May 2004

Tavares - Anthology
Capitol/Right Stuff CD-7243593745-2-9
Released: 2004

by Joseph Taylor

Musical Performance ***1/2
Recording Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

Seventies soul is a somewhat confusing and even contentious subject for soul-music fans. The disco era looms so large that many soul fans write off the whole decade, except perhaps for Al Green’s music. Yet the '70s held many riches: Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye hit their stride; Sly turned out a couple of great records despite daunting personal problems; Tower of Power’s big sound kept the soul flame high; and Philadelphia International Records maintained a level of quality that, for a while anyway, rivaled Motown’s.

Tavares, five brothers from New Bedford, Massachusetts, probably don't merit inclusion in a list of the '70s very best, but they were a consistent, highly professional act. Although they recorded for a single label, Capitol, during that time, there's a journeyman quality to their work, a sense that they were trying to find a style that would land them on the charts. As this new anthology shows, their taste (or, more likely, that of their manager, Brian Panella) varied, but they often made very enjoyable, and sometimes inspired, records.

Capitol was launching the first black-music division at a major label when Panella brought Tavares to them in 1973. Johnny Bristol, who was striking out on his own after writing and producing for Motown, took the helm for the group’s debut, Check It Out. The title tune from that disc highlights the Tavares family’s talents: tight vocal harmonies provide a lush backdrop to the impassioned vocals of Antone "Chubby" Tavares, who sang lead on most of the group’s hits. Bristol’s production for Tavares contained echoes of his Motown work, plus some hints of Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International sound, already a powerhouse on the charts. There was also a strong suggestion of the romantic soul of the Chi-Lites and the Delfonics.

It’s says something about Tavares’s abilities that they were able to carve a distinctive vocal sound out of all those influences. Bristol and other producers helped them along by bringing them great songs and thoughtful arrangements. Brian Lambert and Dennis Potter followed Bristol to produce the next two Tavares LPs, Hardcore Poetry and In the City. The latter album included one of the truly great R&B recordings of the '70s, "It Only Takes a Minute." Lambert and Potter wrote the tune and the production is clearly a Philly International knock-off, from the thumping synth riff and octave guitar run in the intro to the funky horn-and-strings arrangement. The song’s breathtaking hook is something of a non sequitur -- a bit of romantic fluff that follows verses of social conscience-lite -- but it doesn’t matter a bit. The melody is infectious, Chubby Tavares’s vocal is gruff and powerfully felt, and the vocal harmonies are majestic. Magic, in four minutes.

Freddie Perren gave Tavares its biggest hit in 1975, "Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel," and it’s at this point, near the end of disc one of Anthology and for the first few tracks on disc two, that my attention began to flag. Perren produced three albums for the group and the tracks chosen from them here are stark reminders of how irritating and cheesy disco could be. Other producers worked on Tavares's final three LPs with Capitol, and while they never again achieved the chart success they had with Perren, the records themselves are testaments to the versatility and talent Tavares could demonstrate with solid material and tasteful production. The ten or so tracks that wrap up the anthology are prime examples of beautiful soul balladry and skillful funk.

If you’re standing in the record store deciding whether to buy Anthology or one of the titles from this month’s list of essential soul, grab one of the essentials. But if you have a few bucks and you’re looking for a good collection of soul to spend them on, take the plunge on this one.