1971 had been the year of Isaac Hayes. Having already experienced great success with three albums of orchestral Soul the release of “Shaft”, a landmark of Black cinema took his soundtrack & theme tune to the top of charts all over the world – “can you dig it?”. Later in the year the double-disc “Black Moses” consolidated Isaac’s place on the board of directors of R&B. There was no new collection in 1972 but his non-album singles still attracted attention & 50 years ago this week, at #25 on the Cash Box R&B Top 60, his latest 45 was a tip to the times before “Hot Buttered Soul” (1969) had sold a million copies & launched his solo career.
David Porter worked at a grocery store opposite Satellite Records in Memphis. A budding songwriter he found encouragement there, bringing along friends from high school including Booker T Jones & William Bell. When Satellite became Stax David was the first on-staff writer employed by the company. In 1965 a new partnership with Isaac Hayes brought “I Take What I Want” to Sam & Dave, by the end of the year “You Don’t Know Like I Know” was the first of 11 R&B Top 20 hits for the Double Dynamite duo. On 1969’s “Best of Sam & Dave” 11 of the tracks were Hayes/Porter compositions, all 14 produced by the pair. “Hold On, I’m Coming”, “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” & of course “Soul Man”, these were tailor-made hits from David Porter. With the the Stax/Atlantic split Sam & Dave were moved away from Memphis (they never made the R&B Top 30 again), Hayes was in the forefront of the label’s relaunch & it was time for Porter to consider a solo career of his own.
“Gritty, Groovy & Gettin’ It (1970), produced by Isaac, was certainly groovy & got it but David’s lighter voice with less grand arrangements was not gritty enough to emulate the success of his former partner. Now working with keyboard player Ronnie Williams “Into A Real Thing” (1971) opened with an elongated “Hang On Sloopy”, plenty of spoken interludes stretching the song to 11 minutes but Isaac had already done that. “Victim Of The Joke? – An Opera”, also 1971, was more inspired, more imaginative & more like it. A concept album about a love affair, the songs linked by “interludes”, an uptempo cover of Lennon & McCartney’s “Help”, the 10 minute “(I’m Afraid) The Masquerade Is Over” a standout in a classy collection which reminds me of Swamp Dogg’s work with Z.Z. Hill. “Ain’t That Loving You Baby (For More Reasons Than One)”, a Homer Banks song, originally recorded by Johnnie Taylor in 1967, which became a Jamaican favourite when Alton Ellis & U Roy took a tilt at it, reunites the ace pair. It’s a classic propulsive Stax tune, Isaac’s deep voice giving some bottom to David’s sweeter tones, the boys in the studio who had replaced Booker T & the M.G.s bringing the sound from the mid-60s into 1972. It’s just a great, joyous noise. David Porter never had the solo success of his old sparring partner but when the accolades, the entries to Halls of Fame came around he was rightly remembered & included for his contribution to the 200 or so songs they wrote together.
In the early 1960s Atlantic Records were finding that their classic R&B sound, so influential through the previous decade, was proving to be less attractive to contemporary audiences. It was the success of Solomon Burke that reinvigorated the label, a bellwether that the road to Soul was the one to follow. Born in Philadelphia Solomon became a pastor of his grandmother’s church at 12 years old. The “Boy Wonder Preacher” mixed sermons & songs on local radio stations & obtained a record deal as a result of winning a Gospel talent contest. Five years later he arrived at Atlantic a seasoned vocalist of great strength, emotion & a range encompassing Gospel, Country, Blues & Jazz, the records given a sophisticated Uptown sheen by producer Bert Berns. A string of R&B hits followed with no great crossover on to the Pop chart (his recording of “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love” missed the Top 50), still the “Rock & Soul” album (1964), Solomon was now “the King of” that, included seven tracks that made the Top 100 while the following year was his most successful yet. The arrival of younger, more marketable stars like Aretha & Wilson Pickett meant that he was no longer the label’s primary artist. Always strong-minded, with an eye on the business & an expanding family (Solomon eventually had 21 children) he felt that it was time to move on.
After a spell at Bell Records where he was most successful with his cover of Creedence’s “Proud Mary” he moved to MGM, a company whose main business was movies, & they matched Solomon with a Blaxploitation film, the current thing after the success of “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” & “Shaft”, that needed a soundtrack. “Cool Breeze”, a remake of John Huston’s “The Asphalt Jungle”, is not widely remembered but the trailer looks pretty cool (“the dude with the diamonds is deadly!”) & Burke, with orchestration assistance from Gene Page, does an impressive job. A mash-up of Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” with a W.C. Fields impression is a little random but the required amount of wah-wah guitar makes for a pretty funky album. The single “Love’s Street & Fool’s Road” is in its last week on the R&B chart at #60, it had been in the Top 20. Solomon never had big hits again, he returned to Gospel & Country, took care of his mortuary & limousine businesses & became more involved with the church. In 2002 he won a Grammy for “Don’t Give Up On Me”, an album where Tom Waits, Dylan, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello & others were happy to donate songs & plenty were happy to listen to one of the greats sing them.
In May 1971 Stevie Wonder turned 21 & took advantage of a clause in his contract with Tamla Motown, signed back when he was “Little Stevie”, which allowed him to void said document. Of course greater financial remuneration in the form of increased royalty payments was a concern but Stevie wanted complete creative control over the music he made. Throughout the 1960s we had seen & heard the Boy Wonder growing up. “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” (1965), “I Was Made To Love Her” (1967) & “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” (1970) – his fifth R&B #1, his 10th single to enter the US Pop Top 10 – were among the best records of their years, his other fine 45s are a long list but I must check for “Heaven Help Us All” (1970), an empathic Gospel-infused signpost to his developing awareness & maturity. The “Where I’m Coming From” album (1971) was written & produced by Stevie knowing that the contract deadline would limit any label interference. He was playing with his new toys, the studio, his Hohner clavinet & synth-bass, pursuing his personal ambition, responding to Soul’s new directions. The first 45 from the record, “Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer” didn’t connect with the public, “If You Really Love Me” put him back in the Pop Top 10.
Stevie was ready to let loose on “Music Of My Mind” (1972), still with Tamla having got what he asked for & aware that he would need assistance to realise his inner visions (geddit?) he approached Malcolm Cecil & Robert Margouleff, synthesizer pioneers, builders/operators of TONTO, the largest multitimbral polyphonic analog (say what?) synth ever. Together they conjured an innovative, modern sound, electronic music had never been so funky or so integrated into contemporary music. In 1970 Stevie had married Syreeta Wright, our boy was in love, “Happier Than The Morning Sun”, & he melodiously wanted to tell her that “I Love Everything About You”. On “Sweet Little Girl” he even sings “your baby loves you more than I love my clavinet”. The dreamy “Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You)”, cut down from eight minutes to three & a half for the 45 is at #27 on this week’s R&B chart. It was not one of Stevie’s biggest records but, like the album, it still sounds fresh & impressive 50 years on.
Buoyed by this burst of creativity Stevie kept busy in 1972. “Syreeta”, the record he made with his wife is a fine companion piece to “Music Of My Mind”, a tour supporting the Rolling Stones introduced him to a new Rock audience then in October along came “Talking Book”. You know that one, from “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” through “Tuesday Heartbreak” (oh my!) & “Superstition” to “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)” it’s one of the most perfect records you’ll ever hear.