When Kiki Dee was signed in 1973 to Elton John’s Rocket Records label, the 26-year old was already a veteran of the music business as an in-demand background singer and a solo artist for Fontana and Motown. The former Pauline Matthews of Bradford, West Yorkshire, England had proven herself a versatile vocalist at both of those labels, but at Rocket would finally take flight as a top-tier blue-eyed soul singer with so much more to offer than just the duet part in “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” Edsel has brought together Dee’s four Rocket albums on two CDs, utilizing the liner notes and bonus material of the now out-of-print 2008 reissues from EMI. Each album has a distinctive identity and sound, and they are ideally heard in these chronological presentations.
Kiki started at Rocket in 1973 not with an eponymous release (that would come later) but with Loving and Free, named for the first composition she ever wrote. In addition to offering the sympathetic production in tandem with engineer Clive Franks, Elton John plays piano on seven of the album’s ten tracks which encompass Dee’s own compositions and choice material from other songwriters including Jackson Browne (the elegiac “Song for Adam”). With the aid of his bandmates Dee Murray and Davey Johnstone, as well as Paul Keogh, Gerry Conway and steel guitar great B.J. Cole (among others), John helmed a rootsy album that spotlights Dee’s powerful voice while sitting comfortably alongside his 1970 masterwork Tumbleweed Connection. Surprisingly, the future Sir Elton isn’t the one pounding the keys on one of the most rocking cuts, a cover of Free’s “Travellin’ in Style,” but he accompanies Kiki on two tracks he penned with Bernie Taupin. The teenage-hitchhiking epic “Lonnie and Josie” is vintage John and Taupin, beautifully conjuring up the seductive fantasy of the great wide open. Their “Supercool” – with Elton hammering the piano and Johnstone on the slashing electric guitar – is the most raucous track on the LP, with the feel of “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” and a twist of “Crocodile Rock.” Elton and Bernie also wrote a couple of the non-LP single sides included among the four bonuses here including the passionate “The Last Good Man in My Life” with drummer Nigel Olsson joining John, Johnstone and Murray on the track.
Of Dee’s own songs, “Loving and Free” has the same mature, haunting and tender quality as the oft-recorded “Love Song” from Lesley Duncan. One of Kiki’s session-signing comperes, Lesley just happens to appear on a number of tracks here, including as one of the gospel-style background vocalists on “If It Rains.” Cole adds his weeping pedal steel to the bluesy “Rest My Head” and “Sugar on the Floor,” which was also recorded by Elton John solo. But Loving and Free might be best-remembered for the dramatic “Amoreuse.” With lyrics by Elton’s future collaborator Gary Osborne (“Little Jeannie,” “Blue Eyes”), it gave Dee her first major hit when it reached No. 13 on the U.K. Pop chart.
But the success of “Amoreuse” was eclipsed by the title track of Dee’s very next album which has been paired with Loving and Free by Edsel. Clive Franks returned to helm I’ve Got the Music in Me (1974) with Elton’s frequent producer Gus Dudgeon. Recorded in London with vocals added in New York, the album was credited to The Kiki Dee Band line-up of keyboardist Bias Boshell, bassist Phil Curtis, drummer Roger Pope and guitarist Jo Partridge. Boshell penned the title track on which the Band was joined by Pete Clarke on drums and the backing trio of Cissy Houston, Joshie Armstead and Maretha Stewart; Richard Hewson provided the orchestral arrangement. An exultant anthem to positivity, “I’ve Got the Music in Me” scored Dee a No. 12 U.S. hit and fared almost as well at home; it set the upbeat tone for an album of songs entirely written by band members Dee, Boshell and Partridge. I’ve Got the Music in Me subtly took Dee in a more commercial soft-rock direction, losing most of the trappings of Tumbleweed-era Elton while still showcasing her exquisite pipes in an increasingly confident, ever-soulful setting.
Dee, who had been encouraged as a songwriter by Elton, continued to grow with songs like the wistful, reflective “[You Might Have Been] Someone to Me,” and the moody “Water.” In a bit of a departure from usual romantic themes, the latter ode finds Dee praying to the “water in the ocean” to “take away the pain and save the day.” Boshell, of the folk-rock band Trees and later of Barclay James Harvest and The Moody Blues, penned four tracks in addition to the title song; the upbeat rock of “Step by Step,” the earthy “Do It Right” and the driving “You Need Help” are among his other highlights. Four bonus tracks have been added to I’ve Got the Music in Me, all from non-LP singles. “Once a Fool,” from the team of Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter (The Grass Roots, The Four Tops), was also recorded by David Cassidy, among others. It’s catchy pop in the team’s usual melodic style.
Three years passed before Kiki Dee’s next LP. (A proposed 1976 album, Cage the Songbird, was shelved and remained unreleased until 2008.) Perhaps as a result of her newfound fame – thanks to that little duet called “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” which topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic in 1976 – her third released album was simply titled Kiki Dee. It also reunited her with Elton and Clive Franks as producers, as well as with Dee Murray. Davey Johnstone, with whom Kiki was then in a relationship, also appeared, as did Ray Cooper and another Elton associate, future Hollywood scoring superstar James Newton Howard. (He had provided the string chart for “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.”) Bias Boshell, too, maintained a presence on Kiki Dee which was recorded in both London and New York and perhaps as a result, doesn’t have as unified a sound as her previous two records. However, it became her most successful and first to enter the U.K. pop chart.
The dramatic string arrangement of Louis Clark (ELO) enhanced the rollicking opener, a cover of Robert Palmer’s “How Much Fun,” while Gene Page orchestrated two cuts – the funky R&B of “Chicago,” a U.K. Top 30 hit, and “First Thing in the Morning.” The latter, one of two Bias Boshell compositions on Kiki Dee, went Top 40 in the U.K. and has the album’s catchiest hook. Like Boshell’s other track, the brassy “Standing Room Only,” “First Thing” features background vocals by studio stalwart Tony Burrows (“My Baby Loves Lovin’,” “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)” and Sunny of Sue and Sunny. The Brecker Brothers and David Sanborn also appear as guests, adding their distinctive brass flourishes to three tracks. (“Chicago” and “First Thing” were previously attempted by Dee during the abortive Cage the Songbird sessions.)
A dark, rootsy sound is embraced on “Into Eternity,” penned by Dee, Johnstone and Gary Osborne, thanks to Johnstone’s folksy guitar and the striking dual cellos of Hugh McDowell and Melvin Gale. Johnstone also makes a vital contribution to Dee’s “Bad Day Child,” adding acoustic guitar, mandolin and dulcimer, and wrote the track “Keep Right On.” Of Dee’s three other solo compositions, the stark rock ballad “Walking” is a striking showcase for her voice. Oddly, the one Elton John/Bernie Taupin song released in conjunction with Kiki Dee, the stately, baroque-flavored ballad “The Man Who Loved to Dance,” was relegated to B-side status on the flip of “First Side.” It’s been added here as the lone bonus track on this two-fer.
Kiki Dee didn’t complete her Rocket contract until 1979 with the release of Stay with Me, the fourth and final album in this collection. The two-year gap between albums, though, didn’t dull Dee’s sense of adventure. Recording in Los Angeles, Bill Schnee oversaw the sessions which featured Steve Lukather, Jeff Porcaro, Steve Porcaro, David Hungate and David Paich of Toto, plus other session veterans such as Jim Keltner and Greg Phillinganes, and the returning Bias Boshell, James Newton Howard and Davey Johnstone. Stay with Me has a crisp West Coast sheen, making for the smoothest of Dee’s Rocket outings. If it’s no less enjoyable, it feels decidedly less personal.
Tom Snow and Glen Ballard’s opening “One Step” is danceable pop; Cynthia Weil and Frannie Golde’s “You’re Holding Me Too Tight” and Troy Seals and Joe New’s “One Jump Ahead of the Storm” take the album in an even more disco direction. (Three Dog Night’s Cory Wells also recorded the song with Steve Lukather on guitar.)
Kiki, David Lasley and Zane Buzby’s “Don’t Stop Loving Me” is classy MOR arranged by Sonny Burke. The same team penned two other tracks here, the breezy “Talk to Me” and “Dark Side of Your Soul,” a heartfelt ballad that’s not as intense as the title might indicate. Johnstone and Boshell teamed up for the soft rock of “Love is a Crazy Feeling.” The title cover of Jerry Ragovoy and George Weiss’ “Stay with Me,” a 1966 hit for Lorraine Ellison, isn’t as torrid as Ellison’s original, but Dee is at her most impressively full-voiced and passionate on this polished production with an arrangement by David Paich’s father, the legendary Marty Paich. The elder Paich also arranged the closing track, “Safe Harbor,” a pretty romantic ode.
Both Loving and Free/I’ve Got the Music in Me and Kiki Dee/Stay with Me have been packaged with Edsel’s customary detail. These slipcased editions feature thick color booklets retaining Chris White’s fine 2008 essays about all four albums plus Kiki’s introductions, original album artwork, and copious photos and memorabilia images. Phil Kinrade is credited with the mastering. The team that produced the 2008 reissues (led by Ted Carfrae) is also acknowledged with thanks.
Kiki Dee still has the music in her. She has remained active onstage and in music, pairing with guitarist/composer/producer Carmelo Luggeri on a number of well-received recordings. These two collections are ideal for fans who didn’t pick up the 2008 editions, and deserve a spot on the shelf next to Edsel’s previous reissue of Dee’s 1981 album Perfect Timing, adding up to a welcome tribute to one of Britain’s greatest and classiest pop vocalists.