Saturday, January 23, 2021

Lost Classics: Deniece Williams, "It's Gonna Take a Miracle"



By Curt Alliaume


Most people know Deniece Williams from her #1 hit “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” taken from the (first) Footloose soundtrack. (Her version also appears in the 2011 movie remake, although not on the accompanying soundtrack.) Some might recall her 1978 duet with Johnny Mathis, “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late,” which also hit #1. And a few others remember her voice from the TV series Family Ties; she sings the opening credits theme “Without Us” with Mathis. But this song—which she took to #10 in the spring of 1982—is easily my favorite.


Written by Teddy Randazzo and Bobby Weinstein in 1965, the song was intended for Little Anthony and The Imperials, who had previously made top 20 hits out of their songs “Goin’ Out of My Head” and “I’m on the Outside (Looking In).” But the group was questioning the status of their royalty payments with their record label, so the song went to The Royalettes, who took it to #41 on the Billboard pop chart. It’s a little overproduced on the choruses, but it’s still a lovely song about pain and a relationship that won’t ever come together again. And this is a great period video, which was probably made for a 1960s TV show (local, maybe?); it looks like it was recorded on the Promenade in Brooklyn.


Laura Nyro used the song as the title track for her covers album Gonna Take a Miracle, released in 1971 with Labelle (Patti Labelle, Nona Hendryx, and Sarah Dash) on backing vocals—this version was arranged lightly by producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the better to showcase the vocals. Later, The Manhattan Transfer revived the song for their 1996 album Tonin’, with Bette Midler on lead vocals; unfortunately Arif Mardin’s arrangements haven’t aged well.


But Williams’ version really is something else. This version was produced by Thom Bell, who had spent the 1970s working with The Stylistics and The Spinners, and thus knew his way around a classic R&B ballad. There are no synthesizers here; Bell uses only a light electric keyboard, otherwise the arrangement hews closely to the original (without turning up the volume on the title lyric like The Royalettes’ record): guitar, piano, bass, drums, and strings, which was exactly the opposite direction most producers were going in the 1980s. And Williams, who spent several years as a backing singer for Stevie Wonder before going on her own, gets to show off her four-octave range years before Mariah Carey thought to do it. It’s a record that is both beautiful and heartbreaking.


I also love the video, which was clearly shot in Manhattan (but where? Soho? Upper West Side? Where were the car dealerships in Manhattan in 1982?). The intro was extended a bit for Williams to chat, using 1980s video technology to make her appear on a billboard. It’s such an irresistible period piece in the days before videos became just as important than the songs themselves (in 1982, there was no chance a female Black R&B singer was going to ever appear on MTV, which had barely started and was aimed squarely at white AOR fans.)


Williams was still occasionally touring before COVID-19, and she’s moved into gospel, winning four Grammys there (she was nominated for Best Female R&B Performance for this song, losing to Jennifer Holliday’s “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from the Broadway version of Dreamgirls). Give this a spin on Spotify when you’re making a mix of late-night ballads. It’s on her 1982 studio album Niecy and both of her greatest hits albums with Columbia Records, The Essential Deniece Williams and The Best of Deniece Williams: Gonna Take a Miracle.


(Crossposted from Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.)

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Superhits 1979, Week 44

By Curt Alliaume

Weird week.

M, “Pop Muzik,” #1, 11/3/1979

Fall 1979 saw tons of superstar acts releasing albums; the Billboard album chart for November 3 had albums that had been on the charts for ten weeks or less from (deep breath): The Eagles, Led Zeppelin, Styx, Foreigner, Cheap Trick, Fleetwood Mac, Herb Alpert, Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, Barry Manilow, Kenny Rogers, The Alan Parsons Project, Funkadelic, Jethro Tull, Jimmy Buffett, Blondie, Kenny Loggins, Elton John, Barbra Streisand, Donna Summer, The Police, and Rick James, with albums to come from Stevie Wonder, The Bee Gees, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Abba, and ZZ Top. And yet, somehow among this pile of talent, this song made it to #1. M is the name for a “music project”—not really a band—headed by Robin Scott, who had been knocking around the British music scene for years, working with pop and punk vets. He recorded “Pop Muzik,” a summation of the previous 25 years of music, in early 1979, and the song hit the top three in countries all over the world—including the United States. It would be his one and only chart hit in the States (he had five more hits in the UK through 2002). He still records, and sometimes works with his daughter Berenice—who’s pictured on the “Pop Muzik” sleeve as a baby.

Fleetwood Mac, “Tusk,” #8, 11/3/1979

Speaking of weird, Fleetwood Mac had 20 choices for a first single off their double album Tusk, and they chose the title track—which was the strangest song on the album and one of the oddest in the band’s history. It’s primarily percussion based, featuring the University of Southern California marching band adding their percussion and horns. (I don’t know if this was the case in 1979, but when my family took a campus tour two years ago they specifically noted any student who wanted to join the band was welcome, even if they’d never played an instrument to that point.) Mick Fleetwood told MusicRadar he used lots of different things for percussion, including hitting a leg of lamb with a spatula. And the singing—well, it’s more like murmuring and chanting; only Buckingham’s voice is recognizable. Not surprisingly, this was not what radio expected for the first single, so if there was a competition with the Eagles (who also released their long-awaited album, The Long Run, at the same time), it wasn’t close.

Bob Dylan, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” #24, 11/3/1979

Dylan goes Christian. Bob Dylan converted from Judaism to Christianity between late 1978 and early 1979 (he’s since converted back), and he went the whole way, creating several albums filled with Christian music. This was the one hit from that period—in fact, it’s his last top 40 hit. It also has more of an R&B influence (probably because it was produced by legendary producer Jerry Wexler and was recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, although Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler and Pick Withers also appear on the parent album Slow Train Coming. In 1979 and 1980, Dylan would only perform his Christian-influenced songs in concert (which included his 1980 album Saved and part of his 1981 album Shot of Love), which did not make his fans happy. (Or other admirers; John Lennon recorded the answer record “Serve Yourself” in 1980, which wasn’t released until a 1998 box set.) Dylan appeared on Saturday Night Live on October 24 and performed “Gotta Serve Somebody” and two other Slow Train Coming songs; it remains his only SNL appearance. Couldn’t link that video; you get his 1980 appearance at the Grammys (where this won him the Best Male Rock Vocal Performance); that appears to be Donna Summer, Kenny Loggins, and Kris Kristofferson happy to see him at the beginning of the video.


Brenda Russell, “So Good, So Right,” #30, 11/3/1979

It’s possible many people reading this aren’t all that familiar with Brenda Russell—and I have to admit I haven't listened to much of her music, other than her two top 40 hits and her song “Dinner With Gershwin,” which Donna Summer turned into a minor hit. This is her first hit, from her eponymous first solo album (she’d previously recorded two albums with then-husband Brian Russell on Elton John’s Rocket Records), and it’s a good one—a solid fit for pop, AC, or quiet storm R&B stations (yeah, I know that wasn’t a format at the time). Russell wrote or cowrote all the songs on that album. Brenda Russell album also contains her version of her song “Think It Over,” which had been a top 40 pop hit the previous year for Cheryl Ladd (don’t laugh, she can really sing).


Jimmy Buffett, “Fins,” #35, 11/3/1979

Buffett’s only had seven top 40 pop hits in his career (I’m counting his more recent hits with Alan Jackson and the Zac Brown Band, but not “Voices That Care”); this is the fifth of them, and was cowritten by Buffett, former Coral Reefer Band members Deborah McColl and Barry Chance, and novelist Tom Corcoran (who’s a friend of Buffett’s). It’s about a female transplant from Cincinnati becoming “the only girl in town” when she moves to a city on the beach and attracts the attention of land sharks (a.k.a. men). By the way, a “remora” is also known as a suckerfish, which in mythology was believed to keep ships from sailing. “Fins” is one of the original Buffett “Big 8” songs that he plays at nearly every concert.


Gloria Gaynor, “Let Me Know (I Have a Right),” #42, 11/3/1979

It’s very hard to follow up a classic song like “I Will Survive,” it’s even harder when the follow-up song is a weak rewrite of the original. “Let Me Know (I Have a Right)” was written and produced by Dino Fekaris and Freddie Perren, who had also worked on “I Will Survive,” and they don’t have much in their bag of tricks this time around. This would be the Hot 100 hit for Gaynor, who would record a few more albums for Polydor before moving the oldies circuit. She became a born-again Christian in 1972, has done a bunch of rerecordings of “I Will Survive” (I doubt she makes much from the original), and has some concerts tentatively scheduled for later in 2021.


Chic, “My Forbidden Lover,” #43, 11/3/1979

Nothing wrong with this song, but as with the song above, “Good Times” set a standard that was hard to match, especially when you’re competing with superstar acts and disco has become a naughty word. “My Forbidden Lover” also sounds somewhat like other Chic organization songs (“I Want Your Love,” Sister Sledge’s “Got to Love Somebody,” even Diana Ross’ “Upside Down”). I’m sure nobody with Chic thought “Good Times” not only would be the band’s last #1 pop hit but also their last top 40 hit as a band, but that’s the way it goes. The instrumental track has been reused on several songs, most recently The Black Eyes Peas 2010 song “Fashion Beats.”


The Who, “5:15,” #45, 11/3/1979

Second time in 1979 The Who released one of their classic songs as a single years after the fact as part of a movie soundtrack (the first was “Long Live Rock,” which was included on The Kids Are Alright documentary earlier in the year). This was a remix of the band’s version from the original Quadrophenia studio album, and was included in the movie version of Quadrophenia (which admittedly wasn’t as big a deal as the movie version of Tommy, although it may have held up better over time). It’s probably not surprising the song didn’t strike a chord at AM radio, referring to sexually knowing 15 year old girls, and taking uppers and downers. But “My Generation” gets a reference as well. I don’t particularly care for this video, which was made relatively recently, but none of the videos from the movie itself linked properly.

Neil Young, “Rust Never Sleeps (Hey Hey, My My [Into the Black]),” #79, 11/3/1979

Okay, it’s only taken me 40-plus years to change my mind about this song—twice. For years I thought it was from the studio album Rust Never Sleeps, which was released in June 1979 and became Young’s biggest seller since 1972’s Harvest. This is the song everybody talks about when they think of the album, which is presented in two versions: an acoustic version (“My My, Hey Hey [Out of the Blue}”) and this electric one. (Kurt Cobain included the lyric “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” in his 1994 suicide note, about which Young later said, “When he died and left that note, it struck a deep chord inside of me. It fucked with me.”) I’m not sure why “Rust Never Sleeps” is included as part of the song title on the single, as it’s not included on the album titles (and wasn’t on the Billboard Hot 100 listing, although that may have been due to space limitations). A few years ago, I saw it listed on Wikipedia—as from Young’s live album Live Rust, which was officially released November 14, four months after Rust Never Sleeps. Okay, I thought, I guess the live version was released as a single rather than the “live” version (all the songs on Rust Never Sleeps were recorded in concerts during the Comes a Time tour, with crowd noise mixed out). So in researching this post, I looked it up again today—and I know this is going to stun everyone reading right now, but Wikipedia is wrong. Discogs shows actual label photos of the single—which list the parent album as Rust Never Sleeps (click on More Images under the photo of the single sleeve), and the catalog number listed matches the one listed in Billboard. I don’t know about you, but I’ll be able to sleep better tonight. Anyway, this was a monstrously popular single and album in my high school during the fall of 1979 (I took a music survey that year for our school newspaper), but I didn’t take much notice of it then. So to the New Providence High School Classes of 1980, 1981, 1982, and 1983, I apologize—I was young and foolish.


Keith Herman, “She’s Got a Whole Number,” #87, 11/3/1979

Pop/rock song that sounds like something out of the British Invasion rather than a song you’d hear at the end of the 1970s. It’s a little obtuse (and why would she have a whole number, rather than a negative number or a fraction?), but it’s not unpleasant. The Next Song Is… was Herman’s second and final album, but his first on Radio Records, a small independent label that probably is best known now for inflicting “Stars on 45” on the United States. Herman cowrote the song with Robert W. Walker and played guitars and bass on his album, although he brought in some other pretty good guitarists: Steve Cropper of Booker T. & The MG’s, and Wayne Perkins, who played on albums by Joni Mitchell, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Everly Brothers, and The Rolling Stones (in fact, Perkins was considered as a possible band member before Ron Wood got the nod). This icon indicates it's not available for streaming on Spotify.



(Cross posted from Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.)