Review: Dick Jensen, “Dick Jensen” – A Lost Philadelphia Soul Classic
When Dick Jensen was signed to ABC’s Probe Records label in 1969, only one album title seemed appropriate: White Hot Soul. The Hawaiian-born entertainer’s stage moves earned him comparisons to James Brown and Jackie Wilson, while his voice recalled the booming sonorities of Tom Jones or Engelbert Humperdinck. Tucked away on Side Two of that Don Costa-produced LP, Jensen included The Soul Survivors’ “Expressway to Your Heart” as part of a medley. That 1967 Top 5 hit, of course, was written by Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, later to found Philadelphia International Records. Jensen couldn’t have known that just a few years later, he would be poised for his American breakthrough as one of the artists signed to PIR. The showbiz veteran had taken his act to Mexico City, New York City, Las Vegas and throughout the Hawaiian Islands by the time he was welcomed to the label of the O’Jays, Billy Paul and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. That breakthrough, alas, never came, and 1973’s Dick Jensen became one of the most neglected items in the PIR catalogue. The LP is long-deleted, and a CD edition was only released in Japan. Thanks to the upcoming reissue by Big Break Records, however, you can rediscover an album which stands squarely among the best released by the iconic label.
Being an early production made before the famous MFSB orchestra splintered, Dick Jensen teamed the vocalist of Hawaiian, French, English, Danish and Irish descent with the combined forces of the greatest musicians the city had to offer. Indeed, the line-up recorded at Sigma Sound Studios is quintessential: co-producer Leon Huff on piano, Norman Harris, T.J. Tindall, Bobby Eli, and Roland Chambers on guitar, Earl Young on drums, Ronnie Baker on bass, Larry Washington on congas, Lenny Pakula on organ and Vince Montana on vibes. Don Renaldo brought his Horns and Strings, and the Sweethearts of Sigma (Carla Benson, Barbara Ingram and Evette Benton) were on hand for the background vocals. Gamble and Huff, Bunny Sigler and Thom Bell all contributed production, while Bell, Montana, Harris and Bobby Martin all wrote arrangements for Jensen’s artistic rebirth.
Are you sold on this LP yet? You know what to do – hit the jump for more on Dick Jensen!
Vince Montana did the arranging honors for the album’s opening salvo, a sweet and sunny mid-tempo confection written (like all but three tracks) by Gamble and Huff. “A Penny for Your Thoughts” is the MFSB equivalent of a jazzy big band chart; think a more soulfully breezy version of The Spinners’ “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You.” It’s also a virtual call-and-response duet between Jensen and the background vocalists. “Give you a penny for your thoughts,” Jensen laconically asks. He adds, “I hope you’re thinking about me” as the background voices repeat each phrase amid swirling strings, stabbing horns and a gently twangy guitar. It all adds up to three minutes of pop with an irresistible groove. With the diversity of sounds on Dick Jensen, though, it’s clear that Gamble and Huff wanted to blur genre lines and showcase the singer’s versatility. And so there’s traditional Philly proto-disco on the storming “I Don’t Want to Cry,” a cover of the Chuck Jackson/Luther Dixon oldie, and the bright, sparkling “Peace of Mind.” “Fat Mama” must have recalled Jensen’s kinetic onstage act, its percolating funk beat giving the singer ample opportunity to growl and scream, James Brown-style. The song is far from top-tier Gamble and Huff, basically an excuse on which to hang Jensen’s R&B wailing. But it’s light years removed from the swinging “A Penny for Your Thoughts,” and persuasively shows another route the singer could have developed.
“Going Up on the Mountain” and “Three Cheers to Love” both predated Dick Jensen, having been released as a single by PIR in 1971. The former is a funky little gospel workout that’s more than a little derivative of Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s “Gonna Build a Mountain,” especially lyrically. The latter’s smooth, simple statement of affection (“Let’s give three cheers for love/Hooray, hooray, hooray,” Jensen croons) isn’t as torrid as the romantic ballads Gamble and Huff would craft for, say, Teddy Pendergrass, but it sits comfortably alongside their later work for another vocalist with a diverse background, Lou Rawls. “Shall We Gather by the Water,” written by Phil Hurtt and Bunny Sigler with a Bobby Martin arrangement and Sigler’s own production, is a more driving devotional than “Going Up on the Mountain,” and Jensen delivers an expressive vocal that’s both impassioned and conversational. He even introduces the song with an enthusiastic spoken-word rap. (These gospel-infused numbers anticipate Jensen’s eventual devotion of his life to serving Christianity.)
The album’s two strongest tracks, however, are hidden smack in the middle and place the man from Hawaii in the middle of the urban jungle. Tense strings contrast with reassuring vibes on Gamble and Huff’s “New York City’s a Lonely Town” (not the similarly-titled Tradewinds song) as arranged by Norman Harris. It’s supremely sad and supremely soulful, with Jensen’s mournful vocal driving the story home. Harris’ arrangement looks forward to his lavish production of Blue Magic’s “Sideshow” the following year at Atlantic, enhancing Gamble and Huff’s dynamic and memorable melody with the hallmarks of symphonic soul. (“Sideshow” was co-written by one of the guitarists on Dick Jensen, Bobby Eli. Among his considerable accomplishments, Eli later worked his Philly magic on none other than Engelbert Humperdinck!) “The sign says welcome/But ain’t it a pity/There’s no one to open the door,” Jensen cries before pleading, “Please let me in!” with a fervor that’s somewhere between Rawls and Tom Jones. Every element comes together in this ballad that shockingly wasn’t revisited by another PIR artist in the wake of Dick Jensen’s disappearance from the record racks.
Thom Bell and Linda Creed’s sole contribution to Dick Jensen, “32nd Street,” also plays on the pathos of big city life. The introduction is one of Bell’s most sweepingly dramatic as strings swirl, horns blast with insinuation, cymbals crash and ethereal background voices cinematically converge to tell a “Mr. Bojangles”-like story. In Creed’s evocative lyric, a forgotten “music king” on the titular thoroughfare just asks that life allow him to “tap his worn-out shoes to any song you’d choose.” There’s deep empathy in Jensen’s reading, as Bell contrasts a harsh, percussive beat with consoling female background voices, as his signature brass and strings provide a bed that’s both lush and unsettling. These two bravura tracks had little chance to catch on, however. “New York City’s a Lonely Town” was unconscionably buried as the B-side of “Peace of Mind,” while “32nd Street” was never extracted from the album. It remains one of Bell and Creed’s criminally unknown compositions.
For an artist who was known as “The Giant” in his home of Hawaii, played showrooms around the world, rubbed shoulders with the Rat Pack and even opened for The Rolling Stones, there’s precious little information available about the career of Dick Jensen (1942-2006). Thankfully, we have Stephen “Spaz” Schnee’s fine, detailed and compelling liner notes here to make up for the dearth of writing about Jensen and his brief stint in Philadelphia. (When Schnee uses the “easy listening” term, though, it’s hard not to think of the comments made by Philly soul devotee Elvis Costello. He once astutely observed of the often musically-sophisticated genre in which his sometime-collaborator Burt Bacharach has been lumped, “There’s nothing easy about it. If it was easy, everybody would be writing and singing it.”)
Longtime collectors of the Big Break line will notice something immediately different with Dick Jensen and the label’s other January releases. BBR has been forced to abandon Super Jewel Boxes, and they’ve been replaced with standard clear-tray jewel cases. Though we miss the distinctive cases, it’s the music that matters, and the booklet and artwork design is still up to the label’s top-notch standard. No bonus tracks have been appended, though a rare mono single mix of “Peace of Mind” is tantalizingly pictured. The splendid sounds of Dick Jensen have been remastered by Nick Robbins.
This may be the most unexpected 40th anniversary reissue we’ve seen yet, but it’s also purely one of the most delightful. A penny for your thoughts: if you’re a fan of Philly soul, classic pop vocals, so-called “MOR” or just plain R&B, there’s something for you here. This is one white hot album you’ll want to add to your library and revisit again and again. Dick Jensen is available now in the U.K. and on February 5 in the U.S.!
Dick Jensen, Dick Jensen (Philadelphia International KZ-31794, 1973 – reissued Big Break CDBBR 0202, 2013)
- A Penny for Your Thoughts
- I Don’t Want to Cry
- Three Cheers to Love
- Fat Mama
- New York City’s a Lonely Town
- 32nd Street
- Going Up on the Mountain
- Peace of Mind
- Shall We Gather by the Water
- Tamika (Come Back Later)