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Review: Lulu, “The Atco Sessions 1969-1972”

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Lulu AtcoMuscle Shoals, Alabama is a long way from Glasgow, Scotland. But when Lulu took the trek in 1969, the “To Sir with Love” songbird proved that she could play with the big boys. Though neither New Routes nor its Miami-recorded, Dixie Flyers-assisted follow-up Melody Fair scaled the heights commercially, both projects proved the versatility of the vocal dynamo. In 2007, Rhino U.K. issued The Atco Sessions 1969-72 collecting both of Lulu’s lost southern soul forays in one deluxe 2-CD package. Upon its deletion from the catalogue, The Atco Sessions began fetching high coin. Real Gone Music has come to the rescue, however, with a reissue of the complete package (RGM-0268) that once again makes some of the finest music of Lulu’s career available at a reasonable price.

The ballad “To Sir with Love” established Lulu in the United States, remaining at No. 1 for five weeks and becoming the top single of 1967. (Ironically, it didn’t even chart in Lulu’s native United Kingdom.)   In addition to singing the Mark London/Don Black title theme, Lulu also appeared in the film. How to capitalize upon her newfound American success? After splitting with her longtime producer Mickie Most, Lulu signed to Atco in the States and headed to Muscle Shoals with the Atlantic Records trinity of Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin. This move into R&B might have been perceived as a left turn by her new American fans, but not those who had followed her career since 1965. Though Lulu won the U.K. the Eurovision song contest of 1969 with the lightweight “Boom Bang-a-Bang” – it tied with entries from Spain, France and the Netherlands – her first U.K. single hit was a cover of The Isley Brothers’ “Shout!” Subsequent tracks like Bert Berns’ bluesy “Here Comes the Night” and Goffin and King’s “I Can’t Hear You No More” were also essentially R&B recordings. Many of Lulu’s more overtly pop recordings – like her U.K. Top 10 hit of Neil Diamond’s “The Boat That I Row” – were so potent because of her soulful sound. Though her vocals were filled with youthful abandon, they also reflected an old soul.  Lulu had a great desire during this period to diversify her talents; though the production didn’t come to fruition, Lulu was even set to make her West End debut in a musical adaptation of Vanity Fair in the challenging role of the cunning Becky Sharp!

New Routes, released in February 1970, blended both pop and soul into a beguiling whole. The album featured Muscle Shoals’ take-no-prisoners rhythm section of Barry Beckett on keyboards, David Hood on bass, Roger Hawkins on drums, and Eddie Hinton, Jimmy Johnson, Cornell Dupree and a certain Duane Allman on guitar; horns and strings would flesh out the sound. Duane Allman’s scorching blues licks enhanced four tracks on New Routes, most notably “Dirty Old Man” from Mac Davis and Delaney Bramlett, and Fran Robbins’ rockin’ n’ rollickin’ instructions to “Sweep Around Your Own Back Door.”

Lulu - New RoutesWith Lulu in the midst of her rocky marriage to Maurice Gibb of Lulu’s Atco labelmates The Bee Gees, two songs on the LP bore the group’s imprimatur, including the whimsical “Marley Purt Drive” and Barry Gibb’s ballad “In the Morning.” Lulu cut loose with her throaty wail throughout the LP, particularly on “People in Love” from guitarist Eddie Hinton and Grady Smith and the lament “Is That You Love” from Jackie Avery and John Farris. Hinton co-wrote “Where’s Eddie” with Donnie Fritts; the same team penned “Breakfast in Bed” as recorded by Dusty Springfield on her now-legendary southern-soul excursion Dusty in Memphis. Lulu hit just the right note of desperation on their rueful, tense ballad.

Other moments ranged from the funky (a loose run through Dave Mason’s “Feelin’ Alright”) to the reflective (“Mr. Bojangles”).   Jerry Jeff Walker first recorded his “Mr. Bojangles” for Atco; Lulu’s version of the song predates the more famous interpretations by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Sammy Davis, Jr., among so many others. Her heartfelt reading of the song is low-key and stripped-down, free of horns, strings or other ornamentation.

A fellow Glasgow native, Jim Doris, provided two tracks: the passionate “After All (I Live My Life)” as well as the album’s biggest success – both artistically and commercially. The marriage of evocative lyrics with the dramatically-building melody of Doris’ “Oh Me, Oh My (I’m a Fool for You, Baby)” gained Lulu entrée into the U.S. Top 30 for the first time since “To Sir with Love.” The sensual, simmering track is the centerpiece of New Routes.

There’s more after the jump!

For her second venture with Wexler, Dowd and Mardin, Lulu relocated to Miami’s Criteria Studios. She was joined for the album that became Melody Fair by The Dixie Flyers – Jim Dickinson on piano and guitar, Charlie Freeman on guitar, Mike Utley on organ, Tommy McClure on bass and Sammy Creason on drums – plus The Sweet Inspirations, The Memphis Horns, and even The Rascals’ Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati. This set was a bit more pop-oriented than its predecessor, boasting songs by Randy Newman, The Beatles, Burt Bacharach, and Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, along with returning songwriters Fran Robbins, Jim Doris and The Bee Gees. The album took its title from “Melody Fair” from Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb, introduced on their sprawling Odessa album.

The album opener, a slowed-down “Good Day Sunshine,” is fuelled by the Memphis Horns; they drive much of Melody Fair. It was likely the most familiar cut on the album, though Burt Bacharach and Bob Hilliard’s “Don’t Go (Please Stay)” must have come close. The rather adaptable tune was first recorded at Atlantic in The Drifters’ patented uptown soul vein, but has subsequently withstood treatments in every conceivable style. Lulu’s raw recording stayed faithful to Bacharach and Hilliard’s blueprint but gained dimension with the singer’s honest, raw lead. She embraced the big pop melody of Terry Woodford and George Soule’s “After the Feeling is Gone,” and brought heft to Jim Doris’ “Take Good Care of Yourself.” The latter gave Lulu more powerful emotions to mine (“Baby, baby, baby/If you’ve found someone else, take good care of yourself”) but lacked the essential hook of Doris’ hit “Oh Me, Oh My.” Instead of Doris’ song, the lead single off Melody Fair was Richard Ross’ gospel-inspired sing-along “Hum a Song (From Your Heart),” a raggedly joyful noise that just might lodge itself in your brain after a couple of listens. A cover of Leiber and Stoller’s “Saved” (“I used to smoke, I used to drink/I used to smoke and drink and dance the hoochie-koo!”) inspired even more fervor.

Swamp Dogg, a.k.a. Jerry Williams, provided two deep-soul cuts co-written with Gary “U.S.” Bonds. Lulu took like a fish to water to “I Don’t Care Anymore” (penned by Williams, Bond and Maurice Gimbel) and “To the Other Woman (I’m the Other Woman),” both of which were also recorded by Doris Duke. The latter’s churchy piano chords brought out some of the gutsiest singing on the record. Mickey Newbury’s “Sweet Memories” found Lulu on the gentler end of the spectrum.

Perhaps the most unusual choice on Melody Fair was that of Randy Newman’s quirky “Vine Street.” Also recorded by Van Dyke Parks and Harry Nilsson, it’s actually two songs in one. Opening with a rocking slice of generic pop (“My baby left this mornin’, took everything I had/He didn’t give me no warning/That’s why I feel so bad…”), the song’s narrator sadly reflects over quintessentially Newman-esque piano chords, “That’s the tape that we made/But I’m sad to say, it never made the grade/I was lead singer, he played guitar/I wonder where the others are…” The sophisticated mini-drama couldn’t help but seem out-of-place in between “Take Good Care of Yourself” and the tough, greasy funk-rock of Robbins’ “Move to My Rhythm.”

Despite a wealth of fine material, Melody Fair couldn’t better the No. 88 chart placement of New Routes; it didn’t chart at all on the Billboard 200. Atco didn’t give up on Lulu, however. She recorded a number of non-LP singles for the label, which are included on the second disc here along with sides first issued in 2007 on this collection’s original U.K. release. Later sessions held at Criteria yielded an abundance of additional material, and only a couple of these tracks (Neil Goldberg’s boisterous, anthemic “Got to Believe in Love” and Robert Mosely and Leroy Swearingen’s Searchers tune “Goodbye My Love, Goodbye”) saw the light of day as non-LP singles. So did “Everybody’s Got to Clap” – in the same vein as “Hum a Song (From Your Heart)” – written by Maurice Gibb and Lulu’s brother Billy Lawrie, and produced by Maurice.

Wes Farrell (The Partridge Family, The McCoys) signed Lulu to his Chelsea Records following her tenure at Atco, but Farrell also recorded a few tracks with her at Atco which have been included here. They’re less distinctive than the Wexler/Dowd/Mardin material, with the delicious “It Takes a Real Man (To Bring Out the Woman in Me)” from L. Russell Brown and Irwin Levine (“I Woke Up in Love This Morning,” “Knock Three Times”) a highlight. Farrell’s production of “If I Could Change” is the farthest-removed track here from the southern soul template, embracing a pure bubblegum-esque pop sound.

Of the shelved material from Criteria, Lulu brought grit to Maurice and Barry Gibb’s earthy “Bury Me Down by the River” from their Cucumber Castle LP and Barry, Robin and Maurice’s pulsating “Back Home” from their 2 Years On. Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s impressionistic conversation in song, “Come Down in Time,” and Lesley Duncan’s oft-recorded “Love Song” (covered by Sir Elton with Duncan on his seminal Tumbleweed Connection) both retained their haunting power in Lulu’s renditions; it’s hard to believe these remained collecting dust for over 35 years. The empowerment anthem “Things are Getting Better” is another strong inclusion. Odds and ends round out The Atco Sessions, such as the Italian-language version of “Oh Me, Oh My” and early versions of “Hum a Song (From Your Heart),” “I Don’t Care Anymore” and “Got to Believe in Love.”

The Atco Sessions was originally produced by Bill Inglot, and the superlative remastering by Inglot and Dan Hersch has been retained for this reissue. In lieu of Kieron Tyler’s original liner notes, however, the label has enlisted Richie Unterberger, and he has supplied a thorough and compelling account. Claire Morales’ redesign, slimming down the original digipak into a slim 2-CD jewel case, retains some of the art elements of the original packaging. The original covers of New Routes and Melody Fair are both included in the new 12-page booklet.

With a surprising number of Lulu’s albums still absent from CD, Real Gone’s reissue of The Atco Sessions happily fills in a gap for those who were unlucky enough to have missed it the first time around. Everybody’s got to clap at its heady brew of swampy rock, blue-eyed soul, funk and pop.

You can order The Atco Sessions 1969-1972 at Amazon U.S. and Amazon U.K. !

Written by Joe Marchese

August 18, 2014 at 12:34

2 Responses

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  1. “To Sir, With Love” was only the flip side of a song entitled “Let’s Pretend” over in the UK. Go figure.

    Ernie

    August 18, 2014 at 13:41

  2. Spot on with your comment about the availability of Lulu’s albums. She made some great albums in the late 7o’s and early 80’s none of which are available on cd.

    Ken

    August 19, 2014 at 11:20


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