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.

Vinyl examination: This ‘Odyssey’ is more than a disco fantasy

I loved the elegant soul of Odyssey before I even knew who they were.

Their 1977 hit single and signature song “Native New Yorker” was immortalized on “Good Times” when Thelma Evans, played by Bernadette Stanis, did a heavenly dance to the song as part of a talent show to save the community center’s day care program. (Don’t act like ya’ll haven’t seen that rerun thousands of times.) Aside from Thelma’s smooth moves, I was taken by the sleek, urbane sway of the song and the catchy story it told. I found out years later that “disco” trio Odyssey – Lillian Lopez, Louise Lopez and Tony Reynolds (later replaced by Bill McEachern) – were the voices that took the song to No. 6 R&B/No. 21 pop and made it a staple on R&B radio decades later. Though Odyssey (who was managed by a then-unknown Tommy Mottola) was signed to RCA – a label that experienced tons of success in the disco market with acts like Faith, Hope and Charity, Vicki Sue Robinson and The Hues Corporation – one listen to the trio’s eponymous debut proves they were a soul act first and foremost.

This was hardly paint-by-numbers disco, as “Odyssey” (No. 16 R&B/No. 36 pop) had more to do with uptown soul than danceable histrionics. The luminous, island-flavored backdrop was perfect for the group’s sweet blends, a formula buoyed by the chops of session men like Richard Tee (keyboards), Randy Brecker (trumpets) and Michael Brecker (reeds). The bubbly, vibraphone-infused “Weekend Lover” (No. 37 R&B/No. 57 pop) and “The Woman Behind the Man” are lush, beautifully orchestrated creations that emphasize melody as much as vocal presentation. Lead singer Lillian Lopez had a rich vocal timbre that gave the group’s material a warmth and earthiness akin to the free-flowing garments and braided hair they donned in their photos. Still, there were some dancers there: The Latin disco of “Easy Come, Easy Go” and the spiritual “Thank You God for One More Day” are pleasing, tuneful delights that work in the contexts of both listening and dancing.

Amazingly, the ballads were the LP’s strong points. “Ever Lovin’ Sam” and “Golden Hands” excel, with the latter featuring an affirming message about a boy named Michael who aspires to have his hoop dreams lift him out of the ghetto’s oppression. It sounds sappy, but it works surprisingly well when you consider the time it comes from. Elsewhere, “You Keep Me Dancin’”, despite its misleading title, is meant to do anything but – it’s a romantic tribute to the man whose sweetness is the song that transcends any superficial advances hurled at the singer. Such sentiments are what made this album an interesting release. Even though it was issued in the dizzying days of disco, there’s an overwhelmingly positive, almost poignant feel to its selections. I can’t help but wonder if it was their goal to put a spin on their debut that was the antithesis of the “let’s get high and screw” underpinning of what surrounded them on shelves, airwaves and dance floors at the time. Indeed, there was much promise to be explored here.

Odyssey continued to record for RCA through 1982’s “Happy Together” which featured the Top 20 R&B hit and steppers’ favorite “Inside Out.” (If you’ve ever heard it or plan on seeking it out, the similarities between it and Slave’s “Watching You” are astonishing. It has been written that there was some rhythm-section overlap between the two hits, including Slave’s Steve Arrington himself on drums. It’s still funky as hell regardless.) Though they never scored another hit as big as “Native New Yorker,” they were one of the more interesting groups to emerge during the late seventies. While this and their other LPs are long out of print, their songs are regularly featured on compilations and soundtracks: “Native New Yorker” was prominently featured in the film “54,” while “Inside Out” was included on the album “Smooth Grooves: After Hours.”

No matter what you’ve read or may have heard, this is an “Odyssey” that’s not typical of its era. A more than fitting addition to any collection of sophisticated soul, it’s the kind of record that goes beyond the singles-driven period it surfaced in. What you have here is a fully realized, highly enjoyable work, if I do say so myself.

Check out the hits “Native New Yorker” and “Weekend Lover” 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.

Vinyl examination: Double your pleasure with A Taste of Honey

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When A Taste of Honey issued the 1980 Capitol LP “Twice as Sweet,” the R&B/disco group was looking to make some changes amid changing times.

The original four-piece lineup of Janice-Marie Johnson (bass), Hazel Payne (guitar), Donald Johnson (drums) and the late Perry Kibble (keyboards) made history in February of 1979 when they became the first black band – and second black act overall behind labelmate Natalie Cole – to take home the best new artist Grammy on the heels of the smash single “Boogie Oogie Oogie” and their self-titled platinum debut album. They bested favorites Toto and The Cars in the category, a triumph that surprised industry insiders and fans alike. As one would expect, many tried to make the win a black thing – but Janice-Marie wasn’t trying to hear it.

“Don’t get us involved in a racial thing. Look at it as a victory of R&B and disco over pop and rock,” the bassist told the Los Angeles Times. “How about the fact that two of us are women? I think that had more to do with winning than us being black.”

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Such out-of-the-box success, however, was tough to duplicate: Though the frothy single “Do it Good” became a Top 20 R&B hit, its parent album “Another Taste” was met with a lukewarm response in the States that left the band fending off the dreaded one-hit wonder label. Fearing that disco’s impending death spelled the demise of the band, they began to retool their sound and image. Perry and Donald exited the lineup after “Another Taste” and producers Fonce and Larry Mizell were jettisoned in favor of George Duke, who was having tremendous success with his fusion of jazz, funk and disco on hits like “Dukey Stick” and “Reach for It.” The result was the soulful, jazzy “Twice as Sweet” (No. 12 R&B/No. 36 pop),  a record that proved a huge shot of musical love for A Taste of Honey’s career.

A lean, sophisticated nine-track collection, the album could have easily been a follow-up to their blockbuster debut. Duke’s well-honed chops as a jazzman suited the talent of these lovely ladies to a tee because their panache for guitar playing was never really limited to disco in the first place. Janice-Marie and Hazel could swing from funky slap and pop bass to laid back blues licks in the blink of an eye, and Duke drew from their diverse approach beautifully. While the R&B charters “Rescue Me” (No. 16) and “I’m Talkin’ ‘Bout You” (No. 64) were textbook grooves, “Don’t You Lead Me On” and “Superstar Superman” glisten with a blend of grace, rhythm and femininity that was often missing from the funk the sisters brought early in the game. Hazel’s lead vocal on “Superstar Superman” in particular is noteworthy, as her distinct sense of phrasing is as precise as her nimble guitar riffs. That’s not to say they don’t bring the heat here, as the frenzied and fabulous “She’s a Dancer,” with Hazel’s searing rock guitar and Janice-Marie’s lead vocal, is a direct descendant of the material from their first two releases and the best dance cut on the LP. Even the Sugar Hill rap combo Funky 4 + 1 knew what was up: The pioneering rap combo sampled “Rescue Me” for the classic “That’s the Joint.”

Oddly, it was the album’s dramatic closing number, not its sophisti-soul center, that turned the duo’s fortunes around. Legend has it that Janice-Marie felt that an English-language ballad version of the 1963 Kyu Sakamoto chart topper “Sukiyaki” – a Japanese song about a heartbroken man who looks up while he whistles so his tears won’t fall down his face – was just the single the group needed to transcend the stifling disco label. Capitol rejected the idea, releasing “Rescue Me” and “I’m Talkin’ ‘Bout You” instead under the assumption that black folks would not want to hear a Japanese song – but it wasn’t long before Janice-Marie won out. Black radio had already jumped on the track, and massive airplay forced the label to issue it as a single. In a victory as stunning as the group’s Grammy win, the song shot to the top of the R&B chart and climbed all the way to No. 3 pop. Complete with a koto arrangement by Hiroshima member Dan Kuramoto, the song was the ultimate Quiet Storm classic. Janice wrote the special English lyrics heard on the duo’s version of the song, but a publishing dispute resulted in her name being removed from the writing credits before it was released. To this day official credit for the lyrics eludes her, despite the fact that everyone from Mary J. Blige to 4 P.M. have struck gold with them.

When I read that Capitol was not hot on releasing the song, it just didn’t make sense to me. In its original incarnation – which, ironically, was released by Capitol Stateside – it not only topped the pop chart, but it rose to a respectable No. 18 R&B, which shows that black people were in fact feeling the record the first time around. And I have to say that while I can’t understand a lick of what Sakamoto is saying, his version of the song has a nice feel to it. It’s easy to see why kids both black and white dug it. The fact that Janice-Marie was able to see the hit potential in such a song is a testament to her understanding of music and how people respond to it. The move was a sheer stroke of genius, and the woman deserves all of the credit she is due and then some.

A Taste of Honey would score one more major hit with a beautiful cover and the Smokey Robinson and The Miracles classic “I’ll Try Something New,” but the duo split up after the 1982 album “Ladies of the Eighties.” Janice-Marie issued the album “One Taste of Honey” and the single “Love Me Tonight” for Capitol in 1984, but neither proved a major hit. Today, both Janice-Marie and Hazel travel with their own configurations of A Taste of Honey and occasionally appear together. Hazel has carved out a niche as a stage actress, while Janice-Marie continues to record for her own Tastebuds Records label.

Thankfully, “Twice as Sweet” is not too terribly difficult to come by. The album is available for download on Itunes for under 10 bucks, and back in 2000 it was issued along with “A Taste of Honey” in a two-disc set. Though it’s now out of print, used copies sell regularly on the Web for reasonable prices. Perhaps one day, the group’s entire catalog will be made available. In the meantime, “Twice as Sweet” remains the perfect starting point for anyone with a hankering for the sweet, sticky stylings of A Taste of Honey.

Nearly 30 years later, it still proves that they indeed had the groove.

Check out A Taste of Honey in a lovely performance of the hit “Sukiyaki” below.

‘Renaissance’ men: A landmark Miracles album turns 35

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“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

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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.

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.