if Upchurch/Tennyson is your introduction to the musical universe
of Phil Upchurch, it’s by no means the first time you’ve ever heard
this multi-talented and multi-musical guitarist and bassist.
many years, there was hardly a record that came out of Chicago that
wasn’t stamped with the sound of Phil Upchurch. Odell Brown, Willie
Dixon, Richard Evans, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B.
King, Albert King, Ramsey Lewis, Bo Diddley, Jimmy Reed, Otis Rush, the
Staple Singers, the Soulful Strings and Muddy Waters have all benefited
from “the Chicago sound” of Phil Upchurch.
started out as a session man for Chicago’s Vee Jay label in the
mid-1950s and managed to score a chart hit under his own name with
1960’s “You Can’t Sit Down.” (revived later by sax man and
former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who performed Upchurch’s song at
his 1993 inauguration). Upchurch next recorded two albums (You
Can’t Sit Down and Twist) for the United Artists label,
before becoming the house guitarist/bassist for the Argo/Cadet label –
Chicago’s primary source for jazz and blues in the 1960s.
Upchurch album appeared on the Milestone label in 1967 (Feelin’
Blue), before the guitarist/bassist waxed two of his own sides for
the Cadet label in 1969 (featuring the prominent contributions of Donnie
Hathaway). But, by this point, Phil Upchurch’s talents were in such
high demand, that he often traveled to New York City and Los Angeles to
add his talents to other high-profile gigs.
he waxed the first of two fine and funky dates for the outré-hip Blue
Thumb Label: 1972’s exploratory Darkness,
Darkness and 1973’s funky Lovin’ Feeling. These remain,
perhaps, the finest showcases for the Phil Upchurch sound.
Then, superstar guitarist George Benson was passing through Chicago on tour in 1974. Phil and George first met in the early sixties while playing on the same bill in Washington, DC. Phil was with Dee Clark and George was with Jack McDuff’s group, which played a cover of Upchurch’s “You Can’t Sit Down.” George later found out it was Phil’s tune and they instantly became musical soulmates. The two guitarists stayed in touch and during George’s 1974 visit, Benson asked Upchurch to contribute something to his next album.
The album, Bad Benson (CTI), featured Phil’s tunes "Full Compass" and "No Sooner Said Than Done" plus an enlightening arrangement of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” Producer Creed Taylor was impressed enough to offer Phil Upchurch his own recording opportunity for CTI Records.
Upchurch insisted on featuring the vocal talents of Tennyson Stephens,
the keyboard player who’d replaced Donny Hathaway in Upchurch’s band
for the 1973 Blue Thumb album, Lovin’ Feeling.
this occasion, Upchurch wanted to record a mostly R&B album, which,
of course, was good by producer Creed Taylor. Taylor rightly plotted it
out on his soul-jazz subsidiary, Kudu Records, and called the record Upchurch/Tennyson,
even though the surnames of both leaders cleverly spelled “us” when
stacked vertically – as it was on the back cover of the original
to Upchurch, “it’s not a guitar feature album.” And, indeed, it is
not. Despite the fact that Tennyson Stephens is a fine keyboard player,
he is given the lion’s share of solo spots featuring his talents as a
vocalist (on five of the nine tracks). Upchurch simply does what he does
best here: he supports the main man.
main man, Tennyson Stephens, possesses a rich, soulful voice with many
of the warm, sensual qualities of the day’s most popular male vocal
stylists, including Billy Paul, Bill Withers and Jerry Butler (whose
band Stephens had once played in). Tennyson is featured on five of the
album’s nine tracks, including his own “In Common” and the
album’s single, Ralph MacDonald and William Salter’s “You Got
sounds best on the suggestive, erotic funk of “Don’t I Know You?,”
charms the snake of Upchurch’s most sinewy playing with the acid-jazz
goodie, “Evil,” and delivers an uptown take on Ralph
MacDonald/William Salter’s great “I Wanted It Too” – which
Roberta Flack had just recorded with Bob James and Ralph MacDonald for
her hit album Feel Like Makin’ Love (Atlantic). Bob James would
later produce a superlative version of “I Wanted It Too” for Richard
Tee’s 1978 solo debut, Strokin' (Tappan Zee).
rest of the record favors the instrumental side of Upchurch’s talents.
In the album’s best-known tune, a cover of Rufus And Chaka Khan’s
1974 hit “Tell Me Something Good,” Upchurch shares frontline duties
with David Sanborn (Upchurch would go onto record with Ms. Khan for the
singer’s 1978 solo debut, “Chaka,” and reunite with Sanborn for
the sax player’s 1996 disc Songs From The Night Before).
album’s jazziest tracks find Upchurch sharing the spotlight with CTI
house pianist and arranger, Bob James – who was shortly due to find
solo success of his own.
Maria,” another of one of the “jazzed-up” classics exclusive to
Creed Taylor productions, features one of Bob James’s most delicate
arrangements. The vocalists carry the melody, while Upchurch provides an
intoxicating rhythmic groove on acoustic guitar, which beautifully
highlights the arranger’s signature solo on electric piano.
the Bob James original, “South Side Morning,” is a little known song
with a sound the composer would popularize as his own on later Tappan
Gold” is from the pen of legendary session man, arranger and former
Upchurch associate from the Chicago days, Charles Stepney. Upchurch
first recorded the tune on his 1969 Cadet album Upchurch and
still performs it to this day (a recent version appears on Upchurch’s
1999 CD, Rhapsody & Blues). Here, Upchurch shares melody
chores with Bob James (on synthesizer), and scores his boldest moment on
the entire disc with his vibrant, voluptuous solo.
the two leaders returned to active studio work, playing together only
occasionally, as on Natalie Cole’s Unpredictable (1977).
Throughout the 1970s, Upchurch kept a busy recording and touring schedule with George Benson and can be heard on Benson’s two biggest hits, Breezin' (1976) and Weekend In L.A. (1977). He eventually left Chicago for California and became a fixture in the studios, recording with Whitney Houston, Minnie Ripperton, Julio Iglesias, Michael Jackson, The Jacksons, Sheena Easton, Quincy Jones, Earl Klugh, Najee, Stanley Turrentine, Cannonball Adderley, Marvin Gaye, Jimmy Smith and many, many others. His next record, Phil Upchurch (Marlin), didn’t appear until 1978. With one side produced by guitarist John Tropea and the other side produced by Benson, the record was a return to form of the soulful guitar groove he’d laid down prior to Upchurch/Tennyson.
Today, Upchurch records as much as ever (for the JAM, Pro Arte, Ichiban, Ridgetop and Go Jazz labels), performing frequently throughout the world with his own band, with Red Holloway’s combo and, often, as part of organ legend Jimmy Smith’s group. After doing more studio work in the seventies, Tennyson Stephens relocated to Honolulu, where he has become a popular fixture on the local club circuit and produces, arranges and plays on a variety of Hawaiian jazz records.
But for a brief moment in 1974, these two souls converged for Upchurch/Tennyson, a soulful reflection of jazz and a jazzy meditation on soul – and, perhaps, its two leaders most enduring work.