GOLDEN HITS OF THE SHANGRI-LAS – Phillips International 6336215.
No doubt about it, the Golden Hits of the Shangri-Las is one record that every lover of pop music should possess. And that doesn’t mean to say that you have to be a rock and roll intellectual to appreciate it. Amongst the twelve tracks included on the album are songs that are already legends in pop history, the best examples being Leader Of The Pack and Remember (Walking In The Sand). The former has just proved its worth for the second time by again making the top twenty, eight years after it originally appeared in the charts.
The main inspiration behind these recordings was Shadow Morton, who took the Shangri-Las up to the levels of success previously only reached by black vocal groups such as The Ronettes, The Crystals and The Chiffons. When Morton recorded these numbers it was still the single that was the backbone of the recording industry, whereas today it is the album. Subsequently it is unlikely that anyone will ever again reach the peaks of perfection Morton took the three minute single to. He made them within their own limitations, into a new art form, very much in keeping with the areas Andy Warhol has worked in.
The Shangri-La’s records were more than just songs — they were a form of theatre. A prominent feature of Morton’s production technique was the emphasis he placed on bringing out the tension and drama within the story-line of a song. This was achieved in a number of ways. To start with, there was always a strong melody and a well arranged two-part chorus. To this he would add sound effects, like the seagulls and rolling breakers on Remember or the thunder on Give Us Your Blessing, and because of the inventive way he utilised them, they would evoke a depth to the situation that is as near to theatre as can be. Also, by the use of monologues, which were pushed to the front of the recording, he helped involve the listener even further in the story. The result of this can be clearly seen on Leader Of The Pack, which also happens to be one of pop’s classic ‘death songs’.
Forgetting the technicalities and intricacies of the recordings, these tracks are as exciting and enjoyable as anything being produced today. Apart from the cuts already mentioned, other highlights of the album are Past, Present And Future, Out In The Streets, Give Him a Great Big Kiss and the absolutely incredible I Can Never Go Home Any More. Very reasonably priced at £1.35, I cannot recommend this album highly enough.
LIVE CONCERT AT THE FORUM – Barbra Streisand – CBS 65210
The record companies are certainly churning out some ‘class albums’ at present. In January the amazing first album of Bette Midler was issued. This month there are new releases from Ethel Merman and Laura Nyro. In March, Liza Minnelli’s Liza With A “Z” will be available, after the screening of her television spectacular, from which the recording comes. Even Mae West has an album scheduled, called Great Balls Of Fire. Also, in the first week of February, Barbra Streisand’s Live Concert At The Forum is being released.
This record is particularly interesting and very enjoyable for a variety of reasons. It is over fourteen months since her last album was released, and it’s a recording of the first live concert she has given in six years. Judging from the audience’s reaction, it is about time she started appearing more frequently on stage, not forgetting a few concerts In this country as well. The Forum concert happened in April of last year, and was a fund raising benefit for Senator George McGovern, who, as we all now know, later failed in his attempt for the presidency of the USA.
McGovern may have not made the White House, but Barbra undoubtedly succeeded in giving a great performance. Over half of the songs included have never been available on record by her before. Amongst these are a version of Didn’t We and melodies of Sing/Make Your Own Kind Of Music and Sweet Inspiration/Where you Lead. Of the songs we have previously been able to hear are On A Clear Day, Stoney End, and Happy Days Are Here Again, which all come over sounding remarkably fresh and exciting, especially the classic Streisand number People, which closed the show. Despite the familiarity of these songs, Barbra seems to put a more immediate, a more mature meaning into the lyrics, which fitted in well with the reasons for the concert. Her in-between-songs chats with the audience were very revealing, notably her progressive ideas on the legalisation of ’pot’.
It is hardly surprising that Live Concert At The Forum is high in the American album charts. The whole 45 minute recording is a very special kind of entertainment, from one of the few performers who justifiably deserve to be called a ’star’.
LIFE GOES ON – Paul Williams – A&M, AMLS 64367.
Life Goes On is the second album by Paul Williams, who seems determined to establish himself as a performer, as well as one of the most gifted songwriters around. William’s songs have given a large number of artists hit records, in particular The Carpenters, who shot up the charts when they recorded his We’ve Only just Begun.
His first release didn’t fare too well, as it suffered from most of the mistakes, namely over-indulgence, which usually effect the initial recording of songwriters turned performers. But his recent BBC2 In Concert appearance was a perfect showcase for his talents and has generally strengthened his reputation with his obvious ability to convey his own material as well as the others who use it. And Life Goes On is further proof that he now has everything very much together.
Paul has a warm, almost fragile voice, that at first reminds one of Nilsson, although repeated listenings soon obscure this similarity. And with his songs he diplays his mastery at writing romantic, yet never slushy, lyrics, as this album amply demonstrates.
During the last few years, a number of very talented singer/songwriters have emerged, such as Jimmy Webb, Laura Nyro and Nilsson. Paul Williams justifiably is part of this growing number of lyricist/performers who between them are very much responsible for the improvements and developments in popular music. A nice new label for their music could be superpop.
STYLISTICS 2 – Avco 6466010
The Stylistics seem to be every reviewer’s favourite group to put down, judging from the amount of bad press given to Stylistics 2. They have been accused of singing watered down soul music to attract a wider, less demanding audience, whilst others have said that they are just imitating Motown’s super-group, The Temptations.
Utter rubbish. The Stylistics have an extremely original style all of their own. An enormous amount of effort has gone into their harmony work which is amongst the most pleasing I’ve heard. The lead singer has a very distinctive voice, with a remarkable range. His phrasing is particularly good, as is the rest of the groups’. Also the type of soul music they are into is not meant to be of the ‘heavy’ variety. They’re into melodic, very rhythmic music that is a joy to hear when it is as good as this.
Included are their two latest hits, Peek-A-Boo and I’m Stone In Love With You, the latter being destined to be popular for some time to come. Their version of Carole King’s It’s Too Late is particularly memorable, as is the seven minute Child Of The Night.
Responsible for the outstanding production, orchestration and arrangements is Thom Bell, who’s almost symphonic use of strings fits in well with the group’s singing and the various moods the lyrics create.
In conclusion, Stylistics 2 is a fine example of one direction contemporary soul music is taking, without the pretentions many groups fall foul of.
SWING – The San Remo Strings — Tamla Motown STML 11216.
The San Remo Strings first attracted attention in this country when Festival Time became a much sought after single in the north of England. Subsequently it became a firm favourite in discotheques up there and eventually in clubs throughout the country.
I found Festival Time an interesting diversion from what one usually expects from Tamla Motown, and the follow-up, I’m Satisfied, was no less satisfying. Now Motown have released a whole album of the violin playing of the San Remo Strings, called Swing. And I’m afraid that this is where I lose interest. Whilst the occasional string arrangement of a Tamla classic is a worthwhile experiment, a collection of fourteen tracks isn’t, especially when some of them are only uninspired, wooden versions of ‘standards’ such as Ol’ Man River or Blueberry Hill.
Taken as a complete entity, as I think an album should be judged, Swing is little more than musak, of the type you can expect to find in any railway station, supermarket or bar. Save your money and wait until the new Gladys Knight & The Pips album is released.
360 DEGREES OF BILLY PAUL – Billy Paul – Epic 65351
HAROLD MELVIN & THE BLUE NOTES – CBS 65350
HERE I GO AGAIN – Archie Bell & The Drells – Atlantic K40454
One of the most important songwriting/production partnerships in contemporary commercial soul music is the teaming of the talents of Ken Gamble and Leon Huff. And their current, seemingly infallible formula for creating hit after hit isn’t something new. They have been responsible for a vast number of successful records during recent years.
Based in Philadelphia, Gamble and Huff are currently attempting to show the music scene, if not the world, the power and originality of vocal groups and musicians working and living in that city. And without a doubt, they are certainly proving their point, as each artist or group under their direction rockets up the album and singles chart.
Last year, the O’Jays scored an enormous hit with Back Stabbers. That cut was one of the best soul numbers to be issued in 1972, and it is bound to become an all-time soul classic. The strength behind the song was the inspired arrangements and production of Gamble and Huff.
During the last month, three albums by their artists have been released, each of them including at least one track that has either been or is a hit single. The first is 360 Degrees of Billy Paul. Me and Mrs Jones, a track taken from it, is at present in the top tens of both the UK and the States.
And the rest of the songs are all up to the standard of that number. Billy Paul has, like all Gamble and Huff artists, a very distinctive style. Add to this the adventurous arrangements and the amount of depth Paul puts into the lyrics, and you end up with a most inspired and stunning record. His version of Elton John’s Your Song is considered to be the best since the original was recorded.
The second album is by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes. Gamble and Huff have been working with this group for fifteen years, which is quite an achievement when one considers the average length of time a performing unit stays together. The Blue Notes are also in the singles charts with If You Don’t Know Me By Now. Previously they had a smash with I Miss You, and the full 8 minute, 31 second version of it is included on the album. As with Billy Paul’s record, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes are consistently good throughout theirs, offering the listener a fine collection of layered vocal harmonies, with the inventiveness of the arrangements making the whole venture more than just another soul album.
Not quite so exciting, although this depends on individual tastes, is the recent album of Archie Bell & The Drells, called Here I Go Again. Like Billy Paul and the Blue Notes, Archie Bell has already had a hit with the title track of his record, but, for me, very few of the other cuts come near to being as good. It is only the arrangements and production that catch one’s attention, most of the tracks being ideal for discotheques but possibly have little appeal beyond that.
What does distinguish these three albums from the many others being issued, is the fact that Gamble and Huff produce a sound that is very much their own. It is as different to Muscle Shoals as it is to Tamla Motown, and bears no relation either to the production techniques of Isaac Hayes or the funk of Curtis Mayfield. Also the lyrics show a maturity that is rarely present in this type of music. Time will tell if they can keep this incredibly successful output up, but whether or not they can, for now ‘The Sound Of Philadelphia’ is a most welcome addition to the world of popular music.
SUITE FOR LATE SUMMER – Dion – Warner Bros K46199
One of my all-time favourites on disc is Dion. And his new labum, Suite For Late Summer, comes as a welcome release in chilly/cold/wet January.
Dion has been recording for quite some time now. His career began in the early sixties when he recorded monster hits such as Runaround Sue and The Wanderer. Later, after a label change, he followed his earlier successes with Ruby Baby.
After a period of chart inactivity, he scored heavily with Abraham, Martin and John, one of the most meaningful songs of 1968. During the same period he made the charts again with one of the best versions of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now. The last two songs mentioned appeared on the very neglected and underestimated album simply called Dion. (London SHP 8390). Another outstanding track on that record was The Dolphins, a simple but very moving song, written by Fred Neill, the composer of Everybody’s Talkin’.
Since 1970, Dion has released four consistently good albums for Warner Bros Records, which are very often beautiful, both lyrically and musically. Suite For Late Summer is the latest and is no less satisfying than his previous work. Dion’s songs are extremely personal. They delicately convey the thoughts and experiences he has recently gone through. Sometimes they are obviously painful memories, at other times they describe his great joy at being alive and free. There is a genuine sensitivity about the lyrics that never allows them to become emotionally tearful or embarrassingly self-conscious.
Suite For Late Summer is a rewarding addition to my collection of Dion albums. If you bother to hear it for yourselves, you’ll find that it’s an indispensible record for those ‘quiet moments’ when something relaxing but stimulating is called for.
GET ON THE GOOD FOOT – James Brown – Polydor 2659018
James Brown rarely makes an unexciting album. But sometimes they are a little uneven, perhaps a trifle pretentious, and usually contain a track or two that’s already appeared on at least one other recording of his.
Brown’s latest release, a double set, is slightly more uneven than usual. Maybe it’s because he’s attempting to include too many of his numerous styles, resulting in four sides of music that are never quite one thing or another. The cuts that do come off, like the title track Get On The Good Foot, contain all the raw energy and pure funk expected from James Brown. Others, such as The Whole World Needs Liberation and Funky Side Of Town, also allow Brown’s magic to work perfectly, but the drawn out Recitation By Hank Ballard seems no more than an extended space filler, that succeeds in being both boring and rather childish.
Of the new versions of previously recorded material, Cold Sweat and Please, Please, Please make it, whilst the rest are best forgotten. Dirty Harri on side four is an instrumental, and to hazard a guess, I’d say it was Brown playing electric organ.
Priced at £3.90, I feel that the sales of this double album will be restricted to only the most devoted of James Brown’s followers. Discotheques though would do well to pick up on the best of the material included.