The turning of the year 2016 AD has already brought somber reflections for those of us who grew up on late 20th century soul, pop, R&B and rock. Some of the musical deaths we’ve endured have included luminaries such as Nick Caldwell of the mighty Whispers, and the protean David Bowie. The first one to catch me off guard was the passing of Ms. Nathalie Cole. Nathalie Cole was one of those people of tremendous strength, because she lived her life with great health challenges that she never allowed to get in the way of sharing her gifts with the world. I remember marveling in recent years over how she could conduct tours while also taking dialysis treatments daily, and then three times a day. Nathalie Cole’s death is difficult because when I looked at her beautiful face, besides her tremendous talent, I always saw the mothers, aunties, church ladies, Teachers, real estate brokers, and many other women who made up the black community when I was growing up. She was always, despite her personal troubles, a beacon of class in the entertainment field, and I followed her through venues such as her Television talent competition “Big Break”, on to her great success with “Unforgettable” in 1992, and beyond. My prenatal grew up with the music of her father and that carried right on to their love of her music as well. I, along with my buddy Andre Grindle, have always talked about the year 1987 as really great years for us, musically s well as personally. Well, “Jump Start (My Heart)”, with it’s cute, catchy refrain, was a huge funky comeback hit for Nathalie in that year, that I remember vividly from Bay Are radio stations like KMEL, KSOL, and KDIA.
“Jump Start” was written by Reggie Calloway, and produced by him along with his brother Vincent. The Calloways had a strong funk pedigree, being members of the great early ’80s funk band Midnight Star. The Calloways productions such as “Operator” and “No Parking on the Dance Floor” found a fresh new electro funk direction for the music. The Calloways also gave the late ’80s much of it’s synth funk sheen,producing some of my personal favorites such as “Joy” for Tesdy Pendergrass, “Love Overboard” for Gladys Knight & The Pips, and “Cassanova” for Levert. In retrospect, they were responsible for much of the musical vitality I felt in 1987 R&B!
One of the things I love about this joint is how the Calloway’s take time to establish the groove before Ms. Cole comes in to do her thing. The song begins with some rather wistful sounding block chords on a digital keyboard, sounding somewhat like a digital keyboard’s impression of an enchanced Fender Rhodes electric piano, but also having it’s own unique, thin and slightly whispy digital character. In addition. To the chords the keyboardists right hand plays a melancholy little four note riff that sets the song up. Of course when I was a young tyke, next to some of the old bluesy ’60s R&B I still heard around town, sounds like this were the height of modern sophistication. After that plays, the all powerful ’80s construction worker drum beat comes in. The drum beat is unique in where it leaves space though, instead of keeping up a steady hammering beat, it starts and stops in a manner that is melodic in it’s own right, laying the perfect rhythmic template for the bass line that will come in later. The drum part is also supported by an active cowbell part that does much to add some human groove alongside the powerfully steady drum machine beat. Nathalie says “Alright ya’ll” as if she’s letting the band know it can come in, and let’s out some soulful vocalizing, as the ultra funky, whip tight ’80s one note, mid register funky guitar falls in line. The next instrument to be introduced is the super funky keyboard bass, which has the sound of a digital keyboard’s impression of a Mini Moog. Again, instead of hammering out every beat, the Calloways lay down a synth part that is syncopated, choppy, jumpy, and very melodically memorable as a result.
The lyrical story that Nathalie Cole handles with finesse is one very appropriate both for a star on the “comeback” trail and a person like herself, in her mid thirties at that time. She starts it off “Feels like my batteries/in need of a jump”, with rhythmic slickness in her handling of that line. She asks the target of her song to, “give me a spark/to get the fire burning/get my engine moving/set these wheels a turning.” Nathalie does this all with slick rhythmic sophistication, making some very tricky lines sound easy, and if u don’t believe me, just cue this up at Karaoke one day. The video is one of those fun 80s things, full of high color saturation and people getting down at the park while Nathalie and her dancers bring the house down. What’s not to love?
“Jump Start” went all the way up to #2 on the R&B charts in ’87, which got Nathalie Cole over a 1980s slump and got her back in the realm of visibility that would pave the way for her triumphant success singing her fathers songs alongside him in 1992. Chuck D talks about how Black musical artists are like your aunts and uncles growing up. Well for sure, Nathalie Cole was my aunt in 1987, as this jam was the soundtrack to all kinds of functions. And it will always be that type of fun, friskieness with class I will remember about Ms. Cole, from “This Will Be” on through the rest of her fantastic career.