‘Renaissance’ men: A landmark Miracles album turns 35


“Oh man, it’s probably all over for The Miracles now that you’re leaving the group. What do you think is going to happen to them?” singer Smokey Robinson said he was asked on the inside of the gatefold sleeve to The Miracles’ post-Robinson debut, “Renaissance.”

His answer? “I think that Bob, Pete and Ron are professionals in the field of entertainment, and that under any circumstances they will be able to carry on and be fantastic if it is their desire to do so.”

To read that observers harbored such skepticism isn’t all that surprising – by the early ‘70s, the Robinson-led Miracles were a pop music institution.

The blend of Robinson’s soaring voice and The Miracles’ harmonies was effortless, sweetening hits like “Shop Around,” “Ooo Baby Baby” and “The Tears of a Clown.” By 1967, however, Robinson was given top billing and The Miracles – Pete Moore, Ronnie White and Bobby Rogers – were relegated to hooting owls on much of the group’s output, or even worse, weren’t featured at all. Then in 1972 the inevitable happened: After a lavish farewell concert, Robinson mounted a solo career and introduced his replacement, a handsome young Baltimore native named Billy Griffin. Much like The Supremes two years earlier after the exit of Diana Ross, a new day had dawned for The Miracles. Reconfigured and reenergized, the foursome issued the artistic triumph that was the Tamla LP “Renaissance” in April 1973, setting the second phase of their existence in motion on quite the high note. Though later albums would prove more successful, this remains their finest hour and the ideal starting point for those interested in the group’s underrated ‘70s canon.

Given that Griffin sings in a falsetto style like Robinson, choosing him as a replacement made sense. However, it’s important to point out that that’s where the similarities between the two singers pretty much end. While Robinson’s voice was sweetly romantic at its core, there was a no-bullshit bite to Griffin’s vocals – and they injected a lot of much-needed youth and vigor into the group’s direction. More importantly, the singers were functioning as a group again, with the harmonies as prominently displayed as the leads. Washington Post writer Ivan Brandon noted in a favorable review of an October 1973 performance at the Mark IV Supper Club that though the group featured a new soloist, the veteran members were given a more substantial role in the act than they’d seen in years. “William Griffin, the new lead singer, works well within this framework, and the group comes across more like four singers instead of a leader and three obscure backup men,” Brandon wrote. He went on to praise the group’s new sound and image, saying the combination was more than enough to keep Robinson off of fans’ minds.

The same can be said for the “Renaissance” album.

Executive produced by Robinson, the record is strikingly consistent when you consider 10 different producers were utilized in its creation. Released during an interesting and overlooked period in Motown’s storied history, it’s one of the many early ‘70s albums the label issued that painted a real musical picture rather than collect singles and filler. Much like The Temptations’ “Sky’s the Limit” or “Valerie Simpson Exposed,” “Renaissance” finds The Miracles with a brand to call their own that did its part in pushing The Sound of Young America into the new decade. Melodically and lyrically, the project is an amazing example of the label’s reconstituted vision.

The lead single, the plush “Don’t Let it End (‘Til You Let it Begin)” (No. 26 R&B/No. 56 pop) was a fitting start to the new group’s journey, as it is close enough to the classic Miracles sound to appease longtime fans and fresh enough to rope in interest from the uninitiated. This and other ballads like “If You’re Ever in the Neighborhood,” “Nowhere to Go” and “I Wanna Be With You” are fine entries into the sweet soul sweepstakes, cuts that give the best offerings by contemporaries Blue Magic and The Stylistics a run for their money.

The quartet shines in the mellow moments but they genuinely sound exciting on the album’s up-tempo material, as this seems to be where Griffin seems most in his element. The album’s opener, the percussive, rapid-fire “What is a Heart Good For” (which also surfaced on “Do It Baby” the following year) is one of the group’s best performances and should have become a hit single. Written by Leon Ware and the late Arthur “T-Boy” Ross (Diana’s little brother), the song boasts one of the group’s most clever vocal arrangements and a dynamic lead vocal from Griffin. “I Don’t Need No Reason” and “I Didn’t Realize that the Show was Over” also excel, while the sly, witty “Wigs and Lashes” finds the brothers begging for their women to let them see them for who they truly are, not what they portray themselves to be on the world’s stage. It’s obvious that the songwriters brought their best to the table here, and The Miracles are clearly giving their all. It’s almost as if they felt they had something to prove.

The stunningly beautiful “I Love You Secretly,” however, is the cut that takes top honors. Produced and co-written by Motown prince Marvin Gaye, the song is one of the greatest ballads in The Miracles’ history, with or without Robinson. Quite often, when artists of Gaye’s magnitude produce records for fellow acts it sounds almost as if they could fit on their own albums, but that is not the case with this song. Griffin’s lead aches with the unrequited love expressed in the lyrics as it glides across soft strings, horns and his group mates’ silky harmonies. Not even The Originals, who frequently collaborated with Gaye, could have brought this song across with such style. The alternate take featured on “Love Machine: The ’70s Collection” is even more memorable, complete with a spoken intro that didn’t make the original cut. Moore, who wrote the compilation’s liner notes, says he was moved to tears upon hearing it for the first time in decades. Those brothers stamped that one, no question.

For all its loveliness, “Renaissance” peaked at a paltry No. 33 R&B/No. 174 pop – a travesty when you consider the quality of the material. The group would redeem themselves from a commercial standpoint the following year with the sexy proto-disco of “Do It Baby” and “Don’t Cha Love It,” while “Love Machine” became their biggest hit single in 1975, topping the pop chart and finding life in films and commercials for years to come. The concept album that birthed the single, “City of Angels,” really was sensational, complete with a song called “Ain’t Nobody Straight in L.A.” (It’s as funny as it sounds, trust.) The group carried on, eventually landing at Columbia for the album “Love Crazy” (which saw Griffin’s brother Donald added to the lineup) and the single “Spy for the Brotherhood,” but by this point the shine had dulled. Griffin would stay at Columbia as a solo act, a tenure that yielded one of my favorite rare groove cuts, the classic dancer “Hold Me Tighter in the Rain.” He continues to record today, having issued the critically acclaimed “Like Water” in 2006. Led by Rogers, The Miracles continue to perform, though White left us in 1995 after a struggle with leukemia.

There’s always a degree of trepidation that comes over the masses when a new lead singer steps into an established group. The key is allowing oneself to let go of the image you’ve come to know and love and embrace something that can be quite rewarding. Such is the case with The Miracles and the long out-of-print “Renaissance,” a timeless classic that put a new face on a much-heralded group. Robinson addressed those who said they were not sure if the new group had that spark with a short, sweet answer as he wrapped up the album’s sleeve notes.

“You can be,” Robinson emoted. “All you have to do is listen to this album.”


Vinyl examination: Baby, it’s Diana


When it comes to diva extraordinaire Diana Ross, I guess you could say I’m a closet fan. I hate on her on the regular because of how she treated her fellow Supremes back in the day on her road to superstardom, but one thing I can’t do is deny that she is a true talent. After all, when it comes to the black diva, she really is the blueprint. A consummate singer, live performer and actress, she is the prototype that Janet Jackson and Beyonce have followed throughout their careers. In all her doe-eyed, Motown charm school-honed brassiness, she changed the way black women in this country were viewed, and you can’t take that from her.

As a singer, her greatest strength was always her singles. Classic hits like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Remember Me,” “Love Hangover,” and “Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)” are defining moments for not only black music, but pop music in general, testaments to Ross’ undeniable charm and appeal. Her albums, however, tended to be a different story. Save for the wonderful early ‘70s trilogy that was “Diana Ross,” “Everything is Everything” and “Surrender” and 1979’s “The Boss,” many of Ross’ ’70s albums were nothing more than hodgepodges of tracks thrown together rather than unified, conceptual works, a phenomenon that arose out of her all-around entertainer approach. The worst offenders were “Diana Ross” and “Ross,” released in 1976 and 1978 respectively, as they come off as little more than addendums to her then-budding film career. (It’s obvious she loves issuing eponymous albums, too.) However, nestled in between those releases was 1977’s “Baby It’s Me,” a fine album of sublime MOR soul produced by Richard Perry. It wasn’t a blockbuster, but it’s one of the best albums in Ross’ lexicon.

Perry’s one of those producers who critics complain is a bigger draw than many of the artists he twists knobs for, but I like his work. His productions for The Pointer Sisters (“Fire”), Carly Simon (“You’re So Vain”), Art Garfunkel (“I Only Have Eyes For You”) and DeBarge (“Rhythm of the Night”) are among my favorites, songs that show material can marry a producer’s stamp to an artist’s approach and keep everyone’s identity in place. Critics are right in that it’s inoffensive, pristine West Coast pop – but it’s some of the best pop of the rock era and really nothing to pitch a bitch about. All of the notable L.A. session players are here: Raydio founder Ray Parker Jr., Michael Omartian, Lee Ritenour and Toto members David Paich and Jeff Porcaro all bring the professional sheen tied to their names to the table. And considering you don’t get any more pristine than the sweet-singing Ross, it made perfect sense to put Perry at the helm of the project.

By now, Ross had really sharpened her chops via jazz standards on the soundtrack to “Lady Sings the Blues” and the recently unearthed “Blue,” and Perry made the most of the singer’s growth and development. The album’s only substantial hit, the jazzy “Gettin’ Ready for Love” finds the singer in a Nancy Wilson-esque groove, pushing through the song’s bouncy lyrics with as much punch as the strings enveloping her voice. Though it only climbed to No. 16 R&B/No. 27 pop, it’s really one of her best late ‘70s singles and deserves a bit more shine. “All Night Lover,” “You Got It” (No. 39 R&B/No. 49 pop), “Top of the World” and her take on Bill Withers’ “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh” follow a similar mold, leaving light, classy arrangements as the background to the foreground that was Ross’ ever-elegant, ageless delivery. To me, it’s in mid-tempo numbers that the true essence of her voice often comes out, as the extremes that mar a lot of her output simply don’t do her instrument justice. The schmaltz of a lot of the ballad material she waxed wasn’t a good look, and neither was the foot-stomping, faceless disco that emerged from various sessions in the late ‘70s. The album’s only misfire, the overwrought “Your Love is So Good for Me,” falls into the latter category, because it was a stab at capturing the disco fever that lifted the mercury of “Love Hangover” to the top of the charts. It did gain some traction with dance and R&B crowds, climbing all the way to No. 15 on the club play singles chart (co-listed with “Top of the World”) and No. 16 R&B, but it stalled at No. 49 pop. Still, you’ll find yourself grooving to it and singing the catchy hook.

The album’s highlights are the ballads, songs that, while fan favorites, remain some of Ross’ most underrated performances. Perry seemed determined to create slow jams worthy of Ross and succeeds by turning to the cover, a medium Ross mastered during her days as a Supreme. She turns in a tender, effective interpretation of the Carole Bayer Sager/Melissa Manchester composition “Come in From the Rain,” a selection that not only appeared on Manchester’s 1976 album “Better Days & Happy Endings” but also became a hit for The Captain and Tennille. Such superlative art also emerges on her reading of Stevie Wonder’s “Too Shy to Say,” which in my opinion is one of the best versions of the song ever recorded. Originally included on Wonder’s classic “Fulfillingness’ First Finale” LP, the song finds a feminine sense of want and longing with Ross that the original just could never capture. She doesn’t top Stevie, but she holds her own.

The tune that makes the album’s price of admission worth it is “Confide in Me,” another song from the pen of Melissa Manchester (along with Stanley Schwartz). Like a lot of songs I heard growing up, this was one that I had to get older to appreciate. My father’s youngest brother gave me the “Baby It’s Me” album when I first started collecting records as a pre-teen, and this cut simply fell off of my radar. Then about three years ago I rediscovered it on a compilation I have called “Soulful Divas: Softly with a Song” and it hit me like a ton of bricks. As I mentioned above, Ross isn’t always known for subtlety, which is why this grabbed me by the heartstrings. Sparse and romantic, it’s one of those songs that you just have to marvel at because it really captures the feeling of surrender that the newness of love can bring. I’ll go out on a limb and say that if beauty had a musical backdrop to call its own, this would certainly be part of it. Ross caresses the Fender Rhodes of Tom Snow and Schwartz’s acoustic piano with the ease and grace she’s known for, and in just over three minutes it becomes quite clear why she’s a star: It’s all in the voice.

The voice. I guess that’s why I’ve always been partial to this album. Some say it’s not soulful, others say it’s unremarkable. Maybe they are right on some level, but what I love about it is that you get a feel for Ross sans the hits they run into the ground on most adult contemporary stations and the production gimmicks and approaches that would often wash out her voice in the years that followed. Here, she’s just singing the way she does best, seemingly enjoying the material all the while.

Though various selections from the album have surfaced on hits compilations and packages – extended versions of “Top of the World” and “Your Love is So Good for Me” appear on the 2003 deluxe edition of the “diana” album – “Baby It’s Me” has been out of circulation on CD for a number of years. As one would expect, the few copies that are around go for hundreds of dollars on auction sites like eBay, which just shows not only the ferocity behind the loyalty of Ross’ fans but the lingering interest in this long lost classic.

Hopefully, the masses will get to experience the softer side of diva Diana in the future.

To read about Diana’s 1987 LP “Red Hot Rhythm and Blues,” jet over to my buddy Q’s site, The QH Blend.

Why I love the Carpenters


Karen Anne and Richard Lynn Carpenter. How I love to speak their names.

Even though I’m constantly reminded that it’s not customary for colored boys from the South to dig them, I count the Carpenters among the artists who influenced – and continue to influence – my love of music and its history. I always get a side-eye from people when I openly express my adoration for this brother-sister duo, and for the life of me I can’t understand why. Strip away the stigma they carry for their squeaky-clean white bread image and the widely scrutinized tragedy that was Karen’s demise, and what you have is some of the most beautifully crafted pop music ever made. Exquisite multi-layered harmonies, simple, love-laced lyrics and occasional soft-rock touches made the Carpenters musical brew a tasty one, a lighter shade of pop-soul. In their case, the music speaks for itself – and if you can’t hear what it’s saying, perhaps you need to open your ears and your mind.

I remember the first time I heard of the Carpenters quite well. I was 10 and in the fifth grade, and one of the networks was airing “The Karen Carpenter Story,” a two-hour movie telling the fallen songbird’s tale. As I sat with my parents in the den, it wasn’t the scenes depicting the singer in the throes of anorexia that struck me – it was those songs. “Love is Surrender,” “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Top of the World” and “A Song for You” were just some of the numbers featured in the film, and they immediately piqued my interest. Even at such a young age, I felt what that girl was saying in those songs. If nothing else, I wanted to feel what she was saying. The way she sang of love, loss and the rollercoaster of emotions that come along with them was undeniably accurate, and without question an expression of what she was dealing with in her own existence. I knew there had to be more to this act’s story than what I was seeing on the television, and in a few short years I’d find out what that was.

By 1995 I was a few years into my vinyl fetish, and it wasn’t long before I turned my attention to the Carpenters. After reading an excellent biography about the duo my interest in them went into overdrive, and I began to snatch up all of the records by them I could find. The first one I purchased was the excellent “A Song for You” (1972), an album that boasts two of my favorite Carpenters singles in “Hurting Each Other” and “Goodbye to Love,” and their outstanding version of the Leon Russell –penned title track. I have to agree with many observers who say that brother Richard’s contributions to the group’s success are often overlooked, as the beauty of his arrangements were as much a part of their success as Karen’s introspective, often dark interpretations. I picked up other albums in rapid succession: LPs like “Close to You” (1970), “The Carpenters” (1971, which features a cool envelope-style sleeve), “Now and Then” (1973) and “A Kind of Hush” (1976) only deepened my appreciation for their melancholy, sophisticated creations. I even put down 40 or 50 bucks for a copy of “Offering,” their 1969 A&M debut that would eventually be reissued as “Ticket to Ride” after their version of the Beatles classic became a mid-charting pop hit in 1970. Still, no other Carpenters album touched me inside like the watershed moment that was 1975’s “Horizon.”

Emotional, cerebral and complex in its simplicity, “Horizon” is perfect from start to finish. From the sun of “Aurora” to the moon of “Eventide,” the songs collated here find the siblings bringing across happiness and sadness with equally potent emotional resonance for the first time. It’s this that gives the album a maturity missing from its predecessors. On “Only Yesterday,” “Happy,” “Love Me for What I Am,” The Eagles’ “Desperado” and Neil Sedaka’s “Solitaire,” all of the elements of the Carpenters sound came together into a portrait that was as solemn as it was serene. And on the Billy May-orchestrated “I Can Dream Can’t I,” Karen proves she could have easily graced the biggest stages in the world during the big band era. To this day, when I listen to this album I give it my undivided attention, much like I did the first few times I played it.

Though I’ve purchased a variety of compilations on the group over the years, the original studio albums are where the true magic lies. Collections like “From the Top” and “Interpretations” are essential, but the music you find has been remixed and remastered to the point where the original luster is a bit lost. For my money, classics like “Superstar” and “Bless the Beasts and the Children” are best heard in the original album edits. (The same goes for the cuts from “Karen Carpenter,” as the alternate versions featured on many compilations are not the ones Karen approved before A&M shelved the LP.) Plus, there’s just something about the way Karen’s voice and Richard’s piano playing leap off of vinyl. It’s just not the same as popping in a CD or turning on an audio file. Some things are best the way they came into existence.

So, people can hate on me and my love of Karen and Richard all they wish. I’m a proud Carpenters fan and make no qualms about it. Too often, we as people get caught up in labels as they apply to our lives and tastes, and music is no exception. I don’t know what’s more offensive: people who say they can’t get into the Carpenters because they are too white or too plain, or fake followers who get into them because of the aura around them where Karen is concerned. Both stances insult me as a fan, because the beauty of the Carpenters canon should not be limited to the boundaries of racial lines or an aged, media-hyped mystique. It’s about the music, plain and simple.

Regardless, I’ll always ride for Karen and Richard. I guess I’m just that kind of fan.

Check out the Carpenters singing “Only Yesterday” below.

Do you wanna ride? Hip-hop’s HERstory is front and center in ‘Mercedes Ladies’

After all these years, women in hip-hop still don’t get their props. Though the likes of Salt-N-Pepa, Queen Latifah, Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown have laced their walls with gold and platinum over the last two decades, they continue to be dismissed by many as mere footnotes in hip-hop’s legacy. The situation is even worse for their foremothers, as most of the girls poppin’ their lip gloss with Lil’ Mama have never even heard of pioneering female MCs and DJs like Lady B, Lisa Lee, Sha Rock, Sequence and Debbie Dee. Also blazing the B-girl trail were The Mercedes Ladies, the first all-female MC and DJ crew. Like their peers, Sheri Sher, Ever Def, Zena Z, Tracey T, DJ Baby D, RD Smiley, MC Smiley and DJ La Spank dealt with the shiftless, shady, jealous ways of the male-dominated game, never achieving critical or commercial success for their seminal role in the birth of hip-hop. In the captivating, highly enjoyable novel “Mercedes Ladies,” founding member Sheri Sher tells their story. The names have been changed to protect the innocent in this fictionalized account, but make no mistake – the book, Sheri Sher’s first, is based on a true story.

Think Mary Wilson’s “Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme” set to the beat of New York’s streets.

Over the course of 268 pages, Sheri Sher’s writing is lively and conversational, painting vivid, Technicolor images of a late ‘70s and early ‘80s New York that bubbled with the sounds of disco and its new life as the soundtrack for the burgeoning hip-hop generation. The story has all of the high drama you’d expect from the almost-Cinderella stories of young girls with big dreams – on top of the stresses of home life, group conflicts, slick-talking managers, shifty music-business types and shade-throwing haters all took their toll on the ladies and their quest for that elusive musical breakthrough. Sheri Sher – or “Shelly Shel” as she is named in the book – has to be commended for her intimate writing style, as on more than one occasion I gasped or wanted to cuss somebody out because of the blows these girls were being dealt. They got up every time they got knocked down, but that brass ring was always a rhyme away.

The most maddening moment: The girls go into the studio and cut a hot song with a music man on the rise, only to have it snatched out from under them and handed to an R&B chick. Those of us who own the Vibe book “Hip Hop Divas” and read the passage on The Mercedes Ladies can only assume that in real life the song was “Yes You Can-Can” (a reworking of the Pointer Sisters’ “Yes We Can Can”), the mogul was Russell Simmons and the singer was Alyson Williams. They were featured on backgrounds for Donald D and DJ Hollywood’s “Don’s Groove,” but the group never saw a proper single released under their name. Such trials give you a real sense of what these sisters were up against and why so many of them are frustrated with the current state of women in hip-hop. Since the book was just published this year, Sheri Sher’s take on the business is up to the minute, complete with musings on Remy Ma’s current legal woes and the endless cycle of women “letting” the men in charge use them, abuse them and dictate their self worth. Sheri Sher is calling her sisters to action through her story and her commentary, and every word she speaks is pure truth.

Coming from a true hip-hop pioneer, “Mercedes Ladies” is a work that anyone who’s a fan of hip-hop should experience. Even if your interest in the style is fleeting, this book will make you want to dig deeper and look into the world of beats and bra straps beyond “Push It” and “No Time.” More importantly, it dispels the myth that hip-hop is rooted in wanton violence and sexuality. It was quite the contrary, as Sheri Sher points out that the neighborhood jams that were her window into the game gave kids on the block an escape from the madness. You can tell from the passion behind her words that she can’t understand why the game ever changed.

There’s no better way to understand a story that’s still being written than to explore where it started, and this book does its part in filling that void. A noteworthy accomplishment on every level, “Mercedes Ladies” is essential reading.

Vinyl examination: There’ll never be another Switch

Let me warn y’all now: You will be hard pressed to find a bigger stan for the DeBarge family than me. Quite frankly, I’m surprised it took me this long to write something about them.

I always say the music, rhythm and harmony of those singing siblings is the reason I’m the audiophile I am today. My sister, who is seven years my senior, exposed me to their output at a very early age, keeping albums like “All This Love” and “In a Special Way” blasting out of our folks’ big ol’ wood-paneled stereo system. (You know, the fly ones that had the glass doors on each side.) We watched them on “Soul Train,” “American Bandstand” and “Solid Gold” in the days before BET became essential viewing for black folks, savoring every sweet note they sang. When my father and sister returned home from seeing them open for the late Luther Vandross during his 1984 tour, my sister, keenly aware of my love for Bunny DeBarge, pinned a fresh button emblazoned with the “In a Special Way” cover photo on my pajamas. Twenty-four years later, it sits proudly on my CD rack. It’s a little battered, faded and dusty, but I cherish it as much now as I did when I was a rock-headed, hyperactive 5-year-old.

It would be a number of years before I would learn that the DeBarge family’s life at Motown Records didn’t begin with Eldra, James, Mark, Randy and Bunny. Three years before “The DeBarges” was released, a sextet of soul brothers called Switch set the family’s journey at the label in motion and gave the world its first glimpse of their indelible style. Under the tutelage of executive producers Jermaine and Hazel Jackson, the late Bobby DeBarge (keyboards, drums, lead and background vocals), Tommy DeBarge (bass, background vocals), Phillip Ingram (percussion, keyboards, lead and background vocals), Jody Sims (drums, percussion and background vocals), Eddie Fluellen (keyboards, string ensemble, trombone and background vocals) and Gregory Williams (keyboards, trumpet and background vocals) launched a pearl of an album into orbit in the form of the band’s 1978 eponymous debut. Issued on Motown’s Gordy label, the album veers between the sweepingly romantic and the undeniably funky, a perfectly balanced song cycle that only hints at the greatness that would become synonymous with the DeBarge name.

As a black six-man outfit adept at churning out burners for both boudoirs and badass discos, Switch was hardly an anomaly. The same year “Switch” hit the street, funkateers like Cameo, Con Funk Shun and Kinsman Dazz (later known as The Dazz Band) were all making waves in the R&B world. Still, there was something different about the Switch sound that gave them an edge, a certain sonic savoir faire. Giving the album a solid three-star rating, Rolling Stone’s Dave Marsh praised the integrity of their work, saying the band’s lack of crossover appeal may have been “proof of its quality.” These were seasoned players after all, as various members sharpened their game with bands like White Heat, an adjunct to Barry White’s musical empire, and Smash. (I actually have a copy of the very rare White Heat LP for RCA – that post will come a little later.)

Their first single, the ever-sexy Bobby DeBarge composition “There’ll Never Be,” still stands as the ultimate culmination of their diverse talents. Complete with a sprawling intro, sturdy bass-line and Bobby’s tangy falsetto, the song is a cross-generational romantic rallying cry. The one-two punch of it and the lovely Jermaine Jackson-penned ballad “I Wanna Be Closer” is likely what helped the album climb to No. 6 R&B and No. 37 pop, but that was just the beginning of the tale. The brothers funk it up in high style on “We Like to Party … Come On” and “Fever,” while the slow jams “It’s So Real” and “I Wanna Be With You” are outstanding showcases for Phillip Ingram’s silky smooth voice. While I am a big fan of his brother James I have to admit that I think Phillip’s the better singer, primarily because he does not resort to gruff histrionics to connect with you. It’s hard to deny that the intelligence of Phillip’s readings was a key part of the group’s formula and subsequent success, something for which he does not get enough credit. The fact that he never became a solo star is criminal to me.

Though he and Bobby traded leads on several cuts throughout the life of the band, the jazzy stepper “You Pulled a Switch” has to be my favorite. A lively change-of-pace number that could have been at home on an LP by Norman Connors or even Side Effect, it’s a delightful blend of nimble keys, wah-wah guitar and percolating percussion. With Bobby and Phillip riding the groove in all their glory, the cut becomes one of the many jewels in the band’s crown, proof that they were no one-trick pony.

In the years that followed the band would continue hitting the R&B charts, with the singles “I Call Your Name” and “Love Over and Over Again” landing in the Top 10. Each album release showed real signs of progress and maturity, and there’s really not a weak one in the bunch. Of the latter-day Switch LPs, 1980’s “This is My Dream” is probably the strongest; however, it would be the last to feature Bobby and Tommy DeBarge. After releasing the low-key “Switch V” in 1981 with new members Terrence Gaines and Attala Zane Giles, the band bolted for the Total Experience label sans Philip Ingram for “Am I Still Your Boyfriend?”, an oft-forgotten LP from 1984. Though the Total Experience roster boasted hit acts like The Gap Band and Yarbrough and Peoples, the magic didn’t extend to Switch and the band eventually disbanded. Amazingly, none of the band’s original studio albums are in print.

Though their time to shine was relatively short, the impact Switch made is immeasurable. Classic DeBarge singles like “Time Will Reveal” and “Love Me in a Special Way” are cut from the cloth that cloaked the Switch sound, glowing examples of the mark big brother Bobby’s approach left on his siblings. Aside from the endless Switch samples that have popped up over the last several years, I feel the DeBarge family vibe each time I listen to talented blue-eyed crooner Robin Thicke. “The Evolution of Robin Thicke” is a fitting bookend to El DeBarge’s underrated 1994 opus “Heart, Mind and Soul” – it’s a sweetly melodic, falsetto-laced excursion taken right out of the DeBarge family playbook. I’d love for him to collaborate with them someday.

The ages will birth a million imitators, but there’ll never be another Switch. Brothers to the sunny day and the soulful night, they touched the heart and soul with songs of love lost and found, and built an ageless musical template in the process.

Here’s to hoping they will one day get the praise and recognition they deserve.

Leona Lewis’ ‘Spirit’ ready to alight

Alright, so 21-year-old British chanteuse Leona Lewis is straight out of the mold called Mariah. The cover shot for Lewis’ debut, the pedestrian but pleasant “Spirit,” drips with the bronze, long-locked loveliness that was the imagery for 1990’s “Mariah Carey.” Right down to the multi-octave vocal gymnastics woven through the album’s baker’s dozen of tracks, it’s obvious the architects building up this “X-Factor” champion are aiming to create a neo-diva, a direct descendant of the Mariah Carey-Whitney Houston-Celine Dion trifecta that dominated the charts and airwaves many moons ago.

I was very skeptical when I first heard the buzz surrounding Lewis. I don’t hold the fact that she’s a product of the identi-kit singer factory called reality television against her, as “American Idol” alums Fantasia and Elliott Yamin are favorites of mine. (Yamin’s a Virginia boy too, so that doesn’t hurt.) But when Big O got in on the act and featured her on her show, I rolled my eyes. I’m always amazed at how people will praise anything that gets Oprah’s endorsement, so I was cautious in approaching Lewis. I do like the catchy “Bleeding Love,” so I decided to give her a whirl. If she’s shooting for the lofty heights of classic debut albums like “Whitney Houston” or “Mariah Carey” she has a long way to go. However, if you take the album for the competently sung, well-crafted work it is, it’s not half bad and is quite promising.

From the outset it’s pretty obvious this is a by-the-numbers debut, an album squarely aimed at adults and tweens tuned into the cogs turning in the Top 40. Lewis gets very little opportunity to project real personality and emotion here, which one could argue is to be expected since she’s so young. Nobody knows pop pap better than producers Clive Davis and Simon Cowell, and their stamp is clearly written all over this project. The problem with albums like this is that producers and tunesmiths rarely create backdrops that allow for a singer’s youth and the selected material to complement each other. Syrupy tunes like “Here I Am,” “I Will Be” and “Whatever it Takes” are nice but show signs of a belter holding back, much like some of the early Houston recordings that left critics screaming that she was capable of much more. Detractors slam the upstart as faceless, but when she’s given the right song, she can be quite sensual and infectious. “Forgive Me,” “Better in Time” and “Angel” could easily reside beside offerings by mainstays like Alicia Keys or Maroon 5 on most mainstream stations. In those spritely workouts we get a bit of exuberance missing from the more adult-oriented fare singers riding in Lewis’ lane often get saddled with.

I’m not that hot on cover versions, but I have to admit the girl did a pretty damn good job with Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” The song is to Lewis what “Summertime” and “Moody’s Mood for Love” were to Fantasia and Yamin – in that moment, you get a real sense of what everybody’s raving about. Of course her interpretation doesn’t compare to the original, but she holds her own and the song’s quiet, emotive tone emerges intact. Without question, it’s a defining moment for the singer.

That said, “Spirit” may not take the grand prize but it’s worth an honorable mention, a charming start for a young woman who is indeed home to a beautiful, vibrant voice. It’s not the most challenging amalgam of sound you’ll ever hear, or for that matter the most distinct, but it’s a portrait teeming with infinite possibilities. As her musical vision begins to take shape and she taps into her true voice, I think Lewis could find herself leading a pack of divas for the upcoming generation.

So I’d say don’t write her off too quickly. This chick just might be one to watch.

Vinyl examination: The champagne soul of The 5th Dimension

When you study the annals of the black vocal group, it’s clear that The 5th Dimension often get a raw deal.

Though they weren’t soulful in the sense of, say, The Soul Children and other mixed-gender R&B vocal combos of yesteryear, Billy Davis Jr., Marilyn McCoo, Florence LaRue, Lamonte McLemore and the late Ron Townson had a knack for expression and dazzling precision that was just as keen as the competition. Critics have called their lush, meticulously crafted musical brand “champagne soul,” a description that really couldn’t be more appropriate. Few black groups – or groups period for that matter – navigated material with such sophistication and harmonious splendor.

By the time they issued their sixth album, 1971’s “Love’s Lines, Angles and Rhymes,” the group was pop-soul royalty. Hit singles like “Up, Up and Away,” “Stoned Soul Picnic,” “Workin’ on a Groovy Thing” and “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” turned them into a crossover sensation, netting followers from all walks of life. Not only did they earn six Grammys during the course of their career, but much like The Supremes, they were one of the first black groups to become a regular fixture on lily-white ‘60s network television. At the time “Love’s Lines, Angles and Rhymes” hit shelves, the group was so popular they were given a network television special (their second) to promote it. Featuring special guests Dionne Warwick, Meryl Haggard and The Carpenters, “The 5th Dimension Travelling Sunshine Show,” which is available on DVD, is great fun and puts the group’s talent and versatility on full display. Like the special, the album is a lesson in the lighter, restrained side of soul.

Produced by Bones Howe and sporting an ultra-funky gatefold cover with a detachable number 5 for the wall, the album is classic 5th Dimension, an effortless potpourri of orchestral pop flourishes, soulful harmonies and outstanding solos. The beauty of this quintet is the fact that all five members sang beautifully. Davis was the soul center of the group’s blends, with his leads on “Light Sings” and the vibrant “Guess Who” evoking Sunday morning testimonies. A rendition of Junior Walker’s Motown classic “What Does it Take (To Win Your Love)” pairs Davis with wife McCoo and boasts a Tom Scott sax solo for what turned out to be a surprisingly effective performance. Elsewhere, LaRue stepped to the mic in fine style for the free-wheeling, jazzy Laura Nyro creation “He’s a Runner,” a song that could have easily appeared on Nyro’s “Eli and the Thirteenth Confession.” And much like they did for several other numbers in the group’s repertoire, LaRue and McCoo offer up their crisp unison approach for “Time and Love,” the only other Nyro composition on the album.

People often sleep on McCoo, but that sister had a lot soul. Howe teased one hell of a performance out her for the album’s title track, the song that remains my favorite 5th Dimension gem. Augmented by then-contemporary production values, she hits some major emotional highs and lows that highlight the sheer power and clarity she could bring forth with her instrument. Just as she did with “One Less Bell to Answer” from the previous year’s “Portrait,” McCoo turns in a watershed moment for the group. What’s amazing to me is that when people reel off a listing of their hits, “Love’s Lines, Angles and Rhymes” is rarely included among them. Even if it didn’t have the impact of earlier hits, there’s no question it merits more praise than it receives.

A gold-selling Top 10 R&B/Top 20 pop album, “Love’s Lines, Angles and Rhymes” was one of the group’s last long-players to make significant noise. They would score a few more hits but things cooled considerably by the mid-‘70s, and Davis and McCoo left to pursue a career as a duo. They would have a Grammy-winning chart-topper with “You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show)” in 1976, but it would prove their biggest hit. The 5th Dimension regrouped, replacing the duo with various vocalists over the next several years (singer Eloise Laws even had a brief tour of duty) but never recapturing their earlier success. The later configuration of the group is best known for recording the original version of the disco classic “Love Hangover.” Though their version climbed all the way to No. 2 on the disco singles chart, Motown’s delivery of Diana Ross’ take on the number put the flicker out before it could become a flame. The group soldiered on and they continue to perform today, with the original members making the occasional public appearance. Sadly, Townson died in 2001 after kidney failure.

No matter how you like your soul, it’s hard to deny The 5th Dimension’s contributions to black music and the role they played in altering the way America viewed black people. Such class can be hard to come by these days and is indeed something to respect and emulate. Like champagne, their sound and style were smooth and bubbly, a positive force in a time riddled with turmoil and strife.

And the taste of “Love’s Lines, Angles and Rhymes” is as sweet as it ever was.

Check out Marilyn McCoo singing “Love’s Lines, Angles and Rhymes” on the “The 5th Dimension Travelling Sunshine Show” below.