Thu. Oct 22nd, 2020

Music, Books and Movie Reviews — New Releases |1978-12-14

The New Temptations: (From L.) Otis Williams, Glenn Leonard, Louis Price, Richard Street and Melvin Franklin.

After numerous personnel changes, The Temptations remain a group in search of new identity. In the past, the replacement of departed members was often accompanied by stylistic innovations that kept the group’s popularity up, but that is no longer the case. Their second outing on Atlantic leaves us with a blurred image of The Temptations. The title song, Bare Back, contains insipid lyrics and is a feeble attempt at being relevant. The lead singer’s voice is strained and the tenor’s pipes are subjected to an overdose of echo.

The Holland Brothers seem to have lost their 1960s magic, except for what they did for Melvin Franklin’s provocatively sensuous bass on You’re So Easy To Love — it is the one tune which makes the album worthwhile. This production definitely opens up new possibilities either for the Temptations as a group or for Melvin Franklin as a solo performer; his is a voice which, given the opportunity to develop its solo-potential could send Teddy Pendergrass out to pasture.

So come on Temptations, don’t waste anymore time trying to recreate the vocal styles of the Eddie Kendricks days — make room for Melvin and you might just recapture your public. The Temptations: Bare Back — Atlantic SD 19188 $7.98

Chaka Khan’s long-awaited debut as a solo artist removes any doubt that the spunky singer of Once You Get Started can make it without the energetic backing of Rufus. The drive and urgency that has become so characteristic of Chaka’s voice is retained on most songs, but the funk has been mellowed considerably, and the overall sound is now more sophisticated. The addition of an 18-piece string section gives the production a warm coating, but never dominates her vocals.

Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson performing on stage
Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson

The opening number, Ashford and Simpson’s I’m Every Woman, is already doing well as a single and in discos, but it is not one of the popular song-writing team’s best efforts. A Woman in a Man’s World has an overly redundant theme, but it is far more melodic; firmly grounded and enhanced by a lyrical bass line, it is the album’s best disco-oriented cut, which is not to imply that this is a commercial disco album — it is not. My favorite track is Roll Me Through the Rushes, a moving, sensitive ballad greatly aided by Cissy Houston’s gospel-flavored backup work. Producer Arif Mardin — who also co-produced Aretha Franklin’s Let Me Into Your Life album — has wrapped Chaka’s vocals into a neat, well-thought-out package of entertainment that most certainly will open new doors for her. Chaka Khan: Chaka Khan — Warner Brothers BSK 3245 $7.98

Stephanie Mills
Stephanie Mills

Most people still think of Stephanie Mills as Dorothy, the little pig-tailed girl who for the past three years has eased on down that yellow brick road in Broadway’s The Wiz, but — though she is still of slight stature — Ms. Mills has matured into a charismatic, high-powered cabaret entertainer. When she recently appeared at the Grand Finale II [she made her cabaret debut there when it was still plain old Grand Finale] she made her entrance emerging from a large box marked S — and, indeed, the box proved to be a surprise package. The theme of her hour-long act was love, and that is precisely what one felt for her as she opened with a rollicking rendition of Stevie Wonder’s As. Her gospel-tinged style brought the audience — which included The Emotions — to its feet in spirited, heartfelt response. Ms. Mills’ repertoire is broad, including — on this occasion, at least — only two selections from The Wiz, Home and Ease On Down the Road, and she performs it all with the ease and conviction of a seasoned stage performer. The right material could make Stephanie Mills a force to be reckoned with in the country’s top night spots.

Beauty And The Beat

New York’s Playboy Club seems to be bringing back black entertainers who have either been overlooked in recent years or are returning from a voluntary hiatus. Lainie’s Room, on the posh club’s third floor, recently presented two singers who, respectively, fit that bill: Joe Williams and Barbara McNair. Ms. McNair, who has been absent from the nightclub scene for several years, delivered an hour-long set of disco and middle-of-the-road numbers, but she was half-way through her set before her show really came alive. It was Last Dance, the Donna Summer hit, that broke the ice; Ms. McNair belted it out in spirited fashion, and I predict that this song, along with Billy Joel’s Love You Just the Way You Are and the Bee Gee’s Stayin’ Alive — also included in Ms. McNair’s repertoire — will become stock-in-trade supper club clinchers. The backup vocals were uneven at times, and the band a bit slack, but Ms. McNair’s radiant beauty and her command of the stage made up for that. A more varied, more original repertoire should give her a good shot at reviving her nightclub career, but Barbara McNair’s talent is not limited to singing, she gave a good performance as Sidney Poitier’s wife in They Call Me Mister Tibbs a few years back, and she recently completed a book entitled The Complete Book of Beauty For the Black Woman.

Singer Joe Williams’ one-week engagement at the Playboy Club was not quite as successful. The former Count Basie blues shouter’s choice of material was oddly anachronistic, and his style now seems dated; his stage presentation was lethargic and mechanical to the point of being awkward, but the voice that brought him stardom is intact, and therein lay the set’s only redemption. Jazz fans will undoubtedly disagree, but I felt that Mr. Williams needs to be repackaged and brought up to date.

Cooking At The Cookery Alabama-born blues singer Big Mama Thornton rarely makes an appearance in New York these days, which made her recent week’s engagement at The Cookery, in Greenwich Village, a special treat. The word was obviously out, for the powerful blues singer performed before a capacity audience every night of her stay; they came to hear the lady who made the original recording of Hound Dog [a tune Elvis Presley covered a year late]) and wrote one of Janis Joplin’s biggest hits, Ball and Chain. They were treated to some of the gutsiest down-home blues this city has heard in a long time. Perched on a stool in the middle of the modestly sized room, Mama Thornton, seemingly oblivious of rattling utensils, sent the sound of her voice and harmonica to the very marrow of the enthusiastic crowd, creating vivid pictures of life in the South that few, if any, of her listeners had ever known. A rare treat indeed, marred only by the fact that her sets were too short.

Off Stage

You Can Go Home Again

While Big Mama Thorton held the fort at The Cookery, the spot’s in-residence singer, 83-year-old Alberta Hunter, was being honored in her hometown, Memphis, Tennessee. Arriving from the airport with a police escort, the veteran blues singer/chanteuse/composer — who starred with Paul Robeson in the 1928 London production of Show Boat and began a prolific recording career in 1921 — was in Memphis for the world premiere of Remember My Name, a new Robert Altman film. The amazingly energetic Ms. Hunter wrote and performed the score for the film [now available on a Columbia album], sharing top honors with its stars, Anthony Perkins and Geraldine Chaplin, ‘‘It was one of the highlights of my life,’’ beamed the octogenarian, who received a key to the city from the Mayor, and one to the state from the Governor on what he had officially proclaimed Alberta Hunter Day. Ms. Hunter turned down an invitation to the White House this summer because it was my day off, but you can find her packing them in at The Cookery every night [except Sundays] as she continues her indefinite engagement.

As The Record Turns

Having performers sing to pre-recorded music, during personal appearances, is common at discos these days, but if you think that is a rip-off you should have witnessed Evelyn Champagne King’s recent appearance at Les Mouches — even her voice was taped. Equally surprising was somebody’s decision to have Loleatta Holloway sing to a tape at the Apollo Theatre — charging six to ten dollars for that is indeed short-changing the public, especially when the equipment is so bad that it breaks down in the middle of a song, that’s exactly what happened.

An imaginative costumed public and a Bengal tiger stole the show from alleged singer Grace Jones at the Roseland Ballroom on Halloween night — the music was taped, her voice was not, but many of those present felt her mouth ought to have been.

CBS threw a party at New York New York, the popular disco, for one of their newest artists, Sherill Lynn — Ms. Lynn was discovered when she appeared on the Gong Show earlier this year; a screening of that segment brought members of the press and their guests to their feet, but a preview of Ms. Lynn’s new album proved disappointing, for CBS has drowned her considerable talent in a sea of disco cliches.

Apropos CBS, Columbia Records is about to release an album by loft jazz alto man Arthur Blythe with fine albums by Dexter Gordon, the Heath Brothers [Jimmy and Percy] and Woody Shaw already on the market — the label seems to be making amends for foisting all that fusion on the jazz public.

While we’re on the subject, Miles Davis, the father of fusion jazz, returned to the recording studio this fall after a very long absence, but after recording fifteen minutes of music the enigmatic Mr. Davis walked out and cancelled all further sessions — Columbia may have to combine those precious minutes with older material to get an album out of it.

While many modern jazz players are turning to fusion funk in quest of the big money, bandleader/ singer Cab Calloway, who will turn 71 this Christmas Eve, has chosen the disco route for a brand new thump-thump-thump version on RCA of his 1931 hit Minnie the Moocher.

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