Fifty years ago, Brad Shapiro was head over heels writing and producing songs for some of the hippest Black vocalists this side of the Mississippi.
If you know your fair share about funk, R&B and soul music, the names of those artists will blow you away.
Start off with Sam & Dave, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Joe Simon, Millie Jackson and Isaac Hayes and bring it on home with Joe Tex, Archie Bell & the Drells, Betty Wright, Johnnie Taylor, Bettye LaVette and Clarence Reid.
Shapiro, 84, has resided in Lebanon the past five years. He hasn’t been in a studio since the 1990s. He produced hundreds of records in Muscle Shoals Sound Studio (with the Swampers) but also spent long hours nailing down tracks in Miami, Atlanta, New York and Nashville’s Sound Shop Studio. As a tunesmith he had about 100 of his songs recorded.
“The three biggest singers I produced were James Brown (‘the Godfather of Soul’), Wilson Pickett (‘Wicked Pickett’) and Millie Jackson (‘the Queen of Class and Sass’),” said Shapiro. “The first record I produced to chart was Betty Wright’s ‘Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do,’ ” (No. 33 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart in 1968).
“The first hit song I wrote was ‘Don’t Knock My Love’ for Willie P. (Pickett). He had the lick and the hook. I wrote the lyrics in 15 minutes on the floor of the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. It was a No. 1 Billboard Soul Singles hit,” he recollected of the tune that was released in the spring of 1971 and became a duet hit in 1973 for Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye, aka “the Prince of Soul.”
Of these respected artists, Shapiro said he believes Brown was the most talented.
“He emulated a sound that knocked me off my feet. I knew he had a temper. He had done nothing but all live recordings, no overdubs. I knew that. The Polydor label hired me. I said I would produce him but had to have overdubs of his voice,” said the deep soul producer.
“I first did the track, then the overdub of his voice. I cut the track, ‘It’s Too Funky in Here,’ at Muscle Shoals and recorded him in Cleveland. He was used to live recordings. It jarred the vibe that he put out. He finally got it.”
The recording came after Brown’s highest chart appearances in the 1960s and ’70s, but received critical praise. It appeared on the 1979 album, “The Original Disco Man,” and Shapiro and Muscle Shoals keyboardist Randy McCormick co-wrote most of the tunes. As for “Too Funky,” Robert Christgau, dean of American rock critics, called the record “the disco disc of the year.”
Christgau gave high praise to Shapiro as well when he wrote about the album, noting: “Brown relinquishes the profit-taking ego gratification of writing and producing everything himself. Those credits go to Brad Shapiro, Millie Jackson’s helpmate, who thank God is no disco man himself. Sure he likes disco tricks — synthesized sound effects, hooky female chorus, bass drum pulse — but he loves what made JB, well, the original disco man: hard-driving, slightly Latinized funk patterns against the rough rap power of that amazing voice, which may have lost expressiveness but definitely retains its sense of rhythm. Plus: disco disc of the year, ‘It’s Too Funky in Here.’ ”
The roots in rock ’n’ roll
Shapiro was born and raised in Rochester, N.Y., and began his musical odyssey in high school when he joined a local group called the Redcoats. His inspiration?
“It was rock ’n’ roll: Elvis Presley and Little Richard. I taught myself to play bass guitar and played in a four-man band,” he recalled. “When I was 18 the band all went down to Miami, so I took the Greyhound bus to Miami, Fla. I started playing on sessions at a studio called Criteria, where the Bee Gees and Eric Clapton got started.
“My (producing) career got started by Henry Stone (godfather of the Miami sound), who had a distributing company in Miami and a record company named Tone Distribution. (Tone was a successful record distributing company that worked with independent labels such as Atlantic Records, Motown Records and Stax Records.) Stone had KC and the Sunshine Band.”
After producing albums for Betty Wright and Clarence Reid for Stone in the late 1960s, Shapiro was hired by Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler, who had joined Atlantic as vice president in 1953. Wexler had been a music journalist and was credited as the writer who conceived the term “rhythm & blues” to replace “race music.”
Among Wexler’s strengths for Atlantic Records came his gift of recruiting and/or producing R&B acts like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett for the label, not to mention signing Dusty Springfield, Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin, thus he opened the doors for Shapiro in producing a number of their Black artists in the early 1970s.
Of the singers Shapiro produced, he had perhaps the most notable popular success in collaborations with Millie Jackson, the Georgia-born soul singer who challenged show-business barriers with frank subject matter and spoken sections about sex and relationships.
“Millie Jackson was my favorite,” Shapiro said. “We were good friends and still are. We hit a groove. She was the first woman that talked. She didn’t rap. She was fabulous and very easy to work with.”
Shapiro and Jackson co-produced five albums, winning numerous platinum records for sales of one million. They were nominated for a Best R&B Vocal Performance Grammy Award in 1974 for “If Loving You Is Wrong I Don’t Want To Be Right” and also had a Billboard Pop hit for “If You’re Not Back in Love by Monday,” which was co-written by then-Lebanon resident Sonny Throckmorton.
Also a hit for country icon Merle Haggard, “If We’re Not Back in Love by Monday” came as part of a trend of back-and-forth country-R&B crossovers. A few years earlier, Barbara Mandrell enjoyed a No. 1 country smash with her version of “(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right,” originally a hit for Luther Vandross.
In the midst of his Atlantic Days, Shapiro also co-produced The J. Geils Band debut album in 1970, about which he recollected, “The lead singer. He couldn’t sing a lick. I thought, ‘What am I doing in this room with no talent?’ I was shocked their first album was a hit.”
Shapiro operated his own R&B record label, Kayvette, between 1975 and 1980, with R&B singer Jackie Moore and the soul trio, The Gospel Truth, which later changed its name to The Facts of Life and was managed and produced by Millie Jackson. The label released 19 singles, and the first 11 songs charted on R&B but none of the last eight.
Music was good to Shapiro, who said, “I had a horse farm in Florida. I had it all.”
He wound up in Lebanon because his daughter lived here but she has since moved to Nashville where she has his gold records displayed on a wall of her house.
Shapiro said it takes strong lyric content, melody and a great hook to make a hit song. Asked what made him so successful in the studio, he answered, “My quick reaction of sensing something.
“Producing came easy to me. I taught myself how to play bass. I had the third Fender electric bass (guitar) ever made. I bought it in high school and I sold it to get some food. You know how much that would be worth? It should be in a museum,” said the music man, who worked with many of the most soulful singers of the second half of the 20th century.
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