10. Soul On Top – James Brown (1970)
Soul on Top, which finds the Godfather of Soul making an intriguing detour into jazz-minded big band territory. Recorded in 1969 and released by King Records, Soul on Top combines Brown with the Basie influenced orchestra of jazz drummer Louie Bellson, conducted by the genius of Oliver Nelson, who was also in charge of the arrangements. Stylistically, the results are somewhere between soul funk and the funkier side of big-band jazz. This masterpiece combines soul, funk, and jazz, and finds James Brown revisiting some major hits, such as “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”, in addition to embracing standard songs like “September Song,” “That’s My Desire,” and some more typically associated with jazz and traditional pop. Although not among the Godfather’s better-known efforts, this fine album is happily recommended to anyone who holds R&B and jazz in equally high regard.
9. The Supremes – Sing Rodgers & Hart (1967)
The somewhat unlikely appearance of an album’s worth of show tunes from a group primarily known for R&B and pop music proves once again that Motown was producing artists and concepts that reached far beyond that of other record labels. The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart began as a multimedia spinoff based on the female vocal trio’s appearance on the prime time ABC TV special Rodgers & Hart Today during the summer of 1966. Although the original idea that included a double LP was scrapped, the dozen tracks that made the cut are indeed the crème de la crème of savory and sophisticated stage and screen showstoppers with ’60s soul. The album is bookended by the lavishly orchestrated “The Lady Is a Tramp” and “Blue Moon”; however, the whole of pop music is explored in between. The intimate jazz leanings of “My Funny Valentine” and “Thou Swell” foreshadow the role Ross would play in Lady Sings the Blues. There are also a few instances of the fusion between the hip-shakin’ Motor City R&B magic that had become synonymous with Motown and the songwriting craftsmanship of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.
8. Ella Fitzgerald – Ella (1969)
Ella Fitzgerald’s first flirtation with the acid rock era was a 1968 live date with Tommy Flanagan, titled Sunshine of Your Love, but it featured only a pair of songs from rock composers, Cream‘s title song and the Beatles‘ “Hey Jude.” (Granted, they were the first two songs on the LP.) One year later, Warner booked studio time at Olympic Studios in London for her to work with producer Richard Perry, a former associate of the Leiber & Stoller crew at the Red Bird label and fresh off a remake of Fats Domino‘s image (for Fats Is Back). The results here are roughly similar to what he did with Fats; Perry chose songs that were most easily rendered by his artist and most capable of crossing over. Ella submerges herself nearly entirely in the work of rock or R&B stalwarts — Smokey Robinson, the Beatles, Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson — and Perry obliges with arrangements anchored by horns, acoustic or electric pianos, and only occasionally, strings. Despite the comfortable backings, it’s never able to escape the feel of a crossover; on her version of Smokey Robinson & the Miracles‘ “Ooo Baby Baby,” Ella makes some wonderful choices during the verses (it’s easy to see traditional pop’s influence on Smokeyhimself), but, on the choruses, she’s chained to her backing chorus with poor results.
7. Muddy Waters – Electric Mud (1968)
Recorded in May of 1968, Electric Mud features Waters in excellent vocal form, running through new versions of old songs such as “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” “She’s Alright,” “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Mannish Boy,” and “The Same Thing.” But he isn’t playing, and the band that is — Phil Upchurch, Roland Faulkner, and Pete Cosey on guitars, Gene Barge on sax, Charles Stepney on organ, Louis Satterfield on bass, and Morris Jennings on the drums — is trying awfully hard to sound like the Jimi Hendrix Experience-meets-Cream, playing really loud with lots of fuzztone and wah-wah pedal. The covers of the old songs are OK, if a little loud — “She’s Alright” starts to resemble “Voodoo Chile” more than its original, “Catfish Blues,” and that’s fine if you’re looking for Waters to sound like Hendrix (no one has ever explained the “My Girl” fragment with which the song closes, however). The most interesting of the “new” songs is his cover of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” (barely recognizable as the Stones song), which opens with the band sounding like they’re in the middle section of “Sunshine of Your Love.” Waters pulls this and the rest off vocally, and the album did got him some gigs playing to college audiences that otherwise might not have heard him. Ironically, he was never able to play these songs on-stage, his own band being unable to replicate their sound, and he was never comfortable with the album.
6. Billy Eckstine – Feel Warm (1971)
Listening to ’70s efforts by vintage jazz singers can often be a disappointing experience (bad song selection, flimsy arrangements, crossover embarrassment), but this 1971 album by the master crooner himself, Billy Eckstine, manages to make it out alive and with more than just a few highlights. Featuring a fetching mix of jazz-ballad symphonics and soul-lite grooves, Feel the Warm (that’s right, not “Feel the Warmth”) finds Eckstine in good form with enough interpretive savvy to make up for any loss of power. This is especially true on the album highlight, “Make It With You,” in which he reshapes the pop hit into a hip soul-jazz swinger. And that goes for other forays into the day’s hits, including takes on the Elvis Presley favorite “Walk a Mile in My Shoes,” Stephen Stills‘ “Love the One You’re With,” and the Carpenters‘ hit “We’ve Only Just Begun.” The kitsch conversant and open-minded are cleared for entry; jazz purists and nostalgic vocal fans need not apply
5. Sam Cooke – Tribute To The Lady (1959)
An album that’s seldom been seen and disappeared almost as quickly as it was released. Sam Cooke turned these songs inside out with twisting, awesome interpretations. It was one of the few times he was able to break out of the light pop/teen idol bag in a studio and pour his heart into great lyrics and numbers.
This flawless album of jazz blues tinged standards in tribute to Billie Holiday. Virtuosic vocals and excellent vocal production and sound quality. The band too, horns etc are first rate apart form the white? backing singers. Its hard to define this sophisticated, accomplished genre that was omnipresent in the forties and fifties but extinct shortly afterwards so therefore sounds very very fresh to my Sinatra and Holiday, Jazz Swing averse ears, but hear one track and you will know exactly what genre I mean.
4. Sammy Davis Jr. – Now (1972)
The Mike Curb Congregation accompanies Davis on a song that surely will retain its historical value simply for being about the closest music has ever come to being pure excrement. Things pick up from there, but the general impression is that of an artist whose forte is the Great American Songbook being forced into something of much less value. “I Am Over 25 — But You Can Trust Me” is an example of the type of material he is faced with here, each of the songs presenting a situation where he is required to emote with great sincerity, no matter what, while gospel-tinged background singers ooh in the background. Various producers wandered in and out of the proceedings, one of them going to great trouble to arrange a full orchestra and chorus and then mixing in a badly played electric guitar that almost drowns it all out. Surprising, the best track is “MacArthur Park,” a song that rarely appears in proximity with the word “best” unless it is a list of songs disc jockeys can use when they must heed nature’s call. Perhaps it is because it is actually the best-written song of the bunch on the album, providing at least some kind of melody to work with as well as all the makings of a huge production number. Curb produced this version, actually displaying some subtlety. Shaft completists will have to have this album despite its lack of quality; the man himself, Isaac Hayes, comes in to arrange and produce a cover version of “John Shaft” that at least ends this mess on an enjoyable note.
3. Dionne Warwick – On Stage And In The Movies (1967)
Though this 1967 release devoted to show tunes seems like a radical (or conservative) turn for the great soul-pop singer, it wasn’t really that big of a departure; Dionne had tackled Broadway and Hollywood fare before. While there were no hit singles from this album, some of the songs that were featured were “Summertime“; a humorous reading of “Anything You Can Do” (alongside an uncredited Chuck Jackson); “You’ll Never Walk Alone“; “Something Wonderful“, and “Baubles, Bangles, and Beads”.
2. Sarah Vaughan – Feelin’ Good (1972)
Sarah Vaughn hit a very groovy new style on her handful of records for the Mainstream label in the early 70s – a new approach that offered her amazing voice a way to stretch out with some of the new sophistication of the time! The arrangements are still jazz, but they’ve taken a direction that other younger singers, like Nancy Wilson, were following as the decade began – maybe more adult themes in the lyrics, and a way of balancing out the larger charts without ever getting in the way of the singer – which is especially important here, in the way that the album demonstrates that phrasing that not only made Sarah so unique at the start, but which got even more amazing as the years moved on. The arrangers are a hip lot who are definitely up to the job – and include Michel Legrand, Peter Matz, and Jack Elliott – on titles that include “Run To Me”, “And The Feeling’s Good”, “Just A Little Lovin”, “Deep In The Night”, “When You Think Of It”, and a nice take on “Easy Evil”.
1. Ray Charles – Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music (1962)
A classic! What seemed a silly idea at the time was true proof of Ray’s genius, and the result was the most successful album of his career – and a bona-fide number one hit that rode the charts for years and years! Ray’s voice works perfectly with the material, and thanks to soulful arrangements by Gil Fuller, Marty Paich, and Gerald Wilson, the whole thing comes off to perfection. Titles include “You Don’t Know Me”, “I Can’t Stop Lovin You”, “Careless Love”, “You Win Again”, and “Worried Mind”.