Tomorrow is a big day in the US: Election Day. In honor of the season, listen to a deep funk cut that perfectly expresses the current spirit: 1970's "Express Yourself" by Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band. Its message remains timeless, and the garage-band quality of the recording adds to its charm and catchiness.
The band's roots trace back to Clarksdale, Mississippi, the birthplace of group founder Wright. The multifaceted singer and musician--he played guitar and piano--recruited the eight-piece band from Watts, Los Angeles, although they originally dubbed themselves the Soul Runners. Remarkably, their big break came through comedian Bill Cosby, who hired them to perform at some of his 1967 appearances. This exposure eventually led to a record deal with Warner Bros. in 1969, and their debut album Express Yourself was released the following year. The lead single proved to be a big hit for the now titled Charles Wright and the 103rd Street Rhythm Band--it peaked at number three on the R&B charts and number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100. The album fared better on the R&B charts than the pop, but has since become a classic in funk music.
Two elements make "Express Yourself" such a standout: first, the music. The complicated beat, along with an all-over-the-fretboard bass line, all but command the audience to dance. Horns add even more soul to the proceedings, while guitars subtly add the melody. The performance possesses an artful sloppiness, an intentional looseness that suggests a block party setting rather than a formal concert. One can imagine the band jamming at a house party, with leader Wright encouraging each musician to outdo one another while soloing. The effect may not be a smooth as a Motown, Philadelphia International, or Stax record, but its energy and improvisational feel make for an unforgettable tune.
Second, "Express Yourself" contains lyrics that address a variety of audiences. Coming off the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the lyrics can be seen as a cry for pride and courage: "You don't never need help from nobody else/ All you got to do now/ Express yourself!" However, the theme applies to virtually anyone who has felt marginalized due to any kind of prejudice, as Wright spits out lines such as "It's not what you look like, when you're doin' what you're doin'/ It's what you're doin' when you're doin' what you look like you're doin'!" In a roundabout, tongue-twisting manner, Wright suggests that appearance means less than action. "Some people have everything, and other people don't/ But everything don't mean a thing if it ain't the thing you want," Wright cautions, urging listeners "whatever you, do it good." Only by expressing yourself (and Wright perhaps intentionally omits any specifics) can you achieve what you really desire. His ecstatic scatting toward the end of the track adds a party-type atmosphere, keeping the tone playful yet positive.
Charles Wright and the 103rd Street Rhythm Band had a surprisingly short life--they disbanded in 1973--but their signature track has lingered in popular culture. The track has become a fixture in television ads, and hip hop artists have frequently sampled its irresistible beat. In fact, when younger generations first hear the thumping beat, they most likely think of NWA's 1988 take on "Express Yourself," a decidedly angrier, gritter version that nevertheless retains Wright's original vocals.
Throughout this election, Americans have been engaging in heated debate, whether through print, broadcast, or social media. Tomorrow, Election Day, presents the ultimate opportunity for expressing ourselves through voting. As we do our civic duty, put Charles Wright's classic song on and reflect on how far we've come--and how much further we need to travel.