Big Break Records’ non-chronological series of remastered and expanded reissues for The Salsoul Orchestra has already taken listeners from 1975’s eponymous debut to 1982’s farewell release Heat It Up. With the recent releases of 1978’s Up the Yellow Brick Road and 1979’s How High, the label has filled in the gaps of its lavishly produced program of the Orchestra’s classic non-holiday studio albums. (No fear, however – there are other collaborative albums and even a collection credited to The Salsoul Strings still left to reissue!)
For what would turn out to be his final album leading The Salsoul Orchestra, producer-arranger-conductor Vince Montana, Jr. sought his inspiration from Hollywood, often by way of Broadway. Up the Yellow Brick Road featured just five tracks, each inspired by a different film: The Wiz (1978, based on the 1975 musical), West Side Story (1961, based on the 1957 musical), Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978, based on The Beatles’ 1967 album and director Tom O’Horgan’s 1974 Off-Broadway staging), Fiddler on the Roof (1976, based on the 1964 musical) and A Star Is Born (1976). With this in mind, the album could have been sacrilegious: Disco Beatles? Disco Bernstein? But with the sure hand of bandleader Montana, the Orchestra’s MFSB-honed core (Bobby Eli and T.J. Tindall on guitar, Jack Faith on flute, Larry Washington on congas, Don Renaldo on violin) and the Sweethearts of Sigma (Barbara Ingram, Yvette Benton and Carla Benson) on vocals, the result is enjoyable camp crafted with impeccable musicianship.
Unsurprisingly, Charlie Smalls’ effusive invitation to “Ease on Down the Road” lends itself most to the disco treatment, and Montana’s arrangement of the Wiz showstopper isn’t too far away from Harold Wheeler’s original. What would Leonard Bernstein have thought of Montana’s West Side Story medley of five selections from the Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim score? It’s hard to say, but seeing as how Bernstein believed in making music accessible to the most people possible, it’s not inconceivable that he would have approved. After all, West Side has always been music made for dancing: Bernstein’s magnificent score captured the intensity and rhythms of New York City, accompanying the dynamic, now-iconic choreography of Jerome Robbins. (The 12-inch Disco Version of the West Side medley is included as the bonus track here.) An even lengthier medley of Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock’s Fiddler on the Roof tunes goes a bit further astray, incorporating Ernest Gold’s theme to the film Exodus, his own “Sherele” and even the traditional “Hava Nagila” into its musical mélange.
Montana’s take on “Sgt. Pepper’s” – truly the odd track out here – cleverly begins with a blast of “A Day in the Life.” He wisely avoids full-on disco for the track, instead ceding center stage to The Sweethearts of Sigma who coquettishly deliver the Lennon/McCartney lyrics and are rather persuasive intoning, “We’d like to take you home with us!” Montana adds a bit of woozy brass interplay for an enjoyable reinterpretation. A lovely, lightly Latin rendering of Barbra Streisand and Paul Williams’ Academy Award-winning ballad “Evergreen” closes out Up the Yellow Brick Road. The Sweethearts are accompanied by lushly decorative strings, and Montana’s own, prominent vibes. “Evergreen” would also appear on How Deep is Your Love, the soft 1978 album credited to The Salsoul Strings.
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BBR’s reissue, remastered by producer Wayne A. Dickson, features new liner notes by Steven E. Flemming, Jr. detailing both the formation of the Orchestra and the circumstances surrounding the album. (Flemming does make one misstep in characterizing the Broadway musical Pippin as “telling [a tale] of black life.” While the Roger O. Hirson/Stephen Schwartz musical starred the African-American Ben Vereen as its Leading Player, its plot revolves around Pippin, the son of Charlemagne, European emperor circa 800 A.D.!) As potently mixed by Tom Moulton, Up the Yellow Brick Road is an enjoyably kitschy diversion from one of the greatest dance bands in the land – and, one should add, a testament to the enduring, genre-defining music created by such names as Vince Montana, Jr., Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, and The Beatles.
In 1978, Vince Montana departed the Salsoul Records ranks on less than amicable terms, echoing the conflicts that led Montana, Norman Harris, Ronnie Baker, Earl Young and others to depart from Philadelphia International Records for Salsoul just a few short years earlier. Following Up the Yellow Brick Road and How Deep is Your Love, Montana headed to Atlantic Records. Salsoul’s Cayre brothers set to work reaffirming The Salsoul Orchestra as a viable entity without its creative force. Perhaps seeking to ease the transition to another producer, the Cayres first turned to Montana’s former MFSB cohorts who were as comfortable at Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound Studios as Montana had been. The resulting album, 1979’s How High, was cobbled together largely from the Philly productions of Bunny Sigler, Ron Tyson and Ron Baker. Returning from Up the Yellow Brick Road were Earl Young, T.J. Tindall, Bobby Eli, Larry Washington, Don Renaldo and the Sweethearts of Sigma. Other Philly soul/disco veterans like Lenny Pakula (arranging a couple of tracks) and Norman Harris (on guitar) joined the Orchestra.
Perhaps ironically, the title track was the only song not from the Philly contingent. The opening salvo “How High” was the work of Colin Horton Jennings and Steve O’Donnell a.k.a. Cognac; some pressings even indicated the track artist as “Cognac Featuring the Salsoul Orchestra.” Regardless of the track’s origins, it’s very much disco in a Philly groove, even featuring the vibes that were a trademark of Montana’s productions.
MFSB/Salsoul Orchestra bassist Ron Baker wrote and produced one track, the simple call to “Have a Good Time.” The lyrics are standard party fare (“Bump and grind and have a good time!”) with Baker’s liquid bass blending intricately with the Latin percussion. The party vibe is paramount on Bunny Sigler’s three productions, as well. Organist/arranger Lenny Pakula incorporated his instrument of choice into the non-stop floor-filler “My Number’s Up,” written by Bunny’s brother James. Larry Davis arranged “I’ll Keep You Warm,” which he co-wrote with Bunny and Instant Funk’s Dennis Richardson. The song isn’t anywhere near as soft as the title might indicate, with its driving beat, dramatic, slashing horns and strings, and heavy percussion. The Sigler brothers’ brightly gleaming “Resorts International,” also sublimely arranged by Pakula with jazz-inflected brass, is Bunny’s closest production to Montana’s sophisticated big-band style.
Ron Tyson, of Salsoul’s Love Committee (formerly Philadelphia International artists The Ethics), co-wrote and produced the stirring closing track of How High, an impressively orchestrated ballad showcasing the string section and lead guitar. “Stop and Think” wouldn’t have been out of place on one of MFSB’s albums, or for that matter, on a George Benson record.
Like Yellow Brick Road, How High has been remastered by the reissue’s producer Wayne A. Dickson. It features excellent liner notes from Stephen “SPAZ” Schnee and bests previous expanded reissues of the album with four bonus tracks. A vocal version of Sam Cooke’s sweet ballad “Nothing Can Change This Love” was the B-side of “How High,” which has been included in both its single edit and in Larry Levan’s remix. A fourth bonus cut is Walter Gibbons’ 12-inch instrumental mix of Norman Harris and Ron Tyson’s “Catch Me on the Rebound,” which doesn’t quite fit with How High (the original track was on Loleatta Holloway’s Queen of the Night, also recently reissued by BBR) but is a welcome treat nonetheless. For the single release credited to The Salsoul Orchestra, Gibbons isolates and emphasizes the cinematic string charts, Harris’ Wes Montgomery-style guitar, the seductive vocals and the beguiling percussion, among other elements, creating a singular reinterpretation of the song.
If Up the Yellow Brick Road brought one era of The Salsoul Orchestra to a close, How High marked the first, tentative steps towards Salsoul’s embrace of new sounds and styles for the Orchestra with producers Tom Moulton and Patrick Adams. Both of these splendid reissues are available now from Cherry Red’s Big Break Records imprint!
- Ease On Down the Road
- West Side Story Medley: Fanfare/America/Maria/Somewhere Interlude/Tonight
- Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
- Fiddler on the Roof Medley: Fiddler on the Roof/Matchmaker/Sherele/Sunrise, Sunset/If I Were a Rich Man/Hava Nagila/Theme from “Exodus”
- Evergreen (Love Theme from “A Star is Born”)
- West Side Story Medley (12-Inch Disco Version) (Salsoul 12-inch single SG 2061, 1978)
- How High
- Have a Good Time
- My Number’s Up
- I’ll Keep You Warm
- Resorts International
- Stop and Think
- How High (Larry Levan Remix) (from Larry Levan’s Greatest Mixes Vol. 2, Salsoul LP SA 8533, 1980)
- Nothing Can Change This Love (Salsoul single S7-2096, 1979)
- Catch Me on the Rebound (12-Inch Instrumental Mix) (Salsoul 12-inch single GG 402, 1978)
- How High (Single Version) (Salsoul single S7-2096, 1979)