The Complete Atlantic Recordings By Bettye Swan

April 9, 2014


Bettye Swann had one of those voices that was made for rhythm & blues. Her recordings for the Money and Capital labels during the 1960’s and early 1970’s consistently charted and sold millions of copies. Her material for the two labels, including such hits as “Don’t Wait Too Long” and “Make Me Yours” have been reissued a number of times and are well worth seeking out.

During 1972 she signed with Atlantic. Her five years with the label produced six singles, only two of which charted, no albums, and a total of 23 tracks, many of which were never released. Real Gone Music has now collected her entire output for the label and released them under the appropriate title The Complete Atlantic Recordings.

While her time with Atlantic may not have been as successful as that with her previous labels, the music was more polished, her vocals were transcendent, and most of the tracks have a very modern feel to them.

She also took a number of chances while with the label. Her cover of the Merle Haggard tune “Today I Started Loving You Again” completely re-imagines the country song and became her biggest hit for the label. The flip side of the single was “I’d Rather Go Blind,” which was originally a blues classic for Etta Kames. She smooth’s out the vocal and moves the whole thing toward the mainstream.

“The Boy Next Door” is a product of its times. Recorded during early 1974, it would have fit the Shaft soundtrack well. It is an in-your-face piece of funk, complete with wah-wah guitar and strings.

She traveled the duet route with soul-singer Sam Dees on a re-make of the Billy Vera/Judy Clay hit “Storybook Children.” The produced an up-tempo variation of song that contained a lot more passion.

The most interesting track is her cover of the Elvis Hit “Suspicious Minds.” As a female singer, she completely changes the listening experience.

Bettye Swann would quickly disappear from the public consciousness and music world. Swann retired from the music industry in 1980. It was not until 2013 that she performed on stage again and it was only one performance at the Rare Soul Weekend in Cleethorpes, England.

The Complete Atlantic Recordings resurrects a little-known part of her legacy. It is a wonderful ride through many of the styles and sounds of soul music during the 1970s. She is an artist well worth remembering and her music is worth exploring.

Ain’t No Mountain High Enough 45 by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell

October 9, 2012

Marvin Gaye sang duets with the likes of Diana Ross, Mary Wells, and Kim Weston but none could hold a candle to his work with Tammi Terrell. She remains one of the great “what might have beens” of soul music. She and Gaye placed 11 songs on the BILLBOARD MAGAZINE Pop Singles Chart but in 1970, at the age of 24, she passed away from brain cancer.

Their version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enopugh” was far differewnt than the one Diana Ross took to number one. Gaye and Terrell were able to prod and coax each other as they brought passion to the lyrics and music.

Released during the early spring of 1967, it peaked at number 19 on the Pop Chart during its 12 week stay. Any compilation album of their material is worth owning.

A Time To Love by Stevie Wonder

August 31, 2011

Stevie Wonder released Conversation Peace March 21, 1995. It would be 10 years until he released his next studio album, A Time To Love, which remains his last to date.

It is an album that should be taken on its own merits. Stevie Wonder was not the same artist as during his classic 1970s period, just as he was far removed from his early 1960s material. It represented the modern Stevie Wonder and that will do very nicely.

A Time To Love was a strong and solid album. It may not have had an outstanding or truly memorable song, but everything merged together into a pleasant and cohesive whole. There were love songs and lyrics of social awareness. There were ballads and mid-tempo soul tunes. Through it all his musicianship and production expertise helped to form a slick and polished release.

He continued to play many of the instruments and compose all the material. He co-opted a number of guest stars to provide support including Prince, Paul McCartney, En Vogue, Bonnie Raitt, Kim Burrell, Kirk Franklin, and Hubert Laws.

The best song, and certainly the most poignant, was “How Will I Know,” which featured his daughter Aisha Morris. This jazzy love ballad brought the affection for his daughter full circle. It began with the 1976 song, “Isn’t She Lovely,” which celebrated her birth from the year before (1975). Close behind was another Aisha collaboration, “Positivity,” which was a fun-filled, feel-good romp.

The biggest production was “So What’s The Fuss,” with Prince on guitar and backing vocals by En Vogue. The other major star-turn was the guitar work by Paul McCartney on the title song.

There were a number of other tracks that added quality to the album. “Sweetest Somebody I Know,” “Tell Your Heart I Love You” with Bonnie Raitt’s slide guitar, and “My Love Is On Fire” with Hubert Laws on flute are all typical Stevie Wonder love songs that fit together well. He brought out his old harmonica for “From The Bottom Of My Heart.”

Stevie Wonder has aged well and continues to make it look all so easy. As his career moves on toward the 50-year mark, his music remains accomplished, relevant, and enjoyable. A Time To Love is a fine representation of his 21st century mind and music.

Article first published as Music Review: Stevie Wonder – A Time To Love on Blogcritics.

Fulfillingness First Finale by Stevie Wonder

July 30, 2011

Stevie Wonder was at his artistic peak during the 1970s, which resulted in a series of albums that has rarely been equaled in the history of American music.

He released Fulfillingness’ First Finale, July 22, 1974, and it quickly became his second number one album and first to receive a platinum award for sales. While it may not have been as consistently strong as its predecessor, Innervisions, that may be splitting hairs as songs such as “Boogie On Reggae Woman” and “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” are among the strongest of his songs.

He was now in full control of his career. He continued his recent tradition of writing all the tracks, except for one with co-writer Yvonne Wright, and playing most of the instruments. The biggest change was using backing vocalists more than in the past.

It was another group of eclectic songs that had no real unifying theme. There were gentle love songs, funky classics, and lyrics with biting political commentary. Still, it was another album of songs that stood on their own and ultimately formed a release united by their quality.

“You Haven’t Done Nothin’” occupies a place near the top of the Stevie Wonder pantheon of songs. The explosive and funky keyboards, one of the first uses of a drum machine, the Jackson 5 providing background vocals, and the biting anti-Nixon lyrics, added up to one of the most creative political statements of the early 1970s.

I have always been amused that “Boogie On Reggae Woman” was really a funk song and had little to do with reggae music. What it did have was a synthesizer bass line that combined with his harmonica playing to create a unique sound.

There are a number of other tracks that have withstood the test of time well. “They Won’t Go When I Go” was one of those spiritual songs that he was producing at the time. It was a stark tune about belief vs. non-belief. It was also one of the songs he performed at Michael Jackson’s memorial service. “Bird Of Beauty” contained anti-drug lyrics with some of the quirkiest music of his career. “Too Shy To Say” was a haunting ballad. “Creepin’” was another stark song with Minnie Ripperton’s wonderful backing vocal.

Fulfillingness’ First Finale was another stunning release from the fertile mind of Stevie Wonder. It remains one of his career defining albums.

Article first published as Music Review: Stevie Wonder – Fulfillingness’ First Finale on Blogcritics.

Where I’m Coming From by Stevie Wonder

July 16, 2011

The early 1970s were good to Stevie Wonder. First he married Syreeta Wright, who proved to be a songwriting companion. While their personal relationship would end within a couple of years, their professional relationship lasted for two decades. Secondly he turned 21, which gave him the option to void his Motown contract.

Berry Gordy ruled the Motown label with an iron hand. He never gave his artists a free hand in selecting their material. He was also a businessman and he desperately wanted to reign Stevie Wonder. He accomplished his goal but gave him full artistic control of his career.

Stevie Wonder released Where I’m Coming Fromduring early May of 1971. It signaled a new era for both Wonder and Motown. He began moving his lyrics in a socially conscious direction, and the music quickly moved away from the simple pop/rhythm & blues sound that had made Motown famous. He and Wright also composed all the tracks and Wonder played most of the instruments himself. Berry did not have much time to adjust to this new direction, as Marvin Gaye released his What’s Going On album for the label several weeks later, which became one of the pivotal albums of its era.

It was not by any means a perfect album, but can be seen as a blueprint for what would soon follow. It was more experimental than cohesive as he was exploring various styles and sounds. Most of the songs featured layers of sound and formed some of the more complex music that he had created up until that point in his career. The songs tended to work better individually than collectively. In the final analysis the parts are better than the whole, but that would also quickly change.

The first track on the original vinyl release was “Look Around.” It can best be characterized as psychedelic soul and featured some nice funky organ work. “I Wanna Talk To You” introduced a new Stevie Wonder as it featured a dialogue between a young black and an elderly white southern man. “Think Of Me As Your Soldier” was a gentle soul ballad with more incisive lyrics.

“If You Really Love Me” was a top ten pop single but the ballad about failed relationships, “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer,” remains the most memorable track. This was a song he sang at Michael Jackson’s memorial service.

Stevie Wonder became an adult, legally and artistically, with the release of Where I’m Coming From. While it’s an album that many times gets lost in his vast catalogue of releases, it deserves some attention as it can be considered the pivotal album in the career of an American musical icon.

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Signed, Sealed & Delivered by Stevie Wonder

July 5, 2011

Stevie Wonder was no longer a teenager when Signed, Sealed & Delivered was released on August 7, 1970. It was a commercial success, as it produced four Top 30 hit singles.

While he still filled out the album with a number of cover songs, Wonder had more control over the recording process by this time, and was able to personally choose songs that would fit his style, rather than be saddled by seemingly random choices by his label. He was also becoming an adept songwriter, and here he co-wrote seven of the 12 tracks.

While the album had some ups and downs, the A-side of the original vinyl release was brilliant and was the equal of anything he would ever release. All four of the hit singles appear in a row. “Never Had A Dream Come True” was a smooth and soulful ballad with prominent keyboards and strings in support. “We Can Work It Out” is one of the more creative Beatles covers you will ever hear, as he changes the phrasing and turns the song into a soul classic. “Heaven Help Us All” was composed by Ron Miller, who was also responsible for such Stevie Wonder hits as “For Once In My Life,” “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday” and “A Place In The Sun.” Wonder takes the song in a gospel direction as he interprets the socially conscious lyrics that advocate change.

No matter how good the other three singles might have been, the title song was the highlight of the album. It was the first single release produced solely by Wonder. It garnered him his first Grammy nomination as well. He uses horns and guitars to accentuate his vocal and then fills in the gaps with female backing singers.

His other five original compositions run the gamut from average to very good. All find him exploring different styles and sounds that would become finalized during what is considered his 1970s classic period. His use of keyboards moves in new and sometimes experimental directions, and while not always successful, they show his maturation process was proceeding. The best of the lot was “Anything You Want Me To Do,” which has a memorable melody. On the other hand, songs such as “Something To Say,” “I Gotta Have A Song,” and “Sugar” have an unfinished feel, which would not happen on future albums.

Signed, Sealed & Delivered completed the second stage of Stevie Wonder’s career. He had learned his lessons well and was ready to move on and create some of the most creative and influential albums in American music history.

Article first published as Music Review: Stevie Wonder – Signed, Sealed & Delivered on Blogcritics.

Expressway To Your Heart 45 by the Soul Survivors

June 25, 2011

The Soul Survivors were a are white soul group whose members were from New York City and Philadelphia. The band consisted of vocalists Kenny Jeremiah, Charles Ingul, Richard Ingul, guitarist Edward Leonetti, organist Paul Venturini, and drummer Joey Forgione.

While they would place three singles on the American singles charts, “Expressway To Your Heart,” was by far their biggest. Released September 2, 1967, it reached number four on the BILLBOARD MAGAZINE Pop Singles Charts.

It was an up-tempo blast of energy that fused soul and rock into a nice mix.

While the group would not last long, they would leave behind one superior song.

Be Altitude by The Staple Singers

May 10, 2011

Mavis, Cleotha, Yvonne, and Roebuck “Pops” Staples began their recording career during the early 1950s by producing some of the best post World War II gospel of the era. The first half of the 1960s found them fusing folk and soul into a creative blend. The third and most successful part of their career began with their signing to the Stax label during the fall of 1968.

Their early releases for Stax were creative but for the most part commercially unsuccessful. During 1971 they decided to leave the house band and studios in Memphis behind to record in Muscle Shoals, using their musicians. The result was one of the most influential soul/R&B albums of the decade.

Be Altitude combined elements of gospel and funky soul with Jamaican rhythms into a mix that was unique and creative. Mavis’ vocals were raw and emotional as they conveyed messages of hope, respect, and peace during an era when such messages were sorely needed.

The Muscle Shoals musicians may not have been as well known as their Memphis counterparts but they were just as talented. Lead guitarist Eddie Hinton, rhythm guitarist Jimmy Johnson, bassist David Hood, keyboardist Barry Beckett, and drummer Roger Hawkins laid down some of the best tracks of their career. The surprise was engineer Terry Manning, who played a Moog synthesizer and electric slide guitar, which were unique additions for releases by the Stax label.

The album’s most memorable track is the Number One pop and rhythm & blues hit “I’ll Take You There.” Straight out of the Southern Baptist gospel tradition by way of the Caribbean, it has a call-and-response chorus along with the pure funk of Hinton’s lead guitar runs. Mavis grunts, groans, and sings her way to a memorable performance.

“Respect Yourself” was an anthem of self-empowerment during the post-Civil Rights movement. There is a subtle fuzz guitar sound that makes the song work. Also, the track has some nice tempo changes that are accentuated by the vocals.

“This Old Town (People In This Town)” was another idealistic song that sounds somewhat dated today. Its theme was that there are no differences between people, and peace was on the way. This was in the middle of the Vietnam War with all its political unrest at home. It was a gentle song of harmony that ran counterpoint to the volume of anti-war material that was being produced at the time.

The album is strong from beginning to end. Tracks such as “This World,” “We Are People,” “”Who Do You Think You Are (Jesus Christ The Superstar)” and “I’m Just Another Soldier” are all representative of Southern soul (and its variations) at its best.

This reissue comes with two bonus tracks. “Walking In Water Over Our Head” has a thunderous bass line by David Hood and some string arrangements. Mavis’ vocals were an overdubbed composite, which is another unique event in the Stax catalogue. “Heavy Makes You Happy” is an unreleased alternate track recorded during 1970. The released version featured an electric piano as the lead instrument but here it is Hinton’s guitar. The vocals also have a live feel.

The sound has been remastered from the original tapes and has a clarity that has been missing from previous releases. As well, the included liner notes provide a nice history of the album.

Be Altitude is not just a relic of the early 1970s but one of the masterpieces from one of the most influential rhythm & blues of their time. An essential and exciting release.

Article first published as Music Review: The Staple Singers – Be Altitude on Blogcritics.

McLemore Avenue by Booker T. & The MG’s

May 2, 2011

The Concord Music Group is launching the Stax Remasters Series. It will consist of individual albums originally issued by Stax Records, which given the caliber of the artists who recorded for the label and the quality of their work, should make for an excellent set of releases. The first three artists to appear are The Staple Singers, Johnnie Taylor, and the subject of this review, Booker T. & The MG’s.

Booker T. & The MG’s was formed during the early 1960’s by members of the Stax house band. Keyboardist Booker T. Jones, bassist Lewie Steinberg, who was quickly replaced by Donald “Duck” Dunn, drummer Al Jackson, and guitarist Steve Cropper, would back such artists as Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Rufus Thomas, Johnnie Taylor, Albert King, The Staple Singers, plus dozens more.

In between backing gigs, they began recording together. Their first hit was 1962’s “Green Onions,” which topped the American R&B charts and reached number three on the pop charts. Seventeen more chart singles followed as would millions of albums sold.

The Beatles released Abbey Road October 1, 1969 in the United States. Booker T. Jones bought the album shortly afterward and decided to issue a soulful and instrumental interpretation of the music. He immediately had Jackson and Dunn lay down the rhythm tracks with Cropper adding his guitar parts a couple of weeks later. McLemore Avenue was released during January of 1970 and remains one of the more creative, excellent, and fascinating interpretations of Beatles music ever released. The title comes from the street where the Stax label was located.

The original album consisted of three extended medleys and one stand-alone song. “Something” was the only individual track and was released as the album’s only single. It begins traditionally but then goes off in a soulful, improvisational direction.

The first medley clocks in at close to 16 minutes, combining most of Abbey Road’s best known tracks, “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End/Here Comes the Sun/Come Together” into one long, meandering and funky ode to The Beatles. While Booker’s keyboards are the dominant instruments, Cropper’s guitar work on “The End” and “Come Together” is pure Memphis R&B and gives the songs a very different flavor from their British rock origins, as he bends the notes far differently than did George Harrison on the originals.

Side two of the original vinyl release began with the seven-minute fusion of “Because” and “You Never Give Me Your Money.” This is my least favorite of the four tracks, probably because it is the least creative. Jones’ organ is somewhat overbearing and takes the overall sound a little too close to being easy listening.

Most interesting of all is the 10-minute union of “Sun King/Mean Mr. Mustard/Polythene Pam/She Came In Through The Bathroom Window/I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” The connectors that fuse the songs together are short, brilliant bursts of energy by Cropper and Jones, proving that which is brief can also be highly creative.

If you are keeping track, four songs — “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” “Octopus’s Garden,” “Oh! Darling,” and “Her Majesty” — are not covered.

The CD comes with requisite bonus tracks, which are all Beatles covers taken from different periods of Booker T. & The MG’s career. “Day Tripper,” “Michelle,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Lady Madonna,” and two versions of “You Can’t Do That” complete the band’s Beatles catalogue.

The sound is clear as the music has undergone 24-bit remastering. The liner notes are excellent as they provide a nice history of the music and recording process.

McLemore Avenue is a soulful delight and an essential listening experience, as it takes the music of The Beatles in a unique direction. Best of all, as an instrumental album, the music stands on its own, even though it has been moved from its original form. This CD is a worthwhile addition to any music collection.

Article first published as Music Review: Booker T. & The MG’s – McLemore Avenue on Blogcritics.

Give Me Just A Little More Time by the Chairmen Of The Board

April 10, 2011

“Give Me Just A Little More Time” by The Chairmen of The Board is a beach classic in the south. Everytime a radio station in my area of North Carolina would ask listeners to name their favorite song, “Give Me Just A Little More Time” would always finish in the top two or three.

The group was founded in 1969 and consisted of Norman “General” Johnson, Danny Woods, Harrison Kennedy, and Eddie Curtis. They can be considered a rhythm & blues vocal group.

“Give Me Just A Little More Time” was their biggest hit. Released January 17, 1970, it reached number three on the BILLBOARD MAGAZINE Pop Singles Chart.

If you are ever passing through eastern North Carolina, turn on your radio and wait, as “Give Me Just A Little More Time” is bound to be played sooner or later.