“Fish Feet is guitarist Ron English’s only date as a leader, which is remarkable for a career spanning more than 50 years-a career that has placed him in the company of legends of rock and R&B. From garage rock roots as a founding member of the Woolies, to tours backing the Four Tops, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and Mary Wilson, English has enjoyed a storied life in music, effortlessly moving between genres with chameleon-like malleability.
Jazz, however, is where English found his calling with 1970s work on Detroit’s Tribe and Strata labels that blended styles such as funk, be-bop, post be-bop and the freedom sound of the jazz avant-garde. It was a period of great “self-determination” he says, due to both labels’ reliance on artist autonomy and a do-it-yourself ethic that ensured if great effort was applied to any endeavor, the output would match. Fish Feet was such an effort.
Recorded with a small ensemble of Strata brethren including Kenny Cox, Lyman Woodard, Larry Nozero and co-producer Charles Moore, English describes Fish Feet as something of a concept album-a romantic fantasy about longing for love. The Thom Bell and Linda Creed composition, “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” is a wonderful piece coming out of the R&B world and evidence of English’s broad taste, balanced by the group’s mutual love of the emotional weight of the music of Charles Mingus. Then there was the funk, which George Clinton and the Ohio Players were doing at neighboring Westbound Records.
“Funk was in the air, and we did have to have a little bit of funk with what we were doing,” English says. “That’s what Fish Feet was about.”
English penned all of the album’s original compositions, such as the lilting “Meadowlark” and the bluesy funk of the title track, and recruited a stellar horn section that included Nozero, Phil Ranelin, Norma Jean Bell and Marcus Belgrave. Nozero’s work on “Bees” and “Yet And Still” are among the highlights of the album, along with Bell’s solo on “You Make Me Feel Brand New.” English’s own unaccompanied acoustic playing on the Harry Barris and Gordon Clifford standard “I Surrender Dear” provides an exquisite close to a long-unreleased jewel of an album, and a piece that is an example of why the Strata canon is an essential entry in the story of Detroit music.
“We tried to hit all aspects,” English says. “That’s why the label was called Strata, “because it was operating on several different Strata-several different layers.”
As he reflects on recording the album, English is sad that many of his collaborators have died, unable to witness the fruits of their labor. Cox, Nozero and Woodard have passed on, “and I just hate that,” he says. Also gone is co-producer Moore, of whom English speaks highly.
“Charles Moore had a wonderfully astute and gifted musical mind, and he understood what to do and how to make things work,” he says. “It was just a joy to work with him and to put this together with a good friend and musical brother.”
English credits Cox and Moore with being the brain trust behind Strata, and is grateful that Fish Feet, which also features the cover art of Overton Lloyd, is a part of their legacy as well. “This is really good work,” he says. “Looking back, I’m kind of proud of what we did there.”