Happy birthday to Vera and Jennifer!

Leave a comment

March is almost over, but during this month two very special musical personalities both celebrated landmark birthdays: Dame Vera Lynn turned 100 years old on March 20th, and on March 3rd the great Jennifer Warnes turned 70. As much as I would have liked to see the media flooded with tributes and congratulations, both dates were passed over sort of quietly, at least here on the north part of the globe.

Dame Vera Lynn: It somehow seems just right that Vera has gotten to celebrate her centennial – she definitely is one of the historic musical legends of our time. She made her first record “Up The Wooden Hill To Bedfordshire” in 1936 (yep, that’s 81 years ago!), and just released a new collection of music – making her the only artist ever to have a new album out at age 100. She is also just about the only person still alive, who made records back in the 1930’s. With the death of the great Kay Starr in November 2016, the only other 30’s singer I can think of who is still around, is Bea Wain, and she herself will turn 100 in April.

 

Dame Vera; assorted photos taken 1937-2017

 

Vera Lynn’s musical legacy is vast and varied, but we can safely say that she belongs in the category of classic pop singers. She started making albums way back when that format was still new, and she released new ones at least once a year up until the early 80’s. She has recorded many great songs by British composers, as well as dozens of American standards. Completely devoid of funk or rock influences, she has her own regal, British way of doing her material, all of it perfectly sung in that strong, golden alto voice. Her last albums saw her dipping her ladylike toes into more contemporary stuff, and she recorded songs made famous by Abba, Barry Manilow, Randy Crawford, John Denver and Helen Reddy. In the late 70’s she also made a country album in Nashville, which is quite enjoyable (but even then she still kept her British pronunciation, and thus words like “cahn’t” and “dahnce” jarr a little against the steel guitars and Nashville sound)

To me, Vera Lynn is a singer who has always been there. She was a favourite of my grandmother, she was still a contemporary singer when my mother was growing up, and she was often seen on TV during my youth. Her artistic achievements are too many to list, but it is still worth mentioning that she was the very first British female singer to top the US Hot 100 (in 1952 with “Auf Wiederseh’n, Sweetheart“), followed in the 60’s by Petula Clark and Lulu, and in the 70’s and 80’s also by Kiki Dee and Sheena Easton (and no; Shirley Bassey, Dusty Springfield and Cilla Black never had a US no. 1….)

With such an illustrious career to look back on, I am sure Dame Vera must be very happy when she now enters her 101st year. I certainly bow my head in honor of what she has achieved during the more than 80 years she has been active as a singer.

 

Jennifer Warnes: A totally different kind of singer is Jennifer Warnes. Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of her debut record, and whereas Vera Lynn has made so many albums you can’t count them, Jennifer has made just 8 (yeah, eight!). Her studio albums came out 1968, 1969, 1972, 1976, 1979, 1987, 1992 and the last one in 2001.

But it’s what on those 8 albums (and assorted singles) that really counts, and Jennifer Warnes’ career is still a great one. Jennifer reached the top of the US Charts twice in the 1980’s – both times as one part of a duo, both times with songs from a movie soundtrack, and both times with songs that are not on any of her 8 studio albums. The first one was of course the theme song from “An Officer & A Gentleman” titled “Up Where We Belong“, performed with Joe Cocker in 1982. Five years later she sang the theme from “Dirty Dancing” with Bill Medley, called “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life“.

 

Assorted photos of Jennifer, taken 1980’s – 2010’s

 

Despite the fact that she has been recording for almost 50 years, a lot of people don’t know who Jennifer Warnes is, which is a great pity – as she is supremely talented and her voice has a very special timbre which makes her easy to identify when you hear her sing. I would recommend any and all albums – and even the greatest hits collections that are out there. If you don’t know Jennifer Warnes, you better get acquainted very soon!

Some of her songs have become part of our musical history: “Right Time Of The Night“, “It Goes Like It Goes“, “Could It Be Love“, “First We Take Manhattan” (written especially for her by her former boss, Leonard Cohen) and her supreme cover version of the Waterboys’ “The Whole Of The Moon“.

Obviously content with not being a megastar who is always in the media, Jennifer instead has taken her time between each album, making sure that when a new one appears – it is filled with Grade A material! That said, I much prefer the Jennifer Warnes approach to a musical career, instead of all the pop tarts who are always in the media but can’t really sing, and are more famous for being famous than for any artistic qualities.

We can still hope that Jennifer will make new albums in the future – and if and when she does, you can bet it will be 100% pure pleasure to listen to!

A belated congratulation to both of these legendary Ladies of music!

 

Sheena Easton – The great Scot!

6 Comments

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….)

%d bloggers like this: