What If Something’s On TV And Never Shown Again ? (The Village Square)

“The Village Square” was a US TV show which originally aired out of Charleston, South Carolina & was syndicated across the country between 1965-68. A local band was renamed the Villagers & they covered the Top 40 hits of the day. Suited & booted for the middle of the road, Mod casual, with go-go dancers, for the British Invasion then kaftanned-up for the Summer of Love, everything they did had, at least, energy. It is the surviving clips of the guest artists, a chance to see quality, colour clips of acts that didn’t usually get star treatment, which are of most interest.

 

 

Image result for the tams The Tams formed in Atlanta, Georgia in 1960 & 2 years later an R&B hit “Untie Me” scored them a deal with ABC-Paramount. That first hit was written by fellow Atlantan Joe South. He & another local songwriter, Ray Whitley, provided the material to keep their name in the frame through the rest of the decade. Here from 1966, in living colour they perform “What Kind of Fool (Do You Think I Am)”, a Top 10 record in 1964. The label had used FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama for a Tommy Roe hit & brought the Tams around to get this new sound. It’s great to see such a good quality clip of the guys, fronted by gravel-voiced Joseph Pope, doing their thing. It’s even greater, for me anyway, to see the second song. “Shelter”, their current 45 at the time, a dynamic Soul Stomper, written by Joe South & my favourite track by a group who made many fine records.

 

Over in the UK the Tams were Northern Soul darlings, a scene which kept its favourites close, long after their expected shelf life. In 1970 a two year old 45 “Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy” got a wider hearing. It’s a surprise that it only made #32 on the chart because everyone knows that one. The following year “Hey Girl Don’t Bother Me”, recorded in 1964 & still a floor-filler, went to #1. The Tams crossed the Atlantic, were on “Top of the Pops” & were a big deal. The group continued to perform & in 1987 had a UK hit with “There Ain’t Nothing Like Shaggin'” which is apparently a dance. It means something else in British so was banned by  the BBC !

 

 

The US R&B charts of the early 1960 were a rich seam of material for the British Beat Boomers. I guess cultural appropriation was not yet a thing so the 3 Motown tracks on “With the Beatles” were a gateway to the delights coming out of Detroit. Same with Manfred Mann’s “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” & the Exciters. There are many examples, it’s a list. The third single by Manchester’s Hollies, their first Top 10 hit, was a rush of harmonious Mersey Sound which pointed me towards the original recording from way, way back in the olden days, 1960.

 

Image result for maurice williams the zodiacs“Stay” by Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs is such a  sure fire smash. It’s the sound of Doo-Wop moving into Soul. In 1960 the Drifters were hitting big adapting the Brazilian baion rhythm to R&B & “Stay” has a laid-back Caribbean feel. South Carolina beach music…it’s a thing. In 1958 he group, as the Gladiolas had recorded Maurice’s “Little Darlin'”, another individual vocal group song which was a bigger hit for the Diamonds. I had that record in a pile of 78 rpm discs (ask your grandma) that came my way & loved it when I was a kid.

 

The group are known as one-hit wonders but the second song here eventually earned them a gold record. There were, justifiably, high hopes for “May I”, written by Maurice, produced by the great Allen Toussaint & his partner Marshall Sehorn. Unfortunately Vee Jay went bankrupt just before the record’s release & it didn’t receive the promotion it deserved. “May I” is another good one, making use of the four voices & featuring the trademark Zodiacs’ falsetto. Once again, praise Jah for the Y-tube.

 

 

Here, in one clip, we have the duality of the Lemon Pipers, a band formed at college in Oxford Ohio. They signed with Buddah, a new label run by 24 year old Neil Bogart who had Captain Beefheart & Melanie on the roster but whose big idea was to grab hit Bubblegum Pop singles with the likes of 1910 Fruitgum Co & Ohio Express. Bubblegum for all its attractions (& there are many) relied upon an assembly line of writers & producers making ready-rolled records for faceless, or cartoon, groups. The Lemon Pipers were for real, they wrote their own songs. Trouble was that their debut single failed to sell & Buddah made them toe the company line.

 

Image result for lemon pipersSo here they are promoting their second single “Green Tambourine” provided by staff writers Paul Leka & Shelley Pinz. This Pop-Psychedelia, more Pop than Psych despite the sitar, was catching on after Strawberry Alarm Clock’s “Incense & Peppermints” & “…Tambourine” succeeded John Fred’s “Judy In Disguise” at the top of the charts. They also perform the B-side “No Help From Me”, written by keyboard player Bill Nave, a bluesy Psych-Rocker in the style of the Blues Magoos or Jefferson Airplane. The success of the single meant that the Pipers were knackered though weren’t they?

 

The debut LP was a real mix, 5 Leka/Pinz songs, the others, including the 9-minute “Through With You”, was from the band. The follow up single was “Rice Is Nice” & it was no “Yummy, Yummy,Yummy”, it really did suck the big one. There was another LP, another 50/50 deal & the Pipers played on bills with the Heavy bands of the day. Unfortunately cod-psych lyrics like “To the yellow ball of butter where the clouds are as fluffy as a parachute sail” (“Jelly Jungle of Orange Marmalade-lade-lade-lade-lade”) did tend to get held against the band with the one big Pop hit & perhaps deservedly so.

 

 

Advertisements

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.

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 Temptations:The Classic Five (1966-68)

After leaving university I took a job in a drop forge, banging the crap out of hot metal. That’s what they used to do in the Midlands industrial crucible the Black Country. The place was noisy, dirty & you counted your fingers after every shift but I’d spent my summers working in a noisier, dirtier steel works, I knew the game. The men & women I worked alongside, despite their sometimes impenetrable accent, could not have been more welcoming of an overeducated longhair (that would be me). When Keith heard that I was saving for a proper top of the range stereo system he showed up the next day with some spare gear & insisted that I took it until I was sorted. Keith had 5 years on me, he was married & held a black belt in Karate. He had been a skinhead, a top man in the Wolverhampton Wanderers crew. Before that he was a Mod, a young kid not a Face. His own “Quadrophenia” moment came when he got out of his brain on the 5.15 to Birmingham & joined his tribe to witness a performance by Tamla Motown sensations the Temptations.

 

 

For a young, blocked-on-blues Mod around 1968/69 a Temptations concert must have been the epitome of Cool. 5 very sharp dressed men moving in perfect synchronization, delivering hit after perfectly crafted hit, was a very fine musical experience. 20th century American music has a tradition of harmony vocal groups through gospel, blues, jazz, country, rhythm & blues, doo-wop & pop.  The music made by the Temptations defined the new vocal group sound, music that was made 50 years ago but can still be considered modern. The Mills Brothers, The Ink Spots, The Blind Boys of various Southern States, are held in high regard but every male vocal group, boys or men, since the 1960s have aspired to emulate & been compared to the Temptations.

 

“Beauty Is Only Skin Deep” is the 3rd of 4 singles in 1966 that all became #1 R&B records. Since 1964 the group had been producer/writer Smokey Robinson’s boys. “Beauty…”, their biggest hit since 1964’s “My Girl”, was preceded by “Get Ready”, falsetto lead vocal by Eddie Kendricks, the last of Smokey’s run & by “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg”, a David Ruffin led song produced by Norman Whitfield who was handed the keys to the studio & kept them until 1974. Ruffin had joined in 1964 to complete the “Classic 5” line-up. The other Temptations, Otis Williams, Paul Williams & Melvin Franklin all took their turn as lead on album tracks but it was the double whammy of Ruffin & Kendricks, 2 great soul voices who established the group as Motown’s & the USA’s top vocal group.

 

 

The hits just kept on coming but there was trouble ahead. As the Supremes became “Diana Ross & the…” one member of the group imagined that “David Ruffin & the Temptations” was a possibility. David’s growing separation from the others, his erratic behaviour not helped by a taste for cocaine, led to a messy & litigious departure in June 1968. His replacement Dennis Edwards was not sure of his place when Ruffin showed up at the group’s shows & joined them onstage. Eventually there were 2 solo LPs, still on Motown, in 1969 but a completed record was shelved by the label & David Ruffin never became the major star that he should have been.

 

The lyrics of “You’re My Everything” (1967) were written by Rodger Penzabene, a new, young recruit to Motown. The song honours his wife but he was heart-broken when he discovered she was having an affair. 2 great songs, “I Wish It Would Rain” & “I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You)” came out of this upset, both perfectly interpreted by Ruffin’s anguished vocal, both #1 R&B hits. On New Year’s Eve 1967 Penzabene shot himself & died aged just 23, a poignant footnote in Motown’s history & a tragic end when there was surely so much more to come.

 

 

Norman Whitfield began to exercise more control over the group’s material & in 1968 “Cloud Nine” was the first of his innovative “psychedelic soul” experiments to be released. The single was successful but the Temptations were not fully convinced of the move away from their blockbuster ballads to the Sly & the Family Stone-influenced soul underground. They continued to release more mainstream LPs, 2 with Diana Ross & the Supremes, live from prestigious nightclubs in New York & London, even a Christmas record. Whitfield continued to work with the Temptations until 1973 by which time only Otis & Melvin remained from the classic 5. There are some terrific songs, more big hits from this later period…another time. These Ruffin/Kendrick led classics, a greater Motown maturity after the early hits, are the ones that did it for me then & still do.

 

 

Growing Up In Public (Stevie Wonder)

On alternate Saturdays, my school bussed a number of sports teams to other schools in the county. Despite fraternal intentions parochial rivalries were played out on the playing fields of Lincolnshire. Sport, as George Orwell wrote, is “war minus the shooting”. The back of the coach was strictly for the big kids, the 16 year olds on the football team. As this was January 29th 1966 they were young Mods, sharp & smart. I was 13 & my mum still bought my clothes. She thought that Ben Sherman was a Scottish mountain. I was there by default , making my first & only appearance for the chess team ! They really could not find anyone else dumb enough to press-ganged into giving up their afternoon. My skirmish for the honour of  our alma mater would take place in a musty hut posing as a school library.

Any road up, I got to share oxygen with the cool cats. The song they sang, on the journeys there & back, while they were giving a lesson in how to play the beautiful game to a bunch of young farmers, was brand new, a chartbound sound but not  just yet. Back then I still held a song’s chart position in some regard. I had more than a suspicion that “Michelle” by the Overlanders was a piece of opportunistic mush but, hey, it was #1, it was top of the pops. “Uptight” by Stevie Wonder brought into focus the idea that the best records around did not necessarily sell the most. “Baby, ev’rything is alright, uptight, clean out of sight.”

In 1963 the UK was busy with our own Beat Boom & we had missed “Little” Stevie Wonder’s smash US hit “Fingertips”, a live, wild & wonderful harmonica hullabaloo from the Motortown Revue (with Marvin Gaye on the drums). “Recorded Live: The 12 Year Old Genius” was a #1 LP in the USA. It followed “Tribute to Uncle Ray”, an attempt by Tamla Motown to link their artist with another blind African-American musician. The miniature moniker was dropped but a set of lounge singer standards was inappropriate  while “Stevie at the Beach” just sounds wrong. “Uptight”, his 5th release, was a big step forward. Stevie contributed to 5 of the songs including the surging, stomping title track. This time around the covers included an assertive, swinging version of Dylan’s “Blowing In the Wind”, a Top 10 hit single.

Stevie, just 15 years old, came to Britain to promote “Uptight” & became a permanent part of the Motown manifesto, a key contributor to the Sixties soul scene. His singles were not the label’s biggest hits but, with the assistance of producer/mentor Clarence Paul & of Hank Cosby, there was a consistency  & quality about his releases. With 6 LPs in 3 years there were still a number of syrupy ballads, ill-judged covers & even a 1966 Xmas album (soon be time to dig that one out). 1967’s “I Was Made To Love Her” was as perfect a two and a half minutes of pop-soul rush as you could wish for. The following 45s were classic too. “I Was Made…” was co-written by Stevie’s mother, Lula Hathaway. It’s easier to stand your ground against experienced producers when your mum has got your back.

A 1968 “Greatest Hits” collection marked the end of Stevie’s musical adolescence. Tamla Motown were reluctant to change a winning formula so an instrumental LP was released on a different label, Gordy, under the name Eivets Rednow. “I Don’t Know Why I Love You” is a flexing of his musical muscles, A spare arrangement features the Hohner clavinet keyboard now favoured by our young man. The song builds to a crescendo & Stevie’s soul shouting. I loved this more rugged sound, so did the Jackson 5 who gave it the full Motown makeover while the Rolling Stones recognised a song built around a great rumbling riff. Here the “Hollywood Palace” band are no match for Detroit’s Funk Brothers but Stevie rocks out on prime time TV.

The next year saw Stevie taking on more production duties while still giving Motown what they wanted. The  “My Cherie Amour” LP has a fair share of easy listening including the title track & a song from the musical “The King & I”. The 2 live LPs from 1970 have a touch of cabaret about them too. Stevie Wonder turned 20 in that year, of course he was taking notice of  the funkification of Soul, of a growing concern with social issues in both lyrics & in a wider context. “Signed, Sealed & Delivered” opens with 4 tracks displaying his growing range & creativity. “Never Had A Dream Come True” develops his ballad style, there would be more like this. “We Can Work It Out” is an electric version, side 1 track 1 of any Beatles cover mixtape worth its soul. The title track is followed by “Heaven Help Us All” written by long-time contributor Ron Miller. “Heaven…” is another song with a slow build & the most conscious of  Stevie’s work to date, tougher than “Give Peace A Chance” but still a song of hope. On “The Johnny Cash Show” Stevie’s fro is starting to grow & he has ditched the smart suits for a more pimped look. Pity they didn’t get the sleeves finished for that blue costume.

In 1970 Stevie married fellow Motown artist Syreeta Wright &, as his contract came towards its end, to consider a life beyond Motown.

“Where I’m Coming From” (1971) was handed to Motown as a done deal. If he was going to stay with the label then change was gonna come. All the songs are written by Stevie & Syreeta & it is self-produced. In the same year Motown’s other male solo star, Marvin Gaye, released “What’s Going On”, a mature soul masterpiece. “Where…” is not as focussed as that LP Stevie was not yet 21 & was still experimenting. “Do Yourself A Favor” is a slab of irresistible funk, “If You Really Love Me” a Top 10 hit & “Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer” a heartbreaker that Wonder sang at Michael Jackson’s funeral. This is some coming-of-age record.

Stevie Wonder was now ready to enter what a good friend calls his “Imperial” phase, a blaze of creativity & fulfilled talent stretching across albums of  such quality that match the work of anyone in popular music. I love that music, it’s what I reach for when I need a little Wonder in my life. In the live clips shot around 1972 Stevie is grooving to his inner rhythm, playing with his band & obviously enjoying his new freedom. I do find the period when he was leaving “Little” Stevie behind, trying out new things, breaking free of the commercial constraints of his label, absolutely intriguing. It did not all work but the 3 tracks here are classics which sit comfortably with the music that was to come.

Oh yeah, that chess match. I won it in a canter (then retired undefeated) before mooching over to watch the older guys with the style win their game. I was no grandmaster but I was a little flash !

Midnight Teaser Real Soul Pleaser (Wilson Pickett)

Our summer holiday of 1966, on the intermittently sunny North Yorkshire Riviera, extended that year’s effervescent English exhilaration. Our national football team had given us all the World Cup willies for 3 weeks in July but they had only gone & won the thing (never again). The seaside sojourn’s soundtrack, coming through loud & clear from Radio 270, Yorkshire’s own pirate radio station, was headed by The Beatles’  current double whammy, the ground-breaking “Eleanor Rigby” & the psych-nursery rhyme “Yellow Submarine”. Each week brought a rush & a push of bright shiny new music that demanded your attention. We didn’t know yet that this was a classic time for pop music but we had an idea that it was. Here’s one that was picked to click in August 1966.

Oh Yeah ! 1-2-3 ! Still does it. For the 2nd week of the holiday I was joined by my best friend, brand new teenagers given a pass that we didn’t get at home.(Back then I thought my parents were like, old people, looking back they were pretty cool). We hijacked the family transistor radio, headed for the cliffs, just the two of us, the North Sea & Emperor Rosko’s drive-time show, a little bit of Wolfman Jack, on Radio Caroline. Summer evenings had never been better …up to now. Wilson Pickett’s “Land of a 1000 Dances” consolidated a whole bunch of future possibilities, power, passion, abandon. I didn’t know how to Pony, let alone like Bony Maronie but I sure intended to learn.

It was a familiar path for Wilson Pickett, from Detroit via Alabama. A gospel grounding, hits with the Falcons, his vocal group, before a solo career. An approach to Atlantic Records did not go his way when his song “I Found a Love” was given to Solomon Burke but his talent, his raw, impassioned testification, meant that Atlantic signed him. After a couple of releases recorded in New York Pickett was sent down to Memphis where, at Stax studios, an abrasive, modern soul sound was forged between the singer & musicians.

While we had not yet heard Cannibal & the Headhunters earlier version of  “Land…” we did know about Wilson. The 1st 45 he recorded at Stax was “In the Midnight Hour”, a flawless Pickett/Steve Cropper tune, an instant, enduring soul standard . I think that a law was passed that it had to be played any place anyone danced. Maybe…it was a long time ago. The succeeding run of singles, “Don’t Fight It”, “634-5789” & “99 & a Half (Won’t Do)” established him as a major star. “Land…” was Wilson’s 3rd R&B #1 & it was followed by “Mustang Sally”. Good God Y’all !

Wilson Pickett was officially “Wicked”. His, let’s say, headstrong attitude ruffled the feathers of the tight knit group at Stax but Atlantic (that would be Jerry Wexler) were cultivating another talented coterie at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals. The hits just kept on coming. He was never a prolific songwriter, Bobby Womack was around at FAME at this time & had some good songs for Pickett. In September 1967 a cover of Dyke & the Blazers “Funky Broadway” was another R&B #1 between James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” & “Higher & Higher” by Jackie Wilson. It was Soul’s Golden Age & Wilson Pickett was right up there with all this great music. In person, live, well click on the “99 & a Half” clip…it’s nuts in the best way.

His final single of 1968 was a cover of “Hey Jude”, the Beatles’ current smash, an epic, shrieking vocal, an incendiary guitar solo by young Southern longhair Duane Allman. “Funky Broadway” had been the first chart record to include this new adjective & the leading lights of Soul were introducing innovatory sounds as the 60s ended. Pickett’s muscular cover versions of rock classics, “Born To Be Wild”, “Hey Joe”, seemed a little obvious at the time. Now they sound like psycho-soul juggernauts, heck even “Sugar Sugar”, a bubblegum song I really do not like, sounds good.

Of course Wilson Pickett was still amongst the biggest names. In 1971 he headlined “Soul to Soul”, a major concert in Accra, Ghana which included Santana, the Staples Singers & Ike & Tina Turner. In Africa he was “Soul Brother #2” only headed by James Brown. A workmate of mine, Emmanuel, was at that gig. I loved to hear his stories of a momentous day in that young country’s cultural history. In the same year “Don’t Knock My Love” was his 5th & final #1 R&B hit & in 1972 he recorded “Fire & Water” an imaginative & appropriate version of Free’s British Blues belter. On “Soul Train”, wearing the brightest suit ever made, he gives it plenty. The Midnight Movers, his backing band, are pretty good too. Pickett kept on keeping on even though public taste was for a smoother Soul than his rugged sound. There were still a Grammy award & many accolades before his death in 2006.

In 1966 I voted in the New Musical Express end-of-year poll. Best Group the Beatles, Best Single “Good Vibrations”, Best Male Singer Wilson Pickett. As I said up there music was moving fast back then. The more subtle supplications of Otis Redding, the relentless dedication to the funk by James Brown & Aretha’s unmatched quality were irresistible. In 1968 Atlantic released “This Is Soul”, a ready made collection of super music for just 62.5p ($1). The LP opened with “Mustang Sally”, closed with “Land of a 1000 Dances”. I was glad to have these songs around. Now I’m discovering LP tracks that I’ve not heard before while I’m still dancing to “…Midnight Hour” & still marvelling at the energy of “Land of a 1000 Dances”.

Sweet Soul Music (William Bell)

William Bell never achieved the success of some of his Memphis contemporaries but his contribution as a singer & a songwriter places him at the heart of the enduring soul music created in that city throughout the 1960s. In 1961 Bell, just 21 years old, stepped away from his vocal group, the Del Rios, to record a self-written solo debut for his hometown label Stax Records. “You Don’t Miss Your Water” is a smooth sliver of country soul before that was even a thing. In 1967 the song was  recorded by Stax’ shining star, Otis Redding & included on his “Otis Blue” LP. The following year The Byrds released their version on “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” & Taj Mahal his for “The Natch’l Blues”. 3 distinctive records linked by this immaculate song.

“You Don’t…” made a small dent on the US charts, the following 45, “Any Other Way”, was picked up by established R&B singer Chuck Jackson. For a small label this was a big enough deal for Stax to release a number of  William’s singles. He was away for 2 years in the armed forces which didn’t help with promotion & publicity. On his return to Memphis he began a string of recordings which were R&B hits but which never really matched the crossover success of other studio colleagues. In this golden time the Memphis Soul stew was cooking on gas. Now, over 45 years later, William Bell’s best records take a place alongside all those other Stax solid senders.

Bell’s stock in trade ballads had a sweet gospel tinge. Booker T’s sympathetic productions allowed a lightness not always associated with the trademark attack in the sound of Stax. “The Soul of a Bell” (1967) marked the beginning of a songwriting partnership between the pair. The opening track “Everybody Loves A Winner” is a tragic song of life, a lovely example of the thing that William Bell did so well…”but when you lose, you lose alone”. Ah, Gram Parsons should have gotten hold of this song with the Byrds or the Flying Burrito Brothers. “Eloise (Hang On In There)”, a soul stomp, Motown urgency filtered through the layers of Memphis grit, had to be the one to break on through. Like another muscular Stax release, “Big Bird” by Eddie Floyd, “Eloise” made no impression on the charts but it shook my radio whenever it came around. A hit 45 that just never was one.

It was around this time that guitarist Albert King was signed by Stax. Bell & Jones provided a song that captured all the bad luck & trouble of the Blues while putting this folk music on Soul Time. “Born Under A Bad Sign” was an instant classic. Eric Clapton had always checked for Albert & a year later Cream, with encouragement from Atlantic Records, covered the song on their #1 LP “Wheels Of Fire”. King found a new audience for the Blues in America’s concert halls. Up in Chicago the Chess label encouraged Muddy Waters & Howlin’ Wolf to update their sound. “Born Under A Bad Sign” is a landmark song.

When Stax tragically lost it’s greatest star in December 1967 William Bell marked Otis Redding’s death with “A Tribute To A King”. Only a B-side in the US, we Brits were more receptive to this heartfelt elegy from his musical family & it dented the charts. Another Bell- Jones composition, “Private Number”, a sweet, smooth dialogue with Judy Clay, less raucous than the Otis & Carla Thomas duets, made the UK Top 10 with no transatlantic promotion trip (so unfortunately no black & white Top of the Pops clip) & is still a sure fire winner to my ears. The follow up, “My Baby Specializes” (mostly Judy) was an Isaac Hayes-David Porter song. There was an LP of “Duets” with Clay, Carla Thomas & Mavis Staples. William Bell was a busy man in 1968.

He began to produce records for Peachtree Productions. I have a version of “Purple Haze” by Johnny Jones & the King Casuals, a crazy collision of soul & psychedelia. I did not know that it was Bell’s debut production for the company. It’s on the Y-tube, treat yourself. It was in 1968 that he had his biggest hit so far. “I Forgot To Be Your Lover” is a gorgeous tender gem. Steve Cropper’s guitar, a cascade of strings, the Memphis Horns…oh yeah ! Down in Jamaica Lee “Scratch” Perry was creating all manner of wonderful dub reggae strangeness at his Black Ark studio. Scratch always had an ear for a well-written song. Through 1976/77 he recorded a number of soul classics with singer George Faith & that’s how William Bell & Booker T Jones’ “To Be A Lover” stands as a reggae classic. The almost 20 minute long version, including Augustus Pablo’s mellifluous melodica, is a desert island disc of mine but, hey, you are busy people.

William Bell moved to Atlanta but stayed with Stax to the end in 1974. Public taste had changed but there are some classy songs from this time. A move to Mercury finally brought him a gold record in 1977 with “Trying To Love Two”, a disco-fication of his trademark ballad sound. Despite the song reaching the top of the R&B charts there seems to be contemporary clip of him performing the song on “Soul Train…if only.

With the formation of Wilbe Records he has continued to record himself & others.There was never the one big breakthrough song for Bell. No “Knock On Wood”, “Sweet Soul Music” Or “When A Man Loves A Woman” that put faces to the names of other singers. He was not on the bill for the momentous Stax/Volt tours of Europe & there is no film of the young William Bell. So this clip, from 2013, gets me buzzing. It’s from a Memphis Soul special, after dinner entertainment at the White House for the Obama’s & a few close friends.  There was a stellar line-up, Sam Moore, Mavis Staples, Cyndi Lauper (Huh !) for the audience to rattle their jewellery to. Seeing 70-odd year old William Bell singing “You Don’t Miss Your Water”, knocking the song that started it all for him out of the park & sharing the stage with Booker T Jones, his songwriting partner who shared in the inception of so much fine music, just makes me smile.