Archive for February, 2007

Welcome to the February Issue

In honor of Black History Month we’re taking a slight departure from our usual all-music offerings to include a new DVD compilation of footage from the Black Panther Party Library. Since February also brings Valentine’s Day and the Grammy Awards, we’ve got reviews of the new Beautiful Ballads series from Legacy and Ike Turner’s Grammy nominated Risin’ With the Blues. We’re also taking a look at three new DVDs that offer unique, historical footage of Motown artists Marvin Gaye and the Supremes and the black, hardcore punk band Bad Brains. Rounding out the issue is the latest release from Ghostface Killah, a compilation from southern rap artist Cee-lo Green, an examination of vocal harmony groups, a bit of gospel, and a post about Louisville’s Mr. Wonderful label.

View review February 2nd, 2007

What We Want, What We Believe: Black Panther Party

panthers.jpgTitle: What We Want, What We Believe: The Black Panther Party Library
Editor: Roz Payne
Label: AK Press
Catalog no.: AKV007 (4 DVDs)
Date: 2006

The Black Panther Party (founded in 1966) was one of the most controversial groups of the Civil Rights era. While their aggressive Black Nationalist rhetoric frightened many mainstream Americans, their cultural pride and pragmatic programming were well received by many marginalized Black Americans. Party members such as Dr. Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, and Angela Davis were catapulted into national fame and remain some of the most legendary (and notorious) figures of that era. What We Want, What We Believe: The Black Panther Party Library attempts to provide a concise collection of Black Panther Party media, covering nearly forty years.

AK Press, the DVD’s publisher, is an independent book/film publishing and distribution company that promotes radical and anarchist material. This set is edited by Roz Payne, a documentary filmmaker, who shot original footage of the Black Panthers for Newsreel Films in the 1960s. Much of the footage contained in the set comes from her private archives.

This four disc collection runs approximately 12 hours. Disc one contains the centerpieces of the library–three Newsreel Films: Off the Pig, Mayday, and Repression. These films provide insight into the Black Panther Party’s ideology and establish the 1960s backdrop. Also on the first disc is a lengthy interview with former Black Panther Party Field Secretary Donald Cox. Footage from the 35th Anniversary of the Black Panther Party rounds out disc one and includes very interesting speeches from Kathleen Cleaver and Bobby Seale.

Disc two features segments from Wheelock College’s conference on the Black Panther Party which was held in 2003. Some of the more interesting topics include the FBI investigation of the Black Panther Party and Huey Newton’s complex view of the relationship between the Black and Gay Liberation movements. Disc three contains commentary by former Black Panther lawyers on their involvement with the organization as well as discussion of various Panther court cases. The final disc features interviews with members of the Newsreel as they provide details of their intimate relationship with the Panthers.

This DVD collection can only be appreciated by those who have at least an intermediate understanding of Black Panther history. It contains no historical background on the party or on most of the people featured throughout the DVD. Although it contains a ton of information, the lack of captions and labels prevents one from understanding much of what is presented. The DVD is amateurish and has a lack of polish which renders it somewhat ineffective in its attempt to be an educational resource.

Although difficult to navigate, What We Want, What We Believe contains a wealth of information on the Black Panther Party. Roz Payne, Newsreel Films, and AK Press made a very valiant attempt to organize this vast amount of material into a cohesive set. It is a must watch for those looking to enhance their knowledge of this once prominent organization.

Posted by Langston Collin Wilkins

View review February 2nd, 2007

Risin’ with the Blues

Ike.jpgTitle: Risin’ with the Blues
Artist: Ike Turner
Label: Zoho Roots
Catalog No: ZM 200611
Date: 2006

Risin’ with the Blues is Ike Turner’s second Grammy nominated release in five years and he is back once again to prove, at 75, that he knows the blues. Over the past five decades Turner has earned his place in music history as a musician, talent scout, producer, and band leader. His 1951 hit “Rocket 88” has been considered one of the earliest examples of rock and roll. As a talent scout Turner discovered such greats as Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and Muddy Waters. He earned his chops as bandleader with the Kings of Rhythm and showcased his skills in the Ike and Tina Soul Revue. At the end of his tumultuous marriage to Tina, Ike took a fifteen year hiatus only to re-emerge in 2001 with the Grammy nominated album Here and Now, the same year he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Risin’ with the Blues is a mixed bag of soulful jazzy blues that highlights Turner as an ax man who knows his way around the ivories. Turner pays tribute to jump blues legend Louis Jordon with his bouncy version of “Caldonia.” He illustrates his aggressive, heavy hitting guitar style in “Rocking Blues,” while the soulful organ of the Erskine Hawkins tune “After Hours” shows a softer, more restrained side. Turner expresses a humorous side in “Give Me Back My Wig” and in the gritty shuffle blues “Tease Me,” then delves into jazz with Horace Silver’s “Senor Blues” and the instrumental “Jazzy Fuzzy.” He nods to gospel styling with “Jesus Loves Me” and wears his heart on his sleeve in the Holland-Dozier-Holland song “A Love like Yours.” One of the highlights of Risin’ with the Blues is Turner’s vocals. Stepping out as the lead, he lights up this album with his powerful voice and dynamic delivery.

Risin’ with the Blues is a solid body of work that affirms Ike Turner’s place in music history. Its sharp, clean production is evident throughout including the sophisticated, streamlined packaging. This CD is a testament to Turner’s strengths as a bluesman and will be a strong contender for a Grammy.

Posted by Heather O’Sullivan

View review February 2nd, 2007

Reflections: the Definitive Performances, 1964-1969

supremes.jpgTitle: Reflections: the Definitive Performances, 1964-1969
Artist: The Supremes
Label: Motown/Universal
Catalog No.: B0007961-09 (DVD)
Date: 2006

Released in November 2006, Reflections is the first DVD compilation of Supremes performances and a “must have” for any Motown fan. The disc appropriately kicks off with a 1964 clip from The Steve Allen Show featuring a performance of “Where Did Our Love Go,” the Supremes first chart-topping single. Thanks in large part to the extraordinary talents of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland (Motown’s hitmaking songwriters from 1963-1967), the Supremes career quickly went into orbit when the next five singles hit No. 1 on the pop charts in rapid succession, and by 1965 they had become a household name, both in the U.S. and abroad. With the Motown PR machine running in high gear, the group made numerous TV appearances that year and a representative selection (one for each hit single) has been included: “Baby Love” (from Shivaree), “Come See About Me” (from Teen Town), “Stop! In the Name of Love” (from It’s What’s Happening Baby), “Back in My Arms Again” and “I Hear a Symphony” (from the Mike Douglas Show), and “Nothing But Heartaches (from Hullabaloo).

With the transformation from Detroit girl group to international superstars now complete, the performances on the second half of the DVD chronicle the increasingly glamorous costumes and over-the-top coiffures as well as the emergence of Diana Ross as the indisputable group leader. Other interesting performances of note include “Love Is Here and Now Your Gone” from 1967, marking the debut of Cindy Birdsong (who replaced Florence Ballard); a hilarious 1966 promo film of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” where the group is dueling over ping-pong rather than harmonies; and “My World Is Empty Without You” from the 1966 BBC program Anatomy of Pop, which was recorded in the studio and offers glimpses of other Motown personnel (and lots of cool vintage gear).

The quality of the television clips varies a great deal. Most of the programs are in color though a couple are in black & white, and while the majority are in remarkably good condition, a few are barely viewable. However, it is amazing that all have survived, given the deteriorating condition of most 2” video tapes (the standard format for TV programs in the mid-1960s). The production team has done a remarkable job in restoring these programs, and since the compilation would certainly not have been complete without a performance of each hit song, I applaud the decision to include as much archival footage as possible. What might be a bit more disconcerting to viewers is the sound. As one might expect, many of the performances are lip-synched, but the bigger issue is the alternate arrangements used for some of the songs. For example, The Mike Douglas Show’s house band provides the accompaniment for “Back in My Arms Again,” and as you might imagine they don’t quite offer the same groove as Motown’s Funk Brothers. In order to compensate for this travesty, the DVD includes two unusual bonus features—the a cappella lead and background vocals plus restored stereo audio from the original Motown master tapes—making it possible to “replace” the television soundtrack with the recorded version. Other features include an optional “trivia track” which can be added as subtitles; several bonus tracks that include alternate performances of “Baby Love,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” and three additional selections; and a 20 page booklet with historical notes by Brian Chin as well as extensive producer’s notes.

Its probably no accident that this video compilation was released just before the film adaptation of the musical Dreamgirls (loosely based on the Supremes). Those who didn’t grow up in the Motown era and received their first “introduction” to the Supremes via Dreamgirls might be especially interested in comparing these videos to the movie. Motown’s pop-oriented R&B, tailored for cross-over appeal, did not incorporate the gospel stylings prevalent in Dreamgirls (and in contemporary R&B), and Beyoncé Knowles and Jennifer Hudson could probably overshadow any member of the Supremes in terms of pure vocal power. So, looking back on these videos four decades later, one might wonder what all the fuss was about. Perhaps the historical value is best summarized on Motown’s website: “The visuals of Diana Ross and the Supremes were imprinted on America’s consciousness at the same time that their run of hits was mounting. . . [Their] dominance in the pop arena reminded the entire world how much of popular culture was rooted in America’s black community. Their music was helping to redefine America as a multi-cultural society, in the eyes of the world, and in the nation’s own eyes. . . The real ripple effects were to be seen in the world itself—in the cultural significance of putting three beautiful black women on The Ed Sullivan Show.”

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review February 2nd, 2007

Marvin Gaye: The Real Thing In Performance, 1964-1981

marvin gaye.jpgTitle: Marvin Gaye: The Real Thing In Performance, 1964-1981
Artist: Marvin Gaye
Label: Hip-O Records/Universal
Catalog No.: B00006453-09 (DVD)
Date: 2006

With a career spanning nearly three decades, Marvin Gaye is by far one of the most notable names in rhythm and blues, as well as soul music. Beginning his career in 1958 with the Marquees, Gaye also worked with artists such as Bo Diddley, the Miracles, the Contours, Martha & the Vandellas and Stevie Wonder. In 1960 he was a session drummer for Motown and went on to be a part time song-writer before his solo career got underway. Like Stevie Wonder, Gaye is also known for challenging the constricting formula employed by Motown in its record productions. The results were Gaye’s chart topping soul hits “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” both released in 1972. Gaye could be considered one of the predecessors of artists such as Musiq, Soul Child and D’Angelo.

Marvin Gaye: The Real Thing In Performance, 1964-1981 charts Gaye’s twenty-year career with Motown. Featuring his live performances and interviews, this anthology exhibits the development of Gaye’s artistry. Always a gentleman in public, the performances found on this DVD are an exposition of that demeanor, while also offering an historical account of the fashion and social issues spanning nearly two decades. Featuring both his R&B hits as well as his chart topping soul tracks, The Real Thing is a testimony to how and why Marvin Gaye became a legend.

The performance footage as well as the interviews have been digitally remastered to showcase a clear, crisp picture. Only the performance of “Pride and Joy” (1965) is a bit grainy. On all other clips the picture and sound quality are remarkable and take the viewer back in time. None of the eloquence of Gaye’s delivery is lost. Each of the songs is an affirmation that Gaye was original in his delivery, phrasing, and innovation. Years after the original performance, and despite the denial of any real life love affair, the chemistry between Gaye and Tammi Terrell is perfectly preserved here in their duet “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (1967). The only shortfall of the compilation is that a few of the performances are out of chronological order, which is hardly enough to invalidate the experience.

Extensive liner notes accompany the DVD, providing an overview of Gaye’s early career as one of the Marquees through his 1982 departure from Motown. Although there are not many photographs of Gaye throughout the years as one would like, there are enough to let his classic style and sophistication shine through. The Real Thing would be suitable for anyone newly familiar with the work of Marvin Gaye as well as those who have long been enthusiasts and collectors of his music.

Posted by Brandon Houston

View review February 2nd, 2007

More Fish

more fish.jpgTitle: More Fish
Artist: Ghostface Killah
Label: Island Def Jam Music Group
Catalog No: B0008165-02
Date: 2006

Hailing from the “slums of Shaolin,” Ghosface Killah has been “bringing the ruckus” for the last fifteen years. Through both his solo work and his group releases with the Wu-Tang Clan, Ghostface Killah has become a rap legend by combining street-oriented subject matter with complex and, at times, abstract lyricism. In hip hop, Tony Starks, as he sometimes calls himself, is the mark of consistency as each of his six albums have garnered various levels of critical acclaim. More Fish (2006) is Ghost’s second release of 2006, with the first quarter’s Fishscale (2006) receiving much critical praise, but little commercial success.

One can always expect solid material from Ghostface, and More Fish does not disappoint. The album opens up with Ghostface doing the impossible, flipping a Rakim track (“Know the Ledge”) and making it his own on “Ghost is Back.” On “Guns N’ Razors,” Ghost, Trife, Cappadonna, and Killa Sin spit hard rhymes over a spider man cartoon sample provided by MF Doom. This song, along with the equally as fresh “Alex,” boosts the anticipation for the rumored Ghostface/MF Doom album. “You Know I’m No Good” finds Ghostface lashing out at a former lover on a jazzy beat with beautiful vocal accompaniment by UK jazz vocalist Amy Winehouse. On “Greedy Bi*ches,” Ghost, Shawn Wigs and fellow hip hop legend Redman provide hilarious (and harsh) commentary on golddiggers over a funky Anthony Acid produced beat. Other standout tracks include “Josephine,” “Block Rock,” and “Blue Armor.”

The only weak track on this album is the bland Shawn Wigs/Eamon collaboration “Gotta Hold On.” A complaint one may have is the frequent appearances of Ghost’s Theodore Unit, but for the most part, his crew holds its own on the album. Although Ghostface is always entertaining, it would be nice if he opened himself up more as he did on songs such as “All I Got is You” from Ironman (1996) and “Rainy Days” from Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (1995). Ghostface has the ability to make music that touches the soul but he has strayed away from that on his recent releases.

More Fish is another solid release from Ghostface Killah. The album is seventeen tracks of raw, unfiltered hardcore hip hop. Even though his album sales may not please his Def Jam bosses, Ghostface always gives his fans excellence. The greatness of Fishscale and More Fish heighten the anticipation for Ghost’s future releases; the Wu-Tang reunion, the Ghostface/MF Doom album, and Raekwon’s Cuban Linx II.

Posted by Langston Collin Wilkins

View review February 2nd, 2007

Beautiful Ballads

ballads.jpgJust in time for Valentine’s Day, Columbia/Legacy has launched the new Beautiful Ballads series. Each CD is a compilation of classic R&B ballads, selected from singles as well as albums, that have been digitally remastered from the original analog masters. The first five releases include:

Beautiful Ballads by Earth, Wind & Fire (Columbia/Legacy). Co-produced with Maurice White, tracks include “Devotion,” “Can’t Hide Love,” and “After the Love is Gone.”

Beautiful Ballads by Gladys Knight & the Pips (Buddah/Columbia/Legacy). Co-produced with Knight, this CD draws upon both their Motown and Buddah catalog and features such hits as “If I Were Your Woman” and “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me.”

Beautiful Ballads, Vol. 2 by the Isley Brothers (Epic/T-Neck/Legacy). Co-produced with Chris Jasper, the majority of selections highlight the T-Neck years at CBS (1972-83) and include “Groove With You,” “Between the Sheets,” and “Insatiable Woman.”

Beautiful Ballads by Patti LaBelle (Epic/Philadelphia International/Legacy). Spanning the decade from the mid-70s to the mid-80s, this CD is a chronicle of LaBelle’s solo career at Epic and Philly International and includes “Love, Need and Want You” and “Love Has Finally Come.”

Beautiful Ballads by the O’Jays (Epic/Philadelphia International/Legacy). Co-produced by none other than Philly International’s Kenneth Gamble & Leon Huff, the 13 songs include “Let Me Make Love To You,” “Stairway to Heaven,” and “I Should Be Your Lover.”

No new territory here, but a whole lotta love. They’re designed to look great as an accompaniment to a box of chocolates or tucked into a bouquet of roses.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review February 2nd, 2007

Live at CBGB 1982

bad brains.jpgTitle: Live at CBGB 1982
Artist: Bad Brains
Label: MVD Visual
Catalog No.: DR-4497 (DVD, 60 min.)
Date: 2006

As we mentioned in our special November Black Rock edition of Black Grooves, Bad Brains is recognized one of the most important bands of the hardcore punk era. This DVD compilation of 1982 footage shot at New York’s famed CBGB shows them in the raw glory of their early years, after they had been banned at clubs in their native Washington D.C. and started tearing up stages in the Big Apple. The band alternates between kinetic thrash and deep reggae, doing both with total credibility but not yet integrating the two styles to the degree that they eventually would. The hardcore punk kids in the audience nod their heads in mellow fashion to the reggae numbers, then overrun the stage, thrash and mosh to the hardcore songs. As entertaining as it is to see Bad Brains in their youth, the audience is at least as interesting: They are youthful, multi-racial (though mostly white) exemplars of another New York subculture that was flourishing during the early days of hip hop.

This video won’t be for everyone, or even most. Seeing the near-chaos that erupts in these performances brings home how radical punk once was; after one song, vocalist H.R. casually requests over the mic, “Hey, somebody get this dude—he’s bleeding.” In another moment between songs, he holds up someone’s lost keys, while the guys in mosh pit lean against each other, trying to catch their breath. These moments remind the viewer that while to outsiders punk looked like senseless violence, to participants there was camaraderie in its physicality. In one of the last songs on the video, H.R. repeatedly chants, “No matter if you’re black/No matter if you’re white/Let’s all get together/And try to unite.

A short sample of this video is available on YouTube.

Posted by Mack Hagood

View review February 2nd, 2007

Closet Freak: the Best of Cee-Lo Green

cee-lo.jpgTitle: Closet Freak: the Best of Cee-Lo Green the Soul Machine
Artist: Cee-Lo Green
Label: Arista/Legacy
Catalog No.: 88697 018492
Date: 2006

In the beginning, there was Soul Food. Atlanta, Georgia based pioneer rap group Goodie Mob’s 1995 debut album helped blaze the path for Georgia rappers’ place in hip hop. With a raspy, deacon-of-the-church voice and flair, group member Cee-Lo’s voice dominated and glazed over tracks with originality and a captivating southern drawl. After becoming a solo artist in 2002, Cee-Lo has released two albums, maintaining a country fried, southern twang and distinctive swagger in his lyrical delivery. Closet Freak: the Best of Cee-Lo Green the Soul Machine is a compilation of the artist’s strongest collaborations and individual compositions.

“Closet Freak,” the title track, was Cee-Lo’s first individual hit in 2002. The cut discusses human sexuality and delivers an upbeat, almost sermonic proposition in which Cee-Lo affirms that “nastiness comes naturally.” “Getting Grown,” arguably the anthem for young adulthood, is dedicated to the struggles of growing pains and life’s expectations. The spoken word track “Sometimes” rounds out Closet Freak to show Cee-Lo’s other artistic talents. The cut is smoky, and easily visualized as a very grown and sexy open mic night at the Apache Café in Atlanta.

A very distinctive feature in Closet Freak is the collaborations—most, if not all, are with artists from the South. The camaraderie of southern rappers is strong throughout the album, but “Childsplay,” featuring Ludacris, best accentuates both Cee-Lo’s eccentricity and lyrical balance. Both Ludacris and Cee-Lo flow seamlessly over a xylophone instrumental that could be heard in a child’s program like Sesame Street. The collaborations and individual tracks selected, though well received, only scratch the surface of Cee-Lo’s lyrical brilliance and capability. Some of his strongest rhyming can be heard on the Goodie Mob bonus tracks at the end of the CD on “Soul Food” and “Cell Therapy.” Both cuts are appetizers to the lyrical content and depth Cee-Lo possesses.

Overall, Closet Freak is a strong compilation of Cee-Lo Green’s efforts thus far. His willingness to experiment with beats and lyrical delivery is the distinguishing factor between Cee-Lo and other rappers currently on the radar. Cee-Lo’s talent is anything but in the closet.

Posted by Regina Barnett

View review February 2nd, 2007

Dells, Pearls and Velours

pearls.jpgTitle: The Pearls vs. The Velours
Artists: Pearls, Velours
Label: Empire Musicwerks (Collectors Gold Series)
Catalog No.: 545 450 837-2
Date: 2006

dells.jpgTitle: It’s Not Unusual: The Very Best of the Vee-Jay Years, 1955-1965
Artist: Dells
Label: Charly
Catalog No.: SNAP 266
Date: 2006

Most people knowledgeable about music agree that genres are elusive labels. Actual music does not always fit into clear-cut categories, and it is difficult to define most genres’ essential attributes, as characteristics of any one genre inevitably transude into others. Genres are not static; musicians continually form new ones as they modify their styles. In the twentieth century, this process has been especially apparent in the development of African-American musical genres: blues, jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues, soul, hip hop, rap; many of these in turn comprise their own subgenres. Music in which generic identity is unclear, or in flux, may reveal some fascinating characteristics. The Pearls vs. The Velours presents two vocal harmony groups of the mid- to late 1950s whose sounds blend r&b and doo wop (this was originally released as The Pearls vs. The Velours: The Complete Recordings by Hot Productions, 2000). It’s Not Unusual showcases the Dells, who began their career singing doo wop but later migrated to soul. These three groups’ outputs are not equally well known today. The Pearls were never very popular, although lead tenor Howie Guyton had the opportunity to tour with the successful Platters. The Velours had a couple of minor hits in the 1950s – sometimes reissued on doo wop compilations – and they continued to record sporadically through the 1990s. And although the Dells are still active and popular as soul musicians, not so many people know their doo wop recordings.

Small independent labels recorded some of the finest r&b and doo wop of the 1950s, from hits such as the Penguins’ Earth Angel (1954) to relative obscurities. Many of these labels floundered and went bankrupt after only one or two years, but there were some noteworthy exceptions: Chicago’s Chess Records, for instance, was a lucrative operation, which contributed immeasurably to America’s musical panorama (see Pruter, 1996: 55-83). Less successfully, Jerry Winston, a record salesman from New York City, started Onyx Records in 1956 and stayed afloat for under two years (Fileti, 2006). Onyx produced ten sides each by the Pearls and the Velours, which form the contents of The Pearls vs. The Velours. The Dells recorded for the prominent African American-owned and run Vee-Jay Records in Chicago.

Although the Pearls’, Velours’, and early Dells’ music is frequently classified as doo wop (Gribin and Schiff, 2000: 330-31, 425, 480), it differs markedly from the doo wop that was popular from the mid-1950s onward – the Del Vikings’ “Come Go With Me” (1956) and The Elegants’ “Little Star” (1959), for example. Doo wop began around 1950 as part of the emergent r&b genre. Its first exponents derived their styles from popular vocal groups of the 1940s, such as the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots, and, more importantly, from the gospel-influenced r&b of the Orioles and Billy Ward & the Dominoes. Reflecting these influences, lead vocalists in doo wop would fluctuate their timbres and syncopate their melodies, and background vocalists would differentiate the timbres of each of their parts rather than blend them into one homogenous sound.1 They would construct textures out of “nonsense syllables” (for which doo wop was named) and “blow harmonies” (wordless chords on “aah-ooh” or similar syllables). Instrumental arrangements were thick and jazzy.

Following a string of doo wop hits in 1954 and 1955, doo wop groups began to compose and sing simpler songs. Melodies contained fewer notes and variations, and syncopation was less prominent. Nonsense syllables outnumbered blow harmonies, and timbres became increasingly homogenous. Doo wop has always been associated with the so-called “doo wop progression” (I-vi-ii-V) – the basis for innumerable slow ballads and some faster numbers as well. The first doo wop songs to use this progression were often in 32-bar AABA song form, so that the four bars of “B” would provide contrasting harmonic material. Eventually, AABA song form was all but discarded, and when the doo wop progression was used, harmonic variety was scarcer. These changes probably were responses to record labels’ efforts to meet the tastes of a whiter, younger demographic: white audiences would have preferred a smoother vocal style, while teenagers would have understood simplicity.

But not all groups embraced these changes. Some remained close to “classic” r&b, and catered to an African-American audience for whom the gap between adults’ and teenagers’ music was less significant (George 1988: 68-69). This is true of the Brooklyn-based Velours. “Can I Come Over Tonight?” (1957) exemplifies their sound – its interest depends on the distinct timbres of the lead tenor (Jerome “Romeo” Ramos) and the bass (probably Charles Moffett). Both voices stand out; this allows their rhythmic interplay to be heard clearly. For the most part, their rhythms contrast yet complement each other. The bass sings shorter notes that convey a sense of motion, while the tenor sings a rhythmically free line of longer notes. At the ends of some of the lines, the bass’s rhythm contradicts the song’s 12/8 meter and provides a brief halting feeling that contributes to the song’s subtlety. “Can I Come Over Tonight?” is built on the doo wop progression, but within the framework of AABA song form; it incorporates harmonic variety atypical of mid-1950s doo wop. Throughout their half of The Pearls vs. The Velours, even in songs that iterate the doo wop progression exclusively, the Velours create interest through timbre and rhythm, despite the ostensible simplicity.

The Pearls, from Detroit, are more eclectic than the Velours; their sound is an amalgam of r&b, jump blues, doo wop, and rock ‘n’ roll. Their Onyx output contains one doo wop progression-based ballad, “Wheel of Love” (1957), but they mostly recorded jump tunes with blues-based harmonies. “I Sure Need You” (1957) begins with the thick texture of two saxophones, percussion, and the background singers’ blow harmonies. For the first line, “Everybody needs somebody,” Guyton punctuates “needs” with falsetto. This effect gives the song a frantic, unbuttoned quality, which is further intensified by Guyton’s practice of adding extra vowels to the beginnings and ends of words (“That’s why I’m-a in-a love-a with you-a!”). This is unusual in doo wop but follows a long tradition of African-American singing that can be heard on spirituals and blues recordings; it animates a number of the Pearls’ songs.

The Dells began singing in Chicago as the El Rays in the early 1950s. In 1955 they changed their name and made several recordings for Vee-Jay Records (Anderson, 2006). Like the Pearls and the Velours, they recorded not in the style of doo wop popular in the mid-1950s, but in a style of appeal to smaller African-American audiences. “Restless Days (Sleepless Nights),” for example, is constructed in a fashion similar to the doo wop hits of the 1950s, but lead tenor Johnny Funches’s tone, which suggest Percy Sledge at times, is far removed. His voice – richer than either Guyton or Ramos – gives the ballads and jump tunes on It’s Not Unusual a fuller, heartier sound than those on The Pearls vs. The Velours. He also incorporates a noticeable degree of melisma, as can be heard in the openings of “Tell the World” and the blues-based “I Wanna Go Home.” A car accident in 1958 put the Dells’ career on hiatus. They reformed in 1961, recruiting Johnny Carter to replace Funches, who had no desire to continue with the Dells. They worked with Dinah Washington on her Tears and Laughter album, recorded briefly for Chess, and returned to Vee-Jay in 1964. Their 1960s sound anticipates soul. Complex chromatic harmonies and string arrangements permeate “Poor Little Boy,” “It Looks Like It’s Over,” and “It’s Not Unusual” (made famous by Tom Jones). In a way this new sound was nascent in the melismatic earlier recordings – “I Wanna Go Home,” in particular, offers a foretaste.

Unfortunately, neither The Pearls vs. The Velours nor It’s Not Unusual provides adequate liner notes. Those for the former are sadly brief, and those for the latter, although lengthier, emphasize the people involved at the expense of their music. Still, it is better that these CDs’ deficiencies are in their packaging, rather than their contents. Both are fascinating retrospectives of vocal harmony groups that sometimes resist generic identification. Moreover, they both exemplify the dynamic, chiasmic truth of musical styles.


Anderson, Clive. Liner notes, The Dells, It’s Not Unusual: The Very Best of the Vee-Jay Years, 1955. Charly, 2006.

Fileti, Donn. Liner notes, The Pearls vs. The Velours. Empire Musicwerks 545 450 837-2, 2006.

George, Nelson. The Death of Rhythm and Blues. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1988.

Gribin, Anthony J. and Matthew M. Schiff. The Complete Book of Doo-Wop. Iola, WI: Krause, 2000.

Pruter, Robert. Doowop: The Chicago Scene. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press,

Wilson, Olly. “The Heterogeneous Sound Ideal in African-American Music.” In On Music: Essays in Honor of Eileen Southern, ed. Josephine Wright with Samuel A. Floyd, Jr., 327-38 (Warren, Michigan: Harmonie Park Press, 1992).

Posted by John Reef

View review February 2nd, 2007

Full Circle

baylor.jpgTitle: Full Circle
Artist: Helen Baylor
Label: MCG Records
Catalog Number: 7272203
Released: 2006

If the sound of most contemporary gospel music is like a hearty and thick stew, then the sound of gospel songstress Helen Baylor’s most recent project, Full Circle, is a light and refreshing bisque. Although Full Circle’s sound and texture could easily fit into the playlist of a smooth jazz or contemporary adult R&B station, the gospel message of the album is clear and apparent throughout its twelve tracks.

Helen Baylor has been a singer most of her life. She began singing in the nightclubs of Los Angeles as a child, opened for megastars including Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, and Chaka Khan, and toured with the musical Hair. Unfortunately, she developed a debilitating substance abuse habit alongside of her career and ultimately returned to the church to help put her life in order. Although Baylor’s heart and message returned to the church, however, her music retains the influences of her secular music travels. She has developed a successful career built on creatively merging the sacred and secular traditions.

Full Circle is collection of gospel ballads that create a sacred space. On tracks like “Oasis,” “I Miss My Time with You” and “Just Worship” the listener eavesdrops on Baylor’s intimate conversations with God over smooth jazz-tinged piano and saxophone. The airy instrumentals are nicely complemented by Baylor’s rich alto vocals. Full Circle not only exhibits Baylor’s vocal ability but her songwriting and composition talents as well. Four tracks on the project were completely written by Baylor. Other songs are written by Christian music greats such as Larnelle Harris who has won 5 Grammy Awards during his career. While the album is seamless and cohesive, its studio sound can give it a sound that seems a little too sanitized for gospel music.

If you are looking for a gospel album that will make you feel like shouting and dancing, this is not it. Those who are used to the dense and highly upbeat feel of gospel music may find this album a little monotonous. But if you are interested in a listening experience that will encourage and motivate, Baylor’s aptly titled Full Circle will indeed elaborate on how a woman who battled back from drug addiction was able to bring her own life and experience full circle.

Posted by fredara mareva

View review February 2nd, 2007

Mr. Wonderful Productions

Since Black Grooves is based in south central Indiana, we especially like to cover Midwest artists and labels. One company that was recently brought to our attention is Mr. Wonderful Productions. Formed in 1985 by Louisville, Kentucky musician Ronald C. Lewis, Mr. Wonderful Productions has a mission to preserve, promote, and perpetuate the legacies of Louisville’s black musicians. Besides performing in his own Mr. Wonderful Production Band (billed as “The Original Old School R&B Band”), Lewis has released a number of CDs over the past two decades on his Mr. Wonderful label. Ranging from gospel to classic R&B, artists include Jerry Green, Bernard A. Williams, Sylvester and Cheryl Gough, Herlon Robinson, the Amandla Orchestra with Anna Mranda & Friends, B.B. Jo, and Rev. Price King. Several compilations have also been issued, including The Very Best From Kentucky Gospel Artists, Vol. 1 (2003).

jgreenmusic.jpgTwo new CDs were released in 2006.  Do That To Me Baby! by Jerry Green was recorded at Muscle Shoals Studio in Alabama and features soulful dance tunes and the old Manhattans’ hit song “Kiss & Say Goodbye.” Green is also the proprietor of the Louisville nightclub Jerry Green & Friends, so you can check out the band live if you happen to be passing through the city.

jgreenmusic.jpgThe second release, Come On Children Let’s Sing, features the gospel music of Bernard A. Williams.Tracks include the medley “I’ll Fly Away,” “Precious Lord,” and a rousing version of the title track “Come On Children Let’s Sing.” Produced with minimal packaging and no liner notes, these CDs are available exclusively from CD Baby, the popular distribution site for independant releases. Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss 


View review February 2nd, 2007

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