Week 14: Philly Uprising
Since my schedule is still pretty hectic, I’m more than just a little grateful for this week’s much needed assistance from our very good friend BeyondBodyAndSoul (I’m sure you all remember his Paul Owens contribution from last year), who this week comes to the rescue with some dusty 7″ vinyls – all of them with an important common denominator: Nat Turner Rebellion!
And to be completely honest, this fiery post was supposed to be up like months ago. Keeping this soulful goodness away from your ears longer than necessary is almost inexcusable…so without further ado I hand the word over to BB&S:
And your name it might be Caesar sure,
And got your cannon can shoot a mile or more,
But you can’t keep the world from moving around
Nor Old Nat Turner from gaining ground.
MID 19TH CENTURY FOLK LYRIC
Being born and raised in Philadelphia, and knowing what I know about the city of brotherly love, it is not at all a surprise to me that our city commands such a profound musical legacy. There is something about the many moods of this town that has always fed the creative urge of sensitive people. Sometimes it is joyous and hopeful, other times it’s bittersweet and other times it can be both gothic and dark. Many people would defer to Gamble & Huff’s better known stable of artists on Philadelphia International when thinking of the signature sound of Philadelphia during the early 70’s. While the recognition of artists like Billy Paul or The Three Degrees as Philly institutions is certainly well-earned, there were other sounds out of Philly during this period – a little more raw, a little more heavy but just as compelling. Groups like the Brothers of Hope, Broad Street Gang, and the Nat Turner Rebellion may not be household names but they have succeeded in creating sounds that evoke the soulful truth of our city.
We turn our attention specifically to the work of the Nat Turner Rebellion and feature six of their tracks for your enjoyment. The original Nat Turner, sometimes referred to as ‘The Prophet’, lead a slave revolt in 1831. The appearance of a solar eclipse acted as the catalyst for his vision of the time that “was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first”.
In discussing the Nat Turner Rebellion the musical group, it seems appropriate to start with their paean to Nat Turner the individual in my favorite track from this group “Tribute to a Slave”. Two things may grab your attention at the beginning: a raw and heavy bass line and the sounds of the electric sitar followed by the line “My friend Nat…though our eyes never met”. The appearance of the electric coral sitar in soul music during this period is just another example of some of the creativity and cross-pollination of sounds and genres that was the hallmark of classic 60’s and early 70’s music. While my mind went to Freda Payne’s ‘Band of Gold’ when hearing the electric sitar, it is also impossible to not think of the Stylistics and the Spinners. It is also here where we find our first link to what little information is available about the Nat Turner Rebellion. Songwriting credit for “Tribute to a Slave” is attributed to Joe B. Jefferson who also penned some of the Spinner’s bigger hits. I’ve heard that Joe B Jefferson is, in fact, the brother of Major Harris who took on vocal duties with the Nat Turner Rebellion before replacing Randy Cain as singer of the Delfonics in 1971. It seems like a safe bet, then, that most of these tracks are recorded pre-1971, but it is hard to be sure. Certainly, a lot of their output seems to live squarely in the psychedelic soul sounds of 1969-1970 – the Funky 16 Corner website astutely identified the similarities between the Nat Turner Rebellion and the Whitfield production of the Temptations during this period.
Just listen to this excerpt:
While “Tribute to a Slave” is at the top of my list, ‘Getting Higher’ is awfully close. I love the organ and bass opening riff before the entrance of the vocals, how about you? As much as I enjoy the music on this track, however, it would be criminal to not consider the wild lyrical content. “Some kind of weird thing” is indeed happening. Dinosaurs and cavemen getting high? Doctors and lawyers too? If the dinosaurs do indeed get the munchies afterwards, here’s hoping they eat the lawyers.
I also enjoy “Plastic People” immensely – I particularly like how the music switches up at 2:42 after the line “from this point on we will no longer sing…we will talk”. The electric sitar is back again as a Wurlitzer appears to provide a nice rhythmic backdrop for a warning that “freaks are on their way!” Be advised that these freaks are “wakin’ and bakin’” and therefore could very well be the cast of characters from the previous song. Does anyone remember that Orlon’s song from Philly that goes “where do all the hippies meet? South street…south street…” Perhaps the guys from the NTR decided to check it out for themselves and do a little field reporting. Say what you will about the ‘freaks’ of the counter-cultural movement – there is still no way that anyone, and that goes for you too dear reader, would ever want to replace the vitality of Philadelphia’s south street during those days with the corporate graveyard of dead souls that it is fast becoming in the new millennium.
Finally, we have two remaining tracks – the evocative ballad ‘Can’t go on living’ as well as the song taken from that old phrase ‘laugh to keep from crying’. The latter track really does remind me of the Temptations sound from this period, perhaps more then any other offering from NTR. Regarding the message: In the cauldron of early 70’s Philadelphia, I suppose a little bit of delusion could go a long way in terms of self-preservation. Sun Ra’s description of the city of brotherly love as ‘Death’s Headquarters’ may have been a little heavy-handed, but the mindless violence in our streets these last few summers makes the line about “I got to try to keep from dying” sadly prescient. In terms of the mechanics of the track itself, there appears to be some structural similarities between this track and Plastic People – particularly the change which roughly happens at the exact 2:42 point in both songs.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this review – I only wish I could’ve supplied you with more actual information about the band itself. I think you will agree that the Nat Turner Rebellion deserves much overdue recognition. I will leave you with the music to speak for itself as well as a line from Plastic People:
“It’s time for us children to leave here –
we hope each and every one of you out there
as a people have been able to relate
with what we are trying to say…”
Big thanks to BeyondBodyAndSoul for this awesome contribution – and for the thoroughly entertaining write-up!
Unfortunately, the Nat Turner Rebellion never released a full album, and apart from the six tracks we’re offering this week, I only know of six more: “Ruby Lee”, “You Are My Sun Sign”, “Handle With Care”, “Never Too Late”, “The Robot Pt. 1″ and “The Robot Pt. 2″. All six cuts released in 1972 or later, by which time they had dropped the “Rebellion” part of their name – more polished, less gritty and no more electric sitars (well, the only exception might just be the weird novelty type track “The Robot”, which to some still could be seen as pretty gritty). But hey, It’s all good of course! Just listen to this snippet of “Ruby Lee”:
So if you want to add some more cuts to your collection for that “full album feel”, simply click right here to buy the extra tracks (at a mere $0.99 a piece), all available on the 1998 compilation “Philly Groove – Early Singles”!
If you’re longing for the original Nat Turner 7″ vinyls, here’s a good place to start your quest! It’s kinda interesting that it’s Nat Turner Rebellions first and last vinyl singles that are the hardest to come by. I’ve only found one copy of “Tribute To A Slave” ($140)…and to find a copy of the original “The Robot Pt. 1 & 2″ feels like a complete waste of time…it’s extinct! So I guess them reissue tracks really are our best option.
Once again, mad props to BB&S for sharing the goodness…but first and foremost, Nat Turner Rebellion – thank you for the music!
See y’all next week!
/Laf & The B’s