The Dramatics were one of the greatest vocal groups to emerge from Detroit in the 60s, but it took some time for the world to realise this – they didn’t cut an album until two years after they signed to Stax-Volt in 1969, and as soon as they did, they became a force to be reckoned with. Joining the Memphis label thanks to their mentor, Don Davis, they nonetheless recorded in the north, with 1973’s A Dramatic Experience mostly cut in Detroit and bearing that city’s sound.
The Dramatics were at one time known as The Theatrics, and lived up to their name: live, the group acted out songs with considerable aplomb, their dance moves reflecting the drama of lyrics that focused on love and life. However, in A Dramatic Experience, they made an album full of material that really gave their “acting” chops the chance to shine – as well as their amazingly skilled vocals. Even the album artwork offers some drama; the inside of the original gatefold sleeve could make you shiver. And what is that creature on the front? The Gruffalo’s much uglier older brother?
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Deeply, thrillingly soulful music
The answer is: Beelzebub, El Diablo, Mephistopheles… the Anti-Christ of many names. For we are veering towards concept album territory here, even if The Dramatics didn’t quite go the whole hog (or should that be goat?). Some of these songs tackle the manifestation of evil in their times – and, come to that, in our times too. But fear not, this is deeply soulful music, every bit as thrilling as The Temptations’ contemporary work with Norman Whitfield – and not quite as over the top as some of his material could be.
The record lays it on the line in the opening track, ʻThe Devil Is Dope’, in which drugs are used as a metaphor for evil – or perhaps it’s the other way around. The opening lines, set over the crackling of flames, are a little bit terrifying, a little bit pantomime… Burn! Burn! It’s doomy for sure, though the groove is appealing and the arrangements, delivered across the album by John Allen, Paul Riser and producer-writer Tony Hester, are lush as well as edgy. The group find themselves lamenting the decline of an addict in ʻJim, What’s Wrong With Him?’, delivered like gossip on the street between concerned brothers, and ʻBeware Of The Man (With The Candy In His Hand)’ features a gargling scream at the start to emphasise that the dealer is not your friend, before the tune rolls into a wah-wah and brass beauty, placed at the end of the album so you remember its message.
The Dramatics originally started selling records in bulk with romantic songs like ʻIn The Rain’, and that highly pleasurable aspect of their talent is by no means overlooked here. The gentle groover ʻYou Could Become The Very Heart Of Me’ is sleek and warm. ʻNow You Got Me Loving You’ has a similar light Latin groove to their first album’s title smash, ʻWhatcha See Is Whatcha Get’, though if anything it’s even more laidback. ʻFell For You’ walks the line between soul and MOR and stays the right side of it, with echoes of The Delfonics’ ʻTrying To Make A Fool Of Me’.
One of the most powerful albums Stax released
There are a couple of tunes with softer grooves that mix passion and social commentary: the gloriously airy and fabulously spacious ʻHey You! Get Off My Mountain’ slips away from a bad relationship in the most lofty way and ʻBeautiful People’ is one of those “you may be no oil painting but you’re beautiful inside” tunes the early 70s specialised in, with a feather-light production like a duck down pillow.
A Dramatic Experience did well, though didn’t sell as strongly as its predecessor, Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get. Momentum had been lost because it had taken the best part of two years to appear while the group went through personnel changes, finally emerging with the great LJ Reynolds joining as lead singer.
Stax focused on the album’s love songs for singles, perhaps selling short the anti-drug message but keeping the group in the charts with ʻFell For You’ and ʻHey You! Get Off My Mountain’. If these delicious songs led to the deeper cuts on the album being bought and heard, they did their job.
The group cut one more fine album for Stax/Volt, and recorded plenty more elsewhere, sometimes billed as Ron Banks And The Dramatics, but their pinnacle remains Whatcha See… and this album. If you can handle the dreadful beady stare of the Devil on the front cover, and cope with the sheer drama of some of the message songs, you’ll find soul galore in A Dramatic Experience, one of the most powerful and satisfying albums Stax ever released.
A Dramatic Experience can be bought here.