100 Essential CDs – Number 41– Amy Winehouse – Back To Black

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Back To Black -Amy Winehouse (Island 2006)

UK Chart Position – 1

US Chart Position – 2

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 Before the release of this album, I was aware of Amy Winehouse but, probably like most people hadn’t really listened to her a great deal.  I knew that her debut album “Frank” (2003) had been very well received but hadn’t really sought it out  (I did later).  I knew that it had a jazz vibe about it but wasn’t sure whether it was for me.

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There was quite a buzz about this follow-up album before its release.  I’d read a couple of reviews which had seen it as a modern take on the 60s girl group pop of The Ronettes and The Shangri-Las.  I think I had seen the video of the lead single “Rehab” on what used to be a Saturday morning staple “The Chart Show” and all of this was enough to convince me to buy this album on the day it was released.  A lot of people did the same as its first week sales were enough for it to enter the UK album charts at number 3 (“Frank” had stalled at 13).  The following week it dropped seven places but word of mouth was so strong that it wasn’t long before it was heading for the top spot which it achieved on its 11th week on the chart.

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According to a recent BBC 4 “Classic Albums” documentary it went on to sell 16 million copies worldwide and was a chart-topper in virtually every country in Europe.  In the US it did not reach the very summit but Amy became the first British woman to win 5 Grammys including “Record Of The Year”.  Amy’s music and look soon ensured she was a household name everywhere.  Fame, was of course, a double-edged sword.  She had never contemplated anything like that level of success for her music and found the trappings of fame very difficult to cope with and the temptations that a healthy bank balance can bring too much to bear.  There was never another studio album and Amy Winehouse died in 2011 at the age of 27.

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Because of what ended up happening to Amy it’s not as easy to listen to this album as it was when she was going strong.  There is an added level of pathos which is impossible to escape.  As a live performer I had always found her difficult to watch, you were never quite sure what you were going to get and that unpredictability even at the height of her fame would always make me feel quite tense.  Her stage presence could veer from lioness to little girl lost and the live appearances became patchier as time went on until the point that she was trying the patience of her most loyal fans.  For me, the greatness of Amy Winehouse is summed up by listening to these 11 tracks, which ended up both making and breaking her.

 

Producers Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi

And the music here is great.  It is one of the best studio albums by a British artist.  Her record company sent her to the US to record and six of the tracks were produced by then hot DJ and producer Mark Ronson in New York and five by Salaam Remi in Miami.  Remi had worked with Amy on “Frank”. The Ronson tracks established the feel of the album, incorporating that pain and heartbreak of the 60’s girl groups, Remi’s were going in a slightly different direction building on the jazz credentials of her debut but as soon as the Miami team heard the New York tracks they were able to tweak what they are doing to provide the cohesive sound of this work.  In the BBC 4 documentary Ronson claims he was aiming for “heartbreak on a giant scale” in recreating a mid 60’s teen angst sound.  He acknowledges that it was in the mixing by Tom Elmhirst that a more contemporary sound was added, making it more relevant and less explicitly retro.  This is actually part of what makes “Back To Black” so good.  It takes its influences from over 40 years of great pop, R&B, Reggae and Soul music and turns it into a package which sounded fresh in 2006 when it was released.  Amy had herself largely synthesized these influences and when she came to record knew what she was doing.  Mark Ronson said that these tracks were recorded faster than anything he had done before.  This was also helped by him bringing in the Dap-Kings as musicians, who through their work with Sharon Jones, brought with them their highly professional Daptone sound which recreated the sound of 60’s and 70’s R&B and funk.  Everyone knew what they were doing here and the results are evident.

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The CD kicks off with “Rehab”, which is perhaps the liveliest, most novelty like of the tracks on display but which set out Amy’s store brilliantly.  Her singles from the previous album had only been minor hits but “Rehab” sounded like a big hit from the first hearing.  It reached number 7 in the UK and 9 Stateside.  The President of Island Records could not really believe what he was hearing.  He knew the song was autobiographical and related to a real event but couldn’t imagine that this could be turned into a hit song.  It was, he said on the “Classic Albums” documentary “something that has a dark underbelly, (with which) she could actually make people smile.”  It is true that the defiance which seemed endearing on first listens now give pause to thought.  If only she had said “yes, yes, yes” instead of “no, no, no” the Winehouse story might have had a different outcome.  That sounds crass but it is a relevant point to how we hear her music today.

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However, all that is to ignore what an absolutely stonking start to the CD this track provides.  That chunky drumstick and handclap rhythm, R&B and Ska influences over Amy’s voice works a treat.  It is also hard not to be drawn into the story behind the song and the earworm of the chorus ensured its success.  This was to be the only US single hit from the album and in the UK it also become the highest charting song.  Here it was followed up by the lovely “You Know I’m  No Good” one of the greatest songs concerning infidelity and low self-esteem.  It has a sleazy, sunshiny feel with great brass work.  It also has the obscure “Roger Moore” reference which has always fascinated me although I don’t know what it refers to.  This has made me recently check the lyric sheet.  I’ve always thought Amy sang “you’re ten men down/like Roger Moore” and have always thought it was a reference to a depleted football team in one of his movies.  On that recent BBC4 documentary I had the subtitles on, and I know I should know better than wholly trust BBC subtitling but they printed the “Roger Moore” bit as “I want you more.”  Had I been singing along to this song wrongly for years mistakenly thinking it was Amy’s nod towards the former James Bond? But, thankfully the lyric sheet does reinstate him to former glories, although the correct line is “you tear men down/like Roger Moore” but I’m glad he’s there and not a entry into the pantheon of misheard lyrics.  “You Know I’m No Good” reached number 18 in the UK Charts.

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Single-wise, this was followed up by the title track, one of the highlights of the album.  Despite it not being released a single in the US this tended to perform better than “Rehab” internationally, as Amy became much better known.  Although in the UK it stalled one place lower at number 8, it was a Top 3 hit in Austria (where “Rehab” had got to #19) and became a Top 20 hit in, amongst other territories, France, Germany, Ireland, The Netherlands and Switzerland, where “You Know I’m No Good” had also been a Top 10 hit).  “Back To Black” ladles on the drama and was helped by a moody, black and white promotional video which was Amy at her best.  The song itself is the one that best encapsulates that whole 60’s girl group things with that chilling empty bit in the middle reminiscent of a twenty-first century take on The Shangri-La’s “Remember (Walking In The Sand)”.  It’s a moody, doom-laden piece of the end of a relationship which is a cross between a deep-soul ballad and a Phil Spector production with contemporary drug and sex references.  It is a track of genius and is still striking 12 years on.

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Another highspot comes with “Tears Dry On Their Own” which uses the musical track of Motown and a “chick-a-chick” rhythm similar to what had worked so well on “Rehab”.  Here, it is Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s monumental ballad “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” which is synthesized into this very modern song of defiance after bad treatment in a relationship.  This became a number 16 single in the UK.

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There was still enough enthusiasm for the album for a 4th UK single release and for this the label chose the aching ballad “Love Is A Losing Game”.  On the “Classic Albums” documentary it was said that Amy was adamant that she did not want strings on this track as it would have made it cheesy.  Mark Ronson persisted despite Amy’s protestations and when she heard the finished track loved it.  This is a beautifully written  and produced song that show’s Amy’s huge potential to become a great lyricist. It revels in its own simplicity.  Releasing a 4th track as a single might have been pushing it a bit as this stalled at a lowly #33 in the UK, which is certainly no reflection on its quality.

Outside of the singles we get the slick R&B of “Me and Mr Jones” with its nod to the great Billy Paul song here transferred to a less than satisfactory relationship. “What kind of fuckery are we/Nowadays you don’t mean dick to me (dick to me)”.  I’ve never got to grips with swearing on music tracks, but on this album, Amy just gets away with it as far as I am concerned and here it actually puts a smile on my face.  It is the Ska feel which is more explicit on “Just Friends”, a good, solid album track with some a lovely little brass refrain.  “Wake Up Alone” sounds like a mid 60’s soul ballad.  Perhaps my least favourite track is “Some Unholy War” although there’s nothing wrong with it other than in this wealth of riches it does not shine out.  Amy puts in a great vocal performance, it may just because it seems to have its influence in neo-Soul rather than the retro feel of much of the rest of the album.  I also feel this a little bit about “He Can Only Hold Her” written alongside Richard and Robert Poindexter but its ska influenced brass refrains brings this back into the feel of the album.

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The album closes with the fifth of the Salaam Remi produced “Addicted”, a love song to drug use, which has a great feel but is another of those tracks where the poignancy of the tragedy of Winehouse dims the response.  This was always one of the tracks I listened the most to before Amy’s early demise, nowadays, much less so.  It’s odd that the two lyrically most charged songs “Rehab” and “Addicted” are musically the most light-hearted, bordering on novelty.  Despite this one being catchy as hell, it was unlikely to get played daytime on Radio 2.

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Amy Winehouse was original, defiant, rebellious and was like a breath of fresh air onto the music scene of the mid-noughties.  She could not, however, cope with fame and there is no doubt that the combined talents that put together this album both made and broke her.  There were no more studio albums after this so it is impossible to know where she would have gone next.  The tracks that were produced after this did not have the opportunity to be formed into something of a coherent whole and this is where this album is so good in that it stands as a complete piece, a testament of lost loves from an inspired and thrilling artist.

Back To Black is currently available from Amazon in the UK from £5.97 new,0.09 used and £8.99 as a download.  In the US it is available new from $8.70 and used from $1.51.  It is available to stream in the UK from Spotify.

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100 Essential CDs – Number 17– Barry White – All Time Greatest Hits

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All Time Greatest Hits (Polygram 1994)  

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This twenty track CD released in 1994 gives a great overview of the work of Barry White.  Less well known than his 1988 “The Collection” which reached number 5 in the UK charts and hung around on the listings for over two years this was released as part of a very worthwhile “Funk Essentials” series and for me has the edge.  When I was looking for a CD to replace my vinyl edition of “The Collection” this was the one I opted for.

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 Despite Barry White being a household name I think his musical achievements are often underrated.  In the mid 70’s his musicality was unprecedented in the world of Soul Music as he launched in rapid succession tracks which were orchestrated like mini symphonies topped with lyrics like mini soap operas.  This was a man with a huge talent and a great understanding of how music worked. This was largely instinctual.  In the sleevenotes to this CD David Ritz says; 

“White neither reads nor writes music, yet hears it all in his head, dictating each line for each instrument, honing his own harmonies, flavouring the stew with wildly flavourful ingredients.” 

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In the UK this meant 16 Top 40 hits over a twenty-three year period.  In the US the total is 11 over a similar period, which includes both chart-topping albums and singles.  There is a timelessness about his material which meant that although at times the music he was making fell out of favour he was never too many years away from a comeback.  Not bad for someone who was not fussed about being a singer in the first place.

 Barry White had been involved in music production since the mid 60’s and one of his tracks “I Feel Love Comin’ On” a joyous slab of Motown-ish pop-soul by Felice Taylor became a sizeable hit in the UK, reaching #11 in 1967.  Barry, together with arranger Gene Page was keen to put together a girl group, who he trained and rehearsed with for a considerable time before recording.  This group he named Love Unlimited and the lead singer Glodean would go on to become Barry’s wife.  The track which broke big for them “Walkin’ In The Rain With The One I Love” got to number 14 on both sides of the Atlantic in 1972 and introduced the world to the voice of Barry White as mid-way through the song Glodean takes a phone call and the voice on the other end dripping honey down the phone is Barry White’s. 

 

 

Felice Taylor and Love Unlimited

 With chart success Barry was going to be in demand as a producer and he put together some tracks that he wanted a male singer to record.  The label heard his demos and were convinced that they wanted Barry himself to record them.  He took some persuading but the rest is history.  The first Barry White album “I’ve Got So Much To Give” was released in March 1973 and gave him his first two hit singles.  Towards the end of that year Barry was keen to produce an orchestral instrumental album.  The label, 20th Century,  needed some convincing as to the commercial viability of such a project.  White and Page put together the first tracks by the Love Unlimited Orchestra and the end result opens this CD.

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“Love’s Theme” is a magnificent opener.  The strings just ascend heavenwards from the first bars and the whole piece is redolent of sunshine and possibility.  In the US it topped the pop charts.  It had been four years since a purely instrumental track had reached the summit and that had been by orchestral stalwart Henry Mancini with his “Love Theme From “Romeo & Juliet”.  This was a very different proposition, it felt both contemporary and classic, it could be danced to and it contained the uplift that is felt in the best disco and dance tracks.  In his history of disco “Turn The Beat Around”  (2005) Peter Shapiro, never one to mince words, has this to say;

 “In many ways “Love’s Theme was the perfect disco record; its unabashed celebration of ‘beauty’ and lushness and its complete willingness to go over the top in the pursuit of that goal, its swooning strings,…….and ultimately its utter lasciviousness..”

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 That really sums up the whole of the Barry White sound in a nutshell.  From this point on the tracks follow in largely chronological order but is rounded off with another Love Unlimited Orchestra track “Satin Soul” which reached #22 in the US.  The Orchestra released ten albums over their career.  Listening to much of their output now is a little like stuffing yourself with sugar, it all becomes a little too much.  To cut through the sweetness something more astringent is required and Barry’s gravelly voice could certainly do that.

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When it comes to Barry White I think I am probably more of a singles man than an an album fan. Sometimes his album tracks are overly elongated and the highlights can be more effective when encapsulated in a three minute single. And the longer the track goes on the more likely it is that he will start to get seductive. Contrary to what he is famous for, his much quoted notoriety of being the cause of many babies being conceived by listeners, I prefer him when he is pleading or lamenting lost love than when he is on full seduction mode which I find a tad embarrassing.

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Certainly this seduction patter is what he became known for in the early part of his career. Debut album “I’ve Got So Much To Give” had just five tracks. His first two hits which came from this clock in at 8 mins 11 and 7 mins 20 in their original album version but work better at just over 5 and under 4 in their hit single versions. There are also two tracks on this CD from his second album “Stone Gon” another five tracker, both of which were edited for single release. These four tracks certainly put Barry White on the map. Debut solo hit “I’m Gonna Love You Just A Little More Baby” reached US#3, UK#23. Its follow-up “I’ve Got So Much To Give” was not one of his strongest efforts and that was reflected commercially with its US#32 placing. He was back in the US Top 10 with the very good “Never Never Gonna Give You Up” (U#7, UK#14) but faltered somewhat with the still strong “Honey Please Can’t You See”.

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From late 74 around a year on from his chart-topping instrumental he began a run of classic singles which took him until mid 76 and seemed to see him almost continually in the charts. These kicked off with the soul classic “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love” which became his first US solo chart-topper and marked his first appearance in the top 10 (#8) in the UK. His next release from the same US#1 UK#4 album “Can’t Get Enough” stalled at number two Stateside but took him to the top of the charts in the UK. “You’re The First The Last My Everything” is a classic love song, which certainly doesn’t get too steamy by Barry’s standards and was not significantly edited for single release. Unfortunately, on this CD you do not get the spoken intro which I really love and which sets up the track so well. It doesn’t sound as good if it launches straight into the Orchestra’s stabbing string refrain. The song itself was apparently a re-written version of an unrecorded country song called “You’re My First, My Last, My In-Between” which does not work nearly as well.

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From this chart-topper onward Britain got the Barry White (Love) bug and his singles often performed better than they did in his homeland. “What Am I Gonna Do With You” (US#8,UK#5) and “I’ll Do For You Anything You Want Me To” (US#40, UK#20) came along next but even better was the track he closed out 1975 with. “Let The Music Play” (UK#9, US#32) sums up everything I like about Barry White. There’s a brief talky bit, we’re plunged into the middle of the situation, he’s turned up at the disco without his woman “she’s at home, man/she’s at home” and he’s certainly pained and going to use disco as his escape. So you get this man almost howling in agony in a stonking uptempo disco number. It’s a gem and may very well be my favourite of his tracks.

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But it’s a close run thing because he came up with another classic with “You See The Trouble With Me” (co-written with Ray Parker Jnr) which amazingly did not do very much in the US pop charts but got to number 2 in the UK. This features very effectively another White technique of it all becoming too much for him and his part coming to an end leaving the orchestra to play things out without him. This track had a new lease of life in 2000 which sampled the Barry White vocal onto a club track which I think had then to be re-recorded by a Barry White soundalike due to copyright reasons and that version topped the charts and was one of the biggest records in the first year of the Millennium. The beat and the sample made it incredibly powerful but this release by Black Legend wasn’t a patch on the classy original.

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Before that record had died a death in the UK Barry was back again with a track which pushed Love Unlimited far more to the fore. Glodean and the girls had scored another UK hit (#11) in 1975 with the sublime “It May Be Winter Outside (But In My Heart It’s Spring) (itself a very close ringer to The Supremes’ “Everything Is Good About You” from their  essential “I Hear A Symphony” album so their unique harmonising would be familiar to British audiences who took the strong “Baby We Better Try To Get It Together” to number 15. He was back again in another couple of months with his number 17 hit “Don’t Make Me Wait Too Long”. From Track 6-13 on this CD I am transported to musical heaven with these examples of Barry White at his very best.

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However, in the US his sales had slowed down and for me the quality stuttered for “I’m Qualified To Satisfy You” which barely crept in the UK Top 40 and missed out in the US altogether. Barry’s response was to turn to different writers for the first time in his singles career. The fabulously named Nelson Pigford and Ekundayo Paris certainly fulfilled the lengthy title brief with “It’s Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next To Me”, perhaps a track which moved away from the orchestral towards a stronger R&B groove. At the time I remember thinking it was disappointing but it has grown on me over the years. Response in the UK was also lukewarm as it dribbled into the Top 40, Stateside, however it gave him his biggest hit since “First, The Last My Everything” getting to number 4. It remains an influential track as it the groove has been sampled many times over the years, perhaps most familiarly to us Brits in “Rock DJ” by Robbie Williams.

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The resulting seven track album 1977’s “Barry White Sings For Someone You Love” also used more writers than before and was one of Barry’s most successful in the US and spawned another US hit in “Oh What A Night For Dancing” (US#24) and another popular track from this “Playing Your Game Baby” is also featured on this CD. Barry White’s last great hurrah, as far as I am concerned, during his tenure at 20th Century Records is when he played it very simple and came out with a cover of Billy Joel’s “Just The Way You Are”, a lovely version of a track which had been a hit for the composer earlier on in the year. In the UK Barry bettered Billy’s number 19 position by getting to number 12 at the end of 1978. In the US where Billy’s version had been much bigger (#3) it did not chart. But this track seemed to me a great direction for Barry to go into -as a song stylist, because his performance on this track is both exemplary and very Barry White and fits into exactly what he was known for but not going over the top on the cheesy seductions. In 1978 Disco was flooding the charts yet here was the man who was one of the original Disco Kings moving away from the dancefloor and it felt right.

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Barry White left the label which had been the home for his hits in 1979 and this is where this CD comes to an end. He kept recording, most notably for A&M and actually in later years his studio albums became much better value and two of his albums “The Right Night And Barry White” from 1987 and “The Icon Is Love” from 1995 are, apart from this CD, those I play most from this artist. He came up with some more great singles. I’ve always had a soft-spot for the strangely off-ley “Sho’ You Right” (UK#14-1987) in which he really bellows his way through and he scored his last transatlantic hit when the impressive “Practice What You Preach” got to number 18 in the US and 20 in the UK in 1995. His last slice of pop chart action came in 1996 when a duet with Tina Turner “In Your Wildest Dreams” got to number 32. I feel that this should have gone higher but it was one of those “cynical” duets. The track was a highlight on Tina’s “Wildest Dreams” album as a duet with Antonio Banderas. With White looking to be hot property again Banderas’ vocal was lifted and White’s phoned in. I’m sure they did not re-record the duet together.

After a long battle with health conditions, largely attributed to his size, Barry White died in 2003 at the age of 58. His is a lasting legacy in the history of pop, R&B/Soul and Disco music and the many highlights can be found on this CD.

is currently available from Amazon in the UK new from £6.27 and used from £0.09.  It is available to download from £7.99.  In the US it is currently available new from $7.97, used from $1.14 and as a download for $9.49.  In the UK it is available to stream from Spotify.  Other Barry White compilations are available, the current big seller is the three CD box set 46 tracker “The Complete 20th Century Singles” released in April 2018.

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

 

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The Essential Collection – Dionne Warwick (Global 1996)

UK Chart Position – 58

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Dionne and Barry Manilow

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

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

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

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

And 21 years later

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tribute To Aretha Franklin – An Essential Playlist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

100 Essential CDs – Number 98– Tina Turner -Simply The Best

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Simply The Best – Tina Turner (Capitol 1991)
UK Chart Position – 2

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Seven years and four smash hit albums into perhaps the greatest career resurgence of all time came this 18 track compilation with a title plucked from her back catalogue which is just perfection itself for a greatest hits package. In the UK album charts it reached number 2 and had a run of 141 weeks, which is only bettered by her return to chart glory album “Private Dancer”, which is one of the seminal albums of the 1980’s but just a little too patchy musically to be considered essential.

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There’s also a degree of patchiness here but that is because the powerhouse that is Tina Turner is able to encompass musical genres like probably no other female performer. She is probably unique in her ability to hover around hard rock and classic rock sounds to electronic dance, deep soul, disco and power ballads. Probably because of this it makes it unlikely that the average listener would like everything she does. I had bought the first three post-comeback solo albums on vinyl and on each one there were tracks I didn’t respond that positively to. By this album’s release CDs were in the ascendancy and tracks could be more easily skipped. There does seem to me to be some obvious omissions from the gems of the preceding albums and certainly a couple of tracks that aren’t “simply the best” but the overall package just slips into that essential bracket.

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Annie-Mae Bullock was born in Nutbush, Tennessee in 1939 and became one of the pioneers of R&B after she met and married Ike Turner. The whole Ike and Tina Turner concept is a thrilling one on a par with the early R&B greats Ray Charles, Jackie Wilson and most obviously James Brown, of a revue-type live show that would blow the socks off anyone who experienced it, with Tina and the Ikettes blazing over the rock, soul and R&B arrangements. This was a force that perhaps did not always come over on record, especially with the more primitive recording methods of the day but as a duo Ike and Tina scored a slew of US R&B chart hits and broke through on a commercial level nationally three times in the years 1960-62 with “A Fool In Love” (#27-1960), “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” (#14-1961) and “Poor Fool” (#38-1962).

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In the UK chart action did not happen until the mid 60’s when the championing by acts such as The Rolling Stones gave them greater exposure. By this time Ike and Tina were already something of a veteran group. The whole change in the pop music landscape from the arrival of the British Beat groups meant that there were very few acts from the pre-Beatles era getting chart action by 1966. The only track recorded with Ike present to make the cut is the phenomenal “River Deep Mountain High”. Producer Phil Spector saw in Tina’s voice the potential to convey what he believed would be the biggest pop record of all time and compliment his “wall of sound” like no other artist had before. The lack of US success is said to be one of the factors which pushed this vulnerable man over the edge into some very dark places indeed. The sheer pomp and overblown nature of this track appealed more to us Brits who saw it as the rock classic it undoubtedly sand it became the duo’s first UK hit when it reached number 3 in 1966, with a re-issue getting to number 33 three years later. You could not have a “Simply The Best Compilation” without this. The same goes for the autobiographical track which first hit in 1973, the UK#4, US#22 chart swansong “Nutbush City Limits” but here it is presented in the Tina solo 1991 re-recording which rooted the song firmly in the clubs and got to number 23. I’m usually very sniffy about re-recordings but this is one case where I think the later version does have the edge as the CJ Mackintosh and Dave Dorrell production gives it an extra depth from the original that is very exciting.

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Perhaps one surprising omission on this CD is a track which has come over the years to signify Tina Turner and a keen choice for impersonators.  “Proud Mary” was one of their biggest US hits reaching #4 in 1971 but never made the charts over here which might explain why it has here made way for more successful outings.

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We all know what happened in the mid 70’s. After years of domestic abuse Tina walked away from Ike, her recording career and scheduled live dates. With a hot-bed of lawsuits nobody in the business was initially brave enough to take a chance on really getting behind Tina the solo artist and she worked from the bottom up playing diners and small venues. It was the British who came to the rescue, namely Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh of electro outfit Heaven 17 who brought her to the UK to record a track for their proposed album of cover versions under the BEF banner, a project that would also bring back Sandie Shaw, Paul Jones, Paula Yates and er….Gary Glitter back into the recording studio. Tina ripped up the Temptations “Ball Of Confusion” and the producers, knowing they were on to something allowed her to do the same on a cover of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together”.

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I remember seeing Tina Turner perform this on “The Tube” just as it was released. It seemed incongruous that a 45 year old woman would be belting out a song from a previous decade in what was then considered a trail-blazing “yoof” show obsessed with finding the next big thing but Tina herself was fantastic and did become, probably against all odd,s the next big thing. Signed to Capitol records this second-wind debut got to number 6 and put her back into the US charts at number 26, her first chart action for 11 years.

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I really liked this electronic direction but it was perhaps unlikely to continue to pay high dividends worldwide so it was to producer Terry Britten who came up in conjunction with Graham Lyle (well known as one half of duo Gallagher & Lyle) a world-beater of a power ballad. “What’s Love Got To Do With It” was aided by an MTV friendly video. It was the days of video jukeboxes and I remember being on holiday in Cornwall with friends in a small pub where time and again we put money in to watch the video of this, it was purely for the moment when she wobbles in her high heels. In 1984 this seemed like the epitome of glamour! The single reached number 3 in the UK, topped the US charts instantly placing Tina at a level that she had never been before in the 24 years since her chart debut.
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The return-to-form album “Private Dancer” had other gems. For me the best thing she has ever done is the title track a Mark Knopfler song which envisages Turner as a bored performer in a sleazy nightclub and the track gives off a sleazy ennui that I think she has never bettered. As the 5th single from an album which everybody already had it got to number 26 in the UK but was her third top 10 hit in a row in the US reaching number 7. Preceding this in the charts was the rockier “Better Be Good To Me”(US#5) which only made #45 in the UK and I would have sacrificed it for her UK Top 40 version of the Beatles’ “Help” with its deep soul edges. Another highlight from this album was Tina’s version of Ann Peebles soul standard “I Can’t Stand The Rain” which was better known over here as a disco song by Euro-act Eruption which had got to number 5 in 1978. This was put out as a sixth single from the album which was one too many for the record buying public.

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Tina’s strong visual image and household name brought Hollywood calling for a memorable appearance in “Mad Max- Beyond Thunderdome”. Tina had previously appeared as The Acid Queen in the film of The Who’s “Tommy” before her big chart comeback but this was a much bigger proposition and her level of success meant that any contribution to the soundtrack would bring extra exposure for the film. “We Don’t Need Another Hero” is a massive power-ballad which hit big reaching number 2 in the US and 3 in the UK. Her voice is perfect for film soundtracks. I prefer her Bond Theme “Goldeneye”, released in 1995, four years after the release of this CD.

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Her second studio album “Break Every Rule” was another mixed bag. I really like the song David Bowie wrote for her “Girls” but the hitmakers Terry Britten and Graham Lyle were on hand to bring her more chart success with the very good “Typical Male” (US#2,UK#33) which is the track chosen to represent this album. 1989’s “Foreign Affair” boasted this CD’s sort-of-title track “The Best” (US#15, UK#5) “I Don’t Wanna Lose You” (UK#8) and “Steamy Windows” (UK#13, US#39). This became her first number 1 album in the UK but success in her homeland was more muted with it fading just outside the US Top 30. The Stax/Atlantic influenced “Be Tender With Me Baby” was also a UK hit reaching number 28.

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There’s a live recording of Robert Palmer’s “Addicted To Love” which is so-so and I always thought that the pairing of Tina with Rod Stewart for a version of Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston’s “It Takes Two” was a bit of a lazy song choice and doesn’t add really anything to the original. It felt as if this superstar pairing was put together to cash in on the 1990 Christmas market and it did give them a Top 5 UK hit.

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“Simply The Best” is fleshed out with some new material, pulling in buyers like myself who already had the studio albums. These gave her three more UK hit singles, the biggest and best of which “The Way Of The World” reached number 13 but both “Love Thing” (#29) and “I Want You Near Me” (#22) kept her in the UK charts. None of these tracks, however, were US hits where the release of this whole album was not well received.

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There are other Tina Turner compilations available which certainly bring the story up to date and the date of this release means that other career highlights are not featured. Tina’s finest studio album “Wildest Dreams” was released in 1996 and that just misses out on my Essential CD countdown . Her last studio album to date 1999’s “Twenty Four Seven” is also a very enjoyable listen. If I hadn’t already had this album in my collection you might have found me recommending the 48 track 3-Disc “Platinum Collection” from 2009 and looking at the track-listing I’m thinking I might treat myself in the future, perhaps as a celebration of the artist’s 80th birthday in 2019, but for those who think that might be too much Tina this is the ideal choice.

Simply The Best is currently available from Amazon for £4.98 and used from £0 .09.  It can be downloaded for £5.99.  In the US it is available from $11.99, used from $0.81 and downloaded for $11.49.  In the UK it can also be streamed on Spotify.

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.

 

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.”

 

supremesrodgers5Gene Kelly

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.