As a teenage boy I was just beginning to differentiate between the the stabs of energetic soul of Stax Records & the sweeter pop soul of Tamla Motown. You could get a handle on it when Wilson Pickett’s frenetic “Land of a 1,000 Dances” was played alongside “Baby Love”, the Supremes’ honeyed hit but when the 4 Tops shouted/sang “Reach Out I’ll Be There”, hey, Memphis or Motown, this Soul Music was a thing ! In that year of Levi Stubbs, 1966, I heard a record which made me sit up & pay some serious attention.
“Unbelievable” that was the title of the LP & the vocal pyrotechnics of Billy Stewart seemed to be just that. I didn’t know Porgy & Bess from Adam & Eve. George Gershwin’s “Summertime” is like the most covered song ever. Whatever the template I did know that this version was over the top of it. I loved Billy’s “brrrrrr-a-cha” & the blazing brass backing. The record was a big hit in the US but here you had to take it where you found it. At a time when pop music was innovative & causing a commotion Billy Stewart’s “Summertime” had a style & an energy unlike anything else around.
Billy had come to Chicago & Chess records from Washington DC at the behest of Bo Diddley. The chunky crooner was known as the “Fat Man”. It was the creative head at Chess, Billy Davis, a former cohort of Berry Gordy & later a big wheel in advertising, who moved Stewart towards these classic covers. There are 2 LPs of them & they do try a little too hard to impress you with the same trick. However, there were earlier recordings by Billy which showed just what a talent he was. A year earlier “Sitting In The Park”, a straight from the fridge soul ballad which can be best described as groovy had national success. This song, a favourite of & an influence on that greatest of Jamaican rock steady trios the Heptones, was not the only classy cut. The 1965 LP “I Do Love You” is the one to seek out for a showcase of his ability.
Billy Stewart stayed in Chicago with Chess for the rest of his career. Unfortunately this was all too short as he was killed in a car accident in January 1970. A great loss of a unique voice.
Spotlight on Lou Rawls y’all. As a young Chicagoan Lou was connected with the burnished star of the city’s gospel scene Sam Cooke. When Sam left for Los Angeles it was Lou who replaced him in the Highway QC’s. After a spell as a paratrooper he was touring with Cooke when he was almost killed in a car accident. On his recovery he recorded with the star & began his own solo career. In the early 60s the other role model for Afro-American singers was Nat “King” Cole, Lou’s first records were jazz oriented but his smooth assured chops could be turned to any style. In 1966 2 LPs, “Live” & “Soulin'”, found an audience. As Lou says, “Soul is truth, … no matter where it comes from, no matter how it is presented”.
“Dead End Street” is a hit from 1967 & my favourite of Lou’s singles. It’s a song about growing up on the South Side of Chicago, the “Windy City” & it convinces this Englishman who has never been there. This clip is from the Playboy mansion. I have seen a few of these clips & they all seem a little incongruous. None of the acts have actually spat at the desperate hanger-on scum in the audience but maybe that is wishful thinking on my part. Hey, for Lou it is just another gig I am sure. He continued to have hits for 20 years & won 3 Grammys for best Male R&B vocal. His stuff is not part of the classic Soul canon but when you hear it you know who is singing & you sure do like it.
Oh yes, I love me some Jerry Butler ! Jerry grew up & sang with the other great Chicago Soul legend Curtis Mayfield. He wrote & sang lead on the Impressions first hit “For Your Precious Love” when he was just 19 & Curtis 16. He left the Impressions for a solo career but he did not leave a partnership of great commercial & artistic merit. Jerry had hits all through the 60s. The early run was split between crooned classics, “Moon River”, “Make It Easy On Yourself” & the simple, sweet Curtis Mayfield soul songs, “He Will Break Your Heart”, “Find Another Girl”, “Need To Belong”. He was known as the “Iceman”, a suitably cool sobriquet.
He hooked up with producers Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff, young guns from Philadelphia who would go on to form their own label, Philadelphia International. The string of inventive pop-soul singles this team created over the next 3 years makes for a quality “Greatest Hits” collection. The LP “The Ice Man Cometh” hits you bang, bang, bang. The biggest hit was “Only The Strong Survive” but plenty of others hit the spot & “What’s the Use of Breaking Up” is one of them. Jerry continued to have hits but he did not return to work with Curtis when his friend formed Curtom records. Curtis was getting deeper & funkier while Jerry was getting smoother. In 1985 Jerry Butler was elected as a Commissioner for Cook County Illinois. He has served Chicago well as a man & as an artist.