Billy Valentine & The Universal Truth – Lady Day And John Coltrane

17th March 2024 · 2020s, 2023, Blues, Jazz, Music

It’s always dangerous to try messing with perfection but this take on a Gil Scott-Heron classic stands up alongside his tribute to Lady Day and John Coltrane.

Perhaps it’s because the singer here is even older than Gil was when he died – Billy Valentine is 98 and actually recorded with Coltrane a mere 75 years ago – this is him singing Beer Drinking Baby back in 1949.

At a time of life when his contemporaries were either long gone or long into retirement, Billy made his solo debut in 2006 at the age of 80 – and hasn’t stopped since. Not that he was a newcomer.

One of 12 children who worked in their parents’ nightclub, Billy had been fronting bands since his teens and released the disco-funk classic Money’s Too Tight (To Mention) in 1982 under the name The Valentine Brothers – with his brother John – three years before it gave Simply Red their first hit.

This track came out only last year on a selection of classic soul protest songs recorded by a collection of top-notch session men – Pino Palladino, Immanuel Wilkins, Theo Croker, Jeff Parker, Linda May Han Oh, Abe Rounds – and released under the name Billy Valentine & The Universal Truth.

I’m never going to say it’s an improvement on Gil’s original but it’s got more going on: where Gil opted for vibes, Billy’s take includes sweeping strings, electric piano and a jazzy electric guitar solo, as well as that voice – a cross between Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye.

It wasn’t his first album of cover versions: five years ago he made an album called Brit Eyed Soul, covering UK bands including the Beatles and the Stones, Bee Gees, Culture Club… and even The Clash.

For another taste of Billy at his best, it’s hard to look further than his recent cover of Curtis Mayfield’s We Are the People Who Are Darker Than Blue. Close your eyes and you’ll think you’re listening to Curtis.