Welcome to reviewsrevues

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Welcome to reviewsrevues.com.  If this is your first visit – where have you been?  I’ve been here since January 2015.  If you like what you read please consider clicking on the “Follow” button and then you will be notified whenever there is something new on here.   I live on the Isle Of Wight off the south coast of the UK (lovely place if you have never been).  I have been producing book reviews for websites and magazines for some time and now want a place where these can be gathered together.  I really will have a go at reading anything.  I love variation and will skip from genre to genre.   This is what you should find on the site:

  • Reviews of recently read books and pieces about books
  • Murder They Wrote – Crime book reviews
  • Female Fiction – (from a male point of view)
  • Kid-Lit (I was a Primary School teacher for many years and the habit of reading children’s books is hard to break!)
  • The Running Man (Adventure/Thriller reviews- so called because my local library, where I volunteer, uses a symbol of a running man for this fiction category.)
  • Real Life – Biographies, autobiographies, biographical fiction fits in here
  • 100 Essentials – Books and Music – Those that will have a permanent place on my shelves and hopefully in yours too!
  •  What I have been watching – TV, Films
  •  Music Now – What I have been listening to – the future Essential CD’s?

Use the indexes to find out what you may have missed.  There’s also a very good search option in the side-bar if you are looking for something specific.  Thank you for visiting reviewsrevues.com.  I hope you like what you find and that you come back soon.  Feel free to comment on any of the specific posts (you should find a Comment link underneath each post which will bring up the Comment box.)  I always reply……………….

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City Boy – Edmund White (2009) – A Real Life Review

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Edmund White is best known for his trilogy of autobiographical novels.  I read the first of these “A Boy’s Own Story” not long after it was published in 1982 and it has since become the classic coming out tale.  I’ve read all three as well as his 2000 novel “A Married Man” which probably ranks as my favourite out of these.  White is a highly esteemed novelist, literary biographer and essayist but I haven’t yet read anything by him which has really blown me away.

From a British gay man’s perspective I value very much his contribution to gay-themed literature but I have never had the emotional response from his work that I have had from Armistead Maupin, Alan Hollinghurst, Sarah Waters, John Boyne, for example.  Compared to these authors I think he can come across as a little too academic in his writing and lacking warmth- perhaps investing his novels with a richness of technical skills rather than empathy.  Admittedly, it has been a while since I’ve read anything by him and I’ve not read all but this is my impression so far and throughout the years I have been choosing my Best Books of the Year he has never featured in my Top 10.

Things could change with this.  Subtitled “My Life In New York During The 1960s and 1970s”, a memoir in which the struggling author relocates to New York and benefits from the cheapness of rents and the richness of the creative and literary minds he is able to surround himself with.  It is a significant period for New York as it heads towards bankruptcy and areas become violent and dangerous as well as a hub for civil rights and in 1969 a fracas at The Stonewall Inn changed lives for gay men and women across the globe.  White was there.

During these years White met many important figures in the Arts and provides almost rapid-fire character sketches and gossip.  Many readers nowadays will only recognise a handful of these names but that doesn’t matter as we’re drawn into White’s associations.  He also catalogues the increasing sexual freedoms of the era as lived mainly by those who escaped the repression of small-town America for New York City life. There are lovers, friends and sex partners and the many men he met tended to fall in one of these separate categories.  It was only in the era of AIDS that, White proposes, that one person could fulfil all three roles.

My interest in this book was as much to do with the city in this period as much as the man and he conveys the feel of New York very well.  There are sojourns in San Francisco and Venice but the pull of Manhattan wins out. White takes us to the point at the end of the 1970’s where a new virus is looming menacingly, poised to wipe out many of the characters in this book.  (White moved away from NYC and lived in France for much of the 80’s).  He ends his account with a metaphor which I find effective and very much gives the feel of this book;

“I suppose that finally New York is a Broadway theatre where one play after another, decade after decade, occupies the stage and the dressing rooms- then clears out.  Each play is the biggest possible deal (sets, publicity, opening night celebrations, stars names on the marquee) then it vanishes.  With every new play the theatre itself is just a little more dilapidated, the walls scarred, the velvet rubbed bald, the gilt tarnished.  Because they are plays and not movies, no one remembers them precisely.  The actors are forgotten, the plays are just battered scripts showing coffee stains and missing pages.  Nothing lasts in New York.  The life that is lived there, however, is as intense as it gets.”

“City Boy” recounts Edmund White’s time in this vanished world.

fourstars

City Boy was published by Bloomsbury in 2009.  I read the 2010 paperback edition.

100 Essential CDs – Number 82– The Essential Collection – Dionne Warwick

 

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The Essential Collection – Dionne Warwick (Global 1996)

UK Chart Position – 58

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Released to shift some units for the Christmas market in 1996 and no doubt accompanied by a TV advertising campaign I favour this 48 track two CD collection over other greatest hits compilations for this artist.  We get one album of Dionne Mark 1 – the Bacharach and David chanteuse with twenty-six of their compositions and a second CD of Mark 2 spearheaded by her biggest UK chart hit given to her by the Bee Gees which came after a period of 12 years without UK success.   CD 1 represents the 60’s and the second CD is slightly more all over the place with tracks from throughout her lengthy career.

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Sometimes you just need a little class and there’s few artists more classy than Dionne Warwick.  An inspiration to so many other artists.  Dionne was born in 1940 and grew up in a New Jersey gospel music background.  She set up a group with sister Dee Dee and their aunt Cissy Houston (mother of Whitney) and as well as recording gospel material began to sing background vocals on pop recordings.  At a session for a Drifters track composer Burt Bacharach was impressed by Dionne’s vocals and asked if she would record demo tracks for songs he had written with partner Hal David.  The rest as they say, is history.

dionne3 working with Burt Bacharach (at piano) and Hal David

Dionne could be considered one of the unluckiest singers in pop music history.  Hers is a voice that has launched other careers as the Bacharach and David tracks first given to her became bigger hits for other artists.  A look at the track titles certainly bring this home.  Primarily, and probably most acrimoniously there is Cilla Black, whose career really took off in the UK when she recorded her version of Warwick’s first US Top 10 hit (#8 1964) “Anyone Who Had A Heart” and scored one of the big singles of the 1960’s but lets add to this list Sandie Shaw “There’s Always Something There To Remind Me; (first recorded by Dionne and a debut UK#1 for the ex-Ford, Dagenham worker); Dusty Springfield (An early B-side “Wishin’ And Hopin’ became a US#6 for Dusty in 1964.  In the UK the Merseybeats took their version to #13 in the same year); Walker Brothers (“Make It Easy On Yourself” was a 1962 demo by Dionne and became their first UK #1 three years later); Aretha Franklin (in the UK anyway Aretha’s version of Dionne’s US hit “I Say A Little Prayer” became her signature tune and a much bigger hit reaching #4); The Carpenters ( a 1965 B-side for Dionne which became a career launching US#1, UK#6 in 1970) the list goes on. Another demo recording “This Girl’s In Love With You” underwent a gender change and became a US#1, UK#3 for Herb Alpert,  although Dionne did strike back and got a US#7.

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Even in later years The Stylistics eclipsed Dionne’s 1964 original of “You’ll Never Get To Heaven (If You Break My Heart) reaching U2#23, UK#24, “A House Is Not A Home” was transformed into an all-time soul classic by Luther Vandross and in the UK Dionne’s debut American hit “Don’t Make Me Over” (#21 in 1963) did not make the chart until it was re-imagined as a cool club track by Sybil in 1989 (UK#19).

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There are a number of reasons for all this.  Dionne was originally employed as a demo singer and some of these songs were intended to be picked up by other artists and Dionne’s versions only begun to see the light of day as B-sides and album tracks as her career took off, also, these were great songs picked up by great artists (most of those names above feature somewhere in my Essential Collection CD rundown) and sometimes us Brits couldn’t wait for the originals to be released so went for the cover version.

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Dionne also got her own back and recorded songs that some of these artists had scored big with.  Bacharach and David wrote “Alfie” for Cilla Black who scored a UK #9 whereas Dionne took it to number 13 in the US, she had a US#26 with a song better associated in the UK with Dusty Springfield “I Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” (although original of this was by Chuck Jackson).  “Message To Martha (Kentucky Bluebird)” had been recorded by Lou Johnson (another Bacharach and David demo-er) and Jerry Butler and had been a UK hit for Adam Faith.  Re-dedicated to Michael it went to #8 for Dionne in the US.  “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” had been a UK#1 for US country singer Bobbie Gentry but in the US it was Dionne who got the number 6 hit version.

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All of these original versions/successful cover versions of these Bacharach & David songs can be found on the first CD of “The Essential Collection”.  That also leaves room for a couple of songs that Dionne had no problem with making her own. It’s hard to believe that pop standard, a touching tale of unrequited love “Walk On By”, an absolute classic pop tune only made it to number 9 in the UK charts of 1964 (#6 in the US).  At that point of her career it was her biggest hit on both sides of the Atlantic and the song is perfectly suited to her voice.  It has been recorded by countless other artists but the original has never been eclipsed.  Notable versions have come from Isaac Hayes (US#30-1969), who drew it out into a sweet-soul opus, Gloria Gaynor who disco-fied it, The Stranglers, who turned it into a punk hit (UK#21- 1978), the Average White Band who gave it a jazz-funk vibe (UK#46- 1979) and the aforementioned Sybil who put out a Stock-Aitken-Waterman version in 1990 which topped Dionne’s chart position by getting to number 6.

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“Do You Know The Way To San Jose” is the epitome of sophisticated lounge music and often features on compilations which feature the word “lounge” and “easy”.  It’s an all too familiar tale of failing to make it big and aiming to return to the hometown that had already been escaped from to avoid a life of “parking cars and pumping gas”.  This classy track became a Top 10 US hit in 1968 and became her biggest hit of the 1960’s in the UK by going one place better than “Walk On By”, explaining why this is the track chosen to open this CD.  Other highspots on the Bacharach-David CD include the slightly frantic “Promises, Promises” from the 1968 Broadway show of the same name (US#19) and “Are You There With Another Girl”, a US Top 40 hit from 1966. 

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 Not everything Bacharach and David turned out was a gem however.  I find the chauvinism of the song “Wives and Lovers” embarrassing, even given it Dionne’s female voice, rather than Jack Jones’ US hit version and the 1967 track “The Windows Of The World” may have given Dionne a #32 but does nothing for me.

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It seemed like Dionne disappeared for most of the 1970’s but really that did not happen.  She certainly took a back seat when disco was dominating the charts but in 1974 scored her first US # 1 pop hit with the (Detroit) Spinners and the soulful “Then Came You” which got to an understated #29 in the UK, but that track is not included on these CDs nor is much of her 1970’s post Bacharach and David material.  Dionne moved to Warner Brothers and Burt Bacharach and Hal David fell out after their work for the movie flop “Lost Horizon” (the track “The World is A Circle notwithstanding). Warner had signed Dionne very much as part of the team.  The first she knew about the split was when she read about it in a newspaper, causing considerable tension between herself and the songwriters.  Five albums on Warners saw different production and songwriting teams including Thom Bell and Holland-Dozier-Holland but the hits were not forthcoming either in the UK or in her homeland.  To try and change her luck Dionne on the advice of an astrologer added an extra “e” to her surname in something to do with numerology but that didn’t work and was later abandoned with Dionne returning to the original spelling. 

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What did work was a move to Arista records in 1979 and all of the tracks on CD are from this association which lasted for fifteen years and eleven studio albums.  In the UK the return to the upper reaches of the chart came via the Bee Gees who still had the golden touch in 1982.  “Heartbreaker” had an old-fashioned feel in a UK Top 5 which included Culture Club, Tears For Fears, reggae star Eddy Grant and Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” but us Brits took to it more than we had ever taken to a Dionne Warwick track and it ended up in the Top 20 Best selling singles of the year, the third biggest by a female artist below Irene Cara and Toni Basil.  In the US this track went to number 10, a position also attained in the UK with her follow-up “All The Love In The World”, which actually I like better than the bigger hit.  Her 1982 studio album became her only UK Top 3 success.

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 In the US the dry spell had ended three years earlier with a pair of consecutive pop hits.  “I’ll Never Love This Way Again” is an anthemic pop-soul ballad and certainly ranks amongst her very best tracks.  The producer for the album “Dionne”  was Arista label-mate Barry Manilow and at long last the fears that she could not survive without Bacharach and David were laid to rest as worldwide this became a million selling album, certified platinum.  Showing just how she straddles markets she picked up two Grammys in 1980 – “I’ll Never Love This Way Again” (US#5) won Best Female Pop Vocal and she took Best Female R&B Vocal for its follow-up, the US #15 “Déjà vu” which is not on this CD.  This double victory brought Dionne’s Grammy tally up to 4.  Dionne combined two of her career saviours in 1985 when she recorded a duet with Barry Manilow of the Bee Gees song “Run To Me” which is included on this CD.

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 Dionne and Barry Manilow

Perhaps more than any other multi-million selling artist Dionne’s biggest successes have been when she combined her vocal talents with other artists.  Collaborations with Johnny Mathis, Luther Vandross and Jeffrey Osborne gave her US Top 40 pop hits (with only the latter’s “Love Power” -US# 12- 1987 included here.  Dionne’s only US chart-topper to date had been with The Spinners and the Bee Gees were not too far in the mix in her pair of big UK 1980’s hits.  In 1985 we had the ultimate collaboration of four major talents on what I would consider the best charity single of all time.  Dionne engineered a track to raise funds for AIDS with a song written by old pal Burt Bacharach with his then wife Carole Bayer Sager which had been originally recorded by Rod Stewart.  For this new version Dionne recruited a trio of hit-makers with careers even more impressive than her own – Stevie Wonder (9 US#1’s to this point), Gladys Knight (who shared Dionne’s then tally of 1 US#1,) and Elton John (6 US#1’s).  They could all add one more chart-topper to their lists as “That’s What Friends Are For” lived up to expectations and spent four weeks as the US #1 and won them all another Grammy with Best Group Vocal Pop Performance.  Released towards the end of 1985 it was the biggest selling single in the US in 1986.  In the UK it certainly under-achieved reaching only 16.  It was a worldwide hit topping charts in Australia and Canada.  What really works for me is the easing in of each vocalist to do their bit together with great adlibs and an ear-worm of a chorus and Stevie’s harmonica stopping it all from getting too sweet.
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Apart from the aforementioned “Love Power” this saw the end of Dionne’s pop hit singles but her reputation as a song stylist can be heard in a trio of sixties tracks, a solo version of a song better known as a duet , Marvin and Tammi’s “You’re All I Need To Get By”, “You’ve Lost That Loving Feelin’” and the Broadway standard “Who Can I Turn To” which Dionne recorded in 1965.  She does a very good version of Luther Vandross’ “So Amazing”.  I’m not so keen on the couple of tracks from her 1990 album “Dionne Warwick Sings Cole Porter” as there’s an emptiness in both “Night And Day” and especially “Begin The Beguine” which certainly are not essential versions of either song (and Dionne can certainly do these tracks- another compilation album of hers I play often a 1998 compilation “Sings The Standards” sees her tackling Porter’s “I Love Paris” alongside Gershwin, Bernstein and Rogers & Hammerstein songs with huge aplomb).

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This leaves just the album closer ,another career highlight and a great way to end this retrospective.  I don’t know what it is about the gentle, yet almost chilling “Theme From The Valley Of The Dolls” which I enjoy so much.  This was a US #2, UK#20 and was taken from the film version of the Jacqueline Susann novel I reviewed recently.  You might expect something glaring and brash to come out of this but this sensitive ballad written by Andre and Dory Previn was chosen to represent the film.  Gladys Knight also does a lovely version of this but I think Dionne’s original has the edge.

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These 48 tracks give an excellent picture of the long career of the hard-to-define often under-rated Dionne Warwick.  The Bacharach and David tracks provide examples of the some of the best pop songs ever written, even if Dionne did not have the most successful version and the second CD proved there was more to her than the B&D muse as her quality versions of other songs and collaborations with some of music’s biggest players of the 70’s and 80’s ensured her a continued place in surely even the hardest of  hearts.

Even the wonders of 60’s television choreography cannot kill off Dionne’s seminal hit.  Watch and enjoy (don’t know who the Japanese lady is at the very end!)

And 21 years later

 

The Essential Collection is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £5.64 and used from £0.01. In the US it can be bought from $14.99 and used from $2.89

 

The Perfect Murder- Peter James (2010) -A Murder They Wrote Review

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My second Peter James novel I’ve read this year is a much slighter affair than “Dead Man’s Grip” which will be in contention for my Book of The Year this year.  “The Perfect Murder” takes my tally of James’ novels to eight which eases him into the anchor position of my Top 10 most read authors alongside Martina Cole and John Steinbeck.  This was because I selected “A Quick Read Novel” from the Sandown Library Russian Roulette Reading Challenge.  This was published for World Book Day in 2010 and can be polished off quite easily in an hour.  The whole Quick Reads enterprise is to tempt people back into reading primarily but it can also provide a cheap, easy read for fans of the author.  Last year I read Minette Walters’ “Chickenfeed” from the same series.  You are not going to get the very best work from an author but hopefully a sampler of what they do in order to tempt you into finding out more.

“The Perfect Murder” is a stand-alone novel set like James’ Roy Grace series in Brighton, although on this occasion it could have been set anywhere.  Victor and Joan Smiley, a rather elderly-seeming pair of forty-somethings are so stuck in the rut of their marriage that the only way out seems to be murder and both are planning to bump the other one off.

Characterisation is broadly drawn yet effective and there are twists to the tale, some of which I didn’t see coming, some I did.  There is a danger when writing these Quick Reads to order that the more limited vocabulary and length these demand can mean that the actual defining style of the author does not come through.  I think this is, to an extent, a valid point in both the James and Walters novellas I’ve read but the Brighton location and very Peter James front cover goes some way to rectifying this.

I know that Peter James has produced at least one collection of short stories and here he displays that he has the knack of conveying a sinister involving tale in a succinct fashion.

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The Perfect Murder was published by Pan Books in 2010.

Auntie Mame- Patrick Dennis (1955)

 

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In late 1950s America it’s likely that most people would know who Mame was.  This novel was a long-lasting best seller and spawned a highly successful play and film version both starring Rosalind Russell who went some way in the years following to adopting the persona of Mame herself.  Many readers believed Mame Dennis was a real-life person, reinforced by the author placing himself (well, his nom-de-plume) in a leading role in the book.  For a while even the publishing world was fooled by a pre-publication stunt involving correspondence from Auntie Mame threatening legal action to bookshop owners who sold the book.

 The whole thing is fiction.  Mame is the larger-than-life guardian for her orphaned nephew Patrick who is thrust into her New York lifestyle as a boy in the mid 1920s. arriving with his Irish nanny just as a party was in full swing and falls into this new style of upbringing very different from the one he had with his dour, conservative father.  Mame is a woman of the times, favours radical naked education and is unwilling to compromise with the legal stuffed shirts who administers the young Patrick’s trust fund.  In a series of what were initially short stories we move through Patrick’s upbringing to adulthood with the disasters wreaked upon him by his eccentric aunt never too far away.

 It reads like a slightly more edgy, camper American Wodehouse.  It is often laugh out loud funny and the humour is generally sustained throughout.  The author ensures we root for Mame.  She is eccentric but never objectionable.  He leaves this trait to the more conservative characters in the novel who provide a few moments which would have the modern reader squirming.

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 My knowledge of this came from the 1958 Rosalind Russell movie which turns up very infrequently on television.  One time it did I was recovering from a dental operation which had gone wrong and it certainly lifted low spirits.  It is also well known from the Broadway musical which dropped the auntie from its title and became another movie in 1974 starring Lucille Ball, which did okay in its day, despite feeling anachronistic for the mid-70s but is now rarely shown.  I haven’t seen it but I can sing the title song!

 I was reminded that I had bought this attractive looking Penguin reprint paperback and had it sitting on my shelves by Christopher Fowler’s “Book Of Forgotten Authors” which so far has introduced me to Margery Allingham, Georgette Heyer and Edmund Crispin.  Like his most famous character author Patrick Dennis was no stranger to eccentricity.  Born Edward Everett Tanner III his later works included photo illustrations of himself and his friends alongside the text and sold well but he ended up “killing” Patrick Dennis and becoming a butler for the owner of MacDonalds burger joints.  Matteo Codignola puts together some of the pieces known about the author’s life in an illuminating afterword but it is his fictional creation Auntie Mame who is very much the star of the show here.

fourstars

 

Auntie Mame was first published in 1955.  I read the 2010 Penguin Classics paperback edition.   

The Bodyguard (BBC1 2018) Vs. Vanity Fair (ITV 2018) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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The evenings are only just drawing in and the battle for weekend ratings have started.  In a couple of weeks we’ll see the Clash of The Titans when Saturday night juggernauts “X Factor” and “Strictly Come Dancing” (I’m not counting last night’s non-essential “pairing” show) come face to face in what will no doubt be a very one-sided affair but much is also being made of these two newcomers on Sunday evening schedules in which a clear winner also appears to be emerging, both critically and ratings-wise.

“The Bodyguard” had a one week head start and decided to go consecutive nights for the first two episodes to draw us in, “Vanity Fair” did the same a week later, a strategy which no doubt we’ll be seeing more and more.  “The Bodyguard” had much of its audience hooked within the first fifteen minutes with a breath-sapping bomb on a train scenario.  Carbon Dioxide levels in the atmosphere must have been depleted as the viewing population drew in a breath and held it.  (Yes, I know it’s biologically more complex than that but I’m making a point).

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I had very high hopes for writer Jed Mercurio’s latest series as I have only recently got round to watching (on Netflix) his “Line Of Duty” and have spent the last few months bingeing on this extraordinary police drama.  I’ve watched three series but haven’t seen the one everyone really talks about starring Thandie Newton (that isn’t on “Netflix” but  remain hopeful that it will appear), so no spoilers please.

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What makes “Line Of Duty” such gripping television is its sheer unpredictability.  It is unusual to watch TV in this day and age with no idea as to the direction it will go and Mercurio has certainly achieved this again with “The Bodyguard”.  Each of the three episodes I’ve seen so far will have rooted audiences to their seats by its dramatic shifts.  (That barometer of public taste “Gogglebox” returned this week and one of the highlights of opener was the looks of complete disbelief on assorted faces as episode three revealed its twist).  Keeley Hawes who became the ultimate victim in “Line Of Duty” despite being a tough and uncompromising character may very well be revisiting these traits as Home Secretary Julia Montague with her Thatcherish sharp edge yet the very human weakness for the man detailed to protect her.  And Richard Madden’s turn might just make Sunday night viewers forget that Aiden Turner’s “Poldark” and Tom Hiddleston’s “Night Manager” ever existed.  I know some opted to give this a miss fearing a re-tread of Costner and Whitney scenarios but the relationship, although central, is just one small facet of this television diamond.  There is so much going on and whilst we know what is happening when it happens (unlike many TV dramas with a political slant) we have no idea as to the direction this will go in and that makes for essential television.

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So, how can we compare this to “Vanity Fair”? They are polar opposites yet their scheduling and their respective channel’s confidence in them is demanding comparisons be made.  With “Vanity Fair” of course we know the direction it is headed from its existence as a novel and the number of previous adaptations.  I love the book although I haven’t read it in a long time.  It seems that every time I plan to re-read another version comes along making it seem less of a priority.  Here I think the show has been a victim of its pre-transmission publicity which suggested something youthful, vibrant and edgy.  Younger actors have been cast in main parts and we were told to expect modern music.  I have so far been aware of Madonna’s “Material Girl” at one point which seemed too obvious a choice and somewhat clunky in its scene.  I was expecting this version, created by Gwyneth Hughes to up the cool factor in much the same way Baz Luhrmann did for Leonardo DiCaprio in old Will Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” back in 1996.

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I don’t think this has happened.  It hasn’t sparkled in anything like the way I was expecting.  I did enjoy the opener more and yet the scenes in Vauxhall Gardens which had the potential to display the series’ wares felt surprisingly low-budget for a channel hoping to push this as the new “Downton Abbey”.  Some of the casting doesn’t feel quite right.  I’m not totally at ease with the younger male characters, especially Dobbin nor Martin Clunes as Sir Pitt Crawley.  I do like Olivia Cooke who is playing Becky Sharp but she seems to be playing her as more opportunistic than manipulative and I’m not sensing the joy that was in the best portrayal I’ve seen by Reese Witherspoon in the 2004 film version where Julian Fellowes’ screenplay aimed for a more sympathetic character but Reese didn’t lost the glint which is so essential.  This version also has a great set of portrayals from the likes of James Purefoy, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Rhys Ifan as the stolid Dobbin.

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By Episode 2 I was wilting, Frances De La Tour’s arrival boded well but I was still wondering whether I’d actually last the course of five more episodes.  Perhaps I should just re-read the book for my dose of Thackeray.

It seemed as if Sunday nights were going to be superb for television with the launch of these two highly-anticipated shows.  One is certainly proving this, the other is showing room for improvement.

Here are my ratings for the first three episodes of  “The Bodyguard” and first two for “Vanity Fair”

fivestars   (The Bodguard)

threestars (Vanity Fair)

Both Vanity Fair and The Bodyguard are shown at 9pm on Sunday evenings.  Catch up editions are available on the ITV hub (VF) and BBC I-Player (Bodyguard)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Barracoon- Zora Neale Hurston (2018) – A Real Life Review

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I first encountered African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel “Their Eyes Are Watching God” back in 2011 where it became one of my Top 10 reads of the year.  This is a book which has grown steadily in reputation, particularly this century and now is a recognised American classic.  Hurston produce three other novels and was a significant folklorist of tales of black America as well as a short story writer, playwright and essayist.  This book caused quite a stir when it was published for the first time earlier this year, 58 years after the author’s death.  I’d highlighted it back in January in my Looking Back, Looking Forward post as one of nine titles I was looking forward to reading this year and now I have.  (I couldn’t resist a peep back at that post- I’ve read just two of these so far although a number have to still to be published).

Subtitled “The Story Of The Last Slave” this came about as a result of a series of interviews in 1927/8 with Oluale Kossula who had been snatched, aged nineteen, from his West African home and brought over on the last slave ship “The Clotilda” in 1860, an illegal act carried out long after the abolition of the trans-Atlantic trade.  The group of men responsible for this escaped any charges of piracy and trafficking by destroying the evidence by scuppering the ship on its landing on American soil.

By 1927 Kossula was the last known survivor of this crossing and thus the last known first-generation slave.  Renamed Cudjo Lewis he spent over five years as a slave in Alabama for one of the men responsible for his capture and following emancipation was instrumental in the setting up of Africatown- a settlement of former slaves.

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Hurston visited Kossula, by then widowed and lonely and brought him peaches, melon and ham to get him to open up and used his worlds to take down his life story.  It is a heart-breaking tale which demands to be read.

That Hurston never found a publisher for this work in her lifetime seems extraordinary.  Cudjo Lewis had been previously interviewed by others (in fact even by Hurston herself) and was known as the last voice of this previous era.  There’s a hint of the suggestion that Hurston’s reputation in her early years had been dented by prior claims of plagiarism which could have rendered her account as untrustworthy.  That this account was put together by an African-American woman would have also limited its publication appeal.  There was also some contemporary nervousness about what Cudjo Lewis had to say.  His most disturbing revelation being that he was trafficked by neighbouring tribes rather than white traders.

Kossulu began his journey into slavery in a barracoon, a shoreside prison where captured men, women and children were stored until deals could be made with the white traders.

Hurston lets Kossulu speak in his own dialect which might seem initially off-putting to the modern reader but as with her later celebrated novel meaning soon becomes clear and the reader is likely to be captivated by the rhythm and poetry of the language.  The actual text of the interviews moves along quickly and is supplemented by probably an equal amount of accompanying material including a Foreword by Alice Walker and an Afterword by Deborah G. Plant and a number of Ossulu’s stories that Hurston, as folklorist and anthropologist took down verbatim.  This is a work which manages to be spine-chilling and endearing and is a thought provoking, always relevant read.

fourstars

Barracoon was first published in the UK as in 2018 by HQ.  It is available in paperback.

 

Cover Her Face – P D James (1962) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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How have I got to this ripe old age without having ever read P D James?  This is even more of an oversight when amongst my most-read authors you would find Ruth Rendell, Martina Cole and Agatha Christie.  I know how good Baroness James Of Holland Park (1920-2014) was and I always enjoyed watching and listening to her being interviewed and reading about her – but of her fiction, up to now I’ve not read a scrap.

Seeing as I like to read in chronological order I had to start with her very first novel, which introduced Adam Dalgleish dating right back to 1962.  It is a surprisingly traditional country house whodunnit with all the elements present from the golden age of crime fiction- a death in a locked room,  a social gathering which sees outsiders coming into the rarefied atmosphere of the house (in this case a garden fete), suspects both above and below stairs and a denouement where all of the possible killers are together for the unveiling by the lead sleuth, in this case, Detective Chief Inspector Adam Dalgleish.  Of him we learn very little on this outing (he has a boat for off-duty adventures) as it is the inhabitants of Martingale Manor who are this novel’s central focus.

1962 is quite late on in the day for a form of fiction that was at its peak a couple of decades earlier so it’s surprising that James was not offering anything new here, but what we do get is a plot which shows intelligence and a complete understanding of the genre. She paves the way with clues that I didn’t pick up on (I so rarely do) and has produced a novel which is well-written with involving characterisation which all adds to breathing some new life into a well-worn format.

There’s nothing that feels like cliché here and that is testament to James’ handling of the plot.  Some of the attitudes might seem old-fashioned but that is only to be expected.  I enjoyed reading this very much.
fourstars

Cover Your Face was first published in 1962 by Faber and Faber.  I read a 2010 paperback.  The book is still in print.

Frederica – Georgette Heyer (1965)

 

heyerI’ve been meaning to read some Georgette Heyer since reading about her in Christopher Fowler’s “Book Of Forgotten Authors”.  Certainly less forgotten than most of the featured writers, she is regularly taken out in the libraries where I work and was a great favourite of my partner’s mother who was known to stay up the whole night whenever she re-encountered one of Heyer’s titles.

Selecting “a member of staff’s favourite author” from the Sandown Library Russian Roulette Reading Challenge gave me a chance and I chose one of her later historical novels published 44 years into her lengthy career.  I think I was fully expecting a strong Jane Austen influence and that is very much present in this Regency tale.

 After settling down with the endearing opening where the Marquis of Alverstoke tries to avoid hosting a ball to introduce young female relatives to “the ton” at the start of “the Season” and whilst doing encounters distant family members who he is pushed to feeling responsible for I did find myself getting restless.  Much talk of balls and society and possible suitors was making this feel a bit of a dense slog.  It was, however, livened by the odd set piece- a runaway dog, a Pedestrian Curricle ride.  I did begin looking out for unintentional double entendres, which is a sign I’m wandering when reading classic and historical novels- a childish habit I know.  This was because I was finding Frederica Merriville’s attempts to get her stunning sister, Charis, paired up with an eligible man a little too predictable.  However, mid-way through this book did come into its own with the stunning Charis (probably the least interesting character in the novel) taking a back seat as the two younger Merriville boys, Jessamy and Felix take a more central role.  There is real drama in an expedition to watch a hot air balloon and it is from this point that this novel really lifts off (pun intended!).

 I can’t say I got a real feel for the Regency London setting but there’s no denying the amount of research Heyer must have put into her works to get it sounding right.  There’s a joyous use of contemporary slang and terms, many unfamiliar but which do not need further explanation.  Characterisation really won me over and I couldn’t help but feel that if Jane Austen herself had produced this work that she’d feel rather proud of it.  It’s certainly a long way from Mills and Boon historical novels and to be honest I wasn’t expecting it to be.  It’s actually a book that demands hunkering down with making it a better autumn/winter at home read rather than an on the beach one.  I think if time and duties had allowed me to read it in a more concentrated way I would have got more out of it, certainly from the sections I was finding heavy going.  I actually think my late mother-in-law might have had the right idea.

 I now know that there is a lot to enjoy in Georgette Heyer and there are a lot of books to discover.  She wrote 38 historical novels, 12 detective novels and 4 contemporary novels.  Next time I might see how she fares in the world of crime.

 fourstars

Frederica was first published in the UK in 1965.  I read the 2013 Arrow paperback reissue.

100 Essential CDs – Number 37– No Regrets: The Best Of- 1965-76 – Scott Walker And The Walker Brothers

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No Regrets– Scott Walker & The Walker Brothers (Universal 1992)
UK Chart Position – 4

A tale of three fame-hungry young American lads who adopted various pop music tropes (an imaginary family relationship, a move to Sixties London) and who found that fame, had considerable arguments about musical differences leading to a parting of the ways and three solo careers, an extremely talented and very different lead singer who might just have become one of the biggest stars in the world had he gone the way he was pushed, but who rebelled from the out and out commercialism of the pop market to become increasingly avant-garde, eventually challenging the patience of his most loyal fans and yet often viewed as a genius and then the reforming of the original group for a slightly understated last hurrah all over the period of 11 years and eighteen tracks on this 1992 CD. This is the tale of Scott Walker and The Walker Brothers.

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This act was never known throughout the career as Scott Walker and The Walker Brothers in that tradition of other sixties acts with hard-to-be-contained lead singers, the double moniker used here is to show that we have a mixture of Walker group and Walker solo tracks amongst the eighteen in a quite random format.

Scott Engels, Gary Leeds and John Maus heralded from Los Angeles. John had used the Walker name professionally and the three began working together recording a single “Love Her” moving Scott from background vocals to the lead. With this recorded the boys decided to try their luck in swinging London and signed with the Phillips record label. The Phillips connection brought them into contact with Ivor Raymonde and Johnny Franz, two of the shining beacons in British sixties pop who were working on the label and had recorded by this time huge classic hits with Dusty Springfield. (Franz would also go on to do great work with Madeline Bell). Adopting a big sound, as they so often did, reminiscent of a more orchestral Phil Spector’s “Wall Of Sound”, especially the hits he had with the Righteous Brothers, and using the equally big voice of Scott to great advantage these similarly-named non-siblings broke big.

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This CD, however, kicks off with the 1976 reunion hit “No Regrets”, used as the title for the compilation. It was great in 1976 to have this trio, who had all go on to have solo careers following their 1968 break-up back in the charts. The song has always seem to me to be understated and despite once again having a big musical feel Scott’s vocals seem distanced on this Tom Rush song. It gave them a number 7 hit but felt more like it could be a taster of more commercial hits to come. With such an initial buzz about the group being back together it was a surprise that this was their last chart hit and the studio album from where it came limped into the UK Top 50 and was also their last taste of any chart action before this compilation came along.

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A well- trodden way to get hits in the UK was to raid the catalogues of soul artists whose records had not become hits over here, especially those written for them by big-name composers. Thus Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Make It Easy On Yourself” initially with a demo vocal from their lead chanteuse of choice Dionne Warwick but given to Jerry Butler for a US Top 20 hit in 1962 was not known enough to preclude it being an ideal first single choice for the UK production team following the boys’ first hit – the US recorded single “Love Her” going to number 20. This paid off in style and gave The Walker Brothers a UK number 1 single (the first of two) in 1965 and paid dividends in their British Invasion obsessed homeland where it performed better than the Butler original, reaching #16. It’s a great single but as far as I am concerned there was even better to come as the trio enjoyed a run of three classic singles.

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The single releases are reversed on this CD which does save my favourite to last as here first up is “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore)”, their second chart-topper and their second and final hit in the US reaching number 13 and becoming the song most associated with this trio. The Phil Spector feel was certainly out in force on this Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio song written as a Frankie Valli solo track with a soulfully dripping vocal from Scott Walker drenched in a kind of baroque misery which just proved irresistible to the British public. Even better, as far as I am concerned is “My Ship (Is Coming In)” which was sandwiched as a single release between the previous two tracks and became a Top 3 UK hit at the end of 1965. I love the unabashed optimism of the lyrics but there’s just a feel, as there is in the greatest soul songs, that all might not turn out as expected. The way Scott opens his vocals for the title refrain is one of the great joys of British Sixties Pop. This song had also been taken from the US Soul back catalogue, this time of another favoured Bacharach and David singer, Jimmy Radcliffe, best known in the UK for his northern soul classic “Long After Tonight Is All Over”. Radcliffe is a greatly under-rated artist and it is hoped that those who loved the Walker Brothers version of this song took time to seek out his recordings.

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Following the comeback track and the trio of commercial classics we get on this CD two solo Scott Walker tracks which became hits in 1968/9. “The Lights Of Cincinatti” (UK#13) is fairly standard country-tinged pop typical of the period which doesn’t excite me much. I have always been fascinated, however by “Joanna” (UK#7). This, with its impressive vocal feels like the direction his record company and production team wanted to push Walker into. My Mum loved this song and it is aimed fairly and squarely at the more mature mums and grans end of the market. But they were big record buyers in 1968, a year which had seen chart-toppers from Des O’ Connor, Louis Armstrong and a backwards looking Mary Hopkin and Scott Walker was young and undeniably cool so you could almost sense the excitement of the Phillips label, thinking they had the new Sinatra on their hands with his recording of this Tony Hatch and Jackie Trent song which could not have been more middle of the road. Scott Walker, however, was never one to play ball.

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Following another Bacharach and David hit “Another Tear Falls” (UK#12) (originally for soul man Gene McDaniels) on this CD we get three tracks which Scott Walker was happier performing- two of his own compositions and a track originally recorded in French by Walker’s hero singer-songwriter Jacques Brel. Both “Boy Child” and “Montague Terrace In Blue” are sombre, uncommercial tracks which surely  have provided inspiration for artists such as Marc Almond and Morrissey and which took Walker into a completely different direction. His best track of all was his first solo single in which he set out his stall in a way which must have surprised those who thought they knew who Walker the solo artist was going to be from the Walker Brothers output. “Jacky” is an amazing tour-de-force, a track which is just so bonkers which never ceases to delight and amaze. Lyrically, I have never had any idea what is going on. Lines such as “And I’d sell boats of opium/Whisky that came from Twickenham/Authentic queers and phony virgins” were not going to get Scott Walker on Top Of The Pops and the BBC ban was inevitable. In those pre-Frankie Goes To Hollywood Days a BBC ban was counter-productive rather than helpful and this classic single only got to number 22. I just love it, I love the way it threatens to gallop away musically. There was more radio play for the equally Brel-obsessed Marc Almond in 1991 who took the track to number 17 but the Scott Walker version is the gem.

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These first ten tracks show how extraordinary the Walker Brothers and Scott Walker could be and the remaining eight could be said to follow along certain patterns without being so ground-breaking, there are more soul act covers “Stay With Me Baby” which actually doesn’t pull off the grandeur of the impassioned Lorraine Ellison original and the Ronettes’ “Walking In The Rain” (both UK Top 30 hits for the Walker Brothers) also works better in its original version. There’s the first American produced hit “Love Her” the track that stopped the run of their classic big hits “(Baby) You Don’t Have To Tell Me” (UK#13- 1966). There’s also the Jacques Brel standard as a solo Scott track, “If You Go Away”, well known in versions by Dusty Springfield, Terry Jacks and Nina Simone together with another 1976 track a version of Boz Scaggs’ “We’re All Alone” (a hit for Rita Coolidge but my favourite version is by The Three Degrees).  Perhaps the most interesting track of this bunch is one which seems to straddle the output of the group and the solo artist, a track written by Scott (under his real name) and Johnny Franz who was very much a mentor to the lead singer in the early years of the career “Deadlier Than The Male” (UK#32) was a film theme tune which seems somewhat ahead of its time and reminds me later acts The Divine Comedy and more explicitly Space who had a #14 UK 1991 hit with a track with similar title and feel (“Female Of The Species”) which was surely inspired by The Walker Brothers song.

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Despite a relatively short run of hits the influence of both The Walker Brothers group and especially Scott Walker the solo artist seems to have spanned the decades. Although there is nothing here after 1976 Scott Walker has periodically recorded to critical approval of his avant-garde work if not huge commercial sales. Gary Walker had a couple of UK Top 30 singles (both reached #26) in 1966 when he was still a Walker Brother and has since recorded as country-rock outfit Gary Walker and The Rain. Founder member and original lead vocalist John Walker also recorded sporadically, had his own UK Top 30 hit with “Annabella” in 1967 (#24) became a regular in Sixties revivals shows and died in 2011.
These 18 tracks provide an excellent taster for both The Walker Brothers and the early recordings of Scott Walker.

No Regrets- The Best Of Scott Walker & The Walker Brothers is currently available from Amazon for £4.99and used from £0 .09.  It can be downloaded for £3.99.  In the US other compilations seem more readily available.   In the UK it can also be streamed on Spotify.

Tribute To Aretha Franklin – An Essential Playlist

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On Wednesday 16th August we learnt of the passing of Aretha Franklin, aged 76 after a long battle with cancer.  This phenomenal artist, nicknamed Lady Soul, is one of the most important figures in the history of American popular music and her significance cannot be overestimated.

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 Despite this, I  am aware that I did not have any of her albums listed in my essential CD countdown.  There is no particular album of hers that I return to again and again.  There are however a number of essential tracks recorded by her which have given me so much pleasure over the years.  I’ve chosen sixteen which I’ve put in alphabetical order to produce a playlist which would surely be a fitting tribute to the undisputed Queen of Soul Music.

 A  Deeper Love (1994)– Previously a 1991 hit for writers Robert Clivilles and David Cole under their C&C Music Factory banner.  The writers also produced this steaming Aretha version which featured in “Sister Act 2”.  It gave Aretha the third of her three Top 5 hits in the UK.  It was the lead new track on her Greatest Hits (1980-94) collection.

Angel (1973) – A track written by Aretha’s sister Carolyn who provided backing vocals alongside other sister Erma in this recording produced by Aretha with Quincy Jones.  A real family affair of a track it appeared on her “Hey Now Hey (The Other Side Of The Sky) album.  As a single it reached #20 in the US and 37 in the UK.

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Another Night (1986) – I love this track!  Perhaps in response to the Tina Turner comeback Aretha’s vocals were at their smokiest in a song which would have suited Tina very nicely.  Produced by Michael Narada Walden it reached #22 in the US and was my favourite track on the “Who’s Zoomin’ Who” album.

April Fools (1972) – Aretha did a lovely version of this Burt Bacharach and Hal David song on her “Young Gifted And Black” album.

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Border Song (Holy Moses) (1972) – From the same album comes a version of an Elton John/Bernie Taupin which is perfect for Aretha’s gospel voice.  I really like the version which appeared on her final 2017 album “A Brand New Me” which saw reworkings of classic tracks with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The original version reached #37 in the US in 1972

Call Me (1970) – Just a brilliant, tender love song which appeared on her “This Girl’s In Love With You” album.  A number 13 hit in the US and one of my favourite tracks from her most successful period.

Don’t Play That Song (1970) – From her “Spirit In The Dark” album another great version of this song is by Ben E. King.  Aretha’s version made #11 in the US, #13 UK.

I Knew You Were Waiting For Me (1987) – Recorded with George Michael this became her second US Pop #1 single and her only UK chart-topper to date.

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I Will Survive (2014) – Her forty-first and final studio album was an intriguing set of songs associated with other female artists.  Aretha transforms the song that every karaoke singer has had a go at. 

Jump To It (1982) – I love this in its 12” mix.  The title track of her Luther Vandross produced album.  Hovered outside the Top 40 in the UK but got to number 24 in her  homeland

Nessun Dorma (1998) – This one takes a bit of hunting.  It just has the best story behind it.  At the Grammy awards ceremony Pavarotti was lined up to sing his most famous aria but was taken ill.  Who could step in?  Aretha.  It sounds like a mixture of improvisation and sheer bravado but she brings the house down.  The live recording appeared on a 2007 compilation “Jewels In The Crown” which featured her duets with other artists.  This closed the album with a veritable bang.

Oh Me Oh My (I’m A Fool For You Baby) (1972) – Another highlight from her “Young Gifted And Black” album.  In the US this was released as a double A sided single with her own composition “Rock Steady”, which got more of the airplay and reached #9 in the US charts before the release of the album.

Respect (1967) – A version of an Otis Redding song which really made Aretha’s name.  She’d been recording standards on Columbia records since the early sixties and they didn’t really know what to do with her.  She became the voice of 1967 with this song which tapped into the mood of the times.  A US chart-topper, reached #10 in the UK and probably the track that she will be most remembered for.

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Rolling In The Deep (2014)– Aretha takes on Adele on her “Sings The Great Diva Classics album and this was the track which attracted the most publicity.  It incorporates “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” to great effect.

Until You Come Back To Me(1973) – From her “Let Me In Your Life” album .  Originally recorded by songwriter Stevie Wonder his version did not appear for some years after Aretha took hers to #3 in the US and 26 in the UK.

Willing To Forgive (1994) – Like “A Deeper Love” this was one of the new tracks on her “Greatest Hits 1980-94” compilation and is a simple, effective, unshowy soul ballad written and produced by Babyface and LA Simmons.  One of my favourites in the Franklin canon – although I loved her with all guns blazing this shows what a great song stylist she is.  Number 26 in the US but a bigger hit in the UK where it reached 17.
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I hope the tracks in this playlist will give you as much pleasure as they have given me. There will never be another vocalist like Aretha Franklin.  Rest in peace.  These tracks can be found on the albums mentioned and also to stream on Spotify.