RONNIE LAWS-MR. NICE GUY AND CLASSIC MASTERS.

RONNIE LAWS-MR. NICE GUY AND CLASSIC MASTERS.

Having spent two years at university in Texas, Ronnie Laws decided the world of academia wasn’t for him. He left university to join a new band who were fusing funk and soul. Ronnie played flute and saxophone on their third album Last Days and Time, released in November 1972. While Last Days and Time reached number eighty-seven in the US Billboard 200 and number fifteen in the US R&B Charts, Ronnie decided being a member of a group wasn’t for him. Following the success of  their fourth album Head To The Sky, maybe Ronnie would regret leaving Earth, Wind and Fire? Three years later, in 1975, Ronnie would release his debut solo album, for jazz’s premier label…Blue Note Records.

Ronnie Law’s 1975 Blue Note debut album was Pressure Sensitive, which featured his biggest and best known single, Always There. He released two more albums on Blue Note, 1976s Fever and 1977s Friends and Strangers. After releasing three albums on Blue Note, Ronnie left the label. This couldn’t have been easy, given Blue Note was such a prestigious label.

Next stop was another prestigious label Capitol Records which Ronnie would call home for the next five albums. This included 1978s Flame, 1980s Every Generation and 1981s Solid Ground. Then in 1983, showcasing a new sound was Mr. Nice Guy. Two years later, in 1985, Classic Masters, a retrospective of Ronnie’s career was released by Capitol Records. This covered Ronnie’s career between 1975 and 1982. On 21st January 2013, SoulMusic Records will rerelease both Mr. Nice Guy and Classic Masters on one album. For newcomers to Ronnie Law’s music, this is the perfect introduction to a man whose career started as a jazz saxophonist, but eventually encompassed R&B.

By the time Ronnie Laws came to records Mr. Nice Guy, not only was jazz-funk changing, but so was Ronnie’s music. Not only had jazz-funk’s popularity peaked, but synths were starting to play a bigger role in the jazz-funk. For Ronnie, he was going down a similar path to George Benson. Both were moving from being jazz musicians to R&B artists. Ronnie, like George Benson, was now relying more on his voice than his saxophone. He was now becoming known as a talented singer, with his voice his secret weapon. So it was against this backdrop that work began on Mr. Nice Guy.

MR. NICE GUY.

For Mr. Nice Guy, Ronnie penned six of the nine tracks, Can’t Save Tomorrow, Mr. Nice Guy, Third Hour, Big Stars, Rolling and Off and On Again. Trevor Veitch and Greg Mathieson cowrote In The Groove and Lou Johnson and Jackie English You. Harvey Fuqua, Johnny Bristol and Junior Walker penned What Does It Take (To Win Your Love). These nine tracks became Mr. Nice Guy, which saw old and new techniques deployed.

When recording for Mr. Nice Guy got underway, it was almost like two different albums were being made. While four tracks featured “live” drummer Carlos Vega, Leon Johnson and Raymond Pounder, other tracks featured programmed drums. Back then, drums machines were fashionable. So were synths. They were played by Greg Mathieson, Larry Dunn and Michael Boddicker. This was, after all, the way music was heading. Among the other musicians playing on Mr. Nice Guy were bassists Lee Sklar and Leon Johnson, who also played guitar. Other guitarists included Paul Jackson Jr. and Roland Bautista. Percussionists Lenny Castro and Mayuto Korea, were joined by pianists Barnaby Finch and Greg “Harpo” Hiffman and backing vocalists Brenda Gooch, Gwenche Machu, Debra Laws and Maxi Anderson. Ronnie played saxophone, keyboards, synths, bass and sang vocals. With Mr. Nice Guy completed, it was released in 1983.

On the release of Mr. Nice Guy in 1983, it reached number ninety-eight in the US Billboard 200, number twenty-four in the US R&B Charts and number six in the US Jazz Charts. it seemed that Ronnie’s new style had proved popular with his fans. Reinforcing this were the two singles released from Mr. Nice Guy. The title-track Mr. Nice Guy reached number eighty in the US R&B Charts in 1983. Then In The Groove reached thirty-one in the US R&B Charts. However, what made Mr. Nice Guy such a successful album?

When you press play, and the first few bars of Ronnie Laws’ Mr. Nice Guy flow out of your speakers, two things strike you. One is how underrated a vocalist Ronnie was. Can’t Save Tomorrow demonstrates this. Ronnie’s heartfelt, tender vocal soars dramatically above the arrangement, with rasping horns for company. What also strikes you is how rich in hooks the track is. Although thirty years old, the track, synths and all, has stood the test of time well. The same can be said of In The Groove, one of Ronnie’s most successful singles. It features one of Ronnie’s best vocals, sung joyously call and response style, with a dance-floor friendly arrangement. What Does It Take (To Win Your Love) is Ronnie Laws at his best. Gentle and emotive describes his delivery. With just his saxophone, and a female backing vocalist responding to his call, Ronnie’s vocal surpasses everything that’s gone before.

You sees Ronnie deliver one of his most beautiful, impassioned vocals. He’s accompanied by a backdrop where traditional and modern instruments become one. His saxophone rasps and growls, punctuating the arrangement, while the rhythm section, aided by a drum machine provide the backdrop for his vocal. It’s very much a track with its feet rooted in two decades, the seventies and eighties, with R&B, jazz and eighties electronica fused by Ronnie. Big Star has similarities to You. Drum machines and synths provide the mainstay of this meandering arrangement. Joining Ronnie’s emotive vocal is percussion and his sensual, soaring saxophone. This provides a contrast to the synths and drum machines, as one of Ronnie unleashes a potent vocal and saxophone solo.

Mr. Nice Guy the title-track sees drum machines and synths at the forefront of the eighties arrangement. Sweet harmonies accompany Ronnie’s brisk delivery, while squeaks and beeps aplenty fill the arrangement. Of the nine tracks on Mr. Nice Guy, examine this track’s D.N.A. and it’ll read 1983. For fans of eighties electronic music and jazz, this will bring back memories. The same can be said of Third Hour, where drums machine produce crunchy beats and stabs of synths accompany Ronnie’s needy vocal. Soulful harmonies and a dancing saxophone accompany him, as his vocal veers between R&B and jazz. Big Star sees the drum machines and synths provide the mainstay of this meandering arrangement. Joining Ronnie’s emotive vocal is percussion and his sensual, soaring saxophone. They provides a contrast to the synths and drum machines, as one of Ronnie unleashes an outstanding vocal and saxophone solo. 

Rollin’ is one a moody, spacey song where Ronnie unleashes one of his best saxophone solos. It’s so good you don’t want it to end. Then things get interesting. A broody, space-age backdrop unfolds, with Ronnie’s half-spoken vocal drifting in and out. Synths and drum machines merge majestically, as this spacey, surreal and space-age sounding track proves to be a true hidden gem. 

Off and On Again which closes Mr. Nice Guy sees Ronnie fuse musical genres. A soaring jazz saxophone, searing rock guitars, eighties drum machines and a vocal that’s almost rapped by Ronnie are all thrown into the musical melting pot. Given a stir by Ronnie, who produced this innovative fusion of musical genres.

Not only did Mr. Nice Guy see Ronnie Laws’ music changing, but so was music and jazz-funk. It was now fashionable and for drum machines and synths to feature on albums, including jazz-funk albums. Gone were the days when “traditional” instruments played by “live” or “real” musicians ruled the roost. Not any more. Technology was available, so musicians took advantage of it. It made their lives much easier. However, the debate that will forever rage is did the music suffer?

Some critics suggest synths and drum machines lead to soulless, dated music. Other critics argue that this was progress, made recording cheaper and easier. Suddenly, it didn’t take the same budget or personnel to record an album. Granted some albums recorded when technology was in its infancy haven’t aged well, others have. Another argument is that the use of early drum machines and synths can make an album sound dated. Again, that album can be countered. Many musical genres can be dated to a time. For example, listen to albums that are either the Philly Sound, classic disco or Motown and you can guess within a few years when the album was recorded. Certain tracks on Ronnie Laws’ Mr. Nice Guy may  sound like it was recorded during the early eighties. That’s on observation, not a a criticism. Mr Nice Guy certainly contains some innovative, quality music. The nine tracks on Mr. Nice Guy represents a snapshot of Ronnie Laws’ career, as does Classic Masters, which features some of the best music from his career.

CLASSIC MASTERS.

The second album on SoulMusic Records double-album of Ronnie Laws’ albums is Classic Masters. This eight track album, features two new tracks and six tracks from  his six previous albums. These six albums included three albums Ronnie released for Blue Note and three for United Artists and Capitol. His first three albums were on Blue Note Records, 1975s Pressure Sensitive, 1976s Fever and 1977s Friends and Strangers. Then at Capitol Records, Ronnie released another trio of albums, 1978s Flame, 1980s Every Generation and 1981s Solid Ground. Classic Masters, released in 1985 features two new tracks and six tracks from these six albums.

Looking at Classic Masters chronologically, Always There, from Ronnie’s 1975 Blue Note jazz-funk debut Pressure Sensitive, is the earliest track. Produced by ex-Crusader Wayne Henderson and written by Ronnie, William Fulton and Paul B. Allen it gave Ronnie a number forty-five hit in the US R&B Charts. Since then, Always There has been covered by many artists, including Incognito and Side Effect. It’s since become one of Ronnie Laws’ classic tracks.

Fever was Ronnie’s second Blue Note album, released in 1976. By now, jazz-funk and smooth jazz were the order of the day. Sadly, there are no tracks from Fever included on Classic Masters. If you get the chance to hear Fever, the classic title-track is reinvented by Ronnie Laws and his all-star band.

Only Saturday Evening from Ronnie’s third Blue Note album 1977s Friends and Strangers featured on Classic Masters. It failed to chart. By then, jazz-funk was no longer as popular. Disco was now King. Indeed, Ronnie realized this. Released at the height of disco’s popularity, Friends and Strangers saw Ronnie’s signature jazz-funk, give more than a mere nod to disco. Mind you, Ronnie wasn’t alone. Everyone wanted a slice of the disco pie. Instead, we jump to Ronnie’s fourth album Flame, released in 1978.

Flame was released on United Artists in 1978. One of the singles released from Flame was Love Is Here. It reached number fifty-seven as a single. Then, as a new decade dawned, Ronnie’s sound started to evolve.

Every Generation, released in 1980, saw R&B enter Ronnie’s musical equation. Every Generation features Ronnie at his soulful best. His tender, emotive vocal, accompanied by equally heartfelt harmonies is one of the highlights of Every Generation. This gave Ronnie his most successful single, reaching number twelve in the US R&B Charts.

Ronnie’s second album of the eighties was 1981s Solid Ground. Stay Awake was released as a single in 1981, reaching number sixty in the US Billboard Charts and number nineteen in the US R&B Charts. This gave Ronnie his first hit single in the US Billboard 100.

Following Solid Ground was 1983s Mr. Nice Guy. In between the release of Mr. Nice Guy and 1985s Classic Masters, was the single City Girl. It reached number thirty-one in the US R&B Charts and featured on 1975s Classic Masters. Like many of the tracks on Mr. Nice Guy, City Girl featured synths and drum machines aplenty. By then, synths had progressed, and George Shaw joined Ronnie to play the Juno 106, DX7 and Jupiter 6. The other new track on Classic Masters was (You Are) Paradise. There are similarities to Off and On Again on Mr Nice Guy. Again, Ronnie and his band fuse musical genres, while incorporating the new technology. There’s everything from eighties electronica, jazz, rocky guitars and R&B.

So, Classic Masters charts the first six albums of Ronnie Laws’ career. Only 1976s Fever is overlooked. Every other album Ronnie released is represented on Classic Masters. As an added bonus, he wrote two new songs for Classic Masters City Girl and (You Are) Paradise. This allows a newcomer to Ronnie’s music to hear how his career evolved. These six tracks demonstrate a career that changes as musical fashions and technology evolved. Ronnie Laws wasn’t going to be one of these artists who changing musical tastes and fashions saw his career stall. He was determined to change as music changed. He went from a jazz musician to becoming a talented R&B vocalist. Soon, his saxophone was playing second fiddle to his soulful vocal.

Similarly, rather than shun new technology, Ronnie embraced it. He incorporated it into his music. Both his 1983 album Mr. Nice Guy and the two new tracks from Classic Masters demonstrate this. This worked for and against him. It works for him, by showing he was innovative, determined to use and incorporate the benefits technology brought to music. Critics of technology in music would argue it resulted in music that’s dated. However, if Ronnie Laws had continued to make albums like his first three Blue Note albums, he’d also be accused of producing dated music by the pro-technology lobby. In many ways, Ronnie and other musicians who either embraced or ignored technology were between a rock and the proverbial hard place. Not a good place to be. What’s is a good place to be, is sitting in front of your stereo, enjoying Ronnie Laws’ music, including his two album Mr Nice Guy and Classic Masters, which will be rereleased 21st January 2013, on SoulMusic Records. Standout Tracks: Can’t Save Tomorrow, Rollin,’ What Does It Take (To Win Your Love) and Every Generation.

RONNIE LAWS-MR. NICE GUY AND CLASSIC MASTERS.

3 Comments

  1. Nice choice! Im about to put up some work from his older bro hubert. Didn’t realize he came from a family of flutists.

    • Hi there,

      Glad you liked my review of Ronnie Laws. As you know, Ronnie was one of eight children. His brother Hubert is the jazz flautist and younger sister Debra is a singer and actress. Debra featured in the movie Crossroads, which was written by John Fucso and inspired by the life of Robert Johnson. Directed by Walter Hill, the soundtrack to Crossroads was written by Ry Cooder, with Stevie Vai on guitar and Sonnie Terry on harmonica. If you’ve never heard the soundtrack, it’s well worth buying. Similarly, the movie is a cult classic.

      Best Wishes,
      Derek

  2. Thanks I’ll check it out, last night I was listening to some of the work hubert and debra did together. Ronnie’s stuff in the late 70s is awesome!

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