Across thirty-five albums, Fatback (aka The Fatback Band) evolved from a vision of street funk to raucous disco, R&B and even planted the seeds of hip hop. And they still don’t get the recognition and respect they deserve.
Plenty of groups have changed their composition of musicians and singers along the way. Many more have radically or moderately changed their name.
This group is no exception.
Most bands ride a musical trend. Most bands also have a limited creative runway that impacts their success and sustainability. It is with these last two areas that our band differs in a dramatic and influential ways. Their ability to read the coming musical landscape and not only shape it but garner success within burgeoning genres separates them from the pack.
Bottom-line, they are: THE FATBACK BAND… oh sorry, I mean also, FATBACK!
Ok, what is “Fatback?” The foodie in me immediately thinks of meat (basically “fat”) from a pig that you can make into lard, sometimes bacon, and definitely put in sausage. (Man, was that a digression and potentially indigestion. Moving on…)
For our gang of talented musicians, singers and importantly performers, “fatback” would become their moniker rooted in the “fatback jazz beat” vs. bacon or swine. You see back in 1970, a seasoned drummer and session artist (twenty years plus years at that point) named Bill Curtis had the foresight to combine that fatback beat with a tad of Caribbean and West Indie groove to brew up a funky stew of sound!
What is critical to note was at the time, he was not only foreshadowing but also actually creating the foundation of Disco. And this was all happening in New York – which was one of the incubators of Disco, clubbing and DJ culture.
However, save for a literal handful of now historically legendary DJs (like Francis Grasso and Nicky Siano), the early ’70s dance and party scene was really led by the actual bands and their music! This is why The Fatback Band was so instrumental and influential at that time. It was not the DJ that routinely infused the energy into a party but rather a song or collections of songs on an album (remember those?) that revved up a party while it played in a bar, jukebox or on a home “RCA stereo console”!
In addition, like several of the other great Funk, R&B and eventually Disco groups of that era, The Fatback Band’s live performances and even the “live feel” of their song composition inspired dance, emotion and lasting imagery.
Curtis knew he had to get the right posse together, and he did. His first sextet was composed of Wayne Woolford on congas (a key component for me – love that percussion), a top-notch sax-man in Earl Shelton, more of those great horns courtesy of George Williams and that incomparable string bottom provided by bassist Johnny Flippin with Johnny King on guitar.
As they began to “do the work”, Curtis realized they had something and it wasn’t long before he added some additional flavors and ingredients (see, I’m trying to stay on that foodie-fatback theme!) with some keyboards via Gerry Thomas, George Adams on flute, and more guitar and sax through George Victory and Fred Demerey, respectively. (As an aside, Bill Curtis and George Williams are still part of Fatback TODAY – a testament to the longevity of the band’s core and to the lifecycle of great musicians!)
As was par for the course with many of the bands from the late ’60s through the early ’80s, The Fatback Band jumped labels early on, beginning with Perception Records. After a few years they transitioned to Event Records and then Spring Records for nine years before ending with Cotillion for their last couple of albums. And despite the fact that the group’s hits remain relevant and can get a party going today, most never crossed-over beyond some Dance-Disco and/or R&B chart notoriety to hit the Pop charts… thus, sales never aligned to the quality of the releases and impact on the dance floor. Northern Soul aficionados in the UK did show love to their early work. But it is not arguable that The Fatback Band established a roadmap for other Funk/Funk-Disco bands that evolved such as Slave, Cameo, B.T. Express, etc. – with Slave/Cameo definitely benefiting commercially.
Streamlining their name to simply “Fatback,” the group hit a nice four year streak between 1978 and 1981, as evidenced in my discography. Two notable songs that I left off – “Gotta Get My Hands on Some (Money)” (which had some early hip-hop stylings via King Tim III) and “Spread Love” (with Evelyn Thomas of dance classic “High Energy” fame) – got Fatback a bit more mainstream love. Another song which in its title so aptly branded Fatback’s role as music prognosticators was, “Is This the Future?” It was not a favorite commercially, yet in reflection it is really cool and ironic, full of Disco-Boogie-Funk with synths, vocodered vocals, a spoken word rap, solid backing vocals and jazzy notes, all in a cohesive package that was not in any way the norm at the time.
Fatback also continued to partner and grow, when needed. For example for a couple of years in the early ’80s, Wild Sugar (a female trio) backed them up, adding some warmth that complemented but did not conflict with their Funk. In addition, Curtis built a culture of camaraderie as the band was considerate of each other’s commitments. Such was the case with Gerry Thomas (who wrote “Spanish Hustle”) as he was a member of The Jimmy Castor Bunch (“It’s Just Begun”, “Space Age”) in parallel with Fatback, which meant he had to stay in the NYC vicinity and prevented Fatback from embarking on more major ex-U.S. tours… potentially hurting their notoriety/sales especially during those peak club years when other lesser bands where touring more extensively.
Since their last album (“Live”) in 1987, Bill Curtis has kept the vibe alive in many iterations, including invitations from the White House and a feature on The Sopranos. The Fatback Band (yup, the original name is BACK) is still big in London and is performing around the world with some new members at major festivals (like Southport Weekender) and intimate classic venues (such as London’s Jazz Cafe). This “second life” is making up for some of the tours they missed in the past and has gleaned them some well-deserved accolades like the “Best Soul Gig of the Year” by Under the Bridge in 2013. They’ve even garnered the handle from some as “The Last of the Great Dance Bands!”
Personally, Curtis worked with icons like Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye as well as seminal bands like Earth, Wind & Fire and The Ohio Players. The collaboration called “Bill Curtis & Friends with the Fatback Band” even did an album in 2012 called Give the People What They Want. As is clear in his album title, Curtis continues to deliver on his vision of 45+ years ago.
As I reflect on 35 albums, 31 R&B songs that charted as hits, a fusion of styles ranging from Jazz/R&B/Soul, to the funkiest Funk, and then Disco/Boogie/Hip Hop… I am struck that, in name recognition, this band still has not reached the level they deserve. They always led and didn’t follow. With an aptitude and intuition to guide music lovers and dancers to where they needed to go… even before they knew it. You know, maybe my foodie metaphor was on target because everything tastes better with some FATBACK in it!