100 Essential CDs – Number 4 –Fame– Grace Jones

Fame- Grace Jones   (Island 1978)

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What’s this then?  Two consecutive Grace Jones studio albums in the Top 5 Essential list.  I’m making no apologies for this.  After the superb “Portfolio” we were offered more of the same and I for one lapped it up.  Released a year after the debut, sales were lower and this has gone out of print more often than its predecessor but it still sounds as good as when it was released and is an undervalued cult classic from the disco era.

True, there wasn’t a great deal of moving on from “Portfolio” but disco was still hot in 1978 and a great deal of energy had been lavished on Grace to ensure that the quality was there so why change things too much?  Tom Moulton was back on board as producer – some of the same musicians and backing vocalists (The Sweethearts of Sigma) are back doing sterling work.  Perhaps some of these tracks were even recorded at the same time as those on the debut.  Information is a little vague on this.  The quality artwork by Richard Bernstein is back, which went a long way to mythologizing the image of Grace Jones, a tactic which would be employed throughout her career.  The back cover of the vinyl edition (although not the CD copy I own) contains perhaps one of the most stunning Jones illustrations ever, in a sailor’s cap, looking like Marlene Dietrich crossed with a panther. Pencils and paint on the front cover show that Jones is being viewed as a piece of artwork –and remember this is some years before Jean-Paul Goude famously begins to really play around with the visual image of the performer.  The cover would have been seen as ultra-fashionably chic, once again cementing the Jones philosophy of merging the modelling and the music, the performance and the person.

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Musically, there is some movement.  The first side of Grace’s debut was her Broadway medley of three cover versions of recent show tunes, reformed into disco tracks.  Perhaps by 1978 this particular bubble had burst and Grace is given three original songs to combine in a medley which is perhaps one of the greatest segues of three tracks since Gloria Gaynors “Experience” album and her (Casanova Brown/Do It Yourself/How High The Moon) trilogy.  On “Portfolio” you had to wait for the beginning of side 2 to find the jewel in the crown, here Grace kicks off with the best track on the album and one of my all-time favourites.

By 1978 Disco had become far more European in flavour and Donna Summer’s megahit “I Feel Love” from the previous year had been a game-changer in that music had become more electronic.  Here, however,  Jones, always a radical, has eschewed the synthesizer for that big orchestral sound and some of the best session R&B musicians around, giving the lushness of the very best of the Philadelphia International sound – ironically from an artist who would find greater fame by stripping her music back to its bare minimum.  But here in 1978 the fuller sound was having one of its last hurrahs with  musical arrangements carried out by John Davis who had a number of club hits as the man in charge of his Monster Orchestra. He replaced another orchestra leader, Vince Montana from the Salsoul Orchestra who had performed the same duties on  “Portfolio”.

The side one medley was written by Jack Robinson with James Bolden for two of the tracks and Gil Slavin for the third track.  Robinson knew disco as he had written some of its biggest hits, including “I Love To Love” for Tina Charles, the sublime “If You Want It (Do It Yourself)” for Gloria Gaynor, “Strut Your Funky Stuff” for Frantique and would go on to write for that most bizarre of 80’s recording acts, Princess Stephanie of Monaco.

In many ways first track “Do Or Die” can be seen as a natural successor to the Gaynor track but Grace’s vocal imbues the whole thing with an edginess that makes you wonder just what is going on.  Vince Aletti in his much referred to (by me) “Disco Files” tried to sum the whole thing up in his Record World column of July 1978  by stating “Jones remains an erratic singer, subject to bizarre vocal fluctuations that turn nearly every song into a reckless, daring roller coaster ride- both unsettling and exhilarating.”  He felt that she had found a perfect match with Robinson’s lyrics which are “sometimes frankly unsophisticated but often approach the direct spare energy of the great romantic pop songs; a modern equivalent of the 60’s girl group mentality – more knowing, more ironic- but still soppy around the edges.  So the songs are frequently as brash, presumptious, exaggerated and ultimately, endearing as the singer.”  I think he has hit the nail firmly on the head on this and it is this heady combination which brings me joy every time I listen to this album.  I love a bit of irony with my music and the greatest disco music has this in spades- think Chic, “Young Hearts Run Free”, anything by Dr Buzzard’s Savannah Band and/or Kid Creole all coming with a healthy dose of bittersweet irony which adds to their greatness.

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In the first line of “Do Or Die” I think Grace is telling us she is an “operator” (that odd vocal inflection coming immediately to the fore).  She “can sell an Eskimo snow” and there is probably no doubt about that.  There’s a lot going on in the rhythm and percussion department of this song.  It’s boastful and yet she may have met her match as the man she is after is telling her he’s not interested.  Jones isn’t taking no for an answer, even if he is chasing her with a gun (!).  She’ll get her man if it is the last thing she’ll do and boy, do we believe her.  That other great one-off Eartha Kitt covered this song on her album “I’m Still Here” but Jones’ version has the full-frontal attack which makes this great.  It was released as a single by Island in 1978 and attracted considerable attention in the clubs in the US, Canada and Spain it did not cross over to the pop charts.  For a disco record it’s surprisingly uncommercial.  There’s a subtle(ish) key change into “Pride”, a song which feels a little like “Sorry” from the first album as it is more understated.   In the complex world of Jones emotions Pride is being both proclaimed and rubbished “what good is pride alone at night?”  There’s a good little percussion breakdown mid-way with some funky bass guitar by Jimmy Williams doing battle with the percussion of Larry Washington and the Sweethearts of Sigma offering some very Salsoul Orchestra sounding support before Grace storms back into the song with her usual gusto.

“Fame” is another tale of lost love.  In fact, there’ s quite a bit of unrequited love in this album.  For the first album Grace was defiant, yet here there’s more vulnerability and maybe this change is another reason it gets the thumbs up from me.  This track doesn’t quite have the magic of the preceding two.  Grace is both claiming and blaming fame here.  Taken as a whole these three tracks add up to eighteen minutes of high quality disco.

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The second side of the vinyl copy opens with a track which unashamedly follows up from the high point of “Portfolio”, but as “La Vie En Rose” was the best thing Grace ever recorded perhaps it’s no surprise that there would be an attempt to re-create this.  It’s Grace’s version of another French standard “Autumn Leaves”, known originally as “Les Feuilles Mortes” written by Jacques Prevert with English lyrics by Johnny Mercer.  The introduction has Grace whispering in French over a violin solo by the quaintly named Piggy Pigerino, then the “La Vie En Rose” feel kicks in.  It lacks the amazing build which that track had.  There is, however, a nifty bit of what sounds like steel guitar after the first verse.  By mid-way through any intention that this isn’t “La Vie” part 2 gets thrown out of the window and even the “La Vie En Rose” chant by Grace is substituted by “Les Feuilles Mortes”.  There’s the same combination of the two languages with Francophile Grace slipping easily between the two.  There’s no marks for originality here but you can’t blame them for trying and it still all works.  It was released as a single in France where “La Vie” had been a big hit, but it did not chart.

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“All On A Summer’s Night” is this album’s “That’s The Trouble” thematically and Grace is back in casual mode after a one night stand.  Wah-Wah guitars hit a groove while Grace intones that it “may be love or it may be just the wine” and “maybe I should feel a twinge of shame/we’re almost lovers, I don’t know your name”. The percussion break is a little static, which sounds a little dated nowadays but Grace pulls this one off with great aplomb.  “Am I Ever Gonna Fall In Love In New York’s City” sees Grace looking for the real thing in a song which is so delightfully corny and cheesy.  She’s just the girl from Tennessee searching for love and lamenting that “There’s no future in single bars/nothing but the one night stars”.  Grace really sings in the introduction – probably more than for entire albums of her later career .  The song is repetitive and I think this might be a case of a song which only Grace could get away with.  That deadpan vocal delivery allows her to pull off kitsch with panache.  Everything is thrown at this song and Grace emerges shining.

Closing track “Below The Belt” unites Grace with Pierre Papadiamandis who penned the original songs on “Portfolio”.  It’s not as good as those tracks although it has that Philadelphia International sound and is certainly more subtle than some of the tracks on display here and does not reduce the sense of exhilaration this album gives me.  Vince Aletti aptly concludes in his contemporary review of the album- “Fame is a marvellous combination of chutzpah and charisma from which Grace emerges quite triumphant.”

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Artists and their muse – Warhol, Jones and Keith Haring

But once again the anticipated commercial crossover didn’t happen.  In Both Italy and Sweden she found herself getting her second Top 30 album (Italy 15, Sweden 22) and it did make a very brief appearance in the US Top 100 albums, which “Portfolio” had missed out on.  But the club scene loved it enough for Island to try for three in a row the following year with “Muse”.  By 1979 Disco had gone completely above ground and with everyone from Ethel Merman to Johnny Mathis and The Rolling Stones making disco and an underground artist with cult appeal would find it harder to compete.  “Muse” is not an essential album by any means as it begins to feel like over-treading a formula.  It was an album that took Grace’s plan for world domination almost back to square one.  It is not without its merits, particularly the track “Don’t Mess With The Messer” and the Disco meets Gospel of “Saved”.  Once the 80’s came along many Disco Divas were finding their recording contracts being terminated.  However, Island Records could see that Grace had a shelf-life beyond Disco and by returning her back to her Jamaican roots gave her the fame that “Fame” only promised.

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I have such a huge soft spot for the disco stylings of Grace Jones and anyone wanting to explore this period of her career should seek out the three CD set “The Disco Years” which packages the first three albums together for the first time.  The fact that this was not released until 2015 shows there is still a great demand for these early tracks.  Deservedly so.

The edited version of “Do Or Die” below comes from an Italian music show and words will fail you………………………….

 

 

“Fame” is available from Amazon.co.uk from £6.99 and it can be streamed from Spotify For more Grace the three disc set “The Disco Years” is currently available for £11.46 (it is also newly available on vinyl).  In the US it is available used from $16.21 but the three disc set can be bought in a number of audio formats.

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100 Essential CDs – Number 1 – Portfolio – Grace Jones

Portfolio- Grace Jones   (Island 1977)

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So here it is – the album which I will save above all others from the theoretical burning building (at least I hope it’s theoretical- I don’t want to actually have to make the choice).  This is the CD I play probably more than any other and have done really since its release back in 1977.  It was not a big seller yet has remained consistently available.  It is the ultimate cult album from one of the ultimate cult artists.  It did establish Grace as a hit artist in a number of markets gaining a Top 30 placing in Australia (27), Sweden (22), Italy (9) and The Netherlands (8).

Grace Jones was born in Jamaica and had a very strict upbringing.  Things got tougher for her when her parents migrated to America, aiming to settle there before bringing the family over so Grace and her siblings were brought up for a time by very devout church-going relatives.  Grace was always going to rebel.  She eventually joined her parents in Syracuse and the awkward tall teenage girl drifted into acting and then modelling.  It became clear to Grace that if she wanted to make it as a model she would have to get away from the USA as her brand of exoticism was too much for the conservative model agencies.  She moved to Paris where she became for a time one third of a modelling agency where the two other girls on the books were her friends Jerry Hall and Jessica Lange.  It was the image of Grace Jones that first caught my attention.  I remember a photo of her being published in “Record Mirror” and I bought this debut album on the strength of that photo without hearing a note.  Never has an impulse buy paid off so well.

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Grace was in France really not knowing of the disco explosion that was happening in New York in the mid 70’s.  She had made some demos in Paris and a New York couple called Sy and Eileen Berlin, who had been in the clothing industry but were looking to move into music took note.  Grace’s early tracks were lined up for a label they had planned called Beam Junction.  The popularity of the early singles led to a record label with Island Records the home of many Jamaican recording artists and  run by the man who would become a great friend of Grace’s, Chris Blackwell.  Grace, in her 2015 autobiography “I’ll Never Write My Memoirs” had this to say;

“The fact that I made disco music was an accident, really.  When I made my first records, I didn’t think of them as being disco.  I made them in France and the word discotheque is a French word, but it did not have the meaning that it was beginning to have in New York.  I didn’t characterize them as anything.  They were simply songs with a little bit of soul and rhythm, echoes of singing in church, a sense of something showy whipped up by being in Paris with all the fashion, around all the people making it happen.”

Back in America genius record producer Tom Moulton was brought in to mix the tracks Jones had already recorded and eventually to put together the other songs which made up this seven track debut.  Grace may have not been aware of disco initially but she recorded the perfect disco record which clearly illustrates what disco was all about.  As well as the rhythm and melodies there was the hedonism, the camp sensibility, the excellent production values and for me most of all the chutzpah of Grace the artist with a voice that could hover towards the flat end of the scale performing with such gusto that she just had to become a household name.

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Producer, re-mixer and disco legend Tom Moulton

The look of the album also suggested something different.  I have held onto my vinyl copy because the CD could not reproduce fully the look and feel of the album.  The Warholesque artwork was not by Andy, who would become Grace’s big Studio 54 disco pal but by Richard Berenstein who worked for Warhol’s “Interview” magazine who was one of the first of many who would manipulate the image of Grace Jones from photographs.  Grace’s face is in tones of purples and greens on the striking blue background of the front cover and on the back as a disembodied head in reds and purple with a glittery tongue.  Grace Jones had arrived.

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The first side of the album also summed up Disco.  Grace was not the greatest singer yet the idea was to get her to tackle three demanding recent Broadway tunes which would segue into one another and would use some of the greatest Philadelphia session musicians.  Vincent Montana Jnr, the vibe player and brains behind the Salsoul Orchestra was brought in to do the arrangements and the celebrated backing vocalists, known as The Sweethearts of Sigma, Barbara Ingram, Carla Benson and Evette Benton were on hand should Grace find herself deviating too far from the melody.  The result is around eighteen minutes of sheer joy, which I turn to whenever I need a boost- the ultimate guilty pleasure.

It wasn’t that original to disco-fy old songs.  Gloria Gaynor had exploded onto the pop charts and was heralded the Queen of Disco by raiding the Motown songbook and older songs such as “Tangerine” (Salsoul Orchestra), “What A Difference A Day Makes” (Esther Phillips) were becoming mainstays of this recent form of music.  The song chosen for Grace’s Broadway medley were quite recent showstoppers.  The whole thing kicks off with “Send In The Clowns” from “A Little Light Music” (first produced on Broadway in 1973) which had that year already just survived a vocal version by Elizabeth Taylor in the film version but whereas Taylor seems apologetic Grace is going for it.  Grace’s vocal is unique and gells excellently with the “sweet” background vocals.  Her unusual phrasing, long notes and just-on-key performance are all used for excellent effect.  There’s great work going on in the piano and rhythm section. The track moves with a flourish  into “What I Did For Love” from 1975’s “A Chorus Line”.  There is no doubt that Grace is camping this up with a vengeance.  The backing girls are given more to do here and their harmonies are sublime.  The rhythm, crashes, builds, breaks down and builds up in a template for the disco sound.  The third track is the weakest of the three, but then the song “Tomorrow” came from “Annie” which opened the same year as this album was released so would have been less familiar  and Strouse and Charnin’s song is never going to be of the same quality as the Sondheim and Hamlisch tunes that precede it.  Once again Grace gives it her all- although it does get a little repetitive before the end.  It does however, perfectly fit the concept and the production and musicianship is excellent.

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Grace at Studio 54

If the producers had gone for more of the same for the second side then maybe we would have a very good solid disco concept, not startlingly original and probably not essential.  It is the second side that makes this album for me – bringing remixed versions of her tracks originally recorded in France with another French standard which is one of the highpoints of the whole Disco era.

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The second side kicks off with Grace’s finest moment  of her long music career, her version of a 1945 song with lyrics originally written by France’s most famous chanteuse, Edith Piaf.  “La Vie En Rose” needs to be heard in its seven and a half minute glory. (The video below from a 1977 European pop show is the edited single version).  The lengthy introduction with woodblock and guitar builds things up beautifully into a kind of bossa-nova feel which would have ensured this went down a storm in Latin discos.  It’s coming on for two minutes before Grace makes her entrance, speaking in French before easing into the familiar melody.  This works because of its sense of exotic – the French lyrics, the latin rhythms and Grace soaring her way vocally.  This track is often a staple of live shows and Grace has said of the song, “That’s a very special song to me. Oh God, I cry every time I sing it. I had quite a few French lovers, so every time I sing it I think about them.”  I love Grace’s vocal on this.  At the time of its release music journalist Vince Aletti was writing a column in Record World which he put together in the five-star rated book “The Disco Files” .  This is what he had to say about this track;

“building to an emotional peak from a minimal, delicate, seductively languorous arrangement of piano, guitar and percussion.  Grace, singing in both French and English, uses the simplicity of the production as the perfect foil, strutting across it, purring, growling, shouting and whispering like an actress working her lines for all they’re worth.”

I couldn’t put it better myself.  This track gave Grace her first international hit single going Top 5 in France, Italy and the Netherlands.  In the UK Grace had to wait another nine years for it to be re-issued as a double A side with “Pull Up To The Bumper” where it did more than help that track get to number 12.  Grace has never had a Top 40 hit single in the US, so that decision to make a move to France to find fame might have been the right one after all.

Grace goes unusually passive on the next track, the apologetic “Sorry” which certainly has that Philadelphia feel.  It’s a tale of jealousy written by Jones alongside Pierre Papadiamandis.  Jones has been caught out after a rendezvous with an ex-lover . The rap “he loves me too and he’s not jealous of you” shows where Jones is coming from.  The song is basically trite but Grace pulls it all off with panache.  This was a double A sided single with “That’s The Trouble” written by the same song-writing team and this is a great, infectious track where everyone appears to be having a good time.  Taken at quite a fair old pace, Grace laments being followed by men who fall in love with her instantly.  “Every man I see taking every little thing so heavily”.  Grace isn’t into commitment but those around her seem to be.  This is establishing the Grace Jones image of a strong, attractive, desirable woman.  She performed this song many times live in nightclubs, including Studio 54, and those booking her really did not know what they were getting- occasionally bare-breasted, painted, or even with a leopard on a chain – this lady was certainly coming from a different place from previous disco divas.

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Her gay appeal was established very early on with her first single release which becomes the closing track of the album.  In “I Need A Man” Grace is not going to be wasting her time cooking (it was hard to imagine Grace cooking!).  She ‘s out to get her man “then at night I won’t be lonely/knowing I’m the only one”.  The song is predatory, sexual and yet has a yearning which shows the contradictions of being Grace Jones.  It also has a fervour which could almost be described as gospel-esque, although it’s not religious salvation Grace is looking for. The track was an instant success in the Discos and took Grace to the top of the American dance charts.  In a track from her later “Slave To The Rhythm” album,  (“The Frog And The Princess” ) narrator Ian McShane relates the words of her lover and manager Jean- Paul Goude who spoke of the ambiguity  of his first viewing of Grace watching her sing “I Need A Man” in a New York nightclub “Les Mouches”  and looking like a man, to a room full of gay men.  He knew then that this radical, electric performer would be his muse.  When Grace ends the track with the spoken “perhaps that man is you!” you can’t help but smile nor have a slight shiver up the spine!

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The complexity of the artist is evident from this first album.  Rebellious and radical yet prepared to perform a Broadway medley this is just what Grace Jones was all about.  Predictably unpredictable merging the worlds of fashion and music, a punk sensibility with disco.  I knew she was going to go far.

Portfolio is is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £7.33, used from £1.97 and as a download for £6.93.  In the US it is currently $8.99 new,  used from $1.79 and download for $5.99.  It is also available to stream on Spotify in the UK .