Thursday, August 12, 2010

Blue Magic- Greatest Hits (Atlantic, 1990)

Hot Tub Time Machine not only provided a breakout film role for my evil twin Rob Corddry but also executed wardrobe and set design worthy of an Academy Award nomination. Having (barely) survived the horrors of life in the mid-to-late 1980s, I can attest to the stunning visual accuracy of this fine motion picture. Watching in my 21st Century living room, I felt like I really was back in 1987. And let me tell you: I sure as hell don’t ever want to return to that time! If I did have a time machine, I’d be far more inclined to ride all the way back to 1974, and like Corddry’s lovable asshole Lou, I’d probably stick around a few years. How cool would it be to see the Ramones live in their infancy, drink a Billy Beer, see good cartoons on Saturday mornings, drive a brand new ’75 Firebird through the Gino’s drive-thru to pick up a Sirloiner, chat up ladies sporting hot pants and monster ‘fros, witness the rise of punk in 1977 London, converse with truckers over C.B. radio, grow out my chest hair, and be there in person to see Tug McGraw strike out Willie Wilson to clinch the 1980 World Series? The first thing I’d do upon arriving in the past? Purchase a ticket for the Stanley Cup Finals and watch the most violent sports team of all-time, the 1974 Philadelphia Flyers, win their first championship. Shortly thereafter, in the same city, I’d catch Blue Magic in concert.

While not as revered or famed as fellow Philadelphians The Delfonics & Stylistics or the Philly-produced O’ Jays, Blue Magic had a chart run to rival them all. Between 1973 and 1976, the group had nine singles reach the R & B Top 40. “Sideshow” went all the way to #1 and crossed over to the pop Top Ten as well. Backed by THE house band of Philly soul, MFSB, and produced by the legendary Norman Harris, Blue Magic really could not miss. Its self-titled debut album just might be the single best LP of the Philly soul era. Greatest Hits, a definitive document of Blue Magic in its heyday, takes the majority of its tracks from that classic first long player. You supply the hot tub, and the music is the time machine - taking you back to the day when majestic harmonies, lush strings, slick dance moves, and pimp outfits ruled the music scene in the City of Brotherly Love. Is it any wonder why I wish I could go back?!

Less like Gamble and Huff’s larger-than-life O’ Jays productions and more like the Creed/Bell easy listening slow jams, Blue Magic’s hits epitomized the soft side of Philly soul. Only in this era did there ever exist music that was equally suitable for backseat makeout sessions and corporate elevator ambience – a perfect description of Blue Magic’s versatility. You and yours, still in your hot tub, can get it on to the dulcet tones of Greatest Hits. And then you can play the very same disc for your grandparents when they come over later to watch Glenn Beck on your 50-inch flat screen. These songs exhibit all the hallmarks of smooth soul: heaven-sent harmonies; impossibly high-pitched lead vocals; gorgeous orchestral arrangements; sweet, sublime melodies; and heartbreakingly rendered lyrics about breaking up, making up, and loving all the while.

Listening to this collection, it’s still hard to believe that most of these songs came from the same album! From the first track through the last, it’s pure gold. Ted “Wizard” Mills shines on the lead, showing off the pipes that made him one of the greatest vocalists of ‘70s R & B. And the songs, written by a top-notch team including Mills, Harris, MSFB guitarist Bobby Eli, and Gwen Woolfolk (among others), are sheer perfection. “Sideshow” is a classic in anyone’s book, but “Stop to Start” and “Spell” are every bit as good. “Three Ring Circus” (off the band’s second album Magic of the Blue) is basically a re-write of “Sideshow” that surprisingly manages to equal the original. And although Blue Magic’s “thing” was tender ballads like the exquisite “Chasing Rainbows” (off 1975’s 13 Blue Magic Lane), the group occasionally got funky. “Look Me Up” has the group sounding like the East Coast’s answer to Spinners, and “Welcome to the Club” is proto-disco at its finest.

Perhaps, if I chose to stay in the ‘70s, I’d eventually have to live through the ‘80s and ‘90s again. That would suck, but I’d make sure to use my knowledge of the future to advance the good of mankind. I’d track down Sylvester Stallone and convince him that two Rocky sequels were enough (We have to allow Rocky III to exist, for without it there would have been no Mr. T.). I’d warn everyone about New Coke. And at 1974 prices, I could easily buy a copy of Blue Magic’s debut LP for everyone who’s reading this. But the pimp canes I buy? I'm keeping them for myself.

-Josh Rutledge