Growing up, I was always on the lookout for great R&B grooves. Narada Michael Walden was responsible for one that eluded me for years before I was able to finally figure out who and what it was. The song ‘I Shoulda Loved Ya’ combined the solid bass lines of Chic with the bright horn section of Earth Wind and Fire. Back in those days if you could miss the the DJ’s intro to a song you might never hear it again (if you did not call in and ask). It was more than decades later before I would hear the song again (in a Home Depot store of all places). After some old school searching, I found the album on Ebay and the rest was revisited history.
The fact that a detective work was needed to find any of Walden’s old solo music is not surprising considering his place in the music world by 1979. Although he released a number of albums from his own studio, most of his solo music escaped me because he was known primarily for his work in the background.
It was easy to overlook Walden’s solo projects because he was one of the most sought after musician/producers over the last 30 or so years. Everyone from Al Green to Whitney Houston has worked with Walden. His reputation as a producer long overshadowed any of his own work, making him one of the most obscure musical superstars. His role as a producer with is slick signature sound made identifying his solo music all the more difficult because it was so embedded into the music industry (his production style was widely copied).
If anything, his music was marked by unbridled enthusiasm. The big hit from The Dance of Life, his second album was ‘I Shoulda Loved Ya’. It had a hook that stayed in my head for years. Unfortunately, like a lot of R&B music, it was memorable, but disposable. I never even knew if this album made it to CD in the US (it’s available in Japan). The song hid for years and even today, few are aware of it. I’m still waiting for some enlighten rapper to find and sample from this infectious dance song.
The Bob Clearmountain produced The Dance of Life went beyond well arranged disco instrumentals to include a little bit of everything from rock “You’re Soo Good” to traditional styled R&B ballads like “Why Did You Turn Me On.”. The diversity of the album might have contributed to it breaking into the pop top 40, after reaching as high as #4 of the R&B albums chart.
Walden’s skill as a multi-instrumentalist comes through in songs like the “The Dance of Life”, as song that was no doubt featured on the Weather Channel as background music alongside artist like Pat Metheny.
Metheny is good company to be in which may have been part of the problem with promoting an album as diverse as The Dance of Life. “Tonight I’m Alright” and the albums one hit single suggest a solid post disco romp, while much of the album wonders into Quincy Jones territory. Either way The Dance of Life is a collection of best practices musically, even if Walden’s voice seems generic.
If the music sounded like a product of its time, I always thought its cover art was future forward. The photo frame motif suggested video while pre-Miami Vice graphic elements would eventually become the standard for the ’80s. This was real truth in packaging, as The Dance of Life is was bright and innovative in its disco meets adult contemporary arrangements. Its actually better than I remembered it and deserving of a rediscovery.