After an auspicious initial slate of releases including On Broadway: The Songs of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, The Complete Steve and The Board, and I Want, Need, Love You! – Garage Beat Nuggets from the Festival Vaults, Australia’s Playback Records has returned with another pair of essential releases. Both of these feature artists from Down Under, but are universal in their appeal. Today we spotlight the lone LP release from Sue Barker. (And don’t miss our coverage of those initial releases right here!)
The reissue of the self-titled 1976 album by soul-jazz chanteuse Sue Barker makes a case that the artist from Adelaide deserves a place in the pantheon. The final album to appear on the Crest International label, it featured Barker’s onstage band The Onions and was recorded live in the studio during a brief three-day period. After its release, Barker continued to make music onstage, but eventually retreated from the industry in 1986 upon the death of her oldest son, eight months after the birth of her fifth child. So how and why did Sue Barker attain cult status? The answer is clear upon listening to the album’s potent mélange of jazz, pop, funk, rock, and soul from an adventurous, improvisatory vocalist.
Sue Barker was joined by a swinging band consisting of Sylvan Elhay and Bob Jeffrey on saxophone, arranger Grahame Conlon on guitar, Dean Birbeck on drums, Fred Payne on trumpet, Geoff Kluke on bass, and Phil Cunneen on keyboard. The tight group made a joyful noise, and while Barker was only in her mid-twenties when the album was recorded, she sang with a clear-voiced strength far beyond her years.
Though ostensibly a jazz singer (the LP was even released as part of Crest’s jazz series), Barker was clearly influenced by Motown. The opening “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” casts the Holland/Dozier/Holland song introduced by Marvin Gaye in 1964 and reinvented by James Taylor in 1975 into a soulful big-band setting with insinuating horns and slinky organ lending a cool vibe. She’s even feistier on the classic “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” more recalling the contours of Gladys Knight and the Pips’ version than Marvin Gaye’s but still tackling the song in original fashion. Opening her interpretation of Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” Barker shifts the opening question from “Brother, brother to “Mother, mother,” launching into a full-throttle tribute to Gaye’s poignant anthem. Detroit having been well-represented, Barker didn’t ignore Memphis, either, with her cover of the Stax scorcher “634-5789,” anchored by liquid bass, tinkling piano, and swooning horns.
A trio of American standards were included on Sue Barker. Gus Kahn and Nacio Herb Brown’s brassy “You Stepped Out of a Dream” and Duke Ellington’s “Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me” showcase Barker’s sweeter side. The yearning of “Lover Man” is deliciously conveyed against a tasteful backdrop. Even The Rascals’ pop confection “Groovin'” fits comfortably in such fine company in Barker’s breezy take.
Best of all might be her impassioned, taut and funky rendition of Curtis Mayfield’s “Love to the People,” which beautifully complements “What’s Going On.” In fact, the message of Barker’s multi-faceted yet socially conscious collection can be summed up by the closing track, Aretha Franklin’s “Think.” Barker’s spirited reinventions of familiar songs certainly make one think – and listen.
Three bonus tracks – the bleakly powerful and socially-charged “Zimbabwe,” John and Johanna Hall’s rhythmic “Half Moon,” and a lean, bluesy, and storming take on The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” – have been appended to Playback’s reissue, and a 28-page booklet featuring contributions from the artist tells the Sue Barker story in full. Barker’s note indicates that the album has been remixed for this release. Both packaging and sound, remastered by Gil Matthews, are superb.
Fans of “soul jazz” should seek out the sole release from Sue Barker, for evidence of a bright talent who may have bowed out of recording too soon, but nonetheless left behind a rich document of captivating music.
Watch this space for a look at Judy Jacques’ The Sixties Sessions, also available now from Playback Records!
- How Sweet It Is
- You Stepped Out of a Dream
- Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me
- Love to the People
- I Heard It Through the Grapevine
- Lover Man
- What’s Going On
- Zimbabwe (Bonus Track)
- Half Moon (Bonus Track)
- You Can’t Always Get What You Want (Bonus Track)