To hear her tell it sometimes, La Toya Jackson never wanted a recording career. In her first memoir, 1988′s salacious La Toya, she said that it was “thrust upon” her by the Jackson family patriarch Joseph. La Toya wrote that she was “dismayed” when presented with her first single, 1980′s “If You Feel the Funk,” because it contained the line, “If you feel the funk, shake your rump.” She took exception not because those words are stupid, but because she felt her staunch faith as a Jehovah’s Witness at the time precluded her from commanding people to shake their rumps. She was special from the start, that La Toya.
“The very idea of taking the music of La Toya Jackson seriously enough to make it pristine and completist would seem to many like an exercise in camp, or maybe where polishing a turd and electing Carrie to prom queen intersect.”
It’s difficult to know just what to make of anything La Toya Jackson says, as her most effective medium has been public speaking with a special niche in flip-flopping. She’d go on to tell Barbara Walters in 1984 that despite her initial apprehension, she was loving “every minute” of her music career. Her first memoir would be largely recanted in her second memoir, Starting Over, in which she claimed that the prior book was written under the influence of her abusive former husband/manager Jack Gordon (she went as far as to suggest he’d given her mind-altering drugs). Yet in Starting Over, she does consistently claim that music was never her first love and she never felt that she embraced it. She admits the ridicule that came as a result of her art (or whatever it was), saying that at one point she was ready to turn her back on it for good. It only took her nine albums to realize it.
Two of those albums are now being treated more nicely than they ever have been by R&B reissue label Funky Town Grooves. The Brooklyn-based Sony imprint has just put out remastered and expanded versions of 1984′s Heart Don’t Lie and 1986′s Imagination. Funky Town Grooves specializes in going deep, and yet the very idea of taking the music of La Toya Jackson seriously enough to make it pristine and completist would seem to many like an exercise in camp, or maybe where polishing a turd and electing Carrie to prom queen intersect.
That’s not quite the case for Heart Don’t Lie, which more often than not is a solid, funky entry in the post-disco, pre-house window. The finest song La Toya ever recorded was its lead single, “Bet’cha Gonna Need My Lovin’.” Though it doesn’t buzz with technology as hard as much of its boogie brethren of the time, its limber bass line is electrified enough to sound fresh today. Something of a cross between Jean Carn‘s “Was That All It Was” and Junior’s “Mama Used To Say,” it whooshes and cowbell-clinks and pops with a four-on-the-floor immediacy.
“Bet’cha Gonna Need My Lovin’” would work as a straightforward dancefloor warm-up, were it not for La Toya’s irrepressible eccentricities. She didn’t write “Bet’cha” (it and most of the album is the work of Kay-Gees guitarist Amir Bayyan), but she also clearly didn’t protest about the trite rhyme and daffy redundancy of its chorus: “I knew it from the start you need my carin’ heart.” La Toya’s vocal comfort zone is confined to about half of an octave. Anything above and her voice curdles or adopts a moany falsetto a la Miss Piggy. Anything too low is virtually undetectable by the human ear. Her interpretation skills seem to have resulted from her hearing the word “sultry” and attempting to infuse her work with that sensibility, despite not really knowing what it means. That said, there is something exciting about her singing not being bound by rules of taste — it feels feral and unpredictable. It’s exciting to hear in a time where virtually every vocal sound you hear in pop has been corrected in post production. “You’ll believe in meee! Eee! Eee!” she shrieks, sounding like a cross between a titmouse and something not of this world.
Another of Heart Don’t Lie‘s singles that La Toya did have a hand in conceiving is the similarly ebullient and lean “Hot Potato.” In the leftfield boogie tradition of songs like Gwen Guthrie‘s “Hopsctoch” and “Peanut Butter,” as well as Karen Young‘s “Deetour,” “Hot Potato” is just plain weird. The central imagery is muddled. “Gonna drop you like a hot (Hot!)/ Hot potato (If you don’t stop messin’ around),” sing La Toya and her back-ups, resorting to schoolyard games to express grownup decisions (also, her dude is hot and a potato?!?). A chanted refrain is even more bizarre: “Let the doorknob hit cha where the dog shoulda bit cha!” This is reinforced by rhythmic barking noises. Seriously. La Toya’s character seems to gain confidence over the course of the song, at first issuing a warning, then muttering a spoken request to…some ally (“Get him out of my life/ I don’t want any parts of him”) and finally directly proclaiming, “Get out of my life!”