JOE CRUZ AND THE CRUZETTES: LOVE SONG

Joe Cruz and the Cruzettes: Love Song, on At The Hyatt Regency Hotel (Villar, 1973)

Though I have a small collection of Filipinx-related records, I freely admit I originally learned about this song from the 2013 French comp, Beach Diggin’ Vol. 1 (I don’t know anything about compilers Guts and Mambo, I gotta say: this comp had incredibly good taste). Luckily, an acquaintance in the P.I. was able to hook up a copy and “Love Song” is on my upper tier of great cover songs.

It’s really more of a cover-of-a-cover. The original version of the song dates back to the UK’s Lesley Duncan who wrote and recorded the song first in 1969 and then her and Elton John dueted on it a year later. From there, dozens of other covers followed, including by everyone from Dionne Warwick to Olivia Newton John. Most versions though keep true to Duncan’s folksy, minimalist original. Then came Lani Hall.

Before releasing her debut solo album, Sun Down Lady in 1972, Hall was best known as a lead singer with Sérgio Mendes and Brasil ’66 (she and Herb Alpert also married a year later and unlike many music industry couples, they remain married 48 years later). Alpert produced the album, including Hall’s cover of “Love Song,” and while the arrangement doesn’t significantly depart from Duncan’s, there’s at least two notable changes. First, Alpert had drummer Jim Gordon lay down a slow, strong backbeat on a tune that never even had any drums originally. Even more significantly, Alpert had Clarence MacDonald play a distinctive keyboard melody that also wasn’t on Duncan’s record. The overall effect is to make Hall’s cover more soulful, with just a touch of funk.

Joe Cruz and the Cruzettes took it a few steps further in that direction. The house band at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Manila, Cruz and the Cruzettes were part of the almighty Cruz clan, one of the most influential musical families in the P.I. They recorded their first album in 1972 and given that the group included covers of Malo, Dusty Springfield and Earth, Wind and Fire, it’s little surprise that for their second album, they would have gravitated more to Hall’s “Love Song” than other versions of the song.

Their cover clearly is riffing on Hall’s cover. Cruz himself is playing that aforementioned keyboard melody on organ (and he might have been double-handing two keyboard melodies at once, either that or they were overdubbed). The song has other notable changes too, especially with that strong downbeat on the one accented by what sounds like the bass (played by Mori Cruz) and/or rhythm guitar (Boyet Cruz), all with that soulful backbeat (Cesar Cruz) that Alpert had added for Hall. It’s unclear who the lead singer on this track is though I assume it’s Baby de Guzman or Monette Cruz but either way, the vocals are well done here and help bring out the melancholic qualities of Duncan’s original.

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DERRICK LARA’S “HELLO STRANGER”

Derrick Lara: Hello Stranger (Masai, 1982?)

In my humble opinion, Barbara Lewis’s 1963 hit, “Hello Stranger” is one of the best jukebox singles of all time. Now, I might think this because it does appear in at least two jukebox movie scenes that I know of, most (recently) famously, in one of the last scenes in Moonlight as well as (perhaps not coincidentally) in one of the last scenes of last year’s Giri/Haji series on Netflix. But beyond those scenes incepting my above claim, I also think Lewis’s is a song absolutely suffused in nostalgia — just listen to the lyrics — and I’d argue that since at least the 1970s, jukeboxes have been imbued with nostalgic symbolism (at the time, it was for the 1950’s) and continues to have that totemic quality (watch any of Wong Kar-Wai’s early films for example).

Anyways, this brings me to Derrick Lara’s 1982 cover, originally recorded for Masai Records, a spin-off of Jamaican American producer Lowell “Big Tanka” Hill’s Tanka imprint. I feel like Lewis’s original translates incredibly well to reggae, especially in how a riddim can carry that rhythm guitar over with ease. Lara’s is hardly the only example but it is, to me, one of the better one’s out there, a perfect distillation of what early ’80s lovers rock sounded like.

The one thing that initially threw me is that I didn’t realize how good Lara’s falsetto was so I initially assumed it was his sister Jennifer Lara singing on here (she actually covered the song itself in the mid 1990s) but nope, that is Derrick hitting those sweet high notes.

Best I know, there is no 7” version of Lara’s cover though the British version (on Pama) came out on 10” which was fairly unusual for the label overall though relatively common ~1982 for whatever reason.

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SKYE’S “AIN’T NO NEED”: A REVISIT

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Skye: Ain’t No Need (Unity Edit) (Anada, 1976)

This is a revisit of sorts though I haven’t written about the Skye single since 2008. It’s a disco 45 where I’m continually surprised that dancers don’t seem to adore it as much as I do. In my more active DJing days, I was convinced it would be a floor-filler and while it wasn’t quite a floor-killer, it just never produced the kind of reaction I assumed/hoped for. People just treated it like…whatever and it made me want to grab a mic and shout “you fools, this is amazing! What’s wrong with the lot of you?!”

But c’est la vie. Maybe I’ve had the wrong crowds. Or maybe I’m just alone on this hill (I don’t think so though).

Skye traces its beginning back to JFK High School in Richmond CA where members of the school jazz band, including Johnnie “Sargent” Tucker, Kevin Burton, Carl Lockett, Kevin Lockett, Michael Jeffries, Michael Griggs and Marciel Garner, formed into Two Things in One. They drew the interest of Ray Dobard’s prolific Bay Area label, Music City, who released their first single “Silly Song/Snag Nasty” as the Music City Two In One in 1971 but later, the group’s name was changed to The Two Things In One by 1973. Officially, they only released two more singles on Music City but the bulk of all their recordings were compiled back in 2011 for the Together Forever anthology..

In 2011, I interviewed Alec Palao, who compiled that anthology, for my Sidebar podcast and he was the first person from whom I learned about the connection between Two Things In One and Skye; totally blew my mind since I knew of both groups but not how they were linked. Skye was formed by most of the former members of The Two Things In One after a relocation to L.A. to continue pursuing recording opportunities. This included lead singer Michael Jeffries, drummer Marcel Garner, bassist Sargent Tucker, guitarists Carl Lockett and Michael Griggs, plus newcomer Greg Levias on keys.

Skye was signed to Anada, a subsidiary of A&M. The imprint only released two singles in the ’70s, both collectible disco jams: the aforementioned “Ain’t No Need” and a self-titled release from Family Tree. (Anada also placed the “disco versions” of both songs on a very sought-after 12”.

Back in 2008, writing about about songs, I had this to say about “Ain’t No Need”:

“Ain’t No Need” is the kind of song I want to wrap around me like a sleeping bag – everything about this is sublime to me. It’s practically all chorus in essence but the chord progressions and instrumentation combine so beautifully that you can lose yourself inside the groove forever.

Let me add (13 years later): the main groove powering the song feels like the platonic ideal of what great disco should sound like: driving and energetic but very importantly, also uplifting. If Jeffries’s lyrics are to be taken at face value, this is a breakup song but it doesn’t feel like one, quite the opposite. It feels euphoric, even perhaps spiritual in how the groove and Jeffries’s vocals keep cycling over and over. It becomes a literally repetitive song yet it’s anything but static in its kineticism. This is precisely why I don’t understand it doesn’t light up the dance floor; I find it completely irresistable in making me want to move something.

In any case, a few year ago, Jeffries and Garner sold off dead stock copies of “Ain’t No Need” and in doing so, helped fill in some of the history behind its recording, namely that it was taped during a 10 hour session in the spring of 1976 and released a few months later in the summer.

The outstanding questions I’d still have: what studio was it taped at? Why did A&M create Anada and why did it have so few releases? How was the single initially received? Etc. More I think about this, the song would make a great candidate for a future Single Servings episode.

THE NAIROBI SISTERS: TAKING YOU TO THE PROMISED LAND

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The Nairobi Sisters: Promised Land (Gay Feet, 1974)

“Funky reggae” is a thing but I’m not one who needs my riddims to be laced with breakbeats. That said…when I first heard “Promised Land” in late 2016, I did think “damn, this is pretty good as a riddim with a back beat.”

I hadn’t realized that the Beatnuts had already made use of the song’s bassline all the way back in ‘92 for Kurious’s “A Mansion and a Yacht.”; it wasn’t until ATCQ looped it for “Whateva Will Be” off We Got It From Here that I took notice.

It’s hard to find much out about who the Nairobi Sisters were. The one factoid mentioned is that at one of them was Sister Terrie Nairobi but whether that was a stage name or legal name is unclear and I’ve yet to turn up much about who the other “sisters” may have been. The (slightly) clearer lineage concerns the other credited group, The Gaytones, originally founded by Judy Mowatt (of future I Threes fame), Beryl Lawrence and Merle Clemonson. The Gaytones backed a variety of artists for producer Sonia Pottinger, including on Gay Feet, the imprint “Promised Land” first came out on albeit listed as the “Narobh Sisters.” At least one source claims that Mowatt herself was one of the Sisters but again, I can’t confirm any of this.

Just to add more layers of mystery, there’s no producer credited on the two Gay Feet releases of the single (1974 and 1974) so while reasonably could assume it was Pottinger, the issue becomes more clouded once you see the song’s other versions appear in 1975. That year, “Promised Land” appeared on two separate labels, on two separate continents. In the UK, it was releaesd on the Jamatel imprint, this time with Winston Jones being credited as both writer and producer. Jones had previously worked with both Pottinger and the Gaytones for the 1973 single “You Make Me Cry” so it’s not unreasonable to imagine that he had a hand in “Promised Land” (though it doesn’t explain why the Gay Feet versions didn’t credit him).

The other “Promised Land” release from ‘75, appearing on the Brooklyn imprint Flames, is possibly the most unique of the bunch. Best as I can tell — and I don’t have all four separate releases to verify this 100% — is that the vocal version of “Promised Land” is identical across all of them. It’s the flipside dub/version on Flames that departs from its siblings. On the original Gay Feet version side, it starts with a stripped down conga/bassline intro before the main beat kicks in and the sax solo, which appears on the A-side, is present here as well. The Flames dub has some major differences:

  1. It uses the same drum roll intro as the A-side rather that conga/bassline intro on the Gay Feet dub.
  2. More importantly, the Flames dub adds a new drum kit. I initially thought it may have simply been a new mix but this absolutely sounds like someone was brought in to redo the drum track as the snare on the dub version is crisp in a way that doesn’t exist on the vocal version and moreover, the drum patterns are different too. It juices the funk factor a few levels.
  3. There’s no sax solo. Instead, you get a drum and bass break during the bridge.

All of which is to say — and perhaps I shouldn’t say this because I own a Gay Feet version but not the Flames — but if you’re going to drop coin on only one copy of this single, you probably want the Flames issue. That said, I don’t want to undersell how great the vocal version — which is the same across all of them, remember — is, in its performance, in the sentiments of lyrics, in the horn section (though that sax solo is take it/leave it to me).