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Music Review: Jerry Butler – The Ice Man Cometh/Ice On Ice

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On a classic episode of M*A*S*H, Col. Potter once said that there weren't "enough 'o's' in 'smooth'" to describe his favorite 12-year old Scotch.  The same could have been used to describe the voice of The Ice Man, Jerry Butler, whose classic 1969 albums, The Ice Man Cometh and Ice On Ice, will be re-issued together on one CD on April 24.  

Curtis Mayfield may have had the most influential solo career of the former members of The Impressions, both musically and socially, but Butler's contributions should never be overlooked, and this CD should remind fans of why he was a formidable presence on the charts for over twenty years. 

When you've got a singer as great as Butler, who can pull off the astonishing feat of begging and pleading without losing a shred of dignity, the quality of the material doesn't really matter too much.  Fortunately, he worked with a pair of rising writer-producers from Philadelphia, Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff.  Butler collaborated with them, with some help from arranger Thom Bell, to create these remarkable albums.

The partnership was inspired, as Butler's huge, elegant voice meshed perfectly with Gamble and Huff's production style.  The Ice Man Cometh sets the tone, with mid-tempo R&B combined with lush orchestral arrangements.  Cometh spawned four hit singles,   "Lost," and "Never Give You Up," "Hey, Western Union Man," and "Only The Strong Survive," with the last two reaching number one on the R&B charts.  

The success of Cometh allowed them to take some chances with Ice On Ice, adding some up-tempo numbers and  textures previously unheard in soul, like flutes and electric sitars into the mix.  Three more hits followed, "Moody Woman," "What's The Use Of Breaking Up," and "Got To See If I Can't Get Mommy (To Come Back Home)."  

Two of these songs are also well-known in cover versions.  Elvis Presley recorded "Only The Strong Survive" on his excellent post-comeback From Elvis In Memphis album, and both Dusty Springfield and Aretha Franklin recorded wonderful versions of "A Brand New Me."  

The critical and commercial success of these two albums inspired Gamble and Huff to form a label of their own, and their Philadelphia International imprint would create the dominant soul sound of the early-70s through their hits with acts like The O'Jays, Billy Paul, and Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes.  With the reissue of these two remarkable albums, old-school R&B fans can once again hear where their legendary sound was born.

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