100 Essential CDs – Number 73- Disco Classics

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Disco Classics  (Sony 2005)

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

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

 Track Listings

 CD1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13. Megamix – Earth Wind & Fire (1989)

14. Queen Of Chinatown – Amanda Lear (1977) 

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

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

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

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

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

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100 Essential CDs – Number 48 –Patti Labelle – Winner In You

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 Winner In You – Patti Labelle (MCA 1986) 

UK Chart Position – 30

US Chart Position – 1

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In March 1975 an extraordinary thing happened.  “Lady Marmalade” a tale of a New Orleans prostitute, a song which was blessed with at least three hooks topped the American pop charts.  The transformation of Patti Labelle and The Bluebelles to space-age funksters Labelle, with outlandish costumes and headgear was complete.  It marked their first appearance in the US Pop 40 for over ten years and gave them a UK#17.  The song is an all-time classic and turned them into very hot property overnight helped by their strong visual image and great live performances.  It seemed like Labelle would become a supergroup.  But………..with the unpredictability of the pop world, nothing much happened.  Subsequent singles and albums performed very well in R&B, Soul and Disco Charts but there was no more commercial crossover.  By 1976 the group was falling apart with arguments over musical direction and the stress of the flicker of fame getting to the girls and they went  their separate ways after 14 years together.  Solo success seemed inevitable for all three members, in particular rock-chick Nona Hendryx and the outrageously talented Patti Labelle.

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Labelle’s initially remained with Epic Records but they were unable to break her into the big time as a solo artist.  There was an astute move back to her home town of  Philadelphia and internationally celebrated label Philadelphia International (who had made stars of acts such as O’Jays, Three Degrees, Harold Melvin & Bluenotes and Billy Paul in the mid 70’s). It has also given another bite of the fame cherry to Lou Rawls, Jerry Butler and Dee Dee Sharp so it would seem to have been a sound move linking her with label supremos Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.  By 1981 they had lost a number of the acts they had broken big and Patti was expected to put dwindling fortunes right.    At her time in Philadelphia she made a number of what are now classic soul singles (especially “If Only You Knew” and “Love, Need And Want You”, which was used by Nelly in his number 1 hit “Dilemma” where the vocals were given to Kelly Rowland with Labelle appearing in the video).  She became a regular visitor at the top of R&B charts but still could not put her back in the pop listings.  Her Epic and Philadelphia albums have strong tracks but there are patchy moments suggesting that they still hadn’t found quite the right direction for Labelle.    Patti might have expected more of the same when she signed to MCA in 1985.  She must have seen a glimmer of hope as another old trouper had recently made a huge comeback at an age where most female artists were struggling for record label’s attention- Tina Turner had exploded with a force she never had with her years with Ike and the breakthrough of a new artist, one Whitney Houston suggested that first class vocals were back on the menu.

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Patti in latter years with Gamble & Huff

MCA’s first plan was to drop a couple of tracks onto the soundtrack of “Beverly Hills Cop”.  The rather brash, uptempo “New Attitude” and “Stir It Up” fitted in perfectly with the brash, uptempo Eddie Murphy movie and the first of these tracks saw Labelle in the pop charts after another 10 year absence when it reached number 17, the first time as a solo artist.

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And it is at this point in this lengthy career where this album was released.  Ten tracks using a range of top flight producers and songwriters such as Nik Ashford and Valerie Simpson, Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager and Richard Perry who had pretty much masterminded the return to top chart honours for The Pointer Sisters.  Patti was entrusted with the role of Executive Producer. MCA must surely have been quietly confident of their new signing despite erratic chart positions in the past.  Their faith paid off.  It became Labelle’s only charting UK album reaching number 30 but in her homeland she was back on top again.  Her biggest selling album by a clear mile.  It went platinum, has sold over 7 million albums worldwide, and extraordinarily for a 42 year old woman who had found pop success elusive topped the US album charts for two weeks.  Patti Labelle was back!

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The explanation for this reversal of fortune is down to the first track chosen as a single which reignited Labelle’s career.  A quality vocalist needs quality songwriters and they don’t get that much better than Burt Bacharach.  Together with his then wife Carole Bayer Sager they wrote a lament of coping after a lost love, “On My Own” which was given to Patti to record.  The decision was made that, despite a blistering performance from Labelle that the song could work even better as a duet.  Ex-Doobie Brothers singer and possessor of a great soul voice himself, Michael McDonald, took up the daunting challenge of singing with Patti.  This might have been one of the early occasions of phoning in a duet as the two did not meet in the studio.  Labelle’s vocal was recorded and McDonald added his to this.  They did not meet for the video, where, perhaps appropriately given the theme of the song, their contributions were filmed on their own.  They actually met the first time, according to Patti in her 1996 autobiography “Don’t Block The Blessings” when they turned up to perform it on Johnny Carson’s television show.  Despite all this suggesting this shouldn’t work, the chemistry between the two voices is terrific.  The split screen video is something of a kitsch classic with Patti drenched in furs and with super-high hair which became her identifying trademark around this time but the song is fantastic.  This is despite a friend who nearly ruined it all for me who would sing the song impersonating northern comedienne Hylda Baker (listen to the first line Patti sings – this is where this comes from as there is an undeniable hint of Baker in the delivery).  Hylda Baker passed away around about the time this was released so we were spared a reunion with Arthur Mullard to give this song a go, in the way in which they completely annihilated the songs from “Grease” for me with their hit version of “You’re The One That I Want- I still hear “When you’re filled with infection” as the song lyric).  However, once I get Hylda “I must get a little hand on this watch” Baker out of my mind this track is an absolute joy.  It gave Labelle her second US chart-topper and was held off for three weeks from the number 1 spot in the UK by (the wonders of the UK singles chart in the 1980’s!) “The Chicken Song” by Spitting Image, one of the worst novelty songs ever!  It also reached number 1 in the Netherlands and in Canada and number 4 in New Zealand and attained a high chart position in many other countries.  Neither artist would have this sort of success again.

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One of the problems Patti Labelle had been having with her crossover pop career is getting any consistency, yet this album provided her with a second hit on both sides of the Atlantic.  “Oh People” with its message of banding together to fight poverty and conflict over a mid-tempo beat might not have seemed the most obvious choice for a follow-up single, but it is surprisingly catchy and whilst I have been listening to this album for the purposes of this review it has been the track which has crept into my ear to keep me awake in the middle of the night.  It reached #26 in the UK, #29 in the US.  There were certainly more potential hit singles on this album as far as I am concerned.  Two other tracks are certainly first-class.  “Finally We’re Back Together” was produced by Nick Johnson (who co-wrote the song) and Budd Ellison which leads off with an impressive sax solo by David I (any relation to Kenny G?).  This track shows what makes Patti unique vocally as she swoops and soars over the simple melody.  “Sleep With Me Tonight” is an impressive power ballad and is another Bacharach and Bayer Sager production on a song written by them alongside Neil Diamond.  The title might have killed off airplay in 1986 but this sounds like another hit single to me.  It’s a good song with a performance of real honesty and warmth.

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Check out the hair!

There’s also quality in the driving “Something Special (Is Gonna Happen Tonight)” which sounds like the group Labelle at their best, the more subtle “Kiss Away The Pain”and the closing Ashford and Simpson title track which was apparently taken from a musical play “Pipes”.  It’s another dramatic track in which Patti wrings out every ounce of emotion, a powerful closer.

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More hair!

It was great to see Patti Labelle at the top of her game with this album, which ended 1986 as the fourth biggest selling album in the US that year.  Patti had certainly been waiting years for that level of fame to come.  The three year absence between this and 1989’s “Be Yourself” was too long in the fickle world of showbusiness and that limped to #86 in the US Album Charts.  Through the 1990’s she was recording gold and platinum albums for MCA but nothing with the commercial appeal of “Winner In You”.  An association with hip-hop Def-Jam Records under their Def Soul Classics umbrella did bring about a comeback with two good selling albums, “Timeless Journey” (#18- 2004) and an album of covers of her favourite songs “Classic Moments” (#24-2005).  This latter CD is, for me, the most essential of her post-Winner recordings.

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Patti also has recorded a number of Christmas albums and had a chart-topping Gospel album with a return to her roots with “The Gospel According To Patti Labelle”.  At 72 she is still going strong, combining live performance work with Broadway and regular US TV appearances.  In the UK we last saw her in “American Horror Story: Freak Show” and in “Empire”, both too brief appearances.  In 2015 she participated in America’s version of “Strictly”- Dancing With The Stars in 2015 partnered by ex-Strictly Champion Artem Chigvintsev leaving the show in 8th place.  This CD for me remains the crowning glory moment of her illustrious career.

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 Patti On “Dancing With The Stars”

The Winner In You is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £16.27, and used from £1.24. In the US it is currently $17.97 new and used from $0.01. and as a download for $5.99.