In this week's column, I'm talking about "grown folks' music," new and reissued albums by mature artists whose musical gifts have largely been underrated. One is a legendary super freak whose music had mellowed nicely before he died; there's a silken-voiced crooner returning to R&B after a decade of singing for Christ; and a forgotten soul sista whose sound mingled the best of Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin.
Rick James, Deeper Still --At the time of his death in 2004, James had resurfaced in pop culture as a punch line on the Dave Chappelle Show. But even before that, his hedonistic sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll lifestyle, which ultimately culminated in a two-year prison sentence in 1993, had all but obliterated his musical significance. At the peak of his powers circa 1981's masterful Street Songs, James was the consummate singer-musician-producer, synthesizing elements of rock, blues and funk into a lean, singular sound. Granted, the Motown artist started to copy himself soon after the monstrous success of that album. But he still managed to make solid music when he wasn't otherwise engaged in reckless, coke-fueled shenanigans.
Deeper Still, a surprisingly cohesive collection of tracks James had been working on shortly before his death, showcases an evolved artist whose music had mellowed with smoother elements of jazz, even touches of folk. The songwriting also had become more reflective, sometimes poignantly autobiographical. Although the arrangements are at times rigidly programmed, James never lost his sense of groove. And his voice -- despite years of smoking, hard living and hard singing -- was still a strong and expressive instrument. He addresses his fabled wild lifestyle on "Do You Wanna Play" and "Taste" and poetically celebrates black women on the swaying "Sapphire." He even throws in a cover, an elegant, atmospheric rendition of David Crosby's "Guinnevere." James had planned to make Deeper Still a two-disc set, but he never got around to it. What he managed to finish, though, is a fine final testament to his superlative musical skills.
Howard Hewitt, If Only ... --The former lead singer of the hit '80s funk-pop trio Shalamar returns with his first R&B album in a decade. In that time, Hewitt has kept a low profile, singing mostly contemporary gospel fare. Last year, he tentatively ventured back to secular music, releasing Intimate, a live album and DVD of his greatest hits. If Only ... boasts all new material. And although Hewitt still sounds as good as he did in the 1980s, effortlessly gliding from a passion-drenched tenor to a floating falsetto, the ballad-heavy album is just OK.
Because there's little tempo variation and hardly any verve or imagination in the arrangements, the music quickly melts into the background. There are, however, two noteworthy tracks: "How Do I Know I Love You" is a stirring, orchestrated ballad on which Hewitt soars, and "Don't U Wonder 2" is an aching, mournful tune the Ohio crooner renders beautifully in that heart-melting voice of his.
Although it's great to have such a gifted (and woefully underrated singer) back on the scene, it would have been even more thrilling to hear his marvelous voice backed by a stronger, more colorful production. As it stands, though, If Only ... will more than likely satisfy Hewitt's old fans. Too bad the album isn't vibrant enough to net him many new ones.
Margie Joseph: self-titled, Sweet Surrender and Margie --Speaking of underrated vocalists, this Mississippi woman never got her due. In the 1970s, she recorded for Stax and Atlantic, two venerable soul music labels that released superb records on Joseph but did a shoddy job promoting them. These albums are her first three for Atlantic -- starting with her self-titled 1973 debut, Sweet Surrender in '74 and Margie in '75. They're now available as crisply remastered Japanese import CDs, packaged in miniature cardboard replicas of the original LPs. All were masterfully arranged by Arif Mardin, the legendary Turkish producer who died last summer.
At the time Mardin was working with Joseph, he already had established a stellar reputation in the business, having overseen instant classics by Aretha Franklin, Bette Midler and others. (Among his last projects were Norah Jones' first two blockbuster albums.) So it's puzzling that Joseph's records didn't make much of an impact upon release. She was a smart, distinctive vocalist whose style braided Aretha's firepower with Diana Ross' supple piquancy. As the cheesecake cover shots of Margie Joseph and Margie reveal, the sexy singer was very easy on the eyes. And the albums rippled with strong, classy material. Yet they went nowhere, later garnering an international cult following, especially in England and Japan.
Though the imports are a bit pricey (I paid about $30 for each one), they're worth the dough if you're a diehard fan of '70s soul. Of the three, Margie is perhaps the strongest, sparkling with sweepingly lush balladry ("Who Gets Your Love" and Bill Withers' "The Same Love That Made Me Laugh") and elegant funk ("Sign of the Times" and "I Can't Move No Mountains"). Joseph is still around, living quietly in the Magnolia State and independently recording gospel music, her first love. But it's about time her overlooked catalog, much of which is unavailable domestically, receives the attention it deserves.