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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!

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Written by Joe Marchese

July 14, 2014 at 12:01

It’s Carnival Time At Ace With “The Ric and Ron Story Volume 1”

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Ric and Ron Story Vol 1While Ric and Ron Records were not the first little labels to make big noises out of New Orleans, Louisiana, they certainly were among the most influential. Between 1958 and 1963, Joe Ruffino’s labels boasted some of the Crescent City’s greatest artists – Professor Longhair, Irma Thomas, Chris Kenner, Eddie Bo, and Johnny Adams, to name a few. The U.K.’s Ace Records label has recently begun a new series chronicling The Ric and Ron Story, kicking off with Volume 1, You Talk Too Much. The compilation is so named for Ric single 972 by Joe Jones, the label’s only major nationwide hit – and perhaps, ironically, a side that was acquired on its way to the Top 10 by Morris Levy’s Roulette Records. This initial volume covers the period of 1958-1960 with 24 spirited, soulful R&B tracks in non-chronological order. All songs are in their original mono mixes.

Ric and its sister label Ron were founded in 1958 by New Orleans-based Joe Ruffino, and named for his sons. Though the labels were only active for a short period, some of the city’s greatest talents passed through the company’s doors. Ruffino founded Ric armed with masters from New Orleans’ Ace label (namesake for the current Ace Records) and went on to sign guitarist Al Blanchard in an A&R capacity and Al Johnson as an artist. When Blanchard moved on from the label, he was succeeded by Harold Battiste and Mac Rebennack, a.k.a. Dr. John, two gentlemen who would fill chapters in any book of N’awlins musical history. This illustrious team gave a break to the now-legendary Soul Queen of New Orleans, Irma Thomas, who recorded her first single “(You Can Have My Husband but) Don’t Mess with My Man” for the Ron label. Thomas is featured on two sides here, the aforementioned “Don’t Mess with My Man” and the B-side of her follow-up single “I May Be Wrong.”

Al Johnson, Ruffino’s first artist, is represented with two songs, “You Done Me Wrong” and “Carnival Time.” Along with title track “You Talk Too Much,” Johnson’s “Carnival Time” may be the signature song here. Recorded at Cosimo Matassa’s renowned studio, it reflects the joyous mood we still associate with the resilient city of New Orleans to this very day. And although it’s still a well-known song around Mardi Gras time, the story of Big Easy native Johnson is one of as much darkness as light. Drafted into the U.S. Army after recording the song, he returned in 1964 to find himself in dire financial straits. (His sole discography consists of two singles released on Ric in 1958 and 1960.) But Johnson continued to persevere and perform. A refugee of the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Johnson became a resident of Harry Connick Jr.’s Musicians Village project. He still can be found today, rousing appreciate audiences with “Carnival Time.”

Another New Orleans native, piano man Eddie Bo first made his name in traditional jazz circles before “defecting” to R&B. Apparently he was as dexterous with carpentry as with piano-playing; legend has it that Bo even built the Ric studio, coming from a long line of carpenters, bricklayers and shipbuilders! Also affected by the ravages of Katrina, Bo used his carpentry skills to help rebuild his neighborhood before his 2009 death. He’s heard here on 1959’s “You Got Your Mojo Working” and 1960’s “Tell It Like It Is” (not the same song that another famous son of New Orleans, Aaron Neville, took to the No. 2 spot on the Hot 100 in 1966).

Johnny Adams (you guessed it: a New Orleans native!) had his biggest successes in the late 1960s but began his recording career at Ric, where he worked with Mac Rebennack a.k.a. Dr. John as well as Eddie Bo. The future Dr. John produced “I Won’t Cry,” Adams’ first single for Ric, heard here in both its original version and a rare demo performance with guitar accompaniment. Adams arrived at Ric with a dramatic delivery (which inspired Aaron Neville, among others) and a big vocal style. Possessed with a great range, he could transition to a falsetto with ease. He’s also heard on “Come On,” also from 1959. Adams experienced a late-career resurgence when he signed with Rounder Records in 1983; he remained with the label until his death in 1998.

Edgar Blanchard was one of the most well-known session guitarists in New Orleans and had been a bandleader since the 1940s. Although he played on sessions for labels including Atlantic and Specialty, he actually recorded Ric’s first issued single. One side of that 45, “Let’s Get It,” is included here. Blanchard died in 1972. Like Blanchard, Professor Longhair, a.k.a. Henry Roeland “Roy” Byrd (1918-1980), was already an established name when he joined Ruffino’s labels. The good Professor’s piano style, it’s fair to say, shaped what is today thought of as the sound of New Orleans, and influenced Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Harry Connick, Jr., and countless others. He’s featured here with his definitive 1959 recording of “Go to the Mardi Gras” (which he first recorded in 1950) as well as with “Cuttin’ Out (Hey Now Baby).” Both tracks hail from his lone session for Ruffino. A special bonus here is a previously unreleased demo of Professor Longhair’s signature “Tipitina” recorded for Ric in 1959.

We have more after the jump, including the full track listing with discography, and order links! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

May 22, 2014 at 10:09

Ace’s “Black America Sings Bacharach and David” Features Dionne, Aretha, Cissy, Nina and More

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Black America Sings BacharachIn retrospect, it might be telling that Burt Bacharach’s first recorded song, “Once in a Blue Moon,” was cut in 1952 by Nat “King” Cole. From those earliest days, Bacharach and his lyrical partner Hal David saw their songs recorded by a host of African-American artists: Johnny Mathis, Gene McDaniels, Joe Williams, Lena Horne, and Etta James among them. Once the duo began to change the sound of American music with their ultra-cool, sophisticated pop-soul compositions, those songs were most frequently interpreted by African-Americans: The Shirelles, Jerry Butler, Lou Johnson, The Drifters, Aretha Franklin, and of course, Dionne Warwick. It’s no small feat to distill the best of Bacharach and David’s R&B recordings onto one disc, but Ace Records has proved up to the task with the release of Let The Music Play: Black America Sings Bacharach and David. This 24-track compilation follows similar releases for Lennon and McCartney, Bob Dylan, and Otis Redding, and draws from the halcyon period between 1962 and 1975. For much of that period, Bacharach and David’s songs were rarely far from the top of the pop and R&B charts. As per Ace’s custom, the set includes both the familiar hits and the lesser-known tracks that just might become future favorites.

Songwriter-producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were among the earliest professionals to champion Bacharach and David’s work. Both teams were integral to the sound of so-called “uptown soul” in which strings and Latin rhythms melded with gutbucket R&B to create some of the most indelible records ever made. Both of those elements are present on Leiber and Stoller’s production of Marv Johnson’s majestic 1963 recording of “Another Tear Falls,” one of B&D’s songs that fell short of hit status. Johnson passionately navigates its martial beat and darkly brooding orchestration, and Bacharach’s signature unexpected melodic shifts and rhythms are already in place. (Just listen to the song seemingly end around the 2 minute, 7 second mark, only to return with a coda – a device which Bacharach would revisit in the future.) Leiber and Stoller also produced a couple of other stunning tracks here, like Jerry Butler’s booming original recording of “Message to Martha” (later “Michael” in Dionne Warwick’s version) and The Drifters’ dramatic “In the Land of Make Believe.” With its nearly-operatic vocals and offbeat jazzy instrumental noodling, it’s one of the more unusual items in the Bacharach and David catalogue and all the more beguiling for it.

Thom Bell, along with his Mighty Three music partners Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, updated the “uptown soul” ethos for a new generation with The Sound of Philadelphia. Bell, who recently (and correctly) described his own music as “Bacharach-strange,” is represented on Black America Sings Bacharach and David with his 1968 production and arrangement of “Alfie” for The Delfonics. Bell delivered his ultimate homage to Bacharach with his reinvention of “You’ll Never Get to Heaven” for The Stylistics in 1972, but the lush, William Hart-led “Alfie” is no less classy. Bacharach’s influence on Philly soul is evident elsewhere, too. The Orlons made the most of a straightforward Richard Rome arrangement of “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” but it wasn’t enough to restore the “South Street” group to chart supremacy. Future “Hustle” man Van McCoy produced and arranged “Don’t Make Me Over” for Philly’s Brenda and the Tabulations, and also hewed closely to Bacharach’s original template.

Cissy Houston more radically overhauled her niece Dionne’s second hit, “This Empty Place,” in 1970. The funky arrangement takes liberties with Bacharach’s original time signatures but gives the powerfully-voiced Houston the opportunity to get down-and-dirty with her vocal. Aretha Franklin, like Houston a powerhouse vocalist, knew when to cut loose and when to play it cool on her hit 1968 recording of “I Say a Little Prayer.” Even the piano that opens Aretha’s “Prayer” is slinky and sexy. Bacharach has always been unduly harsh on his bright arrangement of the song for Dionne Warwick, but Aretha’s recording more vividly brought out its longing and passion. Bobby Womack and Isaac Hayes are expectedly and excitingly torrid on “(They Long to Be) Close to You” and “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself,” respectively. More restrained is Nina Simone’s detached, smoky reading of the sultry “The Look of Love” from 1967, one of the now-ubiquitous song’s first covers.

After the jump, we have plenty more for you, including the complete track listing with discography and order links! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

April 30, 2014 at 10:44

It’s a “Solid Gold” March From Real Gone with Grass Roots, David Ruffin, Marilyn McCoo, and More

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Grass Roots - ABC Dunhill SinglesWe all know that March comes in like a lion, so it’s altogether appropriate, then, that Real Gone Music comes into March with a roar!  The label’s March 4 slate of eight titles emphasizes classic soul, with detours to vintage pop and country.  And as Mardi Gras 2014 falls on that very date, the sound of New Orleans is celebrated with a few very special releases, too.  From New Orleans, Real Gone presents titles from three bona fide Big Easy legends: Dr. John, Professor Longhair and Irma Thomas.  Sweetening the deal, the soul queen of New Orleans’ release unearths no less than 13 unreleased tracks!  That Crescent City trio is joined by a rare, never-on-CD solo album from The 5th Dimension’s Marilyn McCoo and Real Gone’s first-ever dip into the Motown catalogue with four long out-of-print albums on two CDs from The Temptations’ David Ruffin.  The line-up is rounded out by a collection of gospel sides from country legend Charley Pride and the complete hit A-sides from a group we knew the label would discover “sooner or later” – The Grass Roots!

Hit the jump for all of the details courtesy Real Gone’s press release, plus pre-order links to all titles!  And don’t miss out on the eclectic roster coming from Real Gone this February 4…all of the details are right here! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

January 22, 2014 at 13:41