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 she would finally take flight as a top-tier blue-eyed soul singer. The Edsel label has long championed Kiki's work on various reissues; now, they've brought all of her Rocket repertoire together on one new, book-style box set. The 5-CD The Rocket Years includes ten bonus tracks, including the CD premiere outside of Australia of the rare Elton duet B-side "Snow Queen" penned by Kiki with Elton, Bernie Taupin, Davey Johnstone, and David Nutter. The result is an eye-opening journey through five albums of melodic pop-rock from a distinctive talent.
Kiki was Elton's first signing to Rocket, and he produced her 1973 debut for the label with engineer Clive Franks. Loving and Free, named for the first composition she ever wrote, featured Elton on piano for seven of its ten tracks. The song selection encompassed Dee's own compositions as well as the hit single "Amoreuse" (co-written by Veronique Sanson and future "Little Jeannie" lyricist Gary Osborne), plus choice material from writers including Jackson Browne ("Song for Adam") and Gerry Rafferty ("You Put Something Better Inside Me"). Elton and Bernie Taupin contributed the tale of hitchhikers "Lonnie and Josie" and the piano-pounding, guitar-driven glam rocker "Supercool." With the aid of bandmates Dee Murray, Nigel Olsson, and Davey Johnstone, as well as Paul Keogh, Gerry Conway and steel guitar great B.J. Cole, Elton helmed a rootsy album that spotlights Dee's powerful voice. It today can sit comfortably as a cousin to his 1970 masterwork Tumbleweed Connection.
Clive Franks returned to helm I've Got the Music in Me in 1974 alongside 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 infectious 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's next LP, the Los Angeles-recorded Cage the Songbird, was recorded in 1975 but shelved until 2008. Named for a dark and moody John/Taupin/Johnstone composition featured on Elton's Blue Moves, it takes its rightful place among her other Rocket records in this chronologically-assembled set. Primarily produced by Robert Appere, Cage the Songbird also boasts one John production, of Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter's catchy "Once a Fool," as well as covers of Sam Cooke ("A Change Is Gonna Come") and Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham ("Cry Like a Baby"). Bias Boshell offered another trio of tunes: "Bright Medallions," "First Thing in the Morning," and "Man After My Own Heart."
Before another solo album could be released, Elton and Kiki teamed for a little duet cheekily credited to songwriters Ann Orson and Carte Blanche called "Don't Go Breaking My Heart," which just happened to top the charts on both sides of the Atlantic in 1976. Perhaps as a result of that newfound fame, her next LP for Rocket was titled, simply, Kiki Dee. Capitalizing on the success of the single, it unsurprisingly 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.") Boshell, too, maintained a presence on Kiki Dee which was recorded in both London and New York. The varied LP became her most successful and first to enter the U.K. pop chart.
Kiki didn't complete her Rocket contract until 1979 with the release of Stay with Me, the fifth and final album in this collection. The two-year gap between albums, though, didn't dull her sense of adventure. Producer Bill Schnee oversaw the California 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. With songs from Dee and Boshell as well as hitmakers like Tom Snow and Glen Ballard ("One Step"), Franne Golde and Cynthia Weil ("You're Holding Me Too Tight") and David Lasley ("Don't Stop Loving Me," "Safe Harbor"), Stay with Me boasted a strong tunestack. Kiki even reconnected with her R&B roots on a soulful cover of Jerry Ragovoy and George David Weiss' "Stay with Me Baby." With its crisp West Coast sheen, Stay with Me is the smoothest of Dee's Rocket outings.
The Rocket Years features ten bonus tracks (primarily related single sides) including "Snow Queen" and "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" distributed among the albums, and everything has been tastefully remastered by Phil Kinrade. It's all housed in a beautiful, colorful hardcover media book package, and each disc features its own custom label. The 36-page book is lavishly illustrated with photos, album and singles artwork, and memorabilia from Kiki's own collection, as well as selected lyrics and detailed liner notes by Alan Robinson based on a new interview with the singer.
This comprehensive tribute to Kiki Dee finally brings her out of the shadow of her friend and collaborator Elton and presents her body of work in dynamic fashion. It's available now from Edsel at the links below!
- Loving and Free (Rocket PIGL5, 1973)
- I've Got the Music in Me - The Kiki Dee Band (Rocket PIGL10, 1974)
- Cage the Songbird (EMI 00946 3 63125 2 1, 2008)
- Kiki Dee (Rocket ROLA 3, 1977)
- Stay with Me (Rocket TRAIN 3, 1979)
Plus bonus tracks:
Loving and Free:
- The Last Good Man in My Life (Rocket single PIG 2-B, 1973)
- Six Days on the Road (first issued on EMI CD 00946 3 63113 2 6, 2002)
I've Got the Music in Me:
- Hard Luck Story (Rocket single PIG 10-A, 1974)
- Everyone Should Have Their Way (Rocket single PIG 10-B, 1974)
- Simple Melody - The Kiki Dee Band (Rocket single PIG 12-B, 1974)
- How Glad I Am (Rocket single PIG 16-A, 1975)
- Peter (Rocket single PIG 16-B, 1975)
Cage the Songbird:
- Don't Go Breaking My Heart - Elton John and Kiki Dee (Rocket single ROKN 512-A, 1976)
- Snow Queen (Rocket single ROKN 512-B, 1976)