100 Essential CDs – Number 20- Rhythm Divine 2

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Rhythm Divine 2 (Dino 1991)

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

Track Listings

CD 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

CD 2

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

100 Essential CDs – Number 28- Funk Soul Anthems

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Funk Soul Anthems (Sony/BMG 2005)

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To be honest, this 44 track 2005 double CD set from the mighty Sony/BMG conglomerate is sloppily put together with errors in spelling, partial song titles, no sleeve notes, incorrect running order and one track which appears which is not even listed on the back cover. I’m not sure if they got round to putting it right on later pressings but I think it might have been the reason why I picked this up cheaply not long after its first issue and when it comes down to it it’s what in the grooves that count and here things are very impressive indeed with some real funk and soul classics. Most of the tracks date from the 80’s, five of the mainly earlier tracks do overlap with another of my essential recommendations “Disco Classics” but there’s plenty here which still sounds fresh 30+ years on. Spanning from 1972 to 1986 it contains four US chart-toppers, an impressive 25 UK Top 10 singles as well as some which have become funk/soul standards without breaking through commercially at the time.
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.One Nation Under A Groove – Funkadelic (1978) (UK#9, US#28)
“So high you can’t get over it, so low you can’t get under it” is one of the many hooks in this sole hit from George Clinton’s Funkadelic. Clinton’s main group was Parliament, which went from being soul/doowop journeymen The Parliaments and by dropping that  “S” became the prime exponents of 1970’s space-age funk. They produced some great tracks (and some bonkers ones too) and were apparently incredible memorable live. There were US successes but over here they did not make the commercial breakthrough. Clinton was the mastermind behind other acts such as Parlet, The Brides Of Funkenstein and one of his proteges Bootsy Collins is also featured on this CD with a track which has become a funk classic without charting, Funkadelic were a more rock orientated, less commercial outfit than Parliament yet they were the act that made the showing in the UK Top 10 with this track. Albums such as “Maggot Brain”, “Free Your Mind And Your Ass Will Follow” and “America Eats Its Young” would not have screamed radio airplay in the 1970’s but this track proved irresistible and was the title track of an album many claim is the best all-time funk album. However, it is no surprise that album track “Promentalshitbackwashpsychosis Enema Squad (The Doo Doo Chasers)” did not follow it to the upper reaches of the pop charts. I always felt that if George Clinton, a maverick if ever there was one was able to rein in slightly the more hallucinogenic, cartoon and scatological elements in his output that Parliament and Funkadelic could have become absolutely massive.

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2. Can You Feel It – The Jacksons (1981) (UK#6)
3. Car Wash – Rose Royce (1976) (UK#9, US#1)

Perhaps the best use of handclaps ever in this song. The introduction made it instantly familiar and it’s no surprise that this debut hit made it to the top of the US pop charts in 1976 and began a great career for Rose Royce (a group, not a person). The title track of a small but charming film ex Motown producer Norman Whitfield proved there was life after The Temptations with his work with this group. I loved also the aching ballads which appeared on the “Carwash” soundtrack “I Wanna Get Next To You” and “I’m Goin’ Down” and although primarily a funk group Rose Royce did become known for their ballads with tracks like “Wishing On A Star” and “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” but that was because not many funk bands at the time were blessed with a vocalist as pure as Gwen Dickey.

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4. Rockit- Herbie Hancock (1983) (UK#8)
5. Let The Music Play – Shannon (1983) (UK#14, US#8)

“He tried pretending a dance is just a dance but I see/He’s dancing his way back to me”.  Brenda Shannon Greene’s electro track, an early example of what came to be called freestyle,  sounded like a breath of fresh air in 1983 with its sinuating groove and lyrically it’s a cracker of a track.  There’s a really effective personification of love here who is resorted to for advice in a manner which would not have been out of place in a Shakespearean comedy.  Universal themes over a cooking arrangement and a good enough vocal performance looked like Shannon would be here to stay.  This was her only US hit but it did begin a run of three more UK hits in the 80’s which were not a patch on this and she had a revival in the 90’s when DJ’s looked for diva voices to front their tracks and scored chart hits with both Todd Terry and Sash!

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6. I Can Make You Feel Good – Shalamar (1982) (UK#7) – Also on “Disco Classics
7. Word Up – Cameo (1986) (UK#3, US#6)

Cameo had been around some time before they made the commercial breakthrough which had been expected from them.  Larry Blackmon was the codpiece wearing mastermind behind this group which formed in the mid 70’s with 14 members.  Obviously, it was going to prove difficult to pay the bills., there was a lot of coming and going over the years, Wikipedia lists 33 members.  They should have made their big impression with “Find My Way” a great dance track which was included on the 1978 “Thank God It’s Friday” soundtrack.  By 1986 they had shrunk down to a trio and found themselves with UK chart success with “She’s Strange”.  “Word Up” with its spaghetti western funk feel and Blackmon’s snarling vocal performance gave them their first US hit and is probably their best ever track, certainly their most successful.  Bizarrely, in 1999 Mel B covered this song and got to number 14 in the charts without matching the joyfulness in the original’s performance and production.

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8. Last Night A DJ Saved My Life – Indeep (1983) (UK#13)
9. Going Back To My Roots – Odyssey (1981) (UK#4)

In 1981 Odyssey decided to zip up their boots and score their fourth UK Top 10 hit.  This song which was written and originally recorded by Motown legend Lamont Dozier tapped into the fascination in black ancestry triggered by Alex Haley’s book and TV series “Roots” and this combined a thrilling disco track with African chants.  In the US at this time Disco had been officially declared dead which meant that many missed out on great tracks like this.  The trio which consisted of two sisters from the Virgin Islands Lillian and Louise Lopez (Lillian having a great distinct lead voice) and by this time Bill McEachern were one hit wonders in the US (but what a one hit, the sublime “Native New Yorker) but we certainly took to them in the UK.  A version of Odyssey still exists today based in the UK and led by the deceased Lillian’s son Steven Collazo and I’m sure this track would still go down a storm.

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10. T.S.O.P – MFSB ft The Three Degrees (1974) (UK #22, US#1) – Also on “Disco Classics”
11. It’s Just Begun – Jimmy Castor Bunch (1972)
12. Oops Upside Your Head – The Gap Band (1980) (UK#6) – Also on “Disco Classics”
13. Stretchin’ Out (In A Rubber Band) – Bootsy Collins (1976)
14. Walking In Rhythm – Blackbyrds (1975) (UK#20, US#6)
15. Hi, How Ya Doin’ ? – Kenny G ft Kashif (1983)
16. Lowdown – Boz Scaggs (1976) (UK#28, US#3)
17. The Groove Line – Heatwave (1978) (UK#12, US#7)
18. Zoom – Fat Larry’s Band (1982) (UK#2)
19. Let’s Groove – Earth Wind & Fire (1981) (UK#3, US#3)
20. I Found Lovin’- The Fatback Band (1984) (UK#7)
21. Get Down On It – Kool & The Gang (1981) (UK#3, US#10)
22. Theme From “Shaft”- Isaac Hayes (1971) (UK#4, US#1) – Also on “Disco Classics”

CD2

1.Love Train – O’ Jays (1973) (UK#9,US#1)
2. Somebody Else’s Guy- Jocelyn Brown (1984) (UK#13)
3. Got To Be Real – Cheryl Lynn (1979) (US#12) – Also on “Disco Classics”
4. All Night Long – Mary Jane Girls (1983)(UK#13)
5. Sexual Healing – Marvin Gaye (1982) (UK#4, US#3)
6.Give Me The Reason – Luther Vandross (1986) (UK#24)

It always seemed to me that Luther Vandross never really in life or music moved too far out of his comfort zone.  There was a tendency to play it safe unlike the great male R&B singers of the past who were prepared to take risks.  But there was no denying that what Luther did he was amongst the very best at.  He knew the right formula for the big soul ballads, the party jams and the uptempo dance numbers.  He was an acknowledged soul legend before he broke through in any consistent way commercially and it was really his 1986 album from which this was the title track which pushed him into the superstar bracket.  This was the track the Epic label did not want to give up on and it was issued three times before it made #24 in the UK.  There were bigger hits from this album but I’ve always had a fondness for this song.  My ultimate favourite of his tracks is from his time as lead vocalist for the group Change with a song which was lyrically and musically edgier than much of his material “Searching”  but it is always good to hear this one.

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7. Hold Me Tighter In The Rain – Billy Griffin (1983) (UK#17)

Billy came to prominence aged 20 when he took over lead vocals after Smokey Robinson left The Miracles and was the voice on one of their biggest hits “Love Machine”.  By 1983 he was going it alone and this was his only Top 40 hit.  It’s a great piece of pop disco with a great vocal performance.  Billy struggled to make much headway with his solo career after this, he relocated to the UK and became the first artist to be released on the Motorcity label which began a long-lasting connection with producer and songwriter Ian Levine who was instrumental in bringing ex-Motown stars back into the studio.  Griffin worked with Levine on early hits for The Pasadenas and Bad Boys Inc and was a co-producer on the first album by Take That.

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8. Running Away – Roy Ayers (1977)
9. Ain’t Nothing Going On But The Rent – Gwen Guthrie (1986) (UK#5)
10. Twilight- Maze (1985)
11.I.O.U- Freeez (1982) (UK#2)
12. Lessons In Love – Level 42 (1986) (UK#3,US#12)
13. Make My Dreams A Reality– GQ (1979)
14. Expansions – Lonnie Liston Smith (1975)
15. You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) – Sylvester (1978) (UK#8,US#36)*

This is the track which is not even listed on the back of the CD and it is always a surprise when Sylvester makes his flamboyant entrance.  US vocalist Sylvester James was probably a decade before his time.  An openly gay, gospel-voiced, high octane diva who was a real one off and this relentless tour-de-force of an electro track was arguably his best and his biggest UK hit.  In the US they preferred the almost equally excellent “Dance (Disco Heat) which was more of an ensemble piece with his back-up duo Two Tons O’Fun who went on to become The Weather Girls.  Sylvester made another couple of visits to the UK Top 40 and was the vocalist of choice for pioneer electro/Hi NRG producer Patrick Cowley.  There hasn’t been a definitive career retrospective of Sylvester’s music which shows his ease as a gospel-drenched disco performer and a great vocal artist on less frenetic material.  He did a great version of the pop standard “I (Who Have Nothing)”

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16.Harvest For The World – Isley Brothers (1976) (UK#10)

Seventeen years after their first hit “Shout” the Isleys were back in the UK Top 10 with this message track which deals with global hunger the title track of their 4th studio album.  This is such a cool track with great vocals and real chunky use of percussion which gives this track a depth.  A higher chart placing was scored by The Christians with their cover version twelve years later but the Isleys’ original is certainly the one to seek out.

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17. Somebody’s Watching Me – Rockwell (1984)(UK#6, US#2)

If you’re the son of Motown supremo Berry Gordy surely chart success would seem inevitable, especially if you sign to your father’s record label.  But how about if you do this without your father even knowing, changing your name from Kenneth to Rockwell.  At least there would be no charges of nepotism there but how are you going to get a hit?  Well, Rockwell’s answer was to enlist Michael Jackson to help out with the vocals on this tale of 80’s paranoia, the lyrics of which seem very appropriate coming out of Jackson’s mouth.  That way you can score a Top 10 hit on both sides of the Atlantic and much publicity when the ruse is uncovered.  But can you get a long-lasting career out of that? In Rockwell’s answer it was no.  He obviously liked dark themes as his only further Top 40 appearance in his homeland was with the #36 follow-up “Obscene Phone Caller” which I can say I’ve never heard.  This debut was made memorable by Jackson’s contribution as it his hook-lines which stay in the mind.
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18. Solid- Ashford & Simpson (1985) (UK#3, US#12)
19. Mama Used To Say – Junior (1982) (UK#7, US#30)
20. Love Come Down – Evelyn “Champagne” King (1982) (UK#7, US#17)
21. Forget Me Nots – Patrice Rushen (1982) (UK#8, US#23)
22. What A Fool Believes – Aretha Franklin (1980) (UK#46)

The majority of these tracks certainly do deserve the anthemic status given to them by this release.  25 of them were bigger hits in the UK than in the US, which is unusual for an album which features predominantly American artists.  The UK never had that backlash against club music which happened in the US following the much publicised Death of Disco (Peter Shapiro is good on this) but by the early 80’s there were so many great radio-friendly club orientated tracks being produced that the US could no longer ignore its artists who were recording them.  Even British R&B influenced acts like Junior, Heatwave and Level 42 were making waves on the US charts.  This double CD is always a joy to listen to and even within the field of Soul and Funk showed what great variety of sounds was available to the listener.

Funk Soul Anthems is currently available from Amazon in the UK used from £2.72

100 Essential CDs – Number 36- After The Dance

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After The Dance (Telstar 1991)

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

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

Track Listings

CD 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CD 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tammi Terrell

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

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

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

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Stevie with Bob Marley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

UK Chart Position – 2

US Chart Position – 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

Stevie Wonder – A Musical History (BBC4 2018) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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Friday night is traditionally music night on BBC4 and over the last few weeks there have been a series of “Musical Histories”. These have been genre based, this is the first one I have seen which have focused on one artist, I didn’t actually realise that this was linked in with this series until I saw the return of the dodgy retro graphics which have opened these programmes and which are reminiscent of some afternoon children’s pop show from the 1970’s. Next week it is Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music who come under the spotlight with another performer scheduled later in the year for this three part artist retrospective.

I did manage to watch three of the Musical Histories which focused on Disco and Electronica, Soul & R&B and Greatest Voices. The format was of two artists or experts from the chosen genre discussing an ultimate playlist and watching clips of their chosen tracks. Thus we had Ana Matronic and Martyn Ware on Disco, Trevor Nelson and Corinne Bailey Rae on Soul and Beverley Knight and James Morrison focusing in on voices. At times it proved to be odd television, you couldn’t help but feel it might have worked a little better on the radio as pairs, in relative states of ease and unease, discussed their choices perched on soft furnishings. The clips, although fascinating to see, seemed a little well-used, having been featured on many such music compilation shows in the past. Nevertheless, I was interested to hear what the presenters had to say and this kept me tuned in.

stevietv3Get back on that sofa James and Beverley!

Friday’s hour focused on Stevie Wonder, who I have been thinking about recently, having written a review for his “Love Songs”, one of my Essential CDs, only last week. What I hadn’t realised when I spotted this in the schedules was that it would largely be the pairings who talked about genres over the last few weeks talking about Stevie Wonder. There were a few talking heads who went it alone, including Martin Freeman, Alexander O’Neal, Norman Jay, journalist Sian Pattenden and broadcaster Emma Dabiri and these tended to be more insightful and less off the cuff than most of the duos’ comments . The most natural of these pairings were Gillian Gilbert and Stephen Morris but they are a couple who were used to working together (and have been married since 1993). They were featured the least. The Knight-Morrison pairing was featured the most and this at times became grating because of James’ over-eagerness to agree with everything that Beverley Knight said. This made for slightly uncomfortable viewing. BBC4 recently found a successful pairing with good chemistry between them for their series about British pop which sent Midge Ure and Kim Appleby out on a road-trip but here the couples here perched on sofas were not exactly sizzling. But format aside, it was really the music here that should do the talking.

stevietv1Gillian Gilbert and Stephen Morris

It did provide a good overview of Stevie’s career and stressed just what it was that made him special. Musically it went from his first Top Of The Pops appearance in 1966 with “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” his initial UK hit to 80s tracks such as “I Just Called To Say I Love You” (his biggest selling single in Britain) and “Part Time Lover”. There was a mixture of TV appearances, live concert and video (Stevie was never really well served by video. Beverley Knight really nicely built up “Ribbon In The Sky” one of his lesser-known 80’s tracks yet the video shown was cringe-making in the way that American videos of the 80’s could be (Lionel’s “Hello”, anyone?) I especially liked the songs performed for a very uncool (judging by the earnest audience) German show called “Musikladen” in which a smoking 70’s Stevie performed “Superstition” and “He’s Misstra Know It All” and “Higher Ground”.

People got to mention their favourites, thus we had Alexander O Neal championing “Sir Duke , Martin Freeman “As” and Glenn Gregory from Heaven 17 the beautiful (and quite late in the canon of Wonder hits) “Overjoyed”- which is one of my all-time favourites of his. Emma Dabiri reminisced over her childhood Stevie Wonder impersonation to “I Just Called To Say I Love You”. What was brought out by the talking heads and I was pleased to note this is, as it is often forgotten, is how young Stevie was when he was churning out absolute classic tracks, just how good is voice (a great natural range without having to use falsetto) and also the importance of him as a political and social protestor.  At one point we learnt he was going to give up the music business to concentrate on social issues (what a loss that would have been). He is a man who was able to put his message in his music in a way which never diluted what he was saying but was incorporated into the exuberance of his music, tracks like “Higher Ground” “Living For The City” and the lyrically dark “Superstition” are all examples of this. In the early 80’s Stevie’s role in the campaign to get a US holiday established to commemorate Martin Luther King was instrumental and ultimately successful and couched in his million-selling “Happy Birthday” single.

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One thing about the clips which disappointed me came with another of my favourites “Isn’t She Lovely” which was taken from a concert clip that I had seen before. In the concert Stevie announces that the song, about the birth of his daughter Aisha, and who featured as a baby gurgling in the original track, was dedicated to one of his backing singers, that very daughter Aisha. This was a really touching moment which has stayed with me and the clip shown does feature Aisha looking understandably emotional at singing an all-time classic song which was written about her. I would have liked the talking heads to have picked up on this and mentioned it but they didn’t, which deprived the audience who hadn’t seen this clip before of a lovely story.

Despite the cheapness of the format I was once again drawn in and for a Stevie Wonder fan there was perhaps no better way to spend an hour on a Friday evening. If these Musical Histories focus in on an artist or a genre that you are interested in, or that (you younger generation out there) you are interested in finding out more about then they are certainly worth seeking out.

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Stevie Wonder – A Musical History was shown on BBC4 at 10.00pm on Friday 30th November.  It is currently available to watch on the BBC I-Player

100 Essential CDs – Number 65– Stevie Wonder – Love Songs: 20 Classic Hits

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Love Songs: 20 Classic Hits (Motown 1985)

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The CD I turn most to for the early years of Stevie Wonder’s career is this 1985 compilation which arrived without much fuss nor any impression on pop charts.  It has an interesting mix of tracks which are predominantly from the 1960’s, kicking off with a 1962 recording , and is a fascinating blend of hit singles and other less well-known performances.  It goes up to the point where Stevie manages  to wrest more control over his career from Motown and come up with a sequence of albums in the 1970’s which are considered to be soul classics.  It provides a very solid introduction to the sheer talent that is Stevie Wonder in his formative years.  Hit-wise it contains 11 UK Top 40 hits spanning from 1967-72 and 12 US Top 40 hits covering the same period. 

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Motown signed Stevie Wonder when he was just 11 years old in 1961.  It took a few singles for him to make his breakthrough.  CD opener here “Contract Of Love” was his third single released at the end of 1962.  I’d never heard it before its appearance here and it’s an interesting proposition to open the album with such a rarity.  It begins with “Baby Love” style handclaps and male voices until Stevie, voice not yet broken, eases confidently into a doowop style song produced by Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland just before they also really hit form.  It was obviously a learning process for all concerned, it’s certainly not a bad track but rather pales compared to the quality of the songs that follow on.

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Stevie then billed as “Little Stevie Wonder” broke big with his next track in his homeland.  This was a rough and ready harmonica instrumental which was probably too raucous to make much impression in the UK charts of 1963.  In the US it gave him a chart-topper for three weeks.  “Fingerprints Part 2” may very well be the only occasion where a Part 2 of a song topped the charts.  His youthful exuberance and obvious talent charmed America although it did seem to push him along the novelty instrumentalist line as 1963 and 1964 was spent putting out harmonica dominated singles that never lived up to “Fingertips”.  That debut hit is not included here as it does not fulfil the brief and nor does his more mature comeback track form 1966 which saw the “Little” dropped, concentrated on vocals and gave him a US#3, UK#14 “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”.

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This CD picks up again with his next UK hit, a cover version and really the only version of “Blowin’ In The Wind” that I would like to listen to.  The folk song is transformed into a rolling call and response duet between Stevie and I always believed an uncredited Levi Stubbs but now I can’t find any evidence which says this is so.  It is, however, an early example of the social awareness and his eagerness to convey protest in a song.  This became A Top 10 hit in the US in 1966.  On both sides of the Atlantic the big version of this had come three years before recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary but this has a gospel grittiness which works very well.  From here the hits carried on flowing and most of them are present here, his next one being the country-folsky-R&B mash-up of “A  Place In The Sun” which does recall Stevie’s hero Ray Charles in the type of song and slightly uncool backing vocals which also got to #9 in the US and became his second Top 20 hit in the UK. 

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I think things notched up a gear with the next track which really has the feel of some of Stevie’s best tracks over the next few years .  Henry Cosby produced “I Was Made To Love Her” which combines the Stevie sound with the Motown sound more successfully than what we have heard from up until now.  A US#2 and UK#5, this track really asserted Stevie’s position as a leading male vocalist of the time.  Pretty much the same team of Cosby producing and Stevie and Sylvia Moy helping out with song-writing duties for “I’m Wondering” (US#12,UK#22) and “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Do-Da-Day” (US#9), acceptable enough tracks although unlikely to be too many people’s Stevie favourites. 

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Things move up to the top notch again for a great song written by Ron Miller and Orlando Murden which had been given to other artists but Henry Cosby decided on a more uptempo version which turned the song instantly into a pop standard.  “For Once In My Life” gave Stevie his biggest UK hit to this point, reaching number 3 and US #2 and is a great vocal performance from him as well as an exciting return from the harmonica.  We are now in 1969 and Stevie notches up three hits the lovely although rather uncommercial sounding ballad “I Don’t Know Why I Love You” which marked the first time a Stevie recording performed better in the UK than in his homeland (#14 as opposed to #39) and also had Stevie credited as co-producer alongside Don Hunter; the absolutely commercial gem which hovers a little towards the sickly “My Cherie Amour” which reached #4 on both sides of the Atlantic and “Yester-Me-Yester-You-Yesterday” a song which is infinitely better than its title might suggest which got to number 7 in the US and became his first single to just miss out on the top spot in the UK, reaching number 2 (held off by “Sugar Sugar” by The Archies).  Hard to believe that at this stage in his career, after this string of hits Stevie was still a teenager.

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Stevie was still spreading his wings here, doing more in both the song-writing and production fronts but Motown were keen to keep the relationship with Henry Cosby going.  In 1970 we had the lovely, swaying “Never Had A Dream Come True” (US#26,UK#6), the driving “Signed, Sealed Delivered I’m Yours” (US#3,UK#15) and the brooding gospel tones of  “Heaven Help Us All” (US#9,UK#29) all drastically different sounding tracks which once again underlined his versatility and all three would sow seeds for the Stevie material that was to come later in the decade.  In 1971 Stevie produced his own version of the Lennon & McCartney song “We Can Work It Out” which reached  US#13 and UK#27.

stevie8Stevie and Syreeta’s wedding day

 Stevie was growing up.  In 1970 he married his Signed Sealed Delivered writing partner Syreeta Wright, who was also signed to Motown as a solo artist and had been boosting the girl group sound of both Supremes and Martha and The Vandellas tracks.  He was also, now he was no longer a child, in a better place to negotiate with Motown.  1971 saw the release of his statement of independence, the album “Where I’m Coming From” with all tracks written by Stevie and Syreeta and all produced by Stevie.  The hit track from this “If You Really Love Me” took him back to number 8 in the US and 20 in the UK and features a singalong chorus alongside Syreeta vocalising and a rather sparse, slowed down verse which makes it all rather fascinatingly uneven yet very likeable.  Single-wise this is where “Love Songs” calls it a day but also included is the star track from this Stevie produced album “Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer” which only appeared as a B-side.  This is a big and yet tender, mournful ballad track which has remained near the top of Stevie’s repertoire and was a song he chose to revisit at the Memorial Service for Michael Jackson and certainly fulfils this album’s “Love Songs” brief. 

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The remaining tracks on the album include a harmonica instrumental version of Bacharach and David’s “Alfie”, a 1967 song written by Stevie with Clarence Paul and Morris Broadnax which remained unreleased until Aretha Franklin had a hit with it in 1973 “Until You Come Back To Me”, the same team’s “Hey Love”, a doowop influenced tune which doesn’t stand out in this company and “Nothings Too Good For My Baby”, a Northern Soul style stomper from 1966.

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These 20 tracks represent, if a long way from definitively, the early years of Stevie’s career when he was still very much under Berry Gordy’s control.  From his age of majority Stevie was able to explore avenues with a greater freedom that had also been accorded to Marvin Gaye who had responded with a couple of all-time classic soul albums.  This was Phase 1 of the Wonder career and throughout the rest of the 70s and into the 80s Stevie would continue to soar, but this time more on his own terms.  There would be considerably more gems to come…………………..

Love Songs is currently available from Amazon in the UK from £8.83 new and used from £0.33.  It can be purchased as a download for £7.99.  In the US I found it on Amazon with a different cover new from $28.32 used from $2.55.

100 Essential CDs – Number 17– Barry White – All Time Greatest Hits

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All Time Greatest Hits (Polygram 1994)  

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This twenty track CD released in 1994 gives a great overview of the work of Barry White.  Less well known than his 1988 “The Collection” which reached number 5 in the UK charts and hung around on the listings for over two years this was released as part of a very worthwhile “Funk Essentials” series and for me has the edge.  When I was looking for a CD to replace my vinyl edition of “The Collection” this was the one I opted for.

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 Despite Barry White being a household name I think his musical achievements are often underrated.  In the mid 70’s his musicality was unprecedented in the world of Soul Music as he launched in rapid succession tracks which were orchestrated like mini symphonies topped with lyrics like mini soap operas.  This was a man with a huge talent and a great understanding of how music worked. This was largely instinctual.  In the sleevenotes to this CD David Ritz says; 

“White neither reads nor writes music, yet hears it all in his head, dictating each line for each instrument, honing his own harmonies, flavouring the stew with wildly flavourful ingredients.” 

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In the UK this meant 16 Top 40 hits over a twenty-three year period.  In the US the total is 11 over a similar period, which includes both chart-topping albums and singles.  There is a timelessness about his material which meant that although at times the music he was making fell out of favour he was never too many years away from a comeback.  Not bad for someone who was not fussed about being a singer in the first place.

 Barry White had been involved in music production since the mid 60’s and one of his tracks “I Feel Love Comin’ On” a joyous slab of Motown-ish pop-soul by Felice Taylor became a sizeable hit in the UK, reaching #11 in 1967.  Barry, together with arranger Gene Page was keen to put together a girl group, who he trained and rehearsed with for a considerable time before recording.  This group he named Love Unlimited and the lead singer Glodean would go on to become Barry’s wife.  The track which broke big for them “Walkin’ In The Rain With The One I Love” got to number 14 on both sides of the Atlantic in 1972 and introduced the world to the voice of Barry White as mid-way through the song Glodean takes a phone call and the voice on the other end dripping honey down the phone is Barry White’s. 

 

 

Felice Taylor and Love Unlimited

 With chart success Barry was going to be in demand as a producer and he put together some tracks that he wanted a male singer to record.  The label heard his demos and were convinced that they wanted Barry himself to record them.  He took some persuading but the rest is history.  The first Barry White album “I’ve Got So Much To Give” was released in March 1973 and gave him his first two hit singles.  Towards the end of that year Barry was keen to produce an orchestral instrumental album.  The label, 20th Century,  needed some convincing as to the commercial viability of such a project.  White and Page put together the first tracks by the Love Unlimited Orchestra and the end result opens this CD.

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“Love’s Theme” is a magnificent opener.  The strings just ascend heavenwards from the first bars and the whole piece is redolent of sunshine and possibility.  In the US it topped the pop charts.  It had been four years since a purely instrumental track had reached the summit and that had been by orchestral stalwart Henry Mancini with his “Love Theme From “Romeo & Juliet”.  This was a very different proposition, it felt both contemporary and classic, it could be danced to and it contained the uplift that is felt in the best disco and dance tracks.  In his history of disco “Turn The Beat Around”  (2005) Peter Shapiro, never one to mince words, has this to say;

 “In many ways “Love’s Theme was the perfect disco record; its unabashed celebration of ‘beauty’ and lushness and its complete willingness to go over the top in the pursuit of that goal, its swooning strings,…….and ultimately its utter lasciviousness..”

barrywhite7CD from the same Funk Essentials series – worth seeking out

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

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

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

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

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

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

barrywhite13Barry with Love Unlimited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Essential Collection – Dionne Warwick (Global 1996)

UK Chart Position – 58

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Dionne and Barry Manilow

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

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

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

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

And 21 years later

 

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

 

Tribute To Aretha Franklin – An Essential Playlist

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On Wednesday 16th August we learnt of the passing of Aretha Franklin, aged 76 after a long battle with cancer.  This phenomenal artist, nicknamed Lady Soul, is one of the most important figures in the history of American popular music and her significance cannot be overestimated.

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 Despite this, I  am aware that I did not have any of her albums listed in my essential CD countdown.  There is no particular album of hers that I return to again and again.  There are however a number of essential tracks recorded by her which have given me so much pleasure over the years.  I’ve chosen sixteen which I’ve put in alphabetical order to produce a playlist which would surely be a fitting tribute to the undisputed Queen of Soul Music.

 A  Deeper Love (1994)– Previously a 1991 hit for writers Robert Clivilles and David Cole under their C&C Music Factory banner.  The writers also produced this steaming Aretha version which featured in “Sister Act 2”.  It gave Aretha the third of her three Top 5 hits in the UK.  It was the lead new track on her Greatest Hits (1980-94) collection.

Angel (1973) – A track written by Aretha’s sister Carolyn who provided backing vocals alongside other sister Erma in this recording produced by Aretha with Quincy Jones.  A real family affair of a track it appeared on her “Hey Now Hey (The Other Side Of The Sky) album.  As a single it reached #20 in the US and 37 in the UK.

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Another Night (1986) – I love this track!  Perhaps in response to the Tina Turner comeback Aretha’s vocals were at their smokiest in a song which would have suited Tina very nicely.  Produced by Michael Narada Walden it reached #22 in the US and was my favourite track on the “Who’s Zoomin’ Who” album.

April Fools (1972) – Aretha did a lovely version of this Burt Bacharach and Hal David song on her “Young Gifted And Black” album.

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Border Song (Holy Moses) (1972) – From the same album comes a version of an Elton John/Bernie Taupin which is perfect for Aretha’s gospel voice.  I really like the version which appeared on her final 2017 album “A Brand New Me” which saw reworkings of classic tracks with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The original version reached #37 in the US in 1972

Call Me (1970) – Just a brilliant, tender love song which appeared on her “This Girl’s In Love With You” album.  A number 13 hit in the US and one of my favourite tracks from her most successful period.

Don’t Play That Song (1970) – From her “Spirit In The Dark” album another great version of this song is by Ben E. King.  Aretha’s version made #11 in the US, #13 UK.

I Knew You Were Waiting For Me (1987) – Recorded with George Michael this became her second US Pop #1 single and her only UK chart-topper to date.

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I Will Survive (2014) – Her forty-first and final studio album was an intriguing set of songs associated with other female artists.  Aretha transforms the song that every karaoke singer has had a go at. 

Jump To It (1982) – I love this in its 12” mix.  The title track of her Luther Vandross produced album.  Hovered outside the Top 40 in the UK but got to number 24 in her  homeland

Nessun Dorma (1998) – This one takes a bit of hunting.  It just has the best story behind it.  At the Grammy awards ceremony Pavarotti was lined up to sing his most famous aria but was taken ill.  Who could step in?  Aretha.  It sounds like a mixture of improvisation and sheer bravado but she brings the house down.  The live recording appeared on a 2007 compilation “Jewels In The Crown” which featured her duets with other artists.  This closed the album with a veritable bang.

Oh Me Oh My (I’m A Fool For You Baby) (1972) – Another highlight from her “Young Gifted And Black” album.  In the US this was released as a double A sided single with her own composition “Rock Steady”, which got more of the airplay and reached #9 in the US charts before the release of the album.

Respect (1967) – A version of an Otis Redding song which really made Aretha’s name.  She’d been recording standards on Columbia records since the early sixties and they didn’t really know what to do with her.  She became the voice of 1967 with this song which tapped into the mood of the times.  A US chart-topper, reached #10 in the UK and probably the track that she will be most remembered for.

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Rolling In The Deep (2014)– Aretha takes on Adele on her “Sings The Great Diva Classics album and this was the track which attracted the most publicity.  It incorporates “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” to great effect.

Until You Come Back To Me(1973) – From her “Let Me In Your Life” album .  Originally recorded by songwriter Stevie Wonder his version did not appear for some years after Aretha took hers to #3 in the US and 26 in the UK.

Willing To Forgive (1994) – Like “A Deeper Love” this was one of the new tracks on her “Greatest Hits 1980-94” compilation and is a simple, effective, unshowy soul ballad written and produced by Babyface and LA Simmons.  One of my favourites in the Franklin canon – although I loved her with all guns blazing this shows what a great song stylist she is.  Number 26 in the US but a bigger hit in the UK where it reached 17.
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I hope the tracks in this playlist will give you as much pleasure as they have given me. There will never be another vocalist like Aretha Franklin.  Rest in peace.  These tracks can be found on the albums mentioned and also to stream on Spotify.