Soul Man On Ice (Jerry Butler)

In the mid-1950s in Cabrini-Green on the North side of Chicago 2 school friends, part of the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers, were looking to get serious about their music. Jerry Butler was 2 years older than Curtis Mayfield but Curtis came along when Jerry hooked up with the Roosters, a doo-wop group from Chattanooga Tennessee. In 1958, the group now known as Jerry Butler & the Impressions, Mayfield still only 16 years old, made the US Top 20 with their first record “For Your Precious Love”. Butler, who co-wrote the hit, delivers a dramatic, heartfelt vocal which belies his teenage years. They were young men who got it right the first time & were encouraged that their creativity in writing & performance would find an audience. There was just one more 45 from this group before Jerry became a solo act. Over the following 20 years Jerry Butler’s name on the record became a guarantee of quality & excellence.

 

Like his contemporaries, Sam Cooke & Marvin Gaye, Butler aspired to the LP sales & supper club cabaret success of Nat King Cole. His first solo LP is heavy on the orchestral & chorale arrangements. On signing to Vee Jay he got back with Curtis. One of the 4 songs they wrote together, “He Will Break Your Heart” put him in the Top 10. Jerry recorded the original version of “Make It Easy On Yourself” with Burt Bacharach. In the UK the Walker Brothers nicked the hit but, for me, Butler is definitive. The standards & the ballads were assured, the danceable Chicago Soul from Mayfield/Butler sounded great & they made a most acceptable mix.

 

 

When Curtis placed a higher priority on his own group, the Impressions, Jerry’s LPs played a little safe. A sweetheart Soul duet of “Let It Be Me” with Betty Everett was a smash.”The Soul Goes On” is a collection of covers. His style had less grit than the new Memphis Soul but Jerry Butler knew where the action was. He & Otis Redding wrote “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” together & that song is about as good as it gets.

 

A Philadelphia DJ dubbed Jerry “The Ice Man”. When he was matched with upcoming production team Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff they ran with it & “The Ice Man Cometh” (1968) was his biggest selling LP. This is commercial Pop-Soul at its best, with many of the elements that would make the producers so successful in the near future. The lyrics are mature & emotional, the songs packed with hooks to catch your ear. Five singles were released from the LP, three more from the following “Ice On Ice”. Seven of these eight made the R&B Top 10.

 

 

I carried a cassette collection of these 45s around for years. It’s a tough call to include only one of them here. “Never Give You Up”, “Hey, Western Union Man”, the fantastic “Lost”, it’s a list…3 minute dramas, not a second wasted. “Only The Strong Survive”, the most successful of all, gets the shout because I still find the simple guitar figure under Jerry’s intro, before the big chorus & the sweeping strings, to be irresistible. Gamble & Huff produced 15 Gold singles, 22 Gold albums. In 2008 they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame & it was Jerry Butler, a member since 1991, who stepped up to do the honours.

 

In 1970 Gamble & Huff went off to do their own thing with Philadelphia International records. Jerry’s old spar Curtis was busy with his own label, Curtom but the rest of the Chicago crew were still around. “One on One” is an LP shared with Gene Chandler, a million seller with “Duke of Earl” in 1962, another who had benefitted from Curtis Mayfield’s songwriting skills & back on the scene with a “Groovy Situation”. Black music was getting all funked up. Gene & Jerry take it to the street on  “Ten & Two (Take This Woman Off The Corner)” , a busy version of James Spencer’s original which deserved a wider hearing. The subject matter, pimps & prostitutes, was possibly a little too strong for radio & for fans of the singers’ lighter output in the past decade.

 

 

The ponderously titled  “…Sings Assorted Sounds With The Aid Of Assorted Friends & Relatives” employed the same musicians, arranger Donnie Hathaway, brother Billy Butler & backing singer Barbara Lee Eager. The New Thing is incorporated but Jerry’s style was not going to change too much. He & his associates had been making records for a long time & they knew what worked for them. At the time Curtis Mayfield was recording the coolest original soundtrack to a movie ever. “Superfly” confirmed his membership of the new Soul aristocracy, writing, performing & selling millions of their own LPs. I would not claim that “…Assorted…” belongs in such company but it’s a classic of mature Chicago Soul. The opening track “How Can We Lose It” sounds like a hit to me & sets a standard which is matched by what follows.

 

Jerry continued to record on Mercury records then, in the Disco years, with Motown before returning to Gamble & Huff. There were more duets with Barbara Lee Eager & with Thelma Houston & enough quality from this period to decorate another one of these posts. In 1970 he & brother Billy appeared on US TV. They went back to “I Stand Accused”, a song they wrote together & released in 1964 on the same single as “Need To Belong”. Now that’s a small vinyl disc that’s worth having around & so is this one-off, intimate, informal version.

 

 

Jerry Butler is still around. By all accounts what you see, a stylish, dignified, articulate man, is what you get. Still in Chicago, he has served as an elected commissioner of Cook County since the 1980s. When he performs his great hits the pride & pleasure he takes is transmitted to his audience. It’s 60 years now since he & Curtis hung out at Wells High School working out how to capture a moment of emotion in a simple, memorable pop song. Those young boys were into something good back then. As styles & taste changed they continued to finesse their skills while never forgetting why & where they started out.

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That Girl Could Sing (Ooh Betty !)

Very little is known about Betty James. She was in her 40s, singing in Baltimore clubs with her husband as guitarist & musical director, when, in 1961, she was offered the chance to record by the New York based label Cee Jay.Her song was a hit in Pittsburgh & the track was picked up by Chess Records. 55 years later “I’m a Little Mixed Up” abides as a classic good enough to rank with all the other ones to emerge from 2120 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago.

 

 

There’s both kinds of music here, the Rhythm & the Blues with little embellishment to  a straight ahead 12 bar structure. Ms James’ vocal is urban & urbane, neither Blues shouting nor Gospel pleading. The guitar part, whether played by Mr James or by studio guy Tarheel Slim, is a loose, insistent, infectious delight. The record gained some attention in Modernist dance clubs with an ear for good American music. My knees & hips are no longer what they were but I’m still a cool jerk attempting an approximation of the Twist whenever I hear this tune. The following year Betty sang “I’m Not Mixed Up Anymore”. There was one more single for Chess, another released as Nadine Renaye & those 8 tracks are all we have. Listening to “I’m a Little Mixed Up” is a fine way to spend 3 minutes.

 

 

Betty Harris started in New York too. She was just in from Florida when she auditioned for producer Bert Berns with a measured, impassioned version of Bert’s hit for Solomon Burke “Cry To Me”. The subsequent release was a Top 30 national hit in 1963 and the following year there were 2 more 45s on the Jubilee label. The record buying public & American radio stations were pre-occupied with the British Invasion in 1964 & Betty was unable to catch that wave. She signed a new deal with Sansu Records in New Orleans.

 

Sansu was a new label started by partners Marshall Sehorn & Allen Toussaint. It was an opportunity for composer/arranger/producer Toussaint to run his own studio operation & Betty’s “What a Sad Feeling” was the first track to be released. It’s a perfect sweeping Pop-Soul ballad, an update of Toussaint’s earlier work with Irma Thomas. There were to be 10 singles by Betty Harris for Sansu, “Nearer to You” was an almost-hit. She came down to New Orleans to add her vocal to tracks created by the master & his house band who were to become the Meters. There’s a private number on a duet with the great James Carr & a shared credit with Lee Dorsey for the infectious floor-filler “Love Lots of Lovin'”. Toussaint produced over 30 singles for the label, taking the rhythms & melodies of the New Orleans tradition & moving them forward.

 

For Betty’s last single in 1969 everything the Sansu crew did was gonna be Funky. “There’s a Break in the Road” is a fantastic one-off. On his “Yes We Can” LP Lee Dorsey was given great songs with similar New Orleans funk pyrotechnics.   It’s a pity that there was no LP made with Allen Toussaint but their collaboration makes Ms Harris a contender for the Soul Queen of New Orleans belt. I have it on good authority (the Internet, so it must be true) that the featured funky drummer here is James Black from Eddie Bo’s group. As James showed on “Hook & Sling (Part 2)” his groove was quite a show-stealer in 1969. Betty made little money from her records & in 1970 she retired from music for 25 years to be with her family. Her 28 track legacy is impressive.

 

 

With 3 being, as you know, the magic number there is room for only one more Betty today.In contention is Betty Everett who shoop-shooped to an international hit with “It’s in His Kiss”, recorded a sweet LP of duets with Jerry “the Iceman” Butler & hit the heights with the atmospheric “Getting Mighty Crowded”. If  Betty Wright had only recorded “Clean Up Woman” & “Shoorah, Shoorah” (Toussaint again) her reputation would be high.It’s Bettye with an “e” who makes the cut. A recording artist for over 50 years, who only last year received a Grammy nomination for her latest LP.

 

In 1962, just 16 years old, Bettye Lavette’s first record, “My Man is a Loving Man” was a hit. She toured with the stars of the day, had a spell with the James Brown Revue & recorded for a couple of local Detroit labels. “Do Your Duty” a direct tasty plateful  of Memphis Soul Stew was recorded with the Dixie Flyers & when she signed with Atlantic they sent her to make an LP in Alabama with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Things must have been looking & sounding good for Ms Lavette when “Child of the Seventies” was completed but the major label disagreed & the LP was shelved. 2 singles from the sessions, a Soul take on Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” & an emotional version of Joe Simon’s “Your Turn to Cry” only added to the legend. It would be almost 30 years before we got to hear the whole shebang. Just one click will get you her cover of Free’s “The Stealer”, confirming that a cloth-eared someone at Atlantic made a big mistake.

 

 

While Bettye’s recording career became more sporadic her range & versatility led her to the touring company of the musical “Bubbling Brown Sugar”. European interest in that lost album instigated a revival & she was ready for the 21st century. “A Woman Like Me” (2003), made with producer Dennis Walker (Ted Hawkins, Robert Cray, B.B. King), is a modern, mature Soul-Blues collection. As well as her fine voice, one of the keys to her new success was a shrewd choice of material. 2005’s “I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise” used songs written by female composers while “Interpretations” (2010) found nuance & depth in British Rock classics. The misty eyes of Roger Daltrey & Pete Townshend as Bettye performs a stunning “Love Reign O’er Me” in tribute to the Who is a lovely sight. Ms Lavette returned to Muscle Shoals for “The Scene of the Crime” (2007), more cool covers backed by the Drive-By Truckers. The original, autobiographical “Before the Money Came (The Battle of Bettye Lavette)” is co-written with Patterson Hood. She has quite a story to tell & it’s great that she has the opportunity to tell it while making new music & memories.

 

 

The First Pop Songs In The World (Strength)

Here at loosehandlebars we have always appreciated an elite group of invited friends giving up their time & talent to contribute to the blog. It’s a delight to welcome Derry music legend, my great buddy, Paul Pj Mc Cartney, off of Bam Bam & the Calling, to these pages. Paul is going to put us on to one of his hometown’s hottest combos Strength. McCarts talks a lot of sense about a lot of things. Any time he wants to share something with us I’m sure that we will find a space for him.

 

I had a party in the house in late March 2010 to celebrate my 45th birthday, and some of the distinguished guests (arch-hooligans of the Derry Underground Music Community?) were late getting there because Strength were launching their double A-Sided single (on cassette) – ‘Do Televisions/Frankie Moore Ritual’ – in the Castle Bar on Waterloo Street. My good friend Sean Pemberton (he of Guadapenda Rosindale and Mars Field fame) brought me up a copy and it went straight into the stereo. I was automatically blown away, and knew I would have to get my ass along to their next show, and a few weeks later I witnessed their brave, beautiful and indeed confrontational music first hand and was smitten.

 

One thing I recall was seeing them not too long after that and remembering most of the songs from the first night and I think that’s a really telling thing. This was Strength Mark 1 – Rory Moore (vocals), John McLaughlin (synthesizer) and David McFeely (synthesizer). I think they played in the Castle about half a dozen times, and it was always an incredible experience that stayed with me for weeks after, and I was totally honoured when Rory invited me along to DJ twice. On a few of these occasions, when they finished a song, there was like a 3 or 4 second delay before the audience applauded. But that’s the magical and seductive whirlpool they draw you into when they play their fantastic songs, they take you on a trip Baby and the last thing you need is Drugs.

 

It’s not for someone like me to speculate on the actual influences the band have, they kinda keep that to themselves, just go out and let it loose. Their songs and their sound had me thinking of Scott Walker, The Young Marble Giants, Nick Cave, The Silver Apples, Suicide, the post-punk Dub excursions of Adrian Sherwood, Liquid Liquid and The Idiot era Iggy Pop. We are aware of their preference for vintage technology (Betamax videotapes are still on the agenda) , but they do it right and the sheer emotion they communicate when they play is nothing short of thrilling. And to the actual songs – the aforementioned ‘Do Televisions’ and ‘Frankie Moore Ritual’, ‘Disobedience’, ‘Hospital Beds And Drugs’, ‘I Like Compressions’, ‘Evil Part One’ and ‘Northern Ireland Yes’ are all totally different to each other , but form a whole, that has us lucky people looking down the barrel of one of the best Irish debut albums ever in my opinion.

 

 

I’m gonna cut to the chase and talk about the songs (in non-chronological order of course), here’s one that has transcended the line-up changes and they play and enjoy playing every night – ‘I Like Compressions’ – In effect, a regional hit, it made a chart of songs put together last year of songs released from bands and artistes from the North of Ireland. The difference here is that Strength didn’t actually put it out as a commercial release. The line-up playing in this video (and you’ve been introduced to Rory Moore already) is Conor McNamee, Neil Burns and Eoghan Doneghan, they are the current line-up. One thing this particular song shows also is that these guys can get pretty darn funky when the groove takes them, and there’s an added bonus here of a chorus you could park three-quarters of Iceland on, and you’ll be humming it for weeks after…as you do.

 

 

Next up, ‘Frankie Moore Ritual’, this was on the the cassette-only double A-Sided release from 2010, the other song being ‘Do Televisions’. They bring this one in at over 8  and a half minutes and it never dips as it goes, in fact, it’s all action start to finish. This one got me thinking of the Young Marble Giants when I first heard it, but also elements of early Orbital and the larky elements of the Stereolab EPs and Albums when Sean O’Hagan of The High Llamas came on board. I would say that anyone who liked the ‘Turn On’ project Sean O’Hagan and Tim Gane put together in the late 1990’s will definitely dig this one. And you know the way some records end up opening up for a few minutes, and you think it’s an instrumental the whole way through and then a song happens, well this is one of them songs…don’t worry, I’m not giving away the plot.

 

 

“Northern Ireland Yes” is this year’s single. It’s another imaginative, hypnotic addition to their catalogue & deserved the wider attention that it received. The group are currently touring. This week, on the 7th of July, they are playing in Derry supported by our boys the Gatefolds. We need an LP of their tunes, in whatever retro-influenced format they choose. Keep an eye out for further news on their website. These guys are going from Strength to…(you see what I almost did there).