Friday, June 20, 2008

Disco Delivery #55:
Cissy Houston - Step Aside For A Lady (1980, Columbia)



Cissy Houston - You're The Fire
Cissy Houston - It Doesn't Only Happen At Night
Cissy Houston - Step Aside For A Lady
Cissy Houston - What I Miss
Cissy Houston - Gonna Take The Easy Way Out
Cissy Houston - Break It To Me Gently


File links updated 10/26/08

Although I've opined about Cissy Houston here before, to me, hers is one of those voices which beautifully and superbly united the worlds of disco and soul. A voice with depth, passion and power, never sliding into needless histrionics, there was also a gentleness and a genuiness there underscoring the power of her voice.. Although her own contributions have been overshadowed by the fame of her daughter, her vocals have left their mark on many a classic, having racked up a number of credits as a backup vocalist, particularly with many disco producers and disco albums of the time..

Looking past the absolutely garish, hideous cover art (which looks more like a really badly executed Christmas ad), musically, on this, her second disco record (released on Columbia in the US, EMI in the UK) and third with noted producer Michael Zager; Houston, Zager and Company pretty much pick up here where "Think It Over" (1978, Private Stock) left off. Although they seem to fine-tune and streamline their approach somewhat into a more consistent groove, especially with the disco tracks, they nevertheless stay largely within the same formula. While she doesn't attack anything with quite the same soulful vigour and drama as "Think It Over," the disco songs on the album are all especially and equally solid, building on the good points of the previous album, making what amounts to a record that's just as strong, if not even better.

Notably, the album's first side begins and ends with ballads. An interesting move, given that much of the album was loaded with disco tracks. Perhaps it was a sign of the times; an attempt, with disco's waning currency, to de-emphasize the 'disco' and give a different first impression. Certainly not the first time I've seen such a thing done.. Whether or not that was the case, somehow I suspect if the album had been released a year earlier, it would have most likely been the reverse. Whatever the circumstances though, the opening track nevertheless makes for a positive impression. A version of "Break It To Me Gently" (no relation to the Brenda Lee song, though not sure if Cissy's is the original of this one or not), later covered by Angela Bofill, it's placement at the start of the album probably takes away from some of it's effect, yet the performance itself is flawless. While the ballad-weary might find her dramatic, edge-of-tears reading to be a tad cloying; from her gentle reticence, to those desperate climaxes, Houston makes truly makes most of the moment. It seems reminiscent in some way of the approach that she took on much of her sublimely soulful 1977 self-titled record, where this song wouldn't have been out of place..

After the brief ballad intro, the album goes into disco mode with "You're The Fire," which would have perhaps been a more representative opening track. With prominent horns and bass, string embellishments; dramatic, towering vocals, even a plonky synth break, it's a trademark Michael Zager track of the time. As much as that works in it's favour, with it's endless lyrical with references to 'fire,''flames' and 'burning,' it's perhaps the most formulaic of the disco tracks on the album, with parts of the song sounding oddly similar to The Spinners' "Disco Ride" (listen to the bass and synth parts), yet another Zager production.

The following track however, "It Doesn't Only Happen At Night," one of the singles and perhaps the best remembered song off the album, would undoubtedly have to be one of the record's highlights. It's a slickly produced song, a piece of towering, infernal disco with an infectious opening bassline, swanky guitars, ornate keys, dramatic stabs of horns, strings and drums. All of it complimented with a vocal that powers through it all, unlocking the passion and release of the song's lyrics. The end of the chorus is really the killer here, with it's climax of pounding drums and blaring horns, one of those things that immediately brings to mind the the high points of her previous disco hits. Along with "You're The Fire," this song would end up peaking at a modest #24 in the Billboard Club Play charts in April 1980. The following year, Geraldine Hunt would also do a version of this song, which I haven't yet heard for myself, but which seems to be fondly remembered as well..

After ending Side One with "Just One Man," the only another ballad, the album really finds it's groove with the three disco tracks on Side Two. Opening with the title track, "Step Aside For A Lady," sporting a hooky bassline and sly guitar, it's a hot little stepper which seems as good an excuse as any for Cissy to inject a bit of bold diva attitude into the procedings. A perfect 'entrance' track, one would wonder how many drag queens would have dug this one back in the day.. Best part for me are those climactic horn stabs, a Zager trademark, at the beginning of the chorus and of course, the great break half-way through, with the bassline right up in the mix..

"What I Miss," the middle track on Side Two takes the tempo down a little bit from the other tracks, a nice respite from the other big, elaborate, string-laden disco productions that seemed to be her and Zager's calling card at the time. Cissy, who doesn't hold back with her vocals, even on this track, provides both the perfect accompaniment and balance to the groove, riding with it, yet infusing the track with enough personality and excitement to keep things from getting too plodding. With it's funkier, more laid-back bass-driven groove, this one's probably one of my personal favourites on the album..

From there, the album ends things on yet another high point with "Gonna Take The Easy Way Out," one of Zager's trademark full, rich productions - signature horn riffs and elegant strings underscored by a classy, almost Chic-esque guitar, this has to be one of her most underrated disco tracks. In fact hearing this track was what eventually convinced me to track this LP down, easily the highest point of disco drama on the album, it also has to be one of her finest vocal performances on the record, with the track's gentle buildup giving her the perfect opportunity for both vocal subtlety in the beginning and intensity, especially with those ad-libs.. Also of note on the vocals are great call-and-response interplay with the backgrounds on here, where a pre-fame Luther Vandross and his ultra smooth vocals really shine through (also notable: the wonderful, prolific Jocelyn Brown is yet another backup vocalist on the album). ".. Easy Way Out" was released on a 12", but judging from the timings listed, it seems the 12" version was pretty much identical to the LP version in this case.

Although this album, with it's unfortunate artwork and slightly awkward sequencing, is hardly flawless, the songs and the performances themselves are uniformly strong and exciting, the good points far outweigh the negative.. Even if the sound on here was a progression from her previous album; for the most part, it's still pretty much in keeping with Zager's production style at the time for acts like The Spinners, Ronnie Dyson etc... Perhaps it's both a good and a bad thing - on the one hand, the production values are excellent. However, on the other hand, by the time this album was released in 1980, Zager's richly produced, slick disco sound (not to mention disco in general) was likely considered so dated/passé by then, with all the things that had happened in the music industry, it probably wouldn't have stood much of a chance anyway. Although considering how, at the turn of the 80's, how many once vital disco acts seemed to rush out sub-par releases, either out of contractual obligation, or in an attempt to keep up with trends (or both), with this album being as strong as it is, perhaps this was still a triumph in it's own small way. Call it a victim of it's time, I guess..

PREVIOUS RELATED ENTRIES:
DISCO DELIVERY #22: SPINNERS - DANCIN' & LOVIN' (1979, ATLANTIC) (MONDAY JUNE 5, 2006)
DISCO DELIVERY #8: CISSY HOUSTON - THINK IT OVER (1978, PRIVATE STOCK) (FRIDAY FEBRUARY 24, 2006)

LINKS:
CISSY HOUSTON - STEP ASIDE FOR A LADY LP @ DISCOMUSIC.COM
CISSY HOUSTON - STEP ASIDE FOR A LADY LP @ RATEYOURMUSIC.COM
CISSY HOUSTON - GONNA TAKE THE EASY WAY OUT 12'' @ DISCOGS
CISSY HOUSTON SINGLES DISCOGRAPHY @ SOULFUL KINDA MUSIC
CISSY HOUSTON @ ALL MUSIC GUIDE
CISSY HOUSTON @ DISCO MUSEUM
CISSY HOUSTON @ WIKIPEDIA
MYCENTRALJERSEY.COM - CISSY HOUSTON LOOKS BACK ON A LIFE OF PRAISE AND SONG (BY CRISTIAN A. FARIAS) (JUNE 12, 2008)

MICHAEL ZAGER INTERVIEW @ DISCO-DISCO
MICHAEL ZAGER @ DISCOGS
MICHAEL ZAGER @ WIKIPEDIA

CATEGORIES: DISCO DELIVERIES

10 comments:

M.E. Grant said...

Michael Zager, eh? If it's anything like "Do It With Feeling," this will be an album for me.

Kevin said...

Thank you for this wonderful album, "Gonna Take The Easy Way Out" is my favorite.

Kevin

Eddy said...

I agree with Kevin. 'Gonna Take The Easy Way Out' is my favourite as well. Very nice uplifting disco track.

Tommy said...

Hey M.E. Grant - Not exactly like "Do It With Feeling." The sound here isn't quite as raw as that track was. Love it too though!

Hey Kevin and Eddy, glad you both like that track as well.. Hearing it was the pretty much the reason why I ended up buying this LP. That and the title track are probably my big faves at the moment! :)

Kristofer D. said...

Hey Tommy

It's amazing how different Cissy's version of IT DOESN'T ONLY HAPPEN AT NIGHT sound as opposed to Geraldine Hunt's version.

Someone once mentioned that Gino Soccio's productions and Nancy Martin's CAN'T BELIEVE were considered "economical Canadian funk" ; I like that tag !!! The Can-Con version is bare & raw...with a killer bass.

Cissy's long been a favorite of mine ever since I first heard THINK IT OVER.

As always you did a nice job roping us in and keeping us interested !

jerome green said...

Hi Tommy,

Thank you for posting. I always think I know enough about an artist, then you pull out an album that doesn't show up on Discogs. That's just what I am always waiting for. Great stuff from the 'Chant' Man himself. Thanks for all the info.

Peace, Jerome

Tommy said...

Thanks for the kind comments Kris and Jerome.. Glad you enjoyed it!

Kris - Thanks also for that description of Geraldine Hunt's version. I really need to hear it now. I like that description, "Economical Canadian Funk," too. I quite like the stripped down, efficient sort of sound that a lot of those Montreal productions had.

Jerome - No problem! I recently submitted a little profile of it to discomusic.com (see links). I might try submitting it to discogs myself, something which I haven't tried in a very long time. We'll just have to see how long it'll take for them to approve it..

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this wonderful album!!!

discolady said...

my favourite is "you're the fire" i play in my party in Paris (France) Discoqueer

Anonymous said...

I discovered Whitney through being a great fan of Cissy. Followed Cissy through the NYC clubs when Whit was backup. Only about 15 at the time. Her mama taught her well. Shocking news tonight that Whitney has died. RIP great one and prayers to your mom and daughter. JTS

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