Dee Dee Bridgewater has long defied easy categorization. The Grammy and Tony Award-winning singer-actress has fronted a jazz orchestra; worked with legends of the genre like Thad Jones, Dexter Gordon, and Max Roach; starred in two Broadway musicals; hosted a long-running NPR radio show; and served as a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador as part of her fight against world hunger. Cherry Red Group’s Robinsongs imprint has recently collected her first four American albums on a 2-CD set.
When Charlie Smalls’ musical The Wiz opened on Broadway in 1975, Bridgewater had already released one album in Japan: the jazz-centric Afro Blue. But her star turn as the good witch Glinda in the smash hit African-American reinvention of The Wizard of Oz brought her to the attention of Atlantic Records when that label recorded the cast album of The Wiz. Jerry Wexler, famed for his work with Atlantic soul legends like Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield, was one of the producers who oversaw her 1976 self-titled U.S. debut. Wexler was joined by veteran arranger Gene Page on three tracks, while the remaining five were overseen by Stephen Y. Scheaffer and Broadway musical director-arranger Harold Wheeler.
Bookended by two distinct versions of the 1939 standard “My Prayer” (best known in The Platters’ doo-wop recording) – one, an uptempo, disco-lite treatment and the other a yearning ballad – the album placed Bridgewater in a strong pop-soul setting. Recording with Page and Wexler at Muscle Shoals, Dee Dee cut British singer-songwriter Peter Skellern’s ballad “My Lonely Room” in a lush, almost Philly-inspired vein; reinvented Daryl Hall and John Oates’ classic “She’s Gone” as “He’s Gone” with gospel fervor (background singers included Jim Gilstrap, Merry Clayton, Jackie Ward, and The Honey Cone’s Carolyn Willis); and sang from her gut on Motown tunesmith Bob Bateman’s brassy “You Saved Me.” The Scheaffer sessions were in a similar vein, featuring songs by Allen Toussaint (the funky “It Ain’t Easy”), Tom Bahler (“Goin’ Through the Motions,” a slice of classic-style pop also recorded by artists from Andy Williams to The 5th Dimension), and Alan O’Day (the gritty “Every Man Wants Another Man’s Woman”). It added up to an auspicious debut from a powerful voice.
When the album didn’t register with the public, Atlantic parent Warner Bros. switched Bridgewater over to their Elektra label. The decision was made to tap into her jazz roots by enlisting producer Stanley Clarke and a cadre of top jazz fusion artists as support, including Chick Corea, George Duke, and Airto Moreira. 1978’s Just Family wasn’t radically different enough to alienate fans of its predecessor, but its gleaming, slinky, and taut sound was less overtly pop and ballad-oriented. Bridgewater even adapted her husky voice to the less traditional contours of these new songs. Her then-husband Gilbert Moses (the original director of The Wiz) wrote or co-wrote a handful – some with producer/bassist Clarke – including the party-like title track, the smoldering “Maybe Today,” the romantic “Thank the Day,” and the ethereal “Children Are the Spirit of the World.” The only familiar reinterpretation was that of Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” which had also attracted the esteemed likes of Frank Sinatra. Bridgewater’s treatment was earthier and edgier than John’s understated original, with Raymond Gomez supplying the searing guitar licks and Scarlet Rivera adding color on violin. The bubbly “Sweet Rain” filled the dancefloor quotient; Michael Franks’ “Night Moves” was a modernized bossa nova with Bridgewater singing in her lightest, most coquettish tones.
George Duke “graduated” to producer for 1979’s Bad for Me, taking Bridgewater closer to mainstream R&B again with his pulsating arrangements. Bad for Me variously recalls, and favorably compares, to albums by Phyllis Hyman, Deniece Williams, Patrice Rushen, and Patti Austin. Musicians included Sheila E. on percussion, returning keyboardist and bassist Bobby Lyle and Alphonso Johnson (respectively), and trumpeter Jerry Hey leading the horn section. The Deborah Thomas/Charles Veal title track earned the singer a top 40 R&B single, while its abundant other highlights include Gene McDaniels’ mellow “Back of Your Mind” and David Foster and Carole Bayer Sager’s breezy “It’s the Falling in Love” (also recorded by Sager, Michael Jackson, Samantha Sang, and Dionne Warwick). Dee Dee branched out to co-write the upbeat “For the Girls” and smooth, sultry “Love Won’t Let Me Go,” and even revisited the world of The Wiz when she recorded her own version of a song penned for (but ultimately not included in) Motown’s film version of the musical: Nickolas Ashford, Valerie Simpson, and Quincy Jones’ ruminative “Is This What Feeling Gets?”
For her final Elektra album, Bridgewater teamed with one-third of Philadelphia’s Mighty Three: producer-arranger-conductor-songwriter Thom Bell. Dee Dee had appeared alongside Debbie Allen as one of the sassy “jeerleaders” in the 1979 film The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, for which Bell composed the score. For his full-length album collaboration with Bridgewater, Bell brought his signature style of sophisticated soul as well as his usual A-team of musicians including Bob Babbitt (bass), Charles Collins (drums), Bobby Eli and Bill Neale (guitar), Larry Washington (percussion), and Don Renaldo’s Horns and Strings. Barbara Ingram, Carla Benson, and Yvette Benson – a.k.a. The Sweethearts of Sigma – added background vocals, as did The Fish alumnus Frankie Bleu. Oddly, the album was titled after the artist once again – as if to signal an artistic rebirth.
Rich strings swirled around the opening “Lonely Disco Dancer,” a co-write with Joe Jefferson and Richard Roebuck that’s very much in the style of Bell’s work for The Fish. The attractive “When Love Comes Knockin'” has all the sweetness and melodic lilt associated with Bell’s best ballads. Both it and the buoyant leadoff single “One in a Million (Guy)” were authored by the producer with Seattle-based singer-songwriter Joe Ericksen. “Jody (Whoever You Are)” inspired a dramatic chart and vocal. Bell revisited his own songbook with the gorgeous, pensive “Give in to Love,” which he’d recorded with Ronnie Dyson in 1973 (and reportedly earlier with Little Anthony and The Imperials, though that version is still unreleased). Thom made room for two productions from his nephew LeRoy Bell and his musical partner Casey James, “Gunshots in the Night” and “When You’re in Love.” He also welcomed another long-serving Philly talent, Preston Glass, as writer of the catchy and spirited “That’s the Way Love Should Feel.” Dee Dee Bridgewater didn’t score commercially for the singer, but stylistically anticipated Bell’s collaborations with Deniece Williams.
Dee Dee took a hiatus from recording after the Thom Bell sessions, concentrating on her theatrical work. She returned to the studio later in the 1980s with a renewed focus on jazz. Robinsongs’ collection of her R&B years has been mastered by Oli Hemingway. It includes a 12-page booklet with liner notes by Lois Wilson. Listening to these four albums, it’s clear that Bridgewater wasn’t just going through the motions, but rather investing this material with pure soul.
You’ll find the track listing and order links for this set below; remember that Amazon U.K. is not currently shipping orders to North America.
- My Prayer (Fast Version)
- My Lonely Room
- It Ain’t Easy
- He’s Gone
- Goin’ Through the Motions
- You Saved Me
- Every Man Wants Another Man’s Woman
- My Prayer (Ballad Version)
- Just Family
- Maybe Today
- Children Are the Spirit of the World
- Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word
- Sweet Rain
- Open Up Your Eyes
- Night Moves
- Thank the Day
- Melody Maker
- Bad for Me
- Back of Your Mind
- For the Girls
- Love Won’t Let Me Go
- It’s the Falling in Love
- Tequila Mockingbird
- Don’t Say It (If You Don’t Mean It)
- Is This What Feeling Gets?
- Lonely Disco Dancer
- When Love Comes Knockin’
- One in a Million (Guy)
- Gunshots in the Night
- When You’re in Love
- That’s the Way Love Should Feel
- Give In to Love
- Jody (Whoever You Are)
CD 1, Tracks 1-8 from Dee Dee Bridgewater, Atlantic LP SD 18188, 1976
CD 1, Tracks 9-17 from Just Family, Elektra LP 6E-119, 1978
CD 2, Tracks 1-9 from Bad for Me, Elektra LP 6E-188, 1979
CD 2, Tracks 10-17 from Dee Dee Bridgewater, Elektra LP 6E-306, 1980