East Bay Rhythm; The Tonyies 

A Little Love Will Help; Live in Chocolate City

The East Bay has been at the forefront of funk since the '60s, when such bands as Johnny Talbot and De Thangs, Sly and the Family Stone, and Marvin Holmes and the Uptights were throwing down at clubs like the Sportsman, Showcase, and Frenchy's. Even while few in the local cultural establishment took serious note of these developments, syncopated Oakland R&B discs were finding favor among collectors in England and Europe. And in the '80s, Prince began importing East Bay funkmeisters to Minneapolis to help form the rhythmic backbone of his sound.

Pressed in Germany but issued locally on Berkeley percussionist Jon Bendich's 7 Bridges label, A Little Love Will Help brings together eleven previously unissued tracks cut in 1976 and the '80s by a group of musicians now billed as East Bay Rhythm. James Levi, who rivaled the Uptights' Gaylord Birch as the greatest first-generation Oakland funk drummer, is the one constant among a shifting cast of players. They include bassist Paul Jackson and percussionist Bill Summers (Levi's bandmates in Herbie Hancock's Headhunters), bassists Freddie Washington and Bobby Reed, guitarist Carl Lockett, and percussionists Butch Haynes and Bendich. An Ohio Players period influence can be detected in some of the songs, but the grooves burn from stop to start -- certain to provide fodder for serious samplers in years to come.

Tony Toni Toné, the most successful Oakland band of the '90s, represented the culmination of the East Bay funk tradition. In 1996, the three principals -- brothers Raphael Saadiq and Dwayne Wiggins and cousin Timothy Christian Riley -- put together a killer eleven-piece band to tour behind their House of Music CD, but when that masterpiece stiffed, lead singer Saadiq split. Wiggins and Riley kept the band going, however, with near-soundalike William (Amar) Davis in Saadiq's shoes. Before breaking up several years back, this horn-fueled outfit cut a live album in DC, reprising such hits as "If I Had the Loot," "Thinking of You," "It Never Rains (in Southern California)," "Feels Good," and "Whatever You Want," some interpolated with brief salutes to Dizzy Gillespie, Sly Stone, Little Milton, and other heroes. Although the fidelity has a bit too much echo, the live renditions often surpass the familiar studio versions, thanks in no small part to Brian Collier's consistently kick-ass drumming.

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