…in advance of my 72nd birthday (February 15), I planned a trip to Los Angeles just after the Grammy Awards (not something I felt compelled to attend, having been to more than a few during my years living in the U.S., given that actually being at the event itself offers very little in the way of a great view unless you happen to be a nominee or part of the nominee’s entourage!) before heading off to my favourite place on the planet, the island of Kauai (the most beautiful and serene of the Hawaiian islands). What I did miss was the opportunity to see the iconic ROBERTA FLACK in person in L.A. as one of the much-deserved Lifetime Achievement Award recipients. The full ceremony for the Lifetime awardees is in April. It’s particularly rewarding to see Roberta being finally honoured for her incredible and often never fully acknowledged contribution to the world of contemporary music and culture.
I am personally thrilled to be working on an upcoming reissue of Roberta’s debut Atlantic LP, “First Take” which is being made available by Run Out Groove Vinyl as a deluxe limited (and yes, truly it is limited) edition exclusively through SoulMusic.com. In addition to the original LP on vinyl, there’s a 2-CD with the second disc comprised of (12) demos that Roberta recorded in November 1968 in New York City just a month or so before she cut “First Take” (which of course includes the classic “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”). I am honoured to have written the liner notes for the 2-CD set, affording me the opportunity to express my thoughts on the pivotal role that Roberta has played as an artist of the first order.
Through the years, there have been specific recordings by Roberta that have very personal meanings for me – “Ballad Of The Sad Young Men” (from ‘First Take’), “Gone Away” (a truly brilliantly-arranged track written by Leroy Hutson, Curtis Mayfield and Donny Hathaway), “Reverend Lee” (a Eugene McDaniels masterpiece), “Mr. Magic” (a vocal version of the much-loved Grover Washington Jr. classic), the deeply poignant “Making Love” and “You Know What It’s Like,” a gem penned by the great Brenda Russell (on Roberta’s ‘Oasis’ album).
My first in-person interview with Roberta was in March 1978 just around the time of the release of “Blue Lights In The Basement,” the album that included “The Closer I Get To You,” her unforgettable duet with Donny Hathaway. As I revealed to her when I sat in her living room at the Dakota, the famed Manhattan building which was also home to John Lennon and Yoko Ono, I had approached meeting her with a little trepidation. I had heard the ‘rumours’ about Roberta being ‘difficult’ and somewhat ‘unapproachable’ and in fact, our interview session turned out to be one of the most enjoyable experiences of my tenure as the U.S. editor for Britain’s “Blues & Soul” magazine.
It was also the start of an enduring friendship that subsequently included Roberta’s support of my own musical endeavors and ventures: etched forever in my mind is the memory of Roberta coaching me on interpreting lyrics as we sat at her piano and I sang the standard “Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered.” Truly an unforgettable event – and then years later, having her write the liner notes for my 2nd CD, “Wistful Elegance,” symptomatic of her ongoing encouragement and support for so many singers and musicians over the decades. Worth remembering that Roberta famously ‘fired’ one, Luther Vandross who had been a backing vocalist on tour with her explaining that it was a way to ensure that he would go out a get a solo record deal!
In 1994, when her “Roberta” CD was released, I was elated to write the notes for it and here we are in 2020 and I am so grateful to once again be able to ‘big up’ this one-of-a-kind icon whose music has touched so many people the world over…
…During my stay in L.A., I got to do a great podcast session with KATHY SLEDGE, reminiscing about our first interview (in 1975), about the trajectory of Sister Sledge’s career and about the upcoming SoulMusic Records’ box set of (6) discs aptly named “Thinking Of You,” which it turns out is one of Kathy’s personal favourite tracks from the famed sessions Sister Sledge did with Nile Rodgers and the late Bernard Edwards. We talked about the group’s international appeal and how the family quartet had a No. 1 pop hit in the U.K. with “Frankie” in 1984. It was a joy to talk to Kathy and learn about her current activities including a jazz-flavoured project with renowned bassist Stanley Clarke. My podcast with Kathy for ‘My Classic Soul’ will be out soon for you all to hear…
…Another highlight of my trip was reconnecting with BRENDA REID, one of the original members of the group THE EXCITERS, best known for such ‘60s pop/R&B hits as “Tell Him” and “Do Wah Diddy” who I first met in the UK when she and HERB ROONEY (her then-husband and remaining member of The Exciters at the time) and visited in the md-‘70s at the time they were recording for the Contempo label which was part of the company that also owned “Blues & Soul,” the magazine that I was writing for in London then. When I moved to New York in 1975 – initially on a three-month ‘trial’ basis that led ultimately to over three decades in the U.S. much of which was spent as the U.S. editor for the esteemed publication – Brenda offered to make me a ‘real’ home cooked soul food meal. As I have recounted over the years, I made my way to the Rooneys home in Queens, New York and sure enough, Brenda had made a sumptuous meal which included a delicacy – chitlins!
I was aware of the word because of the many times I had heard R&B artists referring to the famous ‘chitlin’ circuit,’ which depending on who was telling it was either small clubs that were meagre in terms of dressing room space, facilities etc. and often found throughout the South or theatres like The Apollo in Harlem, The Brooklyn Fox, The Fox Theater in Detroit, The Regal in Chicago and The Uptown in Philadelphia, all of which were mainly venues for package shows that often had as many as 10 R&B/soul music artists on the same bill. I had never thought to enquire what chitlins were and when Brenda made this great meal, I sincerely thought they were vegetables! When she asked if I enjoyed the food, I gave a thumbs up and a second invitation followed. A few months later I went with my good friend Gary (who had been my flatmate in London) back to the Rooneys’ home where their seven-year-old son Cory (more about him in a moment!) was running around the house and Brenda remarked that she had been up for a while preparing and cleaning the chitlins for our soul food extravaganza which I thought was strange. After consuming my entire plate of rice & beans, collard greens and afore-said chitlins, I finally asked Brenda what chitlins actually were and as I recall she laughed and replied, ‘pigs intestines’! When Brenda and I reunited during my recent visit to L.A. (where she has lived for the last few years), I informed her that a chitlin had never passed my lips since and that I had recounted the story to the late Queen Of Soul ARETHA FRANKLIN who literally laughed out loud when I shared that I never knew what chitlins were till after I’d eaten them twice.
I mentioned that my lovely lunch with Brenda (which I might add did not include any chitlins!) also gave me an opportunity to see her son CORY ROONEY some 43 years after we met. Much has happened since and Cory’s own musical journey has included his success as a top producer and a major music industry executive. We found we had much in common in terms of people we had worked with: Cory co-wrote and produced half of MARY J. BLIGE’s debut album, “What’s The 411?” and I had been her very first media coach, about which I will share in a future ‘Diary Of A British Soul Man’ column. He also worked with LUTHER VANDROSS during his final years at Epic Records and we talked about how Luther had been my virtual next door neighbour in Manhattan both prior to and shortly after he recorded his groundbreaking first solo LP; how he had called me when he had finished recording “A House Is Not A Home”; and how he asked me to come over to listen to it and my reaction of being speechless at what Luther had created with the Bacharach-David song. Cory had his own Luther stories and one of which involved the song, Jennifer Lopez and Puff Daddy. What Cory (and likely the majority of those who have loved Luther’s achingly beautiful version) didn’t know was the origins of the tune: “A House Is Not A Home” was the title track for a 1964 film starring actress Shelley Winters about a well-known ‘madam’ and the ‘house’ referred to in the lyrics was in fact a brothel! Not sure if I ever told Luther myself but needless to say, it remains a contemporary musical masterpiece.
I could have spent literally hours with Brenda and Cory reminiscing and reflecting about our respective journeys – and hopefully, somewhere down the line, we can do a podcast together. Cory is working on new music with his soulful mom and I can’t wait to hear it. What a joy to see Brenda after over forty years and to know that the seven-year-old I met during that famous soul food meal has truly made his own mark in the world of music…
...The day before my birthday, I spent with the award-winning music man PRESTON GLASS (whose career as a songwriter and producer has included dozens of credits on such artists as Aretha Franklin, George Benson, Kenny G., Natalie Cole, Diana Ross, Johnny Gill and Dionne Warwick, among many man others). Preston and I have been working together for over 17 years now! He produced my second CD "Wistful Elegance" (which featured some very special guests including Najee, Will Downing, Kenny Lattimore, Peggi Blu, Lynne Fiddmont and Thelma Jones and included liner notes by a certain Ms. Flack) and subsequently, we've written a number of songs together for various projects, a number of which have been released through the SoulMusic Records' association with his Platinum Garage Recordings. Our work together has included producing an entire album of songs of praise ("Songs 4 Worship-Soul") which featured such stellar artists as PEABO BRYSON, JODY WATLEY, EVELYN CHAMPAGNE KING, FREDDIE JACKSON, REGINA BELLE, DENIECE WILLIAMS and we had the honour of doing the very last recording session by the late TEDDY PENDERGRASS ("Oh Happy Day"); and we also produced tracks for a MELBA MOORE/PHIL PERRY CD.
.In more recent times, Preston has been responsible for releases on the late MAURICE WHITE, LENNY WILLIAMS, LARRY GRAHAM and our latest digital single - distributed by X5/Warners is a wonderful track by multi-talented saxophonist JERMAINE LOCKHART entitled "Back To The Sunshine" which is getting some nice UK soul chart action; having a musical luminary like GEORGE BENSON endorsing Jermaine hasn't hurt either! Preston and I spent time in L.A. writing a new song (inspired by both us experiencing being our prime!) and I finished recording a cover of a Thom Bell-Linda Creed tune, "Foolish," previously recorded by JOHNNY MATHIS. Our creative partnership continues to flourish and it helps that Preston is truly one of the nicest people I've ever met during my five decades in the music biz! His lovely wife Gina has always been a gracious host and she made sure that after Preston and I finished creating some new music, I had a wonderful plate of vegan greens and mac & cheese to eat (with a take-home plate that lasted till the next day's lunch!). I'm looking forward to continuing to work with Preston on new music and look out for some great releases on both new and legacy artists through SoulMusic Records and Platinum Garage Recordings!
…Finally (if I may quote CECE PENISTON!), my Saturday night birthday celebration was particularly joyful when some of my friends came to see the wonderful THELMA JONES perform at Barone’s, an Italian restaurant in Valley Glen. Thelma and I have been dear friends for decades and the story of our connection is best saved for another ‘Diary’ column. Suffice to say, Thelma – whose recorded repertoire includes her original 1967 version of “The House That Jack Built” (covered by and a massive hit for Aretha Franklin in 1968) – is one of the many true ‘unheralded’ heroes of R&B and soul music and hearing her live renditions of “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and Wilson Pickett’s “Don’t Let The Green Grass Fool You” was wonderful. She and I have often talked about how BIG MAYBELLE was a mentor for her when she first arrived in New York in 1965 and I have my own stories of meeting Maybelle on her only visit to Britain in 1967. Thelma sang a Maybelle classic “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show” during my birthday dinner and I was completely thrilled when longtime archivist and renowned makeup artist/stylist RUDY CALVO gave me the most amazing gift of a framed photo of Maybelle taken at one of her only two shows in London in 1967!
In the words of Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager, that’s what friends are for and I am truly grateful for enduring friendships that continue regardless of location! Thank you, Thelma, Rudy, Nick, Charles, Louis and Herbert for making my 72nd celebration a night to remember (yeah, another song title)…
Until next time…
With respect, appreciation and soulful regards always,