During my years DJing in various Berlin clubs, one of the songs in my soul/disco sets was “Saturday”, an energetic disco club anthem, very polished and thick, sung by Norma Jean Wright, a background singer who worked for Luther Vandross, Sister Sledge, Randy Crawford, Aretha Franklin, Will Downing, and a lot more. It wasn’t as obvious as “Le Freak” or “We Are Family”, but clearly had all the Chic ingredients. Her only studio album, released in 1978 under the name Norma Jean, was produced by Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers of Chic.
That particular song actually was recorded a few years earlier by singer Robert Cotter. He recorded a few tracks for his album with The Big Apple Band which included Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson who founded Chic in 1977. Those songs are the only recordings before Chic was born. The album “Missing You” never saw the light of day. Most of the copies were destroyed, the original label Tiger Lily was involved in tax problems and vanished after just a few releases. So the album didn’t sell any copies. It is a small wonder that 45 years later, Paris-based reissue label Wewantsounds is finally presenting the album to the world.
Robert had been active in New York since the late 60s, and then went on to perform with the “Jesus Christ Superstar” Broadway cast. Back from this engagement, he teamed up with Rodgers & Edwards who were looking for a singer for their new act and later recorded a couple of tracks with Robert, the remaining songs with his other group from his earlier years. The opening title track sounds like an early Luther cut, with Robert’s soulful vocal strong and crisp throughout. His Broadway influence can be heard on the falsetto-fied “Mary’s House”. “Disco Blues” is incredibly funky with a big chunk of jazz thrown in. And what a mighty big scream! “Teddy Bear” should have been a hit back then, a sort of eccentric Elton John meeting the Detroit Emeralds. Pure and classic soul.
So what about those two tracks with the Chic posse? They stand out here actually, with the bass and guitar of Nile and Bernard easily identifiable and just amazingly hook-laden and mesmerizing. “Love Rite” comes across as a typical Chic tune, but with much more edges, much rawer in execution and production. Robert’s voice is just outstanding. As it is on the afore-mentioned “Saturday”, a true gem of a piece, foreshadowing the Chic prowess. Robert’s version might not have as much aplomb and finesse as Norma Jean’s version, but it sure sounds funkier and somewhat more independent than the later version.
Elsewhere on the album, there are urban folk elements as on “Three Wise Men”, a piece which reminds me of the best of Phoebe Snow. And some Joni Mitchell-isms on “Uncle Sam”. Robert’s versatility as a singer and composer is simply captivating. One of the highlights of the set is the percussive midtempo soul bliss of “God Bless The Soulfire People”. The album concludes on a political note with the anti-Nixon invocation “Come On With It”, very outré, extravagant and on the edge of getting psychedelic.
Robert went on to perform and record after this first outing. There is a 1980 LP called “Timeless” for the Italian Pacha label and that was it recording-wise. Wewantsounds, responsible in the past few years for unearthing Donna McGhee and Jaye P. Morgan, among many others, can’t be applauded enough for releasing this historic and superb LP, in partnership with Robert himself. The LP includes a 2-page liner notes insert.Follow: