Monday, September 19, 2011

Pat Benatar's "True Love" Blues Turns 20

Impacting in 1979, Pat Benatar made her largest waves during the 1980's. Fierce and feminine, Benatar redefined the rock and roll music model for women. In spite of the Atlas-like weight of carrying that torch, Benatar's classically trained voice was bigger than rock and was evidenced on True Love (1991).

The History
In 1984 Benatar released Tropico. Assistance in the creation of this legendary recording was lent by Neil "Spyder" Giraldo: lead guitarist, husband, and musical partner. Tropico's mission to widen her artistic lane was successfully broached. The triumph was only surpassed by arrival of their first daughter during the same period. Unfortunately, the mood got doused by recurring spats with Benatar's label Chrysalis Records. A successful, if uneasy union had finally come to a head when they forced Benatar & Co. back into the studio directly after giving birth to begin work on what became Seven the Hard Way (1985). Wide Awake in Dreamland followed in 1988. Both records were strong but showed the commercial wear and tear that characterized Chrysalis' record-tour-record format. The public had become as exhausted as Benatar.

In the wake of this, a dramatic retooling of Benatar's label court and contracts happened. These changes allowed Benatar a significant amount of space to recharge from a non-stop schedule of touring and recording, as well as a larger retroactive percentage of royalties from her previous albums. In the period between Wide Awake in Dreamland and True Love, it was Neil Giraldo who nurtured the seedling of a "jump blues" record. That seed, planted with Tropico's the "Ooh Ooh Song," was finally going to surface as Benatar's first offering of the 1990's.

The Record
In Benatar's 2010 memoir, In Between a Heart and a Rock Place, Benatar recalled the initial reaction in 1990 on her end to her husband's inquiry to record a blues album:
"Absolutely not. There's no way we're doing that." Spyder and I had loved the blues all our lives. It was the music we played at home, for personal enjoyment. He was convinced we would make an amazing record, but I was pretty sure that he'd lost his mind. I didn't want to be one more white chick trying to sing the blues, and Christ, who was whiter than me?"
Benatar agreed finally and the record began to form. The True Love schematic split the recording into two halves: part covers, part original material. The covers encompassed work by blues legends like Hank Penny ("Bloodshot Eyes"), Albert King ("I Get Evil"), and B.B. King ("Payin' the Cost to be the Boss," "I've Got Papers On You") to name some.

With the map of True Love set down, the Benatar band long timers on board were: Neil Giraldo (guitar), Charlie Giordano (piano, organ, accordion), and Myron Grombacher (drums). Additionally, a gathering of session musician excellence was brought in to make True Love as accomplished as possible.

Originating in 1967, and still active today, The Roomful of Blues are a conglomerate of musicians boasting, at various times, over 50 revolving members. They tour as their own attraction and back other notable musicians in their respective blues genre. Their collaborations lists the likes of the already mentioned B.B. King, Otis Rush, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Eric Clapton. The line-up present for this album was: Greg Accolo (tenor sax), Doug James (baritone sax), Rich Lataille* (alto sax), Carl Querfurth (trombone), Bob Enos (trumpet), and John Rossi (drums).

The talent didn't stop there, Benatar & Co. were joined by Lenny Castro on percussion (Al Jarreau, Alien Ant Farm, Olivia Newton-John) and the late bassist Chuck Dominaco (Natalie Cole, Manhattan Transfer, Joni Mitchell). All of these big names may have invited the idea that True Love was nothing more than just a professional showcase. That wasn't true at all.

Everyone came together in an exuberant balance, creating ample arrangements for Benatar's voice. Throughout, Benatar was  versatile, giving unaffected, vivacious vocals over a wide swath of blues: swing, boogie-woogie, and jump. The "tear it up" gender reversal on B.B. King's "Payin' the Cost to be the Boss" was nothing less than sexy. Its gold plated brass and piano was heady.

The victory scores rolled on with an electric rendition of "I Get Evil" and the Charles Brown Christmas diamond "Please Come for Christmas." The original material held its own too. The velvet title track, with its thick bass pizzicato, ranked as one of the Benatar's most unsung recorded moments in her career. The “jump ‘n’ jive” energy on "I Feel Lucky" allowed everyone a space to show off their skills with instrumental breaks. Fiery ("Don't Happen No More") and forlorn ("So Long") in both hands, Benatar sounded rejuvenated. True Love was the sound of an artist rediscovering the joy for her craft.

The Impact
True Love, Benatar's first offering of the 1990's was released domestically on April 9th, 1991. Promoted by a small scale tour focusing on this album, to the annoyance of some, True Love had a tough, but not unconquerable sell. Many who greeted the record with skepticism, as seen in Jim Farber's assessment in Entertainment Weekly:

"Pat Benatar has just released the comedy record of the year. She's out to become the ultimate tough blues mama, someone who's been singing for decades about hard liquor and harder men. All she does well, though, is sing loudly. Admittedly that was the main requirement for her former persona as she-wolf of suburban hard rock, but here when she sings something like ''I Get Evil'' you get the idea that the worst sin she could imagine would be purposely not to tell her friends about a sale at Neiman-Marcus. At times her backup band (the respected Roomful of Blues) really burns, but Benatar still makes everything sound like the funkier parts of Suzanne Somers' Vegas act."

All Music Guide, via the opinion of Alex Henderson, remarked in a fair fashion:
"A radical departure from the type of slick pop/rock she'd been embracing on albums like Tropico and Wide Awake in Dreamland, True Love found Pat Benatar embracing blues and early pre-rock R&B. Opting for less production and a much rawer approach, an inspired Benatar ditches the synthesizers and keyboards and sounds like she's leading a bar band in a Chicago dive. From Albert King's "I Get Evil" to B.B. King's "Payin' the Cost to Be the Boss" to Charles Brown's "Please Come Home for Christmas," the results aren't breathtaking, but are generally honest and soulful. Quite clearly, this was an album Benatar was eager to make."

The now defunct Stereo Review magazine, via critic Parke Puterbaugh, showered the album with praise:
"True Love is an unpretentious romp through a set of jump blues, and Benatar has enough of an aptitude for the form to know not to overdo it. She's always sung sassily, but the way she wraps her voice around a song like "Bloodshot Eyes," assisted by a solid shot of reverb, is a minor revelation. A pleasurable comeback album for Pat Benatar, who may have hit us with her best shot when we least expected it."

"True Love" VH-1 Documentary, Circa 1991

Commercially, the record didn't solve Benatar's sales woes. The record placed #37 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 Album Chart and moved 339,000** copies overall in America. These were Pat Benatar's first Soundscan numbers since it was implemented in tracking sales of music in the U.S. The album placed at #40 on the UK Album Charts and #42 on the ARIA (Australian) charts, the only international showings for the record.

Three singles were birthed from True Love: the title track, "So Long," and "Payin' the Cost to Be the Boss." "Boss" hit #17 on the Hot Mainstream Rock Chart in the States, a chart Benatar continued to hold sway over after her other U.S. chart appearances cooled. The former two made no waves on any subsequent formats in America, though "True Love" was a minor Dutch hit (#21).

Benatar followed up with Gravity's Rainbow (1993), which returned her to rock. It was her last album for Chrysalis, though two other fine efforts materialized in the aftermath of her Chrysalis departure: Innamorata (1997, CMC International) and Go! (2003, Bel Chiasso). Benatar remains a highly in demand live act, but hasn't released a record of original work since 2003. In viewing her discography in hindsight, emphasis placed on True Love, it becomes clear that Pat Benatar lived up to her own lore. Long seen as a rule breaker in the male world of rock, Benatar made her own way. True Love's stylistic step forward was proof that even her own genre wouldn't inhibit her artistic credibility. Five out of five stars.-QH

[Editor's Note: *=Mr. Rich Lataille is the sole remaining original member of The Roomful of Blues. **=Billboard cited sales figure. True Love is still in print, and can be located used or new in most indie record stores or online retailers. For current information on Pat Benatar, visit -QH]


Diva Incarnate said...

I'd been meaning to read this post. I don't know any of her songs, but have heard of her - I thought she was something of a footnote, but only recently have been made aware this is not the case. At all. Not sure where I'd start, or if she's my cup of tea, but I'll be open minded next time. Another great article. Who will be next?

Moanerplicity said...

She can do no wrong, IMHO. Maybe a true artist grows most when they experiment, shake things up & do the unexpected. She certainly has the pipes to be proficient in most any genre.

Since she studied opera back in the day, that's like a dancer w/ roots in ballet. After that, the sky's the limit!


Pat Benatar said...

In viewing her discography in hindsight, emphasis placed on True Love, it becomes clear that Pat Benatar lived up to her own hype.Agreed!