1978 was a landmark year for Salsoul Records.Vince Montana Jr, the man who created, conducted, arranged and produced many of The Salsoul Orchestra albums left the label. He’d been at The Salsoul Orchestra’s helm between their 1975 eponymous album and 1978s Up The Yellow Brick Road. When Vince left Salsoul, after a dispute with the Cayres over royalties, it left a huge gap to be filled. The Cayres then brought in DJs not just to remix individual tracks, but whole albums. This included Tom Moulton. He produced The Salsoul Orchestra’s 1979 album Street Sense. It features a very different Salsoul Orchestra.

While 1978 proved to be a landmark year for Salsoul, 1979 proved a tumultuous year for Gold Mind Records, a subsidiary of Salsoul run by Norman Harris. Gold Mind was facing financial ruin, and would eventually become part of Salsoul. Another event in July 1979 would prove not only disastrous for Salsoul, but many other record labels and artists.

That event was the Disco Demolition Night which was organised by the Disco Sucks movement. It took place on 12th July 1979, at Comiskey Park, Chicago, where thousands of disco records were blown up, nearly taking with it the stadium. That night in Chicago disco almost died. To survive, disco evolved and went underground. Unlike other labels, Salsoul survived and lived through the turmoil. For The Salsoul Orchestra, they’d only release two more albums after Street Sense, which will be rereleased by BBR Records on 10th March 2014. Following  Street Sense, Christmas Jollies II and Heat It Up, The Salsoul Orchestra were no more. However, that’s no surprise. Music was changing. In many ways, after the events of  Disco Demolition Night, we shouldn’t be surprised. Before that, The Salsoul Orchestra released three further albums, including Street Sense.

Like previous Salsoul Orchestra albums, Street Sense was a combination of cover versions and new tracks. Cover versions included Zambesi written by Donny Hathaway, Grace Slick’s Somebody To Love and the Richard Evans’ penned Burning Spear. Tom Moulton and Thor Baldursson cowrote the title-track Street Sense and 212 North Street. Bebu Silvetti and Miguel Tottis contributed Sun After the Rain. These six tracks would be recorded at Sigma Sound Studios with Tom Moulton producing and mixing Street Sense.

For the recording of Street Sense at Sigma Sound Studios, it was a much more slimmed down Salsoul Orchestra that gathered. Most of the original and classic lineup don’t appear on Street Sense. It’s a far cry from 1975, when The Salsoul Orchestra recorded their eponymous debut album. The legends were gone. Norman Harris, Ron Baker, Bobby “Electronic” Eli, The Sweethearts Of Sigma and Vince Montana Jr. The only legends left are Earl Young and Larry Washington.

At Sigma Sound Studios, only drummers Earl Young and Keith Benson, bassist Jimmy Williams conga players Larry Washington, James Walker and Don Renaldo’s strings on horns had been members of the original Salsoul Orchestra. They were joined by guitarist Craig Snyder, Thor Love and the Richard Evans’ penned Burning Spear. Tom Moulton and Thor Baldursson on keyboards and synths and Shanga on congas. Even the Sweethearts of Sigma were absent and were replaced by Soulful Nature, Jon Alton, Ernestine Billingsley and Selinda Watkins. Truly, the times they were a changing and The Salsoul Orchestra was very different from its early, glory days. Would this change in lineup of The Salsoul Orchestra affect Street Sense’s commercial success?

On the release of Street Sense in 1979, the album failed to chart. Disco it seems, was on its deathbed and being granted the last rites. Then when Street Sense was released as a single, it only reached number forty in the US Dance Music/Club Play Singles Charts. This was a long way from The Salsoul Orchestra’s early days, when their debut album The Salsoul Orchestra had sold sufficient copies to be certified gold. Sadly, back in 1975, Salsoul weren’t members of the RIAA and didn’t receive their gold disc. By the time Street Sense was released in 1979, it was a very different Salsoul Records, Salsoul Orchestra and indeed, musical landscape. However, what did the music on Street Sense sound like? That’s what I’ll now tell you.

Opening Street Sense is the exotic sounding Zambesi written by Donny Hathaway. The rhythm section powered by Earl Young’s drums combine with guitars and keyboards to dramatically open the track. A sinister sounding vocal sings “Zambesi” and that seems the signal for The Salsoul Orchestra to kick loose. Soon, Don Renaldo’s strings sweep and swirl, while his horns blaze and growl. They combine with the rhythm section to create The Salsoul Orchestra’s famous disco sound. By now it’s business as usual, although sometimes, the keyboards and the rhythm section take the arrangement in the direction of jazz. Punchy horns give the track a funky influence, while the introduction of synths, keyboards and bursts of hollered vocals see the jazzy sound return, Still the Don’s dancing strings create the track’s irresistible disco sound as the rest of The Salsoul Orchestra fuse jazz, funk and their usual disco sound. Although Salsoul and The Salsoul Orchestra were changing, this slimmed down, leaner lineup of The Salsoul Orchestra still create a track that irresistibly catchy, as Salsoul’s music begins to evolve.

Burning Spear was penned by Richard Evans, who had was one of the main songwriters at Cadet Records, a subsidiary of Chess Records and home to Rotary Connection, Marlena Shaw and Terry Callier. When the track opens, a pounding funky rhythm section is responsible for the track’s funky, pulsating heartbeat. Jimmy Williams bass helps power the track along, while Thor’s synths add a new and different dimension to the arrangement. Still the strings are present and later, a sultry, blazing saxophone solo from Michael Pedicine takes centre stage. After that the rhythm section combine funk and disco, while the horns add a jazzy sound. Larry Washington adds the famous Salsoul percussive sound and Don Renaldo’s strings dance with joy. Although quite different from previous albums, with its introduction of a jazzy twist and synths, one thing doesn’t change, and that’s this a track that’s The Salsoul Orchestra’s dance-floor friendly sound.

By 1979, Grace Slick who wrote Somebody To Love, had been lead singer with three groups, The Great Society, Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship. She was also a talented songwriter. WIth Earl Young’s thunderous drums powering the arrangement along, the track reveals a funky, pulsating Euro Disco beat. The rest of The Salsoul Orchestra fuse funk, jazz and this Euro disco sound. Strings cascade, horns rasp and Soulful Nature add their tight, soulful harmonies. Although they’re crucial to the track’s sound and success, they’re nowhere near as good as The Sweethearts Of Sigma. So too are Don Renaldo’s swirling strings and rasping, plus Earl Young’s drums that provide the track’s heartbeat. A myriad of Latin percussion, rasping horns and Thor’s synths combine during a dramatic breakdown. Then the track gradually rebuild and the track reveals the rest of its secrets. For the first time on Street Sense there’s a real Euro Disco influence and this is no bad thing. Quite the opposite. It plays a part on the track’s joyous, uplifting sound.

Tom Moulton and Thor Baldursson cowrote two tracks on Street Sense. The title-track Street Sense the first of these. Again there’s a real Euro Disco influence and it’s much more obvious than the previous track. This is no surprise, given Thor was a Munich based producers, whose music had obviously been influenced by Giorgio Moroder. As Street Sense opens, there’s a brief similarity with Resorts International. Another similarity is the way the introduction is arranged. It’s similar to other tracks and is somewhat formulaic. Earl Young’s drums and Jimmy Williams bass power the arrangement along, providing the track’s pounding, disco heartbeat, while strings dance joyously and horns rasp and growl. Soulful Nature’s heartfelt harmonies sweep in and out, replaced by dramatic bursts of blazing horns. Later, during a breakdown, the arrangement is stripped way back. Just percussion and synths take centre-stage, while flourishes of strings and brief bursts of horns sit in the background. When the track rebuilds, Soulful Nature’s sassy harmonies are accompanied by a dramatic arrangement. This track would become a favourite at New York’s legendary Loft nightclub.

212 North 12th is the second Tom Moulton and Thor Baldursson penned tracks. Keyboards give way the familiar combination of a pulsating disco beat created by Earl Young’s drums and Jimmy Williams bass. Stabs of keyboards join the mix, before Don Renaldo’s of strings and horns play important roles in the arrangement. Strings sweep and swirl, while horns blaze. Bursts of punchy horns and percussion add drama as the the funky rhythm section provide a relentless, pulsating disco beat. By now one of the most dance-floor friendly tracks unfolds. Again, a breakdown is used to good effect, before searing, guitars, percussion and blazing horns all play their in this multilayered fusion of disco, jazz and funk. 

Bebu Silvetti who cowrote Sun After the Rain with Miguel Tottis is best known for his Salsoul classic Spring Rain. This is a quite different track, one that features a more understated arrangement. Percussion, sound effects, bursts of chiming guitars and keyboards are joined by lushest of strings as a very beautiful track unfolds. Elegant is a good description of it. Tender, impassioned harmonies from Soulful Nature are enveloped by the lush strings, as the rhythm section provide a much more subtle heartbeat. Later, the arrangement grows, with swathes of strings and bursts of rasping horns proving the perfect accompaniment to Soulful Nature’s beautiful, tender harmonies. Of the six tracks on Street Sense this is very different from the other tracks. Unlike the other tracks, the arrangement doesn’t have the almost formulaic arrangement. Good as these tracks are, this is much better. Not only does it offer variety, but is imaginative and innovative, as you’d expect from an album baring the Salsoul label.

By the time The Salsoul Orchestra released Street Sense in 1979, it was a very different lineup from their debut album The Salsoul Orchestra. Most of the legends were gone, with just Earl Young, Larry Washington and Don Renaldo left. Despite this, the slimmed down lineup managed to create the impressive sound as earlier albums. Street Sense doesn’t sound like a smaller band, but does find a very different band. Without Vince Montana Jr,The Salsoul Orchestra weren’t the same. They’d released their best music with Vince at the helm. He was The Salsoul Orchestra’s founder and driving force. Vince was a musical visionary, who wrote, arranged, produced and played on The Salsoul Orchestra’s albums. With some of Philly’s greatest musicians at his side, The Salsoul Orchestra were disco’s premier orchestra. Between heir 1975 eponymous album and 1978s Up The Yellow Brick Road they could no wrong. The albums released  between 1975 and 1978 includes the best music The Salsoul Orchestra  released. Street Sense falls short of the standard set by Vince Montana Jr.

After his departure Tom Moulton produced Street Sense. He took a very different approach. The drums played a bigger part, they were louder, faster and had a similar sound on five of the tracks. He seemed to be concentrating on creating a sound that was dance-floor and DJ friendly. Another change was the use of synths. 

Unlike other albums released at this time, the synths, which I’m not a huge fan of, worked..just. The style of music straddled musical genres. with the usual disco sound joined by a jazz funk, Euro Disco and Philly Soul. At least Tom Moulton didn’t desert Salsoul Orchestra disco sound. However, by 1979 disco was no longer as popular and Salsoul would have to adapt or die.

Although Salsoul managed to do so, other labels weren’t as fortunate. While others struggled, Salsoul Records style and sound changed. The company was transformed. New personnel, producers and musicians  joined Salsoul. After Street Sense, The Salsoul Orchestra’s sound evolved. Sadly, what was the end of an era wasn’t marked by the release of a classic album. It’s a decent album. Good, but not great describes Street Sense. It’s far from a classic and doesn’t match the quality of their debut album The Salsoul Orchestra, Nice ‘N ‘ Nasty, Up the Yellow Brick Road or indeed The Salsoul Strings’ How Deep Is Your Love. By the next time The Salsoul Orchestra would enter a recording studio, disco would’ve nearly died and music was evolving. Street Sense was the last disco album The Salsoul Orchestra released, before boogie replaced disco as the favourite of discerning DJs and dancers. Standout Tracks: Zambesi,  Burning Spear, Street Sense and Sun After the Rain.


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