THE RITCHIE FAMILY-AFRICAN QUEENS.
THE RITCHIE FAMILY-AFRICAN QUEENS.
Just like The Ritchie Family’s three previous albums, their fourth album, 1977s African Queens which will be rereleased by Gold Legion on 27th July 2o13, was a disco concept album. Their 1975 Latin-tinged debut album Brazil was The Ritchie Family’s most successful album. Brazil, which featured The Sweethearts of Sigma’s vocals set the bar high for The Ritchie Family’s future albums. Critically acclaimed and commercially successful, The Ritchie Family looked like becoming one of the biggest groups of the disco era.
Then in 1976, The Ritchie Family lineup changed. This was the first of five different lineups of The Ritchie Family. Gwen Oliver and Cassandra Wooten, who had been members of Honey and The Bees. Joining them were Cheryl Jacks. With this new lineup, Arabian Nights was released in 1976. While Arabian Nights was a commercial success, it didn’t match the success of Brazil. Having sought musical inspiration in two separate continents, The Ritchie Family decided to seek inspiration closes to home for their third album.
1977s The Best Disco In Town saw The Ritchie Family fuse a thirties theme with their trademark disco sound. The Best Disco In Town was only moderately successful. Indeed, of the three albums The Ritchie Family had released, The Best Disco In Town was the least successful. So, when The Ritchie Family returned to the studio later in 1977, to record their fourth album African Queens, they really needed a commercial success. What they really needed was for African Queens to replicate the success of Brazil. Would The Ritchie Family’s latest disco concept album Arabian Nights match the success of their first concept album Brazil?
For Arabian Nights, again, The Ritchie Family decided to follow in the footsteps of Gloria Gaynor’s Never Can Say Goodbye. Side One of Arabian Nights featured a suite of five tracks lasting fourteen minutes. Just like the three tracks on Side Two of African Queens, they were penned by Henri Belolo, Jacques Morali and Phil Hurtt. These seven tracks became African Queens, which was recorded at Philly’s Sigma Sound Studios.
When recording got underway, The Ritchie Family were accompanied by a band that included a rhythm section of bassist Alfonso Carey, drummer Russell Dabney and guitarist Rodger Lee, while Jimmy Lee played lead guitar. Adding the authentic African sound were Charles Payne on djembe, J.M. Diatta on n’goma and Babatunde Olatunji on n’goma, shekere and bongos. Nathaniel Wilke played electric piano and clavinet, Mario Grillo timbales and Raph McDonald added percussion. Gwen Oliver, Cassandra Wooten and Cheryl Jacks were responsible for The Ritchie Family’s vocals, while Jacques Morali produced African Queens. Once African Queens was recorded, it was released in 1977. Would Arabian Nights mark a change in fortune for The Ritchie Family?
On the release of African Queens in 1977, it stalled at number 164 in the US Billboard 200 and number fifty-seven in the US R&B Charts. While African Nights hadn’t matched the success of The Ritchie Family’s first two albums, it was still a commercial success. However, what does the music on African Queens sound like? That’s what I’ll now tell you.
Side One of the original version of African Queens was a five track medley, opening with African Queens. A pounding beat, funky bass and dancing strings combine with a myriad of percussion and punchy harmonies. Then The Ritchie Family add tight, soaring and cascading harmonies and a strutting vocal. Dramatic, urgent backing vocals join blazing horns, percussion and thunderous drums. By now, you realize that this what The Ritchie Family do so well. This is disco, but with a twist. The twist is that it’s a concept album. Soon, you’re taken on a musical journey where you meet two African Queens. During Theme of Nefertiti, Theme of Cleopatra and Theme of The Queen of Sheba the music is variously soulful, dramatic, urgent and always, dance-floor friendly with a pulsating disco beat. Finally, on African Queens Reprise, you get the chance to revisit some of the highlights and delights of Side One of African Queens again. Although Side One lasts just under thirteen minutes, it’s thirteen magical, memorable and captivating minutes where disco is given an African twist, thanks to Jacques Morali and The Ritchie Family.
Side Two of African Queens opens with Summer Nights. The now familiar combination of hissing hi-hats, pounding beats and growling horns are joined by sweeping, swirling strings. Flourishes of harpsichord give way to a confident, sassy and joyous vocal. It marches along, with the bass leading the way. Harmonies cascade, strings dance and percussion punctuates the arrangement. The now fashionable clavinet adds a tougher sound, while a mass of strings and horns provide the backdrop for The Ritchie Family’s vocals. Sweet, soulful, sensuous and sometimes sassy, the vocals and harmonies are all these things and more. For his part, Jacques arrangement combines disco, funk, jazz and African music. It’s a glorious combination and with The Ritchie Family delivering their best vocals. The result is the best track on African Queens.
Quiet Village gradually reveals its secrets. Just thunderous drums, funky bass and wah-wah guitar enter. They’re joined by percussion, pensive vocals and shivering, quivering strings. The understated vocals play a secondary role to the arrangement. Soon, it grows in power and drama. Synths, growling horns, percussion and harpsichord add contrasting sounds. Sometimes, the dated synths dominates the arrangement. Other times, percussion and strings play important roles. Their sounds are timeless. When the vocal returns it’s needy, sassy and beckoning. From there, the vocals and arrangement take turns of grabbing your attention. Everything fits nicely together, like a musical jigsaw, which Jacques Morali has painstakingly put together. To do this, he’s sought inspiration from a variety of musical genres and influences.
Voodoo closes African Queens, The Ritchie Family’s fourth album. It’s as if everything has been building towards this track. From the opening bars, you’re spellbound. You wonder where the track is heading. Punchy horns, dramatic percussion and urgent, but soulful harmonies combine. Then the then arrangement becomes a musical juggernaut. It’s driven along by blazing horns, rhythm section and African percussion. Harmonies sweep in, they cascade and like the growling horns, sounds as if they’re giving thanks for the music that’s gone before. Hypnotic, and pulsating, disco, soul, funk, jazz and African music unite, as The Ritchie Family close African Queens with a captivating track.
While African Queens failed to replicate the success of The Ritchie Family’s first two albums, it was certainly an innovative and groundbreaking album. Here, The Ritchie Family had fused American disco with African music. To that fusion, they’d added elements of jazz, funk and Philly Soul. African Queens was a captivating and compelling album for The Ritchie Family. However, it was the end of an era, for two reasons.
African Queens was The Ritchie Family’s fourth disco concept album. It was also their final one disco concept album. For their next album, 1978s American Generation, The Ritchie Family’s music moved more towards Euro Disco and Euro Pop. The other reason African Queens marked the end of an era, was that it was the final album to feature Gwen Oliver, Cassandra Wooten and Cheryl Jacks. At least they’d finished their career with The Ritchie Family with such an innovative, groundbreaking album. However, this was just the first of five changes in The Ritchie Family’s lineup. Indeed, if you count The Sweethearts of Sigma as the original vocalists, then there were really six different lineups of The Ritchie Family. For many people, myself included, the first four The Ritchie Family albums were the best. Starting with 1975s Brazil, then 1976s Arabian Nights, 1977s The Best Disco In Town and African Queens, this four album period marked the best music of The Ritchie Family’s career. Standout Tracks: African Queens, Summer Nights, Quiet Village and Voodoo.
THE RITCHIE FAMILY-AFRICAN QUEENS.