Monday, August 7, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #185 - The 24-Carat Black – Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth (Stax/Enterprise, 1973)

One thing that came with the territory of having been an avid record collector all my life was the benefit of an education in history through music. Buying and absorbing as much music as possible, from Beethoven to Cannibal Corpse, for over two decades now has given me insight into things like politics, race relations, pop culture and many other facets of history in a way that years of sitting in a classroom never could. By simply hearing, say, Bruce Springsteen or Marvin Gaye sing their own words regarding American socioeconomic or political discourse, I got more of a sense of how historical events may have affected the average American at the time. Such was the case with the phenomenal Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth, the sole record by obscure Stax Records alumni group the 24-Carat Black.

I first came upon this record in my early to mid-20s at a record store I working at, CDs-4-Change. I started working there long before the current vinyl boom, and CDs were still dominating physical media sales. So, as the name of the store suggests, our inventory was mostly CDs and not a whole lot of vinyl. But people would often come in and sell us theirs or their parents’ record collections that they had sitting around. And since nobody really expected much for vintage vinyl at the time, we bought everything that came through the door, usually for a steal. I miss these days a lot because this was the time when I could inexpensively pad my collection with great stuff. On once such occasion, I came across Ghetto in a box with, if I’m remembering correctly, nothing particularly special: Peggy Lee, Carpenters, Gene Pitney, the 5th Dimension, the occasional Elvis comp and maybe a Kansas record or two… not much to get excited about. But then there was this. Before I’d even heard a single note, I was immediately struck by it. The cover art, the album title… all of it. Even the group’s name, “24-Carat Black,” sounded important.

In the early 1970s, conservatory-trained violinist and former Motown strings arranger Dale Warren was hired by Stax to orchestrate Isaac Hayes’ early records, including the highly revered Hot Buttered Soul. Around this time, he befriended the unknown Cincinnati, Ohio group The Ditalians. Warren took the young group under his wing and proceeded to work in the studio with them where they recorded over thirty tracks. Culled from these sessions are the tracks that would eventually become the first and only official 24-Carat Black album, Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth. Of the rest of the sessions, only a handful survived and were finally released in 2009 by the Numero label as an unofficial second album. But back to the album at hand.

Ghetto is a concept album about the struggle of inner city life in 1970s America. Kicking off with “In the Ghetto,” a largely spoken piano ballad that pleads with “our so-called leaders” to let the poor’s voice be heard, the tone is set for what is to come. “Poverty’s Paradise” is a 12-minute-plus epic that tries to make sense of a world in which a seemingly endless expanse of people goes to bed hungry. The female lead, Princess Hearn, delivers her vocals with such forlorn intensity, focusing so much more on the words than the performance, that at one point you can her voice crack. This part always gives me chills. These longer, more conscientious opuses like the aforementioned “Poverty’s Paradise” or the 10-minute “Mother’s Day” are where the 14-piece group really shine, dramatizing the ideological and psychological turmoil that was life in the ghetto. Misfortune’s Wealth is not all bleak and hopeless though. In between songs of destitution and social tumult are some of the funkiest instrumentals ever committed to wax. These tracks serve to provide a light-hearted optimism to the otherwise bleak outlook of the record, much like a Norman Lear TV show.

Though it initially sold poorly, Ghetto has become something of a sought-after item among record collectors over the years. Many of the tracks here may be somewhat familiar to you already, having been extensively sampled by modern hip hop giants like Dr. Dre, Eric B. and Jay-Z to name a few.

When I first decided to write about this album, I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to say about it. And as I spent more time with the album over these past few weeks in preparation for this article, I realized I had no idea what I wanted to say. I just knew that I loved it and I wanted other people to love it. It didn’t occur to me until I sat down to write this that, having unearthed this record way back when, I got yet another history lesson from my record collection. Ghetto is essentially a timepiece, directly representing the parallels of racial and economic inequality of its time and ever since.

-         Jonathan Eagle

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