Today, we’re taking a look at three recent, stellar additions to Ace Records’ long-running Songwriter Series!
Teddy Randazzo (1935-2003) might have not attained the same “household name” status as some of his peers, but the prodigiously gifted composer-arranger-producer-artist nonetheless left behind a remarkable body of work in a career spanning over five decades. Ace’s Yesterday Has Gone: The Songs of Teddy Randazzo is the first-ever anthology of his output, concentrating on the mid-1960s – the period in which he charted 19 songs on the Hot 100. Three of those reached the top 20, and a further three made the top 10. Randazzo’s oeuvre defined uptown soul. His style encompassed lush orchestrations, powerful use of staccato phrases, and rich melodies building to thunderous crescendos.
The collection begins with Little Anthony and The Imperials’ “I’m On the Outside Looking In,” a benchmark in Randazzo’s career and the first of three significant hits he had with the group. (The other two, “Goin’ Out of My Head” and “Hurt So Bad,” are presented in others’ versions.) Co-written with Bobby Weinstein, “I’m On the Outside” might have been from 1964 but it had the elegance and deceptive simplicity of the 1950s, bridging Little Anthony’s doo-wop past with his pop-soul present. The Imperials’ other track here is “Yesterday Has Gone,” a stomping selection from 1968. Other than Little Anthony and The Imperials, the act with whom Randazzo is most closely linked was The Royalettes; the girl group recorded 22 of his compositions in two years at MGM Records. They’re represented here by the dramatic “Baby Are You Putting Me On” and the eternal “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle,” one of Randazzo’s best-known songs which his musical disciple, Thom Bell, reinvented years later with Deniece Williams.
Derek Martin and Howard Guyton of The Top Notes first worked with Randazzo when he arranged and conducted the session in which they recorded the original version of “Twist and Shout.” They both went on to cut Randazzo’s songs in their solo careers; in Martin’s case, more than 20. He’s heard here on the atypically slow-burning, ethereal “You Better Go.” Guyton’s selection is “I Watched You Slowly Slip Away,” a rhythmic roof-raiser.
While he was innately a soul man, Randazzo’s songs lent themselves to artists of all genres. No less an eminence than Frank Sinatra recorded a number of his fellow Italian-American’s best tunes including the big, European-style ballad “Rain in My Heart” (co-written by Teddy and this then-girlfriend Victoria Pike) from 1968’s underrated, folk/pop-oriented Cycles. “Good for a Lifetime,” a 1966 ballad performed by veteran crooner Al Hibbler (and also recorded by Little Anthony and The Imperials) was much in the same mold. Onetime band singer Georgia Gibbs, late in her career, did more than respectably on the big-beat number “Let Me Dream,” also recorded by Lesley Gore. The Kane Triplets put a sunshine pop spin on Randazzo and Pike’s “Buttercup Days” and The Vogues brought similar softness to the duo’s upbeat “We’re On Our Way.”
So many of the songs here deserved a better commercial fate. Timi Yuro’s moving, urgent, and undeniably catchy “Can’t Stop Running Away” and Tony Orlando’s one-off Atco single “Think Before You Act” showcase those staccato phrases that Randazzo favored so much. Annabelle Fox’s “Lonely Girl,” from 1966, can stand tall alongside Randazzo contemporary Burt Bacharach’s thrilling productions for Dionne Warwick (with which it clearly shares some musical DNA). Warwick herself gets a spot on Yesterday Has Gone with her silky take on Randazzo and Weinstein’s “Goin’ Out of My Head,” Little Anthony’s 1964 top 10 smash, in a Larry Wilcox arrangement overseen by Bacharach. The dramatic sweep of Bacharach’s best is also evident on Randazzo, Pike, and Ritchie Adams’ “Better Off Without You” as recorded by Adams at MGM in 1966.
Rice’s Elvis Presley sound-a-like record “Or Not at All” and Billy Fury’s “I’m Lost Without You” are among the most bombastic items here, while Mel Tormé’s “Better Use Your Head” is effortlessly cool. The Delfonics’ uptempo treatment of Randazzo, Weinstein, and Bobby Hart’s “Hurt So Bad” demonstrates Randazzo’s influence on Philly soul maestro Thom Bell; The Delfonics would also cover “Goin’ Out of My Head” with the producer-arranger-conductor-composer. Bell left The Delfonics to produce The Stylistics, and when he left The Stylistics for The Spinners, one of the producers who replaced him was Teddy Randazzo. The group’s smooth, lush “Love at First Sight” from 1979 sounds more like Thom Bell than “Hurt So Bad” does, as Randazzo had clearly been influenced by the younger man’s work – which had been mightily influenced by his own. By your pupils you’ll be taught, indeed. The Philadelphia sound would be good to New Jersey’s Manhattans; the R&B group had their greatest successes when they crossed the Delaware. Randazzo’s songs were a major part of their Columbia years, but this collection dips back to their first foray into his songbook from 1971 on De-Luxe Records, the ballad “A Million to One.”
Mick Patrick has put the compilation together and contributed track-by-track notes in the 24-page booklet while Ian Chapman offers an essay about Randazzo’s life and career. Nick Robbins has remastered all tracks.
Ace has also turned the spotlight onto Rhymin’ Simon with American Tunes: Songs by Paul Simon. The task here isn’t to uncover unknown songs, in the manner of the Randazzo volume, but rather to show how adaptable his eternal compositions are to various genres and artists. Compared to prior entries in Ace’s Songwriter Series, there’s a much higher percentage here of well-known artists as well as titles, but considering Simon’s stature, it’s no surprise – and no detriment.
American Tunes is weighted towards Simon and Garfunkel material, with 16 of its 23 tracks introduced by the duo. Simon’s distinctive, precocious compositions inspired performers from both sides of the Atlantic in a variety of styles including folk-pop (The Hollies’ “I Am a Rock,” Cher’s “Homeward Bound”), sunshine pop (Harpers Bizarre’s whimsical “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)”), spare folk (Dorris Henderson and John Renbourn’s haunting, stark “Leaves That Are Green”), and even storming R&B (the northern soul floor-filler “You Don’t Know Where Your Interest Lies” from South Africa’s Dana Valery, Peaches and Herb’s funky Tony Camillo-arranged “The Sound of Silence”). Indeed, both S&G hits and deep cuts were covered with frequency. American vocalist Marsha Hunt, a veteran of the U.K. company of Hair, was among the artists to cover the ironically rollicking “Keep the Customer Satisfied.” Hunt retained the original’s brass and beat, while adding a prominent organ for that extra zing. Not even Motown was exempt from Simon-mania. American Tunes features Smokey Robinson and The Miracles’ fine romp through “Cecilia” from their 1971 still-not-on-CD album One Dozen Roses. Robinson fit the song into the Motown mold, adding strings, an almost martial beat, and liquid bass, trading off the urgency of the original for his laid-back, cool, and sensual lead.
Reggae artists were also quick to latch onto the Simon songbook. The genre is represented via The Tennors’ “The Only Living Boy in New York” (subtitled “Weather Report” to reflect its substantial lyrical changes) and The Heptones’ “Richard Cory.” Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence LP was a major success in Jamaica, and Paul, of course, would later draw on reggae and world-music influences in his own solo work such as “Mother and Child Reunion,” the original track of which was recorded in Kingston, Jamaica. Producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, recording with the Philadelphia International house band MFSB, gave the infectious melody a straight-ahead soul groove in The Intruders’ version here.
Emmylou Harris earned a top 20 Country hit in 1980 with her stunning interpretation of “The Boxer.” While the instrumentation was changed from the S&G original, the music and lyrics unsurprisingly proved a perfect fit for the country tradition in which storytelling is valued so highly. Harris stripped “The Boxer” to its essence while retaining all of its power. A similar feat was accomplished by Aretha Franklin, who confirmed via her passionate interpretation that “Bridge Over Troubled Water” belonged in the pantheon of hymns and gospel. Ace presents it here in its mono single version. Covered almost 60 times within its first year, “Bridge” now has around 450 covers (and counting!) per Tony Rounce’s excellent track-by-track notes. The Bangles’ shimmering 1987 cover of “Hazy Shade of Winter” proved that great pop is great pop in any era; ditto Rosemary Clooney’s hip, knowing cover of “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.”
The interpretations of Simon’s solo material on this set are equally compelling. Gospel was on the singer-songwriter’s mind when he composed the fervor-filled “Loves Me Like a Rock.” Harkening back to one of Paul’s earliest influences, the tune is heard here in The Persuasions’ street-corner a cappella treatment. Soul men Johnnie and Floyd Taylor’s “Take Me to the Mardi Gras,” recorded with members of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, shimmers with gentle buoyancy as it offers to “let the music wash your soul.”
Paul lent harmonies to Annie Lennox’s 1995 cover of “Something So Right.” Lennox hewed fairly closely to the contours of the original song, bringing her powerful, piercing voice, a more dramatic orchestration in place of the original’s jazz-style backing, and a special guest; the song’s composer-lyricist added tight harmonies on the chorus. Singer-songwriter Patti Smith, too, showed respect and restraint with her 2007 recording of Graceland‘s “The Boy in the Bubble.” The same can be said of Willie Nelson’s sprightly, faithful “Graceland” from his 1993 LP Across the Borderline.
Willie’s “American Tune” from the same album would have been an equally strong choice for inclusion, but instead, the honors have gone to Shawn Colvin’s excellent reading. Rounce points out that the song was recorded in England and based on a German melody, yet it is one of Simon’s quintessentially American songs, filled with ambivalence and hope and fear and power as it explores the promise and ideals of America itself. The most recent track here is Rumer’s beautiful “Long Long Day” from 2012; as ever, Rumer filters the sound and style of a past generation with her own soulful sensibility and richly expressive, crystalline voice.
Nick Robbins has remastered, and Tony Rounce has compiled and annotated American Tunes, which boasts a 20-page booklet. Paul Simon himself has given the collection his stamp of approval. These are the days of miracle and wonder, indeed.
The Sweetest Feeling, Ace’s first collection dedicated to producer-songwriter-arranger-conductor Van McCoy (1940-1979) was released in 2010. But, better late than never, the label’s Kent imprint has returned to the McCoy oeuvre with a second volume to once again prove that there was far more to this soulful music man than “The Hustle.” While some big names are peppered throughout This Is It! More from The Van McCoy Songbook (Gladys Knight and The Pips, David Ruffin, Major Lance, Melba Moore), most of the artists are criminally unknown – as are these fine examples of McCoy’s R&B mastery.
When Van McCoy died 40 years ago this past July at the tragically young age of 39, he’d left a legacy of some 300 songs. The 24 selections here offer a cross-section of his work as songwriter, producer, and arranger-conductor. He was equally comfortable with ballads and upbeat dancers, as this set amply proves.
This Is It spotlights girl group nuggets (The Exciters’ Leiber and Stoller production “Hard Way to Go”), smooth ballads (Chris Bartley’s “The Sweetest Thing This Side of Heaven”), and Motown-style stompers (Kenny Carlton’s “Lost and Found,” Sandi Sheldon’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Love You,” Peaches and Herb’s “We’re In This Thing Together”) which all anticipate the dancefloor successes Van would have in the disco era. But McCoy’s style was hard to pinpoint, as he could write and produce for male and female artists, solos and groups, ballads and dancers. Among the hidden gems here are Bobby Reed’s brash, brassy “I Wanna Love You So Bad,” Erma Franklin’s persuasive “Abracadabra,” Toni Lamarr’s easygoing, swinging “Just in the Nick of Time,” and Francine Barker’s doo-wop ballad “Mr. DJ.” Betty Everett was the perfect voice for the classy, shimmering soul of “Gonna Be Ready.” Kenny Young’s “Ain’t It Funny What Love Can Do” emphasized the drama, with its staccato passages recalling Teddy Randazzo’s style. The Ad Libs, in a new line-up, were miles away from “The Girl from New York City” on the driving “Show a Little Appreciation” from 1968.
McCoy’s style certainly changed dramatically in the 1970s, but his talent for songcraft and ear for fine singers certainly didn’t. Sharon Ridley’s “Where Did You Learn to Make Love the Way That You Do” is a silky, string-laden soul ballad looking forward to disco, while the proto-disco sound is in full flower on Brenda and the Tabulations’ 1972 “Little Bit of Love.” Faith, Hope and Charity’s “You’re My Peace of Mind” and Gladys Knight and The Pips’ soaring “Baby Don’t Change Your Mind,” both from 1977, reflect a creatively recharged McCoy enjoying the emphasis on the beat.
The Choice Four’s harmony ballad “If I Don’t Love You” is a more than worthy Philly soul pastiche. The group, assembled by Van in the boy-band mode, also recorded the original version of “Walk Away from Love,” the 1975 “comeback” chart-topper for David Ruffin at Motown. Though Ruffin’s gritty pipes had brought power and urgency to “Walk Away from Love,” the former Temptations frontman settled into a softer hustle groove for follow-up “Everything’s Coming Up Love.”
The collection takes its title from Melba Moore’s 1976 club anthem. In just three-and-a-half pulse-pounding minutes “This Is It” captures the Van McCoy magic. The team of compiler-annotator Tony Rounce and remastering engineer Nick Robbins has put together this stellar celebration of McCoy. The CD contains a 20-page booklet decked out in the usual Ace fashion with copious photos and album and single artwork. All three of these anthologies are available now at the links below, and full track listings are also available there.