100 Essential CDs – Number 6– Dusty Springfield – The Silver Collection

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The Silver Collection – Dusty Springfield (Philips 1988)
UK Chart Position – 14

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Dusty Springfield was the best of the British 60’s singers and her lasting legacy on popular music cannot be over-emphasised. This single CD collection of 24 tracks was put out (originally on vinyl) in 1988 to celebrate Dusty’s 25th year as a solo artist. Its healthy chart position marked the first time she gained a Top 20 album in 22 years when another hits compilation had reached number 2. At the time of “The Silver Collection’s” release Dusty had received a boost in her career thanks to her association with the Pet Shop Boys and their “What Have I Done To Deserve This” which had been a number 2 hit on both sides of the Atlantic in 1987. There was no new material on this compilation, the tracks chosen were her sixties hits and contains her only UK number 1, her twelve UK Top 20 and five US Top 20 hits from this decade. It is the perfect one disc introduction and her most essential release.

dusty2The Lana Sisters, Dusty (pre-beehive) on the left

Mary O’Brien began her music career as a Lana Sister, a late 50’s girl group which followed an established pattern of girls posing as or as real sisters performing light pop tunes in a style which picked up on the continuing popularity of the Andrews Sisters. These acts were perfect for variety shows and summer seasons and for the early days of television where was a demand for attractive girls, dressed in similar clothes, performing inoffensive ditties. Some, including The Beverley Sisters (real siblings) achieved a good level of success. The Lana Sisters, however, despite recording a few singles and appearing on stage with some of the top acts of light entertainment of the time were not so fortunate and Mary decided to move on to join her folk singer brother’s band The Springfields. Here was another fake family outing in a way, Mary became Dusty Springfield and her brother Dion, Tom Springfield. They were joined by Tim Feild who never adopted The Springfield moniker but did later become a spiritual leader and expert on Sufism, and father of actor JJ Feild (best known for playing a younger version of a character played by Michael Caine in “Last Orders” and for an excellent turn as 60’s pop singer Heinz in “Telstar” the bio-pic of producer Joe Meek). The trio became regular television guests and scored a couple of UK Top 5 hits in 1962/63. If you see clips of them performing it was really difficult to take your eyes of Dusty, so perhaps inevitable that she would decide to embark on a solo career.

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The Springfields: Tim, Dusty and Tom

There was one of those seismic movements in popular music when Dusty recorded her first single. Known primarily as a folk singer and probably by a younger audience as slightly old fashioned she exploded with a delightful slab of pop-soul inspired by both Motown and Phil Spector and became instantly Britain’s coolest solo singer with an instantly recognisable image. “I Only Want To Be With You” entered the charts in November 1963. Throughout that year a four piece band from Liverpool had been rewriting British pop and Dusty wanted to be part of it in a song which seemed to perfectly straddle the new and old eras. Producer Johnny Franz had that big orchestral feel given a “wall of sound” in a rock and roll number which combined with Dusty’s smokey tones felt different.

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Reputedly there had been a number of recordings made in a hunt for the song which would really establish Dusty as a singer. These were not released as Franz held back for the perfect match and he found it in this. His patience was rewarded. It became a number 4 hit in the UK and Dusty found herself in the wave of British artists who were making it big in the US with this, her very first release which reached number 12 in the Billboard charts and also made the Top 10 in Australia and Ireland. The song has lasting appeal and also established the chart career of another great British talent, Annie Lennox, when as lead singer of The Tourists it reached the same position Dusty posted in 1979, which weirdly was also the position it reached three years earlier in a paler version by The Bay City Rollers. Samantha Fox broke the pattern when she took it to number 16 in 1989 (the Rollers also uncannily peaked at the same chart position as Dusty in the US#12, with Sam Fox getting to #31).

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Dusty’s follow-up single “Stay Awhile” was almost as good. It had a similar feel but ramped up the Phil Spector vibe to the point where it almost sounds like a Ronettes track. Sales were not as buoyant as it reached #13 in the UK and #38 in the US but her hit status on both sides of the Atlantic were confirmed. What comes next on the CD is perhaps her greatest single and the track which marked her out as a real soul singer and one able to drive up the dramatic potential of a song to the max. “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” had already been recorded by Soul men Jerry Butler and Tommy Hunt both men with great voices but giving the female viewpoint on this Bacharach/David song worked magnificently. Dusty apparently was given the song to record by Burt Bacharach when they met in New York. From its gentle horn start it seems like a great soul number and then builds with the Johnny Franz production. Dusty’s voice beautifully sums up the ennui at the end of the relationship. The vocal and the whole feel of the song set the template for the rest of Springfield’s career. It became her biggest UK hit to that point reaching number 3.

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In the US they went for the next track another Bacharach and David composition “Wishin’ And Hopin” which had been previously recorded by Dionne Warwick which was turned into a UK #13 hit by The Merseybeats. This track gave Dusty her biggest US hit to date reaching number 6. It was also her biggest hit to this point in Australia where it got to number 2. Another Bacharach and David song “The Look Of Love” which became a standard was given to Dusty to record the first vocal version and also gained an Oscar nomination in 1968 when it was used in the soundtrack of the first version of “Casino Royale”.

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From 1964 we get the great swinging ballad “Losing You” which was a UK number 9 and which also benefits from an exemplary vocal. “Give Me Time” is a sultry number and was an example of Dusty’s management hunting out songs that had been European hits, being an English language version of L’Amore Se Ne Va” an Italian hit single. Released in 1967 it became a number 24 hit but didn’t quite pay the dividends raiding the Italian songbook had done the previous year. “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” began life as “Io Che Non Vivo (Senza Te)” by Pino Donaggio, an Italian chart-topper which was entered in a European Song Festival (not the Eurovision) which took place at San Remo and at which Dusty was also entered. She loved the song and the English language lyrics were written by two prominent music managers of the time Vicki Wickham and Simon Napier-Bell. Dusty was determined to get the emotional power of this huge ballad right. Always a perfectionist this one apparently took 47 takes and was recorded with her standing on the stairs outside the studio. Frustration with her performance was a common bugbear. Neil Tennant has spoken how when he worked with her she would record her vocals in very small sections and that he had never encountered anyone who worked in this way before. The repeated takes were worth it as this song became Dusty’s biggest hit, a UK number one and number 4 in the US. The song is a standard recorded by many artists over the year but few could give it the conviction of Dusty.

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I love Dusty when she metaphorically lets that famous beehive down and relaxes into uptempo numbers. “In The Middle Of Nowhere” (UK#8 1965) and “Little By Little” (UK#17 1966) are great examples of peak-era Springfield. Both songs were written by Buddy Kea and Bea Verdi. Kaye was a veteran song-writer who had written songs such as “A (You’re Adorable)” and hits for Perry Como, Frank Sinatra and Dinah Washington and “Speedy Gonzales” for Pat Boone. These tracks for Dusty show that he was still going strong in the mid 60’s.

Dusty was a great song stylist and her version of a song often challenged the original. I prefer Bacharach and David’s “24 Hours From Tulsa” from Gene Pitney’s more histrionic guilt-ridden male standpoint but her version of Belgian Jacques Brel’s “If You Go Away” is the best version of this song I have heard. Her version of “How Can I Be Sure?” is magnificent. Also on this CD Dusty doesn’t really challenge the hit versions of Dionne Warwick/Cilla Black’s “Anyone Who Had A Heart” nor Barbara Acklin/Swing Out Sister’s “Am I The Same Girl”.

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In 1968 Dusty released my second favourite track of hers. “I Close My Eyes And Count To Ten” has the drama of the big ballads combined with a neo-classical feel through great piano work and is just an excellent song. Written by Clive Westlake who had previously given Dusty two hit songs in “Losing You” (written with her brother Tom) and “All I See Is You”. Both had reached number 9 in the UK with “All I See Is You” getting to number 20 in the US in 1966. Amazingly, “I Close My Eyes” did not chart in the US. It was caught up in Dusty’s changing of labels from Phillips to Atlantic and probably was not promoted with the gusto of her earlier hits.

dusty10Dusty with Martha and The Vandellas

By 1969 Dusty’s soul credentials were renowned. She had been instrumental in promoting the Motown label four years earlier in the UK putting together a now legendary episode of TV show “Ready Steady Go” which had her introducing Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, The Miracles and Martha & The Vandellas in one extraordinary episode demonstrating Dusty’s love for black American music and beginning a life-long friendship with Martha Reeves. Sometimes this role is a little overstated, the Motown stars were well-known over here with The Supremes having scored a UK number 1 with “Baby Love” and the other acts (with the exception of Stevie at this point) notching up their own hits. She didn’t actually introduce Motown to the Brits but ensured we saw some of its biggest stars on our black and white TV sets on a Friday tea-time. By the late 60’s Aretha Franklin’s star was in the ascendancy and the sounds of American Southern Soul were making inroads in the charts and Atlantic and Stax records were moving music on from the pop/soul of Motown. Dusty wanted a part of this and went to Memphis to record her 5th studio album with heavyweight soul producers Jerry Wexler, Arif Mardin and Tom Dowd and backed by Aretha’s backing singers The Sweet Inspirations which included Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mum as a member.

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“Dusty In Memphis” was critically acclaimed and saw Dusty heralded as new blue-eyed soul royalty. It is an album which regularly features in lists of the greatest album ever made. It was a very strong studio album but I think I would give her debut “A Girl Called Dusty” the slight edge. “Memphis” just misses out on being an essential album for me because I find it a little intense, the song choices are not all great and I think Memphis took out some of the verve of the British recordings which I loved. Perhaps buyers at the time agreed with me as it never charted in the UK and barely scraped the charts in the US. Perhaps some saw it as Dusty deserting her homeland or the whole concept might have been too cool for the mainstream. It is an important album and really from this you can track influences along to many female singers of today, especially Adele. From this album you get two stand-out tracks Randy Newman’s “Just One Smile” and another of Dusty’s signature songs and the big hit single “Son Of A Preacher Man”.

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“Preacher Man” was originally intended for Aretha Franklin, but neither her nor her management were initially sure about the song. Once Aretha heard Dusty’s version she was convinced and she covered it on her 1970 album “This Girl’s In Love With You”. There’s no doubt about it this is a real soul song and reached number 9 in the UK and 10 in the US.

For her next album Dusty relocated to Philadephia to record. “A Brand New Me” was an early example of the sweet soul sound which emanated largely from the city over the next few years and here she was working with the masters, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff who would go on to have major success with their Philadelphia International Label. The title track written with their leading songwriter Thom Bell sounds like a perfect match between all these talents but was not a hit. The album was titled “From Dusty With Love” in the UK and was a small hit, performing better in the charts than “Dusty In Memphis” had done.

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Also on this CD you get the extended metaphor of a lost love in “My Colouring Book” a Kander and Ebb song which Dusty performs sublimely and the wistful “Goin’ Back” a Jerry Goffin and Carole King song.

Throughout the 70’s Dusty spent more time in the US, preferring the anonymity a large country could offer. She felt hounded by the press in the UK as they seemed obsessed  with her sexuality which she struggled herself to come to terms with. Her recording career became more erratic. For a while she became fascinated by women’s tennis and followed the ATP tour around the US. There were often short-lived comebacks but it was not until the Pet Shop Boys worked with her that her commercial credentials were re-established. Following the release of this album Dusty celebrated a run of hits of great singles “Nothing Has Been Proved”, “In Private” and “Reputation”. She died of breast cancer in 1999.

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The influence of Dusty Springfield lives on and she has certainly influenced my music choices for the whole of my lifetime. From her groundbreaking performances and career you can see the evidence of other of my Essential CD choices with Madeline Bell, Duffy, Martha Reeves, The Carpenters, The Exciters and Gloria Estefan springing immediately to mind. Her “Silver Collection” is chock-full of gems and is always my starting point when I want a blast of Britain’s best female star. I know I’ve written a long review here but I find it impossible to pass any of these great tracks by without some comment.

The Silver Collection  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £3.99 and used from £0.09.  It can be downloaded for £7.99 . In the US it is available  from $10.00 and used for $1.02.   In the UK it is available to stream on Spotify.

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Top 10 Books Of The Year- Part 2 (The Top 5)

I’m continuing my count-down of the best books I read in 2017.

5. Everyone Brave Is Forgiven – Chris Cleave (Sceptre 2016) (Read and reviewed in April)

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It’s been a good year for writers called Chris, as there are two of them in my Top 10. This British novelist’s fourth novel spanned the years 1939-1942 and centred on war-torn London and Malta, gripped by a blockade which threatens starvation for civilians and soldiers. I said “this is an excellent novel from a great story-teller who deserves his position amongst the best of the novelists who have written about this time in our history.”

Current Amazon sales rating: 10,968 in Books (has been much higher!)

4. The Wicked Cometh – Laura Carlin (Hodder & Stoughton 2018) (Read and reviewed in November)

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Feel like I’m cheating a bit here as this hasn’t even been published yet (according to latest info the hardback is due on 1st Feb.) I was really drawn into the world of this debut novel set in Victorian London.  I said “I think she has got everything more or less spot on here and has written an authentic historical novel and a really good thrilling page-turner.” Still expecting this to achieve very healthy sales in 2018.

Current Amazon sales rating: 68,464 in Books (based on pre-orders).

3. The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead (Fleet 2016) (Read and reviewed in September)

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I read this when it appeared on the Man Booker longlist and felt it had to be in with a great chance of scooping the Prize.  In the US it had taken both the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize.  Here, it shockingly failed to make the shortlist, probably overshadowed by British author Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West” which touched on similar themes.  It was the best American novel I read this year.  I  felt “it ticks all the boxes for me, an involving, entertaining, well-written, imaginative, educational, unpredictable read.”

Current Amazon sales rating: 81 in Books (this has been a big seller)

2. Owl Song At Dawn – Emma Claire Sweeney (Legend 2016) (Read and reviewed in February)

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Pipped at the post by the very last book I read in 2017 this came very close to being the first British novel to be my book of the year since 2012 (also incidentally the last time a female author was at the top).  The fact that this is a debut novel makes it all the more outstanding.  I first heard of this when it was shortlisted by Nudge and newbooks for the BookHugger book of the year.  It went on to win beating a set of books from a very good list which also included my year end Top 10ers by Jodi Picoult and Helen Dunmore.  Dull February days were enlivened by this heartwarming novel.  An unsentimental, humorous tale of a Morecambe guest house which is being used as a holiday home for guests with disabilities and their carers.  Great central character, Maeve who is pushing 80 and has to come to terms with regrets in her past.  It wasn’t a typical read for me but it works so well on so many levels.

Current Amazon sales rating: 328, 095 in Books

And the reviewsrevues Book of The Year is………….

1.The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (Black Swan 2017) (Read and Reviewed in December)

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It just had to be this book.  It is Irish author John Boyne’s 10th adult novel (and there are 5 for younger readers). I haven’t read him before but I was blown away by the whole thing right from the first few pages.  I wrote a lengthy review (click on the title to read it) just to justify why it impressed me so much.  “I said It may very well be my favourite books of this decade.” I think this is a book which has a reputation which will grow and grow. Perhaps the only thing I wasn’t totally convinced by is the front cover of the paperback edition, but that’s probably nothing to do with the author.

Current Amazon sales rating: 743 in Books

John Boyne joins a select bunch of authors.  Here are my favourites from the last ten years, which probably tells you a considerable amount about me as a reader.

2017 – The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (2017) (Ireland)

2016- Joe Speedboat – Tommy Wieringa (2016) (Netherlands)

2015- Alone In Berlin- Hans Fallada (2009 translation of a 1947 novel) (Germany)

2014- The Wanderers – Richard Price (1974) (USA)

2013- The Secrets Of The Chess Machine – Robert Lohr (2007) (Germany)

2012 – The Book Of Human Skin – Michelle Lovric (2010) (UK)

2011 – The Help- Kathryn Stockett (2009) (USA)

2010- The Disco Files 1973-78 – Vince Aletti (1998) (USA)

2009- Tokyo – Mo Hayder (2004) (UK)

2008- The Book Thief – Markus Zusak (2007) (Australia)

Happy New Year and let’s hope there’s lots of great reading in 2018!

 

 

 

 

Top 10 Books Of The Year – 2017- Part 1 (10-6)

In 2017 I managed to read 67 books which is thirteen down on my record breaking score last year but exactly the same number as I read in 2015.  Everything I’ve read has been reviewed on this site and this year I’ve awarded 10 books the maximum five stars, 31 four stars and 26 three stars, which seems to be to be a good spread.  I’ve not read anything which disappointed me enough to get a two star or one star read. I’ve read a lot more books as they are published or  soon after and looking at my Top 10 it is the first year ever where all the books have either been published in 2016 (with the paperback appearing this year), 2017 and in one not-yet-published case 2018.  I think that shows how good writing is at the moment.  I’ve not narrowed the list down to only those which appeared this year.  If I read it this year, then it’s eligible.  (The earliest dated book I read this year was 1931 and Margery Allingham’s “Police At The Funeral” but she hasn’t made the list).

What I haven’t done this year at all is re-read any books (I used to re-read about 10 books a year).  With publishers sending me books and with Netgalley pressures the re-reads have been pushed out, which is a shame as I love re-reading favourites and this is something I’ll need to rebalance in 2018.  Choosing the books for my Top 10 has actually been easier this year because of those 10 five star reads, so all I needed to do was allocate positions for my annual review of my year in books .  Anything that doesn’t make the top 10 gets culled from the bookshelves or off the Kindle, which means this year I’m losing a lot of very good books (but you can’t keep them all, I know I’ve tried in the past!)

Although I’ve read books before by two authors on my Top 10 list for all of them it is their first appearance on the list, so as far as I am concerned, these are likely to be the authors’ best books.  Those also a couple of debut novelists there.  The books are all fiction for the second year running and last year I had a fifty-fifty gender split this year the women have the edge with a 60/40 domination.  All of the titles have been  reviewed on this site- click on the titles to link to the full review.

10. Exposure- Helen Dunmore ( Windmill 2016) (Read and reviewed in January)

exposureThis was the second of Helen Dunmore’s novels I have read but her first appearance on my Best Of The Year list.  Set in 1960 in an England paranoid about the Cold War and high profile spy cases this is a thrillingly written thriller which focuses on this paranoia affecting a family when a secret file goes missing.  Helen Dunmore sadly passed away in June this year, aged 64, not long after the publication of her last book “Birdcage Walk” which I am yet to read.  She has left a legacy of 15 novels which demand to be discovered.

Current Amazon sales rating: #4592 in Books

9. The Golden Age – Joan London ( Europa 2016)  (Read in March, reviewed here in May)

goldenageAustralian author Joan London won awards in her homeland with her third novel and here was longlisted for the Wellcome Prize which focuses on books having an emphasis on health.  This was set in a polio hospital in the early 1950’s.  I described it as  “a beautifully observed, quiet novel which belies its grim subject matter and becomes a life-affirming testament to hope and love.”

Current Amazon sales rating: 202,593 in Books.

8. Small Great Things – Jodi Picoult (Hodder & Stoughton 2016) (Read and reviewed in January)

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The first of this American author’s 23 novels I have read.  Her fans have told me it’s not quite like her other books but there seems to be a general consensus that this is her best.  Picoult is a superb storyteller and I thought this “feels relevant, up to the minute and especially with the America their electorate has recently chosen for them, totally convincing.  There are so many layers to the conversations that readers could have about this book.  I cannot imagine a more ideal reading group book has been published in the last few years.”

Current Amazon sales rating: 136 in Books (probably the biggest commercial hit on my list- this was a big seller when it arrived in hardback and then again in paperback).

7. All The Wicked Girls – Chris Whitaker (Zaffre 2017) (Read in June, reviewed in July)

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Chris Whitaker is great and you should all be buying his books.  He just missed out on my Top 10 last year with his debut “Tall Oaks” and when his latest American set crime novel arrived I was convinced he would be topping best-seller lists.  He impressed me here with “how authentic the author’s creation of small town America feels, in terms  of speech, the environment, their cultural references and lives.  The prejudices and obsessions of  a small community is so effectively conveyed and I found the whole thing totally involving.”  Chris is a great friend to us bloggers.  I have interviewed him twice and he is the only author this year to make a comment on my review.  I have been told by other bloggers how enthusiastic he is about us all when appearing at book talks.  Oh, and his comment to me, just in case you haven’t seen it : “I love you, Phil. (I worry I don’t tell you that enough)”.  It wasn’t his flattery I succumbed to but the quality of his novel!The best crime novel I read this year.

Current Amazon sales rating: 61,735 in Books (it’s great commercial fiction which should be in Amazon’s best sellers).

6. Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury Circus 2017)  (Read and reviewed in September)

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Honestly, it is unlikely that I would have read Kamila Shamsie’s modern retelling of the Antigone myth had it not been longlisted for the Man Booker prize.  I was amazed it did not make the shortlist as I ask everyone who returns a library book copy whether they have enjoyed it and it universally gets the thumbs up.  The author, in this, her seventh novel has recast the ancient Greek characters as a Muslim family from Wembley. I said of this “Shamsie is educating, entertaining and gripping her readers in a manner which explores the potential of the plot in eye-opening, thought-provoking ways.  This feels like a very important novel for our times and yet has an age-old story as its framework.” A bag of M&Ms has a lot to answer for in this book.

Current Amazon sales rating: 2,197 in books

Next post – My Top 5 reads from 2017

100 Essential Books – The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne (Black Swan 2017)

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2017 seems to have, as far as my reading choices are concerned, kept the best till last.  The following review might sound as if I’ve been knocking back the sherries and become overly-infused with Christmas goodwill, but no, it’s just that I’ve spent the last few days in the company of this book which is undoubtedly the best book I’ve read (excluding re-reads) since I started this blog.  It may very well be my favourite book of this decade.

I suppose we are all on the look-out for what we would consider to be “the perfect book”, the book that exactly matches the reader, the book which represents all that we are looking for in our reading and this, for me, may very well be it.  Too often I’ve chosen a novel wondering if it could be “the one” and it hasn’t lived up to my expectations, or the hype, or it is unable to sustain the potential throughout the course of its pages.  This, I think, has managed to pull together all that I look for in my fiction into one tidy volume.

The odd thing is that I’ve never actually read anything by Irish writer John Boyne before.  I have had a copy of “The Boy With Striped Pyjamas” on my shelves for some time, but  I don’t think I’ve yet g0t over seeing the very good film adaptation.  My partner, who has read it, said it was one of the best books he has read, so perhaps the writing was on the wall.  “Pyjamas” is aimed at the older child/YA market and that is where, up to now, Boyne has perhaps been most celebrated.  I have picked up his books in shops and on library shelves and thought “I must get round to reading that”, but so far I haven’t.  It feels like there’s almost been a kind of courtship before I committed myself to this author.  So why has this worked so well for me?  Why is there such a match?

It’s a possibility that nationality has something to do with it.  As far as I know I haven’t got a drop of Irish blood in me but I’m often attracted by the work of Irish authors.  In recent years novels by Paul Murray, Donal Ryan and Sara Baume have appeared near the top of my end of year lists and there have been a number more who have written books that have really impressed me, including  Anne Enright, Nick Laird, Sebastian Barry, Jess Kidd and Graham Norton.  I have found myself favouring Irish and Irish-set novels (Hannah Kent’s “The Good People) and Emma Donoghue’s “The Wonder” both springing to mind) on this very blog.

Is it also because it has a gay central character and the novel explores a life-long battle with his own sexuality dominated by the repression of mid twentieth century Ireland.  Gay themed novels are likely to resonate and Allan Hollinghurst, Sarah Waters, Armistead Maupin, Michael Carson and David Leavitt have written such novels which are amongst my all-time favourites.  This book has pushed itself to the front of such esteemed company.

I’m also looking for characters to emotionally respond to and, boy, do I here, not just with the main characters but with a superbly drawn supporting cast which creates a novel of depth and feeling.  I also like a book which is going to make me laugh, as so few do, and even fewer do so consistently.  Paul Murray (another Irish author) with his tale of Irish financial institutions “The Mark & The Void” was the last to make me laugh as much as this.

I’m also a sucker for an epic sweep and this novel spans from 1945 to the present day.  There is a potential pitfall here, which I’ve highlighted often and that is I can be reading a book and loving the narrative flow then the section ends and it’s twenty years later and you’re left trying to re-establish who is who and what’s going on.  The danger being, of course, if you don’t like the new time-frame as much you find yourself yearning for a return to the earlier section.  This is also a trap faced by multi-narrative novels.  Here, I did feel occasionally saddened that a section I was so much into had ended but what came next was just as involving or even better.  At over 700 pages it is not the longest novel I have read this year but avoids all of the potential pitfalls of the fuller-figured work and becomes a rare thing – a long novel that I just did not want to end.

Boyne keeps to the one first-person narrative and that person is Cyril Avery who begins his tale with his pregnant mother being denounced as a whore by the parish priest in the midst of the Mass, leading her to having to flee her village and deal with Cyril’s inevitable arrival in a Dublin where a single mother with child is not a good option for survival.  Cyril is moved on and this is the tale of his life.  I’m not giving much away in order to maximise your reading pleasure.  I knew nothing about this book when I started it which heightened the experience and made the unpredictable turn of events throughout an absolute joy.  I did spot that Rachel Joyce had enthused on the cover “Invest in this journey because it will pay you back forever” and I can’t remember agreeing with on-cover blurb more.  Finishing it today (and I really slowed down on purpose, another great sign) I’m feeling quite bereft and am almost tempted to start the whole thing again, but recalling the recent memory of the Xmas tin of “Celebrations”, to gorge myself again so soon might be too much of a good thing.

Looking back over this I don’t know why I’ve spent the last few hundred words justifying why I’m praising this novel so much.  Just get over it!  It’s a superb book! I know that I’m stingier with my star ratings and with words of praise than many of the bloggers I follow and read but for me this book is exactly what the five star rating was made for.  If you award the maximum to too many how can you ensure that the very, very best stand out.

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The Heart’s Invisible Furies was published as a Black Swan Paperback in December 2017.  Many thanks to Netgalley and to the publishers for the review copy.

 

100 Essential CDs – Number 31 – Phil Spector/Various Artists – A Christmas Gift For You

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A Christmas Gift For You (Phil Spector Records 2002)

UK Chart Position – 19 (in 1983)

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Now, I know this is going to be a controversial choice.  I am in no way condoning the actions of Phil Spector that currently finds him a convicted killer in the American prison system.  The man is undeniably a disturbed individual whose drive for perfection has pushed him over the edge to paranoia and madness.  He is the mastermind behind this recording but to ignore what is undoubtedly the best Christmas album of all time and the role of the artists who take part in this recording also doesn’t feel right.

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In the UK these songs can be heard on the radio at Xmas time and appear on many compilations.  It’s not like convicted paedophile Gary Glitter who was at one time another voice of Christmas who is never played publicly.  There’s also precedence here in someone who was known as the British Phil Spector, Joe Meek, who shot his landlady  and then himself in a murder-suicide in 1967.  This also horrific act has not prevented play of his biggest hit “Telstar” by the Tornados (once oddly cited as Margaret Thatcher’s favourite pop song!).  The writing was on the wall early on for Spector, a man who is often described as a meglomaniac, who as a young artist and songwriter macabrely used his father’s graveyard epitaph “To Know Him Is To Love Him” as the inspiration for his first number one hit for his group The Teddy Bears and virtually imprisoned wife Ronnie which she recounted in her chilling autobiography “Be My Baby” (1990) and was rumoured to bring guns to the recording studio.  There was a horrific car accident in the mid 70’s and years of recluse before the fateful shooting in 2003 and subsequent incarceration for murder in the second degree.

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But, I’ve decided to put the history of Spector behind me in this celebration of a joyful Christmas album, which has been with me for as long as I can remember.  Just as the John Lewis or Coca-Cola ads signify the start of Christmas nowadays in Christmas pasts for me the festive season never really got going until I heard The Ronettes sing “Frosty The Snowman” on the radio (although Christmas started much later when I was young!) 

This album was originally released in 1963.  This is the digitally remastered CD which appeared on Phil Spector records in 2002.  It has been released countless times over the years. At one time it was re-released on the Beatles’ Apple Records.  It has appeared regularly in Billboard’s Christmas Music chart listings and its UK chart peak was 19 in 1983 when it was teamed up with a greatest hits album.  I would have played this many times over that festive period.  It has appeared on Rolling Stone magazines list of the greatest album of all time, appears in 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die and is apparently the all-time favourite album of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, whose layered vocal harmonies of their hits is a direct nod towards Phil Spector’s “Wall Of Sound”.  It hasn’t sounded quite the same since Spector’s incarceration but a Christmas has never gone by without me listening to it. The All Music Guide To Soul publication rates it five stars and describes it as “This is the Christmas album by which all later holiday releases had to be judged, and it has inspired a host of imitators.”

philspector4Darlene Love

It is part of my own little Yuletide tradition that every December 24th I have to hear Darlene Love perform her version of “White Christmas” which opens this CD. The reason for this is that little spoken bit when she says – “It’s December 24th”, I like to say “it is” before she carries on with “I’m longing to go up north.”.  Opening with that fabulous echoey sound and taken at a faster pace than Bing’s version.  This is the LA version of “White Christmas” as the sunny weather is making Darlene nostalgic for a bit of snow.  This is my favourite version of the song, I’ve always found Bing’s version to be a bit depressing but this is full of anticipation, snow and, amazingly, sunshine.  It’s not all about the production here as Darlene’s vocal performances on all her tracks are a treat.

philspector5The Ronettes out looking for Frosty The Snowman

Next up is that Christmas song I have always looked out for from a child, the tale of “Frosty The Snowman” by the Ronettes.  Great use of pizzicato strings gives the feeling of ice, the great split second pause after Ronnie Spector sings “Stop!” and those delightfully naïve lyrics makes this a gem of a Christmas tune.  “The Bells Of St. Mary’s”, a less familiar song which dates from 1917 has lyrics which I really don’t know what’s going on but I know that lyrically it has no connection with Christmas.  That apparently came when it was linked with a festive scene in the Bing Crosby film of the same name and with Bings’ close connection with Hollywood Christmases, this song found itself being associated with the season despite lyrics such as the bells calling “the young loves/the true loves/who come from the sea”. It always makes me think of mermaids and the falling red leaves puts it very much in the autumn time zone.  Bob B Soxx and The Blue Jeans are given a massive production here and at times it’s a bit of a battle but the lead singer Bobby Sheen, with Darlene Love and Fanita James on back-up just about avoids being swamped.

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The Crystals’ “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” begins with a spoken intro about Santa’s workshop and kicks off a storming version which has inspired most other versions since then, especially the arguably more famous version by Bruce Springsteen. There’s a  greathonking sax solo.  The lasting influence of this album is also evidenced in the next track The Ronettes’ “Sleigh Ride” which opens with woodblocks and a neighing horse into a “Ring-a-ring- a- ring -dong-ding” backing vocals.  This song is a certain inspiration for what must know be the biggest Xmas song of all time, Mariah Carey’s pension-fund “All I Want For Christmas Is You”.  23 years on from it’s original release Mariah’s song is currently sitting at number 5 in the UK Top 40 charts where it makes an appearance every year, as it races up charts all around the world.  It has actually never topped the UK Christmas charts and has never made the Top 10 in her homeland but this is now the most recognisable Yultetide song, eclipsing the Slades and Wizzards of my youth.  The Ronettes who provide this track with its inspiration do a glorious version of this song written by Leroy Anderson who was also responsible for the lovely instrumental track “The Typewriter”. It has the real feel of the warmth returning to all your regions after some time out in the snow!

philspector7The Ronettes had a fabulous, fierce image

There’s some neo-classical string work to open up another one of the gems of the album the relentless “It’s A Marshmallow World” by Darlene Love.  This song was once again originally a hit for Bing Crosby but I cannot imagine his version has anywhere near the gusto that Darlene puts into it.  An absolute treat of a track. 

There’s footsteps and a smacker of a kiss to introduce the return of The Ronettes for “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”.  Here’s another song which has inspired other versions including the Jackson Five where Michael is unusually irritating as the tell-tale who’s going to tell Daddy what he’s seen Mommy doing!   The Crystals’ version of “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” is reminiscent of “Frosty The Snowman” but not quite as good.  Darlene Love is back as the voice of Christmas with “Winter Wonderland” and it is hard not to sing along she frolics and plays “ the eskimo way”. 

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The Crystals

My favourite of the Crystals tracks on display is “Parade Of The Wooden Soldiers”.  This song was originally a march for the piano written at the end of the nineteenth century with its English lyrics dating from the early 1920’s.  I love this tale of a toy shop coming alive and amongst wood blocks and chimes the girls put in a great vocal performance.  There’s a fabulous sense of kitsch to the whole thing.  I love it and it is another of the joys of Christmas.

The one original song written for this album has become a Christmas standard.  Spector alongside Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich gave “Christmas Baby (Please Come Home)” to Darlene although it was originally written for Ronnie Spector. It’s a big song which requires big emotions and is probably better suited for Darlene’s voice.  In 2010 this was named Rolling Stone magazine’s best Rock N Roll Christmas song and there is no doubt the sense of yearning Darlene puts across in her vocals has made this of lasting importance. It builds to a thundering climax and is a great example of that Wall of Sound in action.  Other notable versions of the song have been recorded by Michael Buble, Mariah Carey and Leona Lewis and it’s often featured in Christmas movies.

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Bob B Soxx and the Blue Jeans are back for a song written and made famous by Hollywood’s Singing Cowboy, Gene Autrey and “Here Comes Santa Claus” which has some great trumpet work amongst the wood blocks, chimes and bells.  The whole thing is rounded up by Phil Spector himself who hovers between the pretentious and creepy with his spoken voice-over of “Silent Night” as he explains his reasoning behind the album.  There’s something always morbidly fascinating about this track and when he finishes his bit it does have a real surge of angelic voices.  As this has been playing as I write this my partner has come in to the room to sit and listen and say “Why do I have to stop to listen to this every year and why do my eyes fill with tears when Spector thanks Darlene Love”?.  I’m not sure either but I know what he means. 

Phil Spector believed that he was making an album which would be revolutionary in the music industry and that it was something nobody had done before, doing something special for the music of Christmas.  Fifty-four years on suggests that this was successful.  Away from the holiday season Spector produced so many amazing records, my favourite of which being “He’s A Rebel” for the Crystals but also all-time classics for The Ronettes, The Righteous Brothers, Ike & Tina Turner, The Ramones and The Beatles both as a group and on solo projects.  If only the rest of his personal life had brought as much joy.

There are many versions of Darlene Love singing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on YouTube as it was an annual event on the David Letterman Show and latterly on “The View” which I think is the US Version of “Loose Women”.  Here Darlene is joined by R&B star Fantasia.

 

A Christmas Gift For You is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £3.99 and used from £2.72.  It can be downloaded for £4.99 . In the US it is available  from $3.26 and $5.99 as a download.  In the UK it is available to stream on Spotify,

100 Essential Books – The Wicked Cometh – Laura Carlin (Hodder & Stoughton 2018)

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“If I have learnt one thing from my life in London, it is that sometimes it is necessary to descend to deceit, and that those who survive have the wit to know that.”

This novel is not due to be published until February 2018 but I’m giving you plenty of warning as you should be adding it to your to-be-read-lists for it is an absolute gem of a novel.  Regular readers will know that I have a huge soft spot for big, Dickensian style Victorian-set novels like Sarah Waters’ “Fingersmith” and Michel Faber’s “Crimson Petal And The White”.  I’ve been a little disappointed by some offerings in this area over the last year so (particularly the much-acclaimed “The Essex Serpent”) and others including Australian author M J Tjia’s crime series debut “She Be Damned”(2017) and Canadian Steven Price’s doorstep sized “By Gaslight” (2016) showed promise but neither quite pulled off the authentic feel of London in the nineteenth century.  If they did not live up to my expectations this debut from Derbyshire resident Laura Carlin certainly does.  I think she has got everything more or less spot on here and has written an authentic historical novel and a really good thrilling page-turner.

Young people have been going missing from the London streets for some time and eighteen year old Hester, the narrator of the novel, has fallen on hard times.  An incident in Smithfield Market leads her to an association with a family who could provide her with a future or who may bring about further downfall.  The story builds beautifully, and although the situations and characters may feel familiar for Dickens fans Carlin puts it all together in a way which is inventive, thrilling and feels new.  It is rich in atmosphere throughout.

At the heart is a relationship between Hester and the daughter of the family, Rebekah Brock, who has been persuaded Pygmalion-like to educate Hester in a plan arranged by her brother Calder, a leading light of The London Society for the Suppression of Mendicity and it is this connection between the two women which will attract all Sarah Waters fans to this novel. 

Like Dickens, secrets are revealed gradually by characters brought in to move the plot along and Hester’s account turns into a quite extraordinary tale of grim London existences underneath the cloak of the respectable and socially acceptable. The last third sees the plot move up a gear considerably as revelations follow one after another and the danger Hester puts herself into had me holding my breath.  The plot twists keep coming giving the real feel of a Dickens serialisation

This novel is proof alone that Carlin is a major new talent and her brand of literary historical fiction should provide her with big sales.  I absolutely loved it. 

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The Wicked Cometh is due to be published by Hodder and Stoughton on 1st February 2018.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

100 Essential CDs – Number 62 – Jimmy Somerville – The Singles Collection 1984-90

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The Singles Collection 1984-1990 (London 1990)

UK Chart Position – 4

 

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This 17 track album was released six years into the hit making career of Jimmy Somerville by which time he had scored hits as lead singer in two groups, Bronski Beat and The Communards and had success as a solo singer.  It brought Jimmy’s single releases up to date from 1984’s “Smalltown Boy” to his version of “To Love Somebody” which climbed the charts alongside this album.  Sales of this release were strong across Europe and it also stalled at the number 4 position in Germany, France (where it was awarded a Platinum Disc) and Switzerland and hovered just outside the Top 5 in the Netherlands. 

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Jimmy is a unique performer.  Blessed with an angelic falsetto and a no-nonsene attitude which sometimes set him apart in the music industry.  He’s been quick to move onto new ventures in the past which could have been of some detriment to his career.  He’s an under-rated artist, who got a lot of stick from the media, not ready to embrace an out-gay man with a scorching falsetto voice.  Now thirty-three years on from that first hit Britain’s biggest selling artist world- wide is an out gay man with a falsetto voice.  It’s been a long journey from Somerville to Sam Smith and this album shows how good this inspirational performer, Jimmy Somerville is.

From Somerville to Smith – a natural progression?

The debut hit kicks off this CD and although back in 1984 it sounded on the surface very much like typical electro-disco a listen to the lyrics told a very different story.  “Smalltown Boy”, written by the band,  told the largely autobiographical tale of Jimmy’s escape from Scotland to London because he wasn’t able to live the life he wanted, the “run away/turn away” hook of the chorus got under the skin but it was the verses that packed the most punch.  “Mother will never understand/why you had to leave/for the love that you need”.  The whole thing is tinged with sadness and loneliness as although the only option has been to escape you are left with the feeling that issues raised have not been resolved. 

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The video which showed a “queerbashing” (as it would have been termed then) at a swimming pool further hit the message home.  This was all quite revolutionary back in 1984, we had never heard such sentiments in a hit song (the closest being perhaps Rod Stewart’s “The Killing Of Georgie” which was from a third person point of view and Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side”, with its short stories of those who needed to escape).  Here was a first-person account from an openly gay group at the time when homosexuality remained very much in the closet in the music business.  Just a few months before we had Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s brashly sexual “Relax”, a song which most listeners would have not had much of an idea as to what was being implied (before the BBC ban which gave it endless publicity), which had been pretty much an evolution of the sexual freedom which the Village People had suggested but were never really able to deliver upon.  Both these acts might have veered towards being cartoonish to the average listener yet Bronksi Beat’s first offering felt very real and more than a little chilling. 

Paul Flynn’s recent impressive survey of gay Britain “Good As You” took as its starting point an episode of “Top Of The Pops” where Frankie and Bronksi both appeared which changed the direction of the twelve year old viewers life as he was sat in front of the television in his living room in Wythenshawe.  “Smalltown Boy” is perhaps one of the most significant songs of the 80’s.  It certainly caught the public attention reaching number 3 in the UK, it topped the charts in Netherlands, and Belgium, was a Top 10 hit in amongst other territories Australia, Canada, Germany, France, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Switzerland and even made the US Top 50. 

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Any doubts that Bronski Beat were a novelty act were dispelled by the big selling album “The Age Of Consent” and three further hits with Somerville as lead singer, all of which are included on this album.  “Why?” got to number 6 in the UK which also aired the injustice of inequality in gay relationships and the impossibility of being able to show affection in public.  This was a stridently political song at a time when AIDS was causing widespread panic and vilification of gay men.  The song builds to an almost hysterical vocal which chills the blood.

jimmy7Bronski Beat – Larry Steinbachek, Jimmy, Steve Bronski

“It Ain’t Necessarily So” was a much calmer track, a cover of a fifty year old Gershwin song from “Porgy and Bess”.  Cover versions would feature quite frequently in Somerville’s career in all its incarnations and this early example shows him off as a real song stylist.  The song itself is a lesson in not believing everything that we are taught.  It reached number 16 in the charts and the video featured young Londoners who I was familiar with at the time, a couple who I knew quite well.  I completely lost touch and I have always wondered if they escaped the decimation of London’s gay youth during the early days of the AIDS crisis.  Because of this I’ve always found this song overly melancholy. 

jimmy8Jimmy with Marc Almond

The fourth hit saw Bronski Beat paired up with Soft Cell’ s Marc Almond for the odd idea of putting two Donna Summer songs “Love To Love You Baby” and “I Feel Love”, two of the greatest disco numbers of all time with the old John Leyton hit “Johnny Remember Me”.  I’m sure they know what’s going on here, but I was never sure.  This dynamic pairing became a Top 3 UK hit in 1985 and came from Bronski Beat’s second album “Hundreds And Thousands”.  This might sound like a criticism, but the vast majority of Somerville’s hit covers do not live up to the originals but really that’s because he chose to cover such iconic songs which are peerless in their own right.  In a number of cases these covers did better than the original versions.

goodasyou2Richard and Jimmy – The Communards

In 1985 Jimmy Somerville quit Bronski Beat over what was no doubt musical differences and teamed up with classically trained Richard Coles to form The Communards.  His original group had another very good Top 3 hit without him with “Hit That Perfect Beat” and should have made the Top 3 at least when they paired up with Eartha Kitt for “Cha Cha Heels”, perhaps one of the gayest Top 40 hits of all time (#32 in 1989)  which would only have made any sense to those who had seen John Waters’ cult movie “Female Trouble” which starred Divine. 

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It was the pairing with Coles which saw Somerville reach his creative peak, even though they are best known for cover versions.  “Don’t Leave Me This Way” was the third Communards hit and is the second track on this CD after “Smalltown Boy”.  The song had been part of a chart battle in the UK nine years earlier when the original Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes track did battle with a blistering disco version by Thelma Houston, which had topped the US charts.  Both versions are great and the song is an absolute classic which had seen Thelma’s version adopted as an unofficial theme song for the AIDS epidemic in the US. The Communards version takes the best of both versions and teams Jimmy up vocally with Sarah Jane Morris, whose rich jazzy voice proved an effective blend with the male falsetto.  They looked an unlikely pairing on TV performances but the British public took this new version to heart and it reached number 1 for four weeks in September 1986, becoming one of the biggest hits of the year.  It also topped the charts in the Netherlands and became Jimmy’s first and only US Top 40 hit, scraping in at number 40. 

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The following year the Communards were raiding the golden oldie box again with another song which had already had at least two superb versions.  Originally written for the Supremes by Motown writer Clifton Davis it was handed over to the big money-makers the Jackson Five and took them to number 2 in the US Billboard charts.  The UK had a more muted response to this track but within three years it became one of the early classics of the disco era with the glorious version by Gloria Gaynor who reached number 2 in the UK and 9 in her homeland.  The Communards version is very much in the spirit of Gloria’s with its hi-hat drum beats and reached number 4 in 1987.

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The Communards were far more than a covers band, however.  When their debut album was released I bought it on vinyl and felt it was one of the greatest UK albums of all time (although it was recorded in the legendary Sigma Studios in Philadelphia).  The timing pretty much matched with my own personal coming out and this seemed like a soundtrack to my new life and provided hope, reassurance as well as an understanding that things would be challenging.  The sublimely joyous love song “You Are My World” (showing off Coles’ classical credentials) became a hit twice (#30 in 1985 and #21 as a remix in 1987). “Disenchanted” got one place higher than the Communards debut and the excellent “So Cold The Night” combines a feel of real eastern promise with one of the only hit songs about voyeurism.  The album also contained a couple of non-single gems in “Reprise” and the Billie Holliday standard “Loverman” sung as a duet with Sarah-Jane Morris.

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The second Communards studio album “Red” was almost as good.  The biggest hit was “Never Can Say Goodbye” but hit singles were scored with “Tomorrow” (UK#23) and the elegiac beautiful “For A Friend” (UK#28), with its lovely piano work,  a personal response to the AIDS crisis written in tribute to Richard and Jimmy’s friend Mark who had another marvellous tribute in 2014 when he became the central character of the movie “Pride”.

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The Communards final top 20 hit “There’s More To Love” was released at the time when Margaret Thatcher’s Clause 28 of the Local Government Act had been enshrined by law.  This clause made it illegal to for local authorities to “promote homosexuality” a ridiculous piece of legislation that had the effect of bringing together gay and lesbians as a community and a force to be reckoned with for the first time.  “Lovers And Friends” and “C Minor” were two great tracks from “Red” which do not appear on this CD as they were not released as singles.

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The Communards split up in 1988 with Richard going on to become the Reverend Richard Coles, a well known face on British television as a presenter of programmes both religious and non-religious.  He most recently made a short-lived attempt to lift the glitterball prize on “Strictly Come Dancing”.

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Jimmy the solo artist actually kicked things off in 1989 with a duet with June Miles-Kingston.  Not sure what the thinking was behind “Comment Te Dire Adieu” but it is was one of the few French language hits by British artists.  The song had previously been recorded by Francoise Hardy and had started off life as a song in English which had been released by Vera Lynn! Somerville’s version got to number 14 in the UK charts and, unsurprisingly became a Top 3 hit in France. 

jimmy16Sylvester – originally (Mighty Real)

It was back to the cover versions again to pay tribute once again to an out-gay man with an incredible falsetto voice from earlier years.  Sylvester had lost his own battle against AIDS in 1988 and in early 1990 Jimmy was back in the UK Top 5 with his biggest solo hit to date.  “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” is another cover which didn’t eclipse the original but it was great to have this tribute to another great under-rated star.  “Read My Lips (Enough Is Enough)” (UK#26) is  a great Disco-orientated track with a message about funding for AIDS treatments.  His version of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody” reached number 8 in the UK and saw him back in the Top 5 in Austria, New Zealand and the Netherlands and was released alongside this album.  The other new track “Run From Love” was less successful as a single.

These seventeen tracks are joyous, thought-provoking and moving, pretty much in equal measures.  Jimmy has continued to periodically put out solid albums over the years.  His last “Homage” released in 2015 was a gem of a disco recording and should have seen him back in the upper reaches of the charts.  His peak, commercially and creatively may have been with his association with Richard Coles in the Communards but this album proves there is a lot more to enjoy.

The Single Collection 1984-90 is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £19.99 and used from £1.00.  In the US it is available  from $0.82.  Other Jimmy Somerville/Communards/Bronski Beat compilations are available to buy and stram on Spotify in the UK. 

 

 

100 Essential CDs – Number 67 – Silver Convention- The Best Of: Get Up And Boogie

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The Best Of: Get Up And Boogie – Silver Convention (Hot 1994)

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It’s to Germany we go for this slab of unadulterated guilty disco pleasure and  these under-rated early stars of the Euro-Disco music canon.  Silver Convention were the brainchild of two producers Michael Kunze and Silvester Levay whose use of synthesized disco predates what came out of Munich by the more famous pairing of Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer. 

In the 1970’s we liked  to put faces to our acts, anonymous production teams were never going to cut it so a trio of singers were put together to represent the vocals of Silver Convention. Over time, the girls evolved from background singers to much more of a girl group, even representing Germany in the 1977 Eurovision Song Contest, but the vocals continued to take a less important role than the production and were often little more than a chant.   There was world-wide success for a short period of time, mainly three albums out of a five studio album career .  I am sure they are the only act ever to take part in the annual Eurovision extravaganza having previously scored an American number 1 pop hit.  (In the event they didn’t win Eurovision coming a middle of the table 8th in a year when France took the prize).  This fifteen track CD represents many of their finest moments.

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Kunze and Levay still working together after all these years

In the mid 90’s Hot Productions re-released for the mainly American market Best Of compilations from artists many of whom were making their first appearance in CD format.  I bought this CD in Miami which is where the label originated from.  Disco stars such as The Ritchie Family, D C LaRue, Carol Douglas, George McCrae, Divine and a number of artists produced in the UK by Ian Levine were recognised and many of these CDs have become quite collectable.  Amazon has this CD listed new for £78.99.  In the UK a vinyl compilation from 1977 reached the Top 40 album charts.  More readily available currently is a double CD from the Dutch Smith & Co label from 2003 called “The Very Best Of..” which does have more tracks but opts for the shorter single releases rather than the full-length versions of the disco classics we have here.

Silver Conention 3 Sylvester Levay, from former Yugoslavia, arrived in Munich in 1972 and teamed up with Michael Kunze, Czech born, who had grown up in Southern Germany and studied in Munich.  The two formed a song-writing team and scored their first German chart-topper in 1970 with a song called “Du” by Peter Maffray, the biggest German language song of that year.  International success came about when they made a record initially as Silver Bird Convention.

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That track, a delightful piece of Euro-Disco entitled “Save Me” was recorded using backing vocalists including Roberta Kelly, who would go on to work with the German productions of Donna Summer and have a Giorgio Moroder produced career of her own including the great Euro-hit single “Zodiacs” in 1978 and even put out a Disco gospel album.  At a music convention, one Pete Waterman, then working in promotion at Magnet Records picked up on the track and the shortened name act was signed to the label in the UK.  This resulted in a Top 30 UK hit in mid-1975 some months before Donna Summer put Munich on the musical map with “Love To Love You Baby”.  It also scored well in Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands.

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Considering Levay and Kunze were primarily songwriters they were not going to win any awards with the lyrics of this song which are basically “Baby save me, save me I am falling in love”.  Maybe to protect his song-writing reputation (?) Kunze used the pseudonym Stephan Prager for the first two albums. “Save Me” was distinctly wordy compared to the next hit which blew the whole Silver Convention concept sky-high.  “Fly Robin Fly” kicks off this album in its full length 7 minutes and 44 seconds glory.

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A bass line which I have always found a little chilling moves into soaring strings and the lyrics which contains a total of six words repeated in various combinations “Fly/Robin/Right/Up/To/ The/Sky.  It’s the string arrangement that has it though as it rises and descends with the speed and accuracy of the robin onto the worm.  The echoey vocals with the slight Germanic accent combine brilliantly and form the blueprint of Silver Convention.   In New York, the Disco scene was kicking off and this became one of its early huge hits crossing over to the American pop charts where it topped the charts for three weeks towards the end of 1975 and won the Grammy for best R&B Instrumental Performance.  They were the first German act to top the American charts and Euro-Disco was born.  It was a huge international hit and topped the charts in Norway and made the Top 3 in, amongst other markets, their homeland, Belgium and Canada.  In the UK it went a couple of places higher than their debut reaching #28.

Silver Convention 7That earlier track, “Save Me” is up next and is less electronic sounding and features a sprightly saxophone solo.  My seven-inch single of “Fly Robin Fly” morphed in its last few seconds into “I Like It” which was the B-Side in the UK to that single although on their first album this track preceded it.  Here it follows “Save Me”.  By the release of these tracks Silver Convention had become Penny Maclean, Linda G Thompson and Jackie Carter, the latter being the only remaining vocalist from the “Save Me” sessions.  The quality is maintained with another track from that debut album “Another Girl” which is richer in melody and features the lovely German “V” sound when they sing “Woman”.  This is Euro-Disco combined with the sound Barry White perfected for Love Unlimited with just a hint of Abba.  Once again the strings vie for dominance over the girl’s harmonies and spoken interludes and this is one of my favourites from the group.  I think with hindsight and the explosion of Euro-Disco music which came afterwards from the likes of Boney M, Cerrone, Baccara etc it’s easy to forget how different this all sounded.  The album topped the Billboard R&B Charts (certainly the first German act to do so) and reached number 10 in the US pop charts.  The “All Music Guide To Soul” rates the album five stars and describes it as  having “a uniquely European take on American soul-pop and disco.  Arguably the group’s most essential release.  “Save Me” is a dance classic.”

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They had some reputation to maintain for its follow-up.  Lead track from the second album “Get Up And Boogie” is just a tad irritating.  It does work better in its full length version included here as you get electric piano solos and good bass work.  In the single version the beat is a bit lumbering, the girls’ vocals sound a bit whiney and the “That’s Right” male voice sample makes the whole thing a bit stop-start.  The record-buying public gave it a thumbs up and any fears that the group might have  one-hit-wonder European novelty status in the US were allayed when it just missed out on being their second chart-topper, getting to number 2.  It became their biggest hit in the UK reaching number 7, topped the charts in Canada and made the top 10 worldwide including The Netherlands and Spain. 

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There were a couple of better tracks from the second album included on this CD.  “San Francisco Hustle” is their entry into the geographical hustle stakes which, a year on from Van McCoy introducing us to the dance had hit variations of “The Latin Hustle” “The Spanish Hustle” and was still with us in 1978 when Hi-Tension gave us “The British Hustle”.  The San Francisco version provided a very attractive track, although maybe too slow to dance the hustle?  It’s a melody-rich track which could have provided another hit, as could “You Got What It Takes”, which once again has that “Voman” pronunciation which always appeals to me.

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Their record labels went for “No No Joe” as the next single.  It’s a nod towards the sexualisation of disco that had gone mainstream following the huge success of “Love To Love You Baby”.  It was probably the same decision making that led to their UK label putting out the album (and a repackaged first album) with handcuffed naked female cover art.  For some reason handcuffs had been an image associated with the band since the first album.  This caused much publicity with Woolworths refusing to stock the album.  The solution was to overlay the cover with splashes of white to cover up anything deemed offensive but actually to make the whole thing more tantalising for those interested.  I think it could have been possible to pick off the overlaid white, but I’m not sure.  It’s not even easy to find the artwork for these covers nowadays, even on the internet as they were soon phased out, but I had a vinyl copy. In the UK “No No Joe” wasn’t going to attract much radio-play and so was double A-sided with earlier track “Tiger Baby” but it underachieved in most markets.

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Third long player “Madhouse” was promoted as a disco concept album, with tracks loosely linked around a “world is a madhouse” theme.  It had a poem on the back cover which attempted to link the tracks and was a funkier effort.  The 7 minute title track (not included here) felt similar to what Norman Whitfield was doing with Rose Royce and Undisputed Truth but with the Munich strings and German accented vocals.  The best track  on show was actually the mid-tempo “Everybody’s Talkin’ Bout Love” which brought back the lushness of a Love Unlimited type track and was far more of a song than we’d had from them before.  In the UK it reached number 25.

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By this time the group’s personnel had changed.  Levay and Kunze were still pulling the strings but by now Penny McLean had been joined by Ramona Wulf and Rhonda Heath.  Linda G. Thompson had a shot at solo fame with a turntable hit “Oh What A Night”.   Ramona also got plenty of club play with a solo cover version of “Save The Last Dance For Me.” More successfully, in 1975 Penny had scored a big international hit with a solo track, the  histrionic “Lady Bump” which had topped charts in her Austrian homeland and Germany.  (Check out the YouTube video of her doing her best to sing it live in front of a European gyrating audience- it’s a kitsch classic) She also released a solo album. 

 

 Levay and Kunze were still very much behind the group and attempted to boost waning sales by entering the 1977 Eurovision Song Contest. “Telegram” is a good piece of girl-group pop, which has morse code punctuating the song and a singalong chorus (a chorus in a Silver Convention song, that’s almost a first!) The trio arrived in London the on-paper favourites but as ever the vagaries of the Eurovision voting system saw them off. (That year UK came second with Lynsey De Paul & Mike Moran’s “Rock Bottom”- a prediction of future Eurovision attempts perhaps?)  “Telegram”, although now meaningless in our time of instant e-mails, remains a Eurovision fan favourite and often appears on compilations.

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The last hurrah for the group came with “Blame It On The Music” from the fourth album called either “Summer Nights” or “Golden Girls” depending on where you live.  This is a great Abba-esque track with flurries of strings which shows the direction the girls could have taken.  Soon after the release of this album Penny left the group, and was replaced to concentrate on her solo career and was replaced by Zenda Jacks.

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The last two tracks on the compilation come from 1978 album “Love In A Sleeper” which brought them some success in Europe.  Here arrangement duties were taken by American disco producer John Davis with some tracks being recorded for the first time outside Munich at Sigma Studios in Philadelphia. Long-term the writing was on the wall and the group slipped away back into obscurity.

 The producers Levay and Kunze, however, continued to thrive.  Michael Kunze worked on translations of hit musicals and adapted many of the big Broadway shows for German audiences including Evita, Cats, Mamma Mia, A Chorus Line and Into The Woods.  He has developed his own musicals including one based on Daphne Du Maurier’s “Rebecca” and with Sylvester Levay again a hit German language musical based on the life of Mozart.  Levay himself spent much of the 90s in the US composing TV and film scores before reuniting with Kunze for the theatrical productions.  Both have gone on to much respectability in the music business but I hold out a hankering for their early work of swirling synthesized strings, repetitive lyrics and the lushness of the German EuroDisco sound of Silver Convention. Below is the video for the US #1 hit single.

And because looking at these videos have given me so much pleasure the last couple of days here is that Eurovision song entry featuring much of what the Strictly Come Dancing judges refer to as arm-ography.

 

The Best Of: Get Up And Boogie is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £78.99 and used from £12.99.  In the US it is available  from $17.35.  Other Silver Convention compilations are available.  The majority of the studio albums are available to stream from Spotify in the UK.

 

 

100 Essential CDs – Number 74 – Lionel Richie – Back To Front

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Back To Front – Lionel Richie (Motown 1992)

UK Chart Position – 1
US Chart Position –19

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The Commodores were signed to the Motown label in 1972 and built up a following as a support act for the Jackson 5. Pretty much a funk band in the early days the group member initially playing the saxophone was one Lionel Richie from Tuskagee, Alabama. The group’s first hit “Machine Gun” (1974 UK#20 US# 22) was actually an instrumental where Lionel’s sax work can be heard. As the group diversified into ballads alongside the funk Lionel’s vocals began to be heard in hits such as “Sweet Love” (1976 UK#32, US#5) and the all-time classic “Easy” (1977 UK#9, US#4) and a song penned for his wife “Three Times A Lady” became the group’s first chart-topper on both sides of the Atlantic and opened doors for Richie. Asked to write and produce a hit for country singer Kenny Rogers, “Lady” saw Richie crossing into new markets and scored his biggest hit to date, his first US #1 in 1980. The following year saw Richie pen a song from the throwaway Brooke Shields movie “Endless Love” and record it as a duet with Diana Ross. In the US that became Motown’s biggest selling single to date with a nine week run at number 1. (In the UK it stalled at number 7). A solo career inevitably beckoned.

From “Machine Gun” to “Natural High” the Commodores became one of Motown’s biggest groups.

By 1992, after three huge selling albums Richie had experienced a five year career hiatus and to remove the pressure of having to come up with a whole new album Motown green-lighted “Back To Front” which would feature three new recordings alongside 13 of his biggest hits, predominantly from the solo career. The title explains the format- the new material was not tucked in at the end but led the recording. It brought Richie back into the limelight and topped the charts in the UK. It’s a great one- album introduction to what Richie was all about.

The format, does mean, however that the CD opens with the weakest track on display. “Do It To Me” like the rest of the new material was written by Richie and produced by Stewart Levine. All three were released as singles in the UK. This came out about a month before the album was released and is a pleasant enough early 90’s laid-back ballad with plenty of saxophone. It is a long way from the classic Richie songs and feels the most like album filler of the three tracks. It gave Richie his first UK Top 40 hit for over five years when it reached number 33. In the US it did better and became the highest placed track of the new material, scoring him his fifth solo R&B chart-topper and making 21 in the pop charts. In the UK we favoured the second release, “My Destiny” which is, as far as I am concerned, his last great single release. Its number 7 placing was his highest since 1986’s “Dancing On The Ceiling”. It also topped the charts in the Netherlands. It feels the most contemporary of the three, a slinky mid-tempo number which felt like just what Richie should have been releasing in 1992. It’s a great little sing along track

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Major anthem status was sought out for the third of the three tracks, “Love Oh Love” which has the feel of “We Are The World” the all-star USA for Africa song written by Richie with Michael Jackson as part of Live Aid. This tracks hovers very close to the cheesy with its chorus of children, “Little Drummer Boy” rhythm and big themes of world peace and eradicating sorrow but rather like Mr Jackson’s “Earth Song” I personally think Richie gets away with it and it’s all rather charming. At the end of 1992 I thought this could garner the Xmas single market and be a big hit but it didn’t happen, falling short of the Top 40. Once again it had its strongest approval in the Netherlands where it was a Top 20 hit.

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I don’t feel that these new tracks let the album down in any way but it is more likely that people purchased it for the remaining thirteen tracks, probably to replace on CD what was already owned on vinyl. There’s no chronological approach as suggested by the title, we just get a mixture of tracks from the back catalogue. As a solo artist Richie released three solo albums on Motown and here we get the cream of those tracks – just one from the first album, five of the original eight tracks from the second and two from the third. As well as this there is the non-album duet and four of his biggest Commodores hits to make up the 16 tracks. It made better sense to buy this on CD to replace a vinyl copy of “Can’t Slow Down”, that second Motown album, as you got the best tracks from that and much more besides. I don’t think it totally encompasses the cream of the Commodores output – for that I would recommend the 2005 double CD “Gold”.

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The thing that slightly overshadows Richie’s career as far as I am concerned is that with both his solo hits and works with the Commodores, the biggest hits, the ones that have come to define the artist are some distance from his best. “Three Times A Lady” with its quite traditional waltz feel and ever so cheesy lyrics sounded alright at the time of release and certainly broadened the group’s appeal with an older generation above their usual market falling for this schmalty track and it gave the group their first Pop #1 on both sides of the Atlantic. Solo Richie’s pretty-enough ballad from his second album “Hello” was the third single release off a very big release so something was needed to bring it to record buyers who had not gone for the album. A cheesy video, which at the time seemed more like a movie with a blind girl fashioning the head of Richie out of clay was fine for the first few viewings but then its out and out cheesiness became indelibly linked with the song in my head and is often the first thing people remember about Richie. This track also topped the Charts in the USA and became his only solo number one in the UK. I tolerate both these tracks on the CD but don’t exactly look forward to either of them, but probably for many people, these may have been what decided them to part with their cash for “Back To Front”.

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So, that’s the negatives done with. Let’s look at what is really special about this album. Firstly, that’s all the rest of the Commodores tracks, particularly “Easy”. How great a track is this? Penned by Richie and produced alongside James Anthony Carmichael, it is real laid-back sophisticated soul, stopped being totally as “easy as a Sunday morning” by one of the great guitar solos in a pop hit. There’s a great echoey feel to the whole thing. It’s one of the best not-out-of-Detroit Motown singles of all time. “Still” is also excellent and became their second US chart-topper in 1979 (in the UK#4) a real piece of calm amidst all the Disco that was released that year and sounding pretty much like a deep soul ballad with an orchestral backing. “Sail On” (1979 US#4 UK#8) perhaps underlines more than any of the others how close this group could go towards country music, and may have been behind the idea to have Richie work with country legend Kenny Rogers, this kind of musical boundary blurring quite unusual in the days of genre-specific radio play in the US. There’s a lovely build to this track.

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To launch his solo career Richie took producer James Anthony Carmichael with him and with him now penning much of the Commodres material it was really the smoothest of transitions to solo stardom as first solo hit “Truly” fits in perfectly with The Commodores ballad sound. Another calm ballad very much in the feel of “Still” with the build of “Sail On”. It was an unsurprising US Pop #1 and reached 6 in the UK in 1982.

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The album “Can’t Slow Down” was a clear statement at propelling Richie towards super-stardom. It fused musical styles ending up really as one of the early classic black pop albums and won the Grammy for the Album of The Year in 1985 and topped charts all around the world. The infectious “All Night Long (All Night)” proved that Richie wasn’t just a ballad singer but was also no longer the funk singer who snarled his way through “Brick House”. This was bright and breezy and intended for the masses and they loved it as it topped the US chats and got to number 2 in the UK. Its carnival feel ensured its worldwide success. Less showy but successful tracks from the album here included are “Penny Lover” (1984 US#8, UK#18), Stuck On You (US#3,UK#12) and the rock-lite of “Running With The Night” (US#7, UK#9) where a rock guitar which made “Easy” holds this track back .

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The third Richie solo album, “Dancing On The Ceiling” didn’t impress me nearly as much. The tracks included here, the title track, (1986 US#2, US#7) and “Say You Say Me” (US#1, UK#8) actually sound better now than they did at the time of release when I found one cheesy and one a little dull. Other single releases from the album, especially “Ballerina Girl” and “Sela” seemed to suggest Richie had lost his way somewhat as far as this record buyer was concerned. They are not included on “Back To Front” and led to a burnt out Richie beginning his extended break from recording and the public arena.

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Lionel Richie was not able to build on the success of this album and it was not until 1996, four years after this compilation and ten years after his last studio album that he re-emerged on the Mercury label with “Louder Than Words”. Over the years his subsequent albums have seen him toying with R&B and hip-hop influenced tracks with varying success. Nothing he has recorded since I would consider essential, although there was a triumphant return to form in 2012 when a back-to-his-country roots album “Tuskagee” topped the US charts marking his first Number 1 hit in 26 years. This revisited his hits alongside collaborations with country music stars including Shania Twain, Willie Nelson and with Kenny Rogers on a new version of “Lady” which helped catapult him into solo fame. This was too much country for me, but it was great to have him back in the limelight.

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Richie has sold over 100 million albums worldwide and features on lists of the biggest selling stars of all time. This album reminds us why.

 

Back To Front is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £3.85 and used from £0.05.  It can be downloaded for $7.89 .In the US it is available new from $12.11, Used from $0.08 and can be downloaded for $6.99.used for $3.00.  It is also available to stream from Spotify in the UK.

100 Essential CDs – Number 95 – Martha Reeves & Vandellas – Compact Command Performances

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Compact Command Performances: 24 Greatest Hits –

Martha Reeves and The Vandellas (Motown 1986)

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The Compact Command Performance series was an early compilation CD series which put out the best of an artist’s back catalogue some for the first time on CD.  The tracks were made from masters from Motown’s studios although this CD claims it was made in Germany.  It is pretty much a no-frills release with nothing in the way of notes and just basic information on the writers and producers on each track.  Others in the series included Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Four Tops, Temptations.  Many of these acts had vinyl “Anthology” releases which had appeared on Double CD’s but this series offered a single CD overview.  I didn’t purchase any of the other releases but this 24 tracker offering the best of the under-rated Martha Reeves gets played regularly.

The tracks here span the years 1963-1971 taking Reeves from Motown secretary who was in the right place at the right time and ready to make an impression when other artists were not available to the star unwilling to make a move from her Detroit home when the label uprooted to Los Angeles and so departing from the label which had given her 12 US Top 40 hits over 4 years and 8 UK Top 40 hits over an eight year period.  Reeves was often in conflict with label bosses, especially Berry Gordy, over what she saw as favouritism towards The Supremes, and particularly Diana Ross as well as unfair treatment over royalties and was prepared to speak out publicly whilst others kept quiet.  In the scheme of things this probably wasn’t the best for her career as it saw her slipping down the pecking order as hits were being dished out and although she made some great music, she felt under-promoted and disgruntled by Motown.  It took a while for her to manage to break free from the label but her post Motown years were without commercial success.

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She’s still going strong.  There have been periods of ill health and a large number of Vandellas as Martha has switched from a solo career to reigniting the group.  She has become a valuable figure in politics in the Detroit home she wouldn’t give up on when Berry Gordy saw bigger fish to fry in Hollywood.  I saw her perform in our local theatre a year or so back in a show which was disarmingly charming.  The voice wasn’t what it was and the heels of her shoes were a little high to make much movement possible but she won an audience over by the strength of the back catalogue and her warm stage personality.  When you consider the career trajectories of Diana Ross and Martha Reeves there’s a huge difference.  At one time the two women were directly challenging one another to be the Queen Of Motown.  Reeves lost that particular power struggle but the battle has left us with some great music.  These 24 tracks provide a great introduction to that music.

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Martha had early ambitions to be a solo jazz singer but also was part of a group who became the Del-Phis where she was not the lead singer.  Invited to a Motown audition the group was rejected but Martha found herself with a clerical job as assistant to A&R man and producer Mickey Stevenson.  The communal atmosphere of the early days at the label meant everyone tended to chip in and when backing singers were needed for some Marvin Gaye tracks Martha got her group back and “Stubborn Kind Of Fellow” was a hit single taking those backing vocals to a large audience.  When Mary Wells failed to turn up for a recording, Martha, now lead vocalist got the girls Rosalind Ashford and Annette Beard back in which led to their first recordings as Martha and The Vandellas (not because they were female vandals as often suggested but because Martha lived in Van Dyke Street and was a big fan of  singer Della Reese).

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There are four words which explain the early success of Motown’s newest signing.  Those words are Holland, Dozier and Holland, the production team which turned  the label into Hitsville USA.  The female vocal trio were the first girl group to work with the male production trio – predating The Supremes who were still looking for that first hit when Martha’s recordings began to ascend up the charts.  This hit was “Come And Get These Memories” a teen-heartbreak song of returning love tokens once the relationship had soured.  In her autobiography (written with Mark Bego) “Dancing In The Street: Confessions Of A Motown Diva” (1994) Martha had this to say about the song:

“According to Berry’s eldest sister, Esther Gordy, when Berry heard our recording of “Come And Get These Memories” he exclaimed, “that’s the sound I’ve been looking for.  That’s ‘the Motown Sound.” The song had a steady beat, great background harmony parts, horns, catchy lyrics, and a story line that everyone could identify with.  I knew instantly that it would be a hit.  I’ve always thought that the song really shows off the great harmonies  that Rosalind and Annette and I had in the very beginning.”

The opening track on this CD is a very catchy tune that worms its way into the subconscious but it is fairly standard girl-group fare and doesn’t sound to me the revolutionary game-changer that Berry Gordy was reputed to acknowledge.  It’s very much in the Shirelles mode but gave the girls a US #29 pop hit in May 1963 and nationwide attention.

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It the early Motown sound was to be defined then it is in their follow-up track the tremendous “Heatwave” which is exciting, driving, a little raw around the edges, ever so slightly off-key and with everything thrown into the production it raced up the charts to number 4, helped by the girls’ hard work in the touring Motown revues which was steadily growing them a fan base.  A big hit single demanded an album which was recorded in one night and despite this hastiness, the covers of other girl group hits and standards and the odd H-D-H original is always worth a listen and one of the most durable of the early Motown album releases.

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Barely contained on that album was the next hit “Quicksand” which could be said to resemble “Heatwave Part 2” but the whole pop industry of the day was built on repeating winning formulas.  This track is far more, however, than a throw-away sound-alike.  The girls “Whoo-hooing” the intro gives it an identity of its own and it deservedly became their second US Pop Top 10 hit in a row reaching number 8.  The frantic pace was kept up for next release “Live Wire” but perhaps that was HDH mining this particular seam a little too much as it missed out on the pop charts.  From its dramatic flourish of an intro this is a real Northern soul stomper and if by a more obscure act would have traded for big sums of money on the British Northern Soul scene.  Amongst the high-energy there are a couple of calmer tracks included from this period. “A Love Like Yours (Don’t Come Knocking Everyday) began life as the B-Side to “Come and Get These Memories”.  Too good to remain a B-Side the song has been covered many times and is considered a soul classic with most notable versions from fellow Motown artist Kim Weston and a 1966 Top 20 UK hit for Ike and Tina Turner.  Also dropping the tempo just a little was the next single the delightful, hand-clap heavy “In My Lonely Room” which sounds like it should have been a massive hit but wasn’t.

They did not have to wait that long for their biggest hit, however and it was a move from the then too busy Holland-Dozier- Holland to Martha’s old boss, Mickey Stevenson who produced and co-wrote with Marvin Gaye and Ivy Jo Hunter one of the label’s most iconic songs.  “Dancing In The Street” commences with a brassy call to arms into heavy tambourine crashes to get us out and dancing.  Of this song Martha, in her autobiography states that she first heard Marvin Gaye singing it and didn’t really like the song;

“but when I put myself into it and made it my own it became the anthem of the decade.  From the very beginning, no matter where it was played, everyone seemed to get up and dance to it…….I’ve always said that “Dancing In The Street” is Mickey Stevenson’s greatest gift to me.”

This particular gift got to number 2 in the US in 1964 and in the British Beat group dominated UK charts of the time became their first Top 30 hit stalling at a lowly number 28.  Five years later a re-issue climbed to number 4 and reactivated British interest in the group.  A Live-Aid inspired pairing of David Bowie and Mick Jagger gave the song a British number 1 placing in a version which is luke-warm compared to the original.

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The Stevenson and Ivy Jo Hunter combination was used to produce more singles for the group.  On this CD we get “Wild One” and “Motoring”, neither of which had the magic of the big hit.  There were also personnel changes with Betty Kelly replacing Annette who retired from the music business at this time.  The career cranked up another gear with the return of Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier in production duties with another H-D-H original “Nowhere To Run”.  It sounds like this could have been another big hit for The Supremes but Martha and the girls were given the chance with this.  Martha’s grittier, more gospel-influenced voice gives this a greater edge than Diana would have done.  It feels a chilling, cold song, which HDH proved they could do well, as in tracks like “Seven Rooms Of Gloom” by The Four Tops, a hit a couple of years later for them which has the feel of this particular track. “Nowhere To Run” reached number 8 in the US and 26 in the UK.

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Martha claims that one of her most favourite recordings is the gentle “My Baby Loves Me” which gives her a chance to hark back to her jazz roots over a pretty ballad produced by Stevenson and Hunter. It gave her a US#22 hit.

1966 and 1967 were another two great years for the group as they put out a string of great tracks.  As far as US pop chart success was concerned it was the last hurrah.  “I’m Ready For Love” (1966- US#9, UK#22) is not only up there amongst Motown’s best it is one of my all-time favourite singles.  The whole thing reeks with anticipation from the nervous, jiggly, driving rhythms, the plaintive vocals and great lyrics – The message Martha is conveying is “Bring it on!” She’s ready.  This is followed by the tale of the rogue Jimmy Mack (1967 UK#10, UK#21) who may or may not be coming back.  It’s single release B-Side is also included on this CD as it has always been a favourite in the UK.  “Third Finger Left Hand” is an ideal wedding fodder song, but for its singalong charm and as a mantra to remember what finger to put the ring on.  It’s a song that I felt going through my head on my wedding day!  These are all great Holland-Dozier-Holland productions.

hollanddozierLamont Dozier & the Holland brothers at the piano

From 1967 serious cracks were showing.  The hit production team were in dispute with Motown, Mickey Stevenson had left the label, relations in the group were not good, there were clashes over the label’s promotion of Diana Ross and Martha, driven by a heavy work load and touring schedule, became addicted to prescription drugs.  Around this time original member Rosalind Ashford was sacked  and Sandra Tilley recruited.  Martha’s view at this time was that the Vandellas had became just a support for touring and that other girls could be used on recording sessions.  Motown bowed a little to Reeves’ pressure and added her surname to the group which had largely been known to this point as Martha & The Vandellas.  With new production and songwriting units the hits continued with “Love Bug (Leave Me Heart Alone)” (US#25) and “Honey Chile” (US#11, UK#30) but neither of these threaten their best material.  “I Can’t Dance To That Music You’re Playing” did not meet with Martha’s approval and she abandoned it during the recording.  Motown drafted in Syreeta Wright to finish it and released it under Martha’s name, showing the label’s heavy- handed attitude towards the brand rather than the people. A nervous breakdown followed for Martha soon afterwards, the group was disbanded in 1969 and that ended their US hit career.

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A revitalised Reeve returned with sister Lois and Sandra Tilley and had a couple of UK hits with “Forget Me Not” (UK#11-1971), which for some reason is not included on this CD and “Bless You” (UK#33- 1972) which is a great little track and was written and produced by The Corporation, which was in itself a response to production teams getting too big for the label and also did great work with early Jackson Five, later revealed to be Berry Gordy alongside Motown staffers Frank Mizell, Freddie Perren and Deke Richards (the latter also having produced “I Can’t Dance”).

Martha Reeves’ solo career did not amount to much commercial success, which might explain why she is still touring small theatres in the UK in her 70’s singing these Motown hits.  I was certainly pleased about that when I saw her but you cannot help feeling that this under-rated star has good reason to feel a little despondent about the music industry, considering the volume of records she sold in her early career.

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This single CD of 24 tracks seems to me to be the perfect introduction to these Motown legends.  Anyone wanting a little more could look at the 2006 double CD “Gold” and the three disc “50th Anniversary – Singles Collection” from 2013.  There’s also much pleasure to be had from the re-released studio albums. Whatever you choose Martha will soon have you “Dancing In The Street.”

Compact Command Performances is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £2.99 and used from £0.95. In the US it is available used for $3.00.