One Track Mind: Phil Upchurch & The Clinton Administration – "Flashlight" (2009)

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by Pico

Phil Upchurch is a guitarist I’ve known about for a long time, from his stint in George Benson’s band in the late seventies. Even though he was the rhythm guitarist in a band that was fronted by one of the greatest jazz guitarists of all time, Upchurch managed to grab my attention with funky rhythms and clean chording; he always seemed to know just how to play underneath Benson. But Upchurch was already a seasoned vet by the time he joined that super-tight combo whose live performance of “On Broadway” remains the best known version of that well-covered hit song. Upchurch had already been a fixture on the Chicago blues scene, having been the Chess label’s house guitarist for a while and a highly demanded sessionist (still is today). He even had a hit instrumental “You Can’t Sit Down” in the early sixties and made a string of soul-jazz and funk-jazz albums in the late sixties and seventies. Only Cornell Dupree has had a similarly lengthy legacy as a studio guitar player equally comfortable in blues, soul, funk and jazz.

In a career spanning over fifty years, Upchurch stays busy to this day. One of his more recent projects was as a member of a sort of Parliament/Funkadelic tribute band The Clinton Administration. I say “sort of” because the band roster do more than play tribute, they deliver instrumental versions of P-Funk songs that give the originals a run for the money. Started up by kebyboardist Robert Walter, only he and percussionist Chuck Prada have been the only permanent members of this funk collective (which moved on to covering Sly Stone songs for their next album), but for the first album One Nation Under a Re-Groove (2003), the roster list is an impressive list of in-the-pocket players both old school and new: Walter, Prada, Skerik (sax), DJ Logic (turntables, electronics), Clyde Stubblefield (drums), Melvin Gibbs (bass) and Upchurch.

While this record is already six years old, it comes to attention again as a track from it has been included in a new Magna Carta Records’ compilation album Jam On Guitars, a collection of some fine individual guitar performances in the broadly-defined “jam band” arena. To me, the standout track is The Clinton Administration’s “Flashlight” and Upchurch’s deeds on it.

“Flashlight” was #1 R&B hit in early 1977 for Parliament, and was unforgettable for its campy chants and Bernie Worrell’s synth-bass line that defied anyone to stay on the sidelines of a dancefloor (no one could). The Clinton Administration does the song justice as Skerik’s heavily echoplexed sax and DJ Logic’s effects give the song the party atmosphere that the vocals on the original gave, and Defunkt and Rollins Band bass player Gibbs locks down the low line like a champ. But the old pro Upchurch rises to the occassion, too. He digs deep into his mammoth bag of tricks and tosses out spacey wah-wah rhythms, jazzy octaves, and blues runs that have influenced generations of budding axe players who have listened to his handiwork on thousands of recordings covering half a century.

As I came to understand later on and am reminded of again with this rendition of “Flashlight,” Phil Upchurch could play second guitar to George Benson but he’s really second to no one else.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron

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