Saturday, January 15, 2011

Casablanca Records: Play It Again Curatorial Casablanca

Gloria Scott may be less known to listeners than Donna Summer but she is a pivotal figure in the story of Casablanca nonetheless. Smoke and Platypus did not scale the charts the way Cameo and Parliament did but their music is still among the funkiest of the era. The discography of Casablanca, and all of its subsidiary labels, boasts a wealth of acts that may not have conquered the airwaves to the same degree as the label’s most successful artists but whose music is well worth rediscovering.

Universal Music acquired the rights to the Casablanca catalog when Seagram bought PolyGram in 1999. Because Universal has scantly capitalized on the considerable legacy of music Casablanca left behind, acts like 7th Wonder and Loose Change are virtually unknown to younger generations. Bruce Sudano, whose albums with Brooklyn Dreams have yet to be properly re-released, characterizes the disconnect the current day owners of the catalog have with the music, “You have people who are working catalog who have no sense of the history. Everybody that knew anything has long ago been fired or dismissed. They have somebody in there now for whom it’s just a catalog number and a name. There’s no attachment to anything”.

Ever since Universal’s acquisition of PolyGram, only the albums by the most popular acts – Donna Summer, KISS, Cameo, Village People, and Parliament – have been properly remastered. For a brief period in the early-‘90s, PolyGram re-issued a small portion of the Casablanca catalog in tandem with the release of The Casablanca Records Story (1994) four-CD box set. The focus of the set was on disco and funk – no KISS, no Angel – and disregarded the earlier pop hits by Hudson Brothers, Fanny, and Bill Amesbury (whose “Virginia (Touch Me Like You Do)” was Casablanca’s first single). David Castle, whose own catalog is unavailable digitally or on CD, rightly assesses, “There’s a market out there for all these records but it’s not been confronted by the label”. In the mean time, Casablanca’s vault remains on lockdown and the masters gather dust.

Curatorial Casablanca offers a sampling of artists who recorded for Casablanca and its subsidiary labels during Neil Bogart’s tenure. These songs demand your attention and hopefully individuals with the power and good sense to re-release them will take note. If YouTube hits are any indication, the demand for these rare gems is substantial. Some were previously available on CD—albeit pricey, sublicensed import releases that are long out of print – and a few you can currently find on MP3 retail sites but most have never seen the light of day since their release more than 30 years ago. Take a stroll through the Casbah and hear what you’ve been missing…

Gloria Scott: “What Am I Gonna Do” (What Am I Gonna Do, 1974)

Sly Stone and Ike and Tina Turner were just a couple of the artists Gloria Scott had worked with by the time she met Barry White in the early ‘70s. While Scott brought White an arsenal of songs that she had written, White wanted to match the Port Arthur native with other material and signed her to his production company directly. The title track of Scott’s What Am I Gonna Do is an infectious White production and Scott’s soulful, understated performance stands as the most sophisticated of the early Casablanca sides.

According to catalog numbers, What Am I Gonna Do was Casablanca’s second release, sandwiched between the debuts of KISS and Parliament. Despite the label’s best efforts, the album lived a short shelf life. Gloria Scott released a non-album single later in 1975, “Just As Long As We’re Together”, that fared well on the R&B and disco charts but ultimately did not lead to a second full-length release. Bob Perry, who handled independent promotion for Casablanca in the Southeast and currently owns Blue Note Records (not to be confused with the jazz label), says Scott’s sole album for Casablanca trades upward of $200. “That’s become a very big Northern Soul record,” he says. “I deal with records all day and I haven’t seen that record in ten years. It’s highly sought after by collectors. It didn’t really sell to begin with so there’s really not a lot of copies out there.” Due to a flurry of interest overseas and in the states, Reel Music re-released What Am I Gonna Do in June 2009.

Greg Perry: “Come on Down” (One for the Road, 1975)

One for the Road is arguably the greatest lost album of the 1970s. Sweeping strings, a driving rhythm section, and Greg Perry’s impassioned vocals create a peerless and potent 35 minutes of soul. Neil Bogart and Cecil Holmes knew Perry from his days writing scores of hits for Freda Payne, Chairmen of the Board, and Honey Cone on Holland-Dozier-Holland’s Invictus/Hot Wax label, which Buddah distributed while Bogart presided at Buddah. Shortly after Casablanca launched, Perry signed with the label and released One for the Road.

Listening to a track like “Come on Down”, it’s understandable why the label thought it had an unqualified hit. H.B. Barnum’s string arrangement is a dramatic prelude to Perry’s aching vocal. Celestial background vocals (by Perry, his wife Edna Wright, and brother Dennis Perry), contrast subtly with Perry’s plea. “Get your head out of the clouds,” he cries, “Get your feet back on the ground.” Regrettably, One for the Road did not become the commercial success it certainly warranted. “It was a great disappointment,” Cecil Holmes says now, “because I always thought that was a great album. It never became what I thought it was going to become. We had good airplay with it. It just never took off. I don’t understand why.” Nevertheless, One for the Road stayed in circulation among soul music aficionados over the years and the Soul Brother company based out of London re-released One for the Road in 2000. The CD now sells for more than three figures on auction sites. Do yourself a favor and find a copy.

Smoke, Roberta Kelly and more

Smoke: “Screamin’” (Smoke, 1976)
While Cameo introduced Cecil Holmes’ Chocolate City imprint through the “Find My Way” single, the first Chocolate City album (CCLP-2001) belongs to Smoke (1976), the eponymous debut by an eight-piece funk band. Re-titled Blacksmoke when the group changed its name, the album doused listeners with horn-driven funk (“There It Is”), a stirring ballad (“You Needn’t Worry Now”), and a sunny slice of soul-pop (“Sunshine Roses and Rainbows”). Produced by Wayne Henderson and engineered by F. Byron Clark, Smoke is perfection, track for track. Why the quality did not translate to record sales is as great a mystery as why the albums by Gloria Scott and Greg Perry did not attract a larger audience.

“Screamin’”, which landed just inside the R&B charts, neatly and succinctly summarizes the album’s strengths in three minutes. Smoke is perfectly in sync on the track, with the rhythm effortlessly carried by Anthony Fisher’s climbing basslines and a horn section that adds a brassy garland over the rhythm section. It showcases the stellar songwriting of Michael Fisher (the band’s guitarist and composer) and gives lead vocalist, Arnold N. Riggs, Jr., one of his steamier outings. “Said I’m hot under the collar/So hot and bothered/That I’m just about to holler” is just one of the few tasty morsels he rhymes over the melody. “Screamin’”, and Smoke, merit a massive rediscovery mission.

Roberta Kelly: “Zodiacs” (Zodiac Lady, 1977)

One of the most essential early Casablanca releases is the Oasis-issued Trouble Maker (1976) by Roberta Kelly. Produced by Giorgio Moroder with Pete Bellotte, and powered by the Munich Machine, it shared the same musical company as Donna Summer’s A Love Trilogy (1976), featuring an early version of Teddy Vann’s “Love Power”, later reworked by Luther Vandross. The same team returned on Zodiac Lady. If Donna Summer scored with Four Seasons of Love (1976), then why not center an album around the moons and stars? From the silver emblems nestled in Kelly’s coif on the album cover that depict each sign of the zodiac to song titles like “I’m Sagittarius” and “Funky Stardust”, it is difficult to escape the theme of Zodiac Lady.

“Zodiacs” is a time capsule for the sign-centric social mores of the mid-‘70s. Over a quasi-Cuban rhythm, Kelly explains how all signs are “searching for the sign that goes with their own sign of the zodiac”. The song is simply unabashed fun. While Kelly lays down a powerful vocal, she is also winking at the listener. It’s hard not to love “Zodiacs”. The Munich Machine is flawless, Kelly is exuberant, and Moroder and Bellotte deliver one of their most irresistible productions. “‘Zodiacs’ is my favorite song performed by Roberta Kelly,” Moroder says. “I’m not a fan of astrology, but this song – the way the melody goes, and the lyrics – gives me new meaning of the supernatural.”


Lalomie Washburn: “Shade of Blue” (My Music Is Hot, 1977)

A firebrand extinguished too soon. That is the epitaph of the late Lalomie Washburn, who passed away in 2004. One of the first artists Russ Regan signed to his Parachute label, the Omaha-born Washburn funked things up around the Casbah. With her untamed candy-colored hair, saucy delivery, and sassy persona, she sang straight up about love, sex, and music. “It ain’t how you put it in but how it fits,” she teased on “Double Funkin’”, wearing a provocative expression on the album cover to emphasize the point. Before her debut, she had already carved out a career as an in-demand songwriter, most notably as the force behind “I’m a Woman” and “At Midnight” by Rufus & Chaka Khan. My Music Is Hot afforded an album’s-length excursion into the rocking soul and spirit of Lalomie Washburn.

She became a poetic sorceress on “Shade of Blue”. It’s a cocktail of different styles and musical elements: blues-inflected piano, background vocals lifted out of a gospel choir, and horns that would not be out of place at a Memphis recording session. A dizzying flute trill, devoid of any category, provides an intriguing counterpoint to the cyclical rhythm section vamp that closes out the song. Then, of course, is her voice – earthy, a little world-weary, and inimitably soulful – rounding out the scope of sounds brought together in an unforgettable four minutes. When you find it, play it loud.  Her music is hot.

Randy Brown: “I’m Always in the Mood” (Welcome to My Room, 1978)

Parachute got an infusion of Memphis soul when Randy Brown joined the roster in 1978. Brown had worked at Stax in the late ‘60s and had even recorded an album’s worth of material for the label with his group Randy Brown and Company in 1973. (At the time, only the single, “Did You Hurt Yourself” was released on Stax’s Truth subsidiary. After Brown become an established solo artist, Fantasy released the eight-year-old set as Check It Out). Years later, Homer Banks and Carl Hampton, songwriters and producers that Brown knew from Memphis, invited Brown out to Los Angeles after hearing him on a record by The Temprees. Banks and Hampton invited Brown to record the songs that would ultimately comprise his first solo album, Welcome to My Room.

The album treats listeners to Brown’s thundering baritone and Paul Riser’s soaring string arrangements. “I’m Always in the Mood” is a contagious listen, a song designed for both the bedroom and the dance floor. “Just call my name and I’ll come like showering rain,” he growls, but it’s not a crude come-on. Instead, Brown’s delivery is soulful and suave. It’s agreed that Welcome to My Room is the most essential of the four albums Brown recorded for Casablanca (the first two appeared on Parachute, the latter two found a home on Chocolate City). Universal released the album as a budget CD for a brief time in 2000 but the time is ripe for a Best of Randy Brown that properly contextualizes his estimable contributions to Casablanca.

Teri DeSario, Space and more

Teri DeSario: “Ain’t Nothin’ Gonna Keep Me From You” (Pleasure Train, 1978)
One of Barry Gibb’s finest compositions did not appear on a Bee Gees album. In fact, it was not even a song that the Bee Gees recorded. Rather, it appeared on the debut album by Teri DeSario. Known primarily for her Top 5 hit with K.C., “Yes, I’m Ready” (lifted from her ‘79 album, Moonlight Madness), DeSario recorded one of the greatest sides ever to sport the Casablanca logo. “Ain’t Nothin’ Gonna Keep Me From You” is disco perfection and can still lift dancers into a disco dreamland 30 years later.
Produced by Gibb with his Karl Richardson and Albhy Galuten, is a kind of a bridge between Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Casablanca, two worlds of disco that are completely different yet inevitably get lumped together. Less R&B-influenced and boasting a faster BPM count than the Bee Gees’ hits from the movie soundtrack, “Ain’t Nothin’ Gonna Keep Me From You” glides along on a lilting rhythm section and DeSario’s crystalline voice. The tune catches attention at the outset. Over incessant drums and percussion, the piano and guitar introduce the melody chords before a gust of strings give way to DeSario, who effortlessly strings together Gibb’s lyrics. Upon its release, “Ain’t Nothin’ Gonna Keep Me From You” narrowly missed the Top 40 at #42 but it remains a defining moment of excellence in Casablanca’s history.

Space: “My Love Is Music” (Just Blue, 1978)
The collective known as Space specialized in cinematic Eurodisco. Led by composer Didier Marouani, with Roland Romanelli and Joe Hammer, the group’s second Casablanca release, Just Blue, evoked a mood as cold and precise as Shusei Nagaoka’s cover illustration. “I love Eurodisco”, Tom Moulton assures, “believe me I love it, but the one thing it lacks is that soul because it’s so locked into everything on the one. It’s so rigid. There’s no room. Soul is a little loose and you can work with it a little bit”.

The one track where Space works some soul into the mix is on “My Love Is Music”. It sounds unlike anything else on the album. Whereas the majority of Just Blue seems scored for a science fiction movie, “My Love Is Music” is an attack of bass guitar, percussion and the rousing voice of Madeline Bell. Bell was something of a fixture in the Eurodisco scene, having backed up Donna Summer and Roberta Kelly as one of the Munich Machine’s “Midnite Ladies”. “My Love Is Music” belongs to Bell. She completely owns the track. Re-released in Greece by Bastien Muisc in the mid-‘90s, Just Blue is essential listening if only for “My Love Is Music”. For a moment, the cold, chilly waters of Space become steamy hot springs.

7th Wonder: “Do It With Your Body” (Climbing Higher, 1979)
The legacy of the Casablanca-distributed Parachute label is that it is essentially a discography of hidden gems (only one Parachute group, Liquid Gold, appeared on the Casablanca box set), of which the first two albums recorded by 7th Wonder certainly qualify. Formed from the same scene as The Commodores, the Tuskegee-based funk/R&B band caught the attention of Jerry Weaver, a songwriter and producer who had done session work for Aretha Franklin in the early-‘70s. With Weaver’s production muscle, 7th Wonder debuted with Words Don’t Say Enough (1978) and followed up with an even stronger effort, Climbing Higher(1979). It featured more dance-oriented material, including “Daisy Lady” (memorably sampled by The Sugarhill Gang on “8th Wonder”) and “Do It With Your Body”. The latter, which was mixed by Richie Rivera, is an intoxicating tonic of R&B-based disco. “Do it with your body, baby/Boogie, get down”, the mantra goes and it’s had to resist the invitation. Strings, horns, and percussion add layers of musical bliss to the track.

The group’s lead vocalist, Allen Williams, maintains an affection for the material he recorded with 7th Wonder, including the final album, Thunder (1980), that found a home on Chocolate City after Parachute folded. “I listen to them now and I like all of them”, he says. “Sometimes it brings tears to my eyes. It’s beautiful. The group is still together. We never broke up but we all had to go to day jobs. We’ve been working on an album for about five years now but it’s slow going. I’m hoping you get a chance to hear what we have now”. Like the majority of Parachute artists, 7th Wonder’s three albums have yet to be brought into the 21st century.

Duncan Sisters: “Boys Will Be Boys” (Duncan Sisters, 1979)
“The boy wonder”, that’s how Pattie Brooks remembers Marc Paul Simon, Casablanca’s Vice President of Special Projects (i.e. “Disco Promotion”). Speak to any artist or executive from Casablanca and they will attest to Simon’s innovation with record promotion in the clubs. Along with his team, which included Michele Hart-Winer, Dennis Wheeler, Arnie Smith, and the late Kenn Friedman, Simon made Casablanca a leading force in dance music. It wasn’t long before he created his own customized label at Casablanca, EarMarc.

The first EarMarc release was a self-titled release by The Duncan Sisters. Phyllis and Helen Duncan were known for their session work with the likes of Al Green and Ann Peebles before Toronto-based producers Ian Guenther and Willi Morrison hired them to record on a variety of the team’s Three Hats Productions. “Boys Will Be Boys” is the most beloved of the album’s half-dozen songs. Marc Paul Simon knew what his clients wanted and “Boys Will Be Boys” delivered. With an eight-piece horn section, a ten-piece string section, and a guitar lick that would make Duane Eddy proud, the track is dressed to the nines. Doubtless, The Duncan Sisters’ lament, “When he breaks the rules, well/You know you’ll be the fool” resonated with the many ladies and gentlemen who danced along to the song’s deceptively cheery melody. Signifying its girl-group DNA, no less an icon than Ronnie Spector recorded the song on her Siren (1979) album. However, for seven minutes on the album that introduced EarMarc to DJ’s and dancers alike, “Boys Will Be Boys” belongs only to The Duncan Sisters.

Vernon Burch, Platypus and more

Vernon Burch: “Get Up” (Get Up, 1979)
Generation X-ers take heed: “Groove Is In the Heart” by Deee-Lite owes everything to “Get Up” by Vernon Burch. Not that you would know that by looking at the album credits on their World Clique (1990) album, where the name of the former sideman of the Bar-Kays is conspicuously absent. If you didn’t know, you know now and you might be speechless when you listen and compare. The percussion break, the din of whoops and hollers, and a “whistle” effect that peters down and swoops back up were all liberally borrowed by Deee-Lite. (The bass guitar hook was swiped from “Bring Down the Birds” by Herbie Hancock.) They got a number four pop hit, Vernon Burch faded into semi-retirement.
Get Up was the second of three albums Burch released on Chocolate City. Sporting a day-glo yellow sweater and hot pink pants, Burch carries the gaiety of “Get Up” over to the album cover. Though not a major hit, “Get Up” nonetheless remained a staple of discriminating DJs over the years before Deee-Lite appropriated the track. Get Up was released on CD in Japan in 2006 but it is an expensive find.  These days, Burch is better known as Reverend Vernon D. Burch and his performances are mostly behind the pulpit, where he and his wife, Glenda, give rousing sermons. He may be light years away from the Bar-Kays, Chocolate City, and “Sammy-Joanne (One Half Woman One Half Man)” (a cut off Get Up) but on record, Burch still gets the party started.

Platypus: “Dancing in the Moonlight” (Platypus, 1979)
Platypus began as a progressive rock band with an R&B undertone. The Dayton, Ohio-based group landed in Los Angeles to pursue a record deal with Motown. When that didn’t materialize, they toured the world on the strength of their outstanding live show. After seeing the group perform in Osaka, Japan, Roberta Flack committed to help promote and mentor the band. Leaving Los Angeles to return back to Dayton so they could be closer to the New York-based Flack, Platypus wrote and recorded the songs that would furnish their Casablanca debut.

On a fateful trip to Manhattan, Arthur “Hakim” Stokes, one of the group’s vocalists, and the late Larry Hines, who played lead guitar in Platypus, wrote the lyrics and music to “Dancing in the Moonlight”. Hines initially meant to mock what he saw as the prevalence of disco, which replaced bands like Platypus as the primary source for people’s entertainment. Once the group recorded the track, however, they all took a vigorous and virtuous approach to the music. The strength of the song is in all the carefully conceived details, the way the vocals are stacked, the chord changes, the transition from the verse to the chorus when the song flies into a stratosphere of disco euphoria. “Is it any wonder I love dancing in the moonlight”, the band croons in falsetto over strings courtesy of the Cincinnati Philharmonic. In just a matter of years, Platypus transitioned from performing “Round About” by Yes to creating an unsung disco classic. Though their self-titled debut did not launch any major hits, and the group stayed together for only one subsequent album, the members of Platypus are currently planting the seeds for a reunion.

Tony Rallo & The Midnite Band: “Fais L’Amour” (Burnin’ Alive, 1979)
Discussing the oeuvre of Alec R. Costandinos on Casablanca could easily supply pages of editorial space. Between 1977-1981, Costandinos produced more than a dozen albums. About one-quarter of those albums billed his name while others were studio projects with monikers like Sphinx, Sumeria, Paris Connection, and, the most popular of all, Love & Kisses. Most all of his releases featured the distinct Costandinos sound of ornately produced string sections that were as much a character to his work as the choir of female session singers who often populated his records.

After exploring everything from the Bible to Shakespeare to The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Costandinos produced more straightforward disco, pop, and soul acts, including an album by Tina Turner on United Artists, Love Explosion (1979). The Costandinos touch is all over Tony Rallo & The Midnite Band’s Burnin’ Alive. Though the quality of songwriting varies across the album’s five five-minute plus songs, there a few that transport the listener to a climate not unlike the habitat of the ibis, which comprises the logo that graced the back covers of Costandinos productions. “Fais L’Amour” generates the most excitement. The glossy pop-funk yields to a disco Shangri-La where The Midnite Voices dreamily intone, “You can do it”. No lead vocal is credited on the track but chances are the late Arthur Simms, a regular session vocalist with Costandinos, is the voice behind the brassy falsetto. Casablanca had its share of obscure albums. Three decades later,Burnin’ Alive and the exquisite “Fais L’Amour” should be excavated from the vaults. 

Loose Change, John & Arthur Simms and more

Loose Change: “Straight From the Heart” (Rising Cost of Love, 1979)
The ladies of Loose Change were discovered by Tom Moulton and his brother. Moulton produced the album as part of his three-album production commitment with Casablanca. Rising Cost of Love remains a first-rate collection of the R&B-influenced dance music Moulton preferred and was renowned for, especially on his mixes for the Salsoul label. “Straight From the Heart” is the best of a superior bunch. Tom Moulton on Loose Change: “Oh, I love that. I really feel bad because that’s when PolyGram wanted to get rid of all of us. I really thought that was going to be a big album. You have no idea what a great time I had recording those girls. My brother was in Chicago one time and he said, ‘Tom I got these girls’. I said, ‘What is the name?’ He said some hokey name. I go, ‘Well that sucks. I want them to have such a soulful name that I want to drag it down on the ground.” He said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘Trust me.’
“I wanted something that everybody has and I thought of change in the pocket but then I thought I want to keep it funky and that’s where I got the name ‘Loose Change’. I said, ‘When you stick your hand in your pocket you always got some there!’ So many people said, ‘Did you get the name from (the group) Change?’ I said, ‘No! There was no Change. Change came after Loose Change. Let’s not even go there’. I always like these gutsy, street-y names that are so common. It’s a name that everybody has but yet when they think of ‘Loose Change’, they don’t think of it as money. Isn’t that funny? They think it’s a change that you’re loose about.”

John & Arthur Simms: “Not Gonna Let You Slip Away” (John & Arthur Simms, 1980)
Curatorial Casablanca closes on a rather subdued but radiant note, courtesy of two American ex-patriots. Brothers John and Arthur Simms relocated to Paris after growing up in Baltimore, MD. Arthur Simms wrote and performed on a variety of projects, including a number of session dates with Alec R. Costandinos (see Tony Rallo above). With his brother John, Arthur recorded a full-length album produced by Costandinos. Arranged by Greg Mathieson, John & Arhur Simms is the only album the brothers recorded together for Casablanca.

The album tries to secure a sound in the aftermath of a post-disco haze. The lite-funk of “That Thang of Yours” is less representative of the Simms’ specialty – ballads that sway breezily like palm trees. The gorgeous “Not Gonna Let You Slip Away” is certainly mellow by Casablanca standards but it should not be overlooked. John Simms’ voice creamily caresses the melody and the rhythm section floats beneath like champagne bubbles. It’s the R&B equivalent of the modern day “yacht rock” sobriquet that groups together the LA-based soft rock of the early ‘80s. There’s a real song inside the guilty pleasure, however, indicative by the acoustic arrangement John Simms used when he performed the song live in latter years. Sadly, Arthur Simms passed away in 1987. John Simms appeared regularly throughout Europe and released My Acoustic Soul in 2006 before his own death a year later. The Simms’ Casablanca release is one of only a few remaining documents of the brothers’ considerable talent. Like the songs and albums listed above, and so many more, John and Arthur Simms is a forgotten gem waiting to be burnished.

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