There are singer-songwriters and there is Billie Ray Martin. During the course of her storied career, Martin has earned global acclaim as a writer and stellar vocalist. In the ’80s and early ’90s she make an indelible mark on electronic music with Electribe 101. Their debut album, Electrical Memories, brandished the seminal single “Talking With Myself.” According to folklore, Chicago house legend Marshall Jefferson refused to remix it as he felt it was “already perfect.” After the group’s demise Martin went on to forge a litany of brilliant solo music for the dance floor along with a coterie of producers, including hits like “Your Loving Arms” as well as a string of brilliant albums.
On May 13 Ms. Martin will unveil her most ambitious album to date, The Soul Tapes, where she steps away from the pulse of electronic music to present an ambitious collection of pure soul music. Before the release of the album, and an upcoming celebration to commemorate Electribe 101’s 25th anniversary with the launch of a triple CD re-release album, BRM shared the soul songs that helped shape her musical perspective.
Billie Ray Martin Top Soul influences
1. “Proud Mary” by Ike and Tina Turner
Let’s start with the dance steps. Tina choreographed all of it, and designed the costumes. This woman is underrated and so are the Ikettes and this whole period of her work. “Proud Mary” is as soulful as it gets. The second the first line is sung, I either just close my eyes or I start sweating, or crying. When it gets fast in the end, I cannot sit still. I have to get up and stand or move, otherwise I can’t take it. Tina rules. Period. The live in Paris version is the best one, but there are many on YouTube, so go check them out.
2. “Please Forgive My Heart” by Bobby Womack”
Bobby Womack is a giant. To record the album he did, with the incredible talent of Damon Albarn, at his age, to be so real, so gigantic, is something that cannot possibly be rated more highly. I am so glad that he could leave the final milestone in his legacy, before he died. That Damon gave him this opportunity and let him be himself. This song, the way it is produced, it is performed, is something that I would like to achieve once in my lifetime. And if Mr. Albarn is listening, please call me.
3. “Heartless” by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas
When I as a teenager I walked into a Berlin record shop. For no knowable reason the sales guy came up to me and asked me whether I had ever heard soul music. I said, “kind of.” He said he would order two Motown compilations for me. He ordered a Supremes anthology and a Vandellas one. That was my fate sealed. It was then I decided to be a soul singer and started pursuing this. The song chosen here is from the album Sugar and Spice, and this is my favorite Martha album. Each song on there is incredible. It changed the way I perceived music. The lines “Am I only a fool, just a tool to use, when you want to” was kind of ripped of by me and modified for Electribe 101’s track “Tell Me When the Fever Ended.” Not many people have clocked that.
4. “Love (Makes Me Do Foolish Things)” by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas
This song made me write one of my first soul songs, called “Deadline for My Memories.” Of course the song title and lyrics were later used by me for other songs and melodies. Simplicity and directness in the lyric and at the same time the deepest feelings communicated. This is what soul music is about at its best. And this is the best. Martha has always symbolized the essence of soul for me. Marvin Gaye once said that she was her favourite of the Motown lot, as there was something more gutsy and rebellious to her songs and vocals.
5. “One Way Street” by Ann Peebles
I could really list about ten Ann Peebles/Don Bryant compositions which are equally influential for me but as I since chose this one to cover for the album, I’ll talk about this one. It’s what soul music is all about. Singing about the feeling that there is no choice, that life has thrown you a situation and you don’t know how to stop it or change it. Of course the vocal delivery is legendary Ms. Peebles. I have always loved about her singing that there is a touch or detachment, despite the heartfelt delivery.
6. “Eli’s Game” by Al Green
Al Green’s genius doesn’t have to be discussed. It’s known. On this song he gets dark and real and, I suspect, there was the odd substance consumed for this recording. Genius at work and captured on tape, and produced by the legendary Willie Mitchell and his brother and the Hi Records team. Incredible. But again, how many Al Green songs could I list here. Probably a hundred.
7. “Across 110th Street” by Bobby Womack
Maybe the best soul song ever recorded? And it has influenced everyone to this day. R.Kelly and everyone else are still drawing on the story telling nature of this composition. Quentin Tarrantino for instance chose it for the beginning sequence of Jackie Brown. Soul pours out of this song every second until it hurts so much you almost can’t take it. Words fail me, and I can’t describe it. Go and listen to it.
8. “APB” by Womack and Womack
I discovered the album Love Wars a few years ago. I did not know about it before. I heard the track “Love Wars” on the radio and immediately recognized the voice to be Linda Womack. But what struck me were the big ’80s snares — this was something I had not heard on a soul track before and work so well. So I investigated and found that it had been produced by Stewart Levine. The album is complete heaven. Every song on it. The song “APB” is one of my faves because of the groove that’s just so infectious.
9. “Misty Blue” by Dorothy Moore
Just. Tears. Anyone who has ever lost someone, in whichever way, will die a thousand deaths when listening to this. I just burst into tears. It was put to me by my record company once to cover this, and I tried, I tried, I tried. I could not sing this for crying.
10. “Love Starved Heart” by Marvin Gaye
A northern soul classic. Marvin sings here with the full power of his voice, just like he did on “Grapevine” and all the early recordings. This was before he decided that holding back was a more rewarding vocal style. For me, both of those styles work, but the pain expressed here is, for me personally, what makes Marvin Gaye the force he will always be. “OOOOOh oooh Baby”: the intro alone would be enough for me to try to figure out how on earth he sang that. The entire rest of the song is sung with the same vocal power.
watch the video here
11. “Some Day We’ll Be Together” by The Supremes
…or as they were then called Diana Ross and the Supremes. For me they are the Supremes and everything else is unfair. This song is catchy and a huge hit, the minute you hear it. Delivered in Ms. Ross’ usual understated whisper, it is sweetness and soul. It’s a ‘on repeat’ song and I cannot just play it once, but always play it many times in a row. The backing vocals are stronger than ever here.