By Chris M. Junior
As for Parliament, Funkadelic’s sister group, its output and success paled in comparison — one mixed-bag album and a lone entry on Billboard’s R&B singles chart.
After signing with Casablanca, though, Parliament closed the gap with the release of Up for the Down Stroke. More importantly, the album, which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year, established the unmistakable funk sound that typified Parliament’s output for the remainder of the decade.
Up for the Down Stroke “ … is one of the better albums that we did as a band,” Clinton recalls. “All of the songs on there tend to be straight.”
He adds with a laugh, “I didn’t get off into the crazy things [like I did later].”
Rarely does a musician develop or even realize his strengths overnight, and in Clinton’s case, his rise to funk trailblazer and orchestrator was many years in the making. Around 1956 while in Newark, N.J., he founded The Parliaments, a vocal group modeled after some of his doo-wop favorites at the time, which included Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, The Dells and The Heartbeats.
The Parliaments’ sound changed with the times, and in 1967, the group scored its first and only Top 20 pop hit, “(I Wanna) Testify.” Credited to The Parliaments, the recording actually featured Clinton singing with a group called The Holidays, according to Parliaments singer Ray Davis’ recollection in the book “For the Record: George Clinton and P-Funk — An Oral History.”
Nevertheless, it was a solid yet typical R&B track of the time, featuring a four-on-the-floor drumbeat early on and response-style backing vocals throughout — two Motown trademarks that Clinton surely picked up from his songwriting days with the Detroit music empire.
Around the time that “(I Wanna) Testify” was a hit, Clinton decided it was important to have a band. So mostly by way of his barbershop in Plainfield, N.J., he found the musicians for the rock-leaning Funkadelic. In doing so, Clinton’s strongest ability was pushed to the forefront: his knack for assembling and leading a large collective.
Those musicians, among them guitarist Eddie Hazel and keyboardist Bernie Worrell, also would play with Clinton in the now-singularly named Parliament. That group’s first album was Osmium, which was released in 1970 on Invictus, a label run by the legendary Motown songwriting team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland.
Osmium features a mix of sounds and styles: There’s steel guitar on the aptly titled “Little Old Country Boy,” a little street-corner harmony at the start of “My Automobile” and bagpipes on “The Silent Boatman.”
Changing labels also coincided with Parliament finding its groove as the band moved from Invictus to Casablanca. Clinton says he had known Neil Bogart, Casablanca’s founder, since his days as a singer in the 1960s known as Neil Scott.
“Neil wanted us with Hot Wax,” recalls Clinton, referring to the label Bogart was distributing before starting Casablanca. “We ran into him, and we were free as Parliament, and he said, ‘I’m going to get it this time.’ We signed a letter [with Casablanca] — we never signed a contract.”
Parliament’s Casablanca debut was 1974’s Up for the Down Stroke, and of its eight songs, half were remakes of singles previously recorded as The Parliaments. According to the liner notes in the 2003 reissue of Down Stroke, the group was thin on new material circa 1974, but Clinton says Bogart favored that early Parliaments material and “he wanted some of that stuff” on the album.
“(I Wanna) Testify” was remade and retitled as “Testify,” which featured a crunchy clavinet track by Worrell and yearning lead vocals by Hazel.
“We were doing it as if Sly and the Family Stone were doing it,” Clinton recalls.
In addition to revisiting the past, Parliament pushed the envelope on 1974’s Up for the Down Stroke. In the musical fairytale “I Just Got Back From the Fantasy, Ahead of Our Time in the Four Lands of Ellet,” writer Peter Chase is given plenty of space to show off his whistling skills.
“He whistled like that [in Los Angeles] on the corner by Tower Records,” Clinton says. “He used to whistle to the birds, play a three-string guitar and charm everyone who went by. He had a whole string of songs he called ‘In the Tales of the Four Lands of Ellet.’ It was like a children’s story — how color was invented. So I said, ‘I’m going to record that song,’ so he taught it to me.”
Then there’s the title track, which Clinton says came out of a vamp from a song on Funkadelic’s 1973 album Cosmic Slop. Credited to Clinton, Worrell, singer Clarence “Fuzzy” Haskins and bassist Booty Collins, “Up for the Down Stroke” contains many of the ingredients that would become Parliament signatures: a layered groove with distinct keyboard flourishes, alternating and overlapped vocals, moments of chatter or spoken word and a strong emphasis on the chorus.
With “Up for the Down Stroke,” Parliament finally had a song that reached Billboard’s pop and R&B singles charts. “Down Stroke” entered the Hot 100 in the Aug. 31, 1974, issue of Billboard and peaked at No. 63 that same year. The song made its Hot Soul Singles debut in the July 6, 1974, issue of the magazine, eventually hitting No. 10.
The 2003 reissue of Up for the Down Stroke contains another Parliament first: the previously unreleased “Singing Another Song,” which Clinton says “is the first thing Bootsy did with us.”
“We were just jamming after [making Funkadelic’s] America Eats Its Young … when we just started getting the idea of Bootsy doing Parliament songs,” Clinton says. “That was one of those songs, but we never put it out. It’s a good song. You can tell it has the Bootsy-type thing, but it was actually done, again, almost like Sly.”
Clinton adds, “We still have quite a few of those.”