Rachel Sweet – Reluctant Rock Star turns 50!

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– If I never sit in another makeup chair, that will be fine with me. I was able to shut off the spotlight without a regret.”

That statement was given by Rachel Sweet to a reporter last year. OK, so at least we know that there IS a reason she’s not singing anymore, at least not on record. Of course it seems weird, wishing her a very happy 50th birthday, because in my mind she still is the sultry, young rock siren with that awesome voice! Rachel Sweet could sound like a young girl one moment, then she would open up and out came the most outstanding cascade of a voice. No one ever sounded even faintly like her, her voice is totally unique in rock history.  And it’s all the more tragic that she gave up her career, because the Sweet voice is a once-in-a-lifetime sensation, and the likes of which we will never hear again. 

Rachel Sweet made her last album 30 years ago, after having already spent close to 15 years in show business! Alas, she started out very young, had a fabulous recording career while in her late teens – and besides making a couple of movie soundtrack appearances, she’s not done any solo records since 1982. Rachel Sweet’s recording career limits itself to the 4 solo albums she made during 1978-1982, and some single releases. I will now give you a closer peek into those four fabulous albums, which are all in my collection and something that I treasure until the end of time!

Rachel always straddled the line between cute & cuddly and young & determined. High heels and a toy dog perfectly captures her image around 1981

Born July 28, 1962 in Akron, Ohio – Rachel was gifted with a strong singing voice from an early age. She won her first talent competition at the age of 3. She did commercials at the age of 6, then went on tour with Mickey Rooney. At age 12 she was the opening act for Bill Cosby in Las Vegas, and at age 13 she made her first singles, “Any port in a storm” (1976), “Paper airplane” (1977) and “The ballad of Mable Ruth Miller and John Wesley Pritchett” (1978). That’s quite a resume for a young girl!

Then, at age 15, she was signed to the Stiff label, and made her first album “Fool Around” (1978). Stiff was a British new wave label, and signed up a lot of exciting new talents at that time. Rachel was one of the more commercially accessible singers on Stiff, and could easily be regarded as “first lady” on the label, as Lene Lovich was maybe too strange and quirky to appeal to everybody, and later Tracy Ullman made a couple of albums for the label, basically consisting of 60’s cover songs.

“Fool Around”, her 1978 debut album

To say that “Fool Around” is a masterpiece is an understatement! Opening the show with her remake of Carla Thomas’ old hit “B.A.B.Y” she grabs your attention right away! To dare take on one of Miss Thomas’ classic hits takes some audacity, but Rachel gets away with it with honors! The combined impact of the cute little girl on the cover, and the full-bodied luscious vocals is really something. By this time of course, Rachel had already been in showbiz for 10 years, and her voice is confident, strong, spot on and she sounds like an experienced woman years older than her actual 15! Stand-out tracks from this album: “Who does Lisa like”, “Pin a medal on Mary”, “Stay Awhile”, “Suspended animation” and “Wildwood Saloon”. The album has been re-released on CD and is available as a digital download from the iTunes store. It’s a classic – and every musical home should have one!

“Protect The Innocent” (1980). I’m not too sure about Rachel’s type of protection, but the album is great!

The follow-up album for Stiff, “Protect The Innocent” came out 1980. Not falling into the sophomore-trap, this album is also very good and is proof positive that Rachel Sweet indeed deserves her place as one of the great rock goddesses of the 21st century. She pulls of a great cover of Elvis’ “Baby, let’s play house”, and other personal favourites of mine are “”Spellbound”, “New rose”, “Tonight” and “Lovers lane”. The cover photo took advantage of her Lolita-image, young & cute but wise beyond her years – maybe she would offer you protection, but even if it might be uncomfortable for you, she would no doubt enjoy it!

After this album, she switched labels, and thus getting into the line of female singers who all made 2 albums each for Stiff Records; Lene Lovich, Tracy Ullman, Kirsty Mac Coll.

“..and Then He Kissed Me” (1981) – one of the best albums ever made!!

Now signed to CBS, 1981 saw the release of her third album, “…and Then He Kissed Me”. A more commercial sound appeared on this record, including her Top 40 duet with Rex Smith “Everlasting Love”. Three songs were her own compositions, “Billy & The Gun”, “Streetheart” and “Party Girl”. She melted two of Phil Spector’s classic girl group hits together in a stunning medley, “Then he kissed me/Be my baby” (done originally by the Crystals and The Ronettes), and this was also made into a music video. This video was my first glimpse of Rachel Sweet, and I will never forget the impact of seeing her on TV doing this medley! Her voice, appearance and the fabulous arrangement of the medley sure made me sit up and take notice! I also rushed out to the record store the next day and bought this album!

A perfect example of the great voice of Rachel Sweet is evident in the opening track, “Shadows of the night”. Starting out slow, just backed by big piano chords, she starts out subdued, singing sweetly with a slight sob in her voice. The the drums, guitars and bass kick in, and she opens up vocally, raising her voice a full octave and smashes into the chorus of the song like a laser beam, ooh wow!! The album also shows that Rachel had learned the fine art of moderation; she’s not full throated at all times, but leaves no doubt that at any time she will raise her voice and flood your ears with big vocals. “Streetheart” is a great example, Rachel does the verses in a low voice, with overlaps – then goes for a full impact in the chorus. “Party Girl” is stylistically a look back at the 60’s girl group sound but with a rock edge to it. It’s the song you thought Phil Spector wrote, but no – it’s her own composition! Duetting with a big voiced guy like Rex Smith might be anyone’s challenge, but Rachel proves herself to be a complete equal in the hit duet, and it’s maybe today her best known recording.

“Blame It On Love” (1982). Sadly, this was Rachel Sweet’s last solo album….

The following year, “Blame It On Love” came out, and it’s the last original album she’s made (so far… – one can always hope!). Stuffed with rock and powerful pop songs, this is another classic! The title track is another one of her own compositions, and a great rock song! She had minor hits with “Voo Doo” and “American Girl”, which are great, and so is “Sticks & Stones”. With little promotion and the singer herself setting her mind on other things, this marked the end of her career….

Personally, I find it very sad that a singer of such talent voluntarily chooses to give up her career. But of course you have to respect their decision. At 20 years of age, she’d been a professional for 15 years, which in itself is historic! Rachel then did some acting; she does a nice role in the movie “Sing”, starring Patti LaBelle as a voice teacher! She also got back into college, and earned her degree in French and English literature in 1986. Two years after that, she contributed two songs to the soundtrack of John Waters cult movie “Cry Baby”, starring Johnny Depp – the last time ever the wonderful voice of Sweet was put on record!

1989 saw her starring in “The Sweet Life” on the Comedy Channel, and in 1992 she did a guest spot on “Seinfeld”, playing the part of George Costanza’s cousin. Then she made a new career for herself, as a writer and producer of comedies. Her credits includes “Dharma & Greg” and “Sports Night” among others. Most recently she’s working on a series called “Hot In Cleveland” starring Valerie Bertinelli.

Rachel Sweet is married to producer/writer Tom Palmer (“Mad Men”) and she has two kids who are now 12 and 9 years old. So, she’s still in show business, but in other fields than singing….

Rachel Sweet (left), the writer/producer at work on the set of “Hot In Cleveland” (2011)

No doubt a woman of many talents, my fondest memories of Rachel Sweet is still her music – and I’m left with four fabulous albums and a craving to have more….

On this day, her 50th birthday – I will play her records and fondly remember once more how that gorgeous voice has been giving me goosebumps for more than 30 years!

I am sure fans of her music all over the globe will join me in congratulating her on this day, and I hope she reads my humble tribute to her fantastic voice and great music. She will forever be unique!

Coming up next – A tribute to Rachel Sweet!

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Why a tribute to Rachel Sweet…? Several reasons for that actually; She was one of the top singers in the late 70´s and early 80´s. She started out very young, and also ended her singing career very young. The main reason for doing a tribute is, that besides being one of my favourite singers, she also turns 50 this week.

She made 4 fabulous albums between 1978 and 1982, and even though not yet 20 at the time, she gave up her recording career completely in 1982, making just a few soundtrack contributions in the last 30 years.

If ever a singer truly deserved the label “the little girl with the big voice”, Rachel is your candidate.

So, in a couple of days, I will give you an in-depth look at her career and those four fabulous albums… Check back in here in a short time!

Millie Jackson – A very bold soul sister

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Millie Jackson turned 68 years old last week, and for the last 43 of those 68 years, she has been one of the most outspoken of her generation of soul singers. Where the others merely hinted, Millie aimed straight for the target. Never beating around the bush, she was a no-nonsense kind of singer from the start, and some of her earliest records also deals with social matters – she’s not all about sex and relationships gone wrong! Never polished but always honest, she was hard to ignore even from the very beginning. While Dionne Warwick was swathed in Burt Bacharach’s arrangements and coyingly asking for the way to San Jose, Millie was roaming the streets and the alleyways, looking for her lost man to come home. Betty Wright wanted some of her man’s “Ooo La La” (figure it out!), while Millie just wanted food for her kids and was desperately searching for a way to keep off welfare! Her man was up to no good, so she decided to “try it one time” also, even if it meant stealing another woman’s guy. Millie did whatever it took to make any situation better for herself. And on record it all turned into a lot of great music!

A young Millie Jackson in the early 1970’s

Her first time in a recording studio produced two single sides on MGM that were released in 1969; “A little bit of something” and “My heart took a licking (But kept on ticking)” – none of which was successful. Another 2 years passed before she was offered a contract with Spring records, and then started the truly golden decade of Millie Jackson, as all of her best albums were made for this label into the early 1980’s.

Her first three albums 1972-74 projects Millie as a deepvoiced soul singer, singing a lot about love, but also sees her in the role of social commentator. Hit songs like “My man, a sweet man” and “Ask me what you want” are both good pop/soul tracks, but it’s on songs like “A child of God (It’s hard to believe)” and “I cry” from her first and second albums respectively, that she really shines! Singing about two-faced hypocrites and socio-ecological problems, Millie placed herself in a new position; the urban, black woman seeing the need for a change, desperate with her own situation and wanting equality and better circumstances for herself and those around her. No other black singer had even remotely approached this theme in the way Millie did, and she makes it all believable with her soulful, sometimes hoarse vocals. Millie might look glamorous on the record covers, but the music was anything but!

The title track from her second album “It Hurts So Good” reached number 3 on the charts, and was featured in the movie “Cleopatra Jones”. Here, for the first time, Millie gets into the sexual stuff that she’s so famous for. Only this time around, she seems to put up with absolutely anything, whatever “he” does is fine by her – she loves the way “it hurts so good”. Later on, Millie would take the complete opposite role, she wouldn’t take no gruff from no man, being utterly in control in any situation involving a man, and calling the cards at all times. She’d take her man by the collar and shake him, and if he had a wife or girlfriend, Millie would deal with her along the way as well – to make sure she’d get him to do whatever needed to be done!

Tama Dobson looks awesome as Cleopatra J, but so was Millie’s 2 songs on the 1974 soundtrack, “It Hurts So Good” and “Love Doctor”!

1975 was the year that Millie really came into her own, and made the first of her truly classic albums, “Caught Up”. Topped by the hit single “If loving you is wrong”, this album marks the first time Millie did one of her famous raps. A rap in Millie’s world is a long spoken passage, that weaves the songs together, and fills out whatever story the song might be telling. So Millie is not a rapper, as we know them today, but no doubt Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, Shawnna and Trina were all influenced by Millie’s way with words! Other notable tracks from “Caught Up”: the stunning “It’s all over but the shouting” and her version of Bobby Goldsboro’s “Summer (The First Time)”. This last song was also done quite raucously by Bette Midler some years later – and both versions are far removed from Bobby’s way of doing the song! She quickly followed with a sequel to the album, called “Still Caught Up”. It includes her fabulous take on Tom Jans’ “Loving Arms” and basically deals with love problems and love triangles much in the same way.

Stuck in the cobweb; Millie’s 1975 albums “Caught Up” & “Still Caught Up” was also released as a 2on1 CD…

After these two albums, she tried out different things on her next 2 albums; “Free & In Love” (1976) contains “A house for sale”, one of her best songs ever, as well as a very good cover of Bad Company’s “Bad risk” and her take on “Feel like makin’ love”. Next year’s “Feelin’ Bitchy” found Millie doing a country-influenced “If you’re not back in love by Monday”, an extended 10-minute “All the way lover” and a cover of the recent hit song by long forgotten girl group Hot’s “Angel in your arms”.

The studio recordings of some of her eternal concert favourites appeared on 1978’s “Get It Outcha System”: “Keep the home fires burning”, “Logs & Thangs”, “Put something down on it” (often performed as a long medley in concerts), as well as another cover, Dolly Parton’s recent hit “Here you come again” (also covered by Patti LaBelle three years later).

The proper attire for getting things outcha system!

1979 was a very productive year for Millie; the studio album “A Moment’s Pleasure” came out, quickly followed by the double disc “Live & Uncensored”. The studio album contain a great version of Exile’s recent no. 1 hit “Kiss you all over”, and another cover in Boney M’s “Never change lovers in the middle of the night”. The live album finds Miss J doing a lot her hits, while also putting her personal stamp on other people’s hit of the day like “Hold the line”, “Just when I needed you most”, “Da ya think I’m sexy”. Added to all this the quite infamous “classical” piece “Phuck U Symphony” which is just hilarious! On top of this she made a duet album with Isaac Hayes, “Royal Rappin’s”. Teaming them might seem like a natural thing, but unfortunately the album doesn’t show the best of neither one of them….

The first half of the 1980’s saw Millie release no less than 6 albums in three years. She kept up her combination of long rap passages with soulful ballads on both “For Men Only” (1980) and “I Had To Say It” (1981). She did more country tinged material on the obviously titled “Just A Lil’ Bit of Country” (1982), and the same year another live disc came out, this time (appropriately) titled “Live & Outrageous”. “Hard Times” followed in 1983, with Millie doing a not-so-subtle “Mess on your hands/Shit on your fingers” medley! Her last album for Spring was “E.S.P.” which in Millie’s universe has nothing to do with extrasensory perception, but rather Extra Sexual Persuasion! Equipped with a crystal ball on the cover, strategically placed to magnify her ample cleavage! “E.S.P.” does contain great music though, with the ballad “Feel like walkin’ in the rain” being a highlight.

Clairvoyance & cleavage! Beware the fortune teller – this gal ain’t interested in your future!

Signing with the Jive label, Millie’s 1986 album “An Imitation of Love” saw her dressed in a blue and white suit, looking as she came straight from an office job. It produced two big hit singles, “Hot! Wild! Unrestricted! Crazy Love” and “Love’s a dangerous game” in addition to maybe the best song she ever recorded, “Mind over matter”. This song is a dance track with great lyrics, and it perfectly melts together text, voice, singer and image into a masterpiece! With her tongue firmly placed in her cheek, she declares” “You call me dirty, I say I’m not too clean/I’m not a nymphomaniac – just a bad sex machine/It’s mind over matter….”

Also for Jive, she made the rather overlooked “The Tide Is Turning” (1988), and then in 1989 she made an album that certainly wasn’t overlooked – “Back To The Sh*#t!” – an all-time contestant for worst record cover ever! Millie went way out on this one, and I never understood why she allowed the cover to be made. Sitting on the toilet, with her undies around her ankles – and an expression on her face that signals severe pain (maybe she’s gassy?) – it’s just plain bad! The cover got so much attention that nobody paid any mind to the music inside, which contains a great version of “Will you love me tomorrow”… Another not-too-smart career move was done the next year, when she made the duet “Act of War” with Elton John. It’s the most mismatched duet ever, on a noisy over-arranged song that wipes out any trace of their personal styles, and is something that might have been a good idea at the start, but turned out to be best forgotten! (Shezwae Powell also made a record called “Act of War” that same year, but this is not the same song)

The decade 1991-2001 produced albums “Young Man, Older Woman” and a cast album with the same music after Millie had turned it into a show starring herself. Then there was “It’s Over” (1995) and its sequel “The Sequel; It ain’t over” (1997). In between these there was a rather straight album called “Rock ‘N’ Soul” (1994) which is exactly what the title indicates. Her last album, called “Not For Church Folks”, came out 2001 and the title is good advice, as Millie proves once again that she’s not holding back anything.

A fairly recent photo of Millie Jackson

Millie Jackson had her own radio show in Dallas, Texas for thirteen years, up to January 2012. A documentary about this legendary singer, called  “Unsung – The Story of Mildred “Millie” Jackson” was aired on the TV One Network in February 2012.

There isn’t much that’s left unsung by Miss Jackson, she took it all in stride and her records show that she dared where others feared to tread. She might not have collected a lot of Grammies, and never was a regular at the top of the charts. But still she has left behind a legacy of music that stands out above the rest – and that’s what makes Millie Jackson unique!

Coming soon – A Profile on Millie Jackson!

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Tomorrow the saucy Miss Jackson celebrates her birthday, and will find herself 68 years young! I thought it was a great opportunity to write a profile about her music. Millie’s been in the recording business since 1969 when she released her first single.

I will concentrate on Millie Jackson the Soul Singer, and focus on the many great records she’s made since she started out more than 40 years ago…

Millie as a singer seems to have been obscured by a lot of other facts; her dirty raps, her sometimes tasteless record covers and that she’s a “let-it-all-out and tell-it-like-it-is” kind of singer, especially in front of an audience. Check out her live recording of “Phuck U Symphony” for a taste of her sexual bluntness and salty humour.

A lot of Millie’s songs deal with men, and relationships…. She seems to have fun with some of them on this 1980 record cover!

 

All of her close to 30 albums contain proof of the style she’s most famous for; the urban soul woman caught up in some kind of love affair, love triangle or looking at love from another perspective. Her strong, deep – and sometimes gruff – voice is an awesome instrument, and she more than holds her own against other soul singers of the 70’s and 80’s.

Millie made soul records, dance music, comedy albums and even a little bit of country, and adapted each and every style to suit the message she was bringing across.

Stay with me – a deep look into Millie Jackson’s recording career to follow shortly!

Our saucy, sexy Soul Sister pictured ca. 2005

 

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