100 Essential Books – Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart (Picador 2020)

This account of a troubled Glasgow childhood in the 1980s blew away the judges of the 2020 Booker Prize and is certainly one of the greatest debut novels of the twenty-first century.  It has an incredible emotional pull.

Shuggie is devoted to his mother Agnes, who, in 1981, is attempting to hold things together to keep her man, a taxi driver, and to eventually escape from the oppressive atmosphere of her parents’ home in a Sighthill tower block with her three children Catherine, Leek and Shuggie.  Her youngest is regularly referred to by other characters as “a funny wee bastard”, out of step with what is expected from a boy living close to poverty in his environment and totally dedicated to his mother.

When that escape is not quite how Agnes planned she resorts increasingly to alcohol and opportunities diminish for her and the family.   Agnes is a superb creation, equally monstrous and appealing, living an Elizabeth Taylor fantasy in an impoverished, tough world.  It is Shuggie, however, who the reader will root for.  His childhood makes often for grim and heart-breaking reading but humour is never far away and Stuart relates the tribulations of this family and those around them with such verve and energy that the reader is allowed to rise above the misery and see this extraordinary work for what it is- a tremendous achievement. 

It is rich in detail and beautifully observed throughout, the characterisation is so strong and there is often sympathy for the most alarming of occurrences.  It’s gritty and raw but at its heart is an incredible beauty and humanity which even when the reader is dabbing away tears of sadness, frustration or laughter is life-affirming.  There are very strong autobiographical elements in this fiction as the author grew up in Sighthill with an alcoholic mother.  He did manage to escape his environment and became a leading designer for Banana Republic, holds dual British-American citizenship and lives in New York with his art curator husband which is light years away from the world of Shuggie Bain.  It is probably this distance and the ability to look back on these years which gives this book its quality and power.  I haven’t enjoyed a Booker Prize winning novel as much since 2004 when Alan Hollinghurst won with “Line Of Beauty”.  The paperback is to be published in the UK next week and this would be one very good way of celebrating the reopening of bookshops after months of lockdown by purchasing a copy.

Shuggie Bain was published in hardback by Picador in the UK in February 2020. The paperback is available from 15th April 2021.

100 Essential Books – The Prophets – Robert Jones Jnr (Quercus 2021)

I was looking forward to reading this.  It is an extraordinary debut novel from gay black American author Robert Jones which could very well become a contender for the twenty-first century Great American novel.

It is a historical work set in the Halifax family’s cotton plantation in Vicksburg, Mississippi and over the years the slave plantation is a location I have visited quite a few times in fiction but I don’t think that many have made so much of an impression upon me as this.

In a barn live and work two teenagers, Samuel and Isaiah, who have become lovers.  Set apart from both the rest of the slaves and the members of the white household but observed by both they are true outsiders.  The response to these boys searching for happiness in such a grim existence is commented on by other characters, often in sections that relate to Books of the Bible.  They are also observed by a chorus of ancestral voices who powerfully and poetically comment on proceedings. 

The boys, unbeknown to them, have been part of an economic experiment by the white master, Paul Halifax, who has put them in an environment of hard physical work away from the cotton-picking to make studs of them, to provide him with a strong stock of future slaves.  The problem is, the boys are only interested  in one another.  Along comes another slave Amos, granted rights of preaching who uses his sermons to turn the slaves against the boys known to all as “The Two Of Them”.  Others in the plantation cannot comprehend what Amos is against thinking that happiness should be taken wherever it is possible to find it.  Samuel and Isaiah’s combustible situation is exacerbated by the sexually frustrated white mistress and her son returned from a “liberal” education up North.

The plot, in its bare bones here, seems a tad melodramatic, but oh my, how well Jones brings it alive, developing characters quickly and effectively and by having these two young men at the centre of a love story which feels bound to be ultimately tragic.

Amongst this Jones also superbly intersperses tales from previous generations- of the plantation’s ancestors, of plunder, of slave ships encompassing the black American history to this point into one superb novel.

When reading this it was a comment I had seen by Marlon James which kept coming to mind.  He said of this book; “The Prophets shakes right down to the bone what the American novel should do, and can do.  That shuffling sound you hear is Morrison, Baldwin and Angelou whooping and hollering both in pride and wonder.” 

What a marvellous thing to say about another author’s book but it is so appropriate.  And this is a debut novel!  At the end Robert Jones Jnr acknowledges hundreds of people by name, those black writers, educators, public figures, musicians, performers, friends who have inspired him, an awe-inspiring roll-call which might have seemed over the top if Jones did not have the goods to deliver.  With this enthralling, heart-breaking, poetic, challenging, very accessible yet difficult novel he certainly has.  The only thing I am not totally on board with is the cover which has a self-published self-help book vibe about it but certainly do not judge this by that. It is possible that I may have already read my Book of The Year.

The Prophets was published by Quercus in the UK in hardback on 5th January 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Top 10 Books Of The Year 2020 – Part One (10-6)

It’s time to begin to put this strange old year to rest by having a look back to see which books made the greatest impression upon me in 2020.  This was a year when more of us turned to reading as a means to escape from what was going on in our everyday lives.  My Top 10 is not just based upon books published this year. (3 out of the 10 were, which is the same proportion as last year), if I read it during 2020 it is up for inclusion.

This year I read 68 books which is certainly up on last year where I slumped down to 56 but mid 60’s is generally the figure so it is not up considerably especially considering the length of lockdown and the time I had to spend working from home this year.  Some of that time I was too pre-occupied to really get into my reading, which is something we have also heard time and time again this year.  I have read more 5* reads this year, 13, in fact, which means that some of my five star reads will miss out on a Top 10 placing, with 36 4* and 19 3*.  Gender-wise, my Top 10 is showing a win for the women as last year’s 60-40 split is reversed.  There are 2 non-fiction titles (both autobiographical) amongst the list and two of the authors have featured in previous year Top 10’s.

Right, here is the first part of the list, numbers 10-6.  If you would like to read the full review (and I hope you do as these are the books I’m really prompting you to find out more about) just click on the title.

10. Such A Fun Age- Kiley Reid  (Bloomsbury Circus 2020) (Read and reviewed in December)

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I did say about this book ” I would be hard pushed to come up with a suggestion for a better debut novel this year” and here is the proof  with this being the only 2020 debut novel in the list.  It is a book which deals with big issues with warmth and humanity and great characterisation.  It has just been issued in paperback in the UK and is currently hovering outside the Top 100 in Amazon’s chart.  I’m still expecting it to be a big seller going into 2021 in this format.  It feels contemporary, commercial and literary which seems to me to be a winning combination.

9. Truth Be Told – Kia Abdullah (HQ 2020) – Read and reviewed in August.

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The best new thriller I read this year.  This novel, which has issues of consent at its centre had me finding places to read away from everyone at work during lunchtimes, so can be seen as a perfect book for self-isolation!  I found I was using my hand to cover up text I hadn’t read on the page in case it gave something away too soon! This is Kia Abdullah’s second novel.  In 2021 I will certainly seek out her 2019 debut “Take It Back”.

8. The French Lieutenant’s Woman – John Fowles (Vintage 1969) – Read and reviewed in July

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I treated myself to a new copy of this book which I first read aged 18 and which had a place on my bookshelves ever since when I spent a day in Lyme Regis in the summer of 2019.  Knowing I wasn’t going anywhere in 2020 I treated myself to a re-read just to put myself back into Fowles’ depiction of this Devon town in the nineteenth century.  This was one of those books which I encountered at just the right time of my life for it to make a huge impression.  I have read it a number of times since my teenage years but probably not for a couple of decades.  I said of it this time “It is a very intelligent work which does make demands of the reader and on this re-reading I must admit it does occasionally seem a little too clever for its own good (perhaps that was also true of the me who read this many years ago!) and occasionally a little inaccessible.” It still very much deserves its place in my Top 10 but not right towards the top which I might have expected when I started to re-read it this summer.

7. Mama’s Boy – Dustin Lance Black (John Murray 2019) (Read in August, reviewed in September)

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Screenwriter, Oscar-winner, Activist and husband to Olympic Diver Tom Daley revisits his past focusing on his relationship with his extraordinary mother.  She survived through sheer determination never letting disability and pain from a childhood bout of polio grind her down.  She sought support through the Mormon Church which caused conflict in the young Dustin Lance Black who knew from an early age he would never be accepted by the Church and perhaps by his family because of his sexuality.  I said of it “at times I felt tearful, angry, baffled, delighted the list goes on and this is why this book ticks every box for how a memoir should be written.  Relationships are complex and this illustrates that perfectly.”

6. Hungry – Grace Dent (Mudlark 2020) – Read and reviewed in November

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This was the pick of the 2020 published books I read.  It works brilliantly as a memoir on two levels -firstly, it catalogues the author’s relationship with food growing up and to read about food seems to transport me back there more successfully than a time machine would and like the previous title it’s a beautifully conveyed record of a family relationship, here especially with her father who begins to slip away with dementia.  It is also laugh-out-loud funny throughout.  I said of it “I haven’t enjoyed a food-based memoir as much since Nigel Slater’s “Toast (which has made #3 on my Top 10 list on two occasions) and like that book it is the people fuelled by the food who really are memorable.

Next Post : The Top 5

100 Essential Books – The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai (2018)

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I’ve got round to another of the books I highlighted in my 2019 What I Should Have Read Post. This is a major prize-winner picking up the Carnegie Medal for Outstanding Adult Fiction, also the Stonewall Prize and gained prestigious shortlist nods for the Pulitzer Prize and US National Book Award. In the UK it has remained fairly under the radar, the paperback (which I read) was published in 2019 but that still didn’t lift this book to the commercial recognition it deserves. (Amazon currently has it as #2727 in Literary Fiction with a 4.4 rating from 509 reviews).

Two parallel narratives with one set in mid/late 1980’s Chicago and the other in Paris in 2015 with a handful of characters who feature in both. In the Chicago section the Boystown area is being decimated by the AIDS virus and Fiona is losing those she loved. The novel begins with the memorial for her brother Nico whose lifestyle was rejected by his family causing an irreparable rift between Fiona and her parents as she cannot cope with his lover and friends being excluded from saying goodbye.

In 2015, Fiona, now a mother herself, is searching for her missing daughter last known to be a member of a religious cult in the US before a sighting of her is flagged up in Paris. The Fiona in the later narrative is still clinging to the events of thirty years before which has affected her ability to parent. She is a flawed yet very real character.

In the eighties narrative it is her friend Yale who is central. In a relationship with activist and magazine publisher Charlie. Yale is far more conservative, working in funding for art and following a tip off from Fiona regarding her great-aunt’s collection seeks the acquisition which would make both Yale and the gallery he works for names.

I really enjoyed both plot lines (with a preference for the earlier narrative) which are superbly handled but the strength is really the relationships between the characters. The AIDS crisis is pushing them together as much as it is tearing them apart and the repercussions of this are ever-present in the later narrative and that is why this is such an excellent work.

You will find yourself invested in these characters, you will laugh with them, be totally frustrated by their actions as well as egging them on and will cry with them and for them and for all that to happen convincingly as far as I am concerned everything needs to be top-notch and here it is. Expect me to be recalling this book in my end of the year round-ups. I thoroughly recommend it.

Rebecca Makkai is a straight woman and there could have been potential criticism in this current climate of her immersing herself in a story which is not hers to tell, which should be the province of a gay male writer, especially with so much talk about appropriation but the fact that this has won a major LGBTQ literary award with The Stonewall Prize shows that this is not an issue. This is a novel for everyone, for those whose lives were touched by the events of the time where they will be brought back with chilling clarity, for those aware of them in some degree and perhaps even more importantly for those who were not even born then. It wasn’t easy reading about a killer virus whilst in lockdown due to another killer virus and I really did feel quite purged by the end but with the sense that I had received a tremendous reading experience. Rebecca Makkai has published three novels before this. I would certainly imagine this to be her masterwork to date but I will definitely be looking out for her other titles.

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The Great Believers was published in the UK by Fleet in 2018. I read the 2019 paperback edition.

Top 10 Books Of The Year 2019 – The Top 5

Right, let’s crack on with this.  Here is the rest of the countdown.

5. The Meaning Of Night – Michael Cox (2006) (Read and reviewed in July)

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Amazingly the only book I re-read this year, just a couple of years ago I had read enough re-reads to give them their own separate Top 10 but I cannot ignore this book and so my Book Of The Year from 2007 makes it into the Top 5 for this year.  It is a strange one, I read it and totally love it but after I finished it the events in the novel seem to rapidly fade from my memory and I struggle to remember what it was about even when I can remember books I enjoyed much less in greater detail.  This has happened twice which makes me think there is some kind of ethereal quality to this which causes it to dissipate once finished.  It’s a great Victorian revenge novel and I said of it “On completion the feeling was of total satisfaction for a high quality reading experience. This novel does seem to have faded from public consciousness but I can’t help feeling that a sensitive tv or film adaptation could bring it back to the top of bestsellers lists.” Maybe that will happen in 2020.

4. Shadowplay – Joseph O’Connor (Harvill Secker 2019) (Read in December not yet reviewed)

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I highlighted this in my earlier 2019- What I Should Have Read post and managed to squeeze it in before the end of the year.  A full review of this will follow but this is a splendid historical novel, shortlisted for Best Novel at the Costas, with Bram Stoker, the creator of Dracula the main character and here part of a long-lasting love triangle with actress Ellen Terry and actor and theatre impresario Sir Henry Irving.

3. Sanditon – Jane Austen and Another Lady (Corgi 1975) (Read and reviewed in December)

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I can’t say I’ve ever been tempted to read a novel which has been finished by someone else after the original author had died before completion, particularly one that was completed 150 years later.  This was all changed by the ITV adaptation which was one of this year’s television highlights as far as I was concerned and a recommendation from my friend and colleague Louise who felt I should read how it should have ended (well how “another lady” wanted it to end anyway).  I always thought the joins between the two authors would be obvious but I thought this was done seamlessly and ended up enjoying this more than when I re-read “Pride And Prejudice” a couple of years back.

2. Little – Edward Carey (Gallic 2018) (Read and Reviewed in June)

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Another splendid historical novel with that added bit of quirkiness which I so often find appealing.  This is a fictionalised account of the early life of Madame Tussaud.  Punctuated throughout with little pencil drawings which adds much to the experience.  I said of this “Through a first-person narrative Carey has created an enthralling character I will probably remember forever.  Written with gusto and an eccentric energy “Little” will not be beaten down however bad circumstances get.  There’s a naivety and optimism which fuels this novel- she is certainly no “Little Nell” yet the skill of storytelling here will suggest comparisons to Charles Dickens.”

1.Swan Song – Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (Hutchinson 2018) (Read and reviewed in April)

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This sublime account of the later years of Truman Capote and an act of literary betrayal towards his friends was always going to be in with a strong shot of being at the summit this year.  Debut author Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s position was further cemented when I went to see her talk about this book at this year’s Isle Of Wight Literary Festival following its publication in paperback.  I said of it “I was hooked from the moment I saw printed on the back cover; “They told him everything.  He told everybody else.”  It is a novel fuelled by gossip which makes it sound tacky but it is so beautifully written and every word seems considered and measured.”  I can’t remember ever falling for a book written in the third person (by a chorus of the betrayed women) but here it worked just brilliantly.

So Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott joins my Hall Of Fame for producing the book which has given me the most pleasure this year.  She becomes the first American author to do since 2014.   Here is my list of my favourite books going back to 2008.

2019 – Swan Song – Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (2018) (USA)

2018- The Count Of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas (1845) (France)

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 2020!

Top 10 Books Of The Year – 2019- Part One (10-6)

Even though we’re not quite at the end of the year I now know that I am unlikely to finish the book I am currently reading so it’s time to look back again to the 10 books which made the most impression on me during the year.  These are not necessarily published this year (just 3 out of the 10 were) if I read it this year then it was up for inclusion.  The total number of books I finished in 2019 is 56, which is down on previous years where I usually hit the mid to late 60’s mark, apart from the golden year of 2016 when I read 80.  I’m not sure why this figure is down so this year probably due to a change of commitments.  Out of those 56 nine of them I classed as five star reads which nicely fills up most of my Top 10 places, the spread of the other star ratings is 28 at 4*,15 3* and 4 at 2* (didn’t have any two star reads last year where the spread was (12/32/22)- I must have been feeling a bit stingier this year.

It does seem like quite a bit of my reading has been books which I missed out in 2018, obviously a bit of a vintage year as 50% of the titles were published then.  Gender wise the men have pushed ahead with a 60-40 split putting an end to last year’s perfect balance.  Nobody makes the list more than once this year and there are two authors who are no strangers to my end of year Top 10.  It does seem, however, and perhaps it is no surprise given the state of the world currently, that for much of 2018 I have been rooted in the past as all of the fiction choices are set in earlier times with a significant chunk (4) being set in the Victorian era or earlier.  Right, let’s get on with the list.  The full reviews for each title can be found be clicking on the link.

10. The Library Book -Susan Orlean (Atlantic 2019)  (Read and reviewed in August)

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My non-fiction pick of the year is this extremely memorable book which works both as a love letter towards libraries and their continued importance and as a true crime work where the author explores the fire which destroyed the Los Angeles Central Library in 1986.  It wasn’t just because I work in libraries that I found this work so inspirational although it was one of the reasons behind me applying for (and getting) a promotion.  Susan Orlean reinforces everything I believe about libraries although the systems in place in the UK seem decidedly impoverished compared to the USA.  I said “The book itself was inspired by Orlean’s memories of going to a public library with her mother when she was a child and them bonding over their piles of chosen books. This seems to me a valuable inspiration for a fascinating work.”

9.Things In Jars – Jess Kidd (Canongate 2019) (Read and reviewed in March)

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I’m up to date with Jess Kidd having read all three of her novels and this marks her first time in my end of year Top 10 with her best book yet.  This built on the supernatural elements which have been present in all her works yet with its nineteenth century setting it seemed to work better here than it has in the past.  I said of this “Here we have the Victorian love of the unusual and freakish and the developments in medicine which attracted the honourable and the disreputable sitting beautifully in with what becomes a gripping mystery peopled with characters about whom I wanted to know so much more.”

8. Bridge Of Clay – Markus Zusak (Doubleday 2018) (Read and reviewed in July)

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We had to wait years for it to arrive but Australian author Zusak manages to get his follow up publication to my 2008 Book of The Year, “The Book Thief” into my Top 10.  I would have thought that a publication from an author of a modern classic after a lengthy wait would have been a major literary event but it seemed to creep under the radar somewhat when it arrived in hardback last year and this year in paperback.  That made me initially a little anxious but I needn’t have been.  I said “Its chatty, scattered narrative actually masks the emotional depth of the content.  It was only looking back as I neared the end that I realised how much I knew about the characters’ lives and how involved I had become, a testament to a great novel.” I read a library copy and then had to go out and buy it to have it readily on hand for a re-read.

7.The House Of Impossible Beauties – Joseph Cassara (Oneworld 2018) (Read in July, reviewed in August)

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2018 was the year when the New York Drag Balls of the late 70’s and 80’s went mainstream in the UK thanks to TV series such as “Pose” and “Rupaul’s Drag Race” and at least a couple of novels of which this was the best.  In my review I compared it to what else was out there (as well as the documentary “Paris Is Burning”, available on Netflix, from where Cassara’s characterisations are developed) and concluded “Perhaps more than “Pose” it shows the struggles in terms of coping with discrimination, poverty, prostitution and mortality but like the television series it is all done with great humanity and compassion and more than a fair share of glitter.”

6. Take Nothing With You – Patrick Gale  (Tinder 2018) (Read in February, reviewed in March)

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This marks British author Patrick Gale’s fourth appearance in my end of year Top 10’s out of the nine books of his I have read which must mean that he has settled into being one of my most favourite authors.  Previous end of year positions have been 4th for “Facts Of Life” (1995) in 1996, 9th for “Rough Music” (2000) in 2001 and 6th for “A Perfectly Good Man” (2012) in 2013.  His latest matches this position and I can’t help but note that the books of his I really like I miss out on at the time and catch up with in the following year.  This has the most modern setting of any of the books on this year’s list with one narrative strand actually being set in the present (gulp!) with the main character contemplating his past whilst receiving treatment for cancer, but it was the past that Gale really drew me into with his story of Eustace, the young gifted cellist.  I said “I fell in love with the boy growing up in his parents’ old people’s home in Weston-Super-Mare in the 1970s with ambitions to be a musical great if only his mother and father and society will let him realise his dreams. It is haunting, nostalgic and sensitive and has all the qualities to make it an essential read.”

Find out the Top 5 in my next post.

100 Essential CDs – Number 8 – Motown Chartbusters Volume 10

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Motown Chartbusters Volume 10 (Spectrum 1998)

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The development of the Motown label is one of the most important cultural aspects of the second half of the twentieth century.  I never tire of hearing how Berry Gordy crammed young talented artists into the little Hitsville studio in Detroit and through hard work, determination and drive to succeed turned a significant number of these artists into household names and maintained success throughout the 1960s and into the 70s.  The seventies side of things tends to be overlooked.  Gordy decided to up sticks and move out of Detroit and relocate in LA, a decision which rankled with many fans and was seen as selling out for the glamour of Hollywood and the general feeling was that Motown was never the same again.  Not so, the 16 tracks on this CD which first appeared on vinyl in 1979 are of a quality so high that this is probably my favourite compilation album of all time.  The recordings date over a period of four years which does show that the pace of hits had slowed down from the time when they could put out two of these hits compilations a year and it had been five years since the preceding volume which I also have on my Essential CDs list.   Not everyone who was entitled to have tracks on this album has done so, there’s no Stevie Wonder for the first time ever on a Chartbusters recording and he was probably at his commercial peak at this period, there’s no David Ruffin, who had made a strong comeback with tracks produced by Van McCoy.  Some of the old guard are represented, especially Diana Ross with three tracks, the three track award is also given to newer act The Commodores who had featured on Chartbusters 9 with their debut instrumental hit but had in the intervening years gone on to become a supergroup.  There’s also newer names such as Rick James, Teena Marie and Tata Vega who were paving the way for Motown’s continued success.  Statistically, the tracks look impressive with 9 of the 16 being Top 10 UK hits and six US number 1’s.  There was no way that Motown was a spent force, a great number of these tracks are amongst my all-time favourites.  However, this was the last essential Motown Chartbuster CD as far as I am concerned.  Volume 11 was released just a year later and despite highlighting Diana Ross’ work with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic and having big hits from the likes of Teena Marie, The Commodores and Billy Preston & Syreeta a lot of the magic and creative inspiration which fills Volume 10 had gone.

Once again with these essential CDs it is important to know what tracks can be found on them so here you will find them listed with their highest chart position (UK/US) if released as a single and links if I have more information on the artist elsewhere on the blog. I’ll pick out a handful of tracks to give a flavour of what makes these CDs essential.

Track Listings

1.Three Times A Lady – The Commodores (1978) (UK#1,US#1)

2. Love Hangover –Diana Ross (1976) (UK#10, US#1)

3. The Night – Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons (1975) (UK#7)

When I focused on the essential 20 Greatest Hits by Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons I lamented the absence of this particular track. In the early 70’s the band signed to Motown with fairly disastrous commercial results. Berry Gordy put them on his subsidiary Mo-West label which was set up to branch out with more rock orientated acts when the band, with their brand of blue-eyed soul could have been very much at home on the main Motown label. Mo-West wasn’t such a great priority and the albums recorded for them (although history has seen them critically well-received) did not sell. “The Night” however found its way to the UK charts via the Northern Soul clubs who pounced on its rarity and forced a commercial release. This is a superb, driving  track which is a great British favourite for the group which almost certainly would not have appeared on any US hits compilations.  The Chartbuster series was an innovation from the UK arm of the label which is why we are treated with gems like this.

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4. Got To Give It Up (Part 1) – Marvin Gaye (1977) (UK#7,US#1)

5. Get It Up For Love – Tata Vega (1979) (UK#52)

6. The Boss – Diana Ross (1979) (UK#40, US#19)

Another track which was left off another of my Essential CD’s which got me moaning when I reviewed it.  On 40 Motown Greats by Diana Ross & The Supremes there was no room for this solo classic from Ross. I’d even specified the track I would have sacrificed for this superb Ashford and Simpson song which behind the disco gloss tells the story of a woman claiming to be totally in control and not prepared to be sideswiped by love.  There’s some lovely touches in the lyrics and a great performance from Ms. Ross.  At the time we might have expected this to be a bigger hit, certainly in the UK, where it just scraped the Top 40 but time has been very good to this track.  I did buy a considerable number of Motown singles at the time this was released but I never bought this and it was only hearing it in a nightclub probably 15 years later and the response it got that I realised I had missed out on how good this sounds.  Its continued popularity tempted girl group (and sisters of Toni) The Braxtons to revisit it which performed nine places better than the original in 1997 and topped the US Dance charts but which isn’t a patch on Ross’ version.  The production and songwriting team of Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson is still under-rated and this is one of their finest efforts.

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7. Theme From “Big Time”- Smokey Robinson (1977)

8. Your Kiss Is Sweet – Syreeta (1975) (UK#12)

9. Theme From “Mahogany” – Diana Ross (1975) (UK#5, US#1)

10. Easy – The Commodores (1977) (UK#9,US#4)

11. I’m A Sucker For Your Love – Teena Marie (1979) (UK#43)

An influential artist who was not as big as she should have been.  When I first heard Madonna I thought she was somebody who wanted to be another Teena Marie.  I’m sure there would not have been a Madonna without Teena Marie to pave the way.  This was her debut hit for the artist born Mary Brockert signed to Motown and recording material that was being left unreleased by them until Rick James, the label’s new hot act, passed on producing Diana Ross and asked to work with Teena instead.  This first single was actually a duet with an uncredited James which would have gained it radio play but the title was open to misinterpretation which might have caused some anxiety to radio programmers.  There was also the difficulty of how to market the artist, it was assumed she was black and she became the first white artist to perform on “Soul Train” showcasing this track.  In the late 70’s with the restrictions from American radio Teena probably suffered but she was largely embraced as a soul act getting more play from R&B radio because of her voice and obvious love of black music.  Her biggest hit in the UK would come a year later with “Behind The Groove” and she put out some excellent material for the label.  Ironically, her biggest US hit would have to wait until 1985’s “Lovergirl” made it into the Top 5 three years after becoming dismayed by the handling of her career by Motown which saw her move to the Epic label.  Incidentally, mentor Rick James’ best track, his debut hit “You And I” is also on this CD.

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12. Love Machine – The Miracles (1976) (UK#3, US#1)

Containing members of the first group to make serious money for Motown with 1960’s “Shop Around”, by 1976 lead singer Smokey had gone solo but by the time this album was released he was struggling to find material.  The track by him here the theme to some long forgotten film was an attempt to make himself relevant in the way Ross and Marvin Gaye had done, by embracing disco, it’s a fair enough result which the label had high hopes for but is the only track on this album not to have pop success on either side of the Atlantic.  His old band-mates The Miracles were having a completely different experience in the mid 70’s with this classic chart-topping track with Smokey’s replacement Billy Griffin as lead vocalist.   It’s a joyful piece of music which combines 70’s disco with a feel of the doowop type song The Miracles would have begun their career with.  It was a great comeback for the group, but unfortunately, the Motown of the 70’s would struggle with consistency and couldn’t come up with the goods for this group to continue this success.  No longer having the cream of song writing and production teams on staff to build on this great commercial sound this was the last time this incarnation of the group would make the charts.

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13. It Should Have Been Me – Yvonne Fair (1976) (UK#5)

The history of Motown is peppered with extremely talented artists that the label did not really know what to do with and Yvonne Fair is another of these.  She’d been around long enough on the label to have had a small part in the game-changing “Lady Sings The Blues” movie and had already proved her musical worth as part of the James Brown Revue before coming to Motown.  Working with Norman Whitfield they came up with the idea to reinvent a song that Whitfield together with Mickey Stevenson had penned for Gladys Knight & The Pips and as in a previous reinvention of a Gladys song “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” which was reworked for Marvin Gaye the end result was extraordinary.  It’s no easy feat to outdo Knight’s vocal but Yvonne turned this into a blistering soul shouter which begins menacingly quiet set in a church where Yvonne’s love is about to get married to somebody else.  Well, not if she has anything to do with it.  Knowing this song it’s impossible to attend a wedding ceremony and get to the bit where the celebrant begins “if any objection to this wedding” without Yvonne’s response coming to mind.  The UK loved this song giving her a Top 5 hit, extraordinary for a raw soul performance but it was seen as somewhat as a novelty which meant that Fair’s continued success was probably doomed. This was a tragedy because follow-up single was even better, there were few emotional tour-de-forces out there as “It’s Bad For Me To See You” which I think is an all-time Classic Motown track which did get radio play but didn’t make any inroads in the pop charts.  It took 34 years for Motown to put Yvonne’s only album “The Bitch Is Black” out on CD which showed someone as at home with raw funk as the deep soul which made her name.  Yvonne Fair was also another of the Motown artists who passed away too soon, of cancer at the age of 51 in 1994.

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14. You And I – Rick James (1978) (UK#46, US#13)

15. Don’t Leave Me This Way – Thelma Houston (1977) (UK#13, US#1) (also on “Nights In Heaven“)

16. Sail On – The Commodores (1979) (UK#8,US#4)

This review is the final piece of the puzzle of my 100 Essential CDs which is now complete.  It’s taken almost five years to run through these which means my list is now already five years out of date.  Even though there’s been good music over the last five years these 100 CDs are so entrenched in my psyche that it might be hard for me to move one out of the list to put something else in so it’s going to stay exactly as it is.  I  hope you enjoy reading my CD selections and that it might have prompted you to rediscover some of the artists I have written about.  A quick word count suggests something in the region of 187,000 words have been written in this section so many thanks if you have read all, some or any of them.  I’m going to be leaving writing about music for a little while but no doubt a new thread will be back soon.  In the meantime if you have just stumbled across this review there are another 99 to go!

Happy New Year!

 

100 Essential CDs – Number 10- Lady Love: Sweet Love Grooves

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Lady Love: Sweet Love Grooves (Laserlight 1993)

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I bought this German import CD in a set of three not long after it was released.  It was freely available in the UK and also seems to have been available separately if my research is right.  This is by far the strongest of the three which features tracks licensed from the Philadelphia International label.  The other two were also named after Philly hits “Let Em In” which was a hit for Billy Paul and “Let’s Clean Up The Ghetto”, a socially aware track by supergroup Philadelphia International All-Stars.  The other two tend to feature more uptempo tracks but here the emphasis is very much on the love ballad side of the label.  It features a mix of tracks from the glory days of the mid 70’s and a fair selection from the early 80’s when Philadelphia International were still putting out quality tracks by artists such as The Stylistics and Patti Labelle which were scoring big R&B hits but not crossing over to the pop charts.  The highest US chart placing for any of these is #24 for the title track and for the UK three places higher for a 1978 hit from the O’Jays.  None of the tracks managed both a UK and US Top 40 placing and there is no overlap from any of my other Essential  compilation CDs.  This does not in any way reflect the quality of these tracks many of which are Gamble and Huff compositions and productions.  Unfortunately, I’m not able to glean that much information from the sleevenotes as I don’t speak German but I think the info is all a little sparse anyway as might be expected on this kind of budget compilation. With these essential compilation CDs it is important to know what tracks can be found on them so here you will find them listed with their highest chart position (UK/US) if released as a single and links if I have more information on the artist elsewhere on the blog. I’ll pick out a handful of tracks to give a flavour of what makes these CDs essential.

Track Listings

1.Your Song- Billy Paul (1976) (UK#37)

2. Hurry Up This Way Again – Stylistics (1980)

3. I Just Love The Man – The Jones Girls (1983)

4. Turn Off The Lights – Teddy Pendergrass (1979)

5. The Sweetest Pain – Dexter Wansel (1979)

6. Love, Need And Want You – Patti Labelle (1983)

Three years before her big commercial breakthrough as a solo artist with  the essential  “The Winner In You” album Patti was signed to Philadelphia International and began working with Leon Gamble and Kenny Huff which seemed like it would pay huge commercial dividends.  Taken from the album “I’m In Love Again” it was a Top 10 single on the US R&B charts but despite becoming a bit of a “quiet storm” 80’s classic it did not make the pop charts on either side of the Atlantic.  It’s Patti at her vocal best, perhaps more understated and tender than she could be and this together with the other track included here, the more successful R&B chart-topper “If Only You Knew” and a sublime cover of the Dolly Parton song “Here You Come Again” represents the cream of her three albums for the label.  This particular track became very well known in the mid 90’s when it formed the central part of the worldwide chart-topper from Nelly, “Dilemma”, in which Kelly Rowlands sang the chorus and Patti was present in the part of Kelly’s mum in the video which gave Patti welcome exposure and would have hopefully had interested listeners seeking out the original version.

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7. Brandy – The O’Jays (1978) (UK#21)

8. Let Me Be Good To You – Lou Rawls (1978)

9. I Love You Anyway – Dee Dee Sharp Gamble (1983)

Dee Dee Sharp who also has a fabulous real name Dione LaRue began her music career when she was barely in her teens and by the age of 17 had notched up a sequence of four Top 10 US pop hits on the legendary Cameo-Parkway label .  Her biggest was “Mashed Potato Time” which like a number of her hits focused on and attempted to build on a dance craze.  She fits nicely into that Little Eva bracket and by the time Beatlemania of 1964 took hold her pop singles career chart like many artists of this ilk was finished.  Fast forward a couple of decades and Dee Dee, now married to label boss Kenny Gamble had reinvented herself as a sophisticated and convincing soul singer.  Signed to the Philadelphia International label for three albums which took her into the 1980’s.  (In 2010 Demon put out all three albums on a double CD set which demonstrates how under-rated this performer was in this second phase of her career).  This track which comes from the third of these albums “Dee Dee” is just beautiful and about a million miles away from the pop froth of her dance craze days.  A calm, sophisticated love song written by husband Kenny alongside label mate Dexter Wansel  (who has a track on his own on this album) and  Dexter’s  favoured lyricist Cynthia Biggs and produced and arranged by Wansel and Huff this is a real 1980’s Philadelphia highlight.

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10. Toast Of Love – The Three Degrees (1976)(UK#36)

11. Don’t Let It Go To Your Head- Jean Carn (1976)

12. The Best Love I Ever Had – Jerry Butler (1980)

13. Lady Love – Lou Rawls (1978) (US#24)

Jazz crooner Lou Rawls had been recording from the mid 50’s replacing Sam Cooke in an early group the Highway QCs.  In 1958 he was pronounced dead after a horrific car crash when touring with Cooke, but amazingly eventually recovered and like Sam he made the move from gospel to popular music, providing backing vocals on a number of Cooke’s big hits and recording albums which straddled Jazz, Pop and R&B genres.  Vocally we might consider Rawls a crooner who built a reputation through the quality of his life performances and label-hopped recording wise until he hooked up with Philadelphia International when he was in his early 40’s and scored big time with his amalgamation of the classic singer meets disco on “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine.”  Perhaps the biggest test to his credibility and relevance as a recording artist came with this track which lyrically borders on the cheesy but it’s done with such conviction that Rawls certainly gets away with it.  He also didn’t stick with this route as his output included socially conscious tracks and uptempo recordings which sounded more contemporary but here he kicks off the shoes and snuggles into a smooth love ballad which I loved almost as much as his signature hit back when I was a teenager and which still wins me over all these years later.  It’s always been a guilty pleasure, in the days when we used to take our own singles to parties I would sneak this one out of the record box and leave it home  in favour of the latest and much cooler Blondie or Donna Summer track but at home this was a regular on the hi-fi.

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14. The Whole Town’s Laughing At Me – Teddy Pendergrass (1977) (UK#44) 

When Teddy Pendergrass began his solo career in 1977 many people did not know who he was thinking that the distinctive voice on many Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes soul classics was Harold himself.  Just a few seconds into this outstanding single taken from his debut album was enough to put things right.  A masterful, self-effacing track which brings out the best of Teddy vocally on a really good song written by Sherman Marshall and Ted Wortham.  I really like Teddy in this understated  put- upon role, his very best track is also in this vein, the pleading “Can’t We Try” which incidentally appears on one of the companion CDs to this collection “Let Em In”.  Teddy’s image, however,  became more cemented as full of bravado and swagger, a love god, lampooned by Lenny Henry is his Theophilus P. Wildebeest character, which came from the more seduction based part of his repertoire from songs such as “Turn Off The Lights” but I far prefer him portraying a less confident role and this is certainly the case with this track.

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15. If Only You Knew – Patti Labelle (1984) (US#46)

16. Darlin’ Darlin’ Baby – O’Jays (1977) (UK#24)

Not the biggest O’Jays track on the album, that would be the too schmaltzy for me “Brandy” which recalls the queasiness of Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey” too much for my liking but this despite lyrics such as “you should have everything/ a queen fit for the throne should have” is a great example of this group in their chugging mid-tempo mode.  A Gamble and Huff composition and production it is just a gentle love song.  O’ Jays tracks such as “I Love Music”, “Backstabbers”, “Message In Our Music” and “Love Train” made more of a statement but there was something about the tender honesty of this track which won us over particularly in the UK which made it their 4th out of 8 Top 40 hits.

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100 Essential CDs – Number 14 – 60 More Classic Dance Hits Of The 70s

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60 More Classic Dance Hits Of The 70s (Connoisseur Collection 1991)

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This three CD compilation was one of the first CD box sets I ever bought, thrilled to replace my 7″ and 12″ vinyl collection of many of these classic tracks.  I continually regret my decision to chuck away the vinyl but this has been a purchase which I have played consistently over the years.  I also bought its companion release, the inevitably titled 60 Classic Dance Hits in this new indestructible format – but it rotted.  In the early days of CD there was a chemical reaction which occurred between the CD in its case and the paper inserts and it went a horribly browny-gold colour on both sides and became unplayable.  This fate did not totally escape this collection but it has just gone the funny colour of the front of the discs which hasn’t, thankfully, effected its playability.  There are, true, a number of tracks which I have on other CDs, but a number which I only have on this collection.  I think twenty-eight years on the damage would have been done by now so I think I’m fairly safe.

I think this is a little different from many dance/disco collections as it has a very British bias.  The sleeve notes contain the UK chart positions (that saved me a bit of time) and a number of them were hits only in the UK and were by UK artists.  There’s a fair share of the big American names with songs that we might expect to see on disco compilations but these were probably more evident on the earlier collection.  Here, we dig a little deeper to include reggae, northern soul, slow dances as well as the more obviously disco tracks which do span the decade but with the greater majority coming from the mid/latter years.  With these essential compilation CDs it is important to know what tracks can be found on them so here you will find them listed with their highest chart position (UK/US) if released as a single and links if I have more information on the artist elsewhere on the blog. I’ll pick out a handful of tracks to give a flavour of what makes these CDs essential.

Track Listings

CD1

1.Rock Your Baby – George McRae (1974) (UK#1, US#2) (also on “Rhythm Divine 2” and  “Disco Classics

2. Disco Nights (Rock Freak) – G.Q (1979) (UK#42, US#12) (also on “Native New Yorker“)

3. He’s The Greatest Dancer – Sister Sledge (1979) (UK#6,US#9)

4.  Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground) – The Jacksons (1979) (UK#4, US#7) (also on “Rhythm Divine 2“)

5. Car Wash – Rose Royce (1976) (UK#9, US#1) (also on “Funk Soul Anthems” and “Rhythm Divine 2“)

6. Whodunnit- Tavares (1977) (UK#5, US#22)

7. You See The Trouble With Me – Barry White (1976) (UK#2)

8. Is This A Love Thing – Raydio (1978) (UK#27)

9. Boogie Nights- Heatwave (1977) (UK#2, US#2) (also on “Disco Classics“)

10.Disco Inferno – Trammps (1977) (UK#16, US#11) (also on “Nights In Heaven“)

11.Boogie Oogie Oogie – A Taste Of Honey (1978) (UK#3, US#1)(also on “Rhythm Divine 2“)

12. You’re My Everything – Lee Garrett (1976) (UK#15)

13. Yum Yum (Gimmee Some) – Fatback Band (1975) (UK#40)

A delicious squelchy bassline on this highly likeable slab of street funk.  The lyrics are absolute nonsense about liking ice cream and cornflakes yet the rhythm and feel of the track makes it cool and just a little startling when we heard it first back in 1975.  The first of their 6 UK Top 40 hits they perhaps were never as hard-hitting as this again, softening the sound and upping the commercial feel on bigger hits such as “Do The Spanish Hustle” and “I Found Lovin'”.  The Fatback Band always had potential for me to be a funk supergroup but were unable to find pop chart success in the US.  They had quite a few fine moments and this is one of them.

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14. Blame It On The Boogie – Jacksons (1978) (UK#8) (also on “Disco Classics“)

15. We Are Family – Sister Sledge (1979) (UK#8, US#2)

16. Good Times – Chic (1979) (UK#5, US#1)

17. Young Hearts Run Free – Candi Staton (1976) (UK#2, US#20)

Up there amongst the greatest disco tracks of all time, this combines southern soul and subtle country and western influences (especially in the lyrics) with disco music and a sheer uplifting danceability which is nothing short of genius.  Candi puts in a great vocal on this track which was produced for her by Dave Crawford who propelled her into the big time.  It’s a great song of independence and empowerment.  Lyrically, I always smile at the couplet “Encourage the babies every time they say/self-preservation is what’s really going on today“.  Candi knows some very articulate babies!  Not even “I Will Survive” deals with a toxic relationship, which was the source of this song, in such an uplifting way.  Further collaborations between Candi and Crawford were equally positive but did not have the depth of this song and did tend to sound like “Young Hearts.”  It has scored chart placings for Candi on the UK on two separate occasions in 1986 as a re-mix and most successfully in 1999 as a re-recording when it got to number 29 when Candi was hot again thanks to her participation on the club classic that will never fade away “You Got The Love”. In 2018 Candi released her 30th album, appropriately titled “Unstoppable”.

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18. Take That To The Bank- Shalamar (1978) (UK#20)

A pair of dancers from the US TV show “Soul Train” put together by the producers after session singers of the same name scored first time off with a so-so Motown medley “Uptown Festival”.  Jeffrey Daniel and Jody Hewitt joined forces with vocalist Gerald Brown on an extended financial metaphor of a song which despite their much greater success worldwide in the 80’s for me ranks alongside “A Night To Remember” as my favourite of theirs.  There have been personnel changes over the years with Brown being replaced by Howard Hewitt in their golden period and  Daniel and Hewitt still perform alongside Carolyn Griffey, daughter of the man instrumental in putting the group together in the first place.  Co-written and produced by Leon Sylvers, it would have been a great track for his already established family act The Sylvers who had scored a US#1 in 1976 with their track “Boogie Fever”.  Instead it became the second of 11 UK Top 40 hits for Shalamar.

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19. Galaxy Of Love –Crown Heights Affair (1978) (UK#24)

20. Do What You Wanna Do – T. Connection (1977) (UK#11)

The biggest and best track from this group from the Bahamas who got big local success and moved to Miami and TK records to join the sunshine sounds of  labelmates KC and George McCrae.  This is a track which has improved with age and still sounds like a relevant piece of disco funk.  This was the big hit of their debut album “Magic” and they recorded three more albums for the label before moving to Capitol in the early 80’s where unfortunately their commercial sales continued to dwindle.

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CD2

1.Now That We’ve Found Love – Third World (1978) (UK#10)

2. Can You Feel The Force – The Real Thing (1979) (UK#5) (also on “Disco Classics“)

3. Disco Music (I Like It) – J.A.L.N Band (1976) (UK#21)

4. Hi Tension – Hi Tension (1978) (UK#13)

The Brit-funk movement kicked into action in 1978 with this extremely likeable funky track which put lie to the perception that British soul and funk music was inferior.  This North London band added a bit of a Caribbean feel to the mix with a hint of steel drums over an explosive ear-worm of a chant.  The group at times consisted of Phil Fearon who would go on to have hits in the 80’s leading pop-soul combo Galaxy and Courtney Pine joined them on tour.  Their one album was released on Island Records and I actually thought they were going to be huge.  I bought this single and played just as much the ballad B-side “Girl I Betcha” which had an Earth Wind and Fire feel and was confirmation to me that there was talent in this group.  Both their UK hits, this name-checking opener and the follow-up are included on this CD.  Follow-up “The British Hustle” was a little late in cashing in with the original dance craze which gave hits for the standard, the Spanish and Latin variations but reinforced the Britishness of the enterprise and gave them a higher chart position reaching number 8.  Both tracks were as good as one another and I think there was a considerable amount of untapped potential to this group which perhaps should have demanded a longer term investment from their record company.

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5. Dancing In The City – Marshall Hain (1978) (UK#3)

6. Silly Games- Janet Kay (1979) (UK#2)

7. Reggae For It Now – Bill Lovelady (1979) (UK#12)

8. Uptown Top Ranking – Althea & Donna (1977) (UK#1)

9. I Love To Love- Tina Charles (1976) (UK#1)

We knew Tina’s voice from the 5000 Volts hit “I’m On Fire” and from those cheapie Top Of The Pops cover versions where she was used as a session singer before making her big breakthrough with this Biddu composition and production.  I thought Tina Charles was great in 1976, a worthy successor to the girl stars of the 60’s and when this topped the charts you’d have to go back to 1968 and Mary Hopkins’ “Those Were The Days” to find the previous British solo female chart-topper.  Biddu had scored a chart-topper with Carl Douglas and the Kung-Fu craze and some hits with his own orchestra but with Tina he had his muse and began a couple of years of a run of hits which sold well worldwide but couldn’t crack the US.  This was her biggest and best track, the slight gender shift of the man who only wanted to dance whilst the girl wanted to canoodle made it appealing and the song itself is so catchy and performed superbly.  I’ve seen Tina perform this and her other hits a few times over the years reminding me of the girl in the floppy cap I always had a bit of a crush on when I saw her on “Top Of The Pops” in 1976.

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10. Queen Of Clubs – KC & Sunshine Band (1974) (UK#7)

Their five US pop number 1’s would have to wait to begin clocking up until the following year but we Brits lapped up this debut hit in 1974 and I could argue the case for this being their best ever track.  Stabbing staccato brass gives it a real urgency, KC’s vocal is convincing and it also contains the (uncredited) magnificent falsetto of George McCrae hot on the heels of his own debut chart-topper.  Maybe not as sunshiny as some of their biggest hits but this really helped establish the Miami sound.  In the US they really were one of the big singles group in the second half of the decade, in the UK they had to wait until 1983 for their sole number 1 “Give It Up” which sounded lacklustre compared to their big 70’s hits.

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11. You Sexy Thing – Hot Chocolate (1975) (UK#2, US#3)

12. Get Up And Boogie – Silver Convention (1976) (UK#7, US#2)

13. It Only Takes A Minute – 100 Tons & A Feather (1976) (UK#9)

14. British Hustle – Hi Tension (1978) (UK#8)

15. Reach Out (I’ll Be There) – Gloria Gaynor (1975) (UK#14)

16. Dance (Disco Heat) – Sylvester (1978) (UK#29, US#19)

17. From New York To LA – Patsy Gallant (1977) (UK#6)

At one time nicknamed the “Canadian Disco Queen” Patsy is a one-hit wonder in the UK known really only for this delightful slab of very pop influenced disco.  This always reminds me of a stand-up comedy act Pam Ann who is still going strong but who used to be a regular crowd puller in Brighton and London in the 1990’s.  As might be guessed by her name Pam’s comedy was cabin crew based, she wears a stewardess’ uniform and mercilessly rips apart the many airport staff who flock to see her show.  As a finale she would perform to this song in roller boots, which sounds odd, but was something I always found really quite affecting, actually, the hairs are sticking up on the back of my neck thinking about it.  I always liked this song anyway but now every time I hear it I can’t get the vision of a trolley dolly in uniform twirling around the stage and dance floor of whatever venue she was performing in.

From NY to LA.  From Patsy to Pam Ann

18. Love Really Hurts Without You – Billy Ocean (1976) (UK#2, US#22) (also on “Disco Classics“)

19. Footsee – Wigan’s Chosen Few (1975) (UK#9)

20. Reaching For The Best – The Exciters (1975) (UK#31)

CD3

1. Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel –Tavares (1976) (UK#4, US#15) (also on “Disco Classics” and “Rhythm Divine 2

2. Baby Don’t Change Your Mind – Gladys Knight & Pips  (1977) (UK#4)

3. Here I Go Again – Archie Bell & The Drells (1972) (UK#11)

4.Givin’ Up Givin’ In – Three Degrees (1978) (UK#12) (also on “Native New Yorker“)

After the first surge of success with the Philadelphia International label it would seem a bold move for the Three Degrees to change direction from that smooth Philly sound.  The fact that they were always credited in the UK press of being a favourite of Prince Charles kept them in the headlines and a move to the European Ariola label saw them pairing up with Giorgio Moroder which relaunched the group and gave them another four UK Top 40 hits to add to the 7 from their first phase of their career.  Their biggest hit “When Will I See You Again” was full of the warmth of Sheila Ferguson’s vocal but this feels chilly and even slightly tempestuous as Sheila unleashes the powerful blast of her vocal, sweetened not by Moroder’s icy production but by Valerie and Helen’s backing.  The girls had gone uptempo before with their contribution of their US #1 with MFSB but with this disco track they had become once again relevant and contemporary.

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5. Win Place Or Show (She’s A Winner) – The Intruders (1974) (UK#14)

6. Come On Over (To My Place) – The Drifters (1972) (UK#9)

7. Girls – The Moments & Whatnauts (1975) (UK#3)

8. Feel The Need In Me – Detroit Emeralds (1973) (UK#4)

9. That’s The Way I Like It – KC & The Sunshine Band (1975) (UK#4, US#1) (also on “Rhythm Divine 2“)

10. Funky Nassau- The Beginning Of The End (1971) (UK#31, US#15)

11. Play That Funky Music – Wild Cherry (1976) (UK#7, US#1) (also on “Disco Classics“)

12. Disco Stomp- Hamilton Bohannon (1975) (UK#6)

This is a track I have never seen on any other compilation.  I even had a best of Hamilton Bohannon CD where it didn’t even feature, amazingly as this was his biggest UK hit.  Bohannon is a noted percussionist and the drums feature heavily on this thuddingly funky track.  Vocally he does little more than mention the places where everyone is doing the disco stomp but the whole thing feels hypnotic and certainly unlike anything that was in the charts at that time.

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13. I Love Music – O’ Jays (1976) (UK#13, US#5)

14. If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me) – Staple Singers (1974) (UK#34, US#9)

15. If You Don’t Know Me By Now – Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes (1972) (UK#9, US#3)

16. I’ve Been Lonely So Long – Frederick Knight (1972) (UK#22, US#27)

17. I Wanna Get Next To You – Rose Royce (1977) (UK#14, US#10)

Those of you who still, after all these years, think that Rose Royce was a female artist rather than a group need to take a listen to this achingly beautiful ballad.  Gwen Dickey, who had powered her way through tracks such as “Carwash”, “Wishing On A Star” and “Is It Love You’re After” is relegated to the background here as Kenny Copeland excels with an Eddie Kendricks inspired vocal.  Producer Norman Whitfield, best known for his work with The Temptations, wrote this for a love scene in the movie “Carwash”.  Lyrically, it touches on the same delusional male approach of “Just My Imagination” and it ranks among Rose Royce’s very best and one of Whitfield’s best compositions and productions.

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18. Best Of My Love – The Emotions (1977) (UK#4, US#1) (also on “Disco Classics and “Rhythm Divine 2“)

19. This Will Be – Natalie Cole (1975) (UK#32, US#6)

An incredible debut single, this is sheer joy from the very first notes and introduced a vocalist who was exuberant and ready to make her mark from the off.  I loved it from the very first time I heard it, not even knowing it was by the daughter of my Dad’s favourite singer whose work I knew very well.  Comparisons were made to Aretha, but I actually never heard Aretha with this much verve and optimism.  If it resembles anything it is Barbara Acklin’s “Love Makes A Woman” but this is so much more infectious.  I bought the single and pretty much wore it out.  I was given the debut album for Christmas and did much the same thing to that (weirdly I have never bought that album “Inseparable” on CD to replace that vinyl copy). The call and response ending gives it a real gospel feel with Natalie the lead singer doing battle with Natalie on background vocals  but it is the song’s swinging love for life which always hits home.  You could tell that hers was going to be a significant career, in no way at this stage following in her father’s footsteps but obviously having learned so much from him in terms of vocals, phrasing and a jazz sensibility which could all be put to use on this very contemporary debut.

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20. Right Back Where We Started From – Maxine Nightingale (1977) (UK#8, US# 2)

 

 

100 Essential CDs – Number 16- The Wings Of Love

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The Wings Of Love (Music Collection International 1993)

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Subtitled “18 Soulful Love Songs” you pretty much get what was being advertised in this compilation which I’m sure was available at a budget price in 1993.  The tracks date from 1975-88 but mainly fall into the middle 80’s brackets where big soul ballads became very popular and artists who may have been struggling for years had a taste of big commercial success. This was especially the case in the UK where 8 of 14 of the charting tracks scored bigger than they did in the US, with another two matching the American chart position.

With these essential compilation CDs it is important to know what tracks can be found on them so here you will find them listed with their highest chart position (UK/US) if released as a single and links if I have more information on the artist elsewhere on the blog and once again I’ll pick out a handful of tracks to give a flavour of what makes these CDs essential.

Track Listings

1.On The Wings Of Love- Jeffrey Osborne (1984) (UK#11, US#29)*

Jeffrey began his hit career as lead vocalist for popular R&B band LTD who scored a couple of US Top 20 pop hits during the time he was with the group, the highest charting being their 1977 number 4 hit “(Every Time I Turn Around”) Back In Love Again.  Their other hit “Love Ballad” was better known over here via a 1979 hit cover version by George Benson, whose voice Jeffrey’s resembles.  By the mid 80’s Benson was a huge international star which may have prompted Jeffrey’s decision to leave LTD.  This track penned by Osborne alongside Peter Schless was from the debut solo album and became his second US Top 40 solo hit  but actually hung around a couple of years before it began to climb up the UK charts.  It’s an almost perfect example of a mid 80’s solo power-ballad with its gentle piano intro into a dramatic refrain, a soaring chorus (appropriately given the title), key changes and a switch in tempos.  I bought his debut album off the back of this but really nothing else on it particularly excited me.  This was his biggest European hit and the track he would be best known for internationally, in the US he scored best with his 1987 duet with Dionne Warwick “Love Power”.

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2. Joanna – Kool & The Gang (1984) (UK#2, US#2)

3. Friends – Amii Stewart (1984) (UK#12)

Amii had her most shining moments commercially in the disco era of the late 70’s when she scored a US number 1 with a version of the Atlantic Soul Classic “Knock On Wood”.  A one hit wonder in her homeland, the UK loved even more what she did with the Doors’ “Light My Fire” which, when it reached number 5 in 1979 had got one place higher than its predecessor.  I think Amii’s finest hour came with this more subtle, sophisticated mid-tempo shuffler which gave her a 5th Top 40 hit.  I had this on vinyl 12″ and used to have a thing about playing it at 33 speed for some reason but I also loved it at its normal pace.  Amii is part of a disco dynasty, her half-sister is high-energy star Miquel Brown whose daughter is Sinitta.  Amii fell in love with Europe and moved to Italy around the time “Friends” was released where she became a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF.  A remixed medley of her two most famous songs saw her back in the UK Top 10 in 1985.

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4. For Ever, For Always, For Love – Luther Vandross (1982)

5. Do What You Do – Jermaine Jackson (1985) (UK#6, US#13)

6. Weekend Girl – S.O.S Band (1984)

7. I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much – Bobby Womack (1985)

8. Reasons – Earth, Wind & Fire (1975)

9. If You’re Looking For A Way Out – Odyssey (1980) (UK#6)

Odyssey seem to be a star turn on my essential compilation albums.  We’ve already had their all time classic as the title track on “Native New Yorker“; “Use It Up And Wear It Out” on “Rhythm Divine 2” and “Going Back To My Roots” on “Funk Soul Anthems” but this is a very different track.  Leaving the disco floor well behind this really showcases the quality of the very under-rated distinctive voice of Lillian Lopez in a track which is in many ways uncommercial and unshowy but which draws the listener in and shows a versatility from the group which may have been a surprise to the American audience who really only knew them for the disco sass of “Native New Yorker”.  Having said that about Lillian’s voice this still very much feels like an ensemble piece.  They still had a couple of excellent tracks in them which also reflected the gentler side of the group in “Inside Out” (I love this one) and the surprisingly melancholic “Joy (I Know It)” from 1982 and 1985.

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10. You Make Me Feel Brand New – Stylistics (1974) (UK#2, US#2)

11. I’m Gonna Love You Just A Little Bit More – Barry White (1973) (UK#23, US#3)

12. (They Long To Be) Close To You – Gwen Guthrie (1986) (UK#25)

Gwen began in song-writing scoring hit tracks for Ben E King, Sister Sledge and the lovely “This Time I’ll Be Sweeter” a great female soul ballad which I’m familiar with in versions by Martha Reeves, Marlena Shaw, Roberta Flack, Angela Bofill and a great cover by Linda Lewis which featured Gwen on back-up.  Her solo singing career saw her working with Sly & Robbie and Larry Levan but she scored big time with a self-produced club track, the girl-power, straight talking “Ain’t Nothing Going On But The Rent”, one of the coolest tracks of 1986 and a UK Top 5 hit.  Therefore, it was a strange decision to follow that up with a cover of a Bacharach and David pop standard which was associated with a overly sweet version by The Carpenters and countless filling-rotting versions which followed in that track’s wake.  And yet, it works, there’s a rejigging with the melody which feels fresh and Gwen puts in a great vocal which gave her consecutive UK hits.  Gwen sadly passed away at the early age of 48 in 1999.

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13. New York Eyes – Nicole & Timmy Thomas (1985) (UK#41)

14. And I’m Telling You That I’m Not Going – Jennifer Holliday (1982) (UK#32, US#22)

The ultimate power song.  Taken from the Broadway show “Dreamgirls” this is a real tour de force.  It has unfortunately become a staple of TV talent shows but I think you’ve really got to think you are a great singer if you’re going to take this on because Holliday has put such a stamp on it.  Another Jennifer, Ms. Hudson got an Oscar for playing the same role of Effie in the movie version (the part Holliday played on stage for almost four years) and her version is also excellent but Holliday’s  is exceptional. It was one of those tracks which didn’t get that many plays on radio when it was first released because it ends with a “follow-that!” moment and just slipping on a Phil Collins record after it would just not have cut it.  In the late 80’s there used to be a drag performer called Tzarday (sadly no longer with us) who would lip-synch to this song as the highlight of her act where she would tear off beads and a fur coat, do a lot of reaching out pleadingly with quivering hands and end up on the floor in an emotional heap and every time I hear this song I am reminded of that.  Jennifer Holliday herself is an under-rated performer who I thought would make a huge commercial breakthrough when she released her excellent second album “Say You Love Me” which seemed full of potential hit singles which didn’t happen. Her 8th studio album “Fresh Takes”, a gospel release came out in 2018.

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15. Secret Lovers – Atlantic Starr (1986) (UK#10, US#3)

16. Let’s Make A Baby – Billy Paul (1976) (UK#30)

17. Gonna Get You Home With Me Tonight – Eugene Wilde (1984) (UK#18)

18. Piano In The Dark – Brenda Russell (1988) (UK#23, US#6)