A recent trio of releases from Cherry Red’s SoulMusic Records imprint is sure to get the pulses racing of ’70s and ‘80s soul fans.
Freda Payne’s second album for Capitol Records, 1978’s Supernatural High, followed 1977’s Stares and Whispers, also the recipient of a past SoulMusic reissue. Skip Scarborough (Earth Wind and Fire, Dionne Warwick, Phyllis Hyman) took the production helm from Motown’s Frank Wilson and wrote a few tracks for the project. Like many of Payne’s best albums, Supernatural explored numerous sides of the versatile artist. Freda had, after all, been spotted by Duke Ellington, toured with Billy Eckstine, played on Broadway, and recorded for labels including Holland-Dozier-Holland’s Invictus/Hot Wax family and ABC-Paramount. She scored her stone-cold classic “Band of Gold” for H-D-H in 1970, but was still very much an active recording artist when Supernatural rolled around. The album has numerous disco flourishes but is still very much in a soulful R&B vein as produced by Scarborough and arranged by David N. Crawford.
The opening medley of “Happy Days Are Here Again” with Scarborough’s “Happy Music” put a disco spin on the Democratic Party favorite written in 1932 and adopted by Barbra Streisand (and so famously sung by Streisand and Judy Garland as a duet). “Livin’ for the Beat,” from Payne’s then-husband Gregory Abbott, was another track designed for the dancefloor. ”Tell Me Please,” from Scarborough’s pen, is a sweet ‘n’ smooth mid-tempo ballad for Payne to wrap her pipes around, as is Thom Bell and Leroy Bell’s “Just the Thought of You and Me Together (Supernatural High),” which lent its title to the album. Kevin L. Goins’ excellent liner notes don’t explain how Payne got a hold of the Bell song, but it’s a major highlight with Bell’s typically lush melodic style. Alas, he didn’t come on board to produce or arrange the track, but the horn arrangement near the song’s conclusion is in vintage Bell style. Other songs on Supernatural High came from Deniece Williams (the languid “Falling in Love”) and Freda’s sister, the Supreme Scherrie Payne (the shimmering “Storybook Romance”). One more album followed for Capitol (1979’s Hot) before Payne took an extended recording hiatus. Soul Music’s new edition adds one bonus track, the single edit of “Happy Days/Happy Music.” (The B-side of “Happy Days,” “Falling in Love,” has not been included, and nor has the “I’ll Do Anything For You” Pt. 1 and 2 single.)
After the jump: we revisit classics from Stephanie Mills and Freda Payne, plus order links and track listings for all three titles!
By the time of Stephanie Mills’ 1984 album I’ve Got The Cure (her ninth overall and third for Casablanca Records), the powerful vocalist had already proved her mastery at a variety of musical styles. She had starred on Broadway, sang Burt Bacharach and Hal David songs at Motown, and conquered the dance-pop crowd at 20th Century Records with floor-fillers like “What’cha Gonna Do With My Lovin’.” I’ve Got the Cure turned out to be a comeback of sorts for the singer. Whereas her first two Casablanca albums hadn’t yielded significant commercial rewards, its lead-off single “The Medicine Song” headed straight for the U.S. R&B Top 10. SoulMusic has expanded this synth-driven eighties production helmed by George Duke for CD with three bonus tracks and a new essay from Charles Waring.
Mills was in top form, although the busy production at times overshadows her expressive pipes. Duke tells Waring in his essay that “she really wanted in her heart of hearts, I believe, to do an album of material like ‘Home’ which became a theme song for her. We had actually talked about doing it but the record company didn’t really want her to do it.” But Mills and Duke gave their all to what he describes as “danceable…the whole ‘Flashdance’ kind of theme.” Duke and additional producer David “Hawk” Wolinski surrounded Mills’ distinctive voice with sequencers, synthesizers and drum machines for the then-very current “Medicine Song.” Tom Snow and Roy Freeland contributed the catchy “Edge of the Razor,” the second single and a Top 50 R&B/Top 20 Dance track. The album’s most atypical song (and Duke’s favorite on the album) is “Give It Half a Chance,” a lush ballad from two eighties hitmakers: Stephen (“It Might Be You”) Bishop and Kenny Loggins. Mills was in her element on the song, with its organic feel and opportunity for bravura belting as well as vocal sensitivity. “Everlasting Love” (not the hit for Robert Knight and Carl Carlton but rather a ballad original from co-writer Michael J. Powell) is equally impressive as it utilizes no electronics, just Duke leading a lean band. Duke also contributed a piano solo to the funky, modern “Outrageous,” co-written by Len Ron Hanks. Four songs were supplied by the Pat Leonard/Keithen Carter team including the album closer, “Undercover.” With its pyrotechnic singing, the album at times recalls Duke’s eighties work with another gifted vocalist, Deniece Williams. But I’ve Got the Cure ultimately succeeds as a showcase for one of the many sides of the versatile Stephanie Mills. The new reissue adds Mark Berry’s 12-inch mix of “The Medicine Song” plus the dance and dub mixes of “Edge of the Razor.”
The late Gwen Guthrie (1950-1999) never achieved superstardom but carved out a stellar career as singer, songwriter, arranger and producer. She penned songs for Sister Sledge, Ben E. King and Roberta Flack, and sang backup for the likes of Aretha Franklin before embarking on her own solo career in 1982. Guthrie, dubbed “The First Lady of [New York discotheque] the Paradise Garage,” was signed to Island Records where she recorded three LPs between 1983 and 1985. Guthrie’s breakthrough, 1986’s Good to Go Lover, was her fourth album and first for Polydor, and included her biggest hit, “Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ On But the Rent.”
Written and produced by Guthrie, “Ain’t Nothin’” (No. 1 R&B/No. 1 Dance/No. 42 Pop) was one of three album tracks penned by the singer including the title cut co-written with Bill Hagans. Sultry, uptempo and eighties-slick grooves dominate the album, though Guthrie was also a talented and versatile ballad singer as evidenced by performances like the heartfelt “You Touched My Life” and the breathy, sensual “Passion Eyes.” But the specter of “Ain’t Nothin’ But the Rent” looms over the balance of the record; its bold, blunt lyrics (“You got to have a J-O-B- to be with me!” or “I got lots of love to give/But I will have to avoid you/If you’re unemployed!”) struck a universal chord with listeners who might not have been enjoying prosperity during the Reagan era. As with every track on the eight-song LP, Guthrie’s vocals are confident and compelling.
Guthrie’s adventurous spirit was epitomized by the album-opening cover of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “(They Long to Be) Close to You.” Guthrie begins the oft-recorded song (first sung by Richard Chamberlain, not by Dionne Warwick as the liner notes indicate) in traditional style before giving it a funky but playful R&B makeover complete with sassy new lyrical asides ("I love your sexy, sexy moves!"). A vocoder recurs on “Stop Holding Back,” first recorded by Surface. Its production occasionally recalls the decade’s dance-pop triumphs of Madonna, an artist for whom Guthrie had sung backing vocals.
Justin Kantor has written new liner notes reflecting on Guthrie’s tragically short life and ongoing legacy, and like the Freda Payne and Stephanie Mills titles, Alan Wilson has newly remastered the album. Four bonus tracks have been added here: the 12-inch club mix of “Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ On But the Rent” plus the single versions of “Outside in the Rain” and “Close to You,” and the B-side “Save Your Love for Me.”
All three titles are available now and can be ordered below. Watch this space for coverage of SoulMusic’s next batch of releases including vintage titles from Nancy Wilson, Donna Washington and Jerry Butler, and one more from Ms. Mills!
Gwen Guthrie, Good to Go Lover: Expanded Edition (Polydor 829 532-1, 1986 – reissued SoulMusic SMCR 5082, 2013)
- (They Long to Be) Close to You
- Outside in the Rain
- Good to Go Lover
- You Touched My Life
- Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ On But the Rent
- I Still Want You
- Stop Holding Back
- Passion Eyes
- Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ On But the Rent (12” Club Mix – Polydor 12” single 885-106-1, 1986)
- Outside in the Rain (Single Version – Polydor single 885-362-7, 1986)
- Save Your Love For Me (Duet with Surface) (Polydor single 885-362-7, 1986)
- (They Long to Be) Close to You (Single Version – Polydor single 885-528-1, 1987)
Stephanie Mills, I’ve Got the Cure: Expanded Edition (Casablanca 422-822-421, 1984 – reissued SoulMusic SMCR 5081, 2013)
- The Medicine Song
- Edge of the Razor
- In My Life
- Give It Half a Chance
- You Just Might Need a Friend
- Everlasting Love
- Rough Trade
- The Medicine Song (Original Mark Berry 12” Mix – UK Mastercuts CUTSCD 1, 1984)
- Edge of the Razor (Dance Mix – Casablanca 12” single 880-445-1, 1984)
- Edge of the Razor (Dub Mix- Casablanca 12” single 880-445-1, 1984)
Freda Payne, Supernatural High: Expanded Edition (Capitol ST-11864, 1978 – reissued SoulMusic SMCR 5084, 2013)
- Happy Days Are Here Again/Happy Music (Dance the Night Away)
- Pullin’ Back
- Tell Me Please
- Just the Thought of You and Me Together (Supernatural High)
- Livin’ for the Beat
- Falling in Love
- I’ll Do Anything For You
- Storybook Romance
- Happy Days Are Here Again/Happy Music (Dance the Night Away) (Single Version- Capitol 45-4631, 1978)