Until now, not much has been written about the San Francisco collective New World Music. In the early ’80s these Bay Area pioneers experimented across jazz fusion, funk, disco, and R&B, with a sprawling cast of singers and players, and eventually recorded a handful of regionally-heralded singles for storied Los Angeles rap incubator Macola Records.
Instrumental hit (then, regionally, and more recently, via the algorithm) “Intellectual Thinking” is a programmed trip through a private mind garden where drum machines pollinate blooms of synths and piano. “Music For All People” adds sax to the dreamscape for a tour through the smooth jazz underground, while “Across the Water” and “Everybody Giggalo” trade in understated R&B and shimmering disco respectively. Each song represents the imagination and ambition of a celebrated group of musicians and friends who captivated Bay Area radio dials and clubs in the mid-’80s and, as the story goes, did well in Japan.
Bandleader and dummer Greg Wallace died in late 2018. Here, founding members Barry Dow (percussion, synthesizers, vocals) and Larry Thomas (keyboards, drums) tell their story.
Barry Dow: I was like the fourth member of the original band. Greg [Wallace] was playing with a bass player, Captain Funch aka Dave Edwards. They formed a band and then they recruited Larry [Thomas]. Shortly after Larry came, I got into the band. This was like 1979.
Larry Thomas: Our first meeting was at the City College of San Francisco, in the piano room. I auditioned as a piano player. We wrote songs every day. That was our thing. Write songs and then get together and perform them on the weekends.
When we first started we were primarily a singing group. We went through phases of singers. The original guitar player was Paris Robinson, Captain Funch was the bass player, I was on the keyboard, Barry Dow was percussion and Greg was the bandleader on drums.
Eventually Barry Dow evolved as a songwriter and lead vocalist for the group. Later we added Johnny Williams, so we had two vocalists. And we had Jack Walker on the sax, Kevin Barnes on the bass, Greg Wallace on the drums, Paris Robinson on guitar and myself on keyboards. That was the unit we cultivated and made a lot of great records. We kept that unit together for a while.
BD: In the band I was primarily the lead singer, and I would play percussion when I wasn’t singing. Or I would play percussion and sing backgrounds. If there wasn’t any singing then I might play keyboards or synthesizers.
LT: Me and Greg were on the same street. In ’79-’80 his house was right up the hill. He used to have a shack in the back of his house that he converted into a rehearsal room, and that was where we practiced for years. The guitar player lived right around the corner from us. Barry lived 20 minutes away in Lakeview, and so did Captain Funch, so we spent a lot of time in Lakeview. We spent time rehearsing in Fillmore. We’d rehearse in the 8th Street projects, up on the 9th floor, and that was big. Everybody there knew we were the band, you know.
In the beginning we were influenced by jazz fusion, like Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, George Duke and Herbie Hancock. That genre really influenced us and helped cultivate ideas, but then we got into the dance music.
BD: Rick James, Parliament, Earth, Wind & Fire and those cats, but also The Time, Morris Day and Prince. A lot of Cameo too. We listened to a lot of them. At first we were just writing our own songs. We weren’t really trying to sound like anybody, we just wrote what we felt. We were just having fun.
Most of the band went to Japan [in August of 1981]. I joined them when they came back and that’s when we started playing Top 40 in addition to originals.
We had played the Juneteenth [the long running Bay Area celebration commemorating the abolition of slavery in the U.S.] and had closed on the Saturday. That was the big spot. We did a really good job. And there was a saxophone player in the band [Jack Walker] and his uncle knew a booking agent. So the booking agent contacted the band and made a deal where they took the rhythm section, the saxophone player and a female singer. I didn’t get to go, which was devastating at the time.
LT: [The first time] we went to Japan we were all fusion and funk, but over there they were like, ‘We want disco!” So we changed the whole format up. Because we were soloing and doing really high energy stuff, and all they wanted was to dance, four on the floor. So that’s how we cultivated “Everybody Giggalo.”
BD: When they came back they had me and Stephanie Henry sing the lead on that song.
LT: We played that song every night in Japan so we were tight. When we got back from Japan we recorded it. And that was my first session playing drums. Greg and I would switch between keyboards and drums. Everyone in the group was a multi-instrumentalist, we were really into being creative and switching up on the instruments.
BD: They went back to Japan two or three times, I’m not sure. But I couldn’t go. I’d become a teacher and I had children so I couldn’t travel for months at a time. But when they came back they always called me up.
LT: There were two Japan trips. The first one was in ’80 or ’81, and the second one was in ’82 or ’83. After these two trips our group grew, and it was always about a new project or writing new material.
BD: When they got back from Japan they had bought all this new equipment. Greg got a drum machine, an 808. When Greg got that 808 it sort of changed everything.
People started approaching us to work with them. One of them was this guy, I think it was The Egyptian Lover, and he took the drum beat and another part of what Greg had worked on and went and recorded it [presumably on his 1984 single]. So what Greg did is he went down to LA to file a complaint with Don Macmillan of the Macola Record Company. Don gave Greg the record deal.
I wasn’t there for “Intellectual Thinking,” neither was Larry. We both had a gig. We were supposed to go to the studio that night, after the gigs. We used to go during the midnight shift where you go in at twelve at night and finish at eight in the morning. It was the cheapest way to go. But they did that recording without us. That was Kevin Barnes and Greg that played on that.
LT: That particular song was Kevin Barnes on the bass, Greg on the piano and Paris Robinson on the guitar. That mainstreamed the whole group with radio play.
BD: KBLX picked up “Intellectual Thinking” and “Music For All People.” “Intellectual Thinking,” the guy used to play it every night. That was like his twelve o’clock song. His name was Tony Kilbert, he was a DJ there. “Intellectual Thinking” played every night for like three months. “Music For All People,” hit right away too. They played it every morning at like eight o’clock. I would hear it on my way to work.
LT: It was in heavy rotation. I remember riding around in the car with my mama and the record would come on, that was a proud moment.
BD: When they put out “Intellectual Thinking,” we hadn’t broken up, but Larry and I were playing in other bands. I came out with my own album in ’89.
LT: I had started producing. In ’86 the record had been out for a while, and we’d gained some popularity in San Francisco. So around that time we started rendering our services to other artists, performing behind other artists. We recorded a lot of songs, but unfortunately Greg had a fire in his place and we lost a lot of documentation. We had a lot of old reel to reel tapes and stuff, two-inch tape of our early recordings.
BD: I loved playing music but I also had to work. The guys used to trip because before I became a teacher we’d play a gig and during the break I’d be doing homework. It was crazy.
Music For All People
From Synth City
New World Music