A Fan’s Notes: Notable Albums Of 2017

DrakeIn early 2015 I published a list of my favorite albums of the previous year. In my story, I chastised writers who had rushed to get their lists out early and in doing so missed the December 15, 2014 release of D’Angelo’s Black Messiah album. It was my favorite album of the year and I was smugly self-satisfied that I had waited for it before publishing my list. The year I very nearly became what I beheld. I was all set to publish my list earlier this week. In fact, it was about 30 minutes away from going live on Popdose. Then I heard that the new Eminem album, Revival, would be released on Friday, December 15. Of course, there had been at least two earlier release dates publicized and the album had failed to appear. But I had a good feeling about the December 15 date since it was the same date that saw the release of the D’Angelo album. So I decided to wait until I could hear Revival, confident that it had a very good chance to be on my list. My confidence has been rewarded. What follows is the original, pre-Revival text of my story but adjusted to accommodate Eminem’s sprawling, scathing, and altogether majestic album.

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It’s that time again. Time to proclaim my favorite albums of the year. It’s nice to know that people are still interested in my opinion in this regard but frankly, it’s a lot of pressure. Obviously, there’s no way to listen to every album that is released in a given year so all I can really do is listen to as many as possible and choose the ones I liked best. I remind you once again this year that I am not saying that these are the best albums of the year, only that they were my favorites.

2017 was a pretty good year for music with hip-hop again ruling the roost. In a sign of changing times last year, I included a mixtape on my list. This year it’s Drake’s playlist at the top and both Eminem’s Revival and Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. in the Top 5. But there was also some good old guitar rock this year as espoused by bands like the War on Drugs Bash & Pop, and the Dream Syndicate. The singer/songwriters had another good year with fine albums from Nicole Atkins, Ryan Adams, Cindy Lee Berryhill, Jason Isbell, John Moreland, and others.

A brilliant new star arose in the heavens in the form of Rhiannon Giddens, and there was a passionate tribute to Joni Mitchell from Kevin Jenkins. Shelby Lynne and her sister Allison Moorer finally got together to release the poignant Not Dark Yet, and the unjustly ridiculed Michael McDonald proved just how wrong his critics are with his first album of new material in many years.

Glen Campbell said goodbye with the stirring Adios, and perennial underdogs Pugwash and the Waterboys proved that they can’t be counted out just yet. Speaking of not being counted out, U2 returned with their finest album in years simply by not trying so hard. Other veterans made powerful statements too. Neil Finn, Cat Stevens, Peter Perrett, Randy Newman, and Chris Hillman all released strong albums.

Here’s my list of my favorite albums of 2017. The Top 10 are in order, the rest are not.

The Top 10:

1. Drake – More Life
2. Nicole Atkins – Goodnight Rhonda Lee
3. Eminem – Revival
4. Cindy Lee Berryhill – The Adventurist
5. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
6. The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
7. Rhiannon Giddens – Freedom Highway
8. Ian Felice – In the Kingdom of Dreams
9. Ryan Adams – Prisoner/Prisoner B Sides
10. Kevin Jenkins – She: A Tribute to Joni Mitchell (EP)

Bubbling Under:

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound
Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me
Vic Mensa – The Autobiography
Michael McDonald – Wide Open
Robert Cray – Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm
John Moreland – Big Bad Luv
Bash & Pop – Anything Could Happen
Matthew Ryan – Hustle Up Starlings
Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer – Not Dark Yet
Zeshan B – Vetted
Mavis Staples – If All I Was Was Black
U2 – Songs of Experience
Yusuf/Cat Stevens – The Laughing Apple
Randy Newman – Dark Matter
Pugwash – Silverlake
Chris Hillman – Bidin’ My Time
Neil Finn – Out of Silence
Craig Finn – We All Want the Same Thing
The Dream Syndicate – How Did I Find Myself Here?
The Waterboys – Out of All This Blue
John Calvin Abney – Far Cries and Close Calls
Glen Campbell – Adios
Benjamin Booker – Witness
Peter Perrett – How the West Was Won
The Front Bottoms – Going Grey
Gucci Mane – Mr. Davis

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Soul Serenade: The Majors, “A Wonderful Dream”

The MajorsIt’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. I don’t know how you feel about the season this year but for me, all the struggle and strife that’s going on in the world is making me appreciate the holidays this year even more than usual. I’ve enjoyed the shopping, I’ve enjoyed the eating (too much!), and I look forward to enjoying the rest of the season in the warm embrace of family and friends. What does all of this have to do with the Majors? Not very much unless you consider that the holiday season is something of a wonderful dream.

They were known as the Premiers when they first got together in their hometown of Philadelphia in 1959. The group’s original lineup included lead singer Ricky Cordo, esteemed for his wicked falsetto, Robert Morris, Gene Glass, Frank Troutt, Ronald Gathers, and guitarist Bobby Tate. Before long, Idella Morris replaced her brother Robert in the group.

By 1960, the Premiers had caught the ear of Ro-Cal Records owner Buddy Caldwell. He signed them to his label and because there was already a local group called the Premiers, they became the Versatiles. The first Versatiles single, “Lundee Dundee” b/w “Let Me Whisper in Your Ear,” caught some buzz locally but Ro-Cal, unlike some other local labels, had no arrangement for national distribution so Philadelphia was as far as things went for the record.

The Majors

It seemed like things were at an end for the Versatiles when several members entered the military. But two and a half years later the very same lineup got back together and this time they called themselves the Majors.

Jerry Ragavoy was one of Philadelphia’s most prominent producers at the time. He was familiar with the Versatiles single and he liked what he heard from the newly re-formed Majors. He got them a deal with Imperial Records and the group went into the studio with Ragavoy in July 1962. They emerged with “A Wonderful Dream” b/w “Time Will Tell.” “A Wonderful Dream” was an immediate hit, reaching the charts in August and rising up to #22 on the Billboard chart by September.

The follow-up single was “A Little Bit Now (A Little Bit Later)” b/w “She’s A Troublemaker” and although the record didn’t have the same success as “A Wonderful Dream,” both sides made respectable appearances on the charts. Five more Imperial singles followed including “Anything You Can Do,” “Life Begins at Sweet Sixteen,” and “I’ll Be There.” Those three made the charts but failed to crack the Top 100.

When the Imperial contract ended, the Majors were without a label. They found a temporary home at ABC-Paramount in 1966. They undertook their final recordings with the same lineup but another new name, the Performers. Unfortunately, the resulting single failed to find any success. The Majors continued to tour in the 1960s but eventually split up.

Soul Serenade: Barbara George, “I Know (You Don’t Love Me No More)”

Barbara George

It’s one-hit wonder time again and once again that one hit was a monster that inexplicably never found a follow-up. This time the record came out of New Orleans and set the national charts on fire, topping the R&B chart and finding Top 5 crossover success on the Pop chart.
Barbara Ann Smith came from New Orleans fabled Ninth Ward and got her singing start in the choir at her Baptist church. What set her apart from other young singers was that Smith was already writing her own songs at a young age. Another thing she did at a young age was to get married when she was 16 years-old and become Barbara George.

Somewhere along the way, George made the acquaintance of Jessie Hill, another Ninth Ward resident who had a smash hit with “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” in 1960. Hill was impressed enough to get an audition for George with the legendary record producer Harold Battiste who in turn was sufficiently impressed to sign George to his AFO (All For One) record label.

Barbara George

Some accounts claim that “I Know (You Don’t Love Me No More)” was written by George’s mother, Eula May Jackson. But the credit on the record belongs to George so I’m going to stick with that. Battiste produced a session that was split between George and another Battiste signing, Prince La La. They recorded at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studio and the backing band included Roy Montrell on guitar, drummer John Boudreaux, and cornet player Melvin Lastie. With all of those iconic New Orleans figures on board, George’s record couldn’t miss … and it didn’t.

“I Know (You Don’t Love Me No More)” was inspired by the traditional hymn “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” Battiste had a distribution deal with Juggy Murray at Sue Records and that allowed the single to achieve national distribution in 1961. When the record became a hit, Murray began to court George, finally convincing her to leave AFO and sign directly with his label. She released one last single for Battiste, “You Talk About Love,” but it failed to crack the Top 40. Soon after that, Battiste left New Orleans for Los Angeles and George’s career floundered.

There were several singles for Sue including “If You Think,” “Send for Me (If You Need Some Lovin’),” and “Recipe (For Perfect Fools),” but they all lacked the passion and charm of George’s AFO efforts. When “Something’s Definitely Wrong” failed to make a mark in 1963 Murray cut George loose. Her failing career led to drug and alcohol abuse that left George in the wilderness until she mounted a comeback in 1967.

She gave it her best shot, signing with Seven B Records and getting Eddie Bo to produce her single “Something You Got,” but when the record failed to chart George call it a day, retiring from the music business to concentrate on raising her three boys. There were a couple of singles for the Hep label in the late ’70s, “Take Me Somewhere Tonight,” and “This is the Weekend,” but they would prove to be the last recordings that George would make.

Barbara George, a born-again Christian, returned to where she got her start, her church choir. But somewhere along the way she had contracted Hepatitis C. She fought the disease for more than ten years before succumbing in 2006, a few days before her 64th birthday. George’s song, “I Know,” has been covered many times over the years including versions by the Newbeats, Cher, Bonnie Raitt, Ike & Tina Turner, Anne Murray, and Steve Marriott.

Soul Serenade: Detroit Emeralds, “Feel The Need In Me”

Detroit Emeralds

They weren’t from Detroit. That’s probably the first thing to know. In the tradition of the Five Chinese Brothers, who were neither Chinese nor brothers, we have the Detroit Emeralds. The four brothers who formed the lineup were from Little Rock. Ivory, Abrim, Cleophus, and Raymond Tilmon called themselves the Emeralds at first. When Cleophus and Raymond left the group, a childhood friend named James Mitchell joined and the trio moved to Detroit. There they became the Detroit Emeralds.
In 1968 the group signed with Ric-Tic Records and it was there that they had their first R&B hit “Show Time.” Two years later the Emeralds were recording for another Detroit label, Westbound. They were on tour in Memphis when they recorded some demos at Willie Mitchell’s Hi Recording Studios. With basic tracks recorded by the hit-making Hi Rhythm Section, the Emeralds returned to Detroit where they added vocals, horns, and strings to the tracks. All of the tracks were written by Abrim Tilmon.

The Memphis sessions with the Detroit overdubs resulted in several hits for the Emeralds including “If I Lose Your Love,” “Do Me Right,” “You Want It, You Got It,” and “Baby Let Me Take You (In My Arms).” Each of the singles was a Top 10 R&B hit and “Baby Let Me Take You (In My Arms)” did even better, crossing over to Pop success at #24 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1972. Even with all of that success, the best was yet to come for the Detroit Emeralds.

Detroit Emeralds

“Feel the Need In Me” was not their biggest hit but it is without question the song for which the Detroit Emeralds are most remembered. It reached #22 on the R&B chart in 1973 and it was a Top 5 single in the U.K. Unfortunately, the success brought problems and by the following year, things were not looking good for the Detroit Emeralds.

It’s never a good sign when two groups are touring with the same name, and by 1974 there were Detroit Emeralds led by Abrim Tilmon and another group by the same name that included James Mitchell and Ivory Tilmon. There was a coalescing of the groups in 1977 when Abrim joined Ivory and James Mitchell for a reunion tour. Talks were taking place with an eye toward another reunion tour when Abrim Tilmon died suddenly in 1982 from a heart attack. He was only 37 years-old. Mitchell, Ivory Tilmon, and Marvin Willis continued to tour the club circuit as the Detroit Emeralds for several years.

“Feel the Need In Me” has been covered several times over the years including versions by Graham Central Station and Bryan Ferry. Other Emeralds’ songs have been sampled by artists including Nas, Raekwon, Limp Bizkit, Kendrick Lamar, De La Soul, Method Man, and J Dilla.

Soul Serenade: Barbara Lewis, “Thankful For What I Got”

Barbara LewisAnd here we are. Thanksgiving. The world outside can seem cold even to the most optimistic among us. Political rancor is tearing friends and families apart. Each day seems to bring news of the loss of another of our cherished artists (R.I.P. Della Reese). Meanwhile, the world is poised on the brink of … something. The hope is, and the belief has to be, that it’s something good. A reawakening if you will.

Like many of you, I’ve been thinking a lot about all of this. Maybe it’s my age. Maybe I’m just tired. The world will do what it will do. I’m not saying that people can’t affect change. I’ve seen it happen time and again. But at this point, all I’m really interested in is making sure that my own family is safe and secure. Maybe it’s selfish but I think if all of us start there maybe the love can spread because as Stevie Wonder once sang, “love’s in need of love today.” It’s truer than ever.

I don’t have a lot to write about the music today. I’ve written about Barbara Lewis and her 1963 hit “Hello Stranger.” It was her biggest hit by far, reaching all the way up to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100, but not her only hit.

Barbara Lewis

Lewis was born in Michigan and she was still in her teens when her recording career began. At first, she worked with a DJ by the name of Ollie McLaughlin. Her first single, “My Heart Went Do Dat Da,” was released in 1962. While it didn’t become a national hit it was a regional success in the Detroit area. Next up was “Hello Stranger,” one of the songs Lewis wrote for her debut LP. Follow-up singles like “Straighten Up Your Heart” and “Puppy Love” were moderately successful.

For her next single, Lewis collaborated with the legendary producer Bert Berns. The result was her second smash hit, “Baby I’m Yours” which reached #11 in 1965. The follow-up single was “Make Me Your Baby,” also produced by Berns, and it reached the same spot on the chart that year. Lewis had one more Top 40 hit in 1966. “Make Me Belong to You,” a song written by Billy Vera and Chip Taylor, was a #28 hit that year.

That was pretty much the end of chart success for Lewis although a couple of other singles straggled into the Top 100. She also made an album for Stax at the end of the ’60s that found her moving from her smooth pop sound for something grittier. But this being Thanksgiving, I wanted to feature a record appropriate to the season. In 1968, Lewis released a song that she had written called “Thankful For What I Got” on Atlantic Records. It was not a hit.

“Hello Stranger” and “Baby I’m Yours” have been covered numerous times over the years. Lewis’ music remains a fixture of the Carolina Beach Music scene. Lewis herself continued singing right up to this year when health issues forced her to retire.

Today is a day to draw your loved ones close to you. Look around at those people at your table today. Remember how much they mean to you despite their flaws, and yours. But don’t just think about it, tell them. Do it today because what I’ve been trying clumsily to say is that maybe if we share the love with those around us today it can begin to spread from your table. And who knows where that might take us. It’s Thanksgiving.

Soul Serenade: The Formations, “At The Top Of The Stairs”

The Formations - At the Top of the StairsIf it’s possible, less may be known about the Formations than about the Poets, who were featured in last week’s column. There is a not-so-great photo of them at least, as you will see below, but information is hard to come by regarding this Philadelphia vocal group. What is known is that they had a moderately-sized local hit single which became a Northern Soul classic in the U.K.

The Formations got together in 1966. The original lineup included Victor Drayton, Jerry Akins, Ernie Brooks, Reginald Turner, and Johnny Bellman. Their first recording was as backup singers on a Coed Records single called “Sad Illusion,” which was credited to Margie and the Formations.

The Formations

Their first single on their own was a song written by Akins along with the not-yet-legendary Leon Huff. The involvement of Huff, who would soon team with Kenny Gamble to create the Sound of Philadelphia, marked an early sign of what was to come. “At the Top of the Stairs” was released in 1967 on the Bank label and was a sizable enough hit locally that it convinced MGM Records to license the record for national distribution in 1968. Unfortunately, the record failed to make the charts in this country, although it was a Top 30 hit in the U.K. when it was re-released there in 1970 on Mojo Records.

Despite the lack of chart success, the Formations weren’t quite done yet. Their next single was “Love’s Not Only for the Heart.” It was produced by Huff who by that time was working with Gamble, making it one of the team’s earliest collaborations. Despite the inclusion of the two Philly Soul pioneers, the record failed to make a dent.

There was one last single, released at the end of 1968 on MGM. Although like its predecessors it was not a hit, “There’s No Room” really had that Philadelphia sound that would become so popular in the next few years. Interestingly, it had that sound even though Gamble and Huff were not involved with the record this time.

Gamble and Huff re-entered the picture when the Formations, by then known as the Corner Boys, released “Gang War (Don’t Make Sense)” in 1969 on Neptune, a Gamble and Huff imprint. Although the group soldiered on, the Formations name died. With the original lineup still intact, they changed their name to the Silent Majority in 1970, and then they became Hot Ice two years later. In all, there were three new names, and five record labels for the group including Atlantic Records and Hot Wax.

None of the name or label changes had any impact. The Formations never did find any chart success but they left us with a Northern Soul classic and a series of records that pointed the way forward for soul music in Philadelphia.

Soul Serenade: The Poets, “She Blew A Good Thing”

The Poets

 

 

 

 

 

 

This week I am featuring a Brooklyn group that had one hit in 1966. The story of the one-hit wonder is a very common one in music history. Some of the artists who had these hits are still remembered. Others, not so much. If you want a clue as to how well-remembered the Poets are, notice that there is no photo of them accompanying this story. Across the vast expanse of the Internet, where all the world’s knowledge is now stored, I could not find one photo of the Poets.

One problem the Poets had was that they were not the only Poets. Our Poets hailed from Brooklyn but there were other Poets from Harlem. The latter group eventually became famous as the Main Ingredient, while the Brooklyn Poets were largely forgotten. So there is not much information for me to share with you about the Poets, but I’ll tell you what I know.

In 1959, a guy named Juggy Murray started a label called Sue Records and created a subsidiary label called Symbol. While Sue ran a bunch of records up the charts, for the first four years of its existence Symbol couldn’t find any chart success. Singles by artists like Bobby Bolder, the Commandos, Jesse Johnson, Bobby Adams [aka Bobby Grier Adams], Lloyd Nelson, Sleepy King, the Four Hunks, King Coleman, Art Lassiter, the Shockettes, Russell Byrd, Jerry Heyward & the Everglades, the Parliaments, and the Hockadays came and went without making much noise.

The Poets - She Blew a Good Thing

Inez & Charlie Foxx changed all of that with their 1963 smash “Mockingbird” which was released on Symbol. The single reached #2 on the R&B chart and crossed over to Top 10 success on the Pop chart. Symbol had five more chart records with the brother-and-sister duo from North Carolina in 1963 and 1964. They included “He’s the One You Love,” “Hi Diddle Diddle,” and “Ask Me.”

The singles by Inez & Charle Foxx were the only Symbol singles to make the charts until March 1966. That was when the Poets came along. They were led by Ronnie Lewis, and their lineup also included Melvin Bradford, Paul Fulton, and Johnny James. They had one unsuccessful single under the belts, recorded before they were signed to Symbol. “Wrapped Around Your Finger” had been released on J-2 Records and got them some attention in New York, but that was about it.

Lewis had an unfinished song called “She Blew a Good Thing” which Murray finished for him. Symbol Records #214 made it all the way to #2 on the R&B chart and rose to #45 on the Pop chart. The Poets recorded two more singles for Symbol, “So Young and So Innocent,” and “I’ve Got Two Hearts.” Both were released in 1966 but by that time Sue Records was winding down, and taking Symbol with it. The singles failed to chart. By 1968, Murray had sold Sue to United Artists although he stayed on to run the label.

No one at UA expected much from the new acquisition so there was a good deal of surprise when Wilbert Harrison’s “Let’s Work Together,” reached the Top 40 at the end of 1969. UA was so disinterested that no follow-up single was ever released. By 1970, Sue was dead and gone except as a vehicle for UA (and later EMI) compilations. Murray stayed active in the music business until his death in 2005. As for the Poets, the road seems to have ended for them after their final single for Symbol.