Rock legend has it that when 28-year-old organist Al Kooper, a veteran of historic sessions with Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, founded ten-piece band Blood, Sweat & Tears, he planned to build on the “brass-rock” sound of chart-toppers The Buckinghams, who had scored a 1967 #1 hit with the soul-suffused Kind of a Drag.
Coincidentally, The Buckinghams’ soon-to-be-manager, James William Guercio, became the producer for the most enduring of all bands that would epitomize and most successfully commercialize that specific “brass-rock” sound: Chicago.
But not before Blood, Sweat & Tears had recorded a string of chart-topping late ’60s/early ’70s hits including I Can’t Quit Her (the only hit to include founder Kooper), You’ve Made Me So Very Happy, “Spinning Wheel,” Laura Nyro’s And When I Die, Lucretia Mac Evil and Go Down Gamblin’. BS&T were the perfect amalgam and representation of a New York City horn rock band, stacked with hot-shot musician ringers who could cut big band jazz charts as easily as flower power pop. But in BS&T they were encouraged to break musical boundaries while racking up gold-selling Top 10 hit singles and albums. Combining appealing commercial songwriting with jazz improvisation, big band brass arrangements, 20th century classical, R&B and neo-psychedelia, BS&T also benefitted from a hairy-chested vocalist who rivaled Tom Jones for sheer balls and bravado: David Clayton-Thomas.
While Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago were the most successful purveyors of the “brass-rock” or horn band sound, other young musicians, skilled in jazz and rock, were ready to capitalize on the burgeoning style. Raised on rock, but with an awareness of the brass instruments that infused ’60s/’70s pop culture from the ubiquitous pit orchestras of popular television variety shows and movie soundtracks like The French Connection and Rocky, to then popular musicians Al Hirt, Herb Alpert and Doc Severinsen, horn rock was the common currency of its day just as synthesizers and AutoTune are today.
Blasting from the nation’s urban centers that were then in the grips of anti-war demonstrations, Black nationalism and Women’s Liberation movements, horn rock burned brightly, hit warp speed, and as quickly flamed out. The following bands comprise the great one hit wonders, the influential but doomed trailblazers, and the chart-topping mass culture movers of the horn band sound—some of whom we still know and love today.
Blood Sweat & Tears
The Premise: Crashed the Top 40 party with jazz arrangements and solo improvising, scored massive hits with sharp lyrics
Spinning Wheel still confounds jazz lovers to this day. From the surging brass crescendo intro to David Clayton-Thomas’s carefree lyric recitation to drummer Bobby Colomby’s Ringo-on-methamphetamine drum fills, “Spinning Wheel” was a game-changer. … BS&T played with the dynamic sensitivity of a jazz sextet or big band, but with a rock attitude, an entirely new approach. The groove is as funky as Sly and the Family Stone, and the dissonant bridge references that psychedelic big bang, The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Gritty, slick and powerful, Blood, Sweat & Tears revolutionized rock.
The Verdict: Solid chops, great playing (*****)
The Electric Flag
Led by guitarist Mike Bloomfield, keyboardist Barry Goldberg, singer Nick Gravenites and drummer Buddy Miles, The Electric Flag brought serious blues and soul intent to rock, Bloomfield’s electric blues guitar brilliance and Miles’ funky-butt drumming driving a sweltering brass section as hard as James Brown and Albert Collins combined.
Formed in San Francisco in 1967, The Electric Flag began as Bloomfield’s baby, but as the band went through various contortions, wasted time recording a movie soundtrack and lost members to various addictions, blues-belting drummer/vocalist Miles took a larger role, forcing cover material on the band which didn’t have many original compositions to begin with. Tiring, Bloomfield left the band but not until they recorded their classic 1968 debut, A Long Time Comin’. There can be heard the booming brass section of Peter Strazza, saxophone; Marcus Doubleday, trumpet; Herb Rich, saxophone; and Stemzie Hunter, saxophone. Long Time Comin’ features such ferocious rockers as Howlin’ Wolf’s Killing Floor, slow-groover Texas, and revue-worthy shouter, Wine.
The Verdict: Gritty, blues-infected horn charts, smoldering rock undertow (**** ½)
Average White Band
The Premise: Scottish sextet meets at the intersection of blue-eyed soul and R&B horn shouts
A band of Scottish white boys playing R&B and funk? Average White Band was anything but, scoring a string of hits that swung from ’70s funk to early ’80s disco. Their early albums, AWB and Cut The Cake, have been sampled by everyone from Beastie Boys and Ice Cube, Eric B. & Rakim to TLC. And AWB’s deep-boweled, soulful horn sound is as compelling as ever. AWB’s hits include the time-twitching funk of 1974’s Pick Up The Pieces (its irregular meters freaking most rock musicians), the slippery soul of Cut The Cake, and If I Ever Lose This Heaven: this is what blue-eyed soul dreams are made of.
The Verdict: AWB scored radio hits that became classics, still lauded for great grooves and innovative musicianship (****).
The Premise: Your mother’s favorite horn band, spanning the generations with mighty brass-powered pop
Still going strong 40 years on, having survived the figurate death of bassist Peter Cetera and the literal death of guitarist Terry Kath, Chicago created an innovative horn band sound that remains instantly recognizable. Their hits, including 25 Or 6 To 4, Saturday In The Park, Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is? and Call On Me, are epic examples of perfect pop songcraft tempered by great musicianship. Combining principal composers Robert Lamm, Peter Cetera, Lee Loughnane and James Pankow’s love of The Beatles with an assimilation of the brass bravado of Woody Herman and Stan Kenton, Chicago’s success was practically guaranteed. The group shed their hardcore jazz roots by Chicago III, the band’s music becoming more streamlined and pop friendly. And the hits kept coming. Chicago is one of the best selling bands of all time, with 100 million albums sold like Snickers sexing it up with Mr. Softee.
The Verdict: Who could deny their sophisticated arrangements and mighty musicianship, much less their pop songwriting prowess? (****)
The Ides Of March
The Premise: As one hit wonders go, Vehicle is mightier than most, and slams as hard today as yesterday
Yet another band from the Chicago suburbs, mighty one-hit-wonders The Ides of March captured the gritty and galvanic working class roots of their native city with 1970’s Vehicle, featuring a heaving brass arrangement that would’ve made the perfect soundtrack to Charlton Heston’s chariot death scene in ‘Ben Hur.’ “Great God in heaven don’t you know I love you” went the song’s funky-evil tag line, as a comic guitar solo and breathtaking brass spew red hot cinders on anyone within earshot. Magnificent!! It was written and sung by band member Jim Peterik—who’d later form Survivor and co-write Eye Of The Tiger, no less.
The Verdict: A brilliant horn arrangement meets corny lyrics and a progressive groove (***)
The Premise: The early ’70s sound of blazing trumpets and commercial ambitionNo, it’s not The Ohio Players covering Play That Funky Music White Boy. Though the best horn bands were typically hard and gritty, there’s no denying the boogaloo funk factor some bands pursued in their dreams of success. With that caveat, Bill Chase’s Chase and their 1971 hit Get It On sports a beautiful brass arrangement that cascades over the ears like rushing water, though the track’s lyrics (“Get it on, get it on, get in on in the morning NOW”) and corny drum rhythms wouldn’t have been out of place on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh in. Sock it to me? And the band proudly featured a four-piece trumpet section!
The Verdict: You’re at a party, someone asks for something retro but still dance-worthy. Time to “Get It On!” (**)
The Premise: Many are called, few are chosen. Innovative jazz rock band scores brilliant debut as a foretaste of magnificent careers to come
A super-group that nearly predated the fusion and jazz-rock movements while also spawning several important careers, Dreams released a self-titled debut that was a stone cold jazz-rock burner—though its uneven follow-up, Imagine My Surprise, couldn’t compare. Considering the original band’s lineup, the importance of its debut is hard to exaggerate: Billy Cobham, drums; John Abercrombie, guitar; Michael Brecker, tenor and soprano saxophones; Barry Rogers, trombone; and Randy Brecker, trumpet and flugelhorn. Though ‘Dreams” individual performances are brilliant, the band had no one-hit-wonder songwriters in its stable, its debut failing to chart. ‘Imagine My Surprise’, produced by Steve Cropper, was perhaps funkier, but less spontaneous and certainly less brass-powered. But Dreams remains an exciting listen and hints at the genre’s possibilities, from the queasy beauty of Holli Be Home, and the sizzling tenor sax fire and acetylene drumming of Dream Suite, to the backwards Afro Cuban funk near-hit Try Me. Dreams is the sound of a dangerous NYC, circa 1970.
The Verdict: Dreams maintains its jazz-rock heat 40 years later, as do the band’s blistering solos and tightly-executed arrangements (*****)
The Premise: Another classic horn band one-hit-wonder, performed by an exceptional Canadian group that couldn’t find a follow-up
It’s often been said that watching The Beatles perform on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ in 1964 made a million boys buy guitars, but what made as many steal saxophones, trumpets and trombones from unattended high school orchestra lockers? Lighthouse’s massive one-hit-wonder, One Fine Morning, is practically evidence of criminal intent, the 1971 hit’s flowing groove, bass-slapping attack and hard rock guitar presaging its roaring brass bluster. As the band quakes below, the vocalist—who sounds as if he’s riding aloft a black stallion racing down the beach—shouts “As long as you love me girl, we’ll fly,” as over-stimulated harmony vocals and a breezy acoustic piano “bring it all back home,” as we used to say.
The Verdict: A massive hit single boasting a sky-cracking horn section that retains it majesty year after year (*** ½)
The Premise: Bluesy San-Fran horn band led by a mighty female vocalist
That rare thing, an all male horn band fronted by a powerful female vocalist, Cold Blood is a San Francisco-based, East Bay soul-jazz-rock band that continues to burn brightly into the new millennium. The band, with original vocalist Lydia Pence, in some ways epitomized that greasy East Bay sound: 16th note driven hi-hat funk paired with popping electric bass lines and equally staccato and neck-jerking horn section blasts. Pence brought a soulful goodness not unlike Janis Joplin, while the immaculate rhythm section resembled that other Bay Area powerhouse: Tower Of Power. Cold Blood’s first four albums remain their best: Cold Blood, Sisyphus, First Taste Of Sin (produced by Donny Hathaway), and Thriller.
The Verdict: Powerhouse brass blowers aided by equally talented female vocalist provides solid entertainment from the 1970s to today (****)
The Sons Of Champlin
The Premise: Later Chicago (the band) musician in his early days leads northern California semi-horn band in good vibrations assault
Another California band, this time hailing from way up the coast, The Sons of Champlin was founded by eventual latter-day Chicago member Bill Champlin—who brought a casual soulfulness to his band’s floppy drum grooves and shambolic brass figures. SoC seemed more acoustic guitar than brass driven, even when no acoustic guitar was present. This is singer/songwriter horn band material, music more designed for happy sing-a-longs covering topical themes than driving a nail-hard groove designed to impale your brain on funk. SoC’s 1969 album Loosen Up Naturally, originally two vinyl slabs for the price of one, is worth seeking out. Feel the flower power children.
The Verdict: Though unfocused and lacking the drive that epitomizes the great horn bands, SoC retain a certain magical mystery appeal (***)
Ten Wheel Drive
The Premise: A true amalgam of blues grooves and jazz brass arrangements, led by one of the greatest vocalists ever
Short-lived but influential, Ten Wheel Drive, featuring magnetic vocalist Genya Ravan, operated between 1968 and 1974, bringing a burning blues sensibility to jazz-rock arrangements. On “Ain’t Gonna Happen,” you can hear the musical maturity and professionalism in the band’s tightly arranged ensembles and in Ravan, a storming vocalist on par with Janis Joplin. Early iterations of the group featured frequent Miles Davis saxophonist Dave Liebman, Blues Brothers’ trombonist Tom “Bones” Malone, and jazz giant, trombonist Bill Watrous. Ten Wheel Drive’s four albums, “Construction #1′ (1969), Brief Replies (1970), Peculiar Friends (1971) and ‘Ten Wheel Drive’ (1974) are essential listening, as are Genya Ravan’s ‘Genya Ravan’ (1972), ‘They Love Me, They Love Me Not’ (1973), and Goldie Zelkowitz (1974).
The Verdict: There’s a steaming furnace behind every TWD track; their four albums remain essential listening (*****)
The Premise: Seemingly poised for breakout success, versatile band brings violin to the table
Yet another Chicago-based horn band signed to Columbia Records, The Flock didn’t achieve the success of their fellow natives, but the albums hold up well. Featuring future Mahavishnu Orchestra violinist Jerry Goodman, The Flock touted classic brass arrangements, but the band had a little more up its collective sleeve, perhaps too sophisticated and skilled for its own good. Their 1969 debut, ‘The Flock’, reflects the band’s interest in Miles Davis’s then evolving jazz with unusual textures, experimental segues and wild vocals. The Flock’s 1970 follow-up, ‘Dinosaur Swamps’, featured the semi-hit, Big Bird, a down-home country jig cum funk-brass belter turned straight-ahead jazz romp, another sign of The Flock’s versatility and musicality. 1975’s ‘Inside Out’ (now minus Goodman) got the band no closer to commercial success, and strains of radio rock began to creep in.
The Verdict: Too diverse and talented to easily morph their talents into bite-sized PR nuggets, The Flock never found their way but their music resounds with late 60s determination (***)
Edgar Winter’s White Trash
Edgar Winter’s White Trash
Multi-instrumentalist Edgar Winter brought a sweaty Texan sensibility to horn rock, synthesizer rock, blues and rock ‘n’ roll. Though his biggest success came with the mega-hits Frankenstein and Free Ride, Winter’s first band, White Trash, was a hard living, hard driving monster, as can be heard on their two albums, 1971’s White Trash and ’72’s Roadwork. Combining Bobby “Blue” Bland’s horn sensibilities with the grueling rhythm section of drummer Bobby Ramirez (RIP), bassist Randy Jo Hobbs and guitarist Rick Derringer, White Trash held a raw southern component no northeastern band could match. Prime tracks from the two White Trash albums include the blazing Still Alive And Well, Back in The U.S.A., Rock ‘N Roll Hoochie Koo (featuring guitarist/brother Johnny Winter), and the hit, Keep Playing That Rock ‘n’ Roll.
The Verdict: A natural entertainer and band leader, saxophonist Edgar Winter created one of the most gloriously grooving horn bands to ever walk the earth (*****)
Tower Of Power
The Premise: The quintessential Oakland horn band, aided by innovative musicians and songwriting brilliance
Oakland’s finest, the great large ensemble that featured such innovative musicians as drummer David Garibaldi, bassist Francis “Rocco” Prestia, organist Chester Thompson, trumpeter Mic Gillette, tenor saxophonist Lenny Pickett and baritone saxophonist Stephen “Doc” Kupka, it’s hard to encapsulate or exaggerate the achievements of Tower Of Power. Though the band didn’t innovate complex, tongue-in-groove rhythms combined with appealing R&B material, they did it better than anyone else. Tower Of Power’s first six albums are R&B masterpieces: East Bay Grease (1970), Bump City (1972), Tower Of Power (1973), Back To Oakland (1974), Urban Renewal (’74) and In The Slot (1975). Tower Of Power hit upon not only a magical lineup, but exquisite songs, from the super funk What Is Hip? and Oakland Stroke to crooning pop classics, Soul Of A Child, Man from the Past, and This Time It’s Real, to intricate rhythmic juggernauts, Soul Vaccination, Squib Cakes and Garibaldi’s Vuela Por Noche. Tower of Power remains a one-of-a kind musical organization.
The Verdict: Greatest horn band of all time, each album a classic (*****+)
The Premise: Brooklyn brothers bring urban sounds to bear in polyglot horn band
A Brooklyn band founded by three Panama-born brothers in 1968, Mandrill combine brash brass sounds with earthy grooves in multi-kulti arrangements. We’re talking funk, funk, funk, NYC style, appropriately sampled in later years by Public Enemy, Kanye West, Eminem and 9th Wonder. The band’s diverse interests brought many styles into their wheelhouse, from Latin, salsa, rock, blues, soul and beyond.
The Verdict: Reflecting their melting pot locale, Mandrill created hot grooves like none other (*** ½)
The Premise: African and Caribbean sourced horn band creates early “world music” treatises
Another band that fused African, Caribbean, jazz, funk, rock, Latin and R&B, London’s Osibisa drew from that city’s melting pot just as Mandrill reflected its New York heritage. Oddly similar to East LA band War, the African and Caribbean born musicians of Osibisa focused on simple, communicative grooves and instantly catchy melodies. The music even has a “spiritual jazz” element, heard in its lush harmony vocals and spacey percussive jams. 1971’s Osibisa and Woyaya, 1972’s Heads, 1973’s Happy Children and 1974’s Osibirock are essential slabs of horn rock for free floating travelers of all destinations.
The Verdict: Perhaps more relevant today than in the 70s, Osibisa’s music is full of mystery, exotica and surprise (****)
I’m glad I stumbled upon this, because I had not heard of several of these acts before reading. Clearly I need to expand my brass rock horizons.