Gimme Five: Bill Summers on "God Make Me Funky," "Watermelon Man," others

On this special edition of Something Else! Reviews’ One Track Mind, we hand the reins over to percussionist Bill Summers. As he and the rest of the Headhunters are set for the June 14 release of Platinum — a multi-faceted new release that blends jazz, funk, hip hop and Afro-Cuban sounds — Summers remembers a previous Headhunters reunion, then looks back on a classic R&B groove that will still “sno-nuff make you wanna move.” Find out which track he simply describes as “nasty” on the new Headhunters recording, then go inside the sessions as the Headhunters completely reimagine a classic Herbie Hancock side.

Talk about summer fun …

“WATERMELON MAN,” with Herbie Hancock (HEAD HUNTERS, 1973): Hancock assembled a new band with only Bennie Maupin remaining from his previous sextet for this record, and the Headhunters were born. Originally part of the pianist’s first solo recording, “Watermelon Man” was the only cover among the four tracks on Head Hunters. Notable for Summers’ inventive percussion work, including the use of a bottle that imitated the hindewho instrument used by the Mbuti pygmies of northeastern Zaire.

Summers: There’s multiple parts on there, actually five parts stacked on top of each other. One part, I learned from a group of people in Congo, who use this one-note cane flute. It just produces one note; the rest of it is the voice. On the main part, I didn’t have a pipe that was pitched in the right key, so I took a bottle and filled it up with water until it was a middle C. That’s a technique I learned from the pygmies.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Bill Summers discusses the Headhunters' 'Platinum' reunion project, classic sides with Herbie Hancock, and restarting Los Hombres Calientes.]

”GOD MAKE ME FUNKY,” the Headhunters (SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST, 1975): Hancock eventually left, taking a more commercial tack, even as the Headhunters drilled down into an intense brand of space-funk. “God Make Me Funky” from their first Hancock-less project would become the band’s signature track, sampled by the Fugees, Eric B and Rakim, Biz Markie, and Nas, among many others, and covered by Jamiroquai.

Summers: That was one of the tunes that was sampled so much. (Original bassist) Paul Jackson had a lot to do with that, along with the percussion and the drums. That was definitely something people were biting on in the early days of rap — and that continues.

“D-FUNK,” the Headhunters (PLATINUM, 2011): A guest-packed track off the Headhunters new release, “D-Funk” is appropriately subtitled “Funk With Us.” Guests includes Snoop Dogg, George Clinton, Killah Priest, Cynthia Layne and Jaecyn Bayne. Together, they created a track that is loud and bawdy, very modern.

Summers: If you listen to the record, you hear all of these snippets between the tunes, as Michael and I comment on the songs and the album. We were giving people insight into what was going on behind the scenes. At the end of that one, you heard somebody said ‘Yeah, that’s funky, man.’ When you think about that tune, well, there it is. That’s just nasty!

”SHIFTLESS SHUFFLE,” with Herbie Hancock (MR. HANDS, 1980): A largely overlooked recording at the time, as Herbie Hancock experimented with more modern electronics. (Mr. Hands included his first experiments with the then-new Apple 2.) Yet there are several standout moments to be found, not least of which is “Shiftless Shuffle.” All five members of the 1973 Headhunters group — including original drummer Harvey Mason — reconvene on this live-sounding track, which boasts a memorably frenetic complexity.

Summers: We would get together and jam, then put it together that way. It was composed after we had some interaction. We’d jam, then go to rehearsal and create a song around that idea.

”CALL IT WHAT YOU WANT,” Bill Summers (CALL IT WHAT YOU WANT, 1981): Summers had an R&B hit with this old-school funk single, featuring a groove that “sno-nuff makes you wanna move.” “Call It What You Want,” which went to No. 16, was recorded by a group called Summers Heat that also included Claytoven Richardson — later an in-demand sessions backup singer who appeared on a dozens of recordings, including Kenny G’s breakout smooth-jazz hit Duotones.

Summers: They still play it on the radio. (Laughs) Thank God I made it past being the point that that record was shelved. R&B doesn’t have a long shelf life. After five or six months, it’s over — unless you become a classic. That’s become something of a cult classic. If I go on YouTube and put in ‘Bill Summers,’ a lot of it is that Summers Heat stuff. I hear it every once in a while and I really enjoy it. I enjoy the checks, too!

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.