Impacting in 1979, Pat Benatar made her largest waves during the 1980's. Fierce and feminine in equal measure; Benatar redefined the rock and roll music model for women, while adhering to its more obviously infectious principles.
Despite the Atlas-like weight of carrying such a torch, Benatar's classically trained voice was bigger than rock music, and this was emphatically evidenced on True Love (1991), her ninth studio recording if you're including Live From Earth (1983).
In 1984, Benatar released Tropico. Assistance in the creation of this legendary recording was lent by Neil "Spyder" Giraldo: lead guitarist, husband, and musical partner.
Tropico's mission to widen her artistic lane was successfully broached, and gave her voice a chance to stretch its limbs. The move was triumphant, only topped by arrival of their first daughter during the same period.
Unfortunately, the mood would be doused by recurring spats with Benatar's label Chrysalis Records. A successful, if uneasy union had finally come to a head when they forced Benatar & Co. back into the studio directly after giving birth to begin work on what would become Seven the Hard Way (1985).
Wide Awake in Dreamland followed in 1988. While both records were strong efforts, they also showed commercial down trends that characterized that Chrysalis' record-tour-record format had worn itself thin, and the public had become as exhausted as Benatar.
In the wake of these events, a dramatic retooling of Benatar's label court and contracts were done. These allowed Benatar a significant amount of space to recharge from a non-stop schedule of touring and recording, as well as to receive a larger retroactive percentage of royalties from her previous albums. In the period between Wide Awake in Dreamland and what would become True Love , it was Neil Giraldo who begin to nurture the seedling of a "jump blues" recording. That seed, planted with Tropico's the "Ooh Ooh Song," was finally going to bear fruit as Benatar's first offering of the 1990's.
In Benatar's 2010 memoir, In Between a Heart and a Rock Place, Benatar recalled the initial reaction in 1990 on her end to her husband's inquiry to record a blues oriented recording:
"Absolutely not. There's no way we're doing that." Spyder and I had loved the blues all our lives. It was the music we played at home, for personal enjoyment. He was convinced we would make an amazing record, but I was pretty sure that he'd lost his mind. I didn't want to be one more white chick trying to sing the blues, and Christ, who was whiter than me?
Benatar acquiesced, thankfully, and the record slowly began to take shape. The True Love schematic split the recording into two parts: part covers, part original material. The covers encompassed work by blues legends like Hank Penny ("Bloodshot Eyes"), Albert King ("I Get Evil"), and B.B. King ("Payin' the Cost to be the Boss," "I've Got Papers On You") to name some.
With the map of True Love set down, the Benatar band long timers on board were: Neil Giraldo (guitar), Charlie Giordano (piano, organ, accordion), and Myron Grombacher (drums). Additionally, a gathering of session musician excellence was brought in to make True Love as accomplished as possible.
Originating in 1967, and still active today, The Roomful of Blues are a conglomerate of musicians (boasting, at various times, over 50 revolving members) who not only tour as their own attraction, but back other notable musicians in their respective blues genre. Their collaboration lists the likes of the already mentioned B.B. King, as well as Otis Rush, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Eric Clapton.
The line-up present for this album was: Greg Accolo (tenor sax), Doug James (baritone sax), Rich Lataille* (alto sax), Carl Querfurth (trombone), Bob Enos (trumpet), and John Rossi (drums).
The talent did not stop there, Benatar & Co. were also joined by Lenny Castro on percussion (Diana Ross, Al Jarreau, Alien Ant Farm, Olivia Newton-John), and the late bassist, Chuck Dominaco (Natalie Cole, Manhattan Transfer, Joni Mitchell, Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand).All of these big name session players may have possibly invited the idea that True Love was nothing more than just a professional showcase. That was not the case at all with this long player.
All parties came together in an exuberant balance, creating ample arrangements that would allow Pat Benatar's voice to breathe. Throughout, Benatar was obviously versatile, giving tasteful, unaffected, vivacious vocals over a wide swath of blues: swing, boogie-woogie, and jump. While this wasn't 100% "the blues" that the discerning blues purists expected, it came very close to it with enthusiasm and reverence. The "tear it up" steamy, gender reversal take on B.B. King's "Payin' the Cost to be the Boss" was nothing less than sexy and effective. With its gold plated brass boldness, to the spicy piano tinkles that peppered throughout "Payin'...” the synergy was nothing short of intoxication.
The victory scores rolled onward with an electric rendition of "I Get Evil," and the oft covered Charles Brown Christmas diamond "Please Come for Christmas" got an emotionally full read, conviction trumping schlock. The original material held its own easily. The dripping, velvet smoothness in the title track, with its thick bass pizzicato, ranks as one of the Benatar's most unsung recorded moments in her career. The “jump ‘n’ jive” blues energy on "I Feel Lucky" allowed everyone a space to show off their skills with brass and accordion mini-breaks.
Fiery ("Don't Happen No More") and forlorn ("So Long") in both hands, Benatar sounded rejuvenated, but relaxed; this was the sound of an artist rediscovering the joy for her craft.
True Love , Benatar's first offering of the 1990's, and first album of semi-original work in two years, was released domestically (U.S.A.) on April 9th, 1991. Promoted by a small scale tour focusing solely on the works of this album, to the annoyance of some, True Love had a tough, but not unconquerable sell. There were many who greeted the record with skepticism, as seen in Jim Farber's assessment in Entertainment Weekly:
"Pat Benatar has just released the comedy record of the year. She's out to become the ultimate tough blues mama, someone who's been singing for decades about hard liquor and harder men. All she does well, though, is sing loudly. Admittedly that was the main requirement for her former persona as she-wolf of suburban hard rock, but here when she sings something like ''I Get Evil'' you get the idea that the worst sin she could imagine would be purposely not to tell her friends about a sale at Neiman-Marcus. At times her backup band (the respected Roomful of Blues) really burns, but Benatar still makes everything sound like the funkier parts of Suzanne Somers' Vegas act."
All Music Guide, via the opinion of Alex Henderson, remarked in a fairer fashion:
"A radical departure from the type of slick pop/rock she'd been embracing on albums like Tropico and Wide Awake in Dreamland, True Love found Pat Benatar embracing blues and early pre-rock R&B. Opting for less production and a much rawer approach, an inspired Benatar ditches the synthesizers and keyboards and sounds like she's leading a bar band in a Chicago dive. From Albert King's "I Get Evil" to B.B. King's "Payin' the Cost to Be the Boss" to Charles Brown's "Please Come Home for Christmas," the results aren't breathtaking, but are generally honest and soulful. Quite clearly, this was an album Benatar was eager to make."
Stereo Review magazine, now-defunct, critic Parke Puterbaugh showered the album with praise:
"True Love is an unpretentious romp through a set of jump blues, and Benatar has enough of an aptitude for the form to know not to overdo it. She's always sung sassily, but the way she wraps her voice around a song like "Bloodshot Eyes," assisted by a solid shot of reverb, is a minor revelation. A pleasurable comeback album for Pat Benatar, who may have hit us with her best shot when we least expected it."
Commercially, the record didn't solve Benatar's sales woes. The record placed #37 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 Album Chart, and would move 339,000** copies overall in America alone. These were Pat Benatar's first Soundscan numbers since it was implemented in tracking sales figures of music in the U.S. The album would place at #40 on the UK Album Charts and #42 on the ARIA (Australian) charts, the only international showings for the record.
Three singles were birthed from True Love: the title track, "So Long," and "Payin' the Cost to Be the Boss," the latter hit #17 on the Hot Mainstream Rock Chart in the States, a chart Benatar continued to hold sway over after her chart dominance began to cool. The former two sadly made no waves on any subsequent single formats in America, though "True Love" was a minor Dutch single hit with a placement at #21.
Benatar would go on to record and release Gravity's Rainbow (1993), which returned her to rock music, albeit with a bit more of what passed as the contemporary form rock had taken on at that time. It would be her final album for Chrysalis, though two other fine efforts materialized in the aftermath of her Chrysalis departure: Innamorata (1997, CMC International) and Go! (2003, Bel Chiasso).
Benatar, of course, remains a highly in demand live performing act, but hasn't released a record of original work since 2003. In viewing her discography in hindsight, emphasis placed on True Love , it becomes clear that Pat Benatar lived up to her own hype. Long seen as a rule breaker and empowered woman in a male lorded realm of rock, Benatar made her own way.
True Love's stylistic step into the future was proof that even her own genre wouldn't inhibit her artistic credibility, and despite the obvious cynics' guffaws, it was a risk rewarded. Five stars.-QH
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