In a time where many of the great rhythm-and-blues acts from the past seem to be fading fast into touring ghost band status, The Fatback Band has managed to hang tight with many of its founding members still on board, still on the clock, and still keeping the funk alive.
Like impresario P.T. Barnum in his big-top heyday, seasoned drummer Bill "Fatback" Curtis keeps this show on the road. "It's like the circus and being on the train. It's in your blood," he said. "These guys will play until they drop. That's a driving force."
This driving force - with Curtis the ever-present ringmaster-is responsible for about 35 album releases over the years. All have featured infectious, hip-shaking dance music, and the best were peppered with good-time party hits made for the moment.
From the start, Fatback played music with a beat.
A steady, throbbing beat.
In the 1970s and '80s, Curtis and his Fatback cohorts churned out a cluster of hit singles that shimmied up the R-and-B charts. Disco and funk fans alike were left drained after grooving to such taut, rhythm-muscled Fatback platters as "I Like Girls," "Let's Do It Again," "Backstrokin'," "Yum Yum (Gimme Some)," "Wicki Wacki," "I Found Lovin'," "Spanish Hustle" and "Gotta Get My Hands on Some (Money)."
That doesn't even include the often-overlooked "King Tim III (Personality Jock)," which is considered the first rap single in many circles. This pioneering hip-hop record from 1979 features the rhymes of rapper King Tim III.
Books on popular music often cite the Sugar Hill Gang's single "Rapper's Delight" as the first rap song, but fact is, the Fatback single with "King Tim III" on the B side of "You're My Candy Sweet" shipped a month or two before the Sugar Hill record was released.
"Fatback was the original rap. We started the whole thing. Fatback recorded the first original rap records," Curtis said in a 1997 interview with his hometown daily newspaper in Fayetteville, N.C.
Forever rooted in dance music, Curtis has polished some new product for the funk at heart.
Fatback's "second Generation" is being released on Fatback Records, which Curtis called a first. His group has never before recorded on the Fatback label, which dates back to the 1960s.
Initially, Fatback's "second Generation" is coming out overseas. Just as the Europeans embraced aging jazz artists in the late 1940s and '50s, a strong international following in such countries as England, France and Germany continue to regard Fatback as regal artists. And a still-relevant force in the ever changing R-and-B world.
So much so, Curtis has long considered Europe as his musical base.
"Because the people respect the music more," he said, "and they're just in love with the music. You never get too old there. Here in America, it's all about youth. It's all about being young. Over there, they're all about the musicians. If you were a star and produced records, they'll love you 'till the day you die."
Since the release of their first album back in 1971 on the now-defunct Perception label, Curtis and bassist Johnny Flippen have anchored the crucial Fatback rhythm section. But members Gerry Thomas on keyboards, Johnny King on guitar and George Williams on trumpet - still around after all these years - are equally important to this "driving force."
The soul-patched Curtis and most of the other musicians are in their 50s+. "Now they don't really depend on Fatback for their living," he said. "They go out to play now as a hobby."
Since its inception, The Fatback Band has performed at the Lincoln Center in New York City, been invited into the White House during the Jimmy Carter administration and played for the president of Nigeria. No telling how many parties around the globe have kicked into overdrive on the strength of a fiery Fatback record.
Curtis estimates that hundreds of artists have sampled the band legally, while even more, he adds, have pinched his music illegally. Fatback's "Backstrokin'"- in terms of swiping beats for a new generation of music listeners-remains the Ace card. It is also regarded as the group's finest tune.
Just last year, Ashanti covered the Fatback nugget "I Found Lovin'," and "I Like Girls" could be heard on one of last season's episodes of the popular HBO crime drama "The Sopranos."
Those time-tested songs remain important to the Fatback legacy.
But this vet-led circus-on-wheels has other towns to play. And new music to spotlight in their sets.
"We are not the same as we were 10, 15 years ago. My head is not the same," Curtis said. "I basically write most of the stuff. I'm playing older music now. More melodic stuff. Before it was all the chants, shouts, riffs. And now we've put some substance to the music.
"Primarily, we're always going to be funk. I'm just one of those funky type of people.
-By Michael Futch of the Fayetteville News and Observer
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