Soulful stories, jazzy chords and incomparable harmonies made up the band Heatwave. A group of worldly influences marbleized with Ohio funk, this septet thrilled audiences on both sides of the Atlantic in the late 1970’s. With the release of their 1977 debut Too Hot to Handle, songs like “Boogie Nights,” “Ain’t No Half Steppin'” and “Always and Forever” put Heatwave on the map, born out of the prolific, unique song craft of keyboardist Rod Temperton, and the keening, sultry falsetto of lead singer Johnnie Wilder. The following year, they proved their power again with Central Heating, padding their catalog with more funk and more soul. Also included on that album was a song unlike any other Heatwave ever recorded.
With a damning strike of cello, “Star of a Story” already sounded nothing like what one would expect from a funk band like Heatwave. However, as it slowly transitioned into mystifying siren vocals and soft caresses of electric keyboard and acoustic guitar, one goes from being apprehensive to being spellbound. Temperton had a pension for composing song intros with classical and/or traditional jazz leanings, usually within a contemporary subtext (i.e. “Boogie Nights” started with a bebop drum chart and harp flourishes), but never before had their material sounded so ethereal. The hypnotic arrangement was made to match Temperton’s lyrics, describing a man’s longing to be subjected by an otherworldly love from his object of desire. Wilder’s vocals were hazy and adrift, as if he was standing 10 feet from the microphone. This effect, however, suited the song perfectly, especially during the chorus. Two lead vocal tracks, each with slight variations of the lyric, played simultaneously, yet intertwined one another like vines around a column:
“Hold me all through the night, (Hold me through the night,)
“Stay ‘til the day is bright, (light up my life, stay ‘til it’s bright)
“And Angel, don’t ever break the spell, (Angel be well, don’t break the spell)
“‘Cause you’re the star of a story (‘Cause you’re the star of a story)
“I’ll always tell…” (I’ll always tell…)
Although Heatwave was accustomed to recording beautiful balladry, this didn’t have the spontaneous excitement of “Always and Forever,” but rather possessed a lingering, mythical atmosphere; the equivalent of an aurora borealis hovering over Alaskan mountains, shining a blinding light to a midnight sky. “Star of a Story” was a sentiment not often associated with any group during the disco era, and proclaimed the bands limitless versatility and ability to express love on a transcendental level.
Lost in the shuffle among Central Heating hit singles like the dance anthem “The Groove Line” and the jazz/pop perfection of “Mind-Blowing Decisions,” “Star of a Story” was never released as a single. Two years following its original release, it was covered by George Benson on his Grammy winning album Give Me the Night, but perhaps its most high profile appearance came in the form of hip hop. A Tribe Called Quest sampled it for “Verse from the Abstract” on their seminal album, The Low End Theory, proving that its power can affect people in ways you’d least expect.
Anguish. Paranoia. Lust. These are the words most associated to the late Marvin Gaye’s life and music. Whether he was singing in his highest register to add a voyeuristic tone to “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” or stacking background vocals to make “I Want You” seem more haunting, Marvin’s feelings were always complex and included an underbelly of doubt and bitterness. These emotions reached its tipping point on his 1979 double album, “Here, My Dear,” an uncensored opus on his divorce from Anna Gordy. Unable to pay alimony, Marvin was ordered to give the proceeds of this album to Anna. At first he was going to do a bad record, but he was compelled to purge the layout of their failed relationship. The titles say it all: “When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You,” “Is That Enough,” “Anger,” and “You Can Leave, But It’s Going To Cost You” all radiated Marvin’s resentment, cynicism and disillusionment. Here, My Dear followed a linear path of Gaye and Gordy’s 12 year marriage from courtship to chaos. That considered, the album’s last song was not expected.
After nearly 70 minutes of jaded confession, “Falling in Love Again” was a cheerful exultation of unexpected happiness. As his marriage was crumbling, Marvin fell hard for a beautiful teenage girl named Janis Hunter. His obsession for her became the muse that inspired “Let’s Get it On.” Given his complicated relationship with Anna, Marvin was apprehensive to pursue Janis beyond lustful encounters:
“She’s pretty outside and in/She’s so wonderful, I tried not to let my heart step in/What to do, babe/What do I do when somebody real comes in/Someone you feel comes in/Now I’m falling in love again.”
Gone were the minor piano keys and foreboding bass lines. Instead, Marvin’s vocal overdubs exuded a jovial tone, calling back to the days of doo-wop harmonies when love was innocent and coveted rather than confusing and deceptive. There’s a springtime atmosphere thanks to the freewheeling sax playing throughout the track, sounding like chirping robins. The intermingling of the funky drums and wah wah guitar provides a celebratory rhythm – three cheers for love!
“Here, My Dear” would be Marvin’s worst selling album and his eventual marriage to Janis Hunter ended after two years, but the album saw Marvin Gaye utilize every aspect of his musical greatness and “Falling in Love Again” was his flag still standing amidst a barrage of rockets and bombs.
Motown Records was in the midst of artistic purgatory when Rick James arrived. Stevie Wonder’s creative zenith was behind him, Marvin Gaye’s life imitating art no longer benefited him, the funky Commodores were drowning in a whirlpool of Lionel Richie’s ballads and The Jackson Five minus four was going nowhere. Come Get It’s thinly-veiled themes of good sex, better weed and great parties gave Hitsville some much needed success and street cred. Each track were blue prints to all his hits to follow – “You & I” is a template to “High On Your Love;” “Sexy Lady” is “Come Into My Life” part one; “Dream Maker” paved the way for “Teardrops;” “Be My Lady” is the predecessor of “Big Time;” “Mary Jane” sowed the seeds for “All Night Long.” But then there’s…
With a fade-in of somber Rhodes chords and a piercing lead guitar, “Hollywood” is a brief taste of poignancy in a buffet of debauchery. It’s a tale of a young man fleeing the dismal confinements of his destitute existence in order to fulfill his dream; leaving with an empty suitcase, one pocket full of his mother’s guidance and the other with the gift of song. As Rick pleads with his mother, “Your one and only son has got to get away/before this ghetto life becomes the death of me,” it’s clear this wasn’t Al Jolson’s “California, Here I Come,” a pasty romp of fancy free dream chasing. Rick James’ “Hollywood” was an escape from bleak, deadly inner city alternatives. Sans blasting horns and aggressive guitar shredding, The Stone City Band keeps it simple here, placidly sprinkling colors as cold as the bitter winters of their native Buffalo, New York. Rick’s vocal throughout is quite epic, sustaining lengthy, soulful high notes that leave listeners emotionally drained. The Rick James who indulged in ménage-a-trios on Quaaludes with incense, wine and candles won’t be found here. For the only time on wax we hear James Ambrose Johnson, Jr., exuding unadulterated desperation.
By the end, Rick showed off some of his underappreciated arrangement prowess, kicking Stone City into a reggae vamp out as his groveling cries of “Won’t Be Long! Won’t Be Long,” get him ever closer to tinsel town. Although always an honest artist, the Punk Funk pioneer would never again craft a song with such anguish and torment. “Hollywood” remains a miraculous anomaly in the songbook of a Super Freak.