As one of the most innovative, prolific guitarists on the Miami funk scene in the ’70’s, Little Beaver has influenced tons of today’s best axemen, even if his name is undoubtedly unknown to many of them. Many rappers have sampled his work as well, though doubtless the millions of people digging these songs knew who was providing the main thrust of the song. Hopefully, it will not stay that way as the guitarist has recently had some of his more obscure sides released on the CD. Interestingly enough, these sides were recorded during Little Beaver’s erstwhile comeback in the mid-90’s. That they lay in the can for roughly ten years is a crime that has, with this release, hopefully been rectified.
Born right after the end of World War II in a little town in Arkansas, Little Beaver (real name William Hale) was said to have loved music just about as soon as he was out of the womb. As a youngster, he took guitar lessons and proved to be a quick study, picking up the intricacies of the instrument quickly and becoming quite adept for someone so young. Little Beaver’s family moved to Florida when he was in his teens and within a few years began to explore the music scene, hooking up with Henry Stone’s TK Records in Hialeah, Florida. Though he also recorded for several smaller labels in the beginning of his career, Little Beaver’s most important work would be for TK and its’ subsidiaries starting roughly from 1968 onward. Label impresario Stone and his team of producers and engineers soon fell in love with Little Beaver due to his easy-going nature and boundless talent of being able to make the most insipid song funkier than ten week old socks due to his melodic, groovalicious guitar work. So great was his guitar work, Little Beaver became the first-call guitarist at the studio and began playing on tons of sessions for the likes of Lattimore, Betty Wright (that’s Little Beaver’s guitar om Wright’s hit Clean Up Woman), Timmy Thomas, and many, many others which led to scads of hits for the label. To keep Little Beaver happy, Stone gave Little Beaver several opportunites to record his own albums, from which he had several regional hits, though nothing really huge as Little Beaver was only a semi-competent singer. One of his songs, Party Down, did make it fairly high on the national R&B charts but that was pretty much it. Mostly, it was Stone humoring Little Beaver to keep Little Beaver on board at TK as he was a very valuable part of the TK Sound. Listening to his solo albums proves this point as even though they are very funky and the guitar work is killer, the songs themselves are very lightweight and derivative. Still, Little Beaver gained a modicum of fame over the years, mostly due to his work with KC and the Sunshine Band on their hits, but also from crate-digging rappers taking many of the obscure cuts on his solo albums and sampling the hell out them. After his hit-making tenure as studio guitarist for KC and the Sunshine Band ended and the TK label folded when disco went bust in the early ’80’s, Little Beaver retired from music and began working for the city of Miami as custodial superintendent.
Fast-foward to the mid-90’s. Little Beaver had been out of the business for roughly fifteen years by that point but had heard several rappers make use of his distinctive guitar sound via samples featuring his guitar work, both by artists on whose songs he had played and on his own obscure recordings, which had been dug up by rare groove-seeking rappers and producers looking for obscure beats and licks to sample. Suddenly, out of the blue and through no effort of his own, Little Beaver had become a hot property again. Not only were his licks being sampled, but DJ’s in Europe had long been playing his rare sides on Northern Soul radio shows and at clubs as well, leading to his name becoming reasonably well known among soul fans overseas. This led Little Beaver to get lured back into the studio to record the sides featured on this CD. For these songs (recorded in 1997) Little Beaver was reunited with KC and the Sunshine Band guitarist Jerome Smith, who plays rhythm guitar on these songs. Ish Ledesma, also a TK vet from his days with Foxy, produced the session. The title song is a great modern Southern Soul groover which could be a hit on R&B radio today. The second cut A Little Something Nice sounds like a pretty good George Benson pastiche while Rock Your Baby is a remake of the KC and the Sunshine Band song does as an instrumental. It actually sounds more like it’s just missing vocals than an actual instrumental version but it’s good enough, as are the other songs here. Not stellar stuff but Little Beaver sounds as dextrous and melodic as ever and acquits himself here, even with material that borders on the generic, but that is a trait of his earlier work as well so while nice and all, probably won;t change Little Beaver’s status as great sideman but not star-maker material, except for the first cut, which sounds excellent. The rest of the album is padded out with “single versions” and “remixes” of the first seven songs.
Despite there being only seven real songs on this CD (and some of those being remakes of past successes), the fact that the labels are recognizing Little Beaver’s greatness is heartening. He was a big part of many other artist’s success stories, especially those of Betty Wright and KC and the Sunshine Band, for whom he pretty much defined their sound and was a big key to their being the success they were. While you won’t come away from this wondering why he’s not famous, but you will wonder why he was allowed to leave the biz for so long and why he hasn’t played on anything of note since. One of the most talented R&B guitarists in the world – and he still has it. Pick this up and hear once again why he is so highly regarded.