100 Essential CDs – Number 46 –Patti Labelle & The Bluebelles – Over The Rainbow

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Over The Rainbow – Patti Labelle & The Bluebelles (Spy 2002)

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There are four distinct phases in the recording career of this legendary R&B girl group.  The first phase was their earliest recordings which appeared on labels such as Newtown and Parkway, singles releases backed up by a growing reputation as a blistering live act.  There were two Top 40 US pop singles during this time “Down The Aisle”(#37 in 1963) and a drama laden version of the standard from the musical “Carousel”, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (#34 in 1964).  In fact there was an earlier, even bigger hit credited to the group, the Bluebelles when the marvellously titled “I Sold My Heart To The Junkman” reached #15 in 1962.  In true exploitative 60’s girl-group fashion this was reputedly recorded by a group called The Starlets, who also recorded for the Newtown label.  The Bluebelles added this song to their repertoire and actually re-recorded it, but apparently it was not them on the hit single, whatever it said on the label.

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The second phase is launched by this particular CD when the quartet of Patricia Holt (later Patti Labelle), Cindy Birdsong, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash signed to Atlantic amongst a very strong feeling that this label would be a perfect match for the group and would lead to great commercial success.  It didn’t.  Despite some great recordings of which this is a representation the hits didn’t come and the ascendancy of the Motown girl groups made the group fade into the background- recording wise, but certainly not in live performances where Patti and the girls could still blow most other groups off the stage.  In fact, to add salt to the wounds the group lost Cindy Birdsong when she hurried off to  become a Supreme when original member Florence Ballard was sacked.  This was something which was always seen as unforgiveable theft by Patti Labelle.

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The unrealised potential had to wait for the third phase when Dusty Springfield’s manager Vicki Wickham took control and re-imagined the group as a space-age, futuristic funk/rock group with theatrical tin-foil influenced costumes and feathers and furs and the group became Labelle, scoring a worldwide hit and all-time classic early on with “Lady Marmalade” (US#1, UK#17 1975).  It looked like Labelle were going to become superstars with their strong image and even stronger vocals but continued commercial success eluded them and they were never as big as they should have been.  Solo careers eventually beckoned .  The fourth stage was when Patti, Nona and Sarah reunited for 2008’s worthwhile “Back To Now” album.  This contained their greatest ever recording as a bonus track.  Originally recorded in London in 1970 and produced by Kit Lambert some years before their “Nightbirds” reincarnation their version of  Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets” is perhaps one of the greatest soul tracks recorded in the UK.

Labelle in 1975 and 2008

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But we rewind back five years to 1965 and this debut Atlantic album, full of promise and potential hits.  Detractors say it was clear from this point that Atlantic did not really know what to do with them.  The tracks that had attracted most attention in their pre-Atlantic days were cover versions of standards  such as the aforementioned “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and the schmaltzy “Danny Boy”.  In Labelle’s hands these songs were “Patti-fied” to turn them into big, dramatic sounds dominated by the extraordinary Labelle voice.  Although the songs chosen for “Over The Rainbow” would have felt slightly more relevant to the contemporary audience cover versions dominated.

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This was fairly standard practice in the mid 60’s, to put a couple of originals which would be the tracks chosen as singles amongst cover versions.  Atlantic was certainly doing this around the same time with another of their signings, the greatly talented Esther Phillips.  Although neither Phillips nor Labelle got the commercial acclaim due to them at the time the classic nature of these songs means that we can still value them as great song stylists and the tracks have lasted longer than the original songs produced for them.  After a couple of years of trying to break both Labelle and Phillips into the pop charts Atlantic legendary producer and executive , Jerry Wexler decided to approach a different tactic with his later signing, Aretha Franklin.  She had been on Columbia records where the same approach was being used as she was recording tracks such as “Rock A Bye Your Baby (With A Dixie Melody)” and “Ac-Cent-tchu-ate The Positive”.  By the time Wexler began recording with Franklin the mood of America had changed and these recordings began to embrace this and the civil rights movement with classic effect.  I may be in the minority here but I actually prefer Patti Labelle’s voice to Aretha Franklin’s.

The twelve tracks that make up this album were produced by experienced Atlantic producer Bert Berns and the album first saw the light of day in 1966.  An attempt to crack the singles charts had been made with “All Or Nothing” an original song co-written by Pam Sawyer, born in Romford, Essex,  who as a Motown staffer would go on to write such classic songs as “Love Child” for The Supremes and “Love Hangover” for Diana Ross.  Wexler had high hopes for this track which is a good commercial girl group sound made that little bit more special by Patti’s vocal performance but it did not chart.  It did make it onto the album.  The second single was another original, but probably most people hearing this today would put it down as a cover.  Carole Bayer Sager alongside Toni Wine wrote “Groovy Kind Of Love” which is a strong, melodic, playful track which has hit written all over it.  It wasn’t.  With the British Invasion of UK music stars dominating charts the world over it was covered by Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders who took it to number 2 in the UK in early 1966 and was the number 2 US follow-up to their American chart-topper “Game Of Love”.  Phil Collins, of course, went one place better on both sides of the Atlantic some 22 years later, but make no mistake, the original and best version is by Patti Labelle & The Bluebelles.

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This 2002 issue of the 1966 album kicks off with a song which has been associated with the act through all of its incarnations.  “Over The Rainbow” was always a staple of live shows and here in this early version Patti is dragging every ounce of emotion from it, ably backed by the other three.  As a solo artist it became compulsory for Labelle to finish shows with it and it was a track she re-recorded.  Her best version is from a live performance.  I found it on the soundtrack of the film “Too Wong Foo” and it is an absolute showstopper.  I remember seeing Patti doing this as an encore for a concert on TV and it was one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen as the vocals soared, she rolled around on the floor and produced one of the ultimate musically dramatic performances.  Another great version of this song was performed on X Factor in 2005 by eventual winner Shayne Ward, whose arrangement is certainly inspired by Patti’s.  This 1965 version is a great opener to the album.

Other tracks which are Patti-fied here include “Ebb Tide”, “More” (I think the best version of this song is by Martha Reeves & Vandellas), the Beatles’ “Yesterday” and the Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse show-tune “Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)”.  Patti-fying a song means upping the drama level and wringing every ounce of emotion from it, there’s an almost drenching of gospel but the song doesn’t lose its original meaning.  The phrasing is unique as Patti bends and soars with the lyrics in a way which is totally unpredictable.  Every time I listen I’m amazed as to where Patti decides to pitch or hold a note, you think she’s going to do something and she does something else entirely which is probably more extraordinary and technically difficult than what you had imagined.  A track like “People” is evidence of this.  The song would be well known for introducing another technically gifted singer, Barbra Streisand, so could be considered a brave move.  This seems almost like a challenge Patti relishes, she holds notes where Barbra breathes and seems so accomplished with her version.  At the time of this release Patti was 21 years old and yet seems like a vocal veteran.  Her influence on other performers cannot be understated.  In fact, around this time the Patti Labelle and the Bluebelles Fan Club was set up by a superfan who was so enamoured of what Patti could do.  This young lad was called Luther Vandross, who was certainly no slouch in the vocal department and no doubt learned a lot by listening to Patti.

Another original track “Patti’s Prayer” confirms the gospel expertise of this group as does a version of the song “He” which has been a mid 50’s hit for Al Hibbler.  Another track associated with Hibbler is “Unchained Melody” and the group give this a good go too.  This isn’t one of the stand-out tracks.  At the start Patti sounds quite far back in the mix, rather than steaming out of the blocks from her first note, which makes it seem a little understated compared to some of the other tracks available here.  We round things off with a lovely version of “Try To Remember”.

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The girls as postage stamps

So, commercially unsuccessful but a real treat and the one Labelle the group CD I listen to the most often and it was a great move for Spy records to lease the original master recording as part of their Ambassador Soul Classics releases from Atlantic who would have probably left it languishing in a vault.  Anyone keen on the girl group sound, on blistering versions of familiar songs or on the powerhouse vocal of Patti Labelle should certainly seek this out.  For me, it’s an Essential CD.

Over The Rainbow is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £6.95, and used from £3.30 and as a download for £5.95.  An album which features these tracks alongside those from the follow-up album was released in 2014 and would be a worthwhile, if considerably more expensive choice. In the US it is currently $13.74 new $4.98 used and downloadable for $8.99.

100 Essential CDs – Number 11 –Gladys Knight & The Pips – Gold

Gold – Gladys Knight & The Pips (Disky 1993)

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Gladys Knight, born in 1944 in Atlanta, Georgia, was a child phenomenon scooping first prize as an eight year old on the nationally televised “Ted Mack Amateur Hour”.  By the age of 10 she was working as part of her family group- alongside her brother and sister and two cousins.  This three girls, two boys incarnation of the Pips lasted until 1958 when Gladys became the only girl left in the group and two more male cousins joined.  By 1961 they had scored their first US hit as The Pips when “Every Beat Of My Heart” reached number 6.

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There were a couple of other appearances in the US charts in the early 60’s by which time Gladys had become the powerhouse in front of the group and this was acknowledged by pushing her name to the front.  In 1967 Gladys Knight and the Pips signed to Motown where great things were expected of them.  For the next six years they were regular visitors to the pop charts with tracks such as “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” (#2 in 1967), “If I Were Your Woman” (#9 in 1971) and “Neither One Of Us” (#2 in 1973).  In the UK a couple of tracks that hadn’t exactly hit set the charts alight in their homeland became big hits, “Take Me In Your Arms And Love Me” (#13 in 1967) and “Help Me Make It Through The Night” (UK#11, US#33).  The group felt increasingly confined by the Motown sound and Gladys, quite rightly assumed that they were not top priority on the label.  By 1973 after 13 US Top 40 pop hits and a reputation of being amongst the very best in the business the group left Motown and moved to Buddah records.

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This is where this 19 track, budget compilation kicks in.  The Buddah recordings upped the sophisticated gloss of the later Motown tracks and by using top producers and great songs continued the run of hits for another few years, during which time the group were really at their commercial peak.  On this CD you get all 7 of their Top 40 hits of this period, including their only US Pop #1 hit.  In the UK the Buddah years were perhaps even more cherished than in their homeland as they scored 11 Top 40 hits between 1975-78, with a run of songs with which they are most closely associated over here.  They are probably one of the greatest groups never to score a UK #1.

Contained within these 19 tracks are three of my all-time favourites singles as well as a resoundingly strong collection of performances which shows how good Gladys Knight and The Pips were.  It kicks off with the biggest and the best, the all-time soul classic which is “Midnight Train To Georgia”.  This Jim Weatherly song started off life as another form of transport where “plane” took the place of “train”.  After the name change it was recorded by Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mum, whose version is very good but it is the vocal interplay between Gladys and The Pips which really took this song to another level.  Released as a single it topped the US charts in 1973 but was not a hit in the UK until 1976, by which time it was already an established soul classic when it reached #10. Gospel roots are very much in evidence as the Pips confirm, question and comment on the proceedings and even get to sound like the train with their “wooh-woohs”.  This is a track I never get tired of hearing and each time I marvel over the quality of the song and the performance.  This is a great way to start the CD.

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“I’ve Got To Use My Imagination” is a funky little track with driving drum and brass work.  There is this perception of Gladys Knight and Pips as a ballads-only supper-club type group but they could excel on the uptempo funk of tracks such as this as well as disco.  This was taken from their debut Buddah album “Imagination” and written by master songwriter Gerry Goffin alongside Barry Goldberg.  The US liked their Gladys Knight & Pips tracks a little funkier and more rhythm and blues based  than we did over here (further proof of this is the lack of pop chart success for the disco tracks that became some of their biggest and best hits over in Europe) and it reached number 4 in the US pop charts as a follow-up to “Midnight Train.”

Two more Jim Weatherly songs follow and first off is their second all-time classic track, one I love so much that I actually had as a wedding song (couldn’t run to Gladys performing it, however).  “The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me” is such a well-written song, which could have been sugary in anyone else’s hands but with Gladys’ voice cutting through the whole thing is a sublime treat.  There’s a few lines in here that remain as almost a mantra in my head, one of my ultimate ear-worms as Gladys sings;

“If anyone should ever write my life story

For whatever reason there might be

You’ll be there

Between each line of pain and glory

‘Cos you’re the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Gladys very appropriately named her autobiography “Between Each Line  Of Pain And Glory” (what else could she call it really?) On the best tracks the Pips’ contribution is vital, they operate far more than as backing singers and this is the case here.   It had previously been a chart-topper on the US country charts by Ray Price.  Gladys’ version topped the Soul Charts, went to number 3 in the US  pop charts and became another belated hit for her in the UK two years later when it reached #7 in 1975.

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The third Jim Weatherly song was chosen as the debut single from the Buddah association.  “Where Peaceful Waters Flow” (US#28 1973) puts the Pips in a prominent position.  It’s a gentle, graceful track which is unlikely to be anyone’s favourite Gladys moment but always sounds good and fits in beautifully with this compilation.  This moves into the Pips led version of Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” which demonstrates clearly the group’s gospel roots.  The vocals are somewhat far back in the mix of this which is strangely effective but I think here Nash’s original version is the stronger track.

For a time Gladys looked as if she might follow Diana Ross into the world of Hollywood movies.  She starred in the film “Pipe Dreams” but the only thing that is now remembered about that is the title song written by Tony Camillo which makes its appearance next and is a very good example of a Gladys ballad.  Camillo continues the writing honours with Mary Sawyer on “I Feel A Song (In My Heart)” a track which just oozes with class.  It was the lead single from their third Buddah album.  Once again it is the driving quality of the performances that takes this to another level.  As a single, it perhaps wasn’t the best commercial option as its number 21 placing in 1974 ended their run of four consecutive US Top 5 pop hits.  It was, however, another R&B chart-topper for them.

If Gladys is associated with schmaltz it is probably because of the next track.  The song was a bit of a game-changer for them in the UK which saw them begin a run of consecutive hits and established them on radio playlists was a live version of the Barbra Streisand weepie “The Way We Were” teamed up with a hint of “Try To Remember” which Gladys largely speaks through.  It is a sentimental track but the live performance and Gladys’ voice when she gets into singing mode stop it from going over the edge.  In the UK it became the group’s biggest hit to date getting to number 4 and prompting re-issues of earlier tracks which hadn’t made the grade first time round. In the US it hovered just outside the Top 10.

From this point on Gladys’ chart performances were more consistent in the UK as we really took her to heart.  An association with disco supremo Van McCoy brought forth three top 40 singles and includes what I would consider to be the third all-time classic by this group.  I love the work that was done with McCoy, who died in 1979 at the tragically young age of 39.  Where he worked best is with gutsy vocalists who could cut through the lushness of his arrangements which combined together beautifully –so here I’m thinking of  David Ruffin, Melba Moore, Faith Hope and Charity and especially Gladys Knight & The Pips. The driving “Come Back And Finish What You Started (UK#15 1978) the disco bounce of “Home Is Where The Heart Is” (UK#35 1977) are great tracks but eclipsed by “Baby, Don’t Change Your Mind” (UK#4, 1977) which effectively conveys the paranoia towards a partner’s commitment once his “ex is back in town”.  This track also marvellously rhymes “mind” with “genuine” and all to a disco beat.  I know that many soul artists struggled during the disco years and didn’t hold the music they were being asked to do then in high esteem but Gladys is just great at this and these tracks show why.

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Van McCoy – The Disco Kid

Elsewhere we get Gladys re-exploring “The Way We Were” feel with a version of “Georgia On My Mind”; one of the most sensitive vocal performances ever on David Gates’ “Part Time Love” (US#22, UK#30 1975) and a couple of Curtis Mayfield penned and produced tracks which came off the soundtrack for a movie “Claudine” which starred Diahann Carroll.  “On and On” (US#9 1974) is a track which has grown on me over the years and “Make Yours A Happy Home” (UK#35, 1977) has an irresistibly infectious warmth.

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The Buddah association came to an end in 1980 when they signed to Columbia Records.  Towards the end of the stay Gladys and the Pips began to explore solo projects.  The Pips could never be great without Gladys despite good vocals and excellent stage presence but Gladys without the Pips recorded one of the great James Bond Themes in a “Licence To Kill” and topped the US charts as part of the Dionne Warwick led AIDS fund-raiser “That’s What Friends Are For”.  The post Buddah years threw up a few good tracks for the group including the Ashford-Simpson penned “Bourgie Bourgie”.  In 1988, 27 years after their first chart hit the group disbanded and Gladys embarked upon her solo career.  Pips Edward Patten and William Guest are no longer with us but Gladys now aged 72 released her latest album “Where My Heart Belongs” in 2014.  Her recordings encompass R&B, standards, jazz and gospel, where she has remained incredibly active.  She is truly one of the legends of the entertainment business.

I’ve gone for this European budget compilation using tracks licensed from Buddah because it contains the Van McCoy songs which, because of their lack of commercial US success, some compilations do not feature.  There is also of course great Gladys and Pips tracks to be found from the Motown years (the double CD “Anthology”from 1990 brings out the best of these) as well as great tracks from after the Buddah years, but this is the one (although not the easiest to find and with no frill in the packaging department that I would consider to be essential.  There is a 2006 Double CD available also called “Gold” which takes in both the Motown and post- Buddah years but for a single CD compilation this one is hard to beat.

Gold is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £7.99, and used from £0.81. It does not seem to be readily available in the US.

100 Essential CDs – Number 81 –Ben E King – Stand By Me- The Ben E King Collection

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Stand By Me: The Ben E King Collection (Warner Platinum 2005)

The story goes that in 1958 twenty year old Benjamin Nelson was lead singer of a group called The Five Crowns.  They had a good local following and appeared at the famed Apollo Theatre in Harlem alongside a much bigger group The Drifters.  The Drifters had come off a run of big hits but since their lead singer Clyde McPhatter had left the group had become directionless.  Something their manager George Treadwell was aware of.  He sacked the whole group and took the Five Crowns on as The Drifters, who now had a new lead singer in Nelson, who had a likeable baritone voice.  Originally not a popular move with concert-goers the new group went into the studio and began a run of all-time classic hits.  In time Nelson became Ben E King and as the lead voice of The Drifters recorded such songs as “Save The Last Dance For Me”, “This Magic Moment” “Dance With Me” and “I Count The Tears” four tremendous tracks which appear on this 20 track CD and have also been discussed in what is very much a companion Essential CD – Dance With Me- The Drifters Collection also released by Warner on its Platinum subsidiary label in 2005.

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King’s tenure as lead vocalist for the Drifters was surprisingly short-lived.  After approaching the prickly Treadwell for a rise which was turned down King went solo.  Like McPhatter before him he was retained by Atlantic Records.  In 1960 he began working with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller – two of the greatest songwriters and producers of this era.  Working with them at the time was a young wannabe megalomaniac Phil Spector, who had come off a number 1 hit of his own as part of The Teddy Bears- whose “To Know Him Is To Love Him” is macabrely surely the only hit that is based upon the epitaph on a writer’s (Spector again) father’s gravestone.  Spector hung around studios absorbing everything and wrote alongside Leiber and Stoller (although only Leiber was credited at the time) “Spanish Harlem”.

             Leiber and Stoller working with Elvis             Phil Spector with Darlene Love

This is a lovely song which is just perfect for King’s crystal clear delivery and excellent diction.  The latin flavour gives it very much a feel of what he had been doing with The Drifters.  This became his first solo hit reaching number 10 in the US charts. In the UK a cover version by Jimmy Justice went to number 20 in 1962, the same year he also scored a top 10 hit with a version of the Drifters’ “When My Little Girl Is Smiling.”  Eleven years later Aretha Franklin did better with her version (US#2, UK#14) and whereas there is no faulting the Aretha vocal it does feel very much like a cover version.

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Aretha also had success with another song on this album “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)” written by Ahmet Ertegun and Betty Nelson (Ben E. King’s wife).  King’s original is taken at quite a leisurely pace and became his 4th US Pop Top 40 hit reaching #11 in 1962.  Aretha took it at a more urgent pace with a gospel call and response feel and in 1970 also got to #11 in the US and #13 in the UK.  I like the original version but I think in this case Aretha’s cover is the stronger track – making it one all between them.

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Between these two Aretha covered single releases came the song which is an all time soul classic. I get goosebumps from the first moments of the introduction of “Stand By Me” that scraping guiro sound and guitar riff.  It is a superbly written song and one of the most significant pop songs of the 1960’s.  Written by King alongside Leiber and Stoller it was originally intended for his old group, The Drifters, who passed on it and King ended up putting his marvelous vocal to the track.  Released in 1961 after “Spanish Harlem” it reached number 4 in the US charts becoming his biggest hit.  In the UK it stalled at an inexplicable #27, matching the chart position of his previous UK hit “First Taste Of Love” (a track not on this CD).  It was a song that would not fade and artists such as John Lennon and Kenny Lynch had hits with it.  It has been a hit in many different languages and over 300 artists have recorded a version.  The music world had not finished with Ben E. King’s version, however.  In 1986 the song was central to the excellent film of the same name directed by Rob Reiner and starring River Phoenix.  It fitted the mood of the film perfectly.  It was re-released in the US where it got to number 27 and in the UK was concurrently used in a Levi 501 Jeans advert.  This, together with the exposure in the film, certainly did the business and in February 1987 it topped the UK charts for three weeks.  In 1999 it was certified as the 4th most played song of the century.  In 2015 it was entered into the US National Recording Registry because of its immense significance.  A 2012 BBC4 TV show “The World’s Richest Song” placed it as the 6th highest earning song of all time- a massive achievement when you consider “Happy Birthday” and the once a year most famous Christmas songs were on the list.  “Stand By Me” is certainly worth the price of this CD alone.

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But there is more to Ben E King than “Stand By Me” although after this release in the early 60’s he was suffering from diminishing returns.  The delightfully cheesy old Bing Crosby hit “Amor” in which King is really playing around with his vocal was a follow-up single (US#18, UK#38).  For a man who penned one of the greatest hits of the century it is surprising that King became somewhat fond of the cover version and we do have quite a few on this CD.  There’s an odd version of “I Could Have Danced All Night” the “My Fair Lady” song which just doesn’t work, there’s a good “Moon River” and a passable “Dream Lover”, which doesn’t challenge the Bobby Darin original.

King also recorded the first English version of a standard pop song “I (Who Have Nothing) an Italian song with English lyrics by Leiber and Stoller and got to number 29 in the US in 1963.  This is a song which became better known by artists such as Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones and Sylvester and which for some reason does not appear on this CD.  What does appear is King’s version of another song associated with Bassey- “What Now My Love”, an English language version of a big French chart-topper by Gilbert Becaud. Bassey had reached the UK Top 5 in 1962.  King’s version, recorded two years later, shows him having a good go, without getting the chart success of later American versions by Sonny and Cher, Herb Alpert and Mitch Ryder.

The lesser known songs of this period are amongst the highlights of this CD.  “Walking In The Footsteps Of A Fool” from 1962, “Here Comes The Night” from 1961 and “It’s All Over” from 1964 are all great examples of songs which straddle the lines between pop and the developing soul sound.  By 1964 the British Invasion was dominating the UK and US charts and the huge popularity of Motown was introducing a younger R&B sound and many artists including Ben E King found their hit careers stalling.  There’s evidence in some of the later tracks of King trying a more gutsy vocal- in fact, his vocal on the 1966 track “What Is Soul?” is pushing him into the Otis Redding/Wilson Pickett bracket.  It is somewhat overdone.  It actually sounds less like Ben E King and more like the vocals of the Gibson Brothers of “Que Sera Me Vida” fame but it’s a determined effort to fit into the more Southern soul sound of the mid 60’s.

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And suddenly Ben E King in the mid 70’s was relevant again.  This was a result of the closing track on this CD the space age disco-funk of “Supernatural Thing” which gave him a US #5 Pop hit in 1975- some 14 years after his first hit.  Saved from the oldies circuit he recorded an album with Scottish funksters The Average White Band, which was critically well received, especially “A Star In The Ghetto”.  Twelve years after this his fortunes would change again with the re-release of “Stand By Me”.

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Ben E King died in 2015 at the age of 76.  He was survived by his wife Betty, who had penned “Don’t Play That Song”, after a marriage of over 50 years.  It is inevitable that he will most be remembered by one song but there was a lot more to his career than this and a handful of vocals for The Drifters and this CD is an excellent example of this.

 

Stand By Me : The Ben E King Collection  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £13.22, and used from £11.03 and as a download for £3.49.  In the US it is currently $6.70 new and used from $0.63. 

100 Essential CDs – Number 57 –Chaka Khan – Epiphany: The Best Of Volume 1

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Epiphany: The Best Of Volume 1 – Chaka Khan (Reprise 1996)

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This is the third and final appearance of Chaka Khan on my Essential CD list and inevitably is a greatest hits compilation.  My previous Chaka choices had been geared towards the commercial singles buying audience and proving she was a relevant artist.  “I Feel For You” from 1989 mixed electro and hip-hop beats with the incredible Khan vocals and “Life Is A Dance: The Remix Project” was an explicit attempt (very successful in the UK) to introduce Chaka to a younger club-bound audience.  This 1999 release feels somewhat different.  It’s a much more sophisticated, adult-orientated affair which emphasises Chaka as a major recording artist who can transcend barriers of Soul, R&B, rock, pop, jazz and disco.  Released on the Warner Brothers subsidiary Reprise, this was deemed, as suggested by the title a rebirth for Chaka the artist, who, maybe partially because of her disillusionment with the Warner Brothers label, had not had an album release of new material for four years since the not terribly inspiring “The Woman I Am” release.  With the idea of rebirth in mind the label included five new tracks amongst this sixteen tracker to show the direction Chaka was going to be taking.  Although this album was tagged Volume 1 there has never been a Volume 2 and it would be another two years before Chaka returned with a new album and this would be on Prince’s NPG label.

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Having noted the more mature feel of this release the big commercial hits are obviously present including the perennial club favourite “Ain’t Nobody”, the vivacious power statement of “I’m Every Woman” and a couple of tracks from “I Feel For You”- the title track, one of the great number 1 UK singles of the 80’s and the sublime “Through The Fire” and there’s also “I Know You, I Live You” familiar from the “Remix Project” – although here in its unremixed form.   So there’s a little overlap between the two previously recommended albums but there are eleven out of the 16 tracks that I have not so far discussed.

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From the Rufus days we get the initial hit, the Stevie Wonder penned  “Tell Me Something Good” here in a live version from the  1983 “Stompin’ At The Savoy” album.  The Wonder influence here is strong in the structure and sound of the song with its vocoder effects underneath a snarling, sinuous funk groove and a great vocal from Chaka.  It illustrates how great a live performer Chaka can be (although this could be a little erratic at various points of her career).  When on form she is certainly amongst the best and it can all seem effortless.  I’m a huge fan of the Gregg Diamond penned track “Papillon (Hot Butterfly)” produced by Arif Marden from 1980’s “Naughty” featuring a pre-superstardom Luther Vandross on backing vocals together with Cissy Houston.  There’s a point here which shows the Khan voice as magnificent and takes away from the lightweight disco feel of the whole thing.  At one point her vocal soars and a saxophone takes over and the sound is very similar.  This is the essence of Chaka’s voice, unlike most pop stars it is a real instrument and is used as an instrument.  The comparisons to a saxophone have been made throughout her career and that is why there has always been so much said as to how great a jazz singer she can be and if she had been born in an earlier era when the legendary female jazz vocalists were recording that her voice would be up there with the Ellas, Sarahs, Dinahs and Billies. It is at moments like this on a track which is fairly fluffy that this shows up.

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“Love Me Still” is a less familiar track which featured on the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s  1995 film “Clockers” and is a collaboration between Chaka and Bruce Hornsby.  Unsurprisingly, given Hornsby’s involvement this is a piano-led ballad which is performed beautifully and has the same sound as his classy “The Way It Is” hit from 1986.  Released as a single but not a hit, this is just so classy and reminds me of “Angel” the standout track from her 2007 “Funk This” release but this is perhaps Chaka at her gentlest and most tender.

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The jazz influence hits home on a couple of the track selections “The End Of A Love Affair” predates the type of material she will do on 2004’s “Classickhan” album.  The song from 1988’s “CK” album is dedicated to Ella Fitzgerald is most associated with Billie Holiday and after a fairly faithful rendition launches into a George Benson guitar section with George scatting along.  This mix of Benson and Khan is a good one, both Warner Brothers artists who both could have benefited from more collaborations, especially as both worked with Quincy Jones.  The jazz becomes more be-bop in “And The Melody Still Lingers On (A Night In Tunisia) from Chaka’s 1981 release “Whatcha Gonna Do For Me” in which producer Arif Mardin uses a sample of the alto sax of jazz legend Charlie Parker and enlists the help of another jazz legend on trumpet, Dizzy Gillespie who also wrote “A Night In Tunisia” which is the basis of this developed by Khan and Mardin into a new track.  From the same album comes the title track co-written by Scottish supergroup Average White Band’s Hamish Stuart alongside Ned Doheny.  It’s a good solid song from 1981 with disco influences but is unlikely to be too many people’s favourite Chaka track.  This is the track which leads into the new material.

First off is a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Everywhere” given a gentle reggae flavour with the odd playing around with vocals from producers David Gamson and Andre Betts.  This feels very much like a mid 90’s track and plays it a little safe. “Never Miss The Water” was a small UK hit and sees Chaka collaborating with singer, rapper and bass guitarist Me’Shell Ndegeocello, for whom big things were predicted around the time the CD was released and whose name seems to take me forever to type correctly.  It brings the Chaka sound firmly into the mid 90’s and with Me’Shell’s rapping flirts with the Neo-Soul movement.  Two years prior to this Chaka had scored her last to date UK Top 40 hit with collaboration with Jazz-rapper Guru on “Watch What You Say” (#28) and there has always been the desire to experiment with newer sounds throughout her career.  The sinuous funk of “Something Deep” produced by Keith Crouch also has these undertones of neo-soul, hip-hop and jazz especially in the sax solo and horn arrangements by Derrick Edmondson.  Long-time producer Arif Mardin takes the helm for “Your Love Is All I Know”, a Whitney-ish R&B ballad which shows off the Khan vocals beautifully, even if the song is a little Disney-ish, but if anyone could build up to the big power chorus it is certainly Chaka.  Album closer “Every Little Thing”, another slab of contemporary sounding R&B is the third of the new tracks produced by David Gamson and once again clearly illustrates the direction the Warner Brothers group would see Chaka going in.

The studio albums which come after this are all interesting if not essential. In 1998 Chaka worked with Prince and appeared on his NPG label with “Come 2 My House”- a solid album .  A superb version of “My Funny Valentine” had appeared on the soundtrack for the 1995 Whitney Houston vehicle “Waiting To Exhale” and it was clear that this could be a direction that could reap benefits.  It was 2004  when she took on the whole of the London Symphony Orchestra for “Classickhan” a set of standards including “The Best Is Yet To Come”, “Is That All There Is” and three tracks associated with Shirley Bassey, a direct challenge if ever there was one.  The power is certainly racked up in “Goldfinger”, “Diamonds Are Forever” and “Hey Big Spender”.  2007’s “Funk This” saw a return to more earthy roots, contains the lovely track “Angel” and scooped a couple of Grammys including Best R&B album. This brought her total of Grammys to date up to 10. It also reached number 15 in the US album charts – her highest placing in this chart since her 1978 debut got to number 12.  In 2015 she took part in and was the first celebrity eliminated in “Dancing With The Stars” (the US version of “Strictly Come Dancing”) and earlier in 2016 she announced she was entering rehab as she was addicted to the same painkillers that were part of the early demise of her friend Prince.

In a career which has lasted forty-two years since the first hit with Rufus there is little doubt that we will be hearing from Chaka Khan again until we do this hits+ new tracks compilation will certainly go some way to filling the gap.  I couldn’t choose from two videos so have gone for the all-time classic “Ain’t Nobody” and because I cannot resist a 70’s Soul Train clip here is Rufus featuring Chaka Khan with their first hit from 1974

 

Epiphany: The Best Of Volume 1 is Life Is A Dance: The Remix Project is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £5.99, used from £1.47 and as a download for £3.49.  In the US it is currently $9.86 new,  used from $0.01 and download for $9.49.

100 Essential CDs – Number 70 –Off The Wall – Michael Jackson

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Off The Wall – Michael Jackson  (Epic 1979)

UK Chart Position – 5

US Chart Position – 3

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1979 and disco music is dominating the airwaves.  A little late to the party were a group who were made for the uptempo disco sound – The Jacksons.  Since leaving Motown they had dabbled with Leon Gamble and Kenny Huff who imbued them with the smooth Philadelphia International Sound.  Although “Show You The Way To Go” became the first UK number 1 for the group in 1977 the hits had tailed off, especially in the US where this UK chart-topper only reached #28.  However, things revived for them as towards the end of 1978 the group were back in the UK Top 10 with “Blame It On The Boogie”, a cover version of a song written and recorded by British songwriter Mick Jackson.  This set off one of those chart battles which saw Mick reach number 15 with the original and The Jacksons get to number 8.  The US passed on both versions, surprisingly, as over here it is one of the disco songs that the group is best known for.  Fortunes changed when they kept with the disco theme and released “Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)” which took them back to number 7 in the US (their first Top 10 hit in three years) and to number 4 in the UK.  This funky little dancer gave a boost of confidence to the lead singer and got him thinking about more solo work.

Chart battle – Jackson v Jacksons

By 1979 Michael’s child solo star days were well behind him.  His last couple of albums for Motown had not been big sellers and the twenty-one year old had emerged from an awkward adolescence not exactly brimming with confidence about his future in the music business.  He was excited about the ascendancy of Disco music and was an occasional visitor to Studio 54.  He had never had much creative control of his music when he was with Motown and began looking for a producer who he could work with and who would be prepared to encourage and nurture him as a songwriter and performer.  He contacted Quincy Jones, who had produced him on the movie soundtrack for “The Wiz” and Quincy suggested himself.

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Quincy Jones

This was a good match right from the start.  Quincy had been around for years and had won Grammy awards as a Jazz musician, producer and arranger and had scored a number of films.  From the mid 70’s his solo work (solo in that it was released in his name, but really ensemble pieces with artists who he would work with for many years) had formed into a sound that was very much his own, a blend of sophisticated funk.  This crossed over into the pop charts with his work with The Brothers Johnson, especially “I’ll Be Good To You” (US#3- 1976).  Jackson could easily be incorporated into that sound.  Michael was brimming with ideas but needed some help in bringing them alive.  In J.Randy Taraborrelli’s biography “Michael Jackson: The Magic And The Madness” (1991) he quoted Jones remembering that Michael was “very, very introverted, shy and non-assertive.  He wasn’t at all sure that he could make a name for himself on his own.  Neither was I.”

During their work together, choosing a selection of songs for the album more than a little magic obviously happened because the end result when it was released in September 1979 was a sensation. For me it remains the best solo Jackson album, even though it wasn’t his biggest seller.  Michael Jackson, the adult superstar had arrived.   The fact that something special happened was backed up by Quincy Jones who had certainly changed his tune when he prophetically said;

“We accomplish so much in a single session, it stuns me.  In my opinion, Michael Jackson is going to be the star of the eighties and nineties.”

It’s not so much of an album as a laying out of wares.  Jackson is putting out the shop stall which will see him right for the rest of his career.  The opening track, and first hit off the album was a game-changer.  Jackson mumbles his way through the intro (we hadn’t heard that before, but we’d hear it again) there’s an early showing of what becomes a trademark “Whoo!” and for the first time Jackson is singing in a falsetto voice, so very different from the hard-singing belt it out juvenile of “I Want You Back”.  We’d not heard Jackson like this before and we liked it.  The song itself, written by Jackson, has great production but is, dare I say it, a little empty and repetitive.  It was good enough in 1979, however, as it became the lead single for the album.  “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” became his first US number 1 pop hit for 7 years and reached number 3 in the UK.

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With history behind us we might think that this album would have been one of the biggest hits of the late 70’s, but it did not top the charts either in the UK or US (it did in Australia).  It did, however, hang around the charts for ever and has been a solid seller ever since of over 20 million, which is a paltry amount compared to the 65 million+ of “Thriller”.  It did become, however, very much a singles album as it was the first album ever to have four US Top 10 singles taken from it and on a ten tracker that is pretty impressive.  It’s as if Jackson needed this album as a springboard to becoming a phenomenally selling album artist from this point on.

Jackson has three compositions on “Off The Wall”, one written with Louis Johnson of The Brothers Johnson and he keeps his contributions very much geared towards the dance floor.  “Working Day And Night” is a solid dancer but for me my favourite of the three is the Jackson/Johnson track “Get On The Floor”.  However good Jackson’s own tracks are there are better on show.

The real find was British songwriter Rod Temperton who had to this point been known as a songwriting member of British band Heatwave, most famous for “Boogie Nights” which closing track “Burn This Disco Out” has the definite feel of.  Temperton is responsible for two of the stand-out tracks which both became hit singles.  “Rock With You” is a subtle little dancer, which gave Jackson his second US number 1 in a row (UK#7) and “Off The Wall” (US#10 UK#7) marries this new Jackson sound with the Quincy Jones sound perfectly.  With the backing vocals and feel of the song Quincy would incorporate this sound in later recordings both attributed to himself, and with George Benson and Patti Austin amongst others.

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Rod Temperton

It may have been the lack of confidence as to how well this album would sell which would lead to song selections of two of the biggest superstars of the 70’s.  Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It” was written alongside the then-Supreme Susaye Green and with its Stevie Wonder feel is a nod back towards the Motown days as well as sounding very contemporary.  “Girlfriend” is written by Paul McCartney, starting off a musical relationship which would lead to one of the poorer tracks on “Thriller” and a reciprocal arrangement on the ex- Beatles 1983 “Pipes Of Peace” album –  “The Girl Is Mine” and “Say Say Say”.  McCartney has Jackson as something of a tell-tale in this song – a role he had certainly played before in the Jackson 5’s “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” in which he is a right snitch and which for some reason I have to listen to every Christmas.  I think “Girlfriend” is the best of the Jackson/McCartney association.

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Carol Bayer Sager and David Foster’s song “It’s The Falling In Love” had already been a US chart-topper in 1975 for Hamilton, Joe Frank and Reynolds.  It reached #33 in the UK as we were not so fond of this type of country influenced soft-rock over here and it sounded like it was by a team of solicitors! Jackson and Jones transformed this into a lovely soul ballad and drafted Jones’ musical muse of the time Patti Austin for some lead vocal lines and this ends up certainly one of the tracks that has got even better with time.

This leaves us with one track, another game-changer.  “She’s Out Of My Life” was an early example of the frail, fragile ballad that Michael and also sister Janet would return to again and again in their careers.  It really shouldn’t work – it is so full of emotion that the whole thing could come off as cloying.  The vocal purposely lacks confidence and the vulnerability of the singer shines through.  There’s even what was reputed to be real tears towards the end causing the vocal to further crack.  This is miles away from the vocal on “Got To Be There”.  It’s understated and performed with such honesty that it won the public over getting to number 10 in the US and performing better with us sentimental Brits getting to number 3.  It always feels like we are eavesdropping into something we shouldn’t be and any song which features the word “cavalier” is alright by me.  For anyone who wants a less understated version of this song written by Tom Bahler let me point you in the direction of Patti Labelle and her “Classic Moments” CD where she matches Jackson in the overwrought stakes yet typically gives it all she has got.

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Michael Jackson reaffirmed his superstar status with this album.  He had hoped that sales would have been higher and he was disappointed with only winning one Grammy (Best R&B vocal performance for the first single).  He told everyone he would try harder next time.  Reuniting with Jones the pair came up with “Thriller” in which they went for a more broader appeal.  For me that album has a rockier and poppier edge (and that is even more the case with “Bad”) than the more R&B styled “Off The Wall”, which is why I prefer this first collaboration.  However, there might very well be 65 million people who disagree with me.

Off The Wall is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £3.00, used from £2.83 and as a download for £6.99.  In the US it is currently $4.99 new,  used from $1.00 and download for $9.99.  It is also available to stream on Spotify in the UK .

Postscript:  As I am doing this run-down of Essential CD’s alphabetically rather than chronologically my next 100 CD post will be the one I have put at the top of the pile.  Any ideas what that could be?  A look at those I have favoured might give you some inkling – but I don’t think I’m that predictable….Only two weeks to wait.

Motown – The History – Sharon Davis (1988) – A Real Life Review

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Back in 1959 Berry Gordy Jnr,  erstwhile professional boxer and enthusiastic songwriter, on the advice of his friend, Smokey Robinson, borrowed $800 from his family and used it to open Tamla Records putting out “Come To Me” by Marv Johnson in January 1959.  From 1961 Berry was also putting out records on his new Motown label.  (In Europe Gordy’s music was released on Tamla Motown, but in the US this was two separate labels under the Motown banner).  And the rest, as they say, is history.

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Berry Gordy

Motown, originating in Detroit, became The Sound Of Young America and the rest of the world lapped it up as over the next few decades it introduced us to some of music’s biggest stars including Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Michael Jackson & The Jackson Five, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, The Four Tops, The Temptations, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Lionel Richie…………………….the list goes on.

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Sharon Davis is the perfect person to write a book about Motown.  Working for Blues and Soul Magazine from the 1970s she wrote a column “Motown Tracking” which gave a regular review of news, recordings and gossip from the label forming a large body of work and making friends with the artists which would have helped her produce this book.

What this makes this book different from many books about Motown (and there are quite a few out there – it being such a fascinating success story) is that British perspective and also the thoroughness of the whole thing.  Motown completists may very well weep with joy as there is at the back of this book a comprehensive discography of all releases of Singles and Albums which sorts out the output of  Gordy’s different labels as well as a list of all British releases to the mid 80’s.  It is this more than anything that keeps this book on my shelves.

Occasionally, Davis adopts a slightly scatter-gun approach and veers all over the place, which can make it a little frustrating and perhaps demonstrates those journalistic roots and I think the whole thing could be tighter in terms of chronology.  What is also different with Davis’ account is the broader time spectrum she focuses on.  I actually would have liked to have read more about “the golden years” of Motown but Davis is keen to give us the greater picture.  In 1972 the label moved from Detroit to Los Angeles, reputedly to support Diana Ross’ film career and for many this is where the golden age ended and many in Detroit felt betrayed by the label’s departure.  However, Motown did put out some of its best music throughout the 70’s  and 80’s but as the organisation grew the family feel of the label from its younger days departed and it became another large conglomerate .  I think part of Davis’ brief was to show that the label was still relevant at the time she was writing and as a result there may be too much emphasis on the 80’s where you can detect even the author’s enthusiasm is flagging as she chronicles the myriad of artists whose stay on the label (and probably in the music business in some cases) was extremely short-lived.  Through the 90’s Motown would have another golden period due to the success of Boyz II Men – perhaps an updated version of this book would have put this into perspective and placed less emphasis on the years when the hits were harder to find.  Some of the artists from the golden years ( including music producer Frank Wilson whose “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)” is one of the most loved Northern Soul tracks and Frances Nero who had a revival of fortunes in the 90’s when she recorded with Ian Levine) are given very scant attention.  However, I’m nitpicking because this is a solid volume, full of photos of the artists in colour and black and white and it would be highly worthwhile to search this out

Sharon Davis is also well known for her book about Dusty Springfield “A Girl Called Dusty” (2008) which I didn’t enjoy quite as much as her take on Motown.  She has written books on Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder amongst others and a couple of books on the stories behind chart-topping singles.  Her latest book (2014) which I am adding to my Wants list is a biography of Disco Superstar Sylvester for whom she worked as a publicist.  All of Sharon Davis’ books can be found on Amazon.co.uk

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Motown – The History was published in 1988 by Guinness Books

Lindsey Webster – You Change (2015) -A Music Now Review

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This is the first of a new thread.  Music Now Reviews will be a fortnightly feature focusing on what I have been listening to…………….

The other day I received my ballot paper for the Soul Tracks Awards 2015.  This is something I joined a few years ago at http://www.soultracks.com/  and champions the independent soul artist and labels which are still putting out some very high standard mainstream soul music, away from the dominant sounds of Hip-Hop and Dance music which tend to be the R&B influenced music which crosses over to the Pop Charts.

As these are often American releases on small labels and tend to be ignored largely by UK radio there are usually very few nominations that I have heard of.  This year, however, due to the wonders of Spotify, a little bit of detective work found all bar one of the Best Album nominees.  So, rather than just voting for what I knew,  I have over the last few days been listening to those nominated to decide who would get my vote.  And really I am quite inspired that there is a wide range of good quality soul music being produced.  For a time there was a tunelessness and wavering vocals in R&B music as a result of the vast success of artists such as Boyz II Men and Mariah Carey which never really engaged with me.  In a world where most Pop music heard on the radio is begin to sound generic and very similar (is it my age?) it was good to hear these Best album nominations were sounding very different and even within an album release there was a much greater range of styles of tracks than would have been the case five or so years ago.

So after listening to these albums, which one got my vote? Well, there were a couple of very strong contenders but, as no doubt you will have worked out from the title of this post the one that did it for me was by Lindsey Webster, an artist who I have never heard of before receiving the nominations.  I have needed to do some research, as the downside of listening on Spotify is that you do not get the sort of information that you would have got from the CD inserts (and that is often a paltry amount and often pretty illegible compared to the old LP sleeve notes- showing my age again).

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New Yorker Lindsey is a former cello player who turned to singing and whose album is released by Atlanta Records.  This is her second album following her first self-titled CD released in 2013.  The first thing that is going to grab you is the voice, a rich smokey voice which for me is reminiscent of the great Dusty Springfield, but also references many top quality female vocalists – Sade, Anita Baker, Carole King, Lisa Stansfield amongst them whilst having an individuality which is so rare in these days of so many sounding the same.

Songs are well structured and all written by Lindsey alongside Keith Slattery.  This is a woman who understands music and song-writing which suggests a lengthy career is ahead of her.  All in all, it’s a set of very good songs, beautifully sung and well produced.  What more could we ask for?  For someone who spends more time listening to old music than new music this is a revelation –the quality of the vocals of the 70’s, the well structured soul songs of the 80’s with a feel which is very 2015.  This girl could be big, and hopefully she doesn’t have to do a big club banger to get people buying.  Occasionally, an artist can break through with sheer quality – I’m thinking here of early Norah Jones and Rumer even Adele.  Given the right push this could be the sound of late 2015.

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“Fool Me Once” the opening track has plenty of body, a solid verse and chorus structure and the freedom to end in a cool instrumental section, setting up a groove which might explain the Sade comparisons.  These are songs of both the joy of love (“I Found You”, “Open Up,” and “In Love)” and heartbreak (“Fool Me Once”, “Lost One”) providing a good balance .  Lindsey does not take the victim role – like the best songs on Amy Winehouse’s “Back To Black” the woman causes the problems herself.  On the lovely track “Bleed” Lindsey confesses;

Oh lord, I can’t believe
What I’ve done to his heart
I made it bleed
I’ve been, been living a lie
And I never meant to hurt
Or make him cry

I have learned the hard way
That the lesson’s harder than the pain

This piano-led track has a feel of the very best of Alicia Keys. The track “In Love” reminds me of the type of song Dusty did with The Pet Shop Boys (eg: “Nothing Can Be Proved”).  There’s also touches of Swing Out Sister and a good dance tune in “I’m Strong”.  I’m making these comparisons purely because I want fans of these artists to go and seek this CD out – because Lindsey is very much her own artist . I was delighted to opt for this album as the Best Independent Soul Album and also voted for her in her nomination as Best Newcomer . I can no longer urge you to vote as the ballot has closed (results due on Dec 7)  but she seems to me the kind of artist that we embrace here in the UK and is worthy of your attention.

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 (although with repeated listens this may very well be a five star release)

The other album I really enjoyed was “Tales Of Milk And Honey” by The Foreign Exchange, a solid mix of great vocals, slick disco-funk tunes.  “Color And Sound” by Alabama Shakes was an album which certainly took risks with musical styles which veered from Soul, Funk to Rock and Heavy Metal.  I really liked some of it and applaud the concept but sometimes I did feel my fingers sneaking into my ears!  The full list of nominees were:

Alabama Shakes – “Color and Sound”

Brandon Williams – “XII”

Jeff Bradshaw – “Home”

Kenny Lattimore – “Anatomy of A Love Song”

Lindsey Webster – “You Change”

Lizz Wright – “Freedom and Surrender”

Portia Monique – “Portia Monique”

Teedra Moses – “Cognac and Conversation”

Terri Lyne Carrington – “The Mosaic Project: Love and Soul”

The Foreign Exchange – “Tales from the Land of Milk and Honey” The Internet – “Ego Death”

The Rebirth – “Being Through The Eyes of a Child”

Tyrese – “Black Rose”

Various Artists – “Bespeak Love”

I voted as mentioned above Lindsey Webster for Best Album and Best Newcomer, Foreign Exchange for Best Group, Kenny Lattimore for Best Male Artist, Lizz Wright for Best Female Artist and Alabama Shakes for Best Single “Gimme All Your Love”

 

 

“ You Change” by Lindsey Webster is currently available to download from Amazon for £6.49 and US listeners can download for $6.99.  It is also available to stream from Spotify

100 Essential CDs – Number 22 –All N All – Earth Wind & Fire

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All N All- Earth Wind & Fire (CBS1977)

UK Chart Position – 13

US Chart Position – 3

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This, the 8th Studio album by the legendary soul group saw them at the peak of their creative powers. Here they adopted the mantle of Funk visionaries which they had been dabbling with for some time giving them an instant strong identity and set them, like George Clinton’s Parliament, apart from the other soul and funk groups . The look of the album, with its stunning cover spoke of Egyptian mysticism; stage costumes became robes; the instrumentation could explore Eastern, South American and African influences and the lyrics could embrace higher powers to the point of obscurity. This album showed the group off as a brand more than ever before and the record-buying public lapped it up. They got away with all this because a) it was 1977 and b) the music was stunningly good.

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In the USA the huge commercial breakthrough came with 1975’s “That’s The Way Of The World” a number 1 album which spawned a number 1 single “Shining Star”. We, in the UK were much later in embracing this group. This was the first of their albums to crack the UK Top 40 (whereas in the US it was their 5th). Although I had been aware of some of their other singles, especially “Saturday Night” which had been their first UK Top 20 hit in 1977, this was their first album of theirs that I bought and it blew me away. For most of the rest of the 70’s and beyond it seemed to be on repeat play. Vocally and instrumentally it is superb and as a group vocal performance it must rate as one of the greatest ever. The uptempo songs speak of mystical things, which can be seen now as a little new-agey and trite (although their sound is outstanding) the ballads are  love songs that have stood the test of time extremely well. This album also features what is probably my all time favourite single, my ultimate desert island disc (but more of that later).

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One thing that needs to be remembered about EW&F is that despite the gloss and high production values they could also be amongst the very best funk groups and there are examples of this on “All N’All”. Repetitive chants, the steady groove, stabbing brass, growling vocals combine the sheen with an all out earthiness which was hard for others to emulate.

The Masters behind the EW&F sound was founding member and producer Maurice White who with his brother Verdine (from Chicago, Illinois) co-wrote most of the songs. The album starts off conceptually very deep with the lead single “Serpentine Fire” (US#13). This metaphor for creative energy is linked to a concept in yoga, relating to the shape of the spine. As Maurice himself said;

“Nobody knows what I’m talking about, but a lot of kids go out and look it up and it immediately expands their consciousness.”

This is a sharp, funky track with a myriad of brass. Lyrically, it’s a little convoluted;

“Oh as long as you’re near there is no fear of victory

But when I’m away influences stray my mind to disagree”

 

No, I’m not sure either, but in the US this was the biggest single off the album aided by its tight brass and excellent vocal harmonies.

We remain with the obscure with the cosmic “Jupiter” (UK#41) which perhaps needs to be put in context. Sci-Fi was big in the mid 70’s with “Star Wars” etc. Just the year before on his seminal “Songs In The Key Of Life” Stevie Wonder was extolling the virtues of living on Saturn and around the same time as this even the Carpenters were conversing with aliens. Earth Wind & Fire were here having their own “Close Encounter” with a celestial being . Jupiter has descended to earth:

“To my surprise there stood a man of age and mystery

His name was Jupiter and he came to visit me.”

 The reason for this visit? To present a flower! Lyrically dubious, but it is a hot mix of scratchy brass and driving vocals which always makes it a joy to listen to.

The third slab of funk on the album is “Magic Mind” (UK#54) a good but unsensational track which feels more orthodox than the other uptempo tracks. There’s also a couple of interludes consisting of lovely harmonies, scatting vocals and unusual instruments although the “bub-a-bub-a-wees” of “Brazilian Rhyme” can bring back for UK listeners of a certain age memories of “Bill And Ben- The Flowerpot Men”! This track morphs into the frantic Latin instrumental “Runnin’” which hurtles along to an odd break-down at the end.

On the next album we would have the ballad which became one of their biggest hits but on “All N’All” the three slower tempo songs are all of very high quality. “Love’s Holiday” sees a sterling vocal performance from Maurice White. It is unashamedly romantic and imparts a warm glow. The album’s closer “Be Ever Wonderful” has a beautiful flute introduction and also features White’s fine tenor voice.

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I cannot mention the two remaining tracks without highlighting something else which made Earth Wind and Fire stand out from the crowd – the voice of one Philip Bailey. This man could sing like an angel and he proves it on the superb “I’ll Write A Song For You”. This a tender love song with poetic lyrics which work so well;

“Sounds never dissipate, they only recreate

in another place.

There in your silent night

joy of a song’s delight

I write a song for you”

 It is sensitive and beautifully performed and towards the end Bailey’s vocals soar into the stratosphere (keeping the outer space theme going) to illustrate a falsetto with great range, power and the capability of conveying many emotions. This is perhaps the finest falsetto in pop. (Russell Thompkins Jnr of The Stylistics had a beautifully warm falsetto but it tended to be more on a level). Bailey here pushes his to breaking point in the fade-out of this extraordinary track. Patti Labelle, another vocalist with the ability to soar up to the heavens covered this on her 2005 “Classic Moments” CD, but this is one occasion where the Diva is runner-up in the vocal stakes.

Under any normal circumstances this would be my favourite track on the album but I am saving the best until last here. “All N’All’s” second track “Fantasy” (UK#14, US#32). This is arguably my very favourite single of all time. Tempo-wise it is mid-way between the ballads and out and out funkers but has the merits of both. Lyrically, it encompasses the themes of the album without veering too far into obscurity and vocally it is just superb. From its opening notes it hits a punch and here the mysticism of the lyrics enhance so it feels as if you are listening to something fundamentally important, something which addresses the subconscious. Before I lapse into new agey-ness I need to say that this track for me is musical perfection and I don’t think a group has ever performed as tightly or as superbly as Earth Wind & Fire do in this 4 min 39 second track. I have never understood the moderate chart positions on both sides of the Atlantic and certainly never understood that a higher chart position (UK number 5) was attained by a cover version in 1990 by Italian house group Black Box.

Follow-up album “I Am” was also very strong, although the tracks felt a little safer. It was however a bigger commercial success, but from that point on things began to fall away for the group as subsequent albums lacked the magic of their best and sales began to slump. There were still some great singles to come, however.  I never go very long without playing this CD and reliving this great group at their creative peak.

At time of writing this CD can be purchased from Amazon.co.uk used from £2.83. It can be downloaded for £5.99. American listeners can buy new from $5.99 and used from $3.00 and as a download for $9.99.   In the UK it is available to stream from Spotify.

The Soulful Divas – David Nathan (Billboard Books 1999) – A Real Life Review

realivesdivasI don’t think this book was ever published in the UK, which is a shame, but it can be found over here on Amazon.  David Nathan is British, although he now lives in the USA and came to my attention first of all as regular journalist for “Blues And Soul” magazine and over the years built up quite a body of interviews which was used to inform this very readable and enjoyable book.  I read it first when it came out and was moved to write to David about it, that is not something I had ever done before and for a while we had a little bit of correspondence going.  What surprises me most of all is that there has never been a sequel to this book.  There has been a later edition but it seems to me that the author must have enough information stored away for a follow-up, but to date it has not appeared.  In his introduction he even mentions a string of names who could make up the second volume – come on David, what have you been doing the last 16 years!?davidnathan

The foreword is written by a great friend of David’s, the much-missed Luther Vandross who was a great fan of female soul music and for a time, as a youngster, ran the Patti Labelle fan club.   Luther observes;

“What a rich legacy these women have given all of us, and I got much insight into each diva’s personal traits through his (David’s)  memories and recollections.”

luther

Luther hits it spot on.  Rather than adopt a purely autobiographical approach David uses his personal experiences with these formidable women, both professionally and personally and that unlocks a whole lot more information about how these artists tick.  This is a very personal view of 17 “divas” Nathan has come to interview and in some cases befriend over the years .  14 get their own chapters and three wannabe divas (remember this book came out in 1999- Whitney, Janet Jackson and Toni Braxton share a chapter as the young pretenders).  The other 14 are responsible for some of the greatest music of all time – I’ll name-check them because you will want to know who you will be reading about- Dionne Warwick, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Esther Phillips, Doris Troy, Diana Ross, Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan, Patti Labelle, Millie Jackson, Natalie Cole, Phyllis Hyman, Roberta Flack and Anita Baker.

chakapattigladys

One photo – 3 Divas – Patti, Chaka and Gladys

What makes this book a joy to read is that David Nathan has had his fair share of spats with these ladies over the years and beans are spilled here.  There is a sound balance between career observation, opinion and personal experience which gives this book its unique perspective.  The focus on the interviews for (mainly) “Blues And Soul” magazine gives a contemporaneous aspect, although, on occasion the reading of the old interviews can become a tad dry.

Nathan reveals in the first section how his passion for music developed (how passions develop is always a winner with me) and it was actually all through none other than Cilla Black;

“My bedroom wall was adorned with multiple photographs of the redheaded thrush.  In school, I defended Cilla’s version of “Anyone Who Had A Heart” until it got me into a few fistfights.”

In the UK of course, it was Cilla’s version of the song which rose to number 1 and Dionne had only a small hit with her original version which caused a considerable amount of bitterness from the American.  Everything changed for the young David when he heard Dionne’s version of “Walk On By” which became her first British hit.  He begged his mother for pocket-money to buy her first album and;

“That LP has gone with me everywhere I’ve been ever since that day in 1964.  As it would turn out, Dionne’s music not only served as my introduction to the world of African-American artists, but also literally gave me the blessed life and wonderful career I’ve had in the music industry for the past three decades.”dionne

The struggles of divadom provided an early exit for a couple of these ladies (Phyllis Hyman and the probably quite terrifying Esther Phillips) and since the book was published we’ve lost Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston, Doris Troy and Nina Simone.  In the interim period perhaps only a small handful have the same kind of profile as they had in the year of publication (Aretha, Dionne, Natalie and perhaps Chaka and Patti) as the passing of time has meant that these artists have had to slow down but anyone wanting to relive the glory days of these superb women should certainly consider reading this book.  There may be more thorough biographies/autobiographies out there on some of these ladies (springing to mind are Randy J Taraborelli’s “Call Me Miss Ross”, “Out Of The Madness- Janet Jackson” by Bart Andrews, “Don’t Block The Blessings” by Patti Labelle and the very impressive “Angel On My Shoulder” by Natalie Cole all of which should be on a Diva reading list) but as an overview and for the personal perspective this is hard to beat.

fourstars

The Soulful Divas was published by Billboard Books in 1999.