Recorded January 26, 1972 at RCA Studios in Chicago, The Dells sing Dionne Warwicke’s Greatest Hits is an album that features nearly a dozen of Charles Stepney’s magical reimaginings of Burt Bacharach/Hal David compositions. On the as-released version of the album, idiosyncratic Dells baritone Marvin Junior growls pleasingly (in concert with the rest of the Mighty Mighty Dells), delivering a completely different energy than Miss Dionne exuded in her versions of songs like “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again”.
But it is an altogether different miracle to experience the original reel to reel tape of the backing arrangements from the session (that I previewed recently courtesy of the Stepney archives). Sans vocals, it’s an opportunity to hear compelling details, color and ornamentation previously obscured in the final mix of the album.
It’s an opportunity to hear legendary Chess Records session musicians including Phil Upchurch on guitar and Morris Jennings on drums and memorable featured artists like Derf Reklaw and Louis Satterfield (best known as members of Earth, Wind and Fire), who at the time were playing with The Pharaohs. The tracks, purportedly recorded live to tape, bristle with energy.
“I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” is a funky, wah-wah guitar-inflected, nearly seven minute long workout, while “Wives and Lovers” is a lean, spritely jam packed with gorgeous orchestration and Stepney’s compelling keywork. “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” is transformed from a square AM radio staple into a swaggering, swinging stepper. Charles Stepney’s treatment of “Walk on By” is nothing less than epic, boasting the sort of dizzying ebb and flow usually reserved for a wooden roller coaster.
Stepney’s genius is in full flower: both as a distinctive keyboardist (playing at varying times piano, harpsichord and Fender Rhodes) and as a masterful arranger at the height of his powers. An underpinning of sparkling, swirling strings supplied throughout by Sol A. Bobrov and the standard crew of Chicago Symphony Orchestra players perfectly counterbalance the set’s percussive, elastic horns and percolating drum, conga and bongo licks.
Another revelation exposed by the backing track reel-to-reel is that an additional cut that was not on The Dells sing Dionne Warwicke’s Greatest Hits was recorded at the session: Charles Stepney’s slinky, conga studded treatment of “The Look of Love” that ultimately surfaced on the 1972 Dells album Sweet As Funk Can Be. This revelation is certainly not surprising, however. I have always thought of “The Look of Love” as my favorite cut from The Dells’ Warwicke album. A song that, only by mere technicality, was not included on the record. Not just because “The Look of Love” is a Bacharach/David tune, but because stylistically, it’s much more akin to the Warwicke album than Sweet As Funk. Finally hearing the tune in its original context was enlightening.
The instrumental arrangements of the Warwicke album session serve a crucial element of Charles Stepney’s indelible legacy of invention and command. It’s a collection that can stand up unflinchingly alongside his canonical work with Rotary Connection, Ramsey Lewis, Minnie Riperton and Earth Wind and Fire.