In 1989, I was working for WEA International, the global division of the Warner affiliated labels (Atlantic, Elektra, Warner Bros., etc.). Though I worked for a woman who made Anna Wintour seem charming, (a typical day: someone had sent me a postcard from Italy of Michaelangelo’s David which I taped to the inside of my own cabinet. She accused me in formal correspondence of keeping porn in my desk), I was helped inestimably through each miserable moment by the glorious sounds that poured out of the office closest to me. There, a great music lover and A&R academic, my friend Steve Greenberg, played some of the best songs ever. As a satellite in the New York office whose job it was to produce compilation CDs for the international market, Steve was an island of glorious musical passion and history amidst the hostility that otherwise surrounded me. Ten times a day I would swivel away from my Wang word processor and say, “Wow, what’s that?” to something sublime emanating from his turntable. These questions sparked some of the most edifying and wonderfully satisfying listening sessions ever. One of the songs I learned about from Steve was Labelle’s “When the Sun Comes Shining Through (The Ladder).” Steve ended up including this 1971 recording on a compilation he put together called Sanctified Soul which was released in territories around the world (I even got thanked on the liner notes, which I interpreted as an important talisman that I had made a good choice pursuing the record business over the film business—so ironic now). Here’s what writer Carol Cooper, who did the liner notes, had to say about this record:
“When the Sun Comes Shining Through (The Ladder),” from their eponymous Warner Bros. LP in ’71 features tight harmonies and traded leads that blend the vocal characters of Nona, Patti, and Sarah into a whole almost as seamless as that achieved by the Sweet Inspirations. Backed by a small, tight combo and produced with soulful grit by Kit Lambert and Vicki Wickham, the three girls soar through ambitious vocal arrangements that are utterly transcendent in their emotional clarity. “When the Sun Comes Shining Through (The Ladder)” is almost a little gospel sonata with its discrete key changes and rhythmic sections. Lyrics referring to rainbows, and ladders, and promised lands, are clearly toasts to social struggle and unrest as the girls’ passing chromatic harmonies become a stunning tone parallel to triumph over adversity.”
Cooper’s summation of the song (which was, by the way, written by Englishman Mike D’abo, who also wrote the early Rod Stewart classic “Handbags and Gladrags”) is powerful and on the money. I have never forgotten this song or taken for granted how lucky I was to be able to learn from people like Carol Cooper and Steve Greenberg, people who cared more about music than money and symbolized the best traditions of what was good in the now moribund industry. (Greenberg went on to discover Alanis Morissette, Joss Stone and others and still runs his own label, S-Curve Records).
Ironically, when I got to know Patti Labelle pretty well years later, I mentioned this special song to her and was fairly crestfallen that she seemed quite fuzzy in her attempt to recall it specifically (this happens, I suppose, with long careers). So in the rousing spirit of this great, joyful record, so redolent of its era and yet so timeless, here is Labelle’s “utterly transcendent” musical moment. If only more of today’s young R&B artists would take the time to understand that it takes humans, not machines, to give R&B soul.
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