1980s Soul: 14 Lost Classics

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. (Or did it? Suggestions please…).

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 a cover of a Kenny Loggins/Michael McDonald tune.

8. Chris Jasper: ‘Superbad’ (1987)

Great song from long-time keyboard player of The Isley Brothers. 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.

Story Of A Song: McCoy Tyner/Phyllis Hyman’s I’ll Be Around

What makes a ‘good’ singer? 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 almost all forms of black music, from disco to jazz.

Narada Michael Walden: Looking At You, Looking At Me/The Nature Of Things/Divine Emotion

Singing drummers: the ’80s were chock-a-block with ’em. But Narada seems a somewhat forgotten example, at least compared to the far more popular Phil C, Don H, Stevie W and Sheila E.

Yet he started the decade as the one you’d probably have put your money on, ending the ’70s as he did with an impressive run of R’n’B hits.

Narada had of course started his music career as a jazz/rock drumming tornado in the second incarnation of John McLaughlin’s mighty Mahavishnu Orchestra, going on to record famous fusion sides with Jeff Beck, Weather Report, Tommy Bolin, Alphonso Johnson and Jaco Pastorius.

During the ’80s, he was one of the most in-demand producers on the planet, helming Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’, Aretha Franklin/George Michael’s ‘I Knew You Were Waiting For Me’ and Starship’s ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’. But his solo career was somewhat in limbo during this period, so it’s fascinating to check out a new, nicely-appointed three-album survey of his 1983-1988 output.

Looking At You, Looking At Me (1983) is the best of the three albums, but a frustratingly inconsistent record. Listening to the superb title track, you’d think he might have found hit his true metier, a languid, luxurious, West Coast pop/jazz, similar to the kind of music Al Jarreau or Manhattan Transfer were making at the time.

But an OK duet with Angela Bofill, passable cover of ‘Reach Out (I’ll Be There)’ and sick drum-machine/horn workout ‘Shake It Off’ aside, the rest of the album is fairly unmemorable R’n’B with occasional virtuosity from guitarist Corrado Rustici and bassist Randy Jackson.

The followup, 1985’s Nature Of Things, is even more problematic, sounding mainly like a kind of soft R’n’B version of the ‘Top Gun’ soundtrack, with way too many synth-based ballads. But Divine Emotion (1988) was a partial return to form, led by the effervescent title track (with one of the great ’80s basslines) which gave him a timely UK hit.

Narada had obviously been prompted into action by his highly successful production work – his vocals and arrangements have never been better. But while Divine Emotion sounds like a million dollars, there are still issues on the songwriting front. Put simply, only the title track, ‘But What Up Doh’ and closer ‘We Still Have A Dream’ have memorable hooks (the latter also features some brilliant jazz/rock kit work from Narada).

One wonders what might have happened if he had hooked up with some great ‘pop’ songwriters like Kenny Loggins, Rod Temperton, Michael McDonald, Carole Bayer Sager or even Burt Bacharach at the outset of the decade rather than relentlessly ploughing his own furrow. ‘Looking At Me, Looking At You’ offers tantalising possibilities.

But looking at his career as a whole, it’s all turned out fine – Narada’s always been one of the coolest, most talented musician/producers around, and apparently he’s an absolute joy to work with.

Prince: The Lovesexy Tour @ 30

I haven’t kept many VHS cassettes: ‘Steve Martin Live’, Japan’s ‘Oil On Canvas’ and King Crimson’s ‘The Noise’ are probably lurking around somewhere, and two vids that definitely won’t be hitting the charity shop any time soon are Prince’s ‘Lovesexy Live: Volumes 1 and 2’ (still unavailable on DVD…).

The Lovesexy tour kicked off 30 years ago this week, on 8th July 1988 at Paris’s Palais Omnisport. The seven-month jaunt, taking in Europe, North America and Japan, was arguably Prince’s greatest ever.

A spectacular in-the-round stage set was designed as a kind of ‘fantasy island’, half a playground and half a dreamscape, with curtains, a mini basketball court, brass bed, swing set and a Ford T-Bird which Prince ‘drove’ around the stage at the start of the show.

The Lovesexy tour band: left to right, Cat Glover, Dr Fink, Boni Boyer, Miko Weaver, Eric Leeds, Prince, Levi Seacer Jr., Matt Blistan, Sheila E

Taped on the last night of the European tour – 9th September 1988, at the Westfalenhalle in Dortmund, Germany – ‘Lovesexy Live’ still makes for a thrilling watch. First, the music: this band could turn on a dime. It’s hard to imagine any other set of musicians from the era pulling off the ‘Adore’/’Jack U Off’/’Sister’ medley. Prince’s guitar playing is at its best, with creamy, delay-drenched distortion and tight, tasty Telecaster.

And of all the ’80s ‘pop’ acts who incorporated jazz into their work, Prince may be the most successful. In collaboration with his superb horn section (Eric Leeds on saxes, Matt Blistan on trumpet), he often went back to the source: Ellington’s ‘Things Ain’t What They Used To Be’ and Charlie Parker’s ‘Billie’s Bounce’ infiltrate ‘Blues In C/If I Had A Harem’, and Blistan occasionally quotes from ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing’). Meanwhile Sheila E brings the Bay Area jazz/rock sound so beloved of Prince. Her solo feature is a highlight of his ’80s live work.

Then there’s the ‘story’. The Lovesexy show is structured like one of those old Warner Bros gangster pictures – in the first half (lucky for us), we see an ‘evil’ Prince, seduced by the sins of the flesh and tempted by drugs, money and criminality, giving him an excuse to dust off Black Album standouts ‘Superfunkicalifragisexy’ and ‘Bob George’.

Then there’s punishment, atonement and spiritual conversion. Yes, y’all, the second half of the show is ‘God stuff’. But if you don’t go along with it, the music is enough of a spiritual experience anyway. Anyway, Prince certainly seems genuinely transported during ‘Anna Stesia’ and ‘I Wish U Heaven’.

Europe couldn’t get enough of the tour. There were no less than seven nights at London’s Wembley Arena and a series of famous after-show gigs, particularly at the Camden Palace on 25th July when Mica Paris was picked out from the crowd to sing ‘Just My Imagination’ and Ron Wood joined Prince onstage for a memorable ‘Miss You’ (see below).

Ticket sales were not so good in the States (14th September to 29th November) where apparently Prince struggled to sell out many arenas, despite it being his first major tour there for over three years. But normal service was resumed when the Japan leg kicked off in early February 1989. The last night of the tour on the 13th was apparently an exceptionally emotional one.

When Prince got home to Minneapolis, he commenced work on the ‘Batman’ soundtrack, another project about the duality of man. It’s not hard to see where his head was at as the ’80s drew to a close.

Marvin Gaye’s Midnight Love: 35 Years Old Today

CBS Records, released 1st October 1982

Produced by Marvin Gaye

Recorded: December 1981 – August 1982

Estimated worldwide sales: 2.5 million

Album chart positions: #7 (US) #10 (UK)

Marvin Gaye: ‘I wasn’t going to peddle myself like I was some new kid on the block. I didn’t want to hear about any rejections, so I went about it differently. I decided what I wanted – to be with the biggest and best record company in the world – and I made it happen. No matter what, I couldn’t come up with another art album. After all, CBS was digging me out of a hole, paying off the IRS, Anna (Gordy, his ex-wife), the feds, the whole works. I felt like an old vet, a seasoned ballplayer who’d been traded to another team that still had faith in him. I owed CBS something – at least a couple of grand slams…’

Donna Summer (1982)

Geffen/Warner Bros. Records, released 19th July 1982

6/10

It’s understandable that Summer was reluctant to take on Billy Strayhorn’s song ‘Lush Life’. A morning-after portrait of a failed romance, it’s a remarkable composition for a 16-year-old to write, with elliptical lyrics, few repeat sections and a challenging, endlessly-modulating melody line. Nat ‘King’ Cole, Sarah Vaughan, John Coltrane/Johnny Hartman and Billy Eckstine all performed notable versions (Strayhorn himself apparently loved the latter).

But, coached through by producer Quincy Jones and keyboardists Greg Phillinganes, Herbie Hancock and Dave Grusin, Summer’s vocals are a knockout. Though the track sounds a bit rushed (Phillinganes would surely like another pass at his synth bass part), her work certainly paid off.

‘Lush Life’ closes Donna Summer, released 35 years old today. Classic singles begin the album and end side one: Grammy-nominated ‘Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger)’ and an inspired cover of Jon & Vangelis’s ‘State Of Independence’, the latter featuring an amazing array of guest vocalists.

The problem with Donna Summer is that it’s three classics and a lot of filler. Formula-wise, Quincy seems to be preparing for Thriller – there are many songwriters and a variety of styles. Springsteen contributes the slightly underwhelming ‘Protection’ and elsewhere there’s a bit too much LM-1 drum machine and a few less-than-memorable choruses.

The album didn’t quite deliver the big hit to propel Summer into the ’80s but reached number 20 in the US album charts and 13 in the UK.