Cosmic Reverb: Edwin Birdsong
by Andy Thomas
Producer, songwriter, and organist Edwin Birdsong is the anonymous genius behind some of jazz-funk’s most cosmic moments. The Los Angeles native reconnected with high school acquaintance Roy Ayers in New York, and the two began work on a series of records that would change the course of jazz and popular music at large. The relationship would give birth to a funky jazz with commercial leanings that worked both live and on the dance floor. Birdsong remained committed to a solo career, releasing a string of records, including two highly influential albums—one on Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International and one on Salsoul—whose effects are still reverberating. Influenced by Larry Levan and the New York club scene, Birdsong’s left-field boogie anthem “Cola Bottle Baby” would become fodder for both Daft Punk and Kanye West, and his bare funk breakbeat track “Rapper Dapper Snapper” would nod hip-hop heads for years, bringing Birdsong’s grooves to a new global audience.
When I first saw the credits on those mid-’70s Roy Ayers Ubiquity LPs like Vibrations and Lifeline, I wondered who Edwin Birdsong was. Here was a left-field keyboardist and songwriter who not only worked as coproducer on those pivotal Ubiquity LPs but also had writing credits on classics like “Running Away” and “Red, Black & Green.” Deeper digging revealed a series of his own experimental cosmic-soul LPs that began in 1971 with the Polydor debut What It Is and ended with his Salsoul outing, Funtaztik, in 1981. Despite his prescient and unique music being heavily sampled (De La Soul, Gang Starr, Daft Punk, Chemical Brothers, et al.), Edwin Birdsong remains a cultish figure whose genius is shrouded by anonymity.
Born in Los Angeles in 1951, Edwin Birdsong was raised in a religious household where his pastor father, who sang in a church quartet, instilled a love of the spirituals. “I started playing piano in Sunday school when I was about eight or nine, playing simple things like ‘Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross,’ ” he tells me over the phone from L.A. “So that’s really where I got started at the Solid Rock Baptist Church, although I didn’t realize at the time how influential it was going to be.” Following his father’s path, he also started singing at the church and as a teenager joined the Los Angeles Community Choir, meeting such luminaries as Merry Clayton and Billy Preston.
An equally important formative experience for Birdsong came from outside of the church. “I started studying classical music when I was about six years of age through a piano teacher who lived a few doors away,” he recalls. At the same time as he was developing his classical piano techniques, he was also beginning his first attempts at composition: “I would improvise and make things up while I was playing at the church. I always had that urge to try different things on the piano around the songs I was learning.” While the church would provide his foundation, young Edwin’s ears were opened further to secular music through local radio: “I would hear boogie-woogie tunes, and I noticed that they all had that left-hand movement. And because I was left-handed, it was never really difficult for me to play.” At junior high school, he formed his first small band playing piano with a group of friends. “It was a very rough thing,” he says, “just a group of kids getting together and trying to imitate other people.” But through one of those kids, he was soon to discover a new instrument that would change his creative path: “A friend had taught me how to play a twelve-bar blues in the Jimmy Smith style, on an old Hammond. So from there, I learned to play jazz organ.”
Birdsong earned his spurs on the organ when he moved to Germany as an army serviceman in his late teens during the Vietnam War. “When I got there, I was already playing the blues, so I would sit in with the band and play the popular songs. And the bartenders, who were the guys in those days who would hire the musicians, would ask me if I had a band. So I put together a group, and that group was called Birdsong and the Sounds.” Stationed in Baltimore for his last six months of service, he put together various bands in the clubs down the famous jazz hub of Pennsylvania Avenue. “Most clubs there at the time had a Hammond organ, which was perfect for me,” he says.
With his horizons opened by his trips abroad, Edwin moved to New York after he left the army in the late ’60s. “I was going to a music store called Manny’s where I could get hold of the ‘fake books’ that had all the popular jazz classics. So it was through going to Manny’s that I really started to want to learn more about serious jazz. I would go to the clubs up in Harlem and say to the guys, ‘Hey, how do you play over these changes?’ ” He was soon sitting in on jam sessions around the city and started to make some influential contacts: “George Benson was playing in one of the clubs uptown, so I sat in with that session. There was always a jam session like that in the week, and I would learn a lot from that.”
His serious musical intentions were furthered when he attended both Manhattan School of Music and Juilliard. “People at Manhattan School of Music were more hippy-like, but those at Juilliard were much too serious for me, because I was running around smoking marijuana and having fun with all these different musicians,” he says. “But when I left Manhattan School of Music to study at Juilliard, I did become much more serious in my own studies, because they really challenged you. All the students there studied really hard. I didn’t want to be Bach though, and I certainly didn’t want my music to be so stuffy that it couldn’t be commercial at the same time.”
Through his wife, Michelle, who was working as a stewardess on American Airlines, Birdsong was introduced to Wes Farrell, cowriter of the hit song “Hang on Sloopy.” “Wes had his own publishing company, and I let him hear some of the songs I had written,” he recalls. “I didn’t know until then I could just get paid as a writer for other people, but that’s what I started to do. I was also playing at a club in the East Village called Pee Wee’s, and Wes came to hear me and invited Jerry Schoenbaum, the President of Polydor. So Jerry heard me play, and it went from there.”
Edwin Birdsong’s debut LP, What It Is, was released on Polydor in 1971. The album was recorded at the Fame Recording Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, with executive producer Ted Cooper and engineers like Jerry Masters. It would prove to be an LP of great depth and maturity for a young man who had just turned twenty. “It was nothing for me to write those songs, really; it came very easy to me,” he says. “Ted Cooper really knew his way around the studio, and I also became very interested in that. I had studied technical illustration in college, so I always embraced that kind of stuff, because I was something of a nerd. I was very technical in my approach to music.”
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.
However, Polydor’s lack of promotion for the LP left Birdsong frustrated. “I had met these two DJs from WDAS Radio in Philadelphia, Sonny Hopson and Perry Johnson, and we set up our own label, Bam-Boo,” he says. Free from the constraints of the majors, Birdsong went deep: “Whereas with a major label, you had to get approval for this and get approval for that, now I could just do my own thing. And that’s what I did.” Released on Bam-Boo in 1975, Dance of Survival found Birdsong at his most individual on an LP that became a cornerstone of astral soul. “We were never following in the trail of other things that were out there,” he says. “That was the jazz thing in me; you know, just doing your own thing without copying someone’s style or concept.” There was one figure whose ideas particularly inspired him though. “Sun Ra was playing at a club called Slug’s [Saloon] on the Lower East Side, and Michelle and I would go there and listen to him a lot. He was very exploratory, and his approach led me down a tunnel of freedom.” This new freedom can be heard on the tripped-out soul of “Your Smile Gave Birth to My Idea,” perhaps the LP’s masterpiece. “I recorded the LP in a studio where Kool and the Gang had been, and they had left their Mellotron. So I used that to produce the sound,” he says. Another killer track on the LP is “Night of the Full Moon,” one of Birdsong’s most unearthly productions. “From studying music, I always liked secondo harmony, using seconds and minor seconds; so that’s how I created that strange feeling,” he explains.
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.
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 Snapper Dapper” 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.”
Nights at Disco Fever inspired Edwin’s next commercial venture with the label Singh Records. His 1984 production of “Break ’N Spin” was the first in a series of electro classics tailor-made for the street crowd at clubs like Disco Fever and the Funhouse. The label saw him work with an old friend he had first met in the 1970s. “Marley Marl was spinning at a club in Queensbridge, and I just happened to come by there and had a copy of ‘Rapper Dapper Snapper’ and was trying to get it out there. I gave him a copy, and he was about the first one to play it. He was only about fifteen or sixteen at the time. So it was great to work with him on [the 1987 12-inch ‘On a Mission’ from hip-hop duo] Too Nice for Singh.” As well as mixing other tracks for Too Nice’s 1989 LP, Cold Facts, on Arista (an album that Birdsong coproduced with the Aleem Brothers), Marley Marl also coproduced Birdsong’s “Too Good to Go (When You Get It Right)” alongside Patrick Adams.
It’s a partnership that continues to this day. “Marley Marl had a great influence on what I did with my music later on,” Edwin says. “In fact, he and I just cut something in the studio about two months ago when I was in New York.” Whether cutting tracks with Marley Marl, being sampled by Daft Punk, or mentoring cats like Funkghost, Edwin Birdsong continues to exert his influence in his own unassuming way: “I have been truly blessed to have met and been with all these different people,” he concludes modestly.
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