Funk never goes out of style, and no song proves that notion better than "I Can Understand It" by New Birth. Originally written by Bobby Womack, "I Can Understand It" transforms into a James Brown-esque soul workout, and while it performed well on the R&B and pop charts in 1973, it is inexplicably rarely played on the radio today.
According to New Birth's website, the group was the brainchild of Vernon Bullock, a songwriter responsible for classics such as "If I Can Build My Whole World Around You" by Marvin Gaye and Tami Terrell as well as "What Does It Take to Win Your Love" by Junior Walker and the All-Stars. Bullock wanted to form a group that would function as a band but also contain standalone acts. Bullock approached his boss and former Motown songwriter/producer Harvey Fuqua with the idea; the two subsequently traveled to Louisville, Kentucky to start a production company and audition new acts. While they signed groups separately, they would still be under the "New Birth" umbrella.
The first version of "New Birth" consisted of four acts: the Nite-Liters (who would score a hit with "K-Gee," later covered by MFSB for the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack); the Now Sound; the Mint Juleps; and singer Alan Frey. None of these artists experienced significant success separately, but found new life through the addition of three performers: singing brothers Melvin and Leslie Wilson as well as Ann Bogan, all hailing from Detroit. Initially Fuqua created a trio called Love Peace and Happiness; while they released two albums, they experienced much more success as members of the supergroup New Birth. This act had expanded, now including Londee Wiggins, Alan Frey, Tony Churchill, Austin Landers, Leroy Taylor, Robert Jackson, Butch McDonald, Robyn Russell, Bobby Downes, James Baker and Charlie Herndon. The revamped New Birth then recorded its fourth album, 1973's Birth Day, and finally achieved success with the single "I Can Understand It." Their funked-up take on Womack's track reached number five on the R&B charts ad peaked at number 35 on the Hot 100.
Leslie Wilson's lead vocals echo Womack's gritty delivery, but are steeped in gospel in terms of passion and energy. When he stretches out the word "I," one can visualize his struggle in understanding his complicated relationship. "I know sometimes that you wanna get away from home / But I get upset when you stay too long / Oh, your love, baby, your love / How will I ever understand it?" he cries. He admits that he has "no choice about the situation" and lives in fear that she will one day leave him. Despite this uncertainty, the narrator still attempts to control the relationship: "I get a job and I work all the time / When I get home you better lay it on the line / Your love, baby, your love," Wilson virtually yells. He even injects himself into Womack's original lyrics, crying out "Don't put down a man with the better hand / Old Les trying to do the very best he can."
Even though "I Can Understand It" addresses the timeworn theme of control in a relationship, it also serves as a rousing jam. The piercing horns, frantic rhythm guitar, throbbing bass line, pounding drums, and Latin-tinged percussion demands listeners to dance. Leslie Wilson clearly envisioned the track to be New Birth's concert staple, as he enthusiastically implores the audience to "get on down" and "do it on the good foot" (an obvious nod to James Brown) while also asking the audience to understand and sympathize with the narrator's plight. "Can I say it?" he chants, seeking the crowd's affirmation. At the same time, the simplicity of the lyrics encourage the live audience to engage in call and response, thus demanding their participation in the performance. The backing track demonstrates that New Birth's members were seasoned musicians as precise as those in Brown's band.
Despite their success, New Birth disbanded just six years after "I Can Understand It." However, the Wilson brothers reformed the group in the mid-nineties, and still tour today. While New Birth may not be instantly recognizable as other funk bands, their energy and consummate musicianship remain relevant and timeless.