Sunday, 15 February 2009

Johnny Mathis - I'm Coming Home - 1973 - Columbia

Johnny Mathis is not, perhaps, a name that immediately springs to mind when quality soul music is the topic of discussion. This artist is, whatever your musical persuasion, unquestionably one of the all-time greats and unarguably master of his field. His career spanning right back to the 1950s is one that 99.9% of singers could only dream about and what I find most enduring and appealing about the man is that he is what he is - an unashamed balladeer; a crooner who states himself on this great album that “I Just Wanted To Be Me”. He does not change his style to suit current trends - and he only does what he can do best - and that is to perform 100%. Now, by your reading this you possibly think that I own all that you can by the man. Wrong! I appreciate his other so-called ‘easy-listening’ material for what it is but I own but three albums, two of which produced by Thom Bell and Linda Creed, the other being “A Special Part Of Me”, Columbia, 1984 - see review). The reason that I own these albums is simply as they're soulful and darn essential. Thom Bell is, in my opinion, a GOD, a GENIUS and someone who I sorely wish would return to the recording studio. I know the great man is happy at home and keeping out of the recording studio but I long for the day that he makes a comeback. Recent rekindled interest in 2003 with Elton John’s superb “Are You Ready For Love” here in the UK sadly did not provide us with some reissues of Thom’s past glories, but I am so grateful to own a proper reissue of this album from 1973 (it was re-issued in the UK in 1989 on Pickwick with the title “I’m Stone In Love With You”). Not many soul lovers are aware of this album, nor perhaps would have bothered with it.

I was rather amused to hear a radio DJ getting very excited about “A Baby’s Born” when covered by James Ingram back in 1993. He did not know that it was a cover til alerted, and so this is why I make some noise about this CD today. If you love the lush, orchestrated Philly sound of Thom Bell and his work with The Stylistics, Dionne Warwick, The Spinners, New York City, Deniece Williams, Dee Dee Bridgewater and so on are to your liking then you will definitely want to own this CD. Johnny’s cool pitching and phrasing are perfectly symbiotic with Bell’s lush orchestration. They fit each other hand in glove, and Johnny’s takes on the Stylistic’s classics “I’m Stone In Love With You” and “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)” are just out of this world. There is not one track here that I cannot recommend with all my heart. Frankly, this is a special, special album to me and songs such as “I’d Rather Be Here With With You”, “And I Think That’s What I’ll Do”, “Life Is A Song Worth Singing” and “A Baby’s Born” are in my list of all-time favourites. The latter song is breathtakingly written. Its lyrics are not only though provoking but are, simply put, beautiful. James Ingram covered this song magnificently, too - again at the hands of Thom Bell, but it is this song that has to be my favourite. Bell’s classical instruction and sensibilities are strongly woven into the melody; Mathis’ vocals just add the icing to the cake.

“And I Think That’s What I’ll Do” is a teasing, clever, song about being torn between two loves - teasing in the way that Johnny muses his way through the song. By the end of the song we are left completely left in the dark to whom he chooses. This is a point to think about - the lyrics on not just this lovely CD, but the beautiful soul music from that era, left a lot to the imagination; nothing was sordid or blatant. Here, in this instance we are left feeling that we are having a privileged insight into the singer’s mind. Today, so-called R&B stars will simply swear, use bad language and innuendo and leave nothing to the imagination. I daren’t even want to think about the crass videos they make. Utter garbage. Gone is subtlety. Take the well-crafted subject of onanism in Smokey Robinson’s “I’ve Made Love To You A Thousand Times”, or love-making in “Cruisin’” and gone is such storytelling, as in this tale of a divided, torn heart. “Life Is A Song Worth Singing” is a dramatic number; the most uptempo selection on offer and Johnny performs like the professional that he is. This was, of course, later covered by Teddy Pendergrass, but it is this version that I always want to come home to: the original and the best. “I’m Coming Home”, if you love the Thom Bell / Philly sound as much as I, will leave you with moist eyes and a lump in the throat. Much simpler, cleaner and less complicated times for soul music. How I miss them.

Barry Towler
The Vibe Scribe