The Gospel Of Funk

red express #4 ’78
Dennis Andrews – Bill Sharpe – Mark Jackson – Brian Wren – Jumbo Barker – Keith Winter

The trajectory of bands. It’s an interesting study.

Some flare up and die in a heartbeat, instantly forgotten. 

Some coalesce round early success and carry right on doing what they do best, as familiar with each other as pensioners sitting round a pub table. 

Some mutate constantly, with members coming and going until they morph into a musical franchise.

And some just live in the memory, where the good stuff hangs out. When you let it.

Cast your mind back to 1975. Or thereabouts. No-one’s really sure when it started, but that’s when Red Express first emerged, blinking, into the Cambridgeshire sunlight. 

No-one’s really sure who named the band, either. It might have been Bill’s idea, and it might have had something to do with socialism. Or trains. Didn’t matter: it stuck.

By then they’d already mixed and mingled in a fine cross-section of local bands. Plastic Dreamboat. CMU. Saffron Jack. Baby Whale. Early members came and went. Lorraine Odell sang, Bubs White had a stint on guitar, Malcolm Tagg-Randall and Raff Ravenscroft both held down the saxophone chair for a while. Roger Odell doubled on drums when Brian was otherwise engaged. The exact recruitment times are probably out there in one of those Rock Family tree things, if you know where to look. 

Who knows what really brings a band to life? Red Express poured sugar into the mix sometime in ’76, when Dennis Andrews, an ex US Air Force technician from Cook County, Chicago, fell out of Soul Committee, bringing with him a layer of Smokey Robinson soul. And his congas. As a band, they were listening to Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder, The Crusaders; now they were eager to spread the gospel of jazz funk.

The icing on the cake was the arrival of guitarist Keith Winter, perfectly balancing Mark Jackson’s rock sensibilities and Bill Sharpe’s virtuoso keys.

Gigs came rolling in. They played on a trailer at the first Strawberry Fair in Cambridge. They supported Elvis Costello at Trinity College.              

They shared the stage with Darts, Landscape, and the Humphrey Lyttleton Big Band.They were regulars at Cambridge’s Alma Brewery, and the Grad Pad, and Raffles, and the Great Northern Hotel. They did a Masque Ball at the Railway Hotel in Bishops Stortford, and the Triad Arts Centre. They even got dressed up (well, sort of) for several of Cambridge University’s May Balls.

Bill and Dennis brought in songs. 59th Street. Waiting for the Man. The unforgettable Wop It Down. Fairweather Girl, with its teasing piano intro and uplifting guitars. And their cover of Deodato’s cover of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which became a signature highlight of every gig.

Experience matters. Along the way, the material started to come together – into a sound that was melodic and funky, tight as only truly rehearsed bands can be, and loose enough to release freewheeling jams. 

Five years, or thereabouts, was a good run. Eventually Bill and Keith slipped away (via some serious fusion with Tracks) to a new kind of international funk with Shakatak. They’re still there, with Roger. 

And Red Express slipped into collective memory. 

Except they didn’t. Not exactly. The best bands don’t overstay their welcome, but nor do they disappear for good. In 2008, Red Express flew Dennis back from California for a packed reunion gig at the Boat Race in Cambridge. We loved it.

Then they did it again, in 2016, first at a village barn gig in North Herts, then at Saffron Walden Town Hall, with the reunited Tracks. We loved it again.

That’s when they started to think about recording, albeit a bit after the event. That process has been going on ever since, and the album ’59th Street’ is the result.

They’ve even got a band logo, nearly fifty years late.