When The Ritchie Family released their debut album in 1975, the group hadn’t yet settled on a lineup. So, the legendary Philadelphia backing vocals the Sweethearts of Sigma had taken charge of vocal duties. Now a year later, for their 1976  sophomore album Arabian Nights, The Ritchie Family had three new vocalists, including Gwen Oliver and Cassandra Wooten, who had been members of Honey and The Bees. Joining them were Cheryl Jacks. With this new lineup, the first of five different lineups of The Ritchie Family. Now work could begin on their sophomore album Arabian Nights, which was released in 1976,

Many of the same songwriters who worked onThe Ritchie Family’s debut album Brazil, would write tracks for Arabian Nights. The French songwriting and production team of Henri Belolo and Jacques Morali played their part in the three songs on SIde One of Arabian Nights. They cowrote Baby I’m On Fire and cowrote The Best Disco In Town with Richie Rome and Phil Hurtt. The songwriting team of Henri Belolo, Jacques Morali and Richie Rome cowrote Romantic Love with Peter Whitehead. Side Two of Arabian Nights saw The Ritchie Family draw inspiration from Gloria Gaynor’s 1975 album Never Say Goodbye, with the three songs transformed into a disco medley. This included Jimmy Kennedy and Nat Simon’s Istanbul (Not Constantinople), Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia (More Than Yesterday, Less Than Tomorrow) and Albert B. Ketelbey’s In A Persian Market (Show Me How You Dance). These six songs became Arabian Nights, which was recorded in Philadelphia at Joe Tarsia’s Sigma Sound Studios.

Joining the new lineup of The Ritchie Family at Sigma Sound Studios, were many of the musicians who played on Brazil. Accompanying The Ritchie Family were a band that included the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section, assisted by bassist Sugar Bear Foreman, drummer Charles Collins and guitarists Bobby “Electronic” Eli and Craig Snyder. Richie Rome played electric piano, congas came courtesy of Larry Washington, percussion from Bobby D’Amico, Vince Montana Jr, supplied vibes and Don Renaldo provided the strings and horns. Jacques Morali and Richie Rome produced Arabian Nights, which was released in 1976.

On the release of Arabian Nights in 1976, the album reached number thirty in the US Billboard 200 and number twenty-three in the US R&B Charts. The Best Disco In Town was released as a single, and proved to be a floor-filler, quickly becoming a favorite of dancers and becoming a disco classic. However, what does Arabian Nights sound like? In my review of Brazil i said that the Sweethearts of Sigma would’ve been the perfect vocalists for The Ritchie Family? Were the new lineup as good as the Sweethearts of Sigma? 

Opening Arabian Nights is the single The Best Disco In Town, which joyously explodes into life. The Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section, growling horns, Larry Washington’s congas and Vince Montana Jr’s vibes combine to create a pulsating disco beat. Meanwhile strings dance appreciatively. Then the three new vocalists Gwen Oliver, Cassandra Wooten and Cheryl Jacks make their Ritchie Family debut. They inject energy, enthusiasm and joy. Their vocals are quick, sweet and sometimes sassy. Male backing vocalists accompany them, complimenting their harmonies. Norman Harris and Bobby “Electronic” Eli add their trademark guitar sound, as layers of strings, blazing horns and the rhythm section provide a pounding disco beat. Seamlessly, The Ritchie Family flit seamlessly switch from the original track, to bursts of recent disco tracks, demonstrating the quality and talent of the band. They never miss a beat over this six-minute, hook-laden, pulsating, disco Magnus Opus. 

There’s no let up in the tempo or the pounding disco beat as Baby I’m On Fire opens. A thunderous Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section, furious cascading strings, percussion, funky guitars and flourishes of keyboards signal the arrival of breathy, punchy harmonies.   Above the arrangement a flute drifts in, while a powerhouse of a rhythm section drive the arrangement. It heads to a dramatic crescendo, helped along by frenzied, sensual harmonies. The arrangement is a mass of swirling strings, rasping horns, percussion and woodwind while the rhythm section seem determined to take the arrangement to even greater heights. When the breakdown arrives, it’s like a relief, giving the rhythm section time to recharge their batteries. Percussion and Vince Montana Jr’s vibes take charge. Then The Ritchie Family and the band take the arrangement to another dramatic crescendo. By then, you’re spent and exhausted by the frenzied, dramatic music that’s just unfolded.

Side One of Arabian Nights closes with Romantic Love. Swathes of sweeping, swirling strings are at the heart of the arrangement. The rhythm section provide the heartbeat as the arrangement marches along, veering between dramatic to grandiose. The Ritchie Family and male backing vocalists deliver heartfelt, soaring harmonies. Funky guitars, flourishes of piano, cascading strings and rasping horns provide a backdrop where elements of Philly Soul, funk, disco and classical music combine. Here, the vocals veer between something from a Broadway show to punchy and soulful. It’s an impressive and effective combination, dramatic, grandiose and at times overblown, but in a good way, one that typifies disco and its era.

Side Two of Arabian Nights is a three song medley, starting with Jimmy Kennedy and Nat Simon’s Istanbul (Not Constantinople). Straight away, you’re taken from Philly to Turkey, albeit with twist and a disco beat. Strings urgently sweep, providing reminders of hot, dusty nights under the Turkish sun. Meanwhile, Baker, Harris, Young provide the pounding disco beat. They’re joined by percussion, congas, vibes and strings that provide an exotic backdrop for the harmonies. They’re delivered with flamboyance, panache and a swing. There’s everything from Arabian to Russian influences in the arrangement. Add to the melting pot disco and jazz. Give it a stir and this is a tasty dish, totally irresistible and infectiously catchy.

Maurice Jarre, father of Jean Michel, penned Lawrence of Arabia (More Than Yesterday, Less Than Tomorrow). There’s no let up in the tempo. With whoops, an exotic backdrop unfolds. Eastern European and Arabian strings join the rhythm section, bursts of braying horns and a myriad of percussion combine. Punchy, soulful and impassioned harmonies soar, while jazzy horns bray as the arrangement mixes elements of disco, vintage jazz and rounds this of with an exotic twist. It’s a pulsating, complex, multilayered combination of influences and musical genres. With each listen, further subtleties and nuances reveal themselves, drawing you in and compelling you. The result is a captivating and exotic slice of music. 

Closing Arabian Nights is A Persian Market (Show Me How You Dance). The strings sounds that open the track, briefly reminds me of that famous scene from Jaws. That similarity doesn’t last long. Soon the harmonies reminds you of Russian Cossack dancers. Then disco and funk meet Eastern sounds and influences. With the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section providing a thunderous beat, strings sweep and swirl dramatically. Funky guitars and whooping, punchy and joyous harmonies add enthusiasm while the Eastern influence adds to the sense of urgency. You feel The Ritchie Family are determined to do this. They’ve a sense of purpose and  do indeed close Arabian Nights on an impressive and dramatic high.

Arabian Nights, The Ritchie Family’s sophomore album saw Richie Rome and Jacques Morali continue to innovate, from the opening track. On The Best Disco In Town, The Ritchie Family incorporate some of the biggest, recent disco hits. Seamlessly, the band which included many of The Salsoul Orchestra, switched from the original track, adding bursts of tracks like I Love Music, TSOP and I Need Love. This they do, peerlessly, never once missing a beat. The three new vocalists Gwen Oliver, Cassandra Wooten and Cheryl Jacks play their part. It’s as if they’re spurred on by the band’s performance and produce one of their best performances on Arabian Nights. For the rest of Side One, it was American disco all the way for The Ritchie Family. Together, the all-star Philly band and the three new vocalists, are a formidable combination. Then on Side Two of Arabian Nights, it’s all change.

On Side Two of Arabian Nights, The Ritchie Family drew inspiration from Gloria Gaynor’s Never Say Goodbye. The three songs on Side Two were an Arabian-tinged medley. This allowed the band and The Ritchie Family to demonstrate their versatility. Like Side One, neither the band nor The Ritchie Family miss a beat. Disco meets exotic. There’s everything from disco, jazz, funk and classical music added to the Arabian sounds. Again, the new vocalists rise to the challenge, producing some impressive performances, which ranged from soulful, sassy and sensuous, right through to dramatic and urgent. However, The Ritchie Family’s new members had a hard act to follow.

Gwen Oliver, Cassandra Wooten and Cheryl Jacks were the first lineup of The Ritchie Family. On The Ritchie Family’s debut album Brazil, Philly’s legendary backing vocalists the Sweethearts of Sigma took charge of the vocals. Given they were the best backing vocalists in music during that period, it’s no surprise that new members came up short. Good as Gwen Oliver, Cassandra Wooten and Cheryl Jacks’ vocals were, and they were very good, they just weren’t as good as the Sweethearts of Sigma. The Sweethearts of Sigma had set the bar high and no-one would come close. Having said that, The Ritchie Family’s sophomore album Arabian Nights is an innovative, hook-laden and pulsating disco album, that anyone who loves music should hear. It’ll only take one listen, and you’ll be smitten, swept away and captivated by Arabian Nights’ considerable charms and delights. Indeed, everyone should enjoy some enjoy a few Arabian Nights with The Ritchie Family for company. Standout Tracks: The Best Disco In Town, Baby I’m On Fire, Romantic Love and A Persian Market (Show Me How You Dance).


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