di Dusti Rhodes
Success in the music business is generally considered to be the product of three factors: what one knows, who one knows, and timing.
With that in mind, then, success should be firmly in Kiki Dee's grasp
at this point. It seems, however, that Kiki has spent most of her
career standing on the brink of mass acceptance; occasionally stepping
over, then slipping back into the quagmire of also-rans.
It's been 13 years since Kiki began the long and arduous climb to the
top, as a cabaret singer at 16 years of age. Success on the cabaret
circuit led to her first recording contract and an album, I'm Kiki Dee,
released in England on Fontana Records. That lp caused little reaction
outside of the recording industry; but within music-biz circles, Kiki's
reputation began to spread, and in 1969, Kiki was the first white
artist to be signed with the Tamla/Motown label in Detroit. She
released one album on the label, titled Great Expectations --
an apt title for an album that was later found belly-up in the cut-out
bins, as Motown moved its headquarters to the West coast, and Kiki's
career was misplaced in the shuffle.
But the Motown era was not entirely fruitless: it led to Kiki's fateful
meeting with John Reid, who was working for the label at the time. When
Reid left Motown to manage Elton John, he arranged the initial meeting
between Elton and Kiki -- a meeting that blossomed into a friendship
and professional association that would further Kiki's career
Under the guidance of Captain Fantastic, Kiki's writing talents were
put to use to include four of her own songs on the Elton-produced Loving And Free album, her first for Elton's Rocket label.
Once again, Kiki found herself on the brink of stardom -- but once
again, in spite of her heavy touring schedule as opening act for
heavies like Elton John, The Beach Boys and Steely Dan, industry
enthusiasm far outweighed commercial success; and Kiki Was soon back in
the studio readying another album for release in the same year.
Consistent exposure apparently paid off, and Kiki's great non-advice
song, "I've Got The Music In Me", the title track from her second
Rocket album, yielded an international hit single and considerable
attention, along with a second tour as Elton's opening act. That tune
was perhaps Kiki's finest showing to date as a rocker, and demonstrated
her ability to step out from behind herself when she's feeling really
The same confidence marked last year's "Don't To Breakin' My Heart";
confidence and gold-record success being bolstered (albeit borrowed) by
Kiki's teaming with Elton for that single joint musical venture.
Now, a year later, Kiki is out with a new album, produced once again by Elton, and titled simply, Kiki Dee,
An impressive list of musical contributors on the album, includes Dee
Murray, Davey Johnston, Steve Holley, Ray Cooper, Bias Boshell, James
Newton-Howard, Randy, Michael Brecker, David Sanborn, and ELO's Richard
Tandy, Hugh McDowell, and Melvin Gale. But Kiki's self-titled effort
seems a testing ground, more than anything, with Kiki's strengths
demonstrated best in her own compositions -- a natural tendency, I
suppose, but glaring in this case.
The album's rockers are characterized by over abundant strings,
confusing arrangements, and flat mixes, in which Kiki tends to get
lost. There seems to be a lack of conviction or command in Kiki's
vocals on the up-tempo tracks; one can't get over the feeling that
there is still some confidence lacking, and that Kiki would be a killer
rock vocalist if she'd just cut loose and wail.
The album's best moments display the softer side of Kiki, in six of her
own tunes. "Sweet Creation", (co-written with James Newton-Howard and
Gary Osborne) and "Into Eternity", (co-written with Davey Johnston and
Gary Osborne) feature simpler instrumentation and arrangements, in
front of which Kiki's vocals seem strong and sure, with more power and
feeling cutting through. "Night Hours" and "Bad Day Child" are perhaps
the best dramatic ode to the one that got away; the latter, a basically
acoustic number, offering safe harbor in a sad/sweet song to a troubled
lover. Kiki shows the most vocal exercise in "Walking", a wistful,
somber, reflective tune that finds her backed only with acoustic piano
for most of the song.
Why, then, all the emphasis on Kiki as a rocker, if her obvious
strength, at least this time around, are toward the roll side of rock?
It might have something to do with the ongoing association with Elton,
who "popped in" on a few major dates during her just-completed American
tour -- despite Kiki's contention that she's set out to establish her
own identity without copping any more rides on Elton's status, one is
still made very aware of EJ's presence and involvement. Only the best
intentions are at heart, no doubt, but it's gotta be a bitch trying to
build a career in the shadow of a giant.
So the timing is right for Kiki's emergence as a writer and vocalist of
her own strengths and weaknesses, with her own direction. A listen to
her new album provides a glimpse of an immense talent, waiting to be
pulled out of a pool of self doubt, where she can nurture her own
strengths to become a more convincing artist.