By 1979, Gwen McCrae’s career and private life were going through tough times. Her marriage to George McCrae was over. As for her music career, well, it seemed a long time since her number one US R&B single Rockin’ Chair. It was only four years. A lot had happened since then. Gwen had recorded Together with George, which was released in 1975. She also released two solo albums. 1976 saw the release of her sophomore album Something So Right. Released two years after her debut album Gwen McCrae, which had reached number 121 in the US Billboard 200 and number eighteen in the US R&B Charts, Something So Right failed to chart. Neither did 1978s aptly-titled Let’s Straighten It Out. To say things weren’t going well for Gwen is almost an understatement. Her career desperately needed rejuvenated. 

Clarence Reid had been Gwen’s producer. However, after Let’s Straighten It Out, Gwen realized she needed a change of producer. She was even considering abandoning secular music, due to her Christian faith. Then Betty Wright, singer, songwriter and producer entered the equation. Not only would Betty produce Gwen’s fourth album Melody Of Life, which was recently released by BBR Records, but cowrote six of the seven tracks. Would Betty Wright rejuvenate Gwen McCrae’s career with Melody Of Life? That’s what I’ll tell you.

Betty Wright would play a major role in Melody Of Life. She cowrote six of the seven tracks on Melody Of Life. Her co-writers for four of the tracks were members of the band that played on Melody Of Life. Jeremiah Burden, Lynn Williams and Betty cowrote All This Love I’m Givin’ and I Found A Love, while Burden and Betty cowrote Maybe I’ll Find Someone New with Garry Greene and Eternity. Betty also cowrote Ease The Pain with Kevin Kendrick. Along with three other tracks, I Can Only Think Of You, The Joy and The Melody Of Life, Gwen was ready to enter the studio for her fourth album. This was make or break. That proved to be the case for T.K. Records.

Joining Gwen in the studio for recording of Melody Of Life at Quadradial Studios,  North Miami was a rhythm section of drummer George Wilkerson, bassist Michael Wilkerson and lead and rhythm guitarist William E. Bridgeforth. They were joined by percussionist Robert Webb, Garry Greene on clavinet and Minimoog while Kevin Kendrick played acoustic and electric Fender Rhodes, ARP polyphonic and Crummar synths. Betty brought along the Betty Wright Showband, Eternity, and her backing vocalists, while a horn and string section were used. Melody Of Life was no budget production. Would Melody Of Life revitalize Gwen’s career?

On the release of Melody Of Life in 1979, it followed a familiar patter and failed to chart. This was Gwen’s consecutive album that failed to chart. Making matters worse, neither of the singles, The Melody Of Life, nor All This Love I’m Giving Charted. Worse was still to come though. Before I tell you about that, I’ll tell you about Melody Of Life.

Opening Melody Of Life Is This Love That I’m Givin, which almost explodes into life. Gwen it seems, has been rejuvenated  by Betty. A new Gwen McCrae struts centrep-stage. As she does, the rhythm section, squelchy synths and stabs of horns accompany Gwen’s sassy, feisty vocal. Harmonies sweep in urgently, horns rasp and guitars chime. Meanwhile the bass synth is almost ever-present. What is ever-present, is the sass, soulfulness and confidence in Gwen’s vocal.

I Can Only Think Of You sees the tempo drop. Swathes of the lushest strings, piano and flute combine while the rhythm section anchor the arrangement. Gwen’s vocal is slow, heartfelt and veers between needy, sultry and sad. Flourishes of woodwind, stabs of keyboard and a meandering rhythm section allow Gwen to take centre-stage. Harmonies prove the perfect foil to Gwen, almost stealing the show. Adding the finishing touches to a truly beautiful song are the strings and understated piano.

Blazing, growling horns, jazz guitar and flourishes of piano open Maybe I’ll Find Somebody New. By the time Gwen’s vocal enters, the band have set the scene. Soon, the track starts to swing, revealing its sensuous secrets. Mixing passion, power and drama, Gwen unleashes her full vocal range. As her band combine jazz, soul and funk, Gwen unleashes a powerhouse of a vocal. Sassy, sensual, sultry and with a hint of humor, flourishes of strings flit above Gwen’s vocal as she teases, mischievously: “Maybe I’ll Find Somebody New.” 

Rolls of drums and bursts of horns open I Found A Love, which is a very different track. It sees Melody Of Life head in the direction of gospel, albeit with a healthy does of soul and funk. Gwen is rejuvenated, testifying and strutting her way through the track. Betty Wright’s arrangement is one of the best. Growling horns, swathes of strings, pounding rhythm section and cooing, sweeping harmonies. Gwen. She lives and believes the lyrics. Her vocal is powerful and impassioned, becoming confident as she struts her way through the lyrics fusing elements of soul, blues and gospel. 

The introduction to The Joy is similar to the two previous tracks. Braying horns and rhythm section give the track a bluesy, soulful sound. Guitars chime, hi-hats hiss and Gwen scats, before her vocal becomes sassy and sultry. Enveloped by blazing horns and a funky rhythm section, tender, cooing harmonies sweep in, providing the perfect accompaniment and contrast to the power and confidence in Gwen’s vocal. Later, she unleashes what’s best described as a vocal Magnus Opus. Scatting and ab-libbing, Gwen and her backing vocalists feed off each other. Feverishly, they drive each other to previously unattained heights of soulfulness.

Ease The Pain sees the tempo drop. The arrangement is deliberate and dramatic. This suits Gwen’s vocal. Just drums, keyboards and cooing harmonies accompany her hurt-filled vocal. Indeed, the cooing harmonies seem to be soothing her heartbreak. Pleading and needy, Gwen missing the man she loves, wants him to “hurry home…ease the you promised me.” Soulful, emotive and heartfelt, Gwen demonstrates her versatility, and ability to breath life and meaning into lyrics.

Closing The Melody Of Life is The Melody Of Life. Flourishes of floaty strings and a jaunty and funky rhythm section, powered along by the bass accompany Gwen. Keyboards, braying horns and bursts of urgent harmonies accompany Gwen, who tries to dawn the guise of dance-floor diva. Helped along by hook-laden and funky track, that’s dance-floor friendly, she manages to do so.

That Melody Of Life wasn’t a commercial success seems almost unjust. After all, Melody Of Life was the best album Gwen McCrae had recorded since her debut. That was five years ago. Her musical partnership with Clarence Reid was over. If truth be told, it had run out steam a while ago. So, it’s no wonder Gwen was considering her future. She badly needed a new start. After all, not only was her career on the rocks, but very publicly, her marriage to George McCrae had broken up. To give Gwen a new start, she needed someone who was multi-talented, enthusiastic and energetic. That’s where Betty Wright came in.

Betty Wright, singer, songwriter and producer was just the woman to do this. Not only did she cowrite six of Melody Of Life’s tracks, but produced the album. The result was an album, Melody Of Life, that was variously soulful, funky, gospel-tinged and dance-floor friendly. It almost defied categorization. Probably soulful was the best way to describe Melody Of Life. Sadly, soul albums weren’t popular. Disco albums were even less popular. They were akin to finding a rattlesnake in a lucky dip. In 1979, when Melody Of Life was released, music was changing. These changes were huge and wide ranging. 

Soul hadn’t been popular for several years. The Disco Sucks movement almost killed disco. It was on a ventilator, and lurking nearby, were the zealots who despised disco. They longed to unplug disco’s ventilator. Even funk was changing. Music it seemed would never be the same again. Synths and drum machines were taking over. They were stealing music’s soul. The eighties would be a soulless decade the decade that taste forgot. 1979 wasn’t much better. Unfortunately, for Gwen McCrae, she was just about to release Melody Of Life.

After two albums which failed to chart, Melody Of Life repeated that feat. With three consecutive albums failing to chart, you’d think things couldn’t get worse for Gwen McCrae. They did. Later that year. T.K. Records became insolvent and Gwen found herself without a record company. A small crumb of comfort for Gwen McCrae was that, at least her final album for T.K. Records, Melody Of Life, was one of the best albums of her career. One listen to Melody Of Life which was recently rereleased by BBR Records, and you’ll realize that it’s a hidden, soulful gem. Eclectic, soulful and sensual, Gwen McCrae’s Melody Of Life should be part of the soundtrack to your life. Standout Tracks: I Can Only Think Of You. I Found Love, The Joy  and Ease The Pain.


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