s box of chocolates,  “you never know what you’ll get next.” Unlike Forest’s box of chocolates, there’s no chocolates that remain uneaten in Wah Wah’s box of delights. When Sunset Boulevard opens, you wonder where Wah Wah wah-wah guitar is heading. Then his backing band provide a jaunty backdrop with the piano, rhythm section and horns combining. Meanwhile The Walter Family add some tight harmonies, their vocal exploding dramatically. Lush strings are added, while Wah Wah’s vocal is accompanied by an arrangement that sometimes, heads in the direction of jazz. Swathes of strings and backing vocalists add to the track’s drama and beauty. By the end of the track, you’re left with a feeling of contentment, at the track’s uplifting, feel-good sound.

It’s just drums and hissing hi-hats that open Love Ain’t Something (That You Get For Free), before Wah Wah weaves his wah guitar. Then his vocal enters, full of hurt and sadness, while The Walters Family add soaring, dramatic backing vocals. As the vocal drops out, the rhythm section, keyboards and Wah Wah’s guitar take charge. Meanwhile, strings cascade adding to the emotion and hurt in Wah Wah’s vocal. However, when Wah Wah and The Walters Family combine, this is a perfect combination. So good are the backing vocals, this seems to lift the band, as they lift their game even higher. The result is one of the most soulful, emotive and dramatic offerings from Wah Wah Watson on Elementary.

I’ll Get By Without You is a slow track, one that usually, the arranger would have a sound that’s sad, filled with emotion and heartache. Maybe this would be strings, even a haunting saxophone solo or piano. They wouldn’t usually add a wah-wah guitar. This is what happens here, but at the start, it’s played with subtlety, while Wah Wah’s vocal is filled with heartache and hurt. A piano, subtle rhythm section and strings combine with The Walters Family heartfelt vocals. Later, Wah Wah’s guitar grows in power, but neither overpowering, nor sounding out of place. Instead,  it plays its part this in what is a soulful song about love gone wrong, but with a twist.

Bubbles is an apt description for the track, with its slow, floaty sound, where Wah Wah’s guitar resonates, disappearing wistfully into the ether. He’s accompanied by the rhythm section, who play slowly, while Herbie Hancock adds electric piano. The arrangement meanders along, with Wah Wah’s wah-wah guitar augmented by a dreamy sounding guitar that provides a contrast. Keyboards, percussion and Herbie on piano provide the track’s laid-back jazzy sound that you lose yourself into. Its sound beckons, drawing you in. You don’t hesitate, you succumb, losing yourself for just over three mellow minutes.

Closing Elementary is Good Friends which has a quite different sound from the previous track. The album was released in 1976, at the height of disco’s popularity, so Wah Wah decides to close Elementary with a disco track. You’re swept along atop a combination of beautiful vocals from The Walters Family, Wah Wah’s guitar and a rhythm section, complete with buzzing bass. Lush strings and Wah Wah’s heartfelt vocal and woodwind all enter, adding to the slick, polished disco-esque sound. The vocals, strings and rhythms are perfect for this dance-floor track, which floats elegantly and beautifully along, bringing Elementary to a surprising, but very satisfying end.

Having wondered whether Wah Wah Watson’s debut and only solo album Elementary was was far too ahead of its time, I think that was definitely the case. Listening to Elementary, what I found was an innovative, imaginative album, where Wah Wah Watson fusea funk, soul, jazz, disco and even a touch of rock. Wah Wah moves seamlessly and comfortably between musical genres. One minute he’s at home funking it up on Goo Goo Wah Wah, before heading down a very different road on the ballad Love My Blues Away. From there, Cry Baby sees Wah Wah the innovator, unleashing his box of tricks, wah-wahing his way through the track using his Voice Bag. My Love Comes and Goes sees Wah Wah Watson balladeer enter, and this isn’t the last time. Love Ain’t Something (That You Get For Free) and I’ll Get By Without You see the reappearance of Wah Wah Watson balladeer. Then on Together (Whatever), Wah Wah up the ante, accompanied by gospel-tinged vocals from The Walters Family. Bubbles sees Wah Wah enter a mellow mood, with Herbie Hancock playing electric piano. Nothing however, prepares you for the sublime Good Friends, a disco floater that closes Elementary. You’re swept along by lush strings, The Walters Family’s beautiful vocals and of course a crack rhythm section. However, it’s ironic that it’s Good Friends a disco track that closes Elementary, because the album was released at the height of disco’s popularity. That another reason record buyers weren’t buying albums like Elementary. Basically, Elementary was released at the wrong time. Its innovative, imaginative sound was years ahead of its time and released when disco was King. Even with its nod to disco Good Friends, Elementary remains a hidden gem of an album that awaits unearthed by music lovers. Maybe if it had been released in a different time, Wah Wah Watson would’ve been a superstar. So take my advice, introduce all your Good Friends to Wah Wah Watson, a multifaceted singer, songwriter, musician and producer one his only album