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Ivy - Ivy II IF THEY aren't already, pretty soon Akron, Ohio based Heat Records will become known as a company adept at turning out stunning ballads what with first the superb album from Frederick, then the fine just The Two Of Us single from Johnston Brown & Janice Dowlen and now a consistent follow-up to Ivy's debut LP in 1984 with "Ivy II". Certainly no bad thing for Soul fans but perhaps not so encouraging for Heat Records bearing in mind that we are constantly reminded by record companies in the UK that ballads, and particularly Soul ballads, don't sell (although in actuality they do from time to time given a committed push). If Ivy are fortunate enough to have a UK release then any success will see a return for them to bur charts following on from their previous success in 1983 with "I Think I Want To Dance With You" when they were known under the less exotic moniker of Rumple-stilt-skin. (Polydor picking the single up from Heat via Montage.) As with Ivy, the main creative force within that group were the Me Cants brothers, Sam and Chris, who date back still further as members of the Chicago Gangsters.

The whole McCants clan are all closely involved with Heat Records. As Chris McCants explains, "There are five brothers. A.J. is the eldest and does a little promotion work and then there are Leroy and James (both older than Chris and Sam). James is controlling label as far as recording the acts and Leroy runs the recording studio.

Both Leroy and James were original members of the Chicago Gangsters prior to Chris and Sam joining the line-up, debuting in 1974 on Red Coach with "I Choose You". The song was written by Willie Hutch but produced by Leroy and James for Gold Plate Records which may well be the label that Red Coach picked up the single from. Certainly the group's next release was on Gold Plate itself.

"Blind Over You" brought the group their first taste of success and their first album. James was lead vocalist at the time. The single is a very appealing ballad. The group Black Ice, who were recording for the same set up, also did a fine version of the song a year later. Continues Chris: "Blind Over You" pretty well established us as a group over the States and was probably our biggest seller. "Gangster Love" (another strong seller for the Gangsters) wasn't as big. However the single was successful enough to warrant the release of a second LP and to interest RCA in signing the group up. Only one single, "What's Goin' On" (an original song from Chris and Sam not the Marvin Gaye classic) was released before the group moved on to Heat Records in 1979. At least by the second Gold Plate LP Chris and Sam were full time members of the group with Chris playing drums and Sam on piano, organ, guitar and vocals. The majority of the songs were written by the McCants brothers, as were all productions.

By the time of the Chicago Gangsters first Heat LP, "Life Is Not Easy Without You" only Chris, Sam and bassist Anthony Amos remained from the Gold Plate group with Leroy and James moving into the background as engineer apd producer respectively. Amongst the new vocalists added were Ed Brown, Ed Johnston and Willie Johnston who took over lead duties Chris at this point regarded the Gangsters as more of a vocal I group than a band. "We were : doing a lot of group vocals with three guys up front but Ivy (and before it Rumple-Stilt-Skin) are more of a self-contained band. Everybody can handle back-up and lead vocals and we find it a lot easier to work this way.

The second Heat LP by the Gangsters brought in bassist David Miller and vocalist Sharon Jones who with Chris and Sam McCants went on to form Rumple-Stilt-Skin along with Carl mcCaskey (guitar) and Phil Maxwell (sax) and two other short-lived members Sherry Kaye and Nobi Weaver. Those six formed the basis of Ivy. Vocalist Debbie Tedrick brought the numbers up to seven for their debut LP "Hold Me" which includes that stunning six-minute plus ballad together with other standouts such as the, mid-tempo "Say You Will" and another fine slow track in "I Feel When You're Gone" (actually taken from a previous Gangsters'LP). Debbie has left and Sharon is doing all the female lead vocals now," Chris reveals. Phil our sax player is no longer with us (although he does appear on the LP), We've added Greg Smith (keyboards) who has been with us nine months and Rex Lee who plays-percussion. "Tell Me" (which is helping to sell the album on import here) is the track that is doinp well but the stations are also playing other cuts off the LP. The album is selling very well for us and I'm very pleased with the LP. The product and the production. As with most Heat LP's, "Ivy II" suffers the fault of having the wrong track listing on the sleeve so "Tell Me" opens side one and not side two. That slight quibble aside, the opening track is a strong mid-tempo number which showcases the strong vocals of Sharon Jones. After a brief rap the song settles into its mid-tempo groove which builds superbly via the vocals. Two very fine ballads follow before the popping funk of "It Must Be Magic". The flip side is more funk oriented with a lot of originality coming in.

The vocal arrangement on "Won't You Dance With Me" is decidedly odd and I'm not sure totally paletable, while "Make Me £eel Your Love" with its heavy reverberating bass is again quite strange structured. "Rock The Room" meanwhile has a screaming James Brown style vocal (try not to Jump when the glass shatters) and "Hula Hoop" has the most non-sensible lyrics ("hula hoop inside your love babe!") which I found most difficult to accept. Surprisingly the vocals on this and "Sweet Box" (pretty average) are not particularly strong although the falsetto singing when it does occur is excellent. While on the subject of vocals, Chris was keen to point out the importance that Heat Records attach to strong vocalists. "James is a vocalist. Sam is a vocalist. Vocals are the first thing we all look for in an artist. Nowadays a lot of companies are just selling the beat so that a lot of singers aren't good vocalists (a point I've been trying to make recently).

With the McCants family at Heat the company is already well on its way to creating a family atmosphere within its walls. We all help each other to put the albums together which makes us very flexible although in the case of Spellbound (whose LP was recently released on Heat) they did everything themselves. They are a self-contained group so they needed no outside help. The other three acts on Heat should all have product lout within the next few months. Frederick is working on his next LP while there are albums already completed on Janice Dowlen (the lady who duets with Frederick on "Gentle") and Johnston Brown who are actually a group made up from, the three ex-lead vocalists with the later Chicago Gangsters.

Despite the fact that the album is a comparitive new release, Ivy have already started recording their new project. No doubt there will be a few more stunning ballads on that set.

If you're wondering why Ivy should change their name from just plain Rumple-Stilt-Skin to Ivy you'll have to keep wondering. I forgot to ask!

(Steve Bryant / Blues and Soul sept 1986)

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