Reviewed on this page:
Brazil - Arabian Nights - Life Is Music - African Queens - American Generation -
Bad Reputation - Give Me A Break - I'll Do My Best
A female disco trio created by Ritchie Rome and produced by Jacques Morali, best known for masterminding the Village People. At first the Ritchie Family was known for wild Labelle-like costumes and ambitious (if tacky) medleys, but as disco devolved and personnel
changed they started cranking out the same kind of overlong, minimalist camp as everybody else.
The group stopped recording as disco faded from the airwaves, but they are currently touring together, and working on some
Apart from an e-mail I received from singer Dodie Draher, I haven't found much on the Net about the group;
the Disco Museum has a decent page.
Cheryl Jacks, Cassandra Ann Wooten, and Gwendolyn Oliver, vocals. Circa 1978, they were replaced
en masse by Vera Brown, Jaqui Smith-Lee and Theodosia "Dodie" Draher.
Draher left 1983, replaced by Linda James. Group broke up shortly thereafter, but reformed with Brown, Draher,
Smith-Lee and Ednah Holt.
On this debut, Morali and Rome's arrangments use an admirably varied instrumental palette:
Side One is a medley that includes everything from Latin percussion breakdowns
("Frenesi") to jazz sax solos ("Brazil," a hit single) and innovative use of strings ("Peanut Vendor"). Side Two has shorter, more structured pop
songs, including the snappy "Lady Champagne," though there's also a fair amount of silly 20's nostalgia recalling early Pointer Sisters ("Life Is Fascination"), not to mention Donna Summer.
Corroborating my Motown-inspired-disco theory, the album ends with a nifty Supremes
imitation ("Pinball"). Recorded at Philadelphia's Sigma Sound Studios; musicians aren't listed.
Arabian Nights (1976)
The subtle orchestrations are still present, but quality songwriting isn't: witness the pathetic framing chorus of
the Stars On 45-anticipating medley "The Best Disco In Town." The tunes making up the "Arabian Nights Medley" -
"Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," "Lawrence Of Arabia" and "In A Persian Market" - seem to be invoked purely for recognition value,
not as the launching pad for flights of fancy, though the finale ("Show Me How You Dance") deserved to be resurrected. The near-instrumental
"Baby I'm On Fire" is fun, with guitar and vibes banging out the bouncy ascending theme, and perky woodwinds adding counterpoint.
Produced and arranged by Morali and Rome; recorded in Sigma Sound with most of the usual Philly Soul crew: Norman Harris, Earl Young, etc.
Life Is Music (1977)
The group's last recording to feature Rome and the Sigma Sound players, and it's disappointing overall.
some of the tunes are obvious ("Liberty"; the title track, a single), and the arrangements are bland compared to the surrounding LPs ("Super Lover"). Plus, this time there's no overarching theme to give the material structure. But the best moments are truly fine: the swirling strings and madcap buildup of "Long Distance Romance"; the devil-may-care campiness of "Lady Luck"; and the sheer insanity of the mistitled sock hop "Disco Blues."
African Queens (1977)
By now Rome was out of the picture, recording shifted to NYC, and there was a complete turnover of musicians: the new crew was Russell Dabney (drums), Alfonso Carey (bass), Jimmy and Rodger Lee (guitars) and Nathaniel Wilke (keys),
who not coincidentally also backed the Village People - their vigor improved things, at least at first.
The Side One medley - "African Queens (Nefertiti, Cleopatra, And The Queen Of Sheba)," with each vocalist portraying one queen - is a blast, thanks to whirlwind strings, tireless vocalizing and Jimmy Lee's effusive lead guitar.
"Voodoo"'s profusion of instruments and melodies is dense and wonderful like a rainforest: more proof that disco didn't have to be simplistic though it so often was.
Unusual percussion is one of the keys to the disc: Mario Grillo's timbales contrast with furiously arpeggiating strings on "Summer Dance"; Anthony Robinson's congas are featured in Les Baxter's Exotica classic "Quiet Village," together
with lush strings, breathy vocals and deliberately vamping bass, it's a cold shower-inducingly sexy number.
Throughout, Babatunde Olatunji plays a variety of African drums and shakers while Ralph MacDonald adds more pedestrian elements: tambourine, triangle, cowbell.
American Generation (1978)
Judging from the cover photo, the vocalists were replaced by identical triplet models.
Morali produced and wrote nearly all the tunes, but it seems by now the Village People - more commercial and perhaps closer to his heart - were getting the lion's share of his inspiration.
The clear high point is a darkling, clavinet-buoyed cover of "Big Spender."
In sharp contrast to the focus and density of Queens,
the orchestrations here are unvaried and the lyrical concepts are moronic ("I Feel Disco Good," though it does have a catchy, swooping bridge). The unbearably shrill title track, with a refrain recalling the Four Seasons (Frankie Valli, not Vivaldi) and decorated with tinkling synths, is the nadir. "Big Spender" is better than anything on Bad Reputation, but the full
disc is even thinner.
Bad Reputation (1979)
Not to belabor the point, but comparing this to Brazil or Queens neatly displays the difference between early and late disco: the percussion breakdowns,
shifting instrumentation and outside genre influences have been replaced by an unvarying strings/bass/drums/unison vocals formula
over an unchanging 4/4 beat. Also, the mix of medleys and short songs has given way to a uniform six- to eight-minute track
length. The only way to tell one song from another is the chorus melody, and on this record there's not much to choose from: I assume
the title track was the single, but its girl-done-wrong theme is hackneyed; Side Two's progression of
titles - "It's A Man's World," "Where Are The Men," "Sexy Man" - reveals a simplemindedness unusual even for disco. (Most of the lyrics
flowed from the pen of Village People frontman Victor Willis.) Practically the only plus is the vocals, which have the same outrageous,
edge-of-hysteria quality as Patti LaBelle, though without LaBelle's delicacy.
By now the singers were Vera Brown, Jaqui Smith-Lee and Theodosia Draher; musicians include Michael Brecker on
sax and, on "Sexy Man" only, Francisco Centeno on bass. The same year, the Family performed two tunes in the film Je Te Tiens, Tu Me Tiens Par La Barbichette.
Give Me A Break (1980)
The last of the Morali productions; there's a fair amount of flat, unimaginative disco ("Single Man"), but next to the last two records it sounds pretty good.
The title track (from the Can't Stop The Music soundtrack, as was "Sophistication") is a working-class feminist anthem (!) sung by the LaBelle-style belter;
"Not As Bad As It Seems" is an easygoing tune that would have fit on an early 70s Supremes record. And though ballads were never Morali's strong point, "All My Love" is lean and memorable, and sung with flair.
Not really better than Sister Sledge's itself-no-great-shakes Love Somebody Today released the same year, but I goosed the rating because this is easily the best of the Family's late
I'll Do My Best (1982)
Like Evelyn "Champagne" King and France Joli, after disco died the Ritchie Family went into dance pop: chorused synth doubling the vocal line, Moog-sounding bass synth,
Chic-like rhythm guitar, almost no horns or strings - the title track has strong similarities to "Love Come Down," for example.
In fact, so many people started using the same formula in the same year, I suspect a common source but I don't know who it was. Anyway, the songwriting is undistinguished, the refrains are commonplace ("Be My One And Only"), and the
group's vocals are so self-effacing they sound like their own backup singers. The drippy ballad "You Can Always Count On Me" has a great fade, though: Spanish guitar against dramatic ostinato strings.
"Alright On The Night" is the one unreconstructed disco tune, and it's not half-bad, with a funky bass-heavy middle.
Produced by Fred Petrus; arranged and conducted by Giuliano Salerni.
There was at least one further single, "All Night, All Right," produced by Gavin Christopher. (DBW)
Give me a break.