Mention Ian Levine’s name, and most people will remember from his time DJ-ing at Blackpool Mecca and the Wigan Casino. There’s much more to Ian Levine that DJ-ing though. Ian’s first love was s, who used to DJ-ing to share his love of soul music, and specifically, Motown. Having established himself as one of the top DJs in the Northern Soul scene, in 1975, Ian branched out into production.

The inspiration to branch out into production came from New York. By 1975, records which were tailor-made for the Northern Soul scene started entering the UK. Ian realizing he could do better, took The Exciters into a recording studio and recorded Reaching for The Best. Having produced and co-written Reaching for The Best, it reached the top forty in the UK. This was the first step on Ian Levine’s journey as a songwriter and producer.

Ian’s careers as DJ and songwriter and producer comfortably sat side by side. Through DJ-ing, Ian was able to gauge what was popular, and stay ahead of the musical curve. As musical tastes changed, so did Ian’s DJ-ing and production style. He started championing crossover and then modern soul. This proved controversial. Northern Soul fans turned against Ian. Despite this, Ian’s sucessful production and songwriting career continued.

Having become a successful songwriter and producer, Ian Levine decided to form his own label. He called his new label Motorcity Records. This was Ian paying homage to the record label he loved, Motown. Motorcity Records proved to be a commercial success, releasing numerous hit singles. Among them, were the sixteen tracks that feature on Harmless Records latest Backbeats compilation Backbeats: Memories and Souvenirs, which was released on 20th May 2013.

Backbeats: Memories and Souvenirs is the second Backbeats compilation focusing on Ian Levine’s music. The first was Unexploited and Underrated, which focused on Ian’s Northern Soul productions, while Backbeats: Memories and Souvenirs features sixteen of Ian’s contemporary soul production.

Compiled by Ralph Tee, Backbeats: Memories and Souvenirs features sixteen tracks, including twelve Ian cowrote. These tracks are from some of the biggest names in soul. This includes contributions from Betty Lavette, Edwin Starr, Edwin Starr, Johnny Bristol, Freda Payne, Chuck Jackson and Syreeta. That’s not forgetting tracks from Frances Nero, Ronnie McNeir, The Monitors and Susaye Greene. Released between 1989 and 1999 these sixteen tracks on Backbeats: Memories and Souvenirs,  which I’ll pick the highlights of, are some of Ian Levine’s most successful contemporary soul productions.

My first choice from Backbeats: Memories and Souvenirs is the track that opens the compilation. This is Frances Nero’s Footsteps Following Me. Released as a single in 1989, it featured on Frances’ 1990 album Out On The Floor. Written by Ian with Ivy Jo Hunter and Steven Wagner, it was Motorcity Records biggest hit, reaching the top twenty in the UK. No wonder it was so successful. With swathes of strings and rasping horns setting the scene for Frances, the drama builds and builds. When her vocal enters, it’s worth the wait. Strident, dramatic and powerful, Frances calls upon her inner diva for inspiration, as classic soul and eighties electronica are combined.

Like many artists Ian Levine worked with, Betty Lavette had previously, been signed to Motown. Her 1982 debut album Tell Me A Lie, was released on Motown. Nine years later, in 1991, Not Gonna Happen Twice was released on Motorcity Records. It featured Surrender, which was written by Ashford and Simpson. Stabs then flourishes of keyboards combine with hypnotic, electronic drums before blazing horns signal the entrance of a dance-floor diva. Mixing power, passion and emotion, the result is one of the best vocals on Backbeats: Memories and Souvenirs.

Before signing to Ian’s Motorcity Records, Johnny Bristol had spent thirteen years at Motown, between 1959 and 1972. After leaving Motown, Johnny signed to MGM and Atlantic. By 1989, when Johnny released Man Up In The Sky, penned by Barrett Strong and Billy Always, music had changed. Drum machines and synths were de rigueur. This was the case here. Rick Gianatos, Steven Wagner and Ian Levine’s production relies heavily on synths and drum machines. However, one thing doesn’t change…the quality of Johnny’s vocal.

Regardless of the music Freda Payne released, her name was always going to be synonymous with Band Of Gold. By 1992, her career had stalled. The success she’d enjoyed at Invictus and Capitol seemed a long time ago. To try to rejuvenate her flagging career, she teamed up with Ian Levine. He cowrote Memories and Souvenirs with Edwin Starr. Produced by Billy Griffin, Memories and Souvenirs gave  Freda a hit single in the UK, and provided a reminder of her soulful glory days.

Frankie Gaye may not have enjoyed the commercial success and critical acclaim his older brother Marvin enjoyed. Some of Marvin’s talent rubbed off on Frankie, who was known as Frankie “The Philosopher” Gaye. He only released one album, 1991s My Brother. Featuring the single My Brother, which was written by Steven Wagner, Ronnie McNeil and Ian Levine. It’s a captivating, uptempo track. With lyrics that are variously, poignant, thoughtful and joyous, Frankie pays homage to his brother in a deeply soulful and heartfelt way.

Edwin Starr is responsible for one of the greatest ant-war songs in musical history..War. That’s just one of many hit singles Edwin released on labels like Ric-Tic, Motown and 20th Century Fox. By 1991, Edwin Starr had signed to Ian Levine’s Motorcity Records, and released what was his final album Where Is The Sound. It featured Real True Loving, which Edwin and Ian cowrote. Soulful, dance-floor friendly and hooky, Edwin vamps his way through the track combining his trademark combination of power, passion and energy.

Syreeta was one of the highest profile signings to Ian Levine’s Motorcity Records. Formerly married to Stevie Wonder, Syreeta is a hugely talented singer and songwriter. She cowrote Moment Of Weakness, which was released in 1989. It’s a track that fuses elements of soul, gospel and dance music. Not only that, but it provides a showcase for Syreeta’s considerable vocal prowess.

Chuck Jackson’s All Over My Love is my final choice from Backbeats: Memories and Souvenirs. Released in 1989, All Over My Love was released twenty-eight years after Chuck’s first hit single I Don’t Wanna Cry, released on Wand. After that, Chuck signed to Motown and ABC. By 1989, commercial success was eluding him. So, he hooked up with Ian Levine, who cowrote All Over The World with Steven Wagner. Not only did it give Chuck a UK hit single, but this soulful dance track gave his career a boost.

On Backbeats: Memories and Souvenirs, Ian Levine attempts to rejuvenate the career of artists whose careers were failing. For many of the artists on Backbeats: Memories and Souvenirs, the commercial success they’d previously enjoyed was along time ago. Musical fashions had changed and they’d been left behind. With their music no longer relevant, what was needed, was someone who could give their career a much needed boost. That’s where Ian Levine came in.

Many of the artists that feature on Backbeats: Memories and Souvenirs which was released by Harmless Records on 20th May 2013, had their career revitalized. They enjoyed commercial success in the UK, which gave their career a boost. Along with a team of songwriters, arrangers and producers, Ian’s Motorcity Records took inspiration from Motown. Motorcity Records, like Motown, was a one-stop-shop. Artists could record songs written, arranged and produced in the label’s own studios where they were accompanied by the house-band. This worked. Many artists were grateful to Ian Levine. Without his help, their musical careers would’ve been over. They’d have been back on the assembly line or waiting tables. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. Their careers were rejuvenated and continued. They returned to doing what they loved doing, making music. So the music on Backbeats: Memories and Souvenirs, just  like on Unexploited and Underrated, demonstrates that when it came to rejuvenating ailing and failing careers, Ian Levine had the Midas touch.


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