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Some universal truths

Back in 1982, Billy Valentine and his brother John recorded a song called “Money’s Too Tight (To Mention)”, a slice of disco-funk that made the lower regions of the R&B chart. Its lyric reminded me of Jimmy Witherspoon’s “Money’s Gettin’ Cheaper” and I liked it enough to buy the 12-inch from Groove Records on the corner of Greek Street and Bateman Street in Soho. Three years later it was covered by the Manchester band Simply Red, for whom it provided a first hit and the basis of a rather more successful career than was granted to the Valentine Brothers.

Now Billy returns with what will certainly end up among my albums of the year: Billy Valentine and the Universal Truth, a collection of rearrangements of eight well-known songs united by a certain social relevance. In age they range from the spiritual “Wade in the Water” to Prince’s “Sign of the Times”, first recorded by its composer in 1987. In between come songs written by Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Gil Scott-Heron, Pharoah Sanders and Leon Thomas, the members of War, and Leonard Caston and Anita Poree.

Valentine brings the wisdom of his years to these “message” songs. The softened edge to his tone reminds me of the great southern soul singer O. V. Wright, but his vocal agility enables him to handle the rapid-fire phrasing of the Prince song with ease. The anguish in “Home Is Where the Hatred Is” matches that of Esther Phillips’s famous 1972 version.

The arrangements here are modern and imaginative, often making use of jazz gestures. There’s the eloquent improvising of the new star saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins on Mayfield’s “We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue”, sensitively accompanied by Larry Goldings on piano, Linda May Han Oh on bass and Abe Rounds on drums. There’s Claire Daly’s barely controlled baritone saxophone, preaching the spiritual jazz message on Sanders’ “The Creator Has a Master Plan”, and Theo Croker’s elegant trumpet on “Sign of the Times”. There’s Goldings again, reincarnating the spirit of mid-’60s Ramsey Lewis on “Wade in the Water” and a beautiful opening-up of Wonder’s scathingly political “You Haven’t Done Nothin'”. Other featured players include the vibraphonist Joel Ross, the percussionist Alex Acuña and the guitarist Jeff Parker.

Produced by Bob Thiele Jr, the son of the man who produced John Coltrane’s Impulse albums and recorded Ornette Coleman on his own Flying Dutchman label, this isn’t a jazz record any more than it’s a soul record, a funk record or an R&B record (some of the tracks have a rhythm section of Pino Palladino on bass guitar and James Gadson on drums). It’s all of them, mixed together in perfect proportions. And if the message of these songs isn’t new, it’s never a bad thing to be reminded of the continuing urgency of what they have to say. In a post-truth world, they hit even harder.

* Billy Valentine and the Universal Truth is released on 24 March on the Acid Jazz/Flying Dutchman label: The photograph is by Atiba Jefferson.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Roland Maguire #


    Thanks for the steer on this.




    March 22, 2023
  2. Clive #

    Thanks for the tip, Richard. I shall investigate!

    March 22, 2023
  3. Paul Crowe #

    Thanks for the recommendation, Richard. Sounds like a belter !

    March 22, 2023
  4. Patrick Hinely #

    Bob Thiele Sr. also produced albums by Leon Thomas on Flying Dutchman and Pharaoh Sanders on Impulse.

    March 22, 2023
    • Tim Adkin #

      He co-wrote ‘What a Wonderful World ‘ too.

      March 22, 2023
      • Dean #

        And Gil Scott-Heron and Lonnie Liston Smith’s ‘Expansions’, one of the most influential records in the history of club music. If he had produced this number of seminal rock records he would have been a Mojo front cover regular…

        March 22, 2023
    • Mick Steels #

      Prez,Hawk,Duke,Mingus,Hodges,Ayler,Rollins,Tyner,Carter,Haynes,Hines,Blakey,Murray,Max,Basie et al

      March 27, 2023
  5. Mick Tarrant #

    What synchronicity! I was just pondering buying the album after regularly hearing tracks previewed on Jazz Fm.
    Your review has swung in favour of the ‘Buy’ button.

    March 22, 2023
  6. Torchy56 #

    Groove Records was a one of those great small (pop in at lunchtime) record shops around at the time, how I love and miss Jean Palmer and her sons Tim and Chris… It certainly made working in Soho Square in the ’80s groovier!

    March 22, 2023
  7. Nick Grant #

    Sounds wonderful. Thx for flagging it up Richard.

    March 22, 2023
  8. Tim Adkin #

    Thanks for this Richard – sounds well worth seeking out. I too owned the 12 inch 40 odd years ago and whatever one may think of Hucknall he sure could pick ’em. interesting you should mention Ramsey Lewis as I believe Valentine sang with Young Holt Unlimited at one stage. Presence of Larry Goldings in itself is usually a recommendation.

    March 22, 2023
  9. Dean Rudland #

    I’m not sure if it’s the done thing to thank a reviewer for the review of something you are releasing, but this review is very special to me, as recognition and maybe validation of the fact that both Eddie and I were won over by this from the first moment we hear ‘We The People’. So thank you.
    In that circular way that things seems to be connected, Groove Records was one of the key stores for me in the early days of Acid Jazz, just before the success of the early 90s, when our weekly wages depended on how well we’d done in the local record stores. Groove always seemed to come through on a Friday afternoon!

    March 23, 2023
  10. Hi
    I have 2 VIP tickets for Billy Valentine playing at the Forge in Camden on 7th April.
    Face value £100 inc booking fees.

    Unfortunately, I can ‘t go due to family reasons.
    If a yone would like to buy the tickets, ease contact me at



    March 26, 2023

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