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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

Turn The Beat Around – Peter Shapiro (2005) – A Real Life Review

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There’s a lot to take in whilst reading American journalist Shapiro’s first book subtitled “The Secret History Of Disco”. I’ve read it before back when it was first published and I’m familiar with the author’s other works “The Rough Guide To Soul and R&B” (2006) and “Soul: 100 Essential CDs” (2000) the latter being a work I consult often and a probable inspiration for my own 100 Essential CD section of the blog.

I saw this book stood looking fairly unloved on the shelves of one of the Isle Of Wight’s larger libraries. It hadn’t been stamped out for three years and yet had survived every unpopular book cull so someone must have been looking out for it. I realised I couldn’t remember anything about it, which for a book which deals in subjects I’m interested in I found surprising. In fact, this and the 1999 publication “Saturday Night Forever: The Story Of Disco” by Alan Jones and Jussi Kantonen are very much the standard texts for this whole period of music history. (The excellent “Disco Files” by Vince Aletti provides very much a contemporary record rather than an analysis of the genre). Jones is British and Kantonen Finnish so American Shapiro’s view has a different slant.

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It is highly appropriate that this book focuses on New York as it is from the clubs of the Big Apple where the disco scene exploded and with which it is most associated through Studio 54 and “Saturday Night Fever”. It was from this bankrupt city, dangerous and corrupt, that people began to gather in sizeable numbers to seek some kind of communal uplift. Shapiro states it was from the rotten apple of New York City that disco music emerged. I’ve trodden on similar ground recently with Edmund White’s “City Boy” and it may have been that which led me back to this book. White was living in New York in this period and visited some of the clubs, although his interests lay more in cruising than the sounds from the speakers. Disco was music for the dispossessed. Black, gay and Latin sounds fused together to make some of the most uplifting music of all time and Shapiro is thorough in picking out its key moments.

He’s strong on the pre-history taking his story back to late 1930’s Hamburg, Germany where the Swing Kids were defying Nazi discipline to meet and dance to DJ chosen sounds wearing fashion and seeking out music that would enrage the authorities. It was Motown who provided the blueprint sound of disco in 72/73 with the Temptations’ “Law Of The Land” and “Girl You Need A Change Of Mind” by Eddie Kendricks making Norman Whitfield and Frank Wilson the first disco producers. The 4/4 steady beat and hi-hat rhythms came later in 1973 courtesy of a man who would play on so many disco classics, drummer Earl Young, who first kickstarted this new rhythm pattern on Harold Melvin & Bluenotes’ “The Love I Lost”.

Where I find Shapiro disconcerting is that it is not always clear where his enthusiasms lie. Jones and Kantonen seem to be much more fans and some of the music they profess to like best can be that which Shapiro pours most vitriol on. He praises and snipes in the same sections. It’s obviously the journalist in him which is leading him to be controversial and overstate matters. He is more likely to bring out negative aspects in highlighting the steps in the music’s demise than to celebrate its high spots and that to me seems unfortunate.

This may have something to do with the difference in the American and Jones’ and Kantonen’s European perspective. In the US disco famously died. Its last hours was at a Chicago baseball stadium where latent racism and homophobia exploded in a staged destruction of hundreds of disco records which ended up in a near riot. From then on disco music disappeared from radio airwaves and US pop charts. Shapiro puts this down to the continued commercialism of the scene with artists from other music worlds and earlier eras jumping on the disco bandwagon. (I have a soft spot for the Ethel Merman Disco Album and whereas Shapiro would gasp in horror at Andy Williams’ almost breathtaking reworking of his “Love Story (Where Do I Begin)” it is a huge favourite of Jones and Kantonen). America also got fed up with what disco was doing to its country with conservatism and family values back on the ascendent. Shapiro, not one to beat around the bush states;

“With its mincing campness, airbrushed superficiality, limp rhythms, flaccid guitars, fey strings and over-produced sterility, disco seemed emblematic of America’s dwindling power; the high falsettos of disco stars like the Bee Gees and Sylvester sounding the death knell for the virility of the American male.”

And with macho rock radio losing audiences there had to be a fight back. The big difference here is that in Europe we were quite happy with virility’s death knell and Disco never went away and from this we’ve largely repackaged  back to the US Electronic Dance Music which is one of the most prevelant musical styles today. Shapiro does acknowledge this.

Despite the author’s thoroughness of research, music lists and detailed bibliography I prefer the more celebratory tone of “Saturday Night Forever” as it feels closer to what this music, which I first heard as an impressionable teenager, means to me.

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Turn The Beat Around was published in the UK by Faber and Faber in 2005.

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

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All Time Greatest Hits (Polygram 1994)  

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Felice Taylor and Love Unlimited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Greatest Hits And Rare Classics (Motown 1991)

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

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Jean Terrell 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Scherrie Payne 

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

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

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

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Scherrie, Susaye and Mary

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

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

 

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

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The Donna Summer Anthology (P0lygram 1993)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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Another Place And Time – Donna Summer (WEA 1989)

UK Chart Position – 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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They certainly got mileage from the denim jacket photoshoot!

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

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 Driven By The Music by Donna Summer

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

 

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

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

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Once Upon A Time – Donna Summer (Casablanca 1977)

UK Chart Position – 24

US Chart Position – 26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

onceupon9Moroder, Summer and Bellotte in later years

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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A Love Trilogy -Donna Summer (Casablanca 1976)

UK Chart Position – 41

US Chart Position – 21

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

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

lovetrilogy4Donna Summer with Giorgio Moroder

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

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

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

 

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

lovetrilogy2The back cover of the original vinyl LP

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

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

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

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Photographers were also keen to convey a more wholesome image

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

 

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

 

100 Essential CDs – Number 67 – Silver Convention- The Best Of: Get Up And Boogie

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The Best Of: Get Up And Boogie – Silver Convention (Hot 1994)

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It’s to Germany we go for this slab of unadulterated guilty disco pleasure and  these under-rated early stars of the Euro-Disco music canon.  Silver Convention were the brainchild of two producers Michael Kunze and Silvester Levay whose use of synthesized disco predates what came out of Munich by the more famous pairing of Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer. 

In the 1970’s we liked  to put faces to our acts, anonymous production teams were never going to cut it so a trio of singers were put together to represent the vocals of Silver Convention. Over time, the girls evolved from background singers to much more of a girl group, even representing Germany in the 1977 Eurovision Song Contest, but the vocals continued to take a less important role than the production and were often little more than a chant.   There was world-wide success for a short period of time, mainly three albums out of a five studio album career .  I am sure they are the only act ever to take part in the annual Eurovision extravaganza having previously scored an American number 1 pop hit.  (In the event they didn’t win Eurovision coming a middle of the table 8th in a year when France took the prize).  This fifteen track CD represents many of their finest moments.

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Kunze and Levay still working together after all these years

In the mid 90’s Hot Productions re-released for the mainly American market Best Of compilations from artists many of whom were making their first appearance in CD format.  I bought this CD in Miami which is where the label originated from.  Disco stars such as The Ritchie Family, D C LaRue, Carol Douglas, George McCrae, Divine and a number of artists produced in the UK by Ian Levine were recognised and many of these CDs have become quite collectable.  Amazon has this CD listed new for £78.99.  In the UK a vinyl compilation from 1977 reached the Top 40 album charts.  More readily available currently is a double CD from the Dutch Smith & Co label from 2003 called “The Very Best Of..” which does have more tracks but opts for the shorter single releases rather than the full-length versions of the disco classics we have here.

Silver Conention 3 Sylvester Levay, from former Yugoslavia, arrived in Munich in 1972 and teamed up with Michael Kunze, Czech born, who had grown up in Southern Germany and studied in Munich.  The two formed a song-writing team and scored their first German chart-topper in 1970 with a song called “Du” by Peter Maffray, the biggest German language song of that year.  International success came about when they made a record initially as Silver Bird Convention.

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That track, a delightful piece of Euro-Disco entitled “Save Me” was recorded using backing vocalists including Roberta Kelly, who would go on to work with the German productions of Donna Summer and have a Giorgio Moroder produced career of her own including the great Euro-hit single “Zodiacs” in 1978 and even put out a Disco gospel album.  At a music convention, one Pete Waterman, then working in promotion at Magnet Records picked up on the track and the shortened name act was signed to the label in the UK.  This resulted in a Top 30 UK hit in mid-1975 some months before Donna Summer put Munich on the musical map with “Love To Love You Baby”.  It also scored well in Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands.

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Considering Levay and Kunze were primarily songwriters they were not going to win any awards with the lyrics of this song which are basically “Baby save me, save me I am falling in love”.  Maybe to protect his song-writing reputation (?) Kunze used the pseudonym Stephan Prager for the first two albums. “Save Me” was distinctly wordy compared to the next hit which blew the whole Silver Convention concept sky-high.  “Fly Robin Fly” kicks off this album in its full length 7 minutes and 44 seconds glory.

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A bass line which I have always found a little chilling moves into soaring strings and the lyrics which contains a total of six words repeated in various combinations “Fly/Robin/Right/Up/To/ The/Sky.  It’s the string arrangement that has it though as it rises and descends with the speed and accuracy of the robin onto the worm.  The echoey vocals with the slight Germanic accent combine brilliantly and form the blueprint of Silver Convention.   In New York, the Disco scene was kicking off and this became one of its early huge hits crossing over to the American pop charts where it topped the charts for three weeks towards the end of 1975 and won the Grammy for best R&B Instrumental Performance.  They were the first German act to top the American charts and Euro-Disco was born.  It was a huge international hit and topped the charts in Norway and made the Top 3 in, amongst other markets, their homeland, Belgium and Canada.  In the UK it went a couple of places higher than their debut reaching #28.

Silver Convention 7That earlier track, “Save Me” is up next and is less electronic sounding and features a sprightly saxophone solo.  My seven-inch single of “Fly Robin Fly” morphed in its last few seconds into “I Like It” which was the B-Side in the UK to that single although on their first album this track preceded it.  Here it follows “Save Me”.  By the release of these tracks Silver Convention had become Penny Maclean, Linda G Thompson and Jackie Carter, the latter being the only remaining vocalist from the “Save Me” sessions.  The quality is maintained with another track from that debut album “Another Girl” which is richer in melody and features the lovely German “V” sound when they sing “Woman”.  This is Euro-Disco combined with the sound Barry White perfected for Love Unlimited with just a hint of Abba.  Once again the strings vie for dominance over the girl’s harmonies and spoken interludes and this is one of my favourites from the group.  I think with hindsight and the explosion of Euro-Disco music which came afterwards from the likes of Boney M, Cerrone, Baccara etc it’s easy to forget how different this all sounded.  The album topped the Billboard R&B Charts (certainly the first German act to do so) and reached number 10 in the US pop charts.  The “All Music Guide To Soul” rates the album five stars and describes it as  having “a uniquely European take on American soul-pop and disco.  Arguably the group’s most essential release.  “Save Me” is a dance classic.”

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They had some reputation to maintain for its follow-up.  Lead track from the second album “Get Up And Boogie” is just a tad irritating.  It does work better in its full length version included here as you get electric piano solos and good bass work.  In the single version the beat is a bit lumbering, the girls’ vocals sound a bit whiney and the “That’s Right” male voice sample makes the whole thing a bit stop-start.  The record-buying public gave it a thumbs up and any fears that the group might have  one-hit-wonder European novelty status in the US were allayed when it just missed out on being their second chart-topper, getting to number 2.  It became their biggest hit in the UK reaching number 7, topped the charts in Canada and made the top 10 worldwide including The Netherlands and Spain. 

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There were a couple of better tracks from the second album included on this CD.  “San Francisco Hustle” is their entry into the geographical hustle stakes which, a year on from Van McCoy introducing us to the dance had hit variations of “The Latin Hustle” “The Spanish Hustle” and was still with us in 1978 when Hi-Tension gave us “The British Hustle”.  The San Francisco version provided a very attractive track, although maybe too slow to dance the hustle?  It’s a melody-rich track which could have provided another hit, as could “You Got What It Takes”, which once again has that “Voman” pronunciation which always appeals to me.

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Their record labels went for “No No Joe” as the next single.  It’s a nod towards the sexualisation of disco that had gone mainstream following the huge success of “Love To Love You Baby”.  It was probably the same decision making that led to their UK label putting out the album (and a repackaged first album) with handcuffed naked female cover art.  For some reason handcuffs had been an image associated with the band since the first album.  This caused much publicity with Woolworths refusing to stock the album.  The solution was to overlay the cover with splashes of white to cover up anything deemed offensive but actually to make the whole thing more tantalising for those interested.  I think it could have been possible to pick off the overlaid white, but I’m not sure.  It’s not even easy to find the artwork for these covers nowadays, even on the internet as they were soon phased out, but I had a vinyl copy. In the UK “No No Joe” wasn’t going to attract much radio-play and so was double A-sided with earlier track “Tiger Baby” but it underachieved in most markets.

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Third long player “Madhouse” was promoted as a disco concept album, with tracks loosely linked around a “world is a madhouse” theme.  It had a poem on the back cover which attempted to link the tracks and was a funkier effort.  The 7 minute title track (not included here) felt similar to what Norman Whitfield was doing with Rose Royce and Undisputed Truth but with the Munich strings and German accented vocals.  The best track  on show was actually the mid-tempo “Everybody’s Talkin’ Bout Love” which brought back the lushness of a Love Unlimited type track and was far more of a song than we’d had from them before.  In the UK it reached number 25.

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By this time the group’s personnel had changed.  Levay and Kunze were still pulling the strings but by now Penny McLean had been joined by Ramona Wulf and Rhonda Heath.  Linda G. Thompson had a shot at solo fame with a turntable hit “Oh What A Night”.   Ramona also got plenty of club play with a solo cover version of “Save The Last Dance For Me.” More successfully, in 1975 Penny had scored a big international hit with a solo track, the  histrionic “Lady Bump” which had topped charts in her Austrian homeland and Germany.  (Check out the YouTube video of her doing her best to sing it live in front of a European gyrating audience- it’s a kitsch classic) She also released a solo album. 

 

 Levay and Kunze were still very much behind the group and attempted to boost waning sales by entering the 1977 Eurovision Song Contest. “Telegram” is a good piece of girl-group pop, which has morse code punctuating the song and a singalong chorus (a chorus in a Silver Convention song, that’s almost a first!) The trio arrived in London the on-paper favourites but as ever the vagaries of the Eurovision voting system saw them off. (That year UK came second with Lynsey De Paul & Mike Moran’s “Rock Bottom”- a prediction of future Eurovision attempts perhaps?)  “Telegram”, although now meaningless in our time of instant e-mails, remains a Eurovision fan favourite and often appears on compilations.

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The last hurrah for the group came with “Blame It On The Music” from the fourth album called either “Summer Nights” or “Golden Girls” depending on where you live.  This is a great Abba-esque track with flurries of strings which shows the direction the girls could have taken.  Soon after the release of this album Penny left the group, and was replaced to concentrate on her solo career and was replaced by Zenda Jacks.

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The last two tracks on the compilation come from 1978 album “Love In A Sleeper” which brought them some success in Europe.  Here arrangement duties were taken by American disco producer John Davis with some tracks being recorded for the first time outside Munich at Sigma Studios in Philadelphia. Long-term the writing was on the wall and the group slipped away back into obscurity.

 The producers Levay and Kunze, however, continued to thrive.  Michael Kunze worked on translations of hit musicals and adapted many of the big Broadway shows for German audiences including Evita, Cats, Mamma Mia, A Chorus Line and Into The Woods.  He has developed his own musicals including one based on Daphne Du Maurier’s “Rebecca” and with Sylvester Levay again a hit German language musical based on the life of Mozart.  Levay himself spent much of the 90s in the US composing TV and film scores before reuniting with Kunze for the theatrical productions.  Both have gone on to much respectability in the music business but I hold out a hankering for their early work of swirling synthesized strings, repetitive lyrics and the lushness of the German EuroDisco sound of Silver Convention. Below is the video for the US #1 hit single.

And because looking at these videos have given me so much pleasure the last couple of days here is that Eurovision song entry featuring much of what the Strictly Come Dancing judges refer to as arm-ography.

 

The Best Of: Get Up And Boogie is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £78.99 and used from £12.99.  In the US it is available  from $17.35.  Other Silver Convention compilations are available.  The majority of the studio albums are available to stream from Spotify in the UK.