A special report by David Nathan on the on-stage and behind-the-scenes activities at Warner Brothers’ special “California Soul” series of concerts during end of February at New York City’s Beacon Theater.
CAN YOU imagine all the hassels involved in trying to co-ordinate the activities of some 15 major soul/jazz acts, together with their accompanying – musicians, managers and assorted others all for five nights of concerts and days of interviews, radio spots and so on?
If you can conceive the organisation that was needed to bring it all together, flying the acts in from all over the country, ensuring that their itineraries coincided so that they’d be available on the days needed to perform – then you can have some idea of the enormous task that Warner Bros. decided to lay on themselves for a few hectic, crazy days!
The fourth floor of the luxurious Waldorf Astoria hotel on Park Avenue no less (!) was transformed into what looked like a political party campaign headquarters for the occasion with message boards, phones ringing constantly, a stream of people running in and out looking for whatever was missing at the time and a general hive of super activity which could send you crazy if you let it! But it was all part of the fun and Warner Bros. must be totally congratulated for the extra smooth way they handled everything that went down.
Seen constantly buzzing around, getting it all together, were the company’s excellent press staff – Bob Merlis, Liz Rosenberg, Veronica Brice, Jo Ann Bergman – the company’s head of black music, Tom Draper, and the ever lovely Benita Brazier, in charge of artist development – who had her beautiful hands more than full most of the time, trying to deal with the various major and minor crises that are bound to come up in dealing with so many people.
If it wasn’t trying to find something to eat for the hungry Impressions it was looking for Carl Hampton & Homer Banks who mysteriously disappeared when B&S needed them for an interview, or finding that Al Jarreau needed some musicians for his show! At any given time, you were likely to run into anyone – Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson who were herded from one reporter to another for no less than twelve interviews in one day, or the lovely Dionne Warwick in the elevator just checking into the hotel! Lamont Dozier, on hand for the occasion but not performing, was seen at various times in the lobby whilst George Benson took it upon himself to answer the Warner Bios. ‘hot line’ whilst sitting in the company’s suite-turned-offices on the fourth floor, commenting that he didn’t want the job of answering all the calls!
It was indeed a good deal of fun knowing that you could find yourself in the company of anyone from Mavis Staples to Leroy Hutson or Larry Graham during the course of a day and the atmosphere of good vibes prevailed throughout the whole time.
Warners had a special shuttle bus service available to all and sundry – which occasionally ran ahead of time, sometimes behind – but always got you from the theatre to the hotel or vice versa and you might find yourself travelling with the Staples’ bass player or “Chocolate” of G.C.S. or the lovely lady keyboard player for Leroy Hutson and The Impressions.
The company is to be thanked for the total co-operation they afforded your columnist throughout the trip and the parrtying which went on at someone or other’s suite after shows made up for all the crazy hectic-carrying-on during the days! Thursday night (Feb. 26) was the opener and we’re presenting below brief reviews of each of the concerts.
Ashford/Simpson steal honours
THERE WAS no question that opening night, Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson with their brand new stage presentation, choreographed by George Faison (the man behind The Wiz) literally stole the show with their dynamic singing and soulful work-out.
Being native New Yorkers, they were both naturally at home with the crowd who loved everything that the talented duo performed. Complete with three back-up singers (one of whom was Valerie’s brother, Raymond), Nick & Val went through several tunes from their new album, Come As You Are, including their single, ‘It’ll Come’, ‘Caretaker’ and ‘Somebody Told A Lie’ but the crowd really went for the medley of songs that they’ve written for others – songs such as ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’, ‘You’re All I Need To Get By’ and ‘Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing’.
In whatever they did, the couple could do no wrong – their total presentation was outstanding. Climax came with their encore on ‘Steal Away’ which really took everyone to church and the team literally blew the roof off! As a foretaste for their whole one-hour show, it was a knockout.
Preceeding Ashford & Simpson, were The Staple Singers who had requested that they open the show – a fact which displeased many of the late comers to the evening’s entertainment who had come particularly to see the group. The Staples’ approach to their stage act has changed, not markedly, but a little.
They now include a whole medley of songs from the famous Wiz, notably ‘Ease On Down The Road’ and ‘Home’ and it was inevitable that the team should include ‘Let’s Do It Again’ and ‘Funky Love’ from the soundtrack of the movie.
Throughout the performance, Mavis was to the fore vocally and on ‘I Honestly Love You’, she really tore it up – her distinctive talent marks her one of the true soul sisters of our time. When Mavis wails, the walls shake – and this occasion was no different from any other.
Previously unannounced but the gentleman who took the headline spot was George Benson. Unfortunately, the lateness of the hour meant that a lot of folk left ahead of time – your columnist included. The fact that George was also scheduled for Sunday’s jazz night must have influenced several people’s attitude in regard to this.
AND OUR headline sums up exactly what Friday night’s concert was all about. It fell upon contemporary progressive/aggressive funky-rock-oriented Graham Central Station to have everyone up out of their chairs and groovin’ along with the music. Naturally, the group got into many of their big hits, notably ‘We’ve Been Waiting For So Long’, ‘Feel The Need’, the soulful ‘Your Love’, ‘Can You Handle It’ and the freewheelin’ ‘Nothin’ But A Warner Bros. Party’ and the excitement that Larry Graham and co. induced exploded when they demanded that all and sundry release themselves!
It proved no problem and in fact the only criticism to be made was that the group did extend their performance into nearly two hours and that’s a mighty long time! But a good time was had by all and the near-capacity crowd really dug what went down. Rumours had it that Dionne Warwick was backstage really gettin’ down to the sound and the group’s infectious sound was bound to get to everyone with soul.
The ever-talented and very soulful Mr. Leroy Hutson had played several cuts from his last two Curtom albums for the crowd prior to G.C.S. and together with his nine-piece outfit, made things mellow, sweet, soulful and exciting. ‘Cool Out’, the jazz-tinged instrumental from his Hutson album, did the trick for the man but ‘Feel The Spirit’ (his latest smash) and ‘Play The Music’ got over. When Leroy tackles ballads such as his first hit, ‘So In Love With You’, he is really at his best and his whole act was well rounded and very well received.
Philly trio, The First Choice, were openers and they looked particularly smart in their white suits. An invitation to ‘Let Us Entertain You’ was well received and the girls proceeded to do just that. Their tendency to rely on other people’s current material however did prove somewhat irritating. ‘Sing A Song’, ‘Once You Hit The Road’ and ‘This Is Your Life’ (the Commodores’ hit) were fine but why didn’t we get more of ‘The Player’, ‘Newsy Neighbours’, ‘Smarty Pants’ and ‘Armed & Extremely Dangerous’ all of which were basically bunched together in a medley? A couple of cuts from their new album – notably ‘Ain’t He Bad’ – were well received and a little more original material in their act will put First Choice right up top.
Dionne gets down
SATURDAY night really belonged to all three acts on the bill – but it was Dionne Warwick with a brand new image, a brand new outlook and a lot of personality that really took the honours! Looking really trim and superfine, Ms. Warwick was intent on winning the audience from the moment she stepped on stage to the sound of ‘Get Down Tonight’ and with the vocal assist, of Cissy Houston, Darlene Love and sister Dee Dee, the sophisticated songstress was right on target.
Interspersing some fine choreography with her two male assistants at hand, Dionne showed that far from being just an ‘adults only’ entertainer, she has total appeal to all markets if she wants it – and the signs are that she’s aiming at just that, universal appeal. She certainly won everyone over with her professionalism and her positive raps in between numbers had everyone roaring approval.
Reminding all and sundry that New York City had been her starting point, the New Jersey lady got into ‘Get Down Tonight’ (she really should record it – she does a fine job on the song!), ‘Feelings’, Stevie Wonder‘s ‘Too Shy To Say’ and the mandatory Bacharach & David medley, featuring ‘Walk On By’ and ‘I Say A Little Prayer’ amongst others.
Cuts from her new album included the very beautiful ‘His House & Me’ and Dionne closed with a disco-oriented segment in which she sang ‘That’s The Way Of The World’, ‘How Sweet It Is’ and ‘Swearin’ To God’. A real professional, a stylist supreme and a soulful singer!
Prior to Ms. Warwick’s set, The Impressions had set the stage alight with their own brand of soul. Concentrating on their recent hits, the quartet harmonized totally on such tunes as ‘The Same Thing It Took’, ‘Finally Got Myself Together’, ‘Sooner Or Later’ and their latest hit, ‘Loving Power’ and it’s hard to believe that the group has been a musical institution (albeit with personnel changes) for twenty years.
Newcomers Ralph Johnson and Reggie Torian know their stuff and added to the experience and polish of Sam Cash and Fred Gooden, the team can do no wrong. Particular highlights were ‘Sunshine’ and ‘People Get Ready’, letting folk know that The Impressions are right up there with everyone else.
Stylist Al Jarreau always gets to his audience wherever he appears and it’s no surprise. The man has a totally unique sound, he knows what he’s doing and he’s excellent. Hampered hardly at all by the fact that he wasn’t playing with regular musicians, Al gave his very own versions of ‘Your Song’ and ‘Somebody’s Watching You’ together with cuts from his first Warners’ album, We Got By including the title cut and ‘Pumpkin Pie’.
A brilliant version of ‘Take Five’ was very well received as was everything the man did. In fact, the crowd was with Al every step of the way and he deserved the couple of encores he received. A true performer and a fine talent with a big future.
THUS ENDED Warners’ three nights of soul – the fourth night was reserved strictly for jazz buffs and the likes of David Newman, Alice Coltrane and George Benson appeared and won their audience over.
All in all a spectacular parade of super talent of which Warner Bros. can be justifiably proud.
© David Nathan, Blues & Soul, April 1976