Jerry Butler’s role in the Philadelphia International Records story was more than just a singer. Over the years, he wrote songs a number of songs either with Gamble and Huff, or on his own and worked as a producer for the label. This he did during the two periods he was involved with Philadelphia International Records. This was the latest in a long line of labels Jerry recorded for during a career that stretched fifty years. During his career, Jerry worked with some of the biggest names in music, including Curtis Mayfeld, when both Jerry and Curtis were members of The Impressions. Another legend of soul music that Jerry worked with, was Otis Redding, with whom he co-wrote I’ve Been Loving You Too Long, one of Otis’ most memorable tracks. As a solo artist, Jerry released a number of successful and critically acclaimed albums, including 1968s The Ice Man Cometh and Ice On Ice released in 1970. However, during the seventies, Jerry Butler collaborated on many hugely successful albums with Gamble and Huff on the Philadelphia International label, helping make the Philly Sound famous worldwide. It was on Philadelphia International Records that Jerry Butler recorded what would be the final album of his career The Best Love.

The Best Love was released by Jerry Butler in the spring of 1980, and was the follow-up to Nothing Says I Love You Like I Love You, which although it featured some wonderful music, wasn’t a commercial success. Before The Best Love was released, the Gamble and Huff penned title track was released as a single. This was one of just two Gamble and Huff tracks on the album. When it was released, it peaked at number forty-nine in the US R&B Charts, during a nine week stay on the charts. Following on from the single, The Best Love was released, but spent three weeks on the charts reaching number seventy-one in the US R&B Charts. 

Given the quality of music on the album, this was a huge disappointment. For The Best Love, some of Philadelphia International’s most talented songwriters, arrangers and producers were called upon. Gamble and Huff, Dexter Wansel and Cynthia Biggs contributed songs to the album, while Jerry only co-wrote two of the songs on the album. Dexter Wansel, John Usry Jr and Gamble and Huff all arranged or produced songs on The Best Love, so there were some hugely talented and creative people involved in the album. Sadly, even with such a vast amount of creative, talented people involved in its creation, The Best Love wasn’t a commercial success. Neither was the second single released from the album Don’t Be An Island, the sumptuous, sensual duet with Debra Henry, who was a member of another Philadelphia International group Silk. So highly regarded was the single, that it was compared favorably with his sixties duets with Betty Everett, or his seventies duets with Brenda Lea Eager. This didn’t help the single reach number seventy-five in the US R&B Charts, where it spent just four weeks. After the failure of both the singles and album, Jerry Butler retired from the music industry, concentrating in local politics in his home-town of Chicago. However, given that The Best Love was Jerry’s farewell album, it was fitting that it was such a great album, which I’ll now tell you about.

The Best Love opens with the uptempo version of The Best Love I Ever Had, one of just two Gamble and Huff penned tracks on the album. When the song was released as a single, people saw it as an attempt to rewrite Don’t Leave Me This Way, The Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes classic. It has a similar structure, gradually building up to a dance-floor friendly tempo, which is powered by a groove. This uptempo version opens the album, while a slower version closes the album, acting like a musical bookend. A combination of rhythm section, keyboards and guitars combine to accompany Jerry’s sultry vocal, before a piano enters. Gradually, the song builds, the tempo quickening while a keyboard leads the track, before the lushest of strings enter. With drums providing a steady heartbeat Jerry sings the lyrics beautifully as he remembers the lover he once knew and loved. As the song progresses, Jerry’s delivers an impassioned, heartfelt vocal against John Usry Jr’s stunning arrangement. Add to this some classic Gamble and Huff production, and the result is a beautiful song, one that’s full of emotion and sadness, and one of the album’s highlights.

Would You Mind is a much slower track, with the lushest of slow, strings and sweet backing vocalists accompanying Jerry’s seductive vocal. The track is co-written by Jerry and John Usry Jr, who the track. Against a slow, lush arrangement from John Usry Jr, where shivering, shimmering strings are at the heart of the arrangement, while guitars chime and backing vocalists accompany Jerry throughout the track. This combination is hugely effective, with Jerry’s vocal sitting atop the arrangement as he seductively asks would his lover mind spending the night in, after too many nights on the town. Instead he sings “they can ride on the wings of tender love song.” Both the slow tempo and the string laden combine beautifully with Jerry’s seductive vocal, resulting in a gorgeous love song.

Don’t Be An Island is a duet with Debra Henry which was compared favorably with Jerry’s duets with Betty Everett or Brenda Lea Eager. This is very definitely the case from the opening bars, when Debra sings the lead against slow, chiming guitars and rhythm section while strings quiver, lushly above the arrangement. There’s a sense of hurt, sadness and longing in Brenda’s voice, while Jerry’s voice is full of emotion, understanding and love. They combine beautifully, their voices contrasting perfectly, with the hurt in Brenda’s voice contrasting with warmth and love in Jerry’s. Behind them, backing vocalists add to the sense of drama and emotion, their voices soaring in unison, with a gospel influence present. Meanwhile the arrangement meanders along, with the strings adding to the sadness and hurt in Brenda’s vocal. It’s a hugely emotive, sensual sounding track, where the whole gambit of emotions are displayed. Everything from sadness, hurt and betrayal to a sense of love, longing and understanding is present, during just under five minutes of sensual music.

A sultry saxophone and piano open Tell Me Girl (Why Has It Got To End), with backing vocalists and slow, lush strings entering before a melancholy, almost heartbroken Jerry enters. His relationship has ended, he’s been blind to the fact that his girlfriend never loved him. He pleads with her, heartbroken, almost desperate at what’s happening to him. The arrangement has a subtle, understated sound, with the rhythm section, piano and gently rasping horns combining with the saddest of strings and sympathetic sounding backing vocalists. When all this is combined, it’s a hugely sad, but quite beautiful sounding track, Jerry Butler at his absolute finest, singing his heart out. It’s quite simply a stunning track, one you could never, ever tire of.

Side two of The Best Love opens with Reach Out For Me a quite different sounding version of the Bacharach and David track. John Usry Jr’s arrangement transforms the track into mid-tempo dance-floor friendly track, with Jerry’s gentle vocal enveloped by sweet sounding backing vocalists. Shimmering strings, rasping horns and the rhythm section all play an important part in the success in the sound of this of the track. Later, a saxophone sails above the arrangement, while Jerry joyously delivers the lyrics with a smile on his face. The result is a very different, but very good rendition of one Bacharach and David’s classic tracks.

The second duet on the album is We’ve Got This Feeling Again, with Debra Henry of Silk accompanying Jerry. Written by Dexter Wansel and Cynthia Biggs, the song was previously entitled I’ve Got This Feeling Again, but was changed so the song could be sung as a duet. Again, Debra’s vocal sits well with Jerry’s, with the contrast in sound and style working. Against a slow backdrop where keyboards, rhythm section, searing guitar and rhythm section accompany Debra, it’s a very different sounding arrangement from Don’t Be An Island. An electric guitar is used in an almost rocky style, which sounds slightly out of place in the arrangement. It only makes a brief, but repeated appearance, giving way to an emotive and impassioned duet between Jerry and Debra. As the track flows along, it just isn’t as good a track as Don’t Be An Island. It isn’t a bad track, quite the opposite. Both vocals are good, but the arrangement isn’t quite up to the standard of others on the album. Strangely, its the only arrangement to feature a Moog Synthesizer or the rocky sounding guitar. Neither add to the arrangement, which is a shame, given the emotion and passion in Jerry and Debra’s vocal.

Thankfully after the slight disappointment of the previous track, Gamble and Huff ride to the rescue with Angel Face which they wrote and produced, while John Usry Jr arranged it. An organ opens the track, while keyboards, guitars and rhythm section accompany a sultry sounding vocal from Jerry as he sings about the beautiful woman he loves. Behind him, the arrangement is slow, with the organ punctuating the track while strings sweep and guitars chime. This is a much better sounding arrangement, one that meanders along, with short dramatic peaks. As good as the arrangement is, Jerry’s vocal is its equal, resulting in a tender, and beautiful track.

The Best Love close with the slow version of The Best Love I Ever Had, which is very different from the quicker version. The arrangement sees the same combination of instruments used, with slow, lush strings and piano featuring throughout the track, while the rhythm section plays with a subtly, sometimes adding drama, while guitars chime as Jerry gives a beautiful, emotive and heartfelt delivery of the lyrics, especially towards the end of the track when the song reaches its dramatic crescendo. This is the perfect way to close the album, with Jerry giving one of his best vocals on the album.

Although The Best Love wasn’t a commercial success, it was still an album that featured some great music on it. Of the eight tracks on The Best Love, the only track that disappointed was We’ve Got This Feeling Again, because of the arrangement, which sadly, didn’t work and let down the vocals from Jerry and Debra. Apart from that, the other seven songs on were of the highest quality, especially The Best Love I Ever Had, Would You Mind, Tell Me Girl (Why Has It Got To End) and Angel Face. Both versions of The Best Love I Ever Had work really well, with the slower version especially, featuring a sultry vocal from Jerry. On the album, a number of Philadelphia International creative heavyweights featured on the album. As well as Gamble and Huff, Dexter Wansel and Cynthia Biggs and John Usry Jr all played their part in making this such a great sounding album. Sadly, by 1980 when The Best Love was released, a new generation of soul singers were dominating the market. Fellow Philadelphia International artist Teddy Pendergrass and Luther Vandross were now among the most popular soul singers, whereas artists like Jerry Butler and Bobby Womack, their music was no longer commercial or fashionable. Thankfully, over thirty years after the release of The Best Love, people are recognizing that it is indeed a top quality album featuring some wonderful music. It was the last album in Jerry’s long and illustrious career, and although not a commercial success, is a fitting finale to such a successful career. Standout Tracks:  The Best Love I Ever Had, Would You Mind, Tell Me Girl (Why Has It Got To End) and Angel Face.


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