After a week where I found myself feeling beaten – reeling after catching Joaquin Phoenix in Joker, and spiraling back through the catalogue of cost-cutting, crimes, injustices, indifference and neglect that led to the Grenfell Tower Fire – here are a batch of recent and forthcoming reissues that all call for love, peace, understanding and unity. Most of them recorded three or four decades ago. The song remains the same.
The Be With Records catalogue is willfully eclectic. Kinda by design its release schedule relies in part on serendipity and an evolving network of musical connections. Sitting down to write this I was wondering if I could classify everything they do broadly as “soul”. But that might be stretching it. “Authentic” would be a better word, but nonetheless they currently have four records good to go that unarguably get stamped “SOUL”. Three are reissues, the forth combines both previously released and unreleased material.
The three reissues travel back to the 1970s. Heavenly and heaven-inspired vocals come from The Optimistics. A 5-piece from Baltimore. who released their sole, self-titled sessions on Turbo. Sylvia “Sugarhill” Robinson`s other label. Singing about having their frowns turned into smiles and their lonely lives made worthwhile like lucky fellows overdosed on joy. Ballads that ache for love – both personal and universal. Love Is God Almighty`s declaration of “God is Love, Love is God” predating Prince and Lovesexy by eighteen years. Man is an uptempo hymn to humankind’s achievements, but it`s followed by If I Could Influence Man, which balances that pride with the observation that we still don’t know how to turn to our neighbours and treat them like kin.
Keyboardist Ceasar Frazier turns in an instrumental set. 75 features the playing of Bernard Purdie and John Tropea, and samples galore – Sweet Children for Common, Funk It Down for Gang Starr….the latter like the Cajun swamp of Willie Tee`s Gaturs meets Fame, Muscle Shoals. Big brass punches blast arrangements that lean towards the laidback and library. Imagine Hilton Felton leading The Overton Berry Ensemble. Stevie (Wonder) gets covered, as does Seals & Crofts` Summer Breeze, but it`s the Hammond-led acid jazz original, Mighty Mouse, that`s the winner for me.
Samuel Jonathan Johnson self-released My Music in 1978. His keys, harmonies and bass slapping recalling Weldon Irvine and Gary Bartz. His singing of “deep ecstasy” could have got him on Terry Farley`s Shoom play-list. The album split between ballads and dancers, string-soaked, stepping seduction themes. In this case, I’m sold on Sweet Love, a kissing cousin of L.T.D.`s Love To The World.
The previously unreleased music belongs to Leon Ware. Rainbow Deux taking six songs from a 2014 Japan-only CD and combining them with compositions completed in 2016. Six months before Leon`s untimely passing. Closing the Detroit-born Ware’s career which started partnered with Lamont Dozier, in The Romeos, and quickly moved to Motown, where Leon wrote for The Isleys, Ike & Tina, The Miracles, and Michael Jackson. Bringing him to the attention of Donny Hathaway, and Quincy Jones. Leon penned tunes for Teena Marie, Jeffrey Osbourne (of L.T.D.), Loose Ends, James Ingram and Bobby Womack. He wrote Inside My Love for Minnie Riperton. Gave I Want You to Marvin.
All of the pieces of Rainbow Deux sprang from time spent working in the studio and performing live with a band whose members included Kamasi Washington, Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner, Stephen’s brother Ronald, Cameron Graves, Rob Bacon, and Wayne Linsey. The recordings co-produced by Cameron’s brother, Taylor, with Theo Croker on trumpet and Kimbra providing additional vocals.
My favourites on the record betray Leon`s passion for Brazilian music. Airto Moreira and Flora Purim were frequent musical guests, and he had a long-running collaboration with Marcos Valle. The two of them writing – amongst others – Marcos` hit, Estrelar, and Leon`s Rockin` You Eternally. Wishful Thinking is a straight up samba. The title track sounds like something from the heyday of Joe Claussell`s Spiritual Life. Gentle keys and seashell shakers drifting in and out of a laidback house groove. Where Leon`s wish, his dream, is “to inspire”. Summer Is Her Name is tropical enough to be Jon Lucien. Let Love In also summons sunshine, reflecting California’s Marina Del Rey – the last place Leon called home. It`s message, “We`re all the same, every culture in the world, it`s yours and mine.”
This Is Mainstream came out in September. I’m not sure where I was but this selection of tracks from Bob Shad`s Mainstream Records put together by Wewantsounds, plays like one cool mixtape. Jumping between funk and jazz, ballads and the blues. Afrique`s wah-wah and moog, and the Hendrix-inspired electric voodoo of December’s Children. The orchestrated heartbreak of Almeta Lattimore`s These Memories, and the gospel chorus of Buddy Terry`s Lean On Me (Lean On Him). Shad made his name as a producer, working with legends such as Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker, through the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, and launched Mainstream, out of New York, in 1962. Throughout the 60s the label released a ton of highly collectable psychedelic rock – Shad giving young hopefuls their often only shot at recording and fame. But Wewantsounds have focussed on the years 1970 to 1973, which found Shad returning to his black music roots. Overseeing sessions that included players such as Stanley Clarke, Bernard Purdie, Dom Um Romao, Joe Sample, and showcased guitarist Jay Berliner, pianists Hal Galper and Reggie Moore, saxophonists Dave Hubbard, Peter Yellin and trumpeter, Blue Mitchell. Yellin`s Bird And The Ouija Board, from the 1972 LP Dance Of Allegra, being one of This Is Mainstream`s standouts. A twelve-minute opus that starts out like Archie Shep on BYG / Actuel, before locking into its groove, honking and skronking, moving between whispers and roars. Another essential is Sarah Vaughan`s cover of Just A Little Lovin’ – a Brill Building song made famous by Dusty Springfield, when Dusty followed Aretha way down to Memphis. Sarah’s version will be familiar to anyone who hit London club night Thats How It Is, at Bar Rumba in the 2000s, due to it providing the inescapable hook for Irfane`s popular tune of the same name. In its unadulterated form Sarah soars on what is basically a swinging big band riff on Bacharach & David’s What The World Needs Now Is Love. You can say that again.
Wewantsounds have also remastered Donna McGhee`s 1978 LP, Make It last Forever. Five songs produced by Greg Carmichael and Patrick Adams, including a classic rare groove in the bouncing break-up tune, It Ain`t No Big Thing*, and a disco hymn to a love more carnal in its title track – which was later covered by another Carmichael / Adams act, Inner Life, and remixed by legendary Paradise Garage DJ, Larry Levan. I have to admit that the Inner Life version is the one that I know, and I’m not sure if I`d heard Donna’s original until I got sent the promo. I`ll also admit that when I cued it up to play on the radio, my producer looked a little worried, since Donna is lot more “provocative” than I remember Inner Life being. Maybe I just never really listened to the lyrics – too taken with those strings – but they, and Donna’s orgasmic porn star vamps, don’t leave much to the imagination.
More disco and boogie comes care of Kalita. Mining 1980 for dance floor treasure. Vance & Suzzanne`s privately-pressed vocal duet, I Can`t Get Along Without You, is built around a rubber ball b-line and a clipped guitar lick – and reminds me a little of Collins & Collins` John Davis-produced You Know How To Make Me Feel So Good. Vance being Richard Vance Turner, who alongside Eleton Johns, was a member of Crown Heights Affair and founder of Vanton Records (I Can`t Get Along Without You represents 50% of the label`s catalogue). Suzzanne being Suzzanne Slaughter, an NY-based session singer for the likes of Sister Sledge.
The second Kalita 12 focuses on Baton Rouge guitarist / band leader, Henry Turner Jr. Pairing his 1980 solo promo, with the 1984 one for his group, Crystal. The former, Music, pulls in session players and brass-ily, jazzily, funks through an ode to the power of song. Its ability to allow us escape from the daily grind. The later track is more slapped bass and synths. Its chorus, the mantra of “Forever us, forever you, forever me, forever you and me.”
Finally Athens Of The North have two 45s that dream of an Eden. People In The News` Color Me dates from 1970. Originally released by Indiana label, Knap Town this is a chicken-scratched raw plea for racial equality. Demanding a better world “in times of war and destruction”. Criticizing the press – “Fill your papers with nothing but crime” – and politicians – “too many lies” with a delivery that`s a lot Sly Stone, and a little Sarah Webster Fabio.
On AOTN offshoot, Ocean Of Tears, Kansas City Express imagine an idyll. Describing their utopia in a beautifully ethereal ballad, as “a place of pure love and ecstasy”. Making it another one for Farley`s Shoom rare groove revival**. This Is The Place. Can we make it so?
*I actually picked this on an AA-sided boot in 1998. It was partnered with Ethel Beatty`s It`s Your Love, on a label called Alpha Omega, and purchased from Atlas Records in London’s Soho. Which became one of my default haunts once FatCat closed. The guys in the shop told me that the label had 100 releases scheduled and also that when Gilles Peterson heard this news his face visibly plummeted. Alpha Omega predictably didn’t make it to 100, but they did manage to introduce the ignorant – ie me – to classics by 7th Wonder, Melvin Bliss, Billy Brooks, Heath Brothers, Bob James, Les De Merle, Lowrell, Mighty Ryders, Ramp, Rhythm Heritage and Skull Snaps. They are of course banned from Discogs.
**I once put this in a mix called “Balearic Soul” for exactly this reason.