Today we’re taking a look at two recent reissues from Big Break Records. Both Billy Paul’s Lately and Gap Band VII were originally released by Total Experience Records, and both were the production work of Jonah Ellis. Big Break has expanded and remastered both albums.
Billy Paul, Lately (Total Experience, 1985 – reissued Big Break CDBBR 0224, 2013)
Could anyone among us have an inkling or a clue, what magic feats of wizardry and voodoo you can do? And who would ever guess what powers you possess?
Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff of Philadelphia International Records had an inkling of the magic Billy Paul could do when they gifted the veteran jazz singer with “Me and Mrs. Jones,” a smoldering ode to a lady with whom the vocalist “has a thing goin’ on.” Those lyrics above are from the rarely-performed verse of Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane’s “On a Clear Day (You Can See Forever),” a song first sung on record – sans verse – by Paul on his 1968 Gamble Records release Feelin’ Good at the Cadillac Club. Billy Paul was already nearing his mid-thirties when he made that long-playing debut. He was over 50 when he revisited “On a Clear Day” as the most atypical track on a rather atypical album, 1985’s Lately. The first of only two albums recorded by the singer in the 1980s, the Total Experience release has just been lovingly reissued by Cherry Red’s Big Break imprint (CDBBR 0224). Paul was joined in Hollywood by Gerry Brown (drums), Nathan East (bass), Oliver Scott (keyboards/vocals/electronic drums), David Tillman and Juan Luis Cabaza (keyboards), and album producer/multi-instrumentalist Jonah Ellis. Marva King, Maxine and Julia Waters and Carmen Twillie all provided background vocals.
The album’s closing track, “On a Clear Day” was just one of the songs on the album that recalled the earlier salad days of Billy Paul’s recording career. Whether in 1968 or 1985, Paul found soulful liberties to take with Burton Lane’s elegant melody, and even on the re-recording, he made room for a piano solo that recalled his jazz roots. Though they’re adventurous in the context of re-presenting a theatrical standard, the burbling synthesizers and programmed drum beats obscure both the song and Paul’s vocal, and alas, that’s too frequently the case on Lately. Yet BBR’s exemplary reissue, produced by Wayne Dickson, remastered by Nick Robbins, and generously annotated by J. Matthew Cobb, allows us to view the album as a well-intentioned experiment in a stellar career.
Lonnie Simmons’ Total Experience label had found great success with The Gap Band and Yarbrough and Peoples, but the company was already in the midst of the struggles that would eventually see its demise when Lately was slotted for release. Producer and chief songwriter Jonah Ellis (known for his work with both of those Total Experience acts) grafted an aggressively “contemporary” sound onto Paul’s smooth vocals, but by and the large, the new material wasn’t up to the standard set by the singer. Just one other standard made it onto the album, Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s “I Only Have Eyes for You.” Ellis adhered closely to the blueprint of The Flamingos’ classic doo-wop version of the 1934 song, but gave it a modernized makeover. Paul’s alluring, sensual vocal exudes confidence as he adds plenty of impassioned ad-libs.
After the jump: plenty more on Billy Paul’s Lately! Plus: mind the Gap – the Gap Band, that is!
The Flamingos aren’t the only artists to whom the producer paid homage. The Ellis-penned “Fire in Her Love” seems to be a modernized update of The O’Jays’ “Darlin’ Darlin’ Baby (Sweet Tender Love)” but it lacks the decorative grace of Bobby Martin’s arrangement for that breezy Gamble and Huff song. But the similarities there are nothing compared to the too-close-for-comfort match of Ellis’ “Sexual Therapy” and Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing.” In Cobb’s excellent notes, Billy Paul recalls the similarity was “intentional,” as he and Gaye were “like brothers” and “closer than close.” A straight cover of the Gaye song might have served Paul better than the pastiche. A longtime interpretive singer, Paul had already proved his chops in reinventing his contemporaries’ songs with tracks like Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” from 360 Degrees of Billy Paul.
The title track of Lately, a poignant Marvin Jenkins ballad about the end of a relationship, was a sensitive choice which played to Paul’s storytelling strengths. He also brings sheer conviction to the AC sheen of Oliver Scott’s “Let Me In” (not to be confused with the vocalist’s Philly-era cover of Paul McCartney’s “Let ‘Em In”). Paul gives as much as possible to the up-tempo tracks, too. The sleek groove of “I Search No More” is punctuated by its stabbing synths, but its melody never soars despite a dynamic vocal. “[He] takes no prisoners!” he cries at one point over a machine-gun blast of electronic drums. The pop-oriented “Hot Date” is a fun, perky and appealingly youthful dancefloor invitation, and there’s even a bright, almost tropical feel to “Me and You.” The latter, another of Ellis’ songs, allows Billy to stretch and savor the “Me and…” part of the title phrase, building to his fervent declarations that “I’m not talkin’ ’bout Mrs. Jones!”
Without a doubt, Billy Paul put his best foot forward in the hopes of an eighties rebirth, but ultimately, his dark, burnished, lived-in and very adult voice wasn’t as ideally suited to the cool electronics of eighties R&B as to seventies orchestral soul. On Lately, his resonant pipes are at odds with the more lightweight accompaniment. With a chart by Bobby Martin or Thom Bell, his voice brought truly complementary intimacy – and often tension, too – to the lush orchestrations. Though spirited, a track like “Hot Date” was just too trifling for the man who exuded so much steam and passion on “Me and Mrs. Jones” as well as majesty, drama and history on “War of the Gods” and “Am I Black Enough for You?” “Sexual Therapy” found Billy Paul following a trend rather than igniting one. Even the strong ballads weren’t as game-changing as those from the Gamble and Huff days.
Though Billy Paul remains active today, he has only recorded one album since Lately, 1988’s Wide Open for the Ichiban label. But his sole Total Experience album, as splendidly reissued by Big Break (with one bonus track, the single version of “Sexual Therapy”) remains an engaging listen thanks to his singular style. This marks the fifth of BBR’s impressive reissues from his catalogue, reaffirming the label’s great commitment to his catalogue. It follows reissues of Ebony Woman, War of the Gods, Going East and of course, 360 Degrees of Billy Paul. On Lately and on all of those titles, there’s indeed plenty of fire in his lovin’.
Brothers Charlie, Ronnie and Robert Wilson had quite a run. In 1967, the Oklahoma boys formed the Greenwood, Archer and Pine Street Band, which in 1973 morphed into The Gap Band. Under that moniker the brothers Wilson remained together until 2010. Following a short and ultimately disappointing time at Leon Russell’s Shelter Records, the band found initial success on Mercury before transferring to Lonnie Simmons’ Total Experience label with the release of 1982’s Gap Band IV. Like Mercury swansong Gap Band III, it achieved platinum sales. But “sex, drugs, and the devil” – according to a Rolling Stone story – were taking their toll on the Gap Band. Still, the band’s IV went to No. 1 on the U.S. R&B chart. V: Jammin’ (1983) peaked at No. 2, and VI (1984) returned them to the top spot despite failing to sell over 500,000 copies. It was their first album since 1979 to miss that mark. So the group turned to Total Experience veteran Jonah Ellis in an attempt to restore their fortunes while they were still commercially viable. After all, their placements on the pop chart had fallen steadily since the No. 14 peak of Gap Band IV.
As he had with Billy Paul earlier in 1985, Ellis worked to tailor Gap Band VII to the group’s strengths. Charlie (lead vocals, keyboards, percussion), Ronnie (horns, keyboards, percussion, background vocals) and Robert (bass, percussion and background vocals) had successfully blended Parliament-esque funk with Quiet Storm balladry on past efforts, so VII would be little different. In a post-Prince world, cutting-edge electronics were the norm, and featured prominently on VII. Ellis contributed three songs to the album as a writer, including the opening track and leadoff single “Desire.” Though it only peaked at No. 46 R&B, the aggressive “Desire” was a successful electro-funk update of the band’s trademark sound. “Ooh, What a Feeling” was solid, danceable R&B with prominent piano and a slight touch of the Commodores, but best of Ellis’ three tracks was the sexy and soulful throwback “I Want a Real Love.” With its yearning vocals and crisp backing, it was one of the album’s most glistening productions.
Oddly, the ballad “I Want a Real Love” was overlooked for the album’s second and most successful single release. The Gap Band wasn’t known for its cover versions, but it scored a No. 2 R&B hit with a modern update of the lush Friends of Distinction classic “Going in Circles.” The likeable dance-pop of “I Know We’ll Make It” featured quirkily cosmic synths and drum programming along with female backing voices and Charlie’s usual confident lead. There’s more old-school harmony on the album’s ballad closer, “I Need Your Love.” On the other end of the spectrum, The Gap Band hadn’t stopped lathering on the funk. The stuttering grunts of Anthony “Baby Gap” Walker and Billy Young’s “Automatic Brain” (“She has an automatic brain/That drives you insane”) showed off the songwriters’ rap skills although the song is light on melody. It also found room for some searing guitar but mainly was built around synth lines. The campy vibe of “Automatic Brain” wasn’t entirely absent from “Li’l Red Funkin’ Hood,” written by the same team with an assist from Charlie Wilson. “Bumpin’ Gum People” was another funk stew with some tasty and humorous ad libs from Charlie.
Big Break has expanded Gap Band VII with five of the 12-inch mixes released around the album’s songs, including the rap version of “Automatic Brain” and instrumental of “Going in Circles.” The same team of Nick Robbins (remastering) and J. Matthew Cobb (liner notes) has done a fine job in bringing this under-the-radar album back to the catalogue while producer Wayne Dickson has overseen another handsome package, following the label’s earlier reissues of Gap Band VI and VIII.
You can order both Billy Paul’s Lately and The Gap Band’s VII at the links below!
- Fire in Her Love
- Sexual Therapy
- I Search No More
- I Only Have Eyes for You
- Hot Date
- Get Down to Lovin’
- Let Me In
- Me and You
- On a Clear Day (You Can See Forever)
- Sexual Therapy (Single Version – from Total Experience single 2434, 1985)
- Going in Circles
- Automatic Brain
- Li’l Red Funkin’ Hood
- Ooh, What a Feeling
- I Want a Real Love
- Bumpin’ Gum People
- I Know We’ll Make It
- I Need Your Love
- Desire (12″ Special Remix – from Total Experience TED1-2624, 1985)
- Automatic Brain (12″ Club Mix – from Total Experience TED1-2636, 1988)
- Desire (12″ Dub Mix – from Total Experience TED1-2624, 1985)
- Going in Circles (12″ Instrumental with Harmonica – from Total Experience TED1-2632, 1986)
- Automatic Brain (12″ Rap Version – from Total Experience TED1-2636, 1988)