The Rough Guide To Soul And R&B – Peter Shapiro (2006) – A Real Lives Review

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I’ve read this before back in 2008 when I thought it was okay but this is a book which cranks up to another level in this music streaming era. An alphabetical listing of key figures in Soul and R&B over a span of approximately 50 years with recommended albums and playlists of their best work. Back when this was written it meant downloading tracks onto I-Pods or splashing out on CDs which would have turned out to be prohibitively expensive. Nowadays, it’s risk-free with streaming services. That is why after reading this a second time I now have placed the massive total of 101 albums into my Spotify playlists to see if I agree with the author’s judgements.

I wasn’t really intending to re-read this. First time round it was a library copy but I spotted it pre-lockdown in a charity shop and thought it would be a useful book to have as research (I do use another of Shapiro’s books“Soul: 100 CDs” quite a lot) . I just pulled it off my shelves this week to browse and found myself reading from cover to cover.

I have read Peter Shapiro before and he does come across as quite grumpy for a music fan. There’s loads of opinions here- very few artists seem to come away with unqualified praise, he is often dismissive of their bigger commercial hits, he’s certainly not a huge fan of much of 90’s R&B especially anything resembling “piercing whining” or excessive melisma or histrionics (Boyz II Men get a rough deal here and actually I have no issue with this). He can be sniffy about the type of soul music favoured in the UK and Disco can be love it or hate it (surprisingly as he wrote one of the seminal works in this genre in his study of the Disco Era “Turn The Beat Around” (2005) I actually felt that his individual style was to the detriment of this book. I said of it “He praises and snipes in the same sections. It’s obviously the journalist in him which is leading him to be controversial and overstate matters.”. Here, because his brief is wider and he cannot be expected to like everything from Aaliyah to Zapp it didn’t grate as much and I occasionally laughed out loud at his viewpoint. He is good with adjectives, which certainly gives his work his personal slant. Take Diana Ross, after acknowledging her star power and “unquenchable force” we get “wretched”; “surprisingly acceptable”, “mediocre”, “uptight”’ “disastrous”, “ generic, “rather hideous”, pointless” and “shockingly awful” all for an artist he acknowledges as significant and even can form a recommended playlist for. (True, it is only 8 tracks when he normally gives 10). Slightly more disturbing are textual inconsistencies, an example of this is Stevie Wonder and his 1972 album “Music Of My Mind” which was the first time he was given more control and independence by Motown. In the Wonder entry it is described thus ; “It was no masterpiece, it didn’t have the songs to back up his mercurial wanderings across the boundaries of texture, timbre and taste.”. Underneath the entry it is highlighted as one of his greatest recordings saying “he unleashed a set of songs that demanded attention, incorporating soul and gospel, melody and funk, every track is a smash.” Now we can all change our minds, but on the same page?

I do like the format of these musical Rough Guides but I think that this is the only topic that I would be interested about in reading all the way through. Shapiro also authors “Drum N’Bass” although it does seem that the company has abandoned its music titles in favour of the obviously more lucrative travel guides with none of them (on the back cover Jazz and Hip-Hop are advertised) being readily available. I would certainly pick up other copies if I came across them. I’ve enjoyed this more as a re-read than I did first time round and expect it will be staying quite a bit longer in my collection.

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The Rough Guide To Soul And R&B was published as a Rough Guides paperback (distributed by Penguin) in 2006.

100 Essential CDs – Number 36- After The Dance

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After The Dance (Telstar 1991)

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

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

Track Listings

CD 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CD 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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