50 Years Old: Cold Blood’s Magnificent ‘Sisyphus’
1970 was a special year. Incredible music was everywhere, and so many of those amazing albums are turning 50 this year. My fraternity brother in the next room, Jim Stine of blessed memory, had a magnificent stereo. If he was listening to music, I was listening to music, too! And that is not a complaint. Jim knew what was up. He blasted such 1970 releases as Blows Against the Empire and Moondance through the walls. Of course, I always ended up IN his room.
Another one of those now 50-year-olds he introduced us to was the sophomore effort from San Francisco’s Cold Blood: Sisyphus. They were from the funky non-psychedelic side of town, and their eponymous debut the year before featured their superb takes on Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” and Sam and Dave’s “You Got Me Hummin’” in addition to fine originals. But Sisyphus came rushing at us like a tsunami.
Cold Blood at the time of this recording were: Rod Ellicott, bass, percussion; Larry Field, guitar; Mic Gillette, trombone, trumpet, fluegelhorn; Danny Hull, tenor sax, flute; Larry Jonutz, trumpet, trombone; Raul Matute, organ, piano; Sandy McKee, drums, vocals, percussion; and Lydia Pense, vocals. Chepito Areas (Santana) played congas and timbales on “Shop Talk > Funky On My Back.” The Pointer Sisters — Bonnie, June, and Anita — sang background vocals on “Your Good Thing.”
Sisyphus was produced for Fillmore Corporation by Fred Catero and Cold Blood and appeared on San Francisco Records, a subsidiary of Atlantic Recording Corporation.
“Shop Talk” was simply unlike anything from the band’s debut album, a true horn-driven large band effort recalling the remarkable albums in recent years from Blood, Sweat and Tears, Chicago, and Ten Wheel Drive. It enters with guitar, drums, and rumbling bass before the horns kick in. Right out of the gate, Danny Hull takes a fine tenor sax solo full of raw emotion. When the horns blow, they blow in deliciously tight harmony. The song undulates, notably aided by Chepito Areas’ addition on timbales. Larry Field settles in for a bunch of that chunky funky James Brown guitar. Rod Ellicott has a quick bass feature before the horns roar back in, and, for the first time, Raul Matute’s organ stands out. Larry Jonutz (trumpet) and Mic Gillette (trombone) battle back and forth before Sandy McKee takes a quick drum solo. Finally, Hunt hits this massive stinging sustained note on guitar with a big finish as the horns wind the song down.
“Shop Talk” ends — or “Funky On My Back” begins — with gong and percussion as delicate piano emerges, backed by bass. Hull’s flute dictates the slower but dynamic feel, so shimmering, so slinky, Areas again giving this a gorgeous Latin feel. And then Lydia Pense makes her first entrance on the album. Her voice is at once powerful and soothing, totally captivating. She trades lyrics with drummer McKee, whose voices offers a good balance. Piano, timbales, bass, and drums are the focus here with fine horn accents as they settle in with numerous incantations of “LISTEN LISTEN LISTEN LISTEN LISTEN.”
“You Got Me Hummin’” from the band’s debut was written by David Porter and Isaac Hayes, and the songwriting team also provided “Your Good Thing (Is About to End),” first recorded in 1966 by Mable John and then as a hit by Lou Rawls in 1969. This one is straight-up gospel blues, driven by Matute’s slow churchy piano. The guitar riff is simple, and the backing vocals for the song are perfectly rendered by Bonnie, June, and Anita of The Pointer Sisters.
The tempo shoots back up on “Understanding,” a soul/R&B call-and-response rave-up with Pense and the male chorus (McKee and others). Hunt again works that James Brown guitar, Matute on organ and great horn accents. Pense’s power is again on display here, a real blues belter with a smooth edge. Ellicott’s bass lines on this and every track are worth an listen through the album alone. Hull has a choppy tenor solo near the end matching the tempo.
If there is one track unlike the others, it would be “I Can’t Stay.” This is a really good rocker, and it would be better, but McKee is the vocalist, and his is simply not a lead voice. Also, no horns. That said, Hunt shreds a lot more on guitar, which is a very good thing.
Powerful funk in the form of “Too Many People” closes the album (all tunes except “Your Good Thing” are originals). Soul and R&B (is there a dividing line?) are one more time on glorious display here. Tenor and trumpet dance, then organ and guitar step up.
Sisyphus had on hell of a time with that rock. You won’t have nearly as much trouble finding this one. In fact, listen with this Spotify link or here on YouTube: