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.

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Valley Of The Dolls- Jacqueline Susann (1966)

 

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52 years ago this book appeared and changed the face of the popular fiction market.  It scandalised and thrilled and became “the” book to read in secret and was the biggest selling novel of the year in the United States.  It went on to sell over 31 million copies.  The “Best-Seller” was transformed and the author became the first to have three consecutive novels top the New York Times sales lists.  Fifty years on Tiger Press issued a commemorative reprint which I picked up recently in a Kindle edition for under a pound.  Would it have stood the test of time?

I first read it around 10 years after its publication when I was just hitting my teens.  It was in the first batch of adult books that really made an impression and all of them I felt I probably should not yet be reading.  (“The Godfather” and “Jaws” were two others that fell into this category).  Nobody read Jacqueline Susann for its literary merit yet I can remember being really impressed by the casualness of her style and adopting it myself in English fiction assignments at school.  I can still remember my teacher’s comment; “The O-Level Examiners will not by impressed by this casual attitude”.  I thought I’d got Susann’s somewhat detached outpourings of scandal down beautifully.  Obviously the teacher was not a fan!

I couldn’t help but be reminded of this whilst re-reading “Valley Of The Dolls” and getting a cold shiver go up my spine.  The poor teacher!  I was totally seduced by this tale of three women’s experience of fame and celebrity with its touches of Monroe, Garland, Crawford and Lana Turner and a myriad of others but with very much their own identities.  Central character Anne Welles escapes from a town in New England to New York with model looks and gets work in a theatrical attorney’s office.  In the brownstone where she rooms  she meets Neely, a young vaudeville trouper with ambitions on Broadway and the two later meet Jennifer, who has ditched her marriage to a foreign prince to return to the US amidst scandal but with curves-a-plenty to ensure plenty of media attention.  The novel puts the focus on all three girls in sections where they take the lead between the years 1945-65.

Although it runs up to the time just before its publication date the focus is on the earlier period of the more repressed yet glamourous 1950’s showbusiness world which would have largely moved on in the 1966 Beatles era with hippies, peace and love and letting it all hang out just around the corner.  Although on the surface it might have seemed old fashioned to some of its first readers it struck such a chord because it lifted the lid on the world of showbusiness like nothing had before.  The 1954 movie “A Star Is Born” might have opened some eyes but this goes so much further.

The wheeling-dealing, bitchiness, the demands of those who hold the purse strings, the loneliness of celebrity is all brought into sharp focus.  Above all else it is the resorting to pills, “the dolls” of the title, in order to function, to sleep, to lose weight and just to cope to be what the industry required them to be.  It is still compelling an obviously given our continued obsession with celebrity feels relevant today.  True, dialogue is often clunky, there’s not a black American in sight and gay men are throughout dismissed as “fags” and lesbians as “bull-dykes”, all of which rankles nowadays.  In his introduction Simon Doonan says that contemporary gay men were just delighted to be included in this tale of showbusiness as pre-Susann they were just whitewashed out.  I might just concede that point as this is still such a guilty pleasure of a novel.  It’s tacky yet has the capacity to surprise.  It is probably the ultimate beach/poolside read which inspired hundreds of others.  I wouldn’t rule it out being around for another 50 years.

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I read the Kindle edition of the 50th anniversary edition of “Valley Of The Dolls” which was published by Tiger Press

Retribution – Richard Anderson (Scribe 2018)

 

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With Jane Harper’s rural Australian crime dramas doing very good business in the UK, Scribe Publications are claiming a similar feel for this novel. I haven’t yet read Harper’s “The Dry” (with its excellent word of mouth) nor “Force Of Nature” but I know enough about them to want to give this book a try.

This is author Anderson’s second novel and with 25 years of experience of running a beef cattle farm in New South Wales and also working as a miner he is sure to give an authentic edge to this novel. Sweetapple is just getting by on his land, rustling steers to add to his profits, when he encounters a car accident and is given an explosive device to hide. He pals up with store-worker Carson, fed up with sexual harassment from some of her customers and Luke, who has been paid to infiltrate a protest group at the local mine. Their antipathy to businessman Bob Statham, a somewhat underdrawn shadowy figure is supported by his wife and a desire for revenge builds.

I love the dark edge at the start of this novel but this does seem to lighten as it progresses. Clear motives become a little vague and there is not the build that I would have expected. I think some elements have been under-used by the writer with some aspects of character not realising their full potential but he does provide a highly satisfactory slab of crime and revenge. I enjoyed the setting and the feel of these somewhat lost souls pitched against the vastness of the location. It is certainly worth seeking out.

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Retribution is published by Scribe UK in paperback today (9th August). Many thanks to the publishers for the advance review copy.

Mary Ann In Autumn – Armistead Maupin (2010)

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Armistead Maupin’s “Tales Of The City” novels seem to have been around forever.  The first appeared in 1978 following its existence since 1974 as a newspaper serial, in true Dickensian style, in two San Franciscan newspapers.  Forty years on I am reading the 8th in the series of what now consists of nine novels.  I have normally read them much closer to their publication date.  I actually think it was the fairly pedestrian title that slowed me down picking this one up, together with the obvious main focus, Mary Ann,  being one of my least favourite of the characters.  But I shouldn’t have waited so long.

 I have always enjoyed the “City” novels but the book of Maupin’s that I really loved was the stand-alone “Maybe The Moon” (1993) which was my favourite read back in 1994.  However, when I re-read this a few years later I wasn’t as impressed, suggesting that Maupin may fall into the category of writers where the response is more immediate than lasting.  This could be so, as despite a long association with these characters I find that I only remember a couple of them between novels but the author is always good with his prompts reminding us of the connections, obviously aware himself of the long gaps in its publishing sequence.

 There was an excellent TV adaptation in 1993 of the early novels shown over here on Channel 4 which starred Marcus D’Amico (whatever happened to him?) as the endearing “Mouse” and a never-been-better Olympia Dukakis as Anna Madrigal.  This is real character-led fiction and once settled into the book and reminded who is who it feels like a reunion of old friends to which the reader is invited and really the actual plot does not matter a great deal.  Detractors of this series say it is trivial with weak plotlines and too politically correct for its own good and thus completely miss out on its charm, its quirkiness in the plot department and its importance in the canon of modern American literature.  Maupin is far from trivial, he was one of the first authors to deal with AIDS and there’s been other big issues- unexplained deaths, paedophilia and betrayals a-plenty but all handled so adeptly that some could write if off as too light.

 Here with the main characters aging we get cancer as a theme and ends that have been left untied for decades are tightened up.  Mary Ann does take a central role, and she has always been one of the characters I’ve not always been fond of, but the rest of this expanding cast are present and this is another highly enjoyable read.

 In 2014 Armistead Maupin published what he has said will be the last in the series, “The Days Of Anna Madrigal”.  I can’t help but think that this will be a bit of a tear-jerker so I’m having to build myself up to it and I’m not in any rush to bring a series which seems to have always been around in my adult reading life to an end.

 fourstars

Mary Ann in Autumn was published by Black Swan in 2010.

Abbeychurch – Charlotte Mary Yonge (1844)

 

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Charlotte Mary Yonge (1823-1901) was a highly popular and prolific author in the Victorian period whose work is now largely forgotten and hard to find in print. Her most notable work is “The Heir Of Radclyffe” from 1853. I discovered I could buy very cheaply off Amazon the mammoth complete works in a Delphi Classics Kindle edition. This contains all 53 (!) novels (so plenty of reading there then), together with her shorter fiction, plays and non-fiction. Yonge certainly stuck with this writing game for as well as all these publications she also edited a magazine “The Monthly Packet” for almost fifty years

Charlotte lived all her life in Otterbourne in Hampshire and was involved in a bustling village life and, inspired by her local vicar, in the Oxford Movement, which had High Church sympathies and developed into what we would refer to today as Anglo-Catholicism.

“Abbeychurch” is one of her earliest works published when she was barely in her twenties. The fictional town of Abbeychurch St Marys is in need of a new place of worship as the town is developing with more properties being built. The novel begins with preparations for the consecration of this new church.

Relations of the Reverend Woodbourne gather together for this celebration. The central characters are the three daughters from his first marriage, especially Lizzie, a live wire who pals up with her cousin Anne for many of the discussions that take place throughout the novel. The tone is light throughout, there’s a lot of chat between all the girls mostly about family but it also wanders off in directions that would not mean much to the average modern reader, on fictional characters and historical figures, at some length, for instance. There’s also an extended section about a parlour game which wouldn’t be hard for most modern readers to skip over. The girls’ love of chivalry leads them into making a decision which pits the more uncertain future of the town against the conservatism of the present.

Not a lot happens, in fact, although we get build-up to the consecration and analysis afterwards the actual event is dispensed with in a couple of sentences. Given the author’s strong beliefs perhaps she felt she could not do this momentous sober event justice with her rather fluttering set of lead characters. There is an unexpected fatality but nobody seems to take it that seriously.

This is a light, fluffy entertaining read which would be a good introduction to this author who I would imagine would have more substantial offerings amongst her work.

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Abbeychurch was first published in 1844. I read the Kindle Delphi Classics edition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Natural- Ross Raisin (2017)

 

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Published in paperback in 2018 this is Ross Raisin’s third novel in a career which has already seen considerable acclaim including the Sunday Times Young Writer Of The Year Award following the appearance of his debut “God’s Own Country.” The publication date is significant here as this book became my choice for the Sandown Library Russian Roulette Reading Challenge “Read a book published in 2017”.

 I’ve not read Ross Raisin before but was drawn to this by some excellent reviews.  It has been compared to Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” (1997) but here it’s not cowboys but the world of British professional football.  Like Proulx’s short story  which became the basis for an Oscar winning film (2005) this is a very claustrophobic piece, generally grim and paints a fairly depressing hostile environment inhabited by the characters.

 It did make me wonder who would want to be a footballer and brought home clearly the uncertainty and fear in their working lives in the world outside of the top divisions.  This in itself made for fascinating reading but the conflicted sexuality of main character Tom added another layer of misery.  It has been many years since Justin Fashanu was forced out of the closet and had a time so dire that those involved in sport chose not to follow in his footsteps for a considerable period.  Since then there have been initiatives from the FA and of course changing attitudes in the rest of society but from this novel not a lot seems to have changed in the attitudes of the other players, the fans and the clubs themselves.  It would be great to think that a book like this could change things but it all seems so entrenched and those who need to read it wouldn’t.  It gets to the point where the central relationship doesn’t seem worth it for all of those involved.

 I found the lack of joy rather grinding and I felt the same way about “Brokeback Mountain”.  Perhaps there’s some consolation in that none of the characters, whatever their sexuality, seemed happy.

 There’s a lot of football in this book.  I cannot remember reading sport-based fiction where the sport features so heavily.  I’m not a football fan (my secondary school education saw to that) so I did find myself struggling to get enthused about Tom’s world around a third of the way through.  The section of the novel between football seasons came as quite a relief.

 So then, I found it overly negative and with too much football but I actually did find myself getting really involved and this is due to Raisin’s really quite subtle skills as a story-teller and his ability to bridge the distance between what this particular reader would find interesting and draw him right in.  That is an impressive achievement gained by the sheer skill of this writer.  I cannot say I totally enjoyed this book but I was thoroughly impressed.

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 A Natural was first published in 2017.  I read the 2018 Vintage Paperback edition.

Murmuration- Robert Lock (Legend Press 2018)

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I have a thing about piers. As soon as I step onto one with all that planking where the sea is visible through the slats I always get a rush of the sense of history of the place far more than I would with a building. I remember very clearly standing on the beach whilst a burning Brighton Pier blazed in an incredibly sombre recollection. I spent many late afternoons in Brighton watching the swallows swoop and swirl around the ruins of the structure. The pier in Shanklin where I now live was destroyed in the big storm of 1987, washed into the sea taking with it generations of history and memories. All this, the sense of history and the growth and decline Robert Lock has incorporated into this debut novel. And the swooping of the swallows has given this book its title and its starting point. This is why I was delighted that Legend Press sent me a review copy.

The swallows’ movements recall a number of historical points of the life of the pier and its inhabitants at an unspecified seaside resort. We begin magnificently in 1863 with the recent erection (pun intended) becoming the home of bawdy music hall comic Georgie Parr, an evocative characterisation and a life more than tinged with tragedy. We move to 1941 where the pier is used as an observational outpost and the swallows become involved in a wartime miracle. There’s a less successful mid-60’s section with the pier coming to the end of its golden era and onwards to the 1980’s where local archivist Colin Draper seeks to solve a pier-based mystery whilst coping with the declining health of his mother in a painfully sensitive, touching section and then on again to present day where loose ends are tied (perhaps a little too tightly).

The undeniable quality of this book lies in its great sense of time with the pier standing as a central focus to these very human lives. The writing is of a high quality and Robert Lock shows he has what it takes to become a significant writer of historical fiction. Plot-wise the combination of detective story with the odd touch of magical realism doesn’t quite flow quite as masterfully as other elements in the book but this is a strong debut and would be a thought-provoking quality holiday read. I polished off a chunk of it on the seafront in front of Ryde Pier and it felt very fitting to Robert Lock’s vision of the British seaside, past and present.

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Murmuration was published by Legend Press on 12th July 2018 . Many thanks to the publishers for the review copy.

The Outcast – Sadie Jones (2007)

 

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From the hat of the Sandown Library Russian Roulette Reading Challenge I pulled out “Ask a member of library staff their favourite book” and with there being only two of us working that day, my only option was to ask my friend and colleague Louise for a recommendation. I knew full well it would be “Count Of Monte Cristo” (just too long for now but I will get round to it one day) but as an alternative she asked me if I’d read “The Outcast”. Yes, was my initial response but then I began to doubt and checking my records it seems as if I hadn’t. Nor had I seen the 2015 BBCTV two part adaptation.  But the book seemed so familiar as if it had been sitting on my shelves at home, but it wasn’t. This gave me a curious initial relationship with this book, a kind of half-baked déjà vu. Its strong familiarity must have been because ten years ago it was everywhere and one that I’d earmarked for reading but for some reason had slipped through the net.

It was just the sort of book that I would seek out and with inside cover comparison to Ian McEwan ( “Atonement” feels the closest match and that is one of my Essential Reads) I was delighted to fit this into my reading schedule.

It is a tale of English repression, a stifling tale, impressively written. At the start of the novel it is the summer of 1957 and Lewis Aldridge, aged 19, is released from prison and returns home to his father and step-mother. Lewis is the Outcast of the title and this is his story. It is an easy gripping read but Sadie Jones’ very accessible style hides the emotional complexity that runs throughout. Lewis’ return to his home in Waterford, Surrey, reopens a wealth of emotions amongst family and neighbours, all keen to put on a public face of conformity whatever dark deeds and mistreatment of others is going on. We discover why Lewis has become the outcast and why his attempt to fit back into this community seems doomed to failure.

I did really like this but it just felt a little relentless on the piling on of the difficulties for Lewis, both within and outside his control and at times I just longed for greater contrast from its pervasive claustrophobia. This sounds a little churlish because it feels so close to being a classic novel but it just doesn’t quite pull it off and I think this was because of the frustration I felt towards the characters.  It is, however, a fairly extraordinary debut and one which took the 2008 Costa Award for best debut. In the ten plus years since this appeared Sadie Jones has certainly slipped under my radar because I wasn’t aware of her other titles- three further novels with a 5th scheduled for 2019. Reading this does feel like I’ve filled a small hole in my literary experiences, however, and I would certainly seek out more by this author.

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The Outcast was first published in 2007. I read the 2008 Vintage paperback version.

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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The Prince and the Showgirls

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

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

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

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

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The top half of the infamous body suit shot

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

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

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

 

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