100 Essential CDs – Number 54– Will Young – Friday’s Child

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Friday’s Child – Will Young (19 2003)

UK Chart Position – 1

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Just over a year on from his essential debut album “From Now On” Will Young was back with an album that was every bit as good.  Once again it ascended to the very summit of the charts and hung around for almost a year.  Single-wise it spawned three Top 5 tracks including his fourth (and to date his last) number 1 with perhaps his best ever recording.

 Although at this time he was still on Simon Fuller’s record label the boy had certainly grown up.  Success had given Will a voice and more independence to do what he wanted and this showed as musically this is a more coherent piece than the debut.  There was a new gang on board with Will getting writing credits on 6 of the 11 tracks.  There were a team of producers behind Stephen Lipson, a long-standing established producer who had worked alongside Trevor Horn for years at ZTT records.  Lipson worked either individually or part of a team for 8 of the 11 songs here.

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Producer Stephen Lipson at the desk

 The album kicks off with its only cover version.  To this point Will had followed the commercial popstars 90’s/00’s trajectory of recording a number of cover versions (this seems to have faded nowadays.  Who needs covers  with the originals so readily available on streaming services?)  To this point he had already covered Westlife, Bobby Darin, The Doors and The Beatles but here it is only “Love The One You’re With” a Stephen Stills song which makes the grade.  The original had just scraped the UK Top 40 in 1971 (US#14).  Nine years before the release of this album Luther Vandross had also led his album of covers “Songs” with the track and got to number 31 in the chart- the tune’s highest UK placing despite being an acknowledged radio classic.  Will’s version is pacy with a big sound and a good background arrangement and features one of his trademarks, the extended bended note (there’s probably a technical term for this).  It’s a good start to the album – probably with the tracks on display here it ends up in the middle of the pack for me somewhat but it is performed enthusiastically and both his and Luther’s version are worth a listen, with I suspect Vandross having the edge.

 

Stephen Stills and Luther Vandross also loved the one you’re with

 “Your Game” is a stronger track and up there with his best.  It reached number 3 as the second single from the album helped by a very memorable video.  Like the last track it is the interplay between Will and the Gospel Choir Metro Voices which provides a highlight.  I love the fullness of this track written by Will and co-producer Blair MacKichan with Tayo Onilo-Ere.  It gave Will a Brit Award for Best British Single of 2005.  “Stronger” is a much more understated affair written by Steve Lipson and Karen Poole, the daughter of ex-Tremeloes Brian Poole and herself one half of Alisha’s Attic who had 8 Top 40 UK hits between 1996 and 2001. 

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Alisha’s Attic

“Leave Right Now” is probably Will’s finest moment.  A track which succeeds on so many levels.  A great song written by Eg White and a convincing vocal performance with a good build and another memorable video of Will fixated on us at an art gallery which is both affecting and slightly disturbing which helped it shift a few units.  It was on this song that Will moved from successful pop talent show artist to an act who Britain should be proud of.  A number 1 single which was awarded an Ivor Novello Award.  It also topped the charts in Ireland and made inroads in European charts such as Belgium, Norway, Italy and Sweden and world markets such as New Zealand and was heavily featured on American Idol getting Will recognised Stateside.

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 “Love Is A Matter Of Distance” is a gentle convincing number, with a warm vocal performance and leads into “Dance The Night Away”, a more uptempo, urgent funkier track .  “Very Kind” was co-written and co-produced by Robin Thicke who also in 2003 launched his album recording career with “A Beautiful Mind”.  Robin of course would go on to have a massive hit a decade later with “Blurred Lines” and possesses the same white soul boy feel as Will.  Here, a sweet vocal performance is boosted by good orchestration arrangement. 

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Robin Thicke

“Free” gives a composing credit nod to Bill Withers, another obvious hero of Will’s and an artist who Will was covering back in his Pop Idol days when he won audiences over with his performance of “Ain’t No Sunshine”.  I’m not sure which Withers song is being referenced here.  “Going My Way” is not one of the strongest tracks on display.  It has a contemporary acid-jazz feel but never fully reaches its stride and here I find the interplay between Will and backing voices which has been a real strength on this album a little bit annoying.  “Out Of My Mind” is a welcome uptempo club-influenced track which has the feel of Jamiroquai, which is no bad thing.

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The album closer is another gem of a track and became the third single from the album and reached number 4 some 7 months after the album became available. In its extended play here it pushes nine minutes and every single second of it works.  Once again it had an excellent video and from his performances on the videos that accompanied this album Will was able to re-establish his credentials as an actor which led to a period where both his music and dramatic performances went hand in hand.  “Friday’s’ Child” has a chunky sound and an arrangement which recalls artists such as Soul II Soul and is a totally credible strong way to round things off.  This is a track as strong musically with extended its instrumental sections as it is vocally and up there with his best and seems miles away from karaoke classics on a Saturday night entertainment show.   

With this album anyone who considered Will would just be another Saturday night pop puppet had to reconsider.  It’s a mature album with the singer at ease with himself as an artist and the type of music he was recording.  Taken as a whole, although there are stronger high spots this time round I personally give a slight edge to the debut, but there really is not much in it and both I consider essential albums. 

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Will has to date recorded another four studio albums, two of which also ascended to the top of the charts with the other two stalling at the runner-up position.  Music seems to have currently taken a bit of a back seat in favour of other interests since his last release in 2015.  The other studio albums have been strong but not in my opinion essential.  He has become an acclaimed actor, especially in musical theatre and an advocate for gay rights.  His role in the popular culture of this country so far this century is significant.

 

Friday’s Child is currently available in the UK from Amazon from £3.21 and used from £0.01.   In the US it is currently only available used from $1.51.  In the UK it is also on Spotify streaming service.

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100 Essential CDs – Number 52– Will Young – From Now On

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From Now On – Will Young (19 2002)

UK Chart Position – 1

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If twenty-three year old Will Young had not won the first series of ITV’s “Pop Idol” it is possible the whole reality talent show movement might have died a quiet death.  The format of finding a star on television had really faded since the 70’s and the heyday of starmaking duo of “Opportunity Knocks” and “New Faces” until it was revived in what initially seemed a small show “Pop Stars”.  This talent show format was intended to form a group and ended up with Hearsay and a totally unexpected huge sales volume for their first single “Pure And Simple”. 

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Hearsay, the original “Popstars”

If it worked with a group it could work with a solo artist but when the first series of “Pop Idol” launched nobody was totally sure and nobody would have predicted that it would have spun off versions all around the world and still seventeen years later remain one of the most significant formats in UK television (and now through its overfamiliarity often reviled) with its own Saturday night juggernaut spin-off “ The X Factor”.  Will’s victory certainly got cash tills ringing with well over a million copies of his debut single sold in the first week, with two more number ones following on before the release of his first album in October 2002 which also topped the charts and followed up with a double A-sided single which reached number 2. 

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And yet Will Young was not expected to win.  Throughout the competition the hot favourite had been Gareth Gates and the famous look of surprise on Will’s face when it was announced he had won was echoed on viewer’s faces around the country.  The debut single had to be ready to be released immediately, as this had worked so well in Hearsay’s favour and so the three finalists, Will, Gareth and Darius recorded their versions of “Evergreen” a song that seemed much better suited to Gareth’s voice.  Perhaps the tension that was reputedly there between Will and music mogul and benefactor of these huge sales, Simon Cowell, that had simmered throughout the show became something a little more serious from this point.  It seems to be a well established fact that Cowell wanted and expected Gareth Gates to win.  Although for a time there was room in the public hearts for both acts (with Will and Gareth topping the charts together with a song which appears on this album) it was Will’s career that had the longevity and by far the bigger sales.

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 Will Vs. Gareth

The release of the debut album was thankfully not rushed in the same way as the single and it remains by far the strongest debut from a Simon Cowell helmed reality show winner.  Although other non-winners had launched strong first albums (including Olly Murs, Rowetta, Marcus Collins, Rebecca Ferguson)the actual winners had to put up with albums that were musically patchy, even if they were being launched on a worldwide stage, like Leona Lewis.  Will’s is, in my opinion, the best of the bunch.

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It opens with that double-sided huge hit taking up the first two tracks of the CD.  Sales of 1.79 million in the UK which still remains the highest debut single sales for a solo artist and makes these tracks according to a quick check at the Official Charts Company the 19th biggest selling single of all time fitting in between The Beatles “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and the hit-twice around of John Lennon’s “Imagine”.   It is the 5th biggest track ever by a solo male artist slotting in behind Elton John, Pharrell Williams, Stevie Wonder and Bryan Adams.  The UK in 2002 were undoubtedly swept up in Pop Idol fever and it’s hard to see it as a classic single compared to some of the others in the all-time Top 20 but I actually really quite like both songs.  “Evergreen” was written by the Swedish triumvirate Jorg Eloffson, Per Magnusson, and David Kreuger and had previously been an album track by Westlife and that is what it sounds like with its build and swell and key changes but there is something in Will’s voice that pushes this up to another level which is not there in the Westlife version.  The songwriters were part of what was known as the Cheiron song-writing team of around about a dozen who worked at the Stockholm studio and between them were responsible for countless pop hits in the 90’s and 00’s for artists such as Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Boyzone, Westlife, Celine Dion, Ace of Base who dominated charts in that era with songs that might have veered towards the formulaic at times but it was certainly a winning formula.

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I like even more “Anything Is Possible” with its slicker soul sound and a lovely vocal performance from Will which saves it from a slight sugariness.  This was written and produced by former solo recording star Cathy Dennis alongside Chris Braide in composition duties and Oskar Paul in production duties.  A song was commissioned for the winners by Pop Idol head man Simon Fuller from the writing duo because of work they had done with S Club 7.  (Simon Fuller is perhaps the forgotten man in all this- at this stage Simon Cowell was just one of the judges, it was Fuller who had the control and held the purse strings).  This has a great example of the Will Young soaring note which he always does so well and has become a bit of a trademark for him. 

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Follow-up single “Light My Fire” was a cover version of the Doors song that would have been familiar to viewers of Pop Idol as Will had featured a version of it back in the Top 50 stage of the show.  This was very much a turning point for Will as Simon Cowell described the performance as “average” and a miffed Will answered him back.  This was the moment the public really got behind him and results published after the series had finished showed that at this stage the public had awarded him with the highest number of votes where he would remain until the Top 6 when he slipped to second place behind Gareth Gates in Abba Week and would remain behind him until the final when he emerged from the background to take the Pop Idol crown.  We viewers never knew it was as close as this and most would have assumed that Gareth and perhaps Darius were scoring higher with the public throughout than they actually were.  I did vote for Will all along (and had a considerably higher than average phone bill that quarter to prove it!)

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So when looking for a follow-up to one of the biggest selling singles of all time perhaps a studio version of “Light My Fire” produced by Absolute was an inspired choice. It had been a hit song on five previous occasions, the original by The Doors had been a US#1 in 1967 but had to wait 24 more years before it became a UK Top 10 hit reaching number 7 in 1991.  Ironic cheesy retro performer Mike Flowers Pops took a version just into the Top 40 five years later and acts such as UB40 and Shirley Bassey had released it as a single without much success.  In fact the most successful chart placing up to this point had been disco singer Amii Stewart who had placed it in a medley with “137 Disco Heaven” and got to number 5 in 1979.  However, the version that Will’s took more of its inspiration was the cool jazz-enriched version by Jose Feliciano which had reached number 6 in the UK in 1968 and number 3 in the US.  Rich in acoustic guitar Will’s version is lovely and became his second chart-topper.

Cathy Dennis’s presence is there as songwriter and producer (one with Mike Peden)  of the next two tracks, one written with Robbie Williams’ hitmaker Guy Chambers and one with Will himself.  “Lover Won’t You Say” is another piece of chunky jazz-soul which has the kind of wistfulness I associate with cool bands such as Swing Out Sister.  “Lovestruck” with its acoustic guitar intro feels like a deceptively sweet simple song which has a warmth which makes it one of the highlights of the album. 

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It was certainly one eye on the tills which decided upon single number 3  put out just before the release of the album.  Combine the fans of Will with those of runner-up Gareth Gates who had himself by this time also scored two number 1 singles.  The decision was to record The Beatles’ “The Long And Winding Road” was an okay one I suppose and it was almost a guaranteed number 1 which it achieved for two weeks.  It’s nice enough and on the few bits they sing together their voices harmonise nicely.  There are better cover versions of this song around however.

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Once the album was released most people who forked out for it would have been highly likely to have had at least a couple of the three tracks already released as singles.  It probably wouldn’t have made much sense to put out a lot of singles after this, but around a month after the release the only track to be put out after the album’s release was the strong “You And I”.  It was packaged alongside a new track “Don’t Let Me Down” as the official Children In Need Single of 2002 and stalled at number 2.

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After this rash of singles the last six tracks set out the future for Will Young including another two Cathy Dennis songs (one alongside Will again) and one with the legendary Burt Bacharach and three written by a team of Richard Stannard, Julian Gallagher, Dave Morgan, Simon Hale and Will Young.  What was evident right from this point was that Will was not going to be another pop puppet with strings pulled by management or song-writing or production teams.  He was going to be involved right from the start and that determination led to the odd story that he was prickly when in fact he was just keen not to go down some pre-determined route.  This also helped him be loved by the British public.  These are all consistently good pop songs with my favourites of the bunch being the Dennis and Bacharach combo “What’s In Goodbye”, which hides its complexity under a song which seems initially simple, as do many of Bacharach’s best songs and the jazz-influenced “Over You”.

 The final track seems the start of a new chapter for Will.  “Fine Line” is produced by Mike Peden and written with him alongside E and H Johnson and is an intense, dramatic, pretty uncommercial piece of mood music which has an exemplary vocal performance and seems to me to be a long way away from a duet version of “The Long And Winding Road”.  This is a mature, brave way to close the album. 

 Next time round the song-writing and production teams would be completely different (other than Will’s own involvement of course) but this closing track seems to me to be the one that sows the seeds for some of things we would hear musically and vocally in 2003’s follow-up album “Friday’s Child”.

From Now On is currently available from new  Amazon in the UK for £3.28  and used from £0.01.  In the US it is available new from $12.99 and used from $0.98.  In the UK it is currently available to stream from Spotify.

100 Essential CDs – Number 69– Stevie Wonder – Hotter Than July

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Hotter Than July – Stevie Wonder (Motown 1980)
UK Chart Position – 2
US Chart Position – 3

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Four years on from his essential “Songs In The Key Of Life” opus Stevie Wonder put out his next proper studio album. The result, was for me, even better than what had gone before. “Hotter Than July” is the Stevie Wonder album that has given me the most pleasure over the years. Part of this might be because it was the first of his albums that I did not come to retrospectively, I bought it as soon as it came out but I think it is also because these ten tracks encapsulate the magic and genius of Stevie Wonder in a concise. meaningful way.

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Stevie had not just been resting on his laurels since “Songs In The Key Of Life”. I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall at the Motown Offices when he announced that his follow-up to this huge selling classic album would be a double album movie soundtrack for a documentary about plants. The film is long-forgotten but with the music Stevie came very close to producing another essential work. It is certainly something I would consider as being five stars but just misses out on being essential. It’s very nature as a soundtrack meant it was a combination of songs with vocals, instrumentals and repeated themes which, although at times absolutely terrific, did not hold together as well as the best of his studio recordings. What it lacked was a big hit single like he had when he later worked on “The Woman In Red” Soundtrack, a much higher profile film which gave him his biggest selling hit in “I Just Called To Say I Love You.” Nevertheless, “The Journey Of The Secret Life Of Plants” was not shunned by the record-buying public. In the US it reached number 4 in the album charts, number 8 in the UK. Every time I listen to it I am surprised by how good it still sounds.

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With “Hotter Than July” Wonder was back with a very commercial feel which produced a Top 5 and Top 20 hit in the US and really got the thumbs up in the UK with four top 10 singles including two which stopped just one place short of the top spot, very good going for a 10 track CD. And with these ten tracks we had very strong examples of what Stevie excelled at from uptempo funk, to social commentary, to political activism, to ballads which have become soul classics to those which edged towards the cheesy and as might be expected, everything was written and produced by the man himself. Technologically, he was once again using the latest equipment and although there was nothing radically different on this, his 19th studio album it certainly sounded fresh in 1980 and still, although not often critically cited as being amongst his very best, it still sounds good today.

Album opener “Did I Hear You Say You Love Me” is a strong uptempo slab of funk which recalls the danceability of “I Wish” and “Superstition” without being as compulsive. This eases into “All I Do” which was a song from the Wonder back catalogue. He originally wrote it alongside Clarence Paul in 1966, in the early days of Stevie’s career, when he was aged 15 as a solo track for Tammi Terrell, best known for her classic duets with Marvin Gaye. I have always really liked Stevie’s version with its star backing vocalists including Michael Jackson, Miami hit-maker Betty Wright and representing Motown’s rival Philadelphia Sound, two thirds of the O’Jays, Eddie Levert and Walter Williams. It’s a really romantic track which oozes sincerity and there’s a good sax solo courtesy of Hank Redd. The original Tammi Terrell version was largely unheard of until Motown began raiding its vaults in its “A Cellarful Of Motown” series which appeared in 2002. Her version entitled “All I Do (Is Think About You)” is exceptional and completely blew me away when I heard it hidden on this CD set of unreleased tracks. It has become one of my all-time favourites, and so whilst I still enjoy Stevie’s very much, it is definitely the original version which really hits home for me.

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Tammi Terrell

With “Rocket Love” Stevie certainly approaches the cheese counter in the way in which he had done previously with tracks such as “My Cherie Amour” and would certainly do again with “I Just Called To Say I Love You” but once again he really gets away with it and comes up with a track which I should write off as cheesy but find it impossible to do. This one has lyrics like “A female Shakespeare of your time with looks to blow Picasso’s mind” for goodness sake. And yet, from its “do do do” introduction it weaves a laid-back hypnotic spell and if lyrically dodgy it is musically lovely with an exquisite swirling string arrangement by Paul Riser.

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The next track “I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It” was surprisingly chosen to be the second single from the album in favour of later singles which if released earlier would have surely topped the UK charts and in favour of another couple which remained on the album and which could also have been big hits.  In fact, this is probably the track I like the least. As a single it got to number 11 in the US and one place better over here. It goes for a slightly hillbilly country and western feel, especially in the verse which gives the suggestion that Stevie’s vocal is not quite up to scratch, especially on the lower notes but it has a good humoured feel about it, which makes it pleasant but slightly throwaway, which is surprising that Motown on both sides of the Atlantic went with this track to follow up what has been the big opening hit from the album. The first side of the vinyl album ended with the much stronger “If You Could Read My Mind”. This is reminiscent of the salsa flavour that Stevie brought to “Another Star” from “Songs In The Key of Life”, which was a great track which just went on too long. This is shorter, tighter and effective, even though the song itself is not as likeable as “Another Star”. There is another memorable harmonica solo from Stevie, however.

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With the lead single “Masterblaster (Jammin’) Stevie was largely giving kudos to another performer, in much the way he had celebrated the jazz greats in “Sir Duke”.  Stevie had flirted with reggae before, most obviously with his hit track “Boogie On Reggae Woman” from 1974 but in 1980 Bob Marley and The Wailers had been Stevie’s opening act on his US tour (they hadn’t made the commercial breakthrough that they had throughout much of the rest of the world) and this track was largely Wonder’s salute to another musical visionary, Bob Marley.  He gets a name check, “Marley’s hot on the box” and the album’s title is also referenced within this song.  The song itself is optimistic and  uplifting “When you’re moving in the positive/Your destination is the brightest star.”  It’s as if amongst all the social issues raised within the music from both artists there comes a point when you just have to enjoy yourself and get dancing.  Marley did not work with Stevie on this track but his influence is there.  It’s a reggae flavoured track rather than a reggae track and that ensured its commercial success in the US who had to this point not fully embraced reggae.  In fact, Marley would never have a US pop hit single.  Stevie’s attempt to introduce his music to America reached number 5 Stateside and was a number 2 in the UK (held off by “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” by The Police).

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Stevie with Bob Marley

“Do Like You” is more, like “Isn’t She Lovely”, paternal pride, this time a song about Keita who was three at the time of this album’s release.  It’s a musical anecdote about his love for dancing, learnt by copying his big sister, to winning a school talent show.  It’s an enjoyable enough track and ends with Mummy’s vase ending up in pieces. From the light-hearted we move onto “Cash In Your Face” , the most serious track on the album where Stevie adopts the role of social commentator again in the guise of a potent funk track.  It’s about insidious underhand racism with the title providing a clever play on words “You might have the cash/but you can’t cash in your face”.  A track which still feels relevant today.  Stevie here plays two roles, the tenant and the racist landlord and it all works very well.

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“Lately” is a little gem of a track and the album’s highpoint.  This was the one everyone was clamouring for in the UK and Motown eventually relented making it the third single release and it got to number 3 (I still say it would have topped the charts if it was put out straight after “Masterblaster”).  In the US something went very awry because it did not become a hit.  It’s a majestic, superbly structured sad soul ballad about facing up to emotional insecurity and jealousy within a relationship.  The piano work is beautiful and there is some real pathos about a blind man writing such lines as “But what I really feel my eyes won’t let me hide.”

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Perhaps the biggest surprise came at the end of the album.  Stevie had been a leading campaigner to recognise the birthdate of Martin Luther King as a US national holiday and here he advanced his cause considerably worldwide by putting the campaign to music.  The nature of the track “Happy Birthday” with its sing-along chorus may have been felt to have clouded the seriousness of the issue lying behind the song, the non-recognition of a man who had done so much to further the civil rights movement.  However, annoying the song might get it was effective in getting a message across to a wider audience.  In 1983 Martin Luther King Day was officially agreed upon for a  mid-January celebration and the first took place  (it wasn’t exactly rushed in) three years later.

In fact, the message would have hit home more outside his homeland as it completely failed to make the charts as a single in the US.  Perhaps a fourth single was asking too much of an American record-buying public who had already bought the album in droves.  Over here we loved it and it once again took Stevie to number 2 in the UK charts (this time it was the less worthy “Green Door” by Shakin’ Stevens which prevented Stevie from getting his first UK solo number 1 single during the summer of 1981).  I think we were looking for a viable alternative to the traditional “Happy Birthday To You” and both this and Altered Images’ 1981 hit with the same title which followed pretty hot on the heels of Stevie’s tracks provided this.  For the past nearly 40 years both tracks have provided radio and mobile DJ’s with the opportunity to dedicate a song to someone’s special day.  As an example of Stevie the political activist it fits nicely into the Wonder canon, but I’m not sure if it is going to be too many people’s favourite song by him, but it certainly gets people singing along.

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Despite welcoming Stevie into the 80’s, his third decade of hitmaking, this was the last time he produced an “Essential” studio album.  Much of the 80s were taken up with compilations or soundtrack work.  1985’s “In Square Circle” was a solid, enjoyable release (which did feature in “Overjoyed” one of my all time favourite tracks).  The nearest he has got to really blowing me away again was in his five star 2005 album “A Time 2 Love” in which he showed he was still a contemporary, extremely relevant performer.  Despite this being so good it was the last Stevie studio album to date.  Now in his late 60’s releasing new music is not so hot in his priorities.

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I really enjoy listening to “Hotter Than July” and more than any other Wonder album it takes me back to the time when it was released.  My only gripe is that my CD copy suffers from somewhat muted sound probably because of the way it was taken from the masters in the early days of CD releasing.  I’m sure the version currently available from Amazon which states it is “Remastered” has put this right.  It’s not really an issue in itself because I just turn the sound up a notch but these tracks don’t work so well in general playlists on the I-Pod.   I do have “Lately” on there however and just have to crank up the volume each time it comes on.

Hotter Than July Songs is currently available in the UK from Amazon for £5.69 and used from £1.88.  In the US it no longer seems to be on general issue and is available, other than as an impor, used from $3.89 but it is there as a download.  In the UK it is available to stream from Spotify.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

100 Essential CDs – Number 96– Stevie Wonder – Songs In The Key Of Life

 

Songs In The Key Of Life – Stevie Wonder (Motown 1976)

UK Chart Position – 2

US Chart Position – 1

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 There was a huge amount of anticipation surrounding the release of this album.  It had been two years since his US chart-topping “Fulfillingness First Finale” and the leaks emanating from his record label was that this was going to be an extremely special follow-up.  Potential release dates came and went and there was actually a mini-fashion explosion in “Stevie’s Almost Ready” t-shirts.  In September 1976 the album appeared and it was a biggie in very sense.  A double album and a bonus extended play seven inch single made it an expensive proposition.  I know that I couldn’t afford to buy it until I found it much cheaper after it had been out a few years.  On its CD release the 21 tracks fitted easily onto 2 discs.

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Despite the tongue-twisting title Stevie’s previous album had topped the US Charts and been a Top 5 success in the UK in 1974.

I do acknowledge the common perception that this is one of the greatest Soul albums of all time.  I do feel, however, that it could have benefited from a little editing, in the length of a couple of the tracks and I think there’s another couple that could have been dropped together without compromising this album’s status or reputation.  It is not the highest ranking Stevie Wonder album on my list but it is still an essential purchase.  The list of the Greatest Soul Albums of the 1970’s voted for by thousands on the Soultracks.com website has it at number 3 behind Earth Wind & Fire’s “That’s The Way Of The World” and Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On”.  It was very much Stevie Wonder’s statement on the mid 70’s which came exploding through the speakers like a torrent.

It contained two UK Top 5 singles and 1 Top 30, two US number 1’s and two Top 40 singles and a handful of tracks which although never released as singles are all-time classics and rank amongst the best of Stevie’s output.

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For an album which had such a big fanfare it has a rather muted beginning and does take a while to get into its stride.  Album opener “Love’s In Need Of Love Today” is certainly a pleasant enough track but is an early example of a track which would have benefited from having a minute or so lopped off the end as it all gets a bit rambly and noodly.  I didn’t think it stands out especially amongst other tracks really until George Michael (who said “Songs In The Key Of Life” was his all-time favourite album) began  performing it on tour and as a B-side to his chart-topping “Father Figure” single.  Michael’s version seemed to me to breathe a bit of new life into this original and I think as a track it has dated quite well.  The insidious funk-lite of “Have A Talk With God” has not weathered the passing of time and sounded better on release than it does now.  Lyrically rather heavy-handed “He’s the only free psychiatrist that’s known throughout the world” this has never been one of my favourite tracks on the album.

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It’s the third track where things really crank up a gear when Stevie takes on his social commentator role on “Village Ghetto Land”.  One thing Stevie Wonder always does well is to dress up protest into something that sounds really good.  He’d done this before on tracks like “Living For The City” and here again.  There’s a majestic synthesized neo-classical orchestral opening, courtesy of the Yamaha- GX1and this is counterposed with some pretty hard-hitting lyrics of poverty and crime; “Families buying dog food now/Starvation roams the streets”.  It works superbly.

Next up is the bruising, funk instrumental “Contusion” (contusion/bruising see what I did there?) which is not exactly vital to the existence of the album.  It leads the way to the second US chart-topping single from the album (it reached #2 in the UK, his highest chart position for over 6 years) and is perhaps one of his most commercial tracks ever.  Stevie could sometimes veer towards a fine edge of the annoyingly poppy or cheesy but because of that little dash of Wonder magic he is able to sprinkle over he ends up triumphant.  This was certainly the case with his biggest UK hit “I Just Called To Say I Love You”, but also “My Cherie Amour”, with “Isn’t She Lovely” on this album and also “Sir Duke.”  This joyous blast of nostalgia serves very much as a history lesson for a new generation.  When I first heard this track as a young teenager I did not really know who Duke Ellington was nor his importance in the history of black music and here we also find out that “There’s Basie, Miller, Satchmo and the King of all, Sir Duke/And with a voice like Ella’s ringing out there’s no way the band can lose.”  This is all-time classic pop name dropping alongside Madonna’s rap in “Vogue” and the fashion designers in “He’s The Greatest Dancer”.  This is a lovely tribute track from its infuriatingly catchy brass introduction to singalong chorus.  It’s the musical equivalent to eating marshmallows but knowing just when to stop before they make you feel queasy.

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The second side on the vinyl version kicks off with the first single release which also topped the US charts and went Top 5 in the UK.  This is a track which I think has got even better with time and now ranks up amongst Stevie’s best.  “I Wish” reminisces on childhood and the passing of time in a storm of commercial funk.  The childhood depicted is not one of cosy innocence as its about sneaking out, hanging with hoodlums and playing doctor but whatever was going on Stevie wishes those simpler times would come round again.

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There’s a charming simplicity to “Knocks Me Off My Feet” as well as a strong melody which ensures this is a highspot.  And like all Wonder songs with strong melodies this has led to a number of cover versions over the year perhaps most strongly by Luther Vandross on his 1996 “Your Secret Love” album.  “Pastime Paradise” has a Hare Krishna choir on back-up and what I have always felt of as an African feel as Wonder dons the mantle of social commentator once again attacking those who view the world through rose-coloured glasses when the reality is; “Dissipation/Race relations/ consolation/ segregation/ dispensation/ isolation/ exploitation/ mutilation/ miscreation/ confirmation to the evils of the world.”  It’s a song which has been very much absorbed into hip-hop culture.  A sample took on a life of its own when it was used by Coolio on his “Gangsta’s Paradise” in 1995 where it was the biggest selling single of the year in the US, Australia and New Zealand and the second biggest selling (behind Robson and Jerome’s “Unchained Melody”!)  “Summer Soft” starts off as another pretty ballad, surges upwards for the chorus but is another track which ultimately goes on a little too long.  The first CD closes with “Ordinary Pain”, a song in two parts which has a first half which is a nifty little soul ballad which chugs along very effectively with Stevie very much in charge until it winds down almost to a stop before taking a funkier edge with a response from Shirley Brewer, aided by an impressive back-up group which features amongst others Minnie Riperton, Syreeta Wright, one-time Supreme Linda Laurence and Deniece Williams.  At over 6 minutes it is another track which could have benefited from fading earlier.

 

Luther and Coolio – two artists inspired by the tracks on this album

The second CD opens with the album’s high-spot and possibly Stevie’s best ever track.  “Isn’t She Lovely” a father’s song to his baby daughter could really have gone either way and versions of it being used in beauty pageants have pushed it well over the edge but taken here in its original full-length version it’s a powerful piece.  Stevie knew this and refused to allow Motown to release it as an edited single, which would have watered down its potency and its surprising funkiness.  In the UK, in particular, there was a great demand for a single release and there is no doubt that it would have topped a chart.  A limp cover by white session singer David Parton almost did but eventually stalled at number 4 and even the ignominy of this did not get the original out as a single.  The Parton release seemed to be the latest (and perhaps one of the last) of a long line of tracks where a white artist would water down a black artist’s vision and achieve great success, a situation which had been occurring regularly since the dawn of popular music.  I’ve said elsewhere that editing could have done a lot for this album but I would not edit one single section of this track, there’s brilliant use of harmonica and even daughter Aisha playing in the bath.

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After the bluster and grandeur of “Isn’t She Lovely”, “Joy Inside My Tears” feels understated, a mature, graceful, atmospheric ballad which sort of creeps up on you.  “Black Man” is another history lesson as Stevie aims to redress the balance of traditional American history lessons by stressing the importance of the role of people of colour in the development of the USA.  “It’s time we learned the world was made for all men.”  Musically, the first section is a good paced funky track but however worthy the second half call and response catechism section where Stevie uses 43 voices of the Al Fann Theatrical Ensemble of Harlem to question and answer landmarks in the history of ethnic groups it does begin to grate on the listener.  Stevie is not usually as didactic as this and has been much better at getting a message across without compromising the musicality of the piece but this is more questionable here.

The simplicity of “Ngicuelela-Es Un Historia-I Am Singing” feels even more effective after the last track.  This is a quite lovely track sung in Zulu, Spanish and English and the high quality is maintained with “If It’s Magic” which beautifully and quite chillingly features just Stevie on vocals and harmonica and Dorothy Ashby on harp in probably the best ever use of this instrument in a pop song.  Extraordinary.

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“As”, the 4th single release brought out after the album had been around for a year unsurprisingly underperformed reaching number 36 in the US Top 40.  It is another one of those tracks that you get the message clearly long before it ends.  It’s a good track but for me had a new lease of life when turned into a 1999 duet between George Michael and Mary J Blige.  This is one of those rare occasions when a Wonder cover is better than the original.  Both turn out performances that rank up there amongst the best in their career and got a UK#4 hit.  Stevie’s version at over 7 minutes long pushes the song to the extreme.  This is also the case with the 8 minute plus track “Another Star” which in a slightly more edited form would have been one of the album’s highlights.  As it is, it starts to get on your nerves.  Motown did put out an edited version of this track as a single which got to #29 UK, 32 US.  In the edited version it is a thrilling salsa-influenced track with George Benson on guitar and backing vocals.  The whole thing gallops along at a fair old crack, but on the album version the repetition of the “la la la” chorus once again overeggs things.

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This is where the original double album ended and you had to fish around in the packaging to get to the bonus seven inch record.  I didn’t bother that often because it felt like these were tracks not considered to be good enough to be included on the album but here on the CD their importance has been reinstated.  In the mid 70’s we were all a little obsessed with things spacey, and Stevie ventures onto Earth Wind & Fire territory with “Saturn”.  This is a good quality pop track with fairly trite lyrics of a Saturnite returning to his planet because of disillusionment with the way the Earth is going.  It’s all rather grandiose, which because of that Wonder magic again escapes being pretentious and ends up being rather good.  Following that “Ebony Eyes” is a fun novelty-type song which reminds me a little of “Your Kiss Is Sweet” which Wonder co-wrote and produced for ex-wife Syreeta.  “All Day Sucker” has never really done it for me and is probably the weakest track on display and the whole thing is rounded off by “Easy Going Evening (My Mama’s Call) quite a mournful little harmonica-led instrumental.

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There is no doubt that this album represents Stevie Wonder at his creative peak and these 21 tracks have influenced many artists who followed Stevie into the charts at least over the next decade.  Prince said it was his all-time favourite album and artists such as Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston have also been keen to stress its importance for them and much of the solo career of George Michael derives musically from this recording.  It is a great album but I did come to it a little late and this might be the reason why it is not actually my favourite of Stevie Wonder’s studio albums.  That would come a few years later.  It is an unrestrained slab of big dollops of genius which must have delighted the record company and re-established Stevie Wonder as one of the most important artist of the 1970s.

The video chosen comes from a 2009 concert in London where Stevie sung a medley of “I Wish” and “Isn’t She Lovely”.  One of the backing singers is daughter Aisha, to whom the song is dedicated and who was making those baby gurgling noises on the track all those years ago.

 

Songs In The Key Of Life is currently available in the UK from Amazon for £6.99 and used from £2.66.  In the US it is available for $11.85 and used from $4.36.  In the UK it is available to stream from Spotify.

 

 

100 Essential CDs – Number 65– Stevie Wonder – Love Songs: 20 Classic Hits

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Love Songs: 20 Classic Hits (Motown 1985)

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The CD I turn most to for the early years of Stevie Wonder’s career is this 1985 compilation which arrived without much fuss nor any impression on pop charts.  It has an interesting mix of tracks which are predominantly from the 1960’s, kicking off with a 1962 recording , and is a fascinating blend of hit singles and other less well-known performances.  It goes up to the point where Stevie manages  to wrest more control over his career from Motown and come up with a sequence of albums in the 1970’s which are considered to be soul classics.  It provides a very solid introduction to the sheer talent that is Stevie Wonder in his formative years.  Hit-wise it contains 11 UK Top 40 hits spanning from 1967-72 and 12 US Top 40 hits covering the same period. 

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Motown signed Stevie Wonder when he was just 11 years old in 1961.  It took a few singles for him to make his breakthrough.  CD opener here “Contract Of Love” was his third single released at the end of 1962.  I’d never heard it before its appearance here and it’s an interesting proposition to open the album with such a rarity.  It begins with “Baby Love” style handclaps and male voices until Stevie, voice not yet broken, eases confidently into a doowop style song produced by Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland just before they also really hit form.  It was obviously a learning process for all concerned, it’s certainly not a bad track but rather pales compared to the quality of the songs that follow on.

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Stevie then billed as “Little Stevie Wonder” broke big with his next track in his homeland.  This was a rough and ready harmonica instrumental which was probably too raucous to make much impression in the UK charts of 1963.  In the US it gave him a chart-topper for three weeks.  “Fingerprints Part 2” may very well be the only occasion where a Part 2 of a song topped the charts.  His youthful exuberance and obvious talent charmed America although it did seem to push him along the novelty instrumentalist line as 1963 and 1964 was spent putting out harmonica dominated singles that never lived up to “Fingertips”.  That debut hit is not included here as it does not fulfil the brief and nor does his more mature comeback track form 1966 which saw the “Little” dropped, concentrated on vocals and gave him a US#3, UK#14 “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”.

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This CD picks up again with his next UK hit, a cover version and really the only version of “Blowin’ In The Wind” that I would like to listen to.  The folk song is transformed into a rolling call and response duet between Stevie and I always believed an uncredited Levi Stubbs but now I can’t find any evidence which says this is so.  It is, however, an early example of the social awareness and his eagerness to convey protest in a song.  This became A Top 10 hit in the US in 1966.  On both sides of the Atlantic the big version of this had come three years before recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary but this has a gospel grittiness which works very well.  From here the hits carried on flowing and most of them are present here, his next one being the country-folsky-R&B mash-up of “A  Place In The Sun” which does recall Stevie’s hero Ray Charles in the type of song and slightly uncool backing vocals which also got to #9 in the US and became his second Top 20 hit in the UK. 

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I think things notched up a gear with the next track which really has the feel of some of Stevie’s best tracks over the next few years .  Henry Cosby produced “I Was Made To Love Her” which combines the Stevie sound with the Motown sound more successfully than what we have heard from up until now.  A US#2 and UK#5, this track really asserted Stevie’s position as a leading male vocalist of the time.  Pretty much the same team of Cosby producing and Stevie and Sylvia Moy helping out with song-writing duties for “I’m Wondering” (US#12,UK#22) and “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Do-Da-Day” (US#9), acceptable enough tracks although unlikely to be too many people’s Stevie favourites. 

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Things move up to the top notch again for a great song written by Ron Miller and Orlando Murden which had been given to other artists but Henry Cosby decided on a more uptempo version which turned the song instantly into a pop standard.  “For Once In My Life” gave Stevie his biggest UK hit to this point, reaching number 3 and US #2 and is a great vocal performance from him as well as an exciting return from the harmonica.  We are now in 1969 and Stevie notches up three hits the lovely although rather uncommercial sounding ballad “I Don’t Know Why I Love You” which marked the first time a Stevie recording performed better in the UK than in his homeland (#14 as opposed to #39) and also had Stevie credited as co-producer alongside Don Hunter; the absolutely commercial gem which hovers a little towards the sickly “My Cherie Amour” which reached #4 on both sides of the Atlantic and “Yester-Me-Yester-You-Yesterday” a song which is infinitely better than its title might suggest which got to number 7 in the US and became his first single to just miss out on the top spot in the UK, reaching number 2 (held off by “Sugar Sugar” by The Archies).  Hard to believe that at this stage in his career, after this string of hits Stevie was still a teenager.

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Stevie was still spreading his wings here, doing more in both the song-writing and production fronts but Motown were keen to keep the relationship with Henry Cosby going.  In 1970 we had the lovely, swaying “Never Had A Dream Come True” (US#26,UK#6), the driving “Signed, Sealed Delivered I’m Yours” (US#3,UK#15) and the brooding gospel tones of  “Heaven Help Us All” (US#9,UK#29) all drastically different sounding tracks which once again underlined his versatility and all three would sow seeds for the Stevie material that was to come later in the decade.  In 1971 Stevie produced his own version of the Lennon & McCartney song “We Can Work It Out” which reached  US#13 and UK#27.

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 Stevie was growing up.  In 1970 he married his Signed Sealed Delivered writing partner Syreeta Wright, who was also signed to Motown as a solo artist and had been boosting the girl group sound of both Supremes and Martha and The Vandellas tracks.  He was also, now he was no longer a child, in a better place to negotiate with Motown.  1971 saw the release of his statement of independence, the album “Where I’m Coming From” with all tracks written by Stevie and Syreeta and all produced by Stevie.  The hit track from this “If You Really Love Me” took him back to number 8 in the US and 20 in the UK and features a singalong chorus alongside Syreeta vocalising and a rather sparse, slowed down verse which makes it all rather fascinatingly uneven yet very likeable.  Single-wise this is where “Love Songs” calls it a day but also included is the star track from this Stevie produced album “Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer” which only appeared as a B-side.  This is a big and yet tender, mournful ballad track which has remained near the top of Stevie’s repertoire and was a song he chose to revisit at the Memorial Service for Michael Jackson and certainly fulfils this album’s “Love Songs” brief. 

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The remaining tracks on the album include a harmonica instrumental version of Bacharach and David’s “Alfie”, a 1967 song written by Stevie with Clarence Paul and Morris Broadnax which remained unreleased until Aretha Franklin had a hit with it in 1973 “Until You Come Back To Me”, the same team’s “Hey Love”, a doowop influenced tune which doesn’t stand out in this company and “Nothings Too Good For My Baby”, a Northern Soul style stomper from 1966.

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These 20 tracks represent, if a long way from definitively, the early years of Stevie’s career when he was still very much under Berry Gordy’s control.  From his age of majority Stevie was able to explore avenues with a greater freedom that had also been accorded to Marvin Gaye who had responded with a couple of all-time classic soul albums.  This was Phase 1 of the Wonder career and throughout the rest of the 70s and into the 80s Stevie would continue to soar, but this time more on his own terms.  There would be considerably more gems to come…………………..

Love Songs is currently available from Amazon in the UK from £8.83 new and used from £0.33.  It can be purchased as a download for £7.99.  In the US I found it on Amazon with a different cover new from $28.32 used from $2.55.

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.

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..”

barrywhite7CD from the same Funk Essentials series – worth seeking out

 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.