By 1970, Nancy Wilson had already been a marquee recording artist for Capitol Records for a decade. The supreme song stylist never allowed herself to be pigeonholed into one musical style, having made her successful debut single with a Broadway showtune ("Guess Who I Saw Today"), dabbled in R&B ("Save Your Love for Me") and collaborated with jazz greats such as Cannonball Adderley and George Shearing. All in all, Wilson was a leading light of adult pop, selling out nightclubs and even playing a Vegas club singer on television's I Spy. But the times they were a-changin', and so was pop music. As the sixties gave way to the seventies, "adult" artists like Andy Williams, Johnny Mathis, Tony Bennett and Peggy Lee were being encouraged to record hit pop-rock songs in "adult-friendly" versions. In this strange new world, songs like "You've Made Me So Very Happy" and "Spinning Wheel" became virtual standards overnight. Some modern songbooks, deservedly, ascended into the pantheon (those by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Jimmy Webb, Laura Nyro, Paul Simon, to name a few). Other oft-covered songs from this period ("Little Green Apples," anyone?) didn't share quite the same fate as "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" or "Bridge Over Troubled Water." It was in this climate that Capitol ushered Nancy Wilson into the 1970s with two very different, contemporary albums - one of which is very nearly a lost masterwork.
Can't Take My Eyes Off You (1970) and Now I'm a Woman (1971) have both been reissued on CD for the very first time by SoulMusic Records on one CD (SMCR 25087). The former wasn't Wilson's first foray into the modern repertoire; in fact, its title track had been recycled from a 1969 hit single (No. 27 R&B, No. 52 Pop) and the Hurt So Bad album, also scheduled to be reissued by the SoulMusic label. The Bob Gaudio/Bob Crewe song, a No. 2 hit for Frankie Valli in 1967, had also been recorded by the likes of The Lettermen, Andy Williams, Engelbert Humperdinck, and Diana Ross and the Supremes with the Temptations, among so many others. But Nancy's swinging and soulful treatment signified that she had more affinity for current pop material than many artists. Producer David Cavanaugh assembled Can't Take My Eyes Off You with both the kind of material common to these MOR-pop albums ("You Made Me So Very Happy," "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," the title track) and some unexpected choices.
We'll explore both albums after the jump! Plus: the full track listing and order link!
In addition to a sultry, slowed-down reading of "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" (with a piano intro seemingly lifted from Jimmy Webb's "MacArthur Park"), Burt Bacharach is represented with the more off-the-beaten-path choice of "Waiting for Charlie to Come Home." Co-written with Bob Hilliard and previously recorded by Jane Morgan and Etta James, "Charlie" finds Wilson flexing her blues chops. Webb also makes an appearance on the LP with "Mixed-Up Girl." Though the production isn't as powerful as Thelma Houston's original or Dusty Springfield's cover, Nancy still delivers a vocal that's as brassy as Phil Wright's chart. Another song recorded by Springfield, "Brand New Me," augured for Wilson's next LP. (We'll have more on that in just a paragraph or two.) The song was co-written by Philadelphia's Kenny Gamble, and in Wilson's understated, lightly swinging arrangement, she takes a jazz artist's liberty with the melody as organ and Fender bass lend color.
Wilson even found a new approach to "Can't Take My Eyes Off You." Jimmy Jones recast the durable song in a smoldering, sensual style which Wilson played to the hilt with just the right note of sass ("Pardon the way that I stare/There's nothing else to compare/The sight of you leads me weak"). Wilson masterfully reshapeslyrics, taking a staccato "There/are/no/words/left to speak" that wrung emotion out of a song that was even then already very familiar. When she tears into the famous chorus, again stretching the melody to her needs, the effect is both hot and cool at the same time.
Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" is one of the more adventurous choices, and even Jerry Fuller's "This Girl is a Woman Now," a hit for Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, gets a Wilson spin when she takes it in the first person: "I found out what it's all about/And I'm learning, learning to live..." The album's biggest curio is Leiber and Stoller's breezy "Trip with Me," from the flop film The Phynx. The song is, well, more square than the title might indicate, but it's without a doubt a groovy snapshot of the era.
Can't Take My Eyes Off You, though, is a mere appetizer for 1971's Now I'm a Woman. David Cavanaugh stepped aside for an Executive Producer credit, ceding the reins of Wilson's long-player to the Gamble-Huff team. As Bobby Martin recalls in A. Scott Galloway's terrific liner notes, the MFSB string section packed its bags and headed west to Hollywood to join producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff along with arrangers Lenny Pakula, Thom Bell and Martin. (Huff, alas, soon had to head back east when his father died during the sessions.) The result of their cross-country journey was a criminally-unknown Philadelphia soul classic.
The album starts off with just a piano, and then Nancy's voice draws you in: "I've been hurt in love three times/Once as a baby, then as a lady/Now I'm a woman..." Those strings enter, and the power of the song sneaks up on the listener along with the background vocals and subdued horns. Though some lyrical turns don't seem ideal for the classy Ms. Wilson ("My mama didn't have no help..."), it's clear that Gamble, Huff and co. were tailoring their melodies and arrangements to Wilson's strengths. The story song plays to her natural dramatic inclination, and the Philly-soul blend of the earthy and the extravagant allowed her to use all of the shadings in her voice.
Just how well the Gamble-Huff sound worked on Wilson is apparent on the album's second track, "Joe." Written by Gamble, Allan Felder and Norman Harris, this true tour de force was arranged by Bell in the luscious symphonic-soul style he had perfected with The Delfonics and would adapt and refine for The Stylistics that same year. Bell's haunting horn figure introduces the song and recurs throughout its supremely sad arc. "Does anybody know how I can get in touch with Joe?," Wilson pleads, her voice dripping with vulnerability and anguish. Bell had already orchestrated the aching song for Dusty Springfield's Gamble-Huff sessions, but whereas Dusty's arrangement begins with orchestral bombast, Nancy's was altogether more subtle. With a remarkable orchestration and a vocal that's never overwrought but filled with raw honesty and longing, it's a mystery how "Joe" was overlooked for single release in favor of the less melodic "Now I'm a Woman."
Along with the title track, Gamble and Huff also tailored "The Real Me" and "Lonely, Lonely" for Nancy. Smoky saxophone introduces the latter song, an offbeat, melodically-shifting song which juxtaposes gorgeous R&B/soul sections with up-tempo jazz. Wilson also excelled with Bobby Martin's "Let's Fall in Love All Over." With music, lyrics and an arrangement from the multi-talented Mr. Martin, it had been sung from the male perspective by Billy Paul on the recently-reissued Ebony Woman and much later by Lou Rawls on All Things in Time. In addition to his own smooth, romantic ode, Martin also handled the arrangement for the cool slice of uptown soul, "The Real Me." Wilson's vocal is fierce as she proclaims, "It's been so long, I don't know where to start..." Thankfully, Gamble, Huff and Martin indeed knew where to start with her artistry.
Four frequently-covered songs take us back to Can't Take My Eyes Off You territory: Bacharach and David's "(They Long to Be) Close to You," Lennon and McCartney's "The Long and Winding Road," Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Water," and David Gates' "Make it with You." "Road" and "Bridge" were arranged by Lenny Pakula in straightforward fashion, though he adds some Philly embellishment via what sounds like an electric sitar on "Bridge." Wilson, of course, brought the power of her emotive chops to "Bridge." Thom Bell's sublime take on "Make it with You" brings us back to Delfonics-Land as he reinvents the deathless, perfect pop song with swirling strings, forceful horns and that sitar sound.
All of the tracks added up to what Gamble describes in Galloway's notes as "a good album...but it could have been a great album." We'll never know what the result would have been had Capitol allowed Nancy to record in Philadelphia with all of the usual orchestra members, nor what production changes might had occurred had Huff not been forced to abandon the sessions. Gamble regrets both occurrences: "We could have been a little more creative in our studio element," he says, adding that "it was...hard for me not having my main man with me" in Hollywood.
There are more hints of greatness, however, in the three outtakes added for this CD reissue. Studio banter has been left intact on this trio of lost gems. Two songs came from the writing partnership of Gamble, Huff and Jerry Butler, and had previously been recorded by The Iceman. "Go Away Find Yourself," addresses a misguided lover with delicious acidity. Even better is "When You're Alone," which easily deserved a place on the released LP. Nancy lets loose on this purely soulful cut, ably supported by the MFSB strings and the prominent horn section "in the pocket." For Butler's recordings, Bobby Martin and Thom Bell shared arranging duties; it's possible that they reprised their duties for Wilson's recordings. The third of these tracks is the most recognizable, "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me." Written by Gamble and Jerry Ross and introduced in 1966 by Dee Dee Warwick, it might have been left off the album as it would have come across as another hit cover. It had, after all, just scored for Diana Ross and the Supremes and The Temptations over at Motown. It's hard to go wrong with the song, though, and Nancy certainly did it justice.
Alan Wilson has remastered both albums for this expanded reissue. SoulMusic is promising more releases in its non-chronological series devoted to Nancy Wilson's ouevre at Capitol and elsewhere, but Can't Take My Eyes Off You/Now I'm a Woman will be hard to top. This collection is quintessential soul from a distinct voice who is still rightly celebrated all these many years later.
Nancy Wilson, Can't Take My Eyes Off You/Now I'm a Woman (SoulMusic SMCR 25087, 2013)
- Waitin' for Charlie to Come Home
- A Brand New Me
- Mixed-Up Girl
- Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head
- This Girl is a Woman Now
- Can't Take My Eyes Off You
- Words and Music
- You've Made Me So Very Happy
- Trip with Me
- Now I'm a Woman
- (They Long to Be) Close to You
- The Long and Winding Road
- Bridge Over Troubled Water
- Let's Fall in Love All Over
- Lonely, Lonely
- How Many Broken Wings
- The Real Me
- Make It with You
- Go Away Find Yourself
- When You're Alone
- I'm Gonna Make You Love Me
Tracks 1-10 from Can't Take My Eyes Off You, Capitol LP ST 429, 1970
Tracks 11-20 from Now I'm a Woman, Capitol LP ST 541, 1971
Tracks 21-23 unissued at time of original album release