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Divas of Soul

[whitespace] A new five-volume set by Rhino highlights the women of jazz and soul

By Nicky Baxter

Hip-O Records is fast becoming the Rhino Records of R&B. Over the past few years, the label has released a ton of groove-laden discs by the likes of Ike & Tina Turner and the Pointer Sisters, plus soul groups such as the Dramatics and the Impressions. This time around, Hip-0 has come up Soulful Divas, a five-volume set highlighting the women of soul.

All five volumes have something to offer, but Pop 'N' Soul Sirens (Vol. 1) and Ladies of Jazz 'N' Soul (Vol. 5) provide the most consistent satisfaction. Like the entire collection, Pop 'N' Soul Sirens includes singers with whom pop/soul fans are readily familiar, e.g. Dionne Warwick, Martha Reeves and Gladys Knight, as well as lesser-known acts like Maxine Brown and Betty Everett.

During the 1960s and early '70s, Warwick teamed up successfully with producer/writers Burt Bacharach and Hal David to create a number of hits.

"Say a Little Prayer for You" is typical of Warwick's output, featuring her airy alto pitted against perky strings and crossover-ready horn arrangements. The singer's cleanly articulated delivery was a far cry from the gospel-drenched stylings of contemporaries like Aretha Franklin, but nevertheless she struck a chord with pop audiences.

Though her version of "Prayer" is perhaps the best-known, later renditions by Franklin and Al Green showed how, even when injected with a shot of churchy soul, the tune was pliable enough to appeal to a cross section of listeners.

Soul balladeer Maxine Brown had her best success teaming up with R&B stylist Chuck Jackson ("Hold On, We're Comin' "). On "Love in Them There Hills," the singer growls and stutters her way through an uptempo number set up by a funky backbeat and a turbulent Stax-like horn arrangement. Her urgent vocal style, unfortunately, never really caught on with the general public; this song makes one wonder why not.

Eloise Laws, sister of funk-jazz saxophone player Ronnie Laws, checks in with "You're Incredible," a sparkling number boasting smoky soprano sax and fetching background vocals. Laws' lilting contralto is somewhat reminiscent of Minnie Ripperton's higher-pitched vocal style. Less histrionic than Ripperton, Eloise Laws displays a natural gift for the midtempo form.

Betty Everett, who struck gold in the '60s with "You're No Good" and "It's in His Kiss (The Shoop Shoop Song)," is represented here with a rather overbusy "There'll Come a Time." There's nothing wrong with Everett's sumptuous, velvet-toned vocal. The problem is with the overwrought background vocals that practically dominate the proceedings.

More successful is Martha Reeves with "My Man (You Changed My Tune)." Barely recognizable from her tenure as main voice of the Vandellas, Reeves eschews the gritty raunch of earlier hits like "Heatwave" for a cleaner, almost ethereal sound. Accompanied by a wall of sound, Reeves doesn't rush, allowing the lyrical content to help tell her story.

As good as Pop 'N' Soul is, Ladies of Jazz is almost as delectable, featuring the likes of Dinah Washington's classic "What a Difference a Day Makes," Nancy Wilson's rhapsodic reading of "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," Nina Simone's haunting "Do What You Gotta Do" and Patti Austin's spirited "Ability to Swing." Hip-0's multidisc set is an apt reminder that soul music was never just a man's world.

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Web extra to the November 12-18, 1998 issue of Metro.

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