Doo-wop veterans John Brown, Tim McQueen, Edward Schell, and Claude Johnson came together as New York City, hoping that the name of their new vocal quartet would reflect the melting pot that inspired it. "We feel personally that a group should be able to sing anything from the lowest, dirtiest blues," Brown wrote in the sleevenotes of New York City's 1973 debut LP, "through spirituals, right up through pop to the heaviest kind of music." I'm Doin' Fine Now, originally issued on Chelsea Records and just reissued on 140-gram black vinyl by Demon Records, sought to reflect that diversity by splitting the sessions between producers and cities. Six songs were helmed by Farrell and Bahler at New York City's Media Sound and four by Thom Bell primarily at Philadelphia's Sigma Sound. The resulting album merges the best of Farrell and Bahler's pop sensibilities and Bell's sophisticated soul sound.
Farrell and arranger-conductor Bahler produced all of Side One of New York City. Underscoring the N.Y. to Philly cross-cultural exchange, the opening song was penned by the City of Brotherly Love-based songwriting team of Norman Harris, Allan Felder, and Ronnie Baker. "Hang Your Head in Shame" is on the edgier side of the Philly soul spectrum though still dressed up with group background harmonies (arranged by New York City) and trademark sitar. Its lithe, dark grooves were sampled by Notorious B.I.G. featuring Junior Mafia for their "Biggie."
Lead vocalist Tim McQueen wrote or co-wrote three originals on this side: the catchy but moody "Make Me Twice the Man," the pulsating "Sanity" with its dramatic strings, and the less melodic, imploring "Set the Record Straight." Two covers round out the New York side of I'm Doin' Fine Now. The more unexpected of the two is the Jimmy Webb classic "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," likely inspired by Isaac Hayes' own soul makeover of the tune. The tight harmonies are lush on this interpretation, and New York City takes the melody in their own direction with a slow, languid opening that yields to a loose, uptempo feel. The other cover is an energetic if somewhat out-of-place run through Farrell's own "Hang On, Sloopy," co-written with the late Bert Berns. Farrell also co-wrote Side Two's "Reach Out" with his frequent collaborators Danny Janssen and Bobby Hart.
What did Thom Bell bring to his four tracks on Side Two of I'm Doin' Fine Now? Well, he brought Thom Bell. His signature style was why Wes Farrell sought him out, and he didn't disappoint. It wasn't uncommon in a Bell chart to find instrumentation considered unconventional in soul or R&B, such as French horn, oboe, celeste, bassoon, sitar, flugelhorn, or tack piano. Yet the combination of these unexpected instruments and complex chords always went down easy in a Bell production or composition. As an arranger, he possessed a preternatural cool, faithfully serving and bringing out the best in a song's melody. Most of all, Bell's songs (and those he chose as a producer) were about heart and passion. If he was known with The Delfonics and especially The Stylistics for his lushly romantic ballads, he cut loose with The Spinners. It's the latter, funkier sound that Bell, engineer Joe Tarsia, and the musicians of MFSB brought to New York City.
Bell's rich style of string arranging stands out on his first track on the album, "Quick, Fast, in a Hurry" - co-written with Linda Creed - as well as the bright woodwinds. As orchestrator, he integrated an electric guitar, adding a bit of an edge to the sweet love song, along with subtle Latin percussion. Many would listen to "Quick, Fast, in a Hurry" and identify it as The Spinners right down to the harmony blend; when some listeners confused New York City with that group, it would later lead to tension between the foursome and Bell.
Joe Jefferson, leader of The Nat Turner Rebellion (whose works were recently released on LP for Record Store Day) and a songwriting protégé of Bell's, supplied the touching ballad "Uncle James" as well as "Ain't It So," a wistful testimonial from an ardent lover to a bride-to-be whose mother doesn't approve of the relationship. The latter has the Sweethearts of Sigma (a.k.a. Carla Benson, Yvette Benton, and Barbara Ingram) adding their magic to the background vocals; Bell gave both of Jefferson's compositions rich and lovely orchestrations, too. The title track of I'm Doin' Fine Now was written by Bell and Sherman Marshall, and was also released as New York City's debut single. It's quintessential Thom Bell: an irresistible slice of upbeat, orchestrated, and melodic Philly soul with swirling strings, brassy horns, and a syncopated rhythm (again with the Sweethearts supplementing New York City) and ad libs of the manner Phillipe Wynne would have delivered with The Spinners. "I'm Doin' Fine Now" charted within the top 20 of the Pop and R&B surveys, and went top 10 AC as well as top 20 on the U.K. Singles Chart.
Demon's vinyl pressing replicates the original Chelsea release, including the labels on the LP sides. The inner sleeve has credits on one side and picture sleeve and single images on the other. The vinyl is quiet but the vivid stereo separation and robust sound of the (long out-of-print and admittedly louder) CD is less pronounced and a bit murkier here.
New York City would record one more album, wholly arranged, produced, and conducted by Thom Bell. Perhaps reflecting his busy schedule at the time, he didn't write any new songs for Soulful Road, instead enlisting the team of Joe Jefferson, Bruce Hawes, and Charles Simmons ("Mighty Love," "(They Just Can't Stop It) Games People Play") to pen the majority of the material. The LP also featured a cover of The Intruders' "Do You Remember Yesterday" by Bell, Creed, and Kenny Gamble, but it was Jefferson, Hawes, and Simmons' "Happiness Is" that made the top 20 of the R&B singles chart. While Soulful Road performed respectably, the group parted ways after its release. Though lesser known than I'm Doin' Fine Now, it, too, is a welcome candidate for reissue.
Demon's vinyl reissue is a great and affordable way to reacquaint oneself with this talented and vocally versatile foursome worthy of their name New York City. It's available now at the links below!
- Hang Your Head in Shame (**)
- Make Me Twice the Man (**)
- By the Time I Get to Phoenix (**)
- Sanity (**)
- Set the Record Straight (**)
- Quick, Fast, In a Hurry (*)
- Uncle James (*)
- Ain't It So (*)
- I'm Doin' Fine Now (*)
- Reach Out (**)
(*) produced and arranged by Thom Bell
(**) produced by Wes Farrell and John Bahler/arranged by John Bahler