Posts Tagged ‘1970s’

When I was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s (it took me awhile to grow up), I knew which music belonged to me and which music belonged to Old People.

My music was from The Beatles and everyone who followed in their wake. It was loud, it crackled with life, it was about life. Or it was about the life I wanted for my life. It shook me.

Old People’s music didn’t lay a finger on me. It drifted across the fields like a zephyr, and the flowers nodded demurely as it caressed them. Look what I’m writing here. The next thing to appear in this scenario is either Mother Nature or Snuggles the Fabric Softener Bear.

Old People’s music carried various labels, all of which form a tangle in my head because I’ve never learned anything about them: show tunes, Tin Pan Alley, Brill Building Pop, Easy Listening, Lawrence Welk. Today this is all subsumed under the heading American Songbook. I can only listen to this stuff when it’s been reinterpreted by someone from my side of the aisle, an artist who’s willing to travel over the hills and far away from the original: Janis Joplin and “Summertime,” John Coltrane and “My Favorite Things.”

So this is why I’ve never paid attention to Dionne Warwick, even though she’s recorded more than 40 albums since 1963, which casts a shadow on The Rolling Stones’ catalog, which is already overstuffed. To me, Warwick was from the Burt Bacharach/Hal David universe, which was my seal of disapproval. The songs they wrote for her (“Walk on By,” “Message to Michael,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”) and even her beautiful voice did not hold my attention. Back then I was probably too busy with Herman’s Hermits or Grand Funk Railroad.

Some years back I reached a level of maturity (it took me awhile to reach maturity) and I was able to sit still long enough to actually hear the American Songbook. I may not like what I hear, but I’ve learned to listen for the good in something instead of instinctively making my Mr. Yuck face.

Listening or trying to listen to the black music of the ’70s has been an illuminating project. At times I felt as if I were drowning. But most of the time I discovered new music I liked and rediscovered songs that are now favorites. In Dionne Warwick’s case, I’m glad I chose the ’70s because this was when Bacharach and David split up and Warwick had to find new writers. She never really adapted to disco or any other new style – she mostly skated above it all, like that zephyr from the third paragraph – but on Just Being Myself (1973) she showed that she could play that greasy kid stuff if she wanted to.

This is not the album I expected from the woman who sang the theme to the super soap opera Valley of the Dolls. Several tracks surprised me. “I Think You Need Love” is one of the lost classics of the decade. It’s almost the holy gospel! “You’re Gonna Need Me” is not only good, it could’ve been a blaxploitation theme song if only they’d assigned the lyrics to an idiot.

Warwick followed up with Then Came You (1975). This one was built around her hit of the same name from the previous year. She was backed by The Spinners on “Then Came You” and together they produced a gem of ’70s soul. My interest in Warwick stops here, but given that I expected to find nothing, I feel rich.

Roberta Flack
Flack’s debut, First Take, appeared in 1969, but thanks to Clint Eastwood I can include it in the 1970s. First Take gave us her bluesy version of the jazz classic “Compared to What” and the song she’s famous for, “The First Time Ever I Saw His Face.” Flack has a voice of uncharted power – uncharted because most of it is hidden below the surface, like an ice berg. I want to buy her a cup of coffee with three shots of espresso.

“The First Time Ever I Saw His Face” languished on this disc until Eastwood paid $2,000 to include it on the soundtrack of Play Misty for Me in 1971. With the exposure of a popular film around it, “The First Time” enjoyed a second time and became a hit everywhere civilization reigned (and in Indiana and Arkansas). Flack won a Grammy for “First Time” in 1972. Even I like it. But her next album, Quiet Fire, was all quiet and not fiery, and this was where I left her.

Roberta Flack’s middle name is Cleopatra. Of course I didn’t get a cool middle name like that. Good thing I don’t whine about it anymore. I’m mature now. 

Let’s finish Diva Week:

Chaka Khan
The R&B groups War and Rufus went through opposite evolutions. The unknown War was adopted by Eric Burdon after he heard them in some dinky club. Having Burdon singing with them was like finally finding their jet packs (“Spill the Wine”). When Burdon left, War’s career flew even higher (“The World Is a Ghetto,” “Gypsy Man,” “Low Rider”).

Rufus was not making much progress until they hired Chaka Khan to sing with them. She became so popular that they released an album in 1975 called Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan. Khan came and went for several years after that, and Rufus sputtered to a stop. But together they made “You Got the Love” and “Tell Me Something Good,” from Rags to Rufus, and “Once You Get Started,” from Rufus & Chaka Khan (both from 1974).

Chaka Khan has a voice like Tina Turner’s, with less power but maybe more finesse at close range. She has some similarities to Aretha Franklin, too, especially if you subtract Jesus. She is sexier than both, not as sexy as Donna Summer, but earthier. Summer always sounds like she’s having sex at Star Fleet Academy, if anybody in Star Fleet ever had sex.

For Khan’s first album, Chaka (1978), her label brought in Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, who wrote “I’m Every Woman.” Unfortunately, that was the only song Ashford and Simpson wrote for that album, and the quality in general falls off sharply from this first superlative track. Fortunately, Khan found a way to stay relevant and score hits right through the ’80s.

Tina Turner
I have to tread carefully here, because Tina Turner is a protected national resource. But I have to say it: There’s nothing Tina recorded in the 1970s after leaving Ike that’s good enough to devote your time to, and that includes her Acid Queen song in that awful Tommy movie. Fear not: In the ’80s she’ll dance onstage with Mick Jagger, brawl in the desert with Mad Max, and give us Private Dancer (1984). That’s plenty of fun for one decade.

So let’s end this survey of Tina Turner that’s as micro as her skirt and mention one of Ike and Tina’s last albums, Workin’ Together (1971). This is the one with “Proud Mary,” “Funkier Than a Mosquita’s Tweeta” (gets an A+ rating just for the title), and “Game of Love,” a blues song that anticipates Robert Cray’s themes but also gives us a glimpse into the Turners’ home life:

Just like you can cheat on me
I can cheat on you
There’s no rules in this game of love
It can be played by two

Joan Armatrading
I’m unprepared to discuss this very deserving woman, who may have been the black Joni Mitchell.

Why I am unprepared to discuss Joan Armatrading
Tomorrow is the beginning of the three-day Memorial Day weekend. This is my favorite holiday.

(For my non-USA readers, if I have any left: Memorial Day began as our way of remembering the dead from our Civil War. It’s original name was Decoration Day. In addition to attending parades, picnics, and Blue Angel flyovers, we also use this somber time to buy mattresses and consumer electronics at discounted prices.)

Wilfred Sheed wrote that baseball is the sport that has a whole summer up its sleeve. Memorial Day is my favorite holiday because it has a whole summer up its sleeve. The season is about to step on-stage. I can’t wait. I like this holiday almost as much as my birthday – and I like my birthday – because on Memorial Day I still have my birthday to look forward to, but my birthday is not so far away that it’s unrealistic to think of and in fact I can start pestering people about it.

For months I work like the 20-mule team that pulled Borax to stand ready on Memorial Day, getting those pesky projects out from under (like house and marriage maintenance) so I can get to the fun stuff for the summer. I don’t actually mean everything in that last sentence, in case you’re paying attention.

This summer I intend to make some serious progress on my novel, because frankly it’s about fucking time I seriously progressed and finished it already. Once again I’m freezing this blog in a block of carbonite, but I’ll be back in September after the three-day Labor Day weekend when I can no longer wear white and drink gin and the world will clamor for more of my musical insults and poorly informed insights. Everyone have a good summer.

Your album for Saturday, 23 May 2015, is Earth, Wind & Fire’s That’s the Way of the World from 1975. The interior art includes a photo of eight men with no shirts on, which may be a record for records.

This is my 199th post. Thank you for being there.

 

The women I’m discussing this evening all came from jazz, soul, R&B, and gospel to try their luck in disco. As singers, they were well above average. Gloria Gaynor, Thelma Houston, and Patti LaBelle had the biggest voices; Candi Staton and Loleatta Holloway were the most subtle. You could’ve hired any of them to sing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” and loved the results.

Forgive me for omitting Anita Ward (“Ring My Bell”) if she was one of your favorites. If she was, why are you reading this blog?

Commercially, the move into disco was a smart decision. Even The Grateful Dead tried it. Artistically, it didn’t always work. The Grateful Dead shouldn’t have tried it. The material the women in this post had to work with was uneven, and most of the lesser numbers and even some of the bigger ones are forever bogged down in the ’70s.

What follows is my idea of the best of the best. I may not like some of them, but I respect all of them.

Freda Payne
Band of Gold
1970
The sophisticated Payne recorded jazz and R&B ballads in the 1960s. These are collected on Early Essentials (2011) if you want to explore them. I don’t. Her voice and arrangements are not for me. I’ll say more about that when I get to Dionne Warwick in my next post.

Payne’s commercial breakthrough, “Band of Gold,” was a monster smash that was beaten into the collective unconscious of an unwilling humanity by one billion plays on AM radio. I didn’t have to listen to it for this review because I recall it at the cellular level. Despite my mixed feelings for “Band of Gold” (I can never decide if I hate it or despise it), I give Payne credit for invading what was for her alien territory (pop, disco, and soul) and with this album beating everyone at their own game. Plus she looked smashing in her bikini on the cover of Reaching Out (1973) and in her gardening outfit on the cover of Payne & Pleasure (1974).

Gloria Gaynor
Never Can Say Goodbye
1975
Love Tracks
1979
Never Can Say Goodbye is famous for having three songs on one side with no breaks between them. It may have been the first LP designed for djs. The songs are “Honey Bear,” “Never Can Say Goodbye,” and “Reach Out (I’ll Be There).” The transitions are clumsy. DJs in clubs had already invented fading out and fading in, but the record companies were still catching up. The three songs are about 19 minutes, which is long enough for me to wander out of the off-leash area and dig up somebody’s garden.

“Honey Bear” exists solely to build excitement for “Never Can Say Goodbye.” “Never” is terrific, except for the horns, which are disconnected from the rest of the song, as if Gaynor’s producer had hired Chicago but locked them up in another room. Chicago should always be locked up in another room. “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” is not bad, but the drums are totally annoying. Listening to this version is like trying to eat lunch and read your book at the park while a FedEx cargo plane flies overhead every 45 seconds.

“Never Can Say Goodbye” was a hit for The Jackson 5 in 1971. The song was infectious, but Michael Jackson was 13 and sounded like it. Isaac Hayes turned “Never” into an emotional slow dance. I could do without the male chorus he brought along. Gaynor’s bright, brassy voice and the dance-tempo beat and the 4-minute radio edit are what I want to hear.

Cover of a Cover of a Cover Alert #1: The Communards did a spectacular job with “Never Can Say Goodbye” on Red (1987). The singer is Jimmy Somerville, whose interstellar soprano you can hear in the movie Pride (about the gay groups that helped the striking miners in the U.K.) when they get to the scene in the disco.

Gaynor’s Love Tracks unleashed the female battle anthem “I Will Survive.” The original vinyl is enshrined in the Smithsonian and protected by an eternal flame and an honor guard. The album also gave us a minor disco classic called “Anybody Wanna Party?” There are 300 words in this song and 60 are “Anybody wanna party.” I’m in the wrong line of work.

Thelma Houston
Any Way You Like It
1976
Houston went to #1 with her version of Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes’ “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” The original (with Teddy Pendergrass ripping his heart out and throwing it down and stomping on it until he died) was a phenomenon in 1975, but Houston, who could belt one out like Tina Turner, established her own place in musical history with her reimagining of the song.

Cover of a Cover of a Cover Alert #2: The Communards tackled this one on their debut, Communards (1986), and once again triumphed.

The album cover of Thelma Houston’s debut, Sunshower (1969), is one of the most pleasing yellows I’ve ever been pleased by.

Candi Staton
Young Hearts Run Free
1976
“Young Hearts Run Free,” a song that writer David Crawford based on Staton’s life at the time, went all the way to 20 on Billboard’s Hot 100. I don’t care for the music, as I feel I’ve heard it a hot 100 times before, but the lyrics are more mature than anything you’d expect on a disco record:

What’s the sense in sharing, this one and only life

Ending up, just another lost and lonely wife

You count up the years, and they will be filled with tears

Love only breaks up, to start over again

You’ll get the babies, but you won’t have your man

While he is busy loving, every woman that he can

The poor woman was stuck with Shaft!

Staton came out of the gospel scene, adapted to a tumultuous musical landscape, and scored numerous hits in the 1980s and ’90s. One of them, “You Got the Love” (no relation to the “You Got the Love” I’m about to describe), is a 1986 example of electronic dance music that has some serious wistfulness going on.

Maxine Nightingale
You Got the Love
1976
Lead Me On
1979
Nightingale, who is English, is the only non-U.S. citizen in my survey, but as I announced upfront I’m a provincial slob from the USA. USA! USA!

This lady has a good voice, but she struggles to be heard against all the musicians on her debut. There’s a great guitar break in “You Got the Love”; the guitarist faces the same hurdle and doesn’t clear it. I like the song, but the original, by Rufus with Chaka Khan, is the better choice.

“Right Back Where We Started From” hit the #2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. You can also find it on the soundtrack of the Paul Newman hockey movie Slap Shot. It resembles Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff” in that it sounds like music composed for kids. The beat is one-two, one-two with plenty of handclaps. The piano line is simple, but when it falls away near the end you miss it.

On the cover of her debut, You Got the Love, Nightingale is photographed in jeans and a T-shirt waiting on a bench with her guitar. Looks like an early Bill Withers cover. On the cover of Lead Me On, she’s leaning against a wall in tight pants and a tube top while a tiger inspects her derrière. Not like a Bill Withers cover. The leaden “Lead Me On” was an inexplicable hit. I assume people bought it because they needed help falling asleep.

Evelyn “Champagne” King
Smooth Talk
1977
King was only 17 (but already hitting the champagne?) when she recorded Smooth Talk. “Shame” peaked at #9; it was popular in clubs because it was fast and long (6 minutes). It’s the only disco song I know with a starring part for a sax. King doesn’t spend a lot of time singing, making this a distant ancestor of EDM. This hit and the rest of the album have been reduced in stature with the passage of time.

Patti LaBelle
Patti Labelle
1977
Tasty
1978
It’s Alright with Me
1979
In the early ’60s, Patti LaBelle founded the band Labelle with Sarah Dash and Nona Hendryx. Actually, she founded more than one band and went through several name changes, but let’s call them all Labelle. Patti, Sarah, and Nona worked hard, toured incessantly, and by 1971 were opening for The Who.

(Their version of “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” on their 1972 album Moon Shadow, is competent. They can rock. Their version of “If I Can’t Have You” on the same disc has an edge of hysteria I usually only hear from Queen. In fact, much of their work in the early ’70s sounds like Aretha Franklin taking hits off a helium tank.)

Labelle became famous in 1974 when they released “Lady Marmalade.” That’s the “voulez-vous couchez avec moi (ce soir)?” song. I don’t know why it’s always referred to as a disco classic, as even in 1974 it was too slow to dance to. Plus it’s super annoying. France should’ve recalled their ambassador.

Patti LaBelle went off on her own in the ’70s. She has been singing, touring, recording, and delighting her army of fans ever since. This is not a cause I’ve ever enlisted in, but in the spirit of fairness I’ll name one passable song from each of these records:

Patti LaBelle: “Funky Music”
Tasty: “Save the Last Dance for Me” (original by The Drifters)
It’s Alright with Me: “It’s Alright with Me”

Nona Hendryx went off an experimental trip that I’ve only read about. I’ll track her down one of these days.

Loleatta Holloway
Love Sensation (1980)
Here’s how I listen to music for this blog:

  1. I play the album on a CD. I want the original sequence, the cover art, and the liner notes.
  2. I play the album on Rhapsody.
  3. I play somebody else’s CD. Do I still have your CD? Well too bad, you still have mine!
  4. I play whatever I can find on YouTube.
  5. By this time I’m sick of the whole thing, but if I have any energy left I’ll try Spotify or Pandora.
  6. I go to the library.

You be surprised how some albums resist this formula.

For this reason I’m including Love Sensation, even though it’s from another decade, as it’s the only one of Loleatta Holloway’s albums I’ve heard from A to Z. “Love Sensation” was a club sensation, but I guess clubs have changed in 35 years because when I listened to it just now I didn’t feel like throwing my hands in the air like I just don’t care. The album is not distinctive, despite her voice.

It should be noted that “Loleatta Holloway” is the perfect searchable name.

One thing I’ve learned from these disco divas is how long a record company was willing to wait, in the ’60s and ’70s, for an artist to become commercially viable. They were all given years to develop. Does the music business still work this way?

That’s it for disco. Tomorrow we fire our retro rockets and begin our descent from Diva Week!

 

From approximately 1976 until 1979, disco was the law of the land. Many people were unhappy under disco’s thumpa-thumpa-thumpa rule, and a rebellion broke out on July 12, 1979 in Comiskey Park, Chicago.

The White Sox, who were not enjoying a victorious season, had tried to lure paying customers into the ballpark with the promise of Disco Demolition Night. Fans were invited to bring their most hated disco records. The records were to be placed in a box in centerfield and blown up between games of a doubleheader with the Detroit Tigers.

You’d go to that, wouldn’t you? Explosives in a stadium where they sell beer. Fun!

The idea was the brainchild of a Chicago dj who was a cultural-reactionary or a shock-jock or simply attention-starved. In the days leading up to Disco Demolition Night, this dj whipped his fellow anti-disco insurgents into the kind of frenzy you only saw in, well, discos. His plan worked: The White Sox had hoped for an attendance figure of about 35,000, but what they got was 55,000, which was more than that stadium could hold. Also much like discos.

A lot of beer and hallucinogenics happened, records were thrown like frisbees at frightened ballplayers, the beleaguered security guards locked most of the gates which meant that the sane people couldn’t leave, the first game ended, and when the records blew up, so did the crowd. Due to multiple felonious assaults on the landscaping and Tiger manager Sparky Anderson’s refusal to let his team take the field, the White Sox and the Tigers were unable to play the second game.

(The Tigers won the first game, 4-1. The White Sox forfeited the second game because they were unable to provide a safe work environment.)

I’d like to remind everyone that when the Sox held a pro-disco night in 1977, it was completely non-violent, though I’m willing to bet that there was sex in the bathrooms. Just like in a disco.

So was Disco Demolition Night caused by a homophobic or racist reaction to shifting cultural standards, or was it simply the joy of morons who’d found each other? All I know is, white people always riot over stupid shit, and afterwards we never have a national conversation about family values.

White Sox pitcher Rich Wortham said, “This wouldn’t have happened if they had country and western night.”

I was a disco activist
I thoroughly enjoyed my disco years and if I still had my leisure suit I’d wear it to work. Actually, if I still had my leisure suit, my wife would’ve confiscated it at gunpoint. The late Donna Summer was always billed as the Queen of Disco, and I pledged my service to her. Let’s look at her collected works of the ’70s. This won’t take long, because most of these were – forgive me, my queen – crud.

(I’m not going to quote any of her lyrics, either, but I can’t help saying Toot toot. Hey. Beep beep.)

Lady of the Night (1974)
Ms. Summer’s debut demonstrates her astounding voice and her producer’s astounding confusion. Giorgio Moroder has no shortage of ideas, all of them bad:

“Born to Die” is country.
“Domino” is folk.
“Let’s Work Together” is from a Broadway show that closed in the middle of its first night.
“Sing Along (Sad Song)” is Judy Collins in an alternate, less-musical universe.
“Hostage” is ridiculous in any universe.
“Little Miss Fit” is right – Donna Summer doesn’t fit on this disc.

The only reason to listen to Lady of the Night is the title track, not because it’s good – it stands on stilettos to reach passable – but because of the way it showcases Summer’s voice, particularly that moment in the chorus when she ascends through laaaaaaaaady of the night.

All but one of these songs was co-written by Moroder, who despite this chaos is about to make Summer a star. Signor Moroder also has an excellent claim on the invention of disco. Brace for impact!

Love to Love You Baby (1975)
The title is 17 minutes long. Until this track, 17 minutes was the province of prog rock and heavy metal. The sex sounds are silly but the sensuality in Summer’s voice is not. I listened to all 17 minutes this afternoon, but I admit I took a couple of breaks. I found a flute solo in there! I might’ve been the first person to hear it in 40 years.

A Love Trilogy (1976)
This one opens with “Try Me, I know We Can Make It,” which is 18 minutes long. Oh no you don’t! And don’t try to sneak Barry Manilow past me, either (I found him in the credits).

Four Seasons of Love (1976)
This is a theme album. Based on the cover and the glamour girl calendar inside, the theme is Summer’s legs. Good call.

The five songs average 7 minutes apiece. The disco sounds routine to me now, but in 1976 this was an exciting record that would’ve kept you going at your favorite club.

By this time, Summer was writing or co-writing many of these songs. Moroder could use all the help he could get.

Once Upon a Time (1977)
Like Lady Gaga 30 years later, Summer acknowledges her enthusiastic gay following and tries to say something encouraging. Daring for that era, but this double-record set is too pretentious to contemplate.

I Remember Yesterday (1977)
An odd title for the world of disco, where everyone was living for the next bump, but the underrated “Love’s Unkind” does sound like the updating of a ’60s R&B hit even though it’s an original.

This album gave us “I Feel Love,” one of the most significant tracks of the decade. Entire genres of electronica (for example, “Tribal-Progressive House,” a name I don’t understand even though I listen to that channel), thousands of raves, and many career opportunities for techie djs with enormous egos all descend from “I Feel Love.” I can only wonder how many 38-year-olds are walking around today because their parents were inflamed by “I Feel Love.” (My parents were inflamed by Perry Como burning down the house with “Papa Loves Mambo.”)

You can find the extended version of “I Feel Love” on Donna Summer: The Dance Collection (1986), which also includes the extended “Hot Stuff” (but not “Bad Girls”), her “MacArthur Park Suite” (most of that one’s pretty good), and, out of nowhere, an appearance by Barbra Streisand.

Thank God It’s Friday (1978)
This is the soundtrack to the magna-crap film. “Last Dance” won an Oscar, crushing Olivia Newton-John and “Hopelessly Devoted to You” from Grease. In your face, ONJ! It’s particularly fun on a dance floor because of the 1:20 build-up to the 4 minutes of dancing. It always left me quivering with antici – say it already – pation.

Live and More (1978)
Way too many songs from Once Upon a Time.

Bad Girls (1979)
Was disco dying in 1979? Just like the Red Sox? No, it was evolving. Unlike the Red Sox.

Bad Girls gave Summer two mega hits (“Bad Girls” and “Hot Stuff”). How do you beat an album with that pair in the first and second spots? They’re exciting disco/rock hybrids that are descended from all the funk/rock experiments that began 10 years earlier with Sly & The Family Stone, Isaac Hayes, and Curtis Mayfield. I remember standing on a dance floor in 1979 when the lights changed, the fog rose, and “Bad Girls” came on with that beat like a John Phillips Sousa march performed in jackhammers. I was happy and I didn’t even have sex in a bathroom.

There are not many albums you can put on at a dance party and let ride for eight tracks before you have to skip the slow songs or change the disc. Welcome to Bad Girls.

“Love Will Always Find You” is disco grafted to New Wave – it reminds me of Talking Heads’ “Memories Can’t Wait” and even some work by Graham Parker. “Dim All the Lights” and “Journey to the Center of Your Heart” are terrific dance numbers. They even have some Stevie Wonder-inspired keyboards. “One Night in a Lifetime” and “Can’t Get to Sleep At Night” (I admit that that one is too slow) finish this surprising set, which frankly kicks The Rolling Stones’ skinny asses on Some Girls.

In 1979, this is where you finished side two of the first record. You were supposed to put on side three of the second record, but that’s where Summer and Moroder reverted to their early form and delivered four awful ballads. One of them, “There Will Always Be a You,” was bad enough with a title like that, but Summer finished it off with a little yodeling.

So let’s return to 2015 and the present tense and with a single click head straight to side 4, because, Dear Readers, side 4 is as avant-garde as disco ever got. With these last three songs it’s as if David Byrne and Brian Eno had been turned loose with a synthesizer and a disco ball while Annie Lennox and Debbie Harry dirty-danced with Gary Numan and David Bowie.

In “Our Love,” the “Our love/will last forever” bridge is the most unusual 30 seconds in the disco genre. The rest of the song sounds like Bowie’s “Heroes” played at dance speed by Blondie.

Next there’s “Lucky,” which belongs in a category of music loosely called Synth Pop or New Romantics. Examples of bands that manufactured this stuff are all from the ’80s: Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, Flock of Haircuts, The Spoons, Spandau Ballet, Erasure, ABC, Talk Talk, The The (I’m not making these up), and sometimes Duran Duran but not Duran Duran Duran.

The closer is “Sunset People,” and at this point I’m out of metaphors and stuck with words such as weird and bizarre and other synonyms suggested by Microsoft. I’m still happy, though.

I have never compiled a Top 10 list of disco records, but if I did, Bad Girls would smash smash smash them all. This is the toughest disco ever made, a set that in places blows away many straight rock bands of that era, including The Cars, Foreigner, Supertramp, Cheap Trick, Little River Band, and REO Styxjourneywagon. Donna Summer doesn’t have the thunder of AC/DC or Aerosmith, but there are stretches on this record where she doesn’t trail by much, plus she has a better sense of rhythm and her stupid lyrics aren’t as stupid as these stupidheads’ stupid lyrics.

It took Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder five years to get to Bad Girls, and there were plenty of places along their journey where we could’ve abandoned them (I did, more than once), but the important thing is that they arrived. Summer has a crossover hit, “She Works Hard for the Money,” waiting for her in 1983, but after Bad Girls all the rest was commentary.

If I still had my disco regalia I’d wear it in your honor. RIP, Your Highness.

 

I haven’t listened to Diana Ross for years. With so few audio reminders to fluff my memories and make them smell fresh, they thinned out, and I somehow developed the idea that her voice was too refined, that she made me feel as if I were using the wrong spoon for my soup. The Diana Ross neighborhood of my brain became depopulated and was rezoned until it merged with the Barbra Streisand neighborhood.

(It didn’t help that Ross’ “Touch Me in the Morning” could in places easily slip into Streisand’s “The Way We Were.” Both songs were released in 1973, when I was a teenager with a Pink Floyd collection.)

Then I launched this new project, and after a lapse of a lifetime I re-encountered Diana Ross. I’m not in love, but I am impressed. Maybe I needed to grow up and slow down before I really got it.

Ross released 17 albums in the 1970s. I’m only going to consider a few because I’m not writing her biography and frankly, her three bad soundtracks almost sank me. So here’s my guide to the Diva of Divas.

Diana Ross (1970)
It’s difficult to run this through our central processing units today, but in 1970, Diana Ross was just another girl singer in a girl group. Sure, The Supremes were the queens of the hill, but how many girls left their girl groups to start a solo career, and how many succeeded? Until Ross came along, the answer to the success part was zero.

Diana Ross starts slowly for me, stirred only by “You’re All I Need to Get By.” But track 5 is her cover of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” which could level the mountains and alter the rivers. Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell  sang this song as two lovers on a recognizable earthly plain, but Ross turns it into a one-woman, 6-minute symphony that takes place on a cloud or maybe in Asgard. She doesn’t need Marvin Gaye or anyone else.

The rest of the album hits hard for music that isn’t rock ’n’ roll. “Something on My Mind” is the stealth gem that lives in the shadow of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” “Keep an Eye” has a Michael Jackson-like bass line and urgency – even though the adult Michael Jackson won’t appear until Off the Wall in 1979. “Dark Side of the World” is a good song and a good closer.

You can’t really call Diana Ross a debut, because Ross had already been performing for years in The Supremes, but however you want to characterize it, this is a highly desirable record for your collection.

Diana Ross Fun Fact 1: Ten of these 11 songs were written by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. I’ll return someday to this husband-and-wife superhero team-up.

Diana Ross Fun Fact 2: In addition to Diana Ross, Ross also released Diana Ross in 1976 and Diana in 1980. Also Diana! The Original TV Soundtrack in 1971. And then there was Ross in 1978 and Ross in 1983. I understand, I like my name, too. This is why our first eight dogs were all named “Steve.” But let’s give a special award to Peter Gabriel, who released Peter Gabriel in 1977, Peter Gabriel in 1978, and then – how sweet the sound! – Peter Gabriel in 1979.

Everything Is Everything (1970)
Ross’ Everything Is Everything has a few problems. It’s overproduced. There’s an orchestra playing in that studio, plus the horns you’d hear before a fox hunt or a joust. There’s a female chorus (I like them) and a male chorus (but not them). There were many points on this record when I wanted everyone to shut up and let the woman sing. (I feel the same way about Beyoncé’s oeuvre.)

The next problem is choosing to cover “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” a Burt Bacharach and Hal David travesty. Richard Chamberlain sang the original in-between his hospital rounds as Dr. Kildare. Then Dionne Warwick gave it a go. I thought it was saccharine X-treme.

Then The Carpenters laid into it. There was a girl in my high school who had me mesmerized, but she loved The Carpenters and this song. Actually, she loved the song, she had no idea who it was by. I think she thought that musicians made up songs as they went along, just like people who think actors create their dialog while they’re speaking. Or maybe she thought her radio made up the song. I wanted her to join me in acts I could not yet name but she was a musical idiot. This kind of cognitive dissonance can really trip you up in adolescence. Ross does a better job with “Close to You” than anyone else I’ve heard, but I still hate it.

“DoobeDood’nDoobe, DoobeDood’nDoobe, DoobeDood’nDoobe,” written by her producer, Deke Richards, also falls below acceptable standards. The producer should’ve been imprisoned for the title alone. When Ross sings it, it sounds like Santa Claus is coming to town with Frank Sinatra. But Deke redeems himself with the ballad “I’m Still Waiting.”

Motown brought out their big songwriting guns for this album, and Ross shines with Aretha Franklin’s “I Love You (Call Me)” and Marvin and Anna Gordy Gaye’s “Baby It’s Love.” She also does well with “The Long and Winding Road,” even though she has to tunnel her way through sedimentary layers of sound.

She takes on The Beatles again with “Come Together,” and though the male chorus does its best to screw things up, by the end Ross has turned it into a taunt, as if daring men to fight over her. I’m sure plenty of men have fought over her.

Everything Is Everything isn’t as good as Diana Ross (the 1970 Diana Ross), but I could understand throwing a punch for it.

Diana Ross Fun Fact 3: Donny Hathaway released his first album in July 1970 and called it Everything Is Everything. In November, Motown released Ross’ Everything Is Everything. At least they didn’t call their albums Peter Gabriel.

Surrender (1971)
Ashford and Simpson are in, Bacharach and David are out, and the music starts with a spine infusion. “Surrender” bites down hard, “I Can’t Give Back the Love I Feel for You” is urgent, and the utter power of “Remember Me” places it within the inner circle of Motown songs. This is the only Diana Ross song that I wish she’d recorded with The Supremes.

Unfortunately, “Didn’t You Know (You’d Have to Cry Sometime)?” is the end of the music I like here. The rest of the album trails off into likeability, not movability. Heed my Rule of 4: If I find four songs that I like on one album, I go get that album.

Lady Sings the Blues (1972)
Soundtrack for the Billie Holiday biopic. The 35 tracks are mostly snippets of tough-guy dialog from the film, including people talking over Ross while she’s trying to sing, as when an angry crowd ruins “The Man I Love.” I already hate this stupid movie and I haven’t seen it. But when you finally get to Holiday’s music, it’s as if Ross is opening a door to the spirit world and walking Billie Holiday right through it.

“Lady Sings the Blues” is breathtaking, but it’s only a minute long. I liked all of these songs, from “All of Me” to “You’ve Changed,” but the rubber meets the road when Ross goes for “Strange Fruit,” Holiday’s signature song, the 1930s song protesting lynching. She rips your heart out.

Ross was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Holiday. (Liza Minnelli won for Cabaret.) It’s possibly easier to win an Oscar for a great performance inside a good film as opposed to a great performance inside a stupid one. How stupid is this movie? Judging by the soundtrack, monumentally stupid. There’s no opening theme. The closing theme is a short instrumental performed on the piano by somebody who is learning piano. You had Diana Ross waiting in the bullpen, why not call her in in relief? Where is the love?

Touch Me in the Morning (1973)
Ross recorded three albums in 1973: this one, Last Time I Saw Him, and Diana & Marvin.

The songs on Touch Me are not my thing, but they must be somebody’s. These songs may be the finest soft-rock ever recorded: “We Need You,” “Leave a Little Room” (with a debt to Paul McCartney and “Baby I’m Amazed”), and “Imagine” (what a bass line).

“I Won’t Last a Day Without You” was not a hit for its writer, Paul Williams, in 1971. Maureen McGovern took it out for a spin but with no better results. There followed a flurry of mid-’70s covers by Barbra Streisand (made me tired), Andy Williams (made me sleepy), Mel Torme (made me wonder how long the man could hold a note), and, of course, The Carpenters, who shoved it through their meat tenderizer. Ross turns in her usual competent performance but surprise, Run-DMSteve still doesn’t like it.

“My Baby (My Baby My Own)” is from another of Ross’ projects. It’s about, if I have this right, her baby. Being from another project, it’s very different from the other songs. Despite its subject, it’s menacing. “Brown Baby/Save the Children” is also from the Baby My Baby project. The first half could be a sequel to “Young, Gifted and Black.” The second half is a cover from Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. I would’ve been happier with the Baby My Baby album, if it had ever been released, than with Touch Me in the Morning. 

Regarding the title track, I may never play it again, but at least now I can hear how it’s related to Gordon Lightfoot’s “Wishing Well” and Bread’s “It Don’t Matter to Me.”

Mahogany (1975)
Her second bad movie. Diana Ross could not catch a break in Hollywood. “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going to)” exploded into the top spot on the charts, though not in my house.

Ross had an equally big hit in 1975 with “Love Hangover,” which you can find on Diana Ross (the 1976 Diana Ross, not the 1970 Diana Ross). The 1976 Diana Ross also includes “Ain’t Nothin’ But a Maybe,” which has some of the power of “Remember Me.”

I like “Love Hangover,” but I wouldn’t use it to keep a dance moving. It’s too slow even when it speeds up. But it’s an excellent driving song.

The Wiz (1978)
This finishes the Diana Ross Bad Movie Trilogy. Out of respect for a woman I increasingly admire, I’m ending this entry right here.

The Boss (1979)
Ashford and Simpson back up Ross again and the trio turns in a pretty good disco album. “The Boss” is a We Are Family/I Will Survive song. It’s not good enough to be an anthem, as it could also be a synchronized dance routine on a dumb TV show. The bass reminds me of Rose Royce’s “Car Wash” from the 1976 film of the same name. “Once in the Morning” is Michael Jacksonish with a “Boogie Oogie Oogie” bass.

This survey of the first decade of Diana Ross’ solo career doesn’t end on a triumphant note, but she’s only just begun. In the ’80s, which is beyond our event horizon, Ross will release many dance and soul hits, including “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out.” Plus her album covers will feature some spectacular hair styles. The main lesson I learned from this dash across the ’70s is that Diana Ross can follow any direction popular music takes and produce something memorable and make it all sound simple, as if the songs were already there and she just discovered them.

Ross is not too refined; she’s godly – a black, female Sinatra. And I’m no longer a teenage boy wondering what all the fuss with her is about and putting Pink Floyd on the turntable.

Tomorrow: Disco, the theme music of the Carter Administration!

 

I regret that I mostly missed Marvin Gaye while Marvin Gaye was happening. When I was a teenager I was into What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On, but being a teenager, much of the meaning of these songs flew right past me. I was probably distracted by Deep Purple.

Mainstream radio of that era didn’t help. Mainstream radio of our era still doesn’t help. In the Oldies format, Gaye’s presence is limited to a few songs from those two albums from 1971 and ’73. Nothing else exists. Thanks to the Internet, I constantly find songs and even entire bands that I missed when I was growing up or even from 10 years ago. OK, 10 years ago I was still growing up.

Enough editorializing. If I had to carve a Mt. Rushmore of black music of the ’70s, the first two figures I’d choose would be Gaye and Stevie Wonder. (The other two might be Diana Ross and George Clinton.) Today, rather than try to sum up Gaye’s career in a blog post (that would be like trying to dust Mt. Rushmore over the weekend), I’m going to give you my 1970s buyer’s guide.

What’s Going On (1971)
How likely was it that Marvin Gaye would record What’s Going On after spending the ’60s crooning like a sexier Nat King Cole? About as likely as Nat King Cole waking up one day and recording Highway 61 Revisited.

Gaye spent the last three years of the ’60s wondering what he should do with his life and his art. His favorite duet partner had died (more on that in a moment), his brother had returned from Vietnam haunted by his experiences, and of course there was the continuing everyday uproar of protests, riots, assassinations, and instances of police brutality – pretty much everything we have today. Gaye became so tired of singing and writing the same old stuff that he even considered playing football as a new career.

Instead, Gaye recorded a song, “What’s Going On.” Motown was sure it would flop. “What’s Going On” broke out of the soul charts and hit #2 on the main Billboard chart. “What’s Going On” consistently ranks fourth on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Here’s the top five from the 2011 Rolling Stone list:

1 Bob Dylan, “Like a Rolling Stone”
2 The Rolling Stones, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”
3 John Lennon, “Imagine”
4 Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On”
5 Arthea Franklin, “Respect”

Gaye used “What’s Going On” as a lever to pry complete creative control out of Motown. Then he went into the studio and in 10 days recorded this album. He had to fight the label to get them to release it. He had to fight them to keep the ? out of the title. But the result was a milestone of 20th-century popular music (Rolling Stone ranks it sixth on their list of the 500 Greatest Albums) and the first Motown album that wasn’t made up of a couple of hits and a stack of unrelated filler.

The Rolling Stone top six, as of 2012:

1 The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
2 The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds
3 The Beatles, Revolver
4 Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited
5 The Beatles, Rubber Soul
6 Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On

What astonishes me about this disc is that there are only three songs of the nine that reward repeated plays: the title, “Mercy Mercy Me (the Ecology),” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” The other six are too earnest, or too religious, or too earnest and religious, or too experimental – jazz meets folk meets Sunday-morning hyms.

These six songs follow the general theme of social commentary. They’re played and sung with enormous feeling and talent. But as you might expect from something recorded this quickly, they’re all over the map. A couple of tracks seem like Gaye making notes to himself.

And yet that doesn’t matter because the holy trio is so so SO good. I have never grown tired of a single note in the three of them. (Though I will say that Motown did a fantastic job in condensing them for radio play; the 45 versions are better. Motown really was Hitsville USA.) “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” is one of the most mesmerizing songs I know; it rises around you like a tide on a planet with a bigger moon.

If I had to choose the best pop album of the ’70s, my top two candidates would be this one and Born to Run.

Trouble Man (1972)

Diana & Marvin (1973)
I’m not into duets, possibly because Hall & Oates poisoned that well when I was young. Or maybe it was Donny & Marie. Diana Ross is the best singer Marvin Gaye was ever paired with, and they sing like they’re running the tollbooth outside of heaven, but most of this stuff sounds like soft rock. The best-known track is the first, “You Are Everything.” The closest to that ’60s soul sound are “Just Say, Just Say” and “Stop, Look, Listen (to Your Heart).” “My Mistake Was to Love You” is a dead ringer for “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)”!

If you enjoy duets, I suggest you fall back to 1967 and Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s United, which features two Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson classics, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Your Precious Love.”

Let’s Get It On (1973)
What’s Going On was political. Let’s Get It On is personal. This album is all about seduction. Like What’s Going On, it has three immortal songs: the title, “Please Don’t Stay (Once You Go Away),” and “You Sure Love to Ball.” It also has a throwback to the 1960s: “Come Get to This.” I wish I could come get to a decade like this!

In 1973 this was Marvin Gaye’s world and we just lived in it.

Marvin Gaye Live (1974)
Live At the London Palladium is better so move right along, please.

I Want You (1976)
If Let’s Get It On is about seduction, I Want You is about already being seduced. Oooh la la! You want to start smooching as soon as the needle hits the vinyl, the laser hits the disc, the download arrives on your device, or [insert any mechanical or electrical process designed for the transmission and/or reproduction of audio performances not yet invented].

Allmusic.com calls I Want You a “smooth, intricately produced make-out platter.” Allmusic and I don’t always get along, but this is one description I can get behind.

The highlights are “I Want You,” “After the Dance,” and, of course, “Feel All My Love Inside.” The penis (practical applications thereof) is an immortal topic in popular music, at least for men. But I want you to listen to “Feel All My Love Inside”:

Keep right on kissing me
When I’m kissing you
I know you know
What this is leading to
You know real soon, baby
I’ll be stroking you in and out
Up and down, all around
I love to hear you make those sounds

Then try AC/DC’s “Let Me Put My Love Into You”:

Don’t you struggle
Don’t you fight
Don’t you worry
’Cause it’s your turn tonight

Then I want you to tell me who was the adult male and who were the 5’2” idiots in lederhosen. (There are three clues in that sentence.)

You can tell where Gaye’s marriage was going because the inspiration for this album was his girlfriend, not his wife.

Live At the London Palladium (1977)
I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a performer having so much fun on a live album, or a performer who was so appreciative of his audience. Before bringing on guest singer Florence Lyles for some duets, Gaye speaks about the singers he’d worked with, Diana Ross and his partners from the ’60s: Mary Wells, Kim Weston, and Tammi Terrell. Terrell was his favorite and he toured extensively with her until one night in 1967 when she collapsed onstage. It was the first strike by the brain tumor that killed her in 1970 when she was 24.

On this live recording the audience applauds all of these names, but they must’ve jumped to their feet when they heard Tammi Terrell. Gaye was obviously moved by the crowd’s reaction.

Live At the London Palladium includes a bonus track from the studio, “Got to Give It Up,” which is almost 12 minutes long and is its own party.

Here, My Dear (1978)
By this time, Marvin and Anna Gordy Gaye had divorced. One of the terms of the divorce was that Anna was to receive a substantial portion of the advance from Marvin’s next record, plus a cut of the royalties.

I think most men in this position would’ve thrown something together just to get out and get away. Spend a few days recording covers. Throw in songs you wrote years ago that never really gelled. Maybe write something bitter and vengeful.

Gaye wasn’t planning to put much effort into this project, but then he found a voice he hadn’t known he had, and he began to speak and sing about his marriage and how it fell apart. The result, Here, My Dear, stands almost by itself in the world of pop music. There are plenty of pop songs about breaking up. How many albums are devoted to broken-up marriages?

(The only other specimen I can think of is Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights from 1982, and that comparison doesn’t entirely work because the Thompsons wrote all the songs while their marriage was still good.)

Gaye doesn’t spare himself on Here, My Dear, through I wonder if he understood all the havoc he’d caused. Yet I don’t believe many musicians have it in them to write something like “When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You?” Gaye’s bitterness surfaces in “Anger” and “Is That Enough?”, and yet “Anna’s Song” shows that he still loves his now former wife.

The album closes with his meditation on his love for the woman who became his next wife. Along the way he finds time to slip into his party groove on “Time to Get It Together” and “Funky Space Reincarnation.” That last one is a 500-word journey into free association and the Kingdom of Prince.

Shoot Out the Lights is a harrowing listen. Here, My Dear is a beautiful listen. But in 1978, nobody wanted an album about divorce. I know I wouldn’t have bought it. Here, My Dear has since been rehabilitated, and in 2012 it appeared at 462 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums. (No, I’m not listing the top 461.) I love it. Divorce never sounded this good.

It seems fitting that Gaye’s next hit (and, sadly, his last) was “Sexual Healing” in 1982.

That’s my look at Marvin Gaye in the ’70s. His life began and ended in violence (all of it inflicted by his father). He was a complicated man, unlike Shaft but a lot like the rest of us men. Rest in peace. Eternal thanks.

 

I edited a couple of trade magazines in the 1990s. When you edit any kind of specialty magazine, you find that boredom seeps in like water in an old rowboat. There are only so many ways you can present the same subject, to keep it readable, informative, and interesting to read.

It’s a struggle, but you won’t hear any complaints from me. There are enormous rewards that come with the editor’s blue pencil: wealth, celebrity, power, eager-to-please interns, the respect of your fellow editors, the adoration of your writers, and a bitchin’ sound system in your office.


Notice to our readers
There are several errors in our current post. “wealth” should read “health insurance.” “celebrity” probably refers to Run-DMSteve’s appearance on the front page of the Idaho Statesman in 2003. The reference to “power” is puzzling, but it might have something to do with shaking Al Gore’s hand in 1999 without being pummeled by the Secret Service.

In addition, Run-DMSteve has never been granted access to an intern, editors are too busy drinking to speak to each other, writers adore you only when you’re approving their invoices, and Run-DMSteve had to buy the sound system with his own money. We regret these errors.


My first magazine was published by Sierra On-Line, which made computer games. Sierra was chaotic and dangerous, a knife fight without any rules, but I never had trouble making those pages interesting.

My second magazine was published by Visio, which made drawing and diagramming software. The company was well-run but their products put me to sleep. I figured our readers must’ve had the same challenge. This is why I searched for unusual Visioids to profile. For example, there was a gentleman who used Visio to position the cameras for the Oscars broadcast, and a writer who visualized her complicated love life thanks to our software. I hope the latter story gave engineers around the world something different to think about.

Sadly, I never got to run our story about the Midwest cemetery administrator who used Visio software to keep track of his “residents.” That would’ve been my Halloween issue.

Not all who play chess are lost
In September 2002, the editors of Chess Life published an interview with Ray Charles and splashed his photo on the cover. Jackpot! Bingo! Touchdown! This issue must’ve been extremely popular because I can never find one on eBay. Everyone’s hiding their copy in their sock drawer. Here’s the only image I can find.

Ray Charles learned to play chess in 1965 while he was in a hospital kicking his heroin addiction. He basically traded addictions. Unlike most blind players, who play by calling out the moves in chess notation (if you’ve ever played Battleship, you’re halfway to learning chess notation), Charles played by feeling the pieces. I suppose this is similar to how he played the piano. He used a special board with raised dark squares and lowered light squares. The black pieces had sharper edges than the white pieces. Each piece had a peg in the bottom and each square had a hole.

“I’m nowhere near what you call a master. I’m just a person who plays chess,” he said in the story. “I don’t care if I lose. I try not to, but I just love to play.”

Charles was interviewed by Grandmaster Larry Evans, a former U.S. chess champion and a long-time columnist for Chess Life. Naturally, they played a game while they talked. Evans didn’t play full-out (he admitted as much later), which I’ve learned is always a mistake when playing children. They learn more when they play the real you, plus your sub-par moves sometimes return to bite you in the ass. Sure enough, Charles, who was a better player than he let on, came close to a draw.

At one point in the game, Evans warned Charles that if Charles moved a certain piece, Evans would be free to make a devastating counter-move. Charles said, “You’ve got your rights, brother.”

Charles also knew how to cut to the game’s essence. “You don’t just move pieces,” he said. “You have to have a reason. So you say to yourself, if I do this and he does that, then what will I do?” I’ve been trying to teach this simple concept for YEARS! But instead of slowing down and thinking, my chess kids invariably plunge ahead as if they were about to miss the ice cream truck.

Chess and music live on the same street
Ray Charles was not the only musician who loved chess. Here’s a partial list: Sonny Bono, David Bowie, Ludacris, Jay Z, LL Cool J, Kurt Cobain, John and Yoko, Wu-Tang Clan (the entire group), Phish (ditto), and some one-worders: Madonna, Cher, Moby, Nelly, Bono, and Sting. In fact the best thing I’ve ever read about Sting is that he has an estate somewhere with a giant chessboard built into the landscaping.

I haven’t even gotten to all the jazz and classical musicians who play or played chess. But the only country western musician that I know of who qualifies was…Ray Charles (Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, vols. 1-2, 1961).

All of this is the leadup to a sad truth: There’s little to say about Charles’ career in the 1970s, my current topic. I don’t believe he was capable of recording a bad album, but like all gods he was capable of recording unnecessary albums, and the ’70s were a long line of them.

Note: There are many necessary Ray Charles records. Here are just two: Ray Charles At Newport (1958) and The Genius of Ray Charles (1959).

I said when I began this series about black music of the ’70s that everyone on my list owed a debt to James Brown. I’m thinking now that we all owe an even bigger debt to Ray Charles.

“I beat Willie Nelson yesterday,” Charles said in Chess Life. “He tells me that I turned the lights out on him.”

Hit the board, Jack.

 

 

VIDA is a literary organization that every year counts how many men and how many women are published or reviewed in the big magazines and tries to point out how unfair it is that the editors of these zines, who are mostly men, publish mostly men, even though this nation as I understand it is about evenly divided between men and women and that probably goes for writers, too.

When VIDA started this count in 2010, men were running amok. For example, in 2010 The New York Review of Books reviewed 306 books by guys but only 59 by gals. This discovery turned out to be a big bucket of embarrassment for a fortress of liberalism. The editors of NYRB rumbled into action, and four years later the magazine reviewed 354 books by men and 164 by women. Calm down, ladies! Gender equality takes time, especially when men are in charge of the equalizing.

If a VIDA-like organization had been around in 1971 to tally the genders in the blaxploitation game, they would’ve surrendered in the first year. These films are trapped in a tar pit of testosterone. I could imagine Ike and Tina Turner being hired to compose a blaxploitation score, but not Tina by herself, and certainly not Aretha, Diana, or even Chaka.

No more warnings. What follows is my attempt to drive through the safety cones, tire spikes, and sand traps of blaxploitation music. Professional driver, closed course.

Here we go!

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)
Melvin Van Peebles (music performed by Earth, Wind & Fire)
Melvin Van Peebles was the writer, producer, and director of this film, which has the most titanic name of any movie ever made. The main theme in this story of an innocent man on the run from the law is that a woman will help you escape the police if a) you possess a jumbotron reproductive organ, and b) you agree to deploy it under her direction. Just an FYI.

Mr. Van Peebles and his son, Mario, also acted in the film (Mario wielded the jumbotron). The senior Van Peebles couldn’t read or write music but still composed the score. He then hired a hungry new band called Earth, Wind & Fire to record it.

Result: Time for the next record!

Shaft (1971)
Isaac Hayes (music performed by The Bar-Kays)
Surprise! There’s almost nothing to listen to on this double LP outside of the monumental theme song. It’s made up almost entirely of the instrumentals backing the action. You can only listen so many times to the music that plays when Shaft is in a cab or just walking around and not being a sex machine.

The main exception to this formula is The Bar-Kays’ 20-minute jam, “Do Your Thing,” which sounds like them doing their thing. The same thing. For 20 minutes. If only you could edit this down to about six minutes – it might be hot. (The Bar-Kays had a series of R&B hits in the ’80s, but that’s off-limits for now.)

I once owned this LP, but I sold it after I picked up the 45 of “Theme from Shaft.” The album version of “Shaft” is longer but not better.

Super Fly (1972)
Curtis Mayfield
Super Fly – the music, not the movie – is one of the few thoroughbreds in this field of pretenders, nags, and wannabes. This is not just Curtis Mayfield’s best, this is an album for somebody’s Hall of Fame. Mayfield writes compassionately about the lives of the out-of-sight, out-of-mind underclass. He’s especially good with the false road to salvation offered by “another junkie plan/pushing dope for The Man.” That road works just fine in this stupid movie but Mayfield won’t let anyone get away with that shit in his music.

There’s “Super Fly,” of course, and “Pusherman,” which is “Super Fly” at a different tempo and with different words, and the dealer’s inevitable end in “Freddie’s Dead”:

We’re all built up with progress
But sometimes I must confess
We can deal with rockets and dreams
But reality, what does it mean
Ain’t nothing said
’Cause Freddie’s dead

And these great songs are just the three that got the radio play! There’s plenty of funk to go around. “No Thing on Me (Cocaine Song)” is a skyrocket of joy, and not because the singer is suctioning up lines of white powder – it’s an anti-drug song.

If the blaxploitation genre did nothing more than give African-American actors and directors a chance to work and Curtis Mayfield a chance to compose this music, it would all have been worthwhile. 

Come Back, Charleston Blue (1972)
Donny Hathaway and Quincy Jones
Come Back, Charleston Blue is the sequel to Cotton Comes to Harlem. It’s a crime drama set in contemporary Harlem, but the unstirring soundtrack often sounds like the Jazz Age. “Little Ghetto Boy” is the one deserving cut. A reissue of this disc includes a live version of the song, which tops the film version and gives me an idea of how good Donny Hathaway must’ve been in concert.

Trouble Man (1972)
Marvin Gaye
Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve always wanted a nickname. In 1972, I boldly suggested to my teammates that they call me “Trouble Man.” For my audacity they beat me senseless. I’m referring, of course, to my chess-team teammates.

In the 1970s, Marvin Gaye could do anything, so why not write a jazz score for a suckfest movie about a black private dick? This one is a sex machine to only one (1) chick.

The Trouble Man soundtrack is atmospheric and way above average for this genre. “ ‘T’ Plays It Cool,” “ ‘T’ Stands for Trouble,” and the main theme are fine, but the title song, “Trouble Man,” is excellent, a slower, gauzier groove than Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” In places it could even slide into Steely Dan’s “Pretzel Logic,” which came along two years later.

The cliches can beat you a lot of ways in “Trouble Man” (“There’s only three things that I know/taxes, death, and trouble”), but the Trouble Man’s retelling of his life, punctuated by the refrain “I come up hard,” is haunting. Trouble Man, the movie, from what I’ve read of it, should haunt everyone who made it.

Gaye must’ve loved “Trouble Man” because he performed it often in concert. The version on Live At the London Palladium (1977) runs 6 and a half minutes and practically growls. There’s a real slugfest in the horn section. It would be no trouble at all to dance to it.

Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off (1973)
Black Caesar (1973)
James Brown
Only the hardest-working man in showbiz could compose and perform two soundtracks in the same year. However, he recycled his old songs from the ’60s to do it. Not exactly a rip-off but I wouldn’t hail Caesar, either.

Coffy (1973)
Roy Ayers
Coffy is the inspirational story of an ER nurse played by Pam Grier who uses her super-sexy body and substandard acting skills to lure despicable men to her home where she slips into something more comfortable and kills them. This is totally the best plot idea since Oedipus tried online dating.

The music was assigned to vibraphone master Roy Ayers, who at that time was busy combining jazz with funk. Later in the decade he added disco to his résumé. The unexpected results are worth looking at in more detail than these soundtracks normally deserve.

If you loved pounding on your xylophone when you were little, you’re gonna dig the theme, “Coffy Is the Color,” as Mr. Ayers sprints flat-out across his instrument. The first third of the record is a more-than-adequate run of funk until we run head-first into “Coffy Sauna,” a boring bit of lounge that was probably the background for a love scene set by a pool or maybe a long tracking shot in which Ms. Grier floats around in her underwear like an ethereal weirdo.

The interesting part – not many of these soundtracks have interesting parts – arrives in the middle.

You’d expect a song with a title as sophisticated as “Brawling Broads” to be the heart of this movie. But it can’t be, because this song is so poppy and friendly. It swings. In fact, it’s Steely Dan. Yes, on two separate blaxploitation soundtracks I have heard Steely Dan. I am hallucinating Walter Becker and Donald Fagen! Either those guys loved this music or I need to be detoxified.

“Shining Symbol” begins as a boring ballad that explains the significance of our heroine. (Ignore all of the singing and speaking on this disc.) Once the singing stops, the song opens the throttle and we get a funky stretch that again stars Ayers’ vibes.

“Exotic Dance” is not exotic. This instrumental is the most mature statement on the album. It sets a sophisticated mood. It’s filled with the sense of loss that comes with being human. What is it doing in a movie about a vigilante in a halter top and various other costumes that don’t block drafts?

The score ends poorly, especially with “Making Love,” which made me feel as if I were trying to climb out of an aquarium. I also think they unloaded a harpsichord somewhere in there. But Ayers, given what he had to work with, dug in and created a score that flies like an eagle and drops like a rock. Like Super Fly, I don’t think it resembles its own film. How did he get away with that? More power to Roy Ayers.

The Mack (1973)
Willie Hutch
Willie Hutch, a multi-talented Motown artist who wrote “I’ll Be There” for The Jackson 5, turns to scoring movies and does fairly well with this one. The dramatic “Theme of the Mack” runs on too long, but the extended blues jam “Mac Man (Got to Get Over)” works just fine and is definitely worth a listen.

“I Choose You” is a sincere declaration of love from a man who wants to marry his woman. This is so far beyond blaxploitation territory, especially in yet another movie about pimps, that The Mack should be applauded just for that.

Cleopatra Jones (1973)
J.J. Johnson
Tamara Dobson is a government agent with a license to kill. Shelley Winters is a drug-dealin’ criminal warlord with a devastating right cross. This is no more ridiculous than any movie with your recommended adult dose of Iron Man.

J.J. Johnson, a pioneering jazz trombonist, composed the score. Except for the theme song, I haven’t heard it. I’d rather learn more about the guy who sang the theme, Joe Simon, who worked at the lonely intersection of soul and country. I would’ve guessed that that intersection, if it existed, was somewhere between Mars and Jupiter.

Simon is a Chubby Checker kind of belter, and he lifts the Cleopatra Jones theme well above its natural level. In the ’70s, Simon had hits with the plaintive “Drowning in the Sea of Love” and the chumsy “Get Down, Get Down (Get on the Floor).” I’m betting that either one is better than the entire score to Cleopatra Jones.

Truck Turner (1974)
Isaac Hayes
Isaac Hayes throws a punch, shoots a gun. Lt. Uhura runs a brothel. Any questions?

Leave it to Isaac Hayes to write the music and play the role. I can’t comment on his acting, but I assume that he convincingly beats up every bad mother- (Shut your mouth!) in sight. The music trends toward jazz; it’s background music when you don’t want to be disturbed by anything in the background.

These tracks remind me of Tom Scott & The L.A. Express’ music for Starsky & Hutch (Hayes does it better) and made me realize how the cop shows of the ’70s – and any TV show or movie of that time that wanted to prove it was hip – were influenced by the blaxploitation breakthrough. (Or the blaxploitation breakdown, depending on your perspective.)

Willie Dynamite (1974)
J.J. Johnson
We’re saved – more pimps! Martha Reeves of Martha & The Vandellas sings the theme song, in which we learn that Mr. D has “seven women in the palm of his hand/got a woman for every man.” Sorry, that is an insufficient number of women for Shaft or Mac “Truck” Turner.

Forget everything Ms. Reeves sings on this disc. Forget most of the disc, which sounds like recycled cop show. But if you like funky bongos, try “Willie Chase” and “Willie Escapes.” The soundtrack to Willie Dynamite was obviously constructed by somebody who knew what he was doing, but that doesn’t mean I want to know what he was doing.

Roscoe Orman, our man Willie, has spent the past 40 years playing Gordon the schoolteacher on Sesame Street.

Foxy Brown (1974)
Willie Hutch
Pam Grier again, still sexy, still vengeful (“Please don’t make Foxy mad/Or you’ll find out that the lady is Superbad”). Willie Hutch again, serving up a funky homage to the music of Shaft, though he sings closer to Ike Turner than to Isaac Hayes. “Give Me Some of That Good Old Love” sounds like Rufus without Chaka Khan. The lyrics are painful.

This disc is considered a classic of the genre. That claim is probably based on tracks 6-8: “Out There,” “Foxy Lady,” and “You Sure Know How to Love Your Man.” “Out There” is almost atmospheric enough to fit on the Trouble Man soundtrack. “Foxy Lady” reminds me of “Nutbush City Limits” and “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).” “You Sure Know How to Love Your Man” has some real emotion to it. I could imagine it performed by Howlin’ Wolf.

Of the other tracks, “Have You Ever Asked Yourself Why” is a sweetheart that’s well within Fleetwood Mac’s range. The closing song, “Whatever You Do (Do It Good),” reminds me of “Can’t Turn It Loose” or something I heard on Soul Train. In fact I probably did hear it on Soul Train. Overall, a solid effort from Mr. Hutch, which is more than I can say of everyone else connected with Foxy Brown.

Last but not least:

Together Brothers (1974)
Barry White and the Love Unlimited Orchestra
I have fond memories of this album. In the summer of 1974, I worked in a record warehouse, and one record I never had to hump around on a hand truck was Together Brothers. That record did not sell. There were stacks of these LPs in a corner on my first day and there were stacks of them in a corner on my last. (Fleetwood Mac’s Mystery to Me was another favorite, for the same reason.)

The Together Brothers score is a peppy group of songs from a gentleman I associate with a glittery romance rather than a gritty ghetto. The songs are heartfelt. Most are disco-y. “Honey, Please Can’t You See” sounds like the disco hits in White’s future, particularly “You’re My First, My Last, My Everything.”

This isn’t a good record, but it’s better than it has any right to be.

Next time: More black music of the 1970s…but in a lot fewer words. There was an avalanche of blaxploitation soundtracks beyond what I’ve tackled here but someone else will have to listen to them!