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Digging Deeper: An Interview With Sir Joe Quarterman

As an independent label and retailer, Record Store Day is an exciting time of year for us. Each year we see more involvement across the globe and more exciting releases worldwide. Whilst Covid-19 may have put a spanner in the works for the original planned day, it has been reorganised and adapted so that it can take place on August 29th. For this year's Mr Bongo offerings we have another set of delights ready to drop! One of these comes courtesy of the legendary Sir Joe Quarterman.

In 1973, Sir Joe Quarterman & FreeSoul created a timeless classic with their self-titled debut album. It blends a free spirited style with explosive soul and funk rhythms. Whilst it was the only album released by the group, it features the much-loved hit, 'I Got So Much Trouble In My Mind’, which ensured the band became recognised internationally. Its hard charging funk groove and powerful horns combined perfectly with Quarterman’s compelling vocals. Its socially conscious lyrics resonate now as much as they did back in 1972. Problems at work, pollution, confusion, and addiction are universal stresses regardless of time and place. By encapsulating these social injustices within an anthemic song there is little wonder this powerful soul-funk production has become so iconic. Whether it be in its infancy being played live on the Washington D.C scene back in the early 70s, over the pond in the '80s for the UK rare-groove crowd, in the MPC's of hip-hop producers, or on today's discerning dancefloors, the song has hit a chord.

To celebrate our Record Store Day release of 'Sir Joe Quarterman & FreeSoul’ we were honoured to get some time with Joe for a quick interview.

What can you tell us about the formation of the band?

The band members on the recording were neighbourhood musicians. George "Jackie" Lee (Guitar), Gregory Hammonds (Bass), Charles Steptoe (Drums), Karrissa Freeman (Keyboards), Johnny Freeman (Trombone), Leon Rogers (Sax/Vocals), and myself (Trumpet/Vocals). We went to school together and played in various local bands.

Where did you record the album?

Most of the album was recorded at "Track Recording Studio" in Silver Spring, Maryland, USA. "Find Yourself" and "The Way They Do My Life" was recorded at "Muscle Shoals Studio" in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, USA. We did not use the Muscle Shoals version of "The Way The Do My Life" ... It was not Funky enough.

How was it recorded i.e. was it recorded in a more 'live-band' set up or multi-tracked?

It was recorded live-band/multi-track. The rhythm section recorded while the horns (Leon & Joe) played along for guidance and I sung to give it feel.

What other music were you listening to that influenced The 'Sir Joe Quarterman & Free Soul' album?

It was influenced by James Brown, Sly Stone, and Chicago.

Why was there only ever one Sir Joe Quarterman & Free Soul album?

The interested record companies only wanted me as a single artist. I refused to abandon the band. however, I produced on my own two albums 'They Want Funky Music' and 'Alive 'n' Well' distributed by CDbaby.

The simple cartoon like record cover artwork is now very iconic, almost pre-Basquiat style. What was the reason for the drawing / using this artwork?

The artwork was a quick illustration of what I wanted the photographer to depict in a collage for the real album cover. They decided to use my sketches.

How did you come to be signed to GSF Records?

My producers were turned down by several record companies including Atlantic because of the requested advance money. GSF agreed.

Another band heavily sampled in hip-hop - The Skull Snaps - were also on GSF Records, did you know them?

No I did not.

Some of the 7" copies of '(I've Got) So Much Trouble In My Mind' 7" single are on Mantis Record Corp, was this the first pressing?

Yes ... for local distribution (DC, MD, VA).

What was the reaction to this song when it first came out, did the record receive radio support? Who was supporting your music at the start?

I performed the song 'Live' several years before it was recorded and released. The reaction from the audience was always favourable. Mantis recorded us after hearing our demo and the local radio stations were eager to play the song.

What was the music scene like in Washington, D.C., back in the early 70's? Did you play with any other bands at the time?

The music scene was very lively and there was plenty of work for musicians. R&B music was at a boom. 

Editors Note: During the 1960s, Quarterman performed on trumpet for a talented local band, The El Corols, which was frequently requested as a backing band for national acts touring DC such as Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Nat King Cole, Otis Redding, Dionne Warwick, Curtis Mayfield, Little Richard, The Temptations, The Coasters, and Gladys Knight & The Pips. In 1969, Quarterman formed his own band, Sir Joe Quarterman & FreeSoul. After becoming a popular live act in the DC area, they released the breakout single “I Got So Much Trouble In My Mind” in 1972. The song’s success enabled the band to share the stage with legends such as James Brown, Earth Wind & Fire, Sly & The Family Stone, The O'Jays and The Spinners and the song is featured regularly on Soul Train.

Are there any unsung musicians or obscure records from the Washington, D.C. area which you didn't think got the credit / attention they deserve?

Yes, Bobby Parker (Guitar Player) did not get the attention he deserved. He was one of the greatest 'Blues' guitar player I have ever heard. I played trumpet in his band in 1966. He was amazing.

How did you feel about 'So Much Trouble In My Mind' being an anthem in the Rare Groove Scene in the UK in the 1980's? When did you first hear that there was a new audience for your music.

I heard, tacitly, there was a rebirth of my music in the UK around 1985. I had recently graduated from college and was serving as an intern in architecture. My interest was subtle at that time.

Your tracks have been heavily sampled by artists such as NWA, Guru, 3rd Bass and even Madonna. How do you feel about sampling and what was your reaction when you first heard one of your tracks been used?

I do not think highly of sampled music. It is, for the most part, engineered music and the artist, in my opinion, is the engineer. Sampling is to me a way of illustrating what you are trying to do by example as opposed to by talent.

What music do you enjoy listening to these days?

I listen to 60's, 70's, 80's oldies but goodies and a little jazz music, I have no favourites.

Many thanks to Joe for his time, and for the incredible music he has made. The Mr Bongo Official reissue of 'Sir Joe Quarterman & FreeSoul’ will be released on Record Store Day, August 29th. It will be available in all participating stores - in-store and online.