Jazz-funk, and even punk-funk (for the latter, think early 1980s Prince and Rick James who had something of a rivalry going on between them) are both well worn and respected terms, but what about the little known sub-genre funk-rock? Formed in 1970, Mother’s Finest personified that style and are really the brainchild of Chicago born singer Glenn Murdock (whose influences ranged from Jimi Hendrix and Led Zepplin to Django Reinhardt) and Mississippian singer Joyce Washington, the latter of whom adds a soulful touch throughout, and fully deserved to be a successful singer in her own right. In fact, her influences included Aretha Franklin, Etta James and Tina Turner. Overall, the sound is not quite as extreme as this writer might have expected and the mid-tempo and ballad material is at once surprisingly accessible and indeed listener friendly.
Clearly, Sly and the Family Stone were a seminal influence on the band in terms of concept (though the sound is actually quite different) as were Ike and Tina Turner. A multi-racial band that were equally at ease with hard rock including heavy metal and soul and funk were always going to be a hard act to sell to a US audience who were brought up on a musically (and by extension racially) segregated airwaves. The band started off covering songs with, ‘Sing a simple song’, and, ‘River deep, mountain high’, paying direct homage to the aforementioned influences. A bonus for the listener is that the pre-Epic era of songs recorded by Mother’s Finest are included and this includes their debut recording from 1972.
The band began to find their own voice by the mid-1970s when now signed to major label Epic and this was just at a time when disco was starting to take off and when funk, even P-funk, was taking on board a more dance oriented groove. A 1976 self-titled offering yielded the first concrete evidence that the band’s brand of fusion funk-rock was truly sellable. Rock and gospel hues combine on, ‘Fire’, whereas the soulful vocals and funk-tinged keyboards and bass lines come together effectively on, ‘Give you all the love (inside of me)’.
Fast forward a year and their 1977 album, ‘Another mother further’, contained a sizeable rock hit in,’ Baby love’ (not the Supremes’ Motown classic), while UK glam rock influences surface on, ‘Piece of the rock’, with Marc Bolan and T-Rex. Of note here is that the uptempo funk numbers have something of a Santana feel in the instrumentation, especially tracks such as, ‘Monster people’, and equally on the fine percussion work of, ‘Bone song’, which even has a jazz jam session groove to it. James Brown guitar licks and an earthier hammond organ accompaniment are, moreover, features of the mid-tempo number, ‘Dear sir and brother Mann’, which has a melodic guitar solo and even a pop-soul feel with blues roots around the edges. Arguably, this should have been the kind of song to widen their appeal to a more general audience. Conversely, on ballads such as the excellent, You move me’, Washington seems to have been listening to Gladys Knight and there is a marked southern soul approach to the phrasing. By the late 1970s music was evolving with a stronger emphasis on synthesizers and layered sound, and somewhere along the way Mothers Finest simply got lost in the changes underway. Their last recordings on this anthology fizzle out into relatively inoffensive, if a tad bland, songs and these were the final recordings made by the band who were caught in a 1970s time warp. The first CD that focuses firmly on the 1970s era is by far the stronger of the two.
The lasting legacy of Mother’s Finest can, perhaps, best be gauged by the other musicians covering their songs, and one obvious example of a group that took on board their innovatory concept are Labelle, the reformed version of which covered, ‘Truth’ll set you free’ on a 2008 CD. A intriguing band, if one that has largely been neglected by funk fans over here, and even rock devotees may be unaware of the fusion of genres. All the more reason to investigate.