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.

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

 

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The Essential Collection – Dionne Warwick (Global 1996)

UK Chart Position – 58

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Dionne and Barry Manilow

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

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

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

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

And 21 years later

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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The Prince and the Showgirls

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

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

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

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

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The top half of the infamous body suit shot

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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Greatest Hits And Rare Classics (Motown 1991)

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

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Jean Terrell 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Scherrie Payne 

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

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

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

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Scherrie, Susaye and Mary

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

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

 

100 Essential CDs – Number 3– Diana Ross & The Supremes – 40 Golden Motown Hits

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40 Golden Motown Hits (Motown/Polygram 1998)

UK Chart Position – 35

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Found languishing in a bargain bin at Asda Supermarket a few years after its release this has probably proved to be my best value CD of all time given the number of times I have played it since purchase.  Back in 1977 Motown had used the same artwork to promote 20 Golden Greats a single album compilation and had scored a UK chart-topper.  In 1993 in a deal reputed to be worth $300 million Polygram purchased Motown and now had the right to their extensive back catalogue.

 

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This and the rise of CDs meaning that more tracks could be fitted on a single disc resulted in a double CD release which was basically the original 20 enriched by a further twenty.  These new tracks incorporated a handful of Ross-less Supremes tracks, the super-group pairings with The Temptations and The Four Tops and a second CD of Diana Ross solo hits (including her duets with Marvin Gaye and Lionel Richie).  With these additions the 20 Golden Greats release was redundant.  There was a TV campaign yet this release made only 35 in the UK Charts of 1998.  It is, however a superb release and a great overview of the careers of two legendary acts – both the group and the soloist.

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On the first CD we proceed through the Supremes hit catalogue in largely chronological order.  We get the hit tracks from the Essential CDs I lumped together from “Where Did Our Love Go/”I Hear A Symphony”.  In between those album releases we had one of the girls’ greatest recordings “Stop! In The Name Of Love” (1965 US#1, UK#7) and their 5th US number 1 single in a row “Back In Your Arms Again” (1965) which only scraped the Top 40 in the UK,  There was another run of four consecutive US chart-toppers from 1966-67, “You Can’t Hurry Love” (UK#3, later to become a UK#1 in an inferior version by Phil Collins in 1982), the excellent “You Keep Me Hanging On” (UK#8, later to get to number 2 and to also top the US charts in an inferior version by Kim Wilde in 1986, proving just how long-lasting these Holland-Dozier-Holland compositions were), “Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone” (UK#17) but the best of all these came last of all.

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“The Happening” (UK#6) was the theme tune for a long-forgotten film and manages to combine a modern sound with a glitzy razzle-dazzle  Broadway type feel which is just so infectious and ingeniously combined what the girls had been up to this point and what Berry Gordy wanted them to become – sophisticated chanteuses who would transcend musical barriers.  Things changed after this release.

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Cindy Birdsong (right) joins Diana Ross and The Supremes

From this point on Diana Ross’ name came before The Supremes.  You can sense the arguments over this one to this day.  Smokey Robinson had been pushed in front of the Miracles, Martha led the Vandellas so it was inevitable that the ambitious Diana Ross would want to formally recognise her dominant position in the group.  Also at this point, Florence Ballard left to be replaced by ex Patti Labelle and The Bluebelles singer Cindy Birdsong, an act which would further entrench the rivalry between these two groups with Patti Labelle often venting her frustration at the unprecedented success of Ross when she had an inferior voice.  How much of this went on at the time or appeared later  as a result of Mary Wilson speaking out in “Dreamgirls” a book which spawned the idea of a Broadway show, a revival of which is still packing them in at the West End to this day.  In 1967, however there was no denying the commercial appeal of the group.

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The first single under the new billing ended the run of US number 1’s as “Reflections” stalled at number 2 (UK#5).  The label had begun to experiment with a slightly different sound and there is a distinctly trippy introduction to this track, which was the last single to feature Flo on vocals, although TV promotion was done by Cindy.  The reputation slipped a little further with “In And Out Of Love” (US#9, UK#13) and a couple of singles became smaller hits on both sides of the Atlantic and are not featured on this compilation.

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                                  “Love Child” saw a new direction for the group

All was redeemed, however, by the trio’s third hit single of 1968.  The mood was changing in this revolutionary year and Motown responded by injecting a bit more social awareness into their releases shifting away from everyone having a good time and innocent first loves.  1968 was also the year Holland-Dozier-Holland quit Motown and the new hit was to be penned and produced by Berry Gordy alongside others who were here to be known as The Clan.  The response as far as The Supremes were concerned was “Love Child”, a track which has as the first words you hear – “tenement slum”.  A song about illegitimacy and a woman resisting sexual pressure from her boyfriend might not seem a likely chart-topper for the 60’s but this is absolute classic Motown – a real gem of a track. It became their 11th US #1 and reached #15 in the UK. and might have perhaps mistakenly  led to the conclusion that HDH were not essential to the continued success of The Supremes.

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The writing was on the wall for the group anyway as it seems that Cindy and Mary were only being used as the public face of the group.  They did not apparently contribute to the recording of this song or of other later hits.  Motown back-up group The Andantes were doing the honours.  The social awareness continued with the guilt of a woman who had abandoned her roots in “I’m Living In Shame” (1969- US#10, UK14) with a return to the more traditional sounds of the label with the very successful pairings with The Temptations which provided a US#2, UK#3 “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” and a raiding of the Miracles’ back catalogue “I Second That Emotion” released in the UK in 1969 where it reached #18.

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The parting of the ways happened after their twelfth chart-topping single, the anthemic “Someday We’ll Be Together”.  This song penned by Johnny Bristol, Jackey Beavers and Harvey Fuqua was planned to be the first Ross solo single yet when it came to record it both Ross’ vocal and Bristol’s guide-line vocal were laid down.  The result was approved of and since it was not strictly a solo outing the decision was made to put it out as a Supremes single, although once again, Mary and Cindy do not appear.  The single reached number 13 in the UK.

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In 1968 The Supremes appeared as nuns in the TV series “Tarzan”.  Was it this that pushed Diana Ross into her solo career?

Fleshing out the first CD we have a handful of tracks released by the Supremes once Jean Terrell had come in to take lead vocals, ranging from the good as the glory days “Up The Ladder To The Roof” to the less than thrilling “Floy Joy” and the pairing of this new trio with old hands The Four Tops led to a  #14 US, #11 UK hit cover of “River Deep Mountain High” a fact that must have caused Phil Spector some irritation.  His original version of the song recorded by Ike and Tina Turner he felt was one of the best recordings of all time and his whole life began to freefall when it missed the US charts completely.  (We had a softer spot for it over here.  It reached number 3 for the duo in 1966 and was the track which introduced Tina Turner to a mainstream UK audience ).

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Onto the second disc and we get sixteen of most of the greatest tracks Diana Ross recorded at Motown.  For me, the disco era is a little unrepresented as there is no “The Boss” a brilliant Ashford and Simpson song and the version of the phenomenal “Love Hangover” is in the short 7″ single format which always sounded a little disjointed and lacked the flow of the original album track and 12″ version but I’m niggling here.

Things didn’t exactly go immediately to plan when the Ross career was launched.  “Reach Out And Touch Somebody’s Hand” stalled at a surprisingly low number 20 in her homeland and missed out on the Top 30 in the UK.  The social consciousness of the later Supremes recordings had been abandoned for what was felt to be a crowd-pleaser and although it has remained a track long associated with Ms. Ross it didn’t actually set the charts alight on release.  That happened with the follow-up, which like the debut was penned by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, a reworking of an earlier hit for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.  This was Diana Ross setting out her stall, a big, blowsy track with spoken interludes and a big build-up which really paid off.  “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” gave her a first US Pop #1 and got to #4 in the UK.  From this point she had arrived.

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Big hits followed one after another in the early 70’s and by 1975 she had topped the American charts on another two occasions both with disarmingly tender tracks.  “Touch Me In The Morning” from 1973 (UK#9) and “Do You Know Where You’re Going To” (1975 UK#5) which was the theme from her second film “Mahogany” which is fairly essential viewing in the so- bad- its- good category, where Ross’ performance is distinctly subtle compared to Anthony Perkins.  Her UK #1 came with “I’m Still Waiting” not intended for a single release but heavily pushed by DJ Tony Blackburn until the Tamla Motown UK label relented (Incidentally her post Motown UK#1 “Chain Reaction” was also largely ignored in her homeland).  She also had a UK only hit (#12- 1972) with a song with the most annoying title of all time, I’m dreading typing it, but here goes: “Doobedood’ndobe, Doobedood’ndobe,Doobedood’ndoo” which always sounds like a few songs going on at once and is the track that I would have happily sacrificed for “The Boss”.

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Disco revitalised Diana’s career from her mid 70’s chart-topper “Love Hangover” (UK#10) and when it began to falter again the hottest producers in town, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards transferred the Chic sound to the Motown label with her biggest selling album “Diana” of which really the only good tracks were all released as singles.  But what singles they were.  The biggest was “Upside Down” (US#1,UK#2), The UK went with (#5) and my favourite of the bunch, another truly anthemic Ross recording which acknowledged a large part of her fan base (although not much was made of this at the time) with “I’m Coming Out” (US#5, UK#13).  This association was reputedly stormy but it certainly paid dividends.  Dodgy films with strong soundtracks became a feature of the 1980’s and we end this marathon trawl through the Ross career with two songs which certainly outlived the films, the lovely Michael Masser and Carole Bayer Sager song “It’s My Turn” (US#9,UK#16) and the track which went onto to become Motown’s best selling single to date, her duet with Lionel Richie “Endless Love” from some cinematic drivel featuring Brooke Shields.  It topped the US charts for nine weeks and reached number 7 in the UK.

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Following this release Diana Ross decided to up sticks and move away from her 27 year hit career with the Motown label and strike out on her own at RCA.  A brave, some said foolhardy move but these 40 tracks representing these years are a superb testament to Ms Ross at Motown and there are so many highs amongst these songs.

On a historic TV moment The Supremes made their last appearance on the Ed Sullivan show and whizzed through a medley of their hit career before singing their final number 1 single.

 

40 Golden Greats seems to be quite difficult to find with the cover I have shown but Amazon has a CD with the same title and it looks like the same track listing with a cover which just features a drawing of Diana Ross.  That can be purchased for £8.72 and used from £0.09. There are a number of other Diana Ross and The Supremes compilations available but this one offers the best overview of group and solo careers.  

 

 

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

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The Donna Summer Anthology (P0lygram 1993)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

100 Essential CDs – Number 15 – Stylistics – Greatest Hits: Let’s Put It All Together

Greatest Hits: Let’s Put It All Together- Stylistics  (Phonogram 1992)

UK Chart Position – 34

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Now I will admit that a sweet tooth is needed here.  The Stylistics led the way in a brand of soul music which combined romance, lushness, a distinctive falsetto lead and a tight vocal group performance sound which was a progression from the Doowop sounds of a decade earlier.  Others in this soul subsection who shone most brightly in the mid 1970s included The Moments, The Chi-Lites, The Delfonics, Blue Magic, all of whom had been around some time when they found fame but the sweetest of all the sweet soulers were The Stylistics.

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 This was, without doubt, because of the lead vocal of Russell Tompkins Junior,  a beautifully rounded soft, nasal sound which always avoided becoming the whine it could so easily have been.  Not strictly falsetto his voice is often described as high tenor.  In some of the group’s strongest recordings this was paired with the rich baritone voice of Airron Love.  Also, providing sterling back-up were James Smith, James Dunn and Herbie Murrell.  They had been in various groups since the mid 60’s in the Philadelphia area but joined forces in 1968.  By 1975 their first hits compilation “Best Of The Stylistics” was the UK’s biggest selling album of the year and at that point the biggest ever selling by an African-American act.   

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 The hit singles continued after 1975 leading to another chart-topping Volume 2 compilation just over a year later.  The best compilations combine these two volumes and as consistent sellers there have been a number over the years.  I have chosen as my Essential Stylistics recording an eighteen tracker from 1992 which achieved a moderate chart position but is a great indication of what was both good and frustrating about their success.  It contains all sixteen of their UK Top 40 hits and nine out of the 10 US hits. 

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 The CD opens with their only UK number 1 hit single from the summer of 1975. For “I Can’t Give You Anything But My Love” record label Avco’s hot disco producer Van McCoy was drafted in as arranger to add a little extra something for the group.  Chart-wise it was the most successful track for both the group and the arranger but is not representative of the very best of either of their work.  It does have a lovely languid trumpet introduction which captures the attention and it heads off into a shuffling track which is a little faster than we would expect from the group and a nod to Disco.  It does sound at times as if Van McCoy’s signature hit “The Hustle” is playing in the background.  Van’s best productions were when he used gospel based singers to add bite to the lushness of his Soul City Symphony Sounds, most successfully in his work with Melba Moore, David Ruffin and his gospel based backing singers Faith, Hope and Charity with whom he cut a couple of albums.  With Russell Tompkins Jnr’s already sweet falsetto it’s a little bit too much of a sugar rush to be their very best work.  It was, however, their biggest UK hit and gave them a gold single.  It was not a US chart hit.

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 And here we have the dichotomy of the Stylistics hit career.  It is in two distinct phases, the first, which saw them as a Philadelphian soul act which captivated the US and gave them a solid reputation in the UK and the second where veteran songwriters and producers Hugo and Luigi took over which gave them bigger UK success but their increasingly middle of the road sound did not work so well with their traditional US audience.  By the time the group returned to their more soulful Philadelphian roots in the late 70’s/early 80’s their chart career was over on both sides of the Atlantic.   

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The second track on the album is the one that most clearly marks the end of the first era and is the track most associated with the group as well as being their biggest US hit and marked the first time they scored a UK Top 5 hit.  1974’s “You Make Me Feel Brand New” was both a UK and US number 2 as well as being a Top 3 hit in Australia and Canada, amongst other markets.  It is also their best track.  It marked the culmination of the group’s association with producer Thom Bell, who, with songwriter Linda Creed worked a string of gems not just for this group but for other sweet-soul stalwarts The Detroit Spinners and The Delfonics.  It employed the under-used rich voice of Airron Love as a counterpoint to Tompkins.  At the time it foxed quite a lot of people, who thought it was a male-female duet, even at this point in the career not everyone had cottoned on the fact that what they were listening to when they heard the Stylistics was a male voice.  The intimacy of the track is undeniable and it feels like they are singing to each other.  This was a little too much to contemplate in 1974 and may be why the group concentrated on one lead singer rather than using much interplay between the two.  Other groups got away without anyone asking questions but it is the sheer honesty of the voices and of the songs lyrics that can make it feel like a love song between two men.  (I don’t think that’s just me!)

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 The CD is not chronological so both periods of their career are interspersed.  I might have implied that the later tracks were not without merit, but this is far from the case.  Not every one of the Bell/Creed songs hits home and some of the Hugo and Luigi/George David Weiss tracks are real guilty pleasures.  Like The Drifters who had an extended UK career after their American hits dried up there’s a lot of enjoyment from their later tracks, but unlike the Drifters, who had enjoyed a long chart career, these two phases were condensed into a period of just six years from their first US hit “Stop, Look, Listen To Your Heart (US#39) (better known in the UK as a Diana Ross/Marvin Gaye duet three years later (UK#25) to their cheesy chart career end of “$7000 Dollars And You” which got to number 24 in the UK in 1977.

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 Phase 1 really kicked off with another hit which was later more associated with Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye with the Bell and Creed song “You Are Everything”.  There’s  a calm confidence in this, their first US Top 10 pop placing (#9 in 1971) and a much richer sound than the version which became a UK #5 three years later for Diana & Marvin.  Motown here appropriated the Philadelphia sound and turned out an inferior track.  What Bell and Creed were producing here at this time were standards, good quality songs with great orchestration to which was added the Tompkins voice.  Hugo and Luigi put the voice first, maybe over-egged the orchestration and the songs were more throwaway.  In phase 1 you get the beautiful love song that is “Betcha By Golly Wow” (US#3, UK13- 1972) a good enough song to have two great cover versions by Prince (UK#11 1996) and the under-rated Phyllis Hyman together with “I’m Stone In Love With You (US#10,UK#9 1972) which also became a comeback hit (after a twelve year chart absence) for Johnny Mathis (UK#10 – 1975).  There’s also a lovely version of the Bacharach/David song “You’ll Never Get To Heaven (If You Break My Heart) (US#23 -1973) which had to wait until it was re-released as the led track of an EP to chart in the UK (#24 1976). 

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 The track which hasn’t dated so well from the first phase is the uptempo “Rockin’ Roll Baby”.  As a child when this was released I got this completely wrong and thought, despite its joyous take of a father’s love for a young son, that it was a sad song.  The line that did this for me was “He’s got a funky walk/In his little orthopaedic shoes”.  This to me conjured up a disabled child being forced to dance, thrust on the stage to perform.  I thought it was a song about neglect with a theatrical setting “One night stands weren’t easy for little Joe” and was chilled by it.   I haven’t quite ever forgiven the song and the “Na Na Na” repetitions are a little annoying. 

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 Phase two of their career opened strongly as “Let’s Put It All Together” is actually really quite a beautiful song and the highpoint of the Hugo and Luigi productions.  It became their final US hit reaching number 18 in 1974 as well as number 9 in the UK.  I’ve also got a sneaking affection to the “Stone In Love With You” feel of “Star On A TV Show” UK#12) and the real guilty pleasure that is “Sing Baby Sing” (UK#3).  I used to spend all my pocket money on 7 inch singles  around this time and “Sing Baby Sing” was actually the last Stylistics single I bought.   Things started to slip downhill a bit from here. “Funky Weekend” was a nod to the disco market but was just too empty a song.  There was no reason why The Stylistics could not have made a stronger transition to disco, other Philadelphian male vocal groups such as The Trammps, The O’Jays and Harold Melvin and The Bluenotes produced great hard-hitting disco gems in this era but The Stylistics were not going to get too far with “Funky Weekend” despite its number 10 UK chart placing.  Their version of “Can’t Help Falling In Love” was also uptempo and both likeable and popular (UK#4).

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 The track I find it hardest to forgive is “Na Na Is The Saddest Word”.  What does that even mean?  Musically it’s an attractive song but lyrically, please!  The group were hot after their number 1 single and this was chosen as the follow-up.  There was enough interest in them to make this a UK #5 but this was not a chart position based on the song’s merit.  “I wrote a love song in 16 bars” is not The Stylistics taking to alcoholism and once again is not strong lyrically.  It reached number 7 in 1976.  It did seem, at this point that the cash registers were ringing happily so it did not matter a great deal if the songs were a little throwaway.  What happened to The Stylistics is far from unique in the history of pop.  Another massive group from the 70’s Boney M finished the decade with real disposable tracks (Painter Man/ Hooray Hooray It’s A Holi-Holiday etc.) that suggested those around them wanted to just take the money and run.

 It’s money that marks the end of the Stylistics chart career.  “$7,000 Dollars And You” has a cheesy Tijuana feel but the song shows the boys had their price.  Up to a million and they would choose the girl, but after that they’d take the cash!  It actually puts a smile on my face this track! It’s actually a shame record-buyers tired of them from this point as in the 1980’s they returned to their home-town and recorded again with Thom Bell under the Philadelphia International umbrella, churning good quality. less commercial pop-soul tunes.  The group, with changes in personnel, continues to tour to this day.   

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 The Stylistics – still touring!

The 18 tracks here give perhaps the best overview of the hits of The Stylistics.  If the Hugo and Luigi tracks are too much then you might wish to consider a compilation which focuses on the early years.  (One of their all-time best tracks “Only For The Children” which appeared as the B-Side of “You Make Me Feel Brand New” can be found on other compilations) but I’ve always got pleasure from the bitter-sweet soul of the Thom Bell stuff and the sugar overdose of the later tracks so this selection is the one I end up listening to most of all.

The video is intended for Karaoke purposes but seems to be the best version of the guys singing this song.  Just ignore the highlighted lyrics unless you want to sing along!

 

Greatest Hits; Let’s Put It All Together  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £8.24 and used from £2.19.  It can be downloaded for £7.99 . In the US it is available  from $13.07 and used for $1.68.   Other promising compilations available include 5 Classic Albums (48 tracks) and the 36 track Double CD “Ultimate Collection”.

100 Essential CDs – Number 43 – Steps – Gold : The Greatest Hits

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Gold: The Greatest Hits (Jive 2001)

UK Chart Position – 1

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Sometimes you just need to rise above the gloom.  Pop music is going through one of those cyclical stages where it’s taking itself all a little too seriously and is all a little worthy.  In the history of pop this has led to explosions of new music forms – rock n roll, punk, disco, the New Romantics all came about to just shake things up a bit.  Is it then, any wonder in this time of tension and uncertainty that one of the big albums of last year marked the return of Steps?  The timing must have been just right.  A previous comeback had been spurred by the reality show “Steps; The Reunion” which saw the group having to come to terms with their break-up with tears and silences worthy of Harold Pinter. This led to “Light Up The World”, an attempt to cash in to the 2012 Xmas market which didn’t either light up the world or particularly cash in with its number 32 chart place.  Five years later we were properly ready for the return. 

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Steps provides an excellent example of how the music business has changed.  Back in the mid 90’s they would be guaranteed a good chart placing with their singles bought by legions of loyal fans but now with vast numbers of streaming required they don’t really get a look in.  It would have seemed incredible then that an original number 2 album by a pop band would only spawn one number 37 chart single, but that is how things have changed.  2017’s “Tears On The Dancefloor” was probably their strongest studio album as it departed from the pattern of an album built around potential hit singles with a number of largely throwaway album tracks. The best, most essential way to listen to this group remains through a Greatest Hits Collection and in 2001 a lot of record buyers agreed with me as it became the second of their three number one albums (with another hits package “The Ultimate Collection” doing the same ten years later with just a couple of track changes.)

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 On “Gold” we have twenty tracks representing the best of Steps, from their Abba pastiche ballads to tracks that went down a storm in nightclubs.  Here they are in non-chronological order and feature their two number 1 UK singles (one of which was a double A side which has both sides represented) and their string of Top 10 hits.  They are great fun, non-threatening and accomplished- really the perfect pop band for our times.  They are also manufactured, put together in an attempt to give the world a choreography- based pop band – hence the name.  Following a magazine advert and auditions the line-up became Claire Richards (who incidentally went to the same secondary school as I did- not at the same time, I hasten to add), Faye Tozer, Lisa Scott-Lee, Ian “H” Watkins, and Lee Latchford-Evans.  The criticism that is often levied at the group is that the boys do not add a great deal.  True, their vocals may not always be totally distinguishable on the songs, particularly in the early days, but they helped so much with promoting the brand image of the band, Lee’s good looks and H’s manic likeability ensured TV appearance and magazine covers geared towards a younger audience.  Anyone doubting their value (and Lisa, who probably got less lead vocals than the other two girls, can get dragged into this) just needed to see them perform live to bring home how hard they all work and what a strong unit they could be.

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 It all started off for them with a track which didn’t exactly shout out career longevity.  “5,6,7,8” is largely a novelty, line dance of a track with the rap by Lee Latchford-Evans being one of his most significant contributions to the Steps oeuvre.  It fitted in with Europop one-offs like “Cotton Eyed Joe” and other tracks too ghastly to recall, but what set “5,6,7,8” apart was a video which showed these five shiny pop stars for the first time.  Lee, Claire, Faye, H, Lisa.  We were already beginning to pick our favourites in a tactic which had worked very well for the Spice Girls.  The single got a respectable mid chart #14 placing.  Based on the track alone this might have been all we heard from Steps but the image and concept were stronger. There were also the international markets to consider as the group scored a worldwide hit from the off, reaching number 1 in Australia and number 2 in Belgium and New Zealand. 

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Producer Pete Waterman, in putting together their debut album knew he had more than a singing dance troupe on his hands as this group could sing and with the girls he had three voices which could add much texture to a song.  In coming up with a follow-up hit he recalled a track which he had previously recorded. Bananarama never had the vocal quality of Steps (sorry girls) and a track “Last Thing On My Mind” had been an album track on their 1993 post-glory days album “Please Yourself” when they were recording as a duo.  Waterman realised there was life in this track and boosting it with additional Steps energy worked a treat and made me  think for the first time that this was a group who were going somewhere.  Released in May 1998 it reached number 6, was a Top 5 hit in Australia and topped the charts in Belgium.    It opened the floodgates and for the next three years we were never more than a couple of months from a big Steps track.

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 “One For Sorrow” (UK#2) added another dimension as here was a song which had an authentic Abba-esque feel in its verse, a cut-price “Winner Takes It All” in effect.  The Abba influence is also evident in a number of the other tracks.  The group scored a #4 hit in 1999 with an Abba tribute taken from the Brits Ceremony for that year performed with lesser pop acts B*Witched, Billie Piper, Cleopatra and Tina Cousins and the group just seemed to slot into the whole Abba revival thing created by “Mamma Mia”, the show and the film which became beloved of hen parties everywhere. “Thank Abba For The Music” does not actually appear on “Gold”.  This connection was most fully realised, however, after the Steps implosion when H and Claire put out their fans’ loyalty-splitting album recorded as a duo, the title track of which “Another You Another Me” was written for them by Bjorn and Benny. 

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 The fourth single was a perfectly timed double A side which gave them their first chart-topper and featured the song most associated with them.  The Bee Gees had already had a number 1 hit with “Tragedy” in 1979 and nineteen years later all it needed was an ear-cupping dance move and a wedding themed video and that ensured that this would be the hit of Xmas office parties for years to come. The better track of the two is the attractive sing-along ballad “Heartbeat” with its trademark stomach-rumbling sound touches and a Steps -at- Christmas cockle-warming video.  The original Bee Gees version of “Tragedy” is now less remembered than the Steps cover.  With such a successful cover version under their belt it’s not surprising that it was a method tried on further occasions.  “Chain Reaction” (another Bee Gees penned song) gave a slightly different interpretation to the Diana Ross chart-topper and reached #2 in 2001.  Pete Waterman raided his old song-book again for “Better The Devil You Know” which added absolutely nothing to the Kylie version (1999 #4) and a track left off this album was paired with the “new material” “Words Are Not Enough” for a number 5 single in 2001, but I don’t think we really needed another version of “I Know Him So Well”.

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 The golden years were 1999 and 2000 as the group then put out a string of tracks which perfectly summed up what Steps were all about and were rewarded with big sales “Better Best Forgotten” (UK#2), “Love’s Got A Hold On My Heart” (UK#2), and “After The Love Has Gone” (UK #5) are a trio of little pop gems, danceable sing-alongs which, even when the lyrics were melancholy lifted the spirits.  In 2000 a slightly harder dancer edge was used to great effect in the sublime “Deeper Shade Of Blue” (UK#4) and the latin-tinged fiesta of “Summer Of Love” (UK#5).

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By the time of the third album “Buzz”, which just a couple of years after did seem to be a regular feature in the CD collections of charity shops, the group were striving for a cooler sound than the Hit Factory artists they had become and were using Swedish producers and saw the group writing themselves and employing Cyndi Lauper to help out.  It certainly paid dividends with the track released just before the album as “Stomp” with its Chic influenced “Everybody Dance” groove, felt like a song by one of the cooler boy bands of the time more than the sound we had associated with Steps and it showed the public was behind this (slight) change of direction when it became their second UK #1 single after so many near misses.

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 At least part of Step’s continued success could be put down to them being a highly bankable live act.  I did see them perform at The Brighton Centre at the height of their career and the audience split equally between kids, parents and grandparents, hen and office parties and gay men absolutely lapped it up.  They worked so hard onstage and this was publicly recognised in 2000 when they were given a special Brits award for being the Best Selling Live Act for that year.  Working so hard, however, recording, touring continually and being in demand for television appearances was bound to take its toll.

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On Boxing Day 2001 it publicly fell apart.  There had been rumours circulating from the release of the “Gold” package that the group’s days were numbered.  When the announcement came there was considerable backlash concerning poor timing, ruining Christmas for fans and criticism that the band had cashed in to make the most of the Christmas market.  Claire and H had been through enough, fans could see how hard the band had worked and knew they would be in need of a rest.  It was perhaps not the best of news for H and Claire to sign a reputed big value recording deal with Warner to continue as what would really be Steps minus three.

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This partnership scored three Top 10 singles which suggested good things for them, but the album release was fairly disastrous, reaching number 58 in a one week chart stay.  I picked up a copy in Poundland just a couple of months after its release and the duo were dropped, causing bitterness and recriminations which permeated throughout the five members of the group which were only partly resolved during the reality series “Steps- The Reunion.” Faye moved fairly effortlessly into musical theatre (with earnings obviously drastically reduced), Lee concentrated on personal training and choreography with occasional forays back into shows and pantomime and Lisa, eventually got a reality TV series “Totally Scott-Lee” in 2005 which focused on Lisa and family members in which she made the rash statement that if a solo single did not reach the Top 10 she would give up on the music business completely.  With the twist of fate that such pronouncements encouraged it reached number 11.

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And now Steps are back, issues resolved and now in their 40’s and able to recreate their happy pop sound for a different album-buying era.  I hope this revival isn’t just a flash in the pan, but even if this turns out to be so, we do have compilations including my essential CD “Gold” to relive those finest moments.

 

Gold  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £9.31 and used from £0.09.  It can be downloaded for £7.99 . In the US it is available  from $12.99 and used for $0.01.   In the UK it is available to stream on Spotify.