“In the early to mid-60s, I was a young curious-minded little guy wanting to know about music mostly,” veteran funk and jazz guitarist extraordinaire Blackbyrd McKnight tells me. “I listened to a lot of music my parents were listening to and watched a lot of TV.”
He continues, “I remember watching Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, to name a couple. Those two at the time stood out to me. Bo has a sound that is unrivaled in feel. I also watched a lot of country music shows back then. Their shiny guitars really tickled my fancy, and yes, they could play the shit out of those guitars. I watched a load of music shows and saw everybody that was anybody. The music was great, and I loved all the genres, such as R&B, pop, jazz, etc.; they all resonated with me.”
If you’ve listened to any of McKnight’s work with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Parliament Funkadelic, or the Red Hot Chili Peppers, to be sure, those early influences check out. And from those early childhood musings blossomed a career that’s spanned over 50 years.
Indeed, few players possess the soulful chops that McKnight does. What’s more, even fewer can parlay such innovations into hyper-slick tones and shuttering solos to remember. And if his body of work isn’t enough, don’t forget that McKnight is also a player that’s capably followed the likes of Eddie Hazel and Hillel Slovack without missing a beat. Impressive, indeed.
Taking a moment to plot his next musical move, Blackbyrd McKnight dialed in with ClassicRockHistory.com to recount the 10 albums that changed his life.
# 10 – Jimi Hendrix – Band of Gypsys
In the mid to late-60s, music started to change, and the word “psychedelic” came into play. I was enjoying rock and the new psychedelic era, especially these three albums: Are You Experienced, Axis: Bold as Love, and Electric Ladyland from the band called Jimi Hendrix Experience. Those albums absolutely blew my mind. After these three monumental albums, we were all waiting for the next big thing to come from this artist.
And boy, did it ever come with the Jimi Hendrix album Band of Gypsys! This album created a shift that took place in the music world. Band of Gypsys has a more funk-rock style than the previous three albums, with the lineup of musicians consisting of Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Miles, and Billy Cox. It was a brand-new approach to a style that paved the way for funkier things to come and drew a much wider audience than ever before. I stayed up countless hours dissecting every part, every instrument, and just enjoying this new phenomenon that I had never heard before.
# 9 – Shuggie Otis – Freedom Flight
I met Shuggie Otis while attending junior high school. The guitar was brand new to me. I was hungry and sought out any and every local badass guitarist I could find to share information with, then entered Shuggie. I remember the first time my parents dropped me off at his house. I heard he was playing guitar when we arrived. I sat in the car and listened to him for a long time before entering the house—a mind-blowing experience.
Around that time, I discovered he had gotten signed to Epic Records. He was making an album called Here Comes Shuggie Otis, followed by Freedom Flight and Inspiration Information, which inspired me to the highest degree. The life-changing thing about Shuggie’s music is not only the guitar playing but the fact he plays all the instruments incredibly well. Discovering that one person can play all those instruments and make records that are good inspired me to start playing other instruments. Shuggie’s contribution to my musical education is enormous.
He not only inspired me but also turned me on to a lot more music than I was listening to, such as Tony Williams, Frank Zappa, Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, The Blues, and of course, classical music, which helped develop my skills and gave me a great appreciation in music on the whole. He is in my musical appreciation class, which I didn’t get from school. This only scratches the surface of my musical endeavor with Shuggie Otis. There is much more to tell, especially about the other records he recorded, also the musical episodes he and I had in the earlier years together. Hope I will have the opportunity to share those with you.
# 8 – The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band/Magical Mystery Tour
In 1963 there was an English invasion—a musical invasion that made its way to the United States by a bunch of bands from England, Ireland, and Scotland. It was something fresh, new, and of course, I dove into it. Among those bands, the one that stood out to me was The Beatles. Four dudes from Liverpool that arrived in America with a new fresh sound. I was fascinated by their songwriting skills and the music they were making at the time, not knowing that a fair amount of the songs they recorded were written by American artists.
Still, I love their music. The English Invasion actually happened before I started playing guitar, but it was one of the things that drove my desire to play music in a big way. I enjoyed everything The Beatles did. Having to pick only one album, in this case, I’ll pick two Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour changed my life in the way they became a studio band. They progressively enhanced studio recording in that period. Editing at the time and the songwriting, as in the way they fused two sections of a song together in time, were genius. Those two records were amazingly refreshing for the period of time, and too hard to pick only one. These albums are my favorites.
# 7 – Frank Zappa – Hot Rats
I was introduced to Frank Zappa’s music by Shuggie, who played bass on the song called “Peaches en Regalia” on the album Hot Rats. His bass playing was incredible. But further listening to the album, I developed a great love for Frank Zappa’s music. This is the first album I heard by Frank Zappa, and it turned me on to a new genre of music composition and changed my life in the way I listened to music. He was obviously influenced by a lot of different styles of music, such as blues, jazz, classical, and rock, which I was, too. Hot Rats had all those elements.
The flexibility of his music and eccentric style of writing expanded my musical vocabulary. Don’t forget; he was also a monster guitarist. Waka/Jawaka and Zoot Allures are the next ones that grabbed my attention. Zappa’s writing on Waka/Jawaka is insane. Zoot Allures has a different groove than what I was previously hearing from Zappa, and I dug it, too. Again not to mention his guitar playing. From that album onward, I got more into Frank’s guitar playing. Like I said, it’s not fair to pick only one.
# 6 – The Tony Williams Lifetime – Emergency/Ego
Another album that really grabbed my attention in the latter ’60s was Emergency. The Tony Williams Lifetime consisted of Tony Williams on drums, Larry Young on organ, and John McLaughlin on guitar. This album which a lot of people referred to as the Bible, would become arguably the first fusion album. Whatever the label on the music is, this album completely knocked me to the floor. I had never heard a jazz trio playing music like this, avant-garde, fusion, freeform jazz, whatever you wanna call it.
I connected with this music and absorbed as much information as I could. I also would like to add that John McLaughlin became a major influence on guitar for me. So, readers, in case you are still with me, here comes Ego, which changed my life. This album was different from previous records, such as the writing and instrumentation he used, not to mention his choice of musicians. I was taken by this album because of the level of his compositional skills woven in with the improvisation. After the first spin, I couldn’t stop listening to it. Ego is probably one of my most favorite albums by Tony Williams, but again, I cannot pick one.
# 5 – Miles Davis – Bitches Brew
I was sitting in my bedroom listening to records. When the door popped open, my father came in. He had an album in his hand. It was Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew. He offered for me to listen to the record and told me if I liked it, I could have it. Needless to say, I loved it. If there is any such thing as a masterpiece, this album is one of them. I was very familiar with most of the players on this album. A lot of them were my favorites.
This is a completely new statement in modern jazz. A lot of playing on this album is avant-garde, which I love. He is playing grooves that are funk orientated, but the musicianship is still jazz-orientated. He fused jazz and funk and made something totally refreshing. I still, to this day, listen to Bitches Brew, as the album and artist are one of my favorites of all time. I can give you many more favorite albums by Miles Davis, but I’ll give you a break this time.
# 4 – Herbie Hancock – Head Hunters
During my history of listening to Mr. Hancock, there were a couple of songs I liked from the early ’60s from listening to the radio with pop before I learned the artist was Herbie Hancock. In the early ’70s, my curiosity led me to listen to Mr. Hancock’s later recordings, such as Mwandishi, Crossings, and Sextant. I listened to the compositions of these records and learned as much as I could about the structure of modern jazz music. That was a lot of work. Then came Herbie’s album Head Hunters. On this album, Herbie was moving in a new direction, which was more jazz-funk fusion and radio-friendly.
With a new rhythm section, the songs were much funkier and groove-oriented. I sat and played songs from the album on many occasions as part of my learning process. The grooves were dope, and the solos and synthesizer work were amazing and still are. I jumped on this album, as did everyone else. Back in that day, almost every band I worked with played something from this album. And to this day, many bands still do. “Head Hunters” was the album that took Herbie to the next level, and a lot of people followed, which makes this album a life-changing experience not only for me but for everyone else that loves modern jazz-funk.
# 3 – Sly & the Family Stone – Stand!
Now for one of the most iconic bands in my history. Once again, this is not fair. All Sly Stone’s music inspired me immensely. If I had to pick one album, it would probably be Stand!. I saw this band for the first time on The Lloyd Thaxton Talent Show. They were absolutely amazing. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on their records, and when I finally got them, they were far beyond my expectations. Songwriting, singing, musicianship, and arrangements were all great. On Stand!, there is group participation which I really love. Needless to say, I spent many hours playing with this album. Monumental album.
# 2 – Funkadelic – Maggot Brain
I consider this album to be one of my all-time favorites, bar none. Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain has it all; the messages, the grooves, the humor, the musicianship, and the over-the-top guitar playing, all of which drew me to this masterpiece. The first two albums I heard blew my mind, but Maggot Brain has an energy that, to me, was unmatched by any funk band at that time. This, to me, is what funk-rock is all about. There are some of the hardest grooves you ever wanna come across from back in those days.
Suddenly, bands all over the L.A. area started playing songs from the Maggot Brain album, and if a band I played in didn’t play some Funkadelic songs, I wasn’t there very long. Whoever the lineup of musicians was put together, some of the most hard-hitting and timeless grooves that still stand up to this day. I spent many hours sitting with my guitar and dissecting these songs, soaking up as much as I could. For me, the lessons proved invaluable. Musically changed my life, to say the least.
# 1 – Curtis Mayfield – Curtis (1970)
The group named The Impressions music was played in heavy rotation in our household. I loved their style. It was a mix of R&B and gospel to me. I loved the rhythm section. Whoever was playing the rhythm guitar, and I believe it was Curtis, had some of the most soulful techniques. After a while, The Impressions broke up, and Curtis went solo. I noticed Curtis, as well as singing, was now playing more guitar, so I started following him. He came out with the album Curtis, which really spoke to me. His songwriting and guitar playing was just awesome. The album Curtis was a different direction with political overtones that fit the times.
I sat for countless hours dissecting and compiling information that his music had to offer, and there was a plethora of information there. To me, he had it all: Rhythm chops, cool arrangements, and his musical statements were beautiful, funky, and politically correct. Not to mention the coolest sideburns I have ever seen, and, yes, I copped them. Although I love hard rock solos, I don’t miss them when I listen to Curtis Mayfield because the musical package, he presented was complete enough for me to digest. There are at least two more albums by Curtis Mayfield I love. They would be Curtis/Live! and Super Fly, but I will save them for another time.
Blackbyrd McKnight of Parliament Funkadelic: 10 Albums That Changed My Life article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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