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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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100 Essential CDs – Number 53 –Marvin Gaye – The Very Best Of

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The Very Best Of – Marvin Gaye (Motown 1994)

UK Chart Position -3

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Following on from my appreciation of The Four Tops I would like to stay with the Motown label to take time out to celebrate one of the all-time great soul singers, whose life came to a premature end at the hands of his father on 1st April 1984 (on the eve of his 45th birthday).  This was a man with a story to tell and an intense, disturbed story it is as well but let’s not let his life (or death) overshadow the phenomenal creative talent.  I’m sure Marvin Gaye would not have been easy to live with but when on form he is almost peerless in the field of American popular music. I say on form, because this was not always the case.  Marvin released some albums which challenged the patience of even his greatest fans and for me, even his most celebrated albums have the odd dodgy track or have not aged well.  This is why I have opted for a Best Of compilation to join my Essential CDs list.  A lot of people would agree with me as this CD, released ten years after his death reached his highest ever UK album chart position, even though it was the 7th compilation album of his to chart since 1968’s “Greatest Hits”.

In the US, however, Marvin was more consistent as an album artist with a run of four Top 20 studio albums in the early 70’s.  His highest charting album “Let’s Get It On” reached number 2 in the US in 1973 yet only scraped to #39 in the UK.  Perhaps his most famous album “What’s Going On?” which is now seen as a milestone in pop music history got to #6 (US) in 1971 but has never made an appearance in the UK Top 40 album charts.  We seemed to love Marvin over here more as a singles artist and this collection of 22 tracks shows why.

Marvin came to Motown hoping to be the “Black Sinatra” crooning standards.  To begin with Berry Gordy was not that impressed,  using him as a session player and drummer.  Gaye’s ambitions were bigger than this and a marriage to Berry Gordy’s sister, Anna,  seventeen years older than him,  cemented his relationship with the Motown family .  His first break came with “Hitch Hike” (US#30 1963) with backing from Martha and The Vandellas –a typical Motown call and response type track which started off a run of hits with a similar feel.  Of these only the gospel-esque stomper “Can I Get A Witness” (US#22) is included on this CD.

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Someone at Motown had the good idea of pairing this good looking, growing in popularity male singer with their most successful female singer, Mary Wells and the two recorded an album together.  The single“Once Upon A Time” got to #15 (US in 1964) and made a very brief appearance in the UK Top 50.  Wells had recorded a string of US hits but was just coming off her worldwide smash “My Guy”.  This track turned Mary’s head.  She thought she was indispensible as Motown’s female star and became one of their first casualties – leaving the label at the height of her fame and finding little success elsewhere.  It was a hard lesson, no-one was indispensable to Motown, especially with the ambitious Diana Ross waiting in the wings.  The Gaye/Wells pairing was so well-received that it set a precedent for pairing him with other female artists over the years and eight of the tracks on this album are duets and are amongst his finest work.

Partner number 2 was Kim Weston and they also sounded good together.  The highlight of their association “It Takes Two” is an all-time classic and in reaching number 16 in the UK in 1967 (US#14) became his biggest British hit to date.

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Tammi and Marvin

Partner number 3 followed hot on the heels of Kim .  Marvin Gaye’s recordings with Tammi Terrell show such chemistry that they are probably the greatest duet act of all time. There are five Marvin and Tammi duets on this CD and three of them are outstanding tracks .  All are written by Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson and are great examples of duet-songwriting.  Ashford and Simpson of course went on to score duet hits of their own (biggest hit “Solid” in 1985) and they knew just how to pitch the songs for two voices and as a life-long couple themselves could certainly write love songs.  Perhaps the best of all is “You’re All I Need To Get By” (1968 UK#19, US#7) closely followed by “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” (1968 UK#34 US#8) but I have a huge affection also for the UK only hit “The Onion Song” (1969 #9).  A rather heavy-handed metaphor for the state of the world telling us to “plant love seeds” this is just performed so beautifully and moves along at a great lick.  What was not known at the time is much of the female vocals are actually Valerie Simpson’s as Tammi was too ill with a brain tumour to finish the recording.  The single was actually released posthumously.  Surprisingly absent is their other essential duet the original of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, which when reworked became a massive solo hit for Diana Ross.  I think I would have preferred this on the CD to the lesser “Good Lovin’Ain’t Easy To Come By”.  Albums of just Marvin and Tammi’s duets (they recorded three together) as well as CDs with all of his duets are available and very well worth considering should you like this aspect of Gaye’s work.  Tammi’s death sent Gaye into a spiral of depression which affected his life and his career.

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Diana and Marvin

By `1974 Motown were ready to pair him up again.  This time with Diana Ross.  For me the album they recorded together is a commercial triumph rather than a creative one.  There’s a little too much sweetness in the tracks chosen for the UK market “Stop Look (Listen To Your Heart) (1974#25) and even “You Are Everything” (1974 #5), both Thom Bell and Linda Creed songs which had been previously recorded by The Stylistics.  The duo had a couple of completely different US Top 20 hits released from this duet album – but they do not appear on this CD.

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I heard it through the grapevine it might be worth visiting the launderette

Marvin’s most famous solo single kicks off this CD.  “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic in 1968/69.  In the UK it became Motown’s third chart-topper.  The song had previously got to number 2 for Gladys Knight and The Pips the year before and their version is something of a mid-paced gospel shouter.  Norman Whitfield decided to transform this song that he had co-written with Barrett Strong to turn out a completely different production.  Gaye’s version is chilling.  From the opening chords and the snare drum beat Marvin sounds like a doomed man as he lament the fact that gossip told him that his love had found someone new.  That ominous beat, excellent use of backing vocals and the tortured vocals make this an all-time classic.  If someone wants to know what Soul Music is all about this makes a perfectly good introduction.  A certain Levi jeans advert and a stripping Nick Kamen revitalised this track and on re-issue it gave Gaye a posthumous UK#8 hit in 1986.  There’s more classic soul in “What’s Going On?” the title track from a protest concept album that Berry Gordy did not want to release and in the title track from the follow-up album which went from protest to the bedroom with the sublimely sensual “Let’s Get It On”.  There’s the original and perky version of the track which became a huge debut hit for Paul Young “Wherever I Lay My Hat” which is full of charm.  Another high spot is the elegy for Lincoln, Luther King and Kennedy “Abraham, Martin and John” another Whitfield production which ranks amongst Marvin’s best.

Marvin Gaye did not just sing a track, he coloured it in and there were cases where there was more colouring than song.  Some of his post “Let’s Get It On” work could seem a little self-indulgent.  This was the man who was ordered by a judge to give royalties to his next album to Berry Gordy’s sister Anna as part of their divorce proceedings.  The result “Here My Dear” is an intense, brooding listen which many fans gave up on (was that the intention all the time?) .  From this we get the best track “When Did You Stop Loving Me When Did I Stop Loving You”.  This was an album which tried my patience although it is now recognised amongst his classics by some.  Gaye’s second of this two US number 1 hits was the funk workout “Got To Give It Up (1977 UK#7).  I’m a little ambivalent about this party-in-the-studio track but it certainly remains influential.  The biggest song of 2013 “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke with Pharrell Williams and T.I found itself in breach of copyright infringement by not acknowledging the debt to Gaye’s track.

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After years in the doldrums and a departure from Motown to CBS including a period of rehabilitation in Ostend, attempting to put his life back together Gaye co-wrote and produced “Sexual Healing” a track which proved a thrilling comeback and happily sits there amongst his best recordings.  A UK#4, US#3 hit in 1982 gave Gaye his long-awaited Grammy award and with the big selling “Midnight Love” album it looked as if Gaye was back for good.  I’m very pleased that Motown have put this non-Motown track on this CD.  It all ended for Gaye just a couple of years later in tragic circumstances.

For twenty two tracks which shows the breadth, range and talent of this artist I think this is an essential CD to have in your collection.  Marvin Gaye may have been a troubled soul but just listening to his music his importance shines through.

“The Best Of Marvin Gaye”  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £3.99 and used from £1.99.  It can be downloaded for £5.99. In the US it is available for $8.99 and used from $1.94.  It is also available to stream from Spotify.