Millie Jackson will make you blush. We’re used to the idea of Marvin Gaye, Ike Turner or Bobby Womack hollering passionately about how much they’re yearning to get on down with their respective ladies. But when it comes to soul sisters, mainstream radio, and society in general, seems far less tolerant of the women of this era expressing their experience of love and desire in an equally candid manner, lest it shatter their demure professional persona. Coming from a young black woman, Jackson’s raunchy soul music – along with kindred spirit, Betty Davis – almost certainly broke sex and relationship taboos in music during the 70s, and remains an empowering step for female artists*.
That being said, Jackson’s fifth album, Still Caught Up (1975), moves in the direction of her risqué works that would follow, but is a more emotionally wrought affair. It’s a musical memoir about adultery and recrimination, told across a half-hour of steaming hot soul. And it may be the high point of her recording career.
You have to be careful not to bandy around terms such as ‘new’ or ‘original’ too much when it comes to the thematic content of albums specifically about love and relationships in a post-1960s, post-sexual revolution world. In case you’ve forgotten, all kinds of baby-making music was going off in the 70s: Demis Roussos’s ‘Forever and Ever’, Major Harris’s ‘Love Won’t Let Me Wait’ and practically all of Barry White’s solo repertoire, to name but a few. So while I’d hesitate to say the themes on Still Caught Up were new, their candid delivery must surely have been for some soul music listeners in the 70s, and in the years since.
Jackson did not have any formal singing training, which is what led her to begin chatting – or “rapping” as it was less commonly known then – over sections of music, not unlike her jazz predecessor, Marlena Shaw. It was 1974’s Caught Up that introduced the world to Jackson’s newfound raunchy, racy music style, and her followers lapped it up. On follow-up record, SCU, Jackson is giving you her perspective on various scenarios that will inevitably arise from an affair. It’s opinionated, it’s sassy, it’s barroom chat for mature ears.
Take ‘The Memory of a Wife’ for example. On this track, Jackson monologues on why a woman running off with a married man will have a hard time changing him, and avoiding a fight with his wife (“Ain’t no woman in her right mind gonna sit back and just let another woman come in and take her man / If he’s really worth having”). As the song reaches its final dramatic verse, Jackson’s raspy howls are charged with the emotion of Candi Staton and Gladys Knight. Later, on the Phillip Mitchell-penned ‘Leftovers’, as the ‘other woman’ herself, she gives her love rival a piece of her mind (“It don’t bother me if the man give ya a little lovin’ some time / ’Cause, ya see, I know if he makes it good to ya, it’s me that’s on his mind”).
Still Caught Up is one of those albums that, once you start it, you just have to listen right through to the end. Part of that is thanks to the sensible ordering and fluid transitions, which tell a simple arc in an outstanding fashion. A skilful illustrator could sum up all eight of these songs as a pictorial storyboard, showing the struggle (‘Making the Best of a Bad Situation’), the tentative hope (‘Do What Makes You Satisfied’) and the eventual loss (‘I Still Love You (You Still Love Me)’).
The other reason is because of the music itself. Produced by Brad Shapiro, who’s worked with Wilson Pickett and James Brown, and featuring the instrumental talents of bassist David Hood, guitarist Jimmy Johnson and drummer Roger Hawkins, among others, there are some terrifically laudable examples of deep soul here. It’s stacked with grandstanding arrangements of bold brass, slack bass and silky strings (‘Memory of a Wife’). Slow ballads for wiping away the tears (‘Do What Makes You Satisfied’). And steamy, utterly overpowering rhythm and blues (‘Tell Her It’s Over’).
Though not nearly as explicit by today’s standards, the content and aesthetics of Jackson’s later records became far more raunchy. But even before she took her art to evermore risqué heights she was subverting social norms with Still Caught Up. Adultery is an unfashionable topic to associate oneself with. But it happens, no matter what your sex or skin colour. And Jackson’s second selection of tune for love triangle troubles says a whole lot out loud that some are still too afraid to face.
* Arguably more so than music’s massively popular and influential female megastars of today (Beyoncé, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, et al). In fact, Jackson’s first single to chart, ‘A Child of God (It’s Hard to Believe)’, was apparently withdrawn from sale over its “heated lyrical content”. It seems the gospel-buying public of the US were not amused.
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Image: Spring/Polydor Records