"Funky" False Alarm
I’ve read several times over the past few years that Dyke & the Blazers had the first record with “funky” in the title, “Funky Broadway” to be exact, in 1967. Then just a few weeks ago, I got a surprise, when online I stumbled across this promo record from 1957, recorded in New Orleans, simply entitled….
"Funky" (Lee Allen - Alvin Tyler)
Lee Allen And His Band, Ember 1047, 1958 (Disc Jockey Copy)
Of course, I bought it. Had to hear it. I’d never even heard of it. I admit I was hoping for some proto-funk revelation to come blasting out of my speakers. A funk-junkie audio archaeologist can dream, can’t he? But, after doing some preliminary investigating while waiting for the 45 to arrive, I pretty much sobered up to the fact that, were it so, somebody would have discovered it and mentioned it before now, since the other side was a fairly well-known Lee Allen tune, “Jim Jam”. But I still held out some hope, as a check of the Ember discography did not mention “Funky”, and showed that, on the commercial release of #1047, “Short Circuit” was paired with “Jim Jam”. Nor was “Funky” shown as a track on Allen’s Ember LP, Walkin’ With Mr. Lee, released in 1958 to capitalize on his big hit of the same name. Finally, upon the record’s arrival, the truth was revealed. As I dropped the needle down on “Funky”, what I heard was. . . “Short Circuit”. Oh well, I guess the DJ copy used a working title that was changed prior to it going public. Could be that “funky” had connotations considered unsuitable for young record buyers. After all, it was the 1950's.
Anyway, I am pretty sure it’s not the case that they said, “Hey, we can’t call this tune ’Funky’, because it’s not; and, besides, ‘funk’ won’t be even be a common musical modifier or style for another decade at least!” Seriously though, back then, there were people using “funk” to describe music, according to Dr. John, who was there hanging out and should know: ace drummer Earl Palmer and other HOTG studio players, including Lee Allen himslef. Back in the late Fifties, they called their tight-knit session scene “the funk club”. Even by 1957 standards, though, “Funky’ a/k/a “Short Circuit” is not a funk record. Instead, it’s a good, straight ahead rocker. Although Allen was one of the great studio sax soloists, heard on countless records cut in New Orleans in the Fifties, quite frankly, his solo singles and the one LP on Ember(released between 1957 and 1962), though well done, never got me too worked up. When it comes to hot New Orelans sax instrumentals of the era, I generally prefer the material put out by Plas Johnson (although he was recording in L.A.) and Alvin ‘Red’ Tyler.
Speaking of Tyler, who played baritone or tenor in the horn section with Allen on many an R&B session, he is listed as co-writer on the copyright registration for “Short Circuit”. But, only Allen is shown on the label. By the way, a composition by either or both of them called “Funky” is not listed at all for copyright, nor can it be found on the BMI database. As a title, it didn't have much shelf-life.
That is probably Red honking his bari in the background on this tune. Peter ‘Chuck’ Badie is likely on bass; and I’m pretty sure that’s the always cookin’ Charles ‘Hungry’ Williams on drums, as is also the case on. . .
"Jim Jam" (Lee Allen)
Lee Allen And His Band, Ember 1047, 1958 (Disc Jockey Copy)
If you listen closely to the drumming on these two sides, you can see why Williams was the first call session player in New Orleans for several years after Earl Palmer relocated to the Left Coast. He lays down a driving rock ‘n' roll backbeat on both, and still has a lot going on in there. Check out those seamless fills and turnarounds. To me, it’s really his work that gives these tracks their power.
Whatever the reason “Funky” was later discarded, it looks like Lee Allen did, however briefly, first use the term for a record title* - but it’s not the first use as a song title. That honor goes to Buddy Bolden, one of the founders of jazz, for his never-recorded “Funky Butt”, which inspired Jelly Roll Morton’s classic song,, “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say”. But lets save the much deeper roots discussion for another day and just rock out with Mr. Lee for a while on this record that short-circuited my funk fantasy.
*NOTE (3/16/2007): Well, it may be the first record with "funky" in the title, but commenter Joe Germuska has enlightened me/us to maybe the first record with "funk" in the title: "Barrel Of Funk" by Hank Mobley on Blue Note in 1956. Mobely also cut "Funk In Deep Freeze" for the label in 1957. Joe says the latter is not a funk song, as we use the term, either. Has anybody heard "Barrel Of Funk"? Thanks, Joe! That makes Lee Allen's promo 45 even more of a techincality! Does anybody else have any earlier uses of either "funk" or "funky" in a song title? Let me know, if you can scoop us all.
Scoop update 3/22/2007: Commenter, Lyle, writes: According to liner notes for Funk Blast! A Collection of Classic Funk (2000, Experience Music Project): "Sure there was funk before 'Cold Sweat,'  but the word meant something different. In the '50s we had funky jazz with tunes like Horace Silver's 'Opus de Funk'  and Gene Ammons' 'Funky' , composed by Kenny Burrell]." Funk Blast! is a great collection, although it includes no New Orleans artists. As we know now from your blog, this is a serious oversight.
Yes, Lyle, leaving New Orleans music out of a general funk compilation might be grounds for war in these parts! You have so far scooped us all with these jazz cuts you found mentioned. I checked the Blue Note discography; and "Opus de Funk" is shown as 1953, but still....that's much earlier than Mobley. And Ammons' "Funky" was recorded in January, 1957. So, I suppose he beats Lee Allen out so far by a nose for that title. Nice work. I can't help but notice how far back "funk" is going in jazz circles. Of course, maybe that should be no surprise, considering Buddy Bolden, the Funky Butt, and all go back to the very early 20th century. I'll have to try to hear both of these songs Lyle brough to light. I read that Silver's tune is Latin-influenced. He wrote some certifiably funky jazz music in his time. Not sure if Ammons' tune will live up to our concept of its title; but I do have some later stuff he did that is funked up. Let me know if you've heard these.
This just in. Lyle is now scooping himself, finding "Funky Blues" listed on a Norman Granz Jam Sessions recording from around 1952. So, we're back to the early 50's for both "funk" and "funky" in song titles. Careful Lyle, this sort of obsessive behavior can be habit forming. I ought to know. . . . Thanks for the efforts.