Sheena Easton – The great Scot!

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Flashback to late 1980: two young boys of 14 from the suburb of Haugerud, Oslo are about to enter the Grand Hotel in downtown Oslo. They are on an assignment for their school paper, to do an interview with a new singer who’s just released her first single. We are guided into a smaller room, and in there is a beautiful young woman of about 20, obviously tired from travelling and promotion gigs, but none the less cordial and smiling while sipping on a glass of mineral water… The first thing we notice is that her English accent is different from the kind of English we’ve learned in school – but then we remember that she is Scottish. We ask her all the questions we had prepared, and one of them concerns what she will be doing next. Her reply to that is that she is preparing her first album, and that there had been some talk about recording the theme song for a movie…. When we finish, she gives us a hug and wishes us both good luck with our school paper. Oh my God! At age 14,  I’ve just been hugged by Sheena Easton!

On that day, more than 33 years ago, neither she nor I could have known what direction her career would take. Miss Easton probably might not even remember this “interview” (but I certainly do!). She was a newcomer with a bright musical future predicted, and boy did she fulfill those expectations! In a matter of weeks after our meeting, Sheena’s debut album came out and she went from promising newcomer to full-fledged pop star in a very short time. In the last 15 years, Sheena has been out of the spotlight (at least in Europe), so this is a reminder of a spectacular recording career that produced an awesome amount of great music.

Sheena Easton around the time when I first met her..

Sheena Easton around the time when I first met her..

Chronologically, Sheena’s recorded output spans exactly 20 years; her first single came out 1980, and her (so far) last album came out in 2000. In that time span, she made 15 studio albums, had numerous hits, she received a total of seven Grammy Award nominations (winning two of them). She is also the only artist ever to have Top 5 hits on each of  Billboards key charts : “Morning Train” (Pop, Adult Contemporary), her duet with Kenny Rogers, “We’ve Got Tonight” (Country),”Telephone (Long Distance Love Affair)”  (Dance), and “Sugar Walls” (R&B). And she also joined that exclusive bunch of singers who have performed the title song to one of the James Bond movies, Sheena’s contribution being, of course “For Your Eyes Only” (1981). Her international break-through single, “Morning Train (9 To 5)” reached number 1 in the US, and thus making Sheena the fifth British female singer to achieve that feat. She was preceded by Vera Lynn (“Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart”, 1952), Petula Clark (“Downtown”, 1965/”My Love”, 1966), Lulu (“To Sir With Love”, 1967) and Kiki Dee (“Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”, 1975 – in a duet with Elton John) Sheena was born on April 27th 1959, in the Scottish town Belshill, where she grew up as the youngest of six children. She was a student at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (situated in Glasgow) 1975-79. In 1979 she married, and thus got the surname Easton. She was also chosen to star in the TV show “The Big Time” – having a camera team following here around for a year as she was trying to get herself into the music business….  Her first single, “Modern Girl” was released to coincide with the TV show.

Sheena's 1980 debut single

Sheena’s 1980 debut single

While singles like “Modern Girl” and “One Man Woman” didn’t exactly burn up the charts, the next one did; “Morning Train” was the song that launched Sheena’s career. It was a huge hit all over the world, and even made it to number 1 in the US. Her first album, “Take My Time” followed – and it was a nice mix of lovely ballads and up-tempo pop songs. Sheena then recorded her James Bond theme song, “For Your Eyes Only” – and she was visible in the movie’s opening sequence, singing the song while the credits were rolling.

The very first Sheena Easton album (1981)

The very first Sheena Easton album (1981)

Off to a flying start indeed, Sheena and her producers quickly put out another album, “You Could Have Been With Me” (1981). Containing the same mix of ballads and uptempo songs as her debut, but showing signs of her development into an even better singer (although, what was there to begin with was pretty awesome too!). Hits from the album was “A Little Tenderness”, the lovely title track – featuring a stunning vocal performance, and the great dance track “Just Another Broken Heart”. Along the way, “For Your Eyes Only” was nominated for the Academy Award for best original movie song, and Sheena performed it during the Oscar ceremony. She also won the 1981 Grammy for Best New Artist. Her third album “Madness, Money & Music” gave her more hits in the form of “Are You Man Enough”, “Ice Out In The Rain” and “Machinery”. On this album, she also sang the (now) semi-standard “Wind Beneath My Wings”, that later was a big Bette Midler hit, while also being recorded very well by Gladys Knight, Gary Morris and Freda Payne. Another stand-out performance on this record is “I Wouldn’t Beg For Water” – one of her best songs ever! So, how can one describe the Easton voice…? Sheena has a crystal clear, very pure voice, that is capable of great vocal flexibility. She can reach some very high notes, and when she does – she never screams or yells, instead it seems like she makes her voice swell, adding power. She can also lower her voice down to a throaty, sexy whisper – and she can scale up or down from one to the other in matter of nanoseconds. Talented enough to put her gorgeous vocals to great use on everything from country ballads, big band jazz and electronic disco; Her 15 studio albums form a musical documentation of a one-of-a-kind singer with a great voice that never sounds, even remotely, like anybody else. 1983 was the year when Sheena stepped a little away from the formula of ballads/pop apparent on her first three albums. She duetted with country music superstar Kenny Rogers, and they landed a big country hit with “We’ve Got Tonight”. She also teamed up with Mexico’s Luis Miguel on the duet “Me Gustas Tal Como Eres”, and thereby also making her first appearance on the latin Music Charts! She made another album, “Best Kept Secret” – from which “Telephone (Long Distance Love Affair)” was a major hit. And boosted by her success with Luis, she also recorded a Spanish language album, “Todo Me Recuerdo A Ti” – featuring Spanish versions of her greatest hits and some new songs.

Her 1983 album "Todo Me Recuerdo A Ti", sung entirely in Spanish

Her 1983 album “Todo Me Recuerdo A Ti”, sung entirely in Spanish

Having proved her versatility, 1984 saw Sheena go through a change of image, and opting for a darker, funkier style of music. The first result of this was her new album “A Private Heaven“. No less than three hit singles came off this album; “Strut”, “Swear” and “Sugar Walls”. She received another Grammy nomination for “Strut” (Best female pop/rock vocal performance). “Sugar Walls” (written by Prince) was banned from radio play due to “sexually suggestive” lyrics, but still made it to number 3. This album also features a stunning take on Joan Armatrading’s “Love And Affection”… Nile Rodgers had pulled the best out of Chic, Sister Sledge and Diana Ross, as well as Carly Simon and Debbie Harry – when he was assigned as Sheena’s producer in 1985. Their joint effort, “Do You” is indeed an achievement to be proud of! Although no big hits appeared on the album, it’s still well worth searching out. It contains some of the most outstanding songs she’s recorded. “Do It For Love”, “Don’t Turn Your Back”, “Young Lions”, “Don’t Break My Heart”. She also does an updated version of the Vandellas’ old hit “Jimmy Mack”. Around this time Sheena often performed another 60’s nugget – The Crystals “He’s A Rebel”. Why it wasn’t put on the album, I don’t know – it would have benefited greatly from the Nile Rodgers magic touch as well… Sheena was then headed for some bad Luck; due to problems with the record label, her next album wasn’t very well promoted – and it sort of fell under radar, and had a limited release. Pity, because “No Sound But A Heart” is another great Sheena Easton record, and tracks like “Wanna Give My Love”, “Eternity” and “Still In Love” are all very good.

1987 album "No Sound But A Heart" suffered from bad promotion...

1987 album “No Sound But A Heart” suffered from bad promotion…

That streak of bad Luck was to disappear the next year though – 1987/1988 saw Sheena reach number 2 on the charts on two occasions, she made another great album that was very successful, and she branched out into acting…. She had already done one of his songs on her “A Private Heaven” album, and this year she got to duet With the man himself; Prince! Their joint efforts on “U Got The Look” turned into a big hit, and landed the number 2 spot on the charts. They also got nominated for two Grammy awards for this song. Sheena then had a recurring guest role on TV’s “Miami Vice”, playing Don Johnson’s girlfriend, a singer named Caitlin Davis. She performed “Follow My Rainbow” in one of the episodes, and the song was also included on her 1988 album “The Lover In Me“. The title track of this album also reached number 2, and she had further hit singles with “Days Like This”, “101” and “No Deposit, No Return”. Having by this time permanently settled in the US (she would obtain citizenship in 1992), Sheena was looked upon as an American singer, and also having more success there than in Europe. She performed at the “Big Day” Festival in Glasgow in 1990, revealing that she now spoke with an American accent. When telling the audience it was  good to be “back home” without a trace of Scottish accent, Sheena had bottles thrown at her, was booed off the stage and forced to cut her set short. Obviously angry and hurt, Sheena vowed never to perform in her land of birth again! In the early 1990s, there was a musical fad going on, called “New Jack swing”, that was a combination of R’n’B singing over hip-hop influenced beats, and singers like Janet Jackson, Keith Sweat and Paula Abdul were notable exponents of this style. Sheena got into it as well, on her next album “What Comes Naturally” (1991). The title song gave Sheena another Top 20 hit in the states (her last), and this album also include the outstanding power ballad “To Anyone”. The album itself is actually very good, and Sheena does a great job even on this stylistically strange kind of music. The album stands as one of the very few really good examples of New Jack swing, the other being Tiffany’s “New Inside” cut the same year.

The 1991 album.... Most things sounded "naturally" when performed by Sheena - even New Jack swing!

The 1991 album…. Most things sounded “naturally” when performed by Sheena – even New Jack swing!

Having proved her talent for doing a variety of musical styles, and spreading her fabulous voice on everything from country to Spanish boleros and pounding R’n’B – where could Sheena go vocally? She answered that question by cutting “No Strings” in 1993 – a low-key, jazzy album on which she performed old standards. This collection of music is absolutely stunning, and Sheena obviously enjoys herself singing these songs. Backed by piano, bass, drums and occasional horns, she holds the spotlight all on her own, and proves once and for all that her voice really needs no big backing – it is a beautiful instrument on its own. Her performances on songs like “Body And Soul”, “The Man That Got Away” and “Never Will I Marry” are among her best recordings, and certainly the best versions of these songs ever recorded!

Her 1993 jazz album is a stand out! Adapting to a new style, Sheena sounds great!

Her 1993 jazz album is a stand out! Adapting to a new style, Sheena sounds great!

During the last 20 years, Miss Easton has made four new albums (1995-2000), adopted two children (Jake and Skylar), done Casino gigs and corporate shows – and thus combining motherhood and performing. She also starred on Broadway, playing Aldonza in “Man of La Mancha” opposite Raul Julia, and then went on to play Rizzo in “Grease“. She lives in Henderson, outside Las Vegas with her children. As for the last four albums – “My Cherie” was made 1995, and is a step back to Sheena the pop singer. The best songs on it are “Till Death Do Us Part”, “All I Ask Of You” (not the “Phantom of the Opera”-song), and then there’s “You’ve Learned To Live Without Me” – maybe the most gripping break-up song ever made, and further embellished by an absolutely gut wrenching performance by Sheena. Too bad so few people have heard it! “Freedom” appeared in 1997, with a great opening song – “When You Speak My Name”, hit single potential if ever there was! She also does a very good version of Dorothy Moore’s 1975 hit “Misty Blue” and updates her old hit “Modern Girl” with a slightly techno-inspired arrangement. In 1999 she went all acoustic on her album “Home“, sounding very relaxed and confident on everything from Paul Simon’s “St. Judy’s Comet” and Graham Nash’ “Our House” to the beautiful “Not While I’m Around” by Stephen Sondheim. The album was only released for the Japanese market, and that makes it very little known around the rest of the world. It is a wonderful record though, and highly recommended!

"Home" (1999) shows a natural looking Sheena; the perfect look for this acoustic, low key album

“Home” (1999) shows a natural looking Sheena; the perfect look for this acoustic, low key album

The last collection of music created by Sheena, is 2000’s “Fabulous“. On this, she gets into the mood of disco diva, to such a degree that it makes me think what she could have done had she been old enough to be one in the late 1970s! This is a highly pulsating, pounding record almost from start to finish, and she does a lot of covers of great dance hits from the past: Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way”, The Emotions’ “Best Of My Love”, The Three Degrees’ “Giving Up, Giving In”, Donna Summer’s “Love Is In Control” are all updated (while staying true to the originals) and are perfect for dancing. She also does a great take on Patti LaBelle/Michael Mc Donald’s no. 1 duet, “On My Own”. Two New songs are on here also: “Get Here To Me” and “You Never Gave Me The Chance”. Since then, Sheena has made no new albums, but there have been several re-issues of her original albums, as well as a flood of “best of” collections….

Her last album is indeed "Fabulous"! A great party record that will keep you dancing....

Her last album is indeed “Fabulous”! A great party record that will keep you dancing….

As far as I know, Sheena has entered the recording studio just once since then, to contribute vocals to “If You’re Happy”, a cover for a Japanese disc called “Cover Morning Musume-Hello Project. She also began work as  host on the TV show Vegas Live, a talk show. In 2004, Sheena was honored by being inducted into the “Casino Legends Hall of Fame” by the Tropicana Casino. Sheena has been rumoured to have made wise investments in real estate, and made the “Rich People” list in a magazine; Sheena has denied this….. What cannot be denied is that Sheena Easton is one fabulous singer, whose 15 studio albums all contain very good music, performed by a one-of-a-kind voice! Played back to back, her albums give a great survey of a talented singer, who can easily tackle any kind of musical challenge. She has occasionally been labeled “Queen of the 80s”, and she sure is a worthy candidate for that – but her 90’s output isn’t inferior either! Sheena is a singer whose career I have followed closely through the years, and I love her songs just a much today as I did back then. Added to it, of course, is the memory of having met her at the very beginning of her long and prosperous career. If ever I meet her again, I will give her that hug back – both cheeks this time around!

Then and now.... These two photos were taken 35 years apart (and show that Sheena has changed very little through the years....)

Then and now…. These two photos were taken 35 years apart (and show that Sheena has changed very little through the years….)

Vikki Carr – One Hell of a Singer!

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Almost a year ago, I did announce a closer look at the great Miss Vikki Carr and her many albums, thereby dipping into the musical legacy of a great singer who is maybe one of the most versatile artists around. To categorize Vikki is close to impossible, but we can roughly divide her career into three different phases: For most of the 60’s she was a pop singer of the traditional kind, for the first part of the 70’s she was a combination of country singer and modern pop singer. And then finally from the mid 1970s and up until today, she claimed her position as the all-round Queen of latin pop. So the 40+ albums she has released since the first one came out in 1963 stands as a unparalelled documentation of how one of the greatest voices in the music business took on different shadings through the years, adapting to current trends, shaping her voice to fit any kind of material – and losing none of her spark and personality through it all.

V is for Vikki! A recent photo from an Award show

V is for Vikki! A recent photo from an Award show

Born in El Paso, Texas in 1941, Vikki was given the fabulous birth name Florencia Bisenta de Casillas Martinez Cardona. She grew up with her 6 brothers and sisters in Southern California. At the age of 20 she was signed to Liberty Records, making her debut single in 1962. Called “He’s A Rebel” – it was a small hit in Australia. In the US Darlene Love recorded it, and as released under The Crystals name, the song soared to number 1 on the charts – and Vikki’s version went nowhere…! Pity, because the two versions are quite similar, and equally well performed. Oh, well – Vikki quickly made a version for the Spanish-speaking market (“Es Rebelde”), and then started preparing her first album, “Color Her Great” (1963).

Miss Carr around the time of her record debut

Miss Carr around the time of her record debut

While her first single suggested a pop singer very much steeped in the then-current trends, her first album showed that Vikki chose another direction; she picked most of the material from the classic American songbooks and traditional pop. But by doing that, she carved out her own niche – here was a young, fresh talent doing material from way back, thus combining her youthful appeal with something the older generation also could relate to. Also evident from the opening track was the fact that vocally, Vikki’s voice was far better suited to a little more demanding stuff than what most of the early 60s girl-group pop floss could offer. She opens the album with a zippy version of the old chestnut “Bye Bye Blackbird”, adding to it a professional touch and style that makes it seem like she had spent 20 years in the business already! The next year  she put out two albums, much in the same style as her debut, called “Discovery” and “Discovery II“. The opening track of the first one, is the very first song I heard Vikki sing, and that one that turned me into an instant fan! From the musical Oklahoma, “The Surrey With The Fringe On Top” had been performed for years – but never like this! Vikki starts out sweetly and gently, obviously having a great time acting out the farm girl. Then for the third verse she suddenly adds power, making you jump to attention – then the does the ending in an intimate whisper. It is a great example on “how to do it”; if you choose to sing the standards, you need to add something new and fresh to make your version stand out. That is one thing Vikki Carr did right from the start, and so she made even the most time-worn old songs sound as they were written and tailor-made just for her! She stuck to the same musical formula on her next album, “Anatomy Of Love” (1965), but (as the title might suggest) did a lot more current stuff on “The Way Of Today” (1966) – i.e. doing covers of recent hits like “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” and “Anyone Who Had A Heart”, “I Will Wait For You” and “Strangers In The Night”.

This 1966 album marks the transition from traditional to current pop singer for Vikki

This 1966 album marks the transition from traditional to current pop singer for Vikki

If there is one song that will forever and always be connected to Vikki Carr, it’ “It Must Be Him”. It is still her greatest hit, and a song that gave her no less than three Grammy nominations. The single soared almost to the top of the charts, and the album “It Must Be Him” (1967) was a huge hit as well. In addition to its classic title track, this album is also the home of some incredibly good songs like “A Bit Of Love”, “Never My Love” and the completely stunning “Tunesmith” (recorded, equally well, the same year by Johnny Rivers). Riding high on the crest of this hit record, Vikki made three more albums during the late 1960s, the last one being the live “For Once In My Life” – showing that she also had a great connection with her audience! Enter the 1970s – and Vikki changed directions once again – this time to country & western. Both her first two albums of the decade had a very strong Nashville feel to them, and (not surprisingly) proved that she was very good doing this kind of music also. First off came “Nashville By Carr” (1970), followed by “The Ways To Love A Man” (1971).

The 1970/1971 country albums on a 2 for 1 CD

The 1970/1971 country albums on a 2 for 1 CD

Nashville By Carr” is maybe a bit more “country” than its successor. Vikki does a variety of early 70s country songs here, the stand-outs are “Singing My Song”, “The Tip Of My Fingers” and “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” – very convincingly performed from the female point of view also! “The Ways To Love A Man” is a little more subdued as Vikki goes in for a very relaxed and ballad heavy style on most tracks, along the way making even Bobby Goldsboro’s saccharine “Honey” sound good! The early 70s was a very productive period for Vikki, before 1973 was through – she had made four more albums. The next two are good examples of the kind of luxurious pop music made back then; “Love Story” and “Superstar” (both 1972). Both albums finds the wondrous Vikki backed by sumptuous orchestrations and strings – making them some of the best “adult pop” albums recorded. On the first one, she does great songs like Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind”, “If I Were Your Woman” (a then-recent hit for Gladys Knight & The Pips, later done by Bonnie Bramlett, Stephanie Mills and others), a stunning take on Diana Ross’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “For All We Know” (a song also done by The Carpenters, Shirley Bassey and Norma Lewis). “Superstar” contains the great title track (written by Bonnie Bramlett and recorded by her twice). It was a hit also for The Carpenters as well as Bette Midler the same year. Other highlights include “I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You”, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Loving Him Was Easier”. This album is also proof of Vikki’s great skills as a singer and interpreter; she waxes soulful on “Spanish Harlem”, plaintively heartfelt on “Crazy Love” and sensuously filled with longing on the title song….

Vikki in the early 1970s

Vikki in the early 1970s

Then it was time to change musical directions once again, and her next album was done all in Spanish; “Vikki En Espanol” (1972). Though she had done some Spanish material earlier, this album is the first time she comes off as a true latin styled singer. The Carr voice is very much the same, but she adds another flavour to it, making all the songs sound like the “real thing” and not like any American singer, just singing in another language. The best example is “Se Acabo” – a fiery chestnut that was also recorded with various  degrees of “latin fuego” by Lola Flores (ay!), La Lupe (explosive!) and even Eartha Kitt (smouldering!). Putting all her Mexican heritage into the music on this album, it is a true achievement and is the first step Vikki took into establishing herself as a major star in the Spanish-speaking music market!

"Vikki En Espanol" - her first step towards her superstar status in the Spanish music market (1973)

“Vikki En Espanol” – her first step towards her superstar status in the Spanish music market (1973)

During 1973 and 1974, Vikki put out the last two of her “American pop” albums; “Ms. America” (1973) and “One Hell Of A Woman” (1974). Both of them finds Vikki squarely placed within the middle-of-the-road, adult contemporary bracket, and she comes off a little like a female John Denver or James Taylor. Both albums are very pleasant listening, filled with great songs – but I also feel that she has fazed out some her of vocal trademarks on these albums – some of the old spark isn’t really there, and on the first listen, it could be anybody singing these songs… You don’t recognize anything very Vikki here. But this doesn’t mean the albums should be avoided, by all means – this is very good stuff indeed!

The 1973/74 albums "Ms. America" and "One Hell Of  A Woman" as another "2 for 1" CD

The 1973/74 albums “Ms. America” and “One Hell Of A Woman” as another “2 for 1” CD

From the 1975 album “Hoy” and onwards, Vikki made almost exclusively Spanish language records, and thus starting another direction of her career. Since then she has churned out one great latin album after another, a complete list can be found on her great website www.vikkicarr.com. In doing so, there was a downside to it as well; By American and international listeners, she is today considered a “60s singer”, someone who “used to make records” and thought of as someone who appears on the oldies circuit, doing her hits from way back when…. It is very far from the truth of course – but an indirect result of limiting herself to the Spanish-speaking market. But her triumphs as a singer has been much appreciated by her new audience: she received gold and platinum records for her hits  “Total”, “Disculpame”, and “Mala Suerte”. Her 1985 mariachi album “Simplemente Mujer” earned her a Grammy Award, her 1992 album “Cosas Del Amor” did the same. Vikki has also received a lot of other distinctions, awards, keys to different cities, an honorary award from the Vietnam veterans, and she has sung for no less than five different American presidents! When looking for Vikki Carr albums, you will find that any and all of her latin albums are widely available, but that a lot of the albums she made 1963-75 might be hard to find – and if you do, they are quite expensive. EMI put together a 3 CD set in 2007, containing 80 songs – taken from her 60’s albums as well as some foreign language versions and some single sides – called “The Ultimate Collection“. This is highly recommended as it gives a great musical portrait of one of the best singers who came on the scene during the 1960’s.

The wonderful Vikki Box Set - treat yourself to this one!

The wonderful Vikki Box Set – treat yourself to this one!

One of her albums may be called “One Hell Of  A Woman“, but a more fitting title might be “one hell of a singer“. In a career that has lasted more than 50 years, Vikki Carr has just about done it all, she has done it incredibly well, she has made a career in two different musical universes – and is just as much respected as a “latin” singer as she is an “American” one. The quality of her recorded output (in any language) is totally awesome. She belongs with the best of the female singers of the 1960s, in the same class as Barbra Streisand, Connie Francis and Liza Minnelli. But then again, the second phase of her career might place her as the female counterpoint to Julio Iglesias as well…. No matter what language or style – Vikki Carr is one great singer – always! Punto y final!

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