Arista Records and the P-Funk Multiverse
Read the funkiest excerpt from Mitchell Cohen’s Looking for the Magic: New York City, the ‘70s and The Rise of Arista Records
Looking for the Magic: New York City, the ‘70s and The Rise of Arista Records (Trouser Press Books) is Mitchell Cohen’s account of how Clive Davis’ Arista tapped into all the streams of music – pop, jazz, cabaret, rock, disco, R&B – that were making the ‘70s a vibrant and diverse decade. In this exclusive excerpt, Mitchell describes the label’s forays into funk resulted in two exceptional P-Funk spin-offs. The book is available at Amazon, and at trouserpressbooks.com.
Arista had struggled a bit to get traction in R&B, but that was about to change. A 1977 Record World magazine article pronounced, “Arista Is Primed for an R&B Explosion.” There was excitement surrounding the signing of Eddie Kendricks and Mandrill, each of whom came with a track record, and still-flickering hopes of getting hits with General Johnson and Linda Lewis. The dark horse in this contest was a new group called Raydio, formed by and named after Ray Parker Jr., an in-demand session guitarist and sideman for Stevie Wonder and Barry White. He’d also co-written the Rufus hit “You Got the Love” with Chaka Khan. He produced, wrote, sang, engineered, mixed, and played guitar on the debut album, Raydio. He was a genuine soul auteur, and his music was playful and sexual: he was a mild-mannered love man, quietly persuasive.
Raydio pried open the door for what was called, in the trades, urban music, and Arista signed another young artist, a hotshot kid from Plainfield, New Jersey, who’d become a featured singer and player in the P-Funk universe. Glenn Goins was only 23 when he, along with some other members of George Clinton’s musical organization, decided to jump ship (in the documentary One Nation Under a Groove, it’s alleged that, at the end of a tour, band members found their paychecks had been woefully slim because Clinton deducted the cost of the drugs he provided on the road). About Goins’s departure, Tom Vickers, P-Funk’s Minister of Information, says Goins was “such a powerful vocalist and creative center of Parliament-Funkadelic during their glory days that it was really a shock, and you could feel the air starting to go out of the P-Funk balloon.”
Vickers continues, “There were at least three songs in the show that he was the dominant vocalist [on], and then, if you watch the Houston Summit show from 1976 on YouTube, he was the one who would do this sort of gospel-inflected ‘I see the Mothership!’ segment of the show, which was about five minutes from the time George would leave the stage to the time he would reappear coming out of the Mothership.”
Davis had hired a new urban A&R guy, Vernon Gibbs, who was a music journalist (he’d profiled Gil Scott-Heron for Playboy) and recently had been at Mercury Records.
“When I got to Arista,” Gibbs says, “the first deal I remember working on of any significance was Robert Mittleman, he was associated with Parliament-Funkadelic, somehow he got Glenn Goins to sign with his management company, and I knew him from being around Parliament-Funkadelic, writing about ’em, and he brought the deal to me. Glenn was like a Sly Stone, and Clive actually saw him as becoming another Sly Stone. Mittleman played demos, and Clive made the decision to sign Glenn. So that was really my first shot at being involved with something that was hot.”
What was intended as only the first of many Glenn Goins projects for Arista was a group called Quazar, fronted by Glenn’s younger brother Kevin but with Glenn’s fingerprints all over it. In addition to producing the album, Glenn co-wrote (sometimes with fellow P-Funk mutineer Jerome Brailey) more than half the tracks, played some guitar, bass, and drums, did some vocals. It was an edgy, exuberant album, absolutely of its moment, really hammering home the whole funk situation. Its first three tracks are “Funk With a Big Foot,” “Funk With a Capital ‘G’” (Goins, we can surmise), and the leadoff single, “Funk ‘n’ Roll (Dancin’ in the Funkshine).” The 45 was scheduled for release in August. In July, Glenn passed away, felled by Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “The album was finished,” Gibbs says, “and he was starting to work on his own album.” Goins was 24 years old.
“As a songwriter, as a vocalist, as a guitarist and as a frontman,” Vickers says, “he could do all of the above at a very high level of showmanship and artistry. He was the real deal, you know, and anybody and everybody who saw that show would just walk away, like jaw on the ground about this guy Glenn Goins. I mean, he was that talented.”
A second Arista album from the P-Funk family came from another New Jerseyan, keyboard virtuoso Bernie Worrell. But unlike Goins, who severed ties with Clinton and that whole crew, Worrell had the endorsement and participation of his former employer. All the Woo in the World was co-produced by Worrell and Clinton and features an impressive lineup, including horn players Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker. The album was “Produced & Designed With Your Woo in Mind,” which was very considerate of everyone involved. Talking to Blues & Soul magazine, Worrell said, “It isn’t really what people would expect … The music for the album isn’t in one special vein—there’s a bit of jazz, a bit of funk, avant-garde, and even a shade of classical music.”
It is possible, at that point, that the Clinton contingent was getting spread a little too thin, and Worrell’s album got lost. “Bootsy blew up so big,” Vickers says, “and Parliament and Funkadelic were so big that every major label—and minor label, for that matter—wanted a piece of that P-Funk energy and music and vibe George was creating.” Of course, Arista wanted some of that action, but Goins’s death made promoting Quazar a challenge, and despite the splendid idea of “Insurance Man for the Funk” (who wouldn’t take out one of those policies?), fans weren’t ready to add all that woo to their P-Funk libraries.
Both Quazar and All the Woo in the World, however, have seen major bumps in their reputations in the secondary funk market.
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