That's Ms. Owens to You!
Appearances on Saturday Night Live, 60 Minutes, The Today Show—you’d be hard pressed to find another fully-grown, fully-figured black woman to receive as much critical love as Queen Latifah has, unless of course your name was Oprah. Even two cinematic duds, The Cookout and Taxi, hasn’t kept folk from giving love to the Queen, for her new recording The Dana Owens Album—a surprising and eclectic collection of torch songs, pop and soul classics, and straight-ahead jazz standards. Though it is lamentable that all the shine that Ms. Owens is getting helps obscure the release of the 75th recording by legendary song-stylist Nancy Wilson, who has never received the kind of critical attention that Ms. Owens has in just the last six months, despite a career that now span 50 years, ultimately The Dana Owens Album is a celebration of great music and the willingness of the mainstream to embrace a hip-hop generation interpretation of that music.
For those of us who go back to those first couple of 12-inch singles from the late ‘80s, “Princess of the Posse”, “Wrath of My Madness”, “Inside Out”—all marked by a sing-songy patois style that has long receded from the surface of Ms. Owens’s music—there was always a sense that this was a woman who would musically transcend hip-hop. The proof came in a small tribute that appeared at the end of her third album Black Reign (1993). “Winki’s Theme”, which was dedicated to Ms. Owens’s recently departed brother, featured a vocal performance (“there but for the grace of God, there but I go…”) that had her core fans hungering for the recording that would finally make its appearance 11 years later.
There were other fleeting moments, like her duet with T.C. Carson on the song “I Commit to You”, which was performed during an episode of Ms. Owens’s sitcom Living Single or the three tracks she performed for the soundtrack of Living Out Loud (1998) including an exquisite version of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” that eventually ended up on The Dana Owens Album. It was these performances from Living Out Loud that likely caught the attention of the producers of Chicago and indeed Ms. Owens delivered the goods on “When You’re Good to Mama,” earning an Academy Award nomination for her performance in the film. With a solid film career established and her “rap music” career firmly in the rear-view mirror, The Dana Owens Album was a logical move.
Most telling about The Dana Owens Album are the established talents who agreed to join the project, including producer and arranger Arif Mardin (who produced Ms. Aretha, the Rascals, and Dusty Springfield among many others), pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonists James Moody and David “Fathead” Newman (quick shout to Bokeem Woodbine), and Al Green (surprise, surprise). Also telling is the range of artists that Ms. Owens covers—the Mama and the Papas, Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, Barbara Lewis, Bill Withers, King Pleasure, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to name just a few. Growing up in Newark, New Jersey, Ms. Owens’s choices prove that you didn’t have to be a “cultural mulatto” (so say Trey Ellis) to live the multiple cultural lives that Pop-Top-40 radio afforded in the late ‘60s and ‘70s—a golden time indeed compared to our current moment of Clear Channelization.
The collection opens with a version of “Baby Get Lost” (recorded by both Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington) that is every bit as deliciously campy as Mama Morton would have it. Ms. Owens’s performance is a little more nuanced on standards like “If I Had You” (which features “Fathead”), “Close Your Eyes” (with a Mervyn Warren scat solo), and “Moody’s Mood for Love” (with James Moody in tow), which are all produced by Mardin. Like her performance of “Lush Life”, Ms. Owens gets major points for the choice of material—songs that establish her jazz chops—but these are not songs where you get the sense that she really has a grasp of them. Not that her performances miss, quite the contrary, but they lack the sophistication that Ms. Owens brings to some of her interpretations of soul and pop compositions—songs that she seems to have much more personal attachment to. The one exception is perhaps her performance of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s “I Put a Spell on You”, where Ms. Owens’s ability to tap into the song’s barely disguised sexual energy (remember Hawkins was a black man with a bone in his nose singing to young white girls in the late ‘50s) is disarming, especially as she urges master accompanist Herbie Hancock to “dig in”.
Ms. Owens lends her unique style to a trio of ‘70s soul recordings, which are as disparate as ‘70s soul songs could be. With “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh”, Ms. Owens tackles the legacy of folk-soul artist Bill Withers (first recorded on 1974’s ‘Justments). One of the best performances on The Dana Owens Album is Ms. Owens’s version of the obscure classic “Hard Times”. First recorded by Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band on their brilliant eponymous debut in 1976 (covering anything by them, even if you’re Ghostface gets points in my book), Ms. Owens captures the “Atomic-era Disco” sound that made Dr. Buzzard and company stand out so much.
Perhaps the riskiest cover on the entire disc is Ms. Owens’s version of Al Green’s “Simply Beautiful”. The Al Green oeuvre is of course filled with many stunning performances, but arguably “Simply Beautiful” is his singular vocal performance. Included on Green’s most accomplished album, I’m Still in Love With You (1973), the track pushes Green to the limit of his vocal range, singing so much of the song in a crushed whisper. There’s a reason so few have attempted to remake the track and Ms. Owens is more than up to the challenge—not quite capturing Green’s emotions, but pushing herself beyond her own limits. Ms. Owens’s devotion is rewarded as halfway through the song the Right Reverend makes an appearance. That Al Green would leave his congregation to share the mic with Queen Latifah, speaks a great deal about how highly regard she is.
Two of the other gems on The Dana Owens Album are “California Dreamin’” and “Hello Stranger”. “California Dreamin’” has long been heaved into the scrap heap of ‘60s-era nostalgia, but Ms. Owens, along with the help of guitarist and background vocalist Raul Midon, recovers the song by giving it a soulful, yet sparse reading. “Hello Stranger”, written and recorded by Barbara Lewis in 1963 (it peaked at #3 on the pop charts), is about as pop-perfect as soul music could be in the early ‘60s—more soulful than Dionne, but lacking the polish of Ms. Aretha’s Columbia sides from the period. Both Yvonne Elliman and Carrie Lucus did credible versions of the song in the early ‘80s, but Ms. Owens’s version is easily the best since Lewis first recorded the song.
The only time that audiences get any hint of the down and grimy city of Newark that produced Ms. Owens is on her rousing rendition of the Joe Zawinul composition “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”. Zawinul wrote the song while serving as pianist and composer for the Julian “Cannonball” Adderley Quintet in 1966. The song is one of the most popular examples of the soul jazz genre, as lyrics were later added to the song (courtesy of Mannix actress Gail Fisher), only heightening its popularity. Ms. Owens’s read more like a big-band bash than the soulful innocence the Austrian-born initially brought to his composition. Like the rest of the recording, the song is a tribute to Ms. Owens’s talents and her musical tastes, and a an example of what the so-called hip-hop generation can produce, when we allow them to grow up.