Intimate relationships are the lyrical emphasis of so many songs, that we often overlook the meaning of the words without realizing it. In today’s musical landscape, particularly, the way in which love is sung and rapped about can be particularly negative and shallow. However, there was a long period of time in recent history when this was not the norm. Affection, romance, sincerity, and commitment were amorous concepts that listeners didn’t have to flip through loads of radio stations to get to.
Herb Fame of the timeless R&B duo Peaches & Herb is one man who’s intent on keeping love and positivity an integral part of contemporary soul;=2 0and he’s beginning his mission with Colors of Love, the duo’s first release in 25 years. “All the lyrics I’m hearing today are just crazy: ‘Beat ‘em, rape ‘em, knock ‘em in the head.’ I’m trying to bring love back, because that’s what’s been missing in this United States of America, with all these wars and all this stuff that’s going on. You pick up the newspaper, listen to the news, and everybody’s doing something to somebody...but there’s nothing about love.”
Always one to make musical good on his word, Herb assembled top-quality writing and production talent -- not to mention a radiant new “Peaches” -- for Colors of Love. The result is an 11-song collection that travels through laidback midtempo grooves, elegant ballads, and a couple of groovy steppers. Produced by Fame’s fellow Washington, D.C. native Bill “Bumblebee” Davis, the set includes songs from a number of prolific R&B songwriters. Los Angeles-based talents Sami McKinney, Ricky Jones, and Brion James penned the lead single, “Spend the Night”; newcomers Erica Poindexter and Tommy Crosby contributed “If You Say You Love Me” and “Any Day,” res pectively; and Fame himself makes his writing debut with the pensive “Tell Me That You Love Me.”
As for the new “Peaches,” she hails from Barcelona, Spain, and her name is Meritxell (pronounced mah-di-chel) Negre. Having relocated to Nashville in the mid-90’s, she began her ventures in American popular music as a songwriter for EMI Music Publishing. She then moved to the D.C. area, where she began performing at various jazz- and soul-music festivals. A collaboration with acclaimed bassist Gary Grainger resulted in the CD release The Meritxell Experience; and before long, Negre was attracting the attention of respectable producers such as Bill Davis, who introduced her to Herb. He cites Meritxell’s “versatile, soulful background” as impetus for giving her “the Peaches crown.” As the first non-black “Peaches,” her vibrantly soulful vocal delivery is proof that, in keeping with the album’s title, the Colors of Love are boundless. She’s just as at home delivering a serious, no-nonsense approach on “What You Gonna Do” as she is cooing seductively on “Spend the Night.” Her effortless alto and soprano range is simultaneously lush and powerful, and is the perfect match for Herb0s classic, zesty tenor flair. She fits right in the slot, almost as if she were replacing Linda Greene right after the last Peaches & Herb album (1983’s Remember), instead of 25 years later.
(Speaking of Greene, for fans wondering what the sultry female vocalist behind perennial classics such as “Reunited,” “I Pledge My Love,” and “Shake Your Groove Thing” is up to these days, she now goes by her married name, Linda Tavani. Along with her husband, Stephen, she runs a non-profit called WOW (Winning Our World), which produces free, volunteer-based gospel festivals across the U.S. in low-income urban areas.)
Herb says the message in Peaches & Herb’s new music is the same as it was during his tenure with Greene, and even back in the 60’s with the original “Peaches,” Francine Hurd. “On every album that’s done by Peaches & Herb, we try to reach the masses, We try to put something on there that someone from every phase of life we’ll enjoy. We don’t just target one group of people.” Of course, certain songs may strike a special chord with new couples. For example, the first single from Colors of Love, entitled “Spend th e Night,” “just happens to be one of those songs that people say you fall in love and you make babies off of,” Herb notes.
Released on D.C.-based independent label Imagen, Colors of Love brings Fame full-circle. Whereas young couples in the late 60’s could easily fall in love to irreplaceable gems such as “Close Your Eyes,” “Let’s Fall in Love,” “For Your Love,” and “United,” romantic partners of Generations X and Y may find equal affection to the tune of new ballads like “Spend the Night” and “Take It Slow.” Given, the music industry has changed drastically since Peaches & Herb’s previous go-round with the record-buying public; but sensibility is something that Fame has never lacked. Since 1970, he has held down a day-job: first, as a police officer; in more recent years, as a security officer with the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans’ Claims.
In fact, it was pressure from Peaches & Herb’s first run of success that drove Fame out of the music industry completely for most of the early to mid-70’s. “I got fed up with the travel and trying to please every night. During those times we did one-nighters -- maybe 30 in a row. You sing here,20then you’ve gotta drive 500 miles and try to get some sleep; do this gig, drive 500 more miles. I just got tired of it!” Being a cop was plenty to keep him “content” during that period. “I wasn’t even listening to music. I was listening to all-news, all-sports stations. I just turned music off.”
But five years away was enough to give Herb “the itch” to get back into recording and touring. It took a few years to get it right again, but perseverance paid off. His first attempt was via a local D.C.-area single in 1975 called “Down Where It’s At” with the original Francine Barker. The original “Peaches” was, however, immersed in family life at this point, and so Herb had to find a new partner. Van McCoy, who had produced the duo’s 60’s hits, found Linda Greene, who had performed as a Rhondel with Bill Deal and worked as a model. In 1977, the new duo released their first album together -- a self-titled set on MCA -- to almost no public response. Others would have given up, but Greene and Fame kept their eyes open for more options. “We saw [producer] Freddie Perren in New York at a hotel, just by coincidence. I’d known him all these years from when we went to Howard University together, and from the days when I worked at Waxie Maxie’s and he worked at a record shop around the corner. Well, now he was looking for someone to record. He had just started his label, so we went in, and got blessed again!” Blessed indeed. The first released product under Perren’s MVP label (distributed by Polydor) hit big. “Shake Your Groove Thing” shot to #4 R&B, #5 pop, and #2 Disco and was certified gold within months of its fall 1978 release. On the heels of a now-disco classic, Fame and Greene unleashed “Reunited” as the second single from the 2 Hot album, and it reached #1 for four weeks on both the R&B and pop charts. The single quickly achieved platinum status, as did its parent album, which stayed at the top for eight weeks. A handful of chart hits followed over the next four years - most notably the top-20 pop/top-40 R&B hit “I Pledge My Love”; the disco-crossover hit “Roller-Skatin’ Mate”; and the funky “Freeway,” from 1981’s Sayin’ Something LP. After a brief stint with short-lived Columbia subsidiary The Entertainment Company for 1983’s Remember, Fame and Greene decided to take a break from recording and touring. Seven years would pass before the act would resume, this time with Philadelphia-based singer Patrice Hawthorne as “Peaches.” In addition to touring and making TV appeara nces together, the two collaborated with Perren on some new material in the studio - but it never saw release.
From his childhood, through all of the success with Peaches & Herb, Herb has remained in his hometown of Washington, D.C. Growing up in the nation’s capital, he’d sing in church, and could frequently be found “standing on the corner, singin’ with the guys. Then, you’d form a group, and start doing talent shows. I went to New York once with one of my groups to audition at End records, which had Little Anthony and The Imperials and The Chantels. We sang a song by Little Anthony, and the guy who auditioned us made one statement that I will never forget. He said, ‘We already have one Little Anthony. We don’t need two.’ So from then on, I knew you had to be different.” Around the same time, Herb cut his first record, as part of a male-female duo - quite prophetically. The act was billed as Millie & Billy, and the 45 release was a Christmas tune entitled “Rudolph’s Holiday.” (Herb mentioned that he’s been “looking and looking” for this record with no success, and any help from collectors in locating it would be appreciated!) A number of resume-building experiences followed. “The first talent show I won, I sang a song by Ivory Joe Hunter called ‘When I Lost My Baby.=E 2 I won $25 and thought I was a superstar then.” Herb says that experience was a turning point that “carried over. I knew [singing] was something I wanted to do.”
Herb’s eventual breakthrough into the music industry didn’t come through a talent show or audition, though. Rather, it came a few years after college while he was working at the Waxie Maxie’s record store chain. “Around the corner was a theater where all the acts came and performed. I figured if I worked in a music shop, they’d all come around to check on their records, and I could audition for someone. I kept asking and no one would really listen. And then one day Van McCoy walked in, so I just started singing. He listened and said he’d be back the next week with his manager. I thought, ‘Here’s another lie.’ Well, he came back the following week with his manager, Dave Kapralik, who also managed Sly & The Family Stone, and took me to New York with a group called the Sweet Things. The lead singer was Francine Hurd. They recorded the group, then recorded me.” He recalls that his own single “didn’t do diddly squat. But I guess Van had some inclination that Peaches and I should record together, so we went did. The A-side was a song called ‘We’re in This Thing Together,’ which did nothing. But a fellow=2 0in St. Louis by the name of Robert B.Q. turned it over to the B-side, ‘Let’s Fall in Love,’ and that took off!”
While many with the success level Herb’s experienced would have upped and moved to New York, Los Angeles, or a similar entertainment mecca, Herb says there are definite reasons he’s stayed in his hometown. “The only time I lived any other place than the D.C. area was when I was in the navy, from 1959-1963, and that was in the New England area. [New York and L.A.] have a lot of artificial people. Here in D.C. where I know everyone, I can talk and understand and know that people aren’t b.s.’ing. I don’t want all that status stuff. I just wanna record, I wanna sing, and be me!”
Herb says the release of Colors of Love was a matter of the right elements coming together at the right time. “Plans don’t develop sometimes and that’s when you get, so I don’t make plans. I just got the bug again and here we are.” He mentions that if the album meets with commercial success, he’s ready to go “full force” in support of it. “I know that there are millio ns and millions of people in this world that never get the chance to do what they want to do. I have been blessed to do what i want to do.” Adding a few more words about why the project is important to him, Herb says, “All through the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and even now, all I’ve ever wanted to preach is people loving each other, having a good time, being calm, and being peaceful. Our wars and all this stuff that’s going on -- they really aren’t necessary if people stop and just talk to each other, and find that we’ve got something in common. We can love each other!”
About the Writer
Justin Kantor is a freelance music journalist with published works in Wax Poetics and the All-Music Guide. A graduate of Berklee College of Music's Business and Management program, he regularly writes liner notes for reissue labels.