I always cook with honey/To sweeten up the night/We always cook with honey/Tell me, how’s your appetite/For some sweet love?
Valerie Carter liked to cook with honey. Her dish was music-making, and the honey was the lilting yet expressive voice which made her incisive compositions (including “Cook with Honey,” a hit for Judy Collins) go down so easy. Cherry Red’s Cherry Tree imprint has recently brought together the late singer-songwriter’s two Columbia albums, originally released in 1977 and 1978, and repackaged them on a no-frills single disc package entitled Ooh Child: The Columbia Years.
The title of 1977’s Just a Stone’s Throw Away could describe Carter’s proximity to fame, as a prominent background singer for artists such as James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, and Little Feat. For her debut as a solo artist – she had previously recorded for A&M as one-third of the group Howdy Moon – Carter enlisted George Massenburg to produce, with Maurice White and her then-flame Lowell George co-producing a handful of tracks. This exquisite soft-rock gem, with its dashes of country, folk, funk, and soul, should have catapulted Carter to front-line status, but instead became a cult classic known to just a relative few.
Carter’s pretty reworking of The Five Stairsteps’ Stan Vincent-penned “Ooh Child” became well-known enough to give this collection its title (and was subsequently heard in the 1979 cult classic Over the Edge), but the original compositions are every bit its equal. Linda Ronstadt shared the tight harmony on the shimmering “Heartache,” co-written by Lowell George and Ivan Ulz. George’s stamp is all over Stone’s Throw. The Little Feat frontman penned and produced the wistful ode to a “Cowboy Angel” with Valerie, teamed with John Sebastian for the rustic, banjo-flecked “Face of Appalachia,” and wrote the evocative, jazz-tinged road song “Back to Blue Some More” with Valerie and his bandmate Bill Payne.
Earth Wind and Fire collaborator Skip Scarborough provided Valerie with “So, So Happy,” placing her creamy vocals on a bright, brassy bed of music. Indeed, Carter fit right into the band’s groove on the sleek “City Lights,” co-written and produced by Maurice White and his bandmates. If she was comfortable on a soul groove, she was equally at home with the blues on Barbara Keith and Doug Tibbles’ nominal title track, “A Stone’s Throw Away.”
While Carter could have easily continued on the path established by Just a Stone’s Throw Away, she immersed herself further into the world of slick pop-rock with her Columbia follow-up. Wild Child was released on the ARC imprint, home of Earth Wind and Fire and Deniece Williams, and produced by James Newton Howard. It featured Los Angeles’ top session cats (including the ubiquitous members of Toto, Davey Johnstone of The Elton John Band, Jay Graydon, Victor Feldman, and Michael Utley) and lavish string arrangements from Howard and Jimmie Haskell supporting cool electric piano and crisp guitar lines.
The versatile singer-songwriter had a hand in five of its nine songs compared to just three on the previous LP, making Wild Child arguably a more personal album despite the sleek production. The lyrics to the ironically upbeat opening track, “Crazy,” may have cut too close to the bone for an artist who battled her share of personal demons over the years: “I’m always gonna be this way/Reckless and crazy/That’s probably true…” An authenticity, not to mention confidence, surges though the album.
Steve Lukather’s guitar was placed out front on tracks like the upbeat “Taking the Long Way Home,” which also features a sax solo from Don Myrick, and Lukather even co-wrote (with Carter and Newton Howard) the admonishing “Lady in the Dark.” Andy Fairweather Low (of Amen Corner fame) authored “Da Doo Rendezvous,” inspiring a memorably sultry vocal from Valerie and a guitar solo from Ray Parker, Jr. EWF’s Verdine White returned to add his fluid bass to the funky “The Story of Love” and the smooth “Trying to Get to You.” David Lasley and Allee Willis contributed the melodic standout “The Blue Side,” later a hit for Crystal Gayle, while another A-list songwriter, Tom Snow, offered the surprisingly dark, introspective “Change in Luck” with Chuck Rainey handling its prominent bass part.
Wild Child, like its predecessor, failed to register commercially despite the best efforts of all involved. Ironically, Valerie Carter’s only chart entry came with the duet “We’ll Be Lovers Again” with Eddie Money from his 1980 album Playing for Keeps. Happily, that track has been included as the lone bonus on Ooh Child. One wishes that the collection might have also made room for her 1982 Columbia duet with Al Kooper on his “Two Sides (To Every Situation)” as well as alternate single mixes and any vault material for a more comprehensive overview of the artist’s short-lived but pivotal Columbia period.
The two albums have been remastered for this release by Tom Parker. Housed in a jewel case, Ooh Child also contains a 20-page booklet with brief but thoughtful and informative liner notes by compilation producer Adam Mattera.
Valerie Carter’s light burned brightly but for far too short a time; she passed away in 2017 at the age of 64. James Taylor, who had championed her late-in-life recovery from drug addiction, noted that “Valerie was an old soul and as deep as a well. Her voice came from her life and her life was a steep, rocky road. We were the lucky ones who worked with Valerie over the long arc of her creative career. We got the best of her love.” That love can now be shared on Ooh Child: The Columbia Years. The collection is available now at the links below.
- Ooh Child
- Ringing Doorbells in the Rain
- Face of Appalachia
- So, So Happy
- A Stone’s Throw Away
- Cowboy Angel
- City Lights
- Back to Blue Some More
- Da Doo Rendezvous
- What’s Become of Us
- Taking the Long Way Home
- Lady in the Dark
- The Story of Love
- The Blue Side
- Change in Luck
- Trying to Get to You
- Wild Child
- Let’s Be Lovers Again (Duet with Eddie Money)
Tracks 1-10 from Just a Stone’s Throw Away, Columbia LP PC 34155, 1977
Tracks 11-19 from Wild Child, ARC/Columbia LP JC 35084, 1978
Track 20 from Eddie Money, Playing for Keeps, Columbia FC 36514, 1980