Saturday, April 14, 2012

Disco Delivery #64:
Melba Moore - Burn (1979, Epic)

Melba Moore - Burn
Melba Moore - Hot and Tasty
Melba Moore - If You Believe In Love
Melba Moore - Night People
Melba Moore - Can't Give It Up
Melba Moore - I Don't Wanna Lose Your Love
Melba Moore - Miss Thing
Melba Moore - Need Love

Melba Moore - Night People (12'' Version)

While Melba Moore's success in music and stage made her one of the most versatile acts working in music, (the lady possesses a Tony award and a four-octave vocal range) the peaks and valleys of her career are almost as legendary as her voice.

Following a notoriously bitter divorce from ex-husband/manager Charles Huggins in 1991 which practically derailed her career, and which she claims left her destitute; she has nonetheless remained active, albeit largely under the radar for the past two decades. More recently Moore was the subject of a 2009 episode of "Unsung," TV One's Behind The Music style mini-documentary series dedicated to veteran R&B acts. However, while there have been some excellent installments in the Unsung series, the Melba Moore episode was not one of them. Highlighting the limitations of the format, it looked as if the program's producers had scrambled to cover as many bases as possible, while not going deep enough into some of the key, contentious chapters of her story (particularly regarding the details and fallout of her divorce). One couldn't help but come away from the whole thing with more questions than answers. Although whatever the program's faults, the coverage seemed to be a harbinger of the renewed interest her catalogue would see in the coming years.

While Moore may not have occupied the same position in the public consciousness as peers like Chaka, Whitney or even Donna Summer may have, (in reality she seems to lie somewhere alongside or between Jennifer Holliday, Stephanie Mills and Phyllis Hyman in terms of popular recognition), Moore nonetheless has a rich catalogue to draw from. In spite of the recognition gap, having worked with producers as diverse as Gene McDaniels, Van McCoy, McFadden & Whitehead, not to mention the architects of her 80's hits Kashif & Paul Lawrence, it was a catalogue which had remained largely untapped over the years. Though given the resurgent interest in disco, boogie and all things related from the time period, the past two years has seen much of her material from the 1980s on Capitol/EMI and two of her three Epic albums re-released on CD across three different specialist labels (Big Break Records, Funkytowngrooves and PTG/Vinyl Masterpiece), after being out-of-print for decades. So far though, this is the only one of her three Epic albums which, as of this writing, has yet to be reissued.

Given earlier disco success on the Buddah label with "This Is It," co-written and produced by Van McCoy and mixed by disco mix master Tom Moulton, and the singles off her first Epic label album: the Philly-styled cover of the Bee Gees' "You Stepped Into My Life" (produced by McFadden & Whitehead) and "Pick Me Up, I'll Dance," it was perhaps no surprise that Melba and company chose to focus their efforts more squarely on disco for their follow-up.

Having worked largely with American producers before (and since) in a decidedly R&B vein, Moore and company broke from that with this album, opting for British (via Munich) producer Pete Bellotte. With Belotte being something of a disco specialist by this time after co-producing Donna Summer (and others) alongside Giorgio Moroder, "Burn" is clearly and obviously the most disco-centred LP of her career. Bellotte not only brought disco credentials, but a different sensibility to her work altogether.

In some of the press surrounding this album, much was made of the harder disco sound and sexier image she chose to portray for this record. A significant break from the rather generally cute, tamer image she had presented in the past, which probably outlived its usefulness on her previous album "Melba" (1978, Epic). With Moore awkwardly cast in the cover photos as a giddy painter splattering her name in coloured paint everywhere, it probably deserves a place among some of the more ridiculous album covers of the time. The image not only didn't jive properly with the music and feeling on the record, the results ended up looking more loopy and delirious than the 'funny/cute' image they seemed to aim for.

With legendary photographer Richard Avedon's sleeve photos showing off a new, kinetic glamour this time around; steering things away from ballads - aiming squarely for disco action on the musical side, there would be no such dissonance on this record. Despite disco's (often deserved) rep for championing producer control over artistic collaboration, curiously enough the more assertive image seemed to be matched in the credits, with "Burn" being the first album in which Moore herself received writing credits on all cuts, a fact which was highlighted extensively in an article by Irv Lichtman in the October 20, 1979 issue of Billboard:

With an accomplished background in the musical theatre, concerts, tv and films, she's collaborated with Pete Bellotte in a new Epic album, "Burn," for which she has played an authorship role for the first time in her disk career.

Some would argue that the disco formula is one in which performers can easily lose their identity. Not so, says the artist.

"All kinds of music have their guidelines and parameters," she explains, "but you can't lose your identity by listening to your inner personality...."

.....Whether it's recordings or concert appearances, her approach has one common denominator: to be honest with one's feeling and to perform for the audience, not one's self.

Moore's first songwriting venture on disks is the result of the rough demos she played for Bellotte and Epic executives Don Dempsey and Lenny Pietze. "They liked about four of the 10 songs I had on the demos. Bellotte had some melodic ideas, so I did the lyrics for these.

The four tracks she demoed appear to be the ones she co-wrote entirely with Bruce Hawes and Mikki Farrow - "Hot and Tasty," "Night People," "Miss Thing," and "Need Love." Both Hawes and Farrow were both prominent writers out of the Philly Soul scene, with Bruce Hawes having been one of Thom Bell's writers having penned songs for The Stylistics and The Spinners and Mikki Farrow working with producer Norman Harris having written songs for Salsoul acts like First Choice, Loleatta Holloway and Double Exposure. Mikki Farrow would later release an album of her own, which included the minor hit "Itching For Love," (produced by Norman Harris) in 1982. The other four tracks on the album ("Burn," "If You Believe In Love," "I Don't Wanna Lose Your Love," and "Need Love") were written by Moore (and occasionally Farrow and Hawes) with Bellotte and a smattering of his and Moroder's regular Munich Machine players/writers like Jerry Rix, Sylvester Levay, Michael Hofmann, Gunter Moll, Stefan Wisnet and the well-travelled Thor Baldursson (the album's arranger and keyboardist).

One look at the cast of credits, with its mix of European and American players and writers gives a small hint at the sound and sensibility of the record. With the involvement of Bellotte and the album's eurodisco/rock/funk hybrid, traces of Donna Summer's "Bad Girls" (released earlier in the year) and the prevailing stringless rock disco sound of the time are all over the place. For Moore, it would be probably the closest she would ever come to doing anything approaching Eurodisco, and alongside 1985's "Read My Lips" (Capitol) as far as she'd ever gone in incorporating rock elements in her music. Additionally, with players like the renowned bassist Marcus Miller on board, this album probably ranks as one of Pete Bellotte's funkiest solo productions.

The title track and album opener is, quite appropriately, the ultimate summary of the record's sound. Starting up with a popping bassline giving way to some blazing fretwork from John Gatchell (who doubles elsewhere on the record and on most of his credits as part of the horn section) sliding and wailing all over the mix, they wasted no time in making a bold first impression (who'd ever have thought you'd hear those guitars on a Melba Moore record?). With the whole thing speeding along at some 125 BPM, "Burn" ends up sounding like the wild child of Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff" and Blondie's "One Way Or Another" ("gonna gitcha, gitcha, gitcha!"). With Moore attacking the song like an unhinged disco temptress scorching her way through the music (see Wardell Piper's album or Ann-Margret's disco record for some comparisons), it's probably as far as she's ever gone from the sweet-voiced innocence of "This Is It."

Moore continues in disco temptress mode (along with some more heat and fire references) on the second track "Hot and Tasty" which is probably as suggestive as she's ever gotten, boasting about her tasty love and her need for "AK-SHUN." Fed by more of Gatchell's sharp, smoking guitars and a blaring horn section, with her vocals yelping and whirling like a dancefloor possessed pyro/nympho-maniac, threatening to "set someone on fire," it's probably no wonder this was one of the songs which seemed to garner the most press attention at the time of the album's release.

That aside, the album's lead single, "Miss Thing" is undoubtedly one of the record's most memorable tracks, if not the major standout on the album. With Marcus Miller bringing some major swagger on the bass (a foreshadowing of the sound he would bring to Luther Vandross' records, hear the break at the 3.10 mark) and the cool, sly touch of Gatchell's guitarwork, Moore and company pack more funk and attitude into this 5 minute gem than on practically anything she's done before or since.

With lyrics written by Melba herself, per her own words, as a homage to her gay fans ("all my people are so happy and so gay") and the flamboyant, raucus cheers they would often give her; she obviously knew her audience well. Peppered with sassy shout-outs, seemingly straight from the mouths of back-in-the-day club queens: "go 'head, miss thing!" "work it out, miss thing!" "oh, don't hurt nobody, miss thing!," Ms. Melba drops each and every one with some serious ferocity on here. The lady either had to have been witness to at least a few drag balls, or just simply knew and appreciated her gay audience that well to have written and pulled this one off the way she does. Pre-dating Paris Is Burning and "Vogue" by nearly a decade, I'd imagine that the gay cultural subtext would have likely escaped a good many listeners (or would-be listeners) altogether at the time.

For some added gay cred (not that it needed any) and visuals, YouTube has footage of Melba performing along to the single version on the late Bea Arthur's über-gay 1979 TV bomb, The Beatrice Arthur Special (also featuring Rock Hudson and Madame, more Bea Arthur Special here and here). According to an October 1979 article in Jet Magazine, the producer of the special gifted Melba with the dress she wore in this performance (which was also seen on the cover of that particular issue, see photo above). Said to have cost $5,000 at the time, it was apparently designed especially for this song, based on its lyrics.

Melba Moore - Miss Thing
Uploaded by jeffmiguel

While "Miss Thing" didn't receive a special extended remix (a missed opportunity, if you ask me), the second US single "Night People" did. Another one of the album's best bids for dancefloor action, with it's disco scene and scenester lyrics: "Night People with their glowing eyes, looking like they're superstars.. night people with their studio smile, looking like they're hypnotized" it's just about as deep as things get on here on the lyrical front, which probably isn't saying a whole lot, but was probably their closest attempt at a Donna Summer-esque Bad Girls-style single. The 12" version extends things by around three minutes, giving more space for Marcus Miller's bass in the intro and using some alternate vocal takes on the verses, not heard on the LP version.

Though the album is (thankfully and uncharacteristically by Melba's standards) unbroken by ballads, it's not all heat and fire. "I Don't Wanna Lose Your Love" and "If You Believe In Love" are trademark Bellotte style frantic funk, anchored by memorable, melodic choruses, with the latter showing off some of Thor Baldursson's synthwork (see Bellotte's Trax albums for a sound comparison) and a surprisingly jazzy sax solo on the former.

Though undoubtedly one of the major outliers in Melba Moore's discography, "Burn" is probably one of the most satisfying in it's presentation. While Moore, in her 2009 Unsung profile said she aspired to be like Aretha Franklin, her athletic pipes were and are of a different timbre altogether. In retrospect, it's clear why she seemed to be a natural stage performer. Her sprightly, energetic vocal style seemed perfect for the expressiveness of theatre. And while she made many excellent R&B records, at times she seemed to have been saddled with ballads which seemed to barely contain the sheer power of her voice. Even when being soft and subtle, there was a tension in her vocals that was (almost distractingly) palpable, their full force seemingly bubbling under the surface ready to burst forth at any moment and either not really getting a chance to or doing so in often surprising ways, leaving the whole thing in the dust (see her penchant for extended 30-second high notes). Although I'd venture to guess that nixing the ballads was more than likely Bellotte's idea rather than Moore's, it's probably one of the reasons why this record lives up to its name. With Melba's voice seemingly unleashed and unhindered, hearing Moore really walk on the wild side of her voice for the entire album is one of the reasons why "Burn" still sounds as exciting as it does.

Though it's rumoured that Moore was displeased with the final mix, and while she did hint at a sense of surprise at the results, having been quoted in Jet magazine saying that she "didn't think it all would be as sexy as it came out;" officially Melba was all praises in the promotional press. Speaking to Irv Lichtman in Billboard about working with Bellotte, she remarked that even if he wasn't entirely familiar with her background, he had ably "aroused the spirit of the bigger than life image I try to portray on stage" with the record.

However, in spite of her praises and performance; with the album's lead single "Miss Thing" barely scraping Billboard's Disco top 40, peaking at #41 (#90 R&B) "Burn" wouldn't exactly go on to set the charts on fire. Adding yet another entry to the heaping pile of (admittedly cliché) disco heat and fire references in 1979, count this one as yet another lost in the shuffle of that year. Whatever ideas the label or Moore's team may have had about recruiting Bellotte and going toe-to-toe with Donna Summer on the charts, it would take another three years, a label move and the talents of a couple of young, up-and-coming producers before she would score her next commercial breakthrough.

Perhaps in retrospect, Moore and company could have played it a bit more safely in choosing to focus on disco, picking producers more attuned to the R&B sensibilities of her past efforts - Mtume/Lucas, who were riding high with Phyllis Hyman at the time, for one example. The release of a cash-in album by her former label earlier in the year called "Dancin' With Melba" (1979, Buddah), a collection of older songs remixed for disco play (which included Richie Rivera's admittedly stunning treatment of "Standing Right Here") may have influenced the decision to check the prevailing trends and go for an edgier disco sound. Ultimately, Moore would return to more familiar settings with her follow-up album "Closer" (Epic, 1980) bringing back Victor Carstarphen and keeping "Burn" collaborator Bruce Hawes in tow.

Although Bellotte had been criticised elsewhere for subjecting Moore to a "disco standardization process" with this record, more than almost any of her previous and future producers, Bellotte managed to utilize the spunky, incendiary edge of Melba's voice to express a boldness that had never really been heard before (and scarcely since) in her music. Though while the record is ultimately more identifiable as a Bellotte production than a Melba Moore record; Moore, in her versatility came off sounding more animated than ever here, feeling like the most natural fit for Bellotte's brand of high-octane disco. Far from being just another anonymous, throwaway element in the production (as singers in disco are often derided as being), Melba's voice and personality here practically make this record. Backed by rollicking rock guitars, funky strutting bass all with an ever so slight Eurodisco bent; with Bellotte's production letting the lady's fiery personality burn (I just had to..) freely, this album remains one of Melba Moore's most interesting (albeit brief) shifts in sound.

UPDATE (JUNE 2012): This album has just been reissued on CD from Funkytowngrooves (who also have five other Melba Moore reissues coming), with three bonus tracks.




Friday, April 13, 2012

Still Kicking

It has been well over a year since I've updated this blog, and aside from cleaning up the occasional spate of spam comments, I've basically left it alone ever since. So while I've basically let this blog become defunct since then, I'm glad there still seem to be people out there who seem to get something out of the blog posts (either that, or you've probably come to lift the pictures - no, I don't mind), even while most of the file links have since died.

On a more personal note, I've made some major changes in the past year, namely a cross-country move from Calgary to Toronto, opting to start a new life in a new city, leaving behind quite a few things, including most of my record collection (which is currently in storage). Also, in the disco world, companies like Big Break Records, Gold Legion, Funky Town Grooves and Harmless have been churning disco album reissues and compilations with unprecedented speed, quantity and quality in the last 2-3 years. For disco enthusiasts like myself, it has been exciting to finally see companies seriously tap into the appreciation around disco and of the original disco records with a level of consistent dedication and care never seen before. The things happening today on the reissue front seemed almost unimaginable in January 2006 when I started this blog as a bored 20 year old student in his parents' suburban bedroom.

That being said, with all that has happened there's likely less reason for this blog to exist now as there used to be. While I'm not quite as moved to write about records the way I once was, (I can hardly believe how much I did write when I was), I do still get the urge to put something down on something I enjoy every once in a while. With that, I figured I might as well revisit the blog and add some new content and update some of the old, as I get the chance.

I've managed to bring back a selection records from storage, not to mention acquire new ones with some regularity, so for those who may still be paying attention, expect some new content soon.


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