Remembering Barrett Strong
The news of Barrett Strong’s death this week at the age of 81 (here’s my Guardian obituary) naturally sent me back to 1959 and “Money (That’s What I Want)”, but also to the masterpieces of psychedelic soul that Strong and Norman Whitfield created for the Temptations between 1967 and 1972. While “Cloud Nine” was the most surprising, “Ball of Confusion” the most intense and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” the creative pinnacle of this response to the innovations of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, my own favourite has always been the full 12 and a half minute version of “Smiling Faces Sometimes”, to be found on the Tempts’ 1971 album, Sky’s the Limit.
David Van DePitte, who orchestrated the track, deserves equal credit. In the first half-minute alone we’re introduced to four independent lines, one after another: James Jamerson’s stately bass guitar, a gentle bassoon, a piercing high line for violins doubled by a piano an octave down, and a nasty fuzz-tone guitar. They drift in and out before locking together, at which point a woodwind choir and French horn whoops usher in Eddie Kendricks’s lead vocal, his high tenor stripped of its usual swooning romantic urges, here quietly conveying a mess of paranoia: “Smiling faces sometimes / Pretend to be your friend / Smiling faces show no traces / Of the evil that lurks within…”
By this time there are also two rhythm guitars, one strumming open chords and another, slightly further back in the mix, using a wah-wah pedal: the sound of Blaxploitation movies. Coming up to the three-minute mark there’s a rattle of fingertips on a conga drum before the player (probably Eddie “Bongo” Brown) drops into the medium-paced groove alongside Jamerson’s running bass line. At 3:45 a single punch on a bass drum (sorry, kids: kick drum to you) prefaces the gradual entry of the kit drummer, probably Uriel Jones: just an almost subliminal 4/4 on the snare alongside the conga slaps, then fading away before returning as syncopated bass-drum beats.
The bassoon line is taken up by violas, there are flute and piccolo punctuations, and the fuzz-toned guitarist returns at 7:50 for a searing solo as the rhythm section simmers quietly. The strings swoop and dive. Then Jamerson, having explored all kinds of ornamentations and passing notes, is left alone to support Echoplexed voices before conga and strings join him, and suddenly there are two fuzz guitars — probably Melvin Ragin and Dennis Coffey — and a drummer stealing in, emphasising the first beat of each bar with a cymbal whoosh, raising the intensity. Then just bass and congas again as the singer’s voices echo off each other as they head for the horizon, towards some place into which you don’t want to follow them, fading to silence.
And that’s it. A symphony in E flat minor — the black keys. A track in which space and time expand and contract, where themes and textures are picked up, tossed around, recombined, dropped and rediscovered, all against a background of unswerving but infinitely flexible momentum. Something I’ve listened to countless times since 1971, and of which I’ll never tire. Soul music’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, if you ask me. So thank you for your creativity, Mr Van DePitte. Thank you for your virtuosity, Mr Kendricks and Mr Jamerson. Thank you for your vision, Mr Whitfield and Mr Strong. None of you, now, still with us.