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Holiday Gift Guide Review: A Folk and Country Christmas with The Kingston Trio, The Brothers Four and the Statler Brothers

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Kingston Trio - Last MonthThe cover of The Kingston Trio’s 1960 Capitol release The Last Month of the Year depicts the three young folksingers in suits and ties, each loaded with a bundle of Christmas gifts. With a cover like that, one could be forgiven for having expected the group to deliver a jovial set of holiday favorites. Instead, The Trio created an album of rare beauty but considerable darkness. As such, it’s hardly your typical holiday fare but Real Gone Music’s reissue (RGM-0312) is a worthwhile inclusion on any Christmas music shelf.

Dave Guard, Bob Shane and Nick Reynolds graced The Last Month of the Year with some of their most intricate harmonies and complex musicianship on this delicate collection of twelve acoustic songs. Most were original compositions, though even some of the originals were based on traditional folk melodies. The opening track, Guard’s “Bye Bye Thou Little Tiny Child,” melodically takes its cue from the Coventry Carol but lyrically dramatizes King Herod’s decree to slay all infants under the age of two. Happily, the album could only go to lighter places from such a striking beginning. “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” the album’s most familiar standard, is interpreted in the style of The Weavers and features some rarely-heard lyrics. The spiritual “Go Where I Send Thee,” long a part of the Trio’s repertoire, gets an even more lively performance anchored by David “Buck” Wheat’s bass. “All Through the Night” and “Goodnight, My Baby” are both sweet lullabies inspired by Nick Reynolds having just become a new father at the time of the album’s recording. “Mary Mild” is a darker spin on childhood. Based on the English ballad “The Bitter Withy,” this tale of Jesus ends with a number of drowned children. Nobody could accuse The Kingston Trio of pulling any punches to craft a commercial record!

The album was built around a diverse set of influences. “Follow Now O Shepherds” had its roots in an ages-old Spanish carol; “Sing We Noel” harkened back to 15th century France. The ravishingly pretty “White Snows of Winter” adapted its melody from Brahms. “Sommerset Gloucestershire Wassail” was an adaptation of numerous English folk songs enhanced by the presence of the bouzouki. (The instrument, specially made for the Trio per the original liner notes, also adds colors to the upbeat “Sing We Noel.”) The album’s title track, passed on to the Trio from famed song collector Alan Lomax, asks children to remember, “What month was Jesus born in?” The answer, of course, was “The last month of the year!” You’ll remember The Last Month of the Year, too, via this fine reissue of a haunting and singular Christmas album. Tom Pickles provides copious new liner notes, and the original album artwork has also been retained.

Brothers Four - Merry ChristmasMerry Christmas from The Brothers Four (RGM-0308) is a folk album of a different stripe. With more of a pop slant than The Kingston Trio’s holiday effort, this 1966 LP featured a team of heavy hitters. Group members Bob Flick (baritone/upright bass/bass), John Paine (baritone/rhythm guitar), Dick Foley (lead tenor/guitar) and Mike Kirkland (tenor/guitar/banjo) were joined on this smooth holiday affair by orchestrator/conductor Peter Matz (known for his work with Barbra Streisand and countless others) and Miles Davis’ most frequent producer Teo Macero plus renowned Columbia engineer Frank Laico and vocal arranger (and John Denver collaborator) Milt Okun. Real Gone’s expanded and remastered reissue not only restores the album to print on CD (past CD issues have been commanding high prices) but adds four bonuses, two of which are previously unreleased.

After the jump: more on The Brothers Four, plus a two-for-one reissue from The Statler Brothers! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

December 15, 2014 at 13:20

Holiday Gift Guide Review: Frank Sinatra, “London”

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Sinatra - London Contents

It was ambitious, even for Sinatra.

His sixth studio album on his own Reprise label – and one of five full-length LPs released in 1962 alone – would be recorded in Great Britain with a British musical director, producer and personnel, and would feature only songs from British composers. For the quintessentially American singer, it must have been a formidable challenge. But Sinatra Sings Great Songs from Great Britain proved that The Voice was up to the task. Over time, it became a highly-regarded album in a considerable canon, and also a “lost” album as American release eluded it until the compact disc era. Now, a remastered and expanded Great Songs is at the heart of a new 3-CD/1-DVD box set from UMe and Frank Sinatra Enterprises under the new Signature Sinatra imprint. Sinatra: London follows 2006’s New York and 2009’s Vegas in celebrating a city near and dear to the late artist via his various performances there over the decades, in this case 1953-1984. The set premieres over 50 previously unreleased tracks on CD and DVD – both live and in the studio – and is a timely reminder on the eve of his 100th anniversary year of Sinatra’s enduring, universal power.

Arranger/conductor Robert Farnon, an accomplished composer of “light music” and a four-time Ivor Novello Award winner, wisely kept Sinatra’s voice front and center on this collection of rich ballads. His gentle a cappella tone opens the album with the title lyric of “The Very Thought of You,” kicking off an understated, dreamy collection. Recording at CTS Studios in Bayswater in June 1962, Farnon provided a lush setting for Sinatra on such classic British songs as Novello’s “We’ll Gather Lilacs,” “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” “We’ll Meet Again” (the wartime anthem so closely associated with Dame Vera Lynn) and Noel Coward’s “I’ll Follow My Secret Heart.” Two songs on the album, “London by Night” and “If I Had You,” marked the third time Sinatra had recorded them, in each case previously at both Columbia and Capitol Records, but Farnon’s orchestrations (as played by a 40-strong orchestra including Sinatra’s regular accompanist, Bill Miller) stand the test of time as the definitive ones.

There’s not a lot of ring-a-ding-ding on Great Songs, just a lot of impeccable singing despite Sinatra’s own belief that his voice was strained. Despite experiencing vocal stress, he used any roughness in his voice in service of the songs. Though Farnon’s evocative string arrangements are most prevalent throughout, the arranger evoked a smoky milieu with brass for “If I Had You,” the sweetly devotional lyrics of which Sinatra embodied with seeming effortlessness and a light swing. On “Now Is the Hour,” Sinatra tempered the sadness of the lyric with just the right note of hope; indeed, some of the vocalist’s most pure singing can be heard as he caresses “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” or conjures up the vivid, romantic imagery of “London by Night.” The London box adds the previously-released outtake “Roses of Picardy” – a haunting performance that would have fit comfortably on the original album – as well as brief but illuminating spoken introductions to each of the original ten songs by Sinatra from an October 21, 1962 BBC radio broadcast of the album.

Hit the jump for more! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

December 10, 2014 at 13:07

Holiday Gift Guide Review: The Monkees, “The Monkees: Super Deluxe Edition”

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Monkees SDEFor The Monkees, the third time’s the charm. The 1966 debut album from Davy, Micky, Peter and Mike has been expanded twice before on CD – first in 1994 on one CD and then in 2006 as a two-CD set. Rhino Handmade has recently unveiled the third and most comprehensive release of this album yet, and with 45 previously unreleased bonus cuts among its 100 songs, The Monkees: Super Deluxe Edition (R2-543027) is not just Monkee mania, but Monkee manna. The story of this American fab four has been told numerous times on CD, DVD and the printed page over the years, but producer Andrew Sandoval has unearthed plenty of new discoveries on this stellar set which, in a fun touch, is told in reverse chronological order on these three CDs: CD 3 has the pre-Monkees recordings of Jones and Nesmith, CD 2 has the album sessions, and CD 1 has the album as released and the television versions.

Though The Monkees didn’t organically come together as a band, they doubtlessly ended up as one – a triumphant rock-and-roll story. While The Monkees features Jones, Dolenz, Tork and Nesmith primarily as vocalists, the LP boasts songs written and produced by Nesmith, plus instrumental contributions from Tork. Producers Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, and entrepreneur/mastermind Don Kirshner, weren’t yet ready to hand over creative freedom to their charges, but they certainly surrounded The Monkees with the best. Boyce provided seven compositions – six with Bobby Hart and one with Steve Venet, including “(Theme from) The Monkees,” “I Wanna Be Free” and the No. 1 hit “Last Train to Clarksville.” The album also has tunes from Nesmith (“Papa Gene’s Blues”) David Gates (“Saturday’s Child”), Carole King and Gerry Goffin (“Take a Giant Step,” “Sweet Young Thing,” co-written with Nesmith) and Goffin and Russ Titelman (“I’ll Be True to You”). The cream of the crop from the L.A. Wrecking Crew brought their considerable skills to the album, too, including Glen Campbell, James Burton, Hal Blaine, Larry Knechtel, Jim Gordon, Al Casey and Mike Deasy. Upon its release, The Monkees spent 78 weeks on the Billboard chart – thirteen of those at No. 1. It’s still one hell of a record.

The Monkees is presented in mono and stereo on the first disc of this release, with twelve bonuses added including previously unissued mono television versions of many of the tunes, promo spots and jingles. The album successfully showed off The Monkees’ many facets but especially their facility for raw rock. “Saturday’s Child” is a charged, aggressive riff-rocker from future Bread frontman David Gates; country-rock and light psychedelia tinged a number of the songs like Nesmith’s stomping Goffin/King co-written “Sweet Young Thing,” and Boyce and Hart’s ironically rollicking “This Just Doesn’t Seem to Be My Day.” Even Goffin and King were modernizing their style, with Dolenz imploring listeners to “take a giant step outside your mind…” Of course, Tommy and Bobby synthesized their pop mastery with rock-and-roll urgency on the unforgettable Dolenz-sung chart-topper “Last Train to Clarksville.” Of his lead vocals, Davy Jones shone brightest with his tender reading of Boyce and Hart’s “I Wanna Be Free,” which tapped into the zeitgeist of the era with eloquence and emotion. (The “fast version” for TV, with Jones sharing the lead with Dolenz, premieres here in its mono mix. Fascinating though it is, especially with Michel Rubini’s burbling organ part, the producers clearly made the right choice in selecting the touching ballad version for the LP. Other takes of the “fast version” are included on Disc Two.) Even the least enduring songs on The Monkees – like the decent garage-rocker “Let’s Dance On” and the goofy “Gonna Buy Me a Dog” – have charm in abundance.

Hit the jump for more of The Monkees! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

December 9, 2014 at 14:11

Holiday Gift Guide Review: A Classic Christmas With Rosemary Clooney, Frank DeVol

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White Christmas - Clooney

Welcome to Part One of a two-part series exploring the recent line-up of Christmas releases from Real Gone Music!

1954’s White Christmas, quite simply, remains one of the most beloved holiday musicals to ever hit the silver screen. Built around the songbook of Irving Berlin – who lived to the age of 101 in 1989 but was already a Grand Old Man of American music by 1954 – the film starred Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye and Vera Ellen. Such a quartet promised an evening’s entertainment filled with song and dance, and the movie more than delivered. But what it couldn’t deliver was an accompanying soundtrack album.

Bing Crosby was a Decca recording artist and Rosemary Clooney was on Columbia. (This wasn’t the first time this particular problem plagued an Irving Berlin musical. The 1950 Broadway production of Call Me Madam starred Decca’s Ethel Merman. Yet due to RCA’s holding the rights to the cast album, that label’s Dinah Shore subbed for The Merm on record, leaving Ethel to record her own version of the score with Dick Haymes at Decca.) Crosby and Kaye appeared along with Trudy Stevens (dubbing dancer Vera Ellen) on the nominal soundtrack release, with Decca’s star Peggy Lee subbing for Clooney. As for Rosemary, she, like Merman before, was left to record a “studio” version of the score to her big hit musical. Clooney’s 8-song, 10-inch record has just been reissued and expanded by Real Gone Music (RGM-0309) in a wonderful new edition.

At Columbia, Clooney couldn’t exactly replicate the film’s performances. The full minstrel sequence required a large ensemble; songs like Crosby’s “What Can You Do with a General” and Kaye’s “Choreography” weren’t exactly extractable or particularly suitable for her talents. So on the album overseen by Mitch Miller, Clooney reprised her stunning “Love – You Didn’t Do Right by Me,” turned “Snow,” “Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army” and “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep” into solos, took over for Crosby on “White Christmas” and Kaye on “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing,” and extracted “Mandy” from the minstrel show. Notably, she also reprised “Sisters,” but with her own sister and onetime singing partner Betty Clooney happily filling in for Vera Ellen. The latter is one of the album’s undisputed highlights; if the album versions of “Snow” (a quartet in the film) and “Count Your Blessings” pale in comparison to the movie arrangements, the strength of Clooney’s vocals on these quintessential Berlin songs keeps them wholly enjoyable. Clooney was an innate jazz singer, a quality which would come to the fore in her later years. Her interpretive skills, pure tone and sly vocal wit elevated even the most absurd novelty material foisted on her by Miller; matched with Irving Berlin, the results could hardly be less than delightful. Rosemary Clooney in Songs from the Paramount Pictures Production of White Christmas, as the full title goes, isn’t a true “Christmas album,” but it’s certainly right for the season – or any other.

After the jump: more on White Christmas, plus a look at a rare title from Frank DeVol and the Rainbow Strings! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

December 9, 2014 at 11:48

Holiday Gift Guide Review: “The Classic Christmas Album” Series

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JMCCJohnny Mathis. Frank Sinatra. Perry Como. Steve Vai? Menudo? When it comes to Christmas music, Legacy Recordings doesn’t pull its punches. The label’s series of Classic Christmas Album releases has become a bit of an annual tradition, and this year’s batch of single- and various-artist anthologies once again draws on names both expected and unexpected. While the packages are bare-bones, with no liner notes (but happily with full credits and discographical annotation), the music most certainly is not.

Johnny Mathis recorded his first Christmas album in 1958 and his most recent in 2013; it’s no wonder that the eternally silky vocalist has become one of the artists most associated with the holiday music genre. Hot on the heels of Legacy’s Complete Global Albums Collection for Mathis – which itself features one new-to-CD Christmas album from the artist, 1963’s The Sounds of Christmas – producers Didier C. Deutsch and Jeff James have gone the extra mile for Mathis’ Classic Christmas Album. Two previously unissued tracks make their first appearances anywhere, both from a September 1961 session with Percy Faith’s orchestra – Harold Adamson and Jimmy McHugh’s jovial “Ol’ Kris Kringle” and “Give Me Your Love for Christmas,” from the same session. The latter is the title of Mathis’ 1969 Christmas album, named for a Jack Gold/Phyllis Stohn song. The pair is credited here, but this newly-discovered ballad is wholly different from the more pop-flavored 1969 track. Two single sides arranged and conducted by the great Gene Page in 1979 make their first appearance on CD here – “Christmas in the City of the Angels” b/w “The Very First Christmas Day.” 1970’s surprisingly funky, socially-conscious “Sign of the Dove,” the B-side to the lilting “Christmas Is” (also included here), is another new-to-CD track. These rare treats are joined by highlights such as Mathis’ 2006 duet with Bette Midler of “Winter Wonderland/Let It Snow,” his incomparable 1958 rendition of “Sleigh Ride,” and 2013’s “Home for the Holidays.” Maria Triana has beautifully remastered all tracks.

FrankFrank Sinatra’s Classic Christmas Album also finds room for rarities. This set features 14 holiday favorites from Young Blue Eyes’ Columbia Records period, long before he was “The Chairman of the Board.” At Columbia, Sinatra was, simply, “The Voice” – the voice which inspired bobbysoxers to riot and listeners everywhere to swoon. In sharp contrast to his later, swingin’ period (which is foreshadowed by tracks here like “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” from 1948 and 1950, respectively), the tone here is largely reverential. This collection, which has the entirety of the 1948 10-inch LP Christmas Songs by Sinatra, also offers two spirituals featuring The Charioteers first issued on a 1947 single (“Jesus is a Rock (In a Weary Land)” and “I’ve Got a Home in That Rock”); both are somewhat unusual fare for a holiday album.  You’ll hear pure recordings from The Voice on “Silent Night,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” and “Adeste Fideles.” Sinatra is equally affecting and bittersweet on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which like most of these tracks was arranged and conducted by his first great collaborator, Axel Stordahl. Two previously unissued performances round out this fine compilation: a loose take of Frank Loesser’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with soprano Dorothy Kirsten and an alternate version of Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne’s “Let It Snow!” with the Page Cavanaugh Trio. This alternate is radically different than the 1950 version as it takes the song as a soft ballad rather than as a big-band swinger. Sinatra performed “Baby” with Kirsten on 1949’s Light Up Time radio program; it’s a real treat as the song wasn’t subsequently recorded in the studio by Sinatra. “Let It Snow” with Cavanaugh dates to 1946’s Songs by Sinatra show. Sound is top-notch courtesy of Maria Triana’s remastering.

After the jump: a look at Perry Como, Barbra Streisand and more! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

December 5, 2014 at 11:14

Holiday Gift Guide Review: Todd Rundgren, “At The BBC 1972-1982”

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Todd at BBCChristmas has come early for Todd Rundgren fans this year with the release by Cherry Red’s Esoteric Recordings imprint of Todd Rundgren at the BBC: 1972-1982, a handsome new 3-CD/1-DVD box set of live performances drawn from Rundgren’s first decade of rock stardom. The latest release in Esoteric’s Todd Rundgren Archive Series, At the BBC captures the transformation of the ever-evolving artist from precocious pop chameleon to prog-rock adventurer and beyond.

1972’s sprawling Something/Anything announced Rundgren as an artist with whom to be reckoned, following the more modest solo releases Runt and Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren. On the heels of the U.K. single success of “I Saw the Light,” Rundgren made a trip to Britain and the BBC for Radio One’s In Concert program in July 1972. His half-hour performance kicks off this set, and it’s a fascinating document. Of its six songs, five were from Something/Anything. Three were played solo by Rundgren at the piano (the aching ballads “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference” and “Be Nice to Me” plus the dry blues spoof “Piss Aaron”) and three more with Rundgren accompanying himself to unique, pre-recorded backing tracks for which he supplied all instrumentation and backing vocals (the pure pop hits “I Saw the Light” and “Hello, It’s Me,” and the searing “Black Maria”). The stripped-down “Hello It’s Me” harkens back to the original Nazz ballad version of the song, with the backing vocals subtly enhancing what’s essentially a solo voice-and-piano rendition. The half-hour format also allowed for a liberal amount of banter, including Todd self-deprecatingly dismissing the beautifully vulnerable “Be Nice to Me” as a “simpering” song, or explaining the concept of meat loaf to his U.K. audience during “Piss Aaron.” No, not Meat Loaf, as in the rocker for whom Rundgren would produce the smash Bat Out of Hell, but meat loaf, the food!

While Rundgren’s 1972 appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test has not survived, At the BBC happily continues with two October 1975 songs performed for Whistle Test. Rundgren is joined by Utopia – then consisting of Roger Powell on keyboards, John Siegler on bass and Willie Wilcox on drums – for the blue-eyed soul of “Real Man” and the extended prog rock-soul jam “The Seven Rays.” On those songs, Utopia welcomed backing vocalists Luther Vandross and Anthony Hinton, and the pair also appeared with the band for an October 9, 1975 Hammersmith Odeon concert broadcast by Radio One. That show, featured on the box set’s second disc, was previously released on CD by Shout! Factory in 2012, but here adds Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s pulsating West Side Story standard “Something’s Coming” which was unfortunately cut from the previous release.

The Hammerstein Odeon set closely resembled that of the concert released by Utopia as Another Live, which was recorded just a couple of months earlier with the six-piece line-up of Rundgren, Powell, Wilcox, Siegler, Moogy Klingman and Ralph Schuckett. Both concerts saw “The Wheel,” “Heavy Metal Kids,” Roger Powell’s “Mister Triscuits” and Jeff Lynne’s “Do Ya” all performed. Hammersmith Odeon, interestingly, offers both “Do Ya” and the Rundgren original “Open My Eyes,” first recorded by The Nazz. It’s been said that Rundgren covered “Do Ya” as a response to Lynne’s pre-ELO band The Move covering his “Open My Eyes.” The Hammersmith set deftly balanced Rundgren’s rock and pop sides, and also took in songs from select solo albums, including “When the Sh*t Hits the Fan/Sunset Boulevard/Le Feel Internacionale” (A Wizard, A True Star), “The Last Ride” and “Sons of 1984” (Todd, also original home of “Heavy Metal Kids”) and “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” (Something/Anything). “Freedom Fighters” originated on the 1974 Todd Rundgren’s Utopia album and “The Wheel” on Another Live.

Hit the jump for more, including the full track listing and order links! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

December 2, 2014 at 11:54

Better Be Fierce: Real Gone Reissues Two From Ronnie Dyson On “Phase 2/Brand New Day”

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Ronnie Dyson - Brand New and PhaseIn the annals of underrated R&B vocalists, Ronnie Dyson (1950-1990) was among the greatest. A versatile singer equally comfortable with smooth soul, pure pop and showbiz pizzazz, Dyson left behind a small but rich catalogue for the Columbia and Cotillion labels. With the recent release of Phase 2 and Brand New Day from 1982 and 1983, respectively, Real Gone Music and SoulMusic Records have filled in two of the major holes in Dyson’s CD discography (RGM-0294). With the release of this stellar two-on-one disc, 1979’s If the Shoe Fits remains the late soul man’s lone album not yet on CD. (Dyson’s first and highest-charting album, 1970’s (If You Let Me Make Love to You Then) Why Can’t I Touch You?, will be included on SoulMusic’s Lady in Red: The Columbia Sides, Plus, now available from Cherry Red.  Watch for our full report soon.)

Ronnie Dyson was already a seasoned performer before he turned 20 years old; at the age of 18, he was selected to lead the company of Broadway’s groundbreaking Hair in introducing the future standard “Aquarius.” The Washington, DC-born actor/singer soon turned his attention to recording, scoring a Top 10 hit with a song from another rock musical (“(If You Let Me Make Love to You) Then Why Can’t I Touch You” from 1969’s Salvation) and inking a deal with Columbia Records. In 1973, Columbia sent Dyson to Philadelphia to work with Thom Bell in the hopes that Bell’s lush productions would prove a match with Dyson’s silky-smooth yet powerful falsetto vocals. Bell composed and produced a number of sides for the album that became One Man Band, and the LP was rounded out with remixed versions of past recordings including Barry Mann’s “When You Get Right Down to It” from 1971. Among Bell and lyricist Linda Creed’s contributions to One Man Band were the irresistible title track (No. 28 Pop, No. 15 R&B) and the wistful “I Think I’ll Tell Her,”) both as strongly melodic and lyrically memorable as the team’s best for the Stylistics and the Spinners. Thanks to the Bell/Creed productions, One Man Band remains one of the most criminally unknown albums in the R&B canon.

One of the Bell-produced tracks was written by the team of Bobby Eli, Vinnie Barrett and John Freeman. “Just Don’t Want to Be Lonely” earned Dyson a No. 60 Pop/No. 29 R&B hit, and years later, Dyson turned to Eli for the production of his Cotillion debut album, appropriately entitled Phase 2. Guitarist-arranger Eli, of course, was a member of MFSB, the veteran crew of Sigma Sound house musicians so frequently utilized by Bell for his majestic productions. In addition to his dynamic session work for Philadelphia International, Salsoul and other labels, Eli had also come into his own a producer for such artists as Atlantic Starr and Keith Barrow. Recording at studios in New York and Philly and splitting the arrangement chores with fellow Philly veteran Richie Rome, Eli crafted a set for Dyson that subtly updated his sound for a new decade.

On Phase 2 as well as its follow-up LP included on this disc, Dyson’s voice is a bit rougher around the edges than on his earlier Columbia recordings, but it’s still a recognizable and powerful instrument. The brassy uptempo dancer “Bring It on Home,” written by Eltesa Weatherby, Frank Fuchs and Gavin Spencer, opens Phase 2. It adds a 1980s production sheen to the classic Philly soul formula; its opening drum pattern echoes that of The Spinners’ “One a Kind Love Affair,” and elsewhere Don Renaldo’s Horns and Strings swing as female backing vocalists coo sensually. A similar sound with then-modern keyboard flourishes and big drums is achieved on a contemporary makeover of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Soul Survivors oldie “Expressway to Your Heart.”

Dyson was always comfortable with ballads, and Eli – co-writer of Blue Magic’s stunning “Side Show,” among other songs – naturally knew his way around softer material. Eban Kelly and Charles Williams’ “Heart to Heart” is a slickly insinuating mid-tempo groove, and Dyson pleads with intensity on Samm Culley’s “Say You Will.” He conjures similar vocal fire on Allee Willis and Patrick Henderson’s “Now” and keeps things smooth and romantic on the album’s closing track, Timothy Wright’s “I Found Someone.”

After the jump: more on Phase 2, plus a look at Brand New Day! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

November 25, 2014 at 13:38

Posted in News, Reissues, Reviews, Ronnie Dyson

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Holiday Gift Guide Review: Johnny Mathis, “The Complete Global Albums Collection”

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Mathis - Global Box Set

In two short years, Johnny Mathis will likely celebrate his 60th anniversary with Columbia Records, a towering achievement by any standard. But even the strongest marriages must sometimes weather separations, as was the case when the vocalist jumped ship to rival Mercury Records for the period between 1963 and 1967. At Mercury, Mathis formed Global Productions to administer his master recordings, and recorded some eleven albums (only ten of which were originally released) under its aegis. Upon his return to Columbia, a select few of Mathis’ Mercury recordings were reintroduced to the catalogue; the others remained dormant. A 2-CD set, The Global Masters, arrived in 1997 as an overview of this period, and in 2012, Real Gone Music finally reissued the ten original albums, and the eleventh shelved album, in full. Now, Legacy Recordings has released The Complete Global Albums Collection with all eleven LPs plus two more discs of bonus material, more than half of which has never previously seen the light of day. Within the compact, nondescript package, the box set contains some of the most beguiling music ever recorded by the velvet-voiced singer. And as the 1963-1967 period birthed some of the most seismic shifts in popular music, the box also traces the evolution of the Mathis style as he transitioned from Broadway and Hollywood standards to contemporary pop without sacrificing his rich, warm vibrato or the manner in which he caressed a lyric.

At Mercury, Mathis didn’t veer too far from the richly romantic ballad style that made him famous. He made the decision to self-produce a number of his albums, modestly reflecting in his specially-penned liner notes that “I tried to do what I could, but I had no idea what would be good for the market.” Crucially, though, he enlisted a number of the arrangers with whom he had worked at Columbia, including Don Costa and Glenn Osser.

Costa helmed Mathis’ Mercury debut, 1963’s The Sounds of Christmas, which is only now premiering on CD as part of this set in its original format. Columbia’s past LP and CD reissues retitled the album Christmas with Johnny Mathis and dropped two songs (“The Little Drummer Boy” and “Have Reindeer, Will Travel”). Both are happily reinstated here. The collaboration between singer Mathis, arranger Osser and producer Costa resulted in one of Mathis’ strongest and most diverse holiday sets – with spiritual songs, Tin Pan Alley favorites and novelties all represented.

Most of Mathis’ earliest Mercury albums concentrated on Broadway and Hollywood repertoire, exquisitely sung and lushly arranged, from songwriters of the past and present: Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen (“Call Me Irresponsible”) Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart (“A Ship Without a Sail”), Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe (“Camelot”), Charles Strouse and Lee Adams (“Put on a Happy Face”). Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin (“Long Ago and Far Away”) and Jay Livingston and Ray Evans (“Never Let Me Go”) among them. The smart and sophisticated songs of Bart Howard also made a striking impression on these albums. Mathis championed his friend by recording such compositions as “Forget Me Not,” “Sky Full of Rainbows,” “What Do You Feel in Your Heart,” “Fantastic,” “Tomorrow Song,” “A Thousand Blue Bubbles.”

The most radical long-player of The Global Albums is 1964’s adventurous Olé, arranged by Allyn Ferguson. On this true departure of a record, Mathis performed a number of Latin American songs in their original language. These weren’t just much-covered songs from the bossa nova boom (although he did record Luis Bonfá’s “Manha de Carneval”) but also light classical pieces from the likes of Heitor Villa-Lobos and even Desi Arnaz’ signature “Babalu.”

Keep reading after the jump!

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Written by Joe Marchese

November 17, 2014 at 09:45

Review: The Shirelles, “Happy and in Love/Shirelles”

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Shirelles - Two-Fer

It’s an early “Happy New Year” from Real Gone Music, as the label has just announced its January 6 slate! Look for a full rundown soon on a super slate featuring two classic RCA albums from The Main Ingredient, the complete Atlantic recordings of Jackie Moore (Sweet Charlie Babe), a hilarious (and need we say profane?) comedy classic from Redd Foxx, a vintage 1981 Grateful Dead concert, and two soundtracks from the films of auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky! Full details are coming up, but we’re first taking a look at a recent release from The Shirelles!

The first major female group of the rock and roll era, The Shirelles claimed the first girl group No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Discovered in New Jersey by Florence Greenberg’s daughter Mary Jane, the group laid the cornerstone for Greenberg’s Scepter Records family of labels – later home to Dionne Warwick, B.J. Thomas, Chuck Jackson, Maxine Brown, Ronnie Milsap and The Kingsmen – and paved the way for the Motown revolution with their blend of uptown soul, pop, and street corner harmonies. This potent combination, of course, found the quartet – Shirley Alston, Beverly Lee, Doris Coley (Kenner) and Addie (Micki) Harris – “crossing over” to the predominantly white audience and quietly breaking down barriers of gender and race with an intoxicating series of pop songs from some of the greatest songwriters of all time. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Baby It’s You,” “Soldier Boy” and “Foolish Little Girl” were just a few of the triumphs of The Shirelles. But the times they were a-changin’, and the group’s lawsuit against Greenberg over allegedly unpaid royalties led them to be considered persona non grata around Scepter. With Doris Kenner’s departure in 1966, The Shirelles were a trio, and in 1968, the label dropped them altogether. Further singles followed for Blue Rock, Bell and United Artists before their signing to the venerable RCA label in 1971 for a pair of albums which have just received their first-ever reissues from Real Gone Music and SoulMusic Records on one CD: Happy and in Love and Shirelles.

Happy and in Love aimed for a modern R&B sound and appropriately upped the funk quotient from the girls’ earlier singles. Perhaps it wasn’t a radical enough reinvention to have succeeded in a major way, but Happy, like its follow-up Shirelles, makes for a completely enjoyable listen in this sterling two-for-one package. Producer Randy Irwin assembled the album with tracks culled from Bell and United Artists as well as new recordings. The album’s sole single was “No Sugar Tonight,” a loose and brassy reworking of The Guess Who’s hit single (likely not coincidentally also on RCA). It was backed by a song from The Ice Man, Jerry Butler, written and recorded during his Philadelphia days. “Strange, I Still Love You,” co-written by MFSB member and ace producer-arranger Norman Harris, was swathed in luxuriant strings by arranger George Andrews for The Shirelles; it’s one of the strongest cuts on the LP.

There are other Philly connections on Happy and in Love. A second Jerry Butler song was tackled via the dramatic “Go Away and Find Yourself,” a former Bell Records release co-written with the legendary Kenny Gamble. “Boy You’re Too Young” was written by Gamble with Thom Bell and Archie Bell (no relation to each other or the label!) and has that familiar Philly-soul swing. More urgent is “There’s Nothing in This World,” with strings vying for supremacy with drums, and the Motown/Stax meld of Jr. Walker’s “Gotta Hold On to This Feeling” with Eddie Floyd’s “I’ve Never Found a Boy” (or a “Girl,” in Floyd’s original.)

After the jump: more on Happy and in Love, plus Shirelles!

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Written by Joe Marchese

November 11, 2014 at 11:25

Posted in News, Reissues, Reviews, The Shirelles

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Review: John Denver, “All of My Memories: The John Denver Collection”

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John Denver - All of My Memories“Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy,” goes one of John Denver’s most well-known songs. In a little over five minutes – and even less in its single version – “Sunshine” touches on many of the themes most important to the singer-songwriter: nature, love, beauty. Throughout the course of a career sadly cut short when he perished in a plane crash in 1997 aged just 53, Denver revisited these themes over and over again, using his pure, crystalline tone to bring comfort and spread a message of peace. With his boyish good looks, gentle voice and enthusiasm for music and nature, he was one of the preeminent pop voices of the 1970s, incorporating folk and country influences into his popular material. Legacy Recordings and Denver’s longtime label, RCA, have recently celebrated his enduring gifts of song with the release of a new box set, All of My Memories: The John Denver Collection. This 4-CD, 90-track box set revises and expands upon Denver’s last retrospective box, 1997’s The Country Roads Collection. Whereas that set was limited to the troubadour’s RCA years, this box also takes in the earliest part of his career and his post-RCA recordings for labels including Sony, Windstar and MCA.

Two-time Grammy winner Denver charted more than 40 Billboard Hot 100, AC and Country songs from 1971 to 1988, and this box set naturally features a number of them, most notably his twangy sing-along breakthrough “Take Me Home, Country Roads” (No. 2 Pop/No. 3 AC/No. 50 Country, 1971), the sweet “Sunshine on My Shoulders” (No. 1 Pop/No. 1 AC/No. 42 Country, 1974), the euphoric “Rocky Mountain High” (No. 9 Pop/No. 3 AC, 1972), the joyful “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” (No. 1 Pop/No. 5 AC/No. 1 Country, 1975) and the lush, sensual ode to his then-wife, “Annie’s Song” (No. 1 Pop/No. 1 AC/No. 9 Country, 1974). Many of Denver’s own compositions are, naturally, featured alongside tracks composed by Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert (who co-wrote “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and “I Guess He’d Rather Be In Colorado”), Buddy Holly (“Everyday”), John Prine (“Blow Up Your TV (Spanish Pipe Dream)”), Joe Henry, and others. This career overview also takes in key album tracks, live performances, and rarities including promotional-only and privately-pressed tracks. In addition, six songs make their first appearances anywhere on this set. Typical for a collection of this nature, the lesser-known material is the most fascinating.

Somewhat startlingly, Denver’s familiar, warm voice is instantly recognizable and his style almost fully-formed on Disc One’s first two tracks. Both are previously unissued demos from an October 1964 Capitol session produced by The New Christy Minstrels’ founder, Randy Sparks. “This Road,” from Sparks’ own pen, and Morgan Ames’ “Far Side of the Hill,” are lushly orchestrated with strings and background singers in the popular folk-pop style of the day, but Denver effortlessly sails above the ornamentation with a confident vibrato and earnest delivery. (The arrangements were by “Our Day Will Come” composer Mort Garson.) These qualities would serve him well down his own road – a road that Sparks helped set him on when he insisted that the young artist change his name from Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr.! John took his new moniker both from his favorite state and from The New Christy Minstrels’ “Denver,” the first single from the singing group’s second album!  The box also has highlights from his tenure with The Chad Mitchell Trio.

The original, previously unissued version of “Rhymes and Reasons” is included here as recorded for Reprise Records in 1968. It was later re-recorded for Denver’s RCA debut later that year with the same producer – Milton Okun, with whom Denver would forge a strong bond and association that would last for years. The Reprise version lacks the prominent piano part of the RCA version and has a different sonic character. It’s not radically dissimilar, but sheds light on Denver’s developing style. (A couple of other rare tracks come from Denver’s Reprise period – both sides of Denver, Boise and Johnson’s 1968 single featuring the rollicking political novelty “The ’68 Nixon (This Year’s Model)” and the folk-rock of “Take Me to Tomorrow.”)

There’s plenty more after the jump!

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Written by Joe Marchese

November 7, 2014 at 10:59

Posted in Box Sets, Compilations, John Denver, News, Reviews

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