Skip to main content

The Queen of Eighties Soul - Mari Wilson

Box set rounds up the very best by the very best

Mari Wilson

The Neasden Queen of Soul

(Compact - 3 CDs)

There’s no two ways about it. Within what became a sea of British-born soul-styled singers in the early-mid 1980s, Mari Wilson stood head and shoulders above them all - and not only because of the beehive hair style that was the first thing a lot of people noticed about her.

Armed a voice that did everything, from the sultriest sob to the most earthquaking cry, Wilson seemingly emerged out of nowhere (the titular north London suburb of Neasden), and while the UK chart histories give her just six bona fide hits, for a while her music was everywhere. Everywhere, that is, where you’d go for a drink, a dance and a decent night out.

And this package, concentrating on the first years of her career, has it all. The first disc is dedicated to her debut album, 1983’s Showpeople, plus four of her 12-inch mixes; disc two runs through her 1980-1985 singles output; and disc three wraps up rarities, alternates and eight 21st century remixes. If it’s not everything Wilson recorded during this period, it’s close enough that only the trainspotters will notice.

Wilson is not the sole star here - her producer and main songwriter, former Advertising frontman Tot Taylor, also deserves a lot of the credit. It was he who wrote songs that could have been prized from the crown of Motown’s greatest jewels; he who created a sound that not only updated our favorite soul memories, it created fresh ones, too.

Then there was the band - originally called Imagination, they were forced to change their name to avoid confusion with another, identically titled act. They became, instead, the Wilsations, and that was a far more comfortable fit, not only on record but in concert as well. There were nights spent watching the show when you could forget you were even in London (or wherever).

In fact, if this box set is missing anything, it’s a taste of the Wilson live experience - thinking of her 1982 BBC In Concert broadcast and the following year’s Sight and Sound, there’s at least an additional disc’s worth of BBC performances that could have swollen this package, and enough videos and TV shows to pack a decent-sized DVD as well. Maybe they’re saving them for later?

What we do get is a solid stream of torch and torment, dance and delight - Wilson’s take on “Cry Me A River” is absolutely breathtaking; “I May Be Wrong” takes her voice to even greater heights than usual; the Latin-flavored “Beat The Beat” was singlehandedly responsible for Bryan Ferry inviting Wilson to support Roxy Music on their Avalon tour.

There’s the 12-inch mix of “Just What I Always Wanted,” Wilson’s biggest hit (#8 in 1982), which could make the most static wallflower hop and bop like a dance-floor demon; an “Ain’t That Peculiar” which rates among the greatest Marvin Gaye covers ever. And you’ve not had your heartbroken by a song until you’ve heard“Are You There (With Another Girl),” a Bacharach song that she makes completely her own property.

The 2021/2022 remixes aren’t bad, either.

With liner notes written by Wilson herself within a booklet packed with color photos, and a fully illustrated complete discography (all those singles, and every one a separate treasured memory), The Neasden Queen of Soul has to be one of the essential 80s-era box sets of recent years, and still Wilson deserves more.

Hopefully it will be forthcoming soon.