Stevie Woods and ‘Heaven’ remembered at Blogcritics

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When reports began circulating that Stevie Woods died on January 28 at 62, it marked the transition of another gifted, black male musical talent. After the recent losses of Al Johnson and George Duke, it was a reminder that too many of our own are leaving far too soon.

Woods, who only enjoyed brief stardom, certainly never got his due. Raised in Columbus, Ohio, the singer left home at 17 to join a touring band and pursue his musical ambitions. Gigging by night and writing songs by day, he decided that he needed greater exposure and decided to step outside of the box for a shot at the big time. “I figured if I wanted to get somewhere I had to place myself in a spot where people could hear me – and I packed up my Subaru station wagon and my guitar and drove out to Los Angeles,” he told Dick Clark during an appearance on American Bandstand in 1981.

Read the rest of my tribute article here.

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.

Happy 50th Birthday, Your Highness!

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Michael Joseph Jackson, The King of Pop, hit the big 5-0 today.

Words can’t express how much I love this man’s music. Controversy and tough times aside, this man is the blueprint. From Usher to Chris Brown, you see the influence of those fluid moves and inimitable vocal inflections in all of today’s up and coming black talent. The world will never see another star of his magnitude, plain and simple. I loved him over two decades ago when I was trying to learn his every dance move and make the sidewalk light up a la “Billie Jean,” and I love him now.

He’s still the man.

Happy Birthday, MJ!

It must be ‘Magic’: Robin Thicke’s got the summer banger of ’08

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A few days after the official start of summer each year, I think long and hard about what is going to be my certified banger for the season. What do I look for? Something I can dress to when I’m going out, something I can blast out of the ride on a drive through the city … just something that will capture the escape that hot summer days provide us from life’s mundane dramas and detours. I was leaning toward Lalah Hathaway’s “Let Go” for a minute, but I have to go with “Magic,” the latest single by none other than white boy R&B wonder Robin Thicke.

At the moment, it doesn’t get much better than this.

The song, which is currently at No. 32 on Billboard’s R&B chart, is on the Curtis Mayfield meets Soul II Soul tip and I love every minute of it. His blue-eyed soul croon has gotten even stronger than it was on “The Evolution of Robin Thicke,” and if it and this ditty are any indication of what we can look forward to on September’s “Something Else,” we are in for some hot shit. A subtle, horn-laden flash of a single worthy of the buzz it is generating, “Magic” is just that.

I don’t think Brother Thicke will be going anywhere anytime soon … and that’s a good look.

Check out “Magic” below.

Vinyl examination: The ever wonderful Rockie Robbins

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The balladeer is an institution in black music. His odes to the joys of intimacy stir eroticism in sisters and provide brothers with all the right moves to bask in its fiery glow. In the late seventies and eighties, Barry White, Teddy Pendergrass, Peabo Bryson, Luther Vandross and Freddie Jackson, among others, rode the crest of romanticism created by their forefathers with a sensuality that was – and in many ways still is – unmatched. Whether hard or smooth, each had his own flavor when it came to singing about the need of love. In everyone from J. Holiday to Jaheim, you hear their influence.

However, caught in the rush of Bryson’s crosswinds and the house that wasn’t Vandross’ home was a talented young man from Minneapolis named Rockie Robbins. Between 1979 and 1985, the singer issued four albums (three for A&M and one for MCA) of light urban contemporary fare that have aged well over the years, even if they may not be what some would deem distinct. Though the lovely 1980 single “You and Me” became his only sizeable hit, Robbins’ material is quite popular among R&B fans and collectors. Each of his albums is infinitely listenable, but it’s his eponymous 1979 debut that remains the most endearing and ranks as my favorite.

Produced by Chicago visionaries Richard Evans and Johnny Pate, “Rockie Robbins” is reminiscent in many ways of Bryson at his peak, which is to be expected since Evans frequently collaborated with the popular singer. Agile ivory tickling, bubbly bass and punchy horns frame Robbins’ glass clear tenor quite nicely here, as they never thrust the singer into the background or force him to do back flips to make his mark in the mix. What you have is a breezy, low-key affair, and Robbins thrives beautifully.

Sensual and unaffected, Robbins’ voice was a perfect fit for the LP’s ballad selections. “If I Ever Lose You” and the languid “When I Think of You” are first rate, with the latter being the best cut on the album. Featuring an impassioned vocal and sweet strings, it’s the kind of song you could easily get lost in, even if it does only last a few short minutes. Such magic helped Robbins’ cover of the Earth, Wind and Fire favorite “Be Ever Wonderful” become a mid-charting single that climbed to No. 67 on the black singles chart. It didn’t top the original, but Robbins managed to bring a flair and emotion to the cut that I can honestly say I don’t quite get from the EWF version. Though only a modest chart success, the song became a radio hit and remains a favorite among Quiet Storm programmers across the country.

There’s very little dance material here, which is not necessarily a bad thing. While cuts like “Funk Street” and “Miss Dynamite” are solid toe-tappers, they don’t hold up past a few listens and do little to boost the record’s overall value. He fairs better on down-tempo grooves, as “I Can Hardly Wait,” “I Love You Only” and “Don’t Deny Me” are mellow enough to let his vocals shine and at the same time capture a bit of the youth and energy every new singer needs to display. “Sho’ is Bad” is the strongest of the lot, a slow burning slice of soft funk that could have easily been waxed by label mates The Brothers Johnson. When combined with the album’s love songs, such numbers not only casted the mold from which his follow-ups would emerge, they also showed Robbins was more versatile than a casual listener might expect.

Robbins would follow his self-titled debut with the albums “You and Me” (1980) “I Believe in Love” (1981) and “Rockie Robbins” (1985, not to be confused with his debut), all of which feature well-crafted songs and fine vocal performances. He also performed the song “Emergency” for the Grammy-winning hit soundtrack to the film “Beverly Hills Cop” in 1984. The “I Believe in Love” album in particular is worthy of interest for the inclusion of two songs that were featured on LPs by more popular singers during the same period: “Look Before You Leap” would surface on Cheryl Lynn’s Luther Vandross-produced LP “Instant Love” in 1982, while “My Old Friend” can be heard on Al Jarreau’s 1981 crossover jazz smash “Breakin’ Away.”

And despite the fact it’s highly sought after, Robbins’ debut remains out of print Stateside, though the occasional overpriced import will appear on eBay or Amazon. Thankfully vinyl copies of the album are easy to obtain without breaking the bank.

He never ascended to the ranks of many of his contemporaries but Rockie Robbins was a hell of a singer, noteworthy not because of earth-shaking bombast or chutzpah, but because of the simple, unpretentious character of his voice. His outstanding debut is a classy example of how sticking to the basics can be just as powerful and aiming to break through them.

These kids today could take some notes.

Keith Barrow’s life a beautiful song unsung

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A full-page ad in the Billboard magazine for the week ending May 7, 1977, carried the message in clear, declarative verbiage, a call to arms displayed above the vibrant, smiling face of a new voice in R&B.

“Keith Barrow is why you should pay attention to this debut album.”

This was a bold statement, especially when you consider the competition perched on record store shelves in those days. The Soul LPs survey for that week was quite the musical menagerie: “Marvin Gaye Live at the London Palladium” was at the top, “Teddy Pendergrass” and Natalie Cole’s “Unpredictable” were sitting in the Top 10, The Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like an Eagle” and “The Jacksons” hovered in the middle and the eponymous debut album by a beautiful young soul-jazz singer named Phyllis Hyman made its first chart appearance. Indeed, it was a period when soul, disco and rock sang in unison, captivating listeners spanning all shades of the color spectrum.

And it was the perfect time for Chicago’s Keith Barrow to let his major-label career take flight.

Though he’s not talked about much today, Keith was a true talent of his era, a singer’s singer whose velvety falsetto was on par with the finesse of Eddie Kendricks and the fancy of Sylvester. The son of the Rev. Willie Barrow of Operation PUSH fame, he would record only four albums before dying at 29 in 1983 – a tragedy that fuels both a lack of knowledge of his talent and hasty, ill-conceived labels for his musical legacy. Often called a “disco singer” because of the legendary status of the dance classic “Turn Me Up,” it’s a categorization that, while hardly offensive, does not capture the spirit of his gifts. To listen to Keith’s three secular albums is to experience soulful diversity ground from the gospel that rang from his upbringing, a quality that gave everything he sang resonance. Though disco was certainly in the mix, it wasn’t the whole story.

Much like his musical output, Keith’s life was a well-rounded one. According to the obituary that ran in the Chicago Tribune on Oct. 27, 1983, he was class president at Shiloh Seventh-Day Adventist Academy, a graduate of Wartburg College and held a master’s degree in educational psychology from New York University. He also participated in the Chicago Passion Play and worked with the Kumba Players Theatrical Workshop. As multi-faceted as he was, however, music was his ultimate calling. “He had music in his bones and in his soul; he started writing music when he was eight,” Willie Barrow told the Windy City Times back in 2004.

Though he began his recording career in the gospel tradition with the critically acclaimed Jewel Records LP “Keith Barrow” (some sources list the album as being titled “All Right Now”) in 1973, Keith would eventually find himself at Philly’s famed Sigma Sound Recording Studios working under the production aegis of legendary music man Bobby Eli for his self-titled Columbia Records debut. A collection of tightly constructed disco and lush ballads, the 1977 album was an all-star affair, as talents like Ron “Have Mersey” Kersey, Larry Washington and lauded backup singers Evette Benton, Barbara Ingram and Carla Benson all contributed to the recording. There are spots where the luminaries subsume the developing voice of the album’s central figure, but they are few and far between. Keith’s youth and charm are on full display on delightful cuts like the mild hit “Mr. Magic Man,” “Precious” and the spirited stepper “I Put the Twinkle in Your Eye,” a personal favorite of mine. The greatest moment here, however, was the self-penned “Teach Me (It’s Something About Love),” one of the most beautiful slow jams the singer ever recorded. It was a perfect fit for a young man at a stage in his life where most people are finding their own voice, a lovely portrait of innocence and melancholy. Popular Philly group Blue Magic scored a Top 50 R&B hit with a version of the song in 1976, proof of its reach and timelessness. When it was all said and done, “Keith Barrow” didn’t prove a huge hit, but it was a high quality effort that laid the groundwork for what would become his finest hour on record.

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By the time Columbia issued the Michael Stokes-produced “Physical Attraction” in 1978, the sublime disco that underscored Keith’s debut for the label had morphed into a mainstream phenomenon championed by both urban dance club denizens and kids in the sticks. Right down to the arty, high-concept cover shot – which features Keith in a cold embrace with model, actress and former Robert De Niro flame Toukie Smith – the album did in fact boast a bit of the movement’s decadence, a setting the singer worked surprisingly well in. Most of the material was co-written by Stokes and ace songwriter and recording artist Ronn Matlock this time around, and they brought a series of fine selections to the table. Of the three disco songs on the LP, “Joyful Music” was probably the strongest, a short, to-the-point guilty pleasure of gospel-inflected tambourine and nimble guitar that finds Keith seemingly having a ball. But it was the seven-minute, propulsive dance floor sensation “Turn Me Up” that clicked with club goers and stands as one of the best-known nuggets in Keith’s catalog. To this day jocks, particularly on the international dance music scene, turn to this cut to set clubs on fire.

The beauty of his voice, however, came out when he opted to slow things down rather than disco down. His biggest hit, the mellow steppers’ favorite “You Know You Want to Be Loved” (No. 26 R&B) is a masterwork, one of those Quiet Storm rarities that makes you tingle inside each time it surfaces. Unlike the dense arrangements that characterized many of the slow songs on the previous album, the approach employed by Stokes is simple and sparse, replete with subtle horns and haunting backing vocals akin to the work he was doing at the time with popular quintet Enchantment. The other ballads on the album follow suit, as the lovely opening track “If It’s Love That You’re Looking For,” “Garden of Love” and “Overnight Success” convey the quiet longing in Keith’s voice with chilling focus. The album’s closer, the beautiful “Free to Be Me” seems almost autobiographical – Keith, who was gay, sings with an eerie sincerity, relaying a sentiment any and all people can relate to in a world that often celebrates conservative conformity over liberating individuality. The song rounded out what was a fantastic album, the last recorded before things began to change drastically in the singer’s life.

“One night, in 1979, he called me from Paris and said ‘Momma, I don’t think I’ll be able to go on stage tonight. I really feel sick,’” Willie Barrow told the Windy City Times. “I said, ‘Oh, you’ll be alright.’ I prayed for him and then he called again a couple of hours later and he said: ‘Momma, I can’t perform. I have to go; they have to take me to the hospital.’ That’s when he found out that he had [what was later determined to be] HIV.”

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Despite this major setback, Keith soldiered on, recording one final album in his lifetime. “Just As I Am,” recorded for Capitol in 1980, is easily the singer’s most ambitious work, marrying the new wave sounds taking over the airwaves in the post-disco era to his R&B foundation. It’s far from terrible but it is not on the level of his previous efforts, a condition likely connected to the rigors of his personal life. Produced by Ralph Affoumado, the record often fails to connect with the listener, as “Running on Empty (Well Travelled Man)” and “Why Love Half the World (When You Can Love the Whole World)” feel like unfinished ideas rather than completed compositions. There are some noteworthy moments: The title track is funky and forward thinking, while “Tell Me This Ain’t Heaven” is a solid slow groove in the vein of other “Capitol Rare” offerings. The elastic “In the Light (Do It Better)” finds the singer giving up a little ‘tude and good humor. Toward the end of song he shouts, “Uh uh! Naw … you made a mistake! Uh uh! Don’t turn those lights off … I don’t wanna hear nothin’ about no candles! I’m not into candles!” Still, much like the singer’s hollow gaze on the album’s cover shots, there’s a dark, finite texture to the material that makes it hard to focus on any potential for progression that was there.

After the album ran its course, an ill Keith would eventually return to Chicago from New York. One of R&B’s first victims of AIDS, he drew his last breath on Saturday, Oct. 22, 1983. He was just 29 years old.

In the years since, Keith’s small but meaningful body of work has gotten very little attention, which is something that bothers me immensely. Though his first two albums are in limited circulation as imports and a few of his songs appear on various compilations, none of his full-length albums are available on CD domestically. There have also been reports that an album was completed not long before his death, but it has never seen the light of day. Historians relegate him to footnote status in the annals of R&B, as he rarely appears in the content of reference books or Web sites about black male singers. Hardly the blip on the disco radar writers make him out be when they do mention him, he was an artist in every sense of the word – and he deserves better.

I guess that’s why whenever I hear his voice part of me wants to cry for him. His pining falsetto does something to me that I can’t explain; it stirs reflection in me like few other voices do. Whether he’s singing about the “Garden of Love” or the randy delights of “Physical Attraction,” Keith’s a singer who should be heard in all his glory. I can only hope that one day his Columbia and Capitol recordings will find a home on CD and digital formats, as they are among some of the best modern soul records of the last three decades.

More than anything, I want people to appreciate and respect the life and the voice that was Keith Barrow, a man who was a treasure just as he was.

Check out “You Know You Want to Be Loved” below.