Les McCann’s sounds are scattered all over late 20th century pop music

Les McCann tribute

“If it’s done from the heart, people feel it,” – Les McCann, San Diego Union interview, 1986.

“All your favorite Golden Era producers were deep in that Les McCann bag…He’s the foundation of a lot of your favorite records. Do the knowledge.” – Dante Ross, architect of Elektra Records hip-hop roster where he signed acts Brand Nubian, Grand Puba, Del the Funky Homosapien, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, KMD, Leaders of the New School, Busta Rhymes and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, on the passing of Les McCann.

I’ve owned two copies of Talk To The People, the 1972 album by the unsurpassed jazz pianist composer, and vocalist Les McCann. One of them I five-finger “rescued” from a tiny, very liberal arts college radio station library on the East Coast, and the second one I found for a cool two bucks in the Amoeba Records’ dollar bins at the end of the always enterprising Haight Street in San Francisco.

That spoken section at the top of “Talk To The People,” where Les McCann goes into his raspy syncopated preamble: “Ya know, nowadays it seems like there are a lot of bad things going on. I guess a lot of it, the way I see it seems to stem from a lack of feeling on our parts in the way we relate and communicate with our fellow brothers and sisters”—yeah, buddy, that’s the stuff.

That grand statement of purpose caught the attention of hip-hop artist and producer Pete Rock. He used it at the top of his 1992 single “Anger In the Nation.” It’s a deep album track, not necessarily a radio hit—one for the heads. Cats were always checking for where Pete was digging his loops from, during the pre-Google times when the record store was Wikipedia for your dusty fingers. He didn’t record it for a snare kick, head-snapping baseline, or a melodic break—all of which are trademarks of his production mastery. Pete needed that vibe. That studio airspace rotates around Les McCann’s words. Hearing an elder bless the track held immediate weight. The faultless imperfections of that human, lived-in voice—those are the types of intangibles that added royalty to the “golden era” mahogany Pete Rock mastered in the early ’90s.

Producers sample sounds and textures for multiple reasons. It goes beyond the “sounds good” mentality. Sometimes it’s a reheat factor (taking something popular that can be easily recognizable to the most pedestrian ear) is a plus-ten. In other scenarios it’s about scratching a memory from that producer’s upbringing; reintroducing music that was an essential piece of their childhood. Something that soundtracked a family over time. Or for that matter a centerpiece anthem from the culture that our elders played ad infinitum, that’s become embedded in our brains. 

Les McCann is one of those types of musicians that families, Black, and otherwise, passed on down to the younglings. His arrangements—jazz, funk, and soul—are scattered all over the last two decades of 20th century popular music. Modern producers, who make hip-hop, trip-hop, and electronic arrangements leaned heavily on McCann.  His presence looms large, whether it be his voice, keyboard work, or experimental, eccentric moves.

The uninhibited Layers album from 1973 that documents McCann’s love affair with the ARP synthesizer—where, in the liner notes, he states his goal was to be the orchestra he heard in his head—does achieve its ultimate goal. Merging worlds of nasty instrumental funk with prog-rock exploratory touches throughout, McCann is freer than usual. Stretching to imitate the sounds of woodwinds, brass, strings, and even electric guitar. Just as psychedelic and funky as Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, any of the early Miles Davis fusion records, released right around the same time Stevie Wonder started using the TONTO (The Original New Timbral Orchestra) synthesizer McCann, never scared, traverses through new sounds of the time to communicate what was exactly at the bottom of his creative gut.

Best known for his performance with musical partner Eddie Harris of the protest song “Compared to What,” he died at age 88 on December 29, according to a report from NBC News. The cause and manner of death were unavailable. Manager Alan Abrahams said McCann, a piano player and singer, died at a Los Angeles-area hospital after he developed pneumonia roughly one week ago.

But peep it: The acid-washed funk workout “North Carolina” from that same Talk To The People album always got me in trouble. Both of my copies of the record had a scratch. About a minute before the track ends. So I was tricked into thinking I’d transition out of the track at DJ gigs just in time. That mind-blowing instrumental keyboard gold was worth the risk. But in true Les McCann form, he’s giving us so much, probably messing up the short-circuit system in his Fender Rhodes setup. Such a non-stop beat, that I still and always forgot to transition out in time. 

McCann, as with every stolen moment of a song or performance, gave it all he had. He sang, rapped, shouted, hollered, hummed and philosophized with personal, not performative, voice. Making you see and hear what he was pitching up in the feels department. Presenting his master arranger wizardry of the right now, a core ability. An area he was attacked by so-called “jazz purists” who looked down upon the soul-jazz idiom because they couldn’t bring an audience to a rapturous frenzy, dancing in aisles, shouting churchly “Amens” in a nightclub. McCann was cooking special moments on stage like every day was a damn Taco Tuesday.

With the ability to conjure up his present state of mind and perform it with a rehearsed-like attack, his improvisational feats, on the spot, never felt detached.

Swiss Movement, with its lively and powerful rendition of the Gene McDaniels war protest song “Compared To What,” directly criticized President Lyndon Johnson and his grossly negligent judgment in starting the Vietnam War, and also touched on the topic of abortion. First recorded by Roberta Flack, whom Les McCann discovered, Swiss Movement took this protest song to where the ears of the culture were musically. Sly & The Family Stone had deconstructed the stuffy R&B space, so Les just vamped on that market correction, presenting jazz with a shoutin’ soul finesse, in a liberal festival-type presentation, not even cognizant of the Woodstock timeline by two months. But in Switzerland. 

In return, the people made the single a million-copy seller, reaching No. 35 on Billboard’s R&B chart, forever cementing the Montreux Jazz Festival as a popular destination for live music after the song’s release.

But the sugar to that tune’s salt, “Cold Duck Time” named after a sparkling wine made in the U.S., gives the protest march, a corner Black Elks Lodge watering hole to decompress by way of getting back to the call and response of traditional jazz. Growing up, hearing both of those selections back to back, performed the duty of letting me know I was home.

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