Ray, Goodman & Brown: 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection
In order to understand the odd phenomenon of Ray, Goodman & Brown -- uneven R&B hitmakers and passable neo-doo-wop crooners with nothing but their own anonymity as a legacy -- you have to remember that they were originally the Moments. And the Moments were brilliant. Rising like a humble dusty angel from the technicolor fireworks of '70s soul, they created some of the most beautiful lo-fi falsetto-soul masterpieces of the era. Not only did they lay down gripping falsetto-soul tracks like "Love on a Two Way Street" and "Look at Me (I'm in Love)", they pioneered the more libidinous strains of Quiet Storm with the priapic groove "Sexy Mama". And they did it all in a crappy, ill-equipped New Jersey studio with hardly any budget. The Moments quickly became the centerpiece of Sylvia Robinson's budding Stang/All-Platinum empire (soon to spawn the pioneering Sugarhill Records), and her cost-cutting ingenuity gave them a unique and simple sound that would be impossible to reproduce today. Still, by the end of the decade the three Moments -- Harry Ray, Al Goodman, and Billy Brown -- felt that Sylvia's hasty production methods weren't letting their voices shine anymore. They left Stang in 1979 and headed for the shinier studios provided by Polydor. Sure, they would have continued on as the Moments, but Stang owned the name. Thus Ray, Goodman & Brown were born. They recorded four albums for Polydor from 1979 to 1982, and this mid-priced 20th Century Masters collection is a brief (12 songs in 50 minutes) and dreamy distillation of that period.
One of the seldom-remarked phenomena of the late '70s R&B scene was the fleeting resurgence of doo-wop stylings in a genre that was about to undergo a series of spasmodic death throes until its memory was erased by hip-hop and new jack in the mid-'80s. You could hear it in everyone's secret love for the Persuasions, in the regurgitated oldies of George Benson ("On Broadway"), in the slick anti-disco rebirth of bands like the Manhattans ("Shining Star"). Listen to the "shoop shoop shoo doo" in the late-period O'Jays hit "Use Ta Be My Girl", or the desperate oldies medley of post-Phillipe-Wynne Spinners singles ("Cupid / I've Loved You For a Long Time" and "Working My Way Back to You / Forgive Me, Girl") and you'll notice a curious trend. A minor trend, to be sure, and one that was quickly squashed by history. But the attempts to refute the populist and commercial appeal of disco by bending tunes around one of the genre's most venerable forebears (doo-wop) sure did sound fun at the time. Ray, Goodman & Brown were the epitome of this phenomenon. They relied so heavily on slick arrangements and doo-wop harmonizing (often including staged studio patter) that by their fourth album (Open Up in 1982) they seemed nothing more than a curious artifact of a long-lost era.
Their self-titled first album quickly spawned the huge crossover hit "Special Lady", which still sounds as joyous and groovy today as it did in 1979. The austere beginning of the tune -- fingers popping and humble voices singing a capella as if in practice -- soon explodes into the happiest hook you'll ever hear. When they sing "sittin' on top of the world!" two times in a row you'll get the goose-bumpin' feeling like you're lounging up at the windy North Pole with them. And when they croon the silly line "Pop (pop) went the weasel / In my mind" you'll remember that there's nothing goofier or dizzier than being smitten. It's the highlight of their career, and also of this collection.
The debut album also spawned the minor hit "Inside of You" (also included here) -- a lush and beautiful ballad reminiscent of old innocent Moments hits like "Look at Me (I'm in Love)". A curious and very non-doo-wop moment on their debut is the slinky, funky, soulful "Another Day" -- with baritone Al Goodman on lead vocals. The tune became something of a UK Northern Soul club hit in the '80s and '90s, and its inclusion on this collection (even though it never charted) is a blessing.
The collection concentrates most heavily on their second album, Two (1980), which spawned only the minor hits "Happy Anniversary" and "My Prayer" (an ostentatious Platters cover), but was so soaked in lush muzak strings and the dominant angelic voice of Harry Ray that you just gotta lay back and bathe in the beauty until your fingers get all soapy and wrinkled. This collection includes those two hits, along with "A Part of You" (so disembodied you'll barely remember it) and "I'll Remember You With Love" (sappy breakup tune #101B).
Their last two albums -- Stay (1981) and Open Up (1982) -- were a time of commercial decline, though they still did have some good tunes under their belt. "Stay", for example, has the sunny mellow groove and hooky chorus of a late-period Tavares tune, while "Heaven in the Rain" rivals both Love Unlimited and the Dramatics for best "rain ballad" in the late-soul canon (though don't listen to the lyrics to closely, since they seem to advocate accepting rides from creepy strangers). And their last hit, "How Can Love So Right (Be So Wrong)" -- with sitar and tenor angst all around -- sounds exactly like the the most magical moments in old Stylistics tunes. However "Love Minus One" (title pun courtesy Rupert Holmes) is talky and forgettable and "After All" seems to be a pale imitation of Jeffrey Osborne (is that Billy Brown on lead vocals?).
On the whole, the collection is too brief (as is always the case in the 20th Century Masters series), making you hunger for more hidden nuggets on their four albums. But still the slippery, celestial, soulful, slick tunes all sorta turn into a beautiful mist in your mind, and it's pretty functional as escapist schlock. As a relic of the death of rhythm and blues, the collection is also a morbid and fascinating document about the role of doo-wop as a desperate reactionary formal strategy during a revolutionary period. Still, you'll want to hear "Special Lady", "How Can Love So Right (Be So Wrong)" and "Another Day" again, and you'll definitely want to buy a Moments album posthaste. It's a pity that this trio didn't top their earlier lo-fi work (though "Special Lady" comes close). Imagine, for example, if Dick Griffey got his hooks into 'em at Solar Records, where they could could have become servants to the same uptempo post-disco groove that made pseudo-traditionalists like the Whispers so relentless and exciting as the decade turned. Just goes to show you: autonomy, tradition, and a well-equipped studio don't always make timeless art.