Chas de Whalley gets down with the Scottish Sultan of Soul, Steve Harvey
Seven years in London has hardly knocked the sharp edges off Steve Harvey's broad Scots accent. But it would still require the linguistic skills of My Fair Lady's Professor Higgins to pinpoint exactly where Steve Harvey was born and bred. On the other hand, those who know their music, and the curious way in which certain parts of the United Kingdom are traditionally breeding grounds for certain musical styles, will not be surprised to learn that Steve Harvey hails from Hibernia's East Coast.
In the same way that South Wales has long spawned Rock'n'Rollers or The Midlands Heavy Metal men, that stretch of sealine between the Firth of Forth in the South and Aberdeen in the North has always sparkled to the sound of blue-eyed British Soul music, with Dundee the jewel in the crown, numbering Seventies superheroes like The Average White Band, among its favourite sons. And, in case you hadn't guessed it already, blue-eyed British Soul music, in its current derivation 'Dance', is Steve Harvey's stock-in-trade.
It just so happens, of course, that Harvey's greatest successes to date have not been of the blue-eyed variety at all. He has come up trumps most often with Black British talent — acts like Total Contrast and Five Star family Pearson who have virtually taken the United States by storm in the last few months and aren't exactly strangers to the UK charts either. While Harvey has three cuts to his credit on the Five Star album which has almost reached gold status not once but twice over and those selfsame tracks were recorded three years ago and are hardly representative of his maturing skills. And since he wasn't actually responsible for any of their big singles, System Addict, RSVP or Let Me Be The One, you can be assured that it's not simply down to Five Star that Steve Harvey is now at the top of the dance production tree in this country alongside Richard Burgess, Paul Hardcastle and Derek Bramble.
He has Total Contrast to thank for that. Messrs Robin Achampong and Delroy Martin, whose snap crackle and body popping singles Takes A Little Time, Hit And Run and The River have made them virtual fixtures on club turntables and Top Of The Pops alike in 1985 and 1986.
The fact that Steve Harvey also played an equal part in the writing of these same hits and more is another reason why he has come to be so well regarded among the A81R fraternity. Production-line professionalism has for too long been the sole property of the American writer/producers who have ruled the roost ever since the Doziers met Holland and Gamble met Huff. Steve Harvey represents one of the new breed of Great British Soul boys who look set to make the world boogie down.
Sitting in a Japanese restaurant round the corner from London Records, I was immediately impressed at how unassuming was the man behind the music. Unshaven, in sneakers and a weather-worn cotton blouson-styled jacket, he resembled more a struggling muso than a producer. But then, as I discovered very quickly indeed, it was as a struggling muso that Steve Harvey first entered the industry of human happiness.
"I started playing drums with a band when I was 16. We were into Soul and black music and we gigged around for three years in Scotland and the North East before we came to London in 1979. There was me, Graham Edwards who's currently playing bass for Go West and two guitarists — Andy Scott and Steve Everett. We worked as a unit. We started writing our own stuff but we got no proper guidance from anybody and as we had no real singer as such, we didn't get a deal — we got booked as a rhythm section instead. We played behind people like Rachel Sweet and The Foundations before we went our separate ways. I joined Private Lives for a time with John Addams but I got restless and wanted to do my own thing so I began to write again. It was Latin and Fusion Jazz type material basically. I didn't make a conscious decision to 'go Commercial' but I suddenly realised that if I threw a few simpler songs in there it would make the music more immediately accessible. I thought 'if I'm going to write seriously I ought to find a niche in the market and concentrate on that.' I chose black dance styled music simply because it seemed the easiest thing to do!"
A few demos later, a chance meeting with the proprietor of an obscure North London indie label, and suddenly Steve Harvey found himself with a record on release which was filling dancefloors in clubs all over the country.
"It was called Something Special on Pressure Records and it opened all sorts of doors for me. Everybody liked the sound on that record and although they didn't realise it at the time I'd actually done everything on it myself. I'd written the song, produced it, played on it and even sung it.
"I did some more tracks but so many people said they preferred the production to the songs. So I let the performing side of my career slide although I plan to go back to that this year. For a while I didn't see myself as a producer and was frustrated cos I wasn't doing my own stuff. It was only when I was able to provide the material myself that I really began to enjoy it."
Rather than draw a discreet veil over those 'wilderness' years, we should pause to note that Steve Harvey tried his hand at a number of different projects before he settled into a groove of his own. There was a 'new guitar Rock' album with The Adventures for Chrysalis Records. And a short stint with Leo Sayer too which was something of a disappointment only because lil' Leo lost his nerve halfway through and decided not to go with some unusually political songs like Working Man which Harvey still reckons is one of his best productions, even though it will only ever exist in rough mixed form. And then there were the three Five Star tracks Winning, Say Goodbye and Hide And Seek which were among the very first things the group recorded.
"They'd just got their deal with RCA and they were looking for a sound. My hands were tied because they were doing other people's songs and their father was always in the studio throwing his oar in, which didn't help. But they were obviously very talented kids. Deneice has a really nice voice. My fear with them is that they'll be treated as a bubblegum group like New Edition and fizzle out. But even if that happens I'm certain the three girls will eventually emerge as something successful because they harmonise together so well."
Then came Total Contrast, and two singles which were both written as Delroy, Robin and Steve huddled round the BBC computer, UMI'ing up the Linn, the DX7 and the Super Jupiter, bouncing bass riffs against snatches of lyric.
"I programmed the bass and the drums as we went along. So the arrangement was completed at the same time as the song. I remember we wrote Hit And Run between four and six one evening after spending the whole day trying to write and not coming up with anything. We were due to start recording the next day and we were one song short. We'd got Takes A Little Time and we needed another.
"It's okay to go into the studio with all your information on floppy disk. But you have to be careful with the drum tracks. You can spend a lot of time on a complex pattern which works wonderfully on your home system but falls flat on its face if you use it to trigger a really big studio sound with lots of effects on it. A big snare sound can make a program with busy fills sound ridiculous.
Despite the pre-production the Total Contrast project could easily have been a disaster as group and producer were hurried on at breakneck speed to meet a deadline.
"The problem was that the Americans wouldn't release anything until they had an album. So the pressure was on the London A&R department to have us finish the album as quickly as possible so that they could come up with the stuff in the US.
"I think we did alright considering. The guys were coming into the studio really tired because they'd been out all night promoting Takes A Little Time. We were recording songs before they were properly written. But that's one of the hurdles you have to get across if you're starting out as a producer.
"Ideally, I would like to spend four times as much time on a track than I get. If you're working to a tight schedule you don't have the opportunity to be as inventive as you'd like, which is a drag because if you persevere with an idea which may sound a little strange to start with you can often stumble across something which at the end of the day helps the track sound excitingly different. The temptation is always to rush down parts which are okay but nothing special."
Maybe Steve Harvey was just being modest since the Total Contrast album stands remarkably proud in a field where, traditionally, a dance LP features the singles and a load of obvious fillers. It is particularly impressive for the bright clarity, even transparency of its sounds, all the more surprising since the bulk of the tracks were recorded in Camden's Sound Suite studios more normally associated with demo work. Harvey hands all the credit for that to his engineers John Gallen and Nick Rodgers. And to the American remix man Michael Brauer who went to work with his Neve outboard Eq on the singles. But when it all boils down to music, Steve Harvey's artistic direction obviously carried the day.
"The groove is obviously the most important factor in a dance record because if it's not there you'll never get to people. But it's a struggle for me to work with weak material. I always prefer to write the song first and then find a groove for it, because I'd like to end up with a song you can sit down at a piano with and play, which you can't do with a lot of dance records. So I'm prepared to sacrifice a little of the groove in order to achieve that.
"But thereafter the vocal has to be the most important element. If it's going to be a song with a singer then there's no point in that singer being a vehicle for the groove. The groove should be a vehicle for the singer to perform over. Unfortunately I wish the standard of singers in this country was higher. In the USA singers are so serious about singing you get guys like Alexander O' Neal, Luther Vandross, and Colonel Abrahams who can do an entire song in a couple of takes where some British singers might take a couple of days on one vocal. Doing it verse by verse, line by line or sometimes even word by word! But you have to go through that if you don't want the track to sound like a watered down version of an American record."
Having worked with some of the best of the new breed of British Soul singers, like Robin Achampong, Carol Thompson and the girls from Flesh, that sounds like a damning indictment of the state of the vocal art in this country. But Steve Harvey means it more as a critique for, as he is the first to admit, sweating blood on a lead vocal often leads singer and producer to explore new areas of technique and imagination, which can only benefit everybody concerned.
"If you have to strengthen an indifferent vocal performance for whatever reason, you find yourself thinking of production ideas and planning how the voice will end up in the mix even as you put it down on tape. You get the vocalist to sing certain phrases or lines in falsetto and blend them in subtly with the normal voice, or you add subliminal harmonies or something like that. You compensate for poor range or tone by making the voice nicely varied throughout the song.
"And then there are the ideas which would never come if you did get the vocal down in one take. After a singer has done it over and over and is getting frustrated and wound up by the producer they frequently come up with the most stunningly off-the-wall ideas which are just fantastic. Carol Thompson did that on Strangest Love Affair. We were trying out some question and answer ad libs which really weren't happening until she came up with a line that was so good we turned it into a disciplined part and it made all the other ad libs we'd recorded sound like she was Aretha Franklin singing against a gospel section.
"I always spend a lot of time on backing vocals. I love the Emotions backing vocals sound: breathy and crisp, but fat too. Timing has to be spot on to get that. Each track you do has a different format but invariably I like to get a couple of girls in there and have them sing each harmony line in unison before I track it. So a three part harmony will be on six tracks with two girls on each. That's 12 voices on a three part harmony. Sometimes I'll add the guys' voices to make it sound big. But rather than spend the time recording every chorus in the song we just work on the one and make it as tight as possible, mix it down to stereo, store it in an AMS with a long delay and then spin it back into the other choruses.
"It's difficult to be original in dance and Soul music but I never consciously try to copy anybody. I wouldn't get any satisfaction if I made records which people liked but were really watered down versions of somebody else. Production ideas come through the writing. If I write a song which is a little bit different then I get different ideas for the production. But if I write something which is contrived, with obvious chords, then it's very difficult to come up with any new angle on the production."
Feature by Chas de Whalley
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