Dance music group
In 1992, M People released their first album, Northern Soul, in the United Kingdom. Since that time, the group from Manchester, England, consistently won critical praise for their unique ability to include elements of old-school funk and rhythm and blues into the youth-driven house or dance music genre. As Nilou Panahpour of Rolling Stone noted, "M People make the kind of dance music that could inspire even a banker to put on a platinum wig and try John Travolta moves in front of the mirror naked." From the onset, vocalist Heather Small, keyboardist Mike Pickering, bass guitarist Paul Heard, and drummer/percussionist Shovell sought not only to create modern club grooves that inspire listeners to dance, but also to pay tribute to the music of the past. "Paying respect to the original soul players has always been of the utmost importance to us," asserted Pickering, as quoted by the band's record label. 'The bottom line is that without them, we couldn't be here."
The group's 1999 release, Testify, further explored a funk/dance music tradition. However, a few songs on the album showed M People taking a slight detour by traveling down a more overtly rhythm and blues road. For singer Small, known for her soulful alto vocal range, the diversion was a welcomed change. "I've always enjoyed performing softer, more introspective songs," she professed. "It allows me to use my voice in ways that a dance beat doesn't allowot that I don't love to cut loose on an uptempo dance track, because it's great fun. I'm just so pleased to have the opportunity to explore every color on the palette, if you will."
M People's roots can be traced back to the city of Manchester, England, Mike Pickering's hometown and the birthplace of other notable acts such as Simply Red and Joy Division, one of Pickering's favorite groups. In fact, before forming M People, Pickering used to work as a Joy Division roadie. After this, he worked as a chef, then a roadie again for the group Kraftwerk and singer Julio Iglesias, among others, and finally as a window washer.
Obviously unsatisfied with his former jobs, Pickering longed to create music himself rather than work behind the scenes. Eventually, he started working the turntable decks at a legendary Manchester nightclub, The Hacienda. Soon after this, Pickering joined his first band, Factory Record's Quano Quango. He honed his musical skills playing saxophone for the group. During the same time, he also played saxophone with one of the first house music bands in Britain, T-Coy. In addition to playing music, Pickering worked as a Factory Records recruiter, signing two groups that later witnessed popular success, both Happy Mondays and James.
Dance Beats Met Motown
By 1991, as dance music was taking over Manchester's club scene, Pickering realized his true musical mission. His goal, according to M People's record company, was "to bring dance music back to the song, like Motown, Stax or the Philly International era. A classic song is the foundation of any kind of music." In order to fulfill the idea of uniting dance and soul/funkmusic, Pickering first enlisted the aid of Paul Heard, a bass guitarist. Prior to meeting Pickering, Heard, a professionally trained musician, had played bass for various British groups, including Working Week, Strawberry Switchblade, and Orange Juice. The two composed a number of songs together; one such composition was written with a particular singer in mind, vocalist Heather Small, a petite but passionate performer of West Indian descent from a well-established, London-based soul band called Hot! House.
Pickering, along with Heard and Small, entered the studio to record songs together. Although the trio's initial plans were to simply put down some tunes, the aforementioned sessions eventually led to the makings of a first album. At first, Pickering held to his plan of using a variety of vocalists in addition to Small. But after playing together, Pickering realized that Small's vocals contributed a unique quality to the music unmatched by any other singer. "It was obvious as we were recording that what we had musically was much more than just a one off thing," Pickering realized, according to Epic Records. "It had turned into something really coherent. We never went back to rotating vocalists." Defining her singing style, Ron Givens ofStereo Review remarked, 'The sound that erupts from her throat is deep and throbbing, edged with raw passions ortender mercies."
From Studio to Stage
With Small as lead vocalist, M People released their debut album, Northern Soul, issued in 1992 in Britain on deConstruction/RCA Records. An instant success, the record featured the top ten British singles "Colour My Life" and "How Can I Love You More." Consequently, the group evolved into one of Europe's most popular live acts within no time, and their shows regularly sold out stadiums and arenas. In the meantime, Pickering realized that the group had grown beyond the studio and assimilated a full band (usually a ten-piece unit) for touring. While many dance bands refrain from performing live and limit playing to the studio, M People flourished before an audience. "People say, 'Isn't it strange for a dance band to play live?'" remarked Pickering, as quoted by Epic. "Don't they remember? That's the way it always was." Around the same time, the trio also enlisted Shovell as the group's full time drummer and percussionist.
In October of 1993, M People released their second album in the United Kingdom, Elegant Slumming, later issued in the United States in May of 1994 by Epic Records. Surpassing the success of their debut, Elegant Slumming reached number two on the United Kingdom album chart and spurred three additional British top ten singles, including "Moving On Up," "One Night In Heaven," and a cover of a Dennis Edwards classic entitled "Don't Look Any Further." By September of that year, the album had sold 1.7 million copies worldwide (excluding the United States) and over 600,000 units in the United Kingdom alone. For the 1993 Brit Awards (the British equivalent to the Grammy Awards) held in February of 1994, the release was named album of the year, and the group was voted best British dance act for the second year in a row.
The best singles from both Elegant Slumming and Northern Soul were later released in the United States by Epic in June of 1994 under the title Elegant Slumming. While M People had yet to receive significant recognition in the States, the British hit "One Night In Heaven" peaked at the number one spot on Billboard magazine's Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart in September. In addition, the album reached number 12 on the Heatseekers album chart and had sold approximately 36,000 copies in the United States, according to SoundScan.
Acclaim Beyond the Dance Genre
After issuing an American version of their first two efforts, M People became the subjects of further acclaim. On September 13, 1994, the group won the third annual Mercury Music Prize for 1993's best album of the year from Britain and Ireland for Elegant Slumming, edging out the internationally famous Blur and eight other nominees. "From a musician's point of view, it's very gratifying to win this award cause it reaches beyond the categories of dance, or indie, or rock, or whatever," Pickering told Billboard, according to reporter Thorn Duffy, after he and his band mates accepted the honor at London's Savoy Hotel. Rather than dividing the sum among themselves, the group announced they would donate the 25,000 poundbout $38,000rize money to charity.
By the spring of 1995, M People boasted a total of nine British top ten singles, and further successes were yet to come. Bizarre Fruit, released on November 14, 1994, in Britain on deConstruction, and in mid-1995 in the United States on Epic, saw favorable reviews as well. As Panahpour concluded, Bizarre Fruit "continues the hook-laden disco-soul gallivanting of Elegant Slumming. This self-produced album is not one long throbbing dance marathon; the group's unifying vision of emotive pop music pulls together a collection of actual songs." The Rolling Stone critic also praised the group's skill of making "corny" lyrics work: "Anywhere else, lyrics like "Search for the hero inside yourself would sound silly; here they contribute to the pure emotionality and sing-along beauty that only the best dance music evokes."
And although Givens argued that the lyrics of some of the tracks were for the most part dismissible, the reviewer nonetheless described the music, notwithstanding Small's singing ability, as "ravishing." Moreover, wrote Givens, "while relying heavily on synthesizers for melody and rhythm, the tracks also employ what [rock musician] Graham Parker describes as 'basically organic keyboards.' Many of the riffs and solos that may have been played on amplified programmed instruments actually sound natural. And the judicious use of such non-electronic gadgets as saxophones ant strings, as well as a couple of guitars, help to leaven the technological accomplishments of the band."
Hinting at the Motown era, M People's melodies and lofty vocals added a sense of euphoria to songs like "Sugar Town," a rhythm and blues inspired track with elements of both reggae and gospel, and "Sight For Sore Eyes,"achoir-like tune featuring a rolling piano and traces of salsa music. Other standout tracks included "Search For The Hero" and "Open Your Heart."
Following the success of Bizarre Fruit, M People released the rhythm and blues-inspired Fresco in 1997 and The Best of the M People, both issued only in the United Kingdom. Fresco bore another string of British hits, including "Sight For Sore Eyes," "Search For The Hero," and "Just For You," all of which appeared on Testify, primarily a compilation of tracks from the above mentioned albums issued in the United States in May of 1999. However, Testify offered more than a packaging of "greatest hits." While the release comprised several choice tracks from Frescoand The Best of M People, the American issue also contained four previously unavailable remixes of classic M People recordings: "Sight For Sore Eyes" (M People Master mix), "Colour My Life" (Joey Negro's Agoura mix), "Moving On Up" (Mark Picchiotti's Millennium Vocal remix), and "How Can I Love You More" (Jimmy Gomez's 6am mix). Moreover, Testify's title-track and first single pays homage to the roots of soula lovely down tempo jam that is steeped in soulful rhythms and vocals," noted Billboard magazine.
On June 25, 1999, the British soul outfit received another important honor. This time, the band took the Silver Clef Award during a luncheon ceremony in London. The annual event, at that time in its twenty-fourth year, raises money for the Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy Charity, which uses music to help children overcome language difficulties. Accepting the honor on behalf of the band, Billboard reported, Small told the audience, "We're all about making music. That music is our reward."
Northern Soul, (U.K.), deConstruction/RCA, 1992.
Elegant Slumming, (U.K.), deConstruction/RCA, 1993.
Elegant Slumming, (includes tracks from U.K. releases Northern Soul and Elegant Slumming), Epic, 1994.
Bizarre Fruit, (U.K.), deConstruction/RCA, 1994, Epic, 1995.
Fresco, (U.K.), deConstruction/RCA, 1997.
The Best of M People, (U.K.), deConstruction/RCA.
Testify, (includes remixes and tracks from U.K. releases
Fresco and The Best of M People), Epic, 1999.
Billboard, September 24, 1994, p. 1; October 8, 1994, p. 33; November 19, 1994, p. 33; June 24, 1995, p. 1 ; October 11, 1997, p. 33; February 13, 1999, p. 50; May 22, 1999, p. 33.
People, May 22, 1995, p. 20.
Rolling Stone, August 10, 1995, p. 58.
Stereo Review, November 1995, p. 116.
Village Voice, June 27, 1995, p. 74.
Additional information was provided cou rtesy of Epic Records.
Did this raise a question for you?