Saturday, March 23, 2013


Billy Stewart's second album, 1966's Unbelievable, and the posthumous, 1974 odds-and-ends collection Cross My Heart are combined onto one CD for this 79-minute compilation. It's not apt to satisfy non-completists as it's not a best-of, missing the majority of his chart hits and including just one big smash, "Summertime." For those looking for supplements to his most popular songs, however, it's not a bad deal, and includes quite a few tracks not likely to be found on other compilations.

The centerpiece is the Unbelievable album which, in keeping with his unexpectedly successful, exuberantly stuttering update of "Summertime," is comprised entirely of pop standards given a soul treatment. "Summertime" is still far and away the standout of that LP's dozen tracks, in part because some of the others have more middle of the road, pop-jazz-oriented arrangements. Nonetheless, if you want to hear him tackle like-minded material like "Moon River," "My Funny Valentine," "Over the Rainbow," "That Old Black Magic," "Misty," and a couple more by "Summertime" composers George & Ira Gershwin, this is your chance. The most liberal interpretations that make the most of his freewheeling trademark scat-stutter style, like "Moon River," "That Old Black Magic," and "Canadian Sunset," are more enjoyable by far than his more straightforward ballad readings.

The 12 tracks from Cross My Heart were taken from various 1964-1969 singles, with the exception of one of the better cuts, "Fat Boy's Boogaloo," a 1967 James Brown-flavored Stewart original that made its first appearance on that 1974 LP. Generally, these aren't as striking as his best hits, with some exceptions like 1964's "Tell It Like It Is," which puts his fully developed, odd vocalizations to infectious, upbeat, mid-'60s soul without a hint of influence from the pop standards. The rest is good to acceptable '60s Chess soul fare, though, Stewart proving himself capable of writing a good straightforward soul-pop ballad on "How Nice It Is" and "Why Am I Lonely." Some of the late-'60s tracks get slicker and more faceless from both the production and songwriting viewpoints, though the cover of "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" works better than you might expect. The Shout label does a good job with the packaging of this rather awkward match of vintage albums, adding historical liner notes and sequencing the Cross My Heart tracks so they're heard in chronological order rather than the scattershot sequencing used on the original LP. ~ Richie Unterberger

Digitally remastered two-fer containing a pair of albums from the R&B vocalist on one disc. Billy Stewart is best known for his distinctive and iconic version of 'Summertime', George Gershwin's standard from Porgy & Bess. 'Summertime', a U.S. Top 10 Pop and R&B hit in the summer of 1966 was the lead track on Billy's Unbelievable' album on Chess, and it is fascinating to hear 'Summertime' in context. Stewart developed his own idiosyncratic 'word-doubling' vocal delivery, and was supported by brassy arrangements combining the best elements of Soul and Big Band Jazz. Also included as bonus tracks are a collection of Billy's Chess recordings from across the 1960s; once released by Chess in 1974 as a compilation called Cross My Heart, which features many Northern Soul favorites. Shout.2011. Audio Remasterer: Simon Murphy. Liner Note Author: Clive Robertson. ~ CD Universe

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