100 Essential CDs – Number 38– The Three Degrees – A Collection Of Their 20 Greatest Hits

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A Collection Of Their 20 Greatest Hits – (Epic 1979)
UK Chart Position – 8

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This is a 1991 CD re-issue of a twenty track album originally released in 1979 five years after the start of this girl group’s run of hits. By this time they had left the Philadelphia International label which had brought them mainstream success, largely thanks to Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff , and signed with the European Ariola label. Their pop chart success in their homeland had ground to a halt but the Ariola signing would give them another string of hits especially in the UK and Europe.

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It had taken a while for Sheila Ferguson, Valerie Holliday and Fayette Pinkney’s careers to get going. There had been personnel changes in the first few years of the group but this trio had settled and scored their first US hit with a Roulette Records track, “Maybe” which reached number 29 in 1970. This was a big, sophisticated take on a girl group standard previously a 1958 #15 hit for The Chantels. Follow-up hits were not forthcoming even when the girls had good exposure in the 1971 Oscar-winning movie and box office smash “The French Connection” where they are featured in a nightclub scene.

 

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In 1973 manager Richard Barrett got the girls a deal with a company that had been notching up an impressive list of R&B and Pop hits and had broken The O’Jays, Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes and Billy Paul into the mainstream. Philadelphia International was challenging Motown as the leading black music label and this new signing would certainly boost this reputation.

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Their introduction to the label came via backing vocals used to augment the instrumental “TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia)” by the house orchestra MFSB. Being picked up as the theme tune to the classic US TV Show “Soul Train” certainly improved its chances and it became a US Pop number 1 single in April 1974, the third chart-topper for the label. In the UK the response was a little more muted and it reached number 22. It was another track, released almost simultaneously, with “TSOP” which introduced the group to British audiences. “Year Of Decision” was a strong example of a Philadelphia message song, a rallying cry to self-empowerment. The girls made TV appearances to capitalise on the initial warm response to this song and the British were won over by the wigs, the glamour and gowns and thus began a love affair which continues to this day. “Year Of Decision” reached #13 in the UK charts and a song with dubious lyrics “Dirty Ol Man” which hasn’t dated well lyrically but always went down a storm when performed live gave them a big hit across Europe. It was however, the next track which would change things for the girls on both sides of the Atlantic.

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“When Will I See You Again” is a simple, wistful ballad which showed off the girls’ ability to harmonise and the great lead vocal of Sheila Ferguson. Written, as the previous hits had been by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the sophistication was in the arrangement rather than in the lyrics or the sentiment. It became the sound of the summer in 1974, topping the chart in the UK and number 2 in the US. Amazingly, this song just couldn’t be lived up to Stateside as it became their final pop hit.

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The Prince and the Showgirls

In the UK, however, they became the darlings of the popular press and one thing that everyone seemed to know as The Three Degrees turned into household names was that they were cited to be Prince Charles’ favourite group. There were another four Top 40 hits for the girls in this phase of their career and they are all included on this CD. We get the singalong “Take Good Care Of Yourself” (UK#9) (always sounded a little bit like “Georgy Girl” by The Seekers to me), the uptempo, perhaps misguided follow-up to the number 1 single “Get Your Love Back” (UK#34), the pretty “Long Lost Lover” (UK#40) and the rather epic track “Toast Of Love” (UK#36) which saw them thought to the middle of 1976. The Gamble/Huff song-writing magic was present throughout except for the last hit which was written by Sheila Ferguson alongside T. Umegaki

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By this point the girls had recorded two albums on the main Philadelphia International label. Their first eponymous album had the chart-topping hit and, as a result of that, reached #28 in the US and #12 in the UK. Europe decided to retitle the second album, “International” after the hit track “Take Good Care Of Yourself” and this became an even bigger hit in the UK reaching #6. There was also a live album from which we get an insubstantial version of The O’Jays “Love Train” which closes this CD. By 1976 they had parted company with Gamble and Huff and Philadelphia International and moved under the main CBS/Sony/Epic umbrella for a couple of albums from which tracks are included on this CD. Founder member Fayette Pinkney did not last to the move to Ariola. She was replaced by Helen Scott who had been a member of the trio in their pre-hit days and who has remained a third of the Three Degrees ever since, together with Valerie Holiday who now tour and record with Freddi Pool, who had previously recorded with “The Former Ladies Of The Supremes” despite never actually being a Supreme.

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For me this incarnation of the group is all about the harmonising of Fayette and Valerie over the magnificent voice of Sheila Ferguson, a song stylist of the first order. Proof of this can be found on this CD on three different songs, the Broadway standard from “Chorus Line”, “What I Did For Love”, the Boz Scaggs pop classic “We’re All Alone” and the R&B Marvin Gaye smoocher “Distant Lover” all of which get exemplary lead vocals.

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Where this CD shows its age is with some of the lyrics. “Dirty Ol’ Man” is more than a tad disturbing and the girls were hardly advancing the cause of feminism in the mid 70’s when they were recording “I Like Being A Woman” and “A Woman Needs A Good Man (To Be A Good Woman)” . These would not win any equal opportunities awards for writer Bunny Sigler who was involved with both tracks. The debut album did have this slightly off-kilter attitude. It was great that The Three Degrees broke through in such a big way as highly successful African American girl groups in the mid 70’s were a little thin on the ground. The girls were adorned in strong, Afro-centric outfits on the front cover yet open it up and they were in see-through body stockings which was all a little too much to this reviewer who purchased the album pre-puberty. Although I’ve criticised a couple of the Bunny Sigler songs there is one of his tracks, the seven minute epic “If And When” which I think is a sad omission on this CD and is only one of two tracks from “The Three Degrees” album not to make the cut.

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The top half of the infamous body suit shot

I like that this album separates the Philadelphia/Epic output from the Ariola and beyond stuff. This is very much an album of a sophisticated Philly soul group with the lushness of sound which was often the sign of this label’s output but they would become far more pop based later on in their career. If you want a complete career overview the 2009 release “The Best Of” takes music from both phases. The 2017 double CD “When Will I See You Again” has 31 tracks but a number of short and long versions of the same song on the second CD. I have another release from the Camden label in 1997 (which might be difficult to source now) .  This concentrates on the Ariola output and their work with Giorgio Moroder is very good indeed. It brought the girls back with a bang with a harder disco edge which made them feel relevant all over again.  This CD has their four UK top 20 hits from 78-79 but despite this is not what I would consider to be essential. Their final hurrah came in 1985 with a track produced by Stock-Aitken and Waterman “The Heaven I Need” which should have seen them back up near the top of the Pop charts but stalled at #42.

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As an example of Philly soul at its best this album is certainly essential. In 20 tracks you can appreciate the talent of this trio and appreciate the longevity potential. Valerie Holiday is still recording and performing with this group after 50+ years. Sheila Ferguson left in 1986 after her 20 year stint as lead singer but didn’t have the massive solo career she deserved. She is a regular face on TV screens (most recently as one of the “oldies” in the documentary series “The Real Marigold On Tour”) and Fayette Pinkney very sadly passed away in 2009 at the age of 61. But every time I hear the opening bars of “When Will I See You Again” I am transported back to the 1970s.

In 1975 The Three Degrees performed on BBC TV’s “The Les Dawson Show” and performed a medley of tracks available on this CD.  I’m not sure we were used to such sophisticated polish on our TVs in those days.  Enjoy!

 

A Collection Of Their Greatest Hits is currently available from Amazon from £10.18 and used from £0.01.  In the US it only seems to be currently available used from $52.07.  Other compilations of original recordings are available to buy and to stream on Spotify.

 

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100 Essential CDs – Number 100–The Supremes – 70’s Greatest Hits And Rare Classics

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Greatest Hits And Rare Classics (Motown 1991)

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The Post- Diana Ross Supremes years are sometimes merely recorded as a footnote to the illustrious five years of hits where the trio scored an astonishing 12 US#1 pop hits but this 22 track 1991 compilation release would suggest otherwise.  From 1970-76 there were another eight top 40 hits, 7 of which are included here (the exception being the pairing with the Four Tops on “River Deep Mountain High” which can be found on 40 Golden Motown Hits.

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Jean Terrell 

Taking over from Diana Ross must have seemed something of a poisoned chalice.  If the hits stopped coming then there would soon be tension from the other girls, from the record label and fans.  If the hits were too big then this might overshadow the former lead’s solo career and label boss, Berry Gordy, at this point infatuated with Diana would not allow this to happen.  The woman chose initially to fulfil this role was Jean Terrell.  Berry Gordy had discovered Jean singing in Miami in the late 1960’s and was keen to sign her to a solo Motown contract.  Vocally, she resembled Diana Ross and this would probably not have been a diplomatic move on his part and as plans grew to launch Diana solo, Motown began recording the new trio of Terrell, Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong whilst the original trio were still doing live performances.  Jean Terrell could be introduced as part of a smooth transition for the group.  There was a bit of wavering and later solo hitmaker and wife of Stevie Wonder, Syreeta Wright , was also suggested but the remaining Supremes preferred to have Jean in the role.

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It was a time of great anticipation.  In her autobiography “Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme” Mary Wilson had this to say.

 “People must have asked us how we felt over a million time, and there were a hundred different emotions, but for me the main one was relief….Diane’s status at Motown and her relationship to Berry made it impossible for things to be otherwise, and if she hadn’t left the group something would have had to change.  Working with Jean and Cindy was a joy.  Maybe we weren’t as close as Flo, Diane and I had once been, but we were starting fresh.  After years of hard work, I felt I was embarking on another wonderful adventure”.

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The fresh start began with “Up The Ladder To The Roof” a sophisticated soul track released in 1970 which took the girls to US#10, (Ross’ first solo single out just a few weeks earlier had stalled at number 20).  In the UK this track was given even more of a thumbs up, getting to number 6, the biggest hit for the trio since “Reflections” back in 1967.  The early hits were produced by Frank Wilson who gave things much more of a group feel than there had been in latter years and produced highly polished numbers which had both the glam and glitz we might expect from the group as well as feeling very contemporary.  “Stoned Love” did even better on both sides of the Atlantic becoming the biggest hit of the post Ross years, number 7 in the US and #3 in the UK.  This had the rhythm of the 60’s HDH hits yet still felt hip, with its groovy lyrics of peace and love and more than a fair share of controversy from those who saw the lyrics as drug references.  “Stone” was a term at the time to show total involvement (also present in “Stone In Love With You” by The Stylistics).  There was apparently a mix-up when the record was labelled which saw the extra “d” be added and opened up a whole can of worms (and of course much publicity from those who saw the wholesome Supremes apparently declining into a drugs lifestyle as another step on the road to the end of civilisation). 

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Frank Wilson was also behind “Everybody’s Got The Right To Love” (US#21), which carried on the late 60’s/ early 70’s social consciousness of the label and a good old love song about a man who let the girls down “Nathan Jones” (UK#5, US#16).  This is a good song and unusual that the lead is sung by the three in unison.  17 years later a Bananarama got to number 15 in the UK with a likeable enough version which lacked the production and vocal depth of the original. 

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There were those in the Motown camp who were amazed at how successful the Ross-less Supremes were being, particularly in Europe and the UK where sizeable hits were also being buoyed up with pairings with The Four Tops, which led to a big selling album “The Magnificent Seven”.  Other names were keen to work with this trio.  In the queue were two of Motown’s legendary stars, Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder.

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In the early days of the group when Motown staff were referring to the group as the “no hit Supremes” Smokey Robinson tried and failed to give them their first hits.  Two of his first class songs and productions can be found on the group’s debut “Where Did Our Love Go?” album.  In 1972 he recorded a whole album on the girls.  It was at this point that Lynda Laurence was brought in, initially to deputise during photoshoots for a pregnant Cindy Birdsong.  This began a bit of to-ing and fro-ing for the group with Birdsong officially leaving the group and returning to deputise when Lynda Laurence was having a baby.  The album with Smokey, “Floy Joy”, had a very lightweight piece of confection as the title track, but with its stomping beat and cooing vocals it harked back to the sounds of yesteryear and became a UK#9, US#16 hit.  A better track was the follow-up “Automatically Sunshine” which certainly brought out the Ross-like qualities in Jean Terrell’s voice and became their last Top 10 UK hit, not doing quite as well in the US (#37). 

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Motown were keen to promote The Supremes as a sophisticated group and to this effect brought in songwriter and arranger Jimmy Webb to emphasise this.  Webb was noted for his complex pop song compositions such as “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”, “Macarthur Park” and “Witchita Linesman” which instantly became staples for acts who aimed for the supper club, lucrative Las Vegas market.  He had enough kudos to be in the title with the girls on the album he worked with them “The Supremes Produced And Arranged By Jimmy Webb”.  Although a commercial disappointment this sound can be heard to good effect on the dramatic “Paradise” (a Harry Nilsson song) and the big Italian balladry of Il Voce De Silenzo (Silent Voices), both of which I think are great tracks.  There’s also the slightly frantic gospel edge to “Tossin’ And Turnin’” which is certainly different from tracks recorded with Diana Ross as lead.  It’s hard to gauge Motown’s response to this album, especially as the only track released as a single was neither produced nor arranged by Jimmy Webb, it was a plaintive Broadway ballad “I Guess I’ll Miss The Man” which came from the show “Pippin” and was very much a showcase for the solo talents of Jean Terrell.

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With Lynda Laurence now the official third member of the group she asked an artist she had worked with, Stevie Wonder, to produce a funkier sound for them and this he certainly achieved with the great “Bad Weather” which sounds like a female-led Wonder track. If Motown had really got behind this track this could have been a new lease of life for the group.  It certainly sounds like a big hit to me yet failed to chart Stateside and just crept in the lower reaches of the chart in the UK.

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The end of the Terrell years are marked on this album by an unsensational version of the O’Jays “Love Train” and an attractive solo track, a version of the Gallagher and Lyle song “I Had To Fall In Love”.

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Scherrie Payne 

Enter Scherrie Payne.  The sister of “Band Of Gold” chart-topper Freda came into the group as it’s third lead singer and the first we heard from here was certainly explosive.  “He’s My Man” was released in June 1975 as the title track from the album “The Supremes”.  This is very possibly, in my opinion, the best thing this group ever did both from the Ross-led years and afterwards.  It’s a powerhouse of a track with great vocals and hooks a plenty and I can remember forking out my pocket money on a 7” vinyl copy (incidentally the only Supremes single I had bought apart from the hit reissue of “Baby Love” and an inherited from my sister copy of “Nathan Jones”).  I can remember on the same day as this I bought my first ever pair of headphones, a pair of monster-sized cans which was perfect for the clip-clop rhythms and thrilling vocal arrangement of this track.  There’s range and power and it sounded like a huge hit, but it wasn’t.  It did, however top the Billboard Disco charts, but crossover success eluded it.  It has always been a bit of an underground classic for the group and this new sound here produced by Greg Wright seemed very promising with great commercial potential.

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It wasn’t long before the revolving door of Cindy Birdsong and Lynda Laurence ground to a halt and they both decided to hang up their wigs.  In came Susaye Green, another real powerhouse of a singer with a great range and vocally this combination of Scherrie, Mary and Susaye was outstanding and a long way from the Ross voice out front and the other two cooing in the background.  These girls could sing anything.  It’s just a pity that by this time Motown seemed to be losing faith in the group.  There was a final hurrah with the album “High Energy” with its stunning title track, a song which should have done for the girls what “Love Hangover” did for Diana Ross and “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” for The Temptations -a lengthy workout of a disco track with great orchestration and production.  And that producers?  None other than Brian and Eddie Holland returning to the Motown field to work with the group they had launched into superstars a dozen or so years before.  The track “High Energy” is sorely missed on this compilation (try the 2005 double CD “Motown Disco” to hear it in its full length glory) but here we do have “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking” a track which had something of the feel of “He’s My Man” but is slightly more disjointed but which took the trio into the US Top 40 for the first time in four years, scraping in at the anchor position.  This was to be their last US hit single.  The “High Energy” album also had a couple of great ballads which showcased Mary Wilson on lead vocals with great effect.  The voice that HD&H had largely silenced in the 60’s hits was allowed to shine at last.  Only the hit single from “High Energy” is included on this compilation but the whole album is certainly worth checking out. 

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It’s follow-up “Mary, Scherrie and Susaye” seemed like a last-ditch attempt to establish this new line up.  The disco metaphor of “You’re My Driving Wheel” is the track on show here, but it is far from their best.  The Supremes eventually disbanded officially at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London in June 1977.  Scherrie and Susaye would continue to record together as a duo for a time and there have been various incarnations of the group over the years.  In the mid 80’s I saw Mary Wilson touring as Mary Wilson and The Supremes and a group entitled The Former Ladies Of The Supremes which has involved at times Scherrie, Jean, Lynda and Cindy, a long-lasting collaboration which has over time involved singers who were never former Supremes.  Some members of the group were also involved in solo and group capacity with recording with Ian Levine at Motor City Records.  The Payne/Green project “Partners” featured a solo track by Scherrie Payne which is this CD’s closer and is another excellent track, the ballad “Another Life From Now”, a song written by Payne and produced by Eugene McDaniels which demands to be heard.

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Scherrie, Susaye and Mary

The hey-day of The Supremes may have very well been in the 1960’s but this 70’s compilation shows how good and varied they can be and the great vocal talent that has been in this group over the years.  All this goes to make this compilation of 22 tracks an essential release. 

Greatest Hits And Rare Classics is available from Amazon in the UK from £23.20 and used from £16.87.  In the US it is only currently available used from $18.90.  Also available from this era is the 42 track 70’s Anthology and all the albums are covered in two volumes 1970-73- The Jean Terrell years and Let Yourself Go – 1974-77.  These three compilations are all available to stream on Spotify in the UK.

 

100 Essential CDs – Number 3– Diana Ross & The Supremes – 40 Golden Motown Hits

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40 Golden Motown Hits (Motown/Polygram 1998)

UK Chart Position – 35

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Found languishing in a bargain bin at Asda Supermarket a few years after its release this has probably proved to be my best value CD of all time given the number of times I have played it since purchase.  Back in 1977 Motown had used the same artwork to promote 20 Golden Greats a single album compilation and had scored a UK chart-topper.  In 1993 in a deal reputed to be worth $300 million Polygram purchased Motown and now had the right to their extensive back catalogue.

 

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This and the rise of CDs meaning that more tracks could be fitted on a single disc resulted in a double CD release which was basically the original 20 enriched by a further twenty.  These new tracks incorporated a handful of Ross-less Supremes tracks, the super-group pairings with The Temptations and The Four Tops and a second CD of Diana Ross solo hits (including her duets with Marvin Gaye and Lionel Richie).  With these additions the 20 Golden Greats release was redundant.  There was a TV campaign yet this release made only 35 in the UK Charts of 1998.  It is, however a superb release and a great overview of the careers of two legendary acts – both the group and the soloist.

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On the first CD we proceed through the Supremes hit catalogue in largely chronological order.  We get the hit tracks from the Essential CDs I lumped together from “Where Did Our Love Go/”I Hear A Symphony”.  In between those album releases we had one of the girls’ greatest recordings “Stop! In The Name Of Love” (1965 US#1, UK#7) and their 5th US number 1 single in a row “Back In Your Arms Again” (1965) which only scraped the Top 40 in the UK,  There was another run of four consecutive US chart-toppers from 1966-67, “You Can’t Hurry Love” (UK#3, later to become a UK#1 in an inferior version by Phil Collins in 1982), the excellent “You Keep Me Hanging On” (UK#8, later to get to number 2 and to also top the US charts in an inferior version by Kim Wilde in 1986, proving just how long-lasting these Holland-Dozier-Holland compositions were), “Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone” (UK#17) but the best of all these came last of all.

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“The Happening” (UK#6) was the theme tune for a long-forgotten film and manages to combine a modern sound with a glitzy razzle-dazzle  Broadway type feel which is just so infectious and ingeniously combined what the girls had been up to this point and what Berry Gordy wanted them to become – sophisticated chanteuses who would transcend musical barriers.  Things changed after this release.

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Cindy Birdsong (right) joins Diana Ross and The Supremes

From this point on Diana Ross’ name came before The Supremes.  You can sense the arguments over this one to this day.  Smokey Robinson had been pushed in front of the Miracles, Martha led the Vandellas so it was inevitable that the ambitious Diana Ross would want to formally recognise her dominant position in the group.  Also at this point, Florence Ballard left to be replaced by ex Patti Labelle and The Bluebelles singer Cindy Birdsong, an act which would further entrench the rivalry between these two groups with Patti Labelle often venting her frustration at the unprecedented success of Ross when she had an inferior voice.  How much of this went on at the time or appeared later  as a result of Mary Wilson speaking out in “Dreamgirls” a book which spawned the idea of a Broadway show, a revival of which is still packing them in at the West End to this day.  In 1967, however there was no denying the commercial appeal of the group.

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The first single under the new billing ended the run of US number 1’s as “Reflections” stalled at number 2 (UK#5).  The label had begun to experiment with a slightly different sound and there is a distinctly trippy introduction to this track, which was the last single to feature Flo on vocals, although TV promotion was done by Cindy.  The reputation slipped a little further with “In And Out Of Love” (US#9, UK#13) and a couple of singles became smaller hits on both sides of the Atlantic and are not featured on this compilation.

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                                  “Love Child” saw a new direction for the group

All was redeemed, however, by the trio’s third hit single of 1968.  The mood was changing in this revolutionary year and Motown responded by injecting a bit more social awareness into their releases shifting away from everyone having a good time and innocent first loves.  1968 was also the year Holland-Dozier-Holland quit Motown and the new hit was to be penned and produced by Berry Gordy alongside others who were here to be known as The Clan.  The response as far as The Supremes were concerned was “Love Child”, a track which has as the first words you hear – “tenement slum”.  A song about illegitimacy and a woman resisting sexual pressure from her boyfriend might not seem a likely chart-topper for the 60’s but this is absolute classic Motown – a real gem of a track. It became their 11th US #1 and reached #15 in the UK. and might have perhaps mistakenly  led to the conclusion that HDH were not essential to the continued success of The Supremes.

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The writing was on the wall for the group anyway as it seems that Cindy and Mary were only being used as the public face of the group.  They did not apparently contribute to the recording of this song or of other later hits.  Motown back-up group The Andantes were doing the honours.  The social awareness continued with the guilt of a woman who had abandoned her roots in “I’m Living In Shame” (1969- US#10, UK14) with a return to the more traditional sounds of the label with the very successful pairings with The Temptations which provided a US#2, UK#3 “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” and a raiding of the Miracles’ back catalogue “I Second That Emotion” released in the UK in 1969 where it reached #18.

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The parting of the ways happened after their twelfth chart-topping single, the anthemic “Someday We’ll Be Together”.  This song penned by Johnny Bristol, Jackey Beavers and Harvey Fuqua was planned to be the first Ross solo single yet when it came to record it both Ross’ vocal and Bristol’s guide-line vocal were laid down.  The result was approved of and since it was not strictly a solo outing the decision was made to put it out as a Supremes single, although once again, Mary and Cindy do not appear.  The single reached number 13 in the UK.

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In 1968 The Supremes appeared as nuns in the TV series “Tarzan”.  Was it this that pushed Diana Ross into her solo career?

Fleshing out the first CD we have a handful of tracks released by the Supremes once Jean Terrell had come in to take lead vocals, ranging from the good as the glory days “Up The Ladder To The Roof” to the less than thrilling “Floy Joy” and the pairing of this new trio with old hands The Four Tops led to a  #14 US, #11 UK hit cover of “River Deep Mountain High” a fact that must have caused Phil Spector some irritation.  His original version of the song recorded by Ike and Tina Turner he felt was one of the best recordings of all time and his whole life began to freefall when it missed the US charts completely.  (We had a softer spot for it over here.  It reached number 3 for the duo in 1966 and was the track which introduced Tina Turner to a mainstream UK audience ).

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Onto the second disc and we get sixteen of most of the greatest tracks Diana Ross recorded at Motown.  For me, the disco era is a little unrepresented as there is no “The Boss” a brilliant Ashford and Simpson song and the version of the phenomenal “Love Hangover” is in the short 7″ single format which always sounded a little disjointed and lacked the flow of the original album track and 12″ version but I’m niggling here.

Things didn’t exactly go immediately to plan when the Ross career was launched.  “Reach Out And Touch Somebody’s Hand” stalled at a surprisingly low number 20 in her homeland and missed out on the Top 30 in the UK.  The social consciousness of the later Supremes recordings had been abandoned for what was felt to be a crowd-pleaser and although it has remained a track long associated with Ms. Ross it didn’t actually set the charts alight on release.  That happened with the follow-up, which like the debut was penned by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, a reworking of an earlier hit for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.  This was Diana Ross setting out her stall, a big, blowsy track with spoken interludes and a big build-up which really paid off.  “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” gave her a first US Pop #1 and got to #4 in the UK.  From this point she had arrived.

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Big hits followed one after another in the early 70’s and by 1975 she had topped the American charts on another two occasions both with disarmingly tender tracks.  “Touch Me In The Morning” from 1973 (UK#9) and “Do You Know Where You’re Going To” (1975 UK#5) which was the theme from her second film “Mahogany” which is fairly essential viewing in the so- bad- its- good category, where Ross’ performance is distinctly subtle compared to Anthony Perkins.  Her UK #1 came with “I’m Still Waiting” not intended for a single release but heavily pushed by DJ Tony Blackburn until the Tamla Motown UK label relented (Incidentally her post Motown UK#1 “Chain Reaction” was also largely ignored in her homeland).  She also had a UK only hit (#12- 1972) with a song with the most annoying title of all time, I’m dreading typing it, but here goes: “Doobedood’ndobe, Doobedood’ndobe,Doobedood’ndoo” which always sounds like a few songs going on at once and is the track that I would have happily sacrificed for “The Boss”.

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Disco revitalised Diana’s career from her mid 70’s chart-topper “Love Hangover” (UK#10) and when it began to falter again the hottest producers in town, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards transferred the Chic sound to the Motown label with her biggest selling album “Diana” of which really the only good tracks were all released as singles.  But what singles they were.  The biggest was “Upside Down” (US#1,UK#2), The UK went with (#5) and my favourite of the bunch, another truly anthemic Ross recording which acknowledged a large part of her fan base (although not much was made of this at the time) with “I’m Coming Out” (US#5, UK#13).  This association was reputedly stormy but it certainly paid dividends.  Dodgy films with strong soundtracks became a feature of the 1980’s and we end this marathon trawl through the Ross career with two songs which certainly outlived the films, the lovely Michael Masser and Carole Bayer Sager song “It’s My Turn” (US#9,UK#16) and the track which went onto to become Motown’s best selling single to date, her duet with Lionel Richie “Endless Love” from some cinematic drivel featuring Brooke Shields.  It topped the US charts for nine weeks and reached number 7 in the UK.

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Following this release Diana Ross decided to up sticks and move away from her 27 year hit career with the Motown label and strike out on her own at RCA.  A brave, some said foolhardy move but these 40 tracks representing these years are a superb testament to Ms Ross at Motown and there are so many highs amongst these songs.

On a historic TV moment The Supremes made their last appearance on the Ed Sullivan show and whizzed through a medley of their hit career before singing their final number 1 single.

 

40 Golden Greats seems to be quite difficult to find with the cover I have shown but Amazon has a CD with the same title and it looks like the same track listing with a cover which just features a drawing of Diana Ross.  That can be purchased for £8.72 and used from £0.09. There are a number of other Diana Ross and The Supremes compilations available but this one offers the best overview of group and solo careers.  

 

 

100 Essential CDs – Number 33– The Supremes – Sing Rodgers & Hart- The Complete Collection

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Sing Rodgers & Hart: The Complete Collection (Motown 2002)

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In 1967 The Supremes recorded their eleventh album, a twelve tracker made up of standards written by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart.  These were songs from a previous generation dating from 1925-43 and were all part of Berry Gordy’s plan to make the trio (and especially Diana Ross) have a large a fan base as possible.  The producers who had brought about their fame, Holland-Dozier and Holland, were for this album cast aside as Berry Gordy himself took control with musical arranger Gil Askey and produced an album which was both polished and sophisticated.  In the US it reached number 20 in the album chart which was their lowest placing since their non-charting 1965 Christmas album.  In the UK it reached number 25.

Producers Berry Gordy and Gil Askey

It is an album which has always been critically acclaimed.  It had been originally planned as a double album and in 2002 Motown dug out the other 13 tracks from the original recording sessions and topped things off with a live recording from The Copacabana, New York City – a venue which Berry Gordy saw as the epitome of just how far his Detroit recording artists had come.  These twenty six tracks stand up with the best of the Supremes’ output.  A number are the definitive versions of the Rodgers and Hart songs as far as I am concerned.

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Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart

To appeal to an older generation from those who bought Motown singles an old showbiz trouper was asked to write the sleeve-notes for the album’s original release.  Cue Mr Gene Kelly who tells how he was converted to the Supremes music by hearing his daughter playing their records.  Obviously, a performer of Gene Kelly’s standing was more familiar with the legendary songwriters who inspired this album than Motown’s leading girl group but he approved of the way The Supremes took to this task.  He writes;

“While maintaining the individuality of their own style, these clever singers have avoided the temptation to distort the beat or the music beyond recognition to conform to some far-out tastes.  Yet it is all as modern as this moment in time, and the music and lyrics remain as fresh as tomorrow morning.”

 

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Fifty-one years on from this album’s original release his words still ring true.  This would also be the last album before the group were retitled to “Diana Ross and The Supremes” and the last to feature the original line-up as just after the release of the album Florence Ballard departed and was replaced by ex Patti Labelle and Bluebelles singer Cindy Birdsong.  Listening to this album as a whole I tend to be more impressed by the tracks where Flo and Mary Wilson are less marginalised- a number really function more as Diana Ross solo tracks with a minimum of involvement from the other two.  I just love the harmonising of the three voices but that, by this stage, was becoming less and less Berry Gordy’s plan for the group.

Supremes-at-Brewster-Projects-1967-510x634The days were numbered for this line-up

 

The Rodgers and Hart songbook had been explored before by the trio.  “With A Song In My Heart” had been on their Essential 1965 album “I Hear A Symphony” and the girls had sung on a Rodgers and Hart TV special but for Top 40 pop artists to give over an album to songwriters of a generation or more before was an unusual move in 1967.

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Things get off to a rousing start with a traditional feel on “The Lady is A Tramp”.  This is one of the tracks where Diana largely goes it alone and of course it is no match to Ella Fitzgerald’s definitive version.  This is also the case with a couple of other songs strongly associated with Fitzgerald, “My Funny Valentine” and “Manhattan” the first of the bonus tracks.  On this opener, however, there’s lively piano work over a swinging orchestra and it’s all a lot of fun with Flo and Mary only evident in the closing moments as Diana holds a big note.  You can’t help feeling that this opening track is setting out the stall for the future- a time when Diana the solo artist is moved centre stage.

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The girls work more as a trio in the charming “Mountain Greenery” with those kooky lyrics “Beans could get no keener/reception in a beanery/Bless our mountain greenery home.”  I especially like the tracks where the hint of Motown merges with the show tune style.  “This Can’t Be Love” does this, going at a frantic pace with some “hey,hey,heys” from the back-up which works so well and this ends up as one of the stronger songs.  The gloss of sophistication is back on a lovely “Where Or When” with its tempo changes and leg-kicking Broadway- worthy finish.  “Lover” gets a 60’s girl-group work-out which one again illustrates that they are not playing things totally safe and are exploring different sounds within the remit, all of which are enriched by exemplary productions.

 

The harmonies are to the forefront in “My Romance” another of the strongest tracks which has a great back-up performance from Ballard and Wilson.  The 6o’s feel is certainly present on “My Heart Stood Still” which has a feel of a Holland-Dozier-Holland song and production and would not have been out of place in the pop singles charts of 1967.  The decision was made not to release any of the tracks here as a single but this could have given them a big hit.  The most unusual track comes next.  Unusual, because Diana shares the lead vocal with Mary Wilson whose rich tones on “Falling In Love With Love” make this one of the best tracks on the album.  We don’t hear enough of this voice until the latter years of The Supremes when Mary was the only original member left. Both “Thou Swell” and “Blue Moon” are good versions but are eclipsed by the lovely “Dancing On The Ceiling” a less familiar Rodgers and Hart song which dates from the 1930 musical “Ever Green”.

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These first 12 tracks make up the original album but there are many pleasures to be found in the thirteen bonus tracks which were part of the plan when a double album was scheduled.  These include a revisit of “With A Song In My Heart”, an unusual appearance of a verse on “Little Girl Blue” which I was not familiar with from the Nina Simone version.  There’s also a couple of tracks taken from “Pal Joey” , the show which propelled its lead and this album’s sleeve-note compiler Gene Kelly to stardom, a great uptempo version of “I Could Write A Book” and “Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered”.  The strongest moments for me come with the sultry and accomplished “Spring Is Here”, the ultimate feel good factor of anticipation in “Wait Till You See Him”.  Perhaps my most favourite track of all is hidden amongst the bonus tracks the frantic “Johnny One Note” where the girls offer the best version I have heard of this song from the 1937 musical “Babe In Arms”.

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If I was a big Supremes fan in 1967 (I was far too young) waiting for a follow-up to their chart-topping “Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone” single I am not sure how I wold have felt about the release of this album but with history to help us seeing it as a launch-pad for The Supremes becoming Diana Ross & The Supremes and then eventually Diana becoming the consummate all-round solo entertainer and Motown not writing off the group but continuing it without her this is actually a significant release.  And those Rodgers and Hart songs are just great and have certainly stood the test of time.  If I’m looking to listen to a legendary songwriter’s output Ella Fitzgerald may be my first port of call but the versions on here by this Detroit trio are essential recordings.

The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart: The Complete Collection seems to be currently not easy to find on CD in the UK.  Amazon have it used and new from £44.72.  A £7.09 download is available consisting of the original 12 tracks.  In the US the CD is available used from $34.22 but the complete recordings are available to download for $12.49.  The original 1967 version is also available to stream on Spotify in the UK.

 

 

 

 

 

 

100 Essential CDs – Number 21– The Supremes – Where Did Our Love Go/I Hear A Symphony

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Where Did Our Love Go/I Hear A Symphony (Motown 1986)

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Back in the mid 1980’s the Motown label began a series of releases to capitalise on the vibrant back catalogue CD market.  These releases put together on one CD two albums by one artist giving those of us replacing our vinyl copies with CDs great value for money.  This 1986 release was the best of the lot.  

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The CD was credited as being by Diana Ross and The Supremes yet when the original vinyl recordings were released the trio were just known as The Supremes.  This two in one put together their 1964 second album, which very much marked their breakthrough,  a superb girl-group album containing three of their five consecutive number one singles alongside their eighth album released just two years later (boy, these girls were being worked hard in the recording studio) which gave them another US number 1 with the title track.  Chartwise, on original release the album “Where Did Our Love Go?” reached number 2 in the US and “I Hear A Symphony” reached number 8.  The innocent girl group sound of chirpy three minute tracks had over those two years evolved into a more sophisticated sound which combined the tracks written to appeal to Young America with cover versions of standards which might appeal more to their parents.  This was all part of Berry Gordy’s strategy to make his acts appeal to as wide an audience as possible.  Occasionally, on some recordings this acted as little more than filler around the hits but here sublime Holland-Dozier-Holland productions ensure that this is a top-notch pairing alongside the first classic Motown album.  Neither albums were UK hits but that says more about the UK album chart of the mid 60’s rather than the quality of either of these recordings.

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It had taken quite a while for the career of The Supremes to get off the ground and it would have been likely that had they been with a larger record company they would have been dropped.  But the early days of Motown were very much a family affair, with all the acts supporting one another and schoolgirls Diane Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard had just hung around at the Hitsville studio until they got noticed and continued to hang around until they were offered songs that could become hits. They had been recording singles since 1961.  Berry Gordy, fascinated by Diane (soon to change the last letter of her name) had seen them as his pet project but hadn’t had a hit with the singles he had written and produced for them and neither had Clarence Paul or Smokey Robinson.  People were referring to them as the “No Hit Supremes”.  It took the genius of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s writing and production skills to ensure that within the space of a few months The Supremes had become one of the world’s top recording artists and it all began with the tracks on this album.

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 Lamont Dozier and the Holland Brothers at the piano

In fact, the game changer was the title track which kicks off this CD.  An H-D-H song and production which was reputedly turned down by the top Motown girl group of the day, the Marvelettes (who to this point had scored five US Top 40 hits including the #1 “Please Mr Postman”) but before it might be offered to the second group in line, Martha and The Vandellas , the Supremes stepped in.  It’s a simple song, distinguished by a stomping beat and set the pattern of Supremes recordings with Diana as lead vocal and Mary and Florence reduced to little more than “baby-baby – ing”. Although early Supremes releases had switched lead vocal duties once the hit pattern was established it became very much Diana Ross’ group.  The song reached the top of the US charts.  In a UK, obsessed with everything Liverpool in 1964 it got to number 3.  The album was released just a couple of months after the single and it did give fans the opportunity to catch up with previously released singles and B sides together with some new tracks.

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The new track that caused the most attention was put out as the follow-up single, something of a rush release in the UK where its predecessor was still in the charts but “Baby Love” just could not be contained.  One of the finest girl group singles ever, it retains the simplicity of “Where Did Our Love Go” and is not so rhythm dominated and just has an extra little sparkle which makes it a phenomenal track.  It topped the charts on both side of the Atlantic and is perhaps the song most strongly identified with the group.  A further US chart-topper “Come See About Me” was less successful in the UK where it stalled at number 27.

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Other first class Holland-Dozier-Holland recordings on show here include the track which marked their first actual appearance on the US pop charts the #23 hit “When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” an excellent but unexpectedly raucous sing-along track for the ladies who would be known for their sophisticated cooing.  On some of the earlier tracks there are male voices (apparently the producers themselves and The Four Tops) and this is certainly the case for the rather startling male grunt which explodes mid-way through.  “Run Run Run” has a honking brass and piano sound and male voices in the back-up and a great rough edge to it.  There’s a much softer edge to the subtle soul ballad “I’m Giving You Your Freedom”, “Standing At The Crossroads Of Love” is a charming piano backed mid-tempo number and “Where Did Our Love Go”’s closer is one of the finest tracks Motown never  released as an A-side.  “Ask Any Girl” sounds like a monumental hit that never was with its flamenco feel, dramatic intro and perfect girl-group feel with a nod towards the best of the Phil Spector groups, the Shirelles  and the Shangri-Las.  The couplet “It’s heartaches without number/ Many nights without slumber” is one of the greatest girl group lines.  It’s a stunning track which has that heady combination of youth and sophistication. 

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 Smokey Robinson

Other song-writing and production teams do get a look-in.  Smokey Robinson was one of those that had tried and failed to give the Supremes a hit and it is rather amazing that he missed out with the sultry “A Breath Taking Guy”, which is unusual in that it features all of the girls having a stab at lead vocals.  The other Robinson track “Long Gone Lover” is a nod back to earlier doowop tracks given a girl group slant.  Norman Whitfield would go on to produce some classic tracks for The Temptations but here his “He Means The World To Me” is an attractive Mary Wells-style track.  Label boss Berry Gordy gets in on the action with “This Kiss Of Fire” without challenging the best tracks on the album.

supremes7Berry Gordy hiding from The Supremes

 

It is likely that “Where Did Our Love Go” with its range of very good quality songs and performances and that great trio of HDH hits would have made it alone onto my 100 Essentials list but here we’ve certainly got more for our money with the other twelve tracker “I Hear A Symphony” on the same CD.

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We fast forward to 1966 and the Supremes are known worldwide.  Berry Gordy, always the businessman has begun, especially on albums, to extend the fanbase and not just bring in the young, the traditional 45RPM single buyers but also their parents and grandparents and has his eye on the world’s most prestigious night spots for his acts to perform in.  By this time all the exciting rough edges have gone from the music and the girls themselves, smoothed out by formidable Deportment Coach, Maxine Powell, a Motown employee, who both Diana and Mary today would credit for turning them into ladies and who took the “girls from the Brewster Project” and enabled them to mix with VIPs and Royalty – all part of Berry Gordy’s plan for his leading act and, especially, Diana Ross.

supremes10Smokey Robinson salutes Maxine Powell

supremes11The Supremes meets The Queen Mother

 

“I Hear A Symphony” reflects this as alongside the four Holland-Dozier-Holland compositions we get show tunes, standards and recent pop hits.  Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier get to produce all the tracks bar one from Norman Whitfield, where the girls tackle the Beatles’ “Yesterday”.  Album-wise since “Where Did Our Love Go” the trio had put out a run of themed long players, tackling the Lennon-McCartney songbook with “A Bit Of Liverpool” (1964 US#21), Country and Western (1965 US#79) and a Sam Cooke tribute album (US#75).  There had also been a non-charting Christmas album all of which showed that the heady days might be over as these albums garnered only a fraction of the sales of “Where Did Our Love Go”.  A more traditional studio album “More Hits By The Supremes” had been a success, reaching number 6 in the US as it featured two more number 1 US singles.

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 The more sophisticated style can be seen in the title track which became their 6th US chart-topper with its classical musical imagery of symphonies and rhapsodies, it feels more complex than some of the earlier hits.  That had been released a few months before the album, which was very much built around the sound of the hit single.  Thus we get the girls’ intepretations of “Stranger In Paradise”, “Unchained Melody” “Without A Song” together with a touch of Rodgers and Hart and “With A Song In My Heart” an idea which would spawn a whole album of these songs in the future.  Earlier Pop hits Johnny Mathis’ “Wonderful Wonderful” and the Toys’ Bach-influenced “A Lover’s Concerto” are also present.  This might sound a little hackneyed and it does veer dangerously close to the middle of the road at times but the performances and productions are exemplary.  I know the people can be critical of Ross’ distinctive slightly nasal voice but given the right song and production and boy, can she shine as a song stylist.  The back-up work by Florence and Mary also works sublimely on these tracks with both the versions of the Mathis and the Toys hits eclipsing the originals. 

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Amongst these you also get the Holland-Dozier-Holland numbers (helped out on two of the tracks by one James Dean).  “My World Is Empty Without You” followed the title track up the charts (US#5) and perhaps better than all these is another of those Motown tracks which should have been a single, the excellent “Everything Is Good About You” which just must have been an influence for Barry White as it sounds so much like Love Unlimited’s “It May Be Winter Outside”.

 The album “I Hear A Symphony” reached number 8 on the US pop charts and is a perfect accompaniment to the earlier album on this CD to show just how good these girls can be.  It revitalised the trio’s career and there would be another 6 US number 1 Pop hits before they hung up the matching sequin gowns and Diana Ross went on to solo superstardom.

The two-on-one CD “Where Did Our Love Go/I Hear A Symphony is available used on Amazon UK from £14.99 and in the US from $7.99.  Both albums are available separately and as a download.  In the UK they are also both separately available for streaming on Spotify. 

100 Essential CDs – Number 64– Donna Summer – The Donna Summer Anthology

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The Donna Summer Anthology (P0lygram 1993)

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With three studio albums in my Essentials list it is no surprise that I am recommending a career retrospective for all the Donna Summer I have so far missed out.  There are quite a number to choose from but I have gone for the double CD Anthology which appeared in 1993 and was the first up- to -that point complete career collection with 34 tracks spanning 17 years.

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 Donna Summer was born LaDonna Adrian Gaines in 1948 and as a teenager won a part in the German production of “Hair”.  She married Austrian Helmuth Sommer and anglicized his surname to become her stage-name.  The marriage lasted three years, the name much longer.  In Europe she began working with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte leading to her first smash hit “Love To Love You Baby”, one of my all-time favourite Disco tracks which I covered when I reviewed her first essential album “A Love Trilogy” which was released in 1976.  The version on this album is the US single version, which is not actually my favourite.  The British single mix is harder to find but feels more of a complete track.  From “Love Trilogy” we get the single versions of “Could It Be Magic” and “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It”, which really demands to be heard in its entirety.  “Spring Affair” is taken from “Four Seasons Of Love” and was the track which attracted the most attention in the discos but in the UK the ballad “Winter Melody” became the hit.

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 From 1977’s “I Remember Yesterday” we get the 60’s girl-group pastiche of “Love’s Unkind” and her only UK number one, the phenomenal I Feel Love”, which really was the sound of the future and is probably one of the most significant dance tracks of all time, propelling electronic dance music to the forefront, a position it still occupies today, over forty years later.  There’s three tracks from the essential “Once Upon A Time” album.

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By this time Disco was huge and her Casablanca record label joined forces with Motown to put together a disco movie starring Donna and featuring a double album soundtrack.  The music was at times over-produced and grandiose but the film was actually a rather understated piece which also starred Jeff Goldblum and The Commodores but it was the music that made the most impression with the best , sung by Donna, getting an Oscar , the sublime “Last Dance”, which was written by  her co-star Paul Jabara.  This is a track which has grown in reputation over the years but I have always loved it.  It’s changes of pace were deemed a little confusing at the time which might explain why it did not even make the Top 50 in the UK.  In the US it became her second Top 3 hit.

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 The double album “Live And More” became a huge seller in the US, giving Donna her first number 1 album.  A lot of these sales were fuelled by the “studio” side which comprised three tracks put together in a non-stop close- to- eighteen -minute medley, of which two are included here.  “The MacArthur Park” suite took a distinctly weird Jimmy Webb song which had been a hit when growled by actor Richard Harris and turned it into something fabulous.  It is here in a lengthy six and a half minute promotional single version which gives it a chance to show its epic sweep and once again the changes of pace which were to be a feature for Donna in the latter disco years.  Her first US number 1 single (“I Feel Love” had inexplicably stalled at #6) it got to number 5 in the UK.  This eases into, as it did in the original album, the almost as good “Heaven Knows” in which Donna sings with fellow Casablanca signings Brooklyn Dreams.  This got to number 4 in the US but a lowly 34 in the UK.  This was a significant track in Donna’s life as the following year she was to marry lead singer Bruce Sudano, with whom she would spend the rest of her life.

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 The first CD has really peaked here as far as I am concerned but is rounded off by four tracks from the huge “Bad Girls” album.  Two of the tracks most associated with Donna are the title track (US#1, UK#14) and “Hot Stuff (US#1, UK#11) both here in their full 12” version.  There’s more changes of pace in “Dim All The Lights” (US#2,UK#29).  Of the tracks from this US double platinum #1 album, the biggest seller in her career I have always preferred the more electronic European feel of “The Anthology’s” closing track on the first disc, “Sunset People”.

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 CD 2 opens with a real tour-de-force which topped off Donna’s most commercially successful year with her third US number 1 single of 1979.  More of a singing contest than a track it paired the Disco Queen with the Showtunes Queen- Summer vs Streisand.  It’s incredible to think that at the start of Donna’s hit career many people thought that she could not even sing and here she is matching one of the most celebrated singers note for note.  In the UK this became Donna’s third Top 3 hit.  Her final hurrah to disco came with “On The Radio”, another song which has become more familiar in the UK over the years, at one time it was a regular choice for competitors on TV talent shows and soap star turned pop star Martine McCutcheon significantly bettered Donna’s original number 32 placing when she took it to number 7 in 2001.  In the US it reached number 5, which was her lowest chart placing for a couple of years.  It’s a song with a slightly odd narrative, I never understood how a letter which felt out of a pocket in an old brown overcoat ended up being read out on the radio, but then Donna had been convincing when she left her cake out in the rain.  It’s a great vocal but lyrically just a little strange.

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 And then in the US, disco was over.  The response from Summer, Moroder and Bellotte was to release an album with a distinct rock-chick feel.  Summer had moved away from Casablanca Records with its strong disco emphasis and signed up to Geffen Records.  It was a new start but I, for the first time, didn’t really buy into it.  As someone who had always preferred her more European sounding tracks it was a step too far into the rock arena.  Donna was keen to get away from the sexy disco siren image not least in part because she had become a born-again Christian.  Commercially, her UK fans agreed with me as it became her lowest selling album to date.  The title track reached number 3 in the US but follow up “Cold Love” stalled at 33, although did garner Donna a Grammy nomination for best female rock vocal.  Her next album was not even approved for release by her new label.  From it we get the title track “I’m A Rainbow” and her version of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” played straight, which became a staple in her live shows.  It was not released until 1986 and it marked the last album in the ten year partnership of the artist with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte.

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 The next album had more than an element of reinvention about it.  It is unusual for an artist this far on in their career to release an eponymous album- 1982’s “Donna Summer” being set out as a new start.  Producer Quincy Jones did a very good job, the songs have a range of style from jazz standards, to ballads, to rock tinged tracks.  From this we get US#10, UK#18 “Love Is In Control” and the odd but fascinating version of a Jon & Vangelis song “State Of Independence” which put Donna in front of an all-star gospel choir including Michael Jackson and Dionne Warwick.  This became the big hit track in the UK reaching number 14 and giving Donna her highest UK studio album chart placing since “I Remember Yesterday”.

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 There wasn’t too much that was great about the next couple of album releases, “Anthology” cherry-picks the most worthwhile tracks from “She Works Hard For The Money” and “Cats Without Claws”.  The very good title track from “All Systems Go” is here.  Her one album dalliance with Stock Aitken and Waterman brought about one of her (and their) best ever recordings.  I consider “Another Time And Place” (from this we get “This Time I Know It’s For Real” and “I Don’t Want To Get Hurt) to be an Essential CD.  The magic didn’t carry on for her next album “Mistaken Identity” but two of the better tracks are here.

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 This CD does end with a good enough reason for the Summer fan to purchase “Anthology” as in 1992 Donna guest vocaled on a track by old friend Giorgio Moroder on a project called “Forever Dancing”.  This track “Carry On” seemed to turn back the years and I  I wish it could have led on to more recordings with the producer and his greatest muse.

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 Post “Anthology” Donna made the occasional single -the best being her number 21 UK hit “Melody Of Love” from 1994 and a fairly breath-taking version of “I Will Go With You (Con Te Partiro)” from 1999 which took the song better known as “Time To Say Goodbye” out of the funeral services, for which it has become a staple and into the dance clubs.  I thought this would be a huge hit for her but it wasn’t.  Her final album “Crayons” released in 2008 after a 14 year gap after her previous very worthwhile Christmas album was a strong attempt at giving Donna a contemporary club edge and healthy sales seemed like it could be the beginning of a new phase in her recording career. 

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 Her death in 2012 came as a complete shock and was one of those passings that makes you feel that a phase in your own life has come to an end.  Her final illness was kept quiet as lung cancer claimed her.  It was Donna’s belief that this was brought on by toxic dust she inhaled by being in the proximity of New York on 9/11.  She was the artist I felt that I had grown up with and even when some of her recordings in the mid 80’s did not inspire me greatly I was always delighted when her music was in the charts and she was in the public eye.

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 I’ve gone for “Anthology” because it does have a number of those tracks on CDs which I never made the transfer from vinyl to.  There are omissions, especially with tracks which hit bigger in the UK (no “Winter Melody”, no “Down Deep Inside” no “Dinner With Gershwin”).  If you are looking for these tracks I suggest you go for “The Journey – The Very Best Of”, which got to number 6 in the UK charts in 2004 (but still no “Winter Melody”) or the three disc “Ultimate Collection” (2016 UK#30) which has all of the above, some of Donna’s German pre-hit recordings as well as tracks that I have never owned and which the completist in me is telling me to purchase.  58 tracks, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time…………………………

 

Donna Summer in a live tribute to David Foster from 2008 bringing the show to a resounding close with “Last Dance”.

 

The Donna Summer Anthology now only seems to be available on Amazon UK as a used import with prices ranging from £1.95 to £700.38 (you make your choice!).  In the US it is more readily available new currently for $29.99 and used from $1.98.  There are many other Donna Summer compilations available.

100 Essential CDs – Number 68– Donna Summer – Another Place And Time

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Another Place And Time – Donna Summer (WEA 1989)

UK Chart Position – 17

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It had been nearly twelve years since Donna Summer’s previous essential album “Once Upon A Time”.  In the meantime her career had reached stratospheric levels with US number 1 pop albums (“Live And More” and “Bad Girls”) and had also hit the doldrums.  Disco had been and gone and in the US there had been a backlash against Disco artists so Donna  found herself needing to diversify, not always with great results.  Her career was also further complicated by her becoming a born-again Christian causing her to play down some of the raunchier hits in her back catalogue and then there was a comment she was reported to have made about AIDS which seriously affected her standing with the gay record buying market, who had been amongst her strongest supporters since day one.  Donna Summer always denied making such statements but it did have a significantly detrimental effect on her career.

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Throughout the 80’s Donna continued to record with some success but the career lacked consistency and the quality of albums was patchy.  She did come very close to being essential with her 1982 release “Donna Summer” produced by Quincy Jones.  Donna was pregnant at the time of recording and claimed not to have responded well to Jones’ methods of working.  There were some great tracks on this album and a lot of musical styles which showed the versatility of the artist on big gospelesque numbers like the Vangelis penned hit single “State Of Independence”, on Bruce Springsteen rock and with a jazz standard “Lush Life”, in which, whatever Donna herself thought, she turned out one of her greatest vocal performances.  This album also marked her move away from Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte for the first time.

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Later 80’s albums (here I’m including “She Works Hard For The Money” and “Cats Without Claws” )just didn’t do it for me.  Her “All Systems Go” album from 1987 was the first in her hit career not to make any impression on the US and UK album charts.  It wasn’t even a bad album, her star had just waned.  Around this time I saw her perform live for the first of two times at the Royal Albert Hall, London, where there were protests outside against her reported comments.  She was excellent that night, as she was when I saw her again some years later but it did seem like the hits might have dried up.

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Like both other veteran female performers Tina Turner and Liza Minelli it was the British who saved the day.  Turner had become a global star again following her association with Heaven 17 and Minelli found herself making pop charts for the first time ever when she worked with the Pet Shop Boys a bit later on  in the same year that Donna made her comeback.  And it was a comeback,  scoring in the UK her highest charting album for 11 years and three Top 20 singles. In the US it gave her a first Top 10 single for 6 years.  In 1989 Donna was back and it was thanks  to Stock, Aitken and Waterman.

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This song-writing and production team, known as the Hit Factory by the time they began working with Donna had scored number 1 singles for Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan, Rick Astley, Dead Or Alive, Sonia and Mel and Kim amongst others with a high-energy sound which was spawned in the gay discos and taken into the pop charts in the UK and Europe with alarming frequency.  Working with one of the original disco legends seemed a sensible move for all concerned.

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“Another Place And Time” has ten tracks written and produced by the team with two tracks penned alongside the artist.  Why it works so well as an album is that for the first time since her peak of her work with Moroder and Bellotte it gave her a clear identity as a performer, the songs feel cohesive.  True, they fitted perfectly into the pop-dance pocket which Stock, Aitken and Waterman had found for themselves and the songs could have worked easily as well for Kylie or even Hazell Dean but the Summer Legend gave the whole thing a little extra sparkle and the end result was something really very special.  Stock, Aitken and Waterman were reputed to say that this was their favourite of the albums they worked on, and it is easy to see why.

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The album’s star turn comes in at track three and is certainly indicative of both the best of Summer and SAW’s work.  “This Time I Know It’s For Real” is an absolute gem of a single.  Released a month or so before the album it soared up to number 3 in the UK, a position she had last attained ten years before with her vocal battle-to-the-death duet with Barbra Streisand “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)”.  It got to number 7 in the US, where there had been a certain amount of record label scurrying around before it appeared on Atlantic Records.  It saw her back at the top of the Billboard US Dance charts and was a big hit, in amongst other markets, Norway (#3). Ireland (#4), France (#6), Netherlands (#5) and Canada (#7).  It’s a joyous song which celebrates love and wants to proclaim it anyway possible.

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The CD opener “I Don’t Want To Get Hurt” followed its predecessor up the charts reaching number 7 in the UK.  It was a smaller hit in Europe (although got to number 3 in Ireland) and was not released as a single in the US.  It might have been tempting to put out a whole album of tracks aimed at the dance floor but there is variety here, with slower tracks such as the title track and “Breakaway” which was the track on the album which refused to die as it was released as a single not far off two years after the release of the album and made the UK Top 50. 

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Donna also made the UK Top 20 with the closer “Love’s About To Change My Heart”.  On the album this has a great instrumental coda which rounds things off perfectly which was not present on the single mix.  The album version was much better.  The slow start kicking into an uptempo track brought to mind what felt like a bit of a trademark from Donna’s golden era, present on some of her biggest hits from her golden era (“Last Dance”, “No More Tears”, “On The Radio”, “Dim All The Lights” and, especially, “Macarthur Park”).  This felt like a touch of genius from the production team who were showing their ability to update the sound and still please the fans of long-standing.

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They certainly got mileage from the denim jacket photoshoot!

Donna Summer and Stock, Aitken and Waterman.  It all seemed to fit together so perfectly as I had expected it to do right when I heard about the collaboration.  Perhaps the most surprising thing about it was the front cover art which saw Summer in Japanese Geisha make-up.  One gets the feeling that this was Summer’s idea and this is confirmed by credits which state she came up with the concept with photographer Lawrence Lawry.  Donna Summer was also a painter and the image has the feel of some of her artwork.

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 Driven By The Music by Donna Summer

In the US label issues meant that sales were damaged by high levels of import purchases and by the time the album appeared on the Atlantic label a high chart placing seemed out of the question.  Having said that it still performed better than its predecessor.  Back in 1989 this seemed just like a taster for more good stuff to come.  Donna fitted into the Hit Factory set-up so well that I was ready for a long association with the producers.  A second album was proposed but due to difficulties with record label contracts never happened.  What felt like a return to previous chart glories was too short-lived.  This would also be the last essential Donna Summer release.  Her 1991 Atlantic album “Mistaken Identity” was sadly without much identity.  Returning to Mercury she put out a first class Christmas album (there’s only one essential Christmas album) in 1994 and her 2008 swansong “Crayons” was a big success in her homeland and certainly had its moments and could have paved the way for an even bigger career renaissance in her sixties.  Donna Summer sadly died aged 62 in 2012. 

 

Another Place And Time is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £7.82 and used from £0.09.  It can be downloaded for £7.99.  In the US it is available for $16.99 and used for $15.93.  In the UK it is available to stream on Spotify.  

100 Essential CDs – Number 85– Donna Summer – Once Upon A Time

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Once Upon A Time – Donna Summer (Casablanca 1977)

UK Chart Position – 24

US Chart Position – 26

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By 1977 the Disco era was in full swing and Donna Summer was certainly being worked hard to capitalise on this.  Her last essential album “A Love Trilogy” had been released in May 1976 and by the end of that year “Four Seasons Of Love” had  arrived.  This tied in with the Christmas market (I got it as a Christmas present that year, I recall) and actually had a free 1977 calendar inside.  Visually, it was certainly different to what had gone before as the soft-focus images of Donna were replaced by strong, sharp photos .  Donna was perched on a moon on the front cover and posed as Marilyn Monroe in a recreation of the iconic white dress blowing-up scene from “The Seven Year Itch”.  Musically, it felt a little stingy, with four tracks covering the seasons and a reprise of one track which had gone on for too long anyway.  It didn’t perform nearly as well as the two albums which preceded it and it did seem like Donna’s career might be one of diminishing returns.  In the US it proved to be the second album in a row without a Top 40 hit single.  In the UK, bizarrely for a woman known as the Disco Queen, it was the pretty ballad track “Winter Melody” which caught the public imagination and its number 27 chart placing meant she could no longer be considered a one-hit wonder.

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Everything changed in the summer of 1977 when the album “I Remember Yesterday” hit the streets.  It’s a strong album with a first side of three retro pop tracks, which took in a disco take on the 1940’s with the title track and two 60’s girl-group inspired tracks.  On the second side amidst the strong soul ballad and okay disco tracks was the sound of the future.  Left until last, “I Feel Love” was completely different to anything we had heard before and set a benchmark for electronic dance music which can still be felt today.  It is often credited as being the most influential dance track of all time.  The record buyers of 1977 loved it, the single became Donna’s only UK #1 and got to number 6 in the US.  Donna’s superstar status which I had believed in from the first moans of “Love To Love You Baby” was confirmed.  Each one of the side 1 tracks became a UK Top 40 hit and by mid 1977 Donna was inescapable in the UK.  A change of distribution from GTO who had put out her records to her US label Casablanca meant that both labels were putting out product.  Her sublime song taken from the soundtrack of the hit movie “The Deep”, “Down Deep Inside” gave her a third Top 5 hit , “Love’s Unkind” from the GTO released album reached number 3 and 10 months later the fourth track to be released from the album “Back In Love Again” reached #29.  The album reached #3 in the UK and #18 in the US.  At the time I loved it, but I don’t consider it to be essential now.  It does have essential tracks upon it and although it felt much more like a traditional album than what had been released before it just falls short, as an album, of her very best releases.  I think the first side medley is just a little cutesy although there was no denying its commercial appeal in 1977.

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“Once Upon A Time” was the follow-up and Donna fans who were not being saturated in her product didn’t have long to wait as this appeared in November 1977.  What’s more this was a double album, which was certainly putting  demands on the purse strings of record buyers, as these were expensive and not always the best value for money.  On previous albums there had rarely been as many as five tracks, here there were fourteen plus a couple of reprises.  This was Donna’s best chance to show us what kind of artist she really was over more than a handful of songs.

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Once again there was a concept.  Here (and I know this doesn’t sound that promising as I write it) the concept was based around a poem written by Donna of a girl inhabiting a fairy tale world entering real life and looking for love and the tracks were contained within “Acts” as in a play.  It was “Cinderella” with a disco beat and what we have here is really the blueprint for a musical that never happened.  You don’t need to buy into the theme to make this album work.  It contains some great tracks from the Summer/Moroder/Bellotte team with Donna penning more thoughtful lyrics rather than refrains to fit in with the electronic visions of the musicians.  It was a much broader album than all that had gone before and the additional length meant that Donna could offer more variation without disappointing her disco fans.

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This was recorded once again at the Musicland Studios in Munich and yet it is the most American sounding album to date with the European influences which dominated her previous material now used more subtly.  With this selection of songs Donna switches between a narrator’s role and main character as it follows (not always perceptibly) the framework of a modern-day fairy story.  We start off firmly in fairyland with opener “Once Upon A Time” which always sounded like a hit single to these ears.  There’s an epic sweeping film-score introduction which settles into a strutting, mid-tempo number and very good use of backing singers.  It’s very much the Overture to Act One .  It sets out the concept of the album, musical themes from it will be used from to time to time culminating in the final track where Donna largely speaks the poem which links the whole thing to a slower version of the track, which is nowhere near as bad as it sounds.

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The rest of Act One takes a darker turn with “Faster And Faster To Nowhere” where the tempo speeds up and the whole thing becomes a little trippy;

“It’s a nightmare, daymare, it’s a bad ‘mare not matter which way ‘mare”

After the sweetness of the previous track this driving slice of simmering paranoia works really well, even the male bass voice intoning that we are on “a trip to nowhere” hits home.  In case we’re getting too chilled there’s an extra sugar coating on “Fairy Tale High” with a wide-eyed coy performance from Donna saved from absolute tweeness by some good things going on in the rhythm arrangements especially handclaps and a good bit of electronic wizardry from Moroder mid-way through.  This gives way to the rockier sound of “Say Something Nice” one of the more ordinary tracks on the album.  It gives an indication of the direction Donna will increasingly move towards over the next few years as she attempted to move away from the disco tracks which defined her.

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 When I bought this album I would have been more than happy with a selection of tracks along the lines of “I Feel Love” so it is no wonder that the side I played most on my vinyl copy was Act 2, which boasted the stronger disco tracks with a couple of them having that bleak, industrial feel that I really loved and were reminiscent of what both Kraftwerk and Pink Floyd were doing at the time.  “Now I Need You” is the album’s high-spot and once again was never released as a single.  It’s a cross between “I Feel Love” and the later hit she had with Quincy Jones as producer “State Of Independence” with its big gospel-esque choir which manages to add warmth and colour to the coolness of the arrangement.  A dominant pulse beats throughout with something sounding like someone pumping up a tyre.  The beat, Donna in whispering mode and the choir make a real gem of a track, which has only got better with time.

onceupon9Moroder, Summer and Bellotte in later years

 The bleakness continues with “Working The Midnight Shift” with its great electronic introduction.  These two tracks would still sound good on the dancefloor today and with Donna being a popular choice for remixers , it’s quite surprising that reworking of these two tracks have not ever made the charts. The disco side closes with “Queen For A Day”, a more pop influenced proposition with some pretty daft lyrics but some real creative work from the production team going on really lifts this.

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 Act 3 sees Donna getting rocky once again with “If You Got It Flaunt It” and slowing the whole thing down for a couple of ballads “A Man Like You” and “Sweet Romance” which show her versatility as a performer as probably never before.  “Sweet Romance” is a quasi-religious track as Donna turns to higher forces to find the man she is looking for.  There’s a Caribbean feel to “Dance Into My Life” in its which reminds me a little of another hit track she would have in later years when she worked with British teen group Musical Youth for “Unconditional Love”.  Although this is Disco flavoured it would be very hard to dance to as it stops and starts throughout.

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You have to wait for Side 4 to get the two UK Top 20 hits off the album and they come back to back.  “Rumour Has It” (UK#19) is a track I wasn’t that fussed about at the time and was surprised it was chosen as a single but I do think it has stood the test of time and sounds as good (if not better) than it did then.  The bigger hit “I Love You” (UK#10) is a much better proposition which brings us back to the “Cinderella” theme as Donna reverts to being the narrator of the moment when this particular Prince Charming meets his love.  It’s warm and joyous and boasts a great performance from Donna.  The theme is rounded up with “Happily Ever After”, an attractive but unsensational track before Donna speaks her way through the main musical theme with the poem which is central to the concept.  It’s a rather odd finale and veers close to the self-indulgent but there is something about it, especially once it gets going about mid-way through when it has a kind of “War Of The Worlds” feel .

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At this point in her career Donna was performing better chart-wise in the UK and Europe than in her homeland.  This album spawned two sizeable UK hits but only “I Love You” would just scrape into the US Top 40.  This would change when she began a run of 8 US Top 5 singles (including three #1s) in 1978 and 1979.  These were the golden Summer years and there were some great singles but album wise there would be nothing more that I would consider essential with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte and after their partnership ended there would be some substandard work with other producers.  I always suspected that she would be back with a top quality album but we had to wait a while for it.

 

Once Upon A Time  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £10.30 and used from £5.58.  It can be downloaded for £8.99 . In the US it is available for $7.39 and used for $3.39.   In the UK it is available to stream on Spotify.

100 Essential CDs – Number 9 – Donna Summer – A Love Trilogy

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A Love Trilogy -Donna Summer (Casablanca 1976)

UK Chart Position – 41

US Chart Position – 21

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The worldwide success of Donna Summer’s debut hit “Love To Love You Baby” took everyone by surprise.  The singer spoke of the recording of it as just messing around in the studio and did not expect it to be a single.  Recorded in Munich, it was the producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte’s nod to another controversial European success, the French legend Serge Gainsbourg’s and English actress Jane Birkin’s “Je T’Aime Moi Non Plus”.  Like the French track, the steaminess ensured that it was not going to get many daytime radio plays.  With Disco becoming increasingly a commercial force this track took off and when Neil Bogart, head of Casablanca records heard it, he demanded a longer track.  Moroder and Bellotte extended it to an 18 minute epic and put it out on one side of Donna’s second album release, named after the track.  This is the song that paved the way for the 12 inch single and pop music was never the same again.

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It became a huge hit and the album was propelled into charts worldwide on the strength of this track alone.  I believe the 7” version which was released on the GTO label in the UK and got to number 4 is one of the greatest singles of all time. (I think the US had a slightly different edit, which didn’t build to the great choral “Love to Love you baby baby” bit towards the end).  As an entire side of an album it felt overly stretched and somewhat looped.  There isn’t the great progressive build of the single. The rest of the album, apart from the single’s b side “Need A Man Blues” and the fragile ballad “Whispering Waves” indicated the speed with which it had been put together to capitalise on the title track’s demand and consisted of largely throwaway pop/rock tracks where the artist lacked a clear identity.

lovetrilogy4Donna Summer with Giorgio Moroder

With this second album a lot of learning had taken place and all that learning is synthesized (in more ways than one) to produce an absolute classic recording-the finest of Donna’s career and the zenith of her work with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte.  In the intervening months since the release of the previous album Disco had continue to grow as a musical force and the world was ready for an album that was out and out disco and not one that contained a couple of disco-friendly tracks over a mishmash of soul, R&B and pop.  Technically, the production team had also moved on and were able to achieve a greater, more coherent electronic sound than on the previous  album.  Skills that were continue to build until they came up with one of the most important dance tracks of all time with the genius “I Feel Love” a complete game-changer a couple of years later- but that was still in the future.

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Although I played the single “Love To Love You Baby” until it virtually wore out I did not, at the time, buy the album.  It just didn’t seem very good value, when I knew I had the best tracks as a single but I was determined to buy this one as soon as it was released.  On the GTO label in the UK it was a thick slab of vinyl, for some reason,  it was certainly the thickest album I ever owned.  When vinyl got wafer-thin and the edges razor-sharp by the mid 80’s when we were being pushed to buy CDs, putting on “A Love Trilogy” felt reassuring and solid.  And play it I most certainly did.  There must be very few albums I have played more than this one over the years.

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Whilst browsing on Amazon I discovered a review for this album that I’d written 15 years ago, back in 2003.  I think this is the very first review I ever published, so motivated was I to keep this album in the public consciousness and that review is still there today with the massive total of 25 people who have found it helpful!  Here is what I said back then:

 

Summer’s second album is superb. At various times in my life I have worked out what my favourite albums or CDs would be and this one is always there somewhere – it is an album which meant so much to me at the time, I knew every single note of it. Amazingly, it still sounds outstanding today. It was the follow up to her “Love To Love You Baby” album, which was a decidely hit or miss affair and did not suggest that Donna would be around too long as a recording artist. The format is similar, with one long track which took the whole of the first side of the vinyl version and three shorter tracks on the second side. The long track (at 18 minutes) is “Try Me I Know We Can Make It” which is broken down into sections like “Try Me”, “I Know”, “We Can Make It”, before coming together for (you guessed it) “Try Me I Know We Can Make It”. A single was released but it was nowhere as good as the extended mix. It became a small hit in the States but didn’t really do a great deal of business over here in the UK. “Could It Be Magic” was the stand out track, a cover version of a Barry Manilow song, which was just so exciting made even more so by a breathy spoken introduction and a middle section which many ways seemed even ruder than “Love To Love You Baby”! How this wasn’t a huge hit I will never know- the Take That smash revival of the song seemed to owe more to this version than to Barry’s. I was obsessed by this album- I played it over and over again. It seemed so creative, so very then. I would still argue that it was Donna’s best album – yet sales wise it certainly did not capitalise or build on the success of the first album. Do not miss out on this CD.

lovetrilogy2The back cover of the original vinyl LP

Fifteen years on and I agree with every word.  Why this was so far superior to what had come before was largely due to the “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It” track.  True, it is largely made of those eight words repeated in various combinations many times over but the whole thing really builds and feels a much more organic piece than the extended version of “Love To Love You Baby”.  There is so much going on here and it is so creative.  It really is Moroder’s masterpiece.  Also, what works well  is that the Summer-Moroder-Bellotte partnership here feels equal and this is as much the producers’ album as the vocalist.  Donna’s vocals are often wispy and ethereal, sounding as if she’s been recorded in an oxygen tent but it gives the whole thing a beauty and vulnerability and makes the sound extremely intimate (if an eighteen minute disco epic could be called intimate).  The mystique of Donna Summer the artist is still strong here.  You can’t tell exactly how good a singer she was (that was the case on the first album).  Also, like the first album you can’t really tell what she looks like from the album cover which opted for soft focus- maintaining the 70’s soft-core porn aesthetics which had adorned the art work of “Love To Love You Baby”.  There was still mileage to be had in portraying her as a kind of mythical sex goddess, which fitted in superbly with the hedonism of disco.

lovetrilogy11I would imagine Donna would come to hate this picture but it fitted in with the mood of the time.

I still think “Could It Be Magic” is the stand-out track but the second side of the album was not plumped out by filler as its predecessor had been.  “Wasted” and “Come With Me” are both great tracks which fit in well with the concept of the album and also sound great on their own.

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Photographers were also keen to convey a more wholesome image

Commercially, it may have been a little ahead of its time.  In the UK the Manilow cover version got to number 40, just one place above where the album stalled.  It would be many years before Donna would again put out an album that did not have a US Top 40 single on it but I think this was never a singles album.  It is heard best as a whole.  The Canadians got it, as it became a Top 10 album there, reaching a higher position than “Love To Love You Baby” had but for most markets, commercially it was a bit of a backward step for Donna and The Munich Machine.  I  think Donna sounds great throughout and that the production team of Giorgio Moroder, Pete Bellotte,  arranger Thor Baldurson and engineers Juergen Koppers and Mack & Hans, on the evidence here demand recognition as being amongst the most important pioneers of electronic dance music.

 

A Love Trilogy  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £14.83 and used from £8.21.  It can be downloaded for £7.09 . In the US it is available for $7.39 and used for $2.39.   In the UK it is available to stream on Spotify.

 

100 Essential CDs – Number 15 – Stylistics – Greatest Hits: Let’s Put It All Together

Greatest Hits: Let’s Put It All Together- Stylistics  (Phonogram 1992)

UK Chart Position – 34

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Now I will admit that a sweet tooth is needed here.  The Stylistics led the way in a brand of soul music which combined romance, lushness, a distinctive falsetto lead and a tight vocal group performance sound which was a progression from the Doowop sounds of a decade earlier.  Others in this soul subsection who shone most brightly in the mid 1970s included The Moments, The Chi-Lites, The Delfonics, Blue Magic, all of whom had been around some time when they found fame but the sweetest of all the sweet soulers were The Stylistics.

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 This was, without doubt, because of the lead vocal of Russell Tompkins Junior,  a beautifully rounded soft, nasal sound which always avoided becoming the whine it could so easily have been.  Not strictly falsetto his voice is often described as high tenor.  In some of the group’s strongest recordings this was paired with the rich baritone voice of Airron Love.  Also, providing sterling back-up were James Smith, James Dunn and Herbie Murrell.  They had been in various groups since the mid 60’s in the Philadelphia area but joined forces in 1968.  By 1975 their first hits compilation “Best Of The Stylistics” was the UK’s biggest selling album of the year and at that point the biggest ever selling by an African-American act.   

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 The hit singles continued after 1975 leading to another chart-topping Volume 2 compilation just over a year later.  The best compilations combine these two volumes and as consistent sellers there have been a number over the years.  I have chosen as my Essential Stylistics recording an eighteen tracker from 1992 which achieved a moderate chart position but is a great indication of what was both good and frustrating about their success.  It contains all sixteen of their UK Top 40 hits and nine out of the 10 US hits. 

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 The CD opens with their only UK number 1 hit single from the summer of 1975. For “I Can’t Give You Anything But My Love” record label Avco’s hot disco producer Van McCoy was drafted in as arranger to add a little extra something for the group.  Chart-wise it was the most successful track for both the group and the arranger but is not representative of the very best of either of their work.  It does have a lovely languid trumpet introduction which captures the attention and it heads off into a shuffling track which is a little faster than we would expect from the group and a nod to Disco.  It does sound at times as if Van McCoy’s signature hit “The Hustle” is playing in the background.  Van’s best productions were when he used gospel based singers to add bite to the lushness of his Soul City Symphony Sounds, most successfully in his work with Melba Moore, David Ruffin and his gospel based backing singers Faith, Hope and Charity with whom he cut a couple of albums.  With Russell Tompkins Jnr’s already sweet falsetto it’s a little bit too much of a sugar rush to be their very best work.  It was, however, their biggest UK hit and gave them a gold single.  It was not a US chart hit.

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 And here we have the dichotomy of the Stylistics hit career.  It is in two distinct phases, the first, which saw them as a Philadelphian soul act which captivated the US and gave them a solid reputation in the UK and the second where veteran songwriters and producers Hugo and Luigi took over which gave them bigger UK success but their increasingly middle of the road sound did not work so well with their traditional US audience.  By the time the group returned to their more soulful Philadelphian roots in the late 70’s/early 80’s their chart career was over on both sides of the Atlantic.   

Linda Creed & Thom Bell      Hugo and Luigi

The second track on the album is the one that most clearly marks the end of the first era and is the track most associated with the group as well as being their biggest US hit and marked the first time they scored a UK Top 5 hit.  1974’s “You Make Me Feel Brand New” was both a UK and US number 2 as well as being a Top 3 hit in Australia and Canada, amongst other markets.  It is also their best track.  It marked the culmination of the group’s association with producer Thom Bell, who, with songwriter Linda Creed worked a string of gems not just for this group but for other sweet-soul stalwarts The Detroit Spinners and The Delfonics.  It employed the under-used rich voice of Airron Love as a counterpoint to Tompkins.  At the time it foxed quite a lot of people, who thought it was a male-female duet, even at this point in the career not everyone had cottoned on the fact that what they were listening to when they heard the Stylistics was a male voice.  The intimacy of the track is undeniable and it feels like they are singing to each other.  This was a little too much to contemplate in 1974 and may be why the group concentrated on one lead singer rather than using much interplay between the two.  Other groups got away without anyone asking questions but it is the sheer honesty of the voices and of the songs lyrics that can make it feel like a love song between two men.  (I don’t think that’s just me!)

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 The CD is not chronological so both periods of their career are interspersed.  I might have implied that the later tracks were not without merit, but this is far from the case.  Not every one of the Bell/Creed songs hits home and some of the Hugo and Luigi/George David Weiss tracks are real guilty pleasures.  Like The Drifters who had an extended UK career after their American hits dried up there’s a lot of enjoyment from their later tracks, but unlike the Drifters, who had enjoyed a long chart career, these two phases were condensed into a period of just six years from their first US hit “Stop, Look, Listen To Your Heart (US#39) (better known in the UK as a Diana Ross/Marvin Gaye duet three years later (UK#25) to their cheesy chart career end of “$7000 Dollars And You” which got to number 24 in the UK in 1977.

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 Phase 1 really kicked off with another hit which was later more associated with Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye with the Bell and Creed song “You Are Everything”.  There’s  a calm confidence in this, their first US Top 10 pop placing (#9 in 1971) and a much richer sound than the version which became a UK #5 three years later for Diana & Marvin.  Motown here appropriated the Philadelphia sound and turned out an inferior track.  What Bell and Creed were producing here at this time were standards, good quality songs with great orchestration to which was added the Tompkins voice.  Hugo and Luigi put the voice first, maybe over-egged the orchestration and the songs were more throwaway.  In phase 1 you get the beautiful love song that is “Betcha By Golly Wow” (US#3, UK13- 1972) a good enough song to have two great cover versions by Prince (UK#11 1996) and the under-rated Phyllis Hyman together with “I’m Stone In Love With You (US#10,UK#9 1972) which also became a comeback hit (after a twelve year chart absence) for Johnny Mathis (UK#10 – 1975).  There’s also a lovely version of the Bacharach/David song “You’ll Never Get To Heaven (If You Break My Heart) (US#23 -1973) which had to wait until it was re-released as the led track of an EP to chart in the UK (#24 1976). 

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 The track which hasn’t dated so well from the first phase is the uptempo “Rockin’ Roll Baby”.  As a child when this was released I got this completely wrong and thought, despite its joyous take of a father’s love for a young son, that it was a sad song.  The line that did this for me was “He’s got a funky walk/In his little orthopaedic shoes”.  This to me conjured up a disabled child being forced to dance, thrust on the stage to perform.  I thought it was a song about neglect with a theatrical setting “One night stands weren’t easy for little Joe” and was chilled by it.   I haven’t quite ever forgiven the song and the “Na Na Na” repetitions are a little annoying. 

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 Phase two of their career opened strongly as “Let’s Put It All Together” is actually really quite a beautiful song and the highpoint of the Hugo and Luigi productions.  It became their final US hit reaching number 18 in 1974 as well as number 9 in the UK.  I’ve also got a sneaking affection to the “Stone In Love With You” feel of “Star On A TV Show” UK#12) and the real guilty pleasure that is “Sing Baby Sing” (UK#3).  I used to spend all my pocket money on 7 inch singles  around this time and “Sing Baby Sing” was actually the last Stylistics single I bought.   Things started to slip downhill a bit from here. “Funky Weekend” was a nod to the disco market but was just too empty a song.  There was no reason why The Stylistics could not have made a stronger transition to disco, other Philadelphian male vocal groups such as The Trammps, The O’Jays and Harold Melvin and The Bluenotes produced great hard-hitting disco gems in this era but The Stylistics were not going to get too far with “Funky Weekend” despite its number 10 UK chart placing.  Their version of “Can’t Help Falling In Love” was also uptempo and both likeable and popular (UK#4).

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 The track I find it hardest to forgive is “Na Na Is The Saddest Word”.  What does that even mean?  Musically it’s an attractive song but lyrically, please!  The group were hot after their number 1 single and this was chosen as the follow-up.  There was enough interest in them to make this a UK #5 but this was not a chart position based on the song’s merit.  “I wrote a love song in 16 bars” is not The Stylistics taking to alcoholism and once again is not strong lyrically.  It reached number 7 in 1976.  It did seem, at this point that the cash registers were ringing happily so it did not matter a great deal if the songs were a little throwaway.  What happened to The Stylistics is far from unique in the history of pop.  Another massive group from the 70’s Boney M finished the decade with real disposable tracks (Painter Man/ Hooray Hooray It’s A Holi-Holiday etc.) that suggested those around them wanted to just take the money and run.

 It’s money that marks the end of the Stylistics chart career.  “$7,000 Dollars And You” has a cheesy Tijuana feel but the song shows the boys had their price.  Up to a million and they would choose the girl, but after that they’d take the cash!  It actually puts a smile on my face this track! It’s actually a shame record-buyers tired of them from this point as in the 1980’s they returned to their home-town and recorded again with Thom Bell under the Philadelphia International umbrella, churning good quality. less commercial pop-soul tunes.  The group, with changes in personnel, continues to tour to this day.   

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 The Stylistics – still touring!

The 18 tracks here give perhaps the best overview of the hits of The Stylistics.  If the Hugo and Luigi tracks are too much then you might wish to consider a compilation which focuses on the early years.  (One of their all-time best tracks “Only For The Children” which appeared as the B-Side of “You Make Me Feel Brand New” can be found on other compilations) but I’ve always got pleasure from the bitter-sweet soul of the Thom Bell stuff and the sugar overdose of the later tracks so this selection is the one I end up listening to most of all.

The video is intended for Karaoke purposes but seems to be the best version of the guys singing this song.  Just ignore the highlighted lyrics unless you want to sing along!

 

Greatest Hits; Let’s Put It All Together  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £8.24 and used from £2.19.  It can be downloaded for £7.99 . In the US it is available  from $13.07 and used for $1.68.   Other promising compilations available include 5 Classic Albums (48 tracks) and the 36 track Double CD “Ultimate Collection”.