Fitzroy speaks with Bill Curtis of The Fatback Band In 2012
What music shaped your formative years between 1932 in North Carolina until you became an accomplished drummer, having relocated to New York City playing jazz, R&B and Bossa Nova in the 1950s and 1960s with Bill Doggett, King Curtis and a spell at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre?
Jazz, I was listening to Dave Brubeck, Sonny Stitt, Stan Getz and rhythm & blues artists like Paul Williams and The Griffin Brothers. Most R&B music was played by jazz musicians and every musician came out of R&B and Blues bands. You didn’t come out playing jazz straight away back in those days.
How old were you when you came to the East coast?
Straight out of high school, so I was eighteen.
What led to you setting up The House Of Fatback?
After working with King Curtis and those cats I was working up in the mountains doing cabaret with The Ron Allison Band. Playing cabaret I decided I wanted to create my own band and put together a three-piece group. I’d done a lot of recordings as a session musician and I ended up getting blackballed, so I started recording with my own band and other artists as a record producer.
Where does the term Fatback derive from?
Whilst working with the Ron Allison band we had the most popular session guitarist. His name was Eric Gale and I had a beat that he’d like me to play. He would say “Dude give me that greasy beat, that beat is like fatback man.” So when they asked for the fatback beat I knew what they meant and they ended up nicknaming me ‘fatback’ as I was the only one that played that kind of beat. I got that beat as a combination of a calypso beat with a backbeat.
How did you link up with guitarist Johnny King?
When I was putting the group together I was looking for a rhythm section. Whilst I was playing in the Jewish Kaskaskia Mountains at the weekends and during the summer in the hotels, Greg Decouder (who was a producer) was my roommate. He told me about how he had studied and analyzed the Motown sound and he had deduced that once you had a formula you stuck with it. I had a buddy called Warren Daniel who knew a guitar player called Johnny King. Johnny King and his bass playing partner Johnny Flipping had both worked with Bill Doggett. Earl Shelton on the horns came on board with George Williams and we remained together for thirty years.
This led to the Perception deal I take it?
That deal was a fluke as I was shopping the Fatback Band around town at all the record companies at the time when Warner Brothers and Atlantic Records were small labels. I bumped into a friend called Boo Frasier who advised me that he was just starting a label called Perception with a partner and I informed him of my group that I was trying to get a deal for. He hadn’t heard anything thing but I told him of an idea that I had to record some country and western funk and he liked the idea. I had no idea when I went to the studio what I was going to do but we did the album and they put it out. The tune people fell in love with was ‘Going To See My Baby’ but the radio stations didn’t like it as they weren’t used to that raggedy raw sound and no one would play it. So they took the record to the deejay Frankie Crocker who said that it was the funkiest thing he’d ever heard in his life. He started saying how raw and nasty the sound was and people started catching on. That record paved the way for groups like BT Express and all the little street bands like mine to come through. All the record companies were trying to get records to sound like the Fatback sound but they couldn’t get it. My sound was more underground and didn’t really take off until fifteen years later because everyone was used to the more over ground sound. When we went into the studio to record we had no idea of what we were going to play. Most people already have arrangements but we had nothing. I used to call it my live studio sound and I would bring people in and if they started dancing I knew we had the right groove. ‘Street Dance’ came from there too and our first single ‘Yeah’ and via each album you could hear our growth in the sound which got better as time went by.
Off the second album ‘People Music Fatbackin’’ does sound like a cross between Kool & The Gang and Deodato’s ‘Rhapsody In Blue’. Both of which were released in 1973. Which was first?
Deodato copied me. You see a lot of the musicians in New York knew about Fatback because I was already in the recording world and every drummer copied that style and they would call it the fatback beat. It was the first of the disco beats.
I’ve spoken to Robert Khallis Bell of Kool & The Gang, Larry Blackmon of Cameo and Randy Muller of Brass Construction all of whom confirm that there was a big street funk fraternity out of New York and the East coast.
That’s right and Fatback opened the doors for that so the record companies wanted their own versions of that. What happened at Perception was that the label was going broke and our first two albums just about earned Boo the money he had borrowed from his family. He was going bankrupt and said it was nothing personal but he left us stranded without a deal. Whilst shopping for a new deal and coming out of Polydor records my lawyer hooked us up with Spring Records after looking at a dubious contract that Mercury was offering.
How did you form your longstanding working relationship with trumpeter/ keyboardist Gerry Thomas?
Oh I see so how did that work with you and him, was he moonlighting whilst working with Jimmy Castor?
No that is not how it went. He left Rod Allison’s group and went to join Jimmy Castor. In the meantime Gerry and I had formed a relationship producing records together on my Fatback label. When he wrote ‘Spanish Hustle’ he offered it first to Jimmy Castor but they couldn’t work out the right publishing deal so he gave it to me and we recorded that as a massive hit.
After the third and last Perception album you join Spring/ Polydor’s Event label. ‘Mr Bass Man’ is a killer but ‘Keep On Stepping’ and ‘Wicky Wacky’ would become the club anthems. By this time the bass lines of Johnny Flipping would simulate one of a reggae ilk on both those tracks. How much did the Caribbean and reggae influence have on the band, as much later this would be evident with ‘Spanish Hustle’ and ‘Night Fever’?
Remember what I told you I got my beat from?
It came from reggae and calypso but what I did was put a two and four back beat to it, which the reggae didn’t have. Whilst playing at the cabaret dances the people loved calypso music and it was that with a New Orleans feel that influenced the Fatback Sound. Now if you listen to ‘Going To See My Baby’, four tunes came out of that like ‘Wicky Wacky’ and ‘Bus Stop’. At night we’d play the tunes differently and never the same way twice. So when we went to the studio we’d already written another tune on top of it and had performed it unconsciously but we were not aware of that. When you have a band that is working every weekend they are writing tunes in between.
When I hooked up with you at Southport in 2005 you told me that your track ‘Dance Girl’ was controversial with the Rimshots and that you were going to sue them, why was that?
They stole it and took my tune and didn’t pay me royalties and that is another one that came out of ‘Going To See My Baby’, you can tell. Remember what I told you earlier about the formula? That’s what I used throughout my Fatback career.
But they did credit you on the track eventually?
Yeah they did but I didn’t get any money. Not one penny but we worked out an agreement. Joe Robinson wasn’t the most up and up person in the world but he paid me back after I sent some people who represented me to talk to Joe and he ensured we performed with The Moments whenever they did a show.
Around the same time there were quite a few street funk bands establishing themselves like Kool & The Gang, Brass Construction and later Cameo, BT Express, Crown Heights Affair and Mass Production. All had a horn section but I think it’s fair to say that Fatback had an identity with your party hustle chants and Caribbean influences that stood out. Randy Muller advised me that he felt pressured when disco came in to write more lyrical songs. Did you experience that?
No, Fatback had no pressure and of all the groups out there I have more records than all of them apart from Kool and The Gang. We did about forty albums and I had the complete freedom to do what I liked. If I told them I wanted to put a dog on the record and that would sell they’d push it. (Bill laughs). That’s why my songs didn’t sound like others, when the others turned left, I went right and if they went straight ahead I went the other way. That’s why my music never really charted but when the deejays came in that’s where we became popular.
‘Raising Hell’ and ‘Yum Yum’ albums with their sexy funk, disco, jazz and Caribbean flavours remain two of my favourite albums that endured a degree of commercial success. ‘Raising Hells’ ‘Bus Stop’ created a dance craze to be capitalised five years later by another bullet on the future ’14 Karat’ album. How did you receive that adulation as this did catapult the group into the commercial arena more so I guess in the UK than the USA?
I never knew until Gerry Thomas came to the UK with Jimmy Castor and he said they played the hell out of ‘Bus Stop’. When I first came to England I toured with a little van and did bars and cabaret places in little country towns so I built my own following before I did big concerts.
I love the funky breaks created from ‘Put Your Love In My Tender Care’ a great track.
Whoa… that track never did anything and we never played that record live. Another one we didn’t do live was ‘Money’ until it became a hit. We had to go back and listen to the track and it took us two months to learn how to play it as we did everything as a one time take recording. The same with ‘Backstokin’’ a track which we went to court with with Dr Dre who sampled and contested his usage of it and we won.
Apart from ‘Party Time’ the one that always melts me is ‘Groovy Kind Of Day’
“Oh, oh, oh, ‘Groovy Kind Of Day’ came via our keyboard player and I wrote the words to it. We started the beat in the studio and I directed the bass player and the keyboard player who laid it down. In most of the tunes you hear, the track came first and then we would add the lyrics, then I’d add a rhythm or melody.
I remember you doing that at the Jazz Cafe around 2005 and I was so pleased you did it cause it sounded so amazing.
That day was the first time we did it as we questioned ourselves if it was too jazzy but we do it if we are in an intimate club setting now.
The ‘Yum Yum’ album is incredible with ‘Yum Yum’ as a ‘Bus Stop’ Part 2 in terms of a sing-along classic. But every track practically stands out with its own merit, in particular ‘Let The Drums Speak’ the sensual ‘Feed Me Your Love’, other favourites I used to like playing was ‘Hey I Feel Real Good’ and ‘Boogie With The Fatback’.
Bill interjects… If you wanna boogie you gotta boogie with the Fatback. We had such a raw feeling that everybody wanted to sound like Fatback. Now Bobby Robinson hired Johnny King to produce some records and Bobby asked for the Fatback sounds. Johnny said “You’ll only get that from Bill Curtis as it comes from the top of his head.” Johnny advised that he couldn’t do it stating that he didn’t think that I think like the average musician and that everybody follows my lead. Johnny later lost that producing job.
(Bill laughs) I reach out to different people. Gerry and I knew Phylis who was a New Yorker doing lots of background vocal sessions. Gerry used to arrange his music on the way from his house to the studio on the subway and brought something different to the rest of the Fatback sound. He was the person who could interpret what I wanted, make it right and make it fit. He was the key to Fatback, as he knew how to implement my ideas. I wasn’t a singer but Gerry made people think I could.
My favourite off the ‘Man With The Band’ album apart from ‘Midnight Freak’ is the uplifting ‘Mile High’ which is not a typical Fatback sound but glorious.
That is one of my favourite albums but no one dug it but me and that is a bad thing when musicians like the albums that don’t do anything. However ‘I’m the Man With The Band’ (Bill laughs) came from another keyboard player who was blind and a friend of Deborah Cooper who wrote ‘Mile High’ and I wrote the lyrics.
When we played ‘Bus Stop’ it morphed into ‘Double Dutch’ as the bass player would change the groove. When we recorded it I thought about the blue jump rope thing with the two ropes and the double dutch skipping thing.
Now named Fatback, the ‘Fired Up N Kicking’ album hosts the incredible ‘Snake’. One of our most respected deejays Paul ‘Trouble’ Anderson used to play that in a jazz funk set and everybody just moves to its infectious rhythms.
Oh yeah we did that during the Caribbean festival that was on every year in New York’s Eastern Park Way. That is one of my favourites and again we never played it live. We play it at dances because as a group we play all of our own songs and never anybody else’s songs.
(Bill laughs) Well we did the album and I was listening back to it and I couldn’t hear a song that stood out as a hit. So I mentioned to Gerry that I had a tune and that I wanted to put a rap on it. He said “You can’t rap so watcha gonna do?” Our roadie said he had a friend who could rap so we got Tim in. We had the tune name as ‘Keep The Beat’ then changed it once Tim rapped on it. I then took the tune to a radio convention for the deejays with my friend Boo Frasier. I asked the deejays if they’d play it and they said yes as there was nothing else like it and it would change up the industry. I took the info to Spring Records for them to put it out but they said no in order not to offend the deejays they felt were already doing that. They would not support the track with any finance if I insist and wanted to push ‘Candy Sweet’. They eventually agreed to put Tim 111 as the B-side. Meanwhile Joe Robinson was in the studio pushing his music to the deejays and they were telling him that Fatback had the hottest track but that no ones was playing it as it was a B-side. Joe heard it and then went into the studio and did some shady stuff and got his track (‘Rappers Delight’) on the market three days later and the rest is history. After that Spring Records still refused to put it out saying Joe had too much of a head start but I told them they had it first, and that is the story. When I speak to them about it now they suffer from amnesia. (Bill laughs). The nearest thing after that we did was ‘Money’ but then I wouldn’t do the rap thing again cause I like to grow. I didn’t think rap would last that long but I certainty didn’t want to get locked in it.
As we come to the 1980s and the ’14 Karat’ album (which is my favourite of that decade) you have a new lead vocalist in tow. ‘Lets Do It Again’ is a great opener, ‘Angel’ a nice ballad and ‘Backstrokin’’ creates a new dance sensation with people swimming backwards on the floor. Did you know that?
(Bill laughs in disbelief) ‘Backstrokin’ wasn’t about swimming though!
I also liked the social messaged ‘Concrete Jungle’ as when I heard that it blew me away and reminded me of ‘Money (Gotta Get My Hands On Some)’, ‘Lady Groove’ and ‘Your Love Is Strange’ but the melter is the jazz bubbler ‘Chillin’ Out’. It is so sexy from beginning to end. What inspired that track?
(Bill laughs) ‘Chilling Out’ was a sleeper and we’ve never played that tune live either. People never picked up on that and I couldn’t get anyone to play it. People felt that those tunes were not Fatback but I wanted to show that we could be versatile in our musical direction. It came out like creatively just like ‘Groovy Kind Of Day.’
Exactly I loved it. I loved ‘Kool Whip’ which Robbie Vincent used to play regularly on his Saturday afternoon show. Now the Fatback sound was definitely changing, it still had the horns and was funky and by the next two albums ‘Gigolo’ and ‘On The Floor’ the moog bass and synths were rife and the horns had disappeared. So many bands from the east coast like Brass Construction Mass Production etc. lost their brass anchors too. How did you adjust to that?
We were moving into the electronic stuff and people didn’t want to pay for the big bands anymore, so using the synth we could still have a horn sound. I usually now carry eight pieces with me but now its around six as we cannot afford to pay for that now. Fatback is a musician band that improvises so the musicians have to bring something new to the band and improvise on a particular song so I don’t hire outside my band.
‘Is This The Future?’ was incorporating the new sounds more so and the title track was huge with its almost Grandmaster Flash ‘The Message’ type theme?
I wanted to move into another direction as I wanted to change my sound and that track was laid with the social message rap as a feature.
I did like ‘Sunshine Lady’ the more musical track from that period.
Ahh with ‘Sunshine Lady’ that was Michael Walker the lead singer and he fell in love with Linda Blakely aka the Mean Machine so he wrote that ‘The Girl Is Fine’ and ‘I Found Loving’ due to her.
Steve was a friend of mine and he travelled with the band and he felt he could sing that song even though he was our MC. He asked if he could sing the tune and I had no objection and he brought new life into the tune. I have a live twenty minute version of us and Steve live from the Hammersmith recording, which the BBC recorded.
I’ve seen you a few times over the years at Baileys in Watford, Hammersmith Palais, The Jazz Cafe and Southport Weekender. Which venues hold the most memories for you having performed here for nearly forty years?
The Jazz Cafe and Baileys in Watford, I loved that venue and was sad when they went out of business those Baileys gigs were nice.
How did you hook up with Bah Samba to revamp the incredible millennium version of ‘Let The Drums Speak’ and ‘Spanish Hustle’?
The agent who booked me managed them and they wanted to collaborate with us. So both Fatback and Bah Samba were able to get both our names out there.
Did you mind doing that?
Well no because back in the day Heatwave approached us to come on tour with us and open up. They were good too and blew people away and made me step up my game and we’re still friends and they always show gratitude to this day as they toured England with us.
Which other bands did you admire?
I never listened to bands that much but I liked Heatwave, BT Express and Kool & The Gang. I liked Earth Wind and Fire and The Commodores but they were not street bands, they were very polished but I’m an earthy man from the street.
Thanks Bill it has been an amazing insight.
Thanks for calling me. I enjoyed the interview.