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.