Music was in Monk Montgomery’s blood, especially jazz music. His younger brothers were the legendary jazz guitarist Wes, while Buddy, played vibes and piano. Despite coming from a musical family, Monk’s professional career only started when he was thirty. He was a bassist, but unlike his predecessors, eschewed the double bass for the Fender Precision Bass.
Indeed, it was Monk Montgomery who legitimized the Fender Precision Bass. Designed by Leon Fender, its introduction coincided with the start of Monk’s career in 1995. Before that, producers and engineers were wary of the Fender Precision Bass’ sound. They were wary of its power and how it could, if not used properly, dominate a track. Monk Montgomery changed people’s opinion of the Fender Precision Bass. This became his musical weapon of choice.
The Fender Precision Bass can be heard when Monk played on albums by Kenny Burrell, Art Farmer, Johnny Harris Johnny Griffin, Eddie Harris and Buddy Montgomery. Then there’s the nine albums Buddy, Wes and Monk recorded as The Montgomery Brothers, plus Monk’s three solo albums. His last solo album was 1974s Reality, which was recently rereleased by BBR Records. Reality which was released on Philadelphia International Records, was the swan-song to Monk’s three decade career, which I’ll tell you about.
It was October 1921, when Monk Montgomery was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. He was the eldest of three brothers who became jazz musicians. Wes would play guitar and Buddy would play piano and vibes. Monk started off playing the double bass, but when he turned professional in 1951, plugged in.
When Monk turned professional, he turned his back on the double bass. Controversially, Monk decided to try Leo Fender’s Fender Precision Bass. Soon, Monk tamed the Fender Precision Bass. No longer did producers fear the instrument. Instead, they realized, in the right hands, it was a potent and powerful weapon. Lionel Hampton realized this.
Between 1951 and 1953, Monk was the bassist in Lionel Hampton’s orchestra. Considering this was his professional debut, Monk was starting at the top. Then in 1953, Monk became a member of the Art Farmer Septet until 1956. After that, he became a member of The Mastersounds between 1957 and 1960. They went on to record six albums. Then with Wes and Buddy, The Montgomery Brothers recorded the first of nine albums they released. Although his career started late, he was making up for lost time. This was the case during the sixties.
Throughout the sixties, Monk was working with some of the biggest names in jazz. Away from The Montgomery Brothers, Monk worked with The Jazz Crusaders, Hampton Hawkes, George Shearing and The Jack Wilson Quartet. Monk also played on his brothers Wes and Buddy’s solo albums. This includes Wes’ final album A Portrait Of Wes Montgomery. It was released in 1968, the year Wes Montgomery died of a heart attack. Wes had returned from a tour and was enjoying the most successful period of a career. Monk was heartbroken. However, life and his career had to go on.
1969 saw Monk release his debut solo album It’s Never Too Late. It saw Monk joined by members of The Jazz Crusaders. Monk had played on a couple of their albums. So this was a case of returning the favor. Produced by Jazz Crusader Wayne Henderson and Stewart Levine, It’s Never Too Late wasn’t a commercial success. Neither was the followup.
Between the release of his debut album It’s Never Too Late and the release of 1971s Bass Odyssey, Monk had been working with vibes player Red Norvo. Again, an all-star lineup accompanied Wes on Bass Odyssey. Produced Wayne Henderson and Stewart Levine, Bass Odyssey failed to chart. Monk wouldn’t release another album for three years.
Following the release of Bass Odyssey, Monk returned to session work. This was what Monk was doing when Gamble and Huff contacted him. They wanted Monk to sign Monk to Philadelphia International Records. This didn’t please some of the jazz community. They wondered why Monk was signing to a soul label? However, this wasn’t just any soul label, it was one of the most successful soul labels. Monk’s music would Gamble and Huff argued, would be heard by people who didn’t usually buy jazz albums. For Monk, it looked like a no-loose situation.
When work began on what became Reality, Monk contributed Close Your Face. Producer Bobby Martin penned Reality and Sippin’ and Tippin.’ Bobby cowrote Bump De Bump with Norman Harris, whose guitar playing is reminiscent of Wes Montgomery. Other tracks included Bill Cosby’s I Love You Camille, Neal Hefti’s Girl Talk and Ron Feuer’s Little O’s. The other track was a cover of Gary Gilbert collaboration with Gamble and Huff, Me and Mrs Jones. These eight tracks became Reality.
Recording of Reality took place at Joe Tarsia’s Sigma Sound Studios. A slimmed-down version of M.F.S.B. accompanied Monk. This included the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section, guitarist Ron Kersey, vibes virtuoso Vince Montana Jr and Larry Washington on bongos and congas. Producer Bobby Martin played piano and Fender Rhodes while Don Renaldo’s Strings and Horns added a trademark Philly Soul sound. Guest musicians included organist Ron Feuer, drummer Santo Sazino and Danny Skea on electric piano and clavinet. Once Reality was recorded, it was ready for release in November 1974.
On the release of Reality in November 1974, the album failed to chart. So did the title-track Reality, when it was released as a single in November 1974. Monk Montgomery’s music wasn’t heard by a wider audience. Instead, Reality proved to be his final studio album. Did Reality see Monk Montgomery bow out on a high?
The title-track Reality was penned by one of the forgotten heroes of Philadelphia International Records, Bobby Martin. Songwriter, arranger and producer, here disco, jazz and soul unite. After the dramatic drum rolls, lush strings join ethereal harmonies forces with Monk’s bass. As strings dance and dreamy harmonies coo, quick bursts of Monk’s muted bass dances across the arrangement. It skips its way across the arrangement, as M.F.S.B. seamlessly unleash some jazzy and funky licks.Dreamy, dramatic and ethereal, describes the track while mesmeric describes Monk’s bass playing.
Me And Mrs. Jones is given something of an understated makeover. Swathes of Don Renaldo’s strings sweep back and forth while Earl Young’s drums mark time. Monk’s playing is sparse and subtle. There’s neither showboating nor excess. Space is left within the arrangement. Members of M.F.S.B. fill the spaces. This includes Norman Harris’ jazz-tinged guitar, wistful horns and Vince Montana Jr’s vibes. They add a melancholy sound, while Earl’s drums add occasional bursts of drama on this reinvention of a Philly Soul classic.
There’s a real cocktail jazz sound to the piano that opens Sippin’ And Tippin.’ Its slinky sound weaves its way in and out of a meandering arrangement. Monk’s bass meanders thoughtfully, while the wailing Hammond organ adds a contrast. Then when a piano is unleashed, there’s a much more vibrant sound to this kittenish slice of sixties jazz.
Bump De Bump was written by Bobby Martin and Norman Harris. Here, Monk shows his versatility, on this blisteringly funky track. Growling horns, join Baker, Harris, Young at their best. Funk, jazz and Philly Soul become one. Monk takes centre-stage. He’s out front unleashing his trademark sound. It’s unmistakable. This seems to spur M.F.S.B. on. The rhythm section provide a pulsating, uber funky beat that drives this musical juggernaut along. Guitars chime, horns bray and Monk demonstrates his versatility.
I Love You Camille was written by comedian Bill Cosby. Driven along by the unmistakable sound of the clavinet, swift chord changes add to the drama and beauty of this track. Seamlessly, M.F.S.B. shift through the gears. Keyboards, clavinet and a thunderous rhythm section provide transform M.F.S.B. into dramatic, powerhouse. Despite this, the swathes of strings add an ethereal beauty. So do, the keyboards and Monk’s thoughtful, pensive playing. Effortlessly, he unleashes one of his best and most dramatic solos. As he matches the rest of M.F.S.B. every step of the way, Monk plays his part in the genre-melting track’s success.
Little O’s has a shuffling arrangement. Here, Monk’s bass and Hammond organist Ron Feuer take centre-stage. The rest of the band play behind them. Drums pound, hi-hats hiss and Monk delivers a mesmeric solo. His hands flit effortlessly up and down the keyboard, as M.F.S.B. mix jazz, funk and even, rock. Then when Monk and Ron Feuer combine, they prove a potent partnership. They seem to drive each other to greater heights. Getting in on the action is drummer Santo Sazino who with Ron and Monk drives the track to its dramatic crescendo.
Girl Talk was the theme to the 1965 movie Harlow, which documented the story of Jean Harlow’s life. It features one of Monk’s best performances. Evocative, atmospheric and spacious, the track has a broody sound. Monk’s playing is wistful and pensive, while drums are played with brushes and Bobby Martin’s Fender Rhodes adds to the sense of melancholia. As the tempo quickens, this allows Monk and the rest of M.F.S.B. combine to create an enigmatic track. One minute it’s moody and melancholy, the next it’s melodic, dramatic and hopeful. This seems fitting, given it’s telling the story of Jean Harlow.
Close Your Face closes Reality on a high. Monk returns to his roots. At breakneck speed, a a drum solo is unleashed. Next to join the fun is the Hammond organ. Gradually, the arrangement reveals its subtleties. We’re headed back to jazz’s glory days and bebop. As the Hammond organ joins Monk and the drums, this triumvirate power the arrangement along. The result is a glorious reminder of the jazz’s glory days.
Reality proved to be something of a reality check for Gamble and Huff. They weren’t invincible. Not everything they touched turned to silver, gold or platinum. While they were enjoying commercial success and critical acclaim, they weren’t without their failures. Far from it. For every hit The O’Jays, Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes and Three Degrees enjoyed, there were flops from That Jones and Mel Lewis, Spiritual Concept, Bunny Sigler, Bobby Taylor, Derek and Cyndi and Robert Upchurch. Each of these artists failed to replicate the commercial success of Philadelphia International Records higher profile artists. To that list, Monk Montgomery’s name must be added. Gamble and Huff’s dalliance with jazz hadn’t paid off. Having said that, Reality is something of a minor hidden gem in Philadelphia International Records back-catalogue.
That’s thanks to Bobby Martin. He produced Reality. Philadelphia International Records’ forgotten hero penned two tracks and cowrote Bump De Bump with M.F.S.B. guitarist Norman Harris. These were three of the eight tracks Monk and Bobby chose for Reality. Accompanying Monk on Reality, were an all-star band. This included some of M.F.S.B. and some of Monk’s trusted sidemen. The result was a genre-sprawling album. Everything from bebop, cocktail jazz, disco, funk, jazz, Philly Soul and rock can be heard on Reality. Monk’s trademark sound shines through. This came courtesy of Leo Fender’s Fender Precision Bass. In Monk’s hands, it’s hugely effective. His playing can be described as sparse, subtle, understated, breathtaking and mesmeric. Monk’s playing spurred M.F.S.B. on to greater heights. Sadly, their efforts weren’t appreciated.
On the release of Reality, it sunk without trace. That’s no surprise. Philadelphia International Records wasn’t a jazz label. They’d no track record with jazz albums. Who did they know within the jazz world? Did they have contacts within jazz radio stations and magazines? In many ways, it’s no surprise Reality wasn’t a commercial success. For Monk Montgomery that was the final studio album he released. He did release Monk Montgomery Live In Africa…Live in 1974 on Philadelphia International Records. It wasn’t a commercial success. That proved to be the end of Monk’s solo career. Reality which was recently released by BBR Records proved to be Monk Montgomery’s swan-song.
Although he continued to work as a session musician until 1976, Monk Montgomery never released another solo album. As for producer Bobby Martin, his career as a songwriter, arranger and producer continued. Bobby was one of the architects of Philly Soul, and enjoyed a hugely successful career. Despite this, Bobby Martin who died recently, is one of Philly Soul’s forgotten heroes. A reminder of his talent as a songwriter and producer is Monk Montgomery’s final solo album Reality, a hidden gem in Philadelphia International Records back-catalogue. Standout Tracks: Reality, Me And Mrs. Jones, Bump De Bump and Girl Talk.