Sunday, 29 October 2017

The Best of The Stylistics

One evening recently, while the Good Wife was away helping her mother celebrate 89 years on Planet Rock, I took the opportunity to air a guilty pleasure. Michael McDonald's Motown. There, the cat's out of the bag. Not that I've anything really to be ashamed about: he sounds like a very decent, modest individual, who's tickled to death by younger generations' re-discovery of what has been dubbed 'yacht rock'. That is: something soft, slick and redolent of the '70s and '80s.

The voice is a slight bone of contention in this household. My wife thinks that there's something too knowingly crowd-pleasing about old McDonald's voice – in a kind of X-Factor way. In other words, she contends, he knows that he's got a great voice and milks it too self-consciously. She's got a point, so I don't foist it upon her. But a great voice is a gift that can't be helped. Besides, voices are a very personal thing, and personally his voice – knowing or not – still delivers a frisson. I've been listening to it since the early days of Steely Dan. Before he joined the Doobies, I thought the 'Brothers' were to be lumped with the ludicrous Lynyrd Skynyrd and other purveyors of greasy, long-haired, oily denim-ed American. Yes, one could argue that 'Minute By Minute' and all those songs that transformed the Doobies could be classified as music for the yachting fraternity, but let's not forget 'Ya Mo Be There' with James Ingram in the days when Quincy Jones was the producer of choice. Not to mention a ridiculously funky version of Stevie Wonder's 'Higher Ground'.

On Motown, moreover, he has the good taste to cover at least five Marvin Gaye numbers, possibly the greatest come-to-bed voice in anyone's lifetime. But it's his lovely version of 'Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)' that got me really excited – and homing in on my only (treasured) Stylistics' album. In fact, the song shouldn't be on Motown, since it's one of any number of brilliant melodies by the great song-writing team of Thom Bell and Linda Creed supplied to the likes of the Stylistics, the Delfonics and the Detroit Spinners. And none of them, if you ignore the Spinners' early days, were Motown artists.
I should at this point issue a government health warning. The Best Of album is not to be confused with Volume 2, by which time Thom Bell had taken off and the Stylistics became mere puppets of the Hugo & Luigi production team that happened to own the Avco label. Whereas this was the era of the album, all those black vocal groups – add to that previous bunch the Dells, the Detroit Emeralds, the Chi-Lites (and maybe a few more) – were primarily purveyors of singles. Which is probably my way of arguing for the occasional greatest hits collection in my vie en albums.

There was a time in my life, foolish youth, when I ridiculed the Stylistics each time they appeared on Top of the Pops. No doubt today's fans of gangsta rap and death metal would also sneer at the seersucker frock coats, the oversized bow ties, the ruffled shirt fronts, the cheesy dance routines and that dangerously high falsetto of Russell Thompkins jr. I was wrong.

By the time I was holding down a regular job – and after seeing the light cast by What's Going On? – I learnt to love the Stylistics (or maybe in truth the songs of Bell and Creed). I remember taking a train trip one day from Brighton to nearby Haywards Heath. In my capacity as training officer, I was to deliver startling news of some new rule or regulation about unemployment benefit to the manageress of the small office in that dormitory Sussex town. 

We sat in her backroom office, away from the gaze of 'The Great Unwashed' – as one troublesome member of staff used to refer to the unemployed – and we talked turkey. It wasn't very interesting and for some reason the conversation drifted onto the topic of the Stylistics. We discovered a shared passion (the holy grail of influencing skills) and pretty soon we were singing their greatest hits with gusto. God knows what the staff and their probably well-scrubbed clients thought on the other side of the door. So that's what civil servants do all day... taxpayers' money... pampered menials...

But who could blame us really? Benefits were boring, and what songs they are. Apart from their first hit, the rather ingenuous 'You're a Big Girl Now', and the slightly saccharine 'Let's Put It All Together', all of the other eight songs are Bell and Creed songs. And all bar the self-consciously jaunty 'Rockin' Roll Baby' (which does boast the gloriously daft couplet, 'Got a funky walk/In his little orthopaedic shoes') shimmer with the kind of sublime soaring melodies that Burt Bacharach used to write for Dionne Warwick. They kick off with 'You Make Me Feel Brand New', and that wonderful moment when Russell Thompkins nudges Airrion Love out of the lead-vocal spot ('Only you/Came when I needed a friend/Believed in me through thick and thin'), and they end with arguably the best of the lot – and certainly in terms of social commentaries almost the equal of Marvin Gaye's 'Inner City Blues' – the moody, magnificent 'People Make the World Go Round'.

In between, there's hit after hit: 'Betcha By Golly, Wow', 'Break Up to Make Up', 'I'm Stone in Love with You', 'Let's Put it All Together', 'You Are Everything' and 'Stop, Look, Listen...' I rest my case – and bring us back to Michael McDonald. He and Russell are about the same age. A little older than the Good Wife and me. When she gets back, I'll re-file  the former but give her a taste of the latter. We'll be up all night, singing love songs.

Monday, 31 July 2017

The Mighty Diamonds: Right Time

Recently, I've been immersed in Lloyd Bradley's history of reggae music, Bass Culture. There was one copy on its own in a rather lacklustre remainder bookshop in Romsey and it's every bit as engrossing as I imagined it would on beating the good citizens of the Hampshire market town to the purchase. Like all good music books, in my mind, it's not just about the music but about the whole social, historical and political context in which it came about. I feel now that I know the layout of Kingston, Jamaica, as well as I do that of Kingston, Surrey (where my paternal grandparents, of blessed memory, once lived).

Each chapter of the unfolding evolution of different riddims has sent me scurrying for my own documentary evidence to support the thesis. I've spent way too many a happy hour re-discovering the US-influenced Blue Beat catalogue, all those frantic jerky ska instrumentals that used to get the Queen Mum hopping around her palace, Duke Reid's Treasure Isle of rock steady gems, Clement Coxsone Dodd's incomparable Studio One output, King Tubby's prolific dub experiments, Augustus Pablo's haunting melodica inna quasi-Eastern style and so on. Praise JA – and Jah, if you're that way inclined.

Now that I've reached the technologically more advanced Channel One studio catalogue, I've been reacquainting myself with some of the harmonious vocal-trio glories of the '70s era: a time when I used to buy the cheap Virgin Front Line samplers as a short-cut to all that was on offer then. The Abyssinians, the Heptones, Burning Spear, Culture, the Wailing Souls, possibly the most infectious live band that I ever witnessed, the Gladiators, Black Uhuru, Israel Vibration and many, many more – including of course the Mighty Diamonds, whose Right Time just about takes the natty biscuit.

Both the first, title track and the last track, 'Africa', featured on the first of the Front Line samplers. As every good sampler should do, it tempted me to spend my unearned student florins on the real thing. I was prepared to forego a few pints of lukewarm bitter to subsidise my burgeoning habit. Perhaps the apogee of the vocal-trio's art, Right Time has never, ever disappointed. No, that's a slight lie, because the 30-minute running time has always been a bone of contention. At a mere 2 minutes 5 seconds, the track that opens the second side, 'I Need A Roof', is one of those songs – like 'Knocking On Heaven's Door' – that will ever leave the listener frustrated. Natural transitory mystic. It demands a 12" version – and indeed there are versions galore, including Prince Fatty with Little Roy's 'Roof Over My Head', a personal favourite – but there is nothing long enough to slake my thirst.

Oh well, Right Time wouldn't be the album it is if any track peeped above the four-minute parapet. The opening title track, with its instantly recognisable Sly Dunbar drum motif ushering in the gorgeous harmonies of lead vocalist Donald Sharpe supported by Fitzroy Simpson and Lloyd Ferguson, is just about as long as it gets at 3.15. Half an hour and 10 songs brimming with rhythm and melody. 'Natty dread will never run away.../Dis ya a prophecy'.

The album was produced in 1975 by Joe Joe Hoo Kim at the Channel One studio that he and his brother Ernest founded – in true entrepreneurial Jamaican adaptable stylee – when the government outlawed gaming machines and therefore consigned the brothers' embryonic jukebox and fruit machine business to Babylon. The Hoo Kims gathered around them the customary house band of luminaries, in this case an outfit calling themselves the Revolutionaries that included the likes of Tommy McCook on tenor sax, Sticky Thompson on percussion, Ansell Collins on keyboards and the future riddim twins, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare.

On Right Time, the horns are used sparingly and, on tracks like 'Natural Natty', set way, way back in the mix, while the wonderful fluid bass of Robbie and Sly's previous partner, Ranchie McLean, is so prominent in the mix that it almost at times carries the melody. The fact that both are used on the album (and I certainly don't know my bass well enough to tell one from the other) suggests that Right Time is the transition time when Sly and Robbie were just finding each other. There's a marvellous passage in Lloyd Bradley's book when Augustus Pablo's protégé, Junior Delgado, describes the impact of the new rhythm section: 'When Ranchie was there with Sly it was good, but it wasn't wicked. That come with Robbie. As soon as him hook up with Sly they just click, like they both want to try new things and develop their sound. The vibes come offa them was terrible... pure terror, the other studios running for cover as Channel One rockers' sound rule the whole scene in Kingston for maybe two years'.

Their pure righteous terror certainly propels the Mighty Diamonds and creates a lovely easy rolling momentum to each one of the 10 tracks. Perhaps because the vocal harmonies are so rich, the sound is much fuller than the basic instrumentation might suggest. When you listen hard to ('weeping and wailing and moaning and') 'Gnashing of Teeth', for example, it's quite a surprise to discover that it's just drum and bass and a very sparse piano playing the kind of choppy refrain you usually associate with a rhythm guitar.

Despite a mere half hour of rhythmic and harmonic joy, Right Time still stands as a supreme flowering of the reggae art form. It represents a time in the mid '70s when, to the musical yout' like me, reggae seemed so new and fresh and downright exciting. Albums like this haven't lost their lustre. 'When the right time comes, Lord/Some a go charge fe treason...' Treasonable perhaps for any self-respecting reggae enthusiast not to have this one in their collection.

Friday, 9 June 2017

William DeVaughn: Be Thankful for What You Got

A friend of mine suggested the other day at a vide grenier (or attic sale) that nothing in life quite beat the sense of anticipation you experience between buying a record and bringing it home to play it. I can think of one or two other things, but I know what he meant. I experienced it that Sunday, in fact, when I found a clutch of old jazz records. All I wanted to do was to get home and put them on the turntable. Oblivious to conversation, everything else seemed a mere distraction. Impatience, it was my middle name.

I still keenly remember the experience of stumbling upon a whole stack of vinyl cut-outs at the vegetable stall I used to frequent in Kensington Gardens, Brighton. There I went with my bag, expecting to buy potatoes and onions, and I found instead records by the likes of Ben E. King, Blue Magic, Margie Joseph, the Rascals and William DeVaughn. You don't see them these days, the record covers in which a little nick or hole is made when the company decides that enough is enough. No more will be re-printed by our firm. They usually went for a song. I think I paid about 50p for each of my prizes. Records are now boutique items and far too valuable for such profligacy.

Most of that haul were Atlantic-label records, but Be Thankful was on the little seen Roxbury label, part of the little known Chelsea Records Corporation of Los Angeles, which probably went out of business decades ago. So it's a precious record even if the album itself is somewhat disappointing. It was bound to be. That sense of anticipation couldn't possibly be fulfilled.

It was anticipation based on a love for the single, which is – despite the fact that Dave Marsh omits it from his book of the 1,001 greatest singles ever made (and he has known to be hasty or downright wrong in his judgements) – one of the greatest soul records of the '70s, or any other decade for that matter. It's got to be. Don't take my word for it, check out Massive Attack's re-make/re-model or watch Rumer's rendition of it on YouTube at Darryl Hall's house. If anything, my love for it has grown even stronger over time.

Although nothing, alas, quite comes close to it on the album, it's nevertheless a good album and one that I still play more often than most. It was recorded at Sigma Sound Studios with Phillysound house musicians of the calibre of guitarists Bobby Eli and Norman Harris, drummer Earl Young and the great Vince Montana, whose vibes are probably the signature sound of the album. As a Philly record, it's arguably as good as anything by Harold Melvin, the O'Jays and Billy Paul, whose unsurpassable 'Me & Mrs. Jones' is echoed on DeVaughn's own 'Kiss & Make Up' and 'We Are His Children'.

The sentiments of the latter give a strong clue about Mr. DeVaughn, who is now remembered – if at all – only for 'Be Thankful' and just possibly for 'Crème de Crème', a great single that came out eight years later in the UK on the still more obscure Excaliber Records. Born in Washington D.C., I'm sure I read somewhere that he was a Jehovah's Witness. Certainly his songs have a strong moral, even religious theme. The follow-up single to 'Be Thankful', 'Blood is Thicker Than Water' (which sounds like a 'Be Thankful' that's lost and scratching around for its bearings), for example, suggests that 'blood may be thicker than water/But nothing's thicker than love'.

This much we do know. He had a sweet-soul voice that could have easily been mistaken for Curtis Mayfield's. In the album's opener, 'Give the Little Man a Great Big Hand', DeVaughn could almost be singing about himself. He started and, when he became disenchanted with the music industry and gave up on his search for that elusive million-selling follow-up smash, ended his career as a humble office worker. If you've searched on YouTube for a live performance of 'Be Thankful', you may have stumbled upon a very bizarre video of DeVaughn dressed in a long white double-breasted coat, singing his masterpiece over a backing track at what appears to be his retirement party.

One has to hope that William DeVaughn is enjoying his retirement. At least he can tell grandchildren on his knee that he wrote and recorded a song that sold almost 2 million copies. I wouldn't know how many copies the album sold. Not nearly so many presumably, since it was remaindered. If there's one thing, however, that the album has over the single it's the fact that the album version is roughly twice as long. It opens the second side and, at 7 minutes, it's still frustratingly short. Were it not for 'You Can Do It', a Mayfield song if ever there wasn't quite one, I would be thankful if it occupied the entire side. Not only is it a wonderful melody with memorable lyrics and a timeless message, but the musical performance is second to none. The way that the opening conga ushers in first the driving bass line and the swirling organ, and then the choppy wah-wah guitar and that heavy insistent tom-tom beat that pushes towards the extended break when the guitar and Vince Montana's vibes take over the melody line until DeVaughn is ready to come back in. But when the bass kicks up a notch and there's a flurry of drums, you know that the end sadly is nigh.

The brief liner notes suggest that 'William DeVaughn has the imagination and creative ability to translate the soul and feelings of everyone's life into words and music'. He may have been only a minor figure in the panoply of black music, but be thankful that he dug the scene with a gangster lean to give us this one diamond of a song. Give this (figuratively) little man a great big hand.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

The Nightfly

My brother and I don't agree about certain things in life, but when it comes to Donald Fagen's 1982 classic we're both in accord. Without doubt, it's the best solo album every recorded by a white Jewish member of a recording duo with an passion for jazz and black music.

By 1982, Steely Dan's time was up. And then there were two had become and then there were none. Two years before, the duo of Fagen and Walter Becker had released Gaucho, almost my favourite of the albums they'd released thus far during the course of roughly a decade. it sold well enough, but reviews were mixed and it seemed that Steely Dan were a spent force. Donald Fagen then went on to demonstrate that he could do it just as well (if not better) as one by writing similarly impenetrable catchy songs and hiring the best session musicians to play them.

No. In fact, the eight songs on the album are actually rather more penetrable than Steely Dan's customary obtuse, enigmatic affairs. There's a remarkably transparent note from the author on the inner sleeve that 'the songs on this album represent certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties, i.e., one of my general height, weight and build'. And it's appropriate that Fagen chose to resurrect a gorgeous Lieber and Stoller song for the Drifters about yearning for a probably unobtainable member of the opposite sex. 'Ruby Ruby when will you be mine?'

He does the jaunty original thorough justice and his own songs, 'Green Flower Street', 'Maxine', 'New Frontier' and 'Walk Between the Raindrops', speak of similar amorous concerns, but with the hindsight of adult maturity. Fagen always had a great way with an image and both songs are full of little gems like 'While the world is sleeping/We meet at Lincoln Mall', 'There where neon bends in daylight sky/ In that sunny room she soothes me/Cools me with her fan' and ''That happy day we'll find each other on that Florida shore/ You'll open your umbrella/And we'll walk between the raindrops back to your door'.

'New Frontier' opens the second side and it's a particular favourite for the intensity of the future songwriter's cherche for la femme. I recognise the awkward ardour of his come-on lines: 'Have you got a steady boyfriend/ Cause honey I've been watching you/I hear you're mad about Brubeck/I like your eyes I like him too'. And I revel in the couplet, 'Introduce me to that big blonde/She's got a touch of Tuesday Weld...' I was too young at the time to be in love with teen America's sweetheart, but have always loved the name (even if it wasn't her real one). Reputedly, Stanley Kubrick wanted her for the lead in Lolita, but Tuesday turned it down by suggesting, 'I didn't have to play it. I was Lolita'.

I can't speak for Sunken Condos, his fourth and possibly even final solo album, but perhaps one of the reasons why The Nightfly works better than the otherwise worthy successors, Kamakiriad and Morph The Cat, is this unity of theme and concept. It's easy to grasp and nicely captured by a great cover: Fagen posing as 'Lester the Nightfly' talking to his nocturnal listeners from 'an independent station... with jazz and conversation/From the foot of Mt. Belzoni'. There's a Sonny Rollins album cover sitting artfully with the ashtray and the open pack of Chesterfields by the retro microphone and the old-fashioned turntable. It was a time of Fagen's young life, apparently, when he would take a bus to Manhattan from the New Jersey suburbs to see Rollins and other jazz giants of the time. The lucky man got to see the holy trinity of Miles, Mingus and Monk.

Two of the other numbers on The Nightfly appear to set the time of Donald Fagen's youth in a wider social and global context. 'The Goodbye Look' seems to be about the change of regime in Cuba (where 'tonight they're arranging a small reception just for me/Behind the big casino by the sea'). The horn section on the opening 'I.G.Y.' exemplifies the kind of musical class on show throughout the album: the Brecker Brothers plus George Benson and Eddie Palmieri's go-to baritone saxophonist, Ronnie Cuber, and Carla Bley's trusty trombonist, Dave Bargeron. Fagen helpfully explains that 'I.G.Y.' stands for International Geophysical Year, and the song is all about a blithely absurd late '50s vision of the future. A world where travel takes 'ninety minutes from New York to Paris', with 'perfect weather for a streamlined world where 'we'll be eternally free yes and eternally young'. Ah, yes... 'What a beautiful world this'll be/What a glorious time to be free'. Indeed.

Recording The Nightfly seems to have been a sunny affair and by all accounts much less fraught and protracted than Gaucho. There's a lovely happy, lively quality that makes the first Fagen such an unqualified and lasting success. I doubt whether before or since, whether with or without Walter Becker, Donald Fagen achieved what was in his complex mind with such apparent ease and joie de vivre. I've kept my treasured copy in its cellophane wrapper.