This week, Vinyl Me, Please reissued Soul Sugar, a funky, mostly covers album by blues-jazz organist Jimmy McGriff. You can grab the album here. Below, you can read a background on McGriff, and how he resisted the jazz label and made the funkiest organ music you’ve ever heard.
Jimmy McGriff, though he performed for Blue Note during his career, never wanted to be considered a jazz artist. He always considered himself a blues player who somehow got looped into jazz circles, an artist making the organ cry like Muddy made his guitar, which probably explains why his music sounded more like the M.G.’s than Miles’ Quartet. Born in 1936, and spending two years as a cop before entering Julliard to study the orgran, McGriff’s first big break came when a trio he was leading was offered the opportunity to cover an instrumental of Ray Charles’ “I’ve Got A Woman,” which was a massive hit at the time. McGriff’s version is light, almost off the rails, and showcases the fatback groove that McGriff would eventually perfect on later albums.
After “I’ve Got A Woman” became a modest hit, McGriff was brought in to record seven LPs for Sue Records, including a delightfully fun Christmas album called Christmas With McGriff.
McGriff would record for Solid State, Blue Note, Groove Merchant and others between 1966 and 1976, at various points claiming he was going to retire from the organ all together. But in 1970, he entered the studio at Capitol to cut what is considered his funkiest — and even his best — album: Soul Sugar.
Soul Sugar, with its vaguely lascivious cover, opens with a take of Andy Kim’s “Sugar Sugar,” a saccharine pop song that doesn’t have much approaching a “groove.” McGriff’s version recasts the song as a soul jazz blast that’s light as a feather. Elsewhere, McGriff turns Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” into a chunky thumper, and Aretha Franklin’s underrated “Spirit in the Dark” into a church service. Sly Stone’s “You’re The One” becomes music fit for a travelogue.
The covers are so distinct — you’d be hard pressed to know for sure some are even covers — that they blend in well with the four originals included here. “Dig On It” and “Bug Out” are hazy and swaying funk workouts heavy on horns and McGriff’s wandering hands. “The Now Thing” is heavy on the declarative sax lines and horn blasts, while also allowing a lot of empty space for McGriff’s clear Hammond organ to take flight. “New Volume,” meanwhile, rides a bossa nova groove, sounding like smoke floating out of a hookah in a nightclub in New York in 1970.
Soul Sugar would be the last album McGriff cut with Capitol. He recorded two more albums for Blue Note (Black Pearl, a live album, is worth seeking out), and then cut more than 30 albums between 1970 and his death in 2008 (including 11 for Groove Merchant and 15 for Milestone). None of them are easily classifiable — he leans more blues here, more funk here, more jazz there — but all of them are of a piece with his varied catalog. There were plenty of sensational organists working in the ’60s, but few of them were funkier than Jimmy McGriff.
Andrew Winistorfer is Vinyl Me, Please’s Classics and Country Director, and an editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need In Your Collection and The Best Record Stores In The United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 20 VMP releases, and co-produced Nat Turner Rebellion's Laugh to Keep From Crying. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.