Milton Wright ‘Complete Friends and Buddies’ (Athens of the North) 4/5

milton-wrightFor many more seasoned record collectors, Milton Wright’s renowned Friends and Buddies LP released in 1975, was one of those ‘must have’ records alongside the Don Blackman, Tommy Stewart and James Mason albums when the so-called rare groove scene was first emerging in the UK in the 1980s. This was also when paying £30+ for a record felt like a scandal and not the norm.
Milton Wright’s debut album is still as desirable as ever, fetching over £100 for an original 1975 pressing due to its initial limited release and cult classic status. But there’s a twist to the story…
Miami’s Alston Records, one-time home to luminaries such as Milton’s sister Betty Wright, soul connoisseur Lew Kirton and Bahaman funk group Beginning of the End, actually released two versions of Friends and Buddies in the same year with both containing the same catalogue number, but they were totally different records. So for a vinyl hungry teenager just beginning to go on vinyl buying trips to London and DJ outside of Birmingham, ‘Keep it up’, the lead track from the album was a must. But when first offered the record in 1987 by a record dealer, to my distress ‘Keep it up’ was absent from the pressing I saw. It was another two years before I found the edition I wanted.
The second pressing that contains the soul classic ‘Keep it up’ is more common and has been reissued numerous times on various labels. But the alternate first pressing that has never been repressed contains completely different recordings of the entire album but with a more folk feel and influence, except for the removal of ‘Keep it up’.
The ‘official’ story is that the master tapes for this original folky version were unfortunately lost in a fire at T.K. Disco, Alston’s parent label. I’m sure I’ve previously heard this same warehouse/recording studio/record label fire story to explain the rareness of other records such as Gwen McCrae’s ‘Melody of Life’ album and the classy Roy Ayers produced Ethel Beatty 12”, ‘It’s your love’. But hey, it’s still a great story.

But now in 2015, the reliable Athens of the North label have now officially reissued the more obscure folk influenced version of the album on vinyl but with the addition of ‘Keep it up’, and with the CD edition containing both versions of the album, plus the inclusion on a non album cut, ‘Ooh ooh I love it’, a disco tinged single released in 1976.

So how is this alternate version? Well, it is slightly less funky in its rhythm section, all synthesiser elements are absent and Milton’s fluid acoustic guitar parts are brought forward a touch in the mix. But the vocals are still endearing, passionate and charming, combined with that warm Florida soul sunshine you get from many Miami based soul records.

Comparisons with the work of Terry Callier have been made but that is probably unfair. This is a strong release and whether you’re a vinyl head after a pretty rare soul classic with a twist, or want the full experience of the dual release on CD, this is highly recommended.

I do miss the Mini Moog synth lines and the prominent ARP Solina keyboard string textures (commonly used by Roy Ayers), but this more subdued version offers an earthy quality that feels honest and genuine.

And yes, I would have loved an alternate folk/soul version of ‘Keep it up’, but alas, no. That version was probably lost in a tornado. And why is Milton’s follow-up album Spaced even more obscure? That’s probably a whole different story.

Damian Wilkes