New Stuff Has Come To Light (November)

Image result for o'jays above the lawWell the first thing is that there is a new single from the O’Jays! That’s the legendary O’Jays to us, the vocal group whose recordings with Gamble & Huff for Philadelphia International in the early 1970’s made them a contender for the heavyweight title belt held for so long by the Temptations. There’s quite a bit of “Then” about “Above the Law” & there is a whole lot of “Now”. That upcoming mix of the records of the year will surely have to include this…

 

 

I wrote about the O’Jays here & my regard for the group has grown with repeated viewings of a stunning 2016 session round at Daryl Hall’s (off of …& Oates) gaff. In the piece I extolled the powerful lead vocals of Eddie Levert while not giving enough credit to his partner Walter Williams, an absolute dude in the “Soul Train” years &, despite a long battle with multiple sclerosis, still straight from the fridge on an elevating update of the 1976 hit “Used Ta Be My Girl”. With hands in pockets, toothpick firmly in place he is as insouciant as you could never be & absolutely on it. Walter is quite a man.

 

 

Image result for o'jays 2018Eddie is now 76 years old, Walter 75, friends since childhood. The third member, Eric Nolan Grant, has been around for just the past 20 years. “Above the Law” is the lead for a planned valedictory LP “The Last Word” before retirement. It’s a polemic about the way things are in the USA, same as it ever was, as angry & assertive as “For the Love of Money” (1973) & 1975’s “Rich Get Richer”. Steve Greenberg’s S-Curve label is backing the project & one of his roster, the inimitable Betty Wright, has contributed to the writing & production. Ms Wright has been involved in so much good music for so many years that it has to be her talent rather than coincidence. I believed what the O’Jays had to say back then & they are still damn right. I for one will be joining hands & getting on board the Love Train for one final time when the album comes around.

 

 

We all know that “The Greasy Strangler” (2016) is one of the most striking films of recent years. It’s an entertaining helter-skelter mix of gratuitous violence, unlikely nudity, profanity,  bad jokes in poor taste & worse food. The journey from “what the hell am I watching?” to “I must dig out my video tape (ask your parents) of “The Toxic Avenger”” is one worth inflicting on folk who you hope will not think less of you & will still be your friend after it. This is the movie that has introduced “Hootie Tootie Disco Cutie” into every day conversation, well my day anyway.

 

Image result for an evening with beverly luff linnSo, director Jim Hosking’s new film “An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn” (2018) has got to be seen & it has been. This time there’s less gross-out, less grease (Oh No!) but Hosking’s cinematic world is still populated by inarticulate social outcasts, even grotesques. It’s off the beaten path, David Lynch lives nearby but DL can be too serious for Jim who prefers to go for the laughs. The bigger budget hasn’t, thankfully, been spent on the script, still awkward, deadpan & full of non-sequiturs, but on attracting proper actors. Aubrey Plaza, “always watchable”, is small town femme fatale Lulu Danger who leaves her husband (Emil Hirsch) with Colin (Jemaine Clement off of Flight of the Conchords, he’s good) seeking “One Magical Night Only” with the titular Beverly (Craig Robinson) &…er…that’s it. See this movie if only for the sight of Beverly, garbed in Sir Walter Scott kitsch, reviving the old Scottish folk song “Why Did I Ever Become A Football Referee?”

 

I do hope that Hosking gets to make more films. They are not for everyone, an IMDB review (I know…why?) was disturbed by the poor personal hygiene of his characters! He has an original, idiosyncratic sense of comedy which I find to be interesting, most entertaining & memorable but then, I’m funny that way.

 

 

Image result for bill ryder jones yawnThere are only a couple of preview tracks available from the new Bill Ryder-Jones LP “Yawn” which is released on Friday November 2nd. It’s been 3 years since the triumph of “West Kirby County Primary” & the videos for both “Mither” (see above) & “And Then There’s You” certainly enhance the anticipation of a new collection of melodic Merseyside melancholia from B R-J. Low key contemplative vocals (the influence of Bill Callahan?) matched with a sure, solid wall of guitars, Indie with a touch of Psych, makes, to my ears, an attractive mix. There are British singer-songwriters around who sing quietly, evoke the name of Nick Drake & want to be considered as sensitive souls. Screw that noise, “Yawn” is his 4th album since leaving the Coral, should, I hope, confirm that Bill’s skills as a writer & as a producer continue to develop.He’s someone who thinks imaginatively & considerately about the something he has to say. I’m looking forward to next Friday.

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They Smile In Your Face…(The O’Jays)

The O’Jays, originally a 5 man vocal group from Canton Ohio, came together as teenagers in high school in 1958. They made their first records, as the Mascots, in 1960. For the next 10 years there were regular single releases, 6 LPs, each on a different label. Their music followed the signs of the times, from Doo-Wop through Soul to Funk, always led by the strong, impassioned vocals of Eddie Levert, never finding a distinctive song or sound to capture a wider audience. Bill Isles left before the group’s biggest hit of the decade, 1967’s “I’ll Be Sweeter Tomorrow (Than I Was Today). Subsequent releases barely troubled the Hot 100 & when Bobby Massey handed in his notice the remaining trio, Levert, Walter Williams & William Powell, were looking for yet another record label. Their next move had people all over the world joining hands & made them one of the most successful groups of the 1970s. “What they do !”

 

 

Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff, an ambitious songwriting/production team based at Sigma Sound Studio in Philadelphia, were doing great things for Atlantic Records (“A Brand New Me” Dusty Springfield, “Gonna Take A Miracle” Laura Nyro/Labelle). Atlantic wouldn’t bankroll their plans for their own operation but CBS would & in 1972 Philadelphia International Records was busting out with hit singles & LPs for Billy Paul, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes & the O’Jays. The dramatic “Back Stabbers” is the title track of the O’Jays LP, written by Huff with Gene McFadden & John Whitehead, just two of a very talented team assembled in Philly. It & the uplifting “Love Train” became international hits. Gamble & Huff’s version of modern soul music, sweeping, swooping orchestral arrangements, sweet & still funky, supplanted Motown & Stax as the new Hit Factory of African-American music.

 

“Back Stabbers” is quite an achievement. Besides the 2 smashes the 6 minute long “992 Arguments”, cut to around 2.20 for radio play, & the smooth “Time To Get Down” sounded pretty good on the dancefloor & on the radio. The next time around there was no resting on their laurels, no more of the same formula from the production team. The title track of “Ship Ahoy” (1973) is almost 10 minutes long. Opening with crashing waves & cracking whips the dark & ominous theme is the transportation of slaves from Africa to America. This was 3 years before Alex Haley’s epic “Roots” became a literary sensation.

 

 

The LP is a mix of the political & the romantic. It opens with “Put Your Hands Together”, an exhortation to get on down to the dancefloor & get on up with the positivity. On “For the Love of Money” session man Anthony Jackson contributed a bassline of such definitive, irresistible funkiness that he gained a songwriting co-credit & the enduring gratitude of the listening public. The 9 minute long “Don’t Call Me Brother”, a warning against hypocritical backstabbers, is a dramatic triumph of orchestral  soul arrangement. Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff were responsible for 22 Gold albums. “Ship Ahoy” by the O’Jays is their masterpiece.

Throughout the 1970s the group continued with Philadelphia International & there were 6 more gold or platinum LPs on the spin. There were some fine single releases. “I Love Music” (1975) & “Used Ta Be My Girl” (1978) both reached the US Top 10. The 2 LPs from 1975, “Survival” & “Family Reunion”, are good records which fall short of the dynamism & imagination of their 2 great records.

 

 

The growing influence of Disco, with it’s fuck Art & Politics, let’s dance credo, meant that the message in the music became less pronounced. Kenny Gamble’s lyrics were positive social commentary but often platitudinous. An exception is the urgent “Rich Get Richer”, based on the writings of Ferdinand Lundeberg. In his books about American wealth Lundeberg repeated his theories that America was really a plutocracy managed by oligarchs. Sounds familiar ? This great song is 40 years old !

 

While you’re here please check out the Philadelphia International All-Stars (Including O’Jays Eddie & Walter) & “Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto”, a compelling classic groove.

 

The combination of the vocal strength of the O’Jays with the multi-talented production team at Sigma Sound Studios carried the soul swing in the early 1970s. In 1977 William Powell unfortunately died from cancer aged just 35. Sammy Strain joined the group & they continued to record into the 21st century. Regular reissues & compilations kept the great songs around, if you hear them on the radio they make you smile. The Philadelphia International anthology is titled “Love Train..”. The O’Jays have their place in the premier league of American vocal groups & that Eddie Levert, boy he sure could sing !

 

 

 

 

Down there by the Soul Train (to Philly)

I enjoyed looking through those Y-tube clips of “Soul Train” so much this week. I am going to have wheel & come again because there really was so much great music made in those early 70s. I was never one for running about a baseball park in a “Disco Sucks” T-shirt (I’m still a big fan of Chic) but as the sweet soul I loved was replaced by some sacchariferous apology I could not help feeling that something was being lost from black American music. Here are three clips of the very sweet soul that came out of Philadelphia in the early 70s when a couple of production teams found a hit formula to rival the earlier success of Motown and Stax.

Well, hello Ms Jackie Brown. Quentin T pulled a real stroke when he ran the opening two tracks of the Delfonics “Greatest Hits” behind the scene when Pam Grier invites Robert Forster to her apartment. It was just so right. Man, the day Ms Grier comes around to my place (in my dreams) it is always the mellifluous Bell-Hart symphonic soul collection that I reach for. When I try to force this old soul onto the young folk I always use the “Look, if it’s good enough for me & Tarentino” line but they stick with their hippity-hoppity & laugh at my prehistoric taste.

Producer Thom Bell and singer William Hart got it right for a couple of years before Bell hooked up with Linda Creed & the Stylistics. The Delfonics had some good records after the break but none as great as these early hits. There is a clip of a live performance of this song where Hart really does bring his lovely falsetto. The band, however, do not really get to the smoothness of Bell’s production. For this clip the law around here is you got to wear your sunglasses. Not so that you can feel cool, gangster lean but to protect your eyes from the ridiculous jumpsuits the guys are wearing.

Oh boy ! If you are not on this then I am going to have to provide a very long exposition which will hardly aid your enjoyment of this classic.I will try and keep it short.

This is Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes with their 6th hit produced by the team of Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff. That is not Harold singing, Mr Melvin is sat with the other Blue Notes while Teddy Prendergrass does that thing he did so well & sings/sells a classy single. It was a similar deal to Kool & the Gang (which one’s Kool ? None of them) when the voice of James Taylor was so well known or the Commodores when it was the ballads of Lionel Richie getting them on the charts. Teddy was the lead on all the hits. He was the voice & the face of the group. When he asked Harold if there could be a re-branding to “Teddy Prendergrass & the Blue Notes” he was turned down. The group’s days were numbered.

When Teddy did break away he was bloody massive. Marvin was not making so many records. Al Green had gone back to his church. Barry White, “The Walrus of Love” made music for bedrooms lit only by scented candles but T.P. was the new sex symbol of soul. For one tour they did not let men attend for Jah’s sake. He was top banana until a serious car accident in 1982 injured his spine so badly he was paralyzed from the waist down.

Gamble and Huff were a proven production team when they started their own label Philadelphia International. The sound was string heavy & did prepare the world for disco but they were totally on a winning run in the early 70s. On the LPs of their hit-makers they stretched out a little more. The album version of “Wake Up Everybody” is over 7 minutes long and is pretty, pretty, pretty damn good.

“For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (1 Timothy 6:10). Can I get a “Hallelujah” !

Gamble, Huff and the O’Jays were irresistible. “Back Stabbers” & “Love Train” were worldwide, deservedly so. In 1973 a soul masterpiece, “Ship Ahoy” was released. The best selling R&B LP of 1974 is a mix of conscious lyrics and the funk. The title track, 10 minutes of ominous atmosphere, reflects the experience of Africans on a slave ship to the New World. “Don’t Call Me Brother” is a 9 minute lyrical study in hypocrisy and musical beauty.

“For The Love of Money” has the finest bass line in soul that is not played by James Jamerson. Anthony Jackson has played on over 500 albums and is a fine musician. It is his riff, still fresh after nearly 40 years, which drives the song and is unforgettable. The LP track is longer than the 45 but this clip shows Eddie Levert and his fellow band members in fine form. How cool must it have been to be in a successful vocal group & to have such an obviously powerful song to sing to people ?

I don’t know who reads these things I write. I just want to highlight some music that moves me. If others like something else, that’s OK. Really, if you have any interest in soul music, if you missed this the first time around, then get yourself over to the Y-tube &  find the O’Jays “Ship Ahoy”. Your ears will thank you for doing so.