Christmas just isn’t Christmas without good music to really get you in the spirit! We’re featuring brief reviews of our favorite new holiday releases from PJ Morton, John Legend, Cece Winans, Aloe Blacc, Motown Gospel, and After 7. Our specially curated Black Grooves Christmas Spotify playlist features our favorite songs from these artists and more, providing the perfect soundtrack as you get together with friends and family to celebrate the holidays. Continue reading
Artist: Lamont Dozier
Label: Goldenlane Records
Release Date: June 6, 2018
The name Lamont Dozier, if heard, perhaps would bring little or no reaction to the general public. But, if one plays or hums many major tunes released by 1960s and 70s Motown artists, know that Dozier was part of the composers team behind these successful groups. Now you his name.
Lamont Dozier, along with the Holland Brothers, wrote the great tunes at Motown—Smokey, The Four Tops, The Temptations and yes, even The Supremes—all owe their success to these gentleman. Dozier, besides being one of the greatest songwriters ever, is a smooth singer and accomplished piano player. In the late 60’s, he left Motown and, along with the Holland Brothers, formed the label Hot Wax. After that, Dozier started recording solo material. His classic tunes in the 70’s included hits such as, “Going Back To My Roots” and “Why Can’t We Be Lovers”. In the 80’s, Dozier teamed up with Phil Collins on the hit, “Two Hearts.”
Now, Dozier is back with a new release titled, Reimagination. This album is a collection of twelve tracks previously written for other artists while at Motown, but Dozier performs them in a way that will make you forget the original. Joining him for this collaboration is Graham Nash, Lee Ann Womack, Todd Rundgren, just to name a few in on the festivities.
On the second track, “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You), Dozier reworks the former classic with Gregory Porter. First, the song is done in acapella , then the song moves into a gospel offering—hand clapping, feet stomping, take it to the river sounds. Dozier uses the same approach on, “Reach Out I’ll Be There”. One of the most underrated singers at Motown was Kim Weston. Her classic, “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me A Little While), gets a fresh, new makeover in the form of accoustic blues featuring Marc Cohen. Now that’s quite a Weston tribute.
Martha & The Vandellas has the honor of having two of their classics included on Reimagination. “Love Is Like A Heatwave” and “In My Lonely Room”. “In My Lonely Room” happens to be, in my opinion, Dozier’s favorite track. He fools you in the beginning, starting the song by singing, “Love Is Here”, which is the opening of a Supremes track, but goes quickly into “In My Lonely Room”. WOW! The words after all these years really hit you in the feels.
Who but Dozier knows these tunes best? After all, he wrote them, so he can and does perform them the way he sees fit. Reimagination is pure gold, Motown fan or not. Thanks Lamont!
Reviewed by Eddie Bowman
Title: In My Mind
Artist: BJ The Chicago Kid
Formats: CD, MP3
Release date: February 19, 2016
“I love God, but I also love mob movies.” With these 9 words, BJ The Chicago Kid (a.k.a. Bryan James Sledge) begins In My Mind, an album that by its conclusion proves to be a record of immense musical intensity about the narrator’s personality, personhood, and opinions. The “I” in the quote that begins this paragraph remains the object of the album’s songs; BJ’s world and opinions are the subjects of our concern until the very end. To treat personality, personal opinion, and personhood musically, he explores familiar terrain with care, producing an album of R&B and soul songs that not only twists lyrics and resonating rhythms into first person dramas, but also into observations of the world that he lives in.
In My Mind is intensely felt throughout. Though it is not one of the best songs on this album, “Turnin’ Me Up” it is a great love song. Love, according to this song, is a simple, convivial, and lush chant. “Jeremiah/World” is what happens when simplicity is done well. What’s fascinating about this song is that it’s one of the least dramatic songs on the album, but also one of the most pleasant to listen to. Pleasantry is not what BJ The Chicago Kid is aiming for, however, as he references the prophet Jeremiah’s calling, asserting that “the feeling that he had then / I have right now.”
“The New Cupid” is a song that reveals that BJ The Chicago Kid is better at singing soul music than sin city R&B. We are introduced to a truly great voice when he sings that “Cupid is gone.” Kendrick Lamar makes a contribution, his rap elevating BJ’s singing.
“Woman’s World” is a very important song on the album. “I know that you heard that this is man’s world” flips the script on James Brown’s classic hit, extolling the virtues of femininity, an update that feels far more apropos in 2016. “Home” and “Crazy” contextualize the album, emphasizing BJ’s personality.
These days, we’ve come to expect the same romantic dramas from R&B. This is especially the case in the music of R&B of male singers. However, In My Mind contains a different kind of drama, one that incorporates the more varied themes that hip hop artists address into an R&B format.
What’s missing from this album is further musical refinement, despite its being an album of some the most nuanced R&B and soul released recently. The entire album is in simple vernacular language; perhaps further lyrical revision could have made the poetry as thrilling as the narratives, ultimately improving the songs. The songs’ arrangements could have also been more precise to emphasize the complex rhythmic vocabulary the artist employs. In My Mind seems humorless at times; BJ The Chicago Kid does not laugh much on this album except for during one skit and listeners seeking entertainment value exclusively may find this tone a bit sharp.
In My Mind is an intense listen and its slower songs are terrific. Though BJ The Chicago Kid is best at singing soul music, the album’s pitfall is that it chooses to not experiment as much as its musicians could, rather choosing to work in the more minimalistic contemporary R&B mold.
Reviewed by Adolf Alzuphar
Artist: Michael Jackson
Director: Spike Lee
Label: Sony Legacy / 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks
Formats: CD /DVD, CD/Blu-ray
Release date: February 26, 2016
Though any Michael Jackson fan will have at least one copy of his seminal 1979 album, Off the Wall, this reissue from the Michael Jackson Estate and Sony Legacy is bundled with the new Spike Lee documentary Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall. If you missed the television debut on Showtime, now is your chance to obtain the DVD or Blu-ray edition.
Lee’s documentary was assembling using archival footage, much of it from Jackson’s personal archive, which follows MJ’s start at Motown, his signing with CBS Records, and perhaps most importantly, his collaboration with Quincy Jones which eventually propelled him to superstardom. There are also many interviews with contemporary musicians who speak about Jackson’s profound influence on their careers, such as The Weeknd, Pharrell Williams, John Legend, and Questlove, plus various Jackson family members (though LaToya is conspicuously absent). Many of the musicians who performed with Jackson are also featured, including Siedah Garret, Greg Phillinganes and the late Louis Johnson, plus African American record company executives Paris Eley, Maurice Warfield, Suzanne de Passe, Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, Barry Gordy, Larkin Arnold, and of course Quincy Jones.
Lee offers an in-depth look at each of the tracks on Off the Wall, and one can follow along on the CD and through the newly penned essay by Steven Ivory that speaks to the profound impact of the album on Black America. Other than the liner notes, however, the CD is a straight reissue with no added features.
On a final note, the set is rather clumsily packaged with a piece of chalk that one can use to write on the “specially treated brick wall” on the inside of the gatefold. If you’re not interested in maintaining the integrity of the originally packaging, you might wish to discard the back insert with the chalk so the CD fits easily on the shelf.
Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss
Title: The Marvelettes Forever: The Complete Motown Albums, Vol. 1
Artist: The Marvelettes
Label: Hip-O Select
Format: 3 CD set
Catalog No.: B0011516-02
Release Date: May 2009
Nearly fifty years after the formation of the Marvelettes, Hip-O Select has released a three disc compilation celebrating the talent of Motown’s first female pop/soul group. Most recognized for their very successful and chart topping “Please Mr. Postman” of 1961, the Marvelettes never really received the acclaim they deserved. Plagued by health issues, disappointing song choices, and competition from Motown’s other girl groups (most notably the Supremes), the Marvelettes had only a few sporadic hits despite releasing a number of noteworthy albums. This new compilation includes their first six albums along with bonus tracks, live tracks, and even mono singles and rare sides. Complete with a booklet of photographs, biography information, and track listings with credits, The Marvelettes Forever collection pays homage to the brief but strong presence of these gifted ladies. Vol. 2, scheduled for release in 2010, will complete the set.
Posted by Rachel Weidner
Miles Davis. Kind of Blue: 50th Anniversary Collector’s Edition (Sony Legacy, Sept. 2008).
One of the seminal albums in jazz, newly repackaged with a hard cover book, DVD, LP, and two CDs featuring previously unreleased tracks. If you don’t already own previous releases, the 50th anniversary edition is worth the splurge.
Manhattans. Sweet Talking Soul, 1965-1990. (Shout! August 2008).
This newly released 3 CD set is a fitting tribute to the Manhattans, tracing their early career as a doo-wop influenced vocal quartet through their soul ballads of the 1970s-80s, when the group was led by Gerald Alston. Included are 45 of their chart-topping hits, including “One Life to Live” (1972), “Kiss and Say Goobye” (1976) and “Shining Star” (1980).
Motown: The Complete #1s. (Motown/Universal, December 2008).
Yet another 50th anniversary compilation, this 10 CD box set surely wins the award for most interesting packaging concept, though shelving it with your current CD collection may proove difficult. Featuring 50 different Motown artists, the 191 tracks should keep you entertained well into the new year. Check out the promotional video below:
Let the Music Play: Supreme Rarities 1960-1969 (Hip-O Select, April 2008)
The producers of this CD combed through the Motown archives in order to come up with a two CD set of 47 previously unreleased takes. As is typical with compilations of this type, the alternate takes reveal elements of the creative and production process through altered verses and extended versions. If you’re only interested in hearing the final versions, this CD set is not for you.
Gladys Knight & the Pips: Claudine/Pipe Dreams. (Shout! June 2008)
Shout Factory has assembled on one compact disc two rare 1970s movie soundtracks featuring Gladys Knight & The Pips. Claudine, released in 1974, was a film starring Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones, with music composed by Curtis Mayfield (this was two years after his much celebrated Superfly score). The soundtrack includes the chart-topping single “On And On,” as well as the more poignant “Welfare Man.” Pipe Dreams, released in 1976, actually featured Gladys Knight in the starring role. The film was not commercially successful and Knight’s acting career went no further. The soundtrack includes one hit single, “So Sad The Song,” though contemporary audiences may be more interested in “Alaska Pipeline.”
Bo Diddley. Road Runner: The Chess Masters, 1959-1960. (Hip-O Select, June 2008)
This is the second installment of Hip-O Select’s tribute to Bo Diddley, who passed away earlier this year (the first installment, I’m A Man: The Chess Masters 1955-1958, was released in 2007). The two CD set features 52 tracks in all, including 23 previously unreleased songs and alternate takes encompassing both his Chess studio recordings and various home recordings. Liner notes were provided by George R. White, Diddley’s biographer. This is great stuff and absolutely essential for anyone interested in the black roots of rock ‘n’ roll.
Yvonne Fair. The Bitch is Black (Reel Music, June 2008)
The late Yvonne Fair performed with the James Brown Revue in the early 1960s and simultaneously released several singles which never took off, even though they were produced by Brown. She then took a stab at Motown, pairing up with Marvin Gaye, but success did not arrive until Norman Whitfield produced several of her singles in 1974, which led up to her one and only album. The Bitch is Black, released in 1975, features some great “in your face” funky R&B from a little known performer. The accompanying booklet features photos and a biographical essay by A. Scott Galloway.
Joe Tex. Get Way Back: The 1950s Recordings (Ace, August 2008)
Joe Tex (1933-1982) was Texas-born soul singer who rose to fame in the mid-1960s, but this compilation traces the beginnings of his career. The 27 tracks that he recorded for the King and the American Ace label, some released on CD for the first time, include elements of rock ‘n’ roll as well as New Orleans R&B. The accompanying booklet offers biographical information and previously unpublished photographs.
Peter Benjaminson, whose previous books include The Story of Motown (1979), delves much, much further into the life of Florence Ballard in his latest effort. As a reporter for the Detroit Free Press, Benjaminson had published an article in 1975 about the plight of Ballard, and was largely responsible for letting the world know that one of the original Supremes was not living high off of royalty checks, but was instead forced to accept welfare checks. Benjaminson went on to conduct a series of interviews with Ballard just prior to her death in 1976. When the success of the movie Dreamgirls sparked a renewed interest in the “Lost Supreme,” he decided to dust off the tapes and write a biography that would reveal the complete story of Flo Ballard.
Since the original interviews with Ballard, Benjaminson he has spoken with numerous colleagues, friends and family members–including former Motown publicity director Alan Abrams, former Supreme Mary Wilson, sister Linda Ballard, and daughters Michelle and Nicole. What has evolved from that legwork is a solid portrait of Ballard, from her teenage years through her tragic last days. Much of the text is in the form of direct quotes from the interviews, woven together with historical details. There are two appendices–“Florence Ballard, Primettes, and Supremes Discography” and “Excerpts from Florence Ballard’s Legal Case Against Motown Records et al.”–as well as a list of sources (mostly secondary, with the exception of interviews and court records).
Though there are no earth-shattering revelations in The Lost Supreme, and much of the story has been told in other books about Motown and the Supremes, it is still a solid and very engaging effort–but sadly one without a happy ending.
Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss
Title: Soulsville Sings Hitsville: Stax Sings Songs of Motown Records
Catalog No.: STXCD-30391
In his book, Soulsville, U.S.A. – The Story of Stax Record (1997), popular music historian Rob Bowman documents the story of Memphis-based Stax Records. Bowman describes the story of Stax as “about as improbable and unforeseeable as any tale could possibly be.” Originally founded as Satellite Records in 1957 by white country fiddler Jim Stewart, Stax from its conception was racially integrated in all facets of its operations. Stax was also instrumental in establishing Southern soul and the south Memphis sound. The signature sound and style are attributed to its house band, which consisted of Booker T. & the MGs, Isaac Hayes, and the horn section from the Mar-Keys. Additionally, the Stax sound was also derived from the physical characteristics of its recording studio. Essentially a converted movie theatre, the studio had a slanted floor with sound proofing affixed to the interior walls and sound equipment installed on the stage.
Soulsville Sings Hitsville: Stax Sings Songs of Motown Records in essence brings the “city” cousin home to the south, and reintroduces him to long lost country roots. Containing 15 tracks, this compilation provides the Southern soul singer’s interpretation of northern soul songs from the Motown catalog.
“Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” was first recorded by The Four Tops in (1966) and by Diana Ross in (1971). The Mar-Keys’ instrumental version gives this classic Motown tune a rockin’ edge by implementing a couple of rock riffs along with other guitar effects, and places the solo line with the tenor saxophone. Although the song has been altered from its original form, you are still able to recognize the distinguishable Motown flavor which is illustrated through the accents of the tambourine.
Originally recorded by Stevie Wonder in 1970, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” has been revived and given a new walk, so to speak, by The Soul Children. With its heavy blues and gospel influences, you find it hard to resist the urge to snap your fingers as you leave the church revival to pay your dues at the local juke joint.
Other notable tracks include: “You’ve Got to Earn It” by the Staple Singers; “Stop! In the Name of Love” by Margie Joseph; “I Don’t Know Why I Love You” by David Porter; “Can I Get a Witness” by Calvin Scott; and “Chained” by Mavis Staples.
Posted by Terence La Nier II
Stax Does the Beatles is something of a companion CD to Stax Does Motown, which was released at the same time (and is also reviewed in this issue). The compilation aptly illustrates how the musical genres of rock and soul have drawn inspiration from one another, while at the same time bridging the racial divide that existed in music up until that time. British groups such as the Rolling Stones were heavily influenced by the blues, especially the electronic Chicago blues of Muddy Waters, but also did cover versions of Southern soul hits, such as Wilson Pickett’s “If You Need Me.” It was only a matter of time before inspiration began to flow in the opposite direction. By the late 1960s, Motown and Stax artists were covering a variety of songs made popular during the British Invasion, one of the most notable being Otis Redding’s version of Mick Jagger’s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (check out his incredible live performance on the recent DVD release Stax/Volt Revue Live in Norway).
This new compilation includes a small sampling of “soulful covers” of some of the Beatles’ hit songs that were reworked in the Stax studios. The tracks include an assortment of vocal and instrumental performances. Booker T. & The MGs, the Stax house band led by keyboardist Booker T. Jones, perform “Got To Get You Into My Life” (previously unreleased), “Eleanor Rigby” (released on Soul Limbo in 1968), “Michelle” and “Lady Madonna” (the latter two originally released on the 1969 album The Booker T. Set). Steve Cropper, the MGs famed guitarist, also contributes an instrumental version of “With a Little Help From My Friends.” Another Stax house band, the Mar-Keys, perform their 1971 cover of “Let It Be,” while the Bar-Kays are featured on “Yesterday” and “Hey Jude” (these tracks appear to have been recorded after the 1967 plane crash that claimed the lives of Otis Redding and most of the original members of the Bar-Kays).
All of the above adds up to a CD that is largely instrumental (9 of the 15 tracks), which though enjoyable, was something of a disappointment. In terms of vocal covers, the highlight of the CD is without a doubt the opening track, “Daytripper,” a previously unreleased studio version performed by the late, great Otis Redding. David Porter and Isaac Hayes, who teamed up to write many hit songs for Stax, both went on to record for the label. Featured here is Porter’s thoroughly enjoyable hard-driving cover of “Help” with backing provided by a Motown-style female trio, as well as Hayes’ somewhat meandering arrangement of “Something.” Carla Thomas, another of Stax’s major stars, performs a previously unreleased version of “Yesterday,” recorded live at the Bohemian Cavern (this is NOT included on the 2007 jazz-oriented CD Carla Thomas: Live at the Bohemian Caverns from the same 1967 performance). A pleasant surprise was provided by two of the lesser known artists in the Stax stable. Reggie Millner’s interpretation of “And I Love Her,” which has never appeared on CD, is punctuated by frequent falsetto bursts in the style later made famous by Michael Jackson. In John Gary Williams’ funky cover of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” from 1972, he inserts “a devotional spoken monologue” mid-song, in a similar manner to the opening of Diana Ross’s 1970 cover of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
Noticeably missing from the CD are Otis Redding’s version of “A Hard Day’s Night,” first released in 1982 on Recorded Live: Previously Unreleased Performances (revised, expanded, and reissued by Stax in 2002 as Good To Me: Live at the Whisky A Go Go, Vol. 2 ), and the fabulous version of “Hey Jude” recorded by Wilson Pickett with guitar accompaniment provided by Duane Allman. OK, I know the latter was issued by Atlantic and not Stax, but it certainly must be considered in any discussion of Southern soul covers of the Beatles songbook.
According to the liner notes by noted rock historian Richie Unterberger, Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein explored the possibility of recording what would become the Revolver album at the Stax studios in Memphis, and actually visited the studio in 1966 before scrapping the plan due to security issues. The Beatles and various Stax artists would finally meet for the first time in London in March of 1967, during the Stax/Volt Revue’s European tour. But aside from Steve Cropper’s later collaborations with John Lennon and Ringo Starr, the official alliance between the Beatles and Stax studios never happened. Too bad.
Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss