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70's BLACK MUSIC - A CONSUMER GUIDE

by Robert Cristgau

Black music is subject to economic oppression just like all other aspects
of black life in America. Until the advent of disco it was a singles music --
the low median income of its consumers assured that Radio outlets responded in
kind, rarely programming album cuts, which meant in turn that producers
concentrated on 45s to bait otherwise undistinguished albums. Not that it
always worked this way -- most of the artists below did put out terrific
albums once in a while. But that's more a tribute to their overflowing talent
than anything else, and in any case greatest-hits formats are still an ideal
way to hear their music. If you can find them, that is -- the economics of
minor and major labels alike means that about half the 70's albums below are
functionally out of print. Happy binning.

JAMES BROWN: Soul Classics (Polydor '72) Brown recorded nine of these ten
cuts for King; every track is good and many -- "Sex Machine," "Papa's Got a
Brand New Bag," "I Got You" -- are great. But they're so jumbled
chronologically -- side two jumps from '71 to '65 back to '71 to '69 to '66 --
that it's a tribute to Brown's single-minded rhythmic genius that they hold
together at all. Hearing his classic '70s dance tracks in their original
three-minute formats, you begin to pine for the extended album versions --
devoid of verbal logic and often even chord changes, these patterns, for
that's what they really are, are meant to build, not resolve. And the chief
formal advantage of top-forty strictures is that they force speedy
resolutions. Time: 28:25. A-

CHIC: Les Plus Grands Succes de Chic/Chic's Greatest Hits (Atlantic '79)
Not as elegant conceptually as "Risque," but a better party record for sure --
in a music of six-minute cuts (actually, only three run over 4:42) a group
this good has no trouble putting together a quality best-of after two years
and three albums. Greil Marcus describes "The Motown Story" as "the history of
James Jamerson's bass playing, on fifty-eight hits." This is the future of
Bernard Edwards's on seven. And guess where Edwards learned his shit. A-

THE CHI-LITES: Greatest Hits (Brunswick '72) The Delfonics and the Moments
may have staked first claim on Eugene Record's love man, but Record demolishes
the competition, if such a macho concept is permissible in this context (and
it certainly is). Not only does he outwrite the other fellas, he doesn't trip
over his bass man when the tempo speeds up or make a fool of himself when
analyzing the dilemmas of contemporary civilization. The 15-song compilation
included the entire first side (plus one) of "Give More Power To The People"
and may actually be too generous -- it is possible to O.D. on this stuff. But
everything you want is right here, and what you think you don't want you
might. A

THE CHI-LITES: Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 (Brunswick '76) They're still a
better-than-average falsetto group, but their moment is past and although they
continue to handle brisk tempos more deftly than the competition, their
accommodations to disco are just that -- compromise, not expansions. Eugene
Record's lyrics offer more than the music, which he often farms out these
days: "A Letter To Myself" is classic silly self-pity, you can imagine how
"Homely Girl" turns out, and "That's How Long" (which Record didn't write) is
as graphic a song about old age as has ever made 54 in Billboard. B

TYRONE DAVIS: Tyrone Davis' Greatest Hits (Dakar '72) I wouldn't quibble
about this 16-song selection if the three-plus years it spans were long enough
for one small factory to come up with 16 go-rillas in a medium tempo, the only
one Davis knows. But though there's classic stuff here, only Davis' gamely
anachronistic soul style -- blues crooning with touches of grit, like a less
sharply defined Bobby Bland or a softer Little Milton -- provides interest
most of the time. And too often Willie Henderson's horns (not to mention his
strings) make you yawn anyway. B

EARTH, WIND & FIRE: The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1 (Columbia '78)
Despite some annoying omissions, notably "Serpentine Fire," this sums them
up -- ten exquisitely crafted pop tunes in which all the passion and resonance
of black music tradition are blended into a concoction slicker and more
sumptuous than any white couterpart since Glenn Miller. A-

FOUR TOPS: Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 (Motown '71) If Levi Stubbs is one of the
definitive soul men, as some believe, then what he defines is the pitfalls of
the style. He's a singer who's more interested in impressing the deacons (and
their wives) than feeling the spirit -- overripe, self-involved, and in the
end pretentious. And this material is far from his best -- stuck with the low-
grade rock gentility of "Walk Away Renee" and "If I Were a Carpenter" and the
sermonizing of "What Is Man" and "In These Changing Times," he's a typical
victim of Motown's decadence. Despite some good rhythm tracks -- they always
seem to get good rhythm tracks out there -- the only one of these songs you'll
remember fondly is "Just Seven Numbers," a simple-minded throwaway about
swallowing your pride and making that call. C+

ARETHA FRANKLIN: Aretha's Greatest Hits (Atlantic '71) Great stuff, but not
the greatest -- and not as consistent stylistically as 1969's Aretha's Gold,
which it duplicates on 8 out of 14 cuts. As for the latest hits, well,
Aretha's done better recently than the contrived human kindness of "Bridge
Over Troubled Water," the contrived religiosity of "Let It Be," and the
contrived black consciousness of "Spanish Harlem." B+

MARVIN GAYE: Marvin Gaye's Greatest Hits (Tamla '76) Even though it omitted
"Inner City Blues" while offering "How Sweet It Is" and "Can I Get A Witness"
(already included on three other Marvin Gaye compilations and who knows how
many Motown anthologies), I thought this might serve a function, since I find
all of Gaye's '70s albums except Let's Get It On distressingly uneven. But
"I Want You," "After The Dance" and the version of "Distant Lover" are
embarrassed by such stellar company. I guess when I want to hear "Trouble Man"
I'll put on Anthology. B-

AL GREEN: Al Green's Greatest Hits (Hi '75) Green is less open and
imaginative than Sam Cooke and less painfully word-wise than Smokey Robinson,
but he belongs in their company, that of two of the half dozen prime geniuses
of soul. His musical monomania substitutes Memphis for James Brown's Macon,
and the consistency of his albums is matched only by Otis Redding. But because
he spins his music out over an area not much larger than a hankie, the albums
also translate beautifully to a greatest hits format, and this is flawless.
For those who refuse to believe the LPs contain hidden treasure and don't care
that the singles "all sound the same." And for those, like me, who can go both
ways with him. A

AL GREEN: Al Green's Greatest Hits, Volume II (Hi '77) I welcome this proof
of the greatness of Green's lesser and later hits, but I'd prefer a more
eccentric (hence accurate) and equally impressive selection -- one that
replaced the two non-singles from "I'm Still In Love With You" (a lengthened
"Love and Happiness" and "For the Good Times," live staples that typify his
pop model) with, for instance, "There's No Way," "That's the Way It Is," and
"Love Ritual." A-

ISLEY BROTHERS: Forever Gold (T-Neck '77) Best-ofs shouldn't have A and B
sides, but that's how this one works for me -- would have been stronger if
they'd pulled something from "Go for Your Guns," still on the charts when this
was released. You want rock and roll, they'll give you rock and roll -- when
they want. You want insipid -- well, millions do, Most Wishy-Washy Title of
All Time: "(At Your Best) You Are Love." B+

JACKSON 5: Anthology (Motown '76) The only one of Motown's triple-LP
retrospectives to concentrate on (or even include much) '70s music documents
an institution in decline. Initially, the company marshalls everything it's
got for one final push -- not for nothing was the group's songwriting-
production combine called The Corporation, and it's a measure of their
seriousness that they asked the Crusaders to help with the tracks. But within
two years they'd run out of gas -- all the mini-comebacks after that, even the
dancing-machine coup, were flukes. The proof is that the old-formula filler
often surpasses the desperate imitaitons that become minor hits -- better
"E-Ne-Me-Ne-Mi-Ne-Moe" than "Skywriter" or "A Little Bit of You." The
selection includes Michael's hits, Jermaine's hit, the works, and as the other
albums disappear it will become essential in its way. But not to listen to,
much. B+

B.B. KING: The Best of B.B. King (ABC '73) King is human and then some --
never less than intelligent but often less than inspired, especially with
words. So I'm delighted at how many high points this captures -- "Caledonia"
and "Ain't Nobody Home" from "London," "Nobody Loves Me But My Mother" (marred
by unfortunate engineering tricks) from "Indianola," two classic blues, and
"The Thrill Is Gone," one of his greatest ballads. And though I still find
"Why I Sing the Blues" self-serving and "Hummingbird" silly, they sure make
classy filler. A-

GLADYS KNIGHT & THE PIPS: Greatest Hits (Soul '70) Reviving "The Nitty
Gritty" isn't a very good way of getting down there -- nothing else here
matches the shouting funk of "Grapevine" or "End of Our Road," and her
penchant for solid schmaltz obviously goes way back. But so does her genius
for it. Annoyance: the tasteful but extraneous strings on the remakes of
"Every Beat of My Heart" and "Letter Full of Tears." A-

HAROLD MELVIN & THE BLUE NOTES: Collectors' Items (Philadelphia
International '78) Harold Melvin could no more give Teddy his due than he
could sing lead himself, so he includes a Sharon Paige feature instead of
another slow, vulnerable one -- if not "To Be True" or "I'm Weak For You,"
then why not "Yesterday I Had the Blues," which was a hit? And Kenny Gamble
could no more get off his high horse than he could do the dishes, so he
includes the inevitable piece of male-chauvinism-as-moral-posture, "Be for
Real," instead of "Satisfaction Guaranteed," which was a hit. And for all that
this compilation is the best Teddy Pendergrass record you can buy. A-

OHIO PLAYERS: Greatest Hits (Westbound '75) On Mercury the Players are a
funk factory, turning out delightful but very similar hits and surrounding
them with functional filler. On Westbound they were experimentalists whether
copying Funkadelic or Cactus. Not that all experiments were interesting, much
less successful, or that a hit format displays them at their best -- I'd
welcome a second long jam in addition to the two-part "Pain." Which is one of
the three successful as opposed to interesting songs on this compilation. The
others are "Ecstasy," after the manner of George Clinton, and "Funky Women,"
impersonated by Junie Morrison. B

THE O'JAYS: Collectors Items (Philadelphia International '77) Steadfast
stylistically since "Back Stabbers" in 1972, Kenny Gamble's three-man
mouthpiece ought to make an ideal best-of -- if you dig Kenny Gamble. I regard
him as a gifted pop demagogue-black capitalist masquerading as liberator. The
oppressively patriarchichal "Family Reunion" is the lead cut, setting the tone
of a collection three of whose four sides are rendered unlistenable by
Gamble's sermonizing and/or sentimentality. What's more the O'Jays deserve
him. Eddie Levert is he mast of the soulful harangue, parading the trappings
of emotional commitment with literally incredible showbiz chutzpah. When I
happen to agree with what they're saying, or when an inoffensive lyric is
attached to one of Leon Huff's greatest hooks, I like them fine. But I
obviously can't expect Kenny to put together a compilation for me. Maybe I'll
make a tape. C+

WILSON PICKETT: The Best of Wilson Pickett, Volume II (Atlantic '71) "A Man
and A Half" is the quintessential Pickett title from this period -- he's
always striving to become more than he has any reason to expect to be. Yet for
all the overstatement of "Born To Be Wild" or "You Keep Me Hangin' On" (the
Box Tops did a better job on that one) he got there pretty often -- in
screaming tandem with Duane Allman on "Hey Jude," in voluble tandem with
Gamble-Huff on "Engine Number 9," in can-you-top-this tandem with how own
greatest hit on "I'm a Midnight Mover." And on "She's Lookin Good" he matched
the ease of "Don't Fight It," which was probably hardest of all. A

WILSON PICKETT: Wilson Pickett's Greatest Hits (Atlantic '73) Packaging the
magnificent "Best of" (still using fake stereo on 10 cuts) with a modification
of the excellent Best of Vol. II (trading "Hey Joe," "Cole, Cooke and
Redding," and "Born To Be Wild" for "Don't Knock My Love - Part I" AND "Mama
Told Me Not To Come" even up). A must-own for the benighted. A

DIANA ROSS: Diana Ross' Greatest Hits (Motown '76) I'd hoped this would
drag me kicking and giggling to rock 'n' roll perdition, just like the old
Motown best-ofs. Instead I found I had to learn to like it. Which I did,
eventually -- these are good pop tunes for the most part, and her "Ain't No
Mountain High Enough" sounds more valid now than it did when Marvin & Tammi
were fresh in my ear. But rock 'n' roll perdition is beside the point, because
this isn't rock 'n' roll. B+

DAVID RUFFIN: At His Best (Motown '78) Although some blame Ruffin's very
intermittent post-Tempts success on deliberate corporate neglect, I've never
found even his biggest solo hits all that undeniable -- ungrouped, his voice
seems overly tense whether it's grinding out grit or reaching for highs.
Corporate decay is another matter. The four Tempts songs on this compilation
aren't necessary -- Ruffin has managed to chart 10 songs in the nine years
he's been on his own -- but they certainly show up the more recent
compilations. Seems apt that the best non-Tempts cut was written by Kenny
Gamble and Leon Huff, the Berry Gordy/Holland-Dozier-Holland of the '70s. B-

SLY & THE FAMILY STONE: Greatest Hits (Epic '70) As someone who was
converted to Sly over the radio rather than at the Fillmore, I still have my
doubts about his albums -- even "Stand!" falters during "Sex Machine." But
this is among the greatest rock and roll LPs of all time. The rhythms, the
arrangements, the singing, the playing, the production, and -- can't forget
this one -- the rhythms are inspirational, good-humored, and trenchant
throughout, and on only one cut ("Fun") are the lyrics merely competent. Sly
Stone's gift for irresistible dance songs is a matter of world acclaim, but
his gift for political anthems that are uplifting but never simplistic or
sentimental is a gas. And oh yeah -- his rhythms are amazing. A+

SPINNERS: The Best of the Spinners (Atlantic '78) Good stuff -- how could
it not be? And hurray for "Sadie," which never crossed over. But they should
have included "I'm Coming Home" and the album-length "Rubberband Man," thus
giving the departed Phylyppe Win (sp?) his propers. And AM radio being what it
is, the ballads are all medium-tempo, not Henry Fambrough's natural speed --
he likes to mull things over. A-

STAPLE SINGERS: The Best of the Staples Singers (Stax '75) For most of this
decade, Roebuck Staples -- born December 12, 1915, about two weeks after Frank
Sinatra -- has been the oldest performer with direct access to the hit parade
by some 25 years, so here's your chance to mind your elders. It's Mavis's
lowdown, occasionally undefined growl that dominates, of course; you should
hear how secular she gets with an O.V. Wright blues that got buried on "The
Staple Swingers." But Pop's unassuming moralism sets the tone and his guitar
assures the flow. A-

THE STYLISTICS: The Best of the Stylistics (Avco '75) What I love about the
Stylistics is that they're so out of it. Authentic modern-day castrati, they
elevate the absurd high seriousness of the love-man mode into an asexual
spirituality that the Delfonics, say, only hinted at -- and the country-rock
harmonizers only fake and exploit. Their spirituality doesn't have much to do
with real life, but it's always liberating to encounter it on the radio. "And
now, with the flick of a switch, you can approximate this liberation in your
home." A-

DONNA SUMMER: On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes I & II (Casablanca '79)
The title tells us Summer wants to be a pop queen rather than a dance queen,
and the music tells us she's got a right: almost in a class with '60s Motown.
I mean, this woman will never complete for Lady Soul, but she enjoys singing
as much as Diana Ross ever has, and if her timbre isn't as magical as her
robust technique makes up for it. Despite the repeat of the title tune (the
first time is a dandy), the overlap with Bad Girls (another must-own), and
inevitable "MacArthur Park" (almost tolerable in this non-suite version), her
best-of proves that whatever the virtues of her disco extensions, she makes
like a rock and roller at AM size. A

THE SUPREMES: At Their Best (Motown '78) In which the great pop factory of
the '60s flounders around in the superstar '70s, incapable of fabricating hits
around the greatest of girl-group trademarks. "Stoned Love," from 1970, is the
last undeniable single Berry Gordy's depleted forces can provide their act, by
the time Smokey enters the lists in 1972 he's turned into an album artist.
"Love Train"? "You're My Driving Wheel"? Has it come to this? C+

JOHNNIE TAYLOR: Chronicle -- The Twenty Greatest Hits (Stax '77) Despite
the somewhat self-serving title -- the man did record for Stax pre-Don Davis,
and the final track has never been a single before and will never be called a
hit again -- this testifies. Only on the breakthrough "Who's Makin' Love" did
he ever cut a track to equal any of dozens by Otis or Aretha, but for a
journeyman he's a minor genius -- who knows more about fucking around than
Alfred Kinsey. A-

THE TEMPTATIONS: Greatest Hits, Volume 2 (Gordy '70) They have declined,
it's true. Though my animus against "Ball of Confusion" disappeared the moment
I heard four teen-aged girls sing it in a doorway on Avenue B. "Psychedelic
Shack" and "Don't Let the Joneses Get You Down" are worthy of the Monkees and
a couple of love songs (on the same side, I'm happy to report) are drab. But
"Cloud Nine" and "Run Away Child, Running Wild" not only work as pop protest
but bear witness to how funky these smoothies have become. And so do such
pinnacles of harmony as "I Wish It Would Rain" and "I Can't Get Next to
You." A-

BARRY WHITE: Barry White's Greatest Hits (20th Century '75) The man's
commonness is as monumental as his girth, and that's no insult -- Barry White
may not be Good Art, but neither is Mount Rushmore. It took real creative will
to shape "Reader's Digest" virtues and that face and body into a sex symbol.
On record, the symbol has weight because White manipulates studio technology
with as much originality as -- no insult once again -- Mitch Miller: the
strings-versus-rhythm dynamics, as well as his much-maligned baritone,
resonate with physical authority. It's a little early for a best-of -- he
proceeds at a rate of two hits per album. But as someone who considers his
raps entertaining one-shots and prefers his songs at top forty length, I'm
delighted anyway. And though the token rap isn't his best, it does feature his
greatest line: "I don't want to see no panties." A-

BILL WITHERS: The Best of Bill Withers (Sussex '75) Unfortunately, Withers
the Balladeer has had more hits than Withers the Rocker. But the compilation
demonstrates forcefully that both share the same convictions. And the two
cuts from "+'Justments" gain power as a result. A-

STEVIE WONDER: Stevie Wonder's Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 (Tamla '71) Most of
these songs hit the charts in a big way before Stevie turned twenty-one.
Because he's grown up fast, the love lyrics are less teen-specific than a lot
of early Smokey, say, but the music is pure puberty. Stevie's rockers are
one step ahead of themselves -- their gawky groove is so disorienting it makes
you pay attention, like a voice that's perpetually changing. The ballads
conceive coming of age more conventionally, and less felicitously. But he sure
covered Tony Bennett better than the Supremes or the Tempts could have, now
didn't he? A


- Creem, Feb. 1981.

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