Perhaps no label this holiday season has offered such a bonanza of box sets as Cherry Red. Today we kick off a three-part feature on five of these sets (any of which just might make the perfect stocking stuffer!) with a Holiday Gift Guide spotlight on Evelyn "Champagne" King's The RCA Albums 1977-1985.
Bronx-born, Philadelphia-raised vocalist Evelyn "Champagne" King came from a showbiz family including her uncle Avon Long - perhaps best known as Sportin' Life in multiple productions of Porgy and Bess - who had made his Broadway debut in 1936 and continued to perform on the Great White Way through 1977. In a true rags-to-riches tale, King was discovered by producer-musician T. Life when she was just 14 years old, singing to herself as she helped her mom mop the floors of Philadelphia International Records' lavatory! Theodore, or T., Life, was a staffer at Gamble and Huff's empire when he overheard the teenager. While he couldn't convince his bosses to record the young star-to-be, he didn't forget her. Once he achieved free agent status as a producer-musician-songwriter, he steered her to an RCA contract. T. Life and the then-17-year old King couldn't have regretted the delay in launching her recording career. John Fitch and Reuben Cross' "Shame," produced and arranged by T. Life for King's debut album Smooth Talk, catapulted the young vocalist to the Top 10 of the Pop, R&B and Disco charts. King remained on RCA through 1985, a period now chronicled on SoulMusic Records' 8-CD box The RCA Albums 1977-1985.
T. Life tailored Smooth Talk(presented on the first CD of the new box) specifically for King, whose impressive voice could be alternately girlish and gritty. Philly pals like Teddy Pendergrass and Dexter Wansel contributed songs to the LP; Wansel's "The Show is Over" was sampled by Ice Cube on his "You Know How We Do It." The expanded version here includes two bonus tracks: the 12-inch Disco Mixes of "Shame" and "I Don't Know If It's Right." T. Life returned for King's second and third albums, Music Box and Call on Me, respectively, and while they failed to match the platinum status of Smooth Talk, they continued King's winning streak via songs like "Music Box" (No. 14 R&B/No. 75 Pop) and "Let's Get Funky Tonight" (No. 34 R&B/No. 12 Disco). But the road to Call on Me was a difficult one. King and Life had embraced a more rock-oriented direction in the wake of the disco backlash, but RCA didn't know what to do with King when rock DJs weren't playing her and R&B DJs were wondering just what happened. So RCA quickly withdrew the original version of Call on Me, entitled Sweet Delight, from stores and replaced four of the edgier tracks with more floor-fillers. While that original LP now routinely fetches three figures, all of the tracks from the sessions have been reinstated here as well as the 12-inch mix of "Let's Get Funky Tonight." (Music Box is also expanded with the 12-inch versions of the title track and "Out There.")
King was at a crossroads. RCA had gotten cold feet about her new, rock-oriented direction, and despite the changes, Call on Me became her lowest-charting album. It was time to switch gears...again. This time, she was met with success. 1981's I'm in Love marked a funkier, post-disco direction for King (who dropped the "Champagne" from her moniker) under the auspices of producers Morrie Brown, Willie Lester and Rodney Brown, and Kashif and Paul Laurence. Kashif wrote the title song specifically for King, and she was rewarded with a Dance and R&B chart-topper that also went Top 40 Pop. Four hit singles emerged from the gold album including "Don't Hide Our Love" with Kashif joining King on vocals. Naturally, the I'm in Love team was called back for its follow-up. 1982's Get Loose even bested its predecessor, becoming a double-platinum smash with four more hits. The Kashif-written and -produced contemporary club anthem "Love Come Down" went straight to the top of the Disco and R&B charts and cracked the Top 20 Pop. Evelyn even rapped on the title track which made the R&B chart. Both albums each have one bonus track here: the 12-inch Dance Mixes of "I'm in Love" and "Love Come Down," respectively.
Soul royalty lined up for a chance to work with King, including Andre Cymone and the team of Leon and Foster Sylvers, on 1983's Face to Face. Oddly, the fizzy "Champagne" nickname was back on the album cover. Clearly inspired by Prince, King and her producers leaned into a heavily contemporary dance-funk vein with significant elements of new wave. But the public didn't respond to Face to Face as much as they had Get Loose; RCA responded by pairing its star artist with another new group of producers. 1984's So Romantic boasted productions by Glen Ballard, David "Hawk" Wolinski, and the synth-pop/electro-funk duo known as The System, among others. Ironically, Ballard and Wolinski brought the rock influence that the label had tried to convince King to abandon years earlier. But the cadre of producers better balanced live and electronic instrumentation, and the album spun off three R&B hits including the top 20-charting "Just for the Night" which also bubbled under the Hot 100.
King's final RCA album proved to be 1985's A Long Time Coming, its title derived from the Sam Cooke song "A Change Is Gonna Come" which T. Life had heard King singing all those years ago in the bathroom. It was a rare cover of a classic, and one which showcased King's powerful voice and her interpretive skills. T. Life was back, but he surprisingly didn't helm that track. "A Change" was overseen by returning producer "Hawk" Wolinski; Bobby Watson and the duo of Rene and Angela also took the producers' chairs on this varied album. But the ingenuity and zest of King's past albums just wasn't in as much evidence on this patchwork quilt LP which quietly ended her RCA tenure. While Face to Face and So Romantic don't offer any bonus tracks, A Long Time Coming adds the Dance Version of "Your Personal Touch," the 12-inch Version of "Take a Chance," and the single version of "Better Deal."
The RCA Albums is housed in a clamshell case and boasts a very similar design to SoulMusic's package earlier this year of Dionne Warwick's Arista albums. This collection's biggest liability is the lack of many previously-released-on-CD bonus tracks included on past standalone reissues of each album from Funky Town Grooves and Cherry Red sister imprint Big Break Records. There are fourteen bonus tracks across these eight albums; for comparison's sake, those who hold onto their past reissues will have collected well over 40 additional tracks (most of which are single version and extended remixes).
Still, for those who don't have those out-of-print editions, The RCA Albums is an attractive option to obtain King's core discography. Charles Waring provides an informative essay within the 40-page color booklet, and each album is housed within a mini-sleeve. Unfortunately, the album front and back covers aren't reprinted at full size; rather, they're both squeezed onto the mini-sleeve covers alongside images of the original labels. Nick Robbins has done his customarily fine job of remastering.
Evelyn "Champagne" King has only recorded sporadically since leaving RCA including two late '80s albums for EMI (the first of which has been expanded on CD by SoulMusic), one in 1995 for Expansion, and another in 2007 for Big Day Records. This box collects her finest and most enduring works; there's no "Shame" in calling it one of the most effervescent R&B sets of the year.
Visit our full Holiday Gift Guide here!
- Smooth Talk (RCA Victor APL1-2466, 1977) plus bonus tracks
- Music Box (RCA Victor AFL1-3033, 1979) plus bonus tracks
- Call on Me (RCA Victor AFL1-3543, 1980) plus bonus tracks
- I'm in Love (RCA Victor AFL1-3962, 1981) plus bonus track
- Get Loose (RCA Victor AFL1-4337, 1982) plus bonus track
- Face to Face (RCA Victor AFL1-4725, 1983)
- So Romantic (RCA Victor AFL1-5308, 1984)
- A Long Time Coming (A Change Is Gonna Come) (RCA Victor AFL1-7015, 1985)
(*) Full track listing and order link available at Cherry Red's Online Store