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Review: Blood, Sweat and Tears, “The Complete Columbia Singles”

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Blood Sweat and Tears - SinglesBlood, Sweat and Tears has much in common with Rodney Dangerfield – they get no respect.

Though the band founded by Al Kooper, Steve Katz, Bobby Colomby, Jim Fielder, Dick Halligan, Randy Brecker and Jerry Weiss produced some of the most enduring pop singles of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the group has long lingered in the shadows of rock’s back pages.  Eclipsed in fame by Columbia Records labelmates Chicago, plagued by a series of acrimonious departures from the ranks, and pilloried for perceived pro-Nixon views, BS&T has survived primarily as oldies station fodder.  Yet with its release of The Complete Columbia Singles (RGM-0211), Real Gone Music has put the emphasis on the vivid, varied body of work from the band’s Columbia period of 1968-1976.  The 2-CD, 32-track set reveals a wealth of brassy, powerful jazz-rock that has stood the test of time.

Blood, Sweat and Tears wasn’t the first band to fuse rock and roll with a big-band horn section, but the group did it with a level of virtuosity that eclipsed those that had come before.  For his one and only album with the band, Child is Father to the Man, Al Kooper blended the improvisational, experimental quality that had marked his work with The Blues Project with the commercial sensibility he honed as the young songwriter of pop hits like Gary Lewis and the Playboys’ “This Diamond Ring.”  Only two tracks from Kooper’s short tenure are heard here, but the driving blue-eyed soul of “I Can’t Quit Her” and the outré, effects-laden – yet still melodic – “House in the Country” both underscore how creative BS&T was at its inception.  But Kooper, Brecker and Weiss were gone before long.  Producer James William Guercio, whose rock-with-horns work with the Buckinghams had inspired the early BS&T, came on board in time for the group’s second album.  It was the same year he would produce the eponymous debut album by a band with a similar idea – The Chicago Transit Authority.

With Guercio at the helm, Blood, Sweat and Tears reinvented itself.  Key in this reinvention was the addition of vocalist David Clayton-Thomas to the line-up; Lew Soloff, Jerry Hyman and Chuck Winfield all also joined the group.  Clayton-Thomas’ powerful, deep voice was deployed to stunning effect on the group’s re-arrangement of Brenda Holloway’s Motown hit “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy.”  With commanding horns married to an irresistibly soulful melody and an urgent vocal, “Happy” fused jazz, rock, pop and R&B into one storming, radio-friendly whole.  Clayton-Thomas’ own “Spinning Wheel” built on the style and sound of “Happy,” with its psychedelic lyrics tapping into the zeitgeist of the era.  Soon, everybody had caught on to “Spinning Wheel” – from Mel Torme and Sammy Davis Jr. to Shirley Bassey and Nancy Wilson.  Even The Godfather of Soul, James Brown, took a stab at it. The band used its transformative skills once again to great effect on Laura Nyro’s “And When I Die,” adding an anthemic quality and an inventively cinematic, old-west feel  to the New York songstress’ folky, wise-beyond-her-years and ironically upbeat rumination.   “Happy,” “Spinning Wheel” and “And When I Die” are all presented in their original, edited 45 RPM mono versions; all three songs reached a peak of No. 2 on the Billboard charts.  (The first eight tracks are in mono, and the remainder in stereo.)   “Spinning Wheel” in particular suffered from its cuts, but the shortened version is indeed the one that received airplay in 1969.

Though Guercio was forced out of the producer’s chair after one album and replaced by Bobby Colomby – in hindsight, not the smartest move to make, per Steve Katz in Ed Osborne’s in-depth liner notes – BS&T continued notching moderate hits, at least for a while.  (Guercio moved over to concentrate on Chicago, so it’s likely he wasn’t too broken up about being ushered out of BS&T’s circle.)  These hits are, of course, here, too, in crisply remastered sound courtesy of Vic Anesini.  Best of these might be Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s offbeat gospel riff “Hi De Ho (That Old Sweet Roll),” given a huge production complete with an oddly incongruous choir.  That No. 14 hit was followed on the charts by David Clayton-Thomas’ over-the-top composition “Lucretia MacEvil.”  Yet, what goes up must come down.  It would be BS&T’s final Top 30 hit.  (“If they can live with ‘Lucretia MacEvil’ and their Las Vegas desecration of ‘God Bless the Child,’ then God bless them,” Al Kooper quipped in his book Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards: Memoirs of a Rock and Roll Survivor.)

After the jump: much more on BS&T!

On any singles anthology, B-sides get a chance to shine alongside the more familiar As, and this is no exception.   Guitarist Steve Katz’s gift for lovely, atmospheric tracks frequently served him well on BS&T’s flips.  On songs like “Sometimes in Winter” and “Valentine’s Day,” Katz evinces plenty of heart with a less forceful vocal instrument than Clayton-Thomas.  The latter, in particular, also boasts some particularly beautiful interplay within the horn section and a stellar trumpet solo from Lew Soloff.  Dick Halligan, a talented composer who wrote the score to the Barbra Streisand film The Owl and the Pussycat as performed by BS&T, contributed to both sides of one underrated 1971 single.  The catchy pop of “Lisa, Listen to Me” (co-written and sung by Clayton-Thomas) was paired with the evocative ballad “Cowboys and Indians” (penned with “Cherish” songwriter Terry Kirkman and sung, again, by Clayton-Thomas), and both sides deserved better than the No. 73 placement earned by “Lisa.”

The first disc of Real Gone’s set takes listeners through 1971 and the “classic” period of the band.  Osborne’s notes detail the personnel changes that followed – first, Clayton-Thomas (replaced briefly by Bobby Doyle, then by Jerry Fisher), Fred Lipsius and Dick Halligan ankled, then Steve Katz, Jim Fielder and Lew Soloff.  And so on.  (Jerry Hyman had already left in 1970 prior to BS&T 4; Dave Bargeron was his replacement on trombone and tuba.)  Bobby Colomby was the last man standing before Clayton-Thomas returned for 1975’s New City.  Numerous players went in and out of the band.  All of this turmoil is chronicled on the second disc here, as Blood, Sweat and Tears searched for a new sound in a rapidly changing musical landscape that was leaving their once-groundbreaking style in the dust.  With the hit singles out of the way, BS&T was free to explore new territory.  Unfortunately, an ongoing clash between the “jazz” and “rock” factions of the group led to a lack of a consistent sound even when the songs and productions were still of a high quality.  But one thing never changed – the musicians’ real chops.

Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s “So Long Dixie” was chosen as the first single to feature Jerry Fisher, who had a similarly bluesy quality as Clayton-Thomas but a lighter, less “showbiz” voice.  Good as “So Long Dixie” is, it’s a mystery why Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Snow Queen” wasn’t chosen as the single off the aptly-titled New Blood album of 1972.  (Even in 1972, Goffin and King and their pals Mann and Weil were destined to be in competition!)  The second single off New Blood, Robert John and Michael Gately’s funky “I Can’t Move No Mountains,” showed off another side of the band.  One could imagine The 5th Dimension singing it, and indeed, Margie Joseph and Shirley Brown were among the soul artists who did pick up on the tune.

Steve Tyrell replaced Bobby Colomby as producer for 1973’s No Sweat.  Mark James’ “Roller Coaster” wasn’t up to the standard of his “Hooked on a Feeling” or “Suspicious Minds,” but fit in on the fusion-leaning LP.  Also selected for single release was Cynthia Weil’s “Save Our Ship,” not co-written with Barry Mann but with Georg Wadenius.  The track had the unfortunate feeling of being too on-the-nose for Blood, Sweat and Tears (“The crew stands divided/On what course should be decided…Save our ship or we will surely drown”).  Tyrell’s dense production presented the song to its best advantage, but audiences weren’t responding to this S.O.S.!

By 1974 and Mirror Image, produced by Motown vet Henry Cosby, fans had no idea what to expect from BS&T.  “Tell Me That I’m Wrong” has Jerry Fisher wailing like David Clayton-Thomas and a funky disco style, but it would be Fisher’s last hurrah on 45.  Clayton-Thomas returned for 1975’s New City, helmed by Jimmy Ienner, but a revival of The Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life” was merely solid, and didn’t manage to reshape the song as Earth, Wind and Fire would do just a few years later.  The MOR ballad “You’re the One” from 1976’s Bob James-produced More Than Ever ended the band’s run of Columbia A-sides on a low-key note.

The sense of schizophrenia on the band’s A-sides didn’t extend to their flips, which were usually more adventurous tracks.  “So Long Dixie” flip “Alone,” from replacement member Lou Marini, upped the jazz quotient but still sounds a bit like Chicago lite, a problem that would continue to dog the band as the seventies progressed.  (“Dixie” was backed by “Krakbergravningen (The Crow’s Funeral)” in some territories.  Though out of the purview of this compilation, it recently premiered on CD as part of Wounded Bird’s Rare, Rarer and Rarest.)  Jeff Kent’s “Velvet,” backing “I Can’t Move No Mountains,” continued the trend of softer B-sides, and is surely one of the most attractive songs penned about a mare!

Larry Willis’ “Inner Crisis” backed “Roller Coaster,” and Marini’s “Song for John” accompanied “Save Our ship.”  These intricate instrumentals had no pretense of pop and rock, auguring for a direction the band never fully pursued on an entire album.  “Rock Reprise,” co-written by Dave Bargeron, Jerry Fisher and saxophonist Jerry LaCroix, was excerpted from a four-part suite on Mirror Image, and had the most explicitly Chicago-styled brass sound yet.  A cover of Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys track “Naked Man” (backing “Got to Get You Into My Life”) showed the band’s good taste in songwriters hadn’t diminished, Newman’s wry subtlety wasn’t easy to duplicate.  Appropriately, BS&T’s final Columbia B-side, Larry Willis’ instrumental “Heavy Blue,” brought the band full circle.  Built around funk licks, swirling strings and bleating horns, it quotes “Spinning Wheel.”  And with that, the band’s tenure at the label ended.

Blood, Sweat and Tears’ 1977 ABC Records album Brand New Day has never legitimately been on CD and would be a worthwhile follow-up to The Complete Columbia Singles.  This essential release deserves a spot on the shelf next to Legacy’s now-OOP, 32-track anthology What Goes Up: The Best of Blood Sweat and Tears from 1995, to paint a full portrait of the band.  Attractively designed by Claire Morales and featuring Osborne’s exemplary notes drawing on a new interview with Steve Katz and Anesini’s strikingly crisp sound, this is an indispensable addition to the BS&T catalogue.  Today, Blood, Sweat and Tears exists as a tribute band to itself, with young musicians playing the familiar charts under Bobby Colomby’s direction.   Colomby, Clayton-Thomas and co. didn’t have the same endurance (or the ability to reinvent) as their “rivals” Chicago, but they left behind a legacy too rich to remain ignored.

You can order The Complete Columbia Singles at Amazon U.S. and Amazon U.K.!

Written by Joe Marchese

February 12, 2014 at 13:46

11 Responses

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  1. I can’t see the point in buying this one…. I always thought that BS&T Greatest Hits (1971) was more than enough of this poor man’s Chicago.

    Mr MacGoo

    February 12, 2014 at 14:12

    • Chicago were light years better than BS&T.

      Ernie

      February 12, 2014 at 14:47

  2. Child Is Father To The Man is well worth seeking out because it offers the original rock-group-with-horns vision articulated by Al Kooper, in particular. There are some gorgeous songs that are not on this new collection.

    And at that point, by the way, they were not a poor man’s version of Chicago. The first BS&T album, in fact, preceded the release of the Chicago Transit Authority. So check it out. You may find it enjoyable

    Ed Silverman

    February 12, 2014 at 17:46

    • I agree Ed that they had some enjoyable songs however a 2 disc collection would be overkill for me. I always preferred Chicago Transit Authority and Chicago II albums over the first two BS&T recordings.

      Mr MacGoo

      February 12, 2014 at 19:32

      • Understood. I meant check out ‘Child Is Father To The Man.’

        ed silverman

        February 12, 2014 at 20:31

  3. Speaking of “Child Is Father to the Man,” in 2012 it was reissued on CD by a small label called Impex Records and remastered by Kevin Gray. It sounds absolutely fantastic. Probably the best I’ve ever heard it sound. Don’t know if it’s still in print, but it might be worth checking into.

    Chief Brody

    February 13, 2014 at 07:02

  4. B,S&T lost their steam by having far too long a break in albums between #2 (their most successful) and #3. Audiences move on and forget you quickly. The third album should have been released in Summer 1969.

    Kevin

    February 13, 2014 at 07:59

  5. Talented as Kooper is he can be pretty insufferable. Probably wishes his version of BS&T brought him the kind of royalties the Clayton-Thomas version gets. The latter day version’s problem? Too successful, a critical death knell.

    bob

    February 13, 2014 at 10:14

  6. Funny how music is a matter of taste. While I never cared much for Al Kooper’s edition of the band, which seemed to me pretentious and strained, I consider BS&T’s #2, 3 and 4 total masterpieces which swing like hell… light years better than Chicago, great professionals who couldn’t swing if their lives depended on it. And “In Concert” (a.k.a. “Live & Improvised”) is one of the greatest live albums ever…

    Andrea

    February 13, 2014 at 11:44

    • It is rarely mentioned by critics, but the David Clayton-Thomas vocal on “God Bless the Child” turned a million young “rock music ears” to the music of Billie Holiday, and was a huge part of setting the stage for a world-wide explosion in interest in Billie herself. Nearly all the reissues of Billie quickly followed and became huge successes. Thank you BS&T

      Kevin

      February 14, 2014 at 09:56

  7. Andrea, I totally agree with your comments. And I probably favor 2, 3 & 4 in reverse order. I remember writing to Bobby Colomby and mentioning my disappointment in the sound quality of an expensive import CD release of 4 and sometime later, a beautifully remastered CD of 4 was released in the U.S. Perhaps totally circumstantial, but at least in my mind, I believe I may have played a small role in helping to right that situation. For what it’s worth, I consider Colomby to be among the best drummers of his generation. Just listen to his intricate stick work on the band’s first four albums and those sounds alone provide a veritable feast for the ears. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the Rare, Rarer, & Rarest compilation that came out last year and which includes all of the music tracks, sans dialog from The Owl and the Pussycat soundtrack. There’s some terrific music to be found there.

    Bill Minnick (@MinnickBill)

    February 17, 2014 at 11:05


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