Soul Ballads is this writer’s favorite David Clayton-Thomas recording to date, a seasoned performer tenderly caressing the songs that helped shape his style and approach.
Opening with Midnight Train to Georgia, when you hear “L.A.” those two letters sound exactly like the voice of Kenny Rogers, then dipping back to traditional DC-T. However the song cries out for some Pips, backing vocalists to embrace the singer’s approach from a male’s point of view, the girl he loves abandoning her dreams to be a star -and her car – and coming home.
Producer Lou Pomanti – 80’s keyboardist for Blood, Sweat and Tears, builds the drama around his friend’s authoritative vocal, but the Gladys Knight rendition of the Jim Weatherly song is so entrenched in the minds of fans, we need to hear those voicings in response!
Taking on Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” treads on sacred ground, and Clayton-Thomas does a fine job of reworking the material to bring it to a new generation. Heck, when Rod Stewart gave us his superb “Twisting The Night Away” it was only a decade or so after the Cooke hit, yet back then it seemed like a millennium. Nowadays, with more than five decades having passed and new generations listening to their parents’ and grandparents’ music, these striking melodies live again in this responsible – and devoted – embrace of the infinitely compelling composition. Thematically its very much like Laura Nyro’s “And When I Die,” so perhaps the singer is giving his audience a different spin on borderline existentialism.
The exclamation point is prooducer/arranger Pomanti bringing his swirling keyboards into the album mix, with crystal clear engineering from Jeff Wolpert, recordings tracked at Kick Audio and Desert Fish, Inc. in Toronto, Canada. On the remake of Curtis Mayfield and the Impression’s “People Get Ready” we do get the stirring gospel backing vocals, the feeling straight out of “God Bless the Child” which, of course, David Clayton-Thomas performed without backing support on the 2nd B S & T disc.
“If You Don’t Know Me By Now’ is just perfect for this singer, he gives a reading alongside the strong accompaniment – which sounds like his own voice with others – Rique Franks, Karen LeBlanc and Gavin Hope. On an album where every track is a delight, it is a highlight.
So is Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny” as performed here. It’s superb, a dangling piano arrangement with deep strings, what Sinatra may have wanted to do as a second version after his own tremendous take on the classic along with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. The musicianship is introspective, pairing the songs jazz leanings (it was actually hijacked – in a good way – by the jazz community, the song launching from the pop, country and r & b genres) with its other life as a standard, balancing a nouveau middle-of-the-road with the exquisite production work. The gorgeous strings on this “Sunny” somewhat reflect Nelson Riddle’s work with Johnny Mathis – the I’ll Buy You a Star album- and Linda Ronstadt, so don’t expect the loud brass of Blood, Sweat and Tears to launch out from the speakers. David tilts towards that with “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” again dipping into Kenny Rogers’ bag more than what we’ve heard from Clayton-Thomas over his own numerous albums.
“Dock of the Bay” makes it an Otis Redding two-fer, and it is an interesting juxtaposition as we get two different perspectives on Redding compositions. “Dock of the Bay” marches along very nicely, less a ballad on Soul Ballads and more dance/pop, though a lively-to-slow dance. “When Something Is Wrong with My Baby” and the aforementioned “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” are both tour-de-force here, the singer matching the piano with vocal elements that take the performance to another level. A standout. And then there’s the take on one of the all-time great pop/country tunes, Ray Charles’ chestnut from writers Cindy Walker and Eddy Arnold – “You Don’t Know Me.” The Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music evolve into three minutes and twenty-one seconds of jazz/pop, no swelling voices behind the singer, and that works to Soul Ballads’ advantage. What this group of talents does with Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold On Me” is almost Modern Sounds in Rhythm and Blues Music, a panther-like walk through the Miracles’ classic, almost in the same style as the version of “Dock of the Bay” here but swerving into its own unique form.
It’s a terrific outing from the veteran whose voice is on albums and cds in millions and millions of homes. 12 tracks over forty-six minutes and all in the pocket, respectful arrangements of classic music, holding up to repeated spins.
Joe Viglione is the Chief Film Critic at TMRZoo.com. He has written thousands of reviews and biographies for AllMovie.com, Allmusic.com, Gatehouse Media, Al Aronowitz’s The Blacklisted Journal, and a variety of other media outlets. Joe also produces and hosts Visual Radio, a seventeen year old variety show on cable TV which has interviewed Jodie Foster, director/screenwriter David Koepp, Michael Moore, John Cena, comics/actors Margaret Cho, Gilbert Gottfried, Gallagher, musicians Mark Farner and Don Brewer of Grand Funk Railroad, Ian Hunter of Mott The Hoople, Ray Manzarek, John Densmore, Felix Cavaliere of The Rascals, political commentator Bill Press and hundreds of other personalities.