Jesse Johnson Review – Jesse Johnson (1985)

Jesse Johnson Review album cover

Jesse Johnson Review album cover

There can be no mention of Ta Mara and the Seen without discussing the man behind their sound. Jesse Johnson was a one of the original members of The Time. As the band’s guitarist, he actually never really played on band’s first two albums. Instead he contributed his guitar talents to one of Prince’s side projects Vanity 6.

After being part of The Time’s stage show, and having limited input on the recording of any material Johnson and a two other members of The Time parted (amicably) and formed the Jessee Johnson Review.

The band’s self titled first album came out the gate strong with the tight and funky “Can You Help Me”, “Be Your Man” and remorseful ballad “I Want My Girl”. The success of Prince’s Purple Rain meant that there was an enormous appetite for Prince related music. While funky, Johnson’s music was not as adventurous as that of Prince or even Andre Cymone, but retained the simple working class funk of The Time.

If Andre Cymone’s music was an extension of Prince while Johnson was clearly an extension of his old band. Just like The Family would be that same year, Johnson took the sound of The Time in yet another direction. It’s easy to imagine The Jesse Johnson Review as The Time without the silly antics of Morris Day. In the place of buffoonery, there was a solid work ethic inherited from years of association with Prince. The button down funk of Jesse Johnson proved to be not as popular as that of The Time, mostly because the band looked like everyone else with the big poof hair and tiger paints. Johnson himself resembled a young version of Little Richard in a pirate costume.

While funky in the spirit of Little Richard and Sly Stone could be heard in the music, Johnson lacked the bigger than life image of Morris Day or Prince. This may have been why Johnson remained in the shadow of those two, despite having as much talent as Morris Day (who never was a musician).
It could be argued that other spin-off acts like Apollonia 6 or Vanity had less talent but because they had so defined an image, they were successful. Jesse Johnson lacked a distinctive image and at times sound.

The R&B market was clearly dominated by the explosion of all things purple, making it especially difficult to stand out. The competition included new releases that year fro Shelia E, The Family and the after shock of Purple Rain (no to mention Johnson’s side project with Ta Mara and the Seen). Despite the funky crowd, Jesse Johnson’s Review cracked the top 50 album chart, reached #8 on the R&B album charts.

Johnson’s next album Shockadelica would be more adventurous (but less successful). The trend would continue until his work no longer charted as the face of a R&B world that favored child rappers and media created dance and sing talent show bots.


Ta Mara and the Seen – Ta Mara and the Seen (1985)

Ta Mara and the Seen album cover

Ta Mara and the Seen album cover

I’ve talked a lot about Prince and the Minneapolis scene, that being mostly the Purple One, Jimmy Jam and Terri Lewis and maybe Shelia E. on occasion. But another graduate of the school, Jesse Johnson made some notable undercurrents of his own.

While Johnson had a successful solo career, during the early height of his productivity he helped his record label cash in on its version of the ‘Prince sound’. By creating a side project, Johnson was not unlike Prince or Andre Cymone in seeking out alternate avenues for their creativity.

That avenue for Johnson led to Ta Mara and the Seen. A name given to Margaret Cox, a fresh young face from Morocco who grew up in Minneapolis. Her sensual voice and vocal style might have led many listeners to believe she was black, but like many in the Minneapolis school of funk, color was not an issue as Ta Mara was white (as was most of the band). In 1985 that barrier had been broken on MTV, but it was sadly still an issue for radio and record label marketing.

With four musicians from around the area (who resembled the Time or the Family), Ta Mara and the Seen would release a self-titled debut. Produced by Jesse Johnson, the sound was not much of a departure from Johnson’s own work, but benefited from the range of Ta Mara’s voice. Much of it really could have just come from Johnson’s own unpublished catalog.

Silly fun songs along the lines of Apollonia 6 like “Everybody Dance” became a hit. Other songs like “Affection” got heavy rotation on BET and VH-1. They even made an appearance on American Bandstand, although their primary audience likely would have been watching Soul Train. Not surprisingly Jesse Johnson’s Review was on the show also promoting Despite being one of the better Prince knockoffs (or maybe that was Vanity knockoff) of the year, Ta Mara and the Seen was not quite able to crack to top 50 albums chart of that year.

It’s easy to see why it was so successful in the confines of the R&B community. Besides that whip sound Prince first used in 1999, there were surprisingly contemplative ballads like “Long Cold Nights” or the saucy raunch of “Thinking About You”. Other songs were sprinkled with rock flourishes, in the typical Minneapolis way.

The charts were full of bands out of Minneapolis (or pretended to be) that year, but Ta Mara and the Seen managed to stand out, at least initially.Jesse Johnson himself had a banner year in 1985 with his hits ‘Be Your Man” and “I Want My Girl”.  With all the sound alike pop filling the airwaves,the long period to a follow-up to Ta Mara and the Seen likely took the air out of Ta Mara’s bubble in the fast-moving world of pop music. Nearly three years had passed when the band’s next album Blueberry Gossip dropped.

Blueberry Gossip and to some extent Ta Mara and the Seen are nearly impossible to find unless you like me scour used record stores and don’t mind slumming with a cassette. Although I’m happy with my old record, I would like finding a nice digital copy eventually.


Word Up! – Cameo (1986)

Word Up! album cover

Word Up! album cover

I’ve always though the ’80s was the golden age for funk. A small handful of acts dominated the genre in the ’70s but by the ’80s it had spilled over into new wave and pop and even rock. While the horn laced funk of the ’70s had its day, artist like James Brown and Earth Wind and Fire were having difficulty translating their past success to the new electronic age. One of the few funk acts from the age of the Pinto to really thrive in such a new environment was Cameo.

Cameo was led by its charismatic founder Larry Blackman. By the mid ’80s he had managed to mix new wave, funk and emerging hip hop elements into a wildly popular formula. The height of this success came with Word Up, the band’s 12th album in 9 years.

From about the time of Alligator Woman (1982), Cameo had made the gradual transition from horn dominated funk to synths and drum machines. It’s fortunes rose with every release afterwards, while maintaining distinction from other funk acts.
Word Up! forged its own path that was a clear departure from George Clinton, Prince or Rick James. In doing so Cameo was able to distinguish itself from a dozen or so funk bands who with varying success, dominated the R&B charts and reaching as high as #8 on the Billboard Albums chart.

The album’s title song became a huge hit. It was inspired in part by rap terminology and in turn became a popular catch phrase in the hip hop community. By incorporating synths and zany sound samples (sometimes from Saturday morning cartoons), Cameo created a trademark playfulness that could only be attributed to them as on “Back and Forth”.

Other songs like “Candy” were boosted by an innovative music video featuring a ridiculous red cod piece Blackman wore that would later become his signature look. The song’s sparse up and down scaling melody (punctuated by rock guitar) was playful and infectious. Playful would describe the overall tone of Word Up!. The album’s only ballad “Don’t Be Lonely” is about the only place where they slow down to the point of almost sounding like a conventional R&B band.

Speaking of conventional, the only real weak spot could be the rap in “She’s Mine”, but given the silly approach to the subject matter, it somehow seemed fitting. Even with the cartoonish rap, Word Up! was fresh and cutting edge sounding in 1986 and much of it still holds up well today.

Word Up! marked the middle of a particularly productive (and profitable) period for Cameo. Like Ronald Isley would a decade later, Cameo was able to keep pace with the rapid pace of the changing music scene while keeping old fans who loved them during their “Rigor Mortis” and “I Just Want to Be” days.

As all peaks go, dives inevitably occur. With Cameo it would take a few releases, but by the early ’90s they had resorted to releasing greatest hits albums every other year. With a slightly altered line up featuring Larry Blackman, Tomi Jenkins from the ’80s line-up, Cameo released its last album Sexy Sweet Thing in 2000.


Guy – Guy (1988)

Guy album cover

Guy album cover


Yesterday’s entry Blackgirls may have come about as a counter response to one of the biggest R&B styles of the ’90s. That style New Jack Swing along with Grunge are what a lot of people remember about ’90s music. Both styles re-invigorated their respective music genre. Thanks to the small shelf life of musical styles in R&B, New Jack Swing’s initial effect on was contained in a small window.
The style was first introduced with the Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis produced Control for Janet Jackson.

While the nameless style was young it would not have a true face and definitive sound until after Teddy Riley met a bunch of like-minded friends in a clothing store. The result of that meeting was the formation of Guy.

While Janet Jackson’s Control was a huge crossover hit, the work of Teddy Riley with Guy and later Blackstreet would be the style refined for the R&B community. With no pressures of crossover appeal, Guy would dominate R&B if only for a few years. The album that started it all was the groups self titled debut.

By the time the term New Jack Swing  (coined by a Village Voice music writer in 1988) gained traction, there was already a slew of sound alike acts who’s biggest appeal was their looks and dance moves. The disposable nature of R&B meant that these bands would come and go in an attempt to cash in on the latest thing.

Guy was different. Engineered by Tony Bennett’s son Dave, Guy sounds somewhat dense if not busy. Where most NJS bands sounded cheesy with simple rhythms built around a few keyboards, Guy had mixes of drum machine and synth funk combined with choice samples from James Brown, George Clinton. Much of the syncopation and choppiness associated with funk was washed over in favor of sweeping grooves, but enough trace elements of funk existed to make Guy one of 1988’s best R&B/dance albums.

The dense mix gave the music a kind of sophistication and substance much of the genre was lacking. The vocal style of the Hall brothers (Aaron and Damion)and Riley borrowed the harmonies and intensity of the black church while mixing street metaphors from rap.

In the spirit of hip hop, Teddy Riley and crew were not at all modest. Bostorous claims and over confidence ruled the day and like M.C. Hammer, they were able to deliver on most of the hoopla.
“Round and Round” was the first of five singles (all to 30 R&B) that ranged from simple dance funk to “Spend the Night”, one of the few slow jams on Guy. With 5 weeks at #1 on the Billboard R&B chart, Guy’s effect would outlive the album’s chart life.

The next release The Future, would do even better and ever so slightly move Guy to the mainstream. Of course by the time that happened Guy had run its corse, Riley had moved on to Blackstreet. After that, he would find his niche producing for everyone from Micheal Jackson to Jane Child.


Treat U Right – Blackgirl (1994)

Treat U Right album cover

Treat U Right album cover

In the mid ’90s R&B was going through some big changes. The New Jack Swing movement had matured and a growing number of girl groups were cashing in on the success of SWV. One of those new girl acts was Blackgirl. While Pam Copeland, Rochelle Stuart and Nycolia Turman may have sounded like SWV on the surface, they had their distinct own look and sound. The group made of point of having short-cropped hair as if it had some musical virtue. They went as far as to portray themselves as gangsters on their debut album Treat U Right. By no means were they gangsters in that rap kind of way, but as throwbacks to the 1920s and ’30s, complete with baggy men’s suites (just like Madonna in the video for Express Yourself).

Aside from the look Blackgirl, was slightly out of step with the rest of R&B, which was increasingly becoming more hip-hop influenced. A talented production team including Teddy Reilly gave the trio a retro soul sound rooted in the ’70s like on the song “Ooh Yeah” and the Curtis Mayfield cover “Let’s Do It Again”. Like many R&B albums of the day, Treat U Right worked better as a collection of singles, despite its vaguely retro theme.

New Jack Swing was still the go to style of the day and Treat U Right had its share of concessions to the moment like “90’s Girl”, with its Cheryl Lynn “Encore” sample. Hits like “Zrazy” with its fluid synthetized bass was boosted by its SWV-like sound, but the album featured other great songs that emphasized the groups ability to harmonize. Blackgirl toured with R. Kelly and made the rounds on Soul Train, bt never really took off. In reality their style of R&B was a few years too early.

As with many projects that seemed created as a response to something popular, Blackgirl never stayed together long enough to fulfill their promise. They disbanded in 1996 with at least one of the former members going into gospel music, a style of music hinted to on the beautiful but all too short “Home”.


Barry White’s Greatest Hits – Barry White (1975)

Greatest Hits album cover

Greatest Hits album cover

I saw the 1970s from the perspective of a child. Not old enough to actively participate in any adult trends, observation was my only recourse as the child of a church deacon.

One of the ’70s biggest trends was one that I never really saw coming, mostly because my music listening was limited to backwards leaning AM radio. I did however watch TV and noticed that symphonic sound was oddly meshing with soul music. The person behinf this trend would be one of the era’s biggest stars and an icon for lovers everywhere.

Barry White was always this big imposing negro with the silky baritone voice, a kind of Frank Sinatra for the ghetto. After all White was a former gangster and rose up the ranks to become what many call the creator of disco.

When is first greatest hits album was originally released on vinyl in 1975, it became a smash hit. It neatly showcased his best work and parallel the evolution of the disco sound he help originate. That sound was marked by the blending of classical elements with traditional soul and R&B.

In fact White created the Love Unlimited Orchestra to spearhead the cross pollination of the orchestra and soul. The result was lush arrangements framing his deep (some say sexy) voice. Many of his hits when played back to back on a compilation album sounded similar, but there was no denying that it was a unique sound.

Songs like “Cant get Enough of Your Love, Babe” and “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything” may have had long titles, but their legacy was much longer. While White himself was influenced by many of his still active contemporaries like James Cleveland, Ray Charles and Elvis, he would in turn inspire a vast generation of quiet storm and soul artists who ranged from R Kelly to Lisa Stansfield.

When Barry White’s Greatest Hits was issued on CD in the late ’80s, it was one of the first albums from his catalog to be issued. This was in a time before people were able to make their own CD compilations at home. The limitations of the time and my fond memories of White’s music lead to my buying the CD.

Despite his hits scattered over a relatively long period of time, no single album from White seemed all that enjoyable from start to finish, as if one or two hits would be all the record company was willing to develop. For that reason the first Greatest Hits collection is the best. The second one released towards the end of the ’70s is not as strong a collection as White’s highly distinctive sound was becoming dated.


Doppelganger – Curve (1992)

Doppelganger album cover

Doppelganger album cover

Somewhere between the ethereal drama of Vast and the pounding rhythms of The Red Hot Chilli Peppers was Curve. Curve came about during the height of the grunge’s commercial period, a time in the early ’90s when many bands were adopting elements of the then popular sound.

Curve on the other hand took a different approach. The London-based quartet led by Toni Halliday and Dean Garcia took some of its inspiration from My Bloody Valentine. For their strong debut Doppelganger, Halliday did the singing while Garcia provided the beats and played most of the instruments.  Doppelganger was the band’s first full length album, with three EP before in which to sharpen its sound. Produced by the band and Flood, the songs were written in a collaboration between Halliday and Garcia.  Their debut into the big time made a strong statement from its mildly disturbing cover art to the in-your-face angst of the songs.

A distinctive wall of noise guitar sound usually associated with some 4AD acts, early Cure and Echo & the Bunnymen albums was the backdrop for powerful beat centric and rhythm heavy songs. The approach was not unlike The Red Hot Chili Peppers with its heavy beats, but had some of the delicateness of more ethereal music. The formula was commercially successful as “Fait Accompli”  became an Modern Rock radio staple and dance hit. Other songs like “Horror Head” became a MTV favorite, revealing a band that looked both goth and glamorous.

Halliday’s vocals were at times embedded in the mix  like just another instrument. The songs were densely layered with percussion, drums and bass making for a heavy muscular sound. Unlike other bands that employed the “wall of sound” technique, the instruments were clearly delineated on all but the most low-fi of playback devices.

While Doppelganger was styled after everything from alt rock to shoegazing, it featured a strong rhythmic vibe. most of the songs were dance ready with an apocalyptic drone about them. In the few moments when the band let up for a ballad, the results were often surprisingly pleasant as in the sparse “Sandpit”.

Doppelganger was influential in the development of alternative rock with a dance edge. Curve would also inspire later bands like Vast who took the same basic formula and added a bit more drama and mysticism. Despite their long-lasting influence on the development of alternative dance music in the ’90s, the band’s fortunes dried up by the end of the middle of the decade after the release of Cuckoo in 1993. After a hiatus the band reformed in 1996 and has had a few releases since then.

 


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