Fantasy Records had been in business for nearly 20 years, specialising in jazz and R&B, when a rock band they had signed became national and international best-sellers. Creedence Clearwater Revival had ten Top 10 singles and five Top 10 albums on the Billboard charts between 1969 and 1971. Fantasy suddenly had a lot more money and, instead of trying to follow the next big thing in pop music, the label’s owners reinvested in the music that they knew most about; buying older jazz labels to add to their portfolio. At a time when funk-based jazz was starting to cross-over to the R&B charts they added groups that could straddle this divide. Fantasy struck gold in this field with the Blackbyrds, brought to the label by jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd and his producers Larry and Fonce Mizell. Byrd had great success with his own jazz-funk albums on Blue Note. The Blackbyrds, who had been students of his at Howard University in Washington, were soon scoring their own hits. Fantasy’s next step was an association with another straight-ahead jazz musician who had crossed over, Wayne Henderson.
Trombonist Henderson had moved to the west coast in the early 60s from his hometown of Houston, Texas. He headed to Los Angeles as part of the Jazz Crusaders, who signed to Richard Bock’s independent jazz label Pacific Jazz, proving to be a popular group in the hard-bop vein. As the 60s progressed they began to add more of an R&B flavour to their music, and by the time they signed to the Kudu label they were touching the R&B charts. As the Crusaders they signed to ABC’s Blue Thumb label and proved themselves to be one of the most popular jazz acts of the 70s. Wayne Henderson had become interested in production and with Chico Hamilton’s son Forest set up At-Home Productions. His first success came with Texan tenor player Ronnie Laws, who he signed to Blue Note. Further success came with vocal group Side Effect who signed to Fantasy, as did his most intriguing discovery, Pleasure.
This eight-piece had come to Henderson’s attention via a demo tape that the group handed to artists who passed through the major venue for black music, the Paramount Theatre, in their hometown of Portland, Oregon. Saxophonist Grover Washington Jr, then at the first peak of his long career, had listened to the demo and liked what he heard. He suggested Henderson should check the group out the next time he passed their way. Henderson followed it up and was impressed by what he heard. He began to use Pleasure on sessions he was producing. This was a first step before he signed them to a record deal.
Portland had a small black population and there was a relatively minor audience for bands. Pleasure had formed when members of two high school bands, the Soul Masters and Franchise, decided to pool their resources. It made more sense than competing against each other. According to the Pleasure’s guitarist Marlon McClain, his group Franchise were more into a rock disco type sound, while the Soul Masters, led by Donald Hepburn, had a more jazzy feel to their music. The combination created a funk powerhouse with a touch of jazz. It wasn’t difficult to see a record label trying to pitch them to a market that had lapped up Earth Wind & Fire or Kool & The Gang.
The first of their six albums for Fantasy was “Dust Yourself Off”, which lived up to the promise of the demo, a thrilling set of tracks that mixed soul, funk and jazz to great effect. The single chosen was a cover of Maria Muldaur’s pop hit ‘Midnight At The Oasis’ but down the years the breakbeat funk of ‘Bouncy Lady’ has had collectors reaching for their wallets. The band showed promise and the album sold well enough on release to justify another bite at the cherry and so the following year they returned to the studio to make “Accept No Substitutes”. In some ways the LP was more of the same musically, but this time there was more of a sense of ambition and identity. This is perhaps most evident on two tracks, the opening cut ‘Let’s Dance’ and what became a hit single, ‘Ghettos Of The Mind’. The album’s opener is a joyous collaboration between Pleasure, Wayne Henderson and members of Side Effect. It is fuelled by a squelchy synth bass-line, and a repeated horn riff that brings comparisons with what Funkadelic were doing on their later Westbound singles. The break in the middle of the number is a well-used sample. ‘Ghettos Of The Mind’ was something different, with a more relaxed feel; a loping rhythm meets a distinctive horn riff and the repeated vocal chorus is incredibly catchy. It gave the band their first R&B hit and has been a favourite with DJs ever since.
‘2 For 1’ is a fantastic latin-jazz workout that has found favour with UK jazz dancers down the years, ‘Theme For The Moonchild’ allows Pleasure to show off their jazz skills, this time in a more laidback manner, with some wonderful guitar playing by Marlon McClain. ‘Jammin’ With Pleasure’ gives a taste of the band in a live performance may have been like. ‘I’m Mad’, and ‘Pleasure For Your Pleasure’ are fine examples of mainstream funk in the Earth Wind & Fire vein while ‘We Have So Much’ is a magnificent latin-tinged soul song. Perfect summer music. ‘The Love Of My Life’ is a ballad that really allows lead vocalist Sherman Davis to show off his vocal chops and the jazzy guitar work of McClain.
“Accept No Substitutes” gave Pleasure a Top 40 R&B hit and set them up nicely for their next album, 1977’s classic “Joyous”. They recorded for Fantasy until 1980, but after a solitary album for RCA they split up. Although they never achieved the success that was hoped for, they left behind a body of work that contains not only some of the finest jazz funk of the era, but also demonstrates the progress bands were making, utilising electronic instruments, in the 1980s. “Accept No Substitutes” is early on in that process and is one of Pleasure’s most enjoyable releases.