AVERAGE WHITE BAND: BENNY & US (1977)
1) Get It Up For Love; 2) Fool For You Anyway; 3) A Star In The Ghetto; 4) The Message; 5) What Is Soul; 6) Someday We'll All Be Free; 7) Imagine; 8) Keepin' It To Myself.
Who would have known it — a derivative, cautious funk act in the middle of a downhill slide, and a formerly great, but drastically outdated R&B hitmaker turn out to be a match made, if not in heaven itself, then at least somewhere on the outskirts. Well, sometimes even in the world of music two minuses yield a plus, and there is no question that in 1977, both acts could easily be considered as «minuses», despite their past achievements.
But this one-album collaboration project between the AWB and Ben E. «Stand By Me» King somehow managed to reignite the cold fuel in all parties concerned. At the moment, King was actually not doing too badly: his disco single ʽSupernatural Thing (Pt. 1)ʼ had managed, two years earlier, to return him to a brief resurgence of national prominence. But he was unable to keep it up, and clearly needed outside assistance. Likewise, the AWB still hit the charts with regularity; but the original formula seemed to be exhausted.
As the two acts found each other, good things started happening. King's vocal delivery gave the band that element of authenticity that they usually found so hard to achieve, precisely because their vocalists could sing falsetto, but could never reach the level of conviction that great R&B stars seem to ascend with such natural ease. And the band, in turn, provided King with excellent backing, heavy on funk and light on strings and sappiness.
Already the first notes of ʽGet It Up For Loveʼ announce that the ride is going to be much more fun than it was on Soul Searching: a grumbly wah-wah track wrestles with ringing syncopation, the bass sets a very minimalistic, but stern and firm groove, and Benny gives us a nice repetitive chorus to sing along with. But, although the performance is far from a masterpiece, the coolest thing is that the same level is sustained throughout the album, unlike Soul Searching, which began promisingly enough with ʽLove Your Lifeʼ and then quickly plummeted into puddly, wishy-washy balladry. (On Benny & Us, there is some balladry, too, but much less than we'd expect from a Ben E. King album, and much nicer than we usually see on an AWB album.)
The centerpiece here is ʽA Star In The Ghettoʼ — pure dance-pop formula with by-the-book brass and strings arrangements, but somehow it works for all of its seven minutes. Maybe it is because it is hard to go wrong when a genuine star from the ghetto sings this kind of song, but, actually, the orchestral arrangements are quite emotional, and the transition from verse to chorus has a little bit of cathartic effect worked into it. Somehow one does get the feeling that this is the real thing — even if it is nowhere near as catchy as the Bee Gees.
Further on down the line, both ʽThe Messageʼ and ʽWhat Is Soulʼ are fine dance grooves as well, although it is King's energy that consistently keeps them above generic mediocrity (otherwise, ʽThe Messageʼ is not too different from ʽGoin' Homeʼ off the previous record). Donny Hathaway's ʽSomeday We'll All Be Freeʼ has King getting into character with more vitality and passion than anywhere else on the album; the decision to segue the number right into a somewhat diluted and unfocused cover of ʽImagineʼ was hardly a correct one, but at least it is not the most awful take on ʽImagineʼ that you will ever hear (and you will hear plenty). Finally, the revised version of ʽKeepin' It To Myselfʼ is engineered by King in an Al Green manner, and nearly blows away the original — except that they change the tonality on the chorus, and, with this move, strip the song off its major vocal hook (at least, such is the effect produced on my ears).
Of course, all the differences are really very subtle. It is not as if the two acts were so thrilled by bumping into each other that they generated an accidental masterpiece. Benny & Us never intended to break any new ground — in fact, it looks fairly conservative and «old-mannered» even next to its disco contemporaries of the Chic-type crowd. But the two acts liked each other, and clearly enjoyed collaborating, which makes the results friendly, inviting, and filled with a sense of purpose. Hence, a friendly thumbs up.