Thursday, June 29, 2006

No hittin' below the belt..

How do you spell 'Fierce'? Two words. Grace. Jones.

Grace Jones - Below The Belt



Grace performing "Below The Belt" from her 1978 "Fame" LP.. For sure, not your average live lip sync, as those poor guys in the audience soon found out.. If there's anything I must do one of these days, it's to see one of Grace's live shows. Ah, the stories I've heard..

CATEGORIES: VISUAL DISCO

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Disco Delivery #23:
Duncan Sisters (1979, RCA)

Duncan Sisters - Front Cover Duncan Sisters - Back Cover

Duncan Sisters - Boys Will Be Boys | LINK TWO
Duncan Sisters - Sadness In My Eyes | LINK TWO
Duncan Sisters - Outside Love | LINK TWO


I know it's been a little while since my last entry, I apologise for the brief absence.. In any case, In that time I've only gotten busier at work, bought a new iPod (yes, finally jumped on the bandwagon) and am nearly finished reading Peter Shapiro's excellent book "Turn The Beat Around - A Secret History of Disco," which has been an amazing read.. Even if you may not agree with everything he says, it's an extremely interesting and even illuminating read. Hope to write a longer review about it one of these days.

I've been wanting to do an entry on at least one of the great productions of Toronto-based producers Willi Morrison and Ian Guenther (A.K.A. Three Hats Productions/THP) for a little while now. In case some of you don't know, they were the production duo behind the THP Orchestra and their epic disco monster "Two Hot For Love." Some of their other projects included Sticky Fingers, Grand Tour, Skatt Bros. (an unfortunate name if there ever was one) to name just a few. One of those projects included this album for the Duncan Sisters, Phyllis and Helen whom they had been using as regular session singers on some of their major projects from that time. In the mid '70s, prior to their disco efforts, the Duncans had done backup vocals for the likes of Al Green and Ann Peebles on the Memphis Hi label. In 1978 they would begin appearing as the primary lead vocalists on Morrison and Guenther's third (second in the US) THP album "Tender Is The Night (1978, Butterfly) and later on their Sticky Fingers (1978, Prelude) project.

It seems by 1979 Guenther/Morrison were starting to branch out from their signature sound somewhat. They would take a rock-oriented direction on the Skatt Bros' "Strange Spirits" (1979, Casablanca) album and a more radio-friendly pop sound for the final THP album "Good To Me" (1979, Atlantic). The Duncan Sisters album, not surprisingly, falls on the more pop-oriented side of things. Originally released in the US on Casablanca's Earmarc imprint (but on RCA in Canada), the single off the album, "Boys Will Be Boys" had some of the same characteristics as their hit "Two Hot For Love". A very similar percussion/hi-hat intro, similarly lush light synths, except this time quickly merging itself into a full, layered Spector-esque power-pop/disco combo. Again, with those characteristic THP horns spread all over the place, gunslinger guitar and spirited, catchy vocals and lyrics, it has all the elements in place. There's a definite classic pop aesthetic in the song. With the way the sisters sing a lyric like "the traces of the tears I cried are on my face," they do what some of the best pop songs do. In other words translate heartbreak into something irresistably sweet, catchy and infectious..

With a title like that, probably not a surprise that "Boys Will Be Boys" was a hit in quite a few gay clubs. Interestingly, Ronnie Spector herself would cover this song on her Genya Ravan-produced "Siren" LP from 1980.

"Sadness In My Eyes" takes things a little bit more seriously. A song that, instead of brushing it aside like the previous, seems to revel in it's drama-queen sensibility. It's a song with a melody that is so simple, effective and original that it's hard to believe it's not a cover. Written (music and lyrics) by Willi Morrison, the lyrics are interesting, given 1979 as the last years of disco as most knew it. The line, "it's sad I know, when the good times have to go.." seem eerily prophetic for it's time. The end of a love-affair paralleling the end of disco perhaps? Maybe there was a lingering sense of what would happen at the time. I'm not sure, but like what Peter Shapiro touched on in his book, some of the best disco came from those that were able to take the bitter with the sweet. Those, like Rodgers & Edwards of Chic who didn't just leave disco as a pleasure free-for-all, but who acknowledged the sense of melancholy, bitterness and cynicism that was just as much a part of disco as the escapist, hedonistic party that was most visible. Then again, maybe I've just been into Shapiro's book a bit too much, but I digress..

"Outside Love" (also a single, apparently) is somewhat more conventional disco than the last two. Back to big diva vocals, powerful, sweeping buildups and layered instrumental breaks. One of my favourite parts ot this song is at the end of the chorus when the one of the ladies sings "I'd be better loving on the outside." Powerful vocals and drums punctuating every syllable.

Some of the other songs on the album include at least one other enjoyable disco track, "Love Is On The Way" as well as some good to awful attempts at balladry, namely "Rock Along Slowly," which is hopelessly pedestrian, to "You Give Me Such A Feeling" which is a great album closer.

The Duncan Sisters would release one more album in 1981 (which I haven't heard yet) called "Gonna Stay In Love" (pic stolen from eBay). This time around they were calling themselves just The Duncans and had switched to the blues & soul indie label Malaco. One of the singles off that album, "Too Damn Hot" was released as a 12". The title track and another song, "Your Love Still Brings Me To My Knees" (these titles certainly sound promising..) were also released as singles.. Since then the Duncans have occasionally surfaced as backup vocalists for the likes of U2 and B.B. King to name a couple. The most recent news about them was of a performance together, once again as the Duncan Sisters, at the 1999 Poretta Soul Festival in Italy. According to the brief bio on the Soul Festival's website, at that time Helen was a soloist in the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir and Phyllis was working with the Jim Johnson Orchestra of Memphis.

This is just the first of several THP Productions that I would like to put up. It's really too bad that very little of their output has been featured on CD as of yet. They were one of the best representations of what some have called a "Canadian disco sound" - a unique hybrid of both American and European styles. There have been some reviewers who type them as "Eurodisco," and there was certainly that element, but there was also a definite (North) American continental sound it. In other words, it definitely didn't sound like anything from either Munich or even New York. Given the penchant for some Canadian productions to be somewhat on the cheap side once in a while (after all, it was, relatively speaking, the early days of Can-Con), there was never anything cheap sounding about a THP production. Even just for that, they deserve their props.

Also something to note, Richard Bernstein, the graphic artist who did those iconic covers for Grace Jones' three disco albums and Loleatta Holloway's 1979 "Loleatta" album was also behind the photo-drawings on the cover..

LINKS:
DUNCAN SISTERS - S/T LP @ DISCOMUSIC.COM
DUNCAN SISTERS - BOYS WILL BE BOYS 12'' @ DISCOMUSIC.COM
DUNCAN SISTERS @ THE PORETTA SOUL FESTIVAL
DUNCAN SISTERS @ SOULFUL DETROIT FORUM
DUNCAN SISTERS @ DISCOMUSEUM.COM
DUNCAN SISTERS @ DISCOGS
PHYLLIS DUNCAN CREDITS @ ALL MUSIC GUIDE
HELEN DUNCAN CREDITS @ ALL MUSIC GUIDE
THE DUNCANS - GONNA STAY IN LOVE LP (REVIEW) @ ALL MUSIC GUIDE

PURCHASE:
VA - WE LOVE DISCO @ AMAZON.CO.UK (INCL. "SADNESS IN MY EYES")


CATEGORIES: DISCO DELIVERIES, CAN-CON DISCO

Monday, June 05, 2006

Disco Delivery #22:
Spinners - Dancin' & Lovin' (1979, Atlantic)

Dancin' & Lovin' (front cover) Dancin' & Lovin'' (back cover)

Spinners - Body Language | LINK TWO
Spinners - Let's Boogie, Let's Dance | LINK TWO
Spinners - One, One, Two, Two, Boogie Woogie Avenue (Home of the Boogie, House of the Funk) | LINK TWO
Spinners - With My Eyes | LINK TWO
Spinners - Medley: Working My Way Back To You/Forgive Me, Girl | LINK TWO


A great disco album from The Spinners (AKA The Detroit Spinners in the UK), one of the soul groups of the 1970's.. It's been said (I think it was by Smokey Robinson in his autobiography, but don't quote me on that) that Motown artists who leave the label are often hard-pressed to top any success they had at Motown. That was probably true for some groups, but for others like The Spinners, Gladys Knight & The Pips and The Isley Brothers, who all often felt neglected by Motown, the opposite was actually true. The Spinners in particular wouldn't hit paydirt until they left for the Atlantic label in the early '70s and were paired with one of the masters of Philly soul, Thom Bell. However, by the late '70s, they were on their third lead singer (John Edwards) and in something of a commercial slump. Apparently this was the second album the group released in 1979, the first being "From Here To Eternally," their final album with Thom Bell. "From Here To Eternally" would be one of their lowest charting albums up until that time, which seemed to prompt a new association for their next album with producer Michael Zager. With "Dancin' & Lovin' ," they would manage to reverse the slump (at least for a little while) starting with the big hit single from the album, "Working My Way Back To You/Forgive Me Girl." Essentially a medley consisting of a cover of the 1966 Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons hit with an original tune ("Forgive Me Girl"), it's an exceptional piece of soulful disco. It was also a bona-fide cross over hit topping the US Pop, R&B, Adult Contemporary and Disco charts.

In all honesty, before I came across this album, I had only heard of the Spinners but wasn't really familiar with their work (in a way I'm still not really familiar with their full body of work yet). I first came across the LP about a year ago in the new arrivals of a used record shop and picked it up purely out of curiosity. I wasn't really expecting the album to really impress me as much as it did. For me, there really isn't a bad track on this album, which really made it a bit hard to choose which tracks to put up. Despite not being familiar with The Spinners' work, I was however familiar with producer Michael Zager's work, mostly with Cissy Houston, and so far nothing he had done had disappointed. So far, the tracks he did off this album are undoubtedly some of the best I have ever heard from him. Some of his best production values are especially evident on the LP, particularly those big buildups; full, meaty rhythm sections, combined with a real smooth, yet soulful edge on top of it all.

"Body Language," apparently also released as a 12" in the UK, is one of those smooth, soulful disco tracks off the album. Opening with some great guitar lines into a strong, yet silky smooth lead vocal, great background harmonies and a soft, elegant string section. They even incorporate a little bit of the lyrics from the Michael Zager Band's "Let's All Chant" in the song: "..my body, your body, everybody move your body.. let's all chant.."

"Let's Boogie, Let's Dance" continues in a similar vein. Starting out with a slow intro, gradually building into a sunny, melodic disco groove. It's the type of inoffensive, joyful disco song you'd expect your grandparents to be able to get down to at a wedding party while the younger ones sit it out, secretly humming along in their heads. Irresistably shiny and catchy, one of those songs that just effortlessly radiates happiness and joy and good vibes, because really, you just can't go wrong with that..

"One, One, Two, Two.." finds them in a slightly funkier direction. The only song on the album not produced by Michael Zager, this one was produced by sometime Detroit singer Will Hatcher co-produced with The Spinners themselves. This one chugs along with a great blend of the Spinners' smooth yet assertive vocals and some really funky guitar work, complete with a mean break two-thirds of the way through, showing off some of that great percussion and guitar work..

"With My Eyes" is another Zager-produced track, and probably one of the most dramatic on the album. Love those strings and those great, soulful vocals, neither of which are overwhelming, both have just the right amount of passion and restraint. Those lyrics are probably also the finest on the album. A beautifully poetic take on the old "love at first sight" theme.

Can't possibly do a post on this album and omit the biggest success from it. Although it's probably pretty well known by now, it's still a great tune. The guys manage to breathe some new life into "Working My Way Back To You" and manage to combine it seamlessly with their original song "Forgive Me Girl" that, dare I say it, overshadows the first part of the medley with it's sheer soulful drama. There were many artists who seemed to see Soul and Disco as somehow incompatible, but particularly on this song, the Spinners manage to flawlessly combine the best of both. One of those groups who successfully blended their genuinely soulful style with the disco sound and had a bona fide across-the-board chart hit to show for it.

The Spinners would record another two albums with Michael Zager in the producer's chair, and would manage to make lightning strike twice in 1980 with another medley "Cupid/I've Loved You For A Long Time" off their "Love Trippin'" (1980, Atlantic) album (of which some editions included edited versions of "Body Language" and "Working My Way Back To You/Forgive Me, Girl"). They'd follow that album up with "Labor Of Love" (1981, Atlantic), the last album with Zager, which would see their momentum slip considerably. After starting off the decade with a bang and something of a resurgence, sadly, it was not to continue. None of their remaining albums for Atlantic would reverse their commercial fortunes, nor would a 1989 album for the resurgent Volt label. Nevertheless, the Spinners are apparently still performing today and have a solid legacy as one of the great male vocal groups of the 1970s.

Although they may have overused the words "boogie" and "woogie" a little much, the album still stands as an excellent example of a soul group successfully (both commerically and creatively) combining both elements and sounding entirely genuine and convincing the whole time. Given the fact that one-off disco efforts were a dime-a-dozen at the time, their success in the disco arena was perhaps no small feat. Interestingly, "Dancin' & Lovin" was also one of the first Spinners albums to be given a CD reissue. Rhino Records released a no-frills budget reissue of the album in 1992, with probably one of the cheapest covers (painfully generic artwork with a bad scan of a worn out copy of the LP on the front) I've ever seen. It recently went out of print, yet it's still easy to find with cheap used, or new cut-out copies to be found almost everywhere..

**New Links: Some great new disco on the blogosphere. First Choice is a brand spanking new blog dedicated to Disco, Italo, Garage and Electro. They've only been around for some two posts and they've already got some great West End Records classics as well as a couple of early '80s italo and electro selections. Needless to say, I'll definitely be coming back for more.. Also DJ Robert Drake's Reflections of a Rock Lobster is a wonderful blog of memories from his life. From memories of New York and Philly nightlife (nights at the Paradise Garage, The Saint, The Anvil etc..) to more personal reflections, it's one of my new favourite personal blogs.. Check 'em both out sometime!

PREVIOUS RELATED ENTRIES:
DISCO DELIVERY #8: CISSY HOUSTON - THINK IT OVER (1978, PRIVATE STOCK) (FEBRUARY 24, 2006)

LINKS:
THE SPINNERS - DANCIN' & LOVIN' LP @ DISCOMUSIC.COM
THE SPINNERS - DANCIN' & LOVIN CD @ ALL MUSIC GUIDE
THE SPINNERS ALBUM REVIEWS @ ROBERTCHRISTGAU.COM
THE SPINNERS @ DISCOMUSEUM.COM
THE SPINNERS @ ALL MUSIC GUIDE
THE SPINNERS @ WIKIPEDIA
THE SPINNERS @ DISCOGS
INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL ZAGER @ DISCO-DISCO.COM

PURCHASE:
SPINNERS - DANCIN' & LOVIN' CD @ AMAZON.COM
SPINNERS - DANCIN & LOVIN CD LISTINGS @ FROOGLE


CATEGORIES: DISCO DELIVERIES, PAST REISSUES

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