Reviewed on this page:
Turnin' On - Steppin' Out - Shoulda Gone Dancin' - Frenzy -
Hold On - High Inergy - So Right - Groove Patrol - This Is My Story - High On Love - Higher Ground - On A Mission - Destiny
The Pasadena vocal quartet High Inergy is known for one song, the sumptuous 1977 hit "You Can't Turn Me Off (In The Middle Of Turning Me On)." But there was a lot more to them than that, and they've been unfairly ignored by history because they were a black group in the 70s that didn't specialize in funk, disco, or hip hop. Not that they didn't try disco: I think Motown was trying to market them as their answer to The Ritchie Family or Sister Sledge, but a) Motown never really did get the hang of disco, and b) High Inergy (contrary to their name) was always better at slower, more orchestral numbers. In other words, they were like a four-woman Dionne Warwick or 5th Dimension, and even the real Warwick had commercial difficulties during the 70s. After their hit debut, the label put out a few followups consisting of solid midtempo album cuts and terrible failed dance singles, and then threw in the towel.
Lead singer Vernessa Mitchell has a great voice: smooth like Syreeta Wright, but stronger and more soulful; her sister Barbara Mitchell, who took over when Vernessa went gospel, isn't as distinctive but is just as powerful and tasteful. I don't know if Linda Howard or Michelle Martin ever sang any leads, but their harmonies are crisp and flavorful. They never did write any of their material, and their unevenness of their recorded output reflects the patchwork army of producers they worked with, but their early discography is full of the kind of hidden gems that warm the heart of a music magpie like your humble reviewer.
Vernessa Mitchell, Barbara Mitchell, Linda Howard and Michelle Rumph, all vocals. Vernessa Mitchell left, 1978. Group disbanded, circa 1983.
Turnin' On (1977)
Contrary to what you may have been told, Motown didn't give up on elaborate full-orchestra productions and clever
cookie-cutter pop/R&B tunes - the label persevered long into the disco era with quality records like this one.
Production is split between Kent Washburn and the team of Al Willis and Dee Ervin, but both use elegant R&B arrangements
reminiscent of Valerie Simpson, with a disco-influenced rhythm section softened by warm midrange strings, keyboards and occasional guitars.
Pam Sawyer and Marilyn McLeod's "You Can't Turn Me Off (In The Middle Of Turning Me On)" (later covered by Millie Jackson) was the hit single, but many of the other tunes are just as catchy, including Clay
Drayton's "Love Is All You Need" and "Ain't No Love Left (In My Heart For You)." The only real loser is the contrived "High School," written and produced by Jimmy Holiday.
Steppin' Out (1978)
Not inclined to mess with success, Willis and Washburn stuck to the same smooth, subtly soulful sound ("Didn't Wanna Tell You").
Sometimes it's a bit too sedate ("You Captured My Heart") - the fastest cut is a remake of Stevie Wonder's "Everytime I See You I Go Wild" - but the best tunes are spellbinding ("Fly Little Blackbird").
Vernessa Mitchell's vocals are better than ever: warm, personable and communicative whether her approach is contemplative ("Peaceland") or urgent (the single "Lovin' Fever")
- after this record she became a born-again Christian, quit the band, and abandoned pop music for gospel.
Shoulda Gone Dancin' (1979)
Barbara took over as lead vocalist, and she's quite good ("Midnight Music Man") if not as moving as her sister. The album too is solid, though it didn't produce any hits, perhaps because the worst song on it was released as a single (the shrill disco title track, written and produced by Donnell Jones). Roger Dollarhide produced the boisterous horn-driven funk tune "Come And Get It" and the elegant, sophisticated "Let Yourself Go." Marvin Augustus and Gwen Gordy Fuqua contributed two gems: "I've Got What You Need," a lush pop song that would have fit on the debut, and the artful kissoff "Too Late (The Damage Is Done)," with a killer chord progression on the chorus. Overlooked. Players include both James Jamersons: the senior's contributions to the Augustus/Fuqua tracks are among his last recordings.
Washburn returned on a few tracks here ("Will We Ever Love Again"), as did Creath and Dollarhide (all of Side Two including "Heartbeat"). The single "Skate To The Rhythm," though, was produced and written by Tommy Gordy; it tries too hard, though it's a step up from "Shoulda Gone Dancin'." The style is about the same as the previous records - some carefully orchestrated R&B ("Main Ingredient," a standout), some pop-disco ("I Love Makin' Love (To The Music)," with strangely thoughtful strings) - but the songwriting isn't: love songs ("Will We Ever Love Again") and faster tunes ("Voulez Vous") alike are less striking and affecting.
Hold On (1980)
A new batch of producers, including Bobby DeBarge ("Hold On To My Love") and the then-unrenowned Narada Michael Walden (the sluggish "I'm A Believer"), but they basically stay with the same smooth R&B or overwrought dance pap ("I Just Can't Help Myself"). Most of the tracks were jointly overseen by Angelo Bond, William Weatherspoon and McKinley Jackson (the pleasantly slight "Sweet Man"; the strikingly 60s Motown-like "Make Me Yours"), and the tracks are functional but never exceptional: you won't regret listening to "Boomerang Love" or "It Was You Babe," but you won't want to turn anyone else on to it either. Musicians include all the familiar names: Jerry Hey, the Brecker Brothers, Melvin "Wah Wah" Ragin, Paul Jackson Jr.,
Romeo Williams, Nathan East, Randy Jackson,
and Paulinho Something-Or-Other.
High Inergy (1981)
Production was split again, with the plurality overseen by Steve Buckingham including the appallingly "Best Of My Love"-like "Goin' Thru The Motions."
Jackson, Bond and Witherspoon were back for two tracks: "Soakin' Wet" and "Don't Park Your Love."
Once again the disc is bland and doesn't make much of a mark, but it's not dreadful: Barbara does do a fine job with the ballad "Heaven's Just A Step Away (Everytime I Hold You)"; you can't go wrong with Ashford & Simpson's "Now That There's You," and "Fill The Need In Me" is a pleasant lite R&B number. "I Just Wanna Dance With You" is fairly convincing, if pointless, reggae.
So Right (1982)
Slapped together by a patchwork of producers, this is anonymous pop-soul product but not too terrible. In fact, Freddie Perren's dance track "Don't Cha Love It" is a lot of fun.
Though most of the tracks are by uncelebrated names like Benjamin F. Wright ("Journey To Love") and Mira Waters ("Match Point," not the Beach Boys song), Rick James donated "Wanna Be Your Lady," and the Pointer Sisters-like "Wrong Man, Right Touch" was co-written and co-produced by Berry Gordy, no less.
George Tobin and Mike Piccirillo contributed a cover of Al Green's "Tired Of Being Alone" and the title track, a straight-up Phil Spectorish girl group number which isn't very successful but was unusual for the time period.
Groove Patrol (1983)
Like Smokey Robinson's Being With You, produced by George Tobin and largely written and performed by Mike Piccirillo. Smokey even drops by on "Blame It On Love," a near note-for-note ripoff of "Just Once." But where Being With You had moved up to date without losing the artist's natural charm, here the producers go way overboard with electronic percussion and synth bass ("Rock My Heart") and equally gimmicky lyrical concepts ("Dirty Boyz," which sounds like an imitation of the Mary Jane Girls).
Among the casualties is an embarrassingly robotic - almost Devo-esque - cover of Holland-Dozier-Holland's "Back In My Arms Again."
The group's final LP.
This Is My Story (Vernessa Mitchell: 1985)
I don't know if this was Vernessa's first gospel LP, but it's the earliest one I've found a reference to.
By now High Inergy had broken up, and Barbara was on hand contributing backup vocals, and a co-lead on the stirring opener "We Can Do It." Vernessa Mitchell wrote that song, and several others ("II Chronicles 7:14-17"), showing an undisclosed gift for melody and plain-spoken lyrics. Her voice is as strong as ever, maybe stronger (Andrae Crouch's "Can't Nobody Do Me Like Jesus"), but never spills over into showoffy excess.
Likewise, producer Kent Washburn strikes a fine balance between traditional gospel ("The Grace Of God," with the Charles May Workshop Ensemble) and contemporary R&B (the distinctly funky "Up & Away"; the slippery "Use Me"), without sounding like he's lost in the past or falling down chasing the future. The musicians include Abraham Laboriel, Paul Jackson Jr., Cornelius Mims, and a bunch of less familiar names.
High On Love (Barbara Mitchell: 1986)
After High Inergy broke up, Barbara Mitchell wound up in the orbit of Cameo leader Larry Blackmon. He produced this LP in his mid-80s style, which relies on crashing programmed drums, repeating synth vamps, and not much else (the Uptown Horns do pop up on the tacky, half-rapped mess "I Need some Loving").
Mitchell has little choice but to belt like crazy, and fortunately she's got the voice for it (title track),
but on the more obvious tunes it's just way over the top ("Ace Of My Heart"). The best tune is one that's toned down a bit, so that it sounds a bit like early 80s Evelyn "Champagne" King: "Never Had A Love Like This Before."
Higher Ground (Vernessa Mitchell: 1988)
Again, produced by Washburn, with most songs co-written by Mitchell (co-writers including Rodney Friend, Babbie Mason, and various Mitchells). The traditional numbers are confined to side one, and they're as good as before, from the pensive "I Will Never Leave You" to the bouncy "Are You Ready" and the rousing title track.
But the contemporary tracks on Side Two (mostly produced with Scott V. Smith) often go overboard with strident keyboards ("Make Me What You Want Me To Be"), apart from the stirring closer "Claim It."
Some musicians are repeated from the previous disc - Mims, drummer Derek Organ, bassist Glen Richardson, keyboardist Philip Nicholas - while others are new: guitarist Ray Fuller, synthmeister Rhett Lawrence.
On A Mission (Vernessa Mitchell: 1990)
Clattery and robotic like the worst moments of Higher Ground, sometimes sounding like Latin freestyle (title track, with a rap from Barbara) or a Paula Abdul imitation ("Jesus Is The Light"). I suspect Scott V. Smith's keys and drum programming are primarily responsible, though I'm not letting producer Sanchez G. Harley off the hook either.
There are some less frenzied moments, though: "Bring Your Best" is a 70s-style lounge ballad, and
"Stand Up And Be Counted" has the dramatic force of the best tracks on This Is My Story.
Fuller and Laboriel return, accompanied by Derrick Lee and Raphy Lofton (keyboards), Jesse Boyce (bass), Jim Long (guitar) and Steve Brewster (drums).
Destiny (Vernessa Mitchell: 1992)
Like the previous CD, mostly electronic dance-pop with gospel vocals ("Reap"), but there's some gentle balladeering for balance ("First Love").
Produced and arranged by Rahni Song, who also wrote several of the tunes ("More And More," a duet with Rodney Gatling) - unfortunately they're so lifeless even a singer of Mitchell's caliber can't make anything out of them.
She co-wrote several songs with Lisa McGlown ("It's About Time"), while "Be For Real" was co-written by Skip Scarborough, but
regardless of who did what, all the cuts are dull and overlong - part drab, part flab.
Let Your Presence Fall (Vernessa Mitchell: 1998)
Too late (the damage is done).