Posts Tagged ‘Valerie Simpson’

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.

 

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!