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 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.

Rod Temperton (1949-2016)

When MJ and Quincy are requesting your songs, you know you’ve made it. Rod Temperton’s compositions are timeless, uplifting, full of detail and subtleties, with lots of vamp-busting major-7th/9th chords and joyful melody lines. It’s also important to note that he arranged all his own tunes for Jackson and Quincy too, outlining the rhythm, vocal and keyboard parts.

Like many kids of my age, I was kind of obsessed with Rod’s ‘Thriller’ during the mid-’80s. It was a perfect musical storm. Jackson’s red-hot vocal performance, the killer groove, brilliant horn arrangements, silly but spooky horror-movie lyrics, intriguing sound effects and Vincent Price’s rap/monologue all left an indelible mark.

But there was much more to Rod Temperton’s career than that obvious highlight. He was born in Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire, beginning his public life playing keyboards and writing songs for Heatwave, writing every song on their 1977 debut album Too Hot To Handle including ‘Boogie Nights’ and classic ballads ‘All You Do Is Dial‘ and ‘Always & Forever’. This led to his work on Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall album for which he wrote the title track, ‘Rock With You’ and ‘Burn This Disco Out’.

Temperton started the 1980s contributing to George Benson’s Quincy-produced Give Me The Night, composing the title track, ‘Love X Love’, killer disco/jazz instrumental ‘Off Broadway‘ and the extraordinary ‘Star Of The Story’:

There were other classic Rod compositions and arrangements around this time for Patti Austin, The Brothers Johnson, Rufus, Herbie Hancock, Karen Carpenter and Bob James, as well as this classic Donna Summer floorfiller:

He contributed to Quincy’s fine 1981 solo album The Dude, supplying the title track, ‘Somethin’ Special’, ‘Turn On The Action’ and of course the stunning ‘Razzamatazz’:

Then came the epochal Thriller. Temperton was all over the record, composing and arranging ‘Baby Be Mine’, soul standard ‘The Lady In My Life’ and of course the title track. He famously wrote most of Vincent Price’s rap/monologue in a car whilst being rushed over to Ocean Way Studios to join Price’s vocal session. In fact, he was so prolific that he found time to write a third verse for the monologue, edited from the album version but available in outtake form here:

In the mid-’80s, Rod supplied three more classic compositions: Michael McDonald’s ‘Sweet Freedom’, McDonald’s duet with James Ingram ‘Yah Mo B There’ (co-composed by Ingram, McDonald and Quincy) and also the underrated ‘Spice Of Life’ by Manhattan Transfer featuring Stevie Wonder on harmonica:

Rod enjoyed somewhat of a songwriting/arranging/producing renaissance in the early ’90s, including some great work for Mica Paris’s Whisper A Prayer album and also Q’s Jook Joint. His contributions to music won’t be forgotten, and he was by all accounts a lovely fellow too.

Rodney Lynn Temperton, 9th October 1949 – October 2016

Jean-Baptiste ‘Toots’ Thielemans (1922-2016)

tootsIt is with a heavy heart that we hear of Toots’ passing.

Born in Brussels, he was one of the most brilliant multi-instrumentalists in music history, equally proficient on guitar and harmonica. His guitar/whistling combo was also a knockout. He worked with Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Jaco Pastorius, Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald, Elis Regina, Billy Joel, Peggy Lee and Stevie Wonder, and, thanks to his playing on the ‘Sesame Street’ and ‘Midnight Cowboy’ themes, was probably the most-heard harmonica player of all time.

We present one of Toots’ great ’80s works with a smile and a tear.

Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Isidor Baron Thielemans, born 29th April 1922, died 22nd August 2016

Don’t Mention The Smooth Jazz: Lee Ritenour’s Rit

LeeRitenour Rit-FrontElektra Records, released August 1981

8/10

Is there a more wretched style of music than smooth jazz? We all know it when we hear it; there’s a good bet it will feature an insipid melody, usually played on soprano sax or clean-toned guitar, a dollop of white-man’s-overbite funk and usually a side order of cheesy slap bass too.

When the intricate, interesting jazz/rock played by the likes of Weather Report, Steps Ahead, Miles Davis and John McLaughlin started tanking in the mid-’80s, artists such as Bob James, The Rippingtons and Spyro Gyra took the classic fusion sound, sweetened it, added touches of light gospel and soul and repackaged it as yuppiefied, post-Windham Hill chill-out music, jazz for people who hate jazz. And they made a killing.

But a different kind of ‘smooth jazz’ had emerged a decade before, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, a mixture of AOR, jazz harmony, classic fusion and Yacht Rock. It was the soundtrack for driving West on Sunset, decadent, expensive-sounding music full of dreamy Fender Rhodes playing and tasty grooves.

Musicians and arrangers such as Johnny Mandel, Jerry Hey, Tom Scott, Jeff Porcaro, Larry Carlton, Abraham Laboriel, Quincy Jones, George Benson, David Sanborn, Harvey Mason, Jay Graydon and David Foster thrived in this era when state-of-the-art production fused with jazz-tinged songwriting to create the missing link between Steely Dan and Earth, Wind & Fire.

lee ritenour

The unofficial headquarters of the sound was The Baked Potato, a nightclub in Studio City, LA, and one of the key musicians was guitarist Lee Ritenour (ironically one of the figureheads of the late-’80s Smooth Jazz scene proper). His 1981 album Rit is a classic of its kind alongside George Benson’s Give Me The Night, Larry Carlton’s Friends, David Sanborn’s Hideaway, Casino Lights, Randy Crawford’s Secret Combination and Steely’s Gaucho.

This sort of music was America when I was 13 or 14. In my daydreams, I was scooting along the West Coast in a Pontiac, top down, loud music playing, palm trees – you know the drill. Had I been watching too much Knight Rider and listening to too much Steely Dan? Yes…

Although early Ritenour albums had been tricksy fusion, more in line with what George Duke or Alphonso Johnson were doing, Rit saw him concentrate on collaborations with gifted Stevie-meets-Fagen vocalist/songwriter Eric Tagg. To this writer’s ears, George Michael very definitely checked out Mr Tagg. The track ‘Is It You’ got to number 15 in the singles charts and features one of the great middle-eights of the era:

Drum fans will enjoy Rit too; the great Jeff Porcaro plays a blinding shuffle on ‘Mr Briefcase’ (another pop hit from the album) and produces a classic rock performance on ‘Good Question’. According to Wikipedia, MTV broadcast the videos of ‘Mr Briefcase’ and ‘Is It You’ during its first day on air (1st August 1981)!

When things get too mellow, Ritenour always seems to know when to insert a spicy solo (in the days when he delivered high-octane jazz/rock playing a la Santana or Larry Carlton). The instrumentals are an appealing mixture of early ’80s technology (Linn LM-1 abundant) and the sparky funk of Abe Laboriel’s bass playing and Don Grusin’s soulful Fender Rhodes. And Jerry Hey’s horn arrangements are instantly recognisable and a great addition.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Rit was an influence on Thriller (compare Rit’s ‘Just Tell Me Pretty Lieswith Jacko’s ‘Baby Be Mineand various other Quincy productions later in the decade.

In 1982, Ritenour released the sequel Rit 2, which was almost as good and contained the superb ‘Roadrunner’. These are a couple of albums well worth revisiting.