Leon Russell's accolades are monumental in a number of categories, from songwriting (he wrote Joe Cocker's "Delta Lady") to session playing (with the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, just to name a few) to his solo work. Unfortunately, it's the last category that never really attracted as much attention as it should have, despite a multitude of blues-based gospel recordings and piano-led, Southern-styled rock albums released throughout the 1970s. Leon Russell and the Shelter People is a prime example of Russell's instrumental dexterity and ability to produce some energetic rock & roll. Poignant and expressive tracks such as "Of Thee I Sing," "Home Sweet Oklahoma," and "She Smiles Like a River" all lay claim to Russell's soulful style and are clear-cut examples of the power that he musters through his spirited piano playing and his voice. His Dylan covers are just as strong, especially "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" and "It Takes a Lot to Laugh," while "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" and "It's a Hard Rain Gonna Fall" have him sounding so forceful, they could have been Russell's own.
Sometimes, a greatest-hits set is timed perfectly to gather together a group's most successful and familiar performances just at the point when that group has passed the point of their maximum exposure to the public, but before the public memory has had a chance to fade. That was the case when Columbia Records assembled this compilation for release in early 1972. At that point, Blood, Sweat & Tears had released four albums and scored six Top 40 hits, each of which is heard here. But lead singer David Clayton-Thomas had just quit the group, so that the unit that recorded songs like "You've Made Me So Very Happy" was not working together anymore. And even when Clayton-Thomas returned, the band would continue to decline commercially. As such, BS&T's Greatest Hits captures the band's peak in 11 selections–seven singles chart entries, plus two album tracks from the celebrated debut album when Al Kooper helmed the group, and two more from the Grammy-winning multi-platinum second album.
The follow-up to the breakthrough Headhunters album was virtually as good as its wildly successful predecessor: an earthy, funky, yet often harmonically and rhythmically sophisticated tour de force. There is only one change in the Headhunters lineup – swapping drummer Harvey Mason for Mike Clark – and the switch results in grooves that are even more complex. Hancock continues to reach into the rapidly changing high-tech world for new sounds, most notably the metallic sheen of the then-new ARP string synthesizer which was already becoming a staple item on pop and jazz-rock records. Again, there are only four long tracks, three of which ("Palm Grease," "Actual Proof," "Spank-A-Lee") concentrate on the funk, with plenty of Hancock's wah-wah clavinet, synthesizer textures and effects, and electric piano ruminations that still venture beyond the outer limits of post-bop.
The Cars' 1978 self-titled debut, issued on the Elektra label, is a genuine rock masterpiece. The band jokingly referred to the album as their "true greatest-hits album," but it's no exaggeration – all nine tracks are new wave/rock classics, still in rotation on rock radio. Whereas most bands of the late '70s embraced either punk/new wave or hard rock, the Cars were one of the first bands to do the unthinkable – merge the two styles together. Add to it bandleader/songwriter Ric Ocasek's supreme pop sensibilities, and you had an album that appealed to new wavers, rockers, and Top 40 fans. One of the most popular new wave songs ever, "Just What I Needed," is an obvious highlight, as are such familiar hits as "Good Times Roll," "My Best Friend's Girl," and "You're All I've Got Tonight." But like most consummate rock albums, the lesser-known compositions are just as exhilarating: "Don't Cha Stop," "Bye Bye Love," "All Mixed Up," and "Moving in Stereo," the latter featured as an instrumental during a steamy scene in the popular movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
As phenomenally popular as Earth, Wind & Fire was from the mid-'70s to the early '80s, it's easy to forget that the band was hardly an overnight success. With Head to the Sky – EWF's fourth album overall, second with Philip Bailey, and second for Columbia – Maurice White's very spiritual and ambitious brand of soul and funk was starting to pay off commercially. The Latin-influenced "Evil" became the soulsters' biggest hit up to that point, and material ranging from the hauntingly pretty title song (which boasts one of Bailey's finest performances ever) to the jazz fusion gem "Zanzibar" is just as rewarding. The lineup White unveiled with Last Days and Time was working out beautifully; Bailey was clearly proving to be a major asset. Also worth noting is the presence of singer Jessica Cleaves, who left after this album and, several years later, resurfaced in George Clinton's eccentric female group the Brides of Funkenstein.
Drummer Billy Cobham was fresh from his success with the Mahavishnu Orchestra when he recorded his debut album, which is still his best. Most of the selections showcase Cobham in a quartet with keyboardist Jan Hammer, guitarist Tommy Bolin, and electric bassist Lee Sklar. Two other numbers include Joe Farrell on flute and soprano and trumpeter Jimmy Owens with guitarist John Tropea, Hammer, bassist Ron Carter, and Ray Barretto on congas. The generally high-quality compositions (which include "Red Baron") make this fusion set a standout, a strong mixture of rock-ish rhythms and jazz improvising.
Recorded in Japan in July 1973, this massive, three-LP live album was available outside the United States in 1974 but held back from domestic release in the U.S. It features the same "New Santana Band" that recorded Welcome, and combines that group's jazz and spiritual influences with performances of earlier Latin rock favorites like "Oye Como Va."
Nyro peaked early, and Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, just her second album, remains her best. It's not only because it contains the original versions of no less than three songs that were big hits for other artists: "Sweet Blindness" (covered by the 5th Dimension), "Stoned Soul Picnic" (also covered by the 5th Dimension), and "Eli's Comin'" (done by Three Dog Night). It's not even just because those three songs are so outstanding. It's because the album as a whole is so outstanding, with its invigorating blend of blue-eyed soul, New York pop, and early confessional singer/songwriting. Nyro sang of love, inscrutably enigmatic romantic daredevils, getting drunk, lonely women, and sensual desire with an infectious joie de vivre. The arrangements superbly complemented the material with lively brass, wailing counterpoint backup vocals, and Nyro's own ebullient piano.