Frankie Beverly operates in the historic R&B gap between his mentor Marvin Gaye and the hip-hop producers who eagerly mined and recombined his durable grooves. Though never as successful a hit-maker as peers like the Commodores or Trammps, Beverly's band, Maze, has outlasted them all. The songs on Maze -- Classic Masters don't sound corny or retro today, just the epitome of what makes old school shows worth attending. Beverly was an anomaly in that he didn't write hit singles but put together such a strong book for Maze that the group's albums consistently went gold in the late 1970s and '80s on the strength of one of the hottest live acts on the Soul Train circuit. That makes this collection a great companion piece to what is always one of the most popular performances at the Essence Music Festival.
Beverly's gospel training informs his most uplifting material, especially his anthem to social improvement, "Workin' Together," which leads off the collection and is still a staple of the Maze act. But he's also a master of the slow groove, exemplified here on "I Want to Feel Like I'm Wanted." Though the band's personnel has changed over the years, Beverly's mellifluous vocals always keep the silky soul in sharp focus. Masters also includes fan favorites "Southern Girl," "Back in Stride," "Joy and Pain" and "Never Let You Down." The live tracks "Feel That You're Feelin'," "Running Away" and "Too Many Games" offer a preview of the Essence throwdown. -- John Swenson
Maze featuring Frankie Beverly performs at 11:50 p.m. Sunday, July 4, at the Essence Music Festival at the Louisiana Superdome.
These Songs for You, Live!
These Songs for You, Live! reminds us why Donny Hathaway is the unsung inspiration of so many latter-day gospel soul revivalists. Highlighting Hathaway's "church after dark" approach to live performance, this collection of recordings from his 1970s heyday is a hybrid of the essential Hathaway live albums Live (1972) and In Performance (1980). It also includes four previously unreleased recordings unearthed by producers David Nathan and Barry Benson.
Blessed with remarkably crisp sound quality, these tracks leave just enough audience noise for between-verse "aw yeahs" and sing-alongs to enhance the performances without overpowering them. They come from situations when Hathaway's fans were most adoring, such as a pair of 1971 dates at The Troubadour in West Hollywood that marked his first appearance in Los Angeles. During "The Ghetto," the audience yelps in appreciation for Hathaway's extended Wurlitzer solos, and he induces a powerful call-and-response chorus to close the number.
There may be a few too many overplayed covers here, but Hathaway revisits well-known hits with remarkable emotion. On Carole King's "You've Got a Friend," the audience takes the part sung by Roberta Flack on the wildly popular studio duet, while Hathaway leads, recreating the melody with intense vibrato and lingering phrases. Others are overwrought with embellishments. Hathaway takes Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On" into soul-cheese territory. The result is better when he takes liberties with his own compositions such as the jazzy "Flying Easy" and the slow-burning "Someday We'll All Be Free." Many of the performances included here are so uplifting, they make Hathaway's untimely suicide even more difficult for his fans to accept. -- Cristina Diettinger
Chickasaw Country Child
Half the time, Bobbie Gentry sang like she'd just woken up. Her husky alto, like so many other facets of her persona, seemed at odds with the country-music waters in which she tread. Heck, it didn't even have much of a vibrato; its imperfection was its charm. But as the lyrics from the title song of this greatest-hits compilation suggest, "Mama said, Lookahere, dumplin', you'll go far 'cause you got style ... Chickasaw County Child, you're gonna be somebody, someday.'"
Which is not to suggest Gentry lacked substance. Few country artists were as fearless or enigmatic as Gentry, who applied a Southern gothic tint on her work that would make Faulkner proud, while shaping her material to suit her needs. "Hurry, Tuesday Child," with its dreamy flow, cotton-soft strings and ruminative horns, could just as easily have been done by Burt Bacharach, while "Mississippi Delta" could have been made by the Stax gang on a weekend trip down to Muscle Shoals. But there's nothing like her signature hit, "Ode to Billie Joe," a song about identity and death so mysterious that it inspired a movie that tried to present a motive for Billie Joe McAllister jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge. Gentry saw the potential of marrying country with other indigenous American roots music, particularly the blues, in creating an entirely new pop sensibility. For she was a country girl, and defiantly proud of it. Listen to a Bobbie Gentry song, and you'll hear an artist who knew how to use the music to suit her prodigious storytelling skills. -- David Lee Simmmons