Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King: The RCA Albums

❉ This set is a fitting testament to the talents of a woman who never quite received the recognition she really deserves.

Question:  Name the second biggest twelve inch single of all time?  Shame by Evelyn Champagne King.

Now name its highest chart position?  39

To anyone who has grown up with their memories of chart music exclusively from the 21st Century and, particularly the past ten years, a record clocking huge sales (or whatever we’re supposed to call whatever is counted these days) a position of 39 doesn’t seem all that remarkable.  Trust me, speaking as an older person weaned on the Top 75 charts that had just been expanded from 50, it was nothing short of miraculous.  Yet Evelyn King, with or without champagne, was a lot more than one disco classic as this 8 disc collection of her time on RCA Records demonstrates.

King was discovered by producer Theodore Life Jr. whilst she was helping her mother cleaning the Sigma Sound recording studios, singing as she pushed a vacuum cleaner around.  Legend has it that Life told her she’d be a star – although that’s disputed by all parties.  However Life didn’t forget King and eventually called her back to cut a demo which eventually resulted in a deal with RCA records.

Life produced the first album and corralled a number of his Philly connections to provide material for it.  The result was Smooth Talk.  Although its first single, the catchy Dancin’ Dancin’ Dancin’ failed to find much attention the track Shame began garnering airplay in Boston and the record company set about a promotion campaign which saw the track slowly take off across the country.  The album charted months later on the back of the huge success of Shame which sent King into the US top 10 and a bona fide disco classic was born.  The rest of the album was more soul than disco.

By the time King’s debut had charted she had already recorded the follow up album Music Box and it rode the back of the success of her debut in 1979.  Sticking with Life as producer, the aim was to follow the tried and tested formula of King’s debut.  In the US, at least, they reaped ample rewards with lead single, the sprightly Out There hitting the top 10 in both R&B and Pop charts in the US.  Although probably not quite as strong as the debut it was a solid follow up album.

By the time King’s third album Call On Me appeared in 1980 her tag as being seen by many as a disco act was extremely problematic.  The music industry, particularly in America, had undergone a huge backlash against disco music which, for some, literally ended careers overnight.  In a nod to this King’s third album was issued with a number of more rock-inflected tracks but, after only a few weeks, the album was pulled and these tracks were replaced with more soul orientated tracks.  This muddled decision making did nothing to help the fortunes of King or the album itself. 

The release here includes the four shelved tracks from the original release as a bonus but it can’t hide the fact that it’s a much weaker effort than the previous album.  With the exception of the lovely mid-tempo Philly soul of Your Kind Of Loving little really stands out.  Lead single Let’s Get Funky Tonight is rather forgettable late disco fare and the rock/pop tracks do come across as unremarkable. 

Fortunately for King RCA hadn’t quite given up on their young charge.  Their response was to pair her with an upcoming production team consisting former members of funk band BT Express, Morrie Brown and Kashif Saleem, who had teamed up with a young songwriter Paul Lawrence Jones. Their modern sounding electronic dance music ideas paired well with King and their encouragement for her to sing in her higher register was something of a masterstroke.  Brown and Saleem were tasked with producing half of 1982’s I’m In Love album, whose lead track was a hit not just on the R&B chart but with the burgeoning UK soul movement. 

The result was her first UK top 30 hit and a very solid album of catchy electronic dance tracks of which highlights included Spirit Of The Dancer and If You Want My Lovin’.  The remainder of the tracks were produced by the Mainline Production team who were responsible for some of the hits for the Prelude Records stable of artists including Sharon Redd, Bobby Thurston, and Gaye Adams.  Their material complemented Morrie Brown’s Mighty M Production work perfectly.

After this success RCA contracted the Mighty M team to produce all of the next album, Get Loose.  The resulting album produced King’s biggest UK hit, Love Come Down, and put her at the forefront of their cutting edge sound.  It’s probably the most consistent album of her career with the slow groove of Betcha She Don’t Love You, Back To Love, and I Can’t Stand It being highlights amongst an embarrassment of riches.

Sadly Kashif’s pursuit of a solo career put paid to the Mighty M production team and the subsequent album looked to other hot producers of the time for the next album.  This resulted in a further delve into the electronic sounds which were becoming standard for mid 80’s R&B.  Production duties were shared by the Sylvers brothers, who’d had considerable success with the Solar Records label, and Andre Cymoné – who’d played bass on Prince’s early albums. 

Face To Face has slower grooves than its predecessors with its emphasis more on soul and funk than straight ahead dance music.  The result is solid rather than spectacular.  Cymoné’s tracks, such as minor US R&B hit Teenager, have a more pop feel whilst Let’s Get Crazy owes a clear debt to his former mentor.  The Sylvers material is slick funky R&B.  It feels quite a departure from the previous two albums but King never sounds out of place.

After the relatively disappointing sales of its predecessor, 1984’s So Romantic was (as the sleeve notes attest) an attempt at another pop crossover.  Enlisting a number of tried and tested producers and songwriters the album puts its emphasis back on the dance floor but with one ear clearly on the pop side of things.  The album feels a better fit for King as her popularity always seemed more in tune with dancers than the usual soul music crowd.  Out Of Control, Heartbreaker, and I’m So Romantic all feeling like King was back in familiar territory whilst ’Til Midnight is a solid attempt at a slower crossover pop song.  Its relative lack of commercial success doesn’t distract from the fact that it’s as a good an album as any of its contemporaries.

Her final album for RCA, A Long Time Coming, saw her fortunes somewhat revived.  Lead single Your Personal Touch was a big R&B hit and also a UK top 40 hit.  It’s vintage Evelyn King and the album includes a couple of other notable dance tracks in High Horse and Spellbound.  It is also notable for a rendition of the Sam Cooke classic, A Change Is Gonna Come – which was one of the songs she’d first sung whilst cleaning the Sigma Sound studios.  It seems quite fitting that her swan song for RCA included a song which took her back to her beginnings.

Despite her commercial successes Evelyn King probably has never quite received the recognition she really deserves.  This set of her time spent at RCA demonstrates her versatility as a singer and inadvertently charts how dance music moved from the disco of the late 70’s (not that King was ever a proper disco artist per se) through to the sleek electric soul/funk of the mid 80’s.  Whilst it’s arguable that this has a lot to do with the producers and songwriters the set is a reminder of the versatility and strength of King’s vocal abilities.  It’s a fitting testament to the talents of a woman who kept countless dancers dancing in a solid and sometimes brilliant career.

‘Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King: The RCA Albums 1977-1985′ 8CD Box Set (SoulMusic SMCR5197BX) is available from Cherry Red Records, RRP £31.99Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.

Cherry Red Records have been releasing and reissuing the most innovative and independent thinking music since 1978. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

❉ Peter Robinson is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.

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