In 1975, Ben E. King had resigned to Atlantic Records. His first album for Atlantic Records was Supernatural, which was produced by Bert De Coteaux and Tony Silvester. Supernatural had proved a commercial success, reaching number thirty-nine in the US Billboard 200 and number thirteen in the US R&B Charts. While this had rejuvenated Ben’s career. However, music was changing, and changing quickly. While Bert De Coteaux and Tony Silvester were highly regarded and successful producers, it was decided that for the followup to Supernatural, 1976s I Had A Love, production would be spilt. Bert De Coteaux and Tony Silvester would produce four of the nine tracks. The other five tracks would be produced by one of the most successful and hottest producers of the time, Norman Harris.

By 1976, Norman Harris had established a career as a successful producer. Having worked with producers like Thom Bell and Gamble and Huff, Norman had a good grounding in production. He’d struck out on his own in the early seventies, and enjoyed commercial success and critical acclaim ever since. Previously, he’d been a member of M.F.S.B, Philadelphia International Records’ legendary house-band. Following a dispute with Gamble and Huff, Norman Harris and many of the founder members of M.F.S.B. had left Philadelphia International Records, becoming a member of The Salsoul Orchestra. At Salsoul, the Cayre brothers, who owned Salsoul, gave Norman his own label to run, Gold Mind Records. He ran Gold Mind from an office in Philly, bringing artists like First Choice, Double Exposure and Loleatta Holloway to Gold Mind Records. Still, Norman found time to produce other artists and would produce five tracks on I Had A Love. Would I Had A Love replicate the success of Supernatural?

After the success of Supernatural, Ben E. King was keen to build on its success. Since his days at Atco and later Atlantic, Ben’s career had stalled. He hadn’t replicated the success of the early sixties. It seemed musical fashions had overtaken Ben. So for I Had A Love, some of the best songwriters of the time contributed songs to I Had A Love. Among the songwriters contributing tracks to I Had A Love, wereAshford and Simpson. Ever since their Motown days, had established a reputation as talented songwriters and producers. Their contribution was the title-track I Had A Love. Sam Dees penned No Danger Ahead, and cowrote three other tracks. Fredrick Knight and Sam wrote I Betcha Didn’t Know That and Tower of Strength, while Sam and Clinton Moon penned Standing In The WIngs of Heartache. Patrick Grant and Gwen Guthrie contributed You’re Stepping On My Heart, while Everybody Plays The Fool was a Clark, Williams, Bailey composition. Norman Harris’ Philly friends wrote the other two tracks. Alan Felder and T.G. Conway cowrote Smooth Sailing and with Bruce Gray wrote We Got Love. These nine tracks became I Had A Love.

With two producers working on I Had A Love, this meant recording took place at different studios with different musicians. At Sigma Sound Studios, the musicians working with Norman Harris were former members of M.F.S.B. and now, members of The Salsoul Orchestra. Providing I Had A Love’s heartbeat, were the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section. They were joined by Bobby “Electronic” Eli, percussionist Larry Washington and vibes virtuoso Vince Montana Jr, while Bruce Gray and T.G. Conway played keyboards. Strings and horns came courtesy of Don Renaldo. Providing backing vocals were The Sweethearts of Sigma, Barbara Ingram, Evette Benson and Carla Benson. Once I Had A Love was completed, it was released in 1976.

On the release of I Had A Love in 1976, rather than build on the success of Supernatural, it failed to chart. The Ashford and Simpson penned title-track I Had A Love was released in 1975, and reached number twenty-three in the US R&B Charts. When I Betcha Didn’t Know was released as a single, it failed to chart. That I Had A Love hadn’t charted wasn’t unusual. Ben E. King was no longer as popular. Indeed,1975s Supernatural had been Ben’s first album of the seventies to chart. It seemed Ben E. King’s music was no longer as fashionable. This was a long way since his time with The Drifters and the early years of his solo career. However, was the commercial failure of I Had A Love purely down to Ben E. King’s music no longer being as popular? That’s what I’ll tell you, when I tell you about I Had A Love.

The title-track I Had A Love opens I Had A Love. Produced by Norman Harris, the tempo is slow, with a real Philly Soul sound from the opening bars. A drum cracks, before a piano and Vince Montana Jr’s vibes combine. Then Earl Young’s drums dramatically signal the entrance of lush strings and The Sweethearts of Sigma’s cooing, sweeping, sweet harmonies. Having set the scene for Ben, he delivers a heartbroken vocal. Hurt, heartache and regret fill his voice. Baker, Harris, Young provide the heartbeat, harmonies and strings reflect the hurt in Ben’s vocal, while growling horns and pounding drums add drama. Together, this provides the perfect backdrop for Ben’s heartbroken, soul-baring vocal Magnus Opus.

I Betcha Didn’t Know is another Norman Harris production. He picks up, where he left off with the opening track. Baker, Harris, Young, percussion, rasping horns and cascading strings dramatically open the track. Ben’s vocal is powerful, filled with passion and joy. Providing the perfect foil are The Sweethearts of Sigma’s heartfelt, soaring harmonies. Meanwhile, Norman Harris lays down one of his trademark guitar lines, Vince Montana Jr’s adds vibes and Earl Young’s drums provide a thunderous, strident heartbeat. The horns which punctuate the arrangement at just the right time, have a Thom Bell influence. Ben and The Sweethearts of Sigma seem to drive each other to greater heights of emotion and soulfulness, as Ben rolls back the years, returning to his soulful best.

Smooth Sailing sees Norman Harris and Alan Felder who cowrote the track with T.G. Conway produce the track. Swathes of the lushest strings float in, quivering and shivering. Horns growl, hi-hats hiss and Baker, Harris, Young provide an understated heartbeat. Ben’s deliberate, emotive vocal grows in power, while tender harmonies and punchy, braying horns accompany him. The arrangement flows along, with percussion, piano and strings at its heart. Earl Young’s drums inject drama, as Ben’s vocal veers between tender and powerful, but is always impassioned and heartfelt.

Baker, Harris, Young produce No Danger Ahead which explodes joyously into life. They provide the pulsating, urgent heartbeat, as Philly Soul and funk combine. Ron Baker’s bass and Norman Harris’ guitar join growling horns and dancing strings. The Sweethearts of Sigma add sweet, cooing harmonies. All this seems to inspire Ben. His vocal is powerful, confident and assured. He literally struts his way through the arrangement. Horns blaze, strings swirl and woodwind get in on the act. With The Sweethearts of Sigma adding joyous, cascading harmonies. They’re the finishing touch, as Ben confidently and assuredly, soulfully struts his way through this Sam Dees song that closes Side One of I Had A Love.

Everybody Plays The Fool opens Side Two of I Had A Love.  It’s the first of four Bert De Coteaux and Tony Silvester produced tracks. A piano, guitar, slow strings and gospel tinged harmonies combine, before Ben’s pensive, melancholy vocal enter. Straight away, you realize the production has a rawer sound. It lacks the polish of Side One, resulting in a good track failing to become a great track. You could argue, that given the gospel influence this is fitting. What are fitting are the gospel-tinged harmonies. Ben’s delivery is thoughtful, filled with emotion, which suits the track and the lyrics.

Standing In The WIngs of Heartache sees Ben and the band kick loose. From an understated opening, the rhythm section explode into life. They drive the arrangement along, fusing funk and soul. Drums pound, harmonies sweep in, soaring above the arrangement. Layers of strings sweep, while Ben’s vocal is a powerful vamp as his band fuse funk with soul. 

We Got Love sees Norman Harris take charge of production duties. Straight away, there’s a much more polished sound. Baker, Harris, Young add a pulsating beat, as an uplifting, joyous track unfolds. Strings dance in appreciation and The Sweethearts of Sigma add tight, soulful harmonies. Ben seems to have found his sparkle, delivering the lyrics with power, passion and joy. Bobby “Electronic” Eli adds his trademark funky guitar, Vince Montana Jr adds vibes and Norman Harris adds a jazzy guitar solo. Strings dance, harmonies sweep in and and Ben and the band lock into a groove, where funk and Philly Soul unite seamlessly. This results in the best track on Side.

Tower of Strength was penned by Sam Dees and Fredrick Knight. It has a real Sam Dees sound. There are similarities in production to Everybody Plays The Fool. It’s the way the harmonies have a dramatic, soaring gospel sound. That’s no bad thing. This is a dramatic, soulful song with a gospel twist, where Sam literally rolls back the years. Helping him every step of the way are the harmonies. Swathes of strings, rasping horns and a dramatic, strident rhythm section, make this the best of the Bert De Coteaux and Tony Silvester productions.

You’re Stepping On My Heart (Tearing My World Apart) closes I Had A Love. After the drama of the previous track, this track has a much more understated sound. Ben’s vocal is tender, needy and filled with hurt. Just the rhythm section, growling horns and percussion combine before, a burst of drums signals the arrival of Ben’s vocal. Muted horns, subtle percussion and understated rhythm section are joined by melancholy horns as Ben lays bare his hurt and heartache for all to hear.

Listening to I Had A Love, it seems strange that production was split between Norman Harris and the production team of Bert De Coteaux and Tony Silvester? On Side One of I Had A Love, Norman Harris and his production partners rejuvenate Ben E. King. His music is given a Philly makeover. The four tracks on Side One of I Had A Love I Had A Love, are the best on the album. SIde Two, when the changeover in producer takes place, Ben’s vocals fall short of the quality on Side One. On Everybody Plays The Fool, the rawer sound stopping a good song becoming a great one. Similarly, on Standing In The WIngs of Heartache’s good as the production is, it falls short of the four tracks on Side One. Things improve on We Got Love, produced by Norman Harris, while Tower of Strength is the best of the four Bert De Coteaux and Tony Silvester productions. You’re Stepping On My Heart (Tearing My World Apart) brings I Had A Love to an understated, soul-baring close, as Ben E. King rolls back the years. I suppose, using two producers or production teams will always lead to comparisons.

The production team of Bert De Coteaux and Tony Silvester had a successful track record, and were talented producers. So too, did Norman Harman Harris. Indeed, since Norman Harris’ had struck out on his own as a producer, he’d enjoyed commercial success and critical acclaim with a variety of artists. He’d enjoyed commercial success with artists that included Major Harris, Blue Magic and First Choice. Ben E. King was the latest to enjoy a Philly Soul makeover from Norman and his Philly friends. While it’s a matter of opinion, I feel that it would’ve been best if Norman Harris produced all the tracks on I Had A Love. Norman seemed to get the best out of Ben E. King. Granted Bert and Tony had revitalized Ben’s career with Supernatural, but Ben E. King and Norman Harris seemed a dream team. WIth Norman Harris, came his colleagues in The Salsoul Orchestra and The Sweethearts of Sigma. The five tracks ons Ben E. King’s I Had A Love produced by Norman Harris and his Philly friends, are the highlights of the album. While I Had A Love is one of Ben E. King best albums of the seventies, it could’ve been an even better album, if Norman Harris had produced the whole album. Maybe then, Ben E. King’s second album for Atlantic Records I Had A Love, would’ve matched the commercial success of Supernatural? Standout Tracks: I Had A Love, I Betcha Didn’t Know, Smooth Sailing and No Danger Ahead.


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