ANN PEEBLES-IF THIS IS HEAVEN.
ANN PEEBLES-IF THIS IS HEAVEN.
Since I first started buying soul music, there are certain labels which have been great favourites of mine. Among them are the obvious ones Stax, Fame, Philadelphia International, Cadet, Motown and of course Hi Records. Hi had been founded in 1957 by a group of people including Ray Harris, a singer and record shop owner. Together with three former producers for Sun Records Joe Cuoghi, Quinton Claunch and Bill Cantrell, they founded the label with three others who were “silent partners.” For the next twenty years, until the label was sold in 1977 to Al Bennett’s Cream Records, Hi Records was one of the most successful and influential Southern Soul labels. On the labels roster, were Al Green, O.V. Wright, Otis Clay, Syl Johnson and Ann Peebles. The label’s most successful period was during the sixties and seventies, with Hi releasing some hugely successful and innovative albums during the seventies. Al Green was the labels major success story, and like other artists on the label, he was produced by the legendary producer Willie Mitchell.
Like Al Green, Ann Peebles career was guided by Willie Mitchell, who produced the seven albums she released on Hi. By 1977, the Hi sound was being adapted in response to the popularity of disco. There was an obvious disco sound to If This Is Heaven, which this album is about. That wasn’t the only change on this album, with the by now legendary, Memphis Horns being replaced by Ben Cauley’s South Memphis section. Other changes were the use of a vocoder on and a rockier sounding electric guitar on You’re Gonna Make Me Cry, a track made famous by O.V. Wright. These changes were meant to attract a wider audience for Ann’s music, including those who were attracted to, and enjoying the sound of disco. The result was that it alienated some of Ann’s existing fanbase, and failed to attract new listeners to her music. When the album was released in 1977, the album failed to chart and the only single released from the album If This Is Heaven, stalled at number sixty-four in the US R&B Charts when it was released. All in all, the change in Ann’s sound hadn’t been a success, alienated her existing fans, failing to attract new fans and resulting in an album that failed commercially. Now thirty-four years later, I’m going to revisit If This Is Heaven, and ascertain just how who good or otherwise, the album is.
If This Is Heaven opens with the title track, which was written by the Willie Mitchell Earl Randle partnership. It was the only single released from the album, and disappointingly, stalled at number sixty-four in the US R&B Charts. When the track opens the tempo is quick, the sound bright with chiming guitars. rhythm section, an atmospheric Hammond organ and subtle percussion combining before strings sweep in and horns blaze. Swooning backing vocalists sing before Ann’s vocal enters. It’s strong, clear and laden with emotion, as she’s accompanied by a fuller arrangement that has swirling strings at its heart, with horns punctuating the arrangement. Immediately, the difference between the new horn section and the Memphis Horns is apparent. Ben Cauley’s South Memphis have a softer, more subdued sound, which works on this track, but their sound lacks the heart and depth of the Memphis Horns. Regardless of that, Ann delivers the lyrics perfectly, thoughtfully and with feeling. Likewise, the arrangement has an upbeat, joyful sound, which is helped along by the addition of the backing vocalists Rhodes, Chalmers and Rhodes. This is an excellent track to open the album, one with a catchy, “feelgood” sound.
A Good Day For Lovin’ is a very different sounding track, one that demonstrates that times were indeed a changing at Hi. When the track opens, chiming guitars soar, while a punchy bass and fast, swirling strings cut in before horns blazing punctuate the arrangement with quick bursts. Only then does Ann’s vocal enter, and when it does, it’s a very deliberate and considered style she uses, as if trying to add huge amounts of drama. Behind her, the arrangement mixes disco influenced strings, with elements of the traditional Hi sound. Wah-wah guitars, dramatic bursts of braying horns and swirling strings combine with a driving rhythm section to accompany Ann’s vocal. What emerges is a track that’s obviously aimed at two types of people, those who were fans of disco, and Ann’s existing fans. Here, Ann’s vocal isn’t as soulful as on earlier albums, and although the arrangement retains elements of the traditional Hi sound, it has been given a makeover for the disco generation. Although not vintage Ann Peebles, it isn’t the worst track on the album, and has some merit.
After the updated Ann Peebles sound of the previous track, things get back on track with I’m So Thankful. Straight away, when Ann’s slow, heartfelt vocal begins you realize that this track is much better. A slow arrangement drenched is sadness, with a wistful sound works really well. This is down to the guitars, lush strings, gently rasping horns and slow, rhythm section which accompany Ann. Together, they play slowly and subtly, allowing Ann’s vocal to take centre-stage. Later, the arrangement fills out, and although the tempo remains slow, drama is injected, matching Ann’s lyrics about a woman transformed from “a wild young girl” to responsible woman. These are the best lyrics on the album, because they’ve a strong narrative and Ann tells the “story” really well. She’s assisted in this, by an arrangement that’s a slow combination of subtlety and drama. This combination results in one of the best songs on If This Is Heaven.
Being Here With You opens brightly, with a combination of quick, swirling, shimmering strings, while short bursts of braying horns interject, guitars chime and the rhythm section provide the track’s heartbeat. Meanwhile, Ann’s voice is full of emotion, with a sultry, seductive sound as she sings about being in love and being with her lover. The arrangement has a lovely slow tempo, with waves of dramatic music unfolding, thanks to a the horns, strings and rhythm section. While the horns interject, the strings swirl and float high above the rest of the arrangement. A chiming guitar plays a prolonged solo, adding another layer of contrasting sound. When all of these combine with Ann’s sultry vocal, it works really well, resulting in the type of song we’d expect from Ann Peebles.
Things change on Boy I Gotta Have You, a much quicker, dance-floor influenced track. This is one of the songs that was aimed at those who loved the disco sound. It sees stirring, sweeping strings, shimmering guitars, blazing horns and a driving rhythm section accompanying a quick, joyful sounding vocal from Ann. Behind her, equally joyous, backing vocalists accompany her, while the strings are at the heart of the arrangement, with a buzzing bass, piano and braying horns completing the sound. Although this sound wasn’t to everyone’s liking, there’s a lushness to the track, which is catchy and sweeps you along in its midst. Although I much prefer Ann’s more traditional sound, I actually enjoyed this track, and can see what Hi were trying to achieve. However, the problem was that labels like Salsoul were doing this so much better.
When I’m In Your Arms sees a return to the more “traditional” Ann Peebles sound, after her diversion into disco territory. A combination of sweeping strings and bright, blazing horns, and rhythm section open the track before Ann’s power laden voice soars, full of emotion and joy as she sings about anticipating being with her lover. Behind her, the arrangement is a mixture of chiming guitars, lush strings, rhythm section and interjections of blazing horns, which again, aren’t quite up to the standard of the Memphis Horns. Backing vocalists Rhodes, Chalmers and Rhodes provide sweet, tight, backing vocals, and are the perfect foil for Ann’s voice. Together with the band, they combine to produce an arrangement that’s bright, melodic and fulsome, perfect for Ann’s joyous, anticipatory vocal. However, the track could’ve been so much better with the Memphis Horns on it.
Of all the artists on Hi, one of my favorites was O.V. Wright, who recorded a brilliant version of You’re Gonna Make Me Cry. Here, Ann’s version contains an example of when sometimes people do something musically, that’s almost sacrilegious. What I hear you ask is such a musical crime? The addition of a vocoder on the track. To me, this is a bit like drawing a comedy moustache on the Mona Lisa, in the name of alternative comedy. Whoever, decided the vocoder was a good idea, should be made to stand in the naughty corner. After all, I’m still recovering from, and receiving therapy for the overuse of the vocoder on Daft Punk’s One More Time. Here, the track starts slowly and moodily, with guitars reverberating and chiming while the rhythm section play slowly, and dramatically. The guitars sound is too “rocky” and melodramatic, not what I want to hear on an Ann Peebles track. Backing singers soulfully unite, with Ann’s slow, sad vocal and apart from those dreadful guitars, which are totally out of place and hugely distracting everything is fine. Horns blaze in, but those guitars spoil things. Strings lush and beautiful cut in, but then the vocoder enters, and I can hardly listen further. The track is ruined and what could’ve been a good track is despoiled. Quite simply, it’s an aberration of a track, one that’s dreadful and should’ve been left off the album.
After the trauma of the previous track, surely, things can only get better with Games. It’s sweeping, swirling strings, blazing horns and horror, rocky sounding guitars that accompany Ann when her vocal enters. Her voice is powerful and emotive, as she delivers the lyrics dramatically. Behind her, the arrangement is unfolding, a mas of stirring, swirling strings, joyful, blazing horns, the rhythm section and some rock guitars. They sound totally out of place, and don’t belong on this track. Their sound jars, and detracts from what is an otherwise potentially good track. Both Ann’s vocal and the arrangement were shaping up well, until the guitars spoiled things. However, if you can suffer rock guitars on a Southern Soul track, then maybe you’ll like the track. I couldn’t, and if I’d wanted to hear rock guitars, I’d have bought an album by an overblown seventies group singing about something cosmic and way out, man.
Surely, Lovin’ You WIthout Love must make up for the two previous tracks, which to say the least were disappointing. Things start promisingly enough, with a piano playing slowly, before guitar, percussion, rhythm section, wailing, atmospheric Hammond organ and horns combine, before a moving, heartfelt vocal from Ann enters, augmented by some deeply, moving backing vocals. Apart from a trumpet which seems to cut in for no apparent reason, and a constantly recurring, jarring guitar sound, things are much better. Ann’s vocal is full of emotion and feeling, as she sings about a relationship gone wrong, where the love is gone. The additional of the slower tempo, and the use of the atmospheric, Hammond organ, sweeping strings and blazing horns get the arrangement back on track, and by the track’s end, it’s a vast improvement on the previous two tracks, but still isn’t vintage Ann Peebles.
If This Is Heaven closes with another of the faster tracks on the album, It Must Be Love, which was an attempt to relaunch Ann’s career and gain her new fans. There’s a funky sound and feel to the track straight from the opening bars. Sweeping, grand strings, wah-wah guitar, funk laden rhythm section and braying horns combine with Ann’s faster, throaty, funk-influenced vocal. Behind her, an arrangement that wouldn’t sound out of place on a blaxploitation soundtrack unfolds. A myriad of handclaps, buzzing bass, swirling strings, bursts of horns and backing vocalists combine with Ann on this funk influenced track which Ann carries off well. Although not her usual style of music, she handles the song well and it’s a good song to end the album with.
When I first bought this album I remember being both disappointed and saddened. Disappointed that it wasn’t as good as Ann’s earlier albums, and saddened by the way the traditional Hi sound had changed. In an attempt to “modernize” the sound, and win back fans who’d been attracted to disco, they disregarded part of what made the Hi sound so special. Unbelievably, out went the Memphis Horns and much of the Hi Rhythm section, with only bassist Leroy Hodges. In an attempt to modernize, in came vocoders, rock guitars and the flying cymbal sound on tracks like A Good Day For Lovin’. It seemed that in an ever-changing world, even reliable institutions like Hi Records weren’t immune from change. This affected Ann Peebles’ album If This Is Heaven, with vocoders and rock guitars rearing their ugly heads and desecrating tracks that had potential. Of the ten tracks on the album, four are of the standard I’d expect from Ann, four are reasonable and two are quite dreadful. This is a great shame, because Ann was a hugely talented singer who deserved much better. It wasn’t her fault the songs weren’t the right ones for her, or that she was having to try to be a disco diva. Neither was it her fault that someone had the bright idea to introduce a vocoder and rock guitars, which to me, are both unforgivable crimes against soul music. However, having said all that, there are good tracks on If This Is Heaven, which is now available as part of a two-disc set on Demon Records, as part of The Best of Ann Peebles Volume 2 1974-1981, which also features the albums Tellin’ It and The Handwriting is On the Wall. Should you wish to hear Ann’s best music, my advice is to buy The Complete Ann Peebles Volume 1 1969-1973 which features her first four albums on Hi Records. Standout Tracks: If This Is Heaven, I’m So Thankful, Being Here With You and Lovin’ You WIthout Love.
ANN PEEBLES-IF THIS IS HEAVEN.