Do it, do it, do it: Two miraculous classics get their due

Long before the post-Smokey Robinson Miracles found their zenith in 1975 with the pop-disco of “Love Machine” and the concept LP City Of Angels, the reenergized quartet turned in two classic albums that seamlessly melded classy vocal group soul and black dance music. Overshadowed by Motown albums of greater acclaim for decades, Renaissance (1973) and Do It Baby (1974) featured some of the group’s tightest vocals and thoughtful textures from a broad range of producers. Like the Supremes and the Impressions, the Miracles rose to the challenge of working a new lead singer – in this case talented Baltimore native Billy Griffin – into the tapestry of an iconic group.

Now, to the delight of fans, both albums have been restored to the U.S. marketplace via a beautifully packaged, single-disc special edition from Hip-O Select.

It’s about time.

As I wrote a while back in an entry about Renaissance, the album was remarkably consistent when you consider the fact that 10 different producers were used to create it. A lovely patchwork of compositions that rolled out the red carpet for Griffin and fully utilized original Miracles Pete Moore, Ronnie White and Bobby Rogers, it wasn’t a singles vehicle – which was likely part of the problem when it came to selling it to the public. Save for the wonderfully harmonized, effervescent dancer “What Is A Heart Good For” (which resurfaced on Do It Baby) there really weren’t many obvious, Top 40-friendly cuts of which to speak. That’s not a bad thing, as there was a mercurial resonance that made the sum of its parts more powerful than any possible hit the label could have plucked from the batch. There were many highlights: The clever “Wigs And Lashes” remains a timeless commentary on the dynamics of male-female relationships, while “I Love You Secretly,” a rare Marvin Gaye production, featured one of Griffin’s most engaging lead vocals and emerged as a pivotal moment for the reconfigured combo. Elsewhere, the bouncy “I Don’t Need No Reason” and the moderate R&B hit “Don’t Let It End (‘Til You Let It Begin)” – which was issued after “What Is A Heart Good For” was cancelled as the first single – found the seasoned blends synonymous with the group’s sixties output intact. Though the album stalled at #174 pop and #33 R&B, it was a first-rate, artful vehicle to introduce the Griffin era.

Still, this was Motown, and they wanted hits.  Mr. Gordy and company got their wish with Do It Baby, an LP far more commercial and youthful in its overall presentation and packaging that climbed to #41 pop and #4 R&B. While not the creative triumph of its predecessor it was arguably more exciting throughout, having capitalized on the slow-building disco movement that fused black, Latino and gay cultures – and naturally, the album’s key moments were its pulsating, sensual grooves. The best among them was the smash title track, a Freddie Perren production that minted the new group’s formula in one stroke: lush, symphonic grooves buoyed by knowing harmonies and sly, supple lyrics. More importantly, the trappings of mid-tempo club cuts brought out the unbridled sexuality of Griffin’s falsetto, something that set him apart from sky-scraping crooners like Stylistic Russell Thompkins Jr. and even Robinson himself. The singer also excelled on the album’s funky first single “Give Me Just Another Day” and “We Feel the Same,” but it was the hard-charged “Can’t Get Ready For Losing You” – first recorded by the Jackson 5 – that provided a truly epic showcase for his stratospheric range. Powered by relentless horn and rhythm sections, it was proof that the Motown machine got disco right when the proper elements came together, something that few observers readily acknowledge in their musings on the company’s Los Angeles incarnation.

The ballads, while pleasant and well executed, weren’t as uniformly strong as the up-tempo material primarily because they seemed more appropriate for a younger group: “Up Again,” which first appeared on Michael Jackson’s Music & Me and the Brit-soul chestnut “Where Are You Going To My Love” simply veer too far into the bubblegum zone; “You Are Love” is long on platitudes and short on real emotion. However, “A Foolish Thing To Say” and the intricately arranged “Calling Out Your Name” were rendered with the intimacy and intelligence that colored the best moments from Renaissance, adding a layer of sincerity to the proceedings.

But that’s not the end of the story. A hit in a time preceding the deification of superstar DJs and remixers, “Do It Baby” didn’t benefit from the virtues of an extended 12-inch variation.  That is remedied here thanks to the preternatural Tom Moulton who, through his use of the original tracks and an alternate vocal take, transforms the song from seminal Motown dance floor burner to ominous clubland tour de force. Clocking in at more than seven minutes and sporting a spacey instrumental intro, this reinvention easily stands up against Moulton’s classics for Grace Jones and First Choice, bringing out the purest aspects of the song’s musicality in the process. Crafted especially for this release, it gives the Miracles their rightful place in the pantheon of nascent dance music and deepens the significance of this woefully undervalued period in the group’s history.

Complete with informative liner notes by chronicler Peter Doggett, full chart annotation and lively photos, Hip-O Select’s treatment of Renaissance and Do It Baby more than does the albums justice, as it is on par with the imprint’s titles on the likes of the Marvelettes, DeBarge, the seventies Supremes, Teena Marie and Tammi Terrell. Hopefully, the guaranteed success of this collection will push Don’t Cha Love It (1975) and The Power of Music (1976) into the reissue pipeline.

In the meantime, longtime Miracles devotees – and some newbies, too – can bask in what was an infinitely listenable sweet beginning for a foursome that proved they were more than their former star singer – and formidable contributors to the ever-widening vision of the Motown stable.

A renaissance indeed.

To purchase the single disc edition of Renaissance and Do It Baby, click here.

Check out the Miracles performing “Do It Baby.”

Michael Joseph Jackson: The Black Gold of My Sun

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Cats sit on the windowsill
Children sit in the show
Why do I feel I don’t fit in anywhere I go?
From “Corner of the Sky” by The Jackson 5

Some words, phrases and sentences simply make you bristle. When I think of that concept I chuckle a little bit, because I flash back to Dorothy telling fellow “Golden Girl” Rose that while intrauterine is a word, it shouldn’t be used in any old context.

I just wish the situation on my mind and heart at the moment was close to being that funny.

I am less than two months shy of turning 30. When I saw the words Michael, Jackson and dead woven together on Thursday, my universe turned upside down. My thoughts were racing at an uncontrollable pace. Could this be? Certainly not, right? It is 2009 – and Michael is still a young man. If I’m seeing a headline that says we lost him, have I blinked and missed the last 20 years of my life? I couldn’t be the 29-year-old Steve who, more than 20 years ago, saved his coins in his Smurf bank to buy a copy of Bad. I must be 50 and settled into my life as a happy, well-adjusted adult – and moving into the season where the icons of my youth are in a logical space to make their transition. I wanted to believe I wasn’t seeing an American tragedy unfold in the present.

When the dust of my devastation settled around my spirit, I had to own what happened: Michael Joseph Jackson, my childhood hero, was dead at 50. Ironically, it was a happy day for my family and I, as my witty maternal grandmother celebrated her 90th year of life. Speaking to her reminded me of how rewarding a long life filled with love and positive energy can be. In Brother Michael’s passing, however, I saw a grainy image of what can happen when a person never fully experiences those gifts, and that saddened me. It still does.

But I won’t go there just yet.

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The eighties were a magical time for those of us who lived it, and Michael worked his sonic sorcery like no other. In him and his illustrious canon were infinite possibilities, Technicolor testaments to the fact that little black boys like me could dream big and see those visions come to fruition. His music is a key part of the soundtrack of my early years, but it was the way it built cultural bridges that was so special. Growing up in the suburbs of southeastern Virginia, I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me when I entered the homes of my friends – but there was always Michael. Whether it was a poster, a pillow or a copy of Thriller, it wouldn’t be long before that inimitable, badass white suit would fill my gaze. I always found comfort in that because just for a moment, I had another brother in my midst. In my little world, Michael became a de facto symbol of universal love and acceptance.

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When it comes to the music itself, I don’t know what I could say that has not already been stated. The classics he created with his talented siblings and on his own still burst with shimmery innocence, capturing the evolution of both R&B and an icon. The wise-beyond-his-years readings of “Who’s Loving You” and “Got to Be There.” The adolescent angst of “Dancing Machine” and “All I Do is Think of You.” The elegant, understated and underrated Philadelphia International productions The Jacksons and Goin’ Places. The high steppin’, hip dressin’ disco of Off the Wall. The shear pop mastery of Thriller, Bad, Dangerous and even Invincible. It just goes on and on. It cuts me to my core to know that the beautiful voice at the center of such greatness, an instrument that brought so many so much joy, has left this Earth.

I just wish Michael himself had been able to have a bit of that joy in his own life. Ravaged by constant media scrutiny and a fickle public, Michael was never afforded the chance to be happy. Save for a few close bonds, genuine friendship and support seemed to elude him. On more than one occasion I’ve been offended as a black man and a fan by things that have been said and written about this man. It continues to make me ache, because it almost seems like people want to believe the worst about Michael, no matter the circumstance. I simply don’t understand it.

However, this is not a time to dwell on the negativity of some segments of society. This is a time about Michael. The tears of pain I cried Thursday birthed a celebration in me of the man and his music. I celebrate the beauty of his soul. I celebrate what he gave me. I celebrate what he gave the black community. I celebrate what he gave the world.

Most importantly, I celebrate the peace that now cradles this beautiful brother. It is a peace he was never given in life, and it can’t be taken from him in death. That puts my mind and heart at ease.

Here’s to the black gold of my sun, Michael Joseph Jackson. May he rest peacefully in his corner of the sky.

A Janet fan’s discipline

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It’s hard being a Janet Jackson fan. It takes a whole lot of discipline.

I want those who stan for Janet to do something for me: Close your eyes for a moment and think back to the days, pre-2004, when your role in the Rhythm Nation was drama and argument free. You were able to watch interviews without holding your breath, free of the worry of “the incident” popping up during the dialogue. There were no catty blogs, no mean-spirited reporters and critics ready to pounce, no hateration. You didn’t get smartass remarks from peers if you even hinted at being a fan, either. Indeed, those were good times.

Sadly, those days are long gone. As “Discipline” — Janet’s tenth release overall and first for Island Def Jam — hit shelves Tuesday, the doubters were already flapping their jaws at a fever pitch. Before the record could even take hold, the masses were tagging it another sexhibition, a collection that did little more than collate vapid pop indulgences and Quiet Storm smut. This is hardly the case, as the delightfully raunchy title track is really the ONLY thing that comes close to her past excursions into erotica.

“Discipline” is a dance album first and foremost, full of skittering beats, catchy hooks and plain old good feeling, which is how we all like Miss Jackson best. Infectious dancers like “Feedback,” “Rock With U” and “2Nite” are classic Janet with a modern twist indeed (How many times did she say that in interviews?) and are worth a listen. And when she slows it down and channels her big brother Mike on my personal favorite, the lovely “Can’t B Good,” she proves she never lost touch with her endearing sweetness.

With all this in mind, this should be a time for Janet fans to rejoice. She’s back on MTV in heavy rotation for the first time in years, is planning a tour and just won an NAACP Image Award for her role as Dr. Patricia Agnew in “Why Did I Get Married?”. Yet, most spend their time defending their favorite diva against the side-eyes of naysayers and unfair comparisons. While critics tell Janet to grow up, they praise the tired, ghetto-urchin funk of Mariah Carey (I know ya’ll have heard “Touch My Body”), who is just two or three years Janet’s junior. Granted, she’s coming off of a hit album and wasn’t in Janet’s position even during her darkest hour, but that’s beside the point. People are looking for any reason to dog J out, and that’s just greasy.

So what’s a Janet fan to do? My advice would be to enjoy the record without worrying about sales, what she did or did not do promotionally, or how it’s gonna stack up to the output of others. Just be glad our girl has some solid product out there for us to enjoy. If you like it, like it, if you don’t, don’t – but don’t’ change shit up if the record does not chart where you think it should like folks did with “20 Y.O.” after it didn’t meet expectations. (I still don’t think that record was half bad, but what do I know?)

In short, just do your duty as a proud Janet fan. Or stan. Or whatever you wanna call yourself. Just keep in mind that if you let the haters and the charts sway your opinion on things, you weren’t a fan to begin with.