Love Games

The voice and pen that crafted the multi-format standard "Sunny" took four years to create as exquisite an album of adult contemporary R&B as you'll find. This was recorded a full year before Lou Rawls would hit with the Bobby Hebb/Sandy Baron composition "A Natural Man," three years before Barry White would begin his reign of chart success, and two years before the O'Jays would help bring the Gamble and Huff sound to the masses. The place in time for Love Games is key to understanding the album's importance as a pioneering classic of original soul music. Stevie Wonder was still singing his pop material before his run as a serious artist, a year before Marvin Gaye would tell, not ask us, "What's Goin' On." Love Games may have been Bobby Hebb's personal outpouring of grief over his divorce, but the resulting pearl from this intense period is an album masterpiece containing stunning adult contemporary R&B. This was prior to similar work by Gamble and Huff -- a full year before Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye would follow this path creating original music concepts beyond the confines of the Top 40 singles that brought them all fame. With the guiding hand of producer James Fleming and gorgeous arrangements by Fleming, Richard Rome, and Dave Roberts, the man who became internationally famous for writing and singing "Sunny" conceptualizes a complex album of loss and personal survival. "The Love Bird Has Flown" would have fit Ray Charles perfectly on his Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music, Hebb acknowledging his C&W roots, while "I've Learned to Care" is the tenderness Deneice Williams would breath into the pop charts 12 years hence. This music is far removed from the compact pop created by producer Jerry Ross on the Sunny album, the songwriter exploring different areas of R&B. He wrote "Grin and Bear It" with Dionne Warwick in mind, and her people heard it, but it would be 15 years before her cousin Whitney Houston would issue these innovative type sounds on her debut. When Marvin Gaye released Here My Dear in 1978 the royalties went to his ex-wife. One could hear the restraint in Gaye's songwriting -- the album failed to yield substantial hits for a hot artist. There are no such limitations here as Hebb paints a moving picture of being forced to move on. Two parts of "S.S. Soul" that conclude side one and open side two show a funky side of a man in a funk: "mine's just one of many I drag my mental anchor." This was recorded down the hall from Sly & the Family Stone as they were also breaking new ground, recording "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)," and it is interesting to note Epic's commitment to these urban sounds nine years before Michael Jackson's Off the Wall album on that label. There is one co-write from the late Sandy Baron, and that composition, "Flower," is Motown flavored with jazz. Hebb said he wrote this after watching a butterfly go to the same flower day after day until a bee invaded the space -- the butterfly never returned to that same flower. Rawls took the team's "A Natural Man" up the charts a year from this point in time, but outside of catching the ear of other musicians and loyal fans, Love Games was hardly as successful as all the music it would inspire. It got no promotion from the label, and the album cover would have better suited the Ray Coniff Singers. "A Better Love" continues exploring the theme of how some people treat love like a sport, but through it all there's a refreshingly upbeat attitude, and a textbook of material which quietly influenced the direction R&B would take through the late '70s and early '80s, music which sounds as fresh today as when it was written.