Brought to him by ace saxophonist King Curtis, Jerry Wexler sat down to listen to a demo tape of "The Ghetto" by Donny Hathaway. A stunned Wexler promptly signed the young 23-year old to the magical Atlantic label with the sense of having `found something special - maybe even genius'. Hathaway quickly made good on that taped promise and produced a string of stunning soul albums in the early Seventies - "Everything Is Everything" (his debut in 1970), "Donny Hathaway" (his self-titled 2nd album in 1971) and the masterpiece that is "Extension Of A Man" in 1973. And then sandwiched between his fantastic "Live" set of March 1972 and his first duet soul album "Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway" in April 1972 came the soundtrack to "Come Back Charleston Blue" - a slightly out-of-synch-and-character outing that only partially works.
Originally released in April 1972 on Atco in the USA - this October 2007 expanded remaster by Rhino finally makes available that soundtrack rarity after 25 years in obscurity. Produced and supervised by Quincy Jones, the original 11-track single album (broken into 21 'bits') is topped up with two bonus tracks - versions of "Little Ghetto Boy" - an alternate studio take and a live version. Long-time in-house remastering supremo BILL INGLOT has done a bang-up job with the tapes as usual - the sound is gorgeous and far better than the cramped vinyl ever was.
Unfortunately, that's where the good news ends. Even as a rabid fan, I would have to admit that this album is not great by any stretch of the imagination - the runt of Hathaway's vinyl litter.
The album is - of course - a victim of the times in which it was made. Just 5 months earlier in December 1971, Isaac Hayes and his funky soundtrack to "Shaft" had been a global smash and ushered in the phenomenon of Blaxsploitation. Suddenly every soundtrack went `funky/soulful' crazy. That's ok, says you, but this soundtrack revolved more around old-world jazz and suffers badly for it. There are an awful lot of duffer Charleston boogie-woogie jazz pieces on here that are truly awful - and what's good - short funky passages peppered with an actual song every now and then - is very sporadic and inconsistent. There are also a lot of half-minute snippets on the album (the nature of a soundtrack) that are `interesting' but hardly essential.
Comparisons can be made to Marvin Gaye's excellent "Trouble Man" soundtrack - a solid favourite among fans - soulful and funky - with killer instrumental passages. I would say that "Come Back Charleston Blue" meets about half of those expectations. Highlights though include, "Harlem Dawn" (his first vocals on the LP) and "Little Ghetto Boy" the first proper song on the album. "Hearse To The Graveyard" is a fantastic instrumental to grace any funky CD-R you care to compile. "Bossa Nova" sounds like it came off an easy listening compilation made up by nondescript session men - half fun, half dire. "Tim's High" fares better, strings and soul with some great pleading `mercy' vocals - superb but maddeningly short at 1:30. The following track is probably the best funky instrumental on there - "Furniture Truck" sounds like Mission Impossible meets James Brown.
The two previously unreleased bonuses are superb - first is a new studio take on "Little Ghetto Boy" probably the album's best number. It's close to being as beautiful as the final take. The `live" version is soulful, funky and magnificent - the audience reacting to his `new song' with enthusiasm.
The MGM movie itself is long forgotten - and the liner notes admit to this - crap best left to posterity.
Those expecting the magnificent soul of his 3 stunning Atlantic albums should look elsewhere. What's really needed are DELUXE EDITIONS of his best studio works including a 2CD version of the awesome "Live" set from 1972 - like Rhino did with Aretha's expanded "Live At Fillmore West" 2-disc set. But as it stands, "Come Back Charleston Blue" is a flawed but worthy addition to his cannon of work and if it's belated reissue introduces his music to a new generation of soul lovers, then that's cool.
Aged only 33 and racked with depression he hadn't been able to handle for years, Hathaway took his own life in January 1979 in New York and robbed the Soul music community of a huge talent - someone of the musical and social stature of say Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Bobby Womack, Sam Cooke and Curtis Mayfield. Donny Hathaway is like Marvin, greatly missed and much loved to this day.
To sum up, "Come Back Charleston Blue" is a 3-star release, an only-ok album with some great bits on it. However, if you're like me, and you see his name on the cover, you get the shivers and have to own it! Good in places, but seriously underwhelming in others, the uninitiated should try a snippet listen on iTunes first before purchase. Then try 'Everything Is Everything' or 'Extension Of A Man'. God! How I envy you hearing those gems for the first time!
PS: This release is part of Rhino's "CLASSIC SOUL ALBUM - REMASTERED & EXPANDED" Series.
Most titles are first time onto CD and are rare soul albums from the Warner/Atlantic/Cotillio/Elektra vaults.
Some other titles are:
1. Ace Spectrum - "Inner Spectrum" (see REVIEW)
2. Blue Magic - "Blue Magic" (see REVIEW)
3. Leroy Hutson - "Paradise" (see REVIEW)
4. Ronn Matlock - "Love City" (see REVIEW)
5. Gwen McCrae - "Gwen McCrae"
6. Gwen McCrae - "On My Way"
7. Prince Phillip Mitchell - "Top Of The Line" (see REVIEW)
8. Prince Philip Mitchell - "Make It Good" (see REVIEW)
9. The Voices Of East Harlem -"Right On Be Free" (see REVIEW)