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Review: Aretha Franklin and James Brown, Reissued By BBR

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In today’s reviews, we’re looking at three albums from two true legends of soul.  What do they have in common?  Each title has been reissued by Big Break Records, and each found its respective artist conquering new terrain: the pop music world of the 1980s!

Aretha Franklin, Jump to It (Arista AL-9602, 1982 – reissued Big Break Records CDBBR 0154, 2012)

Each era of Aretha Franklin’s long and remarkable career has gotten some catalogue love lately, from the artist’s first days at Columbia Records to her oft-overlooked final years on the Atlantic label.  Now, following Funky Town Grooves’ 2-CD expansion of Franklin’s 1985 pop smash Who’s Zoomin’ Who, Big Break Records is turning the clock back to her third and fourth albums on Arista with lavish, lovingly annotated reissues.

Following two respectable efforts which reunited Aretha with Atlantic’s Arif Mardin, the Queen of Soul turned to a hot, rising talent to take the producer’s chair.  That talent was Luther Vandross, who knew from soul.  Despite his great love of the classic sounds made by Franklin, Dionne Warwick, the Sweet Inspirations and others in the 1960s, Vandross chose not to pastiche those records, but rather produce a wholly modern album on Franklin.  The result was 1982’s Jump to It.  The album lacks the deep soul of her Atlantic years and even the passionate interpretive talent of her Columbia years.  Instead, it’s all about the beat – but Vandross also knew from the beat!  Jump to It earned Franklin her first Top 40 hit and first gold album in the U.S. in six years, and its overtly “modern” sound also garnered a Grammy Award nomination for the already-legendary singer.

It’s a taut album at just eight tracks, built around the danceable grooves of its title song.  “Jump to It” simply doesn’t let up, built around the foundation laid by Doc Powell’s guitar, Marcus Miller’s bass and Yogi Horton’s drums.  Vandross and Miller joined another bona fide soul sister, Cissy Houston, as part of the background chorus imploring Aretha, “Jump, jump, jump to it!” while Franklin coos, scats, caresses and wails the simple lyrics with an almighty fire.  Miller’s bass is one of the most prominent sounds on the album, and it’s slinky and funky on “Love Me Right.”  Just as important to Jump to It are the backing vocals, knowingly crafted by Vandross as a major part of the equation.  Vandross’ backing section prominently echoes Franklin’s lead although it soon morphs into a Philly/disco mood with string backup.  The second single, “Love Me Right” is every bit as infectious, if not more so, than the hit title track.

Songwriter Sam Dees (“One in a Million You,” Franklin’s “Love All the Hurt Away”) offered up “If She Don’t Want Your Lovin’”: “If she don’t want your lovin’/Give it to me/’Cause I’ll take it!”  But Franklin never sounds desperate as she pleads – far from it.  It’s another track with seamlessly –integrated background vocals, with Darlene Love now part of the group.  The song also gives Aretha a chance to supply her inimitable spoken ad-libs.  After the workout of “If She Don’t Want Your Lovin’,” Aretha might rightfully have been crowned the Queen of Sass!  (On the Vandross-penned ballad “This is For Real,” she smirks, “Miss Ree ain’t playin’ this time,” and there’s no reason to doubt her.)

Franklin intuitively doesn’t have to unleash the full power of her volcanic voice on every track, preferring to ride the rhythms with an effortless style.    A steamy duet with the Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs on Aretha’s own “I Wanna Make It Up to You” boasts another Motown connection thanks to Paul Riser’s string arrangement.  Another Motown stalwart, Smokey Robinson, contributed the song “Just My Daydream.” Its Latin-accented, subtle, shifting melody adds a seductive vibe to the LP.  Less successful is a cover of “It’s Your Thing,” with horn charts from the ubiquitous Jerry Hey, Steve Love on a blazing guitar solo and Erma Franklin on backing vocals.  It’s altogether glossier than the truly funky original.

J. Matthew Cobb contributes liner notes to the expanded Jump to It as well as to its follow-up, Get It Right.  Cobb’s notes offer particular insight on the often stormy relationship between Vandross and Franklin and the heightened emotions at play when they clashed.  When Vandross once put his foot down with a stern “I’m the producer!,” he was met with a steely “Well, I’m the Queen of Soul!”  Who could argue with that?  Nick Robbins has handled the remastering, and Big Break has added five bonus tracks that will keep you dancing: three single versions and two 12-inch mixes.

After the jump: does Aretha Get It Right?  And James Brown shows off his Gravity!

Aretha Franklin, Get It Right (Arista AL8-8019, 1983 – reissued Big Break Records CDBBR 0160, 2012)

Though it was built on the foundation of tremendous mutual admiration, Franklin and Vandross had a rather rocky relationship in the studio (see above).  Still, they reteamed at Arista’s behest for 1983’s Get It Right.  The title was an odd one, because nobody could doubt that the dynamic duo had, indeed, gotten it right the first time out!  Lightning, though, didn’t strike twice for the team.  “Get It Right” only hit No. 61 on the pop chart, but it repeated a stay at pole position on the R&B chart. The album itself sold less than half the number of copies as its predecessor.  (The same year, also for Arista, Vandross teamed with Dionne Warwick for the successful LP How Many Times Can We Say Goodbye.) The producer once again collaborated with Marcus Miller, emphasizing dance overtones and slick, urban production, and brought much of the same personnel on board: Miller, Yogi Horton, Doc Powell, Nat Adderley Jr. on keyboards, and Cissy Houston, Darlene Love, and Myrna Smith (of the Sweet Inspirations) on backgrounds.

Aretha was considerably more glammed-up on the cover this time out, but was just as earthy with her vocals.  The title track “Get It Right” was cut from the same cloth as “Jump to It,” albeit with slightly diminished returns.  Marcus Miller’s synthesizer bubbles through “Every Girl (Wants My Guy),” the album’s second single, another song in which Aretha sets down the law for any potential usurper of her man!  (“But they ain’t never gonna get him!”)  Vandross and frequent co-writer Miller clearly had fun with this aspect of the Queen’s persona, and Aretha deliciously ran with it.  She’s sultry on the slow jam “Better Friends Than Lovers,” and sounds right at home on Vandross’ own “I Got Your Love” and her son Clarence’s “Giving In.”  Those songs are swathed in Philly-style strings, adding another color to producer Vandross’ R&B palette.

As with “It’s Your Thing” on Jump, Vandross reinvented another soul standard for Get It Right.  This time the song was The Temptations’ “I Wish It Would Rain,” with Paul Riser back to supply strings.  The sleek, up-tempo makeover, though, plays too fast and loose with the melody in addition to jettisoning the original’s familiar piano riff.  The on-the-nose rain sound effects may just have been too much for the truly melancholy Norman Whitfield composition, co-written with Barrett Strong and Rodger Penzabene.

Big Break’s new edition has been expanded with the single versions of “Get It Right” and “Every Girl (Wants My Guy)” along with the instrumental 12-inch mix of “Get It Right.”  BBR’s Wayne Dickson has remastered each track.  Both Jump to It and Get It Right have been lavished with proper care in these essential new reissues.  Big Break has already announced plans for deluxe versions of more of Franklin’s Arista catalogue.  Lucky for us, they did, indeed, get it right on these first two entries in the series!

James Brown, Gravity (Scotti Bros. FZ 40380, 1986 – reissued Big Break Records CDBBR 0126, 2012)

No less a personage than Rocky Balboa himself, Sylvester Stallone, called upon James Brown to appear in 1985’s Rocky IV, introducing a new song by the team of Dan Hartman and Charlie Midnight.  “Living in America” soon set the Godfather of Soul on the comeback trail.  Hartman and Midnight were no strangers to soundtrack tunes, and the former took his own “I Can Dream About You” from 1984’s Streets of Fire to a chart success.  When “Living in America” took off, Hartman and Midnight fashioned an entire LP around the song for Brown, produced by Hartman and written by the team.  Though Gravity was very much their work, Brown brought his own sensibilities to the project.  A horn section had always been an essential component of a James Brown record in any era, and so Hartman and Midnight enlisted The Uptown Horns to make crucial appearances on Gravity.

James Brown appears positively beatific on the album cover, genially smiling, but he’s in full funk force on the LP.  For the title track, the sound is undeniably electronic, but the shouts, yelps and grunts are unmistakably James Brown.  His voice is at its most guttural, and brings a raw touch to the otherwise shiny production.  “Gravity” segues into “Let’s Get Personal,” with its expressive soprano sax solo from Crispin Cioe.  The variety of sounds continues with the somewhat more subdued Latin groove of “How Can You Stop,” in which the singer poignantly observes, “One minute you’re too young, then you’re in your prime, then you’re lookin’ back at the hands of time…”  Yet even though the tempo is more relaxed, Brown’s vocals are, as always, insistent.  Steve Winwood’s familiar keyboard sound also gives the song its distinct character.

The frenetic funk of “Turn Me Loose, I’m Dr. Feelgood” proves that Brown hadn’t gone in a completely pop direction.  No, it’s not quite as greasy as Brown in his prime, but the feeling is there.  With Maceo Parker’s alto saxophone wailing, and Brown imploring, “Give it up!,” it’s hard to resist.  Of course, the album’s centerpiece is a reprise of “Living in America.”  It’s easy to see why the song resonated.  It possesses a big, eighties-style, arena sing-along hook, along with a lyric alternately jubilant (“Got to have a celebration!”) and sober (“All night radio, keep on runnin’/through your rock ‘n’ roll soul/All night diners keep you awake/hey, on black coffee and a hard roll/You might have to walk the fine line/you might take the hard line/But everybody’s working overtime”).  Perhaps most importantly, it was passionately delivered by a consummate entertainer with a famous social conscience, not to mention an outsize personality.   “Return to Me” adds varnish to a classic-styled, slow-burning ballad with Brown even taking an organ solo.  It’s the most “retro” moment on the LP

This bold, positive, high-energy album has been expanded with no fewer than seven bonus tracks; this nearly doubles the album’s number of songs!  They include three versions of “Living in America” (the 12-inch “R&B Dance Version,” the instrumental version and the original soundtrack recording from Rocky IV), two of “Gravity” (the 12-inch “House Mix” and the single mix) and one each of “Goliath” and “How Do You Stop” (both 12-inch mixes – the latter a bit more forceful than in its album version).  Nick Robbins is the remastering engineer.  Shelley Nicole rounds out the package with fine, detailed liner notes describing this pivotal period in the career of Soul Brother No. 1!

Each album can be ordered by clicking above on the title link or the artwork!

Written by Joe Marchese

July 2, 2012 at 11:46

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