This is the best collection you will find encapsuling Edwin Starr's 1960's (pre-War) work. It actually plays like a compilation--for that's exactly what the first of these two albums is. Soul Master was released in September 1968, but is, in fact, a collection primarily comprised of single sides Starr cut for both Rip Tip and Motown going back to summer 1965 and his great, thumping debut hit, "Agent Double-O Soul," which just barely missed the pop Top 20 while cracking the R&B Top Ten. You'll also find two great 1966 singles, "Stop Her On Sight" and "Headline News," both with a great pounding rhythm, soulful female backing vocals, and that awesome voice of Starr's which bore a tenor's range, yet a baratone's power. Edwin's version of his own composition "Oh How Happy" is here also, and is reasonably comparable to the beautiful, chiming version of the song by the Shades Of Blue, which hit the pop Top 15 in June 1966. (In fact, Starr wrote or co-wrote five of the twelve selections on Soul Master, certainly a factor in this being one of the real sleeper albums in the Motown catalog for my money.) It also helps that there are really only a couple of ballads on the album: Most of the tracks have a good danceable rhythm with carefully crafted hooks and layers of varying musical instrumentation--whatever best fits the song. And oh yes: I'd be remissed if I didn't mention the excellent funked-up cover of Smokey's "Way Over There," marking one of Starr's first teamings with producer Norman Whitfield.
The 25 Miles album is a bit more of a varied affair, and perhaps a bit weaker overall--but by no means a pushover. The follow-up single to the killer title track, "I'm Still A Struggling Man," should have been a much bigger hit than it was. Edwin adds a muscular, testosterone-charged vocal to the Smokey Robinson-Ronnie White classic "You Beat Me To The Punch," which is also given a pretty funky, percussive backbeat by Norman Whitfield reminiscent of some of his work with the Temps around that time (1969.) On the other end of the spectrum, the album's closer, Smokey's "Mighty Good Lovin'," sounds a bit anticlamatic--like not a lot of spirit was put into it (in other words, filler!) If that's the only complaint one can find on a cd of 27 tracks, however, there's nothing to get hung up about, especially when you consider the amount of filler that quite frequently marred original Motown albums in the 1960's.
What collectors would consider the real prize of this package, however, lies yet ahead, in the form of three bonus tracks retrieved from the vaults of Rip Tip Records. These final three tracks are as good as anything that preceded them, and what most appeals to me is that two of them, "Girls Are Gettin' Prettier" (Written by Starr) and "It's My Turn Now," show off Edwin's ovbious affection for the more fiery Southern soul sounds of Stax/Volt. "Girls Are Gettin' Prettier" in particular sounds very much like something Otis Redding would have done--a husky, shouting pile-driver in the vein of "I Can't Turn You Loose" or "Love Man." There are flashes of the Southern-soul-shouter influence scattered throughout the two complete albums on this disc as is, but on these bonus tracks they really jump out at you. You ain't gonna find these tracks elsewhere, which is as good a reason as any to buy this cd instead of, say, Early Classics, or any other collection of Edwin's '60's work. I should point out at this time that the three bonus tracks are in mono, as is "Agent Double-O Soul," while all the other tracks (tracks 2-24) are in true stereo--and the mastering on this cd is pretty much topnotch.
Edwin Starr was one of _the truly great voices in Sixties-Seventies soul, and it's a shame the guy never attained the superstar status he richly deserved. (Perhaps Berry Gordy would have promoted him a little more if he'd had breasts and a shrill voice--but that's another story for another day.) Nonetheless, I'm grateful that Universal Inc. has had the good sense to release this outstanding twofer, along with Edwin's two early Seventies longplayer, War & Peac/Involved, as part of their Motown two-on-one series. Forget about all the cheap compilations out there, friends, and buy these twofers instead (starting with this one): You'll get a much better feel of what this underrated powerhouse performer was all about. Five stars all the way!