REGINA BELLE: SHOW ME THE WAY – THE COLUMBIA ANTHOLOGY (SOULMUSIC RECORDS)
What a wonderful melting pot of sounds this 29-tracker is from this remarkable songstress. Drawn from four albums between 1987-1995, this package holds the original album versions of ten American hits, kicking off with the likes of “Show Me The Way”, “So Many Tears” – paying homage to Billie Holiday – and “How Could You Do It To Me” from her debut album “All By Myself” released in 1987. Two years on, “Stay With Me” was crammed with top selling items, including her beautifully crafted duet “All I Want Is Forever” with James Taylor, “Baby Come To Me” and “What Goes Around”. The set also spawned her first British hit “Good Lovin’” before the album passed gold status in America. “Dream In Colour” is taken from her third album “Passion”, while “Love T.K.O.” is the only single from 1995’s “Reachin’ Back” album. In between these, there’s a couple of stylish duets – “I Can’t Imagine” with Peabo Bryson and “Better Together” with Johnny Mathis. Having played these CDs over and over I was hypnotised by the Regina’s commitment to easing every emotion from the lyrics whether she’s being defiant, passionate or fervently devoted to the love of her life. Her voice combines resilience and vulnerability, while being surprisingly restrained in guarded musical moments. Music for the soul from the soul.
GLADYS KNIGHT & THE PIPS: ON AND ON – THE BUDDAH/COLUMBIA ANTHOLOGY (SOULMUSIC RECORDS)
Well, what can I say about this 2-CD release that you don’t already know. Suffice to say, the hits are here! From the group’s Buddah years, we’re treated to the poignant “Try To Remember”/”The Way We Were”; the soulful upbeat “Midnight Train To Georgia” through to the impacting “I’ve Got To Use My Imagination” and “Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me” – and that’s all before you can draw breath. Then we’re thrown into the absolute idyllic musical dream with “Baby Don’t Change Your Mind”, “Come Back And Finish What You Started” and “It’s A Better Than Good Time”. Pure bliss while evoking memories of rather wonderful times in the past, but, having said that, they’re as relevant today as they were when originally issued. With her Pips, Gladys Knight brought home the goods every time with the most potent of songs that covered the whole emotional gamut, in her easy, relaxed way. Turning now to the Columbia years where the hits continued with the likes of “Landlord”, “Taste Of Bitter Love”, “Save The Overtime (For Me)” and, of course, the irrepressible “Bourgie, Bourgie”. This package is an innovative and comprehensive collection of pure diamonds and among the 22 American hits over a twelve year period, there’s a selection of first –rate tracks given that special GK touch, including a special version of “Wind Beneath My Wings”. As I’m going to see Gladys at the Royal Albert Hall in June, this is a timely reminder, if I needed it, of the remarkably talented soulful and grounded superstar whose music has been a backdrop of my life for as long as I can remember. And, believe me, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
CHARLES EARLAND: COMING TO YOU LIVE/EARLAND’S JAM/EARLAND’S STREET THEMES (ROBINSONGS)
The sun is shining through my office window and this double-CD package is playing in the background, setting the mood for an idyllic afternoon. Born in Philadelphia, this extraordinary jazz musician, nicknamed ‘The Mighty Burner’ mastered the saxophone while in high school. At the age of 17 years he played tenor sax with Jimmy McGriff and during the early sixties formed his first band, before learning the organ to play with Pat Martino. From here he joined Lou Donaldson’s group for a year until 1969 when he hooked up with Grover Washington Jr. So that’s set the scene for the first album released in 1980 where the stand out has to be its title track with its soulful vocals and jazz funk riffs followed by “I Will Never Tell”. Other titles like the opening “Cornbread” introduce what would be known as smooth jazz which, I have to say, sums up the entire release here, except for the scorching “Take Me To Heaven”. Moving on two years with “Earland’s Jam”, another slice of intoxicating jazz based tracks like the outstanding “The Only One” plus there’s interesting takes on the Doobie Brothers’ “You Belong To Me”, Barry Gibb and Barbra Streisand’s “Guilty” and “Never Knew Love Like This Before” from Stephanie Mills. A musical cocktail here, where most interpretations work beautifully. The final album, “Earland’s Street Themes”, from 1983, moves on a pace to take inspiration from urban music and contemporary R&B which infiltrated the opening track “Be My Lady (Tonight)”. Others to check out include the dance/funk slice of upbeat in “Go All The Way” and the gospel discharges apparent in “Walk With Me”. Also, among the several bonus tracks included here, is the 12” version of his only UK hit “Let The Music Play” in 1978. Well, it wasn’t the afternoon I’d planned yet, thanks to Mr Earland’s unhurried, gentle approach to his music with the occasional lively bite, it was a rewarding couple of hours. And the sun is still shining!
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VARIOUS ARTISTS: LOWRIDER SOUL (KENT)
To be honest I’ve not heard the phrase ‘lowrider’ before now but I’m led to believe it’s derived from American automobiles which are customised to cruise the streets of South Carolina. Or to be more precise, a customised vehicle with hydraulic jacks that allow the chassis to be lowered nearly to the road! Anyway, this compilation features some of the music played from these vehicles which originated from Mexico, South and Central America. Covering the period 1962-1970 we’re treated to doo wop and sweet mid tempo outings like The Four Tees’ “One More Chance”. Artists so familiar to soul fans including Barbara Mason, The Whispers and Brenton Wood are featured with a trio of gems. Mason’s “Oh, How It Hurts” overflows with emotional angst, while The Whispers’ low-key, doo wop “As I Sit Here” is a joy, leaving Benton’s “Where Were You” simply begs for attention. And let’s not forget William Bell with “Crying All By Myself”, a stylish performance; The Vows’ “I Wanna Chance” who, with a changed membership, recorded “Buttered Popcorn” for Motown’s VIP label in 1965 or “Second Hand Happiness” from Jimmy Conwell, a wonderful slice of deep soul. As always with Kent’s compilations, an informative, full-coloured booklet is on hand and, while an education for me in the nicest possible way, think this CD would appeal only to soul connoisseurs.
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VARIOUS ARTISTS: ON THE DETROIT BEAT/MOTOR CITY SOUL UK STYLE 1963-67 (ACE RECORDS)
As much as I applaud these artists for paying homage to Motown, I’m angry because they could have denied the originators a place in the British charts. Then, looking at the situation from a different angle, perhaps Motown would have suffered a longer non-identity without them. Or, which is possibly more relevant, maybe we weren’t ready for this raw, young sound from Detroit preferring to enjoy our own tried and tested music with the occasional interruption from established American acts. Then, on top of this, of course, was the dictating British radio which steered its programmes towards adult listening until Bill Haley swept all sense of respectability from under its feet. Whatever the reasons, and I guess I’m thinking out loud here, Motown and its artists did smash through the barriers and into our charts – eventually. It goes without saying that the sterling work done by Dusty Springfield in promoting this new cult sound was invaluable to its growth here, culminating in the iconic “The Sound Of Motown” television show screened in April 1965, and often referred to as the longest music advertisement ever! And she paid her respects to several company acts during her career, kicking off with The Supremes’ “When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” on her debut album. In the same breath, The Beatles were also trailblazers when they too rifled through the Motown catalogue for their second album, yet none are featured here. At the height of their career, the Fab Four not only recorded company songs but also requested Mary Wells join one of their UK tours, and Brenda Holloway on their second American tour. Where The Beatles went, others followed, hence fellow Liverpudlians like Cilla Black and Sounds Incorporated recording Jr Walker and the All Stars’ “Shotgun”, and Billy J Kramer, “I’ll Be Doggone”, the Marvin Gaye classic. An adventurous Helen Shapiro took on “You’re My Remedy”; Bill Kenwright and the Runaways tried “I Want To Go Back There Again”, while The Hollies tackled “Mickey’s Monkey”. When Motown’s artists began infiltrating our charts in their own right, the cover-versions more or less ceased, except for Springfield of course, who regularly included one or two on her albums. However, let’s face it, nobody could match, let alone emulate that glorious young Detroit sound, either vocally or musically because, to be honest, our musicians were certainly no match for the Funk Brothers. Although this type of CD isn’t normally reviewed here, I couldn’t really let it pass because, at the end of the day, our acts were saluting a record company that defined our musical backdrop for decades. So that should count for something.
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VARIOUS ARTISTS: SOLAR SOUL (SOLAR RADIO)
Wasn’t sure what to expect with this collection of tracks from artists who have enjoyed airtime on Solar Radio over the past two years but I have to confirm it’s exactly what it says on the tin – 21st century soul. I believe this is the second project, the first in 2001 released under “The Soul Sound Of Solar Radio”, and the formula is the same – supporting artists who have hit the station’s Sweet Rhythms Chart, plus remixes and recent favourites. Randy Muller featuring Carolyn Harding’s “Beautiful Feeling” which begins the musical adventure was one I instantly gravitated towards with the percussion steering the mid-paced tempo, allowing Carolyn to weave in and out the melody, interrupted only by stabbing strings or something similar. “Roma” is another that grabbed my interest. Hannah White’s vocals highlight this dance-slanted mover, which does, remarkably, err on the side of a continual laid-back feel through to the Donna Summer interlude, which is a slice of musical ingenuity. Then there’s the smooth saxophone (I think) introduction on “Latino Girl” from Mather & Kingdon which is replaced by a decisive melody with an unexpected key change part-way through. Or the quirky Ray Hayden track “Things Will Get Better” which, to be honest threw me a little, as was unsure where it was going. Never fear, it settled down under an atmospheric overcoat with an infectious melody. A couple more to mention: “Mystified” from Bashiyra with its lovely chugging feel and double-tracked vocals, and Groove Association featuring Georgie B’s “Feeling Happy” where the clipped beat, warm vocals and catchy hookline exude a certain kind of magic. Packaged in a gatefold sleeve and 8-page booklet, this was one surprise I actually enjoyed.