NATURAL FOUR-THE NATURAL FOUR.

 NATURAL FOUR-THE NATURAL FOUR.

Having formed in Oakland in 1967, Natural Four signed their first recording contract with a local Oakland label Boola Boola Records. Their debut singles was I Thought You Were Mine, which sold over thirty-thousand copies in the Oakland area. After the release of the follow-up, Why Should Me Stop Now ABC Records signed Natural Four, having seen the group’s potential. ABC released Why Should Me Stop Now and the single reached number thirty-one in the US R&B Charts. Two further singles were released on ABC, plus Natural Four’s debut album Good Vibes. Sadly, when Natural Four couldn’t replicate the success of their debut single I Thought You Were Mine, ABC dropped Natural Four from its roster. Then in 1971, after the failure of the single Give A Little Love released on Chess Records, lead singer Chris James decided drastic action was needed. He replaced the other three band members. Remarkably, this worked, with Natural Four signing to Curtom Records in 1972. This saw Natural Four make a commercial breakthrough, with six US R&B hit singles and three albums being released. Each album was produced by Leroy Hutson, including 1974s The Natural Four which not only reached number thirty-six in the US R&B Charts, but featured three hit singles. After I’ve told you about the making of The Natural Four, I’ll tell you about the music on the album.

For the recording of what was the new lineup of Natural Four, lead singer Chris James, Darryl Cannady, Steve Striplin and Delmos Whitney headed to the Chicago,  where Leroy Hutson would produce six of the nine tracks on their first album for Curtom. The other tracks were produced by Lowrell Simon and Richard Tufo. Leroy Hutson’s role wasn’t just as producer, but as songwriter. He was also arranger and songwriter. He cowrote seven of the nine tracks on The Natural Four, including the three singles that would be released from the album. Recording of the nine tracks took place at Curtom’s Studios in Chicago, with the album set for release in 1974.

On the release of The Natural Four, the album reached number thirty-six in the US R&B Charts. Three singles were released, with Can This Be Real reaching number thirty-one in the US Billboard 100 and number ten in the US R&B Charts. Love That Really Counts was the follow-up, reaching number ninety-eight in the US Billboard 100 and number twenty-three in the US R&B Charts. You Bring Out the Best In Me was the final single released from The Natural Four, reaching number twenty in the US R&B Charts. Chris James’ decision to change the lineup of Natural Four had worked, with three hit singles and a top forty US R&B album the proof. However, what does the music on The Natural Four sound like? That’s what I’ll now tell you.

Opening The Natural Four is Can This Be For Real, which Leroy Hutson cowrote, arranged and produced. Opening with a sultry, seductive saxophone drifting above arrangement, Chris James emotive, heartfelt vocal enters. He’s accompanied by tight harmonies from the rest of the group, while the rhythm section, percussion and lush strings. Later, the saxophone reenters, reflecting and complimenting the beauty and in emotion of Chris’ vocal, on what is one of the album’s highlights.

Like the opening track, You Bring Out The Best In Me was another single released from The Natural Four. When the track opens, you realize the quality of the track. Strings cascade, horns rasp and the rhythm section accompany Chris’ vocal. It’s impassioned and powerful, while tight, soulful harmonies accompany him. A pounding bass line is ever-present, while flourishes of keyboards, punchy horns and the lushest of strings drift in and out of the track. For over four joyous, impassioned and uplifting minutes, Natural Four have you spellbound, such is the quality of the track.

Blazing horns accompany the vocal as Try Love Again opens. Quickly, the vocal changes hands, while the rest of the group add harmonies. Bursts of horns, sweeping swirling strings and a rhythm section that’s punchy and powerful, inject drama that matches the vocal. Unlike the two previous tracks, the arrangement is busy, almost jumbled. Vocals seem to fight for attention, while the arrangement seems too “narrow” and crowded. Later, when the horns take centre-stage, playing a ninety second jam there isn’t the cohesive sound I’d expect. It seems that, after a promising start, the track failed to live up to expectation.

Thankfully, You Can’t Keep Running Away sees Natural Four get things back on track. Guitars and the rhythm section combine before flourishes of dancing strings give way to the vocal. The vocal changes hands, while tight, punchy harmonies are accompanied by crystalline guitars, shimmering strings and the rhythm section. Harmonies sweep in, augmenting the lead vocal, as this gloriously, uplifting and irresistible track reveals its charms.

This Is What’s Happening Now is quite different in sound as it gives up its secrets and subtleties. Against a backdrop of studio chatter, the rhythm section and guitars build up the drama, while strings shiver and quiver. Then, when the vocal enters, you realize that this track has some of the best lyrics on the album. They’re full of social comment, and remarkably, still relevant nearly forty years later. There’s frustration and anger in the lead vocal, with the harmonies more potent and effective. Strings, rhythm section and percussion provide a perfect, powerful and dramatic backdrop for Natural Four as they deliver their impassioned, emotive vocals.

On Love That Really Counts the tempo drops way down, while the arrangement has a much more understated sound. Guitars reverberate gently, with percussion and rhythm section playing thoughtfully and subtly. The vocals and harmonies have a similar understated and tender sound. Horns rasp gently, strings sweep tenderly as one of the most beautiful ballads on The Natural Four unfolds, with Natural Four delivering some of their most tender vocals.

Try To Smile sees the mood change, with a track whose irresistible, hook laden charms sweeps you along in its wake. Bursts of blazing horns, rhythm section and cascading strings accompanies Chris’ vocal. Harmonies sweep in, with the rhythm section adding to the track’s drama and the strings adding to its grace and beauty. Later, braying horns are accompanied by cooing, sweeping harmonies, while Chris delivers his vocal with a mixture of joy, hope and emotion. By then, you’re smitten, won over by this joyous, hook-laden track, which demonstrates perfectly just how talented the new Natural Four were. 

Strings shimmer and quiver, as Love’s Society opens. Chris’ vocal is tender, thoughtful and impassioned, accompanied by harmonies that sweep in. A piano meanders in and out of the arrangement, as do stabs of Hammond organ. Key to the track’s sound is the braying horns, shivering strings and a rhythm section that mix subtlety and drama. This is a fitting backdrop, considering the quality of the lyrics, which Leroy Hutson cowrote with Joseph Scott and Roger Anfinsen. They’re poignant, full of social comment, and delivered with passion by Chris. All these ingredients make this a much more cerebral track, more for the head than the feet.

Closing The Natural Four is Things Will Be Better Tomorrow, written by Richard Tufo. It’s a song offering hope and is full of optimism. Set against an arrangement that’s much more funky than other tracks, with keyboards, dancing strings and howling horns combining. Then when the vocal enters, you do a double-take, checking the right album is on. The reason for this is briefly, the vocal sounded like Curtis Mayfield. Quickly, the vocal changes hands, with each member displaying their vocal talents. Their vocals are a perfect fit, one complimenting the other. Meanwhile, horns rasp, strings swirl and sweep and the rhythm section add the track’s funky heartbeat. Not only does this track show a tougher, funkier side to Natural Four, but it’s message of optimism and hope was a good way to end The Natural Four.

Natural Four’s second album The Natural Four sees a very different group, not just in personnel, but different sounding group. Their music is much more accomplished and polished. The only thing that remained the same was Chris James’ lead vocals. However, the three new members were key to Natural Four’s new sound. Not only did they contributing tighter, sweeter harmonies, but when they take turns of sharing the lead vocals, their voices were a better fit. Each member compliments the other perfectly. Together, the four members of Natural Four ensured that The Natural Four is an album full of what’s variously, emotive, beautiful and dramatic music. Apart from Try Love Again, which has a crowded arrangement, the other eight tracks see Natural Four at their soulful best. These tracks are a mixture of ballads and uptempo tracks. Some of the tracks on The Natural Four contain relevant and important messages. Whether music with a message, ballads or dance-floor friendly tracks, they’ve one thing in common, their quality. With music as good as this, this leads me to wonder just why Natural Four’s second album, and first album for Curtom Records, The Natural Four wasn’t a much bigger success. It only reached number thirty-six in the US R&B Charts, but did contain three top forty US R&B singles. After this, Natural Four would only release two more albums 1975s Heaven Right Here On Earth and 1976s Nightchaser. Although Natural Four didn’t find the success their music deserved, The Natural Four is an album full of Good Vibes where Natural Four take you to a place that’s Heaven Right Here On Earth. Standout Tracks: Can This Be For Real, You Bring Out The Best In Me, You Can’t Keep Running Away and Love That Really Counts. 

NATURAL FOUR-THE NATURAL FOUR.

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