When L.A. Was the Land of Funk in the 1970s
By Dr. Josh Kun
Professor and Chair in Cross-Cultural Communication
University of Southern California, Annenberg
In 1972, the ten members of the Dayton, Ohio funk band, Ohio Lakeside Express, piled into a U-Haul van and headed straight for Sunset Boulevard.
Westward migration was in the air. Motown (the nation’s top Black music label) had already pulled up its Detroit roots and Soul Train (the nation’s top Black music and dance TV series) had already left Chicago—both ended up with new Sunset addresses. Earth, Wind, & Fire came to town, as did The Gap Band, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder. Add the newcomers to flourishing homegrown scenes in Watts and Crenshaw, and you had a city in the midst of a Black music renaissance. Black artists experimented with creative, genre-blurring approaches to R&B, jazz, and funk; Black-owned indie labels competed with established majors; and Black entrepreneurs, managers, and producers hustled to the top of industry hierarchies.
On their first night in town, Ohio Lakeside Express (who would change their name to Lakeside) talked their way into a gig at Citadel d’Haiti, a Black bohemian gallery and performance space opened on Sunset by the South L.A. born actor Bernie Hamilton. Citadel promised “low down trifling soul food, righteous soul music, shameless soul dancing and dynamite soul catching, inspirational soul relaxation” and of course, “free soul parking.” In 1969, Nigerian musical legend Fela Kuti played the club six nights a week for five months, immersing himself in Black Power, and inventing the Afrobeat sound that would become his global signature.
“They had a late-night open club,” Lakeside founder and vocalist Mark Wood Jr. told me. “A lot of the Soul Train dancers and all of the Lockers were there, and they told us if we got our gear and got back by 1:00 am we could play. It was a very hip spot and here we were, wearing floppy hats from Ohio.”
They ditched the hats and soon became fixtures on the Crenshaw club scene, packing venues like Maverick’s Flat and The Total Experience. Lakeside was back on Sunset in 1974, this time booked at the Strip’s most legendary nightclub, the Whisky a Go Go, alongside Compton funk band, Smoke. The Whisky had hosted Black artists before (Otis Redding, Hugh Masekela, Jimi Hendrix, to name a few) but a double bill pulled from local Black music scenes was a first in the club’s history.
“The Whisky was one of those places we dreamed about,” Wood said. “We loved playing Crenshaw but we also wanted a wider audience for ourselves. To have our name on the marquee at the Whisky was just a thrilling moment.”
Lakeside went on to play clubs all over Hollywood and in 1977 released their self-titled debut album. Soon after, they made their first appearance on Soul Train, where the dancefloor was ruled by Black teenagers from L.A. high schools like Locke, Crenshaw, and Dorsey.
The band even signed to a new label connected to the show, S.O.L.A.R., or Sound of Los Angeles Records. It was helmed by Soul Train talent booker Dick Griffey who turned it into the premiere Black music label of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Lakeside joined a roster that included fellow L.A. groups like former Soul Train dancers Shalamar and the Watts-raised The Whispers. Together they crafted new electrified hybrids of funk, disco, and R&B. Lakeside dubbed it “California funk.”
You can hear the L.A. influence on “It’s All The Way Live.” After two minutes of a tight bass-slapped and guitar-cinched soul groove, the song opens up into a congas and timbales breakdown inspired by the city’s Chicano and Latin American music scenes. It’s also there on their biggest hit, “Fantastic Voyage.” The sunshine-soaked classic promised a pleasure cruise to “the land of funk,” which was the band’s nickname for their native Dayton. But by 1980, that honorific also belonged to their new home, where funk’s fantastic voyage—all of its slick urban “stank,” all of its “sliding, gliding, and slippity-sliding”—would forever remain a defining sound of Los Angeles.
Originally published by The Iris, 01.28.2021, under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.