It’s possible that ‘Sign “O” The Times’ (the single) had the same effect on one generation of music lovers as ‘Waterloo Sunset’, ‘Arnold Layne’, ‘Purple Haze’ or ‘Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields’ (all released between March and May 1967) did on another.
Released on 13 March 1987, it’s hard to think of another top 10 single of the 1980s with as much as space in it (and uncharacteristically deep reverb on Prince’s vocals, presumably utilising the famous Sunset Sound echo chamber). Apart from his guitar and voice, it was all performed on a Fairlight synth/sampler.
Adorned with a back cover featuring Cat Glover, the single drew lyrical inspiration from various news items read in The LA Times during the week of Monday 14 July 1986: Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ program, the AIDS crisis, the investigation into January’s space shuttle disaster and the inner-city drug wars.
Lisa Coleman reports that she heard Prince’s amazing programmed drum groove blasting out of the venue speakers during a soundcheck in Denver in early July 1986.
Famously barred from releasing a three-album set by Warner Bros. – a process outlined in detail in Duane Tudahl’s wonderful recent book – Prince regrouped, quickly creating new material and then making the title track his new double album’s centrepiece.
Signbecame the sound of summer 1987 in my corner of west London. Prince had been on my radar before – Parade was a definite sleeper – but this was it. And yet it still seems one of those ‘classic’ albums that gets talked about more than listened to.
So I listened to it. In one sitting. Probably for the first time in about five years. It’s probably even better than I remembered it. Has anyone ever captured a ‘party in the studio’ vibe better than Prince on ‘Housequake’ and ‘Play In The Sunshine’? And usually he only had Susannah Melvoin and engineer Susan Rogers for company. Of course this was in a sense a throwback to classic Little Richard and Chuck Berry, as well as James Brown tracks such as ‘Get Up Offa That Thing’.
He begins each side with groundbreaking tracks for him that took a while to record. We’ve discussed ‘Sign’. Then there was ‘It’, actually his first song exclusively using the Fairlight (apart from his guitar and vocals). Then ‘U Got The Look’, which was drastically sped up at the eleventh hour, ratcheted up a few semitones. Then ‘The Cross’, written and recorded the day after the infamous Los Angeles earthquake of 12 July 1986. Prince’s drums on this track speed up a lot – Rogers reportedly noticed but decided not to point it out.
Rogers also reports that she occasionally badgered Prince about the seemingly ‘lo-fi’ nature of these recordings, but he didn’t budge, and the album benefits from that ‘unfinished’ quality, even if it features a lot less bass than most modern music.
Sign features probably Prince’s greatest music, but we could all debate which tracks could have been left off. I could do without ‘It’, ‘Forever In My Life’, ‘Slow Love’, ‘The Cross’, ‘Adore’ (and would have preferred ‘Power Fantastic’, ‘Dream Factory’, ‘Crucial’, ‘Sexual Suicide’ and ‘Good Love’, but Prince had long jettisoned them by early 1987…).
Also why does the superb album design get short shrift? It’s a key part of the package. Hail photographer Jeff Katz and graphic designer Laura (niece of Tommy) LiPuma.
Of the four hits from Terence Trent D’Arby’s superb debut album Introducing The Hardline According To…, it comes as somewhat of a surprise to report that only ‘Wishing Well’ got to #1 on the US singles chart.
Co-written by Terence and former Rip Rig + Panic bassist Sean Oliver, it reached the top spot 35 years ago today after a remarkable 17-week climb (only Eurythmics’ ‘Sweet Dreams’ endured a longer run to US #1 during the 1980s).
Not bad for a song without a proper chorus. But it hardly matters – it’s such an infectious groove with a brilliant vocal performance.
The album, all but one track co-produced by Terence and Heaven 17’s Martyn Ware, also reached its peak US position of #4 on this date in 1988. It’s still one of the most consistent, exciting debut collections of the decade, well worth revisiting.
Equally impressively, Terence also won a Best Male R&B Vocal Grammy award at the 1988 ceremony, beating off some very heavy company (though he lost out in the Best New Artist category to Jody Watley):
In February 1983, Marvin Gaye was apparently at the top of his game, enjoying his miraculous comeback and selling a lot of Midnight Love albums.
But he also had a lot of money worries courtesy of his divorce with Jan Hunter. And then Father moved back to the family home on Gramercy Place, Los Angeles, after a spell in Washington DC. Marvin’s short spell as ‘head of the household’ was over.
So he found himself spending a lot of time at the Olympia Boulevard apartment of his younger sister Zoela (AKA Sweetsie), and it was there on the evening of 12 February that he worked with MD Gordon Banks on a new arrangement of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ to perform before the next day’s NBA All-Star game at The Forum in Inglewood.
Accompanied by just a minimal drum-machine groove and a few keyboard pads, Marvin’s spellbinding performance was one of the greatest moments of his last five years. (Intriguingly, he also changed the words slightly, singing: ‘O say, does thy star-spangled banner’). Reportedly he loved performing for some of America’s greatest athletes, and it’s pretty clear that they loved it too.
Postscript: Ten days later, on 23 February 1983, Marvin won the only two Grammy Awards of his career: Best Male R’n’B Vocal and Best R’n’B Instrumental Performance, both for ‘Sexual Healing’.
Lewis Taylor has never troubled the BRIT, MOBO or Grammy awards and never had a top 40 single or album but may be the most musically talented British solo artist of the last 30 years.
Over six studio albums – including last year’s unexpected NUMB, his first record for 18 years – Taylor’s work has embraced neo-soul, old-school R’n’B, prog, psych and yacht rock, influenced legions of blue-eyed-soul wannabes and been publicly lauded by David Bowie, Aaliyah, Paul Weller, Amy Winehouse, Leon Ware, Elton John, D’Angelo and Daryl Hall.
His classic self-titled debut album dropped on Island Records in 1996 and stunned the musical cognescenti. Who was this guy from Barnet who sung a bit like Marvin, played guitar like Ernie Isley, bass like James Jamerson and keyboards like Billy Preston, and created his extraordinary angst-ridden compositions in a North London flat on two digital reel-to-reel tape machines?
His second album – 2000’s Lewis II – was possibly even better, but sadly there were various reasons for its lack of commercial success. Lewis parted company with Island and recorded two further studio albums in the 2000s, Stoned Parts 1 and Part 2, and also issued The Lost Album and Limited Edition 2004. But what most fans didn’t know was that Lewis had a ‘secret’ 1980s history as purveyor of weird psychedelic pop/rock under the name Sheriff Jack and also as a touring guitarist in The Edgar Broughton Band.
It all adds up to a truly singular career, and Lewis is one of the most gifted artists working in music today. movingtheriver caught up with him as his new album NUMB was being released to rave reviews.
MTR: I gather you grew up in North London and were somewhat of a piano and guitar prodigy – can you tell me about your early experiences of seeing live music in the capital? Who would have been some artists you saw live/listened to?
LT: Ooh no, I wouldn’t say I was anything near a prodigy. My Dad was a wannabe musician who’d played percussion in a couple of jazz bands – Bongo Bernie they used to call him – so the real interest in music sort of came from being around him and I became obsessed with records. As a result live music has never interested me and it still doesn’t really, it’s all about the records. My dad liked a lot of big-band jazz – Stan Kenton was a fave of his, and he liked Latin stuff like Tito Puente. I also remember an album of Maya Angelou songs he liked as well cos it was sort of dark calypso. That was his thing – he liked anything that had that sort of exotic, syncopated rhythmic thing going on, but he liked some pop of the day too. He loved Mungo Jerry’s ‘In The Summertime’, it used to make him laugh, and I can remember him in the car singing along to the end choruses of TRex’s ‘Hot Love’. He was quite a strange man.
On the keyboards side, would you say you were ‘classically’ trained? I only ask because I hear little bits of ‘classical’ harmony on some of your stuff, like ‘Satisfied’ and ‘The Final Hour’.
I would say I had a bit of classical training. But because the guitar had taken over I’d stopped paying attention to my piano lessons, but some of it must have still seeped through so I do have a good grasp of music theory, but I still can’t read music. I used to cheat in my lessons. I would learn whatever piece I was given to learn by ear and pretend I was reading it. Because I had a precocious taste in rock music as a pre-teen, the fact that the lessons were all based around classical piano music only served to distance me from it even more. So it very quickly started to feel like an extension of school. I did eventually manage to splutter out: ‘Mum, I hate this – I’m only doing it cos you told me to’, and that was the end of it.
Which guitarists/bassists/keys players do you/did you idolise? Re. the former, I hear Ernie Isley, Eddie Hazel, maybe Richie Blackmore, and I detect a John McLaughlin influence too?
One of my biggest bass influences is Chris Squire. I first heard Yessongs in 1975 and all I could hear was this clicky-clang of his bass but he would also be going places melodically where someone like James Jamerson went and the combination was so unusual and inspiring. On guitar, Pete Townshend, just for his rhythmic thing he has going on, I definitely got my strong right-hand attack from listening to him. For soloing, yeah a bit of Blackmore, but when I really started trying to play lead Van Halen had just come out so apart from the finger-tapping aspect which I’m not really into, the way he interpreted the blues scale influenced me a hell of a lot. Michael Schenker was another one. And of course Jimi. I do like players like John McLaughlin and John Scofield, Allan Holdsworth as well, but I’m not lofty enough to go there!
Tell me about joining/touring with the Edgar Broughton Band.
It was a weird coincidental thing, one of the albums I’d borrowed from my cousin was an Edgar Broughton Band album so I’d first heard of them when I was 9 or 10. Ten years later my brother had got a job working at Steve Broughton’s studio. When Steve told him they were going to reform and were looking for a guitarist, he said: ‘Get my brother in, he already knows all your stuff’ so it went from there. I loved it. The dysfunctionality of their music and of the band itself sat very well with my own dysfunction! We toured round Germany, Switzerland and particularly Norway a lot, we played a huge stadium in East Berlin three years before the wall came down. Every tour was an experience of some kind, not always good, but even that was good! The one which really shone for me was an outdoor festival on a Norwegian island called Karlsoy. We played at midnight but it was daylight, really strange daylight. I’ll always remember the walk down to the stage and turning round to see this wonderfully eerie vision of Edgar waking behind me, his Lennon shades on, his long white mane of hair and this really odd, cold light from the midnight sun shining behind him. We played a blazing set that night. Love Edgar, love those guys!
Sheriff Jack – what are you memories of that period?
Steve Burgess was a bit of a character who had a shop in Crouch End called ‘English Weather’. He saw himself as a sort of record shop guru and I suppose he was, to me at least, the imploding 19-year-old I was back then. It coincided with the Paisley Underground thing that was starting at the time so his shop specialised in that along with 60’s garage and psychedelia, and so I quickly became a regular customer there and we became friends. He’d also been involved somehow with The Soft Boys and Robyn Hitchcock and I went through a period of listening to them quite a bit. I probably misread a lot of what Hitchcock was doing as just silly nonsense and tried to do the same thing with the Sheriff Jack stuff. The name came from a track on a Red Krayola album called God Bless The Red Krayola And All Who Sail With It. Again, a very bizarre album to some that seemed to make perfect sense to me. On this song I think they’d deliberately recorded the drums without being able to hear the song so they would go out in and out of time with the rest of the music. I used to play that track over and over on so I thought it was fitting to name myself after that song. I wasn’t serious or ambitious about it and I’m still not quite sure why I did it to be honest, but I did.
When signing with Island, did you have any direct dealings with Chris Blackwell?
No I never met him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t even know I was signed to his label, let alone who I was!
Is it true that you worked quite a lot on that first Island album at their studios in St Peter’s Square, Hammersmith, with more of a ‘band’ vibe, before recording the album essentially by yourself?
Not really, no. I was still trying to find a direction and hadn’t found it at that point. So there was a lot of early material that was fairly dodgy. I’d gone in there with the multi-tracks to overdub a drummer to get a live feel. But even then everything else had been done at home. I used to have some bad habits – I would sometimes record the effects onto tape as opposed to sending the tracks to effects during the mixing stage, so I would just use a reverb unit, then compress the reverb so it really sort of sucked in, then record it with the dry signal. The album was actually mixed at that studio though, so I’m sure the notorious echo chamber is on there somewhere.
What was it like appearing on ‘The National Lottery’ show? And ‘Later…With Jools’? Did you enjoy that aspect of promotion?
Some of it I did, yeah. I actually was on ‘Later’ three times you know – oh yes. Once as Lewis, once on keys with Finley Quaye, and once as keyboardist with some rappers called Spooks.
Do you ever wonder how different your life would have been if ‘Lucky’ had been a big hit? (and btw, I’m stunned that ‘Whoever’ didn’t even chart – that sounds like a hit to me, even today…).
Oh thanks. I actually have a pretty good idea how I would have turned out had I been more successful – I’ve always had a few loose screws at the best of times but a successful career in music, and particularly the fame aspect of it, would’ve turned me into a complete basket case!
Is it true that it was completely your decision to scrap the second album for Island, before starting over and recording Lewis II? I do recall a comment at the Hanover Grand gig where you alluded to Island being responsible…
Not exactly, I pushed in such an extreme direction the other way with what eventually became The Lost Album, it was a knee-jerk reaction to a perceived ‘trapped in R&B’ feeling I was going through at the time and some people around me were in favour of it and others weren’t. In the end I think I lost confidence in it and did Lewis II instead.
It is mystifying to me why no singles were released from Lewis II. Do you regret that ‘You Make Me Wanna’ wasn’t released as a single? I might have gone for ‘My Aching Heart’ too…
I don’t know. I think things were fairly fragmented by then and really my heart wasn’t in it anymore, but I wasn’t aware of that so I was sort of on autopilot. Also a lot of the people who were at Island when I signed with them had left so a few things definitely sort of contributed to the way things went there.
That Hanover Grand gig around that time felt so positive and it was a thrill seeing an English artist making such patently world-class music, and starting with ‘Track’… Do you feel that that momentum wasn’t maintained? And how much do you lay at Island’s door?
Hmm, not much really, but I did at the time. In hindsight I don’t think I would have been an easy artist to work with, I was a guy who sounded like that but looked like this and I wouldn’t play ‘the game’. I’m surprised that they were as supportive as they were! I do remember it being a pretty good gig though.
Amy Winehouse was quoted as saying she wanted to work with Paul Staveley O’Duffy only because he’d worked with you – did you know Amy? Did she seek you out? She was obviously a big fan. I thought ‘Take The Box’ had more than a bit of your influence.
No, I didn’t know Amy and I wasn’t aware that she was a fan. She was a great singer though. Very sad what happened.
Did you record a whole Trout Mask Replica covers album? I remember hearing ‘Ella Guru’ and being knocked out by it.
Oh cool, I’m glad you liked that! No I didn’t do the whole album, it was a bit of an anal job. You can’t learn those songs that easily cos there isn’t a straight line going through them, well there is but it’s very, very bent. So the only way was to get the instrumental version of each song, record it onto a stereo track cos Beefheart always had two guitars panned hard left and right, then I would just drop in and overdub it phrase by phrase, erase the original then try and sing on it. I gave up after 13 tracks, couldn’t be bothered! LOL…
How do you feel Universal have treated your Island catalogue since you left the company? Do such things bother you?
No, not really. It’s a shame that they didn’t contact me when they did the expanded reissue thing but other than that it’s all cool.
Did you know beforehand that the 2006 Bowery Ballroom gig in NYC was going to be your last for a long while?
No I didn’t as such, but I had started looking at myself from a personal point of view by then and I was trying to figure out where I ended and where the musician began. Unfortunately that process coincided with the involvement of the US guys so I was on a different page to them and it was the wrong page to be doing what I was doing. I didn’t have a clue about that at the time though so my behaviour may have been a bit baffling to them!
Famously you withdrew much of your online presence in 2006 – what has driven you to ‘switch it on’ again? And how do you feel about being a solo artist now with all the social media marketing etc. that goes along with it?
I dunno really, up until about two years ago I still wasn’t bothered, if somebody told me I’d be putting an album out in 2022 I’d have laughed at them. It feels a bit like it came out of nowhere but at the same time it doesn’t feel like one of those ‘I just have to create again and now is the time’ scenarios either. There was always a part of me that was pretty cynical about that way of thinking, and coming back to it now I still think like that, but in less of a cynical way if that makes any sense. The whole social media thing is just another thing – ‘new skin for the old ceremony’ – it has its pros and cons just like everything else that came before it.
You used to make music using a digital reel-to-reel tape machine in your home – is that still the case?
No, it’s all on a Mac now.
What do you think of the streaming revolution and its effect on album listening? Do you miss the physical product (and is NUMB going to appear on vinyl?)
I don’t really miss the physical format, I actually like mp3s, I like the convenience of them. Yes NUMB is definitely getting a vinyl release some time next year. Be With Records are doing it, the guys who did the vinyl of the first album. I’ve heard the test pressing and it sounds great.
B-sides – you created some brilliant music. Personal favourites: ‘Lewis III’, ‘Pie In Electric Sky/If I Lay Down’, ‘Asleep When You Come’. Is there anything more in the vaults? What’s the favourite of your B-sides?
Oh cool, thanks! No I don’t think there is anything left over, each set of B-sides was written and recorded specifically for each ‘single’ release. My favourite has always been’ I Dream The Better Dream’. In my fantasy it’s what early Soft Machine would’ve sounded like if Marvin Gaye was their lead singer.
I enjoyed your collaborations with Deborah Bond and The Vicar’s ‘The Girl With Sunshine’ (please tell me more about that). Did you consider any other duets/collaborations in a similar vein just before your ‘retirement’? Or is there anything in the pipeline for the future?
Both of those things were done at a time when I was starting to back away and shut up shop so it was all done via email. The Deborah Bond thing was a nice little job, cute little song. The Vicar thing was a guy called David Singleton who was somehow attached to Robert Fripp, I’m not sure exactly how. I think he’d heard a tune from The Lost Album which was featured on a compilation that came free with one the mags and so he sent an email asking if I’d like to sing on this funny album he was doing. Why did I do it? Good question. Looking back I think I was probably just flattered that someone was still interested at that stage.
You were involved as a ‘sideman’ capacity with Gnarls Barkley and Finley Quaye – was there ever any possibility of you just becoming an ‘anonymous’ sideman post-2006? Could you have carried on as a session player?
No I don’t think so. I definitely needed a total break from everything. I was approached with a couple more MD jobs after the Gnarls thing but as soon as I started thinking about the possibility of doing them it just felt wrong. I did reconnect with The Edgar Broughton Band though and we did a few more tours over the course of about four years, but that doesn’t count cos they were mates and it was away from Lewis Taylor and the mainstream industry. We toured the same places as they had always done, Norway, Germany and Switzerland. I think a few gigs were recorded but not for a record, although we did do a German Rockpalast show which had a DVD and CD release, and there are a few fan-made clips of some Norway shows on YouTube.
Listening to NUMB, it’s striking how much lower your vocals are in the mix as opposed to say on Lewis II. There’s a ‘horn-like’ feel to your vocals now too. I gather you particularly love Johnny Hodges’ playing?
That’s interesting, it didn’t occur to me that I sounded like that! I do remember saying I liked Johnny Hodges but I love all the classic alto and tenor players. The Hodges reference was probably from when I was listening to a Charlie Parker Jam Session album and Johnny Hodges was one of the many players on it, and compared to everyone else’s blazing solos his playing was so small and sly in a wink-wink kind of way and I remember being very entertained by it at the time. But then I discovered Albert Ayler and everything changed.
Who’s that on backing vocals on ‘Apathy’? And are there are any other guest appearances on the album?
Well that’s Sabina (Smyth) of course! And she is by no means a guest, any female vocals you hear are her! She’s on all the albums. We write, produce and mix all the albums together – it’s all us.
Is that a Syd Barrett interview reference on ‘Feel So Good’? (‘I even think I ought to be’…)
Of course! God bless Syd. I love him.
‘Nearer’ is extremely complex. Any memories of how that tune came about?
It’s strange cos while it does sound complex it was actually one of those tracks the just seemed to write itself.
NUMB is generally downbeat but also uplifting, kind of modern blues. A key theme seems to be having the courage to be yourself, faults and all, and the problems that go along with that. ‘Braveheart’ says it all.
That is a key theme, yes. Self-awareness and trying to be more authentic than you may have been in the past. All that shite. Yeah, I love ‘Braveheart’.
It’s a beautiful mixing and mastering job on NUMB. It’s really easy on the ear. Do you enjoy that aspect of music-making?
Thanks man. I think I enjoy that and the programming more than anything. Using a program like Logic is so much fun. You’re only limited by yourself. Logic will do anything you want it to and having those tools accessible is a great thing.
I think NUMB is really original (and, for what it’s worth, your best album since Lewis II…), but what music do you listen to for enjoyment now?
Thank you so much and I’m so glad you like it. I listen to a lot of opera these days. Totally away from anything I do as a musician.
How do you feel about people covering your stuff? Anything you particularly like? I’ve heard a few – Taylor Dayne, Peter Cox, Beverley Knight. Jarrod Lawson plays a great live version of ‘Right’. And of course Robbie. Presumably the latter has been absolutely vital for your income stream.
I think it’s cool and I think Robbie did a great job on ‘Lovelight’. I was watching some footage of him the other day and he’s such a powerhouse as a performer.
Do you miss playing live at all? Personally I found the last few years of your live stuff in the mid noughties a little ‘perfect’ with great players but maybe a little too slick… Do you agree? And any chance you might play live behind NUMB?
I actually thought that last band, myself, Ash Soan, Lee Pomeroy and Gary Sanctuary was the best band I ever had. I heard some tapes of us when we were over in NYC and we were so fierce.
Finally, how would you sum up your career in music thus far?
Hmm, probably with a small ‘c’…
Thank you, Lewis…
Further reading: An edited/updated version of this interview appears in the April 2023 issue of Record Collector magazine.
At this late stage of the game, it’s very rare to hear a piece of music that has you gripped from bar one.
But that happened recently when Jennifer Holliday’s ‘And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going’ turned up on Forgotten 80s.
The song was vaguely familiar. Then the penny dropped – I was a big fan of ‘The Larry Sanders Show’ and always loved Jim Carrey’s performance on the final episode (see below) in 1998, but didn’t have a clue at the time that it was a cover version.
But back to Jennifer Holliday. She first performed ’And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going’ at the age of just 20 when she took on the role of Effie Wright in the musical ‘Dreamgirls’, which opened on 21 December 1981 at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway. Written by Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger, the song ends Act One with a dramatic flourish.
Released as a David Foster-produced single in 1982, it got to #22 on the Billboard Hot 100 and won a Best Female R’n’B Vocal Performance Grammy for Holliday. It’s an electrifying vocal performance, fusing soul and gospel and injecting a touch of humour to boot.
Holliday was subsequently one of the first signings to the Geffen label, her first solo album Feel My Soul produced and co-written by Earth, Wind & Fire mainman Maurice White – it reached #31 on the Billboard pop chart and was Grammy-nominated.
Holliday was then featured vocalist and arranger of The New Jersey Mass Choir on Foreigner’s #1 single ‘I Want To Know What Love Is’, a performance which reportedly reduced the song’s co-writer/guitarist Mick Jones to tears when recorded at New York’s Right Track Studios during summer 1984
Less successful was a second album for Geffen, 1987’s Get Close To My Love, but Holliday has continued to perform to this day in both secular and non-secular formats. More power to her elbow, and bravo for an absolutely spellbinding vocal performance (Jim’s not bad either, sounding occasionally a bit like Mike Patton).
It’s highly unlikely that any critics’ poll of the greatest soul albums from the last 70 years would include anything from the 1980s, save possibly for a Diana, Anita Baker, Terence TD or Bobby Womack outlier.
There was the odd huge-selling ‘crossover’ album (Can’t Slow Down, Thriller, Whitney Houston) but arguably the decade didn’t produce a What’s Going On or Songs In The Key Of Life.
Classic soul fans generally became used to poor-to-middling album packages, with the requisite two or three-star reviews and complaints about too many producers and underwhelming material. The greats of the ’60s and ’70s also sometimes struggled to move with the times, getting hamstrung by technology and/or unsuitable collaborators.
But my goodness there were some superb tracks, particularly between 1980 and 1985, an interesting period when Classic Soul drew from Yacht Rock and Jazz/Funk. However, these songs tended to get quickly forgotten and/or ignored. In the late-’80s, ’90s and noughties, enterprising indie labels put together fondly-remembered compilations (Mastercuts, StreetSounds) that brought these tracks back for a small but very enthusiastic audience.
But the beauty of streaming services is that we can compile these beauties to create one sh*t-hot album, so I have, here. This has been my go-to playlist during lockdown. Forget the talent-show wannabees – these vocalists have serious pipes, and the songwriting and arrangements are top-class too. Here’s a small selection of lost classic soul tracks from the 1980s:
14. Johnny Gill: ‘Half Crazy’ (1985)
Co-written by legendary Philly wordsmith Linda Creed (‘Betcha By Golly Wow’, ‘People Make The World Go Round’), this was the lead-off track and first single from Gill’s second album and still sounds like a bona fide soul standard today. It was a long way from New Edition for Johnny, though he was just 18 years old when he recorded it. Scary…
13. Teena Marie: ‘My Dear Mr Gaye’ (1984)
Moving tribute to Marvin from the less-than-excellent album Starchild, featuring a string arrangement by Motown mainman Paul Riser and a groovy change of pace in the middle of the tune.
12. Carl Anderson: ‘Buttercup’ (1985)
Stevie Wonder-penned minor classic from a little-known vocalist who recorded many solo albums before his death in 2004, but was probably best known for his portrayal of Judas Iscariot in the Broadway and film versions of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’.
11. Gladys Knight & The Pips: ‘Bourgie Bourgie’ (1980)
Just check out co-writer (with Nick Ashford) Valerie Simpson’s gospel-tinged piano playing on this – absolutely fabulous. And Gladys’s super-funky vocals are perfect. It’s adapted from a 1977 Ashford & Simpson instrumental.
10. Odyssey: ‘If You’re Lookin’ For A Way Out’ (1980)
Heartbreaking ballad written by Ralph Kotkov and superbly sung by Lillian Lopez. Made #6 in the UK singles chart.
9. Millie Jackson: ‘This Is It’ (1980)
Now THIS is how you kick off a soul album. A hilarious eight-minute tour-de-force that aims to get men squirming in their seats. Remarkably, it’s also officially a Kenny Loggins/Michael McDonald composition.
8. Chris Jasper: ‘Superbad’ (1987)
Great song from long-time keyboard player of The Isley Brothers. A socially-conscious lyric looking at the value of inner-city education and the kind of tune Stevie should have been producing in the mid-’80s.
7. Diana Ross: ‘Cross My Heart’ (1987)
Superb, catchy song, written by frequent Leonard Cohen collaborator Sharon Robinson, and Diana’s vocals are just gorgeous. From the otherwise fairly uninspired Red Hot Rhythm And Blues album.
6. Leon Ware: ‘Why I Came To California’ (1982)
Cool mixture of soul, jazz/funk and yacht rock, an ode to the West Coast with a top-drawer rhythm section of Chuck Rainey (bass) and James Gadson (drums) and vocals from Manhattan Transfer’s Janis Siegel. But who plays the great sax solo? Seems impossible to find out…
5. SOS Band: ‘Weekend Girl’ (1984)
More evidence that producing/songwriting team Jam & Lewis were going to be arguably THE musical force of the decade, a gorgeous, upwardly-mobile, mature ballad that has the same kind of grandeur as one of Chic’s slow-burners.
4. Patti Labelle: ‘If Only You Knew’ (1983)
Just…wow. Killer ballad co-written by Kenny Gamble and Dexter Wansel which reached #1 on the Billboard R’n’B chart. Super arrangement too, emphasised by the unexpected key change going into the first verse.
3. Bobby Womack: ‘Games’ (1983)
‘You see, I like all kinds of music – no favourites!’, Bobby proclaims at the beginning of this superb track, then demonstrates it with a lovely little nod to Wes Montgomery’s guitar style.
2. Phyllis Hyman: ‘Why Did You Turn Me On’ (1983)
A hint of Rod Temperton about this catchy Narada Michael Walden-penned mid-tempo smoocher, showcasing Hyman’s giant voice to great effect. Sadly the Philly soul legend took her own life in 1995.
1. Terence Trent D’Arby: ‘As Yet Untitled’ (1987)
Ambitious accappella piece from Terence’s classic debut album, with a vocal nod to Sam Cooke but also featuring some stirring sounds purely of his own creation.
In a recent podcast, Donald Fagen spoke about the importance of vocal tone, saying that he’d rather listen to Ray Charles singing a mediocre song completely ‘straight’ than a jazz singer pointlessly embellishing a songbook standard.
It got me thinking about Phyllis Hyman’s crackerjack performance on ‘I’ll Be Around’ (not to be confused with the Alec Wilder standard sung by many including Frank Sinatra and Chaka Khan), from McCoy Tyner’s 1982 CBS album Looking Out.
The song, which has haunted me since I first heard it in the late 1980s, was mainly written by Stanley Clarke and recycled from his lacklustre (despite featuring some lovely Stan Getz saxophone) 1979 track ‘The Streets Of Philadelphia’.
‘I’ll Be Around’ comes from an otherwise fairly mediocre McCoy album, mainly notable for featuring Carlos Santana, Clarke and Gary Bartz on several tracks.
But Tyner’s fabled work with John Coltrane must have seemed a distant memory by 1982. In jazz terms, CBS was obsessed with Wynton Marsalis and neo-classicism, though still had time for Herbie Hancock’s hip-hop explorations and Miles’s comeback.
Phyllis and McCoy in the studio
Maybe McCoy in turn thought he’d hit paydirt by grabbing Santana, Bartz and Clarke (huge Coltrane fans, all), but Looking Out is now barely a footnote to his illustrious career – it was his second and last album for Columbia.
‘I’ll Be Around’ doesn’t feature Santana or Bartz, and was the sole LA-recorded track on the album (the other tracks being recorded at the Power Station in NYC), adding the excellent pairing of Charles ‘Icarus’ Johnson on guitar and Ndugu Chancler on drums.
Chancler and Tyner work together almost telepathically, the former driving the song forward, though always with one ear on the groove, the latter sprinkling on his majestic chord voicings.
Hyman’s vocals are huge, luscious, but she also adds some subtle flavours over Tyner’s piano solo, consciously removing vibrato and sometimes singing ever-so-slightly sharp for emotional effect.
Of course it’s virtually impossible now to assess this heartfelt performance without considering her tragic suicide in 1995. But, happily, ‘I’ll Be Around’ gives a different slant on a fine career and shows Hyman’s mastery of Black Music, from disco to jazz.