The earth has music for those who listen, proclaimed Clarence Avant’s Tabu Records label. A major force in contemporary R&B from the late 1970s through the 1990s, Tabu followed in the footsteps of other black-owned, independent music empires as Berry Gordy’s Motown and Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International. While Tabu never achieved the same level of crossover success as those aforementioned labels, it indeed picked up the torch of “The Sound of Young America,” and its cutting-edge electronic style still reverberates in R&B and hip-hop today. Earlier in 2013, the U.K.’s Demon Music Group announced the reactivation of the Tabu label for an ambitious reissue program, the second wave of which has recently arrived in stores. This batch includes two classic titles from the era-defining production team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Alexander O’Neal’s Hearsay (1987) and Cherrelle’s High Priority (1985), both reissued as double-disc sets. In addition, this wave includes single-disc expansions of The S.O.S. Band’s S.O.S. (1980) and Kathy Mathis’ Katt Walk (1987).
1980’s gold-selling S.O.S. marked the LP debut of The S.O.S. Band: Jason “T.C.” Bryant on keyboards and vocals, Billy “B.E.” Ellis on saxophone, keyboards and vocals, Mary Davis on vocals and percussion, James Earl Jones III on drums and vocals, Willie “Sonny” Killebrew on saxophone, flute and vocals, Bruno Speight on lead guitar and John Simpson on bass. The album was produced by Sigidi Abdullah; the band’s hits with Jam and Lewis would come later. Abdullah co-wrote “Take Your Time (Do It Right),” the No. 1 R&B/No. 12 Pop song that became the band’s first calling card. But it’s just one of eight essential tracks on this debut album which owes as much to the sound of the seventies as to the new decade it welcomed.
The S.O.S. Band successfully managed to synthesize the effusive but commercially-waning sound of disco with a solid bed of funk and a key pop sensibility that seemingly owed much to Earth, Wind and Fire. Like that group, the S.O.S. Band prominently employed horns for a style that would attract soul fans both young and old, and boasted talented vocalists, including the big-voiced Mary Davis. S.O.S. was truly the organic sound of a band at work, and showed off each side of its style, from slow-burning ballads to catchy dancefloor anthems. Almost every track on the album could have been pulled as a single,
The sleek EWF sound is most evident on “Open Letter,” while wistful, Bacharach-esque horns add dimension to the melancholy “What’s Wrong with Our Love Affair.” The exuberantly up-tempo “Love Won’t Wait for Love” emphasizes disco flourishes with its big strings, horns and suitable-for-dancing break. Of course, the sexy smash “Take Your Time (Do It Right)” also had its roots in disco, and hasn’t lost any of its luster in the ensuing years. Neither has “Take Love Where You Find It,” another big, brassy, disco-flavored track with tasty flute so redolent of the era. Six bonus tracks have been added to S.O.S., including the single edit and disco mix of “S.O.S. (Dit Dit Dit Dash Dash Dash Dit Dit Dit),” the long version and both sides of the single of “Take Your Time (Do It Right),” and the edit of “What’s Wrong with Our Love Affair.” Justin “Musicology” Kantor provides the liner notes, which contain fresh quotes from Mary Davis and trumpeter Abdul Ra’oof.
After the jump: the scoop on Cherrelle, Alexander O’Neal and Kathy Mathis!
It was clear that Cherrelle was a High Priority for Flyte Tyme Productions’ Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis when they signed on to produce every track of her sophomore album by that name; the duo had only helmed five of the eight songs on her 1984 debut Fragile. Jam and Lewis, the onetime keyboardist and bassist for Minneapolis’ The Time, also wrote five of the eight songs on 1985’s High Priority, providing the singer born Cheryl Week Norton with an ideal vehicle for her light, airy soprano. The album loosely traced the arc of a romantic relationship, with opening and closing instrumentals and a couple of connective segues lending the album a theatrical flair. Jam and Lewis didn’t follow through with their concept as explicitly as they would on Alexander O’Neal’s Hearsay, but High Priority continued the Flyte Tyme winning streak.
From the funky opening track, “You Look Good to Me,” Cherrelle showed that she could be sassy and flirtatious, but also no-nonsense. “Artificial Heart” refers to a cold-as-ice man, but the track complemented the lyrics with its own state-of-the-art artificiality, all synthesized percussion and horns and vocal samples while Cherrelle warbled robotically of the fella who’s a “chip off a hardened heart.” There’s a bit of clever storytelling when the next song finds the singer seeking a “New Love,” clarifying: “Don’t misunderstand me – I’m not looking for someone new, I’m just improving what I’ve got already.” Even with the programmed beats, Cherrelle was deliciously steamy in declaring that she would “use some honey or some jam/To sweeten up the sour places” for her not-quite-exciting lover. “Oh No It’s U Again” concluded the LP’s original first side, a rather straightforward kiss-off set to a jagged, metallic track: “I told you that we were friends/I don’t need you screwing up my life.”
Cherrelle and Alexander O’Neal followed in the footsteps of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack, and even Johnny Mathis and Deniece Williams when they made sweet, sweet music on the breakout single “Saturday Love,” with its days-of-the-week hook. Their complementary style was just right for urban radio circa 1985. Lust and love were both given airtime on High Priority. Cherrelle made the latter clear on “Will You Satisfy?” on which she states, “You know everyone looks for pleasure and a woman enjoys pleasure as much as a man” with bluntness, before breathily intoning, “Tired of talk, want some action!” Jam and Lewis’ lyrics weren’t always the most poetic but the duo’s compositions spoke with immediacy and directness to their intended audience. The most melodic track on High Priority might well be “Where Do I Run To,” expressively sung by Detroit girl Cherrelle. According to A. Scott Galloway’s liner notes, the song’s origin was in an unreleased Motown track from writers Lionel Richie, Hal Davis and David Williams. With its male vocal back-up, it’s the album’s only “retro soul” track, and one of its most successful productions. It also makes a solid “eleven-o’clock” number for the title song-finale, with a triumphant Cherrelle concluding in sing-along style, “You just might be the one…you’re a high priority with me, yes you are.” A funky percussion break gives an unexpected but just-right updated disco feel. A reprise of “New Love” with wailing saxophone from David Eiland ends High Priority on a high note.
Both “Saturday Love” (No. 2 R&B) and “Artificial Heart” (No. 18 R&B) were successful anchors for the album. The bonus disc of Demon’s new edition adds 11 bonus tracks (though the liner notes claim 13). Among these you’ll find a dance remix and edited version of “Artificial Heart,” and no fewer than five distinct versions of “Saturday,” including an edit, a remix, two different extended versions and an instrumental. This disc also makes room for two extended versions of “You Look Good to Me” and an edit of “Oh No It’s U Again.”
Probably the last thing anyone expected from Alexander O’Neal for his sophomore LP was a concept album. Yet that’s what O’Neal and producers-songwriters Jam and Lewis delivered with Hearsay. With connective dialogue and party sounds between tracks, Hearsay chronicles the singer’s romantic escapades in shimmering, glossy fashion – eighties-style. The No. 2 R&B album found the singer’s soulful, rough-hewn tones in new territory but once again proved that Minneapolis was the place to be!
O’Neal was introduced on the infectious opening track, “(What Can I Say) To Make You Love Me” as one who “didn’t write the book on love…but I try my best to read it every day, to learn the way to a good girl’s heart by being a gentleman.” He’s accused of being far less than a gentleman on the title song, and has to deny those vicious lies: “It’s nothin’ but hearsay that’s causing you heartache/Because a lie’s not the truth, unless you’re believin’…” In “The Lovers,” there are cracks in his relationship (“So baby, don’t let people interfere/Just come on and love me your way”) and soon enough, he’s confronting a lover with bluntness on the percussion-driven R&B chart-topper “Fake”: “You’re a fake baby, you can’t conceal it/Know how I know, ’cause I can feel it/You’re a fake, baby, no rhyme or reason, ‘cos in your mind it’s lyin’ season.” The beats remain catchy for the duration of the whole album, but the tracks get tougher and tougher. On “Criticize,” O’Neal angrily pleads, “Can’t you find something else to talk about? Is this song the only one you sing?…I’m fed up ’cause all you wanna do is criticize.”
The dance continues throughout Hearsay. The arc of the musical story is strengthened by the appearance of Cherrelle on “Never Knew Love Like This,” a No. 2 R&B hit. (“Never Knew Love Like This” reached the same No. 2 spot as “Saturday Love.”) A durable keyboard riff and a wailing saxophone solo from David Eiland, as well as big chorus vocals, contribute to this track standing out from the rest. Both singers cut loose, with Cherrelle going into stratospheric Deniece Williams territory, and O’Neal growling his heart out. O’Neal was comfortable with Jam and Lewis’ patented dancefloor jams, but he also felt at home on a ballad. “Sunshine” has a pensive keyboard part that echoes the lyrics which veer from the warmly happy “I can’t go a day without my Sunshine” to a conversational if cutting “You know, sometimes sunshine turns to rain.” O’Neal is at his smoothest and most tender on the lovely “Crying Overtime” (“Can’t you see that I need you, woman? I need you, girl, come inside and make love”) and reinforces his good-guy status on the “finale,” “When the Party’s Over” (“Understand me, I’m not forcing anything/I just wanted you to stay/So I thought I’d tell you this…There’s no need to leave…”).
Demon has added a second disc of alternates- single edits, remixes, instrumentals, etc. – of numerous tracks. There are five versions of “Criticize,” three of “Fake,” and one each of “Never Knew Love Like This,” “Sunshine,” “Hearsay” and “The Lovers.” (See here for full track listings for all albums discussed here.) The instrumental mixes of “The Lovers” and “Fake” show the intricacies of Jam and Lewis’ electronically-driven tracks, while “Criticize (Critical Mix)” is the most illuminating of the alternates as it presents the song in a less harsh musical setting. A. Scott Galloway provides the excellent new notes.
Kathy Mathis‘ first of two Tabu albums, 1987’s Katt Walk, has also gotten the expanded treatment as a single-disc release. As produced by Stewart Hanley and Stephann Perry, the tight beats for which Tabu was known were enjoined to music laid down by a crack band. Hanley, Perry and Mathis herself all played keyboards, with Jerome Thomas on drums, Bruno Speight and Paul Jackson, Jr. on guitar, Fred Wesley on trombone, Nolan Smith on trumpet, and Ernie Fields on saxophone. A musician and singer from a young age, Mathis supplied the confident yet appealingly youthful vocals on this largely uptempo, breezy confection of an album.
Mathis was clearly a star designed for 1987 with the album’s very first track. “Automatic Stop and Go” found Mathis describing herself as “programmable” and “commandable,” adding, “Digital, we are” and “Boy, don’t you know you excite my circuitry.” But Mathis and her band kept the sound thankfully human on “Automatic Stop Go” and other upbeat tracks like “Late Night Hour” with its sound effects and shiny synths. Romance was, perhaps expectedly, the theme of most of the songs on Katt Walk, whether the muscular “Crunch” (“I’m in a crunch ‘cos I can’t have your love”) or the funky title track, in which the girl pleading for a love on “Straight from the Heart” is replaced by a more assertive persona, taunting a man who might be doing her wrong: “You’d better beware/I’ve been watching everything you do/Just like a cat, I’m stalking you/Better beware, walk with care/I’ve got you on the edge, hanging by a thread!” Yet the guy is suspecting Kathy might have been, um, preoccupied elsewhere in the percussive “All to Yourself,” in which she assures duet partner Raymond Carter that she only has eyes for him.
A brief respite is offered in the form of the torchy “Now That You’re Gone,” on which the sinuous saxophone takes center stage alongside Mathis’ soulful vocal. The closing track of Katt Walk, “Love Festival,” might also be the most atypical. The ebullient romp offers a “Love Train”-esque plea for universal love rather than a personal relationship story, with bright beats and prominent horns. Four bonus tracks have been appended: 12-inch mixes of “Baby I’m Hooked” and “Late Night Hour,” and instrumental singles of each of those two songs. Justin Kantor’s essay, drawing on a new interview with Mathis and bringing her life story up to date, is as lengthy as it is entertaining and informative.
Under the deft direction of project manager Val Jennings, all of the Tabu reissues are housed in the same classy, hardbound book style as Demon/Edsel’s Everything But the Girl series. Each book features copious new liner notes as well as full lyrics, and the uniform packaging designed by Jools Williamson could hardly be bettered. All that’s missing in the booklet is discographical information for the various bonus tracks; one hopes the omission of such info will be rectified in the near future. Yet the 2013 Tabu series hasn’t been without its share of controversy. A number of the tracks on these CDs – particularly with regard to the bonus remixes – have been mastered not from original tapes, but from vinyl. (All discs have been remastered by Phil Kinrade at Alchemy.) To their credit, the team at Demon and Tabu has addressed this issue, posting a statement to the Official Tabu Facebook page. The statement reads, in part: “Demon Music Group has made every attempt to obtain original masters of the Tabu catalogue, but regrettably in some cases…this has not always been possible and therefore the cleanest alternative has been sought….Going forward, where vinyl has been the only available source, we will clearly highlight this for you to make an informed choice.”
Though these first waves of releases have had some bumps in the road, we’re confident that Demon’s commitment to transparency regarding sound quality should alleviate any concerns going forward. The label’s impressively large-scale campaign – with its extensive, historically-minded annotation and selection of key bonus material – is poised to reignite interest in the essential R&B produced at Tabu.
Further titles are scheduled throughout all of 2013; see here for details on what’s still to come. You can order all titles below!
- S.O.S. (Dit Dit Dit Dash Dash Dash Dit Dit Dit)
- What’s Wrong with Our Love Affair
- Open Letter
- Love Won’t Wait for Love
- Take Your Time (Do It Right)
- I’m in Love
- Take Love Where You Find It
- S.O.S. (Reprise)
- S.O.S. (Dit Dit Dit Dash Dash Dash Dit Dit Dit) (single A-side – Tabu ZS9 5526, 1980)
- S.O.S. (Dit Dit Dit Dash Dash Dash Dit Dit Dit) (Special Disco Mix) (12″ promo A-side – Tabu AS 848, 1980)
- Take Your Time (Do It Right) (Pt. 1) (single A-side – Tabu ZS9 5522, 1980)
- Take Your Time (Do It Right) (Pt. 2) (single B-side – Tabu ZS9 5522, 1980)
- Take Your Time (Do It Right) (Long Version) (12″ A-side – Tabu 4Z8 5523, 1980)
- What’s Wrong With Our Love Affair? (single A-side – Tabu ZS6 5527, 1980)
Disc 1: Original LP (released as Tabu BFZ 40094, 1985)
- The Opening
- You Look Good to Me
- Artificial Heart
- New Love
- Oh No It’s U Again
- Saturday Love (Duet with Alexander O’Neal)
- Will You Satisfy?
- Where Do I Run To
- High Priority
- New Love (Reprise)
Disc 2: Bonus material
- Artificial Heart (Dance Remix) (12″ A-side – Tabu 4Z9 05386, 1985)
- Oh No It’s U Again (Extended Version) (12″ B-side – Tabu 4Z9 05386, 1985)
- Artificial Heart (single A-side – Tabu ZS4 05901, 1985)
- Oh No It’s U Again (single B-side – Tabu ZS4 05901, 1985)
- Saturday Love (single A-side – Tabu ZS4 05767, 1985)
- Saturday Love (Extended Version) (12″ A-side – Tabu 4Z9 05332, 1985)
- Saturday Love (Instrumental) (12″ B-side – Tabu 4Z9 05332, 1985)
- Saturday Love (Feelin’ Luv Extended Mix) (12″ A-side – Tabu 655800 6 (U.K.), 1990)
- Saturday Love (Steve Anderson Remix) (12″ A-side – Tabu 655800 8 (U.K.), 1990)
- You Look Good to Me (single A-side – Tabu ZS4 05608, 1985)
- You Look Good to Me (Extended Remix) (12″ A-side – Tabu 4Z9 05279, 1985)
Disc 1: Original LP (released as Tabu FZ 40320, 1987)
- (What Can I Say) To Make You Love Me
- The Lovers
- Never Knew Love Like This (Duet with Cherrelle)
- Crying Overtime
- When the Party’s Over
Disc 2: Bonus material
- Criticize (Single Edit) (single A-side – Tabu ZS4 07600, 1987)
- Criticize (Critical Mix) (12″ B-side – Tabu 4Z9 07480, 1987)
- Criticize (Critical Dub) (12″ B-side – Tabu 4Z9 07480, 1987)
- Criticize (Critical Edit) (12″ B-side – Tabu 4Z9 07469, 1987)
- Criticize (Nag Mix) (12″ B-side – Tabu 4Z9 07469, 1987)
- Fake (Edit) (single A-side – Tabu ZS4 07100, 1987)
- Fake (Patty Mix) (12″ A-side – Tabu 4Z9 06788, 1987)
- Fake (Instrumental) (12″ B-side – Tabu 4Z9 06788, 1987)
- Never Knew Love Like This (single A-side – Tabu ZS4 07646, 1987)
- Sunshine (Edit) (U.K. single A-side – Tabu 655191 7, 1987)
- Hearsay ’89 (U.K. single A-side – Tabu 654667 7, 1989)
- The Lovers (Bonus Beats) (12″ B-side – Tabu 651595 6 (U.K.), 1987)
Kathy Mathis, Katt Walk: “Tabu Reborn” Expanded Edition (originally released as Tabu FZ 40539, 1987 – reissued Tabu/Edsel (U.K.), 2013)
- Automatic Stop and Go
- Late Night Hour
- Straight from the Heart
- Katt Walk
- Baby I’m Hooked
- All to Yourself
- Now That You’re Gone
- The Olive Branch (Instrumental)/Love Festival
- Baby I’m Hooked (Special Extended 12″ Remix) (12″ A-side – Tabu 4Z9 07460, 1987)
- Baby I’m Hooked (Instrumental) (12″ B-side – Tabu 4Z9 07460, 1987)
- Late Night Hour (Special 12″ Mix) (12″ A-side – Tabu 4Z9 06763, 1987)
- Late Night Hour (Instrumental) (12″ A-side – Tabu 4Z9 06763, 1987)