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Reviews: Real Gone Goes R&B with Bettye Swann and Samuel Jonathan Johnson

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Bettye Swann - AtlanticShreveport, Louisiana-born Bettye Swann never liked her birth name of Betty Jean Champion, yet when it came to soul music, Swann was certainly a champion.  Her debut single for Money Records, 1965’s “Don’t Wait Too Long,” became a Top 30 R&B hit, and two years later, “Make Me Yours” went all the way to the No. 1 spot on that chart.  It was inevitable that bigger labels than Money would come calling, and sure enough, Swann recorded two country-flavored LPs in 1969 and 1970 for Capitol.  Rick Hall of the FAME label and studios was among Bettye’s fans, and with a distribution deal through Capitol, signed Swann to his production company.  But by the time he was ready to release any recordings by Bettye, the deal with Capitol was up.  Following one 45 issued directly on FAME, Hall brokered a deal to sign Swann to one of the cornerstones of American soul music: Atlantic Records.  Real Gone has teamed up with SoulMusic Records for The Complete Atlantic Recordings.  This new compilation rounds up all 23 sides recorded by Swann for the New York giant between 1972 and 1975, five of which are making their very first appearance anywhere.

Unlike some of her earthier counterparts, Swann possessed a smooth, girlish and frankly pretty voice.  Hall, in charge of Swann’s first seven Muscle Shoals-recorded Atlantic sides, deployed that voice to great effect on this collection’s opening single, the ironically-upbeat “Victim of a Foolish Heart,” in which Swann implores her man not to fall prey to the charms of an old paramour.  Though Swann’s message is clear, it’s delivered in such a sweet way that one can’t see how the weak-willed guy could possibly turn Bettye down!  Hall and Swann took a more traditionally torrid southern-soul approach on a revival of “I’d Rather Go Blind” with its tight guitar licks, organ and stabs of brass, but Swann’s coquettish lead allows the gritty lyric to be heard anew.  Swann and Hall also recut Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again” which she had recorded at Capitol, and took a stab at the oft-recorded Carole King/Gerry Goffin copyright “Yours Until Tomorrow.”  Swann’s recordings lacks the fervor of Dee Dee Warwick’s or the drama of Gene Pitney’s, but compensates with the mature, intelligent delivery of Goffin’s pleading lyric.

Despite the strength of the Muscle Shoals recordings including an irresistible makeover of Gloria Jones and Pam Sawyer’s Supremes cut “I’m Not That Easy to Lose,” none of Swann’s singles got any higher on the Hot 100 than “Today I Started Loving You Again” with its No. 46 placement.  So Atlantic set Swann up at Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound Studios in 1973, teaming her with The Young Professionals, a.k.a. LeBaron Taylor, Phil Hurtt and Tony Bell, younger brother of Philadelphia soul architect Thom Bell.  Though Philly soul could be as sweet as it comes, Taylor, Hurtt and Bell’s first recording with Swann made the Muscle Shoals tracks sound positively sugary in comparison.  “The Boy Next Door” is swaggering Philadelphia-style funk, with burbling guitar licks, slashing strings and an insistent groove.  Arranger Tony Bell’s second track for Swann, B-side “Kiss My Love Goodbye,” should have been the A-side.  It’s a quintessential, up-tempo Spinners-style track, and for Swann’s next single, Tony Bell turned to his older brother Thom to provide the charts.  You can hear Bell’s influence in the soft horns, strings and ethereal male backing vocals of the gorgeously melancholy “Time to Say Goodbye,” providing a cushion as soft as Swann’s velvety voice.  Thom also arranged the A-side of “Time,” the darker, funk-infused “When the Game is Played on You” in which Swann once again serves up a tasty dish of vengeance to the one who’s done her wrong: “How does it feel, baby, when the game is played on you?”

After the jump: more on Bettye, plus a look at the lone solo album of Samuel Jonathan Johnson!

Unfortunately for Swann, the silk-‘n-soul Philadelphia treatment didn’t result in any hits, either.  Atlantic paired Swann with singer-songwriter Sam Dees for two tracks on its Big Tree imprint, a sleek revival of the Billy Vera/Judy Clay duet “Storybook Children” b/w a Barbara Acklin’s disco-fied “Just as Sure.”  Then Swann was teamed with Brad Shapiro, best-known for his work with the naughty first lady of southern soul, Millie Jackson.  Shapiro helmed Swann’s two final Atlantic singles, the ballad “All the Way In or All the Way Out” b/w the sassy “Doin’ for the One I Love,” and “Heading in the Wrong Direction” b/w “Be Strong Enough to Hold On,” the latter of which was co-written by Prince Phillip Mitchell.  Real Gone has rounded up six more Shapiro-produced songs, only one of which has seen prior release.   Swann is game for the disco of “I Feel the Feeling,” but shines on the lush Homer Banks/Carl Hampton “Either You Love Me or Your Leave Me” on which she conveys equal parts vulnerability and strength.  A couple of cover versions are equally illuminating.  Swann slows down The Isley Brothers’ Holland/Dozier/Holland classic “This Old Heart of Mine” to sensual ballad mode, and funks up Mark James’ Elvis chestnut “Suspicious Minds.”  The pretty but yearning and infectious “I Want Sunday Back Again” was released back in 2005 but makes a welcome reappearance here.

Bettye Swann apparently retired in 1980, and many fans thought that was that.  But in June of last year, she made a rare return to the performing spotlight at the age of 68 when she took the stage at the Rare Soul Weekender in Cleethorpes, England.  The Complete Atlantic Recordings, superbly annotated by Charles Waring and remastered by Alan Wilson, makes it abundantly clear that Swann has nothing left to prove – but plenty to celebrate should she reappear again.

Samuel Jonathan JohnsonSamuel Jonathan Johnson’s 1978 album was simply and eloquently titled My Music.  And though it introduced a new voice to the R&B scene, it also ended up as that voice’s only major musical statement.   Its modest yet potent charms have beguiled crate-diggers for decades now, and thanks to Real Gone Music and Chicago music mecca Dusty Groove, however, My Music has made its way to CD.

Recorded in Chicago and produced by Aki Aleong, My Music features nine original compositions written by Johnson and one cover version, all expertly orchestrated by Richard Evans and Johnson.  Per its title, My Music was a personal journey, and the artist played piano, electric piano, organ, synthesizer, and poly-moog.  Additional players took on piano, bass, drums, guitars, and percussion.  A positive spirit courses through the album.  The title track, which opens the LP, finds Johnson “spreading joy all around the world with my music…”  Synthesizers lend a spacey ambience to the funky track, which is adorned by strings and horns in a seventies-style soul stew, complete with sweetly cooing female backing vocalists.  “When things get bad, a simple song will make you glad,” Johnson croons.  It might well have been his manifesto.

Most of the album stays in this optimistic vein, including the one, well-chosen cover.  Dramatic strings introduce Johnson’s take of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s oft-recorded “What the World Needs Now is Love.”  Johnson slows its tempo to a crawl reminiscent of Isaac Hayes’ dramatic transformation of Bacharach’s songs.  Its ethereal backing vocals and pleading, pained lead vocal both underscore the power and urgency of Hal David’s hopeful lyrics.  The track then morphs into a fusion-jazz-style workout entitled, appropriately enough, “Sweet Love.”    The prominent strings in the introduction to the understated ballad “Because I Love You” is as lush as anything Gordon Jenkins would have written for Frank Sinatra, and the three tracks together have the feel of a mini-suite.

Befitting its origins in 1978, the uplifting sound of disco also plays a part on My Music.  “You” is a splendidly big dancefloor production with horns, strings, and background vocalists, and its intricate instrumental interplay indulges Johnson’s jazz-oriented side.  “Reason for the Reason” is another strong track with heavy disco overtones.  “It Ain’t Easy” is also uptempo but more gritty.  The story-song about lovers from opposite ends of the tracks has a strong element of social commentary: “Now there’s children in the picture, but the daddy’s on the run/But why should the children suffer the consequences all alone?”  Jon Takash’s trombone on the track adds color to its alluring Latin vibe.

In addition to disco, My Music touches on breathy bedroom ballads (“Just Us,” featuring a spoken-word rap), quiet storm (“Yesterdays and Tomorrow,” with its classical-style piano introduction), and even Philly soul (“Mother Dear”).  “Mother Dear” lyrically draws on a traditional R&B trope; think “Sadie,” “I’ll Always Love My Mama,” etc.  But its bright groove makes for one of the album’s most ebullient songs.

Much as the original LP features prominent vocal support from Johnson’s wife, Real Gone has kept My Music all in the family.  The reissue produced by the label’s Gordon Anderson includes new liner notes by Johnson’s daughter, Yolanda “Londa” Johnson.  (For the record, Samuel Jonathan Johnson is alive and well.)  No additional tracks have been included; the extended 12-inch mixes of “You” and “My Music” would have made solid additions to the 10-song line-up here.  With this new edition, My Music is now your music, and my music, too.

Bettye Swann’s Complete Atlantic Recordings: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.

Samuel Jonathan Johnson’s My Music: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.

Written by Joe Marchese

March 31, 2014 at 12:37

One Response

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  1. I’d never heard of Samuel Jonathan Johnson, and I’m definitely *not* a fan of post-disco “smooth” jazzy soul . . . but a quick listen to a few of the tracks drom this album on Youtube have led me to the conclusion that this is a lost classic, and something that might appeal to people who aren’t fans of the genre, in a way similar to how Shuggie Otis crossed over to a different audience than one might have expected. But what’s the story with this guy? One album, a couple of singles and total disappearance? What happened?

    March 31, 2014 at 14:04

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