Recently I was tipped off by reissue consultant Donald Cleveland (who, for the record, was not involved in this particular project) to the quiet release of the full 12 minute Walter Gibbons acetate mix of Gladys Knight and the Pips' "It's A Better Than Good Time," as a bonus track on the Funkytown Grooves reissue of their "The One and Only" (1978, Buddah) album, just last month. For those who may be unaware, the Walter Gibbons mix of "It's A Better Than Good Time," is (or at least was), in both of its versions, one of the more coveted items among disco collectors. Originally released only in Canada as a 12" through Buddah's Canadian licensee, Quality Records, the released 12" version of Walter's mix ran at around half the time of the acetate mix, having been edited down to 6.53. However sought-after that Canadian 12" was (which has appeared on at least two compilations so far, mastered from vinyl - Strut Records' Bob Blank retrospective "The Blank Generation" and Joey Negro's "The Soul of Disco, Vol. 2"), the real rarity was the Sunshine Sound acetate, which until recently was the only place where Walter's full mix had surfaced. While the Funkytown Grooves reissue bills it as 'previously unreleased,' that's perhaps only partially true. The 12 minute acetate mix had appeared previously (and to much greater fanfare) on Strut Records' Walter Gibbons retrospective - "Jungle Music" (2010, Strut) a few years ago. That version was understandably lacking in sound quality, having been mastered from the acetate (which was also in mono). The Funkytown Grooves reissue however, is the very first time it has appeared in stereo, on CD directly from the master tapes, which like many disco masters from this time, had been assumed either lost or destroyed. That being said, while kudos are in order for the people at Battery Studios and Funkytown Grooves for bringing this forward, it's too bad they missed an opportunity here and neglected to mention Walter's name in the tracklist, anonymously calling it a 'full extended mix' instead and furthermore, repeating the typo from the Canadian 12" in the credits, attributing the mix to Walter 'Gibbens,' instead of Gibbons.
Written and produced by British writer Tony Macaulay, (who had come to prominence in the bubblegum era with songs like "Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)" and "Build Me Up Buttercup") and originally released as the single off "The One and Only," right at the acrimonious end of their tenure with Buddah, it's not entirely clear whether "The One and Only" was an actual album project they had embarked on, or whether these were leftover sessions cobbled together by the label. Whatever the case, this record had come out at what was likely the most tumultuous time in the group's history. With the flurry of back-and-forth suits and countersuits with Gladys (and eventually CBS - who signed her while still under contract) on one side, and Buddah, its then parent company Arista and their respective presidents, Art Kass and Clive Davis on the other, the lawsuits seemed to completely overshadow whatever music they were releasing at the time. As an example, in one issue of Billboard, the full-page ad (pictured here) trumpeting the album's release would appear, along with an article on the very next page, seemingly cancelling out all the hype - detailing the latest developments in the Gladys-Buddah suit.
Needless to say, it hardly seemed like a better than good time for much of anything. With all the ensuing legal action apparently preventing Gladys and the Pips from working together until 1980, if the whole thing wasn't messy enough, this was also happening in the midst of the divorce and ensuing custody battle between Gladys and her then husband Barry Hankerson (uncle of the late Aaliyah and one time manager of R. Kelly and with whom Gladys co-starred in their ill-fated film together, Pipe Dreams). Reflecting back on the brink of her and The Pips' return in 1980, Gladys would call this time "the worst period we've ever had in our entire career....the foundation [of] my family, my career.. everything just started shaking at once."
As far as the song itself goes, I had first come across it over a decade ago, when I had found a copy of Gladys Knight's first 'solo' record - "Miss Gladys Knight" (1978, Buddah). Even though I had no idea about the Walter Gibbons connection at the time, but having been after anything even remotely disco, it was this very song with the slightly altered title "It's A Better Than Good Time (Disco)" that prompted me to buy the record. Again, given that she was on the outs with her label, not sure if "Miss Gladys Knight" was actually intended to be Gladys' first 'solo' album, or just a bunch of leftover sessions assembled together (or in the case of this song, recycled) to make an album and/or fulfill a contractual obligation. Either way, I'd lean slightly towards the latter, since I remember being somewhat disappointed by it at the time. For an album that was supposed to be Gladys' debut as a soloist, the whole thing felt far too dull and pedestrian, and as far as "It's A Better Than Good Time," which was singled out as the album's disco showpiece, I have to admit, at the time the song (essentially a duller mix of the same one on "The One and Only") didn't strike me as anything special at the time, certainly not enough to redeem the record, or rise above anything else on it.
It wasn't until several years later, hearing about the how legendary its Walter Gibbons mix was, and the sums it commanded online (cut to me thinking: "that song? really!?") and later, finally hearing it for myself on someone's disco mix, that I finally realized what everyone was raving about. Listening back now, while the differences didn't render it unrecognizable, this is still one of those cases where this song's legendary status can't be attributed simply to its rarity, but true to Gibbons' form, to the fact that it's a genuinely excellent example of how a good extended mix can be more than just an excuse for extra dancing or mixing time, but how utterly transformative it could be in the hands of someone with the right amount of sensitivity and creativity.
Gladys Knight and the Pips - It's A Better Than Good Time (Full Walter Gibbons Mix)
While some are quick to point out Walter's awkward edits in places (one at the 6.09 mark, another at 6.48), what ultimately redeems it is the way he gave space to the vocals and the music; building and breaking down the song, amplifying all the emotion he could wring out of Gladys' voice. What Walter did not only gently deconstructed the layers of production, but also highlighted the feeling of the song in a way that the original version wasn't entirely able to. Take a line like "you could say I'm the classic case, my own thoughtlessness thrown back in my face," - which suddenly revealed itself on Walter's mix, but had completely passed me by on the LP, despite being one of the song's heavier lines. It's like all of the extra space - the subtle string passages, the newly prominent guitar and percussion, and all the ways he deployed the lead and background vocals gave extra opportunities for the song - its groove and the soulful touch of Gladys' voice to really sink in and make itself felt. After a little while, I can safely say that those awkward edits barely even registered to my ears. In spite of the whole thing running some twelve minutes, there's nothing about what Walter did that feels forced, arbitrary or overdone, like its length was not simply a consequence of a desperate disco extension, but simply the time that it took for a story to be told and for the song's emotions to be fully conveyed.
Apparently Walter's mixes of "It's A Better Than Good Time" and its B-side "Saved by the Grace of Your Love," a bit of gospel inspired disco-soul (which sounded like something Walter would have gone back to in his born-again days) which is also included on the reissue, were set to be part of an album Buddah was planning called "Dancing With Gladys," a companion of sorts to the "Dancin' With Melba" album they had released on Melba Moore (also reissued by Funkytown Grooves not long ago) - a collection of tracks from their Buddah back-catalogues remixed for disco play. Reported only briefly in one of Barry Lederer's Disco Mix columns in Billboard, given all that was going on, its release was more than likely thwarted by all the legal wrangling surrounding Gladys and Buddah at the time (and may also partly explain why the original Gibbons 12" only surfaced in Canada). Not sure if this means that there may be other mixes by Walter or anyone else from this project still lying in the vaults; for the moment though, while those who were lucky enough to have had an acetate copy of this all these years may find their copies significantly devalued, I think most of us can be grateful that this particular mix has been salvaged and is now fully available for everyone to enjoy, the way it was meant to be heard.
gladys knight and the pips - the one and only (expanded cd edition)
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discogs: gladys knight and the pips - it's a better than good time (sunshine sound acetate)
discogs: gladys knight and the pips - it's a better than good time (canadian 12")
discogs: gladys knight and the pips - the one and only (lp)
discogs: gladys knight and the pips - the one and only (expanded edition)
discogs: walter gibbons
djhistory: walter gibbons
tim lawrence: disco madness: walter gibbons and the legacy of turntablism and remixology (from the journal of popular music studies)
tony macaulay - official site
google books: billboard - closeup: gladys knight and the pips - the one and only (august 19, 1978)
google books: billboard - gladys knight and cbs face buddha records suit (august 19, 1978)
google books: jet magazine - gladys knight and pips file $23 million claim (may 25, 1978)
google books: jet magazine - gladys knight names brother, cousins, 2 disc cos. in $28 million suit (november 23, 1978)
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