musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Posts tagged ‘Motown’

Amazing Rhythm Aces & Russell Smith

I suppose it’s inevitable, given my own advancing age and the passage of time, but it seems as if every week I notice another musician that I like has passed away. Last week we lost Russell Smith, the lead singer of the Amazing Rhythm Aces. He was 70 years old

If you are one of those people of a certain age, like me, who cut their musical teeth in the 1960s and 1970s, you will recall the Amazing Rhythm Aces, especially their bit hit “Third Rate Romance.” But in addition to that tune the band had plenty of other great songs, and many fine albums too. Stacked Deck, the album that contained “Third Rate Romance”, was their best selling one, but my favorite was the follow-up effort, Too Stuffed To Jump, a terrific album that contained my very favorite song by the band, the majestic “The End is Not in Sight.” And my soul cries out for rest … and the end is not in sight. Beautiful stuff.

The description of the Amazing Rhythm Aces found on Wikipedia is an apt one:

“The band’s music is distinguished by its eclectic scope, literate and often quirky lyrics, and distinctive vocals by lead singer and songwriter Russell Smith.”

 

And eclectic they were. The band was often labeled as “Southern Rock” or “Country Rock”, but they effortlessly blended country with generous dollops of blues and soul, as well as touches of gospel and even reggae. And it all worked. Great musicians, and as noted in other reviews, Russell Smith was a helluva good singer. Not to mention an outstanding songwriter. After the breakup of the band he enjoyed many years of success writing hits for various other country acts. After the Aces called it quits (for the first time; they later reunited) in the early 1980s, Smith went solo and released several good albums, although in my opinion none of them captured the magic of the Amazing Rhythm Aces.

I had the privilege of seeing the Amazing Rhythm Aces in concert at the Great Southern Music Hall in Orlando, Florida back in the late 1970s. Man, they put on a fabulous and very energetic show. Smith himself was very personable and charming onstage. Honestly, I don’t think he and the band ever got the proper respect and attention they deserved. They were certainly much more than one-hit wonders.

 

After the breakup of the Aces, Smith also released another interesting side project in the early 1990s, called Run C&W (a tongue-in-cheek poke at the popular rap group Run DMC). Dubbed by one reviewer as a “parody bluegrass” group, Run C&W’s two albums, Into the Twangy-First Century  and Row vs. Wade, gloriously blended county/bluegrass and vintage soul music, covering (mostly) classic Motown songs such as “Reach Out, I’ll Be There”, “My Girl” and “Hold On, I’m Comin’.” Good fun!

Yes, once again, we have lost another great songwriter and musician. In recent months Dr. John and another New Orleans legend, Dave Bartholomew (who was 100!) also passed away. Gone but never forgotten.

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Spinners

Philly Soul was a very popular musical genre throughout most of the 1970s, and one of the most popular groups of that era was the Spinners. Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff were the most popular producers of the Philly Soul sound, and they even started their own Philadelphia International label to release music by their acts, but another producer, Thom Bell, also has lots of success with this sweet soul sound and the Spinners were his personal pet project.

Even though they get pigeonholed as a Philly Soul act, the Spinners were actually from Detroit and recorded for many years on the Motown label. In fact, in the UK they recorded as the Detroit Spinners because there was a folk band in Liverpool also using the same name. Throughout much of the 1960s, the Spinners toiled away at Motown, releasing some very good music, but they never received the promotion that top-tier Motown acts like The Temptations and The Four Tops enjoyed and their records never became huge hits.

And then a funny thing happened. Label mate Stevie Wonder had written a new song, “It’s a Shame,” for the Spinners to record. But it wasn’t until 1970, a full year after they recorded it, and just when the group’s Motown contract was about to expire, that the song became a big hit. By that time, the Spinners were clearly frustrated with Motown and had jumped ship to Atlantic Records, where Thom Bell embraced them. The first result of their work together, the self-titled Spinners album in 1973, one of the greatest soul albums ever made. As a teenager I originally bought it on 8-track tape a few months after it came out. I later wore out copies on cassette, vinyl, and now CD. Obviously, I cherished this album greatly growing up, but decades later, these songs still sound sweet and magical. The hit singles “I’ll Be Around”, “One of a Kind (Love Affair)”, “Ghetto Child”, and “Could it Be I’m Falling in Love” are the most obvious gems on there, but dig deeper and the quality of the songs does not diminish. “We Belong Together,” “Just You and Me Baby”, and “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You” (a tune also recorded by Wilson Pickett, Doris Duke, Johnny Adams, Wet Willie, Keb’ Mo’ and others) are just a few more of the tasty gems on this classic album.

The follow-up album to Spinners, Mighty Love, was another seamless masterpiece, nearly as good a collection as the first Atlantic album. Songs like “Since I Been Gone” and “I’m Coming Home”, although not hit singles, ranked up there with some of their strongest material. Singers Philippe Wynne and Bobby Smith (they alternated lead vocals on various songs) were both in fine form, their superlative vocals elevating each song to a soulful high. During the rest of the decade, the Spinners continued to release strong albums — most notably Pick of the Litter and New & Improved — fortified with hit singles such as “Games People Play”, “Then Came You” (a duet with Dionne Warwick), “Sadie”, and “Rubberband Man.” Their output slackened towards the end of the decade after Wynne left the band in 1978 to pursue a solo career, and by the mid-80s the Spinners had all but vanished from the charts. But during that impressive run in the 70s they gave us some sensational music to savor.

Some people dismiss the Spinners as just another lightweight Top Forty act, complaining that their albums were “over produced” and too syrupy, a criticism stemming from Thom Bell’s frequent use of brass and string sections. Other critics point to the fact the Spinners didn’t write their own material, and the lyrical content of the songs lacked the social dynamic found in music by 70s soul artists such as the O’Jays, Marvin Gaye, and the Temptations. But all that sniping is missing the point. Bell’s production gloss doesn’t take away from the magic of the music. Get past the hit singles and listen to those albums, ya’ll! The Spinners recorded solid albums that lacked the usual filler associated with pop acts of that period. Even if they didn’t write the songs themselves, their heartfelt interpretation of these compositions was nothing short of breathtaking. This is music that floats above the mediocre scrum of pop, songs that stick in your head, and make you smile. And that’s a good thing.

 

Lamont Dozier

Although Lamont Dozier enjoyed fame and fortune as part of Motown’s legendary Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team, penning dozens of stone cold classics that defined 60s soul, few people are aware that he also had a productive recording career of his own in the 1970s. Dozier was obviously a crack songwriter, but he was no slouch as a singer either. One of his solo albums, 1974’s Out Here on My Own, yielded two Top Forty hits: the ballad “Trying to Hold on To My Woman” and the fiendishly clever and funky “Fish Ain’t Bitin’” (a song that took a dig at “Tricky Dick” Nixon). I own a copy of The ABC Years and Lost Sessions, a CD collection that includes songs from that fine album, as well as its solid follow-up, Black Bach, and as the title suggests, some unreleased tracks. Another compilation that includes most of the same songs is called The Legendary Soul Master. Both are import pressings from the UK.

 

Last year I was also delighted to find a copy of Dozier’s very first solo album, Love and Beauty, which was originally released on the legendary Invictus label. This edition of the album has been reissued in expanded form by Edsel in the UK. It includes the singles “Why Can’t We Be Lovers” (also a hit for Timmy Thomas, and later covered by Sade) and “New Breed Woman,” as well as tracks that Dozier recorded with the Holland brothers, Brian and Eddie. This is a two-CD set and includes a few too many versions of the same songs (single edits, album versions, instrumental, “alternate” versions) for my tastes, but overall the quality of the songs is consistently good. Just what you would expect from someone as talented as Lamont Dozier.  

http://www.lamontdozier.com/index.html

 

After the Holland brothers and Dozier acrimoniously left Motown in 1968, they started their own labels; Invictus and Hot Wax. Even though those new labels didn’t enjoy the same fame of Motown, there was no drop-off in quality, and they even managed to produce a few hits. Among the artists that recorded for those labels, and are also subjects of recent CD reissues by Edsel, are Freda Payne, Chairmen of the Board (whose lead singer, General Johnson, passed away last year), Laura Lee, Honey Cone, 8th Day, and 100 Proof Aged in Soul. With better distribution and less legal headaches (The Holland brothers and Dozier were sued by Berry Gordy soon after they left Motown and were prevented from using their real names in songwriting credits), many of these artists would undoubtedly have been more popular.

 

There is also a fascinating album originally released in 1970 by the early version of George Clinton’s Parliament, called Osmium, that was among those recent Edsel reissues. This album is packed with great songs that should have been monster hits, such as “My Automobile” and “I Call My Baby Pussycat.” It also includes “The Silent Boatman,” a haunting tune that includes bagpipes of all things. The overall sound is a bit more traditionally soulful and less weirdly funky than successive Parliament and Funkadelic recordings, but a definite keeper.

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