One of my favourite discoveries last year was the 1970 album on Elektra by the Voices Of East Harlem, Right On Be Free. They're probably best known for their 1973 Leroy Hutson/Rich Tufo/Curtis Mayfield produced single "Cashing In" and whilst that's a great jabbing slice of 70s soul, there's nothing particularly remarkable about it or anything to differentiate the Voices of East Harlem from countless other vocals groups. In fact, Gerri Griffin's dominant lead vocal obscures the very fact they were a group at all. The same cannot be said for their debut Right On Be Free.
Firstly, the sleeve is striking. It's a statement. Sixteen denim-clad, afro-haired, young folk from New York marching, clapping and singing. Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud. Right on. Be free. Rather than a standard group, the Voices of East Harlem were initially a community initiative set up by Chuck and Anna Griffin in 1969. With established gospel singer Bernice Cole as musical director they - up to 20 members, including the Griffin's kids - performed at benefit gigs, prisons, festivals and even on television.
With a rotation of lead singers of all ages, the grooves in the vinyl of Right On Be Free are scarcely wide enough to contain the mass of exuberant and excited voices this street choir frantically pump out backed by a loose yet funky band. They breathe fire into covers such as "For What It's Worth", "Proud Mary" and "Simple Song of Freedom" and original powerful, soul-stirring songs like "Right On Be Free" and "Gotta Be A Change" already sound like established classics.
Listening to the record made me wish there was live footage of them in action. Well, thank the good Lord, there's a whole concert available and it's bang on the time of the album. Recorded at Tanglewood, Lenox, Massachusetts on 18 August '70 the Voices of East Harlem sing most of the album and also, appropriately enough, "Young, Gifted and Black". They enter with a choreographed chain gang march and exit after little Kevin Griffin - approximately 11 years old - threatens to steal to the show with his moves during "Shaker Life" and Bernice Cole shows her young protégées how to really sing.
People, be upstanding for... the Voices Of East Harlem.