Thanks to Sly & the Family Stone, psychedelic music contributed a strong flavor to what we call today funk music. Not all funk artists participated; I don’t think James Brown indulged in psychedelia. But a good many of the famous funk artists of the late 1970s and early 1980s continued to find inspiration from the development of “psychedelic soul”. Though released a few months later than the Temptations’ Cloud Nine, the Isley Brothers’ It’s Your Thing was one of the earliest songs to successfully explore psychedelic soul. Released on the album It’s Our Thing in February 1969, It’s Your Thing was a big hit, reaching #2 on the American Top 40 charts, though it only made it #30 in the UK. It seems right that the Isleys would be among the pioneers of psychedelic soul; Jimi Hendrix had been their lead guitarist in 1964. The Isleys would chart in the U.S. throughout the 1970s and score another hit in the genre, That Lady (Pts. 1 &2), which when released in July 1973, reached the #2 position in the charts again (#14 UK).
In the early 1970s much of the best social commentary on what was happening at the time was often expressed through psychedelic soul. Norman Whitfield (who, along with lyricist Barrett Strong, composed Cloud Nine and other Temptations hits) wrote a song called War that took Edwin Starr in June 1970 to the top of the U.S. charts (#3 UK). The psychedelic era had been able to preach peace, but, because even when singing of war its discourse was of compassion, it had lacked the direct and angry protest that Starr’s War expresses. Another Norman Whitfield composition Smiling Faces Sometimes performed by the Undisputed Truth, warned of dealings with people seeking advantage. Released in May 1971, it got to #3 in the U.S., the band’s only single to break into the Top 40.
In the early 21st century, the most respected and popular album of psychedelic soul is Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, released in May 1971 and reaching #6 in the U.S., a social commentary with wide-ranging sonic explorations as daring as Jimi Hendrix. Much of the album found its way to radio, but the single What’s Going On reached the #2 position the same month as the album release, and Mercy Mercy Me, another cut from the album, got so far as #4 in June 1971. (As Gaye’s concept album was about a Vietnam veteran returning from the war, it was too much about American politics for the UK, and did not chart either in its entirety or in part.) Another socially conscious songwriter who used the genre of psychedelic soul was Curtis Mayfield. His Superfly, released as a single in October 1972 was originally used as accompaniment to a blaxploitation flick of the same name. The song was a socially astute depiction of the Black man’s ego ‘trying to get over” when compared to the slicker veneer of the hustler that was sung about in Theme from Shaft by Isaac Hayes. (Shaft was released in September 1971 as a soundtrack to one of the earliest examples of blaxploitation movies, and introduced a new rhythmic use of wah-wah guitar that would figure heavily in the disco scene.) The single Superfly, which got to #8 in the U.S. (#26 UK) didn’t succeed as well as Theme from Shaft, which topped the U.S. charts (#4 UK). Curtis Mayfield’s Freddie’s Dead, a cut from the Superfly album which dramatized drug addiction, did better when it was released in the U.S. June 1972, reaching the #4 position.
Eric Burdon, previously of the Animals, launched the group War into the charts with Spill the Wine, but they continued on with their career in the early 1970s without him, bringing a socially conscious Chicano funk to the radio for the first time. In November 1971, War released their first successful single on their own which got to #16 in the U.S., Slippin’ Into Darkness, from the album All Day Music. They continued to have more popularity in the following years, with The World is a Ghetto, released in November 1972, reaching #7. The Cisco Kid, a song with less of a message, released in early 1973, was their best-selling single, reaching #2 on the U.S. pop charts. None of these songs sold well the UK.
It was psychedelic soul’s party music sans social consciousness that had the longest effect on pop music. Kool and the Gang released a tune, that Sly & the Family Stone themselves could have produced, called Hollywood Swinging in early 1974 that got to #6 on the U.S. pop charts. “P-Funk”, designating music produced by Funkadelic, Parliament, and George Clinton throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980s, carried forward Sly Stone’s vision. Funkadelic was an underground band in the early 1970s—their album Free Your Mind…Your Ass Will Follow, released in July 1970 only got to #92 on the charts. In July 1971, their album release Maggot Brain did even worse, reaching #108. It wasn’t until September 1978 that Funkadelic scored its biggest hit single, One Nation Under a Groove, which got so far as #28 in the U.S. Parliament released Up For the Down Stroke in June 1974 in the U.S., which achieved the position of #63. In April 1976, Parliament scored its biggest U.S. hit, Tear the Roof Off the Sucker which got to #15. It wasn’t until December 1982 that the sound brewing through these 70s P-Funk bands culminated in a hit that topped the U.S. R&B charts with George Clinton’s Atomic Dog. However, the immensely popular song (at least in New Orleans, where I was at the time) ended up restricted from Top 40 airplay and never broke into the Billboard’s Hot 100 due to pop radio aversion—I suppose-- to the idea of the “dog in me”.