When Jerry Butler joined Motown Records in 1975, hopes naturally ran high. One of the classiest baritones in R&B was finally appearing on the most successful independent record label of all time. The Iceman’s time at Motown would turn out to be short, encompassing just four albums in two years. But thanks to SoulMusic Records, his first two albums for Berry Gordy’s empire can be enjoyed once more on CD. The label’s reissue of Love’s on the Menu and Suite for the Single Girl (SMCR 25086) finds the soul crooner in peak form.
Butler has the distinction of being the only artist to have recorded for the three most significant African American-owned record labels: Vee-Jay, Motown and Philadelphia International. At Vee-Jay, he co-wrote and headlined “For Your Precious Love” with The Impressions. Then he began an illustrious solo career during which he introduced Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Make It Easy on Yourself” and popularized Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s “Moon River” even before Andy Williams made it his signature song. At Mercury, Butler teamed with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff for a series of memorable recordings including “Only the Strong Survive” and “Hey Western Union Man,” but when Gamble and Huff struck out on their own to form Philadelphia International Records, Butler remained loyal to Mercury. In the ensuing years, he would form the Butler Music Workshop and play mentor to a group of up-and-coming young songwriters, but when old Vee-Jay pal Ewart Abner invited Butler to join Motown in 1975, he accepted. Love’s on the Menu, recorded both in Detroit and Butler’s home base of Chicago with a variety of producers, was released in 1976 as the first result of the relationship.
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“She’s got love on her mind/Soft music and wine/Love’s on the menu tonight,” Butler slickly intones on the song which inspired the album’s title. Though it’s not the first song on the LP, it sets the tone for this laid-back, sophisticated collection of smooth adult soul. Butler takes in both the lusty and the romantic over the album’s ten songs, equally comfortable in both styles. Sex is on the mind in Marvin Smith’s “The Devil in Mrs. Jones,” inspired by both Billy Paul’s Gamble and Huff-penned “Me and Mrs. Jones” and the 1973 pornographic film The Devil in Miss Jones. While Butler’s song is far from explicit, it certainly is carnal. “The devil in Mrs. Jones makes me wanna raise a little hell in my home/Makes me wanna make love all night long,” he growls over a smoking, up-tempo bed of funk as female background singers coo along.
On the other side of the spectrum are some choice ballad performances. Butler emphasizes the wistful quality of Peter Allen and Jeff Barry’s “I Honestly Love You,” a 1974 hit for Olivia Newton-John. Strings and horns contribute to the lushness of Butler and Sam Brown’s gorgeous, Philly-style “I Think That She’s in Love” and Lionel Richie’s album-closing “This is Your Life.” The then-Commodore wasn’t the only Motown veteran lending the Iceman a hand, though. Leon Ware and Pam Sawyer supplied the funky ode to love at first sight, “Thank You, Early Bird.” Butler also tapped the Stevie Wonder/Syreeta Wright songbook for “I’m Goin’ Left,” to which he applied a glossy disco sheen. If Love’s on the Menu isn’t as consistent as the best of Butler’s work at Vee-Jay or Mercury, especially his shattering Gamble and Huff-produced sides, it boasts a couple of real gems (“Thank You, Early Bird,” “I Think That She’s in Love”) plus typically strong singing and immaculate arrangement and production.
Butler followed up Love’s on the Menu with a more ambitious project. Suite for the Single Girl, created and recorded with members of the Butler Music Workshop back in the Windy City, was a concept album “dedicated to all of the single girls” with “dreams on their minds…looking for Mr. Right.” True, this may sound quaint from a modern perspective, but it’s clear that Butler intended the album to be empowering as well as sympathetic to the plight of women “trying to catch [their] fleeting dreams.” Again, Butler skillfully walks the line between the spicy and the sweet. The hot ‘n’ heavy “I Wanna Do It to You” and “Let’s Go Get Out of Town” mince no words or intentions, and neither does the disco-flavored appreciation of a certain lady who needs no name other than “Ms. Fine.” Another string-laden dancefloor workout, “Chalk It Up,” admonishes a single lady to put the past behind her and “chalk it up to experience.” Jerry even supplies a spoken-word rap on this track to get his lyrical point across.
Considerably more relaxed is “What a Pleasant Surprise,” which utilizes steel drums for a tropical air. It’s also one of the more understated tunes here (“What a pleasant surprise you’ve been/I’m so happy that you came in”). The lengthy “Music in Her Dreams/Dream Music” recounts the rather sad tale of a girl for whom “life has other plans” but find solace as she sleeps. In a sweeping, cinematic touch, the song culminates in a fantasy concert sequence. The aching “Only Pretty Girls” makes comment on a different kind of fantasy – the idealized woman of the big screen or the magazine page. Butler throws his good wishes for “the best that life is offering” towards the opposite sex in the catchy closer, “You Gotta Believe in Me.”
After two more albums for Motown (the sublime Thelma and Jerry, with Thelma Houston, and solo album It All Comes Out in My Song), Butler departed Motown, still feeling like an outsider at Gordy’s company. It wasn’t long, though, before he reunited with two old friends. Butler finally signed to Gamble and Huff’s PIR label where he remained for another couple of albums. But the soul man had his sights on an even loftier goal than a hit record. In 1985, he was first elected as a Commissioner for Cook County, Illinois, and as of this writing, is serving his seventh term in office. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer (elected as a member of The Impressions) hasn’t completely turned his back on his musical legacy, though it’s taken a back seat to his work overseeing the health care, jails and courts of Cook County. Thankfully, reissues such as Love’s on the Menu/Suite for the Single Girl allow listeners to savor the one and only “Iceman,” still the epitome of hip R&B cool.
Jerry Butler, Love’s on the Menu/Suite for the Single Girl (SoulMusic Records SMCR 25086, 2013)
- I Don’t Want Nobody to Know
- I’m Goin’ Left
- I Don’t Wanna Be Reminded
- Don’t Let the Smile Fool You
- I Honestly Love You
- Love’s on the Menu Tonight
- The Devil in Mrs. Jones
- Thank You Early Bird
- I Think That She’s in Love
- This is Your Life
- Suite for the Single Girl
- I Wanna Do It to You
- Ms. Fine
- What a Pleasant Surprise
- Chalk It Up
- Music in Her Dreams/Dream Music
- Only Pretty Girls
- Let’s Go Get Out of Town
- You Gotta Believe in Me
Tracks 1-10 from Love's on the Menu, Motown LP M6-850S1, 1976
Tracks 11-19 from Suite for the Single Girl, Motown LP M6-878S1, 1977