Herschel asked me to write the liner notes for Soul Bass, which I was happy to do. I have reproduced them below. You can find the album itself on Apple iTunes. You can also find the tunes on YouTube, and I believe a CD is in the works.
In February 1973, Herschel Dwellingham got a call from Bob Devere, a producer at Columbia Records, inviting him to a recording session. This wasn’t unusual–Herschel was doing a lot of sessions in those days–but when he arrived at Connecticut Recording Studio a few days later, he realized that this one would be different. For in the studio were legendary jazz musicians Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, along with the rest of their band, Weather Report.
Upon seeing them, Herschel’s first thought was, “These guys want to play with me?” At the time, Weather Report was an avant-garde jazz band, whereas Dwellingham was known for his R&B grooves. It seemed like an odd pairing.
But unbeknownst to Herschel, his sound was exactly what Zawinul was looking for and together they spent several days recording Weather Report’s third record, Sweetnighter. With Dwellingham providing the funky underpinnings the album sold over 300,000 copies and proved to be the turning point in Weather Report’s fortunes. Years later, Joe would greet his old friend as “the Boogie Woogie Waltz man,” a reference to the album’s best known track. “There wouldn’t be Weather Report if it wasn’t for you,” Zawinul would say.
Forty some odd years later, Herschel had a dream in which Zawinul, who died in 2007, urged him to start a new group dedicated to performing some of Joe’s old tunes, as well as showcasing his own writing. In the past, such dreams had led to some of Dwellingham’s most successful projects, so this was something to take seriously. In response, he assembled a topnotch thirteen-piece band populated by many of his favorite musicians, some of whom he’s known for decades, and augmented them with a full string section and guest vocalists. Together they recorded Soul Bass, an album consisting of two of Zawinul’s best-known pieces, one of Wayne Shorter’s, and a clutch of Dwellingham originals, all dressed in luxurious string and horn arrangements and tasty grooves.
The leadoff track is “Big Girl,” the first of two Dwellingham-penned instrumentals. Listeners who know Herschel only from his drumming would be unaware that his real passion is writing and arranging his own music—something he’s done since high school. This tune dates back to Herschel’s college days and features a fine tenor sax solo by multi-instrumentalist Ed Pazant and the trumpet work of Cullen Knight. Both are among Herschel’s oldest musical associates. Pazant died not long after this recording, and Herschel has dedicated this album to him and Zawinul.
“Boogie Woogie Waltz” was the centerpiece of Weather Report’s Sweetnighter album–a thirteen-minute groove with a lot of improvising around a handful of melodic themes. Dwellingham’s version is more to the point, expanding the orchestration behind the melodies and providing another platform for Pazant, this time on soprano sax. As with the Weather Report version, Herschel grounds the tune by rapping out every beat on his snare drum, while his bass drum never deviates from emphasizing the and-one.
The soulful ballad, “Cold Spot,” features vocalist Marlena Lady Black Lace, formerly known as Molly Holt of the Rascals. Her musical association with Dwellingham goes back many years and this tune has long been among their favorites. The lyrics explore the heartache of unrequited love, and Marlena delivers an emotive performance worthy of the tune’s message, emphasized by the sustained tones of Tony “Strat” Thomas’ electric guitar.
“Flex-a-ble” is Dwellingham’s take on soul-meets-rap. With its chromatic melodies and deliberate rhythm, it sounds as if it could be at home in a 1960s secret agent movie. But just as listeners get comfortable with that vibe, into the mix comes the rapping of Kenyell Brown. The point, Dwellingham says, is that you can’t be rigid in life and in love. Sometimes you have to compromise and learn to be flexible.
Joe Zawinul’s tune, “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” was a surprise instrumental hit for Cannonball Adderley in 1967. It quickly rose to number eleven on the Billboard pop chart and within weeks two vocal versions, each with different lyrics, were also released. At one point, all three of them occupied spots on the R&B singles chart. Here Dwellingham fashions it as an R&B powerhouse, with full-throated horns and a vocal chorus, and after Michael Lemmler’s Hammond B-3 intro, the band hits a toe-tapping groove behind Beverly Crosby’s stirring vocal. An added bonus is the baritone sax solo played by Roger Lewis, a founding member of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
“Palladium” is Dwellingham’s nod to Zawinul’s musical partner, Wayne Shorter. It originally appeared on Weather Report’s 1977 album, Heavy Weather, which also includes “Birdland,” Joe’s well-known ode to the famous New York City jazz club of the same name. “Palladium” is its counterpart, named after the Palladium Ballroom, which was located just down the street from Birdland. In the 1950s it was the epicenter of the mambo craze that took the country by storm, and Wayne spent many evenings there as a young man, dancing to the likes of Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez, and Machito. Dwellingham’s arrangement lends the tune an easy going Latin feel. Dig the conga work of Kahlil Kwame Bell.
“Soul Bass” is another Dwellingham instrumental, with fine solos by Ed Pazant on flute and Cullen Knight on trumpet. The tune is based on a catchy drum-and-bass groove that Herschel improvised in his home studio. He wrote the melody and chart the day before the rest of the musicians arrived for the recording session. As with all of these tunes, Dave Ellis is rock solid holding down the bottom on electric bass.
Closing out this collection is the ultra funky “What I Got, I Got,” a throwback to Herschel’s Boston days when he led the house band at the Sugar Shack, then the city’s biggest and best soul venue. Dwellingham originally recorded this tune in 1971, with lyrics written and sung by Maurice Rice. Here Eli “Paperboy” Reed delivers a vocal straight out of that era, while “Strat” Thomas wraps a searing guitar solo around the melody. This is Boston soul, Dwellingham style.
Decades after its release, Sweetnighter continues to have a lasting impact on Dwellingham. Numerous hip-hop artists have sampled it, and Joe Zawinul went so far as to say it contains the first hip-hop beat.
“That one album put me on the map,” Herschel says. “My wife and my friends say I really don’t realize what I did and how important to drumming my playing was. I’m just a country boy who doesn’t think nothin’ about that. To me, I was just trying to make money to feed a wife and three little kids. That’s what I was doing. I didn’t think I was making history or anything. I was just trying to keep money in the house.”
It’s safe to say that Herschel did more than that. And now Soul Bass gives us a broader taste of his musical range—his love of soul and R&B, and his affinity for arranging for large ensembles. Let’s hope there’s a sequel.