Drawing heavily on the social and political issues of the time, it sat comfortably next to LPs like Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Gil Scott-Heron’s Pieces of a Man. “This was just after the ’60s at the time of the protest songs and stuff like that, and so I came up with numbers like ‘It Ain’t No Fun Being a Welfare Recipient’ and ‘Mr. Money Man.’ ” These were just two of the songs written with his wife, with whom he’d set up the Michelle-Bird publishing company, and who went on to write songs with both Edwin and Roy Ayers.
Alongside other socially conscious numbers like “Pretty Brown Skin” (cowritten with Michelle Birdsong and Roy Ayers, who also recorded the track the same year) and “The Uncle Tom Game” was the gospel-influenced “My Father Preaches That God Is the Father.” Despite his new connections with the hip jazz world of New York, this dedication showed the respect Edwin would always have for the church. “Coming from a religious background, I didn’t want to go back to California and be playing in the clubs because of my father being a pastor,” he says. “So that prompted me even more to stay in New York.” Perhaps the standout track on the LP and certainly the most progressive was “The Spirit of Do…Do,” which was later slowed down into a woozy jazz-funk cut on the Roy Ayers Ubiquity LP Mystic Voyage.
Edwin’s relationship with Roy Ayers went right back to their high school days in Los Angeles: “Roy went to Jefferson High School, and I went to Freeman High, which were rival schools. At the time, I was a member of this group of guys called the Continental Gents. We would put on parties and stuff, and Roy was in one of the groups that we had hired to play for us out at the beach.” The pair’s friendship would be rekindled when both relocated to New York: “I lived on Eighteenth Street, and he moved just around the corner on Seventh Avenue between Eighteenth and Nineteenth Streets. So he and I became friends. This would have been around 1969.” Roy Ayers was already making his name in the city’s jazz scene as Edwin recalls: “He was playing with Herbie Mann at the time.” Ayers and Mann’s relationship had been cemented on the 1969 heavyweight LP Memphis Underground. “I really liked Herbie’s music but hadn’t realized Roy played in the band. Anyway, I was introduced to him by Roy, and I actually did my first recording session for Herbie at Atlantic Studios.” Birdsong and Ayers soon entered the studio together, beginning a long creative partnership. “I think my main influence on Roy at that time was getting him to move from being a purely jazz musician to become more bluesy and commercial,” he says. “I also took him from just playing jazz into singing more.”
Roy Ayers’s 1970 LP, Ubiquity, would be a milestone recording both for Ayers and Birdsong. “That was the start of our publishing company, Ayer-Bird Music,” says Edwin. The exploratory sound of “Pretty Brown Skin” and “Hummin’ ” (most recently sampled by Kendrick Lamar on “Celebration”) worked like a template for the pair’s future explorations into cosmic jazz-funk. It was a sound founded as much on Birdsong’s complex organ arrangements as the elegant, shifting vibraphone work of Ayers.
In 1973, Birdsong furthered his musical partnership with Ayers, penning the classic title track of the Red, Black & Green album. The same year, Edwin returned with his second LP, Super Natural. “How that [album] differed from What It Is was that I wanted to do a more rock-influenced album,” he says. “I had used Eddie Kramer on the first album to mix the LP, and on Super Natural, I brought him in as a producer and engineer. I had a young guitarist by the name of Ronnie Drayton. He was such a great guitarist in that Hendrix tradition that it blew Eddie’s mind.” The LP was recorded at Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studio in New York. “When we were there, Jimi’s stuff was in the hallway—his amps and stuff were scattered about—so his spirit was really all over that album,” says Birdsong.
The 1976 Roy Ayers Ubiquity LP Vibrations would see Birdsong join Ayers as co-arranger and producer as well as writer of “The Memory” on what was Birdsong’s biggest involvement on a Ubiquity LP. “I would take Roy’s songs that were instrumentals and I would give it lyrical and melodic content. So when you hear things like ‘The Memory,’ those were all my vocal arrangements.” While disco was about to transcend its underground roots, Birdsong and Ayers had been working on a more upbeat dance-floor sound that would reach its zenith on the 1977 LP Lifeline. The LP included “Running Away,” Roy Ayers’s most famous song apart from “Everybody Loves the Sunshine.” Not only cowritten by Birdsong, the track also featured his vocals up front in the mix. “You can actually hear my voice on ‘Running Away’ more than Roy’s,” he says. “Running Away” would become an anthem at clubs from the Loft in New York to Crackers in London. Another Ayers and Birdsong collaboration that tore up dance floors worldwide was “Freaky Deaky,” which would appear on Ayers’s Let’s Do It LP.
Discovered by Roy Ayers at a showcase in 1976, Cincinnati group Saturday Night Special were propelled into rare-groove folklore when they were renamed RAMP (after Roy Ayers’s production company) and invited into the studio with Ayers and Birdsong. “We couldn’t believe what was happening. It was like a dream come true,” the band’s John Manuel told Wax Poetics back in 2007. Come into Knowledge was one of Birdsong and Ayers’s most serious collaborations as writers and producers. If there was one track that captured the space-soul sound that would inspire so many for years to come, it was “Daylight,” sampled most famously by A Tribe Called Quest on “Bonita Applebum.” “We were told that that sound was what impressed A Tribe Called Quest,” recalled John Manuel. It was a sound built around Birdsong’s vocal arrangements of the band’s two singers, Sharon Matthews and Sibel Thrasher. “He was marvelous with the vocals,” Matthews explained. “He had us doing things we didn’t even know we could do.” The LP also included the biting soul-jazz of “The American Promise” (later reworked by Erykah Badu as “Amerykahn Promise” with Edwin on coproduction duties with Roy Ayers).
While the RAMP LP was avidly devoured by beat seekers in the years to come, Birdsong’s most heavily sampled LP was his self-titled 1979 solo return and his only LP on Philadelphia International.
“I had already recorded the LP and played it for Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, and they offered me a deal,” he says. “So as a result, that was different to what people like Teddy Pendergrass and other artists were doing with Philadelphia. I was one of the first to come in with my own songs and own production; I didn’t use Kenny or Leon to write anything. So they just let me do my own thing, which I loved.” The LP was recorded at the New York branch of the legendary Sigma Sound Studio. Around this time, Edwin was a regular at the city’s underground clubs: “I went to Paradise Garage all the time, and Larry Levan and I became friends; and of course before that, there was Tee Scott at Better Days. That was a very free place, and I always observed closely what was going on.” Those nights inspired the hazy, cosmic boogie of “Cola Bottle Baby,” a wonderfully left-field track that still sounds progressive today. Sampled by Daft Punk on “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” in 2001, it most recently provided the hook for Kanye West’s “Stronger.” Birdsong also includes the electro-funk of “Goldmine” and the out-there disco of “Phiss Phizz.” Referring to the 12-inch promo-only flip to “Goldmine,” Birdsong says, “Tee and I did a mix of ‘Phiss Phizz,’ and we gave it to Larry [Levan], and he loved it,” says Birdsong.
In 1980, Birdsong and Ayers collaborated once more on another future cult classic, Ladies of the Eighties by Eighties Ladies. “I found most of the girls that sang on that, and named the group,” says Edwin. An underground club hit that reached new ears when it opened the influential compilation Classic Rare Groove Mastercuts, Volume 1, “Turned On to You” is another example of Birdsong’s beautiful vocal arrangements on an LP packed with soulful gems.
I took “Rapper Dapper Snapper” to Larry at the Garage, and he loved it. He played the shit out of it, and that crowd loved it.
A year later, he was to return on another legendary label. Released on Salsoul in 1981, the LP Funtaztik saw Birdsong in the studio with the great engineer Bob Blank and a band that included bassist Marcus Miller. With touches of François Kevorkian’s mix of Dinosaur L’s “Go Bang,” the opener, “Win Tonight,” is a gloriously off-key slab of mutant disco. But it was “Rapper Dapper Snapper” that made the biggest mark on the underground clubs of New York. “I took that to Larry at the Garage, and he loved it. He played the shit out of it, and that crowd loved it.” Later sampled most famously by De La Soul for “Me Myself and I,” the track was actually inspired by visits to another pivotal New York club. “I went to the [Disco] Fever in the Bronx a lot and listened to DJs like Grandmaster Flash. I’ve always been a student of music and would take notes of what was going [on]. The Fever was like the spot at the time. It was a very special place like the Paradise Garage.”