Millie Jackson Exposed: The Multi-Track Sessions Mixed By Steve Levine.

Label: Southbound Records.

To remix or not to remix, that is the question that many critics and music fans have asked over the last few years. Especially if it’s a classic album, which adds to the controversy. Soon, feelings are running high at the thought of Giles Smith remixing Sgt Peppers Lonely Heart’s Club Band or Steven Wilson remixing albums by Jethro Tull or Yes. The remixed album is almost guaranteed to divide the opinion of critics and music fans.

For many traditionalists, remixing a classic  album like Sgt Peppers Lonely Heart’s Club Band just shouldn’t be done. A classic album to many critics and music fans believe and argue is a work of art, and can’t be improved in any way, shape or form. That is despite many museums using all manner of new techniques to clean paintings, and bring new life to masterpieces painted 200 years ago. While some traditionalists may concede this point, they’ll still argue that Sgt Peppers Lonely Heart’s Club Band is off-limits and shouldn’t be remixed. 

That was despite Giles Smith having access to the latest technology when he remixed Sgt Peppers Lonely Heart’s Club Band. Giles Martin used the digital audio workstation Pro Tools which meant he had access to an unlimited amount of tracks, something his father could only have dreamt about during the sixties. Plug-ins were used in Pro Tools, although Giles Martin used some outboard equipment during the remixing. By using the latest new technology and modern mixing technique Giles Martin and his team were able to remix the album so that Beatles’ fans heard this classic album in a new way. 

When the remix of Sgt Peppers Lonely Heart’s Club Band was released, those that worked on the project stressed that this wasn’t a replacement for the original album. Instead, the remix showed what it was possible to do with new technology. 

Many critics were won over by the remix of Sgt Peppers Lonely Heart’s Club Band, and felt it breathed new life into this classic album. Many Beatles’ fans conceded that the remix allowed the listener to hear the album in a different way from the original. However, not everyone was of the same opinion.

Sadly, many traditionalists were over-protective of their favourite album, and were unwilling to give Giles Martin and his team the credit that they deserved for his remix. As far as they were concerned, Sgt Peppers Lonely Heart’s Club Band like the rest of The Beatles’ back-catalogue was sacrosanct, and apart from some sympathetic remastering nothing else should be done to this classic album.

The same arguments have been trotted out when other classic albums have been remixed over the last few years. Usually, the only work that takes place on these projects is remastering and remixing.   

Remixers like Steven Wilson and Giles Smith don’t get involved in correcting timing, editing or remaking a track. If they did, this would’ve caused huge controversy. However, Southbound Records, an imprint of Ace Records recently released  Millie Jackson Exposed: The Multi-Track Sessions Mixed By Steve Levine where the veteran producer does all this and more.

Steve Levine, has always loved soul music, and has always been a huge fan of Millie Jackson’s music. Especially the albums she recorded in the seventies with producer Brad Shapiro at Muscle Shoals, where Millie Jackson was accompanied by David Hood, Roger Hawkins, Barry Beckett and Jimmy Johnson. They were often joined by Brandye and The Moments who added backing vocals. The majority of the albums were recorded in Muscle Shoals, although some sweetening often took place in New York, Philly or Detroit. This was where some of Millie Jackson’s finest albums were completed, before they were released by Southbound.

Steve Levine.

One of the many soul fans who bought Millie Jackson’s albums was Steve Levine, whose career began in 1975, when he got a job at CBS Studios as a trainee tape-op. Soon, he had progressed to in-house engineer and was working with The Clash, XTC, The Jags and many of the pop acts signed to CBS’ roster. Working with such a wide range of artists was good experience for Steve Levine.

In the early eighties, Steve Levine started working with Culture Club, and produced the five albums that the band released between 1982 and 1999. These albums were certified gold and platinum, and suddenly, Culture Club were enjoyed worldwide success. Meanwhile, artists and groups on both sides of the Atlantic wanted to work with the man with Midas Touch.

This lead to Steve Levine producing everyone from America, The Beach Boys, China Crisis Deniece Williams, Gary Moore and Motörhead. However, after a meeting with Bruce Johnson of The Beach Boys in the early eighties, Steve Levine produced their 1985 eponymous album. For Steve Levine who had grown up listening to The Beach Boys, this was a huge honour.

As Steve Levine’s career progressed, he went from producer, to award-winning producer. He won a Brit Award for Producer of the Year,  a Grammy Award for his work with Deniece Williams and in 2011, a Sony Radio Award. Steve Levine even authored a successful book Hit Kit and the Art of Downloading Music. The London-based producer has enjoyed a five decade career and produced many hit singles and albums, and it seemed, had everything in music. That was until Roger Armstrong from Ace Records approached Steve Levine about a Millie Jackson new project.

Millie Jackson Exposed: The Multi-Track Sessions Mixed By Steve Levine.

This was music to Steve Levine’s ears, as he like Roger Armstrong was a huge fan of Millie Jackson’s music. Roger Armstrong wanted to investigate the Millie Jackson multi-track tapes to see if it would be possible to do something new and fresh with them. Especially now that technology had improved since the original albums were recorded. When Steve Levine heard of Roger Armstrong’s plans he was excited and was keen to get involved.

The next stage was for all the available analogue tapes to be transformed to digital and stored on a hard drive which was sent to Steve Levine’s studio in Liverpool. This was where the hard work began for Steve Levine, who spent a while sifting through the various tracks, before he arrived at a potential track listing.

This track listing was a mixture of ballads and dance tracks that showcased Millie Jackson’s vocal prowess. Other songs that Steve Levine had chosen  featured some of her early proto-raps. The subject matter of the songs were always powerful with a narrative that death with social and sexual politics. Great care had been taken choosing the songs that Steve Levine planned to remix on Millie Jackson Exposed: The Multi-Track Sessions Mixed By Steve Levine.

Now one of the great engineer and producers of his generation began to breath new life and meaning into the twelve songs that he had chosen. Steve Levine was determined to stay true to Millie Jackson’s original artistic vision, but was determined to restore the music to its former glory. This was similar to restoring an oil painting, except that Steve Levine used the latest musical technology, including the now ubiquitous digital audio workstation. 

It was one of Steve Levine’s secret weapons as made use of the unlimited tracks on the digital audio workstation. Some of the instruments including a Fender Rhodes and Hammond organ had to be recorded in mono or combined  on a single track became stereo in the digital audio workstation. This transformed the sound the interments produced. Meanwhile, Steve Levine set about sorting mistakes in timing, reducing noise, improving clarity and dynamic range. Steve Levine also created a wider stereo image which is apparent when one listens to the songs on Exposed and compares them with the original recordings.

While Steve Levine was making good use of the new technology, he used some of the outboard equipment that is housed within his Liverpool studio. Graphic equalisers, echo, compression and reverb were deployed by Steve Levine. Other times, he used plug-ins modelled on the outboard equipment that engineers used during the seventies. For Steve Levine it was important that he was using similar equipment to the engineers who worked on the Millie Jackson albums. It was  a case of staying true to her vision.

Despite wanting to stay true to Millie Jackson’s vision, Steve Levine used some outtakes of her vocal to comp harmonies that were added to the track. In one case, he makes a new track by floating the vocal over the top of the arrangement. This may prove controversial.

After all, Steve Levine has literally rebuilt a new track from scratch. However, as he points out, the materials he uses were all recorded during the original sessions. It’s not as if new parts were recorded and used during this contemporary remix which shows a new side to one of Millie Jackson’s best known songs.

That is the case throughout the twelve tracks on Millie Jackson Exposed: The Multi-Track Sessions Mixed By Steve Levine. Using his five decades of experience and modern technology, Steve Levine breathes new life and meaning into twelve tracks from Millie Jackson’s Southbound years. These tracks were recorded between 1971 and 1979, and include some of Millie Jackson’s best known songs

The earliest track is the Motown influenced My Man, A Sweet Man which was recorded in August 1971, and released by Spring Records on Millie Jackson’s 1972 eponymous debut album. Steve Levine’s remix brings new life to a song that would go down a storm on the UK Northern Soul scene.

It Hurts So Good, I Cry and Help Yourself are all from  Millie Jackson’s 1973 sophomore album It Hurts So Good. It features a soul-baring vocal from Millie Jackson while swathes of lush strings and soulful backing vocals play their part in the arrangement. So does a Fender Rhodes that was originally recorded in mono and is now in stereo on this new and improved version of It Hurts So Good. I Cry features an impassioned vocal from Millie Jackson as she delivers powerful lyrics against an arrangement that is funky and soulful. However, the strings that sweeten don’t play as prominent a role in the remix  and are replaced by horns as Steve Levine takes a familiar song in a new direction. Then on the ballad Help Yourself reverb is used subtly and briefly, before strings sweep as horns and harmonies accompany Millie Jackson at her soulful best.

If Loving You Is Wrong I Don’t Want To Be Right from Millie Jackson’s 1974 classic album Caught Up, and is regarded by many as one of the highlights of the album. Here, Steve Levine seems to slow the song down slightly and adds reverb to the arrangement which is given an innovative trip hop makeover.

Bad Risk is a track from Millie Jackson’s 1976 album Free and In Love, which stalled at seventeen in the US R&B. Despite failing to replicate the success of earlier albums there’s several highlights on the album, including Bad Risk where lush strings sweep and swirl take centre-stage and later, a  blistering, effects-laden guitar cuts through the funky, soulful arrangement. Meanwhile, Millie Jackson delivers a sensual, soulful vocal on this underrated ballad that is given a welcome makeover by Steve Levine. 

So is A House For Sale which is an oft-overlooked Millie Jackson track that is also taken from Free and In Love. It was long overdue a remix, Steve Levine extends the song by the best part of a minute and seems to tightened the drums up so that they’re in time Soon, strings and harmonies accompany Millie Jackson’s vocal powerhouse during Steve Levine carefully crafted and irresistible  dancefloor friendly remix.

Millie Jackson released two albums during 1977, including Lovingly Yours which features I’ll Continue To Love You. It was originally just under three minutes long, but Steve Levine extends it to just over five minutes. One criticism of the original track were the synths that were used. It must have been tempting to give them a mere supporting role, or remove them from the track. However, Steve Levine resists this temptation, and stays true to Millie Jackson’s vision on this soulful dance track.

In 1978, Millie Jackson released Get It Out’cha System which gave her the third gold disc of her career. It featured Go Out and Get Some (Get It Out ‘Cha System) which was originality just under three minutes long. Steve Levine works his magic and extends the track by a minute. He also changes the Fender Rhodes to stereo which makes a difference. Meanwhile, now that there seems to be much more separation between the instruments. The strings dance, horns rasp and backing vocalists accompany Millie Jackson’s sassy, powerful vocal, as the widescreen arrangement breathes new life into the songs.

Although Sweet Music Soft Lights And You was recorded in May 1975, this duet with Isaac Hayes only featured on the 1979 album Royal Rappin’. Just like the original, the introduction is understated and funky as the arrangement builds before things change. Steve Levine extends the original song by two minutes as two of the biggest names of seventies join forces on this funky, soulful remix which features a stunning bass solo.

Millie Jackson also released Moment’s Pleasure during 1979, which featured a deeply soulful cover of Kiss You Over. It features a stereo Fender Rhodes, searing guitar, rasping horns and bubbling pizzicato strings as harmonies accompany Millie Jackson’s needy vocal. Just like other tracks, Steve Levine has extended the track albeit only by twenty-seconds as Millie Jackson shows another side to  Kiss You Over

Closing Millie Jackson Exposed: The Multi-Track Sessions Mixed By Steve Levine is Never Change Lovers In The Middle Of The Night. It’s another track from the 1979 album Moment’s Pleasure and has been extended by a minute. After a big, bold introduction, the arrangement just glides along with Millie Jackson’s vocal starting off tender and soulful, before growing in power. By then, horns and strings are playing leading roles in the arrangement to this melodic and memorable track. 

Millie Jackson Exposed: The Multi-Track Sessions Mixed By Steve Levine which was recently released by Southbound, an imprint of Ace Records is a compilation that will be of interest to all fans of Millie Jackson. This is an opportunity to hear twelve tracks from her seventies albums given a contemporary remix by Steve Levine. 

His remixes on Millie Jackson Exposed: The Multi-Track Sessions Mixed By Steve Levine are inventive, sympathetic and breath new life and meaning into familiar tracks and hidden gems. Steve Levine even sorts a timing problem, remakes a track and reinvents one of Millie Jackson’s classic songs. Never before will you hear If Loving You Is Wrong I Don’t Want To Be Right like this. It heads in the direction of trip hop and is bound to be a favourite of DJs playing downtempo sets. 

Sadly, some traditionalists, including one Napoleonic ‘music journalist’ neither appreciate nor understood Steve Levine’s inventive remix of a Millie Jackson classic and wasn’t won over by the compilation. These traditionalists are stuck in the past and sadly are reluctant to embrace innovation in music. Especially if it’s a remix project, and especially if it’s a remix of a classic album. That was the case with remixes of classic albums by The Beatles, Yes and Jethro Tull. Thankfully, the traditionalists are in the minority and the majority have embraced what was a labour of love for the two men who masterminded this project, Roger Armstrong and remixer extraordinaire Steve Levine.

He laboured long and hard on Millie Jackson Exposed: The Multi-Track Sessions Mixed By Steve Levine, but all his hard work has paid off on what has been a successful project as he breathes new life and meaning into twelve carefully crafted and inventive remixes.

Millie Jackson Exposed: The Multi-Track Sessions Mixed By Steve Levine.

1 Comment

  1. Uwe Brandt

    Love Millie Jackson. Thanks for the Article and great review.

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