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.
“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.”
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:
It uses the same drum roll intro as the A-side rather that conga/bassline intro on the Gay Feet dub.
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.
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).
Junior Delahaye: I Love You (Wackie’s, 1982, Showcase)
Cool Chris at the Groove Merchant put me up on this one. What’s not to like about a reggae cover, produced out of the oustanding Wackie’s Studio, covering The Fuzz? Same album also has a solid cover of “Sittin’ In the Park.”
I love reggae covers that are mostly loyal to the original but the difference in rhythm is always just enough to give it a special, distinct feel. This is more sparse than the original but the essence of the song is still all here.
Dagnabbit, I meant to do one of these for January but then the month up and flew by me and now it’s the end of February. Anyways…for this month’s grab bag, I’m still drawing from some leftovers from 2013 that I’m only now catching up on plus the usual assortments of recent arrivals and the like.
Ok…so I only just got this album recently despite the fact that it has a song called “Soulsides”. I mean, I’m pretty sure I heard this at some point in the ’90s but before there was “my” Soul Sides (and in any case, as folks should know, the original inspiration for this blog title was the label Sole Sides rather than this song. But yeah, really embarrassing late pass.
I know: this is a year old now but I didn’t peep much by them until I was listening to my dude Hua’s “best of 2013” playlist and my first thought was “wait, cats are still flipping “Montara” and “Synthetic Substitution” in 2013? Word? The Underachievers (Issa Dash and Ak) hail from Flatbush and I can only presume they grew up on Da Beatminerz and other golden era production given their own inclination towards that style (when they’re not rolling with Flying Lotus and his camp). Those collisions of style make for an interesting mixtape, half of which sounds straight throwback-to-93 but the other half being far more in the moment. (At least on this project, I prefer the former but I’m old).
Action Bronson & Party Supplies: Midget Cough
From Blue Chips 2 (2013)
“Heavily derivative” might be an understatement but at this point, I don’t give a f—. I’m not mad at Bronsalini, especially when he’s spitting hot lava over Filipino soul-jazz tracks.
Wendy Alleyne and the Dynamics: He’s So Fine
From 7″ (Dobby’s Music Fair, 196?)
Jamaican cover of “He’s So Fine” that really highlights how much “My Sweet Lord” borrowed from this girl group classic.
I’m going to close out with a trio of singles I’ve grabbed from my dude Endo over the last couple of months. First, we have Manual B. Holcolm who does everything you’d want a good funky soul cut to: killer intro, hard, driving drums mixed in well, and set of gutbucket vocals. Flip side is an instrumental version (always fun to find).
Another one I got off of Endo…Nunya is the father one of “Cool” James Todd…he of those that ladies love. Had no idea LL’s dad was a musician and apparently one who was based out in L.A. for a spell since Salsa Picante is a local label out here. “My Sweet Baby” is a solid modern soul ballad – peep all that keyboard work. Nunya does ok but the general vocal effects are more interesting than his voice specifically.
I’ve been after this one for years but it just doesn’t turn up very often so when I saw a mint copy in Endo’s crates, that sale was automatic. Mid-60s Toussaint..absolutely gorgeous and melancholy. And sure, it doesn’t hurt that Primo merked the flip but truly, the original is a thing of beauty.
Cool Chris had this one waiting in the wings the last time I was up in the Bay; he knows my penchant for strange covers and a dual-toasting dancehall group that covers both “Tom’s Diner” and “OPP” has to qualify. I have to guess there are more examples of similar dancehall-fied pop/rap songs out there: school me.
10:50 Port Authority-Twilight Zone/Twilight Tone
From Reflections (US Navy, 1980)
This one came from Andy’s store and holy sh–…a modern soul dance jam inspired by…The Twilight Zone? This is absolutely a WTF moment and it’s really quite awesome.
35:00 3 Peas: The Shadow Of Your Smile
From 3 Pea’s in a Podd (String Bean, 1980s)
Another Record Jungle find; private press jazz album out of Michigan(?). By coincidence, WFMU’s blog has a fairly extensive write-up of this. This is a real amateur effort but I love private press stuff like this, especially the earnest vocals, the slightly-off mixing that puts the cymbals up front, giving this a much bigger, brassy crash that you might expect.
49:00 Ella Fitzgerald: These Boots Are Made For Walking
From 7″ (Salle, 1966)
Another Groove Merchant find. Ella is one of my all-time faves (I did, after all, name my daughter after her!) but I had no idea this existed. And damn, she kills this cover. I don’t normally think of Ella as having cuts I can spin out for parties but this is absolutely fills the bill.
59:00 Sensualities Unlimited: Sweet Blow
From 7″ (Timmion, 2013)
In episode 1.3, I had my soul jazz special, which was really an excuse to pull out songs that have been haunting me since I first got into buying records in the 1990s. Very little on that show was anything my long-time readers – or people older than 30 – haven’t heard at some point but who cares? There’s a reason a few of these songs are unqualifiedly “timeless” in their beauty and charm, from Andy Bey’s mesmerizing vocals on Gary Bartz’s “Celestial Blues” (10:14) to Archie Whitewater’s haunting, melancholy “Cross Country” (7:00) to the majestic journey (46:38) of “Smilin’ Billy” from its original 1973 version through the four-part suite that appeared on Strata-East.
I don’t have a ton to add to that; not to be a jerk but these songs are so classic that if you’re not already up on ’em, spend a few extra minutes following those links above and learn you something. One thing I will extend on (since I’ve never written about this album before):
31:14 Denis King: Mr. Beretta
From Pop/Rock Sounds / Multi-Keyboard Sounds (Standard Music Library, 1971)
As I’ve sometimes heard said, a song like this practically predicted hip-hop’s later sampling aesthetic, just 15 years ahead of the curve (though, as far as I know, this hasn’t been sampled). There’s a few other cuts off this same LP but those are the two best.
The latest episode of Shades of Soul (broadcast live on Radio Sombra) is dedicated to records that I file under “the kitchen sink,” i.e. the weird and wonderful records whether we’re talking unexpected remixes/mash-ups, quirky covers, or just plain WTF tunes.
Question from Morgan: What would you rank as the top three albums you enjoyed in the last ten years that would have surprised the guy you were back in 2003? Follow up: Same question, but for the guy you were in 1993.
Answer: The 2003-2013 question is hard to answer in the way you’re asking if only because 2003 marked an important shift in my thinking about/relationship to music. It was the year I re-embraced pop music in a profound way, leaving behind the “strictly underground/keep the crossover” attitude that defined my 20s. I could get into all the reasons why but the short story is that I, as a music writer, no longer felt like I needed to be an advocate/cheerleader. I was more interested in simply trying to find something interesting/insightful to say about music but whether that was the biggest pop act or an artist no one had ever heard of wasn’t a distinction that held much meaning for me anymore.
As a result, I became far more open-minded by the end of 2003 and therefore, I’m not sure if there’s much that would have surprised 2013 Me vs. 2003 Me given that 2013 Me is still living out the shift that 2003 Me began. Does that make sense?
That all said, in the spirit of actually addressing your query vs. over qualifying a non-answer, here’s three artists/albums/songs that reflect the shifts I’m talking about:
Rufus Wainwright: O What a Wonderful World
From Want One (Dreamworks, 2003)
I can’t say I’ve loved Rufus’s entire catalog…in fact, there was about ten years (after this album and before last year’s album) where I stopped listening to him for reasons I’m still not completely sure why. But I’ve gotten more pleasure out of his first three albums than most other artists I can think of (for example, for sheer listenability, I’d take his first 3 over Gang Starr’s first 3).1 The only thing is that I started listening to Rufus around 2001, not 2003, but Want One was the first of his albums that I reviewed and at the time, was really one of the few examples of a “non-hip-hop or soul” album I had ever tried to tackle.2
Alton Ellis. I can’t peg this to a specific album if only because I love his singles more than any single album but the general point is that, ten years ago, I simply wasn’t that into any kind of Jamaican music. I never got that far aboard with reggae or dancehall; I doubt I ever will in a substantial way. These are genres that I admire and respect but I can’t see myself jumping deep into them. That said, I definitely have listened to way more rocksteady over the last ten years and I think that would have been a surprise to 2003 Me. Ellis had much to do with it, especially when I discovered songs like “I’m Still In Love With You” and “Rock Steady.”
Lykke Li: I Follow Rivers (The Magician Remix)
From 12″ (LL, 2012)
I was asked to play this at a wedding I DJed last fall and I hadn’t heard it before. I knew, vaguely, about Lykke Li dating back to her first album circa ’08 or so but I never followed her. And if someone had told 2003 Me that “one of your favorite songs of 2012 would be a disco-laced house remix to a moody, electronic-y Swedish singer/songwriter” I might very well have said “f— outta here.” If I had to unpack what I like here, it starts with the piano…just two chords from what I can tell, but totally catchy. And the difference between this and the original song are night/day. Li sounds so much brighter and dreamy than the darker album mix, which reminds me of something I might have heard on KROQ in 1986, back when I listened to a lot of new wave.
As with what I was just saying about reggae a moment ago, I very much doubt I’ll ever get deep into EDM but the important thing is that I’m open to getting into any given song. That, more than anything, is the biggest shift that’s happened over the last ten years.
As for the second half of your question, that’s much easier to answer since, back in 1993, I was totally locked into “hip-hop, fuck everything else” mode (I mean, I was 21 then). My listening tastes were uber-narrow. How narrow? So narrow that here’s the first album I thought of when I read your question:
Dr. Dre: Lyrical Gangbang
From The Chronic (Death Row, 1992)
When The Chronic originally dropped, I simply wasn’t feeling Dr. Dre. The reasons are numerous (and all kind of silly in hindsight but they mattered to me at the time): Ice Cube > NWA, I didn’t like all that “synth shit,” I was far more of a NY-rap fan than LA-rap fan even though I grew up in LA and was still living on the West Coast then. Basically, I judged The Chronic mostly on merits that had nothing to do with it as an album and everything to do with what I thought it symbolized.
Of course, back then, that shit was real. Silly as it may seem in hindsight, at that moment, The Chronic and its success felt felt threatening to a particular world view of hip-hop that I had adopted. The fact that I now admire its achievement – and more importantly – think it’s a pretty damn good album of music actually took me those ten years, from 1993-2003, to come around to.3
Pete Rodriguez: Pete’s Boogaloo
From Latin Boogaloo (Alegre, 1966)
The biggest shift from 1993 to 2003 was my discovery, via my old DJ partner Vinnie Esparza, of Latin music and boogaloo in particular. Unlike The Chronic, it wasn’t like I was purposefully, stubbornly “opposed” to Latin music, but it simply wasn’t a genre/tradition I was remotely checking for in 1993. I was too busy trying to cop A Tribe Called Quest promo 12″s. But since then, Latin has become one of my favorite bodies of music, as any reader can tell.
Bobby Reed: The Time Is Right For Love
From 7″ (Bell, 1970)
In 1993, I bought what I think was probably my first box set, volume one of The Complete Stax/Volt. Much as I had very narrow opinions about what “real hip-hop” was, I also held a fairly myopic view on what “real soul” was. At the time, real soul = Southern vs. Northern/Motown-style R&B which I associated with such bad words as “popular” and “crossover,” both of which were codewords for “sellout.” This was, of course, asinine thinking and represented blind allegiances to rigid ideologies. But again: back then, that’s the kind of music fan I was. The idea that, 15 or so years later, one of my all-time soul songs would be a very Northern-esque 7″ on Bell would have mightily surprised 1993 Me.
What’s funny is that this very morning, as I was sitting down to right this, a friend was talking about discovering Grimes and said, “I love it when there’s new/new to me stuff that excites me.” I couldn’t possibly agree more.
Question from Karl: “A while back, I picked up Jean-Marc Cerrone’s “Supernature” on a whim, which is a dope record. How familiar with him are you, and what can you say about his other records?”
Answer: Easy…I know next to nothing about Cerrone except that he recorded this Ultimate Beats and Breaks classic:
Disco is one of those genres that I enjoy but that I know woefully little about besides a few, obvious acts and whatever random assortment of disco records I have.
Keep in mind though that 1) Gang Starr’s first album was rather inconsistent and more of a hastily thrown together Wild Pitch effort than the kind of focused efforts Guru and Primo would put together later. And 2) I never really liked Daily Operation much. I was always more of a Hard To Earn guy for that era. Gang Starr’s second album, however, is perfection. ↩
fun’s Some Nights album, one of my favorite of 2012, could have fit into this space as well though that album has more of a hip-hop pedigree than Rufus ever did. ↩
What explains that is I ended up writing the entry for The Chronic in my album guide, Classic Material. I wasn’t supposed to write it but the original writer had dropped out and with a looming deadline, I decided to just take it on myself but that meant really listening to the album in a way I never had previously (which is to say: actually listen to the album from beginning to end). ↩
Llans Thelwell and His Celestials: Grazin’ In the Grass
This Guy’s In Love With You
Good, Bad and Ugly
From An ETC Holiday at the Colony Hotel (Dynamic, 196?)
Caribbean hotel albums tend to be a thankless lot: poorly recorded, full of “hits” mostly meant to appeal to tourists. It’s like K-Tel LPs but with more palms and steel drums in the photos.
This Llans Thelwell and His Celestials album is an absolute exception to that rule. As it appears on Dynamic (home to many a Jamaican artist, especially Byron Lee), I suspect it was recorded in a legit studio and the production and arrangements are clearly above countless of other hotel-themed releases in the same vein. Straight up, I don’t know if I know of another tourist-aimed LP on this level, especially the overall consistency of quality.
The cover of “Grazin’ in the Grass” isn’t mind-blowing but it’s, well, really well done. Even more so is the cover of “This Guy’s In Love With You” which is a gorgeous slice of island-inflected slow jamming. All that and some groovy rocksteady in the form of “Good, Bad and Ugly”? Makes me wish I had been around in the ’60s to drop by the Colony Hotel and see these guys play live.1
This same album also includes covers of “Funky Broadway,” “Love Is Blue” and what I think is an original rocksteady cut, “Colony Special.” ↩