Cherry Red’s Big Break Records imprint has rocked the boat with a batch of recent reissues from the RCA vaults – one seminal title from The Hues Corporation and a trio from “Native New Yorker” group Odyssey.
When “Rock the Boat” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in July 1974, it wasn’t exactly new. It had first appeared almost a year earlier on the August 1973 release of Freedom for the Stallion, The Hues Corporation’s debut album for RCA. “One lovely lady” and “two bright young men” is how the label described the trio consisting of H. Ann Kelley, St. Clair Lee and Fleming Williams. Though the group only recorded five albums before disbanding in 1978, they remain radio mainstays thanks to “Rock the Boat,” considered one of the first – if not the first –disco record to top the pop charts.
One wouldn’t call Freedom for a Stallion a “disco” record, however. Producer John Florez (The Friends of Distinction, The 5th Dimension) assembled an eclectic group of songs and musicians to create the California pop-soul trio’s first LP. Setting up shop in RCA’s Hollywood studios, Florez was joined by Hal Blaine, Jim Gordon, Joe Osborn, Louie Shelton and Al Casey from the famed L.A. Wrecking Crew. They were joined by a cross-section of players from the worlds of jazz (The Crusaders’ Joe Sample, Larry Carlton and Wilton Felder) and rock (future Toto member David Hungate). Arrangements were provided by such famous names as Barry White collaborator Gene Page, Harry Nilsson associate Perry Botkin, Jr., and Tom Sellers, who scored the simple, catchy proto-disco of “Rock the Boat” with the light, breezy touch that kept it afloat on its long sail to No. 1.
The smooth harmonies, lush strings and Bacharach-style horns of Freedom for the Stallion occasionally recall the sound of The 5th Dimension, making for a bright and upbeat debut in the finest sweet-soul tradition. “Rock the Boat” was written by Hues manager Wally Holmes, who also penned three other tracks for the album. The stirringly anthemic title track – here given an alternately dramatic and wistful chart from Gene Page – came from the Allen Toussaint songbook; over the years, it’s also seen renditions by Boz Scaggs, Three Dog Night, Tony Orlando and Dawn, and Elvis Costello with Toussaint himself. John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins (“Son of a Preacher Man”) were tapped for a couple of compositions, as was Michael Jarrett (Elvis Presley’s “I’m Leavin’.”) The closing track, “Miracle Maker (Sweet Soul Shaker)”, was provided by Brill Building stalwarts Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, who like the Wrecking Crew, were first-hand witnesses to a radically changing musical landscape.
BBR has added two bonus tracks to Freedom for the Stallion, the single versions of both Toussaint’s title song and of course, “Rock the Boat.” With copious notes by Christian John Wikane and new remastering from Nick Robbins, Freedom has set sail once again, ready for rediscovery.
After the jump: the scoop on three reissues from Odyssey, plus full track listings and order links for all four titles!
“Native New Yorker” is the song that heralded the arrival of another RCA vocal trio, Odyssey, onto the scene. This time, the makeup was two women and one man: Lillian and Louise Lopez and Tony Reynolds. Their 1977 hit was written by Denny Randell and Sandy Linzer, the same team who had gifted Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons with such tunes as “Let’s Hang On,” “Working My Way Back to You” and “Opus 17.” Together, they’d also written for The Toys, The Monkees, The Cyrkle, and Jay and the Techniques (to name a few), and had found a way to update their ebullient pop style for the 1970s without sacrificing their melodic instincts. The same went for producer-arranger-conductor Charles Calello, a close collaborator of The Four Seasons (with whom he also once served as bassist), Al Kooper, Laura Nyro and many others. Linzer and Calello helmed the self-titled 1977 debut Odyssey, which BBR released back in 2010, and returned for the first of three of the group’s albums just reissued by the label: 1978’s Hollywood Party Tonight.
Though Party stylistically followed the blueprint set by Odyssey, there was at least one major change as Tony Reynolds had departed the group to be replaced by Billy McEachern. Party built on its predecessor’s gleaming blend of pop, rock, soul, disco, tropical rhythms, and big-band, brassy jazz. Inventive yet accessible, all eight of its thematically-unified tracks about life and love on the Hollywood scene were written by some permutation of Linzer, Randell and Calello, with Calello providing the brassy horn and sweet string arrangements. Future David Letterman bandleader and “It’s Raining Men” songwriter Paul Shaffer led “The Brala Jaju Rhythm Band” with Randy Brecker and Lew Soloff handling the trumpets and flugelhorns. Strong vocal support on the ambitious long-player was given by Alfa Anderson of CHIC, Arnold McCuller, and Luther Vandross. Despite (or perhaps because of) its refusal to adhere to convention, the sleek and contemporary Hollywood Party Tonight didn’t get any higher than No. 123 Pop/No. 72 R&B, and it failed to yield another “Native New Yorker.” (It wasn’t for lack of trying; the single “Lucky Star” was very nearly a remake of “New Yorker.”) Linzer and co. would helm one more album for the group before going their separate ways; that album, Hang Together, was reissued by BBR in 2012.
The Odyssey campaign continues with 1981’s I Got the Melody. RCA paired Odyssey with producer Steve Tyrell, today a successful crooner but then an A&R man and producer who had worked with everybody from B.J. Thomas to Blood Sweat and Tears. Tyrell saw to some musical continuity thanks to the return of keyboardist Paul Shaffer and trumpeter Randy Brecker. Randy’s brother Michael came on board, too. Without Linzer and Randell providing the songs, Tyrell turned to the catalogues of a number of well-known writers, among them Tom Snow, Patti Austin, Lamont Dozier, David Foster, Allee Willis and the album’s associate producer Al Gorgoni (“Wild Thing”). Tyrell brought his affinity for jazz and adult pop to I Got the Melody as well as a willingness to experiment with the electronic sounds that would soon dominate R&B in the 1980s. One highlight was a lightly reggae-fied revival of Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Oh No Not My Baby,” which Tyrell certainly knew from his days at Scepter/Wand Records where Maxine Brown recorded it. Despite its high level of musicianship, Melody was another disappointment in the U.S. – but not abroad. In the U.K., it placed at No. 29, and the Dozier-written single “Going Back to My Roots” (part of a Swahili-infused suite on the LP) was a Top 5 hit there.
Surprisingly, the Tyrell association only lasted for one LP. Jimmy Douglass (Slave, Black Heat) replaced him for Odyssey’s 1982 RCA swansong, Happy Together. With disco in large part having ceded to a different kind of urban dance music, Happy Together emphasized the R&B element that was always part of the group’s signature sound. And though it wasn’t a concept album, the LP’s title certainly reflected a lyrical thread in the music. In addition to the title track – a synth-flecked update of The Turtles’ Gary Bonner/Alan Gordon-penned chart-topper – the tunestack boasted “Happy People” and just plain “Together.” Except there was nothing plain about it, as “Together” was written by CHIC’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, who also played guitar and bass on the track, respectively. It was the rare track written by Rodgers and Edwards that wasn’t produced by the duo, but it still bore the hallmarks of a true CHIC groove. “Inside Out,” a U.K. Top 5 smash, began life as a track for Slave, but was reworked for Odyssey with a little help from Slave drummer Steve Arrington. Other players on the album included ubiquitous bassist Marcus Miller, Philly soul veteran guitarist Bobby Eli, drummer Yogi Horton, keyboardist Lenny Underwood and bassist T.M. Stevens. Although “Inside Out” didn’t fare as well in the U.S. as it did in the U.K., only reaching No. 104 Pop, it hit No. 12 R&B, and the Happy Together album made it to a not-unimpressive No. 23 on the Billboard R&B Albums chart.
With these three releases, BBR has completed Odyssey’s RCA discography. All of these new titles are housed in Super Jewel Boxes to match the label’s first two releases in the Odyssey series. Each album has been remastered by Nick Robbins and features copious liner notes from Steven E. Flemming, Jr., drawing on interviews with a number of the key personnel. Each disc, too, includes bonus tracks:
Hollywood Party Tonight: “Single Again/What Time Does the Balloon Go Up?” and “Lucky Star” (Single Versions)
I Got the Melody: “Going Back to My Roots,” “Baba Awa” and “It Will Be Alright” (Single Versions), and “Going Back to My Roots” (12-Inch Version)
Happy Together: “Inside Out” (Single Mix), “Together” (Single Version), “Magic Touch” (Single Mix), “Happy People” (Single Version), “Inside Out” and “Magic Touch” (12-Inch Versions)
Today, Billy McEachern is an accountant and a teacher, but continues to write songs, sing and play guitar. Louise Lopez is retired from music, and Lillian Lopez passed away in 2012. Lillian’s son Steven Collazo keeps the Odyssey name alive from his home base in the U.K., and continues to tour worldwide. The new Odyssey recorded the album Legacy in 2011. Thanks to Big Break’s reissue series, the roots of Odyssey’s legacy can be explored once more.
- Bound on a Reason
- Off My Cloud
- All Goin’ Down Together
- Rock the Boat
- Freedom for the Stallion
- The Family
- Go to the Poet
- Salvation Lady (1-3-5)
- Live a Lie
- Miracle Maker (Sweet Soul Shaker)
- Freedom for the Stallion (Single Version) (RCA single 74-0900, 1973)
- Rock the Boat (Single Version) (RCA single APB0-232, 1974)
- Single Again/What Time Does the Balloon Go Up
- You Wouldn’t Know a Real Live True Love If It Walked Right Up, Kissed You on the Cheek and Said Hello, Baby
- Hey Bill (Last Night Really Was a Thrill)
- Lilly and Harvey, Late to the Party Again
- Lucky Star
- Comin’ Back for More
- I Dare Ya
- Single Again/What Time Does the Balloon Go Up (Single Version) (RCA single PB-11399, 1978)
- Lucky Star (Single Remix) (RCA single PB-11444, 1979)
- I Got the Melody
- Roots Suite: Ajamora Ayega (Freedom for All)/Going Back to My Roots/Baba Awa
- I Can’t Keep Holding Back My Love
- Baby That’s All I Want
- It Will Be Alright
- Oh No Not My Baby
- Hold On to Love
- Going Back to My Roots (Single Version) (RCA single AFL1-3910, 1981)
- Baba Awa (Single Version) (RCA single AFL1-3910, 1981)
- It Will Be Alright (Single Version) (RCA single PD-12348, 1981)
- Going Back to My Roots (12-Inch Version)
- Inside Out
- Happy Together
- Happy People
- When You Love Somebody
- Love’s Alright
- Magic Touch
- Inside Out (Single Mix) (RCA single PB-13217, 1982)
- Together (Single Version) (RCA single PB-13340, 1982)
- Magic Touch (Single Mix) (RCA (U.K.) single RCA-275, 1982)
- Happy People (Single Version) (RCA (U.K.) single RCA-275, 1982)
- Inside Out (12-Inch Version)
- Magic Touch (12-Inch Version)