The test of how good a recording artist is lies in the quality of their less commercially successful work.  When the light of success isn’t shining on a musician, is that person still able to produce compelling, accessible music in a consistent fashion?  A true artist always has a reservoir talent and craftsmanship to draw upon, even when the tides of commercial popularity have passed them by.  Such musicians will often leave behind solid albums that get rediscovered and appreciated later in their careers, hidden gems that might not have the hits or the critical glory that other work earned but still manage to deliver quality music for the faithful.

Pieces is such an album.  Ace soul singer Bobby Womack released this album in 1977 as part of a short-lived deal with Columbia Records.  He had a skillful producer for this album in Don Davis, who also crafted hits for The Dramatics and Johnnie Taylor, and enlisted Marvin Gaye collaborator Leon Ware to co-write a few songs.  The album also boasted a few marquee names in the guest performer category, namely ex-Temptations singer David Ruffin and then-current disco diva Candi Staton.  Despite this collection of talent, neither Pieces nor its singles hit big on the charts and the album faded into obscurity.

However, that’s the charts’ loss because Pieces is a solid slab of 1970’s soul.  Davis does a fine job in the producer’s seat, giving the songs plush arrangements that mix gently insistent grooves from a rock-steady rhythm section with lovely yet subtle orchestrations and the occasional touch of synthesizer.  The uptempo numbers give a polite nod towards disco in their tempo but never succumb to rhythmic simplicity or make overt concessions for dance-floor acceptance: in fact, album opener “It’s Party Time” has a pleasing southern soul groove and “Wind It Up” places more emphasis on its intensely funky bass line than a metronomic dance beat.

That said, the real draw on Pieces lies in the balladry, which plays right into Womack’s strongest skill set.  His gravelly, gospel-inflected tenor always commands the listener’s attention on these songs, whether he is trying to seduce a potential lover on the silky “Trust Your Heart” or confessing his duplicitous ways on the elegant yet ominous cheater’s soul of “Where Love Begins, Friendship Ends.”  He gives a full method-actor level of investment in the material that makes them instantly compelling for the soul aficionado.

Womack also works well with his occasional duet partners: he slips into a shadowy baritone to provide contrast to Staton’s clear alto tones on “Stop Before We Start” while he and Ruffin trade lines with ease on “Trust Your Heart,” often sounding like the same voice overdubbed onto two vocal tracks.  However, his finest moment here is “Caught Up In The Middle,” a solo number where he freely discusses the guilt of pursuing two women and the compulsion that makes it necessary.  He sells the song’s mixture of torment and passion perfectly,  building from controlled intensity on the verses to an operatic peak in the chorus.  Davis’s classy arrangement matches his every mood, providing a jazzy backing that evokes the song’s midnight confession mindset.  He bookends the song with a intro/outro that mixes woodwinds and backing vocals to hypnotic effect and even throws in a stylish sax solo.

It’s hard to understand why Pieces didn’t do better on the charts.  However, one spin of the album renders such concerns moot: cut after cut delivers strong, well-arranged songs with Womack’s effective, always committed vocals.  It definitely qualifies as a deep-catalog treasure from one of the great soul men of his era.

CD Notes: This disc was recently reissued on CD by the new Purpose Music Vaults label, who provided Schlockmania with a 320K MP3 set for this review.  Schlockmania also got to see the well-written liner notes by Darnell Meyers-Johnson, which incorporate interviews with Womack and Staton.