Some songs wash over the soul. Others engulf it. The latter is the case, for me at least, with Valerie Carter’s rendition of “Ooh Child,” which kicks off her 1977 solo debut, the George Massenburg-produced Just a Stone’s Throw Away. First a hit for the Five Stairsteps in 1970, Carter’s version is less a pledge that things will get better and more a mantra. One gets the sense that she’s singing as much to herself as she is to another.
Though they veer from the soulful SoCal template used for “Ooh Child,” which was arranged by Little Feat’s Bill Payne, the eight songs that follow are its equal. The album is something of a stylistic mishmash, in a sense, with Carter exploring Little Feat funk, Linda Ronstadt-styled ballads, and even disco/R&B, with the glue holding everything together being the ever-changing hue of her vocals. As she told the Miami Herald’s Christine Brown in April 1977, “I just didn’t want any boundaries on the album; I didn’t want to be locked into any one style.”
“Ringin’ Doorbells in the Rain,” one of three tracks Carter co-wrote, has all the hallmarks of a Linda Ronstadt album track, aka slightly offbeat, while “Heartache” and “Faces of Appalachia” would have been Ronstadt hits if given the chance. The second two were co-written by Little Feat’s Lowell George, the former with Ivan Ulz and the latter with John Sebastian (who recorded it on his 1974 Tarzana Kid LP). “So, So Happy” is a blast of poppy R&B, while the title track reconfigures a little-known Barbara Keith song into a Little Feat-flavored workout; its inclusion is likely due to George, who backed Keith on the 1972 original. The Carter-George collaboration “Cowboy Angel” revisits the Ronstadt feel before the uptempo “City Lights” jets into an Earth, Wind and Fire-like groove.
In Rolling Stone’s syndicated roundup of record reviews, Dave Marsh called “City Lights” and “So, So Happy” “excessive”; without them, he wrote, “this album might be the masterpiece this gifted young vocalist certainly has in her.” On first listen, “City Lights” may well be a sonic curveball, but over time it turns into the perfect setup for “Back to Blue Some More.” Carter co-wrote that closing number with George and Bill Payne; a hint of Steely Dan glimmers from its jazzy veneer.
When Just a Stone’s Throw Away was released in early 1977, and in the decades since, many reviewers, writers and fans made reference to the long list of name musicians who guested on the LP, often name-checking Jackson Browne, John Hall, Linda Ronstadt and John Sebastian, among others. Lowell George and a few of his Little Feat friends also sit in, as indicated above, with George at the helm for two tracks (the title cut and “Cowboy Angel”), while Maurice White and several of his EW&F pals join in on the White-produced “So, So Happy” and “City Lights.” Carter explained to Steve Wosahla of the Allentown Messenger-Press in 1979 that most of those guest spots were something of a happy accident. “It only happened that way because of my particular location. I was on Studio Row, wandering in and out of everybody’s sessions going, ‘Hey what are you guys doing today? Wanna come down and play?’” Despite the presence of such well-known performers, however, Carter—who was 23 during the recording sessions—is never overwhelmed by them. As the Arizona Republic’s Hardy Price noted in a preview of a July ’77 concert, “Miss Carter comes off more like a female Boz Scaggs than anything. The lady’s got a lot of soul, but she lets it slip out instead of singing about it.”
Other reviewers provided similar praise, with many favorably comparing her to Ronstadt and Bonnie Raitt. The Arizona Republic’s Gus Walker, in a capsule review from February ’77, said Just a Stone’s Throw Away vaulted her “into the range of contender for new female vocalist of the year” and, a few months later, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Jack Lloyd called it “one of the strongest debut efforts heard in some time.” The Minneapolis Star’s Jon Bream, for his part, had issues with a few songs, but said it “leaves no doubt about her ability to stand in the spotlight.” The Daily Utah Chronicle’s David Proctor opined, “Carter handles the diverse material with authority and it sounds more like a change of pace than seriously out of place,” but that sentiment wasn’t shared by Zach Dunkin of the Indianapolis News, who disliked the “extreme variety of styles.” Over the pond, meanwhile, Colin Carr of the Burton Observer and Chronicle penned the lone review I’ve come across that singled out “City Lights” for praise; he found the rest of the album “TOO laid back.” Carter, for her part, had her own quibbles with it. In an October 1977 conversation with John Rockwell of the New York Times, she observed, “It’s not a perfect record, but it was the best I could do then and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.”
Why the album didn’t do well in the charts remains a mystery. It’s not a reflection of the material, obviously, but more likely of the milieu into which it was released. It was rare in 1977 for radio to play women artists back-to-back (or much at all), especially on the era’s nascent AOR stations that should have been a natural fit for her; Carter would have been fighting for airplay against new releases from Fleetwood Mac, Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, and Joni Mitchell, among others. The same held true for the era’s adult contemporary stations, which likely favored new songs from Barbra Streisand and Olivia Newton-John over “Ooh Child.” And, on a more perfunctory front, the long list of contributing players that graced the LP’s back cover likely turned off some potential fans, as—though not the intent—it gave off an aura of anointment.
On a personal front, though I long knew Valerie Carter’s name from liner notes, I didn’t discover Just a Stone’s Throw Away until the mid-1990s, when it was issued on CD. At first listen, the melancholic warmth of “Ooh Child” rolled through my soul like an ocean wave; I’ve been a devotee ever since. If you’ve never heard it, give the album a listen. It’s a gem.
The track list:
Also, here’s an intriguing profile of Valerie Carter from the pen of Christine Brown that appeared in the Miami Herald on April 7, 1977:
WOW, great detective work on all the players!