Lite Me Up may not be a buried gem, but for fans of this era of R&B it’s a surprisingly good time.
Most serious consumers of popular music are familiar with at least the broad strokes of Herbie Hancock’s discography. The basic narrative goes like this: Chicago-based piano virtuoso records his debut album in 1962, spends a mutually formative half-a-decade in the Miles Davis Quintet then forms his own seminal jazz-funk group the Headhunters and becomes an early adopter of electro hip-hop with 1983’s Future Shock and its Grammy Award-winning single “Rockit.” Yet this familiar gloss omits a much less fondly-remembered chapter in Hancock’s story: the handful of albums he recorded between Head Hunters and Future Shock that left behind jazz entirely in favor of contemporary pop and R&B sounds.
I’ll confess that I had no knowledge of this phase of Hancock’s career when I pulled 1982’s Lite Me Up from my local record store’s bargain bin and took it to the listening station. Based on the release date and the oh-so-early-‘80s cover art, I’d assumed that it was a transitional album, most likely a predecessor to Future Shock. What I got was even better—which is to say, more delightfully cheesy: a bouncy post-disco confection that even contemporary crossover jazz artists like George Duke and Patrice Rushen would have rejected as too mainstream.
As a decidedly casual Herbie Hancock fan, I can only imagine the reaction a hardcore jazz head would have to “Lite Me Up!”—an opening title track that lives up to its exclamation point with soaring rock guitar by Steve Lukather (with Jeff Porcaro, one of two Toto members on the album) and whining Oberheim synthesizer stabs by Hancock himself. If Head Hunters was met with controversy by purists, then Lite Me Up could only have been considered outright apostasy: as aesthetically distant from hard bop milestones like Maiden Voyage as possible.
In fact, Lite Me Up is in many ways a Herbie Hancock album in name alone. The back sleeve includes a “very special thanks” to Rod Temperton “for his immeasurable contribution to this project,” and that’s no overstatement: the former Heatwave songwriter’s fingerprints are all over the album, with writing and arranging credits on six of its eight tracks. Add to this the horn and string arrangements by Jerry Hey, guitar by David Williams and bass by Louis Johnson, and it’s practically a reunion for the crew behind Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall and Quincy Jones’ The Dude. This pedigree ensures that Lite Me Up never sound less than slick and professional—even if tracks like “The Bomb” and “Motor Mouth” inevitably fall short of the likes of “Rock with You” and “Burn This Disco Out.”
It doesn’t help that as a vocalist (yes, he sings on this album), Hancock is an incredible keyboard player. On two of the slower songs, “Gettin’ to the Good Part” and closing track “Give It All Your Heart” (a duet with the aforementioned Rushen), he relies on the Vocoder, a crutch that got him through the majority of his previous “pop” albums—listen closely to the former song in particular and you can practically hear Daft Punk taking notes. But the majority of the album features Hancock’s unadorned vocals, and they’re…fine. He certainly acquits himself better than one might expect of a man who spent the majority of his career playing instrumentals; but his modest charisma behind the microphone isn’t enough to sell lyrics as stupid as the ones in the aforementioned “The Bomb” (“There ain’t a man who wouldn’t like to detonate her/ You can’t resist that burnin’ fuse walkin’ by”). Elsewhere, one can pinpoint the exact moment in “Can’t Hide Your Love” when Hancock reaches the ceiling of his range. Fortunately, the album’s murderer’s row of session personnel also includes backing vocalists Patti Austin, Jim Gilstrap, Paulette McWilliams, Bill Champlin and others, ensuring that Hancock’s pipes never have to carry a song entirely on their own.
Nearly 40 years after the release of Lite Me Up, the era of Hancock’s career it bookended remains bewildering. The standard line about these albums is that they were “commercial,” but Lite Me Up didn’t exactly light the charts up: it peaked at Number 31 on Billboard’s R&B chart and Number 151 on the Hot 200. I can only assume that, like his musical 180s both before and after, this was a simple case of Hancock following his muse—it’s just that this particular time, his muse was telling him to go make a bog-standard lite-funk album with some of the best session players in L.A. As vanity projects go, there are plenty worse; and at the price this one is going for on vinyl, it’s worth a look for the sake of curiosity alone. Lite Me Up may not be a buried gem, but for fans of this era of R&B it’s a surprisingly good time.