The Mighty Imperials : Thunder Chicken
There is very little of worth in Orange County, CA. Much like The O.C. suggests, it consists of scarcely more than strip malls, bored rich kids and Republicans. Strangely, however, one of the best funk radio shows is broadcast out of the University of California Irvine’s radio station, KUCI. The show is called “The International House of Groove” and is hosted by a mellow chick named Angelina. Every Sunday afternoon when I was spending time with my Orange Curtain bound girlfriend, we would drive around listening to the sweet sounds of slap bass and wah-wah, which was only occasionally interrupted by Angelina for the sake of naming off the songs she played.
I don’t know this infamous DJ personally. And I’ll probably have few, if any, opportunities to go back to Irvine. But if by some chance I end up on I-405 on a Sunday at noon, I might just have to call in and request some Mighty Imperials.
I had never heard of the Mighty Imperials before I got a promo of Thunder Chicken in the mail, but it took zero seconds flat between me pressing the play button and the sound coming out of the speakers for me to become a fan. Lord, does this mamma jamma groove. And what’s more, the album was recorded when all of the members of this funk outfit were only 16! What’s surprising isn’t so much that some kids were actually able to record a record. After all, it went unreleased for five years and is just now surfacing. The impressive part is that it’s so good!
Most of the tracks on Thunder Chicken are instrumentals, settling comfortably into a solid groove. Sean Solomon plays a clean but raw guitar. Nick Movshon’s bass is low and rich, as he walks clean basslines throughout the course of the album. Leon Michels plays a greasy, fiery Hammond organ, while Homer Steinweiss lays down the hot downbeats. Most of these songs are pretty simple at heart, but these kids were accomplished enough at the time of this recording to show off their chops. And these kids most certainly could play.
Not every song is an instrumental, however. Joseph Henry, a one-time gospel singer and brief member of the Coasters, lays down vocals on some of the most memorable songs of the collection. “Never Found a Girl” and “Joseph’s Popcorn” are solid and righteous — the sort of unstoppable funk jams that could make James Brown jealous. “Funky Belly” takes it a step further even, speeding up the grooves and adding some horns for textured effect, which continues in “Soul Buster pt. 1.”
The Mighty Imperials know their funk. Unfortunately, they’re no longer a band. The members split up and went their separate ways, ending up in outfits such as The Dap-Kings and Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra. What we have, however, is a fantastic beginning to many talented careers, a rare classic funk album in a time when funk musicians are few and far between. Thunder Chicken will take you back to the early seventies, because they just don’t make `em like this anymore. I hope, for the sake of those stuck in Irvine for four years, that Angelina will throw some Mighty Imperials on during “I.H.O.G.” from time to time. It’ll make that spring semester of comparative literature go by much more quickly.
The Meters – Look Ka-Py-Py
The J.B.s – Doing It To Death
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings – Dap Dippin’ with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.