Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Look for an ascot, a big cigar..



Eartha Kitt - Where Is My Man (1983, Able)
Eartha Kitt - Where Is My Man (Instrumental) (1983, Able)

A little something before I get on with the final part of the Grace Jones post..

As anyone whose payed attention to the news lately must know, the legendary Eartha Kitt passed away this Christmas, at the age of 81. I just borrowed her 1989 autobiography "I'm Still Here" at the Public Library. So far, I'm still only at the beginning, but what a life she packed into those 81 years. Barring any requisite showbiz mythmaking, I don't doubt the obstacles and the desperate circumstances she had to claw out of to get to where she was. While all the tributes were pouring in all over the news, I couldn't help but pull out some of my records and take a listen to her mid-80's disco hits..

I had been introduced to them around three years ago, before YouTube really took off, after downloading a video of her performing "Where Is My Man." After that, I just had to have a copy for myself.. Prior to that, I had seen copies of the singles and her album "I Love Men" (1984, Able) in used shops many times before. It undoubtedly piqued my curiosity, but until that time though, I don't think I ever really had the nerve to pick any of them up..

Equal parts campy and catchy, "Where Is My Man," was the single which helmed her musical comeback at the time. Produced by Jacques Morali, top purveyor of disco camp and quality (see The Village People, The Ritchie Family, Phylicia Allen, Dennis Parker etc.) and credited to Morali, comedy writer Bruce Vilanch, and musician Fred Zarr, this seemed like a second moment for both Eartha and Jacques after their respective dry spells..

As an aside, although there isn't much mention of him, one of the song's co-writers, Fred Zarr, appears to have been one of Jacques Morali's main collaborators around this time, having been credit on almost everything he released around this time.. Given his credits and his apparent synth wizardry, I'd venture to guess that he was a large part of Morali's energized sound in the early/mid 80's. In a little bit of disco trivia, aside from his high profile gigs for Madonna, Whitney Houston, Debbie Gibson etc.. Zarr was also involved as a co-producer in a lot of the somewhat shady Began Cekic records of the early 1980's.

Back to the record though - a song that brings images of the Dallas/Dynasty 1980's and old Hollywood types (Zsa Zsa Gabor and her "love or money - why not both?" philosphy comes to mind), the meeting of Eartha, Vilanch and Morali couldn't have been a better recipe for instant camp. The combination of Vilanch's hilarious lyrics, the production combining old school disco finesse (those string highlights) with those catchy guitar hooks and of course Eartha's performance put it right over the top.. Complete with signature feline growl right at the beginning, she camps it up spectacularly, with a little wink or two, simultaneously paying tribute and poking fun at her image. I suppose they didn't call her the "original material girl" for nothing..

A big leopard printed 80's fantasy dripping with Diamonds and Champagne, the video is a classic, too.



Eartha Kitt - Where Is My Man (Official Video)
Uploaded by earthakitt


My favourite line in the song (not in the video, sadly), has to be in a little section toward the end. Her drawn out phrasing and the little dose of innuendo is classic: "I want.. a billionaire.. with a big, big.... big.. BIG......yacht!.. Who can take me to....Monte Carlo... Saint Tropez... and eventually..... Tiffany!"

Bruce Vilanch himself wrote a great little article in The Huffington Post about his meeting with Eartha and how "Where Is My Man" (and those lyrics, no less) came about:

"In another pocket of his existence, Jacques annually created a score for the Crazy Horse show in Paris. Spectacular showgirls lip-synched the English lyrics as well as spectacular showgirls could to an audience of non-English speakers who had about as much interest in the lyrics as Lorenz Hart might have had in the showgirls. Armed with this knowledge, Jacques asked me to write a lyric to one of his disco tunes. And he had another reason. 'The girrrrl will be lap-sinking to Eartha Kitt. And zo the lyrics need to be special.' Will she be doing an Eartha Kitt impression? 'Don't be bizarre. It is not a drag show. Eartha is sitting on a hill in Connecticut, not working. She will record this one thing.' The song was called 'Where is My Man?' It's about Eartha and her endless search for a soul-mate who never met Bernard Madoff.

I sent the lyrics to Eartha. A day later, she called. 'Brrrrruce, my love. Where have you been since 1952? This is so, so Eartha. But listen, I've never done this disco music before, so you must make a recording of this just the way you want me to phrase it so we get the maximum Eartha out of it.' If I didn't know that Ashton Kutcher had not yet been born, I would assume I was punked. Moi, teach Eartha Kitt how to phrase? Naturally, I fired off the cassette, which prompted another call from Eartha, threatening to sue me into the next world if I ever dressed up like Jim Bailey and did her act. She then went to New York and recorded the song with Jacques. During the session, they called. There was a long dance break on the record and Jacques felt she should cover it with something, something Eartha-esque. I dragged out my best trans-continental Eartha and purred, 'I want a man...with a big...big...big...big.....big....yacht.' Notice I resisted dinghy. And please enter it into the record. They loved the song at the Crazy Horse, Jacques and his business partner Henri Belolo released the song as a single, it became a gigantic dance record all over the world, I got to tip several people lavishly, and suddenly Eartha was Back.
"

Although it was largely a club hit in the US, it seems like it had hit the pop charts in parts of Europe (Number 5 in Sweden, apparently), judging from the TV appearances she made and from what others have said. Strangely, the single version of the song wasn't included (at least not on my pressing, or any of the ones I've found) of her "I Love Men" album from the following year. It was replaced, instead by a 10 minute Megamix version, which judging from the track timings, makes me wonder if it bears any relation to the Hot Tracks East-West Remix.

I skimmed through Eartha's autobiography for a little something more on this period in her career, and the few morsels that I did find were not exactly positive. As of the publishing of her book, she claimed, in an all too common music industry grievance, that she never got paid properly for the records she made under the auspices of Morali & Belolo:

"...At the end of Timbuktu I found myself scrounging again. An offer here, an offer there - Australia, England, or a few places in America. And no recording contract could be obtained anywhere.

Jacques Morali came along and offered me a contract to make a disco record. He and Bruce Vilanch wrote "Where Is My Man" which became a gold record in Sweden. (I did not know this until I walked into the office of Scorpio Records in Paris where I saw it hanging on the wall of Henri Belolo's office.) The album, I am told, especially 'Where Is My Man?' was a huge success, but no royalties were paid to me in the four years we worked together. I didn't enjoy making the record, but at least I was in the charts again, riding back into popularity, which I am extremely grateful for..
" (pgs 345-6)

I suppose, for her, it was a career opportunity she couldn't really refuse at the time.. Whatever her misgivings, "Where Is My Man" and the singles and album that followed have gone down as dance classics, especially within the gay community. For many, "Where Is My Man" will comfortably sit alongside the likes of "Santa Baby" or " C'est Si Bon" as emblematic of her style and appeal as anything else she'd ever done..

To end things off, I had to include this video - the same one that I had downloaded three years ago. Eartha performing "Where Is My Man" on the German program Musikladen, teasing the poor fellow in the front.. Notice how she forgets to 'sing' into her microphone at 1.55 and 1.58



Eartha Kitt - Where Is My Man (Musikladen)
Uploaded by fritz51333


PREVIOUS RELATED ENTRIES:
DISCO DELIVERY #11: PHYLICIA ALLEN - JOSEPHINE SUPERSTAR (1978, CASABLANCA) (FRIDAY MARCH 17, 2006)
THE FUGITIVE COP (WEDNESDAY MARCH 8, 2006)

LINKS:
EARTHA KITT FAN CLUB
EARTHA KITT @ DISCOGS
EARTHA KITT - WHERE IS MY MAN 12'' @ DISCOGS
EARTHA KITT - WHERE IS MY MAN @ WIKIPEDIA
QUEERTY - EARTHA KITT: HERE'S TO A LIFE (BY JAPHY GRANT) (MONDAY DECEMBER 29. 2008)
THE HUFFINGTON POST - EARTHA KITT: MY ENCOUNTER WITH A LEGEND (BY BRUCE VILANCH) (FRIDAY DECEMBER 26, 2008)
GUARDIAN - OBITUARY: EARTHA KITT (BY ADRIAN JACK) (FRIDAY DECEMBER 26, 2008)
BBC NEWS - OBITUARY: EARTHA KITT (THURSDAY DECEMBER 25, 2008)
PHILADELPHIA CITYPAPER - 20 QUESTIONS: EARTHA KITT (BY A.D. AMOROSI) (FEBRUARY 27-MARCH 6, 1997)

CATEGORIES: MINI DELIVERIES, IN MEMORIAM.., VISUAL DISCO, DISCO NEWS

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Strange Weather - The Tumultuous Re-Emergence of Grace Jones (Part One)


Of all the things Grace Jones is infamous for, her penchant for lateness is about as notorious as her temper. As anyone who has followed Grace for any significant length of time might know it’s not unknown for the lady to be, as I've been told, hours late for her own shows yet still manage to win over the crowd by the end of it. It’s perhaps the sort of thing which led her former collaborator and paramour, Jean-Paul Goude to remark:

Grace likes to party. In the end I lost her to it. She won’t work. She’ll show up whenever she feels like it. She has an entourage that encourages it…. Ironically, the fact that she’s fucked up her career only proves how genuine she really is.

Goude’s remarks may partly explain why it has taken nearly 20 years for her to show up with her latest album, “Hurricane” (2008, Wall Of Sound). With all the false starts and delays that have surrounded the release of a new Grace Jones album these past 19 years, this is practically Grace’s own “Chinese Democracy,” except of course, Grace’s hype is much less overwhelming, and the reception much more positive and rightfully so. “Hurricane” may not replace “Nightclubbing” (1981, Island) at the top of critics’ lists, but it will probably go down as one of the finest albums of her career. For a woman who, depending on whichever birth date (1948 or 1952) you believe, is at or nearing 60, pulling off a sound like the one she has on this album, at her age and after such a lengthy absence, seems rightly triumphant. For a survivor of the disco era, it’s certainly not the first time she’s had to pull this off. A model-turned-recording artist (not always a guaranteed career move, just ask Naomi) with an undeniable presence and personality, she also had the unconventional (some have even said limited) voice to match, which seemed to be both an advantage and a challenge. For her then producer Tom Moulton who was initially reluctant to take the job and who had once remarked that her voice reminded him of Bela Lugosi, it was perhaps more of the latter.. Yet, as much of a disco icon as she was, after 1979 whatever disco cachet she carried would have likely meant next to nothing; contemporaries like Sylvester, Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor had it hard enough, and even then, never quite eclipsed their disco success. If it weren’t for the vision of Island founder Chris Blackwell and his idea of pairing Grace with the team of Sly & Robbie, Alex Sadkin and The Compass Point All-Stars, Grace Jones the singer seemed destined to become yet another casualty of the times. The release of “Warm Leatherette” (1980, Island), however, proved to be the turning point. With it and the three albums that followed, the true potential of her distinctive voice, personality and presence were harnessed and showcased like never before. Emerging more artistically distinctive and relevant than ever, it was possibly the most successful reinvention of a disco act ever executed.

On a more personal note, and at the risk of sounding a tad fan-boyish, I’d have to say that discovering Grace Jones in my mid teens is probably one of those things that saved my life. Looking at her and listening to her felt like a portal to another place, another realm of possibility - into an urbane world of fashion, music, art and individuality that couldn’t have been further removed from the insipid oil money of the Calgary suburbs, the juvenile teenage punk of my peers, or the vulnerability of those early teenage years. While others may have found her cold, unrestrained gender ambiguity intimidating and threatening, to me there was something about her that felt incredibly, even radically liberating and inspiring at the time. I suppose the seemingly innate predilection of gay men toward iconic female diva figures (be them triumphant, tragic or both) likely goes a long way in explaining why myself and legions of gay men before me were drawn to her.. Cornering Grace's appeal among gay audiences and her symbolic stature in disco culture, the late Mel Cheren nailed it down pretty well in his autobiography (pgs 282-3):

"If there is anyone who, for me, epitomized the untamable, anything-goes atmosphere of those last disco days before AIDS, it was Grace Jones.... Although not a really a singer, at least not at first, she somehow convinced people to take a chance. Her first single, 'That's The Trouble,' quickly climbed the charts in the U.S. and became a smash. And Grace just as quickly became an icon for gay men... One time, early in her career, he [Tom Moulton] asked her about her direction, 'I want to be a star, darling,' she growled, which was honest enough. But she wanted stardom on her own terms, in a way that constantly raised eyebrows. People were shocked when she physically attacked London TV host Russell Harty on the air... They were shocked again when she posed nude in Hustler, entangled with another woman over the banner 'I have a lot of man in me.' They were shocked when she was simply being Grace... I adored her, but then, so did most gay men. It's hard to put your finger on exactly why. Perhaps because she, like we, defied convention at every turn. Perhaps because she rose above her roots. Because she turned the tables on society, using it's own techniques and methods to transform herself into a star. Whatever the reason, when someone asks me what or who best epitomizes those wild, wacky, sexy, wonderful days, I usually think of those animal eyes, that growl and say, if you want to know what it was like, look at Grace.

If I recall correctly, my first exposure to Grace Jones came through a little review in XY Magazine (a gay teen magazine which I used to devour in those days) for the then recently released "Private Life: Compass Point Sessions" (1998, Island/PolyGram) 2 CD set. It was enough to get me to borrow a copy from the public library. Listening to the post-disco groove fused with cold renderings of Reggae and New Wave and just the overall clash of madness and elegance, it was nothing like I’d ever heard before - not even the Reggae I used to hear Saturday afternoons on the local University radio station, which came close but still didn't quite cut it. Getting past my initial perplexion after a few listens, I was hooked. It was one of those things that rarely left my CD player in those days and still remains a frequent player for me today. A year after I'd bought it, those discs were pretty well scratched up and worn out..

If my appreciation wasn’t solidified by then, it was irreversibly so by the time I saw her One Man Show on video. I remember special ordering the VHS from the downtown HMV here in Calgary and really making an event of the day it finally came in. Skipping class one Friday afternoon in November '99 just to go pick it up, upon taking it home and playing it, I was transfixed. While her visual impact was certainly not lost on me before, One Man Show seemed to immortalize it on another level altogether. Seeing her perform “Warm Leatherette,” impeccably staged, contemptibly spitting out the song's lyrics, looking for all the world like the coldest, most ferocious, Amazonian bitch to ever live pretty much sealed it for me. At the time, for most of the gay guys I had come across, their default diva seemed to be Madonna, but for me, from that moment on, Grace was it.



Grace Jones - A One Man Show (Part 1 - Warm Leatherette, Walking In The Rain)
Uploaded by ImpatraZ

I suppose, given the cold, aggressive image she has, Grace has always been something of an enigma. Having discovered her in the late 90’s during what will probably go down as her ‘wilderness years,' her enigmatic persona seemed that much more magnified at the time. For someone so distinctive, she seemed practically off the map for much of that time, having ‘gone underground,’ as she puts it. Aside from Compass Point Sessions, which seems to have gone a long way into reintroducing her iconic back catalogue to the public, the 90’s and early 2000’s seemed to be a mess of speculation, shelved album projects, sporadic single releases, botched deals, minor movie roles, punctuated by the occasional high profile appearance now and then. Although still performing quite regularly (three times a month, she claimed in 2000), little was reported in the press, aside from the occasional bout of air/train rage, rumours about her drug habits, gossip inches about her love life and occasional festival or fashion show appearance. Amidst all of that however, talk of a new Grace Jones album, although relatively low-key, never really seemed to die.

A return to the Island label, her 1993 single, the #1 Billboard Club Hit “Sex Drive” (a cover of Industrial duo Sheep on Drugs' “Track X”) produced by Mark Pistel and Philip Steir, two-thirds of activist rap/industrial group Consolidated was a blistering, snarling return to form, especially after her largely disappointing major label liason in the late 80's. Notably, the B-side of “Sex Drive,” “Typical Male,” a cover of a track which Consolidated originally did themselves, was my personal favourite of the two tracks. A searing feminist indictment of patriarchy, who better to deliver such a statement than one of the most feared women in pop culture, herself? Needless to say, Grace's version, backed with an aggressive aural clash of beats and samples and fronted by her combative delivery, was far more effective than Consolidated's original. Although this may have come some fifteen years earlier, it is perhaps the most direct precursor to the direction she would take, using her persona as a vehicle for social commentary, upon her re-emergence earlier this year with “Corporate Cannibal.”

Listen: Grace Jones - Typical Male (1993, Island Red Label)

Despite the positive reception to the "Sex Drive" single, the 1994 album project that was to supposed to follow, said to have been entitled “Black Marilyn” would eventually end up on the shelf. Grace briefly spoke about it in her interview from the December 2008 issue of Mojo Magazine:
We had the whole album. Consolidated came in and ended up producing the whole record and I couldn't stand listening to it. I ended up crying. I just got like ‘Whaaaaaa!’ Then I started taking drugs. I think I was mixing everything. Just whatever I could find to kill the pain. Downers and uppers and whatever was new on the market.
After the aborted “Black Marilyn” project, she seemed set to return once again with her much touted collaboration with Tricky and his Durban Poison label, reported in 1996 and plugged further a couple of years later by Brian Chin for his liner notes on the Compass Point Sessions set. Yet by the end of the 90’s that collaboration seems to have effectively collapsed amid rumours of creative differences and irreconcilable demands. To date, the only track to ever surface of the three or four that they had apparently finished (Grace once said three, Tricky reportedly alleged four) from their sessions was “Hurricane”. Apparently re-recorded and included as the title track for her current album, at the time, alternatively titled “Cradle To The Grave” by some, it ended up leaking in the late 90's via a bootleg white label with two versions said to have been remixed by DJ Emily, which are still widely available on the Internet. Tricky himself had also previewed another version – one which he had remixed himself on a radio show that he hosted in September 1999.. Given Tricky's involvement in this mix, of all the versions to have surfaced, this is probably the closest to the final version recorded by Grace and Tricky.

Listen: Grace Jones - Hurricane (Cradle To The Grave) (Tricky Remix) (Unreleased)
Listen: Grace Jones - Hurricane (Cradle To The Grave) (White Label Mix 1)

Despite the apparent demise of her partnership with Tricky, there still seems to have been some resurgent interest at the turn of the millennium - a collaboration with Lil’ Kim - “Revolution” from her album ”Notorious K.I.M” (2000, Atlantic), a remix of “Pull Up To The Bumper” by Funkstar De Luxe (top 5 on the Billboard Club Charts in November 2000). Of all the one offs she did during this time, her finest would have to have been “Storm” from the soundtrack of the ill-received 1998 Avengers movie. Co-credited to frequent collaborator Bruce Wooley's Radio Science Orchestra and produced by Marius De Vries (U2, Madonna, Björk); with it's epic orchestration and Grace's larger-than-life cinematic presence, "Storm" sounded like the the Bond theme that she had never been given. With reports surfacing of yet another planned album project said to be entitled (appropriately enough) "Force Of Nature,” that track effectively seemed like an exciting preview for things to come..

Listen: Grace Jones & The Radio Science Orchestra - Storm (1998, Atlantic)

Having signed a record deal in 2000 with an emerging web-based company, MCY.com (with planned distribution by EMI) - an early proponent of digital music distribution and one of the many short lived, ill-fated dot-com enterprises of the time, things seemed to be looking hopeful once again. A prominent press interview with The Independent (her first major press interview in 8 years, they claimed) and a less high profile one the year before for Australian webzine Seven Magazine both gave hints to an imminent album release, with the latter interview ambitiously citing the likes of Roni Size, Stevie Wonder, and P. Diddy (or Puff Daddy, as he was known then) as prospective collaborators. Around mid-2001, there were also some reports mentioning that "Storm" producer, Marius De Vries had been enlisted as a co-producer on the project. Not long after however, whatever hopes of an imminent album release seemed to be dashed with the project appearing to be all but scrapped, or as MCY reps claimed ‘indefinitely on hold.’ It would be another three years before anything more was heard from Grace on the studio front..

To be continued in Part Two..

PREVIOUS RELATED ENTRIES:
DEAR SANTA.. (WEDNESDAY DECEMBER 24, 2008)
THE RETURN OF GRACE JONES? (FRIDAY JUNE 20, 2008)
RÓISÍN MURPHY AND SOME OTHER NEWER SHIT THAT GETS ME ALL EXCITED.. (THURSDAY APRIL 17, 2008)
NO HITTIN' BELOW THE BELT.. (THURSDAY JUNE 29, 2006)
DISCO REISSUES UPDATE (MARCH 17TH - APRIL 12TH (THURSDAY MARCH 16, 2006)

LINKS:
THE WORLD OF GRACE JONES
GRACE JONES - OFFICIAL MYSPACE
YAHOO! MUSIC GROUPS - GRACE JONES MAILING LIST
THE BLITZ KIDS - GRACE JONES
GRACE JONES @ WIKIPEDIA
GRACE JONES @ DISCOGS
GRACE JONES HOMEPAGE
THE INDEPENDENT - GRACE IN FAVOUR (MONDAY SEPTEMBER 4, 2000)
BILLBOARD BULLETIN - GRACE JONES TO MCY (TAKEN FROM ALLBUSINESS.COM) (TUESDAY JUNE 20, 2000)
SEVEN MAGAZINE - FEATURE: GRACE JONES (BY MICHAEL DANIELS) (APRIL 1999)
ALT.GOSSIP.CELEBRITIES - CYBERSLEAZE (11/03) (NOVEMBER 5, 1998)
UNOFFICIAL TRICKY FAN PAGE - COLLABORATIONS DISCOGRAPHY

CATEGORIES: ARTICLES & RAMBLINGS, SIDE DELIVERIES, VISUAL DISCO, DISCO NEWS

Dear Santa...

Unfortunately, I don't have much to offer in acknowledging this Christmas season. I've got some re-uploads and at least one new Disco Delivery that I want to post before the end of the year. Also, I've got a little two part feature on Grace Jones that's been a long time coming.

Anyway, instead of skipping it altogether this year, hopefully you enjoy this video of the Weather Girls' "Dear Santa (Bring Me A Man This Christmas)" that I was sent via Facebook.. Gotta love these ladies - go on and blow, Miss Izora (rest in peace).. If nothing else, Paul Jabara (rest in peace) was a camp genius!



And while we're on the subject, here's Grace Jones performance from Pee Wee Herman's deliciously twisted 1988 Christmas Special..



Anyway, with that, Merry Christmas everyone..

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