Feb 142024

(hangs head) How did I not hear of this? How did Billy Valentine and the Universal Truth, a slice of prime r’n’b/jazz–acid jazz if you must–slip under the Cover Me radar last year? Alerted by the end-of-year lists of others, a quick shufti confirmed this demanded our attention. And it comes with quite an impressive back story to boot.

There are two Billy Valentines. There’s the 98-year-old blues and r’n’b man, William A. Valentine, and there’s 73-year-old who was one of the Valentine Brothers, r’n’b hitmakers of the 1970s into ’80s, best known for “Money Too Tight (To Mention),” to be later catapulted into ubiquity by Simply Red. (Their version is better…) This is the latter of the Valentines, however much I secretly hoped it the former.

After the brush with fame offered by “MTT(TM),” with their own version sinking under the lack of promotion capable of their then-tiny independent label, Valentine took on work with Bob Thiele Jr., as a writer for hire. Thiele Sr. was the boss of Impulse Records, when their roster covered acts such as Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane; later her served as the boss of Flying Dutchman Records, which had championed Gil Scott-Heron. Valentine and Thiele Jr. sold songs all over, ahead of some later traction of soundtracks: Valentine was one of the featured singers for The Sons Of Anarchy series, with a number of featured cameos. Come 2020, with Thiele Sr. deceased, his son felt it as good a time as any to revive the Flying Dutchman imprint, as part of the Acid Jazz family. Valentine was his first signing.

Taking a while to gather together the right combination of material and musician, Billy Valentine and the the Universal Truth dropped last March. It features eight songs drawn from the more militant factions of black music, or at least songs that reflect on that. There is some Gil Scott-Heron, some Curtis Mayfield and Pharaoh Sanders, with Stevie Wonder and Prince in there for good measure. Musicians include the likes of Immanuel Wilkins, Alex Acuña, Jeff Parker and Pino Palladino, so the album is class personified. Let’s play it!

It is with the mellow blow of Wilkins’ tenor that introduces track 1, Mayfield’s “We Are The People Darker Than Blue,” with muted percussion, here from Abe Rounds and Linda May Han Oh. A voice even breathier than Mayfield seeps out the lyric, a mix of gossamer and steel. Larry Goldings’ piano ripples and this is soul heaven. The risk of scary jazz tropes beckons, briefly in the middle eight, as the tempo escalates, but is swiftly dissipated by some express melodicism. A sound start, which then extends into Scott-Heron’s “Home is Where The Hatred Is,” tickled up into some almost primetime Philly. Anyone finding Scott-Heron’s vocal style sometimes too challenging could do well than give this a spin, the smoothness , strings and all, an unctuous contrast to the words, sugaring the punch and making it al the more shocking. Goldings, again, excels, coming over all Ray Manzarek circa “Riders On The Storm.”

“My People, Hold On” is one of those spiritual anthems that seems locked into the diversification of African-American music in the ’70s, with the Temptations shifting from sharp suited choreography to the tie-dyed bandanas of social conscience. This song, best known from sometime Temptation Eddie Kendricks, gets a steely new makeover, even if the complex percussive backdrop remains, enhanced by additional vibraphone, Joel Ross. A choral swell of backing vocals also lifts this from any sense of timelock. By contrast, Stevie Wonder’s “You Haven’t Done Nothing” locks perfectly into jazz trio territory, with just voice, piano, drums and the lilting upright bass of David Piltch. The shoo-de-bops, when they come, are perfect!

Sanders is probably the most overt jazzer featured, and his “The Creator Has A Master Plan” shies in no way from that, the closest to conventional jazz crooner that Valentine comes. The backing, which features flute and baritone sax in addition to the instruments here already, helps, but it does drop the bar a little. And, if you think ‘Sign O’ the Times’ would be a shoo-in, curiously it doesn’t quite work. Uncertain if that’s due to the ubiquity of the Prince original. but it suffers from the removal of the edginess of the original. I mean, it’s OK, but it just sorta doesn’t work for me.

Never mind, as “Wade In The Water” is jubilant. A “negro spiritual,” if you will, from around 1901, the song has had a rash of relatively recent renditions citing the enduring relevance of the lyric, and it’s certainly relevant here. Starting off pure Harry Belafonte, as the funk grinds in it sinks in a irretrievable hook, the backing chorus again making welcome their presence. Parker adds a delightfully sparky, spiky guitar solo and all is well with the world. A Goldings solo then gilds the lily, as Palladino thumps down in the basement.

BV&TVT concludes with “The World Is A Ghetto,” a fiery version of the War song, which mixes vibrant ensemble play with a more thoughtful conga and vibes backing. A slight echo on Valentine’s voice, which, as it fades, draws all the more attention to the wizardry on hand behind him. Here, the core band of Rounds, Palladino, Acuña, Goldings and Parker make it all sound soooooo easy. Wonderful, really. Actually, a pretty damn fine wonderful album. Sorry we missed it.

Billy Valentine & the Universal Truth tracklisting:

1. We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue (Curtis Mayfield cover)
2. Home Is Where The Hatred Is (Gil Scott-Heron cover)
3. My People… Hold On (Eddie Kendricks cover)
4. You Haven’t Done Nothin’ (Stevie Wonder cover)
5. The Creator Has A Master Plan (Pharaoh Sanders cover)
6. Sign Of The Times (Prince cover)
7. Wade In The Water (Traditional cover)
8. The World Is A Ghetto (War cover)

Cover Me is now on Patreon! If you love cover songs, we hope you will consider supporting us there with a small monthly subscription. There are a bunch of exclusive perks only for patrons: playlists, newsletters, downloads, discussions, polls - hell, tell us what song you would like to hear covered and we will make it happen. Learn more at Patreon.

  One Response to “Review: ‘Billy Valentine And The Universal Truth’”

Comments (1)
  1. Thank you for bringing this beautiful album to our attention, a great album and some fantastic writing to entice us to it.

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>