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Review: Real Gone Goes Soulful With Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles, Irma Thomas

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Labelle BluebellsDuring its mid- to late-sixties heyday, Atlantic had two “girl groups” on its roster: The Sweet Inspirations and Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles. It’s appropriate, then, that SoulMusic and Real Gone has a companion release to The Sweet Inspirations’ singles anthology with Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles’ 2-CD set The Complete Atlantic Sides Plus (RGM-0237/OPCD-8839) featuring Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx, Sarah Dash and Cindy Birdsong. Like The Sweet Inspirations and Irma Thomas collections, this set premieres some previously unreleased material – four songs, in fact.

Philadelphia’s Bluebelles had much in common with The Sweet Inspirations beyond the fact that they were both soulful African-American foursomes recording for Atlantic within roughly the same timeframe. Like The Sweet Inspirations, one member defected during their time at the label; in this case it was Cindy Birdsong, who decamped in 1967 to become a Supreme. Both groups recorded under the aegis of Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd, both shared access to the same pool of songwriters (Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, Burt Bacharach and Hal David) and both even shared some of the same repertoire (Wexler and Bert Berns’ “I Don’t Want to Go on Without You”). What was different about The Bluebelles? That much is obvious from the very first track here – “Danny Boy,” the 1913 song based on the 19th century Irish melody “Londonderry Air.” Okay, so the group didn’t typically stretch back that far, but the Bluebelles were firmly rooted in the standards and showtunes which occupy roughly half of this set’s first disc. Having mastered the music of the classic songwriters from Harold Arlen to Jule Styne, they were able to bring their interpretive gifts to edgy fare from Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Williams, Jr. a.k.a. “Swamp Dogg,” and eventually morph into the glam-soul Labelle.

Producer David Nathan has sequenced this collection of The Bluebelles’ complete Atlantic recordings (live and in the studio) in the order of recording rather than by albums, singles, etc. The girls first graced the Atlantic label with their performance at Philadelphia’s Uptown Theater in 1964 alongside The Drifters, Wilson Pickett and Barbara Lynn. Although only one song from their set made the original LP (“Down the Aisle,” issued in its studio version on the small Newtown label in 1963), five songs appear here. These reflect the group’s artistic diversity – “Danny Boy,” the Jimmy McHugh/Harold Adamson classic “Where Are You,” the smoldering R&B of the then-recent Baby Washington hit “That’s How Heartaches are Made” and the sweet, doo-wop-inflected R&B of “Down the Aisle” and “One Phone Call.” Atlantic snapped the group up and assigned them to hot producer and Wexler pal Bert Berns.

Disc One contains the entirety of the 1966 Berns-produced Over the Rainbow LP as well as the live Saturday Night at the Uptown tracks and half of 1967’s Dreamer LP which was derived from various sessions and producers.  Disc Two picks up with the balance of Dreamer and more singles and unreleased cuts – including many more original songs that attempted to give the group more of an identity.

Berns tried the group on a variety of sides designed to show off their many facets – intense soul (“Patti’s Prayer”), light pop (“Groovy Kind of Love,” previously cut by the duo Diane and Annita and destined for a hit via The Mindbenders and decades later, Phil Collins), contemporary Broadway favorites (“Who Can I Turn To,” “People”), and classics (“Unchained Melody,” “Ebb Tide”). Berns oversaw Patti and the Bluebelles’ recording of his own driving “You Forgot How to Love,” but his most memorable recording with the group might be their shimmering “Over the Rainbow,” still a signature song of Patti LaBelle’s today. These early sides emphasized pop over R&B, but the blend of stirring vocals with sweet orchestral settings doesn’t disappoint. Only minor commercial inroads were made, however. At a peak of No. 20 R&B, “Over the Rainbow” would be the group’s biggest chart success at Atlantic. Jerry Wexler believed that Pam Sawyer and Lori Burton’s “All or Nothing,” with its dramatic strings and powerfully dense production, was a hit record. You’ll think so, too, rediscovering it here.

The vocal blend that would become famous in Labelle had its roots in the Bluebelles’ sound, and while Patti LaBelle’s big voice – alternately playfully coquettish and thunderously soulful – led her to solo stardom, the roles of Birdsong, Dash and Hendryx in the Bluebelles sound can’t be underplayed. Following the Berns sessions, Atlantic tried a variety of approaches on Cindy, Sarah, Nona and Patti with sessions in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and possibly Memphis. Curtis Mayfield’s sensually slow-burning “I’m Still Waiting” should have crossed over in 1966, but had to be content with a Top 40 R&B placing. Its B-side, “Family Man,” showed off a funkier style. The Philly session in September 1966 with arranger Richie Rome and producer Bob FIniz yielded, ironically, another Berns tune (“I Don’t Want to Go on Without You”) and a storming, unusual take on Bacharach and David’s “Always Something There to Remind Me.” Patti and co. returned to Philly in mid-1967 to cut another couple of songs with future MFSB players Norman Harris and Ronnie Baker among the musicians: Lorraine Ellison’s torrid “Oh My Love” and Nona’s own, dynamic “I Need Your Love.”

After the jump: more on The Bluebelles, plus a look at Irma Thomas’ Lost Cotillion Album!

Dan Penn and Chips Moman produced Penn and Spooner Oldham’s “Dreamer,” which titled Patti and the Bluebelles’ second and last Atlantic album. Though attractively sung, the tune was just a bit too funereal. Don Davis helmed Detroit sessions, also in summer 1967, with the newly-streamlined trio of LaBelle, Hendryx and Dash.   These late-period Bluebelles tracks are a window onto the development of the blend that the trio would perfect the following decade in Labelle. The previously-unissued, up-tempo “How Can You Throw My Love Away” makes its debut here. Jerry Williams, Jr., a.k.a. Swamp Dogg, teamed with versatile arranger Garry Sherman for another session from which another two songs premiere here, the rhythmic and sassy “Forget It” and “Never for Me.” Sherman and Williams bolstered the Bluebelles’ sound with Stax-style horns on the loose and brassy “Dance to the Rhythm of Love,” which was shockingly relegated to a flipside. From a late 1969 session at Chicago’s Chi-Sound Studios, this anthology offers the first appearance of the lusty “When Joe Touches Me.”

Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash never hit their stride at Atlantic, finally attaining legendary status with the likes of “Lady Marmalade” in the 1970s. But The Complete Atlantic Sides Plus – compiled and annotated by David Nathan and remastered by Alan Wilson – offers a fascinating visit to the ground floor of their groundbreaking sound and style.

Irma Thomas - Full Time WomanAnother of the year’s major R&B finds has arrived from the partnership of Real Gone Music and SoulMusic Records with Irma Thomas’ Full Time Woman: The Lost Cotillion Album (Real Gone RGM-0224/OPCD-8818). The marriage of The Soul Queen of New Orleans and preeminent soul label Atlantic Records should have been a match made in Heaven. Things didn’t quite work out the way either party might have expected; Atlantic sent Thomas to a variety of studios in Mississippi, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Miami to record, only to decide to release one lone 45. Producer David Nathan has compiled the album that might have been for Real Gone, and if it’s filled with stylistic diversity, one thing is constant: the sheer quality of Thomas’ passionate vocals.

The gospel-trained Thomas came to Atlantic having recorded for a variety of labels, most recently the small Canyon and Roker labels but most notably Imperial. At Imperial, Thomas notched a handful of hit records including the original vocal version of Jerry Ragovoy’s future Rolling Stones hit “Time is on My Side.” Despite inarguably powerful pipes that were adaptable to songs by writers as diverse as Allen Toussaint, Burt Bacharach, Jackie DeShannon and Randy Newman, Thomas never broke through to nationwide commercial fame.   Perhaps that’s because she never had a signature song (Toussaint’s “It’s Raining” and of course “Time is on My Side” might come close) to immediately identify her with the public, or maybe the competition was just too fierce in the era of Aretha and Dionne and Gladys and the rest. Whatever the case, the indomitable Thomas gave it a shot at Atlantic’s Cotillion subsidiary, and though the label apparently felt otherwise at the time, the 15 sides here (only two of which have ever been heard before) are worthy of her tremendous legacy.

The Lost Cotillion Album is derived from six sessions held in 1971 and 1972. Thomas’ creative union with the great N’awlins arranger Wardell Quezergue at Mississippi’s Malaco Studios resulted in three tracks, two of which comprised her sole Cotillion single: “Full Time Woman” b/w “She’s Taken My Part.” The A-side is particularly choice, a soulful, throaty take on country songwriter Mary Stuart’s plea to a man to “set me free.” (The melody is a bit redolent of Goffin and King’s “Wasn’t Born to Follow,” so memorably recorded by Dusty Springfield and others.)

At Detroit’s Pac-Three Studios, Thomas recorded a batch of songs with former Motown staffer Joe Hinton (not the singer of “Funny How Time Slips Away” fame as indicated in the otherwise-excellent liner notes; he died in 1968) including the smooth orchestrated soul of “Shadow of the Sun” with Thomas at her absolute silkiest. With Hinton, Thomas sympathetically tackled Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy” with the composer’s “Ode to Billie Joe” beat, as well as an earthy version of the 1947 Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn standard “Time After Time.” The brassy, bright “Turn Around and Love You” from songwriter Donna Weiss (“Bette Davis Eyes”) was first recorded by Rita Coolidge and then by Dee Dee Warwick. With Irma’s fine recording shelved, Atlantic would later assign the song to Margie Joseph.

Thomas traveled to Miami’s Criteria Studios with Hinton and Arif Mardin; the sessions there yielded the catchy, contemporary “It’s Eleven O’Clock (Do You Know Where Your Love Is).” Less than a couple months later in 1972, Thomas ventured north to Philadelphia’s hallowed Sigma Sound Studios for a session with The Young Professionals, a.k.a. LeBaron Taylor, Phil Hurtt and Bunny Sigler. Of the two tracks produced (likely with the familiar MFSB personnel), both penned by Hurtt and Sigler, “Adam and Eve” is the strongest. It’s the more quintessentially “Philadelphia” production, with punchy horns, velvety strings, a danceable beat and cooed female harmony vocals.

Irma Thomas was later dismissive of some of the tracks recorded for Cotillion, even opining that the label wished that she would sound like Diana Ross! Thankfully, she sounds only like Irma Thomas through and through. “Adam and Eve” offers a tantalizing perspective on a road not taken by the singer, and “Fancy,” “Full-Time Woman” and “Turn Around and Love You” are all cuts that would stand firmly alongside Thomas’ finest. With notes by David Nathan and remastering by Alan Wilson, The Lost Cotillion Album is one you’ll be happy to find.

To order:

Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles, The Complete Atlantic Sides Plus (2-CD Set) Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.

Irma Thomas, Full Time Woman: The Lost Cotillion AlbumAmazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.

Written by Joe Marchese

July 14, 2014 at 12:01

2 Responses

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  1. Oooh – I want to hear that Irma Thomas stuff!

    Jeremy Shatan

    July 14, 2014 at 12:43

  2. The orginal recording of “Time Is on My Side” was by trombonist Kai Winding, with a chorus repeating the phrases “Time is on my side” and “You’ll come running back” behind Winding’s playing. Irma’s version, with additional lyrics being supplied for her vocal, was of course the one on which the Stones modeled their two recordings. Winding’s original can be found on Ace’s “The Jerry Ragovoy Story: Time Is on My Side, 1953-2003.”

    As for Irma’s earlier career, Minit Records certainly deserves to be mentioned. It was at Minit that Irma recorded Toussaint’s “It’s Raining” (mentioned above) as well as his “Ruler of My Heart,” which Otis Redding slightly reworked as “Pain in My Heart.”


    July 14, 2014 at 16:26

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