On my first look at these Cash Box R&B charts I am initially drawn to the many great Soul singers. There are always instrumentals on the list & 50 years ago with the success of Isaac Hayes & increased interest in movie soundtracks maybe a few more stood a chance of being heard. Here are three selections from the chart of April 1972.
One conclusion that viewers of “Get Back”, Peter Jackson’s lengthy Beatles documentary, must (or should) have made was that Billy Preston was not only a great keyboard player but a bloody good bloke too. The fractious Fabs, had grown up, become wealthy & grown apart. They were musicians who had not played on a stage for over two years & muddling about in a studio seemed like the last thing they wanted to be doing. When Billy arrived to help out the respect for their guest’s ability & personality is clear, the band were never more unified or happier than when running through the Rock & Roll standards they had played back in Hamburg. Billy played with them on the Apple Corps rooftop, the single “Get Back” had “with Billy Preston” on the label, a unique credit for a non-Beatle. In 1970 Billy played on his first Rolling Stones record, that became a regular thing & by 73 he was touring with the band. It was around this time that Miles Davis named a tune in his honour but Billy Preston was more than a sideman to his heavy friends & 50 years ago this week “Outa-Space” from “I Wrote A Simple Song”, his eighth studio album & his most successful yet, was a new entry at #48 on the R&B chart.
Billy Preston, a self-taught child prodigy, was backing Little Richard at 15 (where he met the Beatles), recorded his first album the following year, had a gig in the house band for the “Shindig” TV show then, still just 20, joined Ray Charles’ group. There were a lot of cover versions on his sometimes quickly recorded releases but his own “Billy’s Bag”, a Mod classic, justifies the album title “The Most Exciting Organ Ever” (1965). His two records for Apple are a fine mix of Gospel, Rock & Soul, Billy tore up the Concert For Bangladesh with his enraptured single “That’s The Way God Planned It”, a bigger hit in the UK than in the US. The self-produced “I Wrote A Simple Song” is more of the same & “Outa-Space”, Billy trying out a clavinet played through a wah-wah pedal for the first time, is a Funk outlier that the record company were less sure about than the million people who bought the record. This was the first of four successive albums to make the R&B Top 10, Billy’s lyrical spirituality may have seemed a little simplistic but it was direct & honest, when he was playing some irresistible Funk or, as on the title track, organ swirls along with George Harrison’s Dobro you knew that he was a special talent.
In Houston, Texas, Joe Sample (piano), Wilton Felder (saxophone) & Stix Hooper (drums), fellow pupils at Phillis Wheatley High School, hooked up with Wayne Henderson (trombone) to form the Swingsters then the Modern Jazz Sextet. After a move to the West Coast in 1960 they were the Nite Hawks for a while before settling on the Jazz Crusaders. From 1961-70, across 17 albums, they bopped hard, their versions of contemporary hits were tight & sophisticated. Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight” caught deserved attention, Sample’s piano similar to the Jazz-R&B of Cannonball Adderley’s group, the dual horns assertive, still melodic & very impressive. Both Sample & Felder, who had become more than proficient on bass guitar, were in demand as session players for a wide variety of artists. “Old Socks New Shoes…New Socks Old Shoes” (1970), Joe on the Fender Rhodes piano, with a couple of electric guitarists, opens with a “Hell Yeah!” version of Sly Stone’s “Thank You Falettin Me Be Mice Elf Agin”, it was their most popular record yet & the last to feature “Jazz” in the group’s name, from now on they were The Crusaders.
I don’t know whether the Crusaders played Soul-Jazz or Jazz Fusion or whatever, they had got it going on. Great musicians who had grown up together with a shared vision for the power of the unit, sympathetic support for each other’s parts. “Crusaders 1”, the third album with their abbreviated name still had plenty of Jazz with the added ingredient of young lead guitarist Larry Carlton. He shines on “Put It Where You Want It”, #55 on this week’s chart, a forerunner of the cool, insistent groove , gently but firmly propelled by Stix, the Crusaders favoured on their succeeding albums, records that, for the discerning listener (that would be me & my friends), fitted right in with the likes of Steely Dan, Grover Washington & Weather Report. In 1979 I spent the Summer away from the UK & away from music. I was surprised to find that on my return the Crusaders were only in the British Top 10 with “Street Life”, a collaboration with singer Randy Crawford. By this time Henderson & Carlton had moved on & it wasn’t the same after Stix left in 1983. Surely he, Joe & Wilton, Houston high school boys, could not have imagined that their musical journey would take them so far.
Dennis Coffey was born in the right place at the right time. The guitarist was just 15 years old when he played on his first Detroit recording session. His passion, like millions of teenagers, was rockabilly but on his return after a stint in the military he found session work on the burgeoning Motor City Soul scene. Backing artists like Edwin Starr, J.J. Barnes & Darrell Banks (Dennis is a Northern Soul Legend in the UK) it was at the Ric-Tic/Golden World studio that he met the moonlighting from Motown Funk Brothers (they were fined by the label). When Ric-Tic merged with Tamla Motown ($1 million changing hands) he moved over to 2648 West Grand Boulevard, Hitsville USA, his first session spent adding the guitar effects to “Cloud Nine” for Norman Whitfield & the Temptations. Dennis became part of the crew who played on more hits than they can remember, he & his effects pedals always in demand. The wah-wah guitar on “In The Rain” by the Dramatics, #2 in this week’s chart, Dennis Coffey is that guy.
With Motown making plans to move to the West Coast & Dennis ambitious to see what he could do with himself & after a slow start with a 1969 album signed a solo deal with Sussex Records. “Evolution” (1971) by Dennis Coffey & the Detroit Guitar Band featured a whole load of multi-tracked guitars & help from his Funk Brother friends including Jack Ashford on tambourine because, well, this is Motown. “Scorpio”. from the soundtrack of a blaxploitation movie that really should have been made hit the Top 10 of the Pop & R&B charts & sold a million. “Goin’ For Myself” (1972) was a little more reflective with horns & strings, covers of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” & Carole King’s “It’s Too Late”. “Taurus”, #23 on the chart of 50 years ago, became a sizeable follow-up hit. The next album, “Electric Coffey” (1972) had a bunch of songs with more star signs in the title but sales were not as high. These are all good, interesting records, Dennis is a tasty & tasteful player. By this time he had re-located to Los Angeles & was in the Mowest studio making hits for Berry Gordy’s label & it is for his contribution to so many records we know that he will be best remembered.