April 21, 1973: Tommie Young, Little Johnny Taylor, Otis Clay, David Ruffin, Isaac Hayes

Straight from the States

TOMMIE YOUNG: Do You Still Feel The Same Way (Soul Power).
Against all expectations, Tommie turns out to be a chick . . . . and a very Soulful chick at that. With a slight Irma Thomas (and, dare I say, Aretha Franklin?) quality to her “open throat” singing on this Bobby Patterson-produced/arranged/co-penned slowie, she wails away through, over and under her girlie group support in a refreshingly old-fashioned (timeless?) Soul style which is particularly satisfying without being overly spectacular. There’s lotsa church in that voice.

LITTLE JOHNNY TAYLOR: You’re Not The Only One (Ronn).
Another Shreveport, Louisana, recording prod/arr/co-penned by Bobby Patterson, its opening words are enough to tell you that you’re on familiar Little Johnny Taylor territory: “I know about that butcher, baby, and how you get your meat . . .” Yup, and his baby isn’t the only one who is getting benefits from the local tradesmen! “I know about the insurance man, I know he got a one night plan, but here’s something you got to understand, he’s not the only one that’s got some collectin’ to do, ‘cos while he’s selling you health and life, I’m collectin’ the premium from some housewife . . . ” Sounds like a town full of Jodies.

OTIS CLAY: I Didn’t Know The Meaning Of Pain (Hi).
Well, well, well – producer Willie Mitchell’s pushing up the pressure in his famous “comfortable” sound: everything’s still real laid-back, but those drums are pumping a bit harder and the burbling organ is even more buoyant. This is getting on for his Bill Coday “Get Your Lie Straight” attacking style, to which the beat-riding voice of Otis Clay would indeed be suited. Continue reading “April 21, 1973: Tommie Young, Little Johnny Taylor, Otis Clay, David Ruffin, Isaac Hayes”

April 14, 1973: James Hamilton interviews Diana Ross, Soul Generation, The Delfonics, Jerry Washington, O.V. Wright, Sylvia

THE STORY OF BILLIE
James Hamilton talks to Diana Ross about ‘Lady Sings The Blues’

DIANA ROSS – Movie Star! As such, and not as a singer, she came to London last week to attend the British premiere of her first film, “Lady Sings The Blues”, in which she plays the role of Billie Holiday, the tragically drug-addicted jazz singer whose autobiography served as inspiration for the film’s plot.

Billie Holiday died in 1959, aged 44, after leading a life to which this filmed version bears little relation. However, the harsh criticism which has been directed at the film’s fictional simplification of the truth is undeserved by Diana, who went to quite amazing lengths to soak up all that she could about the real Billie Holiday and her era.

Surprisingly, other than once remarking “Ah! That’s really something!” about a version of My Man, Diana had been totally disinterested in Billie’s work prior to 1969, when the idea of making the film was first mentioned to her. Disinterest gave way to devotion, and Diana’s research began.

“If I have to play someone I have to know her. I cannot meet her, because she’s dead: the only way I can meet her and know her is through her music and through pictures, through things that were written about her, talking to people that knew her. And that wasn’t enough.

“I had to know the time, and where she travelled, and how she came about. I had to know what was happening then, in the world at that time. And that wasn’t enough.

“Then I had to know about drugs – why this drug, why any drug? Why did she go this direction and not another? Even to the end of my research I began to know her every day I worked on the film, because it wasn’t just acting – I do a lot of reacting to situations that were given to me that were her situations – or supposedly her situations – and I still began to know her more, every day I began to learn something about her. And I don’t know that even at the finish of the film that that was enough.

“I would think that my research took more than a year. Nine months totally I know that I listened to no other music other than music of the ’30s, and jazz, and, er, looking at pictures of what the clubs looked like from the outside and trying to picture what they looked like on the inside, and what the girls wore, and the Jitterbug, dances, all those things that I thought made a difference in how she lived. I’ve been trying to see how different it was from the way things are today.”

In the light of this dedication to authenticity, the film’s inclusion of many seemingly anachronistic slang expressions, the bantering use between blacks of the word “nigger” among them, could be thought of as odd. Diana, who, it must be emphasised, was the driving force behind the period feel of the whole film, thinks not. “Those words were used then, too. I paid quite a bit of attention to that.”

As you probably heard, Diana was nominated for, but failed to win, the Academy Award. Although disappointed, she recognises the importance and glamour of an award such as the “Oscar”, and knows that a beginner’s chances in the ballot are slim indeed, no matter how well that beginner performed. At least she herself was happy with her performance – and she is seldom satisfied.

“I knew that, with whatever learning I had dramatically, I had done my best. That’s all I wanted to do, that’s all I could do. And then, from there, a lot of the beautiful things that I loved, and spent a lot of time on, ended up on the cutting room floor . . . that’s the way it goes, that’s show business!”

Here, Diana is referring to the sections from the beginning of the film depicting Billie’s childhood which were edited out, even for American showing. Since then much more has ended up on the cutting room floor, as the British version of the film (which Diana was to see after our conversation) has been edited from about 160 minutes to 125 minutes . . . that’s 35 minutes of film!

“It’s hurt me a lot. I haven’t seen the cut version but I think I know what it is, and I know I’m going to be saddened by it – but even the first cut, I was saddened by the first cut! They cut all of the childhood, from the time of the brothel in Baltimore, and the rape scene; after that there was an orphanage scene where I went to the Catholic orphanage, all of that was cut out even before the version in the United States.

“And where I run away from school and where I jump out of the building – those were the things that I really loved, because I had to run up the stairs and run down the hallway, and get out of this window.

“It was very much like the book, but there was just too much film and we just could not do a documentary of this lady’s life, just putting facts. I mean, it had to become a story.

“People have to be interested in the person, and the only way they could be interested in Billie Holiday in this film as a person is to watch her grow, and the only way we could do that is by not just throwing in facts, it had to become a story.

“I hope we succeeded, and I can’t wait to see this version, but I heard that by making it this way it’s quite a bit more entertaining . . . I hope so. As far as what I did, acting, I guess we lose that, but the most important thing is the total story.

“You don’t see the childhood: what you do see where it starts in this version, in the New York street, I’m a little bit older there. I played a much younger girl before that. It was really fun because I remembered those things as a kid, and I drew the hopscotch on the ground as I skipped down the street because my director didn’t know about those kind of things – and I said as a kid there was always one on the ground, even if you didn’t do it yourself.”

Well, we don’t see the hopscotch, or the rape scene (even though the latter is shown as one of the stills inside the soundtrack album’s accompanying booklet). We don’t see the bed scene on Billie’s first night out with her lover (played by Billy Dee Williams with suave modernity), nor do we see the arrest scene (reportedly, Diana’s most moving moment, in which she takes off her sunglasses to reveal tear-filled eyes). The arrest scene and its accompanying action is a key pivot of the film, as the flashbacked majority of the story stems from its aftermath, and the voice of the arresting officer even opens Side One of the album!

Judged only on what we do see, “Lady Sings The Blues” still seems too long. By trying to be both an “entertainment” and a “slice of life,” the film falls sharply between two stools. Its glossy production values and misty photography suffuse the period settings with a romance that is in keeping with the early carefree incidents, and at odds with the later sordid dealings – actually, its look is very much that of “The Godfather”.

For the first few episodes, which show the happily coquettish young girl, the film is delightful entertainment – more’s the pity, then, that it is from this end that most has been cut – but, once a fictitious white bandsman has introduced Billie to drugs, the drama becomes as irritating to watch as is the irrational behaviour of its junkie protagonist.

Junkies, whether on drugs or drink, are an exasperating sight: that Diana Ross has portrayed their desperation as convincingly as she has played her lighter moods is of course to her great credit as an actress, but it is not on account of her role that the film becomes irritating.

It is because, the further the story develops from the fairly authentic opening scenes, the more “Hollywood Musical” become the conventions of its telling, so that by the time that the Holiday character is at its most pitiable it is surrounded by compassion-killing stereotypes (with the exception of Richard Pryor, who plays the brutally murdered “Piano-man”).

If viewed through innocent eyes by someone unable to relate the fiction on the screen to the reality in the book (unlike “The Godfather”, this is a case where the book should NOT be read until afterwards), the film is undoubtedly as moving as any within its glamourized bio-pic genre. It differs from other modern drugs-related films ( “Superfly”, etc) in that it has the power to turn you off, and, in truth, ends up by being such a downer that you would be well advised to see it early enough in the evening to leave you time for a comedy too.

Many of the most evocative bits of dialogue have been preserved on the specially designed and lavishly presented soundtrack album (Tamla Motown TMSP 1131), a double album of which two sides are straight music and two are music-plus-chat. Diana’s renderings of Billie Holiday’s music are brave and sometimes successful interpretations, while the songs, dialogue and sound effects sides are an innovation which will be welcomed by all with good imaginations.

Even bearing in mind the cuts and the fact that it is NOT the true Billie Holiday story, there is much to enjoy – so, see the film and hear the records, and then, maybe, you will want to read the book and hear the real records. At the least, you will be able to decide for yourselves if Diana Ross IS Billie Holiday.


Straight from the States

SOUL GENERATION: Million Dollars (Ebony Sounds).
On this current R&B hit Soul Vocal Group dead slowie (soon to be issued in Britain on the new Sticky label), producer Stan Vincent goes a long way towards exonerating himself after his much-criticised work with the Stairsteps. An exquisite lead-swapping gem, this is a bit too Soulful to earn the “Sweet Soul” tag, and is summed up by the title of its more Stairsteps-like throbbing slow flip . . . “Super Fine“.

THE DELFONICS: I Don’t Want To Make You Wait (Philly Groove).
After they started the whole modern “Sweet Soul” Philly Sound with their “La La Means I Love You” in 1968, bringing producer Thom Bell to prominence in the process, it’s a great shame that the ‘Fonics have faded through internal differences just as their style has found international popularity. Their latest meandering slowie still has their trademark (penned by William Hart, arranged by Vincent Montana and Andy Cosmos, produced by Stan Watson, William and Wilbert Hart), but it’s nevertheless a bit TOO languid and limp.

JERRY WASHINGTON: Right Here Is Where You Belong (Excello).
Oooh! Over a gently repetitive basic flute riff, Jerry raps and wails his Soulful way. To begin with, he sets out to find where Kim lives (“She lives next door, on the top floor”, says her gruff-voiced neighbour), only to be greeted with “What you want now?” in a scolding tone. Well, Jerry wants to tell her how his doctor released him from the hospital with an incurable condition that’s worse than cancer . . . a bad case of the Blues. Get the picture? Dig it! Continue reading “April 14, 1973: James Hamilton interviews Diana Ross, Soul Generation, The Delfonics, Jerry Washington, O.V. Wright, Sylvia”

April 7, 1973: The Partridge Family, The Jackson 5, New York City, Batteaux, Redbone

Straight from the States

THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY Starring Shirley Jones & Featuring David Cassidy: Friend And A Lover; Something’s Wrong (Bell).
Cassidy fans who have been lucky enough to hear the “Partridge Family Notebook” LP will know this “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye”-copying staccato stomper with buzzing fuzz-tone guitar which has been pulled from it, together with the wistful slow-starting flip-side track, to make up the Family’s latest single in America. There’s no guarantee that it (or anything else mentioned in “Straight From The States”) will be issued in Britain, so that this exclusive preview-review service of the good ole “Record Mirror” is a good place to find out about the records which those lucky Americans can hear and buy right now . . . isn’t it? Go, tell your friends (and a lover) about it!

THE JACKSON 5: Hallelujah Day; You Made Me What I Am (Motown).
Two tracks from the Fab Five + Randy’s new “Skywriter” LP, the happy topside (it had to be happy with a title like that) is back in the boys’ herky-jerky old original style, and features some truly Soulful lead swapping on the optimistic lyrics that are indirectly about the Viet Nam withdrawal, while the more complex flipside chugger is another lead vocal switcher which Michael does dominate.

NEW YORK CITY: I’m Doing Fine Now; Ain’t It So (Chelsea).
I’m doin’ fine now too, having recovered from the rigours of a walk in the Black Forest two weeks ago and a couple of midnights in Moscow this last weekend. If snow was all I wanted to see, I should have waited and gone to Westmorland! As it was, the Bolshoi Ballet weren’t a patch on this fine if workmanlike new Thom Bell-penned / arranged / conducted / produced male (but girl-supported) vocal group, whose one-two-THREE-four rhythm skipping light plopper is in turn over-shadowed to my mind by its hesitant early Main Ingredient-type flipside slowie. In any case, no matter that the group are called after New York City, this is yet another Philly Sound hit which is bulleting up the US Pop and R & B Charts. Continue reading “April 7, 1973: The Partridge Family, The Jackson 5, New York City, Batteaux, Redbone”

March 24, 1973: James Brown, Sylvia, Marlena Shaw, Supremes, Diana Ross

Straight from the States

JAMES BROWN: Down And Out In New York City; Mama’s Dead (Polydor).
Mr. Brown has joined Messrs. Hayes, Mayfield, Gaye, Womack, Hathaway, Van Peebles & Co. in becoming one of the black stars to have scored (or, in the case of the “A” side here, merely arranged/produced) the music for a black-aimed movie. “Black Caesar” is the name of this one, and the music from it selected for this initial single is refreshingly removed from Mr. Brown’s usual groove. “Down And Out” starts slowly and builds impassionedly to a plopping bongo-led, mellow brass-backed, jerky, non-dance, dramatic rhythm, while “Mama’s Dead” (shades of “Freddie’s Dead”? ) is a dead (!) slow and very beautiful soulful mood, sung in a crying style that we don’t hear enough of these days.

SYLVIA: Pillow Talk (Vibration).
Sylvia Robinson, of Mickey & Sylvia and ownership of Stang / All Platinum / Vibration record label fame, is back – and how – behind the microphone . . . oh boy! And it’s the boys who will be going “oh!” when they hear this super-sexy, breath-sucking, winsomely little-girlish, perfectly contrived piece of cock-teasing. That may seem strong, but believe me that this is indeed a VERY strong record! If red-blooded males are able to resist its charms, they’d better go visit the blood bank for a top-up! Add to the brilliance of Sylvia’s hissing, sucking, sighing and squeaking the loveliness of the light mid-tempo romping rhythmic music, and you’ve got one foxy mutha!


American Singles

MARLENA SHAW: Last Tango In Paris (Blue Note UP 35517).
Still they keep coming! (Think about it!) Sultry jazz-soulstress Marlena, who did the vocal of “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”, sings Dory Previn’s lyrical addition to Gato Barbieri’s theme in a Horace Ott-arranged Marvin Gaye-ish way – which is odd, ‘cos his “Save The Children” happens to be on the flip. Along with the EL CHICANO (MCA MU 1188), this is the most satisfying, musically . . . and sexually. Continue reading “March 24, 1973: James Brown, Sylvia, Marlena Shaw, Supremes, Diana Ross”

February 10, 1973: The Spinners, Alice Cooper, Beach Boys, The O’Jays, Roy “C”

Straight from the States

THE SPINNERS: Could It Be I’m Falling In Love (Atlantic).
I’ve heard a disturbing story that Philadelphia producers such as Thom Bell and Gamble & Huff tend to use the same singers on their sessions, and that the groups whose names are put to the results are merely salaried faces who go out on the road. It’s the sort of story that has always gone the rounds, and in the case of, say, the Stylistics it is obviously not true . . . BUT, it did come from a respectable and knowledgeable source.

Listening now to the Spinners’ latest Thom Bell-produced US Chart-climbing easy-beat semi-slowie I have cause to pause for thought: the Spinners were always a pretty anonymous group vocally – exemplified by the fact that it was they who did the infamous Motortown Revue impersonations in their old stage act, and mimic-in-chief Sammy Davis Jr. could hardly be said to have a distinctive voice when singing straight.

Now, I’ve always rated the Spinners higher then most . . . . uh oh, I’ve just remembered I should be calling them the DETROIT SPINNERS, sorry Liverpool Spinners . . . . ever since their “That’s What Girls Are Made For“, and I’m not prepared to have my dreams shattered just like that. The lead singer here is definitely the same as on “I’ll Be Around”, but he does happen to be backed up strongly by some chicks. Could it be that some of the background singing is not necessarily always by the named members of the groups? That would be reasonable, and to be expected. I hope that’s what does go on.

Oh, the record has a grow-on-you appeal, an Al Green type of tempo, and a subdued Thom Bell- arranged/conducted backing. Of course it’s good, no matter who’s singing. Oh dear, I wish he’d never told me, mutter mutter, mumble mumble groan. . .

ALICE COOPER: Hello Hurray; Generation Landslide (Warner Bros K 16248 ).
Which way will his fans jump on hearing this slow, studied and somewhat theatrical change of approach? Decidedly odd initially, but second or third time around the insidious melody catches on, so strong. Jerky flip about Million Dollar Babies has spunky punk protest lyrics.


American Singles

THE BEACH BOYS: California Saga / California; Sail On Sailor (Reprise K 14232).
From “Holland”, where the change of air must’ve done ’em good: Al Jardine’s home-sick harmony-filled topside finds the boys back on classic middle period form – with sunny California subject matter, rolling “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds” rhythm, and all the vocal bits we love to hear – while the flipside wistful slowie is a bluesy beaut, too. Continue reading “February 10, 1973: The Spinners, Alice Cooper, Beach Boys, The O’Jays, Roy “C””

February 3, 1973: Diana Ross, Partridge Family, Jackson 5, Rance Allen Group, Neil Sedaka

Straight from the States

DIANA ROSS: Good Morning Heartache; God Bless The Child (Motown).
The singer from the soundtrack album from the movie more-or-less about Billie Holiday’s life story, “Lady Sings The Blues” – a movie for which, incidentally, as long ago as 1964 the late jazz singer’s widower was trying to raise financial backing from the firm I worked with in New York. There was never much doubt that eventually someone would get around to filming the Billie Holiday Story, but, as there was always considered to be an element of risk involved (black singer, drugs, unsuitable vehicle for Doris Day, who’d want to see THAT?), it is a treble triumph that, once filmed, it was done so under the auspices of Motown, it is not only evidently very good but also a huge box office success, and it has transformed thespian tyro Diana Ross overnight into a fully-fledged motion picture STAR.

Anyway, the single couples two of Billie Holiday’s best-known numbers and presents them in a setting and style approximately appropriate to their origins – which has presented in turn the radio programmers of America (never an adventurous breed of man) with a problem of their own making: can they play dated-sounding big band jazz ballad music on a Top 40 show? Well, if it’s by one of the World’s most popular singers and from the current biggest-grossing film hit, why the hell not?

Ah well, but it sounds DIFFERENT. There you have in a nutshell why, I believe, this country is not destined to get a single issued from the film’s soundtrack album when it is issued in Britain . . . which is a pity, as this very mellow and very accurate evocation of the old big band jazz ballad sound is superbly smoochy music and shows Diana in, if not an afficionado-pleasing imitation of Billie’s voice, a completely credible and relevant new style of her own. Believe me, she sings these songs awfully well, managing to sound like both Diana Ross and a jazz singer at the same time. Lovely stuff.


American Singles

THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY Starring DAVID CASSIDY: Looking Thru The Eyes of Love; Storybook Love (Bell 1278).
Gene Pitney’s oldie gets a typical slow-starting then swelling into gentle rhythm comes-and-goes Cassidy ballad treatment, which has failed so far to do big biz in America. It’s good enough to make a maybe useful barometer against which to measure by how much recent revelations have affected his fans’ flipside sentiments (the flip’s brighter).

THE JACKSON 5: Doctor My Eyes; My Little Baby (Tamla Motown TMG 842).
No comment on the Partridges’ newie, the Jackson Brothers’ spirited thumpalong treatment of Jackson Browne’s year old US hit/GB miss may upset purist lovers of the original but is the only sort of treatment likely to make the beautiful song a hit here, unfortunately. An album track not on single in America, it’s a money-making move on Motown’s part which should pay dividends. Continue reading “February 3, 1973: Diana Ross, Partridge Family, Jackson 5, Rance Allen Group, Neil Sedaka”

January 13, 1973: Laura Lee, The Persuaders, Archie Bell & The Drells, Kenny Loggins & Jim Messina, The Crickets

Hot US releases

Record Mirror is the ONLY pop paper to provide advance reviews of the most important American singles releases. Each week JAMES HAMILTON, the most knowledgeable writer on the US record scene, brings you, hot from the presses, reviews of the new Stateside hits . . . via Billboard’s exclusive fast-mailing service.

LAURA LEE: Since I Fell For You; Wedlock Is A Padlock (Hot Wax HWX 118).
If you’re a bloke with any sensibilities at all, this languidly and so sexily conceived recitation-then-smouldering torch song is guaranteed to reduce you to a quivering mess: if you’re a dewy-eyed maiden, it’ll appeal to you much as Gladys Knight’s current hit does, although this really is aimed at the blokes. In truth, by far the best bit is the long smoochy spoken intro which sets the scene for the old Lenny Welch hit, and the one disappointing bit is when the tempo tries to get clever halfway through the song proper. However, this long-time-comin’ Soul gem is head, shoulders, chest, hips and knees above the boringly obvious thump thumper coupling, which amazingly is the official plug side. Skip it ‘n flip it, y ‘all !

THE PERSUADERS: Peace In The Valley; Thin Line Between Love And Hate (Atlantic K 10265).
It’s a good week far Soul fans, this, and here’s the number one on the lists of all Soul Group Freaks. Dead slow and very Gospelly, with incredible passionate singing and several gallons of pure one hundred proof SOUL, this current US R&B Top Tenner is backed by the group’s US Pop Top Tenner of 1971. It too is a must-have item, dead slow and particularly inventive, but the trouble is that many of you must have it already as it’s been out on 45 and LP before in this country. Double dynamite for tyros, cheesy deal but vital for initiates.

ARCHIE BELL AND THE DRELLS: Tighten Up; (There’s Gonna Be) A Showdown (Atlantic K 10263).
1968’s “Tighten Up” is, as some of you by now must know, one of my all time faves, but, more than that, its madly infectious rhythm (an innovation in its day, I think it’s true to say) keeps on cropping up to brighten anything to which it is applied (the Nite-Liters’ “K-Jee” for instance). As it’s a well-proven disco smash, why is it in fact the official B-side here to the good but less direct Gamble & Huff-penned/produced “Showdown”? Both, incidentally, were issued on a maxi together with “I Can’t Stop Dancing” about a year ago by Atlantic Polydor, so that, despite their other R&B maxis, Atlantic WEA ain’t doing you no favours. Continue reading “January 13, 1973: Laura Lee, The Persuaders, Archie Bell & The Drells, Kenny Loggins & Jim Messina, The Crickets”