Shine on: Houston and company ‘sparkle’ on reimagined soundtrack

Sparkle, the 1976 cult classic about three singing sisters from Harlem that returns to theaters this Friday, is one of my favorite movies. Ever.

People rarely agree with me on this, but I must say that when it comes to the songs woven through the story, I have always preferred the selections used in the film that featured Oscar winner Irene Cara and Lonette McKee handling the lead vocals. There’s just something about them that resonates with me.

Before folks get upset, I am not throwing shade at Aretha Franklin. Her gold soundtrack album, which was composed and produced by Curtis Mayfield, is most certainly a treasure. It’s a thrilling LP, with “Look Into Your Heart,” the R&B chart topper “Something He Can Feel” and the haunting “I Get High” ranking among the best performances of the singer’s Atlantic Records era. However, the beauty of the original Sparkle was that at its heart, it was about average girls from the block with big talent and a bigger dream – and Franklin’s royal riffs and runs simply didn’t retain Cara and McKee’s innocence and earthy grit.  Lost in the collection that was released commercially was the joy of youth – and the pain of losing it – the made the film and its supporting songs so accessible.

Needless to say, the soundtrack for the new version of the film had a lot to live up to when it hit shelves a few weeks back. Longtime fans will be pleasantly surprised to find that the lean 11-track album is a satisfying nod to Motor City cool (the movie’s setting is changed from New York to Detroit), effectively uniting the gospel fervor of Martha and the Vandellas and the demure pop-soul of the Supremes. American Idol champion Jordin Sparks, one-time Universal signee Tika Sumpter and Carmen Ejogo work well within this framework, channeling the dreamy energy and underlying tension of the girl group phenomenon with a zeal that’s quite true to the original film’s interpretations.  In a sad bit of irony, however, the album will go down in the annals of film soundtracks as the coda to the musical that was the life of Whitney Houston, the fallen pop legend largely responsible for bringing the picture – a cherished part of her teen years in Jersey – back to the silver screen.

The holdovers from the original soundtrack – “Jump,” “Hooked On Your Love,” “Something He Can Feel” and “Look Into Your Heart” – recall the girlish fancy of Cara and McKee rather than Franklin’s declarative savvy, and that to me is a plus. “Hooked On Your Love,” which was my favorite ballad from the first film, is the strongest by far, as it simmers with an easy sexiness perfectly suited to Ejogo’s sultry rasp. The new tunes aren’t half bad, either: The charming Sparks shines on “Love Will” and the showy “One Wing,” while Ejogo does her thing on the kittenish soul-rocker “Yes I Do.”  Elsewhere, Cee Lo Green and Goapele offer up two of the album’s most exhilarating moments, bringing bottom heavy, proto-funk on “I’m A Man” and “Running,” respectively.

Much has been said about what years of hard living did to Houston’s voice, but on the chilling “His Eye Is On The Sparrow,” the pained, husky tones that supplanted that crisp mezzo-soprano are at once heartbreaking and triumphant. This is not the instrument central to The Preacher’s Wife and expecting such is unfair – what is here is the last stand for a Houston of a different time, a different journey and a different generation. The cry of a woman pushing past hurt and sorrow, it’s an unaffected performance that shows that under the right circumstances and with a little more time, Houston would have honed that voice into a fresh, newly seasoned gift. The classy neo-disco jam “Celebrate,” a duet with Sparks that closes the album, only heightens the sense of loss that will forever be associated with Houston’s tragic February passing.

It may not be as ingenious as the 1976 film’s backdrop or Franklin’s album, but this variation of the Sparkle songbook is its own brand of Motown-inspired ebullience. A fine tribute to both its origin and Houston, fans of good old-fashioned musicianship and retro glamour will find this soundtrack to be a delight.

Check out the film’s beautiful cast grooving in the video for “Celebrate.”

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Out now: Big Break Records’ expanded edition of Wah Wah Watson’s Elementary

Elementary, the lone solo album from legendary session guitarist Wah Wah Watson, is now available in a special expanded edition from Big Break Records.

Featuring production from Watson and David Rubinson and Friends, Inc., the album is a dazzling pastiche of jazz, soul and funk, replete with those famous riffs that made Watson a studio legend. Born Melvin Ragin, Watson helped lift classics like the Temptations’ “Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” the Pointer Sisters’ “How Long (Betcha’ Got A Chick On the Side) and the Herbie Hancock LP Man-Child to the upper reaches of the charts. Even if you don’t know the name, you know the music.

I had the great pleasure of interviewing famed producer David Rubinson for the liner notes; his thoughts on the album and Watson’s overall impact as an artist are truly enlightening. He openly discusses his long working relationship with Watson, the development of the album and why it didn’t quite catch on at the time of its release. Standout cuts include “Goo Goo Wah Wah,” “Bubbles” and “Good Friends.”

A lost treasure, Elementary is worth exploring.

To order your copy, click here.

Check out the powerful track “Good Friends” below.

Out now: Big Break Records’ expanded edition of Cheryl Lynn’s Instant Love

Big Break Records, a U.K.-based label specializing in reissues of rare funk, soul and jazz titles, has released a special expanded edition of Cheryl Lynn’s 1982 album Instant Love. Produced by the late Luther Vandross, the platter boasted hits in the title track and the classic Lynn-Vandross duet “If This World Were Mine.”

My liner notes feature delightful insights from former CBS Records promotional guru Kenneth R. Reynolds, as well as historical research and in-depth commentary. Reynolds’ reflections on Lynn, Vandross and record making in the early eighties help paint a bright picture of a remarkable album and the era it represents.

To order a copy of the album, click here.

Check out Lynn and Vandross performing “If This World Were Mine.”

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.”