Destiny and Triumph

Title: Destiny (expanded edition)
Artist: The Jacksons
Label: Sony Legacy
Catalog No.: 886973086926
Release date: January 27, 2009

Title: Triumph (expanded edition)
Artist: The Jacksons
Label: Sony Legacy
Catalog No.: 886973355824
Release date: January 27, 2009

The Jackson 5 were Motown’s last hurrah, a boy band to rival the Monkees but with the wholesome family ties of the Partridge Family.  They also grew up on record, and their popularity in the mid-to-late-seventies mirrored that of Motown, their flagging label.  A few scattered hits and lack of creative direction led the group’s manager and father Joe to split for CBS in 1976, fetching the group a record contract and short-lived variety program on the television network.  The band’s first two albums for CBS, Destiny (1978) and Triumph (1980, as “The Jacksons”), re-established the group’s chart success and spawned two incredibly successful world tours.  Epic/Legacy have remastered and rereleased both albums, hoping to capitalize on the incredible success of their reissues of Michael’s solo albums, Off the Wall and Thriller.

The Jacksons’ narrative is of course all their own, but there are many familiar elements.  For Destiny, the brothers expressed their strong desire to write and produce their own material for the first time.  While the results can’t compare with their pop heyday and the songwriting consortium of Motown, Destiny is a slick, densely produced but still light collection of timely pop songs. The album draws from Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s lush, string-laden Philly Soul aesthetic as well as Earth, Wind & Fire’s take on funk music, with the inclusion of a few schmaltzy ballads (“You Push Me Away,” “Bless His Soul”).

The centerpiece of Destiny is its second and most successful single, “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground).”  An eight minute club cut (whittled to four minutes for radio) penned by Michael and Randy, “Shake” proved that the group could, on its own, tap into the still-ascendant disco marketthe track reached number seven on the American pop chart.  “Blame it on the Boogie” is equally lithe and arguably just as catchy, but stalled in the mid-fifties on Billboard.  The title cut and third single, however, is Destiny‘s most ambitious moment, opening with a lone acoustic guitar before segueing into one of Michael’s more world-weary lyrics, capped by an ever-so-brief refrain that could have been pulled from a Doobie Brothers or Christopher Cross track.  Destiny is a disco record through and through, and a reasonably successful one, but tracks like this make it clear that the group had designs well outside of the dance floor.

Between Destiny and Triumph, the Jacksons, especially Michael, lived up to the grandiose titles of their records.  The Destiny tour was a worldwide success, launching the Jacksons back into the popular imagination.  Michael, however, had been tapped for a starring role in The Wiz, producer Quincy Jones’ all-black remake of The Wizard of Oz starring Michael’s former advocate Diana Ross as Dorothy.  Michael and Quincy’s relationship blossomed, leading to their collaboration on Off the Wall, which cemented Michael’s reputation as a solo star.  “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough” and “Rock With You” (written by Heatwave’s Rod Temperton, who would later collaborate with Jones and Jackson on Thriller) were better songs than anything on Triumph, and stand as two of the best moments from the disco era.  Much of this was due to Jones’ wrangling of some of the best studio hands of the time, including Temperton, Jeff Porcaro, Larry Carlton, George Duke, and Greg Philligaines. Michael took the opportunity to work on his dance moves and visual style for Wall‘s music videos as well, a notion that would pay off rather well a few years later.

Though Michael was clearly on a star bound trajectory in 1980, he was still devoted (and contractually-bound) to recording and touring with his brothers.  Triumph moved away from disco toward the realm of stadium-sized electronic pop, topping Destiny‘s sales and reaching platinum status.  The lead track, “Can You Feel It,” with shared lead vocals by Jackie and Michael, reflected the group’s stratospheric ambition and self-regard. The video (released the same year MTV launched, and three years before the network committed to playing black music videos) positioned the group, quite literally, as emerging from prehistoric cosmic forces and standing larger than life.  “Feel It” stalled in the ’70s on the pop charts (though it charted much higher in Europe). The first single, “Lovely One,” essentially a retread of the horn-and-string-laden, groove-based Destiny singles, reached no.12.

Though it didn’t succeed as a single to the extent of “Lovely One”, the Michael-penned “This Place Hotel” (changed from “Heartbreak Hotel” to avoid a lawsuit) signaled his clear separation from the group, as well as his obvious admiration for another former teen idol who moved toward making “adult” music, Paul McCartney (whom Jackson met during Off the Wall). “This Place Hotel” was in many ways a precursor to Thriller‘s “Billie Jean”: a narrative of being “done wrong” by a mysterious woman.  The lyrics suggest as much: “We came to this place, where the vicious dwell / And found that wicked women run this strange hotel.”  After Triumph, Michael would reconnect with Jones, McCartney and others to record 1982’s Thriller.  Though the Jacksons would reform for the 1984 LP Victory, Michael’s moonwalk during the 1983 “Motown 25” special, coupled with a few groundbreaking music videos of his own, meant that the longstanding star of the Jackson family had finally broken off on his own.

These new “expanded editions” do much to clean up the poor digital mastering from the original CD pressings of the albums, but they do not contain much else in the way of essential bonus material.  The five extra tracks include four remixes from the same era by noted DJ and producer John Luongo, and the liner notesby critic Ernest Hardyspeak in very romantic language about the impact of the Jacksons on pop culture, pop music, and African American art in general.

Posted by Eric Harvey

Total Soul Classics: Teddy Pendergrass

In August of 2007, Philadelphia International Records licensed its entire catalog to SONY BMG, and reissues have been gradually appearing on the Legacy label.  The most recent collaboration is the Total Soul classics series, which so far has resulted in newly remastered reissues of six classic Gamble & Huff albums that include new (albeit brief) liner notes and an occasional bonus track. The three reissues covered in this review focus on the contributions of Teddy Pendergrass, who captured the essence of Philly soul (other reissues in the series include 360 Degrees of Billy Paul, the O’Jays’ Back Stabbers, and Leon Huff’s Here To Create Music).

The Philadelphia sound, also known as the “Philly sound,” is a style of soul music featuring the elements of funk, strings, horns and lush orchestral arrangements. Pop vocals and R&B rhythm sections fused to create this new sound/genre, and laid the background for disco and the format known on smooth jazz radio stations as the “Quiet Storm.”  The Philly Sound, or Philly Soul, was pioneered by the producing and songwriting duo of Leon Huff and Kenneth Gamble. They formed Philadelphia International Records (PIR) in 1971 and worked with many artists including Patti Labelle, Archie Bell and the Drells, the O’Jays, the Jacksons, Lou Rawls, the Stylistics, Jean Carne, Phyllis Hyman, Billy Paul, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and Teddy Pendergrass, amongst many others. Gamble & Huff routinely used the same group of studio musicians, known as MFSB (Mothers, Fathers, Sisters, and Brothers), which produced a consistent hit-making sound. Since 1963, Gamble & Huff have earned 175 gold and platinum records, dominating the pop and R&B charts for over twenty years. They’ve written over 3000 songs that were nurtured from the church pulpits and streets, tackling topics like family, poverty, politics and relationships.

Title: Wake Up Everybody
Artist: Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes
Label: PIR/ Legacy
Catalog No.: 88697-340102
Release date:  2008 (1975)

One of the most recognizable male vocalists to come out of PIR was Teddy Pendergrass. Like high premium chocolate, Teddy Pendergrass has a voice that is smooth, rich and velvety. Pendergrass’s vocals promote sexiness, sultriness and sensuality, and he convincingly belts out with the prowess necessary to render social change, equality and global consciousness. Affectionately known as the “Teddy Bear,” Pendergrass has been famously known to cater to women by holding “women only” concerts and handing out roses, teddy bears and hugs and kisses.

Originally hired as the Cadillac’s drummer, Pendergrass began singing with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes when the two groups merged. Many hits were made through this collaboration, yet it is the title track from the album Wake Up Everybody that arguably stands out as one of the best soul/R&B songs of the seventies. What makes this song so vital and beautiful is the lush orchestration, well-executed production, and perfect harmonies. The lyrics offer a cry to the world to literally wake up and see what is going on (similar to Marvin Gaye’s plea) and take accountability. There is no excuse or reason for society to allow poverty, crime, illness and the many plagues that affect us all if we choose to stay in a dormant state. According to his biography, Pendergrass is an ordained minister. His vocal approach is very similar to the calls and wails of black preaching- commanding yet convincing. With a wonderful balance of gruff pleas and smooth vocals, Pendergrass demonstrates his gift to blend both styles effortlessly. The ability to show vulnerability with a masculine commanding voice is not easy to achieve and Pendergrass is one of the masters.

The remaining tracks on Wake Up Everybody are primarily love songs with the stand out cut, “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” This 1975 release was Pendergrass’s final album with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. Only one bonus track has been added, an extended Tom Moulton mix of  “Don’t Leave Me This Way.”

Title: Teddy Pendergrass
Artist: Teddy Pendergrass
Label: PIR/ Legacy
Catalog No.: 88697-29484 2
Release date: 2008 (1977)

Pendergrass’s first solo album, self-titled Teddy Pendergrass, was originally released in 1977 and was also produced by the dynamic team of Gamble & Huff. Two singles charted from this album, “I Don’t Love You Anymore” and “The Whole Town’s Laughing At Me.” The track “Somebody Told Me” recalls the vocal styles of gospel, while “If I Had” evokes the best of the blues. These songs in particular showcase Pendergrass’s ability to pull from both the secular and the sacred to create emotive soul-stirring music whose appeal is most obvious to women, yet also addresses feelings that both men and women have experienced. A very consistent album with no dull tracks, Gamble & Huff concentrated on Pendergrass’s vocals, using female backing vocals or Pendergrass’s own voice to truly showcase his lead vocals. “I Don’t Love You Anymore” and “The More I Get, The More I Want” offer soulful disco tracks ideal for dancing, while also incorporating a great rhythm section, pounding percussion, and beautiful orchestrations.

Title: Life Is a Song Worth Singing
Artist: Teddy Pendergrass
Label: PIR/Legacy
Catalog No.: 88697-29485 2
Release date: 2008 (1978)

Life is a Song Worth Singing was Pendergrass’s second solo album, again produced by Gamble & Huff.  Pendergrass sings with raw conviction, yet offers tenderness in tracks such as “When Somebody Loves You Back.” The title track is a well-arranged mix of horns and strings that could provide any action movie from 1978 with a formidable soundtrack. The fervor of this CD is more intense than Pendergrass’s first album. He confidently makes it clear what he wants and what he likes as in the track “Only You,” while songs like the top charting “Close the Door” build from slow seduction to intense passion, displaying his vulnerability. This album solidified Pendergrass’s position as one of the sexiest, most sensual balladeers in R&B music.  The two bonus tracks include the single version of “Only You” and an extended disco version (7:09) of “Get Down, Get Funky.”

Though primarily known for his love songs, Pendergrass is much more than a balladeer. His body of work crosses many genres, such as disco, funk, soul and R&B. He sings from a spiritual fervor, bringing soul to every song. Whether Pendergrass is lamenting his woes of love gone wrong, the joys of loving someone when someone loves you back, or calling out to the world to show compassion towards our fellow brothers and sisters, it is very clear he has made an indelible mark on music that will never be duplicated.

Posted by June Evans

Welcome to the May issue

This month we’re featuring Holy hip hop, also known as Christian rap or gospel rap, which blends the musical style and aesthetics of rap/hip hop with overtly Christian lyrics. To learn more about this subgenre of hip hop, be sure to check out the post “Holy Hip Hop 101,” as well as reviews of new CDs by Holy hip hop artists Sha Baraka, FLAME, Phanatak, and shai linne. The Sound of Philadelphia is explored in reviews of two new Legacy releases: Conquer the World: The Lost Soul of Philadelphia International Records, and a compilation of Gamble & Huff’s Greatest Hits. A big “thumbs up” is given to Palmystery, the new solo CD by bass player Victor Wooten, perhaps best known for his work with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. Though we gave Miles Davis’s The Complete on the Corner Sessions a brief mention in our “Best of 2007” line-up, we’re running a complete review in this issue. Also featured is The Great Debaters Soundtrack, with contributions by the Carolina Chocolate Drops; The Manchester Free Trade Hall 1964 performance by Rev. Gary Davis; and John Work, III: Recording Black Culture, which sheds new light on the field recordings made by the Fisk University professor.