Appraising the Mtume & Lucas Songbook

0
Posted June 1, 2018 by J Matthew Cobb in Features
mtume-lucas-header

Beyond “Juicy Fruit” and “Borderline,” songwriting pair Mtume & Lucas were a powerful, indispensable force in 20th-century R&B

Grammy award for Best R&B Song awarded to James Mtume and Reggie Lucas for Stephanie Mills' "Never Knew Love Like This Before" (Credit: ReggieLucas.com)

Grammy award for Best R&B Song awarded to James Mtume and Reggie Lucas for Stephanie Mills’ “Never Knew Love Like This Before” (Credit: ReggieLucas.com)

When Stephanie Mills won a Grammy in February of 1981 for Best Female R&B Performance for “Never Knew Love Like This Before” while beating a strong list of contenders including Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack and the succumbed Minnie Riperton, it would become her career highlight for a long while. She also nabbed Best R&B Song, beating a list of contemporaries like Chic, the Manhattans and George Benson. With two Grammy victories in the bag in one epic night, this clearly was a well-earned declaration proving her shift from Broadway star to disco and R&B darling was the right move.

At first, Mills struggled to find that stride as a recording artist. After dropping a poorly performing album produced by Burt Bacharach and Hal David on Motown and a one-time disc on ABC focusing on her claim to fame from The Wiz, the singles all failed to produce any winners, leaving a painful dent in her musical aspirations. Her hopes were eventually secured when a budding songwriting pair, hungry for a career win as a songwriting duo, shouldered to her rescue. And like dynamic duos that dominated song factories (Leiber & Stoller, King & Griffin, Gamble & Huff, Ashford & Simpson, etc.), James Mtume and Reggie Lucas, the newest kids on the block, made their splash on the music world. And with Mills, they were able to achieve that goal. “Mtume and Lucas are very important to me,” said Mills back in August 1981 to Billboard.  “We connect. It didn’t happen at Motown. I have a style of my own and Mtume and Lucas have captured it. They understand the way that I want to sing, they know my sound.”

It’s a moment that is entirely missed on the season 13 premiere of TV One’s Unsung, which follows James Mtume from his childhood to the highs and lows that came with his namesake band.  The work that Mtume and Lucas did with Mills, and the other stars that benefited from their songwriting from 1977 to the early ‘80’s, is vaguely mentioned. In the eyes of the astute documentarian and those with vivid knowledge of Mtume’s grander achievements, this is highway robbery. Instead the 35-minute episode (without commercials) spends much of its time celebrating the timeless, highly-sampled “Juicy Fruit,” a song that beams with pride as an ‘80’s R&B/smooth funk classic and a hip-hop legend (serving as the debut single for famed East Coast rapper Notorious B.I.G.). The rest of the time is spent on minor hits from Mtume. As good as “You, Me and He” and the EW&F-inspired “Give It On Up (If You Want To)” sounds, they are footnotes when compared to the body of work Mtume and Lucas laid for Mills and the others that benefited from them.

James Mtume with Reggie Lucas and Wade Marcus

James Mtume with Reggie Lucas and Wade Marcus

Released in 1980, “Never Knew Love Like This Before” was released at a very crucial time for R&B. Disco had fallen out of grace with Top 40 due to the scary “Disco Sucks” campaign and any artist that depended on the format were being privately etched from their record labels as multiple disco divisions were being shuttered completely. But this darling track, adorned with pop finesse and a melody, pushed through. It soared into the top ten of the Hot 100, proving to have just as magnetic power with pop audiences as it did with her dedicated base of African-American consumers. It also was an international sensation, rocketing into the Top Ten in Belgium, Australia, New Zealand and the UK. In the Netherlands, it inherited the number one spot. In the US, the song amazingly performed better on pop than it did on the R&B charts (#6 pop versus #12 R&B). This clearly is the mountaintop in the Mtume & Lucas’s songwriting catalog, and deserves more than a mere mention when discussing Mtume’s legacy.

Three years earlier, Mtume and Lucas were considered for a Grammy for their work on “The Closer I Get to You,” the moving duet featuring Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway. It’s a crucial moment for Mtume and his partner Reggie Lucas, who both left Miles Davis’s band to begin work with Flack as a part of her backing band. Comfortable in their musical insight, they landed on the recording sessions of Blue Lights in the Basement and submitted a track they had written while on the road to producer Joe Ferla. Flack eventually got around to hearing it, and work began to put it on the album. It was originally intended as a solo performance for Flack, but at the bequest of Flack’s manager David Franklin, the song morphed into a duet with her “Where Is the Love” partner Donny Hathaway. The end result proved to be one of the golden moments of ‘70’s sultry soul. Although Mtume and Lucas didn’t produce the affair, the song, it soars as one of the finer moments for Flack and the very moment Mtume and Lucas soldiers onward as a songwriting team. After leaving Flack’s band to focus on songwriting and their own band, Mtume and Lucas contributed the post-disco jam “Back Together Again” to Flack/Hathaway duet LP Roberta Flack featuring Donny Hathaway, posthumously released after Hathaway’s unfortunate suicide.

stephaniemills-whatchaFor some unfortunate reason, the bio-doc series also fails to mention these moments, among others. There’s the practically-perfect 1979 LP for Stephanie Mills’s What Cha Gonna Do With My Lovin’, solely produced by Mtume and Lucas and featuring the Mtume band arsenal. With no fillers in sight, this disc – Mills’ first for 20th Century Records – soars with glorious string-studded funk-disco (“What ‘Cha Gonna Do With My Lovin’,” “Put Your Body In It”), dreamy midtempo gems (“Deeper Inside Your Love,” “Starlight”) and towering soul (an improved take on Peabo Bryson’s “Feel the Fire”). Without a doubt, it is Mills’s finest album, towering Sweet Sensation (also produced by Mtume and Lucas) and her 1987 classic urban contemporary makeover If I Were Your Woman.

LISTEN: “WHAT CHA GONNA DO WITH MY LOVIN'” BY STEPHANIE MILLS

Also failing to cover Mtume & Lucas’s work with Phyllis Hyman is problematic. Maybe it’s because Hyman has already been blessed with an Unsung episode, so has Hathaway. But the Mtume/Lucas fortress yielded two significant tracks to Hyman’s brief disco stint in the late ‘70’s with “You Know How to Love Me” and “Under Your Spell.” Although they produced the entire You Know How to Love Me LP for Hyman, these tracks are the obvious standouts. Smitten with gorgeous strings, sumptuous backing vocals and a jubilant disco beat overflowing with Studio 54 magic, “You Know” peaked at number 6 on the disco charts and number 12 R&B. And although Hyman’s powerful voice is mostly remembered for dashing soulful ballads about heartbreak, she shines through here as one of the most underrated divas to ever tackle classic disco.

LISTEN: “YOU KNOW HOW TO LOVE ME” BY PHYLLIS HYMAN

The band Mtume powered all of those releases. Keyboardist Hubert Eaves, drummer Howard King, guitarist Ed Moore, bassist Basil Fearington are all there. Even Tawatha Agee, the lead vocalist of “Juicy Fruit” is in on the action. Eventually, a good thing never lasts forever, so the band breaks up for a myriad of reasons, for which the Unsung episode on Mtume addresses. Eaves would find a safe haven with D-Train, an East Coast act on Prelude Records that dominated underground post-disco. An in-demand Agee returned to a world of background singing, leaving her voice on albums for Luther Vandross, Aretha Franklin, Chic, Whitney Houston, Patti LaBelle, Joe Cocker, Sting, the O’Jays and a host of others.

As for the partnership James Mtume had with Reggie Lucas, it was abruptly dismantled right before the Juicy Fruit LP materialized. “Would You Like to (Fool Around),” a slinky funky jam off the album, would be their last single the two would pen together as a team. On the record, the reasons behind their split were due to “creative indifferences.” It’s mentioned on Lucas’s website, in his own words. Mtume echoed that same chorus on Unsung. Up to the moment Juicy Fruit was conceived, the two did music for Lou Rawls, the Spinners and a few tracks for Stephanie Mills, including “You Can’t Run from My Love,” an endearing track off of 1982’s Tantalizing Hot. It’s possible that the force behind their breakup may have had to deal with the disappointing results that came from their music. In an article published in Billboard, some of their frustrations echoed during their examinations of the divided music industry as they tried to understand the logic behind musical categories. “The way they create categories is completely outmoded; it’s archaic,” said Reggie Lucas. “Lou [Rawls] is called a pop act, but maybe it’s just that older, more settled blacks in their ‘30’s. ‘40’s and ‘50’s buy him. [But] I can’t think of one person I know who doesn’t listen to everything. Unfortunately, to earn a living, we have to wear these little hats.”

By 1982, the results behind their labor for Mills, Rawls, the Spinners and even their own group Mtume were producing very little action; nothing in the range of their Grammy-winning success for Mills from 1979 to 1981. And a change of pace, particularly surrounding their style, was necessary. They observed that point to Billboard. “[Disco] gave an opportunity for a lot of black music to be exposed to a lot of young whites who would have never heard it otherwise,” said Mtume. “But since disco died, there’s been a halt. It’s almost back to where it was twenty years ago.”

Rather than going back to what it was twenty years before disco, Reggie Lucas made a leap of faith with a desperate young singer hungry to be a rock star. In the eyes of the fame-hungry Madonna, Reggie Lucas’s track record was a good start for her debut. Although covering pop was practically m new territory for him, he had modest mainstream successes on the pop charts with Mills’s “Never Knew Love Like This Before.”

“It seems ridiculous in retrospect, but I was an established professional and she was a nobody,” Lucas told Rolling Stone in 2013 on the 30th anniversary of Madonna’s debut album. “I met with her at a tiny little apartment she had in the Lower East Side. I thought she was vivacious and sexy and interesting, and had a lot of energy.”


WATCH: MUSIC VIDEO FOR MADONNA’S “EVERYBODY”

Plus, the marriage of Philly soul sophistication and a drive for dance music worked well for the club kid, especially as “Everybody” rocketed up the dance charts to number three in the summer of 1982. Black audiences also ate it up. On the single’s cover art stood a hip-hop collage of urban New York, fueling the assumption that Madonna was black. And it was that fuel that fired up “Borderline,” a song showcasing riffs and R&B setups similar to “Never Knew.” Although the track used a drum machine, the opening showcased a slower intro carrying a similar bell-like synth, just like Mills’s gem. It may have been that familiarity to listeners, or the easy breezy mesh of pop and soul, that translated into a big win for Madonna on the charts.

WATCH: MUSIC VIDEO FOR MADONNA’S “BORDERLINE”

While “Everybody” and its low-budget Paradise Garage-shot music video dazzling dance aficionados, “Borderline” and “Lucky Star,” another irresistible pop track produced by Lucas, were gliding up the pop singles chart. The latter, a Madonna-only composition, peaked at number four pop, even 42 R&B. With its incorporation of nursery rhyme adages (“Starlight, star bright, first star I see tonight”) and a slew of funky guitar lines, “Lucky Star” became impossible to shake in the fall of 1983. Eventually discos ate it up too, shooting it to number one.

madonna-album01Prior to the single release of “Lucky Star” came “Holiday,” a last-minute track stuffed unto Madonna’s self-titled album that elevated the status of Madonna from New York club kid socialite to household name. “Holiday” was big, a Number One dance hit that peaked at number 16 pop. It also emerged as her very first Top Ten hit internationally, trekking in Australia, Ireland, Germany and the UK.

Oddly enough, it was turned down by Phyllis Hyman, Lucas’s former client. Lucas, who submitted much of the work on Madonna, had no involvement in the finished version of the giant disco-flavored single. Penned by Curtis Hudson and Lisa Stevens, the song landed in the hands of remixer Jellybean Benitez, responsible in remixing “Lucky Star” and felt it would be a good fit on Madonna. He laid his magic on it, including several other tracks off the album, such as “Burning Up,” “Physical Attraction” and the highly overlooked “Think of Me.”

Benitez later commented on how upset “Lucky Star” sounded prior to his mix of it. “She was unhappy with the whole damn thing, so I went in and sweetened up a lot of music for her, adding some guitars to ‘Lucky Star’, some voices, some magic,” he said. “I just wanted to do the best job I could do for her. When we would play back ‘Holiday’ or ‘Lucky Star’, you could see that she was overwhelmed by how great it all sounded. You wanted to help her, you know? As much as she could be a bitch, when you were in groove with her, it was very cool, very creative.”

Those that know Madonna well or pay close attention to her track record will know that she hardly uses the same producer twice. Despite the success Reggie Lucas was able to cough up for her debut album, she moved on to others, mostly Chic’s Nile Rodgers, for her second effort, Like a Virgin. Lucas did some work for the Four Tops and then for a few other acts, but the well had dried up for him. By the end of the ‘80’s, music had dramatically changed, leaving Lucas as an important, but brief footnote in Madonna’s timeline. Thanks to the abundance of catalog compilations, even Madonna’s first major “hits” collection with the dance-oriented You Can Dance LP, Lucas’s work was being preserved for the next generation. A lost track produced by Lucas from the Madonna LP sessions, “Ain’t No Big Deal,” even landed on the B-side of “Papa Don’t Preach.”

This month, Lucas passed away from complications of heart disease. “Reggie Lucas, my adored and beloved father, passed away early this morning at the age of 65,” wrote Lucas’ daughter, Lisa. “He made beautiful music, a beautiful family, a beautiful life and I will miss him every single day that I live on this earth.”

Other than their brief successes around 1983, neither Mtume nor Lucas on their own experienced the type of lucrative satisfaction that came with their work as a unit. Sadly, “creative differences” wedged them apart. With the right people, they soared. On their own, very little was achieved. But for that brief moment in time, Mtume and Lucas made glorious magic together. And in the words of Kim Weston and Marvin Gaye’s jubilant duet classic, “it takes two to make a dream come true.” We’re lucky to have experienced it.


About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


0 Comments



Be the first to comment!


Leave a Response


(required)

Close
Please support HIFI Magazine
By clicking any of these buttons you help our site to get better

Twitter

Facebook

Google+