If The Emotions’ hit single “Best of My Love” sounds like a female version of Earth, Wind & Fire, that’s because it almost is. After Stax Records closed its doors in 1975, leaving sisters Sheila, Wanda and Jeanette Hutchinson—The Emotions—without a record deal, they became reacquainted with Maurice White, whom they had met in the 1960s. He was, of course, having success with his band Earth, Wind & Fire, and through his collaborator, Charles Stepney, the girls got back in touch with him.
White signed the band to his Kalimba Productions, and after their first album, Flowers, did well, he set about to produce the second album, Rejoice, which spawned “Best of My Love.”
The hit—which stayed at Number One for five weeks—won the Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance By a Duo or a Group With Vocal.
The sound was steeped in all things EW&F. Not only was it co-produced by White, but the song was also co-written by him and member Al McKay. The musicians on the track were all EW&F members, and it was engineered by George Massenburg, who engineered all their early hits. So there ya go.
Clarence McDonald, meanwhile, might not have gotten the call to co-produce this track had it not been for a dark piece of fate. At the time, McDonald and writing partners Deniece Williams, Fritz Baskett and Lani Groves had a couple of cuts on Flowers, the album prior to Rejoice. Then one day he got a call from one of his heroes, Charles Stepney, White’s co-producer on all of his projects, including The Emotions, asking to meet with him.
“We got to talking and walking,” McDonald recalls. “He was doing the strings for the [EW&F] Spirit album here in Burbank that Thursday, and then going back home to Chicago on Saturday and coming back on Monday. We were going to start writing songs together. For me, that was as good as it gets. We were like two young kids who said, ‘Come Monday, the world’s in trouble.’ He went home on Friday and had a heart attack and died on Saturday.” Soon after, McDonald got the call from Maurice White to work on the Rejoice album in Stepney’s absence.
“I flew to Chicago to meet with Maurice and the Emotions, and I got there the day Mayor Daley died,” McDonald recalls. “I think I know why he died—I saw a polar bear trying to buy a sweater. I came in with my Hollywood overcoat and my Hollywood loafers.”
Not a fan of the chilly weather, McDonald told White that he would do the record, but only if they would record it in Los Angeles. To start things off, everybody came to his house, where McDonald had a piano and a Hammond B3.
“I’m a believer in this: It’s called a recording studio, not a practice studio, not an I’m-going to-get-my-act-together studio,” McDonald says. “When you go into a recording studio, you’re going in for one reason: to record. I can be somewhat of a hard-nosed guy about that.”
They worked songs up at the house. Wanda, Sheila and Jeanette tried out various tracks for the album; some worked, some didn’t, McDonald says.
It was also a very busy time for McDonald, who was simultaneously writing horns and strings for the Memphis Horns at Wally Heider’s studio, recording Gorilla with James Taylor at the Sound Factory, and cutting “Best of My Love” at Hollywood Sound. He says that when they went into the studio, some days he was running back and forth between facilities.
That wasn’t always easy, since McDonald was also playing piano on The Emotions’ track along with the EW&F musicians at the time—Fred White on drums, Larry Dunn on synthesizer, Verdine White on bass, Al McKay on guitar, Don Myric on sax, Louis Satterfield on trombone, and Rahmlee Davis and Michael Harris on trumpet.
“With one of us in the booth and one of us in the studio, we had the best vision from both sides,” McDonald says, singling out the contributions of Massenburg as engineer in particular. “George Massenburg, who is an absolute genius, was always coming in with limiters and compressors that he had just developed with wires hanging out the sides and plugging it into the board and getting an unbelievable sound.”
Massenburg says the “Best of My Love” track followed much the same course as most of the EW&F projects he engineered. If his memory serves him, the board was a Bushnell.
“They were all kind of the same,” Massenburg says. “I could go in and replace things, replace a lot of the summing cards with things that I had built. I had all this stuff that I would put on top of consoles for processing. The early version of my compressors, what would become the GML 8900, were all kind of beta tested in sessions. Every overdub I used a prototype compressor on. That’s how we got these big sounds. Gluing them together was all about mixing and EQ.”
Later on with EW&F, to compensate for the need for more tracks, Massenburg started using an early noise-reduction system called Telecom CD4. “We were stuck with 24 tracks, and my gig was to figure out what to do when these guys would fill up all the tracks and say, ‘Say, give me another track.’ And there weren’t any. The gig was to figure out track-usage strategy. And producing the vocals. The system was four bands and a wide-range compander. So I bought cards.”
Hollywood Sound had a 3M Model 79 24-track at the time, which Massenburg says “would just eat up tape. If you kept running things, your sound would get duller and duller. It was long before we had good synchronizers.” He says they ran 30 ips 24-track Dolby.
As for the actual recording, Massenburg praises Freddy White as a drummer and says he used a modified Neumann KM 84 on top, Schoeps CMC 4s with pads as overheads, and an AKG D12 on kick. “That was before I started using two mics,” he says. “Later it was a Neumann U 47 FET on the kick. But I have to say the sound of that stuff had very little to do with the mics and more to do with processing, arrangement and mixing.”
Tom Washington arranged the horns, and Massenburg recalls that the trumpets had a Neumann KM 84, the trombones had U 67s, and reeds had AKG C12s or AKG C414s.
McDonald says that they cut the song from beginning to end with reference vocals. Reportedly, when they cut the final vocals, White had requested Wanda to sing in a higher register, which she felt was a strain, but it worked for the track.
“We probably used a Schoeps CMC5, but the capsule we would screw on was a Schoeps MK4,” Massenburg says. “I tried to use KM 84s but they weren’t bright enough. I had a modified Neumann KM 84. I did a thing with the electronics where I reduced the gain and increased the headroom and flattened the response and it was a lot cleaner—just removing a component rather than adding anything. So we used a modified KM 84. I didn’t use large-diaphragm mics because we wanted the vocals to be bright. To make them bright, it couldn’t be muddy. People used to criticize me in Los Angeles because an EW&F track didn’t have any low end. It wasn’t until much later that we did mixes with low end.”
Massenburg says all those records, including “Best of My Love,” did not have bus compression. “We would mix to a 3M M79 track and that would be it,” Massenburg says. “We never—or very seldom—used stereo bus EQ, or limiting/compression. A lot of these tracks we did were incredibly punchy.”
Massenburg recalls the last time he saw White at Harry Grossman’s funeral in 2005. Grossman was one of Massenburg’s oldest friends dating back to the second grade; he later became manager of Massenburg’s The Complex recording studios. The last words White said to Massenburg were: “Man, that was a hell of a mix on that Emotions track, ‘Best of My Love.’”