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  Roy Ayers
 

 

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Nobody's career proves that critics don't always recognize talent more than Roy Ayers.   Once dismissed by narrow minded scribes who couldn't relate to Roy's fusion of jazz with soul and dance flavors, he is now the undisputed Godfather of acid-jazz and has been a source of inspiration for the likes of Masters at Work, Guru, Mary J Blige, Groove Collective and dozens of others. 

Ayers was born in September 1940 in Los Angeles.  Always inquisitive about music, Ayers played piano as a youth.  A chance meeting with the famed Lionel Hampton convinced Roy to commit to the vibes, which became his signature instrument.  He toured around town until hooking up with Herbie Mann, who gave him his first dose of major exposure.  Ayers stayed with him long enough to cut Mann's most successful record, Memphis Underground, before heading on his own. 

Ayers' first couple of solo efforts, Stoned Soul Picnic and Virgo Vibes were produced by Mann, but the real Ayers didn't debut until forming Ubiquity.  It was with this band, with its rotating membership, that Roy was to give voice to his unique sound and enjoy his greatest success.

The original Ubiquity recorded the first of 20 albums in 1970.   This was an era of great experimentation in jazz as well as the middle of the Black Power movement, and the record reflected both influences, encompassing jazz and strident black pride anthems like "Pretty Brown Skin." Ubiquity was a hit and laid the foundation for He's Coming, Red, Black and Green and Virgo Red.  These albums featured contributions from jazz legends Sonny Fortune, Alphonse Mouzon and Billy Cobham and were, along with the work of Donald Byrd, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis and Gary Bartz, classic examples of early fusion. 

In 1973 Roy found himself doing the soundtrack for the the blaxploitation flick Coffy and realized the opportunity to reach a wider audience with the spritely title theme, featuring a danceable beat and lyrics that  addressed Pam Grier's character but also had socially conscious meaning: "Coffy is the color of your skin / Coffy is the world that you live in."

But it was in 1974 that he decided to incorporate a more commercially viable sound by adding soul vocals and slightly less complicated, but still slamming, arragements. The aptly-named Change Up the Groove gave an indication of what was to come with a cover of "Feel Like Making Love."  By 1975 disco had become more than a regional phenomenon and Roy tapped into the growing scene with "Brother Green" and "Life Is Just a Moment" from Mystic Voyage.

Ubiquity reached its artistic peak with 1976's Everybody Loves the Sunshine.  Here, all bases were covered: disco ("Hey Uh What You Say Come On"), funk ("Lonesome Cowboy"), and soul (the conscious classic "Third Eye" and the wonderfully chilled out ode to living on the title jam).   Its status as a groove classic remains unchallenged to this day. 

From that point forward, Ayers would more heavily embrace disco and soul, cutting back the jazz and the result was commercial success.  On the dancefloor, Roy served up heavy hitters like "Running Away," "Sweet Tears," and "Can You See Me" while keeping the soul contingent happy with "You Send Me," "Gotta Find a Lover," and "Love Will Bring Us Together." In the midst of this activity, he found time to produce highly sought after records from Ramp and Starbooty.

As the 1980s rolled around, Ayers was feeling the need to expand his horizons.  He toured with Fela Kuti, a moving experience that inspired  Africa, Centre of the World.  During this time he also founded his Uno Melodic label, an outlet for his production on proteges Sylvia Striplin, Jaymz Bedford, and 80s Ladies.   While these efforts weren't meeting the same level of acceptance as his previous albums, they are as solid as anything he released.

After a few albums for Columbia in the early 80s, Ayers was largely absent from the scene until the rise of two genres: rap and acid-jazz.  Unbeknowst to him, a new generation of acts like Jamiroquai, Young Disciples, and Brand New Heavies had absorped his influence into their sound, and rap producers scoured his records for samples. Suddenly, he was more popular than he'd been in 15 years and began getting work. And the man has not taken a break yet, frequently touring and releasing so many projects that you can assume his vault must be comparable to Prince's.     

He appeared with Guru on his groundbreaking Jazzmatazz project and was recruited for a remake of "Sweet Tears" on by Masters At Work for their Nuyorican Soul album.  He was most recently spotted with the group Post Modern Jazz as a featured performer on their disc Love Not Truth

Roy Ayers' Deepest Grooves (too many to name, here's a partial listing)

Daddy Bug and Friends (Atlantic, early 70s)
Compilation culled from his first two solo albums, when he was working in more of a standard jazz mode.

Ubiquity (Polydor, 1970)

Red, Black and Green (Polydor, 1971)

He's Coming (Polydor, 1972)
Great album with the classic "We Live In Brooklyn, Baby," "He's A Superstar," "Ain't Got Time," and the original "Sweet Tears."

Coffy (Polydor, 1973)
As with many blaxploitation flicks, this has a good soundtrack. Great title cut and lotsa funky instrumentals also.

Mystic Voyage (Polydor, 1975)
"Spirit of Doo Doo," "Life is Just a Moment," and "Black Five."

Tear to A Smile (Polydor, 1975)

Everybody Loves the Sunshine (Polydor, 1976)
As noted above, this is a timeless classic that continues to age well.

Lifeline (Polydor, 1977)
Quality follow-up with "Running Away" and "Sanctified Feeling."

You Send Me (Polydor, 1978)
The smoothed-out title cut revealed Roy's tendency to hit harder with  ballads more than uptempo material at this point.

Step Into Our Lives (Polydor, 1978)
A collaboration with Wayne Henderson, notable for the stepper's cut "No Deposit No Return."

Africa, Centre of the World (Polydor, 1981)
The result of his tour of Africa with Fela Kuti, this probably threw most people for a loop when originally released.

Turn Me Loose (Columbia, 1984)
One of the latter efforts, he's still showing flashes of the talent that made him a legend.

Double Trouble (AIM, 1992)

Rick James was not shy about having Roy guest on his albums, so here Ayers returns the favor.  The problem is that James was just about to be sentenced to jail, so this isn't his strongest effort.  I don't remember hearing anything about this at the time....it must've come from the infamous Ayers archives.  

Evolution: The Polydor Anthology (Polydor, 1995)
With so many crucial cuts, it's impossible to collect all the highlights on a double disc, but it's the best domestic package available for those who don't want to spring for all the individual titles.   

Uno Melodica Story (Charly, 1998)
Essential selection of the output from Ayers' label during the early 1980s. It's interesting to note that Roy was focusing on developing female talent as Sylvia Striplin, Ethel Beatty, Eighties Ladies, and Bobbi Humphrey dominate the proceedings  "Remember to Remember" from Rick Holmes proves Ayers still had conscious vibes on his mind. Just about the only place you'll get these cuts for a reasonable price.

Millennium Collection (Polydor, 2000)

Perfection (AFI, 2001)

Destination Motherland (Polydor, 2003)
Probably the most comprehensive of the Ayers anthologies out there.  Of course, it's an import. 

Mahogany Vibe (Rapster, 2003)
New material includes updates of classics "Searching" and "..Sunshine" with Erykah Badu and "Pretty Brown Skin" with Betty Wright. 

Virgin Ubiquity (Rapster, 2004)
Judging by his catalog, you had to know that brother Roy spent ungodly amounts of time in the studio during his heyday.  This is the first of who-knows-how-many releases of material that he has held onto until now. 

Virgin Ubiquity 2 (Rapster, 2005)

 

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