WHEN WAYNE HENDERSON left Houston in 1961 it was as a jazz trombonist. With fellow hometown musicians: keyboard player Joe Sample, drummer Stix Hooper and saxophonist Wilton Felder he formed the Jazz Crusaders. On their move to Los Angeles they were soon signed to Pacific Jazz Records, where they stayed for the rest of the decade. The Jazz Crusaders’ tight rhythms and distinctive sax and trombone front line created a beguiling mix of hard bop and soul jazz. There was nothing stuffy about their form of jazz and they became one of the label’s best selling acts. In addition the members found themselves in demand as session players on scores of LA recording dates, regardless of genre. In the early 70s the group moved to Motown’s Chisa subsidiary, then on to Blue Thumb where they became known simply as the Crusaders and where they scored crossover hits on the R&B charts. By 1975 Henderson was keen to stretch his wings as a producer and was finding it hard to cope with running two careers at the same time. After recording the album “Those Southern Knights” (released in 1976), he left the Crusaders.
As a producer Wayne Henderson had an uncanny knack of finding great jazz-based R&B acts and providing them with commercial material. His first signings to his At-Home Production banner were Ronnie Laws, Side Effect and our current focus, Pleasure.
The Pacific North-West was hardly a renowned home of soul music, but Portland’s black community had their own scene and groups of players. Pleasure came together in high school, a product of two bands with two different outlooks: the Soul Masters and Franchise. In an interview with Blues and Soul Magazine in 1977 Pleasure’s band leader and guitarist Marlon McClain remembered that “All of the guys in the band grew up in the Albina area of the city and we knew each other in school. I was the lead of Franchise and we were into a rock disco type thing. Donald Hepburn was the leader of the Soul Masters and they tended to be more into a jazz bag at the time. But since the demand [for jazz] wasn’t that great, we figured that it would be the right thing to form one group between us all.”
Fairly early on the line-up coalesced around Marlon McClain and keyboard player Donald Hepburn. The rest of the lineup was Hepburn’s brother Michael (keyboards), Dan Brewster (trombone), Dennis Springer (tenor and soprano sax), Nathaniel Phillips (bass), Bruce Smith (drums) and the very distinct vocals provided by Sherman Davis. They decided on the name Pleasure “because that was what we wanted to bring to people – pleasure”. Portland’s major auditorium was the Paramount, where in addition to playing gigs the group would hang out in an attempt to meet visiting artists, hoping to pick up tips and make contacts. Pleasure’s members would make sure that they had copies of their self-produced demo tape with them and would hand them to whichever artist was passing through that week. Jazz funk saxophonist Grover Washington Jr, at that time touring on the back of his big hit albums for the Kudu label, liked what he heard and passed on a recommendation to Wayne Henderson that they were worth checking out the next time Henderson was in the Pacific North-West. The result was that Henderson brought the band to Los Angeles, where he used them on sessions for his nascent At-Home Productions.
They backed Ronnie Laws on his second album, “Fever”, and then Henderson signed them to Fantasy Records of Berkeley, near San Francisco. Fantasy had been operating since the mid 50s, but the success of their main rock signing Creedence Clearwater Revival led to them investing their profits and creating a powerhouse jazz and R&B label, strengthened by buying up classic jazz labels Prestige and Milestone. They reached the top of the R&B charts with the Blackbyrds, produced by Donald Byrd. Pleasure and Henderson’s other outfit, Side Effect, signed at almost the same time. They were perfect additions to Fantasy’s roster and it was hoped they could challenge the likes of Earth, Wind and Fire and Kool and the Gang on the charts.
Today, Pleasure’s first album ‘Dust Yourself Off’ is best-remembered for the crisp breakbeat funk of ‘Bouncy Lady’. This was manipulated by the New York DJs that were inventing hip hop at block parties and nite-spots in the second half of the 1970s. At the time of its issue Fantasy put ‘Bouncy Lady’ as the B-side of the only single lifted from the debut album. The A-side was ‘Midnight At The Oasis’, a slinky take on Maria Muldaur’s 1974 hit. Although not the big hit that everyone was hoping for, it got close to breaking through and was an important calling card for the group.
Five of the album’s eight original compositions were written by Marlon McClain and they showed a lot of variety. ‘Reality’ is a socially-conscious funk number that sounds as if it could have been lifted straight from a Earth, Wind and Fire album, an impression increased by the three way vocal harmonies throughout the song. ‘Plastic People’ is built on a jazzy arrangement courtesy of Wayne Henderson, over which we are given more lyrics decrying people for not being “real” and advising them that they should “be themselves”. ‘My Love’ is a gorgeously sweet love song. It glides along on Sherman’s smooth rich voice and McClain’s guitar accompaniment. Perhaps ‘Music Is My Life’ could be the theme tune for many young groups. It is a glorious celebration of the love of music of the young and very keen. The album’s closer ‘Straight Ahead’ shows McClain in a jazzier style; it gives the track a flavour of mid-70s Kool and the Gang. Donald Hepburn wrote ‘Bouncy Lady’ and the album’s title track ‘Dust Yourself Off’. They both take their inspiration straight from Earth, Wind and Fire. The driving ‘What Is Slick’ is the sole track written by trombone player Dan Brewster.
“Dust Yourself Off” is a high-class debut from an act who had not yet quite found the way to shape and mould their influences into their own sound. It was a great starting point and the first of six albums for Fantasy that allowed them to hone a very distinctive style, that made them one of the most popular soul/funk groups of their era.
DEAN RUDLAND / 2011