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A Soulful Tale Of Two Cities

US Renaissance Records, 2006
Disc 1:
Philly Does Motown: 1) Higher Ground 2) Ain't Nothingf Like The Real Thing 3) Ain't That Peculiar 4) Dancing In The Street 5) Knocks Me Off My Feet 6) Fire And Desire 7) The Girl's Alright With Me 8) Just My Imagination 9) Isn't She Lovely 10) Ooh Baby Baby 11) My Cherie Amour 12) My Baby Loves Me 13) Baby, Baby I Need You 14) Just Ask The Lonely 15) Got To Give It Up

Disc 2:
Motown Does Philly: 1) Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now 2) Betcha By Golly Wow 3) Me And Mrs Jones 4) One Of A Kind Love Affair 5) Didn't I Blow Your Mind This Time 6) Love Won't Let Me Wait 7) Love Train 8) When Will I See You Again 9) Close The Door 10) For The Love Of Money 11) Expressway To Your Heart 12) Sunshine 13) TSOP(&D) 14) Sadie 15) When The World Is A Peace

I had wind of this project back last summer and was very, very intrigued by it. I did not know that this was to be a tribute album from Philly to Motown and Vice-versa. All I knew was that Phil Hurtt was amassing a mighty amount of talent for an amazing project. That was enough for me. Well, here it is. Some may dismiss this as “Shanachie-style thinking” but please don't imagine for a minute that is anything so mundane. This is a historical recording, no more, no less. Hurtt maintains that the inspiration for this was divine. I won't dispute that, nor will I deny that amassing such talents together as Jean Carne, Bunny Sigler, Kathy Sledge, Phil Hurtt, Ted Mills, Major Harris, Jimmy Ellis, Will Hart, Russell Thompkins Jr, Ali “Ollie” Woodson, Freda Payne, Lamont Dozier, The Velvelettes, Carolyn Crawford, George Clinton, Bobby Taylor and Kim Weston to record as notthing short of heavenly. It is immensely gratifying to hear these great, great artists sounding as good in 2007 as they did in the 60s and 70s. What's more magical is the fact that the surviving members of MFSB and The Funk Brothers wade in to lend musical support. You cannot beat real instruments being played by real musicians.

Disc One is where “Philly does Motown. There are a number of really, truly classy moments here but what does detract a shade is that there are no strings. If only Paul Riser or Larry Gold were on hand to bolster proceedings, then this would have been taken to a much higher plane. Bunny Sigler's version of “Ain't Nothin' Like The Real Thing” is magical. The man is in his sixties but his voice has not aged one iota. This is almost gospel-like, and this splendidly matches the reverential tone that the track has. When Bunny sings, like Meli'sa Morgan recently, you know that this is a person who knows what he's singing is true, and in this soulless age carries more clout. Many cover versions are just words set to music. Bunny's soul-wrenching rendition tears up the song into his own image. If this song isn't heavenly and devine then I really don't know what is. The real Philly flavour hits us hard with the beautiful rendition of Stevie Wonder's “Knocks Me Off My Feet”. Russell Thompkins Jr sings this in a lower, more natural register and allows his baritone free reign near the end of the track. The Philly guitar that merrily strums along does the version justice.

Bunny Sigler joins forces with Jean Carne for the Rick James / Teena Marie collaboration “Fire And Desire”. Again, these two giants re-weave the song with their own unique thread, yet managing to stay faithfulo to the original arrangement. In all seriousness, Rick James could have written this with Bunny Sigler in mind. Bunny does an amazing job on here. This sensitive, sympathetic version can do nothing but win applause. I had wondered what had happened to Ted Mills since the fragmentation of Blue Magic, but my answer that here he was laying down a truly magnificent version of the classic Norman Whitfield song “Just My Imagination”. The musical arrangement is sympathetic yet allows Ted to improvise his soaring falsetto in a way that wasn't afforded when Eddie Kendricks worked his own magic with it. We get a real taste of Philly with Will Hart on “Just Ask The Lonely”. All we are missing are the soaring strings. Will still sounds fresh, and I feel that this style suits him a lot better than the recent material he did with The Delfonics for Volt.

Ali “Ollie” Woodson will always be a favourite of mine, and since he left the Temptations I have yeasrned for more material from the man. Just one solo CD and a few guest spots here and there just ain't good enough! His interpretations of “Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now” and “For The Love Of Money” are bouyant and jaunty and one can tell that the man is having a ball. Check the funky guitar on the latter! Bobby Eli having a hand in there I have no doubt! Freda Payne sounds great on the cover of “Betcha By Golly Wow” and sounds very similar to the late, great Phyllis Hyman when she lets herslf go. The backing singers are magnificent – and considering they are made up by Pree, Carolyn Crawford, Gabrielle Hurtt and Pat Lewis I should not have been surprised. The Spinners' “One Of A Kind Love Affair” is given a great reading from The Velvelettes and has a great sound that is what they deem “PhilaTroit” - somewhere between Philly and Motown. Production comes from the legendary Clay McMurray, Bunny Sigler, Bobby Eli and Phil Hurtt. Add the musicians Bob Babbitt on bass, Uriel Jones and Spider Webb on drums, Robert Jones on keys and Treaty Womack on congas its not surprising we have such an eclectic fusion.

One of the real surprises for me was to hear George Clinton singing “Love Won't Let Me Wait”. His voice may be a little more fragile now but the frailty may be more by design than anything else in keeping with the beautiful lush arrangement. This is a far cry from his work with Parliament! Theo Primas is the guest Saxophonist, and he really makes a great track rather greater for his presence. He really is enjoying himself on the cover of the 1966 hit “Expressway To Your Heart”. This colourful character was a good choice to cover this song. Having heard what a wild bunch the Soul Survivors were in the studio it was a great choice! With the racy, happy “Love Train” Bobby Taylor still has the magic, and Messrs Sigler and Hurtt are dead ringers for the O'Jays! My love and admiration towards Lamont Dozier knows no boundaries and his cut of Teddy P's “Close The Door” is SUPERB. This is a song that makes the whole 2-CD set worth the $29.99 price tag on CD Baby alone. The genius sounds as great now as ever. Its so warming to hear so many legends sounding artistically undiminished today.

As I said, this is recorded history. Especially since I learned that this is the final work of   Joe Hunter, an original member of the Funk Brothers.  He passed away last friday, and as far as I know this is the last project he worked on.  You can hear him on the Motown disc, especially on the intro to George Clinton's  "love won't let me wait". This is an unique project and I am so pleased that so many legends were able to come together to do this. My only gripes are that I wish that strings had been available, and that we had more definitive Philly and Motown sounds. But who am I to judge those who were the pioneers of the genres?! Essential.
-Barry Towler

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