Defining ‘Funky’: “Fever”, version by Sam Butera, 1958.
What does it mean?
The word is defined by Dictionary.com as follows: “Of or relating to music that has an earthy quality reminiscent of the blues.”
Fine, but that’s only the secondary definition. The primary one (though a sense obviously lost from common usage) is Smelly. Wha? Again according to Dictionary.com this derives from an ‘Old French’ dialectal, Funquer (pronounced Foohnkay) – to give off smoke – as in cigar smoke, hence ‘pungent’, ‘earthy’.
To my mind, this ‘earthy’ sense of ‘Funky’ is exemplified nowhere better than in the following piece of music: “Fever”, played by Sam Butera, 1958. I find the ‘Old French’ angle oddly apt here: This little beauty is SMOKIN’… Click to listen: Fever by Sam Butera
I first heard this wickedly off-beat version of this famous song on a CD entitled “Bachelor Pad Royale”, just one in the excellent “Ultra Lounge” compilation series by Brad Benedict (still widely available, I can’t recommend them too highly). Penned in 1956 by Eddie Cooley and John Davenport (aka Otis Blackwell), “Fever” was initially a hit for one Little Willie John, though was made legendary by Peggy Lee’s 1958 version. Unless you’ve been living on Pluto, you’ll have heard it. Plutonians, please click here for a snippet. Fever Peggy Lee
I love Peggy Lee’s version, but the contrast to it presented by Butera’s is a lesson in pure Funk: Dictionary.com provides some excellent historical background to the word ‘Funky’ in the context of jazz music, explained in a 1959 issue of Jazz Scene as “literally ‘smelly’, i.e. symbolizing the return from the upper atmosphere to the physical, down-to-earth reality.” Also cited is Linguist Geneva Smitherman’s work, Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America, where she defines’Funky’ as relating to “down-to-earth soulfully expressed sounds; by extension [related to] the real nitty-gritty or fundamental essence of life, soul to the max.”
Clearly, the resonant theme here is the ‘down-to-earth’, and that’s what Sam Butera’s ‘Fever’ embodies: Where Peggy Lee’s tone is ethereal, Butera’s is down and dirty, gutsy, ballsy. This contrast between Lee and Butera recalls to my mind the famous ‘nutshell’ contrast between the styles of dance-gods Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly: Astaire dances from the waist up, Gene Kelly from the waist down. Where Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’ is a finger-snapping, husky smolder-fest, Sam Butera’s is a snaking hip-swiveller. Butera’s is from the waist down.
Sam Butera was born in New Orleans in 1927, where he had the saxophone grafted to his person from age 7. By the age of 18 he was listed by Look magazine as one of America’s top up and coming jazzmen. He played with such iconic band leaders as Tommy Dorsey and Louie Prima to name a few, also with his own band, The Witnesses. A stellar player and composer, his musical influence to date has been enormous, his arrangements having been covered by such greats as David Lee Roth and Brian Setzer, his vocal style being considered a key influence on another New Orleans native by the name of Harry Connick, Jr.
Sam Butera wowed audiences and fellow musicians his whole life. An Alzheimer’s sufferer, he passed away in hospital in Las Vegas only this last June, aged 81. The Great Jazz Club in the Sky will be a funkier place for it.
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