Angela Bofill ‘I Try: The Anthology 1978-1993’ 2CD (SoulMusic) 4/5

A limited and elite number of soul vocalists have the technique to operate in either jazz or soul idioms and this is the case historically for Aretha Franklin (even though she was primarily known as a soul singer, and of course she was equally at ease and adept in gospel and blues), and for singers in the 1970s such as Jean Carn and Phyllis Hyman, while in the 1980s Anita Baker made her career out of combining soul and jazz hues. More recently, Gregory Porter has demonstrated that the two elements are by no means mutually exclusive and that together with respect and sincerity, you can attract a wider listening audience. In the case of singer Angela Bofill, however, she could and probably should have reached a wider audience, and this over-arching anthology does at least go some way to rectifying her under-representation among the crème de la crème of soul singers.

Hailing from the Bronx, and with Puerto Rican ancestry (she was a close childhood friend of the sadly departed flautist, Dave Valentin). Angela Bofill could have gone in an entirely different direction and sung in Spanish on more traditional-flavoured Latin folk (akin to say Chicano singer Linda Ronstadt), or even commercially-oriented salsa material. However, her voice was so naturally rich and versatile, that Bofill instead opted to study music formally and Latin music’s loss was soul music’s undisputed gain.Her debut album in 1978 for Arista, ‘Angie’, provided all the evidence needed of that natural talent (it is incidentally available separately in its entirety on CD) and from that, the jazzy-tinged soul groove of, ‘This time I’ll be sweeter’, is a tasteful and sophisticated performance that quite simply stands the test of time, and in some ways prefigures the kind of material that Anita Baker would cover some five years later. In Bofill’s case, she had the misfortune of commencing her career at a time when real soul singing music was considered passé and even the likes of Aretha Franklin and Bobby Womack struggled to get themselves heard. Another example from that first album of note is, ‘Under the moon and over the sky’. The album just made it into the top twenty of the US R & B charts for what proved to be a most promising debut.

The second album, ‘Angel of the night’ (1979), arrived just a year later as disco was now on the wane. Once again, a similar style and accompaniment was adopted, typified by a quality intimate ballad such as, ‘I try’. Here, her voice is heard at its glorious purest and there was really no need to embellish it. With fine tenor saxophone accompaniment, this was music for a mature audience and it succeeded where the predecessor had failed in landing a place in the top ten of the R & B chart. The title track made a minor ripple in the R & B singles chart, but no more than that.

A two year gap resulted in the release of 1981s, ‘Something about you’, and her name was beginning to be more familiar to soul fans. While it did not fare any better than the previous album, it did at least cement her reputation as a singer who did not need to rely on short-term fads for popularity and once again the choice of songs was tasteful and in keeping with what had preceded. The singles released off the new album fare more strongly this time, with, ‘Something about you’, just outside the top twenty of the R & B charts, and, ‘Holdin’ out for love’, just outside the top thirty. Clearly, she was on the cusp of reaching a larger audience.

In the UK, that breakthrough album came with, ‘Too tough’, from 1983, and the long version of the title track was a significant hit on the UK soul charts, while in the US it scored highly in both the dance and R & B charts. Angela Bofill hit the dance floors with this song, co-written by Narada Michael Walden, who had produced Stacy Lattisaw and Sister Sledge and the picture cover edition featured Bofill in exotic looking pose with a passing hint to the 1930s in fashion. Her photogenic looks did the promotion of the single no harm at all. Bofill’s soul credentials were still very much to the fore, as illustrated on a terrific cover of Ashford and Simpson’s penned, ‘Ain’t nothing like the real thing’, on which she duets convincingly with blued-eyed soulster Boz Scaggs. Boosted by the stronger album sales, a second single, ‘Tonight I give in’, went to just outside the top ten of the R & B chart, and this was arguably Angela Bofill’s most complete and well-rounded album in her career to date.

A follow up album followed swiftly with Narada Michael Walden firmly in the producers seat and, ‘Special delivery’, was a reasonable dance chart success, though to these ears veering more towards the pop market which is presumably where Arista believed Bofill was heading. A duet with Johnny Mathis on, ‘You’re a special part of me’, was further evidence that the label was striving to open up Angela Bofill’s music to a non-specialist audience, but as a whole the album was unsatisfying.

By now, Angela Bofill was being marketed essentially as a dance floor singer, which severely limited her real talent, but she was with a voice so naturally blessed, able to adapt to. From, ‘Let me be the one”, in 1984, an extended remix of, ‘Can’t slow down’, is included, and it was a modest success. With the benefit of hindsight, one cannot but conclude that something of the individualism of the singer was lost in this attempt to rebrand her sound and she was certainly not alone in this respect. A final album for Arista fared less well and there was an inevitability that the tenure at the label would end. In actual fact, it would be some eight years before Angela Bofill resurfaced, this time on the Jive label, and in 1993 she offered a new album, ‘I wanna love somebody’, that fared modestly well just breaking outside of the R & B top fifty and of which the title track was released as a single as was, ‘Heavenly love’. In between, Bofill,m who had earned the respect of her fellow musicians, guested on Stanley Clarke’s 1986 album, ‘Hideaway’, with, ‘Where do we go’. Clearly, while the mainstream music industry had begun to tire of her and the lack of a major hit, musicians still placed their faith in the quality of her voice which remained undiminished.

Sadly, Angela Bofill’s singing career was cut short in 2006 when she suffered a stroke that both impaired her ability to speak and left one side of her body paralysed. She was especially saddened by the passing of her friend Dave Valentin earlier this year. Her musical legacy remains, but it is a tale of a mis-represented career that should have been infinitely richer given the beauty of the voice that she was born with and which was subsequently carefully honed and crafted.

Tim Stenhouse