A&M Records had success with rock, pop and easy listening music – see my previous articles in this series in Issue 160, Issue 161 and Issue 162. There was another facet the successful independent label, founded in 1962, had success in – the urban contemporary market. A&M was not widely known for rhythm and blues, soul, funk or disco, but they did release many records in that genre, and some would find big success for the label.
One of the earlier albums they released was the ill-fated Ike & Tina Turner album River Deep – Mountain High. The album itself was an awkward combination of overly bombastic Phil Spector songs and production, along with more sensible soul tracks arranged by Ike Turner. The album was originally scheduled to be released on Philles Records (Spector’s label) but despite having some discs pressed, no jackets were printed and the album was never released in the US. In 1969, A&M licensed the masters and put the album out in the US. The title song had been a hit in the UK in 1966, but failed to make an impression stateside. The failure of the song and album (also issued in the UK in 1966) reportedly led to Spector’s retirement.
Here is that troublesome title track:
Fort Wayne, Indiana was home to The Checkmates, Ltd., whose lead singer Sonny Charles would later record a few of his own albums as a solo artist, and work as a vocalist for the Steve Miller Band. The group’s only major hit was the Phil Spector-produced “Black Pearl.”
While Billy Preston’s early career encompassed working with artists and groups including Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, The Beatles, George Harrison and others, his signing with A&M when Apple Records folded gave him the freedom to produce his own records. Preston would record eight albums for A&M and produce Number 1 hits with the singles “Will It Go Round in Circles” and “Nothing from Nothing.” His first album, I Wrote a Simple Song, would produce a hit right out of the gate. A&M insisted on the title track being released as the first single (which reached only Number 77 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart), but DJs flipped the single to play the clavinet-driven instrumental B-side, “Outa-Space,” which climbed all the way to Number 2. The single that prevented him from reaching the top spot was stiff competition indeed – Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me.”
L.T.D. (Love, Togetherness, and Devotion) was known for its popular R&B hits “(Every Time I Turn Around) Back In Love Again,” “Holding On (When Love is Gone)” and “Love Ballad.” The group also launched the career of drummer and vocalist Jeffrey Osborne, who joined L.T.D. in 1970 and had a string of solo hits (also on A&M) in the early ’80s including “On the Wings of Love,” “Don’t You Get So Mad,” and “You Should Be Mine (The Woo Woo Song).”
Many disco singles back in the day had a lot of the Philadelphia influence (the O’Jays, McFadden & Whitehead, MFSB, and others). The duo of Leroy Bell (nephew of Thom Bell, one of the creators of the 1970s Philadelphia soul sound) and Casey James were a songwriting team for Philadelphia International Records, penning tunes for The O’Jays, MFSB, Gladys Knight & The Pips and Elton John before A&M floated a contract their way and signed them as a recording act. Their first single was the million-selling dance hit “Livin’ It Up (Friday Night).” Jump in the ride; it’s Friday night!
That young trumpet player tutored by Dave Lewis’s father (see our first installment) also had a little success himself. (I may be understating this just slightly.) Having gigged in and led big bands through the 1960s, Quincy Jones signed to A&M as an artist and also produced albums for other label mates. One of the most popular of his productions was the group Brothers Johnson. The brothers George (guitar) and Louis (bass) played on many other albums Jones produced and were in-demand session musicians, but also had success with a handful of A&M albums and singles under their own name. It’s hard to choose any one favorite, but “Strawberry Letter 23” is one that sticks with you, both for the unusual lyrics as well as Jones’s smooth production.
Quincy Jones also released a handful of albums on A&M, first starting with some jazz albums (Walking In Space, Gula Matari), followed by soul jazz albums that eventually drifted over to pop, culminating in the pop LP masterpiece The Dude (with the hit “Ai No Corrida,” as well as “Just Once” and “One Hundred Ways” featuring James Ingram). One of his transitional soul jazz albums was You’ve Got It Bad, Girl, which had one foot planted in jazz and the other in soul. There are many great tracks on this low-key album, but this one particular song, “The Streetbeater,” is something instantly recognizable by anyone who watched American television in the 1970s.
While starting her A&M career with an album seemingly built around the idea of being “Michael’s baby sister,” Janet Jackson would finally discover the right formula with her third album, Control. Teaming up with the hot Minneapolis production duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (formerly of The Time), songs from this album would dominate the airwaves on urban contemporary radio and cross over to the Hot 100. The spare production by Jam and Lewis was just what she needed – with razor-sharp rhythms and a funky attitude, songs like “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” and “Nasty Boys” would make big waves. Her album Rhythm Nation: 1812 would provide more of the same, even crossing over with a rock-oriented song, “Black Cat” (with Nuno Bettencourt providing the guitar solo for the video mix of the song). Janet Jackson would also appear on the label boss’s album, Keep Your Eye On Me, with a guest vocal on the Jam and Lewis-produced Herb Alpert hit, “Diamonds.”
Ce Ce Peniston’s career came about almost accidentally. She was singing backup on another A&M album (Female Preacher, by rapper Overweight Pooch, which was a flop). Her vocals stood out enough to catch the attention of DJ and A&M art director Manny Lehman, who commissioned Felipe Delgado (Female Preacher’s producer) to produce a single for Peniston. She had written a poem, added a melody to it, and “Finally” not only became a top dance club hit, it was also her highest charting single on the Billboard Hot 100 at Number 5, and became the title track of her first album. She would record only three albums for A&M, but still managed to rack up a total of five Number One hits on Billboard’s Dance Club Songs list. Peniston continues to release singles today.
Barry White’s early background in the music industry included work as an A&R man, session musician, arranger, and songwriter. He had a hit with the girl-group Love Unlimited for the Uni label, then moved to 20th Century Records. White formed the Love Unlimited Orchestra to back up his girl group, but the orchestra’s first single, the instrumental “Love’s Theme,” became a Number One hit on the Hot 100. White wanted to work with a male singer, but after a label executive heard his demos, he convinced White to re-record his demos and release the music himself. A fortuitous decision, White racked up several Top 10 hits under his name.
White changed labels again as his career waned, and his style of music went out of fashion for a while. His career rebirth happened on A&M. After participating on the Quincy Jones album Back on the Block, interest in his music picked up and he released his first A&M album, The Man is Back, in 1989. He subsequently released the highly-acclaimed The Icon is Love in 1994, which propelled him back to the upper reaches of the album charts. The single “Practice What You Preach” reached Number 1 on Billboard’s R&B Singles chart.
A&M Records had an impressive run in R&B, soul and dance music, but would have even more success with genres that would dominate the airwaves and record stores in the 1980s. We will cover this in the next installment of our A&M Records’ 60th anniversary celebration.