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Love Is: Carol Williams, The Salsoul Orchestra Make Sweet Music on “‘lectric Lady”

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Lectric LadyCarol Williams signed to New York’s Salsoul Records label in 1975 for one single, but stuck around for one memorable album. That lone long-player, titled ‘lectric Lady, paired the New Jersey-born vocalist – Salsoul’s first female contract signing – with the label’s premier musical outfit, The Salsoul Orchestra, for an alluring blend of disco and sleek soul. Cherry Red’s Big Break Records imprint is now feeling electric with an expanded and remastered reissue of ‘lectric Lady.

Williams came to Salsoul as a seasoned performer both onstage and in the recording studio. When Salsoul held open auditions in Manhattan for a female singer, Williams stood out from the pack and secured the slot on the burgeoning label’s roster. The Salsoul Orchestra was already established as the label’s marquee act. Its leader, quadruple threat songwriter-producer-arranger-conductor Vincent Montana Jr., had come into his own at Salsoul. The veteran MFSB vibraphonist (and occasional arranger-conductor at Philadelphia international) became the Salsoul label’s de facto answer to Thom Bell, defining the Salsoul sound by fusing Latin salsa rhythms with the Philly soul style he helped create for Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s recording empire.

Recording at the usual destination of Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound Studios, Montana crafted an effervescent album debut for the diva. It took a powerhouse vocalist to stand out in front of the majestic orchestra, but Williams was clearly up to the task, and even co-wrote three tracks on the nine-song LP which blended disco with soulful ballads. Its opening track, “Love is You,” rightfully became a Salsoul anthem. It bore some stylistic resemblance to MFSB and The Three Degrees’ “Love is the Message,” with the same grand sweep and infectious groove, but that was no surprise, as The Salsoul Orchestra shared a great number of members with MFSB (Montana, Bobby Eli, Norman Harris, Roland Chambers, Ronnie Baker, Larry Washington, Earl Young, and Don Renaldo among them). It’s still somewhat shocking that these five minutes of sultry, sizzling disco failed to become a crossover pop hit. Ronnie Walker, a Philly pal of Montana’s, co-wrote “Love is You” and another album cut, “Just Feel,” both of which he also later recorded himself. Walker, with a falsetto to rival that of The Stylistics’ Russell Thompkins Jr., first worked with Montana back in 1968 at Sigma Sound, when the latter was playing vibes for a Vent Records session on which Walker was singing.

The cool “Just Feel” may, in fact, be the album’s strongest moment next to “Love is You.” The smoldering track eschews disco, instead showcasing the purity of Williams’ voice in tandem with Montana’s lush arrangement. Williams’ velvety pipes accentuated the sensuality of another smooth slow-burner, “This Time May Be the Last Time.” Its male background vocals (likely provided by Walker and Carl Helms, based on the LP’s credits) add an unusual color to the production. Jack Perricone, the track’s co-writer, also penned the sweet ode to devotion that closes out the LP, “You’re So Much a Part of Me.”

The beguiling “Danger Sign” came from the pen of Philadelphia songwriter-producer T Life, an associate of Bunny Sigler and Instant Funk who placed songs at Philly International with The Intruders and The Ebonys. Arranged in shimmering fashion by Montana, “Danger Sign” retains the Salsoul percussion sound but sonically recalls the sophistication of Thom Bell’s collaborative album with Dionne Warwick, the overlooked masterpiece Track of the Cat.

Tasty tidbits abound in Christian John Wikane’s new liner notes, which take the form of a lengthy interview with Carol Williams – who, by the way, is most certainly blessed with a keen memory of her short time at Salsoul! One such recollection is that Williams sang “Tangerine” at a performance of her club act attended by Salsoul’s Vice President Ken Cayre before her signing. Williams knew she could tip the scales in her favor by singing a song already recorded by The Salsoul Orchestra on its debut LP. “Tangerine” was just one of the standards reinvented for disco by Montana over the course of his time at Salsoul. Another was the Mondo Cane standard “More” on ‘lectric Lady. Its elegant melody was a good fit for Williams, whose live repertoire included jazz standards and showtunes. Indeed, some jazz elements were incorporated into the recording of “More” both by Williams and the Orchestra, including some delicious saxophone licks.

Whereas “More” is relaxed – for disco, at least! – Montana’s chart for the poignant “My Time of Need” pulsates with urgency from its strings to the nonstop beat. Williams delivers a confident vocal on this song which she co-wrote with Montana. Background vocalists The Sweethearts of Sigma (a.k.a. Evette Benton, Barbara Ingram and Carla Benson) are prominent throughout ‘Lectric Lady, but get an enjoyably campy moment on this track, with the full story told in the liner notes. And though it’s not high in the mix, there’s a rockin’ guitar that vies with Williams’ lead for pure electricity! The other Williams/Montana composition, “Come Back,” gives winds and horns – not to mention the driving percussion – a workout.

The black sheep of ‘lectric Lady is “Rattlesnake,” Williams’ first recording for Salsoul produced in 1975 by The Exciters’ Herb Rooney. She recalls the track having been completed by the time she laid her vocals down, and it feels somewhat less personal than the balance of the album. The song is energetic disco but lacks the flair of the Montana-led music, though Williams’ throaty vocal is one of her most big-voiced on the LP.  There’s much more after the jump!

Big Break has added four tracks to the line-up. These bonuses include Tom Moulton’s typically strong and faithful mix of “Love is You” as well as that song’s single version, plus the 12-inch disco mixes of “More” (another version of the track not included here was entitled “More of More”) and “Come Back.” A 2013 Japanese CD reissue also included four bonus cuts, subbing the single version of “More” for the single of “Love is You” included here. This superb package has been remastered by reissue producer Wayne A. Dickson. Wikane’s interview with Williams will likely stand as the definitive chronicle of ‘lectric Lady direct from the source as it skillfully touches on all aspects of the album’s recording.

Though Carol Williams continued to record for various other labels after departing Salsoul, ‘lectric Lady remains a milestone in her career as well as a key part of The Salsoul Orchestra’s discography. Philly disco rarely sounded as sweet and savory as it does here.

Carol Williams and The Salsoul Orchestra, ‘Lectric Lady (Salsoul LP SZS-5506, 1976 – reissued Big Break Records CDBBR 0236, 2014) (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.  )

  1. Love is You
  2. This Time May Be the Last Time
  3. More
  4. Just Feel
  5. My Time of Need
  6. Come Back
  7. Danger Sign
  8. Rattlesnake
  9. You’re So Much a Part of Me
  10. Love Is You (A Tom Moulton Mix) (included on Suss’d SALSA 12-003, 2003 & Octave Japan CD OTLCD-5029, 2013)
  11. More (12” Disco Version) (Salsoul 12D-2006, 1976)
  12. Come Back (12” Disco Version) (Salsoul 12D-2031, 1976)
  13. Love Is You (Single Version) (Salsoul SZ-2021, 1976)

Written by Joe Marchese

August 1, 2014 at 10:24

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