VARIOUS ARTISTS: ‘Leon Ware & Friends’ (Label: Expansion)

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VARIOUS ARTISTS: 'Leon Ware & Friends'

Leon Ware needs no introduction to dedicated, well-read, soul aficionados who know their subject like the backs of their hands. As a songwriter the prolific tunesmith from Black Bottom, Detroit, has written for the great and small of R&B – from iconic artists like Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway to largely forgotten cult acts such as Shadow and Michael Wycoff. This new 19-track compilation studiously avoids Ware’s big chart hits (for example Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Want You’ is conspicuous by its absence) and instead cherry picks some of the overlooked gems in the tunesmith’s canon. It certainly makes for interesting listening and testifies to the rich seam of quality, consistency and soulfulness that runs through all of Ware’s compositions. The set kicks off with a rare CD outing for ‘What’s Your World,’ a track taken from Ware’s criminally-overlooked self-titled 1972 debut LP for United Artists. It’s followed by some wonderful ’70s tracks written or co-penned by Ware for Syreeta (‘I Don’t Know’), Minnie Riperton (‘Can You Feel What I’m Saying’), Al Wilson (‘You Do The Right Things’), Bobby Womack (‘Trust Your Heart’), Thelma Jones (‘I Can Dream’) and Jerry Butler (‘Thank You Early Bird’). Ware makes another appearance alongside jazz drummer-turned-uber-producer Norman Connors, on ‘Everywhere Inside Of Me’ taken from Connors’ ‘Take It To The Limit’ album. That particular song with its snaking, sensuous vocal melody, smooth supporting background harmonies and opulent, jazz-inflected chord changes epitomises Ware’s nonpareil romantic style. An earlier Ware recording, the lovely, dreamy ballad ‘Girl Girl Girl’ – which Ware recorded for the soundtrack of the 1974 movie ‘The Education Of Sonny Carson’ – is another highlight (to my knowledge, the track hasn’t been on CD before). There are also ’80s tracks by Shadow (the infectious ‘I Can’t Keep Holding Back My Love’), Chuck Jackson (‘No Tricks’), Rockie Robbins (‘Point Of View’) Vesta Williams (‘You Make Me Wanna Love Again’) and the girl group, Krystol (‘the haunting ‘Just Don’t Make It Hurt’). From the 1990s, the compilers – Ralph Tee and Paul Clifford – have added El Debarge’s ‘Heart, Mind & Soul,’ an evocative song whose slinky retro style and Marvin-esque multi-tracked vocal delivery recalls ‘I Want You.’ The real gem here, though, is Donny Hathaway’s incomparable Arif Mardin-produced 1973 recording of ‘I Know It’s You,’ a gospel-tinged song Ware originally penned for his mother. It’s a magnificent, colossal performance from Hathaway and in terms of its soulfulness eclipses everything else on the compilation – and there are even those in the soul community (this writer included) who would argue that ‘I Know It’s You’ is perhaps the best song Leon Ware ever wrote. To sum up, then, this is a sumptuous set for the discerning smooth soul connoisseur that underlines Leon Ware’s underappreciated genius.
(CW) 4/5