100 Essential CDs – Number 20- Rhythm Divine 2

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Rhythm Divine 2 (Dino 1991)

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I did own this CD compilation’s predecessor, the unsurprisingly named Rhythm Divine on vinyl.  There were quite a lot of tracks squeezed on over four sides and that compression and the fact that it was in the latter days of vinyl when the industry wanted everyone to purchase CDs meant that the sound was a little flat compared to the original singles and it wasn’t an album I played too often.  The follow-up I purchased on CD and because it was the second in the series the selections were less obvious, the sound was beefed up for the CD format and it became an album I played a lot.  We are back again on the dance floor with tracks dating from 1968-84 with the emphasis on the funkier, more soulful side of disco.  There are tracks which overlap with other of my Essential CDs compilation choices, eight of the 34 on show here spread out between Disco Classics, Funk Soul Anthems and Native New Yorker but there is plenty new here to provide a joyful couple of hours revisiting tracks from my youth.  With these essential compilation CDs it is important to know what tracks can be found on them so here you will find them listed with their highest chart position (UK/US) if released as a single and links if I have more information on the artist elsewhere on the blog and once again I’ll pick out a handful of tracks to give a flavour of what makes these CDs essential.

Track Listings

CD 1

1.Dance To The Music – Sly & The Family Stone (1968) (UK#7, US#8) (also on “Disco Classics”)

2. Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground) – The Jacksons (1979) (UK#4, US#7)

3. That Lady – Isley Brothers (1973) (UK#14, US#6)

4. Best Of My Love – Emotions (1977) (UK#4, US#1) (also on “Disco Classics)

5. Backstabbers – The O’ Jays (1972) (UK#14, US#3)

This features one of the greatest introductions in soul music, a melodic swirling, menacing yet absolutely lovely example of the Philadelphia International house orchestra MFSB before the O’Jays make their entrance with their emphatic “what’re they saying”.  This was the first hit for soul trio Eddie Levert, Walter Williams and William Powell and as far as I am concerned  it was never bettered, a musical warning about those who will talk about you behind your back.  This year Levert, Williams and Eric Nolan Grant released what they say will be their final recording entitled “The Last Word” which was a great way to round-up the group after 61 years together for the two originals and which felt like a tribute to the quality of the music of the past with enough of a contemporary feel to make it a relevant soul music release.

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6. Rock Your Baby – George McRae (1974) (UK#1, US#2) (also on “Disco Classics)

7. That’s The Way I Like It – KC & The Sunshine Band (1975) (UK#4, US#1)

8. Boogie Oogie Oogie – A Taste Of Honey (1978) (UK#3, US#1)

I had a friend who worked in the record department of WH Smith and in those days they used to put out the Top 20 charts on a peg board using plastic letters.  There were obviously a lot of “o’s” both in this song title and in the charts one week and she found that they had run out so had to put this up on the board as “Bogie Ogie Ogie” which she got her a telling off from the shop manager (bogie being an unacceptable word for WH Smith to have on display in the 70’s) but it is how I have always thought of this song since.  A Taste Of Honey featured a unique double of female vocalists and guitarists Carlita Dorhan and bass player Janice Marie-Johnson.  In 1978 it was still unusual to see female artists playing and performing which made A Taste Of Honey seem like the sound of the future and this first single release was a huge seller and gained the group a Grammy.  Sadly, they struggled with follow-up material and the group dwindled down to a duo.  In the UK they are officially one-hit wonders but Dorhan and Johnson managed three years later to get back into the US Top 3 with a ballad cover of the Kyu Sakamoto hit “Sukiyaki”.  They will always be remembered for this hook laden, funky slab of disco which had the feel of Chic with the girls emulating the guitar-rich sound of Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards.

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9. Car Wash – Rose Royce (1976) (UK#9, US#1) (also on “Funk Soul Anthems”)

10. I Will Survive – Gloria Gaynor (1979) (UK#1, US#1)

11. When Will I See You Again – Three Degrees (1974) (UK#1, US#2)

12. Contact – Edwin Starr (1979) (UK#6)

Ex Motown artist Edwin Starr re-emerged in the late 70’s on the 20th Century label and scored a big European hit.    His US hits had dried up not long after his chart-topping “War” in 1970 and within a couple of years he decided to relocate to the UK, where he would stay until his death in 2003.  Amazingly, this did not cross over to the pop charts in any big way in his homeland despite topping Billboard’s US Disco chart.  It’s a big, chunky production which suits the stridency of the great Starr’s vocals.  His Motown hits were great but I have always loved this reinvention of his sound on this track.

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13. This Is It- Melba Moore (1976) (UK#9)

Songwriter/producer Van McCoy’s work always really succeeded when there was a strong voice which could cut through the natural sweetness of his productions.  There was no way his string laden orchestra could dominate Melba Moore (nor David Ruffin who he also worked with around the same time).  Melba’s voice had the experience of both gospel and Broadway and fitted perfectly into this joyous number.  Music was in Melba’s genes, her mother was R&B singer Bonnie Davis who had topped the R&B charts and her father sax player and band leader Teddy Hill. The always critically acclaimed Moore has never had a pop hit in the US.  In the UK chart success continued in the early 80’s when she scored another couple of Top 40 hits “Love’s Coming At Ya” (#15 in 1982) and “Mind Up Tonight” (#22 in 1983) and became one of the leading lights in the “Quiet Storm” soul ballad revival in the early/mid 80’s which saw a duet with Freddie Jackson top the R&B charts.  Melba is still going strong today but there is no doubting this is her finest moment.  Dannii Minogue’s 1993 revival of the track introduced the joyfulness of this to a new generation and saw the song back in the UK Top 10.

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14. More More More – Andrea True Connection (1976) (UK#5, US# 4)

By the mid 70’s in the US porn had gone mainstream and its stars, especially Linda Lovelace had become household names.  The overlap between sex and disco which found success in tracks such as Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby” tempted some adult movie actresses into the recording studio.  The most successful of these was Andrea True.  The story goes that Andrea found herself in Jamaica after an attempted coup which meant that money could not be taken out of the country.  True had to spend her earnings and decided to fly in producer Gregg Diamond to make a record with her.  Remixed by Tom Moulton and sporting an unforgettable “pop pop” sound “More More More” became a huge hit worldwide.  It’s lyrics “keep the action going/keep the cameras rolling” reference her alternative career in a way which would not cause offence and would see the song covered successfully in later years by Rachel Stevens (#3 2004) and Bananarama (#24 1993).  Andrea True was not a great singer but she did have some great songs in the early years of her career and is very under-rated as a music artist.  I love the almost relentless latin flavours of “NY, You Got Me Dancing” and the disco pick-up of “What’s Your Name What’s Your Number” which gave her a second UK Top 40 hit two years later.  Also tracks such as “Keep It Up Longer” and “Party Line” are certainly worth seeking out.  Of her former film career I know nothing!

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15. Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel – Tavares (1976) (UK#4, US#15) (also on “Disco Classics)

16. Rock The Boat – Hues Corporation (1974) (UK#6, US#1) (also on “Native New Yorker”)

17. Hang On In There Baby – Johnny Bristol (1974) (UK# 3, US#8)

Here’s a man who should have become a household name.  A Motown songwriter and producer (often with Harvey Fuqua) Bristol worked on all time classic tracks by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Edwin Starr, David Ruffin and Jnr Walker and the All Stars and as a vocalist is the male voice featured on Diana Ross and The Supremes’ swansong “Someday We’ll Be Together” which he also produced and co-wrote.  By 1974 he had signed a solo contract with MGM and the success of bedroom based songs by male R&B stars such as Marvin Gaye and Barry White led to this recording which combines some fairly cheesy lyrics which turns love-making into a life or death situation with thunder roaring and lightning striking as Bristol gets it on with his “sweet virgin of the world” with a great production and a real hook laden song which is just irresistible.  UK cool boys Curiosity Killed The Cat dropped most of their name for a comeback single in 1992 (as “Curiosity”) and matched their highest ever chart placing (as well as the UK chart position of Bristol’s original) with a cover of this.  Bristol, maybe because of difficulties at the MGM label struggled to get his follow-up compositions  to chart, although one of these “Love Me For A Reason” became a UK#1 when covered by The Osmonds.  There were glimmers of potential success, a duet with Amii Stewart in 1980, a stint working with Ian Levine in the UK in the late 80’s but he just couldn’t follow up his classic hit.  He  passed away in 2004.

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18. Right Back Where We Started From – Maxine Nightingale (1975) (UK#8, US#2)

 

CD 2

 

1.Celebration – Kool & The Gang (1980) (UK#7, US#1)

2. Don’t Stop The Music – Yarborough & Peoples (1980) (UK#7, US#19) 

Although they sound like a firm of solicitors Texans Cavin Yarborough and Alisa Peoples were childhood sweethearts who signed with the Total Experience label and this was their debut hit which is both funky and wacky with speeded up voices for which they would often use puppets when performing “You don’t really want to stop! No!“.  Maybe this shifted them into the novelty act category in their homeland where this was their only Top 40  hit.  In the UK they had another three singles which made  the Top 75 over the next 6  years, one of which (“Don’t Waste Your Time”) reached 48 in the US coming closest to giving them a follow-up hit in 1983.  They eventually tied the knot in 1987 after which they set up their own music production company.

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3. Use It Up And Wear It Out – Odyssey (1980) (UK#1)

4. Shame – Evelyn “Champagne” King (1978) (UK#39, US#9) (also on “Native New Yorker”)

5. Don’t Take Away The Music – Tavares (1976) (UK#4, US#34)

Two of the very best Tavares track on these CDs.  This was another Freddie Perren production which closed their most successful album “Sky High” which had also featured “Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel.” and “The Mighty Power Of Love”.  This is their Tavares at their most singalong, which is no way a criticism, as anyone who has heard me belting this in the shower would be able to testify.  Great track which matched the success of “Heaven” in the UK but which fell a bit short in their homeland.

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6. Swing Your Daddy – Jim Gilstrap (1975) (UK#4)

7. Be Thankful For What You’ve Got – William De Vaughan (1974) (UK#31, US#4)

8. Respect Yourself – The Staple Singers (1971) (US#12)

9. And The Beat Goes On – The Whispers (1980) (UK#2, US#19)

10. Love Town – Booker Newbury III (1983) (UK#6)

11. Somebody Else’s Guy- Jocelyn Brown (1984) (UK#13) (also on “Funk Soul Anthems”)

12. Change Of Heart – Change (1984) (UK#17)

13. Burn Rubber On Me (Why You Wanna Hurt Me) – The Gap Band (1980) (UK#22)

14. You Gave Me Love – Crown Heights Affair (1980) (UK#10)

A veteran group by the time they notched up this UK Top 10 hit Brooklyn based group Crown Heights Affair had been around since the late 60’s and were one of the early leading lights of Disco  in the mid 70’s with tracks such as “Dreaming A Dream” and “Dancin'” lengthy workouts which became club classics without making the commercial breakthrough the band would have hoped for.  This came in 1978 with their excellent space-flight track “Galaxy Of Love” (UK#24). Their 1980 commercial peak was with this track which was not as good but does have a very memorable driving vocal hook “do doo doo doo doo doo” which lifted them into the Top 10 for the only time in their career.

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15. The Message – Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five (1982) (UK#8)

Look at the chart placings.  This seminal slab of hip-hop which took the to this point recent phenomenon of rap music to a new level was not even a US hit.  The US charts have been full of rappers for years and Grandmaster Flash is arguably the Grandaddy of them all.  Up until this point rap music had the hint of novelty about it stemming from labelmates The Sugarhill Gang and “Rapper’s Delight” with its one-upmanship which sounded fresh but a little trivial but here in the charts and on the radio was as the title rightly termed a “Message”.  What we were being told about here was injustice and prejudice and  R&B music shifted from this point onwards things would never be the same again.  It’s up there with my favourite hip-hop records joined near that pole position by a track a year later when Grandmaster Flash joined forces with Melle Mel for the anti-drug epic “White Lines” which got to number 7 and hung around the UK charts for almost a year, although the power of this track was diluted by a pointless 1995 cover by Duran Duran.

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16. I Found Lovin’ – The Fatback Band (1984) (UK#7)

Rhythm Divine 2 can currently be purchased on Amazon in the UK for £4.07 new and used from £1.54.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Donna Summer: The Thrill Goes On – Nik A Ramli (2012) – A Real Life Review

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What is the right thing to do when just as your biography is going to press the subject dies? Do you hold back publication and revise its contents? I think I would probably say yes to this. Do you carry on and publish anyway after all, knowing that not many readers will know when a book actually came out, that’s a possibility. What Nik A Ramli does in his first piece of biographical non-fiction is acknowledge the passing in an author’s note at the start of the book, use the dates of the life (1948-2012) prominently on the cover but does not change the main text one iota. I’m not sure whether that’s appropriate.

That decision leads to a slightly off taste as Ramli focuses on the legendary disco star’s past, present and future in later chapters such as “Still Going Strong: A New Departure” and “Into The Future” when he makes it clear elsewhere that he knows that there isn’t going to be any future.

Now I, like Ramli, who is better known as a Malaysian Interior Designer who specialises in “laid back glamour” am a big Donna Summer fan. I have included four of her albums in my Essential CD listings. I feel that up to now she has not been served well by the printed word. I read an early 80’s unauthorised biography which said little and even “Ordinary Girl” her 2003 autobiography written with Marc Eliot was a disappointment which just skimmed the surface. There is room for a definitive examination of the life and career of one of the most successful female artists of all time whose record sales reputedly exceed 130 million. I’d always hoped that someone like J. Randy Taraborrelli would apply his thorough, analytical eye to her and produce something very entertaining but this hasn’t happened.

Ramli has produced what is very much a fan’s viewpoint which borders on hagiography. I have no problems with that, the whole work comes across as a labour of love and I always admire these. He’s done tons of research and seemingly watched and read everything and has carried out interviews with people qualified to comment on Donna’s career including DJ Paul Gambaccini, fellow disco-diva Gloria Gaynor and her one-time producer and great supporter Pete Waterman. Unfortunately, what he hasn’t done is put this research all together very well. This is a first-time writer in need of support to structure a convincing narrative and that support (and editing) obviously wasn’t there. The style is breathless throughout, which becomes a little overwhelming, there is so much repetition, an over-reliance on listing the same statistics and song titles to illustrate laboured points, a cheesy use of song titles within the text of the she certainly “works hard for the money” type, factual errors even I’ve spotted, non-sequiturs a-plenty and a tendency to go off on odd tangents, but mainly it’s the repetition that wearies.

He rattles through her whole career in the first few chapters and with a considerable amount of the book to go a clearer structure would have helped matters. He’s read Taraborrelli’s superior music biogs according to the bibliography, it is disappointing that from these he didn’t get a clearer idea of how to put together his work.

What Ramili does well, however, is to get a global perspective. He’s more obsessed about listing chart positions than I am, we get to know how Donna Summer’s work performed in many markets together with listings of weeks spent in both US and UK charts. I also like how he has got contributions from Malaysian performers about the influence of this American girl from Boston who found fame initially in Germany.

The issue that affected the performer was how much “Donna Summer” was a creation of her producers and then her record label. She was created to fit in with the hedonism of mid 70’s disco, with an aura of soft-porn chic which captured the zeitgeist of the time. This image was different to how Donna Summer wanted to be seen both in terms of her beliefs and her need not to be pigeonholed as an act of a moment. Her disco days were glorious with some superb tracks, brilliantly performed, but she wanted to see and she had the talent to see beyond that, sensing that disco might not last forever. When it did end in the US with that notorious record burning in a Chicago sportsfield which I’ve mentioned a number of times before (see “Turn The Beat Around” by Peter Shapiro), Donna was ready to move on and embrace rock, new wave and more mainstream pop. Over time chart positions dwindled and an alleged comment about AIDS alienated a large gay fanbase. That disco ball would never entirely go away, however, and the demand for the back catalogue of the Disco Donna Summer, like the Disco Gloria Gaynor, would keep re-appearing over the decades. In latter years Donna began once again to fully embrace this and saw a career revival and a demand for new material in the years up to her sudden and shocking death from lung cancer aged 64.

She should be seen as one of the greatest performers of her era, alongside Barbra Streisand (with whom she famously vocally duelled with on “No More Tears”), Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner and Diana Ross. The fact that she does not always share a pedestal with these artists critically means she is still due for reappraisal. Ramli’s work provided a welcome opportunity for this but he doesn’t quite pull it off.

twostarsDonna Summer; The Thrill Goes On was published by Book Guild Publishing in 2012.

100 Essential CDs – Number 25- Native New Yorker: Disco Classics

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Native New Yorker: Disco Classics (Camden 1997)

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This twenty track CD appeared on the budget Camden label in 1997 and according to the sleeve notes written by one Michael Dunnington references a time “when Jason King ruled the TV air-waves and men’s trousers “flared” like no tomorrow.”  For a one disc collection of 70’s music it is spot on and there is no overlap with any of the tracks featured on the other compilation CDs I have so far considered to be essential.  What it isn’t really, despite its subtitle, is an album of “disco classics” unless we are counting a school disco where tracks by artists such as Sweet and Barry Blue would have got played.  That disco would have also had to have a closing “slow dance” section to incorporate ballad tracks from the Delfonics and the country-tinged soul of the Pointer Sisters doing Bruce Springsteen, but okay, I’ll let it go because this is a CD which gets the memories flowing and brings me a lot of pleasure.  True, some of that pleasure might be guilty as the majority of the tracks are from the more poppy side of dance than those that appear on the “Disco Classics”, “Chilled Disco” and “Funk Soul Anthems” sets with its mix of American tracks, Eurodisco and British pop soul.  There are three UK number 1s and 1 US chart-topper and 13 out of the 20 tracks performed better in the UK and Europe than they did in the USA.

 With these essential compilation CDs it is important to know what tracks can be found on them so here you will find them listed with their highest chart position (UK/US) if released as a single and links if I have more information on the artist elsewhere on the blog. I’ll pick out a handful of tracks to give a flavour of what makes these CDs essential.

Track Listings

CD 1

1.Native New Yorker – Odyssey (1977) (UK#5, US#21)

What a track to open with, important enough to give the whole compilation its name and one of my all time favourites.  Odyssey’s later UK chart-topper featured on “Funk Soul Anthems” but this is their debut hit which was their only success in the US.  It’s a beautifully performed song by the Lopez sisters with Tony Reynolds which drips with sophistication and a classy glamour which makes it stand out as a song compared to so much repetitive disco. It sounds like something from the Great American Songbook (it for me is reminiscent of the Rodgers and Hart song “Manhattan” as made famous by Ella Fitzgerald).  The writers of this 70’s gem are Sandy Linzer and Denny Randall who wrote it as a track for a Frankie Valli solo album.  These two had been responsible for some classy pop songs prior to this such as “A Lover’s Concerto”, “Opus 17” and “Working My Way Back To You” for the Four Seasons .  Linzer  has made a previous significant appearance on my Essential CD listings for his production work on the innovative first album from “Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band” one of the great disco albums of all time.  Esther Phillips also did a great version of this song but this is definitely the definitive version.

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2. Yes Sir I Can Boogie – Baccara (1977) (UK#1)

The ultimate guilty pleasure?  This surprise UK chart-topper still delights me every time I hear it. I’m not sure whether it’s the Eurodisco production with its out-of-place heavy-breathing intro giving it a touch of the Donna Summers, the English as a second language phrasing, the “boogie-voogie” or the song which turns back in on itself and contains lines such as “I  already told you in the first verse/ and in the chorus”.  Spanish female duo Baccara were certainly one of a kind.  I saw them perform at “G-A-Y” in the 1990s and they still had the audience eating out of the palm of their hands by swirling scarves as they eased through their repertoire which also contained their equally bizarrely lyrics of “Sorry I’m A Lady” and their 1978 Eurovision entry “Parlez Vous  Francais (strangely enough representing Luxembourg) where they were robbed finishing in a lowly 7th  place losing to Israel’s nonsensical “A-Ba-Ni-Bi” which lyrically made the Baccara song seem more like Bacharach.  Sophie Ellis-Bextor had a go at making this song her own but that just isn’t possible it just has to be Mayte Mateos and Maria Mendiola in their quizzical Spanglish.

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3. Disco Nights (Rock Freak) – G.Q (1979) (UK#42, US#12)

4. Ms. Grace – Tymes (1974) (UK#1)

5. Shame – Evelyn “Champagne” King (1978) (UK#39, US#9)

6. Just Don’t Want To Be Lonely – The Main Ingredient (1974) (UK#27, US#10)

7. Sunny- Boney M (1977) (UK#3)

Euro-disco’s biggest stars actually heralded from the West Indies but with this their second UK hit cemented their association with Germany’s Frank Farian on what is head and shoulders their best track.  The song is a cover version of a 1966 hit by Bobby Hebb, having much of its warmth stripped out to produce an almost icy slab of Munich  disco-funk.  It’s a near-perfect reconstruction of a song.  That said, I’m not sure what we are listening to here because the vocal arrangement sounds a tad different from my old 7 inch single.  I’m wondering whether it is a different mix or the album version.  I’m pretty sure its not a re-recording (a peril of the budget CD) as I’m sure this would have been highlighted in the info.  It’s in no way bad, just ever so slightly different and if I hadn’t listened to this song so many times over the years I probably would never have noticed.  What I have noticed also, however, is that this song is given the wrong title on the inner sleeve of the CD.  Doesn’t anybody proof read these things before they are printed?

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8. I Can’t Stand The Rain – Eruption (1978) (UK#5)

9. Jack And Jill – Raydio (1978) (UK#11, US#8)

The late 70’s group Raydio could not for long contain Ray Parker Jnr who for a time in the next decade looked like he could be one of the biggest solo acts.  A gifted guitarist, vocalist, song writer and producer with a great pop sensibility, Parker’s career was both made by his theme song to the movie “Ghostbusters” and hampered by it, as the spectre of the term “novelty artist” hung over him.  He was no novelty he just had an excellent sense of what was commercial.  This was evident on his debut hit which is one of two nursery themed tunes on this album, but this tale of the couple who went up the hill is nowhere as twee as the Moments’ “Jack In The Box” which appears later.  In fact, nursery rhyme referencing was not as out of place as it may seem in 70’s R&B, think The Gap Band’s “Oops Upside Your Head” and even Earth Wind and Fire did it on “Saturday Night” . This is a good piece of pop-flavoured mid-tempo funk made memorable by the echoing vocals of the names of the two main characters.  I’ve always had a soft spot for both this and their UK hit follow-up “Is This A Love Thing?”  Back in 1978 I won a copy of “Jack And Jill” in a competition in “Blues And Soul” magazine which for someone who relied on saving up pocket money for music purchases was quite a big thing!

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10. Givin’ Up Givin’ In – Three Degrees (1978) (UK#12)

11. Rock The Boat – Hues Corporation (1974) (UK#6, US#1)

12. La La Means I Love You – Delfonics (1971) (UK#19, US#4)

13. There Goes My First Love – Drifters (1973) (UK#3)

14. Blockbuster – Sweet (1973) (UK#1)

15. It’s In His Kiss – Linda Lewis (1975) (UK#6)

I can’t miss an opportunity to herald this singer, not until she is recognised as one of the great British female artists.  A singer who may have been too versatile for her own good is here on her biggest hit which like its follow-up “Baby I’m Yours” which I highlighted on the “After The Dance” CD is a cover version of 60’s girl pop.  (I was young enough not to know this when this first came out). Here the pace is ramped up to fever pitch and it sounds like Linda has had a blast of helium before letting rip into this song which is just brilliant in giving the innocence of girl-group pop a 70’s glam makeover.  Notes are hit that zoom off into the stratosphere.  If you want to hear a vocalist putting 100% into a recording this is a prime example .  It certainly, for me, puts Cher’s 1991 chart-topping version into the shade.  It’s not even Lewis’ best recording.  That would be a stunning version of a song based on Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze” from “The Mikado”, “The Moon and I” which I love so much I had it played at my wedding ensuring there would not be a dry eye in the house!

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16. Fire – Pointer Sisters (1979) (UK#34, US#2)

17. Can’t Get By Without You – The Real Thing (1976) (UK#2)

18. Dancing On A Saturday Night – Barry Blue (1973) (UK#2)

19. Jack In The Box – The Moments (1977) (UK#7)

20. Get Dancin’ – Disco Tex & The Sex-O-Lettes (1974) (UK#8, US#10)

Native New Yorker: Disco Classics is currently available to buy from Amazon in the UK for £14.98 and used from £0.90.

100 Essential CDs – Number 36- After The Dance

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After The Dance (Telstar 1991)

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This 32 track double CD which came out on the TV promoted Telstar label in 1991 puts together a collection of some of the best sweet soul tunes from the 70’s and 80’s.  It is a sophisticated listen with quality performers and a good mixture of the well and lesser known, of hits and tracks that did not make it. There’s a smattering of Motown, Philadelphia International releases alongside Stax and Atlantic with the soul groups who were popular in the early 70’s alongside a few more mid-tempo offerings from artists associated with disco and a few R&B influenced tracks from the 80’s.  The earliest dates from a slab of pure soul from Aretha in 1967  and spans to a debut minor 1987 hit for British soulster Paul Johnson of whom big things would have still been hoped for when this album was released in 1991.  Once you get by the disturbing cover art there are a lot of gems to be found within.

With these essential CDs it is important to know what tracks can be found on them so here you will find them listed with their highest chart position (UK/US) if released as a single and links if I have more information on the artist elsewhere on the blog.  I’ll pick out a handful of tracks to give a flavour of what makes these CDs essential.

Track Listings

CD 1

1.Me And Mrs Jones – Billy Paul (1972) (UK#12, US#1)

What a gem of a track to kick things off with.  A song about adultery written by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff with Cary Gilbert would not have seemed an obvious pick for a debut number 1 pop hit but Billy Paul’s superb, tender performance won over audiences worldwide and introduced us all to one of the most unique voices in soul music with his jazz style phrasing .  Amazingly, Paul only scored one more US Pop Top 40 hit, the sublime uptempo “Thanks For Saving My Life”.  Like most artists who relied on the songwriting talents of Gamble & Huff his material alternated between out and out romance of tracks such as “When Love Is New” and the mawkish “Let’s Make A Baby” and social commentary such as “Am I Black Enough For You?” and “Bring The Family Back”.  He was also a great song-stylist as his versions of his trio of 1977 UK hits, in particular, Elton John’s “Your Song” (a UK#37 hit), but also Paul McCartney’s “Let Em In” (UK #26) and Jerry Butler’s “Only The Strong Survive” (UK#33) testify.  But it is for tale of a secret rendezvous for which he will always be remembered.  Billy Paul passed away in 2016 aged 81.

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2. Love Won’t Let Me Wait – Major Harris (1975) (UK#37, US#5)

Perhaps one of the all-time tender love songs Major Harris, is here like much of Barry White’s output concentrating on the bedroom in this soft-porn epic with heavy breathing which would have denied it much daytime radio play and might explain its lowly UK chart placing.  The Major had a member of the Delfonics in the early 70’s (but after the hit for the group which appears on this CD) and Atlantic Records had high hopes of him becoming a major solo star but this was his only US chart placing.  He continued to record on various labels until the mid 90’s with only his 1983 London label release “All My Life” attracting any attention in the UK.  Once again this great performance is what he is remembered for.

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3. I’ll Be Good To You- Brothers Johnson (1976) (US#3)
4. Peek-A-Boo- The Stylistics (1973) (UK#35)
5.Didn’t I Blow Your Mind (This Time) – The Delfonics (1970) (UK#22, US#10)
6. Homely Girl – The Chi-Lites (1974) (UK#5)
7. You Are My Starship – Norman Connors ft Michael Henderson (1976) (US#27)
8. Games People Play – Detroit Spinners (1975) (US#5)
9. Walk Away From Love – David Ruffin (1975) (UK#10, US#9)

Another of the great voices of soul music.  Ruffin’s gravelly voice blistered its way through many Temptations hit and as a solo artist did not reach the heights expected of him, although this was at least in part to his own personal demons.  For me, his greatest association was his mid 70’s teaming up with Van McCoy. This is where McCoy’s work was strongest, the albums he did with Ruffin, with Melba Moore and Faith, Hope & Charity had powerful gospel-drenched voices cutting through his Soul City Symphony lushness in a way that his work with the sweeter voiced Stylistics did not.  This is one of Motown’s great 70’s singles and a welcome comeback for the man whose only US hit had been six years previous and who in the UK was overshadowed by brother Jimmy.

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There was a lot of hat-wearing on 70’s R&B album covers!

10. Loving You, Losing You – Phyllis Hyman (1977)

And whilst we are talking about personal demons, the hugely under-rated Phyllis was plagued with them which led to her taking her own life in 1985.  Album releases on Buddah, Arista and Philadelphia showed huge potential but she may have been too sophisticated for the commercial masses.  There were business disappointments throughout her career, a James Bond theme recording never made it on to the film, collaborations with artists ranging from Barry Manilow, The Four Tops and Michael Henderson (whose “You Are My Starship” also appears here) did not pay the dividends expected  and a dependency on cocaine sealed an inevitable and tragic early demise. It’s inexplicable how this club classic from her debut album failed to make chart headway in 1977.  It opens with an epic sweep, a great introduction before Phyllis performs beautifully on this Thom Bell song.

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11. Risin’ To The Top – Keni Burke (1982)
12. Love Me – Diana Ross (1974) (UK#38) (also on Motown Chartbusters Volume 9)
13.Still Water (Love) – Four Tops (1970) (UK#10, US#11)
14. I’ll Be There – Jackson 5 (1970) (UK#4, US#1)
15. Winter Melody – Donna Summer (1976) (UK#27)

The first indication that Donna Summer would survive the disco boom was this under-stated ballad track from her themed “Four Seasons Of Love” which surprisingly became a hit in the UK over Christmas 1976.  It’s ethereal, whispy Donna and it is always a joy to hear.  Because of it’s non-success in her homeland it often does not appear on Summer compilations, for example, its not on the essential “Anthology” release nor on “Hit Singles & More” nor “I Feel Love: The Collection” but can be found here as well us on the three CD “Ultimate Collection”.  It’s a lovely track which shows a different side of Donna.

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16. Natural High- Bloodstone (1973) (UK#40, US#10)

CD 2

1.Rolling Down A Mountainside – The Main Ingredient (1975)
2.Freedom For The Stallion – The Hues Corporation (1974)
3. Shake You Down – Gregory Abbott (1986) (UK#6, US#1)

What on earth happened here?  The title track from Abbott’s debut self-written and self-produced album leapt to the top of the US charts and was a big hit worldwide introducing us all to a classy, slick piece of mid-tempo sing-along soul.  Record label Columbia must have thought they had the next big thing on their hands.  A gifted good-looking all-rounder the album went platinum and then… well, nothing to bother chart compilers although he has continued to record to the present day.  It’s one of those weird occasions when the world fell in love with a performer and then fell out of love just as quickly with this highly talented singer becoming one of the ultimate one-hit-wonders on both side of the Atlantic.  Obviously, the real strength here must be the song, which Abbott wrote, and it still sounds good.

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4. You Can’t Change That – Ray Parker Jnr (1979)
5. Let Me Make Love To You – The O’Jays (1975)
6. When Love Comes Calling – Paul Johnson (1987) (UK#52)
7. Private Number – William Bell & Judy Clay (1968) (UK#8)
8. I Surrender -Heatwave (1990)
9. Could It Be I’m Falling In Love – Detroit Spinners (1973) (UK#11, US#4)

Or the Spinners as they are known in their homeland but here we need something to differentiate them from the folk group of the same name.  Whilst at Motown they were known as The Motown Spinners and recorded some great tracks but it was after the move to Atlantic where they really came into their own.  There are two of their very best tracks included on these CDs and this is one of their best known although I’ve always been a big fan of the slightly less slick “Games People Play” which was not a UK hit but a Top 5 hit stateside.   The magic kicked in when they began working with songwriter Thom Bell and vocalist Phillippe Wynn joined the group.  Lead vocals were shared between three members which gave them longevity and yet meant their sound was not as instantly recognisable as some of the  R&B groups of the time.  They had two chart-topping singles, in the US it was with a duet with Dionne Warwick in 1974 but they had to wait until 1980 to do it in the UK with their medley of “Working My Way Back To You” and “Forgive Me Girl” which sounded a little pedestrian compared to some of the great tracks that came before.

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10. I’m Doing Fine Now – New York City (1973) (UK#20, US#17)
11. (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman – Aretha Franklin (1967) (US#8)
12. Free- Deniece Williams (1977) (UK#1, US#25)

With hindsight there wasn’t a more influential American R&B group in the 1970’s than Earth, Wind & Fire but the only UK number 1 single they were involved with came not from themselves, despite so many classic tracks, nor with The Emotions, who had one of the 70’s biggest hits in the US with “Best Of My Love” but with this subtle, sophisticated performance from Deniece Williams who had moved from working with Stevie Wonder as one of his backing singers to a debut album produced by Maurice White and Charles Stepney. This track doesn’t even feel that commercial even compared to some of the other songs on the album and feels more like a vocal performance highlighting her incredible range than a song yet it topped the charts and Deniece Williams became a much-loved artist in the UK.  Amazingly, Deniece became the first black American female solo singer to top the UK charts since Diana Ross in 1971.  Post the EWF connection she scored two US chart-toppers which were also Top 3 hits in the UK, helping Johnny Mathis to a resounding comeback with the too warbly “Too Much Too Little Too Late” and the crowning glory of the “Footloose” soundtrack “Let’s Hear It For The Boy”, but this is where it all started for her.

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13. Honey Please, Can’t Ya See – Barry White (1975)
14. Superstar/ Until You Come Back To Me – Luther Vandross (1983)
15. Baby I’m Yours – Linda Lewis (1976) (UK#33)

Another huge vocal range and a greatly under-rated performer who should be treated as a British National Treasure.  Too versatile to fit into the constraints of a 1970’s pop career Lewis touched on rock, folk, show tunes, operatics and soul music and was a highly regarded songwriter.  Here she is in disco mode which had earlier in 1976 seen her score one of her biggest UK hits with her phenomenal version of “It’s In His Kiss” where her vocals swooped and soared over a huge production.  Here she covers a Van McCoy penned song first recorded by an inspiration of hers, 60’s US soul singer Barbara Lewis from whom she took her surname.  (Linda’s real name is Fredericks yet even her sisters Shirley and Dee record under the Lewis name).  Once again it’s first class, yet did not get the chart position it deserved.  Everything is thrown into what is perhaps even a bigger production than its predecessor and even if some felt Linda was selling out in conforming to the demands of the commercial market she certainly gives it 100%.

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16. I Want Your Love – Chic (1979) (UK#4, US#7)

A great way to finish this CD is perhaps the classiest thing Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards ever did with Chic.  Best known for more out-there disco tracks everything is reined in a little here with a great build, superb orchestration and that familiar scratchy Chic sound.  Nile of course, is still very much influencing the music business, a favourite at festivals and it is because of tracks like this that his music has transcended the decades.

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After The Dance is currently available on Amazon in the UK for £4.97 and used for £0.62.  I think I would be hard pushed to recommend a finer compilation of 70’s/80’s soul sounds.

100 Essential CDs – Number 73- Disco Classics

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Disco Classics  (Sony 2005)

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Now, you’ve seen what has come before so it can be no surprise that there is going to be more than a little smattering of disco compilations in my Essential CD List.  The uplift I get from listening to disco music hasn’t dampened any since these tracks featured in the charts.  I’ve gone here for a double CD 34 tracker which has a mixture of the obvious and expected to the more unusual which makes it a great choice as far as I am concerned.  It’s a pretty broad collection featuring four UK and 6 US chart-toppers and chronologically spans from well before the disco era with 1968 uptempo funk by the pioneering Sly & The Family Stone to a Megamix of Earth Wind and Fire’s greatest which dated from 1989 and features a whistle-stop tour through “September”, “Let’s Groove”, “Rock That”, and a twice-featured “Boogie Wonderland” with as much conviction as a late 80’s megamix could have.  Mid 80’s sophisticated uptempo groove “Midas Touch” is hardly disco but would work well in a club setting and The Buggles UK chart-topper is an odd way to round off the selection but there are enough tracks here that fulfil the brief very nicely and can be considered “disco classics”.  This CD was released in Germany and has the look of a Hed Kandi compilation which would have been popular at the time.  I have no idea how I acquired  it but it has been played regularly since I did so.  On Amazon some reviewers have attacked this for being “live re-recordings” but it’s not, it’s the original tracks.

 Once again with these essential CDs it is important to know what tracks can be found on them so here you will find them listed with their highest chart position (UK/US) if released as a single and links if I have more information on the artist elsewhere on the blog. I’ll pick out a handful of tracks to give a flavour of what makes these CDs essential

 Track Listings

 CD1

 1.No Doubt About It – Hot Chocolate (1980) (UK#2)

 Throughout the 70’s it seemed like the voice of Errol Brown was always on the radio notching up a string of UK hits.  The RAK label they recorded on wasn’t the coolest around but was one of the most successful UK labels with Mud, Suzi Quatro, Kenny and Smokie all doing very well for label owner Mickie Most.  As a result Hot Chocolate were seen as a more pop band than they actually were and perhaps were not always given the credit they deserved.  1975 hit “Emma” was an anguished soul track about a suicide, “You Sexy Thing” gave them a Top 3 hit on both sides of the Atlantic in 1975 at the midst of Disco Fever, but best of all is this 1980 track which became their 18th Top 40 hit in 1980 which dealt with UFOs and had a great singalong chorus.

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2. Let The Music Play – Barry White (1975)  (UK#5, US#32)

3. Rock Your Baby – George McCrae (1974) (UK#1, US#1) 

And this arguably, was where the Disco Era began during the summer of 1974 when debut hitmaker George McCrae topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.  It’s rather sparse, almost minimalistic compared to what would come after but it introduced the shuffling Miami sound which would go on to feature in many more hits.  McCrae himself, blessed with a thrilling falsetto only had one more US Top 40 hit but we rather took to him in the UK giving him another 6 Top 40 hits over the next couple of years, my favourite of which “It’s Been So Long” made it to number 4.  George also featured his voice to great effect in 1974 in the debut hit “Queen Of Clubs” the first hit for label-mates KC & The Sunshine Band (who also features on this CD with their late in the day 1983 UK#1) who wrote and produce George’s chart-topper and who themselves would go on to have a more successful career than George.  Now aged 74, George is still going strong and in good voice.  And all this happened because his then wife, Gwen, who “Rock Your Baby” was written for was late for the recording session!

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4. Boogie Wonderland –Earth Wind & Fire with The Emotions (1979) (UK#4,US#6)

5. Pick Up The Pieces – Average White Band (1975) (UK#6, US#1)

6. Play That Funky Music – Wild Cherry (1976) (UK#7, US#1)

7. Vertigo/Relight My Fire – Dan Hartman & Loleatta Holloway (1978)

 One of the few tracks on the album that was not a hit although a cover version in 1993 topped the chart for Take That and Lulu.  This is a real epic of a track presented here, thankfully, in its 9 minute version with it’s brilliant orchestral build-up “Vertigo” into Dan’s light voice singing “Relight My Fire” then bam! it’s only Loleatta Holloway tearing into the track.  Nine minutes and not a second feels wasted (hard to say that about a lot of extended disco tracks).  Dan is also on this compilation with his better known but not as good “Instant Replay”, which with his mammoth “Countdown/This Is It” represented three classic disco tracks.  As a song-writer he penned one of James Browns’ biggest hits “Living In America” and for Loleatta, who features here, “Love Sensation” which became the blueprint for one of the biggest tracks of the 80s, “Ride On Time”.

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8.Last Train To London – Electric Light Orchestra (1979) (UK#8, US#39)

This is a track that I didn’t especially appreciate at the time.  I did quite like ELO, especially “Mr Blue Sky” and “The Diary Of Horace Wimp” which seemed to be pointing back to the 1960’s.  This, however, saw them embracing disco and at the time it felt a little like bandwagon-jumping.  However, the passing of the decades has been very good to this and it sounds like the creative tour-de-force that it is.  There’s a sense of urgency about this last train which is very appealing. 

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9. T.S.O.P (The Sound Of Philadelphia)– MFSB ft The Three Degrees (1974) (UK#22,US#1)

10. Boogie Nights- Heatwave (1977) (UK#2, US#2)

11. Blame It On The Boogie – Jacksons (1978) (UK#8)

12. Midas Touch – Midnight Star (1986) (UK#8)

13. I Can Make You Feel Good – Shalamar (1982) (UK#7)

14. Got To Be Real – Cheryl Lynn (1979) (US#12)

 Truly a disco classic and I knew it was back in 1979 when it was one of the first twelve-inch singles that I purchased.  It feels like an Earth Wind and Fire/Emotions track with its spiky touches.  This is another track which has stood the test of time, kicks off with a great intro and never lets up.  Cheryl puts in a great vocal here but she was actually an exceptional vocalist with a huge range as tracks like “Star Love”, which became a follow-up single and “Come In From The Rain” from the debut album attested.  In later years the material was not as strong and she faded from view without reaching the Top 40 again. 

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15. Give It Up – KC & The Sunshine Band (1983) (UK#1, US#18)

16. Theme From “Shaft”- Isaac Hayes (1971) (UK#4, US#1)

 

CD2

 1.I Feel Love – Donna Summer (1977) (UK#1, US#6)

2. Nights (Feel Like Getting’ Down) – Billy Ocean (1981)

3. Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel –Tavares (1976) (UK#4, US#15)

 The five piece Tavares brothers are up there with the all-time great family groups as far as I am concerned.  They had been making inroads in the US singles chart for three years before this grandiose slab of pop disco including a US Top 10 placing for “It Only Takes A Minute” (later covered by Take That in the UK).  On single release it was split into two parts but the full album version is what is on offer here and it is great.  The lyrics may be cheesy  (but not as cheesy as they would get with “Whodunnit”) but it’s all done with such conviction from producer Freddie Perren that it turns out a gem.  Also on their album “Sky High” produced by Perren was the almost as good “Don’t Take Away The Music”.  The Tavares’ association with disco was permanently cemented by the inclusion of the Bee Gees’ song “More Than A Woman” on “Saturday Night Fever” but their music encompassed slick R&B and commercial soul music. A remixed version by Ben Liebrand took this song back to the UK charts in 1985 when it reached number 12.  

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4. Dance To The Music – Sly & The Family Stone (1968) (UK#7, US#8)

5. Best Of My Love – The Emotions (1977) (UK#4, US#1)

6. Instant Replay – Dan Hartman (1978) (UK#8, US#29)

7. Oops Upside Your Head – The Gap Band (1980) (UK#6)

8. Lady Marmalade – Labelle (1975) (UK#17, US#1)*

In 1975 futuristic space-age funk hit the mainstream.  True it was more in the visuals and image than the sound as girl group Patti Labelle & The Bluebelles made the transition on the advice of Dusty Springfield’s manager Vicki Wickham to don elaborate costumes using what looks now like vast amounts of tin foil.  The music was a kind of dirty gospel with the girls giving absolutely everything (sometimes too much!).  It worked best of all on this tale of a New Orleans prostitute encouraging men to abandon “their grey flannel life” with the song’s hook “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi”.  How our knowledge of French improved overnight in 1975!  The US were impressed as it topped the charts, as it did in Canada and the Netherlands.  The song, written by Bob Crewe (best known for his work with The Four Seasons) and Kenny Nolan has been covered many times, including a version in 2001 from “The Moulin Rogue” Soundtrack which wasn’t a patch on the original but topped both the US and UK charts for Christina Aguliera, Lil Kim, Mya and Pink.

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9. I’m On Fire – 5000 Volts (1975) (UK#4, US#26) *

 Sounding like Los Bravos’ “Black Is Black” this introduced us to the (uncredited) voice of Tina Charles, who would become one of the leading lights of the British Disco Scene with her worldwide hit and UK#1 “I Love To Love”.  Here, she was a session singer brought in to front the track whilst another girl Luan Peters was used promotionally.  Tina’s vocal is appropriately blistering and it unsurprisingly became a UK Top 5 hit and made the US Top 30.  The success of this probably led to the more explicit discofication of “Black Is Black” by French girl group La Belle Epoque which became a huge European hit in 1977 (and a UK#2) and French disco legend Cerrone including a version on his 1976 debut album.  5000 Volts carried on without Tina Charles and scored another very worthwhile hit with the slightly menacing disco track “Dr Kiss Kiss”.

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10. Can You Feel The Force – The Real Thing (1979) (UK#5)

11. Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood – Santa Esmeralda (1977) (UK#41, US#15)

12. One For You One For Me – La Bionda (1979)

13. Megamix – Earth Wind & Fire (1989)

14. Queen Of Chinatown – Amanda Lear (1977) 

 You couldn’t make Amanda Lear up.  Statuesque blonde model of questionable age and heritage (Wikipedia places her date of birth as sometime between 1939 and 1950!), muse to Salvador Dali, girlfriend of Brian Ferry which led to her appearance on iconic Roxy Music album covers.  She ditched Ferry for David Bowie whilst rumours of her emerged that she was a vampire from Transylvania and actually a man called Alain Tap.  She posed naked in “Playboy” to dispel such stories and launched a pop career with her drawling Marlene Dietrich style vocals.  Sounds like a fame-hungry flash-in-the-pan right?  Well, her singing was an acquired taste but Europe lapped it up and to date there have been 27 albums, the last released in 2016, with her not altering her style a great deal.  No Madonna like reinvention for her- she had all the reinvention one could need at the beginning of her career.  Amanda Lear has just drawled her way sales of over 27 million.  Still a big star of European television, in the US and UK we might just wonder why.  A real-one off, in the way that Grace Jones is a one-off who lit up the discos and gossip columns.  Lear’s most critically acclaimed recording was the album “Sweet Revenge” from 1978 which Jussi Kantonen and Alan Jones in their survey of disco “Saturday Night Forever” (1999) describe as “a Faustian fable enlivened by one of the most fabulous orchestral disco productions the entire era had to offer.”  I personally have always preferred her vampire tale “Blood and Honey”.  The track here is some nonsense about a woman running an opium den which was a very big hit in Germany and like all of Amanda Lear tracks need to be heard to be believed.

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15. Love Really Hurts Without You – Billy Ocean (1976) (UK#2, US#22)

 A hugely likeable slab of pop soul which launched Billy’s career becoming his debut hit on both sides of the Atlantic.  There were a run of similar tracks including my favourite of all of his songs “Red Light Spells Danger” and then a commercially lean period of some seven years (the other Ocean track on this CD is from this era and is fairly forgettable) before hitting big and re-emerging as one of the biggest stars of the mid 80’s off the back of his Grammy award winning “Caribbean Queen”.  This track will always be a huge crowd-pleaser every time Ocean performs live.

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16. Video Killed The Radio Star – Buggles (1979) (UK#1, US#40)

Disco Classics is currently available from Amazon in the UK from £9.97 and used from £3.98.  Make sure that it is this version you are purchasing as some reviewers seem confused and seem to be reviewing a different CD.  Most of these tracks can be found on  other disco compilations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tammi Terrell

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

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

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

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Stevie with Bob Marley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

UK Chart Position – 2

US Chart Position – 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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..”

barrywhite7CD from the same Funk Essentials series – worth seeking out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

100 Essential CDs – Number 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.