Discovering Margie Joseph: The Sound of Sweet, Soulful Vindication
Long lost albums by Margie Joseph surface after three decades and beg the question, "Was there more than one soul queen at Atlantic?"
It's about time. Margie Joseph's legacy has been nearly buried by the inaccessibility of her music. For far too many years, finding her music has been the wont of voracious crate-diggers. Only the most dedicated listener would pony up for pricey import re-issues or seek out the few rare compilations that currently exist.
Collector's Choice Music has thankfully given Joseph's Atlantic catalog a second life. The six albums Joseph recorded between 1973 and 1984 are each time capsules of a particular era. While some efforts are certainly more laudable than others, it's a gift to have her body of work widely available.
Joseph arrived at Atlantic in 1972 after cutting a pair of moderately successful albums for Stax/Volt, Margie Joseph Makes a New Impression (1970) and Phase II (1971). Larry McKinley, Joseph's manager and husband at the time, was friends with Atlantic presidents Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler. They eagerly signed the recent graduate of Dillard University and paired her with producer Arif Mardin. Together, Joseph and Mardin recorded three albums that stood among the best work either ever did.
Mardin treated Joseph like a soul queen on her eponymous debut for Atlantic in 1973, earning her inevitable comparisons to label mate Aretha Franklin. Though there are traces of Franklin's whoops and hollers on tracks like "I'm So Glad I'm Your Woman" and a smoldering version of Al Green's "Let's Stay Together", Margie Joseph is a solid showcase for the Pascagoula-born singer.
"I Been Down", the album's superb opener, is a funky concoction featuring a feisty performance from Joseph while "How Do You Spell Love" and "You Better Know It" similarly simmer with soul. It's when Mardin scales back the musicians that Joseph shines the brightest. Her sensitive reading of Dottie West's "I'm Only a Woman" makes the heart ache, as does her wrenching interpretation of the Etta James-identified "I'd Rather Go Blind".
Much of the material here, in fact, finds Joseph pleading with a man to stay while she endures his abuse. "Turn Around and Love You" is one such example: "You abuse me, to amuse your friends/ And you use me, that's where your story ends/ Then I turn around and love you". This kind of sentiment is not at all reflective of the young, independent woman Joseph was at the time. Still, it's a minor demerit on an album that laid the foundation for even better work to come.
Sweet Surrender (1974) quickly followed Margie Joseph. On his second production for Joseph, Mardin employed more lush arrangements, which contrasted with the earthier production on Joseph's debut. A pair of songs by Paul Kelly, "Come Lay Some Lovin' On Me" and "Come With Me", represented this fuller bodied sound in contrasting ways. The former, which opened the album, sizzled with a propulsive rhythm and string arrangement that grew to a boil with the added ingredient of Joseph's sassy performance. Towards the song's conclusion, Mardin emphasizes the off-beat. Coupled with the rousing background vocals of Cissy Houston, Myrna Smith, Gwen Gutherie, among others, and Joseph's exclamation, "hey, hey!", the song is imbued with gospel fervor.
Conversely, "Come With Me" is a delightful mid-temp tune with a series of descending chord structures that grow more endearing with each listen. (Those familiar with the Bee Gees' "Fanny", which Mardin recorded soon after Sweet Surrender, might hear a correlation between this track's evocative use of strings and acoustic guitar.) For her part, Joseph savors the lyrics, injecting her patented phrasing between the words. According to Joseph, Al Green adored the tune so much that he asked her to join him on tour.
Another giant of popular music also paid a compliment to Joseph for one of the tunes on Sweet Surrender -- Paul McCartney. After hearing Joseph's version of his chart-topping "My Love", McCartney sent a telegram expressing his gratitude for her exquisite rendition. Released as a single in the spring of 1974, "My Love" landed in the R&B Top 10 (it climbed to #69 on the pop charts).
One of the defining characteristics of Sweet Surrender is how Mardin arranged the songs in one continuous flow. The mix between "My Love" and "Ridin' High" is among the most thrilling moments on the album. As the celestial arrangement of "My Love" concludes, the bubbly cascading flutes and gently shaken percussion of "Ridin' High" begin.
"Ridin' High" was another collaboration between Joseph and Mardin, again illustrating the simpatico between the two. Joseph explains in the liner notes about how the song was created, "I would just hear these melodies. Arif was so patient. He'd sit there and listen to me sing a line of a song out of the blue, and he'd create something out of it".
Improving on the segue structure of its predecessor, Margie (1975) stands as Joseph's masterpiece with Mardin. By the third album, their chemistry was perfectly in sync. Rather than a scattershot array of source material, the repertoire is sonically and thematically cohesive. Margie begins with the Joseph-Mardin effort "Sign of the Times", a rousing call to "keep on smiling" because "someone's gonna make a change" (it features Donny Hathaway's soaring background vocals). Stephen Gadd's bass propels the tune along, which winds into a stellar version of Carole King's similarly themed "Believe in Humanity".
The seamless transitions between songs are also what make Margie the shining diamond of the Mardin productions. Following a cover Bill Withers' "The Same Love That Made Me Laugh" and "Who Gets Your Love" (also recorded by Dusty Springfield), a simple flourish of notes on the keyboard by Richard Tee gives way to musical bliss. "Promise Me Your Love" opens with Joseph exclaiming, "I…am…looking for a LOVE". Sung with equal parts elation and longing, it's the signature Margie Joseph sound, the sound of strength and sensitivity intertwined in one powerhouse set of pipes. Such moments should be bottled.
The original Side B of Margie is also graced with a set of first-rate tunes, commencing with another song penned by the artist and producer. "Stay Still" ranks as one of Joseph's most sensual sides. An airy groove carries her strident voice, a quality perfectly translated by sax man Ronnie Laws when he covered "Stay Still" on his Fever (1976) album. Bookending Side B is a tune Joseph cites as one of her favorites, "I Can't Move No Mountains". In Bill Dahl's insightful liner notes, Joseph shares, "…it took me to another level vocally. That's the pop song I wanted them to really market at the time". Indeed, it seems like a missed opportunity that Atlantic didn't push the tune as a single, which was as good as any slice of Philly soul that dominated the R&B charts at the time. Regrettably, Mardin wouldn't follow up on the hit-that-almost-was for Joseph's next album. That duty went to Lamont Dozier.
Dozier, who was one third of the hit Motown writing team Holland-Dozier-Holland, broke away from his co-writers in the early '70s to pursue a solo singing and songwriting career. He recorded a couple of albums for ABC-Dunhill and expanded his dossier to write and produce for other artists. Larry McKinley, who still managed Joseph at the time, thought Dozier could spin gold for Joseph.
Released on the Cotillion imprint in mid-1976, Hear the Words, Feel the Feeling was a noticeable departure from Joseph's work with Mardin. Not only did Dozier produce the album, he wrote every track. Dozier's production is consistently R&B-based whereas Mardin crafted albums that melded pop, country, and soul. The excellent title track hit #18 on the R&B charts but pop success continued to illude Joseph, especially as public taste gravitated towards disco and away from straight-ahead R&B.
The album itself packs less punch than the Atlantic efforts, though the poor mastering by Collector's Choice doesn't help (more on that later). On otherwise decent tracks like "Why'd You Lie" and "Prophecy", the orchestra and rhythm sections have about as much fidelity as an AM station on a transistor radio. At times, the bass seems to drop out altogether. The gorgeous ballad "All Cried Out" fares better. It seems that the less instrumentation a track has on this album, the less distortion the listener has to wade through.
"Don't Turn the Lights Off" is the frontrunner for the best track on this disappointing re-issue. The tune is doused with Latin hustle accents while Joseph's obvious love of the song shines in her hair-raising vocal. If ever a song could have crossed Joseph over to the pop charts, "Don't Turn the Lights Off" was it.
With disappointing record sales branding her work on Cotillion, Joseph returned to Atlantic for Feeling My Way (1978). Another former stalwart of Motown helmed the production. The immaculate touch of Johnny Bristol, who produced a whole catalog of hits including Diana Ross & The Supremes' "Someday We'll Be Together" and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, served Joseph splendidly.
"Take Webster's dictionary/ then choose 'extraordinary'", Joseph sings on "Feel His Love Getting Stronger". Though she's referencing her lover, she might as well have been talking about Feeling My Way. Top to bottom, it's as perfect a marriage of pop and soul as one could find in 1978. Like Lamont Dozier, Johnny Bristol wrote or co-wrote every track on the album in addition to his production work.
Bristol's words and his approach to recording were a kindred spirit to Joseph. He brought the nuances out of her voice. There's an effervescence on "Come On Back to Me Lover" and "Love Takes Tears" and a sensuality on "You Turned Me On to Love" and "I Love Talking 'Bout Baby" that was absent on Joseph's previous recordings. Of course, by this point, Joseph was approaching 30-years-old and her voice had undergone a palpable maturation.
Bristol had also commandeered the finest musicians in Los Angeles for the sessions, including Lee Ritenour (guitar), Ernie Watts (sax), James Jamerson Jr. (bass), and Bobbye Hall (percussion). The engineering is the "cleanest"-sounding of Joseph's albums for Atlantic. Each instrument is impeccably recorded and Joseph's voice isn't lost in the mix.
The last track, "Discover Me", which has been recorded by Diana Ross & The Supremes on Let the Sunshine In (1969), is an appropriate epitaph for the album. Feeling My Way faded into obscurity after failing to generate any major hits. Any one of these tracks could have been a sizable hit and expanded Joseph's audience. To discover Feeling My Way is to hear Joseph give her all and Johnny Bristol (who passed away in 2004) surround her with nothing less than perfection.
The same cannot be said for Ready for the Night (1984), the last in the series of Margie Joseph re-issues by Collector's Choice. Six years had passed since Joseph's last album. Aside from a one-off hit single, "Knockout", recorded on the indie H.C.R.C. label in 1982, Joseph took a hiatus from recording. Back on Atlantic's Cotillion subsidiary, Joseph was teamed with Narada Michael Walden for a very contemporary, synth-and-drum machine heavy sound. To quote "Midnight Lover", Walden tried to model Joseph as a "lady of the '80s". Randy Jackson and Preston Glass were also brought aboard to work on the tracks and co-write some of the material.
Ready for the Night has not aged well. Its stabs at club-ready hits didn't suit Joseph while the ballads were by the numbers. Lyrics like "He must be so strong/ He could lift up King Kong" on "Big Strong Man" were clearly unbecoming to Joseph. The only track even remotely redeemable was "Is It Gonna Be Me and You", a track written by Walden and Jackson that glides gracefully along with a tastefully integrated flugelhorn. Had the album centered on similarly crafted songs, Ready for the Night might have been given Joseph a better chance at landing a hit or at least a more respectable legacy. Unfortunately, the album is an embarrassing artifact of its time.
Even more reprehensible than the entire Ready for the Night album is Collector's Choice treatment of all six re-issues. There is a big caveat to experiencing the joy of these albums and it's immediately evident by the unnecessary and obnoxious Collector's Choice logo on the album covers as well as the poor reprinting of the cover art itself. All six re-issues teeter on budget quality. Though the liner notes are in-depth and highly informative, they're printed across two pages in tiny font on the reverse of the CD sleeve. There's no itemized reference to the recording studios or personnel. One must read through the essay to find when and where the cuts were recorded or squint on the back cover of the CD sleeve, which is a sub-par facsimile of the original LP sleeve. There are no photographs to speak of and no archival materials on display.
What's worse is that in 2008, when listeners expect exceptional quality sound on re-issued material, Collector's Choice has apparently done the bare minimum in dusting off the tracks. Distortion abounds, especially on Sweet Surrender, Margie, and Hear the Words, Feel the Feeling. Collector's Choice has not taken advantage of 24-bit remastering technology to present these long lost and beloved albums in any decent way. Whatever source material was used sounds just this side of a bootleg.
Tellingly, this seems to be the standard for Collector's Choice as re-issues by Dionne Warwick and the Fifth Dimension also dishearteningly illustrate (compare Rhino's re-issues of Warwick or Arista's re-issues of the Fifth Dimension with Collector's Choice for ample evidence). For listeners seeking far superior sound of Joseph music, expensive Japanese imports of the Arif Mardin-produced albums are the only alternative. Until a record company like Rhino, HackTone, or Light in the Attic (who produced the pristine Betty Davis re-issues last year) decides to give Joseph the treatment befitting a soul queen, the Collector's Choice albums are but a satisfactory primer. (Note: the ratings of these albums reflect both the mostly high quality of the original material and the unimpressive presentation and packaging by Collector's Choice.)
What Collector's Choice has done well is present a major segment of Joseph's recording career, a bittersweet example of "What If?" Why these albums didn't earn the success they clearly deserved is less a question of talent and more reflective of music industry politics. Why was there so little promotion when Atlantic was initially so eager to sign Joseph? Was there only room for one soul queen at Atlantic? Was the changing musical tide the primary factor for disappointing sales? It's too late to rewrite history, but discovering Margie Joseph all these years later is the sound of sweet, soulful vindication.