OLD SOUL – PART V: The Voices of East Harlem

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In a current landscape of rampant unemployment in the wake of a global economic meltdown, the BP oil spill marking the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, the re-ignition of widespread racial discrimination, and the Afghan war officially being declared the longest war in U.S. history, the future for mankind can seem bleak, at best. With such daunting, large-scale problems, and with the powers that be, blinded by greed, steering the world into economic, social and ecological collapse, it’s enough to make one feel helpless to make any change that can realistically shift the direction of humanity in a more positive direction for the long-term.

Voices of East Harlem Old Soul Part 5 Deb Cohen

That being said, it seems only fitting that this installment of Old Soul features a vocal ensemble from the early 70s that sang to remind people of the power of the human mind and spirit: The Voices of East Harlem. Their sound was a gospel take on modern R&B and soul. While traditional gospel praises the power of an intangible God, The Voices of East Harlem were a testament to the power of the people. While their music makes you want to get up dance, it also makes you want to get up and do something for your fellow citizens and for yourself. Their raw energy and positive message reminds us that little is more powerful than the human spirit, and with focus and determination, anything is possible.

The Voices of East Harlem were a vocal ensemble made-up of up to 20 members ranging in the ages of 12 to 21, and were originally a community choir that grew from an inner city action project in 1969. Their first album Right On Be Free was released on Elektra in 1970, and has the most pronounced gospel influence when compared to their later recordings. Right On Be Free keeps the energy pumping, and the righteous message flowing, throughout the record, and includes the songs “Simple Song of Freedom,” “Right on be free,” “Let it be Me,” and a soulful and funky version of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.” Their next release, Brothers & Sisters, was also released on Elektra in 1972 and is the hardest to find out of all of their album releases.

Their self-titled album, The Voices of East Harlem, was released in 1973 on Just Sunshine Records, contains songs produced by Curtis Mayfield and Leroy Hutson, and is an extremely solid and heartfelt soul record from beginning to end. This album also contains my favorite song of theirs, “Giving Love,” as well as some of their most well-known tracks, “Cashing In,” and “Wanted Dead or Alive.” Their last full-length album, Can You Feel It, was also released on Just Sunshine Records in 1974, contains arrangement and production from Leroy Hutson, and is another extremely solid and uplifting record.

While the sound of The Voices of East Harlem ranges from gospel to r&b, soul and funk, they consistently united their voices with skill, positive energy, and a genuineness that is rare. But you don’t have to take my word for it because below I have featured some videos of The Voices of East Harlem performing live at the Sing Sing maximum security prison in 1972. So without further adieu, watch, listen, get inspired and enjoy!

This first video is The Voices of East Harlem performing the title track from the album Right on Be Free.

Be sure to check back next time for more Old Soul.

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