D. A. Powell
I've thought very carefully about what I would need to sustain me on a Desert Island. I ruled out songs that I could—in a pinch—sing myself. After all, if one knows the work by heart, it can be replayed in memory infinitely. And one can even delude oneself into imagining that one sounds like Johnny Mathis or Sarah Vaughn or Julie London.
I have a penchant for odd collections of music (I own, for example, over 80 versions of " The Girl from Ipanema" and a wide range of cover versions of Abba tunes.) But this is music I know by heart. What follows are the five recordings that I would need to take to a Desert Island, to the Moon, or even to someplace as remote as New Jersey, should I ever have to journey thus.
1. The 12x12 collection, Sylvester. Sylvester was a disco singer who only broke into the top 40 briefly. I met him in the early 80s and he was delightfully campy, a beautiful and endearing soul and protector. His singing is pure gospel, though it exists in the very physical world of queer disco. The better known recordings ("Dance Disco Heat" and "You Make Me Feel Mighty Real" ) aren't on this compilation; instead, much of the work that he did with producers Patrick Cowley and Tip Wirrick is included, from the very suggestive "Do You Want to Funk?" to the angelic "Take Me to Heaven." A plus is the backing vocals by Jo-Carol Block, Martha Wash (of Black Box fame) and Izora Rhodes. This collection is for me particularly Proustian, summoning up nights of drinking champagne with Jo-Carol in Guerneville or riding down Mission Street on the back of Sylvester's moped.
2. Once Upon A Time, Donna Summer. Almost operatic in scope, it's the Cinderella story set to a disco beat. It's one of Donna's most obscure recordings, but it's absolutely pitch-perfect from start to finish. Especially inspired is Paulinho Da Costa's percussion on songs like "Say Something Nice" and "Working the Midnight Shift." And though it's completely sappy, I love the starry, rapturously happy ending of "I Love You." Let's face it: if you're on a desert island, you need some music that's an upper.
3. Second Childhood, Phoebe Snow. Snow is my favorite living vocalist. Her range is nearly inexhaustible. She pulls out all the stops on her rendition of "There's a Boat That's Leaving Soon for New York" from Porgy and Bess and gets gritty and dirty on the obscure old Motown song "Going Down for the Third Time," accentuating its double entendres mercilessly (less so on the equally raunchy "Two-Fisted Love" ). Many of her self-penned tunes have wonderfully complex lyrics. I never tire of this album.
4. Up Up and Away: The Definitive Collection, The Fifth Dimension. Okay, this is perhaps cheating slightly, since it's a two-disc set. Marilyn McCoo is the best thing that ever happened to popular music. Her lead vocals on the Laura Nyro songs " Wedding Blues" and " Save the Country" are enough to break your heart. Even better is her collaboration with Florence LaRue Gordon on Nyro's "Sweet Blindness" All the big hits are here: "Aquarius," "One Less Bell to Answer," "Stoned Soul Picnic" ...but there are rarities as well—Billy Davis's rocking rendition of Jimmy Webb's "The Worst that Could Happen," the searingly sexy "Everything's Been Changed" and an amazing sung version of the Declaration of Independence (which Abbie Hoffman called "the most radical document ever penned" ).
5. Nashville (Original Soundtrack recording)—Probably contains some of the best country music ever written, though oddly it was mostly written by the stars of the film: Karen Black, Henry Gibson, Lily Tomlin (though her song didn't make it onto the soundtrack), Ronee Blakley (whose "Tapedeck in His Tractor" is a beautiful and heart-wrenching ode to the modern cowboy, and Keith Carradine, whose "It Don't Worry Me" became an anthem for many (I still think it's one of the most uplifting songs ever written.)
Of course, I'd also really like to take Nina Simone, The Supremes, Jimmy Scott, Eartha Kitt, Sounds of Blackness, Brenda Lee, Dolly Parton, David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Jethro Tull, Carol Jiani, Barry Manilow, Bobby Darin, Aretha Franklin, Dorothy Moore and Carmen Miranda...but I'm betting that some of them would have already found their way to this island.
--Originally published in Crossroads, Spring 2002.