By Chris M. Junior
His excitement about George Clinton and His Gangsters of Love came through loud and clear during a recent freewheeling, laugh-filled phone conversation with the funk legend.
On the album, Clinton digs deep into his youth as well as rock ’n’ roll’s past, covering such early hits as “Let the Good Times Roll,” “It’s All in the Game,” “Pledging My Love” and “A Thousand Miles Away.”
“I was in Newark [New Jersey] going to grade school, and we used to have group [singing] battles at the community center and the boys’ clubs — wherever there were dances on the weekends,” Clinton says. “Those were songs that me, The Four Seasons, The Young Rascals and The Monotones [performed]. I knew I would [record] them one day.”
Clinton says the push to make this album goes back a few years to his participation in a project called A Soulful Tale of Two Cities, which was released on the Soul Renaissance label. Credited to Masters of Funk, Soul and Blues, it featured artists connected with the 1960s and 1970s soul/R&B scenes in Detroit and Philadelphia (Clinton is a Motown veteran) performing classic songs from the opposite city.
Musician/producer Bobby Eli also appeared on A Soulful Tale of Two Cities, and Clinton worked with him on selecting material for what would become the Gangsters of Love album. The first classic they picked out was “Sway,” which was a hit in 1954 for Dean Martin and in 1960 for Bobby Rydell.
“We were trying to get [Carlos] Santana to play on that one,” Clinton says. “I sent him a tape of ‘Sway,’ and ‘Gypsy Woman’ was on the tape with it. He heard ‘Gypsy Woman’ . . . and he wanted to do that one [instead].”
With a Santana-stamped version of The Impressions classic “Gypsy Woman” in the can, Clinton approached old friend Sly Stone, who guests on a rendition of “Ain’t That Peculiar,” the Marvin Gaye hit.
After he finished his tracks with Santana and Stone, Clinton says, “From then on, I had to fight people off.” Among those who made the cut are Flea, John Frusciante and Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers; all three play on a spirited cover of “Let the Good Times Roll.”
El DeBarge, best known for his 1980s work with the R&B family group DeBarge, sings on “Gypsy Woman” and “Ain’t That Peculiar,” as well as two other Gangsters of Love songs.
“I couldn’t get rid of him,” Clinton says with a laugh. “He’s just so perfect; it doesn’t matter what condition he’s in. He can roll out of bed … and jump right up on the microphone.”
Clinton was especially impressed with singer Kim Burrell, who duets with him on “Mathematics of Love,” one of the few originals on Gangsters of Love.
“She laid it out,” Clinton says. “She’s a gospel singer, and everybody who can sing and knows her agrees that she’s one of the greatest around now.”
The CD packaging for Gangsters of Love features one of Clinton’s paintings. Asked if he could ever see a day when painting could be his primary creative outlet, he says with a laugh, “Maybe when I get to be 110.”
“I love music,” he adds, “so that’s the only reason it wouldn’t take all the way over, but I can definitely spend some time doing it.”
Meanwhile, music remains his priority, and one of his works in progress is an album of Motown covers. Songs recorded so far include “Bernadette,” “Two Lovers,” “Heat Wave,” “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” and “Ball of Confusion.”
Mark Bass, whose credits include albums by Eminem and 50 Cent, is working with Clinton on his Motown project, which he expects to release sometime this year.
“I’ve got more than enough stuff to put it out now,” Clinton says. “As long as I have time, I’m always working up until the last minute.”