Bad Granddad 

Oakland legend Johnny Talbot brings down the funk.

Johnny Talbot strides into Berkeley's Funky Riddms Records like a man on a soul mission. He's casually stylish, dressed in a khaki shirt with metal tips on the collars, black pants, a black jacket, and blue-tinted sunglasses. What really completes the look, however, is his short, processed coiffure, almost identical to that of James Brown's on the Live at the Apollo Vol. II record the shop sells for $20 (used). He still looks good, he says, "because the music keeps me young."

Talbot is like your funky uncle, or perhaps the cool dad you wished you had. This grandpa of groove can claim to be an originator of the Oakland funk sound, although his soft-spoken modesty won't allow him to brag that much about it. To hear Talbot talk is to be taken on a trip down memory lane, when Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye routinely used to recruit East Bay bands for their touring outfits, when Sly Stone was a radio disc jockey, when Bill Graham owned and booked the Fillmore Auditorium. Talbot can even recall playing concerts there before Graham's tenure.

Talbot's roots are in Texas, but he is East Bay-bred. He was raised in Oakland, and attended Berkeley High School, where he was involved in the doo-wop scene, the flavor of the day back then. Because of his Lone Star State heritage, it was natural for him to pick up the guitar -- just as a person from New Orleans might gravitate toward the piano. He played in local blues and R&B bands, worked the West Coast circuit from Los Angeles to Seattle, and gigged frequently in the Bay's then-thriving bar scene. Eventually, Talbot became the front man for a band called Da Things, who inspired numerous other musicians -- among them Tower of Power -- to learn the nuances of Oakland-style funk, an urban variant of the Texas blues guitar sound, based around a gritty, syncopated rhythm section.

"Oakland funk is sort of a mixture of the blues and R&B," Talbot attempts to explain. "It originated on the streets of Oakland. It's hard to just describe it without hearing it. When I say 'sound,' I mean, musicians from a certain place have a certain sound." The band's name came about, Talbot recalls, when they were sitting around trying to come up with a moniker and one member said, "I can't think of a thing." The name stuck, and for a while, Da Things were the hottest thing happening in the local scene. Although the band cut only one album, for the Kent label, its legacy lives on through the innumerable Bay Area funk, R&B, and soul bands of the '70s and '80s, all the way up to Too $hort, Oakland's first rap star. Talbot speaks glowingly of $hort (who has maintained the attitude of Oakland funk more than any other rapper, according to Talbot), just as he speaks disparagingly of Los Angeles bands, who in his mind weren't as funky as Da Things and their peers.

Talbot got introduced to a younger generation of listeners through the recent Bay Area Funk compilation, which included his song "Pickin' Cotton," a killer jam that contains all the hallmarks of heavy funk. He also played live at the record release party at the Shattuck Down Low (284 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, 510-548-1159), a show that went over so well, he's reprising it Friday night at the same venue. The local legend is careful to distinguish his brand of original Oakland funk from the later permutations, which commercialized and even applied a jazz paradigm to the sound. "To be a funk band, you have to have people in the band who are funky," he reasons. The statement speaks for itself.


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