12 April 2007

Paul Sabu (Part Two)

Ann-Margret MCA
Red Light Rocker
The Legend Of Paul Sabu

Disco Music's Phil Spector!
by Donny Jacobs
Paul was a triple threat: He arranged and produced all the music for his acts, and wrote 99% of the songs. As mentioned earlier, song lyrics weren't his strong point, but the melodramatic melodies he crafted were consistently excellent, and what he lacked in verbal sophistication he certainly made up for in shock value! 

Larabee Sound in Los Angeles was his headquarters during these years, with Hollywood's Britannia Studios favored for overdubbing. All of Paul's biggest hits were mastered by Ed Schreyer at the old Whitney Studios in Glendale, California, where Annette Funicello cut her early Bubblegum records. Steve Pouliot, Rich Vandagriff and Eddy Ashworth were his session engineers, and extended Disco mixes were supervised by Rusty Garner. 

In later years, Paul would speak about not being pleased with their work, but to their credit, Pouliot, Garner and their assistants managed to give Sabu Disco records a good approximation of the "wall of sound" audio style popularized by Phil Spector. Violinist Davida Johnson led a six-piece string section (Paul called them "Davida's Gang") that was fattened up in the mixing booth. Trumpet player Dwight Mikkelsen served as concert master, and led a brass section nicknamed Hot Chops that included Doug Inman or Clay Lawrey on trombone, and the very talented Jeff Clayton alternating on sax and flute. 

Drummer Dan Holmes and percussionist Johnny Mandell collaborated on the tantalizingly tropical tambourine, conga drum, cymbal, bongó and cowbell overdubs. Paul's studio crew was rounded out by the aforementioned Sabu rhythm section and the sweet-voiced trio of Rock 'n' Roll sirens who clapped hands and poured "Hot Fudge" over all of his tracks. While their backing vocals were superb on uptempo numbers, Billie Barnum, Patty Henderson and Sarah Kane arguably did their best singing on ballads. Slow love songs like Ann-Margret's "For You", Sister Power's "Help Me Love Again," Debbie Jacobs' "All The Way" (released as a single to Rhythm and Blues radio stations) and Sabu's beautiful wedding march "You're Mine Forever" all benefit from their sparkling harmonies.

It was time for a new Debbie Jacobs single. Paul let Steffen Presley loose in the studio with his synthesizer, and the result was an infectious electronic rhumba that would've even had Robby The Robot bumping and grinding. After Debbie lay a cocky vocal on top of it, Marc Kreiner couldn't wait to get it pressed up as an MCA 12-inch single. Chicago deejays turned it into a breakout hit, and from there its popularity spread like wildfire in clubs across the country. "High On Your Love" (not to be confused with a Rick James song of the same title) became Debbie and Paul's biggest hit, topping the Disco charts in the Spring of 1980.  Also burning up the dance floors was an electronic remix of "Hot, Hot, Give It All You Got"; Dan Holmes's sizzling cymbals and Rick Bozzo's churning bass lit a real fire under this track.

In a daring move, Paul decided to downplay Disco on the High On Your Love album. "Lovin' Spree" was low-down Blues number; "Make It Love" was an experimental Funk track that anticipated Hip Hop grooves; "What Goes Up" was a slow, synthesizer-dominated cha-cha-chá; and "I Can Never Forget A Friend" was a Jazz-tinged ballad, arguably the best ballad Paul ever wrote. The odd mix worked, though, and Debbie's singing was excellent on every cut. High On Your Love was her second (and unfortunately, last) album to land on Billboard's best-selling albums list; an edit of the title track crossed over onto the Pop singles chart, rising as high as #70.

A tremendously campy but undeniably sexy samba called "Midnight Message" brought Ann-Margret back to the Disco charts in March of 1980, and led off her new album, released not on Ocean, but MCA Records. Whispered lyrics about churning bodies in the night probably convinced people to take the song seriously up until the point Paul played the chorus of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Bali H'ai" Heavy Metal-style during the instrumental break! This record was done strictly tongue-in-cheek, but Bozzo's serpentine bass lines combined with Holmes and Mandell's "jungle fever" percussion tracks to give it a wicked dance beat; that, and Hot Fudge's rhythmic panting was more than enough to take it up to #12.

The Ann-Margret album has the snap and crackle most of her RCA Victor LPs lacked. Its spicy mix of jungle rhythms ("Midnight Message"), Latin Disco ("Love Rush"), orchestrated Heavy Metal ("What I Do To Men"), Elton John-styled arena Rock ("Never Gonna Let You Go") and lush tropical balladry ("For You") consistently places Miss Ann in exotic new musical settings. It deserved to chart as high or higher than Debbie Jacobs' albums, but somehow, it didn't. It sold a million copies worldwide, better than any other Ann-Margret album had, but international sales figures weren't enough to satisfy MCA Records executives.

Disco labels, or labels like MCA with Disco divisions, were getting very nervous in 1980. The "Disco Sucks" mantra was growing louder, and musicians, particularly Rock musicians, had begun denouncing the genre en masse. Dance music radio formats were dropping right and left. Right around the time Paul wrapped production on Ann-Margret's LP, MK Productions made a decision about the next Sabu album. It would not be a Disco record.

Sabu band

Slated to be titled For Lovers Only, but ultimately (and confusingly) titled Sabu just like its predecessor, Paul's fourth LP featured a blown-up head shot of him taken by a Tiger Beat magazine staffer. The target audience wasn't Disco lovers, but teenage girls searching for the next Peter Frampton. The only problem was, Paul had built his fan base among Disco lovers! 

New wave Rock 'n' Roll had begun filtering into discothéques, but there was nothing on this album that sounded like the B-52s or Talking Heads. Both sides featured arena Rock tracks reminiscent of Eric Carmen and The Raspberries; to a dance music enthusiast, it had to sound like an uninspired throwback to the mid-'70s. That said, songs like "Rock Me Slowly," "Turn Back", "Shakin' Loose" and "For Lovers Only" have held up quite well over the years. However, they weren't what Sabu fans wanted to hear in the early summer of 1980.

Nevertheless, Sabu toured in support of the album, logging dates in Mexico and Canada as well as the United States. It was to no avail; the band's fourth record generated little in the way of stateside royalties. Once again, MCA executives weren't pleased. After appearing on "Midnight Special" and other TV variety shows, Sabu, Bozzo, Holmes and Presley decided to go their separate ways. 

Paul later admitted that his dance-oriented first album for MK Productions had sold far more copies "because that was the (Disco) era." The follow-up was released in a musical era that hadn't been defined yet; as a result, it got lost in the transition from Disco to New Wave. Its failure led to the severing of Paul's A & R ties with Marc Kreiner (although Kreiner would still handle his song publishing for a few more years). All of Paul's female vocal stars appear to have lost their record deals at this time. They'd remain loyal to him, though, and all three ladies would return to the renamed Dance Music charts under his auspices.

Ann-Margret was the first. With Rusty Garner as executive producer, Paul began cutting new tracks with her at New York City's Skyline Studios. Months passed without a release, but in October of 1981, she finally popped up on a Seattle, Washington-based label called First American Records with a new 12-inch single.

Although a solid production, "Everybody Needs Somebody Sometimes" is the most derivative thing Paul ever cut; it sounds like an outtake from a Chic recording session produced by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards. It screams Chic, from the bossa nova groove of Paul's guitar playing right down to the hesitating vocal style A-M uses. A Rusty Garner remix featuring booming samba drums made the song's extended version sound slightly more original, and that was the version which rose to #22 on the Dance charts.

What a pity deejays failed to flip the single over; if they had, they'd have found "Hold Me, Squeeze Me," a rip-roaring pachanga number with crazy percussion, Spectorish reverb and the classic, symphonic Sabu sound. Ann-Margret sang it like a woman possessed. She clearly loved this side best of the two; accompanied by a troupe of dancers, she performed the living Hell out of it on a George Burns TV special. Burn's studio audience went wild! The more sedate "Everybody Needs Somebody" definitely would not have made as strong an impact.

Over a year passed before Paul Sabu turned up in San Francisco with a trio of new 12-inchers. The artists were himself (recording as a solo artist for the first time) and ex-Sister Power lead singer Gwen Jonae. Contracted with the independent Arial label and still operating under the auspices of Rusty Garner's Endless Music Productions, Paul opted for a spare, synthesizer-dominated sound for two releases.

His single "Shotgun", cut primarily in New York City at Skyline, lacked the humorous tone that characterized his Sabu band recordings; instead, it shocked listeners with a daring homoerotic edge (daring, because it was the last thing you'd have expected from a confirmed skirt-chaser like Paul Sabu)! The song's lyrics fairly dripped with phallic imagery. Paul's raspy voice seemed directed at Gay dancers as he described himself as a hunter's delight and the best kind of game.  Provacatively, he urged his male pursuers to squeeze on your trigger/pull on your gun and shoot me all night!

Despite the novelty aspect of a heterosexual singer boldly flirting with homosexual men, "Shotgun" was otherwise a typically Sabu-esque, soulful strut of a performance, reminiscent of Gwen Jonae's work on "Gimme Back My Love Affair" and "Sister Power." Unleashed on a New Wave and Hip-Hop obsessed club scene in the Spring of 1983, this exciting record got little airplay and no chart action at all. Gwen Jonae's single fared better.

"Red Light Lover" was a spicier take on the subject matter exploited by Donna Summer in her 1979 smash "Bad Girls"; Gwen swaggeringly portrayed an unrepentant prostitute whose curbside business brings her big money. I was rakin' it in last week, she bragged. Givin' it out with peace of mind/Is an art that I've refined! Her alto voice rising to soprano heights for emphasis, she defiantly identified herself as a red light lover . . . undercover!, and expressed contempt for the rules of society. Deejays and dancers seemed game for a trip to electronic music's red light district, but the single stalled at #38 in Billboard. 

Undeterred, Paul took his sassy singer to Craig Morey and Leonard Cory, Jr's C & M label, distributed by San Francisco's Moby Dick Records. "Destiny," an inspirational tune that Paul may have intended as a theme song for the upcoming 1984 Olympics, was Gwen's hottest ticket yet. A guitar-and-synthesizer tour-de-force cut at San Fran's Automatt Studios, it gave her the chance to unleash the full power of her Gospel-trained voice; appropriately, the Gospel-singing Waters Sisters (Maxine and Julia) provided spirited vocal backing.

La Jonae's razor-sharp vibrato effortlessly sliced through a wall of electronic sound and urged dancers to follow your dreams/To their full extremes . . . it's your destiny/to be Number One! The flipside of "Destiny" was a trip back to derivative Rodgers and Edwards territory, but the slow dance number "Heavy Breathin'" was redeemed by Paul's overheated lyrics, Joel Peskin's sleazy saxophone solo and Gwen's enthusiastically-delivered gasps and sighs. Paul's rhythm section at this time included Peskin, Jeff Stelle on bass, Dave Frazier on percussion, and brothers Mike and Bobby Sandstrom handling drum and keyboard duties, respectively. In a nod to the old days at Larabee Sound, "Heavy Breathin'" featured a full brass section conducted by Dwight Mikkelsen.

Yet, as superb a record as it was, "Destiny"/"Heavy Breathin'" only managed to creep one position higher on the Dance charts than "Red Light Lover" had upon its release in November of 1983. This would be Paul's last official writing and production work in the Disco genre, but with Debbie Jacobs, his biggest star, he'd take one final stab at dance music A & R three months later.

Newly married, Debbie was now signed to the Personal label, and in January of 1984, her latest single was issued with a pink blurb plastered on the front: "Debbie Jacobs-Rock sings DOCTOR MUSIC, arranged and recorded by Paul Sabu and produced by Rusty Garner for Endless Music Productions." There were both good and bad things about this release. The good things included Debbie and Paul working together again in the studio, and Debbie's typically top-notch vocals.

The bad things were the song, a forgettable remake of a 1977 Renée Harris club favorite; the fact that only Paul's skills as an arranger and engineer were tapped (he probably didn't play guitar on the track); and truly appalling sound mixes on all four versions appearing on the 12-inch single (Paul was the engineer, so he had only himself to blame). "Doctor Music" spent just four weeks on the Dance charts and struggled to reach #50. Paul Sabu's reign as Rock 'n' Roll's Disco King ended with a resounding thud instead of a bang.

Sabu Ocean LPHeartbreak

From that point on, Paul would only work dance music recording sessions as a sound engineer. His writing and producing skills would be saved for the hard Rock genre that was closest to his heart. He began devoting time to a five-woman Punk Rock band known as Precious Metal; the albums he produced for them at Preferred Sound Studios in 1985 didn't chart, but they did win West Coast cult status for the band. 

That same year, Paul wrote material and sang lead for a Motown Records AOR album project, released under the name Kidd Glove. That music also achieved cult status, but Paul had no role in the album's production and hated the experience. The only way he could get himself through the recording sessions was to simultaneously work on a new Sabu album. 

The first Sabu group had broken up, of course, so Paul recruited new musicians: Drummer Charles Esposito and keyboard player Danny Ellis joined Paul and original Sabu bassist Rick Bozzo at Preferred Sound to cut the tracks that became the band's Heartbreak album. Its highlights were a very commercial power ballad titled "Angeline" and a slashing guitar ode to sado-masochism called "Tuff Stuff (Why Do You Like It So Rough?)" Precious Metal member Mara Fox photographed the memorable album cover; it depicted a woman in fishnet stockings standing on the Hollywood Walk of Fame astride the star commemorating Paul's father, Selar Sabu Dastagir. 

"Heartbreak will always have a special place in my heart," he recently confessed. "I got to be more 'me'." European Rock fans responded positively to the real Paul Sabu as portrayed on Heartbreak. Released on the Heavy Metal America label, the LP sold well in Europe, setting the stage for a string of Sabu album releases outside the United States. In 1996, Paul issued a self-titled album that topped the Japanese charts.

Over the last quarter-century, Paul Sabu has sharpened his talents as a producer, session guitarist and songwriter. His name is a familiar one to music industry veterans, most of whom know little or nothing about his Disco productions. His songs are constantly being recorded for motion-picture soundtracks. Among the dozens of major Hollywood films that have featured Sabu songs are The Kindred (1987), Ghoulies II (1987), The Accused (which won a 1988 Best Actress Oscar for Jodie Foster), Meatballs IV (1992), and the Nicole Kidman vehicle To Die For (1995). 

Paul's music has also been heard on TV shows such as the "Perry Mason" movie series, Disney's new "Mickey Mouse Club" series, "WKRP In Cincinnati", "Baywatch", "Beverly Hills 90210" and "Sex And The City." He's been blessed to work in the studio with top Pop, Rock and Dance stars like Madonna, Kiss, David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Sheena Easton, Robbie Nevil, Prince, Corey Hart and John Waite. He proudly takes credit for discovering Country superstar Shania Twain, for whom he wrote and produced song demos prior to her success in Nashville.

Still partial to female acts, he now produces Christian Rock for his wife, singer Teri Tims, and he's expressed a desire to work with Tina Turner. Hopefully, he'll get the chance. Today, this distinguished Hollywood native lives the good life in Hawaii with his family. His latest album, Strange Messiah, is available as a download from cdbaby.com.

Sadly, Paul Sabu recently revealed that he no longer listens to his work from the Disco era; could it be that he's moved so deeply into the world of Heavy Metal Rock that he's internalized that genre's snobbery toward dance music? If so, that's unfortunate, but it doesn't negate the fact that the innovative spirit he brought to Disco left us with a collection of marvelous recordings.

Maybe most Hard Rock fans can't appreciate a Top Ten dance single, but millions of hardcore Disco devotees can, and as any top deejay will tell you, their tastes are extremely finicky! They won't patronize a club that plays substandard releases; they only dance to the best music. Paul Sabu only gave them the best music, and they're still dancing to Sabu Disco nearly 30 years later! You can tell by his rock-solid melodies, his movie-soundtrack calibre arrangements and his superb guitar-playing on classic sides like "Love Rush," "High On Your Love", "Destiny", "Shotgun", "Hold Me, Squeeze Me," "Don't You Want My Love?", "You're Mine Forever" and "Rock And Rollin' Disco King" that he put all he had and more into making great Disco records.

"I do put my heart and soul into (my work)," Paul has said. "Maybe the technology got better, but I wouldn't make (my old albums) any different." Just as he refuses to identify as a Disco artist, he also shies away from calling himself a record producer. "I am a guitar player that makes records," he'll tell you firmly. "I know most people call me the producer, but I consider myself always a guitar player that writes songs. I eat, sleep, and breathe music, and it's . . . the thing I love."

Alas, he may no longer love the classic sides he produced for Ann-Margret, Gwen Jonae, Debbie Jacobs and the original Sabu band, but there are plenty of us who are more than willing to do it for him!

Excerpts from "Shotgun", "Red Light Lover" and "Destiny", 
words and music by Paul Sabu, 
© copyright 1982, 1983 Virgin Ear Music (BMI)

Special thanks to Rick Bozzo and Brian Rademacher.
Dedicated to the memory of Selar Sabu Dastagir 

Thief Of Bagdad Sabu


Jerry Maneker said...

Thanks so much for this. I saw a lot of Sabu movies in the 1940's and 50's, and never knew that his son accomplished all that. Also, I'm amazed at your encyclopedic knowledge of music, the industry, and its many facets and details. It adds a tremendous amount to appreciation of the music.

otto rivers said...

Hi, thanks for all these infos. He did also the soundtrack of the movie "Hard Rock zombies" that have been released at CD BABY. But there are only 5. Two at least are missing: "Na na na" and "Morte ascendre" according to the credits. If you know where I can find them, I'll be glad to know. They didn't seem to have been released, or may be the titles were wrong in the credits. Thanks in advance.


I won't be much help to you here. My interest in Paul Sabu is strictly focused on his dance-oriented productions. Thanks for the soundtrack info, though.