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All The Way To Paradise: BBR Revisits Stephanie Mills, Burt Bacharach, Hal David’s Motown Gem “For The First Time”

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Stephanie Mills For the First TimeFollowing the commercial failure of the big-budget 1973 movie musical Lost Horizon, Burt Bacharach retreated. Tension over the film had led to a split with his longtime songwriting partner Hal David, and their split had in turn led to a breakup of their “triangle marriage” with singer Dionne Warwick. Lawsuits ensued. Only one new Bacharach song emerged in 1974, Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Seconds,” co-written with playwright Neil Simon for a proposed movie version of the 1968 Bacharach/David/Simon Broadway musical Promises, Promises. A ’74 reunion session with Warwick – in which she sang another new Promises song co-written with Simon and two lyrics by Bobby Russell – was abruptly shelved despite the quality of the material.  (The Warwick session finally saw release in 2013 from Real Gone Music.)  So was another session, also with Russell lyrics, for Glen Campbell. The once-prolific composer was similarly quiet on the recording front in the first months of 1975, only issuing a couple of random songs from the Russell collaboration, one with Tom Jones and one with Bobby Vinton.

That all changed, however, in autumn of 1975 with the release of Stephanie Mills’ For the First Time, a Motown LP written and produced by the team of Bacharach and David. What brought the team together after two years of acrimony? How did they end up at Motown? Was Bacharach actually involved in the day-to-day recording and production of the album? Before those questions were ever answered, For the First Time disappeared without a trace. The reunion was sadly short-lived; another new Bacharach/David song wouldn’t be heard by the public until 1993. But the music stays, as always – and it speaks volumes. Big Break Records has just reissued For the First Time paired with Mills’ 1982 Love Has Lifted Me, an album of Motown outtakes. This splendid release, part of BBR’s month of Motown reissues,  is the first remastered edition of For the First Time since the early days of CD.

For the First Time was Stephanie Mills’ Motown debut, following the teenaged Wiz star’s LP debut on ABC Records in 1974 with Movin’ in the Right Direction. Following its disappointing sales, she didn’t record another album until 1979, when What Cha’ Gonna Do with My Lovin’ solidified her place in the pop and R&B realms. Happily, this new edition allows the song cycle – featuring ten Bacharach/David songs, eight of which were newly-written and six of which would never be recorded by any other artist, to date – to take its rightful place in the pantheon of Stephanie Mills and of its renowned writer-producers.

Though Stephanie Mills at eighteen was roughly five years younger than Dionne Warwick was when Bacharach and David helmed her 1963 debut Presenting Dionne Warwick, the team didn’t make many concessions to her youthful age in crafting a set of immaculate, adult pop-soul narratives. The first sound you hear on the LP is an atypically searing guitar introducing “I Took My Strength from You (I Had None).” This deeply soulful ballad is graced with subtle orchestration and the slightest hint of blues, and gilded with one of Bacharach’s signature instruments – the tack piano – to create a sound unlike on any other record in 1975. Mills brings a sense of control to the deliberate verses, contrasting them with sheer exultancy in the chorus. The singer’s sense of joy in discovering the source of her strength and support is palpable.  (Disco star Sylvester made his own mark on the song in 1978.)

Lyricist David called on Mills’ theatrical gifts – which had been on display in Broadway musicals including Maggie Flynn, starring Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy, and The Wiz – to bring to life some of his most multi-layered lyrics. “No One Remembers My Name” epitomizes the mature themes contained on the album. The singer is a success who “really made my dreams come true,” and then returns home only to sadly find that “there’s no one to tell it to” in her hometown: “The people I once knew don’t seem to live here anymore/I feel like a stranger outside the house where I was born…” It’s one of David’s many ruminations on the fleeting nature of fame (most famously, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose”) and a sequel of sorts to the Bacharach/David “Send My Picture to Scranton, PA,” in which BJ Thomas’ narrator imagines writing to the people who taunted him in his youth, not to throw his fame at them but because with his success, “maybe now they’ll give kids a helping hand! That’s how it really ought to be, not like the way it was with me…” But the song is also, perhaps moreover, a universal reflection on the theme that you can’t go home again. Mills acquits herself beautifully as a precocious singer with a wisdom and interpretive skill beyond her young years. Much of her style on this song recalls the vocal influence of Diana Ross; now just imagine how heartbreaking it would have been to hear Miss Ross admit, “The past is just a memory/I belong where people smile back at me/They know me and show me they care/That’s why I’m so happy there/They all remember my name…” The singer of the song is most comfortable living in the past, despite the supposed trappings of fame and fortune. It was heady stuff for a pop song sung by an eighteen year-old in 1975.

“There goes the greyhound/I guess I missed the bus again,” sighs Mills in another excitingly complex tune, “Living on Plastic.” The singer explains her philosophy – “living on plastic: living now, and paying later!” David’s lyric is sufficiently empathetic to her situation, but the dramatically twisting-and-turning, thumping melody gives the lie to her sunny outlook as it contrasts pensive verses to a desperate, driving chorus. Despite her repeatedly-stated faith that she’ll “get by,” we’re not so sure. Bacharach adroitly incorporates a dash of funk into his arrangement, sung deliciously by Mills.

Don’t miss a thing; hit the jump for more! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

October 1, 2014 at 10:28

Ring Their Bells: Anita Ward, Stephanie Mills, Fern Kinney, Donna Washington Reissued

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Anita Ward - Songs of LoveIn recent days, we’ve turned the spotlight on a quartet of classic soul reissues, two each from Big Break Records (Arthur Prysock’s All My Life and Caston and Majors’ self-titled Motown album) and SoulMusic Records (Nancy Wilson’s Can’t Take My Eyes Off You/Now I’m a Woman and Jerry Butler’s Love’s on the Menu/Suite for the Single Girl).  But those are hardly the only recent releases from these two imprints of the Cherry Red Group.

Big Break has offered two titles, both from 1979 and both with ties to legendary southern soul incubator Malaco Records and Florida’s TK Records.  Anita Ward became an overnight sensation thanks to the success of her debut LP, Songs of Love.  The No. 8 Pop/No. 2 R&B smash yielded the all-time disco classic “Ring My Bell,” written by Frederick Knight (“I’ve Been Lonely for So Long”).  Cut at Jackson, Mississippi’s Malaco Studios and released on Knight’s Juana label – part of Henry Stone’s T.K. Records family – “Ring My Bell” ascended Ward to the pantheon of so-called “one hit wonders.” But Songs of Love offers so much more, with an emphasis not on disco floor-fillers but rather on the beguiling ballads that make the title so apropos.  Ward’s Deniece Williams-like vocal instrument shines on this set produced by Knight and with songwriting contributions from the great Sam Dees.  Single versions of “Ring My Bell” and “Make Believe Lovers” have been appended.

Fern Kinney’s Groove Me wasn’t only recorded at Malaco, but was also first issued on the Malaco label.  Jackson native Kinney scored a No. 54 Pop/No. 26 R&B/No. 6 Disco hit with the title track, a disco update of King Floyd’s 1971 funky admonition.  Like Anita Ward, Fern Kinney was an unfortunate victim of the disco backlash as the 1970s made way for the 1980s, but Groove Me has aged well.  “Together We Are Beautiful,” the U.S. B-side to another King Floyd cover (“Baby Let Me Kiss You”) was a U.K. A-Side, and even hit pole position there.  The diverse album sequence also includes a revival of the smoldering Sylvia Robinson hit “Pillow Talk” and the nearly-country style “Sun, Moon and Rain.”  (Kinney had actually worked with Nashville’s legendary producer Billy Sherrill while a member of The Poppies.)  A generous seven bonus tracks have been added to BBR’s reissue, including duets with Frederick Knight on Paul Davis’ “Sweet Life” and Knight’s own “Tonight’s the Night.”

Both BBR titles have been remastered by Nick Robbins and include new liner notes from J. Matthew Cobb.  Hit the jump to check out two more vintage releases from the SoulMusic label! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

April 22, 2013 at 12:58

Release Round-Up: Week of April 2

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Alexander O'Neal vinylThe S.O.S. Band / Cherrelle / Alexander O’Neal, “Tabu Reborn” Vinyl Editions (Wave 1) (Tabu/Edsel)

The start of a lengthy reissue campaign from Demon Music Group, these are 180-gram vinyl reissues of The S.O.S. Band’s III (1982), Cherrelle’s 1984 debut Fragile, and Alexander O’Neal’s self-titled debut from 1985. Expanded editions of these albums come out on CD next week, followed by a great many more waves of product throughout 2013 and into 2014!

S.O.S. Band: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.
Cherrelle: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.
Alexander O’Neal: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.

Martha and The Vandellas Singles CollectionThe Four Tops / Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, 50th Anniversary: The Singles Collections (Hip-O Select/Motown)

Two new lavish sets collect all the single sides worldwide by two of Motown’s most underrated vocal groups – and in the case of Martha & The Vandellas, there’s a bonus disc of unreleased “lost and found” content to enjoy, too!

Four Tops: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.
Martha Reeves & The Vandellas: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.

Mad Season - AboveMad Season, Above: Deluxe Edition (Columbia/Legacy)

This short-lived grunge supergroup, featuring Alice in Chains frontman Layne Staley and members of Pearl Jam and Screaming Trees, only put out one record, but it’s been expanded as a 2CD/1DVD set featuring unreleased tracks (with vocals by Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan) and live audiovisual content. (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

Born Under a Bad SignAlbert King, Born Under a Bad Sign: Expanded Edition (Stax/Concord)

One of the Memphis’ label’s most celebrated blues albums is remastered and expanded with five unreleased alternate takes! (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

David Gates - Early YearsDavid Gates, The Early Years: The Early Songwriting Genius of David Gates (Rare Rockin’)

Before leading Bread, Gates was a talented singer-songwriter whose early works were covered by a myriad of vocalists – many of which are making their CD debuts on this compilation. (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

Simple Minds CelebrateSimple Minds, Celebrate: The Greatest Hits (Virgin/EMI)

As the ’80s hitmakers embark on a new tour, this new hits compilation – available in double and triple-disc variants – was made available in the U.K. last week. (A U.S. release is reportedly slated for later this spring.)

2CD: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.
3CD: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.

RKivesRilo Kiley, RKives (Little Record Company)

A collection of rare and unreleased material from the now-defunct L.A. band.

Margaret Whiting - Wheel of HurtChet Atkins with The Boston Pops, The Pops Goes Country/The Pops Goes West / The Grateful Dead, Dick’s Picks Vol. 24: Cow Palace, Daly City, CA – 3/23/1974 / Tom Jans, Take Heart/Tom Jans / Barbara & Ernie, Prelude To… / Steve Lawrence, Winners!/On a Clear Day / Don Nix, Living by the Days / Eydie Gorme & The Trio Los Panchos, Amor/More Amor / Margaret Whiting, The Wheel of Hurt: Deluxe Edition Maggie Isn’t Margaret Anymore/Pop Country / Alfred Newman, The Diary of Anne Frank: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

The latest wares from Real Gone: plenty of two-fers, a rare Alfred Newman soundtrack, a new Dead reissue and expanded works from country-pop singer Margaret Whiting.

CD: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.
LP: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.

Mills MercilessJerry Butler, Love’s on the Mend/Suite for the Single Girl / Stephanie Mills, Merciless: Expanded Edition / Donna Washington, Going for the Glow: Expanded Edition / Nancy Wilson, Can’t Take My Eyes Off You/Now I’m a Woman (SoulMusic)

A slew of great titles from SoulMusic are out this week, including a Stephanie Mills album produced by the late Phil Ramone. Check out the above post for details.

Jerry Butler: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.
Stephanie Mills: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.
Donna Washington: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.
Nancy Wilson: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.

Anita WardCaston and Majors, Caston and Majors / Fern Kinney, Groove Me / Arthur Prysock, All My Life / Anita Ward, Songs of Love (Big Break)

And the latest expanded titles from Big Break include some Motown and T.K. rarities, including Anita Ward’s megahit “Ring My Bell.”

Caston and Majors: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.
Fern Kinney: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.
Arthur Prysock: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.
Anita Ward: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.

Judy Garland CreationsJudy Garland, Creations 1929-1962 (JSP)

A four-disc U.K.-only compilation of “the songs that Judy Garland sang first.” (Amazon U.K.)  U.S. customers may order at CD Universe or Collectors’ Choice Music for April 9 release.

eagles_boxEagles, The Studio Albums 1972-1979 (Elektra/Rhino)

Every one of the California hitmakers’ original studio albums, in a handy slipcase. (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ On But Vintage R&B: Expanded Reissues Arrive From Payne, Mills, Guthrie

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Freda Payne - Supernatural High

A recent trio of releases from Cherry Red’s SoulMusic Records imprint is sure to get the pulses racing of ’70s and ‘80s soul fans.

Freda Payne’s second album for Capitol Records, 1978’s Supernatural High, followed 1977’s Stares and Whispers, also the recipient of a past SoulMusic reissue.  Skip Scarborough (Earth Wind and Fire, Dionne Warwick, Phyllis Hyman) took the production helm from Motown’s Frank Wilson and wrote a few tracks for the project.  Like many of Payne’s best albums, Supernatural explored numerous sides of the versatile artist.  Freda had, after all, been spotted by Duke Ellington, toured with Billy Eckstine, played on Broadway, and recorded for labels including Holland-Dozier-Holland’s Invictus/Hot Wax family and ABC-Paramount.  She scored her stone-cold classic “Band of Gold” for H-D-H in 1970, but was still very much an active recording artist when Supernatural rolled around.  The album has numerous disco flourishes but is still very much in a soulful R&B vein as produced by Scarborough and arranged by David N. Crawford.

The opening medley of “Happy Days Are Here Again” with Scarborough’s “Happy Music” put a disco spin on the Democratic Party favorite written in 1932 and adopted by Barbra Streisand (and so famously sung by Streisand and Judy Garland as a duet).  “Livin’ for the Beat,” from Payne’s then-husband Gregory Abbott, was another track designed for the dancefloor.  ”Tell Me Please,” from Scarborough’s pen, is a sweet ‘n’ smooth mid-tempo ballad for Payne to wrap her pipes around, as is Thom Bell and Leroy Bell’s “Just the Thought of You and Me Together (Supernatural High),” which lent its title to the album.  Kevin L. Goins’ excellent liner notes don’t explain how Payne got a hold of the Bell song, but it’s a major highlight with Bell’s typically lush melodic style.  Alas, he didn’t come on board to produce or arrange the track, but the horn arrangement near the song’s conclusion is in vintage Bell style.  Other songs on Supernatural High came from Deniece Williams (the languid “Falling in Love”) and Freda’s sister, the Supreme Scherrie Payne (the shimmering “Storybook Romance”).  One more album followed for Capitol (1979’s Hot) before Payne took an extended recording hiatus.  Soul Music’s new edition adds one bonus track, the single edit of “Happy Days/Happy Music.”  (The B-side of “Happy Days,” “Falling in Love,” has not been included, and nor has the “I’ll Do Anything For You” Pt. 1 and 2 single.)

After the jump: we revisit classics from Stephanie Mills and Freda Payne, plus order links and track listings for all three titles! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

March 18, 2013 at 14:38

Ease On Down For Hip-o’s New Stephanie Mills Anthology

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Stephanie Mills’ very first LP was titled Movin’ in the Right Direction. And although the 1975 LP on the ABC-Paramount label didn’t launch her career as a recording artist with a bang, its title was certainly apt. A few years later, the label would be 20th Century Fox instead of Paramount, and Mills would skyrocket to superstardom in the disco era. Her hitmaking records for 20th Century Fox Records are being compiled by Hip-o Select for the August 23 release of Feel the Fire: The 20th Century Collection. This 2-CD anthology brings together Mills’ three albums for the label recorded between 1979 and 1981, and adds a brace of singles and 12-inch mixes for a definitive overview of her time there.

Mills was only 18 in 1975, but her showbiz career had begun many years earlier. At the age of 11, she won Amateur Night at New York’s Apollo Theatre a record six times, and shortly thereafter she was cast as one of the children in the 1968 Broadway musical Maggie Flynn starring Jack Cassidy and Shirley Jones. (The delightful RCA Victor cast album of Maggie Flynn has just been reissued by our good friends at Sony’s Masterworks Broadway.) Mills recorded her first single for ABC in 1973, and her persistence finally paid off with her breakthrough performance as Dorothy when William F. Brown and Charlie Smalls’ The Wiz opened at Broadway’s Majestic Theatre on January 5, 1975.

Mills was one major reason for the show’s phenomenal success when it finally arrived in New York after a tumultous tryout at Baltimore’s Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in late 1974.  (You can read just one amusing account here!)

She earned two signature songs from Charlie Smalls’ score, as expertly orchestrated by Harold Wheeler (today the conductor of television’s Dancing with the Stars!), when she introduced “Home” and “Ease On Down the Road.” Following The Wiz, she focused on her recording career. Despite the lack of success of Movin’ in the Right Direction, Motown signed her. The storied label paired Mills with Burt Bacharach and Hal David for that team’s final co-production, recorded during a brief reconciliation during their period of estrangement. It was their only work for Berry Gordy’s empire, though the Motown stable of artists frequently raided their songbook. The long out-of-print For the First Time introduced many Bacharach and David originals along with a couple of remakes of songs associated with Dionne Warwick, “This Empty Place” (also popular with many Merseybeat artists) and “Loneliness Remembers (What Happiness Forgets).” Despite the strength of such songs as “No One Remembers My Name,” “I Took My Strength From You” and “Living on Plastic,” as well as Bacharach’s contemporary arrangements that showed his musical evolution from his sixties heyday, the album didn’t go anywhere. Typical for Motown, Mills continued to record, but her remaining tracks didn’t see release until 1982. By that time, she could bask in the glow of the recording success that had previously eluded her, thanks to the success of a string of albums on the 20th Century Fox label.

Hit the jump for a trip through Stephanie’s 20th Century years plus a full track listing and pre-order link for the new set! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

July 20, 2011 at 09:04