BRINGING OUT THE DEAD & RETRO HELL REVIEWS
It was one of the cruelest September days I will ever remember. I woke up to the news that was on both the television and the radio. Middle Eastern terrorists, their grievances centered on the never-ending conflict between Israel and Palestine. Single-minded assassins laying siege to an icon of international prosperity and success. There was poor security. A stealthy approach. A swift assault. Chaos. Innocents slaughtered.
The year was 1972. The place was Munich Germany. The icon was the 1972 Summer Olympics. It had been an extraordinary Games to watch. Olga Korbut had transformed the sport of gymnastics forever. Mark Spitz had taken an unearthly seven gold medals in swimming events. A bad call had stolen the gold medal in basketball from the Americans and handed it over to the Soviet Union. Kip Keno ran barefooted to victory for Kenya. For nearly two weeks, we Franks were glued to the TV to see the events, hear the commentary by Jim McKay, Gordon Maddox, and Howard Cossell. After eight Palestinian terrorists calling themselves Black September seized eleven Israeli athletes, killing two and holding nine hostage, ABC provided surreal, blow-by-blow coverage of the terrorist siege from the lips of their sports commentators. The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat. It was alternately numbing and heartbreaking to witness.
My mother and I were on the way to the Market Basket after a morning of watching events unravel on TV. It was overcast outside. In a week, I’d be returning to my own personal hell on earth, Madison Jr. High school, where I was routinely beat up by pissed off girls from broken homes. I was in a sour mood. I turned on the radio of our sky blue ’62 Valiant, and out poured the silent-movie-style melodrama of a piano intro to the O’Jays’ first single, “Backstabbers.” An international crisis could not have asked for a better theme song.
Together in various forms since 1958 (as The Mascots, The Emeralds, The Triumphs under a variety of labels), the Canton, Ohio high school quintet of Bill Isles, Bobby Massey, William Powell (replaced by Sammy Strain in 1975), Walter Williams, and driving force Eddie Levert, made a favorable impression on a Cleveland deejay named Eddie O’Jay, who took the group under his wing and landed them a deal with Imperial Records. In 1972, the O’Jays wound up at Philadelphia International, becoming part of “The Sound of Philadelphia,” the style of R&B; that, far more than Motown, set a solid tone for soul music of the 1970s: lush instrumental arrangements that never bogged down the rhythm and a classiness that never lost touch with its street credentials. Their breakthrough album, BACKSTABBERS, initiated eight solid years of of gold and platinum albums, with seven #1 R&B; singles, including “Love Train,” “For The Love Of Money,” “I Love Music (Part 1), “Use Ta Be My Girl,” and “Forever Mine.” “Backstabbers” was Philadelpia International’s very first #1 R&B; hit.
“Backstabbers” is, on the surface, a man’s lament that he can’t trust his so-called buddies around his girlfriend. The arrangement, however, has an elegant soundtrack quality, a texture that would be found later on singles by T.S.O.P., Bell and James, McFadden and Whitehead, to name a favorite handful. That texture communicated a solid sense of place and time, a community looking to find solid footing in optimism, self-respect, and survival. Some songs, like “Backstabbers” and its precursor, Undisputed Truth’s “Smiling Faces Sometimes” (briefly quoted at the end of “Backstabbers”), were small cautionary tales and morality lessons. The O’Jays would revisit the darker aspects of life to the sinister strains of “For The Love Of Money.” As for “Backstabbers,” that ominous piano rumble was no five finger exercise for effect–it was a warning shot that the R&B; of the ’70s would have something important to say. In September of 1972, the message came through to me loud and clear: the world is full of dangerous characters. People can get hurt–in love, in business, on the streets, at the Olympics, in the World Trade Center. The last words on the song’s fade-out, “Might be your neighbor / Your next door neighbor, yeah” eerily brings to mind the notion that the Al Queda could be right next door, so seamlessly have some of them integrated into our population, with horrifying results.
Ultimately, the terrorists killed the athletes. Some of the terrorists died. Some got away, only to be taken out by the Mossad over the next 28 years. One the terrorists are still alive and in hiding. I will never forget the defeated sound of Jim McKay’s voice when he told us, “They’re gone. They’re all gone.”
Some O’Jay Links:
(what Eddie Levert is up to these days)
(the Cellar of Soul–a delightful repository of soulful information)
Also recommended: Kevin Macdonald’s Oscar-winning documentary ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER.
RETRO HELL REVIEWS
Atlantic Starr L.T.D.
Universal Special Products
What better way to package the greatest hits of two funk groups that barely had five memorable hits between them than to put them together? This approach spares the groups from being misperceived as one-hit wonders (neither band was a one-hit wonder), and it affords the consumer a good platter for party mixes. Both bands have their own greatest hits complilations, and both bands are noteworthy contributors to the funk that spiced up the airwaves from 1976 to 1982, when disco was king and before soul gave way to sappy ballads in the vein of “Endless Love.”
Hailing from White Plans, New York, Atlantic Starr emerged in 1976 as an eight-man, one-woman band fronted by brothers Jonathan, Wayne, and David Lewis. The band’s composition was unusual–David and Wayne Lewis sang, David played guitar, Wayne played keyboards, and Jonathan Lewis weighed in on the trombone. Most striking was Sharon Bryant as the lead singer–it was downright unseemly for a funk band to have a female lead singer, and more power to them that they did. They were signed by A&M; and came to California. They scored their first success with “Circles” in 1982, just as disco was giving way In 1984, a serious personnel schism resulted in an Atlantic Starr pared down to a quintet with the Brothers Lewis at the core. Sharon Bryant departed to be replaced by Barbara Weathers. Atlantic Starr snared their first big hit in 1986 with “Secret Lovers”–a number three charter. They segued to Warner Brothers, just in time to land their only number 1 hit on both the pop and R&B; charts: “Always,” which was co-produced by the sublime Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire. Is “Always” on this collection? Hell, no! Go figure, but perhaps Universal couldn’t cajole Warners into allowing the song on this collection–which begs the question, why have such a collection if the group’s biggest hit can’t be included?
Meanwhile, L.T.D., another sizeable funk outfit featuring ten fellas from Greensboro, North Carolina, chalked up three R&B; winners, 1976’s “Love Ballad,” 1981’s “Shine On,” and that Disco Saturday Night perennial favorite, “(Every Time I Turn Around) Back In Love Again.” L.T.D., which stands for Love, Togetherness, and Devotion, had a more down ‘n’ dirty sound than Atlantic Starr did, as well as a genuine superstar in its roster–lead singer/drummer Jeffrey Osborne (“On The Wings Of Love,” anyone?). Osborne’s performance on “(Everytime I Turn Around) Back in Love Again” ranks with the best of anything Wilson Pickett ever charted. “(Everytime I Turn Around) Back in Love Again” conveys all manner of jinxed carma, and it’s comparable in danceable greatness to Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “Bad Luck,” which, like “(Everytime I Turn Around) Back in Love Again” is propelled by a snazzy rhythm guitar line and no-nonsense throw-downs from the horn section. Where could all that uppity funk have come from? Well, L.T.D.’s founding keyboardist Jimmie “J.D.” Davis and bass player “Abraham “Onion” Miller used to play with Sam and Dave, and Osborne used to play with the O’Jays.
Better credentials you could not ask for.
WINNING COMBINATIONS came sloppily packaged. There are no liner notes, and the press release wasn’t even written for this collection. It was an old sheet from yet another 20th Century Masters/The Millennium Collection release: THE BEST OF ATLANTIC STARR. Poor L.T.D. isn’t even mentioned in these notes. Lucky for MCA, this reviewer cares enough about the artists to put her time and effort into a review on their behalf–far more care than MCA put into the packaging and promotion of this release. Would I recommend that you buy it? Sure. It can be had for about $5.95 on the Internet, and that’s a good investment, even if Atlantic Starr’s “Always” is missing in action from the roster.
To add insult to injury, there are no sites devoted exclusively to Atlantic Starr or L.T.D.
Someone get out there and build some!
A page for Atlantic Starr:
A page for L.T.D. http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql;=Bmyez97l7krst
THE GRASS ROOTS
The Best of the Grass Roots
20th Century Masters/The Millenium Collection
Anyone remember “Wonderama”? That Sunday morning kiddie show out of Chicago hosted by good ol’ Bob McAllister (who recently went to the great kiddie show in the sky)? Back in the day when my parents wouldn’t let me listen to rock ‘n’ roll on the radio, I scooted around their restrictions by watching the dance contests on “Wonderama.” Old Bob would pluck a few children out of the studio audience, put them on these little elevated stages, and announce, “Holly’s GOIN’ TO TOWN!!!!” while little Holly (invariably a tiny, long-haired girl dressed in a mini jumper and kicky boots) or young Toby (in a suit, and he couldn’t shuffle them feet to save his life) would do the go-go groove thang to tunes like the Foundations’ “Build Me Up, Buttercup” and White Plains’ “My Baby Loves Love.” One of the recurring tunes for the dance contest was the Grass Roots’ biggest hit, “Midnight Confessions.” The luscious vocal harmonies were ladeled up from the same honey pot that produced such up-tempo pop tarts as The Fifth Dimension, The Box Tops, Tommy James & The Shondells, Boyce & Hart, The Monkees, The Turtles, The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Rascals, The Archies, The Hollies, and The Beau Brummels. The charts to these forbidden tunes proved irresistible to my eight-year-old ossicles, and they came to characterize what was best about the AM radio of the ’60s and early ’70s: pop music that wasn’t necessarily dangerous for little kids to listen to, but edgy enough to keep the teens and adults groovin’ along. While not as gritty as Three Dog Night and The Guess Who, The Grass Roots certainly were not as bland as the Hudson Brothers, and for that, we can all be thankful.
The Grass Roots germinated not as a band (damn! there’s a Seeds joke in there somewhere, but I’m not gonna push too hard for it), but as an alias for two songwriter/producers: P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri, who were contracted to churn out folk-style ditties for Dunhill Records by way of Trousdale Music. Sloan covered the lead vocals on The Grass Roots’ first Top 40 entry, “Where Were You When I Needed You,” but there was no actual Grass Roots as a band when he recorded it with some session gunslingers under the name Grass Roots. The song caught fire in L.A. (thank you, Boss Radio!), spurring Sloan to hired an ensemble straight outta San Francisco called the Bedouins. The Bedouins toured as the Grass Roots without Sloan on vocals (Sloan’s version of “Where Were You When I Needed You” is on this CD), then emphasizing a far bluesier style of music than the AM pop that would be The Grass Roots’ destiny. In a de rigeur dispute over the use of session men for the next record, the Bedouins pulled up stakes and went back to the Bay Area. Enter another band to cover the unseemly chores of actually playing instruments: 13th Floor from Los Angeles, fronted by the Hollywood born-‘n’-bred singer and bassist, Rob Grill. It was Grill’s voice that would define the sound we came to know and love as The Grass Roots, anchoring their first monster hit, “Let’s Live for Today,” which became practically the hippie national anthem.
That Summer of Love relic began as a hit in Italy for a group called the Rokes, although I don’t know how “sha la la la la la” translates in Italian. Warren Entner (on keyboards, vocals and guitar), Creed Bratton (lead guitar), and Erick Michael “Rick” Coonce, drums) rounded out the ensemble, with Barri staying on as producer and Chuck Britz as their engineer.
After P.F. Sloan broke off with Barri, the band started to generate their own material, including their biggest hit, sending little Holly and Toby to town on the bass licks and horn riffs of “Midnight Confessions”–all the way to number five. The song, one of pop’s greatest tributes to unrequited love (“But a little gold ring/ you wear on your hand/ makes me understand/ there’s another before me/ you’ll never be mine/ I’m wasting my time”), includes Warren Entner’s fine backing vocals. Other oldies staples followed: the urgent “Temptation Eyes,” (which, to me, sounds like it may have been inspired by Chicago’s jammin’ “25 Or 6 To 4”), “Sooner or Later,” and their last big hit, a lover’s math problem titled “Two Divided by Love,” which really does sound like a follow up to Three Dog Night’s “One is the Loneliest Number.” Along the way, Creed Bratton left, to be replaced by Denny Provisor (keyboards) and Terry Furlong (guitar). Then, Coonce and Provisor split, to be replaced by Reed Kailing (lead guitar) and Virgil Webber (keyboards), and former Bedoin Joel Larson (drums). Obviously, Grass Roots trading cards would have been helplful. After the hits dissipated in 1972, the band dissolved, and Rob Grill briefly pursued a solo career, releasing an album titled UPROOTED featuring the contributions of another divinely harmonic set of musicians: John McVie, Mick Fleetwood, and Lindsay Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac. When the nostalgia boom gave rise to the lucrative oldies circuit (what with little nine-year-old girls like me now in their early ’20s with disposable incomes), Grill rounded up a whole new patch of Grass Roots, doing up to 100 concerts a year! They are touring to this day, sometimes as Rob Grill and The Grass Roots and sometimes as The Grass Roots. You can still catch them at state fairs and such respectably sized concert venues as the Greek Theater as well as humble junior high schools.
Although they weren’t album oriented, The Grass Roots left a lasting impression on the landscape, enjoying a more-than-respectable run of fourteen solid tunes in the Top 40 between 1966 and 1972, twelve of which on on this CD. While I have looked askance at some of these “Millenium Collections” from MCA (case in point: the one for Teena Marie I didn’t buy because a couple of her hits, including the must-have “Lovergirl,” seemed to be missing), THE BEST OF THE GRASS ROOTS is a solid representation of the band’s best works, well organized, and tastefully packaged. It is complete enough for those who want a good “greatest hits” compilation. Rhino Records also has a CD collection “The Grass Roots Anthology,” which should be equally as satisfying and probably more comprehensive.
And now, some Roots trivia:
# 1. The Million Roots March! The Grass Roots hold the all-time attendance record for a single act U.S. concert: 600,000 on July 4th, 1982.
# 2. From 1967 to 1972, The Grass Roots were on the Billboard charts for 307 straight weeks.
# 3. They appeared on over 50 national TV shows (back when musical acts on variety shows were king), including 16 times (possibly the all-time record) on AMERICAN BANDSTAND.
# 4. They have sold over 20 million records worldwide.
# 5. Find the joke in this sentence and win a prize! Steve Barri went on to produce such self-respecting pop staples as Tommy Roe, The Mamas and the Papas, the Four Tops, and Dusty Springfield.
# 6. And in case you think Hamilton, Joe Frank, and Reynolds sounded a lot like The Grass Roots, their 1971 hit, “Don’t Pull Your Love” was penned by Steve Barri.
# 7. Words to live by: Many Viet Nam vets have remarked that “Let’s Live For Today” was their theme song, helping them to get through their miserable days in country.
# 8. Her ‘n’ Bobby were steppin’ out! Drummer Joel Larson played the skins on Lee Michaels’ 1971 one-hit wonder, “Do Ya Know What I Mean”?