Whilst our print mag is temporarily on pause due to the coronavirus crisis, here we present a selection of the latest album reissues as an online exclusive additional treat. Thanks to writers Adam Mattera and Mike Atherton for their learned contributions. [More to come too.]
WHITNEY HOUSTON: 35TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION [LEGACY RECORDINGS/VINYL ME, PLEASE] When accounts of landmarks in US black music from the 1980s are made, invariably, and correctly, heavyweights like Thriller and Purple Rain will crop up as albums that changed the pop landscape, blurring the calcified racial divides between R&B and Hot 100 stations, BET and MTV, black and white.Whitney Houston is rarely mentioned. And while it doesn’t necessarily share the singularity of artistic vision of those records, as a commercial game changer it’s every bit as pivotal.
Released 35 years ago – hence this glorious double coloured-vinyl anniversary reissue by couture label Vinyl Me, Please – Whitney Houstonarrived slap bang in the middle of the decade and introduced the world to – and there’s no hyperbole here – the greatest voice of a generation. But let’s be frank, it’s as much a triumph of Arista svengali Clive Davis as it is of Houston’s. Davis’ track record as a music mogul with an ear for breaking and reviving top talents was already beyond question at this point, and his recent successes in elevating first cousin Dionne and then godmother Aretha out of their ‘70s career slumps no doubt informed mother Cissy’s decision to sign her daughter to his label. But those victories were dwarfed by what Davis achieved with Houston. The statistics alone are staggering – first debut album by a solo female to hit #1; first debut to spin off three #1 singles; over 22 million copies sold globally… Unprecedented is the word.
But a glorious voice, pedigree lineage and seasoned handler don’t account for success at this level. A few years prior Davis had tried, and failed, to break the phenomenal Phyllis Hyman to mainstream acclaim and clearly learnt by his mistakes there, bringing bright young crossover producer Narada Michael Walden and a number of writers along from that project to focus on Houston’s high priority debut. What Houston had that the previous powerhouses Clive worked with didn’t, was youth and malleability. Davis’ involvement in selecting songs and picking producers for his artists is well-documented, and the choice of the four producers on Whitney Houston – Kashif, Jermaine Jackson, Michael Masser and Narada – all point to the trajectory of Davis’ launch plan from fresh, contemporary R&B radio to crossover Diana Ross-style divadom. But the forgotten genius of Whitney’s launch lay in the slow-burn of Davis’ marketing plan.
Introducing the unknown Houston alongside legend Teddy Pendergrass on their 1984 hit duet Hold Me was masterstroke #1, immediately positioning Whitney as a serious singer’s singer, and laying a foundation with her black fanbase almost a full year before her debut album dropped [Hold Me was a top 5 R&B hit, but virtually ignored by pop radio]. Notably the song had previously been recorded by the aforementioned Ross a few years earlier, and hitmaker Michael Masser [who had delivered two #1 singles for Ross in the ‘70s] steered the session between R&B fire and classic pop ballad accessibility.
What’s often forgotten – and speaks volumes to the divide between black and white radio of the day – was the choice of launch single from the album the following year. Written and produced by Kashif, already a hot producer and solo hitmaker in his own right, the minimalist synth-based funk ofThinking About You – which paired Kashif’s smooth vocal hook against Whitney’s gutsy gospel-edged ad-libs – consolidated her black radio base [and by-passed pop completely] scoring a second Top 10 hit before the follow-up You Give Good Love, another Kashif production, nailed it down with her first R&B #1.
What followed marks where the convergence of talent, luck and marketing savvy aligned to turn Houston into a seemingly ‘instant superstar’. This was an era when many black artists – say Stephanie Mills or Maze – could sell millions without ever troubling the ‘pop’ charts. At this stage, any casual observer would have predicted Houston to slot comfortably into that mould, but You Give Good Love – a solid R&B ballad that truly showcased Whitney’s explosive vocal power for the first time – unexpectedly crossed-over to become a top three pop hit, thanks to key TV appearances on the likes of Carson, and of course, that undeniable, once in a lifetime voice. The runway was cleared for lift off – and the cool, melodic ballad Saving All My Love For You was the record to achieve it – garnering Houston her first global #1 pop smash. A long-forgotten album cut for Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis Jr from the late ‘70s, the track was reinvigorated for Houston with strict instructions from Davis not to make the arrangement ‘too black’ – resulting in smoothly seductive tale of infidelity that Whitney handled with an ease and grace recalling cousin Dionne Warwick’s subtle song styling from decades past.
Davis’ next masterstroke was to finally release the album’s commercial secret weapon – the pure pop juggernaut How Will I Know. It was originally penned for [and rejected by] Janet Jackson, but Narada cleverly retooled the track to walk the line between the school prom and the pulpit, anchoring it with muscular, gospel-informed backgrounds from Cissy and Whitney. The peppy track sent Houston stratospheric – scoring another domestic #1 both on pop and R&B, before going on to conquer the world. MTV ate up the day-glo video too, which shrewdly cross-promoted Aretha, concurrently making it big with her own Narada-steered pop comeback, in a brief but significant nod to Whitney’s legendary lineage.
The long game played off: after 55 weeks in the charts Whitney Houstonfinally reached #1 on the US album chart. Such was the commercial buzz around Houston that Arista even pulled off, incredibly, a seventh single – more than a full year after the album was released. Not only that, butGreatest Love Of All [another Masser tune and previously George Benson’s signature song] soon became the album’s third #1 – and what’s more its biggest hit of all. Promoted by a glossy video showing a young Whitney being encouraged by mother Cissy to superstardom, the powerhouse ballad served as a stupendous stroke of self-mythologising – even as notably the single failed to hit the R&B top spot, an early sign of the tensions early crossover artists like Houston would endure throughout their careers. But that’s another story for another day.
For now I advise you to seek out this glorious 180g repressing of her debut – which also includes an impressive hardcover booklet and the full JapaneseWhitney Dancin’ Special EP of remixes from the era [the Thinking About Youextended mix is particularly great]. It still leaps out of the speakers today.
Adam Mattera *****
POSH [STRUT] Following last year’s welcome anthology You Remind Me – The Classic Elektra Recordings, Strut Records are back on the Patrice reissue tip with Posh – the first in a planned series of remastered Rushen reissues.
Having established herself as something of a jazz prodigy with her first three albums on Prestige Records in the mid-‘70s, Rushen – affectionately known as ‘Baby Fingers’ at the time – was only 25 years old and a full five albums into her career by the time of 1980’s Posh. Her previous two albums for Elektra had already marked a determined move into more commercial R&B/funk territory, much to the chagrin of her jazz devotees, so there was no surprise that once again sophisticated hip shufflers, like lead single Look Up! topped with Patrice’s gossamer light vocals, were once again taking centrepiece rather than extended instrumental fusion workouts. In fact Poshmarks a clear line in the sand for Rushen as her first album to place higher on the US R&B listings than her original Jazz chart homeland [where it failed to chart at all].
But while creamy groove-based delights like Never Gonna Give You Up andDon’t Blame Me plow a by-then established disco-R&B formula for the singer – one she would soon take to the next level for her smash crossover Forget Me Nots – there are more sides to Posh than that. The Funk Won’t Let You Down is Patrice-does-EW&F, while the gorgeous orchestrated reverie of The Dream is a spiritual descendant of early ‘70s Minnie Riperton. Best of all is the gospel-fuelled This Is All I Really Know with added vocal muscle provided by session killers Jim Gilstrap, Roy Galloway and Lynn Davis.
And let’s just take a moment to remind ourselves that Patrice not only sung and played keys on every cut [with able assistance of course by the likes of bassist Freddie Washington] she also co-wrote, arranged and produced the whole damn thing, placing herself in the rare group of women like Valerie Simpson and Teena Marie who challenged the unquestioned rules of studio dominance in the industry. Give the lady some respect and revisit this forgotten gem.
Adam Mattera ****
THE RAINBOW CHILDREN/ONE NITE ALONE… [THE PRINCE ESTATE/LEGACY RECORDINGS]
A pair of surprisingly deep catalogue reissues from The Purple One. The Rainbow Children is arguably the most challenging and curious of his entire career. Coming at a time when mainstream ears were firmly closed to his output after almost a decade of label battles and name changes, it was barely heard at the time of its 2001 release. Floating in the five-year expanse between his Clive Davis-backed failed comeback Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic and his platinum-selling return Musicology, it’s a period that saw Prince at his most liberated, self-indulgent and commercially unconcerned. Which is saying a lot for someone who would think nothing of dropping a triple-disc set at the drop of a fedora.
Fans of the perfect four-minute pop Prince perfected over and over in previous decades would be best advised to give this is a wide berth – but for those willing to follow his muse on its more wayward adventures, The Rainbow Children is an essential chapter in understanding his restless genius. It’s exhilarating and exhausting in equal measure – shifting from ambient soundscapes [Digital Garden] to heavy JB-style funk [The Work], orgasmic gospel celebrations [Everywhere] to even operatic interludes [Wedding Feast] – it’s the loosest and jazziest of Prince’s immense catalogue, and at the time marked a welcome return to a live organic band sound, replete with blistering EW&F style horns and upfront drums.
And in another sign of his commercial disregard of the time, his newly-found conversion to Jehovah’s Witness takes centerstage lyrically, finding less than subtle expression through overused basso profundo vocal interludes [a trick that began way back in the 1999 era]. That said, tracks like Family Name, which seeks nothing less to expose the illusion of race and hypocrisy of mainstream religion under a funk groove, are reminders of the oft-overlooked inclusivity and personal politics threaded throughout his work from as far back as Uptown.
One Nite Alone… emerged only six months after The Rainbow Children was resoundingly ignored by all but the Prince hardcore. Only available to members of his NPG Music Club at the time, it took a thrillingly simple premise – Prince alone at the piano – and ran with it. Anyone who had seen him perform live would have been familiar with his ‘maestro at his keyboard’ mode as it often provided a pin-drop moment in his sell-out sets. One Nite Alone… is a 360 degree pivot musically from Rainbow Children, a low-key, intimate and often profound moment of stillness in his ever-changing relentless outpourings. His love for and debt to Joni Mitchell is more overt than on any of his previous work here, no more so than on a straight up [and beautiful] re-tread of Joni’s classic, refashioned Paisley Park style, A Case of U. The album comes in like a quiet storm with tracks like U’re Gonna C Me and Here On Earth before loosing impact slightly in the middle with underwritten material before hitting back with the sucker punch ofAvalanche – another searing anti-racist lyric and devastating vocal performance.
No one but the most hardcore fans even got to hear these albums at the time. Thanks to The Prince Estate’s new relationship with Sony’s Legacy Recordings they’re now available in glorious vinyl for the first time.
Adam Mattera **** / *** 1/2
DEEP SOUL DELIGHTS [LI-JAN] The titles of the opening two tracks on this latest CD from the [allegedly] Thai-based label sum up the deep soul condition. Fred Johnson’s Don’t Leave Me, I Was Wrong, a 1968 Chicago release on Shi-Lush, is right in what would become known as bluesoul territory, with a heavy dose of Bobby Bland’s style. Otis Clay’s Nothing To Look Forward To, recorded for One-Der-Ful in the same city in the mid-’60s but not issued until it emerged on a limited-edition 45 in 2016, finds Otis attacking the lyrics, propelled by a pumping, brass-driven beat.
The subsequent 18 tracks take the listener on a multi-faceted deep soul journey from the early ‘60s to the mid-’70s. From 1962, the ebullient Sugar Pie De Santo offers Strange Feeling which harks back to the R&B sounds of the previous decade and which crept out here on a Sue LP and, from that same year, Sonny Forrest leads New York group The Keynoters through the doo-woppish Come Back Home. Fast forward to 1974 and artists such as Indianapolis’ Calvin Turner and a brace of artists from Clarence Carter’s Future Stars label, Margie Alexander and Hersey Taylor whose deep, declamatory voice should have been captured on record more often, are still really wailing out their heartfelt messages as if they’d gone straight from the chapel to the studio.
On the evidence of this compilation, the late ‘60s marked deep soul’s zenith. From that period come numbers, delights indeed, from D & Joe, whose Alone In The Chapel could be the best record Sam & Dave never made, Erma Franklin with a revival of Johnny Ace’s Saving My Love For You, Sammy Campbell whose hoarsely impassioned Queen City outing S.O.S. For Lovesells for £500 because you can dance to the other side, and Dee Dee Sharp whose polished, professional but highly soulful You’re Gonna Miss Me actually came out on UK Action. In 1969.
The delights keep coming from tracks such as Billy & Wolfe’s Another Lovin’ Kind Of Feelin which evokes The Righteous Brothers both in musical style and title, Thomas Bailey’s I Need You, whose plodding tempo, preaching vocal and slurping horns place it firmly in the deep south, and The Magics, whose If I Didn’t Have You is one of the most obscure records a collector could wish for: it’s a decent slow lilter, the only release on the RFA label whose location remains unknown and was produced by a member of pop group Tommy James & The Shondells called George Magura – from whom the group’s name perhaps derives. Whoever’s behind this release has good taste and digs deep.
Mike Atherton ****
LITTLE GIRL/HIT AFTER HIT [BURNING SOUNDS] Oh, how we laughed. Back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s the cutting-edge sounds in reggae were coming from committed rootsmen like Burning Spear, from revolutionary Channel One discomixes, from devastating dubs… yet here, in London town, was original Jamaican singing star Owen Gray churning out LPs of sweet oldies, cheaply packaged with often out-of-focus cover photos. Surely he didn’t think he was relevant to the modern scene – after all, he was from the older generation; he must have been all of 40 years old.
Over at Vista Sounds in suburban Edgware, they were laughing too – all the way to the bank, as the mums and dads of the young reggae rebels snapped up these albums. As producer Bunny Lee, a highly astute observer of the musical scene, put it, “You never hear much about them ‘pon the radio, but they outsell the reggae thing.” They called the phenomenon “big people’s music”, and Owen was one of its foremost exponents. These two LPs, now together on one CD, show why.
The Little Girl album finds him fronting a neat studio band, playing piano and organ as well as singing. Owen’s quality as a singer has never been in doubt: he can attack a tune, he can wrap himself warmly around it, he can give it soul, all in a most melodic and pleasing way. Here he stamps his personality on tunes like He’ll Have To Go [Jim Reeves via Jackie Edwards], Rolling Stone [Z.Z. Hill] and even Islands In The Stream [yes, the Dolly Parton song]. But it’s the last number, If You Were Mine, which gives us a clue to what he was renowned for at that time, as he incorporates verses from The Fiestas’ So Fine and his own big ‘60s seller Shook Shimmy And Shake.
The Hit After Hit album finds Owen doing this throughout, revisiting song swhich would be familiar to that big people audience; as it was the fourth volume in the series, it’ fair to assume that people liked the format. The first track, originally a whole side of the L.P., find sparking ex-Rudies pianist Sonny Binns leading the band through a bright ska rhythm as Own sings the old favourites – sometimes just a snatch of them as on Brook Benton’s The Same One or Ben E. King’s Stand By Me, sometimes at greater length as on James Carr’s Dark End Of The Street. Side two finds the band playing slower and groovier behind numbers like Dream Lover, Crying In The Chapel andShook Shimmy And Shake [again[.
These albums aren’t ‘Great Art’, and they were never meant to be so. But for swaying gently around the floor, for foot-tapping in the armchair, and for bringing back happy memories, you’ll find few better.
Mike Atherton *** 1/2
LITTLE DID YOU KNOW [DOCTOR BIRD] Jamaican vocal group The Techniques’ first record No One was produced “under the supervision of Curtis Mayfield” for a US ska LP in 1964 and, from that time onwards, Curtis and The Impressions would be a major influence on their music. The disc became a hit when issued on a Jamaican 45, and also crept out over here on the dubious Rymska label, where its erroneous credits did nothing to establish the group’s name. But establish it they would do, especially in the 1965-68 period when they recorded 20-odd tracks for Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle label. This latest Doctor Bird CD gathers all those tracks and throws in a couple of alternate takes for good measure.
The group’s leader Winston Riley rarely sang lead himself, but recruited a succession of distinctive young singers who could capture that wispily soulful Mayfield tenor-to-falsetto sound: at first Slim Smith, then at various times Bruce Ruffin, Pat Kelly and, briefly, Johnny from Johnny & The Attractions. The first line-up recorded the tracks for the original Little Did You Know L.P. in 1965 at Federal Studios, because the famed Treasure Isle studio wasn’t open yet, and they form the basis of this set, even though that LP didn’t actually come out at the time for reasons known only to Duke Reid. These early tracks are a feast of soulful ska, as Slim Smith emotes songs like Little Did You Know, You Don’t Know and the melodic When You Are Wrong, backed by the Baba Brooks Band in full cry.
The numerous bonus tracks mingle ska, notably a spirited revival of Clyde McPhatter & The Drifters’ Whatcha Gonna Do, with fine examples of the rocksteady sound for which Treasure Isle became famous in the second half of the 1960s. The hits are here, like My Girl and Love Is Not A Gamble, as well as a pumping revival of Chris Kenner’s Sick And Tired. Above all, there’s the group’s most direct nod to Curtis Mayfield, the gentle genius’ song You’ll Want Me Back restyled as You Don’t Care, led by Pat Kelly’s cool yet compulsive voice, and as close to perfection as any record made anywhere, ever.
Mike Atherton **** 1/2