The Roots of Indie: Mother’s Finest
April 14, 2012 -- the day that funk rock was enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The founding fathers of the genre, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, were inducted that night by Chris Rock, and those of us who love the funky monks couldn't have been happier.
There was only one problem: the Chilis aren't the founding fathers of funk rock.
Without question RHCP achieved a level of mainstream success denied those who came before them, but they were neither the first to blend heavy guitar and thumping bass, nor were they the first to enjoy crossover chart success with that formula. Sly and the Family Stone pretty much owned the Woodstock stage with their blistering, funky performance. Prince spent the late '70s and early '80s completely ignoring the convenient labels of "rock" and "R&B."
And man, were those labels entrenched. With notable exceptions Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix, if your skin was brown you were an R&B or soul act. No matter how super bad James Brown was, for example, he wasn't "rock and roll" -- whatever that meant.
Down in Atlanta, Ga., Joyce Kennedy and Glenn Murdock weren't having any of that nonsense. In 1970 they hooked up with guitarist Gary Moore, a.k.a. Moses Mo, and bassist Jerry Seay, known as Wyzard thanks to his four string prowess. The foursome named themselves Mother's Finest, and they went straight to the heart of the problem:
Keyboardists and drummers would change over the years, but Baby Jean, Doc, Mo and Wyzard remained constant, Kennedy and Murdock sharing the mic while Mo laid down riffs as heavy as any guitarist of the period. Wyzard and drummer Barry "B.B. Queen" Borden held it all together, a rhythm section so tight you couldn't see daylight through it.
The band's 1972 debut on RCA didn't do too much business, which turned out to be a blessing. Mother's Finest moved to CBS's Epic imprint where they found their greatest success. Their third album, 1977's Another Mother Further, not only established the template for the funk rock movement of the following decade, but it was a hit.
The album opens with a cover of the Holland/Dozier/Holland dance classic "Mickey's Monkey," originally recorded by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles nearly 15 years earlier. Mother's Finest kept the dance beat and the feel good vibe, but with Moses Mo cranking the stacks to 11 their remake took on a whole new sound:
They weren't averse to getting full-on stank face funky, though, and Baby Jean was every bit as worthy of the R&B diva crown as Chaka Khan, Donna Summer or Aretha Franklin. Check out keyboardist Mike Keck's synthesizer work here, too:
If there's one cut that ties it all together it's "Piece of the Rock." Part T. Rex's "Bang a Gong (Get it On)" and part "Peter Gunn Theme," the track is a showpiece of groove, riffs and playful lyrics. Anthony Kiedis would've been proud to write "Little Jack Horner / Stuck in his thumb / And Mary said don't do that no more."
On Nov. 25, 1976, Mother's Finest opened for Black Sabbath at a Chicago gig.
Think about that for a second. Sabbath's audience was almost exclusively white, male and fiercely dedicated to metal, and out on stage comes this mixed race band with a shredder guitarist, a funky bassist and a black woman singing lead. So what happened?
I don't know, but I can tell you firsthand what happened throughout the late '70s and early '80s when Mother's Finest were the openers in similar circumstances. I caught them many times opening for bands like southern rockers Molly Hatchet and Blackfoot, and there wasn't a guy in a black t-shirt anywhere in the joint who wasn't into it. Mother's Finest could blow anybody off the stage with their tight musicianship, funky beats and good time vibe.
They should have been huge, but things don't always work out as they should. The band splintered in '83. Bassist Wyzard played on a Stevie Nicks album and Joyce Kennedy cut a solo record. She even cut a track for the Breakfast Club soundtrack:
A new generation picked up the funk rock flag during the '80s: 24-7 Spyz, Living Colour, the Dan Reed Network and, of course, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. By the end of the decade Mother's Finest were back in business, too, now with Murdock's and Kennedy's son, Dion, on the drum stool.
Their 1992 release, Black Radio Won't Play This Record, saw them both updating their sound and returning to the "falling through the cracks" theme that befuddled labels and radio programmers throughout Mother's Finest's career:
Black Radio would be the last album they'd release for a decade, but they were far from inactive. The band found a new, enthusiastic audience in Europe and maintained their fanbase in the eastern U.S. through constant touring. It's a formula that works for them to this day: Their website shows European tour dates booked through June 2015.
You don't survive in the music business 45 years without adapting, and that's precisely what Mother's Finest have done. Never mind their tremendous legacy, the band functions as a lean, mean, independent machine -- touring, working their social media, and even crowdfunding just like bands a fraction of their age. Their latest, Goody 2 Shoes & the Filthy Beasts, was the result of a successful Kickstarter campaign:
Guitarist Moses Mo -- easily one of the most underrated guitarists of his generation -- just kicked off an Indiegogo campaign for his sophomore solo album, 2 Ton Message, so get in on that. There's nothing cooler than kicking in a couple bucks to make an album happen.
Their home state honored Mother's Finest with a 2011 induction into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and their fans still turn out for live doses of funk rock. It's a family business now, and it's a good one. Mother's Finest have enjoyed 45 years of success in the music business -- it's about time they were recognized for their influence.