Roberta Flack – Roberta (Atlantic – 1994) by A. Scott Galloway (Special to Radio Facts ) …and so, it begins again - a lady and a piano…stripping off a sliver of her hungry heart and offering it wholly holy to you…via a voice of pure alto divinity. The song is somebody else’s classic – Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” – that the lady is presently and pain-shaking-ly interpreting in a way that will make all hear it anew. “Whyyy… (somebody…) / Why people break-up / Turn around and make-up / I…just…can’t…seeeeee… / And you would NEVER doooo that to meeeee (would you, baby?),” she queries before bass-n-drums slide in to give her a beat. The lady is Roberta Flack. And by 1994, she was not new to “this.” THIS exquisiteness of songcraft refraction had been her bread and butter for precisely 25 years at fabled Atlantic Records in New York City – a relationship reaching the end of a love affair with one last moonlight ride and a long kiss goodnight. BUY ROBERTA FLACK MUSIC ON AMAZON When Roberta Flack debuted in `69 on Atlantic with her LP, First Take – liner notes penned by an unshakably smitten Les McCann – she was a high-brow low-risk vocal artist following in footprints akin to Nina Simone: a proud Black woman at the piano singing some heavy-heavy songs. The material stemmed from poets such as Leonard Cohen, Gene McDaniels and Manuel Alvarez Maciste plus two for good measure by her Howard University brother Donny Hathaway who was coming up alongside her as the sun rose on the `70s. It wouldn’t be until three years later in 1972 when actor Clint Eastwood, making his directorial debut with “Play Misty For Me,” reached back to utilize the entirety of Roberta’s aching Ewan McColl ballad “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” for a romantic oasis within the thriller that her Afro-crowned head peaked above the Black Pool of Genius underground. This was followed by the radio evergreens “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” “Feel Like Makin’’ Love” and a breezy duet with Hathaway entitled “Where is the Love” which neither singer cared for initially but learned to like when producers Arif Mardin and Joel Dorn insisted it be included on their joint album as a lighthearted break. Radio took it to the top of Billboard’s R&B chart. Simply put: a lil’ lightness went a long way in the canon of this woman who leaned so vehemently on songs of depth that often descended into recurring themes of longing, heartbreak and crosses to bear. For a while there were Grammys and coveted concerts as the name Roberta Flack became synonymous with soul stirring vocal excellence beyond category. Though a consistent balance could never be reached as far as hitmaking, she had her share with three more Hathaway duets “The Closer I Get To You,” “Back Together Again” (both penned and produced by James Mtume & Reggie Lucas) and “You Are My Heaven” (co-penned by a never far away Stevie Wonder), several more songs made moments in film (most poignantly “Making Love”), and a few winners sung with perfect match Peabo Bryson (bested by the crossover classic “Tonight, I Celebrate My Love”). Along the way there were several albums troubled by issues of continuity and flow…but there were also the gems that got it right, particularly I’m The One from 1982 helmed by Flack with William Eaton, William Salter and Ralph MacDonald. BUY ROBERTA FLACK MUSIC ON AMAZON As the `80s segued into the `90s, Roberta’s career continued to rollercoaster. In `88, there was her phenomenal first solo album in six years, Oasis, speckled with loving contributions from the likes of Ashford & Simpson and Brenda Russell, the cherry on top being the chart-topping title track penned by Marcus Miller and featuring David Sanborn on alto sax. However, it was followed in 1991 by the problematic Set the Night to Music for which the title track (a duet with Pop-Reggae sex symbol Maxi Priest penned by the usually can’t-miss Diane Warren) stalled at #45 while a hip skip thru Thom Bell & Linda Creed’s Stylistics hit “You Make Me Feel Brand New” only got to #50 - with no Pop showing for either. Her next album, simply self-titled Roberta, would be her last at Atlantic. Executive produced by Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun himself, the project completely dispensed with Roberta Flack chasing perceived competitor “acts” up the charts, returning her to her rarified distinction of album-oriented artist. As such, there would be no singles released. The focus was a blissfully luxuriant listen culled from crumbly sheet music, jazz age gems, blues nuggets and songs straight out of old black and white movies on “The Late, Late Show.” Key to the cohesiveness and contemporary vibes of the album was the sister and brother team Katreese Barnes (piano, keys and vox) & Jerry Barnes (bass and vox), proteges of Brazilian Soul-Jazz giant Eumir Deodato. The young duo co-produced the bulk of Roberta with Flack. As artists in their own right, they had recorded three albums under the group name Juicy, scoring a minor hit with “Sugar Free” from the soundtrack of the Hip Hop movie “Beat Street.” Katreese & Jerry had understudied behind the scenes with Deodato, writing songs, playing and singing on albums such as Deodato’s Rush Hour, Gwen Guthrie’s Just For You and Chuck Mangione’s Disguise. They also did the song “Give Me All” for Chaka Khan from The Woman I Am. When Roberta happened to meet them as Deodato was simultaneously producing their albums, she exclaimed, “These kids are amazing!” It didn’t hurt that they were also from North Carolina where she was from (she being born in Asheville). Flack sent for them to join her in New York where they recorded and toured with her, composing two songs for Set the Night to Music: “Friend” (a promo radio single) and “Natural Thing.” BUY ROBERTA FLACK MUSIC ON AMAZON To go from being produced by Eumir Deodato to producing Roberta Flack was quite a leap for The Barnes’ but one they proved primed to handle. When they broke Sister Ro’ off with a hip flip of “It Might Be You” (the Alan & Marilyn Bergman and Dave Grusin-penned song originally sung by soft rock singer Stephen Bishop for the gender-bender comedy, “Tootsie”), her version was so smooth it was used in the otherwise all-Babyface score for “Waiting to Exhale.” Roberta wanted more of that feel and The Barnes’ masterfully obliged. Each song told a different story musically – some synth and drum machine oriented, others live musician-oriented. “Roberta was very particular,” Katreese Barnes reflects in 2017. “You never knew what you were going to get. She’d be completely satisfied one day then not liking any of her vocals the next. She was always perfecting things.” Two months of scheduled recording stretched into eight. Yet there were no tears in the end…for a masterpiece of tradition and forward-thinking music craft had been sculpted. After the aforementioned “Let’s Stay Together” there was “It Might Be You” which sank into a soulful vamp over which Sister Ro’ broke the lyric down with a spoken rap like the glory days of Isaac Hayes or Millie Jackson, speaking directly to her man in the song to get come clarity about their love situation as a male backing vocalist moans a wordless all-knowing blues. Speaking of Blues, B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone” is turned into a funky kiss-off feature for Bernard Wright turning in blistering solos on both piano and synthesizer. And The 20’s vintage “Sweet Georgia Brown” (known to many as the whistled theme of The Harlem Globetrotters showtime basketball team) was also given a neck-snapping Funk treatment featuring Jerry Barnes on bass (though you’d swear it was Marcus Miller) and Steve Jordan on drums bustin’ a slowed down version of the novel rim shot beat he cut two years before for David Sanborn on “Snakes” (penned and produced by Miller). Astute listeners detected a whiff of brother nod homage here. Within the first four songs, Roberta diva-handled four stainless steel Black cultural classics across genre lines. And she was just getting warmed up. BUY ROBERTA FLACK MUSIC ON AMAZON Next was a dreamy arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” on which Roberta floats over a backing vocal track reminiscent of the elongated harmony work of Take 6. It was followed by a smoothed out Go-Go take of Stevie Wonder’s “Looking For Another Pure Love” fortified by the drum programming of William “JuJu” House and the acoustic percussion shaman-ism of Steve Kroon. It is followed by the updated, sexy, late night snuggle of the girl group gem “I Don’t Care Who Knows (Baby I’m Yours).” At this midway point, Roberta detours into pure jazz expression via an interlude segue that finds co-producer Barry Miles turning in a haunting arrangement of Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss” done completely with synthesizers, keyboards and rhythm programming. Here, Roberta does another rap – this time a Hip Hop Rap – paying respects to “Sir Duke” in her own sweet way. Then the acoustic jazz set begins as the stellar quartet of the great pianist Kenny Barron (also arranger here), drumming legend Ben Riley, bassist Ray Drummond and percussionist Steve Thornton provide quintessential backing to Roberta on a haunting “Angel Eyes,” a soothing “Tenderly” and “Isn’t it Romantic.” Criminally underrated saxophonist Roger Byam matches his ever-empathetic tenor to Katreese’s synthesizers in ‘Wonder’-land on “Cottage For Sale.” And Barry Miles returns with Anthony Jackson on bass for a stark take on Rodgers & Hart’s “My Romance.” Ms. Flack could have very poignantly ended her eleventh and final Atlantic solo album in 25 years right here – a 360-degree trip back to her beginning in night owl haunts before she was signed, singing the ageless/timeless ones with a small combo. Chairman Ahmet Ertegun personally came to the studio to watch her sing the jazz tunes of these sessions, marveling in admiration as he bestowed his undivided love and support from the executive penthouse. What could be better? Still, Ms. Roberta had one last ace up her sleeve: a selection she co-penned with Katreese, Jerry & Barry with a message: “You’ll Never Know (`Til You Let Go).” Still in jazz mode, only this time in an Afro-Jazz fervor of 6/8 time featuring Randy Brecker on Flugelhorn, a tympani pounding away for emphasis and background vocals chanting down Babylon, this is Roberta in Abbey Lincoln-mode sharing her personal “Nature Boy”-like musing for one and all. SEE MORE OF A. SCOTT GALLOWAY’S REVIEWS HERE If you’re kicking yourself wondering why you have never heard this CD, you’re not alone. Roberta Flack’s Roberta is an unsung gem. If this writer has done his pen justice, all the deep discounted discs sitting in virtual internet warehouses will fly off the shelves, necessitating a Chapter Two CD reissue reboot… complete with deluxe first-time-on-vinyl pressing. A. Scott Galloway November 3, 2017
WAR – The World is a Ghetto (United Artists – 1972)By A. Scott Galloway “To us, the whole concept of the musical idol and the fan has become passé’. We are street people…our music often comes from the street level. It’s an extension of The People and those people identify most heavily with us.The Music is Us and We are The Music. We are simply doing what every musician really wants to do…drawing our music from everything about us.” – Sylvester “Papa Dee” Allen (Conguero y Percussionist of WAR) If Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” in 1971 was the eternal QUESTION about the state of the planet and human relations – scored to a lush celestial soundtrack of rhythm, strings and chorus – WAR’s “The World is a Ghetto” from the following year, 1972,was the eternal ANSWER – a stark statement of universal truth set to music that felt like a hazy shade of sundown. The song was an equalizer - a musical lighthouse of earth blues wisdom that struck a mystic nerve for a pan cultural constituency. And in its full uncut 10:10 glory as the centerpiece and title track of the band’s third album (fifth if you include the two they recorded in collaboration with English rocker Eric Burdon), it was a unifying, moody blues masterpiece brewed from a gumbo of gospel organ, psychedelic guitars, Black horror tenor jazz, Amen corner harmonica and a “smmfh” bottom of have mercy bass, drums and percussion - a sound and a vibration only WAR – known in an earlier incarnation as The Creators - could make. WAR – a southern California septet - made music that was communal in the sense that while you could completely lose yourself in the mastery, you were more often compelled to add your voice. Their sound was tribal yet nondenominational, connectingto your spirit like a familial embrace. Their songs kicked insight into troubles of the world, empathy for our internal and external struggles, steeled optimism and a freeing funk to shake off the shackles of whatever was ailing ye. The World is a Ghetto is roundly viewed as both the critical and commercial highpoint of WAR – the crystal distillation of their all-natural essences. Following the breakthrough success of their second album All Day Music which included the serene summer chill of the title track and the ferocious out of body experience of “Slippin’ Into Darkness” (the groove Bob Marley copped the inspiration to later write the revolutionary Reggae anthem “Get Up, Stand Up”), WAR hunkered down in Crystal Industries Studio in L.A. for a now-fabled 30-day lockout, jamming, composing, editing and assembling what would become a mind-altering master stroke of `70s Soul – 30 days to cut a 6-song diamond. Its contents moved seamlessly from outright silly to downright soul-stirring. The album opens with what would be selected as its lead-off single for radio, “The Cisco Kid,”largely composed and sung by guitarist HowardScott in tribute to his childhood TV western serial hero (played by Duncan Renaldo). Howard being Howard, he embellished the character with the superpower of being able to ride into town blasting away the bad guys with a pistol in one hand while swiggin’ whisky or port wine in the other! The song is deceptive in its perceived simplicity when, in fact, it is a funky 16-bar blues with Latin and Reggae crosscurrents. Lyrically, it regales the listener with multiple episodes in Cisco’s travels in six catchy, highly repetitive verses, filled in with the group’s infectious background vocal camaraderie,a Greek chorus of harmonica and clarinet, even snatches of Spanglish dialogue. Overflowing with fun, the song actually performed better at Top 40 radio, peaking at #2 on Billboard’s Top Pop Singles chart and #5 R&B. Next up is “Where Was You At,” a serious admission of abandonment in hour of need made light by drummer Harold Brown’s bouncy New Orleans beat, and keyboardist Lonnie Jordan’s rollicking piano and organ – “real Baptist church stuff,” as Howard Scott describes it. This one was mostly penned and sung by sax man Charles Millerand is eerily prophetic when one listens now knowing the tragic fate Miller met when he was stabbed to death 8 years later in a harrowing ambush/robbery in a motel room. Throughout The World is a Ghettoand, indeed, all of WAR’s albums until his departure, Miller would bring nothing less than the composite, abstract AND absolute Truth to every contribution he made. That Truth begins in the next selection that closed Side 1, “City, Country, City.”The sprawling 13-and-a-half-minute instrumental that began life as a wistful melody that Danish-born harmonica master Lee Oskar brought in inspired by Bobby Hebb’s `66 Soul-Pop hit, “Sunny.” After WAR met football-star-turned-actor Fred Williamson on Don Cornelius’ “Soul Train” TV show and the band was asked to write some music for his upcoming western “The Legend of Nigger Charley,” WAR used Lee’s melody as the foundation for an audio travelogue that would mirror Charley’s freedom ride through the old west in and out of rapidly developing Black environs. In stereotypical Hollywood fashion, when the film’s producers weren’t offering money nor credits that were right, the band made spiked lemonade outta the bitter citrus to become WAR’s first “Jazz” classic. Without the confining subtext of the film’s storyline, the evocative instrumental became a movie for the mind. To this writer, the opening of Howard Scott’s tender acoustic guitar against keyboardist Lonnie Jordan’s reverent organ was like the birth of the mythical Seventh Son –a boy destined for a life of epic ups and downs. The harmonica melody becomes the recurring theme of purity and nobility constantly challenged by shape shifting demons and the slaying of dragons set to the soundtrack of Charles Miller’s wailing saxophone lines over a relentless bass-driven groove. Charles’ hot house horn dually conveys the hellish evils of mankind as well as the strength of our underdog’s perseverance to prevail! Then the horn dovetails into a boiling cauldron organ solo and the percussion breakdown that sounds like an underwater pursuit thru Far East Mississippi all the way back to The River Niger where our golden child emerges on the bank: a man…with a stone-cold story to tell in Howard Scott’s now electric guitar blues. (Note: WAR was not alone in their Hollywood movie music debacle. Billy Preston snatched his theme song “The Legend of Nigger Charley” back, shortened the title to “Nigger Charlie,” slapped it on his Music is My Life LP(A&M-1972) and rode off into the sunset, telling err’body to kiss his happy Black ass! The movie made due with a genre score by John Bennings and songs by Soul man Lloyd Price.) Side 2 of The World is a Ghetto aridly opens with “Four Cornered Room,”the seed of which was brought in by bassist B.B. Dickerson, conjured by the meditative state he fell into the first time he smoked hashish. Drummer Harold Brown handles the spoken word offering early in the piece, B.B. sings the verses while the background soul shouting came from keyboardist Lonnie Jordan. Engineer Chris Huston used a lot of phasing on the track, lending a hazy, somewhat spooky vibe to the music (especially Lee Oskar’s mournful harmonica ad libs) and WAR’s signature unison/harmony vocals (most terrifyingly the “zoom-Zoom-ZOOOOOM” line). The ringing gong was a recurring WAR effect dating back to their first album Eric Burdon Declares “WAR” which boasted the psychedelic effect of a gong being struck, allowing the sound to slowly dissipate in real time to silence. Then the tape was played backwards, growing louder until it exploded at the original striking point leading into the street corner ballad “You’re No Stranger.” “Four Cornered Room” is a headphone masterpiece about climbing inside one’s own mind for a clearer understanding of his/her “higher” inner self. This leads into the centerpiece/title track “The World is a Ghetto,” a concept and lyric brought in by Percussionist Papa Dee Allen which was essentially that all people on the planet have the same basic desires and struggles regardless of race, culture or economic status. B.B. Dickerson sings this one with passion and connection unparalleled. Matching him emotion for emotion, again, is the peerless Charles Miller on tenor saxophone. Miller, a June 2 Gemini who practiced his woodwinds and other instruments faithfully 5 hours a day, never merely blew his tenor sax.He breathed through it…a circular, lyrical approach that made his sound another “voice” within the group. Also happening on this recording are two things: Charles overdubbing subtle answers to his own solo in the track, plus engineer Chris Huston panning between one take of a solo with another, sculpting one of the greatest saxophone statements ever recorded – as singular and brilliant in its genius as a Charlie Parker or John Coltrane solo. SO much emotion and blues flow from the horn as Charles animates every word of the lyric into musical form – soft, long-winding lines like the wonder of looking at the sky starry-eyed to crying in the night (more howling at the moon) teary-eyed. Stopping time to build and subside, the solo is a story within the story…Charles Miller had been wailing such profound musical statements since his “Mr. Charlie” solo within the “Blues For Memphis Slim / Mother Earth” suite on their debut,Eric Burdon Declares “WAR.” Fittingly, “The World is a Ghetto” was covered by jazz legends James Moody (hauntingly on flute) and pianist Ahmad Jamal (who, in tandem with arranger Richard Evans, integrated elements from his own classic “Poinciana”). Guitarist George Benson bumped up the tempo on his to make it a more driving yet no less blues-based rumination. When WAR morphed into it’s The Music Band incarnation in the `80s, they picked up on G.B.’s tip and rocked it faster, too. In 2017, Lowrider Band (the name Howard Scott, Harold Brown and Lee Oskar now tour and record under due to ongoing litigation) perform “The World is a Ghetto” with current saxophonist Lance Ellis taking a fiery solo that builds to a shattering climax only to be handed off to Lee Oskar on harmonica who takes it to Pluto – a beautiful new arrangement that extends the legacy with poignance and glory. Additionally, vocalists Phil Perry and Will Downing cut club covers. And hardcore Houston rap trio Geto Boys covered it with a funk reggae flip. Unlike “The Cisco Kid” which did better on the Pop chart, a severe radio edit of WAR’s “The World is a Ghetto” hit Black listeners in a deep-deep place, peaking #3 R&B, #7 Pop. The riveting album cover art work for The World is a Ghetto was created by Howard Miller (no relation to Charles) from a sketch by Lee Oskar (who doubled as Art Designer for most of WAR’s album packages) brilliantly encapsulated the statement being made within the lyrics. The smoggy L.A. street scene depicts everyday people on the avenue and behind windowsills rapping, eating, fussin’, lovin’ and otherwise getting through the day the best they can…including the wary,well-to-do Black man whose Rolls Royce has the misfortune of catching a flat tire in the hood. That brother, his ride and his chauffeur are the only elements in color on this otherwise blue-tinted black & white painting, yet his blues are the same blues as everybody else’s. This gets to the essence not only what this song and album are about but WAR as a manifestation of it. We are One and The Same. Still, in all its too often underappreciated conceptual depth, WAR was always good for a WTF moment on its LPs. On The World is a Ghetto, that ditty is “Beetles in the Bog” which closes an otherwise mind-blowing album on a confounding and quizzical note. This oddity was brought in by Lee with lyrics penned by his then-wife Keri and feels like a folk song – from what “folk” only they could tell you!The music takes this listener to a crackling campfire in a clearing surrounded by thick forest as darkness falls upon the land and spirits are awakened to get buck wild and free to the soundtrack of a fevered gypsy round rumpus. Adding tropical color is the rare novel WAR inclusion of Caribbean steel pans gayly ringing in the backdrop. Moral: All WAR parties come to a carnivalesque conclusion! WAR would take you to deepest darkest truths but always leave you with light and hope. WAR’s The World is a Ghetto reached #1 and was on the chart for 68 weeks in industry Bible Billboard Magazine which also named it Album of the Year. It sold over 3 million copies. This month – November 2017 - marks the 45th anniversary of its milestone release. SEE MORE OF A. SCOTT GALLOWAY'S REVIEWS HERE I leave the last word to one of my greatest musical heroes, Charles Miller, quoted from an interview within the new book “Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR”: “…what he had in mind when we chose (WAR) as a name for our group was the fact that ‘war’ has deeper, more universally pertinent meanings – the personal and exterior forms of violence we have all felt…the internal, emotional war raging within us…personal, spiritual war…wars of mental and spiritual nature(s) which are personal and idealistic.” - A. Scott Galloway (The writer dedicates this essay to the 27th wedding anniversary of Howard & Jennifer Scott, the memories of Sylvester “Papa Dee” Allen and Charles Miller, and in homage to the 2017 transitions of L.A.-based percussionists Darrell Harris and Bobby Matos. Respect and Love.)
Teena Marie - Irons in the Fire – Teena Marie (Gordy/Motown – 1980)by A. Scott Galloway (Special to Radio Facts ) “I have been colored in and faded out. My hand she quivers and yet my pen still writes. ‘If life is death and peace is wrath – or if you feel I have chosen to embark on a most precocious path - let me be the judge of my own cessation, for I am the only one who knows just how far or fast I go…’” Independence Day had arrived along the sparkling shores of Venice…Venice, California that is. It was a hot summers day of sunny skies, crystal blue persuasion and salt songs - misting and ascending to the Most High. A home spun Vanilla Child was on the brink of shaking the chains that had not so much bound her but disciplined her – reigned her in to teach her a thing or three – for her level of excellence in the realm of songcraft was nothing short of sweet bitter destiny. She was born Mary Christine Brockert but she took “Teena Marie” as her nom de plume. And when she was really feeling herself, she butterflied into “Lady Tee.” The latter is clearly who was possessing her 5”1’ frame when she raised up the baton to conduct her first self-produced symphony: her third LP, Irons in the Fire. BUY TEENA MARIE MUSIC ON iTunes When she arrived at Motown’s Sunset Boulevard offices in Hollywood by bus from beach town, she was a lump of clay…a young White girl in love with the rainbow of music all around her: Musicals, Rock, Jazz, Top 40 Pop and a whole lot of Soul. The world-wise veterans at Motown could see there was plenty within her to work with. It would be a combination of Tee’s tenacity and some empathetic in-house hearts that slowly began to piece her puzzle together. Motown Founder and Chairman Berry Gordy was among the first to take her under his wing, producing an early 8-song demo session. She was also ushered in and out of the doors of several lesser-known producers such as Kenny Kerner, Richie Wise, and Winston Monesque – each zoning in on the part of Tee they could most relate to but never getting anywhere near the whole picture. Singer/Songwriter/Producer Ronnie McNeir got the closest. Years later, Tee would show her gratitude, bringing him back into the fold on her sixth album, Starchild, on which they sang the duet “We’ve Got to Stop Meeting Like This,” even performing it together on “Soul Train.” But that would be a long ways away. The biggest misstep Motown made was slotting her into the ill-fated sons of Gordy band Apollo. Notoriously, Teena left a session allegedly to run a quick errand and conveniently never returned. BUY TEENA MARIE MUSIC ON iTunes It would be a rowdy upstart, stage name “Rick James,” who would fatefully peek his head into the writing room where Teena was working away, hearing something familiar in her voice and verses that connected to his youth. They were mirror opposite twins – he a Black man who originally wanted to be a folk rocker, dodging the draft, smoking pot, letting his hair grow long and hanging with White dudes that happened to include a young Neil Young and future Steppenwolf member Nick St. Nicholas. She was a White California beach girl, always with a song in her heart and upon her lips, whose “bestest friend named Mickey” (among many) was Black. When reborn Rick got red hot at Motown, fronting his Stone City Band and dropping the coldblooded Punk Funk on they ass via his Come Get It LP (Gordy/Motown – 1978) featuring “You and I” and “Mary Jane,” he was in a plum position to reach back and help another artist of his choosing. “Mack” that he was, Rick chose Teena, and launched her as the producer of her long-awaited debut album, Wild and Peaceful (Gordy/Motown - 1979). It was highlighted by two polar opposite instant classics: the party starter “I’m Just a Sucker for Your Love” and the serenely introspective “Déjà vu (I’ve Been Here Before).” Following a tour where Teena accompanied Rick as a protégé and off and on lover, she switched from the devil incarnate to a perfect angel named Richard Rudolph, a songwriter/producer and soon-to-be publishing magnate who also happened to be the husband of one of Teena’s greatest inspirations, Minnie Riperton, the sensual and unique singer/songwriter who had just succumbed following a courageous battle with breast cancer. The two of them were already acquainted and the timing was perfect for “Dick” to lose himself in the labor of love Teena’s sophomore LP, Lady T (Gordy/Motown – March 1980). Where Rick put the raw sizzle in Teena, Richard polished her with gems such as the funky disco fantasia “Behind the Groove,” the Rufus & Chaka nick “Why Did I Fall in Love with You,” and the Quiet Storm classics “Aladdin’s Lamp” and “Now That I Have You,” the latter a gift originally intended for Minnie. The result was a roundly fine if not spectacular album that was more important for Teena as a close-up look into the finer art of album-making. Beyond a few promotional appearances, she did not tour. Instead, she was granted her wings to produce her third LP, the appropriately titled Irons in the Fire (Gordy/Motown – Late Summer 1980) - among her finest. BUY TEENA MARIE MUSIC ON iTunes Key to the magic of Irons in the Fire was a close-knit group of studio conspirators made up of musician friends that Teena implicitly trusted, including members of a veteran band called Ozone. Their tightness would serve Teena well not only creatively but in getting the project done in the timely fashion execs demanded. Drama queen to the max, Teena opens her magnum opus with a moment that is all about that bass…bassist Allen McGrier running the voodoo down on a melodic bottom line to which Gregory Hargrove answers with some teasing guitar before the whole thing erupts with a second rhythm guitar by Wali Ali and a Paul Riser string arrangement for the Gods, christened with what would become one of Teena’s vocal signatures: a resounding “Whoooooooo” that translated as “…and away we go!” That song, “I Need Your Lovin’” is a supremely pocketed, four-on-the-floor, love-funk jam. It grabbed women and men alike with a groove that would not quit plus lyrics penned and sung from a poetic funkstress who had a flair for expressing girl thoughts with young womanly wile…plus tried-and-true spelling hooks. Ray Woodard takes the clean and tasty tenor solo. BUY TEENA MARIE MUSIC ON iTunes Previous ballads such as the jazzy “Déjà vu” (a poem lifted from her diary by Rick who made it a song) and the aforementioned highlights of Lady T paved the way for the luxuriant and nostalgic “Young Love” which laid the dynamic arc template for so much silken Tee balladry to come. With shades of Smokey Robinson rising, Teena sings this one directly to a lover she does not intend to lose. Extremely key are her girls who have her back. Teena’s female backup vocalists and arrangements always rock your world. Teena rarely did solo layered backgrounds on ballads. She brought in an assembly of sisters to lay them, in this case friends Mickey Hearn, Jill Jones (future Prince prodigy) and Shirley Mattison, all joining Teena.
Teena always had a lil’ Rock N’ Roll in her Soul...... which is manifested in the flirty, horn-fueled “First Class Love,” co-arranged with Allen McGrier (gettin’ his Louis Johnson on with his thumbed bass parts and breakdown), a crunchin’ guitar solo, and the percussion of the indispensable Paulinho Da Costa. “First Class Love” dates back to demos originally cut produced by Ronnie McNeir with the Detroit dream team of Ray Parker Jr. on guitar, “Billy Bass” Nelson of Funkadelic on his namesake and Ollie Brown on drums. Ozone gave Tee a funky update that cooked. Side 1 of Irons in the Fire closes with the prophetic and prayerful title track - Teena at the piano with the harp of Lloyd Lindroth and the strings of Paul Riser. Side 2 of Irons in the Fire opens with an attention-arresting courtroom scenario – interestingly a Motown tradition from Shorty Long’s comedic “Here Come the Judge” to Stevie Wonder’s heavy mid-song interlude from “Living for the City.” Teena’s is unique with her layered and looped vocal hook that telegraphs the madness one feels when shackled in a maddening love affair. Then drummer supreme Paul Hines, who cops co-arranging credit here, drops the beat off into an intricate, ice-cold rhythm pattern so oxymoronically hot it could warp yo wax. The rhythm section, the horn section AND the vocal section all get caught up in the feverish, trance-inducing, runaway train of thought of the track, peaking with a blistering synthesizer solo by Michael Boddicker an ancient-future percussion by Paulinho. The vocal bass part is an obvious yet uncredited Melvin Franklin of the Temptations, prominent and name-checked on Teena’s next album, It Must Be Magic. Tracks as sophisticated as this set Teena apart from most female peers. BUY TEENA MARIE MUSIC ON iTunes The same can be said of “You Make Love Like Springtime,” a sexy Brazilian Jazz romp that’s the cat’s meow for slickness. Teena dives head first into that Marvin Gaye yin yang of ‘bomb sex as healing blessing’ she so beautifully describes as “an adventure in the raw, a phantasm for two.” By verse 2, her pen is dripping. Poetry in motion, teach me, Spirit Dove No words need be spoken, I know what you’re dreaming of Like this song I wear your love like Heaven on my breast Rainbow colors all so pure, I feel like I’ve been blessed Up to here, all of “Irons”’ songs are exclusively penned by Teena Marie. The next one would be a collaboration with her dear friend, Mickey “Boyce” Hearn. Entitled “Tune in Tomorrow,” it’s a clever, pure jazz take on the ups and downs of love as like a soap opera in real time – a jazz suite in three tempos. To pull this off authentically, Teena picked a seasoned quartet of musicians: pianist Bobby Lyle, guitarist Wali Ali, drummer Earl Palmer, Sr. and upright bassist James Jameson, Jr. Teena’s adoring indebtedness to Sarah Vaughn (in her delivery of the verses) and Ella Fitzgerald (in the dizzying tempo shifting scatting) is on magnificent display as the instrumentalists serve her exquisitely. “Tune in Tomorrow” made much good on the promise of “I’m Gonna Have My Cake (And Eat It, Too)” back on her debut, Wild and Peaceful, foreshadowing more ever-anticipated Jazz to come. SEE MORE OF A. SCOTT GALLOWAY'S REVIEWS HERE As Teena takes her fiercely earned bow for her inaugural self-production (complete with a warm, inviting cover photo lensed by Ron Slenzak), the finale of Irons in the Fire unfolds - a luxuriant reprise of “Springtime” on which Teena blissfully riffs in vocal ecstasy as Nick Brown goes to town on acoustic guitar with some tasty piano by James S. Stewart, Jr. over a thoroughly warm and lubricated rhythm section. Vinyl victory has rarely been so spicy and sweet. - A. Scott Galloway (The writer dedicates this essay to the memory of dearly departed friend Ms. Teena Marie and all the Cat Daddies and Kittens that make it such a treat to revisit.)
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