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

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

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

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

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Kunze and Levay still working together after all these years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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100 Essential CDs – Number 74 – Lionel Richie – Back To Front

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Back To Front – Lionel Richie (Motown 1992)

UK Chart Position – 1
US Chart Position –19

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The Commodores were signed to the Motown label in 1972 and built up a following as a support act for the Jackson 5. Pretty much a funk band in the early days the group member initially playing the saxophone was one Lionel Richie from Tuskagee, Alabama. The group’s first hit “Machine Gun” (1974 UK#20 US# 22) was actually an instrumental where Lionel’s sax work can be heard. As the group diversified into ballads alongside the funk Lionel’s vocals began to be heard in hits such as “Sweet Love” (1976 UK#32, US#5) and the all-time classic “Easy” (1977 UK#9, US#4) and a song penned for his wife “Three Times A Lady” became the group’s first chart-topper on both sides of the Atlantic and opened doors for Richie. Asked to write and produce a hit for country singer Kenny Rogers, “Lady” saw Richie crossing into new markets and scored his biggest hit to date, his first US #1 in 1980. The following year saw Richie pen a song from the throwaway Brooke Shields movie “Endless Love” and record it as a duet with Diana Ross. In the US that became Motown’s biggest selling single to date with a nine week run at number 1. (In the UK it stalled at number 7). A solo career inevitably beckoned.

From “Machine Gun” to “Natural High” the Commodores became one of Motown’s biggest groups.

By 1992, after three huge selling albums Richie had experienced a five year career hiatus and to remove the pressure of having to come up with a whole new album Motown green-lighted “Back To Front” which would feature three new recordings alongside 13 of his biggest hits, predominantly from the solo career. The title explains the format- the new material was not tucked in at the end but led the recording. It brought Richie back into the limelight and topped the charts in the UK. It’s a great one- album introduction to what Richie was all about.

The format, does mean, however that the CD opens with the weakest track on display. “Do It To Me” like the rest of the new material was written by Richie and produced by Stewart Levine. All three were released as singles in the UK. This came out about a month before the album was released and is a pleasant enough early 90’s laid-back ballad with plenty of saxophone. It is a long way from the classic Richie songs and feels the most like album filler of the three tracks. It gave Richie his first UK Top 40 hit for over five years when it reached number 33. In the US it did better and became the highest placed track of the new material, scoring him his fifth solo R&B chart-topper and making 21 in the pop charts. In the UK we favoured the second release, “My Destiny” which is, as far as I am concerned, his last great single release. Its number 7 placing was his highest since 1986’s “Dancing On The Ceiling”. It also topped the charts in the Netherlands. It feels the most contemporary of the three, a slinky mid-tempo number which felt like just what Richie should have been releasing in 1992. It’s a great little sing along track

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Major anthem status was sought out for the third of the three tracks, “Love Oh Love” which has the feel of “We Are The World” the all-star USA for Africa song written by Richie with Michael Jackson as part of Live Aid. This tracks hovers very close to the cheesy with its chorus of children, “Little Drummer Boy” rhythm and big themes of world peace and eradicating sorrow but rather like Mr Jackson’s “Earth Song” I personally think Richie gets away with it and it’s all rather charming. At the end of 1992 I thought this could garner the Xmas single market and be a big hit but it didn’t happen, falling short of the Top 40. Once again it had its strongest approval in the Netherlands where it was a Top 20 hit.

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I don’t feel that these new tracks let the album down in any way but it is more likely that people purchased it for the remaining thirteen tracks, probably to replace on CD what was already owned on vinyl. There’s no chronological approach as suggested by the title, we just get a mixture of tracks from the back catalogue. As a solo artist Richie released three solo albums on Motown and here we get the cream of those tracks – just one from the first album, five of the original eight tracks from the second and two from the third. As well as this there is the non-album duet and four of his biggest Commodores hits to make up the 16 tracks. It made better sense to buy this on CD to replace a vinyl copy of “Can’t Slow Down”, that second Motown album, as you got the best tracks from that and much more besides. I don’t think it totally encompasses the cream of the Commodores output – for that I would recommend the 2005 double CD “Gold”.

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The thing that slightly overshadows Richie’s career as far as I am concerned is that with both his solo hits and works with the Commodores, the biggest hits, the ones that have come to define the artist are some distance from his best. “Three Times A Lady” with its quite traditional waltz feel and ever so cheesy lyrics sounded alright at the time of release and certainly broadened the group’s appeal with an older generation above their usual market falling for this schmalty track and it gave the group their first Pop #1 on both sides of the Atlantic. Solo Richie’s pretty-enough ballad from his second album “Hello” was the third single release off a very big release so something was needed to bring it to record buyers who had not gone for the album. A cheesy video, which at the time seemed more like a movie with a blind girl fashioning the head of Richie out of clay was fine for the first few viewings but then its out and out cheesiness became indelibly linked with the song in my head and is often the first thing people remember about Richie. This track also topped the Charts in the USA and became his only solo number one in the UK. I tolerate both these tracks on the CD but don’t exactly look forward to either of them, but probably for many people, these may have been what decided them to part with their cash for “Back To Front”.

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So, that’s the negatives done with. Let’s look at what is really special about this album. Firstly, that’s all the rest of the Commodores tracks, particularly “Easy”. How great a track is this? Penned by Richie and produced alongside James Anthony Carmichael, it is real laid-back sophisticated soul, stopped being totally as “easy as a Sunday morning” by one of the great guitar solos in a pop hit. There’s a great echoey feel to the whole thing. It’s one of the best not-out-of-Detroit Motown singles of all time. “Still” is also excellent and became their second US chart-topper in 1979 (in the UK#4) a real piece of calm amidst all the Disco that was released that year and sounding pretty much like a deep soul ballad with an orchestral backing. “Sail On” (1979 US#4 UK#8) perhaps underlines more than any of the others how close this group could go towards country music, and may have been behind the idea to have Richie work with country legend Kenny Rogers, this kind of musical boundary blurring quite unusual in the days of genre-specific radio play in the US. There’s a lovely build to this track.

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To launch his solo career Richie took producer James Anthony Carmichael with him and with him now penning much of the Commodres material it was really the smoothest of transitions to solo stardom as first solo hit “Truly” fits in perfectly with The Commodores ballad sound. Another calm ballad very much in the feel of “Still” with the build of “Sail On”. It was an unsurprising US Pop #1 and reached 6 in the UK in 1982.

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The album “Can’t Slow Down” was a clear statement at propelling Richie towards super-stardom. It fused musical styles ending up really as one of the early classic black pop albums and won the Grammy for the Album of The Year in 1985 and topped charts all around the world. The infectious “All Night Long (All Night)” proved that Richie wasn’t just a ballad singer but was also no longer the funk singer who snarled his way through “Brick House”. This was bright and breezy and intended for the masses and they loved it as it topped the US chats and got to number 2 in the UK. Its carnival feel ensured its worldwide success. Less showy but successful tracks from the album here included are “Penny Lover” (1984 US#8, UK#18), Stuck On You (US#3,UK#12) and the rock-lite of “Running With The Night” (US#7, UK#9) where a rock guitar which made “Easy” holds this track back .

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The third Richie solo album, “Dancing On The Ceiling” didn’t impress me nearly as much. The tracks included here, the title track, (1986 US#2, US#7) and “Say You Say Me” (US#1, UK#8) actually sound better now than they did at the time of release when I found one cheesy and one a little dull. Other single releases from the album, especially “Ballerina Girl” and “Sela” seemed to suggest Richie had lost his way somewhat as far as this record buyer was concerned. They are not included on “Back To Front” and led to a burnt out Richie beginning his extended break from recording and the public arena.

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Lionel Richie was not able to build on the success of this album and it was not until 1996, four years after this compilation and ten years after his last studio album that he re-emerged on the Mercury label with “Louder Than Words”. Over the years his subsequent albums have seen him toying with R&B and hip-hop influenced tracks with varying success. Nothing he has recorded since I would consider essential, although there was a triumphant return to form in 2012 when a back-to-his-country roots album “Tuskagee” topped the US charts marking his first Number 1 hit in 26 years. This revisited his hits alongside collaborations with country music stars including Shania Twain, Willie Nelson and with Kenny Rogers on a new version of “Lady” which helped catapult him into solo fame. This was too much country for me, but it was great to have him back in the limelight.

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Richie has sold over 100 million albums worldwide and features on lists of the biggest selling stars of all time. This album reminds us why.

 

Back To Front is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £3.85 and used from £0.05.  It can be downloaded for $7.89 .In the US it is available new from $12.11, Used from $0.08 and can be downloaded for $6.99.used for $3.00.  It is also available to stream from Spotify in the UK.

100 Essential CDs – Number 93 –Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes – The Very Best Of

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The Very Best Of Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes (Sony 2014)

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It was back in 1954 that Philadelphian Harold Melvin formed a doo-wop group.  They had a good reputation, were a popular live band and recorded on a number of small record labels.  Commercial success eluded them.  The best of the early tracks is a song called “Get Out (And Let Me Cry)” which became popular in the UK Northern Soul Scene.  (It reached number 35 in the UK Pop Charts in 1975 when re-released on the Route label).  Fifteen years into their existence a drummer joined their touring band.  His name was Teddy Pendergrass and when lead singer John Atkins left in the early 70’s Teddy took over the role of lead vocalist.

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In 1971, 17 years after their formation, this struggling group got a break and were signed by the very up and coming Philadelphia International Records by the two men behind the label Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff who saw the raspiness of the Pendergrass voice as an excellent foil to the lush orchestration which was to become the selling point of this new Philadelphia sound.

At long last success came, but they are still very much an under-rated group and should have been bigger commercially.  The hit single tally is 4 US Pop Top 2o hits and five UK Top 40 hits for the Philadelphia International label, all of which are included on this seventeen track album.

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When fame came there was always going to be an issue and that was the group’s name.  By the early 70’s we were used to performers in groups being pushed to the front – Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, Diana Ross and The Supremes, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles the list goes on.  But here the problem was Harold Melvin was not the lead singer, even though the casual listener would have assumed he was.  Harold Melvin and The Bluenotes featuring Theodore Pendergrass was tried but just didn’t exactly slip off the tongue.  It was going to cause tensions.  There were four albums before the group were faced with Pendergrass’ departure.  Even within these Melvin was experimenting with other voices on the tracks, including female singer Sharon Paige. The record label, seeing where the unique selling point of this group was kept Pendergrass on as a solo artist, where he became an R&B legend.  The group found a new lead singer in David Ebo and moved to ABC records and a return to relative obscurity.

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These seventeen tracks are taken from the golden four year period and have stood the test of time.  They are a combination of classic soul ballads and uptempo numbers which due to the lushness of the Philly orchestration are early disco classics.  For a long time this group was not best served by compilations.  I favoured the ten track “Super Hits” (Epic Legacy 2000) but there are obvious omissions and a couple of the tracks in their full-length version are a little over-realised.   This compilation adds seven more tracks, generally in their single length or Part 1 versions and is therefore my choice as an Essential CD.

 

Some of the other hits compilations that have been available over the years

The album kicks off with a bang and one of those early disco classics which is here presented in its full-length six and a half-minute form.  “Bad Luck” became the group’s third US hit in 1975 when it reached number 15 but never became a UK hit.  The opening funky bass-line would have perhaps been more recognisable to us Brits as it was used by The Ritchie Family in their hit disco-medley “The Best Disco In Town”.  From this it explodes into a sing-a-long stormer from the group- not their best uptempo track but close to it.  The standard is maintained for the O-Jays-ish “Satisfaction Guaranteed (Or Take Your Love Back) which is archetypal uptempo Philly Soul and reached number 32 in the UK when issued as a single in 1974.  This track is inexplicably absent on the “Super Hits” compilation so it is great to hear it here.  It was one of the stand-out tracks on their second “Black And Blue” album.  It features one of the great in-intro grunts on record, sounding  like a bear being awoken from its slumbers.

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“Wake Up Everybody” was very much a swan-song for the group, their last US Pop hit reaching number 12 and number 23 in the UK in 1976.  Philadelphia were quite hot on political message songs with songs such as “Love Train”, “Let’s Clean Up The Ghetto”, and “Let Em In” doing well for the label.  In fact, the output of the label was very much either love songs, message songs or have a good time dance tunes.  “Wake Up Everybody” is the Blue Notes’ most significant message song, intended to stir us out of our mid 70’s lethargy and self-centeredness.  (Things haven’t really changed).  Headed off by a lovely piece of piano glissando this is a great tune.  Message songs can come across as naive but there’s something about Teddy’s call to get motivated to help out the community which I’ve always found appealing.

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The big hit is next which really kick-started the Philadelphia International career for them.  “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” is a true soul classic and one of Gamble & Huff’s best songs and productions.  It seems like Teddy, in a ten year relationship, is not going to change so it’s a bit of a like it or lump it situation.  In late 72/early 73 this reached #3 in the US and #9 in the UK.  The chart honours for this particular track, however, go to Mick Hucknell of Simply Red who took it to the very top of the US charts and number 2 in the UK in 1989.  I’m sure even he would admit that the original version is the best.

There’s still a couple of disco anthems to be enjoyed beginning with “The Love I Lost” (US#7, UK#21 in 1974).  This benefits from being shortened from the album version where the “I lost you, sorry I lost you” refrain goes on too long.  As a three and a half minute single it is perfection. This song also had a new lease of life in 1993 when West End featuring Sybil took it to number 3 in the UK.  And talking of a song with an extended lease of life…

“Don’t Leave Me This Way,” a Gamble and Huff song written with Cary Gilbert began life as an album track on the “Wake Up Everybody” album.  A slow moody start, with tom-tom intro it ripples into an impassioned disco track.  Over at Motown they decided to give it a Hal Davis “Love Hangover” treatment for Thelma Houston which just exploded causing the Blue Notes version to race up the charts in the UK alongside Thelma.  In the US it gave Thelma her only US number 1 single, the biggest hit of her career.  In the UK it became Harold Melvin’s biggest chart success peaking at number 5 where Thelma had to make do with a number 13 placing.  I love both versions of this song.  To complex matters there was a third even bigger excellent version nine years later when The Communards topped the UK charts in 1987.  I’d be hard pushed to pick my favourite of the three versions of this song.  By 1977 when the group were in the UK Top 5 there was no chance of them capitalising with new material as by this time they were Teddy Pendergrass-less and recording for ABC.  The impetus caused by this re-release did see their ABC debut “Reaching For The World” getting a limited amount of UK action, reaching 48, but that is beyond the scope of this album.

Don’t Leave Them This Way – The Blue Notes, Thelma Houston & Communards

The writing on the wall can be heard on the track “To Be True” which comes from their 1975 album of the same name as the vocalist here is none other than Harold Melvin himself.  It’s a nice enough track but I find myself willing Teddy to make an appearance.  It is certainly still Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes but it’s not Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes as we knew them and that shows why this group was unlikely to do that much after Pendergrass’ departure.  To a certain extent I feel this way about the two tracks which feature Sharon Paige, “Hope That We Can Be Together Soon” is very much a Paige/Pendergrass duet and did in fact top the US R&B charts.  Sharon is given a bigger bite of the cherry with “You Know How To Make Me Feel So Good” and my reservations here apply.  It looks like I’m pushing Teddy into his solo career here, but I’m actually not.  What I really like is the juxtaposition between the group’s vocals and the lead.  You can tell their roots are in doowop and really like Gladys Knight and The Pips it is this interplay which make this group great.  This works so well on the bluesy “Yesterday I Had The Blues” and in the magnificent disco treat of “Tell The World How I Feel About Cha Baby”.  Here they are certainly not relegated to backing singers as they have the song’s hooks  but the group sound and the Teddy lead just work really so well.

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Elsewhere on the CD, away from the hits, you get the excellent “Where Are All My Friends” a time-old tale of friends vanishing when you hit on bad times, “Be For Real” which is a musical lecture from Theodore to his lady who looks down on people and “I Miss You” one of the great soul songs about loss which is almost animalistic in its howling passion, which can make it a little difficult to listen to.

The song that really feels out of place is the one minute 45 section snatch of the show-tune “Cabaret” sung in harmony very much in the same style as Motown would occasionally employ with The Four Tops (with “Mame”) and The Temptations (with “That’s Life” and “Hello Young Lovers”).  Was this an attempt at broadening the appeal of the group?  Berry Gordy over at Motown would at one point deliberately record tracks like these for his acts in order to chase the lucrative older white album-buying market which would lead to lucrative supper-club bookings but it feels a little late in the day (1973) to be doing this.  Was it just a way to show that this group were every bit as good singers of more traditional fare as the Tops and the Temps?  I’m not sure but it is less than two minutes out of an hour-plus of super-soulful sounds.

Harold Melvin and Teddy Pendergrass

Harold Melvin continued to plug away with various incarnations of The Blue Notes and died in 1997.  Teddy recorded two of the best singles of all time in his long solo career, his debut release “The Whole Town’s Laughing At Me” which promised so much and even better than that is “Can’t We Try?” which contains one of the most heart-felt male R&B vocals ever.  I preferred him more as a loser of love than the Barry White-esque Love God he was sometimes made out to be in tracks such as “Turn Off The Lights” and “Close The Door”.  In his homeland he recorded a run of big selling albums and was an essential live performer.  In 1982 things changed overnight when a horrific car accident left him paraplegic.  There were years of health issues over the years with musical comebacks and much charity work.  He died in 2010 at the age of 59.

These are the glory days of these Philadelphia International’s superstars career.  Listening to this album shows what a great ballad group and also what a great group of uptempo material they were.

The Very Best Of Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £3.99 and used from £2.72. It can be downloaded for £6.99. In the US this CD is harder to come by but other compilations are available.  In the UK it is also available to stream on Spotify.

100 Essential CDs – Number 77 –Madonna – The Immaculate Collection

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The Immaculate Collection – Madonna  (Sire/Warner Bros 1990) 

UK Chart Position – 1

US Chart Position – 2

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As far as I was concerned, 1990 was a great year for Madonna.  She put out her best album “I’m Breathless” with music taken from and inspired by her hit movie “Dick Tracy” and at the end of the year she was back again with this 17 track album.  Not exactly a Greatest Hits package as it had two new songs this did have the effect of getting people to buy all over again tracks that they would probably have already owned.  But, as is often the case with Madonna, her timing was right.  1990 was still a time when people would have been replacing what they had on vinyl with CDs (we’ve turned full circle again on that).  A lot of Madonna’s early stuff would have been purchased on vinyl.  I certainly had a vinyl copy of her “Like A Virgin” album.  Up to this point, Madonna’s albums were not exactly essential- the best tracks were the hit singles taken from them, so here was a chance to get those hit singles without album filler on one Immaculate CD.  We certainly went with it as “The Immaculate Conception” is Madonna’s biggest selling album of all time, to date over 30 million copies.  It is the best-selling greatest hits package ever by a solo artist.  Its nine week stint at number 1 in the UK singles chart was  a record for a female artist for 21 years until Adele’s appropriately titled “21” came along.  It is the fourth biggest selling greatest hits package (behind the two Queen Greatest Hits volumes and Abba Gold) and to date has been in the charts for 338 weeks.  In July 2016 to celebrate the 60 years of the UK chart , the Official Albums Chart published a list of the biggest selling UK albums of all time.  This was at number 12.

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In the US it sold ten million copies and stayed 141 weeks on the chart although it peaked at number 2.  It topped the album charts in many countries including Canada, Finland and Australia, where it was also one of the biggest albums of the year.

By 1990 Madonna had been scoring single hits for six years and had so many chart records that the compilers could pick and choose.  It certainly is not the definitive catalogue of hits as it even omits UK number 1 singles such as “True Blue” and “Who’s That Girl?”.  Its 17 tracks comprises 5 UK number 1’s and 11 UK Top 5 hits.  In the US the tally is 8 number 1’s and 6 Top 5’s.  (In case you are wondering the ones that missed the Top 5 but still made the album are Lucky Star (UK#14) and in the US Holiday (US#16) Borderline (US#10) and Rescue Me (US#9).  Statistically, it is an important album and it still sounds very good too.

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For most of us Brits our first sight of Madonna was on “Top Of The Pops”on 26th January 1984 when her debut single had entered the charts at 29.  Traditionally a quiet time in the music business after the Christmas festivities “Holiday” had moved up 11 places to number 29 so was an obvious choice for the chart-linked show.  Her performance was very memorable.  She was sandwiched between two dancers, one being her brother Chris wearing fishnet vests with a dance routine which was curious, but mesmerising.  It was atypical Madonna in a way, because the size of the stage and the emphasis given to the dancers would have left some viewers unsure if Madonna was the name of the female in the middle or a three piece group.  Making her UK chart debut in exactly the same week as Madonna was another squeaky-voiced New York resident who was zooming up the listings with “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”.  I would think that, at the time, if people were asked who would have the biggest career, Madonna or Cyndi Lauper, a sizeable number would choose the latter.  There was a greater buzz about her.  The week after that first Madonna British TV appearance Cyndi had climbed eight places to her chart peak at number 2 and Madonna 16 places to number 13 with her song that would eventually peak at number 6 on this chart run.  “Holiday” was a party song that would have lifted the spirits of the gloomy start to 1984 but would have fared better as a summertime track. Re-released in August the next year it climbed to number 2. In the US it reached number 16.  The “holiday/celebrate” refrain is certainly an earworm which will go through my head on probably every day off I have.

Two new stars of early 84- Madonna and Cyndi

Second hit “Lucky Star” is more of a club groove and became her lowest charting UK single for the next 10 years when it reached 14.  In the US it was saved as the third single where the ever-increasing buzz about this new face of 1984 took it to number 4.  It is her third UK single which for me is her first great track, and one that certainly still stands the best of time.  “Borderline” was written and composed by Reggie Lucas, remixed by her then boyfriend Jellybean.  On re-release like “Holiday” this would go to number 2 in the UK but the initial response was lukewarm.  In the US as a second single it would reach number 10.  Despite its tale of unfulfilled love it is a very warm track, and has echoes of Motown and Philadelphia International tracks of a decade earlier.  It has appeared in various all-time great track lists and just shows what Madonna is all about.

Things became more showy and more pop with her next couple of singles “Like A Virgin” (her first US number 1) and “Material Girl” which both went a great way in establishing the brand of Madonna and both were supported by all-time classic videos which ensured the visual imagery would always be strong in the rest of thirty-plus year career.  Both were also produced by legendary producer Nile Rodgers who by this time had abandoned his distinctive Chic-like sound and came up with something more pop influenced.

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Ballads “Crazy For You” and “Live To Tell” rang the changes but did not make a great deal of impression on me (although the former sounds better now than it did then).  Sandwiched between these was a convincing return to the dance floors with “Into The Groove” taken from the movie “Desperately Seeking Susan” which bizarrely was released as a B-Side to “Angel” in the US but became in the UK her first number one single.  If Madonna had lingered in the decidedly pop side of dance music this felt more authentic at the time.  It was written and produced by Madonna with then boy-friend Stephen Bray.  A run of great tracks follow on  with the Illegitimacy-to–a-dance-beat of “Papa Don’t Preach” with its great use of strings, the cool latin summer of “La Isla Bonita” and  the gospelesque fervour of “Like A Prayer”, all of which were UK chart-toppers.  Her 1989 hits included the powerhouse of “Express Yourself” and the cutesie retro-pop of “Cherish”, which both reached number 2 in the US (UK#5 and 3 respectively).

This brings us to 1990 and the release of the Dick Tracy movie and the return to the top spot worldwide with “Vogue”.  The two new tracks which follow this are to a good extent, inspired by “Vogue” and mark another shift in the musical sounds of Madonna.  The rap in “Vogue” gave Madonna the confidence to explore this a little further, we have the spoken sensitive sultriness of “Justify My Love” produced by Lenny Kravitz and the combination of this new Madonna and the old dance diva with the Madonna and Shep Pettibone produced “Rescue Me”.  Both presented here as new tracks with the lyrics printed in the CD booklet.  “Justify…” would be released as the first single from this collection at the end of 1990 topping the US charts and missing out on the UK top spot because of Vanilla Ice.  In the UK “Rescue Me” would follow up another very successful re-release of “Crazy For You” (UK #2- 1991) and would reach #3.  In the US it reached number 9.

“Erotica” the album and “Sex” the book – thank goodness she dedicated “Immaculate Collection” to the Pope!

Madonna’s next album in 1992 “Erotica” would explore the same area as “Justify My Love” but would push the boundaries further into sex, bondage and a coffee-table book which would make this vision explicit, showing us perhaps more Madonna than we wanted to see.  Detractors held their hands up in horror, citing Madonna as a reason behind the fall of the human race but we all knew it was Madonna ensuring that we were still talking about her and taking notice of what she was doing.  Twenty years at the top for female pop recording artists was still pretty rare then.

From this release onwards I was with Madonna all the way up until 2012’s “MDNA”.  However, this would be the last release that I would consider essential although I had most time for 2008’s “Hard Candy”.  “The Immaculate Collection” features an important outline of the first 6 years.  For my YouTube pick I’ve gone for my first introduction to Madonna and her debut performance on “Top Of The Pops”.  I wonder, whilst she’s cocking her leg in that strange way whether she can see the next thirty odd years of  an amazing career stretched out in front of her?

The Immaculate Collection  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £4.12, and used from £0.01. It can be downloaded for £9.09. In the US it is currently $10.00 new and used from $0.01.  In the UK it is also available to stream on Spotify.

100 Essential CDs – Number 63 –The Greatest Hits – Whitney Houston

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The Greatest Hits – Whitney Houston  (Arista 2000)

 UK Chart Position – 1

US Chart Position – 2

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It had been two years since Whitney had re-established herself in pop charts and perhaps more importantly for her in R&B markets with her album “My Love Is Your Love”.  It seemed a good time to produce a career retrospective which took in her four studio albums, her movie soundtracks together with a smattering of new tracks.  It was a double CD release with one focusing on the ballads “Cool Down” and one on the dance tracks “Throw Down”.  On its release in 2000 it topped the UK charts, got to number 2 in the US and following her untimely death in 2012 saw a huge surge in sales worldwide.  Obviously there are compilations which take in the whole of her twenty-seven year career but in my opinion there was not a lot that was essential in the last twelve so this would be the one that I would opt for.  This contains her eleven US number 1 and four UK number 1 singles.

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It all kicks off with the track that really got the ball rolling for me.  “Saving All My Love For You” was a very mature ballad written by Michael Masser and veteran song-writer Gerry Goffin and had previously been recorded by Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis Jnr (of “You Don’t Have To Be A Star” fame).  It sounded like a release from someone who had been in the business for years and was at the top of her game- whereas it was the follow-up to her number 3 US debut single and became her first British hit.  It also gave her a first Grammy for Best Female Vocal Performance in 1986 and is surely one of the greatest vocal performances of all time.  It was a high point of the debut album “Whitney Houston” and is only eclipsed in terms of Whitney ballads, in my opinion, by the track that comes next.  Staying with Michael Masser this time with lyricist Linda Creed “The Greatest Love Of All” was another song which had been tried and tested by another artist.  Used in the film “The Greatest” a bio-pic of Muhammed Ali, George Benson had taken the song to US#24, UK#27 in 1977.  Whilst Benson’s version is good, Whitney’s is blistering.  The song itself is a little self-satisfied in its lyrics and needs a real talent to get away with “I believe that children are a future/Teach them well and let them lead the way”.  It’s a song that lyrically I should not like but I do, the build-up is fantastic and this is one of the great power ballads of all time.  Whitney’s version topped the chart in the US and reached number 8 in the UK in 1986.

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I like this track better than two of Whitney’s other most celebrated number 1’s “One Moment In Time” is a ballad so big that it almost teeters over into parody.  Written by Albert Hammond and John Bettis and produced by Narada Michael Walden who had done such good work on Whitney’s second album, it was unsurprisingly used as the theme for the 1988 Olympics which helped propel it to number 1 on both sides of the Atlantic.  I also like “Greatest Love Of All” better than “I Will Always Love You”- Whitney’s most famous and biggest selling song from “The Bodyguard” and written, as everyone knows, by Dolly Parton.  This to me has always felt more like a technical singing exercise than a song.  I know I’m in the minority here as in the Telegraph’s recent list of the Top 40 Best Selling UK Singles of all time this track is at 23, which if you were around in late 1992/early 1993 when it had its 10 week run at the top of the charts seems quite lowly as it was , at the time, inescapable.  It did even better business in the US staying on top for 14 weeks.  In Billboard’s list of the Top 100 Biggest Singles of all time it can be found at number 51. Perhaps that is the problem, maybe I’ve just heard it too much.  It could very well have been the point that Whitney fatigue began to set in as it was her last UK number one and there would only be one more in the US.  The version on this CD does not have the ending most associated with this track, the big finish, which is a bit of a love it or hate it moment and the downfall of many a karaoke/tv talent show performance.  I don’t love it but I miss its presence.

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On this first CD and from Whitney’s debut album you get the aforementioned two US number 1’s together with her first US Top 3 single “You Give Good Love”together with “All At Once” a lovely Michael Masser produced and written (alongside Jeffrey Osborne of “On The Wings Of Love” fame)  a non-single release which is one of Whitney’s best ever album tracks.  From album number 2, another essential release, and reviewed here  there’s “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” and “Didn’t We Almost Have It All.”  Whitney’s third album showed a real drop in quality as far as I was concerned but from this we get “All The Man That I Need”.

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“The Bodyguard”  soundtrack was a phenomenal success and on Billboard’s list of biggest selling US albums ever it is sitting pretty at number 23.  Its sales were not totally fuelled by “I Will Always Love You” as it had two other scorching ballads amongst the Whitney tracks, “I Have Nothing” (US#4 UK#3) one of her most best-loved tracks and “Run To You” (which only reached the lowly position of 31 in the US but got to number 15 in the UK).  Whitney’s final US number 1 “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” (UK#11 1995) is far more R&B influenced than a lot of the power ballads. Of the later tracks the best is “I Learned From The Best” a strong Diane Warren song that didn’t really stand out on the “My Love Is Your Love” album, but seemed to come into its own as a single and is one of her more recent tracks that seems to have best stood the test of time (US#27,UK#19-2000)

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Whitney and Enrique smouldering

There’s a number of collaborations spread over the two albums- but some are notable by their absence.  There’s no “Something In Common” (UK#16-1994)which paired Whitney with husband Bobby Brown and no “It Isn’t, It Wasn’t, It Ain’t Ever Gonna Be” (UK#29-1989) with the superstar she called “Aunt Re”,  Aretha Franklin, nor is there the best Whitney duet, with mum Cissy, “I Know Him So Well” found on the “Whitney” album.  The album’s compilers have also decided to do away with the sing-off that is “When You Believe” (US#15, UK#4-1998) from the animated movie “Prince Of Egypt” in a vocal battle with Mariah Carey that didn’t quite get up to the ultimate singing contest standard between Streisand and Summer in with “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough). These omissions were probably to make way for the number of new tracks which are collaborations.  We do get an early quite throwaway ballad sung with Jermaine Jackson, her very pretty duet with Ce Ce Winans “Count On Me”(US#8,UK#12-1996) from the “Waiting To Exhale” Soundtrack, “Heartbreak Hotel” with Faith Evans and Kelly Price (not an essential track) (US#2, UK#25-2000) and amongst the three new tracks duets with Deborah Cox, George Michael(UK#9-2000) and Enrique Iglesias(UK#7-2000), the latter being the best of the three because Whitney threw herself into the Latin sound of Iglesias rather than the uneasy R&B hybrid of the other two new collaborations.  Interestingly, in the US none of the new songs from this album released as singles set the charts alight (out of four releases the biggest was the Enrique duet which limped to number 52).

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Chaka & Whitney – they’re every woman

The “Throw Down” CD begins with some of the newer material rather than hitting us with the biggest hits.  For me the best of the danceable Houston tracks are those taken from the “Whitney” CD, including my all-time favourite of her singles “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” (US#1,UK#1-1987).  Although I think this CD pales significantly compared to the “Cool Down” you do also get “How Will I Know”) (US#1, UK-5-1986) from the debut, the rocking “Queen Of The Night” (UK#14-1993)from “The Bodyguard” and Whitney’s version of “I’m Every Woman” (US#4, UK#4-1993) with its affectionate nod to the original performed by the equally legendary Chaka Khan.  There is a feeling that the “Throw Down” concept ran out of ideas a little as we get no fewer than four remixes including “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay” (US#4, UK#3-1999)and “I’m Your Baby Tonight” (US#1,UK#5-1990) which both appear earlier on the same CD and I’m not sure how essential club mixes of the ballad tracks “Greatest Love Of All” and “I Will Always Love You” are.  At least they have not gone with “My Name Is Not Susan” (US#20, UK#29) a disastrous track which actually turned me off Whitney Houston for quite a little while.

This album spent 90 weeks in the UK chart and reached the summit and would be the last of her albums to do this.  How we all willed Whitney to make the comeback we hoped she would, tried to turn a blind eye to lacklustre performances, I’m thinking “X Factor” when she became highly distracted and ultimately thwarted by a minor wardrobe malfunction, because we knew, that even though the voice had deteriorated that she had the talent to make it back to the top again.  I don’t want to remember Whitney for the miserable end (that has also ended tragically for the next generation with Bobbi Christina’s early death which mirrored her mother’s) I want to remember her for the joy she brought me and countless millions through her music, superbly represented by these 35 tracks. I don’t think she ever looked more radiant and beautiful than in the video for “The Greatest Love Of All” which also features mum Cissy.

“The Greatest Hits ” is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £8.o8 ,used from £1.48 and as a download for £8.39. In the US it can be purchased for $13.75, used from $0.01 and as a download for $14.99.