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Roy Ayers: A Retrospective


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Vibraphonist, singer and producer Roy Ayers is a master of many musical styles and genres, from acid-jazz, jazz-funk to romantic ballads and dance tracks. While many of his contemporaries seemed to fail when they tried different sounds, Ayers always made sure a certain of musicality and identity was apparent in all of his work.

Ayers's first album was 1963's West Coast Vibes and it was issued on United Artists Records. Ayers spent the next few years as a valued member of Herbie Mann's late '60s band and appeared on Windows Opened, Glory of Love, The Inspiration I Feel, among others. Ayers signed to Atlantic Records in 1967 and released Virgo Vibes, Stoned Soul Picnic and Daddy Bug. Most of the Atlantic work was standard, post bop fare with Ayers doing straight covers of popular songs like "For Once in My Life" and "Wave." By 1969's Daddy Bug, Ayers's more emotional playing and idiosyncratic song choices appeared on tracks like Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Bonita" and Laura Nyro's "Emmie." Ayers released an album The Roy Ayers Quartet for Columbia that was only released in Japan.

In 1970 Ayers signed Polydor Records and released Ubiquity which had Ayers in a looser and a less formal atmosphere. Even at its loosest, Atlantic still had the accouterments of a staid record label. At the beginning Polydor was a young German label still trying to find itself. Ayers as an artist was doing the same thing. With its trippy cover, Ubiquity positioned Ayers as a young, professional artist who was yet to find himself. He was in great stead however. Being in his early 30s gave him access to his post bop underpinnings as well as being young enough to be open to new sounds as well as applying them. Tracks like "Pretty Brown Skin" and "The Fuzz" showed that Ayers embraced the psychedelic movement and sound as well as R&B and funk of the day. 1972's He's Coming was an even more confident and better produced blend of pan African sounds and his trademark mix of the earthy and ethereal. He's Coming found Ayers putting his melodic, personal stamp on warhorses like "I Don't Know How To Love Him," and "He's Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" and offering sharp, focused and well-recorded tracks like the title song," "He's a Superstar" and the poignant "Ain't Got Time." 1973's Red Black and Green followed and featured the powerful title track though the rest of the work wasn't quite as strong as its predecessor.

In 1973, Ayers produced, composed and arranged the Coffy soundtrack and it had songs like pounding "Coffy is the Color" and the beautiful "Coffy Baby" which featured Dee Dee Bridgewater on lead vocals. This album in particular provided the template of what was to follow. "Coffy Baby" in particular personified his melody rich, female vocal led tracks.

Later in that same year, Virgo Red followed and didn't work quite as well although "Love From the Sun" was an early classic and influential in the later acid jazz style.

By the early to mid '70s albums like Change Up the Groove, A Tear to a Smile, Mystic Voyage followed and the albums suggested a period of transition. Songs "Take All the Time You Need," "Time and Space" and "A Tear to a Smile" all have compelling melodies that are the best representations of the Ayers' changing sounds and production styles of the time.

1976's Everybody Loves the Sunshine did an even better job bridging Ayers's acid jazz style with a new commerciality. The title track, the spacey and heavy "Everybody Loves the Sunshine" earned its raves as a transcendent track and easily assessed a certain dreaminess often songs worked hard to attain.

While all of the songs weren't great on Everybody Loves the Sunshine, songs like Ayers's cover of Gino Vannelli's "Walking," "The Third Eye" and "The Golden Rod" gave fans examples of his cerebral and emotional style. Vibrations followed in the same year and featured more classics like "Searching," "Vibrations" and "Better Days."

Despite his hit making skills, Polydor didn't seem to promote his albums and oddly enough, Ayers's made little appearances on the shows of the day. Ayers did appear on Soul Train a few times during this era and in early 1977 and promoted both Everybody Loves the Sunshine and Vibrations, performed "Searching" and "Everybody Loves the Sunshine" and did an interview with Don Cornelius and introduced his group Ubiquity as a separate recording unit.

By 1977, Ayers was a commercial success and had merged towards R&B rather than pure jazz. 1977's Lifeline contained one of Ayers's biggest hits, "Running Away" which put Ayers high on the disco and R&B charts. The 12-inch version of "Running Away" featured one Ayers's best vibraphone solos. During this time, all of his albums (except Ubiquity and Coffy) were credited to Roy Ayers Ubiquity. 1977's Lifeline would be the last album to have that name.

In the late '70s Ayers started to produce other projects. His acts RAMP and Ubiquity had deals with ABC and Elektra respectively and both of their efforts, RAMP's Come Into the Knowledge and Roy Ayers Presents Ubiquity became genre classics. As for Ayers, he continued to release albums under his name at a sometimes dizzying pace. While titles like Let's Do It, Love Fantasy, Fever and two albums with Wayne Henderson weren't big sellers, Ayers had a comfortable fan base and segued into being a romantic song attraction.

Songs like "Kiss," "Sigh (And Feel the Vibration)," "Simple and Sweet" and "Is It Too Late To Try" all became essential Ayers tracks. To be honest the jazz quotient was negligible but Ayers's craft put the work in rarefied air. 1978 You Send Me featured a grand and romantic reworking of the Sam Cooke classic as well. 1979's No Stranger to Love was even better. Not only did it include the late disco classic, "Don't Stop the Feeling" it also included the great "No Stranger to Love/Want You."

By the late '70s Ayers's work has attained an instantly recognizable sound that featured Ayers's endearing, jazzy croon, his sonorous and emotional vibraphone playing and female vocalists like the aforementioned Dee Dee Bridgewater, Chicas, Carla Vaughn, Sylvia Cox and among others. The years also found Ayers's broadening his sound and often playing the piano, ARP, the Minimoog and the Oberheim. Throughout this era Ayers's production and songs were augmented by players, writers and arrangers like Edwin Birdsong and William Allen.

In 1980 Ayers struck up a successful partnership with Fela Kuti and issued, Music of Many Colors, an album that bridged the African and American cultures and brought Ayers's music an earthiness it hadn't had since the early '70s. Ayers's 1981 album Africa Centre of the World was no doubt informed by this work and featured Ayers's classic, "The River Niger."

By 1980 Ayers was well aware of the dichotomy between his sometimes fatuous work to music of more sociological and musical importance, Ayers said the following in a 1980 interview with Routes Magazine "Commercialism has kept me from saying more than I have said. The system pacifies you. I don't get too revolutionary because of the possibility of alienating radio stations."

In 1980 Ayers started a small label Uno Melodic and issued albums and singles from artists such as Ethel Beatty, the Eighties Ladies, Rick Holmes and Sylvia Striplin. Ayers would later issue two albums on the label under his own name, Silver Vibrations and Lots of Love and the track "DC City" became a radio favorite.

1982's Feelin' Good balanced stomping post disco of "Turn Me Loose," "Our Time is Coming" with gentle ballads like "Let's Stay Together," and a brilliant cover of the standard "Stairway to the Stars." Feelin Good was Ayers's last album for Polydor Records and ended their ten-year relationship.

In 1984 Ayers returned to major labels, signed to CBS and released In the Dark and featured the techo-based title track and the pretty "I Can't Help It." Stanley Clarke co-produced the LP. 1985's Hot did fare better on the charts and the single "Hot" received a video and Columbia seemed to promote this more. The James Mtume produced "Programmed For Love" and "For You" soon joined the list of Ayers's romantic classics.

1987's I'm The One For Your Love Tonight fared better artistically though not commercially. The album was filled with immediate radio favorites like "Blue Summer," "Don't You Ever Turn Away" as well as a cover of the Isley Brothers "I Can't Let Go."

After Ayers left CBS he signed with the small Georgia label Ichiban for 1989's Wake Up. For the most part, Ayers went about his business as usual and soft and hypnotic songs like "Sweet Talk" and "Midnight After Dark" were all but custom made for late '80s quiet storm radio playlists.

By the '90s Ayers did albums like Nasté and an album with Rick James but his output slowed as he became more of a live attraction. In 2001 Ayers paired with the popular Masters at Work for a remake of "Our Time is Coming." 2004's Mahogany Vibe found Ayers updating a few classics and collaborating with artists such as Betty Wright and Erykah Badu.

During this era, Ayers had many compilations issued under his name, including 1995's Evolution: The Roy Ayers Anthology and the even better 2003's Destination Motherland: The Roy Ayers Anthology. Fans of Ayers were elated with the Virgin Ubiquity I and Virgin Ubiquity II that issued unreleased work from 1976-1981 and the CD's gave a peak into Ayers's creative process.

In 2015 Raven Records in Australia did a compilation that featured complete albums You Send Me, Fever and Love Fantasy as well as classics like "Keep Walking" and "No Deposit, No Return '' from his first album with Wayne Henderson.

Ayers continues to be a vital and beyond artist and in 2018 Ayers was featured on NPR's Tiny Desk concert series. Regardless of the genre or the production style, Ayers's gift with melodies is always apparent and he remains one of music's most influential acts.

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