Week 35: Still Fresh
Welcome to Week 35 – and to the still fresh-sounding music of The Harold Wheeler Consort!
In 1973, my dad bought me one of these early portable FM/AM cassette recorders (that’s even before they started calling them boomboxes)…a Sony or Panasonic, can’t really remember – the next couple of years I went through a lot of them. I guess this was when my obsession with music really kicked in – I remember lying awake way past bedtime, listening to late night radio with one of my fingers on the REC button and another on the PLAY button, waiting eagerly for some good music to come my way. I quickly acquired a taste for funky songs with heavy use of synthesizers – you know, that special spacey synthesizer sound closely mimicking the human voice, almost always coming from a Moog or an Arp (and often handled by either Stevie or Herbie). But one night in early 1976, that specific sound was coming from Harold Wheeler’s Moog…well, I didn’t know it was Harold at the time, neither did I know the name of the song (a cover of the Eugene McDaniels penned Roberta Flack hit “Feel Like Makin’ Love”), but it sure blew me away – and probably drove my entire family crazy, since I remember playing it over and over again until the cassette eventually gave up altogether (sabotage or material exhaustion, who knows what really happened?!).
So imagine just how happy I was finding that (at least for me) very special rendition again on an album I found dirt cheap on one of my vinyl store scavenging hunts this summer. I picked up a copy of The Harold Wheeler Consort’s 1975 album “Black Cream” for a mere $4.99, and I’m not ashamed letting you all know I did it solely on the cover photo (well, the typography too)…it just looked damn good!
When listening to it again for the first time in 33 years I found it to be at lot cheesier than I remembered it, and by now I’ve must’ve listened to the original song almost as many times as I had heard Harold’s take…and of course, hands down, Roberta is the winner for sure…but Harold’s version still sounded fresh. And so did many of the other cuts on the LP…and I’m not the only one to think so – the beat producers has been sampling it like crazy! DJ Premier used the dramatic ending of “Then Came You” for Blaq Poet’s “Watch Your Back” just a couple of years ago. Indie soulman Coultrain used some of the Isaac Hayes-inspired title cut “Black Cream” to create the best track on his 2007 debut album “The Adventures Of Seymour Liberty” – a vibrant song called “Endangered Species”. And that’s just two that I recognized immediately, I bet there’s more….”Black Cream” simply is that kind of an album!
Today, Harold Wheeler is best known for being the musical director of “Dancing With The Stars” since 2006, and before that he was responsible for all music in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta – but what about the Harold Wheeler of 1975? Let’s check an excerpt from the liner notes by Mort Goode to learn some more (and find a suitable connection to Vincent’s Diana Ross post of last week):
The very notion of Black Cream is exactly right – to cut Harold Wheeler loose from his outstanding career as a pianist/arranger/conductor and to let him stretch out musically on records for the very first time all on his own.
The clearest way to underscore the point would be to list some of the astonishing credits Harold Wheeler has accumulated since he graduated cum laude from Howard University less than a decade ago.
Harold was the youngest man ever to open on Broadway as conductor of a major musical and, at that time, one of the very few Blacks to conduct a premiere of a Broadway show. It was only the beginning of his theater career.
That first musical was “Promises, Promises” for which he also composed the dance music. Shortly after he made a similar contribution to “Coco.” Since then, he has been Musical Director for “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death”, “Don’t Play Us Cheap”, “Two Gentlemen of Verona” and most recently arranger for “The Wiz”, the all-Black version of “The Wizard of Oz”.
Born in St. Louis in the early forties, Harold Wheeler turned professional when he was 6 years old, playing piano at his Baptist Church for $5.00 per week. Before taxes.
Harold’s “Arioso and Invention for Oboe and Orchestra” was performed by the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, D.C. while he was still at Howard University, where he was honored with a listing in “Who’s Who in American Universities and Colleges”.
Harold Wheeler has scored and conducted for films, and TV too – “Cotton Comes to Harlem”, “Fortune and Men’s Eyes”, “Don’t Play Us Cheap”, “The Martin Luther King Memorial”, The Midnight R & B Special”, New York Shakespeare Festival’s “Wedding Band”, “George M. Cohan”, “Black Journal”, “Harlem Cavalcade of Stars” and teh Tony Awards.
His distinctive accompaniements and arrangements have been heard with Lena Horne, Anne Bancroft, Jimmy Smith, The New World Symphony, André Kostelanetz, Roberta Flack, Doc Severinsen, Aretha Franklin, Billy Taylor, Bernadette Peters, Freda Payne, Ronnie Dyson, Clifton Davis, Nina Simone, Grady Tate, Melvin Van Peebles, Ruth Brown and many more…”
To read the rest of the liner notes, check the hi-res cover scans included in the download. And don’t miss out on Harold Wheeler’s complete IMDb listings here and the article on his work with “Dancing With The Stars” right here!
OK, now try this preview clip showcasing two songs off the “Black Cream” album – as well as two songs using samples from them:
The original vinyl’s rather scarce, and the album hasn’t been reissued on CD – so act now…go get yourself a copy of the LP right here, ranging between $50-59.99! Like the liner notes end things off; “Check it out. Black Cream is smooth and sensual and very, very together. It’s Harold Wheeler. And it’s time.”
Harold Wheeler – thank you for the music!
(Ps. We feel it’s high time to put the producers and beatmakers often visiting the blog to another test…remember the 4BB Beat Logo Competition last year? Well, it’s time to step things up a bit – stay tuned for more information real soon!)