For Salsoul Records and The Salsoul Orchestra, Up The Yellow Brick Road would prove to be the end of an era.  Up The Yellow Brick Road proved to be last Salsoul Orchestra arranged, produced and featuring the sound of vibes virtuoso Vince Montana Jr. It also proved to the first Salsoul Orchestra mixed by the new breed of remixers who seemed to be de rigueur at Salsoul.

The Cayres decided to bring in Tom Moulton to remix Up The Yellow Brick Road which will be rereleased by BBR Records on 28th April 2014.  Like some sort of disco superhero, remixers were brought in to remix entire albums. While remixers had a role, remixing individual tracks, opinion was divided over whether they should be remixing whole albums. Then there was the question of whether non-musicians, which many remixers were, should be remixing an album? Given that The Salsoul Orchestra were producing some of the best music of their career, why did the Cayres want to change things? Had they not heard of the maxim if it “isn’t broke don’t fix it.”

Behind the scenes, things were changing at Salsoul, with several musicians unsure about the role of the remixer. Vince Montana Jr, and Norman Harris were just two of them. So, for Vince, Up The Yellow Brick Road was his Salsoul finale, with him leaving Salsoul and signing to Atlantic Records. Vince leaving was just the start of changes at Salsoul. Even the classic lineup of The Salsoul Orchestra was changing. Whereas the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section had been ever-present on The Salsoul Orchestra albums, only Earl Young featured on Up The Yellow Brick Road. Indeed, the times they were a changing, but would this affect the quality of music on Up The Yellow Brick Road?

Up The Yellow Brick Road was The Salsoul Orchestra’s fifth album, but proved to be different from their previous album. Five tracks featured on Up The Yellow Brick Road were all from Broadway musicals and films. This included a cover of Move On Up the Road from the Wiz, plus medleys from West Side Story and Fiddler On the Roof. The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which in 1978, had been adapted into a film by Robert Stigwood and producer Michael Schulz was given a makeover by The Salsoul Orchestra. Closing Up The Yellow Brick Road was a cover of Evergreen, from the film A Star Is Born. These five tracks would be recorded at Philly’s Sigma Sound Studios, where The Salsoul Orchestra recorded all their previous albums.

The lineup of The Salsoul Orchestra that features on Up The Yellow Brick Road, was quite different from previous albums. Whereas previous albums featured Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section, only Earl Young played on Up The Yellow Brick Road. Joining Earl in the rhythm section were drummer Keith Benson, bassist Gordon Edwards and guitarists Ronnie “the Hawk” James, Bobby “Electronic” Eli and T.J. Tindall. Adding The Salsoul Orchestra’s percussive sound were Vince Montana Jr, on timpani, bells, chimes and vibes, plus Larry Washington and James Walker on congas, bongos and timbales. Carlton “Cotton” Kent played keyboards and Bill O’Brien synths and Jack Faith flute and piccolo. Violinist Don Renaldo was part of the string section and horn section that was key to the Salsoul sound. Adding backing vocals were the legendary Sweethearts of Sigma, Carla Benson, Barbara Ingram and Evette Benton, who feature heavily on Up The Yellow Brick Road. Once Up The Yellow Brick Road was completed, it was scheduled for release on March 1978. By then, The Salsoul Orchestra had lost its arranger, conductor and producer.

When The Salsoul Orchestra released Up The Yellow Brick Road in March 1978, it eached number 117 in the US R&B Charts and number fifty-two in the US R&B Charts. By the time Up The Yellow Brick Road was released, Vince Montana Jr had left Salsoul Records. After a disagreement with the Cayres over royalties, Vince signed as a solo artist for Atlantic Records. So, Up The Yellow Brick Road was Vince Montana Jr’s final album as arranger, conductor and producer of the orchestra he created…The Salsoul Orchestra. However, did Vince Montana Jr’s career with The Salsoul Orchestra end on a high with Up The Yellow Brick Road? 

Opening The Salsoul Orchestra’s Up The Yellow Brick Road is Move On Up the Road from The Wiz a1978 adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. Earl Young’s pounding drums provide the track’s disco heartbeat before strings dance with delight, horns rasp and growl and the Sweethearts of Sigma prove the perfect foil for The Salsoul Orchestra, adding joyous, sweeping harmonies. A jazzy piano is ever-present while the growling horns punctuate the arrangement and the strings sweep and swirl. Later, Vince adds one of his trademark vibes solos, before the a horn solo takes charge. All the time the Sweethearts of Sigma add the their tight, sweet and glorious harmonies. Woodwind, flourishes of strings and the rhythm section combine, although Ron Baker’s bass playing is sadly missed. Having said that, this is an uplifting, joyous opening journey Up The Yellow Brick Road.

The West Side Story medley opens dramatically with the rhythm section, rasping horns, guitars and percussion driving the track along. Strings shiver and quiver, as the Sweethearts of Sigma’s vocals enter. They add to the drama and theatre of the track,  able to change the mood and feel of each part of the medley. When their vocals drop out the horns gently rasp, while strings cascade and a myriad of percussion combines with the constant disco beat. Soon, the Sweethearts of Sigma return, their vocals heartfelt, tender and the perfect contrast to the impressive sound of The Salsoul Orchestra in full flight. Gordon Edwards bass plays an important part, helping anchor the track, before Bill O’Brien lays down a  synths solo par excellence. He’s joined by the funky rhythm section, percussion and stabs of horns and Bobby “Electronic” Eli’s unmistakable guitar playing. By now Latin and funk are fused seamlessly, before the Sweethearts of Sigma add their soulful contribution. Their punchy, harmonies add to the drama as this thirteen-minute reaches its impressive crescendo, albeit with a little help from vibes virtuoso Vince Montana Jr, who unleashes a show stealing solo, helped along by blazing horns and dancing strings.

After unleashing an impressive wall of sound Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is reinvented by The Salsoul Orchestra and arranger and producer Vince Montana Jr. To do this the entire orchestra’s talents are utilised to recreate what is a complex piece of music. This means fusing the woodwind section, while punchy rasping horns, swirling strings and sassy, feisty and sometimes melodramatic harmonies from the Sweethearts of Sigma are combined with the rhythm section. Unlike the original, the horns, harmonies and piano add a glorious jazzy and disco twist to a familiar track, turning this slice of psychedlia into something it was never meant to be.

Fiddler On the Roof is the another show tune given the medley treatment by The Salsoul Orchestra. It’s given a pulsating disco beat by the rhythm section as elegant strings dance joyously, and are joined by a myriad of percussion and rasping, braying horns. Playing an important part in the track’s success are the Sweethearts of Sigma soulful harmonies. They vary from one part of the medley to another, ranging from heartfelt, impassioned, to dramatic, sweet and joyous. Sometimes, they drop out completely, to be replaced by the hugely impressive combination of the woodwind, horn, string and rhythm sections in full flight. Truly, it’s an impressive and dramatic sound, demonstrating why by 1978, The Salsoul Orchestra were disco’s greatest orchestra. During some parts of the medley, The Salsoul Orchestra’s woodwind section get their chance to shine, before later the lush strings take centre-stage. While, each part of the orchestra changes the mood and drama, one thing never changes, that pulsating, disco beat. As a breakdown occurs, just the percussion and shakers take-centre stage, allowing the percussive delights of The Salsoul Orchestra to shine through. Later, bursts of kettle drums, horns accompany the heartfelt harmonies of the Sweethearts of Sigma while rest of The Salsoul Orchestra reinvent Leonard Bernstein’s finest hour and in doing so, show just how talented they were and at the same time, demonstrate just how innovative an arranger and producer Vince Montana Jr truly was.

Closing Up The Yellow Brick Road is Evergreen (Love Theme From “A Star Is Born”) and sees The Salsoul Orchestra breath new life and meaning to the track. There’s a real understated Latin sound to the track. Just congas and bongos subtly combine, before Vince Montana Jr lays down a slow, spacious vibes solo. Then the Sweethearts of Sigma lay some of the most heartfelt, beautiful harmonies on How Deep Is Your Love. When Vince adds the lushest of slow strings this is a masterstroke. He then combines his vibes with percussion and congas and the Sweethearts of Sigma tender harmonies. This innovative and imaginative combination sees elements of jazz, Latin and soul resulting is an understated and subtle reworking of a familiar song that’s a mixture of beauty and elegance personified. What a way gorgeous way to close Up The Yellow Brick Road and what a way for Vince Montana Jr to close the book on his time at Salsoul Records.

Up The Yellow Brick Road proved not just to be a landmark album for The Salsoul Orchestra, but for Salsoul Records. By the time Up The Yellow Brick Road was released, The Salsoul Orchestra had lost its creator, conductor, arranger and producer Vince Montana Jr. He’d left Salsoul, after a dispute with the Cayres over royalties, and signed a contract with Atlantic Records. Ironically, neither Vince Montana Jr, nor The Salsoul Orchestra would be the same. Now Salsoul had entered the era of the “superstar remixer. However, they weren’t just remixing singles, but whole albums and soon, would be writing and producing songs. For some people, this was a step too far. While remixers had their place, many were non-musicians, who didn’t know a chromatic chord from shopping cart. Soon, many of The Salsoul Orchestra’s legendary members would either leave the label or play less important roles. Mind you, given how talented they were, they were soon gainfully employed, joining John Davis’ Monster Orchestra or writing, arranging and producing on their own. Ironically, Vince Montana Jr, never enjoyed the same success at Atlantic and his days at Philadelphia International Records and then Salsoul proved his most productive and successful.

One of Vince’s replacement was Tom Moulton, who by 1978, was at the height of his success and was one the most in-demand remixers. He’s responsible for the track’s pounding, pulsating disco beat. However, this wasn’t created by the legendary Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section, like previous Salsoul Orchestra albums. Only Earl Young played on Up The Yellow Brick Road, and only on three tracks. Keith Benson played on the two medley’s but his drumming doesn’t have the same presence, nor does bassist Gordon Edwards whose playing isn’t lacks the presence of Ron Baker’s. Similarly, Norman Harris’ jazz-tinged flourishes were absent on Up The Yellow Brick Road. Although their replacements were really talented musicians, Baker, Harris, Young were peerless and irreplaceable. Having said that, even without Baker, Harris, Young, Up The Yellow Brick Road demonstrates The Salsoul Orchestra at the creative, innovative, where they were without doubt, disco’s greatest orchestra. That’s why the period between 1975 and 1978 is the classic Salsoul era, when The Salsoul Orchestra started a journey with The Salsoul Orchestra in 1975 and which came to an end Up The Yellow Brick Road. Standout Tracks: Move On Up the Road, West Side Story, Fiddler On the Roof and Evergreen.



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