Cult Classic: The Impressions-About Time.

For any group, losing their lead singer can derail their fortunes. In some cases, this can prove fatal. It’s a body blow that the group never recovers from. Especially when the lead singer happens to have written many of the group’s biggest hits. This was the case with The Impressions.

Since 1960, Curtis Mayfield  had been The Impressions lead singer and principal songwriter. He penned and sang lead vocal on many of The Impressions’ biggest hits. Among them three number one singles, It’s All Right in 1963, 1967s We’re A Winner and 1969s Choice Of Colours. Then there’s Impressions classics like Gypsy Woman, Keep On Pushin’ and People Get Ready. However, after 1970s Check Out Your Mind Curtis left The Impressions and embarked upon a solo career.

Curtis Mayfield hadn’t left The Impressions on a high. Check Out Your Mind failed to chart in the US Billboard 200 charts and only reached number twenty-two in the US R&B Charts. For a group that had previously enjoyed six top ten US R&B albums during the sixties, it looked as if The Impressions’ career was a crossroads. Over the next few years, The Impressions struggled to recapture the commercial success and critical acclaim they’d enjoyed during the sixties.

Replacing Curtis Mayfield was Leroy Hutson. He was three months out of college when he joined The Impressions. His Impressions’ debut was 1972s Times Have Changed, which stalled at number 192 in the US Billboard 200 charts. 1973s Preacher Man failed to reach US Billboard 200 charts. It was a case of close but no cigar with Preacher Man stalling at a lowly 204 and number thirty-one in the US R&B charts.

After the release of  Preacher Man, Leroy Hutson left The Impressions. His replacement was Ralph Johnson, and 1974 was a year of mixed fortunes for The Impressions.

1974 was also a busy year for The Impressions. They provided the Blaxploitation soundtrack Three The Hard Way. It wasn’t a commercial success, reaching just 202 in the US Billboard 200 charts and only reached number twenty-six in the US R&B Charts. 

Ralph Johnson’s Impressions’ debut was much more successful than Leroy Hutson. 1974s Finally Got Myself Together may have only reached number 176 in the US Billboard 200 charts and only reached number sixteen in the US R&B Charts. However, the title-track reached number seventeen in the US Billboard 100 charts and only reached number one in the US R&B Charts. This was The Impressions’ most successful single since 1967s We’re A Winner. This was the start of a brief Indian Summer in The Impressions’ career.

1975s First Impressions reached number 115 in the US Billboard 200 charts and only reached number thirteen in the US R&B Charts. This was The Impressions’ most successful single since 1968s This Is My Story. Two singles from First Impressions Sooner or Later and  Same Thing It Took reached number three in the US R&B charts. It looked as if The Impressions’ career was back on track.

1976 was a year of upheaval for The Impressions. They left Curtom Records, which had been their home since 1970. They signed to Cotillion, a subsidiary label of Atlantic Records. The other change was Nate Evans replaced Ralph Johnson as lead singer on About Time, which was recently rereleased by Rhino. Would the change in personnel affect The Impressions’ fortunes?

About Time featured eight tracks. Six of these tracks were penned by Melvin and Mervin Steals. They’d previously, as Maestro and Lyric, had written The Detroit Spinners’ Could It Be I’m Falling In Love, Major Harris’ Each Morning I Wake Up, The Trammps’ Trusting Heart and Honey Bee for Gloria Gaynor. Melvin and Mervin also wrote tracks for Ecstasy, Passion and Pain and Blue Magic. For The Impressions, Melvin and Mervin cowrote In The Palm Of My Hands, You’ll Never Find, Same Old Heartaches, I Need You, Stardust and What Might Have Been. The two other tracks included McKinley Jackson and Shirley Jones’ This Time and Paul Richmond and Daryl Ellis’ I’m A Fool For Love. These eight songs became About Time, which was recorded at various studios.

It seemed no expense was spared on The Impressions’ Cotillion debut. Barnum Recording Studio, Wally Heider Recording and ABC Recording Studios in, Los Angeles. Other sessions took place at Paragon Recording Studios, Chicago. Mixing took place at Wally Helder Recording and Kendun Recorders, where the mastering took place. Before that, producer McKinley Jackson put together a crack team of session players.

The rhythm section included drummers Ed Greene, James Gadson and Ollie Brown, bassists James Jamerson and Scott Edwards plus guitarists Ray Parker Jr, Ben Bebay and Lee Ritenour. McKinley Jackson, Melvin Steals, John Barnes, Ronald Coleman and Sylvester Rivers played keyboards and percussion came courtesy of Eddie “Bongo” Brown, Gary Coleman and Jack Ashford. Ernie Watts played alto and tenor saxophone and Oscar Brashear trumpet. They augmented the might of the Los Angeles Brass, Woodwind And String Sections. Arrangers included Gene Page and Gil Askey. The Impressions, Fred Cash, Nate Evans, Reggie Torian and original member member Sam Gooden sung and assisted producer McKinley Jackson. Once About Time was finished, the album was ready for release later in 1976.

When About Time was completed, everyone connected with the album was excited about its prospects. That’s quite remarkable, considering McKinley Jackson wasn’t originally intended to produce About Time. Al Bell had been booked to produce About Time. For whatever reason, Al Bell changed his mind. So, McKinley Jackson stepped in to fill the void. Melvin and Mervin Steals, the principal songwriters flew to L.A. to oversee the recording sessions. There they found an reinvigorated Impressions rolling back the years. Everything it seemed was in place for a hit album. Sadly, one mistake proved costly.

Everything was going well for The Impressions. It looked like their career was back on track. Then after a concert in Atlanta, an alleged incident that involved  one the members of The Impressions proved costly and executives at Atlantic Records were enraged. They felt they couldn’t back About Time. Not after what had happened. This had caused huge embarrassment to a musical institution, Atlantic Records.

Without Atlantic Record promoting About Time it was no surprise the album reached a lowly 195 in the US Billboard 200 and number twenty-four in the US R&B charts. This Time reached just number forty in the US R&B Charts. Then in 1977, You’ll Never Find reached a lowly number ninety-nine in the US R&B charts. For The Impressions, this was a case of what if? Mostly, it was a case of what if they’d never played Atlanta. Things could’ve been very different. That wasn’t to be and About Time, which I’ll tell you about, was The Impressions’ only album for Atlantic Records’ subsidiary Cotillion.

In The Palm Of My Hands opens About Love. Stabs of growling horns, a pounding rhythm section and dancing disco strings are joined by percussion and a searing guitar. It’s a dramatic, Philly-tinged arrangement. You fully expect Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes, The Detroit Spinners or The O’Jays to take centre-stage. Instead, it’s The Impressions. Their harmonies provide the perfect accompaniment to Nate Evans’ needy, joyous lead vocal.  Harmonies coo and soar, while Nate delivers a vocal powerhouse. At the breakdown, strings dance, guitars chime, horns blaze and percussion augments the rhythm section. They then pass the baton to The Impressions as this joyous hook laden opus proves the perfect way to open About Love.

The rhythm section and percussion spring into action on You’ll Never Find. They mix funk and soul. That’s before cascading disco strings signal the entrance of Nate’s grizzled, hurt-filled vocal. He’s augmented by the rest of The Impressions. Again, there’s a Philly Soul influence as The Impressions sound not unlike Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes. The Steals’  brothers have picked up where they left off on In The Palm Of My Hands. This tale of hurt and heartache is tailor made for The Impressions. They kick loose, mixing Philly Soul, funk and disco. Featuring a vocal masterclass from Nate, The Impressions trademark harmonies and McKinley Jackson’s production this is a real hidden gem, that would’ve made a great single.

Same Old Heartaches sees the tempo drop and swathes of strings flutter above the arrangement. Meanwhile, guitars chime and the rhythm section provide a subtle heartbeat. This sets the scene for Nate’s heartbroken vocal. Behind him, strings sweep and swirl and harmonies punctuate the arrangement. Helping drive the arrangement along is the probing bass. At the heart of the song’s success is Nate’s soul-searching vocal and tender harmonies. They coo and sweep, while the all-star band provide a big, bold, lush and dramatic arrangement. This is perfect backdrop for Nate’s vocal, where heartbreak and regret are ever-present. He brings to life and meaning the Steal brothers beautiful ballad.

Strings cascade, joining flourishes of piano and the rhythm section in creating an arrangement for I Need You that oozes drama. When the baton passes to Nate, there’s no letup in the drama. His vocal is veers between heartfelt and full of hope, to slow and sensual. Later, what starts of as a ballad changes. The tempo increases and Nate and the rest of The Impressions vamp their way through the lyrics. After that, there’s a return to the earlier balladry as the vocal continues to change hands. Two thing remain the same the quality and drama.

This Time was originally the opening track on side two. There’s no letup in the drama. It’s a hopeful, uptempo ballad. Producer McKinley Jackson, who cowrote the song with future Jones Girl Shirley Jones, makes good use if swathes of strings. They’re joined by percussion, pounding rhythm section and way way guitar. Then there’s the cooing harmonies that accompany the Nate’s rueful vocal. It’s tinged with sadness and regret at the hurt he’s caused his former girlfriend. Hopefully, he sings “this time we’re makin’ it last forever,” as the track reaches its emotive and dramatic crescendo.

Just percussion, strings and muted horns open Stardust. They’re joined by chiming guitars and harmonies. Tender, thoughtful and wistful harmonies sweep in. Meanwhile, the rhythm section provide the heartbeat. Drums pound, the bass leads the way and strings cascade. However, it’s the harmonies and strings that are the focus of your attention. That and a sultry trumpet solo leave lasting memories of The Impressions delivering some of their best harmonies on About Love.

A scorching horn solo opens I’m A Fool For Love. Straight away, it’s obvious this is a very different type of track. It’s penned by Paul Richmond and Daryl Ellis. Drums thunder, strings sweep and harmonies soar above the the arrangement. The drums crack as Nate delivers a powerhouse of a vocal. When his vocal drops out, strings sweep and swirl. Then when he returns, he combines power and passion. Nate can cope with this change of style. He seems to relish the opportunity to cut loose and bring meaning and emotion to the lyrics. Nate it seems, was The Impressions’ secret weapon on About Love.

Closing About Time was the rueful What Might Have Been. This is the sixth song from the pen of Melvin and Mervin Steals. Straight away, there’s a rueful sound. That’s apparent in the combination of the swathes of strings, rhythm section and Hammond organ. Then there’s the preacher reading the wedding vows. After that, Nate cuts in with “ he’s standing there, where I’m supposed to be.” Heartbroken and realising what he’s let go, Nate sings the lyrics like he’s lived them. That’s apparent when he delivers the line: “but now that I lost you, darlin’ Im sadder, so I’m sadder than sad.” Meanwhile, the rest of The Impressions add rueful harmonies while McKinley Jackson’s production is a mixture of drama and emotion. It’s the perfect accompaniment to one of Nate’s most impassioned and heartfelt vocals on About Time. 

It’s no exaggeration to say that About Time is one of the great lost albums and nowadays is regarded as a cult classic. Released in 1976, it should’ve soared all the way to the top of the charts. It didn’t. Far from it. Instead, it hardly made an impression on the charts. What should’ve been The Impressions’ most successful album of the seventies has been all but forgotten. There’s a reason for this. 

An alleged incident by one of The Impressions lead to Atlantic almost killing the album off. Executives at  Atlantic Records were enraged. They felt they couldn’t back About Time. Not after what had happened. This had caused all caused a huge embarrassment to Atlantic Record, one of America’s musical institutions. For The Impressions, what’s one of their finest albums of the sixties passed the world by. Some critics realised the quality of About Time. However, with Atlantic Records’ marketing machine behind About Time, The Impressions weren’t going to enjoy the commercial success and critical acclaim they deserved. It  was an uphill struggle for The Impressions. Sadly, About Time stalled at a lowly 195 in the US Billboard 200 and number twenty-four in the US R&B charts. For many people, who’d put their heart and soul into About Time, this was heartbreaking.

This includes three members of The Impressions. Then there’s the principal songwriters Melvin and Mervin Steals. They’d contributed six songs to About Time. They could easily have shopped the songs to any number of other producers. The six songs ooze quality. Mind you, they were on a roll, having written songs for some of the biggest names in Philly Soul. Melvin and Mervin deserved better. So did arrangers Gene Page and Gil Askey. Then there’s producer McKinley Jackson. About Time was variously a big, bold, dramatic and lush album. It was reminiscent of Philly Soul at it’s best. Sadly, through no fault of McKinley’s About Love failed commercially. 

Since then, About Love has languished in the vaults of Atlantic Records. That’s a great shame as About Time was one of The Impressions’ best albums of the seventies and never again, did they come close to reaching these heady heights ever again.

Cult Classic: The Impressions-About Time.



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