The past couple of years have seen a rise in popularity of the female singer in the British music scene - the majority of whom have clearly been inspired by the pop and soul music scene in the 1960s and worn this influence on their sleeves.
However before Amy Winehouse was even born, there was the original Miss Beehive - another native of north London who was clearly deeply inspired by the music of the sixties - and the early sixties in particular - Mari Wilson.
Wilson was a rather good self publicist and as well as being known as Miss Beehive, she also answered to the name "The Neasden Queen of Soul". These names give you an idea about the woman however - her early 80s work was full of humour and self deprecation, although she was a fine singer and in particular an excellent live performer.
Back in the days when concerts tended to be far less lavish affairs than they are today, Mari Wilson and her band which were originally called the Imaginations but had to change their name to the Wilsations to avoid confusion with UK soul trio Imagination, put on one of the most must-see live shows of the period.
She had a full band perform with her, including a couple of cellists, two female backing singers (both Julia Fordham and Michelle Collins sang backing vocals for her), and three male backing singers, including the wonderfully named Hank B Hive, who acted as MC at her concerts with a reasonably good fake American accent.
I remember seeing them perform in 1983 at Reading University and it was a highly memorable concert with Mari perfectly capable of getting an audience to eat out of the palm of her hands and left them quite literally wanting more.
The visual part of Mari Wilson was hugely important - she wasn't just about the beehive but also about the glamour of an era that had vanished. She always wore gloves, beautiful frocks and fake fur stoles. Her backing band were beautifully dressed too and the general air she gave her audience was that she was, quite simply, a lady.
Mari had only one top ten hit but it's been said that when Bryan Ferry heard her single "Beat the Beat" on the radio he was so intrigued by a sound he found both bizarre and compelling he hired her to support Roxy Music on tour.
Mari recorded on the Compact label, and her singles had the prefix PINK for their catalogue numbers. The details were important in her career.
She only released one album during this period and by the mid 80s she had moved into jazz singing, and solo live performances. She also dabbled in musical theatre and sang theme tunes to both a film ("Dance with a Stranger") and a TV series ("Coupling").
~~The Platinum Collection~~
"The Platinum Collection" is a CD reissue of her 1983 album "Showpeople" and also contains some other tracks hand picked by Mari and is the perfect opportunity to hear 60s influenced pop from the 80s and how the 80s sound found its way into the mix.
"Showpeople" was produced by Tony Mansfield, who had found some chart success in New Musik in the late 70s. He seems an incongruous choice because New Musik were a synth pop band rather than anything linked to 60s teen pop. You can hear a little of New Musik on some of the "Showpeople" tracks, however overall he does a good job.
Wilson's voice is very smooth - her biggest influence is probably Doris Day and it's a very obvious influence at that. She is best when singing songs which veer more towards jazz than soul - and her limited vocal range finds her voice getting a little pitchy in places if she overdoes things.
The tracks from "Showpeople" are a mixed bag. The album opens with Wilson's sole top ten hit, "Just What I Always Wanted". This is a catchy pop hit and references the kind of things Wilson would joke about ("a mink from Paris, a ring from Rome") in her stage act but the production is very much of the early 80s with a little bit of the "everything but the kitchen sink" production style and a synthesised introduction. This production style totally works - the percussion is particularly good and Mari's voice is smooth giving the song the perfect blend of early 80s pop along with an affectionate nod back 20 years.
Wilson's first two singles, "Love Man" and "Dance Card" are also included. There is something utterly charming about the uptempo "Dance Card" - as is the entire lyrical concept of having a card with a list of the gents' names who wished to dance with you. The irony is the entire sound is raw from both the band with a frenetic horn section, and Wilson's vocals are both enthusiastic and infectious, if a little pitchy.
"Love Man" is clearly highly influenced by the girl group sound of the 60s and has a simple backing track led by piano and pounding drumbeats with complicated but effective backing vocals. Wilson's vocals are more soulful here too but her vocal control is better than on other tracks.
"Beat the Beat" is still wonderful - it opens with hand claps and an almost juvenile backing vocal proclaiming "la la la la" before Mari starts to sing. The song is uplifting, noisy and something I really enjoyed dancing to back in the day. There is a far more obvious sixties influence to this song and Mansfield has pitched the production just right here, allowing the saxophone to kick in at the end as song capitulates towards its conclusion.
"Baby It's True" was one of my favourite songs of 1982 and I hadn't heard it in years before getting this CD, having lost my vinyl 7" single a long time ago. The song starts well with a spoken introduction by Mari over an urgent guitar and saxophone backing. Sadly when the singing kicks in the song seems to lose its way - and this is due to the production.
The song was always a highlight of Wilson's live shows, with a rousing chorus but the problem on here is for some reason Wilson sounds like she is singing at the bottom of a well in places. It's a real shame as the song is still a belter with a rousing trumpet solo on the bridge but because Mari's voice is so far back in the mix in places it really spoils the song overall. This wasn't something I noticed back in 1982, so what a difference 28 years make I suppose.
Time has also seen me re-appraise Wilson's version of "Cry Me A River", originally a hit for Julie London. When I first heard it in 1983 I loved it and remember proclaiming Wilson had recorded a far better version than the original but hearing it again makes me realise that while technically Wilson sings the song very well, she actually misses the point.
Instead of dismissing the lover who cheated on her with a cool, disdainful air as London did in her smoky vocals, Wilson sings it as the heartbroken girlfriend who may well take the cheat back over a simple piano and violin arrangement. In a way this shouldn't really surprise me as Wilson's style was always quite innocent - possibly another throwback to the Doris Day influence - and as a result she really doesn't capture the vengeance London was able to convey so well in her version. The violin is probably the best thing in this as it evokes sobbing perfectly.
The final single from the "Showpeople" album is "Beware Boyfriend", which has a sixties vibe to it, particularly on the chorus which enables the Wilsations to back Mari effectively and a strong trumpet performance. The lyrics are very retro in style too - highly reminiscent of early 60s teen girl group music. However the main sound is 80s synthesiser ensuring this would get dance floor play at the time. The production overall is good, and allows Wilson's vocals to shine well - she's particularly good at this kind of upbeat pop.
Considering Wilson was so obviously influenced by the 60s one might expect more cover versions of songs from that era but she clearly preferred original material as apart from "Cry Me a River", the only other cover she attempted in the early stage of her career was Bacharach and David's "Are You There With Another Girl", originally a hit for Dionne Warwick.
Wilson's version starts with a synthesised introduction and once again a pronounced drumbeat. Wilson's voice isn't as far up the mix on this version but I find the tempo a little muted - it seems to be just a little too slow, and the synthesiser is a bit overwhelming. Wilson also fails to capture the heartbroken concern the lyrics suggest too unfortunately, singing it "straight".
Wilson sang the theme to "Dance with a Stranger" in 1985 and "Would You Dance with a Stranger" is perfectly sung. Her voice is sultry, jazzy and smooth over a light backing with delicate guitar and horns and manages to sound both innocent and highly sensual at the same time.
"The Love Thing" is a 2005 song which nods back affectionately to her early 80s style but has more sophistication than the songs from that era - it's far more reminiscent of something Swing out Sister were doing in the mid eighties. As in "Would You Dance with a Stranger" Wilson sounds far sultrier, having long since left the faux teenage innocence behind.
Fans of the TV series "Coupling" will recognise Wilson's version of "Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps" which is clearly strongly based on Doris Day's interpretation, and Wilson does an excellent job with particularly good vocal syncopation with the percussion on the backing track and a knowing tone to her voice.
Of the other that stand out for me "This Time Tomorrow", which is a midtempo song which is both dramatic and melodic, with a particularly strong string section on the bridge. Once again the synthesisers are evident but the feel is very sixties, in no small measure due to the backing vocals which are reminiscent of the era. Wilson's vocals are pitched perfectly and convey heartbreak beautifully. On the other hand, her voice is fast paced on "Ecstasy", a song which was made for the dancefloor. This has a great beat although it has to be said the bassline on the introduction is very similar to that on the Jam's "A Town Called Malice".
So Mari Wilson was never going to change the world with her music but she did, for a brief period in the early 1980s bring a huge sense of fun to the UK music scene and put on a live show which is probably best described as huge value for money for the punter - although I have often thought over the years how unlikely it was that she ever actually ever made any money from touring.
However she did produce some fluffy and enjoyable pop music and moved retro pop away from the likes of Showaddywaddy into an era which had been overlooked and neglected in the seventies which was that of the girl group sound.
She could easily be dismissed as an oddity from the post punk era but the charm of her work is her enthusiasm, which frankly, is infectious. She has also gone on to forge a career in the music industry and released her latest album as recently as 2008. She also performs with Girl Talk, a trio of like minded singers who put on a highly regarded cabaret show.
This CD is available to buy on Amazon for £3.50 - but if you can't run to that, I would suggest you perhaps download "Beat the Beat" which is still a stonker of a pop song nearly 30 years on.
Just What I Always Wanted
Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps
Beat The Beat
Baby It's True
Wonderful To Be With
End Of The Affair
One Day Is A Lifetime
This Time Tomorrow
Are You There With Another Girl
I May Be Wrong
This Is It
Would You Dance With A Stranger
Cry Me A River (Tu No Me Lores)
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Just What I Always Wanted
2 Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps
3 Love Man
4 Dance Card
5 Beat The Beat
6 Baby It's True
7 Wonderful To Be With
8 End Of The Affair
9 One Day Is A Lifetime
10 Dr. Love
11 Remember Me
12 This Time Tomorrow
13 Are You There With Another Girl
14 I May Be Wrong
15 Beware Boyfriend
17 This Is It
18 Would You Dance With A Stranger
19 Love Thing
20 Cry Me A River (Tu No Me Lores)