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.”

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.

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.”

Find Your Strength in Love: Revisiting Whitney’s Debut


In the days since Whitney Houston passed away, I have struggled to gather my thoughts about the situation. When the news hit us, I was angry. I was sad. Quite frankly, I was nearly speechless. We grew up with Whitney, and for all of the times we shook our heads at the tumult that marked much of her life, we never stopped rooting for her. At least I know I didn’t. While her tragic end wasn’t totally surprising it was still shocking, the kind of twisted finale reserved for the celluloid universe – or, on a more realistic level, fallen screen sirens and belters of a bygone era.

We didn’t want this kind of ending for Whitney. It just doesn’t seem right.

Amid all of the tears, tributes and speculation from talking heads, I decided to do the one thing that would bring me a bit of comfort: I turned my attention to the music. Between 1985 and 2009, Whitney issued just seven full-length studio albums – a relatively small canon when you consider the strength of her decades-long chart history and overall impact. More often than not she is filtered through popular culture in a statistical vacuum, and given her status as the most awarded female artist in history that makes sense. However, in my mind the numbers are secondary to the organic connection the Whitney phenomenon made with those of us raised during the earliest, pre-Bodyguard years of her heyday. In the moments after my mother called my sister Stephanie and I to tell us Whitney had left us, I was immediately taken back to that space in my life. I think my heart has been floating there ever since.

While America pushed Whitney’s towering rendition of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” from the blockbuster The Bodyguard back into Billboard’s top 10, I pulled out what for me remains her most joyous, unfettered musical document: Whitney Houston. Much like Michael Jackson’s epic masterpiece Thriller, this long-player was equal parts song cycle and cultural statement. Remember, this was the post-disco era of Reagan and the Huxtables. Artists like Michael, Lionel Richie and Diana Ross had polished black pop to an almost blinding sheen and redefined modern-day blackness in the process. Whitney, with her model good looks and well-documented musical pedigree, fit right into the mold. Looking back on it, the Seventeen-meets-Essence album cover packaging and 45 picture sleeves say it all.  At once regal and youthful, Whitney looked like that older, fashion-forward cousin who stepped out of the box and made good. She was elegant but totally likable, a girl you wanted to see make it. She was a snapshot of the dream – OUR dream.

On the musical front, soul purists hammer the album as pap that squandered a beautiful instrument, but to dismiss it as such is shortsighted. This wasn’t an album that was intended to be Caught Up or Young, Gifted and Black, and anyone expecting the down-to-the-bone soul of Millie Jackson or Whitney’s godmother Aretha Franklin was sure to be disappointed. As far as debuts go very few are better, as it is one of the best examples of melodic versatility caught on record. A master interpreter, Whitney could do it all – and with Narada Michael Walden, Michael Masser, Jermaine Jackson and Kashif at the helm, the album collated her pop, soul and gospel sensibilities better than much of what would emerge in later years.

People praise “I Will Always Love You” endlessly, but “You Give Good Love” will forever and always – at least in my opinion – be the definitive Whitney love song. There was innocence to it, a sexiness and vulnerability that rarely came across in the bombast of the big ballads that eventually became her calling card.  Produced by label mate Kashif, the single flirted with hints of the chic New York-based Hush Productions sound immortalized by Melba Moore, Lillo Thomas, Freddie Jackson and Kashif himself. As journalist Steven Ivory noted in the Unsung installment on Freddie, it was an approach that wasn’t concerned with crossing over – it crossed over because it was good. It’s one of the few purely urban contemporary moments from the early days, a song elevated by Whitney’s knack for sensitive, emotive phrasing. Other slow cuts moved us: “Saving All My Love for You,” a song recorded years earlier by one-time Fifth Dimension leaders Billy Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo, earned Whitney her first Grammy and remains an adult contemporary staple (buoyed by a lovely saxophone solo by Tom Scott), while the showy “All At Once” surely did diva Diana proud. The charming “Nobody Loves Me Like You Do” and “Take Good Care of My Heart” paired the singer with Jermaine – another Arista signee – and it’s somewhat clear that our Nippy was holding back a little bit in an effort to compliment her duet partner. Teddy Pendergrass proved a more suitable vocal foil on “Hold Me,” a tender duet that appeared earlier on the crooner’s 1984 comeback LP Love Language.

Given her persona as a purveyor of dramatic showstoppers, it’s funny to think of Whitney as a dance diva.  But to this day, club kids are as loyal to her as pop and R&B fans. “How Will I Know,” a dance floor burner on par with anything issued at the time by the likes of Madonna or Shannon, was the beginning of this clubland love affair and the children STILL go wild if a jock dusts it off. The video remains one of the most enduring images of the songbird, an explosion of teased hair, body paint, bright makeup and those comical off-kilter dance moves we often mocked but also loved and appreciated. The isolated vocal track that surfaced in the wake of her death only highlighted the performance’s power, proving that even the most fluffy, feel-good up-tempo cut can be moving when it lands in capable hands. Other synth-heavy ditties like “Someone for Me” and the R&B hit “Thinking About You” feel like filler next to “How Will I Know,” but they still shine as bright, if dated, toe-tappers.

Still, it was “Greatest Love of All” – popularized by George Benson – that truly endeared Whitney to millions across the board and set the blueprint for the slow-building power ballads that would lift her to one-name status. Whitney did with it what Aretha did with Otis Redding’s “Respect,” transforming the song from a solid R&B outing to an American standard and reference point for female vocal performance. Its simple sentiments seem bittersweet in light of what is unraveling before our eyes, and it is hard to not feel a bit sad when you think of the beautiful girl in the white gown who urged us all to find our strength in love.  We could speculate for days about whether or not that Whitney was the real Whitney. None of that really matters, as it’s the Whitney we came to adore, the Whitney we fiercely defend, and ultimately the Whitney we carry in our hearts.

At the end of the day, Whitney Houston may not be the great soul album of the twentieth century, but it was never supposed to be. The sum of its parts marked a new beginning in many ways, not only for a young artist but for a burgeoning generation of black kids like me who were growing up in an era marked by a series of social and political changes. As was the case with Michael, Whitney’s wide success was and is something of an inspiration to many of us, a moment in time that let us know there really were no limits to what we as blacks could accomplish. With that in mind, Whitney’s debut is just as relevant in the lexicon of black music as anything by her contemporaries and is deserving of the praise and commercial success that fans hold dear 27 years later. Maybe it was not “soul” in the textbook sense, but it touched people in a way that transcends some of the genre’s more lauded albums of years past.

As I said on my Facebook page, Whitney was not just a singer. She was an icon. She was a cultural signpost. Above all else, she was human. Embrace the legacy and the music.

We love you, and we miss you.

Celebrate 25 years of DeBarge’s ‘In a Special Way’ at Fly

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Though it is now regarded as a modern classic, DeBarge’s In a Special Way wasn’t exactly a high priority for those who deemed themselves discerning music lovers when it was issued.

After all, this was a good-looking quintet of teen idols aimed at kids who favoured Right On and Black Beat over Rolling Stone, a pin-up ready product of the Motown machine that brought the world their predecessors The Jackson Five. While some were generous enough to acknowledge their knack for harmonising, that was often where the praise stopped. “All style, no substance,” many critics cried.

Or so they thought.

To read the full article at Fly, click here.

Vinyl examination: The rhythm of ‘Patti Austin’

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I will never understand why Patti Austin, diva of soul, pop and jazz, never became a major star.

Her voice is clear as crystal, the kind of instrument that you recognize as soon as you hear it. A gifted singer who honed her chops singing jingles and background vocals for everyone from Kenny Loggins to Angela Bofill, the Grammy winner has recorded songs in pretty much every style imaginable. From the light fusion of her early CTI LPs like “Havana Candy” to the standards that grace her most recent outing “Avant Gershwin,” Austin’s stylistic range is astonishing in its breadth and sheer technical mastery. Oddly, that may have been part of her problem: If there is one thing that baffles the record-buying public, it is a black chick they can’t easily categorize. Add to that the fact that Austin was building her repertoire in an era when the only thing major labels were building was a legion of image-driven artists, and it’s safe to say her remarkable recordings were destined to get lost in the shuffle.

The early eighties found Austin moving in a more pop-oriented direction, waxing sides for Quincy Jones’ fledgling Qwest Records. The singer is best remembered for the timeless 1981 gem “Baby, Come to Me,” a duet with crooner extraordinaire James Ingram that shot to the top of the pop charts thanks to the popularity of the ABC soap opera “General Hospital.” Jones, who is Austin’s godfather, handled the production chores for her Qwest debut “Every Home Should Have One” and she seemed destined for the big leagues, as the album was both a commercial and critical success. Employing the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach, the label continued to push Austin into shiny pop-soul territory on her eponymous 1984 follow-up. A solid collection heavy on highly stylized dance tracks, the record deserves far more attention than it’s ever gotten.

Like many albums of the period, “Patti Austin” (which was reissued on CD in 2007) utilizes a series of producers and a stellar group of players in what was likely an effort to catch as many sides of both Austin’s personality and the current musical landscape as possible. Jones, Narada Michael Walden, David Pack, Ollie E. Brown, Clif Magness and Glen Ballard take turns twisting knobs on the LP’s 10 cuts, while the likes of Bofill, Sheree Brown, Phillip Ingram, Michael McDonald and Siedah Garrett offer musical support. Los Angeles Times writer Connie Johnson praised the album’s consistency and noted that Austin embraced a kind of freedom that eluded her on previous efforts. “She affects a lowdown growl on funk numbers and even tears loose with some scatty jazz inflections,” Johnson wrote. The latter has always been Austin’s greatest asset, giving her synth-based material a bit more grace than that of a lot of her contemporaries. In less capable hands, the hit single “It’s Gonna Be Special” (No. 15 R&B), “Shoot the Moon” (No. 49 R&B) and the Walden productions “Rhythm of the Street” and “Hot! In the Flames of Love” would have been mere filler, but Austin’s inimitable verve and phrasing up the aural ante. She also excels on the pristine pop of “Starstruck” and the reggae-influenced “I’ve Got My Heart Set on You,” grooves that signal a real broadening of the Austin sound.

Never one to holler and shout, Austin knows how to grab you quietly, which is what makes her love songs so appealing. Unlike most of her other albums, however, the ballads here are a bit weaker than the dance material. Still, they are quite lovely and the singer gives them all she’s got. Of the pair of slow jams featured on the LP, “All Behind Us Now” is the strongest; it’s a straightforward, languid love song that gives her lead plenty of room to breathe and fits well into the album’s overall vibe. Dark and moody, the album’s closing number “Any Way You Can” is a fitting cool down after nearly an hour of get down – though not remarkable, it’s the closest to any of her pre-Qwest material she gets here. I’m sure fans of her early material found it to be a breath of fresh air.

Though it likely pleased her existing fan base and grabbed some new folks along the way, the record failed to make a significant mainstream impact and stalled at a paltry No. 87 on the pop albums chart. Undaunted, Austin soldiered on at Qwest, issuing the equally glossy and highly enjoyable “Gettin’ Away With Murder” in 1985. While it featured production from Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the album didn’t become a major hit, a blow that likely caused Austin to return to her jazzy roots on the outstanding “The Real Me” in 1988. From that point forward, fans found Austin grooving on the chic, smooth jazz tip, a medium that has helped her remain a popular attraction in concert and on record to this day. Just this year, she snagged a Grammy for her critically acclaimed album “Avant Gershwin.”

The Qwest album from Austin’s canon that always seems to get overlooked, “Patti Austin” didn’t shatter any glass ceilings and at its root was probably never intended to. A product of the big eighties, it’s as solid as anything fellow divas like The Pointer Sisters or Patti LaBelle were having success with at the time and should have found a similar fate. It just seems that it wasn’t meant to happen. No matter, as it’s as tasty as the brightest moments from any of the singer’s other incarnations. And at the end of the day, it is the versatility that records like this bring to Austin’s catalog that make her one of the most treasured stylists of the last three decades.

“Patti Austin” is proof that no matter what she sings, the sister will leave you starstruck.

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!